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Ticking Away the Moments

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It’s unusual for all Avengers to be in the same place by happenstance, as opposed to by design. If there isn’t a mission, a mission-adjacent activity, or some social pre-agreement, the six of them tend to keep to different hours and different past-times, which in Steve’s book is a good thing. There may be battles to fight together but this isn’t wartime; everyone needs their breathing space and non-superheroing interests if they’re going to make the Avengers exercise work out for as long as it needs to.

Even so, this morning when Steve comes down to the common area after his post-run shower, all the others are gathered in the dining area together, a breakfast mess spread out on the table and the conversation in full swing. Steve spares a second to review the schedule in his head – no, there’s nothing on the group agenda this morning – before joining them.

“It doesn’t have to make logical sense,” Natasha’s saying. “It’s about emotional sense.”

“Does that just not make it a lie?” Thor says.

“Lots of civilization sense-making stories are lies,” Tony says. “You’re a lie.”

Thor puts his three-eggs-and-lots-of-bacon sandwich down. “Do you wish to repeat that, Stark?”

“You’re a lie,” Tony says. “Yeah, I said it. You’re not a god, you’re just a really long-lived alien.”

“Myth drift,” Clint agrees, nodding. “Exactly how a religious saint becomes a non-denominational holiday icon.”

“Wouldn’t go as far as ‘non-denominational’,” Natasha says.

Steve moves past the discussion going on at the table, his focus on the prize that is the coffee machine. Bruce is leaning against the counter next to said coffee machine, his eyes shut and his hands nursing a tall cup of his own. The guy seems half-asleep and not participating in the conversation, but he suddenly pipes up, “Steve counts as a non-denominational holiday icon.”

A pause, followed by a murmur of agreement throughout the room.

“I have a whole day named after me,” Thor says.

“Your dad has a day,” Clint says. “That doesn’t mean anything either.”

“Wait, no, Bruce has a point,” Tony says. “Captain America vs. Santa Claus. That needs to be a movie. I’d fund it.”

“I’d watch it,” Natasha says.

“I don’t want to fight Santa,” Steve says, appalled. He starts to Bruce to ask what on earth the conversation is about, but the others are already listing out other semi-mythological persons that Steve can beat up, and Thor gets progressively dismayed when his name drops don’t get any recognition whatsoever.

It feels like a good morning. An unusual morning, where both Tony and Bruce are up and about, and Thor is taking it easy. There’s a couple of empty seats at the dining table but Steve feels no urge to take one of them. It’s preferable to hang back and absorb the atmosphere, which is easy and relaxed, and has no immediate crisis at hand, and of which the only arguments to be had are good-natured.

“So, Cap,” Tony says, turning in his chair to look at Steve. How he keeps his balance when half-sprawled out like that, Steve has no idea. “Would you beat up the Pumpkin King?”

“If he was trying to take over the world, maybe,” Steve says. “But he probably just needs a stern talking to.”

“Before I smash his head in, yes,” Thor says.

“That’s a little harsh,” Bruce says.

“The Hulk disagrees,” Thor says. Then louder: “Don’t you, Hulk?

Bruce presses fingers to his temple. “That’s not how it works.”

A good morning run always leaves Steve’s body thrumming with energy, readying him for the rest of the day. Standing here in the Tower dining room while his fellow Avengers spitball gives a similar thrum, which is nice. Steve finds himself wondering how to bring this energy forward, perhaps by suggesting an outing in the city today, though inspiration doesn’t provide more helpful details. Natasha and Clint are better at arranging their occasional outings, but it’d be a shame to waste this opportunity. Everyone’s here, Bruce is almost awake, and Tony’s even fully-dressed and has no sign of post-workshop-binge shadows under his eyes.

Though it figures that as soon Steve thinks these thoughts, JARVIS chimes in: “I hate to interrupt, but there’s incoming.”

Tony straightens up. “To the Tower, J?”

To… Earth.

“Bring her up,” Steve says, more out of habit than necessity, because Tony’s already pulling down a holographic screen while the rest of them cluster around to see what’s what.

On the screen, smaller windows show data from the Tower’s sensors, one window has a text feed from NASA, and the grand window dead center plays the news. A space ship has been spotted in the upper atmosphere and is making a controlled descent, New York City seemingly right in its sights. A new window pops open with feed from one of Tony’s satellites, giving a visual of a massive ring-shaped object, unlike anything Steve’s seen before.

“That better not be Santa,” Clint says.

“Chitauri?” Tony says.

“I’m not sure,” Thor says. “Though I’ve heard that shape oft described by those who venture into Kree space.”

“They could come in peace,” Natasha says hopefully.

Thor hums. “They could.”

Steve’s eyes flicker sideways. Tony’s jaw is clenched, and he makes a small nod to no one in particular.

“All right, Avengers,” Steve says. Everyone’s on their feet anyway. “Let’s hope for the best, but expect the worst. Assemble on the pad.”

Just over half a year together and they’ve got this part down pretty good. The conversation drops to bare essentials as everyone heads out – Thor, Tony and Bruce straight up to the pad, while Natasha and Clint go to the gear room.

Steve heads for the gear room, too, though he sacrifices a second to grab a pear from the fruit bowl on the way. It’ll possibly be the only second breakfast he’ll get today, so it’s only sensible.

It was such a promising morning, too.

 

+

 

Steve lives in a world that now features aliens, magic and incredibly advanced tech. He’d tapped out from one fight just to be dropped into another one sixty years later, involving literal extraterrestrial invaders. From all of that, one would think that another (potential) alien invasion would be met with his resigned indifference, instead of wondrous surprise at what the universe is capable of.

This is not the case. Steve may have hit the twenty-first century ground running, but once the Chitauri attack faded in the rearview mirror, he’d realized that that was the exception, not the norm. There may always be bad guys to take down and wrongs to right, but the scale involved is more often grounded. Non-intergalactic battle, non-world ending. Most of the time, anyway.

So when Steve stands on the helipad and looks up at a space ship, he’s not jaded enough to not say in amazement, “Wow. That is big.”

Better hope it stays up there, right?” Tony’s voice comes over the comms.

“Maybe they’ll let us play Quidditch,” Clint says. When Natasha huffs, he adds, “It’s a flying ship shaped like a giant ring. What else you gonna say?”

“Blessed be the sky doughnut,” Natasha says.

“Maybe someone wants to put a ring on it,” Steve says. “On us. Earth.”

“No, that’s terrible,” Natasha says.

And possibly offensive,” Bruce adds.

Steve, Natasha and Clint are standing on the helipad. Bruce is hanging back just inside the Tower, not yet code green. Thor is up top, waiting on the Tower’s highest point, while Tony is down below, slowly circling the Tower in his suit.

The ring-shaped ship keeps on coming, pushing the clouds around it as it does.

It’s heading straight for the Tower,” Thor says.

“Everyone hold position,” Steve says. “Let ‘em move first.”

FYI,” Tony says, “Air Force are on their way.

I’m sure we can handle this ourselves,” Thor replies.

The ship stops its approach, staying in a hover above the Tower. A beam of light emerges from the ship, landing at the far end of the helipad. It’s very Star Trek, or maybe a smaller version of the magitech that runs the Bifrost. Two aliens appear in that beam, which fades away with their arrival.

SHIELD has a policy about first contact situations. Steve read it back when he was still with them, though he has doubts if Fury ever followed it, seeing how he’d handled Thor and Loki’s arrival on Earth. Truth be told, Steve doesn’t think he’s the best person to handle such a situation, if this is indeed that. A handshake or its extraterrestrial equivalent in greeting is fine, but polite ambassadorial talk to a greater end is more Natasha’s thing. Or even Tony’s, as strange as that may sound.

There are two aliens. One much larger than the other, who is already far taller than Thor. The larger one seems to be wearing armor, but to be fair, so are the Avengers.

Steve squares his shoulders and straightens up.

“Hear me and rejoice,” the tall-but-less-tall alien says. “I am the Maw, Son of Thanos, come with tidings of the promise left unfulfilled. Terra—”

Earth,” Thor mutters on comms.

“—was not yet ripe for the last harvest, but now it is so. We have come to collect what is owed.”

“That doesn’t sound good,” Natasha murmurs.

Steve speaks up: “And what is owed, Mr. Maw?”

“The one named Tony Stark,” the Maw says.

Say what now,” Tony says. “What’d I do?

You did blow up their fleet with the nuke,” Bruce says.

Okay, that’s fair,” Tony says.

To the Maw, Steve says, “Tony Stark is under my protection. He is of Earth, and is not to be owed to anyone, thank you.”

“This isn’t a choice,” the Maw says, sounding amused. “We will take, by your leave or no.”

“Yep, that should do it,” Steve says into the comms. He drops into a stance with his shield in front of him, while the second alien readies for a charge. “Thor, go high; Bruce, go green; Tony, I’d tell you to stay out of it but we know you won’t follow, so just don’t let yourself get caught. Got it?”

Aye, Cap.”

“Nat and Clint, eyes up,” Steve says. “We keep the fight up here as much as possible.”

The Tower’s helipad makes for terrible battleground. It is too narrow and high up, and Steve has the thought that he should have called the team to assemble on the ground, forcing the space ship to drop lower, too. But they’re here and have to make do, which they do.

One small blessing is that there aren’t any other hostiles coming down from the ship. The large alien – the Brute, as Steve takes to thinking of him – also seems to be straightforward muscle, whom the Hulk can take on while the rest of them provide assists.

The Maw, though. The Maw has magic, and not like Loki’s brand of magic. He floats, he summons and throws objects, he does a gesture with his hands that lifts the helipad floor up and flips it over like a mat. Even Thor is taken by surprise, his cape manipulated against him in wrapping around him like a burrito before he’s thrown clear, almost all the way to the river. Clint falls over the side of the building, too, but there’s a flash of red and gold at the corner of Steve’s eye as Tony goes after him.

They try their best. Hulk gets the Brute in a beat-down. Steve aims for the Maw’s hands with a shield throw, though the only success from that is an annoyed glare and Natasha being bodily thrown at him.

By the time Steve’s shaken his head clear, the Maw has a hold of Tony. They’re hovering a few yards beyond the edge of the building, and the Iron Man suit is frozen upright, head tilted back and arms spread out. The Maw floats towards Tony, his mouth moving though Steve can’t hear the words.

It’s full lock,” Tony says, voice strained. “It’s all – I can’t—”

At a gesture of the Maw’s hand, the suit splits open. It’s not even opening on the joints it’s meant to, and the metal screeches in protest. The suit is crumpled into a tiny ball and thrown away, leaving Tony hovering almost a thousand feet over the streets of New York in his band shirt and pants.

“Romanoff,” Steve says. “Give me a distraction.”

Steve crouches by the edge of the building. He doesn’t have to wait long; there’s a roar nearby, and the Brute is thrown off the Tower. Steve hopes that the fall will be enough to stop him and prevent casualties on the ground, but he can’t think of that yet. Right now he’s watching the Maw turn away from Tony to look at his fallen ally, which is the right second for Steve to take a running leap off the edge of the building.

It would be really nice if Thor’s recovered and is back in the fight. But for now, Steve barrels into Tony, breaking him free of the Maw’s magic hold as momentum sends them careening forward.

Of course, of the two of them currently plummet-soaring to the next building over, only one has super serum and is likely to take the fall with less permanent damage. Steve’s eyes are open. He rolls their bodies in readiness to take the impact, Tony held tight under the shield.

They don’t make impact. They’re halted barely a few yards away from the roof that was Steve’s planned landing point.

They’re spun in an invisible fist. At first Steve thinks it’s the Maw, but Thor’s engaged him in a fight back at the Tower. Steve realizes that he and Tony are caught in the ship’s beam, which is now pulling them upward.

Actually, it’s only pulling Tony upward. They’ve turned around, Tony on top as the beam draws him upward, while Steve clings underneath, his arms locked around Tony.

Tony’s eyes are wild despite his attempt to scowl at Steve. “How was this supposed to help?”

“You got any bright ideas?” Steve asks.

“Yeah, you can let go, so they only get one of us.”

Steve tries to roll his body again and tip them into another imbalance, but it doesn’t take. He manages to say in a light tone, “I’ll never let go—”

“If you’re quoting Titanic at me, I swear to God…”

“You’ll what? You’ll do what, Tony?”

“I’ll…” Tony bares his teeth, “…be very annoyed, and unbearable to be around.”

“Oh, so like usual, then.” The space ship is getting really close. Steve can’t hear the others’ voices through the comms, but he hopes that that’s just them being preoccupied. “Team,” Steve says, “Tony and I are being beamed onto the ship. Might want to focus firepower there, if possible. Let the Air Force know.”

“If they ever get here. JARVIS?” There’s a tinny sound from Tony’s earpiece when JARVIS responds to him. “Iron Legion time. Send ‘em out. Yes, I know they’re not finished—yep. Good.”

Steve’s never been on a space ship before. Maybe the Quinjet counts, but they’ve never taken it beyond the upper atmosphere. This is definitely new territory and Steve should probably take a moment to parse the enormity of it. Also new territory is having Tony solid and warm in his arms, but that’s an entirely separate matter, and one that Steve will not think about until the current crisis has passed.

There’s maybe under a minute left before they reach the ship.

“Okay, inventory,” Steve says. “I have my shield. What do you have?”

“My winning personality.” There’s a fumble while Tony checks his pockets. “My watch, and a stick of gum.”

“Brains, handheld tech, and a stick of gum, got it. That should be enough to hijack the ship.”

“You want to hijack a space ship created by a civilization we’ve not familiar with and is far advanced compared to our own?”

“Can’t be that hard.”

Tony huffs, and Steve chooses to interpret the sound as a reluctant laugh. “Assuming Timon and Pumbaa don’t have buddies on board.”

“I’ll handle that,” Steve says. “You handle the ship.”

 

+

 

They don’t hijack the ship. The tractor beam takes them through an opening in the hull but dumps them in a holding area with no windows, doors or obvious hinges of any kind. The room is dimly lit by strips of blue light set into the walls, giving it an eerie glow of a horror film. No one comes to greet or question them, so after a minute or so of being on guard, Steve starts working the walls with his shield.

“Comms still out?” Steve asks, once he’s made a pathetic dent in his choice corner of the wall.

“Yeah, can’t reach JARVIS, either.” Tony’s on the floor, fiddling with his watch. The light of the small hologram illuminates his face, which seems far more worried than Steve expected. At least, his face appears worried until he realizes that Steve’s looking, and then it settles into irreverent business mode. “GPS still kinda working, though. New York’s still down below.”

“Which means that the others must still be fighting,” Steve says.

“Thor can probably beat him. He knows magic.”

There’s a sound just then, a reverberation from a point under their feet and passing through the layers of metal. Steve hopes it’s Thor, or USAF fighter jets taking a shot at the ship.

There’s little else they can do right now. Steve resumes battering the wall, but he keeps an eye on Tony, who’s doing a decent job of staying focused. He’s rattled and trying not to show it, though strictly speaking this is far from the worst situation they’ve been caught in. They’ve only been on board for barely half an hour, and the rest of the Avengers are in theory just below them, searching for a way to get through.

It might be the space element that has Tony on edge. Steve knows his own strengths, and thinking in terms of planet-wide defenses is not one of them. That’s Tony territory, and one that Steve’s been vaguely aware Tony’s been working on amidst his numerous other projects. That’s as much as Steve can catch from snippets of Tony and Bruce’s discussions, anyway.

Steve stops his battering. It’s not doing much, and his arm is getting tired.

“Got that out of your system?” Tony says.

“Not really,” Steve says. “Are you working on anything?”

“Jesus, Steve, you really going to put our escape on me?” Tony snaps. “No pressure, huh.”

Steve looks away. He studies the lights along the wall and swallows the urge to apologize, or to explain that he’s not trying to pressure Tony at all. Six months isn’t a long time, but it’s long enough to have figured out that apologies don’t always land well with Tony. Depending on the situation, it gets him twitchy and even more defensive, and then it’s catch-22 traps all the way down.

That’s what happened when they first met and kept taking what the other said at the worst possible faith. Steve remembers it vividly like it was only yesterday, though hell if he can also remember exactly what it was about Tony that had his hackles up so quickly, so instantly. Loki’s scepter was just one element of it; the rest of it was just them. (Steve knows a part of it came from how angry he was at being woken up, but why did Tony have to be that outlet?) Steve does try to be the good man Erskine thought he was – it’s constant work, though work he does willingly – but he’d tripped there with Tony, and saw one person where he should’ve seen another.

They’ve gotten better, since. At least, Steve thinks they have? They live in the same Tower, Steve’s better at rolling with it, and the arguments they have these days are mission-related instead of personal. When Steve first took Tony’s invitation to move in, he’d followed Natasha and Bruce’s lead in reading Tony’s barbs and non sequiturs as just how he communicates, instead of statements meant to hurt, and that… opened everything up. Steve got it, and wondered why he didn’t get it before.

