Thank you for checking out our contribution to the Captain America Reverse Big Bang 2019! This fic is inspired by keire_ke's art and written by VenusMonstrosa.
V: Thank you to NurseDarry for the beta work, crinklefries for the proofreading, the helpful RBB mods, and everyone else who's supported me in this process. And, of course, thank you to my artist, who hooked me immediately with this prompt. I've never written a fic like this before, so I hope I pulled it off and did your art justice. I can be found on Twitter if anyone wants to talk about soft space nerds.
K: V is being super-modest here, but she delivered way more than I was expecting, and I loved this prompt so much, I was expecting a lot! ♥ You can find me on Twitter here or under the (mostly) same handle on Tumblr here.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
still in existence; surviving.
On February 13th, 2019, after almost fifteen years exploring the surface of Mars and laying the groundwork for NASA’s eventual return to the Red Planet, the Opportunity rover mission came to an end. The rover stopped communicating with Earth in June 2018, after a severe Mars-wide dust storm blanketed its location. The Space Flight Operations engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory attempted over a thousand commands to restore contact over the course of eight months, including different songs to try and “wake it up”. They were unsuccessful. The solar-powered rover’s final communication was received on June 10th and the data burst effectively translated to, “my battery is low and it’s getting dark.”
Opportunity was designed to last ninety Martian days and travel a thousand metres. In the end, it exceeded its life expectancy sixty times over, and travelled more than forty-five kilometres. It returned over 217,000 images, including fifteen 360-degree colour panoramas. At the Endeavour Crater, it discovered strong indications of the action of ancient water, similar to the drinkable water of a pond or lake on Earth. It found hematite, a mineral that forms in water, at its landing site. These accomplishments were hard-won, after it had lost the steering to both front wheels, was nearly trapped by a Martian sand ripple, lost use of its 256-megabyte flash memory, and had a stuck heater that threatened to limit its available power. Still, Opportunity persevered. Appropriately, the intrepid rover’s final resting spot on Mars is called Perseverance Valley.
“It is because of trailblazing missions such as Opportunity that there will come a day when our brave astronauts walk on the surface of Mars, and when that day arrives, some portion of that first footprint will be owned by the men and women of Opportunity, and a little rover that defied the odds and did so much in the name of exploration.” – Jim Bridenstine, NASA Administrator.
Thank you and well done, Oppy. We’ll be seeing you.
The interior of the Hab terminal was a flurry of movement as members of the Insight III crew rushed to suit up and evacuate. Outside, strong winds howled and sand darkened the horizon.
The mission update came in moments before, with a severe weather warning and an order to begin abort procedures. A storm was tracking right toward them; fourteen-hundred kilometres in diameter with an estimated force of eighty-nine hundred newtons. It was hitting harder and faster than NASA originally predicted, giving them only minutes to pack up and head out. The MAV was their only way off the planet and back onto the Liberator, and it was at risk of tipping over with every second they wasted. They had no way to outlast or outrun this storm. Ordering to prep for an emergency departure was the easiest command Commander Rogers had ever given, but it weighed the heaviest on him.
They were only fifteen sols into a forty-five sol mission. Two years of training, a year of travel. The longest manned Mars mission to date. His flight crew—Wilson, Maximoff, Barton, Lang, Romanov.
Steve wasn’t going to risk their lives. He couldn’t.
“Commander, we’re at 9.2% tilt and visibility is steadily dropping,” Wilson radioed in from the MAV, where he’d already secured the payload specialists. “Might wanna get going.”
“Roger,” Steve responded, giving the terminal a once-over. Their files and reports had been backed up and send to NASA, their samples were already onboard, and their personal belongings were to be left behind. Steve suddenly regretted bringing his favourite thermal shirt. “Move out,” he ordered, and they all shuffled into the airlock.
“Single file, stay close, stick together. The wind is going to get stronger the further we get from the Hab. You lose visual, hone in on my suit’s telemetry. We clear? Helmets on.”
“Roger that, Wilson.”
Steve reached for the control panel, turning his head just enough to make eye contact with Bucky beside him.
Bucky offered a small smile, despite the worry on his face.
Steve nodded once, opened the airlock door, and led them into the storm.
It was early morning, yet there was no sun in sight. Swirling sand and debris completely blacked out the sky. The winds were punishing, slamming into them from all directions. Every step was a fight to stay steady and upright.
Steve chanced a quick look behind him and realized the crew was too scattered, too far away from each other for his liking. “Everyone doing okay?” he asked roughly into the comms.
None of them sounded any worse off than expected.
“Check in, Wilson.”
“11%. MAV tips at 12.3%. Any chance you can jog?”
“I can barely see a foot ahead of me,” Steve grunted and turned back around to address his crew. He held his gloved hand out to Bucky, only several feet away from him. “Alright, buddy system. Hold hands or link arms with the person closest to you.”
Bucky’s soft, breathless laugh crackled in over the comms as he struggled forward, trying to close the distance between them. “Like in kindergarten?”
Steve allowed himself a chuckle. “Yeah, Barnes. Like in kindergarten.”
Bucky laughed again, a moment of warmth in the chaos.
Inches from Steve’s hand, Bucky reached out his arm—
Then a black mass slammed into him, lifting him off his feet—
There was a shout—then—
Loud alarms in Steve’s suit went off—
“Commander, Barnes is offline!”
“Barnes, report!” his own voice sounded hollow in his ears—
“I’m not getting his biomonitor readings!”
“His decompression alarm went off!”
“How long can someone survive decompression?”
He was there—
“Less than a minute.”
Steve almost had him, and then he was gone—
“Bucky, REPORT —!”
Clear Lake Forest, Greater Houston, TX. 2049.
Steve opens his eyes and gasps awake.
It takes him a moment to realize he’s shivering, and another moment to realize it’s because he’d kicked his blankets away and sweated through his clothes, leaving his skin damp and clammy. His chest heaves. His hands tremble. His head pounds. He doesn’t get up, but he doesn’t shut his eyes again, either.
The confines of the room suddenly feel stifling.
When his breathing evens out to something less frantic, he rolls over and grabs his phone off the bedside table.
4:26AM. June 2nd.
Steve ignores the notifications, powers it off, and tosses it into the drawer.
He gives himself a few more minutes to battle with a tension headache before getting out of bed and stripping his shirt off. In the kitchen, he downs two glasses of cold water, then settles on the couch in the living room. He goes through the motions of turning on the television and flipping through the channels, not focusing, not retaining anything. The mindless background noise is usually comforting, but sometimes makes him grit his teeth.
Thankfully, it’s the former this time. Steve’s out like a light before sunrise.
He wakes up again, at the insistence of his bladder this time, to the rebroadcast footage of a press conference. Through bleary eyes, he can make out NASA director Everett Ross on the screen.
“At around 4:30 AM CST, our satellites detected a storm approaching the Insight III mission site on Mars. At 6:45, the severity estimate escalated, and we had no choice but to abort mission. Thanks to the quick actions of Commander Steven Rogers, astronauts Clint Barton, Scott Lang, Wanda Maximoff, Natasha Romanov, and Samuel Wilson, along with four payload specialists, were all able to reach the Mars Ascent Vehicle and perform an emergency launch at 7:28 CST. Unfortunately—”
Steve sits up and fumbles through the couch cushions for the remote control.
“—during the evacuation, astronaut James Barnes was struck by debris and killed. Commander Rogers and the rest of his team were able to intercept safely with the Liberator and are now heading home—”
He jabs at the buttons and flips through the other channels.
“—remembering NASA astronaut James Barnes, who lost his life two years ago—”
“—was a gifted engineer from MIT, who recently aided in the development of cryonic—”
“—also holding memorial service in Cape Canaveral, where he—”
Steve catches a glimpse of the large headstone that adorns an empty grave, decorated with flowers and American flags, before he shuts the TV off and steels himself in the silence that follows.
He rises on unsteady legs, relieves himself in the bathroom, and makes his mind up to get back in bed when he hears a car horn outside. Soon after, his doorbell rings.
He could ignore it. Spend his Sunday alone, the way he’d intended.
“I know you’re awake!” a voice calls out to him, followed by several sharp knocks.
Steve sighs and heads back through the house to open the front door.
“What time is it?” he croaks, squinting into the sunlight.
“Ten-thirty,” Sam responds pleasantly, looking up at Steve from under the brim of his baseball cap. “Sorry to stop by unannounced. I was just in the neighbourhood.”
“You live in Pine Brook.”
“Yeah, well, you’ve been hiding,” Sam says, accusatory. “Your phone’s off.”
“I know,” Steve says, not bothering to deny it. “What’s up?”
Sam looks at him carefully. “I heard you weren’t going to Indiana this weekend.”
Steve stiffens. “I guess you heard right.”
“Guess so,” Sam says neutrally. “Well, I thought we could go for a run this morning,” he continues. It’s only then that Steve realizes Sam is in workout gear, with two bottles of Gatorade tucked under his arm. “You busy?”
“Yes,” Steve lies.
Sam is unconvinced. “Doing what? Besides not shaving?”
“Ha-ha,” Steve deadpans, unable to stop himself from reaching up to scratch his beard.
“Come on, man. You don’t stop needing to work out just because you’re on desk duty for a while. You probably run as slow as I do, now.”
Steve looks at him tiredly. Sam grins a little wider. With a grunt, Steve steps aside to let him in.
Sam just chuckles, heading straight to the kitchen. “Go get dressed, mountain man. Did you eat breakfast yet?” He opens the fridge to put the Gatorades away and grimaces. “We can grab something later.”
Steve knows what Sam sees in there—empty shelves, save for the remnants of a six-pack of beer—and tamps down whatever instinctive defensiveness wells up in him. He can handle judgement from Sam. Probably deserves it, in fact. “I haven’t had the chance to go grocery shopping this week.”
“It’s cool,” Sam says, and it almost sounds genuine.
Steve purses his lips. “I’ll do it soon, though.”
“Yeah. Whenever you can, Steve,” Sam says encouragingly. Steve hates when he takes that tone with him, all placating and understanding.
But it’s not Sam’s fault. None of this is. So Steve just nods and excuses himself to brush his teeth, and faces the red-rimmed eyes that look back at him in the mirror.
They circle Steve’s block before heading down to Taylor Lake Village Community Park to run laps by the water. The early afternoon sun is near blinding above them, scorching the pavement and warming the earth. Summer is steadily creeping into Harris County, but Steve can hardly complain about the humidity or the heat, not when wildlife springs lush and green around him, when birds sing and the skies are blue and cloudless. Sam doesn’t press him for conversation, and for that, Steve is grateful. Focusing on his breathing, taking in the sights and sounds of nature, it all forces him out of his head for a while. Sam pushes him to do one more lap, then another, then another, racking up mile after mile.
Steve feels lighter, more clear-headed. He hates to admit that he might’ve needed this.
They’re both panting by the time they circle back around to Steve’s street, where they slow their jog to a brisk walk, then a stroll.
“Not bad, Rogers. Not great , but not bad.”
“Not bad?” Steve chokes out a laugh, running his fingers through his hair to push the long, sweaty strands out of his face. “You’re wheezing .”
“I got allergies!” Sam counters, elbowing him weakly. Steve elbows him back. “You feeling any better?”
Steve considers it for a moment. “I think so,” he admits, and it surprises him how much he means it. “Thanks for this.”
“It was nothing.”
“No, it wasn’t,” Steve says, not unkindly, then winces at the loud rumbling of his stomach. “Can we still get breakfast?”
Sam checks his watch. “It’d be lunch, by now.”
“Damnit. I told you we should’ve stopped at that meat market.”
“You actually like that deli? It’s New-Yorker-approved?”
“I mean, they call themselves a deli, but...” Steve trails off, shrugging.
“Hey,” someone calls out to them. “How about the pizza here?”
Steve looks up to find another car in the driveway, and Clint and Natasha sitting on the bench on the front porch with pizza boxes in their laps. A golden, one-eyed dog sits at their feet, perking up as Sam and Steve approach, tail wagging in greeting.
Steve sighs. “Hey, Clint. Natasha. I’d give you a hug but I smell like a locker room.”
“Hi,” Natasha pushes her sunglasses up into her hair. “We were just in the neighbourhood.”
“What a coincidence,” Steve mutters, giving Sam a look.
Sam smirks, not looking remotely guilty.
“A new pizza place opened up a couple blocks from here. Did you know that?” Clint asks, getting to his feet. “It’s cheat day. We couldn’t not try it.”
“Oh, yeah?” Steve asks absently, unlocking his front door to let them inside. He gives Lucky a pat on the head as he passes.
“Yeah. We got buffalo wings and garlic fingers, too. You like those, right? We were also gonna get the deep-fried pickles and jalapeno poppers, but I figured we already got four kinds of pizza—”
“Clint,” Natasha hisses.
“I do like wings and garlic fingers,” Steve says magnanimously. “Go set ‘em up in the backyard. It’s nice out. Let me just grab plates and drinks,” he adds.
Sam follows him into the kitchen. “Need any help?”
“I got it,” Steve says, taking their Gatorades out of the fridge and tossing one to him.
Sam furrows his brow. “It’s barely noon.”
“It’s also the two-year anniversary of the worst day of my life, but what can you do?” It slips out of Steve’s mouth before he can think twice about it, and he immediately regrets the tone he’s taken.
He raises a hand to stop him. “Alright, bad joke. I’m sorry. I know. You’re all trying to do something nice for me, and I—”
“This isn’t just about you, man,” Sam reminds him gently. “It happened to all of us. He was our friend, too.”
If that was meant to chastise him, it worked. Steve bristles, busying himself with pulling water bottles out of the fridge, refusing to meet his eye.
Sam leans against the doorframe and lingers a while longer. “You’d tell me if you needed anything,” he says.
It’s not a question, so Steve doesn’t answer.
An hour later finds them all sprawled out over the patio furniture, picking at the remains of their food and catching up in the sunshine. There are about five hundred astronauts at NASA at any given time, but it isn’t often that any of them cross paths around the JSC, save for missions and mission-specific training. Other duties keep them busy when they’re grounded, as they rotate between various jobs and training schedules. Sam’s in the middle of recounting the near-disaster that was his last T-38 flight when Steve suddenly sits up, startling Lucky in his lap, who makes a sound halfway between a bark and a huff. “Sorry buddy,” Steve says, giving him a soothing scratch. “Hey, does anyone have the time?”
“Just after one,” Natasha says. “Where’s your phone?”
“Shit. I gotta go,” Steve murmurs, gently nudging Lucky aside until he can extract himself from the couch.
“You didn’t answer my question,” Natasha reminds him.
Clint frowns. “Where are you going?”
“Errands,” Steve says cryptically. “I’m gonna hop in the shower first, though. Can you guys, uh, will you be—”
“We can clean up, yeah,” Sam says, moving to stand.
“I mean, there’s no rush, I just,” Steve says haltingly, then stops when Sam cuts him off.
“Steve. It’s all good.” He settles back into his seat. “Don’t worry about it, go do what you need to do.”
It’s as good an out as Steve’s going to get. “Thanks. Sorry,” he mumbles, ducking back into the house.
He showers and gets dressed with haste, and is still swishing mouthwash around as he pulls out of the driveway. The drive into League City is unhampered by traffic and blissfully quiet for a Sunday afternoon, but does nothing to dissuade the building knot of tension in his chest. After parking in front of a bungalow on a residential street and killing the engine, he grants himself a second to breathe. With his eyes shut, he grips the steering wheel until his knuckles turn white, until he can choke down the fight in him. When he finally gets out of the car, the front door of the house is already open, and an old man in slippers peers at Steve over his glasses.
“Rogers,” he says roughly, by way of a greeting.
“Colonel Phillips. Good afternoon,” Steve says apologetically, making his way up to the porch. “I’m late.”
