There is a strange kind of consistency to things, Steve thinks: he has one of the same problems out here that he had on earth. Indicator lights. Nothing ever turns off. Not completely. In the sea of darkness that is space there's no real darkness to be had. No corner where he can lie with his eyes open and see nothing, nothingness: nowhere that the constant, humming, electronic presence goes away completely. Everything has indicator lights built into it: running lights and radiating plasma tubing and little tiny blue bulbs blinking in twenty-second intervals during the charging cycle; yellow power strips that flash red when there's a signal interruption, when somebody's kicked the cable halfway to loose by accident, again.
"I swear to God," Quill says, from somewhere behind a stack of monitoring equipment with cracked screens, "you do it on purpose."
"I do not." The big guy—Drax, his name is like old-fashioned laundry detergent, scouring powder, get your drains sparkling with Drax—is scowling, drumming his enormous boots against the side of his seat. The screws are coming loose as he rocks. "Your untruths offend me."
"Wah, wah, wah," says the raccoon.
The raccoon is teaching Steve how to re-wire the communicators for longer signal range; they bought a bunch of cheap ones at a mining station and took them to pieces instead of getting expensive ones that would have done the same job minus the work. It's one of the most reassuring and normal things that's happened in recent memory. Quill complained about the task and threw the parts on the floor and the tree kept putting the ends of the wires in his mouth. The raccoon kicked them out hours ago, and now it's just him and Steve sitting on overturned crates with soldering kits and little parts of casings. Steve's good at this kind of work, which surprises him less than it surprised the raccoon: he used to have to carefully hand-ink pages of cartoons and headers and re-set type on the letterpress for the Flatbush Avenue socialists. He used to take in his own clothes, too, keeping the pins between his lips, tasting their cheap metal on the tip of his tongue. Nobody expected him to have hand skills, after the serum: they put big fat grips on everything they specifically expected him to hold, like he was made out of irradiated ham.
They hadn't even bothered putting one of those delicate, useless, fidgety toys on his desk in the old Triskelion, like the ones other people got: the perpetual motion machines where the balls clicked together, the little spinning gyroscopes that at least reminded you for a second that there were things other than email. Even Natasha had one of those sitting in the designated office she refused to inhabit. Maybe it had been an ironic gesture. But those offices don't exist anymore, and the ones they had at the compound had been more like unused sitting rooms, and now neither of them have offices or desks or permanent addresses at all, because they're fighting a war in space, and it's not going particularly well.
"Are you guys almost done?" Gamora says. "Peter wants to get down there and out again before sunrise." She's leaning in the doorway with her arms crossed, looking bored, even though she hadn't put much boredom into her voice. She often looks bored, but Steve realized right after they met that it's a defense mechanism. She is, in reality, almost always curious about things. Especially when it comes to other people; other people's feelings. He understands from Quill that she didn't have much of a childhood.
"You can't rush an artist," the raccoon says.
"I'll keep that in mind if I ever meet one," she says, and smirks, and Steve has a wild impulse that he hasn't had in years, Steve almost looks up and says, I am, I'm one of those, I used to be, but he doesn't, and after a second she leaves.
They don't find what they're looking for on Mitos. The temple's already been ransacked and there's no trace of the godhammer shard; whatever Thor and Valkyrie were hoping, apparently it's not going to be that easy. Steve registers a coded message once they get back to the ship, but he doesn't expect to hear anything right away. Thor's a solid guy but he's not great at staying in the vicinity of connective technologies. Steve thinks about that for a second and sends another message to Sam. If Tony's rig is working right, they'll get it in a few days. There might not be anything they can do at the moment from that far away, but Sam will appreciate the information, and he'll know the right people to share it with. Steve hasn't been back on earth in more than a year, and the video transmitter got shredded in their last brush with scout ships. He misses seeing Sam's face, hearing his laugh without the tinny speakers distorting it. He misses catching Natasha putting the tip of her braid in her mouth when she's thinking. He has to assume they're all holding things together on their end, figuring it out. If he doesn't tell himself that, he'll go crazy.
He misses other things but he's lived without them so long they're phantom feelings, hovering around but out of reach. They're the same deadened sense-memories he woke empty with; so dully familiar and constant that they barely sting anymore, except when he prods at them. He's tried very hard to stop doing that. It wasn't getting him anywhere. Mostly they ache inside him, like tired muscles; like pieces of himself, instead of something he took and was too greedy to ever give back.
"Cheer up," the raccoon says. "Look at that." Rocket, his name is Rocket; Steve has to stop thinking of him the other way, but it was hard at first, looking at him and hearing the voice that came out of that body. Steve's watched a lot of Disney cartoons. Rocket has little surgical scars littering the back of his nape, under his fur, which grows wrong in a few places; tiny plugs and other remnants. Steve's seen them, just above his collar. Evidence of a process Steve can barely think about, because it brings up too much. Anyway, Steve likes him. He ought to be using his name. Rocket leans across their seats to slug him in the shoulder and points to the radar screen mounted on the ceiling. "We've got company. Mercenaries. Cheap ones. Over-under on these idiots lasting ten minutes?"
"Under," says Steve, flatly.
"I'll take that," Quill says. "They look like jerkoffs."
"I am Groot," says the tree, which is all the tree ever says.
They last four.
Sometimes when Steve can't sleep he sits up in the cockpit all through the night cycle and stares out at the expanse beyond the glass, trying not to think. But he does think, and the thoughts he has aren't ones he is especially proud of. It's hard not to think about time, wasted time, when confronted with a landscape that is essentially timeless. It's hard not to think about sitting in his apartment doing exactly this: waiting for the day to start over, for the sun to come up and his neighbors to start leaving for work, to get back to pretending that he has a purpose, a job. A goal that wasn't handed to him by someone else. It was years that he sleepwalked through: years. It's hard to imagine what kind of difference it would have made, knowing earlier—finding him earlier, doing anything to stop a second of what had happened to him, been happening to him for two-thirds of a century. And not just him. Certain things soured while Steve was gone, which was one thing; but then they'd kept souring while he was busy gazing down at his navel wondering where he fit. It's hard not to feel the loss of that time, in the context of all the other lost time. There were so many forks in so many roads, and still Steve can't stop turning down the one that takes him back, over and over, to the same moment: to the moment when something slips out of his grasp, away, into the empty air.
