There are times life will rattle your bones
And will bend your limbs
You're still far away the boy you've ever been
The first thought Erik had when he saw Captain America was that the man must be a metallokinetic mutant too; his shield was made of a metal that sang to Erik across the distance, and it seemed to obey the American's thoughts more than his movements, bouncing back to its owner in a way that could not be natural.
There should have been more pressing thoughts on Erik's mind than the grace of Captain America's advance as he and the Howling Commandos took the camp: survival, for one; Doktor Schmidt had made it clear to him that if the Allies arrived, his fellow prisoners would brand Erik a collaborator and he would share the Doktor's fate.
He turned to leave, but they were already surrounded. Obviously the Americans' priority, over the liberation of the prisoners, was the capture of the German officers in charge. In the building behind Erik, two gunshots rang out: that would be Captain Kauffman and his aide killing themselves to avoid being taken prisoners.
Erik was considering doing the same (he could feel the weapon a fleeing guard had dropped under an overturned barrel nearby) when the door opened behind him and Doktor Schmidt came out.
“Das ist er! Das ist Schmidt!” shrieked someone near the gates.
It didn't surprise Erik that some prisoners had stayed behind to see their tormentors get their comeuppance. Perhaps they would stand by in grim silence while the Americans shot Erik alongside everyone else they could find in the building; spending his time with the Doktor and getting a little more food than everyone else meant that some people saw him as little better than a kapo.
Shots rang out and Doktor Schimdt laughed, unharmed.
“Komm, Erik,” he called out. “Zeit zu gehen.”
Erik blinked and forced himself to turn his head.
“Stop!” rang out a voice in English, as more bullets failed to do anything to the Doktor.
Erik had heard of Captain America from American POWs, and from side-glancing pamphlets that American planes sometimes dropped over the camp. In person he was just as tall and imposing as the photographs made him out to be, even stained with gunpowder and mud, but Erik was fascinated instead by the shield he carried, by the way the metal seemed to resonate in his very bones.
“Be careful, Captain!” said the Doktor in English, and stomped his foot on the ground, causing a localised earthquake that felled a few of the American soldiers, but not Captain America; not Erik either, who had guessed what was going to happen and gripped the door frame to steady himself.
Captain America didn't seem particularly fazed by the Doktor's abilities, and merely adjusted his grip on his shield.
“Are you Doctor Schmidt? You are under arrest.”
The Doktor laughed and held out his hand; Captain America's comrades were still shooting at him.
“Nonsense! Erik, come on.”
Erik shrank into himself when attention was called to him. Perhaps he might be able to deflect the bullets when the Americans took aim at him; perhaps not. Perhaps he wouldn't bother.
For a moment he stood frozen, then he raised his head.
“Now, just a moment...” started Captain America.
“Erik!” shouted Doktor Schmidt. “Das Schild!”
Erik met Captain America's eyes under his cowl, then closed his own, concentrated, and *pulled*.
The metal of the shield sang to him in a way that no metal had sung before; if manipulating steel and iron under Doktor Schmdit's orders had tasted of blood and sand, this was freezing water and starlight, responsive under his powers like nothing else.
“NO!” shouted two voices at once, and Erik opened his eyes just in time to see the shield fly towards Doktor Schmidt, edge first.
He didn't know what he had been expecting. Probably nothing. Probably for Doktor Schmidt to catch the shield and turn to Erik with that hateful smile –equal parts pride and superiority– that he wore when Erik did something that pleased him in spite of Erik's actual intention. Probably for someone to kill him, be it the Americans or the Doktor or the other prisoners.
He certainly hadn't expected the explosion, light and sound and heat and pressure knocking him to the ground. For a moment, he thought a bomb had fallen on them while they had been talking, but when he managed to blink the light from his eyes he saw that everything remained as it had been, except that Schmidt's decapitated body was lying on the ground and Captain America's bloodstained shield was embedded on the concrete wall.
For the second time, he met Captain America's eyes with his own, blown wide with fear and surprise. Then, Erik Lehnsherr turned around and ran.
Steve cupped his hands around the pewter mug filled with something that could be coffee, tea, or mud, and sighed. The days when they freed prisoner camps were simultaneously the best and the worst; all the tears of gratitude couldn't wash away the memories of those stick-thin arms beating against the barbed wire, of those soulless buildings erected with the sole purpose of death, of the piles of dead bodies stacked like firewood in open graves the size of swimming pools.
There seemed to be no end to the atrocities humans would commit, and no end to people willing to commit them...
It was almost funny that he and the Howling Commandos had arrived into that camp only because they have received intelligence about a powerful man named Schmidt who was performing experiments on prisoners, only to discover that Doktor Klaus Schmidt had nothing to do with Obergruppenführe Johan Schmidt except for a last name and a penchant for dangerous cruelty.
Steve looked at the papers recovered from what was supposed to be Doctor Schmidt's getaway vehicle, and felt his stomach turn. Laid bare in clinical terms was the life of the terrified, starved boy who Schmidt had stayed behind to retrieve; his abilities, the murder of his mother, the endless tests performed on him, Schmidt's plans for his future. A weapon to be wielded, like any of Doctor Zola's.
Steve closed his eyes for a moment and wished Erik Lehnsherr the best; try as they might, they hadn't been able to find him after the camp was secured.
Erik huddled against a wall and, for the hundredth time that day, wished he was dead. The camp was a thing of the past, but war still raged on, and the winter was bitter with death and ragged bands of refugees fleeing the shifting battle fronts or trying to return to homes that didn't exist any more.
Erik had turned fifteen in the darkened stoop of a bombed-out house, shivering from cold and aching from hunger; the only thing he'd had to eat in the last two days was a wrinkled beet he'd managed to dig out from a field pockmarked with bomb craters. He still couldn't work with metal, as he'd never been able to do outside of Doktor Schmidt's laboratory or his own nightmares, but he could sense it all around him, and that had helped him avoid people and hidden mines, at least.
But now... Jakob and Edie Lehnsherr were dead, and Erik had heard from a woman in a farm that Düsseldorf was still in German hands and being bombed day and night. As it stood, Erik had no one and nothing, not even Doktor Schmidt's cruel care.
The temptation to just stay there and let cold and hunger finish him off was great. The sides of the roads were littered with countless bodies –soldier, civilian and horse alike–, and someone would come soon and scavenge the shoes off his feet and the rags off his emaciated body. No one would care about his disappearance, or mourn his memory; his name would be just one more of the many that had been lost to the camps.
A gust of cold wind hit his refuge, bringing the smell of snow and a noise of marching feet. Erik stilled in place. His will to live had been slowly dwindling since his mother's murder, but a kernel of survival instinct still lived in him, and it led him to huddle further into the shadows. He had been trying to move westwards, under the assumption that he would be safer in territories under Allied control, but it was impossible to know what nationality these soldiers were, and whether they were in the mood to share their provisions with a refugee or would rather casually shoot a vagrant no one would miss.
Erik would have remained hiding until they moved on, but his insides gave a jolt as the men approached: amongst the steel and tin of the usual equipment, something shone like a star to Erik's senses.
He was scrambling out of the darkened doorstop before he realised what was doing. When he was out of the open, he froze like a rabbit having caught wind of a fox; he would have run for cover again, but by then the American soldiers had already spotted him.
