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Time After Time

Chapter Text

New York, 1996

“We should play ‘Never Have I Ever’”, suggests Tony. “I know your parents have vodka bottles here, Nat.”

Natasha rolls her eyes. “Yeah, as if they’d be completely fine with a bunch of teenagers wasting their drink. It’s legit Russian vodka, Tony. Only for special occasions.”

“I’m not a teenager, I’m at college.”

“Still a minor”, Steve mumbles.

“If you wanted to play alcohol games”, says Clint, ignoring Stark’s reply, “you should’ve brought some from your own house.”

“You guys are no fun”, Tony huffs. “Why do I even hang around with you?”

“Because we are the only ones who can stand playing RPG with you”, Bruce replies quietly, but loud enough for everyone to hear. Thor is the first to laugh, followed by Steve. Soon everybody but Tony is laughing.

“You all done?”, he asks after they calm down. “Let’s get to the game, since it’s all you guys are worth for anyway.”

Ignoring his attempt at insult, they agree to start the campaign. Thor is the master this time, since he wasn’t been able to create a whole new character for their new story, despite being the one who came up with the worldbuilding.

“Where were we last session, again?”, Clint asks.

“You were stuck under Paris catacombs”, Thor answers solemnly. “And the Chitauri are lurking around. One wrong turn and they will attack you.”

“How did we even end up in Paris ”, Barton mumbles. Natasha pats his shoulder with a soft look and smile. He gives her a half smile.

“Well, I’m sure Iron Man has a map of the catacombs and can detect the Chitauri”, Tony says.

“A map of the catacombs, sure”, Steve argues. “But the Chitauri are alien life. How can Iron Man’s suit detect it?”

Tony shrugs. “We can roll the dice for that.” Thor agreed, and so he did. “Shit, I can’t. We are screwed, guys.”

They play for another hour until Bruce asks for a pause for them to eat. “I can really use some pizza to finish those Chitauri.”

“True”, Natasha agrees. “I’ll make the delivery.” She stands up to grabs the phone. As she dials the pizza delivery number and waits for them to pick up, she glances at the front window.

It seems that Mr. and Mrs. Titan were having another fight. It’s the third Natasha witnesses that month alone, and there probably were many others she didn’t get to see. Poor Georgina and Nikki , she thinks, having to endure all of this.

From what little she manages to talk to them, Mr. Titan is the responsible for most of the fights. And he’s violent. The ‘accident’ (Nat doubts it’s the truth) that left Nikki’s legs paralyzed happened after he got home drunk.

She can’t tell whether he was drunk or not tonight, but the fight looks huge. No words are discernible, but she can hear shouts.

Suddenly Mr. Titan grabs something big. He raises it, and Natasha jumps slightly at the realization it’s a knife. From the corner of her eye, she sees someone standing up.

Mr. Titan stabs his wife. Once. Twice… By the time they pick her call, the knife reaped through Mrs. Titan five times.

“Hello, it’s from pizza delivery”, the person tells Natasha. “What’s your order?”

The voice takes Natasha from her shock, only to have her mumble. “Call 911, p-please. I just witnessed a murder.”

“A… a murder?”

“Y-yeah. Right across my street. 45 Shield Street. C-can you call them for me?”

“Of course, miss. Right now.” And the call is finished.

Only after that Natasha realized Mr. Titan is looking at her. She quickly turns to see that all of her friends stood up to see what was going on.

“Guys”, she whispers. “We have to run and hide. Now.”

They are found by the police in Natasha’s basement two hours later, thanks to Nikki’s warning. Apparently her father didn’t catch on the fact that they saw everything until the police came. He just ran away, leaving Nikki crawling to her mother’s body while screaming for Georgina, despite the girl not being at home.

Natasha and her parents stay at Clint’s in the week that follows. Bruce, who lives in the same street, goes to Thor’s. At the end of the week, the police calls them all back.

“We haven’t found him”, they say. “It’s not safe for you to stay in New York, kids. Or even in US. We’ll have to place you in the witness protection program.”

None of them argue, especially after they are informed that it hadn’t been Mr. Titan’s first murder.

“Apparently our father was known as Thanos in the 70s”, Georgina told Natasha two days prior. “He had no specific target, but he always burned his victims and placed their ashes on colorful boxes.” She looked away. “I knew dad was violent and abusive, but I thought he was only like this at home. I… We had a serial killer under our roof, oh God...”

It was the first time any of them saw Georgina cry.

“What about my sister?”, Nikki’s quite voice makes Natasha come back to reality. “Isn’t she in danger too?”

“She wasn’t at home when the crime happened”, the police officer explains. “She’s not completely out of danger, but for now we believe he’d only be after people who witnessed the murder. She will be under our watch, of course, but for now she can stay at town.”

There is little time for goodbyes. In a couple days, they are all spread around the world, alone and scared of the future.

Chapter Text

New York, 2003

“G, I think you should check this”, Grover shouts, pointing at the TV. Georgina sat beside him at the sofa. A reporter stands outside the same police station she had been to seven years ago, when she testified about her father’s murder of her mom.

“It seems that, after seven years of search, the police finally caught Trevor Titan, infamously known as Thanos. Titan is reportedly responsible for at least twenty-eight murders, including of his wife, Diana Titan. Thanos has been active since 1972…”

Georgina doesn’t hear the rest of the news report. Her father was caught! Perhaps there is a god out there, since her aimless prayers were finally heard.

“Does that mean your sister is coming back?”, the teen beside her asks.

“I think they’ll wait until after the trial, Groot”, she answers, calling him by his nickname. “Hopefully it’ll happen soon.” She smiles widely and stands up. “We have to tell everyone!”

Groot smiles at her friend. Later, he tells her he had never seen her smile as widely as she did that day. She answers that she had rarely smiled like that in her whole life.


Gamora sees her sister for the first time in seven years at court, when she is brought to testify against their father. Gasps are heard when she walks in, no longer in a wheelchair, and also when she describes their mother’s death in gruesome detail.

“Miss Titan”, the prosecutor says after Nikki finishes her story, “there are rumours that the ‘accident’ that left you in a wheelchair for years had been, instead, result of domestic violence. Would you please tell us what truly happened at your old home at April 20th, 1993?”

Gamora holds her breath. Beside her, Peter squeezes her hand. “She’s strong”, he whispers, even though he never knew her sister. “She can do this.” And yet, he is on point.

Nikki barely blinks. “It was due to domestic violence, yes. And if hadn’t been for mom and my sister, I might have been killed.”

“Can you please elaborate further?”

“I wanted to go to a party at my friend’s house, who lived on Harlem. My f… Thanos didn’t want me to go. He said all Harlem kids were drug addicts and criminals. I defended my friend, we fought, he got really mad and pushed me downstairs. Georgina managed to protect my head from colliding directly with the floor, but not my back. Thanos went downstairs still mad, but stopped when he saw mom calling the emergency. I think he realized he couldn’t do more damage and still get away like he eventually did.”

Later, Thanos’ (Gamora now refuses to call him by anything other than his serial killer alias) lawyer asks why they never pressed charges at the time.

“We thought he had truly regretted his actions that night”, she answers, sniffing. “But deep down we were scared of what he’d do if he found out.”

Gamora is called next, and confirms everything her sister said. Romanov follows her, and describes what she and her friends saw on that fateful night. “Mr. and Mrs. Titan fought often. I’d witness many of these fights from my living room, and I think it’s safe to assume there were many others I never got to see.”

Romanov’s friends don’t have much more to add. Only Barton had seen anything on the Titan household before the murder, and his testimony is similar to her old neighbor’s.

Gamora mentally entertains herself comparing those people to her memory of them in 1996. Natasha’s hair, then long and curled, is now short and straightened; she spots a few fading blond strands. Clint has dark bags under his eyes and looks like he had his head shaved recently.

Stark has beard and mustache now, and his shoulders are broader. Rogers, once clean-faced, also grew a beard, bigger than Stark’s. Odinson’s once long hair is now cut really short, and one of his eyes seems to be of glass. Banner isn’t wearing glasses like he used to (thought she can’t tell whether he’s wearing contact lens), and there already are a few white hair strands.

Nikki dyed her hair blue and cut it short. Gamora also spotts a tattoo on her left forearm.

Overall they look like more than seven years passed. Their time away seemed to have been rough on them, but they also look… wiser? Maybe it’s not the best word for it, but Gamora can’t find another at the moment.

It takes another week before she sees Nikki again, after Thanos is given a lifetime sentence in jail, without any possibility of parole. This time her sister is back for good.

Finally, after so long, the two are reunited. And Nikki comes to her walking , something Gamora never thought she’d see again.

Neither of the sisters shared a hug as tight as they do when Nikki shows up at her sister’s door.

“We have so much to catch up”, Gamora whispers into the hug.

Chapter Text

Oslo, 1996

He was greeted at the airport by an officer. She gave him so many instructions on the ride to his new home that he asked her to repeat them. “Oh, don’t worry about it”, she said softly. “In this file you’ll find everything I told you printed, along with a few of your new documents.”

He opened the file to find a profile picture. He had cut his hair when they made a stop at Germany, where they took that photo. He already looked a lot different, enough to pass up as a someone else.

Soon they stopped by a building. It looked new. “This is where you’ll be living now”, the officer explained. “Your sister should be waiting for us inside her apartment.”

Silent, he followed her. Thor had initially thought he’d be sent to a random place full of strangers. It surprised him when they told him he’d live with his older sister Hela—who he never met and only knew from his father’s stories.

“Of course, nobody must know you are siblings”, they said. “You two will decide, but you will likely pose as cousins.” He nodded at that. Still, his arrangements seemed better than the others must have gotten.

His sister lived on the tenth floor out of sixteen. The elevator was fast, though. Hela answered at the second knock. “Oh, if it isn’t my little cousin”, she said loudly. Thor figured it was due to her neighbors. “Please, come in.”

She guided them the living room and invited them to sit at the sofa. He did so, but not the officer. “I’m just here to deliver him”, she explained. “If you two have any questions, you know where to go.”

Hela nodded and both waved goodbye to the officer. As soon as she locked the door, his sister sat by his side. “I assume you were instructed to pose as my cousin too”, she said in a low voice. “We have to speak in low volumes whenever we say anything revealing. The walls here are too thin.” She smirks. “You might hear interesting sounds at night.”

It took him a whole minute to understand what she meant. “Oh my, how do you sleep at night?”

“Earbuds. Helps me greatly. But I think we have more important things to talk about now, don’t you agree?” He nodded. “Good, first, what did they tell you about me?”

“Your name is Hela, you are dad’s first daughter and you live by yourself.”

“Not my job, or even my age?” He shook his head. She rolled her eyes and sighed. “Well, little brother, I’m 28. Twelve years older than you. I saw you as a newborn, when I travelled to New York to pay our father a visit. Never managed to go back there, sorry. I wish I had at least met Loki, but life got in the way.”

“It’s okay”, he said politely. “We never thought anything bad of you never visiting. Dad never took us here either, so I guess we’re all even.”

She smiles. “Yeah, you’re right. Anyway, we need to make up some backstory for you. First of all, your name. What do you think of Jupiter?”

He nearly choked on his saliva. “What? Why Jupiter? Isn’t that the name of a planet?”

“Yes, but the planet was named after the Roman god of skies and lighting. Isn’t Thor the Norse god of thunder? Jupiter is close enough.”

“It sounds like a good inside joke, but… why not some common Norwegian name? Or English?”

In response, her grin widened. She stood up and went to the kitchen, and he followed her. “Because you are the son of dad’s late brother, Vilive, who was named after Odin’s two brothers in Norse mythology. Come, sit by the table. I have a coffee to make and a story to tell. Want coffee too?”

“Yes, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course I don’t mind. So, back to our family history. Dad and uncle Vilive were raised surrounded by Norse history, which was a given since their father was a historian. Uncle moved to Canada years before dad moved to US, and he was as open about his life as Freddie Mercury was about having AIDS.”

She glanced at him to see if he got the reference, and he nodded. She turned back to the coffee machine and continued, “So it’s not far-fetched to think he had a son and decided to follow the tradition of naming them after old deities. But why stick to Norse mythology? He might as well have taken interest on other myths while he was away, hence your name being Jupiter. See what I mean?”

He nodded again. “It makes sense. After all, dad did name us all after Norse gods. I remember he adopted Loki precisely because he wasn’t named yet. Now, why he decided the gods of thunder and mischief made good names for his sons…”

“Oh, c’mon, you got nice names. I got the goddess of death . But it’s not important.” She grabbed the jar full of coffee and placed it at the table. “You know, Loki was the name he and mom had planned in case they had a son. Mom found it funny to name a possible little brother after my namesake’s father. But she died while pregnant of a baby of unknown gender.”

“I’m sorry”, he said weakly.

“It’s okay”, she assured as she gave him a cup and sat in front of him. “I thought dad would never find love again”, she continued as she took a sip. “So it surprised me when he brought your mother home. At first I thought he was trying to fill a void caused by mom’s death, but eventually I understood he did love her. Especially after I found out how they met.” She raised an eyebrow. “Do you know their story?”

He shook his head. “Loki might, but I was never curious about it.”

She laughed a little. “Dad ended up being a CEO in Stark Industries, but he never lost interest in history. He’d go to college meetings about it, after his Business classes. That’s where he met Frigga… and they bonded over the fact they were named after Norse gods. And your mother made fun of his name being Odin Odinson.”

He stopped his cup midway to laugh. It was an old joke of their family, indeed, but it never ceased to amuse him.

“Frigga instantly liked me, and teamed up with dad to show me many things about history. I was eight when they started dating, ten when they married and eleven when they left Norway to work in New York. I decided to stay with my aunt, God bless her, but Odin and Frigga’s stories stayed with me. What I’m trying to say is, you kind of have your parents to thank for being able to stay with a relative even under a protection program.”

What did she mean by that? “Good, I guess… but why, exactly?”

“Because your parents made me love history so much I became an archeologist. And my job makes me spend more time travelling around the world than here. Which means, my little planet, you are safe from Thanos because you won’t stay anywhere long enough for him to find you.”

He was too astounded by that revelation that he didn’t bother calling her out on her new nickname for him. In hindsight, he should have.

By the end of the week, he learned to answer to Jupiter Odinson without raising suspicions. All of his documents were ready, and his sister (well, cousin) managed to get permission to homeschool him.

“You were about to start senior year, right?”, she asked on that first night. He confirmed. “Alright. You’ll probably have to study additional stuff to make up for what schools here teach that American ones don’t, but it shouldn’t be hard.”

“Do you think I’ll be able to graduate next year?”, he asked incredulously. “You said that we’ll spend most of our time away from the country.”

She shrugged. “They said you can take two years to finish everything. We’ll have to come back every three months for you to take exams. You can re-take them once if you fail, which is why you can take twice the time to graduate. But you only get one chance. If you fail again, or if you don’t meet the two-year deadline, you’ll have to attend regular classes.”

It seemed fair. “Maybe I should establish a deadline for myself.” She nods. “A year and a half, maybe? I’m not as book-smart as my brother.”

“Fair enough. Though I can assure you, you won’t have any issue with History.” She smiled excitedly at that. He gave her a soft smile in return.

They still had three weeks on Oslo before leaving to wherever Hela was going to work at next. They used that time to know each other better and create a fake backstory for Jupiter.

“My parents are both dead”, he said, recapping everything they discussed. “My uncle already raises two children and had little room for a third, but he’s got a daughter who lives by herself and is able to provide everything I need, so here we are.”

“And how your parents died?”, she asked, arching her eyebrows.

“Oh, yeah. Mom died first, when I was 8. We went fishing and she fell on the river, drowning. Dad died a month ago. Brain tumor. Is anything missing?”

She shook her head. “No. You can use your own childhood stories as Jupiter’s ones. Just remember that Jupiter doesn’t have a brother.” He looked away and nodded. He’d most likely keep quiet about his past. Loki had been too involved in his life to erase him from his stories so easily.

They bought a few new clothes for him, along with other basic stuff. In the rush to run away from Thanos, he packed only the most important stuff, which obviously were not enough for daily life.

At least he brought the stuff snake Loki got him for his 13th birthday. It was supposed to be a troll gift, but he loved it so much he kept it. He claimed it was a nice decoration item for his bedroom (it was placed right on his pillow), but truth was, it helped ease his nerves whenever he woke up from a nightmare—which happened more often than he liked to admit.

Four days before they had to leave, Hela mentioned she had an assistant.

“Her first name is Brunnhilde”, she said when he asked for details, “but she prefers to be called by her middle name, Valkyrie. She’s a college junior—well, about to star junior year—and helps me with data. She usually stays here in Oslo for college, but she joins me on every break.” She sighed. “Girl’s probably mad that I spent a whole month of summer vacation here, but it can’t be helped.”

Her tone was nonchalant, but her words left Thor thinking. His sister gave up a month of work and possibly important research to welcome him to his new home and help him adjust to his new life. She could have easily turned down the police’s proposal to shelter him; they were essentially strangers to each other. But she still accepted him with open arms and was willing—excited even—to take him along in her travels, despite the extra money she’d spend on him because of it (he was sure it would be cheaper to leave him in Oslo with Valkyrie).

“Hey Sailor Pluto”, he called her. She turned with an eye roll—which was absurd, given his nickname for her was way more creative than her ‘little planet’—and looked at him. He smiled kindly. “Thanks. For everything.”

She gives him a half smile. “Oh, that’s nothing. But you’re welcome anyway.”


“Uncle Heimdall isn’t coming. We’ve got the house to ourselves for two weeks!”

Loki looked up from his book with a bored expression. “Let me guess, you want to throw a party.”

“Of course!” But he immediately deflated. “You don’t want it, do you?”

“I don’t mind”, he said with the same deadpan voice. “But if you decide to have this party, don’t count on me with preparations.”

He beamed at his brother’s answer. “Oh c’mon, brother, I know you like parties.”

“Not when I have to do anything aside from enjoying myself.”

“Are you really going to let me in charge of the house? All alone?”

“I said I wouldn’t help you. I’m sure your girlfriend would help.”

He let out a nervous laugh. “Jane? Hah. As if she’d be caught on a party.”

Loki raised his eyebrows at that. “You want to throw a party when you know very well your girlfriend won’t want to show up? That’s a jerk decision, Thor.”

Thor looked at his feet and rubbed his neck. His brother caught him again. “Er… well…”

“You guys broke up, didn’t you?” He nodded, still looking at the floor.

Silence fell between the two, until Thor looked up. He saw Loki looking back at him, book down on his lap. “And when were you going to tell me, Thundercat? Now I have to interrupt my reading and do something to prevent you from sulking around.”

Despite everything, Thor smiled at his words. As much as he tried to hide it, Loki cared a lot about him, and it showed in moments like these.

“No parties this week”, Loki continued as he stood up. “Go grab some money. We’re buying tickets for one of those basketball games you like so much.”

“I thought you hated basketball.”

“I hate football . I can perfectly tolerate basketball if it means I won’t have to bear your dramatic cries.”


Thor smiled to himself at the memory as the plane landed. It had happened a year before, when Jane and him came to the conclusion their interests were too different to sustain a relationship. Of course, it had been Jane’s idea—Thor was too in love to realize such a thing by himself.

Loki’s attempt to cheer him up worked. He healed way faster than when Sif broke up with him. Granted, he dated Sif when he was 13, and between 13 and 15 years old a lot can change.

But he wasn’t dumb. Loki hated basketball and tolerated football, not the opposite. His brother was never into group sports, but he found football’s violence midly entertaining—while basketball and volleyball bored him to death. The fact that he managed to watch an entire game without complaint motivated Thor to move on fast. It was the least he could do to repay Loki.

However, this wasn’t a story he could easily share with others beside his sister. Most of his most cherished memories had Loki in them. Like the party they threw the following weekend, a day before their parents came back. His brother didn’t let him drink, claiming he was a crybaby when he got drunk, and drank in his place.

Drunk Loki gave the party guests a one-man show that left everyone shocked and amazed. He wished he had managed to grab his father’s camera to film it. Well, at least he had his memories. It had been a good night to stay sober.

The airplane pilot’s voice brought him back to the present. Beside him, Hela and Valkyrie stood up to collect their handbags. He had hidden his backpack under the seat, so he didn’t have to worry about that.

Hela walked ahead of him and her assistant. After some awkward silence—the two haven’t talked much during the flight beyond small talk—, Valkyrie spoke up.

“Have you ever been to Middle East before?”

He shook his head. “Moving to Norway was my first time out of my home country.” Which would have been true if he hadn’t taken a school trip to Canada in 9th grade. But Jupiter was from Canada, so maybe it didn’t count.

Oblivious to his thoughts, Valkyrie replied, “This is my second time in Yemen alone. I’ve been to Saudi Arabia and Jordan before as well. All thanks to your cousin.”

“Sounds like an awesome life”, he said sincerely.

She grinned in response. “It sure is. And you’ll get live it even more than I do.” She sighed. “I can’t wait to graduate and be able to assist Hela on field full-time.”

His brows furrowed. “Wouldn’t you like to work on your own? Make your own name?”

She shook her head. “I never enjoyed much the spotlight. Hela gives many interviews and classes on her subject of research. I’d rather work behind the scenes. Anonymity suits me better.”

There was a hint of sadness in her voice that implied there was more to her aversion to spotlight, but he didn’t question it. Why would she share her past with a 16-year-old (soon-to-be 17) she never met before that day? Depending on what the story was, even Hela might not know.

Instead, he changed the subject. “Is there anything good to do on free time?”

She nodded. “Some good tourist sites… and bars.” She turned to look better at him. “Do you drink?”

Hela chose that exact moment to turn to them. “He shouldn’t, but he does!”, she said loudly.

He rubbed his neck, slightly embarrassed. Valkyrie looked amused. “Would you mind if I take your little cousin to drink, boss?”

“Of course not! If uncle didn’t stop him, who am I to judge?”

Valkyrie’s smirk scared Thor a bit. He wanted to say he couldn’t drink everyday because he had to study, but something told him the girl wouldn’t change her mind. However, he figured getting too drunk could risk his identity, so he carefully said, “I don’t like getting drunk, though. I always puke, and it leaves my throat burning for, like, four days.”

He was, as Loki would point out, being dramatic, but he supposed he had to at this moment. She simply rolled her eyes playfully. “Kid, I might not look like it but I’m a responsible adult. I won’t let you drink yourself to sleep.” Her expression softened. “And you don’t have to drink along every time we do.”

“We drink a lot”, Hela admits without turning to look at them. “Not everyday, but still more than we probably should.” She then waved to a taxist, who stopped in front of them.

The way she said it made both him and Valkyrie laugh as they followed Hela into the taxi.


Yemen was great. Hela took him to the archeological site she was working on and let him stay at her tent studying while she worked. Every now she (or Valkyrie) would call him to show something interesting.

“Look closely, Jupiter”, his sister said. “This is written in Hebrew. Do you realize what this means?” When he shook his head, she continued, “That means Jewish people lived in this city at some point. We’ve found objects that indicate worship of other gods, so we’re likely exploring a city where people from many religions lived harmoniously.”

“Wait, this site used to be a city?”

“A big one, little planet. It was mentioned historians since a century before Christ, but these reports are all messed up. Some informations contradict themselves, and not everything is clear. We hope to find answers in this exploration.”

As the days passed she’d give him more explanations. His sister’s teaching ability was way better than any professor he ever had. For the first time Thor had actual pleasure in learning history.

(Unfortunately, Yemen History wasn’t featured in Norwegian classes. But Hela promised him to give him some lessons after he finished each chapter, so it was all good.)

On their free days, the women would take him to explore the cities nearby. He was fascinated by everything he’d see, hear and taste—food was simply delicious.

They spent two months there. Valkyrie had to go back to Norway in the second month due to college. Her absence was felt deeply, but Thor quickly distracted himself with other things.

There was an advantage on Valkyrie being away, though: Thor and Hela could take more openly. He told her many stories of his life in New York. About his misadventures with Loki, about Jane and Sif, about the roleplay game gang he found on accident.

“Loki is the one who introduced me to the game”, he said. “I rarely played anything besides sports. He’s the creative one out of us. But I loved it.

“He already knew Clint, who introduced him to Natasha. I knew Steve from football team, but never took him as someone who like RPG. Then again, I never took myself for one.

“Clint’s the one who brought us all together. Loki usually played with us, but… he stayed out of our last one because he got in the swimming team and his schedule wasn’t compatible with ours.” At that, he looked away. “I’m thankful for it now. It was weird to play without my brother, but at least he’s still in New York, not having to worry about his safety.”

He felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up to see his sister smiling softly. “I’m sure he’s worried about yours.”

He smiled and nodded. “Yeah, but he’s safe. It gives me comfort, knowing that.”

She sighed. “Hearing about you two almost makes me regret staying in Norway. We’d make a good team, us three.”

He chuckled. “If you had managed to stand us as little children, then yes. But look at you! Your life is awesome, even if a little lonely.” He rubbed the back of his neck. He didn’t want to sound like a jerk.

However, Hela laughed. Good sign. “Well, I’m not lonely anymore now, am I?” She patted his shoulder again. “But Aunt Nora died only in 1994. I wasn’t really alone for all these years. Thank you for the compliment, though.”


After Yemen, they headed to Doha, on Qatar. Hela was there not for field work, but for a meeting.

“My team will explain our findings on Yemen and we’ll cross data with what we already know about it.”

“Will Valkyrie be there too? I mean, she helps you with data, so I guess she’s coming… right?”

She raised an eyebrow and smirked. “Such an interest on her for a teenager.”

He nearly choked. “Wh-what are you even implying?”

She laughed at his reaction. “I know she’s attractive, little planet, but you should be more careful. She’s usually not into younger men.”

He decided to keep his mouth shut. It was an absurd! He, interested in Valkyrie? He barely knew her. And she was a college student. Their worlds were completely different, and though he liked smart and mature girls—as Jane and Sif can prove—, his sister’s assistant was almost four years older . It was too big of an age gap.

Eventually Hela said, “She’s coming. This meeting is good for her college credits.”  He just nodded.


When his first exames came, Thor travelled back to Oslo by himself. Hela wanted to go along, but she was held back by her work mates.

“You’re staying with Valkyrie”, she said when drove him to the airport. “It’s not safe to leave you alone in our apartment, but I don’t think it’s wise to have her there where she can find something she shouldn’t see. I know you can take care of yourself, but still.”

He didn’t question. She was right, after all; he was hiding from a serial killer. Being alone in an apartment wouldn’t be safe.

Neither would be having Valkyrie at their home—odd, he already thought of there as ‘ home ’. Thor’s room was filled with stuff that could give his identity away, even though his most personal belongings (like his stuffed snake) were inside drawers.

So he went to her apartment. It was smaller than his, but the mess inside was way wider. “Sorry”, she said when caught him glancing around the living room. “I didn’t have time to clean everything.”

He arched his eyebrows in surprise. “So it’s usually messier?” When she nodded, he half grinned. “I’m impressed, actually. I’m far from organized, but I never mastered the art of messing my stuff like you do.”

She rolled her eyes playfully. “I moved in last month, Jupiter. I’m not messy, just slow to organize my stuff.”

The exams went through the entire week. To ease his nerves, he’d spend his days helping Valkyrie organize her things. He found out a lot about her in the meantime—though it were just small things, like her college activities and general performance (she was excellent, as he’d guessed), her tastes in movies, books and TV, her past in ambiental activism and some of her school pictures.

“Why did you stop dying your hair?”, he asked one day while carrying a box full of CDs. “It looked great in purple. And navy blue too.”

“I wanted to be taken seriously”, she answered as she opened a book box he had previously brought. “Sadly, nobody truly respects you if your is dyed in a non-natural shade.” She stood and looked at him with a grin. “I do have a tattoo, though. Do you want to see it?”

He smiled. “Yeah, I do!”

She lifted her shirt a little to show a hammer-shaped tattoo on her waist. “That’s Mjölnir. Norse god Thor’s hammer.”

He did his best to remain neutral when she mentioned the god he was named after. “Why did you pick this as your tattoo? Why not… valkyries?”

She chuckled as she dropped her shirt down and resumed her work. “I was 15 years old, and thought valkyries were too predictable. And I loved Thor’s stories, not only in myth but in the comics. Did you read Thor ?”

“Yes. Still do, actually, when I can.” He almost added that he liked to read all Avengers comics—that’s where he got inspiration from to build his last RPG campaign—but stopped himself in time. Even though it was a small details that would hardly give anything away, he preferred to reveal as few information as he could. Better to be safe than sorry.

“That’s nice. If you grab the comic book box, check if there’s anything you haven’t read yet. I don’t have many with me now… I donated the oldest ones when I moved.”

He grabbed that box indeed, and found three editions that were new to him. He politely asked her to lend them. “Of course, darling. Just make sure they return intact.”

By the end of the week, he already knew his grades had been good. With great relief, he called Hela to tell her she could buy his ticket back to Oman.


Oslo, winter of 1998

He got a small graduation ceremony along with five others who underwent the same process. Hela hurriedly came back from a congress on Israel to attend.

He ended up staying at Valkyrie’s every time he had exams to take. Hela was hesitant at first to make it a regular thing, but both assured it was no problem, and it was better than her interrupting her work just to hang around the apartment uselessly for 7-10 days.

Valkyrie’s tight hug of congratulations left Thor’s ears red. As his sister predicted, he developed an infatuation of sorts towards her. He never acted on it, of course; his point of her being way older still stood—though the difference was often forgotten when they talked about their common interests.

“You’re finally an adult”, she said as she broke the hug, huffling his hair. She was tall, but Thor had grown taller the last two years.

“I turned 18 last year, Val”, he replied weakly. He started calling her by that nickname within six months, soon after she started with ‘Jup’. “Soon to turn 19!”

“Still, you were just a teenager of age. Now you can be one of us.”

“As if you were a role model for adulthood.”

“Of course I am! Even more now that I’m about to graduate as well.”

In around three or four months, Valkyrie would finally graduate, meaning she’d follow Hela—and him—24/7. He didn’t know what he was going to do. Not only because of his crush, but also due to his identity issues.

What if she found out that he was Thor Odinson instead of Jupiter Odinson?


Hela decided that he and Valkyrie would get the same graduation present, given they finished their studies at the same semester. After Val got her diploma, she took them to Tel Aviv, Israel.

“I was invited to give a special class to high school students, that will be held at Tel Aviv University. We’re going there next week.”

Needless to say, Thor was excited. Over these two years he became Hela’s second assistant, as Valkyrie had to distance a little from her work to focus on her studies. Now that the girl would be part of the main team, he ended up as their assistant. Dealing with data was more interesting than he thought it would be, and he found he actually liked dealing with finances—both women left him in charge of the financial part of their travels and activities.

