The shadow of a dragon fell over the park and Steve looked up from his bench to watch it go. Steam from his teacup followed it.
"Hey," Nat said as she knocked Steve's cap off his head.
Steve scrambled to get the cap back on before anyone noticed. "Dammit, Nat."
Nat shrugged. Nat was a non-bender, like Bucky had been; she gave that as the reason why she didn't care that Steve was the Avatar. Bucky hadn't cared either, but that was because he'd known Steve before they'd ever found out Steve was the Avatar. It wasn't a non-bender thing so much as it was a Nat thing.
Nat sat down next to Steve. "So how's the barber shop quartet going?"
"Well, there's me, there's you and we're waiting on Sam," Steve said. And Bucky would have made four, that was no longer an option.
Nat hummed. She'd re-dyed her hair recently, so the colour seemed to bleed all over the world. It drew the eye to her instead of Steve; knowing Nat, she probably did it on purpose. It was probably a coincidence that it was the exact same shade of red as Redwing, Sam's sparrowhawk. Or it would have been, if "Nat" and "coincidence" belonged anywhere near the same paragraph, never mind the same sentence.
"Where is Sam, by the way?" Nat asked.
As if on cue, Sam dropped down, folding his wings behind him. "Hey."
"Hey yourself," Nat said.
They spent a few moments catching up. About two minutes after Steve had started feeling like the third wheel, which was rather impressive, when you thought about it, because he was the Avatar, someone interrupted them.
She had long black hair and the same kind of eyes Nat had -- hunted, always on alert and the brown of a non-bender. She looked at Sam and Nat, clearly trying to decide if they were a threat, then turned to Steve.
"Steve," she said and what the hell, Steve had never seen her before in his life. "You're Steve, right? The Avatar?"
"How do you know that," Steve heard himself ask, as if from far away. Three people knew him as both Steve and the Avatar; Bucky was dead, Sam he wasn't entirely sure knew and Nat was Nat.
The woman -- a girl, really, she was about the age he had been before the whole thing with the ice -- collapsed with relief. She wasn't crying, but it seemed a near thing. "Oh, I'm so glad. Please, you have to help." She got a grip on herself and straightened before she answered Steve's question. "Winter -- no, Bucky, he said to call him Bucky -- told me --"
Whatever else she was saying, Steve didn't hear. It was impossible. Bucky was dead.
Sam lived the closest to the park, so that was where they went before they drew too much attention, between the girl in near breakdown and Steve staring off into space -- that was what Nat said, anyway. Steve just did what Nat said.
Sam's living room was kind of cramped, even once he'd taken off his wings and closed the doors to his portable shrine so Steve wouldn't have to stare at Avatars Aang and Korra. Steve always felt uneasy when in the presence of other Avatars, even if it was only their image; he felt uneasy and inadequate, like he wasn't doing nearly enough. For all that Avatars Aang and Korra were important -- perhaps the most important ones -- to the Air Nation, they were also the ones Steve got compared to the most, both by other people and by himself. Avatar Aang too had spent time in the ice and his stay had been longer and had that stopped him? No, it had not.
As for Avatar Korra -- well. She'd been the Avatar before Steve, hadn't she?
So overall, Steve did feel better with the shrine's doors closed, even though he knew it made Sam uncomfortable if the doors were closed too long. Often they'd hang out in Sam's bedroom or guestroom instead, where there were no Avatars to judge anyone on whether the shrine's doors were closed or not.
But of course they couldn't do that with a stranger in their midst, so here they were, in Sam's living room, with the lampshade all askew and the shrine's doors closed.
Sam made tea while Nat and Steve looked at the stranger while she looked back at them. When Sam handed her the tea she did not take it from his hand, but as soon as he'd set it down on the table, her hands darted out of her too long sleeves to pick up the cup.
"Tell us everything," Nat said.
Sam elbowed her in the ribs as he sat next to her. Nat scooted over to make space for him and Sam told the stranger, "Take your time."
The stranger took a tiny sip from the tea. She relaxed visibly and gulped the rest of it down in one go. Steve almost winced on her behalf; Sam liked his tea scalding hot.
"My name's Wanda," she said. "Me and my brother Pietro, we're not benders. At least, we weren't."
Before anyone could ask what she meant, she made a fist with one hand and opened it with a flame hovering over her palm.
It certainly explained how she could drink Sam's tea without burning herself, Steve thought.
"That's not possible," Nat said. "Non-benders don't just become benders -- not firebenders."
It was becoming rarer and rarer, but people still occasionally manifested airbending out of nowhere, like Sam had a few years ago. Dr Cho at the White Lotus said it might be over in another three decades, going by the half-life of the time between manifestations.
"I know," Wanda said. "If it makes you feel better, I didn't 'just become' a firebender."
"Then how?" Steve said.
With Wanda's open flame and the three cups of Sam's tea left, it was beginning to be too hot to wear a cap -- besides, it wasn't like Wanda -- or even Sam -- didn't already know he was the Avatar, at this point.
