Chapter 1: The Bifrost
“Steve!” Bucky shouts.
Steve looks up from where he’s huddled along one edge of the corridor, fallen girders piled around him. The strobing lights and thick smoke are making his head ache. He looks up at Bucky approaching, and the world tilts and reels for a moment.
“Come on,” Bucky wraps an arm around him and pulls him up. “On your feet, soldier.”
Steve can barely hear him over the sirens, the rising pitch sawing through his ears as Bucky drags him along. Ordinarily Steve would swat at Bucky for carrying him around like a rag doll. He may be small and scrawny, but he hates being reminded. Steve wheezes a complaint, and Bucky grips him tighter, pushing through the wreckage.
There are bodies everywhere, crushed under the rubble, their clothes and skin blackened with plasma blasts.
Steve tries to cling to Bucky’s shoulders, but his hands are shaking too hard. He tries to suck in a breath, but can only manage a shrill, whistling gasp, as though there was a solid weight on his chest.
“Where’s your inhaler?” Bucky shouts over the noise, pulling Steve’s shirt up over his mouth.
Steve shakes his head, pressing his trembling hand over Bucky’s.
Bucky curses loudly, and picks up speed, stumbling through the debris while Steve tries to keep his feet moving, tries to keep up.
There is movement up ahead, and Steve glimpses something black-clad up ahead where the corridor curves to the right. Bucky swears again and pulls him around, stumbling down the corridor back the way they came.
The ship shakes with another impact, and Steve is knocked off his feet, half dragging Bucky down with him. Bucky doesn’t even slow, cursing at Steve to get on his feet as debris rains down around them.
They stumble blindly through the chaos, following the winking red lights of the escape pods down from Sickbay. There is a crowd gathered around the hatches, and Steve searches through the panicked mob gathered around the pods, looking for the familiar blue uniform of his Ma.
“Sarah?” Bucky shouts into the crowd. “Sarah!”
The people shift and part, and Sarah Rogers pushes her way out of the throng.
“Steven?” Her usually neat hair is in disarray, her uniform stained with blood.
Bucky pushes Steve towards her, and he stumbles into his mother’s arms, coughing and gasping.
Sarah cradles his face in her hands and makes a soft sound of distress.
“The escape pods,” Bucky shouts over the cacophony. “Why aren’t they being deployed?”
Sarah shakes her head. “Plasma blast knocked out the relays, we’re waiting on Engineering.”
There is another dull tremor in the foundations of the ship, and a soft gasp ripples through the crowd.
There is movement further down the corridor, a sharp crimson laser flare that scopes along the opposite wall. There is a heavy, rhythmic pounding of bootsteps.
“Into the pods,” Bucky says sharply, herding them both to the nearest escape hatch.
“What?” Steve struggles weakly in his Ma’s arms, but Bucky only shoves him harder, barreling him inside, and pushing more people in after him.
Steve can only watch as Bucky rushes over to a control panel, tearing off the cover and pushing his hands into the mess of wires and conduits within. The circuits spark and crackle as he works on rerouting the systems, and the lighting around the first pod switches from panicked yellow to sickly green..
Something terrible comes marching down the corridor towards them.
They almost look like men, but for their pale skin and the machinery embedded in their flesh. Where there should be arms, there are bulky laser cannons, hanging heavily down to their knees. They raise their arms and start firing.
The people scrambling into the escape pods start screaming, pulling the hatches closed and clinging to each other. The first pod jettisons in a hiss of pressurised gas.
One of the other evacuees starts to pulls Steve’s pod closed, and he lets out a shrill sound of panic, trying to climb out again. Bucky is still at the controls, bringing the pods back online one by one. Steve tries to call out to him, tries to warn him of what's coming, but when he opens his mouth there is no sound.
The monstrosities descend upon Bucky, but he clings onto the control panel, reaching in a little further to override the last remaining pod while one of the creatures grabs him by the throat and pulls.
The lights overhead flick from red to green, and the evacuee across from Steve reaches up to hammer the controls.
Steve tries to scream, pressing his face to the clear viewscreen. One of the creatures puts its plasma rifle to Bucky’s shoulder and fires.
There is a hiss of pneumatics and jet of gas that obscures the last moments of James Barnes, and the escape pod blasts off into space.
Steve’s eyes snap open, and he stares at the curved roof of his sleeping quarters for a long moment, putting himself back together piece by piece.
He sits up slowly, his shirt clinging to his back and soaked in sweat.
Just a dream.
He strips off his shirt and scrubs his fingers through his short blond hair.
“Friday?” he rasps, lingering adrenaline making his fingers twitch, his voice catch. “Time?”
When the Avenger was first commissioned, the ship's computer was a state-of-the-art confluence of Federation and Asgardian technology. Then Tony Stark had happened, and the standard Starfleet monotone had been replaced by something that only answered to the name ‘Friday’.
“Good morning, Captain,” a soft, lilting voice with a burr of artifice fills the room. “Oh-three-five-seven.”
Too early to be up, too late to go back to sleep.
“Thank you, Friday,” Steve murmurs, and stumbles into the en suite for a shower.
He turns up the pitch and presses his cheek to the patterned glass, letting the sonic pulse vibrations wash over him.
It’s been a long, long time since he’s had an asthma attack, but he feels the ghost of it in his lungs, like iron bands locked across his chest. He breathes deeply, feeling the heavy weight press down on him less and less, and shuts off the pulse.
He dresses quickly, forgoing his uniform for off-duty clothes for a few hours. The thought of lingering in his quarters any longer than necessary, where the last traces of the dream still linger, makes him feel prickly and restless. He takes his PADD from his desk and goes in search of coffee.
Steve flinches, spilling coffee on the canteen table. He glances up from his PADD and gives Natasha a half-hearted glare as she takes a seat opposite him, a large mug of raktajino in her hands.
“I don’t know how you can drink that,” Steve mutters, returning to his system reports. “Tastes like battery acid.”
“That’s why I drink it,” Natasha says with a smirk.
She takes a sip, and gives Steve a gentle nudge under the table with the toe of her boot, a little firmer than necessary.
“You had the dream again?” she asks.
Steve purses his lips and taps at the screen in front of him. He could tell her to drop it, and she would go back to drinking her acrid excuse for coffee and say no more on the matter.
He could, but he doesn’t.
“It’s not a dream,” he says quietly. “A bad dream you can shake off. It’s a memory.”
Natasha taps her fingernails against the side of her mug, a gentle patter that is distracting rather than irritating. “You want to talk about it?”
“I thought Betazoids were telepathic,” Steve reaches for indifference and fails. “Can’t you just… I don’t know, dig it out yourself?”
“That would be rude,” Natasha says stiffly, twisting the odd metal bracelet she wears, even under her uniform, and Steve swipes his knuckles across his idiot mouth.
He’s the Captain, he needs to do better than this.
“I’m sorry, Nat,” he says sincerely. “I’m just tired.”
She waves it off, and settles into a companionable silence, her fingers rat-a-tat-tatting against her mug.
It’s an unobtrusive form of torture, every click of her painted nails slicing through his thoughts.
He should be grateful that there isn’t an ounce of malice in her, otherwise they would all be doomed.
“What do you know about Wolf 359?” Steve asks.
Natasha tilts her head and ceases her tapping now that she has what she wants. “The worst battle in Federation history. Thirty nine ships lost, and over ten thousand people.”
Steve nods grimly. “My mother was a medical officer stationed on the USS Marvel. We…” Steve blinks rapidly, red lights strobing behind his eyes. “We were lucky, I guess.”
Natasha’s eyes widen almost imperceptibly, Steve can see himself reflected in her black irises. “But someone else wasn’t.”
“No,” Steve pushes his PADD to one side.
Natasha waits while he takes a sip of coffee, and works out what to say. Everything around the war is a tangled mess, secrets and anger and loss, more than can be unpicked over a cup of coffee.
“I lost my best friend there. His name was James, but I called him Bucky.” Steve huffs. “Well, I called him a lot of things, none of them very charitable.”
Natasha smiles at that, and waits for him to continue, playing absently with her bracelet.
“The escape pods were malfunctioning, and he stayed behind, managed to override the system. He got all those people to safety.”
“Including you and your mother,” Natasha says.
Steve nods. “He had a place at Starfleet Academy waiting, he was going to be an engineer.”
He remembers the plasma blast, Bucky’s body slumping to the ground as the escape pod spun away.
“It's funny,” Steve sniffs and swipes his wrist across his nose. “He was fifteen when he… when it happened. I’ve known him dead longer that I’ve known him alive.” He looks down at his empty cup, but doesn’t remember finishing it. “Maybe not that funny.”
Natasha says nothing, and takes his mug to the replicator for a refill, giving him a moment of privacy to pull himself together.
“Well, that explains a lot,” she says on returning, pushing the fresh coffee towards him. The smell is muted, like all replicated foods. Not exactly bland, just doesn’t fill the senses, doesn’t linger on the tastebuds like real coffee does.
Steve makes a questioning sound, taking a sip rather than asking what she means by that.
You know damn well what she means.
It’s not hot enough to burn his tongue, and that shouldn’t be a disappointment.
“Well, you’ve made no secret of how you feel about the Borg,” Natasha wraps her hands around her cup, soaking up the heat. “You wouldn’t be here otherwise.”
Steve tips his head in agreement. She’s going easy on him, and they both know it.
“And you’re not alone,” Natasha adds.
Steve touches the rim of his mug to hers, a silent display of solidarity, and takes another sip.
The silence that follows is calmer, more comfortable, and Steve can admit that he feels a little better. Whether it’s from talking, or some Betazoid mind trick, he can’t say.
“Well,” Steve finishes the last of his coffee and gives her a rueful smile. “You’re a security officer, Nat. Am I cleared for duty?”
Natasha snorts. “Aye, Captain. Give ‘em hell.”
Steve salutes her with his empty cup, and takes it back to the replicator, where its matter will be taken apart and reconstituted, becoming machine parts or clothing or more coffee.
It’s miraculous, Steve knows that, but it still tastes like ashes.
“Captain on the Bridge,” Sam calls out as Steve steps out of the turbolift and into the circular room, taking in the assembled crew.
In the center of the room is the command chair, its back to the turbolift and facing a wide viewscreen covering the forward bulkhead of the Bridge. The chair is flanked by the First Officer chair on the right, where Sam Wilson is sat. On the left the Chief of Security, Falsworth, is tapping at his PADD. Between the command chair and the viewscreen is the semicircular console where crewmen work on navigation and operations.
Steve walks across to his seat, tugging at the hem of his uniform before sitting down.
“Dugan,” Steve addresses the helm. “Where are we?”
Dugan sits back in his seat and spins around to face the command. “Nowhere, Cap. Same as yesterday, same as tomorrow.”
Steve lets out a snort. “You signed up for deep-space exploration, can’t complain how so much of space is empty.”
“Yes I can,” Dugan mutters, spinning back round to his console.
Two years into their mission and nothing to show for it but a protoplanetary nebula. The science division will be happy for years with their data on stellar evolution, but the rest of the crew are starting to get restless.
Steve turns his attention to the comms. “Anything on the long-range?”
“All quiet out there,” the officer responds.
“I’m good with quiet, might give me half a chance to catch up with Starfleet reports,” Sam says, waving his PADD under Steve’s nose. “You seen these?"
Steve pushes the PADD away. “Yes, Sam. I’ve seen them.”
Sam settles into his seat and gets to work on his reports, letting out the occasional soft curse as he finds another subsection to complete.
“Captain?” Falsworth looks up from his PADD. “I’m receiving reports of a fire. In Engineering.”
Steve presses his thumb to the wrinkle between his eyebrows. “Friday, put me through to Engineering.” The computer whistles and opens up a channel. “Mr Stark?”
There is a crackle and burst of static over the comms.
“Nothing is on fire!” Tony shouts. “Everything is fine, we’re all fine down here.” There is a brief pause. “You don’t need to come down.”
Steve sighs and gets to his feet. “Sam, you have the Bridge.”
The fire is out by the time Steve reaches Engineering, with nothing left to show for it but a lingering odour of fried electrics and a slightly punch drunk junior ensign.
“You okay, Peter?” Steve asks, watching with concern as the boy stumbles round in a circle, clutching a blackened and smouldering data cell.
“Huh?” He looks up at Steve and his eyes widen. “Uh.”
Steve rests his hand on Peter’s shoulder, effectively bringing him to a standstill. “Peter?”
“Yes, Mr Rogers, I mean Mr Captain, I mean sir.”
“Don’t call him sir!”
Peter lets out a squeak, and Steve turns to the source of the voice, bent over an odd-looking casket tucked behind one of the turbines.
Hidden. An odd looking casket hidden behind one of the turbines.
“Tony,” he sighs in exasperation.
“Only I get to be called sir,” Tony pulls out a damaged cell from the casket and holds it aloft triumphantly. “I knew it! Look at that, nowhere near enough power. Parker, looks like you were right, this thing needs bio-neural gel packs.”
“I was right?” Peter asks weakly.
“Isolinear circuitry can’t operate fast enough, we need something more responsive.”
Steve walks over to the casket and takes a look inside. Through the frosted glass he can make out a vaguely humanoid shape, albeit a vivid red one.
“You’re building an AI,” Steve frowns and turns to his chief of Engineering, who raises his hands defensively.
“Hold on there, Cap.”
“Tony, you know we don’t have clearance from Starfleet for this,” Steve’s voice pitches up a notch.
“Hey, don’t stifle my creativity!”
“Stifle your...” Steve sucks in a sharp breath band counts to five. “This was not authorised by me or Starfleet command.”
“Oh, come on! It’s not like I’ve got a synthetic life form wandering around the ship,” Tony picks up a decoupler from the array of tools laid out on the casket. “And if I did, what’s the harm?”
“What’s the harm?” Steve snaps. “It could malfunction. It could-”
Steve bites back a curse. “Tony-”
“Think of it as a thought experiment,” Tony interrupts. “A vision. My vision.”
Steve gives him an incredulous look. “Your vision.”
“Yes! You’ve allowed me to build robotic arms to assist in Engineering, to perform tasks in the warp core that are too risky for organic lifeforms.” Tony points to Dum-E, a robotic arm at one of his work stations.
Dum-E waves, and Steve has to fight the urge to wave back.
“This is the same kind of thing.” Tony pats the casket. “It would run diagnostics when I’m not on duty and perform basic maintenance tasks.” Tony leans in closer to deliver the killing blow. “Or I could leave Parker in charge.”
Steve glances round at Peter, who waves at him nervously. “Hey, Mr Captain.”
He turns back to Tony, who is grinning widely and rocking back on his heels. “Fine, but it doesn’t leave Engineering.”
Behind him, Peter lets out a triumphant little ‘yes!’
Tony taps Steve in the center of the chest with his decoupler. “You’re cranky,” he declares. “Being Captain has made you cranky.”
Steve brushes the tool away. “I can’t imagine why.”
Steve makes his daily rounds of the ship before checking in with his senior officers. Then he steels himself and takes the turbolift down to Medical.
On paper, Dr Banner is one of the best physicians in the Federation, a pioneer in the field of advanced bioengineering and trauma surgery. In person he is anxious and easily irritated. He failed the Starfleet mandatory psych evaluation on three separate occasions, much to the annoyance of Tony, who only failed them twice. But still, Steve needed him on the crew, needed both of them, and made it happen.
He finds Banner in one of the bays checking over Parker, perched on the edge of a bed and twitching occasionally. Banner mutters under his breath, running his tricorder over the boys still smouldering hair.
“How are you feeling, Peter?” Steve asks as he walks over to join them.
“I was right about the gel packs,” Peter tells him proudly.
“Yes, you were,” Steve agrees. At least the boy isn’t calling him Mr.
“Well, I’ve run every test we have just to be sure, but it looks like nothing more than a mild concussion,” Banner concludes. “You should be fine.” He gestures for Peter to go, and the boy scrambles to his feet. “I know you want to make a good impression with Mr Stark, but try not to get yourself blown up again, kid. If something catches fire, find something big to hide behind.”
“Yessir,” Peter stumbles in the rough direction of the door.
“Not the warp core!” Banner yells after him.
Steve watches Parker wobble down the corridor while Banner puts his medkit away. The kid was never meant to be on the crew. Stark had found him on one of the last Federation outposts while they stopped for supplies and decided to keep him. Since he was a distance learning student at Starfleet Academy, top of every class and some kind of genius, Steve felt no reason to argue. The boy had no family to speak of, was slowly going out of his mind with boredom, and Stark finally had an ensign that lasted longer than five minutes under his watch.
“You think he’ll be okay?” Steve asks when the boy is out of sight.
“We’re hurtling towards the edge of known space in a big metal box, Steve,” Banner scowls. “None of us will be okay. Do you have any idea how badly space wants us dead?”
“I’m sure it’s not that bad.”
“A subspace sinkhole or a quantum singularity could be right in our path and we wouldn’t know until we’re compressed to a singularity. A solar flare could fry us alive. The hull could crack and before anyone can notice your blood is boiling out of your ears. Not to mention uncharted planets rife with diseases and malevolent life forms. And what are we out here for? Chasing the damn Borg of all things…”
Steve nods patiently, listening to Banner complain until he runs out of steam, and pats him on the arm.
“And how’s my chief Medical officer?”
“Eh,” Banner shrugs. “Can’t complain.”
Steve stifles a chuckle, and takes a couple of steps back. “Tell you what I’ll do,” he says. “I’ll keep a close watch on the crew, anyone looks under the weather, I’ll send them your way.”
“More work,” Banner grumbles gently. “You’re too kind.”
Steve stops by the Science division, and finds the Maximoff twins in hydroponics. The girl, Wanda, is diligent and hard-working, tending to her plants and charting their rates of growth. Pietro buzzes around her like a fly, restless and irritable.
Wanda looks up from her PADD. “Captain,” she says quietly, and glances at Pietro.
He drops the potted zinnia he’s holding, and it lands on the counter with an audible crack.
“Shouldn’t you be in Maintenance?” Steve asks him.
“Finished,” Pietro tries to push the broken pieces of pot back together, water sloshing over his fingers.
“Finished,” Steve echoes.
Pietro flashes him a sly grin. “I’m fast.”
Steve bites his tongue. ‘He’s fast and she’s weird’ Hill had warned him when he’d submitted a request for their presence on his crew. The twins were half-Vulcan, though Pietro displayed far more human characteristics than his sister. Like almost getting expelled from the Academy for illegal racing. The kid had managed to modify a stolen skimmer to reach close to warp speed before shaking itself apart. The kid had been dumped on the ground, a trail of engine parts and bulkhead leading security right to him.
Wanda, by contrast, is quiet and insular, preferring the company of her brother to the rest of the crew. Steve never sees her in the Mess or Recreation areas, and when not performing her Science Division duties, she can be found hunched over her plants in Hydroponics, her long hair obscuring her pointed ears.
He’s not worried about her, not yet.
Steve brushes a fingertip along the the striped leaf of a Spider plant. “How is the air-filtering study going?”
Wanda moves the pot out of Steve’s reach. “Chlorophytum comosum is proving effective at filtering formaldehyde and xylene from the atmosphere, but is proving less effective at removing benzene than Dracanea.”
Steve looks at Pietro for help.
“It’s good,” he says brightly. “There are many colour-coded charts.”
Steve nods helplessly, and is almost grateful when Sam chooses that moment to open the comms.
“Cap.” Sam says tersely. “Better get up here.”
Steve hurries to the turbolift, and onto the Bridge.
“Sam, what have we got?” he asks, walking down to the Command chair.
Sam silently points to the viewscreen.
There is something drifting in space. It is larger than a ship, and vaguely spherical in shape. Or at least it was before the lower quarter was blasted apart. There are the remnants of outer rings circling it, rotating in a slowly decaying orbit.
“Get the Ambassador,” Steve murmurs, walking towards the screen. “See if the Asgardians know anything about this.”
Jones sends the message while Steve stops in front of the screen, close enough to reach out and touch it. “Any life signs?”
“Not that I can see. The upper levels look secure. No breaches in the hull, and there’s energy readings.” He checks the controls. “There’s a… Hmm. That’s weird.”
“What?” Steve asks.
Sam shakes his head. “Some kind of power source? There’s faint energy traces all throughout the upper levels, could be interfering with the reading.”
The turbolift slides open and the Ambassador steps onto the Bridge, tall and golden and dressed in his customary leathers.
“Captain,” he calls out, and strides over to Steve to clasp his forearm in greeting.
Steve does his best to return the greeting, struggling to wrap even his large hands around the Ambassador thickly muscled bicep. “Mr Odinson.”
No one has suffered more at the hands of the Borg than the Asgardians, their planet was the gateway to the Nine Realms before its destruction. It was an alliance of Asgard and Federation engineering that brought about the Avenger, and a Prince of Asgard on board to speak for the interests of his people.
“Asgardians have some knowledge of this region of space,” Steve turns to the screen. “Have you any idea what we’re looking at?”
Thor nods, looking troubled. “It is a Bifrost, an outpost marking the boundary of charted space.”
“Is it supposed to look like that?” Sam asks with a sour note.
“I came here once in my youth,” Thor frowns. “It was a city on the edge of space. Merchants, laborers seeking work, travellers in search of safe passage, a vibrant and thriving community.”
“Life support systems are still operational,” Dugan points out. “You see how its still spinning? That would have been to counter the centrifugal forces of of ships constantly docking.”
“So it was recent?” Steve watches the slow turning of the dead station.
Dugan shrugs. “Relatively. It wasn't last week, if that’s what you mean.”
“And there are no life signs?” Steve glances from the station to Thor, noting the way he presses his knuckle to his mouth, his lips moving as if in a muffled prayer.
“None that I can see,” Sam admits.
Steve cups his hand around Thor’s shoulder. “I’m sorry. This must come as a shock.”
Thor hums into his fist, and lowers his hand. “There are few who live such a life that were not born to it. They knew the dangers.”
“Even so,” Steve squeezes gently, though he doubts Thor can feel it. “We’ll take a closer look, see if we can find out what happened to those people.”
Thor tightens his lips, but manages a smile. “For that I am thankful, Captain.”
Dugan plots a course to the station, the cloud of debris surrounding it striking harmlessly against the hull. On the viewscreen twisted pieces of machinery and sections of charred bulkhead spin slowly out from the wreck, drifting off into the black of space.
Steve ignores Sam’s muttering about Starfleet protocols, and elects to lead the away team. As chief of Security, Falsworth insists on coming, and where Falsworth goes, Dugan is not far behind. The two work well together, and between them they have pulled Steve out of the fire more times than he cares to recall in the years they have been stationed together. There is a scant possibility of survivors on board, but Steve asks Banner to come along.
He also invites Thor to join them, calling upon his existing knowledge of the outpost, as well as his strength. Thor agrees quickly, and it occurs to Steve that it must be a hardship for him to sit idly in his quarters while his people are without a homeland.
Sam takes the Commander's chair in his absence, wishing them luck.
They climb onto the Transporter platform, and Steve gives the order to beam across.
Being transported is something that Steve has never gotten used to. The rush of cold air and prickling in his ears as his vision sparkles and fades. His lungs lock up, a sense memory of a sickness in him long since cured, but he still feels his throat tighten, his stomach tense in preparation for a wheezing fit that never comes. Then the lurch of rematerialisation, and the quick, furtive check that everything is where it should be. He breathes easily again, and looks around.
They are on one of the upper levels of the ruined station, a little distance from the amorphous power source. Where there should have been bright light flooding the deck, there is only the muted blue dots of emergency lighting, threading a path through the gloom. Steve turns on his flashlight, sweeping it in an arc around them, illuminating an empty hallway lined with stalls. Each one scattered with abandoned goods and covered in decaying cloth, their once colorful awnings dull and ragged.
There are no bodies, no dead hidden in the shadows.
“What the blazes…” Falsworth mutters, unholstering his phaser and setting it to stun.
They turn on their flashlights one by one and walk slowly through the abandoned market. A stall of rough hewn, handmade jewellery, the silver blackened and tarnished. A table covered with boxes and ornaments made with damaged circuitry. A liquor stall, the contents of the glass bottles long since evaporated.
Dugan picks up one of the bottles and gives it a shake. There is barely any dust settled on the glass, and were it not for the mould and the faded awnings, it would seem like the traders had left only days ago. He unstoppers the bottle and takes a sniff of the contents.
“There is no sign of battle here,” Thor murmurs, lightly touching a handful of coins lying on one of the stalls. “They are all-”
“Gone,” Steve finishes.
Banner takes out his tricoder and starts scanning. The device clicks and beeps, and he frowns at it, given it a firm whack with the flat of his hand. “Damn thing is malfunctioning.”
“Could be interference?” Dugan pushes the cork back in his bottle and sets it down on the stall. “A leak in the fusion reactors?"
“A leak?” Banner glances nervously at him.
“Are there any life signs?” Steve interrupts before Banner starts getting worked up.
“There’s something…” Banner looks down at his tricorder, and points down the hallway, leading deeper into the station. “That way.”
“Then we go that way.” At Steve’s nod the team move into position, Thor taking the lead, followed by Steve and Dugan. Falsworth takes the rear, herding Banner along while he scans the ship for signs of life.
They walk silently through the maze of corridors and passageways, venturing deeper and deeper into the station. Abandoned stalls line the walls in some areas, in others goods are laid out on mats spread out on the floor. They silently walk past grease-stained machine parts, ruptured filters and corrupted data rods arranged in neat rows.
“Have you ever heard of the Marie Celeste?” Falsworth asks suddenly. “A Earth merchant ship from the nineteenth century?”
Thor looks impressed. “I was under the impression that humans didn’t venture into space until much later. And only then by sitting in metal boxes strapped to a large amount of explosives and hoping for the best.”
Banner snorts to himself, and Falsworth shakes his head. “This was a sailing ship. Found at sea with her sails still set, well provisioned and seaworthy, but not a soul on board. The tables were laid with food and drink, as though the people had been called away from dinner and would return at any moment.”
Steve suppresses a shudder at the thought. All those people living their lives in one moment, and gone the next.
“Pirates?” Dugan suggests, his torchlight twitching back and forth.
“The cargo was untouched,” Falsworth replies.
“Bilge Snipe?” Thor asks, noting their confused expressions. “You don’t have-”
“Cap?” Sam’s voice rings out over the comms. “We’re picking up some kind of subspace transmission from the station. Might be a distress beacon.”
“Understood,” Steve responds, and glances at the team. “You getting anything?”
Banner looks down at his instrument and shakes his head. Dugan pulls out his own tricorder and checks it. “Nothing down here, signal’s jammed.”
“Sam, can you get a lock on the reading?” Steve asks.
“Sending coordinates over now,” Sam replies, one step ahead. “Looks like you're on the right track already. It’s on your deck, near the reactor core.”
“Could be the source of the interference,” Banner points out. “If we find it, we can turn it off.”
Steve nods and puts Falsworth on point, following the signal to its source.
“Captain?” Falsworth calls down the line. “I think we found it.”
Steve moves quickly to the front of the group, and Falsworth points up ahead. They are deep in engineering, crossing the network of metal gantries that pass over the reactor core. The walkways are narrow enough that they have to walk single file, and Banner frets quietly over the lack of railings, peering over the edge at the long drop to the reactor below. On the far side of their walkway is a circular platform directly over the reactor, other platforms branching out from it and disappearing into the dark like the spokes of a wheel. Steve tilts his head to one side, trying to understand what he’s seeing.
A raised dais has been built on the floor, the outer edge flared up like a satellite dish. It is covered in geometric patterns of yellow and black that radiate out in concentric circles. In the center is a ring of tubes pointing upwards, braced in their positions by support struts, each one emitting the same sickly yellow glow.
“What manner of machine is this?” Thor is the first to speak.
“And how do we disable it?” Falsworth takes the last few steps onto the platform and walks towards the device, pointing his tricorder at one of the uprights. “Mr Wilson, are you receiving this?”
There is a soft exclamation over the comms. “What the hell is that?”
There is a dull thump from the deck above them as Thor and Banner follow Falsworth onto the platform, circling around the strange object.
Steve looks up, Dugan behind him sending his torchlight along the network of walkways above them, searching for the source of the sound, but finds nothing. Dugan hums to himself and keeps moving, following Steve onto the platform with the others.
Steve glances up again, before taking a closer look at the device. Something is scratching along his skin, taut and prickling with sharp, tiny claws. It hovers on the edge of his memory, something important.
“Interplexing beacon,” Steve murmurs, almost to himself. “It’s an interplexing beacon.”
“A what?” Falsworth reaches up to touch one of the rods.
Dugan catches on first. “Son of a-”
“Sam, go to red alert. We need immediate extraction,” Steve snaps into the comms. “We found a Borg communication device, that’s what’s affecting the signal.”
There is a brief, weighted pause. “There’s too much interference to beam you out. Can you get to one of the docks? We can send a shuttle.”
Steve glances at Dugan, who gives a terse shake of his head. “Too unstable, Cap. We don’t even know if life support still works out there.”
“Damnit.” Steve hisses, and pulls out his phaser. There is another dull thump from above them. “Banner, Dugan, we need that thing offline. Disarm it, find the off switch, smash it to pieces, whatever works.”
“I’m a doctor, not a mechanic,” Banner mutters, but climbs onto the dais with Dugan and gets to work.
“Thor,” Steve says sharply, as the gantries overhead start to rattle, as though with the weight of bodies moving upon them. “Tell me you brought a weapon?”
“Fear not, Captain.” Thor draws an ornately engraved rod from his clothing. It crackles with blue light under his fingers.
“Easier said than done,” Steve says ruefully, and a black shape drops down from the walkway above them.
The Borg drone lands heavily on the edge of the platform, the metal floor buckling on impact, and stalks towards them.
It is every nightmare Steve remembers, its body clad in black exo-plating, machinery jutting out of where its left eye had once been, the lens a poisonous green in the low light. Its skin is pale and mottled, its movements are slow, mechanical. Relentless.
Falsworth reaches it first, pointing his phaser at the exposed portion of its face and firing. The drone stumbles backwards, losing its footing and tumbling over the edge of the platform and crashing onto one of the platforms below, smashing through the length of metal and vanishing into the darkness.
A second drone comes crashing down, and Falsworth spins around, aiming his phaser and firing. There is a crackle of discharge as the shot is absorbed by the Borg's force field, but the blast itself knocks the drones head back.
“They’ve adapted!” Falsworth shouts out as Thor moves towards the drone. “Phasers aren’t working.”
Thor barrels into the back of the drone, knocking it to the ground. He stamps his boot down on its head until the green lense cracks and sparks out.
Steve looks around them. More Borg are coming, just a handful, dropping down from the levels above, marching along the walkways leading to their platform. He looks back the way they came, and sees another one reach the far end, and start to cross.
“Thor,” he shouts. “Get across the gantry, that’s our only way out. If they block us in, we’re done for!”
Thor nods and runs across the walkway, not even slowing down at the approaching Borg, and shoves it over the edge. He pauses at the other side to pick through the debris and pick up a length of metal pipe, swinging it like a club.
Another drone drops down from above. Steve kicks out before it can regain its footing, striking it square in the chest and sending it tumbling down. “Dugan, tell me you’re getting somewhere with that thing!”
“We’re working on it!” Dugan snaps.
Another drone comes down right beside Banner, hunched down among the upright posts. Dugan gives it a roundhouse punch and sends it staggering into the array. One of the uprights protests under the weight of it, but doesn’t break. Dugan punches it again, forcing it down between the posts that creak and groan, pinning it in place. The drone struggles to free itself, kicking and lashing out, but is wedged fast.
“Sam, what’s our status?” Steve yells into the comms.
“Still can't get a read on you, Cap.”
“Sam, we have engaged the Borg. Repeat, we have engaged the Borg.” A drone appears on the lip of the platform, climbing up from the level below. Steve kicks it in the face as hard as he can, relishing in the shattering of its glass eyepiece as it falls away. “The second you lock onto any one of us, you beam us aboard, you hear? And see if you can block the transmission, more could be on their way.”
“Son of a…” Sam pauses. “Well, it’s what we came out here for!”
The yellow lights of the beacon dim briefly, then flare up again. Banner’s tricorder sparks and the screen goes dead. He bashes it against one of the rods in frustration. “I can’t override the system,” he shouts.
A drone grabs Steve from behind, holding him in a headlock as another moves in, reaching up as if to touch his face. Two silvery wires snake out from ports in its fingers, stretching out towards him.
