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the world no longer drowned

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The coffin looks so small in the earth.

One by one, people come forward to throw a handful of dirt. Sometimes it lands soft. Sometimes it thumps, clatters. Clods and rocks. You try not to flinch. Some people linger, others turn away like they've been slapped. Some of the women wear short veils. You didn't think people still did that. Steve, at your side, nudges you.

But when you look up, it isn't Steve.

“Well?” says Peggy. “Aren't you going to?”

“I don't think I have the right,” you say. “I barely remember you. You barely remembered me when I visited.”

“We were not bosom friends,” Peggy agrees. She flickers, badly tuned. Her hair is white; her hair is brown. Her lips are red; her lips are bare. She slips her hand under your arm. She says, “But we have something in common, don't we?”

“He misses you,” you say. “He misses you so goddamn much, Carter, there ain't even words.”

“I missed him for sixty-eight years,” she says. She looks down at the coffin. “I suppose if I was the vindictive sort, I'd say I got a little of my own back.”

“He'll miss you for a hundred.” It chokes you; tender in the throat. Your voice comes up thin, high. “He'll miss you for his whole life.”

“Come along,” says Peggy. She tugs your elbow, but you plant yourself.

“I'm scared,” you say.

Peggy smiles—red, bare, red, bare—and pulls you forward like you weigh nothing. You almost lose your balance. You only have one arm. Or: your other arm is dangling useless.

“Come on, Brooklyn,” she says. She called you that once, somewhere. A flash of light, a match, a cigarette. Rain on the command tent. Irritation. No: anger. Don't start fights you can't finish, Brooklyn. You hear a dog, barking. She pulls you until your feet hit the edge of the hole. “It's only a little death,” she says.

“Death's never little,” you try to say. You open your mouth, but nothing comes out. The world is too bright. A dog, barking, barking.

You make a frustrated animal noise, and then: you're in your body. You open your eyes to Josie's big mournful stare. Her wet nose on your nose. She whuffs kibble breath on your face when you startle, and then she trots away. You rub your eyes without lifting your head. Elsewhere, Clara is still barking. You hear Steve's bare feet and his voice, low, stern: hey. You come awake in pieces: sight, thought, scent. You smell coffee. Something cooking.

You remember what you have to do today. You groan and shove your head under your pillow.

You can't hear Steve moving around anymore, but you know when he comes in. Your body always knows. Something in the way the floor shifts. The way the air moves. He crawls fully clothed into your side of the bed, where there's no room; you're already reaching for him. His foot on your ankle. His knees between your knees. He tucks his head under your pillow too.

“Hey,” you say. You touch his throat.

“Hey,” says Steve. His eyes are red. They've been red for days. “I made breakfast.”

“Smells good,” you say. “What was the hullabaloo?”

“Sam's here. He buzzed the balcony.”

You nod. You don't ask how Steve is doing. He's been asked that enough. Besides, you can hear a Rudy Vallee record playing in the living room. That tells you everything you need to know.

“Up and at 'em, tiger,” says Steve. Steady, under his red-rimmed eyes. “Your big day.”

You put your whole hand over Steve's face, grumpily. You feel him smile into your palm. Just the corner of his mouth, shifting against your skin. You move your hand to the side of his neck so you can see it.

“What time is it?”

“6:20ish.”

You make a face, but you throw the blankets off your shoulders. You push them down to the foot of the bed with your toes so you can't change your mind. Steve reaches for the prosthetic on the night-table. You shake your head.

“Tony wants to fit me before we go,” you say. The greyhounds come trotting in on their skittery deer legs. In tandem, side by side. Steve calls it their cart-horse trick. Clara takes one look at your naked legs and peels off, heading for Steve instead. “Prude,” you say. You dodge Josie on your way to the shower. She parks herself on the bathmat like a sphinx.

Steve is dead to the world when you come out. You and the dogs tiptoe into the hall. You, silent. The girls, click-click-click.

 


 

“Sir,” says JARVIS, “Major Wilson is approaching the suite. Shall I open the door for him?”

“Please,” you say.

You go out to meet Sam, your finger on your lips. Sam puts his suitcase down and waves; signs: Sorry I couldn't get here last night. Layover in D-E-N-V-E-R. You flick your hands out in front of you: no problem. You direct Sam to the kitchen and close the door.

“Food's in the slow cooker,” you say. You hand Sam a plate and return to your own breakfast.

“Steve's asleep?” Sam asks. He lifts the lid and makes an appreciative noise. When Steve makes a breakfast casserole, he doesn't fuck around.

You make a noise around your mouthful: hang on. Once you swallow: “Yeah, thank god. I'd say he got up early to make that, except I'm not sure he actually went to bed.”