After Steve got that, it led to other things. They’re colleagues, but Steve’s almost definitely positive that they’re kind of friends now, too. Not friends in the way that Tony’s friends with Bruce or Steve is with Natasha, but a decent, functional, oftentimes downright pleasant variant.

“Can I help?” Steve says.

“Yeah, you can not distract me.” Tony seems to remember himself, and shakes his head to clear it. “Sorry, it’s just—”

“It’s fine. You’re working the problem, and it’s a problem only you can work.”

Tony nods, his smile a touch sheepish.

Steve stays where he is. He studies the room again, and his shield, and the other gear on him. He’s never used the parachute but it might be useful if they need to make a jump for it.

“What do you think this ship is?” Tony asks. “I mean. Why are they here, just the one ship, two Stooges?”

“They hit us with an army the last time, but it didn’t take,” Steve says. “Could be trying another tactic.”

“I thought they’d just come with an the army again,” Tony says, with a straightfowardness that belies how often he must’ve had that thought. “But they’d take the long way around to get here, instead of through a portal. Can’t block an army if there’s no portal to block.”

“I always thought they were just after the Tesseract. Well, the Tesseract and Loki’s general grudge against Earth. With both under lock on Asgard, Earth doesn’t matter anymore.”

Tony puts his watch down and stares at Steve in disbelief. “Is that why you’re so meh about planetwide defenses? About the Iron Legion?”

“I’m not meh about Earth’s safety,” Steve says.

“You’re kinda meh.”

“What does ‘meh’ mean, exactly? Spell it out for me.”

“You know.”

“No, I don’t,” Steve says. Tony’s still worried, but he’s relaxed a little, and has even indirectly confirmed that his tension stems from the implications of a reprise of the Chitauri invasion. This is an argument, but one of the good ones.

Tony sighs. “You don’t think big enough.”

“You’re right, I don’t. That’s not how I operate, and you already know how I feel about preemptive measures.”

“You flush them down the Potomac?”

“So you are familiar with my work.”

Tony makes a rumbly noise at the back of his throat – another suppressed laugh – and goes back to fiddling with his watch. “Pop quiz, hot shot. An army from space is on your doorstep. Your planet has only rudimentary space-reaching capabilities, and not on a wide-enough scale to defend the whole planet from simultaneous attack. What do you do?”

“Go for the flag ship,” Steve says promptly. “Covert op, break in, take out the leader and/or the main weapon they’re using.” When Tony raises an eyebrow at him, Steve says, “I know this is your arena, not mine, but I have thought about it.”

“This isn’t my arena,” Tony says defensively. “It’s Thor’s, really.”

Steve hums noncommittally. There’s only one human Avenger with space-reaching capabilities, and he’s sitting right there. Steve may be technically their leader, but he’s perfectly willing to concede authority to others more in the know, no matter what Tony says. Steve has slightly better understanding now on how Tony’s been keeping an eye on space – waiting for the next shoe to drop – ever since Loki. Steve’s glad for that. He’s been focused on their enemies on the ground, because that’s what he can handle.

No wonder Tony’s more on edge than usual. One of his worst-case scenarios is almost a reality, and they’re sitting ducks on an unfamiliar space ship, only able to hope that the rest of their teammates can win the battle without them.

 

+

 

They have to wait, but not that long. Steve’s got an eye on his watch, and just little over an hour has passed before there’s new movement and noise.

A hiss and groan of metal, followed by the slide open of one wall, indistinguishable from the other walls. The Maw is standing there in the opening – just the Maw, without the Brute or anyone else.

Steve throws his shield, at the same time that Tony fires his wrist gauntlet. The Maw, looking somewhat worse for wear, is a little slow to react, which gives the Steve the chance to jump on top of him and attempt to take him into a chokehold.

It’s a decent attempt, but not decent enough. The Maw throws Steve off, sending him slamming against the hull. Another sweep of Maw’s hand blocks Tony’s next repulsor shots and grabs Tony in a magic-telekinesis hold.

“A most annoying planet,” the Maw says.

“Earth’s best export,” Tony chokes out.

From Steve’s position on the floor, he considers his options. The room beyond is massive, and more cathedral-like than a room at all. Metal struts, rails and beams are arranged in some ominous design around the central cavern, which has the same gloomy lighting as the small room they were held in. A large portion set into the hull glows blue-grey – a viewscreen, Steve realizes – with the moon visible in the far distance. Steve’s shield fell somewhere in the shadows and is not immediately retrievable.

“You must know that your planet cannot withstand the full force of Thanos’s army,” the Maw says. “Would it not be easier to accept your fate? Avoid the waste that is hope?”

“Thanos, huh,” Tony says. “When’s he coming, then?”

“You look forward to it?” the Maw says, amused. “Your imagination must be… limited.”

Steve ignores the twinge in his back and stands up to his full height. “Hey,” he says. “Stark answers to me, so if you’re in the mood for a chat, I’m right here.”

Behind the Maw, Tony is making a face at Steve like he can’t believe Steve is this stupid. His face is red, too, though it’s not obvious if this is from the Maw’s squeezing him or his attempts to break free.

“The Captain,” the Maw echoes. “Yes, we know of you, too.”

“Of course you do,” Steve says, ignoring the way that Tony’s enraged eyes are bugging out at him. “Can’t say I’m impressed with this Thanos’s delegation skills. Loki and the Chitauri, sure, that made sense. But today there’s just two of you. Oh, sorry, one of you. What happened to the other guy?”

The Maw tosses Tony at a metal beam, which comes alive and wraps itself around him, and grabs Steve instead. Steve’s body is locked in the same invisible fist, which now lifts him up and forces his head back. It’s not pleasant, but it doesn’t diminish his surge of triumph. This way, Tony can figure out how to slip away and gain control of the ship.

Air rushes by Steve’s face as he pulled upwards, his body twisted in a further bend back. Steve focuses on his breathing, slow and steady.

“I can tear you piece by piece,” the Maw says. “But there is reprieve if you give me the stones.”

“The stones,” Steve echoes, thinking quickly. “All of the stones?”

“Yes, all of them,” the Maw says impatiently.

“We only have the…” Steve trails off, startled by a sharp press on his chest. A needle, or perhaps fine blade, pushes in.

“Hey,” Tony says, his voice somewhere below. “Hey, you don’t need to do that.”

“Only one of you needs to talk,” the Maw says. “I don’t care which.”

The needle is in, nestling high on Steve’s sternum. Steve doesn’t make any noise. He controls his breathing – in and out, in and out. This is only mildly uncomfortable, comparatively.

“These stones—” Tony starts.

“They’re not here,” Steve says. “We knew that Earth isn’t safe.” Then, because he can’t help himself, “You came all this way for nothing.”

That was possibly a mistake. The Maw growls in frustration and two other needles come in quick as a double-punch, one on either side of Steve’s ribs. Steve grunts, eyes shut as he bears it. The invisible fist spins Steve, turning him over so that he’s floating stomach down, his face tilted back so that the Maw can look him in the eye.

“For your sake, that’d better be a lie,” the Maw says.

It’s harder to breathe in this position, especially with the needles pushing into Steve’s diaphragm. Still, he just about manages, “For your own sake, you mean. You’re here on an errand for Thanos, aren’t you? Just like Loki was.”

That hits a nerve. The Maw rises up, ready for the deliverance of pain.

They’re interrupted when something hits the ship. Something large and noisy, which makes the whole ship shake. Steve can’t see what’s going on, but he hears a groaning crackle somewhere off to his left, followed by the smell of burning metal.

The Maw goes to check on what’s happening. Steve exhales loudly, just as Tony sways to his feet in front of him. The heavy beam’s still wrapped around Tony’s torso, but he seems to have managed to wriggle it down his body some.

“You’re an idiot,” Tony says.

Steve tries to jerk his head. “The shield, it’s over there. Or maybe… there should be escape pods, right?”

“That assumes a lot of things, not least of which is that the Maw’s culture believes in escaping.”

The crackling gets louder.

“There might still be,” Steve insists. “You can run—”

“And leave you here? Right, because I totally want to be remembered as The Guy Who Left Captain America to Be Tortured by Aliens.”

Steve shouldn’t laugh. It hurts, and Tony’s face twitches apologetically when Steve wheezes. “Sure,” Steve says, “that’s the only reason you’re not taking this chance to escape right now.”

“Totally.”

“You should still hide. Get the shield, stay hidden, find a way out. When you do, come back for me.”

Tony hovers, conflict flickering in his eyes. Steve’s touched, though it’s not as if he doesn’t already know what a big damn hero Tony is.

“You want me to word it as an order?” Steve says. “All right. Tony, I order you to stay right here and waste this opportunity while we’re still in Earth orbit—”

“Oh fuck you, Cap.” Tony scrunches his eyes shut and ducks down, disappearing from view. Steve sigh-chokes with relief.

When the Maw returns, he’s looking slightly singed, which at least confirms that Thor (and the other Avengers in a Quinjet, maybe) made another attempt to take the ship. But it’s Maw who’s ultimately standing in front of Steve, not the Avengers.

“Irritating,” the Maw says.

 

+

 

After coming out of the ice, Steve went into a catch-up binge. At first he’d done it out of necessity, but later, out of genuine interest. There was a lot in those sixty years that were awful, but also a lot that was amazing. Space exploration was on the amazing side of things, and Steve spent a few really fun days diving into NASA’s archives and Apollo mission photos.

It’s kind of a shame that the first time Steve gets to see the moon up close, it’s while he’s a prisoner. More frustrating, he only gets to see the lunar surface through a viewscreen that has surprisingly poor resolution.

The Maw brought the ship here, steering the way using the glove-like contraptions in front of the viewscreen. It seems that he doesn’t want to (or can’t) leave the solar system yet, and has decided that the far side of the moon is a safe enough distance from the Avengers. Once the ship is parked, the Maw goes to look for Tony.

Steve hasn’t much of a choice, so he stays where he is. The pain from the needles has dulled to a distant ache, and only noticeable when he tries to move. He imagines Tony watching from some secret corner of the ship, grumbling to himself and putting an escape plan together. Tony might even be rehearsing in his head some pithy comment on Steve’s foolishness, despite him also being smart enough to know that of the two of them, the one with the super soldier serum is better suited for the Maw’s pointy attentions.

Yeah, thinking of Tony helps. Thinking about how Tony could have been here all by himself if Steve hadn’t acted fast enough – that definitely helps, too.

Tony would probably find it hilarious that Steve’s thinking of these things. He’d smirk, eyes dancing in that wicked knowing way they do behind his tinted glasses, and toss out a jab: “Why, Cap, it’s almost as if you have a crush on me.

Why, yes, Steve does have a crush on him. (Also, “crush” is such a useful slang word.) It’s the silliest but also the most understandable crush, which ebbs and flows in the background radiation of Steve’s twenty-first century life. If Bucky were privy to any of this, he might say something about how Steve has a tendency to fixate on people who shine so bright they’re almost unattainable, as if Steve’s a goddamned sunflower always turning to look at them and stay warm.

Steve can think now, about how Tony had felt pressed against him during their pull up into the ship. Tony was heavier than Steve expected, his muscle solid. His arms in particular were nicely thick when squished against Steve’s. They’ve touched plenty of times, but no more than shoulder-pats, handshakes, arm nudges. They’ve never hugged, never sparred. It figures that the first (only?) time Steve gets to hold him, it’s during an abduction.

It would’ve been nice to visit the moon with Tony by choice. And with the others, too, of course, but also with Tony. Who could tell him something obscure and highly technical about the moon landings.

Steve’s eye drifts back to the viewscreen. The pockmarked lunar surface covers most of the bottom half of the screen, while the upper half is the dark of space. There’s something else out there in the darkness as well – a small glint that could be a meteor or nothing at all – moving in what seems to be a higher orbit.

Steve averts his gaze when the Maw returns. Tony isn’t with him, which is a small success.

“Thanos will go to Earth,” the Maw tells him, “no matter what excuses you can think of, or whether the stones are there or not. Earth will be brought to balance. As will every planet in the universe.”

“That’s some hobby.” Steve blinks at the press of a new needle, slightly lower from the first. A fifth and sixth come in from the sides, joining the earlier ones at his ribs. Steve holds himself still through the press in.

“Either you will tell me what I need to know,” the Maw says, “or Stark will come out from his vermin hole and do it for you.”

“I’ve already t—” Steve grits his teeth, and pulls a quick intake of breath. “I’ve already told you. The stones are not on Earth.”

“Then where are they?”

Steve makes a dismissive sound, which turns into a grunt when the needles move. “Safe,” he hisses. “They’re safe.”

The Maw scoffs. “Where could you put them that would be safe? Earth has no allies. You are a provincial backwater. It would akin to allying oneself to the pre-evolved sludge of the dark…” He trails off. “The Odinson. Asgard?”

The needles turn. Steve forces himself to think of pleasant things – dark chocolate, freshly-baked bread, Tony’s rare unguarded smiles, puppies in a pile.

“You speak of Asgard?” the Maw presses.

The needles stop. Probably so that Steve can answer. He buys some time, heaving in as much air as his lungs can take without stinging. “You think we only have the one ally?” he says.

The Maw chuckles darkly. “A deflection. Yes, I see. We will go to Asgard and see for ourselves.”

Steve’s head snaps up sharply, which causes pain to lance down his chest. He makes a sound that echoes in the cavern of the ship, and sends a mental apology to Tony, wherever he is.

“Asgard isn’t—” Steve says with a struggle, “they’re not—”

The Maw’s turned away from him. He pulls up a screen not too unlike the holographic ones that Tony uses, though the symbols dancing over the screen are mostly unrecognizable.

“They don’t have the stones,” Steve says quickly. Thor’s stories of Asgard’s warriors should be comforting, but bringing down an unexpected invasion on his home because of a misconstrued fib is the opposite of a good move.

“You think we fear Odin? Though it is unlikely that you’d entrust all six to him, yes.” The Maw pauses his maneuvering the screen and returns his attention to Steve. A flick of his finger draws a new needle, this one pressing at the soft flesh at the base of Steve’s jaw. “You say the stones are not on Asgard.”

“Yes,” Steve says. “They’re not on Asgard.”

“Not even one?”

Steve hesitates. He’s not a good liar – Natasha’s ragged him on it often enough – and in this case the real agony is that he isn’t even lying. He doesn’t know what these stones are, so it’s not as if he can confirm where they are at all.

But Steve’s also thinking of the Tesseract. That blue cube was (one of?) the reasons Loki, while allied to Thanos, came to Earth in the first invasion. A physical object of immense power, which can be picked up in a well-protected hand. That sounds like a stone of extraterrestrial interest, doesn’t it? And the Tesseract is on Asgard.

“There it is,” the Maw says with smile. “If they have one or all, it doesn’t matter. We will take them.”

“No!” Steve barks, before another flick of the Maw’s hand has Steve’s jaw snapping shut.

The Maw presses a button on the screen. A few seconds later a three-dimensional image appears in the air, of a humanoid head and shoulders, both covered in armor. The helmet is gladiator-like, but the pieces around the neck and shoulders seem far less practical, though who knows what materials there are in outer space to make armor with.

It doesn’t occur to Steve to think too much of this figure, until the Maw says, “My Lord Thanos.”

This is Thanos, then.

“I have Stark and the Captain,” the Maw continues. “They say that the stones are not on Terra at all, and that at least one is on Asgard.”

Thanos hums thoughtfully. “Where is Obsidian?”

The Maw pauses. “He is still on Terra. The remaining Avengers have taken him.”

You will stay where you are,” Thanos says. “I will send Proxima to Asgard to confirm the stones’ presence. If proven true, I will summon you to join us. If you can recover Cull Obsidian in the meantime, do so.

“Yes, my Lord,” the Maw says, ending the call. The pressure on Steve’s jaw eases, and he works out the muscle with a cough. The Maw says mockingly, “You see now, that there is little you can do to delay the inevitable. Asgard will fall, as will—”

An explosion cuts him off. The explosion doesn’t rattle the ship, but it does cause an important-looking symbol on the viewscreen to start flashing. The Maw makes a full-body sigh, the kind of which Tony is so good in inciting in people.

“Hey,” Steve says as the Maw starts to leave, “let’s talk about the stones some more. It’s very interesting. I’d like to know more if… all right then.”

Steve’s alone again. He looks at the viewscreen, but the unidentified object is not where it was before. He tests his jaw and his arms. The needles have withdrawn a little, but that doesn’t help much when Steve can’t move his arms and legs.

There’s another explosion, somewhere at the back of the ship.

There’s also movement right here, at the corner of Steve’s eye. Tony, wielding a futuristic maybe-wrench, slinks into view and hisses: “Steve!”

“What’s the plan?” Steve says.

“No idea if this is going to work, but brace yourself.” Tony moves underneath Steve, just out of sight.

