Tony breathes out hard through his nose.
"Alright, Stark," Strange says. "I imagine this isn't going to be entirely pleasant, but you're going to have to tough it out. We're already nearly out of range of the dimension I need to draw energy from."
"Great," Tony says. "Better do it quick, then."
The prison ship they're on has very uncomfortable floors. Tony knows, because he's been sitting on one for the past forty-eight hours, while they zipped at eight times lightspeed away from earth. He knows how fast the ship was going, because before they took his suit and jettisoned it into space, Friday took some doubletime-readings. He can't quite remember all the numbers, but he remembers that one, because it's the one that means they're all alone on this one.
"Remember," Strange says, "focus on two people. They have to be connected to each other, as well as to you."
Pepper and Rhodey, Tony's brain offers. He grabs onto the thought, and tries to solidify it, like Strange wants. Pepper and Rhodey, Pepper and Rhodey, Pepper and Rhodey.
"Hold onto them in your mind," Strange says.
"Got it, doc."
"Alright. Here we go."
Pepper and Rhodey, Tony thinks insistently. His brain shapes a vague sense of safety, friendship, lots of hungover mornings and lonely nights in a cave comforted by the memory of their faces. Pepper and Rhodey.
"The loop is forming now," Strange says, voice steely. Maybe this is what his bedside used to be like. Tony thinks it leaves something to be desired. "You should feel it."
Tony does-- like an insistent burning at the back of his mind, an encroaching hollowness that feels like it needs to be filled by something. Pepper and Rhodey, he thinks, as it tugs, and yawns, and swallows his skull whole. It burns, and he squeezes his eyes shut, but that's only darkness not relief, so he opens them, grits his teeth.
"Hold onto them," Strange says.
The exhausted fingers of Tony's mind scrabble for purchase on Pepper's red hair and Rhodey's smile and the sharp security of her heels clicking on the floor and the warmth of his big hands on the back of Tony's head. He grasps, but they're like sand between his fingers.
"The loop is solidifying," Strange grits out.
Steve and Bucky, goes Tony's brain.
"God damn it," says Strange. Tony's eyes clear-- he focuses on Strange's face, the solemn draw of his mouth. The burning is gone, the hollow feeling replaced by the old familiar overcrowdedness of too many equations.
"What?" Tony asks, when he figures out how his mouth works again. "Did the loop form?"
"We passed out of range," Strange says. He drags a hand over his face, and pushes up to his feet, pacing away from the energy bars and back into his own cell. "It was nearly formed, but..."
Tony lays back and lets his head thunk against the floor. His sunglasses fall down over his eyes. The engine of this great beast hums somewhere, deep underneath him. "Well then," he says, forcing casual optimism into his voice for the sake of the doctor, who he's pretty sure has never been kidnapped by evil aliens before. "On to plan B."
"What's plan B?"
"Don't know yet," Tony says. "But I'll figure something out. Not to worry, doc."
It's the middle of the night, and Tony and Strange have been missing for fifty-one hours.
The compound is silent and dark, cool breeze breathing through the open window. Steve hasn't been sleeping great. He admires Bucky's ability to sleep on demand no matter the circumstances in the world around him. He's sprawled across the other side of the bed, metal arm hung over the edge, chest rising and falling easily. Steve would love to throw an arm across his stomach and sink his head into his shoulder and drift off, but he can't.
All he can think is that he hasn't seen Tony smile for months. And now-- well, now.
Steve pushes up out of bed. The sheets slide away from him. Bucky stirs, but doesn't wake, a soft sound moving in his chest. Steve should feel guilty, he thinks, to be thinking of Tony in their marital bed. But he can't find it in him, right now, to do anything other than imagine both of them. Tangled in the sheets, skin warm and smooth, lips still kissed wet, waiting for him.
He turns and pads to the panoramic window across the room.
Moonlight dusts the top of the trees aorund the compound, a silver sheen over the landscape. Steve can see his own eyes in the reflection of the glass, and he thinks he looks-- old, for the first time.
