Chapter 1: 2:00 | 2:00
There had always been talk, frankly ridiculous, completely speculative, that Sarah Rogers had had a secret to hide. Respectable historians relegated such musings to the footnotes. More sensational fabulists hand-stapled pamphlets of Captain America's mom as Communist harlot, Hydra madam, secret Masonic mistress. Some of the speculation abated when Steve Rogers himself was defrosted and deployed in all his chesty Captain American glory. But the internet bends to the absurd, and it carried on as usual through alien invasions, government conspiracies, and Tony Stark going through more nervous breakdowns than torrid affairs.
What most contemporary rumor mongers overlooked was this: the power in a tale told from mouth to ear, traveling as fast as a dark horse through a county lane, and no slower. There's a kernel of truth in there, if one digs for it. It's not the sort of thing which can be verified. A stream of gossip rolling downhill holds more tumbled pebbles than receipts.
What can be confirmed, writ in fading ink on a parish register, is that Sarah Rogers was from Ireland. She was Irish as Irish could be, given the British boots on their soil, all Gaelic washed from her tongue but none of the Irish from her blood.
Sarah Rogers arrived on American soil an Irish woman.
And she had herself an Irish son.
But oh, tales only thrive in the telling, and no one was thinking of Sarah Rogers when Crossbones raised his scarred forearm and swung his shotgun-barreled saw-chained bayonets to carve a second smile across Steve Rogers' unprotected neck.
The first to cry out was Black Widow, Natasha Romanoff, so distracted by the apparent demise of her friend that she let Iron Maiden score a hit. Three arrows quickly shorted out the villainess' suit, allowing Natasha to lunge past, her Bites flying at Crossbones.
With the matching arm, Crossbones swung again. Bone shattered. The last strands of sinew were sliced clean off.
There was a wet thump not unlike an underripe melon cracking open. It was worn concrete they were fighting on, Steve Rogers' hard skull no match for it and gravity. Arterial blood sprayed like an '80s action anime. Which made sense, given the outsized heart pumping in Rogers' serum-enhanced body. Natasha got splattered in the face; Steve's body was lurching around like a unattended firehose. In her battle-haze she perceived the thick ropes of blood; the tinny, anguished yells of "Cap!" on her comms; and the crackle of her Widow's Bites embedded in Crossbones' shoulders.
Crossbones wasn't moving. Perhaps mesmerized by his improbable victory. Natasha slipped on the blood, ready to snap his homicidal spine, when she heard Crossbones emit a high-pitched caterwaul.
Or perhaps he was frozen in shock.
Because before Natasha could launch into her bone-breaking revenge, the vibranium shield shot up to clip Crossbones in the jaw and fracture the arm-mounted weapon, and some of the arm, besides.
"Son of a bitch!" Crossbones hollered around a mess of bleeding tongue and missing teeth.
The villain's invective seemed to anger the hapless body, which tottered uncertainly, then brought the shield down where Crossbones lay. Natasha had to raise her arm to avoid the now-weakening drizzle of blood from the ragged stump where once sat Steve's otherwise implacable head. He'd make a poor statue now, that much was certain.
"I'm gonna throw up, Friday, put me down, I'm gonna hurl, what the fuck!" Iron Man babbled over the comms.
"No inner ear for balance," Black Widow said. Absently she observed that she was in shock.
"No ears, how is he hearing Rumlow insult his mom?" Hawkeye said. "Oh god."
They watched Steve's body try its level best to batter Crossbones with the shield. What it lacked in precision, it made up for in upper body strength; Crossbones' crotch was missed in favor of his kneecap, earning an agonized howl.
"Is he dispensing justice from beyond the grave?" War Machine said. "We knew Steve was hardcore, but..."
Scarlet Witch was still trying to free Vision from a techno-magical trap. "That is not normal, no," she said breathlessly.
"Okay. Okay," Falcon's even tones cut through the horror. "Natasha, secure the head. I'll try to keep Steve from killing Rumlow."
"Is that really still Steve?" Hawkeye asked. "'Cause y'know, I can target two things at once. I've got some holy water in my utility belt."
"We're not shooting him!" With a thick squelch, Natasha backed up, never taking her eyes off the scene which would be engraved in her nightmares. And here she thought the Red Room had been bad as it could get. "In case this is a containment situation, I'm not experiencing any symptoms. Other than needing a really long bath."
If physics still functioned the way it ought, Black Widow knew roughly where the head had bounced. She had to ascertain how to carry it. Her tactical uniform had plenty of zippers but no homemaker's apron.
"The blood is lighting up my thermals along half the street," Iron Man said. "Viz, when you get out, make sure it's all cleaned up before the narcs get here. Fuck, is there somewhere I can sit down? Friday, what's my BP? Is my pulse thready?"
War Machine landed on top of Iron Maiden, who had shaken out of her horrified stupor and was trying to crawl away. "Are we sure Steve's even in there? I mean... is he dead?"
"He does keep coming back," Hawkeye said, then his breathing changed. "Incoming jet. Looks Wakandan."
Suddenly Iron Man landed in front of Natasha, cratering the concrete. "Warn them off! Barton! Make them turn around!" He waved his metal arms futilely.
"Shit," Natasha said. "Stark, I need something to carry it." She knelt, wiping away the debris from the mangled skull. Blood was already clotting in the matted blond hair. There was something wrong with it, she realized. It looked more like the cranium of a headshot victim which had subsequently been dropped in a blender. She tried to remember if she'd heard a secondary shot, or felt an energy blast. There had only been Crossbones' blades. She was sure.
Tony was flailing around in the suit. Laser grids flashed across the debris field, searching. "There's the shield, but we've got to get it away from him first. Typical, just typical. The old bastard's going to go down fighting, isn't he?"
Steve's body paused long enough for Sam to grab at its wrists. Moving like it was ready to drag Sam, it swung around to point itself at Tony.
"Tony!" Natasha hissed urgently. "Don't insult his mother!"
"It was a figure of speech!" Tony screeched. "Oh hol— Barton, fair point, how is he seeing me without eyes? Is he sniffing for me? Hey, uh, big guy, we're your friends, and I want to reiterate that we all think your mother was a saint."
Tony took a step forward.
Steve's body swayed, recoiling.
And crouched on the ground, trying to scoop Steve's brains into his helmet, Natasha felt the minute tremor of T'Challa's personal jet touching down.
For the first time Sam's voice betrayed his nerves. "He's going down, guys, help me out, I think this might be it," he said, trying to find purchase in more ways than one as Steve's body wobbled like a felled tree.
"I got him," Tony started.
Suddenly Steve's body jerked away from Tony, in its haste elbowing Sam in the sternum.
Sam stumbled back.
Steve's body fell to its knees, and began to feel around for the shield.
"No, no, no, this is bad," Rhodey said as he struggled with Iron Maiden.
Because the jet's hatch was open.
"Shit," said Tony. "Steve, c'mere, let's get you out of the sun, that's bad for you, right? Ugh, this is why I hated the soft sciences."
"Wanda...!" Clint called. If one could hear it, as Natasha could, he was huffing and puffing from double-timing it from his perch.
"I can't, not yet!" answered Wanda with a sob.
Steve grabbed the shield and scrabbled away from Iron Man.
Into the path of the Winter Soldier.
Chapter 2: 2:25 | 4:25
When two boys of unequal strength are inseparable on both schoolyard and battlefield, should they reach a hundred years of age after wasting away for three score and whiles, their paths are inevitably glommed to the point of living out each the other's tale. Steven had a bit of catching up to do, poring over the modernized cruelties of the Winter Soldier program, its files on flimsy Soviet paper like so many moldering leaves disintegrating in his hands.
Bucky Barnes, being the one of them possessed of two good ears for the whole duration, missed nothing. He forgot nothing — which was odd in his situation, given that he was not exactly certain of who he supposedly was. But like a thin root under deep frost, he did not forget who Steven Grant Rogers was. Supposedly.
Upon his arrival on the scene, Bucky took one look at the white star soaked red, and the sunlight where Steve's head should be, and hooked a brand-new black hand under Steve's armpit to haul him back behind. The shield Steve kept hold of, and its rim caught and skittered on the concrete.
The Winter Soldier then leveled the biggest gun yet seen since another presently one-handed hero defied a god, and, unerring, fixed its sight on Iron Man.
"Barnes!" cried Sam.
"You get away from him!" roared Barnes.
"I didn't do that! I'm not going to do anything!" Tony wasn't budging, though, petrified by horror. His AI must have been likewise horrified; though it's a mite too much to read into the lilt of a voice, perhaps her Irish origins instilled in her an instinctive fear, if not a visceral one.
"Tones, do what he says," said his best friend.
At this point Barnes rolled his eyes to the whites. "It's not you." He pointed with the gun. "Gold titanium, right?"
"Yes," said Tony suspiciously. Sluggishly he began to draw back. "I'm not actually iron."
"Thought so. Rhodes! You'd better stay back too."
Sam caught on. "Tony, is there any gold in my wing-pack?" He was already stripping it off.
Natasha, her hands full, bit at her own shoulder until certain of her weapons detached and clattered away. "Do what he says, Tony, clear the area."
"Yeah, don't you have any pigeons to chase?" said Barnes.
Behind him, Steve's headless body felt for the back of his boot, its other hand raising the shield like it was prepared to fold up behind it. Likely possible, now, with that much less area.
At last Iron Man withdrew. "God, get that thing away from me, Romanoff. I'll go... deal with the media. As in there won't be any. Let me know if he's... tell me if he dies," he choked out, and the suit blasted off with a shudder and a whine. War Machine followed, with the subdued Iron Maiden in tow.
Once they were gone, Bucky's shoulders slumped. This close, Sam could see tears in his eyes. "This is a mess," Sam said quietly.
"You okay?" Bucky asked him.
"Am I okay?" Sam laughed shakily. "Me?"
Bucky clapped him on the shoulder with his flesh hand, his gaze fixed on the bundle in Natasha's hands.
"Looks better than expected," said Bucky. "Serum."
"You expected this?" said Natasha sharply.
Sam looked from one to the other. "If we get Wanda over here, and maybe Thor, could we re-attach him?" They regarded Steve's body, which was still cowering behind Bucky, still clutching at his calf. It was, for lack of better terms, gently aspirating through the neck hole. They contemplated screwing on the swiss-cheese shambles of a head back on to the body like a wayward plastic action figure.
Bucky turned uncertain. "I dunno. He's the first to get a serum that worked."
Sam pulled on latex gloves, his face grim and sharp. "Steve, I'm gonna touch your shoulder, you ready?" Gently he cleared off shredded clothing from the wound. Steve's body stayed still, becalmed. "It's still leaking. Still looks fresh. Whatever we do, we gotta do it fast. Even the serum can't regenerate blood this quickly."
Natasha said, "Barnes, you're his medical proxy."
"I am?!" For the first time that day, Bucky Barnes was appalled. He gaped at them both. "Not Wilson? I... you bloody fucking idiot, when did you change that?" he yelled at the head.
The head sat in Natasha's arms and continued to rot.
"I'm his proxy when you're on ice," said Sam.
"Well, don't make me your proxy, or we're all fucked," said Bucky. "What a cluster. All right. Good as we've got in this century, this kinda thing won't hold up to field dressing. We could freeze—" and his weapon dropped as he choked off a gasp. Steve's hand was now clutching his leg with a crushing force. "No ice! No freezing, okay, pal? Christ, I'm sorry. We're not gonna put you under in the cold, cross my heart."
The pressure let up.
Bucky and Natasha exchanged a look. Her sweat was making Steve's splatter run on her fair face like a cheap crimson mascara.
"The things you get yourself into, Stevie," Bucky said. "We could give it a shot. Mind you, I don't give it good odds of working. I know from brain death, and that one's a goner." Tight around the mouth, he reached out and ruffled what was left of Steve's hair. Natasha stood very still; she could hardly do much else.
"Hang on, does that mean he's already dead?" Clint asked. He was nearly in view now, hopping and skidding down hills of rubble.
Evasively, Bucky said, "Never mind that. Make sure Wanda can stand to—"
"Excuse me," came a new voice on the comms. It was King T'Challa. "I am using Prince Thor's channel as he is otherwise detained. We tried to convince Dr. Banner not to visit the scene—"
Clint halted. And turned around, darting through the debris field. "Wanda! Clear out! Get out of the building! I'll come get you if Vision can't—!"
Bucky swore. "Steve," he said, hauling the body to its feet, "We're gonna give you your head back," as Natasha hurried to comply, trying not to fumble the head in the transfer, as Sam scrambled to get his wings back on, "Try not to point it at anyone."
Natasha's mouth formed a 'what.'
Bucky tucked the head in the crook of Steve's arm and tugged the shield in front of it, at which point T'Challa's voice, made erratic by exertion, came through:
"He's a little angry."
"Now we're gonna run," Bucky told his headless friend.
Chapter 3: 3:30 | 7:45
Now, this team of mighty heroes, these Avengers characters, they've been at this heroism business for a good long stretch. Individually they mightn't always been on the side of Good... but then that is the dramatic irony of the Avengers, in that they are with few exceptions avenging the consequences of their own actions. The obvious exception being Sam Wilson, who is beautiful and perfect, whose great foible was quitting his steady, respectable job to fly after Steve Rogers' behind. As the saying goes: he me.
In addition to the unflappable Mr. Wilson, the Avengers by and large did not initially succumb to hysterics over the gruesome parting of Steve Rogers' head from Steve Rogers' body by dint of a general sense of professionalism.
The large exception being the incredible Hulk.
'Professionalism' is not in his vocabulary.
From three blocks away, the Hulk's roar rent the air — truly, it was a sonic blast of grief which buffeted Bucky and Steve between the shoulder blades. They staggered. Bucky, unthinking, tried to hook an arm around Steve only to slip on fresh blood and the discovery that Steve now was lacking a neck with which to snag his elbow. Growling, Bucky chanced switching sides, mechanically clamping his left hand on Steve's shoulder. He hoped the cut-off circulation would do the body less harm than catching the business-end of a Hulk rampage.
They loped as quickly as they could with Steve's center-of-gravity weaving like a drunken bee. Besides the bile-churning stench, more potent by the minute, if Bucky didn't turn his head he could half-imagine he was having to drag the little guy home after one gulp too many of bathtub gin. Not well: Steve's shoulders were far too broad.
"Let me give him a lift!" yelled Falcon, still low to the ground.
Bucky was heroically refraining from slapping Steve's rump to get him to trot. "Negative!" he yelled back. "Everything's slippery, I dunno if his hand-eye's up to not dropping the head from a height!"
"And there's the trifecta," Natasha said, taking a running leap from a rubble pile and catching the currently available Falcon express flight. Sam only cursed a little. "He doesn't have eyes!"
The Hulk gave off a primal scream, straight up to the air like a chimney of rage. They heard him blow steam, then locomote, and bust the ground as he bounded forward another city-block. They stumbled through the aftershock.
"The Hulk's goin' for us, but he won't crush Steve!" Bucky added silently: he wouldn't let him. "We have the shield! He can still bring a building down on us, though, so we gotta get to open ground!"
"Copy that, we'll spot you! Nat, you look left, I'll look right!" In his haste, Falcon had slipped his data goggles on his wrist, which was now occupied. No-one can be perfect all the time.
Bucky felt Steve pick up the pace. "Oh, you like that plan, huh? First one in seventy years!"
"WAAURRGGHHH! CAAAAAAP!" came the roar.
To Bucky's horror, he felt the body swerve in a clumsy, well, about-face. He had to reel it back, nearly tangling up their legs. "Steve, no, don't say his name. We don't know how this works." Bucky shook it like a rag doll, literally kicking it back in gear. "Would ya listen to me just once?"
Clint broke in, "We sure about this plan, guys? Guys? Because Big Green's closing in."
There came a groan from T'Challa. "I believe Barnes is well-versed in the protocols for irrational, unstoppable rages."
"Your Majesty, that better be you calling for backup, because the Dora Milaje will have my head if you don't come back in one piece," Bucky called. Steve's body listed alarmingly; Bucky reached down to unsnag Steve's knee where it was wedged on debris.
"Worry about your—"
"METAL. MAN." Each word punctuated with a boom. "GIVE. CAP."
Now Bucky was mad. He kneed Steve in the butt to get him over one last divider before open ground. "Like Hell!" he shouted back. "He's not yours! Smashing us won't do fuck-all!"
"This is a protocol?" Wanda asked. "Vision ETA in five."
They didn't have five.
The Hulk released an anguished roar, and Bucky felt that last launch in his gritted teeth. With impact of the Hulk's landing, the level ground beneath them jutted into a see-saw.
"Tuck!" Bucky cried. He caught a glimpse of the spongy meat that was the head in the crook of Steve's arm before body and shield curled around it. They rolled down the tilted concrete to stop before the crater at the Hulk's feet.
Outside the shield's protection, Steve's legs flailed like a trapped cricket's.
Enormous green nostrils expanded with a powerful sniff.
Bucky, who had been squirted with an earful of fresh neck fluids, said, "No shit."
Sam Wilson, who is perfect most of the time, swooped low to drop Natasha on top of the Hulk.
"Easy, big guy," crooned Natasha, as she clung to the expandable strap on Hulk's shoulder. "Bucky is Cap's friend."
The Hulk let out a disjointed rumble. "Cap not okay."
"Steve's... hurt," Natasha said, crouching, one eye on Bucky trying to get Steve's feet on the ground. With both arms occupied with the precious cargo, it was like righting an upended turtle.
A head-shake this time. Normally a good sign, except Natasha was nearly tossed off.
Natasha paused. "He's okay."
"CAP! NOT! OKAY!"
Natasha lost her footing. By the time she grabbed at the strap, it was too late. The Hulk reared back, then snapped forward with an ear-splitting roar. Twin sledgehammers for fists bore down on Bucky and Steve.
An arrow wreathed with red mist whizzed into Hulk's neck, likewise too late.
The air shivered with a resounding clang.
Steve's body had half-thrown itself over Bucky.
The shield was sandwiched between the modest boulder of a green fist and two (give or take) super-soldiers.
Bucky began to swear. At Steve. If Natasha hadn't been hanging off the Hulk, she'd have covered her ears. Their mothers, rest their souls, were covering their ears.
"—always doing this!" shrilled Bucky. He huffed, and they had to duck behind the shield again as the tranquilizer made the Hulk flail a log's worth of arm. "Hey, watch it! Fucking damn it!"
Steve's body was squirming all over Bucky like it was trying and failing at a gruesome, horizontal Lindy hop. Trapped on Bucky's lap was Steve's decomposing head.
The Hulk began to collapse. Natasha rode him down and flipped over to sit on his chest. One final slump, and with a puff of dust, the ground bounced.
Bucky shoved the body off him. Gingerly he picked up the head with his left hand. "This was a new uniform," he said mournfully.
Rolling right-side up to sit splayed on the inclined roadway, the body angled towards Bucky's voice.
Arm extended, Bucky carefully placed the head back in Steve's free hand. He grumbled, "Stupidest part of you's not even attached and you're still a menace."
The body's wide shoulders drooped. Even from above, Sam could pick out the invisible puppy-dog expression.
"Aw, knock it off!" Bucky flicked the shield's edge with a metal finger.
"Note to self, fly upwind of this trainwreck," said Sam.
"Good call," said Clint over the comms. "Wanda, pretty please filter us? I will pay you to do the breathing mask trick. What, it's not like Vision needs it!"
At long last, Vision landed beside the Hulk. "Pardon my tardiness. Hulk, I trust you will stay down?"
Hulk gave off a giant, disgusted rumble. His face was still scrunched up with unhappiness.
Natasha reminded herself that she was a hero now, and besides, she was already coated with Steve's internal juices. She passed off Hulk-sitting to Vision.
"Time to talk, Barnes," she said. Since Steve was unable.
Or was it that Bucky didn't want him to?
"Ditto," said Sam, coming in for a landing. "I can't begin to administer first aid if I don't know how this..." He gave Bucky a dirty look. "You don't know how this works, do you?"
"I got a better idea than you do!" Bucky shot back.
"Humor me that this isn't every zombie movie I've ever seen: not contagious?"
"Unless one of you's planning to die this weekend, the rest of us are safe. I mean, it's been a hundred years since health and hygiene class, but I'm sure his serum cleans out all the disease vectors. Which is good 'cause I got some in my mouth, blech."
Sam wished for nose-plugs. Maybe a do-over. Of his life. "Okay, after all that, the structure of the cranium itself looks intact. There's an outside chance that the serum can restore at least some of the necrotic tissue. It might fall apart under a manual exam, so I'm skipping that. Our immediate problem is how much fluid he's lost."
Natasha was among friends, so she allowed herself a gulp. "Can we put him back together?"
Bucky opened his mouth. Then shut it.
Legs splayed, Steve... gently leaked, clutching his head like a stuffed bear.
"Can't," Bucky said. Hastily, before the Hulk could stir, he added, "Not by any force of this world."
As one, they turned to Vision.
Vision gulped. "Wanda, Prince Thor, I believe we require some backup."
Chapter 4: 7:35 | 15:20
Steven Grant Rogers was quite rich in friends. Every single one of them, even Bucky, was at a loss over what to do. They did their best, though, which is all a headless friend could ask for, if a headless friend could ask.
Falcon determined that despite the torpid blood flow, Steve's body was not about to aspirate. With the highly advanced equipment of a long-spouted squeeze bottle, he set about re-introducing fluids.
"I'm gonna go slow, Steve, 'cause I ain't burping your ass. Who knows what'd come out."
"Ugh, god," someone murmured.
Steve obediently tipped forward and let Sam squirt electrolyte water down his gullet-hole. There were a few holes to choose from.
"I always wondered what first responder would even use those cross-section illustrations in our textbooks," Sam said philosophically. "Because from this angle, the dude would be dead if you had to tell the esophagus apart from the airway."
Hawkeye had not stopped wrinkling his nose. "What Monty Python never mentions is how nasty this smells. It's even worse up close."
"Pretty sure they do. Don't they? They had some dudes shoveling shit. Medieval times, man."
"I don't think it's him," said Black Widow. "I think it's the head."
Perhaps it was their imagination that the head was shriveling up like a raisin in sunshine. Spongy flesh clung stubbornly to sharp cheekbones and judgmental brow and that squared jawline.
"We should get out of the sun, no?" said the Scarlet Witch, with a pinched look about her. Her anxious survey lit on Natasha, who was the most splattered. "Do you need a wet-wipe?"
"I'll manage," said Natasha, who had by some measures been splattered by worse. "They might need samples scraped off me. Don't worry," she said to Wanda. "You won't have to touch this."
Wanda nodded, grateful.
The road suffered another concussion as Thor joined the scene. "I followed the smell!" he announced.
The body which was Steve's rolled a shoulder at Bucky.
Bucky was unimpressed. "Don't you start. Stinking ain't useful."
The Black Widow was seized by the absurdity of the situation. She was an agent trained in practicalities, no matter how reality shifted about her; and hope was a new, fragile creature for whom she sometimes left milk out in the night. Still speckled with the residue of her friend's decaying head, she caught the Winter Soldier's elbow.
"Barnes, tell me we aren't wasting our time with this."
Bucky didn't shake her off. He knew from cruelty, and the need to be wary of hope's barbs. "I really don't know. He's got his head. He's got his body. If we've got somethin' to try, we might as well try it."
There was no question: they would try.
They led what was left of poor Steve Rogers to a nearby evacuated building, with the Hulk left to dry out beside the pleasant fountain and bargain annuals, playing bouncer for the promise of cheese straws. There was a dire moment when Steve's body encountered the revolving door, and insisted on using it. Falcon divested him of the shield. The Winter Soldier indulgently let him trundle through, perhaps lulled by the notion that his friend could not possibly get into trouble in a glass-enclosed wedge, only to groan with feeling when the body failed to exit the cylinder.
After an extra revolution, the Winter Soldier punched through the glass and shoved them into the lobby. The body stumbled, but kept hold of its precious cargo.
"Blargh," said Bucky, voice oddly muffled in such a way which reminded Clint of listening to clowns. Bucky turned his own body away and with a mighty inhalation, released his nose. "Worse than when the sewer backed up in '38."
T'Challa leaped out from nowhere, as he was wont to do. "We did offer to make a mask for your uniform," he said mildly.
"Thanks but no thanks, Your Majesty."
They settled Steven on a low couch with a cheerful tropical theme which would have to be incinerated. Its head was balanced on its thigh, bobbing as its knee jogged nervously. If nerves were involved at all. A modest Islamic styled fountain burbled delightfully in the background, drowning out the gurgles of severed pipes.
Sam was laying out the medical kit. "How're you feeling, Steve? Dizzy? Lightheaded?"
Bucky opened his mouth to say something.
Sam just raised his brows till Bucky's mouth dissolved into a scowl. Sam grinned.
As Thor moved a towering potted plant for use as a makeshift IV stand, the Avengers began to assemble.
"Whew, sorry guys, my van broke down outside the zone and there were like no flying insects for a whole ten— holy shit!" said Ant Man. "Bad word, fuck."
The Black Widow muttered, "This would never have happened if Jan were here."
"Huh," said Ant Man, perplexed. "Wha?"
"Nothing," said the Black Widow, who was most certainly born in the year 1984 and did not Know Things.
Ant Man blew into his fist like it was a paper bag. "You guys know his head's detached, right? That's not okay, isn't it? I mean insects can do that but they've got breathing holes on their skin and they don't... they usually don't bleed out..."
Captain America's body oozed. Then it raised a hand in Scott's general direction.
"Hi, Captain America Sir," Ant Man squeaked. "No offense, but you reek."
He was, in the parlance, about to hurl.
Hawkeye clapped a hand on his shoulder. "How about you figure out how to kick up the forced air so we can get some circulation in here?"
"Yeah I'll, I'll just do that. Hi. Hey. And maybe cry. A bunch."
"Here I was hoping he'd have to get all tiny and crawl around in there," said Sam with a smirk.
"Oh, you saw that movie too?" said Bucky.
"Dry cereal at midnight, guilty pleasure," said Sam.
Clint said, "It's in all the movies. Sci-fi staple. Which I used to love."
Sam completed his examination with a grimace. "Seriously? If we're gonna try reattachment, we have to line up everything. I mean everything."
"I can," said Wanda from behind her sleeve. "We studied a lot of brains." Dropping her arm to wrap it tight to her chest, she exchanged a thin smile with Bucky, certain as they were that Hydra's primary source of neuroscience had been Bucky's own grey matter. "The rest of it is as you said, lining up tubes."
"I could," Vision began to offer, then he stuck his head into Steve's neck.
"WHOA—" "NO, EWW—!" "MY EYES!"
"Viz!" cried Wanda. "We talked. About this."
"My apologies," said Vision, who as always had seemingly not bothered to master an apologetic look. "You will require an accurate visualization for such delicate work." He took on an air of concentration, then projected an internal image of Steve's body.
"That's actually pretty useful, thanks," said Sam.
Still white-lipped, Bucky said, "I really, really don't think you should do that to his head. Definitely not in the thick of it."
"My eyes," Clint continued to moan.
"Don't listen to them," Tony called without looking up. Friday chirped a proximity warning, and he stepped over the broken glass, trailed by Rhodey. "You've been practicing? I didn't know you could convert sensor scans like that."
"I have indeed," Vision preened.
"Handy. So is he part chicken? Is that how it works?" Without missing a step, Tony finished rebuilding his wristwatch after dismantling every part with a trace of gold. Damn his aesthetic anyhow; of course Cap would be allergic to it.
"Why would he be part chicken?" Natasha said despite herself. She glanced at Clint for any cues; he was preoccupied with looking a bit green around the gills.
"The headless chicken," Tony said.
"Ah," said T'Challa unexpectedly. "My grandfather once met that chicken on a diplomatic visit."
"Your grandfather met the chicken," stated Rhodey flatly. "The headless chicken."
The Black Panther shrugged. "It was a lighter detour after the grimness of the War." He indicated Bucky, veteran of said war, who was looming fretfully over Sam. "My grandfather was inspired to pour resources into our biomedical pods. The chicken's brainstem was spared, by the way. That is why it... continued on, for so long."
"Okay, this is as much as I can do," said Sam at last. "Bucky, this is your call. Are you sure reattachment's going to be safe for Steve?"
Bucky glanced at Steve's body, which shrugged its shoulders noncommittally. "Can't hurt to try."
Sam threw his hands up.
"Suddenly I understand the Howling Commandos' tactics a whole lot better," muttered Rhodey.
"Mjolnir is at the ready," Thor declared. "The lady Wanda could move the larger organs, and the Vision can do the finer work of adjusting the—" he paused as the Allspeak caught up, "—amperes where the Captain's flesh is more fragile."
"Sounds good," said Sam. "But...?"
Thor swung the hammer with the restive manner of a hearty eater called on to prepare a ten-course feast. "I have battled many a mighty draugr who rose once more to defend their treasures— peace, Winter Soldier, I am sure Steven is of a noble sort."
Before Bucky could pull a weapon on an Asgardian, Tony laughed. "He treasures liberty and apple pie, we get it. Of course he rises from the grave to defend that."
Bucky didn't gainsay him, though he invited Thor to continue.
With no small amount of chagrin, Thor admitted, "The Allfather kept a rival's head alive for many ages that he might benefit from his wisdom." (Wanda made a face not unlike an emoji. Rhodey and Clint exchanged the wide-eyed looks of ordinary mortals.) "I... do not have the first notion of this magic. If this does not work, there's no recourse I know of, here on Midgard."
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," said Sam with confidence. "Your dad didn't develop the serum, and that's what we're banking on. Let's do it."
Bucky cast a wary eye on the assembled throng. "We might need ear protection," he warned. The side of his mouth dipped. "I don't think Steve would hurt us on purpose, but he might not be able to help it."
"Like... a banshee?" Rhodey said.
"Close," said Bucky cryptically. Sam's brows shot up, then rose farther when Bucky added, "Look, I don't like how his tongue's not rotted and the rest of him is. His body's still breathing. Sorta. The danger's in if he says your name."
Clint's face screwed up from his usual resting expression. "Barnes, I get the feeling whether or not we can hear our death knell isn't going to matter." He got ready to switch off his hearing aids anyway.
"Earplugs? For that? Pfft," said Tony.
Rhodey poked him with his cane. "Tony, that... sounds a lot like magical death. I'm not gonna save you from magical death."
With half a smirk, Tony lifted a brow and tilted his head at Rhodey as though to say as if.
"What are the chances decapped Cap's first words are my name?"
This time there was a chorus of "TONY!"
"Wimps," sniffed Tony.
Natasha crossed her arms. "He seems to be sentient enough to get pissed off."
"I've got angry birds with me," Tony flicked open his cuff to show his wrist-mounted sonic blaster. "If he starts to say someone's name, I can slap him down. Might liquefy his eardrums, but those grow back, don't they?"
"Stark," said Bucky suddenly. "Wait. It won't do anything to his nerves, will it?"
"Not physically, not permanent, it'll overwhelm his systems. Temporary paralysis." Tony stumbled over the last bit, understandably.
"Barnes, we modified it to stimulate dead nerves," said Rhodey quietly. "The structure won't be damaged." He nudged Tony, who seemed taken in a spell of stage fright, taking aim at Captain America, piecemeal. One-handed, Rhodey braced his elbow. "I'll spot him, okay?"
"Two heads," quoted Tony an abrupt, wild grin, countenance now smoothed over.
Swallowing hard, Bucky felt that any grand speech would be inadequate. He hadn't been the one with the knack of it, anyhow. "Thanks," he said to the pair, instead.
Bucky did seek a confirming look with T'Challa — because close does count when it comes to recapitation and flying cars — then turned to Steve. "Alright, pal. Time's tickin'. If you want to do this, you hold yourself together. If not," he wet his lips. "Let go."
Steve's body jerked, as though forgetting there was no head to nod. Then it felt about and gravely handed the shield to Bucky. Just as gravely, the offer was accepted.
Thor gave his hammer a trial swing. Wanda set down her messenger bag and raised her hands. Vision remained still, his rendering of the inside of Steve's torso hovering beside the blood-caked original.
Chapter 5: 5:30 | 20:50
It's a certain kind of person who sets out in the Avenging business, or rather: it's a certain sort of person who comes out the other side. One is terribly afraid all the time, and must persevere despite it. Even the ones unable to feel fear are afraid for their compatriots.
Working through fright and wonder becomes simply workmanlike. It is when the work shrieks to a halt that despair begins to rise and the gut begins to roil.
T'was not until the terrible sight of Steve raising his head like a gruesome crown that the assembled group began to feel it.
They could not look away. How sacrilegious not to look. Bucky hovered, though at metal arm's length, to make sure the pale hands did not falter. The grip was awkward. It had to be clear of Thor's hammer-blow, yet still positioned to take the impact without losing hold of the head. Steve's hands ended up cupping the rear of the skull, elbows up as though about to lay itself down in a hammock. The helmet with its winglike sigil and its letter A — crosspiece hung low not unlike a monk's Gaelic script, conceived from Steve's mind's eye on a cold day in an Alpine forest — seemed all that held Steve's head together.
And the eyes... the less said of them, the better.
Bucky vacillated between stationing behind the couch for the possible catch, and standing before the horrific visage of his friend's appendages haphazardly jammed together. In the end he exchanged a wordless nod with Sam, who checked the IV line once more and took the rear with fresh latex gloves, tight and too garishly vivid. Bucky ended up opposite Thor. Though his metal arm was no match for Thor's strength, the shield could stand up to the hammer's magic. If at the last moment something went wrong, Bucky was ready to attempt to stop the god.
As soon as Bucky stepped back, red ribbons of Wanda's power lashed what remained of the head to the body. Steve's left pectoral twitched, but otherwise he gave no sign of discomfort.
Natasha and Clint had withdrawn to keep a lookout. T'Challa set himself as though prepared to battle Death itself. Tony and Rhodey stood braced and ready. Sam summoned his best peewee football stance that he might receive an airborne head.
Vision's gaze flicked from the holographic model to the solid flesh, and he gave a nod.
Thor's grasp turned white-knuckled.
With nary a warning, Thor swung the hammer less like swatting a fly and more like cracking a macadamia nut. Bucky flinched; but it was too late. Electricity prickled the skin on his arm, and before he could raise the shield, the sizzling hammer contacted Steve's unprotected neck.
Steve stiffened from spine to butt, as though surprised, yet otherwise did not stir.
For a time suspended, those who were accustomed to breathing held their breaths. Thor held the flat of Mjolnir level under Steve's chin. Below the dangling cartilage of what had been ears, the maggot-pale skin began to bloat. Steven's oversized heart began to pump blood uphill.
Thor's face creased with concentration. Bucky allowed himself a second of hope — then he felt it. Like something walking over his grave.
"Stop!" cried Bucky.
Thor was already wresting the hammer away, static raising the remaining hairs on Steve's head. The bright tropical prints which had been illuminated by the lightning now resembled a jungle at dusk. The formless shadow began to crawl up the sparking tendrils towards Thor's hammer-arm. Scarlet Witch quickly rebuffed it with a wave of red energy.
As quickly as it started, it was over. Steve still had a good hold on his head, which had not opened its mouth or otherwise unhinged its jaw. Iron Man's gauntlet powered down with a whine. The light returned to normal.
The head now looked like a drowning victim's instead of an axe murderer's discard. That... could have been an improvement.
That is, until all the blood which had rushed into the head deigned to make its exit.
"It's a gusher!" hollered Sam.
"Sam!" protested Bucky.
"That's the technical term!" said Sam, who was very glad he had his goggles on.
At this point the blood turned slippery, Steve bobbled his grip, and with a gurgle, the blood stopped spurting and began to spray out like a rotating lawn sprinkler.
Nearly unnoticed in the bloody fray was a bright red flare, and Natasha was already on the move—
"You just had to make that joke!" Tony said to Rhodey as he dragged them away from the spray zone.
"My bad!" said Rhodey. "Should've known Cap would go for the classic 'bleeding on people' gambit!"
—and under the Widow's watch, the Scarlet Witch straightened her stance. The gory shower, the shadow clawing at her own blood-red tendrils, giving truth to the tales she'd heard as a child: all had shaken her resolve. But she drew back. They had got this far. She'd place her favor on bonds of friendship, even if she'd not anticipated how messy friendship could be.
The Black Widow changed direction.
Sam was showing off by ducking around the whipping sprays. "See, Holy Grail is a classic!" He got his hands around Steve's neck. Blood promptly squirted between his fingers. He turned his head, to no avail. "Barnes, you'd better not be fooling about our contamination chances!"
Bucky had tossed the shield on the couch — it was a lost cause for certain, now — and grabbed the front of Steve's neck. Reasoning that his current flashback would be nothing next to his future flashbacks, he employed his metal hand as well. "This settles it!" he replied. "There's only one way he can kill you, and this ain't it! Pal, put your arm down, let the IV work!"
Steve dropped his hands.
Unstoppered, blood geysered out. Naturally Sam received the brunt of it. He was saved from disgracing his kin by the practicality of keeping his mouth firmly shut.
Tony edged forward, then jumped back as an arc of blood vindictively leaped toward him. "Bleeding on people is not a real tactic! How the hell would you aim!"
"On the contrary!" said Thor, who looked entirely too cheerful for being covered in blood. He too joined in on squeezing Steve's leaking neck. "There is a dragon king in the realm of Hel—!"
Tony and Rhodey were both fiddling with his gauntlet. "I'm guessing cauterization is a no-go, too!"
Another gush got Sam. His self-cleaning goggles could barely keep up. "Wanda, can't you...?"
"One moment!" Wanda was now fishing through her bag, heroically sacrificing it to the bloodbath. Her hands were slipping on the catches, though. "Clint, I blame you for making us watch that movie!"
"It's a classic!" Clint called back from far, far above. "I'm never watching it again!"
Natasha came sprinting in, skid-sliding gracefully across the puddles. Bucky sensed her, and by rote he held out his hand for her to slap something into it.
"I unwrapped one for you!" Natasha came to a stop before Wanda, and made swift work of the bag's zippers.
Bucky glanced at the dense cotton in his palm and pressed it on Steve's neck.
Sam did a double-take. "Uh. Good call, Nat!"
In proper assembly line fashion, Wanda ripped open the packets with her powers, while Natasha slashed open the tampons with one of her many knives. "Vision," she called.
Vision tossed tampons at Sam and Bucky and Thor.
Bucky was fumbling with the pads — they were a bit tacky — before figuring out how to bandage up the flow.
"S'wounds!" cried Thor. "I carry these Midgardian napkins! Friend Vision, do me the favor of raiding my belt bag!"
Vision rather efficiently lifted Thor's cape to root around his stuff.