Getting a steady job as their assistant assured that he would still follow them—which was Hela’s plan for him as long as he had to stay hidden from Thanos. And he grew to love this lifestyle—going from place to place, exploring new things, meeting different people, learning different cultures.

Hela’s main field was the old city on Yemen, so that’s the country they’d spend most of the time at. But she had meetings and academic events to attend in many other countries—most on Middle East zone, but they had already gone to Cairo, Rome and Paris.

She was once invited to give a special lecture at Columbia. She almost denied—after all, he couldn’t step a foot in United States, let alone New York—but eventually accepted when Thor found it happened in exams week, which gave him the perfect excuse not to go.

“Did you see dad there?”, he asked when she came back to Oslo.

“Yes. I didn’t tell him anything about you, and he never asked either. It seems he really doesn’t know you are with me.”

He nodded slowly. They had assumed it was the case long ago. “Mom and Loki?”

“Yes! I met our little brother. He’s as nice as you said he is. He gave me a complete tour of the city, including stuff most tourists don’t go to.” There seemed to more in her statement, but he decided against asking. If she didn’t want to give him all the details, she wasn’t going to. He probably wasn’t supposed to know anything about his family, anyway. He got more than he had hoped for.

It was 2AM when they landed on Tel Aviv airport. There was heavy security at the building. “The war”, his sister commented when he mentioned that detail to her. She had explained how Israel and Palestine were at odds with one another again.

“It seems to never end”, she said. “That’s why I don’t go there often. It’s usually not worth it.”

Apparently there had been some sort of truce—he didn’t know much about war matters to know what exactly it was—which was why Hela accepted the university’s invitation this time.

They decided to join a group of tourists for a quick city tour; that way they’d get a good grasp of what was worth visiting. As always, Valkyrie’s eye caught many underrated places along the way, and they based their future days’ routes on her findings.

Hela’s lectures would happen in a span of three days. On those days, they’d only hang out night, at nearby bars and restaurants. On the third day, after a shot of tequila, he found a karaoke competition was happening and insisted on joining in.

“No, thank you”, Val said with an eye roll. “Your singing voice is already bad as it is sober. Don’t wanna hear you drunk.”

“Not drunk”, he replied instantly. “Just happy.”

She raised an eyebrow at him but didn’t answer. He took his cue to leave to the karaoke.

There was a small line of people waiting for their turn; in the meantime, they’d pick sides and cheer for their favorites—while trying to steal the spotlight by singing louder than the microphone. Most songs were either American or British, to Thor’s delight. He’d be lost if he was to sing in Hebrew or Arab.

When he got close, he saw a dark-skinned guy competing with a white girl in a wheelchair. Despite being tall, he couldn’t see well how she looked like, but her voice was good—at least for Michael Jackson’s Scream .

The girl won, as he expected. Cheers were heard, along with cries of “Naomi! Naomi!”. A guy that looked around his age wearing sunglasses stepped up to the small stage and asked in English who wanted to go with him. Thor wasted no time, going through the crowd to join in.

His sunglasses—and, admittedly, the alcohol—made it difficult for Thor to read the guy’s expression, but he seemed taken aback by his presence. “Well”, he said after a whole minute of silence, “I’ll pick the song, blondie. Since you’re new here.” His voice sounded familiar, but Thor couldn’t figure out why.

He mentally shrugged it off and watched the other guy look passing down the options at the karaoke TV screen. Eventually he picked Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song .

“Wow”, he said. “That song is kind of old.”

“Yeah”, the other replied nonchalantly. “But it’s awesome, isn’t it?”

He simply nodded. Thor loved that song—his entire family did. It seemed to speak directly at them, being from Norway and all that.

In the following morning, he wouldn’t remember much besides the song and how badly he sang it.


Back on Oslo, he and Valkyrie decided to buy something for Hela in gratitude.

“That trip must have been expensive, even if the university paid for half of the costs”, he explained. “And she agreed to go to a place she’s always been afraid to go just because she wanted to congratulate us for our graduations.”

“You’re completely right, Jup. And I know just what to buy.”

She took him to a technology shop and showed him something he had only a couple times in his life: a cell phone.

“This one has more features”, she said, showing him a Nokia phone. “You can change its faceplate, its battery lasts way longer… and we can play a game!”

It wasn’t cheap at all, but they figured its cost was still lower than their trip. Valkyrie even grabbed two colorful faceplates. “She loves green and gold”, she commented.

As they half-expected, half-hoped, Hela loved it. Not only the phone itself, but the fact that she could brag about her friends she got the newest cell phone model. Thor and Valkyrie high-fived as his sister began exploring her nee gift.

If Thor grabbed Val’s hand for a little longer than necessary, she didn’t seem to mind.


London, early 1999

Out of all things that could have led him to a hospital, it was a knife in his eye.

Out of all ways a knife could end up in his eye, it had to be because he decided he could do juggling with it.

All because of a bet—which he lost, obviously.

Hela had gone to London for a meeting, and of course he followed. However, since he didn’t have much to do at the meeting itself, he volunteered to stay with the participants’ kids.

One of said kids was a 14-year-old boy who was there to help. He did juggling with balls and knives back in his hometown (Hong Kong or Xangai, he couldn’t remember now) and showed his tricks to the young kids.

Although Thor was kind of good with children, he couldn’t beat this guy. So he decided to try to do the same.

“I’m sure I can do it. I’m a fast learner.”

“Oh really?”, the teenager said. “Then let’s try.”

At first he practiced with balls, with some degree of success. But the boy kept making things harder and harder, until he challenged him to use the knives.

“I bet you won’t last thirty seconds”, he said with a grin.

The right choice would have been to decline the challenge. After all, he had no experience. But Thor never said no to stuff like that, so he said, “I bet my left eye that I’ll last more than a minute” like the idiot he is.

Naturally, the knife fell straight into his left eye, just for dramatic irony.

“I hope you are aware of how stupid you are”, Hela snapped as soon as he woke up.

“I do, I do. I’ll be more careful from now on.”

It was when he realized his field of view was smaller. Oh… guess the left eye’s dead.

“We travel around all kinds of dangerous places, and you lose a freaking eye because you wanted to play with knives? Do you see how crazy it is?”

“See? No, not really. But maybe I can feel how crazy it is.”

She huffed. “Of course you joke about it. You are about to turn 20, dumb shit. Have some good sense, damnit!”

“Hela, c’mon, calm down. I’m the one who lost an eye here. I learned my lesson, okay? Just… leave it. I’ll work to adapt to my lack of vision.”

Silence fell upon them. Eventually, she just nodded and sat down to read a book.

Valkyrie made fun of him for three months. He didn’t complain; he deserved it, after all.


Bergen, Norway, Christmas 1999

Valkyrie invited them to spend Christmas with her ‘family’—by which she means her high school friends who got ditched by their biological families for reasons that included, but were not limited to, being homosexual, doing drugs and teenage pregnancy.

Fortunately, the baby girl’s mom managed to spend the holiday with some distant relatives, so the poor kid wouldn’t be exposed to a bunch of drunk young adults.

Valkyrie was the only actual orphan of the group. But she claimed that she’d probably have been ditched too.

“I’ve wanted to be an archeologist since I was a kid”, she explained in the train they took to reach the city. “But mom and dad always tried to persuade me to do something else.”

“But do you really think they’d kick you out?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. They’ve been long dead, you know? I didn’t get to know them enough.”

He didn’t reply to that. Eventually she told him they died in a car accident when she was eleven years old.

“I lived with my grandma for three years, and then she had a heart attack. But honestly, I think she died when she buried her only son.”

He squeezed her shoulder gently and have her a soft smile, which she returned with another. Stories like hers and Hela’s reminded him of his fabricated backstory and how lucky he was it wasn’t true.

He might be hiding from a serial killer with no prospect of being able to go back home, but at least he’d a home to go back to. He had both parents and a brother waiting for him in New York. Valkyrie and his sister lost it all.

They went to one of Val’s friend’s house as soon as they arrived. It was the same house the party would occur, much to Thor’s relief. It began at early night, with gift exchange and light-heartened conversation. After midnight, though, the bar was open.

Being the oldest didn’t stop Hela from getting just as drunk as the others by the end of night. He expected that, and had decided to drink as little as possible. Someone had to watch over her—and Valkyire, who was lying on the couch after puking twice.

“Juuuuup, come heeeeere”, she shouted at some moment. It was around 3 AM, and he just wanted to sleep. He still approached her, though. “Nope, hereee. My head on your lap”, she said when he was about to sit on the floor next to her.

“You… you sure?”, he asked, ears red. She nodded, so he obeyed.

He tried his best to keep a straight face as he placed her head on his lap. He even avoided looking at her while doing so; she looked pretty even in her wasted state.

However, it seemed she didn’t want to make things easy for him.

“Look at me, stupid”, she said, tongue-tied. “I know you like me, no need to hide.”

He looked down at her, mortified. So he wasn’t as good as he thought he had managed to be, huh.

“I have no idea of what you mean”, he said weakly. She half-huffed, half-coughed.

“No lie to me, Jup. I see your goo-goo eyes at me.” A moment of silence, and then she kept going. “You cute, even without an eye. But a kid. Sorry.”

He patted her head lightly. “It’s okay, Val. I don’t mind. It’s a small crush, that’s all.” He had always been sure his feeling were not reciprocated. Still, after going through heartbreak twice, he was surprise to find that her words didn’t hurt him at all.

Maybe he wasn’t really lying to himself when he mentally called his crush ‘infatuation’.

“And we can’ be together like this”, she continued, lazily waving her hand between the two. He frowned, but let her talk. “Not when you keep things from me.”

He froze. “What?” Had she found out about his true identity? Had Hela told him something? Had she overhead the siblings talking?

“You hiding somethin’. I dunno what it is… but you not here just because your dad died.”

It was difficult, but he held a sigh of relief and kept his confused expression. “Why else would I move in to Hela’s, Val?”

Maybe to run away from a serial killer, it was the correct answer, but now he was sure she wasn’t going to say it.

“I dunno. But there’s somethin’.” Another silence. “Ain’t going to find out, though. Boss’d kill me.”

She fell asleep seconds later. He waited for a few minutes before carrying her to her room, where Hela was already deep asleep.

She didn’t seem to remember anything from their talk when she woke up at noon. He never brought it up, either.

Sana’a, Yemen, 2001

“I think”, Valkyrie said after finishing her glass of wine, “we should have a trip to celebrate Thor’s graduation. Like the one we made to Israel.”

Thor had managed to finish his long-distance course a year early. It helped that he had a lot of free time on his travels, but everyone—himself included—was taken by surprise.

“I agree, Val”, Hela said, refilling her own glass. “Actually, I was already searching for options. What do you think of Peru, little planet?”

He took a sip, deep in thought. They were in a hotel room, paid by the university that was hosting an archeology congress. It was a 5-star hotel, and they got two rooms with TV—something rare in their trips around Middle East—which was turned on CNN International.

It was near 5PM, which was probably a bit too early to drink wine, but none of them cared, honestly.

“What are the other options you looked through, Sailor Pluto?”

He got an eye roll at the nickname. Hela never got used to it. “Mexico, Poland, Australia and Japan.”

“Hey, I want Poland! I’ve wanted to visit those concentration camps for years.”

“Oh, that”, she said nonchalantly. “I’ve been there, 8 years ago. It’s good. Just don’t get your expectations too high. But we can go. It’ll be nice to revisit it.”

He smiled, despite her tone. Clearly it wasn’t a topic she liked much, though he didn’t know why. World Wars were never a subject they had talked about in these years together.

Valkyrie cheered and proposed a toast. Chuckling, the siblings followed along. He drank his glass when he looked at the TV.

And… what the hell was happening?

“Hela, Val”, he called as he walked closer to the TV. “Look at this.”

A tall building was on fire and seemingly about to collapse. He couldn’t place where it was until a reporter explained what they were watching.

He knew the World Trade Center. Stark Industries had an office in one of the Twin Towers, and his parents would take him and Loki to visit the building every now and then. He even had dinner at that famous restaurant a few times.

Said restaurant was now collapsing in front of him. “Fuck”, he whispered. He had once dreamed of going there when he went back to celebrate his return hom—

“What the hell ?” He heard Valkyrie behind him. “Another?”

He blinked and focused on the screen again. A plane collided with the other tower as the reporter was still talking about the first hit. “Oh my God”, he said in a low voice.

Then it occurred to him… Odin went to the tower weekly. What if he was there? What if he had taken mom and Loki along?

“Hela”, he said, turning abruptly to look at her. She turned to him, eyes wide. “You have to call father. What if Odin’s inside the building? What if mother’s in there too? And Loki? Sis, please—I want to know if they are well. Alive.”

She blinked at him and glanced at the TV. Then back at him. “Of course”, she said, and stood up to grab her phone. “I got his phone number last year. Hopefully he’ll pick up.”

“Good. Thanks, Hela.”

As she dialed the number, he heard a voice behind him say, “Another plane hit the Pentagon.”

He turned to see Valkyrie still watching the news. She looked at him. “In case you have any family or friend that might be there too.”

It was when he realized he had given himself away. He wasn’t supposed to call Odin father, or mention Loki. Jupiter didn’t have a brother, and his parents were deceased.

Oh, crap.

“Ah, er…”, he began. “Look, Val, I—”

She shook her head. “I get it, Jup—or whatever your name is. I… I’ve suspected for a while now, that you had some big secret. I mean, I never thought it would be your identity , but… yeah. I’m sure you’ve got a reason for all of this.”

So, she hadn’t just drunkenly babbled to him that Christmas night. He sighed.

“I’m under witness protection program”, he declared. There was no use hiding anything now that she knew. “My name is Thor. And nobody can know you know.”

“Of course… Thor.” She looked at the screen and back at him. Then, she pointed at Hela—who was talking to someone over the phone—and asked, “She’s part of this, right?”

He nodded. “She helped me creating my fake identity. Backstory and everything.”

“And your supposed father is actually your uncle, I guess.”

He nodded again. “By the way, we don’t know if he’s actually dead. Nobody has heard of him since moved to Canada, and it’s been over a decade.”

She arched her eyebrows at that. Out of all things, that’s what surprised her.

“Sorry for keeping you in the dark. But we couldn’t risk anything.”

“I get it, don’t worry.” She looked down at her nails. “If you don’t mind me asking… what did you witness?”

“I don’t mind”, he replied, but gulped still. “A murder. A guy killed his wife, and we saw it from the living room window. Turns out he’s a serial killer.”

She raised an eyebrow. “We?”

He shrugged. “Seven of us. I was hanging out with other five friends, and we saw it when we were calling pizza delivery. The seventh is one of the killer’s children, who was at home.”

She didn’t reply immediately. Hela finished the call and approached them. “Odin, Frigga and Loki are fine”, she said to Thor. “But their friend… they haven’t heard of him, and given the damage he doesn’t think he survived. The plane hit too close to his floor.” She then noticed the awkwardness between him and Valkyrie. Her eyes widened. “Oh. You know now, don’t you, Val?”

The other woman nodded. “He told me the rest. I guess you are actually siblings, right?” They nodded in response. “Look, boss, I understand. Little Thor was in danger. Still is, I believe. I’d do the same if I were in any of your shoes.”

Nobody said anything. In the background, he heard the TV reporter saying that one of the towers collapsed completely.

Oslo, early 2003

“This camera will be great for work”, Hela said excitedly.

She used her three-week vacation to buy a new digital camera, and found a newly released model.

“The photo’s details are amazing”, he said in agreement. “But I want lunch, Sailor Pluto.”

“Oh God, this name is ridiculous .”

“So is ‘little planet’, but you don’t hear me complaining.”

“I had to watch that stupid anime to have the slightest idea of who Sailor Pluto is!”

“Good, you were introduced to good TV!”, he said smiling.

She rolled her eyes, as usual. “ Anyway , we don’t food at home. You’ll have to call for delivery.”

Sighing, he dialed the number. At this point, he already knew it by heart—they never had food at home, given they barely stayed there.

Hela turned the TV on as he waited for the restaurant to pick up. He heard the news about the completion of Human Genome Project. “Sounds like this can solve most of our health problems”, he said distractedly.

As he recited his order to the phone lady, he saw a familiar face on the news, but didn’t pay attention to what they were saying; it didn’t help that the TV was on his left. As he finished the call, he turned his full attention to the news.

“…and accused of murder of at least 28 people, including his own wife. Now that he’s finally been caught, Trevor Titan will likely spend a long time in prison, if enough evidence of his crimes is presented at his trial, which should be held within the month…”

Realization dawned on him. “Wait, that’s the guy whose crime I witnessed!”

Hela turned to him, eyes wide and mouth agape. “What? Seriously?”

He nodded frantically. “Yeah, that’s Thanos. Or Mr. Titan, as we called him… before .” A moment of silence. “Does that mean I’m…”

“Free?”, she asked. He looked into her eyes, and she slowly smiled. “Guess you are. We have to wait for the officer to call you, I think, but you can call yourself Thor again.”

“So, are you going back to New York?”

Valkyrie was informed of the events later that day, right after Thor was told he was ‘free’, as his sister put it.

“Well, I’ll have to go there in two weeks to testify. I’ll be under the program until he’s sentenced. After that… I don’t know, Val.”

She bit her lip and looked away. Despite everything, he still found that gesture attractive— she was attractive.

“You should”, she said eventually. “At least for a while. See your family and friends again. You might want to come back, but you might want to stay there.” She turned to him. “I’ll miss you if you decide to go back for good, of course. But you have a choice to make now, don’t you think?”

He stayed still for a few moments, and eventually nodded. She was right. He had built a life for himself with Hela, Valkyrie and all other people he befriend through the years—the girl’s archeology team, his neighbors, even Val’s friends from Bergen.

But now he could rebuild the one he had in New York. He had a college degree he could use in many fields of work—including Stark Industries. Or he could go again to college to study History and follow his sister’s steps. Or he could stay in Norway, doing what he’d been doing for the past years.

Freedom is a wonderful thing, but you can easily lost in it.

Valkyrie refused to say ‘goodbye’. “We’ll each other again soon. Even if it’s just me going to New York to visit.”

Her words gave him a weird feeling in his gut, but he was used to it. Suddenly he felt the need to say something.

“You know, you rejected me once. You probably don’t remember. It was on that Christmas on Bergen. It’s been years, and it’s useless to talk about it, but I thought you should know.”

She blinked, and it took a while for a her to answer. “What did I say, exactly?”

“That I’m cute, I made goo-goo eyes at you all the time—which is a big lie, by the way—but too young for you.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “It was no news to me. You said it almost like you were diagnosing me with cancer or something. I think you overestimated my crush on you.”

“So, you were fine?”

“Yeah. It wasn’t strong or anything. I just wasn’t sure I should tell you. Didn’t want to make things awkward, you know? But now… now that I’m leaving, I thought it would be good for you to know. That you already said no, and I’m not hurt by it. I… I don’t know if I’m making myself clear.”

“I got it, I got it. Thanks, I guess.” She patted his shoulder. “You’re a great friend, Thor. Hope we can stay in touch.”

“Well, we can always write e-mails to each other. But you can send me postcards.”

“Sure, sure, if I’m not too lazy to write them.”

He chuckled. They hugged. Hela called him, and he followed her.

“See you around, Moody”, Val waved to him. She’d been calling him Moody ever since she read the Harry Potter saga and found out about the characters with an eye of glass—just like him, though his glassy eye wasn’t magical.

“Half-see you, Val.” They chuckled at their little joke.

He got in the cab with Hela and left to the airport.

“You know, I’m glad you’re coming with me”, he said on the plane. “I can postpone one goodbye.”

She smiled. “Now that my career is more stable, I can go to New York every year to visit you guys.”

“Yeah, and I’ll talk to my parents so we can all go to Norway whenever you are there”, he added, smiling back. Then something occurred to him. “They still don’t know that I stayed with you, do they?”

She laughed. “No… they’re in for a big surprise.”

He laughed along. Indeed, they were.

Chapter Text

Brooklyn, 1996

Life at the Raccoon household had always been a chaos. They were a big family all living at the same big house that never seemed big enough for them.

He'd wake up soon after the sunrise, thanks to his paternal grandmother's loud noise (out of all rooms, he got the one closest to the kitchen). He eventually got used to being an early riser, to the point he woke up early even when Grandma would go to the hospital due to her diabetes, but the sound of her making breakfast before 6AM was still a little annoying.

Ron and his grandmother would enjoy some peace and quiet for 15 minutes still, and then everyone else would wake up: his parents, his two uncles and aunts, his grandfather, his mother's aunt and his three cousins. Aunt Teresa was 80 years old and claimed by Alzheimer's; she'd usually scream some nonsense in the mornings, which would be followed by Grandpa telling her to shut up.

(Grandpa would never admit it, but everyone knew he missed the morning shouting contest after Aunt Teresa passed away. They all did, after all.)

He was the oldest of his cousins, followed by Grover, who was 3 years younger. They got along the best of them all, bonding by their love for music and comic books. Ron also loved Grover more because he never screamed much, not even in his infant years.

School was strangely quieter than his house, maybe because he had few friends—not that he ever intended to have more. Since he lived only two blocks away from school, he'd have lunch at home along with his whole family. Grandma always allowed them to bring one friend—but only one friend each day. Ron rarely brought one; his friends were too shy for his home atmosphere.

Georgina's arrival didn't change much on their daily routine, but it did bring some quiet in the first months. In a silent agreement, everyone decided to give her space to grieve, and it included quiet times too. (Naturally, Aunt Teresa didn't follow through this agreement, though she seemed to somehow understand that the new house member was going through intense emotional pain. Demented people seemed to have weird insights.)

Being the two oldest of the new generation, Ron and Grover took upon themselves to help Georgina through her grief. Not that they knew how to do it. In fact, the girl didn't welcome their attempts at all at first.

"Leave me alone", she'd snap at them every three days, after a few attempts to cheer her up.

"Just let me grieve in peace", she said once or twice.

"Look guys", she said another time. "I know you have the best intentions, and I'm sorry for lash out on you of all people, but I really want to deal with my feelings by myself. I've got to get used to being alone."

"But you're not alone", Grover replied instantly. "You have me, Ron and all the fam—"

"Okay, we understand", Ron interrupted his cousin, glancing at him as to tell him to shut up. "But if you need anything, you know where to find us."

She nodded, her expression almost grateful. He grabbed Grover and took him to his room. As soon as he closed the door, the younger one started talking again, "But she isn't alone! This house is big and crowded!"

"Yeah, Grover, but none of us are her family. We're nearly strangers to her. She only ended up here because Mom was her mother's best friend, and she had no family to turn to." He went over to his bed and sat down. "Put yourself in her place. She lost her mother, found out her father is a serial killer and got separated from her twin sister. And on top of all that, she's been watched by the police 24/7, because her father might come to kill her." He looked at the floor. "She doesn't need us pestering her. If she ever feels comfortable with us, she'll come."

He realized Grover might not understand what he meant. The kid was only 11, after all. But then his cousin surprised him with his next words, "When she feels comfortable. We've got to change our strategy. Offer comfort without getting close? I don't know if it makes sense."

After a moment of stunned silence, Ron agreed. "We just need a new plan, I guess."

And a new plan they made. Now, instead of pestering her with questions and offers, they decided for a more silent approach. Ron would sometimes leave a plate of strawberries—her favorite fruit—at the kitchen's table in random times of the day. When he caught her alone , he wouldn't always check her in, and when he did, he always had an excuse.

"Georgina, are you any good in English? I need help with this reading."

"Hey, would you mind hear this solo I practiced in my guitar?"

"Can you help me with timing my runs?"

She'd usually accept his offers, but every now and then she'd either straight up refuse or make up an excuse of her own. Often she used Aunt Teresa, given they shared the bedroom and she felt duty-bound to take care of her.

"Sweetie, you don't have to look after Aunt Teresa", his mother said once. "We are all used to do it."

"It's no problem, Mrs. Raccoon", she replied. "She's the only one I take care of besides myself."

She said it as a way to show she didn't have much to do, but they both understood the real meaning behind her words.

Still, she was half-lying. Georgina didn't take care of herself.

Grover tried his best too. The kid once saw him asking her for a guitar solo demonstration, and decided to do the same—first with flute, later with harmonica as well. He also would ask her to help with the house's garden—a job that had been his since he was 8 and showed great interest in gardening.

They kept like that for six months, relying on her silence as a good sign. One day, though, after Ron played guitar for her, she suggested, "You and Grover should try to play a song together. I'm not that knowledgeable with music, but I think your guitar and his flute and harmonica could sound good together."

He smiled and nodded. "We can try. Any song ideas?"

"Everybody wants to rule the world", she said after some thinking. "By… Tears for Fears? Yeah, that's the band's name."

He nodded. "I know this one. Let me see what Grover thinks of it."

Weeks later, he walked in the kitchen to catch her eating some strawberries. As he grabbed his cup to fill with water, he heard her saying, "Thanks, Ron."

He turned to see her. "For what?"

She gave him a half-smile. "For the strawberries. And the songs. And… everything, really. You and Grover helped a lot."

He just said "You're welcome", and drank his water.

"You've made great progress this past year, Ron. I don't say it often, but congratulations."

Ron smiled wide at his instructor's praise. He had just won a state runner competition, after two years of being in second place.

"Thanks, Coach Gray. It means a lot to me."

The adult gave him a tiny smile. "I'm hard on you because you asked me to help making you the best. But kid, you'd make a fine career on running if you wanted. Maybe even the 2000 Olympics, if we start focused training now."

"I'm honored, Coach, but I'm still aiming for NASA."

"Fair enough. It's a huge goal too. By the way, how's school?"

He shrugged. "I'm having a bit of trouble with English, but it's mostly because most of the readings this year have been boring so far."

"It's still November, Ron."

"Still. I miss Edgar Allan Poe. And 'Phantom of the Opera'."

Their small talk was interrupted by his parents approaching him to hug him tightly. Before leaving, he thanked his coach once again.

"See you on Wednesday, kid", his instructor said as Ron left.

Against his hopes, they managed to find a table big enough for the entire family plus Georgina. Only Aunt Teresa was absent, which was obvious—she couldn't get out of bed for longer than a walk to the bathroom. Her nurse agreed to stay for the night so everyone could celebrate.

The dinner was joyful and loud, as everything his family did. After a few drinks, Georgina was brave enough to go to the small stage where the band was playing and offered herself to sing. She whispered a suggestion, and they seemingly obeyed.

It was only after she started singing that he recognized David Bowie's Starman. Seriously?

Oh well. He wasn't going to complain. It was the best he'd seen of her since she arrived at his home.

Summer of 1997

After a talk with the school's principal, Ron and his family agreed to have him skip 9th grade. He was already on advanced classes for most subjects; according to Mr. Jones, holding him back would be a waste of time.

He was slightly sad that he wouldn't get to see his friends in classes, but it seemed a small detail compared to the benefits. His friends themselves were happy for him, and he agreed to take them to have lunch at his home more often—no one dared suggest he'd start having lunch at school, since they all knew his grandmother's cooking was way better.

Still, jumping straight to 10th scared him a bit. Despite his high IQ, he never skipped school years before; his family was afraid he'd suffer bullying. Now he was older and able to stand up for himself, but the fear was still above their heads.

Georgina sensed his tension and decided it was time to "pay him back" for the help he gave her when she moved in.

"You don't need to do anything", he said at first. "I never expected anything in return for what I did."

"Nonsense", she replied, waving it off. "Besides, this is my last summer before college, and I have a lot of plans."

She'd take him (and sometimes Grover) to karaoke nights often, and also to movies. it's not like I can do this with only him."

"Him who?"

He only got that answer hours later, when they were almost out of town.

"Grover, Ron"—yes, she took Grover along—"this is my almost-boyfriend, Peter Quill. Peter, those are my friends Ron and Grover. I told you about them."

"Yeah, but you've told us nothing about him!" He mentally thanked his cousin for voicing his frustration.

"I'm not your almost boyfriend!", Quill guy exclaimed right after, turning Georgina's attention to him instead of Grover. She raised an eyebrow at him.

"You haven't even asked me on date yet, Starlord", she said, with a mocking tone. "You're lucky I just let it clear that I'd accept if you do."

He sighed and turned to the two teens. "Hey, guys. Like she said, I'm Peter Quill, Georgina and I are… almost dating… which is something not many people know now", he quickly glanced at her, "but they will when we arrive at college hand in hand", on that it was her turn to glance at him, "and anyway, it's not about our relationship we want to talk about to you."

He and Grover exchanged glances. Ron spoke up, "Then what is it, that you had to take us so far from Brooklyn? I don't even know where we are in New York, to be honest."

"This is North Riverdale, on Bronx", Georgina explained. "We're almost out of town. A few minutes by car and we get to Yonkers. We'll tell you soon why here of all places, but first let Peter tell you our proposal."

He looked at her with wide eyes for a second, but then turned to them and talked again. "Georgina told me you two are good with instruments. Ron plays guitar and Grover plays harmonica and and flute, right?" They nodded, and he went on, "Well, she can sing and play violin. I can sing, though not as well, and play the bass. I've been wanting to start a band for ages, but never found enough interested people to join in. Georgina said that, if you two would like, we could. Start a band, you know."

Ron turned to Georgina with a frown. "G, you know I'm about to start 10th grade. And I have to keep up with my schedule if I want to make to NASA."

She gave him a soft smile in return. "I know, Ron. That's what I told Peter. But none of us want it to be a professional band, you know? Just for fun, to play at small events and restaurants. A hobby." She took a step closer to him and placed a hand on his shoulder. Over that last year he finally reached her height. "It's up to you and Grover to decide, but I really think you need something like this to relax."

He bit his lip and looked away. She was right; he barely did anything for pure fun these days. Sure, he read some comics and fiction books, but most of his daily activities were done with a goal in mind.

Besides, he could always drop out if things got too hard.

Grover was looking at him. He knew what that look meant: his cousin would follow him regardless of his decision; to ask him what he wanted would be a waste of time.

"I think I can speak for Grover when I say yes", he said with a small smile. From the corner of the eye, he saw Grover nod.

Georgina smiled gently, while Quill beamed. "Great, guys!", he exclaimed.

"Wait", Grover said before Quill could speak more. "Don't we need a drummer?"

"That's why we're here", Quill promptly answered. "This is where our future drummer lives."

Since they had all gone by subway, they went the rest of the way walking. Meanwhile, Georgina and Quill told them about Drake, their supposed drummer.

"He's lived by himself for a few years", Georgina said. "He lost his wife and daughter… to Thanos."

Silence fell on them for a few moments. Ron could only imagine how it felt for her to meet someone who also lost loved ones to her father.