Something burns in his head. He rubs his eyes, and starts to turn back to bed, but--
The burning intensifies, like it's hollowing out the inside of his skull. He steadies himself with a hand on the window, opens his mouth to wake Bucky, but he's already sitting up in bed, brow scrunched.
"You feel it too, Stevie?" he rasps.
"Yeah," Steve says. The burning intensifies, and he squeezes his eyes shut, a hand going to his forehead. "What is this? Are we under attack?"
Bucky staggers out of bed, knocking into the bedside table. "If it's a psionic attack it's strong enough to break through Wanda's wards," Bucky says tightly, "we should-- "
Just as quickly as it started, the feeling disappears.
Steve's left with a strange tingling sensation in his head. He straightens out his shoulders, and meets Bucky's eyes. His husband seems to be experiencing the same unexpected relief that Steve is, but he looks more confused about it than happy. He starts, "Maybe the wards-- "
Fucking aliens, says Tony.
Steve jumps about a foot in the air. Bucky looks like a cat that's just been doused in water, which is usually what he looks like when something he didn't see coming happens. "Did you-- " Steve says.
"Yeah," Bucky says. "What the hell?"
The sentiment echoes in Steve's head.
Plan B, Tony says, absently. Plan B, plan b, come on, Stark. They jettisoned my fucking suit. How dare they. Wish I had a fucking calculator, my head hurts after that loop thing. Come oooooon, plan B.
Steve and Bucky lock eyes. "Aliens," Steve says. "Chitauri?"
They never leave earth without making a mess, Bucky says without moving his mouth, and then out loud, he says, "I don't think so."
Steve narrows his eyes at him. "Buck," he says. "Can you hear my-- " he points at his head.
Bucky pales. "Yeah," he says. "Hold on, does that mean you can hear me?" Steve nods. Bucky drags the metal hand through his hair-- the fingers snag, and he yanks them out brutally. "I think we should probably call a team meeting."
He really does think that. He also thinks fucking hell, and I miss when all we had to deal with were mad scientists and despots. Steve can hear him, but he thinks reminding him to watch his swearing is probably more of an invasion of privacy than either of them needs to deal with right now.
"I'm not watching my language in my own head, Stevie," Bucky grouses.
Right. This is going to be bumpy. "Let's call that team meeting."
"I've been reading," Strange started, which had failed to instill any confidence in Tony. A lot of interdimensional debacles started with Strange reading. "I think I can finagle a closed telepathic loop between three fixed points. Or, two fixed points, and a third moving one. Then we can communicate with people on earth."
Tony was trying to find a seam or a screw or anything in the walls of the cell, to no avail. The walls were perfectly fucking smooth. "Go ahead," he said. "Knock yourself out."
"Well," Strange said. "I would, only-- I can't do it on myself."
Tony tipped down his sunglasses. "You're not fucking around in my head, doc. I've had people in there before, and I'm not super duper keen on it."
"I'm not going to be in your head," Strange said. He was sweaty and shirtless, pacing the small space of his adjacent cell. In other circumstances-- if they weren't captives, or if Tony weren't already ruined for all other men by just the idea of Steve and Bucky-- he might have been feeling a little tight in the pants. As it was, nothing. "I just need to manipulate your psionic energies, a bit."
The walls were smooth, and Tony didn't have anything else to go on, so he dropped his search, and said, "Alright, Houdini. Let's give it a whirl."
The team does not look at all happy to have been woken at four thirty in the morning.
Bucky knows half of them would have been up in less than an hour, anyways, but sometimes it's that extra handful of minutes that really brings you to full awareness. As it is, the only really awake people in the room are him and Nat. Well, also Steve, but-- given the circumstances, Bucky understands why he's suddenly restless. He feels that old wartime desire to take all his people somewhere safe, take Steve back to bed and ignore the rest of the world.
Kiss away the worry lines at the edges of Steve's mouth, and--
Steve looks at him sharply. Bucky shuts down that train of thought. Not yet, he hears, from Steve.
