Maisie's pretty sure her grandmother's new neighbors are spies.
They've got a landscaping business, technically -- or at least that's what the logo on their pick-up truck says -- but she's suspicious, okay: neighbors are nosy, neighbors ask questions and notice things, like how Maisie's grandmother takes more looking after than she does the looking after, and if that happens, people are going to get involved since Maisie's only fifteen, and that's the last thing she wants.
Self-preservation drives her to wake before dawn, pour coffee into a thermos, and camp out in the tree by the fence line between their properties.
("Well, I can tell you who isn't a spy," Twitch tells her later. "You. Why would you bring a shiny reflective thermos to a stake-out?")
There's a lot of exercise, is the first thing she notices: stretching, jogging, sparring, like martial arts or whatever. Nobody's that attentive about their physical fitness who isn't a government agent, Maisie decides, with the logic of someone whose knowledge of the world comes largely from Netflix.
The woman's the best -- Natalie, she calls herself when she catches Maisie by the mailbox: she walks the cat when they get one, harness and everything. Maisie's grandmother makes a mild comment about people resembling their pets, which makes Maisie choke, because the neighbors also have a big dumb blonde dog who barks at Maisie's tree, and yeah, no, that thing is a dead ringer for Cap.
Natalie never has to tap out of a match before the others do, and she makes Maisie feel awed and inadequate at the same time, because Maisie can't even touch her toes.
There's Sam and Twitch and Captain America, whose real name actually is Steve, so you'll forgive Maisie for the nickname.
She won't say it to his face, of course, because how many times since Steve Rogers woke up to you think this Steve has heard that joke?
She climbs the tree and spies on the spies, and a storm comes through the last week of June, the kind where the sky turns green like it's been poisoned and the trees toss their heads, bridling and bucking, before everything goes dark and horrible and the rain hits like a shout, taking out the gutters and drainpipes on her grandmother's house and flooding her basement.
Sam and Cap show up the next morning with a ladder while she's downstairs with a pushbroom, which is how Maisie meets them officially.
She doesn't let them in, but she makes her grandmother call out a greeting and then brings them ice water in beer tumblers that she had to rinse the dust out of as they repair the damage.
"I thought neighbors just left each other alone these days," she says, trying to be pointed without sounding ungrateful: she'd spent ten minutes crying in the bathroom that morning, wondering how she was going to fix this. The last thing she wants to do is complain.
But nice neighbors are even worse than nosy ones.
Atop the ladder, Cap returns mildly, "We could just be friends on Facebook if you'd rather. Then we'd never have to talk."
"Yeah, man, she might even be your fifth friend, you sure you can handle that?" Sam interjects, and without pausing, Cap scoops up a sloppy handful of last autumn's soggy leaves and throws them down. Sam yelps.
Sometimes, Maisie thinks, when they're sparring, Cap lets his friends win. But only sometimes.
(She's not sure what happened to the real Captain America after he got arrested. There'd been a lot of noise about how maybe he died in that whole mess in D.C., but then he didn't. There'd been a picture of him afterwards, visiting a ward of recovering agents, his own IV pole in hand -- someone leaked it to Instagram in all its filtered glory. Captain America thanks loyal agents, the news said. Loyal, whatever that meant: SHIELD vs. Hydra was all a bit beyond her. But the image stuck with Maisie anyway, because the first thing you noticed looking at it was that there were at least fifty people in the shot -- some in bed, most up and gathered about -- and Cap was the only white guy in the room. Maisie thinks that says a lot.
So maybe she's projecting a little bit, but she really wants her neighbor with the same name to be somebody she can trust that much.)
It takes her two weeks of intermittent early morning observing before she finally clues in to the fact that Sam and Natalie don't actually live on property, at least not in any permanent sense, and that's only because she overhears Sam saying "-- nah, man, I already got some at my place, but thanks," before he shuts the sliding patio door.
And, like, she's seen Friends, so she knows that somewhere, there are the kind of friends who are over in each other's places so often they're practically renting out each other's pockets.
It just makes her feel inadequate again. Where are the people who like her that much? Where are the people who, given a choice between their own homes and her company, would choose her company the way Sam and Natalie clearly choose Cap and Twitch? Like the sofas and the beds and the kitchen chairs in the next-door house are better than their own?