He'd talked to a therapist about it a couple of times, before the compound in Wakanda had been attacked and they'd all had to go fight what turned out to be aliens, again. She'd asked him if he felt responsible for his losses. If he thought he was at fault for the partings he experienced. He hadn't had an answer for her, not right away. And then she'd asked if he thought other people were different: if their losses just happened, if they were allowed to be innocent, blameless, human; or if he believed that everybody who lost something was at fault for it. He'd thought immediately of T'Challa, of Wanda, of the arm in the snowbank, and he'd felt sick.
"It's not their fault," he'd said. "It just happens. Life just—it happens."
"And what about you?" she'd asked. "Is it your fault?"
"No," he'd said. It had been a feint, a play for time: he'd said it without meaning it, because he knew he should. But it had felt better to say it, somehow. That had surprised him. And then he'd sometimes practiced thinking it, when nobody was around. He could think it's not my faultwithout feeling much of anything, or nothing overwhelmingly negative. If it didn't feel true, that was alright: at least it had no longer felt like lying. But this time he is the one who let go, who went out into the nothing and remained there, away. This time it is, absolutely, his fault. Mostly, it's fine. It isn't any better, or any worse, than staying would have been. He doesn't think so. He's not sure. He doesn't know what he expected, if he expected anything at all. If he was looking forward to silence in space; looking forward to distance, absence, relief, well: the joke is on him. It's repeated in every piece of equipment, every tank and canister he looks at, every silent humming obelisk of infrastructure in every lonely spaceport; everything he sees and everywhere he goes reminds him of the one thing he could not bear looking at, the eclipse rendering blind all his desires; the void occulting the long solitary stretch of his life that still stands out naked and empty in front of him. The thing he wanted so much to escape is everywhere around him, unavoidable. Remote and unreachable and omnipresent.
It's unfair to be angry with him for this; it's obscene. Steve would have given him anything he needed, even this. Even nothing.
They promised they'd keep him safe, if it came to that: they'd promised Steve, and Steve believed them. They would undoubtedly do a better job than he had. It had been hard to leave earth, to leave them all behind. At first everything had felt like leaving atmosphere, being hammered into the back of his seat with the weight of all creation pressing into his chest, and then afterwards it had felt like the floating part that came next, like being untethered, adrift; like being robbed of his body, and all the responsibilities that came with it. He hadn't realized until it was happening what a relief it was, to weigh nothing. To have the ground stop demanding anything of you, from you.
But that was a trick, too, or it turned out to be: after all, there is nowhere in the universe he can run to be rid of himself.
Thanos is hunting them; by now he knows they have the stone that used to be on Xandar. His spies were in the vaults months ago, and when they didn't turn anything up, there was a pretty short list of possibilities. It's why they can't stay inside the charted belts, why they can't land anywhere for more than a day or two, why their flight patterns have them criss-crossing vast tracts of uninhabited space in unbelievably maddening patterns, burning fuel like there's no tomorrow. There might not be, if they don't stay out of reach. Steve didn't realize he was going into space to hide a stone: he thought he was going to destroy them all, that they'd find the broken godhammer of myth and restore it and shatter the stones one by one until none were left, and then the war would have to end. Maybe. Maybe that's what he thought. It's certainly what he told everybody when he left. Tony wanted to go instead—and he did get as far as Xandar, before the war threatened to spill over to earth and he'd gone back to stop it from happening—but part of Steve had believed it ought to be him, needed to be him. There wasn't much he could do on earth at the time. It wasn't a war of soldiers, but of ships and portals. Tony and Shuri and Carol and Strange were all better-suited to that. And besides, he was still technically a fugitive: there was no question of him being able to lead anybody, inspire anything. It was probably a relief for some of them when he'd chosen to leave with Thor and go into the outer reaches, even though nobody would have been unkind enough to say it.
Steve doesn't like running but the scale of it dwarfs him sometimes, shrinks his soul: if they lose the stone to Thanos whole worlds will die. In the face of that Steve has no pride left to chafe at. It makes him feel caged. Caught. Wound up in webbing, in string.
"Gin," Rocket says, and puts his cards down onto the crate. They're all kings and a run of diamonds. "Read it and weep, suckers."
"Read what?" Drax says. He looks at Rocket's hand for a long moment, and then his own for an even longer one. "This game is so boring to lose at." He throws his cards over his shoulder and they scatter like confetti.
"Come on," Quill groans. "Just, come on, man, they go right down the grates," he says, and while they argue Rocket scoops up the protein bars they gamble with and shoves them into the front pocket of his jumpsuit.
"Pleasure doing business with you saps," he says. He looks at Steve and pulls one of the bars back out, slides it across the crate. "Dealer always gets a tip." Steve raises an eyebrow. "What?"
"It's not exactly Fremont Street," says Steve.
"Yeah," Rocket says, "well, I got no clue where that is, so take your bar and shut up." Steve picks it up and reads off the label.
"Nut-flavored synthchow," he says. "A real delicacy." They crack up for a second at how terrible everything is. "What the hell tastes like a nut but isn't actually a nut?" Steve says. "Do I even want to know?"
"No," says Rocket, grimly.
"Please tell me it's not people," Steve says. They showed him that movie at some point, years back, probably expecting him to laugh at the absurdity of it. But he was alive during the Depression, he's tasted a lot of things he probably shouldn't have. And the modern world isn't any less cruel. "Are human beings nut-flavored?" Steve wonders aloud. It comes out before he can reel it back in. There's something about being up here, with these people, and these not-people, that makes strange things come out of his mouth lately. He doesn't feel especially inhibited about talking to a giant raccoon anymore.
