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Mini-Mart

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Jesse blinked sleepily as the bell over the door chimed. In the six months he’d been working graveyards at this shitty gas station mini-mart in the middle of nowhere, Iowa, he’d seen all types of people—drunks, truckers, teenagers, even a pregnant woman or two needing a late-night Reese’s fix. The guy who walked in was homeless. Jesse could tell instantly. He had long, dark hair that was matted in the back, a few days’ worth of stubble growth, clothes that were rumpled and stained, and caged, hungry-looking eyes.

He was going to steal something.

Jesse wasn’t trying to stereotype the guy—not like he had much room to judge anyone else—but he knew the look. He’d seen enough sticky fingers in his day to recognize it. This guy was better than most, Jesse had to admit. He didn’t keep stealing glances at Jesse and he didn’t walk too fast. But there was something in his face that said he was casing the place.

There was something else in his eyes that made Jesse bite his lip, considering. The guy had the hollowed cheeks of someone who hadn’t eaten in a while, but it was more than that; there was a haunted quality to his eyes, a certain stiffness in how he held his shoulders, that told Jesse this guy had been through hell.

Jesse could relate.

The guy was gravitating to the smell of the hot dogs rotating on their little grill thing. Jesse thought for another minute, but his decision had been made pretty much as soon as the guy had come in. He’d just have to throw the hot dogs away in half an hour anyway; might as well put them to good use.

“Uh, hey, man,” Jesse called. The guy’s spine instantly stiffened. He didn’t turn around. “So listen, um, no one else is going to come in and those hot dogs have been there all day, so…they’re like, on the house or whatever.” The guy turned around slowly and fixed Jesse with a stare so searching Jesse hunched his shoulders instinctively. Then the guy turned back around and took three hot dogs. Jesse didn’t miss the fact that he started eating one and stuffed two in his pocket. Definitely homeless.

He came over to the counter and stared at Jesse some more. A year and a half ago, Jesse would have puffed up—who messes with a blowfish—and bristled at him, asking him what his problem was, full of swagger and bravado. A year and a half ago was a different lifetime. Now, Jesse stared back wordlessly. The guy had dead eyes, but in a way somehow so different from Victor. These dead eyes matched Jesse’s own.

“Thanks,” the guy scraped out. His voice sounded painfully raspy and Jesse thought of a dark hole, the smell of his own piss, screaming himself hoarse and no water to be found. He swallowed convulsively and took a deep breath to steady himself, glancing reflexively out the window to remind himself he could see the stars outside and there was a door for him to go out.

“You want some water?” He asked. The guy stared some more and then nodded slowly. Jesse tipped his head toward the fountain drinks. “Take one of the big cups.” He suggested. The guy did as instructed. He filled the cup with water and then quickly left. Jesse thought of his eyes, big and almost scared looking, as he climbed under a thin blanket on his couch later that night. He didn’t have a bed either, but at least he had a roof. He didn't have any ID, so his job was under the table and his boss treated him like shit, but at least he had something.

The guy came back the next night at the same time. He stopped in front of the counter and dropped two crumpled ones in front of Jesse.

“Oh, hey,” Jesse greeted him. “That’s cool, but really, man, I was gonna have to throw them away anyway. It’s no big deal.” He got no response other than that blank stare. “You should try a burrito,” Jesse pressed. “You just gotta nuke it for, like, two minutes. The cheese doesn’t get too scabby.”

Now the guy looked confused, like Jesse wasn’t making any sense, so Jesse came around the counter. “I’ll show you,” he said, leading the guy to the microwave. He took a burrito out of the little refrigerated case and pulled the wrapping off. “They’re pretty good.”

The guy was looking at the microwave like he’d never seen one before. Jesse kind of felt like the dude was a little slow, but that didn’t bother him—he was used to hanging out with drug addicts. To be honest, the guy kind of reminded Jesse of someone coming down off a long high, what with the dark circles under his eyes and the way he held his body stiff, like he was sore.

He pulled out the same cup from last night and filled it with water again. He jumped when the microwave beeped and looked around wildly, relaxing only slightly when Jesse opened the door and made the beeping stop. He took the offered burrito with a tiny nod of his head and then disappeared into the night again.

The third night, Jesse was determined. The guy didn’t seem dangerous, but he did seem like he desperately needed a shower. Jesse knew all too well how inhuman you could feel after a while without bathing. The guy came in and Jesse thought his eyes actually brightened when he saw Jesse. Jesse was suddenly—painfully—reminded of that little kid in that horrible house, Spooge’s kid, the little redhead. He hadn’t talked either. The thought took Jesse’s breath for a second, and he had to bite down hard on his lip to regain his composure.