One of Steve's hands gestured down. Sam caught his meaning. "Oh yeah! Cap's got some too. Nat, you know which compartment?"
"I'm not his keeper!" Natasha snapped.
"You totally know!"
"They're with the survival gear," said Natasha, not stopping her work.
T'Challa approached with a rubber tourniquet. He was infuriatingly free of gore. "Are we keeping the head attached, or would it be wiser to tie him off separately?"
"Bucky?" said Sam.
Bucky winced. "I'll give the head back to him. You hear me, Stevie? Hold your arms out." He dodged a spurt. "Stark, Thor, between the two of you, we can burn the stump closed."
"The fuck, man." Sam grumbled.
"Like I said, it was worth a try," Bucky sighed.
Steve's body nudged their shoulders. Sam sighed; with a look, Natasha urged him to tap out. The Black Widow and the king of Wakanda then engaged in a silent debate over the best way to tie a bow around a bloody stump staunched with sanitary products.
"I totally carried some," Tony addressed Rhodey, and perhaps the remainder of the continent. "Pepper didn't like it when I started juggling them."
"Riiight," said Rhodey.
"I was banned! Also they're the same size as cigars. It was an honest mistake! What's your excuse?"
"Uniform code," said Rhodey promptly. "Also, cargo pants look terrible on my ass."
"Uh, Winter Soldier, this is Hawkeye. You've got, uh."
Bemused, the Winter Soldier looked down at his arm. He sighed, and peeled the pad off his metal elbow.
There was a splash as Sam jumped in the water fountain. "Why don't we have somebody with water powers! Our recruiting sucks."
"There was a guy, but he doesn't like us very much," said Bucky. The tip of his tongue darted out; the adhesive was trickier than some chemical weapons.
"Okay, heat settings all ready." Tony skipped gingerly around the blood-and-carpet swamp. "And by the way, I was pulling your leg, I'm aware going off like an exploding ketchup bottle is a real tactic. It's just inelegant. Messy. Beneath you, Cap."
Carrying the moldering head on the shield like a serving plate, with utmost grace Steve's body swept its free hand up and gave Tony the finger.
"That actually answers my question," Tony continued blithely on. "Are we done? No more amateur hour? Not that I'm not into life-saving measures, big fan, the biggest fan, but somehow I don't think this applies." He swung around to face Bucky.
Natasha, dappled twice-over with Steve's blood, crossed her arms and glared at the Winter Soldier.
Bucky sighed again. "Siddown, Steve." He hip-checked him into the couch. Captain America took his seat with an undignified sploosh. Bucky leaned on the couch arm while Wanda used her force field to keep their not-so-sanitary makeshift pressure collar together.
Sam came up to hook up another IV. "That's it, sit while we replace your fluids again. Ain't you glad I carry two of these, it's not for counterbalancing my fine ass." He glared at the approximate area of Steve's bicep as though daring his divested body to continue the teasing, just try.
"Now that you're not going anywhere, answers. Real answers," Tony insisted. "I will not go down as the guy who barbecued Captain America."
"Barbecue is more low-and-slow," Clint chimed in from his perch.
Natasha's glare transferred to Clint, before bearing down on Bucky once more.
"What is he?" pressed Tony.
"He's a dullahan, isn't he," said King T'Challa.
Bucky made the universal sign for more-or-less.
"Aw, man, you told him but not us?" Sam said, futilely mopping his brow with his arm.
King T'Challa shook his head. "I went to school in the United Kingdom for a time. The education I received in the pubs was often indispensable." Perhaps in solidarity, he removed his helmet, exchanging an edged smile with Tony Stark. "Also, we are quite well-versed in the various harbingers of death."
Tony scowled. "So he's not alive? We did all this for nothing?"
"If I may," murmured Vision. "I am technically not 'alive.'" They eyed each other. "Mr. Stark, do not make me break out the Arthur C. Clarke."
"Yeah, yeah, it's magic, we got that," sniped Tony.
Sam shoved Bucky from behind. "You knew this all along!"
"But I didn't know!" Barnes insisted. "They were just that: stories. Gimme a break, you don't accuse your best guy of being not-quite-dead and not-of-this-world."
Thor cleared his throat and looked beyond the ceiling. He did keep his piece, though.
Bucky went on. "I didn't know for sure till a couple of years ago."
"When you were with Hydra?" asked Sam.
"When I got out, and found out what happened to him. Getting out of the ice." At this point, Bucky took in the their dubious expressions. "Come on! The serum can't do all that. Hydra practically took over a missile silo to keep me ticking a few years at a time. Seventy years in Arctic ice? Suspended animation doesn't work that way. Didn't any of you go to high school?"
"How convenient that we can't ask Steve what he knows about it," said Natasha dryly.
Steve's body contrived to look contrite.
"He might not have known," said Bucky. "Might not be mine to tell. It was rumors, y'know, the clotheslines and watering holes version of TMZ. It's that..." he sighed. "Look, I don't even remember this properly. It was that he kept surviving. Everything."
Tony raised his brows. "I recall the encyclopedia of deadly diseases."
"Yeah, it's not so much fun when you're ticking them off in person," said Bucky, clapping a hand on Steve's shoulder. "This doesn't go outside us, all right? No matter what happens. If he can't speak for himself," he stopped, overcome by the bracing tide of recollection. "She definitely can't."
Sam sucked in his lips, then made a face because there was still bodily fluids on them. "Hey, we don't have to do this right now..."
"No, it's done now, you've all seen him." Bucky looked up when Steve's hand found his arm. Nevermind that it was the metal one, and it was covered in clotting blood. "They said Sarah Rogers made a deal. A pact. Not with the devil, she was too pious for all that. But in the home country, there's, you know." He glanced at them as though realizing that perhaps they did not know. "There are things older than the devil."
"I'm not freaked out, are you freaked out?" whispered Rhodey.
Chapter 6: 10:20 | 30:10
Sometimes stories meander to and fro and forget the parking brakes and crash through the blown glass museum and hit a water main and kaboom, here is a functioning Ikea bureau, slightly damp.
Sometimes they are quite simple.
Sarah Rogers had herself a child.
She wanted him to live.
"Does he owe a debt? Or is this like the dola?" asked Wanda. "It's an old story. Sometimes it's a person. Sometimes it's a gift. It's a measure of your good luck and bad luck, visited on you at birth."
"What, like Maleficent?" muttered Clint. He was not expecting Wanda to nod affirmatively.
"Fate," said Natasha. She wrinkled her nose. Sweat mixed with blood trickled down the side of her face.
Barnes's countenance was quite stiff. "The dullahan is headless. He rides through the night, head in arm, looking for souls. Just like the Washington Irving story. They teach that in school, still?"
Sam said, "There's a Disney movie. You guys just missed it."
"Not surprised. It was popular," said Bucky. "I dunno how much he soaked up... I don't have a clue how much his Ma told him. At the time, what it all meant — it didn't dawn on me back then. When I got out in the now, I read up on a lotta stuff on the off-chance it'd ring a bell. Some of the history matched. The Irish gettin' starved out of Ireland. The old-fashioned ways, they were gettin' scrubbed out."
"The old gods," said T'Challa.
Barnes nodded. "The way I figure it... from my limited intel, you understand. Sarah had a sickly kid. The crooked old god, he was used to that. Lord of the harvest and all. Sacrifices," he gulped, his flesh hand twitching to make a sign, for all the good it'd do. "But she didn't want to give him up. What was he gonna do with a runt? They said Mrs. Rogers climbed a sacred mountain and waited under a tree. Or maybe it was a lightning storm. At midnight, at a crossroads.
"However it was, she waited, and when Crom Dubh came, she made a deal. Her son continues on. And the god continues on."
"Sacrifices," repeated Wanda hollowly.
"Not like that," said the Winter Soldier, with a shiver. "Once I asked Sarah about her husband, he went to the Great War and didn't come back. Or he came back not himself, and then died. She said to me: there would be no more blood taken from those who couldn't spare it, only the blood from those who'd give it. I think that was the deal she made.
"Steve gets to keep his body until it gives out."
Natasha was deeply disturbed. "Does it not belong to him anymore?"
"This is him," said Bucky. "This is Steve. Since when did this slab of meat belong to him?" He jabbed at the bloodied star on the body's chest. "I don't know anything about putting life into bodies. Only taking it out." He glanced at Thor, and at Vision.
The Black Panther regarded them thoughtfully. "You're saying he is the Dullahan. An incarnation. An embodiment of an ancient power."
Sam snorted at the obvious parallel. Someone had to.
"He's Steve," Bucky persisted. "Some people say it's how the stories change, whenever Crom changes his, whatsitcalled, aspect. I think he was figuring out a way to survive the world. No matter how it changed. Besides, Steve's a crap dullahan. He can't even manage a revolving door, my ass he can 'throw open every gate and window.'"
Steve angled his shoulders in Bucky's direction, a hair's breadth away from bristling. Sam had the uncomfortable premonition of Steve taking on every revolving door until he mastered them all.
"You can't seriously believe," Tony began.
"I've heard some tall tales in the circus, Barnes, but this might take the cake," said Clint. "You sure his head doesn't have wi-fi or something?"
"How many times did I run for the priest to perform Last Rites!" Bucky burst out. "I lost count. I dragged him outta bunkers half-starving and almost all blown up. I let him alone for five minutes — five minutes! — and he not only roped himself into boot camp, he walked into Stark's pressure cooker."
Tony started, but it was T'Challa who reacted first. "So that was why you wanted to see how much of the Vita-Ray capsule had been reverse engineered. It was not only to ensure that no one would replicate the experiment..."
"He wouldn't have survived otherwise?" said Tony, wide-eyed. They all looked at each other, a silent holy shit shared among them.
"Speakin' of tall tales! Of course not. Project Rebirth shoulda fried him. Stretching his bones like a pulp fiction torture rack, you kiddin' me? It was the same damn thing, all over," said Bucky with a scowl. "He should've been dead. Over and over. I didn't just watch him make it, I watched him dead. Cough up blood and keep breathing. Bounce off the ground and pop up in a jiffy. But what Sarah did..." he placed a hand on Steve's forearm. Between the bulletproof uniform and the metal palm, the dried blood made a scraping sound. "She gave him a choice to make that sacrifice."
"Until time ran out," said the Black Widow.
Barnes said, "I don't know how this works. The dullahan, it doesn't care. It's bloodthirsty. Steve had, had a head on his shoulders, he got to pick his own way. Now that his head's separated from his body, he might not get that choice anymore."
There was a silence.
"So Steve's a death omen," said Tony brightly, upholding his fine tradition of declaring the obvious. "We sealing him up? I didn't pack any in-flight American flag bandages, you got some, Rhodey?"
"Left it in my other suit," said Rhodey, "The one with the tampons. What!" he said when the Black Widow raised an unamused eyebrow. "I really do carry them, ask Carol. They're staples in any field-ready survival kit."
Steve's body snapped its fingers and pointed at Rhodey, then flicked its thumb over the side of its curled-up knuckles.
Rhodey perked up. "Yeah, see, Cap knows. Kindling for fires. They come in their own waterproof pack. Mmhm, see, I was telling you."
Though no one was in range to see him, Clint raised his hand as he never had while in school. "When you apply heat to Cap, is he going to go up like a torch?"
"Yes," said Tony.
"No," said Bucky.
Tony spread his hands. "Look, who has been setting things on fire since he was three? I am the expert on fire-setting, I probably have a doctorate in it somewhere, oh my god I'm going to set Captain America on fire," he clutched his heart, wheezing with laughter. "This is either the worst day or the best day."
"Could we not?" said Bucky, pained.
Sam was caught between a smirk and a grimace. "Well, all those blood-soaked rags, he's gonna go up like a Roman candle."
At that, Steve tilted the shield and tapped its stripes.
Sam couldn't stand it any longer; he folded over giggling.
Natasha translated. "...it's patriotic?"
Bucky yanked the shield down with a glare. "Oh no. You don't get to joke about this. You don't gotta see how fucking traumatizing you look, you don't get to be a wiseass."
Gravely, Steve snapped off a salute perfectly aligned with the space formerly occupied by his forehead.
"Fuck you," said Bucky.
"I dunno, it's pretty funny," opined Clint. "Going up like the Fourth of July."
Tony was lifting his data-glasses to wipe tears of mirth from his cheeks.
The Winter Soldier narrowed his eyes.
"Are you recording?" whispered Wanda to Vision.
"Absolutely," said Vision. He replicated a throat-clearing sound. "For further study."
Natasha, who could work under all conditions, including hysteric hilarity, said, "This is our last shot, correct? I've already contacted Helen Cho, and her team's on their way to HQ."
Composing himself, Falcon confirmed, "There's no going back. Steve and I figured out a while ago the serum's hyper-reactive to trauma. Once we cauterize the stump, my best guess is it'll heal over."
Significantly lowering the chances of screwing on a wayward enchanted head.
"Sounds right," said the Winter Soldier. "Cap?"
Steve's body did not hesitate, giving the tactical sign for all-go.
Steve's head stared balefully at the assembled group like a rare block of cheese, priceless and funky.
So that was that.
It wasn't as though Steve could spend the rest of his un-life leaking into the carpet. Bucky knew he'd not last long on grass. He could barely go an hour in Central Park without losing half a pint, head or no head.
Barnes allowed himself a clasp of Steve's forearm with his metal hand, one warmly returned with a clammy, blood-caked mitt. He stood and turned expectantly to the others who were heroically smothering their giggles.
"Okay, ahh," Tony said with one last guffaw. "If I can get an assist, I can guarantee Cap won't go up like a—"
"Rocket's red glare?" said Rhodey with a straight face.
Either Natasha's throat was scratchy or she'd stifled a snicker.
"—candle wick, it's localized heat, the goal is coagulation, right? Friday's looking up Helen's notes, since Bruce is inconveniently in his Green period, but we're still cross-referencing like it's Mr. Wizard... oh wait, you kids are into that Billy guy now—"
"Bill Nye," said Scott, who was reporting back from his HVAC mission. Scott had foregone his mask and was instead wearing a contorted expression. "The Science Guy."
"How can one man be the science guy? That seems unscientific." Tony snapped his fingers in Scott's face. "Wait, electrical engineering, right? I was about to say, this would be safer with dedicated channels for the— I mean we're trying to solidify the water without igniting the dam—"
Vision helpfully spun the hologram.
Scott bounced on his heels. "Oh hey, I know this one. Targeted pulses!"
"Huh," said Tony. "Yeah, I could do it myself, I mean with Wanda's help, but I think she could use a breather, you know?" (Wanda looked a tad surprised at this, and then pleased.) "Thor, buddy, I'm guessing you don't have much practice with temperature control?"
"Not as such," said Thor. "Precision is not my strong suit. The Vision is better than I—"
"I would rather spare Captain Rogers my amateur mistakes in comprehending human anatomy," said Vision.
"It'll have to be high temperature, I'd like it to be one-shot, quick," emphasized Tony. "So there'll be little to no pain."
"Right. I mean, it's Captain America." Then Scott caught up with the scene before him: Bucky and Sam patching up Steve's fireproof uniform as T'Challa clawed out strips of Wakandan-manufactured tape, and Rhodey putting the finishing touches on Natasha's remaining Widow's Bites.
Hawkeye turned Scott's hands palm up.
"You're up," said the Black Widow, dropping the modified Bites into them.
"Right," said Ant Man weakly. Then he straightened, as Iron Man's grin stretched. "Right! Captain America needs us."
"Don't fall in, Pop Rock, we can't come get you," said Sam. He leaned over Bucky to add sotto voce, "Fantastic Voyage, man!" He offered a fist, and was pounded with a tad more force than necessary. At least it wasn't the metal hand.
Vision said, "I have calculated an optimum route as well as the ideal position for the receivers." His visual aid sprouted trails of bright lines.
"Okay, here we go, uploading map," said Ant Man. He danced like a boxer before a fight or a fair-goer at the end of a long restroom queue. "Whew, whew, yeah. Hooo. Okay. Your Highness, uh, Your Majesty sir, did I ever tell you how awesome it was when your labs improved my vision tech, because that was awesome."
(Tony Stark twitched.)
"And now I may tell my technicians that it was used to navigate many layers of blood-soaked fiber," said the king serenely.
"Captain America! Yeah!" Ant Man took a running start.
"Does he know about the mystical aspect?" whispered Wanda, as she relaxed her powers.
"Whoaa whaa huh WHA—!" said Ant Man, his voice climbing the scale as his body shrank to size. He landed neatly in the crusted-over target area.
"It is possible that bravado is his superpower," said Vision.
Ant Man's voice came over their comms. "Holy shit, is my— oh geez, my suit's not reporting leaks but I can still smell this— fuck me, this is awful. Oh sh... language, sorry Captain America, I'm wading in your lymph swamp, and it smells like maggot cheese, bleeaaaurgh. Hang on, first target in sight... I'm fighting through the... Am I climbing a jungle of tampons? It's like that cave in Mexico except with more fluff and... stuff. Or was it that cartoon Cassie likes?"
Falcon interrupted. "How you doin', Shrinky Dinks? Status report."
"I uh," a cough, "I've got the first transducer planted. It's getting kind of crusty. I was going to try a jump but the situation's a little... sticky."
Steve's body barely stifled a jolt of alarm. Nothing like a bodily earthquake to make matters worse.
Sam muted his comm and swore. "The serum's speeding up coagulation."
"Tell him to hot-foot it!" said Bucky.
Sam glared at Bucky. He clicked his mic. "You're safer on the fibers, Ant Man. Do not get caught on the fleshy part, you copy?"
"No meat quicksand, gotcha!" Ant Man sounded out of breath. "It's actually not too bad; I just adjusted the ionization on the suit—"
"Good move," noted Iron Man reluctantly.
"—it's like walking on cornflakes. Made of blood. The real problem's, whoa, whoa, hang on."
By the fountain, Scarlet Witch was wringing her sleeves, though they were already dry. "I could extract him, fast."
"As can I," said the Vision.
"No, I got this! I got this! I was just saying, the terrain's just a little, uh, shredded. But I think... okay. Yeaaaah!" came the cry over the comms, with the gusto of the winner of a beer pong tournament.
"Are you skiing on Cap's severed neck?" said Sam.
Thor looked disturbingly intrigued.
"—transducers three and four! Now we're talking. Sorry if I'm stepping on your nerve endings, Captain America sir. It's kind of a mess up here."
Brow furrowing, Bucky turned to Steve. It was odd addressing his erstwhile body, as though it were still the early days after the 107th's liberation and Bucky still thought Steve's head was closer to his belly button.
The more things changed.
"Steve, you'd tell us if you're hurting, right?"
Steve's body offered a thumbs up, close to the chest so as not to jostle his tiny passenger.
About half the assembled party snorted.
"Wonder if Pym particles work on the Hulk," muttered Tony, who was watching Ant Man's progress on his watch's screen, and nervously preparing to take aim at Captain America. He was still terrible at omelettes.
"How big would he get?" said Rhodey. "Would he still be green?"
"The Incredible Booger?"
The comm came to life. "You guys? Are these tubes supposed to be open? Because they're still kind of fresh."
"That's what we're trying to fix," said Falcon calmly.
"Okay, they're bubbling like cheese and broccoli soup, except red. More like a chili con carne, actually. I am going to make myself hurl in my own suit, aren't I?"
"You see any whites, or greenish-blues, Ant Man?" Falcon cut in. "No lesions?"
"Transducer five. That's a negatory on the white and blue. Only red! Ha ha. Since it's... flaglike," said Ant Man, less than didactically. "I mean, ahem, now that I can tell the blood-soaked rags from the blood, it looks like supermarket steak. Except don't they use dye on that? I only ever worked in dry goods, they wouldn't let me near the refrigerated section. I mean, not till I got older. With experience."
Falcon was cradling his eyes in his hands. "Besides the blood getting soaked up, you don't see anything changing? The... terrain's staying the same?"
"That's a ten-four. Now that you mention it, I bet if I added skis to the suit, I could slalom through... not that I would! Captain Rogers. I would never, ever do that on your person."
Sam caught Natasha's eye. "We're on the right track, then. Cauterization is our only option."
The Black Widow nodded. "Clock's ticking, Lang."
"Almost... got it... there! Last one!"
Iron Man took a stutter-step forward, pitching his voice at the Winter Soldier, his eyes glued to the calculations he'd stake his life on, though perhaps not his nerves.
"How are we...?" Tony began, and Bucky looked up, slightly surprised — at which point Sam turned around to possibly play damage control.
This was how the three standing the closest managed to be a smidge too late to react.
"Coming through!" cracked across the comm channels, verily like a pubescent boy.
"If I—" said Vision, and before he could utter the 'may', Ant Man leaped from the ramshackle runway that was Captain America's sawed-off neck, and expanded in mid-air, where in a puff of additive-laced cotton and flecks of dried blood, he promptly burst into flame.
Chapter 7: 5:01 | 35:11
Now, Scott Lang was in the business of bending the laws of physics, but the truth of it was he had spent more time as a wage-slave and two-bit criminal than as a superhero. So we may forgive him for being overly excited by his bloody romp through the tattered landscape that was the top of Captain America's neck. After all, it was a neck which had been chafed by the chin-straps of justice, dodged bullets in the Second World War, and been sprinkled by the oleaginous kisses of ardent fans. Anyone would be giddy.
However, as any graduate of Agent Coulson's Personal Combat with Flour and Other Explosive Particulates would know, a dense cloud of organic fluff and flaking blood combined with a rapid expansion into oxygenated air was going to go boom.
Bracketed by Tony and Sam, with Steve and his head facing away from the action, Bucky was nearly, fatally indecisive. The fireball was small yet targeted, arcing away from Scott like a 70's motorcycle stunt or a nomadic Olympic event. And directly at Steve's body.
In the first tenth of a second, Bucky went for Steve.
In that same tenth of a super-serum shortened second, Steve's body jerked to its feet, scooped up the head, flipped the shield over (in a move which would have decapitated him had he not been already), and ducked.
Concurrently, Thor leaped for the innocent indoor plant which had been functioning as an IV stand, having been the one who placed it in harm's way.
This removed the only barrier between them and a burst of flame.
In the second tenth of a second, Sam's excellent visual acuity and trained reflexes kicked in. He threw himself over Steve's body... and was intercepted by trained and enhanced human reflexes when Steve executed a kneeling barrel-roll turn, and yanked Sam under the shield. There was nary a puff of heat to singe their hair, had there been much hair involved.
As it was, Sam would end up nose to nose with the disembodied head.
That second tenth of a second saw Bucky reverse course, grab the outstretched repulsor gauntlet which was part of Tony's first reaction, and throw his metal arm over the man's skull.
They did not duck in time — partly due to Tony's startlement and partly from Bucky's erstwhile training. Erstwhile meaning Hydra; except for the best ways to yell at Steve, the preponderance of Barnes's training was the Winter Soldier's.
The fireball was on its way to dissipating when, another tenth later, a net of red energy caught it before it could make contact with Bucky's shoulders.
A full second later, Ant Man's suit had caught fire.
Oh yes, Ant Man was still inside.
"Uh, guys...?" said Scott.
Scarlet Witch, who had stumbled into the fountain and was containing the small fireball, glanced around in panic. The Black Panther too hesitated, both for the same reason: they were not sure what jury-rigged chemicals coursed through Ant Man's suit. It wasn't as though anyone had seen his movie, as Wade might interpose.
The Vision intuited that Wanda was squeamish about applying her powers to such unknowns, and in no time at all walked into Scott and materialized over him.
(The Black Widow winced.)
In one move this cut off the oxygen to feed the lazy lick of flames, and simultaneously grossed the fuck out of everybody else. Which, given that they'd been doused with the internal gore of a moldering version of their teammate, was saying something.
Though Vision stepped away in, technically, no seconds later, Scott was nonplused.
"I am sorry, I tried to be as quick as possible. Did I suffocate you?" inquired Vision.
"That was not consensual, man!" Scott shrieked through the comm channels.
Wanda raised a brow, but reeled in the fireball to extinguish it in the fountain. She had been in denial about her new boots, and was starting to mourn them now. As well as the state of her soul, but let's not veer into puns now.
"I... apologize?" said Vision.
Thor patted the house plant.
Steve's body allowed Sam to wriggle away with some semblance of dignity; then it raised hesitant fingertips at where Bucky and Tony were frozen in an incredibly awkward embrace.
"Uh," said Tony.
Bucky, heedless of the romantic tropes of many a fanfiction archive, gave him a once-over. Satisfied that he had not broken any bones, he nodded to Steve. "We're okay, pal."
"Yeah, thanks for the save," Tony said. His brain was catching up to the fact that Bucky had simply stood there and blocked; he rapidly extrapolated what precisely that erstwhile programming had bade him do.
Bucky looked at him like he wasn't sure who Tony was talking to. Which was, strictly speaking, possibly true. He went over to help Steve to his feet.
"Is, ohgod, is everybody okay?" said Scott. He pulled off his helmet, oddly glad of the putrid air upon his face. "Oh man, my bad. I just wanted to get clear of the couch and junk. I should've done a gradual expansion. I mean there's plenty of room on the couch. Except I'd have ended up on your lap, Captain America sir. Not that I wouldn't fit on your lap, you've got a wide lap. Cap."
Scott was not glancing at Vision.
"Bad touch," observed Natasha.
The Black Panther crossed his paws forebodingly in lieu of covering a chuckle.
Natasha proceeded to none-too-gently assess Scott for injuries.
Sam tried to spit out the nasty taste in his mouth, to no avail. As he did this into the soil of the plant pot, he received a frown from Thor, who was stroking its leaves. However, the Asgardian prince did not move from the spot; behind them, Steve's body was using the hem of Thor's cape to slap down the flames curling up the well-demolished couch. By necessarily tacit agreement, they were trying not to draw the Vision's attention. Bucky sidled over and casually patted out an arm-rest.
Bucky was also heroically preventing himself from asking if the smoke was irritating Steve's lungs.
It wasn't as though he was going to get a real answer, anyway.
The Falcon reported, "In case anybody cares? The good news is Steve's fluid replacement is at an equilibrium." One of Sam's hard-earned and hard-fought talents was an accurate estimation of the amount of fluids dispersed on the ground. "Bad news is he's still leaking. This'll be here and now, not at HQ or the jet."
Tony and Rhodey exchanged looks, and extracted Fireman Cap in order to inspect Scott's work. All under the eyeless gaze of mouldering head.
Clint clicked into the comms. "Okay, I gotta question. Are we also supposed to set the head on fire?"
"CLINT." "Like a marshmallow?" "Why are you so fixated—" "We're not setting his face on fire!"
"Everybody else got set on fire!"
"Flames," muttered Sam. "Flames on the side of my face." Bucky raised a brow. Thor muffled a chuckle.
"That is the wrong way to roast marshmallows," grumbled Rhodey.
"I concur," murmured King T'Challa. Louder, as though to avoid Rhodey's proffered knuckle-bump, His Majesty inquired: "Why would we set fire to Captain Rogers' head?"
"Like the story?" said Clint with a notch less confidence. "Doesn't he ride around with a burning skull?"
"I thought it was a pumpkin," said Natasha. She preferred to believe this was a scrap of information obtained from her turns as Aunty Nat, and not as Natalia the prospective Soviet double-agent.
"No one has explained these pumpkins yet," complained Wanda. "Aren't they like gourds? And why do people put them in coffee?" Steve gestured to her like he was presenting a serving tray. "Steve agrees with me."
"I had meant to expand on Halloween traditions earlier, with you," Vision volunteered. "I had been searching for a way to explain the anti-feminist conventions surrounding witchcraft."
Wanda patted his synthesized shoulder. "I got that in Gender Studies. It's pumpkins which have no context." She glanced around, and folded her arms. "When we have festivals for the dead, we go to the cemetery. And light candles. We do not set squashes on fire."
"O-kay!" Tony Stark found himself in the unexpected position of having to play the grown-up. He rather wished Steve wouldn't use his headless condition to stir up the rest of the school bus. "Here's a thought, if we set fire to Steve's head and it magically doesn't extinguish itself, how about we do that in controlled lab conditions, huh?"
The Vision looked shocked. Simply shocked, I say.
Tony recalled that he had access to JARVIS's records of his lab conditions. Tony barely stopped himself from flipping him off.
Thor shortened his grip on the hammer. "Stark," he growled, "I know you speak in jest, but should you meddle with forces beyond your ken, whether in the workshop or the open field, it will not diminish the terror if the dead lips which speak your name are on fire."
There was a brief silence.
"I thought he was going with 'aflame,'" said Rhodey.
"Me too," said Sam. "Poetic. What's Asgardian for 'you dumbass'?"
Though he was out of sight, Black Widow turned to narrow her eyes at Clint. He stowed his incendiary arrows. Black Widow disengaged her stare.
"Not lighting up Cap's head, copy," said Hawkeye, cheerfully brisk.
"Glad that's decided," said Barnes weakly. The truth of it was he hadn't figured out the answer to Barton's question. Never mind the awful image of burning what was left of his oldest friend's features. (Not that there was much remaining.) Here he was, the only one with a chance of knowing what to do, and of course this was one more thrice-damned curse of being an amnesiac assassin.
"In the interests of not turning this into an Onion headline," said Tony, forging on, "Entirely, when we do this, there's not going to be a significant energy discharge, is there? Like Highlander?"
Rhodey said, "That's a TV show, Tony. Not even a reality one."
"I know that! Given the, ah, forces beyond my ken, can't hurt to ask in case the entirety of the Avengers Initiative is assembled in the center of a blast zone." He most certainly did not pause to let that sink in. "Besides, I only know one immortal and he's made of lightning."
Though not technically accurate, Thor did perk up at the honor, his earlier ire dissolved in favor of a buoyant head-bob. In case anyone had missed the reference.
"Also, didn't we fight those exploding dudes?" said Rhodey.
"I thought that was a bad trip," said Tony. "Yeah, let's not tell the kids what potential energy's tucked in a serum-enhanced human body, even if that was a geek binge for the ages." Indeed. Never fashion a drinking game out of calculating pi.
Perhaps to forestall Bucky's inevitable bellow of 'Exploding people?!', Natasha said, "Don't worry. Clint and the Hulk would survive."
T'Challa said nothing, though he did pointedly don his helmet once more.
"Clint's like a cockroach, he'll always come back," added Natasha as loyally as she could manage.
"Hey, thanks. I think," said Clint.
Bucky sighed. "He didn't blow up when Thor tried zapping him with the hammer." Maybe begin to usher their souls into the next world, but that wasn't what Stark was asking.
"Yes, well that was when we were trying to screw Cap's cap back on. This is the other way around."
"The energy you're introducing into the system would be negligible," said the Black Panther.
"Yeah, we still don't know what this system does," said War Machine. "No offense, Cap."
Scarlet Witch spoke up. "I could lay an energy net above his shoulders, and pull it up in case of explosion."
Eager to contribute, Steve's body propped up his head where it was gooily tucked in the crook of his arm.
Wanda, who was closest, froze up. Eyebrows lifted.
Hastily the shield was jerked about to cover the post-mortal skull. Steve took on a hangdog air.
"S'allright, pal," said the Winter Soldier stoutly. He wiped the sweat from his upper lip, and did not gulp over the pounding of his heart. "He's got a point, though. If Iron Man's setting it off, who's on head duty?"
"I'll do it," volunteered the Black Widow. Hawkeye was too far away to assess an eldritch shift in the air. Iron Man flipped his wrist and tossed her his sonic blaster. (Spider-Man would have claimed infringement.) The Widow caught it without breaking stride.
"I will risk contact, if your projectiles do not work," said the Black Panther. "My suit — and my skills — are not the only powers at my disposal."
With great trepidation, Thor began, "You are all mighty warriors," but the Captain's body held up a hand. Once it captured the prince's attention, it mimed an upward trajectory.
"Good call," said Iron Man. "Thor, you're the only flyer who can pull off a vertical launch. If we're violating some unseen cosmic rule, and bring reality down on our heads, you and Hulk will run evac. And bring Ants-in-Pants," he added, when Cap pointed at Scott. (Scott was caught between elation and a growl's worth of exasperation, until Thor gave his shoulder a hearty squeeze.)
Sensibly, War Machine added, "Possible death-explosion aside, here's an idea. How about we back Rogers up to the fountain, so if we need fire-control—"
"We can just push him in!" said Falcon, warming to the idea.
The Winter Soldier struggled to be affronted. "Whoever pushes him in's gotta pull him back out. I'm retired from fishing his backside outta the drink."
"Preferable to Vision's whole body cuddle—" Tony trailed off as Wanda shot a glare at him. "Uh, sorry, didn't mean to step on your game." Wide-eyed and mouth falling open, he turned to Rhodes as if to say, 'Why the fuck did I just say that?'
To which Rhodes answered with a confused pout and half an eye-roll, as in, 'I have no fucking idea.'
Wanda merely looked smug.
Sam and Bucky were trailing Steve as he wobbled over to the fountain. They were not herding him. At all.
"You wanna be the emergency shover?" Sam was saying to Bucky.
"You still play rock, paper, scissors?"
Steve's body looked despairing. Natasha looked put-out that she had other duties to occupy her.
"One of one, we're on a time crunch," said Sam with a responsible air. They both made a fist of their left hands, and in a brief but astonishing display of triceps, swung them behind their ears with a "Rock, paper, scissors—!"
"Damn it," said Bucky. "Would you believe the arm did that on its own?"
The Falcon struck a glorious pose of victory.
"Perhaps your Hydra arm might have," said King T'Challa coolly. Barnes jittered an apologetic grin.
Steve's body radiated disappointment and betrayal.
"Don't throw your back out reeling him in," Barnes advised, paying no mind.
Wilson rolled his eyes as if to remind him that there was one of them whose resume included catching Steve in freefall.
Smoothed over by practice, roughed up by blood and fire and blood-on-fire, the Avengers took their positions. As a group, they were at-ease, as though they weren't about to pop a bottlecap on Hell itself. They had already screwed up twice, and lived to tell it, if not boast of it on their blogs. This was a marked improvement from their usual track record. There was a rumble, and a rolling boulder's worth of shadows as Clint tried to position the Hulk over the skylight. In case of emergency, mayhaps one of them would remember to open it first.
Iron Man found himself facing Captain America. No helmets between them this time; he wasn't sure how Steve conveyed it, but the gangly awkwardness was now obvious. Perhaps Tony had mostly despised his stupid face.
Which was staring at him.
"Okay, if Wanda's over there, I could stand on the edge of the fountain," Rhodey was saying.
Steve's body shifted its weight.
It seemed to be looking right at Tony.
It was good fortune, or a highly developed sense of Steve's foolishness, that Barnes happened to be looking in their direction.
Slowly, like Tony was watching oxygen being eaten up by a flame, like something was about to be extinguished, he witnessed the mottled, moldering head begin to unhinge its jaw.
Chapter 8: 2:21 | 37:32
This time the effect was instantaneous, and universal.
The Black Widow raised her weapon, Iron Man nabbed the shield from Cap's loose fingers, and the Winter Soldier clapped a hand over his friend's rotting mouth.
"Steve, no!" Bucky cried.
Everyone froze. Wanda and the Vision looked at each other as though to ask which one they were to blast, the body or the head.
Steve's body was aghast. Mortified, even. Hands freed, it flailed its palms wildly, for the first time that day exhibiting profound distress.
"What did I just say?" moaned Bucky.
"I have a containment vessel in my jet," said T'Challa in a thin voice. "If it is permitted, we could keep it there."
"No time," said Sam. Hesitantly he touched Steve's shoulder.
"Stark," said Thor.
Tony was clutching the shield so tightly his joints, metal or otherwise, creaked, sweating like he was having an attack. He met Rhodey's wide eyes, then Barnes; the latter looked as whey-faced as he was.
Steve's body stepped forward. If he'd had a head, Tony would have recognized it as his Visage of Earnest Apology. As it was, Tony shuffled back a step.
Steve looked devastated.
"Pal, ease up, Tony knows you're sorry," said Barnes. He had his metal arm nearly stuffed between the rows of teeth.
Tony recognized vaguely that his existence had nearly been snuffed out.
Barnes seemed very deeply worried. Kindly yet firmly, he said, "Steve, look here. I know your urge to speechify is great... but you gotta get used to the fact that it'll have the opposite effect of motivational."
Shoulders slumped, Steve lifted a hand, nearly attempting to cradle a non-existent forehead.
Sam glanced between Tony and Steve. "Maybe use your words— figuratively! Spell it out, man."
Hesitantly, Steve motioned a triangle, or a Dorito, with flattened hands.
"Is that all?" Bucky was half-hysterical with relief. "You got a better angle? Why didn't you say so! You coulda got Tony killed!"
There was a silence.
Barnes didn't waver.
Steve's torso looked miserable. Then he ducked forward, towards Tony. This time Tony held his ground.
Then Barnes said, "Oh," and turned to Tony. "He was apologizing in advance, the doof."
"For...?" Tony got out.
"He thinks he oughta bend over—" someone stifled a nervous laugh, "—and point his neck-hole at you. Probably wanted to spare you the trouble, so... that's why he tried to open his yap."
Wilson's brow arched. "He didn't want to upset you with the whole cross-sectioned tissue look."
"Oh," said Tony. It took a precious second to grapple with the concept of Cap trying to spare him anything. "Well. That's probably my fault," he rallied, "Trained Cap to yell my name whenever he got hot under the headwings." It was dawning on him that Barnes had saved his life, twice. His soul, the second time, and he was uncomfortably aware that there were few sorts of armor for that.
Tony added, expansively, "It's not like it's open-heart surgery. What's a little bleeding pus between friends?"
Steve's body perked up like a grotesque sunflower.
Gingerly Tony returned the shield to Barnes; nods were exchanged. It was like a breath of fresh air, though in reality it still smelled like the inside of a freshly-dug catacomb. Makeshift, but it would do for a start.
War Machine came away from the fountain to form a V, pauldrons aligned with Iron Man. Their beams would meet where Steve's neck waited at the intersection of more thermal excitation.
"Ready, sidekick? By our powers c—" began Rhodey.
"No!" Tony protested. "I didn't even like that cartoon. And it was a cartoon."
"You so did."
"Did not, magic jewelry is stupid."
"You didn't used to think so," said Rhodey mournfully, double-checking some complicated resonance.
Tony tugged at his collar. "Did not," he muttered, for form's sake.
Natasha raised a brow, jingling the weaponized trinket which slotted neatly into her Widow's Bites.
"That's science jewelry!" protested Tony Stark.
"Semantics," chuckled Thor indulgently.