"Wow," Rocket says. "You are a real weirdo."
"Thanks," says Steve.
The joking feels good at first and sours later, for no reason that Steve can make sense of. It's true: he is a weirdo, in any sense of the term. It takes Steve a long time to realize that it's not the words that rubbed him the wrong way. He's been to war. Jesus, the things that Jim and Dugan used to call each other. But it makes Steve chew on the inside of his cheek all week, or longer. He can't tell; a week doesn't mean very much out here. Finally he realizes what it is: he turns over the grain enough, oyster-like, until it forms something more familiar. It was the easiness in Rocket's voice: the knowing. Steve's just not used to being known. He'd forgotten, a little bit, what it was like: the bittersweet, papercut sensation of hearing some small truth about yourself. Sam and Nat used to share that with him, used to let him give it in return. And, well. Him. Always. It's just been so long since there was room for those moments in their lives. So long since there was room for anything but fighting, but survival. Steve lies on his back in his narrow bunk and stares up at the underside of the alcove, barely three feet above his head. It's flat but seamed with panels, and through the joins in them there's a faint glow of the plasma conduits in the walls. The whole ship is like that: alive with light, as if light were the blood in its veins. It still bothers him when he's not tired enough to sleep, but he's starting to get used to it. Starting to appreciate that the thing he lives inside is almost as much of an organism as he is. Strange, but also strangely reassuring.
Sometimes when he lies in the dark here, cocooned in his bunk, he wonders what it's like in the tube. If it's quiet. He hopes it's restful. Peaceful. Soft, like the sleep of late morning, with sun coming in from around the drapes. Steve wonders if the translucent panel that covers and shields and contains him also lets in light. If behind his closed eyelids, he can still see something, the way that Steve can when he shuts his own eyes here, now. If he is seeing a kind of permanent sunrise; a long dream of a slow dawn.
"Right over her head," Sam's fuzzy voice says, from inside the headphones Steve is wearing to listen to his latest transmission. They take about three days to go back and forth; sometimes longer, depending on how far out they're sitting. Tony's relays are incredible, but they compress the hell out of the audio files. Sam sounds like he's talking through a microphone made out of sweatshirts. "Just picked it right up and tossed it over her head. I'm not sure if I was turned on or terrified," Sam says, and laughs. "Probably both. Carol's just—a lot. She's a lot. We're taking it slow." He breaks up for a second and Steve fiddles with the receiver, then gives up and smacks the side of the unit the way Quill does. It breaks back into clarity. "I checked in on your boy for you," Sam says, in a more cautious tone. Steve braces himself. "He's good. Doing fine. I still think you ought to talk to," Sam continues, but Steve cuts it off there, presses the forward button until it's zipping through the file. He lets go and Sam's voice strains back into the headphones, saying "but it's not my business to tell you, remember that I told you that."
If it feels like the coward's way out, Steve thinks, that's only because it is.
"I don't see what other choice we have," Steve says. "I vote we go." Quill leans his head back in his seat to stare blankly at the ceiling.
"That is," Quill says, "a huge surprise."
"We're in the same sector. It would take less than two days to get there." Steve jabs at the holographic display and Penta Danor expands into view, glowing blue and rotating slowly. The temple complex zooms up, a loose graph of roads and long-abandoned buildings, broken apart when the continent sheared away. Steve doesn't want to linger on what exactly caused all that destruction; he thinks he already knows. "Thor's message was clear. The shard is there."
"I don't know if you realize this," Quill says, "but your friend? The big guy? Says a lot of shit that turns out to be from a dream he had."
"I don't pretend to understand," Steve says. "But it's a lead."
"If he thinks it's such a hot ticket, why doesn't he go get it?" Rocket says. He's perched on the edge of the holo-table, cleaning his claws with a Swiss Army knife he won off Steve in poker. "Huh?" Steve resists the urge to shout at the top of his lungs.
"Because he's fighting Thanos on three fronts already," he says instead, "Asgard is in total chaos. It's up to us. There's nobody else."
"There's my sister," Gamora says. "She's closer than we are."
"Oh, yeah," Quill says. "That went super great last time." Gamora's eyes narrow. "I wasn't being sarcastic! It went really well. She only killed, like... forty people."
"Pfft," says Rocket.
"Between her and Kraglin there's three ships waiting. Close to a hundred Ravagers," Gamora says. "They can handle it."
"And we do what?" Steve snaps. "Wait? Run?"
"Live," Gamora says. "We live to fight another day."
"Yeah," Steve says. "Okay. Well, you tell me when that day comes," he says, and walks out. But there's nowhere to go, really. He goes to his room and sits on the edge of his bunk with his head in his hands, feeling the gentle thrum of the idling engine all around him, through the floor and the walls. It's suddenly maddening, inescapable. He grinds the heels of his hands into his eyes and sees starbursts, a flood of light. He's crying, just a little bit. He can't tell why. He can't stop thinking about the cryo tube. He doesn't mean to; he's been so good at leaving that wound alone. Or at least he thought he had. But right now it blurs everything out in his vision, makes him shake with a rage he can't identify, that he hasn't been able to find for months: he's been so cold inside, so still, that it scares him. He's not the one that's frozen anymore but sometimes he's afraid that he is, afraid that some invisible but vital part of him was trapped back there, left behind, pressed against the glass: alive and awake, waiting to be unburied, to feel his hands and feet again.
"Do you miss it?" Gamora says into the quiet, startling him upright.
At some point she's moved silently to stand in his doorway. All the anger in him is gone again already, evaporated, leaving him dry inside. His cheeks are still damp. They feel cold. Steve wipes his face. Doesn't bother pretending she can't see. "Being a soldier?"
Steve thinks about it.
