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Every day is a winding road.

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Matías gives himself a whole day to just lie in bed after the trial is over.

Actually, he gives himself a minimum of one whole day, and sort of pencils in up to a week if he really needs it.

He's been running on fumes all the way through the trial, from the preliminary shit through to actually being examined and cross-examined which is not the most fun he's ever had in his life - and then through to the verdict and sentencing. He stays in the courtroom for the whole fucking trial because, as he says to his aunt, if he's going to have thrown his entire career and life-plan away, he'd kind of like to watch it not be for a slap on the wrist and time served. It's more satisfying that way.

"Why should it be the end of your career?" his aunt asks, and Matías sighs and puts his forehead on the kitchen table - because she can't see him over the phone - and thinks wistfully of being so. . . naive. "You didn't do anything wrong."

"Aunty, I love you," he says, "but I promise you: nobody is going to hire me now. Nobody hires the whistleblower, okay? Nobody. Even the people who think Gilroy is the absolute biggest scum of the earth, that he deserves to be hung up by the ankle and shot, even people who are reasonably moral and wouldn't do things like rape a middle-schooler, absolutely nobody's going to hire a PR guy who actually makes the moral decision to turn him over to the cops instead of covering it up. Because even if they think I did the right thing this time, every single one of them will wonder what one of their indiscretions'll cross my moral lines."

"There's a difference between - " his aunt starts, hotly.

"You'd be amazed how many of them don't know that," he says. "Or think other people don't. And you'd be really upset how many of them probably knew when he did this the first time and never told anyone because if the police started looking at their set they'd find the embezzlement or the time they hired somebody to threaten or intimidate somebody, or whatever. Rich people are awful, Aunty," he tells her, in the silence. "And even the ones who aren't awful enable the other awful."

It's maybe a bit cynical but he figures he's earned it right now, and besides, he's still pretty goddamn sure about the part where people won't hire him.

Because the other part is, the people who really don't fuck around with illegal stuff, under the table stuff, all the rest of it - well, they mostly don't need people to manage their PR much, because bluntly speaking they're boring and curating their image is boring and their PAs can do it. Or someone else, who comes a lot cheaper than Matías does, because Matías is good at what he does.

It's a knack. He's good at assessing situations and figuring out what kind of spin will make things okay or not okay, who needs to be sweet-talked and who needs to be talked to sternly, all that stuff. He's good at image. Honestly he doesn't even mind doing it for "oh shit I just got caught with my mistress". He doesn't even mind doing it with "oh shit I just got caught with the pool boy" as long as the pool boy was there because he wanted to be (and being cool with being paid for it means "wanted to be" as far as Matías is concerned). He's even mostly okay with doing it over financial bullshit that'd technically be a problem, because honestly his principled stand in this one case isn't going to do shit, and he's not in a position to remake the whole fucking system except by maybe voting for someone who will.

He's not okay with what Gilroy did. The only reason he didn't call the cops the second he found out is because he spent about three days quietly accumulating all the evidence he possibly could so when he called the detectives he could hand them all the shit they'd never be able to get their hands on otherwise, because even if Gilroy couldn't shut the door in their faces he could get his lawyers to stall them long enough for it all to get destroyed. But he couldn't do shit about what some civillian walked in and handed them. So Matías took the time to make sure he could hand them everything he'd ever want to.

That, and Matías wanted to make sure the kid was somewhere the police could find him and his mom right the fuck away, and get them into protection. Because Gilroy's just fucking stupid enough that he'd think that the whole thing might go away if the kid did, somehow, and the fact that he'd've been wrong wouldn't've stopped the kid from being dead if the fucker did make that mistake.

He'd also done it knowing that he was lighting fire to his whole career and everything he's worked his way up this far for. The decision only took him as long as it took to really understand what he'd just found out, and that it was real, and he wasn't asleep. If nothing else, it means he can look the memory of the impassioned kid who showed up at the protests against the War in Iraq and shit like that in the eye and since that kid looks out of his face back at him every day in the mirror, that's pretty important. And there are other benefits. And he doesn't regret it.

And he's still just lit his entire life on fire, and then been dragged through the whole fucking trial. And it still fucking sucked. All of it.

Gilroy hadn't actually threatened him outright, because the man's not that stupid. Or at least, his lawyers aren't that stupid. They're smart enough to know that all of Matías' evidence is already on file, statements already recorded, and that the second he turns up dead Gilroy is suspect number one. But the bastard had thrown every other kind of shit he could at Matías, including a shot at suing Matías for breaking his NDA. On top of that, the man's wife - who's frankly almost as vile as Gilroy himself and Matías is just grateful he'll never have to deal with her again - spent weeks calling to leave endless harangues on all his voicemails, and filled up his inboxes and so on, until Matías got a restraining order.

And then had to call the police when she violated it. At least by then the cops'd decided they liked him and took everything Gilroy and Bitch Gilroy did as an extra affront as well as a breach of a legal order. That'd been nice. He's now able to say that not all the town's cops suck all the time, which is more than he'd've been willing to lay money on before now.

The judge had thrown out the civil suit without hearing it. Both times. The detectives had happily added charges of harassment and a bunch of other petty but nasty stuff to what they were already tossing at Gilroy and his wife. Jared, Matías' lawyer, even got Matías his severance package - which was admittedly a big benefit. Plus some damages.

Matías isn't sure that the kid's mom doesn't wish he, Matías, had never been born, or that she wouldn't've rather just tried to get on with their lives and deal with the damage without the attention. Whatever she feels Matías doesn't really blame her, and he's mostly just tried to stay out of her way, and leave the kid alone. But even if this kid would rather it'd all disappeared, right now - well. There's the ones that won't have the same thing happen, and the ones from before.

So he doesn't regret any of it, and he's solid that it was the right thing.

And Matías is still never going to get hired by anyone again, and he's still going to have to completely redirect his life. And he has no idea where to redirect it to, and he's kinda depressed, so he just gives himself a day for sure, and maybe up to a week at the outside, to lie in bed, stare at the ceiling, eat take-out and watch Netflix until his brains leak out his ears.

 

That's what he's doing when his phone rings. He digs it out from under the pillow, sees Ofelia on the screen, and answers it with a, "Y-ello," the same way he's answered Ofelia since they were kids.

"Okay, so straight up: how soon can you be on the train to New York?" she asks. "Just an overnight, throw shit in a backpack."

Matías frowns. He takes the phone away from his ear and frowns at it, but it's still definitely Ofelia's name on the screen and besides it sounds like her, and like she's doing her "power-walk somewhere through the hospital while talking on the phone" thing, so he puts it back to his ear and asks, "Are you high?"

Now he hears the sounds he associates with the doctors' lounge - the TV that's always on to TLC, the hum of the dish-washer they never seem to get around to replacing, the sound of one of Ofelia's colleagues with the really thick South African accent arguing with someone else - and the door closing behind Ofelia as she says, "I may have found you the job of your god-damned dreams, so don't be snide and answer my fucking question - how soon can you be on the train to New York?"

" - no," Matías says, but he does sit up. "Nope. Ofelia, what the fuck are you talking about? My question about you being high is actually less joking right now - "

"Look," Ofelia cuts him off, in her best I'm being very patient voice - which Matías doesn't think is fair, considering she's the one being totally weird right now. "You know the new guy I told you I was dating."

Does he? Matías hasn't exactly been prioritizing keeping track of Ofelia's dating life. It's a tangle of liaisons even she uses a synchronized e-calendar to keep straight. "Sure," he says, on the basis that she probably did tell him about someone recently.

"Well," she says, "he's married to a guy who's dating someone whose sister works in HR at a major company and they need an experienced PR person for a particular case and I told him to pass your name along and he did and it got passed back that if you can make it to New York today or tomorrow they'd really like to talk to you, so seriously, how soon can you be on the fucking train from Providence - no, shut up Alexos," she says, obviously to someone else, "I do not want to listen to your thing about swearing today, and I'm really not in the mood for your lectures."

