“What’s your name?” Tony asks eventually as the blue woman inspects his wound. It’s the first thing he’s said in a while.
She raises her head to meet his eyes with her utterly black ones. It should freak him out, he thinks distantly. Should be weird. He should care. Isn’t. Doesn’t.
“Does it matter?” she rasps in her gravelly voice.
“I don’t think you’re gonna like me calling you Smurfette.” It doesn’t sound right coming out of his mouth. Hollow. Flat. Not like him, even if the words are like him.
The woman’s eyes narrow. “Peter Quill used to call me that. He said it was the name of a great warrior.”
“Yeah, well, turns out your friend was a liar as well as an asshole.”
“He was not my friend. He was Gamora’s paramour.” Tony wants to ask who Gamora is, finally get a good answer, but she returns her gaze to his wound. “I’m Nebula.”
She finishes whatever it is she’s been doing with the spray on her belt and stands. “You’ll live.”
“I didn’t do it for you.” Nebula surveys the burnt orange landscape. “My ship is destroyed. I don’t know how Quill and the others got here, but I’ve scanned and cannot find his ship, either. The ship you came in can be ransacked for parts, but it won’t fly again. I’m going to need to build a ship. I may require your assistance in moving pieces. Your suit looks like it can adequately weld.” She looks down at him dispassionately. “You owe me a debt now.”
Tony should probably be worried about that. What a clearly dangerous alien considers a debt. As it is, he can’t bring himself to care. He raises himself to his feet, wincing slightly, and looks around. The planet is decaying, but also looks to be the equivalent of a junkyard. There’s always something salvageable in a junkyard.
“I can help.”
“No. Building. I’m…” he runs a hand through his hair. “Smart. I’m very smart.” She doesn’t look like she believes him. He doesn’t blame her. “You see this?” He taps the arc reactor. “I built the first one of these in a cave with scraps.”
“On your backwards planet.” Nebula’s voice is cool. “Which has not even discovered interstellar travel yet.”
“I… yeah, fair point. Look, just… just let me help with some stuff, okay? Please?”
Nebula is silent.
“I will consider it,” she says, and stalks off towards one of the piles of twisted metal. He doesn’t know what to do, so he sits back down, resting on his knees and staring at the ground.
“The days here are 72 of your hours,” Nebula tells him when she sits next to him abruptly what feels like a couple hours later, unceremoniously dumping a pile of scraps between them. “You will take time to adjust.”
Tony looks over at her. “How do you know? Have you been to Earth?”
“No. Quill once told Gamora of your planet. She told me what he told her.”
Tony’s too tired to ask after either of them. “What are those for?”
“Nothing grows on the surface of Titan. It’s been long enough that things might grow beneath the ground.” She takes a pipe and begins hammering at a flat piece of metal, digging it into a slightly more curved shape. “I am making a shovel.”
“I can blast holes in the ground with-“
“You may damage whatever’s there. Besides which. I don’t want the suit being damaged, if we may have need of it. The longer you use it, the more you risk damage.”
“I dunno, it’s pretty hardy.”
Nebula spares him an annoyed look. “Don’t argue with me. I’m in no mood.”
Tony’s instinct is to bite back with something angry and sharp. Whatever words he would have found die on his tongue. It’s not worth it. Especially if he’s trapped with her for however long here.
Especially when she’s kinda right.
Instead he rifles through her piles of scraps. She grabs at his wrist, her glare intensifying and her grip tight.
“Another source of food would be your body,” she says flatly. “I’m certain I could learn how to use your suit.”
“I’m not trying to steal from you,” he says irritably. “I’m trying to make my own shovel. I want to help.”
“You will not be strong enough.”
“Let me try.”
She huffs out through her nose but releases his wrist. Tony grabs a flat-ish piece of metal and starts battering at it.
Nebula manages to attach the scoops to long metal pipes. She hands one to Tony.
“It will be hard to dig,” she tells him. “The debris will make it tricky. Keep going. There is soil underneath.”
Tony grips the shovel. His first couple hits at the dirt are rough. He keeps clattering against metal. It’s frustrating, and he feels like he’s about to snap when he catches sight of his hands, stained with ash, except it’s not ash, not really-
He slams his shovel into the dirt. And again, and again, and again. Eventually, he figures out a way around the piece of debris that’s been giving him trouble. He kneels down, ignoring the stab of pain against his side, and hauls the piece up and out of the way. Then he digs some more.
“Enough,” Nebula says eventually. He stands back, breathing heavily as she brushes her hand against the ground. She digs into the now soft earth (dirt, dirt, he’s so far from home) and pulls something out, yanking hard on roots. When she dislodges the thing, she holds it up.
“It looks like a potato,” Tony says, in a little surprise. “Just… purple. And a little funky.”
“I do not know what potato is.” Nebula’s still studying it in the light. “Or funky.”
“It’s… I don’t know. I’ve never had to… describe a potato.”
Nebula pulls it down. “They’ll be raw but they’ll keep us alive. Keep digging. I’ll find a receptacle.”
They end up filling the roughly basket-ish thing Nebula finds. She pulls a knife from her belt and chops them up.
“Wait, hold up,” Tony says before he takes a bite. “Is this gonna do some… weird alien shit to my insides?”
Nebula pops a sliver in her mouth. “We’ll find out.”
Fair enough. He contemplates having his suit scan it, but he remembers what she said about minimal usage of the suit.
“If I die, remember me fondly,” he says, grabbing a chunk.
Also fair, he guesses. He takes a bite of the thing and promptly makes a face. “Urgh.”
It’s the first time he’s seen anything approaching an expression other than irritation or something blank on her face, a slight smirk resting on her lips. “I never said it would be good.”
“Yeah, I know, I just.” He grimaces again, but takes another bite. It’s bitter and sour at the same time and leaves a weird aftertaste. He finishes all of it.
“So the ship won’t fly again.”
Nebula is making a pile of flat sheet metal. She’s allowed Tony to look for pieces as well, but he needs her to approve them before he adds them to her heap. “No.”
“But we can take what we need from it. How about this?”
She gives it a cursory look. “No.”
“You didn’t even really-“
Her foot shoots out like lightning and punches a hole straight through the metal.
“Won’t hold up to leaving the atmosphere,” she says. “No.”
Tony throws it off to the side. Won’t be hard to remember that it’s unsuitable, what with the foot hole. “Does the ship have a signaling device? Can we get it to work again?”
“No one flies by Titan anymore. It’s long been a dead world, and no one’s dared to come for Thanos in a very long time. The beacon we could send out wouldn’t be strong enough.”
He holds up a piece of metal. “How’s that?”
He throws it in her pile. “We’ve gotta keep it. If we get close enough to another ship, we don’t want them blowing us out of the water. Sky. Space. Whatever. This one?”
Nebula walks up to it and squints. “No.”
He throws it aside. “So where do you want to go?”
“Your planet.” Nebula throws a piece on the pile. “It’s a hole of a world, but if there were multiple Infinity Stones there, it must have some form of significance.”
“It’s not a hole. Not all of it. Some of it’s… okay.” He thinks of Pepper. “The people make it worth it.”
Nebula doesn’t answer that, just hurls another piece with more intensity.
“I gotta ask you a question.”
“That’s all you do.”
“I. Yeah. Okay, but I have to ask a different one.”
“Make it a good one.” She yanks on one. “I’m getting tired of hearing them.”
“How long what?”
Now who’s the one asking questions? is on the tip of Tony’s tongue, but he doesn’t say it. He’s too tired. “How long until you think we can get off?”
She pauses in her search, back to him. “I thought you were very smart,” she says, a little mockingly. “Can’t you figure it out?”
He doesn’t rise to it. “You know more about this stuff than me. I’m not too much of an asshole to admit that. I’m kind of an asshole. But not that much of one. So. Give it to me straight, doc. How long are we stuck here for?”
Nebula stays still.
“It depends on what’s left in that ship you crashed and what’s left in mine,” she admits. “There’s no way to be sure.”
“Ballpark it for me.”
“I don’t know what that-“
She’s quiet again.
“A while,” she says finally, quieter. “A great deal of time.”
It’s about what Tony expected. He takes a deep breath.
“Okay,” he says, holding up another piece of metal. “How about this one?”
“You have to sleep.”
Tony’s scrutinizing a piece of something that he thinks is electrical in nature. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”
“You will be, if you don’t get some rest.”
He’s not actually sure how long he’s been up. It feels like forever. It feels like absolutely no time at all. He ignores her, trying to tell if he can salvage the wires.
“Look.” Nebula sounds frustrated. “Eventually, you will adjust and be able to go longer without sleep. It’ll take a while, and you won’t be able to go a full day, but if it happened to Quill, it will happen a certain amount to you. And I need you to be able to use that suit. So if you don’t go down now, I will take you down myself.”
“Maybe I can take you.”
Nebula raises a dismissive eyebrow. “I was one of the universe’s most feared assassins once,” she tells him. “I choked a man out with a Zabraxian evening wear cummerbund no wider than your thumb. Do not tell me what you can and cannot do.”
“What are you now?”
“Angry and violent.”
Tony sizes her up. Nebula doesn’t even blink, staring at him.
“Fine,” he finally snaps. He kicks some debris out of his way and lies down on the ground, trying to get comfortable. “But I’m not going to get to sleep right away.”
“The adrenaline will wear off.” Nebula starts examining pieces. “You’ll be out sooner than you think. Stop being so petulant.”
He wants to retort, but he can feel the exhaustion in his bones, and he’s asleep before he can formulate a coherent response.
When he wakes up, he’s in a shelter.
Tony blinks, sitting up and looking around a little. It’s a crude shelter that is somehow vaguely warm, metal shoved into the earth and banged together to form a shack, one flickering golden light pounded against the wall. He rubs at his eyes.
“The nights are very cold.”
He blinks again, eyes adjusting. He sees Nebula, sitting in one of the shadows. She’s sitting by a box shoved up against one of the walls. He doesn’t understand how it works, but it looks enough like a heater that he can guess that’s what it is.
“They’ll last 18 hours.” She’s sharpening a blade. “If we don’t use shelter and the box, we’ll freeze to death.”
“Yeah.” His voice sounds raspy. “Makes sense.” He crawls over to the heater (the shelter isn’t big enough to stand up in) and sits next to it, shivering a little.
“What’s the thing in your chest?”
“It helps power the suit. We might be able to take it apart once the ship is put back together to power it, but I don’t know. It might kill me.” Tony runs a hand through his hair. “I’ll have to just keep… running the scenarios in my head, I might be able to find a way.”
“So it would be practical to bank on a separate engine for the craft.”
“Yeah.” He closes his eyes, trying to think it over, running plans over and over again in his head. “We should… we should start scheduling our days. Cause we’re not just gonna need parts. We’re gonna need food. And water. Not just for now, but for the journey. Cause it’s gonna be a long one. So we have to stockpile for a long journey.”
Nebula nods her head slowly. “I ransacked what was left of my ship while you were out. I found a water purifier. If we recycle our urine, we will be able to start stockpiling water.”
Not ideal. But it’ll work. “I don’t know what it’ll take you to survive. I can only do the ones for me.”
“Significantly less than it will take you.”
“Because you’re some super smooth alien?”
Nebula rolls her eyes. “Because when my father built me, he built me to withstand long missions without sustenance. I will require less than you.”
“When your father… built you?”
Nebula holds out her arm. Tony stares as part of her wrist unfolds into a little tool he can’t tell the function for.
“My father pitted me against my sister in battles to test our strengths.” Her voice is emotionless. “Whichever of us lost, he would upgrade to ensure no further losses.” The tool folds back into her wrist. “I never won.”
Tony swallows. “Who, uh. Who was your dad?”
Something in Nebula’s already blank face seems to close up. She leans forwards in the dirt and draws something.
“Do you understand this?”
Tony leans forwards and squints. It’s a crude schematic, barely visible in the light. “It… looks like an engine schematic. I’m not sure I get all the figures, but it’s just math. Math is a constant, I can figure it out.”
Nebula nods. “You can help me build the ship. Your understanding is archaic, but less archaic than Quill’s was.”
Tony’s pretty sure it’s something of a compliment. “Thanks.” Tony shifts a little and winces.
“Don’t move too much. You’re still healing. You’re no good to me damaged.”
“You say that a lot.” Tony leans back against the wall. “Not much for friends, huh?”
“Developing attachments is pointless.” Nebula wipes out the schematic with a sweep of her hand. “All caring about people does is make you watch while they die.”
“Yeah, I’m.” Tony tilts his head back. “Yeah. I’m feeling that, right about now.”
Nebula is quiet for a moment.
“I am sorry about your son,” she says finally, stiffly. “He saved my life.”
“He wasn’t my son. He was…” Tony shakes his head. “He was just a kid. Who wanted to help. And who I got killed.” He glances down at his hands before he shoves them in his pockets. “Is there any way I can just, just wash my hands, or something.”
“Probably not. But eventually your hands will get dirty enough you will be unable to tell the difference.”
It’s something. “I’m sorry about Gamora. Whoever she was.”
“Gamora was my sister.” Nebula’s fingers twitch. “She died for my sake. Alone.”
Tony blinks. “Hang on, was she the same sister who-“
Nebula begins drawing in the dirt again. “We will devote four hours to harvesting food. Then four to attempting to find the necessary scraps. After this, we’ll see where we are at. The nights we will reserve for planning.”