Sam winces as he brings his food to the table. Josie lays down adoringly on his feet. “When are the Traoré kids getting here?”

“Aimee's got a session with Steve at ten,” you say. “Mariam's asleep—spare bedroom. You're the study buddy today, if you can handle it.”

“No prob. Is Doc coming over after?”

“Yeah,” you say, “Movie night,” and don't tease Sam about his massive, unsubtle crush on Djenebou Traoré. You're a good friend. Also, you think it might be mutual. Just a hunch. Joking with yourself. Really: Djene looks at Sam the way Steve used to look at you, when he thought you couldn't see him.

“And how are you doing?” says Sam.

You're saved from answering by two things. First, Mariam stumbles into the kitchen moaning “coffee...” like the med school zombie she is. Then, Tony's disembodied voice: “Shake a leg, Robocop, daylight's burning!”

You salute the ceiling and scamper.

 


 

You peek out through a gap in the curtain. There must be a thousand people in the auditorium, packed like sardines all the way into the aisles and out the doors. The security staff are pulling extra chairs from somewhere. You hope they're following the fire codes.

“Remind me,” you say, “Why I'm doing this again?”

“Because you love me,” says Tony.

“I really, really don't.”

“You do, though.” Tony fusses with his collar like it isn't already perfect. “You told me so, at hilarious length, that one time we managed to get you drunk. Unless you were lying to me. You wouldn't lie to me, would you, Barnes?” You open your mouth. Tony keeps talking. “Anyway, let's be real, you have this overwhelming affection for all living things, don't bother denying it, I have multiple recordings of the facial expression you make every time DUM-E kills a spider.”

You're trying to figure out where to start with that when Dr. Traoré walks in, wearing a white knee-length dress with a big skirt. Pleats and lace, and little cap sleeves. Her usual running blades have been replaced: they look like real legs, if real legs could be made out of cobwebs. Impossibly delicate, like spun sugar. They sparkle. You think you're staring.

“Oh thank god,” says Tony. “Pet him or something, he's about to vibrate out of his skin and I need to go find the interns.”

“Oops, I forgot my tranq gun,” says Djene. She hugs you: her easy affection. You have to lean down a little to hug her back. She's shorter without the blades.

“You look beautiful, Doc,” you say when she pulls back.

“I look like an old lady wearing her daughter's prom dress.”

Your snort is loud enough to startle a sound tech. “You don't look a day over thirty.”

She grins. “Black don't crack.”

You gesture at the legs. “Tony showing off?”

“Actually, these are Ruth's baby. Hot off the printer last night—don't worry, we stress-tested them within an inch of their lives.” She executes a little shimmy-step. “Tony wanted to put me in the bird legs, but I said, honey, the way I muck about in those, I'll break James's ankles.”

“Thanks for not doing that.”

Djene looks around. She tugs you a little, out of the way. She says, quieter: “How was the funeral?”

You take a deep breath. Let it out.

“Good,” you say, and: “I think—I think she would've hated it.” You mean it to be uncertain. It comes out more like a confession. “A lot of pomp, and. At least it wasn't televised.”

“Any trouble?”

“Just a lot of confiscated cameras.”

Djene, quieter still: “And Steve?”

Your mouth tugs to the side. She looks at you, and then she shakes her head.

You weren't expecting how tore up Steve would be. After all, it wasn't exactly sudden. But, in retrospect, you aren't surprised. It's just—Carter was the last. Everyone else is gone, except for you, and you're still missing pieces: still missing half your life. You remember the war better than your childhood. You don't have much before the factory, or after the train. You've learned to be okay with that; you had to. So did Steve. But it's one thing to know it, and another thing to be reminded without warning. Lightning out of a blue sky.

And some days, hell. It seemed like Carter was going to live forever.

“He'll be okay,” you say.

Djene nods. Sympathy, soft, in all the lines around her eyes. “You know what they say about time and wounds," she says. Lighter: “He's got my spawn to take care of him, after all.”

“A truly terrifying motivator,” you say, flat, and she cackles.

Then she leans back and gives you a Look. You know she can't MRI you with her eyes, but your brain has a hard time believing it. You cave immediately.

“I'm kind of nervous,” you admit.

“You'll be fine. We only practised about nine thousand times. My favourite badass, remember?”

You don't feel much like a badass. You feel the way you did when you were in withdrawal, the year you came home. Knock-kneed and a little clammy, like you've caught the flu.

“I wish Steve was here,” you say. “He's always been good at working the crowds.”

“He wasn't born that way,” says Djene. “It takes a lot of work. He told me he used to put his lines on the back of his shield.”

You think, gleefully: I am going to tease him about that forever.

“Do you—” Djene starts, and someone calls, “Dr. Traoré!” at the same moment your phone vibrates. It's Sam. You show her the screen. “Take it, I've got to deal with this,” she says, and walks away on her sparkling legs.