"Wow," Matías says, "did you just tell - "

"Matías," Ofelia snaps, like it's his fault she seems to have called him from some Bizarro universe where anything she says is making sense.

Although admittedly it wouldn't be the first time Ofelia's ridiculous network of polyamorous love-affairs has turned out to be ridiculously useful, although Matías has pointed out that you can network without having sex with people, which got him shoved in a backyard pool. He probably deserved it. But the point is, it does turn out useful sometimes. But she's still making no sense here and now.

"Ofelia," he mimics back, in the same voice. "You realize you've called me in the middle of the morning out of nowhere to say that you've got me a job interview whose timing is 'asap' in New York and do you not think I noticed you haven't even told me the company yet?"

He can see the look Ofelia is giving him and it's kind of annoying because he feels his objections are fair. But he can also hear it in her voice when she says, "Matías. Do you trust me?"

Taking the phone away from his ear again lets him outright glare at it, which is a poor substitute for glaring at her. He puts the phone back to his ear to say, "Did you seriously just ask me that."

"Yes," Ofelia retorts. And says nothing else.

" . . .fuck you," he says.

"That's not an answer," Ofelia points out, sweetly, and Matías gives in if only because he's not willing to escalate past that so in this game of chicken, he's totally lost.

"Yes, you obstreperous bitch, I trust you," he tells her, pulling out her dad's favourite adjective. "I hate you. But I trust you."

"Yeah see if I do you a favour again," she retorts. "Get showered and throw stuff in a bag and call me back when you're on the train, I'll tell you the rest of the details then."

"You realize," he says, swinging his legs over to put his feet on the floor, "how fucking insane that is?"

"Goodbye, Matías," she says, and hangs up on him.

 

It's a little more than an hour later, and Matías is on the train. He's got his Skyroll with a suit and the rest of his overnight stuff and a brand new bruise on his shin where he accidentally kicked the bench in his bathroom getting ready. He's got a Starbucks latte he's a bit resentful of, but he needs the caffeine and it's better than their drip coffee. He's not in the best or most generous mood, but he tries not to snap at anyone on the way to getting himself settled, because it's not their fault his best friend's making his life weird after a really crappy month.

He finds a car without many other people in it - this not being a really high-traffic run, at least not at this point in the week - settles into the seat, tucks his bluetooth earbud in his ear and says, "Hey Siri, Dial Ofelia."

It only rings once before Ofelia picks up. "Are you on the train?" she asks without even saying hello. Matías rolls his eyes, even if she can't see him.

"Yes," he says. "I'm on the fucking train, watching questionable landscape fly by."

"Watch your language, we have beautiful scenery," Ofelia says. "Your bad temper isn't the landscape's fault. So," she goes on before he has to find something to toss back in their never-ending sparring match, "you're going to meet Yolanda Macnamerra at Stark Industries."

"You what," Matías says. Well blurts. It's a blurt. Definitely a blurt. It tumbles out of his mouth like the word-shaped version of a grunt or yelp of surprise.

"You have got to stop watching so much BBC," Ofelia tells him, and that one's so familiar that the retort comes without needing any thought.

"Bite me," he says, and goes right onto, "are you shitting me right now."

"No," Ofelia says, "seriously: you're meeting Yolanda Macnamera at Stark Industries, specifically Stark Tower, specifically the Dandelion and Driftwood cafe, mezzanine, she's a middle-aged white woman with dyed blonde hair and a yellow scarf. Rod's boyfriend's sister - "

"Rod being the husband of the guy you're dating," Matías interjects just to make sure he's keeping up and also because it just contains all the snark in and of itself.

"- his sister," Ofelia repeats over top of him, and her voice now has the rhythm that says she's going to give him the whole story in as compact a space as possible so he might as well shut up and listen so she doesn't have to shout, "works for their HR, we were literally at a Cards Against Humanity party and the trial came up, we talked about it for a while, I talked about how I knew you. Then I mentioned you were sure you'd never work in publicity again and she said was I serious, because if you were actually unemployed and still wanted to be in the field she was pretty sure they had a perfect opportunity for you and she'd pass your name and LinkedIn up to her boss who'd toss it over to the PR people to see what they thought. She called me back because she didn't want it to seem weird but since there's kind of a deadline on something they didn't want to wait until you might be checking work voicemail or email in case you were taking some time to let the whole trial crap settle. And I called you. And now you're on the train and I passed your ETA back, so you're going to meet Yolanda Macnamerra at Stark Industries, just go there straight."

Matías tries taking this in, but his mental absorbency seems to be kind of limited. Not that he hasn't lived "it's not what you know it's who you know" for most of his life, but this just seems -

"Cards Against Humanity?" he hears himself ask. "Seriously?"

"Focus, Matías," Ofelia says. She says it the way she says it to her med students sometimes, and Matías bridles a bit at that.

"It's a bit hard okay," he snaps. "This morning I was all set up for some quality moping and thought I knew how the world worked and it definitely didn't work by your social life getting me a job interview at Stark fucking Industries, and if you go for the obvious pun I will hang up right now. Okay? I only got the final fucking lawsuit against me dropped for formal and real and serious yesterday. I'm scrambling a bit, I'll admit it."

She doesn't answer and he rubs his temple and then pinches the bridge of his nose, taking the opportunity in the silence to try and gather together at least some of his thoughts. He can imagine the expression on her face, where normally she'd've bit his head off for the tone he just used at her except that apparently she's granting him a few points for his points being valid so she isn't saying anything, just giving him a couple minutes of space. Or something. On someone else it might pass for restraint.

On the other hand, if this is for real -

Matías's never really said he'd give at least two fingers to work for SI, because that'd be embarrassing, because all of his reasons are kind of juvenile and unsophisticated as hell and he doesn't like admitting to that kind of thing out loud. Not that there aren't plenty of great, grownup reasons to want it: the mantra of you get what you pay for's one you can see written all over Stark Industries' history all the way back to Stark Sr starting out, and SI salaries, benefits packages and retirement pensions are the kind of thing every college student dreams of drawing. Their employee retention is ridiculously high, too.

But mostly it's that when he was a kid it got into his head that working for SI represented the epitome of Made It, and he's never really shaken it, and frankly the whole international superhero-Avengers-post-Insight shit's just made his inner fourteen year old more sure that he was right to start with. So -

"Okay," he says, trying to get a grip. "Did she say anything about what this weird special perfect opportunity is?"

He can actually hear Ofelia take a breath during the pause that follows which lets him brace himself a little bit. But it's still not enough for when she says, "Well. Since apparently the new licensed merch lines come out sometime next month, I guess . . .Captain Rogers needs a PR guy."

The words are almost like a slosh of water hitting a glass window, with most of it sloshing right back and only leaving traces. It takes Matías six or seven times of replaying that little chunk of sound over and over again to derive meaning out of it. He tries to form a thought like you're fucking kidding me or you're shitting me or even a repetition of you what maybe with a fucking in the middle for emphasis, but even the thoughts don't really take shape, so that he's mostly left feeling like one of those comic strip characters whose thought bubble just popped.

Maybe he could sum it up as ?????!!!!???? except that doesn't feel loud enough. So there's this long moment where he just stares out the train window and watches the scenery go by without saying, or even thinking, a word.

Then he says, "If this is leading up to some kind of weird YouTube candid video shot bullshit Gotcha-moment, Fee, I swear I will never fucking talk to you again." Because it's the first clear thought that makes it all the way into his head.

"You know I wouldn't pull that," she says, but Matías interrupts.

"I'm pretty goddamn sure you wouldn't, Feef, but let's fucking face it, the world is shit and you know it, so I'm just saying."

It almost feels like the moment he found the pictures in Gilroy's office, except photo-negative, inverted: that had been so hideous it jarred the universe, whereas this was -

Well. It was something, anyway.