Tony nods. “The ship won’t have to be big. But it’ll need to big enough that if something goes wrong, we can make repairs. And we need it to be easily piloted by one of us as much as two. We don’t want, I don’t know, an Airplane! situation here.”
“I do not know an airplane situation.”
Tony misses being able to sketch out his ideas.
He misses lots of things. He misses Pepper. Rhodey. The person he’s deliberately not thinking about when he looks at his hands. Bruce, Steve, Happy, Natasha, Thor, Clint. Conversations that were considerably less… laconic than he’s got now, funnily enough. But it used to be helpful to be able to look at his ideas. Now he can’t use the 3-D modeling holographic function on his suit for worry of damaging it.
“We should build a cryo chamber,” he tells Nebula while they forage for appropriate scrap metal. “Two. It’s going to be a long journey. Our engine won’t be good enough to get us back as fast as we got here. If something goes wrong, we need to be able to be down for a while.”
Nebula nods. “I was thinking the same thing. Will you know enough to assist me in building them??”
“If this was Earth? In a couple hours. Now…” He thinks about it. “We can get the parts, and see where to go from there.”
She nods again. “We’ll look.”
“Pretty ballsy move, driving your ship right into him like that.”
It’s night again and they’re huddled around the heater once more. Tony’s had to sleep during the day again, but for slightly less. Hopefully he can minimize his need for sleep. He’s not sure by how much though.
Nebula shrugs, biting into her purple potato thing. “Didn’t think it would work. Had to try.”
“Yeah, fair enough.” Tony gnaws at his potato. “Story of my life.”
“How did you get the thing in your chest?”
Tony’s surprised she’s making conversation, but he rolls with it. “I was pretty rich. And kind of an asshole. Made weapons. Sold them to people. Made a fortune. That kind of thing. I got kidnapped by a guy I thought was like my father. Hurt me in the process. The people he paid to kidnap me put this in my chest to keep the shrapnel in my body from killing me. I improved on it.”
“Are you still dying?”
“We’re all dying.”
Nebula sighs loudly.
“Fine, sorry, whatever. No, I’m not dying. I got the shrapnel taken out. So, y’know, I’m not any more damaged than I usually am, I’m still useful to you.”
Nebula doesn’t say anything to that.
“So do you have, uh.” Tony doesn’t know what to ask her. “Do you have, like. A pencil sharpener in your arm there, or something?”
She stares at Tony. He squirms a little.
“You remind me greatly of Quill, at times,” she says finally. “You both spoke when you didn’t know what to say.”
Tony frowns. “I’m not digging the comparison.”
She shrugs. “I haven’t met many humans. I don’t have a lot to compare you to.” She glances at Tony. “He meant a great deal to Gamora. My feelings about him in passing are… somewhat complicated.”
Tony doesn’t even know how to begin untangling this whole web Nebula’s got going on, between her and Gamora and Quill, especially when he doesn’t have all the facts.
“This is what I’ve been thinking about steering,” he says, leaning in and beginning to draw.
Tony keeps tripping and the gravity keeps fucking with him.
“Blarrrrgh,” he says, tripping over his own feet again and going flying. Without looking, Nebula reaches out and catches his arm, swinging him around and launching him into the dirt. The first time it had happened he’d been a little annoyed. Now he’s used to it being the easiest way to get him from bouncing too high.
“How are you so easily adjusted to this?” he asks, pushing himself up and rubbing his elbows. He’s getting too old for this kind of shit.
“I spend a lot of my time jumping from planet to planet.” Nebula shrugs. “You get used to it.”
“What about those?”
Nebula looks up at where he’s pointing. “What about what?”
Nebula digs the makeshift shovel into the earth. Tony’s not sure how many more of the little potatoes they’re going to be able to find. He and Nebula are talking about scavenging the whole planet for them, but that could still be a distant plan. “They… are buildings.”
Tony can’t tell if Nebula has a sense of humor or not. It’s deeply frustrating, which might be part of what’s funny to her, if she knows what funny is. “Yeah, Einstein, and they’ve withstood however long it’s been since Thanos went all Thunderdome on the universe. There might be shit in there we can use.”
Nebula narrows her eyes at him. “Quill only ever used Einstein on the raccoon and Drax when he was annoyed, Stark, I am aware of the connotations.” She tilts her head. “But… it’s not an entirely laughable notion.”
“That’s me. Just plain full of em.”
Tony looks up. Nebula’s been watching him in wary silence for the past hour and a half of the eighteen hour night from her end of the shack. “What?”
“You are tinkering with what could make or break getting us off this rock.” She nods at his chest piece that he’s doing his best to tune up with the meager tools he’s fashioned out of metal. God, he misses his lab. He misses everything. “Be careful.”
“Hey, I’m not tinkering, all right, do you have any idea what kind of damage you take when a giant purple grape throws a moon at you? I want this thing to be able to work, thanks, and working requires, y’know, working on it.”
“Well, be more delicate.”
“I built this thing in a cave with a box of scraps, okay, just back off, Violet Beauregarde.”
She sighs loudly. “I do not understand that reference.”
“Yeah, well…” He struggles for a good comeback. “I don’t care.”
They lapse into sullen silence. One of his tools breaks and he curses.
“Built the first one in a goddamn cave with a box of goddamn scraps,” he mumbles. “Should be able to fucking take care of this one.”
“What number is this, if not the first one?”
“Fifty.” Tony wipes some dirt off the mask. “I kind of always figured I’d be working on new ones until I died. Guess I just get to work on the old one.”
Nebula sighs, frustrated. She crawls her way over to Tony. “Tell me what you need.”
“Just… tell me what instrument it is you’re in need of.”
“Um.” He sighs. “Something to solder with.”
She positions her arm and a little soldering tool pops out. “Point me in the correct direction.”
Tony points at the area on the mask he was working on. Nebula starts carefully soldering.
“So, uh. That’s pretty fuckin’ neat, on the whole.”
“My father wanted me to be able to put myself back together again, should I damage myself on a mission. This was a convenient way to do it.”
They don’t talk again.
They hear howling, sometimes, during the nights.
“Do you think it’s the wind?” Tony asks once.
“Perhaps,” she says. “Perhaps something found a way to survive.”
He tries not to think about it.
Nebula and Tony plan carefully for their expedition to the former buildings.
It shouldn’t take a full day to get there, and really, it shouldn’t be the rest of the day to get back to their shelter. But they don’t know what they’ll be carrying back, and it could take longer. Nebula’s rigged their heater so she can carry it with her, and Tony’s outfitted himself with enough of the suit that he can carry back whatever they bring back with them. They’ve also stocked themselves with some of the potatoes, if they need them.
“You can eat me, if you have to,” Tony says.
“I might,” she answers dryly, but Tony’s sure she knows he’s kidding and is doing the same.
Mostly sure, anyway.
Tony’s gotten a handle on bouncing, so he and Nebula make it to the buildings by hopping a little. He wishes he could use his repulsors, but they’d be wasting valuable power.
“What do you want to try and find in here?” Nebula asks.
“Stuff for the cryo chambers. We should be able to figure out the cooling, but we’ll also need capsules big enough for the pair of us. You?”
“Power cells. Keep the ship and the cryo going.”
Tony looks over at her. She’s bouncing along with the heater strapped to her back, and Tony can’t help a little grin.
“You look ridiculous.”
She stares at him expressionless for a moment, then arches an eyebrow. “It’s not like you look much better, lugging that bag of potatoes around.”
“Hey, potatoes are an extremely valuable part of the mission. I’m being incredibly bouncy and useful.”
“Potatoes are less useful than the heater. Without the heater, we would freeze to death. Without the potatoes, I could always just eat you.”
“Why do you assume I would be the first to die?”
Nebula gives him that sly look again, and Tony thinks it might be the closest he’s ever been to seeing her smile. “Why do you assume you would win in combat if I felt the need to eat?”
She bounces ahead of him. Tony shakes his head.
“It’s great to know you’re capable of joking when it’s joking about eating me!” he yells. She doesn’t respond.
“God.” Tony looks around, staring up in awe. “I’ve missed stuff to write things down with a lot, but never more than I have now.”
“Why?” Nebula’s unloaded the heater and dropped it in the least clouded with debris, surveying the clutter to see if there’s anything of use in it.
“Because…” Tony gestures faintly. The architecture is nothing like he’s ever seen. Even in a state of decay, holes in the sides of the walls from neglect, it’s incredible. He wants to know what the metal’s like. He wants to know how they constructed it this way. He wants to know why. For a second, he forgets about everything- whether or not the people he loves are alive, what Earth even looks like anymore, Peter, he forgets about all of it, because of how badly he wants to build, to remember everything about this place so he can employ it back home, so he can create and craft and make. God, he’s missed making. He’d forgotten how bad. “Because look at it.”
Nebula looks up from a piece of metal she’s squinting at. “Because you come from a backwater planet?”
Tony’s too in awe to even retort. “Yeah.”
“Can you take a moment from being so…” Nebula’s clearly struggling to find the right word.
“You want me to take a second from being a slack jawed yokel to actually help you?”
Tony shakes himself out of his reverie and goes to join her. “Okay. Which part do you want me to take on?”
“Go deep.” Nebula’s tapping at something on her arm. She lifts it and a little blue light emanates from it, scanning the building. It pulls up a schematic and she studies it. “If you go into that corner, there’ll be a staircase. Be careful, it appears to have maintained structural integrity, but you might do well to have your repulsors ready in case they give out and you need to fly for a bit.”
“Let me see whatever communication device you have.”
Tony hands her the earpiece part of his suit. He’s got several communication device parts of the suit, but this works medium well, and he’s saving the best to maybe integrate as part of the ship. She raises it next to her arm. Something beeps and she hands it back.
“If you find something you need assistance carrying, let me know.”
They’re bouncing back. They found a bunch of pieces of metal that Nebula assures him can withstand interstellar travel that they’ve strapped to their backs. They have some additional pieces that they’ve left behind for a later trip. Tony’s feeling pretty good about the whole thing. Even Nebula seems slightly more buoyant than normal.
“You gotta give me this one.”
“Give you what?”
“It was my idea to go to the place.” Tony catches only a glimpse of Nebula’s face as they jump along, but he’s pretty sure she rolls her eyes. “Come on, you dig at my planet and my species and me in general all the time, you gotta give me just one.”
Nebula’s silent for a moment.
“It was…” she finally concedes. “A satisfactory idea. You won’t get more than that.”
“I’ll take it.”
“So what were the buildings on your planet like, then?”
Tony looks up. They’re back in the shelter for the evening and tinkering with the suit a little more. He can’t do much but he’s trying to keep it as well tuned as he can. “What?”
Nebula’s working on tuning up something to do within her arm. “You were confused by the dilapidated buildings.”
“I wouldn’t say confused.”
She waves a hand before returning it to work. “So what’s different about Terra?”
Tony’s learned at this point that Terra equals Earth. “I mean, it’s different everywhere. There’s a lot of places. But, uh, where I grew up and where I live, there’s a bunch of different kinds of buildings. There’s some… skyscrapers. Do you know what skyscrapers are? I don’t know what… other alien buildings are like.”
“Potentially. Are they very tall buildings?”
“You’re a rather literal people, aren’t you?”
Tony points at her with his improvised tool. “Hey, at least I have a name that isn’t just a part of space.”
Nebula snorts. “Your last name means bare, which could also mean vacuous, which you certainly are.”
“Wow, two jokes in a day. You’re on a winning streak.”
Nebula’s lips twitch and she goes back to focusing on her arm.
“What about you?”
“What about me?”
“Where you come from. What’s it like there?”
Nebula’s hand stills.
“Thanos took me from the Luphomoid homewolrd when I was seven, after its cleansing.” she says finally, a little stiffly. “Same as my sister. She came from Zen-Whoberi, but her story was the same. I don’t remember much of my world.”
“Oh.” God, seven? She was seven when whatever happened to her happened? “Uh. Sorry?”
She shrugs. They work in silence.
“It was very… green,” she says suddenly. “I was… rather young. I don’t recall everything. But it was green. And the trees were… tall. And I would try and climb them to the top but I could never make it.”
Tony mulls it over.
“We’ve, uh, we’ve got green places on Earth,” he says. “Trees… probably aren’t as tall. I don’t know shit about alien trees, but we could go, if you want. It’s not all, y’know, skyscrapers and stuff.”
Nebula hovers her hand over her arm for a second before resting it on the ground. Tony watches as her hand slowly curls against the ground into a fist before resting it flat again, catches a glimpse of something in her expression just a little less guarded than normal.
Then she sniffs, going back to working on her arm. “Probably right. I would assume your planet doesn’t know how to grow trees tall enough.”
Tony recognizes a deflection when he sees one. “Yeah. Probably not.”
They’re working outside near the evening when there’s another one of those howls. Nebula looks up sharply and Tony pauses from where he’s sorting through metal.
“What?” he asks. “What’s going on?”
“They’re closer. Much closer.”
“Closer like prepare for a battle closer or-“ Nebula draws her batons. “Oh, yup, okay, got it.” Tony activates the suit around his hands and legs. “Full suit?” He doesn’t have the whole thing fully operational still, it’s more partial suit, but it can still be used.
“Wait and see, the situation might call for it, it might not.”
There’s nothing for another few moments.
Then there’s a silhouette on one of the mountains of debris and crap that surround them.
Nebula curses. Tony’s not sure what she says, exactly, it’s in a language he doesn’t know, but he knows it’s definitely cursing.