Steve took off his cap. White hair fell in front of his eyes. He pushed it back. Sometimes he wondered if he shouldn't shave his head like airbenders did and be well rid of this legacy of the ice and Spirit World that made it so easy to identify him.
Wanda stared at him. The flame in her hand flickered and snuffed itself out.
"It really is white," Wanda said.
"Yeah," Steve said, which was possibly the most inane thing he could have said right then. "But that's not the point."
Wanda nodded. "The many-headed dragon is, as best as any of us can tell, reverse equalists."
"I have no idea what that means," Sam said.
"Equalists? You know, like with Amon and Avatar Korra?" Wanda asked, pointing at the shrine's closed doors over her teacup.
"Reverse?" That was Nat speaking and Steve didn't even need to look at her to know what expression was on her face.
"Instead of trying to make all benders non-benders, they're trying to make all non-benders benders," Wanda said. She put down her cup and put her feet on the couch to curl in on herself. "It works. If you survive."
"Is that likely?" Nat asked. If it had been anyone else, Steve might have thought they were interested in trying it for themselves, but Nat had never wanted any kind of bending -- "the world might be safer and fairer without it, Steve," she'd once told him, her smile like grenades and tripwire.
Wanda shook her head. "Just us four seasons."
That was a complete non-sequitur as far as Steve was concerned, but Nat seemed to take it in stride.
"I take it you're Summer?" Nat tossed her head towards where Wanda's flame had been.
"Yes," Wanda said. "Look, are you going to help me get my brother -- and everyone else -- out or not?"
Of course they were. They would have done it even if Bucky hadn't been there; that Bucky was there made it personal.
They spent the next month and a half planning the rescue. Wanda took up semi-permanent residence in Sam's guestroom, because she was still weird around Steve, Nat wasn't a bender and Wanda did need someone to explain the basics of bending spirituality to her. She had amazing control for someone with no training, but she was still an accident waiting to happen.
"You changed your hair," Sam told Nat on the day itself.
"New mission, new hair," Nat replied, seemingly oblivious to Sam's flirtatious tone. Only seemingly. Nat was so in tune with other people's emotions it bordered on being a kind of bending in itself.
"Are you armed?" Wanda had tied back her hair so there was less risk of it catching fire; she was vehemently opposed to cutting it.
Nat closed her fist and electricity crackled around her knuckles. Wherever she'd found an antique Sato glove was anyone's guess.
"Nice," Wanda said. "Fighting reverse equalists with an equalist's weapon. Nice irony."
Steve was almost certain Wanda was making fun of them.
"Irony's my middle name," Steve said. "I'm the Irony Avatar."
Sam smiled and Nat rolled her eyes. Wanda laughed. It was not a pretty sound. It was unequal, shrill and rusty from disuse, but it had the merit of existing. Wanda was laughing and even Nat cracked a smile at that.
"Right," Steve said. He put on his cap aggressively. "Let's go."
In retrospect, Steve should have known something was wrong when they met minimal resistance getting into the Many-Headed Dragon headquarters.
It was a trap. The only upside of the situation was that Wanda was as surprised as the rest of them, so at least she hadn't betrayed them. Yay.
The man leading the MHD -- Steve had decided he was no longer going to bother with the long version of the name and they could damn well deal with being acronymed inside his head -- was called Pierce. Steve had expected some sort of villainous monologue, but no such luck. Since neither Steve nor any of the others could be convinced to join his cause -- Steve would have paid good money to see him try with Nat -- Pierce had decided not to waste the energy.
Steve knew this because Pierce had told him.
So far, Steve had only earthbended – he might be the Avatar, but his native element still came most easily to him -- and they'd left him his cap, so there was a slim possibility Pierce didn't know he was the Avatar. He couldn't count on it, but he also shouldn't give himself away. Earthbending only, from here on out.
He picked the lock on his cuffs by bending the rivets in his jeans into lockpicks -- yes, it was metalbending, but the cuffs were platinum and so was the cell, so it wasn't like he had much choice.
Opening the door was a lot harder. For one thing, he didn't have enough metal to make the amount of lockpicks he needed; jean rivets only amounted to so much and MHD had taken his belt, shoes and watch. For another thing, his jeans kept trying to fall off his hips, so he had to hold them up with one hand.
The problem with super-secret evil lairs was that their corridors were rarely labelled anything helpful like 'this way to the cells holding your friends' or 'turn left to get to the power core you need to shut down to cut power to the whole facility' and while that could be blamed on needing to keep the signalling concise, they were also often lacking even in simple 'you are here's.
Fine. Steve would do this oldschool, then. The old "let's kick down every fucking door, I need to vent anyway" school was Steve's alma mater and he'd graduated suma cum laude.
"What the hell," Steve said. Behind Door Number One Thousand Eight Hundred and Seventy-Five was a boy about Steve's age (ice excluded) who also had bright white hair.
"You didn't see that coming?" The boy smiled and suddenly looked like Wanda. That probably made him Pietro. Sure enough, the next thing he said was, "I'm Wanda's brother. She didn't tell you about the hair?"
"No," Steve said. "She didn't tell me about the hair."
