15 November, 1865
Steve loitered under a gas lamp on Grindels Street at the edge of the marshes of Watchmaker Hill, sketching the Observatory as his excuse for being there. The doorstep he'd taken over kept his back safe, at the penalty of having to adjust his paper at an unusual angle to account for shadows. Under normal conventions, a stationary man with his attention locked on a page would have been synonymous with "corpse" in that neighborhood, but Steve had taken care to leave his shirtsleeves rolled up and borrowed kitchen knife visible in his lap. The message had been successful. Not even the rats had bothered him, though a gray tabby had taken it upon herself to judge his artwork. The perspective, she had insisted, was entirely off, and nothing Steve could say about relative positions would dissuade her.
Moonish light really was the worst to work by, even when it was at its brightest. The colors washed out, leaving even the brightest of them tainted with muddy yellows and slimy greens. A particularly bright patch of glowing fungus spread across the cavern wall behind the observatory, an odd, splotchy moon that outlined the dome and towers. He did his best to brighten the lines, make them stand out where instead they were swallowed by shadows, adding daylight the same way a tailor would add lace.
All around him the walkways and alleys were nearly deserted, only populated by rats and cats and the occasional ambulatory fungus that had wandered in from the wild. It seemed to be the common state of things. Most of the people of the hill were either hunting or being hunted; even the constabulary barely bothered with them when there were much more manageable troubles in other areas. It made for a peaceful afternoon, though, and Steve was direly in need of them.
Footsteps on the roof above alerted him to company. He tensed, waiting to see if it would pass by as other such sounds had, but it didn't. Instead, there was a shuffle of cheap boots on slate, and then a thin line lowered from the shadows above.
Soot-faced and wearing rags his aunt would have a fit over, Peter scrambled down the line, seeming to hang from it by knees and prayers alone. "We followed as far as we could," he reported in a breathless whisper, "but we lost her near the construction site across the river. It looks like they're building a carnival!"
Steve finished sketching the shadow of an astronomer in the window before looking up. "And you're sure it was the same woman from yesterday?"
"Absolutely certain!" Peter nodded so hard that his whole body swayed on the rope. "She was in trousers and had her hair all bundled under a hat, but it was her. William and Theodore say she used to be in the Flit, right after the Fall, but then she took up with some devil. I can ask if anyone knows her name, if you like."
It wasn't much, but it was a step closer than Steve had ever been to figuring out who his mysterious admirer was. Every day for the last four he'd had Peter or his friends follow the letter as far as they could, and every day they found another link. It went through three different gangs of urchins in the Flit, two shopkeepers, another two sets of former urchins on the ground in Spite and now a Lady who consorted with devils. The convolutions might have made his head spin if he hadn't used similar tricks to get messages past Confederate lines in the war.
"Thank you, Peter," Steve smiled and finished one last line before ripping out the sheet he'd been working on and handing it up. "As promised. It's not my best—"
Peter snatched the paper from his hand before he could finish his sentence. Still hanging on with his knees, he rolled it up and tucked it safely into a worn piece of pipe. "Oh, no, it's perfect. They love your artwork up here. Everyone's clamoring to help you, you know."
"Just so long as you don't get too comfortable up there," Steve smiled up at the would-be Flitter. "It's growing late. Your aunt will be expecting you home soon for dinner."
Big eyes went even larger. Peter let out a squeak before flipping around to scurry back up the rope, rolling it back up after him with some trick that he'd learned from his friends. Steve didn't doubt that he'd be across the roofs and halfway home before Steve had even escaped Watchmaker's Hill. Some days he felt guilty for keeping Peter's contacts a secret from his aunt, but Peter had sworn it was safe, and so far there'd been no reason to break his trust.
Steve took his time stretching out the kinks in his back from having sat still for so long and folding his pad closed, tucking it and his pencils safely into a battered old case he'd found. The Neath was always just the chill side of comfortable, save for rare bursts of weather, just enough to have settled into joints and old aches from the war. As he did, his mind turned over the clues he'd picked up about his admirer, everything from the paper to peculiar route of travel the letters took. It was all leading up to an admittedly worrying conclusion, but he didn't want to assume too much too quickly. Nothing in the Neath was as obvious as it first seemed, and surely this would be no different.
After all, what would a devil want with him?
Cats hovered at the edge of his vision as Steve strapped his back over his shoulders and headed off down the street. None of them came close, but he thought he heard the hisses of feline whispers follow him as he passed.
Half a street away from where he'd been waiting, a new rope dropped down, fine white spider-silk gleaming like moonlight. A face appeared right in front of his, smiling and sweet and most noticeably upside-down. Her whole body was stretched out along the rope, as if she could just as easily be going up as down, long legs tangled up in it securely. "Going home so soon, Captain?" she asked brightly, tilting her head in curiosity. "Not going to give chase after I went through all that trouble?"