“What are they?” Tony puts the helmet into action and zooms in. They look like… crystal wolves, kind of? Like spiky, crystal wolves, what looks like thin slivers of quartz growing out from their whole body like armor
“I don’t know.” She slides into a battle pose. “But whatever they are, they evolved to figure out how to live here. So they’re going to be hard to kill.”
“Use minimal power. We might need it.”
The one who first appeared on the mountain howls, and charges.
Tony’s somehow hyperaware in battle mode in a very un-him way. The sarcasm stays, that’s never gonna go away, but he’s able to note things in a very clinical way. It’s not like being in the workshop and how analytical everything gets. It’s… weirder. More professional, almost. Steve’s fault, it occurs to him suddenly as he sends a few warning blasts at the wolves. He promptly shoves Steve out of his head. He doesn’t have the capability to think about him right now and all the uncertainty that comes with it.
“Take the two on the left,” Nebula shouts. “I have these ones.”
Tony nods. He aims for the wolves specifically now, but they’re surprisingly fast, dodging and darting out of his way.
“They’re fast little fuckers!” he yells back. Nebula slams a baton into the face of one and Tony remembers abruptly a mission years ago, when they were in the woods in Alberta and wolves were launching at Natasha and she delivered the same move and now she might not even be alive-
Tony grits his teeth and lets loose a forceful blast. A wolf skitters back and howls at him.
“Fuck off!” he yells. “I’m pretty fucking pissed, you assholes, so just-“ He lets go, firing round after round in front of him, blast after blast, yelling inarticulately. It’s apparently enough to frighten them, one of the four limping pretty significantly. Must be one of the ones Nebula hit, Tony can’t remember hitting any of them. He turns to her. “What was-“
Nebula’s on the ground, bent over her leg. He sees a little blue blood trickling onto the ground from between her fingers where she appears to be trying to hold a wound closed.
“Jesus-“ Tony deactivates his suit and kneels by her. “What happened?”
“One of them bit me.” Her teeth are clenched a little. “I got him back, though.”
Tony flutters his hands over her leg before he realizes that for one thing, he doesn’t know how to help an alien but for another, Nebula might hit him if he touches her. “Tell me what to do.”
“Help me into the shelter.”
Tony puts his arm around her and helps her limp into the shelter. She lies down on the ground heavily, breathing harshly.
“Do you still have that spray you used after I got stabbed?”
“Yes. Box in the corner.”
There’s a small box they’ve molded in the shack that they’ve put all their possessions into that they don’t need all the time. Tony throws stuff out of it until he finds Nebula’s spray.
“The nozzle on top,” she says. “Spray it directly into the wound. It’ll clean it and start working on repairing it at the same time.”
Nebula removes her hands. Tony winces at the sight and tries not to make any noise about it. It’s pretty bad, blue blood splattered all over her leg.
“It’s deep,” he says. “Will this be enough?”
“If you used all of it, yes, but that seems… ill advised, we may need it later.” She takes a deep breath. “Use it until I tell you to stop and then start using yours. It will not be as effective but it will help.”
They’ve managed to concoct a bandage from a chunk ripped off Tony’s hoodie. Nebula’s resting quietly but Tony’s not sure if she’s asleep or not.
“I’m going outside,” he says, in case she isn’t.
“S’coming up on evening,” she mutters. “It’s gonna start getting cold soon. You’re no use to me frozen.”
“I’m glad the bite hasn’t broken your spirit.” He hesitates. A little too harsh. She’s in pain even if she won’t talk about it. “I’ll be right back. I just need to do some stuff.”
She grunts and turns over slightly.
The first thing Tony does is take one of the rolls of some sort of metal fiber they’d found in the buildings and hammer some of the long metal posts into the ground around the shack. He strings up the fiber and dangles little bits of metal off it so they’ll hear if the wolves hit it.
Next, he hovers over the shack and fixes a metal rod to the top of it. He strings the fiber to the rod and then to the little fence. It’s not hard to work up a little mechanism to stir some power and he attaches it to the rod. Then he returns to the shelter.
“I set up a fence so we’ll hear them if they try and come back,” he says. “And I’ve electrified it so we also stand a chance at hurting them.”
“Hm.” Nebula sounds more tired than he usually hears her. “Smart.”
“Now I know you’re feeling shitty.”
“Yeah.” Nebula sits up very slightly, leaning against the wall of the shack a little. Tony sits next to her, doing the same. “Were you injured?”
“You sounded… angry, by the end. I thought perhaps you’d been hurt.”
“No, just…” Tony runs a hand through his hair. “Just thinking about… other people. Who might not… be here anymore. I wouldn’t know.” He clears his throat. “Talking about stuff is for suckers.”
Nebula makes a noise and they sit in silence together.
“I don’t like being knocked down,” she says abruptly. “I don’t like being injured. I don’t like being nonfunctional.”
“Hey, I’m right there with you, sister.”
“I am not your sister.” There’s a tone there that wasn’t there before and Tony recognizes his phrasing mistake, paired with her history.
“You’re right. Sorry.” He clears his throat. “I used to get yelled at for going out in the field when I was sick. They told me I’d get myself hurt but I wouldn’t just stop moving, stopping moving just feels stupid.”
“I was raised to never stop moving. If we stopped moving…” Nebula trails off. “Talking about stuff is for suckers.”
Tony can’t sleep that night. He can distantly hear the howling of the wolves. Eventually he just sits up and starts staring at the wall.
“Why were you out in the field?”
He jumps, managing to stifle a yelp. He looks over to see Nebula sitting up, too.
“You said earlier you were out in the field. Were you a soldier?”
“No, I was… something else. We, uh, we called ourselves the Avengers.”
“What were you avenging?”
Tony shrugs. “Our boss came up with it, I don’t know where it came from. Well, I didn’t like the term boss, I preferred…” There’s something snarky on the tip of his tongue. He lets it die away. “Friend. He was my friend, I guess. We kinda. We… protected the planet, for the most part, best we could. Thanos made his bid for Earth and we came together then and we… stayed together for a little while. Then we didn’t.”
“Yes, I… I remember him doing that.”
She doesn’t say anything further, so Tony doesn’t comment on it. “We, uh. Yeah. We were… friends. And then we fought and I… didn’t get to talk to them again, really, before this.” He scuffs at the dirt. “I don’t know if they’re still alive.”
“I’m sorry.” Nebula leans her head back against the wall. “It’s better to know they’re dead than to be uncertain.”
Tony can’t tell if that’s an opening or not so he decides to tentatively approach it. “Did you… have a lot of… friends?” It sounds shitty coming out and he winces, but Nebula doesn’t seem to notice.
“I… was not raised to have friends. But I have spent time with Gamora and her companions in the past year or so. I… respected them. They were good warriors. I liked Mantis probably the best,” she adds in a soft voice. “But she’s gone now, too.” She shakes her head. “That wasn’t their whole gathering, who you saw. I don’t know where Rocket and Groot went, but I have no certainty that they are alive, either. And Gamora, well. I know about Gamora. There’s no other option for her.”
Tony struggles to figure out how to approach this. “What do you mean by no other option?”
Nebula’s still not looking at him. “The Soul Stone requires a sacrifice to be used. When I last saw Gamora and Thanos, she…” she trails off. “You know who my father is, don’t you?”
Tony shrugs awkwardly. “It… wasn’t hard to put together.”
“We were raised to best each other or to destroy each other. It was true of all my father’s children. We did not often travel with him as the others did, Proxima and Corvius and the rest, we were to be assassins. I saw potential for Gamora as a sister. Gamora just saw potential to survive in beating me. We had only become close once escaping him but… I was captured again. Thanos used harming me to get Gamora to reveal the location of the Stone. Gamora went with him to retrieve it. He came back alone. She sacrificed the Stone for me and in turn he sacrificed her. That’s what he meant when he said it cost him everything.” She looks so tired. “Gamora was always his favorite.”
Tony doesn’t know what to say to that. There’s no good way to communicate what he’s feeling for her, not in a way that won’t sound like he’s pitying her, which he isn’t. He’s no good at this sort of thing.
“You find it easier to talk at night, huh?” is what comes tumbling out of his mouth instead.
“It’s always easier to talk in the dark.” She does finally look at him then. That same exhaustion is there, with a sort of weary recognition attached to it. “The sun goes out, and people forget to be who they are during the day.”
“Yeah. I get that.” Tony scuffs at the dirt again. “My dad wasn’t great either. I mean, not like yours, obviously, yours was… way way way worse, but he, uh, he sucked, too. I didn’t meet up to what he wanted. He found me kind of…”
“Disappointing.” He knows it’s not a criticism of him coming from her. He sees in her eyes that she’s seeing a different father a long time ago.
“Yeah. Yeah, that. He probably would have been disappointed in me no matter what, honestly, I didn’t do a lot in my teenage years to change that but my childhood he could’ve been better and I think short of being…” he trails off. Short of being Captain America is unfair to Steve. He’s thought it over a lot since they fought and he knows Steve had nothing to do with that. “I mean. Yeah. I wouldn’t have been enough. So it’s not the same, it’s just a shadow of what you dealt with. But, y’know. I. I get what it’s like to try and get a parent’s attention and know that it’s pointless and… I’m sorry you had to deal with it.”
“Quill liked to say same shit, different day.” Nebula’s tapping her fingers on her leg. “That’s what it really is, isn’t it?”
“Same shit, different galaxy, really, but-“
She rolls her eyes. “Please refrain from being an ass at the moment.”
Nebula shifts a little. “We’ll find out if your friends have survived,” she says. “When we get to your planet.”
Tony nods. “You can compare notes with Nat. She, uh, she uses-“ He swishes his hand around vaguely like he’s using a baton. “She’s good. You can probably, like. Give each other tips and shit. Less blue than you, though.”
“Many beings are less blue than me.” She sounds a little more at peace than she did a few moments ago. “I have grown accustomed to it.”
Tony and Nebula bicker extensively about how much she does over the next couple days. Fortunately, Tony’s parrying her as someone who also has the intense drive to keep moving, so he at least knows what he’s up against. In the end, she limps out during the day to survey pieces of metal Tony brings her to see if they’re usable. She doesn’t complain when Tony insists she eats more of the potatoes they’ve rationed than him and that’s one of the things Tony likes about her, is that she doesn’t hem and haw, she gets that she’s weaker right now and needs to keep up her energy to heal faster. She gets triage, and doesn’t complain to him about whether or not he’s eating enough.
Nebula presents him with a long sheet of metal and a smaller, thinner, sharper piece of metal.
“I’m so honored. I’d like to thank the Academy.”
“And I wish I had a less asinine person to be stuck on Titan with.” She’s slowly warming up to light humor around him, even if they are in general roasting him. “We’re coming to the point where we will require a blueprint. We can start etching it into metal. I have reserved several sheets that are not spaceworthy. We should start in the evenings when we are not prepping for what to build.”
Tony nods. “Sounds good.”
Nebula’s leg heals faster than it would if it were Tony. They make another expedition out to one of the buildings, and Nebula sends Tony searching in the depths of the place. Tony’s in charge of electronics, Nebula’s in charge of building materials. He’s scanning the lower levels of the place when his scanner dings.
“Oh shit,” he whispers. He taps his communicator. “Nebula.”
“I’ve found something.”
“Something good or something likely to kill us?”
Tony stares at the two examples of machinery in front of him, disused but not broken. “From what my readouts are telling me, something good.”
Nebula does the examination. It’s only smart. She knows more about this stuff than Tony does. He understands how things work, but when it comes to certain aspects of alien technology, he’s still lost.
“What do you think?” he asks as she stands up.
“I think it would have been better if we could find three of them.” She folds her arms and looks down at them, nodding a little. “But if we clean them, they can still be functional. It’s remarkable they’ve held on this long.”
“So they’re what I think they are, right? They’re engines?”
“Something like that. One should be able to power the ship, if we boost it. The other should be able to power one cryo chamber, with a few minor changes.” She looks at Tony. “This would be a good time to prove that you are very smart.”
Tony rolls his eyes. “Oh, yeah, like I haven’t done that enough already.”
“I’ve seen no evidence.”
“Someday you’re gonna have to get a sense of humor that isn’t just giving me shit.”
“You’re the only person on this planet. I have no one else to give shit to.”
That’s fair enough. Tony bends down to pick up one of the engines and promptly rears back, hissing.
“What is it?”
Tony opens his hand to see a cut along the inside of his palm. There must be something sticking out of the engine and when he kneels down he sees a rusty bit of metal.
“I’m fine,” he says. “Help me with this thing, will you?”
He’s not fine, and he’s pretty pissed about it.
By the time they get back to the shelter, his hand’s turned red, the skin puffy around the cut. Nebula gets a little bit of her spray inside it, giving him an impatient look when he tries to do it himself. She bandages it up with another strip off his hoodie.
“This is stupid,” he mutters. “Cutting myself on a piece of metal was stupid.”
“You will need to rest this hand.” She ties off the bandage. “My medicine will take care of infection and ensure you heal faster than you would with your own but you still need to be careful.”
Tony’s feeling tired and irritable. “I don’t need to rest.”
“I did not say you should rest.” Nebula meets his eyes. “I will find something for you to do. You gave me a job when I was recovering so I would not languish in frustration. I will do the same for you.”
Tony feels relief blossom inside him. He hates the feeling of helplessness being sick or injured brings, the feeling of stagnation and anger and fear that once he comes back online fully, he’ll never function properly again, he won’t be able to do anything the way he wants ever again. “Thought I was the one who owed you a debt.”