The captain turns to his assembled team, in various stages of shifting from sleepwear to morning workout clothes. "Tony was taken by aliens," Steve delivers crisply. "Probably along with Strange."
"Wanda," Bucky interjects, "we're gonna need you to verify this one."
Wanda frowns, bundled up in one of Vision's silk dressing gowns. "What? Why me?"
"Well," Steve hedges, "the way Buck and I found out, is-- "
Goin' up to the spirit in the sky, Tony sings, godawful and way off-key. That's where I'm gonna go when I die. When I die and they lay me to rest, gonna go to the place that's the best.
Bucky smiles. "On second thought," he says. "That might not be necessary." It's definitely Tony, he feels it in his gut, and he knows Steve can feel it to.
Tony figures out plan B by turning over and laying on his side.
The energy bars lining the mostly-empty prison whir. Strange is doing some complicated dumb-looking hand motions in the next cell, cross-legged and intensely focused on dimensional chakra energie or somesuch fuckery. Tony, on the other hand, is doing something useful. He's--
"For God's sake, Stark," Strange snaps. "Haven't you been napping long enough? Are you honestly changing positions? Do some sit ups, or something, you ass."
"Joke's on you, Criss Angel," Tony says. "I've been doing kegels this whole time."
Strange snorts a laugh, then seems to think better of it and turns it into a disgusted gurgling sound. Tony grins, and presses his ear harder to the smooth floor. "Kegels are for women," Strange says.
"That's what you think, doc," Tony says. "They enhance pelvic flexibility. That's why you can't seem to hold onto your girl-- what is it? Plumber? Pewter? Parker?"
"Palmer," Strange says, and god, even his voice sounds fond. Does Tony sound like that, when he's talking about Steve and Bucky? "Christine Palmer. Sorry, Doctor Christine Palmer." There's a long, quiet moment, when Tony can actually hear. He sits up. "What are you doing, Stark?"
Tony climbs to his feet, finds the spot where the humming was higher-pitched, and kicks it with his heel. The floor feels thinner, here. "Finding the circuitry. Plotting bloody revenge on the fuckers that left my suit in deep space for anyone and their fucking mother to find."
He jumps as high as he can, and comes down hard on the spot. It doesn't budge. He tries again. Again. Again. Again. Strange clears his throat. Tony turns. The doc raises his eyebrows.
"Right," Tony says. "Plan b, subsection 2. You don't happen to have a long wire on you somewhere, do you?" Strange just stares at him. "Right. Here goes."
He kicks off his shoes, pulls off his socks, puts his sunglasses on top of the pile. "Stark," Strange says, an edge in his voice like he already knows what Tony's going for. "We can sit tight and-- "
"No one's coming after us," Tony says. "Even if they were, they don't even know where we fucking are. We don't even know where we are."
Strange doesn't argue. Tony huffs out a breath, rubs his hands together. "You might have to carry me out of here. Don't leave me, doc. I'll sue you for malpractice. From beyond the grave."
He plants one bare foot on the spot on the ground. Turns, stretches, and-- grabs the energy bar.
Steve has never tried so hard not to think about something in his life.
Commanding his team while he has Tony's voice in his head-- not to mention Bucky's-- is the most difficult thing Steve has ever done. It's a balancing act, and Steve has never been a graceful maneuverer-- that's Bucky's strong suit. Steve has always preferred more of an honest, blunt force approach to interpersonal relations. So instead of trying to balance it anymore, he drags Bucky into an empty strategy room.
He doesn't want Bucky to hear it from his brain and not his husband. If that makes any sense.
"Buck," he says. "Listen, I-- Tony. I'm worried about him."
Bucky has his hair drawn up in a sloppy bun on top of his head, he's got deep circles under his eyes, one of Steve's grey t-shirts on, that he probably didn't even notice wasn't his, because all of their stuff smells the same, now, and-- Steve loves him, painfully, but he also loves--
"I know," Bucky says.
