Timidly, but bearing a promise of things to come, pink blossoms are beginning to reappear on the tree next to McDonagh’s newsstand at the corner of Broadway and Chambers.
Steve Rogers, auror, notes them briefly, squinting slightly at the bright spring sun, before asking Laleh at the stand for his usual.
“One cold pumpkin juice,” she confirms, pressing a button on the countertop in front of her, “and one Daily Conjurer.”
A panel on the side wall of her stand slides back, revealing a hidden space full of merchandise not for nomaj eyes; the images on the front page of the paper move with a soothing familiarity.
Even at little sidewalk shops, it’s all tech now, no spellcasting necessary. It’s silly, probably, but Steve misses old Mr. McDonagh flicking his wrist and using revelio to access his magical stores. He’d do it with a flourish, whether it was his first time meeting a customer or his five-hundredth.
Laleh retrieves Steve's items with a smile and hands them to him; he pays in galleons, and she doesn’t comment on his penchant for the print version of the periodical, or his use of cash; they’ve had that conversation many times already.
He tucks the paper under his arm and is about to leave when she nods at the shoulder of his jacket.
“Nice patch,” she says, sincerely. “One of those new... retro things, right? It looks really good. Authentic.”
Embroidered in white and navy, the logo for the “Chicago Flyers” is a little studebaker with wings on its side. The patch is attached with a few different colors of thread stitched around its edges, like it’s been sewn on more than once.
The Chicago Flyers played their last Quidditch match in 1945. Steve wishes he could have seen it.
He manages a half smile. “Thanks,” he offers quietly.
From the newsstand, he’s off to the corner of Murray and Church, to stop at Englehart’s, which is probably the best nomaj-run bakery in the whole of Manhattan.
Having secured the very last sesame seed bagel, he’s on his way out when he runs into two fellow agents. Familiar faces—familiar as anyone is these days, anyway.
“Hey Steve,” Agent Cory McBryde gives him a little wave as they pass.
He nods courteously in their direction, and they smile back. “Avery. McBryde. Good to see you.”
He’s halfway through the door as his enhanced hearing catches a scrap of their conversation.
“Who is he again?” asks Agent Avery, newest auror in the Theft of Magical Property department. “Steve who?”
Steve doesn’t really blame her for not remembering him; she’s fresh out of academy training and has met a lot of new people in the past few weeks. And it’s not as though he’s been particularly social as of late, either. Not to mention, not everyone has his unusually precise memory—half the soldiers in his old unit didn’t refer to him as the ‘walking pensieve’ for nothing.
“Rogers,” McBryde reminds her quietly.
“What?” she asks. “Didn’t catch that.”
McBryde clears his throat and repeats himself. “I said—”
“—Rogers. Come in. Have a seat.”
Steve ducks out of the wind and snow, the general’s tent providing a temporary relief from the Belgian winter weather.
“The Russians have a new ally,” General Renworth of the Third Magical army announces without preamble, pointing to a spot on the map laid out before him. “We don’t know who it is, but they’re powerful, and they’re hiding something. We’ve detected a whole field of enchantments, radiating from here—southeast of Dresden.”
Steve squints at the area before glancing back at the General. “Isn’t that near where Bucky’s on recon?”
Steve thought that that nomaj general, Patton, was being paranoid about the Russians’ intentions, but it looks like his fears might have been well-founded—in this one instance, at least.
“Couldn’t you have him report back, get some additional intel?”
Renworth sighs, and suddenly Steve thinks he knows why the General looked so dour when Steve entered the tent; a sinking feeling pulls at his guts.
“I had the same thought about a week ago,” Renworth confirms. “Haven’t heard from Barnes since.”
“Sir,” Steve grits out. “When do I leave?”
“Steve! Hey, wait up!”
The noise echoing in the bustling MACUSA foyer—the sound of hundreds of witches and wizards making their way to the building’s dozens of levels to begin their day—is considerable, but the shout from behind Steve cuts through it, and through Steve’s memories as well. He turns, and spies Agent Sam Wilson pushing through the crowd toward him. Steve pauses so his partner can catch up.
Steve is friendly with everyone, but he hasn’t made a lot of friends since he... came back. Sam is probably his best one.
Sam is doing a credible job not limping; Steve, as usual, doesn’t mention it, and hopes Sam is actually recovering, not just trying to hide his knee injury, which he received about a month ago in the line of duty, apprehending a wizard who had been enchanting billboards in Times Square to hypnotize nomaj tourists. The curse had been a particularly nasty one, leeching poison into the tendon’s of Sam’s left knee, and the weekly application of the countercharm was proving slow in reversing the spell’s effects.
Both Steve and Steve are on “special” assignments right now—“special” being a euphemism for all paperwork, nothing in the field. Sam’s off active duty until he heals, and the same goes for Steve until he… well, until he gets used to this century, he supposes. He’s not sure how his superiors are going to determine that exactly.
Instead of Sam’s gait, Steve focuses on the flecks of stubble on his friend’s jaw, and the dark rings beneath his eyes.
“You alright?” he asks. They approach one of the two main elevators in the center of the MACUSA ground floor, where intricately designed metal supports soar hundreds of feet upward, eventually disappearing into an illusion of the night sky.
Sam sighs, scraping a hand over his face. “Woke up late today, haven’t even had breakfast.”
Wordlessly, Steve thrusts his bagel bag at Sam's chest.
Sam blinks.“Englehart’s?” he asks.