Phillips nods at him. “I was wondering if you’d make it today.”
Steve almost says he wouldn’t have missed it, but it doesn’t seem right to lie to his therapist, not when he misses more appointments than he attends.
“Coffee?” Phillips asks, saving Steve from himself and stepping aside to let him in.
“Please,” Steve says. He dutifully wipes off his shoes on the welcome mat and heads inside.
The place is small but warm, the furniture well-loved, the living room filled with photos of children and grandchildren. It’s a nice reprieve from the state of Steve’s house now, drafty and unfamiliar.
“Go ahead and sit down,” Phillips says. Steve would’ve offered to make his own coffee if he knew Phillips would let him. A retired Army colonel doesn’t stop being a man who likes issuing orders, and though Steve was Navy and never served with him personally, he feels compelled to respect his rank.
Steve found Phillips through a friend of a friend, when the NASA-appointed therapists began to grate on him. They were too soft, too pacifying, giving him sympathetic looks that made him want to scream. Steve felt more humoured than helped. Phillips understands him and doesn’t take his shit, which is what Steve figured he needed.
Phillips had originally introduced himself as Chester, as he goes by his first name with all his patients to foster a relationship founded on equality and mutual respect. “I’m your therapist here, not your commanding officer,” he had said firmly. “You want to call me Colonel to detach from the reality of this situation. Because protocol keeps you distanced, keeps you from being vulnerable.”
Steve didn’t disagree with that.
He proceeds down the hall to Phillips’ office, the one room in the house that doesn’t feel quite as homey and lived-in. All the furnishings are plain and utilitarian; a wooden desk with a soft computer chair, a coffee table in front of a small couch, filing cabinets, a lamp, picture frames that display various documents and nondescript photos of landscapes and nature. Despite that, it wasn’t uncomfortable nor impersonal. It suited a man like Phillips.
Steve takes a seat on the couch and wipes his sweaty palms on his jeans. The wafting smell of coffee precedes Phillips’ arrival, and he drops a coaster on the table before placing a mug on top of it. Beside that, he puts down a plate with a slice of banana bread. “My wife made it yesterday afternoon. It’s got walnuts and chocolate chips, if you’re bothered by that.”
“Not at all, thank you,” Steve says. The coffee is black, just bitter enough to set his teeth on edge, the way he likes it.
“How are you feeling today?” Phillips asks without preamble. He settles into his chair and takes his glasses off. There’s a notepad and pen on his desk, but he doesn’t reach for them. That’s another thing Steve prefers about Phillips—he isn’t constantly scratching notes as Steve talks, or when he doesn’t. The sessions may be rougher, but he doesn’t feel like a test subject, like NASA is monitoring them and breathing down his neck.
Steve takes another sip of coffee and clears his throat, just to buy himself some time. “Alright. Sam came over this morning and took me out for a run. Natasha and Clint stopped by afterwards to bring me lunch.”
“How did that go?”
“It was fine,” Steve says, then pauses. “Sam called me out. Told me I was making this about me.”
Phillips sits back in his chair. “Do you agree with that?”
Steve shrugs. “I should. I was too tired to argue, either way.”
“Didn’t sleep last night?”
Steve hesitates. “I woke up from a nightmare. Managed to fall back asleep after, though.”
Phillips hums in thought. “Same one?”
Steve looks away and nods tightly.
Phillips doesn’t say anything more. Sometimes, this means he wants Steve to keep talking. Other times, Steve thinks he’s being given a break. He takes another sip of coffee, has a bite of the banana bread. It’s warm and buttered, the mellow sweetness offsetting the bitter aftertaste.
He feels Phillips’ eyes on him and steels himself.
“Rogers, why aren’t you in Indiana?” Phillips asks.
Steve shakes his head. He doesn’t trust his voice.
Silence stretches out between them.
Phillips exhales. Not a sigh; therapists can’t sigh at their clients. But he’s still human, and Steve is as exasperating as they come, and this is why Steve chose him.
“Tell me how everything has been since the last time I saw you. Work, personal life, your health,” Phillips says. It’s been over a month, yet Steve doesn’t have much to update him on. His daily goings-on remain stagnant and unchanging, moving at a slow crawl. Regardless, Phillips strategically pokes and prods at him for as much information as he can give, without overwhelming him. Steve knows this is a lighter session by far. Fifty minutes somehow pass with relative ease.
“I’ll call you to schedule the next one,” Steve promises on his way out.
“Keep up with your medication,” Phillips reminds him sternly, as though he knows Steve is a week late to refill his prescriptions and hasn’t been steadily taking them for a few months, besides.
Steve’s next stop is the drugstore. He grabs the sunglasses out of his glove compartment and puts them on before he gets out of the car. He gives the pharmacist his name and waits off to the side, turned away from the racks of newspapers and magazines with a face plastered over them that he can’t seem to escape.
Celebrating the Life of.
The cashier does a double-take. Her eyes dart over to the newspapers, then carefully slide back to Steve. “Sorry, has anyone ever told you that you look like—”
“Have a good day,” he says curtly, collecting his things and leaving.
He passes by a grocery store on his way home, then his conscience makes him do a U-turn to go back to it. He normally gets his groceries delivered to his door, but he hadn’t had much of an urge or inclination to cook lately. Rather than deal with a fridge full of spoiled produce and freezer-burned meat, he’d been buying breakfast and lunch at the Starport Cafe and ordering less-than-healthy take-out for dinner, if he still had an appetite for it.
Steve methodically selects some bread, milk, and eggs. He fills the rest of his cart with organic vegetables and fruits and lean cuts of meat, but also grabs some oven-ready and microwavable dinners as contingency plans. He passes the booze a few times, just thinking. Considering it. He pays for his groceries and leaves before he can think about it for too long.
It’s early evening by the time he gets home and notices two new cars parked outside the house. Sam’s car is still there, as is Natasha’s. Steve sits stubbornly until he starts to worry about the dairy in his trunk, then finally hauls the grocery bags out and onto the front steps.
He quietly opens the front door, aware of the muffled sounds of conversation and the smell of something cheesy and heartbreakingly comforting in the oven. He sets the bags on the kitchen table and starts unpacking them, tucking the groceries away into the fridge and their appropriate cupboards. It’s only after he finishes up, washes his hands, and runs out of anything else to do that he finally follows the sounds.
The way that the living room is set up gives him a moment of privacy for a sitrep. The couches face the mounted television, so he can observe everyone from the hall, so long as they don’t turn their heads. Sam, Clint, and Natasha are wedged together on the sectional sofa, with Scott and Lucky sitting on the loveseat. Past them, Wanda is curled up in the armchair. So that’s where the baked ziti came from.
Steve takes a step closer, but stops just short of the door. They’re all so deep in conversation, none of them notice what’s on the TV; the Director of Mars Missions, Nick Fury, stands at a podium at the Arlington National Cemetery to deliver a sombre address.
“Our nation was blessed to have James serving in our space program,” the closed-caption reads. “While his loss will be deeply felt, the men and women of NASA will continue to soldier forth, onward and upward, unbroken in their mission. By doing so, they honour the legacy that James leaves behind, and they ensure his sacrifice will not have been in vain.”
Steve wasn’t there for that. They were still on their year-long journey back to Earth. The memorial service was recorded and sent to the Liberator, but it took him weeks to gather the nerve to watch it.
He hadn’t watched it since.
It hurts in a different way now, like a dull, persistent ache. He supposes that’s a good thing. It’s better than feeling like he can’t breathe, like there’s something jagged in his chest, twisting unrelentlessly. But he had his crew with him that first time, and he has them now.
Steve walks into the living room.
They don’t apologize for the ambush, and he doesn’t expect them to. He finds he doesn’t mind the company, after all. They dish up baked ziti and throw together a salad, and Steve can even offer everyone ice cream for dessert, now that he’s finally replenished his food stores. The house feels inviting in a way it hasn’t in years. Like a home, rather than a colourless space Steve haunts when he has nowhere else to be.
He knows he’s neglecting it, and himself.
“To James,” they declare, raising their glasses.
He wouldn’t have wanted Steve to end up this way, but Steve doesn’t know how else to be.
Everyone stays late into the night, despite having work early in the morning. When they part, they do so with hugs and well wishes, and promises to get together more often. Steve makes that promise, and hopes he can stick to it.
Being alone that night feels a little easier.
When he climbs into bed, he finally turns his phone back on. The screen lights up with notifications of emails, text messages, voicemails. Familiar names fill the screen.
They ask how he’s doing, why he decided not to join them this year, and would he please call them back? He scrolls through photos of a newborn, accompanied by texts saying he’d love to meet his Uncle Steve. They urge him to let them know he’s okay. They promise that they love him and miss him.
It would be selfish not to reply.
Especially since Steve couldn’t bring home a body for them to bury.
Since they’re celebrating a new life, while Steve is unable to stop mourning a loss.
Since he doesn’t deserve a place in their family, not after what he’s taken from them.
And yet… This isn’t just about you.
So Steve wipes his eyes dry and taps out a response.
“Hi Winnie, George, and Becca. I haven’t been feeling well, sorry to worry you. I miss you all, too, and I hope I can visit soon. I’ll call this week to catch up. Congratulations! Baby James looks so handsome. What did you decide for a middle name?”
The storm had finally passed over Acidalia Planitia, leaving the skies bright and clear again. The landscape was still and silent, save for a shrill, persistent beeping.
Soon, alarms blared; then lights flashed.
Oxygen level: Low.
Oxygen level: Low.
OXYGEN LEVEL: CRITICAL.
Bucky opened his eyes and gasped awake.
Hab: Mars Lander Habitat, a temporary living unit for astronauts on Mars.
MAV: Mars Ascent Vehicle, used by astronauts to travel back and forth from the ship ‘parked’ just outside of Mars’ atmosphere, to the landing site on Mars.
Sol: Mars solar day, approximately 24.63 hours.
Johnson Space Centre, Houston, TX. 2049.
Michelle leans back in her chair, stretching her hands over her head as she yawns. She’s only been at work for an hour and a half, and she’s already on her second Red Bull that night. She wonders idly if chugging a third would be a worse idea than taking a power nap at her desk, but is interrupted by her cell phone buzzing in her pocket. She takes it out and opens up the text message.
One perk of being a satellite imaging tech on a graveyard shift? No one awake to tell you to get off your phone.
PP (1:37AM): Hey, you up?
MJ (1:38AM): Working. Are you about to ask for nudes
PP (1:38AM): NO I SWEAR
MJ (1:38AM): I was kidding.
Peter was too easy. You’d think an astrodynamicist would have a little more game.
PP (1:39AM): Omg I just wanted to ask how the James Barnes memorial went
MJ (1:41AM): It was ok. Not as big a deal as it was last year.
PP (1:41AM): That sucks. Meanwhile a week from now, we’re having a party to commemorate the 31st anniversary of a rover’s “death”. Crazy, huh?
MJ (1:42AM): Opportunity? Isn’t that supposed to be in February?
PP (1:42AM): I think that’s when the mission was officially called off, but the team celebrates in June because that’s when the last transmission was received
PP (1:42AM): But it’s probably just an excuse to be able to party twice lolol
MJ (1:44AM): You make the JPL sound like a frat house
PP (1:45AM): Work hard, play harder :D
What a dork. Michelle sits up and regards the massive satellite screens as she downs the last room-temperature sips of her energy drink.
MJ (1:56AM): Maybe I could get someone to sign off on satellite time to grab some updated images of Opportunity for y’all. If it hasn’t been completely buried in sand yet
PP (1:57AM): THAT’D BE SO COOL
PP (1:57AM): YOU’RE THE BEST
PP (1:57 AM): <3
MJ (1:58AM): I know
PP (1:59AM): Did you just Han Solo me? *heart eyes*
PP (2:00AM): I gotta go to bed, but thanks again for offering!! But um BTW do you know yet if you still wanna come up to CA for the 4th of July?
PP (2:00AM): No pressure
PP (2:00AM): Just wondering
PP (2:01AM): Actually, no rush in answering either
PP (2:01AM): I’ll go now
PP (2:01AM): Ok
PP (2:01AM): Goodnight :D
MJ (2:02AM): I’ll think about it lol. Call me tomorrow
The Insight Mission Director is skulking around the Starport Cafe, despite the fact that she has her own espresso machine in her office and packs her own perfectly-nutritionally-balanced meals, which could only mean the world is ending, or she’s trying to be subtle about an interrogation. Sam takes his breakfast to an empty table and opens up his e-reader, politely pretending not to notice her slowly and not-so-discreetly making her way over to him.
It’s far too early for this.
“You need something, Hill?” he asks through a mouthful of bagel and cream cheese, not looking up.
She clears her throat. “Maybe.”
“Is this about Commander Rogers?”
She hesitates. “Wilson, be honest. How is he?”
Sam finally looks up, raising an eyebrow. “Ask him yourself.”
Maria puts her hands on her hips. “I can only keep track of astronauts assigned to the Insight missions—”
“Oh yeah, you and Fury benched him, right ,” Sam interrupts. It’s probably unwise to backsass your boss, even if you agree with her, but he doesn’t want to play broken telephone, either. “I was with him yesterday and he’s as good as can be expected. But like I said, you should ask him yourself. He’s off missions, but he still works here, you know.”
Somehow she takes that as an invitation to continue the conversation, so she plants herself in the chair across from him and carefully keeps her sleeves off the sticky tabletop. “If I can be frank with you, he wasn’t coping well, and you know it. He wasn’t going to pass the physicals, let alone the psych evals. He was drinking himself to death, for Christ’s sake,” she says grimly. “We had no choice in the matter. You’d have done the same.”
Sam gives her a hard look for a moment longer, then nods and turns back to his e-reader. “Yeah. I know,” he admits. “You gonna let him try next year?”
“For Insight IV?” she purses her lips. “I don’t know. It’s probably not a good idea. It’d be a conflict of interest, as far as I’m concerned.”
“So is he off all Mars missions, then? Is he officially no longer flight-eligible?”
“No. Not officially,” Maria insists, then lowers her voice as she leans in. “I don’t feel great about sending him up there with his boyfriend’s dead body a few thousand kilometres away.”
Sam stops short. “You knew about them?”
She gives him a withering look. “Anyone with eyes knew about them.” With a sigh, she sits back up and smooths out the wrinkles of her blazer. “And even if it wasn’t that, it was obvious they meant a lot to each other. I can’t fault him for grieving, but he could jeopardize the next mission if he doesn’t get himself together.”
Sam’s watch beeps twice. Thank god. He shuts off the alarm and shoves the last bite of bagel into his mouth. “Gotta go. My flight training class,” he explains, rising to his feet.
“Convenient,” Maria mutters.
Sam chuckles, gathering his wrappers and napkins. “You know, a couple of months ago, he got cleared to teach AsCans, too. I think he’s got a class this morning.”
“Really?” she asks, sounding a little more surprised than Sam thinks she ought to be.
“Yeah. He is ‘getting himself together’, albeit slowly,” he says. “But you didn’t hear that from me.”
Steve knows why he’d been assigned to the survival training course; he’s one of the astronauts with the most spaceflights under his belt, the only commander who’d served as a Navy SEAL, and is heralded as the hero of the Insight III mission. NASA had given him a distinguished service medal and everything.
He has it tossed in a box somewhere in his closet.
Despite all that, it seems almost cruel. He has to teach astronaut candidates how to navigate everything from minor, common issues to worst-case scenarios, both in space and on land. While a good amount of the learning is theory, most of it is hands-on practice, and it’s notorious for being the toughest course to endure. Being able to find food, water, and shelter are only half the battle, when unfamiliar environments prove to be hostile and unforgiving. Steve recalls the times he and a dozen other candidates had to survive with nothing but a map and basic camping supplies in the wilderness of Maine, in a frozen forest outside of Moscow, in the middle of a scorching, barren desert in Nevada. As tough as the survival trips were meant to be, they seemed laughable in comparison to the missions Steve had been on during his deployments. But none of these AsCans want to hear about how to identify a poisonous snake or an edible plant. They only respect Steve because they think he’s a hero.
