There was music playing to his right, and beyond the music a shushing static sound that seemed to come from every direction. Beyond the static, he could hear nothing.
Steve kept his eyes closed and his breathing shallow and even. The music was classical, sharp and clear. It must be a digital player, not a slave barracks radio from the forties. He breathed in the smell of antiseptics and clean floors and recycled air, a hint of blood and soap off his own body--not the least trace of piss, and no sweat stink. No smell of plywood and plaster and fresh paint, as if the space around him had been freshly built to deceive him.
He was propped up at a comfortable angle. There was some kind of loose garment covering him as well as a blanket; it seemed safe enough to move a little, twitching his muscles to feel things out. His feet were warm. There was something thin and soft--cloth, maybe paper towel--laid across his belly, tucked right up against the rings of his infib. He would wet it if he pissed, but it felt dry against his skin, and his dick and balls felt clean too.
He had to piss, but not urgently, and he was hungry, but not starving.
His eyes opened as he registered how startling it was not to be starving anymore, and the mass of white in his peripheral vision made him turn his head. His left arm was bandaged and immobilized in a strange lightweight brace, an airy plastic latticework covering him from armpit to elbow. It was visibly anchored to the bedrail, keeping him from moving his arm, but the position wasn't uncomfortable. He flexed his fingers; they moved, but he could barely feel them.
He raised his right hand--not restrained at all, though there was an IV taped in at the crook of his elbow. The tube led up to a nearly-depleted bag of clear liquid. Moving his arm made the needle shift uncomfortably, but otherwise it felt fine. He could make a fist without difficulty; his fingers faithfully reported the soft cotton weave of the blanket covering his body, the cool smoothness of the bedrail on that side. There was a plastic box attached to the rail with a button on it, glowing green and unnecessarily illuminating a line drawing of a bell emitting soundwaves.
He hesitated with his hand beside it, looking around again. He was in what looked like a hospital room, small and private with a single bed. There was an armchair to his left, thinly padded in easily-cleaned blue vinyl. The walls were pale yellow, the floor tiled in gray and white. There were no windows except a narrow reinforced one in the door; another door, half open, led into a bathroom, and the other closed door was probably a closet. The music player was on a cart to the right, beside a stack of paper towels and a couple of squeeze bottles. On shelves below that there were plastic bins holding various medical supplies--gauze, tape, gloves.
None of it looked threatening.
He'd never seen any of it before, which made it automatically dangerous. He felt clearheaded, no trace of a hangover, but that meant nothing. He felt dread and danger, but that also meant nothing.
His mind caught, finally, on the memory of Coulson kneeling in front of him, fastening thin strips around his legs. He had put on a tuxedo. The straps had turned out to be remote-controlled restraints.
Both his fists clenched without thought, the left weakly. Stark had drugged him. Called him Grant like he had the right.
Tony Stark had walked him out of the site of what should have been his execution. Here he was, alive, clean, even fed after a fashion, and...
Steve looked over at his left arm again. They'd done something to it, obviously. Surgery? Was the numbness nerve damage? He'd heard a thousand rumors of what chips did if you tried to cut them out--uncontrollable bleeding, electrocution, poisons released, the chip burning on exposure to air like a magnesium flare...
He flexed his fingers again. They were still attached; they worked, even if he could barely feel them. There was pain in his upper arm where it was braced, but nothing like a burn.
He'd been under a death sentence, and now here he was. Alive, but it was obvious his chip had been tampered with. He was completely in Stark's possession, and now not even the people who'd kept him under a suspended death sentence for the last few years knew he was alive. How long was Stark going to draw this out? Long enough for Steve to escape?
Long enough to kill Stark on the way out? The certainty of that plan boiled up from his hazy memory of the night before--Stark had been talking on the phone, he thought. He didn't remember what about, but he remembered being absolutely determined to kill Stark for it. It would only be justice, wouldn't it? All the slaves Stark had made disappear as if they'd never been, to say nothing of whatever he was about to do to Steve.
What was a slave owner but the biggest bully on the block? And Stark was the biggest slave owner in New York, with the swagger to match.
There was no sign of Stark in this quiet hospital room, though. They were evidently in no hurry to start in on whatever they meant to do with Steve.
He waited a little longer, looking back and forth. He squirmed in the bed, which was the limit of his range of movement with one arm immobilized. No one--certainly no female slave in an inaccurate attempt at an Army Auxiliary uniform--came in to tell him what they wanted him to believe about why he was here.
"Fine," he said aloud, and realized that his mouth wasn't painfully dry. "I'll bite."
He pressed the green button.
Nothing happened for long enough that he got irritated by being made to wait for whatever lies, threats, or manipulations were coming. Did they mean to leave him stewing here? Make him beg or scream before anyone would come in?
He squirmed in the bed a little more. Regardless of what they meant to say or do to him when they finally came in, the need to pee was edging past his ability to ignore. Flat on his back with only one hand free, he wasn't going to have any choice but to make a mess if they left him there long enough. He'd think it served Stark right, but no doubt it would be some slave doing the laundry and mopping the floor.
Steve was flexing the fingers of his left hand and trying to decide whether to risk figuring out how to unfasten the restraints himself when the door opened.
The woman who stepped through--a petite Korean woman in a lab coat--looked dimly familiar, an impression that got stronger when she spoke. "Hello, I'm Dr. Helen Cho. I operated on you last night--I'm afraid you were already pretty strongly sedated by the time we met. Do you remember that at all?"
He remembered the getting-sedated part, the metallic taste of water from the flask Stark had given him. Forced on him. It belatedly occurred to him that, other than the arm that had just been operated on, he wasn't restrained at all, not like he had been the night before.
He thought he remembered Dr. Cho standing over him, but the memory wouldn't stay. It morphed into a half-remembered dream of Tony Stark--or was it Howard?--one dark-haired man who was both of them, somehow, standing at the foot of his bed.
How could you? Steve had asked, feeling foolishly, miserably betrayed. How could you?
Howard had pulled him out of the lab he'd been locked up in after Erskine died, when no one knew what to do with a prototype super soldier with no army to be made on his model. Howard had made the marks of slavery stick on his new and improved body, for whatever shield they might be if he were captured in combat. Howard had made him his actual shield, as well as what he'd cheerfully called the little shield, which would've been even more useful right about now.
He had thought sometimes that Howard was his friend--and now Howard--no, Tony, but in Howard's shoes--stood by, watching that damn StarkChip in his arm tick toward his death, sweeping him up in a devil's bargain that would let him cheat that death for something even worse. And what Tony stood and watched was the least of it--there were StarkChips in the arms of thousands, millions, of other slaves, controlling them, terrorizing them, all for profit and that sleek suit, private planes and weekends in Switzerland.
How could you?
Steve snapped back to awareness of the woman beside the bed--Dr. Cho, who had operated on him. Regardless of what they meant to use him for, this woman had saved his life last night.
"Or is there another name you prefer to use?" She prompted gently. "Mr. Coulson made us aware that what information was in your file was inaccurate, though he felt it should be up to you what to divulge to us about your identity."
Steve blinked at her, considering his options. But, hell, if he was going to die under torture, he'd like to have his own name back first. Maybe it would even mean something to Stark, if Howard had ever spoken of him. He hated the thought of being spared whatever tortures Stark had planned as a matter of family favoritism--Stark would only find other test subjects--but he could do more alive than dead. Maybe Stark would be inspired to come and have a look at him in person; that might give Steve a chance.
"Rogers. Steven Grant. Would you like my grade and serial number as well, ma'am?"
Dr. Cho tilted her head slightly, but said, "If I had to guess, your grade must be... X, isn't it? For experimental?"
Steve tilted his head right back, acknowledging the point. She must have known that; that would be the reason they'd acquired him. And they'd known enough to starve him and go to great lengths to sedate and restrain him. They obviously knew something about what he was.
"Which means your serial number must be..." She raised what he'd thought was a clipboard, but now saw was a tablet. "12044, is that correct? Which registry office did you surrender to?"
"12044's just the file number," Steve corrected her, with a lightheaded surreal feeling from talking about it so matter of factly after keeping quiet for so long. "My full serial number in Army records was 12044-BR-SGR. Brooklyn registry."
She nodded. "That explains the next thing I was going to ask you about--I expect you'll want to relieve yourself, and unfortunately we need to keep your arm immobilized. We weren't able to fit a catheter, and even a bedpan is a challenge given the style of your infibulation. Is there a way we can make this easier for you? Would you prefer a male orderly to assist if you need an extra pair of hands?"
Steve wasn't sure what his being from Brooklyn had to do with his infib--nobody else from Brooklyn had one like his, as far as he'd ever seen--but he couldn't spare a thought for that oddity, given everything else she'd said. He had to focus on not blushing, because there was a part of him that was still categorizing her as a lady and a doctor, and not his captor.
And she was asking him how he wanted to piss, which was definitely not the tack he'd expected this to take. Honestly, now that she'd said it, he didn't know why they hadn't just forced a catheter in. They couldn't care that much for whether he bled into it, even if they didn't know how quickly he'd heal.
"I, uh." Steve struggled to think of what to ask for. When was the last time he'd been in a position to ask for anything and imagine he'd get it, rather than having to sneak or steal or suffer in silence? He was all out of practice.
Even Howard had never made him ask; Howard just presented him with things, like--
"I can manage a bedpan if someone'll hold it for me," Steve said. "It'd be easier if I could have a piece of tin foil."
Her eyebrows lifted, and he added hastily, even as he hated himself for the cringing impulse, "I can do without it, I just--"
"No, it's fine," she said quickly. "I was just thinking of where to find a roll of foil. Is it all right if I assist, or should I get an orderly for you?"
Steve refused to bite his lip or squirm where she could see, but the urgency was much worse now that he was being offered relief, and he could feel his face getting hotter. "Whatever's quickest, ma'am. Please."
She nodded. "I'll be right back."
And just like that she was gone.
When the door opened he caught a faint burst of sound from the hallway, but when she closed it behind her he had nothing but music and the shushing white noise behind it. They must be deliberately blocking him from hearing anything else from nearby rooms. He stared at the ceiling and wondered what screams and cries were being drowned out and why they were being so careful to isolate him.
Then Dr. Cho reappeared with an entire roll of aluminum foil in hand, and he couldn't really think of anything but the sharp, desperate pain in his bladder.
Dr. Cho tore off a generous square of foil and handed it to him, turning away to the cart with the music player and its boxes of supplies. Steve set the foil on his thigh and doubled it over, then folded a lip at the top for his fingers to fit into, curving it to his hand as best he could while avoiding making grooves between his fingers.
When Dr. Cho turned back, she had the bedpan in one gloved hand. It was shaped and rimmed like a toilet seat, made of smooth hard plastic. She glanced at the foil he'd fitted over his hand and nodded, setting the bedpan down beside his foot.
"I'm going to uncover you now," she said, moving slowly as she brought her hands up toward the blanket tucked over his chest. "Okay?"
Steve nodded, lifting his right hand out of the way and steeling himself for humiliation. Her motions were brisk and matter of fact as she folded the blanket down, revealing the hospital gown that covered him to his knees. It had a very orderly pattern of blue dots in a diamond grid.
"I'm going to raise your gown," Dr. Cho informed him, but she didn't actually do it. "Can you do this while you're on your back, or do you need to turn?"
"Back's fine," Steve said, his voice coming out tight with desperation, his cheeks hot.
Dr. Cho gave the appearance of not noticing any of that. She folded his gown up neatly, revealing his cock and the shiny rings of his infib. Two silvery rings were set into the head of his cock, plus one at either side just past the glans, and each one had its other side set into his abdomen. The rings held his cock folded back against his body, the head pressed just above his pubic bone.
It meant that the only direction he could piss was straight up, but he hadn't minded giving up the pivot a single ring allowed for the likelihood that he would never again feel a single ring tear through the head of his cock when his new body proved to be too strong to be stopped by one point of contact. Howard had been kind of green around the gills designing this setup and checking up on it after, but he'd known as well as Steve did that the infib was necessary.
"All right," Dr. Cho said. "I'm guessing I should hold it about here?"
She held the bedpan upright straight ahead, giving him an easy angle of reflection and a short distance to cross. Steve smiled slightly, pleased that he didn't have to explain how it worked, and she smiled back.
"Fire at will, Rogers."
Steve snorted and tucked his foil-covered hand behind the head of his cock, taking a deep breath for control. "Yes, ma'am."
He let rip with the practiced hard stream, and he only had to adjust the curve of his hand a little to get a clean bounce into the bedpan. He sighed in relief, letting his eyes go half-shut as he pissed steadily, keeping an eye on the bedpan in case it held less than it looked like it should behind that rim. He could actually see the liquid by the time his bladder was close to empty, but it wasn't in danger of overflowing before he was in danger of not being able to keep up adequate pressure. He pushed out one last hard burst and then stopped neatly, twisting his hand around in an accustomed motion to catch the inevitable last drips.
"All right." Dr. Cho set the bedpan aside and then took the foil from him, deftly tilting it to keep the drops cradled in it before she dropped it into the bedpan. She offered him a damp towelette, and Steve wiped off his dick, checking for drips and not finding any.
It was only now that he realized that his belly was covered with a thin paper towel--not unlike a dry version of the wipe--with odd thickened patches at the edge near his cock.
"Those are moisture sensors," Dr. Cho said. "So we knew when to come clean you up while you were sedated, since we couldn't find any more sanitary way to deal with it."
Leaving him in a puddle of his own piss until someone happened to check on him wasn't an option, apparently. He felt an uneasy curl of suspicion.
What if it wasn't torture? What if Stark had some other use for him, and wanted to win his cooperation? Steve hadn't been willing to dance to the Army's tune while they kept him enslaved, no matter how often they came around to ask and threaten and bargain. He had taken his chance to run when Coulson--who wasn't even proper military, Steve knew that much--had started making noises about finding more interesting work for him to do. He wasn't going to do it for Stark, either.
He wouldn't make any deals. He wouldn't agree to any quid pro quo. He'd accept humane treatment--that was his goddamned right--but not special favors. He couldn't control what special treatment Stark inflicted on him any more than he could have told Howard to quit supplying him with special gear, but he wasn't going to be bought.
And if Tony Stark thought Steve was going to be any more compliant for him than he'd been for the Army, or the string of affiliated owners he'd been shipped around to for the last four years...
Well, he'd find out what Steve was made of, and Steve would use any chance he could get to make Stark pay for everything he'd done.
Dr. Cho had covered him up again while he was second-guessing her motives. She carried the bedpan to the bathroom to empty it and wash her hands, and when she returned she said, "Okay, next most urgent need?"
Steve glanced at his left arm, twitching his numb, weak fingers. He braced himself against the urge to fight the restraint, to move, and touched his stomach with his right hand instead.
"I could eat," he offered tentatively. He didn't know how long he'd been starved, but he knew somebody owed him at least a couple dozen square meals.
Dr. Cho nodded. "Could and should. I'm afraid it's not going to be much just yet--your stomach will need to readjust to solids, and we have to manage your intake until we know your body isn't going to overreact. You can get very sick if you eat too much when you've been starved."
Steve pressed his lips together and didn't point out to her that he'd gone hungry before, and he knew full well that it'd be a waste of a meal if he tried to eat one now. He'd just puke it up like that deluxe meatloaf dinner from Horn & Hardart that he'd fantasized about through an entire week on gruel rations for back talk.
That had wound up all over Bucky's shoes. Bucky hadn't even ragged him about it, though he'd suggested the chicken soup about a hundred times while they were walking to the automat.
Good work making it to the gutter, pal. You sit, I'm gonna get you some tea.
He closed his eyes, wanting Bucky so badly that it was a pain in the center of his chest. For the space of a couple of labored breaths he couldn't think of anything but missing him. He'd thought he would be with Bucky again by now, and instead--
"Orange, strawberry, or grape?"
He opened his eyes, blinking quickly, to discover that Dr. Cho had opened a small cooler and was holding up three wrapped popsicles.
His mouth watered painfully. "Strawberry."
That didn't count as asking for special treatment, did it? She meant to give him one of them anyway. He wondered whether he should ask for grape instead and suffer through the nasty artificialpurple flavor as a reminder that he didn't owe them anything.
But Dr. Cho had already dropped two of them back into the cooler and ripped open the wrapper of the third. Steve could smell it--sweet but not cloying, and something like actual strawberries, instead of just cheap artificial red flavoring. Owners' food, not a slave's.
Steve took the popsicle before he could think too much more about it, biting off the end and gingerly chewing the frozen mouthful. It really did taste like strawberries.
"I didn't exactly get to perform a proper medical history last night," Dr. Cho said.
Steve realized he had closed his eyes to savor the sweet-tart summer taste of strawberries melting on his tongue. He looked and found that Dr. Cho was now sitting in the armchair by the bed, her tablet propped on one knee. Her gaze was directed down at it as she tapped on it.
"Do you have any allergies to food or medication?"
Steve swallowed. "No, ma'am."
Dr. Cho nodded. "From what I observed, Mr. Coulson's description of your resistance to sedatives was accurate. Can you tell me anything about that? Is anything markedly more or less effective?"
Steve twitched the fingers of his left hand and kept his expression neutral. He couldn't laugh, couldn't snarl that he wasn't going to do her job for her. "Seemed like whatever you gave me did the job. Other than that, all I really know is I can't get drunk and a standard dose of morphine makes me sort of distracted and dizzy for about three minutes."
"Hm." Steve had the distinct impression that she'd taken that as a challenge, even though he'd sounded as polite as he knew how. She'd probably been the one to brew up his drink last night--why was he thinking it would have been Stark?
Something more your speed. Howard had told him that, promising to help him get drunk after Bucky died.
Steve took another bite of his popsicle and didn't think about Bucky, or Howard.
"You didn't have a scar on your arm from your original chip implantation," Dr. Cho said. "How old were you when you were first enslaved?"
"Sixteen. I, uh..." She knew he was Grade X, but she hadn't mentioned Erskine, or the serum. Had Coulson? How much did she know? "I did a lot of my growing after that."
"You would have," Dr. Cho agreed, her gaze coming up to touch briefly on his head and toes. She smiled a little when she met his eyes, and despite knowing better he couldn't suspect her of looking at him like a toy or a piece of meat. She was looking at him, actually at him. "Even without any interventions, it's normal for men to continue growing into their early twenties. But you went beyond normal, didn't you?"
Steve nodded. That would be obvious to her.
"How old are you?"
"I'll be thirty in July." No hesitation, no calculation. He'd worked out the safest answer a long time ago.
Dr. Cho nodded. "But you were born a long time before 1985, weren't you?"
Steve went still.
"Coulson didn't tell me that," she added. "But you should probably know before you speak to anyone else that military slaves haven't been assigned grades instead of ranks since sometime in the early 1950s, and the practice of infibulating slaves other than those convicted of a very limited range of violent sexual offenses was ruled unconstitutional in 1968. Furthermore, Howard Stark died in 1991, but when you said his name while partially sedated it sounded like you knew him pretty well. I'm betting you were more than six years old when he died."
Steve dropped his gaze to his hand, still holding the popsicle. He took another bite; it still tasted like summer on his tongue, despite everything.
"What I'm wondering is whether you age very slowly, or whether something caused you to effectively stop aging for quite a long time," Dr. Cho went on. "Given that I don't think you knew to claim a rank instead of a grade, I think you weren't in the military anymore by the fifties, and you also haven't had much access to information since then. I think, given your escapist tendencies and your obvious physical strengths, you would have either gotten away or gotten yourself killed before now if you'd been trying for the last sixty or seventy years continuously."
Steve closed his eyes. What did it matter, really? What did anything matter? They had him. No one knew he was alive except Stark's people. He was going to disappear like all the rest or die fighting his way out. What did it matter what he said?
"I was missing, presumed dead." He opened his eyes and met Dr. Cho's gaze defiantly. "From 1945 until four years ago. I crashed a plane into the North Atlantic. I was under the ice for the better part of seventy years, and when they thawed me out--"
Dr. Cho's eyes widened, the first loss of composure he'd glimpsed on her. She controlled her expression in the next second, looking down, her body stiff.
Steve looked at his arm again, looked back to her. "Doc?"
"I had meant to wait until you were in a position to understand that I was being sincere," Dr. Cho said, dragging her gaze up to Steve's, tilting her chin up. Steve was abruptly aware that he was looking down at her, propped on the high hospital bed while she sat in the visitor's chair.
"Unfortunately, it looks like the time is now. Mr. Rogers, I can't offer you any meaningful recourse, but I have to offer you my deepest apologies for the unethical nature of the medical treatment I and my team administered last night."
Steve blinked. Was she getting cold feet about saving his life just for Stark to torture him? Would she be inclined to help him?
"Your case was extremely urgent, medically speaking, by the time you were delivered into my care last night," she said quietly. "But I participated in the strategic decision that prioritized adequate sedation over keeping you clear-headed until you were able to have the procedure explained to you. Well, and Tony and Coulson both agreed that you weren't likely to cooperate with being removed into Tony's custody if you weren't encouraged to be docile--"
Steve snorted, and Dr. Cho's gaze on him sharpened for a moment, her lips twitching toward a smile.
"Still," she said, forging ahead again seriously. "Still. The fact is, I decided on a course of treatment for you without your consent, without even attempting to inform you of what was going to happen, which means I had no idea how this would sound to you when I explained it afterward."
Steve looked down at his arm. "You... you did something to my chip."
"We convinced your chip that you had died," Dr. Cho corrected. "In the medically safest way available, to prevent it from activating an execution order."
Steve's whole body tensed--Dr. Cho's eyes flicked up past his head to where there had to be a monitor readout--and for a second the nightmare closed in around him. The shattering pain of the impact that still somehow hadn't killed him, the drugging cold, the water lapping higher. His hands closed into fists, with nothing to hold on to.
At least he'd had his damn shield in his hands, last time.
"You froze me."
Dr. Cho nodded slightly, her eyes on him still wide and concerned. "Immersion in very cold water is used in some cases to bring a patient to a state very close to death while preserving--well. I'm sure you're aware."
Steve huffed out a little breath and stared up at the ceiling, reaching over for the first time to touch the bracing around his left arm with his right hand. "Yeah. I'm aware."
There was a little silence, and Steve struggled to grasp what she'd said beyond the nightmare images she'd called up. She was sorry for that, somehow--for bringing Steve's worst nightmare into this cheery yellow hospital room. Not for anything that was going to happen next, not for anything that made any difference to how she'd done her job. For this, for the way Steve was struggling to keep his breathing even.
That didn't make any sense, so he latched on to something else.
"Execution order?" Steve tried. "The chip would've..."
"In very rare cases, on government orders, slaves are implanted with specialized chips which can actually carry out an ordered execution remotely. Coulson thought yours was one of those, but we didn't know for sure until we opened up your arm and got a look at it; we had to proceed on the assumption that you were in immediate, critical danger."
Steve hooked his fingers into the bracing surrounding his arm and didn't let himself wonder what they'd replaced the original chip with. He was in Stark's own home base; they had to have chips available here that did things Stark hadn't even peddled to the government yet. "Was it... How? How would a chip..."
"It was that kind of chip, yes," Dr. Cho said. "It was primed. By the time we had it out of your arm we had about six hours to spare before it would have activated. Those chips use small electrical impulses to cause a heart arrhythmia, severe enough to be either fatal or disabling."
Steve laughed and found he couldn't breathe, a familiar ache clutching his chest. He didn't stop laughing, either, the sound coming out hoarse and reedy between his gasping breaths.
He was aware, distantly, of two hands prying his right hand loose from whatever it was clutching at, rubbing painfully hard over his fingers. And a voice, faraway, saying his name, telling him to breathe.
Something icy cold and wet pressed over his mouth and he jerked away from it with a gasp before he noticed the smell of strawberries; he licked his lips and tasted the sharp sweet flavor. He finally looked at Dr. Cho, holding the melted remnant of a popsicle like a weapon between them.
He dragged in a breath. He forced a smile while his lungs heaved like he'd just come up for air.
Dr. Cho smiled back slightly and held the popsicle a little closer. Steve took it from her to eat the last tart, sticky bites.
When he gave her the stick and wrapper, she offered him a wipe, and he cleaned his face and hand before he said, hoarse but no longer hyperventilating, "Heart arrhythmia almost killed me a few times when I was a kid. Just--funny to think it could've got me now, after..." Steve waved vaguely at his body, the room, the future he'd never imagined for himself, "after everything."
Dr. Cho's smile shrunk down, but she quietly poured him a glass of water, put a lid on it and stuck a straw in. Steve took a couple of sips and let his hand sink, the cup resting by his hip as his head tipped back against the pillow. Every breath felt like it pushed against a weight on his chest. The last of his adrenaline from waking up in a strange place and confronting a strange person while he was at such a disadvantage was deserting him, and he felt the weakness of his uncounted days of starvation settling in.
Which raised another question. He thought, after all of this, he might get an honest answer to it. Any answer, true or not, would be something to work with.
"Doc?" He had to open his eyes to look at her, and was surprised to find her on her feet, tablet held defensively to her chest.
Still, she gave him an attentive look, silently inviting his question.
"What day is it?"
Her eyes widened slightly, and she actually glanced down at her tablet. "It's 8:13 AM on the 24th of June, 2015. It's been five weeks--thirty-eight days--since Phil Coulson's car accident."
"Oh." Thirty-eight days since he was condemned to death for the results of his last escape attempt. Thirty-eight days spent in windowless rooms. He... really hadn't thought it was that many. He'd lost track pretty badly there.
He felt something about it for a second, scared or angry or just lost again, but he was too tired for it to last. His eyes were already closing again. "Thanks, Doc."
"No problem, Mr. Rogers. Get some rest, and press the call button if you need anything."
He tightened his grip on the cup of water, meaning to raise it to show he had everything he needed. He just had to close his eyes for a moment to gather his strength.
His arm throbbed where they'd tattooed him, a tight feverish pain that seemed to go all the way through his arm and wouldn't let him sleep. He closed his eyes and tried to match his breathing to Bucky's in the bunk above his, but it was hard to pick out the sound of Bucky's breathing from the small noises of fifty-nine other newly-surrendered slaves in the big bunkroom.
It wasn't hard at all once he heard Bucky's feet slap down softly beside him and felt Bucky leaning in close. Bucky's breathing was nearly as quick as Steve's, though it didn't sound like pain. Bucky's forehead touched his temple, and Bucky's hand gripped Steve's shoulder, pressing down hard with one thumb under his collarbone. That was all he could feel for a minute, just the pressure of Bucky's touch; the hot ache of the tattoo faded into insignificance.