Sam only hesitates a moment before tearing into the bag.
"I'll get you back, man," he promises around a mouthful of bagel, and Steve smiles. At least Sam has learned he shouldn't put up a fight regarding this topic; no one goes hungry on Steve's watch.
An elevator car comes swooping down, and its doors part to reveal a massive bulldog with a sort of... tuning fork protruding from its forehead.
It stares at them, unmoving and unimpressed.
"...Going up?" Sam asks it eventually.
It sighs at them. Steve and Sam look at one another, and they board the elevator.
"Auror's Bureau," Sam says aloud, triggering the AE—auto-enchantment.
Elevators used to have goblin attendants, Steve remembers as they zoom past floor after floor in silence—well, silence except for the sound of Sam chewing.
They stop first at the twenty-seventh floor, where the head office for Magical Transit Authority is located, and the dog exits.
"Do you think that thing works here," Sam asks as the doors close again, "Or it just got loose?"
"Sam," Steve chides him.
"You were thinking it too," Sam shrugs, popping the last bite of bagel into his mouth.
“Speaking of animal companions,” Steve glances at Sam’s conspicuously empty shoulder, “where’s Redwing?”
Almost all young witches and wizards have magical pets growing up, but most grow out of the habit of taking the creatures everywhere they go when they finish school. They really aren't the same thing as what a nomaj would call a 'familiar'—an animal that helps with spells, or somehow does your bidding.
Except... Sam seems to have exactly that rapport with the falcon that nearly always accompanies him. Sam raised Redwing from an abandoned egg, and ever since then, one always seems to know what the other is thinking or feeling; they communicate without Sam having to say a word. The bird has been so helpful with Sam's case work, in fact, that Director Stoner actually made him an official part of the force.
“Out flying laps around the building. It’s not like he can help us where we’re going today, anyway.”
Steve slows for a few paces, caught off guard. They’re actually heading out? He’s not going to be stuck behind a desk for yet another day?
There has to be a catch.
“Where are we going?”
Sam smirks as he opens the door to the meeting room where their morning briefing starts in five minutes.
"You're not gonna like it."
“I’m not gonna like it, am I?” Steve sighs, crouching behind Bucky. “When you tell me how you got into this mess?”
“Meeemmve?” Bucky intones through the gag in his mouth, clearly surprised. He looks tired and his face is more gaunt than it was the last time Steve saw him, over a month ago. Steve wonders how long he’s been here, if he’s been kept bound this entire time… and who exactly would pick a cave system like this as their base of operations.
It had taken nearly a week, but Steve tracked the footprints and spell traces from Bucky’s last known whereabouts. He nearly lost the trail a few times, but it ultimately led him to a tunnel near a massive lake.
Without hesitating, Steve descended into the dark, damp stone passageway. For a moment he regretted not bringing an owl with him to send his location back to headquarters, but there was no time to dwell on it now.
He made his way through stunning halls and galleries of stalactites and stalagmites of various colorful strata for over an hour. As he moved further in and down the winding tunnels, he began to lose the light, getting further and further from the surface.
Persevering, he finally arrived in his current location: a chamber that—if his sense of direction is to be trusted after all the twists and turns—seems to be directly beneath the lake.
“MYYYHUHH!” Bucky continues trying to talk through the fabric, quietly but forcefully, eyes wide, darting back and forth.
In response to his partner’s dismay, Steve looks up. Nothing is stirring in the vast expanse of this cavern as far as he can see—which, in the absolute darkness surrounding them, is not terribly far, even with his enhanced vision.
It’s true, he’s surprised to find Bucky seemingly alone and unguarded. There’s probably more going on than is immediately apparent—hell, this may even be a trap—but it doesn’t mean he can’t take advantage of the momentary lull; he knows better than to look a gift thestral in the mouth.
He extends his right arm, and his bracer begins to emit a soft glow.
The Vambraces of Erskinus: one of the most powerful magical artifacts Steve had ever encountered. They had gotten him out of more scrapes than he could count.
When Steve was younger, he’d been incredibly frail, in both his physical form and his magical abilities. The other kids teased him that he might be a fizzer—a non-magical child born to wizarding parents. He had trouble wielding the eight inch sycamore wand he was given, a worn-looking hand-me-down. It seemed for all the world like he would be mediocre wizard for the rest of his life.
It wasn’t until he applied—and had been rejected, several times—as a battlecaster that he found out why his power seemed so volatile.
It wasn’t until he was examined by Professor Reinstein, a experimental sorcerer for the Magical Army of the United States, that someone could explain his special gift.
Steve was inherently inclined to wandless magic—an incredibly powerful form of spellcraft, but one which was also particularly difficult to control.
His body simply wasn’t strong enough to handle it.
Reinstein recommended him for a new study, the first of its kind in mediwizardry. It was called Project Solstice: a complex series of spells performed by some of the most talented healers of the day. They made Steve healthier, stronger, faster—and the changes in his magic were both immediate and extraordinary.
He fought almost like a nomaj—but every strike, jump, and kick was imbued with astounding power that was only limited by his concentration. His magic was entirely physical and wholly unique—he could compound its effects with incantations, but he didn’t need to. He could scale sheer cliffsides, swim to impossible depths. Once, he single-handedly defeated a giant by throwing a nomaj automobile at it.
After only a few missions, Steve was presented with the Vambraces of Erskinus, delivered directly from the Department of Mysteries in London. No wizard had been able to wield them in over a hundred years.