"It's not," she says. "Look, Lorraine explained it, okay? SI manages the licensed shit for all of the Avengers - all the Cap stuff since that whole lawsuit in 2012, and the Hulk and Iron Man stuff obviously, and then the Thor and Black Widow and Hawkeye stuff since SHIELD fell apart in 2014."

Okay yes: that makes sense. He even remembers the lawsuit, the maybe one and only time Cap - Captain Rogers, that is - did A Public Thing after the Battle of New York but before DC-14. Specifically, as it happens, throwing a really angry fit over companies using overseas sweatshops that forbade unions to make stuff with his face and insignia on it. Matías seems to recall the words slave labour and gross exploitation being thrown around, and then a bit of a fuss because people weren't sure how to apply trademark and so on to someone who'd supposedly been dead for eighty years who turned out to be alive. At least not until some lawyers told them and a judge decided which lawyers he liked best.

Since then the only Cap stuff you could find anywhere'd been either unlicensed or vintage and anyone caught mass-distributing the former got into a lot of trouble. It wasn't quite his area, so Matías didn't know details, but he'd caught the end of at least one big fight where the company being sued to death had tried to argue for lack of trademark protection because of some Etsy shop or other. It hadn't worked.

"Apparently the Captain America stuff was a bit complicated," Ofelia's going on, "because first off they had to actually track down and make everybody stop, and then he had a bunch of specifics about what kinds of companies he wanted involved in making anything that had his face all over it. Living wages, no union-busting, environmental stuff, all that. Apparently it was almost remaking a whole new chain of supply and getting a bunch of smaller companies up to where they could do the overall work? Or something. And they shifted the other stuff over piecemeal as a kind of test, so congratulations, those dolls you bought your niece last summer are Extremely Ethically Produced. But now they've got everything in place, so the Captain America stuff specifically's getting a big deal relaunch: they're going to start teasing it this month and the full launch is at the end of the year, and apparently it's going to be a gong-show."

Matías wades through the apparentlys, taking them for the disclaimers they are. He knows he's frowning and tries to smooth out his forehead because he knows his frown looks really angry if he's not careful.

"Doesn't the military own - " Matías starts, as the thought occurs to him, but doesn't get any further.

"Lorraine says no," Ofelia says. "Sort of no. There was almost a second lawsuit there, actually. Apparently. They settled: they're allowed to use stuff specifically related to the historical 107th and USO and the Howling Commandos, for Veteran's Affairs stuff, not for recruitment, and she thinks they get to buy merch at flat cost to sell at whatever markup they want and there's some stuff only they can sell. Basically they didn't want to fight Rogers via SI lawyers and SHIELD via SHIELD lawyers since SHIELD hadn't been the SSR since forever and so not associated with them at all, blah blah blah boring legal shit."

Matías tries again to absorb this and maybe gets a bit further this time. "Okay," he says, slowly. "So - I mean, Captain America has been the most anti-publicity ever since . . .well basically he woke up. Like to the point where people pick up on it - I mean I've heard if you show up in Brooklyn and look like you're paparazzi you're lucky if you just get your camera broken and a lecture on respecting people's privacy and everyone pretends they don't know he lives there half the time."

"Lorraine says that's a complete exaggeration, there hasn't been a single authenticated case of assault related to Cap living anywhere, Brooklyn or otherwise," Ofelia says in her best bland voice. Matías snorts. "But, right, she said that's why he doesn't have anybody specific already, as it's all been - well, either stuff SHIELD handled when it was still around, or so low-key that a bland press release from the hivemind run by the department director would cover it. But since they're doing the launch of the Cap stuff, they're also sort of tandem re-launching the other stuff in a way and that means - "

"Yeah, all kinds of stuff," Matías says, "and you can't just sort of passively avoid it anymore, that's not how it works, he'd either have to actively swear off all publicity stuff or he's going to have to do some pick and choose."

"Right," Ofelia says. "That's what Lorraine says. Except she says he's obviously deeply wary about the whole field, the last time he had any kind of active publicity he was being actively used for really blatant propaganda he had no control over, and apparently it's Blatantly Obvious he has Complicated Feelings about that - her scare-caps, by the way - and she thinks he finds the whole corporate world deeply suspicious and threatening."

"Smart guy," Matías tells her, dryly.

"Anyway," Ofelia dismisses that, "Lorraine says they're looking to hire externally for reasons she literally described as, and I quote, 'related to how the Avengers quote-unquote-team is like the most complicated polyamorous clusterfuck you've ever seen except there's shockingly little fucking' and something-something I did not actually follow about 'the Cap-Iron Man relationship boundaries issue', which she did not elaborate on, although she did laugh hysterically at the idea that they were fucking, basically with the same tone that anyone who knows us laughs when people ask about us."

"How drunk was she?" Matías asks, picturing this with a generic blonde white girl from his own mental central casting.

"Liiittle bit," Ofelia replies, drawing out the word. "But she did assure me it's not a contentious issue so you're not risking walking in stepping on someone's fingers or face. They did promote internally for Hawkeye, Black Widow and the Hulk, so I guess everyone agrees outside is better for Captain America. Not sure what that says about the job, but hey."

Matías isn't sure what this or anything else says about anything. He's still not sure he even believes it's happening, except that it so obviously is.

He draws a hand down his face. "This is nuts, Fee," he says. He can almost hear her shrug.

"Compared to what?" she asks. "Yesterday I operated on a guy with a marshmallow-roasting fork in his temple, Matt, life is weird."

" . . .he live? The guy with the fork," Matías asks, momentarily diverted. It's a pretty funny image, if granted filled in with accurate levels of gore given he knows what the ER actually looks like. And has had so many, so many stories.

"So far," Ofelia replies. "He'll be in jail for the rest of his life if we have anything to do with it, though, since his teenage daughter's in the ICU and I'm not going to tell you what her injuries are but it was her little brother who stuck the marshmallow fork in the dad's head to make him stop. That's not fork-guy's story," she adds. "But trust me, the medical evidence matches the brother's story exactly and not his at all."

"Thank you for the perspective on who has the most horrible field," Matías tells her dryly.

"Hey I get to help make sure a piece of shit stays away from his victim and hopefully spends his life where he can't hurt anyone else," she replies, "and make sure everybody's being nice to her while she's in the ICU including the investigating officers, so, could be worse. You're also changing the subject," she adds briskly, "but that's everything I know anyway. Other than the salary is ridiculous and so is the benefits package and all the other stuff you can assume."

Maybe, Matías thinks, this will just go better if he lets it wash over his head. Just go with it. Process later. He's still not entirely sure he believes Ofelia isn't pulling something, but he supposes he'll find out. "Okay," he says, and makes himself sound a bit more sincere - because he is really, it's just a bit much all at once - when he says, "thanks, Fee."

"Hey, worst case scenario you decide it all sounds insane and go back to brooding about how to become a real-estate agent or something," she says breezily. She never can deal with being thanked, for all she complains about people being ungrateful. "Break a leg. Lorraine seems sane and nice, and she says she'd work for half what she makes now just to keep Yolanda her boss, she's that great a boss, so it's worth a shot."

"I get kidnapped by aliens," Matías says, for lack of anything else he can think of, "I'm blaming you."

 

He stops by Sharina's place to drop off his Skyroll and change, make sure his breath doesn't smell like a graveyard, all that stuff. Sharina's on deadline for two different writing things right now, so she lets him in, kisses his cheek, shows him where stuff is, and then puts her headphones back on, sits back down at her table and ignores him.

Matías'd called her before he got on the train, because the way Sharina is she'll actually get hurt feelings if a friend stays at a hotel without asking if they can stay with her first, even when that friend is also an ex. She's the best kind of ex, really: the kind you actually manage to stay friends with, if only because one of you (her, in this case) moved across the country for two years after you broke up and you didn't have to see each other except with lots of prep time. She'd said, "As long as it's cool that I will have to totally ignore you and will probably stay up at my laptop really late, I would love to have you stay," so Matías went with it.