“Then smash it!” Steve yells, throwing his weight onto the drone at his back and kicking out. He knocks both drones down, landing on top of the one behind him and crunching his elbow into its face.
Steve looks up, and sees more drones pouring down from the upper levels like ants. He rolls to his feet, catching a glimpse of Thor across the gantry swinging his makeshift club at the advancing Borg.
Falsworth. Where’s Falsworth?
He looks over to the array, where Banner has grabbed hold of one of the uprights, and is attempting to pull it over. Dugan is wrestling another drone, trying to force its disruptor beam into the center of the array.
“Falsworth?” Steve calls, but there is no response. “Monty?”
There is a flash of green light as Dugan's drone discharges its disruptor beam, blasting through one of the uprights. A high pitched whine starts emitting from the array.
“Cap?” Banner yells.
“Sam?” A drone tries to grab Steve. He dodges out of its way and snaps its neck. “The transmitter is damaged, can you lock onto our signal?”
“Cap!” Banner yells again. “This things rigged up with some kind of booby trap. We gotta move.”
It seems to take forever for Sam to answer. “Power readings are fluctuating, you’re too close to the source. Get some distance.”
The array lights pulse, getting brighter as the whine increases in pitch.
“Fall back,” Steve shouts. “Banner, Dugan, get across the walkway. We need clearance.”
Dugan nods to Banner to get moving, but stays where he is, punching his drone in the back of its head. The remaining rods of the array strobe sharp yellow lights across the dais as the drone slowly twists around.
Banner hurries across the walkway, and Thor tosses him another length of pipe when he reaches the far side.
“Dugan,” Steve yells. “Get moving.”
The drones disruptor discharges again, and another upright cracks, spilling yellow liquid onto the array. “In a minute!” Dugan yells as the drone wrenches its disruptor arm out of his grip.
“That’s an order-”
“Cap, we’ve got a lock on two signatures,” Sam yells in his ear.
“Beam them up!” Steve shouts without hesitation. He can hear the briefest protest from Thor before his voice is cut off by the high whine of the transporters. There are twin shimmers of light in the gloom, and Banner and Thor are gone.
“Dugan, move,” Steve yells, and runs onto the walkway.
There is a Borg blocking his way.
It stands in the middle of the gantry, clad in black exo-plating like the others, but for its left arm, made of bright, segmented silver. Wires snake out from its bare, mottled scalp, connecting to ports in its suit. The lower half of its face is covered by a muzzle, a thick, moulded plate embedded into its skin. Its eyes are obscured by red-tinted goggles. It flexes its fingers, flesh and metal, and waits for him.
Steve draws in a sharp breath, and launches himself forward.
The Borg stands its ground, and Steve rams into it, knocking it back a few paces. He tries to twist it around, to throw it off the walkway, but it shifts to the side, and Steve comes far too close to tumbling over. It raises its exo-plated arm, a laser cannon embedded in its forearm, and fires. Steve dodges the blast and aims a punch to the Borgs face, his fist impacting with the goggles and cracking the glass. The Borg strikes back, punching him in the side of the head with its metal fist hard enough to make his ears ring. He plants both hands on its chest and pushes. If he can just make it across the walkway, clear a path for himself and Dugan…
The Borg kicks out, aiming for Steve’s ankle but landing slightly too high. He grimaces and throws an answering punch, aiming for the Borg’s face again and shattering its goggles. It kicks out again, trying to force Steve back, and he lands another blow to its face, knocking the damaged goggles away and dropping it to one knee.
The drone sways, its head bowed, and Steve lifts his foot to kick it over the side.
“Cap!” Dugan yells from behind him.
Steve turns in time to see Dugan back on the platform, staggering towards the edge. The drone he had been fighting has an arm wrapped around him, clutching hold of him as he nears the edge. Two snake-like wires extend from its fingers and into his throat.
“Dugan!” Steve roars.
As he watches, Dugan pauses on the very edge. He opens his mouth, as if to speak, but no sound comes out. He takes a single, decisive step into thin air, and plummets down to the levels below, pulling the drone with him, and Steve can only watch them disappear.
There is no time. No time to process, no time to grieve. Steve pushes the horror, the guilt, down into the pit of his stomach, a lead weight that would crush him if he allowed it.
The noise from the array distorts, changing in frequency as the light flares up, painfully bright. Steve turns away, shielding his eyes, and sees the Borg on the walkway before him move stiffly, its head still bowed.
It slowly rises, lifting its head. The red laser sighted by its right eye strobes across Steve’s face as it turns towards him.
It was human, once. It’s eyes a shade of blue that Steve hasn’t seen in half a lifetime.
I know you.
Borg don’t kill, they assimilate. A dead body is a wasted body, one that could have been of use to the collective.
A plasma rifle pressed up against his shoulder. A burst of light.
And an arm is easily replaced with metal.
“Bucky?” Steve whispers.
The Borg shifts into a fighting stance, its feet planted firmly on the walkway as it raises its weapon. The lower half of its face is still covered by the muzzle, but Steve can see its eyes, and he would know them anywhere. He has seen them every night in his dreams.
“Cap, we got a lock on your signal,” Sam’s voice rattles in his ear.
“Wait!” Steve hisses, and the Borg attacks.
It, he, moves with ruthless efficiency, firing at Steve again and again. He dodges the shots as best as he can, but his movements are limited on the narrow gangway, and he feels the tug of near misses and the searing burn of glancing blows on his skin.
He darts forward, grabbing at the weapon and twisting. He feels it crack under his fingers, the jagged metal tearing his skin. His grip is slippery with his own blood, and the Borg wrenches free, aiming the laser at Steve, but it does nothing more than crackle and whine. It doesn’t even curse in frustration, just raises it arm like a club and brings it down again.
“Bucky?” Steve can barely catch his breath as the blow misses him by a scant inch. “Bucky, it’s me. It’s Steve.”
There is no recognition in the Borgs eyes, how could there be, after everything that has happened?
Steve moves defensively, dodging the strikes he can avoid and bracing for the ones he can’t. He ducks down and shoves into the Borgs stomach, and they both stumble, landing awkwardly on the walkway, half-hanging over the precipice.
Steve clambers over the Borg, pinning him down as he thrashes and tries to tip him over, eerily silent in the midst of the fight., even with the muzzle.
“Sam,” Steve calls out. “Two to beam up.”
“What?” Sam crackles in his ear. “Cap, I’m reading-”
The Borg throws him off, and for a sickening moment Steve can find no purchase. He flails, reaching out and grabbing hold of something, anything, his bloody fingers slipping against the segmented metal arm of the Borg, of Bucky. “Two to beam up!” he yells.
Steve feels the cold rush over him, chasing through his veins like lightning as he falls. For a sickening, disorienting moment he is suspended in mid-air, and then lands in a heap on the transporter platform. There is a dull thump a moment afterwards as the Borg re-materialises beside him.
Emergency lights flash overhead, the sound of sirens filling Steve’s ears. The Transporter chief looks up from his station, the controls at his fingers signalling a red alert.
“Captain on board,” he shouts, his look of relief switching to one of horror when he sees what Steve has brought with him.
There is a tremor shuddering through the bulkhead.
“Sam, get us out of-”
A pulse of energy punches through the ship, knocking it sideways, and Steve is thrown from the platform, hitting the opposite wall hard enough to leave a crater as he tumbles to the ground. Another shockwave hits, sending the ship into a barrel roll.
“Bridge?” Steve yells, colliding against something, though he can’t tell if it’s a wall or a floor.
He falls forward, throwing up his arms to protects his face, and the ship pitches back, the inertial dampers fighting against the shockwave. Steve catches the briefest glimpse of of the transporter controls above him, and doesn’t get a chance to wonder what it’s doing on the ceiling when he crashes down again, spots of bright light dancing in front of his eyes.
Steve blinks, slow and sluggish.
His vision is fading, the room getting darker, a hazy clouded red, every time he blinks. There are lights flashing, red pulses keeping time with a siren.
He tries to suck in a breath, his lungs burning with need, but can’t. There are burning iron bands wrapped around his lungs. He can’t breathe. His throat aches when he tries to swallow.
Something must have happened, he thinks wildly, something went wrong with the serum. It was supposed to cure him, fix his asthma and his bad heart, it was supposed to make him strong.
He tries to cough, reaching up to rub at his chest, and the back of his fingers brush against cold metal. He wraps his hand around it, feeling the segmented plates under his fingertips.
Strong. Fast. Had a metal arm.
Steve’s eyes snap open, and he looks up at the Borg leaning over him, metal hand wrapped around his throat. It squeezes, the plates shifting and settling, its thumb pressed over Steve’s trachea.
Steve tightens his grip on the metal wrist, screwing his eyes shut and trying to push it away. He hears the slightest huff of breath, and the hold loosens enough for him to snatch a mouthful of stale air.
He kicks out, his boot connecting with the Borg somewhere in its midsection, knocking one of the tubes from its port.
The Borg grunts, the sound distorted by the muzzle, and its metal fingers try to close around Steve’s throat again, the pads scraping against his bruised skin and tearing open the fastenings of his tunic. Steve dredges up a last burst of strength and slowly forces it away. The Borg frowns at him, not so much angry as irritated at Steve’s refusal to die quietly.
Steve kicks again, aiming for the already damaged port. There is a jet of pressurised gas, and the Borg recoils.
Steve takes advantage of his distraction, rolling to his feet and gasping for air. He looks around for a weapon, and sees the room in chaos, the Transporter chiefs crumpled body lying in the far corner.
“Security to Transporter room,” he wheezes into the comms. “Respond.”
The Borg lurches to its feet and stumbles towards him.
“Bucky, stop!” Steve’s voice rises, pleading. “It’s me. You know me.”
The Borg keeps coming, raising its metal fist to strike. Steve lashes out first, grabbing hold of one of the tubes leading from his exo-suit to his bare scalp and pulling. It doesn’t come loose, and the Borg reaches for his throat again. Steve grabs its arm, twisting it to one side.
The Borg lets out a yell of pain, low and guttural, and it takes everything Steve has left to not let go.
“Captain,” a voice calls from the doorway. “Stand clear.”
Steve turns to see Natasha in the doorway, holding one of the ship's phasers adapted with a frequency modulator.
“No!” Steve yells, spinning around to block her shot. “Don’t!”
“Captain,” Natasha moves to the side, trying to get a sight on her target. “Step aside.”
Steve shakes his head. The modulators are they only thing the Federation has that works against the Borg, a single shot and he’d be dead.
“It’s him!” Steve says desperately, and watches as Natasha’s eyes widen.
The Borg wrenches his arm free, and swipes at Steve’s face. Natasha clenches her empty hand into a fist and turns it to the Borg. Steve sees her bracelet glow blue and a small metal dart fires out, punching through the Borg shield and embedding into his bare scalp. There is a flash of electrical discharge and the Borg crumples to the ground, shuddering.
Steve falters, and comes close to dropping down next to him. He coughs, a sharp wave of pain tearing through his lungs, burning up his throat, and looks down at his bloody hands. The skin is already starting to knit together, leaving dark, knotted scars that will be gone by morning.
“I’m fine,” he insists. “Let’s get him to the Brig.”
The stunned Borg is a dead weight between them, but Steve gets behind him, wrapping his arms around his chest and lifting him up. Natasha hisses in concern as the Borg’s head tips back onto Steve’s shoulder, and lets out a soft groan.
“What did you do to him?” Steve asks, dragging him into the hallway and towards the turbolift.
“Widow’s Bite,” Natasha clears a path through the debris, punching the turbolift controls and sending them down to Security. “Electrical discharge. Don’t know how long it’ll last.”
The Borg shifts in Steve’s grip, weak but getting stronger. Not long.
“Engineering,” Steve swallows painfully. “Mr Stark, respond.”
“Ow,” Tony’s voice comes over the comms.
“Stark?” Steve dares a sigh of relief. Tony’s still alive. “What’s our status?”
“Our status?,” Tony snaps. “We’re screwed, that’s our status.”
The turbolift doors open and Natasha steps out first, leading the way to the holding cells. The air is thick with smoke, and wreckage from damaged consoles crunches under his feet as they walk. The Borg starts to move more determinedly in his grip, twisting from side to side, kicking its heels.
She finds a cell at the far end of the room that is still fully operational, and large enough to move around in. Steve lays the Borg down on the floor, and retreats as it struggles to his feet.
Not a Borg, he reminds himself. Bucky.
Nat taps at the control panel on the wall beside the cell as soon as Steve is clear, and the forcefield sparks into life.
The Borg, Bucky, snarls, and rips the metal dart from his scalp. He turns, his eyes fixing on Steve, and throws the dart towards him. The forcefield flares up in a blaze of yellow light, and the dart disintegrates before it can reach him. The Borg turns away, stalking to the far end of his cell.
Steve’s heart cracks, a hairline fracture that runs through the very center of him.
“Captain?” Natasha says slowly, carefully, watching the way he stares at their prisoner. “I know how much… Bucky... meant to you. But this is-”
“I want hourly updates on his status,” Steve interrupts. “I need you to keep him safe.”
“Keep him safe?” Natasha says incredulously.
Steve doesn’t acknowledge her, and turns away from the holding cell and the creature within it. Bucky is in there somewhere, he has to be.
“If you need me, I’ll be on the Bridge.” Steve squares his shoulders, and starts walking back to the turbolift.
“Steve,” Natasha calls after him. “Are you sure about this?”
Steve draws in a deep breath. His throat feels like he has swallowed broken glass, but the breath comes easily, as if the iron bands around his chest have shattered and fallen away.
“He’s alive, Nat.” Steve shakes his head. It’s impossible, impossible. “He’s alive.”
Chapter 2: Lost in Space
"You brought a Borg on this ship?” Sam hisses, following Steve into the turbolift.
“It’s not like that,” Steve says plaintively. “You have to understand...”
“So what?” Sam glares. “You didn’t bring a Borg, the most dangerous life form ever to have existed on this ship? This badly damaged ship with a limited crew in the middle of nowhere?”
“What happens if the rest of them come looking for it? What are we supposed to do if a Borg Cube shows up at our window?”
“Him,” Steve says softly. “Not ‘it’, him.”
Steve takes a minute to brush down his uniform and push his hand through his hair before knocking on the door, and pushing through to Admiral Fury’s office.
Admiral Fury is every bit as terrifying as Steve had been led to believe. He stands with his back to Steve, facing a wide viewscreen at the far end of the room. A man carved from granite with his single, ever-watchful eye fixed on the sight before him.
“Captain Rogers,” Fury doesn’t turn around or offer to shake Steve’s hand. “I’ve heard so much about you, I feel we have already met. Colonel Phillips spoke very highly of you.”
Steve folds his hands behind his back and nods once. He refuses to apologise for the lengths he has gone to, the favours he has called in, to get this far. “Yes, Admiral.”
Fury lets out the slightest breath, as if in amusement. He extends his hand out and twitches his fingers, a gesture for Steve to approach.
Steve doesn’t appreciate being beckoned like a dog, but walks towards the screen, his breath catching at the sight before him.
An Intrepid-class ship, maybe half the size of the Galaxy-class vessels he was familiar with. Compact and streamlined, with a slightly elongated version of the classic disc design.
“The USS Avenger,” Fury says proudly. “Named in memory of the 39 starships lost in the battle of Wolf 359.” He gives Steve a sly look. “But I’m guessing you know more about that than I ever will.”
Steve’s mouth flattens into a thin line. “Yes, Admiral.”
“And you also know why this mission is so important. There are those who say the Federation changed after Wolf 359. We know what’s out there now, and we are not prepared. The Borg could launch an attack on Earth tomorrow, and we would be unable to stop them.” Fury turns to face Steve, taking in the tension in his shoulders and the clench of his jaw. “This ship represents an alliance between the Federation and Asgard, and we will not be caught unawares again. You are going to learn everything we can about the Borg. How they operate, how they communicate. How they can be stopped.”
“Sir?” Steve says softly, hardly daring to believe it. “Are you saying-”
“You’ve made no secret of your opinion of the Borg,” Fury returns his gaze to the ship. “And you’re one of the few people to have survived an attack.”
Steve nods, a sharp tilt of his head. “I won’t let you down, Admiral.”
Fury sniffs. “We need, you, Captain. See that you don’t.”
Steve hits the pause button on the turbolift and takes a moment to lean against the wall, pressing his thumb against the bridge of his nose until white spots of light dance in his vision.
The last moments of Dugan flash before his eyes, teetering on the edge of the platform before taking a final, defiant step. Steve screws his eyes shut, forcing the image away, and draws in a deep, shuddering breath.
Bucky is alive.
The vision of Dugan is replaced by one of Bucky leaning over him, his blue eyes washed out by the pallor of his skin, his cold metal hand wrapped around Steve’s throat. The lower half of his face obscured by a muzzle, the scar tissue where muzzle meets flesh twisted and reddened, his breath coming in harsh, distorted gasps. The image is harder to push away.
He is alive. Wounded, and changed, perhaps irrevocably, but alive.
Steve clings to the knowledge like a lifeline, even as his throat burns and his limbs ache.
He rubs at his bare neck, trying to soothe the slowly fading bruises, and fastens up the front of his tunic, smoothing down the fabric until it lies flat. He swallows, forcing the lump in his throat down to join the weight in his stomach, and hits the lift controls. There is the slightest hiss as the lift continues upwards, and Steve folds his hands behind his back, and tries to feel nothing.
The turbolift doors open, and he steps onto the Bridge.
There are still lingering traces of smoke, stained red by the emergency lighting, and the sharp scent of hot metal and electricity. Steve takes a further step into the room, his feet kicking against debris scattered across the floor.
“Sam?” he calls out, reaching for the Command chair. The room is in disarray, the cracked control panels spraying sparks of electricity, and damaged cables trailing down from above discharging weak little bursts of light. There are a handful of crew moving around slowly, some putting out fires while others assist the Medical staff bent over the bodies on the floor. Some of them stir weakly under the the attention. Others don’t move at all.
“Over here, Cap,” Sam answers from the Helm.
Steve feels such an overwhelming surge of relief at the sound of Sam’s voice that he has to grip the back of the Command chair to keep upright. Sam glances up at him from where he is kneeling on the floor; beside him a Medic fastens up a body bag. Steve catches a glimpse of his Communications officer before the bag is sealed closed.
“Jones,” Steve murmurs, not quite believing what he is seeing. “What happened?”
Sam gets to his feet. “There was some kind of energy surge from the station before the explosion, knocked us sideways.” He waves a hand in the air. “Life support is down, but backup life support is currently fully operational. No signs of a hull breach but we have lost contact with Starfleet command. In-ship communications are patchy, and…” he turns to look at the damaged consoles. “We’re dead in the water, Cap. Warp drive is out, and even if we could manage more than impulse, with Navigation down we’ve no way of knowing where to go.”
Steve takes a moment to absorb the information. “Casualties?” The word tastes bitter in his mouth.
Sam bows his head. “Severe.”
Steve looks at the body bags being carried to the turbolift. “How severe?”
“Reports are still coming in from all over the ship.”
“Did Banner and Thor make it back safely?”
Sam nods. “Banner’s down in Sickbay, last I heard from him. What about Falsworth? Dugan? Transporter Room said you beamed up with one-”
“They didn’t make it,” Steve interrupts, and Sam curses vehemently.
“So who did you bring back? A survivor from the station?”
Steve nods, hating himself a little. But Sam is not going to like what he’s done, and there’s no time to argue over what’s already past.
“Send anyone with medical training down to Sickbay to assist. Have them spread out to the living quarters on deck 6 if need be.”
“Aye,” Sam murmurs.
“We’ll get through this.” Steve rests his hand on Sam’s shoulder and gives it a squeeze. “You heard anything from Engineering?”
Sam shakes his head, looking as weary as Steve feels. “No response.”
At least Steve knows that Tony is alive. And as long as Tony is alive and complaining, they have a chance.
“I’ll go check on him,” Steve tries to be reassuring. “You have the Bridge.”
Steve grabs one of the PADDs and takes the turbolift down to Engineering, checking the latest damage reports as they come in.
The doors slide open, and he steps out, walking down the hallway, and nearly knocking the boy Peter to the ground.
Peter lets out a startled yelp, but stays up, spreading his arms out as if he could block Steve’s passage.
“Parker, is there a problem?”
Peter looks dishevelled but unharmed, and deeply uncomfortable. “Mr Stark is very busy right now Mr… I mean Captain. But I have been debriefed and ready to update you on the current situation.”
“Parker.” Steve glares at the boy until his shoulders sag.
“And Mr Stark said you would never shout at a kid, so…” He spreads out his arms, leaving them dangling awkwardly in the air before wrapping them around himself. “‘M not a kid,” he adds under his breath.
Steve comes to a standstill in the middle of the hallway. Peter shifts from foot to foot, looking at everything but Steve, and he wonders how he could ever have been so damn young.
“Ensign Parker?” Steve says crisply, and starts walking again. “Damage report.”
Peter snaps to attention, and follows at his heel. “Warp drive is offline, and main power is at 62%. We’ve lost shields to the port side, that’s where the worst of the blast hit us. There was a hull breach on deck 9, that’s what knocked out the environmental systems, but we have the area sealed off and an Engineering team working on it. Mr Stark is confident that life support will be fully operational within six hours.”
“I want it operational in four,” Steve replies sharply.
“Uh.” Peter twists his fingers together. “Mr Stark said it would take six.”
“He’ll get it done in four,” Steve says a little louder as they reach the Engine Room. “What about Navigation and Telemetry?”
Peter looks worriedly over at where Stark is standing over a cracked console, smacking at the screen in irritation. Steve notices the casket containing his A.I experiment has survived, tucked away in the corner, though the display screen must be damaged from the gibberish and broken code scrolling across it.
“Mr Stark didn’t say anything about that.” Peter admits.
Steve pushes past him, striding across the Engine Room to face Tony.
“Navigation is working fine,” Tony doesn’t look up. “One of the few things that is working.”
“Then how come we can’t lock down our co-ordinates?” Steve holds out his PADD, the error reading flashing on the screen.
“Navigation is fully functional.” Tony looks up and scowls at the PADD for daring to contradict him. “Give me that.”
He snatches the PADD out of Steve’s hand and jabs at the screen. “What the…” Stark mutters indistinctly and goes over to another console.
“We can’t get hold of Starfleet.” Steve watches him pace back and forth between two consoles, tapping at each one and bringing up different readings. “Tony?”
“The sensor arrays are all on the topside of the ship’s saucer, right on the nose. Impact hit us side-on, spinning us over, so the arrays and tactical scanners were shielded from the blast.” Stark turns the PADD in mid-air to demonstrate. “On the underside of the saucer is the atmospheric processing and recycling systems, which is why we lost life support. Temporarily. Be up and running in five hours.”
“Four,” Steve doesn’t miss a beat.
Tony tilts his head, as if considering, and dismisses the aside. “Point is, the Navigation is working fine. Comms are working fine.” Steve opens his mouth to argue, and Tony taps a console, bringing up a 3D hologram of the ship, drifting through the stars. “The problem is we’re nowhere.”
“Uh. What?” Peter is the first to speak.
Tony pushes the PADD back into Steve’s hands. “The ship can’t lock down our co-ordinates because it doesn’t know where we are, we can’t contact Starfleet because there’s no relays in wherever the hell we are. We’re in uncharted territory, terra incognita. We’ve been knocked right off the map.” Tony points to the hologram. “None of these match anything on Federation or Asgardian star maps.”
Steve lets out a hiss of air between his teeth. “We’re lost.”
Steve stares at the hologram, trying to find a familiar pattern in the stars.
They can’t be lost. It would take a decade of travel at maximum warp to reach truly uncharted space, and the impact occurred hours ago.
An hour, is that all it has been? It feels like a lifetime.
“How did we get here?” Steve asks out loud.
“Don’t know, don't care right now,” Tony says dismissively. “Continued breathing I do care about. So if you don’t mind?” He makes a shooing gesture, and returns to work on the console.
“Um,” Peter raises his hand, then drops it when Steve and Tony turn to face him.
“You have a theory?” Steve asks.
Peter goes over to one of the consoles and brings up a hologram of the waystation. “I noticed the energy signature from the station was kind of weird, so I was taking readings while you were over there.” He draws a hand through the hologram, and it flashes through a series of still images, a rhythmic pulse of energy emanating from the interplexing beacon.
“The whole station was, like, a snare? A trap that wouldn’t be sprung until a life form boarded. Then a signal is sent out to the nearest Borg ship. The... drones? They’re called drones, right?” Peter looks to Steve, who nods once. “The drones are a basic maintenance crew, keeping the beacon running.”
Peter waves his hand again, and the energy pulse changes. “The beacon was rigged with displacement devices. Anyone tried to destroy the array, you know, sabotage the trap? These things would go off, knocking them sideways, probably straight into Borg territory where they could be picked up.”
“Is that what’s happened here?” Steve asks sharply. “Are we in Borg territory?”
“I hope not,” Peter tries to joke, but it falls flat. He flicks his hand against the hologram, and the image changes again, showing damage to the station's reactor core, waves of energy radiating out. Steve has a sudden, sharp recall of Dugan forcing down a Borgs arm as it fired its reactor beam. “There was a breach in the reactor core, so when the temporal device was triggered, there was a chain reaction, and everything kind of went. Well. Boom.”
Peter mimes a little explosion with his fingers. Then lets his hands drop to his sides in the face of Steve and Tony’s unimpressed stares.
Tony chews the inside of his cheek before speaking. “Sounds plausible. You did good, kid.” Peter smiles, puffing up a little with pride. “Now figure out how far we’ve been thrown.”
Peter sags a little, but goes back to his hologram with an air of determination.
“Keep me posted,” Steve says to Tony, who mutters in a very clear undertone, and sends him on his way.
Under normal circumstances, Steve would call all his senior officers to his Ready Room for a meeting on how to proceed. But with Tony refusing to leave the Engine Room, Bruce struggling to keep on top of things in Sickbay, and his other senior officers…
Steve goes up to the Bridge and takes Sam to one side. He quickly fills him in on the news from Engineering, and Sam takes it all in silently, his features grim.
“The Asgardians are working through our long-range sensor readings,” Steve finishes. “Jones was our best navigator, but if they can at least point us in the right direction…”
Sam nods. “It’ll be a start.”
Steve gives Sam a brief, furtive check over, but he is calm and clear-headed. An anchor in a storm.
“What’s our status?” Steve asks gently.
“Tired,” Sam admits. “We’re running a skeleton crew, half our people are either dead or wounded. You need to appoint new senior staff, there’s not enough people on board to operate on eight hour shifts, we’ll have to move to twelve hour rotations. And with everyone tired and scared and hurting, that’s not gonna go down well. Junior ensigns can probably be put onto night shifts, but they’ll need additional training in emergency-”
“Sam,” Steve places a careful hand on Sam’s shoulder. “Take a breath.”
“Yeah, I get your point.” Sam huffs. “You holding up, Captain?”
Steve tips his head to one side, but doesn't get a chance to answer.
“Security to the Captain?” Natasha speaks softly over the comms.
Has it been another hour already? Her first report was short and to the point, there was no change, and Bucky was still pacing about like a caged tiger in his cell.
“Romanov?” Steve answers.
“Better get down here, Cap, your pet Borg is…” Natasha hesitates. “You’d better come take a look.”
Steve frowns. “On my way.”
He glances up at Sam, who is looking at him in horror. “Your pet what?”
“You brought a Borg on this ship?” Sam hisses, following Steve into the turbolift.
“It’s not like that,” Steve says plaintively. “You have to understand...”
“So what?” Sam glares. “You didn’t bring a Borg, the most dangerous life form ever to have existed on this ship? This badly damaged ship with a limited crew in the middle of nowhere?”
“What happens if the rest of them come looking for it? What are we supposed to do if a Borg Cube shows up at our window?”
“Him,” Steve says softly. “Not ‘it’, him.”
The turbolift doors slide open, and Sam holds his tongue for the moment, following Steve down to the holding cells where Natasha is waiting.
“Romanov,” Steve pauses. “What’s happened?”
“His behaviour is becoming more erratic,” Natasha answers quickly. “He’s unstable.”
“Have you been able to sense anything? Make any kind of psionic…?”
Natasha shakes her head. “Isolation. Anger. It’s too tangled up.”
Steve nods, he hadn’t held out much hope. Like the majority of Betazoids, Natasha was an accomplished empath, though her telepathic abilities were limited. She could not alter another’s thoughts, or implant suggestions, and there was little she could do with a subject so resistant to being read. Steve walks to the last cell, where Bucky is contained, aware of Sam and Natasha following at a respectful distance.
Bucky is still pacing back and forth, but his movements are sluggish. His mottled skin looks almost bleached under the harsh lighting, and he lists to one side, as if his augmented flesh arm pains him. He looks up as Steve comes closer, and what little of his features that can be seen above the muzzle twist up in rage. He staggers towards Steve, lifting his metal hand into the air and balling it into a fist, striking out.
The punch collides with the forcefield, snapping him back in a shower of yellow light, and Bucky stumbles. He draws in a harsh breath, straightening up, his hands clenching, and charges Steve again.
Steve flinches as the metal fist connects with the force field, a bare inch from his face. Bucky is braced for it this time, absorbing the shock with his powerful frame, and he keeps forcing his hand forward, as if he could push through the shielding and grab Steve by the throat again.
The force field sends out blinding bursts of yellow light, the air thick with the scent of hot metal. The silvery knuckles of Bucky’s hand start glow white hot, as the metal itself is slowly sheared away by the field. Steve watches in mounting horror at the damage the Borg is willing to do to himself for a chance to kill him.
“Bucky,” Steve shouts over the static crackle of the force field. “Bucky, stop!”
“We are the Borg,” Bucky snarls, his voice distorted by the muzzle.
The force field snaps back, throwing Bucky across the cell, where he crumples against the far wall, struggling for breath.
Steve moves as close to the cell as he can, reaching up until he is a hair's breadth from touching the flickering shield. Bucky must still be in there somewhere, he has to find him, bring him home.
“Your name is James,” Steve says slowly, fighting to keep his voice level. “James Buchanan Barnes.”
“This drone is designated One of Seven, senary adjunct of unimatrix 557038.” Bucky answers. There is a whine of feedback when he speaks, twisting and deforming the words as he shivers and spasms.
“Your name is James, but everyone called you Bucky.” Steve’s eyes itch. The back of his throat burns.
“You will be…” Bucky bows his head, screwing his eyes shut. “You will be assimilated.” His breath comes in short, rasping gasps.
Steve drops down to one knee, keeping himself in Bucky’s line of sight. “Captain to Sickbay,” his voice cracks. “Dr Banner, I need you in Security right away.”
Bucky wheezes and rasps, and every pained breath scrapes Steve’s heart raw. “We are… the Borg.”
“You were born on Earth,” Steve tells him. “You are human, Bucky. You’re human.”
There is a clatter of boots coming down the hallway, and Banner hurries along the empty cells to where Sam and Natasha are standing, clutching his medical tricorder.
“What’s the emergency,” he asks, and walks over to where Steve is kneeling. “What’s happ-”
He lets out a grunt of alarm and recoils from the cell, turning to Sam. “Is that… Is that a…?”
“Yeah,” Sam glowers, his arms folded across his chest. “It’s a goddamned Borg.”
“Why do we have a Borg?” Banner hisses, loud enough for Steve to hear. “Is it something to do with the mission?”
“He needs medical attention,” Steve calls out, and that draws Banner over to the cell.
He takes a long look at the Borg slumped against the wall, his head bowed, his breath coming in shallow gasps.
“My knowledge of Borg physiology is limited, Captain,” Bruce admits. “We know more about killing them than keeping them alive.”
“Can you help him?” There is an edge of desperation in Steve’s tone.
Bruce thumbs at his tricorder. “I can try.”
Steve is on his feet before Banner has finished speaking. “ Romanov, open the cell.”
“What, are you crazy?” Sam snaps. “How do you know that thing isn’t faking it? The second the shield comes down it’ll be all over us.
“I can handle it,” Steve says flatly.
Sam opens his mouth to argue, but Bruce nods to Natasha, and he falls back. She checks that her bracelets are fully charged before walking over to the console and bringing down the force field.
Bucky doesn’t leap to his feet and attack. He stays where he is, curled up on the floor, his breath rattling through his muzzle, shrill and discordant.