It's this deadweight feeling of self-pity that gets her into trouble.
She waits until Natalie's black car is missing from the driveway, until the "R&B Landscaping and Lawn" truck trundles past her mailbox, the dog barking joyfully from the truck bed. Then she pulls on a pair of her dad's old jeans, wriggles into a hoodie then wriggles back out because no, too hot, and stuffs a beanie over her head for camouflage instead.
She steps off through the tall grass, cattails tickling at her elbows, and climbs the fence between the properties.
Her heart, of course, starts thumping as soon as she begins her approach, its pace increasing the closer she gets to the quiet house. She can feel it in her fingertips, her ears; her entire body is blood, bound up and beating.
She isn't sure what she's looking for, exactly. The secret?
To what, though?
How to live without fear, maybe, with calm and competence and confidence that you can handle whatever comes at you? Is that possible? Looking in, they sure do seem to have it figured out.
Would they have it written down somewhere, and she could just take it?
Or maybe it's simpler than that. Maybe they cook meth like Breaking Bad (which Maisie hasn't seen because there's parental locks on Netflix she doesn't care enough to circumvent, but you don't need to see Breaking Bad to know about Breaking Bad) and she's looking for evidence, so that if they ever call CPS on her grandmother, she'll have something to use to discredit them. They might be nice enough to fix her gutters, but she will absolutely throw them under the bus if her safety's threatened.
She goes around back, heading towards the sliding patio door that Sam doesn't lock. She tiptoes around the chairs.
There's a sense of movement behind the glass, sudden; her adrenaline spikes, heat surging through her, but when she goes still and stares, she realizes it has to be her reflection.
Another step startles a bird out of the bushes closest to the patio door; it alights past her, trilling a chicka-dee-dee-dee cry and distracting her for the moment it takes to track its progress.
She faces front again, and --
There's a man standing directly in front of her.
He's head-to-toe in black, left arm tucked awkwardly against his body like maybe it's deformed, and his gaze follows her unblinkingly as she stumbles back one step, then two, banging her hip hard against a chair, desperate to put some distance between them but unable to get her body to easily comply.
Not spies, she thinks. They're not spies, they're really murderers and the reason they practice fighting each other so much is because they have to beat up cops to get away and I am going to wind up shoveled into the basement.
Oh my god, I am going to DIE.
"I'm sorry," she babbles. "I'm sorry, I was just -- I was looking -- I was going to bring cookies over to thank you guys for -- gutters -- I think I misplaced something -- I was just --"
None of these gulped-out excuses ever finish themselves, and her creepy ax-murdering neighbor doesn't cut any of them off, nor does he do anything when she spins on her heel and flees across the lawn. She clears the fence in two bounds, feeling his eyes on her the entire way, and doesn't look stop until she slams up the porch steps and bursts into the house.
Terrified, unable to help the hitching, sobbing breaths that accompany it, she peels out of her shoes and goes into her grandmother's bedroom. It's dark, the curtains drawn and the AC whirring wispily by the window, and it smells like old people, like stains and powder.
She crawls into her grandmother's bed, picking up her arm and slithering underneath it.
She wakes slowly, hands finding Maisie and sleepily patting her down. Maisie's trembling makes the bed shiver, little minute vibrations.
Her grandmother catches onto her distress and lilts into a sing-song, "Maisie-daisy, what's got you crazy?"
Maisie burrows into the pillow, nosing the sharp jut of her grandmother's shoulder. She says, muffled, "I got caught snooping around the neighbor's house and they're probably going to come by as soon as Steve gets home and we're going to have a responsible discussion about trespassing and they're going to see and then they'll call CPS and what are we going to do, Nana?"
"Hmmmm," her grandmother drags out. She thinks for a long time, absently petting Maisie. "First, we're going to … go into the kitchen. And we're going to make … waffles. And dumplings. And cookies -- those horrible ones you like with the raisins. We're going to make all the food you love. And then, when they come, we'll shoot them."
Maisie's terror bursts out of her with a huff of a laugh.
"Okay, Nana," she agrees, and helps them both get upright.
The next day, the doorbell rings just as Maisie finishes adding probiotic pills to the grocery list. She hikes herself around, breathes out, and tells herself, "Here goes."