You look around. You shouldn't answer here. The techs are setting up audio and Tony will make sad engineer faces at you. You look out the door, but the halls are full of people. You reject the call.

Hang on, you text Sam, and take the stairs to the basement. There's a set of dingy, unused bathrooms down there. You found them when Tony sent you to look for a janitor's closet to pilfer. Tony said he needed duct tape, but he was probably just trying to keep you occupied.

You lock the door behind yourself and call Sam back. His warm voice in your ear. You assumed it was going to calm you down, but you feel like you're winding up tighter. A spring in your stomach, compressing.

“Yo. How's it hanging?”

“I think I'm about to have a meltdown in a bathroom,” you say.

“Well, get outta there. What's eating you?”

Everything.”

“Okay,” says Sam, “I can work with that. One, you got this, you're a natural, you could do this in your sleep. Two, Tony is going to be doing, like, 110% of the talking. Three, even if someone picks on you during the Q&A, which they won't, nobody's gonna expect you to provide a sound bite for the company. You're the nerdy tech guy, not—well, Tony. Four, Doc's gonna be right there, seriously, that woman makes you look smarter by sheer proximity. Also she'll probably pinch you if you start hyperventilating. That just about cover it?”

“Stop being so good at this,” you hiss.

“Sorry. Want me to try again?”

“No.”

“Come on, man. Spill. I can practically hear your gears grinding.”

“Gross,” someone says, kind of tinny, like they're just out of range of the speakerphone. Clint, you realize. You didn't know Clint was coming over. But then: Sam and Clint are kind of attached at the hip. “Come on, Barnes, tell us how you grind your gears.”

“Excuse me,” says Sam. You hear a series of muffled thumps. The smack of a hand against someone's skin. A shout: mock-angry. If previous wrestling matches are anything to go by, Sam is probably sitting on Clint. You lean forward and let your forehead hit the wall next to the paper towel dispenser.

“Okay,” says Sam. “Do continue.”

Grudgingly, half-scared you'll make it come true by thinking it: “What if somebody recognizes me?”

“Dude,” says Sam. “You're a white guy with brown hair and a beard. At a goddamn science conference. Slouch a little, and nobody's even gonna know you're there.”

You squint at the mirror.

The longer your hair is, the more curl it seems to get. You haven't cut it in ages, and it's past your shoulders. Your beard isn't long, but it's pretty thick. (You think it makes you look like a tough biker. Steve says you look like a gay lumberjack.) There are lines, mostly around your eyes, that weren't there when you fell. You're wearing what you think of as old-man frames and everyone else calls hipster glasses.

You think: maybe Sam's right. You definitely don't look like the Winter Soldier. The Soldier was too thin under the bulk, the artificial strength. Malnourished. Grey. Slack mouth, wide eyes. A dropped glass: empty, but something stuck in the cracks. The residue of fear. The Soldier moved like a tiger always waiting for a gun.

But you remember photographs from before, reels and albums and collections on the internet—scraps of film, moments in motion, a soft-eyed boy turned brittle—and think: you also couldn't look less like Sergeant James Barnes if you tried.

One long, slow breath out, from the bottom of your lungs.

“There you go,” says Sam. “G'wan, listen to some Serena Ryder, put your game face on, knock 'em dead.”

“Thanks, Wilson,” you say drily, but Sam knows you mean it.

“What am I, chopped liver?” says Clint. Presumably from the floor.

“You got some words of wisdom, Barton?”

“Yeah. Don't do anything I would.”

“Don't lead with my face, remember my pants, ingest actual calories before noon, got it,” you say. You hang up the phone on Clint's outraged squawk and Sam's laughter.

You still feel sweaty-palmed, but the laughing helps. Carl once told you that laughter convinces your brain that everything is okay. Nobody laughs in a life-or-death combat situation. People laugh when they're comfortable. You thought it was bullshit, but Djene confirmed it was a thing.

“Some people play podcasts all day to trick their brains into feeling safe,” she told you. “If humans are talking normally, the world can't possibly be ending, right?”

Which, if nothing else, explained a lot about Steve's radio habits.

You give yourself another minute to come to ground. Just the way Sam taught you in Clint's apartment. Buddha Belly: round inhale, empty exhale. Breathing all the tension out of your limbs. Sam's right. You are going to be fine. You open your eyes. You strike the Wonder Woman pose in the mirror.

And then you haul ass back up the stairs.

You find Djene waiting in the wings, straight-backed. Looking out at the audience with a faint smile. You envy her serenity. She reaches for you; fixes your tie, the lay of your rolled-up cuffs. You aren't wearing your faux-skin cover. All your machinery is exposed. Out on the stage, you can hear Tony grandstanding: “—demonstration of the recent advancements we've made to—”

The music starts to build.