"I met him at the gym, two weeks ago", Quill continued. "He's my instructor, actually. We talked a lot, and eventually reached the subject of music. He's played drums way before his family died, and has been on a couple bands. He really liked my idea of starting a band, but asked me to find members instead of him, because he used to be the youngest of the bands he joined."

"How old is he?", was the question.

"Thirty", was the answer.

Damn. Twice Ron's age. But he supposed it wasn't a problem, since the two older teens were okay with it. He might not know Quill, but he trusted Georgina's judgement.

Thought it was a good thing he asked for the boy to look for members. If the youngest was 30 by now, he wondered how old his former band mates were.

Quill knocked at a door of a small house. They didn't have to wait for long until a shirtless muscular man answered it. "Hey, Quill!", he exclaimed loudly, ruffing the young man's hair. Then he looked around to see Georgina, Ron and Grover. "I see you brought some friends. Is this about the band you told me about? And oh, please, come inside."

Quill introduced everyone to the man as they got inside, and he closed the door behind them. Politely, he shook their hands, with a 'nice to meet you' for him and Grover, and asked if anyone wanted a glass of water or a cup of coffee. He and Grover accepted water.

There wasn't much left to discuss about the band. Georgina would be the main vocals, Quill would play the bass and be second main vocals (she would play violin if he were to ever lead a song), Drake would play the drums, Ron would play the guitar and Grover would play flute or harmonica. They figured Grover and Georgina's instruments could cover for the lack of a pianist.

"I know a boy in my school who plays piano", Georgina said eventually. "I already talked to him about the band, and he declined my invitation to join. He said he could play as guest member every once in a while, though."

Next topic of conversation was the band's name. Quill already had something in mind.

"Guardians of the Galaxy", he said enthusiastically. Ron raised an eyebrow at that.

"You mean like those Marvel comics few people know about?"

"Exactly! Good to know you are one of those few people, by the way. And Drake. We once talked about it for hours, right, bud?", Beside him, Drake, now with a shirt on, nodded. "I even have codename for each of us!"

"You mean artistic name", Georgina replied deadpan. Quill waved it off.

"You know what I meant. If you guys agree, I could be Starlord, Georgina is Gamora, Drake is Drax, Ron is Rocket and Grover is Groot."

Grover's instant question was, of course, "You're not expecting me to keep saying 'I am Groot' all the time, are you?"

Everyone laughed. Ron thought about his proposed new alias. Rocket had always been a character he related to, more than any other—maybe seconded by Starlord, but a distant second. He didn't know whether Quill was basing on their personalities or their first names for the names, but he liked his.

Besides, Rocket and Groot were close friends, much like he and Grover were the closest cousins.

Drax, like Drake, had lost his family due to—

That's why 'Thanos' always sounded so familiar…

He looked at Georgina to see her reaction. Either she wasn't aware of the similarities between her and Gamora, or she didn't care.

As everyone agreed, Quill—Starlord—mentioned he had an agent in mind for them, if they ever needed one.

"My dad, Yan—let's call him Yondu to keep an aesthetic here—is an expert in business. If we ever need assistance, he's the go-to guy."

Nobody had another name to bring to discussion, so that topic was finished as soon as it started.

"Now", said Quill again, "we should start planning our debut. Places, songlist, this kind of thing."

"It must be somewhere Ron and Grover are allowed to enter", Georgina (Gamora?) warned. He nodded.

"We can look for places and decide the songlist through this week", Drake (Drax?) suggested. "We can meet near your places next time."

Ron suggested a café near their house. They agreed to meet on the following Friday.

Their first performance as a band happened a month later. On their meeting at the café, they had agreed to specialize in songs from 70s and 80s—they all liked songs from that period, and it was the perfect excuse to not have to learn every new song that was released.

"I think I speak for us all when I say we don't have time to keep up with the latest singles released", Starlord said—they all quickly grew used to refer to one another by their aliases. "Gamora and I will start college soon, Rocket has to focus on his training for NASA, Groot has school to worry about and Drax has his work at the gym."

"Why does it sound like something your father would say, instead of your own words?", Gamora asked with an amusing smile. Starlord's blush said it all.

Her friend Loki managed to get them to play on an event at Stark Industries. She once again asked tried to convince him to join the band as the keys, but he declined once again.

"I remember him hanging out with his brother's friends every now and then", she told them during a rehearsal. "The ones who witnessed mom's murder, you know. I don't think he wants to join any group of friends for the time being."

Rocket secretly enjoyed to be called her friend.

Since he and Groot already knew how to play Everybody wants to rule the world—thanks to Gamora's suggestion months before—, it was the first song they picked. They picked other eleven songs: Europe's 'The final countdown' and 'Carrie', Queen's 'Radio Ga Ga' and 'We will rock you', Eagles' 'Hotel California', Survivor's 'Eye of the tiger', Cyndi Lauper's 'Girls just wanna have fun', Bon Jovi's 'Livin' on a prayer', Scorpions' 'Wind of change', Kenny Logins' 'Footloose' and, as duet for Gamora and Starlod, '(I've had) the time of my life'.

Quill had insisted to be main singer for Footloose, claiming it was his favorite song from his favorite movie. Though Drax questioned his tastes—with good reason—, nobody opposed.

A week before their big day, Gamora took the two cousins to the mall. "We are performing in a fancy event", she explained, "so we all need to be dressed accordingly."

Loki himself met them there to help the boys. He patiently guided them through many shops until they found something that suited each of them in both size and style.

"None of your choices are ideal", he commented after they left the last shop with Groot's outfit. "But I suppose that being from a band can give you an excuse for wearing less formal attire."

The cousins exchanged glances and shrugged. It wasn't like they knew anything about what Loki was saying, anyway.

His mother was beyond excited when the day came. She had managed to get invites for her, his father and Groot's parents so they all could watch their 'babies' performing for the first time.

"Oh my God, my boys are growing up so fast", she said once, eyes watery. He sighed.

"C'mon, mom, I skipped a whole grade and that's what makes you proud?"

"Oh, my dear, I'm always proud of you", she said with a smile. "But none of us ever thought you'd be part of a band! And performing at Stark Industries of all places! Soon enough you'll perform on Madison Square Garden!"

"Whoa, whoa there", he said when her eyes got too shiny. "We are not professionals, mom. And if the band ever reaches that level, I'll probably have dropped out for ages. NASA is still my top priority."

His mother deflated a little—but soon she was back to talking excitedly about his performance that night. Thankfully, his father just smiled and gave him a pat on the shoulder. He wouldn't be able to handle both of his parents gushing over him.

They took a cab for each family to get to the main building, where the event would take place. Gamora would go with Starlord and Drax, with most of their instruments. They were welcomed with a red carpet, with many reporters around.

Thankfully, whoever those reporters were waiting for, the Raccoon family wasn't on the list. Although shyly, they all managed to walk in without being bothered. It helped that a young woman was waiting for them at the door.

"Good evening", she said politely. "I'm Pepper Potts, one of Mr. Stark's assistants. Could you please confirm your names?"

"Rocket, Groot and family", he replied instantly. Quill had warned him that he had sent their artistic names.

She checked on her clipboard and nodded. "Follow me. You are to perform at the dinner hall."

Still shy, the family followed her. After an incredibly fast elevator ride to the 16th floor, they arrived at an empty hall. "The first part of the event will happen on another floor, where Mr. Stark will show some of his next releases", she explained. "We assumed you'd rather stay here for adjustments and final rehearsals, but if you'd rather watch Mr. Stark's presentation, I can take you there."

Her face upon mentioning Mr. Stark was bored, as if indicating there wasn't much to see. Before he could answer, though, his father said, "Thank you, Mrs. Potts, but we'd rather stay here. At least until the other band members arrive."

She nodded with a small smile. "Alright. If you don't mind, I'll head back to the entrance." Without waiting much for an answer, she left.

His mother looked at her husband with a frown. "Mrs. Potts? There was no ring on her hand."

His father shrugged. "I didn't pay attention. Besides, it's fun to call someone Mrs. Potts." He grinned. "Do you think there's a Lumiére here too?"

Everyone laughed. The parents took their seats at a table near the stage, and he and Groot went there to adjust their instruments.

"So, the first number will be Footloose", he reminded himself out loud. "You and Gamora stay behind, since you'll only feature from the second song and on", from the corner of his left eye, he saw Groot nodding, "which will be Wind of change."

He let Groot test his instruments before testing his guitar. His cousin would switch between harmonica and flute for the entire performance, unlike the rest of them, who would stick to a single one for the whole night.

Gamora, Starlord and Drax arrived half an hour later, followed by Yondu—who they had been introduced to a week prior. Then, his family (and Yondu) followed Potts to the floor where Mr Stark's demonstrations would take place. "I thought you'd be interested in watching the first part", Gamora said to him as she approached them."

"I'm sure it will show on TV tomorrow", he replied. "Besides, I'd rather make sure our performance will be the best possible."

"That's the spirit!", Starlord said excitedly, ruffling Rocket's hair. "Now, we have a little less than three hours left for a final rehearsal. Let's do this!"

Their performance went by smoothly. Thanks to the three-hour wait, they had time to adjust everything—leading to a show without technical errors and accidents.

Despite the spotlights right above them, Rocket was still able to see the crowd's reaction to them. Some didn't bother much, taking them as background noise to their dinner and chatting. Most of them, though, took their time to watch them perform—and reacted positively to it.

Starlord's opening number was fun; he saw some people standing up to dance. Then, Gamora's cover of Wind of change left a few people with watery eyes. Not only her voice was beautiful, he assumed the song sparked some memories of recent past—if anything he knew about the song was correct.

Another song that sparked reaction from many people was Gamora and Starlord's duet. Many stood up to dance and clap along; the smiles from the couple's faces—Quill had officially asked Gamora to be his girlfriend two days before—helped cheering the crowd.

Starlord and Drax stayed out of Everybody wants to rule the world. It had been a request from Gamora, claiming she had loved his and Groot's version with flute and guitar only. Their audience seemingly agreed, if the loud clapping at the end was anything to go by.

However, the most acclaimed number was the final one. Except for Drax, everybody left their instruments aside and used only their hands and feets to make the melody for We will rock you. As soon as they caught on, half of the crowd went along. As a last-minute decision, Quill was the first to sing, followed by Gamora, backed up by Rocket, Groot and Drax.

The whole audience stood up to clap and cheer. He faintly heard a "That's my boy!", which seemed to come from either from his father or his uncle.

Mr. Stark himself went up to the stage to thank them for their performance. "And let me tell you all", he added, turning to the crowd, "that this is their first performance ever. You all got to see the Guardians of the Galaxy debut! Personally, I'd love to see how their path will go. These guys are promising, I'm telling you."

Another wave of clapping followed that little speech. Only Starlord managed to keep his head up, smiling wide; the rest of them glanced away, blushing or rubbing their necks.

Another hour went by before the event officially ended. It was just enough for them to eat and talk to a few people who showed interested.

"I think we managed to schedule four shows for the next two months", Quill said as they left. "Two still in August and two in September."

"When are the shows in September gonna be?", he asked, worry clear in his voice.

"All in weekends", Yondu was quick to assure him. "I don't think any of you can afford to perform on weekdays, anyway."

"But we have to rehearse on weekdays", Drax said. "Otherwise we won't do as well as we did tonight."

Rocket shrugged. "I don't mind rehearsals after school, as long as I'm able to keep my own schedule in check."

His mother quickly replied, "Darling, you can finish all your studies in two days. You just need to schedule rehearsals after your exercise routine."

Well, she wasn't wrong. "But I want at least three free days to study", he added.

"Man, relax", Starlord said. "We're gonna rehearse three days a week. Gamora and I will start college. We've got to have time to actually do something there. Groot's starting a new school year too, and Drax's got to work. You may have the least free time of us all, Rocket, but at least for now we'all be busy." He patted his shoulder as his said it, and Rocket gave him a tiny grin.

Winter of 1998

"Are you taking drugs?", was Starlord's first reaction upon seeing Rocket.

He rolled his eyes. "Unlike you, I actually stick to my exercise routine. And diet."

From the corner of his eye, he saw Drax nodding. "You're one sandwich away from turning overweight, dude."

"Oh, c'mon, man! I'm not that bad…" Drax raised an eyebrow at him. Quill sighed. "Okay, I guess I haven't been eating as healthy as I should. But college is stressful!"

"If you get diabetes on college, it's going to be even more stressful."

At least Starlord was quick to accept defeat, and didn't give any reply to that statement.

"Now that we're done talking about weight and… diabetes", Gamora said after a short silence. "We've got to talk about that offer."

Rocket grimaced. "What offer?"

"A night club asked us to perform there next Saturday", she explained. "But they won't let any minors in." She finished looking directly at him. "Either we decline, or we try harder to get them to let you in."

He looked at her boyfriend. "You play the bass", he said matter-of-factly. "Can't you switch to guitar?"

Quill sighed. "Well, I can, but nobody else plays the bass here. And the bassist is just as important as the guitarist, you know that."

Yes, he knew that. He also knew, from their own previous talks, that, although most night clubs didn't care that he and Groot were 15 and 12 years old (respectively), some were very strict. He doubted that specific one would concede.

"How much are they paying for a show?", he asked. "It doesn't seem to be worth the dilemma unless they plan to pay well."

Gamora was the one to answer. He nodded in understanding. It was a high price; now he understood.

"You play violin", he finally told her. She nodded. "Don't you think you can learn some bass? If you manage to get the basics within a week, we can have Starlord as guitarist. It's not ideal, but it's what we can do for now."

"Or you guys can avoid any songs that need bass to sound good", Groot added, after spending most of the meeting quiet. "We've managed to play at many places with nobody playing keys, for example. We picked songs where the keys could be replaced by another instrument. Why not doing the same this time?"

Silence fell for a few minutes as the older three thought about Groot's suggestion. Eventually, Starlord said, "We can try both of your ideas. I'll teach Gamora the basics of playing bass, and we'll choose songs based on our situation."

They all nodded. It was the best they could do.

In his summer vacation between 10th and 11th grade, he found a place near his home that gave Russian lessons. Unfortunately, classes happened every Saturday morning, meaning the band had to decline most invites for shows on Friday nights. Granted, being invited to play was a rare thing; Yondu was the one who arranged most of their shows. The only person who called them regularly to perform was Pepper Potts.

"Well, it seems that Mr. Stark is a fan", Drax said once. "We're called every other month to play at his events."

"And he pays incredibly well", Gamora added. "Especially given none of us are professionals."

Rocket had his own theory regarding Howard Stark's liking for the band, but didn't feel like voicing it. He didn't think Gamora would appreciate that he thought that Mr. Stark saw them as a reminder of his son—Tony Stark had been her classmate before getting early college acceptance, after all.

11th grade was easier than 10th, which was likely due to the smoother transition. However, soon he was attending senior classes for half of his subjects, and was still passing with flying colors. By Christmas, the principal called him and his family to talk about college.

"It wouldn't be the first time someone from this school got accepted early", he said. "One of our students graduated at 16 years old."

Tony Stark. He knew about it. Gamora once said he threw a big party to celebrate the fact that he 'got to be an adult before them all'. Nobody took that statement seriously, but they attended the party nonetheless.

"Have you thought about college applications, Ron?", the principal asked. He blinked. It was weird, these days, hearing someone call him by anything other than Rocket. His school friends grew fond of that nickname quickly.

"I've got a few options", he replied. "Columbia, MIT, Harvard…"

"We can start working on those applications right now, if you are willing."

He looked at his parents, who nodded. He sighed, but a small smile escaped his lips.

Spring of 1999

Drax had called it an 'emergency meeting', but they spent a good amount of minutes in Quill's newly bought car until he actually arrived at home in his own car.

"Wait, someone's with him", Groot said quickly, resting his forehead on the car's window to get a better view. Rocket did the same thing.

A tall, slender woman got out of Drax's car shyly. Her black hair was in a ponytail, and she wore a plain white t-shirt and black jeans. Nothing about her appearance gave him any sign of who she could be… but he was certain that she was the subject of that meeting.

"We have to wait for him to call us, anyway", he heard Gamora say, probably to her boyfriend. They didn't have to wait for long, however; he called two minutes later, saying they could get in.

The woman was sitting in the middle of the big couch. They all took their seats while Drax got water for them, greeting the woman—who introduced herself as Mandy—as they passed by. Finally, Drax came back and sat by her side, patting her should before beginning to speak.

"Well, guys… As we know, our beloved guitaris is going to leave New York in a couple months." He smiled at Rocket as if to congratulate him again. He still remembered the man's excited shouts when he announced he was going to MIT. "As great as it is, Rocket's departure is a loss for our band. None of us play guitar as well as him, and… sorry Gamora, you're terrible at bass. You can't replace Starlord."

"None taken", she assured, half-grinning.

"Anyway, I decided to go through my old friends to see if they were interested in filling Rocket's position. One of them told me about a woman who not only plays guitar, but sings and dances too." He glanced at Mandy, as if to emphasize he was talking about her. "Long story short, we met, talked, and she wants to join us."

Mandy lifted her hand and waved timidly. "Hi", she said in a low voice. She looked at Drax, who gestured for her to keep talking. Rubbing her neck, she continued. "My name is Mandy. Mandy Brandt. I… work at in a night bar. I sing and play a lot of instruments, like guitar, bass, sax, drums… And I dance. It probably won't be a useful skill in the band, but yeah. I love to dance."

There seemed to be lot more than she was letting on, but nobody bothered asking. Drax seemed to understand, though. They likely talked a lot in the meeting he mentioned.

"We can give you some sort of trial period", Gamora suggested. "We have three scheduled shows this month. You can play with Rocket, and then you see if you really want to join us."

Mandy nodded with a smile.

Fortunately, Mandy adjusted to the band dynamics just fine. By the next month, she was an official member, and Quill picked 'Mantis' as her artistic alias.

Meanwhile, Rocket and his parents kept going to Cambridge and back to organize his new life. He was to stay at his own dorm at the institute, and most of his previous extracurricular activities could be done at campus. Sadly, they couldn't find a place nearby to keep with Russian lessons, but he supposed he could find online courses if he really wanted to continue.

He was particularly glad that he discovered he could join AFROTC in the following year. He was afraid that his early acceptance would be a problem, but he was told that as soon as he turned 18 he'd be able to enlist. Good. He wouldn't have to wait two years to get in the military.

So far, things have been fallen into place. One thing, however, still worried him: his family.

It wasn't that he was needed at home. He was just another another member of the Raccoon household, a replaceable one at that. His worries were more emotional and selfish.

His grandmother and Aunt Teresa were getting sick more and more often.

Grandma had gone to the hospital twice this year due to her diabetes, and it was only July. Each time she'd spend at least two weeks interned, and she left last time without a foot.

His father, who was her youngest son, gave her a long lecture on how she was supposed to be taking more care of herself instead of everyone else around her—they were all grown-ups and perfectly capable of doing their own chores—only to be interrupted by her question.

"If I don't take care of my family, what am I going to do instead?" She sniffed. "I won't be useful to anyone anymore."

His dad tried to convince her that she didn't need to do chores to be useful to the family, that she was loved anyway, but failed miserably.

"She'll probably get depressed if she stops doing things at home", his mother told him. "Or maybe she's afraid she'll become another Aunt Teresa."

Speaking of Aunt Teresa, by that point she couldn't recognize anyone. She was vaguely aware that she shared a room with Gamora, but the girl was a stranger to her.

And she wasn't always nice with strangers.

"You don't need to wait for me to leave to move to my room, you know", he told her once.

"I'm still not sure if I should move, Rocket", she replied, glancing at her room's door. "I'm still afraid of leaving her alone."

"Grandpa is healthy enough to assist her", he said. His grandparents slept at the room next door, and, though Grandma walked slowly now that she only had one foot, Grandpa seemed to have stopping aging at 55.

Gamora hummed, but didn't answer. He knew that discussion was fruitless. She wouldn't move before he left. At least he knew nobody would let her stay with Aunt Teresa, though.

His last day in New York was a show night. They were to perform at Stark Industries again, now for a charity event.

"Mr. Stark is aware that this will be your last performance in a while", Potts told him. "So prepare for some heartfelt speech."

"He doesn't even know my birth name."

"Don't trick yourself into thinking it matters."

It really didn't. Howard Stark was great at rhetorics, and managed to talk about Rocket as if he was a long-time friend. Even Rocket himself got moved, though he knew his words were mostly generic.

Privately, he congratulated him for his college entrance. "Kid, it's going to be a little hard at ht beginning", he said. "College always is, and the fact that you'll be younger than everyone else only adds up. My son had some trouble adjusting in first year in Columbia. But it's all worth it. You'll do great, I'm sure."

"Thank you, Mr. Stark", he replied politely.

"And if you ever change your mind on NASA, you can always come here after graduating. Stark Industries will welcome you with open arms."

"I appreciate your offer, Mr. Stark. Thank you." His words were sincere. He hoped to never need it, but just knowing he could secure a job if he wasn't successful in his goal made him feel better.

New York, 2001

One would think that, in the midst of a tragedy this big, all else would stop. But no. People still got sick, hospitals kep working normally—and people died due to things that had nothing to do with the tragedy that was happening on the outside world.

Maybe those sentences didn't make any sense outside of Rocket's head, but they were all he could think about as he watched the doctors and nurses doing procedures to attest Aunt Teresa's brain death, all while hearing the repeated news of the attack.

Howard Stark was at one of the towers, having dinner with a potential investor. All dead now, of course. Just like Aunt Teresa.

Her death was confirmed on the following day. Only then he allowed himself to go back to his old home. He hadn't been there on her last conscious days; it was only fair that he stayed at the hospital as her death approached.

"You haven't eaten well", Gamora said as soon he set foot home. "I'll get you some strawberries."

Later that day, she got a call from Potts. "Mrs. Stark wants us to perform a small tribute to her husband", she said gently. "Do you want to join us?"

He nodded. Of course.

Early 2003

He didn't make it to Grandma's funeral six months before, but at least he was visiting home when they got good news

"Thanos was arrested", Groot said when he closed the front door behind him. "They caught him somewhere in Colorado. It seems that they even managed to prevent a new murder."

Gamora showed up not much later, a wide grin on her face, and confirmed the news. "Let's gather the band to celebrate then", he suggested, just as happy.

She decided to call the band to come to their home, so his family—who, at this point, was just as hers as it was his—could take part of the celebration as well.

Starlord brought most of the drinks, while Drax brought food. Mandy had a karaoke kit at home, and brought it when she found their TV was compatible. His parents, along with one of his aunts, helped set everything.

Everyone was positively surprised when Grandpa went downstairs to join them. Gamora and Groot had told him he barely left his bedroom after Grandma died. That night, he even smiled once or twice.

At one point, Mandy proposed a toast. Grandpa surprised everybody again when he stood up and spoke, "A toast for our beloved Georgina, who can finally have peace." As they toasted, he looked at her. "Better days are coming, child. Keep smiling."

He was sure Gamora's eyes were watery at that, but she was quickly distracted by Mandy's own toast. "To Drax, who will finally see justice for his family."

Drax smiled softly, and Rocket patted his shoulder.

"Can we toast for the fact that Rocket managed to show up this week out of all?", Groot suggested. "I mean, it was the most perfect timing I've ever seen."

They all chuckled and toasted.

In the end, Gamora moved to her boyfriend's apartment with her sister. She announced it on another gathering, but Rocket wasn't in NY anymore. He only met Nikki months later, in his summer vacation.

"I can't believe we finally have someone to play the keys", Quill said in a call once. "You should have been here, Rocket, seriously. My sister-in-law rocks those keys."

"Sister-in-law, huh?", he replied teasingly. "Do you have plans for the near future, Quill?"

A short silence followed. "After we graduate", he said. "I'll probably need your help when the time comes, by the way."

"Sure, sure. Though I don't have a good eye for jewelry. Mandy or Nikki will probably be of more help."

"Yeah… I'll think about it when the time comes, you know? I don't want to get nervous too far ahead."

He chuckled and ended the call.

On his second night in New York that summer, Potts called the band again. Naturally, they were all excited to have all band members together for a performance. They met at the aforementioned apartment, where he talked to Nikki for the first time.

"Hey, Nikki. Nice to meet you", he said, shaking her hand.

She gave him a polite grin. "I think my name for you guys is Nebula. Rocket, right?"

He nodded with a chuckle. Things were doing well, after all.

Chapter Text

Rome, 1996

The best and worst thing about his new apartment was its proximity to Vatican's entrance. He wasn't a fan of the loud noises that could be heard even from the 15th floor, but it also meant no excuses for missing mass; he could attend it everyday, even.

Good thing his mother knew some Italian (thanks to her brief time in Milan for a six-month college exchange) and taught it to him before passing away. He wasn't too lost on what the priest was saying. (Besides, all masses were roughly the same. Even if he didn't know exactly what was being said, he had an idea from his memories.)

He still asked for the police officer responsible for him to enroll him in an Italian course before showing himself to public.

"Few people back home know I speak Italian at all", he explained. "If I'm actually fluent, I'll raise even less suspicions. Please, Mr. Coulson."

The officer conceded by the end of the week. "But you better learn fast", he warned, "if you want to play the part."

He was posing as Irish, like his mother. He remembered her accent, and still carried some of it—mixed with his father's traditional Brooklyn accent, which few people under 60 had these days. Under the name John Walker, he would tell anyone who asked he moved to Rome after his father's death in order to create a connection they never had in life.

Poetic and tragic, much more than Steve's actual relationship with his indeed deceased dad—an American Vietnam War veteran who died before Steve learned to read due to lymphoma; later, they'd learn it had likely been caused by exposition to chemicals in his war time.

He didn't have many memories of Joseph Rogers, but those few were good. His mother filled in many blanks as he grew up until she died herself—a victim of AIDS. As her health deteriorated, they found out more cases like hers, of nurses who got the virus while manipulating needles on patients with AIDS.

Steve's memories of his mother were naturally clearer, since he was already in high school when she died. He vividly remembered her in her bed, half-laughing, half-coughing while talking about daily news as if nothing was happening to her.

Sarah Rogers remained strong until her very last breath, on the afternoon of October 15th, 1993. Her grip on his hand didn't weaken; in fact, Bucky almost broke the dead hand in order to take his own off.

Bucky had offered his home to him after her funeral. He politely refused. They lived next to each other, and his parents left enough money for him to keep the small apartment—especially with Steve's part-time job in NYU as a barista.

Now that he thought about it, there probably wasn't going to be a apartment waiting for him, if he ever went back to New York. He did tell Bucky not to worry much about it—though his best friend might have taken it for himself.

Dwelling on these things wouldn't do any good to Steve. He had another apartment to take care of now—a slightly larger one, might he add. Granted, it actually belonged to Europol, who was assisting FBI (or whatever American police department responsible for witness protection program) in hiding him—and presumably other people like him around EU—, meaning he didn't have to worry about some things, like paying bills. Still, housekeeping was all on him.

Thankfully, he learned to take care of a home even before his mother died, and Bucky's parents helped him learn a lot of 'adult stuff' after he became a full-orphan. The Barnes were the best neighbors Steve could have asked for.

Speaking of neighbors, he soon found he had one. A girl who looked a bit older than him, though it could be just due to make-up. He introduced himself after a week, while they were waiting for the elevator.

"Mi chiamo John Walker, he said, reaching out for her hand. "Lieto di vederla, Sginorina..."*

*(Translation: 'My name is John Walker. Nice to meet you, Miss…')

"Margaret Williams", she replied, taking his hand. "Lei parla inglese?" ('Do you speak English?')

He nodded, smiling. "I'm actually Irish", he said. "Where are you from?"

"United States", she replied with a small grin. "You may have heard of the city. Las Vegas."

His eyes widened. "No way. You actually lived in Las Vegas?"

The elevator doors opened. She chuckled as they got in. "It's not as exciting as you may think, Mr. Walker."

"Oh please, John is fine. 'Mr. Walker' makes me feel old." They chuckled and he added, "But it must be crazy with all those tourists around. It's not like they are the same public that travels to other places."

"Well, you are not completely wrong", she conceded. "But there are many… ordinary tourists there, who just want to know what there is that attracts so much attention to the city." She shrugged. "What I really like about it is that I could buy almost anything at any time."

He frowned. "What do you mean?"

She answered as the doors opened again, "Grocery and drug stories are open 24 hours, and other kinds of stores are as well. And, because of the amount of people who arrive at Las Vegas all the time, those stores are rarely empty. You don't find such a thing here in Rome, despite it being a popular touristic city too."

He nodded. He wished he could say that he understood the feeling, but it's not like he could take about night life in New York—and, as far as he knew, most towns in Ireland did not work like that.

"I suppose we part ways here", she said, bringing him back to reality. "Unless you are heading to the drug store", she added, seemingly as an afterthought.

He shook his head. "No, I'm going somewhere else. Thank you, though. And see you later, I guess."

She smiled politely. "I guess so, too." And turned to leave.

He did the same. He had fifteen minutes to walk to his Italian classes.

The next time he saw her, it was after leaving morning mass. Somehow she found him among the big crowd.

"Good morning", she greeted as she approached him. He had talked to her once, but he already recognized her voice. Was it a good or a bad thing?

Maybe neither.

"Good morning, Miss Williams", he replied with a smile. "Were you at the Basilic as a tourist, or as assembly?"

Her answer is instantaneous, "Assembly. I attend to church everyday." At this point they managed to walk on equal paces. "What about you, John?"

"Same thing. It's way easier to commit to daily mass when you live so close to Vatican City. Churches back in my hometown didn't give as many options as the Basilic."

He felt bad for lying so much, especially so shortly after confession… but it wasn't like he could be entirely honest. What was the point of forging a new identity if he spoiled it to everyone he met? Thanos would find him quickly if he didn't lie.

He supposed he could be excused for his lies if he was telling them to avoid getting killed.

She nodded along. "I didn't live near any church back in Las Vegas. Not as near as now, at least. And, if I'm being honest, attending daily mass has never been a goal until shortly before I moved."

"I'm actually impressed by the amount of people attending mass so early in a weekday", he commented. "Of course, it may be just because we're in a vacation month for most of the world."

They talked a bit more before arriving at their building. He then had an idea. "Do you have any plans for this morning, Miss Williams?"

She stopped walking and turned to face him. "Not really", she replied. "Why?"

Her smirk made him realize he sounded like he was asking her out, which wasn't his initial intention… not that he minded. "Well, I'm fairly new to the city", he said, mirroring her smirk. "And I don't want to join tourist groups, they are too overwhelming. If you don't mind, would you show me the beauty of Rome?"

She eyed him for a good few moments, making him slightly anxious. He rubbed his neck and added, "Of course, you can say no without any need of excuses."