“Halt!” one of them called, and a flashlight shone in his eyes; instinctively, Erik raised his arm to shield his eyes.
“Wait, Gabe, wait! Put the light down. Please.”
The circle of light moved to Erik's knees and he blinked into the sudden darkness.
Standing in front of him was Captain America. Erik stared at the man for a moment, then looked down to the shield held loosely by his side; it was spotless, as if it had never spilled Doktor Schmidt's blood.
Erik felt himself sway on his feet, and then came darkness.
Steve carried the unconscious Erik Lehnsherr all the way to their camp for the night, and insisted on having a medic look him over even though it was obvious that what was wrong with him was what was wrong with most of Europe: too much grief and too little food.
“You sure this is a good idea?” Bucky asked from the doorway to Steve's tent. “Remember what the kid did at the camp.”
“He was terrified.”
“Well, yeah. And waking up in here is likely going to be just as terrifying to him.”
Steve looked at Erik Lehnsherr lying pale under a pile of blankets so he didn't have to look at Bucky; it wasn't often that his friend mentioned his time as a prisoner, even obliquely, and he was always skittish after he did so.
“What do you suggest I do, then? Leave him alone out there to starve to death? Hand him over to the Red Cross? If half the stuff on his files is true, he won't want to see another doctor or nurse in his life.” Steve thought about the death of Doctor Schmidt and the file on Erik Lehnsherr, and the amount of loose, sharp metal in a standard medical station. “At least I can deal with him if he gets scared.”
“And what are you going to do with him?” Bucky rolled his eyes like he'd done when Steve had insisted on bringing home stray cats and dogs even though he'd barely had enough to feed himself. “He's a kid, Steve, we can't take him with us into battle, whatever he can or can't do. Ship him back home, where someone can take care of him.”
“Let's wait 'til he wakes up, maybe he can tell us if he has more family than was on his file, or someone who can take him in. Then we can arrange to have him sent somewhere safe.”
“Be careful, okay? Your shield won't do much if that kid can yank it right out of your hands.”
With a clap on the back, Bucky was gone. Steve hadn't expected him to stay and, anyway, his absence was proof that in spite of his reservations, Bucky trusted Steve to take care of himself, something that hadn't ceased surprising him yet.
Steve spent a little over an hour reading reports coming from the Western Front before the bundle under his blankets moved.
“Erik?” Steve called out after a moment, when the silence indicated that his young guest had gone so still he'd even stopped breathing. “Erik, you're safe here.”
Doctor Schmidt's files indicated Erik had been taught English, French and Spanish in between bouts of experimentation, but when the silence stretched on, Steve decided to break out his –very, very basic-- German.
“Erik, ist schon gut, du bist hier sicher.”
Back in Brooklyn, in what seemed like another lifetime, Steve had often rescued street cats from falling into dumpsters or getting caught in rain gutters. There was nothing like a cat, Steve thought, to look at once heartbreakingly helpless and mortally offended at being rescued, but young Erik peering at him from under the blankets came close.
“My name is Steve Rogers,” Steve continued under the scrutiny of those light blue eyes; Erik was crouched under the blankets, tense as a steel trap, looking one wrong word away from bolting. “Would you like something to eat?”
Of course he would, the kid was skin and bones and large pale eyes; Steve was intimately familiar with hunger, but even in the streets of the New York of the Great Depression he hadn't seen anything close to what he had seen in Poland in the last few weeks.
“Here.” Steve had been prepared to use bribery, and had at hand an open can of corned beef, some fresh bread Bucky had procured God-knows-how, and a chocolate D-bar. “It's for you.”
Erik waited for a moment, then slowly emerged from under the blankets; for ten seconds he sat on the edge of the bed, and Steve thought the odds were even he would take the food or run away into the night again.
“Thank you, captain,” the boy said at last, holding out a hesitant hand towards the bread; his English was correct, though a little stiff. After he took the first bite, he put the bread down with trembling hands and turned his head to look over Steve's shoulder. “May I...? May I see your shield? Captain, sir?”
Steve's shield was carefully concealed beneath a waterproof tarp behind him, but Erik's gaze was trained unerringly on it. Once again, he remembered the camp, and Doctor Schmidt's severed head rolling on the muddy ground, and how it had taken him all of his strength to pull his shield from the blood-spattered concrete wall; he remembered what he had read in the file, the things Erik had been able to do under Schmidt's torture.
“Of course,” he answered, and reached behind him for the shield. “And please, call me Steve.”
Erik wasn't listening; his thin, scratched hands were hovering reverently over the painted metal, which after a moment began to vibrate gently, letting out a musical humming sound.
Steve could have been afraid, but he wasn't. There was such a sense of wonder in the boy's face that he didn't think about the possibility of being attacked like Schmidt had been.
“You should eat,” he said, a gentle reminder. “You can look at the shield later.”
Erik nodded and let his hands fall on the shield, which stopped humming slowly, like a contented cat.
“Thank you, captain.”
“Call me Steve. And you're welcome.” Steve waited until Erik had bit into the bread again to slide the can of corned beef and a spoon towards him. “It's amazing that you can do that,” he added, gesturing to the shield now lying between them. “I have never seen anything like it.”
Erik gave him a wary look, still eating.
“Can you not do something similar, sir? With your shield?”
“Me? No, not at all. I am nothing extraordinary,” answered Steve, smiling at the boy, who raised a disbelieving eyebrow but continued eating. “You, on the other hand... what else can you do?”
“Not enough,” Erik answered at once, his expression shuttering; it pained Steve to recognise the echo of someone else's words in his voice.
“Enough? Who gets to judge what is enough and what isn't?” Steve shook his head and leant forwards a little, trying to emphasise his point but well aware of the skittishness of his young guest. “You are extraordinary, Erik. You are strong and brave and a host of other things that go beyond your abilities.”
Alarmingly, Erik's eyes watered, and he looked down into the can of corned beef to try and hide it. Steve backed off to give the young man his space, and pretended to fiddle with his binoculars for a moment.
“So, Erik,” he said, eyes still firmly on the binoculars, when he thought Erik had got his composure back. “Where do you want to go now? I can find a way to get you to most places in Europe, or to America if you want a fresh start.”
He looked at the boy to see him shaking his head.
“I don't have anyone. Anywhere to go.” He dropped the fork back into the half-empty tin and straightened his back; he was taller than Steve had thought. “I can leave now.”
“No! No, no, I didn't mean that. I mean, of course you are free to leave whenever you want, but I'm not kicking you out. At all! I just meant, if there is somewhere you want to go, I can help. Or not. Whichever you prefer.”
Steve shut up, deeply aware of his tendency to babble when apologetic. There was a glint of amusement in Erik's eyes, amongst the distrust and fear and exhaustion, when he took up the spoon again.
There had been times, like when Erik had hobbled away from Doktor Schmidt's ministrations and found his fellow prisoners looking at him with distrust, that he believed that there was no goodness left in the world, that it all had died alongside Edie Lehnsherr.
Steve Rogers was challenging that belief. Not Captain America, no; Erik had no use for propaganda. But Steve Rogers, who gave up his cot and blankets and rations for Erik, who was willing to let Erik handle his shield and sat there to watch with an awed expression on his face, who went out of his way to make Erik feel safe and –most importantly– free, he was a good man.