Steve sighs, and drops his head in his hand. The sun is just starting to turn orange outside, bleeding through the thick bulletbroof window panes. "No you don't," he says. "You don't know. Bucky, he's-- I'm worried about him, the same way I worry about you, because I-- "
"I know," Bucky says.
Steve looks up at him. Bucky's gazing steadily back, eyes tired and fond, and Steve doesn't have to search their newly-minted shared headspace, because he's old hat at searching Bucky's face. He knows.
"Jesus, Buck," Steve says. "When we get him back-- "
"Yeah," Bucky interrupts, voice warm and easy.
There's a knock on the door. They turn, as Wanda pokes her head in. When she sees they're decent, she pushes the rest of the way in. She's fully-dressed, now, in jeans and a warm-looking turtleneck, hair braided back, because Vision likes to braid. "Hey, guys," she says. "So, I probed the link."
She drops a notepad on the table. It's got a confusing drawing of a lot of lines, of different widths, connecting three points. "You're gonna have to translate this," Bucky says.
"So, from what I can tell, remotely," she points at one of the points, further from the other two. "Here's Tony, wherever he is. It's a loop, with two anchor points." Her eyes flick up to them. "You two."
"What are we anchoring him to?" Steve asks.
"Not to anything, really," Wanda says. "You're the stable end of the link. Like, home base, sort of, and Tony's a satellite. It's a communicaiton loop, so in theory you can all hear each-other."
"In theory?" Bucky probes.
"Yeah," Wanda says. "I'm going to guess you've already tried thinking at Tony? Like a conversation?" Steve and Bucky nod. While they can think to each-other, they haven't gotten anything back from Tony yet. "Right," Wanda expected that answer. "The links going from you guys-- the anchor points-- to Tony, they're not as well-formed. Like they were cut off too soon."
She points to two of the weaker-drawn lines. "Basically, you can hear him, but he can't hear you."
"Can you strengthen it?" Steve asks.
Wanda shakes her head. "I don't even know how it got put together. Strange's dimension-tapping show is a little different from what I do. Plus, he's way out of range of me."
Steve glances at Bucky, to find his husband already looking back. Wanda looks between them, something in her eyes sad. "Hey," she says. "It's better than nothing, right? Now we know where to start looking for him."
"Yeah," Bucky says, sarcastically. "Space. Really narrows it down."
Glad I left the arc reactor at home, Tony says. Bucky looks at Steve, panicked. Steve itches to reach out and touch him, but he knows it wouldn't be enough. This would definitely definitely definitely kill me if I still had the arc reactor in. 50/50 shot. That's not bad. I've had much worse. C'mon.
Don't leave me, doc. I'll sue you for malpractice. From beyond the grave.
Tony spends a few tense hours scorching his hands in the alien circuitbox, and then he and Strange make their daring escape, only to discover that the fucking ship is unmanned.
"It's an insult, really," Tony gripes, frantically tapping at the ship's control board. He hits the right button, and all the guard drones collapse like marionettes with their strings cut. "Two world-class superheroes, and you can't even send real-live evil baddies to guard us."
Strange hums noncomitally. "How's navigation coming?"
He's been rather unimpressed by Tony's technological prowess so far. Tony's losing the energy to be amazing. "Well, their language looks like a toddler was trying to finger paint ancient Greek," he says. "And earth's coordinates are no where in the database. And I tried, like-- eight different numbering systems." He taps a smudge of fingerpaint writing. "But-- looks like we're scheduled to arrive at our permanent destination in-- t-minus fifteen."
Strange pins him with a look. "Where's the hangar bay? They've got to store all the inmates' ships somewhere."
"Good thinking, Houdini. You sure you haven't done this before?" Tony does his best to navigate the mess of a system, and finds-- there. "Looks like we've got our pick of the litter. 87 ships in holding."
"I'm assuming you can figure out how to fly one," Strange says, as they exit the command booth. The halls are filled with collapsed drones, and the back of Tony's neck tingles.
"Of course I can," Tony says. "No bathroom breaks, Strange, but we're stopping to pick up my suit."
