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Into That Good Night

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Life, thought Steve, is gonna be the death of me.

 

*

 

Truth be told, death was creeping in from the edges. Had been for a long time. Steve could taste it in the grit-laden wind and smell it in the smoke-filled air. He could see it in the way he had to wipe the dirt off the table every time he wanted to sit down for a meal. The doors stayed closed, the windows too, but the dirt always found a way in. It trickled in, as insidious and relentless as time itself. It was telling them all that the great burial had begun.

Steve still brushed it off the table before he sat down to eat, and swept it off his porch with a broom every day. Rituals like these were what kept him alive. He sometimes wondered where he was finding the strength to go on. The year was 2097, and he had been alone for a long time.

The answer, he regularly concluded, lay in the force of habit. He’d gotten… used to living. Or maybe he’d fought too hard and too often when he was young; maybe he’d broken the gauge of his survival instinct. Maybe he’d pushed it too far and it had remained stuck into the red, cranked up to max, even though he should have died decades ago.

The serum would end up killing Steve, precisely because it was keeping him alive. Steve hadn’t been able to get wounded enough on the battlefield, hadn’t been able to die of natural causes, and hadn’t even been able to age. He was one hundred and seventy-seven years old—or a less impressive one hundred and seven, if you took away the seventy years he’d spent under the ice—and he still looked like he’d looked on the day of Erskine’s death. The only thread that bound him to this world was the serum; hence the serum would be the cause of his death when it finally took mercy on him and decided to let him go.

Which was soon. It had to be.

The air smelled of iron.

Steve was a stranger on this dying earth. The name of Captain America didn’t mean anything to anyone anymore. It was his own choice, and the most reasonable option, too. The history books were now telling people the moon landing had never happened; so, heroes? Heroes were out of the question. If Steve had stayed who he was, if he’d remained a living piece of Earth’s own history, he would’ve been terminated one way or the other. He’d chosen silence; he’d chosen retreat.

I know, I know, Captain America never backs off. But that was exactly the point: he wasn’t him anymore.

It was somewhat baffling, how quickly people had forgotten him, when he used to feel like he could never shake off his star spangled persona, not in a million years. But to tell the truth, he simply did not have any friends left. They were all gone, and he’d let Captain America tag along, so at least one little part of him could die, at least one little part of him could stay behind, with them.

Tony had been the first to die—of a goddamn heart attack, of all things. Bruce had disappeared soon afterwards, giving in to his instincts to run now that he wasn’t constantly being pestered into giving himself a break. Steve sometimes wondered if Tony would’ve been able to curb the Earth’s slow decay. He could never know, but he could see that only a few years after the death of the last of the Starks, the Earth had begun to push humanity towards the exit, slowly but firmly, with all the sluggish stubbornness of a glacier.  

The atmosphere was filling with nitrogen. Steve’s crops were dying.

He was a farmer, like ninety percent of humanity now. It was still not enough. The food was lacking. The wheat had been the first to go, struck down by plagues that spread like wildfire; the corn would follow suit in a few years, undoubtedly. Steve strove to keep his fields alive, so people could eat, so people could fight on for a bit longer.

Steve strove to keep his fields alive, because this was Clint’s farm.

Clint had been the second one to go. He had died heroically, like the idiot he was, blown up by his own explosive arrows in the engine of a plane—they were still fighting at the time; the era of heroes had not yet ended. He’d died saving them all, which they’d never quite forgiven him for. But after Steve’s demotion, he’d gone back to the farm where they had spent one summer together—during the Ultron debacle; nothing lasts forever, Natasha was whispering back then already—and he decided that if really he was to tend crops till the day he died, he could do it here.

The first few months were tough, but after a while, even the memories learned to leave him alone.

Steve had stayed friends with Sam, and Sharon and even Nick and even Maria—all of them, till the day they died. But he hadn’t married. He hadn’t had any kids. It was selfish, he supposed, and cowardly, but he couldn’t have borne the thought of outliving them. He couldn’t have borne to watch them grow up and then grow old.

Now that he was alone, he had stopped counting the seconds ticking away from his friends’ lives. The years were blurring. The days all looked the same. It made it easier. Steve did not want to be near people, and did not want people to be near him. He was supposed to be dead and waited it out, patiently, like an Inuit whose sun would simply not set.

One day it would; and on that day would come eternal night. Rest, maybe.

In the meantime, Steve sat on his front porch with synthetic beer and looked at his fields of dying corn that stretched out to the horizon. The messed up atmosphere made for some goddamn gorgeous sunsets. So much red.

Natasha had died of natural causes, at the age of eighty-one years old, which she hadn’t seen coming at any point in her life. Steve was almost glad—she deserved it more than anyone else, after a long hard life of being shaped into someone else by everyone she’d met. At least her death had been her own. She had aged gracefully, and kissed Steve on the cheek before she passed. She’d left two words for him in her will: keep going.

Looking back, the age of heroes had been somewhat frantic, somewhat spasmodic, when back then it had looked like it would be forever. It had started with Steve himself, the First Avenger, and then it had snowballed. So many different powers, so many mutations, so many accidents, like a powder keg blowing up for three decades—until suddenly it all died out, put out by its own shockwave. The mutant plague had been the first sign, and Steve remained convinced to this day that it was his greatest failure—that he could have stopped it, that he could have seen it coming, that the plague had been engineered, weaponized, turning the X-gene into a time bomb that rotted the blood of its carriers. The mutants had died, one by one, and with them the last hope of a humanity which hadn’t evolved along with their planet. Earth was changing when humans had refused to change, and they were now paying the price.

Bruce hadn’t been the fourth, not really, but Steve had started to really worry about him after Natasha’s passing. Until then, they’d assumed Bruce did not want to be found; but when he failed to attend Natasha’s funeral just like he’d failed to attend Clint’s—just as the age of heroes was beginning to end—Steve realized something might be seriously wrong. He looked for him, turned every stone and discovered ugly things writhing beneath in the process; but Bruce never showed up. Neither did the Hulk. Eventually, Steve ran out of trails to follow.

It pained him, not knowing, because the absence of closure allowed that particular loss to gnaw at him and burrow into an already septic wound. Had he failed him? Should he have looked earlier? They’d never been close, the two of them. Bruce had only ever really been friends with Tony, and yet the guilt Steve felt stemmed from a sense of betrayal.

But the clear sign of the end had been the destruction of Asgard—later the same year, only fifty years after Thor had crash-landed in New Mexico for the first time. No one had seen it coming—no one could have; even now, it was not clear exactly what had destroyed it. Heimdall had sent them a last message, saying only: Ragnarök. Then there had been nothing but the silence of empty stars.

Thor had refused to believe it for several weeks, desperately seeking an explanation, a way back, a way out. He had stood strong in the face of his mother’s passing, of his brother’s betrayals and death; but this loss was simply too huge. He could not comprehend it. I should have been there, he kept saying. I should have been there.

Steve helped him, the best he could. He knew a little about what it felt like, after all, losing an entire world. But even as he carried Thor through those dark, dark months, he wondered how much more they could endure and when they would reach their breaking point. The rest of mankind did not welcome the news, either. Suddenly, humanity was back where it was before that famous day, when Loki had come and opened a portal up in the sky. Back to being alone in an indifferent universe—on a planet which, no less, was no longer their home.

When it became obvious that even the old enemies were moving on—HYDRA disbanded, AIM bankrupted—Steve told Thor he could stop fighting. He told him their time had come and gone. They were anomalies, now. Outliers. They should just retreat in the shade and live the normal life they’d been refused all that time. Thor protested, at first, told him they were brothers in arms. But Steve insisted. Told Thor he wasn’t an Avenger anymore. Told Thor he wasn’t even an Asgardian anymore. It was time to let go. It was time for him to—how had Steve put it? Time to be gentle with yourself.

Thor ended up taking his advice; he embraced Steve, and thanked him effusively, gravely, and told him they would meet again.

They never did. He went back to Jane, who was eighty-nine at the time, and settled with her for good; and, far as Steve could tell, he loved her like no one had ever been loved before. Then, a short four months later—the year was then 2070—she died in her sleep, and Thor killed himself.

Steve knew this, because he’d been the one called in New Mexico to identify the bodies. He’d seen the smile, so peaceful on Thor’s bloodless face. I told him to stop fighting. The police had found Steve’s name and address in the family computer; Thor and Jane had been planning to visit him for years and had never actually done it. Thor had left something of a note, which they gave to Steve since his name was on it.

Steven,

do not go gentle into that good night.

Steve wasn’t sure what it meant. He stayed for the funeral, and wondered if the hollowness he was feeling was grief, or if he’d finally lost the ability to feel at all.

The next day at the crack of dawn, Steve had come back to Clint’s farm and considered the razor blade in the pharmacy. He’d picked it up, weighing it in his palm, cold and sharp.

Not today, something said in his mind.

He didn’t ask himself, why not? What the hell am I waiting for? because he’d been asking himself that same question for so long. He was staying alive like this was purgatory, dragging his beating heart like a ball and chain, chasing the death his own hands would not grant him. Not today, as if there was still something to hold out for, when in truth death was already written all over the brown dried-up earth.

But he couldn’t kill himself. It would’ve been an insult to all the ones who’d died before their time—all the ones he hadn’t been able to save.

Steve wished he could have been the sixth to go, but he knew he wouldn’t be. He knew the sixths would be the billion people that remained on Earth, buried under the grit, choking on nitrogen, starved to death. Steve’s only hope was that he could go with them. Be the last and close the door behind.

 Surely—surely he’d earned that by now.

 

*

               

Steve did not sleep much anymore—did not eat much either, selling almost the entirety of his production to the nearby town. Sometimes, he wondered whether this wasn’t an insidious way of ending himself. He was slowly starving, he knew it; he looked gaunter every day, and his hunger was a constant, twisting ache in the pit of his stomach. But he still fed himself, regularly if not plentifully. He could still get by.

The sleepless nights, though, were piling up.

He was not surprised to wake up in the middle of the night yet again; what surprised him was that something had actually woken him up this time. A dull, thumping noise, like something falling down onto the hardwood floor. He listened, but there was nothing more.

Burglars? he wondered hazily, but it was a stupid thought. He had nothing of value save for the corn growing out front. Who even said burglars anymore, Jesus.

He got up, rubbing his eyes. Outside, the sky was gray and orange. The asthmatic wind had already wheezed a thin layer of dirt over the furniture, and Steve’s shuffling feet left sweeping footprints across the floor when he walked to the stairs. He climbed up slowly, dragging up his weight to the memorabilia room. He hadn’t been there in a while.

The shelves were full of books, of action figures, of replicas, of autographs, of proof that Steve’s life had not been entirely imaginary. A few of Hawkeye’s arrows had been respectfully laid down on the wooden planks; the only other real item in the room—Steve’s shield had been sold years ago, along with every remaining piece of Tony Stark’s armor—was Thor’s hammer. He had left it there before going to Jane, as to show that he had indeed stopped fighting.

Except it wasn’t there anymore. It had fallen down from the shelf.

Steve stared at it.

Then he slowly, slowly knelt down in the dust, wrapped his hand around the handle, and pulled. The hammer did not move. It had no reason left to be wielded by Steve, or anyone else, for that matter. Asgard was gone. There were no battles to be fought. And Steve, well, Steve hadn’t been able to save Thor and hadn’t been able to find Bruce and hadn’t been able to stop the X-genocide. The hammer did not move.

“C’mon,” murmured Steve, throat tight and voice hoarse with disuse. “Don’t stay on the floor, buddy, please.” He pulled again, but the hammer wouldn’t budge.

Steve dusted his hands on his pajama pants and was about to straighten up when he saw it. Numbers and letters, drawn in the dust, as if by an invisible finger, right next to the handle.

He wished they were not making any sense, but his training had burrowed into his bones and he saw them for what they were.

Coordinates?

Steve swallowed, then looked up, looked around. He wanted to call out, maybe Thor’s name, but it was stupid. Thor was not here. Thor had sliced up his wrists and held the wounds open with clothespins so he could bleed out. The room was dark and silent again.

There was no one here. Steve was alone. He’d been alone for almost thirty years.

He looked at the numbers again.

 

*

 

He had to drive all night long, but all things considered, it was not very far. The night sky was obscured by clouds of dust whistling through the air like banshees on the hunt. Steve drove through, hands trembling a little on the wheel. For the first time in years, he could feel his own heart beating.

Then the storm suddenly swelled and raged and Steve had to park on the side of the road. There was sand in the air now, pelting his windshield in a pouring staccato. Steve hoped the glass would hold; it was a very old truck. Maybe he should go back. This was never the plan—nothing more was supposed to happen before the end.

The radio turned on by itself. There was no music and no announcers; just a cool, smooth voice Steve thought he’d heard somewhere.

“Do not go gentle,” it said, “into that good night.”

Steve’s heart stopped before stumbling into a regular pounding again. He carefully reached out and cranked up the volume. There was only static in the midst of the storm.

“Who is this?” he asked in a shaky voice.

It suddenly occurred to him that he might simply be going crazy. But it felt unlikely. Why now? Why not twenty-three years earlier, coming back from Thor’s and Jane’s funeral and staring at himself in the mirror before turning it against the wall?

The voice was going on. “Old age should burn and rave at close of day. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Then there was just a scratch of static and the radio died out.

Steve looked out the window, heart pounding; the sandstorm was still flaring at times, vivid and angry, but the words were echoing in Steve’s ears.

He clenched his jaw, swerved the wheel and got back on the road.

He drove for another hour, through swirling dirt and howling wind; it was his stubbornness against the storm’s, and eventually it all began to die out, hiccupping blood-red bursts of sand at him before finally deflating and calming down. The skies themselves had cleared; Steve could see a few stars twinkling in the darkness. He drove straight through the calmer night, until he came across a huge dark shape that made him skid to a halt.

What he’d reached was a ten-feet-tall barbed wire fence, and a flat building outlined against the blackness of the night.

Steve stopped the truck and got out, slamming the door shut. The air tasted of iron as always. Gravel crunched under his feet when he walked towards the fence; it was tall and solid, but the mere thought that this could be enough to stop him was laughable. He gathered his strength, leaped up and caught the netting; he climbed it forcefully, pulled himself up with sheer muscle strength, threw a leg over the barbed wire at the top and jumped over the whole thing. He landed on his tip toes, stayed into a crouch for a few moments, then got up without stumbling. Erskine had done a really good goddamn job with him.

For a second, nothing moved; then a violent light exploded in his face.

 

*

 

Steve didn’t put up any resistance. He didn’t even know who or what he was dealing with; and these people hadn’t even put handcuffs on him, or threatened him with anything more dangerous than a flashlight. His curiosity was enough for him to follow them quietly into the building, past a dim-lit hallway full of pictures of people he didn’t recognize, and into a small room where they sat him down and told him to wait.

After a while, the door opened and a young woman walked into the room—which Steve suspected more and more was a hastily cleaned-up broom closet. She was wearing a golden turtleneck and black jeans; her blond hair was shaved on the side, leaving the remaining half to trickle down her face in some kind of floppy Mohawk.

“Carol Danvers,” she said, holding out her hand.

“Pleased to meet you,” said Steve. You’re the first stranger I’ve talked to in twenty-three years. “I’m Steve.”

His handshake was steady but he still felt like he was trembling. He spoke to a lot of people when it came to sell his corn, but it wasn’t the same. This was too intimate, too unusual, too real. It demanded a focus he simply didn’t have anymore. He was already beginning to feel overwhelmed; Danvers’ hand in his had felt too hot, and left his palm tingling.

But he remember the hammer falling down, remembered the cool smooth voice in the radio, and he took a deep breath.

“So, Steve,” she said, kindly enough but with a hint of steel in her tone Steve didn’t miss. “How did you find us?”

“There’s been a sandstorm,” said Steve. “I was trying to find my way back, and…”

He stopped when he saw Danvers’ smile. It reminded him of Natasha, with the same exact goddamn smile, a twinkle in her clear eyes. You’re a terrible liar, Steve.

He hadn’t thought about Natasha in too long. He blinked several times, swallowed, then said, “Alright, no lies. But I’m warning you, ma’am, the truth sounds worse.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” said Danvers, politely.

“Someone… something… wrote the coordinates in the dirt. In my own house. I know how it sounds—but—I also heard…” He closed his eyes for a second. He felt like his skin was buzzing, felt restless and antsy. People were not good for him. They made him feel alive, too alive, and woke up the grief he carried in his bones. “Something about not going gentle into that good night.”

When he looked up, Danvers was looking at him very oddly.

“Something the matter?” asked Steve cautiously.

“Steve,” she said. She opened her mouth, looked like she was changing her mind, then changing it again. “Steve, do you know where you are?”

Steve just shook his head.

“This is SHIELD,” she said cautiously, as if testing the waters.

Steve blinked at her. He hadn’t heard this name in… Jesus, he didn’t want to count. “SHIELD?” he repeated incredulously. “Strategic Homeland Intervention…?”

Danvers’ pupils were dilating and her lips parting a little, as if she was seeing something beautiful. Something incredible. But all she was staring at was Steve. “Steve,” she repeated. “Steve, who the hell are you?”

Steve didn’t answer. His gut was clenching even though he couldn’t yet tell why, his body readying itself for action. “Is this a test?” he asked.

“I think you should come with me,” said Danvers abruptly, and stood up before he could answer.

Steve slowly got up and followed her out of the small room. Danvers walked with brisk, confident strides, and now that Steve saw her move in a proper light, he could tell for sure that she must have been military at some point in her life—maybe still was; she was young. It was not quite enough for him to fully accept what she’d said. Why would have SHIELD outlived the heroes they were investigating? Hell, they had been taken down ages ago—sometime around the year 2014, when HYDRA had resurfaced. It all seemed so ancient and futile, almost childish, now that the wind was blowing grit and the corn was crumbling into ash. 

Then Danvers pushed a door open and Steve found himself on a catwalk overlooking a huge, bright-lit room, full of people in lab coats bustling about what looked like…

“…A rocketship?” murmured Steve.

It was huge, silver and sleek, and pointed at the night sky. Steve had been around his share of aircrafts working with SHIELD, but this wasn’t like anything he’d ever seen. It looked more imposing, somehow, grave and reflexive and purposeful like an abstract representation of Buddha. Danvers was about to answer him when a loud noise of shattering glass made the whole room freeze.

The scientists stopped running around the spacecraft, and everyone turned to the one man who’d dropped what he was holding to stare up at the catwalk in petrified shock.

When Steve saw who it was, he didn’t think.

“Wait,” exclaimed Danvers when he grabbed the railing, “take the st—”

Steve heard her say this before he realized he was jumping over the handrail and letting himself freefall all the way down. The landing was a bit rougher than when he’d leaped over the fence, but he could still shrug it off like a goddamn mosquito bite. He would have shrugged off anything right now. He got up, stumbled forward—and for a split second he hesitated, because they’d never been that close; but when Bruce opened his arms, Steve stopped thinking and they fell into a tight, intense embrace.

“I thought—” Steve stammered when he pulled back. “Jesus, Bruce. I thought… I thought you were dead.”

“I,” said Bruce hoarsely, eyes wet with emotion. “I thought you were dead too.”

He was still gripping Steve’s sleeves with trembling fingers. Steve felt like something had exploded inside his head, shattering his already shaken numbness and sending shards into his brain, scrambling his thoughts in a way that was both familiar and painfully new—he hadn’t truly felt something in so long. Now the emotion was back, and he could barely breathe with it.

“What happened to you?” said Steve feverishly. “Bruce, what happened? I—we… we looked for you. Thor and I. After a while, I started thinking you didn’t… didn’t want to be found. I—”

Steve realized he was beginning to hyperventilate and took a few deep breaths to calm down. This was too sudden and too huge. Bruce was here, real and warm and alive, and Steve felt terribly, painfully drawn to him—wanted to press his face into the crook of his neck and breathe him in. His skin itched for contact, desperate for the touch of someone who knew him for who he was. Someone who hadn’t forgotten. Someone who’d been there.

“I thought it was just me now,” he said, throat tight.

Bruce’s features quivered. He was still gripping Steve’s arms, as if to know for sure that he was real, too. He hadn’t aged a day. Jesus Christ, he hadn’t aged a day, and it made Steve want to laugh and cry at the same time.

Bruce appeared to think the same thing; his mouth twisted into a wry line, and his crinkled eyes spoke of thirty years of solitude. Relics, the both of them, relics from an ancient time. There were no more heroes, only humans dying alone without anyone left to protect them. And a few anomalies like them. Goddamn dinosaurs waiting for a meteor rain.

“It’s not,” murmured Bruce at long last.

He ducked his head, then exhaled and stepped back as if to stop himself from hugging Steve again. Steve could almost feel under Bruce’s skin the same itch that lived inside him, painful and too sharp, the craving for contact; it made him want to step back, too, because it was like being exposed to a fire after years in the ice. Too much, too bright, too sudden. It almost made him miss the numbness of absence.

“I have—so much to tell you,” said Bruce, fumbling a little with his words. “My God, Steve.” He looked at him as if he was suddenly seeing him in a whole new light—the way Danvers had looked at him a few minutes ago. “Everything will be different now.”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself, professor,” said another voice, half-amused and half-irritated.

Steve turned to face Carol Danvers, who’d taken the time to come down from the catwalk in a more conventional way. He found himself more puzzled than angry at her little knowing smile. “Will someone explain to me what is going on here?” he said.

“Of course, Captain.”

Steve blinked.

Danvers was already turning away. “Follow me.”

 

*

 

“Professor?” whispered Steve to Bruce as they followed Danvers up the dim-lit corridor Steve had been marched through less than an hour ago.

Bruce gave him an embarrassed smile. “I’ve had both titles for a while now. Call me anything you want.”

“What about…” Steve swallowed. “Bruce. What about the Hulk?”

“It’s a long story,” said Bruce wearily. “And Colonel Danvers’ takes precedence.”

So she was military. Steve felt a nasty taste at the back of his throat. “Is she holding you here?”

Bruce blinked at Steve; then he smiled fondly, and Steve felt again that desperate need for contact, for comfort, for a friend’s touch.

“You haven’t changed,” said Bruce warmly. “No, Steve, thank you. Those days are… well—you don’t need me to tell you that they’re gone. I’ve outlived pretty much everyone who knew about the Hulk.”

“Does Danvers know?”

“My father was a historian, Captain Rogers,” said Danvers out loud. “I know a lot more about you than our world remembers.”

“Obviously,” said Steve, a little piqued.

Danvers turned to smile at him, then stopped in front of the first picture hung in the long corridor and brushed her fingers against the glass in a small, intimate gesture.

Then she moved on to the next, but not before Steve could glance at the photograph—it was a young man with a bright smile, in a red space suit. Peter Quill, said the caption.

“We’re not the Strategic Homeland anymore,” said Danvers. “SHIELD now stands for Space Habitability, Interstellar Exploration and Lightyear Discovery.”

Steve couldn’t help snorting a little. “I’m impressed. It almost means something.”

“To be fair,” said Bruce with a smile in his voice, “the first version didn’t make much sense either. The SHIELD part was all that mattered to Peggy Carter.”

It had been so long, and Steve had lost so many people, that the name of Peggy did not really hurt him anymore. It just reminded him that he was weary down to his bones, and that the novelty of this inexplicable day might soon turn back into ashen monotony.

“Alright, fine,” he said. “So… what, Colonel? What is SHIELD’s endgame this time?”

“The same it’s always been,” said Danvers evenly. “The survival of the human race.”

She looked at the row of pictures hanging on the wall. “We’ve known for a long time that we were no longer welcome here. After Asgard’s destruction, it became obvious that we couldn’t count on anyone else but ourselves to leave. Mankind was born on Earth, but,” she smiled, “it was never meant to die here.”

“Last I heard,” said Steve, “hyper speed travel was still against the law of physics.”

Tony had been dead for a long, long time, but Steve still remembered the frustrated wince he’d turned into a grin upon seeing Steve in his workshop. He’d sent his holographic schematics twirling with a wave of hand. “It’s no use, Cap, physics just don’t allow travel at the speed of light. Our physics, anyway.”

“You’d abandon the Earth?” said Bruce curiously.

Steve shrugged. “Figure we owe her a break.”

Danvers turned to him. “We’ve got a way out, Cap,” she said. “Asgard had cracked the problem; they had the Bifrost. It looked like it was shooting people across the Universe, but really it was folding it—twisting it around the Asgardians. Creating a wormhole through a fifth dimension.”

“And a wormhole,” said Bruce, “appeared near Saturn eight years ago.”

Steve felt dizzy.

“What?” he breathed.

He looked between them both. They just looked back at him.

“But the Bifrost’s gone. Asgard—Asgard’s gone.”

He was thinking of Thor’s hammer. Of Thor’s words. Do not go gentle into that good night. The voice on the radio hadn’t sounded like him—or maybe a little? Only more solemn, more wistful?

“Maybe it’s not Asgard,” murmured Bruce in his weary voice. “We just don’t know. But it’s out there.”

“Why Saturn?”

“We have no idea. We’ve sent probes through it. It leads to another galaxy.” Danvers turned to Steve. “With twelve potentially habitable planets. Whoever it is, they’re looking out for us.”

“Twelve planets?” repeated Steve. “Did you—did you send someone through the breach already?”

“We did,” was all Danvers said.

Steve followed her gaze looked at the row of pictures again. Twelve astronauts, all so young and smiling in their red space suits. Peter Quill. America Chavez. David Alleyne. Kate Bishop. Daken Akihiro. Verity Willis. Amadeus Cho. Sooraya Qadir. Abigail Boleyn. Eli Bradley. Ichiki Hisako. Jeanne Foucault.

“Three of them sent back positive results,” said Danvers. “Quill, Chavez and Daken.”

“What about the others?” asked Steve.

“Each of them knew going in that they might never see another human being again.”

Steve said nothing.

“The spaceship you saw,” said Bruce, “is called the Endurance. Well—to be exact, it’s a Ranger; it’s designed to dock the space station called the Endurance which is currently orbiting Earth at our vertical. We’re sending it through the breach to colonize whichever planet will turn out to be the best one. We’ve got frozen embryos, growth serums, artificial wombs.” He sounded weary.

“The professor was an immense help,” said Danvers in a respectful tone.

Steve looked at him. “Bruce?” he said. “What about the people here?”

“Recolonization is plan B,” intervened Danvers. “There is a plan A and we’d like to prioritize it.”

Bruce bit his lip. “I—” he stopped himself. “I worked with Tony. And with—with Jane Foster. They taught me… well, they’re the reason I was able to help out the new SHIELD. They taught me what they knew. Which was a lot. And I’m getting old—I had time to teach myself some more.”

He looked at the row of pictures. “But not enough to crack the gravity equation. If we—if I,” he corrected himself wistfully, “if I could solve it, we could get any ship of any size airborne without worrying about fuel. We could keep them up in space for hundreds of years on end. We could build space stations and save everyone.”

“But you can’t solve it,” said Steve.

Bruce looked at him. “I can,” he said, softly. “But not from here.”

Something in his tone sent a chill up Steve’s spine.

“Bruce, what do you mean?”

Danvers answered instead. “Quill’s, Chavez’ and Daken’s planets orbit around a black hole called Gargantua,” she said. “Do you know what a black hole is, Captain Rogers?”

“Yes, I—”

“No, you don’t,” she cut off. “No one does. That’s the problem. At the center of a black hole is a gravitational singularity. It has no volume and an infinite density.”

“That… sounds impossible.”

“It is,” said Bruce, quietly. “If we could observe it—if we could understand how it works, we could understand the secret of gravity. We could solve the equation. The problem is that nothing that crosses the horizon event of a black hole ever comes back.”

“Bruce,” said Steve again, a little alarmed, “what do you mean?”

“Endurance has three missions,” answered Bruce with a small, fatalistic smile. “Rescue those of the twelve who can be rescued; repopulate our new Earth—that’s plan B; and dump me into Gargantua. That’s plan A.”

Steve felt himself pale and saw Bruce raise his hands to prevent his response. “I can probably survive it. In fact, I might be the only one out there who can hope to survive it, thanks to Hulk. And by some kind of amazing twist of fate, I’m also able to understand what I’ll find inside.” He shrugged, as unassuming and quiet as Steve remembered. “It’s the logical thing to do, really.”

“And then what?” exclaimed Steve. “What will happen to you? Did you even think of—”

“Captain, this isn’t your call!” roared Danvers.

Steve startled. She was livid. “Professor Banner and I,” she went on in a tense, strung-up tone, “have been planning this for a very long time. Trust me when I say we have considered every possibility.”

Steve felt himself flush with shame. Of course, Bruce didn’t need anyone to tell him this. Hell, he’d spent his whole damn life surrounded by people trying to find a way to end him; and now, by some sort of cruel irony, he was the one actively working towards his own doom. He didn’t need Steve yelling at him—blaming him for a sacrifice he didn’t even know about an hour ago.

And indeed, what could Steve say anyway? It’s not fair? None of it was fair. None of it should have happened in the first place.

There was a long silence.

“What are you waiting for?” said Steve. “My approval? ‘Cause you sure as hell don’t need it.”

“Bruce won’t be going alone,” said Danvers, and Steve felt slightly, slightly comforted when he heard her use his first name, when he got that tiny proof that Bruce hadn’t spent the last three decades planning his own suicide alone in the heartless system of the military. “Endurance can hold up to fifteen passengers, but we don’t have that many volunteers.”

Steve looked up. “How many?”

“Three,” she said evenly. “Bruce, Chekov, and you.” She tilted her head to the side. “If you’ll join us.”

Steve blinked.

“You—” he said after a stunned second. “You want me to join?”

“Yes,” she said simply.

Bruce said nothing.

“Why would you need me?” Steve hesitated. “I just came out of nowhere. I don’t have the training. I don’t know anything about outer space, I’m not a scientist, I’m not a pilot.”

“Chekov is,” said Danvers firmly. “And Bruce is a scientist four times over. But we need courage. We need dedication. And we need goddamn superpowers.”

Her voice had turned steely. “From what I understand, back in the day you couldn’t trip over your own feet without acquiring some kind of superhuman ability. But now, the mutants are gone, and no one catches super strength like the flu anymore. You’re a relic, Steve,” his name sounded frank and clear in her mouth, “but a precious one. So is Bruce. So is Chekov. And you found us, somehow.”

She faced him squarely. “I’ll take every sign I can get. We’re scraping together everything we have left, here. We’re shooting for the stars one last time. So are you in or not?”

 

*

 

Steve was given the rest of the night to think about it. They assigned him to an empty bed in an empty room—obviously, the building could have welcomed a lot more people if only they’d been there. There were two bunk beds; he lay down on the bottom mattress closest to him, stared at the empty bunk above him for two minutes, then got up again.

He found his way to the roof without too much trouble. There was no wind, for once, and almost no clouds. A silver lining was hovering at the edge of the horizon, hinting at dawn; but the stars were still visible above his head.

“I was thinking you might come here,” said a soft voice.

Steve walked to Bruce without a word and leaned against the railing next to him, shoulders pressing together. Bruce didn’t inch away, and even pushed back a little against him. Steve looked at the mist hovering over the corn fields.

“It’s stupid, really,” murmured Bruce in a voice that carefully did not shake, “but I’m going to miss it here.”

Steve felt the terrible urge to hold him again—to comfort him; but he had no comfort to bring. It was almost unbearable, to have found him again so miraculously, only to learn that he was about to be ripped away from this world.

Bruce glanced at him—nothing but a brief, unassuming flicker.

“You don’t have to come. I understand.” He sounded like Steve felt—stretched thin. “God knows I’ve watched enough of my friends die over the years.”

“Of course I’m coming,” said Steve, because he might as well save everyone some time and admit it to himself right now. “How could I not?”

“I knew you’d say that,” smiled Bruce. He shook his head with a small, derisive huff. “I’m sorry you found us.”

“I’m not.” Steve felt more alive than he’d felt in years. Not happy, not even particularly hopeful, but alive—knowing that there was still a battle to be fought. Knowing he could still try to make a difference.  “I’m not letting you go alone. And I’m not leaving anyone to die if I can help it.”

Bruce smiled at him, wry and weary. “I knew you’d say that, too.”

 

*

 

“So, what now?” said Steve as they went down the stairs side by side. “I’ve been a farmer for the past three decades. I can’t just suit up and go into space like that.”

“You’ve had basic space training back in the thirties, right?”

Steve opened his mouth to say something about the Sputnik being launched in ‘57, then realized Bruce meant the 21st century’s thirties and nodded. It was true—he’d climbed up to the edge of the exosphere once. But that was more than sixty years ago, and he didn’t recall much of it.

He didn’t have memory problems, not exactly, but the years were starting to blur together. Most of it felt unreal.

“Chekov will help you brush up on your training,” said Bruce.

“He’s the pilot, right?”

“Yes. The Endurance is scheduled to leave in a month. I guess we can afford a small delay if you’re not ready by then, but—”

“I’ll be ready.”

Bruce smiled at him as they reached the bottom of the stairs. “I have to get back to work,” he said. “Report to the main room. Danvers will probably meet you there, she was so certain you’d accept. She’ll send Chekov your way.”

He hesitated, then suddenly said in a rushed, shameful voice, “I said I wished you hadn’t found us. But—I’m—I’m glad you did.”

He fled before Steve could answer.

Steve watched him go, trying to ignore the tugging in his chest; but when he looked around, the first thing he saw were the pictures of the twelve lined up on the wall. Steve looked at the three astronauts who’d sent back positive results. Quill, blond and bright and joyful. Chavez, with dark burning eyes and a smirk curling up her mouth. Daken, his lips a thin hard line, his eyes grave and serious.

All of them, gone to the stars. And Steve soon to follow.

He stared in enthrallment for a minute or so. And then he realized something was written on the wall in front of which they’d posed, in golden letters sunk into the stone. When he realized what it was, his eyes widened.

 

Do not go gentle into that good night

 

“Hey,” said someone behind him, startling him badly. “You Rogers?”

Steve turned round, instinctively answering, “Yeah,” before they were even face-to-face.

The man was brown-haired, with long dirty hair and sunken eyes, in a SHIELD t-shirt and black pants. Scraped dog tags hung off his neck and read, SGT. J. CHEKOV.

He had a toneless voice, a pale blue gaze, and a prosthetic left arm.

 “I’m James."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Steve had been running steadily for nearly two hours when Chekov came back in and stopped the treadmill. Steve could’ve gone longer; he was only starting to sweat, and he hadn’t lost his breath in the slightest. It had been a while since he’d pushed his body like this, and any kind of exertion felt uncomfortably nostalgic.

Chekov flicked at the screen of his tablet, scrolling through the readings from Steve’s assessment session. They’d barely exchanged three words since they’d run into each other in the corridor, which hadn’t stopped the guy from weighing Steve, measuring him, making him stand still through all sorts of scans and finally leaving him to exert himself in the gym. He’d brought back a steaming mug with him; Steve smelled a whiff of coffee and felt a familiar cramping in his stomach, which he ignored with the easiness of habit.

“You’re starving yourself,” said Chekov.

Steve’s eyes flicked up at him, like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar—which was a rather unfortunate metaphor considering the circumstances. It took him entirely too long to stammer, “Sorry—what?”

“You’re starving yourself,” repeated Chekov with the exact same inflexion.

His left arm let out a faint whirr when he scrolled down the readings again. “If you’re gonna come with us, you can’t keep this up.”

Steve’s first instinct was to tell him to get lost. But—he’d signed up for this. His body wasn’t just his own business anymore. He didn’t understand how he’d been found out so fast, though, when he hadn’t even been fully conscious—when he hadn’t wanted to acknowledge—what he’d been doing to himself. It didn’t even show. Sure, he was thin, but his core muscles sat still and solid on his bones as always.

“Lose the habit,” said Chekov. His voice was too quiet, and hollowed out somehow, without any tone to it; but Steve could still hear a hint of gravel in it, like he had to scrape it out from within.

“Yes sir,” snapped Steve.

But, looking up, he instantly regretted his dryness—because it was obvious how Chekov had found out so quickly. Traces of gauntness were still etched in the edges of his cheekbones.

Danvers had listed Chekov’s name next to Steve’s and Bruce’s when talking about superhumans, after all. Maybe he had a similar metabolism. Maybe he’d done the same thing to himself, before he was elected to race for the stars.

“Are you—?” hesitated Steve. Like me, he wanted to say.

Chekov made no effort to guess the end of Steve’s sentence. In fact, he froze almost completely, eyes widening by a fraction, staring at the ground as he waited for him to finish.

“Never mind,” muttered Steve after a while.

Chekov exhaled silently, muscles relaxing; only then did Steve realize just how tense he’d been. This was odd—but he didn’t have the opportunity to linger on it, since Danvers strode in and Chekov’s pale blue eyes immediately glued themselves back to his tablet.

“What about those results?” she asked.

“He’ll be ready,” said Chekov soberly. He nodded in salute, then slunk out without another word. Steve watched him go with an odd feeling sitting in his chest.

Danvers caught Steve staring and gave him a bright smile. “He’s Russian,” she said, “they’re on the quiet side.”

“Is he enhanced?”

“Yup,” she said. “I don’t know the details. I’m not even sure how old he is, to be honest. He’s been with SHIELD longer than I have. I think he worked for the Romanian military before that—or was it Ukrainian?” She shrugged. “He volunteered. He’s got what it takes. It’s all that matters.”

Steve wanted to ask more, wanted to ask if this meant Chekov was immortal like him, but he didn’t really know how to put it. He looked at the mug of coffee Chekov had left next to the treadmill; he realized, then, that it was meant for him. His stomach growled again.

“Breakfast?” offered Danvers.

Steve took the mug with him when he left.

 

*

 

Eating was a tiresome business. At first, Steve tried to do right by Chekov, which was a stupid line of thought since he’d just met the guy, really. Maybe he just wanted to prove him wrong. But he felt stuffed full after the first bite and couldn’t even clean half his plate. Danvers either didn’t notice or chose not to comment on it; instead, she asked Steve if there was anything he’d like to retrieve from his house before he settled permanently into the barracks.

Steve thought of Thor’s hammer, thought of Clint’s arrows, and said no.

He did phone his neighbor, with whom he shared the land, to tell him he could take Steve’s fields if he’d have them. After he hung up, he grabbed the bag Danvers had given him—toothbrush, soap, a few clothes and other life essentials—and moved into the room he’d failed to sleep in the night before. On his empty shelf, he put Chekov’s mug, without really knowing why. It was a hushed shade of red, but still stood out as the brightest splotch of color in the room.

His training wouldn’t start before the afternoon, so he decided he’d try and find Bruce.

It proved harder than expected. He wasn’t with the other scientists bustling about the Ranger, and the rest of the building was pretty much empty, and built like a maze to boot—Steve walked past the pictures of the Twelve three damn times. Every time, the golden writing in the background drew his gaze in.

Danvers had reacted to it, when Steve had quoted the first line of the poem—it had to be a poem, right? The voice on the radio had made it sound like one. But what about Thor’s note? What about Thor’s hammer? Why had it fallen down from the shelf and who had written the—

—Steve swallowed, slowing down in the darkened corridors. It could not be a coincidence, it really couldn’t. And Thor’s hammer—Thor’s hammer had moved. No one could make it move. Except for Thor himself. And Thor had written down SHIELD’s poem in his note to Steve. Their coordinates had been written down in the dirt next to the hammer. Someone had been broadcasting the poem for Steve to hear.

So what? Had Thor been in on this? Had he and SHIELD been in touch all this time? Had he known they were going to the stars? Had he kept Steve out of the loop for his own good, like Bruce had said he wished—

“Steve, hello.”

Steve looked up and realized he’d found Bruce in the end—the doctor was alone in a huge classroom, covering a blackboard with unreadable equations. His sleeves were rolled up, and he had chalk in his hair; he looked up at Steve with a mixture of mild surprise and concern.

“Something wrong?”

Steve must have paled a lot for Bruce to notice it in the dim light.

“Bruce?” said Steve. He hesitated, then asked, “Do you know what happened to Thor?”

Bruce winced a little, then pushed up his glasses. “Not in detail. I heard… I heard he killed himself.”

“To stay with Jane,” said Steve. “Yes.”

“It was on the news,” explained Bruce. “They… they didn’t mention you.”

“I didn’t live with them. They just called me back to identify the bodies.”

The doctor looked down. He was barefoot, even though the floor had to be ice cold. “You asked me yesterday where I’d been. I… I think you deserve an explanation,” he sighed. “But I’m afraid I don’t have many excuses for myself.”

He took a deep breath and exhaled in a sudden gust. “After T—after Tony died, I went away like I used to and I… I didn’t think of coming back until they stopped talking about you on the news. I was keeping myself busy. I always had an excuse to procrastinate my return. I was telling myself I had time. Until I realized it had been too long and you must be dead.”

He looked up, and his face fell a little when Steve failed to react to his soft-spoken little speech. His distressed expression helped Steve shake off his stupor.

 “You don’t have to apologize,” he said. “We just drifted apart. It happens. And I didn’t come after you until it was too late, either.”

“I should’ve known it was you looking for me. I should’ve known you wouldn’t grow old,” murmured Bruce. The corner of his lips curled up in a sad half-smile. “I thought it was just me. The cursed freak.”

Steve exhaled silently. His half-formed suspicions were dissolving already. Thor hadn’t been in touch. Maybe this really was a coincidence. There was still the matter of the fallen hammer, still the matter of the coordinates traced in the dust and of the voice on the radio; but Steve was certain, now, that Bruce wasn’t lying to his face about it.

“You lived at Clint’s farm, didn’t you?” asked Bruce.

Steve had been staring at the floor; he looked up. “Yeah.”

“He’s one of the reasons I came to work here in the first place,” said Bruce. “I didn’t want to actually go back to the farm. But being in the same state made me feel… a little better, I suppose. And then Danvers decided I was her man and built the new space program around me. And you were there, all that time, and I didn’t even know it.”

“I’m here now,” said Steve with a smile. “Guess I’ll have to thank Clint for it.” He licked his lips. “Bruce, sorry, but—I have to ask again—”

“The Hulk?” smiled Bruce a bit tiredly. “He’s still here. Couldn’t shake him off in a million years.”

He turned back to his black board and considered the lines upon lines of equations. “We’re okay, though. Mostly okay. I had a long time to get to know him. I think he understands what I’m trying to do. I think he’s okay with it.” He sighed. “There’s still time to back out, Steve. If an incident does occur after take-off, there’ll be nowhere to go.”

“Plenty other ways to die up there,” said Steve.

Bruce didn’t insist.

 

*

 

Going back to the gym, Steve found his new Russian CO sitting on a bench with a tablet on his lap and another in his prosthetic hand, the flesh and blood one swiping files in and out of the screen. His dirty hair was gathered in a loose ponytail. He didn’t miss Steve coming in, but his pale eyes still wouldn’t meet his; he stared at the floor when he gave him the spare tablet.

“Here,” he said. “You can start with this. Learn it all by heart.”

“Will there be a test?”

“Several.”

“Any advice?”

Chekov shrugged and said in his blank voice, “Aim for a gold star.”

Steve snorted softly. Chekov’s eyes flicked up at him then quickly went back. He still had this unsettling hollowness about him, and he looked skittish, nervous; but Steve guessed he couldn’t blame the guy. If what Danvers had said about him was true, he was probably dragging around a heavy weight of his own.

Chekov’s watch beeped. He tugged at his hair tie to let his hair fall loose again, strands coming down to frame his face, and got up from his chair. “Lunch time,” he said.

“I just ate,” protested Steve.

“Lunch time,” repeated Chekov with the exact same tone, as if he was a broken record—Steve wondered if it was his signature move or something.

“Fine,” he said, annoyed. “But you’re coming with me.”

Chekov stiffened all at once, back too straight and hands curling into fists, still stubbornly staring at the floor.

“You’re not my handler,” he said brusquely.

Steve was taken aback.

 “I—know I’m not,” he said, puzzled. “But you gotta eat, too. And we might as well get to know each other, considering—”

“Yes,” cut off Chekov. “Fine.”