“Let's bring the house down,” says Djenebou Traoré, and you step out into the lights.

 


 

During the planning process, you were kidnapped by a committee. Djene, Pepper, Natalia, Darcy, Ruth the Intern. And you. (Steve teased you about the way you keep finding yourself locked in rooms with powerful women. You told Steve he was just jealous.) One by one, they pitched and discarded ideas. The foxtrot: too fast. The tango: too ambitious. Also, said Darcy, too sexy. The ба́рыня: too dangerous for your cover. The cha-cha: too much footwork. It had to be something Djene could manage with unfamiliar limbs and something that wouldn't make you embarrass yourself.

Which explains how you've found yourself waltzing with your neurologist on camera.

Tony's sped up the music slightly, for which you will pinch him later. Now, though: Djene is floating. You feel like a stumbling oaf next to her. At least, you think, most people will be watching her instead of you. You go tentatively into the first spin, but Djene pivots on her spun sugar feet like she's been wearing them her whole life. She raises her eyebrows: is that all you've got, Barnes? You pick up your pace.

When the music winds down, you dip Djene towards the audience. Hair in your eyes, your left hand in the small of her back, her feet between yours. The roar of sound startles you. You tug her up so you don't drop her. There are people standing up, applauding. Someone wolf-whistles in the back.

“Smile!” Djene yells into your ear. “You look like a slapped cod!”

You smile. You bow. It feels mechanical, strange. Djene hauls you into a second one. Somewhere to your right, Tony is saying, “That was great, wasn't it, thank you, let's give everyone a minute to cool down while we set up the—” and you don't hear the rest, because Djene is pulling you into the wings.

“Supersoldiers,” she gripes, fanning herself. There's sweat on her temples, her throat. Your skin is dry. “Give me your handkerchief, I know you've got one, you old fashioned bastard. Thank you.”

Ruth runs up with water bottles while Djene's patting herself carefully, trying not to smudge her screen makeup. Mohan is on Ruth's heels with Djene's usual legs. They've perfected the intern-scurry. Tony must be so proud. If only, you think mournfully, you could teach either of them to make coffee that doesn't come out of a Keurig or a Starbucks. You shoo them off and help Djene switch legs yourself. Her small, strong hand on your shoulder as she balances on one blade. Petticoats in your face. You thumb the vacuum switch and step back. Djene bounces experimentally along the wings: walking on the moon.

“That's better,” Djene sighs. She grabs your elbows and gives you a little shake. Bright eyes. “I don't need to say it, but I'm going to anyway: hot damn, Barnes. You dance like that with Steve and he'll be eating out of your palm.”

“Already does.” But you're grinning. “You were fantastic, Doc. You're gonna be viral by the weekend, guaranteed.”

She blows a loud raspberry. “Shall we?” She offers her elbow.

“Let's,” you say.

While you've been in the wings, the techs have moved two long tables onto the stage, a microphone perched in front of every chair. Everyone else is already there. Tony stands as you approach, clapping. The audience claps with him.

The placard in front of your mic reads Jim Bauer. Only Tony and Djene know your real name; this one has been your cover since your first month in the Tower. The interns might find out, someday, but Tony is very security-conscious; he can't guarantee their silence forever. You don't mind. Jim Bauer's papers have received moderate praise from industry journals. Jim Bauer has a boyfriend and two cats. A nice guy. You don't mind playing him on TV—so to speak.

When the audience settles, Tony says, “Great, welcome! Again! This is the boring part, unless you're really interested in microelectrode arrays. The nice people in white shirts will be passing microphones around the room—let's have some questions that aren't about everybody's marital status this time, okay?” Warm laughter from the room. “Before we get started, let me introduce Ruth Schaeffer and Mohan Gupta, this year's interns; I'm—oh, who am I kidding, you all know who I am—that's Jim Bauer, one of our technicians; and Dr. Djenebou Traoré, neurosurgeon. Our home team includes engineers, robotics specialists, medical consultants, and prosthetic makeup artists, but you get the blue light special this afternoon. Right, first question—”

A young woman in the back stands up. Someone hands her a microphone. “In your most recent press release, you stated that your primary goal is to make assistive technology more accessible. Can you elaborate?”

“That's going to need a twofold answer,” says Tony, and it begins.

What is your distribution plan for developing countries? is followed by How do you respond to the anti-transhumanist criticism directed at your company by David Lindskold? is followed by Where do you stand in regards to the Smalley-Drexter debate on molecular nanotechnology? is followed by How will you lower production costs? Tony talks about the Joseph Rogers Foundation for veterans in need of prosthetics. Djene breaks down biosensors and electroactive polymers into simple terms. Mohan talks about his doctorate research on combining photostatic veils with semiconducting silicone. Ruth shyly explains the mechanisms of integrated 3D printing.