Steve realizes the reason for that when the invisible fist around him disappears. He drops, but Tony’s there, hands to catch under Steve’s armpits. He’s too heavy for Tony to prevent from hitting floor entirely, but it’s enough to flip Steve over so he doesn’t land on the needles. The pain winds him but Tony’s quickly pulling at his arms, helping him up.

“You said there might be escape pods, yeah?” Tony says. “Just tricked the Maw to go into one, which just ejected itself. Hoped that might release his hold on you.”

“Good job,” Steve says. His head is spinning and he’s having trouble getting his eyes to focus, but Tony’s under his arm and leading the way. Some of the needles have fallen free, but a few are still stuck in him – the three in his upper chest being the most annoying.

Regardless, they stumble forward together, quicker than Steve thinks necessary if Maw has been expelled from the ship, but Tony must know what he’s doing.

They end up in another escape pod, which appears primed and ready to go, and has the vibranium shield already loaded on board. Steve waves Tony off to the console and sits on the bench by the hull.

“Why don’t we just fly the main ship?” Steve asks.

“I sent the Maw’s escape pod to Jupiter, but he could take back control, return to his ship,” Tony says. “Better for us to be out of here before he does that.”

“Wait, Tony,” Steve says. “Thanos thinks the stones are on Asgard. We have to warn them.”

Tony runs past Steve to close the pod door, then returns to the console seat. “We can warn them from Earth. Bifrost, all that.”

“Right,” Steve says.

The escape pod jolts as it’s released from the mother ship. Steve tries to be quiet but a protesting grunt snaps out of his throat anyway. He sees Tony half-turn towards him in concern, so Steve carefully lies down, one hand gripping the bench underneath him to hold himself steady.

“Hey,” Tony says. “Maybe you shouldn’t move.”

“Too late,” Steve says. “Moved.”

Tony’s exasperated sigh warms Steve all over. “Yes, I see that.”

The escape pod itself makes no sound as it flies away from the mother ship. But the console does – the shiny buttons almost parodic in its cheerful beep boop as Tony steers.

From Steve’s vantage point, he can study Tony properly. He’s sweating and a little grimy, but doesn’t have any visible injuries. His pants are worn at the knees and calves, probably from having to crawl around. He’s moving with the manic energy that sometimes captures him during the high stress points of away missions.

Steve would ask Tony if he’s okay, but it’d be a useless question. Tony always says that he’s okay.

“Are you…” Tony cocks his head. “Are you humming Fly Me to the Moon?”

“Seemed appropriate,” Steve says.

The pod’s viewscreen seems to be miniaturized version of the main ship’s viewscreen, with the same wobbly blue-grey surface, albeit with much better color and resolution. The moon leans over from the starboard side, a grand lady peeking into their pod. Beyond her is the great glowing orb that is Earth, looking small and delicate from a distance. How does the saying go? Earth is space ship floating alone in the void.

They may now know that Earth is far from alone, but that knowledge doesn’t lessen the impact of the sight. All of Steve’s memories (almost all, now) take place on that fragile, floating orb.

“Geez,” Steve says quietly. He turns to Tony to ask how he feels about the view, but is startled when Tony – who was looking at him – quickly turns away.

Steve feels self-conscious all of a sudden, wondering if perhaps Tony thinks him quaint for being impressed by the sight. He probably does, because Tony sees twelve amazing things before breakfast and is never fazed by any of them, but that’s all right. That’s just Tony, he doesn’t mean anything by it.

“This is weird,” Tony says, tapping at the screen. “It almost looks there’s someone out here with us. I mean, someone besides the hamster wheel.”

“Oh, I saw something on the Maw’s screen, too,” Steve says. “Didn’t get a good look, but it was closer to the lunar surface.”

A crackle at the console makes both of them jump. Tony’s arms are drawn tight to his chest defensively, before he remembers himself and taps at a glowing box.

A female-sounding voice comes through the comms. “Tony?

Tony exchanges a look with Steve, who doesn’t recognize the voice any more than Tony seems to. Tony taps at the console again. “Please identify yourself, por favor.”

You need to come with us if you want to live,” the person says. “That is a reference. You said it was one of significance to you.

Another voice comes over the comms, this one also female-sounding, but angrier, “Did you kill the Maw or not?

“That is a negative, angry-sounding lady,” Tony says.

Then you must let us board,” the first voice says. “The Maw will return, and he will capture you. Your pod will not be able to travel far.

Tony looks at Steve, indecision writ all over his face. “Call it, Cap.”

They’re in an unfamiliar escape pod run by tech Tony’s not fully confident about being able to control, and Earth is some two hundred thousand miles away. They could try to Earth on their own, trusting that the Maw can’t recapture them despite what they’ve just been told. But there’s also the fact that these people on the comms are asking, instead of commanding, which is a point to consider.

“What’s with the Terminator reference?” Steve asks.

“Uh. I mean. Me and robots, so it’s…” Tony sighs. “Kyle Reese’s smolder was formative to my teenage self, okay?”

“So she knows you.”

“Honestly? The voice doesn’t ring a bell.”

“But you can be bad at remembering things, yeah.” Steve sighs and hopes for the best. “All right. We let them board.”

 

+

 

The other ship – and it does appear to be a proper ship – is about the size of a large bus. Bigger than their escape pod, but significantly smaller than the Maw’s. There’s a round central piece and two wings on either side, rather like a fat moth with stumpy wings. Their escape pod docks to the back of the other ship, and then there’s contact.

There are two women, one literally blue and the other literally green. There aren’t places to hide on the pod, so Steve clutches the shield to himself just in case. Tony, meanwhile, is on his feet and holding the wrench, and he warily eyes the arrivals as they step across the open dock.

“There are just the two of you?” the blue woman says.

“This is a waste of time,” the green woman says.

“Pause, rewind,” Tony says. “You know my name, but who are you?”

“Nebula,” she says. “My sister, Gamora. We have met before, but that may take a while to explain.”

Gamora comes forward urgently, saying, “Do you have the stones—”

“That’s not important just yet,” Nebula says calmly. “Captain Rogers. You’re injured.”

Tony steps in her path, stopping her approach. “Prove that you’ve met me before.”

“You’re the mechanic. You helped fix my…” Nebula lifts a hand to her head, where there are two thick stripes of gold that Steve only at that moment realizes are not tattoos. She inclines her head, allowing Tony a closer look. Whatever Tony sees, it has him jerking back in surprise. Nebula adds, “You called me the Blue Meanie, once.”

“Okay, that does sound like me.” Tony shakes his head, clearing it. “Yeah, Steve’s hurt. Can you help?”

“Our ship doesn’t have the right equipment,” Nebula says. “But we could take you to a place that does.”

“Or back to Earth,” Steve says.

“The Maw’s surgery blades have sorcery in them,” Nebula says. “And the fever will follow, if it hasn’t started already. I don’t think Earth’s doctors can help with that.”

Steve doesn’t feel like he has a fever, and the serum makes him hardier than most. He starts to say as much, but Tony glances over his shoulder at him and the concern in his eyes makes Steve pause. Tony does worry about people but he rarely lets it show so openly, so there must be something in Steve’s appearance that is cause for alarm.

“Top priority is warning Asgard,” Steve says. “Thanos thinks there’s a stone there, and he’s sent Proxima to confirm it.”

Nebula nods. “We can send a message to Asgard from our ship. Then we can go—”

“There’s no time for this!” Gamora exclaims. She marches back across the dock to their ship, while Nebula shakes her head ruefully.

“She worries about Thanos,” Nebula says. “If he were to get all six stones, it’s over.”

“Six,” Tony echoes. “There are six?”

Nebula stares at him. Her irises are almost completely black, and so large that the sclerae are barely visible. It has a menacing effect, but her expression – though not exactly kind – gentles that effect somewhat. “You don’t even know of the six infinity stones yet?”

“No,” Steve says. “You mind getting us up to speed?”

“I will do so gladly,” Nebula says.

“And we’re taking Steve to a space magic hospital!” Tony adds.

Chapter Text

There’s more leg room on Nebula and Gamora’s ship, so they transfer over. Steve doesn’t need help for said move, but he’s not so unselfish as to turn down Tony’s offer to hold on to him as he does.

Tony tries to get Steve into a bunk, but Steve would rather sit for now, so Tony ends up depositing him on the bench that lies along one side of the hull. Sadly, Tony only stays by Steve long enough to remove his helmet, following which he moves away to a swiveling chair set just outside the cockpit module.

Gamora’s piloting the ship, though she seems unhappy about it. Nebula brings them food, and Steve pretends to sleep in the hopes that Tony will eat first, but that only results in Tony’s poking him in the knee until Steve gives up and they have a very pointed debate over who needs to eat more. Neither of them win, so they split the share in half and stare at each other to make sure that the other actually consumes what’s in front of them.

When the meal’s finished, Tony jerks his chin at Steve’s chest. “How’s that working out for you?”

“Could be worse.” Steve looks down, where four blunt-end tips of the needles protrude through the armor like someone’s twisted idea of Braille. “Could have an arc reactor in here instead.”

“Har har,” Tony says.

“You’re right, that was in bad taste,” Steve says. “The arc reactor was functional.”

Tony looks up when Nebula approaches. “See, he’s never going to admit exactly how much pain he’s in.”

“Ah,” Nebula says, settling at the other end of the bench. “A thing you two have in common.”

Steve gasp-laughs, then winces before he can control himself. There is rush of petty joy in the way Tony’s jaw clenches, but that’s too quickly subsumed by the determination to not make Tony worry even more.

“She does know you,” Steve says.

“I do,” Nebula says. “I’ve also sent the two messages you’ve requested. Asgard has been warned, and your Avengers friends know that you’re safe with us.”

“Good,” Tony says. “How about telling us about the stones now?”

“The infinity stones have immense cosmic power, and have since the dawn of time been scattered across the universe,” Nebula says. “The space stone – you call it the Tesseract.”

“Hey, I was right,” Steve says. “So there are five others?”

Nebula nods. “And if brought together, can be used for immense, instantaneous death across the living universe. That is Thanos’s goal, and what we hope to prevent. But there is a second portion to this story.”

“Which has to do with how you know me,” Tony says.

“Yes,” Nebula says. “I’m from the future. Nine years by your calendar. I’ve been to Earth many times, and I know all the Avengers – including the ones you haven’t met yet. In this future, the Avengers gathered all six stones together, but they were stolen. They were brought back to this time, to a Thanos who hoped to skip the work of gathering the scattered stones of the present, and instead use the ones stolen from the future.”

Tony’s hands are steepled under his chin as he processes this. “Thanos is cheating?”

“He does that,” Nebula says. “Gamora and I stole the stones from Thanos before he could use them. There was a battle. Four of the stones are safe, but two are currently not with us. The last we know, those two stones are on Earth, which is why we were hiding behind your moon, and the Maw went to Earth to find them. I believe that those last two stones are safe for now, but my sister is not so confident.”

“What’s your ultimate game plan with the stones?” Steve says.

From the pilot’s seat, Gamora calls out: “We need to send them back where they came from!”

“We will send them back where they came from,” Nebula says, “but only after we use them on Thanos. We must stop him from ever achieving his goal, with any stones.”

“But you know how it plays out,” Gamora says, in a tone that makes clear that this is an argument that’s been going around in circles. “We can prevent him from finding the six stones of this time.”

Nebula rolls her eyes, not in the mood to resume said argument.

This is beyond Steve’s usual scope. Cosmic stones, time travel? He looks at Tony, who’s tapping his fingers on his arms as he thinks. What Nebula just described sounds a hell of a lot like a preemptive strike, but a threat like Thanos is too big to hold in Steve’s head.

Break the problem down. One element at a time. The stones.

“Asgard does have one stone,” Steve says. “The Tesseract, the current Tesseract. At least, Thor said it’s still there.”

“Thanos has avoided war with the Nine Realms,” Nebula says. “Earth was an exception, but only because he underestimated you, which led to failure. It is likely that Thanos wishes only to confirm the space stone’s presence on Asgard. He will avoid full battle with them for as long as possible.”

Steve exhales. “Okay. That’s something.”

“You understand now?” Nebula says, looking from Tony to Steve and back. “Why this is important?”

“Yep,” Tony says.  There could be more, but there’s just silence and Tony’s scowling at the big picture being formed in his head.

Nebula has been helpful, though. Steve says to her, “I understand now why your sister thinks this is a waste of time. I mean, the universe is at stake and you’re helping me out.”

“Steve, can you not,” Tony says curtly.

Okay, that landed poorly. “I know this is important, Tony,” Steve says. “I just wanted to say that I appreciate what they’re doing.”

Tony doesn’t seem to be listening. If they were at the Tower, he’d have wandered off by now to do whatever it is he does when he wants to figure things out on his own. More often than not that keeps him in his hallowed no-one-except-Bruce-and-sometimes-Natasha-allowed workshop, rock music blaring loudly. (Steve can’t judge, not with his own tendency to stay in the gym for similar-ish reasons.) But there’s no workshop here, and only a few awkward corners for relative privacy.

Tony swivels in his chair, turning away to face the viewport, leaving only the top of his head visible from this angle. There’s no reason at all for Steve to feel disappointed, so he resolves not to.

 

+

 

It’s difficult to nap. Steve lies on the floor by the hull and tries a few times, but the stabbing pain in his chest gets more and more difficult to ignore. He stares up at the ceiling for a while, until Nebula comes by with a folded jacket that she offers as a pillow.

“Thank you,” Steve says. He can hear Tony in cockpit up front, talking with (or trying to talk with) Gamora. Steve adds, “I suppose it would be rude to ask about the future.”

“Rude, no,” Nebula says. “A bad idea? Yes.”

“Ah.”

Nebula hums vaguely. “It doesn’t matter, anyway. This timeline has been changed too much. I – we – can’t take anything for granted anymore.”

That sounds like a good thing. Time travel may be a reality, but it’s comforting that it comes hand in hand with the universe also mutable instead of fixed. Still, there are nine years between now and the world that Nebula knows, and Steve can’t help being curious. There are other Avengers they haven’t met yet, Nebula said. The Avengers expand enough to have extraterrestrial friends besides Thor.

Steve also wars with the temptation to ask how Tony’s doing in the future. That may not be their future anymore, but it’s still a future, and Steve is only human.

“It’s best to not know,” Nebula says, which has Steve deflating. “You’re not dead in that future, but that could just as easily change.”

Steve chokes on a half-laugh. Nebula doesn’t smile, but Steve still can read amusement in her dark eyes. “Must be tempting, though,” he says. “Having all that knowledge.”

“Perhaps. But there is no time to be tempted yet.” Nebula raises her head. “Tony.”

“Yeah.” Tony is hovering awkwardly over them, and jerks a thumb over his shoulder. “Your sis is calling.”

“She did not kill you,” Nebula says. “That is impressive.”

Tony watches Nebula go to the cockpit, and then sits down on the floor next to Steve, legs crossed. “The scary thing is, I can’t tell if that was serious or not.”

“Now you know how I feel around you all the time,” Steve says. Tony’s face goes funny for a second, and Steve represses a sigh. “Are you okay?”

“You’re asking me that?”

“All right, I take it back.”

“Dammit, Steve.” Tony runs a hand over his face, and the sigh he releases is thick with disbelief and frustration. “Why’d you jump?”

“Poor impulse control,” Steve says immediately.

“You know that that’s not funny.”

“Really? ‘Cause that’s the excuse you use all the time.”

“I could’ve handled it,” Tony says angrily. Steve doesn’t believe that for one second, but chooses not to say that out loud. Tony always gets upset when someone takes a fall meant for him. “Now we gotta deal with your…”

“Tony,” Steve says patiently. “We’ll figure this out.”

“It’s easy for you to say that, because you don’t understand. You don’t get it.

Ouch.

Tony’s just voicing his frustration and doesn’t mean that to hurt. Tony’s just a hella smart guy, and so far ahead that most people lag behind. Tony spends a lot of energy trying to get people on board with his priorities, and goodness knows Tony doesn’t have the soft touch to make that happen smoothly.

Steve’s job, on the other hand, has always been to remind Tony of viewpoints other than his own, and to keep him grounded. Steve’s job also entails not taking anything Tony says in these heated moments personally, because Tony’s not saying that Steve is stupid. Steve isn’t stupid, and Tony knows that. It’s just that Steve is a regular guy, and not up on Tony’s level.

It still stings, though. Knowing that he can never ever keep up with Tony.

So Steve schools his face and listens as Tony continues his tirade:

“We’re not ready for this, Steve,” Tony says, his voice pitched low and urgent. “We could barely handle one ship with a mere double act of Thanos’s generals, and there are more? The Chitauri fleet wasn’t even his whole army? And now there’s time travel involved? How bad do you think things get in the future, if we’re willing to take the risk of bringing six infinity stones together? That give you an idea of what a big deal Thanos is?”

“But we know what he’s after now,” Steve says. “That’s intel we can use.”