The blue bands molded to his forearms as if they had been made for him. They provided an impeccable defense to his impressive offensive abilities, and he could use them to cast spells as effectively as any wizard could with a wand. There was, however, one spell he found most useful.
“Protego fortis,” Steve whispers, and sparkling concentric rings of blue-white light bloom from the bracer, forming a circular shield affixed to his arm.
“Muuff, Meeev, muh. Myyyhuuuh,” Bucky shakes his head, obviously alarmed.
“Stop wriggling,” Steve orders him before slamming the spellshield down with surgical precision: once near the back of Bucky’s head, and then twice again near his wrists and ankles.
Bucky’s gag and bonds disintegrate into a flurry of golden sparks, the shield casting a more powerful version of an emancipare spell on him.
“How did this happen?”
Bucky scrambles up from his side, stumbling backward against the cave wall.
“Hy-hydra,” he breathes, voice uncharacteristically laden with terror.
That answer throws Steve for a loop. “What?”
Hydra is the name of one of the more powerful magical sub-factions of the Reich. But it’s already been defeated, along with Grindelwald himself. The fighting in Europe is all but over. “That’s impossible—”
“Put out your shield—nox it, Steve—we need to go, and we can’t apparate—”
“Bucky, what? What is it?”
“STEVE!” Bucky’s gaze shifts up over Steve’s shoulder, and suddenly he points at something behind Steve in the blackness of the cavern.
Steve turns to see two yellow points emerge from the darkness. A voice begins speaking to them, its clipped vowels and trilled Rs resonating in the air around them.
“I apologize for the confusion; both you and your friend are right, in your way. Those imbecilic Germans took many things that were not rightfully theirs, including the name of their organization...”
Several more pairs of glowing yellow dots appear all around them in the endless dark, accompanied by a stomping sound.
“...A true hydra isn’t something you salute…” the voice continues.
Steve focuses, casting a lumos maxima charm through his braces. His shield glows brighter, throwing a wider circle of light into the cave.
A massive lizard-like creature with eight heads—each arcing down from a long scaly neck and bearing a crown of protruding horns—is staring at Steve with all sixteen of its eyes. One of its cruel mouths opens in a snarl. Steve steps in front of a still-dazed Bucky, shielding them both.
Near the hydra’s left flank, there’s a faint clanking sound, and a man in severe pewter-colored armor and a green cloak steps into the light, speaking to them again.
“...You see...you won’t live that long.”
"I know you've heard the rumors, so I'm just going to address this now: there have been explosions—first in Brooklyn, and now Queens. This is the latest, and the worst."
Rick Stoner, head of the Federal Auror’s Bureau, flicks his wrist, and from his wand springs forth a 3D representation of the crime scene in the front of meeting room. Several gasps are heard from the crowd of assembled aurors at the all-staff.
It's almost unrecognizable as a building at first; there's hardly anything left of the structure. Most of the image is taken up by a crater, a wound in the surface of the earth. Part of a wall remains at the far edge of the visualization, and as Stoner adjusts the image, zooming out, bricks, rebar, and other debris can be seen.
But unlike a nomaj bombsite, the scorch marks near the center of the blast are white in color—possibly even silver. If you didn't know what you were looking at, and didn't realize it was an artifact of such horrible violence, it might be actually be a pretty sight.
Steve feels his mind drift back into his past yet again—but not the war this time. There were magibombs used by both sides in the fighting, of course, but they were nothing like this.
No, the image reminds him of something much older. Most people remembered the incident as the Great Obliviation of 1926, or possibly as the ordeal with Newt Scamander, who went on to become something of a celebrity in magizoology.
But what began that particular incident wasn't a beast at all, but a boy: the victim of an Obscurial. The last recorded one on American soil, for that matter.
There aren't many surviving photos of the damage it—or perhaps rather, he, meaning the young wizard—caused, but Steve remembers. After all, he was there. He might, he considers, be the last person alive who was. He was all of seven years old at the time, but that kind of destruction remains vivid in one’s memory.
The obscurial caused damage on a massive scale, too, also without the tell-tale black smoke and dark scorches of a nomaj bomb.
It couldn’t be… Could it?
Stoner flicks his wand again and turns the entire image, and now visible in the foreground is a sign: LAYTON PREPARATORY ACADEMY.
"The school was abandoned by nomajs in '78, but it was the home of summer wizarding camps and community programs. We think it was empty at the time of the explosion—no one was found dead or injured... but our Forensic Conjurers have advised us that the detonation may have been so severe that someone in the immediate spell radius could have been completely disintegrated."
Steve feels his fists clench. A school, where young wizards still attended class in the summer. Could it be happening again? That kind of oppression? In this era? For all that he's not fond of being in the future, Steve had come think of modern nomajs as more tolerant—and that wizards had become better about finding and helping their own kind. Maybe he was mistaken.
"...we're going not to go back to the old, bad days of having to obliviate anyone," Stoner continues, "so watch yourselves on this. Reconstruction charms have already been cast on the site, so we'll be working from wand scans.”
Steve tries to keep his face neutral at that, as much as he wants to sneer. Wand scanners could be placed on the end of any standard issue wand and capture the scene before them. It was useful enough, true, Steve could admit that. But it gave way to this exact situation more often than not: aurors prematurely (in Steve’s opinion) destroying the state of a crime scene. Sure, hiding from nomajs was important, but a representation of evidence was never as good as the real thing.
