“Hieroglyphs,” said Sam. “These are fucking hieroglyphs.”
He turned the instructions leaflet on one side, then the other, as if that might force an epiphany out of it. Steve dangled himself over the side of the IKEA box, dredging his hands through the debris at the bottom. “Sam,” he said, despairing. “There’s a whole other bag of screws in here.”
Sam wasn’t listening. He turned the leaflet upside down. “So these diagrams make no sense whichever way you look at them,” he said, “and paramedic school didn’t cover furniture appeasement, but I’m pretty sure step 6 is a blood sacrifice.”
“I’m anemic,” said Steve.
“It’s a bookshelf,” said Sam. “I don’t think it understands human suffering.”
They glowered at the proto-shelf. It radiated malice back at them. Rain lashed across the filthy window-panes of the Night Light, though the rest of the street was baking in four o’ clock sun, and the ceiling lights flickered in a most unpropitious way. Steve had been informed, on signing the lease, that localised thunderstorms came with the territory. So did flickering lights, sighing walls, and the sinuous four-legged shadow he kept glimpsing around the building, watching him through bright phosphorescent eyes.
He groped desperately for a shred of optimism. “Well,” he said. “At least it’s bookshelf-shaped?”
Sam scratched at his wing-stumps. They made small humps in the back of his shirt, like miniature hillocks. “Pretty sure it’s not supposed to wobble like that.”
“It’s just nervous,” said Steve. “If I’m very gentle, and always apologise before I move it—”
He lost his handle on his optimism then, because the Night Light chose that moment to introduce him to another of its delicacies. Something large and hairy fell from the ceiling and landed on the proto-shelf in a scudder of legs. It was a spider, the big ugly kind, with fang-like pincers and bright red hourglass markings on its back. Steve squawked. “What the hell!”
He grabbed his heaviest textbook—Numerology: A Guide to Decrypting the Future—and would have launched it straight at the spider, but Sam caught him by the wrist. “Chill, that’s just Nat.”
The spider was gone. Steve owed offerings to all his mother’s saints for that alone. There was a blur of red, and then a young woman he had never seen before was straightening up behind the proto-shelf, shaking her hair out of her face. She was tiny, with sharp green eyes, a smattering of freckles, and violently auburn curls. “Sorry about the scare,” she said. “I would’ve lowered myself on a dragline, but—”
She shrugged. Her smile was sharp too, like barbed wire. “Natasha Romanoff from unit 401,” said Sam, at Steve’s questioning look. “Webless spider extraordinaire.”
“I thought all spiders spun,” said Steve.
“I have a Dark Past,” said Natasha.
She put her hands on her hips and surveyed Steve’s worldly belongings: the proto-shelf, the IKEA box, and the other box that contained his textbooks and sketchbooks and a bundle of ratty clothes. It was embarrassingly spartan, even if Steve’s “studio apartment”—every apartment in their building, really—was little more than a glorified dorm room with just enough space for a bed and a closet and a desk, and a communal kitchen and bathroom down the hall. “Are you that wizard Sam keeps talking about? Why don’t you just magick your bookshelf together?”
This was egregious false advertising on Sam’s part. Most magic users Steve’s age had earned their wizarding degrees and had licenses to practice; but then, most magic users Steve’s age weren’t walking catastrophes like him. “I don’t know how,” he said. Not without pride—“I’ve been rejected from every single wizarding college in all fifty states. Some of them multiple times.”
“He’s self-taught,” said Sam. “Anyway, the bookshelf’s fine. Just—bendy.”
Natasha raised her brows. She took Numerology from Steve’s hand and, with all the care of a Jenga player, laid it on the proto-shelf. There was an angry squeak. The shelf swayed on its jelly legs. A screw flew loose, plinging against Steve’s shin. Then—almost in slow motion—the whole thing sagged, tore loose at the joins, and crashed to the floor in a wreck of planks and rivets.
“Wow,” said Steve. He rubbed his shin. “Thanks, 401.”
Natasha gave him a beatific smile. The windows rattled in the storm, like tittering neighbours. “That’s for trying to kill me.”
Sam groaned, slumping across Steve’s bed. Even the creak of the bedsprings sounded defeated. “I give up,” he said. “I’m broken. Tell you what, Steve, just stack your books up and use them as furniture. The starving Romantics made it look good.”
This idea appealed to the artist in Steve. But he had scarcely descended two steps into emotive despair when there was a gentle tap on the door, and it swung open like a game show curtain to reveal a movie star in the hallway.
It was probably not an actual movie star. The guy was in sweatpants, a threadbare shirt, and a faded grey hoodie so baggy that at first glance he appeared not to have arms. His long brown hair was definitely silverscreen-worthy, though, as was the strip of fine-boned features Steve could make out between the shag and the stubble. He was also very pouty. Entire photoshoots could have been made of that pout. “Oh, thank God,” said Sam. “Bucky, save us.”
Apparently this was the movie star person’s name. Bucky came into the room and bent to dig in the IKEA box. After a second he resurfaced with three more packs of screws and one of nails, and a withering look for Sam. This last was quite impressive, a concerto of drawn eyebrows and puckered lips. “Hey, don’t look at me,” said Sam. “Steve was in charge of unpacking.”
“Uh,” said Steve. “They multiply?”
“They do,” said Bucky grimly. He rolled up his sleeves, squared his shoulders, and got to work.
As it turned out, he did have arms. One was flesh and one was metal and both were excellent arms, graceful and toned and not in the least bit hairy. There was something strange, bordering on disturbing, in the efficient way he worked. It took Steve a minute to realise it was that he made no sound when he moved, only a faint electronic whirring, like a laptop fan going at full blast. The polished plates of his metal arm slid and rippled like quicksilver. The combined effect was hypnotic.
Sam caught Steve’s eye. You’re staring, he mouthed.
Steve adjusted his gaze so it was fixed on the bookshelf rapidly taking shape under Bucky’s hands. The whole thing took less than five minutes. “Done,” said Bucky.
Natasha hopped onto the top shelf and sat swinging her legs for a moment. It held. “Nice.”
“You’re good at this,” Steve told Bucky, impressed. He hadn’t even had to do the blood sacrifice. “Thanks.”
Bucky peered at him, shale-blue eyes in a keen quizzical face. He had a long way down to look. He must have been six foot at least, and Steve had kicked off his shoes in a fit of pique five minutes into the bookshelf wrangling. “You’re the new tenant in 403,” said Bucky.
His voice was soft and muzzy, like a rumpled bed over which someone had hastily thrown a duvet. Steve couldn’t decide if he was shy or just undercaffeinated. “Yeah,” he said. “Steve Rogers.”
“Bucky Barnes. Next door in 404.”
They shook hands. Bucky’s hand—the flesh one—was big and warm and very steady. Steve felt vaguely gobsmacked. “Like the error?”
“Like the error.”
Bucky let go of his hand, and without another word turned and ghosted from the room with the extra bags of screws and nails. It should not have been possible for a large man in combat boots to walk that silently—and who the hell wore combat boots with sweatpants?—but there he was. Steve stared at his receding back, then at his new bookshelf. The gobsmacked sensation intensified.
“Yeah, he’s really chatty,” said Natasha in her paper-dry voice, as she helped Steve wedge the bookshelf into the corner by the bed. “You’ll get used to him.”
“Oh, and before I forget,” said Sam. “This is gonna sound weird, but—keep your phone and some cash on you when you’re in the building. Even when you sleep. Like in your pocket, not on the nightstand.”
“And don’t sleep in the nude,” said Natasha. “We’ve already had too many incidents.”
Anywhere else, Steve would have thought they were messing with him. But the Night Light was not like anywhere else. His neighbours were a webless spider, a wingless bird-spirit, and some kind of hot cyborg, and the rain was still sheeting down with laserpoint focus on their block while the rest of Brooklyn sweltered in an unseasonably warm April. If he put his ear up to the wall, he could hear a soft, steady drumming on the very threshold of perception, as if the building had a heartbeat—as if it were alive, and knew he was listening.