"I was never a soldier," he says, finally. His throat feels thick. "I was," he says, and trails off. "I was just somebody who got sent out to fight." He knows it's true now. It seems so clear. He was never good at it, the way they hoped he'd be. He never served the right way, never could manage it. Sam and Rhodey and even Natasha, in her own mysterious idiom, they're soldiers, real soldiers: they have a discipline and a patience in them that he's never been able to summon up, never been able to make himself manifest. They can wait for their opportunity, respect the process; they have the grace not to batter their heads against the world fruitlessly, like a bird gone fear-blind, breaking itself on the bars. They have the same need to serve, but they don't have Steve's ugly habit of hanging on after the blood comes. "I miss everything else," Steve says, when he realizes she's still waiting for him to answer. "I miss it. But this is all I've got." He looks up at Gamora, but she doesn't look surprised at all, or bothered. He ought to have remembered what she's been through, how much it probably takes to get up in the morning, to keep going. He starts to apologize, but she cuts him off.
"Don't worry about it," she says.
"I'll keep it together," Steve says. "I'm sorry. I know what's at stake."
"You know, Peter is an idiot," she says, out of nowhere. Steve waits, and she smiles. "But being with him, it reminds me. Life is short. It's okay to want things."
"I get that," Steve says.
"You really don't," Gamora says. "Anyway, come with me, I'm going to call my sister. She hates my directions. It'll go faster if you talk her through the complex."
Steve follows her out.
Thor is happy to see him when they cross paths at a waystation, both of them wearing goofy cloaks and hoods and facial scramblers to keep the cameras from registering their bioscans. Thanos isn't officially in charge of the distant planetary senate that controls this part of the belt. Unofficially, he's in charge almost everywhere. The cloaks are bulky and made of reclaimed mineral wool from mining exo-suits. They itch.The whole outfit makes Steve look like a lumpy, rolled-up carpet that decided to take a walk. Absurdly, Thor still looks like a prince.
"Steven," he says, thumping Steve's back so hard it makes his lungs resonate like a drum. "Are you well?" He leans back and holds Steve at arm's length, looks in his face. "Oh," he says. "What troubles you?"
Christ, Steve thinks. Pull it together.
"I don't like hide and seek," Steve says. "I was always more of a kick the can guy."
"Ah," says Thor. He doesn't ask what that is; Steve thinks that living on earth, and then wherever the hell he's been for the last couple of years, seems to have reduced his problems with lost references. That makes one of them. "I may have some cans for you, then, my friend."
Steve tries very hard not to perk up at the prospect of violence: it's a disgusting response. He's always felt so. But by now it's truly Pavlovian: if he's fighting he doesn't have to think. Doesn't have to wonder. It's the one arena in which he stands a decent chance of meeting everyone's expectations. He doesn't like getting punched; Buck—the person who told him that—was close to the truth, but not quite. Steve thinks he probably stayed just shy of the truth a lot of times, to spare his feelings. Steve hates getting punched. What he used to like was getting up again, the look on their faces when he wouldn't just lie down and die.
The smugglers that he and Thor are beating the hell out of, a couple of hours later, they're wearing expressions like that: they're intimidatingly huge and covered in skin that feels like rock when you connect with it, but still they can't keep Steve on the ground for more than about thirty seconds at a time. He backflips over one of them and boots it in the spine and it falls onto its own plasma weapon and explodes.
"What the fuck!" one of them says, or the equivalent. Steve's earpiece translator was partially programmed by Quill; it tends towards the colorful. "What the fuck is this little thing?" it says, to the rest of the gang that isn't being pummeled by Thor, and points at him. Steve can't remember laughing so hard, not in ages; he's still laughing when they sit on him and break his hand, but he wins anyway, and when he gets back to the ship Rocket grouses and then makes him a sling. Quill gives him painkillers that make him see pink clouds when he closes his eyes; it makes a day or so pass in a hypnagogic blur. He is ashamed to even think what he's thinking, because it's so ludicrous, when there are so many people out there who'd love to have what he has, a body that works, a body that heals—shit, what he would have given once upon a time, what he did give for this, everything he had, everything he knew—but there's something about the pain that feels alright, familiar. It's not physical pain he minds.
"Fragile Steve," Drax calls him for the rest of the month. How apt.
They're too slow at Iro colony, they take too much time; the locals are having trouble with a faulty reactor and the crew of shitty off-world gangsters that own it and half-heartedly maintain it, and Steve is apparently having trouble with spending all his time inside the ship. One thing leads to another and Groot ends up dangling a guy by his eardrums, and then they spend three days cleaning up the mess they made and rigging the reactor to run clean. It's satisfying work. The colonists' reactions are hard for Steve to deal with. One of them must have looked up "human" in the datalogs after they arrived and gotten strange results, because someone makes them a pie: an honest to Christ pie with a crimped crust. It's filled with something inedible but part of Steve comes to pieces just looking at it. Almost all the people in the colony are short and pink: head to toe pink, with pink hair that's yellowish-white at the scalp. Some of them have never seen an earthling before, and a few with less reservations crowd around Steve and touch his bearded chin, because it's all they can reach.
"Cut it out, stop bothering him," Rocket says. He's been furious since they landed; a whole colony of short people and he's still shorter than any of them. "You guys never seen a beard before?"
"No," someone says.
"Klessians don't grow them," Gamora says. She's holding one of their weird seashell-skinned cat-things, stroking its fine soft scaling that feels like petting a pebble. Both she and the cat look like they're pretending not to like it. They are, obviously.
"Holy shit," Rocket says. "Really?"
"Thank you," a Klessian says to Steve. "Thank you. I don't know what we would have done. We had no hope."
"I'm," Steve says. "We're." He excuses himself and goes back to the ship for a couple of hours, makes himself useful by breaking down the old air scrubbers and cleaning the filters. He lets his mind white out for a while. Doesn't think about anything.