He rubbed a hand across his face, and the tension bled out of his frame as quickly as it had come. His long hair prevented their gazes from meeting even by accident, and Steve wondered if he’d let his hair loose for this exact purpose.

“Alright. Let’s go.”

The walk to the mess was silent; Steve felt like he’d offended him. If anything, Chekov was his handler; he was the leader of this mission. Steve might be well-advised to remind himself he wasn’t Captain America anymore, even though he thought he’d buried him years ago. Chekov didn’t elaborate, though, grabbing a platter and plastic cutlery without a word.

They filled their bowls with synthetic rice and chicken, then walked through the mess to find a table. It shouldn’t have been that hard—the room was nearly empty; but Chekov wouldn’t sit with his back to a door, to a window, or to someone else, which didn’t leave them many options. It was awkward, looking for a seat for nearly five minutes when there were plenty available; and it didn’t help that the few people already there looked at them very oddly. Steve thought he was probably not meant to notice any of that, and didn’t mention it.

But when Chekov nearly tripped over his own feet in his effort to sit down without raising his gaze, Steve couldn’t help saying, “Not a fan of eye contact?”

“Not a fan, no,” was the mumbled answer.

There was a pause while they both stirred their rice.

“Why are you the one training me?” asked Steve eventually. The ‘if you won’t even look at me’ was heavily implied. “Why not Danvers? Not that I’m complaining, but—”

“Eat, Rogers.”

Steve stopped mid-sentence. His name in that voice sounded… sounded odd. Familiar. It was a stupid thought. Of course his own name sounded familiar. He dug through his rice and chicken nuggets, which tasted pretty much like you’d expect from a military mess on a starving planet.

“Danvers was in the Air Force until it got dismantled, and she built the program from scratch,” said Chekov eventually. “She enrolled Banner to solve the gravity equation. She’s the one who’ll receive the results he’ll send from Gargantua; she’s the one who’ll use them. While the Endurance is away, she will keep training new pilots and new scientists. She and Banner are irreplaceable.”

He ate steadily, two bites between each sentence. “But I’m not. I’m a straw man. I’m the brawn to their brains. That’s why I’m the one training you. We have the same function.”

Steve blinked—this was putting it very bluntly. Chekov was not wrong, but the casual way he spoke of his own expendability made something clench in Steve’s chest. Besides, an interstellar pilot was hardly a straw man.

“When Bruce saw me, he said everything would be different,” argued Steve.

“I bet he did,” muttered Chekov. His voice was still very low and unnaturally bland, like he was consciously schooling it into smoothness at all times. “One man can make the difference. You know that better than anyone, Captain.”

“Don’t call me that,” begged Steve. “It’s Steve. Or—or Rogers, if you must.” He ran a hand through his hair, and flicked his eyes at Chekov’s dog tags again. “Can I call you James?”

Chekov froze. Steve felt like he’d stepped in it again without really knowing how.

“Eat,” ordered Chekov again after a while, and they both resumed chomping their spongy rice without talking.

Eating so much again was very unpleasant; it felt like his body was becoming real again when Steve had been so close to leaving it entirely. He hadn’t stopped eating out of the blue. He’d never stopped eating at all, not really. But he had begun to cut back on his meals. It gave him an edge, sharp enough to cut through the bleakness of his life. After the first few weeks, his metabolism had adapted. The hunger had stopped being painful; it had turned into something light and cold, a disconnection that helped him carry his own weight.

Having been so close to the edge and then brought back, made to start over—it was incredibly frustrating. Rationally, Steve knew it was for the best; but he couldn’t shake off the depressing impression that he was being made to backtrack on his progress, like a hot air balloon pulled back towards the ground.

He wasn’t mad at Chekov, though; dryness aside, the guy was just doing his job. And the way he ate, that artificial, measured, deliberate way, made Steve certain he’d had to teach himself how to eat all over again, too, at some point in his life. So he forced the chicken down and polished his bowl of rice.

“Alright, straw man,” he said. “I ate all my vegetables.”

“Gold star,” muttered Chekov.

Steve probably should have felt angry but he couldn’t help snorting a laugh. Chekov almost looked pleased by it—the shadow of a smile flickering over his lips—and although he smothered it instantly, Steve saw it, and found himself thinking maybe they could do this.

 

*

 

The first week was relatively calm. Steve trained and ate and read, then trained and ate and read, and spent what felt like hours in medical getting prodded in uncomfortable places—but mostly, he read. The Endurance’s controls and structure were not overly complicated for a space station of this size. Two ships were forming the central cluster—the heavy Lander and the more agile Ranger—around which orbited a ring of modules, constantly rotating for artificial gravity: habitat, cryo lab, engines, command, infirmary, and landing pods. Nearly every separate piece had hydrazine thrusters that provided orbit-to-surface capability.

It was fascinating, all the more since Steve was going to live in this, and he went through the data stored on Chekov’s tablet before the seventh day. The routine was good for him—he slipped back into his military habits as though he’d never disowned them. He kept his heart rate up on the treadmill, and tried to maintain a healthy regime in the mess, even though he felt like he was chewing his way through mountains of wet cardboard.

The program was terribly simple. Steve, Bruce and Chekov would leave the Earth aboard the Ranger, dock the Endurance, and slip into their cryo beds. (A part to which Steve did not look forward.) Reaching Saturn would take them two years. They would be woken up automatically, buckle in, and drive the Endurance through the wormhole, ending up right next to the giant black hole Gargantua. Quill’s planet was the closest; they’d check up on it first, then, if it proved inhabitable after all, they’d go check on Daken’s and Chavez’; on their way, Bruce would climb into a landing pod and launch himself into Gargantua.

The program was terribly simple, and Steve hated it. But he trained and ate and read, and said nothing.

Danvers had lunch with him whenever she could, asking him random questions about what he was learning, to which he answered flawlessly every time—his eidetic memory served him well. Steve rather liked her; she was brighter and more energetic than anyone he’d met in over two decades. Her no-bullshit attitude was extremely refreshing. And she was young—actually young, not stretched thin like Steve under his deceptive looks. Steve found himself training side by side with her in the gym every other day.

Bruce was often to be found hovering around her when he wasn’t busy staring at the black board in his empty classroom, and he joined them in the mess from time to time. Having the doctor so near made Steve’s chest clench with something that wasn’t quite happiness and wasn’t quite grief either—something half-way between the two. Bruce seemed to understand and, while he never fled Steve’s presence, also tried not to pester him too much. He had a lot to do, anyway. They all did.

At night, Steve went outside when it wasn’t too windy, looked up at the sky, and tried to convince himself this was all actually happening. He’d had a long life, and he’d been asked to believe in a lot of things; yet it seemed something new always came up when he least expected it.

 

*

 

Chekov was making himself scarce. Well, scarcer—the man was no handful to begin with; but for a CO, he was spectacularly absent. He was only eating with Steve when no one else could be there. Obviously, he didn’t trust Steve to eat on his own; Steve understood, he really did, and he tried not to feel insulted, but it annoyed him how Chekov wouldn’t show up whenever Bruce or Danvers were around. He couldn’t have made it more obvious that Steve was a chore.

“You have it backwards,” laughed Danvers when Steve told her about it. “You’re the only one here Chekov doesn’t treat like an obligation.”

Steve quirked an eyebrow. “Sure doesn’t feel like it.”

“Because you don’t know him,” she said. “He’s a misanthropist. Or rather some sort of hermit. The old SHIELD files were almost all destroyed, so I’m not sure how he used to live or what he used to do; but I do know that he spent almost a decade on his own before the Earth even started turning to dust. He can be civil with people—he’s managing well enough here—but he doesn’t need them. That’s what makes him such an ideal candidate for deep space exploration.”

And for abandoning Banner to his potential death, she didn’t say, but Steve couldn’t help hearing it. He remembered that, had he not showed up, the mission would have consisted in Chekov launching his only companion into a black hole and remaining alone, completely isolated, light-years from the Earth. With a whole civilization to restart by himself.

Steve gritted his teeth against the images. “I don’t get your point.”

“He’s eating with you,” said Danvers simply.

“Because he’s my CO and I can’t be trusted to eat on my own,” hissed Steve.

He’d wanted to shock her and immediately regretted his impulse. But she didn’t seem surprised in the slightest, nor disapproving in any way, as if it was perfectly understandable and even fairly common.

“He could have asked anyone to watch over you,” she said. “Instead, he’s doing it himself.”

“Only when no one else is there.”

“Because he doesn’t like people,” explained Danvers again, patiently. “Except for you, apparently. He never even set foot in the mess before you came here.”

Well, Steve thought, puzzled. That explained the odd looks everyone had cast at them that first time around.

Still, the idea that Chekov liked having Steve around was destabilizing. So far, he had made him feel the exact opposite. They weren’t even talking much, mostly because Chekov kept freezing on a regular basis every time they did—as if Steve kept stepping on hidden landmines. He wished Chekov would have told him what was wrong; but after a couple times of Chekov brushing him off and acting as if nothing had happened, Steve stopped asking.

By the end of the first week, Danvers let Chekov know that Steve’s theoretical knowledge of the Endurance’s main functions and commands was now flawless; Chekov took back Steve’s tablet and returned it filled with new information to absorb—ranging from general definitions of astral objects to excruciatingly precise safety protocols.

The night had fallen an hour ago. Steve had scrolled down the files all afternoon until his head started buzzing and his hands started shaking. When his vision itself began to blur—his vision never blurred—he realized he’d probably pushed it a bit too far. It was time for a break.

He was getting on the treadmill just as Chekov came into the gym. They both nodded at each other, without a word. Steve selected his favorite setting, cranked it up a bit for the hell of it, took a swig from his water bottle and started running.

He ran for fifteen minutes and thirty-two seconds, then abruptly collapsed on the treadmill and blacked out before he even hit the floor.

 

*

 

“Steve. Fuck, Steve, c’mon. Steve!”

Whoever it was, they sounded both infuriated and on the verge of tears. Something cold was squeezing Steve’s arm in a painfully tight grip.

“Steve, you fucking asshole, if you don’t wake up, I swear to God—”

“Hey,” slurred Steve. He felt like something had died in his mouth. “S’thatta way t’talk t’fainting people?”

The overwhelming relief that bled into that voice was as familiar as the fury had been. “Jesus Christ.” The next sentence sounded colder already. “Can you sit up?” Toneless and smoothly blank now. “Take your time.”

Chekov, Steve realized. He probably should have recognized him sooner. The vise-like grip loosened on his arm, and he understood it must have been the guy’s prosthetic hand. It was terrifyingly strong for a replacement limb. Really damn cold, too.

Steve felt warm, though. Chekov ran hot. Steve slouched against him, eyes fluttering shut, about ready to slip into unconsciousness again—then Chekov slapped him across the face so hard Steve’s head jerked to the side; he actually lost his breath for a second.

“Look alive,” said Chekov coldly.

“—What the hell,” protested Steve, trying to push himself away from Chekov, to no avail. He felt so heavy, and his eyes just kept closing again. “You’re…”

He replayed the past two minutes in his head, and frowned. Wait. This was wildly different from what he’d been subjected to for the past week.

“You’re…” He tried to focus. “…you’re angry with me?”

“No shit,” said Chekov sharply. “When was the last time you slept?”

Oh.

Steve felt himself go cold with shame. He forced himself to open his eyes and scooted away from Chekov—after he’d stopped blinking, he realized they were both sitting on the ground next to the treadmill which was still buzzing at full speed. He looked up at Chekov—and was a little shocked to find that Chekov still would not look him in the eye, despite everything. He was glaring at Steve’s left collarbone instead.

“When was the last time you slept?” He was doing that broken-record thing again.

Steve swallowed uneasily; his head was spinning.

“I don’t know,” he finally admitted. “Got a few hours in before I found this place.”

“Which was eight days ago.” Chekov’s voice was flat like the calm before a storm.

“Yeah.”

Chekov said nothing for a long while. Steve realized he’d passed out, actually passed out from sheer goddamn exhaustion. He couldn’t believe he hadn’t felt tired at all, hadn’t even thought of sleeping, until his body had just given up on him.

“I can take it,” he said in a subdued voice, even though he obviously couldn’t.

Chekov stayed silent, but shook his long hair out of his eyes and got up. He stopped the treadmill, then reached out, without a word.

Steve blinked a bit, then grabbed his hand—it was the right one; the warm one—and let himself be pulled up to his feet.

“I’m allowing you to skip dinner,” Chekov told him, “if you go to sleep this instant.”

“Gonna wake up,” murmured Steve. “Always do.”

“I can sedate you if you want.”

Steve looked up at him in mild concern; Chekov was tense and there was a very faint blush coloring his pale cheeks, and it took Steve entirely too long to realize it had been an unfortunate attempt at a joke. He still let his lips stretch into a smile and was rewarded with Chekov’s silent relief.

“Won’t be necessary,” said Steve. “I’ll be fine.”

“You have to—”

“I know. I’ll take better care of myself. I’m sorry.”

“You have to sleep,” insisted Chekov.

Steve’s eyes were closing again despite himself, and he felt himself waver a little. “I’m sorry, Buck, I really am. I just don’t sleep much anymore.”

A dead silence answered him.

When Steve looked up to see what was wrong, Chekov’s blue eyes were wide and unmoving, almost but not quite meeting his—they’d jumped up to Steve’s cheekbones and stopped there.

“What did you call me?” he breathed.

He was shaking.

“What?” said Steve in complete confusion. “I… Chekov? I called you Chekov. You didn’t wanna be called James.”

“That’s not what you—and I never said—”

He cut himself off and swallowed, pale throat moving up and down. And now he’s stammering, thought Steve, bewildered. He felt his head swim again and wondered if he was imagining the whole thing.

Then Chekov looked down at the ground and just like that, things went back to normal.

“Forget it,” he said in his sullen, bland voice. “Go to sleep, Rogers. We’ll talk more in the morning.”

He let Steve go with a little shove. Steve hadn’t even noticed Chekov was still holding him, and stumbled back against the treadmill. His cheek was burning him where Chekov had slapped him to keep him awake; he must be very strong. Maybe as strong as Steve.

“Go,” repeated Chekov, with a hint of real threat in his voice, and Steve left the room on unsteady feet.

 

*

 

He did go to sleep and actually stayed unconscious for nearly four hours straight, which was something of a record for him. He lay down on his back for another couple of hours; when the sun painted the windows silver, he got up, changed clothes and went out for a walk.

There was no wind to blow grit in his face, which he was grateful for. His breath curled in little puffs of steam before his face; the air was clear and sharp like mountain water. It still tasted of iron, but Steve got used to it after a minute.

He heard a faint noise behind him, feet shuffling in the dirt, and turned to see with the corner of his eye. He wasn’t really surprised to see who it was.

“Do not go gentle into that good night,” said Steve out of pure instinct. “Heard of that?”

If he expected a knee-jerk reaction, something that might clue him on that damn poem, he was disappointed. Chekov didn’t react other than by shrugging. “Sure. Danvers’ father loved that line. I think it’s Dylan Thomas.”

“Oh,” said Steve. Maybe it really was a coincidence, then. Thor used to be fond of poetry, and the poem did resonate with SHIELD’s new aspirations.

It didn’t explain the coordinates in the dirt, or the voice on the radio, but Steve didn’t really know how to ask anyone about it. He wasn’t sure he hadn’t hallucinated it entirely. It had sounded familiar. Maybe it had all been in his head.

“Why exactly can’t you sleep?” asked Chekov. His voice was even lower than usual, barely audible even in the stillness of the morning.

Steve turned to get a good look at him. Chekov was wearing black pants and a black jacket, simple but sinister. It struck Steve, then, how unhealthy he looked in a whole, what with his scruff and his unkempt hair, his hollow eyes and hollow voice.

“You’re older than you look,” said Steve slowly, with just enough inflexion to make it sound like a question.

Chekov still wouldn’t look at him, but Steve still caught the odd quiver that flitted over his features. “Yes.”

“And you’re a soldier.”

Surprisingly enough, his mouth curled into a joyless smirk for a split second. “Yes.”

“Then you know why I don’t sleep.” Steve tilted his head to the side. “Hey, have we met before?”

The non-sequitur seemed to startle Chekov something awful—Steve wouldn’t have noticed it a week ago, what with how much restraint the guy exercised over himself, but it was obvious to him now; his eyes were widening, his breath had caught. Steve was unsettled to realize how well he knew him after only eight days—even though Chekov had managed to make him feel like he was never around.

“Why do you ask?” rasped Chekov.

Steve shrugged. “The way you talked to me to wake me up? Didn’t sound like a stranger. Sounded like you knew me.” You called me Steve.

Chekov licked his lips, nervously. His mouth was surprisingly expressive; it was usually schooled into a thin straight line, but he was unsettled and losing his grip over himself, showing bits and pieces of the real him. Steve wondered why he was putting so much effort into remaining impassive—he was pretty sure by now that Chekov was deliberately hollowing his voice to make it sound so blank and robotic; not to mention his refusal to look Steve in the eye, which felt entirely intentional.

He was still freaking out, though, still not answering, and Steve began to feel a little guilty. “Hey,” he said, “we don’t have to—”

“I knew Captain America,” blurted Chekov. He screwed his eyes shut, then went on in a slower, halting tone, “I—was—a Captain America fan.”

Steve blinked.

“Oh,” he said. He didn’t know what he’d expected, but it wasn’t that. He blinked again, repeated, “oh,” then suddenly broke out laughing—it might not be a very good idea, but he couldn’t help himself. When he looked up, though, Chekov didn’t look offended; only a little wary, but overall relieved. He even gave a tentative smile, still without looking at Steve though.

Steve was only too happy to return it anyway. “So that’s the problem?” he asked. “You were afraid to come off as weird?”

Was that why—according to Danvers—Chekov seemed to like him? Did he associate Steve with his childhood hero? In retrospect, Steve could see why he’d wanted to hide it.

Chekov looked a little miserable now.

“It’s fine,” Steve reassured him. “I’ve had other friends interested in—that part of me.” His heart clenched a little when he recalled Coulson and his gleeful, child-like excitement on the Helicarrier. It was so terribly long ago. “It’s actually nice to have people around who… y’know, remember me.”

“I remember you,” murmured Chekov.

He looked so forlorn Steve couldn’t help stepping forward; but Chekov instantly flinched back, his gaze flicking up then back down again—he was torn between his refusal to look him in the eye (shyness? Was that what it was?) and his animal instinct.

Steve stopped; he hadn’t wanted to corner him.

“It’s okay,” he said. “Really. It’s fine.”

There was a long moment of awkward silence. Chekov still looked dejected. Maybe ashamed to have been found out, even though Steve really didn’t mind.

“So… how old are you?” ventured Steve.

“Don’t,” snapped Chekov.

Damn. Swing and a miss again. Steve shuffled his feet, stuffing his hands down the pockets of his jacket, and waited for Chekov to pick up the conversation—it was the only way he could think of not to put his foot in his mouth again.

“Did you sleep at all?” mumbled Chekov eventually.

Steve shrugged again. “Four hours? Maybe?”

Chekov didn’t look happy with the answer. He pondered for a second, then said, “Would sleeping with someone help?”

Steve gaped at him, and Chekov honest-to-god rolled his eyes. “Not like that. I meant not being alone in your room. Danvers or Banner would probably oblige.”

“Thanks,” said Steve, stiffening a bit, “but I can get by on my own.”

“I know,” said Chekov, sounding almost exasperated. “You don’t have—”

He suddenly stopped; then he sighed. His watch started beeping and he stopped it. When he spoke again, his voice was back to being blank and empty. “Time for breakfast.”

 

*

 

A flight simulation was scheduled in the afternoon. Steve wasn’t replacing Chekov as a pilot anytime soon, but he was supposed to know the basics in case something went wrong. Learning all this three weeks prior to take-off was honestly ridiculous, but these were desperate times, Steve supposed. Besides, he did have training. It was a little dated, but space travel apparently hadn’t evolved much since the thirties.

The suit they handed him was grey and white, and a smile tangled in his lips when he saw the nametag. ROGERS. He hadn’t been around for man’s first steps on the Moon, but he still felt something resembling elation upon wearing his very own space suit.

“Alright,” said Danvers from the outside of the room. “Lights off, people. Rogers, Chekov, Banner, you ready?”

“Ready,” said Banner.

“Let’s find out,” answered Steve.

Strapped in the seat next to him, Chekov didn’t say anything.

The lights turned off and the screen turned on. Steve held his breath; even though it was fake, the curve of the Earth was pretty amazing. The controls were softly glowing in the dark, feeling real and solid under Steve’s fingers.

The simulation started slow. Steve fiddled with the commands without feeling too much like an idiot and managed to help dock the Ranger to the Endurance without a hitch. They slipped into the command pod without any problem. The next sequence started up, assuming Steve and Chekov had slipped into the pilots’ seats and were controlling the station, with Banner sitting in the back. Steve checked everything he could check. It felt like passing his driver’s license test again, only more exciting.

Then something caught on fire.

Steve had to stop himself from leaping into action. He looked at Chekov. Chekov did nothing.

“Sergeant?” called Bruce.

Chekov blinked and appeared to shake himself up.

“Localize damaged area,” he said.

Steve blinked. He’d read about security protocols all day long and he was pretty sure Chekov had it wrong. “Cut off oxygen first,” he countered.

He knew this was a simulation, but in case of a real accident, the Hulk automatically became a concern. He had to give Bruce a distraction; might as well be something useful. “Bruce, I need you to calculate the exact time we’ll need to reinitiate the oxygen assuming we don’t put out the fire in the next five minutes.”

“On it,” said Banner softly.

Something beeped loudly on the control panel, and Steve realized Danvers had added an asteroid shower to the simulation. Chekov cursed in Russian, then, oddly, looked at Steve.

Steve hesitated for a split second, then said, “Take the wheel, I’ll take the fire.”

Chekov said nothing but did as he was told. Steve got up then turned to the secondary screens. “Localize and isolate damage area—”

The visual swayed wildly, indicating Chekov had swerved to avoid an asteroid. No further alarms went off, which meant no damage.

Steve brought his attention back to the screen. One of the pods on the Endurance’s rotating belt was blinking red. It wasn’t command since they were in it, not cryo or habitat or landing, but—

“Engines,” murmured Steve. He reached for the dashboard on pure instinct, setting up the self-destruct of the sections of the ring on each side of the damaged pod. He slammed the right button and the damaged module broke off from the station with an impressive explosion that made everyone freeze in place.

They all saw it cross the screen, spinning away into space, plumes of flame licking its sides for sporadic seconds before the vacuum of space stifled them.

“What the hell?” said Chekov. “There was no need to—”

Then it blew up.

 

*

 

“Why did it blow up?” demanded Chekov as soon as the simulation ended. “The magnetoplasma rockets aren’t flammable. Neither are the tokamak power plants.”

“But the module has additional thrusters,” said Danvers. “Hydrazine thrusters. And hydrazine is highly explosive.”

“I know that! They’re supposed to be fire-proof!”

Steve had never seen him so angry. He’d never seen him display any sort of emotion so blatantly before—except maybe in the gym, after Steve had passed out on him.

“It’s just a simulation,” piped up a clueless lab assistant.

Chekov snarled at him. “I know it was just a simulation,” he growled, Russian accent suddenly rising, “because I am not actually fucking stupid!"

The assistant slunk off with his tail between his legs, and Chekov turned back at Danvers like a rabid dog. “What I’d like to know is why the procedure against fires is to drop our goddamn engine into space and watch it blow!”

“You were too slow in containing the fire,” said Danvers. “If you’d sucked out the oxygen first thing before even isolating the damaged pod, the flames wouldn’t have had time to spread to the hydrazine thrusters.”

Chekov brusquely shut up. He was pale, and he knew—they all knew—it was his fault for failing to react quickly enough.

“How did you know it was too late for fire containment?” Bruce asked Steve with a slight frown.

Steve swallowed. “I… didn’t,” he said, looking worriedly at Chekov. “We have three other engines. I thought… I’d rather risk losing one than all four and us along with them.”

Danvers’ lips curled up. “Looks like you managed that crisis, Captain.”

Steve blinked. He had. He’d taken over without even taking the time to consider that Chekov was both more experienced and more qualified than him to deal with the situation. He opened his mouth, half-ready to apologize, but Chekov had zipped his space suit open and stepped out of it already; he handed it to a lab tech and left without another word.

They all watched the door close behind him.

Then Danvers turned back to the room and clapped her hands. “Alright, show’s over, people, nothing to see here. Reinitialize the simulation. Those who got the data they need, leave the room, give us some space.”

“This is strange,” mused Bruce amidst the chatter of the scientists and technicians around them. He was still looking at the door which had closed behind Chekov. “It’s not our first simulation—we almost died a dozen times. We did actually die twice. It never bothered him before.”

“Maybe it’s because it could have been avoided?” ventured Steve.

“That was odd, too,” murmured Bruce. “He was distracted. I never saw him lose his focus like that.”

Steve didn’t know what to say to that, so he began unclipping the medical apparatus that monitored their vitals during simulations.

“Giving me something to think about was a nice move,” added Bruce casually as he zipped his space suit open.

Steve felt himself blush even more, swallowing around his embarrassment. “I’m sorry, Bruce—I didn’t mean to—”

“Don’t be sorry,” said Bruce. “I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad you know what I’m capable of. No one here ever saw me Hulk out.”

Steve stopped and looked at him. “Really?”

Bruce shrugged. “I sometimes think I should let them see it, just so they’ll know what they’re dealing with. But not having everyone tip-toeing around me actually helps with my blood pressure.” He gave Steve an apologetic smile. “Lesser of two evils.”

“I trust you,” said Steve. “I really do. I want you to know that.”

“I do know it,” answered Bruce. “I didn’t forget our Avengers days. You were always a good leader, Steve.”

For some obscure reason, it only made Steve feel even more guilty.

 

*

 

Danvers and Bruce weren’t around that night, yet Chekov didn’t show up for dinner. For the first time since he’d arrived, Steve ate alone—or rather sat down before an empty plate without finding the motivation to fill it. His stomach was in knots anyway; he couldn’t stop thinking about Chekov’s anger in the simulator. He felt guilty for commandeering the situation, but what bothered him the most was something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. All he knew was that he didn’t want to disappoint him any more.

He kept expecting Chekov to come find him in the gym, but he didn’t, and Steve completed his evening training on his own. He’d been so alone for so long that it took him a little while to realize he actually wished Chekov was there. His absence was grating, like an itching scab, and Steve wondered yet again why he’d become so used to him when they’d done nothing but rub each other the wrong way since they’d met. Which was ten damn days ago.

Steve showered and dutifully lay down on his bed at one am. He stared at the empty bunk above him for a whole hour, then another one, then another; then he mumbled a curse under his breath and got up, striding towards the door.

The corridor was cold, but it wasn’t what made Steve freeze.

Chekov was there.

He was walking away from Steve’s room and didn’t turn round—even though he must’ve heard him open the door—making it seem like he’d just happened to pass by; and Steve might have bought it on his first day, but he knew his way around the base, now, and he knew the only door down the hallway led to a broom closet.

Besides, it was four in the goddamn morning.

“Hey,” called Steve.

Chekov stopped, then reluctantly turned round. His black fatigues were dirty, marred with large clear stains of dust as if he’d sat on the floor. Steve’s eyes flickered at the tiles in front of his door and, yup, something had swept across the dirt there. Like someone scrambling up to his feet in a hurry.

Steve didn’t know what to make of it, but Chekov’s lonely, hunched silhouette in the dim-lit corridor made him ask the only question he could think of. “Are you okay?”

Chekov laughed. It wasn’t a very pleasant sound.

“No,” he answered. “Not particularly.”

“You can’t sleep either,” guessed Steve. “Can you?”

“None of your business,” mumbled Chekov.

“It is if you’re spending your nights staring at my door.”

Chekov sighed and rubbed his face, fingers slipping under the dirty strands of his hair. “I don’t do that. I just sat there for a minute.”

“Why?” asked Steve.

No answer.

“I’m sorry about earlier,” tried Steve. “I shouldn’t have taken over like that.”

“You saved our simulated lives,” answered Chekov gloomily.

“Still. I shouldn’t have—”

“Yes, you should have. The chain of command doesn’t mean much when you’re dead. You took over and you saved us. That’s what you do.” He twisted his lips in what might have been a smile. “No one was surprised by it. Not Danvers, and certainly not Banner. They expected you to.”

“I’m not here to replace you.”

“Yes, you are. You are the original hero. The First Avenger. You’re a fucking beacon of hope.”

“I never meant—” Steve stopped himself. What he’d meant to do didn’t matter anymore. But this man had spent years preparing himself for what Steve was now commandeering after only one week of training; and that wasn’t right.

“Do you want me to retract myself from the mission?” offered Steve. “’Cause I will if—”

“Yes,” said Chekov.

Steve blinked. “Excuse me?”

“I said yes. Go back to your farm.”

Steve found nothing to say.

“You didn’t think I’d take you up on the offer, did you?” growled Chekov. “Thought I was too noble? Fuck off, Rogers. We can die just fine without you.”

Steve frowned. Wait.

“Are you…” He paused. He must have it wrong, but—“Are you trying to protect me?”

Chekov sucked in a sharp breath and almost looked him in the eye, catching himself at the last second. “What?” he said in a tense voice. “What do you—how the fuck could I possibly sound like—”

“You think the mission’s doomed to fail,” said Steve. “You’re trying to protect me.”

Chekov said nothing for a very long time; he looked impassive and grim as usual, but he breathed just a bit too loudly in the dark.

“You’re not expendable,” he said eventually.

Steve was expecting a rant on how he lacked experience and training; Chekov’s bitter murmur took him off guard. “…What?”

“I told you. We’re straw men.” Chekov swallowed. “You’re better than me. Every part of you is better. I see that. Everyone else is beginning to see it. But they just think it makes you a better brand of straw man. They’re fucking wrong.” His voice was actually shaking. “We’re not the same species. You’re not straw. You’re not expendable. You don’t belong on this mission.”

Chekov was so troubled he was forgetting to control his tone; his voice crackled around the edges like a campfire, hoarse and raspy but carrying the same heat. He sounded like he was in so much damn pain Steve could almost feel the ghost of it. It unsettled him, to have a stranger care about him so intensely for no apparent reason after three decades of loneliness.

“So, what then?” said Steve. “I go back to tending my fields till Kingdom Come?”

Chekov said nothing.

“I’m going to die anyway,” Steve went on. I hope, he cautiously didn’t add. “I’d rather die doing something helpful.”

“Part of the mission is about blasting Banner into a damn black hole.”

“Part of the mission is about saving the entire human race.”

“Я не уверен, что они заслуживают спасения,” mumbled Chekov glumly.

Steve’s Russian was nearly nonexistent, but he caught the gist of it anyway. It wasn’t a very difficult guess.

“Well, you seem to think at least I’m worth saving,” he ventured.

Chekov closed his eyes and shook his head a little, as if there was something he couldn’t express or explain. As soon as Steve stepped forward, though, he flinched back; but this time, Steve didn’t relent and came as close as he dared. Chekov was almost vibrating with tension, and Steve wanted to soothe it but didn’t know how—didn’t even understand what was causing it.

“Will you look at me?” he asked. “Please?”

Chekov exhaled, then looked up and met Steve’s gaze.

Steve was taken aback—he hadn’t expected it to be so simple, but it was as if Chekov had waited for him to ask.

His eyes were a paler blue than ever. Now that he was looking at him directly, Steve could see that his face was much, much more expressive than he let on. It was gaunt, with hollow cheeks and sharp cheekbones, but his lips were full, his eyes so big and crinkled at the corners. It was almost too much, to face him—like looking into the sun, and Steve felt himself reel.

“Look, Bucky,” he began awkwardly, “I should be going. With you, I mean. I can’t just stay behind.”

Chekov closed his eyes again and his face twisted in pain like a man suffering from a heart attack. Steve blinked, puzzled—what had he said?—but then Chekov laughed a little, and it was the most joyless sound Steve had ever heard. “No,” he mumbled, “of course you can’t.”

Steve was so utterly confused it was almost a relief when Chekov’s bland persona slid back into place. “Forget it. Do what you want.”

He ducked his head and walked away.

“Wait,” said Steve, grabbing his arm without thinking—and Chekov wrenched himself from his grip so violently he almost slammed Steve into the wall. Steve stumbled back as if he’d burned himself; he’d grabbed Chekov’s left arm, and he’d distinctly felt the metal plates under the jacket.

They stared at each other for a tense, breathless second before they both realized neither of them had tried to attack the other. Chekov had just confirmed what Steve had guessed, though; he was as strong as him, maybe even stronger.

“Sorry,” mumbled Chekov, looking away.

“My fault,” said Steve. “Shouldn’t have grabbed you.”

There was another moment of awkward silence.

“I don’t think you’re a straw man,” said Steve.

Chekov was almost too human, actually. He was bursting at the seams with raw emotion he struggled to conceal behind a wall of blandness. He was disconcerting and dark and brilliant, he was a misanthropic pessimist who was about to embark on a crazed journey to save the human race, and he’d been enough for Steve to shake off the torpor of three decades of nothing.

“I don’t think you’re expendable. I can’t accept that way of thinking. Not when you’re here, putting your life on the line for the rest of us.”

He stepped a little closer. “And I can’t accept that the mission’s doomed to fail, either. I just won’t. Only last week, I felt all hope was lost. Now… now, we’ve got a chance. A real chance. But I can’t lock myself up with you if you don’t want me there.” He knew all about teams falling apart from lack of trust. He knew all about the dangers of confinement and infighting. Without Chekov’s support, there was no point. “Please. I want to be there. Don’t make me stay behind. And Jesus, don’t make me do it for my own sake.”

Chekov looked confused. “You’d stay if I asked you to?” he asked.

“I’m begging you not to,” answered Steve vividly.

Chekov looked straight at him for a beat or two—it felt like he was pointing a gun at him, it made Steve’s skin crawl, it made him breathless—then Chekov lowered his eyes again.

“No,” he mumbled, then winced and ran a hand over his face; his shoulders slumped. “No, ‘course I won’t. You’re right. I’m sorry.”

Steve felt so relieved he couldn’t help beaming at him. “Thank you,” he said, trying to convey just how much he meant it.

Chekov’s eyes flicked up at him again, and he smiled back, a little; it was a wan, rusty smile, but it was real, and his grim face looked almost sweet with it—eyes crinkling, lips hesitantly curling up, and so damn earnest. Nearly child-like. It didn’t last, quickly slipping back into ruefulness and exhaustion again; but it still lasted long enough for Steve’s heart to twist in his chest.

He had a feeling Chekov didn’t smile much.

“But then you gotta sleep at least five hours a night,” said Chekov suddenly, “and finish your plate at every meal.”

Steve blinked. “…Are you blackmailing me?”

“Sure,” said Chekov easily. “If that’s what it takes.”

“You’ve given me your permission already, you can’t retract it.”

“I can still give you hell about it, though.”

Steve was still smiling. Chekov should have creeped him out—Steve still didn’t know for sure what was the matter with him—but no matter how confusing and how emotionless he strove to be, there was something so damn likable about the man. And Steve couldn’t help trusting him, either, just like he couldn’t help breathing.

Chekov’s watch beeped; he glanced at it, then turned it off.  “Come on, then, Rogers.”

“Where are we going?” asked Steve, following him down the hallway.

“The future.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The future turned out to start with yet more food.

It was only five am and breakfast wouldn’t be served for another two hours; but Chekov, bland-faced as always, broke into the kitchen with unerring skill and dragged a bemused Steve along. They dug through the cupboards for a few minutes, then sat down at the counter with bread and jam rather than the cardboard cereal they were supposed to eat. The bread was old and frozen and probably worth more than gold at the moment—Steve hadn’t seen any in nearly five years.

Chekov unwrapped it unceremoniously and stuffed it in the microwave to thaw it.

Steve was out of practice with the toaster and completely burned his first try; he messed up the second one pretty badly too, but the smell of toasted bread made him hungry, actually hungry. It was crispy and burnt on the edges and still very hot, and the jam was cold and sticky and sugary, and it was so good it gave him a head rush.

“Better when it’s stolen,” was all Chekov said.

He was watching Steve eat like he would’ve watched a sunrise.

 

*

 

The next few days felt like a truce. Steve was still struggling to figure out Chekov, but he felt like Chekov was now at least trying to help him in this endeavor; and he’d stopped his passive-aggressive attempts to drive Steve away from the Endurance—or from Chekov himself. He was striving to be more open, almost visibly fighting his own silent nature, but he obviously hated talking about himself. (When Steve asked him if he’d already been to space, Chekov answered dryly, “At least once,” which really made no damn sense.)

Steve couldn’t help feeling like Chekov was being cryptic just for the hell of it; but then he berated himself—the guy was making so much effort. Steve just wasn’t sure what he’d done to earn it. Maybe it was just because they’d have to get along once they were locked together in the middle of nowhere.

It was beginning to sink in—they were going to leave this earth. Steve was no stranger to saving the world, but this was different. This was taking the world on his shoulders and plunging into the unknown.

He did his level best to bring himself back to top health. He’d gotten almost slim—as slim as he could get, slowing down his enhanced metabolism for so long. The newly returning bulk of his muscles made him feel uncomfortable, huge and clumsy, like he was too big for his skin. It reminded him of the very first days after he’d been injected with the serum. Danvers made no effort to ease the transition, whistling at him in the hallways; but it actually helped a bit—it made him laugh, and reassured him that he was supposed to look like this. Bruce didn’t openly comment on it, but he always had a snack for Steve to eat whenever they crossed paths. (Most of the time, it was dried blueberries—Bruce seemed to have endless supplies of it in his pockets, which was an oddly specific choice.)

Sleeping, though, was another story entirely.

Steve couldn’t just stuff sleep down his throat and will it to stay down like he did with food. Chekov, quiet and grim, obviously took it personally for some odd reason—yet another mystery to add to the list. He kept asking Steve if he’d slept and looking morosely pissed off when Steve told him no or yeah, coupla hours.

Eventually, Steve declared he’d try to sleep in the dormitory with the SHIELD staff. Chekov was slightly more cheerful that day—which wasn’t saying much—but Steve’s night was a resounding failure. The staff giggled and whispered when he came into the room. Steve stayed wide awake in spite of all his efforts, for a good four hours. He managed to catch some thirty minutes of shuteye, woke up with a jolt, spent a few minutes listening to everyone sleeping around him before he felt like they were taunting him; and he slipped out of the room to go watch the sun rise, despite the violent wind that blew grit in his face.

The next day, he moved back into his empty four-person room. Chekov didn’t say anything about it.

Until two days later, when Danvers announced that the Endurance’s crew would sleep in the same room for the last fifteen days before take-off.

“Oh, really?” asked Steve.

He glanced at Chekov who was sitting by the window with his arms crossed, decidedly not looking at anyone.

Danvers had gathered the four of them in Bruce’s classroom for her little announcement; she was sitting on the teacher’s desk, boots firmly planted on the chair’s seat. Out of the four of them, she was the most violently colorful. Bruce still dressed like he did the first time Steve had met him, in a faded shirt and worn slacks; Chekov always wore black, and Steve himself favored plain white tees and sand-colored fatigues. Danvers, though, dressed in red and gold and black-blue, and the right half of her head was as neatly shaved as ever, blond hair trickling down the other side.

“Whose idea was it?” asked Steve.

“It’s procedure,” said Danvers cheerfully.

Steve was almost certain it was a lie.

“Is it alright if we all move into your room?” she went on. “I call top bunk, professor.”

“I won’t fight you for it,” answered Bruce with a mild smile. “But you don’t need to sleep with us.”

“Just because I won’t be leaving with you doesn’t mean I’m not part of the team.”

It made sense, that people preparing themselves to be stuck together should bunk in a small space for an extended period of time, as to experiment with enforced proximity; but it should have been longer for the experiment to be worth anything. Steve was almost positive this was Chekov’s doing.

Well, at least this way they could check whether anyone was a snorer. Steve had nothing of his own, save for his clothes, toothbrush, and Chekov’s red mug which he’d never returned, sitting on the small shelf over his bed; he had no argument against their moving in.

They all did so that very same night, with wildly different approaches.

Danvers: did claim top bunk, dumping her stuff on the bed facing Steve’s before climbing up the ladder, already wearing nothing but boxers and a large SHIELD t-shirt. She wasn’t long to bid Steve good night and turn her back to him, burrowing under the covers. She fell asleep almost instantly, and Steve felt stupidly envious.

Banner: did not come in before two in the morning, in his socks and bearing no luggage; looking at him, you’d thought he was living in the slums rather than preparing himself for interstellar travel. He just took off his pants before going to bed, picking the one under Danvers’, and scrolled down his tablet for another hour before he finally set it aside to sleep.

Chekov: never showed up.

 

*

 

He didn’t come in the night after, either, or the night after that. In fact, he disappeared almost entirely. Steve only caught glimpses of him during the day, crossing paths in the hallways or in medical; but that was all. Chekov had turned into a ghost yet again.

Steve was disproportionately wounded and hated himself for it. He felt abandoned, and the sheer irrationality of the feeling didn’t stop it from being there, slotted between Steve’s ribs and weighing down on his chest, a little heavier with every night Chekov didn’t turn up.

Danvers didn’t even mind. When Steve finally found the time to mention it to her, as they crossed paths in the hallway, she shrugged. “I told you he wasn’t very social.”

“I thought this was a mandatory exercise,” protested Steve, feeling like a child throwing a tantrum because why did it matter?

“Look, Steve,” said Danvers—the hint of steel Steve had heard in her voice the very first day was back. “James Chekov is suffering from a deep-seated form of PTSD.”

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, yet Steve’s gut still twisted.

“A century ago, no one would have even let him in a space program. But we can’t afford to be picky.” She smiled aggressively. “And Chekov is a fucking great astronaut, Steve. He knows how to keep a cool head, he’s a brilliant pilot, and he does actually know how to work with people. He simply prefers to be away from them as much as possible. It’s not my place to call him out on that.”

“And when we’re on the Endurance? Where will he go then?” asked Steve. It was a logical and reasonable objection, yet he felt even more ridiculous than before. He shouldn’t have gotten so worked up over this, he really shouldn’t have.

“There are two habitat pods,” shrugged Danvers. “I told you, the Endurance was originally meant to house a dozen persons. You’ll actually have enough space for him to stay out of the way if he feels the need.”

But he’s the one who suggested we all bunk together, thought Steve angrily. He wasn’t supposed to know that—he wasn’t even sure he was right—and he’d made enough of a fool of himself, so all he said was, “Yes ma’am.”

“Good,” said Danvers easily. “As you were.”

She spun on her heel and walked away.

But Steve had never been very good at letting things go. The fact that Chekov had apparently reverted to the robotic blankness of the first days—not even looking Steve in the eye anymore—certainly didn’t help.

They hadn’t properly spoken in nearly three days when Steve abruptly decided he couldn’t stand it anymore. Chekov might have PTSD, Chekov might be a goddamn misanthropist, but that didn’t explain entirely the way he behaved with Steve—cracking open one day and shutting down the next. And Steve was getting tired of being treated like a maladapted kid by everyone when he obviously wasn’t the only one with issues.

Steve wasn’t sleeping anyway; might as well make something useful of his night.

 

*

 

Danvers fell asleep as quickly and easily as always that night. Bruce took a bit longer, but eventually, Steve had to assume he was sleeping—he hadn’t moved in over an hour. Steve quietly pushed away the covers, then got out of the room, perfectly silent on bare feet.

He had the whole night to find Chekov. He wasn’t sure what he’d do afterwards, but he couldn’t stand another sleepless night wondering where he was.

The hallways were dark and empty. The grit that washed over the Earth couldn’t seep into the building as easily as it did in Clint’s farm, but there was still a thin layer of dirt covering the floor; it felt both smooth and grainy under the sole of his feet. The wind was howling outside. On instinct, he walked towards Bruce’s classroom.