“Got it,” he said. “Thanks, guys.”
On his way out, Sam stopped in the doorway to give Steve one of his spectacular, all-occasion hugs. “You’ll like it once you get used to it,” he said. “I promise.”
Then he was heading up the hall to his own apartment across the lobby, and Natasha was a spider again and scuttling after him; and Steve was alone, in the first place he’d had to call home since his mother died.
The next day, the building began to disappear.
Apartment hunting had gone like this. Sam had called Steve up and said, “You can’t sleep in the college library forever, so get your skinny ass over here and look at this place,” and Steve knew from experience that Sam was right at least 51% of the time, so he went.
It hadn’t started off well. He got soaked dashing the twenty yards from the bus shelter to the Night Light. Then the front steps tried to morph into an escalator when he put his foot on them, but they went the wrong way and only succeeded in dumping him back on the sidewalk in an unceremonious heap. “The building gets nervous around prospective tenants, I think,” said Sam, as he dusted Steve off and led him upstairs. “Beats being homeless, right?”
“I guess,” said Steve. Sam would know. He, too, had made the round of fleapit motels and friends’ couches and other, less savoury places after he’d gotten back from Iraq with a career-ending injury and an Avian Corps pension that wouldn’t have fed a sparrow. Steve took in the tiny room that called itself apartment 403, and gazed out the window at the glassy modern condominiums across the street. The Night Light—with its peeling paint job and age-stained walls—nestled among them like a canker among roses. He had to give it points for sheer audacity. “Where’s the landlord?”
“Never met them,” said Sam. “Probably won’t ever, at the rate we’re going.”
“What? How’s that work?”
“No idea,” said Sam. “I just sort of—announced to the building at large that I was taking the room, and the lease papers showed up in my e-mail five minutes later. Rent’s all done by bank transfer. I just roll with it.”
Steve rubbed his temples. “Sam, that is shady as fuck.”
“I know,” said Sam. “But it’s cheap and you’ll be next door to me.”
Steve couldn’t argue with that. He tried, because he was nothing if not argumentative and he had a reputation to maintain, and Sam nodded knowingly and patted him on the back, and twenty minutes later he was signing the lease.
His first day in his new apartment started off with a rude beeping noise, too loud, too close, and far too early in the morning.
There was an old-fashioned clock radio on his nightstand. It was dark grey and furry with dust, and it had most definitely not been there when he’d gone to sleep. Its large green LED digits proclaimed 05:58. Steve groaned and threw a pillow at it. The clock blurred and morphed into a tiny cat, dark grey and dusty with fur, with luminous eyes the exact same shade of green as the numbers on the clock face. “Miaow?”
Steve blinked, rubbing the grit out of his eyes. This was no doubt the spectre he kept glimpsing around the building—except now the cat was hopping onto his one remaining pillow and closing needle-like teeth around his forefinger, and it was corporeal. It was corporeal with a vengeance. He snatched his hand away. “Ow.”
“Mrrrow!” said the cat, with audible relish.
Steve sighed. He figured he might as well get up and try to find out which neighbour the cat was, or belonged to. It climbed up his arm and coiled itself like a scarf around his neck as he padded out into the hallway. The rain had slowed to a drizzle; the window-glass was bejewelled with diamond droplets, and a soft, steady sigh exuded from the walls, like breathing. All was quiet on the fourth floor, but the kitchen door was ajar.
He pushed it open, and found Bucky Barnes frying eggs at the stove.
Of all the six a.m. apparitions Steve might have beheld, this was not what he had been expecting. Bucky was in a pink apron that had white carnations on it and admonished DON’T KISS THE COOK, a reminder for which Steve was duly grateful; and his hair was spilling in little fluffy tendrils from a small bun at the nape of his neck. The whole kitchen smelled like coffee and diner grease. It was like a postcard from Eden, or Valhalla, or the Isles of the Blest.
“Uh,” said Steve.
The lights flickered. Bucky looked up. He was wielding his spatula with the same whirring efficiency with which he had built Steve’s bookshelf; and it occurred to Steve that in another place, at another time, Bucky Barnes of unit 404 might have been a very dangerous man. But no one could be dangerous in pink florals. “You’re up early,” said Bucky.
Steve pointed to his purring scarf. The English language evaded him, as did polysyllables. “Cat.”
“Oh,” said Bucky. A minute cleft appeared between his eyebrows. “Did she wake you? Bad cat. Come here, you scoundrel.”
The cat unscarfed itself, sluiced down Steve’s body, and poured up the kitchen counter. It turned back into a clock radio next to Bucky, and began to emit a sonata of staticky guitar noises that might have been Led Zeppelin. Steve hastily shut the kitchen door before the noise woke anyone. This had the instant effect of shrinking the perceived space between him and Bucky by a factor of two, and consequently of shocking him to full consciousness. “Is she yours?”
Bucky gave a small head wiggle that could have meant either yes or no. “Her name’s Radio. She’s her own cat. Do you want one or two eggs?”
“If they smell that good?” said Steve. “Four.” Then his brain got over the triple hurdles of radio cat and Bucky and Bucky with radio cat, and caught up to his mouth. “No, I’m kidding, I was just gonna get some granola.”
The brow-furrow reappeared. It was disgustingly adorable. “That’s not real food.”
“So I’ve lived on imaginary food for the last six months?” asked Steve. He’d subsisted on granola ever since his ma got sick, and he felt he ought to defend its honour. Also instant ramen, energy bars, and coffee from that one nice vending machine in the hospital that seemed to feel sorry for him and always tried to slip him back his change, but he doubted Bucky’s opinion of those things would be any more glowing. “Excuse me, I have to open the fridge.”
Bucky got even more firmly in the way. “Two eggs,” he said, brandishing his spatula with a whir. “Sunny-side up. Like you.”
Steve’s determination wavered, and tripped over the realisation that (1) the hot cyborg had made a joke (2) at his expense (3) with a completely deadpan expression. But still. He couldn’t live off neighbourly charity. His mother would turn over in her grave. “No, thanks,” he said. “I have a granola craving.”
He reached for the fridge door, only to find himself holding an oily handful of Bucky’s spatula instead. He glowered up. Bucky frowned down. The lights flickered again. Radio switched from guitar noises to a song Steve was quite sure was called Pistols at Dawn. He’d only been awake five minutes, and already he was in a tense standoff with his next-door neighbour over appropriate breakfast foods. It seemed emblematic of his whole life.
“No reason why you can’t have granola and bacon and eggs,” said Bucky, looking perplexed. “Oh, did I mention? There’s bacon too.”
He lifted the lid of another pan. This turned out to contain strips of bacon, juicy and tender and fragrant, enough to feed a family of five and their dog. “You can help lay the table for Sam and Nat,” Bucky added, apparently realising that the way to Steve’s stomach was an equal share in the work. “And make more coffee.”
This was a mortal blow. Steve felt the last of his resolve dissipate in the face of that paradisiacal smell. Maybe it wasn’t accepting charity if your neighbour had obviously cooked too much and needed to enlist the help of another stomach, just this once? He made more coffee, and laid the table, and got his granola, and let Bucky deposit a titanic portion of bacon and eggs onto his plate. “Do you usually cook for everyone?”
“Yeah,” said Bucky. Now that the Great Granola Crisis was over, he had retracted into his usual doe-eyed, muzzy-voiced self. He filled his own plate and folded himself into the seat across from Steve, his arm humming. “Safer.”
Bucky nodded. “Last time I let Nat cook, we had to call in the fire brigade.”
“Oh,” said Steve. He had a vivid flashback to the time he’d broken into the potions lab at college to try and cook himself dinner. It was not a pleasant memory. “Same, actually.”
Bucky gave Steve’s granola a dour look. “Figures.”