“Hey, man.” Jesse kept his voice steady. “You want to try nachos tonight?” The guy just tilted his head, still not saying anything, and Jesse felt the sudden urge to cry. He cleared his throat. “Um, here, I’ll show you.” He added a ton of cheese, because that was how he liked it, and he assumed this guy would too. Before the guy could sneak out, Jesse spoke up.

“Do you…do you need somewhere to stay?” He couldn’t think of a more elegant way to phrase it, so he plowed onward, like everything else he’d ever done in his life. “I have a couch. I mean, it’s pretty ratty. But you could take a shower. I have some clothes you could change into. I’ll be ready to go in ten minutes.” Technically it should have been twenty but Jesse figured leaving a little early wouldn’t get him fired.

The guy’s whole body had gone rigid and when he looked at Jesse, something in his face had changed. He didn’t look like a spooked animal anymore—there was something cold and calculating in his gaze, like he was sizing Jesse up. Jesse shrugged a little. He knew he didn’t make a very formidable figure. He was skinny and underfed, worse so than this guy because this guy at least still had the tight cord of muscle in his body that made Jesse think he could do some damage if he wanted. All of Jesse’s clothes were too big, and he had hacked off his hair as best he could, which was not very good.

“I could kill you.” The guy’s voice was jarringly soft compared to the words he was saying.

“Um…what?” Jesse’s voice was maybe a little higher than he’d like to ever admit. He had a pistol he kept tucked into the small of his back at all times, but the thought of actually using it made him feel sweaty and nauseated.

“I know you have a gun,” the guy continued. He still had yet to look Jesse in the eye. “I noticed the first night. Right away. I’ve already assessed you. I could disarm you in four seconds. I could kill you with nothing but my hands.” His breathing was speeding up a little, his nostrils flaring. “It would be easy. I wouldn’t even sweat. You’re too trusting. Just like him. You shouldn’t trust me.”

When the guy said just like him, Jesse looked around, confused. There was no one else there. Alright, so he’d apparently invited a crazy dude back to his place for a shower. Awesome.

“Look, I wasn’t trying to insult you, yo.” Jesse slipped back into his old speech patterns instinctively. It was like a coping method or something. He’d read a book about PTSD at the library but he hadn’t gotten very far because it made his hands shake. “I just know what it’s like to have nowhere to go and to feel your clothes get, like, crusty with your own funk.”

Something in his voice must have signaled something to the guy, because he seemed to calm down a little. He finally looked up to meet Jesse’s eyes and Jesse felt like crying again. He looked terrified.

“Did something bad happen to you?” He asked, and he sounded like a kid. Beneath the hard jaw and the rough stubble, Jesse realized the guy didn’t look any older than he was. Jesse wondered if he felt a hundred years old, the way he did, and if he’d seen too many things and had done too many things to ever feel like a kid again.

“Yeah.” Jesse had to work to get the word out. “Real bad.” The guy had gone still again, but he was still staring at Jesse. Finally, he nodded.

“Okay,” he said quietly. “I’ll go with you.”

They didn’t wait ten minutes. The guy walked a half-step behind Jesse the whole time and Jesse was wondering if this was a good idea after all. Like most ventures in his life, he’d have to guess a resounding no, but he figured even if the guy shanked him, he’d at least get some kind of good karma for trying to help a psycho homeless guy.

He pulled out a clean towel for the guy—his only other towel besides the one he’d been using all week—and a pair of sweats and a T-shirt. He waited for the sound of the shower before he dropped his head into his hands.

“What the hell am I doing?” He murmured to himself. I could kill you. He probably wasn’t going to see the morning. But he thought of that first night After, when he’d driven away and got on a bus, when his eyes had darted nervously, when he hadn’t even closed his eyes once on the bus, when he’d worried everyone was looking for him, when he’d been afraid someone was going to grab him and put him back in a hole. He thought of being hauled up a ladder, being shackled, being beaten, watching Andrea’s body crumple—

He would have threatened anyone who made him nervous, too. Hell, he’d choked Todd on the spot. The shower cut off and he took a deep breath, holding it and counting to ten. It was something the library book had suggested for dealing with stress. The guy came out of the bathroom, hair plastered down and dripping onto his shirt, and Jesse noticed for the first time that the guy had a damn metal arm. He realized the guy had been wearing a hoodie and gloves the whole time. He saw Jesse’s eyes on his arm and his jaw tightened, shoulders hunching up to his ears. Jesse felt the undeniable urge to say something, to reassure him.