If he went home right now—well, define that, for starters, he thinks, and almost scrubs a hole in the filter mesh. If he went home right now, allowing for the idea that he can even decide where that is; earth, by default; if he went back to earth right now, he could see his friends again. And they'd be glad to have him back: Steve's not low enough to doubt that they care about him. He wouldn't put that mark onto their characters. They're good people, loyal people. They care. But he's not sure what he would do down there. Maybe see how much they've moved on. How little they need him. No, that's unfair: Sam's last message had almost been an invitation home. Said he'd been pardoned. That was nice. Getting pardoned for his mistake of being who he'd been designed to be. Fuck: there it is again, the little candle-flicker of anger, under the layer of deadening snow. He's not as deathly cold inside as he fears. He might not be. If he could feel it again, warm his hands on it a little. Maybe that would help.
He's circling those thoughts and going deeper and deeper still when he hears boots thundering on the grates over his head, Gamora shouting over the sound of four other yelling voices. Steve snaps out of it and pops his head out of the hatch. Quill almost kicks him in the face by accident, but catches himself and tumbles over a bunch of crates instead.
"We're leaving!" Quill shouts, clambering up, not looking back. "Strap in!" Rocket's already launching himself into the pilot's seat, not bothering with the belts or the safety checks before he fires the engines and starts raising the bay door.
"What happened?" Steve says, blankly. He hauls himself out of the hatch, bolts it, climbs into his seat; Gamora's punching coordinates into the keypad at her seat, her mouth a thin, hard line. Drax is buckling up. Groot doesn't bother sitting; he weaves himself into the ceiling and just hangs there while the rest of them scurry around.
"They're happening!" Rocket shouts. He pulls down the tactical display and a cloud of red dots circles into view at the edge of the sector. Seven of them, maybe more. Not smaller scouts or junky mercenaries: big warships and clean-lined fighters, moving in formation. "They're gonna start happening in a big way!"
"Jesus," breathes Steve, and then they're up, blasting it before they even clear atmosphere; Rocket powers them through a nauseating loop that seems like it's going to put them on a collision course for the ships, just before jerking them back and slingshotting them out of the sector at somewhat more than maximum speed. They've all been working on the engines since just after their first pitched fight with Thanos's armada, back before Steve even joined them, so when Quill punches the dash and yells and the stars start streaking by so fast that Steve's brain briefly thinks it's going blind, it's not a huge surprise. It's just hard to do anything but close his eyes and breath through his nose and try to remember that the velocity won't actually kill him.The ships give chase, and it's touch and go for a while as energy weapons rake the upper shielding, but either the armada wasn't expecting to run across them at all, or they're on some other more pressing errand, because after a few sectors they drop back and the tactical display stops chirping. Rocket and Quill run for a while longer, looping the ship past a couple of radiant nebulas for a few hours to screw with whatever sensor arrays they have going, and then they drop behind an asteroid belt and go into quiet running mode, prepared to wait it out.
Nobody comes after them.
"Lucky," Quill says. He scrubs at his face with both hands, exhausted, and slumps in his seat. "We got lucky."
"We stayed too long," Gamora says, angrily. "We made a mistake."
"You wanted to as much as anybody," Quill says, turning to look at her. His tone's light, but she bristles visibly. Quill tilts his head, opens his whole body towards her, gracelessly vulnerable, unthreatening; her shoulders loosen a second later, her spine relaxes. Steve wonders if they realize they're even doing it, either of them. He knows they're an item but he hasn't gotten a clear read on them, not this whole time. This is the closest he's gotten to understanding what it is they are. "Hey. Hey, it's fine. We're okay. We fucked up, but it's okay. We all wanted a break, it's not bad."
"It is bad," she says, icily. "Just not for us." Quill looks away, but he doesn't argue. Steve looks between them, then around the room, but nobody makes eye contact except Gamora. Gamora looks at him and then the hard set of her eyes softens: not with gentleness, but with a kind of old grief.
"That colony's no threat to Thanos," Steve says, understanding.
"That's not how it works," Gamora says.
"We outran them at the Mazar outpost," Steve says. "They didn't—"
"Mazar's governed by the Kree empire," she cuts in. "Attacking it would have started a fight they don't want. Nobody cares about Iro. They'll burn it to the ground to make a point."
"Then we go back," says Steve.
"No," says Quill.
"Respectfully, Captain," Steve says, through his teeth, "we can't let those people die."
"You want to die with them?" Quill says. "Because that's what'll happen. We don't have the firepower to take on six ships."
"Seven," says Drax.
"Thanks," Steve and Quill snap, in unison. They glare at each other.
"The most important thing is keeping the stone away from Thanos," Gamora says. "We've all accepted that."
"No," Steve says. "We're turning our backs. Everybody else is okay with this?"
"Of course we're not," Rocket says. "It's a screwed-up situation, alright? But what else do you want us to do? I can't make ten more of us materialize out of thin air in the next five minutes."
"We can call Kraglin."
"There's not enough time," Gamora says. "Steve. This isn't the fight we need to win."
"Then we don't win!" Steve shouts. He's losing control of his voice, it's too loud and he can't stop it. "Then we don't win, we fight and we die, but we don't run! We don't run anymore!"
"I'm sorry," Quill says, "I'm sorry, man, but we have to."
"I won't," Steve says; he unbuckles and lurches over to grab at the control panel. "I'd won't run anymore, I'd rather die," he says, and then Rocket is coming over, Rocket tries to wrestle the controller away from him, startled into being too slow; Steve has time to shove him off and punch the power up. The thrusters lurch them forward and unbalance everybody and Rocket jumps for him and then they're fighting, really fighting. Steve has his hands full of angry super-powered animal, but Steve's reach is longer and he wants this more, wants it more than he has ever wanted anything that he can remember, to turn this fucking piece of shit boat around and fucking fight. He throws Rocket off and fires the engines and then they're careening wildly, sideways, off the coordinates. Quill gets out of his chair and tries to pin Steve's arm down, tries to talk to him; his eyes are huge and confused and Steve doesn't want to hurt him, Steve doesn't know what's come over him, but it's like Steve can't even hear him, not clearly; everything is white noise, everything is streaks of light. Steve hits him, too, and then the entire cockpit is chaos. Groot's launching himself across the ceiling trying to get to Steve without hitting Rocket, who's climbing around the back of Steve's chair on all fours and swiping at his head; Drax is still strapped in, laughing. Steve knocks Quill over a chair and throws Rocket into Groot; Groot catches him with three of his limbs but overbalances and tips away, giving Steve room to pivot. Steve turns back to the control panel but Gamora's faster, focused: she slides between him and the pilot's chair, blocks his wild hits quickly, and tazes him right in the chest. His knees buckle and he collapses, writhing, backwards. He hits the edge of a console on his way down, right over the kidney, and all of him bursts in agony, currents shaking him all the way down.