They ate in silence for a few minutes. Steve practically inhaled half his portion—somehow it tasted even better than it smelled—and then had to remind himself to chew and swallow the second half like a normal, non-starving person. Bucky poked his fork at a strip of bacon, chasing it around his plate. “I don’t mind,” he said presently. “Cooking’s my thing.”
Bucky retracted even farther into himself. “Sam works at the aviary,” he said. “Natasha’s freelance everything. You go to wizard school. I cook. It’s my thing.”
This line of questioning seemed to discomfit him. Maybe he didn’t like having to say so many words in one go. Steve eyed the metal hand poking out of his left sleeve, and wondered if he was a vet like Sam. It would have to be the subject of a discreet investigation some other time. “Correction,” said Steve. “Art’s my thing. I do commissions for a living. I just—crash classes at NYWC sometimes.”
He was pleased to see this stopped the retracting. Bucky’s gaze focused, and one brown brow went up. “Sometimes?”
“Well,” said Steve, “every day.”
Bucky’s fork hesitated in mid-air with a bit of egg on it. “How long you been doing that?”
Defiantly, Steve said, “All semester.”
Bucky’s lips twitched. They were fine, plump lips, perfectly curved like a horse archer’s bow. Steve glared at them, daring them to crack a smile. They did not. “What happens when they do roll call?”
“I go to the bathroom.”
“And if they throw you out?”
Steve sighed. It sounded even more stupid when he tried to explain it to someone who wasn’t Sam. And he had to get a move on, or he’d be late for eight a.m. class. “I run,” he said. “And come back the next day.”
This was the deal with Steve and the New York Wizarding College.
It had rejected him seven times, every year since his senior year of high school. Apparently fall seven times, stand up eight was only good advice if you had rich parents or a WSAT score above 1,100. After the seventh rejection, he’d had to take matters into his own hands. He’d shown up on campus, pocketed a student ID he’d found on the floor of the cafeteria, and started going to classes, sponging up as much knowledge as he could from the back rows of seminar rooms and spell workshops. Then—before he’d moved into the Night Light—he’d sneak into the college library after closing time to go on studying by the light of his phone, until he passed out in his sleeping bag for a few hours’ rest. Rinse and repeat, ad infinitum.
It wasn’t going well, but at least it was going.
Today the universe was determined to remind him why, exactly, no college in the country would take him. He set his tea leaves on fire in Divination, filled the room with dead fish in Conjuration, nearly banished himself to an alternate dimension in Relativity, and made a stupid carrying error in Numerology, with the effect that he calculated his date of death to have been sometime around lunch last Tuesday. This was the final straw on the camel’s back. The Numerology instructor—one Professor Phillips—stared at Steve’s worksheet for a tense, excruciating interval, then at Steve himself. “What did you say your name was, my boy?”
The thing about panic was that you had to breathe through it. Steve sucked a long breath through his nose. “Steve Rogers, sir.”
Phillips continued to stare. Steve was sure he was going to say, Aren’t you that kid campus police arrested three times in February, but it was even worse than that. “Have you ever,” said Phillips, “in your life, shown any sign of magical ability?”
“My mother was a great witch,” said Steve. “She was Chief Healer at the Brooklyn Methodist Hosp—”
“Yes, sure,” said Phillips. “What about you?”
Steve looked down at the messy spirals of figures and arrows on his worksheet. They swam and shifted before his eyes, wagging their misplaced digits in reproach. “No, sir.”
Phillips sighed. “As I thought.”
He stumped off to the front of the room without another word. Steve glared at the back of his head, and boarded a vicious train of thought that led him to guillotines, and cleavers, and ganching spikes, and itching spells.
He took the bus home that evening with a metaphorical thundercloud over his head, which turned into a literal one as soon as the Night Light came into view. As usual, he got drenched dashing up the sidewalk to the building, and proceeded to walk headlong into Sam at the bank of mailboxes in the lobby. “Oh, it’s you,” said Sam. He had a tote bag slung over one shoulder, the only kind of bag he could carry without crushing his wing-stumps, and there was a bright yellow feather stuck to his collar. “You’ve got mail.”
Steve tried, unsuccessfully, to squeeze his bad mood out of his shirt with the rain. “Not possible,” he said. “No one has my new address.”
“Well, you’ve got mail anyway.”
Steve hooked his chin on Sam’s shoulder to see. Individual mailslots were a luxury unheard of in their building. Instead there were thirteen large red boxes, one for every floor, each containing mail for four different tenants. Wait—thirteen, or twelve? He could never remember how many floors the Night Light had. He looked again. There were definitely twelve; the label he’d thought said 13 in peeling black digits was just a very squiggly 12. Numbers agreed with him even less than the alphabet did.
“Here,” said Sam, handing him an envelope. It had a logo in the corner that Steve recognised by sight as belonging to the New Jersey College of Magic Arts. “It’s on the thin side,” he added apologetically.
Steve groaned, tearing the envelope open. This was why he hadn’t even bothered logging into the e-applications system to update his address. The letters, twitching restlessly, got themselves into place long enough to spell:
Dear Mr. Rogers,
Thank you for your interest in our Bachelor of Magic Arts programme. The Admissions Board regrets to inform you that we will not be able to offer you a place in the Class of 2021. Every year, we receive thousands of applications from the best and brightest—
“Whatever,” said Steve.
“You didn’t want to go to college in Jersey anyway,” said Sam.
He always knew the right thing to say. And in true rebellious fashion, Steve’s spirits were lifting. Collecting rejection letters had become something of a yearly tradition; it wasn’t a good spring unless he got at least a dozen. “Definitely not.”
He took great satisfaction in crumpling up the letter, and turned his attention to the envelope instead. The printed label read, Rogers, S. G., 339B Bleecker St., Brooklyn, NY. There was no sign that the letter had been forwarded from its first destination. “That’s my ma’s old apartment,” said Steve. “I was still living there when I sent out this batch of applications. How the hell did this get here?”
“They’re a wizarding college,” said Sam, peeling Steve off his back. “I’m sure they have their ways. Gross, Steve, now my whole back is wet, thanks.”
Steve ignored him. “When do they bring in the post? I’ve never seen a mail van here.”
“Me neither,” said Sam. “But it shows up every morning anyway, sure as cockcrow.”
“That makes no sense.”
“It’s the Night Light. Name one thing here that makes sense.”
This thwarted Steve. While he fumed, Sam shredded a few leaves of junk mail, put his fingers in his mouth, and gave a low two-note whistle. After a few seconds a pair of fat pigeons flew in through the open window and carefully gathered up the shreds of paper in their beaks. Steve gave them the rejection letter too, though he kept the envelope. They dipped a wing in thanks and flurried away, presumably to line their nests with the ruin of Steve’s ambitions.
“Gonna apply again next year?” asked Sam, as they stepped into the elevator.
“I guess,” said Steve without enthusiasm. He was still staring at the mysterious envelope, wondering if the new owners of 339B had forwarded the letter, and how they’d found his new address. If they liked the house. If they’d changed the stars-and-stripes wallpaper he’d chosen for his bedroom on his fifth birthday. I hope the house haunts you, he thought.
“Or you could just not,” said Sam. “You could go to art school. Fight crime. Invade Canada. Whatever makes you happy.”
Steve sighed, and plucked the yellow feather from Sam’s collar. “We should all be so lucky.”
They got out on the fourth floor. Sam turned left, and Steve turned right. He meant to duck into his room and change into something dry, maybe corner Bucky or Natasha and ask them if they’d seen a mail van that day; but then he pushed open the door to his room, and found himself in a shadowy aisle that was definitely not unit 403.
It was the first time Steve had fallen into a space-time warp. He knew exactly where he was, even if he didn’t know why.