It’s enough to make him sick, sometimes.
He takes a sip of peppermint tea to calm his stomach, then sets the travel mug back down on the desk before turning to address the class. Two hundred bright-eyed hopefuls watch him, too eager for a Monday morning.
He takes a deep, steadying breath. “Before we begin today, I’m going to address the elephant in the room,” he says. “Yesterday marked two years since astronaut James Barnes lost his life during an emergency evacuation on Mars. As many of you know, I was the commander of that mission. Yes, we know now what went wrong. No, we cannot guarantee it will never happen again. The reality of this is that no matter how well-prepared you think you are, no matter how much trust you put into NASA and calculations and training, there will always be a chance that things could go south. And you have to accept that fact, and be willing to go on, despite it. Because you could lose everything.”
He scans over the class, registering the looks of fear, curiosity, and sympathy that gaze back at him.
“I’m going to ask for a moment of silence for astronaut Barnes, and then we’ll begin the Mars-specific unit of survival training.”
JSC. 16 Years Earlier.
One thing about the military was that it made you feel like you had a sense of purpose, a duty to serve, and a greater good to work towards. The other thing was that it sounded especially enticing to a young man without any solid career prospects or family to fall back on. It was a dream sold under false pretences, that would eat you up and spit you back out. An option for those without options.
And when his mother passed when he was still a teenager, Steve had run out of options.
But the United States Naval Academy couldn’t give Steve the fulfillment he sought, so he kept searching, and spent five years in Special Warfare until he couldn’t stomach it anymore. He didn’t want to fight, but he assumed leadership roles with ease. He didn’t want the glory, but he wanted to make a difference all the same. He moved back to New York and lived off the rest of his savings as he bounced around, trying to figure out his next move, eventually applying to NASA on a whim. Getting that acceptance letter felt like an answered prayer, and the first official day of astronaut candidacy training could not come fast enough.
On Steve’s 28th birthday he said goodbye to his beloved old Harley and got himself a sensible truck, then drove cross-country to the crappy studio apartment on the outskirts of Houston that he’d be calling ‘home’. The pre-program orientation took place a few weeks later, and was spent on rousing introductions and a thorough tour of the facility, with the candidates trailing after the instructors like a line of enthusiastic baby ducks. It was surreal, an inspiring reminder that he’d been chosen to be part of something big, fulfilling in the way he’d been chasing after. This had to be taken seriously. So when he was approached by another candidate to go out to a bar with a group of them that night, Steve declined, because astronauts should be responsible, and not so easily charmed by sweet-talk and chin dimples.
But if anything, the first day of training taught Steve not to be so quick to pass judgement.
Not only was he a sweet-talker with chin dimples, he also had gorgeous eyes that crinkled at the corners when he smiled, shiny hair that curled attractively when dampened with sweat, and a drawl like honey. He was long and lean, fast and bright, smart as a whip in classes and top-ranking in physical training. James, his name was, and he excelled across the board all day. Not that Steve was watching him that closely.
But perhaps James was watching him, instead.
As their first day drew to a close, he sidled up to Steve in the locker room and flashed a grin that made Steve’s stomach do something he’d only expected to feel in zero-G.
“Me again,” he said.
“You again,” Steve agreed, trying to sound as neutral as possible.
“I guess I didn’t introduce myself last time,” he said, holding his hand out to shake. “I’m Bucky Barnes.”
Steve frowned, but shook his hand firmly. “I thought—” he paused. “Sorry. In class, they called you James.”
Bucky grinned a little wider. “Keeping tabs on me, huh? Checking out the competition?”
“It’s not a competition,” Steve said, smirking. “We’ll probably end up working together, if anything. Steve Rogers, by the way,” he added, because he had manners.
“Nice to meet you, Steve.”
“So how about that drink?” Bucky asked, smile unwavering.
Steve shook his head. “I don’t drink.”
“Neither do I,” Bucky said.
Steve looked at him with suspicion, but Bucky only shrugged.
“I really don’t,” he reiterated. “I just wanted to take you out, if you’re interested.”
Steve felt the back of his neck heat up. He could only imagine the flush on his face. “I’m flattered.”
Bucky frowned a little and cocked his head to the side, as if he knew exactly what that did to his jawline. “I’m sensing a ‘but’ in there.”
“It’s just...” Steve started carefully, shutting his locker and slinging his backpack over his shoulders. He turned to face Bucky and tried not to sound like he was reciting a speech he’d been telling himself since orientation. “Getting into personal relationships as an astronaut is already hard enough. It’s even harder if you’re both astronauts. The hours are long, the training is grueling, and we could go weeks without seeing each other. Months. Years, even. One of us could die. Hell, both of us could die—”
“Steve. Hey. Relax, ” Bucky laughed, putting his hand on Steve’s bicep. “Astronauts have families, too. Actually, I heard NASA prefers choosing astronauts with families, because they know they’ll do whatever it takes to finish the mission and get home safely. Plus, we could die on Earth just as easily as in space. All the more reason to make the most of your time with people you care about.” His lopsided smile turned a little more sheepish. “Or could care about, if you’d just give ‘em a chance.”
Bucky didn’t let go of Steve’s arm, and the warmth of his hand burned hot into Steve’s skin. He couldn’t fault Bucky’s logic. Or maybe he just didn’t want to.
“Let’s save the life insurance policy discussion for the third date,” Bucky suggested. He looked at Steve with those soft, crinkly eyes, biting at his bottom lip until it turned blood-red. “Now, you gonna let me woo you? Tell you I’ve seen your smile in the constellations? That I’d follow you to the ends of the universe?”
Steve huffed a laugh. “Alright. How about following me to dinner?”
MJ (12:44AM): Verify Oppy’s coordinates again. <file-sent>
PP (12:47AM): Uhhhh yeah that should be it. Perseverance Valley in Cape Byron, western rim of the Endeavour Crater, in Meridiani Planum
MJ (12:47AM): Are you SURE? Double-check
PP (12:48AM): I’m sure... Why?
PP (12:48AM): You prob have to scan back through different months or years if sandstorms buried it
PP (12:55AM): Hey, did you manage to find it?
MJ (12:56AM): FUCK
Michelle drops her phone and it clatters against the keyboard. She stands up at her desk and gapes at the satellite screens, scrolling back and forth through the captures of the Opportunity rover’s location. She taps at the buttons with a shaky hand.
PP (12:56AM): Michelle?
Six months ago.
A year ago.
A year and a half ago.
She isolates a few shots and zooms in.
PP (12:57AM): What’s wrong???
The blurred images come into focus.
Tire tracks. A Mars rover.
Leading from Acidalia Planitia, and heading back.
All taken hours apart on the same sol, eighteen months prior.
Michelle grabs her phone, dismisses the text notifications, and punches in the number for JSC security. “I need Fury’s line,” she says urgently “It’s an emergency.”
She had never met Nick Fury before. Why would she have to? He was the director of Mars Missions, and her job was more or less a glorified space babysitter, checking in on the satellites from time to time and making sure planets don’t go missing overnight. This means she had also never met Everett Ross, the director of NASA, and had only ever seen Sharon Carter, NASA’s Director of Media Relations, once or twice in the parking lot.
Now, the three of them are crowded around Michelle’s desk, flipping through images of external activity around the Insight III Hab from the day of the evacuation, to a sol six months ago, when all site activity stopped.
Because during that year-and-a-half, approximately, there had still been activity.
Michelle gets chills just thinking about it. She zips up her hoodie to her throat and tucks her hands into her pockets, listening intently to the murmured conversation around her.
“The mission logs say Commander Rogers took Rover 2 out on sol fourteen, then plugged it into the Hab to recharge,” Mr. Fury grunts, reading off a tablet. “That was the day before the evacuation.”
“Oh god, it moved. More than once,” Ms. Carter says, inhaling sharply.
“Look at the solar farm,” Mr. Fury adds. “The panels were cleaned off and repositioned. A few times.”
Mr. Ross gives the screens a hard look, his hands fisted at his sides. Michelle can’t decide if it’s disbelief or anger that’s making that vein pop out of his forehead.
“Is there any chance at all,” he begins slowly, “that the rover’s position was logged incorrectly, and that strong winds could’ve cleaned the solar panels off and knocked them back into place?”
A tense silence falls over them.
Michelle clears her throat.
While she doesn’t appreciate how sharply they all turn to her, like they forgot she was there, she can’t bite her tongue on this one. “Sir, with all due respect,” she says patiently, taking the tone she uses when she has to babysit her cousins, “there’s probably a better chance that Barnes was left up there. Alive.”
The silence continues, and she tries not to pop her gum in the faces of three of NASA’s most important figures.
“What’s your name again?” Mr. Ross asks.
“Michelle Jones,” she says.
“Whether or not that’s what happened,” Ms. Carter interrupts, rubbing her temples. “We legally only have twenty-four hours to release these photos. And probably a statement.”
“I don’t think that’s necessary,” Mr. Ross says, looking back up at the screens. “Captures this old, people might not notice.”
“We have to tell the crew,” Mr. Fury says. “And his family.”
“We have to investigate ,” Mr. Ross corrects him. “We need to know what’s going on before we make any sort of announcements. If we don’t have any information, we have nothing of substance to tell. Release the photos, but not a statement. Not until we have a statement to give.”
Ms. Carter seems to agree, but she doesn’t look happy about it. “We’ll need to have a handle on the story, and full control of when and how it gets out.”
“What does that mean? We sit on this for twenty-four hours and do nothing?” Mr. Fury argues, pointing at the screens. “There was activity six months ago—”
“Yes, and nothing since!” Mr. Ross interjects. “We don’t know why, and we don’t know what happened. But the Hab looks secure, and correct me if I’m wrong, but there should’ve been more than enough food stored up there. There is nothing to prove or disprove anything right now, which is why we need to investigate. I mean, really, what do you propose we do, Nick?”
Mr. Fury sets his fists on Michelle’s desk and leans forward menacingly, like he wants to launch himself at Mr. Ross and put him in a headlock, or turn this emergency meeting into a TLC match.
(Yeah, she’s gotta stop letting Peter convince her to watch wrestling when they video-chat.)
“If he’s still alive,” Mr. Fury says measuredly, “we would be wasting valuable time not attempting to make contact. We reach out to other space agencies who have probes and landers currently in flight, shit, even the ISS could—”
Before Michelle can process the fact that someone just swore at the director of NASA, Ms. Carter speaks up again.
“Why hasn’t Barnes tried to get to the Schiaparelli Crater?” she asks, scrolling through her own tablet with a furrowed brow. “He knows that’s the Insight IV landing site, and he knows NASA pre-supplies Mars missions years in advance. He can make contact with us from there. It’s thirty-two hundred kilometres away, could he have made it?”
“Probably not,” Michelle answers helpfully, because they’d be puzzling over it for an agonizing amount of time if she didn’t. “The Mars rovers will only go thirty-five kilometres before they need to be charged. There’s minimal life support in them, and having the heater on cuts down the battery life. That’s why the captures of the rover only show it moving at night—he charged it with solar panels during the day.”
At their incredulous faces, she adds, “I have a… friend at the JPL. He’s chatty.”
“Be that as it may,” Mr. Ross says tersely, “we still need to figure out what he’s been doing.”
She can’t help the snort that comes out of her. “Sir, you saw what he was doing. He rescued the Opportunity rover.”
After a beat of silence, Mr. Fury pulls his phone out and turns on his heel. “I have to get on a plane,” he announces, his trench coat billowing after him.
“Dramatic,” Michelle murmurs appreciatively.
“You have no idea,” Ms. Carter says under her breath.
JPL: Jet Propulsion Lab, a federally funded research and development centre and NASA field centre in California.
AsCans: astronaut candidates selected by NASA for the NASA astronaut corps, undergoing a training program at the JSC. I fudged some details about the technicalities, logistics, and timelines for the sake of the story.
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA. 2049.
California doesn’t agree with Nick. The air is too dry and the people are too talkative. He nodded and hummed his way through an hour of polite conversation with the driver that had come to pick him up from LAX, and had never been more relieved to see the perpetually-rumpled Dr. Banner than when they finally pulled up to the front entrance.
“Nick,” he says warmly, grasping his hand with a firm shake. “How was the flight?”
“Bruce,” Nick responds in greeting, already bracing himself for small-talk. “It was alright. I—”
“Did you see all the deer? They’re out today.”
Nick tries school his expression into something less severe. “I did see them. Drove past four of ‘em on the way in.” Dr. Banner was rather fond of the deer that frolicked around the JPL grounds, for no reason Nick could discern. He’d heard the man liked to meditate and do yoga outside, and supposed communing with wildlife was part of the experience. He could overlook eccentricities when the man in question was something of a hot-tempered genius, as it seemed to be par for the course for those types.
“Wonderful. Have you eaten?” Dr. Banner still hadn’t let go of Nick’s hand.
“I had a sandwich at the airport. What are the chances of being able to open up the Opportunity rover comms again?” Nick barreled on, carefully extracting his hand.
“Ah, right. Well, it’s hard to say, really,” Dr. Banner dithers, leading Nick briskly across the campus towards the storage facilities. “They terminated the program thirty years ago, but it was already falling apart for years before it went dark.”
“What was wrong with it, exactly?”
Dr. Banner chuckles half-heartedly. “Besides the broken wheels, the broken heater, and the broken memory drive? It was solar-powered. Bad storms covered it up with sand, so it couldn’t recharge. But it did last sixty times longer than expected, I’d like to point out.”
“The JPL’s work is not being called into question, Bruce,” Nick says curtly. “I just want to know if there’s a reasonable chance Barnes could get it up and running again.”
“A reasonable chance? Absolutely. It just needs another power source. Could be anything; the Hab, the other rovers, whatever. The hardware’s from 2004 but the software was updated a couple of times, so it shouldn’t be that difficult for Barnes to figure out. He was an engineer, wasn’t he? Or—is?”
They enter a cavernous garage and make their way to the back room, where a dozen people mill around a station of heinously old computers.
“I contacted as many people as I could who worked on the old mission. And they’ve all signed the NDAs you sent,” Dr. Banner adds hastily.
Nick gives him a hard look before addressing the room. “Thank you all for the help on such short notice. So what are we dealing with, here?”
“If Oppy was ever active in the last thirty years, the system should start downloading the collected data as soon as we turn it on,” someone pipes up, raising his hand like he’s in a classroom. He certainly looks the part, and can’t be a day over twenty. “Miles Morales, sir.”
Nick glances sideways at Dr. Banner.
“Let me vouch for him. He’s a good kid, smart as hell, knows how to keep a secret,” he says reassuringly.
“You’d better hope so,” Nick mutters. “Alright, run the program. Time to see how fucked NASA is.”
BOOT SEQUENCE INITIATED TIME 00:00:00...
PERFORMING HARDWARE CHECK…
INT TEMPERATURE -34C...
EXT TEMPERATURE: NONFUNCTIONAL...
The screen fills up with code as the team watches the hardware check with bated breath. Nick clasps his hands behind his back and grips his fingers tightly as they wait for a transmission.
LISTENING FOR TELEMETRY SIGNAL…
LISTENING FOR TELEMETRY SIGNAL…
LISTENING FOR TELEMETRY SIGNAL…
Clear Lake Forest, TX. Several Years Earlier.
“Sweetheart, you busy? Can you come and taste this again?” Bucky shouted over his shoulder.
