COORDINATES Who: Nebula and Rhodey… and Tony. What: Furnishing their quarters. When: After the July 4th Celebration. Where: IKEA, Brooklyn. Warnings: “Come back, even as a shadow, even as a dream.” ~ Euripides
Rhodey hadn't thought about the fact that it was the Summer Sale when he decided to pick up some things at IKEA and dragged Nebula along. The place was a madhouse, full of families with small children, and Rhodey wasn't convinced he was going to get his chair and ottoman. Following the line toward the living room section of the warehouse shouldn't be this hard, but between the kids running loose, the adults standing in the way, the lights, the noise, and the lack of cell signal inside the building (a giant warehouse that was effectively a Faraday cage, and what bandwidth you could find was over-strained) rendered even the simplest task difficult. Not to mention he was pretty sure that Nebula had never been to IKEA before and probably had no idea what it was beyond anything she'd Googled about it beforehand.
"How you holding up?" Rhodey asked Nebula as three kids that he guessed were about six ran past them toward the bookshelves.
Nebula suspected she was in some form of culture shock. Nothing she couldn’t handle, but there was a crowd of people, many with very active progeny, and she had no polite way of telling them to move. And she was supposed to be patient and intended to do so, for Rhodey’s sake if not her own. She would not cause a scene while doing something as mundane as shopping. Nebula had never been to IKEA before, but her friend wanted to purchase furniture and she was going to make certain he attained this goal.
“I am well enough,” she replied, her head turning so she could scan ahead and behind them. Having established early on in their quest that no one in the store was likely to descend from the ceiling, she didn’t bother looking up for possible danger. Consulting the floor, she added, “The arrows are going to the left.” The crowd, however, was going wherever they wanted.
"The bookshelves are next and then the TV stands and stuff, like all the storage for the front of the house, and then I think we're into sofas and the chairs should be with them. If we check after that, we should be able to find the door to the stairs to get down to the checkout so we don't get stuck in here forever." Rhodey was aware he was the stereotype of the divorced man whose apartment was full of IKEA, but it really was cheap, decent furniture and he didn't have to worry about carrying it from posting to posting. And when you wanted to ditch it, someone on base could always use it.
A loose child ran smack into Rhodey. "Sorry kiddo," he told the child, who was really too big to be running in IKEA, and it ran off in a different direction. "You have anything you need in the storage section? The bookshelves are good value for the money and double if you can get Tony to help you put them together." He flashed a grin at Nebula.
Rhodey seemed simultaneously overwhelmed and excited to be there. He even apologized to the child when it was clearly the child’s fault for running into Rhodey, but no apology came from the small Human. Well, at least her friend seemed to know the layout of the store, which was useful. She was unaware of the stereotype regarding a divorced man or that Rhodey was even divorced, so no jokes about men who can’t live without their thyge would be forthcoming.
“I don’t have any books,” she replied. “So I don’t need shelves.” Besides, her quarters came with built-in storage, most of which was empty. If IKEA was a place for finding ‘things’ in which to put ‘stuff’, Nebula was ‘stuff-less’.
That Nebula didn't have (paper) books didn't surprise Rhodey, but he had to ask. "Let's move on, then," he said, and guided them past a couple arguing in the middle of the aisle, another cluster of kids, and an abandoned IKEA bag left halfway in the aisle that was the perfect height to trip the unwary.
They rounded another corner to find a bevy of sofas of all shapes and sizes. People were sitting on most of them: some to try them out, some to rest from the exhaustion of dealing with IKEA. One had a couple of small children bouncing on it, giggling gleefully as someone who might have been a parent told them to stop what they were doing and get down. "I think it's just past this.
"When Tony and I were at MIT, we didn't have IKEA and trying to find furniture was a lot harder. Well, it was for me. Tony could have had anything he wanted. This stuff is great for college and military because it's not too expensive, it holds up long enough for you to get your degree or through your posting, and if it breaks, it's not going to be a big deal financially. You can see why it appeals to families with young kids too."
Nebula followed the winding path Rhodey navigated for them, keeping up without any difficulty and taking in the sights and sounds of - happy? - shoppers. She’d been in stores and markets before, of course, but they were off-world and a little different from the warehouse experience. This place was similar to an obstacle course, except no one was trying to kill them.
“I see,” she murmured, wondering vaguely if the store could be modified for a hunt. There were plenty of places to hide, lots of items for barricades and traps and currently many, many targets, including some bouncing ones. She sighed, knowing it would never be. It was unlikely they could keep the customers for practice shots or a hunt. They didn’t do things like that in New York City.