"Good," Strange says. "They jettisoned my sling ring with it."
They make it down to the hangar with thirteen mintues to go, pick a ship with only five left to launch it, spit out into deep space with a certain lack of finesse that Tony will never admit to, narrowly miss a guard ship coming to meet the prison transport, and barrel in entirely the wrong direction for six hours before Tony can figure out the positioning system. When he does get it working, it churns out pages and pages of data, which Strange just watches from his exhausted slump.
Tony tears the pages-- real, old fashioned paper, on a spaceship-- out of the feeder, and drops back down in the pilot's seat. "Shit," he says.
"What?" asks Strange. "How far away are we?"
"Well," Tony drags a hand over his eyes. The spaceship that they picked-- because it looked closest to something Tony's seen before-- is tiny, barely enough room for the cockpit and the engine and one bunk in the back that somehow doubles as a stove. "We might have to make a few bathroom breaks."
"Stark," Strange says, flatly. "How far?"
"Months," Tony says. "At the rate this ship can handle. We must've gone through a couple wormholes on the way out. If we can find them, we'll speed up, but-- if we go through the wrong one-- "
"Shit," Strange says.
They don't find him, but they keep looking. And they still hear him.
They lie awake, tangled in bed, warm and hazy and plagued by a lingering sense of wrongness, while the rain pours outside the open window and their skins are sticky with humidity, but Tony's voice is like a raw, twisting wound, I just want to go home, please somebody take me home-- stop. Stop. Idiot.
No one's coming to take you home. You have to get yourself there. You have to get yourself home, and then you're going to dust off my empty mansion, and get Friday booted back up, and sign a shit ton of backlog paperwork sitting in your inbox, and drink all the coffee in America. And then-- a cold empty bed. That's what you've got to go back to.
Steve feels Bucky roll over in bed, press a kiss to his bare shoulder. "He's coming back," Bucky murmurs. "He's gonna come back."
Steve swallows. "I know," he says, but he knows Bucky can feel his hopelessness, the small part of his soul he never shows anyone. "I just wish he'd get here sooner, Buck."
A cold empty bed, Tony reiterates. Unless you fill it. With-- no. Not gonna happen. Idiot.
Who knew space had so many not-evil people in it? Tony didn't.
What's more-- who knew Stephen Strange would be such a great drinking buddy? Tony's going to have to take him out when they get back to earth. Whatever alien alcohol they're drinking has to be like three times the proof of earth vodka, and still, the doc is slamming them back with the best of them. The best of them, in this case, being a red pig-shaped alien the size of a house.
If he tilts his head and squints at it sideways, Tony thinks this whole fiasco looks sort of like his spring break, junior year at MIT. Only worse, and deep-space-ier. And with decidedly fewer cock fights.
Bucky's in the shower, and Tony's thinking about wedding rings.
Nice wedding. Who knew aliens used wedding rings. Universal symbol, huh. Never meant anything to Howard, Tony's thoughts are tinged with an edge of resentment, if that's even possible, but it's the old, healed-over kind of hurt. They mean something to Pepper and Happy. And that's an old hurt too, but this one's still fresh:
They mean a fuckton to Bucky and Steve. Course they do. Old-fashioned style, til death do us part. Must be nice. Having someone to glue you back together.
Bucky smiles vaguely under the spray.
Not you, though, Anthony. Bucky's smile slips away. C'mon, be realistic. Not even mom cared enough to stitch you back together. No one in the world-- look, you've seen the whole universe, now, pretty much. A lot of it, at least. Semantics. Whatever. Anyway.
You're the only one who's always gonna be there. You're just like dad. No matter what mask you put on, they all see through it. No one wants you wearing a wedding ring.
Bucky nearly tears the glass door off the shower.
No one out here knows I'm a killer, Tony thinks, wistfully.
Steve chokes on his coffee.
Well, Tony thought-sighs, the only way out is through. If I get skewered, I get skewered.
Bucky crushes a Glock in his hand.
This asshole raccoon thing is fucking great. Maybe we can replace Clint.