Steve steps into the cell first, moving slowly. “Bucky, this is Dr Banner. He’s here to help.”
Bucky glances his way, but doesn’t move as Steve crouches down beside him. Bruce follows Steve into the cell, but still elects to work from arms reach, passing a scanner over Bucky’s prone form while Steve hovers over him. Natasha and Sam remain outside, their weapons primed.
“We cannot hear them,” Bucky murmurs, barely audible.
Banners shakes his head and frowns, medical curiosity overcoming his fear of a Borg enough to make him come closer. He passes the scanner over Bucky again, watching the data feed on his tricorder.
“Half of these readings don’t make any sense. There’s damage to his neurological systems, biochemical reactions, vascular tissue. It’s like his immune system is attacking itself.” Banner sounds more annoyed with his own failings than at his patient. “And his respiratory functions are compromised. We need to get you down to Sickbay, get that mask off your face-”
“No!” Bucky clamps his flesh hand over his muzzle, swiping out with his metal one and grabbing Banner by the front of his tunic.
“Bucky, stop!” Steve grabs hold of Bucky’s wrist. He’s weakened, but he still fights as Steve pulls his hand down.
“It’s alright,” Steve reassures, and looks to Banner for support. “We can keep the mask on for now, right Doc?”
Banner gives him a doubtful look, but shrugs. “Sure. As long as it doesn’t impair his breathing.”
Steve risks loosening his grip on Bucky’s wrists, and he doesn’t attempt another assault. Steve can’t say if it is because Bucky no longer wishes him harm, or if he’s too weak to attack.
“Bucky,” Steve tilts his head to one side, trying to make eye contact. “We need to move you to Sickbay. Can you walk?”
“You will return this drone...” Bucky’s brow creases in discomfort. “To the collective.”
“Sorry pal, can’t do that.” Steve straightens up, pulling Bucky with him.
“You will re-establish…” Steve pulls Bucky’s metal arm around his shoulder, keeping hold of his wrist, and Bucky lets out a grunt of pain that sounds like a grinding of gears. “Re-establish neural link to the collective.”
Steve looks to Banner for an explanation, and he checks his tricorder, running his scanner over Bucky as he is half-carried out of the cell. Sam and Natasha keep their distance, ready for an attack.
“We cannot hear their voices.” Bucky shakes his head back and forth. “Return us to the Borg.”
“Not gonna happen,” Steve answers grimly.
By the time they reach the turbolift Bucky has fallen silent, his focus solely on drawing in ragged, shallow breaths. As much as Steve hates to see him in pain, he is more docile, and they are able to get him into Sickbay, though not without several nurses catching a glimpse of the unusual patient. He sees Wanda among them, working with the other additional support staff to treat the sudden influx of patients.
It won’t take long for the word to spread around the rest of the ship, and as much as Steve knows that he couldn’t keep Bucky a secret for long, he wishes he had better timing, a chance to explain.
Banner leads them to a private room away from the rest of his patients, and directs Steve to the bed.
“Thank you Miss Romanov, Mr Wilson. We can manage from here,” Banner says, setting up his scanners and instruments while Steve settles Bucky down on the bed. An image of Bucky’s body, riddled with Borg implants, come up on the console screen.
“He’s a security risk,” Sam parks himself up against the wall, solid and immovable as stone.
“I can handle it,” Banner replies with absolute conviction. He looks down at the bed where Bucky lies shivering and feverish. For all his bulk and inhuman strength, he looks helpless, almost vulnerable.
“Thank you, Doc,” Steve murmurs, keeping one hand on Bucky’s metal arm.
“That’s enough from you too,” Banner snaps. “When this is over you and I are going to have words, Rogers. You understand me?”
Before Steve can respond, Bucky starts shaking violently, his whole body tensing and convulsing as though jolted with electricity.
“Seizures,” Banner warns, fetching a hypospray from his instrument tray. “His physiology was originally human so… let’s hope this works. Starting with a dose of benzodiazepine.”
He presses the hypospray to the base of Bucky’s throat, and depresses the trigger. There is a soft hiss, and after a tense moment, the seizures start to subside.
Bruce checks the scans again. “There’s a neural transceiver up here.” He points to a small mass of Borg tech embedded in the frontal lobe. “It’s been damaged, looks like it’s shorted out.”
“Could an electrical charge have done that?” Steve looks to Natasha. She shifts under his stare, but shows little remorse.
Steve rubs his thumb along the segmented metal of Bucky’s wrist. “He said he couldn’t hear the others. So without a transceiver his link to the collective must have been severed.”
Banner nods absently. “Well, whatever fried it, it needs to come out.” Banner taps at his viewscreen, bringing up a full body scan. The image flashes red. “Damnit.”
Banner smacks an alarm on the wall, and a handful of Medical staff hurry into the room. Wanda is at the head of the group, planting herself at Banners side.
“What’s happening?” Steve demands as a nurse pushes him out the way and starts attaching sensors to Bucky’s exposed skin.
“His immune system is attacking the Borg implants.”
Banner issues instructions to his staff, a stream of barely comprehensible words that has them rushing into action. Steve watches helplessly as Wanda tears open a medipac of surgical supplies.
“It’s killing him, we need to remove the Borg technology,” Dr Banner takes Steve by the arm. “Ethically I’m unable to continue without his consent, and I’m guessing if he were conscious he would not.”
I just got him back, Steve thinks hopelessly.
“He was held captive by the Borg, assimilated, lived as one of them for fifteen years.” Steve shakes his head. “If he were awake, he would not be of a sound enough mind to make that decision.”
“Then you have to make it for him,” Banner insists.
“Go ahead with the surgery,” Steve decides, and hopes Bucky will forgive him.
At the words Dr Banner moves into action, barking out further instructions as he takes hold of the bed and starts moving it to a nearby operating room.
“Anyone who isn’t a Medic please step outside.” Banner gives Steve a pointed glare. “That includes you, Captain.”
Steve nods, stepping back out of the way. He thinks of Bucky hunched up on the floor of the holding cell, hand pressed to his muzzle. “The mask…”
“I’m not making any promises, not until he’s stable.” Banner shakes his head. “This is the first Borg I’ve ever had to operate on, and if I have to remove the damn mask to get him stabilized, you can bet it’s coming off.” He stops and takes a breath. “But noted, alright?”
Steve takes another look at Bucky, lying silent and still amidst the sound and motion. “Do what you have to.”
As much as Steve wants to stay in Sickbay and wear a hole in the floor pacing up and down, there is a ship and a crew to attend to. He leaves Natasha guarding the door and walks with Sam to the turbolift.
“Not now, Sam.” Steve snaps. He lets out a breath and closes his eyes. “I know you have questions, and I’ll answer them. Just. Not now, okay?”
Sam looks dubious, but takes Steve at his word. “I’m gonna hold you to that.”
Steve steps into the turbolift and leans against the wall. Exhaustion burns behind his eyes, shivers through his bones. He rubs at his neck and swallows, feeling the last, lingering traces of discomfort. Another hour or so and it will be like it never happened. He wishes that the memory of his childhood best friend trying to strangle the life out of him would fade so easily.
“You need to go back to Sickbay?” Sam interrupts his thoughts.
Steve yanks his hand away from his throat. “No, it’s fine. Nothing serious.”
“You sure?” Sam gives him a once over, and Steve tries to stand like he’s not crumbling to pieces inside.
“I’m fine, Sam.”
“Captain?” Steve looks up from his PADD to see Natasha hovering over him. “You want another?”
She gestures to the cold cup of coffee at the edge of the table, and Steve nods. “Please.”
He returns to his reports, reading through the updates on repairs and scouring through the crew list until Natasha brings over his fresh coffee.
“May I?” she asks, waiting for Steve’s nod before taking a seat.
She taps her fingernails against the rim of her cup, rat-a-tat-tat, and Steve almost smiles to himself.
“You got something to say, spit it out.”
“You made me the new chief of Security.”
“Yes, I did.”
Natasha sits back in her seat and stares at him. “Why?”
“Because you’re the best person for the job.”
“Sif is more qualified for the position, May has more experience.” Natasha looks exasperated. “Betazoids don’t make good Security officers, we’re too-” she spits out the word. “Sensitive.”
Steve pushes his PADD to one side and picks up his coffee. “Did I ever tell you how I met Falsworth?”
Natasha nods. “He was on your first assignment.”
“Dugan too. Monty was a junior officer back then. They were...” Steve pauses to take a sip of coffee. “We were a team.”
Natasha smiles sadly. “I can believe that.”
“I was…” Steve snorts. “I was an idiot back then. Reckless, thought I knew what I was doing. Thought I could punch my way through my problems.”
Natasha smirks, and Steve doesn’t need to be psychic to know what she’s thinking.
“They pulled my sorry ass out of the fire more times than I can remember,” Steve shakes his head. “And it got them killed.”
He looks down at his coffee, the taste of it souring in his mouth. “I got them killed.”
Natasha reaches out and lays her hand on top of his, curling her fingers around until he takes her hand in his. She doesn’t offer excuses, or platitudes, only the bittersweet comfort of their intertwined fingers.
Steve swallows, as if he could wash away the bitter taste. “When I was given this command, Starfleet had a clear idea of the crew. A list of competent, capable people as long as my arm.” Steve huffs. “I had my own ideas. There’s not a soul on this vessel I didn’t hand pick myself, didn’t look at their reports and ask myself why weren’t they being given a chance? Not one person that I regret bringing here.”
Natasha gently squeezes her fingers. “Not even Tony?”
Steve coughs out a laugh. “Not even Tony.”
The next piece is harder to say, so he stares down at their hands. “When we beamed onto the ship from the waystation, I was unable to call for help right away. You were at the Transporter Room long before the rest of the security detail.” Natasha’s hold loosens. “You want to tell me how?”
For a moment Steve fears that he’s overstepped his bounds, but Natasha sighs. “I felt it.”
She tries to pull away, but Steve keeps a hold of her, anchoring them both.
“An empath within a light year of the ship would have felt it. A psionic… scream… of rage and fear and loss. And you were dying. You were both dying.”
Steve flinches, but doesn’t let go.
“I didn’t wait to be summoned to the Transporter bay, I had a post and I abandoned it, dropped what I was doing and ran.”
“That’s why I need you, Nat.” Steve raises his head and meets her dark eyes. “Your empathic abilities aren’t a weakness, they’re an advantage. You know when something’s wrong before it’s called in, you sense it. And you don’t wait on orders when you need to act.”
Steve sends a message out to the senior staff to meet him in the Ready Room, and takes the turbolift with Natasha up to the Bridge. They wait patiently, preferring to stand rather than sit at the table to one side of the room.
It doesn’t take long for the rest of his new team to arrive, a rag-bag of junior officers of different disciplines and the ambassador. They would not be considered the best and brightest that Starfleet has to offer, but Steve has every faith in them.
“I want to thank you all for coming at short notice. I know you’re all busy, and in much need of sleep, but I wanted to take a moment to introduce you to each other,” Steve begins. He gestures to Tony. “You already know Mr Stark.”
“Life support is back online and we’re working on the warp drive,” Tony sniffs impatiently. “You don’t have to thank me or anything.”
“Thank you, Mr Stark,” Steve says pointedly. “I’m sure you've all met Thor Odinson and Dr Banner.”
Thor nods, and Banner raises a hand and mumbles a greeting. Steve hasn’t had a chance to question him on how the surgery went before the meeting began, and has to make do with a hurried assurance that Bucky condition remains stable.
“Mr Wilson remains my second,” Steve nods to Sam. “And will assume command of the ship should I be unable to perform my duties. I’d like to introduce the new chief of Security, Natasha Romanov.”
There is a murmur of greeting as Steve continues around the room.
“With our limited resources we will be operating on twelve hour rotations. Each of you will be required to elect a member of your department to run the night shift, and Tony before you say a word, no you can’t run Engineering twenty four hours and no, you can’t elect Parker as your second.”
“Worth a shot,” Tony shrugs.
Steve points to a man with dishevelled blond hair who is cradling a mug of raktajino like his life depends on it. “Clint Barton is our new Helmsman, moving over from Engineering. Sorry for pulling you out of the Jefferies tubes, Mr Barton.”
Barton raises his mug in salute. “Hey.”
Steve turns to the last member, who is shifting from foot to foot in excitement. “And our chief of Communications, Mr-”
“Hey, guys. You can call me Luis!” he blurts out. “Sorry for the interruption, Cap. I’m just really pumped to be part of the team, y’know?”
“Okay, settle down,” Sam says, and gives Luis a brittle smile.
“Thank you, Sam.” Steve nods. “Luis joins us from Security.”
“Is this a good idea?” Tony points his finger at Luis while looking at Steve.
“Oh shit, absolutely!” Luis claps his hands together. “I know ‘em all! I can speak Cardassian, Klingonese, Tamarian, Vulcan, Xindi, and that’s both aquatic and insectoid. I’m pretty good at Loque’eque and can manage a little bit of Breen but I need a glass or two of Romulan ale, if you know what I mean. All the clicks and whirs really screw with the-”
“There’s going to be a diplomatic incident in our future,” Bruce says quietly. “I can feel it.”
“No no no,” Luis holds his hands up placatingly. “You can trust me, alright? I mean linguistics is my jam, y’know?”
“Thank you, Luis,” Steve tries to cut him off.
“I got this guys, I promise.” Luis clasps his hands together. “I’m just really excited.”
Steve presses his thumb to the knot of tension between his brows. “Luis is the best candidate for the position.” Luis is the only candidate for the position.
The room falls silent, and Steve turns, facing each of them. “Are there any questions?”
“I’ve got a questions,” Clint speaks up. “When were you planning on telling us about the Borg?”
Everyone starts talking at once, a cacophony of voices that Steve can’t pick a single clear question from. He grits his teeth and takes a step back, giving them a moment to speak out. He can’t hope that they’ll wear themselves out or come to order naturally, they are all too unused to each other and Tony couldn’t be quiet if he tried.
“That’s enough,” Steve snaps, calling them to attention.
“You’re seriously telling me there’s a Borg on this ship?” Tony asks. “What were you planning on doing, cutting it up and seeing how it works?”
“No.” Steve doesn’t hide his disgust at the suggestion. “I knew him, before he was assimilated. If we can remind him of what he was, who he was, maybe he can help us. This could be an opportunity, he has inside knowledge of how the Borg operates, their weaknesses. We could spend thirty years scouring deep space for clues and not even find a fraction of what he already knows.”
“The Borg do not help people,” Thor announces. “They assimilate. That is all their kind cares for.”
“The Captain’s right, he is human.” Banner interjects. “James Barnes, he was an Engineering student at Starfleet, thought to have been killed on Wolf 359.”
“But he’s still dangerous, right?” Luis asks, licking his lips nervously. “They can talk to each other in subspace frequencies, right? What’s to say he isn’t already calling for backup, and a bunch of those big green cube ships are on their way?”
“His interlink node and neural transceiver have both been deactivated and removed, he is no longer in contact with the Borg. I also removed the weapons array on his right arm and his assimilation tubules,” Bruce is quick to answer. “I wouldn’t call him harmless, but he has been disarmed.”
“And his condition is stable?” Steve checks.
“But he’s still a security risk,” Natasha says. “And requires a round the clock detail.”
As much as Steve dislikes admitting it, he nods. “Until we know we can trust him.”
“I have a question,” Tony says with the kind of forced casualness that makes Steve wary. Tony walks over to the viewscreen and stares out at the strange constellations beyond. “How did you bring down a Borg single handed?”
Steve folds his arms across his chest. “I don’t see how that’s relevant.”
“Oh come on,” Tony turns to face him, leaning his back against the screen. “You may be physically above average, but even you couldn’t subdue a Borg drone and get it back to the ship. Unarmed. How did you do it?”
Steve chews on the inside of his cheek. They are lost in the wilderness, with no way back home. Maybe it’s time to lay his cards on the table.
“Dr Banner, you should take this one.” Steve pulls out a chair and sits down. “You all might want to take a seat.”
Banner and Stark are the only ones who choose to remain standing, the others taking places around the table. Banner fiddles with the arms of his glasses before dropping them onto the table, and begins his story.
“I was still a med school when I started working for Dr Abraham Erskine. I was an admirer of his work.”
“Who?” Luis asks. “Who’s this Abe guy then?”
“He specialised in DNA resequencing,” Banner explains. “Selective alteration of a person's genetic coding as a means of curing them of genetic disorders.”
“Which was banned in the 22nd century after the Eugenics Wars,” Tony points an accusatory finger.
“I recall reading something of this,” Thor rubs his fingers through his beard. “There was a fear of further conflict with augmented tyrants.”
Sam gives Steve a hard stare.
Banner nods. “The treatments were highly sought after, and extremely illegal. But we were helping people, saving lives. That’s how I met Sarah Rogers.” He glances at Steve. “I thought she was seeking help for herself, she had been exposed to a pathogen in her duties as a nurse, and didn’t have long to live. But it was her son she was trying to save.”
The look on Tony’s face would be comical in any other situation. He looks betrayed. “You’re genetically enhanced.”
“There was an experimental serum, and I was a suitable candidate,” Steve shrugs. “The doctors didn’t expect me to see my twentieth birthday, what did I have to lose?”
Sam lets out a soft hiss between his teeth, and Steve finds it hard to look his way, but he does.
“The results were enhanced strength and endurance, as well as heightened regenerative abilities.” Banner smiles to himself. “Aspects of Mr Rogers personality were also heightened. His intelligence, his obstinacy.”
“His tendency to run headlong into danger?” Sam suggests.
“Wait a minute,” Tony walks towards Steve, and if he didn’t know him better, Steve would brace himself for a punch. “Genetically enhanced people are banned from serving in Starfleet.”
Steve stands his ground. “They are.”
Tony clenches his hands into fists. Natasha takes a step forward, and Steve motions for her to stay put, and braces himself. It’s the least he deserves.
“You seriously had the balls to quote Starfleet regulations? To me?” Tony hisses.
“Tony,” Steve says softly.
“No! Screw you Rogers,” Tony takes a step back, wiping his hand over his mouth. “I’m going right back to Engineering and firing up that AI. Hell, I’m gonna make a hundred of them, just you try and stop me!”
“Go right ahead, Tony,” Steve says. “Just get the warp drive running first.”
Tony turns an alarming shade of red, and then falls still. “What the hell kind of crew are we?”
Steve bows his head, and holds on to hope. What else does he have to cling to?
“I know we are adrift, that we have already lost so much.” He looks around the room, his gaze falling on them one by one. “I know that Starfleet has looked at each of your files, and found them wanting. But I’m not Starfleet.”
Tony snorts. “We don’t stand a chance, Rogers.”
“I don’t care,” Steve answers honestly. “We are the last, best hope of finding a way to defeat the Borg. I don’t care how screwed we are, my whole life has been the odds stacked against me, and I’m not gonna stop fighting now.”
Thor nods. “We still have our strength, we will keep fighting.”
“Fuckin’ A,” Luis adds emphatically.
“Fine, if you’re going to stoop to rousing speeches.” Tony is graceless in his retreat. “If anyone else wants me, I’ll be in Engineering putting my damn ship back together.” He gives Steve a last scowl. “A hundred non-Starfleet-compliant robots, Rogers, I’m not kidding.”
Steve waits for Tony to storm out of the room before turning to the remaining crew. “Any further questions?”
He is met with silence.
“Alright then, get back to your stations. I want hourly reports on your progress.”
There is a mutter of affirmations as the crew depart, returning to their duties.
Sam lingers in the doorway, waiting for Steve to acknowledge him.
“What is it, Sam?”
Sam opens his mouth to speak, and closes it again. Steve can see the questions in his eyes. All the years they have known each other, called each other friend. All the secrets never spilled. Could Sam forgive him?
“So that speech?” There is a lightness in Sam’s tone, and one more thing to hold on to. “You plan that out, or was it just, you know, off the top of your head?”
Chapter 3: The Deal
“You should have let us die.”
“Steve,” Bucky shouts, exasperated. “Hey, Stevie.”
Steve grits his teeth and hunches down in his seat, trying to make himself invisible. It doesn’t work, everyone else on the ship has no problem overlooking little Steve Rogers, but not James Barnes. Most of the time Steve is grateful for that, but right now he’d rather be invisible.
“There you are,” Bucky sits down in the chair next to him, the feet scraping noisily across the floor. A student sitting opposite looks up at the sound and glares at Bucky, who grins back. His lips are red and slightly swollen, and Steve hates the way they draw his eye.
“Here I am,” Steve mutters sourly, and pretends to focus on his Telemetry revision.
“Why did you run off, anyway?” Bucky rests his arm over the back of Steve’s chair, full of easy confidence.
“I didn’t run,” Steve sits up a little straighter. “I had plenty of time to come up here and work on my report while you were sucking face with whatshername.”
Bucky grins, wide and smug. “Dolores. She’s an Orion, you know.”
“Really,” Steve mutters sourly. “I hadn’t noticed.”
Bucky blows out a breath. “What’s gotten into you?”
“Nothing,” Steve snaps.
Bucky grins again. “You’re jealous.”
“I am not!” Steve hisses, and earns himself a glare from the other student. Great.
He is jealous, but not in the way Bucky thinks. And he hates it.
“You’re jealous,” Bucky decides. “Come on, Stevie. You want me to ask if she’s got a friend?”
The student sat opposite gives them one final glower before picking up his PADD and moving to another table.
“Stevie,” Bucky’s tone is light and sweet, the kind he uses with hesitant girls, coaxing and promising. “You know you’re my best guy, right? These girls, they’re just a bit of fun. That’s all.” He slips his arm around Steve’s shoulders. “You’ll always be my best pal, you know that.”
Despite everything, Steve’s anger thaws. He can’t find it in him to be mad when Bucky is pressed up against him, his hand fitting against the curve of Steve’s shoulder like it belongs there.
Steve grumbles a little, making a token effort at pushing Bucky away. He weathers the little storm between them, curling his fingers around Steve’s arm.
“We’re always gonna be friends, you and me.” Bucky promises, and Steve soaks up every word. “Whatever happens, pal, you know I got your back. Right?”
Steve shifts, fighting the blush rising up his throat. “Alright, fine. You made your point,” he huffs, pulling out of Bucky’s grip. “Now shut up and let me do my report.”
Bucky smiles at him, soft and indulgent. “Whatever you need, pal.”
In the 41 hours since encountering the waystation, Steve has consumed so much coffee that even his heightened metabolism can’t suppress the jittery, thrumming sensation running just under his skin, or the tension headache pounding away at the base of his skull. With warp drive and life support systems fully operational, he has finally given his senior staff a few precious hours to rest while the Asgardians argue with Luis over their coordinates. Poor souls.
Steve should be resting along with them, but there are still reports to be done, and funerals to arrange.
He rubs the heel of his hand against his eyes, his vision blurring, and starts another message that Starfleet might never receive, commending the brave crewman who gave up his life.
They weigh on him, each one a stone in his pocket, dragging him down. There are so many of them, so many little stones, and he is slowly being buried under the weight of them.
He can almost hear Sam’s chiding voice in his ear, reminding him that no one signs up for a deep space mission, especially not one seeking information on the Borg, without knowing the risks.
“Captain,” Banner's voice comes over the comms.
Steve sits up a little straighter. “Yes, Dr Banner?”
“You asked for an update on Barnes?”
Steve looks down at the endless reports still waiting to be seen to, all the rocks and stones weighing him down, and pushes his PADD to one side.
“On my way.”
Sickbay has become much quieter in the last few hours, the patients either discharged and returned to their duties, or sealed up in bags and put into cryofreeze.
Steve finds Banner leaning against a replicator in the break room, cradling a mug of spiced tea.
“Dr Banner,” Steve greets him. “Please tell me you’ve had some rest?”
Banner takes in the red around Steve’s eyes and the coffee in his hands. “Only if you can say the same.”
Steve tips his head in acknowledgement, and Banner leads him to the private room where Bucky is being kept. Steve nods to the Security officer on the door, an Asgardian, who gives him a polite incline of the head in return.
“We’re keeping him sedated for the time being,” Banner explains as they enter the room.
Steve’s gaze is pulled to Bucky lying on the hospital bed, drinking in the sight of him like a man dying of thirst.
He is naked to the waist, the majority of the exo-plating removed from his upper body, but for the muzzle and the metal arm. His skin is pale, but a more human shade, with patches of healthy-looking pink across his right arm and bare scalp, marred in places by residual Borg technology. His features are slack, but not restful, and Steve walks over to the bedside, his feet moving of their own accord. His own hand disobeys him too, reaching out to touch the twisted, scarred skin at his shoulder where metal arm meets flesh. The join between man and machine is neither elegant nor seamless, the metal reaching down past his armpit and across the upper region of his pectoral muscles. Steve runs his thumb along the seam, feeling the hard edge of metal under the skin.
“We were able to remove the Borg implants affecting his vital organs, as well as most of the armoured plating. I’ve sealed up everything we’ve removed in secure containers, and passed them along to Science and Engineering, see what they can make of them. A few pieces I’ve kept here for study.” Bruce brings up a scan of Bucky’s upper body on the console. “The irreparable skin has been replaced with dermoplastic grafts, which will help with the tissue regeneration as his human biology reasserts itself.”
His skin is pliant to the touch, and Steve allows him another moment to linger, to reassure himself that Bucky is warm and alive.
“And the arm?” he asks, pulling his hand away. The loss is palpable, a chill that runs from his fingertips to his heart.
“The implant extends right across his pectoral muscle on the front, and the reinforced scapula and collarbone at the back.” Banner gestures to the screen, where Steve can see the extent of the augmentations. “The arm is heavy, so it’s had to be anchored to the spinal column and the upper ribs. There are also synthetic tendons and muscles that provide a range of movement, each of them housing Borg nanobots.” Banner shakes his head. “It’s impossible to remove it without killing him, the Borg tech is too extensive.”
Steve clutches his coffee cup tightly to keep from reaching out again. “Is he in pain?”
“At the moment, no.” Banner shakes his head. “But he will never be completely rid of the implants, or the nanobots.”
Steve lets out a pained sound. “So he’ll always be a security risk.”
“There’s a chance that he can be reasoned with, that he can be persuaded to help us.” Banner looks at Steve with something far too much like pity. “But you need to prepare yourself for the possibility that he will spend the rest of his time with us in a holding cell.”
“Damn it,” Steve hisses.
It takes some minutes before Steve realises that Banner is looking at him, waiting for a signal to keep talking. Which can only mean more bad news.
“What is it?” Steve asks.
“Even severed from the collective, he’s still a Borg. He needs an alcove.”
Steve frowns. “A what?”
“An alcove.” Banner taps at his console and brings up a blurred image from the Starfleet database. “It’s a chamber used by the Borg, as far as I can figure out they’re tailor made to each drone.”
Steve takes a closer look. “They are stasis units, if I remember right? The Borg use them to regenerate.”
“That’s right.” Bruce fidgets with his teacup. “With us lost and the waystation presumably destroyed…”
“The only way to get hold of an alcove is to build one,” Steve finishes. “Can you?”
Banner spreads his arms out. “I’m flying blind here, Captain. I don’t know. I have theories, I have ideas, but I need help. I need-”
“Tony,” Steve sighs. “You need Tony.”
Banner nods. “I doubt he’d be willing to help.”
“You’re not wrong.” Steve admits. He looks back at where Bucky lies, still and silent, his breaths rasping through the muzzle. “How much time to we have?”
Bruce shakes his head. “Hard to say, sedation is not the same as regeneration. I’m able to provide intravenous fluids while he’s under, but it’s not a long term solution.”
Steve rubs his knuckles across his chin thoughtfully. “What if he were able to assist? He must have knowledge of Borg technology, would he be able to help in building an alcove?”
“There’s only one way to find out.” Banner picks up a hypospray. “Ask him.”
Steve chews on his lip. He’s nowhere near ready to talk to Bucky, not after what happened the last time. But it’s not about him, it’s about what Bucky needs. He sets his coffee down and nods sharply. “Do it.”
Banner applies the hypospray to the juncture where Bucky’s neck meets his shoulder, and presses down until there is a soft hiss of escaping gas.
The effect is immediate, Bucky lurches up into a sitting position, pulling half the IV lines and sensors off and causing the scanner to bleep in alarm. Banner puts a gentle hand to his shoulder.
“It’s okay, don’t be alarmed,” he soothes as Bucky flinches away from his touch. “You’re in a medical facility. You’re going to be fine.”
Bucky’s baleful glare locks onto Steve. “What have you done?”
His voice is distorted by the muzzle, a low grating sound accented with a sharp whine of feedback.
“Your body was rejecting the implants,” Banner explains. “They were killing you, we had to remove them.”
Bucky ignores him, pushing away Banners arm and getting up from the bed, his focus on nothing but Steve.
“You should have let us die,” he snarls.
Steve stands his ground, not recoiling or retreating when Bucky stops in front of him, barely a hair's breadth between them.
He is smaller than Steve, now. Not by much, an inch or two, but all Steve’s life Bucky had towered over him. It feels so strange, so terrible, to lower his eyes to someone he once looked up at.
“I couldn’t do that, Buck.”
“Inadequate,” Bucky snorts and turns away.
A direct hit from a phaser would hurt less than than the way Bucky dismisses him. But Steve pushes it aside.
“I understand what you’re going through, Bucky.”
“Silence!” Even through the modulation of his mask, Steve can hear the hatred. “You will restore the link to the collective.”
“We can’t,” Banner tries to coax Bucky back to the bed, holding out his arm as if he could be shepherded. “The transmitter was too damaged.”
“Then return this drone to the Borg,” Bucky snaps.
“Not gonna happen, Buck,” Steve snaps.
“Steve,” Banner warns.
“Return this drone to the Borg,” Bucky snarls, the muzzle whining and crackling in his frustration.
“We can’t!” Steve snarls back. “Near as we can figure, when the waystation blew it triggered those displacement devices. All of them.”
Bucky stills, and Banner make the most of the opportunity to sit him back down on the bed.
”We have no idea where we are.” Steve admits. “We’ve not been able to find anything on our long-range scanners. We’re lost.”
Bucky hunches his shoulders, wary, assessing. “This unit cannot function without the Borg.”
“Yes you can, Bucky,” Steve says quietly.
“This drone is one mind, one voice.” Bucky bows his head, suddenly weary. “We cannot hear them.”
“I know that you’re scared, Bucky,” Steve takes a step towards him. “That you feel alone.”
Bucky glares at him. “Silence. What do you know of loss?!”
“I know plenty,” Steve snaps. “I lost everything. I lost you.”
Bucky falls silent, retreating into himself. He does not resist when Banner pushes him down onto the bed and starts reattaching the IV lines and sensors. When Steve risks a step closer he shuts his eyes and turns away. There is something almost childish about the action, as if closing his eyes to something unwanted could make it disappear.
“We can’t take you back to the Borg,” Steve says, “But you are not alone. You are one of us now, a community on board this ship. We may be individuals, Humans, Asgardians, and many others, but we live and work together. You could be a part of that collective.”
“Humans,” Bucky mutters sourly. “Origin: Grid 325, species 5618. Highly resistant to assimilation. Inefficient physiology, below average cranial capacity and limited regeneration abilities.”
“Yeah, that sounds about right,” Banner restarts his scan and hums to himself. “Also stubborn, proud and reckless.” He glances at Steve. “Some more than others.”
Steve watches Bucky’s eyes open, but he does not turn to Steve. Instead he looks at the console, where a biometric reading tells him his own heart rate and blood oxygen levels, the results changing in tiny increments as he breathes in and out.
“You need us,” Steve says, forcing himself to remain still, and not take the final step to the bedside. “We can help you. Help you construct an alcove for regeneration. To find your own identity.”
Bucky makes a soft ‘tch’ sound, barely audible.
“And we need you,” Steve admits.
I need you.
Steve waits, but Bucky doesn’t acknowledge him, or offer a reply. Banner comes around the bed and takes Steve by the arm, leading him outside. He waits until they are safely out of earshot before speaking.
“He’ll come around, give him time,” he says gently.
“He hates me,” Steve glances back at the room, at Sif standing at the door, keeping guard.
“He doesn’t hate you,” Banner says impatiently. “He’s scared and he’s angry.”
“And he hates me,” Steve snaps.
“Well, good,” Banner grabs him by the arm before he can storm off, as if he could stop Steve if he wanted to leave. “If he’s angry, let him be angry. It’s an emotion, Steve. There’s nothing more human than being pissed at people, believe me.”
