"How far away the stars seem, and how far
Is our first kiss, and ah, how old my heart!"
Ephemera, William Butler Yeats
He allowed the phone to ring for several days before he finally answered it. He walked a dirt road, perhaps the only one left in the world, on the southern border of the Russian steppe. It was there, amidst a sea of grass without a single slope or tawdry hill for hundreds of miles, that the howl of the wind recalled the sound of human voices and reminded him he was lonely.
It took him a moment to retrieve the device from the inner pocket of his jacket. The coat was worn from use, olive-green and made from canvas, a military jacket as timeless as war itself. It had taken him from one end of the ancient Silk Road and back without attracting attention. The phone itself, a paper-thin screen designed to wrap around the wrist like a bracer, was a garish collection of flashing lights in comparison with the faded cloth. He knew how he dated himself by thinking of it as a phone, a hilarious over-simplification for something that could do so much more. He often ignored the thing for months at a time. A shuttle would find him if it was important, whether he liked it or not. He had come here, to this absolute zero point of human life on Earth for a reason. He needed to get away, to walk so far that by the time he looked up he was in the forests of Canada, the deserts of Africa, or where he stood now on the plains of the Russian Consortium. He always gravitated away from humanity, towards the wild and silent places that had become rare on a planet so vastly overcrowded, despite interstellar colonization.
He drew out the phone and paused at the image on the screen. Only a handful of people knew the number of this particular device, and this was not one he expected. Steve Rogers. Now there was a familiar face. It had been, what, fifteen years? Not since the Earth-Minbari War certainly, and even then only briefly. He had been in the lab most of the time. There wasn’t much use for the other guy on a spaceship.
The picture seemed new, which meant Steve still hadn’t found a way to age since they last saw each other. He acknowledged this information and filed it away. In truth he had not expected anything else. You learned to live with disappointment after two hundred years.
But his curiosity was piqued for the first time in years. They had given up on courtesy calls some time in that first century after the others had passed. After a while, even watching your friends die from old age lost some of its tragedy, became familiar. The heart could only take so many wounds before it began to scar and prefer solitude.
They still met from time to time, when EarthGov needed them, or when they remembered. S.H.I.E.L.D. had long since been swallowed up by the Psi Corps, and they had no use for non-telepaths, even immortal ones. Now only the President had the authority to call what remained of the Avengers, and that too had fallen out of fashion. After two centuries of failure in their attept to crack the secret of the only two Human immortals, EarthGov would rather forget they existed at all.
He was wondering whether he should return the call when the phone began to flash anew. He considered. It was either this or more of the wind, more of the silence. Another human voice might be…nice, if only for a little while. He swiped a finger to accept it and placed it to his ear, in no mood for the visual function. He hadn’t shaved in days anyway, and Steve would understand.
“Hello, old friend,” he said with genuine warmth, though his voice was rough from disuse.
“Hey.” Steve paused. Clearly he had not expected to get through. “I’ve been trying to reach you for days.”
“Well, you know how it is. After a while you lose track…”
“Yeah.” He had missed this, he realized with some surprise. Not just talking to another person, but talking to Steve. To someone who understood, who had been there at the beginning. “You know I wouldn’t have called if it wasn’t important.”
He did. Steve hadn’t called when Clark took power. Not that he blamed him. Regimes rose and fell in what felt to them like the blink of an eye. In the end, Clark had been like so many brief tyrants come before.
Steve took a deep breath on the other end of the line and when he spoke his voice held a tremor of excitement. “They did it. They found Asgard.”
“What?” Dirt crunched beneath his boots as he stopped in the middle of the road.
“Some prospectors found them, out on the Rim. They said it was an accident. I guess they drifted off course in hyperspace. Didn’t even recognize where they came out, just headed for the nearest star.”
“But that’s…” Impossible, he wanted to say. He closed his eyes against the flash of memory, that last terrible battle, when the link between Asgard and Earth had been shattered and Thor’s galaxy sent hurtling into deepest reaches of space. With 21st centuries limited space travel abilities there had been no way to track its course, or even know where to start. That was when Tony began funding space exploration. But all of the deep space probes had come up empty handed, at least until they made first contact with the Centauri, and neither they nor any other race had ever heard of Asgard. “Is he…?”
“Alive. He’s going to be at the celebration as their representative. The Alliance said they’d host it on Babylon 5. Neutral ground.”
Once he might have protested that wasn’t necessary, and that by rights such a reunion should be held on Earth. But there was a reason he walked alone down a godforsaken dirt road in the middle of nowhere. Though he would always fight to protect it, he had left his faith in Earth behind long ago. “That’s, wow, that’s great news, Steve. When are you going?”
“We are going tomorrow. I thought I should call one more time before we had Anne track you down. She’s coming too, you know. To represent the Potts-Stark family. I guess they want to make a big show of the reunion. One of Natasha’s is already on the station.”
“They really want me in a pressurized tube floating through space? Haven’t we talked about this?” he said dryly.
“You can handle it. It’s been, what, twenty years?”
“Forty. The Dilgar War, remember?”
“Right. Well, Anne says she’s got a solution for that. An improvement on something Tony was working on. She’s smart, just like him. You’ll like her,” a second just like him rang unspoken.
“There isn’t anyone like him,” he said quietly.
“I’m not saying…”
“Yes, you are. I know you,” he chided, but his tone was gentle, amused. “Steve, the last time I saw Anne she was in diapers.”
“I’m just saying a lot has changed. You can talk about science together, it’ll be like old times.”
“If you say so. When am I to be ‘collected’?” he said.
“It’s two in the afternoon there?”
He looked up, shading his eyes as he stared at the brightest point of light behind flat sheet of overcast skies. “Sure, sounds right.”
“Then they should be circling you now. Just send me your coordinates and you’ll be munching airplane food within the hour.”
“I can hardly wait,” he drawled. Steve snorted a laugh on the other end of the line. “Hey, Steve.” He paused, sobered. “Thank you. For telling me.”
“Don’t mention it. We’re a team, remember?” Steve’s tone had softened and something wordless passed between. It carried with it the memory of old battlefields and late-night shawarma, even as it acknowledged the march of too many years. No farewells were necessary when the line went dead. He gave the voice command to send the coordinates and sat down to wait.
The wind still roared through grass, and the dirt road stretched through the emptiness to the end of the earth. But for the first time in over two hundred years, Bruce Banner felt a little of that terrible loneliness lift. He looked to the sky, towards an impossibly distant galaxy millions of light years away, and smiled.