“That’s… what?” Tony stares in disbelief. “That’s nothing. That’s less than nothing.”

“Come on, it’s not nothing.”

“Sometimes your optimism is really fucking annoying,” Tony snaps.

“Yes, I choose to be optimistic,” Steve says before he can control himself. “That’s how I deal with shitty situations, all right? Not all of us can fake confidence the way you do.”

Tony starts, head jerking back.

Steve takes a deep breath, inasmuch as his chest is currently capable of. He’s been trying his best to not lose his temper around Tony anymore, but he still slips sometimes.

“Wow, so I’m a fake,” Tony says flatly. “Tell me how you really feel, Cap.”

“Right,” Steve says, mouth running away from him again, “so you’re scared most of the time but you choose to wear confidence like one of your suits because it helps you go out and be the hero that you know the world needs. That’s so awful. Embarrassing. I don’t know why I’m so goddamned proud to be on the same team with you at—” he pauses, gasping, “—at all.”

The tightness in his chest is getting a little intense. Steve closes his eyes and breathes, rolling with the pain as it crests and recedes. The touch of a hand on his forehead makes his eyes fly open.

Tony’s leaning over him, eyes wide and mouth a hard line of tension. Yet that is amazingly less important than how Tony’s hands are on him, one on his chest to hold him steady, and the other pushing his sweat-damp hair out of the way.

Tony’s hands are hot – so hot, so warm, so wonderful. Steve gasps and turns into the touch, murmuring a thank you when Tony’s hand moves to his cheek. The touch is – so good, such a relief – and only more so because it’s Tony.

“I haven’t had a fever since ’42,” Steve says. “Is this a fever?”

“Pretty sure you’re not supposed to feel like ice when you have a fever,” Tony says.

Steve moves, drawn to the heat, to the relief. He tries to turn but Tony holds him down, which doesn’t seem nice. Steve has the distant thought that his condition seems to be worse than it was five minutes ago, or maybe that’s just his determined mind-over-matter strategy failing him at last.

There are other hands on him, but they are not warm like Tony’s. Steve thinks he might have drifted out for a second there, because instead of a hand there’s a whole spread of warmth across the side of his face, right down to his shoulder and upper portion of his chest. That might be a thigh. Yes, he’s resting against Tony’s thigh. The magic non-fever isn’t fun, but it’s not so bad if Steve gets to nuzzle Tony’s thigh.

No, wait, that’s not right. He’s not allowed to rest on Tony’s thigh, he’s pretty sure.

“Sorry,” Steve mumbles. “Sorry, I’m not—”

“Stay still, you ass,” Tony says. His hand is on Steve’s neck, the curl of his fingers there so, so gentle.

They were arguing about something a moment ago. Steve can’t really remember what kicked it off, but there was something about Tony being a hero. Maybe it was about how despite their both staying with the fight because it’s the right thing to do, Tony isn’t like Steve. Tony isn’t bound to the field because he doesn’t know anything else. Tony wasn’t trained, isn’t enhanced, and he has tech he can use remotely. He chooses to put himself out there anyway.

How easy it was for Steve’s admiration to turn into something else. All Steve needed was to look a little closer at Tony, and take peek behind the curtain (as much as Tony ever allows, anyway) to the sheer stubborn gumption that fuels him day-to-day. From there it was inevitable.

Tony’s voice seems to come from a long way off: “How long ‘til we get there?”

“We are within the window,” Nebula says. “Just keep him steady.”

 

+

 

They must land somewhere. Steve’s distantly aware in a change of motion and atmosphere. Tony is nearby, and then he’s not, and then he’s near again. There are voices.

It’s very, very cold. Steve dreams that he’s eight years old, bundled up in layers meant to soothe his rattling chest, but his breathing doesn’t get any easier. He dreams of snow crunching underfoot, the bite of mountain air numbing his lips. He dreams of being buried alive, ice and ice and ice all around and everywhere. Except one spot.

One spot, which is his hand. His hand is warm, because there’s another hand holding it.

Steve opens his eyes. The room is unfamiliar; the smells and sounds are unfamiliar; the woman gesticulating over him is unfamiliar. But his eyes shift sideways, settling on a face that – although at first does not have a name to go with it – conjures a sense of comfort and safety and rightness.

It takes a while for Steve’s head to clear. He remembers – Tony – and their coming here, and the fever that isn’t. Steve’s hand feels damp and clammy, and it seems that as soon as he thinks that, Tony starts to pull away.

“Hey,” Steve croaks.

Tony scowls at him. “Don’t make this awkward.”

“Don’t make what awkward?” Steve flexes his hand, trying to get Tony to come back. “C’mon.”

Tony doesn’t look at him, but he settles his hand back in Steve’s and squeezes.

Steve’s awake for some of it. He hears Tony asking questions, and a woman answering. Nebula is there as well, and she holds Steve’s legs down at one point. There is a pin-sharp pain in Steve’s chest, but it’s manageable.

He passes out somewhere during the proceedings, and wakes up in a different room. He’s on a bed, or something that feels soft enough to be a bed.

The room could almost pass for a location on Earth, with four walls of ocean-blue material that look like it could be plaster, a window along one wall, and two doors at one corner. The humming eldtrich-looking contraption hanging almost directly above Steve is definitely not an Earth ceiling fan, though.

Steve turns his head. There’s another bed in the room, perpendicular to the one that he’s lying on. Tony’s curled up on that second bed, though he snaps awake when Steve starts to sit up.

“Nope!” Tony’s voice comes out sleep-hoarse, and he coughs to clear it. “You are not getting… oh okay, fine.”

Steve’s bare-chested, his armor and undershirt gone. Yellow-green paste-looking material has been pushed into the narrow cavities left behind by the Maw’s needles. There are bruises along all the entry points, but they’re fading. His pants are still on, but not his boots, which are on the floor right next to the bed.

“How long was I out?” Steve asks.

“A couple of hours.” Tony scratches his beard, and slowly pulls himself into a stretch. “We’ve kind of been abandoned.”

“That sounds ominous.”

“Gamora took off during your surgery. She wants to get the last stones, or get rid of the stones she already has, or… something. Nebula went after her, but she promised to come back.”

Steve nods. A fine curtain-like mesh covers the room’s window. If Steve narrows his eyes just so, the brightly-lit city beyond could be Las Vegas. “Where are we?”

“Dress… something.” Tony shrugs. “A planet that’s formerly part of the Kree empire, but don’t ask me what that means. It’s tourist season, apparently, so we shouldn’t stand out.”

Steve stands up slowly. His muscles are stiff but there’s not much more than a dull throbbing in his chest, easily ignorable. He puts his bare feet on the carpet-like spread on the floor, and pads his way to the window. Ever cautious, he stays at the side of the window at first, studying their surroundings.

The city beyond is definitely not on Earth. The buildings themselves could pass for a particularly futuristic city, but the massive ringed planet in the sky gives the game away. It should feel more surreal to be here – literally on another planet, where the streets are filled with both human-looking and non-human-looking people – but all Steve can really muster is a quiet sense of wonder and gratitude to see any of this at all.

Steve turns back to Tony, who’s still sitting on his bed. If there are any lights in the room, Tony’s made no move to switch them on, so it’s only the city that casts light and shadow into the room, on the furniture and on Tony’s face.

“It’s an alien city,” Steve says.

“How about that,” Tony says, sounding distant.

Steve frowns. “You okay?”

“Yeah, it’s just.” Tony raises his hands, maneuvering thumbs and forefingers into a square. “You got a… pin-up thing going on there.”

Steve looks down at himself. “Guess I do. The stab wounds ruin the effect, though.”

“Wouldn’t go so far to say that.”

Tony gets up and joins Steve by the window, studying the view. Steve thinks Tony should be more excited by the opportunity in front of them, but it’s only natural that he’s still worried about Thanos, the stones and what’s happening on Earth. Steve’s worried about all of that, too, but this is a breather moment, a pause in the longer haul.

A memory stirs of them arguing on the sisters’ ship, before Steve fell deeper into the ice-sickness. It must be water under the bridge, though, because Tony isn’t mad at him. Hell, Tony held his hand. They’ll never speak of that, of course, unless in a teasing manner that means absolutely nothing. Steve’s just glad they’re back to an easy rapport.

“Can we go outside?” Steve asks.

“You want to go outside? Why?” Tony says.

“Never been in an alien city before.” Steve says this lightly, and not so much to mock the obvious. Tony smiles anyway, the corners of his eyes crinkling. He’s so incredibly handsome, and there’s a charming impishness in the way he bobs his head in a, “Yeah, duh” kind of way.

Tony looks out the window again. A calm thoughtfulness settles over him, as though he’s trying to see the city with fresh eyes. Through Steve’s eyes, maybe.

“It’s okay if we can’t,” Steve says. “Sitting tight’s fine, too.” It’s night time outside now, and there’s plenty lit up and glowing to look at through the window.

“I did get us a change of clothes,” Tony says.

 

+

 

The room they’re in is a rental, similar in function to a motel as far as Steve can make out. It’s in the same building block as the store that belongs to the woman, Clea, who’d done Steve’s impromptu surgery.

“Highly hush-hush, is the feeling I got,” is how Tony describes it. The surgery itself was not difficult, but they had to keep it on the down-low due to its connection to Thanos. Clea agreed to the procedure itself because she owes Nebula a favor. Steve will have to find a way to return that favor to Nebula, too.

Tony also finagled clothes from Clea’s store. There’s a leather-ish jacket that goes over Tony’s band shirt, and a larger poncho-like piece for Steve that is surprisingly warm. Steve’s outfit is a dark blue, while Tony’s is brown and much too subdued for him, thought maybe that’s the point.

They go outside together, into the city of shouting voices, flashing lights and many skin tones. The street level seems to be for pedestrians only, with the vehicles all elevated or flying. Barely anyone glances their way when they join the crowd, dropping into a comfortable tread side by side.

“Tourist season, you said,” Steve says. “Literally, or figure of speech?”

“Literally, according to Gamora. She had a lot of opinions about the…” Tony pauses, and Steve follows his gaze across the street, where an adult-looking grey person is trying to get a crying child-looking grey person to stop clinging to a pole structure. “…noisy families.”

“The more things change, huh.”

They amble along, unhurried and commenting on what they see. They pass by alien shops, alien vehicles, alien advertisements presented in hyperrealistic videos that dance in the open air. There are fountains, traders doing their hustle, and flustered tourists trying to decipher their holographic maps.

Aside from the location itself, what really makes this different from walking around New York is that no one knows nor cares who they are. Steve and Tony are just two random figures in a mass of people from dozens or hundreds of dozens of planets, and completely uninteresting for that. It feels freeing, like Steve could do anything he wants (within reason) because it wouldn’t tie back to Captain America, the Avengers, or anything else of his responsibilities.

However, the only thing Steve really wants to do tonight is walk with Tony.

“You’re not intimidated by any of this,” Tony says.

“Intimidated?” Steve’s head is tilted up to watch a train rumble a couple of hundred feet above them. “Intimidating was walking around New York that first time after coming out of the ice. This is nothing.”

He means the comment to be light, but he sees the mistake in the way that Tony’s face goes tight for a second. Steve forgot right then that he and Tony don’t do this – hang out, just the two of them – and that Tony isn’t like Sam or Natasha, who’d let Steve’s statement roll off of them.

Steve moves on, as smoothly as he can manage: “Do you see anything inspirational?”

“Inspirational for what?” Tony says.

“Your next tinker project. Though you’d improve on it, of course.”

“You say inspirational, I say that my suits look like kids’ toys compared to what these people are capable of. I bet their day garbage is more advanced than anything SHIELD can come up with.”

“You want to find out?”

Tony squints at him. “What?”

“We can go through their garbage. We don’t have money – do they use money? To buy things. But if it’s stuff they’ve thrown away…”

“I’m not dumpster diving on an alien planet with you. That’s…” Tony pauses, then shakes his head. “No, I’m not.”

“I bet this place just appears fancier than it really is,” Steve says. “You just need to look a little closer, at the people instead of the things they use.”

“How d’you figure that?”

“Well, cellphones are everywhere back on Earth. But how many people actually know how they work? Or how to make them? Let alone can make them? It’s highly specialized and taken for granted.” Steve spreads a hand open to the city around them. “I bet it’s the same here.”

“Sure,” Tony says, “but their baseline is way, way different from ours.”

“And I’m sure there are other planets less advanced than us, too.”

“Obviously, but we don’t need to worry about those planets.”

“Okay, then we can delegate.” Steve leans over, slipping a hand around Tony’s waist to pull him out of the way as an alien on a hovering scooter-type contraption zooms past. Tony trips a little, and Steve steadies him by the elbow before letting his hand drop away. “You can worry about the planets more advanced than us, and I’ll worry about the planets less advanced.”

“Why, uh,” Tony says. “Why do you need to worry about the planets less advanced?”

“If we’re going to be a cosmic player, we have a responsibility to protect those who are unable to protect themselves.”

“We have like, six full-time Avengers and two ancillary almost-Avengers, and only half of all of those can fly. We don’t even have our own interplanetary travel tech yet.”

“So it’s not worth worrying about other planets too far to affect us, is that what you’re saying?”

Tony makes a face at him. “Your attempt at making a point is noted, but it’s not a very good one.”

“But the effort must count, right?” Steve says.

“Sure,” Tony says with a sigh. “It counts.”

Steve starts to suppress his answering smile, then realizes that there’s no reason to do that. So he smiles, and relaxes, and talks some more while Tony pretends to grump but is actually kind of, sort of enjoying himself.

See, Steve thinks to the Bucky that sometimes mumbles in his head, he does too know how to talk to people he likes. This is almost like a date, though of course – alien city aside – Tony’s dates would not be this simple. There’s just the two of them walking along a street, then another street, then up a path into a park with a slow-rolling hill of purple-blue soil and red grass, where small groups are having picnics under the smattering spread of charmingly gnarled trees. There’s a celebratory feel in the gathering of people out here, as if they’re in the middle of an equinox or something equivalent. A number of people are taking pictures of the night sky and the great glowing gas giant above them.

At the top of the hill there’s a lookout point with a long, winding railing. They find a spot there, Steve facing outward to what seems to be a religious temple down below, and Tony leaning with his against the railing as he faces the park.

This could almost be a date, but it’s not. The problem about dates, as far as Steve’s been using to smack away Natasha’s prodding, is the whole getting-to-know-you portion of it. What is there for Steve to talk about himself, that isn’t Captain America or Avenging business? Talking to Tony, at least, bypasses all of that.

“You’ve never dreamed about flying?” Tony says. “Really?”

“I wouldn’t say never,” Steve replies. “But it’s not a fantasy in the way I think it is to most people who dream about flying.”

“But you’re an adrenaline junkie.”

“Am I?” Steve thinks. “Adrenaline junkies whoop more.”

Tony blinks. “Say that again.”

“Whoop more.”

“Whoop,” Tony echoes. “You just said whoop.”

“Is it not a word?”

“If Captain America says it’s word, then it’s a word,” Tony says firmly.

“It’s not about adrenaline for you, either, I think,” Steve says thoughtfully. “I mean, you enjoy flying. But it’s more about control. Pushing the limits of what your tech can do.”

“As opposed to you, pushing the limits of what your body can do.”

“Just making sure the US government’s getting its money’s worth.”

“I’m sure that’s—”

Tony’s cut off when a running child stumbles in front of him. He crouches down to help the child up, which could be cause for drama on Earth and maybe even space, but in this case the only drama to be had is another child – slightly older than the first, who’s running up to them with a very humanlike expression of elder siblinghood bossiness.

“Ugh,” the older child says. “That’s why you shouldn’t be the Captain.”

“No!” the younger child hisses, wrapping an over-large jacket tighter around their shoulders. “I’m Captain, I’m the—” The child runs off, their fall forgotten.

The older child rolls their eyes, and lifts a hand at Tony in what seems to be an apologetic manner. “Sorry, he’s just excitable. Thank you.”

Steve’s watching the smaller child to make sure they’re running back to their group safely. It’s strange to hear the word ‘Captain’ out here, but lots of things about space are strange. It figures that if there are space warlords and space generals, there could be space captains who inspire children to dress up in red, blue and gold.

When Steve turns back to Tony, the other man is staring bemusedly at a flower in his hand. A red-stemmed, yellow flower, which the older child must’ve given him.

“Hey,” Steve says. “Iron Man colors.”

“That’s totally what I was thinking of. And not space allergies.” Tony returns to his spot and looks up at Steve speculatively. Steve keeps still, his chest just a little tight, as Tony puts the flower behind Steve’s ear.

“’Cause you have lesser chance at getting space hives,” Tony says.

“Of course,” Steve says.

He’s seen this side of Tony before – quiet, gentle, and freely giving in to his sweetheart tendencies. But it’s always been around Bruce, Rhodey, Natasha. Steve isn’t bitter, though. He’s appreciative, because this is the longest he’s been in Tony’s company, just the two of them, and it’s a memory he will keep. Memories last, after all. Steve has plenty of them, so it’s nice to have a good one to add to the lot.