You think: my team. Making the world a better place to live. You glow with it.

You're so distracted by pride that you almost miss the next question.

“How much is ease of use accounted for in your designs?”

“You want to take that one, Jim?” Tony asks.

No, you think, but you lean forward. Clear your throat. “We've made that a priority,” you say. You try the light touch, hoping for a laugh: “Who wants to spend fifteen minutes putting their legs on in the morning?” Scattered chuckles. You feel braver. “The model I'm wearing has a biometric lock under a panel. Approved fingerprints disconnect the ports, and—” You twist and pull: less than ten seconds. Under it, your false stump is realistically lumpy. Shiny with silicone scar tissue. “There. Easier than opening a pickle jar.”

“Attachment depends on the individual's accessibility needs, physical ability, anatomical condition, and preference,” says Djene, saving you. You shoot her a grateful look as you reattach your arm. She adds: “I don't require much neurological feedback, for example, so my attachment points are glorified suction cups. Jim needs to be able to manipulate delicate machinery, but permanent installation would make it more difficult for him to field-test multiple limbs, so he uses ports. One of our medical consultants chose osseointegration because she doesn't have the fine motor control necessary in her opposite hand to remove the limb at will. And so on.”

A girl near the front says, “So you actively test—”

The sound, you realize later, is an explosion.

Glass rains down on the audience. Screaming. Light, suddenly: from the broken skylights, the hole in the roof. Concrete dust in the air. Someone shouts hit the deck! Microphone feedback like kettles shrieking.

There is a man floating in the middle of the room.

You realize you're standing. So is Tony. So is Djene. The interns are under the table, where they should be. Where Djene should be. You want to reach out for her, but you're frozen. The world contracts. Like looking through a tube. Echoes. Everything is too loud.

Mr. Stark! the man yells down. He's wearing all black: black turtleneck, black jeans, black boots. His hair is blonde, curly. Floating around his head. A breeze from the open roof, or he's making it himself. Handsome, if he wasn't sneering. Twisting his face like wax. The man says: I'd like to talk about the Avengers.

You missed a memo, Clark Kent, says Tony. I haven't been an Avenger since 2017.

Exactly, the man says, and pulls out a gun.

Something deep in your brain reports: Beretta 8357, recoil operated, 11-round magazine, and the man's untrained grip. Finger already on the trigger. Undisciplined. If he doesn't shoot Tony on purpose he'll shoot someone else by accident. You don't know how much of the man's concentration is taken up by floating. You don't know anything. Floundering, where you should be taking control.

But you're frozen.

Get under the table, says Tony. Jim, now.

You can't.

James, get your goddamn head down, says Djene. She's doing something with her right arm. You see a flash of gold.

Everything is very loud. But: quiet in your head. You can hear your own breath. Loud, in your ears. Close. Like you're in a very small space. Your heartbeat: fast. It feels like it's coming from far away. Someone else's pulse racing.

Down!” Djene snarls. She hip-checks you. She and Tony put up their arms at the same moment. Gauntlets around their palms. Her body hitting yours jerks you into yourself, into the world, which is not small, which is not calm. Like a crash: yelling, feedback, a subwoofer rumble. Two repulsors firing at once. You drop like your strings have been cut. Mohan's wide eyes under the table, Ruth reaching for you like a child. The gun: bang! bang! bang! Ruth flinches with her whole body. Someone is screaming but it isn't her. You crawl over her—over them both. You get Mohan's head under your body. You cover Ruth's spine with your arm.

Something falls on the table from above. Collapses it. You feel yourself shout but you can't hear it. Pain. And then: less pain. Someone steps off the table. Black jeans, black boots. You dive for his legs and take him to the ground. He spins like a crocodile under you, wild. He pistol-whips you across the face. You hear something crack. Rookie mistake. He should have shot you right between the eyes.

You crush his hand, gun and all.

 


 

Tony finds you in the janitor's closet.

You can't see who comes in and shuts the door, but you know it's Tony. Djene would be quieter: rubber pads on her blades. You're holding your legs. Forehead pressed against your knees. When Tony sits down beside you, his own knees click. You mumble into your dress pants: “How did you know I'd be here?”

“Honestly? It's where I'd be.”

You press your face harder into your kneecaps.

“Please don't tell Steve I hurt somebody,” you whisper.

“No can do, Sarge,” says Tony. “What I can do, though, is tell him you saved a bunch of people from a maniac with a gun and a gravity problem. Myself included. I don't know about you, but I'm pretty grateful when someone's a hero. So, you know. Better to own it.”

