JSC, HTX. 2049.
Maria wasn’t sleeping well.
It was to be expected, given the circumstances, and the fact that she felt so helpless in whatever small part she had to play. She didn’t need to be told that nothing was her fault, that there was nothing she could’ve done differently to prevent this. She knew all of that. Yet, the fact that they’d left someone behind without even being able to confirm it, without question, sat like lead in her stomach. It kept her up at night, thinking about the fact that NASA, an organization that prided itself on scientific and technological advancements to propel the world into an enlightened age, had no safeguards if an EVA suit’s telemetry monitor or a landing site’s main communications tower failed. Now she was stuck in a waiting game over which she had no control, and she didn’t do well with not being in control.
And even if she were, she still wasn’t sure what could be done.
The morning dragged on until her phone buzzed, finally alerting her that Sharon was calling an urgent meeting. Maria was anticipating this, to finally hear back about what Wakanda would be willing to agree to, but the relief she expected to feel was displaced by cold dread, and every step she took towards the conference rooms seemed to amplify it.
It only took a few minutes for Nick and Everett to join them, despite how far away their offices were from this end of the building. Apparently, Maria hadn’t been the only one waiting.
“I’ve been on the phone with the WSA’s PR Chief for the past three hours,” Sharon announces, setting her tablet on the table to read through her notes. “The good news is that they’ve asked us to keep the situation classified and need-to-know, and I mean top-level clearance, which works in our favour, press-wise. We’re under embargo until the Dora Milaje reaches Mars and they’ve secured Barnes. Their on-board medical team will decide whether or not he needs to be taken out of cryo, or moved into one of their own cryo units, and they’ll perform any necessary medical treatments.”
Maria braces herself and asks, “how bad is the bad news?”
“Depends,” Sharon says with a sigh. “Barnes lands with them in Wakanda, dead or alive. If he survived, or survives, he recovers there before he can get sent home. The country isn’t going to like this. The government is going to hate it. He’s a beloved national hero, as far as everyone is concerned, and he’s not gonna touch down on American soil. Or splash down in American waters, I suppose.”
Everett shakes his head. “It doesn’t matter. We have to agree to their terms. This is a far better deal than we could’ve ever asked for. Wakanda is a superpower, no one would go after them. Their privacy is globally respected. If that can extend to us for a while, we should lock this down.”
“Are they going to send Barnes home?” Nick asks. “Or are we getting granted access to Wakanda for pick up?”
Maria sits up, the stress finally bubbling over. “Wait, does this confidentiality agreement mean we can’t tell the Insight III crew?”
“Tell them what, Maria?” Everett asks, exasperated.
“You don’t think they deserve to know?” she fires back.
“We still don’t have any solid information to share besides a plan for an attempted rescue. The Dora could land and Barnes could be dead.” Everett stands now, attempting to loom over her and doing a poor job of it. “Almost all of the Insight III crew are still in good running for the next mission. They don’t need this hanging over their heads and decommissioning them, especially if it goes badly.”
Before Maria can open her mouth to argue, Nick places a hand on her shoulder.
“They do deserve to know, but they don’t deserve to mourn Barnes twice,” he says, his tone taking a softer edge. “They don’t need that guilt.”
“Nick,” she implores, furrowing her brow. “This wasn’t their fault. They followed protocol to a T.”
“We know. And so do they,” he says, squeezing her shoulder once before letting go. “But you know that won’t matter to them.”
“They will have to know before this hits the media,” Sharon reminds them, as if that helps the situation any. “We’ll get crucified in the press no matter what happens, but at least we can make sure the crew has a heads up before they get hounded by journalists.”
Everett curses under his breath. “Call that meeting after I get back from Indiana. Barnes’ parents should hear it from me, in person. The timing might be tricky, I suppose I’ll have to get them to consent to his medical treatment before—”
“They’ll sign anything if it’ll save his life,” Nick says.