But it's not Steve, or even Sam, or Natalie with her cat's eyes and scratchy sarcasm -- it's the man from yesterday, now dressed inoffensively in jeans and a windbreaker that's draped over his left arm instead of pulled through.
"Maisie," he says, like a question.
She's calm enough now to recognize him: where Natalie never taps out first, he always taps out first, like he's afraid of hurting -- either kind, the hurting or the being hurt.
"Yes … ?"
But he doesn't offer a name back. "You mentioned cookies."
"Yes, I was going to bring you guys some as a thank you for fixing our gutters." Which he hadn't helped with. Is he seriously going to try to claim the reward? Is Maisie seriously in any position to say no? "Would you like some?"
They navigate her grandmother's clutter, Maisie's anxiety cranking up with every step. She's inviting the scary neighbor into her house, which is not in the best shape, and she's seen them fight, how physically aware they are: if she or her grandmother tried to defend themselves, they'd get broken like toothpicks.
Maybe they're assassins, she thinks, getting the cookies out of the fridge.
Could she get away with telling CPS that? No, my grandmother doesn't have as much energy as she used to, but it's fine, we're managing our time, and by the way, I think our neighbors are killers, so. Whatever they've told you, take it with a grain of salt.
"What were you looking for?" he asks her, raisins shoved into a little pile on the corner of his plate. "Yesterday?"
"I'm sorry about that," Maisie blurts. "I didn't think you were home. The truck was gone."
Which, she realizes as soon as its out of her mouth, does not actually help her in any way.
Eyebrows happen in her direction. "It's back now. You can come over." And then, with a dry scrape to his voice that is pure Natalie, "Through the front door."
"I'm okay, thanks," Maisie mutters, feeling all of about two inches tall.
He's got an accent, but since she's never strayed far from the middle of No and Where, she can't accurately pin down what it is. Russian, it sounds like -- or maybe one of those countries Russia conquered at some point.
(She asks, once, a casual "where are you from?" after one word comes out very thick, and Twitch gives her the drollest look and says, "The first place I remember is D.C.," which, fair enough, that had been a really rude question.)
After he leaves, taking the rest of the cookies with him to preserve the fiction that they were made for them in the first place, Maisie's grandmother comes out of the bathroom and says, "Did you shoot him? My, you cleaned that up fast," and Maisie laughs helplessly, going over and wrapping her grandmother up in a hug.
Twitch gets called Twitch because Maisie never gets a name.
It starts as Glitch, actually, because of the way he'll move to where you're not expecting him to be if you look away for half a second, like he's teleporting, like a fucking jump-scare video. Hence, Glitch.
But you have to be an idiot not to hear the way he clicks and whirrs in the quiet, and Maisie's not going to call the man with the computerized prosthetic Glitch.
A week passes; Maisie cooks, finishes another book off the library's summer reading list, and counts out her grandmother's medicine into her MTWTFSS pillbox. CPS doesn't knock on the door.
On Friday night, the patio light on the other side of the fence is on, and when she takes the trash can to the curb for pick-up, Sam stands and waves his arms and calls out, "Maisie! We've got pizza, do you want a slice?"
Maisie wants a slice, but Maisie doesn't want to stand on the patio and be the fifteen-year-old with awkward feet in the adult conversation. Maisie pauses with her hand on the trash can lid, then turns and heads over. Pizza, she justifies to herself.
When she gets there, the adult conversation is actually going like this:
"-- see those cheeks big as a chipmunks now, because once Steve gets his hands on it, you won't see another slice."
"Yeah, but you know what the secret is?" Sam points out around a mouthful of every topping imaginable. He hasn't even taken his jacket off yet, keys in a puddle at his elbow.
Natalie tilts her head.
"Figure out which slices you want both for, like, now and later, and take a bite out of each of them. That way they're yours. Forever."
For a second, the only sound is the wail of the cicadas, the rattling of the dog's tags as it scratches its collar.
Then, Natalie says "really?" in the tone people use when they're doubting your scientific evidence.
He shrugs. "Siblings. They teach you the important stuff."
Behind them, Maisie contemplates what to do with her crust, and Natalie props her feet up on the table and smiles at her when Sam says, "if you're thirsty, Maisie, there's drinks inside -- just straight on through."
She turns around, waits a beat until she's sure it's just her own reflection in the glass and not Twitch being creepy, then slides open the door and goes in.