Steve falters. “You mean he’s… processing.”
“If that’s what you want to call it.” Banner shrugs. “I’m not that kind of doctor.”
Steve rubs his hand over his mouth. He’s too damned tired, too damned heartsick. “He doesn’t remember.”
“Of course he doesn’t,” Banner snorts. “After everything he’s been through?”
Steve nods, still rubbing the pad of his thumb against his mouth. “Will he?”
Banner sighs and leans against the wall. “It’s hard to say at this point. We can’t know for certain what effects the implants have had on his limbic system.” He gives Steve a sympathetic look. “I know how much your friend meant to you, but you need to prepare yourself for the very real possibility that he’s gone.”
The last thing Steve feels like doing is sleeping, so he takes the turbolift down to Astrometrics.
Astrometrics is not a standard on Starfleet ships, but commonplace on Asgardian craft, especially those travelling in the outlying regions of known space. The chief of Astrometrics is an Asgardian, Heimdall, a close friend of Thor. Golden-eyed where Thor’s are blue, silent where he is brash, for all the talk of Thor being a Prince of Asgard, it is Heimdall that the people turn to.
Steve spends the best part of an hour listening to several of his smartest, most highly trained crewmen fight like cats with the Asgardians over the best way of working out where the hell in the galaxy they were. Although they were all agreed that the ship was most likely still somewhere in the Milky Way, they were divided over exactly where. Some believed that the ship was adrift in the Delta Quadrant, and the best course of action was to aim towards the center of the galaxy. Others believed they were in the Beta Quadrant, and needed to fly away from the center of the galaxy.
Steve listens to them argue, and wondered what it mattered. Known space was maybe 20,000 lights years from the center of the galaxy, which was incidentally a black hole, like the center of every other galaxy, and there was no damn way he was piloting his ship into that.
They might as well pick a direction at random and fly until they run out of stars for all the good it would do.
He excuses himself when the dull thumping headache behind his eyes becomes something sharper and harder to ignore. And because he has no sense of self preservation, he goes down to Engineering.
Steve takes the few seconds in the turbolift to rub at his eyes. He feels jagged around the edges, like his body is made of spun glass, brittle and sharp.
You’re tired, he tells himself. You’re just tired.
The turbolift doors slide open and he steps out into the corridor, head bowed as he rubs the back of his neck, trying to work out the knot of tension between his shoulders and not quite reaching it.
He is momentarily distracted, and almost walks into someone.
“Captain Rogers,” a soft voice greets him, and Steve looks up.
The… man… blocking the way into Engineering is red. Ordinarily that wouldn’t be strange, red is the assigned colour of Engineering personnel, but his whole body is red. Red arms, red hands, red face, with gold detailing on his shoulders and torso. There are flat gold discs where his ears should be.
“Uh.” Steve offers.
“You seem to be in discomfort,” the Red Man says politely. “Can I offer you some analgesic cream? Mr Stark has installed several physiotherapy programs in my network, have you considered the Alexander Technique?”
It’s entirely possible that Steve is hallucinating. He resists the urge to reach out and poke the Red Man, just to be sure.
“The vision?” he asks carefully.
The Red Man smiles. His teeth are very white, a painful contrast to his red skin. “I am Vision, Captain. It is a pleasure to meet you.”
“Vision,” Steve repeats. “Well, I’m pleased to be met.”
“I trust my…” Vision pauses, searching for the right word. “Existence is acceptable? I understand Mr Stark did not have authority to create me, and if it would be pertinent to have me decommissioned, rather than cause conflict, I would not object.”
Steve nearly chokes on his own tongue. “I’m not having you decommissioned.”
“Thank you, sir,” Vision bows his head. “I admit I would prefer to continue existing, I am finding it fascinating.”
“You are?” Steve has to remind himself not to stare.
“Oh yes,” Vision nods. “Granted, I existed previously, within the confines of a computer program. But to be given shape, to be given form. It is a rare and profound gift.”
Steve nods silently, and can’t help but compare the life form before him, and there is no doubt in his mind that Vision is alive, and the one in Sickbay, lost somewhere in the void between human and Borg.
“But I’m detaining you when you clearly have matters to attend to.” Vision folds his hands together neatly. “I take it you are here to see Mr Stark?”
Steve finally catches up with the conversation. “I am.”
Vision holds his arm out, directing Steve to walk with him. “This way, Captain.”
Vision leads Steve through Engineering, talking animatedly about the plasma coils in the warp nacelles. Steve nods along, following Vision's train of thought as best as he can. As Captain, he is required to have a working knowledge of all aspects of the ship's functions, to make informed decisions about the ship's operations and intervene if something is damaged and requires immediate attention. But even he can’t keep up with the advanced warp theory Vision is immersed in.
Vision seems to catch on quickly, and stops mid-sentence. “But this must be frightfully dull.”
“No, not at all,” Steve gives him a quick smile.
Vision tips his head, and seems to consider his words. “Captain, might I make a request?”
Steve nods, waiting for him to go on.
“Of course, I have no intention of leaving Engineering, unless on your explicit instructions-”
“Of course,” Steve murmurs. The more he talks to Vision, the harder it is argue that point.
“My appearance is unsettling for some of the staff.” Vision waves an eloquent hand down his front. “Subtlety is not Mr Starks forte. And I would be under no illusions that it would be representative of an official title or presence among the crew-”
“You want a uniform,” Steve blurts out.
Of course he wants a uniform. He’s surrounded by Starfleet all day, dressed in their standard on-duty clothing, bearing rank and colors. He wants to be one of them.
Vision lowers his head, bringing his hands together, the pads of each finger lining up. “If I have misspoken…”
“Not at all,” Steve assures him. “We are short-staffed, and will be for the duration of this voyage. Mr Stark, for all his talk, would never leave Engineering in the care of someone he didn’t have absolute confidence in.”
“Captain,” Vision demurs quietly.
“I’ll see that you’re added to the ship's manifest, and assigned a role on board. That will give you access to the replicators.”
“Oh, I have no need to ingest foodstuffs or liquids. I don’t think I even have any tastebuds.” Vision raises a hand to his mouth curiously.
Steve gives him a crooked smile. “The replicators do provide food, but they also supply uniforms, literature, tools, and parts. All things you’ll need as an officer in Engineering.”
“What’s going on?” Tony pops up from behind a console. “You guys are talking. Why are you talking?”
He drops his tools and comes over, pushing his way between Steve and Vision.
“You already have a mechanical murder man, you can’t have mine,” he plants a hand square in the center of Vision’s chest, pushing him back. Vision reverses with the benign patience of a parent with a wayward toddler.
“It was a pleasure speaking with you Captain,” Vision calls as Tony directs him to one of the warp coils. “Go learn about warp signatures,” Tony instructs. “No talking to Captains who have lost their goddamn minds.”
“Tony,” Steve doesn’t try to keep the exhaustion from his voice. Stark is the only person on the ship who has been awake longer than he has.
“Don’t you Tony me,” Stark grouses. “You’ve not had enough sleep and its addled your mind.”
“You’re one to talk.” The words slip out and Steve instantly regrets them.
“I didn’t bring a killer robot onto the ship!”
“He’s not a robot,” Steve sighs.
“No, I’m sorry, my mistake.” Stark rolls his eyes. “I meant a deadly alien species that wants to wipe out every living creature in the universe. I get that we’re out here to learn about the Borg, but it’s a pretty frickin’ direct approach to just snag one from an exploding outpost and keep it as a pet.”
“That’s not why I did it,” Steve balls his hands into fists. He tightens them until his knuckles turn white, and slowly unclenches them again.
“What does it matter why you did it,” Stark sniffs and picks up a nearby PADD. “You still did it. Brought a monster onto the ship, and expected us all to be okay with it.”
“He’s not a monster.” Steve’s voice is barely audible. “He was my friend.”
Stark hesitates, then punches a sequence into his PADD. “So where d’you know the guy from? Wolf 359?” There is an airy indifference to his tone that Steve isn’t fooled by.
“He was with me on the USS Marvel. He stayed behind when the escape pods malfunctioned, overrode the system.” Steve swallows, a ghost of pain in his throat like scar tissue. “He saved a lot of lives that day, including mine.”
“So you gotta save his,” Tony finishes. He sucks on his teeth irritably. “Damn it.”
Steve waits for Stark to put the PADD down before speaking again. “I need your help.”
“Ugh,” Tony spins around on his heel and starts stalking around Engineering, looking for distractions. “What do you want?”
“Bucky will need an alcove,” Steve braces himself. “Dr Banner has been able to remove some of the Borg implants, but enough remains in his system that he needs a place to regenerate.”
“And you want me to build it?” Stark snaps.
“I want to know if it’s possible,” Steve clarifies.
“Anything is possible,” Stark tells him airily. “Infinite possibilities in a constant state of flux, blah blah blah.”
“So you can do it?”
“It would certainly provide an interesting challenge,” Vision adds from his place by the warp coils.
“You are not part of this conversation,” Tony yells without looking over. “I will break you down for parts.”
Vision smiles to himself. “Dr Banner has kindly provided a number of samples of Borg technology, and with the assistance of Mr…” he looks at Steve expectantly.
“Barnes,” Steve answers. “James Barnes.”
“Thank you,” Vision returns his attention to Stark. “With the assistance of Mr Barnes I’m sure such a thing would be possible.”
“I hate you,” Tony ducks behind a console. “I hate both of you.”
Despite all the tasks that still require his attention, Steve takes the turbolift back to his quarters. He debates taking a shower, but it would probably jolt him awake again. He sets an alarm for fours hours time, and crawls into his bunk, his booted feet dangling over the end. It’s only a few hours rest, and there’s every chance he’ll get called to an emergency before his time is up, so sleeps in his boots like a foot soldier.
It’s a fitful, restless sleep, clouded by dreams and memories, tangled together into something nightmarish and bewildering. A metal hand wraps around his heart and squeezes the breath out of him. Iron bands, so cold that they burn, lock his lungs into place, choking the life out of him.
He wakes up, breathless and disoriented, his hands pressed to his chest, sucking in ragged gasps of air. His throat burns, like a swallow of hydrochloric acid that has corroded through his esophagus and spread out through his lungs, eating away at him from the inside until he is a hollow shell.
“Captain?” Dr Banner’s voice echoes through the comms. “Captain, do you read?”
Steve sits up in bed, rubbing the palm of his hand in a slow circle on his chest. There is a residual ache there, a memory, and he presses his hand to his sternum hard enough to bruise, willing it away.
“Doc?” he rasps, and swallows.
“You okay?” Banner asks, concerned.
“Yeah,” Steve pulls his tunic straight. “Yeah, I was asleep.”
“Sorry, Captain,” Banner sounds genuinely apologetic as Steve checks the time. Three hours sleep, give or take. Damn it.
“No, it’s fine,” Steve scrubs his hands through his hair and gets to his feet, walking over to his replicator and punching in an order for coffee. “What do you need?”
Banner is silent while Steve takes his first sip of coffee and checks the latest reports. Nothing has exploded or vanished or otherwise gone terribly wrong in his absence, and that is something to be grateful for at least.
“I have a patient here who wishes to speak to you,” Banner says carefully.
Steve sets the coffee down on a nearby table, spilling a little on the white surface. “Bucky?”
Banner hums in confirmation. “He wants to negotiate a… deal.”
Steve doesn’t let himself feel the sting of disappointment, pushing the sensation down to the pit of his stomach. It would be too much, too soon, for Bucky to come around so quickly. As much as he hates it, it will take time.
“I’m on my way.”
There are a handful of patients still in sickbay, recovering from their injuries, and Steve walks quickly past the bays to the secure room at the far end. There is a guard on duty, a crewman whose name he could probably dredge up with another hours sleep behind him. He nods at Steve’s approach, and allows him inside.
Bucky is sitting up in bed, his scalp a darker shade than the rest of his skin with the first signs of hair growth. Wanda is working at his side, checking his readings with crisp, Vulcan efficiency.
Dr Banner had spoken highly of her medical skills, and made noises about having her transferred from Science division. Steve can understand why, her quiet presence exerts a calming influence on the people around her, and Banner needs all the peace he can get.
Steve hovers in the doorway, uncertain of his welcome, until Dr Banner comes up behind him, cradling a cup of his customary spiced tea.
“Captain,” he says with a smile. “Come in.”
Bucky doesn’t look up as they come into the room, keeping his head down and turned away while Banner shuts the doors and joins Wanda at the console.
“Vital signs are looking good,” Banner nods approvingly. “Your human physiology is reasserting itself, regenerating hair and tissue at an expedient rate.”
Bucky doesn’t respond, his expression barely readable with his downcast eyes and mask covering half of his face. Banner shrugs and carries on with his work.
Steve stays by the door. “You wanted to make a deal?”
Bucky speaks, almost ponderously, the muzzle making his words crackle and hiss. “We have considered our situation…”
Steve nods expectantly, but doesn’t offer any response.
Bucky glances up at him, wary and displeased. “The Borg have journeyed beyond the furthest reaches of your kind. Assimilated life forms beyond your comprehension. Studied galactic clusters that your primitive technology is blind to, journeyed the transmaterial energy planes intersecting billions of omnicordial lifeforms-”
“Your point being?” Steve interrupts.
“We can guide you. Guide the ship towards Federation space.”
Steve bites back a response, and folds his hands behind his back. “In exchange for what?” he asks finally.
“You will leave us on the first habitable planet with a transmitter, where we will await the collective.”
“Not happening,” Steve says flatly.
“This drone cannot survive without the Borg.”
“Yes, you can!” Steve snaps.
“It’s too quiet without them,” Bucky says softly, the distortion of his muzzle almost rendering the words inaudible.
Steve doesn’t have an easy answer for that. “We’ll find a way.”
Wanda looks up from the console. “Captain?”
Steve turns to her, leaving Bucky to his sullen silence. “Yes, Wanda?”
“There is a Vulcan technique that might be of some assistance,” Wanda glances to Banner for approval. “If the… subject would be willing to mind-meld.”
Bucky tilts his head, watching her suspiciously.
“How safe is it?” Steve asks before Banner has the chance to.
“I am fully versed in Vulcan mind techniques,” Wanda says primly. “I would ensure there are safeguards in place to protect my own mind.”
Banner catches Steve’s eye and shrugs, as if to say what can it hurt?
“Would you be willing?” Steve asks Bucky. “We can’t return you to the Borg, but there is a place for you on this ship. We will help you adjust to your new environment any way we can.”
It’s a long time before Bucky responds, and Steve tries not to fidget, tries not to open his mouth and keep talking, fumbling around for a reason for him to stay.
“Acceptable,” Bucky grates out. “We will show you the way.”
“Shouldn’t you be sleeping?” Sam doesn’t look up from the PADD resting on his crossed knees, idly spinning the Command chair from side to side.
“I slept,” Steve says defensively.
Sam glances up at him, unimpressed. “Sure you did.”
“Status report,” Steve gives the back of the chair a gentle nudge, not enough to tip Sam out, but certainly suggest the possibility.
“We’re moving, at last,” Sam sniffs. “Odds are 3/1 in favour of us running straight into a trap.”
Steve chews on the inside of his cheek. “How much did you bet?”
“A fifth of Romulan ale that we’re ambushed within forty-eight hours.”
“Where did you pick up Romulan ale?”
Sam makes a high-pitched, derisive sound. “Don’t think you know everything about me, Rogers”
Steve walks along the Bridge to the Helm, where Barton is at the controls, following the heading that had come down from Astrometrics.
Steve had taken Bucky’s flightplan to them himself, and watched as they squabbled over the details like birds over a crust of bread. The new plan took them 5,000 light years in a direction none of them had considered, and then… stopped.
Steve couldn’t blame their suspicions, but he had watched Bucky study the sensor array of their surroundings and plotted a course, his movements methodical and considered. He hadn’t been twitchy or evasive, like he was leading them into a trap, nor was he quick and slapdash, like he didn’t know where he was going.
And he had looked Steve in the eye as he handed over the results.
“When you reach this point,” he had said, gesturing to their destination. “We will talk.”
It is an uneasy truce, but it is a truce. Steve rests his hopes on Bucky feeling more favourable about his place on the ship after 5,000 light years of travel, and if not, that the Astrometrics team will have a better idea of where they were.
Until then, they remain on red alert, and watch the stars for what seemed inevitable.
The days pass quietly, and Sam loses his Romulan ale. He is less than graceful in defeat, mostly because he loses to Clint, who he claims had an unfair advantage.
Starfleet takes a dim view of alcohol on ship, for obvious reasons. Crewmen have synthehol available as an alternative, which has the flavour and aroma of alcohol, but without the debilitating side effects. By rights Steve should confiscate the alcohol and discipline those trading contraband. But they are lost in the furthest reaches of unknown space, and if ever there was a time to need the debilitating side effects of alcohol, it was now. So he turns a blind eye, trusting his crew to act responsibly, and has a quiet word with Dr Banner about supplies of pain relief and antacids.
It should come as no surprise when Thor corners Steve in the Mess a week into the journey.
“Captain,” Thor pulls out a chair opposite Steve and sits himself down, an enormous stein of foaming ale in his hand.
Steve glances up from his plate of… he’s not sure what it is, an Earth dish Dr Banner recommended that seems to be mostly made of lentils and burning. “Mr Odins-”
“For the last time, call me Thor,” he takes a deep gulp of ale before setting it down on the table. “We are brothers adrift beyond time and tides, that should put us on first name terms.”
Steve is reluctant to get into a discussion on the concept of time with an Asgardian. Again. “That’s very true.” He pushes aside his lunch. “What can I do for you, Thor?”
Thor looks delighted to be on first-name terms at last. “I wanted to speak with you about synthehol.” He slams his hand on the table. “It is ghastly.”
Steve watches him take another drink of his ale, draining the stein to halfway down in a single swallow, and wonders how he drinks when he does like something.
“Well…” Steve holds his hands open. “Our replicators are only able to produce synthehol. And with the journey ahead of us and our limited resources I’m unwilling to have them modified. We’re damaged enough, we can’t risk self-sabotage for the sake of a decent drink.”
“Yes, of course,” Thor waves his concerns away with a sweep of his hand. “I would not ask for such a thing.”
“Then what are you asking for?” Steve smiles as Thor takes another drink, and now he’s looking for it, notices the slight grimace as Thor sets down his stein.
“Asgardians have a long and proud tradition of brewing,” Thor sits back in his chair. “Making the finest ales and spirits known throughout the Nine Realms.”
Steve can see where this is going. “You want to make beer.”
“Ah now,” Thor holds out his hands. “You are ahead of me there. But yes, I feel that it would serve the morale of the crew.”
Steve takes a moment to consider the possibilities. “And how would this work?”
Thor settles in, relishing the opportunity. “There would be some set up required, and I would need some items from engineering; vessels, heating coils, coolants.” Thor grins. “And additional equipment for distillation.”
“And how would it be distributed?” Steve looks dubious. It’s one thing to ignore the occasional bit of trade, but having a black market liquor operation on the ship is a whole other matter, and one he can’t ignore.
“Like anything else on the ship,” Thore reassures him. “Every crewman would be allocated a stipend, a fixed weekly quantity of alcohol, that sum being by your approval, of course.”
Steve nods. “Of course. And this stipend would be non-transferrable?”
“You read my mind, Captain. If I were to be given one of the officers quarters, or recreation areas on the upper decks, we could make a fine drinking hall, fit for Valhalla itself!”
“Alright, settle down,” Steve laughs. “Let me-”
Vision clears his throat over the comms. “Captain?”
Steve feels his good mood drop. Vision was, at last report, in Engineering with Bucky working on the Borg alcove. “Yes?”
“Please come down to Engineering. It’s a matter of some urgency.”
Damnit. Steve kicks back his chair and gets to his feet. “On my way.”
He glances at Thor, and thinks what can it hurt? “Take what you need. I’m sure Stark would be happy to help.”
Thor says something in response, but Steve can barely hear him for the blood rushing in his ears as he walks away.
Nothing is on fire or in pieces down in Engineering, but Steve proceeds with caution, and finds Vision tucked in a quiet corner, picking up an assortments of tools arranged at the foot of a prototype Borg alcove. Bucky is not with him.
Steve takes a quick look at the device. It doesn’t look much like the alcoves he’s seen in Starfleet reports, sleek and black and charged with green lights. Instead it is a clear glass cylinder, with hybridised tech embedded in the upper part and a sliding door.
“Ah. Captain.” Vision rises to greet him. “Thank you for coming down.”
“You said it was an emergency,” Steve says. “Where’s Bucky?”
Vision steeples his fingers together, and Steve has spent enough time with him to know that’s a bad sign.
“Mr Barnes is the reason for the urgency,” Vision hands him a small piece of metal. It fits neatly in the palm of Steve’s hand, smooth sides that taper to a point, with a flat base.
“What is it?” Steve rolls it around in his hand. It’s surprisingly heavy for something so small.
“It’s a transmitter,” Vision says plainly. “Almost complete, it just requires a power source.”
“Damnit,” Steve mutters.
All the time they had been looking to space for a trap waiting to be sprung, and the danger had been on the ship. They had given him access to Engineering, and he’d used it to create a communication device.
The betrayal hits Steve hard, and he closes his fist around the transmitter. He wonders if he has the strength to crush it to nothing.
“I took the liberty of calling Security when I found him working on the device,” Vision explains. “He went quietly, I gather he has encountered the chief of Security on a prior occasion.”
Steve nods grimly. The Widow’s Bite had taken him down before, and without Borg implants that adapted to attacks, he would no doubt be reluctant to experience them again.
“Thank you,” Steve says, and has never felt less grateful.
“That’s not necessary, Captain.” Vision gives him an awkward, tooth-filled smile. “There is nothing here to be thankful for.”
Steve shakes his head, and bites the inside of his cheek hard enough to taste copper among the lingering trace of spices. “What the hell am I supposed to do,” he mutters, more to himself than anything.
Vision tips his head to one side. “If I may offer some insight?”
It’s hard to gauge how much insight an artificial life form that has only been alive for a handful of weeks has to offer, but Steve nods. Whatever it is, it can’t be worse than his own ideas.
“You must trust your instincts.”
Steve lets out a derisive snort. “Look where my instincts have gotten us so far.”
“We are alive,” Vision counters. “And we might not be otherwise. You know the man Mr Barnes used to be, and you know yourself.” Vision looks at him closely. “To those things you must be true.”
“And what of the safety of the crew?”
Vision ducks his head, in a gesture surprisingly human. “Captain, I doubt there is ever a moment when that is not at the forefront of your mind.”
It is with slow, heavy steps that Steve walks down to Security, turning the transmitter round and around in his hands. There is something fascinating about the shape of it, smooth and sleek and terrible.
Natasha is waiting for him, watching him approach with a mix of pity and... disappointment.
“Where is he?” Steve asks.
Natasha points towards the holding cells. “Didn’t resist arrest, if that means anything. He’s in the last cell.”
Steve murmurs a thank you and walks over, waving to Natasha to stand by and give him some space.
Bucky is sat on the edge of the single bed, his head bowed, his feet planted firmly on the floor. His hands are loosely clasped in his lap, the light in the holding cell catches the transdermal implants on his flesh hand, a cobweb of silver metal that stretches from his wrist to his fingertips.
He doesn’t glance up when Steve approaches the cell, though Steve knows that Bucky is aware of his presence by the way his shoulders tense.
Steve taps at the control panel beside the cell, and the force field sparks and fades.
“Captain,” Natasha takes a step towards him, reaching for her phaser.
Steve holds up his hand, palm facing her in a silent order to wait. Natasha stops in her tracks, but doesn’t lower her weapon.
Bucky doesn’t leap to his feet, doesn’t try to run. Steve doesn’t let himself hope. After all, where would he run to? Maybe he could fight his way past Steve, he got close to beating him before, and has a good idea of his tactics. He could even get past Natasha, but beyond that? No, he’s not going anywhere without the Borg.
Steve steps into the holding cell, and clears his throat.
“You want to tell me what this is?” Steve asks, holding up the device.
Bucky shifts uncomfortably. “Subspace transmitter,” he says eventually, his voice a low, barely audible rasp.
“For contacting the Borg.”
It’s not phrased as a question, but Bucky nods all the same.
“I have to ask, and expect you to answer truthfully,” It’s hard to look at Bucky, so Steve lets his gaze fall on the wall behind him. “The coordinates you gave Astrometrics, are they taking us into Borg space?”
Bucky stills. “We are already in Borg space.”
“You know what I mean,” Steve says impatiently.
A soft, distorted sound filters through the muzzle, almost like a huff of laughter. “There has been no deception. There is no one waiting for us.”
Steve turns away, showing his back to Bucky and walking across the length of the cell. “I trusted you.”
“Now who is lying,” Under the mask, Bucky’s tone is thick with scorn. “You do not trust this drone, you trust him. You put your faith in a memory. We are the Borg, and we will use any opportunity to return to the collective. We are not your dead friend, Captain.”
“No,” Steve flinches, and comes to a stop at the far wall. “You’re not.” He turns around and leans back against the wall, rubbing his hand across his face. “Hell, I’m not the same person as that dumb kid on the USS Marvel anymore. None of us are the people we used to be.”
Trust your instincts.
“I could restrict you to quarters,” Steve says slowly. “Post guards on your door. Pull you into a holding cell for questioning every 5,000 light years and doubt your every word.” Steve sighs. “I’m tired just thinking about it.”
Bucky lets out another grating, mechanical huff.
“Truth is we’re stretched beyond our limits as it is, and I don’t have the staff to keep you under watch.” Steve pushes away from the wall and walks back over to Bucky’s side. “We’re out here on our own, and we need to work together if we want to survive.”
Steve takes one last look at the transmitter, and places it carefully at Bucky’s feet. There is some dark pleasure to be had in his surprise.
“If you’re caught trying to contact the Borg again, you will be put into cryostasis for the remainder of the journey,” Steve says firmly. “You will not be defrosted for any reason. The crew will find a way to get back to Earth without your help.”
“You would allow that?” Bucky doesn’t reach for the transmitter.
“It doesn’t matter what I think,” Steve says plainly, stepping out of the holding cell. “I’ll have been court martialed for putting the mission in jeopardy, and will spend what’s left of my life in a holding cell much like this one.” Steve pauses, and takes a look at the cell. Maybe locked up he’ll finally get a chance to catch up with his reading. “Maybe Sam will go easy on me and confine me to quarters. He’s a good man, he’ll make a good Captain.”
Bucky looks up sharply, the pale of his eyes almost washed out against the dark smudges underneath them, against the black of his muzzle. “What?”
“What happens next is your choice, Bucky.”
Steve gives him a nod, almost a salute, and walks away, leaving the cell wide open.
Chapter 4: Kobayashi Maru
Wanda picks up one of plants, turning it over in her hands. “Tell me about the Kobayashi Maru.”
It’s almost ironic that the most highly regarded Hydroponics Lab in the Federation would be housed on an obscure desert moon, but Sokovia is a place of contradiction.
Steve knocks on the entrance of the Cereal Crops Department, and lets himself in. He finds a clean, brightly-lit laboratory, the carefully arranged tables covered with samples. The shades of green and red and purple are almost riotous against the white tiled walls.
“Captain Rogers,” a soft, thickly-accented voice calls from behind a red flower spike.
Steve follows the sound of her voice until he comes upon Wanda Maximoff. She is bent over a tray of lush, green leaves, and doesn’t make any further attempt to greet him.
“You are wasting your time,” she says, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her pointed ear. “I have already declined your offer.”
Steve smiles sheepishly. “Well I wouldn’t be much of a Captain if I didn’t try to persuade you.”
“Thank you, but the answer is still no.”
“You want to tell me why?” Steve asks.
Wanda Maximoff was an exceptional student at Starfleet Academy, the top 3% in her fields of Biology, Botany and Medicine. She had a bright future ahead of her, and then to everyone's surprise took a low level position in a Sokovian lab.
Wanda straightens up and turns to face Steve. There is a laser intensity to her gaze that peels through the layers of his skin and bones, exposing every dark corner at the heart of him. Steve suppresses a shudder, and stands his ground.
“Because I think I can guess.” Steve pulls a data slate out of his pocket and brings up an image of a grinning young man, his hair a shock of grey. “Your brother, Pietro.”
Wanda’s stone features betray nothing, and Steve puts the slate on the table beside her.
“Trained as a pilot at Starfleet Academy until he was suspended for illegal racing.” Steve scrolls through the file. “Modified a skimmer to reach warp speed?” He can’t help but be impressed. “How did he stabilise the port-”
“He didn’t,” Wanda says flatly. “The skimmer shook itself apart. He managed to pilot what was left of it to a safe distance before ejecting.”
Wanda looks less impressed. “He is very… human.”
“Is that your only reservation?” Steve shuts down his memory slate and returns it to his pocket, thinking quickly. A sharp mind and lightning fast reactions is always useful to have on a crew, though there’s no way he’d be allowed anywhere near a helm.
“Is there an offer for him too?” Wanda asks skeptically.
“I’m sure we could work something out.”
“Like you did with Bruce Banner? I was under the impression his medical license had been revoked.”
“A suspension,” Steve clarifies. “Over an ethics debate a long time ago. He has passed all the necessary evaluations.”
“Eventually,” Wanda murmurs. “And Tony Stark? Wasn’t he expelled from the Academy?”
“Mr Stark is an independent contractor,” Steve sucks in air between his teeth. That hadn’t been easy, and Fury is leaving him increasingly threatening messages over it. He needs to get this crew locked and the ship flying before the whole damn deck of cards topples down around him.
“And my brother?” Wanda watches Steve closely. “He would be reinstated?”
“He would, and complete his training on ship.” Steve nods. “Do you have any other concerns keeping you from saying yes?”
“When I first received your offer, I did some research of my own.” Wanda picks up one of plants, turning it over in her hands. “Tell me about the Kobayashi Maru.”
“The Kobayashi Maru is a standard training exercise for cadets, to test their character when faced with a no-win scenario.” Steve folds his hands behind his back. “Starfleet gave me my first Captaincy on the basis of my actions on the USS Valkyrie.”
‘If you gotta go down, go down swingin’ Dugan had told him, and he took those words to heart.
“And when faced with a no-win scenario you ploughed the Valkyrie into the Klingon warships at full impulse.”
Steve remembers Dugan at the helm when the test was over, laughing so hard that there were tears in his eyes.
“There was no way to win,” Steve says quietly. “If you’re gonna die, you may as well die fighting for what you believe in.”
He remembers a flash of plasma fire, and the escape pod falling away.
Wanda flinches, the slightest twitch of her eye, a tick of her jaw, and then it passes. She returns her attention to her plants.
“I will admit that I was… curious,” Wanda admits. “Why would a human make such a choice. What would drive him to self-sacrifice?”
Steve doesn’t answer, he doesn’t know how to.
Wanda hold a plant up to the light, admiring the symmetry of the leaves. “We accept.”
Steve paces back and forth in his quarters, slowly wearing a groove in the plush carpet in front of his viewscreen.
He taps his thumb against his mouth. What he’s considering is a violation of privacy, and worse than that, the privacy of someone who, until recently, had no agency.
He walks another circuit of his quarters, and wars with himself.
As much as he respects Bucky’s need for privacy, the safety of his crew is also his concern. And yes, he’s curious. He’s also worried.
“Friday?” Steve speaks before he can change his mind. “Status update.”
There is a soft bleep of processing before the computer responds. “Lt Maximoff and Mr Barnes are meditating.”
“Still?” Steve mutters.
Friday doesn’t respond. Steve wears down the carpet a little more, biting down on the inside of his cheek.
The starry expanse of space is replaced with the plain furnishings and bare walls of Wanda’s quarters. In the dim light Steve can see her sat crossed-legged in the middle of the floor, her features calm, her hands resting on her knees. Bucky is seated in the same position opposite, straight-backed and frowning slightly.
A candle burns in a dish on the floor between them, a trail of red smoke drifting up from the guttering flame. The light of it reflects off Bucky’s mask, casting his eyes in deep shadow.
“Are you sufficiently prepared?” Wanda asks.
Bucky looks hesitant, but nods once.
“You cannot harm me,” Wanda’s tone is matter-of-fact, which seems to reassure Bucky more than comforting would.