It took several ounces of will and a metaphorical swig of courage for Steve to look her in the eyes. Her legs were horribly tempting to stare at, hugged as they were by a set of trousers that snugged up against her curves. Matters of decency in the Neath, he knew, were becoming less and less of a concern for many, but seeing a lady's lower limbs so brazenly displayed was shocking regardless. Even her coat, which normally would have at least provided a modicum of modesty, was flipped up and hanging from her back, pinned in place at her waist by elbows alone.
At least she met his eyes, without a hint of flirtatiousness; that would have been more than he could handle. "You're the one writing the letters?"
"Oh, no, not I," she laughed, head tilting. She'd bundled her hair atop her head, presumably to better hide under a hat, but hanging as she was had loosened some pins. Tendrils of fine auburn hung down in curls and spirals and loops. It made her seem oddly young, though something in her eyes was ancient. "I'm only a friend and messenger. Your admirer asked me to handle the letters as a favor."
Breath rushed from his lungs. "You know who it is?" he asked eagerly. "Who is it? Tell me, please!"
"He'd prefer to tell you himself, and I won't spoil the surprise." She shook her head and twisted, dropping down from the line neatly as an acrobat in a carnival. A complicated tug on the line and her spider-silk rope dropped down to coil on the cobblestones. One gloved hand extended, the fingertips neatly excised for purposes that must have been questionable, if not positively illegal. "My name is Janet Van Dyne. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance."
Flat-footed, she was tiny, barely coming up to his shoulder, with a pixy-like face and smile that was far too cheerful for Watchmaker's Hill. Carefully, Steve shook her hand, and tried to pretend it wasn't frighteningly fragile in his. If she'd survived years in the Flit, she must have been able to care for herself and wouldn't welcome suggestions otherwise. "Steven Rogers, ma'am."
"Captain Steven Rogers," she corrected, giving his hand a firm squeeze before releasing it. "We've been hearing quite a bit about you. You've been busy these past few months. Curiously so."
Steve frowned slightly and gripped his bag a little tighter. Being watched actually wasn't unexpected; someone admitting they'd been watching him, however, was. "I've done nothing illegal."
"That's the curious part." White teeth flashed in a grin as she knelt down to start coiling up her rope. It made a surprisingly compact package, smaller than her fist and contained neatly inside its own little pouch. She hooked it in inside her coat, tucked safely away from wandering fingers. "Come along, I'll walk you home. My friend would never forgive me if you were murdered."
Wary but unable to resist a lure of answers, Steve let himself fall in beside her. There was something light about her, as if her feet could barely stand to touch the ground; he couldn't even hear the crunch of her footsteps when she passed over Neath-snow. "Why did you decide to show yourself to me?"
One of her shoulders rolled, almost invisible under her coat. "I'm supposed to deliver the next letter by hand," she explained, as if it were common knowledge. "I may as well introduce myself now, and save us both some difficulty."
They followed the muddy bank of the river, passing by the docks as barges sailed elegantly out into the unterzee. A few wretched souls looked up from the depths of the water, drowned and more than half-mad for it. Once Steve had tried to convince one to come up, and had nearly joined them for his effort. They were determined to stay precisely where they were, lack of necessity be damned.
As they passed out of Watchmaker's Hill, people started to become more prevalent. Some couples walked along the bank as they did, and the occasional young gentleman hunted colorful toadstools where they grew in patches at the edge of the bank. Miss Van Dyne drew more than one set of raised eyebrows in her odd attire, and at least one round of admiring glances from a gaggle of young ladies in provocative hats. Steve stepped in closer, though he suspected she could defend herself more than adequately, as most seemed to.
Since his companion didn't seem inclined to offer conversation, much less answers, Steve turned over his questions carefully, picking the ones that seemed most immediate. "Your... friend... is a man?"
Ever so slightly, she winced. "Oh... Damn it, I let that slip, didn't I?"
"You did." The letters had very carefully been kept clear of even that much of a hint, so he'd done his best to make assumptions. Certainly he'd seen ladies and gentlemen who were obviously well acquainted, but he'd never thought to extend the possibility to himself. On the surface he'd never explored the possibilities, even though the Army had presented plenty. But the Neath was different, more free, and there really wasn't a reason to hold back. "And he's a devil."
This time she laughed and stepped sideways to hook his arm with hers, neatly side-stepping a patch of slippery algae. Up ahead, the bridge loomed in the darkness, a stretch of shadow marked only by the grace of its lamps. "I know that I didn't say anything about that."
"You're friends with devils, though," he pointed out, and she turned her nose up in the air with a dainty sniff.
"I'll have you know that I may be a liaison to Hell, but I do have human friends."