She's handy for downtown, anyway, and he hates booking hotels. And her place is small but it isn't "article on Living In A Manhattan Broom Closet" small and she's got a tiny extra room just big enough to fit a narrow single bed that's mostly for her half-sister. There's some kind of custody arrangement going on there that Matías isn't quite clear on and hasn't figured out how to ask about without risking hitting an area full of conversational landmines - Sharina's never liked talking about her family, even when they were dating - but the half-sister isn't there now, which is the point.

He gets changed, fixes his hair, brushes his teeth, leaves his stuff on the afore-mentioned bed, and says hi to her pet rat. The rat's getting a bit old and stiff and seems a lot happier than before to just chill out by her computer in his little nest of soft cloth while she writes. Matías's never quite understood how she can stand having pets with such short lives, and it feels like the last time he saw this rat it was a baby, but he knows better than to mention it. Just says hi, pets its head, and leaves it alone.

When he tells her he's on his way back out and should be home sometime after six, Sharina waves at him without looking away from her screen where she's typing furiously, face all scrunched up in her concentration frown.

Matías does notice she's got her phone beside her on the table, so it's probably worth texting her before he figures out what he wants for supper, to see if she wants him to bring anything. Then he sets about trying to clear his mind so he can deal with . . . whatever happens now.

 

The Dandelion and Driftwood turns out to be one of the cafes in the public lobby-type area of Stark Tower, and Yolanda Macnamerra is indeed a middle-aged white woman with dyed-blonde hair and a yellow scarf. That seems like an unfair description, though, because when Matías actually meets her that feels sort of like saying that Moby Dick is a novel about whaling. It's accurate, but it really doesn't give you the whole picture.

First off, the blonde hair is in a really chic ragged-edged chin-length style and it's liberally streaked with a pink that's sort of like if you took hot pink and let it mature a bit and get into experimental jazz.

Now, Matías has always considered that there's a trick to women past a certain age wearing that kind of hair-style. So many of them end up with this really unfortunate sense that they're desperately clutching at the straws of pretending they're still under thirty-five, sometimes hard enough to give him honest to God second-hand embarrassment. It screams all of my self-worth is caught up in the appearance of being young, trendy and sexy, and I'm giving myself skin-cancer in the tanning booth to pretend. They wear the same hairstyles and clothes and makeup as women young enough to be their daughters, or even granddaughters, with this clear and embarrassing sort of idea that there's any hope in hell that anyone'll believe they're actually the same age. That they belong in that same age-bracket. That anyone would card them when they tried to buy beer.

He always wants to take them aside and go look: he is literally here to tell them, as a heterosexual (believe it or not) male, that it is absolutely and one hundred percent truly possible for a woman of fifty to own the fact that she is fifty and at the same time be Aphrodite incarnate, so please, please stop chasing a bad imitation of twenty-five, because any guy tapped into that isn't even going to give you an orgasm worth the work. He doesn't, because wow that would not help, but he wants to.

Yolanda Macnamerra isn't one of those women. At all. Yolanda Macnamerra's hair is cut the same way as a twenty-something model and streaked with that not-quite-hot pink, but it's very clear this is because she damn well likes pink, wanted it in her hair, and she thinks this new ragged-asymmetrical thing the girls have come up with these past seasons is fantastic, and since she is in fact an adult woman who makes her own damn money and probably has more degrees than God, she can look however she wants. You could just look at her and know. She's not trying to fool anyone, she's not trying to hold onto anything that's gone past: she just thinks that this hair-style is really, really great, and she loves it.

It sort of radiates out from her. Matías thinks it's fantastic.

She underscores this with deep gold-coloured cat-eye glasses, the rich marigold yellow scarf, gold hearts glittering with tiny diamond chips for earrings, and enough rings to seriously cut up the face of anyone she ever backhands. The very chic jacket under the scarf is a nice strong blue of exactly the right shade not to clash with her hair or her scarf, and Matías seriously respects that level of confidence with colours.

It takes him a minute or two to notice that she's also in an extremely sleek looking manual wheelchair, and that means he only has a few seconds of wondering how she doesn't get her rings caught up and cut up her fingers or anything before he's close enough that he's got to pay attention to actually meeting her instead.

Her makeup matches the rest of her: she eschews the Older White Lady Cake that tries to pretend anyone's actually fooled into thinking that's her skin and at least right now she's stuck to some very bold Old Hollywood eyes and lipstick. It's a good effect. Matías is impressed, the way he usually is when someone's actually gotten right down to deciding exactly how they want to make everyone else see them, gone for it, and owned the outcome.

He likes people like that.

"Mr Ortiz," she says, smiling at him as he heads for the table with the directness that is the clear interpersonal signal of ah, you're the one I'm looking for. She holds out one hand. "I'm sure you'll forgive me if I don't get up."

Matías had dated a girl with a prosthetic leg in college, before she'd figured out she was a lesbian and got married to her track coach. Martina'd always said that when it came to something like that - prosthetic limb, missing limb, major scars, visible assistive stuff - you sometimes felt like you had one of two choices: either you could just bring it up and break the tension right at the start of every interaction with a new person, or you could sit there and wonder how much of the tension you were imagining and how much was real until the possible moment someone stuck their foot in their mouth and embarrassed everyone.

Somehow, he's not surprised this particular lady's picked option one. Habitually, he suspects. It feels like a comfortable, familiar joke.

"As long as you'll forgive me for saying that 'Mr Ortiz' is my father," Matías replies, sort of gently batting the metaphorical shuttlecock of the conversation back to her. Her handshake is the gentle, light handshake of a woman who can't be bothered trying to pretend she cares about the Firm Handshake game, with the slightly unusual feeling of someone whose hands have calluses in places the back of his mind doesn't associate with that kind of handshake.

He kind of hopes that Ofelia's right in her assessment of Lorraine and Lorraine's right about her boss. Job aside, he likes this lady already and it'd be really depressing to find out she's a terrible person.

At Yolanda's gesture Matías takes the other seat at the four-person cafe table she's taken over. He focuses on her as she gives him a look of what seems to be genuine interest. "Is it really, though?" she asks.

"Uncle," Matías admits. "Dad was mostly just 'Ricky' or even 'hey Ricky' because mostly people calling his name wanted him to come fix their truck or something. But my uncle was the school principal."

"That must make formal situations slightly awkward," she observes, as the young woman from behind the counter finishes up with the last person in line and then hurries over - well, sort of floats over, she's one of those thin willowy women who remind Matías of dandelion fluff even when they're being efficient - with a look that says she's going to be Helpful. "Oh, the oolong, dear, please," she adds to the server.

"Espresso macchiato," Matías says when the server turns the clear Questioning Expression on him, "please."

"Biscotti?" she asks, not quite a chirp and not quite a trill. Matías wonders if this is her place, or if the owners just happened to hire the embodiment of their subcultural niche.

"That'd be fantastic," he says, and she smiles brightly and floats back behind her counter.

Dandelion and Driftwood is the kind of cafe that Ofelia calls "peak Manhattan" in a long-suffering voice, and Matías mostly thinks of as hipster-sprezzatura, where everything's in style but only just and in the kind of style that prides itself in not caring about style, while at the same time matching it perfectly, where you know everything is as much artifice as a wedding cake but they've managed to make it look effortless anyway. Lesser essays at the style get conned into buying overly expensive replicas of thrift-store bohemia; the Dandelion and Driftwood scorns this, and just goes for the antiques that are to thrift-store finds as the genuine piece of Tiffany you find in your grandma's attic is to the stained glass your neighbour made at their local craft studio.

Ofelia hates it. Matías does have to admit that the result can make it seem like you're being upbraided for being excessively bourgeois and being snobbily condescended to at the same time, but the Art World's been doing that since the sixties as far as he can tell and probably won't stop any time soon. So he just lets himself enjoy the airy, quirky elegance of it and tries not to take anything personally.

And remembers not to take Ofelia anywhere near it. He can already see the way her eyes would narrow the moment she saw this place.

"Here a lot?" Matías asks, and Yolanda says hah quietly.