Apparently, it was the right thing to say, because she smiled softly at his words. "I guess none of us have anything better to do, so why not? Though we should head to our apartments to grab stuff. You know, basic tourist survival kit." She resumed walking towards the elevator, and he followed her.

"We'll meet by the elevator in ten minutes", he suggested. "Is that good?"

She grinned at him. "It's great. Oh, and you can call me Peggy, you know."

He grinned back as the elevator stopped at their floor. "Great. See you soon, Peggy."

Looking back, that was their first date; they were just too shy to name it as it was out loud—though not too shy to not hold hands when going through somewhere crowded, neither to share an exceptionally big milkshake at McDonald's at sunset.

But they were too shy to part ways with anything more than a 'good night'. He went to bed wondering what would have happened if he had been bold enough to kiss her hand.

Gosh, he sounded like a 1940 shy boy who never kissed before. He sighed. Peggy sparked a desire to be a gentlemanly as possible—not that he was taught to be anything else.

It took four more friendly dates for Peggy to show all touristic points in Rome. On each one, Steve's wish to make a move increased, but his only 'progress' was kissing her hand. Something about her intimidated him—in a mostly good way, but still.

Truth be told, he hadn't dated anyone after his mother's death. After spending the first year mourning miserably, he felt too… damaged to be dateable. He flirted every now and then, but usually chickened out at last minute.

Bucky had said that he had built a wall around his heart to avoid getting it broken again. Sam had added that he needed to "go to fuckin' therapy". None of them were wrong, but Steve never did anything useful with their advice.

Football and roleplaying, along with his studies, kept him grounded, but deep down he knew it wasn't enough. Sadly, there wasn't much he could do now. The program didn't have therapy services, and he couldn't afford one. He had to overcome his personal issues on his own. Besides, he didn't believe therapy would be really useful if he had lie to about half of the important stuff.

Maybe his FBI agent (or whatever he was) could help him? It wouldn't hurt to try.

"Steve?", he asked when he arrived at his small office, eyebrows raised. "Did something happen?"

He shook his head. "No, Mr. Coulson." He scratched his neck. "I just… wanted to talk. And I'd rather talk with someone who knows me as Steve Rogers, not John Walker. That is, of course, if you have time."

Coulson nodded with a small smile. "I happen to have some free time. I'm not sure if I'll be able to help you, but I'll try. Have a seat."

So he did. As he sat down, he started talking about his parents, his relationship with them, their deaths, his friendship with the Barnes and Wilson families, his love life. Coulson listened to him nonstop for nearly two hours, face unreadable.

"I don't know what you want me to say", he began when Steve finally stopped talking, "but you should know that what you're going through is normal, boy. Especially now, given you are in a strange place surrounded by strangers. I'm the only person who knows your true identity, and yet that was all I knew about you until… a couple hours ago."

Steve nodded. "I… don't know what my possibilities are here."

He raised his eyebrows. "What do you mean?"

"What can I do here? Am I allowed to date Peggy, if I manage to woo her? What kind of job can I have when I graduate school? I mean, I hope Thanos is caught before that, but I also know it's hard. You guys have been trying for what, twenty years?"

"Twenty-two, I think."

"Exactly. So while I hope he gets caught soon, I have to be prepared to stay here for, like, another 20 years. Build a live for myself here. So what can I do?"

Coulson adjusted himself in his chair, and silence fell as he waited for 'his' agent to think about his answer. Finally, he said. "Honestly, Steve? As long as you keep your identity a secret, you can do anything. You won't be able to get just any job, but it's more due to your immigrant status. And you can date Peggy, of course. Even marry her if it comes to it. John Walker has all the documents required for marriage.. and any job you might want to get."

Once again Steve nodded. "Thank you, Mr. Coulson. It helps, knowing that those things are a possibility for me."

The agent smiled. "For what it's worth, Steve, you seem to be a good person. A decent guy. Give yourself a try with Peggy."

He thanked Coulson once again and got up, ready to go. He stopped himself to ask one last question. "Mr. Coulson, if I do stay hidden for two decades, will you be around this long?"

The older man frowned. "In all honesty, Steve, I hope we won't ever know."

It took roughly a month for Steve to ask Peggy out.

They were leaving mass together, a habit that began shortly after that first day. Having been at Italy for a longer time, she helped him with language and customs.

They usually went straight home, except for when Steve had Italian lessons or Peggy had target practice—she wanted to be a professional shooter. That morning, however, he stopped her on their way home.

"Er, Peggy", he said, heartbeat rapidly increasing. "I was wondering… would you like to hang out today? As in a date?"

She smirked. "I thought we'd had dates before. Or my tour around Rome wasn't enough for you?"

He blinked and blushed. "Well, but those were friendly dates. I was thinking of something more… romantic, you know? If you want to."

Her smirk slowly turned into a soft smile. She placed her hand on his arm and replied with a gentle voice, "I'd love to."

His smile was probably too wide, but he didn't care.

After a quick talk, they decided to go home change and head for lunch. Steve had a plan for the whole afternoon and, if she wanted, a trip to the movies at early night. He was thinking of either The Hunchback of Notre Dame or Danger Zone, depending on her tastes.

He changed clothes hurriedly, not wanting to make her wait at all—and intending to mentally revise his plans.

As he waited for her by the elevator, instead of revising his plans, he entertained himself with anxiety. Was she going to enjoy her time with him? What if she didn't like the places he picked for their date? What if she didn't like movies? He knew so little about her tastes…

He was going to mess everything up, wasn't he?

Maybe he should fake an intestinal malfunction. That way they'd remain friends, and things wouldn't get awkward between them.

He was about to walk to her door, when it opened, revealing a Peggy in a floral dress with her hair pinned up in a ponytail.

Damn it. There was no way in hell he'd walk out of a date with her looking that cute.

Was she trying to kill him?

She smirked as she walked in his direction, likely caughting on his reaction. He refrained from gulping. She picked that outfit on purpose, which could only mean one thing:

She wanted this date to work. He might have been the one who asked, but she was just as interested.

He'd mess up more if he walked out than if he stayed. So he'd stay.

He offered his arm and asked with his most charming grin, "Shall we?"

Christmas of 1996

It was their 4-month anniversary.

After a few more dates, he asked her to be his girlfriend on August 25th. Her 'yes' made his heart beat so madly he thought, for a brief moment, that he asked her to be his wife instead.

They enjoyed every day of the following week, since it was the last of their summer vacation. Soon he'd go to school for his senior year, and Peggy would start Law school.

By their two-month anniversary, it was safe to say that Steve was in love.

Peggy was everything he'd dreamed of in a girlfriend—even if he had never consciously considered it. She was confident in herself, never took crap from anyone (especially not from him), was goal-oriented (and had many life goals in mind), often thought outside the box…

But most importantly, they matched. They had similar values—which had been clear from the start, given both were strongly devout to the Church—and similar thought processes. Steve's visual imagination and Peggy's creative ideas often complimented one another, leading to crazy talks and improvement on their fields—despite not being on college yet, Steve began selling his drawings and paintings on mid-October.

Initially, he showed them to his classmates and their parents, as well as school faculty. He'd sell them for smaller prices than most artists, which made word spread rather quickly. By early December, he started making commissions—some people wanted his works as Christmas gifts.

Speaking of which, he was thinking of giving a painting for Peggy as an anniversary gift, but had no idea what to give for Christmas. He couldn't ask her—she'd insist he give her a single gift for both dates. The mere thought of it disgusted him, though he'd gladly accept if she only gave him one present.

It was probably hypocrisy, now that he thought about it. Not it mattered—he was still looking for a gift.

He wanted something non-romantic; he'd save the romance for his painting. Like him, Peggy had no family to get presents from, and her friends were few and mostly superficial—she had left her close friends in Las Vegas, just like he left his in New York City (not counting the ones who left too). He wanted to give her an ordinary Christmas, one she could have gotten from a relative or a friend.

She loved animated movies, something that surprised him at first. So he started a hunt for Disney-related gifts.

Naturally, he began his search on toy shops. It seemed to be fruitless. There was no way he'd give Peggy a doll or a toyish laundry kit, even if it was Cinderella-themed. Also, the Mushu plushie barely reminded him of its movie counterpart.

…But the child-Simba plushie was extremely well-made, and affordable. He bought it almost immediately.

(For a moment, he considered buying one for himself, but then he remembered he could just play with Peggy's one while on her apartment.)

Christmas gift bought, he could focus on the painting. He already had an idea, but the amount of commissions sometimes messed his mind up, and often found himself taking a whole minute to remember what he intended to paint between drawing/painting sessions. He still managed to do everything on time, though not without sacrifice.

His grades could have been better. Thankfully, they were high enough to spare a talk with teachers—barely. It was worth seeing all those people happy (and the money they paid, of course) and thanking him.

It was really worth seeing Peggy smile wide when she saw his painting. It was them both, sitting together on a Venetian gondola, her head on his shoulder while they stared at the night sky, which him filled with stars and a full moon. There were other gondolas, painted small as if they were away from them.

"Maybe next anniversary I'll be able to take you there", he said shyly while she was staring at it. It took her a while to answer with words, but he already knew she had liked it.

Venice, summer of 1997

It wasn't until he graduated and got into college that they managed to go there. Luckily, he was to attend the same university as Peggy, meaning they could see each other nearly whenever they wanted.

Their gondola travel wasn't exactly like he envisioned in his painting months prior. It was at daytime, to begin with, and many other gondolas were beside them, making both too shy for PDA. She still rested her head on his shoulder, though, which earned a chuckle from both. Their gondolier sang a couple Italian songs on their ride, one of which he recognized.

"That last one", he asked when he finished singing, "is a new song, right?"

"Kind of", he replied. "From last year. 'Cantare e D'amore, from… I forgot who sings it."

"Amedeo Minghi", someone from a nearby gondola half-shouted.

"Grazie mille", all three said back.

At the Piazza San Marco, they had quite the fun feeding some pigeons—though not without a minor injury on his wrist caused by a particularly aggressive pigeon. With little money to spare, they chose to have pizza for lunch.

(Truth be told, he used to eat more pizza—and pasta in general—back home than in Italy. Peggy agreed when he commented on that once.)

Of course, they attended mass at Saint Mark's Basilica—half-distracted by its architecture, but attended it nonetheless. It made them lose the last boat to Murano Isle, but it was worth it. They had the next day to go there, anyway.

When they left mass, it was sunset. "Hey, let's watch the rest from the Ponte dei Sospiri", he suggested, and she agreed. Naturally, it was crowded with other couples, but they managed to get a good glimpse of the sun going down.

"I heard there is a casino here", he said with a smirk as they walked out of the bridge. "Wanna go?"

She laughed and punched his shoulder lightly. "If I recall correctly, we were going to a free concert inside one of the churches."

He nodded, laughing along. Indeed, there was a free concert being held in a small church, and they had no problem getting inside.

They left the concert exhausted. Fortunately, one of Peggy's (few) friends from college was from Venice, and told her they could crash at her house for the night.

"Any friend of our Cecilia is welcome here", her father said when they asked if they really could sleep there, as soon as they arrived at their house—not after getting lost four times. "We don't have a guest room, sadly, but her old room's bed is large enough for you two."

None of them were able to avoid the blush from coming, earning chuckles from the couple. They made some small talk, but the couple quickly sent them to bed after seeing how tired they were. "Breakfast will be served at eight", the mother said at last.

"I can sleep on the floor", he offered. She shook her head vehemently.

"Nonsense. Besides", she yawned, "I don't think we'll be tempted to do anything besides sleeping." He yawned and nodded in agreement.

Shortly after their 6th anniversary, they sat down and talked about sex. It was Peggy who started it, stating that she wanted to wait until marriage—whether it was with him or not. Steve simply nodded; he had the same goal. One of the last things his mother talked to him about was the importance of chastity, and he took her wisdom to heart.

It had been a straightforward and simple conversation, and they had rarely faced trouble with keeping their word. That night was, as Peggy predicted, also no problem. Steve fell fast into a dreamless and uninterrupted sleep.

On the following they explored the other side of the city, along with Murano Isle. They managed to save enough money for another gondola ride, this time at early night like they had wanted at first.

It was nearly midnight when they arrived back at Rome. They walked back home arm by arm, using each other for support. They exchanged a lazy goodnight kiss before heading straight to each's apartment—and bed.

On the following day, while having breakfast right after mass, he told her he loved her for the first time. She choked on her water and didn't answer, but her smile after recovering was enough for him.

She said it back a week later, after they watched Disney's latest release Hercules.

Steve's career changed drastically on that summer.

You see, his performance at college had been, so far, great. He was a fast learner, and often helped his classmates with difficult tasks and lessons. He'd still take commissions—now with a slightly higher price, given he was getting formal art education—to add to his monthly financial assistance, but focused primarily on his lessons.

He often practiced newly learned techniques in gifts for Peggy. Her feedback was heavily biased, he knew, but hearing her praise helped him immensely.

Rome itself was a big source of inspiration for him. A quick walk around nearly any part of town could spark many ideas. It was during one of these walks, on night time, that he met a trio of street artists. Graffiti artists, to be more accurate.

"Whoa", he let it slip while staring at the drawing from the other side of the street. It wasn't completed yet, but some details were clear: a Roman gladiator fighting a half-finished another inside what seemed to be a big coliseum (likely the Roman one), crowded. Was that a lion in the background?

A girl wearing a cap turned to him. "Looks great, huh?" Her pride is clear in her voice. "We've been working on it for days. Well, nights. It's not wise to come here at daytime."

He frowned. "Why not?"

The guy beside her answered, "Because some shitty cops might decide that what we're doing is illegal and arrest us. It's easier to escape them at nighttime."

Oh. "Then why do you do it?"

Another girl huffed. "It's not exactly illegal. The laws are not clear, if you know what I mean. And we've wanted to do this piece for a long time, and this wall looked like the perfect canvas."

"Besides", the guy added, "whoever owns this property hasn't erased it yet. So they must have taken a liking to it. Now we've got to finish it, don't you think?"

Their accent made it a bit harder for him to get everything they said, but he caught the gist of it. He nodded in understanding. "A canvas this big is probably every artist's dream. It is mine, at least."

That seemingly caught their interest. "You draw?", the girl asked.

"And paint", he replied. "Got into art school this year, but I've been doing this since I was 14."

The three of them glanced at each other before the un-capped girl said, "You know, we're planning another piece after this one. Do you want to join us?"

That caught him by surprise. "Uh...", he began. "Mind if I think about it?"

"Of course not", the guy said instantly. "We can meet at that Pastasciutta over there in a week, sounds good?" When Steve nodded. "Good. Next Sunday at noon. What's your name, by the way?"

Giving his fake name was too easy now.

"So, you have four days to make a decision, and you have no idea what to do."

Steve nodded. He had gone to talk to Coulson again, asking for guidance. He had talked to Peggy on the following day, who encouraged him to join the group if they proved to be trustworthy—how he'd know that, it was up to his intuition (thanks, Peggy). However, though she knew what it was like to be a foreigner, she didn't know what it was to be a foreigner under protection program.

"What happens if I get arrested, Coulson?", that was what plagued his mind and stopped him from making an actual decision. "Am I deported from Italy? Am I kicked out of the program?"

The officer's reaction was a chuckle. He then bent over the desk. "Steve, I'm not an expert in Italian law, or Roman one. But, as far as I know, you can't really get arrested for doing graffiti. From what I've heard from local police officers, the laws leave a lot of holes, and those guys dig through them."

"But Giulia, Anna and Luca said that there was a risk."

"Some cops do catch some of those people, but they never stay more than a few hours. No bail needed, and nothing is reported."

He raised his eyebrows. "Then why arrest them in first place?"

Coulson shrugged. "Disturbing peace. Invading private property. That's what they use to arrest them, but it's mostly because they see it as vandalism, and wants to teach the artists a lesson." He them leaned on his chair. "I think that, aside from the discomfort of a cell in case you come across one of these cops, there is nothing to worry about."

He thanked the man and left, decision made. He now just had to wait another four days.

"I'll need some training, but I'm in."

The trio wore matching grins at him. A waiter arrived with their lasagnas—for some reason they all ended up asking the same dish—and wished them a good meal.

"Of course we'll have you practice first, John", Anna said before taking a bite of her lasagna. "We are very careful with our pieces, we won't risk having you shitting on any of them due to lack of experience."

Her blunt honesty earned a chuckle from him. "I can't agree more. By the way, how's that piece you were working at when I met you? I haven't seen it since."

"We finished it three days ago", Luca answered. "We'll show you after we finish here."

They talked a bit more in between bites, and walked to the wall after leaving the restaurant. The finished work was as beautiful as Steve assumed. They drew another lion in the background, which seemed to be watching the gladiators' fight like the crowd above it. They had added scars and open injuries on said gladiators, with blood drops at the sand floor for good measure. For the sky, they pick an early-morning color palette.

"Awesome work, guys", he said after some time studying the painting.

They thanked him and they bid their goodbyes. Giulia had to head home to take care of her baby siblings, while Anna and Luca—who were twins—had violin lessons for the afternoon. As for Steve, he had commissions to do, so he didn't mind the early farewell.

As he worked on his latest drawing, he mentally revised what he learned about his new friends. Giulia was the oldest, 18—his age—, while Anna and Luca were 16. Giulia had just been accepted to college to fulfill her childhood dream: be a nurse. She met Anna at school, where they were in the volleyball team, and they bonded over the love for art.

The twins were kind of art geniuses. They practiced not only visual art, but music, writing and cinema. Anna was more interested in the former two, while Luca was more inclined to the latter two, but both were skilled in all four.

They followed a dress code when doing graffiti, that Steve had to follow as well: light grey, dark purple and black. "It doesn't draw much attention at night", Anna explained, "and tells us apart from other gangs, who like to wear all black."

Giulia had two baby sisters, aged 6 months and 2 years old. She often had to watch over them, despite the family hiring a nanny.

At one point Luca and Giulia engaged on a discussion about the upcoming municipal elections. He was in favor of Rutelli, while she defended Borghini—whoever they were.

He sighed and smiled to himself. It was nice to make friends every now and then, though they couldn't fill the hole his old ones left in his heart.

He still missed Bucky and Sam so much.

New York, 1995

"I still think you shouldn't do it", Steve remarked.

"Bet he's gonna stay in bed for a week crying like a baby with a fever", Bucky added.

"Yeah, and we'll have to take care of him."

"What are you two, my wives?", Sam asked. "I can take care of own fevers, thank you very much."

"So you agree that you're gonna get a fever if you jump into a river in the middle of winter?", Steve replied, arching his eyebrows.

"I may, I may not. I don't care!"

"Oh my God, Sam, can't you be a straight shooter like Steve!", Bucky exclaimed, throwing a snowball at him.

Steve huffed. "I'm not a straight shooter, I just know my limits."

"You're not convincing anyone with that talk, punk", his best friend replied instantly. "You haven't had an asthma attack since you were nine."

"That doesn't mean I'm immune...", he said weakly. Bucky's face softened as he placed a hand on his shoulder and gave him a half-smile.

"Look, punk, we both know you just behave like this because you are honoring your mama. Or something like that. We get it, we accept it, we love you just like this. But we will make fun of you for it."

Steve rolled his eyes and scoffed, but patted Bucky's hand all the same. "Thanks. Now let's bet how long will Sam last on that river."

"I'm still here, you guys!"

Sam lasted 15 minutes on the half-frozen river, leading to Steve winning the bet. And he and Bucky did end up taking care of his friend after he, like expected, caught a flu. Steve even moved him to his own house, given Sam's parents were away all month.

"Not s're if you my mom or my wife", he'd say every now and then, especially when Steve brought him chicken soup.

"Something in between", he'd reply. "Something gay in between."

"In your dreams", he'd say. Steve would laugh at that every time, louder if Bucky was around to hear it. "Not into baby faced dudes."

That earned Steve a new nickname, Baby Face. Honestly, he had it coming ever since Bucky and Sam grew a beard and he didn't.

Sanremo, early 1999

"I still can't believe you managed to buy those tickets, John", Peggy said as they walked to the theater.

"Come on", he replied, "those latest commissions made me almost rich."

She snorted, but didn't reply, only tightened her grip on his hand as they walked. The first show was to begin in twenty minutes, and both wanted to get food and water first.

"Welcome, ladies and gentlemen", a voice announced, "to the 49th Sanremo Music Festival! And, to open our event, please welcome Mariah Carey!"

Peggy turned to him, eyes wide. "You didn't tell me Mariah Carey was going to perform here!"

He chuckled. Like in Venice, he had been the one to pick the destination of their trip and plan it all. Last time it had been Peggy's turn, and they went to Pisa on their last spring break.

Now that she had a part-time job at college and he was able to charge higher prices for his commissions—not to mention that sometimes he, Giulia, Anna and Luca managed to be hired to do a graffiti—, they could afford separate hotel rooms and shows like this music festival (which Steve managed to find cheap tickets for all five nights).

"There are many international artists", he answered. "Couldn't remember all of them. I think Cher and Ricky Martin will perform too."

She raised an eyebrow—an ability Steve envied sometimes—and nodded, turning to the stage where Carey had just begun singing. He recognized the song, but couldn't name it. Later he found it was 'I Still Believe'.

A few Italian singers performed after Carey, and while Steve wasn't a fan of any of these, it was pleasing to hear them. He especially enjoyed Anna Oxa's performance.

Their morning at the city were usually spent at the beach, getting a tan, eating and playing like little children—they didn't mind the stares, though. Peggy said she was eight years old when she had last been to a beach, and it was his first time at one. They had every right to be childish.

Ricky Martin was the final performance of the second night, and they had to hold their laughter when he sang 'La bomba'. Afterwards, they found an ice cream store and shared a chocolate one.

Their third afternoon was marked by a surprise: a carnival car passed on the street they were walking by with a handful of beautiful flowers. Someone told them it was part of the annual Flower Parade. Later that afternoon, Steve found a flower shop that sold some of the flowers paraded, and bought a bouquet for Peggy. It earned a blush he hadn't seen in a long time.

The winners of the music festival were announced at the last night, and none of them surprised Steve. They left before its end to go to the local casino, which was also an opera theater and a touristic point all by itself.

They left late morning, after another trip to the beach. As they sat on the train, he heard Peggy say, "John, have you looked at the mirror today?"

He frowned. "Not really, why? Is there something in my face?"

"Not just your face, your whole body! You've got one hell of a tan, love. I bet you could tell people you were of African descent and no one would question you."

He chuckle and took a time to look at her more closely. "Well, my love, I could say the same to you." Her usually pale skin was now an olive-like tone, which added some… sensuality to her figure. Thank God they managed to stay in separate rooms this time; he wasn't sure if he'd be able to resist her looking like that.

He didn't resist kissing her now, though. She was caught by surprise, but didn't seem to mind in the slightest.

Vatican City, February 2000

It wasn't everyday that you manage to see the pope in such a close distance, but, after four years in Rome, Steve figured he'd achieve such a feat sooner or later.

He was holding a mass ceremony at early morning, and it was near Valentine's Day—which reminded him, he had yet to plan something for Peggy.

Well, she had been the one to surprise him last year, so he wasn't sure if he needed to. But still, better to be safe than sorry.

The pope left the basilic, and both of them managed to navigate through the crowd until they were face to face with him. He stopped to look at them, and Steve's heart raced when he spoke. "You two are very special, I can tell."

He and Peggy briefly glanced at each other before turning to him. "We've been dating for three years", she replied with a gentle smile.

Pope John Paul II signed for them to come closer, and so they did. He placed his hands on both of their heads and whispered some words in Latin, making the cross sign in the end. "Keep living under God's wishes, children", he concluded.

They left the square in silence, firmly holding each other's hands. It was only when they reached their building that Steve quietly said, "Did we just get blessed by the freakin' pope?"

Peggy only nodded. He brought her closer for a hug, and they stayed like that for quite some time.

"We have to go to class", she said finally.

"Yeah", he agreed weakly. He broke the hug with a kiss on her forehead. She smiled at him.

"I love you, John", she whispered.

"I love you too." Sometimes, he was overtaken by a desire to tell her about his real name, his real identity, just so he could hear her saying 'I love you, Steve' instead. But he knew he couldn't. It was too dangerous, for both of them.

Late 2001

Maria Stark had announced she'd run Stark Industries with the help of a young woman, Pepper Potts, since her son wasn't... available.

Steve remembered her name from school. She was a grade ahead of them, and he was pretty sure she and Tony met before… that night.

He didn't like to recall the murder he witnessed. He usually called it 'that night' or 'the incident' in his head. As for the killer, sometimes he remembered him as Thanos, other times as 'Nat's evil neighbor'.

A therapist would likely say it wasn't a good coping mechanism, but there was none of those to tell him that. The closest he had was Coulson, but he was smarter than using a FBI agent—actually, he still didn't know whether Coulson was from FBI or not—for therapy sessions, which mostly left him to dwell on these thoughts on his own.

Like now, while he was on the mall hopping from jewelry store to jewelry store, looking for the perfect ring.

Oh, yeah. He should be focusing on the ring, not on the news he heard this morning after mass.

He had been planning his proposal since their graduation. She looked so, so happy that day, not only for herself, but for him too. She often smiled for him, but her smiles were usually small. Not that day; she smiled so wide he was sure her cheeks hurt afterwards.

And then he went to talk to his (now former) classmates, and half of them were there with their spouses; the other half was homosexual, so they called their significant others 'partners'—but it sounded almost the same in his ears.

He looked at those couples, and a sense of longing overcame him. A few had children of their own, and he fought the urge to gulp. He wanted that kind of life: a family of his own, a domestic life… with Peggy. He wanted to wake up to her every morning, to share housework with her, to snuggle with her without worrying about falling asleep because he was at home anyway.

With that epiphany, he started his ring hunt.

But before, a session with Coulson.

"Mr. Coulson", he started, "you said I could get married as long as I kept my identity safe, right?" He nodded, and Steve kept on: "Okay. I want to marry Peggy, and I plan to propose. Problem is, I have no idea how to find an engagement ring."

Coulson frowned. "I never married, Steve. But… I did propose. Once."

He tilted his head. "What happened? I mean, if it's not too much to ask."

"No, it's not. She cheated on me. Don't worry, I've moved on long ago. But I guess I can help you with these ring stuff."

They talked for half an hour, and it was Coulson's tips that were guiding him through his hunt. That is, until he found Giulia.

"Hello, John!", she said loudly, patting his shoulder. "So long since I last saw you!"

He chuckled as he patted her shoulder back. "We met last month, Giulia."

"Enough time for a terrorist attack and for my boyfriend to propose!", she replied, talking fast as if both facts fell under the same category, and hugging her fiancé. Steve had already met him long ago, when they started dating in 1998, shortly after he joined her group. "Speaking of proposals… are you looking for a ring?"

He nodded. "Yeah, I want to propose to my girlfriend. You remember Peggy, right?"

She replied, "Of course, she's lovely! She's American, right? Oh, I hope she hasn't lost anyone on that tragedy."

"As far as I know, she didn't." He was the one who lost someone he knew; he had met Howard Stark in one of the few times Tony held a RPG session at his home. "She's from Las Vegas. Anyway, do you guys think you could help me? I'm not good with this kind of thing."

Giulia agreed immediately, followed quietly by her fiancé. They spent around half an hour until he found the perfect ring.

It was silvery, with a small blue stone in its centre. Peggy loved blue, and loved simple things. "This one", he said to the vendor.

"Are you sure?", Giulia asked. It clearly wasn't the engagement ring she had in mind, considering how luxurious hers was.

He just nodded, and paid for it. "Thank you, guys", he said as he and Giulia parted ways.

"I don't think we were much necessary in the end", she replied with a chuckle, "but you're welcome anyway."

He went back home with a big smile on his face. Next step: schedule their next date, where he'd propose. Peggy once told him that she never liked the idea of a fancy proposal, but rather an intimate one. He thought of a picnic in his own apartment, something they did last year which she enjoyed a lot.

After going into his apartment to hide the ring box, he knocked at hers. Despite being her boyfriend for almost 5 years now, he never remembered her schedules, meaning he never really knew when she was at home. This time, she was.

"Oh John, you came at the right time", she said, with a smile that didn't reach her eyes. He fought the urge to gulp. Did something happen? "Come in."

He followed her to her couch, where they sat. She grabbed his hand and looked in the eye in a way that made it hard to breathe.

"John, I have something to tell you", she said solemnly, but her voice crack for half a second. "Please don't hate me for it… I couldn't tell you before today."

He frowned, but didn't say a word. She took a deep breath and continued, "My name is not Margaret Williams. I'm Margaret Carter. I am 23 year old, indeed, but I'm not from Las Vegas. I'm from London."

Her silence indicated that she had finished, for now at least. Steve could only stare at her.

She had lied about her last name and her hometown, for years. To him, and to everyone who knew her… Just like he'd been doing.

Was she under protection program too? Or was she running away for another reason entirely?

He didn't want to think about what other reason she could have to hide. What if he had fallen in love with—and been about to propose to—a murderer? A drug dealer?

He blinked and realized she was staring at him. Her nervousness was clear, and he took as a good sign. He took a deep breath and asked gently, "Why are you here under a new identity?"

She bit her lip, and it took a couple moments for her to answer. "April 1st, 1995. I was… I was going back home from a party. My neighborhood had always been safe, there was no trouble in walking around it, even at night."

She took a deep breath. It seemed to be a hard memory to recall. "I heard screaming from the street I was in. It was a long street, and the sound came from way ahead. I didn't think much of it except that the person needed help, so I ran to them. When I got closer, I saw a man attacking a woman. By that time, he had placed her hand on her mouth to muffle her screams. Just as I approached, he shot her in the head."

Another pause. Steve tightened his grip on her hand, and used his other one to caress her hair. It seemed to calm her a bit, and she continued, "I didn't make a sound at the moment, but he saw me anyway. I didn't wait for his reaction; I just ran as fast as I could. Luckily there was a police station five minutes from there, so I didn't have to run for long.

"I was placed under witness protection program less than 24 hours later. The guy had run away, and no one could find him. After giving my testimony, I packed my stuff and came here."

Her breath was deep and a little unsteady. He hugged her, and she let a few tears fall. After some minutes of silence, he said, "If you are telling me this, I suppose they finally found the guy."

Without breaking their hug, she replied in a low voice, "He was on one of the hijacked planes that hit the Twin Towers. He boarded with a fake ID, which made it hard for recognition, but I got a call yesterday. I'm free, John. I can go back home."

With that sentence, she let herself cry freely. He kissed the top of her head and buried his nose in her hair, not saying anything. Peggy had never cried like that, but he knew she didn't like it when people tried to talk while she cried.

For a moment he attempted to correct himself, but he realized she didn't change her first name, only the last. After her tears stopped, he broke the hug with a chuckle.