The door was closed; Steve opened it with exaggerated care, so much that it took him almost a minute—but at the very least, he did so in complete silence. The room was awash with silver moonlight that cut big square shapes through the darkness. Steve stayed there, listening, but the wind was even louder here, making the windows tremble. After a while, he became convinced there was no one inside. He turned away and kept walking down the corridor.

Then he stopped and looked down at the floor.

There were bootprints in the dust. Too big to be Danvers’, and Bruce didn’t wear boots—he was always barefoot or in his socks.

Steve turned round at the classroom again. He’d left the door ajar, and had no problem pushing it open to slip inside.

Under the desk, he thought, he always liked to hide under the desk. It was a very odd thought which felt like it had been spewed by his reptilian brain—an instinctive knowledge as ancient and natural as the urge to breathe.

He walked to the desk like he was in a dream, then softly trod around it.

Chekov was there. He was curled up on the ground with an arm folded under his head. He still had his boots and his clothes on. He was sleeping like a soldier in a warzone, silent and still.

He looked so terribly young.

Steve suddenly felt very uncomfortable, watching him in his sleep like a complete creep. He wanted to call his name, let him know he was here at the very least; but for a split second, he was absolutely unable to remember it, as if two different languages were battling for predominance in his mind, as if his mouth was trying to form two different names at once.

Then Chekov’s eyes opened—and he was Chekov again.

“Твою мать!”

He scrambled up so suddenly that Steve backed into a supplies closet and almost toppled it over. He tried to steady it with one hand while holding out the other to prove he was no threat—he suddenly couldn’t remember what the hell he’d been thinking. What was he even doing? Chekov hadn’t even been that friendly towards Steve—had in fact made it very clear he wanted to be left alone—so why?

It was as if a trance had been broken. Steve remembered now that he didn’t know Chekov and that Chekov didn’t owe him anything.

“Shit,” repeated Chekov, in English this time. He swallowed and visibly steadied himself, then scowled. “Scared the hell outta me.”

“I’m sorry,” stammered Steve. He was flushing hot with shame. “I’m so sorry. I was—I just—” He winced. “I was looking for you,” he said lamely.

Chekov looked at him for a long time. He didn’t seem angry. Just bone-deep weary.

After a silent minute, he shook his long hair then scooted over to make room behind the desk. “C’mere, Steve,” he said tiredly.

The nonchalant use of his first name should have felt odd, but it didn’t—it tugged painfully at his chest, like hunger, like longing. Steve sat quietly next to him, without ever looking away from him. Chekov returned his gaze, and Steve shouldn’t have been so relieved about it, but there he was, pathetically hung upon what little scrapes of attention Chekov would give him. He understood nothing about what he was feeling.

“I’m sorry,” said Chekov abruptly. “I know you’re confused. I am too.”

He ran a hand through his messy hair.

“I’m aware I’m not easy to be around, but I’m working on it.”

Steve suddenly felt like the biggest jerk in the world. “Not your fault.” He hesitated, but, hey, in for a penny and all that. “For what it’s worth, I like being around you.”

“Well, you’ve been alone for a long time,” deadpanned Chekov, “your standards cannot be very high.”

Steve gave a half-smile at that. Then he sighed and leaned against the desk, staring at the moonlit ceiling. He remembered Sam Wilson, more than eighty years ago.

“Bed too soft, huh?” he said.

“Floor’s also too damn soft,” said Chekov.

There was a long silence.

“We’re going to the stars,” said Steve slowly. “We’re leaving the Earth in two weeks. I honestly hadn’t seen that coming at any point in my life.”

“Trust me,” murmured Chekov, “me neither.”

Steve looked at him again. He felt like something was tugging at his insides again, the instinct to loop his arm around his shoulders. To share their warmth. The guy looked so damn cold all the time.

“You, uh. Wanna break into the kitchen?” offered Steve.

Chekov glanced up at him, a bit surprised; but then the ghost of a smile tangled into his lips. “Yeah,” he mumbled, “okay.”

The kitchen wasn’t far, and breaking in was as easy as always. It was too early for breakfast, and neither of them was hungry, of course. So they did hot chocolate and it was the best damn thing Steve had ever drunk.

They sipped it for a while in companionable silence, then Steve cleared his throat.

“I gotta say—I feel like you’re still trying to protect me from something.”

“I am,” said Chekov.

His bluntness was a relief. Steve nodded, then said, “Look, I won’t ask you what exactly. I… I trust you, you know? But I can handle myself. And I’m thinking maybe—maybe you should let me. You don’t have to watch out for me all the time.”

Chekov gave him a look. “You were starving yourself,” he said. “You were starving yourself and you weren’t sleeping.”

He sounded so damn broken about it, angry and distressed all at once—but all of it bottled, toned down, as if he kept stifling himself even now.

“You don’t have to watch out for me,” repeated Steve.

Chekov didn’t deny that it was what he was doing. There was another silence, longer and heavier than the first. Then he said in a very low voice: “James.”

Steve blinked. “What?”

“If you’re gonna call me something,” he licked his lips, “might as well be James.”

Another silence.

Then Chekov—James—said, very slowly, “The bunk above yours is free, right?”

Steve tried to stifle the big smile threatening to bloom across his face. “Uh—yeah,” he said. “D’you need help taking the mattress off?”

James looked taken off guard; but then he shrugged. “Sure.”

They went back to the bedroom. Steve was almost giddy, for no conceivable reason. Danvers was still sleeping soundly, snoring a little; Steve wasn’t too sure about Bruce, but if he was awake, he didn’t let it show. The mattress was removed, and James climbed into the bunk above Steve’s without a word to lie down on the bare, raspy plywood. He didn’t take off his clothes or shoes, just curled up there and lay very still.

Steve lay down on his own bed. “Thanks,” he murmured. “Good night.”

There was a silence, then Chekov’s raspy voice answering hesitantly, “G’night.”

Steve closed his eyes, wondered what Danvers would have to say about all this, but never found out because he abruptly fell asleep.

 

*

 

When he woke up the next morning, bright daylight was washing in through the window. Steve felt so disoriented it took him a minute to understand what had happened. Bruce was sitting on his bed facing him, working on his tablet; he smiled at Steve.

“Wha—” Steve scooted up, blinking. “What time is it?”

“Eleven am,” said Bruce cheerfully.

Steve’s mouth fell open. “And you let me sleep?”

“Yes. Happy birthday, by the way.”

That took another minute to register.  

Jesus. He’d forgotten. It was the Fourth of July. He was one hundred and seventy-eight years old. In exactly thirteen days, he would be launched into space towards a wormhole leading to another galaxy.

Bruce threw him a small plastic box. “Here’s your present.”

Steve clipped it open; it was a silver mp3 player, complete with a set of earbuds.

“I made it myself,” said Bruce. “Using one of Tony’s old designs. You can recharge it with your body heat—just keeping it in your pocket should be enough. And, uh, there’s two terabytes of music already on it.”

Steve stared at him.

“Bruce,” he said, bewildered. “Thank you.”

Bruce smiled at him. “What are friends for?”

He unfolded himself from his cross-legged position and got up from his bunk. “Speaking of which,” he said, “Chekov said to let you sleep on pain of death, and he’s been scaring away lab techs for the past three hours. You should go tell him he can stand down now.”

 

*

               

James was still nearly mute on a good day, but he was there again, a solid, quiet, constant presence by Steve’s side, and Steve couldn’t have been more grateful. For the first time in ages, his fingers itched for a pencil. He kept catching himself staring at James whenever he could get away with it, drink in his features and his gait and the way his hair fell and the way he held himself. He guessed he probably shouldn’t have.

Most of SHIELD agreed. They obviously couldn’t understand how anyone could appreciate the continued company of such a gloomy, sinister man. Chekov was their resident ghost; no one talked to him and he talked to no one.

They didn’t know how, in the evening, Steve lifted one of his earbuds to the top bunk for a metal hand to come grab it; they didn’t know how Steve fell asleep to the slow beat of Blue Jeans Blues, knowing that James was listening too at the other end. They didn’t know about the raids in the kitchen at night or about the late sessions in the gym. They didn’t know about James’ deadpan humor and they didn’t know Steve slept through the night more often thanks to him.

Mostly, they didn’t know what James did for Steve’s numb emotions. It felt like blood returning to a sleeping limb. Prickly, yes, uncomfortable, still awkward sometimes, but ultimately so unbearably good.

James felt right. He felt—he felt real, like nothing else and no one else did. Steve almost thought he could feel him, feel the vibration of his existence without having to look at him. Everything about him was more vivid. Maybe this was why he was constantly hollowing out his voice and averting his eyes—so as not to harm anyone with the intensity burning at his core. It was stupid and sappy but Steve couldn’t help thinking that; he knew he felt like he was going to go up into flames every time James looked at him for more than two seconds straight.

And Steve knew his obsession with James was almost certainly a very bad sign—it tasted of madness. But he just kept telling himself he was overreacting. Hell, it might even be true. Thirty years of solitude would magnify even the most meaningless of friendships.

James looked like he didn’t mind hanging out with him, anyway.

 

*

 

The last two weeks before take-off were the most hectic Steve had ever been through—and he’d been in several wars. The three astronauts held it together well enough—James was quiet and stoic as always and Bruce the very picture of zen—but everyone else was hysterical. Steve trained up to sixteen hours a day; the space suit was like a second skin to him now, and he was pretty sure he could have taken apart the Endurance and then rebuilt it in his sleep.

Then came the day of the cryo freeze testing.

Steve had known it was coming for a long time, but he hadn’t looked forward to it at all. He knew cryo sleep was essential to long journeys in space. He knew this was nothing like being trapped in a sinking plane with icy water coming for him, slow and inexorable.

Still.

It was an important milestone for everyone, as if putting the astronauts into an altered state would bring them one step closer to the starlit void. When Steve got up—Bruce and Danvers already on their way—he peered up into James’ bunk without thinking, and was surprised to find him sitting there with his back to the wall, his eyes slightly too wide and his hands clenched into mismatched fists.

James was never there in the morning—he slept less than Steve did now, and usually went into the gym for an early workout, waiting for Steve to get up so they could go have breakfast together.

“James?” asked Steve.

No answer.

“James? Are you coming?”

James flinched bodily, then looked down at Steve. He let out a shaky breath which sounded like he’d held it for a long time. He pressed against the wall, ducking his head not to bump it on the ceiling, as if trying to make himself smaller. He opened his mouth to refuse, but he physically couldn’t speak and shook his head violently.

Deep-seated PTSD, said Danvers in Steve’s mind.

James was very obviously wary of medical—Steve had seen him hesitate for a good five minutes before settling down in the dentist chair, suppressing a flinch every time someone in a lab coat approached him. He also couldn’t stand anyone touching his hair or his head, and he hated the helmets of the space suits. Still, he’d never had a full-on panic attack before.

Steve hesitated. He knew some vets were claustrophobic, but James looked like he couldn’t make himself small enough, folding himself more and more—like he’d folded himself under the desk—and pressing back into the corner of the bed.

Maybe it was the reason Steve thought it was alright to ask, “Can I come up?”

James didn’t react for a couple of seconds, long enough for Steve to regret his offer; but then he nodded jerkily.

Climbing the ladder felt like regressing into a long-lost childhood. Steve didn’t remember his much, and didn’t think about it, but stuffing himself into the space between the ceiling and the bare metallic bedframe was natural. He didn’t try to touch James more than seemed necessary, content with their thighs and sides pressing together. It seemed to help James a little, and he exhaled shakily again.

“Winter missions?” asked Steve eventually.

James swallowed, then swallowed again. “Something like that.”

“I got frozen once,” offered Steve.

“I know.”

Steve smiled a little. “’Course you know. You’re my number one fan, I always forget.”

James had been staring at a fixed point this whole time, but he forced himself to look at Steve then. His eyes were wide and haunted.

“Aren’t you scared?” he asked in a low, raspy voice.

“I am,” said Steve honestly. “I really am. A lot. But this whole space travel thing terrifies me anyway. And, they’re not cold. The beds. Danvers said. They’re not actually cold.”

James was shaking. Steve caught himself thinking he really was in no state to be stuffed into a space station, not if he was still actively battling his ghosts—but he angrily pushed that thought away. He had no right to think that, not when he was so messed up, himself. Not when they had the goddamn Hulk with them. This was no different from the Avengers, from people who shouldn’t have been allowed to be heroes, but were heroes anyway.

Besides, Steve didn’t think he could handle going up there without James Chekov.

The thought was huge and incongruous—he’d only known James for—his entire l—for three—three centuries—three y—three sec—for three weeks, three damn weeks, but Steve could worry about it later, because James looked like he was falling apart.

“Hey,” said Steve softly.

He tentatively reached out, then stopped half-way. Nobody touched James, and the last time he’d tried hadn’t gone well. He looked at James’ metal arm. It was on full display today—James still went to bed fully clothed, but lately he’d begun to at least take off his jacket; underneath he was wearing a black tank top that revealed shining metal and whirring plates.

Steve closed his eyes, opened them again. Something shifted inside of him, like cogs turning to click together backwards.

He was looking at the arm. It was the first time he actually saw it whole, and he was seeing something he hadn’t seen before. The shoulder had been clawed at, gnawed at, with deep bright irregular marks. There should have been a design. It had been scratched off. There should have been something.

“It’s missing a star,” said Steve in an odd voice.

The world had narrowed into a soundproof tunnel around him, pulsing along with his heart, beating into his ears. He was hypnotized by the shining spot over the shoulder. His head hurt.

“It’s missing a star,” he repeated, brow furrowed in concentration. His own voice sounded like it was coming from very far away. There was something at the edge of his grasp—on the tip of his tongue. The migraine was growing sharper.

Someone was talking to him. Someone framed his face, forcing him to look away. Steve blinked slowly at the eyes now looking at him—the raw emotion in those eyes, the grief and the panic.

“No, God, Steve, no, not this,” the voice was raspy and broken, choking, “not over this, Steve, Jesus fuck—”

Something stretched and snapped and Steve blinked, startled back into a wider space. The buzzing in his ears stopped. James was right here, pale as death, breathless, actually ashen, as if someone had reached into his chest and gripped his heart. He was—he was holding Steve’s face.

“James?” asked Steve, alarmed. “James, what’s wrong? What happened?”

James stared at him with wide eyes for a couple of seconds; then he slumped against him, sucking in gasping breaths that turned into a broken laugh.

“Nothing,” he said, “nothing. Nothing happened.”

His hands slipped down to turn into fists in Steve’s shirt.

“Rogers, Chekov?” called Danvers from the outside of the room. “Chop chop!”

“James,” insisted Steve in utter confusion.

But James abruptly pushed him away and swung his legs over the edge of the bed to land smoothly on the floor; then he all but ran out of the room.

 

*

 

Steve wasn’t dressed yet; he lost precious minutes putting on his cryo suit, and he caught up with James just in time to see him be put to sleep.

The look on James’ face scared him. He hadn’t bothered with a cryo suit—he was in his boxers; his body looked like it hadn’t seen the sun in a long time. His expression was blanker than it had ever been, with something animal screaming from the bottom of his eyes. He glanced at Steve when he came in, then looked away and didn’t meet his eyes again, obviously trying his best to control his breathing.

He didn’t resist when they laid him down in the cryo bed, didn’t flinch, just stared at the ceiling with wide eyes until they closed the bag around him like he was a corpse. They said he was already asleep when the water flooded him and the plastic shell closed around him. Steve hoped it was true. He felt nauseous, actually nauseous, like he was betraying James—like he should have stopped this from happening somehow.

When they let him out, not ten minutes later, James was unresponsive for a long minute. Steve wanted to go to him, but the lab techs wouldn’t let him through, and he couldn’t insist without making a scene even though he was convinced James was in shock.

Then James snapped out of it, shook water out of his hair, didn’t look at anyone and left the room at once.

And all of a sudden Steve was faced with his own cryo bed.

“I—” he said, taken short.

He’d thought he could do this. If James could overcome his trauma, then Steve could, too. But he’d also thought James would be there. He looked at the bed, looked at the respirator they would stuff down his throat, looked at the plastic bag that would close around him, and he felt like he already couldn’t breathe.

“Captain Rogers,” called someone.

Steve’s head was a mess. He wanted to go back to James, to ask him what had happened in the bedroom—had he had a panic attack? Had Steve had a panic attack? He honestly couldn’t remember—it was all so confused. He didn’t want to do this right now, but he couldn’t just ask them to postpone it. They had no time. They had no time for anything.

“Steve,” said a much softer, much gentler voice.

It was Bruce. He must have gone first; he was holding a towel around his shoulders, hair still damp, but looking as calm as always. “Do you need a minute?”

Steve looked at Bruce with pleading eyes. “I—no,” he lied. “I’m fine. Just… can you… will you—?”

“I’ll stay here,” said Bruce calmly, looking into his eyes. “I promise.”

Steve swallowed. That helped, a little, but what he really wanted was the solid weight of James’ presence—the reality of it, as if it could anchor Steve in time and make sure he wouldn’t sleep for another seventy years.

“Okay,” he said, “Okay.”

He zipped up his cryo suit, then cautiously stepped into the plastic bed. It looked horridly like a coffin; when he lay down, Steve had to fight a burst of panic, and bit down on the respirator they slid into his mouth. It felt wrong. He wanted it to be over.

They closed the plastic around him and Steve couldn’t stand it—he went away in his head, lied to himself, pretended it was happening to someone else.

For a few eternal minutes, he was in the dark. He wasn’t conscious, but he wasn’t unconscious either. He was stuck, unable to move.

Then life flowed back into his veins, and he was getting up into the bright bloom of the medical light, water trickling out of his mouth, they’d already opened the cryo bed, they were helping him stumble out, and there was Bruce on the edge of his sight, asking questions, and Steve nodded yes and shook his head no and kept repeating he was fine until they left him alone and he could walk out in the corridor, away from everyone’s attention, and hurry up to the bathroom, fall to his knees and vomit into the toilet.

He stayed there a long time, choking, crying, with the acrid smell of his own foulness filling up his nose. A gentle hand ran through his hair, rubbed comfortingly at his neck, and he felt both ashamed and miserably grateful for whoever was there.

“Hey,” said someone in a broken voice.

Steve gasped, then looked up. It was James, crouched up next to him. He was so close. All of a sudden, he was almost too real, in a way Steve couldn’t comprehend, like the rest of the world was made of smoke.

“I’m sorry,” muttered James. His eyes were wet and red.

Steve awkwardly grabbed the hand he’d set on his shoulder and squeezed it. He didn’t care anymore; he was just glad he was here. When James squeezed back, Steve shuddered, licking his lips. He wanted to pull James close and hold onto him, but he wasn’t supposed to do that.

“Shit, Steve, c’mere.” And then James’ solid arms were encircling him and Steve could have cried with relief. He just closed his eyes and breathed into his shirt.

“I’m sorry,” repeated James in a strangled voice.

“Thank you,” exhaled Steve. “Don’t go. Please. I just—it’s like—everything’s so much—so much easier when you’re around—and I don’t even know why. I feel like I should—I should know.” He curled his fingers into James’ shirt. “What’s happening, Buck?” he asked plaintively, breathless, feeling like the room was spinning around them. “What the hell is going on?”

James held him tighter.

“I’m right here,” he said, instead of answering Steve’s nonsensical questions. He sounded angry at himself. “I’m staying right here.”

 

*

 

That night, James stuffed himself into Steve’s bed without asking. Steve didn’t protest, just wiggled awkwardly on the narrow mattress to make room while Bruce and Danvers pretended not to notice. They slept back to back, like soldiers preserving heat. Steve fell asleep with some kind of desperate gratitude, still shaking a little against James’ back once in a while.

When he woke up, his mind was clearer, and he felt more grounded. Lying very still on the mattress, with James against him, he rewound the events of the day before.

He remembered the cryo bed, but the parts before and after were fuzzy. Something about James’ arm. One of them had had a panic attack. Probably Steve. He dimly remembered himself throwing up, babbling nonsense. And some kind of broken, helpless anger in James’ voice as he hugged Steve, as he promised him he’d stay…

All of a sudden, Steve realized how they looked. Two men inexplicably drawn to each other and bunking together in a building full of empty beds.

The thought knocked the air out of his lungs, mainly because it hadn’t even crossed his mind before and yet the possibility wasn’t all that unlikely, all things considered. He just wasn’t used to it—he’d never made time for it in his life. Never wanted, really. After a while he’d started thinking maybe Peggy had been an exception, maybe he couldn’t feel these things with the same ease the others did. But now Chekov was stirring up old doubts.

Was that the reason they’d gotten so close so quickly? Could it be explained by something so trivial?

Steve insensibly pressed against James’ back, and clinically wondered how it would be to turn round and kiss him. How he would react. Steve couldn’t picture anything else than James’ usual dead-eyed stare, and it made his chest clench.

The world was ending. What measure was a flicker of intimacy? Everything was bigger than them. Everything was bigger than this. So what if Steve turned round and pressed his mouth to Sergeant James Chekov’s cracked lips? It would not stop the atmosphere from filling with nitrogen, and it would not save Bruce from his fate. It would do nothing for mankind and for the friends Steve had lost.

He closed his eyes and waited for someone else to wake up and set the day into motion.

 

*

 

But the thought wouldn’t leave his mind so easily. Steve was beginning to understand exactly just how closed off James had been until then. The whole of SHIELD was utterly baffled at their friendship and they were all being less and less subtle about it.

It didn’t help that apparently everyone had expected a cat fight between the grim veteran and the clueless rookie. Instead, Chekov and Rogers had the gall to get along. People whispered at them in the corridors and sometimes openly pointed at them when they ate together. Several times, Steve walked in on a gaggle of whispering scientists who abruptly shut up and scattered when they saw him. It became more and more obvious every day that everyone assumed Steve Rogers and James Chekov were sleeping together.

Steve had to admit it was the most likely explanation for such a sudden and inexplicable closeness. He kept waiting for Danvers to sit him down and talk to him about fraternization, but it never happened.

James looked like he couldn’t care less what people were saying about him.

 

*

 

Only six days left till take-off.

“Any goodbyes?” asked Bruce at lunch.

They were eating alone; James was doing a solo run in the simulator. Steve shook his head.

“There’s no one,” he said. “I already told my neighbor I was going so he’d take my fields. I won’t be leaving anyone behind.” A beat, then he asked, “You?”

Bruce gave him a tiny smile. “Me neither.” He waited, then said softly, “It didn’t really help in the end, did it?”

Steve thought about it.               

After Sam’s death, he’d stopped seeking new people out, keeping them at arms’ length because he could not bear the thought of losing anyone else. He’d hoped maybe that way he could achieve oblivion without killing himself. But in the long term, perhaps it would have been better to stick around, to put himself on the line, even if it meant learning how to mourn again and again and again. It would have certainly been braver.

Bruce hadn’t had a choice; the Hulk wouldn’t let him end his own life. He’d known it for longer than Steve had, and maybe it had helped him come to terms with it, a little—after a hundred years of solitude, he had such a perfect lid on his emotions that Steve couldn’t have read him anyway.

“Bruce,” said Steve out of the blue.

He’d held back for a month but now—now he just couldn’t keep silent anymore. “I know you don’t need me telling you that, but I gotta say. I… I can’t accept it. The black hole. You don’t deserve that.”

“You don’t know what I deserve,” answered Bruce calmly. He hesitated, then added, “If I do find what I’m looking for, it should allow me to pull myself out of the black hole. I’ll have to, if I want to send the data back to Danvers.”

“Bruce, goddammit!” protested Steve, appalled. “It’s complete suicide! Would you have let Tony pull that kind of crap?”

Bruce’s face fell a little and Steve regretted his words.

“Sorry,” he said. “But, Bruce—there’s gotta be another way. I can’t…” He bit back his words. If he couldn’t do this, he had no business being part of the mission. Captain, this isn’t your call.

But every time he tried to imagine himself pressing the button that would send Bruce’s pod spiraling into the unknown, he felt sick to his stomach.

Bruce sighed and ran a hand through his unkempt curls.

“I understand where you’re coming from. I can promise you one thing. If I do find another way, I’ll use it. This isn’t suicide.” He smiled. “It’s sacrifice.”

And well, Steve couldn’t say anything to that, and he smiled a little as if to say, you got me there. But sacrifices were supposed to be in the spur of the moment with no time for regret. This—this was slow and drawn out, and it must be such a crushing, unbearable weight to bear. Steve knew it drove him crazy every time he thought about it.

“How’s it going with Chekov?” asked Bruce out of the blue.

Steve blinked at him. It was an innocent question, but Bruce was staring, eyes softly amused, with a hint of a smile tugging at his lips.

“…Good,” said Steve cautiously. “Why do you ask?”

Bruce shrugged. “I’ve known him for five years. You’ve known him for a month.”

The implications were painfully obvious, but the last thing Steve wanted was to acknowledge them. Besides, Bruce was trying to change the subject.

“The mission was supposed to be just the two of you,” countered Steve. “What does he think about throwing you into a black hole?”

“I have no idea,” said Bruce quietly. “We don’t talk much.”

 

*

 

“People are talking,” Steve told James one night.

They were sitting side by side in Steve’s bed, sharing his earbuds again. Wish You Were Here was playing low in their ears.

James shrugged, unfazed as always. “Let them talk. We’re going off planet in two days.”

Steve tried to understand this information, to let it sink in, but he couldn’t. The whole thing felt absolutely unreal, no matter how hard he’d been training for it. It was difficult to comprehend the vastness of space when he was holed up in this warm little room, squeezed against James in a bunk bed as if this was summer camp.

“I don’t want to drop Banner in a black hole,” said Steve in a low voice. “I know the fate of humanity is in the balance and all that. But it’s not right. We don’t even know for sure whether it’ll be good for something.”

James said nothing. He’d agreed to the mission long before Steve showed up. But he let Steve be upset about it, and, well, that was something already.

We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, sang Pink Floyd. Year after year.

“Don’t you want to know what they’re saying about us?” asked Steve, reverting to the previous conversation—goddammit, James was gonna have to talk about at least one of these things.

“I already know what they’re thinking,” said James.

“What are you thinking?”

James said nothing. He looked at the red mug he’d given Steve, still sitting on the little shelf against the wall; then his eyes flicked away.

How I wish, chimed the song. How I wish you were here.

 

*

 

Erskine had smiled at Steve and opened Howard’s machine for him to step inside.

Almost a century and a half later, Danvers smiled at Steve and closed the door of the Ranger behind her. They’d never see her again, except maybe on videos, talking to each other across the void.

It felt unreal.

It felt too real.

Steve had lived for so long, and yet everything was happening too fast. He did the last checklists on automatic mode, thankful that his training had been drilled enough into him that he could do this without thinking.

“Alright, boys,” said Danvers on the coms. “Starting countdown...”

TEN, bellowed the speakers. NINE. EIGHT.

It’s probably too late to go to the bathroom, right? thought Steve, and smiled a little inside his helmet.

James was on his left, breathing evenly. Bruce was in the seat behind James’, drugged to the gills. Part of the procedure, even though Danvers would not let him do it during the simulations. The seat behind Steve’s was empty. It was just the three of them. It would only ever be just the three of them from now on.

SEVEN. SIX. FIVE.

“Do not go gentle into that good night,” murmured Steve without thinking.

FOUR. THREE. TWO.

“That is a lovely line,” a cold, smooth, familiar voice said into his ear.

Steve stopped breathing.

He looked behind him.

ONE.

Loki smiled at him and mouthed, “Take-off.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What shocked Steve the most was how James took it in stride—Steve knew firsthand how cold-blooded he could be, but hadn’t yet realized to what stunning extent. As it was, James’ eyes flicked at the intruder, then back at the dashboard.

“This is Ranger accelerating towards Endurance, ready to release first booster.”

The acceleration already had them pinned into their seats, but the first rocket stage’s release felt like taking two tons of lead to the chest. Steve could not have sat up if he tried; Loki did not seem disturbed by it at all, though. He was leaning forward in his seat—the fourth seat, the one that should have been empty—enough to rest against of the back of Steve’s seat with his arms folded under his chin. Steve could barely breathe, could not hope to process any of it, not while the Ranger was wrenching itself away from the Earth in an almighty roar.

Out the window, the blue skies were paling, the color thinning and thinning until they turned transparent and abruptly Steve could see through them, could see the pinpricks of the stars against the cold blackness of infinite space.

“Ready to release second booster,” said James through gritted teeth.

“Is that Barnes?” whispered Loki in Steve’s ear. “My, how he’s grown.”

Steve barely heard him before the second release crushed him into his seat and chased all thought from his mind. The simulations had prepared him to this somewhat, but the real deal was always going to be different. He screwed his eyes shut and focused on breathing until the inhuman acceleration suddenly ended and the weight bled out of his body.

He slowly opened his eyes.

Outside the window, the Earth curved gently across the glass, glowing blue and white and green, gigantic and gorgeous in its thin silver halo.

“Orbit successfully reached, Ranger,” said Danvers on the coms. “Engage docking.”

Zero-G made Steve dizzy, like his blood did not know where to go in his body. He was strapped to his seat and couldn’t float, but Loki pushed himself upwards, flowing black hair trailing after him. Steve strained his head to see him, ready to unbuckle and fight; if Loki did anything to stop the docking—

But, unexpectedly enough, Bruce reached up hazily and grabbed Loki’s ankle, then softly brought him back into the empty seat next to him, like a little boy pulling down his balloon.

Steve’s blood was racing in his veins—Loki and Banner, for fuck’s sake—but Loki just peered at Bruce with a surprised look, then shrugged and stayed in his seat. Bruce was still drugged out of his mind and probably didn’t even realize Loki was really there.

“Steve,” said James in a growl. “Need your help with docking.”

Steve’s head swiveled round, training slotting back into place. “Shit—yeah. I’m here.”

He engaged automatic docking procedure while James maneuvered the Ranger into the right position; moments later, a shock pounded through the whole ship when it latched onto the Endurance and secured itself into place.

“Docking was successful,” said James curtly on the coms.

He switched them off, then turned to glare at Loki and there was a silent, breathless moment while they all just looked at him.

“You should be dead,” said Steve eventually, heart pounding.

Loki shrugged. “In all fairness, so should you.”

He looked tired. Drawn and gaunt like the rest of them, with the same haunted glint in his eyes despite the flawless youth of his features and his unwavering smile. And then—had it been the inflection of his voice?—it hit Steve.

“Wait. It was you,” he said, eyes widening. “On the radio.”

A faint wrinkle creased Loki’s brow. He didn’t look like he knew what Steve was talking about, but James cut them all off by saying, “Out.”

Even Bruce looked shocked. Loki just sat there and twisted his mouth in a feral smirk. “Are you positive you want to start a fight?”

James pushed himself out of his seat to loom over him. “I know who you are,” he growled, “and I don’t want you here. You can take your chances outside. Bet you survived worse.”

“I know who you are, too, Sergeant,” said Loki calmly. “I could do something about it.”

There was a dead silence.

Steve was puzzled and turned to James to ask him what he meant, but whatever he was going to say got stuck in his throat when he saw his face. James had never been very tan, but he’d turned colorless.

Loki showed his teeth as if to claim his victory. “Good.”

James made a sudden gesture but Bruce stopped him by poking Loki in the chest. “Still alive,” he slurred, “called it.” He waved at James. “S’okay. He’s all talk. He’s just scared, just… scared.”

Loki pushed his hand away with a faint expression of disgust. “Brilliance on drugs is an interesting thing.” He looked up at James. “You were saying, Sergeant?”

Steve thought he’d seen James angry after their first time in the simulator, but this was nothing compared to how he looked now. He was livid, jaw jutting out and pupils shrinking with wrath. He stared at Loki and Loki stared at him.

And then James visibly gave in.

He pulled himself back into his seat just so he could turn on the coms again. “Hello, this is Ranger,” he said in a seemingly sullen and dispassionate voice. “We just picked up a hitchhiker and looks like he’s here to stay. Boarding the Endurance now. Over.”

“What?” sizzled the radio. “What do you mean, a hitchhiker?”

But James had kicked himself out of his seat again to fly towards the airlock. Bruce was slowly unbuckling himself. He’d designed the drug he’d taken and would probably need a few hours before it wore out completely. Oddly enough, Loki helped him get rid of the buckles, then followed him towards the airlock as if this was all completely normal.

“Ranger, come in! Is it an alien? Is it about the wormhole?”

“Rogers here,” said Steve. “I have no idea if it’s about the wormhole. But it’s an Asgardian.”

There was a silence.

“The Asgardians are dead.”

“It’s Loki,” offered Steve.

He heard fumbling at the other end, hurried whispers and mumbling.

“He’s even more dead. He’s been reported dead eighty years ago.” Danvers sounded ulcerated that her historic knowledge could be faulted so gravely.

“You don’t have to tell me,” murmured Steve.

“Is he hostile?”

“I really don’t know,” said Steve. “I’ll keep you posted.”

There was a loud beep as the airlock slotted open between the Ranger and the Endurance. “Moving into the station now. Updates to follow. Over,” said Steve, then pushed himself through the small cabin towards the airlock.

 

*

 

The inside of the Endurance looked every bit like in the simulations—cramped but functional. James and Bruce had already taken off their helmets and space suits, and Steve quickly did the same; he felt better almost instantly, but also more intensely aware that only thin metal walls separated him from the vacuum of space.

James was hovering over the dashboard, looking as indifferent as ever, but Steve knew him well enough—too well, really, for so short a time—and could tell he was still raging beneath the surface. He was scared, too, which wasn’t surprising. A wild card on this mission was the last thing they needed.

James set the pod belt spinning with brisk movements, without a word, and didn’t even warn them before the artificial gravity took away their weightlessness.

The sensation was more than unpleasant, but Steve barely noticed it, keeping his full attention on Loki. Seemingly indifferent to it, Loki walked towards the window to look at the rotating view of the Earth and stars.

He noticed Steve staring at him and smiled. “Are you still angry over Manhattan, Captain? It was so long ago.”

It was the last thing Steve wanted to talk about. “Are you going to tell us what you’re doing here?”

“Do you mean in here, or in general?” said Loki with a slight smile.

Steve just glared at him and Loki raised his hands in a conciliatory gesture. “Fair enough.”

In Stuttgart or on the Helicarrier, he’d strutted, pacing his cage like a lion, wearing an armor that broadened his shoulders and exaggerated his every gesture. Now, as he crossed the cabin to take a seat, he tiptoed—as if he still expected to fly away with each step. He was wearing nothing more than a green hoodie and black pants; his hair was wild and streaked with dust.

Basically, he was underdressed and almost unassuming, and it was an insanely weird look on him. That and his creased features made Steve wonder all the more what had happened to him.

Loki sat cross-legged in a chair, then ran both hands through his hair before dropping them back into his lap and staring at them for a few blank seconds.

“I faked my death,” he said abruptly. “Eighty years ago. It gave others closure and it gave me leisure.”

He ran a hand through his hair again. “As to why I am right here…” He shrugged. “I was on Earth when Ragnarök began. I have been stuck there ever since. I wanted to get away. It’s all terribly simple, really.”

“Ragnarök?”

“The world’s end, dear Captain,” said Loki with a joyless grin. “Or hadn’t you noticed? Granted, the lore warned us Midgard’s destruction would be more drawn out, but...”

“There’s just an excess of nitrogen in our atmosphere,” countered Bruce slowly. “The fungi blights…”

“Yes, yes, and Asgard was hit by a giant meteor,” said Loki, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Let us not argue over the whys and hows. It is happening.”

“Why were you on Earth?” asked Steve. “Where have you been all that time?”

“It’s no concern of yours. I am here now.” He raised a hand to shut up James when he opened his mouth again. “I have been watching SHIELD for a while. I know about your mission, and I know this ship is meant to house fifteen regular humans. It will be enough for the four of us. I am here, and you might as well accept it now.”

James’s stance was shifting. It was subtle, but efficient in a cold, professional way that sent a chill down Steve’s spine. He was getting poised to attack.

“James,” murmured Bruce, putting his hand on James’ shoulder.

Steve was taken short. He’d never actually seen Bruce talk to James directly, much less touch him; and Bruce himself had confirmed they never usually spoke. Yet here they were now, Bruce leaning forward to be heard clearly through the haze of the drug.

“It’ll be fine,” he said. “And an Asgardian on our side is a good thing. Increases chances of survival. You know that.”

He spoke softly, sadly, as if to a spooked animal or to a mourning child, and it made Steve’s heart clench. The look on James’ face—confused and angry and scared—made him want to reassure him, except he had no damn clue what was really at stake here. Something was definitely going on between James and Loki, but also between James and Bruce, and possibly even between Bruce and Loki.

Steve felt like he was being excluded from some sort of unspoken conversation, but the impression was just faint enough that he didn’t dare speak his doubts out loud.

“Right,” muttered James in the very low, bland voice he used to disguise himself. He ran a hand through his unkempt hair. “Fine. Nothing else to be done, is it?”

He got up. “But you’re going into cryo sleep first,” he said, pointing at Loki. “That is non-negotiable.”

Loki pressed his lips into a thin line. Obviously, he wasn’t happy about it, but he already knew they wouldn’t let him go last.

He looked at Steve and said, “I want your word.”

“My word?” repeated Steve, surprised.

“You’re the only one here I can trust to keep it. Give me your word you will not let me sleep forever.”

Steve felt James’ gaze on him and carefully didn’t return it. The nagging feeling that he was being kept out of the loop somehow was probably what made him take the jump.

“Fine. You got it.”

James clenched his fists but said nothing.

Loki smiled, a thin mischievous smile Steve didn’t like one bit. “You won’t regret it, Captain.”

 

*

 

“…So you’re riding with him? I don’t like this, Steve.”

“Neither do I,” said Steve as he slipped into his cryo suit. “He didn’t leave us much of a choice.”

Danvers’ sigh sounded like a gust of wind over the speakers. “I suppose Bruce is right. He’s an amazing asset to have out there. If he’s really willing to help.”

“He’s the last of his kind,” said Steve. “He didn’t want to die alone on a foreign world. I can understand that.”

“You’re too trusting.”

Steve thought of Bruce’s hand on James’ arm, and of Loki’s knowing smile when he’d said, I know who you are, Sergeant.

“No, I’m not,” he muttered, zipping up his suit to the neck. “Alright, time to go. Talk to you in two years, Danvers.”

“Godspeed. We’ll be waiting.”

He shut the communication; when he looked up, James was at the door. He looked nervous, twitchy, and kept checking the exits with quick glances even though there were clearly none. He looked away every time he caught sight of the spinning stars out the window.

“James?” said Steve, getting up.

“We put Loki to sleep,” said James, stiffly. “Thought you might wanna go next.”

Steve’s gut clenched a little, but he’d prepared himself for this. “Right,” he said. “Right. I’m coming.”

He walked towards the door, but instead of stepping back to let him through, James stayed there and Steve had to stop not to walk right into him. He waited, raising his eyebrows, but James wouldn’t even look at him, glaring stubbornly at the floor, angry and miserable.

“James,” repeated Steve softly.

James swallowed, shadowed throat moving up and down, and looked up at Steve. His eyes were the same blue as the Earth flashing past the window behind him. The full brunt of his direct gaze still knocked the wind out of Steve a little—maybe because James rarely ever looked him in the eye, even now.

“You’re gonna want to keep your word, aren’t you,” mumbled James.

“Of course,” said Steve. “What else have I got out here?”

James scowled, as if he’d expected that answer and was furious he’d been right. “Shit, Steve.” He seemed a little desperate. “He’s dangerous. You know it.”

“We all are,” shrugged Steve. “It’ll be fine.”

“He’s hiding something.”

“Yeah, well, he’s not the only one, now, is he?”

James turned very pale; he swallowed, throat clicking, and looked away. He looked like he was bracing himself for a punch, and it drained Steve’s frustration against his better judgment.

“I told you,” he said more quietly, “that I trust you and I won’t ask you what’s going on.”

Just as James looked back up at him with disbelieving eyes, it occurred to Steve he still had no real reason to feel that way; but wracking his brain over it had proved sterile. He pushed the thought away.

“But you don’t get to ask me to put someone in a coma,” he went on, “just because they might be lying to me.”

James smiled, very faintly. “Never said I wasn’t a hypocrite.”

Steve felt an odd mixture of anger and relief. James might be hiding something from him, but at least he wasn’t lying to his face about it. He still looked frustrated, though, as if he honestly expected Steve to agree and keep Loki in stasis till the end of times.

Steve thought he knew what the problem was, but it was ridiculous—he couldn’t really mean—

“James?” he said again, stepping just a little closer. “I’ll be fine.”

James looked down, like he’d been caught in the act. So that was actually it. He was still worried about Steve—inexplicably and obsessively, probably as much as Steve was worried about him.

They were very close; and despite himself, Steve thought again—as if someone else was thinking it for him—how easy it would be to lean forward and press their lips together. Was it what James wanted?

(Was it what Steve wanted?)

Steve reached out, slowly, in stops and starts, not really sure what he was doing. James’s eyes widened, but he didn’t move; just stayed there, petrified, staring at the floor, and let Steve’s fingers brush his jaw and tuck a strand of hair behind his ear.

Steve’s heart was pounding, and his throat was dry. Jesus, this was definitely crossing some sort of line. Right?

He had no idea what to do now. There was a beat or two as they stood there, with that empty space throbbing between them. Then James stepped back—and suddenly, he was Chekov again, closed-off and sullen.

“Forget it,” he muttered. “Let’s go.”

 

*

 

When they went into the cryo pod, they found Loki already inside his cryo bed indeed. Steve could see bits of him through the nanoglass, black hair floating around his face, limbs brushing against the curved walls. His skin looked blue through the liquid. Bruce was checking his vitals with a slight frown.

“He went that easily?” asked Steve—partly because he was genuinely baffled about it, and partly because he wanted to be sure Bruce wouldn’t noticed how flustered he still was.

“I was surprised, too,” said Bruce softly. He paused, then added, “There’s also the fact that he spent at least thirty years on Earth and we never knew about it.”

“That is strange,” agreed Steve. “And if he was on Asgard before, for half a century, how come Thor didn’t know?”

“Maybe he did,” said Bruce, nearly inaudible this time, as if it pained him to voice his doubts about a deceased friend out loud.

It was a possibility. But from what Steve knew about Loki, there was no way he would’ve just lain low all that time without getting himself noticed one way or another, regardless of what secrets Thor kept for him.

And the way Loki had boarded them was odd—at the last minute like some shameful stowaway. Like he’d been so terrified of being left behind that he’d waited until take-off day so they wouldn’t have any choice but to keep him. And, last but not least, he was allowing them to put him under when they could very well choose to leave him in an artificial coma forever and be done with him.

He must have been desperate to leave.

“You don’t trust him, do you?” asked James darkly, looking at Bruce.

“No, I don’t,” murmured Bruce. “But it’s been eighty years. And I don’t think he would’ve gone through all this trouble just to destroy us, when he could’ve so easily blown up the Ranger back on Earth.”

James snorted and Steve forced himself to glance at him. “Do you know him?”

“I know who he is,” was all James said.

Again, Steve wanted to ask him exactly how old he was, but James hadn’t wanted to answer this question before and had no reason to answer it now. Steve cast a last glance at Loki’s floating silhouette in the blue liquid, then turned to his own bed and tried to look brave.

“Who’s—” he cleared his throat. “Who will go next? After me, I mean?”

“I’ll give James a hand,” reassured Bruce.

It wasn’t what Steve had asked, but it was precisely what he’d wanted to know. He wondered why he worried so much about James Chekov and why everyone seemed to know about it.

His fingers were still tingling with the brief touch they’d shared only minutes ago.

He glanced over his shoulder again. James met his gaze squarely. “Still here,” he promised in a low voice.

“Yeah,” exhaled Steve. He forced himself to smile back. “Okay. See you guys on the other side.”

Steve climbed into his own bed and laid down.

It was easier, even when the liquid trickled in and Bruce zipped the plastic bag around his body. Steve just closed his eyes and bit a little into the respirator, then took a huge breath and let the gas drown his lungs into sleep.

The cold took him like it had taken him before. His hearing was the last to go. He heard Bruce’s muffled voice, James’ droning answer; and then he heard nothing at all. He was dead to the stars and moving away from the Earth.