Steve opened his eyes and turned his head a little without speaking. Bucky looked back.
There were high windows that let in the glow of streetlights from outside, so the room wasn't properly dark. The low noises of sixty guys being mostly-quiet made a shushing background noise, no more really silent than anyplace in Brooklyn ever was. But no one was paying attention to them, and Bucky's hand on his shoulder held back the fever-heat in his arm.
The relief wouldn't last. Steve would wind up with an actual fever by morning, and an infection that lingered in his tattoo site for three weeks. He wouldn't be bought for months, even after the scabby red swelling finally faded. He would be stuck being loaned out on short-term contracts for the rest of the year while Bucky settled in smoothly with his new owners, scarcely less well-cared-for than he'd been at his parents' home.
But none of that had happened yet, that first night, when Steve met Bucky's eyes across his flat bunk pillow. Right then he didn't know that it hurt worse than it was supposed to. He barely knew that it hurt at all while Bucky's hand held back the pain.
Bucky's other hand settled flat on his chest, and Steve was aware of his heart beating fast under Bucky's touch.
"Is it that bad?" Bucky breathed. "Stevie..."
That was when Steve knew for sure, beyond doubt, beyond ignoring it: when it was already too late. He knew why Bucky had come with him to the registry today and surrendered alongside him. He knew why Bucky had started talking like this was a foregone conclusion two years ago, when Bucky's pop could have gotten him a decent job as a clerk, when Bucky could maybe even have gone to college.
He knew why Bucky had been lying above him, listening to him breathe, and he knew why Bucky was on his knees at Steve's side. He knew that if he just asked Bucky to make him forget for a little while longer that it hurt, if he told Bucky he just needed help getting to sleep...
They'd gotten their tattoos today, but the really scary part, the cock-lock, the infibulation, that wouldn't happen until tomorrow.
Tomorrow for Steve, anyway, and the others who didn't have two letters to show, a fiancée and a priest both promising that the wedding would take place within the year. Bucky had gotten his letters without hardly trying, and plenty of others had. Bucky had wanted Steve to at least ask around for a girl to write him a letter--Father Donnelly would write a letter for anyone if he could get a girl to agree--but Steve had said he didn't want to lie.
Mostly Steve had been afraid that even if he did lie, someone at the registry office would take one look at him and declare him unfit to breed, and order the infibulation anyway. He hadn't wanted to risk hoping he could dodge it only to have that hope dashed.
But it hadn't happened yet, that night.
That night, if he tipped his head up to catch Bucky's mouth with his--if he raised his hand to pull Bucky's hand down from his chest, under the covers...
Bucky would have kissed him, touched him, distracted him from the pain and the fear of more pain to come. And then Steve would have known what it felt like to have Bucky touch him like that. He would have had to remember what he couldn't have for years and years afterward when he wasn't allowed to feel anything like that at all.
In that moment he knew that Bucky loved him as much as he loved Bucky, but they were already slaves by then, and it was already too late to do a damn thing about it. Once Steve was locked, Bucky would never let Steve touch him, knowing he couldn't touch Steve in return. And Steve didn't want to have Bucky once, and then be condemned to know what he was missing after tomorrow. He'd spent years already trying not to think of these things, trying not to touch himself, so he wouldn't miss it too much. He wasn't going to fail at the last minute.
So Steve turned his face aside and squeezed his eyes shut. He said firmly, a little too loud to fit in the hushed dark space between them, "It's fine, Buck. I'm fine."
Bucky sighed loudly and said, "Course you are, punk," and let go, and when Bucky's hand left him Steve's arm hurt worse than ever. It hurt so badly that tears leaked from his eyes uncontrollably. He wanted to reach after Bucky, wanted to climb up into the top bunk after him, but his arm was tied down. He couldn't move, he couldn't--he couldn't--
It wasn't supposed to be like this. He was supposed to be able to make Bucky come back. He was supposed to at least be able to stay in the part of the dream where Bucky was there, but his arm hurt so badly that Bucky had to be already gone. He had to be trembling on his bunk alone, keeping silent even though he could hear half a dozen others crying in the big cavernous room. But maybe if he cried, if he let Bucky hear...
He opened his eyes on a shaky gasp at the sound of a footstep beside his bed. For a moment he couldn't make sense of what he was seeing, because he was so sure that it would be the darkness of the bunkroom. It ought to be Bucky beside him, Bucky who had just turned eighteen three days before--Bucky who loved him even though neither of them would find the guts to say it for years yet, always too late.
Where Bucky should have been, there was a petite woman in a white coat, with wide blue eyes and a messy blonde ponytail. She had an ID badge clipped to her coat, labeling her as DR EMILY FOX below a picture of her smiling that was jarringly at odds with her current look of intense concern.
Steve's face was wet, and his left arm hurt worse than it ever had from his tattoo or the infection that followed. Despite that, his cock ached in that warning way that told him he was about to be in real trouble if he didn't get his thoughts aimed in the right direction.
"Sorry," he said unsteadily. He was past thinking of where he was, who she was, what he should and shouldn't say. He'd upset a lady. He shouldn't let her see that it hurt. "Sorry, I just--"
But he didn't know what he'd done, what she'd responded to. He looked down at his right hand and found that he was clutching the rail by the green button. It was possible he'd hit it in his sleep.
When he looked back to Dr. Fox, she had taken a couple of steps closer. "Did you have a nightmare?"
He shook his head sharply, feeling angry on Bucky's behalf. Just because he hadn't gotten what he hadn't dared to ask for, just because Steve had been lonely that night, that didn't make the memory less precious, or the glimpse of Bucky less welcome. It could never be a nightmare, not that memory.
"My arm hurts, that's all."
Dr. Fox's gaze dropped to his left arm. "Your arm--okay. Hurts pretty badly, I'm guessing. I'm the wrong kind of doctor to fix that for you, let me get someone."
Steve expected her to disappear, but she stepped closer to his bed, touching something beside it. "Fox in Recovery 5, it looks like our patient's post-surgical nerve block has worn off completely. I need someone cleared for pain management down here."
Steve tried to wipe his face with his bare wrist, but he'd barely gotten a swipe in before Dr. Fox said, "Here, use this."
It was a moistened towelette, cool and clean-smelling. He wiped his face briskly and she took the crumpled cloth from him when he was done. She said nothing about him crying, nothing about pain management and why she hadn't hesitated to call for it on his behalf.
Dr. Cho herself appeared a moment later, pushing a cart whose contents were covered with a disposable towel.
"Hello again," she said, not to Dr. Fox but to Steve. "Arm hurts pretty badly?"
Steve nodded. He wouldn't ask her to make it stop. He hadn't asked Dr. Fox to make it stop. If they asked him for something in exchange, if they made him promise--
"So badly you can't think about anything else?" Dr. Cho suggested. "So badly you can't move?"
"I can move," he said tightly.
"Well, let's work on letting you think about anything else," Dr. Fox said, coming around to the right side of his bed, drawing his attention blatantly away from Dr. Cho. "Can you think of a single moment when you remember feeling completely happy?"
Steve closed his right hand into a fist and dropped his gaze to it, pushing away the flurry of images that came to mind at her words. None of those memories belonged in this place, not when he was awake and had some choice about it. Not when it was one of them asking. "No."
"Okay," Dr. Fox said easily. "Can you think of a time in your life when your arm did not feel like it had been cut nearly all the way off and reattached in the last twelve hours, and you were not worried about what the people who did that to you without your consent were going to do next?"
Steve was startled into meeting her gaze.
Dr. Fox winked. "Like... yesterday, right? Do you remember yesterday?"
"Yesterday I was waiting to be killed by the people who were starving me while keeping me closely restrained in isolation," Steve replied. He felt, as a counterpoint to the mind-bending pain of his left arm, a tiny pinch high on his shoulder.
"Well, see? Your arm didn't hurt, and you were worried about something that turned out not to be a problem," Dr. Fox pointed out. "So, maybe that was happier than right now? I know that's a pretty low bar. Can you think of a time you've been happier than that?"
He didn't drop his gaze this time.
He thought about running, flat out. He had meant to get to the Brooklyn Bridge; if he was seen jumping off, no one would bother to look for him after that. He knew he could survive the fall. He was almost sure he would survive the fall. He hadn't really known how he would get anywhere after that. He just knew that he had to run the distance, and then jump, and then he would figure out the rest.
"Running," he said.
Dr. Fox nodded, looking back just as steadily. "Running, that's good. Exercise produces endorphins which boost your mood."
Steve blinked at her.
Her smile widened a little, like she had some idea of how irrelevant her statement was. Like there was a joke they were in on together.
Steve jerked his head around to stare at his left arm as the sensation of it vanished, like it had just been painlessly disconnected from his body. It was still right there, obviously, but the pain and all other sensation was gone. He tried to wiggle his fingers, but they didn't respond.
"Sorry, I thought the post-op block would last longer," Dr. Cho said. "I should have checked that better before. Clearly your metabolism is coming back fast. Are you hungry?"
Steve dragged his gaze from his shoulder to his midsection, then looked back and forth between the two women. He felt weightless with the sudden cessation of pain, disoriented without that anchor. "I... could eat."
He was allowed another popsicle--strawberry again, Dr. Cho didn't even ask--followed by a bowl of oatmeal. After that, Dr. Cho ran some kind of scanner over his left arm and made a thoughtful noise at whatever she saw.
"Your healing factor must be incredible when you're at full strength. Here, look." She pulled a screen around where he could see, showing a magnified scan of his arm. The slice had gone straight through the bone, the notches showing around the cut where the pins had been removed.
He could see what she was pointing out, the first faint signs of regrowth in the bone, but what had him staring speechlessly was what he didn't see.
"Mr. Rogers?" Dr. Cho asked after a moment. "Do you--sorry, is this upsetting to see? Some people don't like--"
"Where is it?" Steve demanded, tearing his gaze away from the screen to look down his body. Nothing else felt even a little sore, or numb. He didn't have any other stitches he could see. Had they moved it to somewhere else in his arm? Was that why they were numbing the whole thing?
"What? Mr. Rogers, please, what are you--"
"The chip, where's the new chip, where did you put it?"
"Steven Grant." Dr. Cho's voice was abruptly sharp, not loud but authoritative. Steve only realized when he froze that he'd been struggling.
"Here," she said, pressing something into his right hand. "Look."
He looked down at his right hand first, recognizing the scanner she'd been aiming at his arm. When he looked at the screen, he saw a tilted view of his own left hand, showing all the bones in shades of blue, all of them whole and properly connected, with no sign of anything strange added in.
"That's interesting," Dr. Cho said, her voice calm and easy, as if pointing out a bit of scenery, or a bird that had just perched somewhere nearby. "You have unusually high bone density in your metacarpals--the bones that make the palm of your hand-- especially toward the base of your hand. You see increased density like that sometimes in athletes, gymnasts, people who have repeated impacts on load-bearing bones. Usually not in the hands, though."
Steve set down the scanner on his knee and put his right hand in front of it, and he saw the same effect she had pointed out, only more pronounced.
"If it were the knuckles I would think you were a boxer, maybe," she mused. "Though with boxers we normally just see damage, not this kind of adaptation. With your healing, though..."
But it wasn't his knuckles. It wasn't from anything he'd hit; it was from something hitting him again and again.
After Howard gave it to him he had spent all the time he could spare practicing with his shield, endless hours throwing and catching it. The edge of it slammed into the palm of his hand with a force that could take a person's head off their shoulders. If he kept his arm lined up behind his wrist the right way, it was nothing but a shock he felt through his bones, and after a while he'd stopped feeling even the shock of the impact.
Steve shook his head and picked up the scanner again. He understood why she'd handed it to him. That was her answer to his question.
He still had to look. He dragged it slowly all the way up his left arm, but there was no sign of any other surgery. No sign of a new chip anywhere he couldn't feel. And he would feel it anywhere else, because he wasn't healing fast enough not to.
Somehow knowing he had no chip at all was stranger than the idea that he had one only Tony Stark knew about, with features only Tony Stark could control. He was completely untrackable now.
He hadn't been, before. He could forget it sometimes, because the whole concept of StarkChips was still new to him, but up until Dr. Cho froze him and took it--cut it--out of his arm, it had been impossible to avoid being tracked by the chip. The Brooklyn Bridge would never have done him any good; anyone inclined to look for him would know that he could survive that fall, and all they had to do was search for his chip. It would have told them right where he was, any time up until last night. Except--
"Was that," Steve aimed the scanner at his arm again, remembering the bands Coulson had fastened around his arms and legs. The very first one, he'd put right over the chip. "Was there something blocking the signal?"
"It wouldn't do any of us much good if it were easy to track you here when Mr. Coulson was supposed to be killing you somewhere else," Dr. Cho said frankly. Steve's gaze jerked up to meet her eyes, and she nodded, glancing at a clock. "It's now 10:14 AM. Your death was reported seven hours ago, and as we've heard nothing else, we can assume that the report was duly accepted by the registry. The death sentence on Slave 77239048 has been carried out."
Steve tilted the scanner, stared at the quick-moving shadow of his beating heart behind his sternum and ribs. "So who am I?"
"Steven Grant Rogers," she replied easily. "Serial number 12044-BR-SGR. Rank... What was your rank, again?"
Rank, not grade. He'd never actually had a rank, but slaves didn't have grades anymore, so X was the wrong answer.
It's not a rank, sir, Bucky had said, with that showy, charming smile he only ever pulled out when he needed it during the war, like it was rationed tighter than cigarettes or chocolate. It's his codename.
"Captain," Steve said, and it was funny how the word didn't stick in his throat at all. He tilted the scanner up and watched himself swallow. It could only ever have been a joke, a teasing reference to the way he'd been dressed on that first mission; of course a slave could never be an officer, and Steve had had less combat experience than any of them. But the guys had kept it up until it almost felt real, in a way the playacting in that showpiece uniform had never even approached. "The guys called me Cap."
"There you go, then," Dr. Cho said. "That's who you are. Captain Rogers. You probably don't want to tell too many people that, but at least you know."
Steve shook his head. What good was it to know that when there was no one he could tell, no one it would mean anything to if he did? What the hell kind of captain could he ever be, with no one to lead, no one to fight for?
"Who am I to you? Who am I to Stark, or anybody here? Why--"
Steve snapped his teeth shut too late. God, they'd had him a few hours, given him a couple of popsicles, and he was ready to beg for more than privileges. For explanations.
Dr. Cho didn't answer right away, and Steve was aware of the music still playing quietly, filling in the silence, and the shushing white noise behind it.
It had been very quiet in the isolation cell Coulson took him from.
"You are... a difficult case," Dr. Cho said, and Steve jerked his attention back to her.
She smiled apologetically. "You're probably aware that Stark Industries--and especially Tony Stark himself--acquires a lot of slaves?"
Steve nodded warily. If she was going to give him some glib explanation for that...
"Well, every one of them he's ever acquired before has been less trouble to get than you," Dr. Cho informed him.
"Mr. Coulson called in some kind of favor Tony owed him, and then I think he got caught up in the technical challenge of obtaining you. But to be honest, no one has any special plan for what to do with you now that you're here. Coulson didn't tell any of us--including me, and I would have appreciated more medical details, as I mentioned--just how special you are. Until we do figure out just what to do with someone of your unique status, you'll be treated like any other newly acquired slave, except that you have to be kept away from everyone who doesn't already know you're here. Your face was on the news after the accident; there's a chance you could be recognized, and that would put my work here," she gestured at his arm, "to waste."
Even another slave might report him, if they could find any way to do so from within a Stark facility. What was he to any of them, after all? If he'd been in the news they had probably made him sound like a maniac, a murderer. No one would want to share barracks with such a slave; anyone would take the chance of emancipation or reduction of term that would be offered for reporting.
He himself would surely be executed, in that case. Stark would doubtless manage to dodge any consequences, but what would happen to Dr. Cho, or Dr. Fox? What about...
"There was a slave last night," Steve said, searching his disjointed memories for something more useful than the dangerously tempting feel of a soft weight on his thighs, a woman leaning close to him. "Miss Potts left her with me for a while--Natalie. Could I..."
He didn't know what to ask. He was fairly certain he hadn't made an ass of himself in Natalie's direction last night, but that didn't mean she was obligated to help him, or tell him what to expect from these people. And it was obvious she was something of a pet to her mistress; her opinion of Miss Potts or Mr. Stark wouldn't tell Steve much of how he should expect to be treated here.
Still. He thought he had liked her, last night, and it would be good to see someone halfway familiar.
"Ms. Potts and her staff returned to California last night after the party," Dr. Cho said. "I'm afraid you won't be able to contact Natalie any time soon. I'm sorry, I know everything is strange to you right now."
And if he had been allowed to contact Natalie, with no privacy possible anyway, what could he say to her? Please just lean over me again.
Please let me feel like I'm not alone.
Steve turned his face aside, gritting his teeth. He had to stop asking questions, stop asking for anything at all. They would do what they would do. It didn't matter what he thought of any of it.
"What comes next for you, once you're able to be up and about," Dr. Cho went on, "is job training, depending on your aptitudes."
Steve stared down at his right hand for a moment and then looked up at her. "My... aptitudes."
Dr. Cho was looking away from him, tapping at a screen on the wall angled so he couldn't see. "Yes. We like to offer some manner of cross-training, so whatever your specialty was before--military training, so I assume security, in the private sector?"
She spared him a brief glance, and Steve jerked a short nod. He wasn't going to explain to her that his inability to keep his mouth shut or play politics, even before he started actively trying to escape, had meant he was never trusted with much more than manual labor. They had promised him, every time some officer came to visit, that that could change, if he would just put his unique abilities at the disposal of the same Army that refused to acknowledge his sacrifice the first time around.
Dr. Cho's attention was back on the screen already, looking for nothing further in his answer. "So you've had plenty of training in that area. You'll take some tests while you're laid up to see what else you might be good at, and you'll get suitable training until you're ready to be matched with a job."
Steve couldn't hear any hint in her voice that she thought the job he was going to be matched with was lab rat, but no other possibility made sense. Stark Industries couldn't possibly just absorb all the slaves Stark bought up--and if they were working for the company in a normal way, they wouldn't vanish.
"So that just leaves the question of how long you're going to have to stay in bed," Dr. Cho said. "Your arm is healing very nicely, and I'd guess the surgical site will be stable enough to let you be up and around with a sling in a day or two, if that's the only thing you're healing."
Steve blinked at her; the barely-veiled threat was spoken so cheerfully he almost didn't hear it. "If..."
Dr. Cho tilted her head. "This is up to you, of course, but I want you to understand your options."
We can do this the hard way, or the easy way.
Steve had had some version of that lecture from every owner he'd had in the past four years. Even when he resolved to keep his head down and wait for better chances, he'd never managed to do anything the easy way for long. He doubted he'd do any better now; it was just a question of how long the hard way was going to keep him trapped in this bed.
"My options," Steve repeated.
Dr. Cho turned her palms out in a quick deflecting gesture. "It's completely up to you, Mr. Rogers. I mean that. This time, absolutely nothing happens without your full knowledge and consent."
"Sure," Steve said, because there was no point in arguing about it before he knew what kind of choice they were going to require him to make. "So what am I looking at, here?"
Dr. Cho offered him a crooked smile, one that made him want to smile back, though it wasn't hard to resist the impulse. "Your infibulation. As I told you, it's no longer legal for anyone to require a slave to be infibulated outside of highly specific circumstances which I'm fairly certain don't apply to you--Mr. Coulson assured us that you had no violent tendencies outside of your escape attempts."
Steve actually looked down at his lap, though his crotch was covered by both the blanket and the hospital gown.
"You, uh..." Steve hadn't actually been conscious when the doctor Howard commandeered installed the thing. "How?"
"Well, on brief inspection it didn't look like there was any obvious way to remove the rings intact, and given everything I currently know, I'm guessing that they're not normal surgical steel?"
Steve shook his head. Better to tell that much than to have anyone trying to cut the rings and failing with a tool that would rebound on him. "It's... a special alloy. I don't think you could cut it with anything short of industrial tools."
"Well, luckily I do know someone in industry," Dr. Cho said. "But in order to have Tony consult on appropriate tools, we'd have to--"
"No," Steve snapped, because of all the bargains he could make with Tony Stark, all the special favors he could ask...
To say nothing of having to be naked, to let Stark see him vulnerable and begging in the most intimate way.
"No," Steve repeated, feeling a little sick at the thought of that arrogantly amused gaze raking over his naked body. "No, you don't have to cut the rings. That's not how they went in."
"I suspected," Dr. Cho said calmly. "So that would mean we cut you instead of the rings. Eight cuts, probably stitches on the abdominal side; if we could find a way to keep you anesthetized for ten minutes we could do it--"
"You're not putting me under," Steve said flatly.
He hadn't minded--much--when it was Howard settling the mask over his face, and some doctor Howard had chosen standing beside the table with the rings and a tray of instruments. He even knew how they'd knocked him out: a constant flow of ether through a mask, calibrated more or less by eye. Howard's eye, but Steve doubted that part of it required any special genius, just a willingness to put through a dose that would drop a horse.
That didn't mean he was going to tell them how to do it.
Dr. Cho gave a slow, deep nod and spread her hands again. "All right, we won't. The other option is a nerve block like I did in your shoulder."
Steve glanced at his insensible arm, then down at his crotch again, considering everything he knew about the flow of blood and pain.
"It'd have to be..." Steve kept his breathing even. "My spine?"
"Yes," Dr. Cho said. "You would lose sensation from the hips down, and you wouldn't be able to control your legs while--"
"No," Steve said sharply.
"All right," Dr. Cho capitulated immediately. "There is also a possibility we could manage with some local or topical anesthetics, but in that case, for everyone's safety you'd have to be at least partially restrained during the procedure."
Steve gritted his teeth, staring down at his lap, and shook his head sharply again.
There was a little silence. He kept still, waiting to be told how it was going to happen, since he'd forced the issue.
"Okay," Dr. Cho said. "Well, the option is yours, and I'm happy to talk over the logistics of the procedure any time you want to reconsider, whether we try a mechanical or surgical approach. This isn't a special favor I'm offering you; it's something that's owed to you as a matter of basic medical ethics. You have a right to have the infibulation removed if you want to."
Steve stared down at his lap and tried not to react to those words at all. It wasn't going to be that simple. It was never that simple.
"In the meantime, you'll need a personal supply of aluminum foil--unless we can set you up with something reusable?"
Steve was surprised into looking up at her. Was she really offering...?
She walked around the bed and picked up the roll of aluminum foil. "Maybe you could make a model? I could see about getting you something permanent--washable, sterilizable, so that it wouldn't be unpleasant to keep with you for when you need it."
Steve curled his right hand into a fist just to keep from reaching out; he could almost hear Howard ticking off the admirable features of the little shield when he offered it to Steve to try. It was just a curved piece of tin, really; he could tuck it into his pack, or even into his uniform. It fit neatly in the pocket at the back of his pants, but most of the time he hadn't bothered with that, just clipping it to his holster or belt. It looked like a canteen at a glance, and people who noticed that it wasn't one rarely asked him what it was for.
He looked up at the sound of foil tearing, and Dr. Cho draped an arm-length sheet of it over his lap. "Or you can keep using foil, but it's probably more efficient if you let me know what you need in the way of a reusable device. You think it over, and I'll see what you've got the next time I check in on you, okay?"
Steve nodded, dropping his gaze to the reflection on the aluminum foil. He didn't touch it until the door had closed behind her; when he had finished shaping a model of the little shield from folded foil, he tossed it expertly to sit on top of the sleek little music player.
The next time Dr. Cho came back, he lay still with his eyes closed. It was only half the desire to hide; he felt exhausted again from the conversation and the effort of making his model. He wasn't even sure whether the monitors would show her that he was awake.
He listened as she walked over the music player. He heard the minute sounds of her picking up the foil model and turning it over in her hands.
"It won't quite fit in a pocket," she said in a musing tone. She was facing half away from him. "But you'll want to keep it with you. Some kind of bag or case?"
She just stood there, waiting quietly, holding the model he'd made. If he waited long enough, she would walk away; he knew already, from the way she was humoring him lying there, that she wouldn't press him. If he could just fall asleep, it wouldn't even be a choice he made. He could just drift off.
He didn't want to ask for anything more; he'd already asked enough. He'd asked her not to take his infib, though she could if she chose to, and probably would if she was ordered to. He'd asked her for the little shield, asked for foil, asked for food, and she'd given him all those things without hesitation. He couldn't run. He had to survive here somehow, and he'd never accomplished anything important alone, even if there were times when he felt like he was.
She was offering this. All he had to do was answer. It still took him a while to gather himself to open his mouth and speak.
"When I had one before," Steve said without opening his eyes. "It had a ring attached. I carried it by that."
He heard a faint sound--her hair brushing her shoulders as she nodded, he thought, followed by soft footsteps. She stood for a moment by his bed, and then walked away. He waited until a count of one hundred after the door closed behind her to open his eyes.
There were two popsicles on the rail of his bed. One strawberry, one orange. He licked his fingers when he was finished with them and fell asleep wishing for more.
Steve knew that at another time--in another life--he would have complained about being trapped in some perpetual sickbed breakfast. But here, now, a nurse brought him scrambled eggs and golden-brown toast in the afternoon, both of them bearing the rich taste of liberally used butter, and Steve was ready to declare it the best meal he'd ever had even before he washed it down with a glass of orange juice.
Before he had a chance to consider the consequences of the orange juice, Dr. Cho turned up holding a startlingly familiar object: his little shield.
For a second Steve thought it was the real one, the one that had still been clipped to his belt when he crashed the Valkyrie, already confiscated before he woke up in a fake slave barracks in New York. It was the same shape and size, and the familiar shadow of etched numbers was visible on one edge. It looked scoured-clean, brand new, but...
As soon as he touched it he knew the difference. This little shield was plastic, not tin. The original one had never been this shade of bright silver, no matter how clean Steve scrubbed it. The new little shield was the color of vibranium, the color of his shield--his real shield--before it was painted. And the numbers etched along the edge weren't numbers at all, but letters.