“Your debt will be repaid by your survival. Your survival will be ensured by not over extending your hand. Be wise. I require you to live.”
“I know, I know. I need to live so I can be useful or so you can eat me if you have to or whatever.”
Nebula stills as she puts the spray and what’s left of Tony’s poor beleaguered hoodie back in the box. Tony can’t see her face, only her back.
“I require you to live,” she repeats, and Tony realizes in some surprise that it’s the first time she hasn’t added a reason why to the end of it. He swallows.
“I, uh. I require you to live, too.”
He sees her nod once, jerkily. “Talking about stuff is for suckers.”
“Yeah.” Tony nods, too, quickly putting an easy breezy tone into his voice so she can feel okay about turning back around. “Yeah, talking about stuff is for suckers.”
Nebula lets Tony keep dragging metal over, but she makes him do the smaller pieces and only lets him use one hand. He goes a lot slower, too.
“We’re coming up on enough,” she observes as Tony tosses another piece of metal in the pile. “We just need that extra engine for the second cryo unit.”
“We can do another expedition out to another building soon.” Tony stretches his back a little. “How did salvaging the glass from what’s left of your ship go?”
“We’ll have enough for the window, but not enough for cryo. We can use some of the polished plastic for those, though, it should hold.”
“Sounds good.” Tony heads back for another piece of metal. “I’ll tune up the scanner in my helmet so we can try and find an extra engine.”
“If you can fit in your helmet still.”
Tony pauses, giving her a confused look. “What?”
“Because you’ve gotten bushier.”
Nebula raises her eyebrows and strokes her chin. Tony raises his hand to his face to find it unexpectedly bristly and thick. He rears back in surprise, patting the other side of his face. Also thick and bristly.
“Holy shit,” he says. “Did I grow a beard? Like, a full beard?” He starts looking for a piece of polished metal. “My beard was the perfect length, I tried a longer one in college and it was bad, okay, Rhodey never let me forget it and I said never again, this is the last fucking straw-“
A sound makes Tony stop short. It sounds like an odd, high choking sound. He stops looking for the closest thing he can find to a mirror and spins around. Nebula’s face rearranges into dryly unimpressed, but not fast enough.
“Did you just laugh?” he asks. “Holy shit, you just laughed.”
“I don’t laugh.”
“You did. You laughed! You’re capable of emitting laughter! You can make the comedy noises with your mouth!”
“I make no noises.”
“This is incredible. I feel so privileged. Honored, truly.”
“I can take care of the beard for you if you don’t mind decapitation.”
“Worth it, honestly.”
Nebula’s lying flat on the ground, staring at the roof of their shack. Tony can’t sleep, either. The electrified fence has managed to keep the wolves at bay, but they still come out and howl at night. Tonight seems especially loud.
Tony gets up and lies down to Nebula, putting his hands on his chest. She was right- his hand is healing quicker, but it’s still a little stiff and he keeps the bandage wrapped still at night.
“Tell me something,” he says without looking at her.
Nebula doesn’t move next to him. “Tell you what?”
“I dunno. Anything. Something that makes you happy.”
Tony shrugs. “It’s better than listening to this, isn’t it?”
Nebula’s quiet for a moment.
“After Gamora and I reconciled, I went to see her and her companions on Ferrer,” she finally says. “They were on a job, but she and I split off alone. It was… early, in the peace we’d come to and it was… somewhat awkward. There was an open marketplace, and we wandered through it, and I wasn’t sure what… sisters do, exactly. I’d had an idea, as a child, but I didn’t know anymore. I thought perhaps they gave each other gifts, so I bought her a simple ring. I didn’t know if she cared for ornate things or not, it… wasn’t the sort of thing we discussed. It looked like a braid. I wasn’t sure on a ring, I thought perhaps it would affect her grip on a sword, but I was concerned a necklace might get caught on something in a fight. She was surprised, and I thought I’d done the wrong thing, but she smiled, and said we had a lot of birthdays to catch up on anyway. I’d forgotten about birthdays until then.”
“That sounds nice. I mean. It’s also kind of horribly depressing but I feel like a lot of your memories connect back to that somehow. I mean, I get it. Childhood trauma. Is what it is, that’s how it goes sometimes.”
“Yes. True enough. It was nice. She bought me a necklace. It was a silver leaf pendant, and the divisions of the leaf were some form of green stone with layers and ripples in it. She said it would be for luck. And that maybe someday we’d make it back to my planet and we could look at real ones there, like I remembered.”
“Did you say anything about it being a necklace? For battle purposes?”
“My sister gave me a gift for the first time. Danger didn’t matter.”
They’re quiet again. Tony thinks about thanking her for the story, small as it is. It’s clipped, but it’s honest, and he knows she has trouble opening up. He thinks thanking her would make it worse.
“So I’ve got someone back home,” he says. “Her name’s Pepper. She was my PA but she was always so much smarter than me, y’know? She understood my company, I, uh, I ran a company, for a bit, I shouldn’t have been, that’s my point, she understood how to run a business a lot better than I did, so then she was the CEO, and she was so much better at it than I ever was. She’s better at a lot of things, really. She’s wiser and she’s kinder and she’s just… better. She’s just better than anyone else I ever knew, and I just, god, I love her, Nebula, like you wouldn’t believe. And we’ve been doing this dance for years and last year I finally proposed, and she said yes, and it was great, you know? It was great. I gave her a ring, and it was good and all, but I felt a little weird, and I realized it was cause, I mean, she’s wearing this ring around all the time, and it’s like, it’s a promise, right? It’s a promise. But that promise goes both ways. And it’s weird that women are the only ones who are ‘required’ by society to wear rings to prove they’re ‘spoken for’ or whatever, for one thing, by the way, I don’t know if you have misogyny in space, but we definitely have it on Earth and you’re not gonna like it, but it’s there, but like, she hasn’t just made a promise to me to stay with me. I made a promise to her. And I wanted proof that I meant it. I haven’t always been reliable. I was pretty shitty, in fact, for most of my life, and Pepper saw it all, she saw me at my absolute worst, and I’m different now, mostly, and I know it and she knows it but I wanted proof.
“So I told Pepper and she seemed mildly confused but she went with it anyway and I told her to pick out a ring she liked and she could spring it on me whenever. And Pepper’s a hard woman to read, she’s tricky, it’s one of the reasons I love her, and I didn’t know what she’d want, you know, I didn’t know if she’d want to do some fancy proposal, something heartfelt. But instead I was in my lab, tinkering, and out of nowhere, something bounces off my forehead, and it clatters onto my workbench. And it’s this little silver ring, got a little diamond in it, and I look up, and Pepper’s standing at the foot of the staircase expectantly, with that little look she gets…” Tony can see it now, so clearly, in her all white suit, holding a clipboard, that slightly suppressed smile on her red lips, hair pulled back immaculately. Her heels on the stair behind her, dumped when she came in and he’d been so absorbed he hadn’t heard her. “And she said I thought your reflexes were better than that, and we both knew she was lying, she’d thrown it at me to watch it hit my forehead, and then she said you get to do stupid stuff every day, you know, I get a turn every once in a while, and it was just… breathtaking. She was breathtaking, not just her but everything about her, everything she was, everything she was ever gonna be, I was gonna get to watch her grow and change and she was gonna watch me grow and change and we were gonna do it together, this… this phenomenal woman who had just chucked this thing at my head. And I said I know that you do, and she turned around and she walked up the stairs and she still had that look and that moment was… it was the happiest I’d ever been. No moment’s ever come close. Not one.”
Nebula is silent as she takes it in, and Tony lets himself lose himself in it, this time that’s gone, frozen in a crystal.
“I am glad she is wiser than you,” she tells him eventually. “It is comforting to know that not everyone on your planet is like you and Quill.”
It’s the right thing to say. Tony wishes he’d come up with something snarky and shitty to say back to her at her story. That was the right move. “You’ll like her. She only has a little more patience for my bullshit than you do.”
“We’re going back to her.” Tony nods a little, feeling the dirt shift against his hair. “I mean, the people we’re gonna need to help us, the ones we’re gonna need to… to figure out what to do, after this, we’ll call them first. But I don’t know… what their situation is right now. So we’re gonna go back to my tower, I have a tower, it’s fine, and we’re gonna go to Pepper. Because she’s tough, and this will have made her tougher, and she’ll… she’ll know what to do.”
“You’re so certain that she is alive.”
“She is. I know she is.”
Nebula doesn’t question it and he’s glad, glad that she doesn’t ask him why because the truth is he doesn’t have an answer, nothing he can take down to math, nothing he can write out and present. The truth is that Pepper has to be alive, because he can’t picture the world without her. Because the world isn’t allowed to be there without her, because if Pepper Potts is dead then he and Nebula will arrive at the spot Earth used to be, it’ll be all gone because the lynchpin is missing.
“She is,” he says again. “She’s alive.”
“I believe you,” Nebula answers, and it takes him aback so suddenly that he looks over at her. She is still staring at the ceiling.
Belief, he thinks. The pair of them, cynical and tired and irritable and utterly alone except for the other, running on belief.
“You still got the necklace?” he asks.
Nebula reaches up to her neck and fishes something out from under her shirt. She pulls up a chain with that same pendant she’d described.
“I survived,” she says. “Perhaps it brought me luck after all.”
“It’s nice. Looks kinda like abalone shell. Your sister had good taste.”
“Do you have the ring?”
He holds up his hand to show it to her and she looks over at it.
“Third finger, left hand,” he tells her. “It’s an ancient thing. I looked it up. The Romans, this civilization, came long before my time, they believed the vein in this finger went directly to the heart, so that’s where you wear the ring.”
“It’s nice. I don’t really wear rings, but I appreciate the aesthetics.”
“Yeah. Yeah, she’s got good taste, too.”
The howling is quieter.
Today it’s on Tony to dig for potatoes.
They’re starting to stockpile, so they’ve started picking every other day for one of them to work specifically on harvesting the potatoes. It’s the only food they’ve been managed to find on the whole planet and they keep expanding their search. Only funky purple potatoes. He keeps dumping them in the little crude buckets they’ve been fashioning.
“Do you remember what other food tastes like?” he asks Nebula.
She’s scrutinizing the metal. “Vaguely.”
“I’m looking forwards to real food again. And water that’s not, y’know, recycled.”
“I don’t know what of Earth cuisine I would like.” Nebula stands and straightens. “But I’ll take any of it.”
“What do you like normally?”
“You have no frame of reference.”
“I mean, do you like meat? Vegetables? Fruit? Other… stuff?”
Nebula thinks it over as she stretches. “Not potatoes and recycled urine.”
“Yeah. Yeah, fair enough.”
Tony looks up from where he’s hunched over the long metal sheet in the shelter. It’s his fourth attempt at a blueprint. He and Nebula have been working on it together and she’s taking a break, leaning up against the opposite wall.
“What you’ve been thinking about the ship.”
“Y’know, you’re the one who’s been making jokes about me being incapable of thinking.”
Nebula sighs, rubbing her forehead. “I’m very tired,” she says quietly, and it jars Tony out of deflecting. It’s a kind of vulnerability he doesn’t necessarily see even when she’s talking about her family or past. They’re both not given to appearing exposed.
“We’re gonna have to make a decision,” he says.
Nebula comes over and sits next to him. “What are you thinking?”
“We have two engines and the parts from your ship and we can incorporate some of the nanotech from my suit. So we can power the ship, but we need three engines, two for each cryo unit.”
“We’ve been searching the buildings and we can’t find one more.” He’s gesticulating with the tool as he thinks. “We need one more, but we can’t find one more, and we could have to search the whole planet to find another one. We have the metal to start work on a smaller vessel without a second cryo unit but we don’t have enough for a bigger one yet.”
“You want to eliminate the second cryo unit completely and get going on the ship now.”
Tony’s shoulders sag in relief. He hadn’t been sure if he was going to have to fight about this. “Yes.”
Nebula nods slowly. “It’s smart,” she says. “It’ll take less time to get off Titan, less resources if we’re not both conscious all the time. We can go in shifts so one of us can always be manning the helm.”
“Shifts is good. I hadn’t thought of that.”
Nebula drums her fingers on the sheet of metal. “I am… uneasy,” she admits in a mutter. “At the thought of… space. Just space.”
Tony knows what she’s trying to say. He’s been reticent to bring this up for the same reasons. He wonders if the thought of eliminating the second cryo pod had occurred to her and she’d kept her mouth shut because of it as well. It’s been god knows how long since they’ve been on this planet. Tony’s failed to keep track of the days. Just him and Nebula, and the idea of being on his own, nothing but silence to fill the days while Nebula sits in a pod, is terrifying.
“Me, too,” he answers. “But the sooner we get the ship built, the sooner we get off of here, the sooner we get to Earth. Real food, real places to sleep-“
“A plan,” she murmurs.
Tony nods. “Yeah. A plan.”
Nebula nods as well.
“We’ll finish the blueprint tonight,” she says. “Start work tomorrow.”
Nebula was right. The suit does manage to help with the welding. It takes a little practice, a couple burns on his hand, but he manages. It doesn’t even matter that his hands hurt. He’s too thrilled to be in his element.
“Do you like building stuff?” Tony asks Nebula as they work on the skeleton of the ship.
Nebula shrugs, kneels checking one of the joints. “My father ensured I learned how, but I’ve never had feelings on it one way or the other. You like it, though?”
“Yeah. I’ve always felt like myself when I was building, y’know? Like, I know who I am when I’m building. What about you? Do you have… hobbies?” They’ve never talked about this kind of stuff before.