The rest of the American soldiers, he could take or leave. Though obviously devoted to Captain Rogers, they were loud and brash and regarded Erik with suspicion; he didn't begrudge them that (no one since his parents' death had looked at him any differently), but he kept his distance all the same.
The Captain ('Steve, please, call me Steve') had told him they were returning to base after a mission to uncover certain information had proved useless, and in what seemed an effort to not offend Erik, had invited him to come along with them. In exchange, Erik had offered to translate some documents that the Howling Commandos had retrieved, full of military and medical abbreviations hard for foreigners to decipher, but that Erik knew well.
“It's not a pleasant subject matter,” Steve said, hovering nervously in front of Erik as he sat on a crate with some files on his lap.
Erik looked up, face blank, and stared at Steve.
“I know you've seen worst things,” Steve continued earnestly. “But you shouldn't have to any more.”
“I cannot sit by idly,” Erik said, looking back at the documents to hide his rictus of anger from Steve. “I will help.”
“I appreciate that. I just wish...” Steve sighed and sat next to Erik. “You are only fifteen, Erik. More than anything, I wish that you could recover the life you lost and be safe somewhere.”
“If it had not been the Nazis, then someone else when they discovered my powers. There is no safe for someone like me.”
There is no safe for anyone, Erik wanted to say, but the Captain believed so strongly in safety and freedom and a bright future that Erik didn't want to disappoint him.
“You won't go to America, then, or even the UK?”
Erik shook his head.
“I will stay. Do what I can, if I can. Die when it happens.”
“Don't say that.” Steve's shoulder gently knocked into his. “We will take care of you. Living is easier when you have someone watching your back.”
That was an offer genuinely meant, Erik knew, and he ached to accept it. But Steve was a good man and Captain America was a good soldier; Erik was something else, an accident of nature, something to be studied and wielded as a weapon instead of befriended and cared for. So Erik kept quiet and started working, and Steve remained a warm silent presence at his side.
They were taking a break as an intersection two miles ahead of them was being shelled. Erik was sitting in the back of a truck, with Steve's shield on his lap. Bucky was standing a little way away, staring at the boy through narrowed eyes.
Dum Dum walked towards the truck, bowler hat tilted at a jaunty angle. Erik seemed to physically shrink away when the man talked to him, but after a moment, he glanced at Steve, put the shield down, and followed Dum Dum to where he had been trying to communicate with an old farmer. Erik's German soon untangled the negotiations for some fresh eggs, and Steve smiled when Erik received both a pat on the cheek from the old woman and a clap on the back from Dum Dum, both events obviously more disconcerting to him than the heavy bombing happening only a couple of miles away.
To one side, Bucky glared at the boy through narrowed eyes.
For Steve, Bucky had always been a slightly ridiculous, skirt-chasing Mother Hen; he was his best friend, his sometime nurse, his exasperated but dashing rescuer from a hundred street-fights. Bucky had worried about Steve's health, his eating habits, his family, finances, and propensity to get into fights; one thing he'd never had to worry about before, though, was sharing Steve's attention with anyone else than the odd stray cat. The rest of the Howling Commandos weren't a problem, because they were fellow soldiers, and even Bucky knew better than to make an objection to Peggy, but Erik's presence sure rubbed him the wrong way.
“You have a problem, pal?” Steve bumped Bucky's shoulder with his own. “Keep squinting like that, you're going to be an old man before you know it.”
“So, Captain America wants a mascot?”
“Already got you, buddy.” Steve grinned at Bucky.
It wasn't unusual for units to adopt cute orphaned children from occupied territories as mascots or scouts. Erik –sullen, lanky, uncommunicative– was not the type, even if he hadn't been so fiercely independent. It had only been five days since they had found him again, and Steve woke up every morning with the fear that Erik would be gone
“I'm not going to drag him into the line of fire,” he continued, anticipating Bucky's objections. “But he's got nowhere to go and he wants to help, and at least this way I can keep an eye on him.”
“Gosh, I wonder who that reminds me of?” said Bucky, giving him a wry look.
Steve didn't bother hiding his grin. There would never be a time in his life when he wasn't thankful for all that Bucky had done for him. If now he could do for Erik even half of what Bucky had once done for him, he would consider himself blessed.
“Captain?” The subject of their discussion approached them, carrying Steve's shield.
Erik had never again used his abilities when in sight of anyone but Steve, leaving him to constantly wonder if what had happened at the camp had been a freak accident or something else. Erik didn't seem to want to talk about it, Steve didn't want to ask, and a gently humming shield was very different from the unnatural force that had yanked the shield from his hand that one time.
“Thank you, Erik,” he said, taking up the shield.
Erik gave a mild glare at Bucky, who lifted his chin at this. Steve had to find the time to mock him for trying to pick a fight with a fifteen-year-old.
“There are...” Erik turned, looking at the field to their right, filled with brambles and tangled grass. “Armed men, seven of them, coming that way. One has a... ah, Maschinengewehr?”
“Machine gun,” Bucky divined immediately. “Sonovabitch, we're sitting ducks here on the road.”
Advancing was impossible, and retreating would only bring them against the heavy convoy that they had barely managed to overtake a couple of hours before; Steve directed the men to take defensive positions behind the trucks, and chose Gabe and Bucky to go with him and try to intercept the ambush.
“Stay here,” he told Erik, putting a heavy hand on the boy's fragile shoulder.
Erik shook him off.
“No,” he said simply, tightening the belt Steve had borrowed from Morita to go with the pants he'd requisitioned from Bucky. “I can tell you where they are. And mines too. You can't see.”
But Erik wasn't listening, instead choosing to wade into the dry, tall grass.
“Leave him, pal, come on,” Bucky said, turning to follow.
“I thought you were just telling me to send the kid home,” said Steve.
“That was before I knew he could act as a human radar. Now hush.”
Erik was as good as any of them at crawling between the tall, dead grass quietly, and Gabe and Bucky didn't seem to have any problem following his instructions to avoid this or that patch of soil. After nearly five minutes of slow advance, Erik paused and gestured to his left, where ten yards away there was a glint of steel between the grass.
“OK, now stay here,” Steve hissed at him, pointing at the dubious protection of an old shell-crater. Erik rolled his eyes but nodded and complied.
Thirty minutes later, they were walking back to the convoy, carrying a captured German machine gun.
“He can stay,” said Bucky.
Erik, walking three feet in front of them, turned around and bared his teeth in what by no means could be interpreted as a smile; Steve grinned back all the same.
As it turned out, Captain America's work was more intelligence gathering and small-scale Blitzkrieg than punching the Führer or whatever the propaganda said. He and the Howling Commandos were based in and around a small chateau somewhere in the French Alps, and Erik had been presented to the officer at charge (Colonel Phillips, grumpy in his pyjamas) and given a cot in the same echoing, dusty room where the Captain slept.
Even though Erik was still half-sure that he would be told to leave at any moment, he couldn't help but acknowledge that having fallen in with Steve and the Howling Commandos was a stroke of luck. Not only because he now had enough food and warm clothes, but also because it was an opportunity to make a difference far better than just dying of exposure by the side of the road. And more importantly, an opportunity to use his abilities in a context devoid of scalpels, blood, and Doktor Schmidt's hateful presence.