Perhaps, Steve considers, his hostility is more related to wands than the scanners, though—he’s still bitter about losing his bracers. The alder wand he’s been assigned works better than the one he’d had growing up, but it would never be the same—he would never be the same, for that matter.
“Agent Ayala will be following up with you individually with leads. Everyone's on this one until we figure it out, and get the bastard behind bars."
Stoner lets his wand fall to his side, and the image dissipates. "Dismissed."
While the rest of the team slowly files out of the room, whispering to one another about what they've just seen, Steve is out of his seat and across the room before Sam—or anyone else—can get a word in edgewise.
He stops just inches short of Stoner, demanding the director’s attention. “Sir.”
“Rogers,” Stoner acknowledges him, not looking up from from a stack of photographs of the blast site—eerily still for wizard photos.
“I need to talk to you about the explosion,” Steve explains as Sam appears at his side, looking annoyed that Steve took off without him.
“Is there any chance there could be an Obscurial behind this?”
Stoner’s head shoots up at that, alarm writ large on his face.
Sam’s brow furrows. “A what?”
“A dark parasite that grows in a young witch or wizard when they are forced to suppress their powers,” Steve explains. “They can become extremely dangerous. Grindelwald—”
“—has been dead for nineteen years, and out of power for seventy-two,” Stoner reminds him with severity in his tone. “I know you’re still adjusting, Agent Rogers, but these are different times.”
“Sir,” Steve tries again, unwilling to back down. “Let me visit the blast site. Maybe I could pick up some traces that were left after the repair charms—”
Sam coughs beside him, and Stoner raises an eyebrow. Steve looks back and forth between them, confused.
“You’re not on this assignment,” Stoner tells him matter-of-factly.
Steve’s mouth hangs slightly open in astonishment. “I’m… sorry, sir? You said everyone—”
“Everyone on active field duty. Besides,” Stoner shuffles the photos into a neat stack. “I already gave your partner your assignment earlier; you really should have talked to him first.”
Stoner pivots and walks away without another word, leaving Steve stock still and fuming.
Could this day possibly get worse?
“I don’t agree with Stoner much,” Sam says, watching their superior walk away, “But I have his back on that. You should have talked to me.” He puts a hand on a Steve’s shoulder, and Steve turns.
“You said we were back in the field today,” he says, voice sounding thin and low, brittle with disappointment.
“I implied we were leaving the building,” Sam responds defensively, reaching inside his coat to access his wand pocket. “Not the same thing. Also, I said you were gonna hate it, remember?”
“What are we doing, then?”
Sam points his wand at himself, and whispers a transfiguration incantation. A wave of light ripples over his brown trench coat, rumpled blue button down and khakis, transforming them into a smart grey business suit and clean, pressed white shirt with a black tie.
Holding out his hand to Steve, he directs his wand to his empty palm, and in another flash, two business cards appear there. He hands one to Steve, who reads what’s printed on it:
United States Department of Defense | Defense Acquisition System
Sam points his wand at Steve next, while Steve’s mind races. It takes him several seconds to process the text in front of him.
That’s a nomaj organization. They’re posing as nomajs?
Light shimmers over Steve as well, dressing Steve in a smart two-piece suit, but he barely notices the change. He can’t tear his eyes away from the business card until Sam begins speaking again.
“Welcome to undercover, Stevie,” Sam smiles smugly, conjuring a pair of sunglasses to appear on his face. “Welcome to W.A.N.D.D.”
Steve always knew there was a chance he would sacrifice his life in the line of duty. He even knew there was a chance it would be fighting Hydra.
He never dreamed it would happen fighting a real living breathing hydra, though.
By himself, Steve is outmatched. The hydra’s necks give it an incredible reach in nearly every direction; the only place out of range of one of its many sets of teeth is its rear, but that placement puts Steve in danger of the sweep of its tail. His shield protects him from the most severe blows, but he’s been entirely on the defensive so far.
Lacking a ranged attack of the power required to take the monster down, Steve dives in close, springing aboard the creature’s shoulders. Brandishing the shield, he shoots a binding charm at three of its heads; the captured heads shriek in rage as they are ensnared for precious few moments.
Using the respite from flank-side attacks, Steve launches himself at the base of the center neck, and, channeling a slicing spell into the shield with every ounce of concentration he can muster, drives it in between two vertebrae.
The curve of the shield forms a knifelike edge, and the skin of the creature splits on impact. Oily purple blood spurts from the gash.
Before Steve can celebrate, before he can even move away from the wound, a splash of blood shoots up at him—and penetrates through his spellshield.
An intense burning sensation shoots up his left upper arm and he grunts in pain.
This thing’s blood is acidic.
A dark laugh resounds in the cavern, and out of the corner of his eye, Steve sees the armored man apparate to a raised rocky precipice behind him, just out of reach of the fight, as if watching the festivities. He has Bucky held at his side in a choke hold, unarmed and possibly even subdued with with magic.
“I see you’ve discovered that the hydra is fortified both from within and without,” the man announces, exuding calm and self-satisfaction. “A trait Doom presumes to share with them.”
Doom? thinks Steve. The guy calls himself Doom?
The hydra’s entrapped heads break free from the Incarcerous spell; hot breath and a snap of jaws breaks Steve’s train of thought. He dodges the bite attacks and leaps back down to the ground.
All things considered, ‘Doom’ is not an inappropriate moniker for his foe.
Another sting of pain shoots up his burned bicep, and he grits his teeth.