It was the smell—that inimitable old-book smell, underlaid by the sharp pine scent of desks and shelves and the tinny crackle of magical energy. He’d fallen asleep to this smell every night for the last four months. He spotted the window with the broken latch, the one that had let him in after hours when the doors were locked and the librarian-genies put back into their bottles for the night. Behind the shelf of runic dictionaries no one ever checked out, he saw a corner of his sleeping bag poking out of its old hiding place. He’d slept in it just two nights ago; it wasn’t even dusty yet.
For a moment Steve could not remember where he had come from, or who he had just been talking to. This was the width and depth of his world, and it was as pathetic as it looked. He’d had to sell the Bleecker Street place to pay off his mother’s medical bills—only after the coma set in, so she wouldn’t have to know—and sleeping in the college library cost him less in self-respect than crashing in Gabe’s dorm room or the Moritas’ hall closet. He found himself moving towards the sleeping bag, as if he were going to tuck himself in and study till he fell asleep, like he did every night after lights-out. Only—
Only it wasn’t lights-out. The chandeliers were ablaze, laddering the aisle with diffuse shadows of towering bookshelves, and students were sitting at the long study tables with their heads buried in books or laptops. A violet puff of smoke was drifting down the nearest table in a vaguely inquisitorial way, and one of the students stuffed a half-eaten cheeseburger into her purse before the librarian could bust her for eating on the premises. Steve realised he was famished. He was also dripping water on the parquet floor. That was because he’d just come home after a long day, and home was somewhere else now, home was a dinky little room in a run-down building where it rained all the time and it was most certainly not this—
Instinctively, he stepped back towards the door he remembered coming through. He realised—too late—that it was gone, the Night Light had disappeared, and his back was up against the bookshelf behind him; but even as he felt it poking between the knobs of his spine he was falling through, falling in, and then he staggered through the open door of his apartment into the fourth-floor hallway.
He looked back. The shelves and the students and the genie were gone. He was gazing into the still-foreign landscape of the 180 square feet of space he rented, at the sweater he’d flung over the back of a chair, the cup of cold coffee congealing on the nightstand. Rain pattered at the window. He smelled baking, heard Sam and Natasha’s voices drifting out of the kitchen. The walls pulsed and sighed in their usual soothing rhythms. This was real.
He took a careful step through the door. He was in his room. Out again. He was in the hall. In. Room. Out. Hall. The library was gone, and his sleeping bag with it.
“You all right?” said a soft voice behind him.
Steve jumped. He was dizzy, and his stomach was trying to climb up his esophagus. He felt as if he’d been sat in a swivel chair and spun around like a gyroscope. Bucky was squinting at him through the veil of his hair, with that faint line etched between his brows again. He was wearing oven mitts and a different apron, this one lime green and decorated with little test tubes and triangle rulers. The front read, BAKING IS A SCIENCE.
“Yeah,” Steve rasped. He was starting to shiver, from cold and from adrenaline, and between his fingers the NJCMA envelope was damp with sweat. “I just—”
There was no way to say, I thought I was homeless again, or, I swear to God there was a hot minute where my apartment didn’t exist, without sounding like a fool. He swallowed. “Just thought I saw something weird.”
“Something weird?” said Bucky. His sea-blue eyes glinted. “In here? No way.”
Steve laughed: a loose loud laugh, helpless with relief. It was hard to worry about anything when Bucky was standing three feet away from him, smelling like sugar and icing and bread still hot from the oven. “I know, right? Impossible.”
He sneezed. Bucky eyed him, his mouth curving up at the corners. “Better go shower,” he said. “I made linguine.”
Steve was getting a headache. It might have been space-time whiplash, or Bucky’s bright green apron. “I’ll just get pizza delivery or something. I can’t keep eating your food.”
Bucky looked baffled. “Why?”
“Why?” Steve repeated. “Why? Do you even know how much food costs?”
“I thought it grew on trees,” said Bucky, straight-faced. “Hot shower. Now.”
Steve was starving. If he had to wait forty minutes for food delivery, he thought he might keel over. Bucky’s ability to win arguments while standing around in ridiculous aprons and looking like a hot teddy bear was definitely his most annoying habit. “This,” said Steve, “is the last time. The last damn time. Tomorrow I’m making toast for breakfast.”
Bucky gave a lopsided grin. “Also there’s cupcakes for dessert.”
(There were red velvet cupcakes, and salted caramel ones, and mint chocolate, and rum n’ raisin, and half a dozen other flavours besides. Steve ate his weight in sugar and frosting, went to bed in a carbohydrate-fuelled daze, and succeeded thoroughly at not thinking about his disappearing apartment.)
“Ooh,” said Natasha, as soon as she’d taken her human form across from Steve at the kitchen table. “Are you doing magic?”
In the spirit of sheer petulance, Steve had ditched class that day. He’d never done that before (unless you counted the time he got chased out of Introduction to Quantum Theory by two TAs and a crushing singularity), though in his defence he planned to spend the day studying at home. So far he’d managed to stare blankly at his Smart Spells for the 21st Century workbook for ten minutes without checking his texts or dozing off, and he hadn’t even shrieked when the Natasha-spider landed on the pages of Unit 3: The Finding Spell and scuttled down his leg to the floor. “I guess?” he said. “I’m a bit stuck.”
It was storming. The wind was wilder than ever, rattling the windows like something straight out of a Gothic novel. “Let me see,” said Natasha, leaning over to snag the coffee pot. Sam had left early for cockcrow shift at the aviary, but he was a prince among men who always made more coffee after he’d drunk the last of it. “Maybe I can help.”
She read out the question Steve had been working on. “Question 3, part b. Code a spell for finding your heart’s desire. It should be able to locate all concrete objects including persons, places, and things. Huh. Very Hallmark.”
Bucky chose that moment to come padding into the kitchen with Radio tucked under his arm, in her clock shape this morning and belching out Hozier in the wrong key. “Who’s looking for their heart’s desire?”
“Steve,” said Natasha, because she was a fiend. Lightning split the sky into bright shards, and the kitchen lights fizzed ominously. “I think Thor’s fighting a duel on the rooftop again.”
Bucky sighed. He threw open the window and stuck his head out into the rain. “Keep it down! There’s a wizard here trying to study!”
“Sorry!” someone boomed back. A second later, a red-caped figure shot down from the roof and away up the street, with the thickest of the thunderclouds following in a streaming dragline. The wind stopped roaring, and the rain slowed to a drizzle.
Steve blinked. He didn’t know what he had been expecting, but it wasn’t that. “Is that—is he why it’s always raining here?”
“Yeah,” said Natasha. “He’s under a curse.”
“On the bright side,” said Bucky, “free electricity.”
He shut the window again. His shirt was speckled with dots of moisture, and drops of rain clung to his head like dew on grass. Steve traced their slow trajectory with his eye: down a strand of long brown hair, onto a pale stubbly cheek, along the sleek column of a slender neck, into the hem of an army-green henley. His fingers itched for his sketchbook. “What kind of curse?”
Bucky laughed, setting Radio down on the kitchen table. He was, Steve thought with a pang, a lot more relaxed around Natasha. “A stupid one. He pissed off his brother and now it rains wherever he goes. Most people here are curse victims of some kind. I guess nobody’d live here if they had anywhere else to go.”
Natasha gave him a stern look across the pages of Smart Spells. “I would.”
“You don’t count, Itsy Bitsy,” said Bucky. He tousled her curls with his flesh hand—a rough brotherly gesture, or maybe that was just how Steve wanted to see it—while Radio shifted into a cat and nudged her way onto Natasha’s lap, mewling for attention. “Pancakes or waffles?”
“Pancakes,” said Natasha.
“Waffles,” said Steve without thinking. Then—“No, no, no, I told you, I’m not eating your food again. I’m gonna make toast.”
Natasha turned her stern look on Steve. “What’s all this?”
“He has a problem with my cooking,” said Bucky sulkily. “Anyway, the toaster’s not working. I hope you like blueberry jam.”