"Unlike so many of my colleagues," she replies dryly, "I am not a workaholic, and I do not view my office as my second bedroom. My job may come with a lot of work, and a lot of it may need to be done in my office, but that doesn't mean I need to make it my den. And Tatyana gets excellent teas, so yes, I do come down here more than a bit."

"You are a wise person," Matías says, with a seriousness that's only half joking. "To answer your question, though, the most recent string of people calling me Mr Ortiz was a courtroom, so being constantly reminded of my uncle had its advantages. Nobody looks stern like a principal. I worked on channelling his endless patience, too."

"I bet you needed it," she says, smiling briefly. "So we'll go with Matías then?"

"Please," he agrees.

"I'm Yolanda," she says, "which I hope at least someone along the line to getting you here did take the time to tell you. We did think about calling you ourselves but given the givens . . . " She smiles as Matías lifts his hands in acknowledgement.

"I will admit to spending a few minutes trying to figure out if Ofelia was setting up an elaborate prank, yes," he says. "But, ah," and he spreads his hands. "Here we are."

"Here we are," she agrees. "So to start with, let me ask - what has been passed along to you? 'Telephone' is an entertaining game but can make for all kinds of exciting interpretations so I'd rather know where we've started." She flashes a quick smile. "Given the givens."

It takes Matías quite a bit of effort not to second-guess how he answers. He's good at figuring out how to answer the way other people want to hear. He's always been the kind of person who can get a job as long as he can get an interview, and given the job potentially on offer his instinct is to play for broke. Except -

Considering just this morning he was moping about how he'd never get another job even remotely like this, there almost shouldn't be an "except". Except that there is, and it's almost because he was thinking that this morning, and because he doesn't trust the instinct to throw himself at the first opportunity, and because just because he's pretty good at not letting shit like . . .

. . . okay, like finding out your boss is a kid-raping bastard and then having your life turn into a litigious nightmare for a while in the course of trying to lock him up. Just because he's pretty good at not letting that get to him or weigh him down doesn't mean it hasn't worn him out. And the thing about being able to get a job from an interview is a lot of the time it's about becoming the person they want to see in their interview, whether that person has anything to do with who you actually are or not, and then you either have to keep being that person on the job, or deal with the tension of readjusting their expectations from that interview person to the you on the job, and he's tired.

Or something.

The point is, he doesn't want to. That's the point.

So instead of cold-reading her as best he can and figuring out how she wants him to answer that question, Matías deliberately doesn't and just opens his hands a bit and says, "To be honest? My best friend called me this morning to tell me that I had to come to New York ASAP because a conversation she had at a party with somebody about the - how do I put this politely?" he says, as a rhetorical faux-musing pause to give the recital some rhythm, "- mess of a trial and other ugly things associated with it meant that I had a meeting here, with you, because Captain America needs a PR guy."

He adds, as the server comes back with a tray carrying his espresso and an admittedly delicious looking set of two small biscotti, and a really complex set of two pots and a Chinese-looking cup for Yolanda, "And she wouldn't tell me the last part until after I was on the train."

The server - possibly the previously-mentioned Tatyana but Matías wouldn't be willing to lay money either way at this point - takes the things off the tray, accepts Yolanda and Matías' smiles and murmurs of thanks, and then goes back behind the counter. From the setup, Matías wouldn't bet many other people got table service, but it's probably a bit different when the PR head of your multi-billion dollar landlord's company is a regular.

"Well at least today hasn't been boring then," Yolanda says, mildly, but with a twist to the tone that says this is something she says a lot, and what she means is something along the lines of saying well at least we get to see the sunshine after something blows the roof off.

Her tea is kind of fascinating. Matías realizes that one of the little jugs, or pots, or whatever they are, is actually a small portable kettle with a tiny digital thermometer that appears to be set to just below boiling. The other one is half full of tea-leaves right up until Yolanda pours the hot water from the kettle over them and puts the lid on. She leaves it that way for about thirty seconds as she's talking and then pours the contents of the little pot into the cup; when she puts the pot back down she takes the lid off and sets it askew, and Matías can see that the leaves have expanded so that the pot's totally full.

The liquid in the cup is a pale greenish gold and it smells amazing.

"From our end," she says, after lifting the cup and inhaling like she's getting the bouquet off a glass of wine, "Lorrie, one of my people, came in on Tuesday and asked to talk to me. She said she'd been at a social gathering over the weekend and found out something I might find it useful to know." Yolanda's eyes light up with mischief that's either thirty years younger or thirty years older than she is at the moment - hard to tell which - when she adds, "I'm not quite sure I caught the exact six degrees of association . . . "

"Ofelia's dating someone who's married to someone who's dating Lorraine's brother," Matías replies. "At least that's the version I got. At this point I'm pretty good at keeping up with Ofelia's connections."

"If I didn't know Lorrie doesn't have the slightest interest in women," Yolanda says in the kind of bald frankness that women like her absolutely can, and usually love to, get away with, "I'd say she had a crush on your friend, so if that sort of thing makes her day better you can pass along that she made a very good impression."

Matías mentally re-casts his internal image of Lorraine as about five to ten years younger than he'd started with, on the basis that Yolanda's tone of voice verges on the maternal. "Ofelia's got a pretty vibrant personality," he says. "It either makes people want to throw her in a lake or makes them end up in awe of her until they get to know her better."

"Oh?" Yolanda asks, taking a sip of her tea. "Then what happens?"

"You either love her or really want to throw her in a lake," Matías replies.

He's under no illusions about whether or not Yolanda's using the whole conversation as a prolonged test, but he also doesn't mind, and he has to admit she's pretty good at it. She's got a really good command of the chatty, conversational style that manages to make you tell people things without feeling like you've tripped over into gossip. Since he enjoys that kind of conversation anyway, he doesn't see any reason to be obstructive about it.

It helps that his espresso is excellent. The decor and attitude haven't stopped whoever owns this place from actually knowing their coffee.

"After she finished telling me about her new heroine," Yolanda goes on a bit more briskly, but not at all brusquely, "Lorrie told me that this heroine happened to know you, and that you might be looking for employment. I'm sure you're not surprised that we did already know your name," she adds, and now the look she gives him is a bit more appraising - but it's also not uncomfortable. "The Gilroy trial has been a bit of a circus to watch around here."

"And everywhere else that's got anything to do with him or people like him," Matías says, sighing. "Yeah. It was a bit of a circus to be in, honestly. Except I think circuses are supposed to be fun."

"Only for the audience," Yolanda replies, surprising him a little. "Generally they're not much better for the performers than yours was for you. I gather from some of our people at Legal that the backstage drama was unpleasant as well." She raises her eyebrows in query.

"I didn't actually get beaten up by hired thugs," Matías says dryly, "but I kinda think it's only because Gilroy's lawyers were smart enough to know it'd make things worse."

Yolanda's smile this time is the kind that comes with an edge. "I worked for Edward Gilroy when we were both in our twenties," she says. "Briefly. I emerged unscathed, but a number of people I knew did not. He deserves to be where he is right now and he deserves to die there, and to be totally honest, Matías, I deeply appreciate your efforts to put him there. Especially since I suspect you've spent the last little while certain your career was absolutely finished."

Matías blinks at her. He's genuinely taken by surprise. It's a gratified kind of surprised, though. Before he can think of what to say Yolanda goes on, "Honestly I'm a bit surprised you'd want to continue in the field, given you've just had an unfortunate up-close-and-personal with the end that's full of dog-shit."

It's a combination of having decided not to try to say The Right Thing and being surprised that means Matías actually says, "It's what I'm good at," and then since that's already out in the air he might as well finish with, "and I like doing it. I like spin," he says, when her reaction is more interested inquiry than anything else, "and spin's mostly harmless. Do it right and it's just a way of getting everyone what they want."

"A lot of people would have just spun the whole thing away," Yolanda says, soberly. "I gather you were offered an innocuous explanation."