It's clarifying, in a horrible way.
Steve lies there on the grates, wedged painfully between two of the cockpit chairs, and pants heavily through his mouth like a dog, beaten. Done. Gamora kneels over him. He doesn't bother reaching for her. He lies still, stares up. He doesn't have anything he can say.
"We're a crew," she says, finally. "We're a team. We stay together. None of us dies alone." She reaches down and holds her hand out, waits. "Do you understand? None of us dies alone. We don't have that right. We don't steal ourselves from each other." Steve makes himself move; he lifts his arm halfway and she grabs for it, yanks him upright. "Tell me you understand," she says. Her voice is like steel.
"Yes, ma'am," Steve says. He clears his throat. "I—will."
"Good enough," she says. She looks at Quill, who's picking himself out of a pile of crates. "Peter," she says. "Take us back."
"What?" Quill says. "Wait, what?"
"Did I miss something?" Rocket hollers, from somewhere inside the tree.
"We're all going to die," Rocket shrieks, into the comms. Steve can barely hear him over the rushing, heat-death noise of the phaser he's unloading on the lead warship; also, the speakers inside these exo-suits just aren't very good. Nothing in space sounds very good. "We're all going to fucking die because you earth dumbasses get bored out here."
"Keep your negativity off the channel," Nebula says. "I didn't come all the way out here to finish with you losers."
"I love you," Gamora says.
"Shut the fuck up," says Nebula, and blows a torpedo hole in the closest fighter. "I love you too, you complete idiot," Steve hears her add, into what she must think is a wave of obscuring signal distortion.
Steve goes back to earth.
"Man, oh man," Sam says. He's been hanging on tight since Steve stepped down off the ramp. "Man," he says, when Steve starts to unwrap himself, like they're letting go. "Oh no. You're gonna let me savor this."
"Alright," Steve says. He feels his eyes brimming up. "Okay. For your sake. Just this once."
"You big American faker," says Sam. "Hug me like you want to." So Steve does. "Jesus, ouch, asshole, that's not what I meant." Steve picks him up off the ground for a second, just a second. Sam laughs.
"My turn," says Natasha. She wiggles her fingertips while she reaches out for him, like a little kid. "Me." She feels light as cotton candy in his arms.
The compound they're staying in is nice; not as nice as the place they were given in Wakanda, but basically nothing is. It's heavily warded, though: Thanos has been trying to scope out earth through the closest mirror dimension, and Strange has been in seclusion with mystics from every continent working on closing off the portals. In the meantime, the wards do their work. And Tony's hybrid Xandarian-Stark automated sentry fleet is doing theirs, at the edge of the solar system. Earth is surprisingly quiet, for now. Steve feels an unbelievable sense of relief. He can't believe he was worried about finding out how little they needed him: can't believe what a selfish, self-important thought that was. He's so grateful. Things chugged along without him. The world kept turning; good people kept doing their jobs. He was afraid to come back. He was afraid to come back and see that everything was in chaos and that all the chaos was his fault. That's what it had felt like, last time. Every time he turned around, he'd found something else he'd done wrong, or left undone. They'd expected so much from him and he'd given them barely anything; he hadn't even beaten Hydra. They'd kept going the whole time. But this is different. It's good. And not everything feels the same way to other people the way it does to him, anyway; his old therapist told him that. Maybe nobody had ever blamed him. He doesn't want to think about it too much right now. Just wants to savor how nice it feels to be back. He was gone, and now he's not, and both of those things are alright. Of course. He's only one man, after all. The whole fucking world doesn't revolve around Steve Rogers.
"Are you sure?" Sam asks, raising his eyebrows, when Steve says that out loud. "Wow. Space change your perspective on shit?"
"Yes," says Steve.
"I'm kidding," Sam says. "Okay. I'm mostly kidding. That's good. I hope you found what you wanted to out there."
"I don't know," Steve says. "I, kind of. Kind of had a breakdown." Sam watches his face, doesn't interrupt. Just nods and lets Steve figure out how to say it. "Got myself into a fight with the whole crew. I mean, just punched everybody. Even the, you know, the little one. Rocket. I freaked out."
"Yeah?" Sam says. "Kind of your signature move."
"I guess it is," Steve says; he can feel something inside him cracking, thawing. It's a laugh. He lets it out. "I guess so."
"That why they sent you home?"
"No," Steve says. "They wanted me to stay. And I might go back. I just needed to be here for a while."
"Good," Sam says. "We needed you, too."
"You didn't need me," Steve says. "You guys have it handled. You've put a better team together than I ever did. And you've held it together." Sam starts to interrupt, but Steve puts his hands up. "No, I'm glad. I'm glad. This is a good thing. I'm not trying to be—"
"No. No, I'm not," Steve says. "I don't want to do that. I mean it. I'm glad you didn't need me down here."
"Sometimes I think," Sam says, gently, "you have no idea what that word means."
For the first forty-eight hours on earth Steve just paces around the compound and shakes hands and gives hugs and eats; he eats everything they can bring him. Chocolate milkshakes and salted fries that are so hot they burn his fingertips, tikka masala, a dozen mouthwateringly perfect pears, a whole bucket of popcorn. Steve gets up in the middle of the night and can't get back to sleep, because there's no humming engine three decks down. He stands in the kitchen of the compound in his bare feet, running the microwave with nothing in it, just for the mechanical white noise, and eats Cap'n Crunch out of the box in big sugary handfuls. It tastes like shit. It's amazing.