Steve padded into the kitchen from the living room, obediently nestled up beside Bucky, and opened his mouth. Bucky rolled his eyes before feeding him a cooled spoonful of sauce. “You big baby,” he mumbled. “I added more Italian sausage. How’s that?”
“It’s so good, Buck,” Steve said, pecking him on the cheek. “The best, easily. Better than before.”
“You’ve said that every single time I’ve asked you to taste it,” Bucky laughed, elbowing him.
“Because it’s true, every single time,” Steve insisted.
Bucky laughed again, shaking his head. “It’s boring pasta sauce. You act like you’ve never had a home-cooked meal in your life.”
“Hey, I know you’re not bad-mouthing Sarah Rogers like that, God rest her soul,” Steve admonished, digging his fingers into Bucky’s hip and making him yelp. He barely dodged Steve’s other hand and nearly dropped his favourite wooden spoon.
“I would never!” Bucky gasped, squirming away from Steve’s reach. “But don’t think I don’t see what you’re doing, acting like it’s gourmet so I do all the cooking while you just get dishwasher duty.”
“That is absolutely… only partially true,” Steve conceded with a smirk, stealing another spoonful of sauce. “Look, for years I mostly ate cafeteria food, microwave dinners, MRE’s. I can cook the basics, but nothing worth writing home about. Whatever I make wouldn’t be much better than astronaut food, and I’d rather not eat that unless I’m in space. So, in short, I love you and your cooking, completely unrelated to my lack of culinary expertise.”
Bucky raised his eyebrows, unconvinced.
Steve grinned. “Well, hey, there’s something else I could eat, if you wanted.”
“Ugh. Don’t be gross.”
“That’s definitely not what you said last night.”
“Are you getting fresh with me, Rogers?”
“I’m trying to, yeah.”
“I swear to god, if this sauce burns, you’re ordering Chinese food.”
“I fail to see how that’s a threat,” Steve chuckled, sliding to his knees.
JSC, TX. 2049.
In another exciting turn in Michelle’s life, she now attends secret meetings with the director of NASA.
She sits at the end of a long table table between a nervous Ms. Carter and a furious Ms. Hill, video-chatting with the JPL on a massive screen, and she doesn’t even have to take minutes. She’s aware that they’re keeping her closeby to make sure she doesn’t slip some news to the press, but she’d never do that, anyway. Plus, Mr. Ross keeps the executive-branch conference rooms stocked with crunchy M&Ms.
“We’re still downloading the logs,” Mr. Fury says from the screen, where he and the JPL team are crammed into a room. “There are nearly a thousand, and we’re still waiting on them to finish converting.”
“So what does this mean, ultimately?” Mr. Ross asks from the window, where he’s been pacing for the last ten minutes.
“It means that the Opportunity rover was turned on, and has new data that we can collect. That’s all we can say, definitively,” Dr. Banner says. “But given the satellite images, we can assume that it was Barnes who managed to hook it up to a battery, and it hadn’t just been unearthed and able to charge itself.”
“This doesn’t mean that Barnes is still alive, then,” Ms. Hill argues, brow furrowed. “It just means he was alive at some point, and possibly able to turn it on. We could still be too late.”
“Yeah,” Mr. Fury says. “But it’s all we got right now. And we still have to sift through the downloaded data.”
“Well, what are our options?” Mr. Ross presses.
“I’ll remind everyone that confidentiality is of the utmost importance,” Ms. Carter adds pointedly. She had made Michelle sign five different contracts the night before, and three more before she was even allowed up to the floor that Mr. Ross’s office is on.
Ms. Hill takes a deep breath that Michelle hopes is more soothing than it sounded, and stands up to walk over to the whiteboard on the other end of the room. “Okay. Let’s just break this down, logistically,” she says, picking up the marker and printing out neat numbers and equations. “Flight crew of seven, plus four payload specialists. A forty-five sol mission. For redundancy, the Insight III Hab was stocked with ninety sols worth of food for eleven people.”
“They evacuated on sol fifteen,” Mr. Fury says. “So it’d be down to eighty-five sols worth of food.”
“Right,” Ms. Hill says, adding that to the board. “This leaves Barnes with nine-hundred and thirty-five sols worth of food, maybe a thousand-and-thirty-five if he rationed it. Just in case, let’s say he didn’t.”
“Alright, how many days is nine-hundred and thirty-five sols? About nine-hundred… sixty?” Mr. Ross suggests.
“Around there,” Ms. Hill agrees, doing another quick equation before putting the cap back on the marker. “That’s just over two-and-a-half years, so Barnes would have had enough food to last him at least that. It’s only been two.”
“So he still has half a year of food,” Mr. Fury says. “But something else could’ve happened inside the Hab.”
Mr. Ross finally peels himself away from the groove he’s wearing into the carpet and joins them at the table. “Like what?”
“If the oxygenator broke, he could’ve suffocated.”
“If the water reclaimer broke, he’d die of thirst,” Ms. Hill adds.
“It doesn’t look like the Hab breached, but if it did, he’d implode.”
“All of this is assuming he didn’t die from injuries.”
“Jesus,” Mr. Ross mutters. “Alright. Let’s consider the possibility that he did die, whether by accident or on purpose, at any point after the evacuation.”
“We’d have to issue a statement about it, whether it was at fault of NASA or not,” Ms. Carter reminds him. “We still have to issue one by tonight, regardless. It’ll hit the news by morning.”
Mr. Ross scrubs a hand over his face. “Fine. Now, let’s consider the possibility that Barnes is still alive. Right now.”
“Even if the Opportunity rover has proof, that’s still all we’d have. Proof,” Mr. Fury says. “We still have to figure out what we can do about it; a presupply fuelled to launch tonight would still be eight months out.”
“How long does it take to build a supply probe, Dr. Banner?”
On screen, he gives a harried shrug. “Six months, usually. His food would’ve run out by then.”
“Three months,” Mr. Ross counters. “I know you’re gonna try to tell me it’s impossible, that the overtime alone will be a nightmare—”
“You know it will be,” Dr. Banner complains. “Five months, maybe, but—”
“Really sorry to interrupt, sir, but the video downloads have completed!” someone says off-screen.
“Great, Miles, can you —”
“Yeah! Hang on, let me just — ”
The screen cuts to a feed of their monitor, displaying several hundred video log files, all bearing the label ‘ BARNES’ .
“Oh, god,” Ms. Carter whispers. “He did it.”
“When was the last entry?” Mr. Ross half-shouts.
“It’s dated ‘sol 532’, sir.”
“That means…” Ms. Hill pauses to swallow, realization dawning. “Barnes was alive for at least five-hundred and seventeen sols after the evacuation.”
“Play them,” Mr. Ross demands. “We need to watch them all.”
“Start with the last one, ” Fury says. If Michelle didn’t know any better, she might think he sounded nervous.
The screen goes black, then lights up with a view of the interior of the Insight III Hab.
Michelle had seen pictures of astronaut Barnes, of course. Working at NASA, it’s hard to miss them. He was handsome in a sweet, old-fashioned way, with short curls and a strong jaw. But the man who settles into a chair in front of the camera looks… weary. Not bad, but tired, and understandably so. He hadn’t been all that big to begin with, but the loss of muscle mass makes him look much smaller than a man of his height. His hair and beard have grown out, dark and thick.
“I watched the sunrise this morning. I wanted to see it more than the sunset, so I figured I should do that before I potentially see neither of them again. Did you know that sunrises and sunsets on Mars are blue? Crazy, huh? It’s a real pale, icy kind of blue. It’s got something to do with the atmosphere and scattered light, and it’s the only time everything isn’t shades of red. Y’know—crimson, auburn, burgundy, mahogany, rust, terracotta, oxblood—see, Stevie? I was listening when you talked to me about art. Don’t say I never paid attention to you. I’d say something cheesy about how the sunrises and sunsets remind me of your eyes, but I don’t wanna embarrass you. Though, I guess I just did. Heh.
Honestly, I didn’t think I’d ever be sad to see a sunrise. They mark another sol out here. Another twenty-four-ish hours on Mars. I don’t want to think about how many sols I’ve been up here, but I do. Every single sunrise, I do. I look at that sun and think, man, everyone back on Earth is looking at the same one, which makes it seem a little closer than it is. Like it’s not fifty-million miles away from me. But it is. It’s a strange feeling, being completely alone. I thought I’d get used to it, but I don’t think I ever want to get used to it.
So I watched my last sunrise this morning, and I can live with that. With whatever happens next. I finally finished the cryo-chamber, about sixty sols behind schedule because I only got the one good arm left. I attached a file—it’s a blueprint of what I came up with. Hope it works. I guess we’ll see. Anyway, I think it’s finally time… Listen, whoever finds this, whenever you do, if something happens... Please check in on my parents, first thing. George and Winifred Barnes, they live in Shelbyville, Indiana. They’ll wanna hear all about what I got up to, up here. I got a younger sister, Rebecca, make sure she’s okay. And… Commander Steve Rogers. Find him, too. Tell them I didn’t give up. Tell them I died for something big and beautiful, greater than myself. Let them know that’s all I could’ve ever asked for. Tell them thanks for being my family, and tell Steve ‘sweet dreams ‘till sunbeams find you’. He’s gonna hate that I said that, but tell him I love him and to get over it. Alright, I gotta go before I start crying. You know, I used to say I wanted to become an astronaut and go to Mars because red was my favourite colour, but I think I’ve seen enough of it for a lifetime. I’d kill to see some green again.
Astronaut James Buchanan Barnes, signing off. Oh, and make sure you bring Oppy home, alright?”
When he stands up, his left arm comes into frame; poorly bandaged, tucked close into his side in a makeshift sling.
The video cuts out.
The silence that follows feels like it stretches for an eternity.
“Tell me we have the goddamn blueprint,” Mr. Ross says, strained.
“Oh, um, I got it,” Miles says hesitantly. It fills the screen, a neat drawing with roughly scribbled notes.
“He… jury-rigged a cryo-chamber into the Hab’s refrigeration unit…” Dr. Banner says slowly, almost in awe. “Looks like he was using spare parts from around the Hab and the rovers… Jesus Christ, Barnes…”
Everything Michelle knows about cryogenics is from what she remembers Peter telling her, which is almost nothing; he’s pretty easy to tune out. All she can say for sure is that it’s still a fairly recent development within NASA, and had been only tested on Earth for short amounts of time to see if it could be improved and sustained for lengthy spaceflights.
She sneaks her phone out of her pocket and opens up her text messages.
“What is the structural integrity of this thing, Dr. Banner?” Mr. Ross demands.
“Can it actually work?” Ms. Hill asks incredulously. “And for how long?”
“At first glance? Yeah, it seems solid. Um. Give us a moment, I need to get a better look at it… Can you pull up the specs for the refrigeration unit?” The screen goes back to the video-chat in time to watch the JPL team scramble to their stations.
“Alright, now we have something to work with,” Mr. Ross says loudly, clapping his hands. “Nick, look into the earliest we can get Insight IV launched. Maria, start putting together your shortlist for the crew, no one from Insight III , you hear me? We need them alert and undistracted. Get that statement started, Sharon, and — Ms. Jones, for the love of god, get the hell off your phone!”
“Oops,” Michelle says, quickly dropping it into her lap, but otherwise wholly unrepentant. She’d already done what she’d needed to do, anyway.
On screen, Peter bursts through the door.
“Peter, you gotta go, you’re not cleared to—” Dr. Banner begins, but Peter jumps in front of them and waves at the camera, looking all sorts of red and sweaty.
“I have an idea!” he exclaims breathlessly. “Please, just trust me, I can help, I have a favour to call in—”
Michelle covers a smile behind her hand.
Almeda, TX. Several Years Earlier.
Steve set a stack of clean t-shirts in his suitcase on the floor, followed by some boxer-briefs and rolled-up socks. He reached into the closet to choose a few sweaters and turned back to the suitcase, which he suddenly found empty.
“Bucky,” he sighed.
On Steve’s bed, Bucky pouted, surrounded by suspicious lumps under the blanket.
“Come on, Buck.”
Still pouting, he pushed Steve’s clothes out from under the sheets, where they fell into the suitcase in a heap.
Steve understood, which is why he couldn’t bring himself to be entirely annoyed. He’d been assigned to an escort mission; bringing a few scientists up to the ISS for two weeks, participating in and conducting experiments, then bringing them back down. It was run-of-the-mill, something he’d done nearly a dozen times before.
But it was their first time not being assigned to the same mission. They’d gotten lucky so far, being recognized as an efficient pair who worked well together, but their luck finally ran out. This meant Steve was leaving in the morning to spend a few days in quarantine at Cape Canaveral before launch, and would spend a few days in quarantine again after landing. All in all, he would be gone for about a month.
Steve perched at the edge of his bed and ran his fingers through Bucky’s hair. “Hey,” he said.
“Not fair,” Bucky mumbled with a frown, leaning into the touch. “You know this makes me sleepy.”
“Yep,” Steve said, giving Bucky’s neck a firm rub. “Don’t be sore at me, please? It’s only for a few weeks.”
Bucky was quiet for a moment, eyes fluttering shut. “We’ve never been apart that long.”
Steve could kiss him. So he did, leaning down and pressing his lips to Bucky’s temple. “The next one could be longer, you know. Much longer.”
“Not helping,” Bucky grunted.
“I’m just saying, we should try to get used to it now. We have to. You can’t act like this every time, pal.”
Bucky opened one eye and glared at him with it. “I don’t even know how you got chosen over me. Your Russian sucks. ”
Steve chuckled, getting back to his feet. “Oh, I see. You’re not sad, you’re just jealous.”
Bucky pulled the blankets over his head in lieu of a proper, mature response. “No, I’m not.” His voice was muffled, like he had his face shoved into the pillow.
Steve kept puttering around his room, sifting through drawers and trying to find sweatpants that didn’t have any holes in them. By the time he was zipping closed the suitcase, Bucky finally poked his head out of his blanket shell. His eyes were red.
“I’m not jealous,” he reiterated in a small voice. “I’m scared.”
Steve stilled. “Baby,” he said gently, climbing back into bed. He slid beneath the covers, slowly rearranging limbs and pillows until he could pull Bucky into his arms with their noses nearly touching.
“You warned me. I knew. But I guess I just didn’t realize it’d feel like this.” Bucky whispered.
Steve smoothed a hand down Bucky’s back. “That’s alright.”
His bottom lip quivered. “You gonna say ‘I told you so’?”
“No,” Steve assured him. “I’m gonna say I love you, and remind you that we can video-chat every day I’m in quarantine, and I’ll email you every day from the ISS.”
“I know,” Bucky murmured, though a frown still creased his forehead.
“It’s just like a business trip. I’m going away for work for a little while, and taking a really long flight somewhere really far away. That’s all it is. That’s normal stuff for lots of other couples. Why don’t you come pick me up from Cape Canaveral and we can spend a day or two in Orlando?”
“I get it, Stevie,” Bucky said, rolling his eyes. “I know I’m being whiny, you don’t have to do this.”
“I kinda like you whiny.” Steve shifted closer for a kiss, and Bucky obliged. He melted under Steve, warm and sweet and willing, but pushed his hands into Steve’s hair and tugged him close, like Bucky had no intention of ever letting go.
JSC, TX. 2049.
One doesn’t get much leeway in terms of customizing lesson plans when instructing an astronaut candidacy course, but when the option of a guest-lecturer came up, Steve only had one person in mind. Steve stands towards the back of the room, watching a man walking with a cane introduce himself to the class as Col. James Rhodes.
He works as a CAPCOM in MCC but was in the Air Force before joining NASA, and was a damn good pilot for the thirty years he spent as an active astronaut. That changed when what should have been a simple Moon mission several years back left him with severe nerve damage and partial paralysis. Due to the injuries he sustained, he’d been medically disqualified and no longer deemed eligible for flight assignments.