“Why was it difficult to find furniture? Was it hidden from you?” There certainly seemed to be plenty of stores selling furniture and hoping to separate people from their currency. Nebula paused beside a chair which was enclosed in some sort of acrylic box. A machine was pressing the back and the seat repeatedly with pneumatic poles, to test the number of times a person could sit down and not have the chair break, according to the helpful notice attached to one of the acrylic walls. The chair had a name: POÄNG. Or perhaps that was what Humans called chairs, though she hadn’t noticed. Nebula watched it for a while to see if it would break. She’d lost track of Rhodey completely.
Rhodey had wandered over to the archetypal IKEA chair, the wing-back with a matching ottoman, and was looking at the fabric options available. He knew he ought to get the grey but it was so boring. Maybe the red or green velvet instead ... he turned to ask Nebula her opinion but she'd been distracted by the chair tester, so Rhodey went across the aisle, avoiding another couple discussing furnishing options.
"Hmm? Oh, we were broke when we were in college. Well, not broke, but not in great financial shape, and the only cheap furniture we could get was hand-me-downs or thrift. Tony could have afforded anything he wanted, but also nobody in their right mind wants to buy nice furniture for a dorm room with men in it. You end up with the floor sticky with beer and the furniture ruined." Rhodey spoke from personal knowledge there. Just because Tony had been way underage didn't mean he'd missed out on the drinking culture at MIT, more's the pity.
Nebula blinked and turned her head to look at Rhodey, the spell of the repetition machine coming to a close. “Broke? Ah, without funds. Not ‘broken’. But why would you put beer on the floor when it is for consumption? And why would anyone want to ruin the furniture? Are men in a dorm room inherently destructive?” Not that it really mattered, as Rhodey understood what he was talking about and she should trust in his opinion of events he had actually experienced, even if it didn’t make sense to her.
With one last look at the POÄNG - still not broken - she asked, “Did you find what you’re looking for?” It was a possibility, in spite of the crowds.
There was a pause. It lasted longer than she thought it would, given that her friend was comfortable talking about anything, it seemed, and she didn’t think she had asked any difficult questions. Nebula turned to look at him - and he wasn’t there. A little surprised, but not alarmed, she turned in a circle, scanning the area as she did. Colonel James Rupert "Rhodey" Rhodes wasn’t the tallest man in creation, but he stood out in a crowd just by sheer presence of personality. She didn’t see him.
“Rhodey?” she called, loud enough that he’d hear her if he was close by and just testing a chair. That was it. He was sitting down, so she couldn’t see him. Of course. She started to walk, following the arrow and ducking into aisles, calling his name periodically. Nothing. Nebula wasn’t prone to panic, and she was in an IKEA, hardly a danger zone unless you were concerned with being run over by Human progeny. She pulled out her mobile phone and selected his number in her contacts list. It rang and rang until a voice kicked in, sweetly telling her that the number she had dialed was not in service.
A feeling of dread shocked her with a cold, cold grip. No. No.
She dialed Stark, reached his voicemail, and said, without preamble, “He was here and now I can’t find him.” She hurried along the path as fast as she dared in this crowd, speaking as she did so. “His number is not in service, Stark.” She reached the door to the stairs, raced down them, leapt the railing at the last flight because she could and it was faster. The warehouse was covered in seconds flat and she ignored a cashier who asked if she needed help.
Once outside, she turned in a circle again, to see if he had decided to return to the car or was waiting beside the exit. Why he would do that, she didn’t know, but as Humans would say, she was grasping at plastic drinking tubes. “He is not here, Stark, and he has the keys.” Two members of the store security emerged and jogged toward her.
“Miss? Are you okay?” one of them asked, genuinely concerned. She must have looked like a terrified teen.
“My friend, Rhodey,” she said, her husky voice unsteady, the phone line still open to the message she was leaving Stark. “He wanted a chair and now I can’t find him…” That likely wasn’t very helpful, but it was all she could say. Then the voicemail ran out of time and the call to Stark ended.
This universe was so messed up that Tony had those sorts of emergency calls put through by Friday, who normally screened his calls. Once it hit the voicemail and the distress registered, it was marked urgent priority and played for him. He'd been working in the lab on the top floor of the Tower, but dropped everything as he listened.
To hear Rhodey was missing was...it was a shock to his system too. His stomach dropped and his blood ran cold with dread. He wanted to say 'He's still there. He's just in the bathroom or whatever' but even he knew it wasn't true. Nebula sounded frantic, and he could only listen for a small while before he had to act.