That hadn't helped solve any mysteries at all. Steve stayed quiet as they wandered over the stretch of the bridge, taking care to stay in the lamplight as much as possible. Beggars and other shadowy sorts lingered outside of it, where they had better chances of escaping official notice. It tempted Steve to linger and offer help, but he himself was still living on the Widow Parker's hospitality. Water splashed under the northern edge of the bridge, churned by the wheels below. The spires of Spite loomed ahead, sharp and jagged, as if they'd stab the moon if they could only but reach it through the rock and soil. It wouldn't take much to skirt the edge of it and cut north to the widow Parker's home. A cloud of bats dimmed the moonish light for a moment as they swooped passed, wings making the illusion of a breeze.
"Is that all you have to ask?" Miss Van Dyne tilted her head back to watch them. She hadn't included an ascot in her attire, so the position bared the length of her neck under her collar and, ever so faintly, the edge of a scar. "No curiosities about what sort of man he is, no doubts about his intentions?"
Steve found himself grateful for the endless darkness, as it did wonders to hide his blushes. "As his friend, I would not expect you to be frank with me," he answered, perhaps a bit more bluntly than was polite. "And I believe I know his intent." The letters had more than clarified any uncertainties he might have regarding those. He'd developed a pattern of rereading the latest before bed, to better relieve stress.
As a consequence, he personally washed an odd towel or two. Daily.
Her hum carried through the air lightly, like a hymn still being crafted. "You're wiser than many. I'll tell you a secret though." Miss Van Dyne's hand tightened, pulling him to a stop and then farther swinging him around to face her. True gravity marked her expression, the stern face of a concerned friend and ally, rather than a mere courier. She gripped his hand between them, clutching it tight as if he might pull away and run.
Pressing up on her toes, she tugged him down until her lips touched his ear. "He's a good man, my friend. That's rare and dangerous down here. Evil men will give up when there's no profit to be found, but good men go on forever for what they believe in, even if it leads them down a well."
With a giggle, she smacked a kiss to his cheek and danced back suddenly, until the shadows made her a sketch of a person. "You're close enough to your home to be safe, I'd wager, and I've not yet had dinner. I'll call on you tomorrow with your next correspondence."
"Wait— what do you mean, down a well?" Steve stepped to follow her, but she just danced farther away, as if she'd taken too much of the strange honey they'd heard of. They were only two streets before the end of Spite, and a few farther from his lodgings. It was a warren of homes and shops, impossible to navigate without a firm destination in mind. If she ran off, he'd never be able to find her. "I've more questions!"
She laughed again, and was gone, vanished behind a carriage as it trundled by.
For a rarity, Mrs. Parker wasn't hovering about, waiting for him to return, and the parlor door was shut. He could hear voices through it, her soft one and a gentlemanly laugh that nevertheless creaked with age. It made him happy that she had a friend to visit; he'd worried that her mourning had kept her too much to herself. The cook was still awake, for a change, and was happy to ply him with a dish of mushroom soup and some of the rather crusty bread that was common.
There was no sign of Peter as he climbed the steps to his room, but the silence a comforting one, of sweet dreams and warm beds, rather than one of guilt. It eased the twinge of his conscience. If the widow had caught Peter sneaking in that afternoon, Steve didn't doubt that peace would be far away from the house, and Mrs. Parker surely wouldn't have been entertaining callers.
Steve ate his soup and bread at the desk, saddened that there was no admiring letter to read before bed that night. He'd put off sending his until he and Peter were both free to follow the messenger, but as a result there'd been no time for his admirer to pen a new one. It worried him how he already missed even an anonymous token of affection, and a distinctly profane one at that.
In dire hope of a clue to add to Miss Van Dyne's rambling about wells, he pulled out the letters in all their sordid glory, laying the eight of them out side by side. Were humans—or devils—so flexible? Was that a description of an extraneous limb, or simply colorful prose? Why did the writing change so abruptly?
He pored over them until the last dregs of his soup had gone cold and the candle guttered. Exhaustion ate away at every emotion, even desire, so that the facts of even the most outre of scenarios was as grounded as a clay man in muck. Then even exhaustion drained away, leaving aching eyes and lines that blurred into meaninglessness. Only then did he blow out the candle and retire.
That night, Steve dreamed of an endless hall of tarnished brass, etched with bloody words in a thousand languages and lined with a thousand doors. Water ran along its floor, first in trickles, then in floods, rising past ankles and knees. He ran down it, opening doors at random, desperately seeking an exit, a window, anything at all. But behind each one there was only another hall and more doors, more blood and words as the water rose higher and higher, to hips and shoulders and chin. And always, always his brother's voice in his ear, whispering, urging, pleading, even as the water closed over his head.