"I can't believe you used your actual first name in your fake one", he said, scoffing. "That's a stupidly smart decision. So you."

She laughed along with him. After the laughter died down, though, he looked her in the eye, serious again "I've got something to tell you too. I shouldn't, but you trusted me, so I'll give you the same courtesy."

She nodded. God, she looked so beautiful, it was distracting. But he had to focus. "I… I had asthma, rheumatic fever, a sick heart, used to be really skinny, and had a few signs of depression. And I wanted to be a soldier anyway. So I tried to lie my way to the Army—"

"Whoah, whoah, whoah", she interrupted him with a big frown. "What are you trying to tell me, that you are Captain America?"

She said it disbelieving, but he grinned. She had gotten his reference. "No, I'm trying to tell you that I was roleplaying Captain America on the night I witnessed a murder."

Peggy blinked and stared at him for quite a few seconds before replying, "You are under protection program too." He nodded, grinning wider. "What is your real name, then? I mean, if you are willing to share."

He gently grabbed one of her hands, rubbing circles on it with his thumb. "Of course I am willing. Hopefully one day I'll be free of this, and I want us to find each other again." She smiled, and he rested his forehead on hers. "My name is Steven Grant Rogers. Everyone calls me Steve. I'm 22 years old, and I used to live in New York. I saw a serial killer murder his wife while my friend was calling a pizza delivery in July 1st, 1996." A pause. "And I love you."

He wasn't sure what prompted him to say it. Maybe because she was leaving, maybe because he just told her his biggest secret. It didn't matter; it wasn't like it was the first time he declared his love for her.

Her answer was a brush of lips and a whisper, "I love you too… Steve." And then, another hug.

Peggy would leave for London in two weeks. Naturally, they enjoyed every seconds they could together. They even shared a bed a few times, though it was just for cuddles.

"I wish I knew how long it'll take for Thanos to be caught", he said once. "How long I have to wait until I'm able to see you again."

Peggy didn't say anything at first. She wasn't facing him when she said, "If it takes too long, I might come back. It's not like we're forbid to see each other."

On the day of her departure, he dropped her at the airport. When it was time for her to get on the plane, he pulled her close by the waist and kissed her with desperation, a little bit of sadness and… love. So much love.

He had, as long as he remembered, longed for a love like his parents had shared with one another while alive. He never thought he'd find it while hiding from a serial killer.

He never told Peggy about the proposal, but he still kept the ring. When they found each other again, he would use it at first opportunity.

There was no way he wouldn't marry this woman. No matter how much time it'd take.

They broke the kiss when the need to breathe became greater than anything else. Even so, they stayed close until they heard another call to board on the plane to London.

They exchanged 'I love you's one last time, and he kept staring at her until she couldn't be seen anymore.

It was only after he arrived home that he realized they didn't have any way to contact each other. No phone numbers (none of them could afford cell phones), no addresses (though Peggy might remember his), no email… nothing.

From that day on, Steve prayed that Thanos was found sooner rather than later.

Spring of 2003

Giulia and her now husband danced to Umberto Tozzi's Eva.

"Do they know the lyrics are about a nuclear apocalypse?", he asked Luca, but it was Anna who answered.

"Yes. Giulia says it describes their relationship should a nuclear war arise."

Nobody felt the need to point out the low chances of their survival if it happened.

The couple had opted for a morning wedding. Many complained about having to wake up too early to get dressed, especially the best men and women—a category he and the twins fell under. Peggy was supposed to be featured in the list as well, but she dropped the news on all of their friends before leaving, so they knew she'd be unavailable.

In the end, though, he was glad for the early ceremony. Had it been a night wedding, he might have not received the news as early as he did.

Coulson was waiting for him at his building's entrance. "John", he greeted. "Might if I come with you to your home? We have much to talk about."

He agreed and took Coulson to his apartment. When they entered it, he offered a glass of water, which the officer politely declined.

"Come sit down, Steve", he said, pointing to a place beside him at the couch. "You are about to hear big news."

His smile made Steve's heart race with hope. Nonetheless, he sat down. "C'mon, Mr. Coulson, you're making me nervous."

He only smiled wider. "They found Thanos, Steve. He's in prison awaiting for trial."

At first, he didn't react. He waited for Coulson to say it he got it wrong, that it was a misunderstanding, that in fact they are no close to catch Thanos as they were 7 years ago. But the officer's smile didn't fade.

Coulson was telling the truth. Thanos was in jail. He no longer had to hide.

He could go home.

"YES!", he shouted as he jumped out of the couch, not caring if Coulson would lose some hearing or if the whole building would hear him. "That asshole got what he deserved, and I'm finally fuckin' FREE!"

And then the tears came like a waterfall. He felt Coulson's arms encircling him and rested his head on his shoulder. On the back of his mind, memories of him comforting Peggy in similar circumstances came.

He didn't how much time he spent crying, but he was tired and a little dizzy when he eventually stopped.

"You'll go to New York in ten days", Coulson said. "Say your goodbyes, finish your works… make these last days count."

Steve nodded, and the officer left.

Sadly, Giulia had already gone to South America on honeymoon, and would only come back in three weeks. He still had Anna and Luca to say goodbye to, though, and he wanted to do it in style.

They were shocked to hear the news, naturally. It was already rare to find out that someone you knew was actually under a fake identity, but they were informed about Peggy. To find out another friend had been in the same situation must be tough.

"Did you know about Peggy?", Anna asked. He shook his head.

"Not until she was free."

After the revelation dawned on them, Steve told them about his idea.

"I want to leave one last mark on this city that became my home for all these years", he said, "so what do you guys think about drawing on this wall?"

He showed a grey wall of a private building on the other side of Rome. The twins exchanged glances. "You know they probably won't like it, right?", Luca said. "We haven't done unauthorized graffiti in years… Steve."

Hearing him call him by his real name made him smile wide. "Which is why it's a one-night only thing."

And they indeed finished it in one night. Steve did most of the job, since it would be his last in the city. As the sun rose, they sat by the sidewalk to take a good look at it.

It was a blue sky. A bright yellow sun in the upper left corner, and many small clouds. Among them, different birds were flying, many with a tiny smile on their faces. In the background, a plane.

"It looks great", Anna said. Steve and Luca nodded.

"Thank you guys", he said as they got up. "For… everything. My time here wouldn't have been the same without you."

"Thank you, too", Lucas replied, giving him a side hug. "We've had fun together, buddy. Many good memories."

"Don't forget us when you're back in New York!", Anna said as she hugged him.

"Give me your e-mail addresses", he replied, "and we'll be able to talk whenever we want."

Coulson boarded on the plane with him. They didn't get to sit side by side, but just the knowledge that he was there made Steve feel safer.

The flight lasted around 10 hours, most of which he spent taking naps and reading a National Geographic magazine he bought at last minute. He wanted to cheer loudly when it finally landed, but kept quiet. No one would understand his sudden outburst.

Nobody was waiting for him at the airport, though he wasn't expecting it. Coulson was the one who told him where to go.

"It seems that a friend of yours has moved to your apartment", he said, giving him the address—as if he could ever forget it. "Sam Wilson, I think."

Steve smiled. "Good to know. Thanks, Coulson, for everything."

He just nodded. "You're welcome, Steve. Have a good life." And with that, he got in a taxi.

He arrived home half an hour later. When he knocked on the door, he heard Bucky's voice shout, "It's that damn punk!"

Both friends crushed him with a hug, and his cheeks hurt from smiling. Finally, he was home.

Sam was finishing college—he was to become a therapist. Bucky never went to college, becoming a professional ghost writer instead.

"Many people ask why I don't publish something under my own name", he said. "But I'd rather have money without fame than risking having fame without money. I know what do with money, but not with fame."

Steve didn't have an answer for that aside from a shoulder patting.

Bucky was the one that spent the most time with him, showing the city around and pointing out the changes—especially the World Trade Center.

"They want to build this huge memorial", he explained. "Not sure how long it will take, though."

There were many new Broadway musicals, and now they all could afford them. Sam told him they saved a good amount from working part-time at Stark Industries.

"We started not long after you left", he said while helping him unpack his things. Sam had chosen the spare room, always hoping Steve would come back to reclaim his own. "Bucky still works there. I had to leave when college started demanding my full attention, but I managed to save enough money to not depend on it."

The Barnes family still lived next door. Sam's parents moved to a small town, having retired two years ago. Since Bucky's father had managed to keep Steve's apartment, Sam agreed to pay half-rent and moved there.

"I always liked Bucky's family", he told him, "but never fully understood why you loved them so much. That is, until that moment."

"They really are amazing people", he agreed, but, if he was being honest with himself, the only Barnes in his mind at the moment was Bucky.

Bucky, with his eagerness to show everything to him, even things that stayed the same. Bucky, who helped him look for jobs. Bucky, with his broader shoulders and a beard and—

Since when did he feel attracted to men?

There was no denial. He was attracted to Bucky in ways he probably shouldn't be. Damn, that guy was his childhood best friend. And what about Peggy?

What. About. Peggy?

Eventually Sam asked why he'd groan at random moments. Eventually he answered.

"Bucky fucking Barnes."

"Language, dude", Sam replied instantly. By that point Steve lost count of how many times he had been called out due to his dirty mouth—even by Tony and Clint, who had never been known for politeness.

It wasn't always like this. But all the time with Anna and Luca left a mark.

"Anyway, what about Bucky?"

"I'm gay for him."

Maybe he should have waited for Sam to finish his glass of water before answering. At least he dealt with his choking by himself.

"Steve… man, I don't even know what to say. Last week you were ranting about that Peggy girl, now you've got a crush on Bucky?"

"Yeah, yeah, I know. It's crazy. I've known him since I was what, two?" He sighed. "I shouldn't even be thinking about this, it's not like the feeling's mutual."

He could see Sam nearly choking again.

"You're kidding, right?", he asked, in a loud voice that took him aback. Sam sighed and shook his head before explaining, "Bucky is bisexual, for starters. Came out three years ago. And he missed you more than a friend should, Steve. Even for a childhood friend, in my humble opinion. So yeah, you should think about these new feelings of yours, because I'm pretty sure he'd be more than okay with them."

It wasn't until months later that he got the courage to talk to Bucky. His best friend stayed quiet for the entirety of his rambling, and only said anything after two long minutes:

"Do you want to do something about all of this? For real?"

Steve frowned. "What do you mean?"

"I mean that you clearly are confused. I won't mind if you want more time to think. Hell, I won't mind if you decide that you don't want to do this. But please, Steve, don't say you want to be with me if you don't mean it. I won't be able to take it."

He said it so strongly that he couldn't bring himself to answer immediately. However, no matter how confused he was, how lost he was, one thing he was sure of:

"I want to try this, Bucky. I want to try us. I don't know what will happen, but I know for a fact that if we don't do anything I'll spend the rest of my life asking what could have been."

Bucky's answer was a kiss.

Chapter Text

New York City, early 1997

It had been a few months, but Scott still got congratulated for his medal and called Ant-Man by friends and strangers. He wondered if the nickname would stick around.

Probably not. He'd likely manage to screw everything with his social ineptitude, and they'd go back to not talking to him. His celebrity status as an Olympic medal winner would not last long.

He couldn't even try to use his achievement to win Nikki's favor. She wasn't around to see his medal. She hadn't even been able to watch his games—not in US, at least.

Her absence was still felt, but not more than any of the others'. He missed Steve and Thor too, and it was still weird to walk around the school corridors without hearing Barton's screaming at random times.

Lately he found himself thinking about Tony Stark as well. The two hadn't seen each other ever since he got early acceptance to Columbia, but now he couldn't help but think he should have been expecting to meet him again in a few months.

After all, if everything worked out like he planned, he'd start an internship at his family's business as soon as he graduated.

Scott had no idea of how he'd been found, though he had a feeling it had something to do with Rhodey, Stark's best friend and his gym buddy. All he knew was that one November day Rhodes approached him during lunch.

"Hey Scott", he said, sitting beside him at the table with no ceremony. "I've got a message for you."

He stopped his fork mid-air. "Do you realize how freaking cryptic you sound right now?"

His friend laughed at that and patted his back. "Stark wants to talk to you. From the look on his face when he told me, I think it's good."

Good thing he wasn't eating at the time; choking to his (possible) death wouldn't be a good reaction. "How does he even know of my existence?"

Rhodey shrugged. "Probably from Tony. God knows that guy liked to talk about every damn classmate he had. You'd think he had a crush on everyone. Sometimes I think he did."

He really didn't want to discuss the odds of Tony Stark crushing on him, so he decided to remember his lunch and eat it. After a short while, he asked, "When does he want me to go there?"

"Friday after school", his buddy answered. "I'll go with you so you won't get lost. That building is huge."

He knew Rhodes was learning the ropes of the company's security system and was likely to follow his father's steps and become its chief someday. Personally, Scott thought he should found his own security company, but never voiced his opinion. He probably wouldn't listen, anyway.

"Alright. We'll go to Stark's after school Friday… and gym later?"

"You won't get any bigger, Ant-Man", he retorted, but nodded.

When Friday came, he was nervous. He had no idea of what Mr. Stark would tell him, and it was killing him. He barely managed to act focused to avoid a detention.

He didn't even drive to school that day. Rhodey gave him the ride to Stark Industries. "Relax, man. I'm sure you'll be fine."

"Easy for you to say", he spat. "You've known Mr. Stark for all your life. Who the hell am I to him?"

"How many times did you ask yourself that instead of sleeping?", Rhodes was laughing out loud at this point.

Scott just groaned. "Too many to count."

He was directed to the 20th floor, a floor completely dedicated to Stark's office. The man wasn't humble at all, but he probably had all the right not to be.

Rhodey didn't leave the elevator with him, only waving goodbye with a shit grin. Scott was on his own now. Breathe, Scott, breathe.

He knocked on the door and heard Stark's voice telling him to come in immediately. He obeyed and found the old man standing by the big window.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Lang", he said solemnly. "Please, take a seat. I have a few things to tell you."

He sat as Mr. Stark did the same. "Well, Mr. Lang, I'm sure you remember my son Tony."

He nodded. "We studied together until he got to college, sir. Shared a few classes, and had lunch together sometimes thanks to common friends."

"Common friends, yes. James Rhodes, I assume?" Scott nodded again. "Tony talked about you, which may not surprise you if you knew him well. He was always talking about everything and everyone, especially when my wife and I would fight and spend a day or two without speaking to each other. He felt like he had to fill the silence at family meals. Got it from me, probably." He adjusted himself in his seat before continuing, "He thought I wasn't listening but I was. Not all the time, but enough to learn about his friends, which, I guess, include you."

It was Scott's turn to change positions on his seat. He got along with Tony just fine, but friends? That was news to him; he never knew what criteria one had to fill to be called Tony's friend.

And, for whatever reason, Scott never called someone a friend if they didn't do it first. So… yeah.

"Last I heard of you, you were greatly interested in Physics, and you both talked a bit about new theories and other stuff. I know you are a sports guy now—I watched your performance at the Olympics last year, everyone did—but did your interests change all that much?"

There wasn't much to think on his answer. "No, sir. In fact, I've always been a… 'sports guy'. Tony may never have told you that because it wasn't something we had in common. But yeah, Physics is still my thing."

Mr. Stark's expression was unreadable. "Is it true that you are president of your school's engineering club?" He nodded. Stark asked a few more questions on his school achievements and academic interests. Then, he said. "Well, Mr. Lang, with all said and done, I have a proposition for you. Now hear me out, because I won't repeat myself."

Scott inclined to listen to him better. "You may or may not have heard of Hank Pym. He's head of the Quantum Experiments department. He does research on quantum physics and how it can be used for our industry fields. His daughter had just gotten an internship there, and now he's looking for another intern, for some reason. We do have selection processes for interns, but since we've never had them for quantum department, I decided to actively look for someone."

He then explained details regarding working hours, salary and other stuff. Scott did his best to pay attention despite his disbelief. Was he really being invited to intern at Stark Industries before even getting to college? Was this real?

"So, Mr. Lang, do we have a deal? Of course, you'd sign a contract for the benefit of both of us, but I'll only type it if you say yes to my offer."

His nodding likely resembled a convulsion, but he didn't care. "Yes, yes, sir. I accept it!"

Mr. Stark smiled. "When do you turn 18?"

"On April. April 5th."

"Great. I was thinking of having you starting your internship on summer anyway. Since you'll already be 18 by then, I'll call you after your graduation to sign your contract. Having you sign it instead of your parents simplify things."

He couldn't agree more. His parents lived in California; he didn't want to force them to come just to sign a contract in his name. They already did that a lot through these last years.

Aunt Maggie tried to convince them to make her his guardian, but they didn't want to really let go of Scott, despite not being able to live with him. It was sweet, when he thought about it.

They shook hands, and Scott left the room with a whispered goodbye. Rhodey was waiting for him at the reception. "You knew it, didn't you?", Scott said as soon as he saw his friend. "Bet you were the one who suggested it."

Rhodes opened his mouth, shut it, and then opened it again. "You know what? I'll just keep you in the dark."

It had been him, Scott was sure as hell of that.

In his free time, he trained in the back of the gym. Luis, his coach, showed up every three days to check on his progress—and to tell him to slow down for once in his life.

"Pretty sure you're addicted", Rhodey said after hearing another of Luis' lectures. Quill, who was nearby, was quick to add, "You've won a fucking Olympic medal, dude. You can survive not coming here for a day."

"What are you all, my parents?", he retorted. "I like coming here, alright? It cleans my head for studying at night."

"What kind of high-schooler studies at night?", Peter's exasperated tone made him laugh.

"The Olympic medal winner kind", he replied without a second thought, before drinking the remaining water in his bottle. He was about to leave when Quill called him again.

"Do you play any instrument?", he asked. Scott nearly choked in his saliva, "What?"

"Oh well, you are a multitalented guy. Figured you could have some musical inclination too. Drake and I do." He pointed at the gym instructor with his chin.

Scott shook his head. "I'm not that versatile, man. What would you even want me for, exactly? Gonna start a band?"

Quill's grin gave him an answer, but also left him with more questions.

He and Georgina went to their prom together. Her original date—Quill, of all people—was from another school, and his prom fell on the same day.

"Apparently I'm a strong candidate for Prom King", he said one day at the gym.

"You're shitting me", he replied instantly, while Rhodes and Drake laughed loudly. "You're not even pretty."

"I'm hot, Ant-Man", he snapped, but didn't say anything else. Peter himself didn't seem to give his nomination credit. He only spoke again when they were leaving. "Take good care of my girl."

"From what I've heard, she's not your girl."

"Yet", he replied with a grin.

In another life, he'd have asked Nikki instead. He hadn't crushed on any other girls these last couple months, so he figured he'd still be trying to win her over if she was still around.

However, he didn't ask Georgina simply because she was Nikki's twin; the girl was his closest female friend at school.

(His closest female friend in general wasn't in her best condition at the moment. She barely remembered him these days.)

Good thing Georgina accepted it; a few girls had asked him afterwards, but it was clear they wanted to go to prom with Ant-Man, not Scott. The thought left him uncomfortable. He still didn't know what people expected of Ant-Man, only that it was a lot. Nobody expected much of Scott, except for things he knew he could do—like getting high grades on Physics, Math and Chemistry. No one was waiting for him to say something awe-inspiring, for example.

On prom night, when he went to her new home to take her, she thanked him. He raised an eyebrow, and she explained. "I didn't want to go alone", she said. "And nobody is looking forward to be seen with a serial killer's daughter. Everyone there is afraid to become a target. If it weren't for you, I'd probably stay at home tonight."

Those words nearly made his chest hurt for real. This wasn't the Georgina he was used to, but someone he had been seeing more often than not: a traumatized girl who lost her mother, her sister and her father at the same day, all for different reasons. Old Georgina would never have bothered to show up alone at prom.

"Are you sure you want to go?", he asked, doing his best to show his concern on his voice. "We can just stay and watch movies, or go somewhere else if you don't want to stay home."

She gave him a half smile, which was more than he had seen of her lately. "No, I think it will be good for me. Let's get this over with."

He nodded and posed for a photo when Mrs. Raccoon called their attention. He didn't know the family who gave her shelter, but that night's short interaction gave him a good impression of them.

At the party, they stayed with Rhodey (who brought Pepper Potts, a friend from Stark Industries), Barnes and Wilson (whose dates he didn't recognize), being joined later by Thor's friends. Sif brought Loki, which earned a weird look from half the table.

Being each other's dates, he and Georgina spent most of the night together, whether they were dancing or talking. He did dance one song with Jane Foster, though, when Georgina went to the bathroom and he was too lazy to leave the dance floor.

Prom Queen was a cheerleader Scott never talked to, and Prom King was a friend of Barnes—or so it seemed from his stupidly loud cheering.

It was a surprisingly calm party; they only heard one couple fight, and even the drunk guys behaved. No one was kicked out, and the punch wasn't spiked—probably because people brought alcohol inside juice boxes this time.

Near the end, everyone got a glass of Coke and the Prom King proposed a toast for the classmates who didn't get the chance to attend that prom.

"A toast for Steve Rogers, Thor Odinson, Bruce Banner, Natasha Romanov, Clint Barton and Nikki Titan", he said on the mic. "Wherever you are, we hope you guys are doing great."

People cheered a little, but his table was mostly silent. The only sound was of Rhodes adding, "For Tony Stark", and some hums in agreement as they toasted. Yes, Stark had already graduated when he left, but still. He had been their classmate.

(In retrospect, he figured people behaved well that night as to pay some sort of respect for the missing ones. He didn't like that thought; it sounded as if they were dead instead of hidden away.)

It was a little past midnight when he got back home. Despite the late hour, Cassie was still awake.

"Scotty!", she half whispered, half shouted, hugging his legs. He kneeled over to mess with her hair.

"What are you doing at this hour, Peanut?" Cassie had always liked to wander around the house after her parents had fallen asleep, but she rarely managed to stay awake after 11:30.

"Waiting for you, dummie", she said excitedly. "I want to play my new game with you!"

Oh, no. He wasn't going to get any sleep that night.

"Cassie, I'm really tired", he tried to reason. "Can't we do this in the morning?"

"But mama doesn't like it when I play video game in the mornings", she pouted, and he knew he couldn't resist. He'd never be able to deny his cousin anything.

Naturally, he woke up at noon on the following day. Seeing Cassie happy to have won three times in a row—even though the game strategy was easy to catch—was worth it, though.

"I am in no way calling you Starlord now, dude", he heard Rhodey say. He glanced at Luis, looking for answers.

His coach just shrugged. "I have no idea. Quill has been talking to Drake about a band these last few days, I don't know if you heard it, but why this nickname, I don't know."

Years of having Luis as his coach taught him to catch on his fast speaking. "A band? Reallu?" He didn't think Peter was being serious on his quest to form a band.

"We'll probably find more when we go to the front. Now, try this weight here."

They left the back of the gym around twenty minutes later, and Quill was still talking about his new band. Apparently Drake picked a nickname for himself, too: Drax.

"Drax is way cooler than Starlord", he gave his unrequested opinion. "How does Georgina even put up with you, man? You're ridiculous."

"She's Gamora now", Quill replied with a smirk. "And she's officially my girlfriend."

"As of…?"

"Two days ago."

Scott just rolled his eyes and left for home. He couldn't picture Georgina and Quill together; they didn't seem to fit. But he trusted his friend to make the best choices for herself, even while grieving as intensely as she still was.

In a last-minute decision, he drove to Georgina's instead of his own home. They hadn't seen each other since graduation, and tomorrow he'd start his internship, so he figured they'd talk a bit.

He was greeted by a tall kid who, after frowning at him for a whole minute, called for Georgina and told him to wait for her at the couch. She went downstairs almost immediately. "Hey, Scott", she greeted, sitting by his side. "What brings you here?"

"Heard you've got a band and a boyfriend now", he replied with a smirk. "Thought I should double congrat you."

She huffed, but it almost sounded like a laugh. "Peter didn't shut up at gym about both of these, did he?"

He almost nodded, but chose for honesty. "Actually, he boasted more about the band. Only mentioned you when I brought you up. Not out of lack of pride, though. He's got it bad for you, G."

She actually averted his gaze when he said that. When she spoke again, it was about another thing entirely, "You begin tomorrow, right? At Stark's." He nodded. "Nervous?"

"More than you imagine", he answered truthfully. "I tried to study as much as I could on quantum physics, but I'm pretty sure it won't be enough. How did Mr. Stark think it was a good idea to place me on that department? Or anyone who just graduated high school, for that matter?"

His friend shrugged. "Who knows how that man's mind works? But I guess that, if he hired you, you'll do fine. I mean, he has to know we don't study this kind of thing at school, right?"

He had thought about it at least fourteen times. "Hopefully." He bit his lip. "I know I won't be the only intern there, but the other one is the department's head's daughter, so it might not be good news for me. Got any Coke?"

She raised her eyebrows at him, but got up and went to the kitchen anyway. She brought back two glasses, one for him and the other for herself. "But enough about me", he said when she sat back down. "Back to you. Am I supposed to call you Gamora now? Quill told me so."

She scoffed. "Call me whatever you want. But I have to admit I like Gamora better than Georgina. I never really liked my birth name anyway." A pause. "My father picked it. Mom named Nikki instead."

That explained a lot. Anyone who regularly spoke with the Titan twins knew they never got along with their father, especially after Nikki got paralyzed. Mr. Titan—Thanos—was a dead man to her now.

"Then you're Gamora to me now. Not going to be the one to spoil your fun."

He left after she light punched his shoulder. Cassie tried to convince him to play video games again, but this time he held himself together. "Can't, Cassie. Remember I said I got a new job? First day's tomorrow, and I can't show up on my first day yawning and tripping on my feet."

She pouted, which almost made him take his words back, but then she said it was fine, that he had to sleep well. He hugged her and led her to the kitchen so they could have dinner.

He drove to Stark Industries on his first day. When he signed his contract, Mr. Stark gave him a written permission to park at the building's garage. That alone made him excited beyond reason.

The quantum research department was on the 19th floor. No matter how hard he tried, Scott couldn't stay still. He pounced back and forth the whole elevator ride—which was ridiculously slow due to it stopping around five times.

He arrived at the department's floor to find out nobody was there yet. Well. He could use it in his favor.

He'd never dare touch any equipment without knowing what it was, but he could try to guess what they were for. Many, many buttons filled the machines' panel. A lot of screens around—all turned off, of course—and a few levers. Some stuff he'd never seen before, and some right down weird tech.

"You'll get used to it eventually", a voice behind him said. He turned to face an old man. "I suppose you are Scott Lang, Stark's new recruit." The man approached him and extended his hand. "I'm Hank Pym."

Blinking, Scott shook his hand. "Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Pym. I… I didn't touch anything, I promise."

"Well, I can see nothing's broken, so it's all good. Now, my daughter is parking our car, so I'll wait for her to give you both a tour. It's her first day as well."

Scott just nodded, not knowing what to say. Somehow, the prospect of meeting Hank Pym and his daughter in the same day made his insides twitch. It shouldn't, really; how else was he supposed to meet them?

Fortunately, the awkward silence that fell between the two didn't last long. Two minutes later, the elevator doors opened—was it slow only for him?—to reveal a tall, slim woman dressed all in black wearing a high ponytail that reminded him of his aunt's work hairstyle.

He blinked and his eyes travelled around the room; he didn't want his boss to catch him staring at his daughter.

Because she was gorgeous.

"Seriously, dad", he heard her say, and her voice was so freaking soft, he had to pull a huge effort to keep a straight face as he turned his eyes back to the duo in front of him. "Couldn't you wait a single minute for me to park? I could have gotten lost in this damn building."

"Nah, your colleague didn't have me and didn't get lost", Pym replied, and glanced at him. "Or did you?"

He timidly shook his head. "My friend is an intern in another section, and he told me where this department is."

Pym raised an eyebrow. "Mind telling me your friend's name?"

"James Rhodes. He interns in security department."

"Oh, I know him. His father is head of security, and he and Stark's son have been friends since diapers. Guess that's how Stark got to meet you, right? Oh wait, I remember, Stark said he knew who you were from Tony himself, before the kid flew away. Poor boy."

Scott only nodded. The girl-woman (how old was she, anyway?) stepped closer to him and eyed him critically.

"Who are you?", she asked. "Dad said you were… a surprise."

Scott eyed Pym, who shrugged, and sighed. It was easy to see how he and Stark were friends. "My name is Scott Lang, I'm 18 years old, about to start college."

"Which university?"

"Columbia. Physics degree."

She grinned. "Then we'll see each other a lot, Lang. I'm going there, too." A hand. "Hope Van Dyne. Nice to meet you."

As he grabbed her hand to shake it, a thought came to his mind—recognition. "Hope Van Dyne? As in, Janet Van Dyne, Olympic gymnastics star?"

She arched her eyebrows. "You've heard of my mother? She retired from the sport like, eight years ago."

"Your mother is a legend. I've met some gymnasts in Atlanta last year, and all of them mentioned her as their role model, in one way or another. And not just Americans."

It was true; in his time in Atlanta he met young athletes from many countries, usually ones who played individual sports like him. He even made out with a Portuguese gymnast one night—but he figured that detail wasn't important.

That seemed to impress both Hope and Pym, and earned a (cute) smile from the former—they quickly fell, though. Shortly after, Pym changed the subject and showed the equipment to them.

"Hope was supposed to start last month", he said at one moment. "But after Stark told me Lang would only start on June, I decided to have you both start at the same day. Less work for me."

Scott glanced at Hope, who shrugged and waved it off, as if saying it was her father's standard behavior. He didn't doubt it for a second.

It took a whole hour for Pym to finish the tour around the department, and another thirty minutes for him to properly establish what he and Hope were going to do. At least he was going to do more than bringing coffee. Hank Pym was going to mentor and guide them as they helped him with his research. The mental work would be mostly done by Pym himself, while Scott and Hope would follow his orders, but he expected both to learn about what they were doing so they'd eventually be able to think for themselves.

"He hasn't found a good partner since Bill Foster moved to California", Hope explained as they had lunch in the building's cafeteria—not after he spent five whole minutes excitedly greeting Sam and Bucky, as it was their first day of work as well. "So he decided to pick two younglings to mentor them from the start. The first one he found at his own home, and told Stark to find a second one… you."

Her expressions when looking at him were unreadable; then again, he has never been the best at reading adults anyway. He was better with kids—which would be good if any of his future plans involved working with children, but it wasn't the case.

That being said, he had a feeling she didn't like him very much. Which was irrational, given she just started a conversation.

"So, you've always wanted to work with your father?", he tried for the seemingly easy question.

He couldn't have predicted Hope's clear discomfort before answering. "In his field of expertise, yes, I think. With him, not so much."