“It was tough news to receive,” Rhodes admits. “But I’d flown over a hundred-and-thirty combat missions and piloted fourteen spaceflights from the ISS to Mars, and knew that any one of them could’ve been my last. But I still flew them. And I don’t regret any of it.”
Steve remembers hearing the news and feeling devastated on Rhodes’ behalf, visiting him in the hospital with (Bucky’s) homemade soup. Rhodes piloted the first mission Steve had ever been assigned to, and there was something about his quiet dignity and tenacity that Steve always admired. That hadn’t changed about him after the accident, nor did it fade with time.
“It’s one thing to be afraid,” Rhodes says, making brief eye contact with Steve before continuing his lecture. “It’s another to let that fear stop you. You go up there knowing that mission could be your last, and if it is, everyone you leave behind will know that you’ve done something momentous. If you’re here for the right reasons, for noble reasons, they’ll know. They’ll be proud. And that’s worth the fear.”
Wakanda Space Agency, Birnin Zana, Wakanda.
“Let me call you back,” Shuri says in English, tapping at a button on the screen to end the call. She looks to T’Challa, who pauses the video logs of astronaut James Barnes, and switches to Xhosa. “NASA is asking for our help. They want to build and launch a supply probe with soft-landing capabilities and a communications terminal.”
T’Challa purses his lips. “That hardly seems like a solution,” he says. “Have you looked at the cryo-chamber specifications? If it fails, if Barnes needs medical attention, he could die. He could be dead already. No supplies or communications would change that.”
She knows he’s right, but what’s the use in being the king’s sister if you can’t argue with him?
“They are completely out of options. They cannot get their Insight IV ready for launch for another eighteen months, but with our help, a probe can be made and launched in two.”
“Shuri,” he sighs. “I know we can help, I am simply uncertain that we should. If you are asking for my advice or permission...”
She rolls her eyes, bringing up satellite imagery of the Dora Milaje , the WSA shuttle currently in flight; a manned research and exploration mission due to pass Mars and collect samples from the dwarf planet Ceres. “NASA does not know about this. We could land on Mars in less than thirty days. If we do not help, no one would ever know. But if we do—”
“Then the world will know about the WSA. They will know that we can reach Mars and back in half the time that NASA spacecrafts can,” T’Challa says seriously, taking a scolding tone that is eerily reminiscent of their father. “Are you ready for that? For the attention and responsibilities that will come with publicizing what our space program is really capable of?”
Shuri knows he expects her to think about it, so she does. She glances at the feed of the Dora Milaje , her pride and joy, the fastest shuttle the WSA has ever created in the time she’d been the Chief Scientist, but her eyes slide over to the screen with astronaut Barnes’ video logs. The entries they’d seen had been incredible and saddening in equal measure, the last pleas of a man with a brave face who simply wanted to come home. Their technology, research, and advancements had been kept secret for so long, and could remain that way, but at what cost?
“If saving a life is how we must finally let the world know about us, it is worth it.” She reaches for the touchpad and scrolls to the letter P in her contacts list. “And if I do this for Peter, maybe it will impress Michelle, and I am tired of hearing about him talk about her constantly. If he does not ask her out after this, I am going to block his number.”
ISS: International Space Station.
CAPCOM: “Capsule communicator”, or spacecraft/flight controller.
MCC: Mission Control Centre.
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.
EVA suit: Extravehicular activity suit, or space suit.
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Clear Lake Forest, TX. 2049.
“NASA Director Everett Ross announced in a press conference this morning that astronaut James Barnes, presumed dead after the Insight III Mars Mission evacuated two years ago, was found alive but unresponsive by WSA astronauts at approximately 02:00 this morning. The WSA confirmed that Barnes is currently secured aboard the Dora Milaje shuttle, which has officially begun its six-month homebound journey. According to the latest update from NASA, Barnes is reported to be in critical condition—”
He shuts the TV off and sits in the stillness of the living room, curtains drawn against the fireworks outside.
It doesn’t feel real. He doesn’t think it ever will. Like being convinced of a fairytale and having your whole world turned upside down. He knows, logically, that this is good news, a fucking miracle deserving celebration, and yet he spent so long feeling numb that he’s not sure he’ll feel anything else.
America celebrates its independence and the imminent return of a hero.
Steve spends his forty-fifth birthday alone.
He stops answering his phone. He shuts out his crew, his therapist, Bucky’s family. The nightmares return in full force. He doesn’t go back to work. His neighbours helpfully misdirect the paparazzi that come creeping by.
NASA would give him time off if he asks, but he doesn’t ask. They won’t fire him, and he takes advantage of that. He eventually gets an email explaining that they’ve put him on paid leave and ask him to confirm the length of time. He doesn’t respond, so they change the status to ‘indefinite’.
Steve is used to indefinite. His whole life was a series of one unknown after another; his mother had cancer and they were never sure how much time she had left until it ran out, his years spent as a Navy SEAL could’ve ended with retirement or a bullet in the head, he never lived in the same place for longer than a year. He couldn’t even commit to owning a houseplant. He rolled with the punches and took things a day at a time, just trying to get by, because nothing was ever constant.
Not until Bucky.
Early on, Steve was struck with the realization that he had two suitcases he lived out of for almost twenty years, good intentions, and no backup plans. Where would he be in five years, ten, or thirty? What would he have accomplished by then? A few months with Bucky and Steve couldn’t stop thinking of what was coming next, what the future held for him, and if he’d still be the kind of man worth keeping around.
If there was any room for him in the life and legacy Bucky was building.
He made a name for himself as an engineer, an astronaut, and a friend. He was steady and sure, a grounding force that settled into Steve’s bones and rooted him in place. Bucky made Steve want to think long-term, because with Bucky, there were absolutes.
Without him, Steve felt untethered.
There are a handful of places Steve can just about drag himself to, more out of necessity than as an attempt to face society again, and he’d argue that The Wolverine is as close to a middle ground as he can manage. It’s a bar that’s out of the way and invite-only, speakeasy-style, the patronage consisting of vets, bikers, anyone who wants to keep a low profile and not ask any questions. There are pool tables, a free jukebox, and good beer on tap. Steve had spent the first six months of his return from Insight III there. He had hoped not to need another reason to go back.
When he takes a seat at the end of the bar, Logan nods at him once, and sets a stein in front of him without a word. Steve drains it more quickly than he ought to and nurses a second one, trying not to listen too closely to what was happening on the TV behind him.
“—took NASA this long to find out what happened?”
“Well, the storm had severely damaged most of the landing site, and destroyed the Hab communications antennas entirely,” Ross says after a pause, his voice sounding tinny and muffled from the old speakers. “The only other communications terminals were in the MAV and the Liberator shuttle.”
The interviewer presses on. “But why weren’t there any efforts to look over the landing site after the storm had passed?”
“As a public domain organization, NASA must be transparent, so any satellite images we capture must be released within twenty-four hours.” It’s Fury this time, Steve can tell, with scripted and measured words. “Bodies do not decompose in space, if you get my meaning,” he tacks on at the end. Steve almost snorts.
Nonplussed, the interviewer continues his interrogation. “Does NASA have any contingency plans for future missions, to prevent this situation from happening again?”
“Yes, in fact,” Ross says quickly. “We’ve consulted with the WSA and have begun working on communications technology similar to theirs, that use satellites instead of relying on grounded towers—but we’re unable to get into the specifics.”
“Classified,” Fury says, in a tone that dares the interviewer to argue.
He doesn’t. “Are you able to give us any updates on Barnes’ status at all?”
“We remain in close contact with the WSA, and we have nothing new to report as of yet.”
Steve takes a deep, shuddering breath. Logan raps a knuckle on the bartop, startling him.
“Need me to change the channel?” Logan offers.
Steve considers it a moment, then shakes his head. “It’s nothing I don’t already know.”
He pulls out his phone of his jacket pocket, tapping through to the chain of emails he’s received from the WSA over the past several weeks.
The last one came four days ago, and there’s been radio silence since.
The message had been flagged as URGENT , opening automatically as Steve unlocks his phone one day. Attached is a file of flight information; IAH—IND , a four day round trip, business class seating, leaving the next morning. That’s how he finds himself packing a bag for Shelbyville, if only just to pay back Bucky’s parents in person.
‘We have to deal with this as a family,’ the message had said.
Steve can’t run from them anymore.
So he’d gone, with all his feelings of shame and guilt and anger, but he hadn’t been able to hold onto them once he gets there. They’d fizzled away and left bone-deep exhaustion in their wake, making it all the more easier to sag into George and Winnie’s arms when they’d collected him from the airport.
He settles into the guest bedroom and has a quiet afternoon to get his bearings, but dinner time eventually rolls around, and so does Rebecca and her three-month-old. She sets baby James right into Steve’s arms, where he regards Steve with skeptical blue eyes before promptly falling asleep, tiny hands fisted in Steve’s shirt.
Jamie stays there through dinner, soft and warm. Easy to hold. Easy to love.
“It’s really good to see you, Steve,” Rebecca says softly. “We’ve missed you.”
They start a fire in the fireplace. It crackles and snaps beneath the mantle that displays framed family photos, and Bucky’s smiles through the ages.
“He knew what he was getting himself into,” Winnie says, apropos of nothing. “All we could’ve done was pray and be strong.”
Steve watches the rise and fall of Jamie’s chest, his cheeks plump and rosy in sleep.
“We’ve been given a gift, son. Don’t you see?” George says. “You dwell on the past, and you’ll never make something of the future.”
Steve hears the words they don’t say. They don’t call him a miserable drunk, don’t tell him that he’s losing himself again. He almost wishes they would. It’d be easier.
“We never blamed you.”
“He wouldn’t have, either.”
“Steve, he’s coming home. Bucky is coming home.”
And when he does, it’ll be to someone he wouldn’t recognize. Someone who has surrendered to grief, embraced his own self-destruction. He’s no longer the man Bucky deserves, and is far from being the man Bucky will need.
Steve can’t fail him again.
When Jamie rouses and fusses, Steve rocks him gently, shushing him and pressing his nose into Jamie’s soft dark hair.
“It’s okay,” Steve whispers, and wills himself to believe it.
Fall settles over Houston as Steve claws his way back to himself.
He doesn’t ease into work as much as he throws himself into it. Early morning runs keep his mind sharp and focused for those longer, busier days. He finally honors all the dinner invitations he’d taken rainchecks on, and makes good on the promises to catch up over coffee. He commits to weekly appointments with Phillips, and sticks to them. He dumps the rest of his booze down the sink and recycles the bottles and cans.
It has always been difficult for Steve to admit when he’s struggling, to ask for help and accept it. Building walls is easier than breaking them down. But when Bucky’s condition is finally confirmed stable, Steve figures he owes it to him to catch up.
He starts with the laundry.
It had taken him almost six months of living amongst Bucky’s things before Steve had donated them, sent them back to Bucky’s parents, or packed them into boxes and shoved them in the attic, leaving only the skeletal remains of their home. It doesn’t feel right, bringing them back down and putting them back with the house in the state it is, all dust and stale air.
So he does the washing he’s neglected for weeks—clothes and bedsheets and towels. He mops and vacuums, takes out the trash, and scrubs the bathroom to within an inch of its life. He tackles the kitchen next, and hires a gardener to help with the overgrown mess in the front and back yards. It wears him out and takes the better part of two weekends, but it’s worth it. It’s cathartic, in a way, to give the house such an intense, thorough cleansing. Gutting it from the inside out, stripping away the filth and bitter residue of the last two years.
When he opens the windows the following morning, letting in the sunshine, the house seems to breathe with him.
What’s left of Bucky’s things eventually come down from the attic.
Well-loved books find their place back on the shelves of his office. Posters go back up in their bedroom, in the hallways. Awards and picture frames are put back on display in the living room. His favourite sweater is folded and tucked into their dresser, and his favourite mug is washed and hung up on the mug tree to dry.
Almost everything is back in place.
8 Years Earlier.
Steve had dropped the box at his feet, wincing as whatever inside it clattered upon hitting the floor. It was only then that he realized it was labelled KITCHEN: FRAGILE!! , so he picked it back up and shuffled out of the living room towards the kitchen, where it could join the other mountain of boxes.
“I hope you’re putting them in the right rooms!” Bucky shouted, presumably from the front door.
“Yep,” Steve shouted back, gently setting the box down. “Is that everything?”
“Just about. Gimme a hand?”
Steve followed Bucky’s voice to the front hallway, helping him with the laundry hamper full of pillows and blankets while Bucky hauled in garbage bags full of cushions. They arranged everything around the pull-out couch in the middle of the living room; the sole piece of furniture they hung onto, which Steve had picked up from a garage sale when he first moved to Texas. The new furniture they had ordered would be arriving in the morning, but for now, the small, dingy beige sofa sits in their new, spacious home, a stark reminder of where he’d started from. He remembered hauling it up two flights of stairs by himself, setting it against a wall to cover an ominous water stain that came with the apartment, and vowing that the next couch he bought would be larger, softer, and for the house he’d eventually move into.
He had never entertained the idea of being able to afford living in Clear Lake, or even wanting to. Several years and a few promotions later, and Steve ended up an Insight Commander, moving into a six-bedroom home with his crewmate and partner right across from Timber Cove .
“Don’t tell me you’re getting teary-eyed about this ugly sofa again,” Bucky murmured disapprovingly as he slid an arm around Steve’s waist, drawing him out of his thoughts. “I spent five thousand dollars on that new sectional — ”
“—and another thousand on cashmere throw blankets—” Steve interrupted.
“—and they are all going in our beautiful new living room,” Bucky continued, resting his cheek against Steve’s shoulder. “I have a vision. A little industrial, a little rustic—this place is going to look like if Anthropologie, Restoration Hardware, and the 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge had a threeway. In a farmhouse.”
“Hell of a vision,” Steve said agreeably. “Feel like grabbing dinner yet?”
“Ugh, I’m all sweaty. Let’s just order in.”
So they ate their burgers cross-legged on the floor, stealing each others’ fries and grinning like loons. They toasted their milkshakes to their new home, their health, and to whatever will come their way in the future.
“Since this is our first night here, we should celebrate,” Bucky suggested, sneaking his hand into Steve’s and entwining their greasy fingers. “Properly.”
Steve raised his eyebrows. “Yeah? Already? I don’t remember which box the lube is in but—”
“Dance with me,” Bucky said, suddenly serious.
Steve made a face. “Can’t I just blow you on the kitchen counter or something?”
“No. We’re dancing.”
“Fine. But I choose the song.”
They pushed the couch back, turned the lights off, and opened the curtains to let the moonlight in. He gathered Bucky in his arms, pulled him close, and did his best to sway in time to something old and slow playing from his phone.
Stars shining bright above you,
Night breezes seem to whisper, “I love you”,
Birds singing in a Sycamore tree,
Dream a little dream of me.
“Really?” Bucky asked quietly, amused. “This is what you’re going with?”
“It’s a classic,” Steve insisted. “Shh. I’m trying to concentrate on my footwork.”
Bucky laughed, his breath warming and tickling the side of Steve’s neck. “You know what I’m going to remember most about tonight?”
Steve looked over his him, taking in the way the shadows played across his face, the smell of fresh paint, the feeling of their socked feet on hardwood, and Ella and Louis crooning in the background.
Stars fading but I linger on, dear,
Still craving your kiss,
I’m longing to linger ‘till dawn, dear,
Just saying this.
“What’s that?” Steve asked.
Bucky smiled up at him, impossibly soft, indescribably beautiful. “Your off-key humming.”
Steve didn’t think he could be more in love.
Sweet dreams ‘till sunbeams find you,
Sweet dreams that leave all worries behind you,
But in your dreams, whatever they be,
Dream a little dream of me.