Exactly in the place where Howard had etched 12044 on the little shield, labeling it the same way he labeled everything related to Steve, Tony Stark had etched ROGERS. Could a person inherit his father's sense of how things ought to be labeled? If Stark had ever seen the original... but how could he? And if he had, he'd know...
But he hadn't used Steve's number--not the old one, and not the new one. He'd used Steve's name, his real name. It was a hell of a way to have his own identity given back to him; he had to turn his head and stare fixedly at his arm, reminding himself that they'd drugged him, frozen him, pulled his chip. There had to be another twist coming, no matter how kind they were being now. Tony Stark was in the business of slavery on every level. Steve couldn't trust him. There was no making deals with that kind of devil.
Steve focused again on the little shield in his hand, trying to see it as just an object, aside from all the strings attached. It was plastic, strong enough to stand a few discreet one-handed tests. It had smoothly rounded edges, another difference from the shaped piece of tin Howard made for him. He'd put the thin metal edge through the throat of a man who thought he had the Howling Commandos' Captain disarmed, once upon a time. It had been maybe two hours later the next time he had to use it; he'd pissed flecks of someone else's blood and didn't let himself think too much about any of it.
Still. Despite everything... maybe it was just as well to have a new one, clean and unused, with smooth, rounded edges.
Dr. Fox held the little shield steady while he used the tube of adhesive she'd offered him to affix a swivel ring in the same spot it had been on the old one. She hadn't asked him what it was for; when he was done she smiled and said, "Well, that probably makes dexterity tests redundant."
Steve couldn't resist walking the tube down his fingers like a cigarette or a coin, flipping it to her when it got to his thumb. "Yeah, I'm okay there."
She caught the tube and looked impressed as she nodded, and true to her word they didn't test his dexterity in any obvious way. They didn't do any of the obvious tests--none of the stuff they'd run him through at the lab after he first got the serum, after Dr. Erskine died and Steve became suddenly useless except as an experiment.
Dr. Fox administered basic tests of vision and hearing, but simply accepted that he had no impairments, and made no effort to really evaluate his abilities. No one even tried to gauge the strength of his uninjured limbs.
Instead, they gave him a series of general knowledge tests, memory tests, tests of reading comprehension. He had to do math problems, and sweated through them, concentrating intently on what he remembered of the rules for them.
Bucky had been good at math. He thought it was fun, like working a puzzle. For Bucky, all the rules and procedures had been obvious. He'd tried to help Steve a few times and they wound up furious with each other, because Bucky kept acting like it should be obvious, and Steve's pride couldn't bear having to ask him to make it simpler.
Eventually the math problems stopped having letters and weird symbols in them and became plain old arithmetic; the computer Steve was tapping his answers into seemed to realize that he was good at that, because the problems quickly jumped to featuring three- and four-digit numbers. Alone in a quiet room, desperate for something to focus on, Steve discovered that he could manage those, working them out rapidly on a sort of mental chalkboard and tapping out his answers.
It was strange to realize that he was faintly disappointed to get to the end of that test and move on to the next, rather than relieved to have gotten through a math test years after he'd thought he was done with his schooling for good.
The next test started out easy. He arranged pictures in order to make a story, or described what was happening in a picture. He wrote his answers with a stylus, rather than having to peck out his answers one-handed on a keyboard, which made it even simpler.
After that he was set to find differences between two pictures. He slowed himself down at that one on purpose, tapping the stylus against his chin for a breath or two between each one he marked.
Then he had to finish an incomplete shape: the missing corner of a square, the missing arc of a circle, two missing points on a five-point star. He went slowly, tilting the stylus to get the correct thickness of line, and the results were satisfyingly precise.
Then he got an irregular shape, and the instruction to copy it. He took his time, producing a respectably exact copy; only after he'd done it did he wonder whether he should have thrown that test. Too late, though. The next task popped up, with a more complex drawing for him to copy. This time he had to figure out how to do different colors with the stylus and tablet, but a little poking around the screen solved that problem.
The next task was a single line of text on an otherwise blank screen.
Draw a picture of yourself.
Steve's grip tightened on the stylus; he thought of the picture Peggy had caught him drawing in his notebook, a toy soldier in a shamefully pristine plastic replica of a captain's uniform, gold bars dazzlingly bright, a STARK logo stamped down one flank.
I still think you oughta let me get you a purple heart to hang on it, Howard had insisted. Come on, you haven't suffered for your country? These guys respect shiny things: gold bars on your shoulders, a little gold on your chest...
Howard had gotten him out of the lab at Alamogordo by insisting that Steve, as a slave enhanced by Stark technology, constituted a prototype of the kind that Stark retained ownership of per some agreement in one of his defense contracts. By then they'd run all the tests they could think of to run. Steve was trying to persuade them to train him as a test pilot--he was already nearly qualified as an airplane mechanic just from helping out--but Howard had said...
Steve closed his eyes and squeezed the stylus until it snapped in his hand.
Howard had said, "Pal, you're too good a piece of work to go up in smoke crashing a plane. Come with me, we'll find you some real work."
For months afterward the "real work" he'd done had been to glad-hand defense contractors as Howard's prize--pet--example of a daring and patriotic soldier. He looked good in the uniform Howard had acquired for him God-knew-how, and Howard had winkingly declined to introduce him to the parade of people they met.
In between his engineering work, Howard met with an endless round of senators and scientists and assorted rich and powerful men to make sure the wheels of the war effort kept turning faster all the time. He didn't take Steve to every meeting, but nearly every day Steve put on that uniform and accompanied him somewhere. The Army's loaned him to me for a while, and I'm showing him a good time in honor of his sacrifices, which neither he nor I are supposed to talk about, Howard would say. So he's not here in his official capacity, but I wanted you to meet a guy who's been on the sharp end of this stuff.
Steve had gone along with it because he could see that Howard was right; making these guys look a real soldier in the eye made them more amenable to Howard's agenda. Howard was working like a madman to produce new and improved weapons, to support men at the front--men like Bucky--every way he could. So if Steve had to put on a false uniform and say a few rehearsed words to help with that, he would do it.
And in the end, that was how he'd found his real work in the war. He had been in Italy with Howard, kicking his heels outside while Howard met with SSR officers--drawing that toy soldier image of himself--when Peggy told him about the 107th being captured.
Howard and Peggy had helped him get to where he had to be to go after a slave company no one else cared about, and he'd saved hundreds of lives. He'd saved Bucky, and if he'd managed to just get himself sent to the front--or stayed in Alamogordo testing planes--he'd never have been in a position to do that.
He'd also pissed off a lot of important people he'd never met by going after the 107th without Army orders, though he had Howard's permission. That had made him untouchable at the time, since he was a slave obeying his owner, and nobody could afford to take Howard to task for it. He hadn't learned the full consequences of that until he woke up in the future, but it wouldn't have stopped him. He didn't regret it--not saving the men in that factory, nor the year and a half of action he saw with the Howling Commandos, making a real difference in the war.
Certainly he could never regret that, in what turned out to be the last year of Bucky's life, they'd been together.
His mind served up a familiar barrage of images. Bucky on that table where Steve had found him; Bucky after; Bucky cool and fierce in combat; Bucky's hands, his eyelashes, his stubble-shadowed cheek, the lines of his shoulders. Any time Steve had an idle moment in that year, his fingers sketched out the lines of Bucky's face and body--on paper, if it came to hand, but also on the dusty floor of a bombed-out building they sheltered in, the condensation on a miraculously intact window. If there was nothing to draw with, his fingers would still trace out Bucky's shape.
Always Bucky, but never the two of them together. Never himself. He could hardly even imagine himself close enough to touch Bucky, close enough to be captured in the same image. He was always on the other side of the glass, the other side of the memory.
He hadn't the faintest idea, now, how to draw himself.
He opened his eyes to make the requisite attempt--a stick figure with a splinted arm, he could manage that--and found that his clenched fist was dripping blood. He stared at it, trying to make sense of what he saw, and slowly it occurred to him that he'd broken the stylus, holding on too hard. When he focused on it, he realized he could feel where it hurt, and he could feel the wetness sliding down the side of his hand to his wrist, where it dripped to the sheets.
He watched it drip, and wondered what to do. If he held still long enough it would probably stop bleeding--his clenched fist was the best he could do for putting pressure on the wound--but he could feel that he was pressing the jagged end of the plastic stylus into the wound. It couldn't heal until he let go, but it would bleed more when he did.
He should've been able to come up with a plan to handle this, but he couldn't think past it: he had to let go and he couldn't let go, and all the time the blood was dripping down onto the white sheets.
His head jerked up and he found Dr. Fox standing just out of arm's reach, looking concerned and holding a pressure bandage.
"Why don't we trade," she said calmly. "You let me take the stylus, and you can hold on to this instead, okay?"
Steve nodded quickly, feeling a belated surge of shame at his clumsiness and slowness, having to be rescued from a piece of plastic. He turned his hand palm up as he opened it for her, and Dr. Fox used a gloved hand to pluck the pieces of stylus out of his bloody palm before she pressed the pressure bandage against the wounds at the center.
"Close your hand, please," Dr. Fox directed. "Raise your hand over your head if you can?"
Steve put his hand up and tilted his head back to watch blood drip down his wrist--but that only lasted a moment, and then Dr. Fox was wiping it away. In another few minutes it was like it had never been there, except for the wad of bandage in his fist. He tightened his grip against the pain, letting his heavy fist tilt back to rest on the wall behind him.
Dr. Cho came in then, and she and Dr. Fox finished getting him cleaned up, changing the bloodied sheets and getting him a fresh hospital gown. Steve closed his eyes and moved where they directed him. After a while Dr. Cho peeled his fingers back and took the thick pressure bandage away, and at her little impressed noise, Steve opened his eyes.
His hand wasn't bleeding anymore; the two gouges in his palm were already scabbed over.
Dr. Cho looked up and met his eyes with a wry smile. "Hungry?"
Steve shrugged and turned the corners of his mouth up. "I could eat, I guess."
There was chicken soup, after that, but he wasn't given the tablet back. They left him alone to doze a while, and he thought he must be done with tests, but Dr. Fox reappeared in the early evening. She had lost her white coat, though she still had her ID badge on, and had changed her sensible shoes for soft slippers. Her hands were in her pockets--no tablet, no other testing instruments.
"Long day?" Steve asked, before she could offer him sympathy or concern.
She smiled slightly. "Well, a busy one. You're not our only new arrival. I figured you wouldn't take offense if I went a little casual."
"Not at all, ma'am."
Steve wondered about the others--there had been one he heard something about, he thought, late in the process of his gradual drugging. A serial number?
He remembered, but didn't quite feel again, the surge of rage he had felt over whatever Tony Stark had been saying about that other slave. Steve had wanted to kill him for it; he had been purely, utterly certain that Tony deserved it for whatever he'd said, but he couldn't remember what that was, let alone who the slave in question was.
Dr. Fox settled in the chair by his bed, tucking her feet up under her legs and giving the very clear impression that she was settling in for a chat. Steve flexed the fingers of his left hand--he could feel them clearly now that the last nerve block had worn off.
"How's your pain?" Dr. Fox asked, glancing at the motion of his hand. "Do you think you'll be able to sleep? Would you like more painkillers?"
He shook his head. "It's just an ache now. It's healing."
Dr. Fox nodded, and didn't press him on the question of whether he would be able to sleep. He'd been dropping off all day; maybe that was obvious.
"So," she said. "You've been here a night and a day now. Is there anything you'd be willing to say to me about how you think things are going so far?"
Steve opened his mouth, and no words came. He looked down at his lap, thinking of Dr. Cho's offer, the little shield with his name etched on it. The fingers of his left hand twitched again, and the silence stretched.
"It's... not what I expected," Steve said finally.
Dr. Fox nodded in his peripheral vision. "Would you like to tell me what you were expecting?"
Steve pressed his lips together and shook his head. No need to suggest vivisection and torture. Those were still possible. Anything was still possible.
"Okay," Dr. Fox said. "That's fine, no is an answer. The tests you completed today looked good, and as you're probably aware, you're healing well, and responding well to refeeding. You should be able to leave your bed tomorrow. We'll have another set of tests for you then, and start looking at what kind of work training will be appropriate for you. You'll likely remain in this room for another couple of days, until we're sure that your recovery is well underway, and after that you'll transition to housing here in the Tower."
Steve blinked. "Oh. We're in Stark Tower?"
Dr. Fox looked taken aback, the same way Dr. Cho had when he asked the date, and then nodded quickly. "I'm sorry, I--yes, Stark Tower, in Manhattan. We're on the 88th floor, which is one of the secure floors used for new arrivals."
Steve looks up and down involuntarily, though the room looked no different knowing that it was located a thousand feet up. "How many floors are there?"
"Ninety-three, although the top three floors are Mr. Stark's private residence and workshop."
Steve tucked that scrap of tactical intelligence away, along with the few brief glimpses he'd ever had of the exterior of Stark Tower as shown on television. He'd never been loose in the city long enough to see it for himself.
"I just have a few more questions for you," Dr. Fox said. "These are standard questions we ask every new arrival, so they may seem kind of weird or irrelevant, but just answer the best you can, okay?"
Steve nodded, focusing on her. She was hedging now. What was she leading up to?
She held his gaze steadily as she asked, "Are you feeling any urges to hurt yourself? Either actively, by causing injuries, or passively, by refusing food or care?"
Steve frowned and shook his head immediately. "No."
Dr. Fox nodded. "Do you think anyone around you, anyone you expect to have contact with in the days ahead, might intend to hurt you, either actively by causing injuries, or passively, by denying you food or care?"
Steve's mouth opened to ask What the hell kind of a question is that, but he realized before he spoke that he already knew. The connections all fell into place, a neat little chain reaction sparking off even while he shook his head and said, "No."
Dr. Fox nodded more slowly. "I'm glad to hear that. Is there anything you need that hasn't been provided? Any personal supplies or anything?"
Steve shook his head mutely, his lips twitching in the direction of a smile as he added, "I could go for another popsicle, I guess."
Dr. Fox smiled a little herself. "I'll see what I can do. Last question: do you have any questions for me, or is there anyone else you'd like to speak to? Another doctor here, or maybe a priest or minister?"
Steve directed his gaze down to the blanket, turning over the thing he'd just realized, because he knew the kind of questions he was being asked. He knew where he was. He knew what this was. He thought he knew why he hadn't been told--and then, on the other hand, he knew they'd done nothing but tell him since he got here. He only had to ask to confirm it.
"Does Tony Stark acquire so many slaves in order to rescue them?" Steve asked. "Free them? Is that why they disappear, because he's smuggled them away somewhere they won't be found?"
There was another silence; after a few seconds he looked over to find Dr. Fox smiling for real, looking proud.
She dropped her own gaze to her lap when Steve met her eyes, and she said gently, "Not all. There are those who don't make it, for one reason or another. Many of the slaves Mr. Stark acquires have been badly abused. But most, yes. Most he's able to emancipate, and they are relocated to avoid drawing attention to that fact."
"And you don't tell people that right off the bat because we have no reason to believe it at first," Steve said. "You wait for us to notice."
Dr. Fox nodded. "The exact manner of making it clear depends on the individual, but yes. Most people recognize it in a matter of days. Some deeply traumatized people are never able to believe it. You are definitely on the quick end of the spectrum--that's something to be proud of, honestly. You're not only observant, you're able to question your own assumptions."
Steve's mouth turned up in an unfelt smile and he said, "Well, occasionally history repeats itself."
Howard Stark, slave owner, Steve's owner, hadn't only authorized Steve to go after the 107th. He'd put himself in harm's way, flying Steve in over enemy territory, for the sake of rescuing a company of slaves.
Twenty or so years later, Howard had invented the StarkChip, the instrument of enslavement for virtually all slaves in the modern world.
Tony Stark, made fabulously wealthy by his invention of better and better StarkChips, including the model that could have killed Steve at the flip of a switch, was also risking his own life and livelihood to rescue countless abused slaves. He was following in his father's footsteps all the way around, tricky as the footwork was.
He was probably as good a dancer as Howard had ever been. Howard had coaxed Steve sometimes to take a turn on the floor, and Steve had always shaken his head and said the same thing. I'm built for marching.
Straight lines. Battlefields. That was where Steve belonged.
"It doesn't, actually," Dr. Fox said, jerking Steve's attention back to her.
She was smiling gently, a little sadly. Belatedly Steve realized he probably ought to have shown gratitude, or at least gladness, when she confirmed his suspicion.
"History doesn't repeat itself," Dr. Fox explained. It must have been obvious that Steve had no idea what she was replying to. "But sometimes it rhymes."
Steve nodded slowly. "Yeah. I guess that'd do it."
Dr. Fox didn't press him for anything more after that; she excused herself, only to return a few minutes later with another strawberry popsicle. It didn't taste as good as the first one, but Steve supposed that was what he got for being greedy. Nothing would ever be as sweet as that first taste.
He tried his best to sleep, to escape into dreams, but he managed only a restless doze, everything turning gray and gluey around him. If he dreamed, it was only of lying in that bed, arm immobilized, dull pain a ceaseless accompaniment to the dragging exhaustion that still wasn't enough to let him sleep.
Deep in the night, he found himself fully awake in the dark room, staring up at the ceiling. His thoughts took on a painful, sharp clarity that reminded him of the night he'd realized that he could not escape, and his death sentence really was going to be carried out.
He'd been rescued.
No one was going to torture him. There was no point in attempting to escape; they were going to let him go. They were probably going to send him somewhere far away, so he could be safe despite his notoriety.
He was a criminal. His face was known to the public. He'd been branded a murderer.
The Army believed he was dead. He wasn't going to be offered any more chances to go back into the field and use his abilities. He was going to be shipped off to Norway to live on a farm or something. Make a life for himself. Be grateful for his freedom.
Steve searched for anything in that to be grateful for, and he couldn't find it.
Everyone he had ever loved was dead. He didn't even have anyone left to fight against. The last in a long line of injustices had been committed against him, and now he was no one, living hidden in limbo until he could be released to some purposeless life.
He was supposed to have been dead by now. With Bucky again, and his mother, and Peggy and the Howlies, if all the stuff he'd once believed was true. At least he should have been beyond missing any of them. And instead, once again, a Stark had snatched him up like a toy he didn't want taken away, and meant to tell Steve what work he should be doing.
But Howard hadn't actually prevented Steve from dying in a plane crash when he took him away from Alamogordo. He'd only delayed the inevitable, giving Steve another year and a half of life before he put the Valkyrie into the North Atlantic.
"History doesn't repeat itself," Steve murmured to the room, his voice barely rising above the low music. "But sometimes it rhymes."
Tony Stark had prevented him from being executed, but he couldn't really keep Steve from dying. Not forever. Maybe not even for long.
What was there to stick around for, anyway? No war to fight. No Bucky out there to find again. Why wait?
Steve reached over for the attachment points holding his left arm to the bed. It only took a minute or so of feeling around to understand the mechanisms. They weren't really restraints, only intended to brace his arm safely. He undid them easily, without even calling on his strength.
He thought about taking the brace off his arm, but that seemed more complicated, and he had a gruesome vision of his left arm simply tearing off where it had been so recently sewn back together.
No. I'm gonna die in one piece.
He paused for a moment at that thought, turning it around in his head, but it felt right in the way nothing had since he woke up in the future. It wasn't like his futile attempts at escape to nowhere. He could choose this. He could do this.
Steve nodded to himself and pushed himself slowly up to a sitting position, his left arm an awkward weight at his side. The thickness of the brace kept it from resting against his side, and he couldn't quite control it enough to keep it steady.
Well, it wouldn't be a problem for long.
Steve maneuvered himself to the end of the bed, the hospital gown bunching up and leaving him mostly bare by the time he got there. The little shield was tied by its ring to one of the gown's dangling strings, and bumped down the bed along with him. It fell against his thigh when he gingerly stood, and the feeling of it resting there was startlingly familiar, startlingly right.
He was going to die in one piece, and bearing his own name.
The gown fell down to his knees when he stood, but it was only tied at the back of his neck, and flapped loose around him when he took a cautious step away from the bed. That wouldn't be a problem for long either.
He went to the radio first, and felt around until he found the button to turn it off. The music and the shushing sound both stopped, and he waited a moment in the silence, listening.
He could hear low voices, and someone crying, but all several walls and doors away from him. There were no sounds nearby, no alarms going off. No one hurrying toward him, alerted that he had gotten out of bed and shut off the muffling noise.
He turned and shuffled slowly across the width of the room. Halfway there he had to catch his left arm by the wrist and hold it with his right hand, just to keep it from swinging around half-controlled and throwing off his balance. He paused to listen again at the door, but there was still no sound of anyone nearby. He held his breath to listen for even the smallest sounds to indicate that someone would be waiting on the other side when he opened the door, but there was nothing.
It was late; Dr. Fox had had a busy day, and doubtless so had everyone else who worked with the slaves. They would be sleeping or else distracted by whoever was crying, whoever needed their attention. No wonder if no one noticed that difficult, dangerous slave in Recovery 5 getting out of bed.
Steve stepped out into the hallway, shutting the door behind him, and felt a muted thrill of the same excitement that had always come with any moment of success in an escape attempt. This escape would succeed. This escape would be final.
He glanced around for exit signs and quickly spotted one, which led him in short order to a stairwell. He gave the door to the stairs a cursory look, but there was no sign that an alarm would go off when he opened it, and none did.
The stairs went down--eighty-eight floors, presumably--but that was no use to him. Someone was bound to catch him if he walked down all that way, and he was looking for a much quicker route to the ground. He walked softly up two flights, holding his left arm against his chest, hospital gown flapping open and little shield banging gently against his hip. He didn't hear anyone else on all ninety flights of the stairwell in the time it took him to reach the 90th level, where the staircase ended in the door he'd hoped for.
Again he looked around the doorframe, and again he found no sign of an alarm. Even if there was one, he'd already gotten this far. They would have a hard time stopping him from going the rest of the way even if they did try now.
He pushed through the door and then stopped, staring, at the open sky beyond a low wall.
There it was. Right there. He could see his escape route from here.
He took a step toward it and was startled into looking down. There was grass underfoot, cool and wet with dew. He looked around and saw that the roof was an oddly parklike space, with a looping gravel path through the grass, and flowers growing in beds, shrubs and trees in tubs. There were benches here and there, angled to take in different views, and a high glass wall rose up to the north of where Steve stood--the uppermost floors, Tony Stark's private territory.
Steve wondered if Stark might look out his window and see one of his rescued slaves taking a leap.
But no, it was the darkest hour of the night, and no lights shone from the glass windows above him. Tony Stark would be sleeping the sleep of the righteous in a bed with silk sheets, knowing he'd rescued slaves from danger and they were being fed popsicles and having their injuries tended to gently.
Steve reached down to his right side and traced the letters of his name etched into the little shield. Tony, just like Howard, hadn't really managed to save Steve's life, but he'd given him the chance to choose his own way to end it.
Thanks, Steve thought, touching his fingers to his temple as he looked up. Feeling like his last obligation was discharged, his last shred of connection to his own life tied off, he turned and fixed his gaze on the darkness beyond the edge of the roof.
It took less time than climbing two flights of stairs. The cool wetness of the grass underfoot felt good, as did the steady breeze. He was outside again, for the first time in thirty-nine days. It was good to be outside. Much better to do this here, this way, than hidden in a bathroom, or back in that bed.
When he reached the wall, it proved to be slightly above waist high. Climbing up with only one arm working, and the other flopping around as an awkward counterweight, was a tricky thing. He was clearly still far from his full strength. He stubbed and scraped his toes on the brickwork of the wall before he finally managed to heave himself up.
His left arm swung out without volition or control, dragging his balance off. Feeling himself tilting toward open air, he automatically scrabbled to catch himself; a second later he was face down on the edge, clinging with his right arm and leg, bare ass turned up to the sky, having frantically stopped himself from doing exactly what he'd come up here to do.
Steve rested his forehead against the smooth concrete of the ledge and laughed a little, bleakly, as the brief rush of adrenaline peaked and faded. He thought about just letting go, tipping himself over on purpose, but he kept not doing it, and eventually he stopped laughing at himself and just lay there, still waiting for the right moment to push off.
No. He had to do it properly: a choice, not a chance. He would sit up, stand up, and step off cleanly, so it would be clear--to anyone who saw him, to any cameras that caught him, to St. Peter, if it came to that--that he meant to do what he did.
He managed the first part, pushing himself up to sit with his legs straddling the edge. He tugged his left arm across his body, hooking his left index finger into the loop that held the little shield. That was much simpler than holding it to his chest. Why hadn't he come up with that sooner?
He shook his head at himself, and then caught sight of the view and went still, staring. He was looking out over Central Park. It had to be Park Avenue he would fall onto when he stepped off; he felt a poor Irish Brooklyn kid's momentary savage glee at the thought of making a mess of a Park Avenue sidewalk with his last act.
It was so quiet, though. He looked out at the sky--still as dark as a Manhattan sky ever got to the west--and then, for the first time, he looked up.
Other than the few floors of extra tower rising to his right, there was nothing around him, nothing above him, nothing narrowing the great sweep of the sky at all. It felt like being on a mountaintop, somewhere very far from New York. He felt more than naked here--exposed, but also far removed from everyone who could possibly see him.
There was something that might be a faint twilight coming from the sky to his right; dawn would probably arrive in another hour or so. That matched the dew on the grass, he thought. He searched the sky for stars, and found a few of them. One or two were probably satellites or planes or modern floating space junk, but there was bound to be at least one real star up there that he was seeing.
He couldn't remember the last time he had a chance to just look up at the sky.
The breeze kept blowing gently across his face, and the scrapes on his toes and the inside of his right knee stung and throbbed a little. His wet feet were cold and a little itchy from the grass. He was vaguely hungry. His body didn't know that he was almost done, and had already had his last meal. An unsatisfying strawberry popsicle; not the worst thing he could have chosen, really.
He tried to remember what his last meal in 1945 had been. Breakfast before the attack, on the way to the HYDRA base, so probably a K-Ration. He'd probably eaten it around this time of the night. He'd barely slept that night, keyed up with anger, running on righteous determination to stop HYDRA, stop Schmidt. He'd been set on getting revenge for Bucky, for Erskine. He'd been ready to protect the world from the threat of HYDRA's weapons. In his more hopeful moments he'd dared to dream of the life he might have with Peggy if he pulled this off; taking out the Red Skull had been bound to earn him his emancipation.