Tony settles against the railing, his arm brushing Steve’s. He’s talking about the trees now, speculating on the carbon-based nature of the planet, and his suspicion that the atmosphere is nitrogen-heavier than on Earth. Steve listens and responds, asking how in the hell Tony can know that when nitrogen gas is odorless, and Tony replies that it’s not about smell, thank you.

Again and again, Steve’s brain pings – not a date, not a date. This will make for a lovely memory, but it’s not a date. If it were a date, Steve would be contemplating kissing Tony right now. Tony’s certainly close enough to kiss, his eyelashes clearly visible with every sweep of his eyelids, his mouth an animated pink shape sharing his magnetic voice with the world.

If this were a date, it would be a good move for Steve to kiss him here, in this picturesque alien park overlooking an alien temple. There’s been enough good will amassed that he could just a lean over and brush their mouths together. And if this was a date, then they’re both here because they want to be – Tony is here with him because he wants to be – and there’s a greater-than-zero chance that Tony would kiss back. He’s definitely a really good kisser. But because this is a public area, they’d share only a handful of kisses, though afterward they could go back to their room and make love. Tony would insist on being careful because Steve’s still recovering from the surgery, and Steve would show him that he’s fully recovered and up for anything.

Imagining these kinds of scenarios – the what ifs – is dangerous. Steve knows that the hard way, so he doesn’t do it most of the time. But right this moment, he gives in and lets it gain color in his mind. Tony is making faces at him, smiling at him, and laughing at statements Steve only hopes are witty. So Steve lets himself imagine—

“Oh,” Tony says. He pulls a communicator out of a pocket. “That’s Nebula. We got to go.”

—right until he has to put the what if into a box and lock it down tight.

“Okay,” Steve says. “Back to the room?”

“Uh…” Tony fiddles with the communicator. “Yeah, think so? Lead the way.”

They start retracing their steps, first back down the hill and into the city. This time their steps are brisk; the sights and sounds of the city fading away to background details as their focus resets to the mission that might be.

But at the corner of a street, just before they reach the block they came from, Tony pauses and looks back. He looks up at the levitating trains, the skylights, and the ringed-planet in the sky.

“Props for the idea to take a walk, though,” Tony says. “This is pretty amazing.”

Steve, who is looking at Tony, says, “Yes, it is.”

 

+

 

Nebula’s waiting for them outside the motel building, and she quickly urges them to the docks, where her ship is parked.

“We are going to Asgard,” she tells them. “Thanos is gathering his forces to move against them.”

“You said Thanos wouldn’t do that yet,” Steve says.

“The situation has changed,” Nebula says. “Gamora will meet us there.”

They’re on board and in flight before she’s ready to explain more. Nebula takes the pilot seat while Steve and Tony stay just behind her, watching her plug in the coordinates to Asgard, where she says that Thor and the other Avengers are expecting them.

“I’m not sure of the details, but it seems that Asgard’s security has gotten... lax,” Nebula says with a sneer. “Proxima and Corvus have taken the space stone from their vault, and are holding position off-Asgard, waiting for Thanos. It is only that he needs time to mobilize all his forces together that Asgard is able to prepare their own defenses. We will join those defenses, as will your Avengers friends.”

“Excuse me, but… Proxima and Corvus?” Steve says.

“Proxima Midnight and Corvus Glaive,” she says. “Also children of Thanos, like the Maw and Obsidian Cull.”

“How many ‘kids’ does this guy have,” Tony mutters.

“Not many,” Nebula says. “Our survival rate is very low.”

Steve and Tony exchange a look. Tony’s voice is deceptively cool when he next speaks, though Steve catches the thread of gentleness within, “I imagine so.”

Nebula turns, pinning Tony with a dark-eyed look. “We’ve already had this talk, you and I. You showed sympathy, and an understanding of what it is to reject the paths our fathers put us on. It would be awkward to do it again.”

“Fair enough,” Tony says.

There is time to mentally prepare, though Steve is very aware that he doesn’t know as much about Asgard as he thought. Thor’s shared many stories of his home but with a possible battle looming ahead, Steve realizes that said stories are far more about dramatics than details.

Steve does some warm-ups with the shield, getting his body limber. His arms and legs are fine, but he can’t yet twist as cleanly as usual.

Tony, in the meantime, has taken his swiveling chair again. His legs are folded under him, and he’s holding the Maw’s wrench, tossing and twirling it from one hand to another. Behind him, the ship’s viewport shows that they’re clearing the ringed gas giant, and heading towards the system’s white sun for the slingshot out.

“Not enjoying the view?” Steve says.

“Nah, the void of eternal falling is less attractive that you’d think.” Tony’s smile is glib, and Steve recognizes it as one he sometimes uses himself. “Not a fan.”

“That’s fine,” Steve says. “You don’t need to look at it.”

“What’s that?”

“You don’t need to look out the window.”

Tony grins. “You do realize you’re suggesting that I enjoy the view on this side?”

Steve’s stomach does jump a little, but this is just Tony being himself, i.e. a man of cheerful ass and bicep admiration across all genders. (Which is funny, because Tony has perfect specimens of both, of which Steve has spent quite a few hours trying to capture the likeness of on sketch paper.) A comment to provoke is just a comment to provoke; Steve knows how that goes by now, so he holds Tony’s eye unflinchingly and lowers himself into a split.

“Sweet baby Baryshnikov,” Tony says.

Steve laughs. “Do you want to do some stretches?”

“Me?” Tony says. “What the hell for. I don’t have a suit.”

“Is that really going to stop you, once we get there?”

“I know that poncho is going to stop you.”

Steve can’t disagree. He plucks at the edge of the blue material, the edges of which flap outwards and can get snagged easily. They’ll just have to hope that they can get their hands on something decent from Asgard’s armory.

“You can fight shirtless,” Tony says. “Distract the enemy with the buff.”

“Tony, we’re going to Asgard,” Steve says. “The God of Thunder may be exceptional, but I’ve seen pictures of his warrior friends. I’m going to be very average there.”

Tony hums thoughtfully. “Would that make me less than average?”

“On the contrary, that would make you stand out,” Steve says. “And encourage that thing you like.”

“What thing?”

“That thing where people underestimate you.”

“I do like that,” Tony agrees.

From up front, Nebula calls out: “We’re near the jump point. Brace yourselves.”

Chapter Text

After two jumps, some long-way-round flying, and Tony’s teaching Steve a couple of new yoga positions, they come into view of Asgard. The city is as awe-inspiring as Steve expected. In this, at least, Thor’s tales are no exaggeration.

Tony, however, says, “I thought Asgard was a planet.”

“Thor never used the word ‘planet’, though, did he,” Steve points out.

“I don’t like that.” Tony’s scowling, as if the fantastical magical realm has personally offended him. “What is that? Why is there an ‘up’ and ‘down’? Where is the water going?”

“Please don’t ask those questions when we land,” Steve says.

“If they don’t want people to ask those questions they shouldn’t have built a city on a floating…”

Tony trails off as another massive structure comes into view on the far side of the plateau. With the brightly-lit Asgard drawing the eye, the structure wasn’t immediately noticeable, but is definitely noticeable now as they approach. It’s a massive ship, ludicrously larger than the Maw’s, and almost the full length of the city in the center of the Asgard plateau. There are other smaller ships around it like satellites, and even smaller ships moving between them like tiny insects.

Steve registers the positions of Thanos’s ships for a siege. That should be the vanguard up front, probably with the landing party on board. But the fleet as a whole is hanging back, just like Nebula said, which means that there may be more ships to come. Meanwhile, Asgard is on the defensive, a partially see-through shield covering the city. Some of the smaller ships are circling the plateau but not engaging, perhaps trying to find weak points.

“We’ve been spotted,” Steve says.

“Ah,” Nebula says. “Fuck.”

Tony jumps into the copilot seat, while Steve takes Tony’s swivel chair. Steve straps himself down, just in time for Nebula’s sharp evasive roll.

“You can shoot, yes?” Nebula says. “You know how to do that?”

“Of course I know how to do that,” Tony says. “Just move the grid and fire, right?”

“With impunity,” Nebula says.

Steve doesn’t get to do much in his first space dogfight. He sits tight, offers suggestions, and lets the other two scream at him when necessary. They get hit, but Nebula manages to bring her ship close enough to the plateau to get through the shields and make a rough (crash) landing in the forest just outside the city.

The ships that chased them don’t follow them into the shield, and fly back up to the rest of the fleet. Nothing’s on fire or in threat of exploding, so Steve takes his time extricating the other two from the cockpit. Nebula seems annoyed at the help, but Tony, at least, lets Steve haul him out and deposit him on the grass, where he immediate flops onto his back, breathing heavily.

“Next time, I pilot,” Tony says.

Nebula is on her feet, gauging the distance to the city. “There is a walk,” she says.

“Give it a minute,” Steve says, eyeing Tony.

“Two minutes,” Tony says. “Five. Fifty.”

“You can carry him,” Nebula says.

Steve considers the sloping terrain. If it’s urgent that they get to the city quickly, it’s certainly doable, and Steve very much doesn’t mind. Unfortunately, Tony flails backwards when Steve takes a step towards him.

“No one will see,” Steve says patiently. “If you have a preference, I’m open, too.”

“Preference for what?” Tony says suspiciously.

“Type of carry,” Steve says. “Fireman or pack-strap?”

“Bridal,” Nebula says.

“I can walk, Jesus,” Tony says. He gets to his feet, wobbly but stubborn, and gestures for them to get going. “No Uber on Asgard yet, eh.”

Their trek to the city isn’t a difficult one. It’s just one step after another across terrain that’s not all that different from Earth’s – trees, grass, and rocky paths that run along picturesque streams. Steve’s lack of a harness – lost along with the top of his suit during the surgery – means he has to carry the shield by arm, but that’s a minor thing. He’d definitely enjoy hiking here for pleasure. That said, there’s no forgetting the amassing armada above their heads, visible even through the golden glow of the Asgardian shield.

Nebula leads the way. She doesn’t join their small talk, which is mostly Steve commenting on the scenery and Tony saying things like if Asgard is so advanced why don’t they install transporters instead of having to make people walk.

The royal palace looms large over them as they approach. The rumble of the city grows louder, too – voices, trumpets, a large number of feet running in the getting the city to battle-readiness.

“There is something I need to tell you,” Nebula says. “Earlier, I kept my explanation concise for expediency’s sake. Now you need to know the rest.”

“Uh-oh,” Tony says.

“What is it?” Steve says.

Nebula continues, “We developed the time-travel machine in 2023. I came back here, to 2014, to borrow the power stone, but I was captured by Thanos before I could return to my time. My 2014 counterpart, still loyal to him, took my place in going to the future. She took all six gathered stones, brought them back here, and sabotaged the time machine behind her.”

“We figured it was something like that,” Tony says.

“But, you see.” Nebula looks up. “The Nebula of 2014 didn’t return here alone. She was chased.”

Steve and Tony follow her gaze upward. At first Steve thinks she’s looking at the shields, but then he spots the humanoid shape – red and gold, soaring like a comet in a familiar, graceful arc around the palace’s spire.

“Tony managed to get into the quantum tunnel with the other Nebula before it collapsed,” Nebula says. “He, Gamora and I worked together to get the stones away from Thanos.”

“Huh, how about that.” Steve turns to Tony, expecting some pithy comment.

But Tony’s just looking up at his future doppelganger, speechless and… amazed? He jolts when he notices Steve’s looking at him, and ducks his head, almost self-consciously.

“Tony has two infinity stones on him for safekeeping,” Nebula says, “and he insisted on going to Earth to get help for our cause. Gamora disagreed with him, hence our splitting up. The Maw’s imagination is oddly limited in places, so although he chased Tony to your planet, it did not occur to him that he could – and had – taken the wrong one.”

“Did future Tony go to Earth to get us?” Steve says. “I mean, the Avengers.”

“He went to Earth to find a man named Wrath,” Nebula says. “No, Fury. Yes, the man’s name is Fury.”

“Huh,” Steve says. “That must’ve been quite the conversation. I guess they met up with the rest of the Avengers when Tony and I got abducted.”

Tony still hasn’t said anything. They keep walking, the outer gates already in view. Soon they will be busy – they’ll join up with Thor and the others, and there will be battle plans to discuss.

Steve isn’t the sort to drag his feet. He’s tempted to do so now, though, in the hopes that in the next few minutes he can think up something appropriate to say to Tony. Natasha would know what to say; Bruce would know what to say and he’d have a better handle on Tony’s headspace. Steve thinks that he’d be unnerved to know that another version of him is here in the same place as he is, but Steve isn’t Tony.

Surely Tony would be more interested in the implications of time travel. Or having a glimpse of the suit that he’ll build one day, but perhaps with this new knowledge he will build the suit even better, and faster. But these are all assumptions, and Steve’s track record on assumptions of Tony is rather poor.

Hence, Steve can only manage a farcical, “You okay?”

Tony makes a noise that sounds like a yes. Nebula’s pulled ahead, leaving the two of them abreast.

Steve is resigned to that being all he can get, but then Tony says: “It’s just.” He pauses and shrugs in an unconvincing attempt at carelessness. “I know that things have changed way too much in our timeline, so that guy won’t be me anymore, but, uh. I got to live to 2023? That’s longer than I thought.” He flashes a rueful smile.

“I get it,” Steve says.

Tony starts. “You do?”

“We put our lives on the line regularly. And we’re going to keep at it for as long as we can, as long as people need us. But it’s a gamble every time that the wire won’t run out on us.”

“Yeah, yeah, that’s it,” Tony says quickly. “It’s not like I want to…”

“I know.” Steve smiles, hoping to comfort, and is pleased when Tony tentatively smiles back. That’s good. Excellent. Tony’s rattled but feeling better, and if Steve trusted his hand not to do something foolish, he would even squeeze Tony’s shoulder.

“Cool,” Tony says. “Let’s go meet other me.”

 

+

 

They are met at the gate by a tall, imposing man, whom Steve assumes will the first of many tall, imposing Asgardians they will be meeting today. The man’s appearance – and especially his eyes – line up to a particular description, so Steve holds a hand out in greeting.

“Heimdall, I believe?” Steve says.

“Captain Rogers,” Heimdall says, his voice an unbelievable echoing rumble of concentrated power. He shakes Steve’s hand, while his golden gaze passes over the rest of their party. “You’re expected. Nebula. Younger Stark.”

“Oh, I like that,” Tony says.

Heimdall leads them into the city, past soldiers in capes and headdresses, civilians in medieval-futuristic clothing, and dozens of golden figures and archways. It’s all beautiful, but Steve thinks the semi-wilderness outside the city was lovelier. As for Tony, it’s hard to tell if he’s impressed or not, but he’s certainly exuding as much disinterest as he can manage, his chin up and his hands in his pockets as he strolls along.

They make it to the palace, and come into a long stone hallway with massive pillars set in intervals. There are people in here: familiar faces that turn their way and drop into relief.

There you are.” Natasha comes forward in a half-run, Clint and Bruce close behind. “Road trip without us, Steve?”

“Just playing it by ear, Romanoff,” Steve says, taking her into a hug.

While Heimdall and Nebula hang back, the rest of them claim their hugs and back-pats, and share a collective exhale at the team being back together. Steve is not so creepy as to begrudge the others – even Clint – getting to hug Tony. It figures that the one emotionally appropriate time when Tony isn’t wrapped in metal alloy, Steve’s the only one out of them who doesn’t have an excuse for join in.

“Where’s Thor?” Tony says.

Bruce points. There’s a corridor leading off from the hallway, through which Steve can hear Thor’s shout: “This is for your own good!”

“What are the chances of that working,” Heimdall murmurs.

Thor’s frowning as he stomps out into the hallway, though the frown immediately drops at the sight of them. “You made it! Welcome to Asgard, I’d be happy to show you around—”

“Your Highness,” Heimdall says.

“Of course, yes.” Thor sees Steve’s raised eyebrows and waves it off. “That was Loki. He is not dead, and has been ruling in my father Odin’s likeness since the matter with the Dark Elves. Hopefully the lock will hold him until after we’ve settled Thanos.”

“Ohhh,” Tony says. “I was wondering why you guys were building a Maleficent statue in the courtyard.”

“It is due to Loki’s inept security—” Heimdall says, ignoring Thor’s exasperated sigh, “—that Thanos’s minion was able to steal the Tesseract from our vault. We stand on the eve of another incursion because of him, and now we cannot even open the Bifrost to send our people to safety.”

“What’s happened, has happened. Let us deal with what is happening.” Thor turns to Tony. “Don’t you have a… No, this is the wrong Stark.”

“Missed you, too, big guy,” Tony says.