Steve wondered why he’d expected Natasha to take his side when she never did. In the face of her unimpressed stare, he could only watch, helpless, as Bucky got out both the waffle iron and the pancake griddle. A panicky laugh was clawing its way out of his lungs. Who the hell made waffles and pancakes at the same time? “Bucky, listen—”
“Oh, look,” said Bucky. “Nat’s finding you your heart’s desire.”
“I can do it myself,” said Steve, annoyed. But Natasha had already plucked his phone out of his hand, pulled up his Spellcaster app, and started typing. Her code read:
“There,” she said. “This should work.”
Steve took his phone back. He would have vastly preferred to do the spell in the privacy of his own room, where no one would bear witness to his inevitable failure. But this did not seem to be an option. Concentrating on every nonexistent particle of magical talent in his body—insofar as he could concentrate on anything at all, with Bucky looking over his shoulder—he hit Cast.
A big green arrow filled the screen. It wavered, revolving like a compass needle, sometimes clockwise, sometimes widdershins, while Steve gritted his teeth and stared it down. The heartbeat in the walls had grown very loud. If the spell dared to point at Bucky, he was going to have to pack up and go back to sleeping in the college library. Maybe leave the state. Possibly the planet.
But the arrow just went on swinging in confused circles. It hesitated on the coffee pot, then the leftover cupcakes in the fridge, then out the window, and at last grew sluggish and began to fade. Steve tapped on the screen. “Come on!”
The phone caught fire and blazed for a brief moment with a bright turquoise flame. When it guttered out, the screen was blank again. Steve sighed, sagging back in his chair. “Guess I cast it wrong.”
“Or,” said Natasha, “I messed up the code. Happens to the best of us.”
Steve cracked a smile. He knew Natasha was not the sort of person who often messed things up. The spell ought to have pointed at the college, or Bleecker Street, or the hospital where his mother had saved hundreds of lives before the backlash from her own healing magic caught up with her. Have you ever, said Phillips’s voice in his head, ever, in your life, shown any sign of magical ability?
Bucky was watching him, his robot arm whirring more audibly than usual. “Maybe your heart’s desire’s just not something you can point an arrow at.”
“What, like world peace?” asked Steve. He hoped he wasn’t that boring.
“Or justice,” said Bucky. “Or freedom.”
“Or love,” said Natasha, with a huge bugcat grin.
Steve flicked his eraser at them. They were full of shit, and he knew it. Either he didn’t really want to be a healer like his mother; or he did, but he was so utterly unmagical that even Natasha’s spell couldn’t tell. It was a troubling dichotomy, and one on which he preferred not to dwell before breakfast.
“Or,” said Steve, sliding his workbook back across the table from Natasha, “I just want you guys to shut up and go away. Let a guy study in peace.”
He tried to focus after that, he really did, but the Night Light was determined to deluge him in a confetti-shower of distractions.
At ten a.m., the elevator dinged open on their floor, and a spider much smaller than Natasha came flying into the kitchen on a silvery strand of silk. It dropped to the floor, where it turned into a teenage boy wearing a red and blue hoodie and a slightly hysterical expression. “Do either of you know anything about trigonometry?”
Steve thought for a moment. “Pythagoras murdered a guy over it?”
“Math was a leading cause of death back in the day,” agreed Natasha.
The boy tore his hands through his hair. “Not helping.”
“Don’t ask us,” said Natasha. “Bucky’s in.”
The boy’s face lit up with hope. “Bucky,” he pronounced, the way Archimedes might have shouted Eureka in his bath. He blurred into a spider again and webbed himself out into the hall, only to turn back into a human and land heavily on his feet. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I shouldn’t do that in front of you, it’s so insensitive!”
Steve looked up. Natasha twitched a smile, though her face had gone blank. “That’s all right.”
The boy pounded on Bucky’s door. They heard it creak open, and Bucky’s voice say, “Why aren’t you in school?” and then, “Never mind, give me the math,” and the door shut again.
“Peter Parker from 203,” said Natasha, catching Steve’s eye. “MENSA-level genius, Stark-level inventor, hates high school trig with a passion. I’d help him, but neither of us knows how to do math without resorting to advanced calculus and chaos theory.”
“Nothing wrong with a bit of chaos,” said Steve. He was still watching her carefully.
Natasha got up and clattered around the kitchen, opening and closing cupboards and starting up the coffee machine, though their mugs were still full. The air was thick with loose ends and waiting. Steve tried to turn his attention back to Smart Spells, and found himself doodling spiders and webs and right-angled triangles instead. It was like someone had played do-re-mi-fa on a piano, and he was waiting for the sol.
“You might as well ask,” said Natasha at last, over the rattle of the coffee machine. Her back was to Steve, her face averted. “It’s not a curse. I was born like this. It doesn’t bother me.”
“Huh,” said Steve, unconvinced.
“I was bred to kill,” said Natasha. “Not to survive. The people who made me didn’t care if I could catch my own food or spin myself a home, as long as I was lethal. And I was. I am.”
She opened the fridge and stuck her head in, looking at the neat rows of eggs, the 2% milk, the bags of vegetables and fruit. Steve waited. The walls breathed, a gentle lulling shush, as if enjoining them to keep a secret. “Bucky took me in when I—got away,” said Natasha. “It wasn’t so bad. He found me a room here, made sure I was eating. It took us a bit of trial and error to find non-insect meals I could keep down.”
Steve was resolved not to pry, so his questions only circled his own head, things like, what the fuck kind of sicko breeds spiders to be assassins, and, where do I sign up to punch them. “Is that when his cooking thing started?”
“Yeah,” said Natasha. “He did simple things at first, ramen, sandwiches, then moved on to the fancy stuff. He’s good at it.” She paused, backing out of the fridge with a pint tub of yogurt in her hand. “I don’t know if you noticed, but Bucky is the mom friend around here.”
Steve looked pointedly at the tower of dishes in the sink, some of them still sporting stray crumbs of pancake and waffle. He didn’t think he’d ever eaten a heartier or more wholesome breakfast. “Gee,” he said. “You don’t say.”
“You gotta admit,” said Natasha, around the plastic spoon in her mouth, “people food’s a lot better than spider food.”
She laughed, brisk and blasé, a signal that the discussion was at an end. Steve took the hint, and went back to his spells.
At eleven a.m., the elevator dinged again. This time it was a scruffy blond man who poked his head into the kitchen, clutching a jar of peanut butter. With him was an equally scruffy yellow dog that smelled like dried fish and pond scum. “Jar,” said the man piteously.
Natasha stuck out her hand. She had been quiet for most of the last hour, but in a companionable way, looser around the shoulders. Steve gave the yellow dog a few experimental pats while Natasha twisted at the jar lid, first with her bare hands, then through her shirt. “Nope,” she said. “Steve?”
It was nice of her to ask, thought Steve sadly. Both Natasha and the newcomer were significantly more endowed in the bicep department than he was. He twisted valiantly. “Nope.”
“I always get the cursed ones,” said the man with a sigh. He took the jar back and shambled off towards Bucky’s room, the dog borfing and snorfing after him. There was a purple stain on the seat of his sweatpants. “Hey, 404, you in there? Can you open a thing for me?”
“Clint Barton from 104,” said Natasha, watching him go. “And Pizza Dog. He used to have my apartment, but I switched with him so he could be on the ground floor.”
“Gravity,” said Natasha, “doesn’t agree with him.”
The kitchen was angled so Steve could just see the door at the end of the hall. It came open a crack, and a metal forearm slid out with a cat attached to it. Steve watched, fascinated, as the hand popped the jar open with no evident effort and withdrew again. Then it slid back out, this time with no cat, and patted Pizza Dog’s head.
“Thanks, bro,” said Clint.
“Bork!” added Pizza Dog.
They left, Clint eating peanut butter straight out of the jar. Steve stared thoughtfully at the closed door of Bucky’s apartment. An idea was coming to him. “Does everyone know Bucky around here?”