The Winter Soldier passed Captain America's shield to the Falcon, all the better for him to tackle the enhanced body in the event of unsafe ignition. The Soldier's hand remained embedded in the faintly grinning maw. The Black Widow adjusted her aim. A crimson collar sprang from the Scarlet Witch's fingertips to encircle what was left of Captain America's neck.
The solid wall of preeminently American muscle bent forward to present its shorn and faintly glistening stump. Amidst the quagmire of soaked menstrual padding, the slits which were the body's internal pipes fluttered like tadpole mouths.
The appearance of Vision's targeting guides did not alter the overall effect.
"Hey, if I go vegan, are you with me?" said Iron Man.
"No way, pulled pork and a chilled Tempranillo's my last guilty pleasure. You wouldn't last a week. On three?"
"I so would. On three."
"Steve," said Sam quietly. "Hold your breath."
The burbling stilled.
In that moment, as Bucky held up the putrefying head in Natasha's line of fire, he reflected that he could no longer berate Steve for leaping upon a supposed grenade.
The cauterization itself was anticlimactic. The twin beams met in the middle, and with a sound like the Hulk rolling in a cushioning factory, each transducer went off in a burst of localized heat. In less than a second, tendrils of smoke rose from the instantly scorched fibers.
There was a brief sizzle as a rivulet of blood hit the heat. Steve's body shuddered, but held position.
The beams died away.
Barnes checked the skull lodged on his hand. Still rotten.
There was a startling clang as Sam dropped the shield and yanked on a pair of gloves. He'd thought about switching with Bucky, then the guy had to go and stick his fingers in an undead jaw. "Easy, easy— give me vitals, Viz," said Wilson. He ripped open a jumbo-sized non-adherent gauze, redolent with antiseptics, and tamped it over the entire stump. A medicinal marinade, if you will.
No eldritch mist accosted their party.
The Vision highlighted the information. "His health indicators appear stable." For the given variables of having been decapitated and then burnt like a match, apparently.
Thor, who could be stealthy when he wished, had snapped on a straining pair of latex gloves, and was unwrapping another sterile apparatus.
Sam went through the motions so as not to gag at the sickly sweet odor of crisped corpse. "Okay, you know the drill. We've put an incredible strain on your heart. Your adrenaline is going to ramp down in a minute, which probably means the serum's headed, uh, in the same direction. So you'll be doing something real difficult."
There was a slow, wet wheeze, like a trout being slapped, as Steve's body respired.
Sam Wilson spoke slowly and clearly. "Rogers, you have to dial it down."
Stark turned to Rhodes. "We'll be here till next century, you want a pizza?"
"Do not talk to me about pizza," hissed Rhodey. "Even vegan."
Wilson found himself with a prince of Asgard for a medical assistant. "—hold it steady, thanks. That's good for now, Wanda. Relax."
The directive rippled through the group as the red glow vanished. They looked at each other, and sneaked glances at the head, which could've been cross between a rotting pumpkin and a melted wax effigy. Unlike a prop from a Hallowe'en bargain bin, it seemed to be having a better time than anyone else in the room.
With his metal hand, Bucky waved at Steve's neck like he was extinguishing a birthday candle. The Winter Soldier scrutinized the aftermath. Everyone with a breath to be held, held it. From the suspense. Mostly. Bucky had sniffed worse. "...we could still push him in the water, if you want."
Natasha looked tempted. "Yeah, he's fine."
"Don't look at me like that! We wouldn't have let you drown," Sam was saying to what was left of Steve.
King T'Challa observed Wilson applying a fresh wrappings to the sedimentary layers of first aid, like a professional embellishing folk-art. "We have more advanced polymers for our wound dressing."
"You can restock our kits, Your Majesty," said Sam wryly. "Steve. Hold still before I get Barnes to hold you down, man. Thor, could you get the stretcher? The one with wheels?"
"At once!" said Thor, a tad too eagerly. "Hawkeye, if you would—"
"Eyes on you, I'll move," replied Hawkeye. He had barely scooched away from the overhead exit before Thor windmilled Mjolnir through it. The downdraft whooshed away that newly charred smell, only to invite a backflow of decomposition.
Scott Lang raised a hand. And the other, for good measure. "I feel like I'm asking the wrong question, here? Is he going to live?"
Wanda Maximoff rubbed her temples.
Sam Wilson kept his attention on his checklist, trying not to think of the distinct lack of a cartilaginous nose. It was surprisingly helpful to think of it as an overzealous tracheotomy — they might not even be exempt from the awkward eye-contact.
"Wrong question," confirmed Natasha.
Tony exchanged a glance with Vision. "To the lab. We'll find out what's on the slab."
Chapter 9: 12:00 | 49:32
7 × 88 mi/min = 616 mi
There comes a time in every man's life when he bundles off his best-friend-cum-childhood-hero's body onto a stretcher, and lowers this friend's detached head into a canister designed to contain a nuclear dirty bomb.
Sam Wilson regarded the box on his lap. Bucky Barnes was next to him with the vibranium shield on his metal arm, ready at a moment's notice to push Sam and the box out of the emergency hatch. Which was perfectly safe for all involved, Steve's head exempted, as Sam was the only flier who hadn't gone ahead to HQ. The Avengers were not currently at the stage of referring to it as "headquarters."
Redwing came to life with the coordinates of the nearest deep dark hole into which one could drop a decomposing head with the supernatural power of death. If this was a rite of passage, Sam did not want to know what he was passing into. Emphasis on passing.
After all the exertions of the day, Steve's body had finally surrendered to unconsciousness. If a decapitated body could sleep. History would show that there had most certainly not been any swooning involved. The life-signs beeping away on the monitors were reassuringly and creepily regular.
The good news was that intubation had been a snap. Easiest ever.
Sam was taking the rest of it under advisement.
The box felt as heavy as a human head. Given that Sam knew the original weight of the box, he took solace that his suit was rated for low levels of radiation.
Across from him, Clint Barton said, "We're not watching Seven, ever."
"Good!" said Wanda Maximoff.
"I don't think there are any videos left in my collection," mourned Clint.
Said Bucky Barnes: "You still use videos?"
There was a fraught moment.
With exaggerated dignity, Clint Barton got to his feet. "Tasha! Switch, I'm flying the quinjet." They watched him stomp off, grumbling under his breath, "Bet the Hulk still watches videos. My VCR doesn't even blink twelve anymore..."
Natasha Romanoff took Clint's place. She too regarded the box. She looked like she would have taken this superhero gig under advisement if this particular level-up had been included in the brochure.
Tony Stark had rocketed off with what was left of the bloody, smoldering, shredded uniform, but the cabin still held the faint smell of scorched Steve Rogers.
They were not going to acknowledge their own collective stench of high stress and dried biologicals. Even their sense of smell had gone numb.
"Strap in," T'Challa called from the cockpit. He did not turn around.
The Black Panther was done.
Sam thumped his own head on the headrest.
"Barnes, for real," he said, "Is this another day on the job for you? You couldn't have dropped a hint?"
"Didn't want to trouble anybody," muttered Barnes. He tugged on Steve's hospital gown so that part of the messy stump would show. It was too cadaver-like otherwise. "He had plenty of time to spill the beans. Never did. Could be, he thought it'd be like a regular death." He and Rogers were by now experts on every death but the regular kind.
They lifted off without so much as a popped middle ear, or any other air-filled chambers. T'Challa had removed all the gold from the plane's inner workings with the push of a button, and managed not to look smug about it.
There probably wasn't a Eustachian tube left in Steve's former head.
The Wakandan plane was preternaturally silent on the inside too. No doubt the king was listening, and probably recording. Sam didn't blame him. Who would believe them otherwise?
Sam Wilson stole one more peek at Rogers's distress meter (a standard-issue Stark gadget) which for the duration had resided in the Steve Jumped Out a Window Again range. That was the official Avengers terminology — and for Steve Rogers values of Normal, it didn't merit any pain medication. Now, there, was a collection of stories to which Bucky would not be privy. If anything, the reading was too mild for such a grave injury, but nevertheless Sam tried to smooth away most traces of alarm.
Sam thumped his head again. "Why didn't he say anything?"
It was chancy asking the oft-brain-fried Winter Soldier about the inner workings of the notoriously tight-lipped Captain America. Since his lips were no longer attached, Steve wasn't getting a vote.
"He thought he was going to die," said Natasha.
"He thought he was going to live," Bucky corrected. "Whole bundle makes sense now. He must've spent all those years believing his charmed life was going to waste."
"That explains the crash test dummy impression he does sometimes," Sam said.
Bucky groaned. "All it did was make him reckless. I remember, even under the conditioning...."
The Black Widow was scowling, not at Bucky, but at Steve. "What did he do?"
For all of Bucky's caginess, it was dawning on him that managing Steve by himself had been a losing proposition from the start, and would be impossible without the team now. They were certainly... resolved to render assistance. Besides, this time Steve was in no condition to shine Bucky's shoes.
Reluctantly the Winter Soldier reported. "I jumped after him when he was knocked out of the helicarrier. Half of me wanted to confirm I'd accomplished my mission. Seemed like it. Because he hit the water spine-first from hundreds of feet up—"
Sam swore. "...I thought he fell from a lower altitude! Rogers! That's like hitting solid concrete, never mind all the debris in the water! And the fact that it's the fucking Potomac! Which was on fire at the time!" He resisted kicking the stretcher.
Natasha too wore a pinched look. "I thought so too. The helicarriers were all on a slow descent. He could have swum to shore."
Bucky shook his head. "Naw, that was me, dragging him downstream. I thought I'd be retrieving a corpse. That shook somethin' loose, all right," he said grimly, knocking the side of his head. "I realized this guy wasn't just enhanced. He was different. After I toured the Smithsonian exhibit, I realized he couldn't be a," he coughed, "a dead ringer. He was the real article."
Original-flavor beacon of goodness lay between them and, with the sincerity of the unconscious, did not appear to be chaotically aligned.
The Black Widow looked like she was beyond done. She exchanged a helpless glance with Falcon. "I suppose everything comes with a silver lining."
"Not a word to anyone. Typical lips-are-sealed Rogers," said Sam. He could be forgiven the half-second delay before he guiltily shifted the lipless package on his lap.
"Does it matter if he knew?" groused Barnes. "It'd be in his interest not to let on. Doesn't even top the list of things we ought to give him shit for." He stopped short, as though remembering there were ladies present.
Before he could apologize, Nat said dryly, "He's owed a lot of shit."
"Among other things," said Wanda Maximoff, who had long ago mastered brittle irony.
There was a silence.
Sam was getting the sinking feeling that Steve was escaping potluck duty with Mrs. Wilson for the foreseeable future. He said softly, "He'll get his wish. He won't be the Captain anymore."
Every working pair of eyes in the passenger cabin drifted to the shield.
Lack of a head would make Steve's defensive turtle maneuver all the more effective, but yes, it was time to face the reality of Steve's tenure as Captain America.
Bucky looked like he'd like to exchange that shield for a nice pair of boots. After a few minutes, he perked up. Or, inasmuch as the Winter Soldier could perk up, he looked marginally less homicidal. "Maybe this time," he said, "I can attend the funeral. How about that, huh?"
Wanda seemed suitably impressed. Nat looked like she wanted to knock the Soviet humor back into his skull.
"Aw man!" Sam was realizing that present circumstances meant Bucky's version of attending a public ceremony would entail a sniper's nest and a high-powered scope. "I'm gonna have to write the eulogy." He pointed at Barnes. "You! You are helping."
Bucky looked like he'd rather go back into cryo-stasis. Then he brightened further.
"Why don't we get Steve to do it?"
Nat snorted. "You're going to stick your undead friend with his own memorial service? That's not very nice, Barnes."
Serenely, Bucky contemplated her observation. Then he said, "He doesn't have a mouth but he's still a better speechwriter than any of us."
"It's the truth," Wanda said with a shrug.
They conceded the point.
Chapter 10: 18:03 | 1:07:35
This chapter is what happens when the first draft pops out perfect and goes unwritten for too long, aka the bane of my existence. Renewed respect for Bucky, geez. Changes are subtle but it's a new read for old audiences. Technically, can even skip ahead to Helen's arrival.
The less said of the decontamination showers, the better. Yes, of course this is a cop-out. The Avengers team were in various combinations of naked, wet, and traumatized, which, one has on good authority, is precisely to the taste of the target audience.
However, as each point-of-view consisted of reliving the events of Steve Rogers's separation of body and head, it would be more expedient to reread these occurrences as recounted above. Except with all principals naked and now smelling faintly of iodine and Mountain Lodge™ by Yankee Candle.
Narratives are oppressively linear, so we'll wait.
Let it soak in.
Oh, very well, perhaps one detail may be revealed: the latest upgrades to the Avengers facilities included a decontamination bath. There might have been a cannonball.
* * *
They gathered in the observation lounge ostensibly to donate biological samples and after-mission reports. It was like a poolside birthday party, except the guest of honor was in pieces, and everyone else laden with a swag bag they weren't sure they wanted.
Bruce Banner was no stranger to awkward situations. This took awkward to new and stomach-churning heights. Or depths.
"Uh. Wow. Okay," he said tentatively.
"You alright there, Doc?" said Hawkeye. Just to check. It usually hurt when they didn't.
Bruce took a few seconds to orient himself to yet another iteration of reality. "Unless we have measures for, uh, Loki, I don't think my big green romper room can... contain him."
"Steve's body is harmless as a very earnest bumper car," said the Black Widow, delivering her professional assessment between sips of nutrient-rich smoothie. The others were avoiding her zone of visceral slurping. "If we weren't risking his existence, it's his head that needs incinerating. Or leaving on Dr. Strange's doorstep."
"In a paper bag?" said Vision.
All towel-drying paused. Vision bowed his way into silence. Wanda attempted not to laugh. Tony rolled his eyes to the whites, unwilling to accept that he still could not tell whether Vision was joking or not.
"Well, I mean," Bruce was saying, "my room—"
"Floor," said Tony.
"My floor is rated for gamma radiation and explosive detonation and, uh, ultrasonic waves. That kind of thing. This is not... in that category."
"Friend Tony," rumbled Thor. "Did you perchance copy the design of Loki's gag, which we used for our departure from the Central Park of Manhattan?"
"I perchance did," said Tony, looking unrepentant.
"That'll be good for masking his identity, and not much else," opined Barnes. It was an expert opinion.
"Isn't his face like a big sticky ball of goo by now?" said Scott.
Clint was rather glad Scott said it so he wouldn't have to.
"Advanced facial recognition programs go by measurements on the skull," said Bucky. "Can't slide by with quick plastic surgery like the old days. Gotta rearrange the whole face." He was struck by the memory of a doctor whom Sarah Rogers worked for, who was deep into the practice of phrenology. The doctor had one of those big porcelain heads with the zones all marked by dotted lines, the kind that nowadays went for hundreds of dollars as domestic conversation pieces.
Sarah Rogers had never permitted her son to be seen by this particular doctor.
"I guess there's not a replacement in a jar on a shelf somew—" said Scott unwisely.
"I really hate that movie," said Bruce. No matter that he was wondering how Steve didn't collapse like a bunch of broccoli. Clint doubly struck-out that title.
"Yeaaaaah..." Tony made a complicated face, which boiled down to not arguing with Bruce. "I don't think any of us are up for more reattachment attempts any time this... lifetime. Like Thor's lifetime."
"We are certain this is Steve?" the Hulk's alter-ego asked, in an altogether too clinical manner.
"I'm never sleeping again." "Seconded." "I was going to say 'mind blown' but we did that."
"Hulk thought it was Steve," said Hawkeye.
"It's him," Wanda Maximoff reluctantly pronounced. "No matter how different. It can't be anyone besides Steve."
Reluctantly Bucky shut his mental card catalog of half-remembered embarrassing Steve Roger stories.
Tony was carrying out a furtive textual argument with Friday about producing the mask, typing away so as to cover his fidgeting. Mostly. "Look, if Steve's really turned into this dullahan, we've got to get on top of that whole 'he can kill us by saying our names' thing before it blows up in our faces—"
Clint's obvious punchline was expertly smothered by Natasha.
Sam stepped in before Bucky could. "Hang on. Steve almost made a mistake back there. Almost. He won't risk doing it again. He's new to this... whatever it is."
"Is he? New to this?" Bruce was peering at the monitor which showed Steve's body lying in repose, intravenously absorbing his usual helping of post-battle nutrients. He adjusted his glasses as the rest of the assembly slid their gazes to Bucky Barnes. "If this isn't expressing itself like some form of atavism, there might've been—"
"Warning signs," Tony Stark half-sang out, jabbing out copypasta to his A.I. which read remarkably like sincere pleas.
Sam Wilson didn't think it would work on Barnes, but he crossed his arms anyway. "I know you didn't leave the Howling Commandos out to dry, Sergeant. What was the plan if he lost his head?"
"I was not the man with the plan," deadpanned Bucky.
"It could help," said Bruce Banner. "Did he display any indications of—"
"Bloodthirsty death-omenship?" said Stark. His prickliness was blunted by a frenzy of swiping across his touchscreen.
"Unnatural invulnerabilty," suggested Natasha. "Shaking off damage. Marking out targets." For slaughter.
"Like a zombie," said Clint, who had expertly escaped Nat's clutches. There went all the Walking Dead from his queue.
Bucky shrugged. "Steve? Nah. It was always a race to pick out the shrapnel before he closed up. And, he didn't even go hunting. I was the sniper — field grub was my area. Me and Frenchy, yeah. We were... detached from the main forces. We had objectives, sure, but we made up plans on the fly."
Clint Barton perked up from his precarious second-story perch.
Rhodes paused in the middle of divesting his armor of gold components, astonished anew. "... no tactical plans, for real? Too bad my old history instructors wouldn't have taken that for a grade."
"With Steve for strategy and Carter's intel, why would we need one? I dunno what the history books said, but we weren't that smart; we were following Captain America around." Among present company, glances went askance. "If his head lit up like an electric torch, or he was seeing through hedges, or some steed came galloping in like he was Zorro... what with everything Red Skull threw at us, it wouldn't have been the strangest thing in the war. And like I told you, we wouldn't have brought it up."
Hawkeye raised a hand. "Didn't see any of those things."
"Steve's rewriting the playbook," said Natasha grimly. "As usual. He's exerting control over this."
Barnes's enigmatic shrug held neither confirmation nor denial.
"Isn't this the same guy that all of SHIELD couldn't contain?" said Rhodey. "And... several world powers we're not naming right now?"
Said the Scarlet Witch, "We keep circling back to the same thing. Did we not establish that containment is a bad idea with us?" This, delivered with relatively mildness, and not so much testy, as wary. As with any other party chatting about an absent host, the skin-crawling suspicion was growing in her that it wasn't as absent as they assumed.
Scott raised his hand, mostly because Clint just did. "Like, if he's still Captain America, is he really that dangerous?"
"It could be a temporary condition." Bruce pushed up his glasses. "It could lie dormant most of the time. Something sets it off. On a timer, maybe. A random confluence of events. Or a combination of all of the above."
"Part-time?" Sam Wilson said. "Are we talking phases of the moon... like a werewolf?"
"Or a Hulk," said Bruce wryly. "We could look for the triggers, and manage it."
"Management?" said T'Challa incredulously.
Scarlet Witch raised a fingertip. "Steve wouldn't be the first one to go through a powerful transformation."
"That's half the Avengers," murmured the Winter Soldier.
Let us refrain from noting how well those turned out.
"How would that even work?" Tony rambled, one eye on Friday's responses. "Is he going to chase ambulances to the morgue? Do we have to trail him with a smoke-machine and a sign-up app? Are we looking up all the horse ranches in the tri-state?"
"This place could use a horse ranch, you know," said Clint. "I brought this up at the apocalypse meeting."
Scott turned to Wanda. "We had meetings? Was I supposed to be at meetings?"
T'Challa was beginning to long for the ungentle machinations of his court over this. "Are we simply to serve as auxiliaries to this incarnation? Captain Rogers has earned the high regard with which he is held, but what qualifies him to be a godhead?" It was almost as though he had a city of dead people for which he was responsible.
Natasha's tongue thumped the inside of her cheek. "About that head..."
"I agree with King T'Challa," said Thor. "Though not for the same reasons. My people were worshiped as gods for thousands of your years. That does not prevent us from being foolish and impetuous." He looked away, downcast, looking a very sad Thor indeed.
The Vision said, "What alternatives does Captain Rogers possess? His continued existence may be out of our hands," he stressed. If this were a movie, the light would catch on the gem on his brow.
With the air of a man who knew he was exactly the wrong person to be pointing out the obvious, Tony Stark did so anyway. "And what if he rises from his power-nap... and we're the only ones who can put him back down? Did Steve really want to be a fairy tale executioner when he grew up?"
"My memory's not too good," Bucky drawled, "but I feel like I've had this conversation before. Only not so much with the talking." His arm flexed. Did it matter which?
Sam winced. "I don't know if that's quite what we're getting at."
As kindly as a Black Widow could, Natasha said, "We're wondering if it would be better to let him rest."
At that, Bucky relaxed into another shrug. Fates worse than death were a speciality of his. "Seems to me it's not our decision to make. As long as he's not riding off with the head, we've got time to make sure he's in good shape."
"Remarkable shape," said Tony. "Great profile."
Before Bruce Banner could expound on his considerable personal experience on the matter, something came to him like a churros wrapper discovered stuck between two pages of a book. He studied said profile, lips slack with concentration and fingers conjuring line-graphs.
"We don't need an end-game to make him comfortable," said Sam sturdily. "What about the gold parts on the containment floor?" He stopped short of prevailing on Stark, because Sam was a sharp one. Instead, he turned to Scott Lang. "You up for another round, Sparky?"
"With schematics, sure..." Scott was surprised to encounter no immediate objection to his dismantling of what had to be proprietary Stark technology.
Rhodey passed Scott a tablet. "Here. Don't test the fire suppressant system, you might drown." He was well aware of Vision looming quietly; Scott darted a glance and shuffled back a step. Rhodes leaned on his half-open armor. "This is our play, now? Cap's got a detachable head condition, and we don't have an end-game."
"His end-game is no game," said Thor somberly.
Hawkeye risked a fall from the railing to execute a more casual shrug than the Soldier's. "We'll figure out the playbook as we go."
T'Challa sighed. "More fool us?"
"We mere mortals may not have a play," said Natasha Romanoff.
"Sure. If there's anything better than a magical killer, it's an unstoppable one," said Tony Stark.
"He's not an assassin." The Winter Soldier rolled his shoulders ominously. "Whatever he is. It's... he's a harvester. What His Majesty said — a harbinger."
"Of death," said Iron Man.
Bucky grasped for the words. "He won't be making the appointments. He'll be making sure they're kept."
Tony uncoiled. "He's like Pepper, except for eternity."
"You owe me," Rhodey said.
"Yes, I do, but... what?" Tony twisted around.
Rhodey spun a multi-tool between his fingers. "For not telling Pepper you just said that."
"Argh," said Tony. "Put it on my tab. Friday, not a word."
"Sure, boss. What's in it for me?"
As Tony brightened over not getting the silent treatment from Friday, Bruce folded and unfolded his glasses. "We might be, uh, getting ahead of ourselves. Releasing him might be out of the question."
"For how long?" burst out Wanda Maximoff, torn between sympathetic outrage for Steven's freedom, and the magmatic urgency of getting the hell away from Steven's head.
"I could—" began Thor. He looked like he had bitten off more lyngbakr than he could chew. "But I would not."
Bucky Barnes had, unusually, grown tired of beating this figurative corpse. Not he believed any threat to Steve's person could be successfully carried out; rather that it was high time to reaffirm what a very good friend he was to Steve. "If you're not gonna help Steve, then I'll take charge of him. You can't put the shield on him, not anymore."
Before anyone could haul Rogers off like a sack of potatoes with its matching sack of stewing onions, Bruce Banner coughed.
Everyone shut up. "That's, what I mean to say is," said Dr. Banner. "We know that his head isn't in contact with the rest of the body. The serum... doesn't. Any foreign treatment that we attempt... it's the shrapnel problem."
There was the delicate whooshing sound of dawning realization. "Oh, damn," said Sam Wilson. "All those fluids we're pumping in—"
The hazardous waste bin was already full to the brim with emptied IV bags. What went in...
Clint made a mental note to toss American Psycho into his growing donations box. He also filed a large requisition for raincoats.
"If I place Mjolnir on top of his neck, would that be of assistance?" ventured Thor.
"Er," said Dr. Banner.
"Friday, what's the ETA on Dr. Cho?" called Tony.
Chapter 11: (37:30) + 14:10 | 1:59:15
Alcohol consumption ahead.
Dr. Helen Cho had gotten mixed up with the Avengers enough times to know she had to get a hold of Tony Stark.
"Tony," said Dr. Cho. "Why is there a plant in the medical bay?" And not, say, a full medical support team. By last-minute request, she'd sent her own team back to South Korea, thankfully before they'd had to pit themselves against any challenge as fraught as clearing Customs.
The purposefully Star-Wars-like image of Tony Stark regarded the sole member of her welcoming committee: the rather melancholic dracaena by the safety shower.
"That's your new patient."
"I did not fly across all those time zones to treat a houseplant."
Elsewhere in the galaxy, Groot paused in the middle of his gyrations.
"Hotel plant," said Tony. He seemed distracted. "Actually that's Thor's patient. He rescued it after someone told him it would be disposed of as a biohazard. We got samples for you in case it starts shrieking when you poke its roots. You know you might have to," he added, tapping his stylus like a nervous hummingbird. "Treat a plant. I wouldn't rule anything out. In this business, embrace the absurd, or the alcoholism will start looking like a viable life-goal. Actually it looks pretty good right now. Except we might want to stay sober for this one."
Helen had located the medical files. Her eyebrows were slowly rising.
Tony's image strolled across the suspended file, going on as though he had a rapt audience of millions. It was a habit which had served him well through many a videotaped scandal. "Now that I think of it, Thor was refreshingly blasé about the spewing blood and burning flesh. Then he freaked out when he saw the plant bleed. Helen," Tony said, parking his elbows above the diagrams of parts one and two of Steve Rogers, "I almost said Thor lost his head. The flow had to be altered. Had to change it up midstream. Rogers isn't even here, and he's making my life difficult."
Helen stared at Tony. She glanced down at the screen. "...maybe Thor went berserk."
Tony squinted at Dr. Cho. "The plant didn't actually bleed blood. Friday figured out it was sap."
Groot resumed dancing.
"I figured that," she said. "Where... are the Captain's remains right now?"
"Containment room. Floor."
"Should I be concerned? I mean," she added quickly, "Do I need special equipment?"
"Oh, Steve's bod is a perfect gentleman. He'd probably hold the door for you if he could find the knob. It's the head you've got to watch out for."
"I've got to be honest with you," said Dr. Cho in a lower volume, "I don't think I can reconstruct the head. It's gone beyond necrosis—"
"We're not assisting the head. The head can take care of itself. In fact I don't think we should talk about it. Or think about it." Tony pointed in the direction of her chest. "You might want to take that off." Then he slapped his head, and straightened. "I mean the nametag. I assume that's your name? I haven't brushed up on Hangul in a while."
"I was at a conference," Helen said carefully. She had to admit that Tony's usual Tony-ness was distracting her from the data on the monitor.
"Yeah, lose that," said Tony, whirling away to fix himself a highly nutritional and entirely un-spiked smoothie. The blender screeched like the cognitive dissonance of a living decapitated human.
"I'm stabilizing the body," Helen realized.
"Good luck with that," said Tony with forced cheer.
On the lift, Friday apologized for failing to offer a surgical mask or a Level A hazmat suit, stating that it wouldn't make a difference. Then the A.I. fell silent.
The doors sealed behind Helen with a regretful puff.
After the smell, what hit her first was the sight of the rest of the team gathered in the main containment chamber trying to wrap Steve's body in a toga. Despite his generous chest area, the muumuu had proved a miserable failure.
Helen thought Vision would at least have feigned disapproval of the proceedings, but then again, he was fond of his cape.
Wanda approached Helen's side. Her complexion seemed a tad on the flush side. "The hospital gown was no good," she explained. "He lacks sufficient neck to keep it from sliding."
"Oh hey, Dr. Cho!" Sam proffered a handshake. "I don't think we've met. I was gonna introduce myself at that party a few years ago, but you were asleep, then I had to catch my train... uh, hi, Sam Wilson."
"Nice to meet you. Please, call me Helen..." She shook his hand distractedly. The debate over toga-wrapping continued to swirl. Thor insisted that a pin was necessary. T'Challa said the blind men in his country had no problem pulling fabric through ceremonial buckles. Clint was demonstrating a number of knots with a polka dotted bedsheet.
It was very much a scene out of a bizarre barbershop wherein the patron had asked for a flattop and had gotten his face shorn off.
Dr. Cho bit her lips and initiated the passive scans.
Wilson seemed to take her cool demeanor in stride. He delivered his sit-rep — stable for a body in Rogers's condition, conscious and responsive, no attempts at pain management, fluctuations in blood pressure — with the utmost sympathy.
As Sam spoke, Helen could not help but be drawn to the hefty cooler in the back of the chamber. It looked like a version of Stark's infamous portable wet bar.
Several Avengers were milling about with drinks in hand.
The cooler was hermetically sealed.
Helen had the urge to find the nearest temple to apologize to her grandmother for laughing at her ghost stories.
Tony Stark swept in from the corridor. Helen's gaze swerved back to the screen. "...let me look at your suit, you wouldn't be in there! Ah, I was wondering where the alcoholism went. Jim, you showed them the stash? This is the good stuff! Or the bad, bad stuff. I got this bottle from a little old woman in Warsaw."
Rhodey raised his hands. "Not me. That was Friday."
Wanda grabbed the last glass before Tony could. "Ah, ah. For advanced metabolisms only. And Natasha."
Over the lip of her glass, Natasha smiled enigmatically. Barnes was the one counting her drinks, and if the number seemed unusual, he wasn't going to be the one to mention it.
"I'd say this was a typical college night except we seem to be throwing a wake," said Tony. "C'mon, pour me a finger, I've been fabricating skull carriers. Head cases." This was actually the least traumatizing of his multitude of tasks, and now he was practicing avoidance like a superhero ignoring their mortality.
"Mix it, Tony. Not all the gelatin in the fridge is edible," said Bruce absently. "Ah, hi, Helen. As you can see, the cauterized tissue is healing at his normal rate. Which would be."
"Part of the problem," finished Dr. Cho. "It's healing the burn." Where there hadn't been skin there before, Steve's body wasn't producing it. The exceptions were the livid beginnings of scar tissue where the chainsaw had mauled the edges ragged. Without intervention, the stump would soon start gushing again. Her nimble mind leaped to a visualization of that scenario, and with the same agility, backflipped to formulating solutions.
On the floor, the discarded togas had somehow formed a splash zone around Steve's body.
Helen concentrated. Foreign objects would be expelled, which ruled out artificial suturing and traditional implants. The tissue printer operated by chain-reading adjacent cells, which would only result in a closed loop the same size and shape as a human head. Speaking of horror shows. She cast about. "Preliminaries look good. No danger of eruption—" and there was an unfortunate choice of words, "—for at least a couple of hours. Do we have a history?"
"Nothing but," said Rhodey.
"We didn't want to stress him," said Sam, sotto voce. "Even though I've got so. Many. Questions."
Tony drowned a plaintive groan into his glass. "I've been scanning Howard's notes, and it's a, ha very ha, dead-end. Apparently Peggy Carter and that colonel, Phillips, blocked most attempts at lab trials from the USO period on." He pivoted in the direction of Barnes.
"Gabe was our medic," Bucky began uncertainly. He'd had no stomach for seeing his childhood friend take heavy fire, back then, and being accustomed to it in the present day was striking a dissonant chord. "It was all hush-hush, though. Even if he'd taken notes, the SSR might've confiscated them."
Steve rubbed his chest thoughtfully. Then the hands creeped up to feel around the stump. Everyone but Vision shuddered.
Bruce took a deep, noisy breath. "Vision, how about you make sure Steve's hands remain disinfected? He'll be using them to feel around more..."
Steve gave up his left hand to Vision's otherworldly ministrations. His right hand attempted to form a plane, no, a pillow for a nonexistent cheek. Frustrated, it changed tack and pointed up, then arced down.
"You were knocked out," Sam attempted. Steve's body jerked out the equivalent of a nod. Sam's hopes for a friend-terrogation flickered out. "Aw, I get it. Details wouldn't register if he lost consciousness..."
"Which is governed by the brain," Helen finished. "Feverish delirium, getting shot or blown up, even the process of irradiation in the Rebirth casket. Capsule."
"Getting your bell rung in an alley brawl," added Bucky.
Natasha looked askance. Though not in the direction of the container they were all trying to ignore. "Convenient. You knew something was... out-of-the-ordinary. You just didn't know what. Then afterwards you could blame it on the serum." For once she did not seem pleased with Rogers's success at plausible deniability.
Helen couldn't put it off any longer. But she could delegate. "Vision, could you tap around the perimeter of the... rupture, around three centimeters below the rim? Like a hammer. Not!" She shot up in her seat. "Not like Thor's hammer. Like a rubber plexor."
"Understood," said Vision. He administered a series of decisive but gentle taps around Rogers's incomplete neck. Given what was left of its trunklike musculature, it did seem less like tricking a knee into a kick, and more like locating a stud in drywall.
Dr. Banner looked like he wanted to take a giant version of the rubber medical mallet to test if everything about Steve Rogers was one singular reflex. Indeed, his self-control bordered on the heroic.
Dr. Cho nodded. "No bruising, which is normal. No inflammation in the healthy tissue. Capillary dilation looks good."
"Irish blush," murmured Bucky, who was observing very, very closely.
"Steve, does it..." Helen shared a glance with Sam, who mouthed 'under-reporter.' "Feel tender, anywhere? Sensitive?"
Steve's body produced a thumbs-up.
Sam dripped with silent skepticism, but Helen could hardly do more. That she could get any patient feedback was literally a miracle. She checked with Bruce and his rows of data. She'd noticed that the normally overbearing Stark A.I. was making her do the busy work, but she could skate through the interface. Better to immerse in the virtual model instead of the mostly live specimen before her.
"Barring any other... unforeseen complications, we could fashion custom tubing, templated from Steve's own tissue. With access to his DNA sequence, I can synthesize a layer of skin that will cover up the wound area." Captain America's genetic code had miraculously remained a classified secret, though some in the room were wondering if there had been other forces at work besides Nick Fury's paranoia. "And implants, temporary ones, to keep his airway and gullet unobstructed."
"Needs to eat and breathe," muttered Clint. "And other science facts."
Dr. Cho's expression tightened, and not from Clint's inopportune quotation. "Unfortunately, while I can make an educated guess at whether his serum will work with anti-rejection drugs, I'm... in the dark when it comes to how it affects his new state of... being."
"The Hulk rejects everything," said Bruce.
"Ironically, that's what made the pants easy," said Tony, casually demonstrating poor lab safety with a row of Petri dishes. "Mean Green is a no-chafing zone."
"Hydra trimmed off the excess instead of dealing with rejection," Bucky volunteered reluctantly. "But my serum's a knock-off."
He gamely ignored how Steve's body drooped beneath layers of Wisconsin cheesehead sheets. (Apparently a hapless representative of the neighboring state had insulted Thor.)
T'Challa's lips curled. "It was inhumane. Our scientists developed an anchoring system closer to an exoskeleton. For this case... We were not about to gather data internally."
"No, and we won't be consulting the bad guys for this one," said Dr. Cho, her attention on Dr. Banner's analysis. "Factoring in that this was... supposed to happen? Maybe even without intervention? And that we're trying to get his hyperactive immune system to work with us, instead of against, I'll low-dose him. Just enough to irritate the serum into action. Hopefully the tissue match will bridge the— will do the rest. We'll try it out, then go from there. Steve, would that work for you?"
Steve's fingers were shaken out like they had toilet paper stuck to them.
"He says it's not gonna matter either way," said Bucky. Gingerly he placed a hand on Steve's shoulder. "You sure, pal?" His hard squeeze was not brushed off. "It's a go."
"Okay. One more question," said Helen Cho. "Why is Mr. Lang in the next containment cell?"
As one, they faced (or in Steven's case, torqued toward) the clear dividing wall, where in the adjoining chamber Scott Lang was attempting to take a selfie with his head aligned over Steve's neck. He was on his twenty-second try.
"Completely unexpectedly, his suit malfunctioned while he was minesweeping the gold from this floor," said Tony. "Actually we all expected it. Viz picked up the slack."
Sam Wilson cleared his throat loudly.
Scott whirled around. "Hiya! I'm just. I'm under observation? It's real boring in here. I thought there'd be a big screen or something. Or those message scrolls, like in Times Square?" In the interim he had picked up a touch of hysteria over which part was Captain and which part was America, and was not his usual fanboyish self.
Natasha continued, dryly, "He took a jog across Steve's exposed neck, and now he thinks he's cursed." Most of them were screwed, if Scott Lang's paranoia was to be believed.
"Feel free to let me know if my consciousness is about to get smoked!" said Scott with what might have been high-pitched glee.
Dr. Banner made as though to clear invisible cobwebs. "While we can't measure curses—" a glance at Thor, who with extreme nonchalance began to buff his hammer, "—better to err on the side of caution. In case there are any, ah, safety concerns with doing internal work."
"Should there be a retaliation for trespassing on lines of connection," explained Wanda. Who was not looking at the box. In case whatever in the box was looking back. For a long time previous to this, she had been terribly settled in the knowledge that no one in the present company could match her powers; and she had spent the last hour in the state of being not-quite-so-sure. The nearly flammable spirits weren't helping.
"Surely we can automate...?" said Helen.
"Friday doesn't want to risk any of the robots," muttered Tony. "She's been skittish."
Rhodey made an inquisitive noise. He was like a favorite uncle to Tony's creations. Maybe the weird great-uncle to Vision.
"You have already shown yourself to be brave as any warrior, Doctor," said Thor. "You could avail of my handiwork. Show me what to do. The magic cast upon me from birth may protect my person."
They all saw his throat bob nervously.
Bucky felt a nudge. Beside him, Steve displayed his disinfected palms. Then it mimed planting something into the gaping orifices on top of its neck.
Someone made an undignified noise. Perhaps several someones.
"That," said Bruce Banner, "That is a viable solution."
"Steve, this isn't cribbage." With a rising sense of deja vu, Bucky Barnes pinched the bridge of his brow. "Plenty of hands in this room, it's got to be yours?"
The body of Steven Grant Rogers looked very stubborn indeed.
Tony Stark stuck a Petri dish under Helen's nose. "Jello shot?"