Matías can't quite decide if he's more startled she knows that, or shocked she's letting him know that she knows. He shrugs, though, and answers honestly. "I like my soul," he says, "and I'm not stupid. That kind of thing's like . . ." he waves his hand. "Deliberately breathing in air so full of asbestos you can see it. It'll eat you up and kill you even if you think you're fine and if you're lucky you'll notice, and if you're not you won't even realize the kind of cancerous mess you are by the time you die. You just think everyone's like that. I'd rather tank my career than carry that the rest of my life."

He smiles a slightly crooked smile at her. "I'm not sure whether that's what you wanted to hear or not," he says, and just sort of leaves that in the air. It's the truth, anyway.

Yolanda takes a thoughtful breath. "Mostly," she says, "I hope you weren't too close to whoever's mistakes you learned that amount of wisdom from while you're still this young."

Matías gives a startled laugh. "Fiction and history," he assures her. "I like learning from mistakes that are far enough away I'm not in the blast radius."

"Smart man," she tells him, and it's light but she's completely serious. "Well. Where we're at right now is, yes, Captain Rogers is going to be in need of someone to handle his public relations. Due to a number of factors that's going to be a bit more . . . in-depth and encompassing than it might be for quite a lot of other people, or even than it has been for others we represent in a similar way. So unless you already feel like you want to run for the front doors - and given how politely you've put up with my digging," she says, with the mischief flashing in her eyes again, "I wouldn't blame you in the least - I'm going to outline the product launch we're about to embark on for you while you and I finish our drinks, and then I'm going to invite you upstairs to discuss a few more sensitive details."

"Yolanda," Matías says, leaning on the table and looking her solemnly in the eye, "I had Captain America sheets on my bed until I went to college, and if I'd had more self-confidence I'd've taken them with me. If I didn't at least listen to the launch outline, I'd never forgive myself."

 

It's around twenty minutes later and he's in Yolanda's office.

It's a nice office. Yolanda's into Art Deco of the quiet and dignified type, where you think it's just a lot of clean lines and angles until you realize that's actually kinda supposed to be a human figure and it's a bit creepy. She's into warm colours and Persian carpets and you wouldn't think you were in the Bastion Tower of Ridiculously High Tech at all except for the moment you realize that apart from the QWERTY keyboard presumably for typing documents (which is normal) everything is touch-screen-type surfaces built right into what looks like the wood of her desk, and the screen (which is a physical thing hanging elegantly from the ceiling on thin chains) can then duplicate itself by projecting a hologram at a 90 degree angle so that you can have a two-screen surround-yourself workspace (and presumably a three or four one, if you want) without needing any more actual physical screens.

When, fifteen minutes ago, Matías sat down on the sweet leather arm-chair-slash-desk-chair on the other side of the Meeting-Holding Wing of Yolanda's desk (which is absolutely big enough to call the two sides of it "wings"), he felt like he'd stepped into a near-future science fiction movie or something, and he loved it.

Now it's not so much that he doesn't feel that or doesn't love it, as it is that he has no room in his head for it, because he sat down to read the things on the super-slim tablet-pad Yolanda handed him and now all he can think is holy shit.

Because. Like.

Holy shit.

He reads to the end of the document and scrolls back over certain parts to read them again. Then he scrolls back to the top not so much to actually read it but just to, he's not sure . . . check that it's still there? Confirm that it's really real? Something like that.

When it still is, and he's skimmed the whole thing again, he looks up at Yolanda as she sits at the other side of the desk. Well. She sits everywhere, he guesses, but right now she and her chair are on the other side of the desk. She's watching him with the same look she's had since she handed it to him, a kind of calmly suspended anticipation that doesn't give you even the tiniest sliver of a hint what she's anticipating, except that whatever happens she intends to deal with it with the same aplomb whether it's a nuclear bomb or a marriage proposal, and maybe she's a bit curious to see what it's going to be.

Matías can't read shit behind her eyes. He's got no idea what she's got to be reading from him, because he doesn't even know for sure how he feels right now. Except for the obvious.

Ho.

Ly.

Shit.

He swallows to make sure his voice won't crack, and gestures with the tablet just a bit. "This isn't a joke," he says.

Yolanda glances towards the ceiling and all things considered Matías is actually almost not in the mood for the half-joke that comes, but she does manage to pull it off. "I've often considered that the entire thing must be some kind of obscure joke being played on everyone by some obnoxious deity with a truly perverse sense of humour," she says, "but no, I'm not pulling a prank. Neither is the company. I'm deadly serious, the document summary in your hands right now is factually accurate in every respect and if anything quite restrained in several areas of description, and . . . " she waves one hand like she's lightly sweeping something off the desk. "So on."

Matías looks at the document again.

He really had thought, when he stepped in the room, I feel like I'm in a science fiction movie. Mostly, what was in the document made that stop being funny. And really it's stupid, he thinks: aliens attacked New York, elves (well, basically just another kind of aliens who just happened to have tech that went firmly into that whoever-the-fuck-it-was comment about advanced technology and magic, but still: elves) attacked Greenwich and apparently almost destroyed the universe, and then DC-14 -

Like inasmuch as the thought applies to anything he's been in science fiction for the last few years. And if you think about it rationally even before that, because frankly smartphones do almost more than tricorders off the old Trek show do except for a few specific areas. It's just, maybe, that everyone else is in that world too so it doesn't seem so strange, whereas now and with this?

Matías is well aware he has just stepped into a pool of very limited and privileged information. In fact he'd had to sign a limited NDA - explained in detail line by line by a nice guy from Legal - before Yolanda would give him the tablet. And -

That's probably it, really. It's separated him from other people, now that he knows this.

Yolanda's nice enough not to make him come up with some kind of coherent conversation starter or commentary; after giving him a second to catch his mental breath, she starts talking, completely matter of fact.

"For the most part," she says, "what you have in front of you right now is, for the moment, background without specific application beyond I'm sure making it abundantly clear why Captain Rogers prefers to keep his private life as removed from any press attention or interaction as possible. Currently he has a public email, which is handled as a fanmail address by a team in our department, and his private email and other contacts. He maintains no social media presence whatsoever. I'm informed that Sergeant Barnes does have accounts at several service providers, but they are anonymous and he doesn't communicate with anyone other than via image postings on Instagram - and since he and Captain Rogers both use our tech for access to the sites, everything they do is thoroughly anonymized on the security end, believe me."

Matías absorbs that and then his mental train derails kinda spectacularly, so that he blurts out, "Wait you're saying that f - that Instagram is real?"

He's a bit proud he manages to rein in the curse, and a bit embarrassed that he blurts out the rest anyway - way to show your poise under unexpected circumstances, buddy - but Yolanda's eyes just get the same mischief they did down in the cafe.

"So I understand," she says, her mouth twitching.

"Holy shit," Matías says, out loud. He puts the tablet down on the desk and leans back in his chair. Because fuck it, he gives up: clearly this is even supposed to blow his mind, so he's just going to let his mind be blown for a few minutes.

And so he also says, "Wait, then he's got a cat. Like, a little," and he sort of blocks out the space in the air he figures the cat would probably take up, given the scale in the photos, "like an orange cat who sleeps twisted round with its head upside down and gets stuck in stupid places like the laundry basket or under the bed. Like the cat's real, and it's his."

"Oh yes," Yolanda confirms. "It's blind, apparently. Or she is - I think it's a she. She also hates most people, I'm told, and if you don't take the first warning or if you accidentally corner her she'll lacerate your hand. We don't see her a lot but you can spot her in the building sometimes, and people who take Venging - that is, Avengers-watching - a lot more seriously than I do tell me that her presence is a pretty good indicator that Captain Rogers is going to be in residence for a couple days. She's mostly on the private floor, of course," Yolanda adds, "but I gather lately you can also find her in the hood of Sergeant Barnes' sweatshirt or just on his shoulder."