Fighting this thing head-on is going to get them killed. He needs try something different, something… more.
He’d been working on spells with a wide casting area, using the vambraces to amplify their effect. He hasn’t tried any of them in combat yet, has no idea if it would be enough to envelope an entire Hydra, but he has to try.
Taking a deep breath, Steve closes his eyes for a moment and lets the shielding spell fall away, and steps just within range of the Hydra’s longest neck.
“Steve!” Bucky screams. “Steve, what are you doing?!”
The hydra cranes a head toward Steve, jaws open wide.
Steve raises his arm above his head, and as he opens his mouth to pronounce the incantation, Doom stops laughing, and extends his wand arm.
"DURO TOTALIS!" Steve calls out.
"REFLECTIO!" shouts Doom.
A silver-gray burst of light explodes from Steve's bracer, only to be intercepted by a neon yellow bolt from Doom's wand.
Steve's hardening spell shatters into a thousand shards of light, reflecting in every direction instead of only at the Hydra.
Reflexively, Steve puts his arms up, and flickers of the spell collide with his bracers. He is knocked back by the impact, smacking against the cave wall. His arms fall to his side, suddenly weighted down. The Vambraces of Erskinus have been turned to solid stone. What’s worse, Steve can barely move. He’s a physical spellcaster—there’s no way for him to produce even a cantrip this way.
Spell fragments ricochet around the cave like mad, showing no signs of stopping. Doom raises his wand to perform a counter curse, but is struck by the charm before he can get a word out. His armor, his cloak, and possibly the man inside are all turned to stone.
"Bucky!" Steve screams, watching as his friend tries to wriggle free of the Doom’s now immoveable grip.
"STEVE," Bucky shouts back, "STE—"
A spell fragment strikes Bucky, and Steve watches, powerless, as Bucky is frozen mid-shout, skin going gray, lifeless.
Two of the hydra's heads have been struck, and as the enchantment races up its necks, it twists away violently. The heads fall cleanly off its body and it screams, rearing up in agony.
Its remaining heads strike the cave's ceiling with a sickening crack, and water begins to pour into the cave.
The lake, of course.
The last ricocheting bits of spell shrapnel find their way to the hydra, and eventually, Steve as well.
The feeling leaves his toes first, then his legs, the stone spell creeping up his body. He watches the hydra stop writhing, becoming a massive, hideous statue, and Steve breathes one last sigh, heavy with both grief and relief. He won't live to see the end of the war, but at least Doom won't be bringing about another one.
His vision goes gray, and then he doesn't see anything at all.
Rhodes Industries is housed in a massive, modern nomaj skyscraper, entirely made of glass, as though someone had hit it with a Perlucidulo charm. It zigzags skyward, the frame twisting at odd angles that, rationally, at seem like they shouldn’t fit together correctly, but somehow they meet with astonishing grace; its architecture is both geometric and organic at the same time.
The glass theme continues in the lobby; the only structures in the building that are not transparent are fixtures of glistening chrome, reflecting the late morning light.
It should all be beautiful. It is beautiful, in fact, even if Steve can’t appreciate it at the moment.
He and Sam approach the massive, arching reception desk in the lobby, and they peer over the counter to see a middle-aged woman with dark hair, wearing cat-eye glasses. She has something of the appearance of a librarian—wise, sharp, and perhaps warm as well.
“Good morning, Mrs…” Sam’s eyes track across or desktop, spotting her name plate. “Arbogast. We’re from the—”
“Dee-Oh-Dee,” she finishes for him with a smile. “Mister Samuels and Mister Stevens. I’ll let Mister Rhodes know you’ve arrived. If I could just see some ID, I’ll get your access cards and lanyards ready.”
ID. Right. That rectangle of nomaj plastic with the stationary photo of himself printed on it to prove who he is. (As if that could stop someone who was transfigured to look like you.)
He sighs and pulls out the card.
This is an important job, he attempts to convince himself. It really is.
He read all about how important it was as soon as he was revived, in fact. He can practically still see passages from Modern Magical Warfare in his head:
The magical world has always been hidden from non-magical people out of fear of widespread panic and persecution.
The Second World War, though, brought the two groups together in the most permanent, organized fashion in either group’s entire history.
Neither side could have defeated Hitler and Grindelwald’s combined forces on their own. The Allies’ force, utilizing the strengths of both wizards and nomajs alike, was what ultimately made their strategy successful.
Even though the International Statute of Secrecy remained in place, immediately following the end of the War, leaders of both communities—fearing a reprisal of the type of global events they had just experienced—created a new organization specifically to keep that special collaboration alive.
W.A.N.D.D.—the Worldwide Auror-Nomaj Defense Division— is a program where the brightest and best nomaj companies are selected to work in tandem with the finest magical talents the world over—after a lengthy, rigorous vetting process, of course. For the safety of the wizarding world at large, only the most trustworthy nomaj companies are inducted into W.A.N.D.D.
That’s why Steve’s here, pretending to be someone else: Rhodes Industries is a rising star in the nomaj military technology sector. Their equipment is so advanced, the briefing said, it seems to border on the magical already; it seems likely they could produce wand scanners and other magi-technological devices for the Auror’s Bureau and other divisions.
This is day one of the review. According to the procedures Steve had reviewed during the car ride over, it could take months to complete the interview process.
“Here you go, gentlemen,” Mrs. Arbogast says at last, handing Steve and Sam two more squares of flat plastic—nomajs really, really like their plastic—on loops of fabric cord, like the ugliest amulets Steve has ever seen. Reluctantly, he slips his over his head.