Nebula starts work on the joint. The welding stuff with the suit is better for rough work, just getting the thing on there, and the little welder she has in her arm is better for tightening. “I’m still… finding them. We weren’t encouraged things other than what we were trained in and I’ve spent most of the time since leaving my father’s side trying to kill him. Gamora helped. She tried to teach me how to… do other things. That didn’t require killing other things.”
“Anything you liked?”
“I think precision things are best for me. I was very good when we would go to bars and play darts. I was also very good at getting into fights.”
Tony grins. “With other patrons or with Quill and his people?”
Nebula has that lilt to her voice she gets when she’s amused but she won’t let herself smile. “Yes.”
Tony laughs. “They seem like they were easy to fight with. And next to.”
“They were. On both counts.” Nebula tests the joint. “Gamora was always easy to fight next to. Even when we weren’t on good terms, we always knew how each other moved.”
“So you like darts and bar fights.”
“Bar fights are very different from practiced fighting.”
“You don’t have to tell me.”
“But yes. Darts required the finesse I enjoyed and bar fights required a lack of finesse which I… also enjoyed, somewhat surprisingly.”
“Yeah. I had a friend like that.” Tony smiles a little at the thought of Steve. “He was good at fighting the way you’re supposed to or whatever, but the guy just liked throwing himself at stuff, too.”
“What happened to him?”
Tony pauses in working on the skeleton. Tries to return to it and stands still again.
“I don’t know,” he says quietly. “We had a fight and then we just… didn’t talk, and then, y’know. I came here. So. I dunno.”
Nebula steps back from the joint. “I think most likely Rocket and Groot would have gone to Terra,” she says. “If they split up, it would have been to find Thanos, and evidently Terra is the place to have found him. I would like to see if they’re there. Tell them what happened to the others. I think they’re owed it.”
“Yeah. I.” Tony closes his eyes. “Peter had an aunt. And she didn’t like me. And she’s gonna like me even less when we get back. But I gotta tell her anyway. She needs to know.”
“Yes. I can’t imagine it’s going to be… pleasant for me, either. In a different way than you.”
Tony takes a deep breath, shaking his head sharply, trying not to think about the look on May’s face when he confirms to her what happened to Peter. He wonders how many times she’s tried to call him. Wonders when she gave up.
“We can talk to each other about it,” he says. “After we have to do it.”
“Yes.” Nebula goes to check the next joint. “That… that might help.”
Nebula looks up. They’re working on wiring the ship. Tony’s squinting a little bit. He needs glasses. God, he misses his glasses. “What?”
“Cheeseburgers. When I built the first suit, I was kidnapped, and the only thing I wanted when I got back was a cheeseburger. That’s what I’m gonna get when I get back to Earth.”
“Do you know what cheese is?”
“Do you know what meat is?”
“Do you know what bread is?”
Nebula sighs loudly. “Believe it or not, Stark, your planet from the ass end of nowhere did not invent all food.”
“Well, it’s meat in a patty, with cheese on it, surrounded by bread.” Tony finishes the area he was wiring and moves on to a new one. “Do you eat meat?”
“You should try a cheeseburger. I’ll introduce you to them. A quality one, too. Not a McDonald’s cheeseburger. If there’s anything money is any good for, it’s to buy good cheeseburgers.”
“Anything but what we’re eating now.”
“I’m still going to want to kill him.”
Tony looks up from where he’s working on the helmet. They’ve taken some stuff out of the helmet to put into the ship (getting so much closer to being done now), but he’s kept the recorder in. He wants it to be as pristine as he can get it. He’s got his reasons. “What?”
“Thanos.” Nebula is inspecting her batons. “Once we arrive on Terra I’ll require a little time to recalibrate, but I intend to hunt him down and kill him.”
Tony nods. “Yeah. Makes sense.”
“I just… didn’t want you to think I would remain on your planet.”
“No, I figured.” Tony puts the helmet down and looks up at her. “We’re not that great at the interstellar travel thing yet, but, y’know, back on Earth, I had a lab and stuff, and it would be easier to build a ship. You can have whatever you need.”
“I would appreciate that."
Tony leans against the wall. “You remember how I said I was part of a group?”
“The one where you didn’t know what you were avenging?”
“That one, yeah.”
“Yes, I remember.”
“We, uh.” He swallows, forcing him to say what is almost certainly true. “I mean, it’s probably pretty unrealistic at this point, right, to assume that they all, y’know, made it out. We… probably have some vacancies. If you want, I mean, I could streamline your job application, put in a good word for you. That kinda thing. I have an in with the boss cause… I mean, if they’ll still have me, I’ll probably still be one of the bosses. If I’m not, I’m not so sure the other boss likes me, and you can tell him how much you give me shit and that might give you an in, too.”
Nebula blinks. “You… want me to join your group?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I mean, if you want. And if you can avoid ragging on the name too much, Fury's pretty particular about this kind of shit.”
“I. Perhaps. If your teammates wouldn’t mind. I could consider it.”
“They probably wouldn’t. And I mean, y’know, they’ll almost definitely be up for a vengeance mission.”
“I still want to be the one to kill him.”
“Yeah. I’ll back you all the way. I think you should.”
It’s going to be cramped.
They’ve built it tall enough that they can stand up in it. It’s vital for the cryo unit. But it’s not going to be a particularly large ship. They’ve got the front with the windows and the electronics and steering. The back, to store the unit and their food and to sleep in. It’s very small. Smaller than the Quinjet. Tony would kill for something the size of the Quinjet right now.
Nebula is in charge of building the cryo unit. Tony is testing the strength of the metal around the ship. He’s inching forwards bit by bit, reaching up to the ceiling, pushing and waiting to feel the strain in the metal.
“What do you want to see most on Terra?” Nebula asks. “Other than Pepper and cheeseburger.”
“Rhodey,” Tony answers instantly.
“What’s a Rhodey?”
“He’s my best friend. Through everything. All of it. Since we were in college. He’s… saner and wiser and just… I dunno, generally better than me.” Tony prods at the ceiling again. “Everyone else… it’ll be rough. Losing them will be rough. I’m not good at loss or change or any of that, so it’ll be shitty. But Pepper or Rhodey… I won’t be able to handle that. I’ll fall down. I’ll fall down hard.” He stares up at the ceiling for another moment, thinking about how the grey reminds him of Rhodey’s suit, how he didn’t even get to say goodbye, how Rhodey might not even know what happened to him. “What about you?”
Nebula continues wiring. “Quill used to say the skies on Terra were bright blue.”
“Yeah. On good days.”
She glances over her shoulder out the window at the burnt orange sky behind them. “I’d like to see that.”
It’s the last night.
They’ve run all their tests. The food is loaded up. The ship appears to be as functional as it will be. It shouldn’t kill them, blasting into the atmosphere, although it’ll probably knock them for a significant loop.
“I wish I was a better pilot,” Tony says, squinting into one of the more reflective bits of metal they’ve saved. He’s managed to polish it up so it’s not quite a mirror but he can still somewhat see in it, and now he’s squatting in front it with a bit of metal he’s sharpened with a laser. “I should’ve taken Rhodey up on his offer to take me up in a plane. I wasn’t keen on heights in those days, believe it or not.”
Nebula rolls her eyes from where she’s sitting up near him. “I look forwards to having my life in the hands of a man who is only minimally good at flying.”
Tony ignores the snark. “Y’know, we knew these two women when we were younger, well, Rhodey met ‘em first and then introduced us, they were great fucking pilots. The two of them and Rhodey were always getting into it about who was better, they used to fly similar missions together. All four of us got on like gangbusters, back in the day. Then one day one of them disappeared and the other was pretty busted up about it, she moved out to a farm somewhere with her kid and kinda dropped off our radar.” Tony studies his reflection in the mirror. “One of them could’ve flown this thing. No problem. Even if they’d barely understood it at first, they’d get it in a snap.”
“I wish they were here, then.”
“Yeah. Me, too.”
“Why are you doing that?”
Tony raises the metal back to his cheeks. He’d managed to hack a good chunk of his beard off with one of Nebula’s knives. Now he’s just trying to get as much off as possible. He’s nicking himself a little, but it’s okay. It’ll heal. “Cause.”
“Cause what? Vanity?”
“I mean, yeah, a little bit, for sure. I don’t look good with a beard.”
“But also, I just…” Tony lowers the blade so he can squint further at his reflection. “I want to look like I did when I left.”
“What’s the point?”
“I don’t know. It’s just important. I need to look…” he thinks it over. “Recognizable.”
Nebula leans her head back.
“Just be careful not to slit your throat,” she says. “If I can’t have those pilots you were taking about before, you’re all I’ve got.”
The two of them stand outside the ship, looking out at the landscape of Titan. Tony’s got his hands in his pockets.
“How long do you think it was?” he asks. “I never kept track.”
“I don’t know.” Nebula’s arms are folded across her chest. “It didn’t feel important to take notice, so I didn’t.”
“Yeah. Me, neither.” Tony takes a few steps forwards. “Should we… do we say anything?”
Nebula’s silent and he wonders if she’s going to ask what the point is.
“Drax, you were a tough warrior,” she says. “And gifted with a blade. Quill, I didn’t always see eye to eye with you, or even like you, but Gamora loved you, and that counted greatly, and you had your moments. Mantis…” she shakes her head a little, looking down. “I miss you, Mantis,” she murmurs. “I miss you and I wish I knew how to talk about that. I’ve never… missed anyone before except for my sister, and I had always missed having a sister, so that was… different. To missing you. You did well, in that final fight. And I miss you.”
Nebula turns away. Tony doesn’t chase after her. She needs what she needs. Tony runs a hand through his hair.
“Strange,” he finally says. “I don’t know what you meant by ‘the endgame’. I don’t know what you meant by any of it. And I didn’t know you for very long. But you saved my life. And I appreciate it. Peter…” his throat closes off for a second. But he needs to say something. He can’t just leave. “I failed you. I should’ve stepped in further, I should’ve figured something out. You might’ve hated me forever. But you’d have been alive, and that would’ve been better. And, y’know, I get it. You told me, about duty and all that stuff. You had a good heart. And you probably would’ve kept going even if I didn’t figure out a way to stop you. But it doesn’t change the fact that I failed you. And y’know, even if I survive and make it back and figure out how to kill Thanos, that would still be true. I’ll always have failed you. And I’m sorry, kid. I’m sorry your last words were I’m sorry because you weren’t at fault. I’m sorry for everything. All of it.” Tony clamps his jaw shut. If he doesn’t even more words will come spilling out.
He turns back to Nebula, who’s watching him. She doesn’t say anything comforting, which he appreciates. They both know there’s nothing particularly comforting to be said.
“All done?” she asks.
“Yeah.” She squares her shoulders. “Come on. Let’s go.”
The seat belts are not as good as either of them would like, considering they’re about to be launched into the atmosphere. Tony tries not to make it too obvious that he’s about two seconds from white knuckling the seatbelt, instead flipping the necessary switches as Nebula turns some dials.
“Okay,” she mutters. “Okay. Flip the last one on my countdown.”
“Yep, yep, yep, yep, yep, yep, yep, yep, yep, yep, yep.”
Nebula graciously ignores his slightly panicked answer. “Five… four… three… two…now.”
Tony flips the switch and the ship surges to life beneath them. Tony reaches for his controls at the same time Nebula reaches for hers and sharply pulls up. They hover over the ground for a moment.
“Switching to autopilot,” Tony says.
“Preparing to launch.”
“We’ll probably lose consciousness for a couple minutes, so, uh.” Tony holds out his fist for her to bump. “Good luck.”
Nebula gives him a mildly unimpressed look before rolling her eyes and bumping it. “Good luck.”
They return to the console.
The ship lurches. The sky blurs. Everything goes black.
Tony’s shoulders are being shaken and his eyes jerk open.
Nebula’s face is right in front of his. He yelps.
“Stop screaming, it’s me.” Her brow is furrowed as she studies his face.
“I wasn’t screaming. It’s alll… copacetic, on my end.”
Her forehead straightens out. Tony thinks he catches relief on her face before it smoothes back out. “Glad to see you’re still capable of spouting nonsense.”
“Good to know the launch didn’t make you lose your ability to mock me, Avatar.”
“I do not know what Avatar is.”
“Probably for the best, it’s pretty crappy.” Tony raises his hand to rub at his eyes. “Did we make it?”
“No, we’re dead and floating in space.”
Nebula moves back and Tony sits up, unbuckling his seatbelt. He stands and stares.
The cold blackness of space stares back, punctuated by blinking white stars.
“Ooooooooooooookay.” Tony quickly turns away from it. “Ooooookay. Okay. Okay.”
“Hey.” Nebula quickly moves to stand in front of him. “Stop that.”
“It’s just right there, huh? Just right there, we’ve been on the ground, and it’s been there, and firm, and there was a sky and now there’s just-“
“The void,” Nebula finishes. “Yes.”
“Oh man, you know what I really like, is you calling it the void.”
“It is what it is.” She puts her hands on his shoulders and shakes him a little, but not too hard. “Listen to me. I don’t like it, either. It’s dark, and it’s big, and there’s nothing in it, not like there was on Titan, but you need to pull it together.”
Tony squeezes his eyes shut. “Yup. Yup. Okay. Yup. You’re right.” He still keeps his eyes shut, though. “I thought you grew up in space, why are you freaking out?”