Extra-strength sleeping aids always leave Steve with a headache, but he’s glad to have caught up on the much-needed rest. He hadn’t been able to get much sleep the week leading up to this, but he managed a solid eight hours on the flight. He spent the rest of the time rereading the terms of the contracts he’s signed, and trying to convince himself this was real as they flew over endless deserts and jungles.
As soon as the Dora had made it back into Earth’s atmosphere, Shuri had made contact and Steve had been put on a private jet to Birnin Zana.
King T’Challa and his entourage greet him on the runway. “It is a pleasure to meet you again, under better circumstances this time,” the King says warmly, with a firm handshake. “I would offer you the royal tour, but I believe you have another priority, and there will be plenty of time for that afterwards.”
Steve would feel more sheepish if he hadn’t already been about to burst out of his skin.
“I am sure you can appreciate that Barnes is still healing, so you’ll be placed in three-day quarantine in the WSA before seeing him.”
“Of course,” Steve nods, then hesitates. “So is he—”
“Shuri will give you more details later, but you have nothing to worry about, Commander,” King T’Challa says. “I was told that the surgery was a success.”
Steve expected to feel relief, but he’s still on edge, knowing Bucky is nearby, recovering, alive.
Only three more days.
“We can accommodate any food, drink, and entertainment requests you may have while you are in quarantine. Our chefs are trained in all manners of cultural cuisine, and we can access the same streaming services and media outlets you have in America. Is there anything you would like to start with?” King T’Challa asks.
Steve takes a deep breath. “I don’t mean to take advantage of your hospitality and generosity, Your Highness. Thank you again, from the bottom of my heart. If it weren’t for Princess Shuri’s compassion and quick-thinking—”
The king raises an eyebrow. “Commander Rogers,” he interrupts. “Please. Out with it.”
Steve sets his jaw. “I want something NASA won’t release.”
Timber Cove: A neighbourhood in the Greater Houston Area, famous for being home to all the astronauts in the 60’s.
WSA, Wakanda. 2049.
Steve quickly unpacks and methodically showers before settling into the spacious, sterile apartment in the Ramonda Health and Human Performance facility, that he’ll be confined to for the next three days. The modern kitchen is well-stocked, the fitness room has tempting massage chairs, and the floor-to-ceiling windows give him a gorgeous view of the WSA grounds. He forgoes all that in favour of sitting in the bedroom, scrolling through the video logs from the Insight III Hab.
Almost eight hundred entries.
Over five hundred sols.
He starts from the beginning.
This is astronaut James Barnes. I hope NASA gets this log, one way or another, but… Hello. To whichever space agency sees it first. It’s… 06:53 on sol 16. And uh. I’m still alive.
There was a massive storm on the morning of sol 15, we were given evacuation orders, and from what I can remember, I was hit and pinned by loose solar paneling. My left arm got the worst of it. Woke up with my biomonitor torn from my suit.
So, I guess I’ll talk through the situation thus far: I can’t make contact with NASA because the communications tower is shot. Their next manned Mars mission is years away. This Hab is only designed to last 45 days. I have limited food, an indefinite amount of water and oxygen, and a shattered arm.
Everyone probably thinks I’m dead, which makes sense, because I should be.
But. I’m not.
I spent the morning counting out the food inventory. It’s nice having options and not needing to fight over the last chicken teriyaki bowl. I should be okay for a while, especially since I can’t really afford to keep kosher right now. Sorry, ma.
Updating you on my arm, which is slowing me down a lot, and I’m taking… more Vicodin than I should be. I’ll cut down and wean myself off of it when my arm heals up a little, but not yet. Because Vicodin is great.
I’ve also been considering my options.
You know, they make us go through exhaustive survival training for years, but they never taught us the emergency protocol for complete isolation with no chance of communication. I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this.
One of the first things survival training teaches you is to take stock of what you’ve got and try to make that work. And what I’ve got, besides killer good looks and an absolutely winning personality, is a PhD in aerospace engineering, and desperate optimism.
Not a PhD in desperate optimism.
Though I might earn one by the end of this.
So, I spent the last couple of days designing, redesigning, calculating, and recalculating. Also scavenging for parts. Did I mention my so-stupid-it-just-might-work idea to build a cryogenic chamber into the freezer storage unit? Because that’s what I’m doing. It came to me when I was watching Disney movies on Lang’s laptop. Sorry, buddy. Sorry to all of my crew, actually, because I’ve definitely been all up in your personal belongings. But none of you can get mad about it because you left me for dead, so we’re almost even.
Anyway, Walt Disney was supposedly frozen until they could find a cure for death, right? Or so the story goes. Well, I’m lucky enough to have helped work on and test out NASA’s prototype cryo chambers, so now I’m gonna try to recreate one.
With whatever is lying around.
Yes, it’s a crazy idea, and I’ll probably fuck up over and over and over. But hey, five dudes at CalTech burned down part of their dorm trying to make rocket fuel, got kicked out, and ended up creating the JPL.
So, as Rihanna’s tattoo says, “never failure, always a lesson.”
You know what? I think I’m finally ready to start poking around in the freezer.
I blew up the freezer.
Gonna get back to work on it once my ears stop ringing.
I realized that I need more parts.
I’ve stripped down one rover, but I don’t wanna do that to the other one until, or unless, I absolutely have to. I looked at the map and thought about heading to the Insight IV landing site, but it’s too risky, that far away.
The only place nearby that could be even marginally beneficial is Perseverance Valley.
I did it! Hauled the Opportunity Rover back to the Hab. I spent a couple days cleaning it up and taking the usable parts, then figured out how easy it would be to fix and hook up to the battery from the rover I stripped down. So I did that.
Now, I can upload videos, pictures, files, reports, whatever, to Oppy’s memory drive. A memory drive the JPL can access. Assuming they do access it. I have no idea. I don’t think NASA has even checked the satellites yet. But they will! So, for now, it’s just me and Oppy.
I remember being a kid and bawling my eyes out when this rover first went dark. My sister made fun of me. Who’s laughing now, Becca?
I’m finding myself talking to Oppy like a dog. I was always a cat person, grew up with a bunch of ‘em, but now I think I want a dog when I get home. It never really made sense to get a pet before, since Steve and I are both astronauts who are often gone for extended periods of time, but I could take a few months off after this and foster one.
...and, yeah, Steve and I are together.
Fuck it. Why bother keeping it a secret anymore? Steve Rogers. Commander Steve Rogers. We own a home and live together. Romantically. Not as roommates. As boyfriends. And we haven’t disclosed it to NASA so we can continue to get assigned to missions together, because nothing about our relationship has, or ever will, compromise our professionalism or hinder our work. But we’ve been taking ‘trips to the moon’ since we were AsCans, and there’s nothing NASA can do about it now.
And we’re going to get a dog.
I am definitely going to die up here—if I have to keep listening to Wilson’s music library.
Sam, buddy, nobody needs this much Celine Dion. 28 albums? Really? You don’t even know French. And don’t think I didn’t notice that you have “The Power Of Love” in your ‘HIIT Cardio’ workout playlist.
And yeah, you’re probably asking yourself why I’m such an asshole, and I’d have to let you know that I’m everything I am… because you loved me.
I think, at this point, I’ve seen every single movie and TV show, listened to every single song and podcast, and read every single book my crewmates brought to Mars at least half a dozen times.
I’m gonna write a book about my experience living on Mars, but only after I retire, so I can include stories about aliens without getting in trouble.
So... I realized I was popping twice the amount of Vicodin a day than I planned to, for longer than I planned to.
I counted out how much I have left.
It’s, uh. Not a lot.
My arm is not getting better.
I can’t extend my elbow or put pressure on it. My grip is incredibly weak, and that’s a generous assessment. I started cutting down on the Vicodin, taking a half tab every night to take the edge off.
I’m… in fucking pain. And worried.
I think… maybe… the worst of it is over. I hope.
I’m dealing with the soreness in my arm with warm showers and stretching. Figured I weakened myself enough as it is, so I’m exercising as much as I can, trying to get used to feeling off-balanced. There’s a fold-out treadmill I get a lot of use out of, and I actually cleared a space in the terminal for yoga. Of all the things I could’ve imagined doing on Mars, that was pretty low on the list.
Other than that, I’m doing my best to build up the muscles in my right arm to compensate. But it’s tough. I’ve lost a lot of mass already. For a while, there, I could see my ribs. That terrified me.
Sorry, Stevie. I won’t be able to carry all the grocery bags in one trip anymore.
There was another storm last night. Huge, almost as bad as the one that we evacuated for. It knocked over the solar farm, and I fucked up my arm again trying to reinforce the panelling. I had to do it to ensure I won’t lose power, but this is gonna set me back again. Shit.
Like the Hab, the cryo chamber is going to run on solar power collected and stored during the days. I think I’ve gotta connect it to the battery of the second rover as a failsafe. I’m gonna be a couple days behind schedule, but I won’t take anymore Vicodin. I can’t. I only have two pills left for an emergency, and this is not an emergency.
I can just take a few days off.
I had a dream about home last night. It was… so real. I even woke up still thinking I was in the bunk at Cape Canaveral, and that I was about to get yelled at for sleeping in. God, I never thought I’d miss those shitty bunks.
I need to get home.
I need to finish this.
Well. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think it’s ready.
I tested it on some food, just to see if I got the rapid cooling right. Not the ideal kind of experiment, but it’s all I have. Everything is structurally sound. The adjustments I made seem to have helped. I’ve checked the numbers and measurements dozens of times. Technically, everything should be perfect.
But I’m still nervous. Can you blame me?
I’m gonna run the numbers one more time.
I gathered all the first-aid and medical equipment from the rovers and the Hab and laid them all out in the kitchen. Today, I’m going to clean, boil, and sterilize everything.
This is how it works on Earth, more or less: they hook you up to a bunch of IVs to stabilize your system, all done under general anesthesia, then you go into dry ice, and then the chamber. You’re being monitored by six machines, assisted by ten people. All these protective measures are meant to keep your brain from dying and your body from decaying. Important stuff.
On Mars, I don’t have those luxuries. I have basic anticoagulants, an ice bath to lower my body temperature, and a huge shot of morphine. So if the decompression and rapid cooling in the chamber don’t kick in fast enough, I’ll suffocate, give myself brain damage and blood clots, and/or simply freeze to death.
Wish me luck, I guess.
I took some time to clean up around the Hab. I put everyone’s things back, shut the computers down, dusted off the solar farm. I acknowledge the fact that I’m probably just stalling, but I also don’t feel great about going into cryo with this place looking like a mess. It kept me alive for a year and a half. I want to show it some respect. Hopefully it extends the same courtesy to me, and doesn’t implode while I’m on ice.
I decided that, uh, tomorrow will be the day.
I’m gonna have to fast for twenty-four hours, so I’m gonna eat three meals for breakfast today. Just to indulge. The plan is to watch a couple movies, read a little, and sleep in Steve’s bunk. I know we’re all supposed to have the same bed, but I swear his is a little bit softer and bigger than everyone else’s. Commander’s privilege, huh? At this point, it feels just as good as our bed at home.
And, uh, speaking of home. This part is for you, Steve. I hope you get a chance to see this, whenever that may be. I need you to remember the first time we met and what we said to each other, and the first time we were apart and what we said then, too. We sure as hell never expected something like this to happen, but it doesn’t change a thing. I loved you with all of me, knowing I could lose you, so I don’t regret any part of it, not for a second. I think that’s why I asked you out so fast, you know? I wanted all the time with you I could get. And I hope you felt the same. I hope you understand. This was worth it for me, so please don’t hate yourself for this. Please don’t hate me, either. But I’d do it all over again if it means getting another chance to love you, have you, make a life and a home with you.
That’s what I’m gonna think about, right as I go in. Home. If that’s the last thing in my head… I guess it won’t be so bad.
WSA. 3 Days Later.
After a hasty lunch and a final decontamination shower, Steve is finally picked up by M’yra, Princess Shuri’s personal assistant, and is escorted to the hospital wing at the other end of the RHHP Facility.
Long hallways, high-speed elevators, scanning badges, fingerprints, and retinas at every security checkpoint; it’s endless and jarring, like he’s moving in slow motion, with the constant pulsing of powerful Vibranium rattling his bones. Maybe he should’ve gotten more rest. Maybe he should’ve spent more time mentally preparing himself. Hysterically, he thinks that he should’ve booked in for that long-overdue shave and haircut. The infirmary staff are kind enough, sympathetic to his situation, and he doesn’t blame them for treating him like a skittish animal. The further they go through the private wing, the harder it is to breathe.
“Almost there,” M’yra reassures him.
After rounding another corner, he spots Princess Shuri standing guard outside of a closed door.
“Commander Rogers,” she says with a grin. “How was quarantine?”
He heaves a shaky breath. “Difficult, honestly. Thank you, Princess—”
She rolls her eyes. “When I am working, I am not a princess. Just ‘Shuri’. Please.”
“Right. I’m sorry,” Steve says weakly. “Call me ‘Steve’, then.”
“Okay, Steve,” she nods, before tapping away on her tablet. “I need to prepare you before you go in there. As you know, Mr. Barnes’ health was in rapid decline even before he entered cryogenic sleep, so the delicate reanimation process included major and extensive restorative surgeries. His immune system is still in a precarious state after spending a prolonged time on Mars, so he is going to need to stay in clinically clean environments until he heals. Since you are Mr. Barnes’ healthcare proxy, I can answer any questions you have pertaining to his situation, whether it be details about the rescue, Mr. Barnes’ medical progress, including current treatments and procedures…” Shuri trails off, squinting up at Steve. “What is it?”
Steve’s mouth twitches. “Have you met him yet?”
She looks at him skeptically. “Of course.”
“Has he told you not to call him Mr. Barnes?”
Shuri breaks out into a grin. “At least five times.” She tucks her tablet under her arm and gestures to the door behind her. “Go ahead, Steve. He is awake. You can find me later if you have any questions that he cannot answer.”
As she walks away, Steve approaches the door. It’s the last hurdle, the final obstacle in his way, but he struggles to find the will to turn the handle. It’s almost too much. Too good to be true. Doubt sinks its ice-cold fingers in him, tearing his hope to shreds. He imagines an empty room, like a sick joke, because how could he have possibly believed that the impossible happened? No one comes back from the dead.
His heart pounds in his chest, loud as a drum.
He braces himself, pushing open the door.
The vast room behind it is bathed in warm white light. Machines steadily hum and beep. A bed is positioned under a large window, where the sole occupant lies, facing away from the door. His right arm rests above the sheets, hooked up to an IV line that runs through his forearm. His left arm is tightly bandaged, stopping just above the elbow.
Steve inhales sharply.
At the sound, Bucky turns his head.
His hair, grown out long and dark, fans out across the pillows in soft waves. His beard is trimmed and neat, framing rose-petal lips. He’s thinner and paler, and fuck if that doesn’t hurt Steve to see, but a slow smile creeps across Bucky’s face until he’s beaming. It’s like looking into the sun.
“Stevie,” he rasps, deep and sweet as molasses. “You look like a lumberjack. Am I dreaming again?”
Steve darts across the room towards him, tears welling in his eyes until he can hardly see. “Oh god, Bucky,” he cries, and his hands shake as they reach for Bucky’s face.
Steve almost doesn’t expect to be able to touch him, but he does. Steve feels him, all flesh and blood and real . He traces his thumbs over Bucky’s prominent cheekbones, cradling his jaw as he presses their foreheads together. His vision blurs but he doesn’t dare close his eyes, as though looking away for a moment might make him slip away. He wants to learn every new line that creases Bucky’s face, thank every new ounce of lean muscle that kept him alive.