Chapter 12: 15:00 | 2:14:15
This bit is dedicated to rokhal, who so generously reminded us how body horror is the gift that keeps on giving. Still in awe, dude.
Thus the assembled group was treated to the spectacle of Dr. Helen Cho preparing a tray of Steve Rogers-flavored penne pasta.
No one would have faulted a single member of this superhero team if they had, at this point, crept off to their quarters, flopped on the couch, and switched on The Bachelor. Not that this would have helped the problem of mindless content. However, having seen the beginning of this grisly ordeal, the worse nightmare was to leave its conclusion to the imagination. Each one of them stuck around to see it through.
With the exception of Tony Stark, who was texting his AI.
After a fruitless, seemingly one-sided argument that he had an arm to spare, Bucky Barnes was realizing anew that Steve Rogers was going to get his way. In fact it was probably the centennial of Steve Rogers Getting His Way, tragic circumstances aside, and even then, who knew how much of the latter was due to his quasi-supernatural condition. Better that Barnes restore his tolerance for Rogers' tomfoolery, lest his second-rate, villain-made serum give out under the strain. So Bucky down-shifted, and yielded to his inner science nerd with a close inspection of the fleshy cylinders rolling out of Cho's contraption.
"These are all you. Tubes of you."
Among his many talents, Sam Wilson could also spot wordplay from a mile away. "I will kill you."
Barnes's entire countenance transmuted to one of perfect innocence. He had been practicing.
"Ha-a!" Clint Barton nearly fell off the lab table. "You tubes."
"I remember when dad jokes were below you," said Natasha Romanoff.
Dr. Cho sneaked a nervous tap on the vibranium shield, noting that Steve hadn't touched it the entire time. "These are all tubes of Steve," she said. "Steve, we'll be starting with your... airway. As you know, your larynx is gone," Helen took a deep breath. "But there's enough of your trachea left that we can work on other solutions for—"
Rhodey cut in. "Not speech!"
"Yeah, no hard feelings, Rogers, but we're hitting the mute button here," said Tony.
"Don't make me remove you from my patient's consultation," said Helen coolly. "If he can produce sounds from his torso, maybe he can work on finer control of what's left of his magical voicebox." In the background, Dr. Banner began to scribble on a flat surface.
"Mute, Mr. Stark," murmured Vision.
"I wish I could say that wasn't from my side of the family," said Mr. Stark.
Truth be told, Tony was concurrently blustering through Friday's refusal to produce any kind of prosthetic rig, to assist in what was sure to be a gruesome parlor game. He was also a little proud; she was taking to burgeoning autonomy much better than he had. She'd be shutting off their airlocks any minute now if Vision weren't so fond of walking through walls.
Meanwhile, Natasha's attention swung to the adjacent containment chamber. Scott was contorting himself so as to complete the illusion of Steve poking tubes in Scott's ear.
Steve's body inclined in Natasha's direction, seeming quizzical.
"He's still trying to take selfies of you," Nat explained with reluctance. "I'll get rid of the evidence."
Bucky scoffed. "He's just horsemanning. As long as he doesn't post it to Instagram, it'll be fine." Bucky had neglected to mention the possibility of going blind at the sight of Steve — partly because the group had already been showered in blood, and partly because he was holding out for additional suffering for Rumlow. (Thanks to Friday's refusal to cross-reference, it would be weeks before anyone else caught on to this possibility.)
Sam turned to T'Challa. "You let him on Instagram?"
"Hang on, how do you know about horsemanning?" Rhodey said. "It's an internet meme."
"What's a meme?" said Bucky.
("Ha-a!" chirped Clint.)
Tony said to Rhodey, "How much do you know about memes? You're supposed to be tragically uncool to make me look current."
Rhodey shrugged. "My therapist recommended cat videos. You start clicking around. Also, you wish you were this cool."
"If it makes you feel any better, that meme is about ten years old," said Dr. Banner to Tony's pout. "Cat videos," he added.
"They are most enchanting," agreed Thor.
Steve was trying to mime the definition of a meme. The furrow on Bucky's brow deepened.
"Horsemanning," demanded Natasha.
Bucky gave up. "It was a craze!" At this, Steve snapped his fingers affirmatively. "A fad."
"A meme," translated Sam.
Thus encouraged, Bucky pulled more cards out of his mental catalog. "Before the stock market tanked, there were all sorts of kooky ones. We had a... cousin? I think. Break his collarbone flagpole-sitting."
"Ah, the Roaring Twenties," said Tony. "Much like my twenties."
"Horsemanning was... it was for the Headless Horseman. Like I said, the Irving story was popular, so anybody with a camera and a friend—"
"One assumes," murmured T'Challa.
"—would make trick photographs with bodies doin' something over here, and the 'missing' head sitting over there." Bucky tried not to gesture at the actual detached head.
"Vintage Youtube," said Clint in wonderment.
"Did you ever do that?" said Sam curiously.
Bucky and Steve regarded each other. "When the money got tight," Bucky said for both of them, "The first thing Ma Rogers sold off was the camera. We were too young to play with it before that."
For a moment, the group contemplated producing a photo of actual horsemanning.
The malevolently moldering head did not appear to be ready for its close-up.
The last bits of Steve Rogers were being deposited onto the tray. What a time to be approximately alive. In the Great Depression the only synthetic replacement organ one would know to pray for was an iron lung.
As Scott smooshed his face into the clear partition, Barnes blocked his view with his considerable bulk. "Steve," said Bucky. "Noodles for your noodle."
Steve threw an elbow into the Winter Soldier's ribs. That was an improvement, if a painful one. Bucky opted not to suggest a tin whistle.
The tissue synthesizer beeped. Helen donned some silicone gloves and retrieved a pot of white goo. The mucilage was steaming faintly.
The stench they were all trying to ignore did not appreciably improve.
"Hey, alfredo sauce," said Bucky.
"Mute!" yelled Scott from the next room. "If anyone needs me, be right here upchucking!" There was a chime as Friday cut off his audio.
"He did drop his phone," observed Barnes.
"Steve," said the Falcon. "I'm killing him now. Just so you know."
Steve's head displayed enough of a grasp of gallow's humor that there was nary a peep, much less a name, emanating from its box.
Helen addressed Steve's body. "This growth medium is also made of you. Nice and sticky. Ready? Here's what you'll do. Starch up your fingertips, pick up the pasta, dip an end in the glue. We'll direct you through the insertion. Steve," she emphasized. "Are you sure about this? You're... doing this blind. Self-surgery is incredibly difficult."
"No, it's not," said Tony Stark and Bruce Banner.
There was a pointed silence.
"I've sewn up my own combat wounds," said the Black Widow in solidarity.
"Psh," Hawkeye assented.
"I once cut off my fingertip," Thor volunteered. "It was. With. A hunting knife." He wiggled his fingers illustratively.
Curiosity overcame the Black Panther. "Did you reattach it?"
"No," admitted Prince Thor. "My mother did!"
"Excuse me?" said Dr. Banner. As the 'advanced' part of the advanced civilization occurred to them, the sciencey part of the room quirked their brows.
If it were possible, Thor grew more sheepish still. "I was not going to raise Steven's hopes in case our healers refused him. They take sacred pacts very seriously. Even if they made an exception..."
"He wouldn't be the same," murmured Wanda.
Thor grunted. Then he perked up. To Steve he said, "This operation will keep you hale in case they do! Since we will not be spending the rest of your epoch scorching your neck faster than it heals."
"I am glad I missed this..." Bruce said. "I'm glad Hulk missed this."
Steve patted Thor's shoulder, and politely ignored his small shudder. Then he gave Helen a somber thumbs up.
"Vision, if you would?" said Dr. Cho.
Vision decided he was pleased to be assigned the menial task of being a subatomic wet-wipe. Given the unpredictable nature of the Mind Stone, he was having second thoughts about his contact with the former Captain Rogers, and was steering clear of the mind-of-its-own lurking in the corner. Wanda Maximoff and King T'Challa had taken over that unenviable job of keeping watch.
Steve fumbled around for the tray.
Bucky grabbed his forearm before Steve could up-end his bits of custom-made parts. In the back of his mind, he was hoping Steve wouldn't lose his temper like he used to whenever he was manhandled in his frailer incarnation.
"They're arranged in order, closest to farthest," said Helen. "Pinch gently, that's it. They're made longer than required, and we'll trim them off later."
Like an incomplete Lego man, Steve craned the tube over the blistering cross-section that was what was left of his neck.
"That's a good height," said Sam.
"Left," said Tony.
"Other left," said Bruce.
"It's no longer aligned," said Thor.
"Can't I just string them up and shoot him from the ceiling?" whined Clint.
"Everybody mute!" Bucky snarled. "I'll move his elbow. Relay it, Wilson."
"We could just get Dr. Cho..." began Sam.
"No, you're fine," said Helen faintly.
"Fine," grumbled Sam. He was used to ordering Steve around anyway.
The gathered team watched Steve poke his stump like a greasy-palmed kid trying to stick a bendy straw into a foil juice packet.
"We should teach anatomy like this back home," said T'Challa. "Everyone would pass."
At last, the tube slipped into place. Natasha valiantly resisted a gauche virginity joke. Any escalation with this crowd would be adding catastrophe to disaster.
"Release the breath you've been holding," said Dr. Cho. They watched that perfect barrel chest deflate. "Good. Now inhale, slowly, take it easy. Good. How do you feel?"
Steve's body nearly puffed the tube back out, so deeply was it confounded by the question.
Sam took pity on his repressed friend. For a guy who hated to bleed on anyone, he had bled on absolutely everyone today. "Let's stick to the easy stuff. Next up, esophagus?"
"Okay, without an epiglottis, that'll be forward of the first pipe," said Dr. Cho. "You'll need to come back in with the probe to plump it open for a second."
Steve got a good grip on the section of gullet and began poking away.
"It's like watching somebody pop pimples," said Clint. "I can't look away."
With his free hand, Steve aired out his middle finger. Then he jabbed at Hawkeye, twice.
Recognizing the challenge, Barton rolled his not inconsiderable shoulders. "I could! Piece of cake. Just have to picturing panning up from my usual view of the neck, and then flip the scene..." He stopped. "Huh. That might take a minute to lock in on."
"Truly, Steve has mastered this feat with uncommon ease!" said Thor jovially. The Asgardian prince was covering how deeply unnerved he was by the sight of his friend reconstructing his own blistering flesh. Generally speaking, when any creature in the realms found its innards spurting outwards, they were not long from meeting their end. And if not, they were usually powerful enough to regrow everything, whole, all at once. This was like watching a toddler jamming in Tinkertoys with, well, a hammer.
Steven successfully united his truncated craw with the fleshy coupling. It was wobblier than the first; Steve gamely held a retractor over the hole to keep it open until the glue set. Given that the tool was as smooth as a popsicle stick (and not a stabby implement), it was rather like poking a misplaced nostril. Once released, the gullet held nicely. He even got to swallow, a little.
Light applause in the theater.
Dr. Cho came around to Steve's free hand. "You're doing great, Steve. I'm going to inject a course of drugs into your IV. It should be the only course. The skin matrix starts out thin, so we can layer it over like a—" she stopped herself from saying 'egg roll wrapper' "—flimsy plastic wrap. The tubes should poke right through. Pull it over you like a hoodie."
Steve offered his elbow as an affirmative.
Helen focused on the ampule. "Give it a minute, then you can keep going down the line as far as possible. It's okay if we don't get to all of them; we can shore up the minor systems if they develop complications. Don't disturb your wound area, understand? It'll flatten out on its own. If it starts itching, you cannot scratch it," she admonished.
Bruce looked about to explode, though fortunately not in a green way.
Rhodey attempted an intercept. "No, Tony—!"
"Oh my god, he's going to need a cone," Tony burst out.
Many drinks were knocked back. It would be impolitic to laugh.
"No, he's not," Sam said evenly. "You heard her, Steve. No scratching the stump."
"Yeah, Steve," seconded Bucky.
What was left of Steve Rogers tried with all his might to look compliant.
Bruce recovered his composure. "Sorry, Steve. I mean, what you're doing is, Thor's right, it's quite impressive. Once the nerves have healed, we should really test your proprioception—"
"Do not," said Tony suddenly, "Do not say phantom head syndrome. Wait, I said it. I mean, test for it, but let's not mention it, ever."
"Yeesh," said Rhodey to the cosmos in general. "Life sciences."
In his usual level tones, Vision inquired, "If I may ask, how is the head?"
They froze. Everyone who could, turned to Wanda.
Perhaps the last glass of spirits had been a mistake.
She essayed a shrug. "Nothing to report?" she said as scientifically as she could.
"Do you feel, uh," tried Bruce. "Like, ooky?"
"Vibes," said Clint.
"It always feels ooky," Wanda confessed. She might have withdrawn to Black Panther's side, whose armor looked like it could buy her a precious second against an irascible supernatural mist. She was, for the first time in years, wearing running shoes. "The ooky feeling is unchanged," she reported.
"Sounds good, be ready to answer Bruce's questionnaire on 'ooky,' let's get Steve his heartburn plug," Tony said. "No feeding tubes, Steve, that's a vacation, trust me on this. I have so many ideas for attachments."
Steve's body looked marginally alarmed. It raised both palms, pushing the air with the heels of the hands, and then chopped the air in a negative fashion.
Tony's pout returned full force. "What, no repulsors?"
Before Steve could counter with a ruder gesture, Bucky nudged him. "Flying car," he said.
There was a dire moment when they thought Steve would choke on his own gullet.
"Steve," said Dr. Cho in her best professional voice. "Stop laughing. You're going to dislodge your windpipe."
The towels sopped up any spilled alcohol.
* * *
Following some technobabble-enriched bickering, Dr. Cho managed to coax the more delicate blood vessels into knitting themselves up. The rest were temporarily clamped off for possible later installation of elbow macaroni to close circulatory loops. As for the glands, lymph nodes, and various other fluid-filled structures, the serum was reconstructing them in a manner which suggested no further sequels to Niagara Falls: The Bloody Froth.
It was decided that all (and perhaps sundry) would retire to bed, and a modest meal which would not involve pasta. Rogers, who had been on an IV drip, was not quite ready to test his new protuberances; Bucky was repeatedly assured that Steven had received enough sustenance for a healthy super-soldier, and was not being sent to bed without supper.
The science was miraculously tabled. Tony zipped off without prevarications about the sleep he wasn't getting over Friday's turn for the opaque. Helen scraped up the last of her stoicism to inform her team that their efforts would not make Captain Rogers whole again. After referencing their non-disclosure contracts, she claimed jet lag and hung up on them. Bruce did pop next door for a cursory examination of Scott. He was found to be unchanged, if jittery. A casual mention of the Geneva Conventions resulted in Lang's latest get-out-jail-free card. As though there were anything casual about Bruce Banner's commentary.
Prince Thor bade farewell to Steve, Steve's head, and his new plant friend. He then flew off to do the responsible princely stuff he was so often assumed to be shirking. Several of them did consider joining him, but it had been a long day. Also, would that armies of the dead rose up from the Atlantic Ocean or flaming steeds descended from the jetstream, they perhaps found it prudent to remain assembled.
Thus the thick blanket of night settled all through the Avengers complex. Not a soul, nor a dubious example of a soul, was stirring. Not even the splinter Hydra rats who tried to sneak into the blood-encrusted hotel, and were apprehended retching on the ground among the Hulk's churros wrappers, within wafting distance of the busted revolving door.
Chapter 13: (4:40:00) + 10:01 | 7:04:16
Had this been a conventional story, the author would have severed it the bloody climax and trailed off in a clipped dénoument, to preserve the excitement inherent to explosions of gross bodily fluids.
However, this is no ordinary tale. Not unless you are reading this from a universe of headless humans. Thus, the author has extended the story to feature the ease and aplomb with which the Avengers coped with this novel subtraction. That's sarcasm. No one's invented accepted typography for sarcasm yet.
The author hopes this storytelling sprawl will be overlooked, in favor of the convention of fan-made works yanking at the neat bows tying off credit rolls until they spill out into the emotional entrails of what had been sold as a so-called conclusion. Let's be real; no one mops their floors before reading AO3.
You know those happenstances within a family or close-knit circle of friends which go so spectacularly haywire, that one is at a loss of how to explain it to outsiders? That would be most of the Avengers' backstories, true enough.
Thusly, here goes the saga of what was visited upon the rest of the unsuspecting world, seltzer and painkiller optional.
* * *
The morning after a trying mission was always rotten. When one's head was currently rotting on a nearby pedestal, even moreso.
Steve Rogers came awake in the same manner as he had ever since the serum expanded his limits. Fitfully and without preamble. Of all the things SHIELD had ruined for him, clock radio alarms numbered among them, and so no noises had roused him.
Besides passing out, the last time Steve properly slept was twenty hours before the martial engagement on the ground. Even in slumber, part of him retained a hazy grasp of his surroundings: a darkened lab on the Avengers containment floor.
It was then that Steve realized the laboratory was not entirely dark.
And that the part of him which had remained conscious was not attached... to him.
Gingerly he kicked out. A sheet slid off his knees. So he wasn't restrained, and as an aside of some value, he was possessed of a working set of legs and knees. Like an extraordinary slab of meat, the attempt to check on his rump turned into a roll off the low cot. It was a lucky thing they'd switched him to wireless monitors, else he would have resembled a trussed-up Thanksgiving ham. He certainly felt rather carcass-like. He could see, and yet he couldn't see. Steve was no stranger to unexpected and global changes to his vision. What disconcerted him was the emptiness. When he'd come to his senses before, the room had been filled with the chatter and warmth of his teammates, his friends. Some of them had hovered well away from him, but they had all been there, present and accounted-for.
The locus of that accounting was no doubt residing on that pedestal. It was informing him that there was no reason to look around, because except for his component parts, the room had been vacated.
Not even Friday was willing to talk to him.
Steve berated himself. It had been a long day for everyone; not all in their cohort were enhanced like he was. They were inside the building, and if Steve could have managed a non-lethal roll call, he would have ordered them all to the downtime which they were presently taking. More than a few of them would likely nag him into the same.
Except, even though he had regained his bearings, and knew that he was safe, it was terribly, ominously quiet.
If he concentrated, he could sense his own body fumbling around on the floor like a confused drunkard. Sad to say it was not the first time he'd woken to half-blind delirium. He could, if he tried, re-orient his spatial awareness to hoist his body back on the cot, or even dodder over to another part of the room. Despite the fact that those calculations seemed be occurring halfway across this room.
But although they'd raised the ambient temperature, it was still dark, and silent — not unlike the times Steve had spectacularly failed to die, or decapitate himself.
When he filled his lungs to start calming breathing exercises, he encountered a distinct lack of sinuses.
Wheezing through a mostly-healed stoma, Steve tightened his bedsheet toga and tried not to imagine a deep, cold water.
His senses began to awaken.
All of them.
"Boss," said Friday. She had hesitated for an interminable two-thirds of a second.
"Waughh," answered Tony. He shook off the smartphone stuck to his cheek. "Wassup? Need a suit?"
"Captain Rogers is in distress," Friday reported. Very, very reluctantly.
Iron Man also came awake in a similar manner. "What kind of distress, Fry?" He was hoping the dullahan didn't have some all-powerful arch-nemesis. Steve had certainly accumulated quite a few, in his own right.
If an AI could gulp, that was what Friday did.
"It's no longer inert, boss."
So much for that beauty sleep.
"Not even alive, and still making my life difficult!" Tony dialed the lights to full brightness and blasted a Facing Off Death mix. "Alert Barnes."
Bucky Barnes had rushed to the aid of Steve Rogers more times than was countable. In the catalog of street brawls and plotted campaigns and guerilla fighting and urban melees, this particular instance was a first. He burst into the dim lab (figuratively, and not through any walls) to be met by an unusual sight.
Besides the obvious.
Steve's body was folded up by the cot, looking all the world like it was in the midst of a panic attack.
Steve's head... was emitting a faint illumination.
Highly reluctant to wrestle with Death, Bucky slowed his approach.
Steve's body lunged at him alarmingly. Within a moment Barnes realized he was clumsily reaching for him. He twisted so that he could offer his flesh hand. It was caught up in a grip which Bucky told himself was only clammy, and not corpse-like.
"Did I miss the party?" Iron Man clanked into the room. His entrance was not as impressive as usual, given the prototype armor missing gold components and an enthused A.I. "Why does the party include a cranial glowstick?"
"I dunno," said Barnes, half to piss off Stark. He'd always been quick on his feet, quicker nowadays, but he couldn't read minds. Steve was being squirrelly. Part of Bucky didn't like the threadiness of his breathing — it was only the new blowhole whistling. No: this was no physical malady. Bucky could've kicked himself for the oversight. Save for volunteering for an untried medical procedure, his friend had been relatively subdued since waking up at the facility. Cooperative, even. If anyone could gloomily brood without the use of his head, it would be Steve Rogers. Sternly, Bucky reminded himself that everyone dealt with the loss of a body part differently.
"He's too old for a nightlight, right?" Iron Man ran through every sensor. The head was definitely doing an impression of a funky desk lamp.
They kept an eye on it.
Steve's body curled up and respired.
Wilson skidded in. He quickly decided to aggressively ignore the skull-shaped light fixture, and focus on his strengths. "Steve. Let me hook you up to some oxygen. I mean to that fancy new plumbing of yours." It wasn't as though the head still had nasal passages. Unfortunately, all he could find in the drawers was tubing connected to face masks. Not ideal for a body lacking a face.
Each new arrival seemed to stimulate a reorientation in body language; Barnes couldn't make heads or tails of it, so to speak. Modulating his strength, and the tone of his voice, Bucky patted between Steve's shoulder blades, keeping a steady count. Something told him Steve wouldn't be keen on Bucky holding a mirror to the new stovepipe atop his neck. For one thing, Steve didn't have pneumonia, and for another, he wasn't safely unconscious.
Rhodey ⏤ who possessed leg braces equipped with a mini-armory, and the foresight to strip the gold connections before going to bed ⏤ peeked inside. "We got a sit rep?"
"This isn't a reaction to anything we administered. Heartrate elevated. Otherwise, vitals are good," said Wilson, almost without a trace of irony. Impatiently he drew his combat knife and chopped the prongs off a cannula to fit. The valve leading to Steve's lungs obligingly sucked it in. "But..."
Bruce shuffled in with the rumpled surety of a guy who could turn into a giant rage monster. "O-oh wow." He wiggled his bifocals and leaned into the eerie glowing box like it was about to disgorge Pez candy. "It looks like phosphorescence. A stage of decay under certain conditions. Cool. ...uh, I mean not cool. It's, um, seems to be linked to Steve's... whatever's going on with him."
"Pal...? Steve?" Bucky prodded, to no avail.
"Is the box soundproofed?" whispered Sam.
"It's lightproof!" hissed Rhodey.
Despite the opacity of the box, the head inside was glowing brightly enough to cast shadows. They looked to be ordinary, laws-of-physics shadows, but the light source was not natural, like a B-movie double exposure. They could make out Steve's jawline, for goodness' sake.
Given the number of experts in physically implausible energy sources in the room, the dearth of theories was worrying. On the bright side, the jaw in question didn't seem poised to unhinge. No one was being summoned to their demise. It was simply increasing the light levels.
To some mysterious end.
The Winter Soldier was getting creeped out. Before that jaw could consider unhinging, he marshalled his harshest commander's voice. "Get it together, Rogers!" he barked, shaking Steve by the shoulder.
Steve's body jolted. The head did flicker a tad.
"A torch. Figures. Steve," Sam sighed. "Remember when I asked you if you'd read the sequels to The Hobbit, and you said you stopped when the Ringwraiths showed up? I'm feeling why."
Bruce backpedaled. Fast.
Rapidly Barnes shuffled through a number of responses. "Come on, snap out of it. You don't have to sniff us out. We're right here. No need to scan the whole facility looking for us... unless you want to check the surveillance— no?" Barnes squeezed out a wince, uncertain if Steven could even perceive a video monitor. "Okay, uh..."
"Should we all come back in here?" Sam shrugged at Tony and Rhodey's expressions.
Steve shook out a 'no', and reached up to pat the vacancy where his cheekbone used to be. The hand dropped as soon as he remembered. This time he focused on keeping his mouth shut, a surprising challenge given the physical lack of said mouth. It was made a little easier with the number of people close at-hand.
Bruce found that his own jaw had been hanging open. "He can locate us through the walls?" he said, with the air of a man who was intimately familiar with what each wall in the compound was designed to stop.
Iron Man inclined his head. "I hate to say this to you, Bruce, but don't make it angry."
"You're doing good, Steve," said Wilson. "You're on top of it, just like you practiced. Your BP's leveling off."
After a tense minute, the glow from Steve's head gradually diminished. (Tony would later swear his sensors had caught a lingering afterimage, but data analysis from this suit wouldn't be happening.)
Bucky kept patting. He maybe could've used a mirror on his own breath.
Wilson checked vitals one more time. Stable. Still decapitated.
Natasha Romanoff strode into the chamber. That she had waited until the head was extinguished... passed without comment. As did her fuzzy mint-green robe. "Obviously leaving them alone was a bad move. I'll set up a buddy rotation. Steve, if there's anyone you'd rather not see on that list..."
Steve's body looked affronted. How, Natasha thought, had his hurt-puppy look improved without the benefit of lips to pout? She shouldn't have put it to him that way. She should have asked everyone else first, as discreetly as her vast skillset allowed. Now they would all be guilted into Steve-sitting. She was abruptly glad he was still around to ask about his admirably natural underhandedness, even if she couldn't technically pick his brains.
"I'll set up the schedule," she promised once more.
Steve's body leaned on the side of the cot, rolling its shoulders. Now it wasn't sucking down the oxygen quite so frantically.
"Wow. Classic X-ray vision," murmured Rhodey. "That could be useful..."
With a creak, Tony hooked unsubtle air-quotes. "Plenty useful, all right. I mean, the search part, yes, but not the resc— not mortal kind of applications. Undead? Un-lively?"
"Tony, filter," said Natasha.
"How do we know a filter would even work—!" Tony Stark threw hands up at the reality of panic attacks, unfettered powers, and the general state of the universe. His dream of installing orthodontic torture headgear of the mid– to late–20th century was slowly being dashed.
Steve Rogers's head arranged to look as harmless as possible by dint of sitting in the corner and doing nothing.
Sam Wilson stepped in front of Iron Man like it was no big thing. "Let's everybody be calm. We can work with this, going forward. Steve, you freaked out. We all know about that scene. If you know where we are at all times—"
Even Natasha shivered.
"—then you can focus on that instead of... calling for us."
"Can we get him a phone?" said Natasha.
"What, and take a call from 'Steve Rogers' that's nothing but heavy breathing?" said Tony. Though he did have a flip-phone to spare, somewhere.
"Does caller ID count as summoning our souls?" said Rhodes.
Barnes ignored them. The squirreliness had not subsided, a sure prelude to lying to a recruiting officer or jumping out of a fast-moving vehicle. "Rogers. You want to clear the room so's you can tell me what's the matter? The serum ought to clear your head faster than... uhm."
Steve's body half-heartedly shoved at the air in an unmistakable 'I'm fine' fib.
"What I meant to say," said Bucky, "If you're not jumpy anymore, how come you're squirming like you've been sent to the corner? What's eatin' you?"
The torso did appear to have taken on a rosy hue, like a raw supermarket chicken. Reluctantly, it tossed out a few gestures.
"You got disorientated and ...huh?" said Bucky.
Iron Man thumped his metal forehead. "Great. Super BFF has no clue."
"Say— I mean, try again," said Barnes, annoyed.
Steve repeated his motions, with more force, yet tighter to his body. If he'd had ears over his neck, his shoulders would be rising to them.
There was a silence.
"I have not been so lost since my old girlfriend tried to teach me semaphore," said Rhodey.
"Don't knock the squids, Chair Force," said Sam genially. Rhodey chuckled as he engaged the safety on his weaponized braces.
The intercom clicked on. It was Barton. "This might be our first fail at headless charades."
"First word, jazz hands?" said Tony.
"...open the door and here are the people?" guessed Bruce.
Sam was about to suggest Morse code when Bucky let out a "Ha!" The cheesy sheet was slipping down Steve's very, very pink chest. Steve hastily pulled it up, but Bucky intercepted. With a poke on one bare pectoral, Bucky declared: "He's embarrassed!"
"Embarrassed that he didn't hunt us down and chew our bones on the first try?" said Tony. Rhodey nudged him.
Steve was batting away Bucky's metal fingertip nearly as quickly as Bucky was poking him. "Not since that time with Sally and the camp shower— ow!" Steve had jabbed him right in a nerve cluster. That didn't stop Bucky from laughing. "Hey, I worked hard to put these memories together! What good are they, if I can't share?"
Steve didn't have a rash. He was blushing.
Tony snickered despite himself. "Not only attained maximum creepy, also a creepster. Not into voyeurism, Rogers?" He started to unlatch his helmet.
"No danger of dying of embarrassment," said Sam. He looked fairly proud of himself.
"Wow," said Dr. Banner.
"Surely you've seen the whole team in their altogether?" Barnes prodded. "Seeing through walls shouldn't be a big deal." It wasn't as though he'd picked up the head and gone looking for the others. Emphasize the positive, Bucky told himself.
The intercom clicked again. "Does that mean he can see what I'm doing right now?" Clint was probably upside-down and pantsless.
Steve's body rolled its neck, in lieu of rolling eyes. It swept a hand at the elevator, like a taxi driver hollering at a jaywalker.
The elevator doors parted. In wandered Helen Cho. Sensibly she shuffled directly to the coffeemaker. Blowing strands of hair out of her eyes, she peered at the monitors. She squinted at Steve's body when it tried to apologize to her and all ladies everywhere. After a moment of processing, she waved it off.
"He just... did you see how he...?" Bruce raised his hands like he was on a deserted island and wasn't sure he wanted this boat to pick him up. "Guys, I'm pretty sure there are no functional eyes left on that head."
"Or brain matter, technically," Helen mumbled into her sleeve.
Being closest to Helen in the event of sudden evacuation, Sam shared a speaking look with Nat.
"Science," explained Nat.
"Ah," said Sam.
Dr. Banner could perhaps be excused his confoundment, given that his own parlor trick was like living with an overblown reflex. He had been mulling over the problem more as a complication of the serum, and less like a symptom of undeath. "Even counting extra-sensory... did we even try to find out how he's doing... this? Directional sensitivity, attuned relative to human beings — which is a reasonable adaption for a... an entity of that nature. But are the sensory arrays in his head or in his torso?"
Dr. Cho yawned. "Why not both?"
Said Tony, "I think they're in his nipples. Pointy." He was already sticking his nose in the data readouts.
"Tony, filter!" stressed Nat.
There was a clatter and a crash. Parts of the Iron Man prototype had released prematurely. Only a few million dollars' worth, minus Stark's billable labor. "My bad," said Tony. "Multitasking." He toed a pauldron closer as the science side reconvened.
"His life-signs, I mean his vitals," Dr. Banner stammered, "His body seems stable now." Dr. Cho seemed to grunt her agreement. "Of course, we don't know if that means anything."
Romanoff could read a monitor with the best of them. She simply chose not to, usually, as it was her day-job. (She and Pepper had clinked blue margaritas over that remainder Tony had forgotten to carry. For weeks.) "What it means is we're in as much danger as that time we blasted his neck to smoldering, which would be not at all. Relax."
Rogers indicated that he wasn't going back to sleep anyhow. It wobbled to its feet.
When it felt around and gathered up the covers around the cot, Barnes automatically grabbed the other end. The sheets snapped to a military stiffness. They proceeded to make the bed. Meanwhile the science side of the room took notes, and muttered about hospital corners and neat freaks in the afterlife. Wilson held the frame steady so the Army boys wouldn't hog all the mama points. Steve did have trouble locating the corners, and a couple of times nearly tripped on the attached tubing. His folds and tucks were as crisp as Bucky's.
Rhodes interrupted the data analysis. "Doc, I gotta disagree. That's the result of training and drills, not magical coordination. Even if it wasn't, there's the serum. Look, Barnes is the ideal control. His side of the bed's identical."
Before Steve or Bucky could dredge up a response to the Stark-sponsored sciencing going on while they were standing right there, Tony himself rambled, "I programmed a robot to do that, once. It broke the bedposts." Tony was not faring as well in the coordination department, trying to gather up the rounder, and somewhat marble-like armor parts as they rolled away.
"Right, the robot did that," said Nat.
"Gotta give it up, they're synced," commented Sam. He flicked a fingertip on the sheets, and gave an impressed grimace. "Talk about unreal. You could just borrow Bucky's head since he's not using it."
Steve shrugged, amused. Bucky said, "Any joe blow could pass your inspection..."
Then Steve bent to pick up a stray Iron Man piece.
"I need to know how you're doing that," Bruce blurted. "Steve. Do you need the, your head, to perceive that? There are no organic components to home in on."
"Not this version," muttered Tony.
Steve's body gave pause.
"I'm gonna guess," Barnes said. "He doesn't need his noggin. He's been watching Stark, and he knows how many pieces the armor comes in. The rest of it is trajectory calculation—" he nodded at the shield, "—which comes naturally." As did picking up after Tony.
Another headless shrug.
Tony looked briefly agog that Steve had memorized his armor configuration.
Natasha looked like she was wondering, again, how much of Steve Rogers had been natural, as opposed to supernatural, and the comparative simplicity of international counterintelligence or planting hair straighteners.
Bucky swiped at his lip. "This isn't pleasant conversation, but if it saves Steve some unnecessary experiments..." He sighed. "You can pack a lot into rote memory. Even if you lose all your bearings, unless you, heh, freeze up, it's possible to dive into complicated tasks pretty fast."
"It's true," said Natasha with a curt nod. "Operational knowledge is robust. It will survive... all kinds of situations. And you don't need many sensory cues to build a picture, and execute a plan. With average or enhanced senses."
"Except, except," Bruce paced like a live wire. Charged with science, not green-tinged detonation. "You all have brains."
"Braainnss," said Tony helpfully.
"The Hulk has brains. I mean, what we ought to know, is how much Steve relies on the head."
Helen was having a waking dream of a giant reflex hammer being applied to the subject.
"Is knowing the unknowable an advisable goal, here?" Nat said, half-flinching.
"We don't have to discover the mechanism, per se. Only... how safe it is for Steve. Believe me," said Bruce Banner, "You want to explore the parameters before things blow up." (There were several pointed glares, at that.)
With that, a strange rumbling noise broke into the conversation.
"I have nightmares about that sound," said Bucky Barnes.
It was Steve's stomach growling. Steve clutched at his midsection like he could shut it off. He had received enough nutrients, but his stomach didn't know that.
"We should, with the range measurement," Helen mumbled.
They all blinked at Dr. Cho. Well, most of them did.
Dr. Banner hastily clarified. "We could set up testing for maximum separation. There were no odd effects reported in the battle. In that regard, at least."
"Kitchenette's one floor up, all push-button blenders, no microchips," said Tony. "In case the Hulk gets the munchies."
Bruce nodded. "They wouldn't be too far apart. If Steve's okay with that."
Steve contemplated his head. Then he turned to his friends. It ascribed a space with its hands, stretching an invisible rubber band. Of course right after getting knocked down by his newly split reality, Steven was eager to put distance between his respective portions.
"Always pushing it," groused Bucky.
"Shouldn't be a problem," said Bruce. He almost meant it. With a bit more conviction, he fiddled with the cannula until it popped out of Steve's neck. "Come right back if there is one. We'll establish a baseline. You guys go ahead."
"No, I think you've got the head," said Tony.
Sam groaned. "Nuh-uh, it is too early for this. So much for sleep." Granted, the one advantage for lack of sleep was a steep reduction in nightmares.
Tony Stark realized that he was playing host to the hordes once more. No rest for the wicked. Or the dead, it seemed. At least Friday was displaying the clock on the containment floor. "You know what, the sun's going to catch us before we can dish out traditional hangover fare, so how about some real breakfast? Semi-solid for now, I was working on the masticator attachment."
Dr. Cho grunted her medical clearance.
"To the breakfast nook!"
Barnes noticed how Rogers picked up the shield almost as an afterthought. The body did stop just short of slinging it over its shoulders to hook on the non-existent strap. The miniature construction zone sticking out of its neck did enhance some of the body language, in a literal pin-head sort of way.
As the party filed out, Bruce stared at Steve Rogers' now flawless navigation into the catty-cornered, Hulk-proof elevator. If anything remained of Steve's visual cortex, it was sealed in an apparently impenetrable box. The elevator doors shut with a puff of pressurization. The body's monitors showed the body ascending to the next floor while he and Dr. Cho remained with its head.
"How is this even possible?"
"Oh, I don't know, Dr. Banner. How do you violate the laws of physics every time you lose your cool?" At this, Helen woke up all the way, all-aboard, first-class tickets on the espresso train. "Sorry. Brain to mouth."
Fortunately Bruce was in full-bore science mode. "The question is how the seat of consciousness links to the main physical, uh, body. Some processes can transfer to the peripheral nervous system. The brain re-routes all the time to get around massive damage."
"I know," said Dr. Cho mildly. "That's my specialty."
They reserved a moment to look sheepish at each other. "You're not going to publish, are you?" said Bruce, adjusting his glasses.
"Are you kidding me? I have a kid who's graduating summa cum laude." Helen for the first time acknowledged the supernatural skull in the room. "I have to live long enough to see him get a stable job in this economy."
Chapter 14: 48:30 | 7:52:46
(Food warn. Sporadic from here out.)
In case you're wondering, it is bloody awkward riding an elevator car with a headless body.
Rhodey could watch the floor numbers if he looked across Steve's bare shoulders. Oh, no.
"You good?" Sam asked.
Steve started to put a thumb up. Then it tried to form a basketball with its hands. Then it pointed at Bucky's chin; made a turkey with its palm, its thumb where its nose used to be. Turkey tailfeathers made of fingertips waggled irreverently.
The capsule came to a halt, and began to unseal.
Bemused, Bucky stuck his tongue out.
Steve practically jumped out of his slippers snapping his fingers. Aware of his track record with elevators, they ushered him into the kitchen area.
"That was a lucky guess," said Barnes.
"I don't get it," Nat confessed. Clint might be useful here.
"I gotcha," Sam proclaimed. "It's that feeling when you remember your tongue is—"
Tony groaned. "Don't say it."
"—inside your mouth, and you can't stop thinking about how much space it takes up."
Coffee beans avalanched, cereal crackled, bowls and mugs clinked. Bucky grimaced as they all tried to un-see the image.
"I guess once you start thinking about your head, you start thinking..." Natasha trailed off.
