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Kotik (the Preview)

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1926

Steve will never truly know what happens in that moment, when his wordless plea becomes a spell that reweaves the universe. What he's aware of is an agony so pure it steals the world, eclipses every moment of experience and memory so that when it's over and he's lying sobbing in the bloody snow the first thing he's truly aware of is that he exists at all. The second is that he's alive and human, not just a receptacle for pain. The third is that he has a name, and it's Steven Grant Rogers.

What he doesn't understand, not at first, is why he feels like he's been torn in half. But the reason for that is simple: it's exactly what happened.

The next thing Steven Grant Rogers is aware of is that there are now four other boys in the alley instead of three. But the fourth is moving so fast it's hard to get a fix on him, like a shadow boxing in the dark. He fights the three boys all at once, hitting and kicking and clawing and biting at them like a wild animal, until the three run away screeching in fear.

The new boy stands with his back to Steve and his hands in fists and his shoulders heaving as he watches the bullies flee. There's blood on his fingers, dripping into the snow. Steve can hear each separate tick of the drops, loud as earthquakes in the sudden silence. In the distance the cars on the street honk and rattle like this is an ordinary evening. The other boy's breathing is very loud, almost as loud as Steve's own wheezing in his ears.

And the final thing Steve becomes aware of is that the boy has a black tail with maybe a hint of brown, flared out and bristly like a hairbrush. It flicks back and forth, lashing at the snow and the blood and the boy's bare ankles.

Steve coughs with shock and the boy whirls. He's completely naked, but that's the least notable thing about him, other than his messy, flopping, completely unremarkable dark brown hair. Because he has two huge cat ears perched on the top of his head, covered with downy black fur the same color as the boy's tail. The tufted fur on the inside is brown.

The boy's eyes are stormy grey-blue, bisected with a split black pupil gone oval in the winter dark.

There's blood all over his mouth, blood on his sharp teeth and spattering his neck and chest. But when he sees Steve he doesn't try to eat him. Instead he drops to his knees next to him in the snow.

"H-hey," he says, hesitant with something other than cold. He looks like he has to concentrate on how to form words. "Are…you o-kay, pal?"

Steve nods, too shocked to do anything else, certainly too shocked to feel afraid. He is in pain, though—his nose aches and he's cold and his lungs are burning. And he feels like half of him is gone, somehow. Torn away like old newsprint. It doesn't hurt anymore, but the vacancy is actually worse than the pain, like the edges of a wound.

When he tries to sit up and can't, the boy reaches for him. Their hands touch. And instantly the vacancy, the terrible absence, is gone.

Steve gasps and sees the other boy's grey-blue eyes shoot wide, his ears stand straight up from his skull. The sudden feeling of being complete again is as much a shock as the initial tear. Steve lunges for the boy without even thinking about it. All his other hurts, his shock and confusion, dissipate like the mist from his breath next to the bright flare of two ragged halves of a soul becoming one again.

His grateful laugh shatters into a sob and then Steve—almost eight and a half and still bleeding in the alley where he almost died—is weeping with his bony little chin digging into the other boy's shoulder, feeling the soft, inexplicable flick of his cat ear along the top of his head and the sturdy bones of the strange boy's back beneath his palms. They stay like that for a long time. Too long, in the dark and the cold, before Steve finally remembers where he is and how late it is and that he's with this boy who appeared out of nowhere and looks like a cat but feels like everything. And his Ma's got to be worrying about him something awful and he doesn't know what happened, not anything at all

Pushing back from the boy feels worse than getting his nose broke, but Steve does it. He only realizes when he can see the other boy's face that he's been crying too. "Sorry," he murmurs, because it's rude to bawl all over somebody you only just met, no matter what they look like.

The boy doesn't answer. He wipes his eyes, looking at the tears on his blood-sticky hands like he's not sure what they are. He licks them with a tentative poke of his tongue, then shrugs. He sniffles, wipes his nose, and then shivers.

"Oh. You must be cold," Steve says. He forgot the boy's naked.

The other boy nods.

"Um, what's your name? I'm Steve," Steve adds, remembering to be polite.

The boy sniffs and wipes his nose again. "James Buc-han-an Barnes." He rubs his chest, like he can feel the same thing Steve does inside—that part that's whole when they're touching but raw and wrong when they aren't. When he looks at Steve his eyes shine in the light from the street.

"What are you?" Steve asks him.

"I don't k-know," James says. He looks at his hand, the sharp, curving claws that come out when he flexes his fingers, then at Steve again. "D-do you know? You made me."

Steve shakes his head. "I gotta get home," he says, because he can't think of anything else. He tugs at the front of his shirt, plastered down and half-frozen with his blood. "Ma's going to kill me."

James' ears go flat, and he growls.

"Not for real!" Steve says quickly. "I just meant, she'll be real mad."

"Oh," James says. His tail's still flicking, but his ears slowly stand up again.

"You don't know much, do you?" Steve says. He stands, or tries to stand, but he's so cold now that he can practically hear his knees and elbows creaking like old hinges and James has to help him get up. That's fine, though. It's good just being near him, but touching him's even better. Even if he's still naked and has a tail.

James shrugs.

Steve's lungs still feel like they're stuffed full of sand but he's not panicked now and he thinks he can make it home before it gets worse. He's pretty sure there's at least one ampule left of Epinephrine for the nebulizer if he needs it, but maybe he can get by with Vicks and a warm bath. And Aspirin for his nose. His nose really hurts.

He's horribly cold, too, trembling like a leaf even with his mostly-dry jacket. Poor James is shaking even worse. He has his arm that's not still supporting Steve wrapped around his chest, and he's shifting from foot to clawed foot so his feet won't have to touch the snowy pavement for too long. The blood where the kitten was glistens black and thick as it slowly freezes, but the tiny body's gone. Maybe it was all right enough to run away?

Black kitten, Steve thinks. Like James' black ears and tail. Steve doesn't know what that means.

You made me, James said. But Steve couldn't have. He doesn't know how, so how could he've done anything?

Steve takes off his jacket then wraps it around James' waist and ties the sleeves. James is taller than Steve and cat-lean, but even then it barely covers enough to be decent, leaves a gap going up to the top of one hip like a dancing girl. But maybe it'll be okay, in the dark.

"Come on," Steve says, and now his voice shakes along with the rest of him. He takes James' hand, remembers to grab his books with the other, though he's too weak to do more than drag them along behind him. He doesn't even protest when James takes the strap right out of his hand and hefts them like they weigh nothing at all.

"Are we go-ing home?" James asks him.

Steve nods, though he doesn't know which 'home' James means. Steve wants it to be his. He doesn't want to let James anywhere away from him.

His ma will fix this anyway, Steve figures. She's no witch, but she knows things. She knows about magic and what spells can do and can't. If anyone will know what James is, she will, he's sure. His ma knows everything.

They slip down the alley together like twin shadows, neither letting go of the other's hand, and they head right for Steve's apartment, the one he's shared with his ma since before he was born. Steve's thinking of a warm bath and a warmer bed, with the cat-boy named James curled next to him and the ragged edge inside smoothed out and soft and nothing missing.

But when they get to his building, his ma's not alone. Winnifred Barnes is standing with Sarah on the front steps, breathing anxious white plumes into the night, waiting for them.