He was dreaming.

 

*

 

Steve is chasing the Winter Soldier through the streets of DC.

There is a glint of metal, a dazzling silver in the sun. Sam is here. Nat is here. He can’t wake up, no matter how lucid he gets; the cryo will keep him under. He knows he is dreaming, but his dream self can’t stop thinking it must be a dream, even though he already knows that. Something to do with the glint of metal and what he saw under the mask. He can’t remember what he saw under the mask.

 

Steve is alone at Clint’s farm and trying to kill himself with Clint’s razor but he can’t do it and he doesn’t even know why.

 

Steve is being interviewed by a faceless reporter. Sam isn’t here. Nat isn’t here. He is asked about his youth in Brooklyn. He says it was a difficult time. He supposes it is the right answer but he is surprised to realize he doesn’t actually recall much of it.

 

Steve doesn’t remember his youth at all. Steve doesn’t remember anything before the serum. Steve remembers almost nothing about the war. They say he was in love with Peggy and it’s true. They say he marched alone on a HYDRA camp and it must be true, too. But he doesn’t remember much of that, either. He can’t even remember exactly why he did it.

 

Steve is tending to his crops and his crops are dying. Steve is looking up at the sky with a scarf over his face to protect himself from the grit in the wind. Steve thinks he’d like to stop breathing but his lungs keep pumping the nitrogenous air in and out and in and out, and eventually he gets back to work. It’ll be over soon, he thinks to himself.

 

Steve is in Stark Tower and flipping through the channels. Some of them are nothing but a blue screen. He asks JARVIS why. JARVIS says the content of these shows may be triggering to him. Steve asks what they are. JARVIS tells him. They are all news channels or history channels. Steve supposes Tony is being overprotective again.

 

Steve is crashing a plane into the Arctic ocean. On the radio, Peggy begs him not to, and he babbles about going out to dance. He should be grabbing a parachute. He should be climbing into the dozens of tiny aircraft waiting in the back. He should be getting up from his seat and saving himself. He stays there and lets the water drown the life out of him.

Thinking back, he can’t figure out why.

 

Steve is chasing the Winter Soldier through the streets of DC. The glint of metal is getting in his vision. It is bleaching his sight and his brain and everything inside of him, burning it white.

Steve is flipping through the channels and the screen turns stark white.

Steve is being interviewed by a reporter whose face is a vacuum of white.

Steve is looking up at the sky and the sky is white.

Steve’s entire dream collapses and turns entirely white.

 

He turns around and looks.

There is a fifth dimension in Steve’s dream. As if he was a comic book character suddenly able to look outside the page and right at the reader. He should not be able to even conceive this angle, but it's a dream so he does.

Everything brusquely shifts like a car swerving out of the road and

 

Steve

 

is

 

chasing the Winter Soldier through the streets of DC.

It is not a dream.

It is a memory.

 

He can smell the sun in the air and taste the young Earth on his tongue. He can feel himself run, can feel his steps on the ground and the weight of his shield and his heart thumping fast and loud in his chest. He breathes and the air is not full of iron. The Winter Soldier has a metal arm and a black muzzle covering his mouth, but when he swings at Steve, Steve swings at him right back and flips him over his shoulder and it rips the muzzle away.

And it’s Bucky. Of course it’s Bucky. Steve knows who Bucky is, so he doesn’t dwell on it. Everyone knows who Bucky is. Right? There is no need to ask himself about it. He can just run on autopilot. The memory is going on anyway, so his mind follows.

“Bucky,” says Steve, but Bucky does not know he is Bucky. He tells Steve as much, then tries to kill Steve and nearly succeeds.

 

Steve is standing in a cemetery with the distinct feeling someone just died, or came back to life, as if it was the same thing (and what a weird thought to have.) There is a manila folder in his hand.

“You’re going after him,” says Sam Wilson, and it is not a question. “When do we start?”

 

They start when Bucky appears on Steve’s front door, not two weeks later.

He looks terrible, pale and drawn with tiredness carved into his face. Sam is instantly aiming at him and claiming he is dangerous and warning Steve not to go to him. He says maybe the Soldier is still in there somewhere. He says HYDRA might have very well found him again and sent him as a trap. Those are all valid points.

Bucky looks confused. He raises his hands up, blinking at Sam like he does not know why he’s aiming at him but figures he’s right.

Steve hesitates. He knows this could be a trap. But Bucky pulled him out of the Potomac.

Bucky looks up at Steve, pleadingly, and asks, “Steve?” in such a shy, miserable voice that Steve pushes Sam’s gun down and hurries down the steps.

Embracing Bucky feels like his whole world is slotting back into place. He clutches at him and breathes shakily and says that everything will be alright now. Everything will be alright.

Then he feels something cold and hard dig into his stomach.

He looks at Bucky. The Winter Soldier looks back at him with empty eyes.

The bullet fractures Steve’s rib, rips through his internal organs and punctures his lung. Sam shouts. There is another gunshot, and he is not shouting anymore.

 

When Steve wakes up, he is strapped into a metal chair. His gut is torturing him, as if a red hot iron had been driven through his stomach and forgotten there. It means he is healing. He opens his eyes.

The Winter Soldier is here. He is standing in a glass box.

Steve looks at him foggily. Then someone steps into his line of sight, with a red HYDRA symbol embroidered on their sleeve. They walk around him, talking in droning voices he can’t yet understand. He fights against the chair. The chair holds.

In the glass box, the Soldier is watching him. His eyes are dull, but when one of the men draws a vial of Steve’s blood, the Soldier’s brow pulls into a confused frown.

“What,” he says. He sounds like he is not quite sure how to speak, slow and hesitant. There is a Russian accent grinding down onto his syllables.  “What are you doing to him?”

“Impressive,” says someone. “He’s cracking already. We’re lucky he brought Rogers back at all. It’s a miracle the last wipe even held.”

“I want to try something,” says someone else.

They bury a stun baton between Steve’s legs and turn it on.

When Steve is done screaming, he realizes the Soldier is hitting the glass. The glass holds. It was probably designed especially for it.

“Stop,” the Soldier is stammering. He looks wild and panicked like a tortured animal. He obviously cannot understand what is happening. He still wants it to stop.

“Do it again,” says one of the two men. They turn the stun baton on again and keep it going for several seconds.

When Steve comes back to himself, Bucky is sobbing. He is still banging against the glass, but more weakly. Again, he begs them to stop, in a halting voice. But they wanted him to watch; that is why they put him in there.

Steve understands it fuzzily, before they shock him again. When it stops, they ask Bucky his name.

He blinks and stammers he doesn’t know. They shock Steve again.

They ask him his name. He says Bucky. They say Steve told him so and that’s cheating. They shock Steve again.

They ask him his name. He screams he doesn’t know and begs them to stop please stop just don’t hurt him anymore.

They shock Steve again. They move the baton between his thighs, up and against his groin, increase the strength of the shocks and tighten the restraints when Steve starts thrashing too hard. When his eyes can focus again, he sees that Bucky is pulling at his own hair. His eyes are wide and wild.

He is repeating the same thing over and over again. James Buchanan Barnes. Sergeant. Three two five five seven two four one.

He says it again and again and again, and then he doubles over and throws up on the floor. Then he looks up and wipes filth from his face and asks in a haggard voice if he did well.

When they fail to answer, he asks what his mission is. When they keep silent, he repeats it in Russian, in an increasingly panicked tone. He apologizes repeatedly, in a shaky voice, tears rolling down his cheeks. Eventually he stops talking and sits there, eyes wide, shuddering.

The first man shrugs and says the Asset was long past his expiration date, anyway. They argue over the standard procedure to terminate him. They talk of gas, then of acid bath to be absolutely sure. Then they shrug again and decide it can wait until they are done here. They say they are curious with the outcome.

Steve can’t move. His lower half is paralyzed with the repeated shocks he endured. His muscles have turned to water. He cannot react when they close some sort of headgear around his skull and jam a mouth guard between his teeth.

When he sees this, Bucky snaps out of his apathy and screams at them no, leaps to his feet and pounds against the glass again and again and again, throws himself against the walls until he bleeds, and shouts through his sobs Steve, Steve, STEVE!

There is an electrical crack on each side of Steve’s head and suddenly—

 

 

 

—Steve wakes up in a hospital bed. He has a feeling he was here not long ago.

Natasha is here. She says Sam isn’t here because he was shot, but he’s alive. He was the one who rang the alarm after dragging himself back into the house. They enlisted Tony Stark and found Steve in time and killed every HYDRA operative they saw.

Then she looks him right into the eye and says Bucky has third-degree acid burns, but they got him out, and he’s recovering.

Steve frowns a little and asks, “Who?”

 

 

 

Steve wakes up in a hospital bed. He has a feeling he was here not long ago.

Someone is talking in the hallway. His head hurts, and the words echo in his ears.

“He should be healing,” Sam is saying. “Why isn’t he healing? There’s a reason they had to wipe Barnes over and over and over. Because it didn’t hold. Why is it holding with him?”

 “It’s got to be a mental thing. Psychosomatic, I mean, not—not physical. I think it’s a defense mechanism.”

“Stark…” That’s Natasha, sounding tired.

“No, hey, hear me out. Just seeing Rogers was enough to crack Barnes’ programming, right? That’s because Rogers is Barnes’ reason to live. Shut up, I know how it sounds. My point is—it’s the opposite for Rogers.”

“What?”

“Barnes is Rogers’ reason to die. He killed himself three times over him already. When he left to rescue the 107th alone; when he let himself crash down with that plane filled with parachutes and aircraft; and when he fell into the Potomac. Captain America never gives up, except when it comes to Sergeant Barnes. He’s the chink in that star-spangled armor.”

There’s a silence.

“What’s your point?”

“Like I said. It’s a defense mechanism. It’s basic survival instinct. The serum’s whole point is to maximize life expectancy. Barnes’ serum pushed him to fight the wipes—to remember Rogers. Rogers’ serum is pushing him to forget Barnes. No chink left in his armor.”

They don’t realize Steve is not sleeping, except that at this point of Tony’s little speech, Steve starts seizing and then they do notice, a little.

 

Steve wakes up in a hospital bed. He has a feeling he was here not long ago.

For some reason, people have been banned from talking in his room or near his room. He gets bored quickly, so he turns on the TV and watches a report about the events in DC. There is footage of the Winter Soldier and—

 

Steve wakes up in a hospital bed. He has a feeling he was here not long ago.

There is no television in his room.

 

“It reboots him every time,” someone is saying. “You can’t just keep trying. It’s been six months. That’s half a year of his life in stops and starts already. Don’t you think he’s lost enough time as it is?”

“There’s been progress. He can hear the name now. He can even look at some pictures of him.”

“But he still has no clue who he’s looking at, Wilson. All you’re doing is trigger desensitization.  It’s a good thing, but you’re just curing the symptoms here. You can’t fool yourself and call it progress.”

“What about Ba—” Sam lowers his voice. He doesn’t want to be heard. Steve is not sure who they’re even talking about, though. Is it him? Has it been six months? Six months since what?

“The sergeant,” says Tony pointedly, “agrees with me. He wants you to stop. Says it’ll be better for everyone.”

Sam’s voice is low and growling—Steve has never heard him sound like that. “That’s bullshit and you know it.”

“I’d agree. I’ve never been a fan of the greater good argument.” Steve has never heard Tony sound like that either, so quiet and serious. “But it’s staring us in the face this time, Sam. You’re making him lose his memory every other day. Just telling him he’s amnesiac is enough to set him off now. You’re adding layers and layers of confusion and it’s making it worse.”

There is a silence. Then Tony speaks again. “You have to let it go. It wasn’t your fault.”

Sam breathes heavily for a while. When he speaks again, he sounds terribly tired. “Is Tony Stark being the voice of reason? Over Steve Rogers?”

“Look at how low you got,” grins Tony, but it sounds wan and tired, too.

So they are talking about him, Steve thinks, and he thinks back on everything they just said and—

 

Steve wakes up in a hospital bed. He has a feeling he was here not long ago.

He can hear Marvin Gaye in the background. Everything slowly comes back to him. The Winter Soldier, right. DC. HYDRA and Fury who was not really dead. What else? His head is fuzzy. How long has it been?

“On your left,” he tells Sam.

Sam smiles at him. He looks beat.

“You ready to go home?” asks Steve. He means it as a joke but Jesus, Sam looks like he should be in the hospital bed instead of Steve. Why is he in a hospital bed, anyway? He doesn’t have any physical wounds.

“Yeah,” says Sam slowly.

He unfolds himself from his chair like an old man. “Alright, Rogers. Let’s go home.”

 

 

They tell him he was in a coma after the events in DC. They ask him if he feels ready to go back in the field now. Steve says yes. What else is he gonna do?

 

The next time the Avengers assemble, something is off. Steve might be going crazy, but he feels like they’re all stealing glances at him when they think he’s not looking.

 

Steve is crying in his sleep. He is not sure why. He never remembers his dreams anymore, but when he wakes up the pillow is wet with tears. He is a bit ashamed and mostly confused so he doesn’t mention it to anyone.

It goes on for a little while and then stops.

 

Steve goes for a walk in Brooklyn one day for no reason at all. They said he used to live there. He wakes up in the shade of a back alley with a small crowd gathered around him.

They tell him he fainted. They say it was probably heatstroke. Steve never suffered from heatstroke after the serum, but he doesn’t really remember what happened and he doesn’t see what else it would be. He drinks the water they give him and thanks them, then goes back home.

 

When he finally dares to tell Sam about it, Sam tells him a bit tiredly it’s aftereffects from his coma and he shouldn’t worry about it too much. Also maybe Steve should stop hanging in Brooklyn, but that advice doesn’t make much sense.

 

Steve is alive.

Steve is undeniably, indestructibly alive. It is celebrated as some sort of victory by those who are still here to celebrate. But eventually there is no one left to celebrate, and Steve starts thinking maybe he would like not to be alive anymore.

He does not want to call it suicidal thoughts. He doesn’t want to kill himself. He just doesn’t want to live forever.

 

There are letters piling up in the mail, all addressed to Sam Wilson. The writing on the envelopes is terribly clumsy and almost childish, as if Sam’s penpal had had to learn to write all over again at some point in his life. Maybe they had a stroke, or maybe they’re a disabled vet.

Steve doesn’t open the letters because they’re not for him, but he feels bad for the person writing them. Eventually, he does open one, just to see the name of the sender on top of the page, and he writes a short note informing them that Sam Wilson passed away three weeks ago and that Steve is very sorry for their loss. It’s only after he posts the letter that he realizes he has no idea what the name was—he read it and committed it to memory long enough to write it on the envelope, but it slipped his mind right after.

He never receives an answer, but the letters stop coming.

 

Steve is looking at his reflection in the mirror at Clint’s farm, and he has a razor in his hand but he can’t even make it touch his skin and he doesn’t know why.

 

Steve stops sleeping and stops eating and tells himself that’s what he gets for living alone and he should take care of himself better. But he needs to feel a little lighter and if his mind can’t help him with that, then it’ll have to be his body. He’s not really starving himself for good, anyway. He can still get by.

 

There is a dull thud upstairs and numbers traced in the dirt by an invisible hand. There is a dull hope thudding in Steve’s chest and an invisible poem guiding him across the land.

There is Bruce Banner and twelve people lined up on a wall. There is a voice in the air and grit in the wind.

There is a gateway in the fabric of space. There is a ship poised for the stars.

There is a brown-haired guy with a prosthetic arm who flattens his voice and averts his eyes the best he can, makes himself bland, makes himself unremarkable, muttering, “I’m James.”

 

There is a man in a glass box screaming to be let out, shouting Steve Steve STEVE—

 

 

 

“Steve? Take it easy.”

Steve coughed out a mouthful of cryo liquid. For a terribly long minute, he had no idea where he was and what had happened to him; he groped blindly for purchase in time and space, wracking his brain for a clue. Then he remembered he had eyes, and blinked them open.

The room was plunged in a semi-obscurity, just enough not to hurt Steve’s eyes after two years of non-use. The cryo liquid tasted acidic and tangy like lemon juice. Outside the window were rotating stars, a spinning sight of a pin-pricked void; and then a huge planet, yellow and orange and white with pale yellow rings, crossing the window like a cosmic whale.

Steve just gaped, still breathless, liquid dripping from his hair. Then he looked at Bruce, who smiled at him, a little.

“We’re here,” he said in his soft voice. “The wormhole is just a few hundred miles away.”

Steve swallowed, then nodded. Two years already. Panic tried to twist his insides into knots but he took that tightness and turned it into anticipation. Excitement, even. The planet crossed the window again and Steve stared as much as he could.

Saturn.

He felt dizzy.

He looked away, feeling like he’d stare forever otherwise. “Um,” he rasped. He cleared his throat. He hadn’t used that in two years, either. “Where are…”

He furrowed his brow. His head was fuzzy, and he had trouble recalling names. A strong headache was beginning to buzz under his skull.

“...James,” he managed at last. “And, uh. Loki?”

“I thought I’d wake you up first,” said Bruce softly.

He’d woken up alone, trusting only the timer of his cryo bed to pull him out of stasis. Steve shuddered at the thought and wondered if Bruce had really just woken up minutes ago, or if he’d taken a few hours to panic—or look at the huge glowing multicolored planet outside. Or just enjoy the quiet.

“Want to give me a hand to pull James out?” asked Bruce.

Steve blinked at him, then nodded. “Yes. Okay. Just…”

“Take your time.”

He sat up a bit more, still dizzy and aching, but the space sickness was wearing out fast. He didn’t even sway when he stepped out of his bed and stripped from his cryo suit.

Bruce looked away while Steve changed, then handed him a bottle of something that looked suspiciously like Gatorade. It was thick and sugary like syrup, but also amazingly refreshing and Steve downed the whole thing in three gulps. He toweled his hair dry then followed Bruce across the room, feeling more awake with every step.

Bruce put his hand on the release of James’ bed, then stopped. He looked up at Steve, opened his mouth, hesitated. His soft eyes looked uncertain.

“Danvers told you about James, didn’t she?” he asked at last.

Steve wasn’t sure what he meant—it was an oddly open question, as if Bruce himself wasn’t sure what Steve knew. He contemplated playing dumb for a second, then decided against it.

“She told me he had PTSD.”

Bruce nodded, unlocking the lid and engaging the release process. “Two years of stasis is a long time. He might need help to find his footing.”

“I can do that,” said Steve over the noise of the cryo liquid being drained out.

The lid slowly opened like a blooming flower, and Steve’s breath caught.

James was completely still, eyes closed, pale as death, his face half-hidden by the respirator that encased his jaw like a muzzle. Steve hated seeing him like that. He wanted to wake him up. He wanted to hear his voice.

Bruce slowly pulled the respirator out of James’ throat, frowning in concentration. Liquid trickled out of James’ mouth like it had trickled out of Steve’s.

His eyes snapped open.

The next second, he leapt out of his bed, collapsing on the floor in a splash of cryo liquid and scrambling back in panic. 

“Не трогайте меня,” he croaked, voice so hoarse and shaky it was barely intelligible. He pressed himself into a corner, trembling, breathless. “Пощадите. Нет, не надо опять.”

Steve had no idea what he was saying, but the tone of his voice made it obvious he was terrified. He was gaping at something which wasn’t there and curling up on himself as if anticipating a blow.

“James, hey, James,” said Steve, taking a step forward. “James, look at me.”

James’ eyes snapped up and he brusquely unfolded himself—suddenly so full of coiled violence Steve couldn’t understand how he hadn’t realized before James had been trained for lethal combat. His prosthetic was whirring threateningly and it was even more obvious that it wasn’t just a metal arm; it was a weapon.

“Steve,” said Bruce in a strained voice. “Be careful.”

Steve wasn’t surprised and he wasn’t afraid. He had no idea why. But he wasn’t afraid.

“James,” he repeated, slowly kneeling down to be eye level with him.

James’ wild eyes followed him all the way down. He was so still he was trembling a little with it, tense and coiled and ready to snap. Under the hard-boiled layer of aggressiveness, he looked utterly confused and scared breathless.

“We’re in the Endurance,” said Steve, calmly, looking him in the eye.“It’s the year 2099. Your current name is James Chekov. No one here will hurt you.”

He didn’t know why he’d said current name—something in James reminded him of Natasha, maybe. James stared at him with wide eyes, chest heaving fast as he gasped for breath. Then he blinked, and blinked again.

“Steve,” he rasped.

“Yes,” said Steve encouragingly, coming a little closer. “Yeah, Buck, it’s me.”

He heard Bruce draw a sharp intake of breath behind him—maybe he thought Steve was going too fast, but Steve was so convinced James wouldn’t hurt him he couldn’t stay back.

“No,” stammered James, pressing back into the wall. “No. It’s a—it’s a—it’s a trap. They made me pretend. They’re gonna hurt you.”

“No one’s gonna hurt me.”

“I’m gonna hurt you,” said James, voice breaking, “Steve, they told me to hurt you, I’m gonna hurt you—”

“No, you’re not. Look.”

Steve slowly reached out, gently, and tucked James’ hair behind his ear.

James gaped at him, freezing into place, barely breathing anymore.

“See,” said Steve. “C’mon.” He pulled James to him, slowly, until he could grab his shaking shoulders and pull him close enough to press their foreheads together.

He wouldn’t have dared try this just a few weeks ago—or, two years and a few weeks ago, Jesus—but he knew James needed to feel grounded. Steve felt him tense even more for a few seconds, as if expecting a gunshot; then he let out a pained, broken sound, and clutched at Steve’s shirt with his right hand, the metal one curling around his own stomach.

It lasted for a painful minute. Steve’s hands moved from James’ shoulders to his nape to rub small circles there with his thumbs. James wasn’t really calming down; he was shaking like he wanted to cry but wouldn’t let himself. Eventually, he took a deep, shuddering breath, and looked up.

Steve looked back at him. For a fleeting moment, they were very, very close.

Then James scowled and shoved him back.

“For fuck’s sake.” His voice was still shaky but Chekov’s all the way; and it was also Chekov’s eyes glaring at Bruce as he got up, stumbling a little. “You were supposed to wake me up first. You said you would.”

“I changed my mind,” said Bruce, holding his gaze unwaveringly.

James spat a curse in Russian and strode across the room to go face a window, pressing his forehead against the thick cool glass. He took a deep shaky breath, then another, slightly smoother.

Saturn slowly swiped past, turning him into a shadow outlined against a glowing golden background.

Steve just sat there where James had pushed him. After a little while, he slowly got up and looked at Bruce, who just gestured at Steve to give James a minute. So Steve waited, looking at James standing there in front of the whole universe.

James didn’t move, still turning his back to the room and looking at the rotating stars outside. But his shoulders slumped a little after a while, and it was enough for Steve to walk to him. He almost expected James to tell him to fuck off, but James let him come to him and stand by his side in front of the window.

Steve reached out hesitantly, telegraphing his move and giving James plenty of time to tell him to stop. But he didn’t, and Steve put a hand on his back, flat and warm. He left it there for a while, then slid it up to rest it on his shoulder.

James shuddered, but didn’t shrug Steve’s touch off.

There was a silence.

“Did you dream any?” asked James in a low voice.

Steve opened his mouth to say he had; his dream had stayed there at the edge of his consciousness, waiting to be looked at. But the second Steve tried to remember, it slipped away from him like water from cupped hands, trickling out into oblivion.

He made a helpless, frustrated gesture. “No. No, I had it, but now…” He shook his head. “It’s gone.”

James stared at him like he wanted to say too many things; but none of them came out and he looked away, at the stars and the golden planet cruising by.

“I’m sorry,” ventured Steve. He did feel sorry, even though he wasn’t too sure what he was apologizing for.

“Don’t,” sighed James. “Just, don’t…” he shook his head. “Look, I don’t know what I said, but think nothing of it. That’s all I’m asking.”

“I forgot already,” promised Steve.

James huffed a bitter, hateful sound that could have been a laugh. He turned away, slipping out of Steve’s hold, and it was as if they’d never touched at all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“It’s good to hear from you, Endurance.”

“Good to hear you too, Carol,” Bruce was saying softly. “Are we on schedule?”

“You’re right on time.”

“Good. That’s good.” Bruce paused. “Anything happen these past two years?”

Nothing that matters. The wormhole is still there and waiting. Remember—once you’re inside, you’ll be able to receive communications but not send them, because of Gargantua’s gravitational pull.”

Steve was listening to their conversation, but it was really just a background for his own blank thoughts as he looked at James coming out from the habitat pod after changing into regular clothes. He was still toweling his hair dry. He walked to Steve, dropped the towel and grabbed a flask of space Gatorade or whatever the hell this thing was.

“Stop looking like I kicked your puppy,” he mumbled as he plonked himself down next to Steve. He ran a hand over his face. “I’m sorry, alright? I’m just not a morning person. And I had two years’ worth of mornings to catch up on.”

Steve smiled, a bit forced. That wasn’t the problem, but he didn’t say it. The problem was that he felt like James and he were separated by a pane of glass. But he didn’t say that, either.

“So are we waking up the freak?” asked James sullenly.

It took Steve a second to understand who he was talking about. “Yeah,” he said. “I gave my word, didn’t I?”

James uncapped the flask with his teeth. “That’s bullshit.” He took one long gulp as if he wished it could’ve been alcohol. “You know he doesn’t care about anyone’s word and you’re still falling for it.”

Steve said nothing for a long time. Then he said, “He lost his home planet and got stuck on ours.”

James snorted. “Just because he went through some shit doesn’t make him worth your time.”

Steve glanced at him then, and James carefully did not glance back. A minute passed in the constant shifting of the light. Then another one.

“What are you scared of?” asked Steve eventually. When James scoffed, he added, “That’s an honest question. Why would he hurt us?”

James chewed the inside of his cheek. “Maybe he wants the Endurance.”

“To go where? Jesus, Buck, this ain’t Flash Gordon.”

James closed his eyes for a few tense seconds, as if containing something behind his eyelids. Steve was left with the distinct feeling he’d said the wrong thing again without thinking. He almost thought he could understand what this time, frowned a little and strained his mind—but Bruce chimed in and broke his train of thought.

“Danvers says we should wake him up.”

James reopened his eyes, then rubbed his face with his right hand, scowling. “Fine,” he said. “Fine. Let’s get it over with.”

 

*

 

“Why is he blue?” asked James.

Steve opened his mouth to say he probably looked blue because of the cryo liquid; but then he remembered James’ pale body inside the plastic bag and realized the liquid was colorless. Loki was actually blue—a deep cold blue, with strange markings on his skin.

They all looked at each other.

“Well, he’s an alien and a shape-shifter,” murmured Bruce. “His vitals are still the same. It should be fine.”

He snapped the release of the cryo bed and waited while the lid slowly opened. Without the half-opaque nanoglass in the way, Loki’s odd color was even more obvious. His hair had stayed the same inky black and it made his hairline almost seamless where it morphed into dark blue skin.

“Why isn’t the liquid draining out?” asked James.

Bruce frowned a little, then rolled up his right sleeve and reached down. The second his hand touched the liquid, it started bubbling furiously with a loud angry hiss of scalding water; Bruce snapped back with a cry of pain, stumbling down onto the floor.

“Bruce,” exclaimed Steve, falling down to his knees with him. “Hey, are you—”

“I’m fine,” said Bruce between gritted teeth.

He was so tense his muscles were bunching under his clothes, and still curled up around himself with his face pulled into a tight grimace of pain; but the way he talked was articulate and lucid. “Give me a minute.”

Steve suddenly remembered the Hulk, vividly—and it hit him for the first time that Bruce could actually let the monster out and kill them all. Hulk was their fifth passenger. Any threat Loki might pose was almost ridiculous in comparison.

“Shit,” hissed James, and Steve’s gaze snapped up when he heard the unmistakable sound of crackling ice.

James was scowling and shaking his metal hand. Ice had glued his fingertips together; the metal plates whirred in effort until he forcefully separated them, breaking the ice into jagged pieces that bounced on the floor next to Steve.

“What the hell?” asked Steve, eyes wide.

“The cryo bath turned into some kind of liquid nitrogen,” said James. “Will freeze anything to the core.”

“Jesus,” mumbled Steve. “Bruce, did it burn you?”

“—Yeah,” answered Bruce, finally relaxing a little.

He looked down at his right hand; he hadn’t been careful like James and had dipped it whole into the liquid. It was blue and black like a deep bruise.

“My God,” breathed Steve.

“It doesn’t hurt anymore,” said Bruce mildly. “But Loki…”

They all looked up at him. If Loki had soaked in the modified cryo bath for over two years, there was no way he was still alive, never mind how his vitals read.

As if on cue, Loki spluttered around the respirator, then grabbed it to pull it out of his mouth and sat up, sloshing liquid around—the drops hissed in small whispers when they hit the ground. He coughed for a good minute, then swallowed and looked up at them, breathless.

His eyes were hazy and stunned. They were also glowing red.

“What?” he said guardedly, his voice hoarser than usual.

Even James didn’t know what to say. Loki’s red eyes flitted at Bruce’s damaged hand, then immediately at himself. He cursed under his breath.

Shaking himself, he got out of the cryo bed; he was stumbling a little like Steve and James had, but he looked entirely more aware of his surroundings than they’d been.

“I apologize,” he said, and a shimmer ran over his whole body, turning his skin white again. “I’ve been careless.”

He dipped a pale hand in the cold liquid, which shivered under his touch until the drain brusquely started working again and the whole thing was sucked out of sight. Steve wondered why the liquid hadn’t hurt Loki, then the answer dawned on him: Loki was the reason it had turned so cold. It must have reacted to his alien body in a way they hadn’t predicted.

Loki looked almost embarrassed. He slicked his hair back with both hands, then glanced at Bruce still curled up on the floor.

“May I see?” he asked.

“I’d rather not,” answered Bruce, stiffly folding his damaged fingers with his other hand. He had a little smile on his lips which was akin to armor to him.

“I meant you no harm,” said Loki a bit stiffly.

“I’m aware,” Bruce said, and Steve had no idea whether he was being ironic or not. He shrugged off Steve’s arm before getting up to his feet and stuffed his frozen hand in his pocket, his face impassive.

Loki didn’t insist. James was looking at him with even more mistrust than before, if it was possible. Steve wasn’t sure what to think.

“He’s gonna need a space suit,” said Bruce in an oddly stilted non-sequitur. “Steve, could you…?”

Steve blinked at him before he understood what was asked of him—and most likely why it was being asked of him. “Yeah,” he said slowly, “sure. Come on,” he told Loki.

James made a sudden gesture but Bruce’s good hand clenched around his wrist hard enough to kill his protest before it had passed his lips. Steve pretended not to notice how obviously Bruce was ushering him out—he wanted to have a word of his own with Loki, anyway.

 

*

 

“Have you slept well?” asked Loki innocently when they left the cryo pod to go into one of the two habitat ones.

“Don’t remember,” said Steve, grabbing an undersuit, then a spare space suit. He considered it, then looked up at Loki. “Do you even need these?”

“Better safe than sorry, I suppose.”

Loki tried to zip open his cryo suit, but it crumpled under his fingers like a frozen spider web. Loki crinkled his nose, then just tore the whole thing off him like wrapping paper.

His body was lean and white with absolutely no scars or marks of any kind; even if Steve hadn’t seen him literally change skins minutes ago, he would have guessed it was an illusion. He turned away to give Loki some privacy, looking at the spinning stars outside.

“Why are you hiding your true form?” he asked.

“I’ve been taught to,” answered Loki. “Besides, it seems to be in fashion.”

Steve decided to take the bait—might as well, really. “I know Banner and Chekov aren’t telling me everything. It’s not like they’re being subtle about it.”

“Ah,” was all Loki said to that.

Steve glanced at him again—he’d zipped up the undersuit, which clung to him like a second skin, and was now stepping into the space suit.

“It doesn’t bother me,” lied Steve. “What bothers me most is how you know about it.”

Loki full-on grinned at him. “I know everything, my dear Captain.”

“I really doubt that.”

“I know some things,” amended Loki. “About your dear Sergeant Chekov, for one.”

Steve didn’t let himself be swayed by those words. Loki really hadn’t changed—but the fact that he’d chosen to prod at this particular aspect of Steve’s life meant his closeness to James hadn’t escaped even his notice.

“That’s all?” he said. “You’re not trying very hard.”

“I am not trying at all,” answered Loki, pulling on the sleeves of his suit. “I am here in all good faith.”

Steve snorted. “I forgot you were all about honesty.”

Loki smirked at him and said cryptically, “More important things have been forgotten, I’m sure.”

He glanced at himself. “How do I look?”

“Unusual,” said Steve honestly.

To see him wearing a space suit had something surreal to it. They weren’t big and fluffy and clumsy like they had been in the 20th century, but they were still very official, and so very human that Loki looked entirely out of place in one.

“Seriously,” asked Steve in a quieter voice. “Why are you here? And where have you been all these years?”

Loki just smiled at him. He really did look tired. “Now why should I tell you this?”

“Because you’re here now,” said Steve simply, “with us. And we’re all that we have.”

There was a silence. Loki licked his lips, then looked away.

“I’m moved, Captain, I really am.” He slotted his helmet into place. “But you do not have me, and I doubt I have any of you.”

He gestured towards the door. “Shall we?”

 

*

 

James and Bruce weren’t talking when Steve and Loki joined them in the command pod; they’d both put their own space suits on and were back to politely ignoring each other as per usual. But the air was so heavy with their shared secret Steve could taste it.

He worried the inside of his lip before exhaling a long slow breath. He trusted Bruce, and he trusted James, too, but they were both making it very hard to keep trusting them. Still, when James looked up at him, Steve found he really couldn’t believe this man could ever mean him any harm—gullibility be damned.

He looked out the window at Saturn cruising by. He might never get used to views like this. “Are we ready? Bruce, your hand?”

“I’ll be fine,” repeated Bruce softly but firmly.

“I really doubt it,” muttered Loki, but immediately raised his hands in a cease-and-desist gesture when James glared at him. “Fine. I said nothing.”

James worked his jaw, then sank down into his seat. “Let’s go.”

The Endurance swirled through space, slowly leaving Saturn behind. It was a few long minutes before the wormhole came into sight.

In a two-dimensional world, on a sheet of paper, the passage would have been a hole. In three dimensions, it was a sphere, like a suspended glass ball reflecting stars that did not match the constellations around them. It hung there, still and eerie, unfathomably beautiful.

“So,” James told Loki, aiming for gruff but missing the mark with how tensely he swallowed. “Any last-minute advice? Since you’re used to interstellar travel.”

Loki would have probably sneered at that, but he had the same look of dread and awe on his face. “I am not used to this.”

James licked his lips, then flicked the coms on. “This is it. We’re going through.”

“Roger that, Endurance. And remember. You’re not alone out there.”

Danvers paused, then added, “Bruce?”

Bruce drew himself up in his seat. “I’m here,” he said softly.

Danvers said nothing at first, and in that nothing hung years of work and hope and friendship. Then she said, softly but firmly, too, with that underlying steel to her words: “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

Bruce smiled, as if he couldn’t help himself. “I won’t,” he murmured. “Goodbye, Carol.”

Then they all looked up, outside the glass at the hole poked into the fabric of space, at the dark sphere staring back at them with a million starry eyes. James pushed the engines and they moved through space, or maybe space moved around them, but either way they closed in and in and in and through—

 

through a hole that was

not a hole when is a hole not a hole? When it's

a sphere and then the stars began to melt, liquid and bright 

white through deep black space like a streaked painting and it’s upside 

down it’s wrong it’s all wrong It’s full-on impossible and it was upside down and 

mirrored and inverted in another way, an impossible way and the ship is actually bending

oh dear God the ship is bending, and straight lines were curving, curving along with the rest of

the fabric of space, swirling around the singularity they crossed and it’s all shaking so damn hard,

it’s gonna dismantle the ship and there was a Jesus fucking Christ, what the hell is that? there was a

hand there, a blurry hole in the fabric of space shaped like a hand, and it was going to touch James it’s

gonna touch Bucky, what the hell is that, it’s gonna touch Bucky! and James stayed very still with eyes 

very wide and the hovering blurry thing brushed his helmet, went through his helmet and brushed his 

jawline, and it didn’t hurt oh please God make it not hurt and Loki was saying something out loud, 

a poem do not go gentle into that good night, old age should burn and rave at close of day; rage,

rage against the dying of the light and the blurry thing vanished, went back into nothingness

and the ship was shuddering so hard so many stars, so many stars I never knew, I never

knew how big, how vast, there is nothing and there is us and there was them, the

four of them, and it was velvet black outside and twisted into impossibility

and it’s unraveling, it’s all coming around and the infinite became

finite, and the impossible went back to possible

and they were out—

 

—out and watching another wall of blackness, unknown constellations, light-years from the Earth and from all living things.

 There was a star; and next to the star was a humongous dark mass surrounded in a halo of pure light. It was Gargantua. They were there.

“…against the dying of the light,” breathed Loki. His lips were parted on a smile, his eyes wide, pupils blown.

Steve turned to him. “What is this?” he breathed.

Loki swallowed, then smiled at him. “Dylan Thomas, apparently.”

He pointed at a sheet of paper on the wall—Steve couldn’t believe he hadn’t seen it before. Bruce must have taped it there; Loki had just been reading out loud.

“It sounded appropriate.”

 

*

 

“Are you alright?” was the first thing Steve asked James after they’d all unbuckled and taken off their helmets.

“I’m okay,” said James. He looked shaken, but unscathed. “What the hell was that?”

“It looked like a hand. It was shaped like a hand. It went through your helmet.”

“We still don’t know who’s responsible for the wormhole,” observed Bruce. “It could have been them, reaching out. Whoever they are.”

“How did it feel?” asked Loki, curious.

James gave him a look, but answered anyway, muttering, “I don’t know. Warm.” He rubbed his jaw and shuddered.

“If they can contact us,” said Steve, “why won’t they do it now?”

“Maybe they could only do it in the wormhole,” murmured Bruce. “James, could you stop the spinning?”

James complied without a word and their weight evaporated again. The view outside stopped swirling and they could behold Gargantua in all its terrifying glory. It was so bright it hurt to look at it, even through the tinted, UV-proof glass. The star next to it looked tiny and feeble in comparison.

“Whoever they are,” said Bruce quietly, “they’re looking out for us.”

Steve couldn’t look away from the black hole. Plan A. In a few days at most, Bruce would…

It was death, right there outside waiting for him in a halo of pure light, or something worse than death. Steve couldn’t bear that thought. The problem was that he still hadn’t come up with a better option.

Something beeped loudly on the dashboard.

“New data,” said Bruce. He floated across the room and pulled himself into his seat—Steve couldn’t help noticing he was only using his left hand to do so; his wounded hand was still carefully kept out of sight. “The Three are still emitting.”

“Which planet is the closest?” asked James.

“Quill’s. Daken’s and Chavez’ are on the other side of M-616 right now.”

“Of what?” asked Loki.

“M-616,” said James brusquely. “The star right outside the window. The one orbiting the black hole.”

“I thought your three planets orbited the black hole.”

“Black holes suck in all light and warmth,” said James in a tone that was an insult in itself. “Planets need to orbit a star to be habitable. They’d just be dead balls of rock and ice otherwise.”

Loki just let out a mirthless little laugh. “Oh,” he mumbled, “Earthlings.”

James was beginning to look quietly murderous again and Steve was about to intervene, but then Bruce—who’d been scouring the data all this time—exclaimed out of the blue, “Shit.”

Steve blinked. This was so unusual that even Loki gaped; but then he burst out laughing, earning himself another scathing glare on James’ part.

“What?” growled James.

“Oh, nothing,” giggled Loki. “I just thought you would have taken the time distortion into consideration.” He hovered closer to the results Bruce was reading. “That’s what it’s about, is it not?”

“Bruce, what is he talking about?” asked Steve.

“Relativity,” sighed Bruce. He rubbed the ridge of his nose. “I’d hoped it wouldn’t be that bad, but Gargantua’s pull is strong. Basically, time goes slower the closer we get from it. Right now, an hour on Quill’s planet…” He scrolled down, frowning. “…equals seven of our years.”

A stunned silence echoed these words.

“We can’t land the Ranger there,” said Steve. “We can’t make Danvers wait that long.”

“Right now, Daken’s and Chavez’ planets are far enough from Gargantua that the distortion doesn’t apply,” said Bruce. “But Quill is sending out excellent readings. There’s water on his planet. Liquid water.”

Steve fell silent. This was big, this was astounding news and they all knew it.

Eventually, James said quietly, “What do the other two say?”

Bruce winced. “Daken’s results are… good, too. Chavez’ a bit less.”

“But both their planets are habitable? And outside of the time distortion range right now?”

“Yes.”

“Then we don’t risk it,” said James. “It’s the sensible thing to do.”

He tapped on the dashboard and opened a digital map, quickly adding elements to match Bruce’s data. Gargantua was in the middle, with a thin blue circle around it to mark the time distortion horizon event. M-616 was currently on its right, with three planets orbiting around it. Chavez’ was the closest to the star, then Quill’s, then Daken’s.

All three orbits cut into the fateful blue line; at the moment though, only Quill’s was in the zone. Daken’s and Chavez’ were on the other side of their orbit, with M-616 between them and the black hole.

James tapped the blue circle. “We go around Gargantua,” he said, “on the edge of the time distortion horizon event. We’ll go check on Daken’s planet first, since it’s the closest. I’d like you to stick around for that part, Doctor.”

Bruce took a silent breath before saying, “It’d be quicker to—”

“You were supposed to visit the first planet with us. You’re staying.”

He didn’t look at Bruce while he was saying it. Loki was looking at him, looking like he knew exactly what James implied. Steve wasn’t sure he did—wasn’t sure to which extent he’d spied on them back on Earth.

“If Daken’s isn’t good after all, we go to Chavez’. And on the way…”

“You’ll drop Banner,” finished Loki uncharitably.

Right. He knew, then.

James gave him a flat look, which worried Steve more than all his glowering.

“You know,” he said, “for someone whose life depends on us, you’re making it hard not to rip your spine out.”

Loki responded with a wicked grin. “Not brave enough to face your own decisions, are you?”

James kicked himself out of his seat, rising threateningly towards him. “Tell you what,” he said in that eerily calm voice. “You’re going back into cryo.”

Loki stared at him. Suddenly, he wasn’t smiling at all anymore. “I don’t think so.”

“You’re acting like you have a choice,” said James.

His face was bland and his voice toneless. He rolled his left shoulder and his arm audibly calibrated itself, whirring into a less flexible but much more solid setting. “It’s gonna take us three days to reach Daken’s world. I don’t want you around while we’re asleep. You’re going back down whether you want it or not.”

Loki showed his teeth and repeated, “No.”

James looked like he’d waited for this answer. His eyes were soulless and utterly calm now. He braced a foot against the dashboard and—

Steve leaned forward to slam the right button and the Endurance started spinning on itself again—brutally giving everyone their weight back. James and Loki, who’d been hovering closer and closer to each other, fell back down on the floor.

“Cool it,” said Steve sternly. “We didn’t come this far to fight now.”

James looked so stunned by this move it was almost funny. Loki, though, wasn’t laughing; he was pale and still looking at James with unflinching tension.

“Thank you,” said Bruce with excessive politeness, like Steve had given him the floor at a chemistry symposium. “James: I appreciate your concern but I can handle Loki. Actually,” he smiled, “I’ll bunk with him.”

Loki was still caught in James’ aggressiveness and couldn’t keep his eyes from growing wider than they’d ever been. “Pardon?”

“You can’t hurt me in my sleep,” said Bruce almost cheerfully. “And I’ll keep an eye on you. That way, no one’s going back in cryo, and everyone can sleep soundly.”

Neither James nor Loki looked particularly thrilled at the prospect. Bruce, obviously, couldn’t have cared less. He gave Steve a little smile and Steve was suddenly, overwhelmingly glad he was here.