“Bad people do that to you?” He asked, and maybe he could have phrased it to sound less like a five-year-old, but the guy nodded all the same. Jesse nodded too. “I got this,” he offered, tilting his jaw so the light would catch the scar on his face that his beard somewhat hid.

“I noticed,” the guy said, and Jesse remembered I’ve already assessed you.

“You want to watch TV?” Jesse asked, because he couldn’t think of anything else to say. The guy’s forehead wrinkled, just like when Jesse had mentioned the microwave. “Are you from, like, a different country?” Jesse ventured.

“Maybe,” the guy said. He didn’t elaborate and Jesse didn’t feel like pushing his luck.

“You can sit down.” Jesse gestured to the seat beside him. The guy hesitated for only a second before warily taking a seat. Jesse flipped through the channels, feeling incredibly awkward. It was three am. There was nothing on. He paused his channel surfing on MASH. A quick burst of gunfire rang out from the speakers and the guy snarled. Jesse suddenly felt himself pressed into the arm of the couch, the guy over him.

“Hey, hey, it’s just the TV!” Jesse tried to shout from where his mouth was muffled against the couch, pushing the button on the remote blindly to get the channel to change. “Shit, man, calm down.” He could feel the guy trembling, but it didn’t escape Jesse that the guy had been covering Jesse, protecting him, not attacking him.

“Is that a newsreel?” Even his voice was trembling.

“Uh, no. It’s just a TV show.” Jesse gave the guy a long look. “Seriously, where are you from? You’ve never seen TV?”

The guy pressed his lips together, looking at the TV. Jesse had landed on some old cartoon. “A cartoon,” the guy said wonderingly. “It’s like a movie in your own house.” Jesse gave up getting answers.

“Yeah,” Jesse said slowly. A spark of recognition lit up the guy’s eyes when Mickey Mouse popped onto the screen.

“Mickey Mouse,” He breathed. He sounded amazed.

“You like Mickey?” Jesse asked.

“I think so. We saw it before the war. When he was still small.”

Before the war. So this guy was a veteran. Jesse looked at him again, trying to bring in this new piece of the puzzle. It explained the way he’d noticed Jesse’s gun, knew how to disarm him, and why he freaked out at the sound of guns. But who was this he that he kept mentioning?

“You got a kid?” Jesse asked. The guy jerked a little in surprise.

“No,” he said, and Jesse could have sworn he heard an undercurrent of duh. Normally it would have annoyed him, but it made him smile a little. Nice to see a flicker of personality.

“You keep saying him and he. Who?”

The guy looked down at his hands and was quiet for a long time. “Someone I knew a long time ago,” he finally answered. “We were both different. I was…” He cut himself off and shook his head. “It was a long time ago,” he repeated.

“This guy trusts you, huh?” Jesse wasn’t sure why he was pushing for this guy to talk to him. Something about the guy was hovering just out of reach in Jesse’s head, like maybe he knew the dude but couldn’t place it, which was pretty weird because Jesse didn’t know any soldiers and it seemed like he’d remember someone with a metal arm.

“He shouldn’t.” The guy looked up, his eyes fierce. “You shouldn’t either. I’m dangerous. I didn’t do what I was supposed to.” A problem dog. Jesse shuddered a little.

“Hey, man, I don’t know what’s happened to you, but you thought someone was shooting at us and you covered me. Doesn’t seem all that dangerous to me,” Jesse pointed out. The guy’s eyes dropped again and he shook his head.

“I’m not good.” His soft voice sounded like a heartbreak. “He thinks I am, or I used to be, but I don’t think I ever was, not really. Not like him.”

Jesse didn’t know what to say. He sighed and pressed his palms into his eyes. “Yeah, well, I’m not exactly Mother Theresa.” He got a blank look in response and felt his own eyes bug a little. “You know, Mother Theresa? The really good nun lady?” The guy just shrugged. “I’m bad, is what I’m saying.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know.” Jesse laughed bitterly, thinking of the sting of his mother’s hand across his face, her frustrated shouts, why are you like this. “What makes a person bad?”

“What did you do?” The guy asked, and he seemed desperate, urgently needing answers. Jesse stared at him for a minute.