“Floor 178. Mister Rhodes is waiting for you.”
Someone is yelling, but it doesn't sound like Bucky or Doom. There's no stomping, no sound of a hydra, but if Steve's alive, it’s possible that thing is alive, too.
When Steve reopens his eyes, he finds himself staring at two enormous brown ones, in a pale, freckled face, framed with a brown bob haircut.
"Nadia!" the man’s voice yells again. "Get away from there, that's important research those people are doing and—OH!"
Steve blinks. He's lying on the ground—no, the floor—he's in a building of some kind, if the ceiling he’s looking up at is any indication, and a little girl, no more than ten years old, is staring down at him, her mouth hanging open.
"He's... alive, daddy!" she squeals in an Eastern European accent.
She’s scooped up in someone’s arms, presumably her father’s. Steve sits up—too quickly; the room spins.
Where is he?
The room is expansive and well-lit, containing several large wooden work tables. A few gloved wizards stand at each, metallic wands in hand, small trays containing a variety of objects in front of them. The items look like… pieces of stone.
The cave-in…The cave-in must’ve shattered the hydra. Maybe shattered everything.
Everything but him, apparently.
“Are you…? You can’t be,” the man holding his daughter in his arms shakes his head in disbelief. The man is blonde, tall, and wearing a lab coat—a research wizard, maybe. He’s American, or doing a very convincing American accent, at least.
The other wizards begin to leave their workstations to see what the fuss is about; Steve is effectively surrounded. He instinctively raises his left arm to brandish his bracer and cast a shield charm, but there’s nothing around his wrists. He’s unarmed. Whatever the situation, he’s at the mercy of his captors.
He stands at attention, arms at his sides. “Captain Steven Rogers. Cryptocode Four-Two-Six-Ascendio-Four-Nine-Kneazle-Three,” he states plainly, showing no emotion.
“You’re… You’re…” The blond man turns to one of the other research wizards near him. “Somebody… somebody get President Gyrich on their Tee-Dub, ASAP. We… we just found...” he shakes his head. “A battlecaster from World War II—someone called Captain Rogers, apparently.”
He turns his focus back to Steve, looking… embarrassed. “I apologize, Captain. To be honest, we… thought you were a statue. ‘The Hydra Defeats the Allies’ is one of the most famous examples of Third Reich monumental propaganda we’ve ever…” the man shakes his head again, still stunned. “You’re not a monument, though, I suppose. My daughter Nadia seems to have upended three years of excavation work with a beginner’s de-hardening charm.”
Nadia grins proudly.
Steve’s gaze drifts down to the area immediately around and in front of him. That… can’t be true.
More stone pieces of varying sizes are arranged on the ground inside taped markings with writing on them: notes and numbers indicating location, as if recreating the “statue’s” original structure.
Steve pivots, scanning the debris frantically, looking for Bucky, but there’s nothing remotely human-looking in the stone pieces. One of the hydra’s necks is nearly reassembled.
How can Steve trust these people? What if they’re trying to use the hydra as a weapon?
“Cryptocode Four-Two-Six-Ascendio-Four-Nine-Kneazle-Three,” Steve repeats, a touch more frantic this time. “Countersign?”
“I… don’t know,” the blonde man admits. “You’re in New York, Captain Rogers, at the Center for the Preservation of Historical Magical Artifacts. The war is over.”
...Historical? How long has he been cursed for?
“If you’re with the Allies, you’ll know the Countersign,” Steve demands.
“Countersign: Bowtruckle-One-Seven-Seven-Six,” a man’s voice answers.
One of the research witches pushes her way to the front of the crowd, holding a small rectangle of shimmering glass, like a mirror. As the woman turns her hand, curving the glass in Steve’s direction, he sees a man, seated at a desk with an American flag behind him, come into a view.
That’s a tiny Two-Way Magical Mirror, Steve realizes. Those are extraordinarily rare, powerful magical devices used for communicating instantly across long distances. The U.S. Army only had one available for use on the European front during the entirety of the war; they were nearly impossible to create.
But this one has a little logo etched in the lower corner, and way the woman is holding it—casually, like she’s used to it, like it belongs to her—makes Steve think maybe they’re commonplace now.
“Captain,” the man in the mirror—the ‘tee dub’, for Two Way, Steve supposes—addresses him.
“I’m Henry Peter Gyrich, President of MACUSA. Everything Doctor Pym said is true. I don’t know how to tell you this… but it’s the year 2016. You’ve been gone for over seventy years.”
“Sir.” Steve opens his mouth, then shuts it. He drops his head, chin falling nearly to his chest.
At his feet, Steve spots a “statue” fragment he hadn’t seem before: the remnants of an arm. The stone sleeve looks like it might have been part of a uniform jacket.
The arm is little smaller than an adult’s would be. A boy’s, maybe.
“I know this must be quite a shock,” says Gyrich sympathetically.
“You have no idea,” Steve breathes, eyes fixed on the last remnant of his young friend. “I’m…” He forces himself to look up, speaking to both the Gyrich and the scientists present. “I’m in the 21st century.”
“And I’m…” Steve trails off, voice gone soft.
“Alive, yes,” Doctor Pym assures him brightly. Nadia smiles again.
Alone, Steve thinks. I’m alone.