Cap's in the kitchen -- cleaning, actually, by the look of it (which is weird, because who cleans while their friends are eating pizza?) There's a lot less accumulated stuff in this house than there is in her own, and it makes the personal things stand out; the mugs, the tuxedo-colored cat watching her from the sofa back, the punching bags stacked like a sandbar in hall, the mess on the kitchen table she will later learn is a disassembled lawn mower engine, the grime on the floor, tracked in.
"Excuse me," she says. "Drinks?"
"Yup," says Cap. "Tooth rot's all in the fridge."
She gets herself a can of Dr. Pepper, eats the crust because she feels like she should, and lets Cap talk at her about how to make your own cleaning solution: it's cheaper, for one thing, and capable of being made in large quantities and safely stored so if you had a dependent who couldn't be left alone, you wouldn't need to leave for cleaning supplies.
It's only the next day, when Maisie's on her hands and knees on her own kitchen floor, using Cap's solution to scrape off years of accumulated dirt she hasn't known what to do about before, that she realizes that whole thing might have been set up on purpose, to give her the answer to a problem without making it obvious they'd noticed, or that they were doing so.
She sits back on her knees. "Don't be stupid," she tells herself. "Nobody does that."
There's a flicker of something in her stomach anyway, like a struck match.
("Hostility is hard when it's everywhere, but -- and trust us on this one, we live with Steve -- kindness can be a burden sometimes too," Natalie tells her around a mouthful of bobby pins, and when Twitch snorts, she stabs his scalp with one and then finishes his bun, her expression serene.)
The first week of August, she gets the back-to-school list from St. Pius with her class schedule in it, and Terry calls her immediately to complain about how they're still addressing the damn things to "Teresa" and also does she have Trig first track, too?
They compare schedules and Maisie hangs up on that call feeling very warm, toes scrunching around on her flip flops, and then there's a noise and a crash from the bathroom and everything suddenly becomes very horrible.
"I'm sorry, Maisie-daisy," her grandmother keeps saying, after, when Maisie's got her on the bed with an ice pack to her face. "I just … got so dizzy. How can you get so dizzy in the shower?"
"It's okay, Nana," Maisie tells her, a mumble; the buzz of terror's wearing off, but the numbness of it is still in her mouth. "Can you move your toes?"
She does. She tracks Maisie's finger when Maisie asks her to do that, too. Maisie doesn't know what that signifies, but it seems important.
"Oh, Maisie. What would I have done if you weren't there?"
"You would have been fine," says Maisie. "Just felt really stupid."
"I feel stupid anyway."
"That's because you're going to have a black eye and big old blotch on your hip and they won't go away for months, so we're going to have to tell people you saved a baby or something. For your dignity."
In her head, Maisie knows the answer. If she hadn't been there, her grandmother wouldn't have been able to get up. She would have lain there for who knows how long.
The thought comes at her, poisonous, hitching burrs into her skin: What is she going to do when I'm at school?
A fine tremble runs through her, and doesn't actually stop as she changes the ice pack out for a colder one. Her grandmother falls into a restless doze, but not before murmuring, "Hey, Maisie, do you know how much I love you?"
"How much, Nana?"
"As much as raw honey. Do you know what it's like to be loved like raw honey? It's pure and sweet and sometimes it makes your stomach hurt, but --"
"It never rots. It never goes bad. I know. I love you, too."
Maisie picks a cardigan out of her grandmother's closet, wraps it around herself, makes herself a hot chocolate even though it's hotter than the drink outside, and goes to climb her tree. Not to spy -- she isn't thinking about the neighbors -- but the tree's become a place. She tucks herself among the limbs, and maybe cries a little bit, but that's between her and the branches, the shushing, waving leaves.
She hears the truck come up the road, the loud rattle of the ladder and tools and the kick-up of gravel dust, and doesn't look up even when she hears the doors slam, voices lifted.
The dog barks and Maisie scrunches down, burying her nose in the collar of the cardigan. It smells like closet; detergent and shut-up dust.
"-- got a question for you." Twitch's voice floats into range.
They're coming around the back of the house. Maisie peeks this time: Cap and Twitch, wearing their R&B shirts and coveralls, banging dirt off themselves as they walked. Twitch still has landscaper gloves on, thick up to his elbow.