 

*

 

The automatic pilot could be trusted to circle Gargantua on its own. Procedure demanded that all astronauts get some rest shortly after exiting the cryo sleep, to ensure the recovery of their circadian rhythms. After a freeze dried meal—James was still watching Steve eat from the corner of his eye, pretending to be subtle about it—the lights went off; Bruce retreated to the first habitat pod along with a gloomy but resigned-looking Loki, and left the second one to Steve and James.

There were two cots in the tiny room, narrow and functional. Steve and James didn’t speak more than a few perfunctory words; they just laid still and silent, and tried to sleep.

Steve felt like he was suffocating after only thirty minutes.

He wrenched himself out of bed, sliding the door open to go back into the cryo pod and release his breath in loud gasps. Gargantua cruised past, washing the whole pod in an implacable white light, then the darkness returned.

Steve closed his eyes. His temples were damp with sweat, and he ran his hands through his hair, breathing deeply, slowly, feeling scrawny and plagued with asthma again.

(How had he survived for so long on his own, back then—?)

When he reopened his eyes, slowly, he caught a glint of light on the edge of his sight. He looked up and realized the door of the other habitat pod hadn’t been entirely closed. A golden ray was filtering through. He could hear hushed voices.

“—because I had no other choice. But I will not go into this artificial sleep again. He meant to leave me there.” Loki almost sounded as if he was talking to himself, using Bruce’s presence as an excuse to do so.

“I wish you’d tell us what you’re really after,” said Bruce in his carefully paced voice. “It would certainly put James more at ease.”

Loki scoffed. “Barnes couldn’t care less about me, Doctor. He has no other outlet for his frustration; that is all there is to it.”

Barnes, mouthed Steve. Loki had called him that last time, too. The name sounded like…

A headache was beginning to swell behind his right eye. Steve applied pressure on his temple and walked slightly closer to the light.

“How do you know about him?” Bruce was asking.

“Oh, do not play dumb, it suits you ill,” sighed Loki, sounding muffled like he was rubbing his face. “Thor told you of my very timely death, simultaneous to Odin’s sudden change of heart in his ruling. Surely you’ve figured it all out.”

Bruce didn’t react to Loki’s assumptions other than by saying, “That doesn’t explain why you know about James.”

Steve realized he’d stopped breathing entirely and sucked in a deep breath, but he stopped again the second after. His body’s subconscious functions were leaving the building. He had to force himself to remember how to breathe and how to blink. He had to remember…

Gargantua illuminated the whole room again, painting it with colors that did not belong to the night but would have been out of place in daytime, too. Then darkness again. Black spots were marring Steve’s vision. He tried to blink them away. He gasped; he’d stopped breathing again without realizing it.

“I have watched you,” conceded Loki, tiredly. “I was watching all of my subjects, right until Ragnarök put an end to it. I saw your attempts to give Barnes another reason to live.”

He shifted on the bed, a rustle of sheets. “Rogers’ return must have been the sweetest poison he’s ever tasted,” he said. “And if the blame—”

“What are you doing?” murmured James, putting his hands over Steve’s ears.

Steve should have been startled, probably, should have whipped round and pushed James’ hands off him; but he felt mesmerized, on the edge of something as huge and terrifying as the black hole outside. A sharp, lancing pain was throbbing in his head.

“I…”

He wavered. His legs were going to give out. His head hurt. A bright light unfurled into the room, stabbed at his pupils, washed away again, leaving him colorblind and dazed.

“Come here.” James gently pulled him backwards, into the safe retreat of their own habitat pod; he made Steve sit on the bunk, then slid the door shut with his foot, without turning on the light. It was entirely dark—so dark even Steve’s enhanced eyesight could not compensate enough to see anything.

He felt James’ hands slide from his ears to cup his face. The room was so small and the space between both beds so narrow that their legs were bumping. Steve’s eyes were wide, but he saw nothing; he only felt James’ warmth and the solid reality of his presence.

“Hey,” whispered James. “Tell me. What’s your name?”

“I—” Steve swallowed. “Steve. Steven Grant Rogers.”

“What year is it?”

“Nineteen f—” He swallowed. Thought about it. “Twenty ninety-nine.”

“Where are we?”

His voice was calm and even in the dark. It helped.

“On the…” Steve winced. “On the Endurance.”

“Who am I?”

He tried to find bearings he hadn’t felt himself losing. The complete darkness would have made it difficult, but James’ hands were warm and firm, thumbs faintly brushing his cheekbones, grounding him into the moment.

“James,” he whispered.

“James what?” asked James, so soft Steve barely heard him.

His voice was hoarse, and comforting, and familiar. Steve hesitated for a long time, though he did not know why.

“…James Chekov,” he said eventually.

He still couldn’t see a thing, but he felt James exhale, a bit shakily. Steve swallowed and blinked several times, which proved useless against the darkness. James was right there with him, legs bracing Steve’s, framing his face. Steve wished he could have seen the look in his eyes; all he could do was feel—the rough fabric of his pants, the smoothness of his metal hand and the warmth of the other one.

“Did I…” He swallowed again, trying to gather his thoughts together. “Did I have a panic attack?”

“Something like that,” murmured James.

He held Steve’s face for another silent moment. Then he kissed him.

Steve had no way to see it coming. It was soft and warm, just a press of the lips, but it was his whole world at this moment—never mind the vastness of space; it had all narrowed down to this single point of contact.

When James pulled back, he breathed, “Sorry,” and Steve felt the word on his mouth, too. Then James’ hands went away—his hands and warmth went away, and there was a rustle of sheets and Steve understood he’d laid down on his cot, turning his back to him.

He stayed sitting there for a long time, dumbstruck.

Eventually, he felt cold so he tugged the covers around himself. Eventually, he felt stiff so he laid down on his side. Eventually, he felt tired so he fell asleep.

 

*

 

When he woke up, the lights were already on and the artificial gravity was off. He was floating two inches from his mattress, tangled in his covers. James was brushing his teeth; he nodded at Steve before swallowing his toothpaste—nowhere to spit in space—and putting water in his mouth to rinse his toothbrush.

“Banner wanted a better look at Gargantua’s accretion disk, so they stopped the spinning,” he said in a manner of explanation. “Here.”

He tossed a toothbrush at Steve; it cartwheeled lazily across the tiny pod until Steve caught it. A flask of water and a tube of toothpaste followed. He caught them too.

“Sleep okay?” asked James without looking at him, tying his long hair. “I heard you getting up at some point.”

Steve just stared at him.

He realized, with a slow, growing horror, that he had no idea whether his blurred memories of last night had been a dream or not. James was bland-faced as always, acting as if nothing had happened. And maybe it was the truth. Steve simply didn’t know.

He almost asked him. What really happened? But he couldn’t have borne to see the blank incomprehension in his eyes, couldn’t have faced the fact that he was making it all up just because he was obsessed with James.

He looked at his full lips, too colored in his pale face. He looked at the sharp lines of his features, contrasting with his strangely soulful eyes. And the strength of his body, the focus and the power thrumming within—so terribly at odds with his unkempt hair and scruff, with the casual neglect he had for himself. Steve ached with the sudden certainty that James was somehow punishing himself. Like Steve had, when he’d stopped eating and sleeping. Punishing himself for not being enough. For not being there. For allowing pain and allowing death, and not being able to save what mattered.

Sorry. Steve could still feel the word breathed against his lips. Had he made that up? Had he dreamed it?

What if he hadn’t?

Then it meant James was lying to his face. Hoping he’d convince Steve he’d dreamed it all up. Or—and Steve wasn’t sure which option he dreaded more—he genuinely expected Steve to have forgotten entirely about it.

“I got up?” asked Steve, as casually as he could, popping the toothpaste open. “I don’t remember.”

James just shrugged and turned away. His eyes looked dead and tired again.

 

*

 

In the end, Steve’s doubts kept him from speaking out at all. Maybe it was for the best. They had a mission to accomplish; and Steve’s scrambled mind and messed-up emotions would not be of any help, should he choose to acknowledge them in the first place. So he said nothing.

After a brief discussion, they’d chosen to keep the spinning turned off since Zero-G didn’t overly bother anybody, and they could feast their eyes on the terrible and wonderful spectacle that was Gargantua. Steve had tried to draw it—he’d packed a notebook and a few pencils—but it only ended up in frustration and eraser shavings floating everywhere. So he was drawing people instead; they were at least as fascinating. It kept him busy for their three days of travel.

He started by sketching roughly the people he remembered. Sam’s face was still firmly etched into his mind, still glowing with generosity even as he’d gotten older, his cropped hair greying, his eyes crinkling, so sad and kind they were painful to draw. Peggy was beginning to get more abstract, but she’d left her mark. He drew her young, dark lips and piercing pupils, face framed with curls. Then it was Tony—the laughter in his eyes, always so much kinder than the one twisting his lips. His spiky hair, his silly goatee, oil smudging his skin. Clint, grinning, happier than he’d let himself be, reaching behind his back to grab an arrow. Then Natasha. She’d always been the trickiest to draw, her microexpressions impossible to capture, but Steve tried, failed, tried again, peppering the pages with sketches flimsier than spider webs.

Steve didn’t draw Thor. He couldn’t invoke the thought of him without seeing sightless eyes and bloodless skin.

Instead, he sketched Danvers, her Mohawk and bright clothes, her sunny energy and her steely resolve. Then he drew Bruce, floating alone in the confined space of a pod. He drew space around him as far as the page would go, to show him curled up there like an explosion in waiting, or like an infant in the womb. He drew Loki next, just his portrait on the whole page, drew hair so dark it scraped off half an inch off his pencil and skin so flawless it was really just blank paper. He drew him without a smile, looking out the window—out of the page, at something no one else could see.

Then he drew James.

He drew him staring straight at whoever would pick up the drawing. He made his eyes clear and striking, as if haunted with light; he sketched his face in sharp clean lines, without hesitation, full lips tight with anger, cheekbones sharpened with gauntness. He added the shadow of stubble under his jaw, the shadow of tiredness under his eyes, but he didn’t want to hide any of it behind long hair, so he gave him a shorter cut.

It was a brutal drawing, full of raw will, and Steve realized he couldn’t look at it after he was finished—couldn’t look at it any more than he could have stared at the sun. When Bruce called them to come and see Daken’s planet, Steve put his notebook away with a sense of relief, but also of longing—like he’d just escaped something extremely dangerous but terribly appealing.

He pushed himself across the command pod until he’d joined Bruce by the window. He felt a little pang when he realized Bruce was still hiding his right hand in the pocket of his hoodie. He wouldn’t let anyone see it.

Steve knew asking him about it was useless, so he just smoothly stopped by his side and asked, “Where is it?”

“Right here,” said Bruce. “Can you see?”

Loki and James hovered closer, Loki posting himself at Bruce’s right hand, and James on Steve’s left—at least they both had the sense not to get close to each other. As the Endurance drew closer, they could all see a silver sphere glowing against the black void, right next to the bigger and brighter shape of M-616.

“Why is it so bright?” asked James.

Bruce waited a few seconds before admitting, “It’s covered in ice.”

He shrank on himself a little when both Loki and James glared at him. “It’s not my fault. It’s the furthest from the star. But Daken’s data says the surface is habitable.”

Loki let out a nasty laugh. “You really are desperate.”

“Yeah,” growled James, “sorta like you, I think.”

Loki didn’t even acknowledge him. He was staring at the silver planet with the same cold, fiery eyes Steve had just drawn the other day. His resolve was unsettling—mostly because Steve couldn’t untangle its meaning.

 

*

 

“I’m sorry about the ice thing,” murmured Bruce to Steve as they all hovered apart to go suit up.

Steve gave him a faint smile. “It’s fine. I’ll adapt.”

“Yes,” sighed Bruce, “you always do.”

The wistfulness in his voice made Steve grab his arm and pull his weightless body back on an impulse. “Bruce,” he said. “You’re hiding something from me.”

Bruce didn’t attempt to deny it, just like James before him. He stared back, without even trying to avert his eyes or to make up an apology. And just like with James, Steve’s impatience bled out of him as soon as it had come. “Just—” he begged, “at least tell me you have a good reason.”

“I’m not sure it’s any good,” said Bruce quietly. “But it’s the only choice we have.”

And hell, Steve believed him. Bruce had woken him up before James, and asked him to help James shake off the shock of two years’ worth of cryo. It had obviously meant something, even though the attempt seemed to have failed. Steve felt terribly frustrated, not at Bruce or James or even Loki but at himself—feeling like a mouse trapped in a maze, like something was expected of him but he kept running into walls.

“I’m not giving up,” he said, not sure who he was trying to warn.

Then he let go of Bruce to push himself across the pod in quest of his own space suit.

 

*

               

The four of them settled into the Ranger in full space gear. The Endurance was placed in stationary orbit above Daken’s beacon; it would wait for them. Through the windshield, the planet glowed silver.

Without a word, James detached the Ranger from the station and maneuvered it away. Then he put the thrusters on full blast towards Daken’s planet, M-616 glowing bright on the side and Gargantua behind them.

Steve was still full of frustration and anger from his short conversation with Bruce, but when the atmosphere of the planet swallowed them, he couldn’t hold onto his worries any longer; his heart was full with a strange sense of excitement. He’d had a long life and he’d seen many marvels, but this was another planet.

Another world.

Already the sky was losing its inscrutable darkness, turning—not blue, but some kind of pale, translucent grey. It erased Gargantua from sight but M-616 glowed all the brighter like the sun it was. It almost looked like home, until it didn’t.

Underneath them was an untamed mass of white mottled with blues and grays like old marble. It had frozen into crests and edges, shapes that were cruel and alien and yet oddly familiar in a way Steve couldn’t place. James’ hands clenched on the commands when he realized they were much closer than anticipated—they brushed the sharp ridge of an iceberg so closely it sent them off course. The scraping noise made them all jump; it sounded even louder after the smooth silence of space.

“The hell,” said James in a low voice, righting the Ranger’s course lightning-quick. “The surface already? We just entered the atmosphere.”

“This isn’t a glacier,” murmured Loki.

He was looking at the icy landscape with sharp, cold eyes. “They’re frozen clouds.”

Steve saw it then—now that Loki had put it into words, it was obvious. They were clouds, huge and threatening and pregnant with ice, as far as the eye could see.

“How do we know we can land?” he breathed.

“We follow the beacon,” said Bruce with utter serenity.

James looked equally calm as he nodded. People—some people, like Steve, or like Loki—could draw emotions out of him; but an alien planet left him as cool as the frozen clouds scraping the belly of their aircraft.

“Here it is,” he murmured.

Steve’s heart missed a beat when he saw the colors of the new SHIELD floating over a small portable base. It was such an extraordinary thing to see, amidst this alien frozen wasteland at the other end of the universe.

The Ranger landed with surprising softness—the ground was sponge-like and crackled under the weight of the aircraft. Steve took a deep breath, then checked his helmet. All readings indicated that the atmosphere was not breathable.

“What kind of man is Daken?” asked Steve as they unbuckled themselves.

“Dead, probably,” answered James in a flat tone.

“Akihiro was our very first volunteer,” said Bruce, more kindly. “One of the last survivors of the X-gene plague.”

Steve stopped dead and stared at him. “There were survivors?”

“Not many,” said Bruce in a low voice. “It was extremely contagious and we were all carriers. The only way to survive was to lock yourself away from all human contact and wait for the virus to die out.”

“But the X-plague lasted for almost twenty years.”

“Yes,” said Bruce, simply. “I first met Akihiro in an abandoned bunker somewhere in Alberta, and I went back to offer him the job a few months later. Thought he’d like an opportunity to leave.”

He got up from his seat, checking his helmet. “He was full of resolve. Very brave.”

Loki smiled darkly. “You do sound like a eulogy.”

They slid open the door of the Ranger and got out. The sun was bright in the white sky, but brought them no heat. It occurred to Steve maybe one of them should have prepared a few words, but they’d have sounded idiotic with no one else than them to hear. All the more since there was an alien among them. There was no one to impress. Before he knew it, he’d already stepped into the snow anyway.

It’s a small step for man…

Steve looked up at M-616. It was a pretty big step, actually.

He led the way without thinking and realized maybe he shouldn’t have—but it was too late; James was following him already, just like he’d done so many times during the simulations, eyes scanning their surroundings. Steve felt some undefinable emotion clench at his heart, and tried to shake it off. There were more pressing matters at hand. The others fell into step.

The ice, he realized as they went, did not bother him as much as he thought it would. This wasn’t the Arctic ocean. It was infinitely more dangerous.

Reaching the base took them minutes. Loki was silent; they all were. When they stepped inside the frail building, they found nothing more than a locked cryo bed.

They took off their helmets, then looked between each other. Steve took the lead again—stepped towards the bed and unlocked the release. The sound of the liquid being drained out was beginning to sound familiar.

“How long has he been here?” he asked quietly.

“Hard to tell, with the time distortion,” murmured Bruce. “Probably several years.”

The lid opened. Inside was a pale man with cropped jet-black hair, surprisingly young. Steve recognized him; he’d walked past his picture a hundred times back on Earth. Tribal tattoos were curling around his arms. His eyes were closed, his lips pinched tight around the respirator. Steve removed it, and waited.

Suddenly, Daken coughed, drawing himself up, grabbing haphazardly the edge of the bed to stay upright. His slanted eyes opened—blinked a few times—then zeroed on Steve. He looked at him for a stunned moment of complete stillness.

The next second, he was gripping his suit and sobbing into his chest, tightly restrained sobs that pulled his face into a grimace of pain.

“It’s—it’s okay,” said Steve, taken aback. He wrapped a clumsy arm around Daken’s shoulders. “It’s okay. It’s okay.”

Daken took a few gasping breaths.

“Pray you never learn,” he said in a cracked voice, “just how good it can be to see another face.”

 

*

 

“I hadn’t a lot of hope to begin with. After so long, I had none.”

Daken drank a bit of hot water. He sounded like his voice was filled with smoke—veiled and ethereal at the same time. Steve wondered if he’d always sounded like that or if he’d acquired it somehow, on this foreign world.

“I hadn’t even set up a waking date.” The shadow of a smile curled up his thin lips. “You’ve literally raised me from the dead.”

He looked at them as if he was seeing them truly for the first time. “Professor Banner. Sergeant Chekov. So the Endurance did come, in the end.” He lowered his eyes to his drink again. “That’s good.”

“Tell us about your world,” urged Steve.

“My world.” That flickering smile again. “It’s cold and stark, but beautiful. The days are sixty-seven hours, cold enough to kill you in seconds. The nights are sixty-seven far colder hours. We are on the clouds at the moment; up here there is too much ammonia in the air to breathe. But down on the surface—there is a surface—the chlorine dissipates. Breathable air. Warmth. Possibly even life.”

Steve was speechless. So this was it?

Home. This was it.

“We’re, um—” Bruce coughed. “We’re going to need… secure sites then. For habitat.”

Daken nodded. “I know of a few.”

“We’ll also have to send a probe back through the wormhole,” said James. It was the first time he spoke. “To inform Danvers that Daken’s planet is go.”

“Is your ship quite near?” asked Daken, unfolding himself from his chair and setting his drink aside. “We can do both at the same time.”

Bruce was frowning. His eyes flicked to Loki, who slightly raised his eyebrows. Steve instantly realized something must be wrong—something they’d both noticed.

“I’m going to stay here,” said Bruce, “to get a closer look at your results.”

“What?” protested Daken. “Surely—”

“I need to take a look at Chekov’s shoulder anyway,” said Bruce casually. “You told me your prosthetic had reacted badly to the cold.”

“Oh.” James blinked. “Yes.”

Steve got up and clasped Daken’s shoulder. “Let’s go, then.”

“I’ll tag along,” said Loki innocently.

 

*

 

As soon as they were outside with their helmets back on, Steve activated his radio and murmured, turning his face away from Daken, “What is happening?”

“Our preliminary readings from orbit didn’t show any sort of secondary surface,” answered Bruce. “We thought the clouds were it. James will help me go through Daken’s data. Just keep him busy until we know for sure what’s going on.”

Steve deactivated his coms and let his hand fall back down, turning back to Daken and hoping his gesture had been swift enough.

“You don’t have any family, do you?” he asked.

A silent shadow by their side, Loki snorted softly at his obvious attempt at distraction.

Daken’s dark eyes didn’t waver. “I do not. It was a requirement. All I had was my father, and he died from the X-plague.”

“I can’t fathom how you survived that,” said Steve softly.

“It got me used to solitude. In a way,” smiled Daken, “those two decades holed up in Roanoke were the start of my astronaut training.”

Steve’s old guilt resurfaced, still fresh after all these years. He could have stopped it, he just knew he could. He hadn’t been perfect, in the end. He hadn’t been the hero they all said he was.

“But even without close ones, I can promise you that the yearning to be with other people is remarkable,” Daken went on. “This emotion is at the foundation of what makes us human.”

He looked at Steve. “Do you know why we could not send machines?” he asked. “Because you cannot program the fear of death. Our survival instinct is our single greatest source of inspiration.”

He looked ahead again. They were getting near the Ranger.

“And cruelly enough, it was your undoing,” he said. “Making you lose everything you ever held dear—just so you could breathe for a minute longer.”

Steve frowned. “What are you talking about?”

Daken stopped walking and looked at him.

“I know who you are, Captain. I recognized you at first glance. I never dreamed you would be the one to come for me.”

He turned to Loki and said flatly, “You I don’t know.”

And he stabbed him through his helmet, shattering it and ripping his cheek open.

Loki let out a scream that turned into a death rattle when the ammonia seeped inside his helmet. He fell to his knees, retching for breath, spilling onto the ice blood that froze at once.

“Don’t move, Captain.” Three claws were denting Steve’s suit at the throat, just like the ones that had pierced Loki’s suit and flesh. They were coming right out of Daken’s bones as far as Steve could tell. Mutant. He hadn’t even wondered about his abilities before then.

Daken’s eyes were unfathomably dark. “It pains me to say it, but I never really considered the possibility that my planet wasn’t the one.”

His eyes flicked up at the sky, then back at Steve. “I resisted the temptation for years. But I just had to press a button, and someone would come save me.”

He smiled, that ghost of a smile. “Nothing turns out the way it’s supposed to be.”

Steve was poising himself to attack already—but behind them, less than a mile away, the frail base exploded—sending an enormous mushroom of fire and ashes towards the blank sky.

Steve’s thoughts turned into one single scream of pure horror.

“BUCK!” he shouted.

Snikt and three cold claws sank into his stomach.

“Neither of us are exactly human,” said Daken as Steve collapsed. “Yet we kept our human shortcomings.”

He glanced at Loki, who’d stopped moving; then at the smoking crater of the base. “Your friends couldn’t help looking through my rigged data; you couldn’t help being distracted by their loss; just like I couldn’t help sending back a positive probe. I couldn’t.”

“You,” rasped Steve, curled around his bleeding stomach, “goddamn coward—”

“Yes,” said Daken sadly. “Yes. But don’t judge me. Few men have been tested like I have.”

He stabbed Steve again, right under the heart, twisted the claws to tear through his flesh until he heard him scream. Then he retracted them, leaving Steve unable to speak, spitting blood inside his helmet, staring at him with wide eyes.

“I am sorry,” said Daken with real pain in his voice, cupping Steve’s helmet. “I am sorry. I will bring Plan B to fruition, I promise. I will honor your memory.”

He turned away and took off running towards the Ranger, leaving Steve in the snow next to Loki’s body.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

Steve had had a very long life and, not so long ago, he would have given anything for it to find an end. But this universe was as cruelly ironic as the other, because Steve was finally dying and dear God, he didn’t want to.

He’s getting away. If Daken got into the Ranger, if he flew off, it would be no use. Assuming any of them survived, they’d be as good as dead anyway, left to starve on a frozen cloud.

A faint rattling noise made Steve look up. He blinked, wondering if he wasn’t hallucinating.

Loki was crawling forward in the snow, dragging the dead mass of his body towards Steve. His skin was blue, not because of cold or asphyxiation, but like it had been in the cryo bed. The blood crusted over his shredded cheek was ink-black.

“I swear to Hel,” he rasped in a voice that sounded like rocks clacking together. “If you do not kill him, I will kill you.”

He extended his hand and his fingers brushed Steve’s chest. There was a green flash, a sudden rush of liquid warmth followed by the excruciating bite of cold, and the pain disappeared.

Steve was on his feet a second later and running like he’d never run before, throwing himself forward across the ice towards the Ranger into which Daken had already disappeared. His suit had been pierced by the claws and he was beginning to taste ammonia in the air he breathed, but he only ran faster, ripping out chunks of snow with each step and sending them flying behind him.

The door of the Ranger was sliding shut when Steve finally got there; he flung himself forward and slid through the narrow opening just before it disappeared. He pushed to get to his feet, but the Ranger took off and the acceleration threw Steve back down—plastered him to the floor like he was being physically held down by a giant hand.

It lasted ten, maybe twelve dreadful seconds, until Steve was suddenly freed from all weight and propelled himself up again, flying across the cabin.

Daken unbuckled himself with one hand, steering the Ranger with the other until he could let go of the commands—moments before Steve reached him, he kicked himself out of his seat and his claws sliced the air, forcing Steve to leap back.

Daken threw himself forward, lithe and predator-like in the way he moved—his claws hissed past Steve’s ear, who jumped back again. Steve had no weapon and was entirely unused to Zero-G fighting, but he was heavier than Daken and tried to use it to his advantage, throwing him back against the steel walls, trying to bust his ribs, to break his bones, to crush his plexus, to crush his skull. But Daken always shook it off to attack again, like a machine. His eyes were dark and cold and utterly calm.

Steve wavered. For a second, he’d seen him with a metal arm.

No, he raged at his faulty brain, not now! But the headache was there, and the confusion raged under his skull, screaming at him something in a language he no longer understood.

On the outside, the silver skies had turned black again, stars peppering the void until the terrible light of Gargantua washed through the cabin. This wasn’t good—they were going way too fast; the Ranger was locked to dock with the Endurance, but they should have begun slowing down three whole minutes ago.

“You need to stop,” shouted Steve, “or we’ll both die! We’ll crash into the Endurance and we’ll both die!”

It was the truth and Daken must know it—yet he kept lashing at Steve, because he also knew if he got his guard down for only one second it would be the end of him. His claws caught Steve across the stomach, slicing out a stripe of flesh—bubbles of ruby blood spilled out, wiggling across the cabin. Steve abruptly wished for his shield, even though he hadn’t held it in over thirty years. He stumbled back, caught himself against the wall, looked Daken in the eyes and thought

you’re not James

and when they lunged at each other, Daken stabbed through his left bicep but Steve grabbed his head and broke his neck.

Steve let out a groan of pain, more blood spilling out of his arm in thick, lazy bubbles. Daken’s eyes were still half-open, dark and slightly surprised, his neck at a screaming angle. Steve closed his eyes, panting, and swallowed.

He hadn’t killed a man in a long time.

He reopened his eyes, grabbed Daken’s limp wrist and wrenched himself free from the knives of bone, swallowing his cry of pain. He kicked himself across the cabin and dove into the pilot seat. Jesus, they were so close already, alarms going off everywhere to signal the imminent crash.

“This is Rogers,” he called desperately on the coms. “Does anyone copy?”

The Endurance was growing bigger and bigger through the windshield. He’d only ever done this in the simulations, or with James’ help, and at a normal speed. If he docked it wrong, it would destroy both ships and him with it.

There was a scratch on the coms. “Steve? Steve?”

Steve’s heart jumped in his chest. “James?” he called, frantic. “James!”

“Steve!” James’s rusty voice was cracking with relief. “Oh, thank fuck, Steve! Are you okay? Where’s Daken?”

James was alive. Nothing else mattered. He was alive.

“Dead,” panted Steve. “James, where the hell are you? Where are the others?”

It was Bruce who answered him, sounding very urgent for once. “We’re in the Endurance, we can see you—Steve, you’re closing in too fast!”

“What?” exclaimed Steve. “How did you get there?”

“I brought them aboard,” rasped the guttural hiss that had replaced Loki’s smooth voice. “I will not be doing it again.”

“But how?”

“Now isn’t the t—” There was an odd noise as if Loki had collapsed. Steve heard exclamations; the next second, Bruce was speaking into the radio, most likely supporting Loki’s weight if his strained voice was anything to go by.

“Steve, you’ve got to slow down,” he said haltingly. “Use the retrorockets.”

“I’m—” Steve fumbled with the commands, “I can’t. I’m going so fast it’d burn all of my fuel to stop in time. I just—I’m not gonna dock it.”

“Steve,” barked James. “If you pull a Valkyrie again, I swear to God!”

Steve couldn’t help huffing a shaky laugh, despite the throbbing pain and the alarms still screaming at him—and the sudden fear that he was hallucinating all this, because James shouldn’t have known the name of the plane Steve had crashed into the ocean a hundred and fifty years ago.

“No,” he said, “no. I’m—I’m gonna lap the planet, okay? That way I’ll have time to slow down.”

“Okay,” said Bruce, striving to stay calm, “okay, that can work, just do it now before—”

Steve swerved and the Ranger barreled out of the way, missing the Endurance by a mere mile. Steve pushed the thrusters to catch the orbit, going around the icy planet, then cut the engines to let himself exhaust his momentum while saving precious fuel.

“ETA seven minutes,” said Bruce.

“Okay,” said Steve. “Okay.” He was still trembling with tension and gave himself a second to calm down—not too much, though; all he’d earned was a seven-minute respite. “Are you all alright? The explosion?”

“Hulk took the brunt of it,” said Bruce placidly, as if he did this every day. “James was very lucky to be behind me.”

Steve exhaled. “What about Loki? Is he okay?”

“For Hel’s sake,” rasped Loki who’d apparently come round. “I am fine.”

“He’s mostly fine,” answered James who sounded both annoyed and grateful despite himself. “The cold couldn’t hurt him; it’s the ammonia which really did a number on him. That and teleporting us to the orbit.”

“If he could do that all this time, why is he here at all?” wondered Steve.

Loki let out a dry laugh in the background. “You really have no concept of—”

Steve saw a glint on the dashboard—and kicked himself out of his seat milliseconds before Daken could rip his throat open.

The claws sank deeply between his neck and shoulder instead, and Steve let out a scream which got louder when Daken broke his collarbone wrenching his hand free.

The radio was shouting at him but Steve didn’t have enough air in his lungs to let them know what was going on. Gasping with agony, he pushed himself back only to meet the wall. His blood was flooding the cabin in a gelatinous flow of red. He couldn’t see through it.

“I can’t!” was screaming Loki, “I can’t, not again, not anymore, I can’t!”

It was all Steve heard before Daken lunged at him again. He’d healed entirely—he’d fucking come back to life—and Steve was in so much pain he could barely move. He blocked the first blow by some sort of miracle, gripping Daken’s left wrist; but the claws of his right hand sank deeply through Steve’s left forearm, matching the three holes already marring his bicep. Steve twisted his arm to stop him from ripping his hand free and stayed there, panting and shaking with pain.

“Akihiro,” he gasped. “It doesn’t have to be this way.”

Stone-faced, Daken tugged at Steve’s pierced forearm, trying to free his claws. Steve gritted his teeth, tears of pain spilling out of his eyes. “We can help you,” he said haltingly. “We can finish the journey together. The five of us. We don’t have to kill each other.”

“You already killed me once,” said Daken coldly.

He tried to free himself again, more violently, and Steve cried out. His head was spinning. His sight was red and blurry, and he didn’t know if it was a hallucination or his actual blood stretching before his eyes.

He was too weak. He’d starved himself for years; and a month of training and forceful eating under James’ watchful eyes was far from being enough to compensate. Steve had denied his body—had made it bear all the punishment in his life, and now he was being punished in return. He was going to die here orbiting an alien planet, killed by another human being at the end of the universe.

Through the windshield came the raw, brutal light of Gargantua’s accretion disk. They were half-way around the planet.

Steve blinked tears out of his eyes; they wiggled away from him, translucent pearls mixing with his floating blood. Daken tried to free himself again, sending lances of pain stabbing through his left arm and drawing a red veil over his vision.

Then a flash of green light pierced through—and James materialized behind Daken.

He wrenched him away from Steve—who screamed again when the claws slipped out of his arm—and threw him across the cabin. Daken’s claws skidded against the ceiling and he managed to slow down enough not to smash into the partition separating the pilot’s cabin and the engines. James threw himself after him like a cannonball, slamming into his solar plexus and breaking several of his ribs before leaping back to dodge a deadly stab.

Daken’s ribs were already reconstructing themselves at an alarming pace, visibly popping back into place under his space suit. His healing factor was getting quicker with each new wound, shaking itself awake after years of hibernation. Steve couldn’t even move, could only watch as Daken slashed at James who slithered back, the claws ripping open his space suit without hurting him—they both had a terrifying handle on Zero-G combat already. James kicked Daken into the stomach, sending him to crash into the opposite wall again. Daken wasn’t even stunned, but James leapt across the cabin to latch onto him and slam his metal fist into his face. There was an explosion of blood when Daken’s nose and brow split open; James held onto him to get leverage so his blows would carry and just kept hitting him, pounding his skull again and again and again with unbridled savageness—until there was a distinct crack.

James didn’t even stop then, tearing Daken’s body to actual pieces and looking around with quick, cold glances, as if calculating something. Steve was horrified to see that Daken was already regenerating—almost faster than James could rip him apart, regrowing limbs and teeth and dark furious eyes.

Steve finally heard the alarms shrieking on the dashboard—they’d lapped the planet. They were again about to crash into the Endurance.

Steve spat blood, then dragged himself into the pilot seat. There was no way he could dock the station—they were still going too fast, and he could barely see straight with pain, they were gonna crash and there was no time—he swerved out of the way again, sending the Ranger out of orbit, but a fraction of second too late; the back of the Ranger caught the ring of the Endurance and the blow shook them all hard enough to break bones.

“Steve,” shouted James, “detach the back!”

Steve would have obeyed this voice even if it told him to jump from a bridge. He found the right button on the dashboard and slammed it with all his strength. There was an even greater shock with the added momentum and the whole ship lurched into a spin, barreling off-course entirely and into the dark void of space.

And suddenly it was quiet.

The stars were spinning endlessly outside the windshield, fireflies chasing each other across the velvet black void.

Steve stayed in his seat, panting, feeling again the deep burn of his agony as the adrenaline deserted him. He felt like he was going to be sick and hurriedly unclipped his helmet, but he realized he’d been breathing a mixture of ammonia and oxygen all this time; a whiff of the cabin air was enough for his head to clear.

He heard a noise behind him and pushed himself out of his seat—right into James’ arms, who exhaled a shaky breath and held him so tight it hurt even more. But Steve wouldn’t have told him to back off for the world.

When James pulled back, it was only to kiss him with a burning mouth that tasted of blood. Steve kissed back fervently, heart hammering in his ears and in his wounds. James ended it too quickly for his liking, and Steve tugged him close again, relishing this with all he had. It was all he had. He didn’t want anything else.

This wasn’t a dream. It hurt too much to be a dream.

“James,” he breathed against his lips. “James.”

“Yes,” murmured James. “I’m right here.”

Steve would have probably collapsed if not for the microgravity; he simply slumped in James’ embrace and breathed him in, pushing his face into the crook of his neck.

“Where’s Daken?” he mumbled.

“Gone with the back of the ship.”

Steve sucked in a breath, then looked over James’ shoulder. The partition showed only the void of space through its round window. Daken’s planet spun past, glowing silver like a giant moon; the half-ship containing Daken and his madness already wasn’t visible anymore. The boost both halves had gotten from the separation had been enough to send Daken’s through the line of the orbit, to crash down on the planet he’d tried so desperately to leave.

“He was regenerating too fast,” mumbled James. “He would have always come back. I couldn’t think of anything else.”

“How,” murmured Steve. “How are you here? Are you even really here?”

“I’m here,” promised James again in a whisper.

He helped Steve to sit back in his seat. Even in microgravity, it felt good to have something solid under his body.

“Loki teleported me,” he explained, digging under Steve’s seat. “He kept saying he couldn’t do it again, but I didn’t really leave him a choice.”

“It’s drying up,” said Steve haphazardly. “His magic. It’s ending along with the rest.”

He wasn’t sure how he knew that—maybe he’d heard it somewhere?—but James didn’t say anything, coming back up with an emergency kit.

Steve had trouble breathing. His left arm was killing him, and the scratches across his stomach were more serious than he’d thought. But it was the deep wound between his right shoulder and neck which made him count his breaths. His broken collarbone tugged at him with every move. It was probably a miracle he didn’t have a collapsed lung. He was painstakingly beginning to heal, of course, but his starved body was eating at itself trying to regenerate, and he was beginning to shake with physical exhaustion.

“Don’t move,” murmured James. He pulled strong scissors from the kit and began cutting off Steve’s space suit along the sleeve. It was incredibly dangerous to take it off while inside the Ranger—to say nothing of a half-Ranger—but it was already pierced and shredded anyway.

James cut enough to help Steve slip his arms and chest free; then he cut the undersuit as well, peeling it off Steve’s torso. Steve’s skin was slick with red, even though most of the blood was floating around and they often had to wave it away. James scowled at the deep wound on Steve’s shoulder; he patched it first, then went on to Steve’s left arm, silent and grim like he’d been on the first days.

He was covered in blood too, sticking to his hair and skin, catching between the cracks of his metal arm, and Steve couldn’t even tell if it was his own or Daken’s. When he was done, James took off his own torn space suit and tried to wipe off the worst of it, before rolling it into a ball and stuffing it under the copilot seat.

They’d been silent for several minutes when Steve finally said what they were both thinking. “The back of the ship.”

“Yeah.”

“That was our engines.”

“Yes,” murmured James.

Steve slowly turned his head and looked out the window. The stars outside were still spinning round; their ship was rotating on itself across space, further and further into the void, showing Daken’s planet and M-616 a bit smaller with each spin.

“But,” said Steve in a voice that sounded distant to his own ears. “Bruce will come for us. Won’t he?”

James shook his head, then reached past Steve to turn on the radio.

“Bruce?” he called quietly.

It was several seconds before Bruce answered.

“Hey,” he said, sounding soft and weary. “Are you guys okay?”

“Steve’s wounded,” answered James in the same tired tone. “But we’re both alive, and Daken’s gone. How about you?”

“Loki’s unresponsive. I put him on oxygen, but I think sending you away drained everything he had left.” He paused. “The Endurance is, um, a bit damaged. We lost an engine pod.”

“Can you still see us?” asked Steve. His own voice sounded out of place to his own ears, too loud in comparison with their hushed, elegiac tones. As if he was refusing to see what Bruce and James already knew.

“I can’t,” admitted Bruce. “You’ve spun away. I have no idea where you are.”

For a second, Steve couldn’t wrap his mind around what it meant.

Surely, it couldn’t be the end—so sudden and so stupidly simple. They must have a way out of this. But Loki could not come for them anymore. The Endurance couldn’t comb space and hope to find them, not without wasting all their fuel with no real chance to actually succeed.

They were dead. Just like that. Steve couldn’t feel any panic. He was too stunned for it; the whole thing was too unreal for him to fully realize the implications. He felt aloof and weary and maybe almost relieved.

Or he would’ve been, if he’d been alone.

He closed his eyes, then pressed his forehead against James’. “You idiot.” He hit his chest without any real strength. “You complete goddamn fool.”

James didn’t comment.

“I’ll stay in touch,” said Bruce. “I’ll figure out something.”

They didn’t answer anything. They all knew it was a long shot. The communication ended with a faint scratch, and then they were alone in their tiny metal box, spinning across the bedazzled void. There was a long, dejected silence.

“You should eat something,” said James at last.

“What’s the point?” asked Steve.

“The point,” said James, taking a survival pack out of the emergency kit and shoving it in Steve’s hands, “is that you need fuel to burn if you’re gonna heal. And if you think I’m gonna sit here and watch you bleed, think again.”

Steve couldn’t help smiling. “Still stealing food for me, huh?”

“You bet.” James settled in the copilot seat. “Now eat.”

He watched Steve eat and refused to take anything for himself, save for a bit of water when Steve really insisted—and even then, he used most of it to wash his arm and hair. After a while, Steve began to feel slightly better. His left arm and right shoulder were still stiff with pain, but he was almost sure the bleeding had stopped. He ate the last bite slowly, trying to make it last.

Then he leaned forward and kissed James again.

James stilled with surprise at first, but tentatively returned the kiss seconds later. His hands came up as if to wrap around Steve, but he ended up awkwardly brushing his arms instead. He never entirely relaxed. When Steve pulled back to look at him, frowning a little in wordless questioning, James just looked down.

Steve didn’t insist, but stayed close to him, sharing his warmth. “How much, um,” he said, “how much oxygen do we have left?”

“Something like three hours’ worth,” said James in a low voice. “I think.”

Steve took James’ hands in his, the flesh one and the metal one. He rubbed circles into them for a little while.

“I wish you hadn’t come for me. I’m so glad you’re here—but I wish you weren’t.”

James smiled at him, that tired, sad smile. “Till the end of the line, pal.”

Steve looked up at him.

Really looked.

“Bucky?” he heard himself say.

A shadow of pain flickered in James’ eyes; his smile bravely didn’t waver.

But Steve—Steve couldn’t look away. Something was heaving and swelling inside him like a tidal wave.

It was as if he’d discovered another direction in which to look at—a fifth dimension—as if the memories had been there all this time but he’d simply chosen not to acknowledge them, only ever glancing at them by mistake from time to time, not really paying attention. As if he’d had a word on the edge of his tongue without ever finding it. But now he’d found it. 

They were going to die and there was no reason anymore for his subconscious to keep—like Daken had said—losing everything you ever held dear, just so you could breathe for a minute longer. And Tony, Tony Stark, a long time ago, it’s a defense mechanism, but there was nothing left to defend now, was there? The gates were open, in a last rush of life, shining a bright light on everything dusty and dark in Steve’s past, and—

Bucky looked hesitant now. “Steve?”

“Bucky,” said Steve, and then he had to wipe tears from his eyes, voice shaking, “Oh, my God. Oh, my God.”

“Steve?” repeated Bucky in a trembling voice. He looked terrified all of a sudden, barely daring to speak. “Steve? Are—are you—?”

“It’s you,” gasped Steve. He’d looked at James so many times during the past month but it was as if he was seeing him for the first time all over again—but it wasn’t the first time, of course it wasn’t.

Bucky didn’t move, didn’t speak, just looked at him with wide eyes.

“I remember,” said Steve, memories only just beginning to piece themselves back but vastly overshadowed by the confirmation of what he'd always known, I know him, I know him, I've always known him, a dizzying vertigo, “it was you, it was you all along, it was always you, Jesus Christ in heaven, James, James Buchanan Barnes—”

Tears were spilling from Bucky’s eyes already, but when Steve said his name, he completely shattered—Steve had never seen him cry like that. His memory was still chaotic but he knew for sure that he’d never, ever heard Bucky sob like that before.

“I’m sorry,” he wailed. “Steve, I’m sorry, I’m so fucking sorry!” He was sobbing and gasping so much he literally could not breathe, choking on thin air, shaking so hard, “I’ve wanted to tell you for so long—I’m sorry—I’m s-so—s-sorry—” another gasp, “It was my fault—I—I brought you there—they made me watch—and when I realized—when I recognized—it was t-too late and I—”

Steve forgot his mangled arm and crushed Bucky in a tight embrace as if it could keep him from falling apart. “Not your fault,” he gasped, “it wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t your fault.”

He remembered, bright and clear like ice, the chair, the mouth guard—then a flash of white light. The smell of blood and vomit. Please, stop, please, just don't hurt him anymore.

Bucky was still struggling to actually breathe, as if he was still caged in that dreaded glass box, choking in Steve’s arms, so much that Steve begged him, “Breathe, Buck, breathe, goddammit, c’mon.”

Bucky drew in a shaky, shallow breath, but it came out in sobs again. Steve rubbed circles into his back, blinking away his own tears. Memories kept washing in like an endless pit of déjà vu. In some parts his memory was too full, in others still gaping and empty with huge chunks missing. It made him dizzy, and his head hurt something awful but Bucky was still shaking with despair against him and nothing else mattered.