Not knowing how to react to such an intense non-verbal response, he adjusted himself in his seat. "Guess it must feel awkward to work with your dad."

She raised an eyebrow. "You could say that, yeah."

Great. He made the situation worse. He grabbed his sandwich and took a bite, creating the perfect opportunity to stay shut and let her continue their conversation if she wanted to.

Apparently, she did, but not about their work. "You mentioned Atlanta", she said after taking her own bite of her sandwich—they asked for the same. "Were you in the Olympics? My TV broke during Olympic season, and I ended up not hearing much about it."

He bit his lip. He had suspected Hope didn't know about him when she asked for his name—nowadays everyone recognized Scott Lang/Ant-Man with a glance—, but now he had confirmation. "Weightlifting. Got third place."

She froze with her sandwich midway to her mouth, which was already open. It took a short while for her to close it, just to open again to bluntly say, "Wow. I'd never take you for a weightlifting champion."

He looked down at his meal, unsure of what to say next. He knew many people were surprised to see him at the Olympics, given his body build, but he was used to them being positively surprised. The fact that his colleague already took him in such a negative light—despite the fact that he did absolutely nothing to earn her distaste—made his insides twist. Was it really necessary for her to act this way?

When he lifted his head to tell her her exactly that, he found her hand covering her mouth, as if in shock. He frowned, and she answered his silent question. "I'm sorry", she blurted out. "I didn't mean to offend you! I just… I was surprised. Wasn't doubting you or anything, just… I'm really, really sorry."

He blinked, all anger gone. "Hey, I get it… I'm not as muscular as most of my fellow competitors. Even my gym friends look more built than me. That's kind of how I got my nickname. Ant-Man. You know, because ants are tiny but carry things ten times their weight."

She didn't answer right away, instead decided to finish her meal. He did the same, glancing at Sam and Bucky every now and then. They were mostly busy with other customers, but once in a while they'd give him a wave of a half-smile. Sam frowned at Hope one time, but he just shrugged.

When he finished, he excused himself and stood up to leave, but she was quick to follow. "Wait, Lang", she said hurriedly. He stopped and looked at her. "I'm sorry if I came out as a bitch. It's just… I'm not good at socializing, and assumed you wanted to outshine me without any proof or indication."

He frowned. There, indeed, was nothing he did to make her suspect he wanted to be above her or anything. After all, they only knew each other for a couple hours. Maybe it was some past experience of hers, but he wasn't going to ask. "It's okay", he said eventually. "I'm not good at socializing either."

"Can we start over?", she asked, offering her hand. "I'm Hope Van Dyne, 18 years old, intern at Stark Industries. Nice to meet you."

He gave her a soft smile and shook her hand. "Scott Lang. 18 years old, intern at Stark Industries. Nice to meet you too, Hope."

She smiled.

He had been working for a week when Cassie told him he got a call from Maria Rambeau.

"She asked you to visit them", she said simply. "Didn't say why. Who's she?"

He sighed. "He lives with a friend, Peanut. A friend who had some… health problems and hasn't been able to see anyone. Until now, apparently."

It wasn't a lie, but it wasn't the whole truth. He didn't know if Aunt Maggie would be okay with him telling Cassie about a lesbian couple, though; the subject of homosexual couples never came up at their home, so he had no idea about Cassie's parents' opinion on it. Also, 'health problems' didn't quite cover what Carol had gone through.

He was only able to go to the Rambeau household on Saturday morning. Maria was making coffee and offered him some. He eagerly accepted. Coffee had become an habit of his lately.

"Where is she?", he asked while taking a sip.

"In her bedroom", Maria answered. "Well, the guest room, but so far she hasn't returned to ours, so we call it hers. She stays there every time she gets a new wave of memories."

He frowned. He had gotten the call two days prior. "Did she get another wave today? Should I just go home instead?"

Maria shook her head and placed a hand on his shoulder. "No, no. She wants to talk to you, Scott. She got a lot of memories of you and wants to speak to you directly about your friendship."

He took the last sip of his coffee and thanked Maria for it before heading to the guest room. He had been at the apartment enough times to know where it was. Hell, he slept at that room more than once. Carol used to host many small parties for her gym friends, and Scott was proud to call himself one. Those parties had come to a stop since her accident, even though many reasons to gather the group together arose in the meantime. It just wasn't the same without her. Also, it gave them hope that she'd fully come back someday to throw said parties.

He knocked at the door, identifying himself. She opened it in an instant, and hugged him. It took him long seconds to hug back. It'd been roughly a year since he last hugged Carol, and he'd forgotten how it felt.

"Hey", he said in a low voice.

"H-hey", she said back, taking a step back. "I have so many questions, Scott."

He smiled softly. "I'll try to answer them all."

They talked for hours. He managed to fill in some blanks in her memory, regarding not only himself, but others—she had questions about Drake, Quill, Rhodes, Luis and even Ronan.

"He's still the gym's owner?", she asked, somewhat surprised. "Thought he'd died by now, with all those steroids he takes. I can only remember my first months at the gym, and he was always taking something."

He chuckled. "You used to tell him exactly that, whenever he was around. He barely shows up nowadays, though. At least not when I'm there."

She hummed. "Maybe he's intimidated to be in the same space as the Ant-Man", she said, smirking. Then her smirk turned to a soft smile. "Maria showed footage of your performance. You were great, Scott. Wish I had been there to cheer for you."

He patted her shoulder. "Monica went in your place. She and Cassie get along pretty well."

She frowned, but quickly changed to an awed expression. "Oh my, I remember Cassie! She was such a cutie… how's she doing?"

He told her stories about Cassie and the rest of his family. When he mentioned his parents, her grin fell. "What?", he asked.

"Oh, nothing much", she replied. "It's just… it was weird meeting them. My parents, I mean. They wanted me to forgive them for abandoning me after I got with Maria… but I couldn't remember our fight. Still can't, actually."

He met Carol shortly after she moved to New York, in 1993—months after her parents disowned her. Given her amnesia had been of the previous seven years, her memories were of a healthy relationship with them.

It also meant she didn't remember being in love with Maria. He wondered whether those particular memories had already come back, but couldn't bring himself to ask.

His tales of the Guardians of the Galaxy—whose debut was to happen at his workplace in a few days—made her laugh out loud. He promised to try to get her a ticket.

"If you find for Maria and Monica, I'd love it", she added, and raised his eyebrows. "What?"

He was tempted to tease her, but decided against it. "Nothing", he said instead. "But it'll be harder."

It was nighttime when he left, after hearing thanks from both Carol and Maria. Monica waved at him from the kitchen; she had arrived home while he was with Carol and chose to not interrupt them.

On the following day, he met Rhodes for their morning run, an habit they started on his second day of work—he used to run right before lunch, but that wasn't possible anymore.

"Do you know how I can get tickets for Carol?", he asked after telling him about their long conversation.

"It's a social event for investors", Rhodes explained. "There aren't tickets, only invitations. That said, I think Howard would lend you one or two if you told him her story. He was moved when I told him about Drax and Gamora, so…"

He nodded. Drax, Gamora and Carol all had in common the fact that their lives were screwed up by Thanos. It was understandable that Mr. Stark would warm up to any of them.

His friend told him she couldn't remember a single thing about that unfortunate day, and the doctors said she probably never would. However, any search on newspapers from late June of 1996 would reveal everything.

Maria had a copy of a New York Times issue about that day and its possible relation to the murder of Gamora's mother. He knew she was waiting for the right time to show it to Carol.

In the end, Stark only gave him two invitations, and Carol decided to take Maria while Monica would stay with Cassie—by the teen's own request; apparently she missed his little cousin a lot, since they've barely seen each other since Atlanta.

All workers were invited to the event. "You have Mrs. Stark and Pepper to thank for that", Rhodes said at lunch to him, Bucky, Sam and Hope—who by now got used to have lunch at the cafeteria with him. "I have some friends I want you to meet. You might have seen them around. They're from Sierra Leone and have been working here since… October, I think. One works on weapons design, and the other two are my work mates on security department."

Bucky and Sam exchanged glances. "Is one of them a scary lady who looks like can kill you with a glance?", Sam asked. Rhodes laughed and nodded. "Damn, I can totally see why she was hired."

They all laughed. As they headed back to their department, Hope asked, "Do you think your friend included me on this?"

He smiled at her. "Of course he did. He thinks you're nice, even if you look a bit intimidating."

Her eyes widened for a moment. "Hopefully not as much as the woman Wilson mentioned."

He chuckled as the elevator doors opened. "Guess not, but we'll have to wait for next Saturday to find out." He rubbed the back of his neck. "By the way, you said Mr. Pym won't go, right?" She nodded, and he continued, his talking speed increasing at each word, "What about we go… together? I can pick you after my friend drops her daughter at my home."

She turned to him to look him in the eyes, and he gulped. Had he gone too far? But then she grinned. "When would that be?"

He did his best not to let out his breath. "Around 7 PM. I could pick you at… 7:30?"

"Sounds great, actually."

He beamed when she turned her back on him. He was going to make this their first date.

Cassie was literally jumping around the house on Saturday afternoon, screaming all her plans with Monica. She jumped on him three times, two of these while he was getting dressed.

Carol offered him a ride when they arrived. He opened his mouth to politely decline, but his cousin was faster. "Scotty is going on a date, he has to drive by himself!"

After a lot of teasing on the women's part and some blushing on his, they left with a "see you soon". He turned to the girls and said, "Aunt Maggie and Uncle Jim will come back soon, so behave yourselves. Don't burn the house while we're gone!"

That said, he left the house, trusting Monica with the keys. Cassie was usually responsible with her stuff, but she was nine years old, while the other girl was thirteen.

He felt his hands sweating as be drove to the Pym-Van Dyne household. They lived in a two-store house in Manhattan, fancier than his his home—which was already fancier than his parents' home in California. It was to be expected, given Hank Pym's position at Stark Industries and Janet Van Dyne's successful career, but it still intimidated him.

Thankfully, it was Janet who opened the door, not Hank. "You're Scott Lang, right?", she asked as they shook hands. "My husband and my daughter talked much about you. You won third place in Atlanta, didn't you? Ant-Man, if memory serves me right. Bronze medal in 70 kg category."

He nodded and smiled. "I'm Ant-Man, yes, and this is the correct category. It's a honor to meet you, Mrs. Van Dyne. I've heard a lot about you from Hope, and also from many gymnasts I met in Atlanta. You are a role model to many girls."

That made the woman smile. "It's good to know people remember me so fondly. You met gymnasts from which countries?"

They talked for half an hour until Hope showed up on the top of the stairs. She was wearing a long yellow dress that showed all her curves, and her hair was let down, unlike the high ponytails she usually wore at work.

If she was already beautiful on daily basis, right now she was stunning. It took a long while for him to greet her. Get yourself together, Scott!

"Hey, Hope", he said shyly. "You look… beautiful tonight. Not that you're… you are always beautiful but… You know, I should just stop talking."

He heard Mrs. Van Dyne chuckle behind him, and Hope grinned. "I get what you mean. Thanks, Scott."

He let out a breath he didn't know he was holding. "Shall we, then?"

They bid their goodbyes to Janet—Pym was out on an old friend's birthday party—and got in his car. He tried his best to hide his excitement when Hope saw his CDs and seemed to like all of them.

"You know the guys from the band, don't you?", she asked while on their way.

"Some of them. Two go to the same gym I do, and the other is a former classmate. She's… one of Thanos' daughters."

She nodded slowly. "Poor girl. I've heard her sister had to leave town to hide from Thanos, is it right?" He replied yes, and she continued, "I hope this band does some good to her. And having you as friend, of course."

He felt his cheeks warm. Well, at least Hope saw him as a good friend. His aunt always liked to say that the best relationships arose from good friendships.

They entered from the back doors, given he parked the garage. "I don't know about you", he said as headed to the elevator, "but I wasn't looking forward to those reporters out there."

She shook her head. "I have yet to show my parents' ease to the cameras. Though dad is not exactly delicate to reporters, if you know what I mean."

He nodded. Though he'd been working for Pym for less than a month, it was easy to pick up his not-so-pleasant personality. It didn't stop him to try to pursue his daughter, though. Having Pym as an in-law didn't seem a high price to pay.

You're thinking too far ahead. This is barely a date. His mind supplied, but he promptly ignored it. Questions and negative thoughts would do him no good. If Nikki's (and the others') sudden departure taught him something, it was that he didn't want to waste time not living a relationship in its fullest—whether it was platonic or romantic.

Potts greeted them hurriedly as they exited the elevator and she entered it. "She looks our age", Hope commented when its doors closed.

"She was a grade ahead of me", he supplied. "Got an internship in something about business while still at school. Everyone talked about her and Tony Stark."

She turned her head to face him better. "What about you?"

He rubbed the back of his neck. "Well, after Atlanta, yes. I didn't train at school, so nobody knew about me before."

She seemed to be about to reply, but the doors to the hall opened, and the crowd noise overwhelmed them both for a long moment.

As they looked for a calmer place, he spotted Rhodes talking to someone and Bucky and Sam dutifully sat down, as if waiting for Stark's speech to start at any given second, not in an hour. Eventually they found a small balcony. After a few seconds just feeling the summer breeze on his face, he turned to see Hope better.

"What about you? Were you popular at school?", he asked, figuring it was a safe subject.

Apparently, not so much. Her smile, already small, fell. "Most people knew me, but… not in a good way." He frowned, but let her continue, "I wasn't a cute kid. I started having acne way too early and was too skinny. One day, people started calling me Wasp. They said I was as ugly as one—why a wasp exactly, I don't think I ever found out. It never mattered, to be honest."

She bit her lip and he got a little closer, grabbing her hand gently. He couldn't imagine Hope looking ugly at any point in her life, but guessed his words wouldn't be much of a comfort. She glanced at their hands and gave him a half smile before adding, "Puberty was kind to me. I still had acne, but soon I wasn't the only kid with it, and it helped. On junior high no one called me Wasp anymore. But then, on freshman year I dumped a senior from basketball team—he was an asshole and I have standards, thank you very much—and he and his friends found out about my nickname and spread it to the whole school. It stuck until graduation, and it only stopped because I haven't spoken to anyone since then."

At that point her grasp on his hand got stronger. He clearly touched on a sore spot; her graduation, like his, had been less than two months ago. The wound was still fresh. "I'm sorry, Hope."

She raised her eyes to look at him. "It's okay", she assured. "It hurts, of course, but I'm just so glad to be out of that school… I don't really mind talking about it."

He gave her a soft grin. "You should have gone to mine. Everyone was nice there, even the jocks. You've even met some of them already. Rhodey, Bucky and Sam were on the football team."

She turned to the sky. The view from the balcony was pretty ordinary, but relaxing nonetheless. "Do you think we would have been friends?"

"Absolutely", he blurted out. "I mean, you said it yourself you were never the best at socializing, and I've always been awkward. We'd be awkward together."

For a moment, he remembered Nikki, her face showing all the walls she built around herself and her eternally intimidating voice tone. She was awkward too, just in a different way. Seems like I have a type, he concluded, tightening his grip on Hope's hand.

She turned to smile at him, and he smiled back. After what seemed an eternity, they heard Potts' announcement that the event was about to start. "We should go look for seats", she said, pulling him out of the balcony. He silently followed her, blinking to force himself back to reality.

Howard Stark's speech was a little over the top—now he knew where Tony had taken that particular ability from—and he barely paid attention to it, instead focusing on Hope. She was watching Stark carefully, as if analyzing his words. She didn't comment anything when he finished, though, and he decided not to ask as they headed to the dining hall.

There were no small tables, so they joined the other boys in a large circular one. Carol and Maria found them not much later, sitting by his side as he introduced Hope to them. At one point he caught Rhodes waving to someone. "They're my new friends I was talking about this week", he explained when it seemed that they were coming.

Two men and two women, all black, greeted them politely and sitting on three seats that remained, between Rhodes and Maria. Given Sam was on Rhodes' other side, the table looked divided between black and white members. Scott and Carol exchanged brief glances and chuckled, seemingly having reached the same conclusion at the same time.

The four belonged to a single family, the Wakandas. They had arrived at New York a couple months after Diana Titan's death, and had gotten their jobs at Stark Industries roughly six months later—except for Nakia, who was a teacher at a high school on East Harlem.

"We started looking for lower-rate jobs", one of the men, T'Challa, explained. "We were among the elite back in our home country, but here we are just Muslin African immigrants. It seemed arrogant to offer ourselves to big companies like Stark."

He opened his mouth to ask why they had left Sierra Leone in the first place, but he heard Quill's voice introducing himself and the band, promptly beginning to sing afterwards. He knew the Guardians of the Galaxy were focused on covers of 70s and 80s songs, so it wasn't much of a surprise when they opened with Footloose. He even managed to explain it to Okoye (the other Wakanda woman) when, in between songs, she wondered out loud about the song choices.

Their table's position gave them a great view of the stage, something he mentally noted to thank Bucky and Sam for. Gamora showed to be an awesome singer, but Quill wasn't far behind.

At some point during the couple's performance of (I've had) the time of my life, Hope rested her head on his shoulder. Feeling brave, he placed his hand on her waistline, pointedly avoiding the boys' gaze.

He was among the first to congratulate the band when they left the stage, not before Howard stepped in to praise them. He hugged Gamora and high-five Quill and Drax. He didn't know Rocket and Groot, but Drax took his time to introduce them.

Carol's reunion with Drax and Quill was more emotional than he anticipated. The two guys weren't usually prone to show emotion, but they seemingly didn't care that everyone saw how happy they were to finally see their friend again.

"May I ask what happened to your friend?", T'Challa asked. Nakia, Okoye and her husband (whose name he failed to catch correctly) nodded, indicating interest. Scott smiled politely and explained Carol's accident and its aftermath. "This Thanos seem to have caused suffering to many around us", T'Challa commented after he finished.

Scott nodded. "The band's vocalist is one of his daughters. Her twin sister witnessed the murder and had to flee the country. Among other people. I'm sure you've heard about Stark's son."

Okoye sighed. "I hope they are faring well, wherever they are. Being a refugee is not easy, and I can't imagine how harder it must be for them, given they are under fake identities."

There wasn't much he could add to that statement. Okoye's husband quietly told her it was late, and they had to leave. Scott and Hope bid them good night and promised to find them on weekdays at work. "That would be very considerate of you", the Husband (that was how Scott would call him until he managed to say his actual name right) replied.

Gamora left shortly afterwards with the younger band members, followed by Sam and Buck. Hope and Maria were happily chatting, so Scott didn't bother with asking to leave for some time. Instead, he gathered with Carol, Drax, Rhodey and Quill to talk about the gym members that weren't there with them. Once again, Carol made fun of Ronan, which prompted loud laugh from them all. "Man, he and Luis should have come see you guys", Scott said. "You were awesome on that stage!"

It was almost 2 PM when he saw Hope yawning. He took it as their cue to leave, along with Carol and Maria. "We'll wait for you at your house", Maria said, "so you can say bye to Monica."

Scott and Hope talked about the evening's events all the way to her home. He told her a few more things about his former school classmates, and they shared their impressions on the Wakanda family. They stopped at her house too soon for his liking.

"So…", she started, biting her lower lip. "See you Monday?"

He rubbed his neck. He had planned on asking for a good night, but suddenly he was too nervous to do so. "Yeah, yeah. See you."

A frown showed on her face, but it quickly faded away. "I really enjoyed tonight", she said. "Thank you for coming with me."

He blinked. "Pleasure was all mine, Hope. Tonight… it wouldn't have been nearly as fun without you."

An awkward silence fell between them. He opened his mouth to ask for the damn kiss, but nothing came out. She smile and said 'good night', before opening the car door and leaving.

As she closed it and walked to her home, he groaned and facepalmed. Why was he such a coward? All he had to do was ask! Even if she said no, at least he tried.

He did his best to hide his frustration as he bid good night to Carol, Maria and Monica, but he wasn't sure he succeeded at it. Cassie actually asked if he was okay, but seemingly believed him when he said he was just tired. She even yawned as to agree with him.

As he laid down on his bed, he could only hope he didn't ruin his chances with Hope—assuming he had to begin with.

On Monday, she was still acting friendly with him. If Pym's weird glares were anything to go by, he supposed he didn't ruin everything.

As usual, they had lunch at the cafeteria. Okoye's husband quietly asked if he could sit with them, and Hope softly said yes, even getting his name right (Something-Caby). Deep down, he had wanted to spend lunch alone with Hope to ask her out for real—away from her father's prying eyes—but it seemed way too selfish and cruel to turn Something-Caby down.

They took advantage of his presence to ask about his family's life in Sierra Leone. "I'm part of the family by marriage", he explained. "Usually the woman takes her husband's last name, as it happens here, but the Wakandas were such a prominent family we both decided it was better if I took it instead. I already worked there, so the name could open some doors for me."

She frowned, but he was quicker to ask, "Used to? What happened?"

The man sighed. "Civil war. It started a few years ago, and it's destroying our country. We managed to stay safe at the beginning, but then my father-in-law, T'Chaka, was murdered. We gathered our things, named some people to be in charge of our companies, and flew away."

Scott blinked, honestly unsure of what to reply to that. War had always been something far away to him. He knew one of his maternal uncles fought in the Vietnam War when he was his age, and he learned about "small" wars that happened during the Cold War, especially around Middle East, but hearing someone he knew—even if for a few days—talking about it as something he lived… it was mind-blowing, in a saddening way.

It was Hope who talked first. "I hope one day it will be safe for you guys to go back", she nearly whispered. Something-Caby nodded with a small smile.

Scott took the silence that followed to ask him about his work. He seemed happy to change the subject, and took the opportunity to get them to talk about their work as well.

At the end of the day, Hope left with her father, as usual, and he didn't get a chance to talk to her. The rest of the week was pretty much the same: Pym always around, only away at lunchtime, when at least one other person joined them. On Thursday, during training, Luis suggested he'd just ask her to talk privately. "It's not that hard", he claimed, as if Scott was the most socially competent person in the world. Had he forgotten about Nikki?

There was no question on Luis' advice, though; it was the only way he could assure some alone time between him and Hope. He had to do it.

Of course, doubt would creep its way to his mind. Was it too soon to make a move? He knew his crush on Hope was stronger than he had on Nikki at any point, but what if he was acting too early? His co-worker and friend seemed to like him on a platonic level, and maybe that was all he was going to get.

He groaned. Those questions would get him nowhere. He'd only get an answer if he talked to her. It wasn't like he knew anyone who could know about her feelings for him—maybe her parents, but talking to Pym and Jane was out of question.

So, in the morning, he approached her while Pym was in the bathroom. "Hey, I want to talk to you after work… I can drive you home after if your father doesn't want to wait."

She nodded and told her father she'd overstay at Stark for an hour. He glared at Scott, but simply said "Ok."

Well, Pym trusted him with his daughter. Things could have been worse.

As expected, they didn't have lunch by themselves. It was fine, though; T'Challa told them about the companies his family owned in their home country. Pepper even sat with them to listen to him, and he and Hope ended up in the middle of a intense business discussion among the two.

Pym left with a glare that clearly meant Scott was assigned with the task of taking Hope home, regardless of his initial plans. Good thing he intended to do it all along; he could only hope she wanted to be taken home by him.

Since Hope was given the keys of the Quantum Research Department, they decided to have their talk there, so no one would disturb them. They sat beside one of the reactors.

"So, what do you have to tell me?", she asked politely. She might have noticed his nervousness.

He rubbed his neck. "Well… I was wond-wondering if… doyouwanttogooutwithme?"

She blinked and frowned. "I'm sorry, what?"

Oh, my. This was not going well. He sighed. "Look, Hope, I like you. Really like you. I… I'd like to go out with you. Just the two of us, like the first half of that party last weekend. So… would you like to?"

She tilted her head. "You mean, like a date?" He nodded frantically. She smiled. "Yes, I'd love to."

He managed to hold his screams until halfway between Hope's home and his own.

February of 1998

"Bet I can run twice your record", he heard Carol say as he left his training room, presumably to Quill.

"You've come back for only two months, you're out of practice", Quill replied, although weakly. "You know what, Sunday 8 AM, Central Park. Loser pays the winner lunch and dinner on the day."

He heard Carol's smirk before seeing it. "Deal. Save a lot of money, Starlord. I like fancy." At that, she glanced at Maria, smirking wider.

Apparently, his friend started (re)developing feelings for Maria sometime between October and November. She also managed to get back to work at Shield (a police organization that provided resources for witness protection—the coincidence wasn't ignored by anyone) by the end of the year.

Everyone was glad to have Carol back, even if she still wasn't entirely the same person they knew.

"Scott!", she exclaimed when she saw him. "Be our judge this Sunday! Someone has to make sure Quill won't cheat."

"I don't cheat!", Quill replied instantly.

"Yes, you do", Gamora deadpanned. She had started going to the gym a little before Carol returned. "In almost every single game we play."

Quill opened his mouth to reply, smirk already in place, but Drax dutifully told him to shut up. Taking advantage of the blessed silence, Gamora turned to Scott. "Is Hope going to join us anytime soon?"

He shrugged. "So far she prefers to just keep running."

They've been dating for half a year now. On Valentine's Day, a couple days ago, they skipped college to go to Broadway watch The Lion King. He won't admit it to his friend anytime soon—probably never—but he's sure he cried more than his girlfriend during the play. As the gentleman his parents had raised him to be, he paid for any souvenirs she wanted—fortunately, not many.

Things were going well so far. Sometimes he couldn't believe his luck, to have managed to win the heart of such an amazing woman. He was pretty sure he was falling in love at this rate.

He said goodbye to his friends and headed home to take a shower. He was to be at Hope's in an hour to watch some Winter Olympics games with her family—even Pym joined in.

His girlfriend had always loved winter, saying it was the most beautiful season. She also loved winter sports, to the point she usually spent her summer vacations on South hemisphere (South America, mostly). The only reason they met last summer was because Pym wanted to train her—and him—before college started. Only when winter came to New York she told him about what she had missed.

That night, they'd watch biathlon competitions. During Winter Olympics, the Pym-Van Dyne houseworkers had an extra job: recording all games so they could peacefully watch then at night. Apparently, they loved that assignment, because it was essentially watching TV all day.

(Well, he wasn't going to complain either, if it were him.)

Hope and Jane always had something to say during a game, but biathlon was something Hope was deeply passionate about. She knew all rules and tricks, and would give her input in every single performance. Usually, he, Janet and Pym would stay silent during her comments, but tonight he couldn't help himself.

"Why don't you go compete next Olympics, Hope?", he blurted out.

She stopped mid-sentence, paused the video and looked at him with wide eyes. It felt like an eternity before she spoke, a simple "What?" coming from her mouth.

He sighed and rubbed his nape. "Well, you know everything about the sport. You talk about details I can't even begin to understand, and I generally learn about sports easily. Also, you told me you know how to ski and shoot. I'm sure that, if you started practicing, you'd be good for the next Olympics. Maybe not medal-level, but…", he trailed off, not wanting to repeat himself.

Her eyes turned to her hands. "I've never… thought about it." She raised her eyes to him, and the confusion on her face almost made him take his words back. (Almost. He firmly believed Hope would make a great athlete on whatever she wanted—though he might be biased.)

Janet simply smiled, and Pym kept a neutral expression, moving only to adjust his glasses. Eventually, the silence became too much, and Scott gently asked if they were still going to watch the game.

"Actually, Scott", Pym said, "I think it's a little late. You both have college and work tomorrow."

He nodded and stood up to leave. Hope's goodbye was quiet, and he decided to leave a peck on her forehead instead of her lips.

On the following day, he didn't catch her on campus, but it wasn't unusual; despite taking the same major, they didn't share all the classes, meaning their schedules rarely matched.

It was weird, however, when she didn't show up for lunch. It almost never happened and, when it did, she found a way to tell him—either going to find him herself or sending a classmate to do it. A complete absence didn't feel good. At this point, he didn't even know if she went to classes at all.

It were days like these he wished they had moved to campus. It had never been really necessary, of course, but sometimes he thought about how practical it would have been if he had accepted Quill's offer to share a dorm, and/or if Hope had gone to campus as she had originally intended to do.

He saw her at Stark, of course, but she was quiet the whole time. Pym behaved roughly the same; however, when Hope took a bathroom break, he approached Scott. "She's not mad at you", he said. "She's been like this with everyone. It's how she is when she has a decision to make. All we can do is wait for her to come back to us."

He nodded and thanked him. There was no need to ask which decision she was thinking about.

Still, the silence killed him. He and Hope had never stayed this long without talking, not even when they fought. When they had disagreements, they usually solved it in less than 24 hours. By the fifth day of not speaking to each other, he couldn't keep it to himself anymore. He took his lunchtime to look for her at campus, finding her by the football field, wearing a grey hoodie (without the hood on, thankfully).

"Didn't know you were a fan of football", he said teasingly as he sat beside her on the bench. "Should've taken you to Bucky's game last week."

She glanced at him, but not for long; seconds later, she turned her head back to the empty field. He sighed. "Look, I know you need time to think. Time and… whatever it is that you're doing. But I miss you, Hope. I just… want to hear your voice again. Even if it's to yell at me, or something. Anything."

She turned to him again, and this time her eyes stayed on him. He noticed she was biting her lower lip, and seemed to be doing so for some time. There were circles under her eyes, and she looked a little more pale than usual.

He had noticed these changes on her earlier, of course, while on Stark. But now that he had a chance to look at her better, he could confirm that yes, she was suffering. And he hated to see her suffer.

"I'm sorry", he said quietly. "Had I known my suggestion would leave you this distressed—"

She raised her hand, in a sign for him to stop. "Don't", she said, voice hoarse due to lack of use. "You have nothing to apologize for." She placed her hands on her lap and stared at them. "It's just… there was lot more to think about than I assumed at first. Your words opened a can of worms I had never been much aware of before."

He wanted to ask her for details right away, but kept his mouth shut. Better to let her talk.

Which she did. "I've wanted to become a professional athlete for a long time. My mother is Janet Van Dyne, of freaking course sports was an option for me. But… I've told you about what I went through in my school years. I was rejected in any sports teams, not by the coaches, but by my teammates. Eventually I gave up." She turned back to him, resting her head on her knee. "I know I could have done it like you did, but I was so bummed up by it all that… it lost its appeal. Sports. So I turned to my dad's field of work. People usually ignored nerds, so I saw it as a chance of getting peace and quiet. And never looked back… until now."

He raised a hand to caress her cheek, and she smiled weakly at him—it was more than he had gotten in days, and his heart skipped a beat. "Most people would have brushed my comment aside, you know. Just move on with their lives like nothing happened."