“...and not only was Rhodes International named a Fast500 Tech Innovator last year, but also—and maybe more importantly—it was selected as a SilverDoor 2016 ‘Best Place To Work’ award recipient. We’re incredibly proud that people love working here—any, uh, comment on that, Mister Stevens?”
James Rhodes’ turns just in time to catch Steve attempting to stifle a yawn. The CEO smirks pointedly.
Steve is… more than a little chagrined.
James Rhodes seems like a really nice person. Steve isn’t on a first name basis with a lot of nomajs, but if Rhodes were a wizard, he seems like the sort of guy Steve could, to use a phrase, get a butterbeer with.
He’s tall, with close-cropped hair, sharp brown eyes and a warm smile. His suit coat is unbuttoned, a hint of a seemingly laid back personality making itself known. Leaning against the front of his desk, he looks absolutely at home in his magnificent, airy office, its floor to ceiling windows continuing the transparency motif Steve noticed in the lobby, giving them all a beautiful view thousands of feet above the teeming metropolis below.
“It sounds,” Sam jumps him, throwing a smile to Rhodes and a scowl to Steve, “like an amazing company.”
“Absolutely, Mister Rhodes,” Steve chimes in, trying to look engaged.
“I told you, it’s Rhodey,” Rhodes insists. “Look…”
From his jacket, he pulls out a little grey electronic device with a glowing screen, not unlike the one the one the Bureau equipped him and Sam with for this assignment, only Rhodes’ is smaller and sleeker. He thumbs it a few times and pockets it again.
“I can tell you’re both, ah, men of action. You want to get moving, go hands on... I understand that impulse,” Rhodes paces toward them, sympathizing. “Maybe a personalised tour of a couple of our divisions would be more your speed? It just so happens that two of our Lead Engineers are available for the next hour, and they’d be happy to show you around. There’s Reed Richards, who can take one of you down to Biology—”
“Ooh, DIBS,” Sam calls out excitedly—probably too excitedly—even as Steve is raising his hand.
Damn, Steve had been hoping to go on the biology tour. It would probably be all… oh, what are they called? Microorganisms? But at least it was something alive.
Rhodes laughs. “Okay, Mister Samuels, I guess that’s you, then. Reed’ll be here shortly. And for the robotics tour, Mister Stevens—”
“—you’re stuck with me, I’m afraid. So, I’m second choice, huh?” a voice asks playfully from behind Steve, and Steve turns to see whom he’s offended now.
He barely stops himself before he gasps.
By Merlin’s great grey beard.
Leaning in the doorway to Rhodes’ office, grinning, casual as anything, is the most beautiful man Steve has ever seen.
Everything about him is… perfect. Crisp. Precise. The lines of his merlot-hued button down shirt and the pleats in his trousers;the part in his raven hair; the lines of jaw. Even his eyes—dark blue, with bright little teal flecks—dazzle him, recalling the sparks of light emitted from a wand as it casts some intricate charm.
Steve has never met a roboticist before, but suddenly he can’t help but feel that this is exactly what one should look like, that this man is the platonic ideal of someone inventing the future.
(Though, if he is honest, Steve’s feelings are somewhat less, ah, platonic. So to speak.)
The man coughs and raises his hand a little higher; Steve suddenly realises he’s been staring, unmoving and silent, while the man has been waiting with his hand out in greeting.
You’re an auror, and an army captain, Steve attempts to convince himself as he reaches out to take the engineer’s hand. You can do this.
(His hand is warm. Not too warm, of course. Just—not surprisingly—perfect.)
“Hi,” he says softly, his gaze locked on Steve’s face. “Tony Cerrera. Lead Engineer, Robotics and Artificial Intelligence.”
“Steve,” Steve blurts out too quickly, forgetting his false name. He hangs on the single syllable, trying to recover. “...ens. Roger Stevens. But. Roger is fine.”
Steve could kick himself. Focus less on getting a date, and more on not blowing your already-ridiculous cover.
“Well, Stevens-Roger-Stevens-Roger-is-fine,” Tony says, his tone impish, “I can tell you’re just dying to see the robotics lab.”
Before Steve can beg Tony’s forgiveness, Tony continues: “I get the sense it’s not your area of expertise, but we’re pretty proud of it. Or, I’m pretty proud of it, anyway. C’mon,” he smiles even wider and tips his head toward the bank of elevators at the end of the hall. “We’re gonna have way more fun than your pal and Richards.”
Steve feels himself beginning to grin back. “Lead on.”
“So, you seemed a little distracted up there,” Tony comments as the elevator whisks them downward. “Tired?”
Steve shuffles slightly. He hasn’t gotten the best sleep since his, uh, de-statue-fication, that’s true. “A bit.”
“Rough night last night?” Tony elbows him good-naturedly. “Or good one? It’s okay, I’ve been there, trust me. But you look like you could use a cup of coffee.”
“I… don’t drink coffee,” Steve explains, confused where this is going.
“Are you a tea guy?” Tony nods thoughtfully. “My gro—uh, uncle was a tea guy. I can work with that.”
Two right turns and a left brings them to a locked door with a security panel beside it.
“Hey, kids, it’s me! Open up,” Tony says, seemingly at the door.
There’s a faint… beeping sound inside. The light on the security panel turns green, and… the door...begins to open of its own accord?
Tony gestures to the room. “After you.”
Steve cautiously steps into the room. There’s a desk, scattered with papers, hand tools, and a few models cars and other personal knick-knacks.
He’s not sure what he’s supposed to be looking at, until behind the divider attached to the far edge of the desk, a long, snake-like neck rises up and into view.