Thor urges them down the hallway towards the front of the palace, and along the way describes the plan they’re working with, the basics of Asgard’s defenses and the number of troops he has at hand. They hadn’t finished rebuilding in the aftermath of the Dark Elves’ attack, so the city isn’t as strong as it should be, though one blessing to be grateful for is that their new shields span the entire city, instead of just over the palace.

“It is not ideal,” Thor says regretfully. “But I’m glad for your help in holding the line.”

“You’ve helped Earth too many times to count,” Steve says. “We’re more than happy to return the favor.”

“Ah, here he comes,” Clint says. He takes a few steps sideways, winding around Steve and Natasha to do so. “I’m going to stand over here.”

It’s Iron Man who’s coming in on approach, and lands in front of them with a familiar clunk of metal on stone. The armor’s red and gold markings are mostly the same, but the angles of the head and pauldrons are rounded instead of angular, while the joints are subtle and lined evenly, especially along the ribs. The vambraces and boots are narrower, too, and the arc reactor is an unusual triangular-ish shape.

To top it all off, instead of the faceplate lifting up, the entire helmet just… fades away, like sand pulling back from the face underneath. Said face unmistakably belongs to a Tony Stark, who’s just a touch older and has dashing salt-and-pepper hair that’s a little longer than current Tony’s, and is coiffed upwards as though he’s been flying with the top down.

“Smurfette!” Older Stark says.

“It’s Nebula,” Nebula says.

Older Stark waves a gloved hand from Steve to Tony and back. “They up to speed?”

“Yes,” Nebula says, just as Tony – being contrary – says, “No.”

Older Stark eyeballs Tony. “You need me to prove who I am? How many embarrassing kinks do you think I can rattle off in five minutes?” Before Tony can answer, Older Stark says, “Zero, because none of them are embarrassing.”

Tony blinks. “I’ll take it.”

“Good,” Older Stark says. “Thor, we need to talk about the shields. Nebula, where the hell is your sister?”

“She’ll be here,” Nebula says. “Did Rhodey not come with you?”

“Sorry, he’s not part of the band yet,” Older Stark says.

“Stark,” Thor says sharply. “The shields. What do you need?”

“Right.” Older Stark holds his hands repulsors down, and slowly rises back into the air. “We’re going to have to give Gamora air support if she’s to get through the blockade, otherwise we need a way to get to her and the risk—”

“Hey!” Tony calls out. “You’re not gonna do me a solid?”

Older Stark looks back on his counterpart, amused and only partially apologetic. “What’s that?”

“You’re wearing nanotech,” Tony says. “Give me a piece.”

“Does not work that way,” Older Stark says. “You don’t bring a suit, you don’t get to party. I don’t make the rules.” A burst from his rocket boots sends him soaring up into the sky, while Thor follows with his cape flapping out behind him.

Into the silence left behind, Tony says, “Man, I’m a prick.”

“Hey,” Steve says, while Clint and Bruce laugh.

“Right,” Clint says, “I was kinda hoping for something like that.”

“You’ve been hanging out with old me?” Tony says. “I’m hurt.”

“To be accurate,” Bruce says, “it’s less hanging out and more him bossing us around and refusing to explain anything about the future. Which is probably the best way to go about it, if you’re going to mess with time travel.”

“I take it back,” Tony says. “I do not miss any of you at all.”

Natasha shakes her head and loops her arm into Tony’s. “Let’s get you geared up. You’re gonna like their armory.”

“No, I won’t,” Tony says, but he lets Natasha pull him along. As they walk away, Natasha glances back over her shoulder, and Steve mouths a quick, “Make sure he gets something to eat,” that Natasha reads with a nod.

“Your ground tactics,” Heimdall says to Steve, “are of interest to me. Shall we walk, Captain?”

Steve nods. “I’d be honored, thank you.”

“I will wait for Gamora,” Nebula says.

“And we will…” Bruce looks at Clint. “Be here. I guess.”

“To hell with that,” Clint says. “Let’s find more places for the Hulk to jump off of.”

 

+

 

Steve spends some time with Heimdall reviewing the city’s defenses and discussing the likeliest points for Thanos’s entry. The challenge there lies in the fact that Thanos has a space stone, which enables him to enter at any location he chooses, shield or no shield. But clever entry locations can also become bottlenecks, which Thanos would likely try to avoid seeing as that he can only keep the portals open for so long.

The attack will come, one way or another. All they need to do is to hold that attack off and keep the city’s civilians safe for as long as it takes to bring the pieces together. The best luck would be if they succeed at their goal before a single member of Thanos’s troops lands, but that kind of luck is best not wished for.

After the discussion, Steve goes to the armory. He’s introduced to Volstagg, who’s more than happy to demonstrate some of what Asgard has to offer, and suggests that Steve steal something from Fandral’s wardrobe to wear. Steve demurs on that last part, but Volstagg’s disappointment turns to glee when Steve demonstrates his ability with a halberd.

Steve sees the other Avengers here and there. Thor passes through in a whirlwind of instructions and motivational soundbites; Natasha comes by to poke at Steve’s chest scars and help him pick which armor to use; Bruce putters back and forth handing out food he has a surplus of, because apparently various Asgardians keep trying to feed him.

Tony is… somewhere. Steve thinks he catches a glimpse of him, but then he’s gone and Steve’s left by himself to test the give of his Asgardian armor in combination with a vibranium shield.

Steve finds a relatively quiet corridor that branches off from the main portion of the armory. He rolls his shoulders, does a few lunges, and tests the range of his swing. He and Natasha agreed that the more typical Asgardian armor wouldn’t work for him, so he’s ended up in one of the more flexible tunics meant for archers instead of cavalry, which is mostly made of leather-type material and has metal worn into the critical points along his chest and arms. It’s not Tony’s design, but it’ll do.

Steve tries a few flips and shield tosses. Everything seems workable.

The palace is busy, so Steve’s mostly ignoring the background noise to focus on his exercises. Hence, he is surprised when a voice says suddenly: “Hey, so.”

It’s Tony – but Older Tony, the one with the silver streaks in his hair and more laugh lines around his eyes and mouth. He’s leaning against a wall, but pushes himself off of it to approach. He’s out of the armor, too, and down to regular clothes: a full-black set of pants, sneakers and a shirt through which the arc reactor glows.

Familiar but not familiar. The temptation to ask Nebula about the future was bad enough, but it rises into a full-on ache when faced with Tony, who will apparently be forever unbearably handsome. Steve pushes the temptation down.

“Is everything all right?” Steve asks.

“Yeah, peachy,” Tony says, in that infuriatingly light tone that could just as easily mean truthfulness or the opposite. “Man, look at you.” He saunters up to Steve, and sweeps one hand over and around the back of Steve’s head. “You should grow your hair out. Just a couple of inches, get some highlights in.”

“You said that the longer cut makes me look like a grandpa,” Steve says.

“Did I say that? Yeah, I probably did. But it’s not the cut, it’s the style. Don’t comb it over. Push it back and let it fall… like that.”

This is the opportunity to study this older Tony up close, and try to observe the nine years that separates him from the man that Steve knows. This Tony’s eyes still dance, but age and caution keep him wary in a subtler way. There’s alertness in how Tony’s studying him, born from the things this Tony knows and has been through, and now projects back onto Steve.

“Am I dead in your time?” Steve says. “Is that why you’re here?”

Tony barks a laugh. That’s not a no, but his eyeroll seems relaxed enough.

“Not going to say anything.” Tony mimes zipping his mouth. “It’s bad enough that your timeline’s gone haywire, but I’m not going to make it worse by spilling shit about anything that might not even happen anymore. Well. That’s what I told myself I’d do, when I traveled over. No spoilers for anyone.”

Steve nods slowly. “Have you been following that resolution?”

“Yep.” Tony’s smirk fades a little. “So far.”

“You don’t have to tell me anything,” Steve says. “Honestly.”

Tony scratches his chin – the same tic of keeping his hands busy, kept nine years on. He’s reluctant but at the same time compelled.

“I might not make it today,” Tony says. “I mean, I want to make it, ‘cause I’ve got a home to get back to, but we got to consider the possibility, right?”

“Right,” Steve says gently.

“So I should tell you, just in case.” Tony bobs on his heels, restless and gathering his wits. “’Cause then at least here it’ll…” He takes a slow, long inhale, which leads into a slow, long exhale.

This doesn’t sound good. Steve feels a knot of dread twist in his stomach, but he tamps that down and waits for Tony to speak.

When Tony looks up at Steve, his eyes are intense and brook no argument. “I know what you’re hiding, Steve.”

Steve’s brain whites out for a second, before he realizes how vague that statement is. “What I’m hiding?”

“I know what you’re hiding from Tony. Other Tony. Your Tony. I know you think you have your reasons, but they’re fucking stupid reasons, and he needs to know.” Older Tony jabs a finger at Steve’s chest. “You need to tell him, and quickly. Okay?”

Another voice, just as agonizingly familiar, pipes up: “He needs to tell me what?”

Standing on the other side is another Tony, young Tony, Steve’s Tony. He’s in Asgardian armor, too, though as is characteristic of him it appears jury-rigged rather than off-the-rack, and he’s twirling a spear in one hand. Tony is smiling, as though he thought it’d be funny to interrupt at the most dramatic moment, but the smile grows uncertain as he takes in the expressions on their faces.

“That’s on Steve to tell,” Older Tony says.

“Why?” Tony counters. “You’re me. I trust me to tell me what I need to know.”

“Not for this.” Older Tony draws away, though his eyes linger on Steve’s, dark with meaning. He returns the way he came, which gives his younger counterpart the opening to come up to Steve.

“What’s he talking about?” Tony says. “Steve? You better tell me what’s going on.”

There’s noise in Steve’s head. A low-pitched ringing, as if something just exploded in the near vicinity, which in this case it might as well have. Steve stares at Tony – ‘his Tony’, as the other Tony helpfully said, though he cannot have known how that qualifier would strike deep in Steve’s chest.

Though Older Tony could have known, couldn’t he? Steve’s crush on Tony burns hot and secret and for no one else to know about, let alone Tony himself. What would be the point? They’re still figuring out how to be friends; to think about anything more is preposterous.

But now here’s a Tony from the future, telling Steve that he knows. Here’s Tony from the future, who wears a wedding ring. Hope flickers to life – maybe? Maybe?

There’s a jump right in front of Steve. There’s no parachute.

Steve blurts out: “I have feelings for you.”

Tony’s mouth falls open. “What?”

From the other side of the corridor, Older Tony, who’s apparently still in hearing range, also says: “What?”

Steve’s head whips up. He looks at Older Tony, to his Tony, and back. “Isn’t… that what you wanted me to tell him?”

“No!” Older Tony shakes his head, though the shock keeps his eyes wide. He mouths: “My parents.

“Oh.” Shit. “Oh.

Stop. Reevaluate. Respond.

“I need to see – someone,” Steve says. He takes off in brisk walk – not a run, definitely not a run –while Tony inhales sharply and scrambles to follow.

“Steve,” Tony says. “Steve!”

“I told Heimdall I’d stand with the city defenses,” Steve says, marching onward. He’s vaguely aware of Tony running to catch up, but it won’t be for long. “We can talk later.”

“You fucking—”

Steve’s pulse is roaring in his ears, which is probably how Tony manages to sweep his legs out from under him with the spear. The wind is knocked out of him as he lands, though he retains enough sense of mind to flip back up onto his feet and hold his shield out defensively.

“Jesus, Tony!” Steve exclaims.

“You were running!” Tony yells.

“Thanos is about to attack, there are more important things—”

“I am going to hit you in the face!”

“Are you?” Steve lowers his stance. “Do you think you can?”

Tony tilts his head. “Is this how you deflect?

“Look,” Steve says, his voice so steady that he’s downright proud of himself, “we don’t have time for this right now.”

“Then we make time.”

“Tony.” Steve searches deep, finding that rock core of calmness he pulls from in times of adversity and challenge. “Do you trust me?”

Tony frowns. “Yeah?”

“I’m being serious. Do you trust me? As a colleague, as a person, as a friend?”

That sobers Tony up. His eyes clear in the understanding of the honest weight Steve’s putting on the question. “Yes, I do.”

“Then I’m asking you to trust me on this,” Steve says. “He was right – I do need to tell you something. It’s information about your past.”

“What? About my past?”

“Yes, and it’s very important. But there’s a fight right on our doorstep, and you deserve the chance to process it in your own time, without the stress of immediate battle. I swear that I will tell you about it, and anything else you want to know, when it’s over. Can you please trust me on this?”

For a moment, it seems that Tony will protest, but then it passes. He nods, reluctant but accepting. “I’m going to hold you to that, don’t think I won’t,” Tony says.

“I expect nothing less.” Steve moves without thinking, his hand settling on Tony’s shoulder to squeeze gratefully. Tony jumps at the touch, but it’s done, and Steve draws back, his face as placid as he can manage. “Thank you.”

“Hmm, yeah,” Tony says.

Then Steve leaves, in a walk that turns into a run, and doesn’t look back.

 

+

 

Lock it a box, put the box away. There are other things to think about right now.

Steve tells himself this over and over, even as flashes of Tony’s shocked face – both Tony’s shocked faces – keep popping up in his head.

Lock it in a box.

This becomes easier to do when the tension ramps up, and Thanos’s fleet moves into position over the city. Steve’s focus clicks into place, a narrowing down of priority and urgency, and he’s able to take position on the right flank with Volstagg and Hogun in preparedness.

The Avengers’ comms are working, too, and through them comes Thor’s voice: “I don’t care what Fury said. I am more than capable—”

Nope,” Older Stark, also on comms, replies. “You’re an understudy and that’s final. But chin up! It’s opening night.”

Seers are the worst,” Thor grumbles. “You’re not ready, Thor. This is for the best, Thor. I’m from the future, Thor. Bah!

Steve presses his earpiece. “What’s the latest from Heimdall?”

“He says they’re very close,” Natasha says. “We just need to clear their path and stand by.

Close, but not enough,” Thor says.

Stark—” Clint says.

Two voices reply: “Yeah?” “Gotta be specific, bud.”

The silver one,” Clint says. “You sure she knows what to do?

You should ask her that when she gets here,” Older Stark says. “We’ll see how that goes for you.

Hogun shifts into position, his eyes up to the sky. “Thanos is making his move.”

Tony’s voice comes on the comms, somehow distinctly recognizable from his older self: “Now for wrath, now for ruin, and the red dawn.

Despite there being a rattling box at the back of Steve’s head that he’s trying not to think about, Steve smiles at the quote.

Thanos times his attack well. The first wave comes up to the shield, which is broken at the blue glimmer of the space stone forcing it open. These ships come through, landing like spikes at the edge of the city and spilling snarling, screaming creatures into Asgard.

Steve hangs back. He stays with the flank until Thanos himself appears through a second portal, stepping straight into the heart of the city with a handful of tall warrior aliens who do not resemble him in any way, and one of whom makes Hogun murmur, “Proxima. A rematch.”

The portal widens, allowing a second wave of ground troops into the city. Steve holds his shield close, and follows Hogun into the fray.

It’s interesting to be just another soldier, following Thor and Hogun’s orders in holding the right side of the city. The Asgardian armor works well enough, and Steve keeps an eye on the greater events as he holds position and triangulates the Avengers’ positions through the comms.

The battle ebbs and flows. The mindless creatures swarm into the city, forcing the Asgardians to syphon them off into the water. The two Tonys – one in a suit, the other in a skiff – provide air support, shooting the smaller ships out of the sky. One of Thanos’s ships crashes into the palace, forcing the people around them to scatter.

Then there’s Thanos himself, the purple-skinned warlord swinging his double-blade all over the place and looking somewhat more intimidating in person than he was on the hologram call.

Various Asgardians and Avengers attempt to engage him: Thor, who wields lightning and swings Mjolnir with fervor but keeps getting pulled away to deal with other greater attacks on his city; the Hulk, who gets Thanos into a one-on-one but is punched into the water. Even Nebula, who is supposed to be holding position, takes a screaming rush at Thanos but is pulled by off by Corvus in another engagement.

Hail Mary!” someone shouts on the comms. Clint, maybe? It’s hard to be sure over all the noise. “Hail to the fucking Mary!”

Steve looks up and, sure enough, there’s a falling star in approach.

“Avengers!” Steve shouts. “Close ranks!”

Steve takes off in a run, bouncing his shield off a few hostiles along the way. He slams the shield into Corvus and grabs Nebula, who twists away from him immediately.

“You’re supposed to stay out—” Steve starts, but Nebula’s already running ahead of him. Steve grits his teeth and follows her.

Thor had asked, earlier, why they don’t just use the infinity stones they already have against Thanos. That might have been useful, but it also would have alerted Thanos to the stones being here. The fact that Thanos is moving against Asgard at all is proof of his overconfidence; Proxima and Corvus were able to take the Tesseract unscathed, so why shouldn’t he wipe out the Asgardians as a prelude to his moving on to the rest of the Nine Realms?