“It wasn’t your fault,” said Steve again, blinking burning tears out of his eyes. “It wasn’t your fault. And you were the one left behind.” His throat was so tight it hurt. “God, Bucky, where have you been? Have you been—” his voice caught, “have you been alone all this time?”

Bucky was unable to answer, shaking in Steve’s arms. He was trying to speak, though, trying his damnedest to be heard over his wracking sobs. “I—” he managed to gasp, “Wilson was t—trying to help you but m—my head was still scrambled and you c—couldn’t even hear my name without—without relapsing.” He was clutching at Steve like a small child, his words so broken they were barely intelligible. “Natalia and S—Stark kept me in c—custody for a y—year until I was d—deprogrammed. And after that I just—”

He swallowed, swallowed again, managed to smooth his breath a little. “I just l—left. You had S—Sam to watch over you. He kept me posted whenever I had a working a—address. Banner found me eventually, said I should join SHIELD—said they could use me.”

He was trembling with exhaustion and grief.

“But—wait,” said Steve, wiping his own tears away, trying to remember, “so it was you? In Brooklyn? The day I passed out from heatstroke?”

Bucky let out something half-way between a laugh and a sob. “You spotted me watching you.” He was still breathing in halting gulps but his speech wasn’t as broken anymore. “Ran after me like I’d—like I’d stolen your lunch money. But when you saw me—” He shook his head. “Triggered you again. I kept my distances after that, even though Sam kept writing me that you were desensitized now, that it was f-fine.”

Steve pulled him closer, still rubbing Bucky’s back, his neck, running a hand through his hair. “How could Danvers allow me in the program? How could she send me to you?”

Another wet laugh. “She never knew who I was.” Bucky sniffed. “She told me you were a last-minute rookie and I had to train you. Didn’t even know what your name was till I saw you in the hallway.”

Steve suddenly remembered the stunned look on Banner’s face. Everything will be different now.

Bruce had known.

He’d known from the start. He’d tried to trigger back Steve’s memories through all possible means. It was probably him who’d proposed that they all sleep in the same room on base. He’d even woken up Steve from cryo sleep before Bucky to let him glimpse underneath Chekov’s persona.

“I was so scared,” breathed Bucky. “You were standing there, and you were so thin. The goddamn look in your eyes—”

You’re starving yourself. The pain and anger in Chekov’s voice. You’re starving yourself!

“I’m sorry,” murmured Steve. “I’m so sorry.”

Bucky just shook his head, clutching at him all the more. Steve wrapped him even tighter, as if they could become one, as if they could make up for lost years and two lifetimes of grief.

“I never even got the chance to apologize for what I did in DC,” sniffed Bucky. “I couldn’t even tell you—” he drew in a shaky breath, then said in a defeated voice, “I couldn’t even tell you anything.”

Steve pulled back to look at him. The thirst he’d felt all this time should have been quenched by the return of his memories; but it had been magnified instead. He needed to look at Bucky, to watch him breathe, to hear him speak, to feel the warmth of his body, needed to drink it all in until he drowned.

“God,” he breathed, “Buck, you’re so beautiful.”

Bucky closed his eyes and slightly drew back. “Steve…”

“No,” said Steve with starlight in his voice, “It’s true. Jesus, look at you. I don’t know how you did it. I don’t know how you did any of it.”

Bucky was pushing Steve away now, shaking his head, with the same look he’d had when he’d stopped kissing him earlier. “Don’t.” His voice was broken. “Whatever you’re seeing—I’m not it. It’s just the ghosts in your mind telling you to like me.”

“Chekov—”

“Chekov was fake,” spat Bucky, “a fucking empty shell. I’m not him. I’m not Barnes, either. Jesus, Steve, it’s been decades. You don’t know what I did—who I am. I don’t—I can’t—”

“Don’t you dare,” growled Steve, “don’t you dare say things like that. I know you’re someone else. You think I didn’t change? You think I expect you to be someone I hardly remember even now?”

Bucky looked taken off guard, and Steve went on almost desperately, “It’s not—we’ve both been unmade and put back together again. And—and—and I’m not even sure it’s not a thing that happens anyway, to everyone. It’s the goddamn end of the world. You grow up and you grow old and you lose people, and you turn into someone else. You look back at who you were a month ago, at someone who was—who was starving himself and who’d lost hope, and you can’t recognize yourself because it all changed so much.” He was crying again and angrily wiped his tears away with a shaking hand. “And I can’t care about all this now. I can’t let you push me away three hours from death because of—of something that doesn’t even matter. I’ve been a dozen different persons too, Bucky, and each one of them loved every goddamn version of you.”

Bucky closed his eyes, tried to smile. “Always with your speeches, you punk.” He swallowed, then exhaled shakily, “I missed you so much.” He screwed his eyes shut, scowling not to start crying again, but it was a losing battle. “I missed you so much.”

“Me too,” exhaled Steve, and they were holding each other close and tight again.

It was true, even if Steve hadn’t known it. There had been something missing, all this time, something that had kept him waiting, something that had kept him from killing himself and he hadn’t known what.

Now—maybe he did.

 

*

 

After a while, Steve got out the silver mp3 he kept in his pocket, and they shared their music like they used to on base, listening to jazz that seemed to flow away from them and into the void of space. Steve was absently untangling the knots in Bucky’s hair with his right hand; his left arm was wrapped around him, keeping him close. Bucky’s eyes were heavy-lidded. He was tracing idle patterns into Steve’s skin, brushing the scratches across his stomach.

The Ranger had orbit-to-surface capability and was designed to withstand any kind of extreme atmospheric conditions it might encounter; as a result, its insulation was beyond compare and protected them from the fluctuating temperatures of the outside. But they were actually facing the opposite problem. Their cooling system had died with the engines gone, along with their evaporation unit. The half-ship was slowly heating up with the waste heat of the working systems they still had. The warmth radiating from their bodies didn’t help, fogging up the window and the windshield, turning the floating blood into a red haze gathering close to the ceiling.

The stars were still spinning outside, and Steve could only be thankful they weren’t facing Gargantua, else they would have been blinded every ten seconds, even through the fog gathering on the reinforced glass.

The next song clicked on.

“Is there really nothing we can do?” asked Steve softly.

Bucky shrugged. “Maybe Banner will think of something.”

His voice was bland. He didn’t really believe in what he was saying, and Steve realized he didn’t, either.

He wondered what Bruce was going to do, now. Carry out plan B? He hoped so. He hoped Bruce would realize he couldn’t decently throw himself into a black hole with no one left to raise a new humanity on Chavez’ planet. He would have to postpone his sacrifice, start the embryo program, wait for the first ten children to grow up, help them raise the next generation. He was never going to be alone anymore.

And maybe—maybe it would be enough for him to abandon the idea of killing himself entirely.

Steve imagined him standing in the middle of a flock of kids running after him like so many ducklings, and the thought made him smile despite himself. Hadn’t Bruce wanted children? He was going to have so many of them, now. He was going to father a whole new humanity, and he would raise them well and good, and teach them to love even the monsters, even the lost ones, even the lonely. Especially the lonely.

Steve stared at the spinning stars outside. He could barely see them through the fogged window. He tried not to imagine Bucky in Bruce’s place, laughing under the onslaught of a gaggle of kids, but then realized he in fact couldn’t think about anything else.

“I don’t want you to die,” he said, throat tight. “It’s so damn unfair. You deserved so much more. I don’t want you to die.”

Bucky didn’t say anything. Steve screwed his eyes shut, then reopened them, and forced himself to take a deep, deep breath. He cut off the music.

“Didn’t I write you a letter?” he went on quietly. “After Sam died?”

“Yeah.” Bucky closed his eyes. “Almost gave me a heart attack.”

“You could’ve… you could’ve written back.”

Bucky shook his head, eyes still closed. “No. It was too much.” He sounded like Chekov again—older, colder. “I didn’t want to think about you anymore. I wanted to go numb. I even thought of going back to HYDRA so they’d make it go away.”

Steve’s heart clenched so hard he could only stammer, “Don’t say that.”

“It’s true.” Bucky’s voice was blank. “You weren’t getting better—you didn’t remember me, so what was the point in being Bucky Barnes? No one else knew him. ‘Sides, it woulda been damn selfish of me to force myself on you. You didn’t remember, so you didn’t miss me. You were doing okay.”

“I wasn’t, Buck—”

“I forced myself to stop checking on you after Sam passed. Thought it was my opportunity to finally let go of it all. It worked so well that after a while, I completely lost track of you.” He looked up at Steve. “That’s what I mean, when I say I’ve changed, Steve. That’s the kind of shit I’m capable of. I’m not a good person.”

“Then I’m not either,” said Steve angrily. “It only took me a second to forget you, when seventy years weren’t even enough for you to forget me.”

They stared at each other for a second; then Bucky huffed a rueful laugh. “Oh, who am I kidding. I just wasn’t brave enough to keep trying. I just fucking gave up on you.” He rubbed his face with both hands. “Fuck, when I saw you standing there at SHIELD—you were shining like the goddamn sun. I thought I was done, but you were there, and I couldn’t even look straight at you.”

“I let you fall off that wretched train and I didn’t come for you,” said Steve through gritted teeth. “I let you go through seventy years of winter alone. And then when I got another chance—I screwed it up, too. I abandoned you first.” His eyes were burning again. “I don’t blame you for leaving. I don’t know how you did it, Buck, I really don’t.”

Bucky glanced at him, then knelt up to wipe away Steve’s tears with his thumb. Steve looked back with red-rimmed eyes.

“Tell you what,” murmured Bucky after a long silence. “We’ve only got two hours left and that’s not how I want to spend them.”

Steve gave him a small smile. “Got something in mind?”

Bucky looked him in the eyes for three whole seconds before he leaned forward.       

He stopped himself inches from Steve’s lips, as if he still couldn’t quite believe he had the right—and it was Steve who kissed him. Bucky stilled again; but this time, he kissed back, parting his lips, so slow and so soft, and shivers rippled over Steve’s skin and twinkled down his spine.

“We never did this before, did we?” he breathed against his mouth. “Back on Earth.”

Bucky wordlessly shook his head. Then he said, “Just so you know, I still have memory problems of my own.” They were still so close they were sharing breaths. “But I think I would’ve remembered that.”

So this was new. Steve liked that thought. No matter how much they’d forgotten, or how much they remembered, it didn’t change a thing to what they were feeling now. No matter who they’d been, this was all theirs.

Steve kissed him again, slipped his hands under his shirt to go up his sides—which resulted in actually pushing him towards the ceiling before Bucky grabbed Steve’s neck and pulled himself back down.

“Ever done it in Zero-G?” he mock-drawled.

“Bet I can make you see stars,” retorted Steve.

Bucky grinned, then leaned forward, slowly rubbing the bridge of his nose up Steve’s jawbone, making his eyes flutter shut.

“This is probably a bad idea,” he said in a low voice. “Our cooling system is busted. If we exert ourselves, it’s gonna get real hot real fast.”

“Mm,” said Steve, trying to focus even as Bucky’s lips brushed his skin. “You don’t sound too put off.”

Bucky straightened up a little and pulled himself against Steve, close enough to straddle him even though a push would be enough to make him hover again.

“Seriously,” he said. “You’re wounded…”

“I think I don’t care,” said Steve. “Don’t care at all.”

Bucky looked at him for a few seconds.

“Okay,” he said softly. “Okay.”

 

*

 

There was no time, but they still took it slow.

There was no other choice, really—Steve was badly hurt, they had nothing to ease the way, and the microgravity really wasn’t helping. They had to hold onto each other to keep from drifting apart with every move, and they didn’t have a very wide range of movement. They bumped into the walls and each other stripping the rest of their clothes, left them to float around in a soft, moving cocoon. Steve wasn’t sure if the oxygen was already running out or if he was just forgetting to breathe, but couldn’t find it in himself to mind about that, either.

At first, Bucky kept his metal hand out of the way, using only his right hand to touch, until Steve forced himself to stop shuddering long enough to grab the silver fingers and lace them with his, holding Bucky’s hand close to his heart. He let himself be coaxed open, shuddering, trying to relax, shuddering again, head spinning, stars spinning outside.

Bucky had been right. With the cooling system broken, the heat of their enhanced bodies under stress made the temperature climb to inhuman heights. But both of them were past caring. When Steve eventually urged Bucky on, whispering that he was ready, c’mon, Buck—when they managed to brace against the wall long enough to get leverage, Bucky kissed him long and soft before he lined up and pushed in.

It hurt before they could finally manage to fit together, and there was gasping and wincing and whispered apologies. They were both gleaming with sweat in the now vastly overheated cabin, enhanced metabolisms running like furnaces with thumping hearts and racing blood. Bucky’s metal arm was warmer and smoother than skin, and incredibly gentle as he brushed away a few strands sticking to Steve’s forehead.

“Okay?” he murmured.

Steve nodded, trembling, unable to speak, able only to smile at him, to bring their bodies even closer, to kiss him more breathless than he already was. He felt burning hot and ice cold, like he was running a high fever. He wasn’t sure if it was because of the pain crucifying his shoulder, or because of the breathless death coming for them or the spinning stars outside or—or simply because he’d never found the time to do this, not once in a hundred and eighty years of existence. It was new and overwhelming and invasive, and this was almost too intense for him, almost too much. Almost, but not quite, and he breathed on that edge, shaking, neither of them moving, just staying there, tangled into each other and closer than they’d ever been.

“Okay?” asked Bucky again, and he sounded so anxious Steve wrapped him in his arms, kissed his lips, his neck, his cheek, the line of his jaw.

“Yes,” he breathed. “Yes. It’s amazing. You’re amazing, Buck.” One of them shifted, sending them both into a slow spin, and Steve felt a jolt of electric pleasure deep inside him. He gasped and Bucky kissed him, hard and desperate, the both of them shaking so hard they would have fallen apart if not for each other.

They never began to actually move. Staying close, staying skin to skin felt more important than anything else. The cabin was so hot now he felt as if they were melting into each other. Steve reached out and tucked Bucky’s hair behind his ear, making him smile as if despite himself.

Jesus, but Steve didn’t want him to die. He wanted him to live the life he’d been denied for so long. He wanted him to have a thousand kids, and a whole new planet to live on. He remembered his oldest memory of Bucky, the cocky boy from Brooklyn, remembered his carefree laugh and the excited glint of his eyes, and his heart would have broken in a million pieces if Bucky hadn’t been so close, so warm, so overwhelmingly real.

“I love you,” exhaled Bucky, sounding almost in pain, “I love you so much.”

And despite the immensity going on forever around them, Steve felt as if this—this shared warmth and the way Bucky trembled when Steve moved just so, when Steve ran his fingers through his hair, when their lips brushed togetheras if it couldn’t possibly be meaningless. He felt like love had to be part of the universe, etched into its very fabric like the laws of physics; like love could trump the void staring back at them and give meaning to the vacuum of space.

“I love you, too,” murmured Steve, pressing shaky kisses into his skin again, “I love you.”

Because if really this had no meaning, then nothing did. And if nothing did, then everything in existence was of the same value, and the love tearing through his heart mattered as much as the stars did, as much as the galaxies and the black holes and the supernovae did; and everything in this airless, overheated half-ship was as wonderful, as mysterious and as infinite as the entirety of the Universe itself.

Steve’s breaths were shallow and this time, it was definitely because the oxygen was running out. Bucky kissed him as if he wanted to give him his air, brought him even closer as if he could shield him from death itself.

“No,” he gasped, “Steve, stay with me.”

Steve breathed a huge lungful of hot carbon dioxide and kissed him back. “Not going anywhere. Not without you.”

Black spots were marring his vision. Bucky clutched at him, jolted his shoulder and the sharp pang of agonizing pain brought Steve back to himself for a few seconds more.

“Buck,” he called, and Bucky was there, kissing him again, burning hot with despair. The blinding light of Gargantua suddenly flowed through the cabin, illuminating the red haze into a wonder of glittering ruby. It was impossible, because they weren’t facing the black hole, but the light was forcefully washing in, so raw and violent it was almost solid.

Steve reached out for Bucky, but even though they were so close, he couldn’t touch him. He tried again, but he couldn’t see, either, and found that in fact he couldn’t breathe at all.

 

*

 

Steve came round to a flood of white raw light that seared through his eyelids.

He took a breath and realized someone was holding a mask against his face. His eyes fluttered open. Bucky was there, awash with light, his skin colorless and his eyes completely bloodshot. He was feeding Steve what little oxygen was left from the space suit he’d taken off earlier.

Steve raised a terribly heavy hand and pushed the mask off his face with clumsy fingers. Bucky understood and took it, so slow and so strange, everything else hovering around them, clothes and food and drops of water and blood, like a frozen explosion. As if stuck into place by the unforgiving light. Bucky allowed the plastic to cover his mouth and nose, took a shallow breath, then gave it back to Steve.

He was looking out the window and Steve followed his gaze with a terrible effort.

The ship had stopped spinning. Gargantua was outside, and for a moment Steve saw it as if there was no ship at all—as if he was out there, floating in the vacuum with nothing but immensity around him, alone with the black hole in this inhuman silence, in this boundless space.

He could not speak and could not move. He threw the last of his strength into giving the mask back to Bucky again, but it just hovered away from him, empty.

There was a darkness coming for him, shutting out even the brutal light, shutting out everything else.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Steve opened his eyes to a blessedly small room.

The pillow was soft under his cheek, the sheets smooth over his naked body. The light was turned off, but the sliding door was half-open and he could hear hushed voices.

Before his thoughts even found a line to follow, he pushed himself out of bed, stumbling a little with his own weight—no Zero-G. He bumped into the wall and a fiery pain exploded in his shoulder, stunning him a little. Right.

Right.

Right, he thought again, but no matter how many times he repeated it to himself, the confusion in his mind would not actually go away. He knew he was wounded and faintly remembered he had a good reason to be, but it eluded him at the moment. He became gradually aware of fainter aches; bruised ribs, sore spine, a twinge between his legs. Something else felt odd, out of place—or maybe it was just him, unable to find his footing. But it would come back to him when the fog cleared.

There were clothes folded at the foot of the bed. He took them and dressed himself slowly. His broken collarbone flashed shooting pains at him, and his mangled left arm felt stiff and burning; but the deep wound above his right shoulder had healed just enough that he could slip his shirt on, very cautiously. When he was done, he clutched at the doorframe and looked around.

It was only then that he started to shake off his numbness. He was in the Endurance. He could see inside the command pod through the half-open door.

The stars outside were slowly spinning, M-616 cruising by, oddly small, and then Gargantua, looking terribly larger than life and so close Steve could have touched it—closer than the star. He forced himself to wrench his gaze away from it.

The first person he saw was Loki. He was lying down on an emergency cot, eyes closed, deathly pale and breathing unevenly into a respirator strapped over his face.

Behind him, backlit by the stars, were Bruce and James conversing in soft tones. When Steve slid open the door and fully stepped into the pod, they both got up.

“Steve,” said Bruce. “You shouldn’t be up—”

“James,” panted Steve at the same time, “are you okay?”

James’ eyes widened in utter, agonizing shock—so real and so raw Steve’s mind stuttered to a halt.

Bruce put a hand on James’ arm, with that light quality to the touch that is only seen at funerals.

Just like someone at a funeral, James looked like he wasn’t feeling it at all. He’d turned even paler than Loki. He was visibly trying to rein himself in, desperately calling up his shell of blankness, but his despair was too great to be contained. Bruce’s fingers tightened around his arm.

Wait. Wait. Something was wrong here. Something was definitely wrong.

Bruce was looking between them both, hesitant. Eventually, he opened his mouth. “Steve, you shouldn’t—”

Steve raised a hand to shut him up. Not this time. Not this time. It was there. It was on the fucking edge of his tongue. If he could justgoddammit—goddammit, if he could just—

“Bucky,” he blurted like it had burst out of him. “Bucky.”

It all came back in one big slap and he wavered, almost losing his balance. Bucky jumped to his feet to help him stand, and Steve held onto his arms.

“I’m sorry,” he said feverishly, clutching at him. He took a deep breath. “Jesus, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m here now.”

Bucky let out a shaky breath that turned into a weak laugh. “Fuck, Steve.” He was trembling. 

“I know,” murmured Steve. “I know. I’m sorry.” He wrapped him in his arms. “I’m here, Buck.”

Bucky let out another breath that sounded very much like a sob. Steve held him for a long minute, then pulled back just enough to look at him, then press their lips together. He didn’t want to forget again. Bucky exhaled against his mouth, framed his face, and kissed him back in a way that made Steve want to take him into bed and stay there till the stars burned out.

When he looked away, his eyes fell on Bruce, who just stood there and returned his gaze with a genuine joy in his eyes Steve had never seen before. It hit him with full force, then, how Bruce had fought so Steve would remember, how Bruce had kept hoping when neither of them could—Bucky crushed with grief and guilt and Steve forgetting there was even something to hope for.

“This is thanks to you,” said Steve—he wished he had something more than words to convey his gratitude.

“It’s thanks to yourself,” corrected Bruce softly.

“No, you meddling asshole,” scoffed Bucky. “It is thanks to you.” His voice wavered with emotion. “It’s all thanks to you.”

Bruce looked a little floored. It was understandable. Decades as an empty shell under HYDRA’s control must have left Bucky wary of any connection, and this misanthropy had perpetuated itself as time passed—enough for Danvers to mention it as his primary trait. Easier to go numb. Bruce himself had a habit of keeping people at arm’s length; and the both of them had consciously stayed away from each other, keeping an emotionless distance between them as to facilitate their parting when the time came for Bucky to leave Bruce to his doom. Maybe they’d also recognized and respected their mutual wish to be left alone.

But Bruce had given Bucky a purpose, however grim; and so he had kept him alive, maybe despite himself, long enough for him to see this day. And so Bruce had saved both Steve’s and Bucky’s lives.

The attention looked like it made Bruce a bit uncomfortable; he quirked a quick smile, then cleared his throat and looked down. Steve realized, then, that he was still hiding his right hand. Wasn’t it healed? He’d Hulked out on Daken’s planet. Shouldn’t it have been enough to…

The name of Daken triggered another flow of memories, and Steve suddenly took the full measure of how utterly impossible it was for them to be here. They were in the Endurance, for Christ’s sake.

He looked around. “Bruce, what happened? We were—we were…”

His voice trailed off again. We were dying.

“I found you,” said Bruce simply.

Steve vaguely remembered a great shadow obscuring the brutal light of Gargantua. He remember they’d stopped spinning and been turned to face the black hole, which meant something had caught them.

Bruce went on, “You were too far to be seen and too small for the radar. But you were hot enough.”

“What?”

“You were hot enough,” repeated Bruce. “Burning hot, actually. When you blinked on the infrared, the temperature inside your ship neared 70°C. You were like a bright pinprick of heat.”

“The cooling system was broken,” said Steve, but he could feel himself blushing.

When he’d been in Bucky’s arms, Steve had thought surely love must be something more than just a fleeting feeling, something that might impact the universe; but he hadn’t expected it to be confirmed in such an immediate and literal way. They’d made love, and so Bruce had found them.

He wasn’t sure whether to feel embarrassed. He realized he didn’t actually care—not really. His mind was full of what they had done, of how it had felt and smelled and tasted. It was such a bright, intense, vivid memory he couldn’t find it in him to feel awkward about it.

Bruce didn’t look like he minded, anyway. He had the same twinkle in his eye he’d had when asking Steve innocently, how’s it going with Chekov? back on base. But his amusement didn’t last; the brutal light of Gargantua washed through the cabin and it was like a cold shower.

They all looked outside at the monster cruising past.

“We have a problem,” admitted Bruce softly after a moment of silence.

He took a deep breath, then said, “We had four full engines. One of them got destroyed when we were hit by the wayward Ranger. Another one was already half-empty, and I used it all to reach you. You were twirling too fast, and it took me too long to dock what remained of the Ranger. And even then, I had to use the retrorockets to stop the spinning. In the end, we lost another full tank.”

He looked at Steve. “As I was telling James, what we have left isn’t enough to give both plan A and plan B a shot. That means we have to choose between the people left on Earth and the new humanity we carry.”

There was a silence. Bruce turned to Loki, still breathing unevenly on his cot. “And there’s the problem of Loki.”

“What’s wrong with him?”

“I’m not sure,” admitted Bruce. “It’s possible the ammonia damaged his lungs permanently. He’s very weak; all we can do here is keep him on oxygen and hope for the best.” He ran his good hand through his curls. “I don’t know why he came with us, or what he was hoping to achieve, but he still risked his life to save us all. We can’t abandon him.”

Bucky didn’t approve, but didn’t disagree, either, which was a big step forward in his attitude towards Loki. They all looked at him for a moment, so pale and gaunt under the mask, his breathing wheezing and labored despite the respirator helpfully supplying him with oxygen.

“Well then,” said Steve. “I guess that’s enough reason to rule out plan A. We’ll all have to go on Chavez’ planet.”

“You’d give up on Danvers?” asked Bruce softly. “You’d give up on all the others?”

When neither of them answered, he sighed. “I know you’re against plan A, and I understand. I know it looks like suicide. But I promise you I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t think I had at least a slight chance.”

Steve remembered Danvers’ fury. Captain, this isn’t your call.

He chose his words before he spoke. “If really that’s what you want to do,” he said, “then I have no right to stop you. But you wouldn’t leave us stranded behind with no fuel and no resources, either. We must find a way to make both plans happen.”

Bruce looked incrementally frustrated. “I know. But I can’t figure out how.”

“I can,” said Bucky.

They turned to him and he opened a virtual map of Gargantua again, M-616 and its three planets on the side.

“We let Gargantua pull us down close and use the slingshot effect to launch us towards Chavez’ planet.”

Naturally, Bruce had already thought of that. “We’re too heavy,” he said. “All of our fuel won’t be enough for us to escape the critical orbit once we’ve gathered enough speed.”

Bucky smiled, a thin wicked smile Steve hadn’t seen in a long time. “Then we shed our weight.”

Bruce frowned, then opened a hologram of the Endurance next to the map. He crossed off three of the engines pods in the spinning belt, and also the Ranger formerly coupled to the Lander to form the central axis. He waited for a second, most likely calculating weight and acceleration in his head, then said, “Still not right. The Lander and one engine won’t be enough to drag even a mutilated Endurance out of Gargantua’s horizon, much less carry it all the way to Chavez’ planet.”

Bucky reached out and crossed out all the other pods, then the ring itself.

“It will when we shed our weight to escape gravity. And by weight, I mean everything—the infirmary, the habitat pods… the entire Endurance. It’s just weight. Where we’re going, we won’t need it—all we need is one landing pod to bring us to the surface.”

Bruce looked at the hologram for a long time. What was left looked like a stick with landing pods at both ends, and the Lander in the middle.

“Yes,” he said eventually, looking a bit stunned. “It works.”

He got up. “But if we want gravity to give us enough speed, we’ll have to get close.” He tapped at the blue line around Gargantua. “Past the time distortion horizon event.”

They stayed silent for a minute.

“It’s that or abandoning the people of Earth altogether,” said Steve at last.

He looked at them. “Let’s do it.”

 

*

               

They stopped the spinning to save as much fuel as possible, and Bucky took the opportunity to move Loki into the landing pod they’d use, pushing his floating cot before him. Steve followed him, hovering close and keeping a worried eye on the sick Asgardian. He put a hand on his forehead, which was smooth and cold. He had no idea whether this was normal or not.

“Will you be alright handling him?” he asked Bucky when they got into the landing pod. “I’ve got to get to cryo.”

Bucky grunted assent and started securing Loki’s cot to the floor. Steve kept floating through the ring, pod after pod after pod to reach the cryo one. The embryos were there, just like the precious artificial wombs they’d use to give birth to the first generations. He had to make several trips back and forth before he’d brought them all into the Lander. It was a bigger and sturdier ship than the Ranger, less reactive but powerful enough to drag a light weight away from Gargantua’s pull. Provided they didn’t get too close.

Steve secured his precious charges into place, then left the Lander to return to the ring and go through pod after pod again until he was back into the command pod. Bruce hadn’t moved, intensely focused in his calculations.

He was typing only with his left hand.

“Bruce,” said Steve quietly.

He waited for him to look up before he asked, “Would you show me your hand?”       

Bruce looked at him for a long time; then he took off his glasses, leaving them to hover near his head. He seemed to hesitate for a few more seconds, then he got out his right hand from his pocket.

Steve felt nauseous when he saw it. It wasn’t bruised purple like before, but black. And it looked empty, like a leather glove, crumpled and worn.

“It’s been frozen dry,” said Bruce lightly, stuffing it back in his pocket. “It’s dead. Even turning into the Hulk couldn’t regenerate it.”

“Does it hurt?” asked Steve.

Bruce shook his head with a small smile. “No. All feeling is gone. It’s really like a dead leaf.”

“Maybe you should have let Loki have a look at it.”

“Oh, he wouldn’t have done anything to help me,” said Bruce evenly, turning the hologram of the Endurance with his left hand.

Steve was surprised. Bucky’s hostility towards Loki wasn’t a secret, but Bruce’s nonchalant distrust was more unexpected. He and Loki had been nothing but civil to each other. Steve still had trouble remembering the conversation he’d overheard a few nights ago, but he did recall a polite tone and maybe even some honesty on Loki’s part.

“How do you know that?” he asked. “He’s gone out of his way to help us.”

“He’s dying, Steve,” said Bruce. “He was dying before we even set foot on Daken’s planet. Ammonia isn't toxic; he looks more like he has a generalized cancer. His organs are failing. His life force is drying up. He’s been saving his magic all this time; he wouldn’t have wasted it on me.”

Steve was stunned into silence for a moment. Then he objected, “He brought you all to the Endurance."

“Because he needed us to tend to his wounds, and it couldn’t be done on the planet.”

Steve pondered this for a second. “Okay,” he said, “Okay, but what about Bucky? The only reason I’m alive is because Loki didn’t send him to deep space like he could have. He could’ve taken the opportunity to get rid of us both at the same time; instead, he sent him to me, like Bucky wanted. He didn’t have to waste his magic on that.”

“Yes, he did,” objected Bruce calmly, “because he’s intelligent enough to realize I wouldn’t have gone on without the two of you.”

Steve fell silent. Bruce went on, his tone still utterly serene, “It’s the opposite of what James feared. Loki was never here to destroy us. He’s here to ensure our mission succeeds. He needs it to succeed.”

“Why?”

Bruce thought for a while, then looked at Steve and smiled. “I don’t know.”

He grabbed his glasses with his left hand and put them back on, then tapped at the Endurance’s holographic map to make all extra weight disappear again. The remaining pieces looked like the Lander had sprung two straight arms with landing pods for hands.

“Okay, so,” he murmured, “how are we looking?”

“Bucky’s securing Loki in that one,” said Steve, tapping at the pod he’d come from. “And I brought the embryos into the Lander.”

“Good. I’ll get into the other one when I’m done here,” answered Bruce, pointing at the opposite pod. “I think we should keep the Endurance whole until we’re at our closest to Gargantua; the heavier we are, the faster we’ll go. Then we’ll shed our extra weight, but not my pod—not just yet. We’ll keep the final separation for the last minute, just before crossing the horizon. It should give your pod and the Lander a final boost to cross the line, while still allowing me to stay under the pull and get sucked in.”

“Okay,” said Steve. “That sounds like it works.”

He had to refrain himself from saying anything else. He had no right to say anything else. Bruce was intent on trying, and Steve had no right. No right at all.

“So,” he forced himself to go on, “when do we leave?”

“Two hours,” said Bruce. “Get some rest. You’re dehydrated and exhausted. And I still have to calculate our exact weight and when we should shed it. We’re going to be on the very edge of the black hole; it’s going to be a very, very delicate balance to maintain. If I get it wrong and we all topple into—”

“Bruce,” said Steve.

Bruce blinked at him, looking a little surprised.

Steve hesitated, but hell, he wouldn’t get any other chance to say it. He cleared his throat. “I… I want to thank you. For coming for us. And for…” He had no words again; he sighed, then tried again. “This is unfair. To you. You’ve done so much for us all and you had nothing in return.”

Bruce was letting him speak, but he had a thin, self-deprecating little smile, and Steve knew what it meant. Bruce was carrying his sins on his shoulders. He thought he was repaying the damage the Hulk had done. He thought he deserved no better. And a few hours from the end, it was too late to help him—too late to think of another way.

“I really hope this works,” said Steve. “I hope you find your way home. We’ll always be waiting for you.”

“Thank you,” answered Bruce softly. “I hope so, too.”

He reached out with his left hand and shook Steve’s. His handshake was firm; his palm was warm and dry. “It’s been an honor.”

 

*

 

Steve went through the pods of the spinning belt again until he’d reached their landing pod. Loki was lying on his cot, still unconscious and struggling to breathe. Steve stared at him and thought about everything Bruce had said.

Loki didn’t stir. Something about him was odd, but Steve couldn’t place what exactly.

Bucky was still there; he’d brought Steve’s and his meagre belongings back from their habitat pod, and he was leafing through a small notebook Steve recognized instantly. His mouth suddenly felt a little dry.

“Hey,” he said.

Bucky looked up. He seemed stunned.

“Did you do this?” he asked.

The question was rhetorical, but Steve still nodded. Bucky turned the pages again, and Steve could see the sketches he’d done of them all, his friends, lost and found again for some. Bucky lingered on the drawing of Bruce, curled up in the middle of the page like a baby in the womb.

“What did Bruce say?” asked Bucky, softly.

“We’re leaving in two hours,” said Steve. “I… we said our goodbyes.”

Bucky nodded. If he felt like he should go and bid farewell to Bruce as well, he didn’t say. If he agreed with Steve that this was suicide, he didn’t say, either. It had all already been said, probably, in the silence he’d shared with Bruce over the years.

He turned the page to find Loki staring out the window—there was something weird about Loki, if Steve could only figure out what—then he turned the page again and came face-to-face with his own portrait.

Steve’s breathing stopped. Now that he remembered, he recognized the drawing. It wasn’t just his fancy that had made him give James a shorter cut and burning eyes; it was a memory. The memory of Bucky in the Italian HYDRA base, after Steve had yelled at him to go, get out of here.

No, not without you!

It was the same image, Bucky looking square at him with fury and decision in his eyes. He already loved him then, Steve realized. They’d loved each other for so long.

When he shook himself out of his reverie, Bucky was looking at him with so much worry in his eyes that Steve wanted to kick himself.

“Sorry,” he said. “Still here, Buck.”

The tension bled out of Bucky’s shoulders. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s just…” The tight line of his lips twitched. “You could still relapse. It happened so many times already.”

He looked so miserable saying this that Steve hovered across the pod and pulled himself next to him. He waited for a second, but Bucky wouldn’t look up, so Steve gently seized his chin and made him.

“Even if I do relapse,” he murmured, “it doesn’t change much. I loved you even when I didn’t know who you were, you know?”

Bucky forced himself to smile. “You loved Chekov? He was an asshole.”

Now that was too easy. “What, and you’re not?”

This time, Bucky’s smile looked like it had taken him by surprise. He lightly shoved Steve and shook his head. “Jesus, you punk.”

“Jerk,” said Steve softly, just before he kissed him.

Bucky’s lips were cracked and dry; their mouths caught a little together when they parted. Steve scooted closer to him, then took the notebook from his hands and opened it at Bucky’s page again. “Besides,” he said, “I always remembered you. I just didn’t know it.”

Bucky looked at the drawing for a second.

“You called me Bucky,” he blurted, then bit his lip hard as if he hadn’t meant to say this. “You, um… sometimes… you called me Bucky. You didn’t actually… realize it.”

There was not much Steve could say to that, except for another apology that he knew Bucky wouldn’t accept. He laced their fingers and squeezed, and Bucky squeezed back, tight enough it hurt.

“Do you want me to call you James?” asked Steve, hesitant.

“No,” said Bucky very quickly. “No. I… Bucky’s good.” He looked down. “No one’s called me that in… in a while.”

There was a silence.

Then Bucky gave an exaggerated sigh and rested his head on Steve’s shoulder. “So,” he said out loud. “How d’you think Chavez’ planet will be?”

Steve was a little taken by surprise and answered automatically, “Well, according to Chavez’ data—”

“No, fuck data,” said Bucky. “I wanna know what you think. How do you imagine it?”

There was a silence filled only with Loki’s wheezing breaths. Steve tried not to think that maybe Chavez had lied like Daken had—that maybe there was nothing waiting for them but another dead world, and this was why Bruce was so intent on carrying out plan A.

“Okay,” started Steve. “It’s the closest to M-616, so it’s not gonna be frozen like Daken’s planet. In fact, I’d be surprised if we could find ice on it at all. Real shame.”

Bucky smiled.

“Then, um,” Steve went on, rubbing circles into his palm, “with only one sun and an atmosphere like ours, the sky would be the same we know, clear and bright and blue, and the earth—the earth will probably be red and orange and yellow like in the Grand Canyon.”

He remembered a chilly night in the Alps, a flash of teeth, the glint of a campfire, when all this is over, Stevie, I wanna go an’ see the Grand Canyon.  

“I guess it’ll be pretty dry. But I’m sure there will be water. Maybe deep black-blue lakes between the rocks, with pure, chilly water we could drink.”

“You’re good at this,” mumbled Bucky.

“But mostly you’ll be there,” said Steve. He stammered a little. “You’ll be there, and… and you’ll finally be able to live your life. It’ll be all for you, the sun and the sky and the earth.”

There was a silence.

“C’mon, sap,” said Bucky, pushing himself away from Steve, “you’re making me thirsty.”

He wouldn’t look at Steve as he tossed him a flask of water and took small sips out of his. Steve closed his eyes and realized he was parched as hell. The cold water felt like heaven on his tongue and down his throat; he chose to focus on that for a little while.

After a long minute, he realized he’d kept his eyes closed all this time, and that his thoughts were slowing down, heavy with fatigue. How long had it been since he’d last slept?

He reopened his eyes and looked at Bucky—really looked at him, saw the dark circles under his eyes and the creases of worry and the heap of exhaustion that weighed on him now that the adrenaline had trickled out. Steve drank the last of his water, then said, “Are you coming? I’m beat.”

Bucky blinked at him, but didn’t say anything as he hovered across the small pod to join Steve. There were two cots folded into the wall; without even questioning it, Steve opened only one and slid into the strapped sleeping bag. He zipped it open and Bucky tucked himself in with him. It was cramped, and they tangled their limbs till they were comfortable, snug in each other’s arms. Bucky heaved a deep, shuddering sigh.

Steve remembered the way they’d slept back on Earth after his panic attack, back to back; and he kissed the top of Bucky’s head before burying his nose in his hair. It was much better like this.

The minutes ticked away. Across the pod, Loki kept fighting for his every breath. Steve’s healing factor was still terribly slow, and his broken collarbone was only beginning to mend, stinging him with white-hot pain every time he moved his right arm. The left one wasn’t much better, bicep and forearm still marked with three jagged holes each. At least Bucky wasn’t hurt.

“You okay?” asked Bucky, softly.

Steve frowned a little. “What do you mean? Of course I’m okay.”

“I meant here.”

Bucky pushed his leg a little between Steve’s thighs, self-explanatory. Steve was surprised at the rush it gave him.

In the Ranger, he hadn’t had time to process his own pleasure; the sex had been almost incidental—just a way for them to convey what they couldn’t fit into words. Steve wasn’t used to be touched by a hand that wasn’t his own, and even his own touch had grown foreign as his libido faded away into all-encompassing numbness. Now that desperation wasn’t clouding his senses anymore, the leg between his was impossible to ignore—intrusive in the most enticing way.

“I’m fine,” he said, talking very low. Then he smiled. “I guess one hundred and eighty years isn’t that bad a record anyway. Nice round figure.”

It took Bucky a second to realize what he meant. When he did, he wiggled back so he could properly gape at Steve. He looked incredibly younger like this—without any underlying bitterness to his expression for once, only sheer bafflement.

“No,” he said. “You’re kidding.”

Steve gave a little shrug.

“Jesus fuck,” breathed Bucky, who looked horrified now. “Why didn’t you tell me. I would’ve—why—”

Steve brought their bodies close again, twining their legs together even tighter, and rested his chin on top of Bucky’s head. “Don’t freak out,” he said. “It was definitely worth the wait.”

“I—” stammered Bucky. “Steve, I—”

He couldn’t find his words for a few seconds; then his whole body sagged against Steve, and he huffed shakily. “Christ. You’re unbelievable.”

“Hmm,” smiled Steve. “That’s what a fella likes to hear.”

Bucky let out another incredulous huff. He stayed there for a second—Steve could feel his heart hammer against his palm—then he squirmed to look at Steve again. “Seriously,” he asked, voice tight with anxiety.

“I’m okay,” repeated Steve softly. He pressed their foreheads together. “More than okay.”

Bucky looked like he believed him a little more. He looked at him for a long time, then closed his eyes, and muttered like an afterthought, “Fucking hell, Rogers.”

Steve just smiled and pulled him close again, looping an arm around his waist. Bucky tugged himself even closer and buried his face into the crook of Steve’s neck.

They were still in dire straits, but their situation wasn’t hopeless anymore. They hadn’t been abandoned to die. They were alive. They were together.

It was more than Steve had hoped for in a long, long time.

 

*

 

Their two hours felt like they were gone in a moment. When the time came, they untangled their limbs and got out of bed, shucking off pants and shirts, folding the cot back into the wall. They helped each other put on their undersuits, then dressed with new space suits they’d pulled from the spares.

Steve noticed a glint of metal floating near the ground and bent down; Bucky’s dog tags had slipped off along with his shirt. Steve untangled them from the cloth and looked at them pensively, rubbing his thumb over the scraped metal.

“Why Chekov?” he asked out loud.

Bucky spared him a quick glance then shrugged. “Stark and Romanov picked it. I still had a Russian accent at the time. They reinserted me as an Iraq vet injured by an IED.”

Steve blinked and remembered what Bucky had told him in the Ranger—that Tony and Natasha had kept him locked away until he was deprogrammed. Steve wondered how it had gone down, but was careful not to ask. Bucky’s voice had gotten terribly flat just then.

“You can keep them,” said Bucky when Steve gave them back to him. He shrugged again in forced casualness. “You know. If you want.”

Steve looked at him, but Bucky was very interested in his helmet all of a sudden. Steve slipped on the dog tags, hiding them safely underneath his undersuit; he didn’t miss the way it eased the tension in Bucky’s shoulders.

He got close, pressing against Bucky’s back, laced his arms around him from behind and whispered into the crook of his neck, “Thank you.”

Bucky shivered, eyes closing; then he shook himself and extracted himself from Steve’s hold. “Stop. I’ll get distracted later and kill us all.”

He crouched down next to Loki and began to examine his suit; Steve zipped up his space suit and pulled himself down to help. As it turned out, Loki’s suit was unscathed and good for another round, save for his broken helmet which they had to change. They had to remove his oxygen mask for it; he mumbled a little when he felt Steve’s hands lift his head, and tried to shy away. The deep cut Daken’s claws had opened across his cheek had nearly closed, leaving only a thin silver line to mar Loki’s skin.

Once again, Steve felt uneasy, as if something here was grating at his nerves but he couldn’t tell why. It was staring him in the face, he just knew it, but he was as unable to see it as he’d been to remember Bucky.

After they’d slotted his helmet into place, Loki fell back down into his lethargy, slightly frowning, his breathing slow and labored. He definitely needed serious medical attention, but they didn’t have the time, nor the knowledge, nor the resources to help him at the moment.

“Alright,” said Steve on the coms, after a last worried look at him. “Bruce? We’re ready.”

“I’m still in the command pod,” answered Bruce. “I set the trajectory, but we’ll have to shed our weight manually—it’s just too dangerous to leave it to an automatic command with so many variables.”

“Roger that,” said Bucky. “What will you need us to do?”

“Coordinate with me,” answered Bruce. “We’ll both break our respective sections of the ring at the same time. When that’s done, I’ll just have to pull the release of my pod when the times comes.”