“I’m not freaking out.” She clears her throat. “I’ve never spent as much time on one planet as I had on Titan since Thanos took me. Apparently it’s recalibrated how adjusted I am to space and I am not enjoying it so we both cannot be emotionally compromised because then you will not be able to reunite with Pepper and Rhodey and I will not be able to find Thanos and murder him and I do not like that second option.”
“Yep. Yep.” He opens his eyes. Nebula’s scrutinizing him, clearly about to see if he’s gonna have a meltdown. “Co-ordinates are set?”
“Yes. She’ll go right to Terra.”
“Okay.” Tony takes a deep breath. “Okay.”
“It’s a little literal.”
Tony looks over at Nebula. They’re both quietly munching on a potato in their seats, the window stretched out before them as the ship drifts forwards. They’ve managed to rig the engine so it’ll go reasonably fast, parts cobbled together from the ship Tony, Strange, and Peter crashed, Nebula’s ship, and Tony’s armor. They won’t get there in the speed either of them arrived on Titan, but it means they’ll get there before they’re both old and gray. If Nebula had hair to grow gray, anyway. “What is?”
Nebula nods at the inky blackness ahead of them. “You haven’t stopped staring out the window since we sat down.”
“So you’re facing your fear.” Nebula takes another bite of her potato. “It’s a little literal.”
Tony grins, shaking his head and looking down at his potato. “I liked you better when you didn’t have a sense of humor and weren’t roasting me.”
“I have always had a sense of humor, you just weren’t worthy of it.”
“Oh, I feel so humble.”
Tony leans his head back against the seat. “We never named the ship.”
“Hm. I suppose you’re right.”
“What do you want to call it?” He eats his last bite of potato. “Do you want to name it after your sister? Or your friend?”
“I…” It’s Nebula’s turn to look into space. “I don’t… think so. Do you want to name it after your… Peter?”
Tony swallows. “No. No, I don’t… yeah. No. I’m good.”
They’re both quiet.
“Vow,” Nebula says finally. “We should call her Vow.”
“Because you’ve sworn to return to your people.” Nebula looks at him. “And I have sworn to kill Thanos. We’ve made our vows. This ship is the vehicle for them.”
“Vow. Yeah. I like that.” Tony smiles. “We can spray paint it onto the ship when we get to Earth, if you want.”
“There won’t be a point once we get there. It doesn’t matter. We’ll know.”
Nebula and Tony put it off.
They’re both nervously dancing around it, but eventually, they have to face it. It’s time.
Tony’s going to take first duty in the unit. The plan is he’ll be in for a period of about three months, and then Nebula will wake him. They’ll both be conscious for about a day to let the engine powering the unit rest a little bit. Then Nebula will go in for the same amount of time, and the whole cycle goes around.
Eventually, Tony climbs into the pod, Nebula hovering.
“I’ve tested the integrity,” she says brusquely. “Your frame is smaller than I am but the pod should still service adequately.”
She gives him that look she gives when she’s having feelings but she doesn’t want to admit it.
“It’ll be fine,” he repeats. “You did a good job.”
“I know that I did.”
“I know that you know that you did, I just-“
“Enough,” she cuts him off. She rubs at her face. “I am concerned about you,” she admits quietly. “I do not know how to communicate that and handle being in space again. Please let me be that in the way that I need to.”
Tony takes a deep breath. “Okay. Fair enough. If it counts for anything, I trust your work.”
“Thank you.” Nebula starts tapping at the buttons on the unit. “Hold still. I know that you have trouble doing that sometimes.”
Tony rests his arms on either side of himself, trying to quell the anxiety in him (for both himself and for Nebula, he’s startled to find) and lie like he’s just lying in a bed. “Very true.”
Nebula’s fingers hover over the final button. “Thank you,” she says again, something in her tone too clipped to be anything but something to hide behind, anything to make it easier for Tony not to see what’s going on in her head, even if he knows it’s got to be something like what’s going on in his. “For understanding.”
Before he can answer, she hits the button, the glass seals up over him, and he feels a chill.
The waking is almost violent.
Suddenly, the chill is gone. The glass opens up over him and Tony’s gasping for air, clutching at the side of the unit. His eyes are open and they’re straining a little bit and everything is dizzying-
A hand grips his, helping him to sit up. The movement is dizzying, too, but he slowly blinks into awareness, the world around him crawling in again.
“Wiggle your fingers and toes,” Nebula commands, standing in front of him, arms crossed, studying him carefully. He does so, holding up his hands for her to see. “Good.”
Tony’s breath evens out. “No freezing damage?”
“No. It looks like everything worked just as it’s supposed to.”
“Good. That’s good.” He blinks a couple times, focusing on her. “Are you okay?”
She looks a little startled, then it returns to her general mask. “Yeah. Of course. I’m fine.”
“Three months. It went just as it should’ve.”
Tony hesitantly gets on his feet. His legs are a little weak. His arms shoot out and grab one of Nebula’s to steady himself.
“Oh. Uh. Sorry.”
“It’s okay.” Nebula, to his surprise, puts her arm around his waist and supports him to the chairs in the control center. She carefully helps him get settled in one. “You may have some difficulty adjusting. This unit won’t take you out as slowly as more… professional ones might.”
Tony leans back against the seat and jumps a little by the vision of space, spread out in front of him again.
“I think that’s always gonna surprise me,” he mutters.
“No.” Nebula sits next to him. “You get used to it.”
They’re eating in the control center. Tony’s somehow caught off guard by how hungry he is, even though it’s not that surprising.
“Anything interesting happen?” he asks.
“It’s space.” Nebula takes a bite of her potato. “Some rocks went by the window.”
“Yeah. I guess that makes sense.”
Nebula tucks her legs under her. “Quill used to play Terran music though his ship. Gamora came to like it. I also… grew to be fond of some of it. I wish we had some of that.”
“Yeah, I could see…” Tony trails off, something sparking in the back of his brain. “Hang on.”
Tony gets the helmet from where it’s carefully resting underneath the console. He starts fiddling with some wires and the helmet. They’ve got the console rigged with a screen they managed to salvage from Nebula’s ship, and it only takes a few moments to get what he needs translated over into the ship and onto the screen. Nebula looks over at it.
“You downloaded music onto your helmet?” she asks.
“I mean, into the suit’s memory banks, yeah. You get bored sometimes, start tinkering, it’s two am, you can’t sleep, you start fucking around with what kind of files the suit can handle, shit happens.” Tony sits back. “Totally forgot about it until just now.”
Nebula scans the options on the flickering screen before lightly tapping at a song, the melody wafting through the speakers.
“It was one I recognized.”
Tony looks out the window. “No actual moonlight out there. Or space to dance. But it’s a good tune.”
“I don’t dance.”
“The audio quality is better than Quill’s device.”
“What did Quill have?”
Tony chokes on his potato. “Yeah. Uh, yeah, that’ll… that’ll do it.”
For all Nebula commented on his inability to sit still, she’s fidgety getting into the cryo unit. Tony can’t blame her, squashing his own anxiety as her fingers nervously tick on the side of her thigh.
“It’s like falling asleep,” he tells her.
“I know,” she says tersely. Tony studies her, considering.
“Are you… scared?”
Nebula’s jaw clenches.
“One of the ways my father would torture us if we failed was locking us in tubes not unlike this for days,” she answers tightly. “I do not… enjoy tight spaces.”
Tony’s quiet. “Huh.”
“What?” she snaps, looking ready to fight.
“I just… I didn’t know you were capable of being scared of stuff.”
“I don’t like being scared, it’s a weakness and-“
“No, no, it’s, uh. It feels like it, but.” Tony scratches the back of his head. “I’ve got, I mean, I dunno if you call it this in space, but it’s called PTSD on Earth? It’s… hard, and it involves panic attacks and, y’know, shit like that, it’s one of the reasons I hate space it’s… a long story. And, y’know, I’m no shrink, but the kind of stuff you’ve talked about with your upbringing, it, uh, it sounds like you’ve got… something similar, at least.”
“I’m aware. It was something Gamora and I were… working through. Together. Sometimes by talking. Sometimes by… fighting things together.”
“Did you… have any strategies?”
She shrugs. “The fighting helped. And breathing. And counting. So.” She closes her eyes. “So I’m going to do that.”
“Yeah. Yeah, that sounds good. Um. Sometimes I try and think of… good memories. To try and push through a panic attack. So. Worth a shot.”
Nebula nods. She reaches up to her neck and pulls the necklace out from under her shirt. She raises her hand to her chest and closes her fist around it, clutching the pendant tight.
“Please don’t tell me things are going to be okay,” she tells him. “It doesn’t help.”
“Okay. I can do that.” Tony’s hand hovers over the control panel, looking over at her. “Does… it help if I tell you I’ll be here when you wake up?”
She’s quiet for a second.
“Somewhat surprisingly,” she admits. “It does.”
He hesitates. Then he puts his hand on the side of the unit, palm up. Nebula cracks one eye open and stares at it, and Tony’s about to pull it back when she reaches out and squeezes it. Tony squeezes back and they stand there for a moment, clinging to each other’s hands.
“I’ll be here when you wake up,” he repeats.
“On the wall behind the chairs in the cockpit,” she says. “Keep track of the days. I’ve already started. It helps. With… space.”
She squeezes his hand extra hard one more time before quickly withdrawing it and putting her arm back in the pod.
“Do it,” she instructs tightly. “Now.”
“Yup.” He quickly taps the buttons. The pod seals over her and the cold air rushes until she’s lying there, perfectly still, fingers wrapped tight around her pendant.
Tony stares down at her for a moment. Then he stands and heads over to the cockpit. He settles into the chair and stares out at space, watching the diamonds hanging in the sky blinking back at him, slowly twisting the ring on his finger.
When Tony wakes up the next morning (he thinks- there’s no sun to define morning) and staggers out to the cockpit to check everything’s working the way it’s supposed to, he notices a piece of jagged metal resting on the crude dashboard they’d rigged up. He remembers what Nebula had said the day before and turns around. Behind his seat, there’s a running set of tally marks crudely carved into the metal. Next to the first mark is an N.
Tony reaches over and grabs the piece of metal. He roughly carves a line to differentiate where his starts and Nebula’s begin. Then he carves a TS in next to his very first tally mark.
Tony sits next to the cryo unit a lot. He’s careful not to jostle it. It was built out of scraps on an abandoned planet. He doesn’t want to test what happens if poked at too much. Mostly he just sits by it, feeling comforted by being in the presence of another person, even if that person isn’t aware he’s there. He doesn’t think she’d mind.
He puts it off for a couple days, endlessly staring out into space, playing with the ring on his finger. But he knows he needs to do it sooner rather than later. They’re out in, as Nebula put it, the void. Anything could happen.
It’s not that hard to rig up the helmet to record. He settles across from it as the lights flicker on.
“Is this thing on?” He tries to picture her as he talks. He doesn’t ever want to lose the image of her face. Not til the day he dies. “Hey, Miss Potts. If you find this recording, don’t feel bad about this. Part of the journey is the end. Nebula will give this to you, probably, if I don’t make it. She’s friendly, by the way. She’s an alien, but kinda like the Thor kind, not like, y’know, the invading kind. She’s… my friend. She’s kept me sane. We’ve kept each other sane. She’s gonna want to build a spaceship and stuff, I told her she had full access to my lab. Give her whatever she wants. We built this ship together out of scraps, you know. Sound familiar?”
He runs a hand through his hair.
“God, it seems like a thousand years ago I fought my way out of that cave. Became Iron Man. Realized I loved you. I know you… know what happened, at this point. Or have an idea. I mean, a lot of people disappeared at once, so, y’know. You’re gonna know. I tried to stop him. The guy who did this. Thanos. I tried, I really did, Pep, and I know that you know I did, but…” he rubs his face. “I failed. And I know you’ve had to be wondering, y’know? Did I die in space or did I die trying to stop him or did I go with everybody else? And I’m sorry. That I made you do that. Because I know it had to be hard. But I was always gonna come back, y’know? Cause… that’s been my life, for a long time now. I come back to you. Always. Whenever I fuck up or I get into trouble, whenever I try and fight my way back, it’s always fighting my way back to you. And if you’re listening to this, I was… I was really gonna make it this time, too. I know I said no more surprises, but I was really hoping to pull off one last one.”
He wipes at his eyes.
“You’ll need to tell May Parker… Peter tried, too. I tried to send him home, I know she’s got no right to believe me, but I activated the parachute protocol on his suit and the little punk just… stowed away on the ship. But I should’ve… I don’t know. I don’t know what I should have done. Something. Anything. He didn’t… he didn’t die injured. He wasn’t killed by Thanos in combat. I don’t know if that helps. He died in the Snap. I don’t know if sending him home would’ve prevented that or if he’d gone anyway but I… should’ve tried. And I’m sorry I didn’t. Tell her I’m so sorry.” He crosses his legs. “Tell Rhodey I’m sorry, too. I’ve made him worry too often. I feel sometimes like our whole friendship was making him worry. He should’ve left me behind long ago. But he didn’t, and I’m always gonna be so grateful. I’m so grateful he stuck around, I’m so lucky to have known you both and I don’t know how to-“ His voice catches and he presses his hands to his eyes, taking a deep breath. “Forget the panicky stuff, huh? It’s uh, void madness. Instead of feelings. Just. Just give me this one. Um. If Steve’s still… tell him I wish we’d made up. Tell him I wish… things were different. It would’ve been good, y’know? To be friends again at the end of the world.