On the third day the hugs dry up a little, since the war's still not over; he has a meeting with Tony and Rhodey and T'Challa and Sharon and Carol and Sam and Natasha and Strange, astrally projected, and it's pretty serious talk. They have a kind of informal earth defense league going, no legal sanctions but what else is new. What they do have is a hell of a lot of resources. Most of them can fly. They make plans for the next phase, should it come to that, and Steve updates them on Thor's progress with the shards. It's encouraging, when he puts it all together. They're really further along than they could be. When he's done giving his report he clasps his hands in his lap and just watches them talking across each other, pulling up diagrams of the concentric ring grids that they're considering for sentry deployment patterns, arguing over portal monitoring. Steve listens and contributes where he can, but by the time the meeting is over he's already made a decision. Before he goes, though, he pulls Tony in, pats him on the shoulder. Tony does him the courtesy of only seeming mildly skittish about it.
"Congratulations," Steve says. There's a thin platinum band on Tony's left hand; Tony looks down at where Steve's looking and then blinks at it, his face registering a brief flash of wonder, of delight. He smothers it down pretty fast but Steve sees him feeling it.
"Yeah," Tony says. "How about that."
"I'm happy for you both," Steve says. "You deserve this. Something good."
"I absolutely do not," Tony says. "That'd be nice, right? But I'm trying not to focus on deserve it, now. Anymore. I do or I don't. Sure. Either way they'd have to drag it out of my cold, dead hands."
Steve hugs him.
"That's nice," Rhodey says, from the doorway. "I like this. It's healthy. Squish him a little harder, Steve."
"Fuck," says Tony.
On the morning of the eighth day, Steve finally steels himself and asks Sam if they can talk; he sits across from Sam on the couches in the common lounge and says,
"I'm ready to see him, I think." Steve rubs at his beard, looks down at the floor. He tries to make himself meet Sam's eyes and partially fails. "I've been running from this, too. For a long time I just couldn't bring myself to accept it. That this is what he wanted. And I wouldn't even let myself be angry about it. I made myself feel nothing. But I think I'm ready to talk to him, even if he can't listen. I don't know if I can ask this, but would you," he says, and trails off when he sees Sam's face. Which is frowning.
"Did you listen to my messages?"
"Or did you fast-forward some parts?" Sam says. "Like, whenever I said Barnes, did you start fast-forwarding like a huge adult baby?"
"Uh," says Steve.
"Oh my God," says Sam.
"What?" Steve says. "Why?" His chest is suddenly clenched with fear; his breathing's not coming right. "You said—wait, last time, I didn't get through all of it, but you said he was fine, you checked in, I shouldn't worry, you—what happened?"
"If you listened to my messages," Sam starts, but he stops as soon as he really takes in Steve's expression, the shaking hand that's starting to rip at the neck of his shirt. "Hey, whoa, man. Barnes is fine. He's more than fine. The triggers are over. Shuri and Wanda figured it all out. He's out of the tube, Steve. He's been out of the tube for a year or so."
"A year," Steve repeats. He can't feel his face. "Oh."
"I'm fine," he says. "A year? Is he—is he, do you know where he—did he—"
"Stay in touch? About as well as you do," Sam says. He shakes his head. "He's not on earth. He went out after you about six months ago. I thought you two would have run across each other by now." Sam says something else but Steve can't take it in at first: it's like every thought in his head is screaming over itself. He can hear Sam asking if he's okay again.
He went out, Steve thinks. After you.
"I don't want to live the rest of my life without him," Steve says, in a rush. His hands are still balled up in the front of his shirt. "I don't want to be alone. There's so much emptiness out there and I don't want to be alone in it, Sam. I thought I could stand it, but I can't. I can't bear it."
There's a long silence after that, into which Steve just breathes heavily and slowly turns red.
"Oookay," says Sam. "I—okay. That's good? That's good. Wow."
"I'm sorry," Steve says. "I shouldn't have just—"
"No, you're good," Sam says, slowly. "You're fine, Steve. That's okay. You didn't say anything wrong. You seem like you had to tell somebody, and I'm honored it was me."
"Okay," says Steve. He has no idea how to respond to that kind of graciousness. "Thank you. Thank you for that. For everything."
"Jesus, we're not done," Sam says. "But I'm not going to do therapist voice again, alright? This is above my superhero paygrade."
"Alright," says Steve.
"Jesus," Sam repeats. He sits into the couch heavily, puts his elbows across the back. "Maybe I ought to go to space," he says, wonderingly. "Between you and Carol, I mean. Just," he says, and waves a hand between them. "Wow. Obviously some real stuff happens in space."
"Kind of, yeah," says Steve.
He spends two months on earth, working with the group—they don't call themselves the Avengers anymore, and they're not. They're something much bigger and healthier, something that's working. There are enough shoulders to go around, finally. At least it feels that way: feels like the weight of the world is getting spread between them instead of piling up. They all seem less crushed these days, even though the war remains a specter in the background of all their lives. They still seem to be living. Sam is a better Captain America than he was. Sam won't let him say that out loud, unless he thinks Steve's joking, but he can't keep Steve from feeling it. Even that feels like a blessing, a miracle. When Steve dropped the shield years ago he was afraid he'd tarnished it in the fall. Turns out that's not how this works. Some things get finer as the world moves on.
By the third month on the ground he's antsy, restless. He leaves the television on at night still, muted, just for the ambient crisp it adds to the air. He'd worry about the electricity bills, but what the hell. He was off-planet for almost two years, his carbon emissions were zero.
"You're going back, aren't you," Natasha says, appearing without notice at the kitchen counter one morning while he struggles through a frittata. She's wearing slippers with little cat faces on the front.
