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Graded On the Curve

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“There’s air now,” Nebula said.

She was squatting down in front of him, her face locked in an expression somewhere between inscrutable and steeled for hurt. Clearly a few more games of tabletop football were in order. And/or more alcohol, if he wanted to experiment with fermenting alien mystery produce.

Though what he really needed to focus on was how their little shipboard oxygen-meter had dropped down to a flat zero. Tony had been looking at it—

When he’d died. Huh.

He breathed in—yeah, there was still that shiny new air smell to it—and felt something in his chest expand and contract. Not lungs. Something triangular, like a fireplace bellows.

He said, “Correct me if I’m wrong, but—this body that I’m in now, while probably still devastatingly attractive … rewired a little, right? Because believe it or not I’ve been in this situation before. Only last time there was a car battery involved and this time—stop me anytime you want, there, Blue.” Hey, advantage to the new lung situation: he couldn’t seem to hyperventilate.

“You died,” Nebula said. Her black eyes had a little bit of defiance in them now, which he honestly liked better than the fear. “I didn’t. Thanos made sure I could function in a minimal environment. When I run out of oxygen, it burns, but I don’t die.” She rolled his shirt up for him and showed him his stomach, which was now a—he was going to say a not unflattering combination of skin and metal that looked like grimy platinum. “With you, I improvised.”

If she’d done it, it was fine. Full of enough bad memories to have him jumpy, but—he could live with it. He could also live, which was probably the crucial part.

She dropped his shirt down again and said, “Unless you’d rather be dead.”

“I wouldn’t,” Tony said.

Partly, he thought, because he couldn’t even imagine what it would be like for her being alone. If nobody found them, at least now they’d be taking their last weird cybernetic breaths together, and wasn’t that what friends were for? Especially friends you only met about an hour before the apocalypse. If he was going to die—again—he wasn’t going to leave her here with just the memories of some dumbass paper football and the fact that he had, admittedly, taught her how to make the perfect space grilled cheese. Graded on the curve of them not actually having a frying pan.

Nebula said, “You look like me.”

“Like squeezed-out Violet Beauregard? Because I don’t think the color goes with my eyes. If you mean the metal, the cyborg thing—this isn’t my first rodeo. Hey, rodeo with a mechanical bull, that works.” He took a look at his heart; she’d some something there, too, because there was a new, freshly pink scar overlaying all the old ones. “You’ve gotta talk me through the process. I like knowing how to fix broken hardware. Especially when it’s me.”

She kept looking at him like she still kind of thought he might just be messing with her, but then she did start telling him about it. It was something to concentrate on, anyway: blood oxygenation and brain implants and cybernetic lungs and how long she’d had to leave him frozen before a single-pilot ship had drifted by that she could scavenge from.

He hadn’t thought about it before, but he guessed space was full of drifting ships now. Not like the fifty percent had been evenly distributed.

He could have been alone on Titan. And then he’d have gone crazy. Crazier.

“Hey,” he said, interrupting something she was saying about protein cubes. (And to think they’d once had the delicacies of almost-grilled cheese.) “I don’t mind looking like you, you know. It’s like having matching tattoos.” That wasn’t even remotely what he’d been getting himself ready to say. But they worked on a small scale, him and Nebula. He added, “If you’ve been up hotwiring me and scraping seitan out of somebody else’s fridge and piping in actual, livable atmosphere, you have to be pretty beat. Take a solid eight hours. I can watch for traffic. If anything flies even remotely nearby, I’ll wake you up and we can both wave our hands around in front of the windshield or whatever. Promise.”

Nebula took a little more convincing than that—and then a little more after that before she’d tell him that his surgical incisions had bled all over the few blankets they’d had—but in the end, he got her to agree to sleep. She started off lying on the floor and then, without saying anything, straightened up until she was sitting there, leaning sideways against his legs, her head pillowed on his thigh. Tony could feel them breathing in unison, artificial lungs pumping their minimal oxygen intake in tune. He kind of liked it. He kept his legs very still, so he wouldn’t wake her up.