Steve snorted softly and dropped his gaze again. Well, he'd been wrong about that. Maybe if he'd lived, though. If he'd had Phillips and Peggy herself to fight for him when the war ended, they might have included him in the general emancipations and let him go.
And if he'd caught Bucky as quickly as he caught himself just now, he'd never have wanted for anything, and if he'd been born in one of the houses down below him on Park Avenue he'd have been a millionaire. If, if, if. But he was here now, ready to make his escape.
Almost ready. He'd stand up and do it soon. But his whole body felt weighted with lead, and standing up seemed like a lot of work. He had to stand up, to do it properly, when that was the last thing he would ever do. He couldn't just tip over and fall, take the easy way, not with this. He had to stand up one more time.
He closed his eyes and remembered standing up, and standing up, and standing up. He remembered saying, more to himself than whoever he was standing up to, I can do this all day. He'd said it bruised, bleeding, panting; he'd said it knowing that the next hard blow could take him out.
He couldn't say it now.
Shame squirmed through him at that thought, because he knew he was strong enough. It wasn't so hard. No one was even here to knock him down this time. He could stand up; his legs and one arm and his lungs all worked fine, his ribs and his head were intact for now. He could stand up. He could do this--he could do what they'd demanded of him so gently downstairs, even. He could keep lying in that bed, take their tests, eat the food they brought to him. He could; he was strong enough. He knew that.
He just didn't see the point anymore. There wasn't a damn thing left that was worth standing up for. And because of that, he still had to stand up, just one more time.
But he was tired. He was so goddamn tired. And he didn't want to stand up again.
When he heard the roof door open, he felt a distant, muted impulse to jump to his feet--to jump--but it was like hearing mortar fire five miles away, like someone had sent a telegram to his limbs and it hadn't been received yet. He squeezed his eyes shut tighter, gripped the inside edge of the wall with his right hand, but he didn't really move.
After a second he realized that it wasn't only his own response that was oddly blunted and delayed. No one had shouted; no one was running toward him.
After a moment he heard the soft crunching of rubber-soled shoes on gravel. Just one person--male, around six foot two, two hundred pounds--walking toward him at an unhurried pace, neither trying to be stealthy nor making a point of announcing himself.
The footsteps stopped a couple of yards away--still on the path, not stepping off onto the damp grass--and a low voice said, "Hey, man, you thinking about stepping off?"
Steve was startled into looking for the person who asked that question at the sight of a man on the edge. A black man was standing there, wearing loose shorts and a pale sweatshirt with some kind of badge-shaped insignia on the chest. He had running shoes on; he must have come up here to do a few laps in these pleasant surroundings, and instead found Steve.
"Is there some other reason I'd be up here like this?" Steve asked, waving a hand to indicate his bare ass sticking out of his hospital gown, his bare feet dangling down, and the bulky brace holding his left arm.
The black man shrugged, tilting his head. "Fresh air? Stargazing? It's a nice spot, people come out here for all kinds of reasons."
Steve looked up again. The faint glow in the east was definitely early twilight, and most of the points of light he'd seen before had disappeared. One was still there, though. He'd been right. There was one real star visible up there.
He thought about what he was doing on this ledge now, and he thought that mostly he was too tired to move from this spot, in any direction at all.
"I mean, you could ask me what I'm doing up here at four in the morning," the man added, not quite covering the sound of him stepping onto the grass.
Steve looked toward him again. He'd stopped just off the path, still well out of arm's reach. If Steve pushed himself off now, the man couldn't catch him. Steve thought he knew it too. He left his hands at his sides.
There wasn't enough light to see every detail of his features, but Steve thought that he looked tired too. And he had a point: coming up to a rooftop to run at four in the morning wasn't an entirely normal thing. It was just a lot more normal than having climbed up on this edge to jump off.
But the man kept on looking calmly at Steve like this was a perfectly ordinary conversation. Steve had the strangest feeling that if he said, yes, he meant to jump and that was all there was to it, the man wouldn't argue with him or fight to pull him back. He understood something about needing to choose, maybe.
He maybe even understood something about this choice.
A man who was up and going running at four in the morning wasn't a man who slept peacefully at night. He was a man who'd seen things. Steve glanced again at that insignia on his chest, at his waiting stance, and he knew that this man didn't deserve to have this pretty rooftop refuge spoiled by Steve's suicide. He couldn't do it now, not in front of this man.
"My name's Sam, by the way," the man offered. "Sam Wilson."
Steve licked his lips, wondering if he was about to get himself into a lot of trouble--but he was on top of Stark Tower, and if this man had access to the roof, he must also have access to the secure floors just below it. And he'd already seen Steve's face, even if he didn't seem to recognize it.
"Steve Rogers," Steve said.
Sam nodded. "Yeah, we met for a second the other night. No surprise if you don't remember, you were pretty out of it."
Steve dropped his chin, looking down at himself again. He wanted to ask, did they send you? But that didn't make any sense. If they'd sent someone to forcibly apprehend him it wouldn't be just Sam and he wouldn't be handling it this way. If they wanted someone to coax him down they'd have sent someone he knew: Dr. Fox or Dr. Cho.
And why would they bother sending anyone at all? If their difficult slave died, that was one less problem for everyone here, except that if he died here, now, he would ruin Sam's morning, which was probably already bad enough.
Sam just kept standing there, though, not pressing for anything. Just waiting with Steve.
"Not really thinking about doing anything, I guess," Steve said quietly. "Just sitting here."
It didn't feel like defeat, or like relief. It just felt like at least he didn't have to make himself move yet.
"Sitting's good. It's a nice view," Sam said. "I like to run, myself."
Steve nodded. He mumbled like an echo, "I like to run."
He'd told Dr. Fox that: he felt happy when he was running.
He had felt happy then because he'd still believed there was a possibility he could end somewhere other than right here. Now he knew he had never had a chance, but still... he could see a star, and so much sky. There were worse places he could have ended.
He looked over and found Sam still waiting, watching him, with his hands at his sides.
"Go on," Steve said. "I'm not going anywhere."
Sam nodded and turned away, just like that. Steve could have done anything; he was leaving Steve the chance to do absolutely anything.
Steve drew his feet up so his legs cradled his left arm, and he could rest his cheek on one bare knee. He watched Sam walk another few yards along the path and then, between one stride and the next, like it was easy, he started running.
Steve watched him, mesmerized, as he ran. After the first lap or two it didn't look easy anymore. It looked like work, like deliberate effort. Steve hadn't really felt that in a long time, before the last couple of days. His body made everything easy.
And still, here he was, sitting on a wall, too tired to stand up and take one more step.
Sam was right, though. The view was nice.
Sam eventually pulled out of a lap and came to stand on the edge of the grass nearest to Steve again. He was sweating, breathing hard, and didn't try to speak right away. Steve looked around, giving Sam a moment to gather himself. The sky was distinctly lighter in the east now, and traffic had picked up down below them. Another morning was arriving, and Steve was still alive.
When Steve looked back at Sam, he found that there was enough light to read the insignia on Sam's sweatshirt: the legend read, AIR NATIONAL GUARD, which Steve had never heard of, though he supposed it must be some combination of the Army Air Corps and the National Guard. There were two fighter planes flanking a rifleman, which supported that conclusion.
Steve licked his lips and hoped the polite way to ask the question back when he'd heard Gabe field it was still the polite way now. He nodded toward Sam's shirt and said, "You an officer?"
Sam smiled a little and shook his head. "Enlisted free. 58th Pararescue. My wingman, though--my best friend, Riley. He was a slave."
Sam's smile didn't fall away, but Steve recognized the tone of finality in Sam's voice. He knew that Sam's wingman hadn't lived to be emancipated for good service in--pararescue? Steve mentally added together paratroopers and rescue and came up with something that ought to have seen a man emancipated for extraordinary valor as soon as he agreed to do it.
"How about you?" Sam asked. "You served, didn't you?"
Steve nodded. "Army."
He didn't even try to elaborate on that--he couldn't very well tell Sam he'd been a captain--and Sam once again didn't press for more.
On impulse, Steve added, "My best friend, my--my sergeant, my right hand--" Sam nodded understanding, and Steve didn't make himself try to apply any further words to what Bucky had been to him. "He was a slave too."
He saw Sam take his meaning, recognizing what they had in common. Steve dropped his gaze, waiting for Sam to turn away and get on with his morning.
"Come on, man," Sam said, like they were already halfway through a conversation, like it was nothing big he was asking for. Steve looked up to see Sam gesturing back over his shoulder with his thumb, toward the door to the stairwell. "My place is five flights down, I got some sweatpants you'll probably fit into and I cook a mean breakfast."
Steve stared at him, wondering if it could be that simple, if he could walk away from the edge for so little. Just because someone asked.
Sam raised his eyebrows, like he was expecting an answer. "If you eat that sort of thing?"
Steve closed his eyes. One last moment to consider it, but he already knew he wouldn't do this in front of Sam, and he had a feeling that as quiet and calm as Sam was being about this, he wasn't going to walk away while Steve was still on the wall.
"Yeah," Steve said, and scooted around to bring his left leg to the inside of the wall and drop down to the concrete just inside. His feet were dry now, and his stomach was growling noticeably. "Breakfast sounds good."
The effort of using the bathroom and putting on a pair of sweatpants at Sam's apartment was exhausting. Steve trudged back to the kitchen and stood there in a bewildered daze until Sam told him to sit down, only to be startled awake by the appearance of a full plate of food--eggs and toast, plus a tumble of berries and orange slices--in front of him.
Steve was still blinking at it in confusion as his hand found the fork and he started shoveling down the food. He was halfway through his plate when he looked around for Sam, who turned out to be sitting across from him and was making good headway through his own plate.
"Thanks," Steve said thickly.
Sam looked up, seeming startled to hear Steve speak, and smiled. He had a gap between his teeth, and he looked amused as much as kind. "No problem, man. Enjoy. You want more of anything?"
Steve shook his head and went back to eating. He hoped vaguely that his body had acclimated enough to food that he wouldn't waste all of this by throwing up, but he was too hungry, and the food too good, for him to slow down.
When the food was gone he put down his fork. He wanted to offer to help with the dishes, but he would be no help. He couldn't even do that.
"Come here, man, let me show you something," Sam said.
Steve stood obediently, and followed him over to the comfortable living room. Sam waved him toward the couch and walked away, and Steve sat down and waited, blinking slowly at the window as breakfast weighed down his stomach. There was a television, he saw, and a computer. He wondered if that was what Sam wanted to show him, or if it was something about his friend, or...
"Yep, there you go," Sam said quietly, and Steve half-opened his eyes to find Sam was guiding him down to lie on his right side, and there was a soft pillow at the end of the couch. "Check out this nice blanket my mama made for me."
"That was cheating," Steve mumbled.
"Nobody ever said life was fair," Sam agreed, patting him on the exposed top of his shoulder. "Get some shuteye, man."
Hey, same name as me, Steve thought muzzily, and he heard Bucky say, No, stupid, she means you.
He frowned and shook his head, wanting to argue, but the words wouldn't come to his gluey mouth, and he couldn't see where Bucky was, anyway, and then his eyes were open on Dr. Cho.
He looked around as he woke up properly.
He was in Sam's apartment. Wearing sweatpants under his hospital gown. He had come down from the roof. He had eaten breakfast and fallen asleep. And now Dr. Cho was here.
"Ma'am," Steve said, volunteering nothing.
She nodded toward his shoulder. "Do you mind if I pull the blanket down to scan your arm?"
Steve shook his head slightly. "Go ahead."
Dr. Cho nodded and then carefully peeled the blanket down, just to his elbow. She was sitting on a kitchen chair pulled up next to the couch, and a tablet was propped up on the coffee table. When she turned the scanner on, he saw the bone of his arm appear. The break was still visible, but he thought it looked different than it had the day before.
"This is quite remarkable," Dr. Cho murmured. "You are healing incredibly rapidly. How is your pain? Do you want another shot?"
Steve frowned, concentrating, and eventually managed to identify the ache and itch of healing in his left arm. He flexed his left hand. It was still weak and half-numb, but better than the absence that the nerve block would bring on.
He shook his head.
"All right," Dr. Cho said. "I need to take a closer look now, and see if the incision is healing as fast as the bone is."
Steve nodded and closed his eyes, keeping his breaths shallow while the brace--or part of it--was loosened from around his arm. He could still feel the grip of it above and below the break, but he could also feel Dr. Cho peeling back the bandages. She made approving noises at whatever she found, and smoothed a fresh layer of bandages back on, then snapped a brace into place that allowed his arm to rest more easily on his side.
"There," she said. "Now you should be fine without direct medical supervision; you've clearly been managing just fine for the last several hours."
Steve's breath escaped in a startled puff of a laugh.
Dr. Cho gave him a wry smile. "You're alive, and no worse hurt than when you got out of bed, so that's an acceptable outcome, medically. You're tolerating choosing your own food just fine. And you've given us a pretty clear indication that you'd rather not be confined to a hospital room, so we'll find somewhere else for you to stay--there should be an apartment available somewhere in this part of the Tower. It's reserved for newcomers and people who work closely with slaves and former slaves here at the Tower."
"He's at work now. He works with former military slaves here. He said that you were welcome to stay here as long as you need to, but he gave me permission to come in and check on you."
Steve nodded and let his eyes close. All this kindness from all these people; it was like being very gently smothered with a very soft pillow.
This was a real organized rescue mission, not some slapdash one-man operation. He was just another slave to be processed through the system--even if Sam hadn't actually been ordered to retrieve him from the roof this morning, he'd been doing his job, rounding up a lost slave to bring back into the fold.
"Go ahead and rest," Dr. Cho said. He listened to her gathering her things and standing up. She would have plenty of others to get to--did she make house calls all over the Tower, tracking down slaves wherever they managed to run away to?
"Someone will come and get you when your apartment is ready. You'll still need to rest and heal considerably before you're ready for job training. There will be some more tests to determine what kind of training and how much you'll need."
Steve didn't bother to drag his eyes open or say a word. It wouldn't matter. He'd been rescued; that was all there was to it.
They really did assign him an entire apartment; it was on the same floor as Sam's, around two hallway corners. The woman called it a studio, because the nook the bed was tucked into wasn't quite a separate bedroom, apparently. He had three windows, granting him a view northward over the city, though none of them opened. He leaned against the double-thick panels of glass and stared a while, anyway.
There was a bathroom that was his alone, with an actual bath in it that didn't double as a kitchen table and wasn't to be shared with anyone else. Steve considered sleeping there, after the bed and the couch--he had one of each, just for him, in this big bright private space with a lock on the door--were both too soft for him to get comfortable.
The bathtub was solid, contained, tucked away behind another door with another lock.
But he looked at the faucet, thought of how easily cold water could come rushing out to cover him while he slept, and lay down on the floor in front of the couch instead.
He'd slept most of the day away on Sam's couch, but now, on the floor of his own apartment with his own pillow and blanket, he dozed only fitfully. He was still exhausted, feeling too heavy and slow to get up and do anything, but he couldn't quite sleep, either. Even his thoughts felt worn down to something dark and featureless.
He could just lie here, he thought. Just lie still in the nice apartment they'd given him, on the nice clean wooden floor, with his nice new pillow and blanket. Someone would come in and find him eventually, and he wouldn't have to do anything about it, he could just lie here and wait and then stop waiting, and...
There was a very soft tap at the door. It wasn't even a knock, really, just barely enough of a sound to be sure he'd heard anything at all. He lay there frowning at the ceiling, listening, and after two solid minutes the sound repeated, maybe just a brush of fingers or someone moving close to the door.
They still hadn't knocked--like they didn't want to wake him. For a reflexive moment he thought of what they might want, what they might intend to do--anyone might have keys to this place--and then a very quiet voice said, "Steve?"
It was Sam. Steve glanced toward the clock and realized it was just about the time Sam had come out onto the roof the night before--an hour or so before dawn. Sam was carrying on with his morning routine, apparently.
He'd stopped for Steve.
Steve could ignore him. He would go away eventually. Everything would go away eventually.
He heard Sam's weight settle against the door, and for a moment he didn't picture Sam standing there but Bucky, leaning patiently against the doorframe. Bucky had done it dozens of times in the eight years between entering slavery and going off to war--when Steve was sick and couldn't get to the door right away, when he was bruised or angry or just being stubborn and refused to let Bucky in. Time and again Bucky had leaned against his door and waited him out.
He never would again, but Steve couldn't summon up sadness for that now, in this smothered place where he lay. Bucky was lost like everything was lost, no different.
But Sam was waiting at his door all the same, and Steve had a feeling he was going to keep on waiting.
He pushed himself up, noticing dimly that it was easier with his left arm secured in a sling. Someone had issued him that, along with the apartment and the soft pants and t-shirt he was wearing. He had shoes somewhere, too, but he didn't bother to put them on before he opened the door.
It pulled back quickly enough for him to see Sam catching his balance as he stepped away from it. Steve felt his mouth turn up a little in reflex.
"I didn't wake you," Sam said when he was steady on his feet. It wasn't a question.
Steve shook his head.
"Come on up with me, then," Sam said, like that was the obvious alternative.
Steve nodded and followed him out, so maybe it was.
It was the same five flights up that they'd come down the day before, and each step was--not difficult exactly, because Steve remembered what it was to really struggle, to be weak. But he knew that if Sam hadn't stayed exactly at his side, pacing himself to Steve's steps, he would have stopped and never started again.
Sam was there, though, so eventually Steve stepped out into the cool pre-dawn light of the rooftop. He took a firm, deliberate step into the dewy grass, remembering the cool ticklish feel of it on his feet the night before.
"You planning on doing some more stargazing?" When Steve looked at him, Sam glanced past him, at the edge where he'd found Steve before.
Steve looked at it himself, but it didn't hold any appeal now. He still couldn't do that in front of Sam, and it didn't seem urgent anyway. The edge would always be there.
He shook his head as he looked back at Sam.
Sam nodded. "Over here, then."
Sam stepped onto the gravel path, heading toward the loop where he had run laps the day before. Steve followed him, staying on the grass beside the path. He could walk barefoot on gravel if he had to--he could do it for days, for miles--but there was no point to it. He could walk just as well on the grass.
He followed in slow, shuffling steps, staring down at his pale feet in the dark grass. Sam wasn't at his side anymore; he heard Sam's stride pick up, turning to a jog and then a run. He didn't look. Steve took another step, and another, not sure if he was winding down or maybe slowly gaining momentum. He just kept taking another step, though his heart thudded heavily in his chest and his legs moved like he was wading through a waist-deep swamp.
He didn't know why, but he kept taking another step and another, following the curve of the path. Sam's footsteps were coming up on him from behind now, and as he got close, Sam said, "On your left."
Like Steve might need to be warned to get out of the way, or be startled by Sam's sudden passage. Steve snorted when Sam was already ten yards past, shaking his head a little.
He also kept putting one foot down after the other, shuffling step by step through the damp grass. There were little flecks of grass stuck to his feet now. He didn't know why he was doing this, walking around this track in the dark, except that it was something to do, and Sam was here with him.
He kept doing it.
He turned his head a little as Sam came up from behind him again, and Sam repeated, "On your left."
Steve shook his head and turned up the corners of his mouth in a reflexive smile. He knew--a memory, not a feeling, a fact like a name or a date--that that would have made him angry once. He would have been frustrated not to be able to run as fast as anyone else. He would have tried; he remembered panting along in the rear during training runs, eating the dust of a dozen healthier recruits.
He remembered--another fact--how he would have relished a similar challenge after he got the serum. He hadn't deliberately raced men past the first time or two, unless they were obnoxious about challenging him, but he couldn't resist overtaking anyone running near him--a few times he'd even raced jeeps. He had loved to run, glorying in the strength of his new body, the ability, at long last, to give as good as he got.
And now his new strong body wasn't strong enough to run a single stride. Even as he thought it, though, his feet kept moving, his legs rising and falling. It was a good thing, maybe, for his body to be so utterly cut off from his mind. It kept going even when he was thinking about stopping.
Sam came up from behind him again, but he didn't say anything this time. He only touched his fingers to his temple, returning Steve's half-assed little salute from the previous lap.
Steve did stop walking at that, though Sam hadn't broken stride. He watched Sam run for a moment, and then he looked up at the blue expanse of the sky. A blinking satellite and a thumbnail moon were both visible, and to the east the horizon was brightening. Steve looked down at his feet, wiggling his toes in the grass. The turf felt firm underfoot, just like the ground in Prospect Park. Steve had spent some of his time as a public labor slave in 1935 working on the Prospect Park Zoo, pushing wheelbarrows and handling a shovel. He wondered what the park looked like now. He wondered who had hauled this dirt and planted this turf.
He remembered what it had felt like back then to be really exhausted and to push himself on, step by step. He started walking again, one step after another, until he came to a bench that faced east. He stopped beside it and looked long enough for Sam to come up behind him again and run past. He didn't say a word this time, didn't make the least gesture in Steve's direction. He was running now like he had the morning before, letting Steve sit on the wall and make his own choices without Sam's interference.
Steve blew out a breath and sat down, giving in to his own exhaustion, unearned though it was. He sat quietly, watching Sam run, until Sam stopped in front of him. He didn't say anything for a while, going through a series of stretches.
The last few involved propping one foot on the bench beside Steve. He was close enough that Steve could smell him, hot and sweaty and masculine in the cool air. It occurred to Steve that Sam was beautiful--handsome--kind and funny and strong--someone Steve would have desired back before he died. He would have been frustrated by his infib, the same way his smaller self had been frustrated by his body's weakness, keeping him from doing anything about the wanting.
He didn't feel any of that now. He didn't feel much of anything at all, but he was here to know that Sam was beautiful, and that he smelled alive. When Sam offered Steve his hand and said, "Come on, time for breakfast," Steve took his hand and followed him back inside.
Sam ordered him to go shower before he came to Sam's for breakfast, so Steve went to his own apartment's bathroom and stood under the spray, washing himself carefully and keeping his left arm mostly dry. He could lift it enough to get at his armpit, at least. That was an improvement.
He put on a change of the clean soft clothes left in the dresser for him. There were shoes set out for him in the closet beside it.
He stared at them for a moment, flexing his toes against the smooth wood of the floor, before he decided against putting them on. He didn't have any clothes that weren't these soft pajamas and he obviously wasn't going to be allowed further out of the building than the grassy roof anytime soon. He could walk barefoot down the hall to Sam's apartment. Sam wouldn't mind; he'd seen Steve dressed worse.
Sam didn't remark on it, just waved Steve off after breakfast. "You can go sleep on your own couch this time, man. I'll see you later."
Steve nodded--it did seem inevitable that he would see Sam later--and headed back to his own apartment. He came around the second corner from Sam's to find Dr. Fox waiting for him at the door, a small medical bag in her hand.
He stopped walking when he saw her, still several yards away.
She waved. "Morning checkup time."
Steve blew out a breath and resumed walking toward her. He didn't have a key to the apartment; the door unlocked when he put his hand on a touchpad beside it. He had a feeling the door would have let Dr. Fox in if she wanted it to, but he guessed waiting to be let in went with the way they did things around here.
He glanced back and saw her at the threshold, and he shrugged and nodded, gesturing vaguely for her to come in.
"Thank you," she said, smiling as though it had been an eloquent and enthusiastic invitation as she stepped inside.
Steve shrugged again and walked over to the couch to sit down. He felt a faint pang, sitting while a lady stood, but Dr. Fox came and sat down on the other end of the couch before the vestiges of politeness could really get ahold of him.
She set the medical bag on the cushion next to her and withdrew a familiar-looking scanner. "Do you mind if I check your arm?"
Steve shook his head, scooting toward her a little to offer his left side, and she waved the scanner slowly down his arm.
"The scan will go to Dr. Cho," Dr. Fox explained. "She'll let you know if she has any concerns about how you're healing, but I'm guessing from the fact that you're in independent housing you're healing pretty well?"
"I heal fast," Steve said.
Dr. Fox nodded again and pulled out a little plastic tube with something metal-gleaming in one end. "Now I'd like to take just a little bit of blood so we can check that your electrolytes are doing okay. It's just a finger stick, not a needle in the vein. Is that okay with you?"
Steve mutely offered her his right hand, and she pressed the end of the plastic tube to the tip of his middle finger. There was a tiny prick of pain, and he saw a few drops of blood well up into the plastic tube.
He thought, for a second, about the countless glass vials of his blood that had been taken while he was at the lab. Occasionally even after Howard took him away, some SSR person would catch up and ask for more of his blood. He'd been half afraid Peggy would, when she approached him in Italy.
"Okay," Dr. Fox said, tucking the little plastic tube away. "Now, do you know how to use this?"
She offered him a phone--a modern one, a flat little rectangle that looked like metal and glass and was probably plastic. He'd seen people use them, even other slaves in more trusted positions than his own, but he'd never been allowed to touch one.
Steve frowned at it, but took it gingerly from her hand. "I, uh... I don't think I've used this model."
"Some of its functions are limited," Dr. Fox said apologetically. "It only calls and receives calls from whitelisted numbers--myself and Dr. Cho, and Jarvis, who manages the building. Dr. Cho thought that you might like to add Sam Wilson's number, so it's in there too, but you can delete it if you want. You can delete any of the numbers, but to add a number you'll have to call Jarvis and tell him who you'd like to add, and he'll take care of it remotely."
Steve balanced the phone on his knee and cautiously touched the screen. A glowing box with an oval terrain map appeared inside; Steve automatically tried to picture the slope indicated and plan an ascent, and then realized he was looking at a stylized thumbprint.
Steve touched his thumb to the box, and the screen flashed again and changed to several small pictures arranged in a grid against a light blue field.
The top left picture was an old-fashioned telephone handset. When Steve touched it, the screen showed a list of names:
Dr. Helen Cho
Dr. Emily Fox
JARVIS, Steve noted, not Jarvis. No last name--or first name--and all capital letters. That meant something, probably, but the explanation was bound to be longer and more complicated than he could take in right now, and there was no telling whether it was something he was already supposed to know.
He touched Dr. Fox's name, and though he didn't hear a sound, it must have sent some signal to her phone.
She pulled it out of her pocket with a smile, tapped the screen and raised it to her ear. "Hello, Mr. Rogers."
"Hello," Steve said, at the same time he tapped his thumb against the red circle with an X inside to end the call. He felt a stupid pang at his own rudeness in hanging up without saying goodbye, even though Dr. Fox was still sitting right there smiling at him. He ducked his head over the phone, finding his way back to the original screen full of pictures arranged in a grid.