"I can't do that", she replied immediately. "Not when it's you saying it. Not when my mom looks at me like she knows something I don't. And definitely not when dad looks softly at me like I'm a child again, crying because other kids started calling me 'Wasp'. I couldn't just let it go. At least… giving it a though was the least I could do." She bit her lip. "And… I might as well give it a try, right? Next vacation trip. If I don't like it, end of story. If I do… we'll see how it goes."

He slowly approached her until their ankles were touching. Then he placed a hand on her arched back. "If you're sure. I'll support whatever choice you make."

She smile softly again. "I know."

Ushuaia, Argentina, summer of 1998

As it turned out, supporting Hope included going with her to Argentina on summer vacation—tickets and hotel room paid by her parents. He definitely wasn't complaining, especially when Pym was the first to say he wasn't going to pay a separate room for him and Hope.

(They ended up not doing much… she'd go to bed exhausted most days, from training. She'd still cuddle, though, which was just as great.)

They found a biathlon training camp within two days of travelling. Janet's contacts helped a lot. Pym hired an instructor to give her basic training, but within a week everything was covered.

"Out of curiosity", he asked once while Hope was on target practice, "why exactly does she know how to shoot?"

He had turned to Pym, but it was Janet who answered, "My dear husband wanted our daughter to be able to defend herself, and couldn't do it like a normal parent."

That prompted an immediate reply from Hank. "What was she supposed to learn, street fight? Nobody will dare to come near her if she's got a gun."

"Hope is not going to carry a gun around, Hank, let alone a rifle." Janet's exasperated tone showed that this was far from the first time the two had such an argument, and Scott regretted bringing the subject up.

"Well, regardless of safety precautions, it paid off. Look at her now." And with that, the conversation was over.

They'd take turns in following Hope to practice. Usually one of them would stay at the camp while the other two would take a walk around the town nearby. According to the locals, they were at the southernmost city in the world, which explained the cold.

On their first night, Hope took him to a famous local pub. It was nice, but they had to be careful with their alcohol ingestion so Hope wouldn't wake up with a hangover on her first day of training. He didn't hold back when he and Pym went there alone, though; the following day was Janet's turn to follow Hope.

On another day, while Pym was on camp, he and Janet went to the National Park. It was a quick and uneventful walk, but relaxing nonetheless.

One day he found himself running from beavers as he tried to reach a famous lake—only to find it mostly frozen. At least he and Janet were able to take some pictures. On another, he temporarily forgot he was with an in-law and started playing with penguins.

Their hotel had a gym, where he trained every morning. Couldn't afford to lose habit.

There were shopping days as well, but they all grew tired of the city with ten days. Problem was, they planned to stay there for two months. What could they do in the next seven weeks?

After a long talk, which included telling Hope she shouldn't feel guilty over their boredom, they decided to take turns. Janet and Hank would stay with their daughter for the next three weeks while Scott would go to other places in Argentina (like Buenos Aires and Bariloche); then he'd switch places with the couple for the rest of the trip.

The following day had Scott on a plane to Buenos Aires. He arrived at early afternoon, and ate a burger for lunch. He knew his in-laws were lending him money for the trip—since he was there for Hope—but he didn't want to take advantage of that. Cheap meals were his goal.

However, he did spend extra money on a city tour. He wanted an overview of the city before fully exploring it. He had at least a full week there.

On his second day, he opted for visiting the Botanic Garden first. It was a nice and relaxing place, and he found himself playing with cats—there were a lot of them. He had just released a cat and was about to pick another to pet when he saw her.

A slim girl had a gray cat in her arms and was caressing it. She was with three other teens, who all but one looked younger than her. Her hair was red and straight, but it clearly wasn't naturally straight, and it wasn't enough for him to mistake her for someone else. After all, they'd been table partners in several classes for a couple years.

He knew he should ignore it, but his mouth was faster than his brain.


She turned to him and her eyes widened. Crap.

'Awkward' wasn't strong enough to describe their conversation.

"I go by Natalia", Natasha said in a low voice, despite having told her friends to leave them alone for the time being. "Nickname is still Nat. That's why I aknowkedged your call… didn't recognize your voice at first."

"I won't tell a soul", he said immediately. "I swear."

She gave him a half smile that didn't reach her eyes. "Thanks, Scott." She glanced at her friends, who were taking care of the cat, and turned back to him. "I miss New York. And everyone."

He smiled softly. "You've been missed too, you know. Gam—Georgina has yet to find a replacement female friend."

She raised an eyebrow at his near-slip, but did not comment on it. Instead, she asked, "How is she?"

He shrugged. "She's going. Got a boyfriend and a band nearly at the same time, goin—"

"A boyfriend and a band?", she asked bluntly, desbelief clear in her voice. He chuckled and briefly explained how Georgina—God, it was weird to call her by her birth name now, but he wasn't going to tell Natasha about the codenames—started dating Quill and how the couple gathered some friend to form a band. By the end of his story, she was chuckling along. "G's life got a bit wild, huh."

They talked for a few more minutes, asking each other about their life but not giving much information away. Eventually they bid their goodbyes.

"How long are you going to stay here?", she asked.

"A week, I think. Planning on going to other cities then… I'll stay in the country until early August."

He knew she wanted to ask why, but also that she wasn't going to. "I wish I could take you to see the city", she said instead. "But it's not safe. For either of us."

He nodded, biting his lip. "I know, I know." He proceeded to hug her. He remembered Natasha as someone who wasn't fond of hugs, but who knew when he'd see her again?

She seemed to think the same thing, since she hugged him back, though briefly. "Take care, Scott."

"You too, Nat. Hope you'll come back soon."

She nodded at that and turned to go to her friends. He walked back to his hotel; it was past dawn.

He didn't see Natasha or any of her friends for the rest of the week. He supposed she purposefully avoided touristic points so they wouldn't bump into each other again.

He wondered what she told to her friends after their encounter. Maybe nothing. He knew he wasn't going to ever mention the incident; not until she came back.

In the end, he decided to go to Iguazu Falls before heading to Bariloche; it was located on the border between three countries, which he found awesome.

All three places were great experiences and, while part of him wished Hope was there with him, he was glad that he got to make a trip all by himself, in his own pace.

(Also, it spared him an explanation about Natasha. Honestly, that was the best part of making the trip alone.)

True to the schedule, he went back to Ushuaia three weeks after leaving. A day later, Hope's parents left.

The following three weeks were roughly the same. He'd go with Hope to the training camp, watch her train while talking about sports with coaches and other practitioners, they'd have dinner on the hotel's restaurant and spend the night at their room, doing whatever they had energy to.

On the final week, Hope decided to lessen her training hours so she could get to actually know the city. Despite having already gone to all touristic points before, he had more fun the second time. Janet was nice and all, and Pym could be fun, but they were not his girlfriend.

In the end, they only met with the couple at Buenos Aires, on their way back to New York.

"So", he began when they finally got on the yellow taxi that would take them to Hope's home, "how was it?"

Her eyes sparkled. "Amazing."

Fall of 1999

They shared more classes on sophomore year, which was great, because, as months went by, they spent less and less time together outside college and Stark Industries.

Hope decided she'd perfect her performance enough to be qualified to the next Winter Olympics in 2002, which meant daily training—training which was completely different from Scott's.

Scott's training itself was getting more intense as the year 2000 approached, and the next Summer Olympics with it. Luis was stupidly creative in his plans, and he found himself getting so exhausted he needed Cassie to wake him up.

He and Hope settled on weekly dates. Sunday was their day. The other days could be for anything else: work, training, studies, friends… but not Sundays.

It worked for a good while. Both Scott and Hope loved arts, so they'd often go to the movies and to Broadway. (His favorite play was The Lion King, while hers was Chicago.) They'd also go to parties; sometimes by themselves, sometimes with friends. There were also times when they'd spend the entire day at one of their homes.

But then one day Hope had a project due to Monday, and had to focus on finishing it. He helped her, of course, but it wasn't the same.

Then one day Scott hurt his foot and had to go without training the whole week, and had to train on Sunday to compensate for it. She went to gym with him and even mimicked some of his exercises, but it wasn't the same.

One day Hank called them in an emergency at the department and, while they were together, they had to focus on fixing equipment.

Then tests came, and they had to study on Sundays—not always together. Birthdays would fall on Sundays, and they weren't always able to change their date day. Sometimes they couldn't even manage to attend the parties together.

By April, their dates no longer happened weekly, but twice a month. They'd see each other everyday on college and work, sure, but it wasn't enough. They couldn't talk properly, or be together properly.

More often than not their time together was spent in tired states. And tiredness brought fights.

"Can you at least look at me when I'm talking?", Hope all but screamed at him.

"Well, if you had paid attention to what I told you, none of this would have happened!", he shouted back.

He barely remembered how that argument started, but soon they were calling each other names, shouting louder and louder as if it was a competition.

(And maybe it was. So much training left them with over competitive spirits.)

Eventually she stood up and left (they were at his home; thankfully Cassie was out), slamming the door behind her. He laid down on the couch, taking deep breaths to calm himself down.

It was getting worse every time. He wanted things to work out, but was it worth it?

Would Hope want it to?

…She wouldn't. She didn't.

"Scott", she said softly, a week later, while having lunch at college. "I think you already noticed it, didn't you? We're… not working as of late."

He held his breath. He should have known this was coming.

She kept going. "We can barely make time for each other and… it's not our fault. Life's getting in the way. I think… it may not be the best time for neither of us to be in a relationship. Including each other."

He released his breath. At least she was being gentle about it, and sounded as hurt as he was feeling. It wasn't because she didn't want him.

Honestly, it made the pain worse.

"I don't want to", he replied, voice weak. "But I guess we have to."

And that was it. They were over.

He cried on Gamora's shoulder for hours. He called a sick day at Stark's (he hadn't done it in months) and drove straight to her home, not caring if he'd find Quill there or not. (Or whether she'd actually be there.)

Thankfully, she was there by herself. She hugged him and whispered some meaningless comfort words while apologizing for not being the best comforter. He wanted to tell her it wasn't true but soon he realized what she meant: she knew his first option would have been Carol. But his friend had been cleared for field work and left the country two months ago.

"Sorry for bothering you", he said eventually.

"You have nothing to be sorry for", she assured him. "I know you loved Hope a lot. Still do."

He nodded. "But I guess it is not enough if you can't make time for the person you love. And that's exactly what we both did to each other."

She didn't reply at first. "You said you have the day off?" He nodded. "Then you should come with me to watch the band's rehearsal. It starts in an hour, after I—we—pick Groot at school."

He sniffed. "Sounds fun. As long as Quill doesn't spend the whole time making bad jokes and bragging about himself."

She laughed. "Don't worry about that, he prefers to spend his time eating."

He was given a winter break at Stark's, which he used to go with his family to Los Angeles to spend the holidays with his parents.

They picked on his downer mood right away, and asked if it was about Hope. He still shed a tear upon telling them about the break-up, which earned him a big hug from Cassie.

He loved that, despite already being ten years old, his cousin was still affectionate towards him. Hopefully that wouldn't change.

It was easier than expected to ignore the ghost pain in his chest as he celebrated Christmas at his parents' home and spent New Year's Eve at the LA Coliseum, singing with everyone as they celebrated the turn of millenium. They even managed to drive to the Hollywood sign in time to take pictures as it glowed in different colors.

They still had two more days before having to head back to New York; he was glad the century started on a Saturday. His parents promised to visit on spring break before meeting again in Australia for Olympics.

Speaking of which, the first day of 2000 found him nervous. He was confirmed to compete on Sydney, and the name Ant-Man had begun to rise again at the last months of 1999. He had roughly a year and a half of not hearing anything about his performance at Atlanta, and college gave him an opportunity to build an image of himself that was detached from his sports career. Not that he didn't like to be recognized for his medal; on the contrary. However, it'd do him no good in the academic field to be known simply as a sports guy—even more now that he'd taken a liking in research as he learned more both in classes and in his internship under Hank.

But the pressure of Ant-Man was quite a lot. People had begun to ask questions he had no answers to, such as his chances on winning another medal—preferably silver or gold. Everyone seemed to expect that he'd do better this year, and that made him afraid of failure. Luis had had to calm him down a few times already, and the stress had prompted a few arguments with Hope prior to their break-up. His aunt announced, on their flight back to New York, that he'd start seeing a therapist. He was sure that action had been born out of some talk with his mother, who was a therapist herself.

Of course, it was easier said than done. He ended up asking Sam for suggestions, since he was taking a major in Psychology. Luckily there was one near the gym.

He was unsure of the benefits of seeing a therapist at that moment. Sure, therapy was useful; his mother could spend two whole days explaining its importance. But he needed all the extra time available to study and train; a one-hour therapy session would mess with his schedule—and wouldn't that make him more nervous?

As it turned out, no. The therapist, who identified herself as Rebbecca Kaplan, actually helped him sort out his problems and emotions. She gave him reasonable and practical advice, ones that usually worked pretty well. She gained his trust rather easily, and soon he found himself looking forward to their weekly sessions.

It was thanks to one of those sessions that he asked Hank to talk in private after an afternoon of work. "So, Mr. Pym", he began, "I was wondering… I've been working at the Quantum department for over a year now. It has obviously been an amazing place for learning, but I think that spending some time in other departments would help me greatly. I'm not asking for permanent transfer, just… an elective, if you may."

Hank let out a half grin. "No need to be so formal, Scott. I suppose this is not just about wanting to know other departments, huh?"

Scott sighed. His boss had caught him. "No, it's not. But Hope is not the main reason, I swear."

"I believe you. And even if it was, I wouldn't judge you. I'm surprised Hope hasn't asked the same thing yet, though I think she might after seeing you do it…" He sighed and patted him on the shoulder. "It's okay, Scott. As I've told you when you two broke up, I'm not mad at either of you. I trust my daughter to choose what's best for her, and I believe you two can sort things out on your own."

Scott nodded and gave him a half smile. Shortly after their break-up, Hank had called him in to assure him he was not in jeopardy due to what had happened.

"I'm aware you hadn't met Hope before your first day here, and I'm inclined to believe you two would have gotten together at college anyway", he had said at the time. "The fact that you two dated is merely a coincidence, and I've treated your relationship as another one between coworkers, something that isn't frowned upon here. As long as you two maintain a respectful and professional relationship with each other and me, I see no reason to have any of you out."

His voice tone indicated that he wouldn't favor Hope if she did anything wrong. Maybe he shouldn't have, but he felt relieved that Hank had always behaved professionally well and would treat him and his daughter as equals, for better or for worse.

It also meant he never gave any input as former future father-in-law, which brought him another relief. He probably knew the reasons behind their break-up.

Scott had to fill some papers to formally ask for temporary transfer, as it had to be approved by Hank, Mr. Stark and whoever would welcome him. A few days, he got approved for a two-month internship at Sustainability department; his paper had been signed by Everret Ross, which left him excited—he was head of T'Challa's department.

He started at the first day of March. Ross greeted him with a wide smile and promptly took him for a quick walk around the department, explaining what they did there.

"Hank Pym's Quantum department studies quantum physics for many uses", he began. "Health matters, transportation, weaponry… you know them better than me, obviously. Here, instead of focusing on a study field, we focus on what we can do for our environment. Sustainable energy for the building and factories, alternate forms of fueling vehicles, ways to reduce use of metals on each product made, recycling… We have many projects going on here. You can pick a specific one right away or choose to explore a bit of each first before focusing on one."

Naturally, he decided for the later. Hearing Mr. Ross left him excited for the many possibilities, and he wanted to see his options.

At the end of the week, he chose a project under T'Challa's supervision, which consisted of using vibranium (a recently discovered metal that was mainly mined on Central Africa) to improve other metals' durability.

"Vibranium is not of much use on its own, but it adds properties to other kinds of metal", his sort-of friend explained. "I had learned about it while still in Sierra Leone, and brought the knowledge to Mr. Stark."

If Scott was fascinated with quantum physics, he was mesmerized by his new discoveries. He was under T'Challa's direct supervision, since Ross had to oversee all employers of the department—he had three times more employers under his care than Hank, which was understandable given the amount of projects led there. Hank had a number of projects, but all were small enough for him to not need to recruit more people to assist him. The man also preferred to have as much control over his research as possible; the Quantum Department was clearly his pet peeve.

Only T'Challa and a man named Ulysses Klaue were working on vibranium studies, however, so his arrival was very much welcomed—especially by the former. "Klaue doesn't seem to like me much", he explained at lunch once. "He is polite and never said a bad thing, but his distaste for me is clear. I hope it's not prejudice, but… there is no other reason for it, to be honest."

He sighed upon hearing that. T'Challa clearly brought great knowledge and ability to Stark Industries, but it seemed that some people valued appearances more.

(And maybe religion too. Klaue always seemed especially angry when T'Challa retreated to his prayers. It didn't matter that he only interrupted his work to pray once—the other time he prayed at work was lunchtime—he got grumpy about it anyway.)

Ulysses was neutral with him; though he didn't seem to like that he'd rather hang out with T'Challa, he never actually voiced his opinion on anything. He had friends of his own from other departments, with whom he'd crack bad jokes and talk loudly at the cafeteria—Scott was suddenly reminded of why he and Hope never had lunch after 1:30 PM, time at which Klaue and his friends usually arrived—but when the three of them were working he was mostly quiet. He was easy to read, though, and Scott caught on his distaste quickly. Per T'Challa's advice—that almost sounded like a plea—he didn't say anything in front of the man.

Meanwhile, Luis kept finding new training routines, one more challenging than the next. There were mornings he'd even fall asleep at classes, given his exhaustion from the previous day. It came to a point he asked Luis to change his training schedule. "I can't keep falling asleep at college, man. I gotta learn, you know."

Luis rambled about the Olympics being priority, but eventually conceded. From Sunday to Thursday he got lighter exercises, which got way heavier on Fridays and Saturdays. Luis also took advantage of every time Scott said he didn't have his first class; if he could arrive at college later, he could sleep more to compensate.

His relief was that most days were of non-lifting exercises. Luis was very adamant that he didn't lift weights more than three times a week; he spent the other days strengthening his back and working on mobility, flexibility and speed.

His two-month period with T'Challa flew by too fast. His friend brought cake on his last day at the department, and even Ulysses gave him a goodbye hug.

"Don't ignore me when you see me around, man", Klaue said, as if the two had been best buddies. Scott really didn't understand the man, but assured him he wouldn't forget him.

Ross thanked him for his work, and told him he was always welcomed when his internship ended. "When will it end, by the way?", he asked absently.

"It's a four-year internship", he replied. "I can ask to leave before, but if I want my place at Stark's guaranteed, I have to stay here until graduation."

Ross nodded. "It makes sense, especially coming from Howard. I suppose you earn more as time goes by, right?"

He nodded. A sudden thought came into his mind: would Ross argue with Stark if it wasn't the case?

"Very well", Ross said, calling him back to reality. "I'm sure you will be great in whatever you decide to work on, Scott. Good luck."

T'Challa invited him to grab dinner at Starbucks with his sister Okoye. "It's her favorite restaurant", he said as they walked out of the building to meet her. "She's obsessed with their coffee."

"I'm not obsessed", her voice cut through the air, nearly giving Scott a heart attack. "I just have good taste."

"You can keep telling yourself that, dear sister", T'Challa replied with a smirk.

Their reunion was rather quick. They had a brief talk over Scott's time at Sustainability Department and Okoye's job. They also talked about their workmates—she spoke highly of Rhodey while he and T'Challa expressed their doubts on Ulysses. He even talked a bit about Hope and Hank.

He arrived home to find Monica and Cassie planning the later's eleventh birthday. It was due in a month, but his cousin was too excited about it to wait a single more day. When Maria came to pick her daughter up, late at night, she asked him how he was doing. "I heard about your break-up", she said.

He sighed. "Hey Maria, sorry I didn't stop by these months… you should have heard it from me, not f—"

She waved her hand dismissively. "I understand, Scott. It's my fault too, for leaving the gym after Carol left. I started going to one near work, because it made my life easier, and I know the price I paid for it. Socially, I mean."

"Still, you're my friend too."

Maria smiled. "Of course. Well, I know you're busy due to Olympics and all, but feel free to stop by whenever you can. Just make sure you don't show up at my work hours."

They talked for a few more minutes until Cassie yawned and waved good night to Monica, not being able to hold herself awake any longer. The teenager—God, Monica was about to turn fifteen—chuckled and told her mother she was ready to leave.

"Take care, girls", he said as they left.

"Take care you too, Scott", Maria shouted back.

Sydney, September 2000

He stayed by himself at the Olympic Village; his parents and Luis found a hotel nearby, though. Cassie and her parents stayed behind due to school, which also refrained Monica from coming, no matter how much they wanted to. Maria, though, did show up two days after his arrival, and Carol surprised them all by taking a leave from work just to personally support him.

"Just don't ask anything about my work and we'll be fine", she said when he showed concern about it. "I wasn't there for you in 1996, I couldn't miss your performance this time, my dear Ant-Man."

His parents caught on early that Monica and Carol were a couple, and seemingly told Cassie's parents—either that or they caught on it as well. For a moment Scott was worried they'd want Cassie to stay away from them, but they kept treating them normally; the only difference was that now they openly asked relationship stuff. His father even accidentally asked about marriage at their first dinner, the night before his first performance.

"Darling", his mother called him out, and he hit his head on the able. Carol laughed at that.

"It's fine, Mr. Lang", she said. "But to answer your question… personally, if gay marriage is ever legalized, I plan for Maria and I to be first in line."

"Please tell me this is not your idea of a proposal", Maria replied instantly, earning chuckles from the whole table.

"Maaaybee", Carol said while take a sip from her wine glass.

He was much thankful for his friend's presence. It helped him ease his nerves. Luis had tried, but his quick rambling only made things worse. Staying at the village on the first few days didn't help much either.

On his second night, he went to one of the bars to relax and dance. After two beers, he found himself with a French swimmer whose shoulders were broader than his own. They talked for a bit—the usual talk you had at Olympics, about sports and personal life—and soon were on the dance floor, alternating between dancing and making out. He vaguely registered others doing roughly the same. It reminded him of 1996, when he was too awkward to make a move on anyone and decided to explore Atlanta instead of staying at the village and watch everyone hook up.

Now he had decided he should have at least some fun while at Sydney. And Emilie wanted the same. So when the DJ started playing disco music for some reason—Raining men was nice, but sounded completely out of place—he took her hand and led her out of the bar.

Everything was going smoothly. He was sure they'd go all the way. But then Emilie said his name and no French accent stopped him from seeing Hope's face instead of hers. He paused mid-kiss and drifted away slowly, blinking like an idiot.

"Something wrong?", she asked, and her black hair and dark eyes reminded him so much of Hope his heart ached like it hadn't for months.

"I… I'm sorry", he whispered. Better to be honest. "I… you reminded me of my ex for a moment. Not your fault, I swear."

She smiled softly. "Still love her, right?"

He nodded. "Thought I had moved on, but… anyway, it's not fair to you."

She bit her lip. "I don't mind. Not exactly looking for a boyfriend, if you know what I mean. Of course, if you don't want to anymore, I get it. I know missing your ex sucks."

He sighed and looked at her. "You know what? Let's do this."

She laughed and kissed him again. They woke up in his dorm, which he shared with a German tennis player—who had a bed mate of his own at morning.

It was a fun night, sure, but he lost interest on hooking up at later nights. He didn't want to be reminded of Hope again. So while he didn't run away from the village like last time, he chose to hang out with other people who were not interested in hooking up (that specific night, at least). That and exploring the city with his family and friends.

His competition day was the 5th of the Olympics. He went to bed early, thanking the heavens for the fact that his roommate decided to spend the night in someone else's dorm, and woke up at sunrise. Somewhere between excited and utterly nervous, he dressed up quickly and met with Luis at Sydney Convention Centre. His parents, Maria and Carol were already inside.

"Hey buddy", his coach began, "I know everyone expects you to win silver or gold, or at least another bronze medal. But seriously, don't focus on medal. Focus on doing your best. Medals depend not only on you, but on others, and you can't control other athletes' performances. Focus on your own, man. Then whatever the result, you'll know you did your best."

He took a deep breath as he hugged Luis. His coach may speak ramble, but he knew how to comfort him when he needed it.

Before heading to the camp, he went to the bathroom. Inside, he heard a familiar voice. Oh God, not again. Not now.

But he was out of luck. When the voice's owner turned his head after zipping his pants up, he was met with Clint Barton's face.

Unlike Natasha, Clint freaked out when he saw Scott, who freaked out in return. When both calmed down enough to actually speak to each other, Clint ran his fingers through his hair, letting out a frustrated.

"I should have known you'd be here, I should have! I saw you on TV four years ago, of damn course you'd come here! Oh man, this is not good, this is not good…"


"I'll have to move to another city, another country…"


"Oh my, how am I going to explain this to—"


He blinked. "What?"

He sighed. He was tempted to say he had already met Nat, but he knew he had to show he was trustworthy—and slipping that information would have the opposite effect. "I know I'm not supposed to tell anyone I saw you. One of my best friends works at witness protection, I'm aware of the precautions. I won't tell a soul, I swear. I wish I had more time to convince you, but I gotta go now."

And, without giving Clint a chance to reply, he turned and ran to the field.

He was announced as Scott Lang, followed by a brief cheer of "Ant-Man!" likely led by Carol (or his dad). He was the fourth to perform, after guys from China, Canada and Brazil.

He crouched down and grabbed the barbell. He was supposed to lift it all at once; it was the kind of lifting he had the most trouble learning. Focus, Scott!

Taking a deep breath, he pulled the weight and, with a jump, lifted up his head. After a brief loud cheer from the crowd, he put it down and shook hands with the next competitor, a boy from New Zealand.

He performed the same kind of lifting (snatch), with a heavier weight, other two times. The second time was smoother than the first, but on his third lifting, he accidentally spotted Clint on the crowd, staring directly at him, right before grabbing the barbell. Suddenly nervous, he lost balance just at the weight went above his head, falling back.

Thankfully, the weight fell on the floor, not on him. He got up just fine, seeing the obviously expected red light.

When he sat back, while watching other competitors, Luis patted his shoulder and told him to take slow breaths. Following his commands, he felt himself getting calmer as time went by and he was called again, now for clean-and-jerk. That style was more natural to him, being the first kind of lifting he mastered. He wouldn't fail this time.

Not looking at the crowd helped. Clint's frightened face didn't bother his this time. All lifts were successful.

When results came, to nobody's surprise, he didn't get a medal this time. Honestly, 5th place was incredibly high giving his big failure. He took his time to congratulate and two Bulgarian men who placed 1st and 2nd, as well as the Belarusian who got bronze. He glanced at where Clint was sitting, but he was talking to a woman at his side, and he didn't wait for him to turn around.

He told everyone he fell due to temporary dizziness, especially the press. There was no way to tell the truth without giving Clint away. Then he spent the night with his family and friends at the hotel they were staying in. He didn't want to hear condolences from strangers.

Despite his loss, they decided to stay for the closing ceremony. Maria had to go back early, because of Monica, but Carol managed to stay. Together, they went around the city and watched a couple movies. He did watch other games; honestly, he felt like that Olympics would be more memorable than the last one.

On his last day, his roommate told him there was going to be a huge party at the village. "C'mon man", he said. "Let's have some fun on our last night!"

"Sorry buddy", he replied truthfully, "but my flight is due to four hours. I should have already left."

The guy seemed actually sorry for Scott, which was weird given they barely talked to each other. "A shame, man. Have a good trip!"

"You too. Enjoy the party for me!"

It'd take weeks for him to find out what happened at said party, thanks to a soccer player who went to Columbia as well. "Some called it wild", the woman said, "but honestly, i was just like the other nights. Just, you know, five times over. Lost count of orgies."

"And you?", he asked, eyebrows raised.

She shrugged. "My flight was seven AM. Couldn't afford to drink too much, so I mostly watched. Kinda regretted having booked my flight so early after the closing ceremony."

He didn't. Given what she said, there wasn't much for him at that party.

When he found Hope at work, on the following week, she hugged him like she hadn't in months. "I'm sorry", she whispered, and for a moment he didn't know what to say.

"Sorry… for what?", he asked as he broke the hug. She hadn't done anything wrong, not that he remembered at least.

"You didn't get the medal you wanted", she replied, and he'd rather have been reminded of some wrongdoing of hers than being on the receiving end of her pity. "I know you trained really hard for it. You deserved it. I watched your performance, and...", she trailed off, as if he could guess what she wanted to say.

He sighed. She meant well, but he couldn't tell her why he lost his balance that one time. Not without giving Clint's location away. As much as he trusted Hope… she could tell someone she trusted too, and word would spread. It was risk he wasn't willing to take. Both Natasha and Clint assured him knowing their whereabouts was dangerous enough already.

However, he knew she'd ask him about it sooner or later. He had to think of an excuse. "Can we talk later? Dinner, or something? Or… well, if you're busy, we can grab lunch together tomorrow."

She bit her lip. "Lunch tomorrow would be better, actually." He nodded, and they got back to work.

When he got to the gym, only Quill was there. "Man, go back home", he said in greeting. "You just came back from the fucking Olympics, dude. You can go a day or two without training."

He rolled his eyes. "I've gone without training for a week now, Quill. Gotta get back on my feet if I don't want to end up with your belly."

"Oh, c'mon! Why does everyone keep telling me I'm fat?"

Scott frowned. "Not fat… but quite close. It looks like you started gym just now to lose weight."

Quill huffed. "At least Gamora doesn't seem to mind too much."

"Pretty sure she loves you if she's still around."

"Hey!" But Quill was grinning so it was alright.

He went for exercises that didn't require much focus, so he could think of a believable excuse for his failure at the Olympics—not just for Hope, but for anyone who might ask. (Thankfully Quill didn't bother him. It was something he liked about him: Peter usually waited for the other person to approach him about their problems. In the meantime, if he noticed something wrong, he'd just give you silent and/or indirect support. Like now.) He had told the press it had been due to unexpected dizziness, but it was a matter of time before people who actually knew him asked for the supposed truth. Carol caught on his lie immediately, for example.

"I remember seeing you train without breakfast, Scott", she said. "What happened? Really?"

He looked at his hands, glad that at least she cornered him about it when they were alone. "I can't tell you", he said truthfully. "Just like you can't tell me about your job." She frowned and didn't seem to believe him, but never touched on the subject again. He'd tell her one day, when Clint and Natasha and all the others went back home safe and sound.

(A part of him wondered if she managed to sneak away from her work because she was responsible for Clint, and therefore didn't have to go too far to meet Scott. It sounded crazy, but so was catching sight of two former classmates he wasn't supposed to.)

However, he couldn't get away with telling everyone 'it's a secret'. Carol understood enough not to pester, but most people didn't protect crime witnesses for a living. He had to think of something.