It's a flesh wound. It's a flesh wound. It's a flesh wound. It's-- fuck. Ow, fucking ow.
Steve puts down the crate he's carrying and leans heavily on it. Tony's voice in his head is choked up, a hard knot in his chest, like he's trying not to sob. Steve ducks his head, and desperately wants Bucky's hands on his shoulders, even more desperately wants to touch Tony, lightyears away.
Don't, don't, don't. Come on. Stark men don't cry. It's a flesh wound. Don't fucking-- you haven't cried in years. It's just an alien spear thing. Just-- yank it out. Yank it out, yeah.
There's an inhale, and a moment of breathless silence, and then:
No no no no no no shit-- don't touch it, don't touch it. Okay. Fuck. Fuck. Ow. Stop breathing. Breathe less. Okay. No one's coming to help you. You have to help Strange, and the raccoon thing. And the sprout. Okay. Breathe. Less-- breathe less. On three.
Steve's eyes sting.
I want to go home. I want to go home. I want to go home. I want--
Bucky pulls Steve down behind a ruined shopfront. Gunfire pounds past the building outside, but Bucky couldn't care less. Steve's hand is a vicegrip on his arm.
I want-- no. Shit, okay. SteveandBucky. Safetyteamsteadywarm. I just want--
They upgrade ships after they meet the raccoon asshole and the tree thing.
Whatever it is they help them out with, it earns them a hefty sum of space cash. Tony's cobbled together an exosuit from spare parts that works pretty well and is space-proof. Strange is doing this thing now where he sort of just punches people into other dimensions. It's badass. It also makes Tony wary of living in a one-cot ship with him.
So they go all out on something with two bunks. They're only five feet long each, but they're private, and that's a step up from the four months they just did in the same room together.
Certain areas of Tony's, uh... bodily health have been seriously neglected.
Steve wakes up sweaty and panting.
Next to him, Bucky is already wide awake-- not to mention rock-hard, grinding against his palm through his sweatpants. Steve turns his head on the pillow, and meets his husband's eyes, and-- there's a heady, tight feedback loop in his head, and it's not just Bucky--
It's Tony. The tight coil in his gut, the breathless twist in his chest, the hot pressure in the small of his back, behind his knees, between his shoulders.
Steve moves at the same time Bucky does, and then they're kissing, biting, and Steve's hands are in Bucky's pants and around the length of him before their tongues have even touched, and Bucky's metal fingers dig into Steve's ass through his sleep pants, his mouth moves to Steve's throat, and--
Tony's thinking about them. Just-- them. Steve yanking him off roughly, Bucky wrapped around his back, rocking into him, Tony's head thrown back on Bucky's shoulder so Steve can drag his lips over Tony's neck, his jaw, latch onto his bottom lip, and--
He thinks they would be rough. He thinks Bucky would bend him over and press his face into the mattress and fuck into him in ragged, punishing strokes-- he thinks Steve would pull his hair, buck into his mouth, until Tony choked on it, he thinks--
Bucky comes in Steve's hand, bites into the meat of his shoulder. Steve drops his head on the pillow, and Bucky shifts and raises his thigh to grind into him, and Steve rolls his hips and gets off like that, Tony in his head.
He thinks they would leave him bruised. They would use him, and toss him aside.
Steve's hands are gentle on Bucky's face, soothing the hair out of his face. His lips are gentle on Bucky's mouth, on his chin, but it's not enough.
I could learn a lot out here, Tony says. A universe of science I've never seen.
Bucky pauses with his fork halfway to his mouth. Next to him, he feels Steve tense up. Across the table, Nat watches them calculatingly.
Maybe I don't need to go home. I could stay here.
Old man, Tony thinks, resigned, looking in a mirror. This could be my sea. Space, the final frontier.
Steve thinks as hard as he can: come home.
Not like anyone's waiting for me back on earth, anyways.
Steve puts his fist through a wall.
I've never died on this planet. Hey-- no one wants to kill me on this planet.