The ring detachment was explosive and could be done simply by pressing a button, but releasing a pod mechanically demanded a great deal of strength—the hydraulic lever was hard even on Steve’s hands, as he’d found in simulations. However, it could be done even by a normal human being, and Steve knew Bruce was stronger than he looked even when he wasn’t green.

“Okay,” said Steve. He swallowed around the refusal still pushing to get out of his mouth. “Okay. Let’s do this.”

He felt the vibration deep in his gut when the Endurance’s remaining engine fired up and the whole station began to move through space. Out the tiny window, Gargantua already seemed bigger. The bright crown of its accretion disk hurt Steve’s eyes, but the black empty sphere in the middle was infinitely more horrifying to his sight.

“Alright,” said Bruce after a little while, “I’m in position.”

“Roger that,” answered Bucky.

And Steve couldn’t keep his thoughts from running again. Could the Hulk really save Bruce from a black hole? The accretion disk alone was hotter than a star. Bruce would have to survive crossing this bright sea of molten plasma before he could even pray to survive what waited for him beyond—the singularity itself. What little was known about black holes spoke of nothing but utter destruction. The gravity was so intense that anything crossing the horizon could only hope to be torn to pieces and crushed into nothingness. Steve couldn’t fathom how anything could survive such a deadly crossing, much less hope to observe the singularity from the inside. No volume and an infinite density.

Paradoxically enough, Bruce’s only hope lay in this very impossibility. There was something there, something more, something they did not understand. And maybe, just maybe, what they did not understand would mean room for the Hulk to survive, and to leave Bruce able to understand what he found inside—understand it and use it to bring himself back to the light.

It was a terrible, terrible plan, but it was only barely more suicidal than their other option—to go on Chavez’ planet and hope it really could be a home.

They were going faster and faster, although it was difficult to tell—out the window, the distant stars were motionless, and Gargantua did not look much bigger. But it had started pulling them in, and they were flying forwards like a candle-struck moth, unable to steer away now.

They were not coming right at it—that would have been suicide, for everyone—but gradually getting closer, as if pretending to go around it. Just far enough not to get sucked in; just close enough to be affected by its gravity, pulled forward along its curve. The slingshot effect was already significant with a mere planet; with something as massive as Gargantua, it was tremendous and they would actually have to be careful not to go too fast—lest their whole ship dismantled in flight.

Steve was starting to feel it in his gut, the pull, the acceleration, and he wondered whether he was imagining it or if really Gargantua was opening its mouth wide to eat them. The accretion circle looked thinner, the dark nothingness in the middle deeper, greater. But the illusion didn’t last; they were definitely getting closer now, faster and faster and faster, and the pod was beginning to tremble with the strain of its inhuman speed.

And this was just going with the stream. They would have to go even faster to escape the pull.

It took Steve entirely too long to realize they weren’t in Zero-G anymore—they were getting truly affected by Gargantua’s gravity. In fact, he only caught on when Bucky yelled at him, “Steve, sit down!”

Only then did Steve snap out of his horrified fascination long enough to sit down and buckle himself in his seat. It all felt exhilaratingly strange—the sensation was similar to take-off, except he wasn’t being crushed in his seat but pulled from it, as if someone had suddenly hit the brakes, only the sensation was drawn out. It was almost as if he was trying to go ahead, to crash through the window and fly forward to hurl himself into Gargantua’s waiting arms.

The accretion disk was growing bigger and brighter by the second, now. Steve’s helmet was designed to get darker against the light, but it was still not enough. It was all tremendously huge, inconceivably huge, and every instinct Steve had screamed at him to slow down and get away, but the reckless, skinny boy with a busted lip that lived inside him couldn’t look away from the ring of molten sun coming at them, and he had never felt so alive, not even before the war or during the war; they were at the end of the universe using a collapsed star to fling themselves forward into the unknown, and he had never felt so powerfully alive.

“Alright,” said Bruce’s voice. “Get ready to go through the time distortion horizon event.”

Steve’s stomach was suddenly tied in knots.

“In three… two… one… now!”

Stupidly, he’d almost expected a blue line like the one they’d kept drawing, but there was nothing. The unnatural pull he felt just grew stronger, sharper, as if his own guts were trying to get there before him.

Numbers were flying on their dashboard’s screen, and it took Steve a second to realize those were years, years they were leaving behind the closer they got from the singularity.

Danvers, he thought fleetingly, but already it was time to pay attention again.

“Ready to shed our weight,” said Bruce who sounded a little breathless, but otherwise reasonably calm. “Just wait a bit longer…”

Bucky did exactly what Steve had done, ages ago, for their first simulation—got ready to rupture the ring on both sides of the pod so it would detach entirely, except this time the ring would be the one to spin away into space while the pods remained tethered to the central axis along with the Lander.

They were going terrifyingly fast now, so fast the whole Endurance was shaking and they had to shout to hear each other. The accretion disk was a river of molten gold out the window, glorious and rich like celestial ambrosia.

“Maximum velocity achieved,” yelled Bruce. “We’re getting out of here, on my mark!”

“Ready,” shouted Bucky.

“Three, two, one—MARK!”

Bucky fired up the ring’s self-destruct, and their pod belt brutally broke away from them and spiraled across space, lost forever. The boost they got was impressive—and this time, Steve was slammed back into his seat. They were getting away from the pull still trying to suck them in. They were getting out. Gargantua would not eat them.

Not all of them.

“This stunt is gonna cost us fifty-one years!” yelled Bucky.

“We’re old enough it won’t change much,” Steve shouted back, almost giddy.

Outside was an inferno of light dashing past in strings of fire. Steve could literally feel the heat of it, even through the metal of their pod. But then—then—it started spinning. Gargantua slipped away, replaced by the black void of space, then Gargantua again, then nothingness again.

“What’s happening?” shouted Bucky. “We’re spinning on ourselves!”

“It’s okay,” answered Bruce. “We didn’t detach the belt exactly at the same time on both sides, and it gave us a rotating impulse. It doesn’t change anything, our trajectory is still right.”

“Are you really fucking certain?”

“It doesn’t change anything,” repeated Bruce. “We’ve stabilized around our heaviest part. Both landing pods are spinning around the Lander.”

Steve briefly visualized the Lander with the pods at both ends of its arms, spinning around it like carnival carriages around their axis. Remember at Coney Island…?

“I can’t see shit,” yelled Bucky.

The constant shifting between bottomless obscurity and unbearable light made it hard to see indeed. Steve blinked at the screens, then his eyes widened at the readings.

“Bruce, we’re near the event horizon,” he shouted. “We’ll be out soon!”

“I know,” answered Bruce, sounding really breathless now. “I know.” Another breath. “I guess I’ll see you on the other side.”

“Yes, you will!” yelled Steve. “Now if you’re gonna do this, go!”

“Yes, I—”

And then he abruptly stopped.

“What?” yelled Bucky. “Banner, what the fuck?”

“I can’t,” answered Bruce, sounding terrified and appalled at his own stupidity. “Oh God, I can’t. I need both hands to pull the mechanical release!”

Bucky was already unbuckling himself. “That’s okay, I’m coming for you!”

“Like hell you are!” shouted Steve, struggling to unbuckle himself as well.

But Bucky grabbed his face to talk to him as close as their helmets would allow. “Steve, I’ll be fine,” he said, talking so fast Steve could barely understand him, “I promise I won’t go into Bruce’s pod, I’ll stay in the Lander, I’ll detach his pod from the Lander, there won’t be any risk for me!”

“You can do that?” panted Steve.

“Of course I can. I promise you, there won’t be any risk for me. I’ll stay in the Lander. I’ll stay alive whatever happens. I promise you.”

“I can go instead—”

“No you can’t. You can’t pull hard enough on your right arm. Your left arm is wounded too. Steve, stay here, you’ve gotta stay here. I love you,” he panted, “okay? I love you. It’s gonna be fine.”

“O-okay,” gasped Steve, even though every part of him screamed at him no, “okay. Okay.”

Bucky let go of him and slammed the sliding door of their pod open, rushing into the axis to go and reach the Lander. Steve stayed there, devoured with terror, heart hammering in his ears. Six eternal seconds passed before Bucky’s voice was heard on the coms.

“Okay, I’m in the Lander, I’m here! Bruce, just tell me when!”

“We’re spinning on ourselves,” shouted Bruce, “that means both pods are at equal risk to be sucked in! You absolutely have to release it on my mark—when my pod is closest to Gargantua!”

Steve could see it in his mind, the rotation alternately bringing each pod close to the gaping mouth of fire and then away from it, like a constant taunt—this one or that one? This one or that one? This one…  

“I got it,” yelled Bucky. “I got it, I won’t fuck it up, just tell me when!”

“So,” said a horrible rasp behind Steve.

Steve didn’t startle.

On the contrary, his mind lit up in sudden understanding. He finally knew what was wrong with Loki, so pale and seemingly so sick.

It was precisely the problem. He was too pale. His skin was white. But when he’d lost control of himself—when he’d been unconscious in the cryo bed, or seriously hurt by Daken on the icy planet—he’d lost his handle on his glamour and his skin had reverted to his natural dark blue.

And yet he’d stayed translucent pale all this time. He wasn't unconscious at all.

He was, in fact, looking out the window with the same icy, willful gaze he’d had peering at Daken’s planet, or in the picture Steve had drawn of him—looking beyond, at something none of them could see. Each of his breaths still sounded like it would be his last, and he had trouble holding himself up.

“You were by far the best candidate,” he said hoarsely. “Maybe you will even enjoy this on some level.”

He had his hands on the mechanical release.

“You’ve never minded sacrifice.”

Before Steve could even move, Loki pulled the lever with all his strength just as the light of Gargantua flooded in again and Bruce said, “On three—”

Steve’s landing pod detached from the Lander with a gunshot noise.

The Lander and Bruce’s landing pod, still attached together, got propelled forward in a formidable boost that thrust them past the critical orbit, free from Gargantua’s pull, spinning away from it and further away into space; Steve’s landing pod got thrown the other way, directly towards the dark nothingness framed with fire.

For a second, the others didn’t understand.

Then Steve heard Bucky scream.

“NO!”

Scream with all he had.

“NO! NO! NO! WHAT HAPPENED? OH JESUS CHRIST, WHAT HAPPENED? WHAT DID I DO? STEVE! STEVE! STEVE!”

“It wasn’t your fault,” shouted Steve on the coms. “Bucky, you didn’t do anything, it was—”

“He cannot hear you, Captain,” rasped Loki. “Remember, Gargantua allows only one-way communications.”

Steve spun round and punched him across the face so hard something cracked; Loki stumbled away from him as Steve yelled, “Send me back!”

“STEVE!” was shouting Bucky, “Steve, Steve, Steve, no, no, no, oh please no,” suddenly his voice was breaking with agony, “Lord, please, no, give him back, give him back to me, oh God, oh please, don’t take him away, please, please, no…”

He was sobbing like a little boy. “No, please… Steve…”

“Send me back,” said Steve, desperate. “Send me back right now!”

Loki killed the radio with a flick of his hand.

“You can hit me again,” he croaked, eyes burning. “But you have a greater enemy to fight.”

Steve followed his gaze and looked out the window—at the fire coming for them. When he looked back at Loki, the god’s glamour was shedding away—along with his space suit, revealing the dark blue of his skin under black pants and a green tunic. Steve blinked and realized he was crying, tears he couldn’t even wipe because of his helmet. He was breathless, in shock, at a total loss for what to do.

“Focus, Steven,” murmured Loki. “Now is the time to be more than human.”

Steve looked at him with a hatred he’d never felt before, then turned his head to look out the window again. Endless fire was rushing at them, bright enough to mask even the darkness beyond for the time being, a ring of pure sun devouring space.

“I have lost power healing you and moving your friends around,” said Loki in a breathless voice, “do not let me down.”

He moved behind Steve and put his hands on his shoulders. Steve didn’t even react, hypnotized by the infernal sight hurtling at them, but the searing ice still made him scowl in pain—Loki’s hands weren’t just cold, they were sucking up his warmth, his energy, everything he’d painstakingly rebuilt after years of starvation.

“Give me your strength,” panted Loki, “give me your strength and let us go, Captain, straight through, come on!”

And Steve was overwhelmed by the flames burning his eyes and the cold sinking into his flesh and the memory of Bucky’s screams, and so he accepted it, in his heart, almost out of spite, really, might as well, this or death, accepted the violation of Loki’s energy draining his. Loki let out a victorious shout as if he could feel it; and then something appeared before Steve’s eyes—a green force-field crackling with energy, weak and flickering but quickly growing stronger thanks to a golden force Steve supposed was his.

“Again,” shouted Loki, “again, more, more, again!”

Despite the horror howling inside him, Steve felt his chest fill with a sentiment of insane, hysterical excitation. Space was opening for them to throw themselves in, and they were going—they were fighting their way in, a broken soldier and an insane god, fighting with everything they had. Do not go gentle into that good night.

That night was not good, nor was it bad; it simply was, too big to be anything more than itself, and Steve would not go gentle beyond the veil.

He willed his own strength to pour into Loki’s, consciously wished for the flimsy spell—for Loki’s last spell—to work, to grow stronger, to feed on him, and the force-field grew and grew and grew until it was too big to stay inside with them, until Steve couldn’t see it anymore and assumed it was surrounding the pod, encasing it in green and golden light.

“Fight!” shouted Loki. “Fight your way through! Do it with me!”

They slammed into the accretion disk and Steve screamed with pain when everything in the pod became burning hot—every single metallic thread in his space suit was searing itself into his skin, Bucky’s dog tags turning white-hot, everything plastic melting, boiling, filling the pod with a horrible burning smell that nearly choked him.

And yet it was nothing compared to what should have happened. The accretion disk was hot enough to vaporize the entire pod and Steve with it. But Loki’s force-field protected them, however imperfectly—it was torture and Steve was breathless with pain, but he wasn’t dying, they were flying through a ring of sun and he wasn’t dying.

“Yes,” rasped Loki whose cold hands were a blessing now, “yes, you can be more, you can do more, keep going!”

Loki was shaking with exertion; he was seconds away from death—Steve could hear it in his voice, still hoarse and dry like a drained river. Steve could also hear the spell in his head, ancient Norse he could understand somehow, and he added words of his own, an improvised mantra that made the terrible heat recede as the force-field grew stronger. I am giving my strength to him and he will have use of it, I am giving my force to him and he will have use of it, I am giving away the sun in me and the stars in me, I am giving away the infinity in me and the black matter in me and the atoms in me, I am giving away the time I can feel and the space I can live in, I am giving the love in me but it only makes it bigger, I am alive and I am giving away the life in me—

“Not everything,” laughed Loki above him, breathless, hoarse and disheveled but ecstatic, “not everything yet, Steven, the worst is yet to come. Can you see it? Can you see it coming for us?”

Steve could feel it, the pull that would have already crushed him if not for Loki’s spell, the pulsing heart of darkness burying a hole through the fabric of reality. It was drawing them in and they were rushing through the flames and the fire to meet the void.

He heard it. It was a low throbbing note that made the emptiness itself shake to its very core, like the drawn-out growl of a leviathan.

“Now,” roared Loki, sounding insane and all-powerful at once, “now, Captain, give me everything!”

I am giving the sun and stars in me, thought Steve again, and when Loki shouted, “MORE!” he gritted his teeth against the pain and thought in a chaotic flow of thoughts, I am giving Brooklyn and the smile of my mother, I am giving Tony Stark and his infuriating genius, I am giving the hero that was Clint Barton, I am giving Natasha Romanov and the beauty of her soul, I am giving Sam Wilson and his infinite kindness, I am giving Carol Danvers’ hope and Bruce Banner’s courage, I am giving Bucky Barnes and everything he is, I am giving the love that I have for them all, I am giving the love that I have—

“I am giving the love that I have,” he panted.

“I am giving the love that I have,” said Loki in the language Steve shouldn’t have understood, and their protection flared brighter than fire as they plunged together beyond the horizon of darkness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was all black, except for a flimsy sphere of gold and green unraveling like a spider web in the wind.

As it fell apart in complete silence, so did the pod, cracking open and peeling away, lost behind. Steve was alone and unprotected in the blackness and the quiet, still dressed in his space suit that miraculously remained unscathed. Maybe it was Loki, twisting the terrible forces around them, lying to them, telling them they were already taken apart down to their atoms and there was no need to crush them any more.

And was it really a lie? Steve thought as the dark swallowed them. They were already nothing but atoms, after all.

From the bottom of the blackness came an even blacker night; and then…

 

 

 

He was still wearing his space suit. The helmet was not even cracked. The oxygen functioned. He could breathe. He had five hours of air, here, at the center of everything. Still and silent, no gravity, no pull. Alive.

“Steven,” said Loki in a deep voice.

Steve looked up—and down, and left, and right—at him.

Loki was gigantic. His skin was a deep blue that merged with the void around. Nebulae glittered in his pores. His hair melted into darkness, and he had twin stars for eyes.

He scooped Steve up in his hand and lowered his astral gaze on him. Steve could see the stars etched in his skin. He caught a movement on his right and turned his head; and there was Loki, standing next to Steve, human-sized and wearing a starker, simpler version of his armor. When Steve looked back at the giant in confusion, he had vanished, dissolving into infinity—or maybe he had always been infinite. He was both at once, like an optical illusion that changed depending on how you thought of it.

Steve looked back at the Loki he could see. Even this one was dual; his skin was glowing pale and silver, but it was also pulsing blue like the deep, deep sea. His hair was floating around his head like a black flame, and he was gazing pensively into the void that was him.

“What,” asked Steve in a breath, but he couldn’t think of a way to end his question.

“This is what happens,” said Loki, “when we are at the center of all things. Everything at once. All at once.”

His voice was back to normal, no longer that rock-rattle clacking from the bottom of his throat. He looked luminous and young, softly glowing in the dark, with no lines on his face, no tremor in his hands. Power radiated from him.

“I don’t understand,” said Steve.

“You still call it magic,” he answered. “I do not think you could understand.”

There was a twinkle of light reflected in his eyes, and Steve suddenly realized it was an entire galaxy and that he was looking at it from very far. Or maybe it was minuscule and so close he could have touched it. Around them was everything and nothing, a glittering chaos and a lightless void, and Steve closed his eyes but the chaos was in his eyes too.

“You knew,” he said with difficulty, “you knew what you’d find here.”

Talking out loud helped, a little—his thoughts felt like they were trying to break out of his brain. He reopened his eyes and uttered, “It was your goal all along, coming here. This was why… why you needed our mission to succeed.”

“I had a hard time keeping it in one piece,” answered Loki with a wry smile. Steve had to do a tremendous effort not to let his image slip back into impossible sights of endlessness. “It cost me—almost too much.”

“But why?”

“Existence is about energy,” said Loki, not quite answering the question. “I lost mine along with Asgard. This was never supposed to happen. I should have died with them and come back with them. I should have converted my energy into a different one. Instead, I stayed behind, excluded from the cycle and condemned to watch myself dry out.”

He was infinite again with ease, hair undulating through a spiraling galaxy and a multicolored nebula. Steve still couldn’t tell whether the stars around them were small and very close or huge and very far.  

“But now I am at the source,” said Loki. “Now I have it all back.”

“But this is a black hole,” protested Steve, feeling terribly small. “It’s just… a collapsed star.”

The whole chasm around him rippled and changed, although it also stayed the same. Steve could not fit the infinity in his mind—it was like trying to understand the Universe when he was a kid, stumbling over the thought of a thing that was both finite and infinite. How can anything be endless? Space’s gotta have some limits, right? But then what’s beyond them? It usually gave him a headache and he had to stop thinking about it. But here, he couldn’t; he was staring it in the face, and the sheer impossibility for his mind to comprehend what he was seeing was driving him insane.

Loki smiled. His smile was a giant moon crescent in the sky, and it was a flicker of dust hanging in a ray of sun.

“A collapsed star? Do you really think so?”

He was next to Steve again.

“Or rather, do you really know so?”

Steve reached out, trying to touch him, to have something to hold onto; but Loki was both close to him and at an infinite distance, and Steve was both moving and not moving, and in the end he wasn’t really sure whether he’d done something or not.

Then Loki’s hand closed around his, and Steve gasped with the contact. It was overwhelming, to have one certainty in this ocean of chaos; and for it to be the god of Chaos himself was almost unbearably ironic.

“Let it be one,” said Loki quietly, “it is everything but it is also one. Allow it to be one, if it makes it easier.”

Steve closed his eyes and swallowed, focusing on the pressure around his gloved hand, and everything around him stopped flickering between endless possibilities to focus into a more rational picture.

Although “rational” might not be the right word to use. When he opened his eyes, it was infinitely large and divided into—windows. Billions and billions of openings, all of them showing different shades of darkness. A soft, transparent light was vibrating over it, like a transparent film over an infinite wall covered in black posters. It was immense; but at least this immensity, Steve could conceive without his mind breaking in half.

“Is this how you understand it?” asked Loki with another smile. “It is rather pretty. You do have an artist’s soul, of course.”

“Why are you helping me?” said Steve with a great effort.

Loki raised an eyebrow at him. “Am I helping you?”

Steve remembered Bucky’s broken scream and tried to contain the tremendous anger and the terrible pain that rose in his chest. His efforts somehow made the world around him settle into an even greater stability, as if cemented by his grief and wrath. He was floating there, in the middle of all these screens torn through reality; most of them showed nothing but a cold black void; a few rare ones glittered with one or two distant stars. The sheet of transparent light over them looked like it was quivering—like the light was flowing down over the smooth surface of the windows.

He squeezed his eyes shut. “Why,” he said, “are you helping me with this place?”

“Place,” mused Loki, “I would have said time. But both are one and the same in here, I suppose.” His black hair was twirling and shredding behind him like a plume of raven smoke, sometimes melting with the very blackness around them, sometimes trickling down his shoulders again, tame for a deceitful second before twitching into liveliness again. “I would not have succeeded, if not for you. The least I can do is preserve your sanity.”

Steve laughed through his confusion and pain. “It’s not working very well.”

“I am doing my best.” Loki looked around. “This is what it’s like, being a god. All the time. Or at least it was when I was still within my cycle of resurrection—all these possibilities at my fingertips.”

No wonder he was insane, Steve thought. But was he really insane? By the standards of this place—or time—Steve must be the insane one, trying to focus on singular things while the whole of the universe was staring at him.

He was hyperventilating and tried to calm down. He didn’t have a lot of air.

But then again, why save it? He was in the black hole. The time distortion was infinite; time virtually stopped inside, while the outer world kept going. On the other side of the horizon, Bucky had been dead for millions and millions of years, and new galaxies had been born.

“Do not weep,” said Loki softly.

“Why?” spat Steve. He hadn’t realized he was crying and let go of Loki to press both hands against his helmet in a futile attempt to hide his face. “Why did you do this? What could possibly be worth—”

He could still hear Bucky, and he felt like his heart was being skewered with a knife of ice.

“Do not weep,” repeated Loki. “You will have use of your grief.”

“For what?” said Steve through his tears. “For energy? For power? I won’t give you any more. I won’t give you anything anymore.”

He was crying unrestrictedly now, as indifferent to the impossibilities around him as he’d been amazed by them only seconds ago. He thought Loki would say something to him, perhaps force him to calm down, but Loki did absolutely nothing. He stayed there, observing the stars with stars of his own for eyes, as if he had all the time in the world. And maybe he had. Literally so.

Steve struggled to get a hold of himself. Swallowed it back down.

“What is this place?” he asked again in a weary tone.

Loki finally gave him a true answer.

“It is a nexus,” he said. “Or—one of them, really. All black holes are. A singularity with no volume and an infinite density? It makes no sense for your three-dimensional mind. But it only takes a change of scale for it all to fall into place.”

He gazed at the wall of dark windows. Light was still falling vertically over the realities, like a thin waterfall, slightly blurring the void beneath but clear enough for Steve to see a lone shooting star zing across.

“Can you visualize a hollow sphere, Captain?” asked Loki. “All points equidistant from the center.”

He tilted his head, looking at the frames of darkness. “Now imagine it narrowing, narrowing again and again, until all points merge with the center. It would still be a sphere, but it would also be a single point. Something perfect and whole, plural and one at the same time.”

He opened his hands. “That is what black holes are, but not in three dimensions—not even in four or in five, but in all of them.”

He stretched out his arms, reaching from one end of the infinite void to the other.They contain the entire Universe in one place. No volume and an infinite density. The Universe is this, a hypersphere perpetually folding on itself, centering on itself, infinite and finite all at once. That is something that cannot be conceived by you or even by me.”

He lowered his arms. “But it is enough to perceive it on our scale. The whole third dimension and the entire fourth are at hand. That means the whole of space, but also the whole of time.”

Steve stayed silent for a long while.

“But,” he said. “How can we be here?”

Loki turned to him and smiled. “Sentiment,” he said.

When Steve failed to react, he went on, “Sentiment, Captain. It took me a long time to understand, but you already felt it, did you not? That sentiment is a force of this Universe, just like time or gravity. It is so terribly rare and so terribly complex, because it stems from consciousness and so much of existence is but rock and fire and soulless void.”

He gestured at the windows in front of them, all of them showing nothing but darkness and coldness indeed.

“Sentiment is demanding and unpredictable. And it may seem flimsy, but then what isn’t? Physics? Physics are utterly predictable. Without sentiment, nothing strays from its path. Planets go round stars and stars go round black holes. But it is enough to love or to hate, Captain, for a whole species to travel across the galaxies. Intention—intention influences this world just as much as cold physics can. Sentiment brought you here, and it is what brought me here, too. We, as a consciousness, are an element of this world. We are a force of it. We can be inside the nexus, because the nexus is everything, and we are a part of everything.”

I am giving the sun and stars in me, thought Steve. Loki must have felt it somehow, because he smiled and said, “Yes.”

“But,” said Steve for the second time. He felt cool and light and at the end of his rope, as if he’d been starving himself again; the lack of contact with Loki made the world around them flicker dangerously, threatening to dissolve into madness again. “Why not take Bruce with you? If all you needed was energy to protect yourself long enough to get here. If all you wanted was to replenish your life force. Why play dead and trick us when you could have gone with him?”

“That is not all I needed,” said Loki quietly. “And that is not all I wanted.” He licked his lips. “And what I’ll need now, Banner couldn’t give.”

“Why?”

There was a silence. Steve realized he was not cold nor warm. He also wasn’t quite sure he was actually breathing, but it did not seem to make much difference in the end.

“Because there is no one left he loves,” said Loki softly. “He wanted to save humanity in a whole, as an abstract concept. Abstraction will get you exactly nowhere.”

Steve stared, but Loki didn’t explain himself.

“So, what,” said Steve, feeling immensely tired all of a sudden, “if he’d gone alone like he’d planned, he would have died?”

“Maybe not,” conceded Loki, “That beast of his is truly a thing of wonder. Perhaps he would have lived through the horizon. Then again…” He raised his right hand and wiggled his fingers.

Steve remembered Bruce’s cold dead hand and felt like he was breathing knives.

“That doesn’t… that doesn’t mean anything.”

Loki raised an eyebrow at him. “He resisted an explosion and yet failed to heal his hand. Either his force was beginning to ebb, or he was doing it on purpose.”

"He wasn't," insisted Steve desperately.

Loki said nothing.

“Bruce is the only one aboard the Endurance who never gave up at any point in his whole life. He kept hoping for us all.” Steve’s voice was cracking. “He’s the strongest there is.”

“You cannot be strong forever,” said Loki, almost gently.

Steve swallowed, then shook his head. “You’re wrong.”

Loki shrugged. “Perhaps. But you’re still glad it’s not him. You are glad it’s not Barnes, either.”

Steve thought of the fantasy he’d had, minutes from dying, in that half-ship spinning further and further into the void. Bruce and Bucky, surrounded with children, laughing with them. They could still have this. They were both strong enough to reach Chavez’ planet. To support each other. To make it. They’d never needed him.

And maybe it was selfish, but Steve couldn’t help being distantly relieved that he’d been allowed to take their place beyond the dark veil.

He felt exhausted, but his devouring hatred had deserted him. He gazed at the wall of windows again. He could not see where it ended above and under him; the perspective thinned into infinity on the left and on the right as well. But it was flat, two-dimensional, like an infinite page out of a comic book somehow, with all those rectangular frames. (Steve had no idea what was behind him and was certainly not going to turn and look, allowing the impossibility of this place to overwhelm him again.)

“What now?” he asked, strangely calm.

Loki smiled at him like he’d been waiting for Steve to ask from the start. He extended his hand again.

Steve looked at him warily. “What are you trying to do?”

“Something foolish,” answered Loki. “Take my hand.”

Now he was the one looking tired, despite the soft glow of his endless power. Tired and haunted and infinitely sad. Steve remembered what he’d shouted as they crossed shadow and fire.

I am giving the love that I have.

Steve took Loki’s hand. His skin was blue, but it didn’t hurt, even though Steve knew the space suits were powerless against the deadly cold of his flesh. He was beginning to realize nothing could hurt him in here.

The windows unreeled like old rolls of film, not all of them at the same speed but all of them winding back. They gradually went from blackness and cold to light and liveliness, as if Loki and Steve had been in an elevator bringing them from a dark cave back up to the sunlit surface. Everything was dashing past too fast for Steve to see, but he thought he could understand what was happening all the same.

All of space and time…  

“Ah,” murmured Loki. “I think this is us.”

The unreeling strings of golden windows slowed down, settling into a wall again even though they kept moving, flipping through time. Steve could see stars on the other side, a little blurred behind the curtain of that quivering, transparent light.

And then, out of nowhere came the Endurance, behind one of the windows like a movie on a screen. The rest of the windows kept moving, showing people and places Steve didn’t know, but that one immobile frame was showing that precise moment in time and space—that unique spot where the Endurance had been. (Or was going to be. Or was, simply, was.) This was them, indeed. Through the translucent strings of light, Steve could see Bruce and Loki buckled in the back, and he could see himself, and he could see, closest to him…

“Bucky,” he breathed, reaching out without thinking.

He caught himself thinking he probably shouldn’t have done that, but nothing dreadful happened when he pushed his hand through the translucent light to reach a different place and time. His other self gaped at him with horror in his eyes. Bucky himself was petrified, eyes wide and stunned, holding very still.

They couldn’t exactly see him. Steve’s hand looked like shivering glass, reality moving in waves around it, and he had no difficulty pushing it through Bucky’s helmet to brush his jaw.

“Bucky,” he repeated, voice breaking again as he understood.

It felt warm. Maybe he was imagining it, but Bucky’s skin felt warm. He was so close—Jesus, he was so close, Steve was touching him, and he had no idea.

Behind the Steve sitting next to Bucky, the other Loki began reading the poem taped on the wall. Inside the nexus, other moments were reeling past, and another frame stilled next to Steve—a sandstorm, and Steve himself in his old truck, driving through the howling wind with wild eyes. Loki’s voice from one moment crossed the nexus to rebound into that other time and place.

“Do not go gentle into that good night…”

The Steve from the sandstorm cranked up the radio, thinking it came from there. In the other moment, Loki kept reading the poem. Old age should burn and rave at close of day. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Steve pulled back his hand, suddenly scared; the sandstorm fled away in a dash of light, replaced by other windows, a school in England, a dark night sky, a warzone in the desert, a woman giving birth. The frame showing the Endurance lingered for another second. Bruce was looking out the windshield; it looked like he was staring straight into the nexus at Loki, without seeing him.

“Whoever they are,” he said, “they’re looking out for us.”

The moment fled away. Others were reeling past already, winding further and further back. Steve looked at Loki, because where were they going?

“Now that we’ve reached the right eon, I am going to need your help for the finer work,” said Loki, refusing to meet his gaze. “When did the wormhole appear?”

Eight years ago, had said Danvers the day they’d met. Steve swallowed. “In… in 2089, I think.”

The years flowed on the wall until Loki found the right moment. “Midgard,” he murmured, and in the window that slowed down, Steve saw a star and eight tiny, gleaming planets. He realized, belatedly, that it was his own solar system; and he suddenly felt absurdly, overwhelmingly homesick.

“Midgard,” repeated Loki in a whisper. “Your planet. Which one is it?”

“The third one,” said Steve, baffled as he understood what was happening—what they were doing. Surely, it had to be forbidden, like some sort of paradox, and yet here they were.

Whoever they are, they’re looking out for us.

Loki plunged his left hand into the solar system of 2089, and reached with his right hand into another window, another system—a single star hovering around a black hole. The same black hole they were in right now, realized Steve whose head was spinning. Except Loki had said so: all of time and space at their fingertips. The nexus contained itself and all the moments of its own existence.

“That should do,” said Loki. He dragged one window over another with a swipe of his hand—Steve absurdly remembered James Chekov in the gym, swiping files in and out his tablet—until they were superimposed. Then, very simply, he poked a hole through the quivering light, connecting both frames as they flowed into one another, translucent fluid trickling from Gargantua to a yellow planet with white rings—

“Hey,” exclaimed Steve, “not that one!”

“You said the third planet,” objected Loki.

“Third planet from the Sun! Not to the Sun!”

He remembered asking Danvers a long time ago, when she’d told him where the wormhole was, Saturn? Why Saturn?

“Jesus, you’ve gotta be kidding me,” he muttered, but already the moments were reeling away from them, and Loki let them go with a little laugh, stars and planets and black holes flying out from his hands.

“Oh, you will manage,” he said. “As a matter of fact, you already did.”

They were going further and further into the past. Steve tried to meet Loki’s gaze again. Why was he doing all this? So far—so far this was just tying loose ends so their journey to Gargantua might be secured. But why had Loki wanted to come here in the first place? For power only? For survival only? Surely not just to help out mankind out of the goodness of his heart?

Loki still wouldn’t look at him.

“Ah,” he murmured. “This is where it all starts for you, is it not?”

Steve’s heart jumped in his chest. The window that stopped in front of them opened on a dark night over a solitary farm, washed with dirt. They got closer, and then they were behind Steve’s bookshelf, looking into his memorabilia room.

He could see Clint’s arrows and Thor’s hammer. He could have touched them.

“What are we supposed to do?” asked Loki in a soft voice.

Steve’s throat felt tight. “It’s,” he said. “Thor’s hammer. It falls down and… and wakes me up.”

Very simply, then, Loki reached past him through the curtain of light, and pushed Mjölnir from the shelf. The hammer fell down with a muffled thump.

Steve gaped at him.

Loki stared back, almost daring him to say something.

“How?” asked Steve eventually.

Loki shrugged. “I moved the Universe around it.”

Steve had the very odd feeling, then, that Loki had just lied to him. But before he could press the matter, his other self came into the room, blinking at the hammer.

It was a shock for Steve to see himself. He almost didn’t recognize the gaunt man standing there in the moonlight. Jesus Christ, how could he ever think it didn’t show? He was so thin. And his eyes looked dead. The look on his face when he saw the hammer was almost unbearable.

Even if he hadn’t already known what to do, Steve would have done it to help this man, to help him find the friends waiting for him only a few miles away. He reached out like Loki had done, past the strings of quivering light, and drew the coordinates in the dust next to the hammer. The other Steve was trying to lift the hammer, to no avail; he frowned, crouched down and peered at the numbers in the dirt…

The moment flew away, sucked back into the void.

“What next?” asked Steve, throat tight and blinking fast.

“What is left?” retorted Loki.

Steve thought for a second. “The year 2100,” he said. “Can we get to the year 2100?”

“Certainly,” said Loki. “It is within our reach.”

“What’s out of our reach?” asked Steve as the windows of time and space unreeled around them until the right one was at hand. “I thought the nexus contained the whole of time.”

“It does,” said Loki. “But that doesn’t mean it is all ours to sail through. We cannot reach the times we haven’t yet lived.”

“Why?”

“No anchor,” said Loki, gesturing at the infinity of windows flowing around them in dashes of light. “Nothing to guide us into one possibility rather than another. This is the nexus of all realities, Steven.” He frowned, slightly. “What year was it, when we flew into the nexus?”

This stunt is gonna cost us fifty-one years, shouted Bucky in Steve’s memory. “I…” he said. “2151. Probably.”

“So this is where the line is drawn for us,” said Loki. “Here.”

Before Steve could object further, the vision at hand drew in his attention. It was Bruce’s classroom.

Carol Danvers was there. There was a crease between her eyebrows; she was staring at her laptop, turning her back to the black board. The date in the bottom right corner of the screen was March 21th, 2100. It had only been one year, for her, since the Endurance had flown through the wormhole.

Steve realized he’d never seen her like this, without the energy that radiated from her whenever she wasn’t alone. She’d been doing it to give them all hope.

Steve swallowed past the lump in his throat, then pointed at the unfinished equation on the black board.

“I need to finish that,” he said. “Is there… is there a way to analyze this place, or something? To put it all—” to put time, or space, or reality, he thought with a head rush “—in numbers or words?”

Loki cocked his head to the side. “No need to start from scratch,” he said. “This is the universal equation for gravity, I believe.”

Steve stared.

Loki went on airily, “It is a very well-known one. It’s incomplete, though.”

He reached through the quivering light, grabbed a piece of chalk and traced a few signs. Danvers was still turning her back to the black board, reading the news on her laptop, and did not see the equation complete itself.

The moment fled away in a spur of light.

Steve looked at Loki and thought, Jesus Christ, he just saved us all.

Loki looked like he wasn’t even aware of it, as casual as a kid would have been after writing down the famous E=MC² equation. A well-known one. That was all it was for him.

He could have done this from the start, Steve thought, head spinning with anger and shock. Loki knew Bruce was looking for this equation and yet he’d kept it to himself. They hadn’t even thought of asking him, even though he was from Asgard, even though they knew Asgard had mastered the art of wormholes already, they could have asked him and they hadn’t even thought of it.

(Or maybe Bruce had—Steve remembered his fatalistic little shrug. He wouldn’t have done anything to help me.)

This was strange, thought Steve. This was too strange. Because this—this wasn’t part of the time loop they needed to complete. Loki was helping them, as though he owed Steve for allowing him to get here, and it didn’t match what Steve knew of him at all.

Then again, Loki hadn’t behaved like anything he knew of him. Steve still remembered his obvious desperation of the first days, barely hidden under a cracked shell of nonchalant irony. He remembered the way he’d agreed to be put in cryo sleep, the way he’d gone out of this way to make this mission happen, the way he’d twisted the goddamn fabric of reality so this very moment could happen.

But in the end, why? What was so important he’d risked everything to be here?

Steve thought he had no idea, but as time and space began to swift by again, uncurling into the void in stripes of dashing golden frames, he felt his gut twist with dread—as though his subconscious had understood before him what was coming next.

They were going into the past again, the windows unreeling themselves around them at a faster and faster pace, blurring with speed. Steve could almost feel the wind of it in his hair, even though there was no air and he was wearing a helmet anyway.

When it slowed down again, the window that stopped by their side was dark.

It was at night on Earth, with distant stars twinkling in the clear sky, not a breath of wind and almost no grit in the air. Miles and miles of dry, flat desert looking blue and silver under the light of the moon. A small house, with a water tank on the side and a trailer parked in the driveway.

Loki stood still and said nothing, but he had a very strange expression on his face, as though his features were trying to contort into an emotion and he refused to let them.

And Steve recognized that place, then.

The other frames around them kept reeling past, but this particular window stayed there, like the others had; it was all frozen into place, still and silent, the house dark and solitary on the other side of the quivering curtain of light.

“That’s why?” murmured Steve.

Loki said nothing, still looking ahead and holding himself very stiff.

Steve could barely breathe past the lump in his throat. “That’s why you almost died bringing us here? That’s why you cut through time and space?”

“Please,” managed Loki. “Be silent.”

Steve fell silent and followed Loki’s gaze, even though he did not want to see this moment again, even though he’d dreamed of it too often in the past years. The house was coming to them, as though the window was growing wider or perhaps zooming in; and after a short while they seamlessly went through the wall and into the main room.

It was dark and very quiet.

Thor looked exactly like Steve remembered him.

Actually, he looked like more than what Steve remembered—because he’d tried to scrub this memory from his mind. It had probably just happened. Mere seconds ago, maybe.

Jane was laying on the bed with snow-white hair and lines of laughter etched into her cheeks. Thor was next to her, curled on his side. He’d buried his face into her neck.

Steve tried very hard not to look at his wrists, but he could have sworn he could smell the iron tang through the curtain of light.

When he looked at Loki again, there were tears on the god’s pale cheeks. This stunned Steve more than anything he’d seen until then.

“But,” he said softly, after a long while. “But you hate him.”

Loki let out a stifled breath of pain. “Yes,” he said, aiming for lightness—but his voice was sour and shaking, “I must have hated him very much, haven’t I?”

He abruptly lost his handle on the moment which suddenly fled away from him, dashing away in a mad race of day and night. Steve tried to stop the frames swiping past, without really knowing what to do. His will was enough for them to slow down, and he settled by chance on a golden city and a one-eyed old man.

A giant in golden armor was talking to the old man in a voice deep and rumbling like the sound of the black hole. “Ragnarök is upon us, my king. Another cycle begins.”

“What?” said the one-eyed man—Odin. “No. It is too early. Thor has not yet returned.”

The man in the golden armor took a deep breath. “I think Thor will not return, my king. He made his choice and left our people.”

“But he must return! He must! He will be left out! He will be left behind!”

Despite Steve’s best efforts, the moment escaped his grasp and was replaced by another. Odin was running down golden stairs, armor and wrinkled skin shedding as he went to reveal the dark, slender silhouette of Loki underneath. He was pale, with pinched lips and turmoil in his eyes as he stepped through the fabric of reality to reach the Earth…

…the same place, but another moment, a giant ball of rock and fire crashing through space to blow the golden city into stardust…

…the same moment but another place, Loki half-way between this world and the other and screaming mid-leap as though the destruction of Asgard had physically torn his organs out…

…crashing into the street near the Avengers mansion, with a kernel of magic beating inside his chest, and him curling around it, frantically blowing on it like one would blow on a dying ember, willing it to survive for a second longer…

…turning away from the mansion, dragging his torn self through the streets of New York. Wavering with each step like a tortured man, arms wrapped around his abdomen as if to keep his guts from spilling out…

…walking the Earth alone for months, in a dazed state of shock, living on the streets or in crappy motels. Getting up at night, practicing his speech before a mirror, Thor, it was really Odin you lost on the day I died, and all these years I’ve been but giving up before the end of his sentence, running his hands through his dark hair with a scowl…

…walking the Earth, trying to preserve what little magic he had left, shivering constantly from withdrawal—withdrawal from his very nature, from his very essence, skin graying, bones thinning, this is what it’s like, being a god…

…practicing in front of his mirror again. Thor, I can find a way for us both to return to the cycle, you only have to trust—and then slamming his fist into the glass, shattering it, hitting it again and again until his hand was covered in cuts he couldn’t even afford to heal and he was curled up sobbing with rage on the floor…

Thor, I’m sorry, words uttered to a broken mirror that didn’t even reflect his own image anymore, why didn’t you come back in time, you oaf, you goddamn fool, why didn’t you come back…

...sitting in a small diner at night, a lonely silhouette at the bar. Asking for a refill around four am, the news on repeat on the small TV. And all of a sudden, muscles seizing, throat closing. Paralyzed, unable to look away from the tiny screen. Former Avenger and hero Thor Odinson has been found dead this morning by the side of eighty-nine years old astrophysicist Jane Foster. Officials are speaking of suicide…

“Stop,” said Loki, grabbing Steve’s hand again.

Everything froze.

The nexus fell silent and still, the fragments of reality softly vibrating in their translucent frames of light. Loki wiped the tears on his face with his free hand.

“We were not meant to go back this far,” he said in a low voice.

He looked around. There were frozen windows of light everywhere. Steve thought he could see, in the distance, a young man with a red cape and a star-lit suit push past the curtains and wander from one window to another, as though the wall was not a wall but a floor for him to walk on. Further away, another man walked through as well, in a torn red-and-black suit showing patches of burnt, cancerous skin underneath. Further away into infinity, more figures were ripping free out of one frame to plunge back into another. Some of them didn’t stay for more than one second, others took their time. Some of them did not look even remotely human.