“I sold drugs,” Jesse started slowly. “And…that’s actually not even that bad, compared to everything else.” He exhaled loudly. “I’ve killed people,” he admitted hollowly.

“Me too,” the guy said. There was no emotion in his voice. “A lot of people. I don’t even know why. I don’t even remember them all.”

“Yeah, but like…you were in a war,” Jesse reasoned. The guy shrugged.

“Did they torture you?” He asked out of nowhere, his voice hollow. Jesse sucked in a deep breath, thought of the scars crisscrossing his torso, thought of cigarettes put out on his skin, felt the drag of the dog run, the chemical burn in his lungs of cooking without a mask, Todd’s uncle wanting information from him.

“Yeah,” Jesse said quietly. “They did.”

“Who did it?”

“These mercenary guys. They were, uh, like Nazis. You know, neo-Nazis or whatever.” Jesse ran a finger over the scar on his face. The guy looked up sharply.

“There’s still Nazis?” He asked. He sounded distressed. Jesse didn’t blame him. He didn’t really get why anyone would think that was a good idea, either.

“Unfortunately.”

“Mine were sort of Nazis, too,” the guy offered softly.

“And they tortured you?”

The guy shuddered and nodded. He was starting to curl into himself a little, his eyes starting to glaze over a little. “A lot of needles. Had to keep saying my name. The table. My arm,” He whispered. “So cold. Wiped me. Couldn’t remember anything. Hit me. I asked who he was. He said my name. I knew him. Wiped me.” His body was shaking, his breathing ragged. Jesse recognized a panic attack. He’d been there.

“Hey man.” Jesse kept his voice gentle. “It’s alright. You’re outta there now.”

The guy came back to the present with a long, shaking breath. “I’m not safe.” He looked up at Jesse, his eyes desperate. “I should leave. I might hurt you.”

“I’m not afraid of you,” Jesse said stubbornly. It wasn’t the absolute truth, but it was close enough.

“You should be.” The guy repeated himself from earlier, but when Jesse looked at him he just saw a sad, tired, scared man. From the sounds of it, he’d been a POW. Jesse couldn’t imagine sending him back to the street.

“That guy know where you are?” Jesse asked. “Your friend. The one who thinks you’re good?” He knew the answer before the guy shook his head no.

“He’s looking for me,” the guy admitted.

“You think you should let him find you?” Jesse hadn’t even finished the question before the guy was shaking his head vehemently.

“I’ll hurt him,” he insisted, quietly stubborn, opening his metal fingers and staring at them. “I can’t hurt him.”

“Why do you think you’ll hurt him?”

“He’s my mission.” The guy’s voice broke. “I’ve never failed a mission. I can’t…” He pressed his flesh hand against his head. “He won’t protect himself. I have to. I always have to make sure he’s okay. He’s too small to fight but he does anyway. No, he’s not small anymore. But he still won’t protect himself.” He was kind of babbling again, looking confused and frustrated.

“Look, man, I don’t know you,” Jesse said. “I don’t know this guy. I don’t know what went down or whatever. I just know…there’s no one looking for me.” He kept his voice steady and completely devoid of self-pity. “There’s no one who thinks I’m good. No one wants to help me. And if you got someone…I think you should let him help you.”

“Can’t hurt him.” The guy actually sounded like he was in pain.

“If he cares, aren’t you hurting him by running away?”

“At least he’s still alive,” the guy said stubbornly. But his voice wavered a little. They were both quiet.

“Well,” Jesse finally broke the silence. He rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. “I’m gonna…” He gestured toward his bedroom. “You need another blanket?” The guy shook his head.

“You should lock your door,” he called softly as Jesse started to close said piece of wood. “It’ll help keep you safe from me. For a little bit.”

It left Jesse feeling confused, upset, and a little scared. He locked it, more to ease the guy’s mind than his own. He was a little disappointed but not surprised when he woke up to an empty apartment, his sweats and T-shirt folded neatly on top of the blanket. His front door was still locked and he wondered if the guy had gone out the window.

Later that day, he had the news on for background noise and realized why the guy had seemed familiar—they were playing the footage from a month or so ago in DC, with Captain America and those giant airships or whatever. Jesse wasn’t sure how he felt when he realized he’d let an assassin sleep on his couch.

“New footage provides a surprising, and confusing, twist to the Captain America story,” the reporter was saying. “A citizen-captured video has emerged showing the metal-armed assassin pulling Captain America from the wreckage of the Helicarrier.” The video was grainy, but it was hard to miss the glint of sunlight off the metal arm, and Captain America was unmistakable.