For a moment, Maria’s temper cools, giving way to something like smug satisfaction. “Barnes’ next-of-kin aren’t listed as his first emergency contact or medical proxy,” she says, rising to her feet. “It’s Commander Steve Rogers.”
Shelbyville, IN. Several years earlier.
The first time their schedules aligned and they were able to get leave together for longer than a weekend, they packed their bags and booked a flight to Bucky’s hometown. Word got out to his extended family, and everyone who lived within a six-hour drive would be stopping by to visit.
“Four days of wholesome fun, sleeping on our pull-out couch, being mooned over by every female family member I have,” Bucky teased as they hefted their suitcases through the airport. “Are you ready to be fed like you’ve never been fed in your life?”
“Gee, I don’t know,” Steve smiled, shouldering his duffle bag. “If I knew meeting your parents meant such terrible hardships, I probably would’ve suggested Vegas instead.”
They’d only been together for a few months but often discussed taking this serious step in their relationship, and Steve knew this trip home was more for his sake than Bucky’s. Bucky graduated high school early and went to Northwestern for his undergrad, secured a position at the Glenn Research Centre before he’d even finished his post-doc studies at MIT, and was recruited to the AsCan program shortly after. He hadn’t lived with his family in years but went back for holidays when he could find the time to spare. Steve hadn’t had that option.
In New York he only had his mother, until he didn’t, and then he bounced around from student dorms to trainee barracks, from Maryland to California. Home was everywhere and nowhere, a vague, impermanent concept that he couldn’t quite grasp. But now, wrapped up in a suffocating hug by George and Winifred on their front porch, he was sure he’d been given a taste of it.
The Barnes household was busy and bustling in a way Steve hadn’t experienced before. There were constant sounds coming from somewhere—a TV in one room, conversation in another, food cooking, babies crying, cats mewling. It wasn’t good nor bad, per se; just an overwhelming amount of life that Steve found exciting and daunting. Dinner the first night was served in the living room to accommodate the overflow of company, and Steve found himself eating off the coffee table, squished between Rebecca and Bucky’s cousin, Kezia, who reminded Steve no less than four times that she had made the roast potatoes and preened with every smile he gave her.
Bucky’s parents had initially encouraged Steve go “do tourist things,” but Bucky had gently reminded them that there was no such thing in Shelbyville, and Steve had insisted that he was more than happy to spend the week with the family. This entailed helping Winnie tend to the garden, arguing with George about baseball, and politely posing for selfies with Rebecca so she could brag to her friends about knowing a cute astronaut.
(“I resent that,” Bucky had grumbled.)
They spent their last night there in Bucky’s childhood bedroom, which had remained mostly untouched since he’d first moved out. He still had posters from his favourite movies and bands on the walls, medals and trophies for track and boxing on the shelves, and well-worn paperbacks scattered over any other available surfaces. Bucky had to lie half on-top of Steve for them to fit in his small bed, but that wasn’t any different from how they normally slept.
“You know,” Bucky mumbled sleepily against Steve’s chest, “sixteen-year-old me would’ve loved to see this. Big blond beefcake in my bed. Mmm.”
Steve chuckled. “What do you mean? You never had any other big blond beefcakes to impress with your Hufflepuff bed sheets and the plastic glow-in-the-dark stars stuck to your ceiling?”
“Nope. Never. I was saving it all for you,” Bucky intoned, rubbing his cheek against Steve’s shirt like a cat.
“I’m real grateful,” Steve said, patting him gently on the butt. “Thank you for inviting me home,” he added, for perhaps the tenth time during this trip.
At that, Bucky raised his head, looking at him blearily in the dark. “Speaking of. Hanukkah overlaps with Christmas this year, so my parents were wondering if you’d wanna come back for that. If we aren’t working or whatever.”
Steve paused, then pecked Bucky on the lips. “I’d love to. Thank you for asking.”