“Mom friend, remember?” said Natasha. “What are you looking for?”
There were no pots on the stove, and the oven and microwave were both empty. Steve double-checked the whole kitchen, then got back into his chair, satisfied. “It’s nearly lunchtime and he’s been too busy to cook. If this keeps up, he’s finally gonna have to let me eat a meal on my own dime.”
“Oh, no,” said Natasha. She sighed, shaking her head. “Steve, you sweet summer child. You don’t know what he’s capable of.”
Steve scowled. “You don’t know what I’m capable of.”
“Being weird about money?” said Natasha. “Preferring to live on ramen and greasy takeout instead of healthy home-cooked food? Googling”—she looked over Steve’s shoulder—“takeout menus on your phone?”
“Oh, yeah,” said Steve, typing cheerfully. “I’m a resourceful rogue. A lunchtime bandit. A dangerous, dangerous man.”
Natasha gave a theatrical groan. Steve ignored her. He doodled puppies, and jars of peanut butter, and shiny metal fists, and counted down the minutes till lunchtime. This, he decided, was much more fun than coding spells to remove pocket lint.
By twelve p.m., Steve was getting hungry, and everything was shaping up according to plan.
The elevator had been disgorging visitors nonstop. All of them knew Bucky, and all of them wanted his help. At the moment Bucky was busy looking for clothes—for a sheepish-looking doctor wearing nothing but a tarpaulin, and a large bulletproof gentleman whose hoodie, alas, did not share the same superpower—and the stove and oven were still cold. Steve saw his chance. It was time to initiate phase two.
“So,” he said. “What did I tell you? We’re on our own for lunch.”
Natasha glanced up from her laptop. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that, lunchtime bandit.”
Steve felt like a bank robber getting away with a heist. “We could get Chinese takeout,” he said, brandishing the menu on his phone. “Or if you feel like going out, there’s a nice sushi place down the street—”
The elevator dinged again. “There you go,” said Natasha.
Bucky himself came into the kitchen. He was wearing a black apron with yellow caution stripes along the hems, and—to Steve’s abject horror—carrying a baking tray covered in tin foil. It smelled delicious. Steve stared at it in dismay. “The fuck is that?”
From her perch on Bucky’s shoulders, Radio gave a reproachful miaow. “I think that means language, young man,” said Natasha, grinning.
“The fuck,” said Steve again, fuelled by spite. He’d been so confident that he’d pre-empt Bucky’s culinary assaults this time. “Hell shit goddamn fucking fuck, do you have a secret oven in your room or something?”
Bucky puckered his lips. “Natasha,” he said. “Why is he like this.”
“Show it to him,” said Natasha. “He’ll eat it.”
Bucky uncovered the tray with a loud crinkle. Natasha gave Steve a sweet smile. “Curses. Foiled again.”
The tray turned out to contain lasagna, a lot of it. While Natasha got out forks and knives and Steve continued to stare in chagrin, Bucky began to spoon out portions for each of them. Steve’s was at least twice the size of the others. His stomach made its opinion known in the form of a small, piteous rumble.
“Or you could go to the sushi place,” said Bucky solemnly. “I hear it’s having a rat infestation. And they charge extra for wasabi now.”
Wide was the gate and broad the road that led to destruction, Steve thought. He doodled cutlery and chef hats and Bucky with crimson devil horns, and with his free hand shovelled lasagna grimly into his mouth.
The parade of distractions continued after lunch. Bucky disappeared with the leftover lasagna, presumably to force-feed it to the rest of the building’s population; and Steve lost Natasha soon after, when a blonde woman in a bloodstained white jumpsuit burst into the kitchen. “Need backup,” panted the visitor. “Gotta bury a body.”
“Only if you take me to dinner and a movie after,” said Natasha, without missing a beat. “Steve, this is Sharon.”
“Movie, yes,” said Sharon. “Dinner, maybe. The body’s kinda gross.”
“We’ll see,” said Natasha. “I’ll get the shovels.”
They left together. This meant that there was no one left to keep Steve company, and nothing stopping him from crumpling forward in a gradual but inexorable slide until his forehead met the still-blank pages of Smart Spells, and he began the slow process of achieving oneness with the table. It also meant he was alone when the next crisis hit. The elevator dinged again, and someone hurtled into the kitchen. “Bucky, this is terrible, I—where’s Bucky?”
Sluggishly, Steve unstuck his face from his book. It was three p.m.: the time of day when the sun stooped to leer through the west-facing windows with that horrible oversaturated glare, as if to show off how far it had come since the morning; how much work it had accomplished, and how little he had. The latest visitor was a girl about the same age as most of Steve’s classmates at college, in a floaty black dress and bright red cardigan, her face streaked with tears. “I, uh,” said Steve. He jumped up, nearly overturning his chair. He never knew what to do with crying girls. “I’ll go get him. Do you need anything? Um, a tissue?”
But Bucky was already filling the kitchen doorway. He moved so silently, it was hard to tell where he had come from. “Wanda? What’s wrong?”
Wanda ran to him. “Oh, thank the saints,” she said, flinging her arms around his shoulders. “Bucky, I can’t believe I lost Pietro’s running shoes. I thought they were in my room, but they must have slipped through the last time the building disappeared, and they—they’re all I have left of him—”
She burst into a fresh torrent of sobs. Steve’s stomach went cold. “The last time the building what?”
Bucky gave him a Look. The lights flickered again, and the breathing in the walls sped up. The message was clear: this was not the time. “What did the shoes look like?” asked Bucky. “I’ll try to remember if I’ve seen them.”
“Filthy,” said Wanda promptly. “Adidas, white with black stripes. The left one had a hole in the toe. I could have mended it with a thought, but—” She sniffled, swiping one bedraggled sleeve across her eyes. “I wanted to keep them the way they were.”
“Let’s go search your floor,” said Bucky. “They gotta be somewhere.”
When they were gone, Steve let his head thunk against the wall, listening to the steady thump-kerthump of the heartbeat in the plaster. He was groggy and overheated. It was hard to ignore the vast white spaces in his book, or the fact that he’d been absolutely useless all day, to himself and to his neighbours. If only he could do magic, he thought, he could have worked a finding spell and tracked down Pietro’s shoes in a heartbeat. Hell, if he’d inherited even a fraction of his mother’s powers, he could have solved everyone’s crises and broken the thunderstorm curse, and cooked his own damn meals to boot. But he was no Sarah Rogers, and all he could do was draw.
He found a piece of scrap paper and started to doodle. He drew a pair of Adidas running shoes, white with black stripes, like Wanda had described. He made sure there was a hole in the left shoe, and a fair number of stains and scuff marks. After that it seemed only natural to add stripes to the laces, and lightning bolts along the bottom of the shoes. Radio prowled into the room as he was working, hopped up onto the table, and sat watching him with her head cocked to one side, as if she had heard something strange. “I’m just drawing,” said Steve. “Leave me alone.”
He went over the lines in black marker, and was just getting round to wondering if he should add shadows when Bucky and Wanda came back. They were empty-handed, and Wanda’s eyes were redder and puffier than ever. “No luck?” asked Steve.
Wanda slumped down next to him, blowing her nose on a Kleenex. “No.”
Radio climbed into her lap with a sympathetic mrrp, and received a soggy nose-kiss. Bucky looked worn out and confused. He retracted into his hair, and deeper still into his hoodie. “They can’t be gone,” he said. “Things don’t just disappear.”
Steve thought about his vanishing room. “You sure?”
Bucky only stood kneading the bridge of his nose in silence, apparently having exhausted his stores of big-brotherly omnipotence for the day. “Why don’t you make cookies or something,” Steve snapped. “Cookies make everything better, right?”
He had meant this as sarcasm. To his horror, Bucky brightened at once. “That’s it,” he said, snapping his metal fingers. It made a clang like a car crash. “Shoulda thought of that.”