“In addition, facial recognition has led some intelligence experts to believe the assassin is none other than James Barnes, formerly of Captain America’s Howling Commandos and childhood best friend of Captain America.”

A picture of the guy Jesse knew popped up alongside an old history-book picture of James Barnes, and Jesse raised an eyebrow. Sure looked like him. He remembered what the guy had said, so cold and wiped me, and shivered. Captain America had been frozen for seventy years; maybe his best friend had been, too. It all sounded really sci-fi and Jesse thought of Badger and Skinny Pete. It made his stomach hurt. They probably had all kind of crazy ideas about it, none even approaching the truth. It made Jesse laugh a little, but his eyes were stinging with tears.

Over the next two months, Jesse sort of forgot about the guy. He was busy doing stuff. He made himself finish the PTSD book, even though he couldn’t even check it out because he couldn’t get a library card without ID. He bought an air mattress so he didn’t have to sleep on his lumpy couch anymore. So he wasn’t expecting to hear the tinkle of the bell one night and look up at the guy.

Jesse almost didn’t recognize him—his hair was shorter, though still long, and he was clean-shaven. His eyes were bright, his clothes were clean, and he was smiling. Only the metal arm (not hidden under a hoodie this time) was the same.

“Hey, man!” Jesse said excitedly.

“Hi,” the guy smiled back him, almost shyly. And then Captain America walked up and Jesse’s mouth dropped open in shock.

“This is Steve,” the guy said, laughing at Jesse.

“Hi,” Jesse greeted Captain America faintly. And then he shook hands with Captain America. Jesse had like five full notebooks of Captain America cartoons he’d drawn.

“And, uh, I’m James,” the guy continued. “I never told you my name before.”

“Nah, it’s cool.” Jesse shook himself a little. “I’m—” He stopped himself from saying Jesse at the last second. “Brock,” he finished lamely, the name twisting a little in his gut. He figured he deserved it.

“Brock.” The guy—James—raised an eyebrow skeptically but didn’t say anything. “Well, Brock, is it cool if I take a picture of you?”

“What? No! Don’t do that," Jesse panicked, throwing a hand over his face.

“No, no, sorry, I…” James licked his lips. “I didn’t explain.” His brow furrowed and he looked just how Jesse remembered.

“It’s to help you out,” Captain America, Steve, said conspiratorially, leaning closer to the counter. “New ID and everything.”

“Uh. That’s illegal,” Jesse pointed out, swallowing hard. “I didn’t know…I mean, you’re Captain America, so…”

“He’s not as pure as everyone thinks,” James said, rolling his eyes. Steve scowled at him, but his eyes were smiling.

“We want to help you,” Steve said.

“You might change your mind if you knew what I’ve done,” Jesse murmured, looking down at the counter. He rubbed absently at the scar by his eye.

“You helped Bucky. That’s all I need to know,” Steve answered firmly. Jesse felt tears in his eyes. When was the last time anyone had helped him, really helped him? He thought of Mike and had to quickly look up at Steve, focus on the fact that Captain America was standing in front of him, or he’d fall apart.

“Okay,” he said reluctantly. Take care of yourself, kid, Mike’s gruff voice rumbled in his head. He let them take a picture and watched silently for a minute as they both hunched over the phone, trying to figure out how to send it. He felt the insane urge to laugh.

“Do you want me to do it?” He asked, unable to help the small chuckle that escaped. James looked all too happy with the offer, but Steve frowned.

“We have to figure it out,” he protested stubbornly. “It’s not like it’s that hard.”

“His fingers are too big and he keeps pressing extra buttons,” James stage-whispered. Steve jabbed him with an elbow. Jesse couldn’t stop staring. It was like a picture in his history book had suddenly sprung to life. He’d never been great at school, but everyone perked up when they learned about the Howling Commandos. There hadn’t been much about Bucky Barnes—about any of the Commandos, really, because it was mostly about Captain America—but Jesse distinctly remembered a half-page photo in his textbook of the whole group poring over a map, Captain America and Sergeant Barnes next to one another and grinning secretly together.

“I did it!” Steve finally crowed triumphantly, and James clapped sarcastically. Jesse thought again of Skinny Pete and Badger and felt his jaw clench a little. James tipped his head a little at Steve and Steve’s smile went all soft around the edges, a different kind of smile than Jesse had ever seen on his face in pictures, on the news, or even during this encounter.