“There’s a good chance I’m not gonna make it out of this. Nebula, she’s, uh, different, than me, in a lot of ways, it’s her story, I’m not gonna tell it for her, but she’s tougher. She’s more likely to survive. But I’m older than her, I’m pretty sure, and my physiology is different and you… you just never know. So I just wanted to have something for you. In case I don’t make it. Nebula will give the helmet to you. I’ll ask her.” He takes another breath. “I love you. The day you threw that ring at me… it was the happiest moment of my life. It’s what I go back to, every single time life’s been hard over the past… god, I don’t even know how long I’ve been gone, but every single time, however long it’s been, I think of that. And if this is it, if I don’t make it, when I drift off, I will dream about you. It’s always you.”
Tony reaches over and shuts down the helmet. He puts it back under the console and sits in silence.
He’s never been happier to have downloaded the music. He plays it all the time while he bustles around the ship. He’s started tuning up little things that looks like they could use fixing or streamlining. It’s a good way to keep busy. Sometimes he dances in the tiny space they’ve got behind the cockpit. Nebula’s asleep and there’s no one else to see him. Fuck it.
Tony talks to Nebula, as the days pass by.
“So I’m thinking not just cheeseburgers,” Tony tells her once, while Radio GaGa’s blasting in the ship. “We’re gonna go on a whole food tour of the world. After you kill Thanos, when you come back. We’re just gonna jet around the world, trying shit out. Jalebis, piri piri chicken, bao buns. The American food will probably just be things that shouldn’t be deep fried deep fried anyway, but you might like it, we’ll try it.”
Tony wakes up one of the times he’s designated as night after a nightmare, Pepper and Rhodey and Peter and Steve and Bruce and everyone he’s ever cared about dissolving into ash. The nightmares vary but they always end in dead people.
He sits next to Nebula’s cryo unit.
“Do you have nightmares?” he asks. “Probably. You never made noise or twitched when you slept, but I mean. Everyone has nightmares anyway, the life you’ve led, yours are probably way worse than mine. I know you can’t answer me. I don’t even know if you would answer me. Which is fair. I mean, I talk about everything so I don’t have to talk about anything. But everyone deals with stuff in their own way. That’s what my shrinks say, anyway. And it makes sense.”
He raises his knees to his chest and puts his chin on them.
“I liked talking to you on Titan,” he admits quietly. “Even when we didn’t talk about what was going on in our heads. Even when you were roasting me.”
He lays back down on the metal floor and curls his arm under him, trying to get some more sleep.
“Do you think you’d like movies? Do they have movies in space? I have so many questions. We should watch space movies. You’d probably hate ‘em.”
“Sometimes I think about Peter and I haven’t had alcohol in years cause, y’know, alcoholic, but god, I think about him apologizing to me before he died and I want a drink more than I have in forever.”
“Hey, do you think we smell bad and just haven’t noticed it?”
The three months pass, tally mark by tally mark. Tony talks and tunes up and sings and dances and has nightmares about the gaping vastness of space and all his loved ones and wakes up and talks and tunes up and sings and dances all to pretend the nightmares never happened.
The day itself comes. Tony taps the key into the controls for the unit to disengage and the glass seal over the pod opens up. Nebula jerks and gasps into life, eyes opening wide and sitting up sharply.
“Easy, easy-“ Nebula’s fist comes shooting out, a knife in hand. Tony yelps and drops to the floor, covering his head with his hands. “It’s me! It’s me! We’re good! No stabbing!”
The knife clatters on the floor next to him and Tony figures he’s okay. He stands back up to see Nebula gripping the edge of the cryo unit, looking dizzy and confused.
“Sorry,” she mumbles.
“It’s okay. I guess you’re all good on the wiggling your fingers and toes front, you’re clearly in, uh, full working order. You need help up?”
The nod she gives is one brusque motion. Tony wraps an arm around her waist and helps her to the cockpit. She seems a little sturdier on her feet than Tony was after his first time out and she gets into the chair mostly by herself.
“You’re playing that song I like,” she mumbles.
“I don’t know any other songs you like.”
“I’ll go through your library and tell you when you wake up.”
“Your music is louder than Quill’s,” Nebula observes as she chews on her potato.
“I like loud music.” Tony takes a bite out of his. “I figured you’d be the kind to like it, too.”
“It’s not intolerable.”
“So you do like it.”
Nebula looks over at the wall behind Tony’s seat. “You kept track of the days.”
“Seemed like the best way to know when to let you out.”
“Because you cannot count without assistance?”
Tony grins down at his potato. “Hey, I can count fine, thank you very much.”
“I am impressed.”
“I left a message for Pepper on the helmet,” Tony tells her as they lie on the floor to sleep. “She’ll know how to activate it. Just in case. Will you get it to her?”
Tony stares at the ceiling. “Do you get nightmares?”
“…from time to time. Why?”
“I dunno. Just curious, I guess.”
Nebula settles in the floor more firmly, her foot knocking into Tony’s as she moves. “They’ll be better once we sleep places that are more comfortable,” she grumbles, and Tony can’t disagree with that.
He climbs into the cryo unit with a little less anxiety than before. Nebula is still tense. He rolls with it, folding his hands on his chest.
“I talked to you sometimes, when you were in here,” he says suddenly. “Y’know, when I’d had nightmares and was, I guess lonely, and shit. Is that okay with you? It’s just occurring to me now that it might be weird.”
“It’s fine,” she says gruffly. “I do the same thing when you’re out.”
The unit seals over and gets cold.
“Fuck. Fuck. Fuuuuck.” Tony presses his hands against his eyes. “Is this ever going to stop sucking?”
“Probably not.” Nebula holds out her hand. “But at least it doesn’t last long.”
“We’re coming along,” Nebula tells him. “No more than a year, I’m hoping.”
Tony likes the part of this where they sit in the cockpit and eat their potatoes together. It’s good. “Yeah. That’d be good.”
“How do you know they won’t just shoot us out of the sky once we get there? I would imagine Terra won’t be so keen on potential alien visitors after Thanos.”
“Leap of faith?”
“…outstanding.” Nebula tucks her legs under her. “I like the songs you’ve labeled Cash and Clash and St. Vincent.”
“Good to know. Steve introduced me to St. Vincent. He’s surprisingly up to date on modern music by now.”
“Why shouldn’t he be?”
“He was frozen in a block of ice for a few handful of decades.” Tony looks over at her. “Have you ever been frozen in a block of ice?”
“Once or twice. It gave me time to think about how to kill the person who froze me quicker.”
Nebula still grips her pendant when she gets into the unit, but she looks a little calmer than she did the first time around.
“Easier?” Tony asks.
“Somewhat. Not entirely.” Nebula closes her eyes. “My forehead hurt when I woke up last time because it had been furrowed the whole way. I want to avoid that.”
“Smart.” Tony sets everything up so he just needs to hit one button and waits. “Tell me when.”
Nebula waits a couple seconds, taking a deep breath. “Now.”
“Sweet dreams.” Tony hits the button. The glass seals and that’s that.
“Hey, you know what’s funny?” Tony calls as he etches another day into the row of tally marks. “When I get back, I bet Steve can catch me up on new music, if people are still making music. That’s gonna be so weird. God, I bet he’s gonna make so much fun of me.”
“I wish we had different clothes. I bet we do smell bad.”
“Holy shit, do you think you’d like video games? I play a pretty mean round of Tetris. And I’m okay at games where you fight people and shit. You might like them.”
It’s the same cycle as last time. Talking, dancing, nightmares, music, the whole go round. It’s going about as well as it ever does until about two and a half months in when Tony’s woken by the Vow rocking. He jerks up and stumbles over to the console to see the worst possible thing he probably could see, except maybe space pirates. He’s got to assume those exist.
“Motherfucker,” he mutters, staring out at an asteroid field. It’s not too big, he thinks (he’s admittedly not an expert on asteroid fields), but it’s still not something he can rely on the autopilot for. He’s gonna need to actually fly the ship himself.
“Okay. Okay. Okay.” He sits in the seat and starts flipping switches to return the controls to himself. “It’s fine. It’s gonna be fine. I flew the Quinjet a couple times. Same thing. Just in space. Where I can’t breathe if bad shit happens. And Nebula will die if I fuck up too bad. It’s good. It’s allllll good.”
The ship lurches to life underneath his hands and he grits his teeth, pulling back on the throttle.
“Come on, Rhodes,” he mumbles. “What did you used to tell me about flying planes? Other than ‘picturing you in the cockpit is enough to give me nightmares for the rest of my life’. The good stuff. The adrenaline junkie stuff. The… other stuff. God, I don’t know, I never watched Top Gun.”
Tony starts slowly edging his way through the asteroids, trying to think about it as a training simulation for the suit. Just… dodging practice mines. That’s all it is. Dodging practice mines.
“Okay. It’s gonna be fine. No worries. God, Danvers, Rambeau, I wish you were here. Rambeau, I’m just gonna send you a… big old fucking fruit basket or something when I get back, this is a lot harder than I used to razz the three of you for. Or I’ll send your kid to college. She’s probably already in college. Student loans? Danvers, I’ll, fuck, you’re dead, I dunno, I’ll pet that cat you liked. If I can find that cat. Shit, that cat’s probably dead. I’ll find a new cat. Just like the old cat. Pet it in your honor.”
Rambling to himself is as soothing as it ever is and his mouth runs a mile a minute as he just barely makes it around rock to rock.
“Nebula, I bet you’re pretty glad you’re asleep, huh? This is probably annoying as shit. Used to really piss Natasha off, which is pretty bullshit, if you asked me, the woman liked to let out a wisecrack if she could really burn us all in the process. But when we were in a tight spot and I’d just start shooting my mouth off, she’d threaten to strangle me if I didn’t shut off my coms. I think you’d like her. I don’t know if she likes me anymore. I don’t know if she’s alive. But if she is, I’ll make introductions. I’ll introduce you to all of them. Bruce is back, I don’t know if you ever ran into a big green rage monster in space, but if you did, that was him.”
Tony can feel his heart pounding in his chest. He’s pretty sure his forehead is just made of sweat and he’s trying to keep from having anxiety related vomiting. Every second feels like an hour.
“We’re almost out. We’re alllllmost out. Just a little bit further. It’s all gonna be okay, right? It’s all gonna be good. We’re gonna be fine and we’re gonna make it to Earth and you’re gonna kill Thanos. And it’ll be great. Probably. Maybe not. But probably.”
The last line of asteroids is coming and he’s almost there, he’s almost home free, he can see a gap, an opening, he can fit through it, they’re gonna get out-
One of the rocks bumps into the side of the ship. It shocks Tony enough that for a half second his tight grip on the controls slips and he bumps into another asteroid, which bumps him into another. Something in the back of the ship makes a horrible scraping sound.
“Fuck!” Tony accelerates sharply, careening through the gap and into open space. He sets the ship back on autopilot and darts into the back. The ceiling’s caved in slightly, one of the bars holding it up sticking jagged out of the floor, not deep enough to penetrate the hull but deep enough to be at something of an angle. Some wires have become disengaged and are sparking.
“Shit, shit, shit, shit-“ Tony starts buzzing around. He yanks on the bar that fell down and props it up. He manages to solder at least half of it on so hopefully the ceiling won’t cave any further and then moves on to the wires. He starts trying to patch them up, desperately trying to figure out how to fix this, he doesn’t remember what these wires go to but what if it’s to the steering, what if it’s the oxygen-
The wires suddenly spark sharply, too close to his eyes. He drops them in shock and stumbles back. His head hits the top of the ceiling and the bar clatters behind him, falling down just far enough that when he staggers backwards, temporarily disoriented, he collides with it, the bar going straight through his shoulder.
First Tony screams. He screams for what feels like a while. Then he starts swearing, yanks the bar out of his shoulder which hurts worse and then there’s some more screaming. He limps over to the little box of emergency supplies in the corner, digging through it until he finds Nebula’s spray. He sprays it directly into the wounds, but it stops after just a few seconds, and he realizes that they’ve used it all up. He digs for his next, but there’s barely any of that left, either. He still uses all of it.
“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.” He takes a second to breathe, gritting his teeth.
“Okay,” he finally says. “Okay. Okay. So. This is what we’re gonna do.”
The spray, he knows, was enough to clean the wound. Tony and Nebula had discussed a little how it worked. But it won’t heal it fully, and right now, he can’t afford that. He’ll take more food to help heal. The wound might not heal right. It’ll make him weaker and it’s going to be harder to survive this.
So he knows what he’s gonna do.
First, he manages to prop the bar enough that he can solder it crudely into place. It’ll hold for at least a little bit, and Nebula can fix it if she has to. Then he turns his attention to the wires. He manages to jerry rig it enough so it’ll hold, too.
Then Tony staggers over to the cryo unit, avoiding the blood on the floor, clumsily pressing the codes necessary into the keypad to unlock. He stumbles back a little in case Nebula wakes up swinging again. She sits up sharply, breathing heavily. She coughs a little bit and looks over at him, eyes widening. She tries to lurch out of the pod but sits on the edge, clearly too dizzy.
“I fucked up a little.” He coughs himself, holding his arm stiff to his side. “Sorry.”
“I used all the spray. This is as good as it’s gonna heal right now.” He limps up to her. “But the unit’ll hold me in stasis til we get to Earth, and they can work on me there. So I’m sorry, Nebula, but it’s gonna have to be you the rest of the way.”
“What-“ Nebula staggers to her feet.