During the first days, Erik had been alert, ready to flee at the first hint that Captain America planned to hand him over to the US military for experimentation. But nothing had been said of the subject, even though some of the men who had been present at the camp still gave him odd looks from time to time; when even Sergeant Barnes had deemed Erik's abilities useful, Erik had felt the matter of his stay with the Howling Commandos had been decided in his favour.
Now, if only he could get rid of this damn cold...
Erik had barely ever fell sick at the camp. Doing so was virtually a death sentence for the common prisoner, and he hadn't wanted to test the limits of his usefulness to Doktor Schmidt. But now, it seemed like his body had gotten the message that they were (relatively) safe and taken that as permission to break down.
Steve had spent the last two days on the road procuring hot beverages for him whenever the convoy had come to a stop and piling every spare blanket, coat, and tarp over Erik's feverish body. In spite of that, and the rattling of the trucks over increasingly decrepit roads, he had managed to keep working on the files the Captain had given him and had handed over the finished translation as they arrived to the chateau, before being shepherded into the room and ordered sternly to rest.
It was... strange, thought Erik fuzzily as he tried to punch a lumpy pillow into shape. He'd not been cared for since well before the camp, since his family had moved from Düsseldorf to Stuttgart in a vain attempt to escape the rounding up of Jews. It had been over three years since someone had laid a gentle hand to his forehead to check his temperature, or pressed a cup of tea into his hands, or made sure the blanket was tucked up to his chin.
He was dozing off when Steve came in.
It had only been three weeks, but even under half a dozen blankets, Steve could already tell the difference between the lump of misery Erik had been on his first night with them and how he was now. Sufficient food and a lack of torture had done wonders for the boy, who was growing almost visibly and had lost some of the skittish, feral quality that had put off some of the guys at the beginning.
“Erik?” he asked in a low voice, in case he had fallen asleep.
Erik had awful nightmares every night, from which he woke up pale and shaking and deathly quiet, like one who has learnt that calling attention to his weakness would result in dire consequences. Once, Steve had woken up to find Erik silently sobbing into his pillow, and also that the tin mug on the crate that served as nightstand had become a crumpled ball of sharp metallic edges. He'd sat up with the boy for the rest of the night, and the next day Erik had managed to unearth a battered pewter cup from the ruins of a bombed farm.
So, yeah, Steve didn't want to startle him, just in case. But he also had a delivery that couldn't wait.
Bucky -who'd obnoxiously reminded him that he had tons of experience taking care of frail, sickly little guys who thought they could overcome any illness with sheer stubbornness-, had sent him to Erik with a mug of steaming soup that smelt strongly of brandy. Ever since Erik had proved his usefulness (and honesty) by serving as a reliable human metal-detector on the road, Bucky had warmed up to him, in his own inimitable way; many nights on the road, when Steve had gone to make sure Erik had eaten enough, he'd found Bucky showing the boy how to strip and re-assemble all the different weapons they could lay their hands on.
“Ja? Sorry, yes?” Erik croaked, trying to leave his nest of blankets.
“At ease, soldier,” Steve said lightly. “Bucky sent some soup for you.”
“Poisoned?” asked Erik, wrinkling his nose but sitting up all the same.
“Could be,” Steve replied with a smile. “Hard to tell under all this brandy.”
He sat on the edge of the bed, handed the mug over, and grinned when Erik sipped at the soup and coughed weakly at the taste of alcohol. He'd coughed the same when he'd seen Peggy for the first time, walking towards them before the trucks had even rolled to a stop with a thunderous frown on her face and her perfectly painted lips pursed. Erik had stood still, soft cap held tightly between bony hands, as Steve made the introductions, and then bowed over the hand Peggy had offered for him to shake and murmured how it was an honour to meet Fräulein Carter. It had been adorable; Steve was sure that Dum Dum had cooed out loud.
And, speaking of adorable...
Erik sneezed, a tiny sound more fitting of a kitten than a young man nearly Bucky's height. Steve swallowed a smile.
“I didn't say anything,” he said before Erik had time to glare at him.
“I'm fine,” Erik replied, his jaw setting stubbornly.
“You have a temperature, Erik. Here, you're as safe as you'll be anywhere in Europe. Take all the time you need to recover, and we'll talk when I get back, alright?”
“There was something in those files you translated that caught Peggy's eye. Looks like Doctor Zola is on the move, and we have to move quick if we want to catch up with him before he goes to ground.”
“Erik, no.” Steve put his hand on the part of the blanket mound he assumed to be Erik's knee. “I will not drag you into a potentially dangerous situation while you're not at your best. Stay here and recover, and we'll discuss what you can do in other missions when I come back. But not this time. What you can do for me this time is stay here and get better.”
Erik still looked mutinous, so Steve lowered his tone and leant forwards a little. Oh God, Bucky had once upon a time used this same tactic to try and sweet-talk him into going to doctor's appointments.
“You have already helped this mission by translating those files. Now please, trust me to make the right decision, alright? It will be only a couple of days, while you get better.”
Not even Steve's most persuasive arguments seemed to be making a dent in Erik's discontent.
“I know I can't do much,” the young man said, pale blue eyes wide open, soup all but forgotten. “But even Sergeant Barnes agrees that my metal-detecting abilities are useful, and...”
“And I can do more!” Erik continued, desperately. “I can move metal, sometimes, if you hurt me...”
“Erik, no one is going to hurt you.”
“You can if you need to!”
“Erik, calm down!” Steve grasped Erik's thin wrist in one hand and shook him slightly, just enough to get his attention; three weeks ago, this would have caused the boy to flee, or lash out, but now he just stilled, feverish and exhausted and scared, his pulse fluttering like a bird's under Steve's fingers. “No one is going to hurt you. I won't allow that, I don't care about the reason. I know... I know some of what Schmidt did to you and that was wrong, you hear me? Nothing justifies hurting you.”
“But I can move metal if you hurt me,” Erik repeated pitifully.
“Oh, Erik.” Steve put an arm around the boy's shoulders and gently brought him into a hug. “Even if you could move the world, I still wouldn't hurt you.”
Erik was trembling and unnaturally warm in Steve's arms, but after a moment he laid his head on Steve's shoulder and let out a gasping sob.
“Doktor Schmidt said...”
“Schmidt was a fucking bastard who liked to torture children,” Steve said, with a viciousness that surprised even himself. “I wouldn't believe a word he said. He told you that you could only move metal when you were being hurt?”
“He tried... I tried to save my mother, but I couldn't, and...”
Steve had read about that in Erik's file, before he'd burnt it and carefully stomped on the ashes; perhaps he should have handed it over to his superiors, but he had been a government lab-rat once and he firmly believed that was a decision one had to take, not something that should be done to one by virtue of birth. Now, he just tightened his hold around the boy.
“You moved my shield back in the camp. Were you hurt then?” Steve felt Erik shake his head. “Well then, there you go. Schmidt lied to you.” He sighed. “Listen, I don't know how your abilities work, but I'd be very surprised if hurting you was the only way to activate them. We'll talk about it more when I come back, alright? But I promise you, I promise you I'll never hurt you.”
Erik nodded, and Steve took the chance to press his cheek to the boy's matted dark hair.
“You'll be OK,” he murmured in the darkness. “Now drink your soup, alright? Peggy also said something about bringing you some tea later...”