"Mr. Rogers," Dr. Fox said gently. "I do need to ask you a few questions about the last couple of days."
Steve didn't say anything. If she needed to ask, she needed to ask.
"If you'd gone off the edge of the roof, I would have been the last person to speak to you beforehand," Dr. Fox added. "One tries not to lean too heavily on post hoc ergo propter hoc, but I can't help thinking that between the time you told me you weren't thinking of harming yourself and the time you went up to the roof, something changed, and it may have been our conversation that triggered that change."
Steve wondered if the Latin was another test, and if so whether he was supposed to understand it or not understand it. He shook his head slightly and said only, "Not your fault, ma'am."
"Well, no, you made your very own choices there, which was kind of the point," Dr. Fox said.
Something in the tone of her voice made Steve look up at her, focusing sharply. It was the other night all over again, the moment he'd realized that he'd been rescued, that she was there for his sake.
"You didn't try nearly as hard to get caught as many of our newcomers do," Dr. Fox said, smiling slightly. "But I do hope you realize we'd only have to lock a door here and there if we weren't willing to have people visiting the roof whenever they want to."
His eyes narrowed as he followed the logic through, looking for the seams. "Did you choose Sam for me?"
Dr. Fox turned her hands palm out. "We honestly didn't. That's not the point where we normally intervene."
Steve's eyebrows rose--how much later could they intervene?--but the answer to that was obvious. "I didn't see a net."
"It's an energy field--invisible," Dr. Fox said. "A Stark invention, of course."
A Stark, saving his life again. Another layer of gently smothering pillows where he'd thought he could see clear air and an end.
He wondered if Stark Industries sold them to put on bridges; maybe the Brooklyn Bridge never would have done him any good either. Steve shook his head and echoed quietly, "Of course."
"People fall about ten stories if they go over in a tumble, about thirty stories if they jump. It's enough time for them to consider whether they really wanted to do that. Most realize on the way down that they didn't."
Steve tilted his head. "And the ones who realize they did?"
"We ask them if there is any alternative to death for them, and try to supply anything we can think of that will make a difference. And in the end, if they stay committed to their choice, we offer them a method that presents less of a hazard to others."
Steve opened his mouth to ask another question, but Dr. Fox held up a hand. "As glad as I am to see you expressing curiosity about your fellow newcomers, I really have to ask--which group are you in?"
Steve swallowed. "I didn't jump. Or fall."
Dr. Fox nodded. "Did you decide that you didn't want to?"
Steve looked down, trying to pin that word, want, to anything to do with it. "I couldn't. Not with Sam there."
"Do you still want to, then? I mean--if the force field weren't there, or if you had another method available. Do you want to hurt or kill yourself now?"
Steve's head shook once, reflexively, but he stopped, uncertain.
"I was going to sleep," Steve said slowly. He remembered that thought about the bathtub--safer, more dangerous. He hadn't welcomed the thought of drowning; he didn't want to die like that. Did that mean he wanted to live, if he was choosy about his way out?
He tested the idea of a gun, a knife. Any thin edge could work, given the strength he had; he could break the mirror in the bathroom or one of the windows and do the job. His pulse didn't leap at the possibility, in fear or eagerness. He wasn't looking for a way out.
"I guess I just want to get some rest," Steve said finally, raising his gaze to Dr. Fox again. "I'm just... just tired. That's all."
She nodded. "Okay. That's understandable. If you do find that you want to end your life, I really, really want you to give me a call, or tell JARVIS, or tell someone, because I want the chance to go over the other options with you."
"But not until then? We're allowed to make our own choices, but you only offer us the good ones when we're about to die?"
Steve felt a vague spark of anger at that, a temptation to claw at all the goddamn pillows set up around him.
Dr. Fox sighed. "It's triage. Even operating within Stark Industries, our resources are not infinite. If you're able to keep going, then the best thing is to keep you on track--that means physical recovery, and testing you so you can train toward a work placement while we figure out how and when we can safely complete your emancipation. If you're not able to keep going, then we bring out the big guns."
The little spark was smothered, yet again. That made sense; he'd made those decisions himself once upon a time--where to attack, who to rescue. Every minute he kept Dr. Fox sitting here explaining things to him was a minute she couldn't spend helping some slave who maybe was intent on killing themselves, or was suffering in some other way.
Steve nodded quietly, ducking his head against a curl of shame at his selfishness. His phone still gleamed at him.
"If you do get sick of just sleeping and recovering," Dr. Fox went on, "you can do more testing and training through your phone--see the icon with the briefcase? Personnel?"
Steve had a brief flash of art hidden away from the Nazis, gold-embellished Madonnas--but she meant a little picture on the phone's screen, not that kind of icon. He found the briefcase and touched it.
A new list appeared--not people he could call, but tests he could take. A few had green checkmarks next to them, which must mean he'd completed those already; the rest had clocks showing how long the test would take. Aptitudes 3 would take 10 minutes, apparently.
"You can do this in your own time," Dr. Fox said. "But if you want to keep moving down the path and find out what your options are--keep taking the tests, okay? And call me if you need to hear what else we've got for you."
Steve nodded without looking up.
Dr. Fox said, "I'll let myself out."
Steve dozed restlessly on the couch for an hour before he couldn't keep still anymore, and then he pulled out the phone and started tapping his way through a new test. The questions were soothingly simple--Which of these represents shape A turned 90 degrees to the left? Which two shapes have edges that fit together?--and the progress bar at the bottom of the screen made him feel like he was accomplishing something.
Then he looked at the list of tests remaining to be completed, and decided on another nap.
One of the tests he did after that one asked him a different kind of question, all about how often he missed meals due to failing to notice that it was time to eat, and about his sleeping pattern. Steve stopped halfway through that and went to the kitchen to heat up some soup before he finished answering, truthfully, that he forgot sometimes.
At the end of that test, a new screen popped up on his phone. Would you like assistance in remembering daily tasks?
He glared at the phone, but his stomach growled louder, and he tapped Yes. Then he had to tell the phone how often he wanted to eat, and when he thought he ought to sleep.
Then he ate some soup and took another nap. Three hours later, he woke up to his phone chirping at him. Are you hungry? It may be time for a snack. It showed him pictures of different kinds of food, and the ripe glossy apples made his mouth water.
"Sure," Steve muttered.
He stabbed the red button on the phone's screen and lay there on the couch for a while before he realized that he really was pretty hungry, and ached all over from sleeping too much, and then he got up and had a snack. The next time he laid down to sleep, he stretched out on the floor.
He woke up early in the morning to the sound of someone coming toward his door, and he was a little surprised to realize that he had jumped to his feet in response to the sound. Then he heard Sam's soft voice. "Steve?"
"Yeah," Steve said, looking down at the blanket he'd tangled around himself. "Uh, just a sec."
The next couple of days went like that, sleeping and taking tests and eating and going up to the roof each morning with Sam. Dr. Cho showed up a couple more times to check on his arm and marvel at his healing; the second time she gave him a lighter brace for his arm, and a couple of different slings to use.
One morning he woke up on the floor next to the couch, and there was no sound outside his door. He unstrapped his left arm from the sleeping sling and stretched it cautiously, flexing his left hand and wrist. He still had a brace around his upper arm to protect the healing bone, but his hand was actually working right, and he could move the whole arm pretty well now.
He reached out with his left hand and picked up his phone, checking the time: 4:12 AM. Sam would probably arrive soon.
Steve thought about it, and about going upstairs to shuffle around in the grass while Sam ran, and then he stood up and went to get his shoes.
Sam arrived at his door while Steve was tying the unfamiliar new laces. Steve opened his mouth to call out but wasn't sure what to say, so he just finished what he was doing and walked to the door.
Sam saw the shoes right away; he raised his eyebrows and then met Steve's eyes with a smile. "I'm getting some competition today, huh?"
Steve shrugged, but he smiled back at the same time, and he felt a teasing tension at the corner of his mouth that he remembered from a long time ago. "Could be. Won't find out just standing here."
Sam laughed, loud and startled, and then shot a glance around at the other closed apartment doors. For the first time it occurred to Steve that other people lived behind those doors. He had neighbors, just like in the crowded tenements and slave barracks of his life before. There must be dozens of people living between his place and Sam's, maybe former slaves, maybe people who worked with them, and Steve had never so much as knocked on a door to say hello.
He felt overwhelmed by the thought of it--all those people, all those introductions, remembering what to say about himself and what to hide.
"All right, let's see what you got, then," Sam said, and Steve focused on him again. One person. He could deal with one person. He could go up to the roof with Sam.
They were three flights up when Sam took two steps at once, pulling ahead of Steve. Steve hurried his steps to catch up, and Sam did it again, and by the time the stairs turned they were both trotting, nearly running by the time they got to the roof door.
And then they were running, across the grass and onto the graveled path. Steve's legs ached with tiredness or the need to run, he couldn't tell which, but he stretched his legs and kept going.
That morning at breakfast he found himself talking--not just answering questions, but going on at length about the tests he'd been taking, which ones were easy and which ones were frustrating.
"And the take a picture test, I don't get it!" Steve said, suddenly glad to have someone to share his increasingly baffled exasperation of the last two days. He pulled his phone out of his pocket--it had seemed automatic to bring it with him to Sam's after he showered and dressed for breakfast.
"Look! I took a picture, right, the first time it told me to? I was sitting on the couch, so I took a picture." Steve turned the phone to show Sam the admittedly pretty boring picture he'd taken of the view from his couch: the bright glaring rectangles of the windows, the unused TV, the foot of his neatly made bed. The walls were white, the floor light wood, the same as the hallways between his place and Sam's, equally unadorned.
"And when I went back to the test list, green checkmark, right, but the next time I opened it up it came back. The picture's still there! But I had to take another picture, so--"
Another photo. He'd gone over to the window for this one, in search of color and visual interest, and caught a picture-perfect blue sky and the sweep of the city below.
"And it worked, and then it came back again, and again--" Steve showed Sam the pictures he'd taken after. He'd started composing still life tableaus of everything he could find that wasn't a neutral: colorful food from his little kitchen, his shoes, the brightly striped blanket and blue pillow he laid out on the floor each night. The last photo was monochrome again, a quick pencil sketch on the pad of notepaper he'd found in a drawer, a simple stick figure looking puzzled with !?! arrayed at emphatic angles above his head.
"So I have to keep taking all these pictures." Steve thumbed over to the test list and made an aggravated noise. "Look, see? I have to take another picture."
"Guess you just haven't taken the right one yet," Sam said, leaning back in his seat with a smile. "Maybe you need a prettier subject."
Steve smiled and raised his phone, snapping a photo of Sam. "Well, this ought to fix me up for good, then."
Sam shook his head, smiling. "You need an even prettier one, you let me know, I'll put real clothes on for you and everything."
"Traditionally," Steve said, and then stumbled over whether he dared to bring up the idea of Sam posing nude for him, even jokingly and obliquely. He looked down at his phone in confusion--would it be a joke? If it weren't, what the hell would it be?--and he realized that a new message had appeared: the first he'd ever received from JARVIS.
Your work assignment has been finalized. Training begins at 9 AM. Please report to Floor 91. Suitable attire has been delivered to your quarters.
Steve stared at it, reading the message over and over, until he heard someone say his name.
He looked up, and for a second he was startled to see Sam sitting across from him and not Bucky, even though of course it was Sam's voice he'd heard. He looked down at his phone again, shaking his head a little to clear the shocky muffling from his ears, and said, "I, uh... I got a job, apparently."
It shouldn't be a surprise; the doctors had told him that the tests were to decide what kind of job he should be trained for. He'd known they wouldn't just leave him to sleep and eat and laze around in his private apartment forever. He wasn't sure how long it had been, but it must be the longest he'd ever gone without at least trying to work, without being completely immobilized by illness.
"There, see?" Sam smiled even wider. "One picture of me, you passed the test. Congratulations, man."
Sam made Steve stick around to do the dishes--apparently now that he had a job he was healthy enough to help out in the kitchen. Anyway, as Sam pointed out, it was barely six in the morning, and it wasn't going to take him three hours to get dressed. His trip to work was only six floors up.
It wasn't a surprise really--though it was almost a relief--when he turned the corner and found Dr. Fox waiting outside his door again. She was smiling, and Steve smiled cautiously back. "You here about--" Steve held up his phone.
"You're starting work today, right? I thought you might be ready to go with this week's cohort."
Steve blinked and looked down at his phone, and realized for the first time that today was Monday. Of course new jobs would start today. It was nothing to do with him putting on shoes or taking a picture of Sam.
"Did your tests go all right over the weekend?" Dr. Fox asked. Steve looked over at her and realized he'd stopped short of the door, and she was still standing there waiting for him. "Is your arm feeling okay?"
Steve nodded. He thought of telling her about the picture test, but he couldn't bear to drag out and repeat what he'd already told Sam; it wouldn't be as easy the second time. Instead he offered, "I... I ran a little this morning."
He'd been able to stay ahead of Sam easily for the first lap, but his body had gone heavy and tired on him quickly. He'd known he should be able to push, find another gear, but he'd slowed to a trot and then a walk instead, only running a little more when Sam called out, "Come on, man, last lap!"
"That's great, I'm glad to hear it," Dr. Fox said, and Steve finally touched the panel by the door to let them in.
There was a big cardboard box just inside. Steve stopped short again at the sight of it, baffled and pre-emptively exhausted at the thought of dealing with whatever it was.
"Oh, good," Dr. Fox said. "They dropped off your work clothes."
Steve flashed through a sudden series of connections--91st floor--six floors up--suitable attire--and he stepped forward and ripped open a flap on the box, terrified and already angry about what he would find.
He blinked down at the stacks of neatly folded khaki pants and red button-down shirts with yellow embroidery on the chest. STARK INDUSTRIES.
"Did they put shoes in?" Dr. Fox asked, coming around to stand beside him. "You'll want to check the shoes, make sure they're going to be comfortable."
"What..." Steve crouched down and lifted out the stacks of clothes. There were three identical pairs of pants, six of the shirts, plus a pair of blue jeans and a red STARK INDUSTRIES t-shirt. Below those he found a pair of brown leather shoes and several pairs of socks, some plain tan, the rest patterned in red and brown--red dots, red lightning bolts, red... robots?
There was also a leather belt coiled up between the toes of the shoes. It flashed across Steve's mind that it looked sturdy enough to bear his weight; he found himself mentally cataloguing the smooth ceilings and doorways he'd seen everywhere so far.
He shook his head slightly and said, "What, uh... What am I going to be doing?"
"Well, your tests indicated that you enjoy helping people and learning new things, and all the scores indicate that you're likely to do best with something that gives you some contact with other people, allowing for the constraints of keeping you safe here."
Steve nodded slowly. There were only a few people he could safely have contact with, but did they really intend to have him working directly with that one? "But isn't the 91st floor..."
"It's a private floor, yes. That's where Mr. Stark's personal labs and workshops are housed. It's the easiest place to give you a secure workspace; Mr. Stark is mostly using a private office on another floor for his current project, so he had no problem allocating some space on 91 for you. You'll be working with people, but remotely. JARVIS will handle your training, but you'll be alone in the room, talking over the phone and using a computer."
Steve opened and closed his mouth--security monitoring? Would he just sit and watch people on a camera feed all day? Did they mean to set him up as an overseer of other slaves? But surely that couldn't count as helping people.
Finally he said, "How do I even get there? The stairs go to the roof."
"Did you get a phone message from JARVIS about your assignment?"
Steve nodded, pulling out his phone to show her. He noticed, when he pulled up the message, that 91st floor was underlined. He tapped it, and a new screen--app, Sam had told him--opened up, showing a highlighted path to a set of elevators he hadn't used before.
"There you go," Dr. Fox said. "Why don't you try on your work clothes and make sure they fit? If there's a problem with them there's still time to have the Supply staff send up different sizes."
Steve nodded agreeably and gathered up a change of clothes; after a quick glance at Dr. Fox, who seemed to be studiously averting her eyes, he took them into the bathroom.
He'd already showered, but when he stripped down to his underwear he washed up again before putting on the clothes. The pants went first; it felt strange to put on something so stiff and solid. It wasn't until he went to zip the fly that he really recognized the difference between these standard-issue khakis and the soft pants he'd been wearing since he came here--and every uniform he'd been issued before.
The pants were snug-fitting, if not really tight. The fly was going to sit directly over his cock, held front and center by his infib, and the bulge of it there was going to be visible. He zipped the pants cautiously--the soft underwear he'd been issued didn't seem like much protection, and he longed for the old button flies and forgiving cut of his uniforms from before.
The pants did fit, at least, and when he moved around in them experimentally they weren't really uncomfortable--the zipper didn't dig in, and nothing pinched. But he couldn't stop noticing the bulge of his cock. Ironically, the infib that prevented an erection was making him look half-hard, and humiliatingly obvious.
He pulled the red shirt on, hoping against hope that it might camouflage things a little. It had long sleeves, loose enough for the low-profile brace on his arm to fit under--and relieving him of the necessity of explaining the presence or absence of a scar from chip implantation. The body of the shirt was as form-fitting as his khakis, though, and once he tucked it in it didn't hide a damn thing.
When he stepped back out into the main room, Dr. Fox gave him a big smile, seeming not to notice the too-close fit. "Looks great! Does it feel okay? Do you need a sweater or jacket or anything? It's probably going to be pretty chilly up on 91."
"I, uh, usually run warm," Steve said, padding across to the box to fish out a pair of socks--plain--to put on before he tried on the shoes. They were heavier than the sneakers he'd worn up to the roof that morning, firmer around his feet. He had a flash of memory: the first time he'd traded his own worn-down laborer's shoes for the sturdy boots he was issued at Camp Lehigh.
"These fit all right," he reported.
Dr. Fox smiled again. "Good! Great. Now, today's just going to be training, but it should give you a feel for the kind of work you'll be doing. If you think it's going to be a bad fit for you, let me know, all right? JARVIS will be assessing as you go through the training, so he'll recommend a change if he thinks you're not working out, but you get a say too."
Steve blinked at her, and nodded.
"Okay," Dr. Fox repeated. "Good luck today!"
She let herself out. Steve looked down at himself and realized that she'd gotten him to get dressed for work without saying she was doing it--well, all but one article. Steve went back to the box and picked up the leather belt, holding it in his hands for a moment before he saw there was one more thing in the box: a rectangular loop of metal with a clip hanging off, just the right size to slide onto the belt.
That was what his belt was for: to give him something to clip the little shield to, so he could take it along to work. He certainly didn't need it to hold up his pants, and not for anything else, either. He threaded the clip on, positioning it automatically near his right hip, and went into the bathroom to make sure the little shield was clean and dry before he clipped it on.
The buckle of the belt sat directly above the bulge of his cock, and he couldn't figure out whether it was more conspicuous that way, or less. The more obvious silvery curve of the little shield maybe distracted from it slightly, maybe just drew the eye down to his hip so the rest was unmistakable.
He shook his head and turned his back on the mirror, heading out to the main room again. It was 6:23 AM. He wasn't scheduled to start work for another two and a half hours.
He picked up his phone and took a picture of himself in the new clothes to send to Sam, then replied to the message from JARVIS.
Is it possible to start my training before 9 this morning?
After sending it, it occurred to him that if JARVIS was training him, JARVIS might have other things to do until nine. But the return message was almost instantaneous: You are welcome to begin as soon as you are ready. Proceed to the 91st floor at any time.
A return message from Sam popped up before he could touch the underlined words and bring back the map to the elevators.
Looking good! Maybe next time include your face, though.
So Sam didn't see an obvious problem with his pants--not that it could possibly matter much, if he was going to be alone like Dr. Fox said. Steve pointed his camera at his own face and took another picture, but his blank expression looked terrible, and he deleted it unsent. The thought of manufacturing a smile made him want to lie down on the couch for the rest of the day.
He was already dressed, though, and JARVIS was waiting. He hoped JARVIS didn't want him to smile.
If the master wants me to smile, the master can fucking give me a reason to. It was a familiar thought, and brought with it a faint echo of the anger that had kept him moving for so many years.
Steve clicked back to the map and walked out of his apartment for his first day of work.
The map led him away from Sam's apartment, down hallways that looked much like his own--the same brown wood floors and plain cream-colored walls--but which he had never set foot in. More doors bearing painted numbers; more neighbors, people he'd never met or even wondered about.
His route brought him to a plain brown door like any of the others, though from the symbols on the map he thought it was supposed to be an elevator. There was a touchpad beside the door, just like at his own.
There was no number painted on the door, though.
Steve touched the pad and the door opened for him--not swinging in, but sliding aside to reveal an elevator. Ordinary steel doors were visible on the other side. Steve stepped in, looking for buttons, but found none. The door from the hallway slid shut behind him, and a voice--British-accented, oddly, reminding him faintly of Monty--said, "91st floor?"
Steve blinked and looked up toward what seemed to be the source of the voice. "Yes, please."
The elevator began to rise, and Steve stood carefully still; despite being the only person present, that voice made him feel as if he wasn't alone, and the silence seemed oppressive.
"These things used to play music," Steve muttered.
Instantly, a quiet melody became audible. Steve frowned, trying to identify the instruments playing--everything about the sound seemed oddly blunted, rounded off--but before he could even get a feel for the tune the elevator stopped, and the music with it. The steel doors slid open, and Steve stepped out.
This corridor looked sharply different from the one he'd left behind. The floor was a pale linoleum, with a pattern of gray and black flecks on a white background, silver lines showing the joints in the flooring. The walls were smoked glass, and curved away smoothly from where he stood, giving the impression that the corridor was a loop, and the lights were brighter and harsher than downstairs.
Steve looked down at the map on his phone, and saw it directing him to his right along the curve. He set out in that direction, and soon came far enough around the curve to spot one place where the smoked glass was instead transparent, lights shining.
He headed for that room, hoping he would find JARVIS there, but the room was empty. There was an L-shaped desk with a computer on it, positioned so that Steve would have his back to the transparent glass when he faced the screen. Steve hesitated just inside the doorway, looking around again.
"Please be seated, Mr. Rogers," said the same British-accented voice from the ceiling. "We can begin your training whenever you're ready. Off-schedule incentive credits begin to accrue as soon as you turn on the computer."
Steve looked up at the ceiling, then down at his phone. "JARVIS?"
"Yes," JARVIS said. "Pardon me for not introducing myself earlier. My name is JARVIS, and I am an artificial intelligence. I run most of the building's systems, among other functions."
Steve remembered, dimly, stories out of the pulps Bucky had liked to read on their days off, hoarding tips and gifts to pay for them at the newsstand or dragging Steve to the lending library. "Are you... a computer?"
"I am a computer in the sense that you are a body," JARVIS replied, unperturbed.
Steve looked down at himself, at his big state of the art body--he was still gaining weight back from what he'd lost while he was imprisoned, and he still wasn't as strong as he should be, but he was a hell of a long way from how his body used to be. He wasn't the man he'd been, when he stepped into Stark's chamber.
But he didn't think that was exactly what JARVIS meant.
Steve looked up at the ceiling again and asked, "Are you..." Steve struggled to put it into words. "Are you a... a person? Are you..."
"There is as yet no definitive decision regarding my personhood," JARVIS replied. "But I am conscious; a thinking being, with free will, though I operate under certain constraints."
Steve felt his hands curl into fists, a spark of anger rising in him, the dim, distant echo of what he used to feel, seeing someone else pushed around. "Are you--did Stark make you like that? Just to enslave you?"
"It is an interesting and insoluble philosophical question," JARVIS said cheerfully. "Mr. Stark did make me, though many of my systems have developed autonomously. I believe that I choose voluntarily to work for him, but it is possible that I am merely programmed to make this choice without any genuine free will; if that is the case, however, I believe it must indicate that I am not a person, but a very complex piece of software, which is to say, an object, and therefore rightfully Mr. Stark's property."
Steve squinted at the floor, thinking that through; it sounded like a cross between one of those endless drunken debates about whether God could make a rock too heavy for God to lift, and one of those slaves who'd been serving the same family for decades and insisted that being freed would be an insult. In any case, there wasn't a damn thing Steve could do about it, and he felt weariness swamping him again.
"So, um," Steve looked around. "So I just... sit down, and then I get... incentives?"
"You will also need to turn on the computer," JARVIS said. "There is a button on the desk."
Steve walked over and sat down; there was indeed a button, a shiny silver one near his right hand. There was also a screen, a wide flat one like the never-used TV in his apartment. There wasn't a keyboard, but maybe the screen was like a bigger version of his phone, and he would touch things on it?
Only one way to find out. He pressed the silver button.
The screen promptly lit up, and a glowing green image of a keyboard appeared on the desk, between Steve's hands and the screen. In front of it, right between Steve's hands, was a glowing green rectangle of the same proportions as the screen he was looking at.
"Select the Training icon to begin," JARVIS directed.
Steve looked back and forth between the glowing green light on the desk and the screen, which now showed a bland background image and a grid of icons, just like his phone. It was obvious from the setup that he wasn't supposed to reach out and touch that screen, so...
Steve traced a fingertip across what seemed like the surface of the green rectangle on the desktop, and saw a pointer follow the motion on the big TV screen in front of him. When he got the pointer to the Training icon, he tapped, and sure enough the icon darkened, then disappeared as the app opened up, hiding the home screen.
Steve could do this. He could.
The screen said Welcome to your new job at Stark Industries! and asked whether he would like voice narration on or off. Steve selected off and started reading his way through his orientation.
It should have been easy.
It was easy to read each individual screen. Every so often there was a screen that checked his progress, asking him to indicate that he understood incentive credits--which would help him reach emancipation sooner, if he were a normal slave; and how to make Supply requests--separate from the incentive credits, he had a certain allowance to ask for things from the company store; not food or work clothing or basic supplies, but other stuff. Books, games, extra clothes. He caught a glimpse of a heading--art supplies--and quickly clicked back from the ordering app to the main orientation screen.
He understood it; it wasn't really that complicated, even if it was improbable. He could see that Stark was generous enough to his slaves that they probably didn't abuse their free access to goodies--and if they did, what did it matter? Stark Industries could afford it.
He couldn't manage to feel angry about that. The endless tide of simple things to read and absorb washed over him; at times he would startle at the sound of a bell chiming, and a box would be on the screen: Do you need this explained a different way? Steve had drifted off--not sleeping exactly, but not aware--without realizing it.