Matías' mental highway catches his metaphorical wheels in another bump and he asks, "Is that his actual title, still? I mean, I do know Captain Rogers is technically retired from military service, we just all keep the honourific or title because of - "

"Probably not, for more or less the same reason," Yolanda replies, freely. "Though of course he's still currently recorded as KIA. But JARVIS, the AI system that runs the Tower systems and security, and most of Mr Stark's life, always uses Sergeant and the rest of us have mostly just picked up the habit. Nobody's reported any correction or negative reaction from either him or from Captain Rogers, but on the other hand Sergeant Barnes doesn't spend a lot of time in the public areas of the Tower," and it's abundantly clear to Matías that she's making a pointed understatement, "and even when he does he isn't . . . very socially approachable."

She seems to remember something and notes, "To anyone over the age of about seven, anyway. Kids seem to think he's fascinating and don't have much difficulty acting on it." She gives a little who can explain anything kind of shrug.

Matías continues his sort of . . .semi-passive attempt to assimilate into one mental picture a guy who used to be an elite military sniper and wetwork operative, and then sort of died but didn't, got mutilated, brainwashed, tortured, and basically turned into a living weapon, killed people for decades in between being frozen alive and thawed out (and he'd like to tell his mind this is the worst time to try and go for TV dinner metaphors or anything, Jesus Christ), and then had all the conditioning and brainwashing crack in the middle of everything exploding - literally - and yet who now has a little blind cat he carries around on his shoulder, fucks with people on Instagram, and apparently is a magnet for small children while scaring everyone else.

Then he stops, because that's probably a waste of time right now. Instead he shakes his head and sits forward again. "I think it's going to take a bit to process all of this," he admits to her and Yolanda actually laughs.

"Oh god I should hope so," she says, dryly, "I was here for Insight and everything after and I sure as hell had to work to process it; if you could encompass it all dumped on your head as a lump I'd honestly either be seriously disturbed or concerned you're not taking this seriously."

The comment's sort of mildly amusing but it's more than that: it hits his back-brain, his subconscious, and it's almost like there's a noise like ping and then it does a whole crapload of work before Matías has time to consciously think much at all and jumps a couple big conclusions from a standing start, presenting him with the whole thought so it opens up in his mind like one of those fancy flowering teas.

That kind of thing can be awkward, especially if you're not sure you're going to take your audience with you, and especially if - as in this case - you're not sure you can even show them how you got there. Because it's like everything in his head turned into a high-speed pinball game for a minute, the concept of taking it seriously setting off a whole set of violent back and forth bounces that end up back at one of the first things she'd said, while he sat there thinking holy shit and not getting much further along.

It almost really does go ding ding ding! Except that it's also more like that unfolding image, with the flowering tea.

Matías hesitates, and then he leans forward a bit, folding his hands on her desk. He thinks they can probably be at least basically honest with each other. "You said, for the moment this is background," he says.

Yolanda smiles a thin-lipped smile, but Matías thinks he sees some satisfaction in there too. Like she was hoping he'd get here on his own, and she's happy he did, except this isn't a really genuinely smiley topic. Which it isn't.

"I did," she confirms.

Matías takes a deep breath, because he isn't sure he's going to like knowing what he's about to find out. "What kind of Official, or Unofficial, or whatever you want to call it, is Captain Rogers' current living situation?" he asks. He puts a lot into the choice of quasi-formalistic phrasing, trusting that to carry across the full question without having to actually spell it out, and he isn't disappointed.

He doesn't want to say look is the government okay with the fact that the most dangerous assassin ever is living in Brooklyn, only recently un-brainwashed? Is this something they know about, or is this just something Captain America's . . . done, and dared them to undo? How many people has this guy killed anyway? And so on. It's not a good idea to say that kind of thing out loud even when you're pretty sure nobody but the people you're talking to could possibly be recording the conversation. It's like . . . tempting fate.

Matías isn't usually superstitious, or religious, and isn't usually one for magical thinking. It's like in that one episode of The West Wing, though. It's just . . . this kind of stuff. You just don't want to tempt the Wrath of the Whatever from high atop the Thing.

And hell these days, the idea that there might be some super-powered invisible alien thing that just sits there listening for people out in the universe being cocky and stupid and saying the kind of shit that falls under "tempting the Wrath of the Whatever from high atop the Thing", and then arranging causality and influencing events to fuck them over just out of spite . . . look, elves attacked London? So.

"The kind," Yolanda answers, with exactly the same kind of meaning and subtext in how careful she sounds, "where we're all still sitting around like a bunch of stray cats, pretending to be relaxed while we wait to see who's going to blink first."

Well, Matías thinks, at least they're being very level with me.

The thought is like single drops of water falling into a vast underground cave and hey, he can tell he's overwhelmed, his inner monologue is getting poetic.

Being level with him does say something, though, considering. Including that they really don't want him to take the job without understanding what he's getting into. And it explains why they aren't worried about letting him know this stuff: it's an open secret, not a real one. He wouldn't be telling anyone with any power anything they don't already know, and as far as the rest of the world goes, he's just some guy. Why would he be more believable than the crankpots that come out of the woodwork every day, claiming to be ex-SHIELD or ex-HYDRA (although real carefully with the latter) and telling the world The Big Secrets? He might get a viral following, but he wouldn't change any meaningful landscape.

Besides probably directly inviting the Wrath of the Supergenius from high atop the Tower, and while SI has a general policy of getting along with people these days, scuttlebutt is that if you do get on Stark's actual bad side - or worse, Potts' bad side, because then she won't rein Stark in - you are in for a world of misery.

"What happens when someone blinks?" Matías asks, baldly, and Yolanda shrugs.

"We don't actually know," Yolanda tells him, and it might be the scariest four words he's heard in a long time, if not his life.

Matías takes a slow, careful breath in through his nose.

Yolanda goes on, "Hopefully, nothing excessively dramatic." At Matías' sceptical look she smiles the same thin smile as before. "The director of our legal department strongly feels she could win in a court of law, and I'm not about to argue with her. Moreover it's been . . . communicated to persons with an interest in the matter that certain actions on their part will result in certain actions on ours. It is highly unlikely anyone wants a conflict at that level, even one 'merely' in the legal system. Despite some facets of its history, this company has not looked on the government of this country as a naturally positive force, or a natural ally, for some time. Since Insight - well. Given just how compromised various levels of government have been by HYDRA - " she opens her hands on the desk. "And AIM, before that. And Hammer, before that. And so on."

Matías nods slowly, turning that over in his head. There'd been open speculation about why SI had been so - well, why their response to the AIM scandal had been so restrained. Not happy, but restrained. But as he thought about it, it'd been exactly the kind of restrained that left the promise of being unrestrained later on. A lot of stuff about "working with agencies to resolve the serious concerns" and so on. A lot of this stuff depends more on public opinion people think, or if not public opinion then on . . . how people see the whole thing. How things look.

The back of his neck kind of tingles, and so do his palms, a little. It's just -

He nods slowly, and leaves it at that.

Then Yolanda shrugs. "But yes: at some point, things are going to get very exciting. And we have no way of knowing precisely when that point will be. And you should be aware of that."

When she goes on, it's with the brisk inhale and change of pitch that means all that aside, let's move on, and she says, "To begin with, however, and for the known future, the challenges are less esoteric if not necessarily less complex."

Matías shakes the rest off, to think about later: it's too big for right now. Instead he sort of tries to follow her back to the brisk and the present, and pull the launch stuff she had shared with him downstairs back to the forefront of his mind. He says, "I understand someone was already handling the basic - ?"

"Yes - and the position would come with a team, likely including the person we've currently got filtering Captain Rogers' contact-points and a couple others who have different but related projects." And she is almost good enough to mention that without Matías putting a little flag on it. Almost. He's impressed. It almost doesn't strike him, in that moment, that he can't imagine what the related projects would be, given that she's said that basically running Cap's stuff so far has been a snooze-fest. She's good. He's not going to ask about it right now, though.

Honestly it doesn't matter.