In Steve's absence, Erik kept close to Fräulein Carter. She was kind but firm, and everyone in the camp either respected her or was afraid of her. Erik was fascinated by her sharp uniform, the uncompromising curve of her lipsticked mouth, and the whiff of perfume that wafted from her perfectly-set curls. Her authority seemed to sidestep the Colonel's at time, and she was one of the few people at the base who didn't bring back bad memories.
Unlike a Mr Howard Stark, who had taken over the cellar to use as laboratory. Erik kept away from the American, who had dismissed him at breakfast the first day with a nod and a blithe comment about taking in strays. Erik liked the complex insides of the machines in the cellar, the scraps of metal lying around, and the solidity of the stone walls, but unsurprisingly he shied away from entering the lab itself and from meeting its owner.
Erik's fever broke on the evening of the day Steve left, and once he could stand on his two feet again, Fräulein Carter took Erik on as an assistant, keeping him busy with translations, delivering reports around the camp, and keeping the maps up-to-date according to the latest radio reports. No one seemed concerned about letting a teenage German Jew manage potentially sensitive information, which Erik found both flattering and worrying.
Erik spent the nights in the empty room that should have housed Steve, Barnes, and several others. In the frigid darkness of the evening, with the silence of the snowy French Alps like a blanket around him, he thought about Steve's words and stared at a pile of rusted nails that he had gathered from around the camp; they stubbornly refused to move, until he got frustrated enough to sweep them away and try to sleep to shake off the last of the fever.
He had no problem sensing metal and its shape. When he hadn't been with Schmidt, being experimented upon or having language and science lessons, Erik had worked with the camp's Sonderkommando, checking the corpses for hidden jewellery and money before they were buried. Moving metal, however, was still beyond him unless the Doktor and his scalpels and electric shocks were involved. Knowing he could do it and yet not being able move even a pin was incredibly frustrating.
One night, five days after Steve and the Howling Commandos had left, Erik sat on his cot, huddled under a too big woollen overcoat with only two bulletholes through the chest, and glared at a bent nail. Straightening it should be easy, but the nail remained as unmoved as it had for hours. Erik gritted his teeth and tried to concentrate more, better, harder.
He had tears in his eyes when he went to sleep, with a bent nail on the crate that served as a nightstand.
The next day, Steve returned to camp.
When they saw him get off the jeep, with Barnes nowhere in sight, Erik and Fräulein Carter exchanged a look; both of them could guess what had happened from the slump in Steve's shoulders and the bitter turn to his mouth. Wordlessly, they agreed to let her take the first chance at consoling him, and Erik slunk away to fiddle with the radio.
Erik knew loss; for a time, he'd thought it was all he'd ever know. He knew how Steve would feel, he knew the weight of absence and the acrid taste of guilt in the back of his throat. What he didn't know was how to make it better; a large part of him believed it was impossible.
That night, he sat on the edge of his cot while Steve sat across from him, head bowed and hands clasped together. Was he praying? Erik wondered if he should pray for Barnes' memory. He hadn't prayed since before the camps, and he didn't feel he could do so now, but he took a moment to remember Barnes' kindness towards him and the obvious love he'd felt for Steve.
Then, he sneezed.
Steve looked up at this, and his lips quirked slightly.
“You OK?” he asked.
“Fine,” said Erik, grabbing the handkerchief on the nightstand with more force than perhaps necessary; a handful of rusty nails clattered to the floor.
“What's this?” asked Steve, leaning forwards to pick them.
“Nichts! I mean, nothing.” Erik tried to look innocent, but remembering how people at large reacted to his smile (a woman at the camps had told him his teeth were simply too large for his face), he settled for looking blank.
Steve gave him a thoughtful look, hands full of bent nails.
“You've been practising,” he said.
Erik felt himself flushing and looked down at his own hands, bony and reddened and scarred.
“It doesn't work,” he answered with a shrug, hating himself for feeling disappointed.
“Nothing?” Steve asked.
Erik shook his head.
“I can feel them well,” he added, feeling he should justify his own usefulness. “But moving them... no.”
“How does it feel? I've never asked you.”
Under any other circumstances, Erik would have clammed up and wandered away, or changed the subject. But Steve's eyelashes were clumped with tears and his shoulders were slumped with exhaustion. Erik couldn't think of anything to say that would console him, but he could try to distract Steve from his grief.
“It's...” Doktor Schmidt had never asked him to describe what he felt, and Erik felt he didn't have the words for it, in German or English. “It's like a taste. Different metals taste different. But it's also like a sound, like a song. I can hear it from a distance, the shape and metal and temperature.”
“Is it like the sound that came out of my shield when you touched it that one time, near Nuremberg?”
“Yes.” Erik's eyes went to Steve's shield, which had been stuffed anyhow under the cot in which he slept. “Your shield is like nothing I have ever seen. Its metal is like nothing I have ever seen, and Doktor Schmidt brought samples of many rare metals and alloys.”
“Yes, it's called vibranium. You'll have to talk to Howard about that, he told me he'd bought the materials for it off a Norwegian explorer he met in New York, and that it's the only one of its kind.”
Erik didn't have the heart to tell Steve, in his present circumstances, that he suspected Howard Stark would strap him to a table and throw metal samples at him for weeks if given a hint to his abilities. Instead, he nodded and reached his hand for the shield.
To his surprise, the shield moved towards him.
“Erik!” said Steve; he didn't sound scared, although the last time he'd seen Erik move his shield, it had been to use it as a murder weapon.
Sometimes, Erik wondered whether Steve had any survival instinct at all; Fräulein Carter and Sergeant Barnes (may his memory be for a blessing) had thought not and acted in consequence, and Erik was starting to see why.
“I think it's the shield,” he blurted out when Steve looked at him as if he'd moved the moon instead of making a metal shield slide an inch.
“Funny, because I'm pretty sure it's you.” Steve moved to sit besides Erik on his cot and looked at the shield, half-way under the bed. “You say the shield feels special. Maybe that's why it's easier for you to move it.”
Erik licked his lips and focused on the shield again. It felt as if the more he concentrated on it, the more the strange metal reached back; his first instinct was to draw back and shut himself off from what seemed less like an inert substance and more like a foreign presence, but at the same time it was nice to feel something so responsive to his abilities, like a puppy wanting to play.
The biggest part of Steve wanted to crawl under the blankets and cry and never come up again because Bucky was gone, gone forever and it was Steve's fault for not being smarter, stronger, faster. Soon, that exhaustion and grief would turn to anger, and Steve would get out and pick a fight in whatever scale he could –a bar-brawl, a riot, a battle, a war–, like he'd done after the death of his mother, except that Bucky wouldn't be there to pull him back from the brink because he was gone, gone, gone.
For now, though, he could spare a moment for Erik, to make sure he was alright and would maybe one day stop associating his incredible abilities with the treatment he'd been subjected to at the concentration camp. Erik, who looked up at Steve like Steve had once looked up to Bucky, Erik who was as thin and battered and stubborn as Steve himself had once been, Erik whose hands were shaking with fear and cold and nerves as he held them towards Steve's shield and made it move towards them slowly.
“You are amazing,” he said, hoping Erik would believe him, if not today then at some point in the future when he looked back on his memories of his time with Captain America.
“Any circus would be glad to have me,” Erik agreed, again echoing the words that Steve was sure must once have been Doctor Schmidt's.
“Anyone would be glad to have you as their friend, you mean. Not that your abilities aren't incredible, Erik, but they're not the only special thing about you.”