Bucky jogs to a halt. His feet sink in the sand. The sky is grey overhead, and the ocean is grey, and earth is a bad place to be, today. A seagull agrees.
Boring. Who wants to die of old age, anyways?
I miss Friday. I miss her at my back. She's no JARVIS, but-- shit.
Steve slices his finger open. He gets lemon juice in it, but it hurts less than:
JARVIS. I fucking loved-- but not even my own AI wants to hang around.
Holy tits. Three boobs on one alien. Or, hold on-- what do we have here? Three dicks on one alien. That could be a game changer.
Bucky's hands white-knuckle on the conference table. His metal fingers dig into the metal, and the whole thing rends. The team looks rather alarmed.
Steve's gone sheet-white at the front of the room. Bucky wrestles himself to his feet. "Excuse us," he grits out, through the furious tension in his whole fucking body. "We've got to go."
He yanks Steve out of the briefing room, down the hall, and into a supply closet.
Three dicks, Tony thinks. Fuck yes.
Steve shoves Bucky back into the door, seizes him by the hips, and growls mine into Bucky's neck. Bucky's fingernails scrape against the back of his neck, and Steve surges against him in a full-body roll, and Bucky grunts, "Ours."
Tony takes it back. This is much better than junior year spring break.
He's sampled a previously unimaginable variety of alien sexual companions. He's mapped the alien alcohol industry. He's gotten his hands in the circuitry of faster-than-light ships. He's set foot on planets no human has before. He's met a talking raccoon.
One of the raccoon's friends-- and what's with that, the raccoon has friends? Tony doesn't even have friends-- has an AC/DC cassette. Middle of deep space, and Tony's jamming to Back in Black, and welding a new gauntlet for his vacuum exosuit.
He and Strange decided unanimously yesterday to bet it all on a wormhole. Luckily, it paid off, and now they're only a week or so out of earth. Tony's not sure whether to feel happy or sad about that. He's gotten used to the voyager life, gotten used to Strange's personal brand of douchebag.
And what's he going back to? A team that doesn't trust him. A world that doesn't want him.
Lady Luck smiles on Tony and Strange.
They're not shot down by SHIELD's anti-alien measures onthe approach to earth. They're not even engaged in-atmo, even though they should probably have a fighter jet escort the second they breach American airspace. The familiar blue-green expanse of their home planet stretches miles beneath them, and Tony feels something stuck in his throat like happiness or nostalgia but not quite. Bittersweet.
"You know," Strange says. "You've never actually had to land this thing. Not on actual ground, at least. Are you sure you can-- "
"Shut up, Houdini," Tony orders. "This ship is like an extension of my chi, or whatever shit it is you spew. So just, sit tight and look pretty."
Strange smirks, but does as he's told. They get closer to the ground, probably alarming a lot of rural Virginians-- the green starts to separate into forests and fields, and then individual treetops. The boxy, modern form of the compound pokes out of the canopy ahead. People should be shooting at them, but they're not.
Tony puts the ship down on the front lawn. It's fine, he pays the landscapers.
For a long minute, neither of them move to leave. Tony turns to Strange, and after these six months, the doctor's weird, ugly face doesn't even look that otherworldly anymore. In fact, Tony's sort of fond of it. Strange's mouth twists in a wry smile, and he holds out his hand.
Tony shakes it. "It's been real, doc."
"There's no one I would've rather had an alien five-way with," Strange says, solemnly.
"It was a seven-way."
"Two of those tentacles were on one alien, Stark."
"Whatever," Tony dismisses. "I was drunk. That was the night with the thick purple shots. What was it called? Threshmabiminok-something?"
Strange chuckles. Tony feels himself grin a little too honestly, and knocks the sunglasses off his head over his eyes. "Good luck with Plumber," he says.
"I know you know her name," Strange says, just as--
Someone pounds on the loading ramp. They look back, through the body of the ship that's been there home these past months. The ramp won't open unless one of them pushes the button for it, and by the sound of the pounding going on, Tony's not inclined to acquiesce.