“Asteroid field. Almost made it the full way, but, well. Like I said. I’m a pretty shitty pilot.” He gestures at the ceiling with the arm that isn’t injured. “The ceiling’s caving in a little but I fixed it best I could. Hurt like a son of a bitch so I couldn’t get that much done. The wires are a little frayed too.” He tugs the ring off his finger and holds it out to her with slightly shaking fingers. “If the wires are too screwed, if there’s no way to fix them on their own, use this. Wrap the wires around it. It should help to conduct the electricity.”
Nebula stares at it, still clearly shaking off the fog of cryo a little bit. “But it’s your totem.”
Tony smiles a little bit, registering even through the pain, how odd it is to have someone who knows him so well even when it’s the stuff he never says. He had that with Rhodey and with Pepper, and to a certain extent with Steve and Fury, but this feels different. Not quite a best friend, not quite close family. There might not even be a word for what Nebula is to him at this point, but he doesn’t have the time to be able to define it. “Yeah, well. Rather we survive than me hold onto it. I think she’ll forgive me.”
Nebula swallows, taking the ring and clutching it in her fist. Then she reaches up and pulls off her pendant, wrapping it around Tony’s neck.
“It might have been lucky for me,” she says. “Now it’s lucky for you.”
Tony doesn’t object. Instead he tries to muster up the best smile he can, even if he’s exhausted and about ready to fall over. “Talking is for suckers, right?”
Nebula doesn’t answer. Instead she reaches out, takes his working hand and pulls him in so their foreheads are resting together. Tony closes his eyes, gripping her hand just as tight as she’s gripping his.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbles. “I’m sorry I can’t help any further.”
Nebula doesn’t say anything, doesn’t try and comfort him (which he prefers, he thinks that would only make it worse at this point), just nods.
“I’ll miss you on my own,” she answers quietly, one of those little vulnerabilities she’s so reticent to give out. She squeezes his hand one final time, then releases it. “Come on.”
She helps Tony into the pod, slow and steady to try and minimize the shoulder pain. He lays there, reaching up to hold onto the pendant just like she had.
“I feel like you might need this luck,” he croaks.
Nebula swallows. “I think you’ll need it more than I do,” she murmurs.
The glass seals over him, and Tony closes his eyes before he feels the cold air hit.
The glass unseals, and he’s yanked sharply back to the world.
“Fuck,” he gasps, pain registering once more.
“I know. Tony, but you’ve got to get up.”
“I think that’s the first time you’ve ever said my name.” Tony opens his eyes to see Nebula worriedly standing over him, the sleeves of her shirt ripped off and in her hands. It’s brighter than it normally is. He can see light from the doorway to the cockpit and he squints against it. “How long-“
“Five months. Sit up.”
He does so, slowly, agonizingly. She wraps the shirt around his shoulder like a makeshift bandage and he grits his teeth through it. There’s something crackling from the cockpit.
“I’ve got the signal we coded going out stating we mean no harm,” she tells him as she finishes tying the bandage, brisk and economical. “But soon they’re going to ask for verification and I can’t help them with that.”
She helps Tony to the cockpit and deposits him in the seat. It takes a second for his eyes to adjust, but once they do, he almost feels like crying.
The sky is blue, for one thing. He’d missed blue skies. For another, it’s… right there. The Earth, New York below him, his Tower with the landing station for the Quinjet if anyone would have ever needed to land there. He feels a lump in his throat.
“Tony,” Nebula says sharply, bringing the grand total of name-usage up to two. “Pull it together.”
Tony shakes his head as the crackling from the radio suddenly bursts into a voice he doesn’t recognize.
“Unidentified aircraft,” the voice instructs sternly. “State your purpose or leave Tower airspace, you are not cleared for landing.”
Nebula looks at him.
“Patch me through.”
She does so immediately.
“Hi,” he rasps. “Hi, uh, it’s me. Tony Stark. The guy who… built the Tower. So, uh, we are cleared for landing, actually, it’s all… good. So I’d… like to do that, please.” Nebula gives him a look and he hisses “I’ve lost blood, leave me alone, I don’t have a lot of control over-“
“You’re claiming to be… Tony Stark?”
“I am Tony Stark. The suit, the goatee, the thing in my chest, the whole shebang. I’ve been gone… I don’t know how long, a while, but I’m back. Ta-da.”
There’s some more crackling silence until he hears the person say, what sounds like away from whatever microphone they’re using, “get Potts”.
“Yes,” Tony says in relief, definitely close to crying now. God, she’s alive, she’s alive, she’s in that building right there, the world can continue to spin. “Yes, do that.”
“I don’t know how long I can keep her airborne,” Nebula tells him in a low voice. “We’re barely hanging on as it is.”
“I know. Just… just hang on.”
The crackling stops.
“This is Potts at Tower Control.” Everything about Pepper comes flooding back in that moment, the stiffness in her tone that sounds like sternness but is her trying to hold it together, her face when she does that, the way she bites her lip, shit, he really does need to keep it together. “Identify yourself.”
“Sorry,” he says. “I know you hate job hunting.”
“It’s me. It’s really me. I know you don’t have any reason to believe me, I know I’ve been gone… so long. But it’s me. And I’m so sorry, Pep, I know, I told you, I told you no more surprises, and then I left, and that day was so good up to that point, y’know? Remember, remember-“ he squeezes his eyes, trying to remember everything about the conversation they had before Strange walked out of nowhere so he can prove to her it’s true. “Remember, I said, I said I dreamt we had a kid. And his name was Morgan. After your uncle. The weird one. I probably said eccentric but I meant weird, you probably guessed that. And the last thing I heard you say was come back. And Friday said ‘we’re losing her’ and it was the last I ever heard of you, and I’ve just been replaying that moment you threw that ring at me over and over again and I’m just…” he closes his eyes. “I’m begging you, please. Pepper. Pepper who hates Virginia, Pepper who’s allergic to strawberries, Pepper who probably wants to kill me right now and is well within her rights, please, just, give me a shot. Please. Just give me a chance to prove it’s me.”
There’s silence again and Tony opens his eyes, staring out at the Tower. Nebula sits next to him, tense.
A form rears up in front of them. Nebula pulls back on the controls sharply to pull back, cursing. She looks ready to ram it to get it away from them but Tony throws out the arm that works.
The Iron Man suit stares back at him, metal face blank and impassive. It’s one of the last models he updated before he left and either it’s flown remotely or it’s being piloted inside the suit and there’s only two people coded to be able to gain access to it and he waits-
The visor slides up. Pepper stares at him through the glass of the cockpit, eyes a little wet, and Tony could cry, breaking into a wide grin.
“Hey,” he whispers. “Hey, Pep.”
She gives him a smile, too, still teary, and he’s thrown back to that moment all those years ago, when he’d first come back from Rhodey saving him in the desert and she had given him the same grin-
Nebula swears again as the ship starts to dip. She yanks on the controls but then the suit disappears sharply and Tony feels the bottom of the ship stabilize.
“I’m gonna get help get you to the landing pad,” she tells them, voice a little choked. “You are… so fucked, by the way.”
“Yeah.” He can’t stop grinning. “Yeah, I figured.”
Nebula leans over to be closer to the com unit. “Bring a medical team,” she orders. “He’s badly hurt.”
“That’s Nebula, she’s my friend, don’t freak out cause she’s blue-“
“Yeah, a little. A lot. Sorry.”
“Med team’s on its way.”
“Nebula, do you want help steering-“
“You can’t pull on the controls with your shoulder. We’ll do just fine.”
Nebula steers the ship, Pepper helping guide underneath. Tony just leans on his seat, trying to stay awake. He feels it when the ship touches down, though, and works to stagger to his feet.
“Come on,” Nebula says quietly, wrapping her arm around him to support him. They lean on each other as Nebula activates the door hatch. He’s supporting her more than he would have expected, but it’s not that surprising, he guesses- they’re both exhausted and underfed.
The door opens and Tony’s almost overwhelmed with the sensation of fresh, clean air, of sunlight. They stumble out of the ship, clinging to each other. The ground feels odd beneath his feet as he sees a small team of people with two stretchers between them. Pepper lands between Nebula and Tony and the people rushing towards them, and the suit recedes like his nanotech used to until it coalesces into a ring on her right hand.
“That’s brilliant,” he mumbles. “Holy shit, I should’ve thought of that.”
His legs buckle a little bit. Nebula curses. “Come on, come on, we’re almost there-“
Pepper runs up to them and helps Tony up on the opposite side, propping him up as the med teams pick up the pace.
“I totally missed the wedding date, didn’t I?” he asks her.
“By a lot.” Pepper’s arm is warm and reassuring around his waist. “You’re gonna have to reimburse me for the invitations.”
“I don’t even know how much money I have anymore.”
The stretchers arrive and they get him situated on one. Nebula reluctantly allows herself to be persuaded onto one as well.
“Whatever she needs, okay?” Tony tells Pepper, not sure how much longer he can manage being awake for. “Whatever she asks for, give it to her. Make sure she’s healthy first, though, okay, she likes to power through but-“
“Fuck you,” Nebula mumbles from the stretcher being wheeled off next to his.
Tony grins. “You learned one of mine.” He looks up at Pepper, who’s jogging alongside the stretcher as they wheel him into the Tower. “She learned one of mine.”
“You’re in so much trouble,” Pepper whispers. “You’re absolutely in so much trouble.”
“I know.” He swallows. “I missed you so much. I thought of you every day.”
“I missed you, too.” She’s holding his hand. When did she start holding his hand? “All the time.”
“I’m gonna just… pass out for a little bit, now.”
He doesn’t get the chance to hear her response.
Tony comes back to himself slowly.
He’s in a medical bay, he realizes. It must be in the Tower. Did the Tower always have a medical bay? He can’t remember. He’s probably a little drugged. There’s a table between him and another bed and once he’s able to focus properly he sees Nebula, asleep in the opposite bed. She’s wearing the loose all white clothing he appears to be also wearing. It makes her look unusually soft, her hand curled a little in the sheet below.
Tony looks over to his left next. Pepper’s sitting in a chair, hair pulled down into a loose ponytail, studying something on an iPad, writing with a stylus. She’s wearing light linen pants and a shirt, and she’s unguarded in a way he doesn’t get to see her enough. He hadn’t realized how much missing her ached until he came back, the ache now gone.
“Was I in surgery?” he asks, voice hoarse.
“Yes.” Pepper calmly puts the pad on the table next to her and scoots her chair up next to Tony’s bed. “You’re going to live, by the way.”
“Oh. That’s good news. Is Nebula okay?”
“We… think so. We don’t know much about alien physiology.”
Tony tries to marshal his slightly scattered thoughts. “Rhodey? Is Rhodey-“
“He’s on his way,” she cuts in. “He’s fine. He made it.”
Tony sags into the bed, relief taking him over. “Thank god.” He pulls himself back together. “I like that thing with the ring. Smart.”
“Friday talked me through it. I’ve been busy. There’s a lot of people who need help right now.”
Tony smiles. “And you’re helping ‘em. Cause you’re good at it.”
“I’m trying to help them because someone needs to.” Pepper takes his hand. “We’re going to need to talk, at some point.”
“I know. About a lot of stuff.”
“Yeah.” She gives him a slightly tired smile. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.” He remembers suddenly what he’d wanted to tell her. “I had to give Nebula my ring. I thought it might be necessary to fix some wires and it looked pretty likely so it’s probably destroyed, I’m sorry-“
“No, it’s right here.” Pepper reaches into a pocket and holds it up. Tony blinks, startled to see it unharmed. “Nebula gave it to me. She told me she figured out a way to take care of the wires without using it.” She slides it onto his finger for him.
“Sorry you didn’t get to throw it at me this time.”
“I can throw it at you later.”
“Sounds good.” Tony reaches up weakly to pat at his neck, suddenly alarmed. “I had a necklace-“
“It’s right there on the table next to you.”
He looks over at it. So it is. “Huh. There you go.”
She squeezes his hand once more and lets go. “Listen, I’ve got to go attend to some stuff, I’ve got some people depending on me. But I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“Okay.” Tony smiles at her. He watches her walk out the door to the med bay, heart full. Then he turns to look at Nebula.
“You didn’t have to keep the ring intact. I gave it to you for a reason.”
“And I kept it for a reason.” Nebula opens her eyes. “Did you actually know I was awake or did you guess?”
“Fifty fifty. You want your necklace back?”
Nebula nods. Tony reaches weakly to the table and manages to flick the pendant so it goes sailing across the table. Nebula catches it and fastens it around her neck.
“Didn’t expect you to stay this long,” he says. “I thought you’d go looking for a ship.”
“I need to regroup. I’m still weak.”
“Did you want to make sure I was okay?”
“I’ll take it.” Tony shifts a little in his bed. “I’ll have to try and get us some cheeseburgers.”
“I don’t know if I trust you to have any taste.”
“You trust me to fly a rickety ship across space while you sleep in a glass coffin and you don’t trust me with a cheeseburger?”
It’s a day of firsts, Tony thinks. First time seeing blue sky in forever, first time seeing Pepper in forever, and for the first time since he’s known her, the first time he’s ever seen Nebula smile, albeit as small and fleeting as it is. “Correct.”
“Good to have principles, I guess.”
Nebula snorts and turns over. “How would you know?”
Tony snorts himself and settles a little more firmly into the bed. There’s a lot more questions to ask (did the other Avengers make it, what happened here, how bad is it, can you get me May), but right now he’s a little too fuzzy to get there.
Soon, he resolves, closing his eyes. They can all figure it out soon.