Steve tossed the shield into an empty chair: less showing off, and more blowing off steam. He whirled an index finger at the level of his old temple.
"I'll pretend that's your helmet wings, and not totally un-PC," said Rhodey.
Without rancor, Steve flapped some wings and then crooked them into donkey's ears.
Bucky snorted. "Nah, you don't. It's not like we can't understand you."
Steve was now carrying an armload of boxes from the pantry. He rattled one in Bucky's direction.
"I'm not kidding. It's like... those silent film stars." Bucky frowned. "Did we used to view those 'scopes in the drugstore? Ate up all our pocket change? Dusty old penny machines, real old fashioned nickelodeon pictures."
"I feel like there's a joke here to offend the maximum number of demographic groups," said Tony. He glanced at Nat. "No, I'm not saying it."
Steve tried to look as nonchalant as he could with the old Brooklyn creeping into Bucky's intonation, while trying not to hug-crush the kids' shelf of the cereal aisle. It might occur to him, later, that Bucky's would be the last authentic remnant of that accent, with Steve's own voicebox gone the way of the decomposed.
Bucky continued to stroll down Memory Backalley. "We were making fun of 'em— flinging their wrists to their brows, wringing their hands. Now that was some gesticulating. You're nowhere near."
"That's good for sign language, Steve," said Clint Barton, making his usual unexpected, if entirely mundane entrance. Surprisingly he was wearing pants, in addition to his domestic compound bow. "You have to get big with the gestures to deliver nuance."
"There you go, you can be your usual over-dramatic self," said Bucky.
"He's got your number, Rogers," said Sam.
Steve's sigh was a bit more train whistle than before, but he did let them have that one.
Bucky, however, was on a roll. "I remember seein' this stupid movie... not with you," he said to Steve, to curb the giddiness. "Because it was about the Great War. We all knew how you felt about Hollywood makin' a buck off the war." There were several raised brows of irony. Bucky attempted to recollect. "It starred a Chaplin—"
Tony Stark cut in. "Charlie? The Little Tramp?" he asked guilelessly.
"No," said Bucky. "He had a brother. Or half-brother. Not as funny. Anyway, there's this scene where they're surrounded by the enemy, stuck in a horse's costume. Those two-man jobs, they still make those?"
"I want one," said Clint.
"You just want a bigger ass," said Nat.
"After the battle, it's all quiet. They're trying to scramble out of the stable when the guy with the head and the guy with the body got separated. What's more, I think the horsehead falls off. So the Krauts, sorry, the Germans — they were so drunk, they got spooked by this headless horse and his wandering backside, stumbling around the hay bales and the like. The two idiots get away."
"I am so searching this for my queue," said Sam.
"Don't do it, it's terrible." Barnes glanced at Rogers. "Though honestly? That's only two notches less idiotic than some of the stuff we pulled in our war."
Steve declined to contemplate the possible future absurdities before him.
Clint raised a hand. "At the risk of throwing out my Godfather box set. Do we have to source a headless horse, now?"
"You and farm animals." "I don't think that's the legend..." "Why does he even need a horse?" "I am genuinely afraid that Thor will know where to find one."
"Solo land nav," suggested Barton.
Romanoff tapped her bottom lip. "Riding out on lonely country lanes. In the middle of the night." Less sparsely populated than an abandoned containment lab. "A horse could cover a lot of ground without getting lost."
"Better record that breakthrough before Bruce... breaks stuff," said Rhodey.
The elevator disgorged more superheroes. As Tony suspected, the call of a free buffet was a sure draw despite the early hour. He considered replicating the aromas of a greasy spoon diner to replace the standard sirens-and-vocals Assemble call.
The Vision popped his head through the floor between the prep counter and the peninsula. "Dr. Banner and Dr. Cho report nothing untoward, and will join us shortly."
"See, that's not even weird anymore," said Scott Lang, who was trying not to cut himself on an apple corer.
Clint Barton glanced at Sam, Bucky, and Steve's body at the blender bar. "Yeah, it's worn off."
Wilson was placing Steve's fingers on the buttons. "Tamp the lid down before you start pulsing."
Bucky shook his head. "Why doesn't it have a button to pulse? Why'd you gotta keep mashing, it's like getting out of a car to crank the engine." He picked up the cereal box once Steve was done with it. "And your tastes have changed, Rogers. You wouldn't even eat malt balls, now this? You're going to crush the little marshmallow bits."
"He's not going to taste it," Sam pointed out.
Between them, Steve blended his cereal, and pretended they weren't witnessing his bid for independence.
"Good, because it's not a real flavor. This over here?" Bucky shook a box. "It's cinnamon. An actual spice."
"Which was probably made in a factory, too. They're both high in sugar, and they're gluten free. Besides, you are missing out, Barnes," Sam insisted. "You even tried Froot Loops?"
Wanda said, "Oh, those are disgusting. I do like smelling the bag." The body by itself seemed less unnerving, somehow; she reached in front of it for the seasoned salt.
"Okay, I give you that," conceded Bucky. He handed Steve the spouted gravy boat for his crushed cereal, and popped a tin of powdered milk with his thumb. "It's like sniffing a fruit orchard made of plastic. I dunno if it's the serum, but that's actually appetizing. Artificial dyes aside. Hey Steve, can you smell this?" He wafted the bag over Steve's neck. The fruity O's crunched under his metal fingers.
Tony caught the negative reply. "Friday, make a n— oh. Do I own notepaper?"
"I saw some gilded stationery," said Barton with his mouth full. "Dumped it in the incinerator."
"You shouldn't have gone paperless, Tony," Natasha murmured.
"Man, you've got to look into this Friday thing," Rhodey said, surrendering his napkin for jotting.
"Not in front of the kids," said Tony. "I have a few ideas."
Bucky was throwing the funnel attachment at Steve until he caught it. Sam looked like he wanted to say something, except he'd seen the tough-love approach work in PT. Not to mention if either head or body got wound up, it wouldn't be Sam who'd be targeted. The Winter Soldier would be fine. Probably.
Bruce walked in as the funnel bounced off Steve's chest and landed in the sink compactor. He sighed deeply. "Vision, if you could please?"
"I shall disinfect Steve once they have completed their horseplay," said Vision.
Steve somehow found his seat at the table. Sitting beside him, Bucky drizzled some water onto Steve's starch-and-sugar concoction. Unassisted, Steve dipped a spoon in the rainbow slop, and waved that it was wet enough. "If you say so," said Bucky. "Don't choke on it or you'll get a robot in your pipes again."
"Synthenoid," said Vision.
"Beg your pardon," said Barnes. He waited for Steve to slot the funnel into his newly installed tube. "Hey, is it safe to get crumbs on him?"
Helen Cho glanced up over the elevated counter. From this angle she could see the tide of new skin forming in the half goopy, half scabrous spaces between the implants, reclaiming the stump where Steve Rogers's head should have been.
There was simply no head there. Blanked out. The skin was on its way to stretching over the neck like a drum. One with harvested mushroom stalks on top. The rising sun was visible over it, streaming through the windows on the far side of the room.
"This is so, so weird," she breathed.
"Newb," said Scott.
"It's his own skin!" Bucky felt the need to defend.
"You're Vision's mom," said Tony Stark to her.
Vision disinfected Steve's palms without comment.
"Point," said Helen. She picked up the bag of ground coffee and started pouring, sans measuring scoop.
Bruce waited for Dr. Cho to say something. In vain. "The serum's active. Small crumbs would probably be absorbed into the matrix."
Steve threw a napkin at Bucky for his crumbs. Then, with a refined coordination, he tipped the spout into the funnel's reservoir and waited for the... mouthful to filter down. The vessels were quite well-designed, automatically venting displaced air to allow gravity to suck the food down the hatch. No motion required. No gurgling or gulping. No communicating while eating, even though the separated tubes made it inhumanly possible. Elbows off the table.
Few were fooled.
Inexplicably everyone remained at the table to eat. Sometimes, they really were the heroes the world deserved.
T'Challa was irritated by the appearance of smartphones at the meal, but Stark's A.I. had been recalcitrant throughout; and the king could console himself that Wakanda's latest build was much more functional. He would have to time his suggestion of touch-feedback screens for when Stark's mouth was full. Such universally accessible interfaces came standard in his cities.
"Chatter's picking up," said Nat, glancing at her top-secret gossip page, the one which Clint would never, ever mention. "They've noticed we skipped the post-mission."
"Ah, yes, we should probably do that press release soon," said Stark. "Er... do you want to look at it? Of course you can't look at it; someone can read it to you," he babbled at Cap.
Everyone but Bucky found something else to occupy their attention.
Steve shook with an emphatic 'no.' He could imagine the spin already. Even with 100% of his faculties, he was ill-equipped to direct that media show. Especially compared with Tony Stark's expertise. Legacy was supposed to be a problem reserved for everyone else but the principal subject. With his persistent longevity, rarely was Steve Rogers that fortunate.
Still, it did point a finger at its long-time companion: the shield.
Rhodey and Tony looked at each other. Tony said, "We were discussing that. Symbolism and all." He pulled his chair forward. "Did we decide anything?"
A microwave oven beeped. Suddenly Sam found several pairs of eyes on him. With a satisfied smirk, Nat took her smartphone and got up to retrieve her bowl.
"Aw, man. No. I couldn't."
Steve flicked a finger at the shield and then at Bucky, then finished off with what might have been a rude gesture in the 1930's.
"Yeah, I haven't had much luck with the old dinner plate. Better you than me, Wilson. You gotta get up under the lights and look really sad, right? When I try it, I look constipated." Barnes hoisted the shield between himself and Falcon. He shook it enticingly. "Just think: if we make it official, it'll be a flying saucer."
"Why do I talk to you?" Sam confiscated the shield from the Winter Soldier, who was clearly despicable. "Why, why do you do that? Haven't you done enough?"
"Hydra didn't believe in puns." Barnes exchanged places with Romanoff. He grabbed a pan to scramble some eggs for second-breakfast.
Sam's face was Not Impressed, but his hands were running over the vibranium. After the mission, he had disinfected it himself. It had felt too light then, too. "Don't expect me to work up a speech. That's all I'm saying."
T'Challa deigned to interject. "Speaking of symbolism. Stark, are you buying the hotel, or shall I?"
"Oh, no, I can... damn it." Tony winced. "No point asking Friday. I got this, I got this. That is one more thing, though. Steve, are you..." There was an unusual hesitation. "Am I supposed to be delicate about this?"
Natasha said, "The answer's always yes, Tony. Just spit it out."
Steve's body looked attentive.
"Since we're churning out the press release, are we designating the hotel as your final resting place?"
Steve shrugged noncommittally. Then it stuck a thumb at itself, and traced a square plaque in the air.
"I have noticed this... quirk of the culture," said T'Challa. "'George Washington slept here' seems a common enough sign in these parts. Very British, ironically enough."
Steve pinched some imaginary dollar bills. Bucky snorted.
"That all you got?" Sam refilled his orange juice. "That's Depression-era, Rogers."
In response, Steve dealt paper off his flattened palm.
Clint nearly choked. "You taught him how to make it rain?! Holy shit, were you going to drag him clubbing?"
Wanda clapped her hand over a burbling giggle.
"Mental picture: Steve Rogers in the VIP lounge," said Stark. Complete with glowstick, he managed not to say.
The Winter Soldier considered the undercover possibilities. For her part, the Black Widow was regretful: "I tried for years. No dice."
The Falcon looked smug.
"Smooth. Majorly messed up, but smooth," said Rhodey. Despite it all, Captain America and indignity still seemed like a bizarre juxtaposition. "Okay, no way are we sticking 'Steve Rogers bled out here' on that fountain. We are burning that place to the ground, aren't we?"
Tony said, "A controlled incineration is the term. Besides, who would want to sleep there? Wait, I'm a ravening capitalist, of course people would line up to sleep there." He slurped coffee.
"Like those haunted tours?" said Scott Lang.
"Those charlatans can rake it in," said Clint Barton.
"Aw, c'mon, haunted tours are real. I mean." Scott tried not to indicate the presence of the headless Captain America at the table. "Come. On."
Bucky spoke up. "How about a baseball diamond? Can you build that on the site?"
"Yes," said Tony Stark.
"Of course." Said King T'Challa.
They made eye contact, long enough for their respective wealth to accrue millions.
"Good for you, Steve?"
Steve tried to nod, and gave it a thumbs-up. There was a sort of numbed un-reality to it all, even moreso than the absence of his head. But there were no other options. This had to be done. Steve Rogers rarely shied from what needed to be done.
"You're not gonna go wandering around first base like that time that sandy-haired kid picked you off?" Bucky shook his left trigger finger at Steve like he hadn't just accidentally made contact with the induction burner. "No haunting!"
Steve tried to look like a responsible undead entity who wouldn't scare little kids at a baseball game.
"Hope that works," murmured Bruce Banner. The Hulk needed more than stern admonishment. Although... Bruce had to admit that Cap could have Hulk's number with little more than a patriotic point of a finger.
Barnes returned with a kettle of lukewarm water for Rogers to literally wash down the remains of his breakfast.
There was a discreet glugging. Without looking up, Wilson handed him a napkin.
Serenely, Nat said, "You know... I liked that fountain. That would look nice here in the compound."
Vision looked up from the corner where he was hovering in a benign manner. "Its effect was quite calming. And Dr. Banner and Dr. Cho might want to take it apart for specimens."
"Science-say-whu?" Helen Cho jerked out of her musings, just short of drowning in her coffee mug.
"Rise and shine!" said Tony Stark. "Let's boost a fountain, burn down a building, and drop the official statement after the morning shows have popped their bottles of rosé. That'll piss 'em off."
Mr. Stark would no doubt be asked why they had not broken the news of Steve's expiration earlier. Mr. Stark was going to answer, in his most frostily disapproving voice, that they were grieving.
Chapter 15: (3:30:00) + 37:20 | 12:00:06
By the time the presser dropped, the Vision had been persuaded to make waffles, and no one objected to switching on the television. Oh, it was a wall-to-wall bank of screens, of course. They watched the international media scramble to interrupt their fluff pieces about travel deals which might not bankrupt the average viewer and the top ten trending cat memes posted by dictators charged with war crimes.
Notes were made that any communication device for Steve's body would not include conventional audio transmissions. That he could track changing channels was only the result of his apparent sensitivity to musical cues.
Steve was definitely glad television was beyond his range of perception. It was certainly more enjoyable to listen to his friends do an impression of the various pre-made video packages in the event of Captain America's untimely demise.
"Be glad you can't watch, I think these weasels are obsessed with your ass," said Nat.
"Normally I'd say you're seeing things, but... they're a little fixated..." said Sam.
"The Dorito thing is real, though," said Tony. "And still applicable."
Scott and Clint were commiserating over the criminal record which would probably kick off their death montages. Nat and Bucky began to tick off insinuated allegations.
"I will have to speak to the embassy about my file footage in the hands of your media," said T'Challa, disturbed.
"I want so badly to stop watching," Wanda lied. "That woman is having a breakdown."
Tony scoffed. "She's so fake. Slept with her in the nineties. And maybe the 2K's. This guy, though—"
"You mean Granite Face?" said Clint, from the depths of his own resting face.
"He's all family-values? Sold off a pile of Captain America merch' after the defrost. Apparently some items were... heavily used. His supervillain name will probably be Granite Face."
"That's disgusting," said Bucky, in a tone which indicated he wasn't that disgusted.
Inquiringly, Steve double-gestured at where his cheekbones used to be.
"Right, the guy who paints the silver into his sideburns," Tony clarified. "Don't worry, he's not getting one scrap out of our collection." He was vaguely pleased that Steve might only encounter this guy one more fateful time.
"Here's the crowd shots," said Scott. "Took them a while."
"We shoot down drones around the Tower," explained Rhodey.
"Oh, extra security's stationed around Brooklyn," Tony assured Steve and Bucky. "Et cetera. Porta-potties, copyright lawyers."
"The cemetery?" Barnes asked, a touch worried. His family plot was there as well.
"Locked down," Nat replied. "Traffic cops will take care of the rest. There's nowhere to park out there." The New Yorkers in the room shared commiserating looks, and one chest-wobble.
The throng of mourners were considerably more poignant. The first camera-phone shots trickled in from around Avengers Tower and the Grand Central Station perimeter. There was Thor, twisting metal girders into giant springs, one after another, and placing them along the entrance. The Asgardian prince was weeping copiously.
Scott whispered, "He does know Steve's still... not completely dead, right?"
"See, this is why you teach the alien god about Slinkies," said Clint.
"Clever," said Romanoff. "Steve, they're sticking flowers in the gaps in the spirals. It's a vertical memorial instead of carpeting the sidewalk."
Stark too made an approving noise. "And there's enough buffer that nothing's going to get stuck to the side of the building. Security can run their checks in lock-down... even from inside the lobby." They were, after all, a band of professional superheroes, and were well aware that any secondary attack was best deterred, particularly with emotions running high.
Before Thor could finish forging these public sculptures, people were filling up the first columns with tokens of their grief.
Some in the crowd shouted questions at Thor. He didn't answer any of them until a small child tugged on his cape.
"Can't hear it," Sam whispered. "Reading lips. The kid's asking what happened to Captain America." He paused. "Thor just said: 'He is no more.'"
Bucky said, "Kid asked if Cap was gone for good."
They watched Thor honk snotty tears into the hem of his cape. Sam continued. "Thor's saying the stalwart leadership of Steve Rogers is needed elsewhere."
Thor could be quite canny with his words, these days. As the child's mother babbled that Captain Rogers was in a better place — not altogether inaccurate — Thor lifted the child and let them tuck their old Bucky Bear into the top of the memorial. Then he returned the child, motioned them to stand back, and swung his hammer to make the leap to the roof, from where he would complete his other errands.
The feed cut back to the studio. Mascara was running; wrinkly old windbags were choking up.
In the Avengers compound, an uncomfortable silence descended.
Steve's body sighed deeply. Reflexively it rubbed at his collarbone.
"Should probably decide what we're telling the kids," said Clint.
Abruptly Steve got to his feet. Bucky also stood. Someone may have kicked Clint's ankle. Variously, everyone else caught up to the specific circumstances of Steven Grant Rogers outliving both his parents.
Bruce, thankfully, was on the ball. "Uh, we have a few more tests running downstairs. If you'd like, Steve...?"
T'Challa rose. "Captain Rogers," he said. "Do not worry. We will make all the arrangements."
Over Steve's shoulder — and his neck — Bucky exchanged glances with Sam.
Gravely, Steven offered his hand. Just as gravely, King T'Challa shook it.
"Yeah we will," echoed Tony Stark from a deceptively indolent sprawl.
Him, the body of Steve Rogers grasped on the shoulder. Perhaps it was the sturdy shake, or the angle which did not quite betray the barren vacancy atop the neck. (It was probably not the maple syrup wiped off on Tony's shirt.) A score of speeches could not match the eloquence of the gesture.
Before Tony could sit up, Steve was striding to the elevator with Bruce and Bucky trailing behind.
Friday stopped making herself scarce, and softened the volume of the televisions.
The elevator doors closed.
The shield had been abandoned at the breakfast table.
Tony Stark spun around in his chair. "I think we just killed Captain America," he said.
No one disagreed.
"Let's finish what we started," said Natasha Romanoff.
Chapter 16: 48:00:00 | 60:00:06
An Avenger's work is never done, even short a cranium and out a shield. Steve's time was filled by physical therapy and music therapy and a battery of tests and fittings for his neck holes. Bruce Banner had apparently thrown open his entire manual of coping mechanisms.
Meanwhile, the rest of the team was embroiled in Rogers's funerary plans. For that, Steven had only the one request: that there be a river-polished stone carved with the year of his birth buried face-down on his mother's grave. (Wanda and Vision undertook the clandestine mission to this particular river; they made no suspicion-arousing inquiries. Despite not lingering long, he still returned with a pile of Aran knit sweaters.) During the memorial itself, Steven would remain at headquarters to convalesce. Yes, it took them 36 hours to start saying 'headquarters'.
How he communicated all this to Bucky Barnes was a mystery for the ages. The attempted art therapy had produced Steve's first true flash of anger. No one died. Besides those who had already expired, and a box of innocent pastel crayons. Clint Barton altered his future lesson plans accordingly.
In those 36 hours, Tony Stark and King T'Challa engaged in a race to drop the most money on the ceremony. Tony bought a quarry. T'Challa stamped a vibranium casket with fifty stars, plus a smaller constellation for territories and holdings. Tony flew in every percussion section in every high school marching band in the country, and partnered them with all the drum corps the military had to spare. T'Challa jetted to five world capitals and rounded up a guest list of dignitaries so high-ranking that the press had nosebleeds. At least, that's what they said after clamoring too closely to the state-of-the-art Wakandan jet, after T'Challa gunned it, perhaps deliberately. Tony lined the funeral route with clear, escutcheon-shaped boxes with hydroponic flowers. T'Challa showered the same route with petals for three days, and paid off the littering fines despite his diplomatic immunity.
The government at-large was just glad someone else was paying for the state funeral. The media was losing sleep over each new development of the state funeral. Like clockwork, one every hour, if they were caffeinated enough to notice.
The live press conference was a study in austerity, save for a battered USO shield propped on the lectern. Tony cried. Bucky thought it was a nice touch. He didn't even doctor his handkerchief with smelling salts to make his eyes water. Then Bucky realized that Tony wasn't only crying at the press conference. He began to understand just how many issues Tony had with Captain America. On the bright side, few placed much import on the content of Tony's blubbering, which minimized the need for damage control.
There was a fraught moment when Wanda Maximoff was conflicted over the suggestion that she alter their moods to present a convincing front. Clint Barton nearly broke the coffeemaker over the idea. After all, what went better with trauma than heaps more trauma? Natasha reminded everyone that the myriad ways in which grief manifested was credible enough to suit their purpose. The Black Widow did offer private lessons to anyone interested in refining their technique.
There were other matters over which to lose sleep.
The head remained inert. Friday refused to examine it. With his own system, War Machine managed an internal scan. He found the head disturbingly recognizable despite the prodigious levels of putrefaction. After reporting "still way creepy," he promptly resumed the chore of removing all traces of gold from the living areas. The scan was not repeated.
The AI would only do the bare minimum to assist Dr. Banner and Dr. Cho. They had to set up separate machines for the research, which fortunately had been part of the security plan in the first place. Tony tried to placate Friday by building gold-plated blast doors. They were, he thought, worth every penny.
"Friday? Is it because we're swapping out all the gold? Is that why?" Removing those connections did reduce the efficiency of the compound's systems, but this difficulty was no match for the surplus of in-house engineers.
"Not at all, boss."
To his credit, Tony was more concerned by his track record of sweet-talking both artificial intelligences and women, rather than losing Friday's services in what amounted to the greatest campaign of his public life. He had pulled up Falcon's next redesign to coax her out. It was sufficiently unrelated to Steve for her comfort.
"You know I'm not going to judge if you have the heebie-jeebies."
There was another out-of-the-ordinary pause. "Boss? Would you allow me to prepare countermeasures?"
"Only," said Tony carefully, "If you don't use them without my authorization. I'm dead serious, Fry. Really actually dead serious. Even if Rogers rides in here and full-names me, it's not worth it. Fully cognizant, sober, triple-keyed authorization, for apocalypse-level conditions."
"You got it."
Tony sighed. "Don't think I didn't notice you avoiding the question."
"You're the smartest cookie, boss."
* * *
Two days in, Tony flung a canvas aside to reveal a fleet of red-white-and-blue drones. "Check them out! HD picture, high-speed, and we could probably convert it to 3D if there's demand." There would be demand. "Ooh we should do holograms. Lasers might be too eighties. Friday agreed to help with the funeral. Still ix-nay on the eve-Stay."
"Uh," said Rhodey. He surveyed the neat rows of baby Iron Patriots. All that was missing was the cigar. "Is this really the message you want to be sending at Steve's funeral?"
"Inappropriate." It was almost like he'd been in Washington. Or seen the movie.
"Not the card I was thinking of."
"I was going to ask if you'd considered how this'll reflect on you, but this is you."
"If Steve were really dead and gone, he wouldn't get a say in it."
Jim tapped his cane on Tony's ankle. "Tones. He isn't gone."
In a fit of responsibility, they consulted Barnes.
Entirely incidentally, Barnes answered his door shirtless. He propped a forearm on the doorjamb like a large, supple cat.
"It's for Cap, isn't it? Blank check. Pageantry included. Surprised me too. Between us, I think he's had it with funerals. Ironic given the circumstances."
"That's the word I was thinking of," Tony murmured.
Bucky leaned in. "You know they held a full-blown memorial for me in London? We're digging up all kinds of stuff Steve never mentioned."
"Totally unsurprising that he turns out to be an enchanted headless non-mortal, then," said Tony.
Bucky and Sam were having their own struggles with the historical record. They were both good students with quick minds, and a few million dollars in Stark money with which to fund an army of archivists. But they had, let us be candid, a deadline. And there was, to use the technical term, a metric ton of bullshit about Captain America.
"I hope this doesn't mess up my memory exercises," groaned Bucky.
"Your memory," said Sam. "It's messing with my memory. Everything I ever learned about the Howlies as a kid." He made a glider with his hand and flew it over his head, which on Steve would mean whoosh and boom. "And I'm sitting next to a Howlie!"
Bucky thumped his head on a hardcover book which was possibly older than he was.
Then he raised his head. A metal knuckle rapped on the spine of the book. Hydra had, after all, never burned the cognitive parts of his brain.
"Yeeeaaah?" Sam marveled at the similarities in Steve's and Bucky's Bad Idea Voices. His eyebrows were already pre-emptively climbing.
"Loads of this is speculation. Meaning," Bucky hunched in like he was evading shushing librarians, "Only people who know if it actually happened would be Steve and me."
"Aw, no, man." Sam's grin began to strain his face. "Dude, stop talking before I tell you that is a fucking great idea."
"I mean, some of it got recorded, like the military movements, but lots of those old records, they can be disappeared..."
"You're right. Friday's not even recording right now."
The Winter Soldier did not bristle at the implication that he didn't have the situational awareness to notice that. Didn't matter — Sam was on the hook. "We're only stuck with this to keep Steve from moping about the old days," Bucky said, hitting upon the core of their worries. "Better to occupy him with somethin' in the here-and-now."
"This is a terrible idea," Sam Wilson said, for their own personal records. "Let's do it."
They (carefully) closed their books, and hurried off to cajole Captain America into trolling his own funeral.
* * *
"The Star Wars sub-orbital fireworks are a go!"
Tones and Rhodey squealed like over-stimulated adolescents at their first outdoor concert. This was fairly safe to mention aloud since the Disney corporation owned it, too.
Natasha draped her arm over the couch-back and studied them. "Tony, I thought the Star Wars fireworks show was what you wanted for your funeral." Her eyelashes fluttered at their stares. "What of it? I was spying on you. I found a lot of things."
Tony waved off ye olde invasion of privacy. "Well, yes, but if it's for my funeral, who sees it?" Not Tony Stark, surely, since he was stuck in the universe where one had to actually expend some effort into faking their death. "It'll be a great beta test!"
"Relax, it'll be the perfect balance of bombast and somber ceremony. Pepper might have talked to me, it's handled. She's taking care of the details, all the diplomatic minutiae, and did you know T'Challa's not so great at that? Hah, he has people for that too."
"Unless he's trying to chat up Pepper." Rhodey grinned at Tony's outraged wet-cat look. "What, man? I got your back. Just sayin'..."
"Pepper!" Tony strode off. "Are gift-baskets out for funerals? Or a banquet? Some people grieve through food...!"
Nat murmured to Rhodey, "You know Steve can't see his own funeral either, right?"
He sighed. "At least it'll be recorded. I've been networking with disability rights organizations — he has options. If there isn't a modified Braille reader for him to 'feel' the picture, Tony will invent one."
* * *
Natasha swept across the catwalk overlooking the main atrium, which was now stuffed with funereal props. Thanks to a team of robots — Scott had been gobsmacked when Tony delegated the opacity adjustment to him, nevermind that the bots were nearly autonomous — the spacious, windowed room had been converted into one of the few places where they could act freely. In addition to the state-of-the-art one-way glass, the Vision occasionally floated through to sweep for bugs and other incongruous devices.
"You will make a politician yet," T'Challa was saying.
Nat kicked off her shoes, catching them neatly in mid-air. "No thank you, Your Majesty. I need a bath after all that slimy discharge." And she knew whereof she spoke. "Closed casket, Tony!" she called.
"Win!" answered Tony from the upstairs lab. "Alright, Gumdrop, it's all on you. We could probably slip on by if the Alphabet Soups want tissue samples, but I'd rather not booby-trap the crypt."
Colonel Rhodes checked the cuffs of his dress uniform. "I got 'em right where I want 'em. I no longer regret watching all those Cap propaganda films with you—"
"You were watching them?!" Tony said in mock-surprise. Rhodey had always been less interested in the supplemental recreation.
"—Tones, I can make 'em cry. I'm the Barbara Walters of E Ring."
"Your haircut's better."
"I had a four-star general weeping into his briefing packet. All from reciting the opening verse in the Cherbourg newsreel."
"You're enjoying this too much." That poem had always made Tony tear up. He usually covered it up with another cocktail.
T'Challa was watching this byplay, likewise in good spirits. "Americans are sentimental to a fault."
"We don't have supernatural guides," said Natasha dryly. "We have Captain America."
T'Challa considered the analogy, and the concentrated scrutiny upon which such solemnities were borne. "Will there be complications with installing surveillance on the casket?" asked the Wakandan king.
"We could stick it inside," said Tony Stark.
The exterior was T'Challa's work; the interior fell under Stark's purview.
"Will that not encourage interlopers to break into it? Defeating the purpose?" T'Challa asked. "It's the tomb builders' dilemma."
"Hm," said Natasha. "How to keep watch without tempting them to open Pandora's box?"
"Even if it's not the real box," said Tony. As one, they turned to the window-wall overlooking the ground floor staging area.
The real box had already been opened. Steve had taken to handling his head at least once a day, ostensibly to design a suitable carrying-case. Sam and Bucky had taken to tossing the shield on top of it, to no ill effects. By now everyone in the compound was nose-blind to the gamey graveyard scent.
Like a museum exhibit gone awry, Rogers himself was wandering around their static mortuary. He matched everyone else's black wardrobe: a ripped sweater of his had been mended into a tunic, from which erupted his healed-over neck. Yesterday Stark had manufactured a vibranium disc to fit over Dr. Cho's implants, allowing standardized attachments. Tony had resisted decorating it with a star. He had not resisted an evening of 'capping the well' quips.
Today the light bounced off the disc; Rogers was going without the micro-stealth layer. Beside him, Barnes was sublimating any latent emotional distress to play tour guide. Though the Avengers currently held a monopoly on individuals who could see through walls, towering opera-house curtains hid most of the arrangements. Backstage, Captain America's dress rehearsal memorial was open-casket.
Downstairs, the four found them gathered around the coffin, where in peaceful repose lay the intact visage of one Steven Grant Rogers.
Steve's actual body stood motionless. Bucky, on the other hand, was shaking his head like a sluggish metronome. "That's unsettling," he said.
Rhodes couldn't help himself. "You're standing next to your decapitated friend. This is creepier?"
Barnes shrugged. "Yeah. Look at it."
There was the LMD, a whole and hollow shell on a red-white-and-blue pillow fashioned of parachute silk. Reflected on the interior glass cover was Steven's incomplete and functioning torso.
"You're right. That's creepy as fuck."
"No touchy, Steve!" called Tony. "Speaking of creepy — fingerprints outside the casket matching the ones on the inside. No can do."
T'Challa was frowning. 'Inside' meant surveillance could be installed in the LMD itself. There was something unseemly about it, even though it was a doppelganger. He and Stark discussed technicalities, with Barnes adding some professional suggestions. Steve made no attempt to contribute; in the long run, a simple ruse would not affect a legend-made-flesh.
Meanwhile, Natasha was getting her first look at the production behind the curtain. "Tony. What is that... thing blocking the west entrance?"
The monstrosity in question was a solid, white, glittery mass of bunting, flags, ribbons, laurels, and a shield in flight whose arc was inscribed by soaring eagles. It would not look out of place in an overwrought credits scene.
"Headstone. Magic of laser etching. I recorded the process so Thor can watch it later."
Nat jabbed her stiletto heels at it. "It's the size of a pickup truck!"
"It fits the dimensions of the plot. What, Cap's a big guy. His Majesty ordered a jumbo coffin." Tony steered Steve toward it. "Go on, Rogers, feel it up."
"So this is why they invented the phrase 'what the fuck,'" said Barnes.
Tony kept talking at Steve. "I know you'd prefer a simple marker, but Arlington won't go for that. They want something that'll look great on TV—"
"It's tomorrow at dawn. How are we getting it there?" Nat interrupted.
"Oh, you mean, I'm airlifting it." Rhodes crossed his arms.
"Whatever, 'Iron Patriot,' I'm not the one who sent his suit through the all-American paintjob this morning. You're headed, ehehe, in that direction anyway. Give 'em something to cry about."
Rhodey circled the monument. He dragged a fingernail along a wheat-encrusted curlicue. "Man, I don't know if you slept through Geology, but this rock's not going to last a year."
Natasha was watching Steve very, very carefully. If Steve had a face, it would not be out of place at a poker game.
"Cheaping out, Stark?" said King T'Challa.
Tony's syllables went oddly punctuated. "Nope. Just trust me. Okay? It'll all work out. Trust. Me."
The smile on Tony Stark's face was quite unprecedented.
Wanda Maximoff stepped into the strange lull. "Normally I would not agree with Tony, but he's right. It will... come together."
"Well okay then," said Clint Barton from behind her. He sought out Natasha, who was likewise flummoxed.
Wanda approached Steve Rogers. She patted what she could reach of his forearm. "It will be fine, Steve."
Steve shrugged a nod, unraveling the knot of tension in the room. Then it stepped back from the sculpture, and tapped Tony to get his attention. Its hand briefly formed a cylinder, tracing a column prominent on the side.
"What? Ah. Yeah, that's a giant penis," Tony confirmed.
"Tony!" came the chorus.
"He laughed!" Tony double-revolvered Steve. "He totally laughed. C'mon, Rogers, you don't have a face to pull The Face with, you think it's hilarious."
Steve's shoulders quit shaking. It raised a loose palm like he was covering an invisible smirk. All that did was shade the shiny plateau between his shoulders.
"He's right," said Clint. "That'll look great on TV."
Natasha rolled her eyes. "It is literally your funeral."
Steve stayed long enough for Bucky to carve a Kilroy Was Here figure with a metal fingertip. He tottered out of the room looking as thoughtful as a headless torso could.
Chapter 17: (10:00:00) + 30:00 | 70:30:06
"What is this, the Last Supper?" muttered James Buchanan Barnes.
Everyone stopped in the middle of the usual, if early, dinnertime tumult. The Avengers minus Thor were half in and out of their seats around the big conference table. Steve as usual sat near the end, to the side... but somehow his other half in its new, translucent container had ended up at, where else, the head of the table.
At Bucky's comment, Steve's body picked up its tray of food, and scooped the head under its arm.
With that, they abandoned the formality of the table, and settled on the plush sofas and rugs around the projector wall, on which was playing a Bollywood musical. Of all the polyglots in the room, only Bruce could entirely grasp the dialogue. This left them as in-the-dark as Steve, who could only follow the music.
Steve wrangled an ottoman for his head. He resisted the urge to spoon-feed its non-substantial mouth.
Instead, he popped a low 'collar' to serve as a discreet cover for the feeding slot, now angled closer to horizontal. For now this artificial palate was a separate attachment, though a permanent version would flip up like a fancy trash bin. The mechanism depended on the natural undulations of his esophagus — this basic model likewise allowed him to gulp down bite-sized morsels, closer to a duck than to a penguin. The same wavelike motion drove a series of internal grinders. When Steve inserted that one, it had been explained as a plunger on a food processor. Bucky said it was more like sticking an eggbeater down his throat, except without the hand-crank. Look up the pictures, kids.
Whether chewing or communicating or even walking, silence now marked Steve Rogers's presence. As though the head weren't spine-chilling enough, the holes where his eyes used to be seemed to follow a person no matter where they were in a room. The total effect had begun to wear on several in present company. Particularly since, in public, they would have to keep up the pretense of his posthumous absence, at all times, starting officially in a few short, sleepless hours.
"Sun-up at six," Rhodes was saying, "Security sweeps start at midnight, and we're in the air for our own scans at four. That's when it starts getting lively."
"I can't believe you're making that many kids get up that early," said Lang.
"No different from the Macy's Thanksgiving parade," said Barnes. At that, Nat rapidly shook her head. Given the amount of money involved, it wasn't too late to add giant balloons.
"We paid to fly them all in—"
"And out again," said T'Challa. The procession was so long that if a group wasn't speaking at the memorial, they were to be transported out of the DC area as soon as they completed the route.
"—and they get a couple of days off school," said Stark. "Had some setbacks with the Alaska flights, got them in safe and sound. Well worth it. Hate to say it, but if we go 'bygone era' with this, it'll have zero relevance for the younger set. If their own band geeks — the geekiest of their band geeks — are live and on-air, they'll be watching."
And potential threats would likely be winnowed down to the most extreme, which were flagged anyway. Even if the same calculation had occurred to Steve Rogers, the black ops portion of the room thought this better to pass unmentioned.
"Also everyone kept up all night listening to them practice in every hotel in the Eastern Seaboard. Might as well tune in," said Rhodey.
"Not all the band geeks are geeky," Sam pointed out. "My cousin's marching with some Battle of the Bands champions. They're more popular than the football team."
To Tony, Nat said mildly, "If I didn't know any better, I'd say you're doing this all for the Q rating."
Tony thumbed the side of his nose. "Patience, Red Dawn." He swiped at his tablet. "Looks like we're all ready to go... except for releasing the will. Uh, Steve...? We should have that before midnight, ideally. I mean, no rush." Rogers did have all eternity, but only the team knew that.
Quietly, Barnes slipped away from the group.
Clint Barton perked up. "I thought we all had those. Standard SHIELD protocol."
"Steve never personalized his," explained Natasha. "It's fill-in-the-blank percentages. For authenticity's sake—"
Sam Wilson caught on. "Dibs on the record collection!"
Steve Rogers paused in the middle of mopping up curry with a hunk of unleavened bread.
"Fuck," exclaimed Nat. "I want your history books."
T'Challa laughed. "You are animals at a very small watering hole. If you would, Steven, I should appreciate the staff presented to you by the Emperor of Ethiopia in 1943. Your natural history museum seems to think it is theirs."