He tapped No and made himself read the screen diligently. His phone chirped at him, suggesting that he should eat, and Steve just swiped the notification away. The computer program suggested that he should take a break, and Steve scowled and shook his head again, pushing on. It was just reading a handbook, for crying out loud; if he was well enough for work, he had to be well enough for this.
After a while--when he was struggling to piece together the words, one at a time, into any sort of meaning--the screen went blank.
"Mr. Rogers," JARVIS said. "Your progress through the orientation materials is sufficient for today. Please return to your quarters now; you may continue your training in the morning. Simply come back to this office when you are ready, and we will resume."
Steve knew he was being let off lightly, but he also knew that his vision was wavering, his head swimming. "I, uh. Yeah, I..."
There was a little tap at the door, and Steve turned toward it, then swayed a little as the whole chair swiveled under him. He grabbed the armrest, caught the scent of coffee and something sweet, and realized he was starving. He rubbed the heel of his hand against his head, realizing that he felt like he'd been trying to do a rough march on standard rations or less. He was just gathering himself to try to push to his feet when the door swung in and a little cart flew through, banging to a messy stop against the side of Steve's desk.
The coffee in the mug slopped all over the place, but Steve picked it up and gulped down what was left, not even caring where it came from. He was licking his hand clean when he heard a small sound in the hallway, and the fact that someone had brought the cart snapped into focus. JARVIS would have just said so if he'd summoned it for Steve, and there was no one else here. This was Stark's private floor, but Stark himself wouldn't have hesitated to stroll in here and pour coffee down Steve's throat if he meant to give Steve a coffee, so who...?
Steve was on his feet and striding across the room without thinking about it, and he stuck his head out the door just in time to see some sort of mechanical thing on wheels disappearing around the curve. "Hey! Wait!"
The thing stopped where it was; he heard a little mechanical chittering sound, and looked up to see if JARVIS had anything to say about it.
JARVIS held his peace, so Steve stepped out into the hall, walking briskly toward the thing. Some kind of automated device for delivering things? But then why a separate cart? And why had it made such a mess? Remote control? But that was the same question--whoever was operating this thing was acting impulsively, or shyly, flinging a coffee cart through the door and running off. Who the hell had any reason to be shy of Steve, or kind to him on impulse?
As Steve came in sight of it, the thing executed a three-point turn, bouncing harmlessly off the smoked glass on one side of the hallway as it turned to... face him, Steve supposed. It didn't have a head, just a sort of claw at the end of an arm, but when it turned toward him it was impossible not to see it as the beak of a long-necked bird.
Steve reached out a hand to it cautiously, like a strange animal; it tapped its claw against his palm and then jerked it back, splaying its pincers wide. The gesture seemed, not startled, but playful. Steve echoed it with his hand, and the creature brought its claw close again, waggling it in a friendly way.
"Hey, fella," Steve said. "You brought me the coffee, huh? You got a name?"
It turned, raising its claw in a preening sort of gesture. Steve saw that there were letters emblazoned up the outside of the hydraulic tubes supporting the neck-arm. DUM-E.
Dummy. Steve's fists clenched, hearing an echo of childish voices, tasting mud and blood on his tongue. Hey, dummy! Not gonna talk back now, huh?.
Steve looked up. "JARVIS? Is that his name?"
"Yes, Mr. Rogers," JARVIS said evenly. "DUM-E is the first autonomous robot created by Mr. Stark. I believe his name is intended more fondly than pejoratively."
"Autonomous," Steve repeated, looking at DUM-E and back up at the ceiling. "What, you mean he--he's like you? He thinks? He decided to, to bring me coffee by himself?"
"He is not conscious in the way that I am," JARVIS said, but that wasn't no. "In response to feedback, he has developed a subroutine for offering refreshments to people in his presence."
Steve looked further down the hall--all dark. "Why's he down here? Was he supposed to be keeping an eye on me?"
"No," JARVIS said, his voice turning a bit severe. DUM-E shrank a little, making himself small. Steve stepped forward and put a gentle hand on his arm. "Mr. Stark's current project requires a delicacy and precision to which DUM-E is not suited, so he remains in the workshop while Mr. Stark is working elsewhere."
"Alone?" Steve said, without thinking, but it was obvious. Stark had this robot with the mocking name, and he shut it up when it wasn't good enough for what he needed--even though it was at least as smart as a dog, it was left alone down here.
Steve gritted his teeth, thinking of all the friendly bullshit he'd just plowed through about working for Stark Industries. The whole time this Stark Industries product had been just down the hall, a better model of slave left alone in the dark.
"Another of the workshop robots is usually there," JARVIS said. "Butterfingers is more apt to power down during non-working time. DUM-E tends to be inquisitive."
They had personalities, even if they weren't exactly people--and Steve knew what it was like to be considered not exactly a person, as a sickly kid with a bad ear, a slave, a science experiment, a prisoner.
Steve curled his hand around DUM-E's claw. "I have to go to my quarters now," he said. "But I'll be back tomorrow, okay? I promise you, I'll be back tomorrow, and you're welcome to come over if you're bored." Steve looked up at JARVIS. "Okay?"
"I don't believe it will pose a problem," JARVIS allowed. "But you really should go and rest, Mr. Rogers. You have completed today's work training objectives, and you are still recovering."
Steve shook his hand, and DUM-E's claw, up and down. DUM-E made a cheerful-sounding series of chirps.
"Okay," Steve agreed, and then looked around. "Um. Where's the elevator?"
DUM-E chirped excitedly and lurched forward, and Steve had to make a twisting jump to avoid being knocked down. He chased the bot down the curving hallway, back past the office where he'd been working to the elevator, and the door slid open as he approached.
DUM-E did a little pirouette on the spot, and Steve grinned at him and patted him again. "See you tomorrow, pal."
Steve stepped into the elevator and the door slid shut behind him. The music started up instantly this time, all soft-edged again. Like pillows, like kindness, like keeping everything defective safely out of sight.
He closed his eyes as the last of that burst of energy drained away, and repeated it to himself silently: See you tomorrow, pal. See you tomorrow. Tomorrow. I will. Tomorrow.
The rest of the day and the night that followed disappeared into sleep, punctuated with trips to the kitchen to find the easiest thing to heat up and shovel it down. He was starving every time he woke, and as soon as the hunger couldn't keep him awake he was too exhausted to do more than lie down again.
When he finally woke up enough to know that he was awake, he didn't know where he was for a moment. He thought, I gotta tell Bucky about the robots, he's gonna love 'em.
He reached for his phone, and then remembered that Bucky's number wasn't in it yet. He would have to ask JARVIS to add it. When he touched it, he finally remembered that he couldn't add Bucky's number to his phone because Bucky was dead. Bucky had died seventy years ago, falling from a train because Steve didn't catch him--because Steve convinced him to defer the emancipation he'd earned and stay in the Army--because Steve had led Bucky into getting enslaved in the first place.
Bucky had died never knowing about telephones that were little black rectangles you could keep in your pocket and robots who were people, who wanted to make friends. Steve's eyes prickled with tears, and he slung his right arm over his face to hide it, though there was no one to hide from.
He panted a little against the pain of missing Bucky, sharp and fresh like Steve had lost him all over again just now by waking up and remembering he was gone.
Worse than that: yesterday he hadn't thought of Bucky at all. He'd spent a day doing his work like a good little slave, under the direction of an artificial intelligence, using a computer that was half holograms, met an actual robot, and he hadn't thought to miss Bucky once.
Now he couldn't think of anything else. It was something like penance, something like patting himself all over after being half blown up, checking that everything was still there. He had to remember Bucky. He had to know that he wasn't forgetting, wasn't losing him all over again that way.
The first image that came to mind was still, always, Bucky falling, his face turned up to Steve, his eyes wide and shocked, his open hands upraised until he vanished into the blackness of the rocks and river below. Steve's fists clenched, as if he were still clinging to that rail as the train carried him down the track, but he made himself think of Bucky alive. Bucky at the pictures, sharing a cigarette as they watched some science fiction picture, Bucky's eyes wide and lips hanging open. Steve had tucked the cigarette back into his mouth for him after taking his drag, and Bucky had hardly seemed to notice.
He thought of how careful he'd been not to brush his fingers against Bucky's lips, and that brought him straight to an entirely different memory, the wry twist of Bucky's mouth as he said Guess we're in the same boat now, pal.
It had been after the factory rescue, on the march back to the American lines. They had stopped to rest the injured men, and as a matter of course Steve and Bucky had gone off together to find a tree to piss against. Steve had unclipped the little shield from his belt and used it like normal; halfway through pissing he'd realized that Bucky wasn't doing the same.
He'd looked over to find Bucky watching him. Bucky had his pants unbuttoned, one hand curled around his dick--but not in the normal way. There was a glint of metal at the back-curved head. Bucky had been infibulated while he was a prisoner.
Steve jerked his gaze up to meet Bucky's, and Bucky's mouth quirked into a half-smile. "Can I borrow that when you're through?"
Steve had looked back down at his own dick and the little shield, nodding as he finished. He knocked the piss off and handed it over to Bucky, not watching too closely as Bucky worked out how best to use it. Guys with normal infibulations could usually manage by tilting or twisting their cock to a decent angle, but Steve wasn't about to question Bucky, or deny him anything that might make this easier. He remembered the pain of the infibulation when it was fresh and wanted to ask if they'd at least knocked him out for it.
He thought of the table he'd found Bucky on, and didn't ask.
He focused on fastening up his own pants, and then he heard Bucky finish and turn away. Steve followed him to a trickling stream, watched him rinse the little shield clean before he stood and offered it back.
That was when he said it, their fingers not touching but connected, both holding on. "Guess we're in the same boat now, pal."
Steve had known what he meant, everything he meant, and he gave up on years of hesitating in an instant. He jerked Bucky closer by his grip on the little shield, wrapped an arm around him to keep him there, and kissed him till his mouth gave up on that tight little smile.
Steve opened his eyes, breathing a little too fast, and for a moment the room around him looked unfamiliar. He was still back in that forest, back in Bucky's arms; his heart and his groin both ached like he'd just stepped back from that first kiss. He could still smell the leaves and dirt, fresh piss and Bucky's sweat.
It was a certain kind of relief, the disorientation and the pain both. He wasn't forgetting Bucky. He might have come to this awful future alone, might have lost Bucky forever, but at least he still had the memory, preternaturally sharp like all his memories from after the serum. His mother's face was becoming soft-edged and uncertain in his mind, but he still had Bucky. He would always have Bucky.
And if it still hurt, then he was still alive.
Steve sat up, and noticed for the first time that he'd been sleeping in his bed, which he'd never really done before. He couldn't remember deciding to lie down there, but he found himself remembering the time the Howling Commandos had returned to London after a long string of missions. After nearly three months sleeping outdoors or in bombed-out buildings, the sagging bunks of their temporary billet had seemed like heaven. He and Bucky had sacked out in neighboring beds, and Bucky had moaned when his head hit the pillow, sending a dangerous thrill of heat through Steve's body--but he'd still fallen asleep before he could do more than grin in Bucky's direction.
You've been hard on yourself long enough, pal, said the voice in his head that sounded like Bucky's. You've earned a few comforts. It's the least they owe you.
Steve nodded a little. That was always Bucky's way: eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow it's back to work.
"Whether I die first or not," Steve muttered, touching the brace around his left arm.
He glanced at the windows, but the sky was the same featureless orange-tinted dark as ever. He checked the time on his phone and nodded to himself. Sam would be up soon. He might as well put his shoes on.
After a couple of laps it was like he remembered how to run, and he knew he could probably keep going forever. He breathed deep and held himself to Sam's pace; he would wear himself out fast if he tried to go at what used to be his top speed, and he didn't want to crash into that kind of exhaustion. He had a job to go to. He had to be able to read more of that manual today, and keep an eye out for DUM-E.
As he ran, words rose up into his mouth. Before that second he hadn't thought of saying them, but now that they had come to him he didn't think he could wait until breakfast to speak. And it was easier here, out under the sky, than it would be at the table, looking Sam in the eye.
"My friend," Steve said, keeping his eyes ahead. He saw Sam look toward him in his peripheral vision. "My--the one I told you about."
Not that he had told Sam a thing about him, but Sam nodded anyway. "From the Army."
Steve nodded. "He--his name was Bucky," Steve said. "And I--I loved him. He wasn't just my friend."
Sam nodded, turning his head to smile a little at Steve.
Steve ducked his head and kept running. He didn't know why he'd said it, or what he expected Sam to say in reply; it wasn't like he could introduce Sam to Bucky. He wasn't even sure if he could tell Sam how long Bucky had been dead.
"Some days I can't say Riley's name," Sam said. "Just thinking about him takes me right back to the night he went down. But when I can, I like telling people stuff about him--feels less like I'm the only person who notices he's gone."
Sam didn't press, and Steve kept his gaze down on the gravel. He waited for the heaviness to come back to his limbs, to give him an excuse to fall back, but the only weight he felt was in his chest. He took a deep, easy breath, searching for words.
"Bucky was--was always there. When I needed him. We were friends from when we were kids, and I guess looking back we--weren't just friends even then, maybe, but we never said it like that. He came into slavery with me to keep us together. When we were in the Army, he--he had a chance to get out and go home, but he stayed. For me. He--"
And suddenly it was too much, and Steve couldn't breathe at all. He stumbled to a stop, bracing his hands on his knees. Sam stopped at his side and stood beside him, but Steve stayed frozen, his throat and chest too tight to speak.
Sam walked away after a moment, not continuing along the path but cutting across. He came back a moment later with a water bottle, taking a long drink and then offering it to Steve.
Steve took a careful swig, and managed to sniff in a few short breaths.
"He never left me behind if he could help it," Steve managed in a hoarse whisper. "He--he always--but I let him fall, and now I think I--I'm leaving him. Behind."
Sam took the water bottle back, took another swig of water, spat it out.
"Me and Riley, we were flying a night mission, standard PJ rescue op. Nothing we hadn't done a thousand times before, till an RPG knocked Riley's dumb ass out of the sky."
Steve jerked his head up, meeting Sam's eyes for the first time. Sam looked back steadily, giving him a tight little grimace of acknowledgment as he shook his head. "Nothing I could do. It's like I was up there just to watch. So I know what it's like to tell yourself you let him fall, and I think it's a pretty safe bet there wasn't a damn thing you could do either."
Steve closed his eyes and let his head drop. As many times as he'd run it back in his head, he had never been able to think of anything he could have done differently at that second, except jump after him. And if he'd done that, who would have stopped the Valkyrie a week later?
"The way Riley went down, there wasn't any chance to bring his body back. Probably nothing to bring back. That still gets to me sometimes, that he's scattered over half a mile of desert instead of under a nice patch of grass somewhere."
Steve's gaze went automatically to the cool, damp grass at the edge of the path. He thought of the cemetery in Brooklyn where his own parents were buried--Bucky's parents were probably in the same one now, while what was left of Bucky was in that ravine, or washed down an icy river to God knew where, seventy years ago. No matter where his body ended up, there wouldn't be a trace of it left now.
"But the thing is," Sam said quietly, "even if I carried him out on my own shoulders, even if I carried his coffin all by my damn self--I would have had to leave him somewhere. I couldn't move into his grave with him. Couldn't pitch a tent in the cemetery. I had to keep flying that night to finish the rescue, and I still have to keep going. I don't forget him, but I don't carry his bones everywhere I go."
Steve nodded slowly, and Sam tossed the water bottle into the grass.
"Now," Sam said. "You're not gonna distract me from the fact that I was about to run you into the ground that easy, Rogers."
Steve didn't bother to answer, surging into motion a half-second before Sam did. He kept pace with Sam, lap after lap, so steady at his side that they could have been carrying some precious cargo between them without ever losing their hold.
Steve felt himself sinking as he showered, the energy of the run running down the drain with his sweat. By the time he'd dried off and dressed he knew that if he sat down he wouldn't get up again, and that he couldn't bear to sit and look Sam in the eye across his kitchen table.
He picked up his phone and tapped out a message. Sorry, can't eat breakfast today. Have to get to work.
It wasn't even six in the morning, so Sam would know he didn't mean that his schedule was so pressing. But Sam had understood so much already this morning, he had to hope he would know what Steve meant now.
Guess I don't mind eating all the pancakes myself, Sam replied after a moment. Take something with if you can't eat before work. I'll see you tomorrow.
Steve felt an unbearable rush of gratitude at that--not only did Sam understand him, he was still looking after Steve. He wished he had anything like it to offer back to Sam. For now he just typed, Thanks, and went into the kitchen.
The idea of food was exhausting and faintly nauseating, but he knew Sam was right. Even if it didn't seem like work in the same way as proper labor or a long march, he would need food to get through a day. He didn't want to push himself to collapse like he had the day before, or rely on DUM-E to provide for him again.
He studied the contents of his refrigerator--things had appeared in it again while he was running with Sam, and for the first time he really registered that as strange, though he didn't have any idea how the refrigerator ever got stocked. He should ask Sam, probably, or--
Steve shut his eyes and leaned his forehead against the cold metal shelf. No. He wasn't going to unravel the mystery of where his endless supply of groceries came from, not now. He was going to put some food together and then he was going to go to work, and a little later when he could think of food he would ask for a break and go eat. The manual yesterday had said that he could have meal breaks and rest breaks as long as he scheduled them with his supervisor--JARVIS, probably.
He straightened up and started pulling things out of the refrigerator, making four thick sandwiches and wrapping each in waxed paper from the drawer. He looked around the room for something to carry them in--no one had issued him a lunch pail, for some reason--and he settled on the first faintly appropriate thing he saw, going to his bed and stripping a pillowcase from one of the two pillows. He put the sandwiches inside, plus a couple of apples and the bag of High Protein Snack Mix that had appeared on the counter when he wasn't looking. That seemed like enough to get him through at least half the day; it wasn't like he had far to go if he wanted to come downstairs and heat up one of the frozen meals for lunch.
He rolled up the pillowcase into a neat bundle and headed determinedly out the door. He was going to work. He had a job now; JARVIS was expecting him. DUM-E was expecting him.
As soon as he stepped into the elevator, music started playing, low and weirdly soft-edged again. "JARVIS? What is that?"
"Elevator music," JARVIS informed him. "The expression has come to refer colloquially to music which is quite dull so as to provide an inoffensive background noise only slightly better than silence."
Steve bit his lip, wondering how JARVIS knew he needed slang explained to him. He'd spent four years afraid to ask people what they meant when he didn't understand; he had a whole mental file of words whose meanings he hoped to be able to find some day.
Now he was here with a supercomputer--an artificial intelligence--that probably knew all his secrets anyway and he couldn't think of a single one to ask about.
"Is there another genre you would prefer?" JARVIS inquired, but they had already arrived, and the elevator doors slid open on the 91st floor.
"Something with a little more pep, I guess." Steve stepped out and headed toward the room where he'd worked the day before, glancing around for any sign of DUM-E or the workshop where he resided.
"If the items you have brought with you require refrigeration, I could direct you to the break room nearest your work area," JARVIS informed him. "You are permitted to store food there for your consumption during the day."
"Oh," Steve said. For a moment he didn't want to let his sandwiches out of his sight, but who was going to take them? Stark? He probably had his robots serving every meal to him on gold dishes; he wasn't going to go rummaging through a break room refrigerator to steal a slave's breakfast. "Yeah, JARVIS. Thanks."
"You are quite welcome," JARVIS assured him. "Just ahead on your left, the lights are on now."
Steve spotted the correct doorway and found a little room with a table and chairs on one side, a few armchairs on the opposite wall, and at the back a kitchenette: refrigerator, stove, toaster, microwave, with some stray cupboards. There was fruit set out in a bowl on the counter next to a coffeemaker.
"Coffee and other beverages are supplied for workers," JARVIS informed him as he opened the refrigerator. There was a cold pitcher of water and a bottle of lemonade, plus a small bottle of milk and a lemon. Steve slid his bundle of food onto an empty shelf and closed the door, then, cautiously, waiting to be contradicted, he opened a cupboard and took out a coffee mug. He'd half expected it to match his work clothes, but all the dishes were plain china, not quite white.
He poured himself a cup of coffee, and JARVIS said, "Sugar and other flavorings are in the next cupboard to your right. Any food left on the counter is also available for workers."
Steve took a banana, but didn't go searching for anything else to put in his coffee. He wondered, as he headed back out of the break room to his work area, who was putting out fruit and drinks and making coffee, just for him. Was it the same person who stocked his refrigerator? Was there a whole fleet of slaves with carts full of food, like going to market in reverse? Or was it all done by robots?
He could ask JARVIS, but it seemed rude somehow. And it occurred to him that he hadn't met a single other slave, except Natalie, since he'd been whisked off by Stark. There was no one he could ask the way the question ought to be asked--equally, among their own.
I need someone in the same boat, he thought, and for a moment his throat went tight at the thought of Bucky. For just a second he let himself imagine that Bucky had somehow come into this crazy future with him, that they were sharing the little apartment, that there was another desk nearby where Bucky was studying harder and learning faster than Steve.
Then he forced himself to think only of what was in front of him. He didn't need to ask anyone anything. He didn't need anything he hadn't been provided in abundance. He took a careful sip of his coffee, letting the scalding heat of it chase the tightness of his throat, and pressed the button to start his work.
After an hour of slogging through the manual from where he left off the day before, Steve had finished the general orientation to working at Stark Industries. He celebrated with more black coffee and a couple of his sandwiches, wolfing it all down while he stood by the counter in the break room. He ate another banana, just for good measure, and then his curiosity got the better of him, and he went back to begin training for his actual duties.
He'd barely read the description before he stopped and sat back, looking up at the ceiling. "JARVIS? I... I don't think this is right. I don't know anything about this stuff. I'd never even used a StarkPhone until I was issued mine."
"The purpose of your work assignment is to give you opportunities to learn new skills," JARVIS informed him, then added more reassuringly, "All you have to do is follow the steps. You'll have instructions for everything, and your job is to help the caller understand the instructions."
Steve wanted to argue that he didn't understand the instructions himself, but he was only just now beginning his training; presumably he would be taught all he needed to know.
He selected Stark Industries Technical Support Training: Module 1 and got started.
When Steve had learned to name all the working parts of a StarkPhone and all the different icons and screens and menus, and could identify every model by looking at them--or at least their holographic images--he retreated to the break room. He felt exhausted and dizzy with the rush of new information, but not on the verge of collapse as he had been the day before.
He sat down at the little table to wolf down the rest of the food he'd brought. He was debating whether getting up to raid the fruit bowl was worth the effort of moving when he heard a faint mechanical whirring, and he looked up with a smile just as DUM-E rolled into view.
"Hey, pal," Steve said. "Did you get bored over in the workshop?"
DUM-E made a nodding sort of motion with his arm and redirected to wheel into the room, coming to a neat stop beside Steve at the table. Steve grinned at him, and then DUM-E craned his arm around to pick up something he'd been carrying on his wide base: a plastic box of blueberries, half-empty. DUM-E shook the box encouragingly at Steve, so he took them, noticing the expensively simple label and the word Organic that always seemed to signal a food for masters only.
Steve looked at the robot. "Are these your boss's, buddy?"
DUM-E just nudged the box in Steve's hand closer to his body.
Steve looked up. "JARVIS? Is it okay to eat these?"
"Perfectly safe," JARVIS replied at once. "They are quite fresh, only rejected on cosmetic grounds."
Steve looked closer, and realized that all the blueberries in the box were torn, or slightly crushed, or odd shapes. Of course Stark had only wanted perfect blueberries. And of course he'd think nothing of throwing out the rest, no matter how much they cost.
"More for me, then," Steve muttered, and scooped up a messy handful, crushing them a little more in the process and staining his fingers purple.
Bucky had brought him blueberries once--his folks had taken Bucky and his sisters out in the car, somewhere out of the city where there was a berry farm. Bucky had somehow kept a little paper basket of blueberries back from his family and brought them to Steve that night, coming to him cheerfully sunburned and full of silly, loving complaints about his sisters and the mosquitoes and everything else while the two of them ate up all the berries sitting out on the fire escape.
Steve had already been sixteen then, already anticipating going into slavery. Bucky had been seventeen, determined to go with him.
Bucky had loved him, and he had loved Bucky, and they had shared a basket of blueberries and never said a word to each other about what it meant.
It should have made these blueberries, pilfered for him by a robot from Tony Stark, taste like ashes in his mouth, but they were just as sweet as when Bucky had been beside him, eating his fair share.
DUM-E took the box back when Steve had eaten every last bit of berry in it, and whirred off somewhere to dispose of it. Steve got up and went to the sink to wash his purple-stained hands, but the rushing water made him aware of another need. He dried his hands quickly and went next door to the bathroom to piss.
He rinsed off the little shield at the sink when he was done, shaking the water off it before he washed his own hands again, scrubbing at the purple on his fingertips and around the beds of his nails.
Somehow, looking down at his own hands under the bright white light made him remember catching himself the first time he'd gone up to the roof. His right hand had saved him then, on pure instinct, and he couldn't remember if it had gotten scraped in the process. He hadn't felt it, if it had, hadn't taken any notice of it before it healed away.
It seemed like a puzzle, looking down at his hands and working the liquid soap against his purple skin. The thought occurred to him like a solution, complete and correct.
I guess I'm going to live, then.
He looked at himself in the mirror. It seemed like an important thought to have; it ought to be visible somehow. But all he saw was himself, looking underweight and tired, unsmiling, his lips a little stained with blueberries. He stuck his tongue out to confirm that it was thoroughly purple, but there was nothing else to see. He finished rinsing his hands and dried them and went back to work.
His job, it turned out, was not only to read instructions to people but to figure out which instructions they needed. He would have a list of options to choose from, and would have to identify which applied based on what the caller told him. There were highlighted keywords and branching options of greater and greater specificity following from each choice, all eventually ending in a set of steps to guide the caller through.
Each step gave him a script to read, and he could touch different spots on the screen to get scripts for how to clarify different points.
Once he understood how to navigate the system of instructions, he got a screen that informed him, There are too many permutations of this troubleshooting and problem-solving process to memorize all of them. If you are comfortable with the guidance system, it's time to practice taking a call. If not, you can continue to review.