Strange, the traitor, goes over to the button. "Good luck with Becky and Sleeve," he says.
Tony's seriously considering taking back all that friendship stuff when he hits the button. Strange waves one more time, and steps off the ramp onto the grass, making room for-- Steve and Bucky to storm up the ramp into the cockpit. "Tony," Steve says. "Thank God."
Tony hops up to sit on the control panel. "Hey, guys. Long time, no-- "
"The loop worked," Bucky cuts him off.
Tony stares. His brain cycles through a million different tidbits of information, and land on-- the beginning of this whole debacle, on a prison transport. His blood runs cold. "What?"
"The loop," Steve says. He steps towards Tony, but Tony scoots away over the control panel without even thinking about it. "It was only functioning in one direction, so-- "
"You could hear what I was thinking." Tony looks between the supersoldiers crammed in his cockpit, at their gorgeous haggard faces, and tamps down on a swell of dread. "This whole time."
"Still," Bucky says, lowly.
"Still," Tony repeats. "Fuck."
He thinks of all those lonely nights in his bunk, tugging himself off to the vague idea of their hands on him, all those whirlwind numb nights out, wishing the cock stretching him open was Steve's, wishing one of the hands holding his wrists over his head was metal.
He thinks of the cloying, breathless panic of being alone on an alien planet, a spear stuck through his side, his one ally taken hostage, bending over a sink and willing the hot shameful tears away. He thinks of every time he woke up screaming, his mind left behind in a cave in Afghanistan, stuck underwater pinned by the rubble of his own home, facing down Ultron.
He thinks of being cast out in the cold by his father, by Pepper, by SHIELD, by his own stupidity. He doesn't want to hang around for Steve and Bucky to cast him out, too.
"Well," he pushes his sunglasses up on his nose, for something to do. "I'll just nab Strage before he takes off for New York, get him to undo all this hocus pocus, and I'll be outta your hair."
Tony hops off the control panel, and tries to push through them, but Steve catches him by the arm and holds him fast. Tony bristles-- he pulls off his sunglasses so he can stare Steve down with the full force of how exhausted he is.
"Look, Cap," he bites. "I don't have the energy for this argument. Can we shelve it for later?"
"No," says Bucky, from behind him. "This is somethin' we gotta do now, Stark."
Tony shakes himself loose of Steve's hold, but they don't let him go far. "Fine," he says. "Have at it. What's it gonna be? How I violated the sanctity of marriage with my thoughts? How irresponsible I've been? How I just should've stayed in space-- "
"Shut up," Bucky snaps, at the same time that Steve chokes, "Tony."
He glowers at them. He's already got that sunken, chilled feeling in his chest that means he's about to have his feelings butchered and left bleeding at his feet. He's ready. "C'mon, speed is of the-- "
"If you're goin' back out there," Bucky says, "you better take us with you."
Feeling rushes out of Tony's body. He stares at Bucky, his hair coming loose from his topknot, the reality of this beautiful man in track pants and a pullover, standing way too close to him. "What?" he says.
"Tony," Steve says. Tony's eyes move to him, and-- fuck, he's gorgeous. Golden-haired, and a few days without a shave, scruffy. "Please stop sleeping with aliens."
"I, uh-- I can't promise anything," Tony babbles. "Those ribbed dicks, you know-- "
"Stark," Bucky growls. Tony turns, and--
Bucky kisses him.
Tony staggers back, but Bucky's got big handfuls of his shirt, and Steve's at his other side, his fingers digging into Tony's back, and-- Bucky pulls back, moves on to his neck, and Tony's head falls back, and he has no idea what's happening, but Steve slams into his mouth in a punishing kiss, and Tony grabs onto him to stay upright, even with Bucky's arms around his waist, fingers curling into the shirt over Steve's abs, over the warm beat of Steve's heart.
Steve tilts his mouth away, lips dragging against Tony's, just far enough to murmur, "Your bed's empty."
Tony's heart drops out through the floor, and then thumps hard on:
"We're gonna fill it."