Pietro wrinkled his nose. "But she also has the hair! Everyone has the hair."
"Where's Bucky?" Steve asked.
Pietro took a step back.
"This is a rescue," Steve said. "It's been derailed a bit, but it's a rescue, so point me towards the people who need rescuing."
Pietro pointed at himself with both thumbs. "But Bucky first, yes?"
Steve nodded and let Pietro lead the way.
This turned out to be an excellent idea, even though Pietro didn't know where he was going any more than Steve did, because Pietro's instinctive airbending when the air grew hotter prevented both of them from becoming bender fricassee.
"Pietro!" That was Wanda's voice.
Pietro answered her, in the exact same overjoyed tone.
"Yo, St--" Sam stopped himself. He nodded at Steve's head and said, "Yo, Cap."
"Yo," Steve said. 'Cap' was as good a codename as any, despite what Pietro was saying. Did they really have to rescue him?
"Nice firestorm," Steve added, to both Sam and Wanda.
"Wanda’s idea," Sam said, jabbing a thumb in her general direction.
Wanda would usually scowl when pointed at, but right then she was too busy hugging Pietro to notice or care.
"Where's everyone else?" Steve asked. "Where's Bucky?"
"I was hoping you'd know," Sam said.
Steve shook his head.
"We keep going, then."
They kept going. It was mostly very boring, an endless repetition of identical corridors, the monotony only broken by the occasional fight. In fact, Steve was starting to both be suspicious of and get déjà vu over how boring it was.
It was too calm. He liked it better when things were a little more less calm.
"You must be the Avatar."
Steve was getting sick of strangers knowing he was the Avatar. What was the point of a secret identity if it wasn’t secret at all? There wasn't much of one.
"I didn’t actually think there was an Avatar," the woman said. She had dark hair, was holding up her hands and was unarmed. "Your friend the chi blocker made a convincing argument, however."
Steve didn’t have any friends he knew for sure were chi blockers, but let’s face it, the woman had to mean Nat.
"What argument?" Sam asked.
"Well, she believed it. Coming from a non-bender, these days, that’s pretty convincing."
Steve still felt guilty enough that Avatar on Ice 2: The Stevening, coming right after the breaking of the Avatar cycle under Avatar Korra, and before he announced himself as the Avatar, meant that some people, especially non-benders, believed that the Avatar cycle was indeed broken once and for all. Fury kept saying he was waiting for the right time to publicly announce Steve as the Avatar. Steve was getting tired of waiting.
"Who the hell are you? And what did you do with Nat?" Steve asked.
"She's in charge," Wanda said, voice small and broken, and that was answer enough for both questions.
If Nat hadn’t walked out of the room right then, Steve would have done something very ill-advised and Steve would not have regretted it one bit.
"I’ve opened all the doors," she said. She started walking off.
Sam rushed out after her. Steve and the others went after them. There was lightning crackling in the waves of Wanda's hair when she looked at Maya.
"I gave her that information," Maya said. "I thought I was helping people, not experimenting on the unwilling."
"She lies," Wanda said.
"Do I? Shall I tell our friends why you're here in the first place?" Maya asked.
Wanda was silent. So was Pietro. There would be questions, later. Right now, they had to find Bucky and escape this hellhole. Steve asked Maya where the other captives were. Maya told him. The corridors were still empty.
"I turned off the self-destruct and I copied all their files," Nat said.
"I didn't ask anything," Steve replied.
"You were thinking it really loudly," Nat said.
Steve had been, so he let it go. There was something eerie about all those empty corridors, though. It only got worse when they found the dead bodies. Then they found the other dead bodies. At that point Steve was starting to regret that Nat had stalled the self-destruct; surely some of the bastards who'd done this were still there and would be caught when the base blew up, right?
Behind the next door was a white-haired woman in the worst firebending pose Steve had ever seen. She blinked at him, then looked past him, "Wanda?"
"Pepper!" Wanda said. Apparently MHD had moved on from seasons to spices to name their subjects.
There was nothing else on that floor. The first door on the next floor lead into an elevator (out of order).
Behind the door after that, there was Bucky.
Steve kissed him. He’d been wanting to do that for a long time.
"Told you," Natasha said, somewhere very far away.
"Didn't say you were wrong," Sam replied.
Bucky broke the kiss. "If you had a bet going, I want in on the profits."
Despite how much Steve wanted to leave with Sam and the former subjects, he and Nat kept sweeping through the thoroughly abandoned base. It took them the rest of the day.
They found no one else.
They did find a whole lot of machines that created ice cocoons around people (dead). It explained the hair, Steve thought. Ice made with water from the Spirit-World -- adapt, bend, or die.
It explained why they hadn't found any earthbenders. Earthbenders had nothing that could break the ice -- no fire to melt it, no water to tear it away, no air to explode it --, so they couldn't survive that ordeal. Well. Except him, Avatar Steve. Hurray.
"Stop blaming yourself," Nat said. She bumped her shoulder against his arm.
Instead of telling her he wasn't, which she wouldn't have believed anyway, Steve said, "I think I need to go public about being the Avatar."