fanfiction of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and “Particle Man” by They Might Be Giants
Captain America meets Universe Man in a grimy subway station at three in the morning, which is kind of poetic if you think about it on a metaphorical level, which Steve generally tries not to do. When he starts thinking in metaphors, he usually ends up afraid of his friends, which is never fun.
Steve is wearing the outfit. He’s just finished off a bad guy, the kind that likes to whisper philosophical challenges about the nature of good and evil. That kind of thing wears Steve out. Nothing matters more to him than being a good guy, and the possibility of good guys not existing is very stressful for him.
Universe Man is wearing space.
Not space as in an absence of clothing. Space as in some kind of portal into a part of the cosmos far, far from here. If Steve looks closely enough, he can see stars.
So that’s something they have in common, at least.
“That’s a neat trick,” he says.
“Everything is,” says Universe Man. “Is it just me, or should the train have been here two minutes ago?” He checks his watch, taking a puff of his cigarette while his hand is in the neighborhood.
Steve shrugs. He never keeps track of the subway schedule. If he’s using it, he’s not in enough of a hurry to care how fast it’s coming. Universe Man doesn’t seem to be in a hurry, either, actually; he just looks faintly annoyed.
“You fight crime?” asks Steve, because his life has reached the point where that’s not only a normal conversation starter but the one he uses most frequently with new acquaintances.
Universe Man shakes his head. “I try to stay outta all that. Altering the course of fate, et cetera. You start pulling that crap, people start noticing, a few centuries later half of ’em are trying to pray to you and the other half are yelling about how you’re dead or uncaring. I’m more of a hands-off sorta guy.”
That’s fair. Steve hasn’t developed quite that level of god complex from superhero work, or at least he hopes not, but he can see how it could happen. Tony’s going to accidentally start a religion someday, probably. A cult, at least. If he hasn’t already. Anyway, it’s true that Steve is sitting around a subway station in the middle of the night in an outfit that screams “LOOK HOW SPECIAL I AM” at top volume, and it’s true that the couple sideways glances of recognition and approval he’s garnered so far have been helping him feel better about himself after the beating his self-esteem took earlier. He can’t blame the guy for trying to stay humble.
“That’s not exactly under the radar, though,” Steve says, gesturing to the space Universe Man is wearing. “If you don’t mind my saying.”
“I don’t mind much of anything,” says Universe Man. “You know, most people don’t notice. They just see black. It really is pretty under the radar.”
“Guess I was staring a little more than I should,” says Steve. “Sorry. Not much else to look at.”
“I don’t mind that, either,” says Universe Man. He takes another puff of his cigarette, which isn’t a cigarette, Steve realizes as the exhale wafts past his nose.
It makes sense, really, that the universe is flying high. Not that Steve makes that connection now. He still doesn’t know who Universe Man is. Well, he’ll never really know, but that’s probably a good thing. You can only get so intimate with the universe before you start going crazy from all the existentialism. He’s not there yet, though. Still a lot of intimate ground left to cover.
“Where you headed?” Universe Man asks.
Steve shrugs. “Nowhere, really. You?”
They sit in silence for a moment. Universe Man finishes his joint and stubs it out on the concrete. The smudge where he stubs it is already there.
Steve glances over, and does a little bit of a double take. “Hey, weren’t you shorter than me a minute ago?”
“Somewhere between two and three minutes, yes. My watch doesn’t get any more specific than that.” Universe Man smiles. He has two nested dimples in each cheek. “I’m the size of the universe, but given that the universe has been every size between the one it is now and the one it started out as, that gives me quite a bit of wiggle room. I like to shake it up.”
Steve shakes his head slowly. “You know,” he says, “I feel like you’d be pretty good at fighting crime. If you ever change your mind.”
Universe Man nods. “True. It would be pretty hypocritical of me, though.”
Oh, great, thinks Steve. Every time he meets a nice laid-back guy who gets the superpowers thing and seems like he might be flirting, it always turns out to be a secret supervillain. Man, he needs another supervillain to deal with tonight like he needs a hole in the head.
Universe Man grins again, and there go the double-barrel dimples. “Don’t worry, I’m not what you’re thinking. I just, you know. Contain multitudes.”
Steve breathes a sigh of relief. “Don’t we all.”
The train finally shows up. Steve starts to stand when the doors open, but Universe Man stays put. Curious, Steve sits back down and lets the train go. When the noise has faded, he says, “Weren’t you waiting for that one?”
“Yep,” says Universe Man. “Now I’m waiting for the next one. It’s a nice way to pass the time.”
Universe Man holds up his watch. It’s the strangest watch Steve has ever seen, and Steve is a military man, so that’s saying something. It has three hands of different lengths, which appear to be overlapping perfectly. “Until the next syzygy.”
Steve studies the face of the watch, trying to figure it out. “Syzygy? Isn’t that when planets line up straight?”
“That’s one way of putting it,” says Universe Man. “It’s happening soon, very soon. You can stick around if you want.”
Universe Man checks his watch again. “Fifty-one days, thirteen hours, four minutes. Give or take half a minute.”
The next train arrives, soon enough that Universe Man was probably right about the last one having been late. This time, Steve raises his hand in farewell and steps aboard. The guy’s got dimples to die for, maybe, but Steve knows a doomed relationship when he avoids one.
Fifty-one days, thirteen hours, four minutes, and twenty-one seconds later, Steve feels an inexplicable sense of calm descend over him, followed by the strangest sensation of his awareness expanding. For a moment, just one fleeting point in time, his unwavering devotion to the United States of America slips wide open, and his love for his country becomes just love.
The stars are never quite the same after that.