“I’m gonna get a soda,” he announced. He and James held eye contact for another second, like they were talking silently, and Jesse felt a little cold. He remembered having secret conversations with people. James shoved his hands in his pockets and looked at his feet.

“So, uh, I just wanted to say…thanks.” He looked up and the grin he gave Jesse was tinged with rueful self-deprecation. “I wasn’t exactly an ideal customer.”

Jesse laughed a little. “I’m not exactly an ideal worker.”

James nodded. He opened his mouth, then bit his lip and rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “I think you’re good,” he blurted out. Jesse felt an eyebrow climb toward his hairline. “You said…when you were telling me to let Steve find me. You said no one thinks you’re good. But I do.”

Jesse’s throat tightened and he looked away. “Okay,” he responded, a non-answer. He closed his eyes for a second and saw Jane's sobriety chip, watched Andrea fall, fall, fall.

“What do I know, right? I’m a brainwashed assassin.” James huffed out a little laugh. “But that guy back there who’s listening to us and pretending not to?” Jesse glanced at Steve and laughed when saw the tips of his ears go red. “He knows who’s good. If he says you’re good, you’re good.”

“So you believe you’re good, then?” Jesse challenged. His voice had gone hoarse, the way it did sometimes when he was upset. “I’m sure he says you’re good. And you’re telling me to believe it from him, so that means you have to believe it, too.”

James exhaled loudly. “I’m working on it,” he admitted. “I go to therapy. I think you should, too.”

“Yeah, sure, if money grew on trees, huh?” Jesse didn’t know what kind of benefits you got for being Captain America’s best friend, but he sure didn’t have them. James just gave him a knowing smile.

“If wishes were fishes, right?” He looked over his shoulder and Steve came back over to them.

“It was nice to meet you,” Steve said with a big smile. “I can never thank you enough for taking care of Bucky and sending him back to me.” He and James shared a look again and Jesse’s mind flashed to Jane. He didn’t have to push the thought away as violently as he used to.

“Take care of yourself, alright?” James asked. He shook Jesse’s hand and then they left, James shooting a last small smile over his shoulder on their way out the door.

Two weeks later, Jesse woke up and found two envelopes on his kitchen counter. The first was full of ID—driver’s license, birth certificate, social security card, even a high school diploma—with his picture and the name Brock Smith. There was also a letter. Jesse gnawed at his thumbnail for a long time before he unfolded the letter.

Did you know Jesse Pinkman was legally declared dead? It just happened last month, and for the last year his parents have been offering a reward for information. There’s a video on YouTube from the news where his mother asks for anyone to let them know if their son is safe. She says they’ll never stop loving him, no matter what information comes forth about his work with Heisenberg. Interesting, huh? There was also a kid named Brock—same name as you!—who was taken in for questioning but was treated alright since he’s just a kid and his mom died. He lives with his grandma now and he’s adjusting really well to his new school. He told a reporter last week he misses his mom and his mom’s friend Jesse. He said Jesse was always really nice to him and taught him cool science tricks. Jesse sounds like a good guy.

Jesse had started crying by the end of the first sentence. He was a dead man walking. No, that wasn’t right—he was Brock Smith now. Jesse Pinkman was dead. Jesse Pinkman had parents who cared, maybe, or who wanted to look like they cared on TV. Brock was okay. Brock still thought of Jesse as a good person. Jesse scrubbed his face with his hands. He noticed for the first time the Stark Industries logo at the top of the paper. Iron Man was helping him now, too? He wished he could tell Badger and Skinny Pete. He gasped when he opened the other envelope. It was crammed with crisp twenties and a check from Tony Stark for three thousand dollars. There was another note.

Buy a bed and see a therapist so you can actually sleep in it.

None of it was signed, but Jesse knew who it was from. His shoulders shook as he cried. He couldn’t believe this was happening. Finally, finally, something good was happening to him. He’d gone through hell first, sure, but maybe things were looking up.

Jesse took James’s advice and started seeing a therapist. It really did help him sleep better. He also enrolled in a trade school for carpentry and woodwork. After about a month, he breathed deeply as he mailed off a package to Albuquerque with no return address. It was a delicately crafted, ornate wooden box. He didn’t want to write a whole letter, because there were a lot of things he was still confused and angry about. But he’d slipped just one small piece of paper inside, hand-written and heartfelt.

I’m sorry, it said. But I’m okay now.