“My mother said that to me once,” Erik murmured, running his fingers over the shield. “Back then, I couldn't do much, but I found her brooch once, when it fell behind the dresser, and she was so amazed. She told me not to tell anyone, but she used to hide coins for me around the house and if I found them I could keep them.”
“She sounds like a lovely person.” Steve looked back for fond memories of Sarah Rogers to share, before illness and poverty had dimmed her light. “My mother used to make the best apple pie. I mean, we didn't often have enough to get fresh apples and butter and sugar, but when we did... oh boy!”
“Apfelkuchen,” Erik said with a smile. “My mother made me help her in the kitchen. Maybe one day I can try to make it myself.”
This was a far cry from the Erik that had seemed so resigned to his death days before, and this gave Steve a little hope that the boy would be alright, even if Steve got killed trying to take out Schmidt; he'd already talked to Peggy to tell her to take care of the kid in his absence and he was pretty sure that she'd keep him safe and on the straight and narrow, no matter what happened.
His shield levitated in front of him, rising from the floor in a smooth, gentle movement; Erik's laughter rang alongside it, and his happiness felt warm at Steve's side.
“I think I understand better now,” Erik said after a moment, making the shield perform little barrel-rolls over Steve's cot. “It's... ach, I don't have the words. Resonance, I think? Like an echo.”
The shield landed on Steve's pillow and Erik turned his attention to the rusty nails Steve was still holding. He frowned in concentration (a bit like Bucky trying to thread a needle to mend Steve's shirt after a fight because his knuckles were too swollen from all the punching), and then began humming, a toneless, oddly mechanic sound.
“They moved!” Steve whispered.
“Ia?” asked Erik breathlessly.
“Ganz sicher,” Steve answered, and for a moment everything was alright.
Erik wasn't stupid; in the camp, under Doktor Schmidt's care, he'd learnt to read people and to try and anticipate what they might do. Steve's façade of calm didn't fool him for a second. He took to sensing Steve's shield at all times, like he'd once followed the Doktor's pocket-watch to make sure he wasn't surprised doing something he shouldn't, and even considered enlisting Fräulein Carter's help.
In the end, he didn't need to.
Of course Steve wouldn't hear of taking him along when he went to 'infiltrate' the former Obergruppenführe Schmidt's last base; Erik argued, pleaded and insisted, but Steve was the kind of stubborn that would take more than a few days to wear down, and settled the discussion with a quick hug and a blatantly false promise of a safe return. Erik was investigating the stowaway capabilities of a jeep when Fräulein Carter came up behind him.
“You're with me,” she informed him, and thrust a British Army bomber jacket in his hands.
Erik didn't waste a second in putting on the jacket and stumbling after her.
“I've noticed you always seem to know where Rogers is,” she continued, and Erik froze for a moment, “and no, before you panic, he hasn't told me what kind of telepathy the two of you have. But I figure we'll probably need all the help we can get to find him once he gets in there.” She stopped before the vehicle and turned sharply on her heel to face Erik. “And I know you were planning on going anyway. This way I can keep an eye on you.”
“Yes, ma'am,” he said quietly.
“Just find Rogers and don't do anything foolish,” she added, before pointing at the back seat of a jeep and walking away to consult with Colonel Philips.
Erik's trepidation mounted as they reached the HYDRA base and waited in the surrounding forests until Colonel Philips got word that the Commandos were in; for all the horrors of war Erik had experienced, an actual firefight had not been one of them.
As they moved in, he found that the uniforms around him were awfully familiar, as were the screaming and the explosions. Some of the German soldiers were wearing odd headgear and bore rifles that let out strange blue rays instead of bullets, and Erik took up one of those the moment they walked past an armed corpse. It was all he could do to keep close to Fräulein Carter and feel for Steve's shield amongst the storm of steel of blue rays, and bullets, and grenades flying everywhere; if Steve hadn't been inside there somewhere, undoubtedly in danger, Erik would have turned around and ran.
“You have him?” asked Fräulein Carter at a shout as they walked into the base.
“Yes, down this corridor!” replied Erik, following her brisk pace and only cowering a little behind her as she mowed down a man wielding a flamethrower.
Turning the corner, they came upon Steve, who seemed unharmed (and also, observed Erik dispprovingly, unarmed).
“You're late,” he panted at Fräulein Carter before looking over her shoulder. “Erik? What are you doing here?”
“Weren't you about to...?” she suggested, tilting her head towards the sound of gunfire.
“Right,” said Steve, and he went to retrieve his shield from where was stuck in a doorway, but not before throwing them a look over his shoulder that promised a serious conversation about Erik's presence later.
“Come on,” said Fräulein Carter to Erik, raising her machine gun again and moving forwards. “He's not out of trouble yet.”
“There's a plane,” Erik said, feeling the shape of wings and something else, something that was not metal but wasn't not metal either.
“A plane? How are we...?” Fräulein Carter paused when they went into a huge hangar, full of troops and crates and those terrible blue rays crossing the air.
“Carter!” said a well-known voice, and Colonel Philips drove into view in the world's most impractical car, a sleek, elegant roadster that looked completely out of place in the midst of this battle.
Erik and Fräulein Carter didn't hesitate in climbing in the back as the car took off with a screeching of tires.
“To the left,” Erik shouted at Colonel Philips, all pretension of concealing his powers long-forgotten. “Quick, he's going too fast!”
No one but Steve Rogers would have tried to catch up with a plane by running; no one but him would have almost managed it. He had only stopped for a second when they drove up to him and then the chase was on again.
The plane was a huge, dark thing in Erik's mind, and he longed for the power to grab a hold of it and pull it down to a stop, tether it to the ground so that Steve could have a measure of safety as he confronted the man inside it. But he couldn't, and the frustration almost brought tears to his eyes, which he blamed on the wind and the roadster's speed.
Steve stood on the front seat, ready to jump, as Colonel Philips sped up the car more than it should have been possible.
“Keep it steady!” Steve shouted over the roar of the plane and the car's own motor. “Keep Erik safe!” he added, looking at Fräulein Carter.
“Wait!” she said, and leant in to kiss him. Erik looked away, but it was just as well she distracted him; he had no intention of saying any sort of goodbye to Steve. “Go get him.”
Steve stood for a confused moment (Erik kept looking stubbornly away, but even he could hear the colonel grumbling in the front seat), then moved towards the roadster's front and adjusted his shield to his back.
Erik had been expecting this, and yet...
Desperation welled up inside him, the same feeling of terrified refusal as when his parents were being led away from him at their arrival to the camp, and just like he had done then, he now reached out with all the fear and anger his heart could hold. As Steve jumped onto the plane's landing gear, Erik felt his call answered by the star-spangled shield and he *pulled*, feeling the metal greet him like an old friend. The straps held (Erik had reinforced them stitch by stitch a couple of days before in preparation) and Steve continued clambering onto the plane, ignoring the pull on his back.
One day, they would look back on this day and Steve would congratulate Erik on his foresight and planning, of that he was sure. Right now, however, he could only focus on the pull between him and the shield as it shakily lifted him into the air, above the roadster and Fräulein Carter's scream and Colonel Philips' swearing. It felt like Erik's bones were metal filings and the shield was a magnet, and even ten feet into the air Erik still couldn't believe this was working.