“You’re here, you’re here,” Steve whispers, like he’s trying to convince himself of that fact. “You came back to me.”
“Almost in one piece, too,” Bucky murmurs, blinking slowly and placing his hand over Steve’s. His touch is warm and sure. Anchoring.
“Oh, sweetheart,” Steve says, laughing wetly. “I’ll take you, any way I can have you.”
Bucky sighs, lips still curled up in a smile. “I dreamed about you. Every night.”
Steve nods, pressing a kiss to Bucky’s temple. “Me too, Buck. God, I’m so—”
“Shh,” Bucky frowns. “Don’t. Don’t you dare apologize.”
“Don’t,” he pleads, shaking his head. “Please, Steve. I know you, and it’s gonna kill me, thinking of you spending all this time feeling guilty about this.” Bucky swallows hard, tears streaming down his cheeks. “I can’t, honey. I just want to be here with you. I just want this to be real. Just give me that.”
Steve slides his hands into Bucky’s hair. “This is the realest thing I’ve ever known,” he insists roughly. “And I’ll prove it to you every goddamn day.”
Bucky yanks him in by the front of his shirt, at the same time he surges forward. Bucky’s mouth yields to him, warm enough to burn through Steve like a wildfire. He can’t think, he can’t breathe, not when Bucky whimpers so sweetly beneath him.
“M’never leaving you again, baby, I’ll die before that happens.” Steve whispers the promise against Bucky’s lips, pressing the words deep enough to stick.
Bucky pulls back, heaves a ragged breath, and slides his arm around Steve’s neck. “Lie down with me? Please? I wanna hold you, I waited so fucking long for this, but I…” he trails off, biting his lip. A tear loosens itself from his wet eyelashes.
Steve kneels on the bed, leaning down to drop a kiss to Bucky’s left shoulder. “Let me hold you this time, honey. You’re not the only one who waited.”
It takes some maneuvering to fit them both on the bed without disrupting the IV or drainage tube. Bucky tucks himself into Steve’s side, head pillowed on his chest. The familiar weight of him is enough to set off fresh tears.
“We have a lot to talk about, huh?” Bucky mumbles.
“Yeah, pal. Tons,” Steve agrees, fingers stroking absently through Bucky’s hair. “Wanna go first?”
“‘Kay. Are you keeping the beard? And the hair?”
“You’re one to talk, Rapunzel,” Steve mutters, as much as he can while smiling. He scratches at Bucky’s scalp, making him shiver.
“Mmm. Keep doin’ that,” he says, slow and sleepy.
Steve pulls him a little closer, holds him a little tighter. “Buck, your arm… Is it… Are you okay?”
Bucky takes a deep breath. “Well, after it was crushed by debris, I couldn’t set the bones right, so it didn’t heal properly. Mars being sterile is the only reason I never got an infection, but the blood was clotted and the whole thing was pretty mangled, beyond even what Wakandan doctors could do. It was either a fucked-up arm, or no arm, so I chose the option that hurts less. It wasn’t so much of a shock since I went so long without it. Small price to pay, in any case.” He tilts his head to look at Steve. “I kinda thought you’d freak out. Shuri didn’t tell you?”
“Well,” Steve begins, then clears his throat. “I, um, watched your logs. So I already figured how bad it was.”
“You’re kidding me.” Bucky’s jaw drops. “NASA actually released them?”
“‘Course not. But King T’Challa doesn’t answer to NASA,” Steve says with a small smile.
“Sneaky,” Bucky smiles back. “Anyway, Shuri already offered to build a fully-articulated custom prosthetic for me.”
Steve raises his eyebrows. “Yeah? Out of Vibranium?”
“Yep. I met a couple people here who have the same kind of prosthetic, they can move it just like any other limb, but stronger, and they can feel temperature and pressure and pain and everything . It’s crazy. The only thing is, it’s involves all these nerve implants and it’ll be wired right into me, so it’d be permanent and I’d have to come back to Wakanda for any repairs and maintenance. And, obviously, NASA isn’t allowed to poke around in it. But Shuri said it doesn’t interfere with spaceflight, so I could still be flight-eligible if I wanted to be.”
Steve looks at him for a long moment. “And do you want that?”
Bucky rolls his eyes, reaches up, and tugs him down for another kiss.
“Breaking news: our top story tonight is the long-awaited return of astronaut James Barnes. In a press conference this afternoon, NASA Director Everett Ross has given official confirmation that astronaut Barnes made it back to Earth several days prior. It was reported that he is currently hospitalized in Wakanda for injuries sustained on Mars, but is expected to make a complete recovery. NASA and Barnes’ family ask for privacy during this time, and will not be issuing any statements or interviews. Director Ross also thanked the Wakanda Space Agency for their help in bringing home a second American hero; the Opportunity Rover, who is back at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California after thirty years—”
WSA, Wakanda. 2049.
When Bucky asks what he missed while he was away, Steve doesn’t have an answer. Not one worth explaining or justifying, and nothing Bucky would want to be burdened with. He has recovery to focus on, an injury to cope with, and a life to get back to.
“It doesn’t matter anymore,” Steve insists, putting on a smile with practised ease.
The medical team lays out the rehabilitation plan, talks them through the schedules for medication, and introduces them to the physical therapist, M’Baku, and occupational therapist, Nakia. They discuss the risk of developing diabetes, of hardening of arteries, of phantom pain. Bucky has to remain under constant and careful monitoring as the wound closes and forms a scar. The doctors give a tentative date for him to be fit to travel to America, five weeks away. Bucky pushes for two. Steve casts his vote for six. They could potentially be back in Texas in four, so long as Bucky can avoid infection and make decent physical improvements by then.
“Recovery is not a race,” Dr. Zuri had said firmly.
“If it was,” Bucky had muttered to Steve, “I’d win.”
But he’s still weak, off-balanced, and requires a feeding tube. His residual limb is sensitive and sore, and his stubborn rejection of morphine means he’s usually near sobbing from pain. He wakes up disoriented and frantic three nights in a row, until he agrees to take something to help him sleep.
It would be harder for Steve to watch if Bucky wasn’t showing so much progress and pushing himself every day, all laser-focused intent and unfaltering determination. It’s the same will that kept him alive, and it’ll be what gets them home.
It’s not long until Bucky starts getting some colour back, and Steve can finally breathe again.
Though he spends most of his time diligently at Bucky’s bedside, some nights are spent in a larger quarantine unit, outfitted for two. Bucky will be transferred there after he’s discharged, once he can handle things on his own. Until then, he’s tasked with learning how to independently manage basic daily living skills. He thankfully has a leg-up in that regard, as he’d already been making do without his left arm for a year and a half. Anything they want to teach him, from changing his own bandages to getting dressed, he’s already done dozens of times over. Still, Steve does his best to be helpful without getting in the way, which proves to be far more difficult than expected.
Bucky eventually allows Steve to assist him with bathing in a tub, and it takes Steve two attempts to get the job done without crying.
For both of their sakes, he isn’t allowed to sit in on Bucky’s counselling sessions.
So Steve spends those hours taking in the scenic WSA grounds on morning runs, and visiting with the Dora Milaje crew. He hadn’t personally met them before now, but he’d certainly heard of them; the global astronaut community grew larger every year, and it was common to train with other agencies to help foster international relations, but it still made waves whenever a facility earned a Wakandan astronaut placement. Onyeka and Nailah had been at the Astronaut Centre of China. Aneka, Teela, T’Yana, and Nareema had gone to the European Astronaut Centre. Mbali and Asira had trained at the Tsukuba Space Centre. Folami, Dalia, and Xoliswa had spent time at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Centre. Steve had actually been training in Hawaii for Insight III when Ayo and Commander Okoye were up at the ISS with NASA.
They’re a remarkable crew, which wasn’t surprising in the least. They’d have to be, to pull off the rescue they did, and he makes sure they know it. They even invite Steve to lunch once he promises to stop thanking them so often. They’re also stuck in the hospital wing for several days, as they readjust to Earth’s gravity and undergo a battery of tests to study the effects of space travel on the human body after spending a prolonged period in flight. It’s tedious and exhausting stuff, so he’s happy to keep them company, though he suspects they’re mostly humouring him.
They visit Bucky as well, having been the ones to keep him company while Steve was in quarantine. Shuri and M’yra also stop by once every few days, and King T’Challa sends his advisor, N’Gassi, when he’s unable to personally check in. It’s easy to like Bucky, to find him fascinating and charming. He drinks up the attention with the understandable enthusiasm of someone who’d been starved for it, and it almost keeps him too busy to insist that Steve talk to him about the past two years of Steve’s life.
It’s a conversation he’s not ready to have, but he can only keep dodging it for so long.
After a week in Wakanda, Bucky’s eating solid foods, staying awake for longer periods of time, and is able to walk short distances without aid or losing his balance. After two weeks, he’s mastered his ADLs and is transferred to their shared quarantine unit, where he rolls his eyes when Steve demands that they sleep in separate rooms to avoid accidentally crushing his healing arm. Meanwhile, Bucky’s physical therapy sessions get more intensive as he works to improve his flexibility and mobility and regain some of the strength he’d lost. They miss Hanukkah and Christmas, but they watch every holiday movie they can find, and Steve makes a decent attempt at Winnie’s kugel recipe.
“How is it?” he asks, apprehensively. “I practiced twice at home.”
“Very edible,” Bucky announces, pinching Steve’s cheek.
When Bucky’s family asks how they’re doing, Steve finds it hard to describe exactly how well Bucky’s coping.
It makes sense when you consider the circumstances; he was alone and injured, seemingly without hope, and as good as dead. That gave him plenty of time to deal with his situation, to mourn and break down before picking himself back up again. He didn’t have the support systems and resources Steve had, but Bucky handled it on his own and came out the other side. He might still be on daily medications, and gets anxious about being left alone. He might still suffer from bouts of brain fog, and has to ask for help tying up his hair. But he’s gotten his independence back otherwise.
And it’s just like him to be smug about it.
“You know, I’m really proud of you,” Steve says as he watches Bucky do his skin-desensitization ritual of the evening; this time, rubbing at his stump with a rough towel.
“I know,” Bucky responds through gritted teeth. “Heard you sniffling when I was doing some half-assed yoga by the window earlier.”
“It wasn’t half-assed. You’re doing great.”
“Uh-huh. You’re just glad I can still hold cow pose with one arm.”
Shuri joins them for breakfast, three weeks into their stay, to let them know the doctors and therapists have agreed that Bucky has stabilized enough to fly. It’ll have to be in their private Wakandan jet with trained medical personnel on board, but still. They just need a few more days to have Bucky’s medical files sent to the receiving hospital in Houston, select and vet therapists there, and give NASA a full, final update on the situation.
For security reasons, Steve had surrendered his phone upon landing in Birnin Zana. He’d kept in touch with everyone through sporadic emails and had only been allowed to send a few photos to Bucky’s parents. Steve knows Director Ross was receiving reports from Shuri every few days, but Bucky’s condition was otherwise kept under wraps and out of the press. They were cut off from everything and everyone to ensure a stress-free environment for recovery, with everything Bucky longed for; lakes and rivers, blue skies, an unfathomable expanse of nature.
So the day before their flight home, Bucky suggests going for a walk. It’s his first time out of the WSA since landing, and though they can’t go too far, there’s no shortage of things to see.
The WSA is situated on sprawling plains just outside the capital’s borders. Compared to NASA, they have fewer buildings and half the land, but only because many of their buildings run deep underground. It takes all of twenty minutes to cross the property and reach the nearby Step Town district from the RHHP Facility, and they slowly wander through the marketplace, admiring the modern, earthy architecture and urban landscaping as they go. There are lush green trees atop skyscrapers, and wooden structures with straw roofs beneath gleaming monorail tracks. The streets are busy and alive and they hear bird calls they’ve never heard before. The entire block is aglow in warm, late-afternoon light.
“The sun shines differently here,” Bucky observes.
When he starts yawning, they grab spicy pilau rice and rich stewed Border lamb from one street vendor, and cinnamon sugar mandazi and fried plantains from another. They carry their dinner back to the WSA and secure a bench under the shade of a sycamore fig tree, overlooking the lake that marks the edge of the grounds. The sun starts to dip lower in the sky, easing its way towards the horizon, and they eat their dinner with few words exchanged.
“Can you believe this? Any of it?” Bucky asks, quiet and contemplative as he looks out across the water. The sky burns pink and orange behind him. Steve yearns to reach for his hand.
Steve sits with Bucky’s question for a while, allows it to pull at the threads that tenuously keep him together, testing the give. There were empty spaces of lost time, gnarled scars of grief that never healed quite right. The world turned and flourished, but Steve stayed rooted in place, decaying amongst the bloom.
A lifetime had passed in two and a half years.
“No,” Steve admits. “Can you?”
Bucky turns to him then, with something like a teasing smile playing on his lips. It’s heart-achingly familiar, and for a moment Steve’s twenty-eight again, looking in awe at the young man he fell in love with.
“Sometimes I think I’m dreaming,” Bucky murmurs softly. “Being here with you, in Wakanda, of all places… Going home tomorrow… I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop, I guess.”
Steve offers a small smile in return. It hurts to hear, but it’s not a surprise. “Did you dream something like this, before?”
Bucky looks down. In the space between them, he places his hand, palm turned upwards. Steve covers it with his own.
“I didn’t like to wish things like that. I could come up with a thousand scenarios, but they were all out of reach, and I was scared I’d lose my mind over them. So I just focused on memories. I could always go back to a memory. It was safer.”
Steve swallows past the lump in his throat. “Wow. Yeah. I know the feeling.”
They sit in silence for a while longer, until Bucky finally nudges him. “You run from me, whenever I ask how you’re doing or how you’ve been,” he says. “I’m sorry, but I know you don’t expect me to believe that you’ve been okay.”
When Steve doesn’t respond, Bucky continues. “You thought I was dead, and rightfully so. You mourned me. You said goodbye to me. That’s not easy to do, and it just about kills me, knowing you went through all that for nothing. I know how you get—bottling it up, shutting people out, pretending you’ve got it under control. You could fool everyone, but not me.”
Steve gathers the courage to look over at Bucky, noticing the way his eyes search Steve’s face. He knows what Bucky sees; wrinkles and dark circles and greying hair, an echo of the man he once was.
“I know I was the one up there, Stevie…” Bucky drops his gaze to their joined hands. “But you must’ve felt alone, too.”
Steve takes a breath, deep and slow. “I dwelled on the past because I couldn’t bear to think about the future,” he confesses, squeezing Bucky’s fingers. “For two years, I didn’t really move on. I don’t think I even wanted to. God, Bucky, it was bad . Then I found out you were alive, and I—” he pauses and shakes his head.
Patiently, Bucky squeezes back.
“Your yarzheit, NASA honouring you, your family growing, our friends reaching out... I wasn’t there. Not really. So I can’t tell you what you missed,” Steve says roughly, unable to stop the words as they spill out, “because I missed it, too. And I’m sorry for that. I’m sorry that I couldn’t live for you, that I wasn’t stronger, but when you died, you took the best parts of me with you.”
Silence falls between them again, and Steve’s glad for it. He feels a little lighter, his mind is a little quieter.
“I love you,” Bucky says softly. “Come inside with me?”
Bucky doesn’t let go of Steve’s hand, leading him back to the RHHP Facility, up the elevator, through the corridors, and into their unit. They kick off their shoes at the door. They don’t bother with the lights. When Bucky tugs Steve towards his room, Steve follows willingly.
It’s set up just like Steve’s, functional but plain, but with a larger window that affords him an uncompromised view of the mountains in the distance.
“It gets all misty in the mornings,” Bucky says, when he notices Steve looking. “You’ll see, if you stay.”