"What's Thor getting?" "He should get the bike, to match the helmet." "Steve has a bike he hasn't wrecked?"
"And you're on me for 'inappropriate'?" Tony protested.
Wilson air-drummed. "Now that you mention it, it could be. Appropriate. Barnes and I turned up something in the history books called a living wake."
"I actually know this," said Barton. "One-way trip to the New World. When they left, the emigrants probably wouldn't see their families again. They held a wake like the separation was a permanent death."
In absence of Thor, Nat took it upon herself to say, "Your mouth is moving, but all I see is another excuse to break out the booze."
"Only if I think of a good toast."
Steve continued to work on his curry.
Sam was explaining that they could find no record of Steve's parents having such a leave-taking, when Bucky returned with a couple of shipping boxes. Steve wiped off his fingers. Deftly stepping through a loophole, Bucky said, "Friday, could you put that list up on-screen?"
"Who let him watch Star Trek...?" Tony started.
It turned out Steve had already divvied up his personal effects. At least, the items he could exist without. It would be easy enough to claim the ones remaining in his keeping had been whisked off to be archived. Sam did get most of the vinyl records, though only because blindly dropping a needle was finicky enough without causing damage, and because Steve's playlists were already uploaded to the cloud. Many of the books were earmarked for public or academic collections; Natasha got the interesting volumes with Steve's doodles in the margins.
"It's Bizarro Christmas," Clint said in wonderment. He'd received Steve's ceramic mug, which had survived three moves, a Winter Soldier fusillade, Hydra, killer robots, and a microwave fiasco. More importantly, Bucky confirmed, Clint had free rein to embellish the legend of said mug.
"No kidding." Scott had scored a neatly autographed Captain America whirligig which doubled as a music box. It trilled the worst rendition of Star Spangled Man with a Plan ever, and Steve seemed glad to be rid of it. "This is so bad, it's good. Thanks, Steve, Sir. Sorry you had to get dead for the festive will-reading."
Then Barnes slit open a box full of Steve's art.
Everyone sagged back into a somber mood. Piece after piece, Bucky described the subject matter until Steve could recognize it to present it to his so-called heirs. Bruce accepted a rare watercolor and then made a hasty, unheralded exit.
Twice Tony refused an artwork. He was, rather uncomfortably, possessed of the largest Captain America collection on the planet. (The previous record-holder found out his inheritors were Hydra, and broke up the set at auction.) When Steve reassured everyone that he could always switch to sculpture, Tony immediately placed a gigantic order for clay. No one stopped him, though it was obvious that all Steve would be able to sculpt from real life would be other people's heads. One shuddered to contemplate.
"It's tough to shop for the man who has everything," Natasha said when Tony begged off again. "How about something for Pepper?"
Ms Potts had managed to be everywhere that Steve was not, for various reasons, though she had sent a note promising a luncheon when Steve was feeling better. Rhodey translated this as 'when her blood pressure went down'; in earshot, they were careful to speak of Steve's condition in less upsetting euphemisms.
As they picked out pieces for their absent and supporting members, Bucky dug out a sheaf of papers from the bottom of the box. Immediately he parsed the meandering scribbles.
"What the hell is this?"
Steve's body made a grab for it, but the Winter Soldier was faster. Defeated, it pointed at Sam.
"No, I'm not giving it to Wilson, because this isn't for him." Barnes's frown deepened. "Okay, Rogers. You, me. We're hashing this out."
"Don't break the walls!" said Sam.
Steve made a 'Who, me?' gesture, which Bucky echoed with a 'Who, us?'
"Yeah, you," said Nat, amused. "Every time you hash things out, walls explode."
Steve grumpily hiked his head closer to his side.
Natasha raised a hand. "It's a joke. I know it wasn't him." She waited till they were halfway up the staircase before calling, "All the aircraft on the premises are locked down, you two!"
In private, Barnes rounded on Steve. It was harder to glare at him now that he had no face.
He shook out the handwritten speech.
"You're trying to clear my name."
Steve pointed at him, then thumbed over his shoulder.
"I am going to your funeral, I said I would! I'm just gonna be in the highest nests on the route, so no one else can snipe all the high-value targets— okay, what's got you so hot about this? That you don't have anything to bequeath to me? Haven't we always shared everything of ours? You don't have to give me anything."
In a series of tense jerks which Bucky took to mean that he deserved to be front-and-center, Steve communicated his unhappiness.
"Steve... I appreciate the thought. Deserving to be there is beside the point. It'd take a miracle for a pardon to take, universally. I know, I know," Bucky chuckled wryly, "That's your speciality. Just use your— look,— put it together. Odds are that kind of melodrama would only detract from all the trouble everyone's taking. What about Wilson, shouldn't he get the shield free and clear? And what if someone tries to verify your last wishes?" He knocked on the door, where on the other side they were fabricating that testament. Depending on one's point of view, retroactively or proactively. "And it's still my call. This team aside, I'm gonna stay a ghost for a long while. Yeah, you and me. Waddaya say? Huhm?"
Even Sarah Rogers could not have wished for a better friend for her boy than Bucky Barnes. If not for mother's intuition, neither might she have imagined the depths of her boy's stubbornness. Steve clasped Bucky's hand, but a moment later he was tugging incessantly.
Barnes took a different tack. "What d'you mean, this doesn't mean you don't owe me. Never said you didn't."
Steve nearly clutched at his chest in surprise.
Bucky was very glad no one was recording. "Steve," he said through gnashed teeth. "How many times did the Winter Soldier try to choke you out? How hard did you fight?"
Never had nor would Steve Rogers confirm such an allegation. Given that he had not ever mentioned the possibility of his current state, however, he did radiate an aura of guilt.
Blackmailing as only a friend can, Bucky Barnes said, triumphant, "You owe me. I don't know what, yet. Just not this."
Steve shoved the papers back into Bucky's clutches.
Barnes pocketed them for burning later. He slid the door open. "So, if I say 'don't worry your pretty head off,' you're not gonna kill me?"
With the fingers not wrapped around his suspended head, Steve pinched a tiny bit of air.
Back with the others, they were greeted by the Vision holding a cigar box. "We distributed the rest of the items according to your list, except for this. I was urged to peek inside, but I objected."
Before Steve could respond, Bucky exclaimed, "Hey, is that what I think those are?" At Steve's be-my-guest flourish, Bucky took the box, snapped the twine, and lifted the lid. The others crowded around. Inside was a company of inch-high tin soldiers. "Go figure, you still got these. He played with them all the time. When we got older, too, he'd use them to recreate battles. Wouldn't even trade them for a tried-and-true knuckler." Bucky paused. "That's a marble. You guys play with those, or are they banned now?"
"All right, enough old man stories," said Tony. "Is that supposed to be for Barnes?"
Solemnly, Steve ran a thumb over the miniature toys. The patina couldn't hide where they had been repeatedly handled. He gathered them up. They all fit in one hand, now. He used to need two hands to carry his tiny army.
Barnes said, "I hated the things. You think stepping on a Lego is painful? Nah... I think they're for you." He pushed Steve's handful to Tony.
Wanda said from her sorting of vintage postcards, "You have to take something, Stark. People will wonder."
Tony's mouth went dry. He looked up at Steve's earnest, affirmative bobbing. "I..."
"Go on. They were his favorite," said Bucky, not helping at all.
Tony Stark was suspiciously glassy-eyed as he held up his hands. Carefully, Steve poured them into his cupped palms.
"What do you get the man who has everything," said Clint Barton.
Gently, Natasha said, "I'll set the document to post in the midnight packet."
Rhodey cleared his throat while Tony stared into his hands. "I think that's the last item. Let's get some rest, people. Don't forget — however you slice it, Steve Rogers isn't coming with us tomorrow."
Friday agreed to stay with Steve while they all attended the funeral, but it was a close call. Tony had a mini-crisis that his A.I. might have a soul, and all that entailed. In the midst of a regretful ramble over allowing an animated death-omen to reside inside her physical structure, and the philosophical aside of whether she existed within her physical vessel or was an extension of a more insubstantial construct, Tony triggered a novel logic path. In short, she recognized the parallels. Steve promised to behave. He thanked her very graciously when she agreed to describe the events in Washington.
Avengers were sprinkled throughout the procession route, walking with all who were able through foamy waves of day-old flower petals. The marching hordes made for excruciating tedium, yet ratings remained steady. Interspersed with the blocks of dignitaries, the drummers cycled through three movements so ponderous that every attempt at meme-creation dissipated into the ether. The gaps between the dirges were hypnotic and haunting. Gloom clung to every face.
Chatter built over the eulogies. Not many World War II veterans remained; they were given the podium first. There had been hesitation over the localized force-field which allowed all of them to safely stand for their remarks — Colonel Rhodes had coaxed them into the stagecraft by subtly invoking FDR. Afterwards they were ushered into a heated, comfortable tent.
Each veteran stopped to lay a hand on top of the coffin. Like touching the crown of a young boy's head. Barnes was glad of his distance. It was difficult to aim with a lump in one's throat.
For all his protestations, Sam Wilson delivered quite the speech. There was not a dry eye in the audience. Had Steve retained the use of his tear ducts, he would have cried himself laughing. It was a clinic in the perfect deadpan delivery. Friday obligingly counted how many on the team used their handkerchiefs to sob out their snickering. (The Winter Soldier claimed an ironclad ban on a sense of humor when hunkered down with a sniper rifle.) For that alone, Sam was a solid choice to carry the shield. That, and he'd suggested the combination-locked stand for said shield where it was placed among the wreaths... while unaware of what was in store.
Unfortunately, diplomatic and political realities required a host of sycophants to spout words about Captain America, who wouldn't know Steve Rogers from Zac Efron. The level of vapidity began to rise.
There was a ripple of interest when Prince Thor arrived in a blaze of grass-embossing Bifrost, in the center of the modest clearing around the casket. He joined the other Avengers in their row. Every camera trained on him as he lowered his voice to talk to Tony Stark.
He could, in fact, successfully whisper. Thusly:
"I am afraid he is refused. I went all the way to Hel. It was a pact made in good faith. Within the allotted time, no challenge was levied."
"Damn," murmured Stark.
"Yes. But not, I think, damnéd."
With expert control, Tony suppressed a twitch. "That's subtle, big guy. Very nice. Nuanced."
Thor took in the heavy atmosphere of the ceremony. He gave a mighty sniffle.
"Handkerchief?" offered Tony.
"I thank you. I hate funerals. They're even worse without ale."
"Hang in there. Ale's during the wake."
Grief was indeed expressed differently for each person. One by one, the Avengers were realizing the finality of this finale, however much their bifurcated friend continued to persist. And so it happened that around when events began to drag enough to permit #UglyCapstone to trend, Bruce Banner shot to his feet.
His hands were trembling.
The modest clearing became very, very generous.
Riveted to the teleprompter, the speaker's drone didn't stop until Bruce spoke up.
"How can you...?" Bruce stammered. "Saying all those... trite, meaningless, self-aggrandizing... you don't, you don't. Even. KNOW. HIM!"
Smoothly, Natasha evacuated the speaker just as the Hulk reduced Bruce's natty black suit to tatters.
Iron Man and Iron Patriot flanked the tableau before anyone could start a stampede. "Please remain in your seats. The Avengers have the situation under control."
Sure enough, the Hulk swept flaring nostrils in a circle until his attention lit on the hideously gaudy tombstone.
"NO MORE CAP! CAP! GONE!" The front rows ducked with the first smash, only to realize that the Scarlet Witch and the Vision were containing the hurtling fragments. The rock exploded on their combined force-fields into puffs of harmless powder. "CAP. GONE. CAP! GONE! GONE!" Fists like boulders came down and crumbled the stone. The Hulk hunched down for a subsonic roar, all jowls and spittle and teeth; frequency cancellers contained it instantly. Thor also managed to counter the stamping by precise application of his hammer to the ground, arresting the shockwave damage.
Over and over the Hulk pounded out his tantrum inside the Avengers' cordon. The front rows eventually returned to their places, though most remained standing. And in counterpoint to every blood-curdling howl, a squall of weeping rose from the crowd.
"YOU! NOT KNOW! NOT CARE! CAP! GONE, GONE, GONE!"
Nat wiped at her eye. It was a dust speck.
The Hulk never once turned his colossal ire at anything except the erstwhile monument. Now and again he would stick a red-rimmed eyeball at a teammate, then with a bellow, return to pulverizing the stone. The ensuing dustcloud obscured most of the destruction. The enduring image turned out to be that of Wanda and Vision holding fast to protect the public. Overall, the incident was so cathartic that no one questioned how much of the spectacle had been calculated beforehand.
Steve certainly had no doubts.
Head or no head, his friends were determined to make his untimely, unearthly ending count.
That, and he would get the plain grave marker, lined up with the rest of the regiments, and studded with mite-sized sensors.
Not all of the ceremony was received so well. The fireworks were called in before the colossal gravestone was completely obliterated. They were shot off at a high enough altitude to muffle the concussive bangs, so as to reduce the incidence of PTSD flashbacks. Biodegradable, reflective confetti was also scattered to enhance the light show. What social media at-large objected to was the duration of the bombardment. A dozen other tech entrepreneurs had contributed a part. At around seven minutes each, the strange heat-lightning effects lasted well past dusk.
Meanwhile mourners filed by to pay their last respects. And perhaps slip into the tents, furnished with dark ale and soda pop, for a proper wake.
The corpseless coffin was lowered into the ground by the light of synchronized incendiaries.
"Mr. Stark! Mr. Stark! What do you say to the criticism that the fireworks display was disrespectful and excessive!"
"Sunsets haven't been this red since the last Iceland eruptions, what about air pollution?"
"Was it meant to be a gruesome Fourth of July celebration, Mr. Stark?"
Tony Stark whirled on the wall of media. He took off his sunglasses. He looked positively haggard. "First of all, we did extensive climate and environmental modeling, and in that part of the atmosphere, the by-products will do a teeny, tiny bit to replenish the ozone layer. I'll make a note to open a few more science ed programs, since you guys seem to be falling short. Second of all, yes, it was meant to be cool, something whizbang for the kids to watch instead of one more tragedy with its own hashtag.
"Last and most important — I'll slow down and enunciate to spare your thumbs — that display? That was a pale imitation of what a person on the ground experienced in the Second World War. That was Cap's war. It was noise and smells and bodies for days. It crossed more countries and territories than ever before or since. It did not relent. Every war is a nightmare, but we don't have war like that anymore; I should know. Captain Rogers didn't even make the front lines until halfway through. Some of the troops — a few of whom we are damn lucky, pardon my language, to have around today — they went through the whole tour. You out there, the people who tuned out, who tabbed away, who said it went on too long: yeah. You didn't last as long as Cap did. That's all."
#WhyNoBagpipes He's Irish OMFG
There was one last public hint of Steve's metamorphosis.
Pulling the caisson were the biggest, meanest draft horses Hawkeye and Ant Man could find on short notice. Twice they nearly charged the crowd, which — like the Hulk's presence — ensured an invisible buffer for curious onlookers and smartphone photographers. T'Challa contributed correspondingly huge herding mastiffs, some docile Dalmatians, and a disciplined pack of Bouvier des Flanders to maintain the stately pace. The dogs seemed to be of the opinion that they were protecting the horses' right-of-passage from the people, and not the people from the horses.
As for the equines? Three were black as midnight. Clint and Scott had acquired them immediately upon entering their paddock.
"...know why you're here. I'm not great with animals— shit!" Scott looked up and up and up. "Whoa. I feel like he's ready to crush me."
"That's why you're here. Because you can grow bigger." Clint said this slowly, but he was just as in awe as Scott was.
They stared at the creatures for a second. It was strangely like being in the same room as Steve's head. The beasts knew. Their gazes were penetrative. They breathed like they knew. Clint immediately surrendered his supply of sugar cubes before they killed him with a single ripple of their magnificent flanks.
Unwisely Scott took his eyes off them. "You think they'd... be useful, later?" He'd made sure to attend that meeting.
The beasts replaced the sugar with sloppy drool, without deigning to claim any fingers.
"Headquarters so needs stables," Clint breathed.
Chapter 19: 19
Bruce Banner spent a couple of weeks alternately offering apologies and chastisements for Hulking out.
"I could have hurt a few thousand people!"
"Brucie, we had it under control," said Tony, flipping a disc with ringed with drone propellers.
"You didn't even tell anyone you were planning it."
"Only mostly no-one." Tony paused to check for hazardous viridescence. He went back to flipping. "If we'd told you before the fact, you'd have sat there stewing and blown all your gaskets, instead of letting off some steam." It wasn't a good idea to broadcast to the entire world a how-to on becalming the Hulk. "And who's to say the big guy didn't need a healthy venting? It's a Shrek moment. Better out than in. Life lessons." Tony grimaced.
"I suppose," sighed Bruce.
Tony did not say that Bruce had been due to snap anyway. After all, he'd missed the live Cronenberg film inside that doomed hotel. "Bonus: no one in the world is talking about Cap's cause of death. Not counting Youtube comments. Mission accomplished, buddy. Now, do you think we can give Steve Wi-Fi?"
* * *
@RoyalWakandaOfficial While uilleann pipes are traditional, drums best with great Irish warpipes. Latter were vetoed. #WhyNoBagpipes
@YouKnowWhoIAm Hire a piper #CallARide #PayAPiper #WhyNoBagpipes #WhyNotBagpipes
* * *
In the time it took for transplanted sod to take root on a gravesite, Wilson, Rhodes, and Romanoff had taken over the meat-and-potatoes of team logistics. Having proven their collective ability to modulate Tony's grandiose schemes and T'Challa's extravagant additions, these three rapidly emerged as Cap's triumviral replacement in military strategy. Natasha favored the term 'troika,' if only to make the American military men wince.
For now, the greatest challenge facing the Avengers was maintaining verisimilitude. Not as much the theatrics of the team as a whole, as that of performances of the individual members in their natural, well-photographed habitat. Thor had no difficulties — he broke down over never again going bowling with his friend Steven. The coffee shop where this occurred nearly dissolved into chaos when several customers left their queues to lend comfort to the Asgardian. In actuality such an excursion wasn't impossible... only very far down the priority list. Long before this, Steve had tried to explain to Thor that destruction of the lane wasn't part of the game. Presently he'd have more luck bowling his own head than bowling an inorganic ball.
Sharon Carter, dropping by to perhaps question her life choices, again, offered some advice in the area. "It's well-known that we're all acquainted with loss, so a business-as-usual attitude won't be questioned. Exaggerate his absence on the team in your... brain."
"You're not on the field team, Carter," Clint drawled. "What's your secret?"
Sharon canted her hip. The motion emphasized her holster. "Well, Barton, I could say I miss his stupid face on top of his stiff neck. Or maybe I'm a professional spy."
"Burrrn," said Scott.
Nat's perfect eyebrow twitched.
Clint narrowed his eyes. "You pulled the heads off Cap dolls, didn't you?"
"Pah, we did that," said Bucky. "Great hiding place for contraband." His expression soured as he recalled that this had been Steve's idea.
Wanda cut in. "What about the press? They are asking more questions of me, and Steve keeps coming up."
"Some slips with the present tense are perfectly fine," said Natasha Romanoff. "It makes you seem like you're in denial. You could also take advantage of the language barrier."
"That's terrible advice," said the Winter Soldier, in Russian.
Wanda giggled. "I think I need a standard line. A, ah, a stock phrase. They don't seem to mind if you repeat yourself."
Weeks later, Wanda would be clasping her hands together, widening her eyes, and saying very earnestly: Captain Rogers was a mentor to me. I will miss the sound of his voice.
Later that day, James Barnes sought out Sharon Carter. She was observing the body of Steve Rogers toss a stability ball across a gym. The Vision was his buddy today, and was probably not feigning being bumped off his steady flight path with each catch.
"Barnes," greeted Agent Carter.
Bucky did feel faint stirrings of obligation to her. It paid to be nice to the person who could procure a blizzard-rated jacket in one's exact size, even if he did end up ripping off a sleeve. "Are you okay?"
Sharon held her piece for a moment. Her gaze drifted to the apparently all-knowing and all-seeing head suspended in the volleyball hammock between the rafters.
"Aunt Peggy might have known."
Bucky had had the misfortune to have been literally poleaxed, so he knew any similarity was only superficial. Still, it took all of the Winter Soldier's training to keep his jaw from going missing. "You're kidding me."
"She dropped some hints over the years. So... this?" Steve was trying to chest-trap the ball like a soccer player, and was succeeding in resembling a dancing windsock at a car dealership. No football player would claim him, even if his chest had the surface area. "Surprising. But not a total shock."
Bucky suspected he'd be journalling for another hundred years to capture his thoughts entire on Margaret Carter.
Sharon Carter went on. "She might have worked it out on her own. I wouldn't be surprised if Dugan had tipped her off at some point."
"Why didn't she say anything?"
"Did you?" Sharon dimpled. She glanced at Bucky Barnes. "Besides, how could she? Peggy risked her career to keep Steve from being turned into a lab rat."
On the other side of the glass, Tony Stark wandered over, casually dribbling a basketball. His voice resounded in the space. "...how about it, Rogers? Can I put rockets on the head? Huh? Huh? Shock and awe?"
Steve Rogers fended him off with a No!
As one, the pair of spectators raised their brows and dropped their chins. "Right," muttered Sharon. After a few minutes of ensuring that Tony wouldn't orchestrate a new and improved gruesome end for himself, Sharon continued. "This is speculation..."
"Howard Stark checked his instruments after the crash. They recorded the energy spike from the Tesseract. When there was no word from Steve, Peggy might have assumed it did him in."
"Ah. She didn't count on the serum-and-icebox combination."
"Given how little we knew about it..." Without moving their heads, their gazes slid to the Vision and his own mysterious glowing accessory. "Something to think about."
Steve seemed to catch a whiff of them. His body turned and waved through the glass.
With a fixed grin, Sharon waved back. "Okay. Thaaaat's freaky."
Barnes, sensing a familiar questioning of life choices, was sympathetic. "Come around more, and you'll get used to it."
Tony distracted Steve by daring him to slam-dunk. It wasn't as though his head was in danger of colliding with the rim, though it'd be harder to draw a foul.
"How about you, Barnes? Technically you're not on the field team either."
The Winter Soldier spared a nod for her play for information on his future whereabouts. "I'll find ways to keep busy. Gonna keep an eye on him, for a while."
"They can test him all they want. I've seen Steve get up again. From worse. Too many times, too many ways to keep track of. He'll be getting by on his own in no time flat." Barnes had a twisted grin. "If he still had it attached, I could say I'll be sticking around to see his head screwed on straight."
Bucky decided he could risk answering the broader philosophical question. "Always knew I'd have to pick up the pieces sooner or later. Just didn't know they'd be so neatly divided."
Chapter 20: 20
Despite — or perhaps because of — the unpredictability of his existence, Steve Rogers was fond of routine. He got up at the same hour every day. He unscrewed the lid-like sleeping cap which protected his vents from accidental supersoldier damage. He thought of someone, somewhere, making a jarhead joke; some days it was funny, some days it was not. He made his bed. He threw on a loose set of workout clothes. He very carefully tied his shoes.
Every third day he met with Sam to go jogging. All the other days he pumped iron with Bucky, who would invariably goad Steve to spot him on the bench press; Steve refused to hazard it. As for Steve, he didn't need spotting.
He consumed a quick mashed banana. He took a hot shower, taking care to clean his hands and empty any discharge from his neckpiece. He picked out his clothes for the day; he did have a wristwatch with a color wheel-shaped contact transmitter on the back panel — for laundry days and eventual shopping trips — but at the moment his entire wardrobe was black. The rest of his schedule clicked out from a refurbished glass-domed device, embossed into tickertape. He typed out any changes into the internal shielded systems. These steampunk touches were partly to keep him off the grid, and partly to keep him in practice with his Braille.
He had been perfectly aware when they swapped all his AM's to PM's. He'd gone along with it out of curiosity. The shift from a diurnal to a nocturnal schedule was no different from his post-serum experience, except without a jot of fatigue. When pressed, he reported no preference for either. The order of his daily actions would remain unchanged, if he could manage it.
Once the final schedule spooled out, part of his routine was retrieving his head from the locked nightstand. It was not unlike the stage when sleeping next to a loaded firearm was still a new reality. Steve didn't dwell on the similarity.
Steven would inspect the head. It was like touching his own face... because it was, actually. That was generally where his train of thought halted. He was fairly sure he couldn't discharge his duties without being in contact with the head. He was equally certain that he'd need steady doses of anti-nausea medication if it were ever misplaced. This effect, he thought would wear off in time.
He was not going to examine how he knew that.
Steve sighed. His aerator sighed with him. He now had a Darth Vader setting for non-stealth situations so as not to startle the living. To the Black Widow's chagrin, he'd become supernaturally good at sneaking.
Once the head passed inspection, Rogers would wrap the mandible from chin to hinge, where he used to have earlobes.
This contraption was not designed to immobilize it.
Rather, the slightest quiver would set off a repeating musical chime, not unlike a ringtone. This was meant to ground Steve should he ... lose control of his faculties.
On the bright side, everyone else had perceptibly relaxed once the system was introduced. Steve didn't like to point out that they were still counting on him to stop... himself.
He fiddled with the tripwire as he rode the elevator. Bucky had, of course, caught him at it once, and said he'd used to worry at his taped knuckles like that, the times Steve had gone to the boxing gym in the old neighborhood. Several lifetimes ago.
So now this was part of Steve's daily life: wrapping up his head with a leash and taking it for a walk.
Today he was walking into a cozy office in the top secret section of the Avengers compound. All of Steve's territory was in this area. He wasn't sure he was bothered by this.
There was no waiting room in this office, though the defensible crossfire positions came standard. There was already someone waiting for him.
They exchanged pleasantries. Steve left his head on a low endtable facing the elevator. He was sorry about the magazines — if the head wanted to leak, there was no stopping it. Even though it didn't make a difference one way or another, Steve's body still chose to sit outside of its visual range. This was probably noted down.
"When they explained this to me after I signed the NDA," said Dr. Kaplan, "I had this urge to refer this to my rabbi. I haven't, rest assured," she added quickly, when Rogers's shoulders stiffened up. "Let's not beat around it, shall we? Do you feel like you're still you, Steve?"
Steve bobbed forward like a drinking bird with no way to drink.
"You feel like your body is still functional? For the most part?"
Steve see-sawed a hand. With facial muscles, that would have come with a wry grin.
"We're communicating now despite your lack of speech. Mr. Wilson and Ms Romanoff have thus far detected no inconsistencies in your comprehension. Neither has your friend Mr. Barnes. Inasmuch as we can confirm reality, that's something to build on."
Steve's body looked unexcited by the notion.
"And you feel you're continuing to make decisions for yourself? You're still in the driver's seat, correct?"
He could've waved his schedule and made a crack about one more experiment with one more gizmo. But that wasn't what she was asking. Sam had warned him not to be a wiseass about this.
He sat back and truly considered it.
All his existence, Steven Grant Rogers had been propelled, and shoved, relentlessly forward. A century of being roughed up by a tragic storyline had taught him that looking back was mired in— well. Tragedy. He could spend as much time pondering the difference between Before and After.
But that wasn't the question, was it?
He sat up. He bobbed. With feeling. Even his pecs wobbled in the affirmative.
Steve Rogers's forté was in the white-knuckled grasp of the Now.
Dr. Kaplan closed her notebook. "That would be good enough for my rabbi. If he were to know, which he wouldn't. I could get you in touch with a Christian theologian, or someone else who specializes in these questions. Studying the mystical side of my own religious beliefs probably brought me to the Avengers' attention... but I am no expert on souls.
"That leaves the existential questions," said Dr. Kaplan with a small smile. "Regarding that, I'm of a similar mind as my rabbi. If you are actually dead," a notable, slight flinch, "the fact remains that you are here. My rabbi would tell you that every soul is unique and has purpose. I—" said Rebecca Kaplan, leaning forward and heedless of the stench somehow permeating state-of-the-art filters, attending only to the way Steve's shoulders squared, "—would only ask if you know what that purpose is.
"Do you, Steve?"
The knuckles on Steve's old shield-hand whitened as it curled into a fist. Then he bent it forward. ASL for yes.
Dr. Kaplan sat back. "Then let's discuss your going forth and kicking ass."
Chapter 21: 40
Alas, heroic optimism is at times no match for messy practicalities. Preparations for kicking ass met with setbacks.
"No heads on the coffee table!" bellowed Tony Stark. "Can this not be a rule? You're all lucky it has to be an unwritten rule!"
Lately Steve had been airing out his passive-aggressiveness — this probably meant he disapproved of the latest rendition of the baby bjorn in which the head was currently nestled. Someone had left an open can of beer next to it, too, which was either a grotesque attempt at an altar or a health code violation.
"You're not mad at the lack of coasters?" said Scott Lang, who had discovered that freeloading off a Stark was a great way to work off latent animosity.
"Water stains come out with chemical refinishing. Who knows what takes out ectoplasm?!"
"Maybe you should ask Thor," murmured Nat. She was not smirking.
"Never mind," said Tony. "Where's the rest of him, anyway? Bruce lost him when the shiny new subsonic data came out." They were edging closer to an ideal long-range comm device for Steve's body. Research had picked up once Steve admitted that he did like the Wi-Fi. T'Challa was probably going to hook him up to the internet to do who-knew-what anonymously. "He keeps skipping out on his agenda," complained Tony.
Natasha propped her boots up on the coffee table. "You know how it is when they're a hundred years old and retired. They do what they want."
Tony made the rounds of the restricted section. The walk was great for cardiovascular health, a feature of which Tony reminded himself because he was the one who'd designed it. To make up for a shameful shortage of references, he started humming Ain't Got No Body. Wasn't his fault Bruce despised a classic movie.
In the Olympic-sized pool, he discovered a floater.
Tony grabbed the superfluous net. "I'm going to poke it."
"Don't you dare," said Sam Wilson.
"See, before I can ask what's up with the dead man's float," said Tony, "I can't tell which side is up." They contemplated the torso adrift in the deep end. "Wait, don't tell me. Oh hang on, there's your nipples! Right side up."
Sam favored him a slow clap.
Steve's body starfished upright. He splashed out a fuck-you.
"You better not try this in a major waterway, you'll be fished out like you got your concrete shoes untied." Tony swung the long pole around to prod him. For science. Steve was slower to respond, but he managed to lunge out of the way. He did have the advantage of not having to duck. "We were going to do the water trials next week. I assume everything's watertight, even if we haven't tested for pressure... why are we jumping the gun?" He glanced up at Barnes, who was palming a stopwatch on the opposite side of the pool.
Sam pointed a finger. "One, it's quieter." And another. "Two, we're trying out a bunch of things all at once, which—" he raised hands, "—I know drives you all up the wall. We're recording."
They had been about to try the Pirates of the Caribbean scene. However, Sam opted to stick to the pertinent facts.
"Breathing exercises, oxygen deprivation, orientation in three axes, temperature tolerance, sound waves through water, and air, and whether he can work the damn Wi-Fi underwater."
"You're just sore because Steve can't help it with the musicals," said Bucky.
Steve formed a heart shape with his hands.
Horror rendered Tony speechless.
"All that hard work," Sam despaired. "I almost got him past the eighties, too."
Tony recovered. "Never do that again. Not the training, carry on, you'll be putting on the ritz before you know— and no, that reference is not one you'd get. We couldn't get a top hat to stay on you." In this case, sensitivity training had actually worked; for Steve, for varying reasons, there had never been an appropriate time for viewing said classic. Tony addressed the mostly-alive in the room. "It begs the question, if this new vibrational system fails on him, do we have to break into song to leave him voicemails?"
"No singing!" Hawkeye called from somewhere above. Since that wasn't obscure.
"That's what we wanted to throw out there," said Wilson. "Steve seems to pick up cues better in higher humidity—"
"Storms," murmured Bucky. It did explain some of the legends.
"—and sensitivity improves underwater. So we were thinking, maybe it's a fluid we need for the touch transmitters. Like a gel?"
"Hearing-aid design files!" called Hawkeye from the peanut gallery.
Tony chewed on his beard. Reluctantly he said, "Steve, you're not going to kill me for an honest assessment? Expert opinion? That set-up might work best on the twin nibs. No joke. They're automatically bilateral. The system works on contact, and those are natural nerve clusters. Might as well use them, there's no biological reason for male nipples anyway." He met the raised brows. "What? You pick things up."
Steve rolled his shoulders back as though he had a head to tip to the heavens.
"Well," said Bucky slowly. "It would be concealed under your clothing."
Steve burbled haplessly.
"I'll consult with Bruce and Helen," Tony promised. He crouched by the edge. His expression took on a grave aspect. "I bet I could harpoon you," said Iron Man.
Steve took on the aspect of an indifferent buoy.
"You'd have a shot," allowed Wilson. Without another word, he handed his tablet to Stark.
Tony slid the long pole away. His eyes skimmed the data. "Okay... now's as good at time as any ... not that I want to ... real-talk."
Steve kicked a little harder to keep his neck above water. It wasn't a necessity, but his valves getting submerged bothered his friends. His hands surfaced to sign 'stopgap'.
"Precisely. Your senses aren't cutting it. Your metrics are plateauing across-the-board, serum or no serum. I am all for prostheses, I mean bring it on, but we're gilding the lily. Actually, stripping all the gilding—"
Bucky said, "Where he goes, technology might not hold up."
"It does seem wild to be fitting you with all these gadgets just to get around," said Sam. "Still, the modern world's full of pitfalls, and not only in accessibility."
"It's not as though there weren't any obstacles on the boglands," objected Barnes. "That's what doesn't add up. He should be set for any environment. People or no people." He uncurled his metal fist. "Possible wrinkle to this is that he was meant to percolate a little longer."
"In a resting place," muttered Tony.
With a slosh, Steve signed: Another 100 years.
Bucky kicked a wave in Steve's direction. "You're not staying cooped up that long."
"No way," agreed Sam.
Tony Stark wrinkled his nose. "Y-yeah, that's a problem." Then a twitch took over the side of his mouth. "What we need is a new approach. New blood. I think we've got just the... man."
Chapter 22: 42
What follows is possibly my favorite, ever, I've been sitting on it since December '016, and if that was all I'd posted, that would have filled the prompt all by itself. But then where would we be??? Just saying. I have been looking forward to sharing this with you guys, you don't even know.
There was probably some rule about getting into strange cars right outside the high school parking lot. However, Peter Parker was a superhero now. Who was totally against rule-breaking. Don't do it. Unless absolutely necessary. And the car belonged to Tony Stark, so unless he was an evil robot clone, Peter was probably all right. Probably.
As usual, Stark took off as soon as the seatbelt clicked. Which was pretty impressive since he'd been parallel parked in the middle of the afterschool traffic jam.
"Hey, Parker. Sorry about the whole mentoring hiatus, got occupied, doing business, making movies, you know."
"No, it's okay, Mr. Stark, I heard about, I mean we all saw, I-I'm very sorry—"
"Yeah, about that."
Peter's stomach clenched. Aunt May had gone through two boxes of tissues during the memorial. Manuel in homeroom had been packed into a schoolbus to DC with other drummers from rival high schools, one and all cranky that the funeral wasn't in New York City. They'd come back with all the rowdiness drained out of them, leaving a seriously heavy mood. Peter didn't know what to say to his own cohort, much less an adult. And he definitely couldn't tell anybody how much he missed getting texts from Steve From Brooklyn. Hadn't deleted them yet. He still thought Captain Rogers ended every sentence with 'STOP' just to mess with him. Had ended.
Tony Stark was still talking. Naturally.
"It's all very hush-hush. Very hush. You underst—"
"Oh yes, Mr. Stark, I totally get it. Top secret."
"This is literally go-to-your-grave kind of stuff." Stark's teeth flashed. "You can't tell your besties, you can't post this to Instagram or whatever you kids do."
"I would never, Mr. Stark, not for something like really important. I mean, the less important stuff too, not that anything would be less important—"
"You don't have to do this, it's not necessary—"
"I can help!" Peter hoped that wasn't a squeak. Very convincing. "I can, if you need my help, I'm here for you."
Tony Stark seemed to give this all due consideration.
Tony popped his shades, suavely (of course), to eye Peter. "That was almost a moment. Don't ever do that again."
"Yes, Mr. Stark."
Traffic moved along. They moved along at a slightly faster rate.
Tony changed lanes. While sweeping the mirrors, he stole a glance at the kid without appearing to do so. "If you do this, you'll probably be traumatized for life."
Mr. Stark sounded major serious about this.
Peter Parker pondered. "Is it more traumatizing than my actual life?"
"You're... a teenager, right? Might be a close call," said Tony Stark. "Parker? Peter. Let me be direct. Lay it out. It's my responsibility, as your mentor, to tell you. This is so confidential... that you would have to join the Avengers to even know about it. No other way around i—"
"I'll do it. I'm in."
Tony Stark pursed his lips.
Chapter 23: 42 + 44:00
Peter was seized by a moment of pure panic.
He had to sign a nondisclosure agreement, which was, cool, okay, legal and all, except he had to sign his real legal name, and if this was Avengers business...?
Tony Stark produced a counter nondisclosure agreement. Covering the Avengers keeping Peter's secrets. Something they had actually gotten together to sign. The language contained a lot of Aforementioned and Signatory and The Spiderman. Which he pointed out. Mr. Stark made noises about individuating naming rights, or something. As the explanations unfolded, Mr. Stark kept asking him if he was sure.
Peter signed. Once he put the contract down on the table, Mr. Stark signed too. He said his signature was actually legible this time.
Peter's breath blew out in a rush of relief. He was never going to skip reading a TOS again. After all, grown-ups probably read them. Okay, scratch that. But heroes certainly did. Peter prepared himself to save the day while Mr. Stark locked the contracts away in a briefcase that looked like it could survive a galactic battle or a plague of lawyers.
All of Peter's electronic devices were confiscated. Which kind of made sense, except Mr. Stark said he'd make Peter new ones. He usually said he'd buy replacements.
They entered a totally new elevator in Stark Tower. Which was real dope and super weird at the same time, because Spiderman had not seen one hint of that much construction from the outside.
That wasn't the only reason Peter was jumpy.
"Whoa. Mr. Stark. My Spidey-sense is off the charts." Peter was this close to grabbing Mr. Stark and webbing them out of the shaft. Which would probably get him killed with lasers or nanites or something.
Mr. Stark quite calmly folded his sunglasses. "Still time to tap out. No harm, no foul." He craned to study the flashing floor lights, marked by musical chirps instead of, oh, numbers. "Granted, if he really wanted to find you, he probably could. He's like Santa Claus. Huh." He regarded Peter, then inscribed an oval with his shades. "Can you get a handle on the whole...?"