Cap sits down in one of the patio chairs and starts unlacing his boots. When they spar, they move the table and chairs out into the lawn and put down mats -- for the most part, they're good about not throwing each other toward the glass, though the side of the house seems to be fair game.
Twitch says nothing, and after a pause, Cap stills and looks up.
"Yeah?" he prompts, quieter.
"I'm not going back," Twitch announces. "No, I don't mean the Broadview place, that's not what I mean, though I still don't agree about the yew. We can't get it in around the fountain. I mean -- I'm staying here. I'm going to stay here. I like it here."
Slowly, Cap puts his foot down on the concrete, one boot off, one boot on.
"None of that was a question."
Sharply: "You know what the question is."
"And you know what the answer is, but I think we're going to say it anyway. Listen -- if you like it, we'll stay. Get an office for the R&B, maybe hire some kids to help with the mowing -- don't look at me like that, I know you don't like that machine, so let's work around it." He gets the other boot off, turning around to set them heels-back against the door runner, so Maisie loses a few words before the full brunt of his attention lands on Twitch again. "-- get that cat licensed before Nat smuggles it off with her the next time she goes to Europe. That a plan?"
"No, it isn't." Twitch sounds aggrieved; his shoulders are up. "You'll have to go back eventually."
"Funny," Cap's voice remains mild. "No, I don't."
"Yes, you do. For their peace of mind. Everybody," he's chewing up grit now. Maisie can hear the clench in his teeth. "Feels better when you're accounted for. I can stay here. You can't."
"I'm going to. Hey," he hikes his shoulders, casual. "Maybe I'll get a chance to finish school. Never did get around to doing that."
"What about those people. I've seen those people, Steve -- all the ones, from the hospital? Sam framed that picture, Instagram filter and everything. They are going to want you to come back and lead them, and you're not the kind of person who disappoints."
"You know, you say that, and yet, I didn't make them do anything they weren't already capable of doing. They just needed to be reminded. Likewise, they don't need me to show them the way forward. They've always known it. I went in there and I asked them to step up. Now it's their turn to lead. Everybody comes to that point in their lives."
"What if something happens?"
"You mean, something happens and I'm not there? But what if something happens and I am there? It's very possible it could kill me, and as far as prices go, before -- I would have paid it. But Bucky, the last thing I want is for you to have to hear about that from somebody else -- or worse, Twitter -- because you're going to know you could have stopped it." He spreads his hands. "Either we both get back in together or we both stay civilian together, and you've decided, so."
"What about --"
"If they really need me, I can consult. It's working for Tony. No," and he cuts off something else Twitch starts in with. "Why are you fighting me on this?"
"Because," Twitch's control over his voice is thin, perilous, like kitchen knives. "Because -- because what if I don't get his memories back, and you're here and all you'll ever get is pieces?"
A hand goes to Twitch's side, gripping the fabric there. "You are not pieces. You are -- you are -- so much more than pieces," and here he does something that she can't see: presses his head to Twitch's chest, maybe, judging by the aborted movement Twitch's hands make. He's got one of the gloves off, fingers hovering.
"Listen," Cap continues. "I found you. I found you in there and I chose you. I'd like to think you chose me too. And that -- we'll start with that. Okay? That's more than enough to start with."
Twitch's shoulders come down, and what happens next almost gives Maisie whiplash:
His hands hook Cap by the face, yanking it up so alarmingly fast she thinks oh Jesus.
And, I'm about to see somebody get their neck snapped.
But the violence never comes; or rather, Twitch slots his knee into Cap's thigh and holds his face up to give him access to his neck -- there, under his jaw, at the place where people put their fingers looking for a pulse.
Cap's arms come up, hands flattening against Twitch's spine, the sway of his back. He lets Twitch maneuver his head for more room, and the expression on his face --
Well, Maisie's kind of far away, and she's pretty sure it's none of her business anyway, that much raw honey kind of love, golden on his face.
He nudges sideways with his chin, saying something into Twitch's hair that has him chuckling.
" -- no, we aren't," Twitch says. "Because Maisie's watching us from the tree."
"Fuck," Maisie hisses, shrinking down and turtle-ducking her head into her cardigan. When she next peeks out, they're gone: only Cap's boots and Twitch's gloves remain.