“Erik, what are you doing?!”
A large hand wrapped around his shoulder and yanked him upwards. His concentration broke and now he could feel the wind buffet at him as the plane ascended in the air.
“Never mind that now,” Erik gasped, grasping the trembling metal of the landing carriage with hands that shook just as much. “We have an Obergruppenführe to catch?”
Steve's only other option at this point was to throw him off the plane, and Erik saw him consider it for a moment before giving into the inevitable and motioning him to follow.
There were no soldiers waiting for them as they got on the plane, for which Steve was thankful. Erik's presence behind him felt like a vulnerable spot on the back of his neck to which anyone could press a blade. His strategy, which was actually just the certainty that he would take Red Skull down even at the expense of his own life, had been derailed now that Erik's survival depended on him (like Bucky's had once and look how that had ended, a voice whispered in his mind).
“Look,” whispered Erik behind him, and an opportunistic ray of light fell on a bomb ready to be deployed, labelled 'New York'. There were others, too, all with the name of American cities, and Steve squared his shoulders and wished desperately to find a parachute to send Erik back to safety before things got ugly.
Erik's thin hand pulled on his elbow, and Steve obligingly ducked.
“Five soldiers coming down,” Erik hissed in his ear, and let go of Steve's arm to hoist an unfamiliar weapon to his shoulder.
“Stay down!” Steve hissed back. “Do you even know how to use that?” Erik had the gall to roll his eyes, and Steve felt the sudden urge to go back in time and slap some sense into his own younger self. “Don't shoot here, if you hit a bomb this whole plane will go up in flames.”
The boy looked thoughtful at this, and (too late) Steve remembered Erik's angry death wish spoken barely weeks before. Having him there seemed like a worse idea by the minute, seeing that between both of them they didn't have half of a functional survival instinct.
The arrival of masked soldiers distracted Steve from this line of thought, and after one last push to Erik's shoulder in hopes that he would stay there, he sprung forwards to face the threat.
When one of the manned bombs was about to take off, Erik was there, slamming at the controls and sending it and its pilot hurling down below while Steve punched someone. When his shield was torn from his grasp, Erik was there to return it to him in time to prevent the bomb to New York taking off. Bruised and surrounded by dead enemies, Steve found a smile for the pale boy who was clutching at his stolen weapon with white-knuckled determination, and wished that things hadn't come to this for all of them.
Erik would never remember much of what happened in the plane. He acted on instinct, and his instinct told him to stay close to Steve and to keep moving towards the painfully bright presence (not metal, but not not-metal either) that shone like a star in his mind.
That's how they found themselves in the presence of Obergruppenführe Johan Schmidt, or rather, the creature that masqueraded as him.
What he called the Tesseract was to Erik like a loud screeching inside his head and a bit drilling through his brain and a bright light shining right into his eyes and a smell of blood and void and tears. Forget about helping Steve or paying attention to Schmidt's shouting, it was all he could do to hold his head between his hands to keep it from exploding, and to breathe through the pain as he held on (more with his will than with his hands) to a metal pillar.
And then... it was gone, like it had never been. Erik took a gasping breath, wiped his face with his sleeve (it wasn't all snot and tears, there was blood trickling from his nose), and looked up at Steve, who looked as shaken as Erik felt.
“I'm fine,” said Erik, gritting his teeth as he stood up; the heat of humiliation at his own weakness countered the cold from the wind blasting into the cabin. “What now?”
Steve climbed onto the pilot's chair and examined the ruin he had made of the navigation panel.
“Radio,” said Erik, because it was one of the few things he could understand besides the map that had put such a look of panic on Steve's face.
Fräulein Carter would know what to do. Or at least she would have, if Steve hadn't insisted on being self-sacrificing and noble.
“Peggy, this is my choice,” he insisted, speaking of a suicide mission like part of Erik had been expecting since Barnes' death.
“But... what about Erik?” her tinny voice asked, a well-manicured hand grasping at straws.
“I'm here, ma'am,” Erik said, stepping forward. “Please stand by as I give you our coordinates.”
“Yes!” she shouted, and there were voices behind her. “We'll find you, Erik. Steve, hold on, alright? We'll find you.”
“Erik...” Steve started to say, but Erik was already reading out numbers into the radio, enunciating as clearly as he could.
“There is... a sheet of ice,” he added into the radio. “I'll suspect the plane will break through it.”
“Just jump!” Fräulein Carter snapped. “What are you waiting for? Let the bloody plane go down if you must, but you–”
“Yes, ma'am,” said Erik, mostly to cover up how her voice had broken. “We'll try,” he added, pulling at Steve's shoulder.
“Just go!” Fräulein Carter shouted through the radio as Erik applied a subtle pull to the shield and said, “Come on.”
They stumbled through the tilted, shuddering plane, finding handholds where they could, boosting each other where they couldn't, and they were within sight of the opening at the back when there was a loud screeching noise and an impact that sent Erik flying back.
He heard his name through the ringing in his ears, and it took him a moment to realise he had hit his head so hard against a pillar (or was it a bomb?) that he was seeing double. He shrank back at the approaching shadow, but it was only Steve, there to pull him upright and support him on a quick run through a tangle of pipes and wires and twisted metal.
Over the pounding in his head and the screeching of wounded metal, Erik heard shouting in his ear.
“I SAID, HOLD ON!” shouted Steve.
There was a brief moment of weightlessness, then all air left his lungs as Erik landed hard on packed snow. For a moment, he laid there on his back, just feeling the wind drive cruel slivers of ice into his head, but there was something more important than that, he thought as he looked up at the sky, completely disoriented...
“Steve?” he scrambled to sit up though his arms felt like overcooked polenta, and squinted against the blinding whiteness. “Steve!”
But all that answered him was the pained groaning of metal and the crumbling of ice as the remains of the plane tilted forwards and went down into the water.
“... Steve?” Erik asked once more into the silence.
He had the muddled thought that Fräulein Carter was going to be horribly disappointed in him, and this spurred him to his feet.
“Das Schild,” he muttered, hobbling like an old man towards the hole in the ice.
His head ached like that time Doktor Schmidt had attached electrical cables to his temples and punished him for every time he'd failed to pick up a needle from a stack of hay, but Erik tried to look past the pain to the clear, almost plaintive song of the vibranium as it sank further and further down.
“Komm schon,” he said, falling to his knees; standing took energy that could be better put to use pulling with all his might. “Mach schon, du Sturkopf.”
His aching head, the ribcage that contracted more and more with every breath of frigid air he took, his hands that clutched a border of jagged ice, all this faded away until all that was left was Erik and the shield, and the space between them.
“Mach schon, du sturer Bock!”
Erik could hardly breathe for the sobs caught at his throat, but he still pulled. This wasn't something that was going to slip through his fingers like Edie Lehnsherr's life all those years ago.
Steve's head broke through the water and he took a gulping breath that seemed to instantly freeze in his lungs. He coughed, still treading water, and blinked saltwater away from his eyes only to see Erik on all fours at the edge of the ice, vomiting violently.
Climbing out of the hole the plane had left in the ice was no fun, and Steve was panting, long plumes of fog escaping from his mouth, by the time he made it up onto the closest to firm land they had. His waterlogged suit was freezing over his skin, and every breath was a stab in the chest.