Peter took a deep, oxygenating breath. "Yeah, yes, Mr. Stark. It's... I can manage."
"Even odds it's not going to turn off. An-y-time soon. Two for Floor Kibosh," he said to the elevator.
The elevator targeted and scanned Stark's retina.
Tony raised an eyebrow at Peter.
This momentarily diverted Peter's wide-eyed attention before the elevator chimed, and the doors slid open to reveal Captain America's body trying to catch a candy-coated chocolate piece with his neck.
"Again...!" cried Thor. "...ah. Steven, your appointment is nigh."
Peter could feel his whole body go cold and then hot again, and it wasn't all his Spidey-sense.
"Oh my god! Holy moly, ohmygod, that's, holy..." He had to breathe. "Schnikies. Wow-hoo boy."
"That's the gist of it," said Tony. He shot a glare at Thor, who retreated to fetch the floor sweeper for all the misses.
Peter backed up. He backed up halfway up the wall. "Whoa. W-wow. Yikes. Yii— I guess he's not dead."
"More like undead."
It was definitely Steve Rogers's body. He looked kind of crestfallen. No face to fall, after all. And unsure if he should offer his hand, or if that would trap the blubbering kid from Queens.
Steve Rogers was standing right there. Without his head.
"Geez, oh geez, I'm sorry for your, I'm sorry, my Aunt May taught me manners, I swear, oh my god." Peter scuttled down the wall a tiny bit. He couldn't stop staring, which was rude, but he could. Not. Stop. Staring. The view didn't change. "It's n-nice to meet you, again, Captain Rogers."
"He's not the Captain anymore," said Bucky Barnes. He popped a mini-pretzel in his mouth.
"Seriously, are you going to be cool with your internal life alert going off?" Without looking, Tony caught the bag of mini-pretzels and started picking off the salt.
Peter tore his gaze away for a second. "I can control it. Promise. No problem."
"Good," said Tony. "That's why we need your help."
Chapter 24: 42 + 1:00:01
Peter clutched at the monitor he wasn't currently reading.
It was possible that he had become habituated to the unremitting frenzy which drove teenagers and superheroes and teenaged superheroes when stimulants were scarce at hand. Don't do drugs. Tony Stark had been ushered to an exit, ostensibly because he wasn't, air-quotes, "helping the situation." The situation, it seemed, was that Steve Rogers was almost-but-not-quite bereft of a head, though this head Peter would not be meeting quite yet. If ever. At the moment, Steve's body was installed on a plush recliner, making no sudden moves whatsoever. Peter's Spidey-sense continued to go haywire.
Right as Peter began to adjust to the constant feeling of a GIANT ROLLED-UP NEWSPAPER ABOUT TO SQUASH HIM, someone slung an arm over his shoulders. His personal panic meter went logarithmic.
"Hey, look who it is, Redwing!" Sam Wilson grinned at his aerial companion. "It's Spider-boy."
"Uh, Spiderman, actually. Legally, 'The,' I guess. It gets confusing. And, and, I mean, in regular clothes, it's, like, weird—"
"He's got a secret identity," purred the Winter Soldier, whose general menace had faded into the background signal. Also, he had been innocuously grazing on a bag of Chex mix.
"Peter Parker," Peter Parker choked out.
Sam gave Peter a shake. "Sam Wilson. Sometimes known as The Falcon. I get you, with the 'The.' This is Redwing."
The drone dipped.
"Nice to meet you, Mr. Wilson. Officially," said Peter. "Um. Hi, Redwing." This seemed to delight Sam. Peter's Spidey-sense ratcheted down to imminent death mode.
"Call me Sam. Can I call you Pete? You meet Barnes properly yet? Or is he still smarting from the beat-down?"
"As I recall," muttered Bucky, "You got beat-down too, buddy."
Steve's body was sitting up.
"Hey whoa," said Sam.
Bucky shoved Steve back into the recliner. It creaked. "Watch it, you're not supposed to scare the kiddies—"
Steve signed rather querulously about their asses getting kicked.
"—and I ain't telling war stories right now. Kid's supposed to concentrate." Barnes shook the bag like one of the old biddies feeding pigeons in the park. "You peckish? You want the garlic ones? Open that trap."
Peter was staring again. Steve Rogers behaving ... himself? itself? in need of a pronoun self? ... was very much like an incomplete corpse discarded in a living room. And that was before Bucky Barnes shook a heap of toasted crackers into its neck.
"Yeah, keep occupied," said Sam. "Come on out of Pete's blindspot, Barnes. The idea is reducing his stress levels."
The snack residues coating Bucky's fingers were deposited on his jeans. He loped over to Peter's other side, and took a good long look. "Damn," he said. "You're a baby." Bucky tapped Peter's jaw. Peter almost didn't flinch. A sliver of smile cut across the Winter Soldier's face. "You're lucky I went easy on you."
As with many interactions with young people, nothing could possibly worsen Peter's situation, and thus he had nothing to lose. "I'm pretty sure I kicked your ass," he told the Winter Soldier.
Bucky's grin widened. "I'm an assassin, babyface. I was holding back."
There was a snort from Sam. There was what sounded like a snort from Steve's body.
"Alright! I know you know how to read these things," said Wilson, flipping the monitors to page one. His thumb also swept over his wrist touchscreen. "And I know you recollect who really kicked your ass in our little rumble."
Redwing zipped up and over Sam's shoulder, and dive-bombed the recliner.
They turned to watch the drone pull up just short of a collision. A fraction of a second later, Steve's body swatted at its flight path.
"Oh," said Peter. He looked from the disgruntled torso to the monitor and back, back and forth. "That's, uh, real good! Compared to a normal human reaction, I mean that's way over the— Like, it lines up with my observations, of Spiderman, me, I mean, organic biologicals are easy. The rest of it is, I mean I haven't proven it conclusively, it could be picking up on air currents and sound cues—"
"Steve could do that before," said Barnes.
"He's supposed to be omniscient now. Something's stalled," said Sam Wilson.
Peter swallowed. "You know, there's this guy in Hell's Kitchen—"
"He's not enhanced," said the Winter Soldier. "Close but not close enough. You have gone past compensating. Otherwise you wouldn't go swinging through the city like you do. Air traffic like it is, you'd end up helo-kebab."
Suddenly Peter's already pinballing thoughts hit on an unsettling notion.
"Y-you don't think that I might end up...?"
"Nah, we'll just pull off all your limbs and let you twitch around." Bucky got nailed by a balled up chip bag. "What? It was a joke. A spider joke. Did your sense of humor die too?"
The gesticulation at Peter was likely meant to allay his anxiety, though it more closely resembled a dead guy hailing a cab. Before it could expand on that... thought... Steve launched into Bucky with a manual display which was part-ASL and all-Brooklyn.
Sam shook his head at Peter, somewhere in the neighborhood of I-am-too-awesome-to-be-associated-with-these-people. It was somewhat reassuring.
Bucky continued to kibitz with Steve. And vice versa. The matching arm action lent the body an eerily familiar animation. Peter saw it on the street all the time. Now he wouldn't unsee it. "... I gotta coddle him 'cause I'm a hundred years old? You do recall what we got up to when we were his age. These 21st Century kids aren't as soft as they look. You oughta know. He can take a punch. He's a superhero."
The cold, freaked-out swamp in Peter's stomach was giving way to a warm, gooey acceptance of reality. Bucky Barnes was picking on him like he was one of the team. One of the Avengers. Because... he was one. An Avenger. Or whatever it was they were going by. Peter swallowed against a dry throat.
"Got your legs under you, Pete?" said Sam Wilson knowingly.
For a second, Peter scrunched into a pensive face. He gave a slow, tight nod. Intently, he flicked through the screens of data. "Okay. I mean, you could probably get by with this. You know, day-to-day." He didn't look over at Rogers. It wasn't like eye contact in New York was commonplace. "Dr. Erskine's serum is still active. You could walk around, take the subway like a regular... dude. Except. You need to be out there," guessed Peter Parker. He turned around. Steve Rogers was getting to his feet. Even without the extra inches, he still stood tall. "Making a difference."
Steve's leather-clad shoulders rolled forward.
"I have no idea what I'm doing," said Peter.
Steve shrugged. He signed a very clear 'Who is?'
Captain America was undoing the clasp around his wrist. "You figured out your deal all on your own, solo. All you gotta do is help Steve figure it out too." He tossed Redwing's controls to Peter. "Keys are yours, kid. Don't scratch the paint."
Peter managed a watery smile through the constant throb of Oh My God Are You Kidding Me.
Knuckles cracked. "Let's make some noise," said Bucky.
Chapter 25: 100
The afterschool regimen proved to be the missing element in Steve's mastery of his decollated state.
(There's no graceful way to inscribe a training montage. Kindly queue up your favorite upbeat tune, and hope that a fuzzy neon headband spares you a sweaty read.)
The sessions began simply enough: Let's Throw Things at Steve. Or: Headless Dodgeball. To be fair, Peter jumped in as a secondary target for the diverse fusillade, from Redwing to Widow's Bites to Ant Man to Mjolnir. The last, they found Steve could sense while Peter could not. Thor considered the options, and consented to Spiderman learning to hammer-surf.
The first week, Spiderman spent in a frenzy of webbing errant projectiles before they hit the sidewalk. Eventually Friday revealed that her debris abatement system had been operational all along. Scott spent a morning posing as a window-washer to replace the broken panes before Vision took pity on him, and installed the lot in a magical jiffy.
The active courtship-of-injury portion came to a close when Iron Man returned from city patrol. This had been Spiderman's non-negotiable condition for leveling Steve up on school nights. Peter had nearly crumpled when Tony Stark began blustering at the indignity, but ultimately he held the line with Steve and Steve's head looming behind him. (Rhodey assured Peter that Tony did like going on patrol, in a quaint, Throwback Thursday sort of way.) Keyed up from their respective activities, Tony and Peter would then join Bruce, and sometimes Helen, to crunch the data in a slushie- and coffee-fueled science fest.
(Tony upgraded the window force-fields like he'd planned it all along.)
By the second phase, the Black Widow rather ruthlessly tossed Sam into the fray. Ruthless because Steve Rogers could turn the vibranium shield against his opponents, and only the Winter Soldier seemed capable of weaponizing it against its original owner. The Falcon did need the extra practice with the shield, it was true. Sam also felt compelled to set a good example for the rest, who were liable to throw wrenches at several persons who would not get the reference.
In the third phase, they started tossing the head around.
Or, rather, Bucky and Steve did the tossing. Only Barnes dared handle the head with the same aplomb as its associated body. He did not quite dig his metal fingers into its old sockets like a bowling ball — but he was tempted, each time he tried to establish a good spin on the spheroid. It was certainly slick enough for an old-fashioned spitball.
His own condition now outside of conceptual, Peter had to document every last twitch if he, or Steve, were to participate at all. Never mind having a headless body as a study-buddy — Peter's 'intuition' was based on the yawning abyss of his own terrors, and he had to teach that to a ... guy ... who harbored no innate sense of fear. In a weirdly zen way, the challenge kept his mind off hurling himself from a building to get away.
Peter would catch himself daydreaming of ways to web up a rotting, putrid head. The constant blare of his Spidey-sense eventually melded into the everyday dreadfulness of pop quizzes and forgetting one's locker combination. He never did come face-to-face with the head. Not that he knew of. He was told he wouldn't recognize it if it donned a mask and careened off a ledge. Peter could have used some secret identity tips, it seemed.
On the bright side, if ever impending doom got a doctorate in doom-y-ness, he and Steve were still able to text each other. Just like before. (This time, the all-caps went unquestioned.)
The aggregated data did much to advance Steven's post-life education. (Cue the technobabble mix.)
For instance: the sensory vertigo was an effect of the head's all-encompassing range of perception. It took a few dizzy spells, but Steve eventually got the hang of switching between a Google™ view and that of first-person shooter. His attention evolved to become all the more targeted — which gave Steve the shivers as much as anyone else. He talked to Friday about it, given her limited puppeteering of the Iron Man suits. She never replied, but he took a bit of comfort from the chats.
The aversion to gold turned out to be the equivalent of a strong allergy. Projectiles, which produced the most intense effects, temporarily fended off Steven's T-1000 advances. The serum quashed most symptoms — but only following an accelerated malady, which came over Steven as though he had never been vaccinated. Soon after, Bucky acquired an iPod with gold connectors, satisfied that it would be safe in Steve's presence, and safe from Steve's sticky fingers. The conclusions had an opposite effect on Tony Stark, who with Scott Lang's assistance continued to strip all the Avengers facilities of any trace of gold. Nobody cool used that gilded china anyway.
Steven managed to stem his head's leakage, allowing them to shelve the various diaper-based mock-ups. It still had a habit of spurting whenever Steve was pissed off. Like a nosebleed, except more global. Back on Floor Kibosh, there was a fridge dedicated to the samples from these secretions. They were completely inert. They were labeled 'Jello Shots.'
Less phlegmatic was Steve's ability to necrotize any part of his body at will. After all, at the equivalent point of decomposition, the maggots would have given him up for eaten. Steven was careful not to do so to the point of misplacing another member of his. This was after he and Thor were caught experimenting with his pinky finger. In combination with the serum's tendency to work foreign objects out of his flesh, this feature was largely intuitive. Meaning, no demonstrations required. Or requested. Ever. To drive home the point, Tony and Friday adapted Death Becomes Her for the touch interface, and lured Steve in with his favorite chocolate-cherry phosphate.
(The feature showing only ignited a geeky summit between the assassin set and the science team over modern makeup effects. Talk about creating a monster.)
Best of all, for Steve, he could indeed appear in broad daylight undetected. Well, in lightly populated areas — he was not quite ready to test a crowd's collective lack of eye contact. His methodology so alarmed Friday that the science team deemed it off-limits for study. Steve was forced to use a vintage time-clock in exchange for camera-free roof access, as Friday insinuated that there were some things a lady didn't need to see.
Peter soon struck a balance among school, Spiderman, and the ongoing knowledge blast with his grisly study-buddy. He'd return from a swing around town with video footage for the others to analyze later, with Steve enjoying the live play-by-play from atop the Avengers A. It turned out that structures — be they skyscrapers or standing stones or a giant's causeway — emanated certain signatures to which they were attuned.
Steve could cobble together an orienteering route from the resonance of the teeming urban multitudes, and his own internal picture of the street grid. Map programs could compensate in unfamiliar territory. With practice, Steve could home in on an object the size of a stapler.
Or a remote control of disputed ownership. They watched a lot of musicals.
And — Steven found in private — to his eternal relief, he could switch the signal off. There were some things a decent beheaded fellow didn't need to see.
Chapter 26: 122
Because the internet, rumors began to spawn with regards to the late demise of Steve Rogers, and how late he was, exactly. Time and the churning news cycle did much to discredit these viral fabulations. Coincidentally, the wild-haired ancient alien guy was being sued by the Asgardians, slowing the emergence of basic cable ratings-bait. So long as no rumor could be traced to the Avengers and their known associates, they were deemed more helpful than harmful to the cause.
Steve was no help; he had far too cleancut a reputation to achieve a mystique. Oh, he was mysterious. For years, now, several corners of the web held fast to the belief that Steven Grant Rogers was a type of cryptid. Who would think to peel back the glossy patriotic poster to reveal a bolthole into impenetrable darkness, and the faint wafting of sewer gases? How to corroborate the sheer terror of his existence? To billow before him, a dreadful cloud of chain-letters and questionable screenshots?
Brock Rumlow and Melina Vostokoff, our otherwise forgettable villains, proved valuable in the spreading of misinformation. It would have been preferable to employ Georges Batroc, aka Batroc the Leaper, who held a strange, stalker-ish enthusiasm for our late Captain, except that he was still dead in this universe. Or, in comic book parlance, had yet to be re-animated. However, so profound was Crossbones and Iron Maiden's trauma at being defeated by a headless paragon of justice, that it was probably kinder to spare Batroc's fragile nerves. Besides, he probably would have turned up again to volunteer himself as Steve's capering, death-dealing sidekick, which would have been entirely too silly.
Since the Winter Soldier and the Black Widow both knew no doors they couldn't open, they were quite effective stand-ins for the dullahan. It was refreshing to build up someone else's ghost story for a change; the villains' sleepless paranoia was a fitting punishment for beheading Steve. Barring accidents and combat damage, Bucky knew his serum granted him a certain longevity, and now he had a hobby to fill all that time. At least until Brock dropped dead of fright.
The sort of rumors from which legends are brewed seldom measure up to the legends themselves.
Because some clichés are better aired out than left to moulder, Steve tested out his new set of i.d.'s by securing an apartment in Brooklyn. It contained a variety of blenders, and a scattering of Moroccan poufs not meant for butts, mortal or otherwise. There was a killer sound system. The doors were kept unlocked.
He invited Bucky to the building's roof in the middle of the night. It said much of Bucky Barnes that he was not in the least spooked.
Instead, it was Steven who was nervous. Bucky had a way of meeting his most reckless feats with barely scornful dispassion. That is: the Unimpressed Face. If Bucky opened his mouth, he'd serve it to Steve straight, every time, with a metal knuckled chaser if necessary. So it took Steve a few minutes to gather himself, so to speak. His nerves, both severed and intact, were buzzing.
Fortunately, Barnes was quite the patient one. He could hold that pose all night long, windmachine or no.
At last, Steve pointed at the nearest surveillance camera; he had forewarned the A.I. Friday, who was not recording. On his phone, he dialed up the concurrent realtime display. He passed it to Bucky.
By the light of the full moon, Barnes matched the screen with his own view.
Steve tossed his head in the air.
Now, the head was mostly solid, in the sense that foods are solid following a liquid diet. In the space of a snapped finger, either kind, the head dissipated into a black mist. It reappeared atop an air conditioning unit.
Bucky didn't visibly react. He scrolled back through the video file.
Like a child waiting for a binky in the dryer, Steve wished for his old shield.
The air conditioner kicked in. His head began to shimmy.
"No wonder Friday's afraid of you."
Steve's body jerked. Without thinking, his flesh puffed into a cloud like a poisonous toadstool releasing spores.
His body reconstituted next to his head.
If he'd had an ear canal, it'd be ringing. It was rather like untying one's shoelaces, if the laces were tissue and lymph, and the aglet was a Stark-manufactured garbage compactor.
To occupy restless fingers, Steve picked up his head. He shifted his weight uneasily. He hadn't done something this... blatantly, deliberately not-human in front of any living being. And despite his legend, Bucky Barnes had very much carved his hashmark into the 'Alive' column.
"That's a spine-tingler, all right." Bucky crossed the roof. Not a footfall produced a sound, just like Steve. "I like it. I bet you could take a slug point-blank, with a little training."
If Steve had lips, a sigh of relief would have blown past them. He sighted an imaginary rifle, and flashed a number.
The Winter Soldier licked his lip. "Twice that. Easy. You'll be a sniper's worst nightmare," he said proudly.
Steve stopped shuffling his feet.
Bucky held up the camera phone. That went against every security precaution in the book, but it didn't matter. All it would show was an empty roof. "What else ya got?"
Steven Grant Rogers rolled up his sleeves. He showed him.
Chapter 27: 151
Content warnings. Language suggestive of cutting. It's after the section break (* * *); to skip, find 'in specific', or this link in page. Other common triggers sprinkled throughout chapter, likewise skippable. Take care.
There comes a moment in every protracted Marvel chronicle when Deadpool wonders where his cameo is. That was it. No, that was not a joke. Any more would upstage the titular character. Titular, it's a real word. Here: permission granted to do the voice for the next line. With the smoking jacket. Then back to the imaginary box with you. Deal.
At length, someone with a brain attached to their spine twigged to the ease and frequency with which Steve crossed the East River. For jogging, not jumpers. There goes the running water theory.
"What running water theory? I thought that was vampires," said Tony. "Please tell me this has nothing to do with vampires."
"You've been reading the fanfic again, haven't you," said Rhodey.
"'The' fanfic," imitated Tony. Bookmarks of Slothbaby fics zipped to the WarMachineR0XX account.
With the air of someone who had packed vampire repellents in her purse, Helen said, "I think that might have something to do with completing his errands."
Barnes, who had been inspecting the latest face mask prototypes, glanced up. "Do we really need to go down that road?"
Steve was declining to participate, instead laboriously hunting-and-pecking a bulk order of charcoal performance fabric tops in the wrong size. All the better to cling to his stump. That was the story.
As was Thor, he had taken over one of Hawkeye's perches, well out of sight. Most days he observed, hammer at the ready in case of Rogue Science, flanked by the good company of the rescued dracaena plant and Steve's head. He was under the impression that they made fine conversationalists. Theirs was a most private party, as he had discovered a shielding effect of Mjolnir's, which Tony and Bruce had been trying to adapt to a perfected head-case.
Thor's new barrier was quite effective, as no-one had yet caught him offering to feed the head. Dried meat, of course, so as not to offend the potted plant.
Below, Peter was safely oblivious. "Free ions!" he blurted.
Tony snapped his fingers. "Running water does kick up some ionization—"
Bucky made a Did No One Hear Me face at Bruce.
"—not enough to make a blip, but what if this is why we've been striking out on containment? On the sensory arrays?"
Bruce lit up. "We've been trying to boost the signal."
"Steve, if I've said it once, I'll say it again: you are way over-sensitive." Tony grinned. "Given the advanced science sufficiently doubling as magic, I bet all we'll need are minute, the tiniest of tiny changes, and all of Steve will pick it up."
James Rhodes, who knew his friend well, forestalled the breakthrough celebration. "No, no no, even if that works, that is not an excuse to—"
"Yes it is too," countered Tony, "Heightened sensitivity means exposure—"
"A body armor with a giant open V in front? That's exposed, all right." Rhodey shook his head. "Why even call it body armor?"
"I dunno, I see Black Widow's center-of-mass all the damn time," muttered Barnes, censoriously.
"Yeah," said Helen glumly, "Prince Thor is always covered up."
Swinging his boots, Thor made a remark to his companions.
"You know what, it'll be fine!" Tony fumbled about, still unused to working without Friday's visual aids. In the end, he held up his hands like he was trying to size a bra cup. "The V rotates — move over, I'm rotating — on the diagonal planes, the triangulation is fine-tuned to where he needs it. And the nipple thing totally works. Stereo effect! Back me up, Double P."
"Am I old enough to see this movie?" said Peter Parker.
"Tony," said science-bro Bruce, "Even if Steve can defeat modern surveillance—" and no one was going to confirm that in Friday's earshot, "—sooner or later, that get-up is going to attract a crowd. Selfie sticks." He shuddered. (The Hulk was starting to master crouching for the camera phones.)
From above, Thor's laughter boomed. "They will come bearing many dollar bills!"
"Definitely not old enough," said Peter. Helen patted his shoulder.
Bucky and Steve exchanged a silent Depression-era joke that would only be funny to former starving children.
Tony dropped his hands. "It's greater surface area," he grumbled.
"I'm not admitting how I know this," said Helen. "There are several blogs devoted to the subject of Steve's chest. It's too distinctive."
Bucky was most certainly not firing up his smartphone browser.
Rhodey flicked invisible lint. He said mildly, "Give it up, Tones. For some reason, you are really bad at secret identities."
* * *
Eventually Steve admitted that bodies of water gave him no trouble at all, with a small donation of blood.
How he knew this was not his secret to tell.
So if someone would kindly go back to promoting their movie, it's like vampires only not like vampires at all.
To that purpose, Natasha gifted Steve with a spiked bracelet, a few of these spikes sharpened enough for everyday bloodletting.
In specific, she tossed it at him while he was not-so-secretly playing hacky sack with his padded head. Pelting Steve with objects was now considered an all-hours sport, deemed both amusing and healthful, like a macabre Pokémon Go.
Steve managed to catch the trinket without having to hook his thumb into his sinuses.
"There, now you're emo goth," Nat said. She reclined on her sun chair, enjoying the filtered sunlight and the burbling of their upcycled fountain. She glanced over, and glanced away. In her business, youthful disguises were given away by the knees. Like tree rings. His knees were frighteningly pristine for all that wear-and-tear. That always got her. She bet Sam got hung up on the elbows, unless Sam was keeping the cure for ashy elbows to himself. It would figure.
Steven thanked her, pocketing the contribution to his new, frighteningly Hot Topic style. He resumed kick-dribbling his head, a rather risky activity given the high chance of falling on his ass in front of Natasha.
"You're pretty chipper for a dead guy," Nat observed.
Steve caught his head. Juggling it back and forth, he signed, It's not as lonely as I'd thought it would be. With friends.
Natasha stretched out and locked her hands under her head, nested over the gun under her pillow. Mortality and the business of heroism made uneasy bedfellows.
"You might actually be in the wrong business, Rogers."
Tell you a secret?
Natasha Romanoff was not going to sit up and squeal. "Mm hm?"
Steven spelled the name out very carefully. Dr. Einstein had it right. Time isn't as restrictive as it looks.
Over her shades, Natasha eyed the Man Out of Time. Her friend.
She said, "So I'll always look good in bikinis?"
Steve gave her a thumbs-up.
Satisfied, Natasha allowed her eyes to fall shut. On its second life, the fountain burbled as she considered if a '90s grunge slacker or a '00s sockless hipster would be a more horrifying wardrobe suggestion. She could probably source a knitted sling bag for the head. Friendship bracelets were period, weren't they? Steve's sandals slapped in counterpoint to the rhythmic, meaty sploosh of the head, with Steve none the wiser to her machinations.
Chapter 28: 185
Once the bulk of the science tapered off, the team migrated to the upstate facility. This resulted ⏤ not in a training montage ⏤ but a Meanwhile In Rivendell Our Heroes sequence.
Colonel Rhodes confirmed that satellites could not get a bead on Steve Rogers. Friday narrowly avoided a meltdown. Tony gave her the week off to god-mod an RPG. After all, A.I.'s learn profanity from somewhere.
In closer quarters, Steven possessed a finer control of this stealth mode. Several Avengers learned or re-learned the art of film photography, all celluloid and no pixels, and were successful in preserving image after image of Steve falling off horses. An envoy from Wakanda arrived for copies of the negatives. They returned soon after with a tongue-in-cheek offer of Cape buffaloes, saddles optional. This only raised Steven's ire. Tony finally put a stop to his futile efforts by intimating that spooked horses normally didn't come in herds. No creatures were harmed in these trials, if Steve's bruised ego didn't count. In the dark of night, the halls of the compound echoed with the rampant snickers of 'horsemanning' and 'photoshop' and 'heads pasted on.' Thor managed to enchant some of the discarded head-cases to safe-keep the photographs, and stored them with the rest of the party supplies.
Barnes quietly noted that only Wanda's early photos contained the odd blot of errant, inky haze. He did his best to reassure her, specifically by silently staring at the photo, looking up at her, looking down again, meeting her stare, dropping the stare, and then returning the print.
He and Steve, now possessed of more equal sneaking skills, were able to slip away for 'a little training.' He'd packed silencers for this sparsely populated area; it had been a while since he'd had a good spot of target practice. To many a lovelorn cry of the devoted viewers of their helicarrier fight, Bucky was in fact excellent at shooting at Steve's head.
Steve did manage to intimidate him out of yelling "Pull!" every time.
All right— Steven might have spun a tall tale about sensing ravenous creatures of the woods. Not even Hydra had stranded the city boy Barnes in the wilderness for more than a month. Either way: they very, very quietly perfected the gruesome governance of his head.
Sam Wilson returned from the completion of his first tour as Captain America, and was glad for the R&R. He had gotten a taste of the Cap LifeTM from being subjected to the official documentary, the footage of which included the funeral ceremonies. Since his goggles did not conceal his expressive eyebrows, he sought out Rogers's advice at maintaining a straight face while Steve still remembered how to have one.
Upon Sam's arrival, Bucky shed some of his awkward houseguest status by organizing new phases of Headless Dodgeball. (Bucky took the opportunity to ask Sam if he was flagging; the ensuing slapfight revealed that Steve's chest-clutching 'pledging allegiance' gesture was actually his substitute for wiping a tear from his eye.) Romanoff seconded Barnes by doubling down on the team drills. Here, the looming spectre wasn't Steve— it was the flashbacks.
Nat and Clint had a counter for those: bath bombs. Which were rigged to explode. If fragrantly. Or colorfully, in the case of the Iron Cheeseball upgrade, and with Tony protesting too much: who would want to bathe in cheese?
This time Sam had an improved relationship with the shield, both in wielding it and chucking it at Steve. Steve's spirits lifted as he developed new contortions for his eccentric (and Friday-disavowed) center-of-gravity. Not that it would help city boy Rogers with horseback-riding. The lack of a head did facilitate tighter, faster aerial corkscrews. No one besides Bucky had noticed that Steven's overall mass could become as slippery as his head.
This lack of attention may have been due to Nat somehow talking Steve into fastening a balloon full of rainbow glitter to the top of his neck. Steve floated it for a time, to grant Clint more opportunity to enjoy all the "secret" bribes for taking aim at it.
Sam received an armor upgrade. Sam taught Steve how to do a chest-bump. From a dead sprint. It was a red-letter day.
Chapter 29: 198
By the time the phases graduated to include Hawkeye and a full quiver of projectiles, Bucky walked into Steve's quarters to find him building a cairn of his old winged helmets. Steve was sewing them up into ideal carrying cases: ones which would snap into place on top of his shoulders. The miniature dampeners — which kept Tony's brain from being decelerated into a Bloody Mary in the Iron Man suit — were tucked in the lining. There were some pricked thumbs and pulled stitches, but Steve's handiwork was as neat and precise as when he'd had two working eyes to check his mending.
These weren't prototypes for Stark. This was gear for the open road.
"What're you doing for transport?" inquired the Winter Soldier, as though he had not exited the national capital and gone on a world tour, allegedly. "Thumbing it? Don't hitchhike in Ohio, there's a headless guy there who's tipped it to the general public. Besides, I hear Cleveland's terrible." No giant white letters materialized in response. "You gonna fly? Despite your idea of piloting, licenses are harder to come by. Though I'm sure the fliers would line up for the chance to drop you from a few thousand feet. Call yourself Deadweight, the Gliding Squirrel. You can pretend you're disgracing the name of all paratroopers again, maybe even get out of cleaning Wilson's bathroom sometime this decade."
They bickered about Steve's chances of driving on a divided highway while Bucky tossed Steve's wardrobe. He was a bit envious at the many available shades of black. "...no, I'm saying even if air traffic control stops talking to your on-board computer, all you have to do is avoid mid-air collisions. You'd save the passenger jets, and crash into some drones, big deal. On the highway? Fella can barely get out of hitting a self-driving car. Fine, fine, not getting investigated by the NTSB is the idea, I'll give ya that."
Sergeant Barnes recovered and inspected Rogers's go-bag. One screen reader instead of a small library, at least. A cash reader because some currencies had denominations which couldn't be told apart by feel. Text-recognition software, the watered-down pedestrian kind, in case Stark tech needed ditching. A laser-guided pen for lined reading and lined writing. A tote bag for environmentally-friendly head conveyance. Several varieties of gloves. The kit included facial holo-sheets only because Steve's native methods could curdle a spleen, on sight.
All it needed was a black kerchief on a stick, and a 'running away from home' note in black marker.
Bucky roundly disapproved. At least until he taught Steve how to crack sunflower seeds with his neckpiece. All-American pistachios? Too easy for the likes of him. Steve didn't even like pistachios. For the remainder of the evening, Bucky hounded Steve until he could spit shells like a ballplayer. "You can't wear gloves while you're eating," Barnes insisted. "Paying for the food, yes, not scarfing it down. You gotta make it look casual. I checked the eggheads' schematics for your lid. All you do beforehand is dump a pouch in the hopper, and crunch them up as you need 'em. Then you wait until you can dispose of the chaff where they can't sample your DNA."
Steve Rogers nearly said it was rude to walk around with your neck full.
"It's not getting there that you'll have to worry about." Barnes had no doubt that Steven would manage that, even if he had to become the world's spookiest hobo. "It's getting out clean. You're not a drama bomb, you're a drama blitz."
Steve bristled at being compared to a Nazi stratagem. As he should.
Bucky clapped him on a terribly conspicuous shoulder. "You'll be fine, pal. There's other ways to slip under the radar than switching your wardrobe and growing a beard. You know that, right? Little tweaking and you can even use a ballcap." Barnes was not about to lecture Rogers on running away from home, given his own proclivities. But he had learned, with the benefit of intact recall, that it was running alone that was the trouble. He wasn't about to mention that either. Steve didn't even have ears to listen, this time. No, this time he had... backup. With his other hand, he texted out a page to Natasha. "Report to Rogers' quarters. Someone needs a refresher on plausible deniability."
Chapter 30: 212 + 00:00:45
Steve's friends displayed less interest in his travel plans than his optimal swimwear now that he was less blue shark and more hammerhead. Would he learn to play the piano? Did he prefer stinky tofu? How did he go to the bathroom? Did he know the whereabouts of the remote to the rec room flatscreen? A natural effect of team camaraderie, surely, and not the subconscious recoil from his powers ⏤ the equivalent of which any one of them might possess, yanked screaming down a different branch of Fate. Perhaps they had each concluded if they weren't stopping for Death, they sure as Hell weren't going to ask him for the fastest route, least traffic, avoid toll roads. Perhaps there was a maudlin feeling that Steven might tarry at the gate. After all, what's the rush once one's life has ended?
Perhaps it was mere curiosity on the part of this team of heavy-hitters. They'd witnessed countless cleanups. They'd seen fewer rebuilds.
As it happened, Prince Thor and Vision conspired to fabricate a floating island for the dracaena. Apparently planting it in the ground was not evacuation-ready enough. Tony examined its water filtration system and could not muster a real argument against placing this island in the middle of the Olympic-sized pool. They held a modest ceremony. Then they tossed in floating mattresses, ordered up the original national tour of Sweeney Todd, and threw a pool party.
Objects were promptly hurled at Steve.
Tony might have had a small warehouse of cocktail picks shaped like cutlasses.
It had been a difficult few months.
Sam was feeling pretty chill after the addition of a bucket of squeaky waterfowl. He raised a tumbler. "I kinda like you like this, Steve. You can't argue no more. Noooo speeches. Peace and quiet."
Someone sat on a rubber duck.
Nat said, "He can, he's just trying to scrape the chewing gum out of his cranium."
Tony muttered something about the bubble-blowing capability of the next mastication build.
"He'd argue if he were down with his little toe," said Bucky. "But, hey, Stevie, with your hands full with your head, can't cross your arms judgmentally anymore."
They all looked up to behold Steve Rogers in his black swim-trunk'd glory, contrarily propping his arms akimbo with his head tucked in the crook of his elbow. The sunlight glistened on droplets of water, and probably ... hopefully ... beads of sweat. Steve did carry himself differently now. Like he had a weight off his shoulders. He did cut a figure this side of judgmental.
Judgment, like wordplay, could be swift.
Clint was the first to dive out of the way when Steve wrapped both hands over the flat of the nasal cavity, formed a clamshell, and squirted liquid between its palms.
The spray arced into the densest concentration of loungers.
Wanda screeched. With a splash, Sam fell out of his bed. Rhodey and Tony were howling from the sidelines as Thor chortled merrily. The plant-of-honor's leaves rattled as waves rocked its isle.
"Brain juice?!" Sam hollered upon surfacing. "Really, Rogers?"
Bucky was doubled over and nearly in the drink himself. "It's pool water, chumps— your faces!"
With a wave of her fingers, Wanda pushed them both in the pool.
There was a mad scramble out of the water. (Steve and Bucky briefly scuffled over whose turn it was.)
The head bobbed to the surface.
Bruce sat by the edge and plunged his feet into the evacuated pool. He raised his Mai Tai. "What? The force-field works underwater."
Behind him, Rhodey's world-class charades skills clearly spelled Don't say it might leak. Because it wouldn't. Dr. Banner had put in several green-tinged hours on the subject.
"Even if it did fail," said Tony, tempting fate as usual, "In a minute the filters will cycle through. Which are, by the way, bigger than..." He measured out a span wider than his own face.
"Don't whip it out next to an intake," said Clint. "Your head, I mean."
"Not it," declared Scott Lang. Just because his suit could dive now didn't mean he was up for a plumbing extraction.
Wanda Maximoff rolled her eyes and airlifted Steve's head to the island. The plant exhibited no distress over its coconut-shaped neighbor.
After considering Rocky Horror for a full forty-five seconds, Tony switched the movie to a proper John Williams soundtrack. Steve played Jaws for the rest of the party.
Chapter 31: 247
The doorbell chimed at the replica of Steve's apartment. This time around, it was Rogers who had designed the staged set. The builders had been too unnerved by their purple, levitating general contractor to direct many queries to their mysterious employer. (Vision retained the tool belt.)
Steve unmelted from the shadows and scrambled into a pair of trousers. In a pinch it was necessary to sit down to yank them on, to ensure that the zipper fly faced front. Legs over torso, he flopped around on his duplicate couch, and simultaneously tried to coax his body into something more presentable. Both actions were stymied by a small, wet tongue lapping at his knuckles.
The doorbell chimed once more. Then a metal fist banged on the jamb. "Collect yourself, Captain Stubby!" yelled Bucky. "All of yourself!"
Sam made a disapproving noise. "You didn't have to lock the little guy inside. Plenty of people can catch him if he slips out."
"Yeah, 'cause Steve's real good at that," Bucky was heard to mutter.
Steve's new xoloitzcuintle puppy was trying to gnaw at his peeling skin before Steve could restore it to a properly living hue. Steve nudged the little fellow away before he could get too far into the rawhide. The puppy had been imitating a rug while Steven practiced a full-body frostbite, ideal for blending into the shadows. Now, at the sound of the doorbell, the service dog was quite correctly grabbing the attention of his owner. Several posthumous scrapings and two weeks of simulations later, Bruce had assured Steve, and himself, that limited chewing and licking and doggy kisses were safe for the animal. Not that Steve was losing sleep over it, but it would make for a difficult visit to the vet if the dog made off with a dropped body part.
Not that Steve was planning to drop any more body parts.
Steve endeavored to convey 'Just a minute', 'Sit, boy,' and 'Don't step on the dog while he's alerting.' A tall order without a mouth. He'd have to work on that.
"He's not peeing on your shoes again, is he?"
Steve shook away the last patches of frost-burned skin and answered the door. The puppy wiggled out a hairless shake, and skittered after.
"Hey man. Looking extra cadaverous today," greeted Sam.
Bucky tried to call the dog. He did have a name, albeit one composed of a series of whistles and clicks. He had accrued an average of one nickname per person; the majority of these had been mashed together into his tracking microchip.