That was the nature of this universe, or that's what Strange kept telling him. People's lives were finite, and it was the same with entering and leaving this place. It didn't make it any easier on the friends or family left behind though.
It was a bitter pill knowing that this universe's Rhodey went back to a default setting. Someone who would only be on the fringes, who wouldn't know about the network or be aware they were in an alternate universe. It wasn't their Rhodey. It was another universe's version. And one that wouldn't remember anything that transpired or the friendships that were made during that time spent here.
"Friday, I'm suiting up. Get me a location on that call and get her on the line. Patch her through to me."
"Of course, boss."
Acting meant he suited up and got going, which he didn't waste any time. Being on the top floor meant he had access to a landing pad on top of the roof. A great place to take off from when in a hurry. And he took off with enough speed to rattle windows in nearby office buildings.
The phone would be ringing in her hand, as Tony honed in on the last known location signal. He was waiting for her to pick up. He wanted to get eyes on this too, and wasn't thinking about not making a scene.
The assistant manager of the store had been added to the two security guards and they had brought a plastic chair that she didn’t know the name of for her to sit in. An associate had hurried out with a bottle of water and they were discussing what they should do, if anything, over her head.
Her phone rang. The call display read ‘Stark’. She stared at it for a blink before she answered.
“Is he gone?” she asked, her voice sounding dull. She’d pulled herself together enough to reign in her panic, but she felt like someone had punched her in the gut and it had, strangely, left her winded and weak. How could she have let herself relax so much? Make friends and they disappear. She had known it could happen, but for some inexplicable reason had thought it wouldn’t happen with Rhodey. She was a fool.
Tony was bad at sugar coating anything. This, however, was Rhodey. Friday was already putting in a text to Strange. What he saw back on the screen was a blunt and unquestionable: Yes.
"Yeah, he's not here," he said, as he dropped in for a landing. He swooped in fast and left cracks in the asphalt when he landed. The helmet slipped away from his face, although if Friday found anything on the scans she would let him know. Unfortunately, she confirmed what he guessed already.
"His phone signal is gone. His old number is active in Washington D.C.," she said regretfully, softly enough that only he could hear from the speaker embedded in the neckline of his armor. It was one of those times that he regretted programming in empathy. This didn't make him feel better about it. He never got used to this particular aspect of the universe. Never.
He walked over, waving at the security guards and telling them, "Hi, I got this. We're gonna go track down our buddy. He's always jetting off."
It was a good enough cover story for outsiders, and he bent down to talk to Nebula in a low voice. She'd already lost her sister, and now her friend. It was going to be a rough time and an even rougher adjustment.
"Hey, it's gonna be ok. Deep breath and focus." He raised his eyebrows and tried to smile - even if he didn't feel like smiling - doing his best to be reassuring. That was more Steve's thing than his. From their time spent together on a broken down ship, Nebula was a blunt person. He knew she would want the truth right off the bat. "The Rhodey we knew isn't here now, but this universe's version is back in D.C. again. I got you. Let's find the car, and I'll drive us back to the Tower."
Stark was here. Rhodey, the Rhodey she had come to know, was not. She had known that to be true before Stark had confirmed it, but she had dared to hope.
Nebula’s small entourage dissipated and she thought she’d thanked them or something close to it, but wasn’t sure. Why was this so difficult? Things changed for her all the time, especially since she had left the influence of Thanos and started positive steps toward a better relationship with her sister. Then the universe had mixed her realities and her memories had fused into a chaotic history that filled her with more information than she had directly experienced; some of the defining moments that made her the person she was now. So many changes. She had adapted and had managed to find her footing in this new place and now - At least Stark wasn’t talking to her as if she were a child. Mostly.
“I am breathing,” she said, standing abruptly, angry with herself. Still, she closed her eyes, took a deep breath and tried to focus. When she opened her eyes again and blew out the breath, she felt marginally more stable. Nebula realized she was still holding the bottle of water, so she undid the cap and took a long drink from it. Unable to meet Stark’s eyes directly, she stared over his shoulder as she recapped the bottle. “We should go.”
It was easy to tell a thousand yard stare, since he was certain after Afghanistan that he did the same, when his obsessive compulsive nature to set things right wasn't gnawing at him constantly.
"Yeah. C'mon. You can sit with me and we'll have a drink in Rhodey's honor." He wasn't truly gone. That's what he kept telling himself. But it didn't make it any easier knowing that. "Lets get outta here."
There wasn't much more to be said and he doubted Nebula wanted to talk right away. It was better to help her get her bearings again by being there in whatever way she needed right now.