You don't want to hurt anybody. You promised yourself you wouldn't, not again, not for any reason. You don't want violence to live in your body. You don't want to remember the crunch, the grinding under your fingers. You don't want to remember the noise the man made. Animal-frightened: like you were killing him. “I don't want—” you say, and your throat closes up around the rest.

“I know, kiddo,” says Tony. His arm snakes heavy over your shoulders. He pulls you into his side. You tilt and almost unbalance, but Tony is solid, more solid than he looks in his smooth jacket, his rumpled tie. “I know. It'd be nice if the world worked like that. I hate that have to weaponize my briefcases, Barnes, you have no idea, it's so hard on the leather. But—I'd rather do it, knowing I'm keeping my people safe, instead of not doing it because I hate why I have to. I'm glad you were on the team today. Okay?”

That is just. Far too nice for you to deal with right now. “Don't call me kiddo,” you mutter, so you don't do anything embarrassing. “I'm like eighty years older than you.”

“Call me when you hit biological forty, then we'll talk,” says Tony. “Hey, I hate to rush a guy through an existential crisis and/or panic attack, but the cops are going to be here literally any second now, and I need your arm.”

That brings your head up. Tony winces at whatever he sees. “Oh, yikes. There goes your shot on the pageant circuit.”

You let him manhandle your prosthetic into his lap. “What are you doing?”

“I'm removing the limiters on your grip strength. I mean, I doubt they're going to, but if they ask how mild-mannered Stark technician Jim Bauer managed to crumple a gun like a soda can, well, here you go. By the by, they didn't catch your supersoldiering on any of the cameras. As far as I can tell, you two were totally hidden behind the table. Heaven, small miracles, etcetera.”

“Why did he want to shoot you?”

Tony grimaces and stops moving his tools in your arm. He lets a long breath out through his nose. “On a lot of drugs, by the sounds of it. He, uh—he lost his sister, during the Battle of New York, he was convinced I could've saved her and didn't. Apparently I blew right past her, and. I guess he didn't know he could fly at the time? It was probably his break-through...crisis...thing.”

“Could you?” you ask. He looks up. “Have saved her?”

Tony doesn't break eye contact, but you can tell he isn't seeing you. You think he's seeing something else: rubble and monsters and a hole in the sky. You saw the pictures online. The videos, once, and then never again. They gave you nightmares and you weren't even there.

Tony's lips compress and relax. Quick, like a flinch.

“I don't know,” he says. “Probably never will. A lot of people died while we were doing other things. Saving other people. So—he could be totally right, actually. 100% on the money.” Something clicks, deep in your forearm. Tony closes the plate. “But that doesn't give him any right to wave a gun around in a conference hall and try to murder me, so. You still did the right thing. Okay? You did the right thing.”

The crunch, the grind. Shrieking. You close your eyes. You open them.

“Okay,” you say. “Okay.”

 


 

You're worried about exposure, but you don't have to be. Jim Bauer is a real boy; your cover story holds up. Cordons keep sightseers out. Cameras inside get reviewed. Tony's media team chokes the reporters as much as they can, and downplays what they can't, while the police aren't enthusiastic about sharing details. They're sympathetic, even warm, but. Unhappy. Tense. Enhanced people going off the rails always make the public nervous. Nobody wants another repeat of 2017. Or, worse: 2018, and the Registration Riots.

Still, you don't know what you're going to come home to.

You open the door to JARVIS's quiet “welcome home, sir,” and faint music. No television. No whispers. Before you can make it two steps down the hall, Sam and Clint appear. They make a barricade.

“Holy shit,” says Clint. Sam elbows him. “I mean, uh, glad you're okay. Ow? Do you want, like, a steak?”

“We haven't told Steve yet,” Sam says, all business, “But social media's imploded. 'Tony Stark attacked at prosthetics conference in Manhattan!' 'Who is the Iron Lady?' There's pictures of all of you, man. How do you want to do this?”

“I'll—” You shake your head. “I'll tell him.”

“You want backup?”

“No. I'll—this is better.”

Sam doesn't look convinced, but he lets you pass.

You follow the music to the living room. Steve and Aimee are in front of the window. Steve, face-down on a massage table. Aimee on her angled drafting stool. Her hand on her belly when she reaches for ink. Both of them facing away, towards New York, where the sun is beginning to set, orange fire-light on steel and glass. The loud buzz of the tattoo machine. You can tell she's shading from the tempo: shorter, rounder sounds. You take off your coat.

“Hey, Bear,” says Aimee.

“Hey, Bird.” You don't come any closer. You want to keep this moment a little longer. A capsule of your life. Your people. Your doors, your windows, your walls. You've never hurt a soul here. Nobody has. A history of kindness, soaked into the hardwood. You want to lay down on the floor and drown in it. You want to lay down, full stop.