Dewy puppy eyes regarded the metal arm. His puppy butt remained planted on the floor.
Like a kettle with an upturned spout, Steve's body called him. A few hand-signals, and the pooch trotted over to alert in front of the head.
Sam was impressed. "Who's a good Jetpack? Yeah, you are—!" They'd held lethally adorable audition for a service dog. The native Irish breeds had been wise to the malarkey, and not one could stand to be in the same space as Steven for very long. Disappointment was tempered when Clint Barton returned from Mexico with this sleek, black little puppy. Despite his coal scuttle looks, no dangerously cute pooches were so much as singed, though apparently Clint had barely survived a car chase, a fall off a building, three border crossings, and two-and-a-half explosions of dubious ignitions. And Steve nearly exclaiming his name when the whole story reached his purview.
Steve gave the puppy a rewarding scritch. Then he held still as the puppy ran figure-eights around his ankles. Another item to work on — the daily tumult of the assembled team hardly merited a twitched ear, then he'd trip all over himself responding to Steve. This had, however, been the reason why he'd beaten out older and more sensibly cautious dogs.
"Looks like training's going well," began Sam. Then he spotted all the newspaper on the floor. "Just not the paper training." Before Steven could come up with a flimsy deflection, Sam added, "He'll be okay. He targets on you like nothing I've seen."
"That's 'cause he likes the taste of you," said Bucky. "That's what happens when you teach him to play fetch with your noggin. He'll be burying your bits in the backyard. That's what dogs do with bones."
Steve tweaked the puppy's ears, gathered him up, and aimed him at Bucky. In Steve's experience, this elicited a dangerously cute puppy face.
Bucky looked suspicious. He was not quite able to break eye contact.
Sam sucked back a grin.
Why, short-handed Steve, palms full of puppy.
"Stark's got something to acclimate him to," said Sam. "Come on."
Dog tucked under one arm, bowling bag full of skull under the other, Steven followed his friends. He really had to train the dog to bark when Steve forgot to lock the door, in the interests of keeping up normal appearances. After all, it would be a damned shame if thieves tried to boost his sound system.
As they wended their way towards Tony Stark's garage-cum-lab, Bucky did his best to distract Molé. The pup's nose was on a swivel, and otherwise ignored Bucky's assortment of puckered-up summons. At last, Barnes deployed the one command they were all allowed to use. "Sh, sh," he hissed.
Promptly the glistening jaws lolled open, and he began to pant in sync with Steve's oxygenations.
"Aw, good boy," said Bucky wistfully. Steve hiked up the puppy to signal a reward. Quality camouflage. Ever since Bucky had helped design the stealth dogsuit, he'd watched their heat signatures flicker in and out with not a little envy. Though if the Winter Soldier ever got a dog, he'd have to keep it away from Natasha and Clint, who were knitting an overcoat in pink and purple glitter yarns. Worse yet, Steve had pointed his color wheel meter at the skeins, and approved the palette. There was probably a tiny matching hat on the way, the horror of it all.
The more people looked at the dog, the fewer people studied his owner. At least, that's what they said the idea was. More likely they were hoping someone would Smooch This Pooch right after he'd licked Steve's head like a butterball. (Unlikely; the dog's manners surpassed a good portion of the team's.)
Presently Steve was lifting the dog to where he could see the floor numbers change. He couldn't count, yet, and for now his collar included a visual scanner with a high-pitched beeper to help train him when to bark.
Warned Sam, "Perch him up too high, and you'll be starting a dog-head meme. Unless you're into that."
Steve scoffed. The dog, after a moment, also scoffed.
"As though Steve would ever," said Bucky. "Lang would never let it go, for one."
Actually Steve had been teaching the dog to do just that. The duo hadn't quite gotten the timing down, though. Steve hoped no one would notice the claw-shaped scuffs on his metal lid. Well, he didn't have a head any longer. Why not park a puppy there instead? He could always add a harness for secure canine transport.
After the paper training took, that is.
Steve waved the airlocks open, because he could, and was busy getting the puppers to alert on his fingertip when Tony's voice reached him.
"Look who it is, it's Snipped and Snails!" Tony whirled in his stool, matching the rotation of the raised platform behind him. Rhodey flopped back on an ergonomic lounger to bumper-car Tony into a new trajectory. "And puppydog tails, of course, come on down, Hairless Wonder. Check out your new toy."
It was a good thing Steve was already letting him down, because he nearly dropped the dog.
He did, in fact, drop his jaw. And the rest of the skull. ("Ew," said Rhodey.)
On the platform was a custom-built motorcycle.
Now, Steven, like much of the present company, was a long-time enthusiast of the badass motorcycle. He loved them to pieces, even. Frequently. Superficially, little was significantly impressive about this machine. By design, Steve's mighty steed appeared nondescript. Oh, it featured a highly stylized 'S' because Tony couldn't help himself. Nothing a hog hobbyist wouldn't commission from a reputable pinstriper. It wasn't even the first in its model line; Rhodey had been tooling around with a couple of beauties for some time now.
What made Steve feel like he'd lose his head if he hadn't already were the features invisible to the naked eye.
He could sense it.
They'd stuck with the low-tech solution after all. It was all Steve could do not to gargle at the irony of it. Low, low, low on the register of sounds, below the threshold of human hearing, the body of the bike throbbed with an unmistakable signature. Bucky could feel it, too. Among other things. He wasn't so much getting misty-eyed as enduring a turbid sensation best described by an untranslatable German noun.
The dog nosed the head back to Steve's ankles, and, tail wagging, promptly bounded up for a closer inspection.
"Surprise," said Sam. "Minus the confetti."
"Gets stuck in his throat," murmured Bucky.
In the end, it had been decided not to involve the entire team in the final presentation. Perhaps in case Steve started dribbling with emotion.
Tony Stark launched into his version of the owner's manual. Quite a leap, considering he usually didn't bother with one. "Black with chrome— who am I kidding, it's not chrome, it's vibranium."
"Just for the exoskeleton," said Jim Rhodes.
"I know this is me," said Tony, "And this is you, but go easy on the stunts since it'll stick out if you start skipping across pavement instead of getting mangled on impact."
"Gyro-corrective balancing," said Rhodey, "On toggle. Vibrating proximity alarms."
Tony flourished. "Those raised V-shapes around the perimeter? Turns out the sensory net I tried so hard to cram into a uniform, fits nicely on a bike."
"Country lanes, man, you'll be tearing 'em up," said Sam. Quoting an insight of Natasha's was generally a good move.
"Silent mode on toggle including," said Stark, "A very limited hover, like ten minutes of three inches. It's built for touring but it can switch to off-roading."
Warned Rhodes, "Don't lend it out to the living. The tolerances are set for you and your spinal column."
"And the usual. Bullet-resistant tires. Lane detection. Parking assist. Bug zapper so you don't get gnats down your throat."
"Ahem," said Rhodey.
"Fine, fine, Wakanda designed the, you feel the scoops and swoops in the vibranium? Makes for a kickass soundscape. Won't hear it till you're almost on top of it. I admit it: I am jealous. This would so improve my onboard tunes— ack!"
Tony had been enveloped in a rare Steve Rogers hug. He promptly blinked out on Clint's all-too-serious instructions ("Pick a side to look at and stick with it, any side except the middle, never the middle!") and squeezed his eyes shut. Gingerly he patted Steve's shoulderblades.
Mercifully Steve released Tony.
He was about to sign 'Oh, you shouldn't have,' when Bucky intervened.
"Pal," said Barnes, "This has been in the works since you knocked off. Got the build done during your therapy appointments. They've been workin' real hard on it." Indeed, the revisions had left a trail of paper napkins, vintage blueprints, and overpriced dark web purchases. The bar fights with bikers... were probably for the mise-en-scène. Hashtag aesthetic. "Take the bike. It's not like you're getting severance pay."
Sam guffawed despite himself. "I'll allow it." He favored Bucky with a fist-bump.
Tony attempted to regroup. "GPS," he said. "Realtime update cycles ten times faster than military-standard. Works on Asgard, too, Thor said to use hover mode on the Bifrost—"
Steve started to sign a name, and stopped himself at the first initial.
"Yes," confirmed Tony. "Friday agreed to a link. She'll watch for dash cams, too. She will break into song for you, okay? She's in. You cannot," he said, his stare intense and glued to Steve's chest because eye contact was out of the question, "Do not kill my A.I."
Steve's hold tightened on his head like he was ready to smother a grenade.
"Work out an interface, snap your fingers, anything but summoning her like a discount-rack voice-activated browser wench. I mean it, I am serious like a heart attack."
Steve solemnly crossed his heart. Thank you, he signed.
Then he sent a thank-you to the ceiling.
There was an answering ping.
Tony wiped off a trickle of sweat.
"You're welcome, Steve," said Rhodey.
Though he was bouncing on his heels, Steve managed to center his head on the seat — ("Booyah." "Nobody says booyah anymore. And I'm telling you, his seat measurements were on file. Wasn't me." "Uhhuh.") — and exchange some manly shoulder claps without toppling over like a wet noodle in a rainstorm. Knees somehow wobbled twice as much when one was missing eleven pounds up top.
Tony clawed his way back into the spiel, somewhat. "Naturally, a spot for your best friends, if you want: storage rack up front, saddlebags for your head and road snacks, fully tricked out doggy seat for front or rumble. Completely safe. Though, Hairless Wonder was alone with Barton, so he could probably shake off anything. It'll be his own little canine kingdom."
There was the sound of liquid hitting metal.
"Oh look," said Tony, side-stepping fast. "He's claimed it already."
"Aw, Hellhound! No sidecar for you, now," said Rhodey. He did relax a tad when robots did trundle out to mop up the mess.
Around the room, expressions went opaque when Bucky retrieved a rag and joined the cleaning brigade like an uncommonly hot janitor.
Steve paused in the middle of feeling up the motorcycle's front fender. The storage rack had a distinctive shape. He turned to Sam.
"Just for emergencies," Wilson assured. "Now you can fetch the shield for me. Deluxe bike delivery. I might even tip you."
From the vicinity of the sink, Barnes said, "Well, rev it up, Rogers. We gotta get Molé used to the beast before you can hit the road. Then," he grinned. "We can find out how quick you tumble off this one."
Chapter 32: 247 + 2:05:20
They adjourned to the test track.
Friday was understandably hesitant throughout. Steve felt he was breaking in a new ride and dancing with a shrinking violet at the same time. He wasn't sporting a great winning percentage with either endeavor. As for the dog, he found his bearings once Rhodey outfitted him with goggles, featuring cute bat-wing eyebrows. The irresistible call of the super-cute drew a pack of onlookers to coo at the dog every time Steve let him off the motorcycle. He barked the first time the engine was gunned, then grew more quiescent once he saw the body astride the machine. Dog and master alike seemed terribly disappointed that he wouldn't be aboard once the time came to open the throttle and burn rubber, but all the humans insisted.
Steve fared better than the puppy, but only just. It was a bit of a task keeping both wheels on the road, not to mention at a proper perpendicular angle. Tony tried to convince the others that kneepads scraping the asphalt was part of the process.
He mostly snickered at the near-debacle with the kickstand.
The cheap reality show of Steve wiping out across concrete and grass was not nearly as entertaining as his dog. Who, like all good dogs, existed to be fawned over. Since the wipe-outs were mostly from Steve going entirely too fast with two fewer eyes connected to his limbs, it was still quite the improvement over the horses.
Distressingly to the company at-large, Steven quit belting in the head after the first two mishaps. Physics generously provided the rest of that primeval slapstick routine. Each time, the puppy dashed off to fetch the errant head by its strap, wee puppy butt and whip-like tail straining to drag a dome of nearly equal size by its wobbling gob. And each time the company at-large was overcome by the cuteness of it all, and cheered him on.
Vision noted that although Spot refused to respond to their distractions, he seemed to be herding them with his eyes.
"Chupacabra's just like his dad," said Nat. "Except if you stare into his eyes, you have a greater chance of surviving."
"I'm unfamiliar with these..." Vision was intercepted by a raised brow from Wanda. "Magnificent furry beings. Won't the surfeit of names be confusing?" Granted, the Vision was only beginning to cope with just the one name.
Natasha Romanoff explained, "He is only supposed to answer to Steve."
"He's not confused at all, are you, Pumpkin?" Wanda cooed. "Super loyal!"
The dog twitched his ears, if only because Steve and Bucky were getting into a heated discussion over how to administer the hijacking-a-moving-motorcycle test.
Scott formed a duckface. "Why does Steve let us name him all the names?"
"To train the dog," said Natasha, "into ignoring all the idiots who try to talk to service animals."
"Ohhh," said Scott. "...hey!"
At this point, Sergeant Barnes stole the keys, and made Rogers practice walking the motorcycle like a normal person who had to put their back into it, and not someone who could wear it like a sunhat at the Kentucky Derby.
He got twenty repetitions out of Steve, if only because the puppy was in the basket having the time of his life.
And so Steven Grant Rogers made his less-than-majestic debut on his modern day mount. He didn't care for the pomp of it, only his faithful canine companion hanging out one side with tongue flapping away, and on the other, wind whistling through what was left of his cranial cavities. Sunlight on his shoulders, the open road tantalized just beyond the gate.
In high spirits, he successfully parked the bike. A pair of toothy grins waited for the body in their respective spots.
Once in range, the dog bumped him with an insistent nose.
"Steve," whispered Wanda, who had hung back from the others walking ahead.
He paused, attentive. She leaned in.
"Are you wearing nailpolish?"
Sure enough, one finger was the color of tissue-death.
Panic-stricken, Steve fumbled about. Was his finger about to fall off? It was too late to surreptitiously shake off any blight in his extremities.
But Wanda only nodded, deliberate and clandestine. "That is hardcore," she breathed.
She left him patting at his torso like a man who'd forgotten his billfold. He leaned on his bike, quite the figure in scuffed black leather and hunting boots, sharp spikes on his wrist, outfit studded collar-to-heel with metal sensors. His head made no comment.
He consulted the dog. All he got was slobber.
Chapter 33: 254
Days, and more nights than days, of drills, and the dog was as acquainted with their metal beast as Steven was. Natasha had drawn the line at falsifying a license for Steven, and he could hardly object. That he had to successfully operate the machine was a given. More than that, he had to convince a certified official that he was something he was not: alive.
With respect to telling tall tales, and representing himself as anything besides Steven Grant Rogers, the historical records were mixed. After all, he'd gone as far as to claim residency in New Jersey: what would his mother have thought. This test was, however, the first of many equivocations if he was to habitate in ordinary society, and not prowl through the murky underground.
So Steven was quite frazzled as he went through the motions of grooming and kitting up, that morning. He hadn't shaved in ages; his toothbrush was used to shine his shoes. He tested his artificial orifices and their filters, and gave them one last dusting. Extra care was taken in securing his pants legs, lacing up his boots, and tightening his glove straps. (Steven had always held a high opinion of good socks. It was funny how much making a living at not-living made him appreciate them even more.)
And then he locked an old, familiar helmet over his head — like stuffing a walnut back into its shell — and lifted the whole of it over his shoulders, to snap fast to his body. The jacket's high collar helped conceal the connection to the refurbished helm.
He could do this. Countless times he'd told himself that, and he had a habit of coming through. Perhaps the delusion would serve him well.
Or perhaps a deep, ancient strain of belief.
Steve told himself that as he slipped into the sporty car. It was like the olden days: he didn't have to duck.
"Top down?" said Tony Stark.
Steve Rogers angled his shoulders towards him. There was a tense moment. Then Steve signed that he was glad Tony was coming along.
Has it been mentioned how many signs consisted of gestures around the face?
Tony did a salsa of discomfort on his plush upholstery. "You need to stop thanking me all the time. I'm sure we had this conversation when you were still alive. And point your face away from me."
Steve did so, and gingerly groped for an oversized pair of sunglasses to slip over the vicinity of the eye-holes.
Tony peeled out into the main road. He glanced back at the trailered motorcycle behind them. "Besides," he continued, "I'm here to evaluate the specs, for the next design phase. Don't look at me like that. There's always another design phase. You might be a relic, your wheels don't have to be."
Steve settled back with the certainty that Tony had been nominated as the best man for the job by way of abandoning him to it. Sam, Nat, and Rhodey had all claimed duty's call; all three were supportive but equally disposed to unhelpful mockery. The rest had their issues with authority figures, as was the convention among Avengers. Bucky might have managed to behave — except he was on a secret mission. 'Secret' was the modifier for the state of Bucky's existence. Same as Steve, now. They were mutually in favor of preserving that state, too, so Steve took no offense at his absence.
Though Steve could now strip down to a single universal device, Friday would not be joining them. (They'd fallen in step, lately; he told her stories of bygone days, she gave him the time of day, and neither employed the other's name.) Given the business they were in, her presence wasn't guaranteed, and at some point Steven might have to get on without her. As for the puppy, Thor and Bruce were dogsitting. This, as much for Steve's separation anxiety as for the dog's. Even if his admissibility could be justified, the pup was much too young to be warning for high-speed hazards.
Friday had no qualms telling Tony he was driving too fast for the trailer. She had no such warnings for Steve ⏤ he gunned it in moderation, now that the urgency was removed.
He always arrived on time.
Roads posed no problem as long as Steve kept his head about him. Literally. Vehicles tended to have live people inside them; calculating the berth to grant them came naturally. Signs and lights were the tricky bit. The tech could facilitate the load, of course, but he had trained hard to tune into the shapes of the signs, the position of signals, the flip of circuits in traffic lights and brake lights alike. Separated as they were, his sense organs were remained serum-enhanced.
The less said of the enormous distance that was Steve's new sensory range, the better. All for the best, really: not dwelling on how much one wouldn't see him coming. Sufficed to say that Steve's margins were long and his reflexes short.
Also, in the wolf hour of the night, there was no one to see you get trapped circling a roundabout.
Too bad for Steve, this wasn't night. This was broad, unflinching daylight.
There was a lone traffic light in the middle of the testing center's empty parking lot, and under that a classroom chair. The examiner was sitting there — by all appearances he'd been born contemporaneously with Steven, and was, for some strange reason, Not In The Least Bit Familiar.
He shook their hands without looking up from his clipboard. Mouth bowing, he continued to study it as Tony launched into the showman's pitch of horrific war injuries, of cutting-edge technology holding the man together. "Unbelievable reflexes, I mean, he can drive anything. He's just, you know, sensitive. Not a face for the recruitment posters, that's for sure."
Adjusting his squared-off glasses, the examiner peered at Steve."Irish name, eh? No frou-frou adjectives that these young parents take a shine to. Classic." The examiner slapped the clipboard on the desk arm of his chair. "Too bad I can't pronounce it. How about I call you Stephan? I met a Stephan," he mused. "Awfully European fella. Not American at all."
"Oh, he's plenty American! Very, very American," said Tony with a sharp, white smile.
Steve tried his best not to look perishable. Too fine a scrutiny, or inept execution might give away an eye-straining smudge, as though Steve had gotten into his chalk and charcoals, and forgotten to wash hands before wiping his face.
"So he needs some physical compensations, hm? Like making sure you wear your eyeglasses. That'll be a license restriction. Don't go driving without them, Stephan!" The examiner leaned over to Tony. "He can take the written test, can't he?"
"Yeah, he can take the written test. No problem. None at all," said Tony rapidly.
"Well, let's get to it! Check your mirrors..." He remained lodged in his chair as Steve demonstrated all the controls. The commentary flowed like a square box in sequential art. "Used to drive a truck alongside. Great for the sideswiping test. No, maybe that was just the stunt guys, always trying to pull a fast one on two wheels. Not much to pick up from the back seat except hemorrhoids. My eagle-eyes can do the trick from right here. Okay, start 'er up, sonny!" With that, he reached under the chair and slapped a long, slender contraption into Stark's arms.
Despite Steve's silent entreaty to remain locked on his neck, the head shivered as though sensing Tony's bogglement.
Tony stared at the object in his grasp. "...what is this?"
"Sun's climbing. Let's go, Umbrella Man."
As though coated in molasses, Tony unfurled the umbrella, and held it aloft between the beating sun and the examiner. Magritte would have wept.
Steve rubbed nervously at his chest, attempting to project a friendly, unassuming countenance. It didn't help that his head preferred to expel rancid fumes when sitting out in the hot sun. He tried to huff them downwind.
The man's pen skipped down the clipboard. Fortunately Steve could hear him clearly over the motor, and he jumped to follow every instruction.
Hopefully he wouldn't be asked to pull off a doughnut. Though the head had only flown off the one time.
"What are you doing for the passing?" inquired Tony. "Soapbox car on a rope?"
From his chair, the examiner raised a brow. Steve was most certainly not unnerved enough to call out Tony's name. "Nah," said the examiner. He retrieved another item from his jacket. "See the laser pointer? That's the back of a car. Let's say, a hatchback full of kids. Driver's not looking at you. Kids are reenacting some superhero versus superhero fracas because that's all they see at the movies. And, go."
"Oh my god," said Tony Stark as events progressed. "You've made him into a cat video. The gauntlet with the mounted camera is back in the shop...!"
Umbrella Man was enjoined to follow the course of the sun with greater care. Umbrella Man stiffened his elbow.
"Take it easy, Sparky!" called the examiner. "You squeeze the brakes at that speed, and you'll go flying over those handlebars. Get your head lopped clean off."
"You don't say," murmured Tony. "Not taking points off for that, are you?"
The examiner studied the clipboard. "...looks like you've got another shot. Try it again."
Determined, Steven put his head down. No, no, no: the head stayed, and the body tilted forward. He shook off the persistent sliver of fear that his cranium was bobbling like a giveaway at a baseball game. His head did know the road, and he knew the course, and this time he was steeled for the test.
"I can't believe," said Tony later, "How much you cheated. I mean, in the real world you'd have the reader and the pen and the watch, but that was. I don't even know why I thought — actually I know precisely why I thought, and I am not prepared to disclose that to anyone outside my therapist — you never cheated. You cut corners all the time!" Tony pointed a finger of faux offense at Steve's cut-off neck. "You're ruining my traumatic childhood."
Steve considered asking if, logically, that made it better. He held up the Wakandan-made memory putty, which held the bas-relief of his license photo, and tried to discern if his official face was nonspecific enough. He'd practiced it enough times with Natasha Romanoff. (Bucky had said to just make one that came naturally, because no one would look at his ugly mug for too long. This, while nailing Steve's hollow head with a dead-eyed stare.)
Tony shook his fingertip at him. Eyes on the road, of course. "So this means you're on your way now, huh, this is like your first baby bird hop out of the nest, except not so baby bird. More like pterodactyl. Old, scary, unexpected. So glad we don't have to fight those, they keep giving us shit in the sims, I'd have to stoop to asking Ant Guy how to deal with them."
There was a pause filled with the checking of comic book wikis. Tony dropped his arm. In the passenger seat, Steve Rogers froze the mold, and then procured a regular ink pen, and cross-hatched across its surface.
"Out in the world," rambled Tony. "You're lucky we switched out of the gold standard, you wouldn't make it a block. Tap out, pull over if you break out in hives or whatever, holding your head over the porcelain might be easier but that's a no-fun zone no matter how you hurl — you're just as vulnerable to the chips in the phones, as the cameras. Speaking of night-driving, do us all a favor and use the solar net and the secondary arc reactor; gas stations are liminal spaces to begin with."
Steve was dumping the contents of his black leather wallet into the bowl of his skull. A plain white piece of paper was procured. Before the ink dried, he stamped it with the mold.
"Don't leave your accessories out for the maids to find, they're good people, don't get me wrong, they keep returning tips because they think I lost my wallet, just that this one time I was hungover in Monaco and my prototype smokescreen was nearly— anyway, it was only the one eye and I wore sunglasses for two weeks, nobody noticed. Which is," said Tony Stark, "The only reason I buy that you can pull off your sleight-of-face. And try not to lose your head with the check-in baggage, okay? It'll give Viz a headache, finding it again, if that's within the realm of possible."
Steve slipped the paper into the wallet's clear plastic pocket.
He presented the wallet to Tony.
At the next stoplight, Tony flipped it open. Like a low-budget prop, the paper held the wavy imprint of Steve's features in miniature.
A smiley face was drawn over it.
Tony Stark sighed. He was a sucker, he knew it. He'd have to build Rhodey a Dalek now, even though Cybermen looked cooler despite the basket handles on their heads. (To be fair, of late they had all gained an appreciation for handles for heads.)
"I'm keeping it forever," grumbled Tony.
Chapter 34: 260
Content warns for holidays / family / meals. (ETA: edited two days later.)
Congratulations were in order over the next few days. From his school cafeteria, Peter sent a flurry of jealous student-driver texts, and a box of Pop Rocks. Natasha gave him a memory stick chockful of ringtones. Vision presented him and his dog with matching sweater-vests. Wanda got him matching vinyl decals for his motorcycle and his neck corker. Thor managed to enchant one of Steve's helmets with a magical tracker, in case the head was, well, spirited away. Clint, off doing whatever it was Clint did, sent a very well-compensated singing telegram dancer.
Bucky's secret mission had turned out to be a persuasive chat with a playwright, that they might compose a historical musical with no speaking parts. The release of the funeral footage had spurred interest among dramatists and made-for-tv profiteers, which had in turn inspired this Winter Soldier operation. In no concrete way did Sharon Carter approve of Barnes's methods, but she did hold the rights to Steve's pre-deceased story, and could concede that Ken Burns was unlikely to produce a sung-through documentary, that is, 100% singing. T'was too soon to tell if anything would come of it. (Lin-Manuel Miranda did post a peculiar tweet about his fire escape whispering to him about Brooklyn.)
As for Sam, he gifted Steve with a pair of socks, fingerless gloves, and a hoodie. And the promise to teach him how to carry off the hoodie, properly, like he belonged in a neighborhood and could slide under the nose of every curtain-twitcher with 911 on speed-dial.
"Please do," agreed Barnes. "I've been modeling the walk for years now. He's out a noodle, and he still sticks out like a sore thumb. You'd think it'd be old hat by now." He carefully did not emphasize 'hat.' Sam Wilson was wise to it, however.
Steve was polishing up some magic-blocked contingencies which made up for his shameful stealth skills, but he shrugged it off, instead quite taken with the gifts' detailed tailoring. The pockets had pockets. The socks had pockets. Everything was in his actual size.
"I wasn't gonna stick you with a bathrobe with a Jedi cowl," said Sam. "This is one-of-a-kind handmade. For the record, I have no idea how my momma got your measurements—"
Steve threw up his hands, his full attention on them. (They could take it.) He was spluttering like a clogged garden sprinkler.
Sam Wilson rolled his eyes. "Of course I told my momma. Even if I had the slightest inclination not to, I'm Captain America now. I can't lie to my momma."
"Look who'd be disqualified," said Bucky Barnes. When Steve Rogers rounded on him fast enough to make the dog spring up, Barnes held his ground. "Don't start with me. I am allowed, I knew your ma."
Steven was unable to muster a reply.
A small audience began to collect on the upper landings.
Sam said, "Mom's had to process a whole lot more superhero nonsense before your standard Faking A Death. She's concerned. Yes, about you, Steve. I inherited your support system, and now you'll be the one flying solo. Even if we hadn't made headlines with how bad we are at that," said Sam, meaning himself, and his own bumpy road of recovery which had detoured into stomping on Hydra, "She wasn't gonna let that pass. Matter of fact, heads up: you're not getting out of that Thanksgiving invite. Or, here, I'll make it easy for you. You can choose between Turkey Day or Nonspecific December Holiday Dinner."
By now it was well-known to those In The Know that Steve could keep up appearances and eat at the same time. He and Peter had even worked out how to eat an overstuffed burrito without ruining anyone else's lunch. Well, sometimes the jawbones made clicking noise, but it could be mistaken for crunching. If Steve tired of that, he had a hinged mask which funneled food away from what was left of his face and into his neck.
"You'll be fine. I told her you were sensitive about your facial disfigurement."
Steve jerked a shoulder.
"That ain't a lie! Technically."
"It'll be a no-brainer," said Bucky. "Do what you always do at shindigs when you don't have a speech to deliver. Wander around not making eye-contact and make noises at your feet." He got a sea-lion groan for that.
"Come on," coaxed Sam. "Jetpack will be there to keep an eye on you."
Steve aired a Serious Objection.
"You won't know anyone's name except my momma's. Because you never did meet the fam even after we invited you all those times," said Sam Wilson, who was too pure to cushion the guilt-trip. "People won't introduce themselves if they think they're supposed to know who you are. We'll set you up right. Show up with a dish, and you won't get hassled."
Steve came up with another one.
"You can make a casserole, for real. I know you have a can opener. The oven at your place sings the temperature. You want me to unroll the cling wrap for you?"
"It is pretty dangerous with those saw blades in the box," said Bucky. "I use the other hand for it."
"You hush, or Uncle Grumpycat is hanging all the tinsel."
"Tinsel gets stuck in my joints! And that is not a real name."
"They'll take one look at you and believe it is." Sam switched off the sass train, and returned to Steve before he could, well, ghost. "Look, man, how about you drop by for the prep? That'll take hours. It'll just be me and Mom. You can wash dishes. I know you like doing dishes. You get all the good gossip while being in none of it. And if you're not up for company, you can take a plate and haunt the balcony. You know why I'm pushing, right?" said Sam Wilson — unbeknownst to himself, employing the Captain America VoiceTM on Steve — "It's cool you're into the new gig—"
"And the drama," added Bucky.
"And the drama. But are you really gonna haunt the balcony indefinitely? Is the plan to bury yourself? In work and the superhero team, and work again?"
Steve... capitulated. He did know people outside the superhero life, who kept time with holidays instead of global catastrophes. Just because they weren't in the foreground, or in the front row gaping at the latest superheroic production, didn't mean they were too insignificant to warrant a visit from Steve. (Quite the contrary.)
Steve kept time differently now. But with the benefit of therapy and a lot of eye socket gazing, he could admit that he missed them.
He told Sam to tell his mom that he loved the socks.
"Tell her yourself. Hey, I get that it'll be a challenge to keep the attention off you. Maybe that's good... get used to not having all that attention on you. It's not required anymore. And if you can let your hair down," he coughed, "around us, with a little patience you can involve people outside of us. If you're into that kind of thing," he added.
It would have been all Sarah Rogers would have wanted for her boy: a second chance.
To be himself.
Bucky pouted in agreement, somewhere between ingenuous supermodel and aforementioned grump.
And Steven, he slow-spelled an O.K.
"I'll be watching for your RSVP," said Sam. He was one to aim the I-see-you gesture at Steve's head, rather than its former location.
Steve's body sighed.
"Aw," said Bucky, slinging a metal arm around Steve's shoulders. "Lookit you, Stevie. All grown up and goin' to parties all on your own—"
With that, Steve twisted headlessly out of the hold, and proceeded to yank Bucky into a noogie.
Bucky Barnes howled at the indignity. "No! No, not the fish smell!" Ah yes. Steve could switch his aroma to a more commonplace metrosexual musk. And even no scent at all. Or... he could switch it back on, full-blast. "You jerk, they're rotten!"
Oh, for the atmosphere of Brooklyn of yore. And the East River. And the canals.
The Winter Soldier attempted to punch where Steve's nose used to be.
Mild property destruction ensued.
From the landings came the familiar chorus of the long-suffering.
"Naw, I'm having none of this," said Sam. "FalconCap out. You all can fix the floor on your own."
The dog had towed the head to a safe distance, and was dancing on his little paws. He seemed to like his master's chances, though, as he was sticking close to his smelly charge instead of rendering assistance.
No humanoid intervention was forthcoming: the audience was already dispersing.
The stench wasn't.
"Hang on!" yelled Bucky. "I got data! New data! He's... getoffme! ... he's ticklish!"
"What?!" cried Tony. "Fry— shit, there won't be a recording. Waaaait! I'm on my way!"
Chapter 35: 294
Steven Grant Rogers picked his way through the tombstones — head in hand, name renewed, steadfast companion trotting quietly beside him. The hillock had not much changed. More crowded, that was all. It would be an unfamiliar one, they told him, because after the war the Barneses and other neighborhood families had saved up for a metal marker as soon as rationing came to a close.
History would not record how quickly young Steven had fled that funeral service. Makes for poor propaganda. Had he no map, he would not have found his way to this spot. Death has no use for gravestones — they are merely receipts for services rendered. Instead, he homed in on a water-burnished stone: picked from a country far away, numbered with a year well-remembered, buried as deep as his friends had dared.
The night revealed no moon. The urban glow was faded.
There was a light.
Once again he was a touch shorter, but he didn't stoop to read. His name, that was shortened too — where before everyone had known his name and few had known him, now few would know his name... and everyone would know him.
Steve had spent his life blown like a wet leaf hither and yon in the course of his occupations. Now places like this were his office. Countless branches. Open all the time.
He held his head to his heart.
I made it, Ma.
(And sometimes stories that don't wish to end are really about beginnings.)
He had work to do.
Chapter 36: ∞
An epilogue this is not. Funny thing, composing an epilogue for a body that might go without.
"Next item," said Natasha Romanoff in her best bored customer-service voice. "Written report from the field. The item being... Nomad, we still can't read your handwriting."
Sam Wilson groaned.
One of several obscured uplinks pixelated rebelliously.
"It's fine that you loathe touch-typing, but at least use the pen you were issued," continued Natasha.
"Must we do another build of the pen?" said Tony, casually setting his chair to hover. "What do you even do with those things? You can't even chew them."
Rhodes shook his head at Stark, making a frantic cutting-off motion around his neck.
Said Tony to that, "See, I don't even know what that means in context anymore—"
"Never mind!" said Wilson. "We'll send it to Barnes, he can always translate."
"Can he do that because of his Winter Soldier training?" asked a fresh-faced superhero appealing to the younger demographic.
Wilson crossed his arms. "Don't ask questions you don't want the answer to," he advised.
Undeterred was Tony Stark. "Does he need a feather pen, with a giant quill?"
Recorded in the minutes was a short point-of-order over semantics and surnames. Popcorn was popped, and the meeting moved on.
* * *
Rogers didn't bother with a fighting stance, even with a finger pointed at his chest.
"Did you not read any of my e-mails?"
There was a general smog of perplexity. You didn't call on him. He called on you.
"Uh, dunno if you've noticed, but he doesn't have eyes."
"Is this guy new, or evil? E-mails, who does that?"
His companions had the tact not to mention how Steve had broken the last couple of Braille terminals. Comment sections ⏤ you'd think he'd know better.
Their accoster let out a plaintive cry, as atypically discomposed as Steve was decomposed.
He was told: "His mailbox is full of spam. Text or Morse code or ravens, if it's so urgent."
"There are text–to–speech readers, join this century!" Loki said, enunciating with prejudice.
"I take it you missed all the messages? Fantastic. Delightful. Very well, Captain Drips-a-lot, I shall summarize the entirety of the e-mail string. Don't join any dating sites."
Times like these, one could use an eyebrow to raise.
"No blind dates?"
"Especially not those!"
A notebook was procured. With frankly terrible handwriting, a note was jotted down. None but mortal eyes might see it, but it knew it was there.
* * *
It's a melancholic symptom of human memory that the voice of absent friends can be misplaced. It's a scrap — a visceral echo — another shred to tatter and flap in the winds, in a headlong run into change. Easy enough to restore, particularly with available technology. Until the final change. Silence.
"Put a lid on it."
Among exceptional people, naturally there are exceptions.
The absented voice of a friend may resonate through time like the clang of a cracked bell.
When Bucky Barnes was smaller, with the impulsiveness of small children everywhere he had wished that his even-smaller friend Steve would shut his yap for a second. Particularly when the next second involved catching a fist with that yap.
There's always a monkey's paw to those sorts of wishes.
Now here he was, through the goodness of his frequently frozen heart, lurking like a mismatched gargoyle in a dark cinema with a musical playing on the screen. The film wasn't bad, really. An earnest try at representation, good follow-through with the emotional beats, and if the subject matter was dated, how the Hell was Bucky to know? Consequently, he was trying to pay attention.
Mayhaps it was destined that the sound of Steve's voice should escape the sieve that was Bucky's memory. Yet Bucky would recognize it anywhere. Always would. He knew better than anyone that Steve didn't need the advantages of breath to be a chatterbox.
In short: sometimes, he could hear his voice.
Bucky was running out of wordplay.
The pale flash of restless hands dissolved into a smoky blur.
On the screen, the picture wobbled as the scuffle impacted the projector.
The huff of a disgruntled hound was only a product of the imagination.
There was the distant, eerie sound of... snickering. Perhaps nearer to wheezing.
A hush descended. Perhaps nearer to the muffled sounds of two defiant boys who were going to get away with it, again.
The more things change, the more they circle 'round.
* * *
I know what you're thinking, and that's not creepy at all. Humans have been said to yell up at approaching steamships, desperate for unprotected spoilers. They probably invented portable fire to light up the next season's cave painting. For all the propriety of stripping "and then" from one's writing, it is so often the plasma and hemoglobin of a tale. And then. And then. And then. Keep it up for a thousand–and–one nights, and it might save your life.
Throw in some luck and a few million dollars, and you might compel billions of people to linger in a dark theater long after the cleaning crew's arrived.
Some stories are so much high-minded blarney. Or they live long enough to end up that way, retold, gathering footnotes like moss until subject to a credited literature course when all there was to it was a low mind with a well-thumbed thesaurus.
Some stories end up on premium cable, or in the afterimage of a streaming binge, or the corner of your eye before the next video loads.
Some stories are quite simple.
Sarah Rogers had herself a son.
He had a load of friends.
So whenever you feel cold, and alone, and like you crashed that plane for nothing; when you pull away from the station and feel an icepack pressed to the back of your neck; when the meddlesome and craven build empires on rumors and innuendo, remember that sometimes the stories are true. That somewhere there is a light on. Maybe two. Shaped like eyeballs. And by the time the living brain resolves the image into broad shoulders in black leather, the ears will fill with the rumble-snort of three hundred horses and the eyes with the bloody splash of streaking tail-lights.
And then it'll be too late.
Remember: somewhere, somebody knows you.
As the minutes pass into hours pass into days gone by, those who have caught an inkling, heard a whisper, harbored a suspicion — everywhere they assemble, they'll switch on a light. Pull up a seat. Swap greetings, plainly, or with a slap of knuckles and palms. Pop a bottlecap, uncork, unscrew. Pour one out. Whether swirled, or clinked, or impaled with a straw, or with a lick of salt or a blow on a frothy head — as the darkness seeps up to the doorstep — one and all shall raise a glass and echo a time-tried toast:
"May Rogers never call your name."