Wanda is far smaller than he is, slender in build where he is thickset, soft-voiced where his is harsh and mechanical, but in the candlelight it is Bucky who looks vulnerable. His hair, long enough now to curl a little around his ears, is burnished bronze in the flickering light, his pale skin warmed by its glow.
Wanda raises her hands, and crooks her delicate fingers before passing them through the red smoke, gathering it up and working it into a wreath that slowly circles his bowed head. She turns her wrist, angling her fingers, and pulls the smoke in a new direction. For a moment Bucky’s features are obscured by the red mist clinging to his skin, tangling up in the tufts of his skewed hair.
Steve has a sudden, painful recollection of Bucky, the old Bucky, dragging his fingers through his hair whenever he was nervous until it stuck up in every direction, then smoothing it back down with his palms.
Wanda passes her hands across Bucky’s face, and the smoke clings to her fingers. She presses her thumbs just under his eyes, index fingers to his temples. splaying out her remaining fingers around his ears.
“My mind to your mind,” Wanda chants softly. “My thoughts to your thoughts.”
Bucky tenses for a moment, and then crumples in on himself, his head cradled in Wanda’s hands.
Steve lets out a sharp exclamation. “Friday?”
“Mr Barnes heart rate is within normal parameters, Captain. He is showing no signs of distress.”
The information should offer Steve some comfort, but it doesn’t. He reaches up to the viewscreen, his hand hovering over the image as if he could offer comfort.
Wanda curls her fingers, passing her hands through the air around Bucky, weaving shapes in the red smoke. He draws in a sharp breath, a hiss of static through his mask, and straightens up. He tips his head back, unconsciously moving with the rhythm of Wanda’s movements as she cups her palms to the curve of his skull. They do not touch, but there is an intimacy to their movements, a trust that Bucky places in her.
Steve tamps down a sting of jealousy, and turns away from the screen.
He’s seen enough, more than enough, to know Wanda is in no danger.
“That’s enough, Friday,” Steve says quietly. “Update me when they’re finished.”
The viewscreen returns to the starry expanse, and Steve returns to his pacing.
Steve waits for Bucky to finish his shift in Engineering before going down to check on him.
Since the meeting in the Brig, where Steve returned Bucky’s transmitter and laid his cards on the table, things have been... strained. There seems to be no animosity, and Bucky hasn’t repeated his attempts to escape. But there is a distance between them, a wariness, and Steve hates it.
He hates that he doesn’t know how to fix it, how his clumsy attempts to connect with Bucky only seem to push him further out of reach.
He pauses at the entrance to Engineering, watching the crew at work. Bucky is easy to spot among them, dressed in plain black clothing with no flash of designating colour. Vision, in his neatly pressed Engineering uniform, has taken it upon himself to supervise Bucky when he’s at work. The tasks Bucky are given are basic maintenance work, cleaning and welding. He doesn’t complain that they are beneath him, or that Vision scrupulously checks everything when he’s finished. But Steve notices the tightness in his jaw as his tools are counted up and locked away when he’s done.
“Bucky?” Steve calls softly.
Bucky glances up at him, the little of his features above the mask shuttered and distant. But he does look up.
“You want to get something to eat?” Steve asks hopefully.
“This drone does not eat.” Bucky taps a metal finger against the muzzle covering his face.
The rejection stings, and Steve purses his mouth, trying and failing to come up with an alternative.
“Perhaps you could accompany the Captain to the Mess hall while he eats,” Vision suggests.
Bucky glances at Vision, who gives him an encouraging nod. “Socialisation is as vital as sustenance, Mr Barnes.”
Bucky glowers, but gives a terse nod, and wordlessly skulks over to join Steve.
They walk to the turbolift, awkward and silent, and Steve punches their destination into the control panel.
“How was your meeting with Wanda?”
“Tolerable,” Bucky says flatly.
“Not a fan of Vulcan meditation?” Steve aims for a smile and falls short.
Bucky huffs, a sharp squall of feedback through his mask.
“But it is helping?” Steve pushes, just a little.
“Yes.” Bucky lowers his eyes. “It is.”
Steve nods, clamping his teeth together to keep from saying anything stupid as the turbolift doors slide open. They walk side by side, heading down towards the Mess, and the ship gives a delicate little shudder.
Bucky stops abruptly, tilting his head to one side. Steve takes a couple of paces before noticing, and turns to face him.
“Bucky, what-” Steve pauses, and looks down at his feet. Something feels wrong, missing. The absence of a sound on the edge of his hearing. “We’ve stopped.”
Bucky’s eyes meet his, and Steve can see his own confusion reflected there.
“Come on,” Steve hurries back to the turbolift, and doesn’t need to check to know Bucky is following.
“Sam,” Steve calls as he steps onto the Bridge. “What’s our status?”
Sam, seated in the Command chair, turns to face him, his gaze falling on Bucky at Steve’s side. “Ask him.”
Steve ignores the remark and walks towards the viewscreen, staring at the black of space and its strange constellations. There is an unusual haze clouding the view, not so thick that it obscures the stars, but from the readings at the helm, it is making the ships controls go haywire.
“What is it, some kind of spatial anomaly?” Steve asks Clint, who is batting at his console in frustration.
“Damned if I know,” Clint grumbles. “Whatever it is, it’s screwing with the navigation. Engines are at full stop but according to the controls we’re flying backwards.”
“Can we go around it?”
Clint shakes his head. “We have no way of knowing how big it is. And with our navigation malfunctioning, we could spend the next decade going round in little circles and be none the wiser.”
“Bucky?” Steve looks around. He’s still by the turbolift, his arms folded, shoulders hunched. “Have you seen anything like this before?”
“Has he seen it before?” Sam spits. “What, you think we’re here by accident?”
“Sam,” Steve says sharply.
“Oh, come on!” Sam throws his arm up. “You think it’s a coincidence that the route he gave us just so happened to lead us right into an anomaly? There’s probably a Borg cube on its way to scoop us up.”
“This is not the Borg,” Bucky hisses.
“Can we be sure about that?” Natasha cuts in.
“Okay, that’s enough,” Steve snaps. Sam opens his mouth to argue. “Enough!”
Steve takes a step back, pulling himself together.
“Okay,” he mutters to himself, and opens a comm to Engineering. “Tony?”
“What now?” comes the immediate response.
Steve bites back a curse. “We’ve entered some kind of spatial anomaly which seems to be affecting our sensor readings. Run a full diagnostic, make sure the fault isn’t in our systems.”
“Run a full…” Tony sputters. “What the hell kind of operation do you think I’m running here. Run a full diagnostic…”
“Tony,” Steve says a little more quietly. “Please.”
There is a low grumble before Tony cuts him off.
Steve walks across the Bridge to join Bucky. “Have you seen this before?” he asks quietly.
“If it is a trap,” Bucky concedes, “it is crude and primitive. It lacks the elegance of Borg ingenuity.”
“Of course it does,” Steve sighs.
“Also,” Luis pipes up from behind his console. “The Waystation was a pretty sweet setup, you know? That place was established, there must have been ships coming in on the regular. And no one called in the damage, there were no warnings. That thing was effective.” Luis points to the viewscreen. “This here is like a sticky trap for catching bugs. The Borg guys, they scoop up whole planets, they raid entire fleets, they got subspace relays and constant comms going on. This field distorts everything. There’s no beacon, no signal when a traps been sprung. This is, like, scavenging.”
Sam looks thrown. “It’s not the Borg.”
Bucky mutters something, too distorted by his mask for Steve to catch. He moves quickly, and is in the turbolift, the door sliding shut before Steve has a chance to stop him.
Steve curses softly, and Sam has the decency to look contrite.
“I’ll go,” he offers.
“I’ll be nice,” Sam promises. Steve frowns at him, and Sam amends his promise. “I’ll be civil.”
Steve opens the comms. “Thor? Could you and Heimdall join us on the Bridge?”
“As you wish, Captain.”
Steve sends out a message to the rest of the senior crew, but hesitates at calling Sam back.
It’s not that he doesn’t trust him, he would gladly put his life in Sam’s hands, and has done so on more than one occasion. But he can’t deny that, where Bucky is concerned, he has trouble letting go.
Steve curses under his breath, and tells Natasha she has Command as he heads for the turbolift.
He can almost hear her yelp of alarm as the doors close.
“Yes, Captain.” At least the ship computer seems in a good mood.
“Location of First Lieutenant Wilson?”
“Deck Six, Captain.”
Steve taps the controls. “Thank you.”
The doors open, and Steve steps out into the corridor. He can hear the low crackle of Bucky’s voice, warped by the mask, and follows the sound. There’s no anger beneath the machinery, but exhaustion, frustration. Before Steve can round a bend in the walkway and come in sight of them, Sam speaks up, his words bringing Steve to a halt.
“Steve ever tell you how we met?”
There is a long silence, and Steve pauses, listening closely.
“Starfleet Academy.” Bucky sounds wary, defensive.
“We were roommates,” Sam’s voice softens. “He never told me a thing about you, but I knew your name. First thing I learned about Steve was your name.”
Bucky mutters something inaudible.
“Every night he’d wake up shouting for you.” Bucky doesn’t respond. “He got a handle on it, eventually. But he carried it with him. Didn’t take much to figure it out, the battle of Wolf 359. The obsession over defeating the Borg. You.”
“This drone has not-”
“Yeah, I know,” Sam interrupts. “But the truth is you got a power over him. There’s nothing he wouldn’t do to keep you safe.” there is an edge of steel in Sam’s words. “No matter what it costs him.”
Steve holds his breath, and takes a step back.
“He is not loyal to this drone,” Bucky sounds almost… wounded. “His actions are for a memory, a ghost.”
“Yes he’s loyal to you. Steve Rogers may be reckless and stubborn, and…” Sam sighs. “A lot of things, but he doesn’t lie, especially not to himself.”
Bucky hums, a low thrum that reverberates through the wall.
Steve makes a tactical decision, and advances forward.
“You do anything to harm him, Barnes? And I mean anything. I will personally throw you out the goddamn airlock, you understand me?”
“Sam?” Steve calls.
Sam whips around, and catches himself. Bucky sees a chance to retreat and takes it, and Steve can only watch helplessly as he walks away.
“You’re needed on the Bridge,” Steve clips out, and heads back the way he came.
Thor and Heimdall, along with a few of the Astrometrics crew, are already on the Bridge when Steve returns. He greets them politely, one eye on the turbolift, and a few moments later the door slides open and Sam walks out. Bucky is not with him.
Sam sidles over to him, but doesn’t attempt to explain himself.
“Sam…” Steve says softly.
“Had to be said,” Sam’s response is clipped and accompanied by a pointed glare.
Steve lets it drop, and addresses the gathering.
“We’re stuck,” he says simply. “In some kind of spatial anomaly. Whatever it is, it’s affecting readings and navigation.” He gestures for the Asgardians to take a closer look at the display. “Have you come across anything like this before?”
Thor leans over Clint, one large hand resting on his shoulder, and taps at his console. He calls his people over to look, and soon Clint looks uncomfortably crowded in.
“Give a guy room to breathe, fellas,” Clint mutters under his breath. Thor grins and slaps him on the back, oblivious to his little whimper of pain.
“It’s a distortion field,” Heimdall announces. “I have seen these before. They are an artifice, somewhere within lies a sphere, the technology of an ancient celestial being.”
“A what?” Natasha asks, immediately on edge. “There’s a old celestial… life form in there?”
“Oh no, have no fear.” Thor straightens up, and Clint tries to be unobtrusive about massaging his shoulder. “The celestials are long gone, but artifacts still remain. The spheres are favoured by marauders, gangs of thieves that roam the uncharted regions of space looking for lost ships to plunder.”
“Pirates?” Clint and Luis say at the same time.
“Ravagers,” Thor explains. “Thieves and cutthroats. We would do well to avoid them.”
Steve looks to Heimdall for further information. “So this sphere? Can we locate it, disable it?”
“They are not so easily found.” Heimdall’s golden eyes darken. “They are well guarded and heavily cloaked.”
“So, we can’t go around it and we can’t disarm it,” Steve frowns at the viewscreen. “What does that leave us with?”
“Can we…” Pietro, and Steve didn’t even notice him even arriving, speaks up. “Can we go through it?”
Clint leans back, making eye contact with him across the Bridge. “What, are you nuts?”
“We have visual,” Pietro points out.
“Yeah, we can see what’s right in front of us,” Clint waves at the viewscreen. “But without sensor readings we have no idea what’s just out of sight. So unless we creep along at quarter impulse, which will by the way drain our limited fuel supplies, we’ll never have enough of a reaction time to maneuver around whatever’s out there.” Clint shrugs. “We’d just end up ploughing into an asteroid.”
“At quarter impulse we may as well get out and push,” Luis adds, miming pushing the ship.
“And we’ve no way of knowing how big the anomaly is, or how long it would take to pass through it.” Steve adds. “I’m sorry, kid, but it’s just not feasible.”
“Can we double back?” Natasha asks. “Can sensor readings pick up our warp trail?”
Clint shakes his head. “With the distortion field affecting out sensors? Not a chance.”
The Astrometrics team start loudly debating the possibilities, with Clint adding fuel to the fire.
“Captain,” Banner murmurs over a private channel. “A word, please?”
Steve bites back a groan of frustration. “Not a good time.”
He watches the debate rage between going forward and going back, with Pietro gaining support for his plan from a handful of Asgardians and, of all people, Luis.
“I have Mr Barnes here with me-”
“Is he okay?” Steve interrupts, worried.
“He’s fine, he came of his own volition,” Banner assures him. “I just wanted clearance before continuing.”
Thor picks up Luis’ chair to emphasise a point. Luis is still sitting in it.
“Clearance?” Steve thinks of tools counted into Bucky’s hands at the start of his shift, and counted out at the end. “He’s his own person, Bruce. You don’t need my permission.”
Banner mumbles something, but Steve misses it, rushing forward to catch Luis as he topples out of his chair with a delighted whoop.
“Alright,” Steve says firmly. “That’s enough.”
Steve sits down in the Command chair and rubs his forehead. A tension headache is starting to build behind his eyes, thumping in time with his pulse.
“I can do it,” Pietro insists. “Three quarter impulse, I can do it.”
“Tony?” Steve calls over the comms.
“This better not being another remark about the quality and frequency of the systems checks of my, and I feel I should add here perfectly functioning, ship operations?” Tony snaps.
The pounding of his headache gets a little sharper. “Is the holodeck operational?”
“We diverted power from all non-essential functions after your pet Borg blasted us halfway across the galaxy,” Tony says breezily. “Should be operational, although I’d limit its use. Dilithium crystals don’t grow on trees, and if they did, well… they don’t. Limited resource, Cap. Like patience.”
“Thank you, Tony,” Steve forces his jaw to unclench.
“The kid’s fast,” Sam murmurs, low enough that only Steve can hear.
Steve nods, watching as the Astrometrics crew argue over how it could be done, skipping over whether or not it’s wise. But then, what part of this mission has been wise?
“Thor,” Steve calls, and the Asgardians fall silent.
Thor bows his head in acknowledgement. “Captain?”
“Are you familiar with holodecks?”
The next hour passes in something of a blur. Steve puts his best eyes to the short range scanners and visuals, keeping watch in case one of these Ravagers approaches.
Tony send the boy Parker up from Engineering to input the new test programs into the holodeck computers. Peter, already on the small side and far too young to be out here, is dwarfed by the Asgardians. But his irritation at being treated like a precocious child outweighs his fear, and it isn’t long before he’s lecturing the giants around him. They pretend to cower at his scorn, but ruffle his hair and smile indulgently when his back is turned, which only irritates him further.
It is impressive, Steve has to admit, how quickly everything comes together. Parker constructs a replica of the bridge, and with the hindrance and help in equal measure of the Asgardians, programs in a flight simulator with their best guesses of conditions outside the ship.
There’s no time to check and recheck, so when Steve gives the order, Parker waves at Pietro to take the helm, and starts the simulation.
Parker eases him into it, starting at a distance of a million kilometers at one quarter impulse. Steve hangs at the back of the holodeck while the Asgardians pace back and forth, watching as Pietro completes the first simulation in just over ten minutes.
The boy is a natural at the controls, and he pilots with ease. Steve is quietly impressed.
“I can do it,” Pietro repeats with fierce sincerity. “Three quarter impulse, I can do it.”
Steve rubs his thumb against his mouth, and tries not to smile. “Half impulse,” he announces. “Don’t get cocky, kid.”
“Captain?” Banners voice cuts through the conversation.
Steve steps out of the holodeck for some privacy, waving away Thor’s curiosity.
“Everything alright?” Steve asks.
“You should come down to Sickbay,” Banner says, his voice calm and even. “Take a look.”
“Take a look at what?” Steve asks, but there is no response.
Steve leaves the holodeck in Thor’s capable hands, and heads over to Sickbay. He checks in with the crew on visual and short range sensors on the way. So far the ship has gone unnoticed, but he doesn’t trust their luck to hold out long.
Sickbay is thankfully quiet, but for an Engineer who took a tumble down a Jefferies Tube and a Science officer with a mild chemical burn.
Steve finds a nurse, who directs him to where Dr Banner is finishing up with a patient at the end of the hall. Steve knocks at the door, and waits to be called in before entering.
Dr Banner is by the console, giving the readings a last check before turning off the equipment. Bucky is sat on the bed, his bare back to Steve as he threads his arms through his plain black tunic and pulls it over his head.
“Ah, there you are, Captain,” Banner picks up a PADD and makes a note. “There were no complications with the surgery. Mr Barnes needs to speak with the nutritionist though, it’s been a long time since he was on solids, but there shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Surgery?” The ship seems to tilt under Steve’s feet.
Bucky tugs down the hem of his shirt, his head bowed, his shoulders almost up to his ears.
“He’ll still need to use his alcove for regenerative purposes, though with less frequency.” Banner turns his attention to Bucky, dropping the PADD on the bed beside him. “That’s your schedule. Remember to drink two litres of water per day. Not all in one go, space it out at regular intervals until you get accustomed to your body's signals.”
Bucky turns and picks up the PADD, and Steve gets a clear view of his profile.
The mask is gone.
Steve takes in Bucky’s face for the first time in over ten years. There is a spiderweb of silver at the hinge of his jaw, where the mask had been anchored in place with Borg technology. The transdermal implants at his cheekbones bring them into sharp definition, accentuating the firm line of his jaw. His lips, by contrast, are full and a deeply shaded pink. There is a dimple in his cleft chin. Steve had forgotten about that. How had he forgotten?
“Your muzzle?” Steve blurts out.
Bucky glances up at him, the overhead light reflecting off the metal implants. “It wasn’t a muzzle.” His voice is rough, but there is a sweetness there without the discordant sound of the mask, a soft burr to his consonants. “It was a multi-level positive airway pressure apparatus to aid respiration in sub-optimal environments.”
Bucky coughs, harsh and sudden, and he looks briefly alarmed at his own body’s rebellion against him.
Steve’s mouth crooks up a little. He had become so accustomed to the mask, had forgotten how handsome Bucky was underneath. The ridge of scar tissue, where mask and skin had met, is pale and tender, and Bucky prods at it with his metal fingers, his hands hovering over his newly exposed features.
“How does it feel?” Steve asks. He’s staring, he knows he is, but he can’t stop himself.
On one of his first assignments, Steve, in the hope of looking older or at least more mature, tried to grow a beard. The damn thing had itched and prickled, and grown out two shades darker than the hair on his head, making him look like he was wearing a bad disguise. When he had finally shaved it off he had felt oddly naked without it, a sensation that lasted days.
“How about we get that coffee?” Steve offers.
Before Bucky can answer, Thor's voice rings over the comms like a great brass bell.
“Captain? I believe we are ready.”
“On my way,” Steve responds. To his quiet surprise, Bucky looks almost… disappointed.
“Another time?” Steve asks cautiously.
Bucky nods once, fingers crowding around his mouth. “Another time.”
Over in the holodeck everyone seems in good spirits. Parker is busy installing a new upgrade to his program. For once, no one is arguing over what direction to go in, instead talking animatedly about Pietro’s flying skills. A few are even suggesting going a little faster.
Pietro himself is still in the flight seat, listening intently as Heimdall looms over him, talking softly.
Steve finds Thor in the middle of a debate over the merits between phase shifting and phase displacement, but he abandons the discussion to drop a weighty hand on Steve’s shoulder and give him a joyful little shake.
“The boy has a gift,” Thor says proudly.
“He does,” Steve agrees. “What are your recommendations?”
Thor’s good mood doesn’t abate. “With your permission, he will take a little time to rest and prepare himself. While he does so, Barton will train on the simulation at half impulse.”
“So he can take over when Pietro needs a break,” Steve finishes.
“The less time spent sitting still in the distortion field, the better,” Thor agrees. “Who knows what might be out there.”
“And how will he plot a course?” Steve asks.
Thor fetches a PADD and brings up a star chart. Steve recognises it from when Bucky was making his map. With a flick of his fingers, Thor changes the angle of the star map, highlighting a bright constellation ahead of them that formed a spiked, stylised M.
“The boy will navigate by these stars.”
“Good work,” Steve nods in approval.
Thor grins and claps Steve on the back, hard enough to make him pitch forward a little with a startled grunt. “We will be victorious, my friend. Have no fear.”
When the time comes, Steve goes up to the Bridge and finds it crowded. Crewmen from every part of the ship are gathered to watch Pietro fly, and Steve can barely push his way through to the Command chair.
He shoulders past a group from Science who are oblivious to his polite request to get out the way, and finally reaches his seat. He claps his hands together, calling everyone to attention.
“People, your attention please.” Nearly a hundred heads swivel around to face him in unison. It’s a little unsettling. “Anyone who isn’t Bridge crew or Astrometrics, please return to your stations.”
There is a collective groan, and Sam, sat in the First Officer chair, gets to his feet and lets out a whistle.
“You heard the Captain, move it.” He clicks his fingers at a pair from Engineering. “Don’t give me any of your back talk. Go on, get.”
The Bridge slowly clears out, and Steve looks around for Bucky, but doesn’t see him among the Maintenance crew.
“You can’t blame them, Cap,” Sam points out as the last stragglers enter the turbolift. “We need a win, y’know?”
“Yeah, we do,” Steve agrees. “But we’re not getting one with half the crew hanging over that kid's shoulder.”
He directs Sam’s attention to the Helm, where Pietro is sat, his hands on the controls. His head is bowed, chin touching his chest, and Wanda is at his side, her hand resting on his shoulder.
Thor and Heimdall are the only members of Astrometrics left, having sent the others to process whatever they can read off the sensors during flight.
“Mr Maximoff?” Steve says gently. Pietro opens his eyes, and lets out a quiet breath. “Are you ready to proceed?”
Pietro grins, sharp and sly. “Aww, Captain. I thought you’d never ask.”
Steve takes his seat. Here goes nothing. “Proceed at one quarter impulse, when you’re ready.”
Pietro nods, his hands moving lightly over the controls, keys lighting up under his fingers. “Proceeding at one quarter impulse, Captain.”
The ship lurches, and Pietro lets out a cheerful “Whoops!”
“Easy there, brah.” Luis reaches over and taps at the controls. “Inertial dampers engaged.”
“Yeah.” Natasha sits back in her seat, folding her arm tightly. “We’re all gonna die.”
Steve hushes her, watching intently as the ship starts moving, at Pietro with his back straight, his gaze focused intently on the screen. His hands move smoothly over the controls, working by touch alone. It is like watching a pianist play a well-loved piece of music, confident and comfortable in their own skin.
On the viewscreen, the nebulous clouds drift past at a steady pace. Steve can make out the bright zigzag of stars that he’s following moving across the screen as Pietro turns the ship from side to side, moving sharply up as he dips below a thread of mysterious light, before drifting back down to the center of the screen as he corrects his course.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Sam murmurs, impressed.
“Increase to half impulse,” Steve orders.
Pietro doesn’t look away from the viewscreen, his fingers finding the controls and adjusting their speed.
Distant stars blur as they pass, and Pietro keeps flying.
“Asteroid field up ahead,” Heimdall speaks up.
Pietro nods. “I see it.”
Even with his enhanced vision, Steve can only just make out the scattering of debris up ahead. As the boulders come closer, jagged edged and blackened in places, Thor lets out a hiss of distress. “Others were not so fortunate, it seems.”
Luis swears softly, and Wanda tightens her grip on Pietro’s shoulder. He murmurs something to her in Vulcan that Steve does not understand.
The asteroids pass by, and Steve swallows, his mouth dry.
“Three quarter impulse, when you’re ready Pietro.”
Minutes become hours, and Steve wonders if the ancient seafarers of Earth felt like this. If they stared out at the stars in stormy seas, searching for a way home, asking themselves if the next wave would be their last.
When Pietro tires, when his hands shake after coming a little too close to an electrical storm, when debris knocks against the ship hard enough to set off an alert, he drops the ship speed down to half impulse and takes a break. Steve calls Clint up from where he’s waiting in the Ready Room to take over the controls.
Wanda places her hands on her brothers face, fingers digging into the pressure points under his eyes, and takes up the adrenaline coursing through his veins. It must be a hardship for her, to take his fear, takes his pride, all the sticky, difficult, human parts of him, but she does so without complaint. When Pietro can breathe without shaking he takes back the Helm. Clint stays with him, ready to intervene if it gets too much.
On screen the clouds start to dissipate.
“Easy, lad,” Thor rumbles. “We’re not out of the woods yet.”
As if on cue a burst of light fills the viewscreen, spraying out threads of light charged with red and blue like a distress flare.
“What the hell is that?” Pietro drops down to half impulse, and pulls the ship as far from the cascading light as he can manage, watching out for stray electrical discharges coming their way.
“Heimdall?” Thor defers to his friend.
“Particle fountain,” Heimdall murmurs. “Many a research vessel has been lost in attempts to study them. Be cautious, brother.”
The word brother makes Pietro falter, then push forward again. A strand of light darts towards them, and he sweeps his hand across the controls, veering the ship so sharply to the left that Luis is pitched out of his seat.
The screen crackles, and for a brief, tense moment they can only watch as Pietro wrestles with the controls, and brings the speed up to full impulse.
The ship starts to shake, a faint trembling that gets stronger and stronger.
“Pietro?” Steve yells as Luis scrambles back into his seat.
“Hang on!” Pietro yells with an edge of hysteria as the ship starts to groan.
There is a blinding pulse of light, and Steve flinches away from the screen, sharp slices of red and blue burning the back of his retinas.
Luis lets out a yell of triumph, and is on his feet, pulling Pietro out of his chair and hugging him fiercely.
Steve blinks, his vision returning, and looks up at the viewscreen. He sees the black of space, strewn with stars.
“Status?” Steve breathes as Sam rubs his watering eyes, blinking the tears away.
“We have passed through the field,” Heimdall confirms.
“Hull damage on decks four and six,” Sam checks his PADD. “Damage to the dish portside.”
“Casualties?” Steve asks quickly.
“None,” Sam grins. “Though I must’ve had maybe three heart attacks.”
Steve walks over to where Luis has one arm wrapped around Pietro’s shoulders, the other beckoning Wanda to join them. Clint watches them with a smile, and glances at Steve. “So, am I fired?”
“Mr Barton, you have the helm.” Steve answers.
He slides into his seat, and taps at the controls, muttering amiably about the settings being changed.
“Thor, we’ll need our coordinates confirmed before continuing on our set course,” Steve glances at the clear viewscreen. “I’d rather be on our way before any of these Ravagers show up.”
Heimdall inclines his head, and Thor rubs his hands together. “But then we drink, yes?”
Steve looks over to where Wanda is cautiously engaging in a group hug with her brother and Luis.
“I think we’ve all earned a drink,” Steve agrees. “Once we’re clear of the distortion field.”
Luis lets out a whoop of delight, and hugs Wanda and Pietro tighter.
“To your stations,” Steve chivvies them to action. “Come on. Luis, let go of that poor girl.”
“Steve?” Sam yells over the comms. “Steve, c’mon. You’re missing the party.”
Steve looks away from his reports and rubs his eyes. “I’ll be down soon, Sam.”
“You said that an hour ago, Steve. An hour ago.” Sam’s voice turns wheedling. “Everyone’s here. And I mean everyone.”
Everyone isn’t at the party, Steve knows that for certain. He spent an hour with Heimdall and the currently sober remnants of Astrometrics working through the new course Bucky had sent them.
He hadn’t been asked for an updated map, he’d just quietly messaged Heimdall with the new coordinates long before negotiations were supposed to begin.
Steve tries not to worry about it. It’s a sign of good faith on Bucky’s part, it must be. But he still wonders if Bucky gave the information so he wouldn’t have to talk to Steve.
“Steve,” Sam pulls him back to the present. “Everyone is here.”
“What are you getting at?” Steve fetches another coffee from the replicator, and leans against the wall to take a sip.
“Your boy showed up half an hour ago,” Sam sounds far too entertained. “He scrubs up nice.”
“Bucky?” Steve nearly chokes on his coffee. “Bucky’s there?”
“Yeah,” Sam chuckles. “He’s a hit with the ladies.”
The coffee sours on Steve’s tongue. Bucky, Old Bucky, had always been popular, always had some girl on his arm. It was a mystery to Steve how they ever ended up as friends.
“That’s good,” Steve says slowly. “That’s good that he’s making friends.”
Sam snorts like Steve has said something funny.
“What?” Steve snaps.
“Nothing,” Sam sniggers, and Steve can make out Natasha’s voice in the background. “They’re real friendly.”
Steve puts his coffee back in the replicator, his appetite lost. “I’m on my way.”
Thor had made good on his word and created a drinking hall in one of the recreation rooms on the top deck. The room is sparsely decorated, with long tables and benches that lent a convivial atmosphere, as well as plenty of room for crew to wander around while they drank.
Steve has never seen it so crowded. The air is hot and stifling, and people in various stages of inebriation are sprawled on the benches. At the tables there are people drinking and talking, and the occasional, highly illegal pockets of gambling. Steve turns a blind eye to the hastily made poker chips and dog-eared playing cards, and pushes through the crowds in search of Sam.
There is a poker game in one corner being croupiered by Tony, a bottle of Earth whisky at his elbow. He chatters non-stop as he deals cards and takes bets, and an audience has gathered around the table, loudly offering advice to the hapless players. Luis and Pietro are at another table, bleary eyed and surrounded by empty glasses. No doubt half the people in the hall have bought Pietro a drink for what he did today.
Thor and Sif are over by the bar, laughing and joking. Even Wanda is there, standing by one of the viewscreens, deep in conversation with Vision, of all people. Vision is out of uniform, and wearing a soft black sweater that is an odd contrast to his red synthetic skin.
Banner finds Steve before he finds Sam.
“Captain,” Banner is clutching a glass of clear liquid that smells like a fire hazard, but his eyes are clear. “I was just about to call you.”
“Everything alright?” Steve asks, worried.
“Fine, everything’s fine.” Banner shakes his head. “I mean it’s fascinating really. All the things we’ve been doing to stop the Borg, I never thought of just throwing aquavit at them.”
“Aquavit?” Steve lets Banner grab him by the arm and pull him across the hall, leading him to a storage area behind the bar, far from the celebrations.
“It’s the liver, I think. It has trouble processing alcohol.” Banner points to where there are barrels of ale stacked up against the hull, and wedged up against them, is Bucky.
The first, traitorous thought that comes to Steve’s mind is no wonder those girls were so friendly.
Bucky is dressed in plain black pants and a blue sweater that brings out the colour of his eyes. His hair, long enough to tug his fingers through, is dishevelled, dark strands sticking to his damp forehead.
With the mask removed, under the dimmed lights, he looks younger, less ragged around the edges. Steve has always thought him beautiful, the Borg implants and mask could never change that, but without them he is stunning.
And he is drunk.
Not just a little bit drunk, not one too many glasses of wine drunk. He’s can’t-stand-up, three sheets to the wind wasted.
“How much has he had?” Steve whispers.
Banner points to a half empty glass of beer left on the top of the barrels that Bucky is wedged up against. “That much.”
Steve thanks Banner, and sends him back to the party. He gives the both of them a last, concerned look before going off to join some Science officers, and Steve moves towards Bucky cautiously.
Bucky hiccups, and looks up at him, eyes glassy. “Steve?”
“Hey, Buck,” Steve rests a tentative hand on his arm. “Nice sweater.”
“Vision chose it. Said it made us approachable.” Bucky blinks, trying to focus. “Too approachable.”