“We are not the only ones using the nexus,” said Loki. “We should not linger.”

The tears on his cheeks had not dried. He moved his free hand and Steve blinked as the windows began unreeling again.

“I ruled Asgard for almost sixty years and it flourished under my rule,” said Loki as the light flowed around them. “But I could only do so because Thor was hurt enough to believe there was nothing left for him at home.”

His voice was toneless. “And after the end, I was too proud to see him again till I had a way out for us both. I wanted him to thank me, you understand. To welcome me as his savior. So in the meantime, I just left him alone. Oh, he could take it like he’d taken the rest—never mind that he’d lost Mother and me, and now everything else. He could take it for a little bit longer, the golden son of Asgard, he could be strong forever…”

Steve remembered how Thor had been for those few months. Oh—he remembered. And he understood a bit better, now, how he’d been able to kill himself with only a blade and a few clothespins.

Loki went on lightly, “But then, he had the gall to seek his own way out, and I remained alone with my selfishness and no lies left to tell myself.”

His voice was dripping with cold self-loathing. Steve stayed silent.

The windows slowed down. The frame that stopped before them was exactly the same—Thor’s and Jane’s room at night, bathed with quiet moonlight. Only there was no blood. Neither of them was dead yet.

Loki let go of Steve’s hand.

“I am selfish still,” he said. “I thwarted time and space to deprive him of a well-deserved rest. Perhaps he will want nothing to do with me. Perhaps he will choose his way all the same.”

He took a deep breath. “But if he doesn’t,” he said, “I will create a dead clone of him for the world to see. I will not disturb our past. Everything that has happened, will happen.” He twisted his mouth in a wry line. “Or seem to happen.”

He gestured at the infinity around. He sounded tired and final, like an old magician with dead doves and crumpled cards. “And so the loop is stable.”

Steve thought of Bruce planning his own sacrifice for years, for nothing. (He thought of Carol looking up to find on the black board the equation that would save them all.) He thought of Thor who had chosen to leave the cycle and live his own life. (He thought of Thor shaking in shock and stammering haphazardly, “I should have been there.”) He thought of Bucky screaming in despair and begging Steve to come back. (He thought of coordinates in the dust giving themselves back to each other.)

He thought of Loki. (Selfish, careless, cruel, obscene to think he could be forgiven—) He thought of Loki. (I am giving the love that I have.)

The only thing he said was:

“Don’t forget the note.”

Loki looked like he couldn’t speak for a second. “I did not know,” he said eventually in a voice that strove to be steady, “he had left a note.”

“No,” said Steve, “he didn’t. You did. For me.” He swallowed thickly. “And I think you’ll know what to write. Goes for you, too.”

Steven,

do not go gentle into that good night

Loki smiled at him.

Then, in a strangely natural gesture, he leaned forward to press his cold lips against Steve’s cheek.

“Farewell,” he said.

The next second, he was stepping through that frame of time and space, through the curtain of quivering light. Steve thought to himself that maybe Loki had pushed Mjölnir off that bookshelf. Maybe not lifted it, maybe not wielded it, but moved it at the very least, because the hammer knew what he was trying to do. Because, perhaps, it hadn’t been entirely selfish.

I am giving the love that I have.

“What’s going to happen to me?” asked Steve, strangely calm.

Loki gave him a last look, just before he stepped entirely out of the nexus.

“Anything you want,” he said.

Then he fully stepped through.

The quivering fluid swallowed him and then he was on the other side, in a time and a place that were solid and still.

Steve watched him stand by Jane’s and Thor’s bed. His dark silhouette looked infinitely lonely in the moonlight. Soon, Jane Foster would breathe her last breath. Loki would wake up Thor, then. Or maybe let him wake up and discover her for himself. Steve wasn’t sure what happened next for them both, and he certainly wasn’t going to stay and watch. This moment was entirely theirs.

Perhaps they would end up walking through another curtain of light together.

 

*

 

Steve hovered in front of the wall of light for a long time. He quickly realized what Loki had meant when he’d said, you will need your grief.  Wishing to see something was not enough. You had to want it, and Steve could not control the longings of his heart.

Loki had been able to flip through the framed realities with ease, but he was a god. Steve wasn’t sure what it implied; but he was almost certain it meant that at the very least, Asgardians had a different relation to time. They lived in a cycle that repeated itself with infinite variations. In this regard, they were immortal, and it was in their nature to dance backwards and forwards in space and time. Being out of the cycle had almost destroyed Thor and Loki both, depriving them of their very essence to turn them into shells of themselves.

But Steve was human; he had no destiny. He was held by no cycle. His life was a line plunging straight into the unknown, and he did not know what lay ahead. He would have to find out by himself; to carry on, till the end of the line.

Loki had told him the truth: he couldn’t access his own future, because he had not lived it yet. Not yours to sail through. He tried, desperately tried—he wanted to access Chavez’ planet; or even the Lander right after it had wrenched itself away from Gargantua’s pull. But he couldn’t reach anything after that fateful second when Loki and he had plunged into the heart of darkness.

The windows would only ever show him visions from his past; and even those he couldn’t always control.

“Nothing lasts forever,” said Natasha, looking at the fields of corn and wheat around them. “But this, right now?” She smiled at him. “It’s something to enjoy.”

Another place, another time.

“Don’t look at me,” said Sam, arms, crossed, “I do what he does. Just slower.”

Another place, another time.

Tony brutally started breathing again. “Please, tell me nobody kissed me.”

Another place, another time.

“I might even, when this is all over, go dancing.” Peggy smiled at him.

Another place, another time.

“Hey, Stevie.” Bucky squeezed a bony shoulder underneath a bundle of covers. “I’m off to work, okay?”

Steve’s eyes abruptly filled with tears. His throat closed and he thought the memories would stop there, but they kept going back, further and further into a childhood his mind had locked away because it was entwined too intrinsically with—

“James Buchanan Barnes,” said the kid, grinning despite his split lip. “But my friends call me Bucky. You’re bleeding somethin’ awful, pal, yanno?”

Steve brushed the transparent wall of light with his fingers.

Another place, another time.

“Tell you what,” said Bucky, “when all this is over, Stevie, I wanna go an’ see the Grand Canyon.”

Another place, another time.

“Are you sure about this?” asked Danvers. “He doesn’t look like he wants to be here. He looks like he doesn’t want to be anywhere.”

“Isn’t that what we need?” said Bruce softly.

In the hallway, James Chekov sat on a plastic chair, quiet and still. His dog tags were already old.

Another place, another time.

Bucky opened Sam’s letter without paying attention to the different writing. An hour later, he was still crying silently, face twisted into a scowl, Steve’s words of condolences held crumpled against his heart.

Another place, another time.

 “James.” Natasha was at the door. “I know you wanted to be kept in the loop. I’m here to tell you.” She took a breath. “Steve relapsed yesterday.”

Bucky didn’t say anything. He was curled on his cot, which was the only piece of furniture in the room. He was handcuffed to the wall and his left arm was gone.

Before Natasha could leave, though, a metallic sound made her turn again. Bucky was shivering, and the links chaining him to the wall were clinking against the bedframe.

“Stop,” he rasped. His voice was so raucous it was barely more than a hissing whisper.

“Stop what?” asked Natasha softly from across the room.

Bucky curled a little more on himself and let out into the pillow, “Everything.” He covered his head with his hand. “Let him go.”

Another place, another time.

“Chavez, America.”

“Here.”

Bucky spoke the names without looking up, without reacting to the way the cadets answered him.

“Cho, Amadeus.”

“Yup. Me.”

“Daken, Akihiro.”

“Present.”

 

Another place, another time.

 

Bucky tried to reach for Steve, and Steve reached back all he could, but then the railing broke and Bucky fell away with a scream which echoed in the whistling wind…

 

Another place, another time, but Steve couldn’t see anything through the veil of his tears.

Was he supposed to choose? To pick one of these broken moments and mend it somehow?

Bucky had suffered so much. He’d gone through so much because of Steve, always because of Steve. And the worst part was that Steve couldn’t do anything to save him. He had all of time and space at his fingertips, and it still wasn’t enough to save Bucky the way he wanted to save him. He couldn’t make this right.

You will need your grief. Without his grief, he couldn’t have leafed through time and space as precisely as he did now. It was his love, his regret, his sentiment, that acted as a compass for him to find his way through endlessness. He could do anything he wanted…

Except he couldn’t, could he? He couldn’t reach his own future, and he couldn’t change his own past—because he didn’t have the means to make it inconspicuous like Loki had. Loki could make the rest of the world believe Thor had killed himself, so as to preserve the full impact of this death and keep the timeline untouched.

But Steve could do no such thing; and so he couldn’t change anything to the timeline, because it would keep him from living that very same future that allowed him now to parse his past.

He let the moments fly away. He didn’t want to see any more.

For a minute, he considered just going through one of the dark frames, the ones who led into a starless void. Maybe it was his best choice yet.

Maybe it was his only choice.

He hovered there, thinking, thinking, at the end of his rope.

And then, all of a sudden, he knew what to do.

 

*

 

The window came easily to him, the piece of reality inside softly glowing behind the undulating curtain of light. Steve took a last look around; then he stepped past the transparent veil and away from the nexus—going back into the long and tumultuous line that was his life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

“So what happened after?”

Carol Danvers had been staring at the fields of corn curving above her head; she snapped out of it and looked down at her tiny neighbor.

“What happened after, Kam?”

“Well, yeah!” protested Kamala. “You can’t end the story here. We don’t know what happened to Steve.”

“That’s how it ends. He left the nexus,” said Carol. “He went back to his life.”

“But to what part?” asked Kamala, stamping her foot.

Beta,” called Kamala’s mother over the fence. “Don’t bother Captain Danvers. We need her to drive the ship.”

“It’s my day off, Mrs. Khan,” said Carol with a grin. “She doesn’t bother me.”

The three American interstellar arks, Marvel, Providence and Galactus, had sailed off on June 4th, 2101, under the command of Carol S. Danvers, Nathan C. Summers, and Norrin S. Radd, respectively. They’d glided away from the Earth in smooth silence, carrying inside them gardens and water and earth, and people who held hands and watched their brown and blue planet grow smaller and smaller on the screens.

All arks had been built directly at the orbit, simply because they would have crumpled under their own weight on Earth. Each of them was carrying three hundred thousand people. At the time of their departure, the US population had just fallen under one million. It had been about time they left.

Marvel was made of two cylinders, one inside the other like a spyglass. The passengers lived on the inner walls of the bigger cylinder—it was huge enough that the curve of the ground was meaningless for those living on it. They had recreated towns and roads and gardens there. Everyone had their own small house. The inhabitants could look up and see the outside of the smaller cylinder, hovering less than half a mile away. It was covered in fields—corn and wheat and barley in abundance again. Green leaves and brown earth in lieu of blue skies.

The year was 2103, and they would reach the wormhole in four weeks. Carol hadn’t felt the last two years pass; ever since she’d looked up to find the gravity equation written on Bruce’s black board, everything had moved terribly fast.

“Captain Danvers!”

Carol blinked at Kamala, then smiled. “Sorry, Kam.”

“So what happened to Steve Rogers?”

Carol shifted in her honest-to-god deckchair, squinting up at the light. The outer cylinder was stripped with translucent sections that let the sunlight through for twelve hours, then grew softly opaque for the next twelve.

“What do you think?” she asked.

Kamala hesitated. “Did he… go back to the war to be with all his friends?”

“He probably could have done that,” murmured Carol. “I’m sure it would have been nice. But then he would have had to go around again, and I’m not sure he would have wanted that.”

“Right.” Kamala scrunched her nose. “Did he go back into the Lander, then? Just before it got away from the black hole? He could reach that moment.”

“He probably thought of doing that,” said Carol. “But there was a problem.” She leaned forward. “You see, Gargantua is a supermassive singularity. That means its gravity is really, really strong.”

“I know that.”

“Okay,” said Carol. “So what happens with a lot of gravity?”

“Objects are heavier?”

“Correct!” Carol smiled when Kamala beamed at her. “So the Lander and the two pods were very heavy, right? So were all the people inside. And they were already spinning on themselves.” She plucked Kamala’s gyroscope from the ground and sent it spinning. Kamala stared it, brow furrowed in concentration.

“The passengers were very lucky the whole thing was perfectly balanced.” (Or rather, thought Carol for herself, they were very lucky Banner had been there to calculate the whole thing.) “But what would happen if someone added even more weight out of nowhere?”

She let her bottle of beer fall atop the gyroscope; she’d aimed for the central axis, but the toy still barreled out of balance and smashed into the foot of her chair.

“They would have all fallen into the black hole,” concluded Kamala grimly. She scowled up at Carol. “But then what did he do?”

“The only thing he could,” said Carol quietly. “He went home.”

Staring dumbstruck at the equation on the black board until someone stormed in.

“Carol. CAROL.”

“What—what is it? God—look at the—you’re never gonna believe—”

“Steve Rogers just appeared in the middle of the hallway! Steve FUCKING ROGERS!”

“What?”

Running, steps echoing in her ears, heart hammering.

“Was anyone else with him?”

“No. Fuck, he’s still in his space suit. He’s still wearing his goddamn helmet!”

“Has he said anything?”

“He’s wounded, Carol, he’s got burns all over and he’s bleeding, and—”

People talking, yelling, clamoring, protesting when Carol’s elbows dug into their ribs.

“Alright, now everyone get back! Give him some air! Go on, get back!”

“Jesus, Jesus fuck, his dog tags melted into his chest. Jesus Christ.”

“Was he wearing any dog tags when he left?”

“Just scrape them off, carve them out, there’s no way around—”

Kamala wasn’t satisfied. “What do you mean, he went home? You mean he came back to leave Earth with us?” When Carol nodded, the little girl protested, “He’s aboard the Marvel? But then where is he? We never see him around!”

Carol hesitated; then she said, trying for a smile, “Oh, Kam—I don’t think he wants to talk to people very much.”

 

*

 

Steve Rogers talked to people just fine, actually. He just never said anything. Carol sat with him one day through one of his therapy sessions, with his express permission.

“How are you today, Steve?” asked the therapist encouragingly, half-getting up to shake his hand.

“Fine,” answered Steve.

He did look fine. He was running three hours every day; he had access to the inner cylinder so he could jog in peace, going through the green corn whose leaves brushed his shoulders. The skies for him were houses and schools and people playing baseball. When he was done, he stepped into the elevator whose shaft connected the small and the big cylinder. It took him up and up, away from the fields; then the gravity turned on its head mid-trip, so the elevator was instead bringing him down and down towards the strangely suburbia-like surface of the outer cylinder’s insides. Steve went home, took a shower and dressed himself and ate and slept and shaved in the morning like a regular, well-adjusted human being.

He was anything but.

“How are you?” he asked in turn.

“I’m fine, thank you.” The therapist sat back in his chair. “Carol’s here today. She’d really like to hear about what happened before the black hole.”

Steve’s expression was perfectly blank. “Well, if you don’t mind,” he said politely, “I’d rather not talk about it.”

“It might be a good thing. To share.”

“I understand,” said Steve patiently. “And I’m really sorry for the inconvenience. Can we talk about something else for today?”

“We can talk about your dog tags. They’re Chekov’s, aren’t they?”

“You already know that,” answered Steve in a reasonable voice. “Is there anything else I can help you with?”

 

*

 

One fruitless hour later, Steve took his leave and his therapist turned to Carol with a helpless, wry little gesture. “He’s always like that. Plastic.”

“Plastic?”

“Yes. Smooth, seamless, artificial.” The therapist was drumming on his thigh. “Bartleby style. Can’t be cracked.”

That day, Carol went running with Steve after his therapy session. They rode the bi-gravity elevator in companionable silence, then started jogging across the corn fields. He was faster than her, but not by much; if she pushed herself, she could keep up with him.

Steve’s behavior, she reflected as they ran, was both disarming and weirdly familiar. He’d been a good soldier, filling them in on what had happened in the black hole and admitting that while it hadn’t been confirmed, Chavez’ planet was the safest bet for habitability. But he’d absolutely refused to talk about—anything else.

Carol was certain that she’d seen people act like him before, quite often, in fact; but not for such an extended period of time, and so she couldn’t place the feeling yet.

Steve was wearing a white tank top and she could see the knot of scar tissue between his neck and right shoulder. She knew Chekov’s dog tags had left a permanent mark as well, a rectangular wound carved over his heart. She wondered if his scars would ever heal. Steve was back to peak health, but his body was not perfect anymore. Erskine’s serum might just be beginning to wear out after a century and a half of strenuous use.

“Good run,” she told him as they went back to the elevators.

“Good run,” answered Steve blankly.

Without a doubt, he knew perfectly well how obtuse he was being. It wasn’t even denial; he readily acknowledged something had happened to him, but simply refused to share with the class. This wasn’t unconscious trauma at work, but active, intentional repression.

He wasn’t even closed off. Hell, Chekov had been less communicative than him. Rogers was perfectly functional—but he was also just that. Functional. A surface with nothing beneath.

“Steve,” asked Carol. “What are you waiting for?”

She hadn’t meant to blurt it out like that. But she suddenly remembered why his behavior felt so familiar. She’d done the same thing when her father had crashed his car; she had absolutely refused to panic, hadn’t even made plans to travel across the country to be at his side, and kept on acting normally until the hospital had called her back to tell her he’d make it. Only then had she collapsed into a quivering mess, trembling for hours on end until she found the strength to drag herself under the shower and sob with the force of her relief.

It wasn’t like she hadn’t ever thought of asking Steve directly. He’d come back three whole years ago. But, well, between the building of the arks and the gathering of the survivors, Carol simply hadn’t found the time—or maybe she’d been afraid of the answer.

Because Bruce should have been the one to send back the results; except Steve had been sent back instead, adamantly refusing to talk about what he’d been through and looking like someone—someone, not something—had tried to kill him.

Carol still remembered the night before the Endurance’s take-off—unbeknownst to the others, neither Bruce nor Carol had slept that night. They’d stayed in the empty mess with half-filled cups of synthetic coffee, looking at the sun rise on this exceptionally cloudless day.

“I’m sorry,” he’d told her. “I thought I could solve this, I really did.”

He’d been staring at his cup, looking terribly tired.

“You’re leaving so you can solve it,” she’d reminded him softly.

He’d shaken his head. “I’m a hundred and twenty-eight years old, Carol. It’s not like I lacked time.”

She had wanted to reach out to him. To take his hand, maybe. But it wasn’t that simple. People had been focused on Chekov’s gloominess and they’d all missed the fact that quiet, smiling Professor Banner was more closed-off than James Chekov had ever been. In that moment, though, he looked so forlorn and so small she’d thought maybe—but as if he’d sensed her intention, he’d wrapped both hands around his cup and leaned back into his seat, away from her reach.

And now he was gone.

All that was left was Steve, and he still wouldn’t say anything. He was in that in-between state right now, high-strung like a piano wire, refusing to acknowledge his terrors for fear of having them confirmed. Only it had been three years and he didn’t look like he planned on stopping any time soon.

“What is it?” she asked. “Is the Endurance going to come back? Are you meeting them somewhere?”

Steve’s eyes widened. “I—” he said.

She hadn’t seen him waver ever before. It was like looking at someone on the edge of a cliff.

“I can’t,” he managed.

There was a tremor in his hands and it wasn’t because they’d just ran for two hours. He desperately tried to maintain an air of casualness to his shaking voice. “I really can’t.”

She stared at him for a long, helpless minute.

“Do you want to go into cryo?” she asked.

Steve blinked at her.

“I was just thinking,” she said. “That maybe you’d want that. If it makes it easier.”

He opened his mouth, didn’t speak, and ended up saying nothing at all for a very long time. Just as the silence became unbearable, he finally said:

“No.”

He swallowed audibly. “I mean,” he said, “yes. I suppose it would be easier. But I can’t…” His shoulders were tense. “I can’t lose time anymore.”

 

*

 

“…and fuck, sometimes I wonder if it’s him at all,” said Carol. “He was with Loki. Who knows what happened. What if he’s a prisoner inside his own mind? What if he’s screaming for help but no one can hear?”

“Calm down, crazy,” said Miles. “I like your other theory better.”

Morales was her co-pilot; he’d spent the last four years training at SHIELD, and the only reason he hadn’t been part of the Endurance expedition was because he was too young at the time. He was exceptionally skilled and very good for Carol’s sanity, except when he wasn’t.

They were sitting in her “backyard” again, enjoying the deckchairs and looking at the fields hung over their heads almost half a mile away. Steve was there, clearly visible in his white t-shirt and dust-colored slacks, running between the green lines of corn like a rat in a maze.

“I admire him, you know?” Miles went on. “I was a bit weirded out by his thing with Chekov, but we all were. I mean—” He shook his head. “Freaking Chekov. I never even talked to the guy, but I miss him anyway. And we all miss Banner. But we weren’t up there with them.” He shrugged. “I figure Rogers is entitled to his own way to deal.”

“But he’s not dealing,” said Carol. “That’s the thing.” Steve was holding his breath not to drown. But how much longer could he go on without air?

“He fought in fucking World War II,” said Miles emphatically. “And now he’s here. Of course he’s clamming up. People have gone insane for way less.” He paused. “But at least he’s trying to keep it together. That’s not thanks to therapy. He’s been trying so damn hard from day one. That means he’s still got something to live for. He’s just… like you said.”

Steve kept running endlessly above their heads, upside-down on the earth.

“On stand-by.”

 

*

 

“Attention all ship. This is your Captain speaking. The Marvel station is about to begin the crossing of Saturn’s wormhole. Please remain seated or lying down for the whole process. Strange phenomena may occur, but you will be in no danger.”

Carol hesitated, then added softly,“See you on the other side.”

She exhaled through her nose, looked at Miles in the seat next to her, and smiled at him. Then she drove onward…

 

…into the hole that was not a hole, 

when is a hole not a hole?  When it’s a gate 

into darkness into vastness into the light and into that good

night, her father in the hospital reading that little poetry book another 

patient had forgotten on the nightstand, do not go gentle into that good night,

with a bright smile on his face, isn’t  that beautiful, darling? and now here they were, leaving

 an entire era behind, leaving their home to live on and to forget them, flashes of light and sound

and the whole station quaking and shaking, surreal sounds drawn from twisted metal, and suddenly

a tall, slender man with long dark hair and a slightly wicked smile, waving at her, Godspeed, Captain

and then a brighter light, brighter, brighter, brighter, new stars and dysphoric constellations,

new stars, new skies, there will be no Zodiac and no moon and no Milky Way, there will be a

Gargantuan monster in the heavens instead, we’re gone, oh, we really are gone, and the

Earth behind them gone, the wrinkled brown Earth like an old apple, gone, goodbye,

goodbye and stars, stars, stars, stars, in lines and then in dots and then in

distant pinpricks glittering against the void, the feeling in her chest

painful like tears and burning like joy, wetness

on her cheeks, goodbye, goodbye

 

*

 

“So Chavez’ planet is go?”

“Yes,” confirmed Carol. “The readings just came back. Her beacon’s still emitting.”

“Fuck,” said Miles softly. “Shoulda known America Chavez would be the one to get it done.” He licked his lips. “It’s been a long time, but—do you think she’s still alive?”

“Chavez? I don’t know. I hope so.”

The powerful readings of the Marvel station had been excruciatingly clear: Quill’s planet was a ball of water and Daken’s a ball of ice. They must both be dead. Chavez’ planet was a dry, rough world, but the air was breathable, the temperatures were bearable, and they needed nothing more for the terraformation to take.

“How long has she been there?” asked Miles.

“The time distortion ratio is relatively weak for her planet,” said Carol. “When the planet is beyond the event horizon, it’s like… nine of our years for one of its months? But the regular part of her orbit lasts fifteen years, and right now the planet is just beginning to enter the zone.”

The Twelve had left the Earth in 2091 and passed through the wormhole in 2093. Ten years ago. Since Chavez’ planet was only beginning now to desync its timeline… 

“What you’re saying is, she’s been there all ten years,” said Miles.

There was a silence.

“We’re gonna send down a hundred people first,” murmured Carol. “Set up the essentials.”

“Is Rogers coming?”

Carol said nothing for a second. “I’ll ask him.”

 

*

 

Steve Rogers hadn’t forgotten any of his training. He performed dutifully every single safety check, slotted his helmet into place without a hitch and buckled himself into his seat with ease. The MARVEL-01 took off and spiraled down from orbit like a linden seed.

The nameless planet was a flat, rocky wasteland, glaring a dazzling ivory under the not-quite-blue sky. There wasn’t a cloud above. When Carol took off her helmet, the air was hot and dry and smelled like grilled almonds.

They walked to America Chavez’ camp and found her sitting on a rock, eating lunch.

Her hair, which had been cropped the day she’d left, had grown into a wild mane of luxurious curls. There was something savage and hard in her gaze, and she was Carol’s age now.

"Took you long enough,” she said dryly.

She got up and walked to them like a jungle cat, all confident stride and unimpressed gaze. But when she wrapped Carol in her arms, she almost broke her ribs clutching at her.

While they laughed and cried and all tried to clap America’s back, Steve stayed on the side, only giving a Carol an absent glance when she looked at him.

There was no one else on the planet.

 

*

 

They wanted to name the planet after her first explorer, but said explorer shook her long hair and declared she’d sabotage the terraformation herself if they named her world America. She looked at their ship and said, “How about Marvel?”

 

*

 

The interstellar arks would stay in orbit while the planet was made habitable for the ten million people or so who’d travelled from the Earth. There was an ecosystem to understand before cities could be built; the pioneers were intent on not repeating their earthly errors. They wouldn’t be trapped in another cycle.

Steve’s lips twisted a bit ruefully when Carol told him so, but he accepted when she asked him if he would be in charge of handling the terraformation process. Said that he had some experience looking after the earth, having been a farmer for so long.

He actually got into it pretty quickly. He never looked overly interested by his work, as though he always had his mind focused on something else; and yet he was nearly always working, as though he desperately needed something else to focus on. He was still walking that edge and Carol had learned not to ask anymore.

Marvel was just entering the time distortion zone of its orbit. It made no difference to anyone, now; the arks were all within the orbit and time took them all in its stride. At night, Gargantua shone bright in the dark, shockingly close and clear where the Milky Way had been but a faint trail of silver. Only when the black hole set beneath the horizon could the stars be seen.

It would be several years, maybe even a decade, before they could afford to start changing the ecosystem in a way they could fully understand and control. Thankfully, there seemed to be no life to disturb on the planet; but the planet had intricate workings all in itself.

A few days in people felt lighter; and it took them a week to realize they actually were lighter—the enormous gravity of Gargantua was affecting them, enough to affect Marvel’s gravity itself. A few weeks in, people could throw small objects ridiculously far and leap over ridiculously long distances. Someone fell from a great height and didn’t get hurt. Everyone was tremendously excited at the thought of maybe, actually being able to float at their closest point to the black hole.

After that, people realized just how unpredictable a new world could be; and it was decided that absolutely no colonization would be started until the planet completed a least one whole revolution around M-616. For the next fifteen years, Marvel would remain empty apart from a thousand pioneers and terraformers, the rest of the population watching them from the orbiting arks.

Steve was the only one not wondering at his new-found lightness like a child. When Carol explained to him that they were lighter thanks to Gargantua’s pull trying to draw them in, he acknowledged it and went on his way. Carol almost said something to him, but Miles persuaded her to give it a rest.

She still took Steve stargazing under the guise to help her find new constellations. For the first time since he’d come back, Steve showed a sliver of interest in something other than his own thoughts. He watched the stars for a long while in silence, then traced a human shape in the void and said, the Soldier.

 

*

 

“Carol,” Steve asked her very quietly one day. “What year do you think it is?”

Carol was so stunned that he would actually speak without being prompted that she almost didn’t answer the question. “What year? Still 2104, Steve.”

“No, I mean,” he said, voice even lower, “what year do you think it actually is. Out there.”

“Oh.” She ran a brief conversion in her head. “We’ve been in the zone a little more than five months. It must be something like 2150 or 2151.”

Steve nodded and said nothing.

 

*

 

“Carol? Carol.” Miles was shaking her. “Wake up. Aliens.”

She blinked and stirred half-awake. “What?”

“Fucking aliens, Carol!”

 

*

 

“…anyone know where that thing is coming from? What is it?”

“It’s too small to be coming from the American stations…”

“Have you called T’Challa? The African arks have small pods, maybe…”

“…says it’s not him…”

“Is it a meteor?”

“I don’t think a meteor would have boosters… Oh, shit—oh, shit—”

“Oh, it’s going up into flames—it’s going too fast, they’re gonna crash—the way they’re coming in—”

“In the dunes, and with the lighter gravity, maybe that can break their fall enough for—”

“Let’s fucking go, people, all aboard the Marvel-01, let’s go!”

 

*

 

The crash made the red sand blow up in such an almighty geyser they saw it from two miles away.

Coming closer, there were pieces of steel everywhere, embedded in the sand and burning with white flames under the cloudless sky. Carol saw the shell of the ship, saw the name on the side, and understood, then.

The blackened remains of the mangled arm fell off when they moved what was left of Sergeant James Chekov onto the gurney.

 

*

 

“It’s no use,” said the medic. “He’s already gone.”

The long wail of the heart monitor sounded like a funeral lament.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carol knocked softly on the door.

“Steve?”

He looked up from the holographic diagrams he was working on.

“Steve, there’s something I need to tell you.”

 

*

 

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lighting they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

 

“Fuck,” repeated Miles, wiping his tears with his palms and breathing out. “I barely knew him.”

“He was a good man,” said Carol, staring ahead.

Those words might have sounded hollow on Earth, but here, on this new world, they’d never been spoken before. “He was a good man.”

 

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.

 

“Do you think he would have liked it?” asked Miles. “The poem?”

“He liked it,” murmured Carol. “Very much. It makes for a good eulogy.”

 

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

And you, my father, there on the sad height

Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

Steve spoke the last line in a soft undertone; then he put the poem down, stepped down from their makeshift platform, and turned away.

No one in the small crowd tried to stop him.

 

*

 

“I never thought I’d bury him,” said Carol softly. “All these years of him not aging. I thought he’d be here forever.”

She looked out the window at the strange blue of the alien sky.

It had been two days since the burial; she felt like time had stopped, like every day would be the same forever and ever. To know that they had a whole new planet to explore wasn’t enough to help yet. Right now, it only reminded her of all the things they wouldn’t get to share.

“It’s so unfair,” she murmured. “I wish he could have seen this.”

“He did,” answered a faint, hoarse rasp.

She almost didn’t register it. Then she looked up.

“James?”

He was as still and pale as before, but his lips were parted.

“We saw it,” repeated Chekov under his breath. “The sky. Your arks.”

He slowly opened his bleary, sunken eyes. He’d turned his head towards the window and was looking outside. The sky, she realized, was the exact same color as his irises, a clear slate-gray.

He was all sharp angles and hard lines, enough to cut the space he breathed in. Without his metal arm, he looked broken. Like a toy finally taken apart after too much abuse.

He glanced at Carol. “I’m alive, then?”

“Yes,” she said, trying to control her voice. “Yes, James. You’re alive. You’re home.”

Chekov stared at her, then out the window again.

The Hulk had curled around Chekov, taking the worst of the impact into his flesh and bones, and protecting him from the fiery heat of their abrupt re-entry. The huge corpse had been impossible to revive. It was burnt to a cinder, and when they tried to move it, it had partially crumbled to ashes.

The impact had still been enough to put the sergeant in a coma for three days. But his stubborn body had brought him back among the living yet again.

“Do you remember what happened?”

Chekov sneered. “S’been a long time since I was last allowed to forget.” He glanced at her again and rasped, “Banner?”

She shook her head, without a word.

Chekov’s vacant eyes drifted to the ceiling. “Good. He needed the rest.”

Carol was so shocked she found nothing to say. Chekov looked at her again after a while, then closed his eyes. “Living for too long, Danvers.” He licked his cracked lips and swallowed, throat working up and down. “You don’t know what it’s like.”

“He didn’t want to die,” she murmured.

Chekov didn’t reopen his eyes. “That something you know?” he said in a wry undertone.

Carol said nothing, swallowing wetly.

Chekov sighed a little. “Maybe he let go, and maybe he was pushed,” he conceded. “Either way, it’s good to know this fucking serum isn’t infallible.”

There was a silence. He scoffed a little, without opening his eyes. “I can feel the way you’re looking at me. Don’t worry.” His voice was bitter and terribly tired. “I promised Steve I’d stay alive whatever happened.”

Carol stared at him.

And she began to understand, then. She couldn’t see the whole picture yet, but she understood who Steve had been waiting for all those years, and she understood it hadn’t been years at all for James Chekov.

“I hope you named the goddamn planet after him,” said Chekov. “Least you could do.”

“James,” began Carol.

“Don’t call me that,” he said. “Don’t call me—”

“Bucky,” said another voice.

Chekov’s eyes snatched open. He looked around with a haggard gaze and zeroed on Steve hovering by the door.

He’d been sleeping in the hallway for the three days of James’ coma. His hair was mussed, there were dark rings under his eyes, and he looked downright awful, shaking, hands unsteady, years of holding back finally taking their toll.

“You’re awake,” he murmured.

A look of pure terror spread on James’ face.

“No,” he mumbled. He screwed his eyes shut with a scowl, breathing fast, whispering to himself, “No, you’re not here. You’re not here.”

Steve looked like he was going to die.

Carol got up and grabbed his hand. “Sit down. Sit down,” she repeated, tugging him into the chair before he could collapse. Then she crouched next to the bed and grabbed James’ arm.

“James? Look at me. I’m here.”

He shook his head violently. “I know you’re here,” he said, teeth gritted. “I can’t—”

“How,” she said, talking over him, “am I here?”

He cracked his eyes open again and stared at her, shuddering violently when Steve pleaded, “Bucky—”

“Shut up,” hissed Carol. “James. Focus. How am I here? This is another planet. I’m alive. How did I get here?”

He licked his lips. “You, uh,” he said, quivering. “You solved the equation.”

“No I didn’t. It was unsolvable. You know it was. Banner couldn’t do it, nobody could. It was sent to me. Steve sent it to me.” She gripped his arm when he tried to draw back. “You saw the arks. We’re here. We’re all here. We made it. Steve sent me the equation.”

James shook his head again, eyes wide. “Steve’s dead.”

“How?”

“The black hole.” Tears started rolling down his cheeks. “He fell into the black hole.”

“Yes. And from there, he sent me the equation. Look at me. I’m here. He sent us the equation.”

James blinked at her, cut short on the brink of shattering. He swallowed, trembling so hard he rattled the bed. “You can’t send anything from a black hole.”

“Exactly,” said Carol. “Exactly. Yet Steve sent out the equation.”

James stared at her for an excruciating minute. Carol could almost see his scrambled brain trying to make sense of it all. He didn’t want to believe Steve was alive, couldn’t believe it, but there was Carol and a nanocanvas hospital and orbital arks and an entire planet to say otherwise, and so maybe—maybe—

James looked up at Steve.

Steve looked back, eyes wide and haunted, pale as a sheet.

“Steve?” asked James in a small voice.

“Bucky.” Steve slid off the chair to kneel by the bed. “Bucky.” He grabbed James’ hand and turned his face into it, pressing kisses into the palm. “Bucky.”

James—Bucky?—was staring at him with wide, horrified eyes. “How long,” he whispered, “how long has it been?”

“Three days,” Steve mumbled into his palm, “three days, they said you’d wake up—”

“How long has it been for you,” said James, tears rolling down again.

Steve closed his eyes and breathed into his palm for another second. Then he admitted quietly, “Four years.”

James let out a small sound of pain.

Steve looked up at him. “It’s okay,” he said, incredibly soft. He was crying, but for the first time in those four years, he was smiling, too. “It’s okay.” He closed his eyes again and turned his face back into James’ palm. “I owed you a bit of waiting.”

 

*

 

It was a long road home.

Carol was not prepared the first time it happened, when James was wheeled into surgery—his prosthetic had been messily destroyed in the crash, and he needed to get rid of the mangled pieces still attached at the shoulder. But as soon as they took a turn in the hallway, he ripped out his IV frantically trying to crawl out of bed to go back to Steve—Steve himself almost killing a well-intentioned paramedic who tried to keep him away from the operation room.

The surgery was postponed and Steve was allowed to stay in the room when it happened, firmly holding James’ good hand.

A week later, James was cleared to move into the barracks with him. They were given separate rooms up until Carol realized they were living together in Steve’s room, tucking their large frames in the small one-person bed, leaving James’ cold and empty. Carol had them moved into a duplex; it was a luxury very few could afford among the settlers and usually reserved for married couples, but no one on this earth would have dared to imply Steve Rogers and James Chekov weren’t deserving of it.

She quickly realized the hospital incident hadn’t been a one-time thing. Steve and James were just physically unable to leave the other’s side, coming down with full-blown panic attacks if they lost sight of each other. Every time she saw them, Carol noticed they were always maintaining some sort of physical contact, holding hands, nudging knees, pressing close, sitting side by side on the floor rather than into separate chairs.

Which was why she was so surprised to see Steve wander on his own between the nanocanvas buildings, ten days after the Endurance’s return.

It was early in the morning, M-616 just rising above the horizon.

“Steve?”

He turned to her, and the look on his face scared her to death—as haggard and lost as he’d been when James had thought he was having visions. She tried to quell her own panic.

“Steve,” she said firmly. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” said Steve in a strange voice.

“Where’s James?”

Steve stared at her for a full ten seconds.

Then he turned round and took off running back to the duplex.

Carol ran after him; she was already expecting the worst and was confused when she stopped at the door, breathless, to find them both safe and sound and locked in a tight embrace. But when she heard Steve whispering endless apologies, and when she saw how badly James was trembling, she understood. Steve had woken up and thought James wasn’t real.

It went on like this for a few painful weeks, Steve and James pathologically unable to leave each other—right until one of them became convinced the other was a hallucination. For all the helplessness she felt, Carol saw the logic in it. Steve had spent four years waiting for James without knowing for sure he’d ever return; James had seen him fly straight into a black hole and been persuaded he’d been vaporized. Carol didn’t know what toll the shock had taken on James’ sanity, and didn’t know either how Steve had managed to keep it together for so long. She wondered to what ghosts they’d both talked—through what hells they’d both been—that they couldn’t believe now in what they’d been given back.

It took her intervention to bring them back to reality, every time—hours of pleading and negotiating on the worst days; and every time, when her reasoning won out, they dissolved into frantic apologies, promising they’d remember, only to repeat the same pattern a few days later.

 

*

 

It was on a good day, on a rare day when Steve and James both managed to believe in their happiness long enough to enjoy it, that Carol walked in on them shaving each other’s heads. It was a peaceful scene, the both of them sitting in their bare room amidst the clear alien light, but her first instinctive reaction was dread.

Steve saw her frozen up on the doorstep and smiled at her.

“Hey, Carol,” he said, as James ran the electrical razor over the side of his head. “We’ve decided to copy your hairstyle.”

When she blinked at them, he explained, “I can’t wear piercings or tattoos, and neither can Bucky. And mutilating ourselves seemed a bit excessive.”

Carol glanced between them both, her initial fear dissolving into understanding. “It’s a reminder?”

“It’s proof,” said James softly as he finished his work.

He put down the razor to brush the buzzcut with his one hand, smiling at the feel of it underneath his fingers. “We’ve done a lot of things, but neither of us ever cut his hair this way.”

Steve ran his fingers over the shaved side of James’ head, then tangled them into his long hair on the other side.

“We’ll see if it works,” he murmured fondly.

“Suits ya, punk,” said James before dropping a kiss on his lips.

 

*

 

It didn’t work—not in the sense that it solved it all.

But it did help them untangle the present from the past. Every time they became overwhelmed with the thought that none of this could be real, it helped to ground them. It became sort of a ritual for them, to shave the side of each other’s head every morning. The unusual color of the sky helped, too, and the pale yellow nanocanvas buildings, and the hot grilled almond smell in the air. Everything that was alien helped; after so much time spent living in the past, they couldn’t get enough proof that they’d made it to the other side.

They also found a grimmer relief in each other’s scars. Carol saw them on a particularly hot day, sitting together on their front porch. They were bare-chested, James running his fingers over the rectangular wounds carved into Steve’s chest, Steve brushing the casing of James’ missing prosthetic—more proof of the here and now. They were leaning into each other, eyes closed, as if breathing each other in. Carol had to look away.

Later, they took to writing on each other’s skin, Steve drawing elaborate doodles on James’ forearm and James writing down private jokes, little messages and blatant innuendoes on Steve’s biceps. They didn’t sleep well at night—their duplex was right next to Carol’s room in the barracks, and she could hear them getting up, talking in droning voices she couldn’t understand through the nanocanvas. They caught up on their sleep during the day, curled up together under Marvel’s warm sun.

Steve had been relieved from his terraforming duties. Carol said any job would be theirs to take if the idleness became unbearable, but for the time being, they seemed happy to rest. She was beginning to suspect they’d never, ever taken the time to let themselves be—even less so with each other.

Steve’s former therapist had been given special permission to come down from the orbiting arks, and met with him and James every other week. They’d refused to see him more often, even though Steve still couldn’t let James out of his sight without panicking and James wasn’t much better on that front. They also remained utterly touch-starved for each other, pressing full-body against the other whenever they could, and otherwise lacing fingers. On the rare occasions where they had to stand apart, they were both obviously fidgety and on edge until they could touch each other again, holding hands with some sort of hurried relief, thumbs rubbing over scraped knuckles.

They weren’t overly committed to solving that particular problem, and maybe they never would. Steve said they simply didn’t see any point to it. James said they were too old to hope to be remade anew. A few well-meaning souls wondered if this was all very healthy, if they shouldn’t be forced to interact with more people, but they got told in no uncertain terms to fuck off and leave them alone. After nearly two hundred years of fighting for others, Sergeant Barnes and Captain Rogers were finally allowing themselves a well-deserved bout of utter selfishness.

Walking together, holding hands and leaning close into each other with their painted arms and half-shaven heads, they should have looked like two teenagers in love; yet they looked their age—ancient, world-weary and only really interested in each other, just like old age at close of day.

Carol thought maybe, for her own sake, she should try to accept that. It was already a miracle, that so much should be left of them.

 

*

 

The first hard, durable structure erected on Marvel, amidst the nanocanvas buildings, was a memorial they carved into the red rock of the ground. On it were engraved the sixteen names of the explorers who’d guided humanity to its new home.

The stone was engraved under the supervision of the three survivors, Steve, James and America. James pursed his lips at the engraving of Daken Akihiro’s name, but said nothing. He also stared darkly at the four letters of Loki’s name, but said nothing either. The only thing he said was that he wished to be marked down as James Buchanan Barnes.

(Carol understood another piece of their story then, even if that one left her reeling, but it wouldn’t be another few years before she fully got the measure of what they’d been through.)

Steve talked a little to Loki sometimes, saying he hoped he’d found his way. But most of the time, it was to Bruce they all talked, telling him about the color of the sky, about how odd their returning weight felt now that they were moving away from the black hole, about how they could never thank him enough, and how much they missed him. Carol knew they all wondered whether or not Bruce had planned his own death, and to what extent. But that was something they could never know; they could only murmur their regrets and try to make their peace.

Whenever she went there alone, Carol thanked Bruce some more, and promised him she’d take care of what he’d left behind. She told him about Steve and James and of what they’d carried through the ages. She told him that the air never smelled of iron anymore.

And always, before leaving—she wished him a good night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The electrical buzz of the razor stopped.

“Steve.”

Steve opened his eyes and looked up. “Yeah, Buck?”

Bucky’s fingers were light on his scalp, his weight warm at Steve’s back. He plucked something from the unshaven side of his head and leaned against his shoulder to hold it before his eyes.

Steve frowned at it, inching back; when he saw what it was, he blinked, then met Bucky’s equally stunned eyes.

“Wow,” he said, softly, almost reverently.

It was a white hair.