He started to get out his tools. Measuring cups, baking powder, a sack of cookie dough—a literal sack, the kind you’d buy rice in. “Bucky,” said Steve. “Bucky, no.”
“Bucky, yes,” said Wanda. “I need something sugary right now.”
She looked so miserable that, in spite of how silly he felt, Steve found himself pushing his running-shoe doodle over to her. It was all he had. “Here,” he said, wishing he could have been more helpful. “I know it’s not the same, but it’s something to remember him by—”
The paper felt lumpy and heavy between his fingers. The next thing he knew, his hand was closed on thin air, and two bulky somethings thudded onto the table between them. Wanda screamed. “The shoes! Where’d you find them? Why didn’t you say?”
She snatched them up. The shoes were white with black stripes, sporting a lightning-bolt motif and a variety of unsavoury stains, and the left one gaped wide open at the toe. The smell was unbelievable. Steve was having a traumatic flashback to high school gym class. “What,” he said. “I wasn’t—I didn’t—”
Wanda flung her arms around him, like she’d done with Bucky. Her grip was surprisingly strong. Steve’s lungs yielded up their oxygen with a whooff. “You’re that new wizard, yes? The one that goes to NYWC? Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
Flummoxed, Steve managed to struggle free. His face was hot. “It was an accident really,” he said. He looked at his doodles, afraid he would find dogs and lasagna cubes and half a dozen Buckys all coming to life, but they were still just a collection of pencil strokes, as well-behaved and two-dimensional as they ought to be. “I was just sketching. You know weird shit happens here all the time.”
“Steve,” said Bucky. “This is weird even for the Night Light.”
He leaned over to look at the other sketches, his brow crinkled in concentration. He could not have failed to recognise his own face among the drawings, iterated so many times it was like looking through an insect’s compound eyes. Steve’s ears burned. Before he could think twice about it, he grabbed the papers, crumpled them in his fist, and lobbed them into the trash. “I didn’t say you could look,” he said. “They’re just dumb doodles. I drew you with devil horns and you don’t have any.”
Bucky felt at his head, looking dubious. “That’s not how magic works,” said Wanda. “There has to be intent. Were you trying to summon Pietro’s shoes for me?”
“I was trying to be nice,” said Steve. “I don’t do magic. I’m not really a wizard.”
“I think Radio disagrees,” said Bucky.
They looked down. Radio had climbed into the trash can, curled into a cat-shaped loaf on top of the crumpled papers, and begun to purr. “Aww,” said Wanda, reaching down to pet her.
Bucky was still eyeing Steve with a sort of X-ray intensity. This was too much. They all knew he couldn’t do magic; it was the whole foundation of his self-concept. Steve got up with a jerk. “Enjoy your cookies,” he said, grabbing his books and pencils, and snatching his phone out of the wall socket. “I’m gonna go study in my room.”
“Can’t I do something for you in return?” Wanda called, as he shouldered his way past Bucky to the door. “Do you need to vacuum under your fridge? Find a lost memory? Drive your enemies out of their minds?”
“No,” said Steve. He could feel Bucky’s gaze on the back of his head. Thump, thump went the walls. “No, thank you, not at all, bye—” and he locked himself into the room, threw Smart Spells under his bed and himself on it, and buried his face in his pillows.
Feet paced outside his room for a while—Bucky’s, going by the agitated whirring that accompanied them—and retreated again. No one bothered him until dinnertime, when he heard the burst of birdsong that always heralded Sam’s arrival, and there was a knock on the door. “Hey, Steve,” said Sam from the hallway. “Come look at this.”
Steve groaned. He didn’t want to move. “Bucky made eight thousand cookies, I know.”
“Did he?” said Sam. “God, I love him. It’s not that, come and see.”
Laughter was drifting out of the kitchen—Wanda was still there, and Natasha and Sharon must have come back. Slowly, Steve dislodged the tower of pillows on his face and went to the door. Sam blinked at him. “You get hit by a truck or something?”
He looked like a Disney prince, complete with birds (a red finch on his left shoulder, and a round yellow canary on his right). Next to him, Steve most closely resembled a garbage can. He tried without success to flatten his hair. “Something like that,” he said. “What do you want.”
Sam pulled him into the elevator. “How many floors does this building have?”
“That’s what I thought,” said Sam. “Look.”
Steve looked. It always struck him how new the elevator was, compared to the rest of the building. It wasn’t clean by any stretch of the imagination—the buttons were cracked and clouded over with generations of finger- and paw-prints, and the floor was slashed with strange claw marks—but it was certainly modern, with shiny gunmetal walls and mirrored doors, and a Stark Industries logo on the button panel. At first Steve didn’t see what was wrong. Then he took a closer look at the buttons. “Huh. Since when was there a thirteenth floor?”
“Not this morning,” said Sam. “I’d have noticed on my way to work.”
Steve counted the buttons, wondering if his eyes were playing tricks on him. There was definitely one more than he remembered. The thirteenth-floor button was as crusty as the others; it might’ve been there for years. “Is the building,” he said, “you know, haunted?”
“It’s the Night Light,” said Sam. “I’m guessing yes.”
The elevator doors slid shut. They could no longer hear the laughing voices, or smell the warm homey scents of hazelnut and chocolate chip wafting from the kitchen. The birds rustled uneasily on Sam’s shoulders, and the finch let out a chirp. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” asked Sam.
A thrill surged down Steve’s spine. This was his heart’s desire, he thought: a distraction, plain and simple, the bigger and more detonative the better. “I’m always thinking what you’re thinking,” he said; and he reached out and hit the thirteenth-floor button.
They went up. Floor numbers ticked past on the display above the doors; 5, 6, 7. The elevator made no sound except a smooth whirring hum. The noise put Steve in mind of something, though he couldn’t think what. 10, 11, 12. When they passed the twelfth floor the lights guttered out, as if the motion sensors had forgotten they were there, and no amount of hand-waving could turn them back on. The canary cheeped in dismay. In pitch darkness, they continued to rise.
After an interval that felt like ten minutes, but couldn’t have been more than ten seconds, the 12 on the display flicked over to 13. The elevator stopped. The doors hissed open. They both took a step forward, and halted in unison on the threshold.
“Whoa,” said Steve.
“Shit,” agreed Sam.
The thirteenth floor looked like all the other floors, with a lobby facing the shared kitchen and bathroom, and a narrow hall leading off to two apartments each on the left and right. It was as dark as it had been in the elevator. There were deep, violent gouges in the ceiling where the light fixtures should have been, and the windows were sealed over with layers of duct tape. Dust flurried up around them every time they moved. Steve sneezed.
“Please tell me you brought your inhaler,” said Sam.
“Nope,” said Steve with relish.
He turned on his phone light and tiptoed into the hallway to get a closer look at the apartments. He didn’t know why he was tiptoeing, except that the mausoleum hush seemed to crush the capacity for noise out of him. The apartments here bore no unit numbers, only a sort of emblem, the same one on every door: a heavily stylised red octopus with a prominent skull. No—not an octopus, Steve thought, counting the heads and tentacles. A hydra.
His spine tingled again, this time not pleasantly. He tried one of the doors, but it was locked, and even when he crouched down he could see nothing in the dusty strip between door and floor. It came to him, then, why it was so quiet. He could hear none of the usual Night Light noises that he couldn’t explain but had nonetheless grown used to—the heartbeat in the walls, the whoosh of steady breathing from the concrete. It was as if this part of the building was dead.
He stood up so fast his vision whited out. “Sam, there’s something wrong with this place.”
Sam did not answer. Steve found him in the lobby, peeling strips of tape off the window. The hole admitted a glimmer of grey sky and grey buildings, and a stabbing spear of daylight murky with dust. “Wow,” said Sam distantly. “I wish our rooms had a view like this.”