He plucks at the collar, and Steve catches sight of the sharp jut of his scapula. He’s wearing nothing underneath.
“Oh,” Steve utters weakly. “Well, I think it suits you.”
Bucky stops pulling at the neckline, and smooths his hands down the front of the sweater.
“There is a malfunction in the gravity plating on this deck,” Bucky hiccups, and scowls at himself. “The ship is rotating at an angle of eighty seven degrees. Clockwise.” He hiccups again. “I have attempted to impress upon the crew the severity of…” he swallows, forcing down the next hiccup. “Ow.”
Steve needs a minute to catch up with what he’s saying. “You have the spins?”
“I’m not spinning, the ship is,” Bucky growls.
Steve smiles at him. “Alright, let’s get you down to Engineering, you can sleep it off.”
“But the ship…” Bucky tries to straighten up and stumbles.
Steve wraps an arm around his waist. “I’ll take care of the ship, don’t you worry.”
Bucky nods, swaying a little, and Steve helps him upright. “Okay, one foot in front of the other, Buck.”
They shuffle slowly around the edge of the room, step by careful step towards the door. Bucky sways a little, and grabs hold of the front of Steve’s tunic, twisting the cloth in his fingers.
“We are as one,” he announces, with a look of absolute certainty.
“We sure are, Buck,” Steve agrees.
Bucky nods, patting Steve’s chest. “We are as one,” he repeats. “We are as one.”
Once they are out of the cramped, humid drinking hall, Bucky seems to sober up a little. He still sways slightly, and leans into Steve to keep his balance as they stumble into the turbolift.
He punches the controls, and the doors slide shut. The lift lurches, and Bucky hiccups again, pressing his hand to his mouth.
“You okay?” Steve asks, rubbing the heel of his hand against Bucky’s chest in a way he hopes is soothing. “You need to go to Sickbay?”
Bucky shakes his head, leaning over until their foreheads are touching. He blinks slowly, tilting his head to one side, and curls his metal fingers around Steve’s wrist, holding him in place.
“Bucky?” Steve murmurs as he bumps their mouths together.
It’s not a kiss, exactly. It’s a glancing blow, noses and cheekbones knocking painfully, and Steve recoils as if he’s been burned, putting as much distance between them as possible in the confined space.
Bucky stumbles, pressing up against the side of the turbolift to keep on his feet. “Steve?”
He looks wounded, confused, and Steve’s heart splinters. All he’d ever wanted was for Bucky to kiss him, but not like this. Not drunk and stupid.
“Don’t understand,” Bucky wipes his hand across his face. “I’ve seen the way you look at me. You were with him, weren’t you? Before.” Bucky looks plaintively at him. “I could be him.”
Steve shakes his head, holding his hands up, and he is torn between backing away, and hurting Bucky further, or coming closer, offering him comfort and it being mistaken for something more.
“No,” he says simply.
Steve lets his hands drop to his sides, and slumps back against the turbolift wall as it comes to a halt with a faint tremor.
“No. we were never…” Steve bows his head. “He never thought of me that way. But I should never have… I saw him in you, saw the things I loved about him in you. Your strength, your resolve.” Steve huffs. “Your eyes.” There were all the other things, the things the old Bucky had that this one didn’t. Vanity, youthful arrogance and a complete lack of trust where Steve was concerned. “You’re not him, Bucky. You’re a better man than he ever was, and I’m sorry for projecting that onto you.”
Bucky says nothing in response, and Steve is almost relieved when the turbolift doors slide open.
“Come on,” he says softly. “Let’s get you to your alcove.”
Bucky doesn’t argue, and slouches over to Steve’s side, listing back and forth like a ship in stormy seas. He doesn’t flinch away when Steve puts a steadying hand to his back, and it feels like a small mercy.
The alcove is tucked away in a quiet corner of Engineering. Most of the crew are up in the drinking hall, but the boy Parker is on duty. He is slumped at a console, working on a set of schematics, a pair of garish yellow headphones on. Steve doesn’t need enhanced hearing to catch the tinny sound of music leaking out from the speakers as they shuffle past.
Steve slides open that door of the alcove, and guides Bucky inside. He reaches past him for the IV, and slots it carefully into the transdermal port in Bucky’s right arm.
“Idiot,” Bucky mumbles as Steve pulls out the metal tubing embedded in the alcove and plugs it into the socket in his metal arm just above the elbow.
“Yeah, I am,” Steve agrees, but Bucky shakes his head emphatically.
“Not you. Him.”
Steve pauses, his heart in his mouth. “Yeah?”
“It is…” Bucky’s mouth works, as though chewing on the words would make them come out more easily. “Good. It is good that we are here. That we are not him.” His expression clouds. “I don’t want to sleep.”
“It’s only for a couple of hours, Buck.”
Bucky’s metal hand lifts up, fingers splayed. “You’ll be here?”
Steve threads their fingers together, clasping his hand tightly. “Yeah, I’ll be here when you wake up.”
At those words Bucky finally settles into his alcove, resting his head against the sensor array behind him and closing his eyes. Steve sets the controls, and feels Bucky’s grip on his hand tighten briefly, and then relax. He waits until Bucky is unconscious before letting go, and slides the clear glass door closed.
“I’m glad it’s you,” he whispers, and realises that it’s the truth.
Chapter 5: Sine qua non
Bucky holds out an object in his hand, his fingers splayed, in a silent offering.
Steve takes the gift dubiously. It’s a little smaller than his clenched fist, the surface rough with damp soil. “What’s this?”
“Solanum tuberosa,” Bucky announces.
Steve’s mouth twitches up. “Yes, I know it’s a potato. Why are you giving me a potato?”
Clumsy hands shake Steve awake, tugging at his t-shirt and patting him lightly on the cheek.
“Stevie,” Bucky’s voice is warm and roughened, his breath reeking of synthehol. “C’mon, wake up.”
Steve shoves Bucky’s hands away, and pushes himself up into a sitting position. He can barely see Bucky in the gloom, a glint of his teeth and the shine of grease in his slicked-back hair. Bucky pushes Steve’s legs to one side, and makes himself comfortable on the bed.
“You missed all the fun,” Bucky lets out a soft, wheezing laugh, trying to keep his voice down. “You should have stayed.”
Steve didn’t even know whose party it was, one of Bucky’s friends or something.
He’d spent a miserable hour in the corner of a crowded room, clutching a glass of water while Bucky wandered off with a promise to find Steve a pretty girl to make ‘friends’ with.
Pretty girls weren’t interested in Steve, and he wasn’t exactly interested in them either, not that Bucky seemed to care. When Bucky didn’t come back, Steve had quietly left.
“I guess I wasn’t feeling in the mood,” Steve mutters.
“You should’ve had a drink or two, loosen you up.” Bucky reeks of cheap perfume, the smell of it, combined with the synthehol, makes Steve’s stomach churn. That or the traces lipstick on Bucky’s mouth.
Steve pulls at his covers, tugging them out from under Bucky, and half hoping it might tip him off the bed. “You know I can’t drink on my meds, Buck.”
“C’mon, just the one.” Bucky grins. The bed is narrow, but Bucky elbows his way down beside Steve, taking up all the space and leaving Steve half hanging over the edge.
The perfume makes Steve’s eyes itch, makes his lungs constrict. “Bucky, stop it.”
“Stevie, don’t be jealous,” Bucky grins, rolling onto his side so he can watch Steve squirm.
“I’m not jealous,” Steve grumbles, the lie sour on his tongue.
“Captain?” Friday's voice echoes through Steve’s quarters.
He lets out a soft grunt of surprise, looking up from the data packet he’d been sent up from Science. Steve had thought he had a pretty good grasp on the finer workings of binary systems, but after an hour of struggling through a research proposal from Science division, he was starting to feel like he needed crib notes. Something about a set of binary pulsars that the ship would be passing in a few days, judging by the gamma radiation signatures. Steve gives the proposed tests a last skin through and approves them.
He rubs his eyes and glances over at the computer console in the corner of the room. Friday wasn’t some kind of amorphous entity that existed in the ship, she was the ship, and Steve can’t break that habit of trying to make eye contact with whoever he’s speaking to.
“It has been approximately seven hours and thirteen minutes since you last ate.”
“Approximately?” Steve asks with a smile.
There is a pause. Steve would almost call it resentful. “Seven hours and fourteen minutes.”
Steve sits back in his seat, rolling his shoulders to loosen his stiff muscles. “I missed lunch?”
Steve frowns to himself. Usually after completing his morning duties in Maintenance, Bucky would meditate with Wanda, and then meet Steve for lunch. He was slowly getting used to regular meals, relying on food and sleep to restore his energy as much as regenerating in his alcove.
On the days where Steve is tied up with meetings or putting out fires (both literally and figuratively) then Bucky usually comes looking for him.
“Friday, where is Mr Barnes?” Steve asks, pushing the PADD to the far side of the desk where it can’t bother him any further.
Friday gives a thoughtful bleep. “Mr Barnes is in Hydroponics Bay two.”
Steve’s frown deepens. What is he doing down there? Was he helping Wanda with her studies?
Steve derails the train of thought before it gets any momentum. What does it matter if Bucky is spending more time with Wanda. Their sessions seem to be doing him good, Bucky seems calmer, more settled into his own skin, and has even started making tentative motions towards friendship with a handful of the crew.
His appearance certainly helps matters, his implants highlighting the sharp lines of his cheekbones, his chestnut hair curling down to his shoulders. Wanda had threatened to cut his hair once, calling it inefficient and specious. His hair was on the long side, after a few months of accelerated growth it had finally stopped at his shoulders. Bucky had dragged his fingers through the thick waves, tugging thoughtfully as he considered Wanda’s comments, and decided to keep it for the time being.
Yeah, his appearance helps, Steve thinks sourly. He gets up, guilt pinching at his gut, and fetches himself a coffee from the replicator before reaching for the PADD again.
There is a soft chime at the door, and Steve shuts off his PADD, grateful for any distraction. He gets up, arching his spine until it makes a satisfying pop and reaches for his coffee.
It’s tepid, so he drops it in the replicator on the way to his door, and thumbs at the controls, waiting for the door to slide open with a soft hiss.
Bucky is standing on the other side, his shoulders squared, his jaw clenched. He looks nervous and defiant in equal measure.
“Bucky?” Steve says. “Did you eat yet?”
Instead of answering, Bucky holds out an object in his hand, his fingers splayed, in a silent offering.
Steve takes the gift dubiously. It’s a little smaller than his clenched fist, the surface rough with damp soil. “What’s this?”
“Solanum tuberosa,” Bucky announces.
Steve’s mouth twitches up. “Yes, I know it’s a potato. Why are you giving me a potato?”
“Studies of human interactions indicate that an offering of food or a botanical item is prerequisite to engage in copulation, and this object has the potential to be both. You’re wheezing, do you need me to fetch Dr Banner?”
Steve shoves his knuckles against his mouth and forces his breathing under control. “Bucky, that’s not how it works. It’s not...” he picks each word with care. “It’s not a trade. It’s not a… transaction. You give someone you like a gift, something you know that they will enjoy, to show that you care for them. It’s not giving gifts to get… sex, or something, it’s to show that you know them, you know the things they like.”
“Good,” Bucky nods firmly. “You like potatoes. Wanda says if you put it in dirt you’ll get more.”
Steve has a sudden vision of Wanda leading Bucky around Hydroponics in search of a gift, past the flowers and the air-filtering plants, only for him to settle on a potato.
“Yes. It’s…” Steve casts around for something to say.
“Do you like it?” Bucky tugs at a strand of hair awkwardly. “Providing for you is indicative of our being a suitable sexual partner.”
Steve clamps his teeth together. He can’t laugh, can’t laugh at this. It would be so bad if he did.
“It’s a very nice potato. Thank you.”
Bucky reaches up to the front of Steve’s uniform, and with a nimble flick of his finger unfastens the top button. Steve recoils, throwing his hands up between them.
“Hey,” He grabs Bucky’s wrist, index finger brushing against the transdermal implants.
When Bucky doesn’t withdraw he pushes his hand away from the fastenings of his shirt, and doesn’t let go. “What are you doing?”
“We-” Bucky’s expression flits between confused and frustrated. “I gave you a potato.”
“Yes,” Steve says gently. “But that doesn’t mean-”
“I am preoccupied with the thought of putting my tongue in your mouth,” Bucky announces suddenly. His voice softens. “I do not understand why. The idea should be repulsive, but it holds a certain… fascination.”
Steve swallows, his mouth suddenly dry.
“Well.” He strokes his thumb along the sensitive skin of Bucky’s wrist. “You did give me a potato.”
Bucky twists out of Steve’s grip, his hands dropping down by his side. His fingers, metal and flesh, clench and unclench, as he drags his tongue across his full lower lip. At the gesture, ripe with anticipation, Steve’s heart trips and stumbles, thumping in a heavy double-time against his ribs. He wants, so much that it feels like a physical ache, like a bruise on his heart.
Bucky seems to come to a decision, and tilts forward, sudden and clumsy. Steve, hyper-aware of Bucky’s hands still at his sides, the stiffness of his shoulders, meets him halfway. Steve keeps his hands to himself, wary of pushing too hard, demanding too much, and kisses him.
Bucky lets out a soft exhalation, his lips moving against Steve’s cautiously, methodically, as though carefully cataloguing the shape of him. He maps out the swell and dip of Steve’s mouth and the sharp intakes of his breath with lips and teeth, growing bolder with every moment that passes.
But Bucky makes no further move to touch Steve, their lips the only point of contact between them, and Steve aches with how badly he wants to touch, to be touched. Bucky tilts his head, fitting their mouths together, and draws the point of his tongue across Steve’s teeth.
It would take so little, a press of bodies, a hand, skin-warm or cold-steel against Steve’s cheek, to break him. Maybe that is why Bucky doesn’t, and instead darts his tongue between Steve’s teeth.
He lets out a satisfied hum when Steve clamps down on his invading tongue, pushing it up into the roof of his mouth, where Bucky lingers against his soft palate, pushing against the back of his teeth.
If Steve were a better man he would end this madness. He would go up to the Bridge and relieve himself of command, for there is nothing in all the galaxies, in the furthest reaches of space, that he could value more, believe in with such unshakable certainty, than him.
Bucky ends the kiss slowly, almost reluctant, his eyes heavy-lidded as he holds his still lips against Steve’s for long moments. His breath in Steve’s mouth is warm and earthy, sharp with the bitter tang of coffee, and Steve draws each one deep into his lungs. Bucky steals back each breath that Steve takes, before regifting them, and Steve shivers with a strange sense of loss when Bucky finally steps back.
Steve sways a little, reaching out brace his free hand against the doorframe. The potato is still cupped in his other hand, dirt gathering under his fingernails.
“Hmmm,” Bucky says thoughtfully, and Steve envies how quickly he composes himself.
“How was that?” Steve asks breathlessly.
Bucky’s tongue darts out, tasting the last, lingering traces of Steve on his lips. “You’re dehydrated.”
Steve coughs out a laugh, rubbing the flat of his hand against his cheek as he looks down at the potato in his hand.
When he looks up again, Bucky has gone.
Steve glances around at the sound of Tony’s voice, and briefly wonders if he can get away before being found.
He’s fast, and he’s pretty sure Vision wouldn’t tell Tony which way he went-
Steve sighs and slows down, waiting for Tony to catch up to him.
“Rogers, there you are,” Tony pulls off his tinted glasses and waves them in Steve’s direction. “The legs on you, did you get them from the serum too?”
“No, I had legs before,” Steve turns to face him. “What do you want, Tony?”
Tony claps his hands together. “Dilithium crystals.”
It takes most of Steve’s willpower to keep his shoulders from sagging. Not this again. “I’m well aware of our limited supplies. We’ve already sealed off the empty habitation decks and minimised use of holodecks and non-essential power sources.”
“Yeah, well Pietro’s little stunt, and yes it saved all our asses thank you very much, pretty much drained our reserves.” Tony’s hands flit through the air, miming the movements of the ship through space. “All that stopping and starting at impulse speed? Bad for fuel supplies.”
Steve nods, folding his arms across his chest. “How bad?”
Tony sucks air between his teeth, shaking his head.
“I need more to go with than that, Tony,” Steve sighs.
“What d’you want me to say, Rogers?” Tony asks, exasperated. “It’s not currently a disaster, but it will be. Another subspace distortion field that we gotta creep through, or some jacked-up scavenger race that we gotta go full warp to get away from, or… something. We’re a something away from being dead in the water here.”
“We’ve been something away from dead in the water since the Bifrost.” Steve does his best to keep his voice calm.
“And who’s fault is that?” Tony snaps.
Tony takes a step back, pinching the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger, and Steve looks down at his shoes, waiting patiently as Tony paces back and forth, trying to work off his nervous energy.
“We’re all on edge,” Steve says gently. “We’re not gonna get anywhere by fighting.”
“Oh, shut up,” Tony mutters, but there’s no malice in it.
Steve waits until Tony slows down a little before speaking again.
“Bucky said something about working with Vision to grow more crystals?”
Steve isn’t being entirely honest there. Vision had described their attempts, while Bucky had picked through their collection of patchy, discoloured results, muttering in dissatisfaction.
He must have found something adequate, as when Steve had gone to his quarters later that evening he had found a pebble on his bed, rosy pink against the Starfleet regulation white. How Bucky had gotten it past Security, Steve couldn’t say, nor did it particularly trouble him. Friday must have a soft spot for him, if sentient operating systems even have soft spots.
The Dilithium crystal fitted neatly in his hand, warm and round-edged like a river stone. He had slipped it into his pocket, where it pressed against his hip, a constant reminder.
Steve brushes his hand over his pocket, running the palm of his hand across the stone.
Tony shrugs. “They’re alright, I guess. Can’t use artificial crystals in the warp core, too liable to fragment and destabilise. Which means matter hits antimatter and…” Tony mimes an explosion. “Uncontrolled annihilation reaction. Dead. So dead.”
Steve curses softly. “Does Vision think he can resolve that?”
“Vision thinks anything is possible.” Pride flickers across Tony’s features. “He’s irritating like that.”
Steve nods, biting back a smile. “He is.”
Tony sobers, his ever-changing mood turning bleak. “We don’t have enough to get home,” he says quietly. “If by some miracle we don’t run into any more problems, we’re still gonna be stranded.”
Steve closes his eyes, and pulls in a sharp breath. “We’ll figure it out, Tony,” he says firmly. “We always do.”
It doesn’t matter if it’s true, or not true. He just needs Tony to believe it.
“Hmpf,” Tony moves from foot to foot, a bundle of restless, nervous energy. “If you say so.”
“Tony,” Steve speaks slowly, pinning him in place. “We’ll figure it out.”
Tony lets out a noncommittal grunt, and goes back to work, leaving Steve alone in the corridor, weighing up his options.
The issue with the dilithium crystals isn’t going away any time soon. They could stay on course, and hope to encounter traders willing to sell dilithium, but what did the ship have to offer? Their resources are stretched enough as it is without scaring up things for trade. And there was no guarantee that any traders they did stumble across would be trustworthy. There had been countless wars fought over dilithium, and planets rich in the mineral fought over mercilessly, before being strip-mined until they imploded.
Steve chews on his lip. That leaves them with two viable options, find more, or figure out a way to make what they have last longer. Either way, he needs help.
“Yes, Captain?” the ship echoes helpfully around him.
“Where is Mr Barnes?”
Steve grimaces as he waits for Friday to respond. At this point she might as well suggest Steve put a tracking device on him and stop asking all the time.
“Mr Barnes is on Deck 8,” Friday announces.
“Thank you,” Steve mutters, and heads towards the turbolift.
It’s not that he doesn’t want to see Bucky. He does, more than anything. But after the… encounter in Steve’s quarters, Bucky has made something of a tactical retreat. They see each other daily, and although Bucky doesn’t seem to be keeping his distance, they are never alone together.
But there is a piece of dilithium that Steve carries around in his pocket, so he does his best to be patient, and give Bucky the time he clearly needs.
Steve is still lost in thought when the turbolift stops at Deck 8. The Hydroponics bay is somewhere around there, so he walks along the hall, expecting to find Bucky helping Wanda, and almost walks right past him.
Bucky isn’t in Hydroponics. He’s leaning against the wall outside one of the science labs, talking to an Ensign. A very pretty Ensign.
She is laughing at something Bucky said that didn’t seem that funny, one hand playing through her long blonde hair, the other resting on his arm. He doesn’t seem to mind.
Steve is suddenly grateful that it’s been so long since he last ate. If there was anything in his stomach he would have thrown it up by now. The cold, twisting sensation in his gut is almost visceral, like a hook caught in his entrails that will tear its way out of he moves to suddenly.
“Bucky?” Steve blurts out without thinking, and the Ensign glances over at him. She lets out a little squeak when she sees Steve, and quickly pulls away from Bucky, clasping her hands behind her back and attempting to look harmless.
“Captain.” She bobs her head and scurries off.
Steve stares after her, dumbstruck, as she ducks in through the nearest open door, all questions about dilithium gone from his mind.
“Steve?” Bucky asks, his voice light and curious. Guilt free. Like there was nothing untoward about him flirting with a pretty girl.
Steve wrenches his gaze away from the doorway the intern practically ran through. What was her name? Connie? Bonnie? He’s the Captain, he should know these things.
“Steve,” Bucky says, a little louder.
Steve blinks, shaking his head, as though he could disperse the dull, heavy fog suddenly clouding his thoughts.
“Who was that?”
It’s not the question he had come up to ask, nor is it the one he really wants to, but he doubts that Bucky would have much of a response to what the hell?
“Steve?” Bucky has moved from confused to concerned. Steve should feel touched, or comforted, or something, but all he wants is for the conversation to be over, to not have to look at Bucky a moment longer. Every time Bucky says his name, the hook in Steve’s guts give a vicious little twist.
“Nothing,” Steve mutters, turning away. “As you were.”
Bucky says something, but Steve doesn’t listen, walking back the way he came, and punching the controls to the turbolift hard enough to crack the screen.
He presses his hand to his stomach, and absently wonders how he can ache so badly but have nothing to show for it. The turbolift dings impatiently at him.
“Ready room,” he says at last, and it feels like running away.
Steve forgoes coffee for once, and fetches a tea from the replicator. He can’t concentrate on work, and sips it in front of the viewscreen, staring out at the strange constellations. In the distance he can see the first set of binary pulsars, twin neutron stars in mutual orbit, emitting high levels of gamma radiation.
He’s barely halfway through the cup when there is a polite sound from Friday.
“Yes?” Steve sighs.
“Lieutenant Commander Romanov wishes to speak with you.”
That didn’t take long. “Come in.”
There is a soft hiss as the door slides open, and Steve turns around as Natasha enters the room.
“Lieutenant Commander Romanov?” He raises his cup in greeting.
“Ugh,” Natasha grouses, and helps herself to raktajino from the replicator. “Sometimes I think you promoted me as some kind of punishment. Do you know how many reports I’ve filed today.”
“Is that why you’re here?” Steve can’t quite manage a smile. “Looking to transfer.”
“Hardly.” Natasha gives him a glare before taking a sip of raktajino.
“Don’t play dumb, Rogers. It doesn’t suit you.” Natasha walks over to the table and pulls out a chair. “Anyone with psionic abilities in the Delta Quadrant can hear you.”
Steve hunches up a little, his shoulder pulling up around his ears. “That bad, huh?”
“Like a little puppy dog howling at the door.” Natasha sits down, nudging at the chair opposite with her foot until it slides out from under the table in invitation. “You want to talk about it?”
“So you are looking to transfer,” Steve hesitates before taking the offered seat. “You want to be Ship’s Counselor?”
“No.” Natasha grimaces. “I don’t make a habit of this.” She places her cup of raktajino on the table, fingernails drumming lightly along the rim.
Steve takes another sip of cooling tea while Natasha taps her painted nails on the sides of her cup rat-a-tat-tat.
“We were almost…” Steve curls his hands around his cup, seeking the last traces of warmth, and starts again. “There was someone on the ship that I… that I thought was…” Why is this so hard? “We almost.”
Natasha nods sagely, as if what Steve said made any kind of sense. “And now you’re not?”
Steve nods, a sharp little up-and-down. “It’s not important, I’ll get over it.”
Natasha hums, unconvinced, and takes a pointed sip of raktajino.
“Nat, it’s a bad idea from the start, okay? For one thing I’m the Captain. I have a duty to my crew, I can’t be taking advantage.”
“How would you be taking advantage? He’s not Starfleet, he doesn’t work under you. And he definitely ignores your orders when he feels like it.”
Steve clamps his mouth shut. Is he that obvious? Could the whole damned crew see it?
“Nat.” There is a pleading edge in Steve’s tone and he hates it.
“I’m just saying that instead of staring out the window and feeling sorry for yourself you could actually…” Nat takes a sip of raktajino. “Talk to Bucky.”
“What?” If Steve were thinking more clearly he’d feel sorry for her subordinates, and frankly anyone who gets on her wrong side.
“Talk. To. Him.” Each word feels like a Widow’s Bite under his ribs, and Steve winces. “Tell him what you need. Ask him what he needs. A monogamous relationship, a physical-”
“Okay, that’s enough,” Steve says quickly, holding up his hand as if he could physically push the words away. “No more.”
Natasha smiles, all teeth. “Unlike me, he’s not psychic. He doesn’t remember who he used to be. He’s fumbling around, probably just as confused as you are, only he has a valid excuse.”
Steve tries to buy time with a sip of tea, but finds his cup empty. He puts it down on the table with an overly-loud thump. “I can’t… I lost him once, I can’t…” Steve rubs his hand across his mouth. “I can’t be without him.”
“So don’t,” Natasha says simply.
“It’s not that easy, Nat.”
She smiles, reaching across the table to curl her hand around his wrist. “Yes it is.”
Natasha stays long enough to finish her drink, sitting in comfortable silence while Steve chews over what she said. He feels like an idiot, but then what else is new.
She takes her time getting up, pushing her chair back under the table neatly, and takes a moment to walk over to Steve’s side.
“You okay?” she asks softly, her hand touching his shoulder lightly.
“Yeah,” Steve shrugs. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
She doesn’t look convinced, but kisses the top of his head, giving his shoulder a light squeeze before fetching her empty cup and taking it back to the replicator.
“Hey, Nat?” Steve calls after her.
She glances over. “Captain?”
Steve hesitates, rubbing his thumb across the lip of his cold cup. “Are you happy?”
“Never been better.” Her lips tighten, her eyes bright. “Get your shit together, Rogers.”
He snaps off a smart little salute, and Natasha returns it, before slipping through the door and leaving Steve to comb through the tangled thornbush of his thoughts.
Steve goes back to the viewscreen and stares out at the vastness of space, and lets his mind wander. Maybe Natasha has a point, he has made picking too many battles something of an art form in his life, every experience something to rail against.
Maybe it really is that simple.
In the distance the binary pulsars shine, casting out spralling waves of gamma radiation as they slowly, over vast reaches of time, are drawn together.
Steve tips his head to one side. Gamma radiation.
Steve finds Dr Banner in Sickbay, leaning against one of the replicators and inhaling the steam rising up from a cup of spiced tea. He frowns up at Steve as he approaches.
“What?” Banner grips his cup tightly, holding it up like a shield. “Who’s dying now?”
“No one’s dying,” Steve reassures him. “You specialised in gamma radiation, right? Before switching to biochemistry.”
“That’s right,” Banner nods, looking wary. “Why?”
“Did you ever read the Captain’s Logs from the old Enterprise? Not Archer, Kirk.”
Banner lets out a startled laugh. “You read those reports? Those things were nonsense, clearly the…” Banner waves a free hand, as if fishing around for words. “Clearly the work of a bored Captain on a Science vessel entertaining himself with implausible stories of sentient space clouds and sexually available alien women.”
“So you have read them,” Steve pushes for confirmation.
“It was pulp, nonsense, the reports only got circulated among the populus for entertainment. You shouldn’t believe a word of it.” Bruce takes a sip of tea. “You know Kirk claimed to have engaged in a bare knuckle fistfight with a giant lizard man.”
“Yeah, a Gorn, I remember.”
“A species which was never encountered again,” Banner points out with relish. “And his descriptions of the Klingons? That set back the peace process by-”
“Yes, but did you read the report of Science Officer Spock working out a way to recrystallise dilithium with gamma radiation?”
Banner looks at Steve askance. “You mean when they travelled back in time for a space whale?”
Steve holds his hands up, placating. “I know it’s a stretch, but is it possible? Theoretically?”
Banner hums thoughtfully. “Recrystallising dilithium?”
“Yes,” Steve gives him a hopeful look.
“With gamma rays?”
Banner takes a slow drink of tea. “Vision has been working on replicating crystals, hasn’t he? Barnes mentioned something during a check-up.”
What check-up? rises up in Steve’s throat. He swallows the question down again, fighting the urge to ask after Bucky’s health. Nat was right about everything, damn her. If Steve wants to know how Bucky is, where he is, he needs to start asking him and not the people around him.
“I take it you’re not asking in the spirit of scientific endeavour,” Banner asks ruefully.
“Supplies are getting low,” Steve admits.
“Alright,” Banner nods. “I’ll finish up here and go see Vision, see if we can come up with something.”
Steve breathes out a sigh of relief. “Thank you, Bruce.”
Banner lowers his head, letting out a soft, embarrassed huff. “I’m not making any promises.”
“All the same, thank you.” Steve says, and starts to retreat. The sooner he gets out of Banner's hair, the sooner he can get to work.
“Hey,” Banner calls after him. “You not gonna ask about Barnes’ check-up?”
Steve shakes his head. “I’ll ask him myself.”
The last of the day gets taken up with the Science division, enthusing over the results of their studies on the binary pulsars. Steve has to refuse their repeated requests for the ship to take a detour for closer study, painfully aware of their limited fuel supplies, and spend the next hour listening to increasingly elaborate arguments for why he is both wrong and a threat to the scientific community.
Steve nods patiently, listens to their increasingly disordered reasoning, and stands his ground.
There’s no point in explaining that with limited fuel supplies, a detour could put them at greater risk, the last thing he needs is a shipwide panic on his hands. Eventually he manages to salvage the situation with a promise of taking a detour for the next binary pulsar they come across, and Steve can only hope that it doesn’t happen any time soon. His offer is met with sullen grumbling, and Steve offers a last apology before leaving.
It’s only when he steps into the turbolift, his head pounding, his eyes gritty and sore, that he realises he’s forgotten to eat. He’s too tired to think, let alone join the rest of the crew in the Mess. He thumbs at the newly repaired control screen, hesitating over Engineering. He needs a clear head for that conversation, and decides on returning to his own quarters.
Food, then sleep, he decides. He’ll deal with the rest tomorrow.
There is a weight on Steve’s legs, a hand on his chest, cold fingers curling into the soft, thin material of his t-shirt.
“Steve, wake up.”
Steve lets out a grunt of alarm, twisting in his blanket as he tries to get his legs free. He sits up, his hands braced against the mattress. In the faint starlight filtering through the windows behind the bed he can just about make out a figure crouched over him, knees straddling Steve’s hips. The hand is still pressed to his chest, the lights reflecting off splayed metal fingers.
Steve has enough sense to call up the lights, and the room slowly brightens. Bucky sits back on his heels, his dark hair hanging over his face. He’s wearing off-duty clothes, black pants and a wine red shirt, the kind of colour Vision would pick out for him.
“How did you get in here?” Steve blurts out, grabbing the edge of his blanket and tugging in an attempt to cover himself up. It’s wedged under Bucky’s knee, and doesn’t budge an inch.
“Overrode the security.” Steve can see a flash of teeth behind the curtain of hair. “Easy.”
Steve stares at him, still fumbling for the thread of conversation. “Why?”
“So if you get court martialed, I can get you out.”
Steve has a sudden memory of standing in a holding cell, a transmitter in his hand.
What happens next is your choice.
“I was given the opportunity to engage in copulation with a member of the crew,” Bucky talks over him, an odd, jarring edge in his tone. “She did not require botanicals as a prerequisite, nor was she particularly interested in pairbonding. I was led to believe that it would be a single instance with no social repercussions.”
“Bonnie,” Steve says quietly, and drops heavily back down onto the bed. His head bounces a little on the pillow, his legs still pinned in place.
Steve remembers the old Bucky, sneaking into his room with synthehol on his breath and perfume on his clothes, whispering in Steve’s ear about what he’d done, who he’d done. Steve had hated him for it.