("It's a good thing your grandfather's not here," her grandmother will say one night, as they pick their way across the gravel back to their own house. "He grew up during the space race. It would have bust his spleen to see Captain America kissing a Russian."
"Yes, because that's what Grandpa would have had a problem with. Also, you know he's not really Captain America, right?"
"Shush, Maisie-daisy. Let an old woman dream.")
The first day of Maisie's sophomore year is just a half-day, but Maisie's heart is already pounding blood in her extremities when she zips up her backpack over the unbent folders and new notebooks. She kisses her grandmother's cheek where she's sitting in front of her vanity, picking white hairs out of her hairbrush, and tells her she'll be back after one.
Then she brushes down the pleats of her skirt, hikes her backpack on, and sets off down the gravel road in the direction of the neighbor's house.
Be brave, Maisie, be brave, she chants to herself. Be like Sam, who says that sometimes bravery isn't doing everything by yourself. Sometimes bravery is asking for help even when it makes you vulnerable. Especially if it makes you vulnerable.
She climbs the porch steps. The dog appears in the window, alert, tail quivering, watching her gather her courage.
She takes a deep breath, studying the mat under her feet. It's unobtrusive, says "welcome" in big block print, but the "welcome"'s facing the door, like whoever's indoors needs to be welcomed to the world every time they come outdoors.
In her head, she practices. It won't matter today, because it's a half-day, but it would really mean a lot to me if one of you could check on my grandmother during the day, if, if, like, you're home for lunch or something. She never has problems, she's actually really great, but if something happens to her I don't want it to be late afternoon before anyone finds her. Does that make sense? Does that sound like something you're willing to do.
Come on, Maisie.
The dog barks, jolting like it'd only just seen her, and a few moments later, Twitch opens the door, mug in his non-prosthetic hand.
He looks at her and opens his mouth --
"Is that Maisie?" Cap's voice calls from the kitchen. "Maisie knocked?"
"On the front door?" Natalie adds, all arched and airy surprise.
Twitch's jaw clicks shut.
Maisie darts a look up at him and asks, "They stole your joke, didn't they?"
"Right out from underneath me," his agrees, his accent wobbling around the words, but he opens the door wider to admit her entry. "Rude."
She follows him into the kitchen. He taps Natalie's shins as he passes her and says, "Feet. Down," and she smirks, removing her feet from their perch by the butter and folding them under her instead. Her make-up and hair are stunning, her nails shiny with lacquer and clicking when she taps on her phone. An arrow-shaped pendant glints at the hollow of her throat. Compared to everyone else, who are in various stages of morning, she makes eating breakfast look professional. Maisie self-consciously touches her ponytail, checking for humps.
The second thing she notices is that there's a lot of food.
"Are government spies really into big breakfasts?" she asks.
A pause, in which several eyebrows happen at once, and -- abruptly realizing what she said -- Maisie claps a hand over her mouth in horror.
"Oh man," says Sam, who's leaning against the fridge, a jug of orange juice in his hand. His shirt's damp under the armpits and down his back, his voice out of breath: he went running, she assumes. "I really hate to have to do this, Maisie."
"Sam," Cap says warningly.
I'm going to die, Maisie thinks, resigned. Nana's going to be so mad.
"Sorry, Steve," Sam says. "I have to tell her." He looks at Maisie, and continues solemnly, "I'm actually not a government spy. I am a superhero, and these are my sidekicks."
"Hey," Twitch protests, but Cap and Natalie just make faces like yeah, no, it's true.
Sam grins, putting the OJ down on the counter. "What can we do for you, Maisie?"
She takes stock: looking first at Natalie in front of her, smiling, Natalie who could run anything she wanted and comes here when she isn't; Sam by the fridge, Sam who said once in her hearing that it took as much bravery to be depended upon as it took to be the dependent; Cap who's put his fork down to give her his attention, Twitch at his side, pressed together hip-to-shoulder. Twitch's sleep shirt is skewed at the collar, and he's applying some kind of menthol mixture to his bad shoulder out of a Cool Whip container (they make a lot of their own stuff, she learns. "Habit," they tell her in unison. Some of the best budgeting tips Maisie will ever learn in her life, she'll learn from Cap and Twitch.)
She takes a deep breath, and trusts. "I need to ask for a favor."