Thanos’s main goal is to destroy the city. Give him a different purpose – a focused purpose – of hunting down the stones, and it would change the tactics he uses. It’s a risk, but here it pays off. Thanos’s troops are spread out instead of focused.

Now they can make their stand, and fulfill Nebula and Older Tony’s plan.

The star keeps falling. The star is dragging something with it – a smaller ship, not that much larger than the one Nebula had. One of Thanos’s jagged dagger ships tries to intercept, but the star throws the ship it’s carrying at it, sending both vehicles careening over the edge of the plateau.

The star comes in for a landing in front of the palace, where Steve’s holding his shield up as a landing marker. The star is not a star at all, of course, but a woman whose glow fades away to reveal a red, blue and gold uniform. (Steve remembers the alien child wearing red, blue, and gold, and thinks: oh!) The woman is carrying Gamora, and Nebula launches herself at her sister, pulling her into what could generously be called a hug.

“Fury said that someone named Stark was asking for me?” Carol Danvers says.

“Close ranks!” Steve yells.

Natasha comes skidding in. She throws Old Tony’s red gauntlet at Carol, who puts it on. Nebula and Gamora hand over the two stones each they’ve kept hidden on their persons. Older Stark comes spinning in, almost crashing into the building before being caught by the Hulk, who drops him on the ground just as the upper arms of Stark’s suit peel away to release the last two stones.

Steve and Clint grab each stone as it’s revealed, and send them to the gauntlet.

Power crackles up Carol’s arm, and she roars as she lifts the gauntlet, the six stones in place. Some fifty yards away Thanos snarls, “Danvers!” He starts to lift his own gold gauntlet, the single stone on it glowing blue, only for Volstagg, Hogun and Lady Sif to throw themselves on him and keep his hand open.

As Carol brings her thumb and middle finger together, she looks Thanos straight in the eye and says, “Eat shit, asshole.”

Snap.

Nebula had described to Steve and Tony what a six-stone finger snap could do. Instantaneous death, which now happens right before Steve’s eyes – a massive cosmic army turned to dust, and then less than dust. The description isn’t enough of warning for the reality, and Steve spends a handful of seconds unsettled and staring even after Thanos and his generals, fleet, monstrous cavalry and all, are gone. As if they never were.

There’s a cheer somewhere, then another cheer, and more. Voices rise in relieved cacophony.

Steve looks at his friends, all grimy and sweaty and heaving for breath. “Where’s Tony?” he asks. No one asks him to clarify. They look, and Natasha points. Steve follows her eye to Tony in the distance, alive and whole and climbing out of his skiff. Steve exhales.

Carol hisses as she drops the gauntlet, her left arm blistered and smoking faintly. Nebula and Gamora quickly take the gauntlet, drawing the stones free and into their personal safekeeping.

Thor lands in front of their little tableau, his cape sweeping out behind him in a flourish. He, too, is bloodied and grimy, but he’s standing tall as he holds a hand out. “Thor Odinson. Prince of Asgard.”

“Carol Danvers,” Carol says. “Captain of… Marvel.”

“I could’ve done the snap myself, you know.” Thor adds under his breath, “Understudy, indeed.”

Carol grins. “Yes, you definitely could have done the snap yourself. But then I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of visiting Asgard.”

“That is true,” Thor says.

While the others introduce themselves to Fury’s secret friend and their Avenger namesake, Steve’s eye is drawn away to Nebula and Gamora, who are standing together, holding hands as they look at the spot where Thanos was when he’d faded to dust. Older Tony slowly moves over to join them, though he doesn’t say anything.

“And actual living Captain America,” Carol says, snapping Steve’s attention back into the conversation. “Fury said you were leading the Avengers, but part of me thought he was pulling my leg.”

“No pulling involved, Captain,” Steve says, shaking her hand in turn. “And thank you for the assist.”

Thor chuckles. “I knew my plan would work.”

“Your plan?” Natasha says, amused.

“My plan,” Thor says. “Thanos forced our hand by coming to Asgard, so it was only right we do the snap here, instead of on Earth.”

“Which involved closing the Bifrost to protect the city, and forcing Carol to fly across the galaxy to get here?” Clint says.

“It’s just a stroll for her, is it not?” Thor says.

“I’d do it again,” Carol says. “Thanos has been on my list for a while.”

“Plus she got to pick up Gamora and the last two stones along the way,” Natasha points out.

“What matters is that it worked out,” Steve says. “This was… something.”

Carol nods, while the rest of them look out on the expanse of the city, damaged and burnt but very much still standing. While the others continue talking, Steve is quiet, letting the enormity of what they’ve done settle over him. Thor soon excuses himself to talk to his people, and Steve takes the opportunity to step away as well.

Tony’s taking the last few steps up the front of the palace. His hair’s a mess, there’s a bruise on his neck and he’s bleeding from a cut on his eyebrow, but otherwise he’s looking good. He smirks at Steve as the distance between them narrows, as though he half-expects Steve to take off again.

But he won’t. Steve has the one more battle, and he’ll see it through. It’s bad enough that he’d put it off on one excuse after another, until weeks turned to months, and it ended up taking a literal time traveler to remind him that, oh, that thing he hasn’t wanted to think about may actually be important after all.

Not so brave right now, is he?

“This is going to look fantastic on our CV,” Tony says. “The Avengers, Protectors of Asgard. Of the Nine Realms! I’m loving it.”

If Steve were not exhausted from the fight, it might be more difficult to stand here. He’d feel the full weight of what he’s about to say, and dread would hold his feet like blocks of lead. But as it is, all Steve has is the ache of a post-battle body, and the ache elsewhere in his awareness of Tony now knowing how he feels. Best case scenario: Tony will pity him; worst case scenario: Tony will throw it back in his face, a weapon for use in retaliation for what Steve is about to tell him. Steve is fine with either.

“Tony,” Steve says.

“Yeah?” Tony rocks on his feet expectantly. “’Sup.”

“Remember when Natasha and I found out that Hydra had infiltrated SHIELD?”

Tony straightens up. “Yeah.”

Steve speaks slowly and carefully. Tony knows portions of this, but not all of it. He nods at the description of the server room deep under Camp Lehigh, and Arnim Zola, and what Arnim Zola showed them of Hydra’s secret acts in the past.

At first, Steve felt it was only appropriate to tell Tony once he was sure there was something to tell. He wasn’t a hundred percent positive that the Winter Soldier was behind the assassination, and the early days of Steve and Sam’s search for Bucky were promising enough that he thought he’d have solid answers soon enough. When Bucky remained elusive, Steve figured Tony would’ve found out on his own through the SHIELD info-dump, because surely he was enjoying himself picking through those decades of data.

Except he wasn’t, and he didn’t, and Steve had been with the re-formed Avengers for months before he realized both.

Steve tells him now. He tries to look Tony in the eye as he does it – a small attempt to make up for older cowardice – but it’s Tony who turns away, frowning at nothing as he learns that what he’d believed for years to be true about his parents’ death is, in fact, not so.

At the last of Steve’s monologue – because it turns into a monologue when Tony goes quiet – he almost rambles on into unnecessary tangents of his trying to track down Bucky, or the work they’ve been doing as the Avengers hunting remaining Hydra members. But that would just be noise, so Steve stops.

Tony wrinkles his nose, looks up at the horizon, and keeps saying nothing.

“Do you want to—” Steve stops when Tony raises a hand.

Steve backs off. Tony stays where he is, hands braced on his hips, his mind billions of miles away.

Bruce is staggering up to the palace, shaking water and green away as he does. Steve detours to him, and says quietly, “Bruce, I know you’re tired, but could you keep Tony company right now? He needs a friend.”

“Oh,” Bruce says, confused but amenable. “Sure, yeah.”

Steve pats him on the shoulder gratefully. While Bruce ambles off, Steve looks over the city again, this time with a more critical eye. There’s wounded to tend to, the dead to collect, and damage to clear. Plenty to keep himself busy.

Chapter Text

Grief is universal, but so is the need for catharsis in celebration. That night, Thor calls for a great party-dinner in the royal palace, the kind of which his Earth friends will tell tales of in years to come.

Steve isn’t one for parties in general, but he knows how important they can be, and is glad to attend this one. The great dining hall is impressive on its own sake, too, and Steve is more than fine bearing Thor’s Asgardian pride when he’s enthralled by the mosaics and near-impossibly-high buttresses.

The hall is raucous with noise, the tables piled high with food, and the Earthlings (Carol included) mingle freely with Asgardians. Thor gives a speech that Lady Sif and Fandral keep interrupting. Natasha and Heimdall somehow have plenty to talk about, while Clint and Hogun fall into a knife-throwing competition. Other curious Asgardian warriors keep asking Carol if they can admire her burnt-but-healing fingers-snap left arm.

Tony’s there, too. If one weren’t paying attention, one might even think that he’s just enjoying the food and company with nary another care in the world. They haven’t spoken to each other since Steve told him about his parents, but that’s all right. Tony has a lot to process.

As the night wears on, so does the energy of the gathering, though Steve keeps to his little personal bubble of eating, drinking and listening to some really good stories. He realizes that the noise helps, because his head feels a little quiet, a little hollow; almost like how it was when SHIELD went under and he realized that he had to uproot himself and start all over again.

Older Tony arrives a little late, and slips into the hall unobtrusively. The pang at the simple sight of him is quickly overtaken by amusement at Older Tony’s focus: he heads straight for the nearest table and grabs a giant drumstick without so much as a by-your-leave.

Food in one hand and drink in the other, Older Tony skedaddles to a corner to sit by himself. As though he’s purposely keeping himself separate; as if despite him having played an important role in Thanos’s defeat, the celebration isn’t meant for him.

Realization dawns slowly – embarrassingly slowly. Steve casts a quick eye around the room, but Nebula and Gamora are nowhere to be seen. Despite everything that’s happened and may still happen, Steve stands and goes to him.

“I’m just here for the food,” Older Tony says immediately.

“Yes, of course.” That wasn’t an invitation to sit, but Older Tony seems to be more uncomfortable with Steve’s standing, so Steve takes on the corner of a nearby bench. Steve waits for this Tony to tell him to go away, but he doesn’t. “It didn’t happen this way in your universe, did it?” Steve asks.

Tony inhales sharply. Then he laughs, though the sound is thin and breathless. He covers his mouth with one hand, and the eyes that peer up over said hand are just a touch too bright. “Nope,” Tony says. “Did not happen this way at all.”

A commiserative apology doesn’t seem enough, let alone appropriate.

“Is Thanos at least…” Steve says.

“He’s dead there, yeah,” Tony says, sounding deceptively dismissive. “But it wasn’t … I had to… I needed to get it right, just this once. Even if it’s not…” He shrugs.

“Thank you,” Steve says, fully heartfelt. “I know it doesn’t make up for what happened in your universe, but what you’ve done for us is incalculable.”

“Yeah, well.” Tony clears his throat, as if he can shake off the melancholy by sheer force of will. “No big.”

Steve is helpless to do much more than smile. Even nine years on, Tony knows only two extreme modes: obnoxious shouting of his achievements to all the world, and the inability to accept any sort of earnest acknowledgement of the very same achievements.

“Can you go back?” Steve says.

Tony nods. “Yep. Nebula – the dearly departed Nebula, not our slightly-less-angry Nebula – destroyed the tunnel but she didn’t really know how it works. She stopped the others from following me, but I still have my… Yeah, I can go back. After we return all the stones to where they came from.”

Back home, and back to his family. Steve can’t prevent his gaze from dropping to Tony’s hands, where he’s rubbing a thumb against the inside of his ring. Tony sees him looking and freezes.

Glutton for punishment, Steve says: “It’s Pepper, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Tony says softly.

“Of course,” Steve hears himself say. “You were always going to go back to… yes. Pepper, it’s always been Pepper. I knew that. I know that. None of it’s…” He looks down at his feet and frowns. His face burns, but that’s his own fault, really. “Excuse me, I need to be elsewhere.”

Older Tony starts to open his mouth, but Steve won’t hear it.

He walks away, out of the dining hall and through the corridor as quickly as can manage with a tight chest and reckless energy in his limbs. Older Tony had been just as surprised as regular Tony when he heard Steve admit his feelings. This means that in Older Tony’s universe, in Older Tony’s timeline, his Steve never said anything. Obviously, that was the correct choice.

Steve tries to be a good person, but he’s capable of such awful, shitty selfishness. He couldn’t even see the danger in keeping the Hydra assassination from Tony, and that turned out to be so important that it was one of two things that Older Tony was willing to interfere with in this universe, the other being fucking Thanos.

Steve finds a narrow opening in the corridor that leads down simple stone steps overlooking a courtyard. A servant’s passageway, perhaps. He sits on the steps, alone with nothing but his thoughts.

“Damn it,” Steve says quietly.

It’s poetic, in a sense. He didn’t get to have Peggy, so of course he doesn’t get to have Tony. Steve Rogers is meant for the fight, for the work, for the duty. It won’t do for Captain America to be distracted, or to want.

But that’s an unfair comparison, really. Steve had that chance with Peggy but the sacrifice loomed large, and that was a sacrifice that they both ultimately, accepted. Steve has – had – less than that with Tony. Less chance, less hope, less anything. Hell, he would’ve been happy if he could become Tony’s friend, but he couldn’t even manage that.

Steve puts his head in his hands and tries to steady his breathing.

He’ll manage, of course, because he always manages. He will stop feeling sorry for himself because it was his own damned fault to begin with, and feeling sorry for oneself never accomplishes anything. There’s so much else he has to do. That’s what Tony’s always saying, anyway – that Steve needs to see the bigger picture.

Steve reaches down and tugs at the velcro strap that’s low on his combat pants. He pushes his fingers into the pocket and pulls out the red and yellow flower from the alien park. It’s slightly squashed but still recognizable, the petals flopping weakly when he twirls the stem between his fingers. He doesn’t know why he decided to keep it, when the memory should have been enough.

The memory would definitely have to be enough now. Steve doubts he’d have anything quite like that – Tony all to himself, at ease and laughing with him – ever again. Steve carefully puts the flower on the stone step next to him. It feels right to leave it here, on Asgard, in this day of various beginnings and endings.

Why is Steve even bothered by any of this? Right this very minute Tony is processing the fact that his parents were murdered, and here Steve is, thinking only about himself.

Tony’s going to marry the love of his life one day. For self-proclaimed playboy Tony Stark, that speaks volumes, and Steve will not be the shitheel who feels crummy at someone else’s happiness. Steve just let his imagination slip for half a second, that’s all. He’ll put that to rights soon enough.

Movement at the corner of Steve’s eye snags his attention. There are other people walking along the far end of darkened courtyard but this person’s body language pings an alarm.

Steve watches the figure carefully. It seems to be a woman dressed like a servant, and who pauses at the threshold as though making sure that the coast is clear. A narrow band of light shimmers over the woman, changing her appearance to one of the Asgardian guards. Steve’s seen that effect before.

“Loki,” Steve sighs. He stands up and schools his face back into passable Captain America solemnity, and then breaks into a brisk jog.

Time to find Thor and let him know his brother’s loose again.

 

+

 

Thor’s hunt and re-apprehension of Loki is a success. This is important, for Odin is still alive somewhere and Thor needs his brother to help bring him back to Asgard. The mini-chase ends up closing the party, in a sense, with most Earthlings begging off for the night afterward, despite Thor’s close circle pressing on.

They’re given a couple of rooms to share, and Steve’s roommates are Natasha and Clint. The latter passes out almost as soon as he hits the bed.

Natasha, on the other hand, stays up to throw a curve ball at him: “Something going on with you and Tony?”

Steve is in the process of removing the borrowed Asgardian armor, and uses the excuse of complicated straps to buy a few seconds of time. His answer, when he manages it, surprises even himself. “Yeah, kind of.”

Natasha nods. “Need a hand?”

“For the armor or for Tony?”

“Either. Both.”

“No, but thank you.” Steve arranges the pieces as neatly as he can on the table. “It’ll be fine, I’m sure.”

“Well, if you’re sure. But if not, you know where to find me.” Natasha won’t push any harder for now, not unless the situation worsens. Steve’s reasonably certain that it won’t – Tony will be angry for a while, but he deserves that, and Steve will take whatever happens.

The Avengers as a whole will keep going. It’s possible Tony will leave to be Iron Man on his own, especially seeing as how with Thanos and his army gone, his strategy regarding Earth’s defenses may shift greatly. But that would be Tony’s right, and they’ll just have to cope without him. Steve’s ready for that talk, too.

For now, sleep.

In the late morning, they prepare to return to Earth. They gather outside the palace, some of them weighed down by Asgardian keepsakes to bring back, while the Rainbow Bridge beckons in the distance. The configuration of the departing party isn’t the same as their arrival, though Nebula, Gamora and Older Tony have come to see them off.