Steve jumps back, letting out a little gasp.
It’s been seventy years since Steve fought the hydra, but it only feels like six months to him.
The thing behind the desk gives a squeak of its own and pulls back as well, mirroring Steve’s behavior in its own way.
It’s… a robot.
At least, Steve thinks that’s what it is. He’s never seen one before.
The “neck” is comprised of different metal pieces, articulated with joints in several places, and it moves fluidly, like a dragon’s, or a crane’s, or even perhaps another creature that Steve can’t quite place at the moment. At the end is a claw attachment, which is currently spinning, as well as opening and closing. It looks like it’s… gesturing?
It looks so alive.
It reminds him of the first time he saw his mom enchanting a broom to move on its own, doing the housework for her, and realized that not every family had the special abilities that his did.
It looks like…
“No need to be scared, dummy,” Tony comforts the robot, making a coaxing gesture. “Come on out. And bring the cup.”
The neck—or is it an arm?—bends down out of sight for a moment, and then pops back up holding a coffee mug in its claw. As it wheels around the desk toward them, what Steve had previously thought was a shelving unit comes to life as well, rolling out from under the desk. A shelf with a tea kettle on it slides forward, and the kettle begins to whistle.
The crane-necked robot places the mug on the shelf bot, and then picks up the kettle and proceeds to pour hot water into the mug. Steve just continues staring, mouth hanging slightly.
“Good!” Tony exclaims. “That’s a good dummy!”
Steve turns to Tony at that; that doesn’t make any sense.
“Oh,” Tony chuckles softly. “D-U-M-dash-E. It’s his name.” He points at the shelf bot. “And that’s Tug.”
Steve hears a chirp and feels something warm brushing against his hand; DUM-E is handing him the mug of tea.
“Those are… interesting names,” Steve comments, taking the mug. “Ah, thank you?” he offers the DUM-E, who actually coos. It’s incredibly sweet.
“Well,” Tony muses, nodding at the mug in Steve’s hands. “It is one of the two hard problems.”
Steve regards the print on the side of the mug:
THE TWO HARD CS PROBLEMS:
- CACHE INVALIDATION
- NAMING THINGS
- OFF-BY-ONE ERRORS
Steve… has no idea what any of that means, but Tony is smiling more than ever, so Steve smiles right back.
This is incredible. He never knew science could be so interesting, so… personal.
“So, you made these… bots?” Steve asks between sips of tea. “This is your lab?”
Tony laughs. “Uh, no. I mean, yes, I made them. But this is just my cubicle, where I take breaks. And these,” he gestures to the bots, “are just my hobbies.”
DUM-E makes a noise that descends in pitch, and spins its claw around.
Tony rolls his eyes. “Okay, okay: friends.”
DUM-E makes a happy squeak of approval at this amendment, and Steve laughs.
“Anyway...” Tony approaches his desk, gaze coasting over the work surface until it lights on a stack of flat plastic circles. He grabs one off the top, and then returns to Steve, handing it to him.
“Mainly came back here for these,” he explains.
The circle has a beautiful red and gold geometric pattern etched into one side, and the other appears to be blank… until you move it, and it catches the light, which reveals text that just says ‘hi there.’
“Calling cards.” Tony tells Steve.
“It…” Steve looks at the shimmering text. “It doesn’t say anything about RI on here.”
“Personal,” Tony clears his throat rather emphatically, “Ah, personal calling cards. With my personal information. In case you, uh, think of something you want to ask me. Off-hours. Or. Whenever.”
“It…” Steve twists the plastic a few more times to see if anything else shows up on the card, but nothing else appears. “It doesn’t say anything about that, either.”
Tony smiles, and without warning, pushes into Steve’s personal space, his hand sliding under the lapel of Steve’s jacket. For a moment, Steve thinks Tony is about to kiss him—or something even more forward. Steve imagines his eyes must be the size of quaffles.
Tony’s hand slides past Steve’s left pec—and his wand pocket—good gryphons, that was close—and closes around Steve’s muggle phone, which he extracts from Steve’s jacket before taking a half-step back.
Steve is half-relieved and half-disappointed. (Maybe more than half of the latter, if he’s being honest with himself.)
Tony taps the plastic circle against the back of the phone, and it chirps and lights up, the screen proclaiming that a new contact, Tony Cererra, has been added.
“There you go. NFC,” Tony says simply, sing-songing, as if that should mean something to Steve. “Easy as 1-2-3.”
Steve just glances back at forth between the phone and Tony a few times, still stunned into silence.
It looks for a moment like Tony might be sporting a bit of color on his cheeks as well, but he pivots on his heel and heads out of the room before Steve can be sure.
“LAB TIME!” he calls out as he stalks out of the room. “PREPARE TO BE AMAZED!”
Steve half-jogs towards the door, trying to catch up, when he hears a squawk—a distinctly different sound than either of the bots made.
Steve whips back around to try and find the source of it, and out of the corner of his eye, thinks he sees a flash of iridescent greens and purples rush behind the cubicle divider. What on earth?
He takes a few steps towards the desk and peers over the plastic wall, but there’s nothing to be seen. Huh.
“C’MON, STEVENS,” Tony yells from down the hall, “TIME WAITS FOR NO GOVERNMENT LACKEY, EVEN A VERY PRETTY ONE!”
Steve blushes again, and rushes out of the room, hearing the door latch as he shuts it behind him.