On the following day, he and Hope met for lunch at college. He tried to focus their conversation on her, asking how she'd been regarding studies and training, but she quickly changed the subject to talk about the Olympics.

"The camera had zoomed on you enough for me to catch your expression right before you fell", she said bluntly. "You seemed scared. What did you see, Scott?"

Her concerned look made him gulp. Thankfully, his chosen excuse was likely to satisfy her. "I… I glanced at the crowd and I saw—I was sure… they looked like Steve and Natasha for a moment." He rubbed his neck. "It was quite the jump scare… but when I got up and looked at them again, I realized—well, it was a momentary illusion. Just two similar people."

He decided it'd be better to pick two of his former classmates instead of just one. Everyone assumed they were either all together at the same place or scattered around the world. Only two of them together? Unlikely.

He also decided against using Clint in his story. If someone was to believe him, they'd look for the wrong people, and Clint would still be safe.

Hope raised her eyebrows. "Are you sure it wasn't real?"

"Positive. Fake Steve was taller, and fake Natasha had a more rounded face. No make-up and surgery can do that… not that I know of."

She seemed to believe him, as she grabbed his left hand. "I should have been there for you", she said, voice soft but sad. "You needed support, you needed friends, you needed company and I—I got so involved with my own stuff I ignored all about you."

He frowned. "We both agreed it'd be better for us if we broke up, Hope. Yeah, I didn't want to, but neither did you, we did because we thought it was the right thing to do. And—maybe it was. Don't feel guilty about it, please."

She gave him a half smile, but it didn't reach her eyes. "I still wish I'd been there to support you."

He let his expression soften. She wanted to make a point, and he could guess what. "If it makes you feel any better, I missed you too."

She chuckled. "Training hasn't been the same without you, now that we're talking about it."

"Pretty sure this has been about missing each other from the moment you told me you wanted to have been there for me", he replied, then took a deep breath. He had also thought about what to tell Hope—how to tell her the truth. "And… I don't want to miss you anymore, Hope. I don't my life to get in the way to you."

Her eyes widened, and he took it as a sign to continue. "I thought I had moved on, you know? You weren't… I wasn't reminded of you every single moment of my day anymore. I could focus on what I had to do, college or training or family or anything else. But then…", he rubbed the back of his neck, "well, when you go to Salt Lake City in two years you'll see. The Olympic Village is wild. Everyone hooks up with everyone, and I though, why not? But… It was your face I saw, your voice I heard. She didn't mind, she just wanted a one-night stand, but I couldn't bring myself to look for other women after that. It wasn't fair to them, it wasn't fair to me.

"And then I got 5th place, and all I thought about was how I lost you for so little. Yeah, 5th place was pretty high for someone who fell back, but still. Not exactly an improvement from Atlanta. It made the whole break-up feel useless, you know? I sacrificed too much for too little."

"It's not true, Scott", she began, but he didn't let her finish.

"I know, I know. It's kind of irrational. I'd probably have failed anyway." You being there probably wouldn't have stopped me from seeing Clint. "But the feeling still stands. Point is… I know you have 2002 to look forward to, and I don't want to get between you and your dream… but, if you let me, I want to be a part of it. Support you, like you said you wish you had done with me."

He felt quite eloquent with that little speech, more than usual. It helped that he rehearsed in front of a mirror.

It took a few moments for her to answer. "You… want to get back with me? For… real?" He nodded. "After everything? After all the fights, me coming up with the break-up idea, my absence afterwards…"

"I'm the one who spent two months in another department", he replied immediately. "Yeah, I want to get back. I don't resent you for anything, you know. I just… I just really miss you."

She answered by getting up, grabbing his face and kissing him. Hard. He gasped for air before managing to respond in kind. When they parted, she said, breathless, "I'd love to date you again."

Another kiss, and another, and soon lunch was forgotten. And if he had a goofy smile on his face for the rest of the day, no one teased him for it.

Summer of 2001

After graduating college—with honors, much to his surprise—Scott had a lot of decisions to make and stuff to solve, meaning he didn't get to follow Hope on her annual trip to South America to train.

First of all, he had to decide whether he'd stay on research department at college or not. He had started to work there on his senior year, and most projects were unfinished. His focus was Stark Industries, but those projects would benefit him not only knowledge-wise, but would be valuable in his resumé. In the end, it was an easy choice.

Harder was his decision on where he'd work at Stark's. In theory, he was supposed to stay with Hank in Quantum department. However, his time at Sustainability department made word spread that he was a genius—he blamed T'Challa for such overrated comments—and many heads of departments wanted him to themselves.

(Hope had received similar praise due to her time at Entertainment department—Hank had guessed right, she did follow Scott's steps after he went back. However, fewer people wanted her in their departments, something he attributed both to sexism and the fact that her father was her boss. Few wanted to risk messing with Hank Pym.)

Odin, Thor's father and CEO of Stark's, suggested a trial period, in which Scott would spend a month in each research department (except for the ones he'd already been to). There were nineteen of those, however, and Scott didn't want to spend a year and a half jumping from department to department. The final proposition came from Loki, who had started to work at Stark's near the end of college.

"Nineteen weeks instead of months", he said. "He doesn't need more than a week to get to know a department. In the end, if he needs more time to make a decision, he can ask for said time." Scott agreed completely. Five months were already a long time, but better than the alternative.

He ended up taking a two-week break before said trial to visit his parents in Los Angeles. They had asked for him to do it after his graduation, since it was almost always the other way around. He didn't take Hope along for obvious reasons—she had yet to come back from Chile—but he took Cassie. His cousin wanted to visit LA, and his parents missed her as much as they missed him.

She was 13 now, so she wasn't as energetic as back then. She was still affectionate with him, though, and talkative, which led to a rather animated flight. By the time they landed, he knew all of her friends' names by heart, who was dating who—it seemed that people dated more nowadays than when he was 13 years old—and who had a crush on.

"You are aware you telling your crush to your older cousin who is practically your brother, right?", he asked when she touched on the subject.

She smirked. "You can't punch a kid, Scotty. He's safe from you."

"It's not illegal to threaten him, though."

"Pretty sure it is too." She chuckled. "Besides, I talk about you as if you were my actual brother. Any boy who'd like to date me is already afraid of you."

He frowned—he, Scott, being something to fear?—but decided not to reply to her comment. Being Ant-Man had its perks, after all, and his failure didn't seem to affect his reputation as much as he initially thought.

"Hey, have you heard that Mariah Carey is going to feature in a movie?"

And just like that, he was pulled away from his thoughts.

His parents lived in a three-room apartment on the Eastside (Brooklyn Heights, if he remembered correctly). Not the best location for tourism, but it wasn't their focus—though Cassie did want to revisit some places she didn't remember well from when she went there as a child. The neighborhood was rather peaceful in terms of both crime rate and traffic, which made it way easier to come and go than New York (not that it was a hard feat).

They were greeted by the smell of lasagna. He smiled wide instantly. Mom's lasagna was divine.

Dad hugged Cassie first, and he feigned jealousy in the most childish way he could think of: stumping on his feet and whining.

Let it never be told Scott was a mature adult.

"I want my huuuuuug!"

His father laughed and gave him a rib-breaking hug. No complaints; he did miss his hugs.

Mom announced it was time for dinner not much time later, which prompted a shout from Cassie: "DINNER!"

Let it never be said that Cassie didn't appreciate good food.

They happily chatted while having (divinely delicious) lasagna, he and Cassie updating his parents on their lives. His mom kept giving him weird glances and knowing smiles the whole dinner, and called him to help her with dishes, after his dad and Cassie went to the living room to talk career options—his cousin was the most indecisive person he ever knew in that regard.

"You seem happier", his mother began. "Not just here, but on phone calls too."

His eyebrows arched. "You really think so?", he asked as he handed her a washed plate. "Guess I'm happier these days", he hummed.

"Back with Hope, I assume?" He nodded. "I'm glad. She seems to be good for you."

He smiled softly before finishing his part. "Yeah, she really is."

They spent their days showing the city to Cassie and discovering nice and quiet places to hang out together—well, his parents already knew most of them, but Scott did find out a couple ones. Overall, it was a well-needed break from New York for both him and his cousin.

He went back to find himself at the Entertainment Department of Stark Industries, where he was mentored Quentin Beck. The guy seemed a little crazy, but he was hardworking and efficient, so Scott kept his mouth shut. He could see why Hope showed little interest in the area when she came back to Quantum department, though, and he shared the sentiment.

His next week was at Transportations Department, which shared the floor with Sustainability, meaning he saw T'Challa more often. Then he got to see the three military departments: Weapons, Intelligence and Security. All three were on the same floor and had a common chief, Obadiah Stane. A nice guy, even if he had a bit of a temper. The upside was that he saw Rhodey more often, since his work was directly related to Security Department.

Cassie went back to school on the week he stayed at Commercial Department, where he saw Odin and Loki on his first day. "I heard you'll perform with the Guardians next month", he commented.

Loki nodded. "Apparently their new member can play almost every instrument, except for keys, and it's kind of a formal event, so they want me to play the piano." He sighed. "It's not like it's hard to learn. I think they just want an excuse to keep inviting me, since I refused to join."

"Hm, first of all, didn't Mantis join the band two years ago? She isn't really new..."

"I know, I know, I just forgot her name for a moment."

"Alright… Second, why didn't you join, again?"

Loki sighed for the second time. "I was busy with swimming team and getting ready for college. Didn't want anything else on my plate. Besides, I wasn't in the mood for getting new friends after Thor left. I'd rather stay with the ones we shared."

At that Scott grinned. "Oh, you mean like your girlfriend."

"Ha. Very funny. But yeah, like my girlfriend."

Being in the Commercial Department as an intern meant running errands. In the morning of his second day, he found himself picking up the phone to hear Odin asking him to deliver a disk to Stark himself, who was attending a business meeting.

"I was going to deliver the disk myself", he briefly explained, "but some issues came up here, and I'm unable to leave. Can you do this for me, Scott?"

It was more an order than a request, but Scott agreed anyway. He found said disk not much later, and managed to pass by Hope before leaving.

Unfortunately, not matter how fast he had been in leaving the Tower, he couldn't escape the huge traffic between Long Island (where he was) to Financial District (where the meeting would be). He was betting on a two-hour drive to get there, and he didn't even have Stark's number.

He did have Pepper's, however, so he called her. "I'm not on the building right now", she said. "Mr. Stark asked me to buy his very healthy lunch, so I'm in a huge Starbucks line. But if you don't get here by the time I go back, I'll let him know you're stuck."

"You'll definitely go back before me", he replied. She told him not to be so sure and ended the call.

Luckily the radio was playing good music. At one point, after already reaching Manhattan, he got nearly deaf by a plane flying low, but things soon went back to normal. Well… until he saw smoke in the sky.

"What the fuck", he wondered aloud. The smoke was huge, and coming from the area he was supposed to go. What had happened?

He decided to call Pepper to check if things were alright. Three missing calls later, and he concluded things were not alright. As he tried a fourth time, he was interrupted by Hope's call.

"Hey, hon—"

"Oh my God, Scott, where are you?", she asked, talking so fast he wouldn't have understood her if he wasn't used to Luis already. "Are you in the WTC yet? Are you okay? Are you—"

He frowned. What? "Whoa, whoa, whoa", he interrupted her. "What are you even talking about? I'm stuck in traffic, and—"

"Oh, thank heavens", she all but shouted. "Scott, a plane hit one of the Twin Towers! It's all over the news!"

So that's why there was a plane flying so low—

Another huge noise above him.

"What was that?", she asked, anxiety still audible.

"Oh God, Hope", he exclaimed, not really prompted by her question. "It's another plane."

Now that he was closer to the area, he could hear the explosion and the screams that followed. "Shit, honey, I have to call Pepper", he said. "She was in a Starbucks an hour ago, but she was supposed to be inside one of the Towers… shit, shit shit!"

"Okay, okay, call her. But be careful, Scott. Who knows what will happen next..."

Ending the call, the searched for Pepper's number again. This time, she picked up. "Pepper, are you okay?"

"Er, kind of?", she replied, voice panting. "I ran away, but I'm kinda… I'll hand over to Happy."

He bit his lip harder than usual in the short silence that followed. "Lang, it's Happy Hogan, Mr. Stark's driver. I managed to find Pepper when she was running from the… from all this mess. But she inhaled something, so she's not really fine. I'm taking her to the hospital as we speak." A short pause, broken before Scott could ask anything. "As for Mr. Stark… he hasn't answered his phone, but… well, he was inside."

Giving the growing smoke in the sky, he assumed that information only meant one thing.

He went straight home that day, after calling his current boss to inform the situation. Cassie was already home; classes were dismissed right before lunch. She hugged him tight, and told him her parents were on their way home.

Later, Hope, Hank and Janet showed up at his home, and all the seven sat down to watch the news. His parents had already called and been informed that everyone was okay.

As is turned out, not everyone inside the buildings died. Unfortunately, Howard Stark did. Few bodies had been found, and some were already saying not all victims would be actually found, but it was already a certainty that nobody who was in floors near the ones directly hit survived the explosions. Stark fell in that category.

They also found out about an attack on The Pentagon, and that a fourth hijacked plane was brought down by the passengers and crew, in an effort that killed everyone inside it.

Cassie cried on his lap, and he and Hope shed some tears while holding each other's waists.

The Stark Tower didn't open for the rest of the week. Gamora called him to tell the Guardians of the Galaxy would play at the memorial service.

"You'll probably get a call", she said. "Loki said all employees would. But it'll be on Monday."

Loki was the one call him to inform of the memorial. "There will be a traditional Jewish service, in a synagogue near their home, and then the Guardians will pay him a tribute with his favorite songs at the Tower", he explained. "You can show up just to the second half if you are not Jewish. You know, to avoid doing something disrespectful by accident."

Scott was not Jewish, and very much agreed to Loki's statement, so he, Hope and her parents only showed up at afternoon, when the non-religious part of the memorial service began. The couple joined some friends on a table, featuring Sam, Bucky, T'Challa, Nakia, Okoye, W'Kabi, Rhodey, Pepper and Loki.

"Bucky? You here?", he asked immediately. It was Loki who answered.

"I tried to find as many former employees as possible, especially ones that parted in amicable terms with the company."

He just nodded and sat along with them.

Howard's wife, Maria Stark, did not make a speech. According to Stane, she had already spoke at the religious service, and wasn't up to do it again. Instead, it was Jarvis, the family butler and one of Howard's closest friends.

"We gather here today to celebrate the memory of a man who changed our lives", he began. "For some, he was just their boss—a distant one, perhaps, that you only saw at formal events. For many others, though, Howard is the man who gave them opportunities to improve their lives and themselves, in one way or another.

"He was a complex man, contradictory to many. You may have heard some people saying his death was well-deserved, since he contributed to many war efforts. But his fate is not one I'd wish on any person, and his contribution to this country—and to the world—is far more positive than negative, and deserves a place in History.

"The Stark Industries was born out of Howard's increasing desire to bring the future to the present, and change the world through technology. He was a man ahead of his time, and inspired many to think and do the same.

"His greatest pride, however, was in his family. His wife Maria taught him love and respect, and his son Tony taught him care and affection. It is tragic that Tony is not here to mourn with us, instead left to his own grief who knows where. We pray for him, just as we pray for his mother's health and his father's soul.

"May Howard Stark rest in peace, and may his memory carry on as a man who changed us for the better."

Timid applause followed the end of the speech. Jarvis left the stage, giving space for Odin and, later, for Fujikawa, another big CEO and friend of Howard. Their speeches were not as good as Jarvis', though Fujikawa did make a few people cry. Then, Odin stepped back to announce the Guardians' entrance.

"Howard found out about this band through my son Loki when it had just started, and he took a immense liking to it. Its nostalgic premise was, ironically, a breath of fresh air to a man who spent his days thinking of the future. They are to play a few of his favorite songs."

It took a short time for them to get ready. Rocket was there; Gamora had told him his grand-aunt (the one she shared a room with before Rocket left for MIT) died the day after the attacks. He had expected Loki to be on stage to play the keys, but he stayed on the table with them.

Mantis grabbed a violin and began to play, as Rocket, Quill and Drax joined in. Beside Mantis, he saw Groot with an harmonica, but his untrained ear didn't catch its sound. Even before Gamora began singing (strangely enough, along with Drax), he recognized the melody of Queen's The show must go on. He vaguely remembered the song being released after 1990, but he supposed an exception was due.

The second song was Imagine, and the keys were replaced by Groot's flute. It was beautiful, and Gamora's sad tone, along with the rest of the band chorusing, made a few tears drop from part of the crowd (including Scott himself). It was followed by a flute/violin rendition of Pure imagination, a song he'd never picture Howard Stark enjoying.

They played two other songs: Have you ever seen the rain and I still haven't found what I'm looking for. Quill quietly thanked the audience after the final applause, and they silently left the stage with their instruments.

He had gone with Hope's parents, who drove him home. Cassie had wanted to watch a movie with him and his parents that night to distract themselves from all the bad news—every day they heard of someone who died last Tuesday—so his uncle rented last year's Pokemon movie. Hope ended up joining them.

It was refreshing to cry over Ash Ketchum turning to stone, instead of over actual deaths.

December 2001

He found himself at Health Department, face to face with a patient in a wheelchair.

"Ava Starr", she said when he asked. "32 years old. Single. School teacher. Born and resident on New York, on East Harlem."

The intern who was with him—the one of them who was trying to be a doctor—asked about her condition, and her story left him quite disturbed.

"It was the morning of the… attacks", she began, slowly. "I was there with my girlfriend. She worked there as a secretary, and we had spent the night at her home." She actually blushed, but he also heard a sniffle, which meant bad news. "I only had to work after lunch that day, so I stayed with her, helping and teasing and such. It wasn't the first time."

She let a small smile form on her face before dropping it. "Then the plane crashed. We were way below it, but there were… explosions. I tried to grab her to run with me, but she tripped and fell, and the fire got to her." At that point, she was talking fast, and the intern's notes got messier and messier as she spoke. "I was shocked, and stayed still watching her burn. I thought I deserved it, you know? I didn't save her, it was only fair. I inhaled some toxic gas, and got a few burns. It made me dizzy when I finally stood up and ran downstairs.

"I was taken to the hospital and got released a week later. Returned to my parents' home, because I couldn't stand to be alone at mine. And then they… a month later, I think, they felt something weird when hugged me. And I felt it too. When we parted, I was… it was like I was a deflated ball. Many depression points in my body, including the head. Like I didn't have bones.

"Started looking for a doctor in two days. Well, my parents did. Couldn't walk without crumpling my feet. Still can't. Hugging is hard, walking is impossible, sleeping is troubling… had to ask for a medical leave from work, of course. The few doctors who were willing to visit me were puzzled. No one has ever seen something like this before. Then Nakia—she's married to a guy who works here—Nakia visited me and told me about the work you guys do here. She gave me this wheelchair and talked to her husband, who pulled some strings, and… well, here I am."

The intern asked a few other medical questions, but Scott was too busy processing what he had just heard to pay attention.

The mention of a girlfriend made him immediately think of Carol and Maria, and he pictured them in that situation before he could help himself. Shivers went down his spine; Ava described what happened in enough detail for him to picture it. And then he picture himself in Ava's place, failing to save Hope.

No wonder the poor woman didn't want to be alone in her house.

He snapped out of his thoughts when the intern began examining her. The boy's stethoscope left a depressed mark on all points it touched; it was visible even underneath her clothes. The same happened when he touched her face and arms.

"It's like… I touch you, I can feel your bones, but… it's like they melt? Under my touch." The intern's voice showed confusion and a strange sort of wonder.

Ava sighed. "You're not the first one to say that."

Scott called Dr. Erskine, head of department, to check it. The intern repeated what Ava said, and after additional question and his own exam, the doctor said, "We'll need more exams, Miss Starr, but I believe something you inhaled altered your tissue. It surely affected bone and muscle, but we have to make sure it didn't affect other organs as well." He turned to Scott. "I believe we'll have to work with the Quantum department, Scott. Would you talk to Hank Pym for me?"

Scott nodded. He had thought about it as well while looking for Dr. Erskine. Hank had developed what he called Pym particles roughly a year ago, shortly after he came back from Sydney. Maybe they could be used to stabilize Ava's tissue, if the problem really was on molecular level.

"Does it hurt, Miss Starr?", the doctor asked.

"Sometimes", she replied. "It's not every day, but it does, I often scream in pain."

Erskine nodded. "You can stay at home, right? I'll prescribe painkillers for you."

Ava thanked him and asked for her brother to be called. Scott stood up and did it, and left to find Hank right after.

"She works at the same school as Nakia's", T'Challa said on the following day. "Nakia asked me to talk to Dr. Erskine to have her as study subject. It wasn't easy to find him, but he didn't give any objections."

Scott nodded. "Hank liked the opportunity to put his particles to good use. He had thought of studying the possibility of using to change the size of objects, but he's put it aside to focus on Starr's case."

He had to leave the case at the end of the week, of course, but he only had two more trial weeks: Prosthetic and Education. He was looking forward to going back to Quantum department—and he was going back there; he didn't want to move to another department, as nice as they were—so he could keep up with Ava's case. Not only it would be interesting to see, but he was anxious to see her getting better. He couldn't begin to imagine how much she was suffering due to that.

It was Hope who filled in him; Hank let her in charge.

"We don't know how long it will take to treat her", she explained. "We don't even know if she'll fully recover. But she responded to a local injection of Pym particles in her hand, so we are hopeful."

When he went back, he took charge instead of Hope, for a simple reason: she had to increase her training for Winter Olympics.

Salt Lake City, February 2002

Hope insisted Scott should go with her. Hank had initially objected, given the projects he was in charge of, but eventually conceded when Hope argued she wanted him to shield her from other athletes' advances at the Olympic Village.

"You do realize I'm not allowed to stay with you at the Village, right?", he said as they got in the train.

She grinned. "He doesn't need to know that, does he? Besides, after what you told me about Atlanta and Sydney, I think I'd much rather stay with you. So I wasn't lying… not completely."

He shook his head. "There are other things to do there besides hooking up, you know."

"Yeah, but I'd rather do them with you too."

"I'm not complaining—I'd love to spend all time possible with you—, but maybe you should get to know other athletes while you're there. Contacts can be helpful."

She nodded, but didn't give him a verbal reply. It was hard to tell whether she accepted his advice or not.

They were taken to University of Utah, where the Village had been settled at. "Just like in Atlanta, right?", she asked, to which he nodded. They parted ways with a kiss and he took a cab to a hotel nearby.

Hope wanted to stay only for the time of her own competition, so they missed the opening ceremony and would likely miss the closing one as well. He had argued it was part of the Olympic experience, but her argument that they couldn't afford to stay away from work for longer than necessary won in the end.

Her first day of competition was the fifth day of games. He had yet to fully understand how her sport worked—to be fair, she didn't get much of his either—but from what he gathered she was doing the sprint race. If she placed among the 60 best, she'd compete in a new race type, pursuit.

It didn't come as surprise when she placed 20th—to her, perhaps, but not to him, and not to their families either. "Everyone saw you training, honey", he said as they celebrated her achievement over dinner. "How much you dedicated yourself. You deserved it."

Her next competition was three days later. She placed 9th, much to everyone's joy. For someone who was competing for the first time and had no support besides her family, Hope had done a fantastic job. Many recognized that, and some reporters approached her after the final results.

"When did you begin training?"

"What was your training routine?"

"We know that you work for Stark Industries. How did you balance both careers?"

"Any tips for amateurs and beginners?"

"Such a rising Olympic star should have a title of her own, don't you think?"

To the last question, Hope grinned. "You can call me the Wasp."

New York, spring of 2003

Gamora invited him to party at her house to celebrate Nikki's return, which eventually became a party to celebrate everyone's return at Stark's dinner hall, organized not only by his friend, but also by Pepper and Loki.

They managed to find nearly all of their high school classmates, along with the few friend Tony made at MIT and other "random" friends the seven had before leaving.

Pepper did her best to organize the guests in sections, so the different groups could hang out together, but in the end everyone just gathered together in a big mess.

He had prepared himself to present Hope to the others, but most already recognized her, and seemed delighted to see Ant-Man and the Wasp together. At one point a crowd circled Hope, and he left her after she assured him it was okay. He found Nikki not much later.

"Hey Nikki", he said, offering his hand. "Good to see you walking."

She gave him a small smile and shook his hand. "It is good to walk again. How you've been doing, Scott?"

He told her briefly about his work at Stark Industries and his relationship with Hope. "There was also Atlanta and Sydney, but that's a subject for another day."

She raised an eyebrow. "Barton told us you bumped into each other there. Quite funny to hear, especially when Natasha was exasperated that you managed to find both of them in two years. Bet you could have found us all if you had tried hard enough."

"I wasn't looking for any of you!"

"Exactly. Imagine if you were."

He sighed and decided to change the subject. "I had wanted to talk to you for a while… things were kind of changing between us when you left, and I just wanted to clear everything up."

Nikki blinked. "Oh", she said. "Yeah, your crush on me and my… I was thinking of giving you a chance, you know."

He nodded. "You had been more open to my weird flirting, so I figured something had changed."

"It wasn't weird. It was nice. And yes… had nothing of this happened…"

"We might have dated", he finished for her. He rubbed the back of his neck. "I'm glad it didn't happen, though. I mean, I wish none of you had been forced to leave, of course, but… I found Hope like, two years later, and I love her."

Nikki smiled. "I'm glad. Can't say the same happened to me, but I didn't mind."

"But Nikki!", he hears Tony's voice from behind him. "Why do you always hide from people that I'm your husband?"

He nearly choked on his saliva. "We are divorced, Tony", Nikki replied, her tone implying tease. "Get over it."

Tony mumbled something about the lovely marriage they had, patted Scott on the shoulder and left to talk to someone else. He turned back to Nikki, frowning. "What?"

She shrugged. "We pretended to married to avoid any complications that could come in a relationship with someone who didn't know our identities. No actual marriage, despite what Tony likes to tell."

He nodded slowly. "Honestly, I don't want to know any details. Guess we're good then."

She nodded as well. "Sure. Congratulations on your achievements, by the way."

He thanked her and turned to see Hope still being surrounded by people. He thought of going to her anyway, but was startled by someone jumping on his back. "Scotty!"

He turned to see Carol, and hugged her. "So you really were supervising one of my classmates", he commented.

She grinned. "Not one. I was responsible for Nikki and Tony."

"How was it to put up with them?"

She laughed. "It was cool, actually. Nikki's great to talk to if you give it a try, and Tony is more caring than he lets on."

They kept talking about her time away, and plans for the future. "I want to spend a few years on paper work", she said. "Be with Maria and Monica… reconcile with my parents and Romeo… there were a lot of stuff that I wasn't able to do before being called to work."

Eventually Hope managed to go back to him, and they spent the rest of the night together as he met the others. While talking to Clint, he told the truth about what happened in Sydney.

"Yeah, it really was Clint who I saw there."

The other rubbed his neck. "Sorry, man. Should've tried to hide myself."

Scott smiled and patted his shoulder. "No worries, man. None of us could have predicted that."

Natasha, who was by his side, laughed at the story.

His talks with Steve, Bruce and Thor were brief. Thor introduced his sister Hela to everyone, praising her archeologist career. Bruce and Steve kept mostly to themselves, though sometimes he saw them talking about the countries they stayed over the past seven years.

(A lot of touristic tips were given that night.)

In the end, when they were on their way to her home, Hope told him, "You know, maybe I should have gone to your school."

It took him a while to remember that sentence, but he smiled brightly at her when he did.

Fall of 2004

It was incredible to win a medal once again, silver this time. With no Clint to distract him this time, his performance was way smoother than the last one.

Cheers of 'Ant-Man' could be heard from all over the stadium, and he wasn't entirely sure of how much he cried when Luis hugged him, followed by Cassie, mom, dad, Hope, Carol, Monica and… Ava.

"You think I wasn't going to show up?", she said when he let his surprise show. "When I found out one of the people who was in lead of searching for my cure was an Olympic medalist, I swore I was going to see you compete in person." She then turned to Hope. "I wish I had gone to Utah back then, but I was in no condition."

"What matters is that you're here now", his girlfriend replied, smiling. "There is a lot to celebrate, right?"

He kissed her briefly in reply. Yes, there was. Not only his just-won silver medal, but Ava's recovery, Cassie's year skip (she had over excelled in her freshman year of high school, and the principal offered to have her skip to junior year) and Hope's promotion to head of Quantum Department as Hank is working on his retirement.

(One would argue her promotion was a given, but many of old sexist CEOs wanted Scott to be nominated for the position instead and looked for excuses to dismiss her. Despite her supposed privilege, Hope spent a year unnecessarily proving herself to be worthy of that promotion, until Tony Stark shut everyone up and passed it.)

Carol was also joyful that she managed to get a two-year position in office work at Shield, meaning she could enjoy her life and family for the time being.

A few weeks after they went back to New York, Tony approached him with a proposal.

"I heard you're good with teenagers", he said, "and has been pursuing an academic career."

He nodded. "Yes. I'm aiming for a PhD soon, to be honest."

Tony's lips formed a line. "Not sure if you'll able to accept this, then… but I have an offer. You probably know I shut down most of the military departments, right? So, I'm reallocating people and money on other areas, especially Education. In other words, I'll open a teach school for youngsters. At first I want it to be focused on Junior High and High School students, but if it works I might open something for college students too. Anyway, I want to know if you'd be interested in be one of the teachers."

Scott blinked. Once. Twice.

"You Starks love to give me big opportunities", he blurted out.

Tony laughed. "You do know it was Rhodey who marketed you to my father, right?"

He shrugged. "Always suspected, but he never confirmed nor denied it. Anyway, it is a great offer, Tony, but I have to check with my new boss first."

"Oh, that's… kind of taken care of. Hope said that it's your choice, but she'd totally support you and let you go if you want. You'd have to leave Quantum department, after all."

He asked for a day to think about it. Tony gave him a week.

Originally, his plans for that evening were way different, but he figured he could delay those plans for another week. It wasn't anything big, after all.

"Honey, are you sure you can work without me?", he asked over dinner. "I don't want to sound arrogant, it's just that… it's basically us, now. Your father barely spends his days there anymore."

Hope smiled softly. "I know, Scott. But I asked Tony to open internship vacancy for Quantum Department. Since his school won't start until next year, I figured we have more than enough time to train any intern that will come to us."

He smiled and kissed her. Yes, his original plans could wait for a little longer. For now, he'd enjoy a happy and peaceful night with her.

A week later, Hope showed up at work wearing a silver ring with a small diamond on top.

A month later, Monica started her internship at Stark Industries.

Roughly eight months later, Scott welcomed Cassie to his class at Stark School of Technology—because honestly, Starks suck at naming things.