“I cannot come with you, not until I find the All-Father,” Thor tells them. “But I will return to Midgard to finish our business with Loki’s scepter. We may know now the nature of the stone that powers it, but that only makes more urgent the need to take it away from those who’d misuse it.”

“We’ll keep working on that for you,” Steve promises. “Hopefully we’ll have narrowed it down by the time you come back.”

“Bifrost, huh,” Carol says as she scopes the glittering bridge. “Sounds fun.”

“Your kind of fun, sure,” Bruce says, making Carol laugh. “Not judging.”

“You should totally come to Earth,” Tony is saying to Nebula and Gamora. “You can mock our backwater ways.”

“We may take you on that one day,” Nebula says.

Steve’s always aware of Tony’s presence, but recent events have made him hyperaware, as if Tony’s taken to emitting a high-frequency pitch that only Steve can hear. Steve knows he will have to speak to Tony sooner rather than later, if he’s to salvage their relationship. But first, a warm-up: he turns to Older Tony and holds a hand out.

“Thank you for everything,” Steve says. Yes, that’s good. He sounds friendly and confident. “Will you be going back to your time soon?”

Older Tony shakes his hand, a polite three sweeps up and down before letting go. His eyes linger on Steve’s face, but Steve bears it without flinching. “No, actually,” Older Tony says. “I’m going to stick with the Williams sisters for now, help them put the power and soul stone back.”

“Oh, right,” Steve says, nodding. “Then you have to return the rest of the stones.”

“That’s correct. Hopefully that’ll be easy. Then, home.” Older Tony pauses, and Steve can see another question gathering steam behind his eyes. Steve braces himself, but the question sinks back and Older Tony just says, “Travel safe, yeah?”

“Will do.” Steve spares a thought for his counterpart in Older Tony’s timeline. Good luck to him, if he’s still alive. “And the same to you.”

That’s a decent warm-up. Steve then has his turn thanking and saying goodbye to Nebula and Gamora, the former confirming that she won’t be returning to 2023 with Older Tony.

“You don’t have to do that,” Gamora says in exasperation.

“You’re dead there, and my other self is dead here,” Nebula says matter-of-factly. “I’ll stay where and when I please.”

“It is her decision,” Steve says, while Gamora makes a face.

In this critical mass of chatter and goodbyes, Steve finally turns to Tony. His Tony, but only ‘his’ in the sense that this is the Tony of this universe and this timeline, and who will thankfully continue existing in Steve’s world. Steve dare not hope for too much, but his mistake doesn’t affect just the two of them; it also ties to the Avengers and everything else that spirals out from what the Avengers do. Steve needs to step up.

It’s in knowing this that Steve wills his fear away and finds Tony’s eye. He holds it through Tony’s startlement and uncertainty, and offers a hopeful, apologetic smile of his own.

“Tony,” Steve says. “Will we be okay?”

Tony opens his mouth, then closes it. He swallows. Eventually he says, “Yeah. Sure.”

That’s good enough. Steve almost says that Tony can yell at him all he wants, but this isn’t the setting for it – that’d have to wait until they’re back on Earth.

At long last the six of them step into the Bifrost: Steve, Tony, Natasha, Bruce, Carol, and Clint.

A rush of magic, and then they land, some of them gasping harder than others.

“I still say that they should make a ride of that,” Clint says.

Heimdall had them land on the Avengers Tower helipad. Steve’s first reaction is relief that the Tower is still mostly in one piece, and that the city around them was not too adversely affected by the Maw’s attack. His next reaction is fond amusement: at Clint’s declaration that he’s taking the whole week off, and Carol’s reply that, sure, he can do that, or he can follow her, Bruce and Natasha in visiting Fury and his cat.

“Fury doesn’t have a cat,” Clint says.

“You’re not wrong,” Carol says. “You’re not right, either.”

Meanwhile, Tony quietly slips away, one hand over his shoulder in a wave that only Bruce and Steve sees. Then he’s gone, and Steve doesn’t know whether to be relieved or not.

 

+

 

The Avengers Tower is quiet. It’s night time, and Steve is alone in the war room, the touchscreen table and screens in front of him alight with maps, numbers and names. Steve has a bag of chips and a bowl of dip with him, and he partakes of both as he reviews the data. Music from his playlist fills the room at a low enough volume to not distract from his reading.

Steve’s been at this for a while. The Tower’s been quiet the whole day since the others left post-return from Asgard, which just gave Steve the opportunity to rest, refresh and work out, and now dive right back into it.

The early evening was mostly spent catching up on the news. Natasha had released a press statement following the Maw’s appearance over New York, but it seems this has kicked a new wave of concern about Earth’s space capabilities, and may just result in a massive synergy of space programs across the world. That would be really cool.

Now Steve’s browsing the list of projects that the Avengers still have open. He’s deep into it, sparing only enough side energy to feed the chips into his mouth as he reads.

Two firm knocks at the doorway startle and raise Steve’s head. It’s Tony, back in Earth clothes of a dark shirt and jacket, no tie, and slacks. Steve feels a little underdressed in his shirt and jeans, but that isn’t new, either. Tony’s hands are in his pockets as he saunters in.

“Watcha doing?” Tony says, peering at the table.

“Trying to trace von Strucker,” Steve says. “There’s some movements that are promising, so I’m drafting some messages to request—”

“Is that dip?” Tony slides past and makes a face at the bowl Steve has up on the table. “Store bought? Come on, Steve.”

“I like it,” Steve says cautiously. Does this mean everything’s back to normal? Will they never talk about what happened, just like they don’t talk about other things – Tony’s holding his hand, the occasional awkward pauses when their conversations steer to the too personal, those too-sharp barbs they threw at each other the first time in the hellicarrier? “My tastebuds are simple.”

“They sure are.” Tony perches at the edge of the table, blocking a handful of articles that Steve has open. “So.”

“So.”

“What a trip, huh?” Tony says.

“Yeah. That’s one to remember.”

“Speaking of things to remember, were you never going to tell me about my parents?”

Steve takes a breath. “I know, I’m sorry, I should have. I don’t have any excuse.”

“Au contraire, I think you have plenty of excuses.”

“Excuses to myself,” Steve says. “I guess I thought… that the right moment would come, eventually. That I’d figure out how to tell you.”

“Hard to drop that into a conversation,” Tony agrees. “Couldn’t find as much about it in the SHIELD dump as I hoped, either. How’s the search for Barnes?”

“Slow-going.”

“We’ll work on that,” Tony says, the use of ‘we’ making Steve’s heart leap a little. It’s not all lost then, perhaps. “What about the other thing you weren’t going to tell me?”

Steve almost says: what other thing. Tony even sees Steve almost say it, because he smirks, his eyes knowing but just as guarded. Steve leaps on that and says, as casually as he can, “You know how it is. It doesn’t – it won’t get in the way, I promise. You must be used to it, right?”

“Used to you having feelings for me?” Tony says.

A shiver rattles its way up Steve’s spine at Tony saying that so openly. “You get strong reactions from everyone who knows you,” Steve reminds him. “This isn’t any different from that.”

“Isn’t it?”

“Of course not.”

Tony pulls his hands out from his pockets. Steve inhales sharply when he sees what Tony’s holding: the red and yellow flower he’d left behind on Asgard, in rather worse condition but still recognizable. Steve is struck by the terrifying possibility of Tony following him down that corridor and seeing him on the steps feeling sorry for himself, but that terror is instantly less important than Tony’s putting that flower on the table now, casual as anything. Surely – surely – Tony doesn’t mean to be cruel, for he is a lot of things but not that.

“Back when we were on Drez-Lar,” Tony says. “There was a moment, I thought I was imagining it, but… Were you going to kiss me?”

“No,” Steve says immediately.

Tony raises an eyebrow. “Were you thinking about kissing me?”

“I… yes.”

Tony nods. It’s difficult to read his face, though there’s a deliberateness in the way he’s holding himself next to Steve, his hip cocked and one foot one in front of him. Instead of being stiff and closed off, he seems to be putting a pointed effort into seeming relaxed and indifferent, which just makes Steve’s anxiousness ratchet up. He hates it when Tony puts on a front, let alone when it’s for him.

Then Tony turns, his whole body angled towards Steve. One of his hands comes up to rest on Steve’s arm.

Steve jolts back sharply. A touch should just be a touch, but Tony never ever touches him like that. “What are you doing?”

Tony pulls his hand back and sighs. “I’m trying to… Look, I may have a variety of moves when it comes to making a pass at people, but you’re kind of outside my comfort zone.”

Steve stares. “Why are you… You marry Pepper.”

“Uh, what?”

“In the future, you marry Pepper. I asked him. The future you.”

“Future me,” Tony echoes. “You mean future me who was beat by Thanos, as opposed to me me who did not get beat by Thanos, and in fact got to kick Thanos’s ass to literal dust a couple of years ahead of schedule? That’s what you mean, right?”

“That’s…” Steve shakes his head, trying to clear it. “That’s not really related—”

“Sure it is,” Tony says patiently. “That Tony has his life. It played out a certain way. My life is going to be different. Hell, it already is. I know it’s confusing, but I can draw a diagram—”

“I understand cause-and-effect,” Steve snaps. He doesn’t mean to lose his temper, but Tony’s pulling up a window on the screen right now to actually draw a diagram. “Tony, I get it! I know about the butterfly effect, okay.”

“Do you? Because Pepper’s just one thing—”

“You need to stop,” Steve says angrily. “Right now, stop. I know this is just how you are, but it’s not funny, and I’m not in the mood.”

Tony blinks, startled. “I’m not… what? This is just how I am, what?”

“Making light of things,” Steve says. “I appreciate it, I really do, but this isn’t funny to me at all. So if you could just – if you could never mention it ever again—”

“I don’t think this is funny,” Tony says in bewilderment. “What’s funny?”

“How I feel,” Steve says sharply. “I know, ha ha, Steve Rogers has a crush on you, let’s have fun with that because if we do, that means we both know it’s not important and it won’t be awkward when we have to keep working together.”

Steve realizes he’s shaking – with anger, yes, definitely anger – and wills himself to stop.

Tony’s staring at him. He says quietly, “Is that what you think I think?”

The question and its honest confusion throws Steve. He feels his hackles rising, in the way Tony always seems to be able to get out of him whenever he least expects it. “Hell if I know. Am I wrong again? I keep doing that, don’t know why I keep trying.”

Steve shifts away, but Tony grabs his arm. Not a gentle touch of earlier, but a full-on grab, hand tight and urgent around his forearm to keep him here. Tony winds around Steve, forcing them back face-to-face just when Steve would rather tap out.

“Trying, Steve?” Tony says. “You’ve been… trying?”

“Of course I’ve been trying,” Steve says sharply. What’s the worst that can happen now, really. “I don’t understand your references or science or everything it is you do, but I’ve been trying to catch up.”

“But not… because you want to be with me,” Tony says slowly.

“Is it so bad to want to be your friend? That you can relax around me, talk to me when you have ideas, that you can trust me with your…” And Steve remembers with full clarity what he’d kept from Tony, and realizes that that’s the crux of why it was never going to happen. “Yeah, I guess that is pathetic.”

“That’s not the word I’d use at all,” Tony says, sounding breathless. “This is, uh… This is very unexpected, and I’m still kind of… When you said feelings, I didn’t realize it meant feelings. I’m trying to wrap my head around this.”

“Because it’s me, right?”

“Yeah, this is kind of blowing my mind!”

“I was never going to tell you!”

“Can you just stop!” Tony exclaims. “This is blowing my mind because I had no idea this was going on with you. You have Natasha and Wilson and – and I know life’s been hard but you’ve always seemed like you had it all under control. I’m the hot mess who was never meant to be an Avenger in the first place, and you’re – I grew up to stories of you, and what on earth would someone like that ever want to do with me, aside from needing me on their team?”

Steve inhales sharply. His hands are still shaking, and his puts them on the glass table to steady them. “Did I make you feel like that? I – I did, didn’t I.”

“No, no! It’s more on me, that was my – I had trouble separating it, when I really should’ve… It’s not like there’s a handbook on how to work with a living legend.”

“I hate that term,” Steve says quietly. “Living legend. As if I’m not human, I guess. I don’t have doubts or fears, and I definitely never ever get to be happy.”

It’s only when Steve fist hits the glass does he realize what he’s done. He’d moved without thinking, his fist coming down on the table with that last word – happy – and now said table has a spider crack clear across one side, with a chunk of the corner outright shattered into pieces now on the floor.

Steve stares at the glass in horror. As soon as he recovers, he moves – runs – to the store room to fetch a broom, dustpan and vacuum. When he returns, Tony’s crouched on the floor with a dustbin and paper.

They work silently together in clearing up the mess. Steve feels awful, but he can’t bring it in himself to tell Tony to stop. An order feels ill-fitting now, after the conversation they’ve just had.

“Time for an upgrade, anyway,” Tony says.

Steve doesn’t laugh, but he does use the vacuum to make sure that even the finest pieces are clear. When he’s done, he’s even sweating slightly down the back of his shirt, though that wasn’t all that strenuous.

Tony hasn’t left. He’s still standing there, albeit now leaning against another, unbroken portion of the table.

“You want to get something to eat?” Tony says.

“I have—”

“Chips and salsa don’t count.”

Steve clenches his jaw and shakes his head. “I don’t think so.”

“You know how you said you’ve been trying?” Tony says. “I’m giving that a shot now. I’m trying. So! Do you want to get something to eat? With me. Oh, full disclaimer – the being friends thing sounds cool, but I want to try the other one, too.”

Steve sighs. “I’m not interested in being a pit stop between now and whenever you go back to Pepper.”

“Why are you so sure that’s going to happen? Because it happened for him?” Tony smiles, and although it must be a trick of light, his eyes seem to sparkle. “He never tried this, though, did he? Our universe is different, and you know it.

“You don’t even like me all that much,” Steve murmurs.

“Want to bet?” Tony pushes himself away from the table and approaches.

Steve stops breathing. Tony has that look – the look of stubbornness and determination, the traits that Steve so deeply admires even as they often frustrate the hell out of him. Tony comes to stand in front of Steve, and although his steps were smooth, his hands hesitate, hovering in the air before coming to a tentative rest on Steve’s upper arms.

Steve doesn’t really believe he’s going to do it. It’s just one of Tony’s jokes. Pushed a little far, maybe, but any moment now he’s going to pull away, and everything will go back to normal, and Steve will just want and want and want from a distance, because he’s becoming an expert at that.

Tony’s really close now, his eyes and nose and mouth right there. Any moment now he’ll turn his face, or jerk back or—

Or he could just press his lips against Steve’s.

At first, Steve doesn’t understand what’s happening. There’s a second or two of incomprehension, following which Tony pulls back to give him an unimpressed look, and then leans back in again. The second kiss trickles into Steve’s consciousness as an actual kiss, and he makes a startled sound at the back of his throat.

Tony pulls back a little, though he stays close enough that his breath is warm on Steve’s lips. “Hi,” he says softly.

“But,” Steve says. “Really?”

“Yeah.” Tony ducks his head for a second, almost embarrassed, but surely Tony is never embarrassed. “Yeah, how about that.” He sways forward again, and this time Steve’s lips are parted to receive him.

There’s a lot going on in Steve’s head – disbelief at what’s happening, fear that this is just a dream and he’s going to wake up any second, amazement at learning the way Tony’s lips taste and feel. The kisses are slow and languid and careful, until Steve slides a hand to the back of Tony’s neck and then their mouths are slotting firmly against each other. Tony’s tongue dips past Steve’s slack lips, bold and sexy in stealing the warmth from Steve’s mouth.

Hope flickers back to life in Steve’s chest, fragile but apparently persistent. Maybe. Maybe.

When they stop – for they do, eventually, stop – they’re both breathing hard and Tony’s hands are squeezed tight around Steve’s biceps. Steve isn’t all that keen on letting Tony go just yet, though he can’t quite form the words. He drums his fingers nervously on Tony’s waist, but Tony just waits for him, head tilted patiently.

“I… could I?” Steve asks.

It takes the press of a finger against Tony’s waist before he understands. When he does, Tony lets himself be pulled back in, his arms moving around Steve’s back and head resting politely on Steve’s shoulder. Steve holds Tony tight, hands knotted at the small of Tony’s back, and breathes. It feels amazing. Steve could sob at the relief of it – though he retains enough sense of mind to change the sob to a less embarrassing sigh.

Tony’s grinning when Steve finally lets go. “You liked that better than the making out, huh?”

“Maybe, or maybe not,” Steve says. “More testing is necessary, I think.”

“Oh wow.” Tony laughs, delightful and open and reachable, the way Steve’s always dreamed. He draws back and holds a hand out, fingers curled in the air. “Come on.”

Steve looks at him, and then back at his work. He darts to the table, but only long enough to grab the chips and bowl, which he will drop off at the kitchen on the way.

“Lights out, JARVIS, thank you,” Steve says, as he follows Tony out of the room.