“Connie,” Bucky corrects him.
Steve tries to roll over onto his side, pulling at the blanket in irritation. Bucky doesn’t give an inch, watching as Steve twists and turns under him.
“We went to her quarters-”
“I don’t want to hear about it, Buck,” Steve snaps. He gives up on the covers and grabs his pillow, giving it a punch for good measure before covering his face with it.
“But I did not experience the physiological responses that occur in your presence,” Bucky bends over Steve, pulling back a corner of the pillow and studying him closely in the warm, muted light. “Why?”
Steve tugs the pillow out of Bucky’s grip, but his heart isn’t in it. Bucky is, when all is said and done, his friend, and is asking Steve for help. He pushes the pillow to one side and braces himself for a difficult conversation.
“Okay, well if you’re having trouble with… performance, Dr Banner can prescribe you some medication.”
Bucky tilts his head to one side, his brow furrowing. “There’s medication to alter your mass?”
Steve scrubs the palm of his hand over his face, and sits up again, almost dislodging Bucky from his lap.
Bucky shifts his weight, digging his bare toes into the mattress, and makes an irritated sound.
“That?” He glances down at his lap. “There’s been no issue with-”
“Alright,” Steve says quickly, before Bucky can offer any further details. “So what are these physiological responses?”
Bucky stills, his mismatched fingers spread across his thighs.
“There is some form of spatial anomaly around you,” he begins. “It manifests as irregularities in gravity, distortions to the laws of physics. The effects seem to be temporary, but consistent. Though other crew members appear to be unaffected.” Bucky’s mouth twists in frustration. “I have checked the ships grav dampeners, but there seems to be no malfunction.”
Steve is a very intelligent man, he graduated in the top 2% at Starfleet Academy. But he still doesn’t understand what Bucky is trying to tell him. He opens his mouth helplessly, and can think of nothing to say. “You think I’m affecting the ships systems?” he hazards.
Bucky scrapes his fingers through his hair, a nervous little tic that makes him seem so human, regardless of the metal arm and the implants in his skin. “In your presence I weigh less, as though my body has altered in density. I feel buoyant, like I am filled with helium. It is… unsettling.”
Bucky shifts again, settling on Steve’s hips. The weight of him makes something at the base of Steve’s spine twist and unfurl, makes his heart beat a little too hard, a little too fast.
“Okay,” Steve reaches out, brushing the tips of his fingers against Bucky’s knee, moving lightly across his thigh. “What else?”
“When you smile at me I have a disconcerting sensation that I am a vessel filled with liquid. Far too much liquid, as if moving too fast or too suddenly might cause me to spill over.” He leans closer, drawn towards Steve like one half of a binary system, and Steve finds himself slowly pulled in.
“There is a corresponding aberration in you.” Bucky rests his hand, palm down, against Steve’s, the tips of their fingers interlocking. “Your resting heart rate is forty two beats per minute. It increases rapidly in my presence, more so than with any other crew member, increasing threefold if eye contact is made.”
Steve’s mouth twitches up. “You’ve been making a study.”
Bucky leans in closer, until the loose strands of his hair brush against Steve’s face. “Your pupils are dilated, and your respiration rate has increased twelve percent.” Bucky presses a hand, warm and tentative, over Steve’s heart. “Why?”
“Because…” Steve swallows, his throat dry, his heart pounding so hard Bucky must feel drumming against the palm of his hand. “Because I’m in lo-”
Bucky bridges that last sliver of space between them, crushing their mouths together in a clumsy, bruising kiss.
There is no delicacy in Bucky’s actions, no careful cataloguing of touch and response. He licks between Steve’s teeth, parted mid-word, and swallows up everything that he wants to say, rough-edged and frantic.
Finally, finally Bucky’s hand moves up to cup Steve’s jaw, a sharp edge of possessiveness as he holds him in place. Now that he is able to touch in return, Steve cannot settle in one place. He moves restlessly, skimming his hands along Bucky’s hips and encircling his waist before working them under the soft fabric of Bucky’s shirt and tracing up the notches of his spine. He tugs gently, bringing their bodies closer, and Bucky pushes him down onto the bed. The shift in their bodies has Steve’s cock, half hard already, rub up against the crease of Bucky’s thigh, and he chokes out a moan.
Bucky breaks the kiss, pulling back just enough to meet Steve’s gaze. His hair is damp with sweat, his mouth reddened, and Steve can only stare back at him. There is no nebula, no star cluster or galaxy that could compare to the sight of Bucky with his eyes heavy lidded and his lips red and spit-slick.
“Are you okay?” Steve asks softly.
“Too many clothes,” Bucky plucks at Steve’s shirt. “Disagreeable.”
Steve coughs out a laugh, and pushes his hands up, working Bucky’s shirt off. Bucky sits up enough to help, lifting up each arm so Steve can remove his sleeves.
The shirt is cast aside, and Steve allows himself a chance to admire Bucky in the warm light, the blue of his eyes and the breadth of his shoulders and the metal plates moving beneath his skin.
Bucky makes an impatient sound and tugs at the hem of Steve’s shirt, his silvery fingers curling against Steve’s stomach. He decides that Steve is being far too slow and drags the t-shirt up, the seams starting to give way under his insistent pulling. Steve sits up, laughing under his breath, and Bucky wrestles the t-shirt off gracelessly, dropping it on the bed with a huff. Steve kisses him sweetly in sympathy, light touches of lips and tongue that has Bucky whining in frustration.
Steve pulls Bucky down onto the bed with him, relishing in the sensation of skin against skin. He draws his hands up Bucky’s spine again, unhindered by clothing this time. His fingers seek out the metal plates embedded under his shoulder, tracing around the implants and ports that break through his warm, honeyed skin, each one a wonder to behold. Bucky kisses him again, slower than before, his lips lingering, his tongue tracing the shape of Steve’s teeth.
Steve draws his thumb along the seam at Bucky’s shoulder where flesh meets metal, his teeth catching on the swell of Bucky’s lower lip when the opportunity presents.
Steve’s cock, painfully stiff and stretching out the front of his underwear, briefly rubs up against the placket of Bucky’s pants. Bucky whines, low in his throat, his metal hand grasping the edge of the mattress, his hips stuttering. Underneath the plain black pants, Steve can feel the hard line of Bucky’s cock rut against his stomach, spurring him into action.
He rolls over, pinning Bucky beneath him. Bucky lets out a startled sound, muffled against Steve’s mouth. His knees fall open, allowing Steve to settle between them.
It feels like a hardship to pull away from his sweet mouth, but Steve pushes his way down the bed, trailing kisses across Bucky’s chest, working his way slowly down his stomach. He stops at the waistband of his pants, pressing his nose to the trail of dark hair below Bucky’s navel. Steve mouths at the coarse fabric, working the flat of his tongue against the ridge of Bucky’s cock. Bucky lets out a startled moan, a reverberation that seems to bypass Steve’s ears and thrum through his veins and make his cock pulse. Bucky arches his spine, pushing up against Steve’s mouth.
Steve thumbs open the fastening of Bucky’s pants, slipping under the cloth and closing his hand around his cock. It twitches against his fingers, hot and hard, and Bucky groans softly, his heels digging into the mattress. Somewhere in the low rumble of his voice there might have been Steve’s name, some garbled plea for more, and Steve rubs the heel of his hand against him in a slow tease.
Bucky’s hands brush against Steve’s hair, cupping the curve of his skull before settling against his shoulders, clasping hard enough to bruise. Steve curls his fingers around Bucky’s cock, dragging his thumb over the silky head. A pearly bead of fluid forms under his fingers, musky and rich, and he darts out his tongue, tasting bitterness. Bucky lets out another choked moan, and Steve bends down, sliding his lips over the crown in a delicate kiss, his tongue dragging across the head and teasing at the slit. Bucky moans again, loud and low, and Steve works his lips down the shaft, pressing his tongue to a thick vein along the underside and swallowing.
Bucky lets out a yelp, more pained than pleasured, and Steve pulls off with a wet sound, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. He looks up at Bucky, taking in the deep red flush of his skin and his bitten lips, his eyes screwed shut as he shakes his head from side to side.
“Too much?” Steve asks softly.
Bucky gives a single, terse nod, shame etching the corners of his drawn-down mouth.
“Hey, it’s okay.” Steve crawls back up the bed, skimming his fingers along Bucky’s sides. “We can slow down.”
Bucky cracks open one eye and glares at him, and in spite of himself, Steve lets out a chuckle. “Okay, no slowing down. Maybe try that next time?”
Bucky nods, and knowing that there will be other times sends a thrill of desire through Steve’s body.
“Next time,” Bucky agrees, wrapping his arms around Steve’s waist and nudging their mouths together.
Steve lets Bucky lead the kiss, a slow slide of tongue and sharp sting of teeth that has him breathless. He tugs at Bucky’s pants until they are down to his thighs, too impatient with want to do anything more, and shucks off his underwear. Bucky crawls over him, moving by instinct and Steve’s guiding hands to lie between his legs and slide their cocks together. Steve curls his hands around Bucky’s hips, digging his fingers into the firm swell of his ass and coaxes him into a clumsy, stuttering rhythm, their bodies slick with sweat and precome as they rut against each other.
Bucky gasps into Steve’s mouth, his movements becoming erratic, and Steve kisses him again and again, and whispers his name when he comes.
Bucky groans at the sight of Steve coming over himself. He braces his weight on one forearm and lifts himself up, hovering over Steve as he wraps his hand around his cock, sharp silver against the the dark flush of its head. He pumps his fist, quick and rough, and spills on his fingers, dripping down in little pools on Steve’s stomach.
“Oh,” Bucky murmurs, astonished, his body trembling with aftershocks as he slowly lowers himself down to curl up against Steve’s side.
“Oh,” Steve agrees, breathing in short, ragged gasps. “Oh.”
It takes a moment of fumbling, and ignoring Bucky’s soft grumbles at being jostled, for Steve to find his t-shirt. He wipes up the mess on his stomach, and when Bucky offers up his hand, eyes shining with something vast and wordless, Steve cleans off his fingers too. He takes his time, drawing the soiled cloth over each segment, gentle and reverent, and kisses each finger when he is done. He balls up the ruined t-shirt and tosses it on the floor, shifting out the way with a chuckle as Bucky finally kicks off his boots and pants, shoving them off the edge of the bed. Bucky pushes Steve until he’s lying on his back, and curls up against him, pulling up the blanket to cover them both.
His metal arm, heavy and skin-warmed, drapes across Steve’s stomach, his segmented fingers curl loosely around Steve’s hip. Steve wraps an arm firmly around Bucky’s shoulders, securing him in place until there is no place where they are not touching.
“You should go down to your alcove,” Steve makes no attempt to let Bucky go, trailing his fingers lightly along the metal plates of his arm and feeling the mechanism underneath whir and recalibrate. “Get some rest.”
“In a minute,” Bucky’s voice is muffled against Steve’s shoulder, his breath warm and damp.
Steve brushes his lips to Bucky’s hair. “In a minute,” he concedes.
Bucky doesn’t answer, his eyes closed, his breaths already slowing.
Steve watches Bucky drift into sleep, taking in the sight of him at rest. He memorises the way Bucky’s damp hair curls and clings to his cheeks, he way his eyes flick under his closed lids, the fan of dark lashes against his cheeks. And bliss seems like too small a word for being in the heart of the one you love.
Chapter 6: The Graveyard
“Are you sure?” Steve asks, gathering Bucky up in his arms.
Bucky nods, tapping Steve gently on the chest.
“We are as one,” he says softly, I love you, and he kisses Steve on the corner of his mouth. “We are one.”
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
There is an obnoxiously loud hammering at the door, and Steve looks up from reading the latest list of demands from Commander Hill.
Like an idiot he’d thought that getting this commission would be the hard part, but the increasingly tetchy updates from Starfleet were starting to give him a headache. If they continued at this rate by the end of the month they would be coming in hourly.
The hammering at the door picks up again, a rhythmic thumping that Steve could swear was the baseline to Back in Black of all things. The Asgardians love Earth classical music, and Steve has frequently been subjected to the Ambassador's particular tastes in songs from the late 20th Century.
“Come in,” Steve calls, quickly tapping out a message to Hill promising to have his Chief Medical officer retake the psych evaluation. Again.
The door bursts open, revealing a man with a neatly trimmed beard and tailored suit that screams Off World money.
“Captain Rogers,” the man strides over to the desk and pauses. “You’re tall. Why are you so tall?”
Illegal genetic manipulation, Steve thinks, but keeps his mouth shut. The man looks familiar, one of the independent contractors that had approached him previously, offering to outfit the new ship.
“Stark, isn’t it?” Steve is certain it is, but finds that people who have never met him before feel more comfortable when he phrases his recognition of them as a question.
“The one and only,” Stark spreads out his arms. “Did you get my messages? I sent a whole bunch of them.”
Steve raises his eyebrows. Yes, there had been messages, none of which he had read. Tony Stark, owner and CEO of Stark Industries, a multiworld weapons and tech manufacturer. Highly regarded, highly expensive, and run by a man better known for his parties than his politics.
“Thank you for your interest, Mr Stark,” Steve keeps his tone civil. “But the weapons array of the USS Avenger is being provided by the Asgardians. They have extensive knowledge of the further reaches of space, and a more informed idea of the tech we will be needing for this mission.” Steve gestures to the door, which Stark has left wide open. “Please don’t let me keep you.”
Stark half turns to look at the door, and then back to Steve.
“Did you just sass me?” he asks, looking delighted. “We are going to get along so well.”
“Mr Stark, perhaps I didn’t make myself clear,” Steve grits his teeth, and deletes another message. “We don’t need your weapons.”
Or any of the trouble that comes with them.
“Oh, no. I don’t make weapons anymore, didn’t you hear?” Stark says airily.
Steve had heard something about an attempted abduction by Cardassian spies, orchestrated by one of the directors of Stark Industries, who had been selling weapons under the table to the Obsidian Order.
He hesitates for a moment. “I heard.” and swipes through another handful of messages. “Welcome back.”
“Decided to make a fresh start. Change of pace, new direction, all that.” Stark wanders over to Steve’s desk, his hands thrust into his pockets, and tries to sneak a look at Steve’s mail.
Steve turns off the PADD and gives Stark his full attention. “That sounds very admirable.”
“Oh yeah, well Stark Industries has always been at the cutting edge of research and technology,” Tony shrugs. “Only now our focus has… shifted.”
Steve nods, and offers no further comment.
“Who’s providing your warp core?” Stark asks abruptly. “Hammer, right?”
Steve folds his arms across his chest. Hammer had offered what looked like the best deal on paper, but in person he was loud, obnoxious and deeply insecure, a poor choice for long range missions.
Stark sucks air between his teeth. “You know he hasn’t perfected his reactor technology yet,” Tony says conspiratorially. “Leaving it a little late, isn’t he.”
Steve twitches up one shoulder. “We’re all working to a tight deadline.”
Stark pouts, and steps back from the table. He paces back and forth a little, clearly working his way up to something. It’s one more stress in a life of nothing but, and Steve doesn’t have the time for it.
“Spit it out Stark,” Steve sighs. “I haven’t got all day.”
“You need me,” Stark blurts out.
“You need me, Rogers.” He takes a step towards the desk again. “If you’d read any of my messages, you’d know. My reactor technology is light years ahead of any of this shit, and you’ll never find a better engineer than the guy standing in front of you.” He drops a Stark PADD on the desk, the screen lighting up and projecting a hologram of an upgraded warp core. “I can provide funding and resources, and I’ve got contacts in the media who would bring a lot of positive attention your way, maybe get rid of some of that weight Hill is piling on your back.”
So he did get a glimpse of Steve’s messages.
Steve glances down at the PADD. He’s not an Engineer, but he can see how the core has been streamlined, the standard design refined for fuel efficiency. Stark isn’t lying, he would be a valuable addition to the crew, assuming he could pass the psych evaluation. But there is something panicked behind his eyes, something hunted.
“And you’re offering your services because of what?” Steve asks sharply. “The kindness of your heart?”
“I gotta get out of here,” Stark hisses. “My board of directors are a pack of wolves, and now I’ve closed down the weapons division they are after my ass.”
He clamps his mouth shut, as if startled by his own honesty.
“And five years away is enough time to let everything cool off,” Steve says slowly. “We come back successful, you’ll be a hero. No one would argue with your decisions. If we don’t come back-”
“It’ll be the least of my problems,” Stark finishes.
Steve nods thoughtfully. “Well, thank you for your honesty.”
“You’re gonna say yes,” Tony says, and Steve can’t tell if it’s a plea or a promise. “If anything goes wrong, I can get you home again.”
“That’s a hell of a promise,” Steve shakes his head. “And the final decision isn’t with me. You have to pass Starfleet psych evaluation before they’ll even let you on that ship.”
“So I’ll cheat.”
Steve turns away, pressing his knuckles to his mouth to keep from smiling.
“You’re gonna say yes,” Tony insists. “Say yes.”
Steve half-wakes at the hiss of the door to his quarters opening and closing. He rolls onto his back, listening to the sounds of movement through the room. A pair of boots dropped with a muted thud, the rustle of clothing being shed before the blankets are pulled back.
Bucky crawls under the covers, tucking up against Steve’s side and using his shoulder as a pillow. Steve wraps his arm around Bucky’s shoulders, the shape of him already familiar.
“Is it time to get up?” Steve mumbles sleepily, pressing his mouth to the wrinkle between Bucky’s brows.
“Ngh,” Bucky’s voice is muffled by Steve’s shoulder, but he makes no attempt to move.
In the alcove, Bucky dreams. It’s part of the regenerative process, according to Banner. Sometimes he dreams of the Borg, his head filled with their whispering voices calling to him.
Bucky tightens his grip around Steve’s waist. Yes.
“You want to talk about it?” Steve asks gently. In answer Bucky tucks his face under Steve’s chin, his fluttering eyelashes tickling Steve’s throat. Steve kisses the top of Bucky’s head in light, insistent little touches until Bucky tilts his head up and appeases him with a kiss or two.
“Are we still on course?” Steve shifts as Bucky tucks his knee between his thighs.
Astrometrics had taken news of the course alteration surprisingly well. Steve had expected uproar at the announcement of a detour, not least from Science division, who were still sore about their binary systems. But aside from the odd mutter about delays, they were currently sixty days off their original course and the crew had carried on with their routines without a fuss.
“Yes.” Bucky raises his head clear of Steve’s body long enough to be heard clearly. “Sleep. Now.”
He flops back down again, jabbing a metal finger in Steve’s ribs as a warning against any further attempts at talk.
“Okay, message received,” Steve chuckles, and lets his eyes fall closed, lulled by the sound of Bucky’s deep, even breaths.
Steve wakes up again shortly before his alarm call, and slips out from under the covers, careful not to wake Bucky. He checks on his potato plant, safely housed in a pot on his desk, and runs his fingers along the soft green leaves. It needs repotting again, and he makes a note to himself to take it down to Wanda later.
He gives it some water, checking the timer on the solar lamp positioned above it, and takes a quick shower. When he comes back to get dressed, Bucky is sitting up in bed, the blanket pooled around him as he yawns and stretches. Steve pauses in the doorway, drinking in the sight of the anchoring plates under his skin moving smoothly across his back, his metal arm whirring as the segments shift and settle like the rousing of bird feathers.
Steve’s heart gives a painful thump, and he is suddenly overwhelmed by how full he feels, as though there was too much joy, too much love filling him up, and his body could not possibly contain it. That if he breathed in too deeply he would split open.
Bucky glances over his shoulder, all rough around the edges and sleepy, and his eyes crinkle up at the corners in a smile that just touches the corner of his mouth.
On any other day Steve would be tempted to climb back into bed and stay there a little longer, to peel away their layers of clothing and put his lips to every inch of Bucky’s sleep-warm body, taste skin and burnished steel. Hell, he’s tempted today, but he forces himself into action, calling up a fresh uniform from the replicator and pulling it on. It spurs Bucky into action, and he climbs out of bed, picking up his clothes from last night and giving them a cautious sniff before putting them on.
“You can use the replicator,” Steve says, fastening up his tunic. “If you want clean clothes.”
“They’re not dirty yet.” Bucky shrugs on his sweater, smoothing down the front over his broad chest. His clothes are clean, if wrinkled from being left on the floor. “And they’re mine.” He shrugs, like what he’s saying is not momentous in its own way. “I like that they’re mine.”
Steve reaches out to him, and Bucky doesn’t hesitate, just wraps himself up in Steve’s arms, pressing his forehead to Steve’s cheek.
“Well then, they’re yours,” Steve murmurs, drawing the flat of his hand down Bucky’s back, the sweater warm fuzz against his skin. “You keep them as long as you want to.”
Bucky tightens his grip around Steve’s waist, pulling him closer. “What about this?”
Steve flushes, but keeps stroking his hand down Bucky’s spine. “This is yours too.”
They take the turbolift down to Engineering together, and Bucky gives Steve a quick almost-smile, the kind that barely touches his mouth, but makes his eyes brighten. Steve ducks his head and kisses the corner of Bucky’s mouth, quick and furtive, and Bucky leans into the touch of his lips, allowing Steve a chance to linger a little. Bucky pulls away when the Turbolift bleeps irritably, and heads down to Maintenance to start his shift.
Steve watches him walk away, and when he’s out of sight heads down the corridor to Engineering, and finds Stark hunched over a console.
With Banner's help, Stark had made some progress with regenerating the crystalline structure of dilithium while housed in the warp core. They worked surprisingly well together, and Banner seemed to thrive on Stark's pushing and baiting. In turn, his calm presence seemed to smooth off the worst of Stark's rough edges. And at least he was on-hand to treat any burns and concussions that seemed to happen when Vision wasn’t there to supervise.
With carefully timed gamma radiation pulses, they had been able to extend the life of the existing dilithium, though not indefinitely. But it was something, and if this detour of Bucky’s was a success, dilithium supplies would no longer be a concern.
“Tony?” Steve tries to catch his attention. “You got everything ready down here?”
Stark looks up at him and snorts “Ready? Are you trying to get a rise outta me, Rogers?”
Steve bites down on a smile. “A little bit.”
Instead of being angry, Stark looks delighted. He shuts down the program he’s working on and gestures for Steve to follow him. “C’mon, take a look.”
Stark leads Steve into his workshop, a sprawl that takes up half of the deck beyond the warp cores. The wreckage of consoles and a sacrificial shuttlecraft, cannibalised for parts, are spread across the floor and across several workstations. Tony stops in front of his main workstation, where DUM-E, the more reliable of his robotic arms, is attaching a PADD to one of three large devices laid out on the table.
“Watch what you’re doing,” Tony mutters to DUM-E, giving the arm a gentle nudge. “You’ll crack the screen.”
The robotic arm sags with a pitiful little whir, and somehow manages to express contrition. “Alright, get over it.” Tony pats the arm reassuringly, and it perks up again, whirring happily as it returns to work.
Steve picks up one of the devices; a bulky, heavy cylinder with two handles fixed to the top and a customised PADD attached near the rear.
“So the crystalline structure of dilithium makes it ideal for separating matter and antimatter and keeping us all from dying a terrible fiery death at warp speed, but it’s a bitch on wheels to harvest.” He tilts the device so Steve can see the trigger on the handles. “So I’ve designed these multi-phase mining lasers. Now you can’t just wander around the planets surface picking these things up like twigs for a campfire, each dilithium seam vibrates at a unique frequency, so you gotta recalibrate each time.” He taps at the PADD and scrolls through the menu screen until he brings up a display, and hands the device over to Steve.
Steve handles the laser easily, and Tony grumbles good-naturedly about his enhanced strength while he fetches a piece of synthesised dilithium.
“Your murderbot boyfriend has been working with Vision on the synthesising process, don’t tell him I said this, but for an inhuman killing machine he’s got a decent grasp of Engineering. If he ever gets bored of crawling around in Jefferies Tubes, tell him there’s a position here.” Tony shrugs. “Maybe. He’d be working for me, not Starfleet, I don’t know how that sits with you.”
“Well…” It’s an olive branch, Steve knows that, even if it comes wrapped in cynicism. “I think that would be Bucky’s decision, not mine.”
Tony tosses the synthesised dilithium crystal from hand to hand, chewing on the inside of his cheek and looking like he wished he’d kept his mouth shut. “Anyway,” he clears a space on one of the cluttered workbenches and sets the dilithium down. It rocks back and forth a little as he takes a step back. “Go on, it won’t slice the ship in half.”
“Good to know,” Steve mutters, and points the laser at the jagged, pink-coloured crystal. He taps at the display, triangulating on the dilithium, and pulls the trigger. The laser emits a thin beam of blue light, which slices through the dilithium in a shower of sparks, cutting it cleanly in two.
Tony gives Steve an I-told-you-so look, crossing his arms and waiting to be showered with praise.
“This is excellent work, Tony.” Steve disarms the laser and puts it back on the workbench, biting back a smile as Tony preens a little.
“Of course mining raw dilithium won't be so quick and clean,” Tony picks up the two halves. “Variable structure, refractions. Plus we gotta refine it-”
“Understood,” Steve cuts in before Tony spirals. “Have you finalised your Engineering team?”
Tony tilts his head from side to side, indicating more or less. “We’ll be taking a shuttle down to the surface, the high concentrations of dilithium on the surface are playing merry havoc with the sensor readings, and I didn’t put all this time and considerable effort to risk the Transporters.”
“Tony,” Steve chides. “Scott is our most qualified Transporter chief.”
Tony glares at him. “You remember when we stopped off for supplies at that outpost? Hope One?”
“Tony,” Steve sighs.
“And Lang was in charge of the Transporter.”
“Tony, it was one time.”
“Ants,” Tony says flatly. “He beamed us back and we were the size of ants.”
Steve pinches the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. “It was an honest mistake.”
“Ants,” Tony repeats.
“He’s had a lot of training in the Holodeck since then.”
“Ants.” Tony gives Steve a last glare, and wanders off to check on DUM-E’s progress. Steve takes a last look around the workshop, before making a tactical retreat.
Steve is in the Turbolift, heading down to Maintenance, when Luis’ voice sounds in his ear.
“Yes, Luis. What is it?”
“So we’ve reached the coordinates that Bucky gave us, and that thing we’re looking for? It wouldn’t be, like, a bunch of huge, weird-looking chunks of rock, would it?”
Steve snorts. “Well, that depends. Are the weird-looking chunks of rock orbiting a red dwarf?”
There is a lengthy silence.
“Uh. Yes?” Luis hazards. “Anyway, you should come check it out.”
“On my way,” Steve confirms.
The Turbolift doors slide open, and he steps out into the corridor. It takes a couple of minutes of checking before he finds Bucky, or at least his boots sticking out from inside a dead console.
“Bucky?” Steve gives his foot a gentle tap. “Luis says we’ve reached the coordinates of a bunch of really weird looking rocks.”
There is a dull thunk, the sound of something metal being twisted into shape, and the console flares into life, it’s screen fuzzing and distorting. After a series of clunks and taps, and the screen pulls into sharp focus.
“How does that look?” Bucky asks, his voice muffled inside the console.
Steve checks the screen as it scrolls through an automated reboot sequence. “It says ‘Systems check before start-up Y/N’” Steve reads out.
“Y,” Bucky says, and starts to eel his way out from the guts of the console.
Steve taps on Y, and steps back, smiling down at Bucky when his head finally appears. “I hope you’re following standard Starfleet protocol.”
Bucky snorts. “No you don’t.”
Steve chuckles, and offers a hand. Bucky grasps it, pulling himself to his feet.
“Weird-looking rocks?” Bucky asks, and Steve nods, leading the way back to the Turbolift.
“Captain on deck,” Sam announces as they walk onto the Bridge. He gives Bucky a sideways look. “An’ some other guy.”
Bucky gives Sam’s chair a nudge as he passes it, following Steve over to the viewscreen. Sam sniggers, and taps at his controls, and the viewscreen is filled with an asteroid field orbiting a distant red dwarf star.
“See,” Luis points to the misshapen rock. “Weird-looking, didn’t I tell you guys?”
It is weird-looking. There are no discernable planets amid the debris, no signs of life at all, intelligent or otherwise.
“You sure these we’re in the right place?” Clint asks from the Helm. “Because this looks like a graveyard.”
“It is,” Bucky says absently, tracking the movement of the asteroids on screen, as if searching for something. “The dilithium in this system had… unique qualities. It formed in aligned lattices, generating an electrical field that tore the planets apart.”
“Ouch,” Luis says emphatically. “So is there still dilithium out there? Is it any good?”
Bucky nods. “The best in the quadrant. It remains stable at higher reaction rates, allowing ships to travel more efficiently. With some modifications, Mr Stark should have no trouble reaching warp 10.”
Clint whistles softly. “Okay, where can we get some?”
Bucky chews on his lip thoughtfully, then points out three objects in space, each one far larger than the asteroids, that range in size from a meter across to several miles.
“Clint, scan them for UV absorption pattern and check for traker deposits,” Steve instructs. “See which one looks most promising. Sam, you’ll have the Bridge while we’re on the surface.”
“Oh, come on,” Sam sits up in his chair. “Do I need to remind you about Starfleet protocol on away missions?”
“Nope, not interested,” Steve gestures for Bucky to come with him. “Bucky, you’re with me.”
“How come he gets to go,” Sam waves an arm in Bucky’s direction.
“Because if something happens to us, I need someone I can trust on the Bridge,” Steve says plainly. “Which is why you and Nat are staying here. If things go south, you get the ship out of here. You get these people home, understood?”
Sam looks chastened. “Yeah, well…”
Steve slaps him on the shoulder. “You’re a good man, Sam.”
Sam brushes him off, gruff but clearly touched. “Shut the hell up.”
Clint quickly settles on the largest of the three objects, then has a lengthy argument with Luis over whether they are planetoids or moons.
Steve listens with half an ear to the arguing back and forth over the comms as he takes the Turbolift down to Engineering, Bucky at his side letting out soft little huffs of amusement as Luis tries to appeal to Clint’s sense of aesthetics.
As arguments go, it’s ambitious. Terribly misguided, but ambitious.
“Okay, that’s enough,” Steve cuts them off. “Luis, for the purposes of this mission, they’re asteroids.”
He shuts off the comms, cutting off Luis’ pained little Aww man!
“You’re letting them bicker,” Bucky murmurs. He sounds amused.
“Better to let them bicker over the little things, saves them from getting worked up over the big things.”
Bucky nods. “Crew anxiety levels are high. There has been a significant amount of expectation put on this mission, and after all the setbacks they…” Bucky hesitates, picking over his words. “They need a win.”
“Yeah, we do,” Steve agrees. He studies Bucky carefully. “And you just so happened to know where there was a supply of exceptionally high quality natural dilithium. Quite a way off course, though, but manageable. And there were definitely no lower-quality dilithium sources any closer to our coordinates.”
The corner of Bucky’s mouth quirks up. “You deserve the best.”
Steve reaches out instinctively, and feels Bucky’s hand curl around his, segmented metal fingers fitting neatly between his own. He gives a quick, tight squeeze before letting go again, the doors sliding open and depositing them in the Shuttle Bay
They find Tony striding through the Cargo Bay, Parker at his heels with a PADD trying to keep up with his scattershot lists of instructions. When Tony sees them approach, he flaps his hands impatiently at his Ensign.
“Fly, my pretty,” he hisses.
Parker stutters to a halt, clutching his PADD to his chest. “Your what?”
Tony rolls his eyes hard enough to strain something. “Go away, grown-ups are talking.”
Petter frowns, but does as he’s told, muttering under his breath about not being a kid.
“Cap,” Tony opens his arms expansively, and glances at Bucky. “Barnes 2.0.”
“Tony…” Steve mutters, frustrated.
“Humour is commonly used as a deflection or coping mechanism when experiencing undue stress,” Bucky watches Parker fumble with his PADD. “It may be indicative of psychological recovery, however indirect aggression such as sarcasm is a more harmful form of disordered thinking.”
“I’m sorry, what?” Tony sounds more irritated than apologetic.
Bucky looks at Steve expectantly, like he’s some sort of Bucky-to-crew translator. Though to be fair, he is.
“He says he knows you’re tired, but quit being a jerk,” Steve explains.
“Hmm. Sass,” Tony hums thoughtfully. “Guess you’re human after all.”