The dogs come up and sniff your shirt cuffs. All the hands you shook. The one you crushed. Gunpowder residue, probably. Blood, even though you washed like Lady Macbeth. Clara looks unimpressed. Josie sneezes on your prosthetic.

You come a little closer to see what Aimee's working on. For a moment, you wish you hadn't. Not that it isn't good; it is, it's very good. If you didn't know Aimee was only an apprentice, you wouldn't be able to tell. But then, she's had a lot of practice. Monochrome and sharp: the Howlies and Howard, true to life, faces spread across Steve's back like an old posed photograph. And Carter. Framed by the men, right in the middle, right on Steve's spine. On Steve's left shoulderblade, Dernier is already starting to fade. It's how you know where Aimee must have started. Time, as measured by Steve's cell turnover. They'll all be gone by morning.

You swallow.

“Beautiful,” you say. “Have you seen it, Stevie?”

“Mmmyeah,” Steve mumbles into his own elbow. The buzz of the tiny motor in Aimee's hand almost drowns him out.

“Don't mind him, he's in endorphin-town. Is Mom with you? How was the conference?” Aimee's hand, moving. Strong firm strokes, ink pooling over Carter's throat.

“Eventful,” you say. “Don't freak out.”

Because Aimee is a professional, she coils the wire around her thumb and lifts the machine before she looks at you. Quizzical, and then: horrified. “Oh my god, Bucky!” She almost falls off her drafting stool. Eight months pregnant; her balance is off. Different centre of gravity. You reach for her, but she's already in your space, grabbing your arms, your jaw. The machine clatters to the floor. Steve is trying to sit up. Swaying, drunkenly, at the edge of the table. You know when his vision focuses, because he makes a horrible gut-punched noise.

“I'm okay, I'm okay,” you hear yourself saying. “I'm okay, there was an incident, but everyone's okay—”

You're shivering. Quaking like a goddamn aspen. Like your body waited until you were safe to give up on you.

Steve manages to get off the table. He stands: wobbly like a colt. You catch his elbows when he stumbles. It's just one step, but he stumbles. His breath comes out in a startled whumph when he drops his head to your shoulder. Your legs threaten to buckle. The two of you: can't stand on your own feet. You widen your stance and brace yourself just before Steve flings his arms around your neck. You almost grab him before you remember the tattoo. You cradle the back of his head with one hand instead. Rest the other on the base of his spine.

“What happened?” Aimee asks. Her fingers twist together over her belly. Black nitrile gloves. The back of her left hand shiny with petroleum jelly.

You breathe in. You breathe out.

“Enhanced kid busted in through the roof, looking for Tony,” you say. “He had a gun.” Steve makes a noise you can't interpret. “I had a chance to take him down, so I did.”

Aimee bites her bottom lip. “Did you—?”

You shake your head. “I just, I broke his—” A hysterical sound comes out of your mouth. “I broke his hand real bad, he might need a—a prosthetic—” You have to hide your face in Steve's neck. It's not laughing. It's not crying, either. You don't know what your body is doing.

“Oh, Bear,” Aimee whispers. Her hand on your head.

You remember meeting the Traoré girls for the first time. While you were recuperating, building the first arm. Willowy Malian track-and-field queens, both certain their sister was the most uncool. Aimee hitting the end of her growth spurt; Mariam just starting hers. Bonding over handsome movie stars and not much else. It was an accident, meeting them: you weren't supposed to be there. You were supposed to be with Tony, but Tony came down with something, spiked a fever right in the lab. The flu that year kicked like a horse. You practically had to carry Tony to his suite.

The girls weren't supposed to be there either. Djene was called in while she was picking them up from school. Emergency brain surgery, a helicoptor landing on the roof of the Tower. It wasn't the first time Steve had volunteered to keep an eye on them; you knew because he told you. He was their favourite. Still, you came home and it startled you. Two teenage girls in your kitchen. Three mugs of hot chocolate. The handmade marshmallows Steve liked to buy from a tiny shop in Hell's Kitchen. Textbooks on the floor. Steve saying: “No, my team was special, all the other units were segregated until—” and he looked up. “Buck, hey!” And then he smacked his hand over his mouth. Security clearances for the Traoré girls, after that.

You remember stealing Steve's cocoa and saying, “Has he told you about the time he tried to stop a tank with his face?” and Steve growling, faux-angry: “Of course you remember that.” You remember Mariam telling you she was going to be a doctor like her momma. You remember Aimee, squeaky and quiet but not at all shy: “Can I braid your hair?” Just babies. History reports and fashion magazines on the kitchen table. You remember six months later, when Aimee escaped from her first disaster of a date and cried on your knees for an hour.

“Boys are dumb,” you told her.

You're dating a boy,” she mumbled.