"I think so."
"I know so," Natasha says, and smiles at him. "I'm happy for you. It's hard to want things, when you're like us. Hard to let yourself do that."
"Gamora said something like that to me," Steve says. "She said I didn't know how."
"She sounds wise and beautiful and we probably have a lot in common," Natasha says. "Is that goat cheese?"
"Give," says Natasha.
"Yeah, you have a real problem wanting stuff," Steve says, dryly, but he cuts her a slice and puts a little bit of julienned fresh basil on the top and smiles while she eats it. Natasha kisses him on the cheek, afterwards. He doesn't see her again before he leaves, but he finds her present tucked under his pillow. He'll read the letter folded into it when he's on his way out of atmosphere.
Sam sees him off.
"You sure about this?" he says. "You haven't even had a bronut yet. It's a bread pudding donut. Everybody's going crazy over them right now. We can go downtown, buy a dozen and eat them in front of So You Think You Can Shoot Energy Beams Outta Your Hands or whatever that kid superpower show is called." Sam thumps him on the shoulder. "Your call."
"I know," Steve says. "They're already on their way."
"You really like it up there," Sam says.
"I do," Steve says. "I don't know why. It shouldn't make any sense to me. Considering. But it does. I got used to it."
"I have to be honest, I didn't think you would," Sam says. "It seemed like a lot of lasers and aliens. Didn't think it'd be your speed."
"Well," Steve says. "Mostly it's like being on a regular ship. Like a long sea voyage. I don't know. Lot of downtime. Lots of poker and getting on each others' nerves. Sometimes you go into port, you buy some stuff, you start an argument you shouldn't have, you leave. The food's bad," Steve says. "Everybody smells, a little bit. If you want something to work, you have to fix it yourself."
"Holy shit," says Sam. A grin dawns on his face. "It's time travel. You found time travel." He makes a thoughtful expression, cocks his head. "Is it time travel without the racism?" he asks. "How racist is space, would you estimate?"
"Everybody's green and pink and purple," Steve says. "And blue. I fought some guys who were orange. Honestly, I have no idea if they hate each other over that. It's hard to tell."
"Hmm," says Sam. "Figure that out. Report back."
"It's time travel without the homophobia, I think," Steve says, and feels his cheeks flush. He has to fight himself to keep his hands from coming up to cover them. "So."
"Good," Sam says. "Good for you, Steve. Good for space."
"I love you, Sam," Steve says. Sam shakes his head; his face screws up and he reels Steve into a hug that hurts.
"Goddamnit," Sam says. "Goddamnit. I love you too. Don't be a stranger. Go on, go, spaceman."
"These are the voyages," Steve intones, into his shoulder; when Sam starts laughing in his arms he feels it in his whole body, head to toe. It's better than he could have imagined.
He's been on board less than a week when Drax bangs on the grates above his head, making him fling a wrench straight up into the air and catch it with his face. Steve says something disgusting in Xandarian.
"DELIVERY FOR FRAGILE STEVE," Drax screams down at him.
"What?" Steve hollers up, but Drax is already gone, stomping down the corridor singing to himself. It's a song he taught them all last year, some kind of kids' lullaby with verses about drinking out of your enemies' skulls. Steve swears under his breath and climbs out of the grate, wiping the grease off his hands with a rag. He drops the soldering kit into the tool crate and comes around the corridor to yell after Drax again, but his voice dies in his throat.
"Hey," Bucky says.
He's standing in the middle of the hallway with a haversack over his right shoulder; his left arm is bare, gleaming metal. It's a thin, light-looking, efficient model, with visible pneumatics that look like elegant tree branches; Steve knows right away it's one of Shuri's designs. It's gorgeous. But Steve doesn't linger on the arm: he can't look away from Bucky's face. He's healthy-looking and flushed, with a little bit of stubble coming in. He got Steve's messages, then. The coordinates; the confession. His eyes are bright and clear and they're looking at Steve up and down, searching him, in a way that makes Steve feel naked, helpless, helplessly raw. Some of his hair is falling into his face. The rest is tied into a knot at the crown of his head. He is the most beautiful thing Steve has ever seen in his entire life, or in all his dreams. Bucky's smiling at Steve: the crooked, nervous one that shows he really means what he's about to say, but he ain't too sure about how to start. Steve's heart skips in his chest at recognizing it, at remembering after forgetting, at the survival of something so tiny, so perfect, something he'd been so close to losing sight of. It was nearly blocked out by their lives, nearly lost. But the cloud is passing over. The orbit's arcing slowly on. Steve will remember this smile for the rest of his existence, if he lives to be a thousand; if he outlives the moon. "Uh," Bucky says, clearing his throat. "Quill says you guys can take on one more, if somebody's willing to double up."
Steve looks at him: the love of his life.
"The tree will take you," Steve says. "He doesn't even sleep."
Bucky looks stricken and then like he's sucking a lemon, and then he throws his bag into Steve's gut and Steve drops it and catches Bucky in his arms when he lands on him. Bucky's arms go around his neck and then Steve is making a noise he's never made before in his life, and clinging to every part of him he can reach. He doesn't know when they started kissing; he just knows they're doing it now. "I'm kidding," Steve says, desperately, in between, when he can breathe again. "I'm kidding, don't bunk with the fucking tree, Jesus, please."
"I'm sorry," Bucky says, against his cheek. "Steve, I'm sorry, I—"
"Don't worry," Steve says. "Don't worry. I'm sorry, too. I've got you. I've got you, Buck."
"Are you fucking kidding me?" says Steve, and Bucky laughs shakily, wipes his face with his right sleeve. Steve kisses him and Bucky grabs for the front of his dirty undershirt, holds them together even after the kiss breaks apart. They're forehead to forehead; they're in the same air, and it's so warm. It's so wonderfully warm. "I never stopped," Steve says. "I'll never, ever stop."
"Oh, thank God," says Bucky.
Steve comes home.