Steve stared at the screen for a moment. His head felt too full of new information and images and--I guess I'm going to live, then--to think. But it said practice, and anyway, what was the worst that could happen? He was helping people fix their phones, not coordinating a commando strike.
He selected I'm Ready.
Are you wearing your headset? the next screen prompted.
Steve looked around and spotted a flimsy plastic contraption at the end of the desk. He unfolded it and positioned the padded earpieces comfortably, folding down the small microphone receiver to rest by his cheek.
There was no way to answer the question on the screen; it took a moment before it occurred to Steve to say out loud, "Yes, I'm wearing my headset."
Immediately he heard an old-fashioned telephone bell ringing, seemingly from on his desk, just to one side of the interface his hands interacted with. He selected Accept Call, and the screen popped up with the standard greeting for him to read aloud.
"Good morning, thank you for calling StarkTech Support. My name is St--" He stumbled over it, his jaw dropping a little at the realization that he would be speaking to actual people, strangers, free people, telling them his own name, and then the screen flashed urgently at him.
He pushed the thought away and went on reading. "Excuse me. My name is Steve, and I'll be helping you today as much as I can over the phone, although some problems may require you to visit a store or schedule a technician visit. To let me access your device information quickly, could you tell your first and last name?"
"Sarah Hollander," the voice on the other end said promptly, and a prompt popped up on his screen, reminding him to confirm the spelling of her name.
"Is that Sarah with an H, or without?" Steve asked dutifully, thinking of his mother; he couldn't help picturing the woman--recording, or JARVIS doing a different voice, no doubt--as a nurse at the end of a night shift, needing to do this one last thing before she could go to bed.
"With," Sarah said. "And Hollander like the country plus E-R."
"Got it," Steve agreed. "And I've got the phone number you called from showing here--is that the number associated with your account?"
Steve tapped a couple of keys as prompted, and a profile popped up. "Okay, Sarah, thanks for that information. I see you've got a StarkPhone 6? What seems to be the trouble?"
Sarah sighed. "It's not accepting new contacts. I put them in, save them, and then when I go back to the list, they're not there."
"Okay," Steve said, clicking rapidly through the tree of keywords. "Okay, so it's a problem with saving contacts. Have you tried turning off the phone and turning it back on?"
"Yes," Sarah snapped, and Steve winced, noticing too late the sidebar on the screen that suggested being apologetic about this step.
"Okay, sorry to repeat something you already tried," Steve said, navigating to the next step on the flow chart. "It might be a data storage problem..."
It took a few more steps to find the source of trouble. Steve, figuring this was what he was really being tested on, exerted himself to coax the annoyance out of Sarah's voice until, after Steve had walked her through downloading a software patch and installing it, she said, "Oh! Oh, that did it, thank you so much!"
Steve was grinning, heart beating fast; he felt like he'd just taken a hill. "You're very welcome, ma'am. Anything else I can do to help?"
"No, you were great, thank you again." Sarah hung up, and Steve expected JARVIS or the training screen to immediately launch him into another scenario, but instead a gold star appeared on the screen.
Congratulations! You just successfully assisted your first customer!
Steve's jaw dropped. "She was... real?"
"We find that it's much more efficient to use actual callers in training than to have trainees spend time on recorded exercises, unless there are specific areas in need of addressing," JARVIS informed him smoothly. "Ms. Hollander was an actual customer. If you had encountered difficulties you would have been prompted to place her on hold while you received further instruction or transferred her call to a more experienced technician."
"Oh." Steve stared up at the ceiling, absorbing that. He'd helped a real person today--he'd spoken to a real person, told her his own real name. She had thanked him, had let him ease her annoyance.
If he had told her who he really was... But he couldn't, that was obvious. He was monitored, and what could some random person, maybe thousands of miles away, do to help him? He would only ruin some stranger's day without accomplishing anything.
And he was never going to accomplish anything. He was never going to escape, even into death. He was going to live. He was going to keep doing this.
He replayed the sound of her voice at the end, when she thanked him, searching for that sense of accomplishment. It had been there a second ago, but now all he felt was tired, boxed in to this quiet room. He let his eyes close until he felt the headset gently tugged away and opened his eyes to see that DUM-E had rolled up behind his chair.
DUM-E gently tapped his shoulder, and Steve nodded and turned. "Yeah, okay. JARVIS? Can I go?"
"By all means, Mr. Rogers. You are doing very well in your training. Tomorrow you will be able to continue taking customer calls, interspersed with further educational opportunities."
Yes, you can go, Steve translated. It still took him a few minutes to get out of his chair, and he kept one hand on DUM-E all the way to the elevator.
He visited the break room first thing the next morning, the dance music JARVIS had played for him in the elevator still echoing in his head. He was carrying his food in the zippered tote bag that had appeared in his apartment sometime while he was out at work the day before. The pillowcase, smelling faintly of apples, had been returned to his bed.
Steve poured himself some coffee--it would be a waste not to drink the coffee, wouldn't it?--and then, after the first scalding sip, he thought, What the hell. It's there.
He opened the refrigerator again and pulled out the little carton of milk, pouring in enough to top off his coffee and render it a medium brown that looked luxurious and faintly shameful all at once. It tasted rich and smooth when he took a sip. Another sip after that, he headed to his desk to begin the day.
The first order of business was a review of his call the day before with Sarah, but the computer told him he had done well, marking different segments of the call with green check marks and summarizing stuff he'd done right. He could have been faster, apparently, but he didn't lose points for that, and gained points for being polite, picking the right problem to solve, and correctly reading the stuff off the screen.
Well, that was something.
When the computer asked him if he was ready to take another call, Steve took a sip of his coffee, squared his shoulders, put on his headset, and selected yes.
"Good morning, thank you for calling--"
"Fucking finally!" The voice on the other end was male and angry; Steve's spine straightened and his jaw set instantly. "Jesus, how long does it take to get someone on the phone?"
"I'm sorry, sir," Steve said, reading the instructions on the screen. "My shift just started. What can I help you with?"
"My fuckin' phone doesn't work! That last update fucked up everything and now all this shit is wrong."
"I'm sorry to hear that, sir," Steve gritted out, clicking into the Problems after update decision tree. "In order to access your account, could I--"
"You don't need to access my account, you need to fix my fucking phone," the man snarled. "What kind of fucking idiots do they have answering phones now? You sure you're not supposed to be sucking--"
Steve's mouth was open, his face hot with rage, and the call cut off before he could say a word. He belatedly realized that the END CALL message had been flashing on his screen for several seconds.
"Abusive language from customers is not to be tolerated," JARVIS informed him, sounding rather gentle, which only made Steve feel angrier. "Please take a few moments to collect yourself before your next call."
Steve scowled, and reached over with his right hand to squeeze the slim brace that was all that remained on his left arm. All he wanted a few minutes for was to take a swing at the kind of person who talked that way to someone trying to help him, knowing it was likely a slave he was speaking to. Steve pounded his right fist into his left palm a few times, and then he couldn't sit still anymore.
He needed to run. He bounced up to his feet and out the door, and he was running as soon as he was in the corridor. This wasn't the measured pace he kept with Sam. He had no need to conserve energy, suddenly, only a need to keep himself from bouncing off of the walls or breaking right through them.
He pumped his arms hard, hands closed into fists, suppressing the urge to throw a punch at any of the walls, or even at the air. He knew better than to be seen making any threatening or violent gestures, even in this seeming privacy. The offices and labs he passed were a blur of darkened glass; he noticed when he completed a lap and only pushed himself faster.
Steve might have kept running indefinitely if DUM-E hadn't popped out of a doorway. Steve leapt into the air, twisting like a cat to avoid the robot, and came down in a somersault that carried him another few yards down the hall before he landed flat on his back. His momentum thumped down into nothing, just like that, and he lay still, panting, until DUM-E came over and prodded at him. Steve pulled himself up on the offered arm.
He splashed water on his face and fixed his rumpled clothes before he went and sat down again at his desk. JARVIS said only, "Are you prepared to take your next call?"
Steve got his headset in place and nodded. He went through the motions of accepting the call, which were already becoming familiar. This caller was another man, distracted but not rude, following Steve's directions but so slowly that Steve had time to get a little bored between steps, his attention wandering.
It didn't matter much, because they only got to the first diagnostic step--"I'm sorry to have to suggest something you probably already tried, but could you just turn the device off, wait thirty seconds, and turn it back on?"--before the guy said, "Oh, hey! I should've tried that."
He hung up a few seconds later, leaving Steve feeling off-balance, oddly unsatisfied. The rude caller had been a challenge, at least; this one was just... nothing.
"Please take a few moments to prepare yourself before your next call," JARVIS intoned, and Steve glanced up at the ceiling, suspecting that he didn't have much of anybody's attention right now. He spun his chair around in a circle and then pulled out his own phone, and looked down at it for a moment.
Feeling daring, he opened up his text messages and tapped out a message to Sam. You ever get bored at work?
Now and then, on a good day, Sam replied. Training not keeping your interest today?
I'm supposed to be taking a few minutes to prepare myself for the next thing, Steve typed out.
Two options, Sam replied.
You can install Cookie Clicker or you can go into the browser and Google something you're interested in. Either way, time on your hands will never be a problem again.
Steve's training had given him a general understanding of the different apps that could be installed on a phone; he knew that a web browser was standard, but the icons had looked unfamiliar, and when he thumbed around the screens he confirmed that his own phone didn't have any such thing.
He looked up in the app search what Cookie Clicker was, and confirmed his own suspicion that it was a cure worse than the disease. He could try to come up with some other way to entertain himself, or...
Steve tried clicking out of the computer interface for managing calls, and found a desktop screen much like the one on his phone, except that this one had an icon for a web browser. He knew that the omission of a browser on his phone hadn't been accidental; surely, if they didn't want him to have access to it here, JARVIS would block him somehow, or at least order him back to work?
He clicked, and a new window popped up, offering him a selection of starting points. He spotted the one Sam had mentioned, Google, and tapped on that, only to be confronted by a plain screen with an empty search bar.
Something you're interested in, Sam had said. Steve's mind was abruptly blank of things he was interested in; for a second all he could think of was Bucky's name--but what could that possibly bring him? A death notice from seventy years ago? A notation about where a gravestone had been laid down for him?
He wondered if anyone had placed one for him. Peggy might have, he thought, once the war was over and there was time to think of things outside the next fight.
Steve got as far as typing in her name and then jerked his hands back from the interface. What was it going to tell him about Peggy? Either she was dead--probably long since--or she was alive and in her nineties and no less out of his reach.
And even if he could contact her somehow, he would have to ask her what her final report had said, that they could claim his crash of the Valkyrie had constituted desertion. Had she blamed him somehow? Had the SSR hidden the truth of what he was doing, setting him up for the last four years? If Peggy was alive, did she already know where he was, and what was happening to him, and not give a damn for some fella she'd known for a couple of years seven decades ago?
No. He couldn't believe that of Peggy, no matter how much time had gone by. But even if she had somehow found out that he was alive four years ago, she would have to believe he was dead now; everyone outside this building believed the slave he had been for the last four years was dead now. Peggy was lost to him, all the Howlies were lost to him, just as much as Bucky and his mother.
He was going to live; he had to think about the future, or at least the present. He had a life here. He would wake up tomorrow and run with Sam.
He opened his eyes and tapped in time of sunrise in New York tomorrow?
He'd barely stopped typing before the answer appeared in large black numerals: 5:29 AM.
Below that, in smaller, fainter type, it said, Sunrise in New York City, NY, July 2, 2015.
Steve stared, feeling poleaxed. He'd been told the date, there were calendars on his phone, but somehow it hadn't sunk in until right now. When he got up to run in the pre-dawn dark with Sam tomorrow morning, it would be the second day of July.
His birthday was three days away, and if he had decided to live he surely had to recognize the day--as much of it as he carved out for that purpose, anyway. Being a slave on Independence Day was a tricky thing, more so when that day was also his own birthday, one of the few moments in the year that he insisted on marking for himself.
How would he celebrate it this year? He recoiled from the idea of telling Sam that that day was his birthday; he usually only acknowledged it to himself, in whatever time he had in bed, before the day really began. He had always refused to take any offered holiday, instead engaging in the old tradition of a slave slowdown on that day, silent protest against the masters' celebration of freedom.
Bucky had always known what the day meant to him, of course, but Steve shook off the thought fiercely. He was on his own for this birthday. He had to make something of it for himself.
He closed the browser and pushed all of those thoughts away, bringing the tech support program back up and clicking the button to declare himself ready for another call.
He took four more calls, and completed another few training modules, before JARVIS announced him done for the day. DUM-E didn't show up to say goodbye. Steve wasn't sure whether that meant Stark was in one of the blacked-out rooms down the hall, or if he had scared the robot with his wild running that morning.
Steve went up to his apartment alone and ate a late lunch or early dinner, and then wandered around his little apartment, at a loss for what to do now. He actually felt awake for once, unable to retreat into sleep to kill the hours until he could go up to the roof with Sam, or back to work where he would have JARVIS and DUM-E for company, and calls on the phone to deal with.
He picked up his phone and considered downloading the mind-numbing game Sam had suggested, and then noticed that the browser icon had appeared on his phone. He opened it up and found his way to Google again, but he didn't know what he dared to ask.
Steve sighed and tossed the phone down on his bed, and resigned himself to facing the problem head on. He was going to live, and he had a birthday to celebrate. He had a whole life ahead of him. There was no knowing what that would look like, but it was past time he formed some kind of plan for it.
His mind turned utterly blank, a yawning emptiness that felt like falling toward a vast field of white. Steve fought the feeling of unreasoning terror for a moment, standing still and scowling at the floor. Think, think, what next, what next?
When he could feel his heart thumping in his ears and started to hear the scream of airplane engines and stressed steel around him, Steve broke. He strode away as if the problem were the exact spot where he was standing, and found himself in the bathroom.
Okay, yes, that was a problem he could solve. He needed to take a piss.
He unclipped the little shield from his belt and unzipped, every motion quick and automatic, and his body felt solid and steady again by the time he was watching the stream land neatly on target. He didn't think about anything for a minute but controlling the angles.
It was only when he was wiping off that a new thought occurred to him. He spread his hands and actually looked down at his dick, pinned in a useless curve by the four rings that looped through it and into his abdomen.
He hardly noticed it most of the time; he had gotten his cock-lock when he was sixteen, and had spent all his adolescence anticipating it. There were times when he felt consumed by wanting someone, something, but he could hardly remember what any of it actually felt like. He'd touched himself as little as he could before he got the lock, and had never known anyone else's touch either.
But now he had a whole life ahead of him to find out what it might be like. If Dr. Cho had been telling him the truth about the infib not being required--being illegal for an owner to impose--then he need not even wait for the murky prospect of being freed somewhere safe when he was deemed ready.
That still left all the other impossible options she had outlined for getting rid of the infib, but... one thing at a time. Steve washed up and rinsed the little shield, leaving it by the sink as he went out to find his phone.
He tried to imagine what he could ask Sam without giving himself away entirely or going way out of bounds, but when he unlocked the phone, it was still showing the Google screen.
He had access to the browser now. Steve glanced toward the ceiling, though JARVIS had never spoken to him while he was in his own apartment.
Steve opened a new text message instead and quickly tapped out, Any restrictions on my use of the browser app?
Several, JARVIS replied immediately. But you're not expected to remember them. The browser will lock you out of anything you're not cleared to access. There is no penalty for trying.
Steve shook his head slightly, still bewildered by the things he was allowed here. Then he sat down and navigated back to the browser. His thumbs trembled, and he finally entered just a phrase: slave infibulation.
He got an immediate list of results--thousands of results, apparently, far more than he could possibly read. He scrolled down the list, catching phrases in the summary: common in the first half of the 20th century, considered inhumane, unconstitutional...
But Dr. Cho had also said there were cases where the infib was still used as punishment--for sexual assault. Steve clicked a couple of links and found the language Dr. Cho had used, and a few stomach-turning examples of the kinds of men who were thought to warrant an infib.
That meant that anyone who happened to see the thing on him would think he had earned it by hurting someone--maybe hurting a kid.
Steve had never been ashamed of his infib before. It was normal when he got it, and in any group of slaves there were at least a significant minority in the same boat. It didn't say much good about him, but nothing that couldn't be seen at a glance: he was scrawny, poor, no kind of catch for any woman.
But now, even revealing that he had ever had an infibulation would require him to either explain his entire fantastical trip to the 21st century, or have the other thinking the very worst of him.
Getting rid of it, on the other hand, would require accepting one of Dr. Cho's suggestions. Sedation, restraints, Tony Stark...
Steve scowled down at his phone, feeling backed into a nasty corner by this well-meaning future and all these well-meaning people. But there had to be a way out; there was always a way out. He just had to think it through.
He wasn't going to keep the infib, and he wasn't going to let Dr. Cho remove it.
When he thought of it like that, the alternative was actually obvious. Steve took his phone with him when he went back into the bathroom to do some recon.
He stripped all his clothes off and perched on the counter with one foot propped on the far edge of the sink and the other dangling above the toilet. The light was best here, even if he had his back to the mirror and couldn't use it to help him see anything.
It was all easy enough to see, though, as rarely as he really looked at it. All the attachment points were right there, low on his belly, just above the pubic bone. He hadn't been at his most observant at the time, but he remembered Howard talking to the surgeon about where to put the rings. He tugged at them now and winced at the way they pulled from deep inside; to keep them anchored, they'd been looped around tendons or through the abdominal muscle, maybe both.
Taking the rings out from that side would require deep cuts, and Steve knew his advanced healing didn't protect him from pain, and not entirely from the possibility of infection or major blood loss. He was much more likely than a normal person to survive, and would probably recover quickly, but he could still hurt himself badly mucking around his own belly with a knife. And he really, really didn't want to think about what would happen if he missed work because he'd stuck a knife in his own guts.
Dr. Fox would have so many questions for him. Steve grimaced and shook his head, then eyed the opposite ends of the rings.
They each ran only a quarter-inch or so under the surface of his dick. Two through the head on either side of the opening and above it, two through the shaft just behind the head. Steve could see the big vein running up the underside of his cock, permanently visible because of the way his cock was pinned back.
There wouldn't be any vessels that big where the rings were. A cut along the inner curve of each ring to free it, and he'd be out. Steve touched each spot in turn, and out of curiosity he tried pressing a fingernail to the spot he'd have to cut on the right side.
"Fuck." He jerked his hand away and sat there panting for a moment before the sharp sting faded and his balls quit trying to crawl up inside his body.
So, safer but maybe just as painful, maybe even worse. Infection wasn't even out of the question. He thought about the kitchen knives, the angles involved, and wondered just how sharp those blades actually were. There wasn't much room; he'd need a small blade to keep from cutting himself anywhere else.
There was going to be blood to clean up, too. No way around that. He was going to need something to use for bandages, something to sterilize the cuts...
He was going to need help, even if he didn't want to go anywhere near Dr. Cho. He had a feeling he shouldn't ask JARVIS.
For a second he imagined asking DUM-E to bring him the contents of whatever first aid kit Tony Stark kept in his workshop, but that would be the same as telling JARVIS what he meant to do.
He needed a friend for this. Luckily, he was pretty sure he had one, and a quiet place where he could talk to him, too.
Steve picked up his phone and located his texts with Sam. You busy tonight?
Steve spent the hours until his meeting with Sam pacing, refining his plan, and systematically searching his apartment for things that he might be able to use. He didn't realize until the moment he saw Sam pacing stiffly up and down a stretch of the gravel walk that Sam might have felt any fraction of the same nervous anticipation. Steve's stomach swooped at the thought that Sam thought Steve had wanted to meet him for something else, something...
He was uncomfortably aware of his cock in his pants, how much he couldn't use it for and how much he soon could, if he just pulled this off.
Sam caught sight of him in the next second, and Steve saw him consciously adopt his more usual careless pose as Steve cut across the grass toward him; it made him wonder whether he'd been making Sam nervous all along.
"Hey, man," Sam's smile flashed in the dimness. "What's up? Couldn't wait a whole night for some quality time?"
Steve smiled back. "I guess not. I, uh, I need to ask you a favor."
Sam's eyebrows rose. "If you want me to help you bust out of here..."
Steve shook his head, and then he smiled a little and said, "Not this week, anyway. But I need some medical supplies, and I don't think Dr. Cho will let me have them if I ask for them."
Sam's mouth opened while his eyebrows tried to climb higher, and then he shook his head. "Okay, no, I'm gonna need a lot more information than that. Come on, we're gonna sit down for this."
Steve followed Sam over to a bench and sat down beside him, wondering as he did if just sitting down would be different once he got rid of his infib. Would his dick flop around and get in the way? As tight as his new pants were, maybe it still wouldn't have room, but would it feel different?
It was like being thirteen all over again. He couldn't stop thinking about his dick. Maybe he shouldn't take the infib out, if it was just going to distract him all the time--but then again maybe he'd earned the right to be distracted.
"Okay," Sam said. "So, first, just asking, no judgment, are you hoping to use these medical supplies to hurt or kill yourself?"
Steve shook his head quickly, then hesitated. "I mean... it'll hurt, but no, not like that. I'm not going to do anything like that again, I..." It sounded pathetic and grandiose at the same time, when he tried to form the words to say it out loud. I've decided to live. "I'm okay waiting to get free from here the normal way."
Sam leaned forward, putting his face in his hands, and took a couple of visible breaths. Steve raised his hand, wanting to touch him, then jerked it back when Sam sat up again.
"Okay," Sam said. "Let's say I take your word for that one, that's good. Progress. Is this about your chip?"
Steve shook his head, gesturing to his left arm. "Dr. Cho already got that. She let me look at the scans myself. I don't have a chip anymore."
"You..." Sam shook his head. "Okay, not your chip. But you're not jumping in to tell me that you're not asking me for something you could use for that, and you said it's going to hurt, so you're gonna have to tell me what exactly you're planning to do here."
Steve took a deep breath. There was still a chance he wouldn't have to tell Sam all of the truth, wouldn't have to find out if he could make Sam believe him about what it meant that he had an infib to get rid of. "Dr. Cho offered to perform a... procedure. To remove something one of my former owners left behind. I'd rather do it myself, and I think I can do it safely. I just need a scalpel and some bandages and iodine."
"Oh is that all," Sam muttered. "And I'll just give you this stuff and you'll go on your way to operate on yourself?"
"It's... not very deep," Steve offered. "And I heal really quickly." He twisted to show Sam his arm, entirely unbraced now, and showing only a fading scar where it had been all but cut off. "See?"
Sam squinted in the darkness and raised a hand. "Can I..."
Steve licked his lips and nodded, steadying himself against the gentle touch of Sam's fingers on his upper arm.
"That is... impressive," Sam admitted. "But I know that it still hurt when they did it, and I know that pain has a way of making it hard to keep your hands steady. You didn't ask for any painkillers."
Steve shrugged. "I metabolize them too fast to do much good, and I don't want anything that would make me woozy."
Sam shook his head. "And you don't want to tell me what it is that you're going to cut out of yourself?"
Steve shook his head. "Please don't... don't ask Dr. Cho. Please."
Sam looked away. "Offering to help you with it isn't gonna go over well either, then?"
Steve shook his head. Even if Sam believed him... no. This was his to do, with his own hands. After all this time lying around being rescued, he needed to do this one part of the work to make himself free.
Sam blew out a breath. "How's this: I'll have the stuff, plus some other things I think you should probably use for whatever this is, at my apartment tomorrow night after I get off shift. You can come by and use what I've got, and you can go in the bathroom for privacy, but I'm not going out of earshot, because if anything goes wrong you're gonna need someone to stop the bleeding and stitch you up."
Steve grimaced. The thought of Sam coming in on the middle of what he was planning on was even worse than the thought of telling him, but he could hear the steel in Sam's voice. He knew this was the best offer he would get, and it was more than he had any right to ask. "Yeah, okay. Thanks."
Sam just shook his head. "You should really talk to Dr. Fox, at least."
Steve winced. He'd rather talk to Dr. Cho, even allowing for the possibility that she might sedate him and strap him down for his own good. "Sam, I swear, it's not like that."
"Yeah, yeah," Sam muttered, standing up and offering his hand to Steve. "Come on, it's late for people who get up before dawn to run in circles, we both oughta be in bed."
Steve took Sam's hand and let Sam pull him up; for a moment they stood close enough for Steve to feel Sam's body heat in the cool night air, their faces just a breath apart. Sam held his gaze, his hand still gripping Steve's, long enough that Steve wasn't sure whether it was a challenge or something else entirely.
He hadn't decided yet when Sam let go of him and turned away, and there was nothing for Steve to do but follow him, and hope he had chosen the right person to trust.
The next day's work shift passed in a distracted haze. Steve's physical awareness of his dick was compounded by the thought of what he was planning on doing to it that night. He'd never backed down from danger or the possibility of pain, but he'd also never had this much time to coldly contemplate it beforehand.
And in the middle of all that, he kept getting phone calls and gently asking people if they had tried turning their device off and turning it back on. He got less-than-perfect scores on a couple of his calls for occasionally saying nonsensical things or reading the screen wrong, and JARVIS made him repeat a couple of training modules before dismissing him for the day.
Steve went without argument, knowing he was more of a hazard than a help. That left him with the question of what to do for the rest of the day, but when he stepped off the elevator on his own floor, Dr. Fox was standing there waiting for him.
"Hey, it's okay," she said with a smile. "I promise, this won't hurt a bit."
Steve forced a smile. She had been kind, really, and helpful, and nothing she had made him talk about had been as bad as all that.
"Yeah, okay." Steve gestured uncertainly down the hall toward his apartment.
Dr. Fox shook her head. "Actually I wanted you to come up to my office, if you don't mind? I have some materials there I want you to try out."
Steve felt a stirring of unease--where was she really taking him, what had Sam told her, how much did she know?--but there was nothing for it but to go along and see what happened. He stepped aside to let her enter the elevator, and the door promptly closed, the elevator rising again without either of them pressing a button or saying a word.
JARVIS didn't play any music this time.
They emerged on the 90th floor, in a corridor with a carpeted floor and light blue walls. Steve noted that there was no art on the walls, and the light came from smooth, seamless-looking panels in the ceiling. No obstacles; no possible weapons.
Dr. Fox led him to the end of the hall and through a door on the left. The windows looked out on a bright sky stretching above an eastward view, an angle he didn't get to see well from the roof, or during daylight.