“Well,” he said when he reached Erik, a crumpled heap with a skin the colour of the snow around them and a big wound on the back of his head that thankfully seemed to have frozen shut. “We're alive.”
Erik just blinked slowly up to him. Whatever he had done to bring Steve out of the sinking plane and the freezing water (it had been like being a toy soldier pulled by a huge magnet, Steve thought), it had taken everything out of the poor boy.
“Come on,” Steve said, picking him up just as he had done inside the crashed plane to throw him to safety. “Let's make ourselves comfortable.”
There was little that Steve could do to treat hypothermia and a concussion with nothing but the dripping contents of his pockets and some twisted metal parts, but he quickly built them a lean-to to protect them from the worst of the wind, then stripped off the top of his suit and took the (thankfully) dry Erik in his arms.
“Peggy will find us soon, you'll see,” he said, rubbing Erik's arms energetically. The boy's lips were blue and his eyelids were at half-mast. “She and Colonel Phillips, they'll be mobilising half of Europe to find us. That was a very smart thing you did, giving them our coordinates. They'll be here any minute now, you'll see.”
Erik snorted weakly, barely a stirring of breath but enough to let Steve know that his lies were too big to be believed. Even if Peggy had contacted the nearest air base immediately, it would take a normal plane hours to get that far, let alone find them in the endless stretch of ice.
“You've been so brave so far, buddy, you just have to hang on for a little longer. I know you're stubborn enough to do it, come on, don't let me down now. You've made it this far, you can't let it end here, do you hear me? You can't let those bastards win. You have to...” Steve shook Erik a little. “You have to live and grow up and see the end of the war and come with me to New York, alright? Promise me that?”
Steve swallowed as he watched Erik struggle to open his eyes and focus on him.
“Versprich du's mir auch,” he said in a whisper. “You too. Promise me to live.”
“I'm not the one who's even forgotten how to shiver, buddy,” said Steve through a watery laugh.
“Promise,” Erik insisted, a little frown setting up residence between his eyebrows.
“You promise first.”
“I promise if you promise, how's that?”
A tiny exasperated sigh.
“I'm dying,” Erik whispered matter-of-factly. “I know that. I knew that before.”
“No, nononono,” Steve interrupted him. “You're *not* dying, you hear me? You can't... you can't do this to me, Erik, goddammit! Come on, buddy, think of what Peggy will do to me if something happens to you. Think of... damn, Erik, you can't leave me too.”
“Es tut mir Leid.”
“Nope. You're not leaving me alone, not after everything you've done for me.”
“I...” Erik's whisper died in his throat, his eyes widened, and he went so still that Steve's heart missed a beat thinking the boy had given his last breath. “Something's coming," Erik croaked. "On the sea. Ship?”
Erik should have never doubted Fräulein Carter (who had taken two cups of gin-dosed tea to his sickbed and insisted they toast and call each other by their first names, so she was Peggy now). Somehow she had managed to give orders to divert the course of an American submarine patrolling the Northern Atlantic to the coordinates they had given her, and in doing so had saved Erik's life (except for three toes he'd lost to frostbite and a persistent cough that might never leave him).
The war had ended while he recovered in a large English manor house converted into a hospital, and Miss Peggy and Steve had taken him to London for the celebrations, a riot of people and flags and laughter and tears. Erik nodded off over a pint of cider while Peggy, resplendent with joy in a red dress, laughed at having her feet trod on by Steve.
The war was over. Abandoned under a chair laid a crumpled newspaper that detailed the conditions again imposed on a broken Germany. Der Krieg war zu Ende. It didn't ring true as much as Erik repeated it.
“So,” said Steve, flushed –Erik supposed– more by his own incompetence on the dance floor than by the exercise. “What's got you frowning so much?”
Somehow, it didn't seem right to complain about the Allied politicians to the man who'd stood for endless photographs with them, so Erik blurted out another of the things weighing on his mind and clouding what was supposed to be a happy evening out.
“I was thinking of Sergeant Barnes,” he said, and only realised his mistake when Steve's face fell. “Entschuldigung, I meant...”
“No, it's alright. I miss him too.” Steve gave him a little crooked smile that made something pang in Erik's chest. “Before the war, he'd be off somewhere with a dame on each arm and a drink on each hand, but after... he'd probably be sitting right beside you, glowering at his pint just like you are.”
Erik told himself to glare when Steve reached out to mess his hair, but judging by the captain's smile, he didn't quite manage.
“In fact, I was thinking about going back, bringing him home,” Steve continued.
“What?” Erik asked, wondering whether two sips of cider had deprogrammed his English.
“His mother would like to have a grave to visit, I think.” Steve was staring at the tabletop now, fingers distractedly following the lines in the marble. “And I don't want to feel I'm leaving him behind.”
“I'll go with you,” said Erik immediately.
“You don't have to.”
“I know. But...” Erik took a long swallow of his drink, not feeling it. “Graves are good. So many people won't have one.”
Erik forced himself to shrug, though it hurt as if his skin was full of needles. To distract himself from the memories of hundreds of naked bodies and the bowl of gold teeth Doktor Schmidt kept in his office, he focused on the brass and copper of the bar fittings in front of them, the thin gold chain on the girl making eyes at Steve across the room, the handful of change in his own pocket.
“Nothing to be done about them. But Sergeant Barnes, perhaps...” Erik motioned to his own neck. “I remember his chain. A Catholic saint, he said. Maybe I could find that.”
“Yes.” Steve nodded enthusiastically. “The other guys, they'll come with us, I bet.”
“And Fräu– I mean, Peggy?”
Steve gave a fond look to where she had been surrounded by a ring of enthusiastic women upon finishing their dance.
“She has her own plans, I think. To tell you the truth, I don't feel like going back home quite yet. Better let the hullabaloo die a little, or I'll end up in tights again.”
Erik nodded, though he had no idea what Steve was talking about. Still, a couple of weeks before, on a walk through the grounds of the hospital, he had been approached by an American journalist to be asked questions on what it was like to be Captain America's kid sidekick, so Erik felt he was safer staying away from it all. An abandoned battleground in the Alps sounded like a better place to be than the whirlwind that surrounded Captain America in times of peace, and perhaps having a grave to pray over would soothe some of those wounds that Erik could still feel inside himself late at night.
“Very well.” Steve clapped his shoulder, then left his large, warm hand there, a steady point in a world that kept shifting under Erik's feet. “I'll tell everyone and hopefully we can leave before the week is over. Come to think of it, I think I saw Gabe back there a minute ago, I'll be right back...”
Erik hadn't had time to lower his eyes back to his drink when Peggy took Steve's seat and smiled at him, one dark eyebrow rising.
“Planning a little trip, are you?” she asked.
Erik gaped, then looked down; his ears burned, perhaps from the cider.
“I know Steve enough to know that staying put isn't his thing. Or mine either, for that matter.” She reached out to pat Erik's hand. “Take care of him, will you? And take of yourself. Once you're bruised and battered enough, you can come visit me in America, I'm sure I'll find something for all of us to do there.”
Maybe that nebulous future in another continent would solidify one day. Maybe Erik would be able to put the horrors of war behind and become someone almost normal, go to university and get a job, find a place to call home where nothing would remind him of what home had once been. For now, though, he had a mission and he was surrounded by friends, and for someone who'd been deep in a pit of despair not a year before, it was enough.