In his head the pinball's still going like a good little emblem of causal chaos and it's still lighting stuff up, and that's part of what goes ding ding ding! and unfolds in his mind again. It's one of those little epiphanic moments. It's a sudden moment of sunlight on a foggy day. It's also leaping off a cliff, or maybe off the high-dive when you're small and like, four, and death seems like a serious potential outcome. And he's probably going to freak right out about it in an hour or so.

But honestly right now his head is totally clear, just right in this second, and he already knows all the answers, so he might as well freak out about it instead of agonizing and coming to the same conclusion later. And then freaking out. Just, you know. Get a head start on the whole thing. Skip a step.

"So I think," Matías says, conversationally, and kind of proud at how casual he does manage to sound, "unless I'm totally off, this is the point in the rhythm of this where you say you think I should think about it and get back to you tomorrow. I mean, I'm pretty sure you came to your decision about me back down in the cafe," he goes on, as Yolanda's head tilts ever so slightly, "and given you then brought me up here and told me about the edge of the secret potential civil war between whoever's going to try to make the government detain the so-called Winter Soldier on one side, and Stark Industries plus the Avengers on the other, I'm feeling okay with my guess that the decision was yes, so as these things go, now it's my turn to go think about it and give you my decision, right?"

He thinks Yolanda's suppressing a smile; she just mildly says, "Yes, that's about right. Very astute."

"Right," Matías says. He opens his hands. "Plot twist is, I don't need to go away and think about it, I can just tell you yes now. Look," he says, meeting what is now okay wow, definitely the most intensely appraising stare he's ever had, Jesus where did that intensity come from, "you just told me . . . " he waves his hand away from himself. "All that. And you're asking if I want to ride right in front of that wave and steer how people see it, which might make the all the difference. Plus everything else, including working at the company I've wanted to work at, I'll be super honest here, since I was six. I'm not married, I have no kids, I don't even have a pet so it's not like I'm disrupting anyone else's life by jumping in head first, and what else am I going to do?"

He grins at her, if a bit crooked. "Say 'no' and spend the next twenty years remembering how I said 'no'?"

Yolanda leans her chin on her hand. "So you've decided to have a panic attack in an hour instead of agonizing in indecision until tomorrow morning?"

Matías stares at her. That he did not expect. She just - "Do they make you psychic here?" he asks, and he's only partially joking.

And she smiles the mischief smile that isn't twenty years younger, is the thing, it's exactly the same age as she is and that just means it's got a lot more experience.

"No, I'm just old," she says, with a tiny hitch in the timing that tells him he's going to be dear by about this time tomorrow, just like everyone else who works for her, and she's holding off for now for fear he'll think it's condescending. "Well you did just lose me a bet to Eva, but I won't hold that against you. I should probably have known better to take it, given she was watching you in a court-room when she said this is what you'd do. If you're serious, I'll show you the way to Legal's wing and you can sign some things and go decide where to have your attack of panicked remorse."

 

The part of Legal that Matías sees is very modern, very open, very light and airy. The person who takes him through the employment contract is the same as took him through the limited NDA, but it turns out he's not signing it today, just the preliminary acceptance of the job offer. Legal wants him to take the contract home (or at least somewhere else) and have an independent legal expert look at it.

"We like to be thorough," the Legal guy says, with a small smile. He's so young and bland-looking Matías almost wants to ask him if he comes in six-packs and is stored in the closet when not in use, but then the pinball machine of his thought throws that one back at other things learned earlier today and it is not actually funny anymore, as a thought. Actually kind of nauseating.

One of the secretary-looking-type-people over on the other side of the room catches his eye and winks at him. And she would look just as Nondescript Professional as the designated Legal guy except that her hair, in its tight French twist, is dark green and she has a vine tattoo up the side of her neck. That had to have at least been creepy to get.

Over dinner, Matías calls Jared, because after all the rest of the shit with the trial and all, Matías likes and more or less trusts Jared, as much as he trusts anyone. Definitely trusts his acumen and abilities. When Jared picks up, though, he sounds tired.

"Bad time?" Matías asks, because it's technically not office hours and he's not a jerk.

"No, god, please, talk to me, keep me awake," Jared says, "the baby's had a bad cold for the last three nights and he'll only sleep if I'm holding him and only if he's sort of upright so that he doesn't get all stuffed up and Bree doesn't get home for another hour. Frankly I'm terrified I'm going to sit down, fall asleep and drop my kid on his head by accident. What's up?"

"I need to know if you know anyone you'd recommend who can look over a contract for me within, like. The next couple days. I got a job," he explains. "Provisionally."

He tells Jared the parts of the story he can tell, because it does sound like Jared needs someone to keep him awake. For his part, Jared gives him the number of someone he knew in school, and Matías calls her and assures her that he totally understands the extra fee for immediacy. She tells him to use his phone to send her the contract. He doesn't expect to hear back from her until the next day at least, but she calls about an hour later to say that she glanced over it while she was cooking supper just because she was curious, and it honestly looked totally above-board. She says she'll take a fine-tooth comb to it tomorrow during working hours and let him know.

Matías says thanks, and tries to actually taste the rest of his meal.

 

When he gets back to Sharina's she takes off her headphones just barely long enough to ask him how it went, and then give him a sincere and genuine, "Yay!" and blow a kiss when he says he got the job. Then the headphones go back on and she's ferociously typing away again.

He is not sure she's actually moved from that chair since he left. He wonders if he should be concerned. But for now he just uses the bathroom, brushes his teeth, washes his face and sits on the bed in her guest room so he can close the door.

Ofelia picks up after the first ring. "So do you have a job?"

"I now have a job that comes with an NDA that means there are huge chunks of stuff I can't tell you unless I want to get hunted down by whoever it is Stark Industries hires to hunt down people who break their NDAs and I am not sure that's not assassins," he replies. Because she deserves it.

"But you got the job," she demands, just to clarify the important part. It's not like she hasn't known him all their lives.

"Yes," Matías admits.

"Hah!" is the triumphant shout of laughter from the other end. Then, "Is any of it stuff I'd actually care about? The NDA."

"No," he says. He's actually pretty secure on that one; he thought about it a lot over dinner. "In fact if I told you everything I'm not allowed to tell you, I bet my entire first month's salary you'd just go, 'huh,' and then tell me about your day."

"So we're good," she says, completely dismissing that. "How happy are you right now?"

"Well under the superficial panic of holy shit what did I just do to my life - " Matías says.

"Oh fuck you," she sighs and he relents.

"Okay, Fee, you have gloating rights for life. Happy?"

He can hear her rolling her eyes, even though it makes no sound. "I don't want gloating rights," she says, which is the biggest lie she's ever told. Ofelia always wants gloating rights. It's never malicious gloating - well, not unless someone really deserves it - but she lives to gloat. "I just want you to be happy and not to look like you're constantly steeling yourself for a life full of purgatorial misery."

Matías suddenly feels more than a little bit guilty. "I haven't been that - " he starts. At least, he hadn't thought he had.

"Fucking hell Matti it's been agonizing," Ofelia interrupts him, her contradiction flat. "The part where you were so obviously trying not to complain about it and soldier on bravely just made it worse I swear to god. I gotta go though. When do you start?"

Which is classic Ofelia: say she has to go, then ask the question.

"Tomorrow," he replies, and hears her slightly startled noise.

"Holy shit they must be on a timeline," she says. Matías considers adding that Lorraine has a platonic crush on her, but decides to tease her about that some other time. He doesn't have the reflexes to keep up with his end of the game right now. "But I do gotta go."

"Thanks, Fee," he says, and says it sincerely and adds quickly, "in fact I'm gonna go out and get a special agonizingly sappy thank-you card just for you - have fun at work!" and then he turned off the phone before she could reply just so he can feel like he's got, if not some of his own back, at least an even sort of footing.

He totally should get her a sappy thank-you card. He should send flowers, although if he does she might pretend she's never going to speak to him again.

Now he just has to manage to sleep.