“Yeah,” you said. Your hand on her cornrows. “Which is why I'm an authority on boys being dumb.”

Now: Aimee's fingers in your hair. Steve's breath on your neck. Sam and Clint in the doorway.

“Hey, Sugar Ray,” says Sam. His voice loud, easy. Pretending everything is normal. You love Sam the best. “Let's go sort out that face of yours before it sticks that way.”

Steve and Aimee step back. Steve kisses your temple before he lets you go. It's as far as either of you are comfortable taking things in public. Steve, retaining his old-fashioned propriety. At least, that's what everyone thinks. Steve lets them believe whatever they want. He knows anything more makes you feel too vulnerable at the best of times. This? Not the best of times.

You follow Sam to the bathroom and sit on the counter. Sam wets a washcloth with hot water and presses it to your face. You replace his hand with your own and sigh. It feels good. The air is warm, moist; someone has had a shower in here recently. Your shivers recede a little.

“I'm surprised they let you go, looking like that,” says Sam. “Broken cheekbone?”

“Cracked,” you amend. “I told them my roommate was a nurse.” You didn't, really. Tony told the paramedics he was taking you to Stark Medical. Both of you knew it wasn't going to happen. But: Sam's unimpressed face is your favourite Sam face.

“Hilarious. That's gonna need stitches, funny guy. What happened?”

“He hit me with his gun.”

“Instead of shooting you?”

“I got the feeling,” you say, looking away, “He wasn't all that experienced.”

Sam grabs your chin and turns you. The smell of disinfectant burns your sinuses before he swipes it across your face. You hiss.

“Barnes, if I've learned anything from doing this job, it's that some days, you get the megalomaniacal supervillain who legit wants to see the world burn, and some days you get the shit-scared fourteen-year-old who just wants to get back at the bullies. Either way, you still gotta stop them before they hurt anybody.”

You don't say anything. You look at your knees until Sam says, “Hey.” You glance at him. “What were you thinking when you went for him? Like, your exact thought process?”

“I thought he was going to hurt the interns,” you say. As it comes out of your mouth, you only feel worse. You realize: you put them in more danger by engaging the man. They would have been safer if you had stayed under the table. If the man had managed to incapacitate you, he would have known exactly where they were. He could have had hostages. You feel sick.

Hey,” says Sam, and snaps his fingers. You startle. Sam points at your eyes, and then back to his. He signs, so you can't look away: Your first instinct was protecting those kids. Nothing else matters. His hands are terse. He cuts the air.

“Would it matter if I'd killed him?” you ask.

“Maybe,” Sam allows. “But you didn't, so let's not argue what-ifs. And honestly? Barnes? From what I understand, that guy had a fucking gun and the intent to harm civilians. A gun. In a theatre. I was in your place? I mighta done a lot more than just breaking his hand.”

You let out the breath you're holding. Out: longer than you expect. Like you have air stored away in all the hollows of your body. You feel empty, but. A little cleaner.

“Okay?” Sam asks.

“Tony gave me the same talk,” you say. And then, lying through your teeth: “I hate that you all know me so well.”

Sam sees right through you. Grins.

“Stupid's predictable,” says Sam, and squishes your cheeks like a horrible aunt. “Now, stay still, I want to make sure you set that nose right.”

 


 

In the end, you accept four butterfly bandages and an ice pack. When you sit down at the kitchen table, Mariam's entire contribution for the evening is looking up from her gross anatomy textbook, saying: “Jesus wept,” and then turning the page. Mariam is still largely too cool for you. Or too preoccupied. You can't tell anymore. Kids these days.

Sam hustles everyone else out of the suite, himself included. (Mariam hums We Shall Not Be Moved at a menacing tempo when Sam gets within ten feet of her. Sam is a man with a good sense of self-preservation.) Aimee is on the phone with Djene as she goes through the door, and you hear: “I don't care if you had a repulsor, Mom, what were you going to do, stop the bullet with your hand?” You have a moment of deja-vu.

When the door shuts, Steve kisses you properly. Careful hands on your face: thumbs below your eyes, hovering over your bruises. Your hands come to rest on his hips. You can feel the texture of his shirt with all ten of your fingertips. Eight months ago, you and Tony stumbled upon a myoelectrical integration circuit that changed everything. It lights up your artificial nerves like Times Square. You spent four days touching everything in the apartment. Speechless. Overwhelmed.

In bed, you curl up fetal against Steve's side. His chin on your head, his hands on your spine. You feel like one body. A spiral of blood-warm skin. It's better in Spanish, you think: caracol. The word itself feels small, tucked-up. You want to hide in this shell for as long as you can. The only thing you can hear is Steve's heartbeat, his pulse against your ear. Your world narrows down to the whisper of blood in someone else's veins.

Sleep is slow in coming, but it does come.