Steve nods and smooths a palm down Bucky’s shoulder, watching Bucky’s face carefully as he gets further down his arm. “How’s the pain?”
Bucky’s eyes fall shut. “Alright. Not so bad when I’m not thinking about it.”
Steve takes Bucky’s face in his hands. “Then don’t think about it,” he whispers.
Bucky slowly opens his eyes and tilts his chin up, regarding Steve tenderly. “You gonna make me forget it hurts?”
Steve strokes a thumb over Bucky’s lips. “No, sweetheart.”
He walks Bucky backwards, towards the bed.
“Gonna help you remember what feels good.”
It’s all too easy to lay him down, to peel away layers of fabric like a flower in bloom. Steve spends an eternity tracing and retracing paths over Bucky’s body, a collision of dreams and memories. Ever sweet, ever trusting, Bucky melts under him. Steve luxuriates in the gift of time given back to them, to be used and wasted as they please. It’s not enough, but it’s something; a promise, a homecoming, two old souls falling into a familiar dance.
It’s not enough, but it’s a start.
The sun sets over Wakanda, and it’s as beautiful as they say.
ADLs: Activities of Daily Living.
Yarzheit: Among Jews, the anniversary of someone's passing.
“—reports, earlier today, of a jet seen flying low over the Johnson Space Centre, speculated to be Chinese, or possibly Wakandan—”
“Breaking news: the director of NASA confirmed at this morning’s press conference that astronaut James Barnes has finally returned to Houston—”
“—social media accounts of the Insight III mission crew showed the very first photos of astronaut James Barnes since his return to Earth, ringing in the New Year with fellow NASA astronaut and rumoured partner, Commander Steve Rogers—”
Clear Lake Forest, TX. 2050.
After all that, Michelle is still just a satellite imaging tech. She wasn’t given any special recognition and wasn't being hounded for interviews—they didn’t even offer her a raise. She doesn’t mind, really, even if she feels the part she played in the rescue of Astronaut Barnes was not an insignificant one. She was finally promoted to a daytime shift, though. That was almost enough.
But she did ask if she would ever be allowed to meet Barnes. He still hadn’t been made to issue a statement or appear in any public capacity for NASA yet, so she was half-convinced he wasn’t actually here. Ross had dismissed her with an evasive “We’ll see” , and two days later, Fury showed up at her desk with an out-of-office assignment for which she wouldn’t be reimbursed for gas, and had to sign another NDA for.
That’s how she ends up at the doorstep of Barnes’ big, beautiful house, with a car full of gifts, letters, and flowers sent from all over the world, right around lunchtime.
She knows this, because her stomach growls violently at the smell of food coming from the open window.
It would probably make for a bad first impression if she ate some of the snacks people had been sending to NASA for Bucky, even though she’s certain he’d understand. Necessity, and all that.
But she’s got a job to do, so she shifts the overflowing box in her arms until she can free up a finger to ring the doorbell. She supposes she should feel nervous or excited, maybe even honoured. Mostly, she just wants to put the heavy box down.
After a minute or two, the front door finally swings open, and Commander Rogers looks from Michelle to the box and back again. “I’m Steve. You must be Ms. Jones. How many more of those?” he asks.
Straight to the point. She likes that.
“Like, six,” she says, “and a couple of AsCans baked y’all a pie.”
He huffs a laugh, then seems to remember his manners and takes the box from her. “Come on in, I’ll get the rest. Have you eaten?”
“Is that Michelle?” a voice calls out from further in the house.
“Yeah, Buck,” Steve yells back.
“Has she eaten?” the voice asks.
“We just made lunch. Have you eaten?” Steve asks again, more seriously this time, which is how she finds herself in the living room with a bowl of chilli, sitting on a recliner across from a man with mismatched socks, an MIT hoodie that had seen better days, and one arm.
“I figure I should start by thanking you,” Astronaut James—“ call me Bucky” —Barnes says with a wide grin, which Michelle realizes no photograph has ever done justice. “If you hadn’t realized what had happened…”
“I mean. Anyone else would’ve done the same,” she says, because it’s true, and because she’s never been good at sincere moments. “You could thank Peter Parker at the JPL, though. He’s the reason I was going through the sat images in the first place.”
“Parker, huh? I’ll see if I can get in touch.”
Steve finally ambles into the living room with three bottles of soda, presumably having finished unpacking all the perishables. “Oh, yeah, I heard about him. Shuri’s old intern, right?” He settles onto the couch beside Bucky, uncaps the diet Dr. Pepper, and sets it on the coffee table in front of him.
“Thank you,” Bucky says, earning himself a peck on the cheek.
Michelle shovels a spoonful of rice into her mouth and doesn’t blush, because witnessing casual affection between the beautiful men making global headlines is just part and parcel of the job now.
Steve slides the bottle of Coke towards her, and keeps the Crush for himself. “But it really is good to finally see you, Michelle. We haven’t been able to meet with and thank as many people as we need to.”
“Besides the crew, the only people we’ve really spent time with have been my folks and my sister, who are also holed up in here with us,” Bucky adds, “and the only reason they’re out of the house right now is because we ran out of groceries and toilet paper.”
“Well, Maria stopped by the other day,” Steve reminds him. “Gave us bath oil and a voucher for a couples massage at that spa she likes.”
“Right. Then Ross and his wife brought over that ice wine and stupidly expensive ham, and ma gave him the ol’ kosher-stink-eye—”
“—The JPL boys sent us a box of red velvet cupcakes and a Blu-Ray of Mars Attacks!, because they’re so clever—”
“—And Fury gave us that really soft knitted throw and a snake plant, how did you forget?”
“Yeah, I figured you guys were keeping a low profile. I respect that,” she says, nodding, still trying to grapple with the visual of Mars Missions Director Nicholas J. Fury holding a fluffy blanket and a houseplant. Where did he buy them from? Why are those his go-to ideas for a welcome-home present? “You deserve it.”
“Thanks for understanding,” Steve says, tipping his drink at her.
“No sweat,” Michelle says as she picks the black polish off her nails, which is definitely not a nervous habit. “Um, I’m not really sure what I’m allowed to ask, and I know you’ve already got that press conference at NASA happening tomorrow morning, but...”
“Oh, no, please, ask whatever you want,” Bucky insists. “I mean, we can’t talk about Wakanda, but everything else is fair game.”
She braces herself. “Can I grab a quick selfie? I’m sorry, such a dumb request, but I won’t post it anywhere public and it’s going to make my boyfriend really fucking jealous. He’s under half a dozen NDA’s, too.”
Bucky shrugs. “Yeah, why not? Come over here,” he says, patting the space on the couch between him and Steve. Michelle calmly, professionally settles between them and pulls her phone out.
“So your boyfriend’s at NASA, too?” Steve asks, leaning in behind her to get in the shot.
“No, he’s, um,” she starts, giving the camera a tentative smile. She doesn’t smile, especially not for photos, but it’s hard not to when Bucky and Steve are beaming on either side of her. She clears her throat, her smile turning a little more genuine, a little more fond. “He’s JPL.”
League City, TX. 2050.
Steve sips his decaf tea, takes a bite of the raspberry scone provided by Mrs. Phillips, and settles back into the chair. Across from him, Phillips clasps his hands on top of his desk.
“You look well,” he begins.
“I feel well, mostly,” Steve says. “Happy,” he clarifies.
Phillips nods. “How have you been this week?” he asks.
“‘Bout the same as last,” Steve says, then remembers he’d promised to make a conscious effort to open up more, and continues, “Bucky’s been doing great. He’s healing up really well. He’s doing better with the NASA-appointed therapists than I ever did, honestly, but he still hasn’t been cleared to return to work. Not even for desk duty. And I know that’s been tough for him, but he’s on his way, I’m sure.”
“Good,” Phillips says, in a tone that doesn’t sound good at all. “But I didn’t ask about Barnes.”
Steve purses his lips.
“They can see your dark circles from space, Rogers,” Phillips presses on, a little more softly. “Wanna talk about it?”
Phillips knows Steve doesn’t. But he will, anyway.
“We’ve been fighting,” he admits.
“Still,” Steve corrects with a sigh.
Phillips nods. “What about?”
“Work, mostly,” Steve mutters. “We were arguing just before I came over here.”
Not only is Bucky currently off-duty, but Steve hasn’t made a full return yet, either. He pops into the JSC once or twice a week for meetings and PR-related assignments, but his survival training course has been taken over by another instructor, and he’s preemptively pulled himself off any upcoming missions for the next two years. Bucky was livid to find that out, of course, because he thinks Steve is putting his life on hold for him. He doesn’t seem to realize that Steve’s life had already been put on hold the day he lost Bucky.
Steve knows PTSD. He knows nightmares and panic attacks and anxiety that rattles you to your core, but he doesn’t know it half as well as Bucky does. And no one wants Steve to blame himself, fine, but they can’t expect him to go on like nothing happened. Like it doesn’t hurt to see Bucky putting on a brave face when he knows Steve is watching. Bucky shouldn’t have to carry the burden of being strong enough for the both of them.
“What else did you argue about?” Phillips asks, in the way he does when he means to keep Steve talking until he gets to the point Phillips wants him to reach.
Steve folds his arms over his chest. “God. Where do I start? Things were good in January; we were still settling back in, and his family was around to help us out through all the meetings and interviews and press nonsense. Bucky didn’t start making noise about me going back to work until after they left. He thinks it’s easy for me to be away from him, and I know he needs time to adjust, but he doesn’t know what it’s like to walk into the room and have him look at me like I’m a fucking ghost. Or how it feels to see him shut down when he forgets simple, little things, because cryo did a number on his brain. None of that’s his fault, but how can he blame me for wanting to— trying to —be there for him?
“You know, he said I was one of the reasons he survived at all. I apparently gave him a purpose. Said his family would’ve understood if he died, but I wouldn’t have.” Steve chuckles bitterly, shaking his head. “Then he goes and tells me that I’m suffocating him. Coddling him like a baby. Treating him like a stranger in his own house, walking on eggshells around him in fear of a nervous breakdown. That I’m keeping everything from going back to normal. Not the fact that I thought he was dead for two years, not the fact that his fucking arm was shattered into a hundred pieces during an evacuation that left him stranded on an isolated planet—me.”
He almost asks if Phillips can believe that, but figures that he probably can. When Steve glances up at him, Phillips doesn’t say a word, just continues looking over him wordlessly; a silent command to go on.
Steve exhales. “I thought getting him back would solve all my problems. I didn’t realize we’d just be combining ours. I know things haven’t been easy for either of us, but I don’t know how else to be. I just want to help him, he says I’m making it worse. I... disagree.”
Steve stews in the ensuing silence.
“It’s not your place to agree or disagree with the way someone feels,” Phillips says after a long while, with a finality that Steve can’t argue with. “He wants to come home, Rogers. Let him.”
Clear Lake Forest, TX. 2050.
Steve pulls into the driveway an hour later than he expected. He took the long way back, considered stopping to buy flowers and chocolate but getting stuck in evening traffic instead. But the drive was good for him, helped him sort through his thoughts about priorities and compromises, helpfully narrated by a voice of reason that sounded suspiciously like his therapist.
“Buck?” Steve calls out, taking his shoes off.
“Bedroom,” Bucky replies from across the house.
Steve heads to the living room. “You busy?”
“On the phone with Becca.”
Steve grabs the edge of the coffee table, picks it up, and moves it aside. “Come out here when you’re done?”
A pause. “Just a sec,” Bucky yells back.
Steve does his best to shove the massive sectional back, but only risks pushing it a couple of inches in fear of scraping up the hardwood. He hears the soft padding of Bucky’s slippers coming down the hall. He pokes his head into the doorway, warily eyeing up the moved furniture. “Steve?”
Steve crosses the living room towards him and reaches for him. “Still mad at me?”
Bucky scowls, but lets Steve tug him closer. “I don’t wanna be,” he mumbles.
Steve presses kisses to Bucky’s forehead, the tip of his nose, both cheeks, and lingers at his mouth. “I love you. You’re home, and I love you.”
Bucky pulls back and studies Steve’s face. “My birthday’s not for another two weeks, pal. What’s gotten you all sappy?” he asks.
Steve flips the light switch off and takes Bucky’s hand, leading him into the space he cleared in the middle of the living room. There’s enough light coming from the hall to guide them. Bucky smells of clean laundry and shampoo. February is cool and quiet, but their home is warm and alive.
When Steve settles his arms around Bucky and pulls him close, Bucky comes willingly, settling his arm around Steve’s neck.
“Stars shining bright above you, night breezes seem to whisper ‘I love you’...” Steve whispers softly. “Birds singin’ in the sycamore trees, dream a little dream of me.”
Bucky’s grip tightens on the back of Steve’s shirt.
He sings. They sway in place. Steve holds Bucky like it’ll be the last time, and wonders how foolish he was to be doing anything less. “You’re home, and I love you,” he repeats, willing his voice not to crack, “and I’m sorry I haven’t been so good to you lately. Thank you for coming back to me, baby, even if I don’t deserve you. I don’t think I’ve thanked you enough for that, but I’ll do it every day for the rest of our lives, if you’ll let me.”
Bucky laughs wetly, face pressed into Steve’s shoulder. “And be stuck with your moody ass and off-key singing?”
“Yep. For the rest of your life, even.”
“Oh, I’m in. ”
Epilogue: 2.5 Years Later.
Unsurprisingly, Bucky is already leaning against the locker room door after Steve finishes up the day’s parachute jumping lesson and instructs the AsCans to get changed. “Barnes,” Steve says warmly.
“Rogers,” Bucky replies, eyes twinkling as he approaches. “I still can’t believe they let you run this course. Do your trainees know that you almost jumped out of the plane without the parachute during our first class in the air?”
A few of the AsCans snicker as they pass. “Hi, astronaut Barnes,” they say in greeting. Bucky salutes with two fingers. “Bishop. Chavez. Altman. Kaplan.”
“Hey, congrats on the Congressional Space Medal of Honour, by the way!” one of them says.
“All in a day’s work,” Bucky winks.
Once the rest of the AsCans have filed into the locker room and are out of sight, Bucky sidles up to Steve and reaches for his hand. “Please tell me this is the last class you’re teaching today. It’s too hot for this, and I need ice cream.”
“Yes sir,” Steve smiles, running his thumb over the gold band on Bucky’s ring finger before grabbing his hand. “How’s the survival training course going?”
Bucky chuckles. “Great. They take me way too seriously. I think I’m gonna start hinting at aliens soon.”
They drive home in the Jag with the top down, heat up some leftovers, and eat in the back yard as they lounge over the patio furniture. A black puppy settles in Bucky’s lap and eats chunks of chicken from his fingers. “Good girl, Oppy! Such a good, sweet girl, yes, you are!” Bucky babbles. Steve snaps a photo on his phone, and it’s worth the eye roll Bucky gives him.
Later, they’ll undress and slip into their backyard pool, sneaking kisses under the night sky. In bed, they’ll watch the video messages they’ve received from the Insight IV crew on their way to Mars, now led by Commander Carol Danvers. Eventually, they’ll make their way back to Wakanda, and Bucky will be the first American recipient of a Vibranium prosthetic. Their lives together will prove to be comfortable and exciting, difficult and rewarding, but it’s all worth it—whether they find themselves earthbound, or launched back into the endless cosmos—for such small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.
+ The last line of this fic has been helpfully provided by Carl Sagan.
+ This is Oppy.
+ This is the shirt Bucky wore to his first official press conference after he returned to Texas. NASA was not amused.
Another round of thank you's to: NurseDarry, who was patient and understanding and taught me so much, crinklefries, who challenged me in all the right ways to get this story in fighting-shape, my artist who made this whole thing possible and gave me free reign to run wild and be experimental, and everyone who read/commented/left kudos on our little offering for the RBB.