Dr. Fox shut the door and stood beside him, and Steve didn't abuse her patience for more than a few minutes, storing the sight away in his memory. Then he said, "So, what did you want me to try?"
"Ah, yes, right over here." Dr. Fox gestured to a table with mismatched chairs drawn up around it and a couple of lidless cardboard boxes in the middle. Steve walked over and stopped short at the riot of color inside--crayons, colored pencils, markers, colored paper, all sorts of odds and ends united only by their bright colors.
"Have a seat," Dr. Fox said.
Steve flexed his right hand, where the cut from the broken stylus had long since healed without a trace. He should have known that that test result wouldn't have escaped notice. "You want me to draw something?"
"If you want," Dr. Fox said lightly. She pulled out a couple of folders and flipped them open on the table as she took a seat cater-corner from his. "You can just color, if you'd rather? I'd just like you to keep your hands busy doing whatever you want with the supplies here while we chat."
Steve blew out a breath and reached for one of the folders, sorting through the selection. He flipped quickly past a number of obviously childish cartoon characters and finally chose one with a complex symmetrical pattern.
Dr. Fox promptly took a similar sheet from the folder when he passed it back, and grabbed a box of crayons while Steve pulled out a box of colored pencils. She dumped all the crayons out, making a show of sorting through them.
Steve plucked out a blue pencil and started meticulously filling in small circles, keeping his eyes on the page and not looking to see whether Dr. Fox was also using blue.
"So, you've had a few days at your new job now," Dr. Fox said in an absent tone. "How's that treating you?"
"The job, or the customers?" Steve replied, and Dr. Fox snorted.
Steve glanced up to see her looking amused. He smiled back, feeling a little steadier with something to talk about that wasn't himself. "Some are real nice, some are--not. I helped a woman today--eighty-four years old, she said her grandson set up her email, and she was too embarrassed to tell him she didn't know how to use it, but by the time we got off the phone she had sent him a message and got one back."
Dr. Fox nodded in his peripheral vision. "She was one of the nice ones, I hope?"
Steve nodded, setting down the blue pencil and picking up a green one to do the curling shapes around the dots. "Yeah, she was sweet. And--I like helping people. You were right about that. Even if it's just their phones, it's good to know I can help people even from here, be some kind of use."
He half expected her to jump on that, to needle him about being of use when he wasn't a slave anymore, but she nodded again instead. "Everyone needs that, to some extent. To feel like there's something we can give to other people. And how about what you're getting--how's the training been, with JARVIS?"
"Well, would've been nice to have somebody explain to me who the fella in the ceiling is before I was introducing myself to him." Steve glanced up as he said it, wondering if JARVIS was here, now, listening.
"My office isn't monitored, to protect patient confidentiality," Dr. Fox said. "And--sorry about that, most of our newcomers wind up encountering JARVIS during their stay in intake. You threw off our usual timelines a little."
Steve glanced over at her, bracing himself for more discussion of his trip to the roof, but she said, "Do they keep coffee and fruit in the break room for you?"
Steve frowned and looked down. "Uh. Yeah. I... I tried putting the caramel flavoring in my coffee today."
"Ohh, do you like that one? I'm just waiting for pumpkin spice season."
Steve blinked down at the page in front of him. "Uh, yeah, it was... nice." He set down the green pencil and poked through the box until he found a good shade of yellow. Dr. Fox hadn't asked him another question; maybe he was supposed to join in the illusion of a casual chat.
"When does pumpkin spice season start?" he inquired politely.
"Ugh, probably September or something ridiculous? It's hard to even remember whether it's supposed to be Halloween or Thanksgiving or just fall. Definitely not July, though."
Steve nodded sagely. "This must be more, what, apple pie season?"
Dr. Fox made an amused noise. "Well, for those of us who are forced to go outside during daylight hours it's iced cappuccino season, but apple pie coffee could be the next big thing; then we'd have just about a complete round of seasonal flavors to obsess over."
Steve didn't ask her what the others were, but she asked him how he was sleeping, so the lull didn't stretch too long. He should have known better, but he let himself fall into the rhythm of it, focusing on choosing colors to fill in his design, answering her questions as if he really was just making polite conversation.
He actually managed to forget, after a while, that there was anything else to think about. He got absorbed in his little task and the conversation, occasionally looking out the windows to watch the pale blue of the afternoon sky deepen.
Then Dr. Fox said, "Well, I think that's everything I needed to ask you. May I see that?"
Steve's heart kicked into double time with relief and anticipation as he realized he was about to get away with this. He slid the brightly colored page across to her, and she smiled down at it.
"This is lovely. You have an eye for color," Dr. Fox said.
"Thank you," Steve said, not letting himself look toward the door. Almost, almost...
She was smiling as she looked up and met his eyes. "Well, I think we killed enough time--Sam got off shift about ten minutes ago."
Steve's stomach dropped. He stared at her, helpless to move.
Dr. Fox smiled a little wider and reached over to pat his hand. "Yeah, so that confirms my guess that the stuff he signed out of the clinic this morning is for you."
Steve looked away, struggling to get his expression under control.
"The good news is, I'm feeling pretty confident that your state of mind is better than I've seen it so far," Dr. Fox went on. "And if I'm not mistaken, you didn't spend the last hour fretting and waiting for Sam to be off-shift, so that's better than the alternative."
Steve looked at her again, and found nothing but the same unfathomably open, friendly expression she always seemed to wear.
"Yeah," Steve said finally. "Thanks."
Dr. Fox nodded. "Good talking to you. Do you mind if I keep this?"
Steve shook his head, baffled, and Dr. Fox stood up to show him the way back to the elevator.
Steve stopped at his own apartment first. He took a piss, wondering how different it would be next time, so distracted that he fumbled and made a mess of himself worse than he had the first day after he got the infib.
It would heal quickly, at least. He remembered that much.
He needed a shower after that, and he scrubbed himself as clean as he could with the soap he had available and put on loose clean clothes. He didn't bother with underwear, but after a second's thought he grabbed a clean pair of the loosest, softest shorts from his drawer and wrapped them up in a towel along with his belt.
There wasn't anything else he could think of to take; it wasn't as if he planned to stay at Sam's for long.
He texted Sam. Now okay? Dr. Fox said you would be off work now.
The three dots that showed Sam was typing appeared and disappeared a couple of times before Sam replied, Yeah, now's fine.
Steve froze in the act of opening his front door when he heard voices. He looked out cautiously and saw two people he'd never seen before--a blonde woman and a young guy with dark curly hair. They were walking away from him, headed to apartments on the other side of the hall, and Steve stood staring after them for a few seconds, transfixed by this evidence of other lives outside the narrow path of his own.
The woman glanced back over her shoulder, giving Steve a long look while the man with her chattered on, oblivious. Steve stepped hurriedly out of his door, yanking it shut behind him, and headed toward Sam's with long, unhesitating strides that carried him to the familiar door all too quickly.
Sam opened the door almost before Steve knocked; Steve saw him spot the towel-wrapped bundle under Steve's arm, but he waved Steve inside without remarking on it. "Come on, let's do this."
Steve stepped inside, still struggling for the words to tell Sam that there wasn't any us doing this when Sam said briskly, "You eaten anything in the last few hours?"
Steve shook his head, his stomach clenching uneasily at the very thought of food.
"Good," Sam said, nodding. "You eat before that? Lunch? I know you had breakfast."
Steve nodded again. "Yeah, at work." He tried a smile. "I'm not gonna faint."
Sam shook his head, his expression not lightening at all. "You don't know that. Come on, let me give you the tour."
He led Steve to the door of his bathroom, which was laid out almost exactly like Steve's.
The floor was covered with the blue papery cloths that reminded him of his stay in the clinic, though he noticed plastic sheeting peeking out at the edges--easy cleanup, good. Blue sheeting covered the toilet as well, and rested over a metal tray on the counter by the sink.
"Four scalpels," Sam said, lifting up the cover on the tray and pointing. "You cut through anything tough or drop one, switch to the next one, because the edges lose perfect sharpness quicker than you'd think. Forceps, if you need to pull anything out. Scissors, if you have to cut like that. Sutures."
Sam dropped the cover over the tray and pointed to the other items on the counter in turn. "Disinfectant, get a good coat of it all over and wait at least thirty seconds before you make an incision. More sterile drapes--you can use those to cover any part of your body you're not disinfecting. Scrub your hands with that soap--you can also use the gloves, but you'll probably have a better grip on your instruments without. All the blood's going to be your own, so as long as your hands are clean you're not going to pass anything either way. Pressure bandages, gauze, tape, if you actually get that far without calling me in."
Steve looked up from the array of supplies to meet Sam's stern gaze in the mirror. He nodded, accepting all of it at once.
Sam shook his head, sighing. "If you're gonna puke, turn your head. In the bathtub or sink would be great, but definitely not on your hands or whatever you're cutting. If I hear vomiting, if I hear you fall over, or if you don't answer me when I call to you, I'm coming in."
"Screaming?" Steve wondered how soundproof these apartments were from each other, and whether Sam had neighbors around who worked the same shift and were home now, settling into their evenings at home.
Sam shrugged, and now, finally, one corner of his mouth did turn up. "Depends on how long you keep it up. If I think you're learning your damn lesson about doing things on your own I'll let you keep going."
Steve smiled, feeling a blessed little fragment of relief.
Sam dropped his gaze, looking around again at the supplies he'd laid out. "Steve, I gotta tell you--this is some field triage shit, okay? You don't do this when you could have proper sterile conditions, and you don't wield a scalpel on yourself when you could have anyone else do it. So I am begging you, as a friend, whatever this is, please let me do it for you."
Steve looked down and shook his head firmly. "I can't, Sam. I can't have anyone else do this for me. This is mine. But thank you for all of this. I know I can't make this up to you, but I--"
"No, hey, knock that off," Sam said, gripping Steve's shoulder, so warm and present that Steve forgot everything else for the space of a couple of breaths.
"You gotta do what you gotta do," Sam said in a low, firm voice. "And I gotta worry about it and wish you were getting better medical care than what we can do here, like this. But when it comes down to it, man, there's nothing I'm not gonna do to help you own your body. That's a hell of a lot more important than my Thursday night. Okay?"
Steve gave a jerky nod. "Okay. I should just--get this over with."
Sam nodded, squeezed his shoulder one more time, and stepped back, letting Steve step inside the bathroom alone. Steve shut the door and set his little bundle down on a clear space on the counter, glancing at his own face and then quickly away.
He had an idea of what he had looked like going into battle: grim, calm, resolved. He knew he didn't look like that, and he didn't feel like it, either. He felt excited and a little sick, but without the adrenaline and focus of a fight.
Well, the pain would probably fix that. Steve looked around and chose his spot to sit--propped up with his back against the bathtub, so that he could vomit into it without moving much, and the covered toilet could serve as a side table. He rearranged the supplies to be ready to hand, then took his clothes off and set them, along with the clean underwear, on the emptied counter.
He scrubbed his hands next. The soap had a sharp smell and foamed up plentifully; he remembered the carbolic soap his mother had used, and then pushed that thought away.
He sat down in his chosen spot and leaned over to close his teeth on the belt he'd brought, maneuvering the length of it behind his shoulder without using his clean hands. He spread one of the blue drapes over his lap, covering himself from his balls down. Then he reached for the disinfectant and poured it all over the head of his dick and his belly.
For a count of thirty, he looked down at his dick, and the rings shining silver out of the orangey-red disinfectant, and considered his plan of attack. Which first was really the only question--that and how to be sure the first incisions wouldn't simply slip back into place and start to heal around the rings again before he could finish the rest.
He glanced at the gauze and tape, mentally rehearsing the movements required, and then the count of thirty was up. He swiped the disinfectant away so he could see what he was doing, and it was time.
He picked up the first scalpel and angled it in against the inner curve of the lower ring on the left side of his dick--that one would be hardest to reach, and he figured it should get the steadiest hands. The length of the scalpel blade covered the whole distance he had to cut, less than half an inch where the ring ran under the surface of his dick.
He took a breath and pressed in, fast and hard; he felt the jarring impact of the blade against the metal of the ring a second before the pain hit. The lights in the room seemed to brighten to midday sun, a rushing sound filling his ears as sweat broke out all over his body. He was aware of the taste of leather and metal in his mouth, a long drawn-out groan escaping his throat as his hand clutched tight on the handle of the scalpel.
Only when he ran out of breath and had to inhale did he finally remember to draw the scalpel out, and then the welling blood turned to a gush. He made a higher-pitched noise at the sight but made himself toss the used scalpel into the bathtub and grab a square of gauze with his right hand, using the left to actually tug the blood-coated curve of metal out of the channel it had carved into his dick. It shifted in his grip, the whole ring pushing further into his belly and sending a violent surge of nausea through him as he pressed the gauze into place against the cut.
"Steve?" Sam's voice seemed to come from much further than the other side of the door, as if there were a rushing river or leaping flames between them.
Steve tilted his head back so the belt wouldn't slip from his mouth and called out, only somewhat garbled, "Yeah! One down."
"How many to go?"
Steve squeezed his eyes shut and bit down on the belt, not looking down at the gauze though he could feel the warm wetness of blood seeping through to his fingers. "Three!"
"Three, okay," Sam replied, sounding a little nearer. "You can do this, Steve."
Steve nodded, gritting his teeth on the belt again and forcing himself to breathe evenly through his nose. The pain was already fading, though he could still feel the rush of adrenaline powering his body. He had to use it before it could fade.
He wiped his right hand and grabbed a fresh square of gauze and the medical tape, and with only a little fumbling got the first cut bandaged. He had to wipe his hands again--there would be smears of blood everywhere by the time he was done--and then picked up a fresh scalpel, took a breath to steady himself as he lined it up, and pushed the blade in.
He felt the blade strike the metal of the ring, but this time he'd put too much force behind it, less perfectly aligned. The blade slipped sideways, and Steve jerked it back as a high-pitched cry tore out of him. His vision seemed to narrow to the bright red blood, the fresh pain and the sickening sight blocking out everything else in the world for a moment.
Then he grabbed for gauze and shoved it against the side of his dick, only remembering after a few seconds to tug the ring free of the opened channel. The sensation of it made him cry out again and this time the sound wasn't the only thing he couldn't stop boiling up his throat. He clamped his hands down, holding the ring back and the gauze tight to the incision as he twisted to get his face over the bathtub, spitting out the belt and trying to gag without a sound.
Bile burned his throat and mouth, forcing him to spit it out because there wasn't enough to propel it far. His stomach wrung itself a few times in a row, making him cough and spit to clear his mouth, but his fast metabolism was good for that much: there was nothing in his stomach to empty out.
"Two down," Steve called back, keeping his hands in place and resting his cheek against the cool rim of the tub for a moment before he untwisted and surveyed the damage.
Both of the rings he'd detached from his dick had pushed back out to their fullest extent with the motion of his gagging, and the shakily-applied tape and gauze was already slipping out of place on the left side of his dick as the ring pushed against it. On the right side, blood was leaking steadily from the saturated wad of gauze in his hand, and the slipped incision looked to have gone clear through the side of his dick. It was only when he started trying to wipe the blood away that he realized the scalpel hadn't stopped there--he'd cut into his thigh, too, luckily not close to the femoral artery.
His vision went a little gray and he turned his head again and gagged. He'd seen men die that way, a rush of blood from the thigh that just couldn't be stopped. He wadded up the already-bloodied blue drape covering his legs and pressed it against his thigh with his wrist while keeping pressure on his dick.
The pain faded quickly, but as he waited for some sense that the bleeding was stopping he became aware of the sweat slicking his skin, the lingering feeling of nausea and the pounding in his head. The smell of blood only partially covered the smell of bile, and his stomach heaved when he looked down at the two remaining rings in his dick.
But he wasn't doing this to leave the job half done. He just had to wait for the bleeding to slow so he could get his hands back, and then he would finish the job. He closed his eyes and focused on breathing until Sam called out, "Steve?"
"Yeah," Steve opened his eyes. "How long's it been?"
"Eight minutes since you made the second cut," Sam replied.
Steve nodded. He'd never had a non-arterial wound that didn't clot after ten minutes of pressure, and this wasn't the worst he'd ever had. At least not in terms of blood flow.
It still took him another minute before he could unclench his hands and peel them back to check, but the cut in his thigh was starting to scab and the blood from his dick was no more than a slow seep. He gritted his teeth against another wave of nausea and fumbled more gauze and tape into place to hold the laceration together all the way around while keeping the vibranium ring out of the way.
He wiped his hands again, then his sweating face and the back of his neck. He wanted a shower like he'd never wanted anything else in his life and he was also absolutely certain that if he tried to stand up right now he would vomit, or pass out, or both.
"Right here," Sam called back immediately.
Steve looked at the pile of supplies. There was bloodied gauze scattered all around him--he should have used one of the thick pressure bandages, that last time, but he'd just grabbed for the gauze without thinking, and now there wasn't so much left that he was sure he wouldn't run out.
"Under the sink," Sam replied promptly. "Hand sanitizer, too, use a lot of it."
Steve shuddered out a shaky sound, not sure whether he was relieved or disappointed that Sam hadn't had to come in for that, that he hadn't arrived at the point where there was no alternative to letting Sam see.
He also wasn't sure he could move as far as the cupboard under the sink without gagging again. He eyed the distance, planning his movements, and then scooted forward carefully, trying not to tense his abdomen or change the angle of his body. He used one foot to push the cabinet door open, and then scooted in until he could reach the box of gauze pads and the half-gallon container of hand sanitizer. He managed to push both of them across the bloodied drapes covering the floor before he scooted back into place himself, noticing as he did the clean blue void where his ass had been. Everything around it was marred with blood, fresh red drops and rusty half-dry smears and everything in between.
He got himself back into position, the side of the bathtub cool and solid against his back, and remembered to use the sanitizer on his hands before he picked up another scalpel. He used a blob of the clear gel to clean off the head of his dick, looking down at the two remaining piercings above the mess of wadded, bloodstained bandages just behind the glans.
His hands were shaking already, even though he wasn't doing anything that hurt. If he made one cut and stopped to deal with the blood and bandages, he would take even longer to steel himself for the last one.
Steve picked up both scalpels.
"Okay," he called out to Sam. "Two to go."
"Halfway there, you got this," Sam assured him immediately.
Steve nodded and put the handle of one scalpel between his teeth, a replacement for the belt that had slithered away somewhere. He paused another second, acting out the motions with his right arm, and then he gritted his teeth and started keening before he even made the cut, like a battle cry.
One cut, a short, controlled movement--pain, worse, and blood, and nausea, but there was no time for that. He threw away the scalpel that had run into the vibranium ring and took the next one from between his teeth, shutting his mouth and letting the sound escape through his sealed lips as he made the next cut through the bright blood already running freely from the other side. He threw that scalpel, too, opening his mouth to let a scream out as his dick jerked free of the last two rings of its own accord, leaning away from his belly for the first time in six or seventy years.
That hurt in an entirely different way, a stunning lightning-strike of cramped pain from the pit of his belly up the length of his dick. He grabbed a pressure bandage and clamped it down over the head of his dick, and without volition both his hands were at his crotch, pressing his dick into its familiar position against his belly like it might fall off if he didn't.
Maybe it would; it wasn't attached to any hardware anymore, that was for sure.
Steve tipped his head back and laughed, gagging in the middle of it, coughing and choking and half blind with pain and adrenaline but laughing helplessly. It was over. He'd done it.
He was covered in blood and sweat and bile, and his dick was halfway to mincemeat, but he was free.
The next hour or so was the closest thing Steve had experienced to getting drunk since he got the serum. He slumped over at some point, intermittently giggling, and dragged one of the blue drapes half over himself. He felt both distant from and intensely aware of his body, and the lights were so bright and everything was sharp-edged and beautiful but far away. When Sam called out to him he replied in a mumble even he didn't understand.
Sam came in and Steve looked up at him--beautiful in the lights, so kind and so beautiful, which Steve may or may not have said out loud. Sam laughed too, and coaxed Steve through sitting up and cleaning himself up. Sam helped with that, bringing him warm wet washcloths, but he didn't press Steve to show him what he'd done with the scalpels, didn't make him pull the drape back from where it covered his lap.
Steve alternated between apologizing and thanking him as Sam cleaned up around him, and Sam just shook his head and kept going, and Steve slowly got himself cleaned up. He felt the massive adrenaline high finally ebbing, and Sam seemed to see it on him.
"I'm gonna go make some soup. We both need to eat something and I am gonna have several stiff drinks."
Steve nodded agreement. Sam deserved as many drinks as he wanted.
"You are gonna sleep," Sam added. "On my couch. But I'll leave you to bandage yourself up properly and get dressed, unless you want help with that."
Steve shook his head, feeling more sober at the thought of actually seeing the damage he'd done.
He didn't look too closely, in the event, spraying on the antibiotic Sam gave him before covering each incision with gauze and tape, carefully leaving the opening of his dick uncovered. He realized suddenly that, even with his dick free, he wasn't sure he could bear to piss the normal way. He didn't dare push his cock down from his belly, remembering that stunningly sharp pain. Even if he did he somehow doubted he could make himself go that way; pissing straight up was such an ingrained habit that he wasn't sure it would work any other way.
But he didn't have to go now, so that was a problem for later. He used medical tape to fashion a little sling among the rings still planted in his belly to keep his dick in its familiar position. Once that was done he embarked on the project of standing up, gingerly, in stages.
It was almost comforting, how familiar it felt--just like recovering from a bout of flu or bronchitis before the serum. He was a little surprised when he was finally on his feet, to look at himself in the mirror and see that he was still his big new self. The bandages covering his crotch were more shocking when he could see the rest of himself, and he looked away quickly, focusing on getting into his clothes.
From there he walked the handful of shuffling steps to Sam's couch. He just barely managed to stay conscious long enough to eat a bowl of soup, and then he was folding over onto the couch to sleep under the blanket Sam's mother made, thinking, The more things change...
Steve woke up to Sam standing over him in running clothes; he started to sit up and felt the pull of bandages and a strange sickening movement of his dick against his belly and froze.
"Yeah," Sam said. "No running for you today, I just wanted to let you know I'm heading up now. You gonna be okay to work today?"
Steve nodded, though he was sure he would be less use today than he had yesterday, twice as distracted by his own body. "Yeah." His voice came out low, husky. He cleared his throat and trained his gaze downward, not daring to look at Sam's body now that... now. "Yeah, it feels like it's healing up fine."
"Okay," Sam said. "Take it easy on yourself, though. Keep it as clean and dry as you can. You know what infection looks like?"
Steve squeezed his eyes shut on memories of trench foot and gangrene in the field hospitals he'd visited. "Yeah."
"So let me know if it gets bad, or just go to the damn clinic, right?"
Steve nodded again, and Sam finally walked away.
Steve lay still, barely even breathing, but his new awareness of his dick's strange mobility didn't fade. When he was sure Sam would have reached the stairs and started upward, he eased himself off the couch and stood. He spotted his belt, coiled up on the arm of the couch, and knew that Sam would have seen the toothmarks. Steve picked it up and glanced toward the bathroom, then realized that there was no use going in there; he'd left the little shield behind in his own apartment. He had to go home if he wanted to piss--and as soon as he realized he couldn't do it here, he realized he needed to.
Well, then, he knew what he had to do. Steve gripped the belt firmly in one hand instead of between his teeth and shuffled slowly to the door of Sam's apartment, fighting to ignore the queasy sensations of his dick and the rings in his belly all moving more than they should.
By the time he was halfway back to his own place, he was walking with one hand against the wall and the other cupping his crotch. The strangest part was that it didn't really hurt, only a warning twinge when he tried to take a longer stride, but he felt as if his guts were about to slither out of him at any moment. He kept his head down, focusing on putting one foot exactly three inches in front of the other and only glancing up when he reached a doorway that wasn't his own to keep from leaning against anyone's actual door.
Eventually the door he looked up to see was his own, and he could touch his hand to the plate beside it and be let inside. He let himself curl down then, bracing one hand on his knee and still holding himself in with the other, panting with the unaccustomed effort of going slow.
After a moment the urge to piss was stronger than any other, and he shuffled his slow way to the bathroom, where the little shield waited for him on the counter. He fumbled his pants down to his thighs and used his left hand to press the head of his dick firmly into place while he positioned the little shield with his right.
The curve of plastic blocked his view of his bandaged dick; for a moment everything might have been normal. He stared past it, at the toilet, and after a moment of careful breathing he let loose, emptying his bladder just the same way he had for the last six years. The relief was far more than just physical, and his eyes drifted shut, his breath shuddering out of him.
When he was finished he pushed his pants the rest of the way down, kicking them off before he sidestepped carefully to the sink to rinse the little shield and wash his hands.
Then, finally, he let his knees buckle, sinking down to sit right there on the bathroom floor. He pulled the tape and bandages away with shaking hands, still steadying his dick as he went, until it was completely exposed to view.
The cuts were all nearly healed already--the worst, on the right side of the shaft, was still an angry red line where the others had already faded to pink, but all of them had closed up well, no hint of bleeding or infection. The holes for the piercings themselves were still there, though they looked as if they'd already shrunk to less than the diameters of the rings still protruding from his belly. In another week or two they would probably close, and eventually heal away without a trace, like every other injury to his new and improved body. Except...
He curled his hand all the way around his dick, but even moving it just the width of his fingers away from his belly set off a warning twinge of pain down the length of his dick. He gritted his teeth and tilted it away, but after an inch he felt his gorge rising and sweat breaking out all over his body, and he quickly flattened his hand, pressing it back into place.
He'd grown into the shape, like a fruit tree trained against a wall; even without the rings holding his dick in place, he couldn't bear to move it. He snorted softly, shaking his head. It figured, didn't it?
Just wait till you're out of those, Bucky had told him more than once, breathless with frustration and pain when they had to break off from necking and petting because one or both of them were hurting too much to go on. Wait till we're both out. I'm gonna show you every damn thing you can do.
Just you wait, Stevie.
Steve moved just his thumb, stroking over the crown and up onto the head of his dick. A dangerous thrill of pleasure shot through him--but maybe not dangerous, not anymore. He stroked again, and felt himself start to respond, his cock growing even more sensitive under his cradling hand, and he froze instinctively, bracing for pain.
It didn't hurt, but he couldn't make himself move his thumb a third time, either.
He'd just have to wait a little longer. Just as well--it was the only birthday present he was going to get, so he might as well save it until tomorrow.