He twists his hand in the air with a flourish, waving away the whole conversation. “So I take it you’re still insisting on beaming down for your little exploration, and not joining us in the shuttle?”
“You need every inch of space available on that shuttle, and we’re just beaming down for a routine check.” Steve replies. “It’ll be myself, Bucky, the Ambassador and Wanda Maximoff, from the Science team.”
Tony smirks “No Security?”
“You already have Security on the Shuttle,” Steve’s mouth crooks up a little. “And Thor is more than enough security to for an away team.”
“You got that right,” Tony snorts. “Had to build him a whole new EV suit, big guy wouldn’t fit in the regulation Starfleet gear. Tall is one thing, but he’s so… bulky.”
Tony leads them over to a rack where several environmental suits are hanging, each one customised and bearing a name tag.
“This rock we’re going down to has some atmosphere, enough for us to move around. But breathable oxygen? Not so much. So we gotta be suited up.” Tony’s suit has been painted bright red, with gold trim, while the rest of them follow the model of Starfleet uniforms; black with a flash of designated colour at the shoulders. “I’ve thrown in additional protection against toxic and radiation hazards, and a bit of heating because it’ll be cold as balls down there.”
Bucky reaches out to his suit, running his thumb along the red at the shoulder. The left arm is missing, instead there is a circular vacuum seal at the base of the shoulder.
“Gotta think of aesthetics as well as design, Murderbot,” Tony says, sotto voce, before turning his attention back to Steve. “While being a little on the bulky side, they still provide enough range of movement. Just try not to go sprinting in them, I’ve seen how fast you can run.”
“I doubt I’ll be doing much running,” Steve picks out his own EV suit, navy blue with a cluster of stars at the shoulder.
“I wouldn’t put it past you,” Tony smirks.
“Alright, Tony. That’s enough.” Steve huffs and pulls his suit from the rack. “Be ready to depart in thirty minutes. If you’ve got a suit, suit up.”
Everything happens at a speed a little too fast to keep up with after that.
The crew of Engineering bursts into action, Ensigns and senior officers rushing around like hornets shaken from their nest; fast, loud and highly irritable.
Bucky pulls Steve to a quiet corner to put on their suits. Although Bucky’s arm is finely calibrated, the slightest twitch of his fingers could easily tear through the EV suit, so Tony has designed an ingenious seal at the shoulder of his suit, allowing him free use of his hand an arm without the constraints of mylar and carbon fiber.
Steve checks the seal when Bucky is suited up, watching him move his arm back and forth and making sure that it remains airtight. In turn Bucky goes over Steve’s suit, though he takes far longer than necessary over areas that are definitely not at risk of decompression, Steve gently slaps his hands away.
“Hands above the waist, Buck,” he chides.
“Disagreeable,” Bucky counters, pointedly giving Steve’s thigh a pinch.
Steve chuckles, grabbing their helmets from the shelf under the rack and pushing Bucky’s into his wandering hands. Bucky doesn’t take it to heart, following him to the Transporter room where Thor and Wanda are already suited up and waiting to beam down.
Out in the hallway, Steve ducks his head, giving Bucky a brief, brushing kiss before putting on his helmet.
“For luck,” he explains, snapping the fastenings of the helmet into place.
Bucky’s mouth quirks up, giving the matter serious thought. “Tongue is luckier,” he decides.
I love you, Steve thinks. “Well, if we get back in one piece maybe you’ll be very lucky,” he says instead.
That makes Bucky laugh, a short, startled little cough, so as far as Steve is concerned it’s worth it.
Bucky fits his helmet into place, and lets Steve lead the way.
“Mr Lang,” Steve greets the Transporter Chief as he enters the room.
Scott lets out a yelp, knocking what looks like an operations manual off the console.
“Yes,” he stumbles forward, his hand in midair neither saluting his Captain or offering to shake his hand.
“Are we all set?” Steve asks, glancing over at Wanda and Thor already on the Transporter platform. Thor waves at him cheerfully.
“All set. Yes.” Scott babbles, his gaze shifting between Steve and Bucky. “I mean thanks to all the dilithium there’s particle interference messing with the Transporter, and I’m pretty sure I’ve got a lock down on everything, but I’m not freaking out or anything.”
Behind the polymer resin visor, Bucky’s mouth crooks up. He gives Scott a thumbs up and goes over to join Wanda.
“You’re going to be fine, Scott,” Steve gives him a reassuring pat on the shoulder.
Scott opens his mouth, and nothing comes out. The silence that follows is deeply uncomfortable, but Steve has had far worse in the presence of Admiral Fury, so points to the Transporter platform.
“I’ll go join the others,” Steve announces. “To your post, Scott.”
“Yessir.” Scott scrambles back to his console, dropping into his seat and tapping at the controls.
Steve steps up onto the platform, nodding to Thor and Wanda. They move into position, each taking one of the light-emitting circles recessed into the platform. Thor looks around them curiously, tapping at the disc with the toe of his boot.
“Whenever you’re ready,” Steve calls out.
Scott glances up from the controls. “Just a second. I mean there’s like a… a 5% chance that I’ll lose your signal, and you’ll end up trapped in the particle buffer until the end of time but… no. No, I’m sure it’s gonna be fine.”
Thor looks up at the corresponding light-emitting disc above him. “We do not have Transporter technology on Asgard,” he explains.
“But you’ve used Transporters before,” Steve points out. He glances at Bucky, who is checking the seal on his glove, and tries not to think about the last time Thor used the Transporter. The image comes to him regardless, Thor clutching a length of pipe as Borg close in on him, before disappearing in a haze of yellow light.
“It’s perfectly safe,” Wanda adds crisply, keeping half an eye on Scott as he double checks his coordinates.
“Is it?” Thor muses. “I was under the impression that Transporters blasted your atoms apart and made a copy of you at your destination.”
“Energising,” Scott shouts, and pulls down a lever.
Steve catches a glimpse of Bucky turning to him and mouthing What? Before a rush of cold air freezes his lungs and bright lights pop and spark behind his eyes.
Steve feels ground under his boots again, coarse and uneven, and instinctively pats himself to make sure he’s still there. Bucky materialises at his side, and stumbles forward a half step before Steve reaches out to catch him.
“You okay, Buck?” he asks, as Bucky straightens up with a shudder.
“That was…” Bucky’s voice is distorted over the comms, reminding Steve of the strange modulations of his old mask.
“Yeah, takes some getting used to,” Steve agrees, watching with a twinge of envy as Wanda appears beside them, straight-backed and effortlessly grateful. Thor appears last, as solid and implacable as ever.
Steve takes a look around, and lets out a soft sound of shock.
A moon, Luis and Clint had finally decided, the location must have been a moon. But neither of them had considered that it might once of been inhabited.
“What happened here?” Thor asks grimly.
There had been structures once, tall buildings reaching up into a sky. Now they lie in ruins, cut stones scattered along the uneven ground amid twisted metal and shattered crystalline structures.
The earth itself looks scoured, deep trenches dragged between the buildings, in places through them, like some great hand had dug its fingers into the dirt and scratched off the very surface.
“Sam,” Steve calls over the comms. “Have you checked for life signs?”
He looks up instinctively at the Avenger orbiting overhead, overshadowing the blasted landscape.
“No, but we’re on it.” Sam responds. “There’s barely any breathable atmosphere, Cap. What could survive down there?”
Bucky steps down into one of the gouges in the earth, Wanda following him, and crouches down to study the soil. “Underground,” Bucky murmurs in Steve’s ear. “If there are survivors, they could be underground.”
Thor picks up a piece of stone, examining the markings on its sides. “They were an advanced race,” he surmises.
Bucky keeps walking along one of the deep ridges in the earth, pausing to touch the risen edges, dirt crumbling between his metal fingers. Steve lets him wander, and turns his attention to finding the Engineering team.
“Did you know?” Wanda asks suddenly, and there is no doubt who she is asking.
“No,” Bucky’s voice is a low rasp over the comms. “No.”
While Bucky keeps moving north, Steve turns south to the shuttlecraft landing site.
“Keep your eyes open,” he tells the away team. “And stay in contact.”
He climbs up the side of a deep trench cutting a swathe through a cluster of buildings, and sees the intermittent lights of laser beams up ahead.
“Cap?” Sam calls over the comms.
“What have you got, Sam?” Steve answers quickly.
“No life signs,” Sam says, and Steve grits his teeth. It had been a long shot. “There’s a couple of energy spikes near you guys, but I can’t get a lock on them.”
“The lasers might be interfering with the scanners,” Steve guesses. “They work on rotating frequencies.”
“Makes sense,” Sam agrees. “What’s the situation down there?”
Steve pauses, taking advantage of his position on higher ground to get a handle on the situation. The ship hangs low in the sky, stark white against the dark backdrop of space. Scour marks criss-cross the landscape before him, slicing through buildings and terrain. In the distance he can see Bucky circling one of the fallen buildings.
“There was a city,” Steve says slowly. “A city, and it was torn to the ground.”
As soon as he says it, he realises he’s wrong, he’s looking at the situation back to front. Something tore through the buildings, not to destroy them, but to get at what was underneath them.
“Strip-mined,” Steve clenches and unclenches his fists. “The whole moon was strip-mined. Buildings, streets, people, all torn to shreds to get at the dilithium underneath them.”
“Yeah,” Tony’s voice comes over the comms, accompanied by a crunch of boots in the rubble behind Steve. “I noticed that.”
Steve turns around to see Tony, in his red and gold EV suit, climbing up the ridge to join him. He brushes dirt off his hands, and Steve can’t see his face behind his visor, but can read the slope of his shoulders well enough.
“Whatever crystals were formed on the surface are long gone,” Tony says with false bravado. “And I mean long gone, what happened here wasn’t recent. There’s still dilithium deposits in the bottom of a lot of these furrows, probably going a fair way down.” Tony sucks on his teeth loudly “We’re having to dig down before harvesting. It’s all excellent quality, I mean your boy was right about it being the best. Too bad its all under a graveyard.”
Steve nudges at the rubble at his feet, turning over a charred piece of something or other.
Graveyard, the word circles around in his thoughts.
“C’mon, Cap,” Tony slaps him on the shoulder, and starts picking his way down the slope. “We got a whole set up over the way, come check it out.”
Steve looks back the way he came. He doesn’t like the idea of Bucky being out of his sight, but can see him walking through the remains, Wanda and Thor close by.
“Moving out of visual range,” He tells his away team. “Keep eyes on each other.”
He waits until he gets a confirmation from each of them before following after Tony.
On the ridge of the next set of deep furrows is the shuttlecraft, its cargo door open. A handful of Engineering crew are milling around the doorway, carefully stacking loaded crates into place and strapping them down.
“Dilithium is fragile, so only one piece gets packed in each crate.” Tony motions to an Engineer to open a crate, revealing a padded interior. “Shockproof, soundproof, all that.” Tony waves the Engineer away, and they carry the crate down the slope, to where a second team are digging around in the soil, slowly revealing a cluster of dilithium shards, like an archeological dig. The crystals shine, pale rose at the tips to cherry red at the base, and the rest of the team stands back while one of them readies a laser, swiping across the PADD mounted on the barrel to calibrate it, and fires.
It’s a slow, laborious process, keeping the barrel steady while they check and recalibrate, finally calling out to the rest of the team when the process is complete.
The severed crystal is carefully lifted from the cluster and placed in a crate, and carried back to the shuttlecraft.
Steve watches as the Engineers picks up their shovels, and start clearing away more dirt from around the remaining crystals.
Graveyards, he thinks to himself as another crate is loaded into the shuttlecraft.
“Where are the bodies?” he asks quietly.
On the other side of the ridge, down by where a building has been cleaved in two, Bucky drops to his knees and screams.
The sound sears Steve’s thoughts like a chemical burn. He barely registers Tony’s voice, a questioning sound following after him as he scrambles up the rise, pausing just long enough at the summit to check Bucky’s location before tearing down the slope towards him.
Low, gutteral howls fill his ears, pain and horror in equal measure, punctured by ragged, indrawn breaths.
“Bucky?” Steve calls out, but gets no response. Up ahead Bucky is crouched in the dirt, his hands scrabbling at his helmet, metal fingers scratching at the visor.
Borg implants or not, Bucky wouldn’t survive a breach in his suit, and Steve can only watch helplessly as he claws at his helmet, deaf to the sound of Steve over the comms begging him to stop.
Thor and Wanda are closer, and manage to reach him first, Thor pulling Bucky’s arms away from his helmet and pinning them by his side before he does any serious damage to himself.
Steve races down the last slope and half-collapses at Bucky’s feet as he kicks and struggles in Thor’s grip, trying to get away.
“Bucky?” Steve reaching out to skim his hands across Bucky’s shoulders, trying to offer comfort even as he recoils from the touch.
Behind the damaged glass of his visor Bucky’s eyes are wide in terror.
“It’s okay, shh. It’s okay,” Steve whispers, pressing down on Bucky’s shoulder and hoping that he can feel it through the EV suit. He turns to Wanda, huddled at his side, her hands curling and uncurling in her lap. “Can you help him? Can you mind-meld or something? Find out what’s happened?”
Wanda hesitates, and Steve knows that he’s asking for a lot, too much, to invade someone's thoughts without their permission. Before Steve resorts to begging she lifts up her hands, and Steve pulls back, though the very idea of moving away from Bucky when he is so scared makes Steve’s heart ache. He wraps his gloved hand around metal fingers, squeezing as hard as he dares.
Wanda’s hands move slowly, cradling the air around Bucky’s helmet. His mouth snaps shut, and he stares at her, unflinching.
Steve knows what she is about to say before the word leaves her mouth.
Bucky shifts in Thor’s grip, not in another frantic attempt to claw off his helmet, but calmer, more insistent that he be released.
“Let him go,” Steve instructs, and Thor dutifully releases him.
For a moment Bucky doesn’t move, sitting in the cradle of Thor’s arms, Wanda’s hands still hovering over his helmet. He gently tugs his hand away from Steve’s, and gets slowly to his feet, as unsteady as a newborn foal. He stands there, motionless but for the shaking in his limbs, the plates in his arm shifting and settling, moving back and forth between defense and attack. He cocks his head to one side as though listening out for something.
“Wanda?” Steve asks.
“The Borg,” she moves closer to Thor, not touching but blindly seeking some kind of safety. “I heard them in his head, calling him. Calling him back.”
“Captain,” Thor growls in warning, and Steve knows what he’s asking. Was it a trap, after all? Had he been biding his time, leading them into danger?
“No,” Steve holds up his hands. “Wait a minute.”
Bucky is deaf to their conversation, listening to something only he can hear. He starts walking, a straight, unwavering line towards the remnants of a tower, ignoring the furrows and ridges carved into the earth. Steve follows him, Wanda and Thor at his heels, climbing up and stumbling down as they track Bucky to his destination.
“Bucky?” Steve calls out to him. “Bucky, can you hear me? If you can hear me, respond.”
Bucky’s head twitches towards him, the only acknowledgement to Steve that he has been heard, before he climbs over the crumbling edifice and digs his hands into the rubble.
“Captain,” Thor calls after Steve. “What’s happening?”
Buck grasps hold of something with his metal hand, something fixed to the side of the structure, hidden out of sight. It hisses and flares as he tears it free, showering sparks in an arc of light.
Bucky turns it over in his hands, studying it closely, before turning back the way he came, carrying it out of the ruin, trailing wires and thin streams of plasma, sickly green amid the dark earth. He stops in front of Steve, his eyes clear and wide, and holds out the device.
“I’m sorry,” his lips move, but barely any sound registers over the comms. “I should have…”
Steve knows it, he’d recognise the damn thing anywhere. The green light at its center winks on and off.
“A beacon,” Steve breathes.
Bucky nods, closing his hand around the device in a sharp, brutal gesture, crushing it in his fist.
There’s no time, no time to offer comfort and seek reassurances as twisted shards of metal tumble from Bucky’s fingers. He throws the crumpled object to the ground, his expression dark. “We have to go. Now.”
Steve nods, and opens the comms. “Tony, we’ve got company. Pull out now. Get everyone on the shuttlecraft.”
“Wait, what?” Tony snaps in response.
“Borg!” Steve yells, and Tony falls silent.
Steve turns to Thor and Wanda. “We need to evacuate. You two get back to the ship.”
“But Steve-” Wanda starts to argue.
“Scott,” Steve calls over the comms. “Thor and Ms Maximoff to beam up.”
“Captain!” Thor growls, stalking towards Steve, but whatever else he says is lost as he shimmers and fades.
Steve takes off for the shuttlecraft at a run, Bucky keeping pace with him. “Sam, go to red alert. We found a Borg beacon on the planet.”
Sam curses over the comms. “Going to red alert. Nothing so far on the long-range scanners.”
Steve nods. Maybe this time they’ll be lucky. “Keep me updated. You’re about to have a very unhappy Asgardian on the Bridge so… sorry about that.”
Sam curses again. “Well, thanks for the warning,” he sighs, and closes the comms.
They climb the last rise, take in the sight of Tony herding the Engineers into the shuttle, lasers left abandoned in the dirt, and run, slipping and stumbling in the rubble, down to the shuttlecraft.
Tony is silent and grim, wordlessly gesturing to his crew to strap themselves in. He doesn’t even make a cutting remark towards Bucky, which is far more telling than Steve likes.
“All set?” Steve asks him quietly. “Did you get enough?”
“Got everything we can carry.” Tony nods once, his mouth pulled down. “Shuttle’s at capacity. We can throw out some crates to make room for you-”
“We’ll beam up,” Steve tries to sound reassuring. “Get back to the ship.”
Steve walks backwards, pulling Bucky with him, as Tony climbs into the shuttlecraft, the door sliding silently closed after him. The engines fire, and the craft lifts into the air, banking sharply to the right before the thrusters fire, powering it towards the looming bulk of the ship overhead.
“Scott?” Steve calls over the comms. “Can you get a lock on our signal?”
“Steve,” Bucky turns to him, his voice cracking. “I didn’t… This wasn’t…”
Steve’s heart breaks, just a little bit, and he pulls Bucky towards him, holding him as best as he can in the EV suit, their helmets knocking together as Bucky clings to his arms, metal fingers gripping tight enough to leave indentations in the carbon fibre.
“I know,” Steve shushes him. “I know you didn’t-”
“They can’t have you,” Bucky whispers fiercely. “They can’t have what’s mine.”
Steve tightens his grip, his gloves slipping across the back of Bucky’s EV suit, trying to gain a purchase.
“Shuttlecraft docked safely, Captain,” Sam calls over the comms. “Get your asses back here.”
“Understood.” Steve takes a last look at the ravaged landscape. “Scott? Two to beam up.”
After the twilight of the moon, the Transporter room lights are blinding, and for a second Steve can only hold onto Bucky while the ship tilts and wheels around him.
“Steve?” Bucky’s voice rasps in his ear, fingers fumbling at the clasp of his helmet.
There is a click, and the release of pressurised gas, and Bucky pulls the helmet away, dropping it on the Transporter pad and brushing his fingers through Steve’s sweat-damp hair.
Steve reaches up, his gloved hands catching on the scratches in Bucky’s helmet, and quickly unfastens it, tossing it to one side and drinking in the sight of him, his eyes still wide, his jaw clenched in determination.
“You guys okay?” Scott asks warily.
“Cap!” Sam’s voice cuts through the air like a blade. “Picking up something on the long-range scanners, coming in fast.”
“So much for luck,” Steve says, and climbs down from the Transporter platform. “Thank you, Scott,” he shouts as they run for the Turbolift, shedding their gloves as they go and leaving them in a trail down the hallway.
“Captain on the Bridge,” Sam announces as Steve steps out of the Turbolift, unfastening the front of his EV suit. It’s bulky and uncomfortable, but there’s no time to get changed.
“Why are we still here?” Steve asks abruptly, and Clint gives him a guilty look from the Helm.
“Back the way we came?” he suggests.
Bucky gives Steve a glance, seeking approval, and when it comes he crosses the Bridge, leaning over the Helm controls and punching in new coordinates, taking them straight through the destroyed solar system.
“Through the asteroid field?” Clint yelps.
“You said you were a pilot,” Steve tracks Bucky’s course along the starmap, and trusts his judgement. “Punch it.”
Clint lets out a sound between a laugh and a screech, and takes the controls, banking the ship sharply to the right. “Hold on to your asses.”
Luis gets pitched out of his seat with a yelp, and Steve braces himself against the nearest console, looking back at the Captain’s chair, Sam and Natasha sitting either side of it.
“Mr Wilson, report.”
Clint pushes the ship downwards, an asteroid glancing off the disc and striking the viewscreen, making it distort briefly.
“Barton,” Thor snaps. “Try not to kill us before the Borg have their chance.”
“It’s gaining on us,” Sam calls out. “Flying through an asteroid field sounds like a really bad idea, Cap.”
“A worse idea for a Borg ship,” Steve realises. “They’re a big cube, they can’t maneuver. If they want to catch us, they’ve gotta sustain some damage doing so.”
“Yeah, but aren’t we gonna sustain damage too?” Sam argues.
Clint pulls them upwards, and Steve stumbles back a few paces, throwing himself into the Captain’s chair.
“We got a visual,” Sam mutters.
Steve doesn’t like the fear in Sam’s voice. “Onscreen.”
The viewscreen shifts, and the massive bulk of a Borg Cube pulls into focus. Asteroids crash onto its surface, flaring up in a burst of green light as they are burned up by the stuttering, fragmenting shields.
Thor lets out a wordless cry of rage.
“Got a message coming through, Cap,” Luis glances over at the Helm and Bucky, who is staring up at the screen, frozen in place. “You want me to tell ‘em to go shove it?”
Steve shakes his head. “Let’s hear it.”
There is a whine of feedback, a loop of distortion that is horribly familiar, and a single voice emerges from the squall, clipped and modulated.
“We are the Borg. Surrender your ship.” The voice announces. “Your biological and technical distinctiveness will be added to our own.”
“No,” Bucky mouths, hunched over the Helm beside Clint. He digs his fingers into the console, the aluminium crumpling in his grip. “No,” he says again, weak and defeated.
“Luis, can they hear us?” Steve asks.
“Uh-huh,” Luis nods. “Kind of shitting myself here, Cap.”
“Alright.” Steve gets to his feet, and faces the viewscreen. “Let’s talk.”
The screen goes dark for a moment, then resolves into the features of a Borg. He might have been human once, his single undamaged eye bright blue. Implants cover most of his skull, a mess of tubing and wires crossing his body.
“We are the Borg,” it intones. “Surrender your vessel.”
“By my honour,” Thor snarls, approaching the screen as if he could reach out to the Borg and strangle him with his bare hands. “I will see you ground into the dust, I swear it.”
“Thor, stand down,” Steve says firmly.
Bucky sinks down to his knees, still clinging to the Helm, the framework cracking in his grip.
“We’ll pass, thanks.” The sight of Bucky paralysed with fear sends something bitter and vicious twisting up Steve’s throat, filling his mouth with bile. “Cease your pursuit, or we’ll blast you out of the sky.”
“That’s a hell of a threat,” Natasha mutters under her breath.
Steve ignores her. If he has to tear the Borg ship apart with his bare hands, that’s what he’ll do.
The Borg casts its gaze around the crew, settling on Bucky’s crouched form.
“1 of 7, Senary adjunct of unimatrix 557038,” it rasps. “Take control of this ship. Bring it to us for assimilation. Return to us.”
“Oh, crap,” Clint murmurs, as Bucky slowly stands, and reaches across the controls.
“Traitor,” Thor hisses, and Bucky looks up at him, just for a moment. Whatever passes between them, it’s enough to make Thor fall silent.
Natasha starts to rise, but Clint throws out his arm, gesturing to her to stay put.
“Steve,” Natasha hisses.
Bucky glances over his shoulder, briefly catching Steve’s eye. He doesn’t nod, but there is something there, the way the creases around his eyes tighten for a second, that gives him hope. Bucky brings up the Borg ship on his console, and drags his hand across the scarred, blasted surface.
“Nat,” Steve whispers. “Ready all weapons. Phasers, torpedoes, everything you’ve got.”
“What?!” she hisses back vehemently.
“On my mark,” Steve murmurs, not taking his eyes from the screen.
Natasha purses her lips, but does as instructed.
“1 of 7,” the Borg snaps. “Our sensors indicate that your ship is powering its weapons. Desist at once.”
Bucky ignores him, his hand shaking as he pinpoints another target on the Borg ship. The metal plates on his arm shift and settle, shift and settle. Attack. Defence. Attack.
“1 of 7, you have your orders. Take con-”
“My name is Bucky,” he says. On Natasha’s console a scan of the cube appears, three clear targets marked where the Borg shield has been compromised.
“Fire,” Steve growls.
Natasha punches her controls, and on the viewscreen the Borg ship shudders with the impact, but remains intact.
“What…” Sam mutters.
The Borg reappears onscreen, something like a smirk playing on what can be seen of its mouth.
“You will be assimilated,” it intones. “Your technological and-”
“Bucky?” Steve yells.
Bucky holds up his hand, fingers splayed. They are not shaking. “Wait,” he says softly.
“Wait for what?” Luis asks.
The Borg onscreen falters, shaken by some distant explosion. He turns away from his viewers, mouth opening to issue commands, and the screen goes dark.
“What’s happening?” Steve asks.
Luis brings up a view of the Borg cube, and swears under his breath.
Explosions blossom out from the target sites, expanding out like ripples on a still pond.
“A chain reaction.” Thor turns to Bucky excitedly. “There are weaknesses in their defences? What we have done here can be done again? To other ships?”
Bucky nods. “Careful targeting of a number of minor systems that override the-”
The rest of his explanation is drowned out as Thor lets out a roar of triumph, striding across the Bridge and scooping Bucky up in his arms, lifting him into the air.
Bucky, to his credit, doesn’t retaliate, just gives Steve a resigned look and waits for it to be over.
On the screen the Borg cube disintegrates, blackened pieces of the hull breaking off and drifting out into space.
“Cap?” Clint says. “Permission to get the hell out of here?”
“Permission granted,” Steve gets up from his chair and goes over to rescue Bucky from Thor’s enthusiasm, only to get pulled in with him.
“Mierda,” Luis says emphatically, sinking into his seat.
Steve wakes up early, and stares up at the ceiling. Bucky is curled up against him, still asleep, his eyes twitching back and forth behind closed lids.
Steve gently shifts around in the bed, carefully moving Bucky’s head from his shoulder and onto a pillow, shushing him gently when he stirs and settles again.
Steve forgoes a shower, the sound of it would wake Bucky, and he needs his rest. Instead he dresses quietly as he can, moving carefully through the dimly lit quarters. He writes a note telling Bucky where he’ll be, and props it up against the potato plant, stroking his fingers through its long, soft leaves. There are tiny, deep green buds in little clusters between the leaves, a hint of white at their tips. They’ll be flowering any day now.
He slips out the door, and walks through the silent corridors, in no particular rush.
The ship is in no present danger, and the crew are going about their daily routines, and Steve takes his time walking down to the Mess.
The Mess is almost deserted at this hour of the morning, and Steve fetches himself a coffee from the replicator before taking a seat, placing the PADD full of reports that are long overdue on the table in front of him.
Before he gets a chance to start, a chair is pulled out opposite him. He looks up, expecting to see Natasha, but it’s Tony of all people, a cup of raktajino in his hand.
“Mind if I sit?” Tony asks, and gives Steve a split second to refuse before sitting down anyway.
“I didn’t think you came up here,” Steve murmurs, amused.
“Yeah, well,” Tony sighs. “Certain people have suggested that I might be ‘insular’ and need to get out more. I swear that Murderbot of yours is staging an insurrection.”
Steve chuckles, in spite of himself. “He’s persistent.”
Tony drops a StarkPADD on the table, and pushes it towards Steve. He eyes is warily. Maybe he should have stayed in bed.
“So I was thinking,” Tony leans back in his seat, sketching patterns in the air with his mug. “You know how long Starfleet have been powering their ships with dilithium?”
Steve knows the answer, but he lets Tony continue, pushing his own work aside and reaching out for the PADD.
“Nearly two hundred and fifty years, can you believe that?” Tony sucks air between his teeth. “All this time, and we’re still powering our ships from these rocks dug out of the ground. Killing entire planets and starting wars over it.”
Steve nods silently. It was something that had been weighing on his own mind since first setting foot on that blasted moon. It was one thing to know the cost of dilithium, it was entirely another to walk through the ruins of it.
“Do Klingons still use M-AM reactors?” Steve asks as he starts up the PADD, watching as a hologram is thrown up from the screen, showing the schematics of something circular and bright, like some kind of power source.
“Pfft,” Tony snorts derisively. “Next thing you’ll be suggesting I start working on forced singularities.”
Steve has a brief, horrifying image of Tony Stark creating a black hole.
“No,” he says firmly. “Please, no.”
“Yeah, no, never gonna happen.” Tony pushes his finger through the center of the hologram. “This, however, is possible.”
“What is it?” Steve asks, turning the hologram around Tony’s pointing finger. “Some kind of fusion reactor?”
“Some kind of…” Tony sits up, retracting his finger. “This is the cleanest, most efficient, limitless energy source you will ever see in your lifetime.” He hunches down again. “Or it will be when I’ve finished ironing out a few flaws.”
“Flaws?” Steve asks dubiously.
“A couple of necessary components don’t… exist yet. Nothing I can’t figure out,” Tony shrugs. “One thing we’re not short of is time.”
“So what are you asking?” Steve turns off the display. “Please let me build an enormous experimental warp drive, I promise not to kill us all?”
“Hey, if you’re worried, I’ll build a small one first,” Tony offers.
Steve shakes his head with a snort, just as Bucky comes slouching into the Mess.
“Uh-oh,” Tony snatches back his PADD. “Your boyfriend looks cranky.”
“Yeah,” Steve agrees, glancing over as Bucky stalks towards the table. “He’s not a morning person.”
Bucky grabs Steve by the collar, like a mother cat scruffing a kitten. “Too early,” he growls.
“Alright, I’m coming,” Steve laughs, and picks up his PADD. “Tony, show me a prototype, a working prototype, and then we’ll talk.”
Tony claps his hands together once, and points a finger at Steve as Bucky pulls him towards the door. “You won’t regret it, Cap.”
When they’re alone again, Bucky slows down, curling his arm around Steve’s waist, his hand settling on Steve’s hip. Steve wraps his arm around Bucky’s shoulder, and marvels a little at how they fit together.
“Did he show you the arc reactor,” Bucky mumbles, rubbing sleep from his eyes.
“The experimental warp drive?” Steve hums. “Yeah. Do you think it could work?”
“It needs refining, and there’s a new element that requires synthesising first.” Bucky nods like it’s nothing serious. “It should be well within his capabilities.”
“A new element?” Steve guides them towards the nearest Turbolift. “Yeah, that’s no big deal.”
“Not to Stark,” Bucky yawns as Steve punches the controls. “It should take years off the journey.”
Steve glances at Bucky, still fighting sleep and slumped against his side. “Are you ready for that?”
It’s a question that has been weighing on Steve more and more, lately. For all Bucky’s knowledge of the Borg; their technology and their weaknesses, Steve has no idea how the Federation will react to the presence of a former Borg on his crew.
“Ready to go back to Earth?” Bucky asks. “Even with Tony’s reactor it will still take years.”
“I know” Steve tightens his grip around Bucky’s shoulders. There is a long road stretching out before them, and Steve still can’t believe that they get to walk it together, at least for now. “When we do get back, Starfleet will want to send me straight back out again. A new crew, a new ship, a new mission.”
“You hand picked this crew and achieved the impossible.” The Turbolift doors open, and Bucky pulls Steve out into the corridor. “They will give you whatever you ask for.”
“Sam should have his own command. Hell, he’ll probably be running this ship by the time we get back.” Steve pauses, his heart in his mouth. “Would you come with me?” he asks suddenly, the words rushing out before he can stop them. “I mean, you’re our only expert on Borg technology, but you don’t have to be. You don’t have to work for Starfleet or Tony Stark. You could be anything you want.”
Bucky smiles, the kind that touches the corners of his mouth and lights up his eyes. “Wherever you go, I go.”
“Are you sure?” Steve asks, gathering Bucky up in his arms.
Bucky nods, tapping Steve gently on the chest.
“We are as one,” he says softly, I love you, and he kisses Steve on the corner of his mouth. “We are one.”