Bucky ducked his head again and nestled into Steve’s neck, gripping at the hem of Steve’s shirt with warm fingers. “They’ve never asked me to bring any of my boyfriends home for the holidays before,” he confessed softly. “I’ve brought some guys home in the past, yeah, but because I wanted to. Not because my family invited them.”
Steve didn’t know what to do but nod, feeling Bucky’s heart pounding in his chest as they lay wrapped up in each other. “I guess this means they like me, huh?” he ventured.
Bucky was quiet for a minute. “Everyone loves you,” he finally said. “Like, really loves you.”
Steve exhaled slowly. If he could feel Bucky’s racing heartbeat, surely Bucky could feel his. “Everyone? That’s good, right?”
“Right,” Bucky said carefully. “It is.”
After a while, Steve swallowed and pressed on. “Any chance that includes you?”
He expected Bucky to waffle, maybe shy away before agreeing. Instead Bucky propped himself up on his elbow, looked at Steve for a long moment, then slid his leg between Steve’s thighs. “Yeah. It does.”
Steve bit back a surprised moan and grabbed Bucky’s hips. “Jesus, Buck—”
“I love you, Steve Rogers, but don’t get cocky about it,” Bucky whispered into his ear before taking Steve’s earlobe between his teeth.
“I lo—holy fuck, I love you, too—”
“Shh, you’re gonna wake up my sister—”
“—oh my god, Bucky, are you gonna—”
“Wait, hang on, I might have some horrifically old lube in my bedside table drawer—”
“—trying to do this at your parents’ house !”
“Steve, shut up and let me live out my teenage fantasies, will you?”
JSC, TX. 2049.
Steve is dreaming, surely. July had finally rolled in and the heat was getting to him; that had to be it.
When Sharon had paged him up to Ross’s private conference room to meet with Fury and Hill that morning, Steve hadn’t known what to expect, and nor did the rest of the Insight III crew, by the looks of them. He’d walked in with his hackles raised, and knew with certainty nothing good was coming out of this.
NASA security had filed in, followed by a line of security guards in unfamiliar uniforms. That had struck him as odd, but he’d been wholly unprepared to see the King and Princess of Wakanda trail in after them.
“What is this?” Steve had demanded, and thus began the worst dream of his life.
They’d given a slow, gentle account of things, as if it would soften the blow. They’d described the plan, moving forward, insisting it was “viable” and “the best chance” they had. Princess Shuri—who Steve had learned was also the Chief Scientist of the WSA—gave a careful explanation of Wakandan spaceflight technology and the orbital alignment of the planets, assuring them that they’d be receiving news from the Dora Milaje in a few days time.
News about the astronaut they’d left behind. On Mars.
It’s a waking nightmare, Steve is convinced.
He’d felt himself trembling, his blood boiling then running cold. Everything had seemed so distant—the noises of shouting and crying, a chair being overturned, someone pounding on the table, Barton getting in Ross’s face—it was as if Steve had been watching the scene play out on muffled, grainy film footage, disconnected from it all. Like he wasn’t there. He couldn’t have been. All he’d known was the ringing in his ears, darkness tunnelling his vision, shortness of breath.
Then, cascading over it all, waves of nausea.
He doesn’t realize he’s staggered out of the room until he finds himself in the hallway, braced against the wall and trying to combat the dizziness that had thrown him off-balance.
“Rogers, come back.”
“No, it’s not,” someone insists. “It’s not!”
What’s not? It takes Steve moment to recognize the words coming out of his own mouth, the words that won’t stop echoing in his head.
I left him there.
It’s my fault.
I left you.
“We all left him—”
“—on my orders,” Steve growls. Hands reach out to him, and he shoves them away.
“You were following my orders,” he says, stumbling as the world closes in on him.
“I left him behind,” he rasps, knees hitting the floor. Everything spins, and the floor threatens to slip out from under his feet.
Acidalia Planitia , Mars. 2049.
The airlock hisses as it decompresses.
Commander Okoye leads the Dora crew into the Hab terminal.