There was a sudden crash. It sounded like cymbals, or a snare drum. They both jumped. Squinting against darkness and dazzling light, Steve could just make out the small grey lump of Radio’s clock form sitting between the open doors of the elevator. He hadn’t even noticed that she’d followed them up. On the face of the clock, where the time would normally have been, a pair of big green eyes blinked up at them balefully.
“Right,” said Steve, as she made the crashing noise again. “We get it, we’re trespassing, we’re leaving now.” He paused. “Right, Sam?”
“Uh-huh,” said Sam after a moment, still glued to the window.
Steve hesitated. He reached out and wrapped one hand around Sam’s wrist, a tentative anchor. Sam had been ground-bound for three years now, had grown used to pulling loose shirts over the feathery remains of his wings and taking the bus to his civilian job at the aviary, but he was still a bird-spirit, and the sky called to him as much as it ever did. Steve tugged him away from the window, and carefully taped the hole back up. They were in pitch darkness again. “I wouldn’t live up here for all the world,” he said.
Sam sighed. The finch and the canary rustled on his shoulders, as if in solidarity. “Yeah,” he said. “I’m fine, Steve-o. We better go.”
They felt their way back to the elevator. Steve scooped Radio up and held her close, his stomach an uneasy knot of nerves. “You think the others know about this place?”
“Dunno,” said Sam. “Bucky, maybe. He’s lived here longer than anyone else.”
“I’ll ask him tomorrow,” said Steve. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’ve had enough excitement for one day.”
They watched the thirteenth floor disappear between the closing elevator doors, shrouded in dusty shadow and more sinister than ever. On the doors, the faint outline of the hydra sigils seemed to glow in the dark, their tentacles twitching and shimmering. Radio gave a sotto voce growl.
“Yeah,” said Sam at last, ruffling his finch’s feathers. “You know what, me too.”
Steve, however, forgot all about the thirteenth floor first thing in the morning. This was because he woke up in the college library.
At first this did not strike him as strange. His alcove was a familiar place, his sleeping bag wrapped around his aching bones like an amniotic sac, the shelf of runic dictionaries keeping off the worst of the draft. He had the back-of-the-brain sense that he had been away for a long time, but he couldn’t imagine where he’d gone; where he would be spending his nights, if not here. Then he became aware of the incongruities that had woken him. First, the trundle of a book trolley close at hand, suggesting he’d slept in past opening time—fuck, he never did that, it was too risky—and second, a collection of sharp objects poking into his chest, accompanied by a deep vibrating rumble.
Steve came fully awake in a rush. It was happening again. He had been asleep on the floor of the NYWC library, and Radio was standing on his chest, her tail arched like a fish-hook. As he watched, she morphed into her clock form, her LEDs gleaming the time—08:13—three inches from his face.
“Fuck,” said Steve, and shot bolt upright.
The trolley was getting close. He squirmed gracelessly out of the sleeping bag, stuffed it as far into the alcove as it would go, and squeezed out from behind the shelf of dictionaries. Crouched close to the floor like a soldier under fire, with Radio clutched to his chest—and goddamn, the tiles were cold under his bare feet—he backed frantically into the nearest bookshelf, willing himself to fall back through into the fourth-floor hallway like he’d done the other time.
He tried again. He put his back against the shelf and slid himself down the full length of the aisle, like a mop. Still nothing. Whatever portal had opened to join the two places, it was shut now.
Adrenaline cresting over his head in waves, Steve craned his neck to peer between the bookshelves. To his left, a long row of empty workstations stretched off to the dark hallway of the reference section; and to his right, an open door led into a meeting room where people in suits and ties were taking their places around a conference table. He couldn’t see any students.
He mouthed a silent oath. He knew what was happening. The cosmos had seen fit to deposit him in the library on the one morning of the year when the College Board convened for the Annual General Meeting, and if that wasn’t his whole life in a microcosm, he didn’t know what was.
The trolley was turning into his aisle. He caught sight of the smoky violet figure pushing it along, and a couple of leather-bound books levitating from the trolley to their rightful places on the shelves. He began to duck towards the far end of the aisle. If he could just walk quietly enough—
He ran headlong into a tall burly personage, and bounced off into the nearest shelf with a horrible crash. “Ouch.”
It was Professor Phillips, also in suit and tie. Clearly he was here for the AGM. Also clearly, he recognised Steve from the disastrous Numerology seminar. The gods of luck and karma must have been having a field day. “My God, it’s you again,” said Phillips. “What on earth are you doing here? The library’s closed for the meeting.”
“I,” said Steve, and at the first whiff of his own morning breath had to stop to suppress a wheeze of hysterical laughter. He was in boxers and a baggy t-shirt full of holes, and probably had the worst case of bedhead ever witnessed by humankind. “I’m so sorry, sir. I fell asleep studying late last night and the librarians must have missed me when they locked up. I’m just going.”
He took a hopeful step away, but Phillips’s stare rooted him to the spot. “Did you? Where are your books then?”
Steve looked down at the clock radio in his arms. “Uh.”
The seconds ticked away. Phillips, like Sarah Rogers, knew exactly how to wield silence as a weapon. He gave Steve what felt like five solid minutes to yearn for death, and then said, “Show me your student ID.”
Steve sighed. He’d known this was coming. Still, it was so unfair that he was getting busted now, when he hadn’t even broken any college rules for at least twenty-four hours. He fished his wallet out of his pocket—he always kept it there with his phone at night, on Sam’s advice—and slid his stolen ID card out of its plastic holder. Phillips squinted at it. “Gilmore Hodge? Didn’t you say your name was—”
“Stevemore Hodgers,” said Steve. He was going to scream. “It’s a typo.”
“And this photo?”
“Makeover spell gone wrong, sir,” said Steve. “Seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Phillips was frowning so hard he was giving himself a unibrow. It was all over, Steve thought. He was going to have to move to Jersey and crash classes at the NJCMA instead. Unless he was arrested, in which case he’d have to contrive an escape from jail, obtain false papers, and then leave the country. He’d stow away on a plane and go to Europe. Or Antarctica.
“Now look, whatever your name is,” said Phillips. “I know you’re eager to learn, and I’ve done my best to turn a blind eye. But—”
He broke off. Another besuited figure had interposed himself between the two of them. This was an older gentleman Steve did not know, with grey-streaked blond hair and the kindliest face he had ever seen. The man smiled, clapping him on the shoulder with a large warm hand. “Is this young man in trouble, Chester? I hope not. Gilmore is one of my most promising interns, even if he does tend to fall asleep in unfortunate places.”
Steve forgot to breathe. Phillips’s incredulous gaze travelled from him to the newcomer and back again. The stranger’s suit was so impeccable, his grey eyes so keen and penetrating, that he seemed to flatten the professor just by looking at him. Phillips deflated. “I don’t know about promising,” he said, “but no, I daresay he’s not in trouble.”
He handed Steve’s ID back, and gave him a hard look. “Watch yourself, kid.”
He stalked past them into the conference room. Steve sucked in a long gulp of air. The unknown gentleman gave him a conspiratoral wink and, with his hand still on Steve’s shoulder, propelled him past the book trolley and its purple cloud of librarian towards the exit. “Disappearing building?”
“Yes,” said Steve, almost dizzy with relief. Maybe this was a more common occurrence than he thought. “I can’t thank you enough, sir.”
“Don’t mention it,” said the man. He was certainly doing an admirable job of not mentioning Steve’s bare feet and general state of calamity, or the rrrrrr noise currently crackling through Radio’s tiny speakers. “I’m always happy to help a young person in need. You live in—Pendragon Hall, was it? It’s got one of the highest incidences of space-time anomalies I’ve ever heard of.”
He really thought Steve was a student at NYWC. Steve was marinating in shame. “No, sir. I live off campus.”
“Oh? Where, if I may ask?”
“The Night Light,” said Steve. The ripping noise intensified, and went up an octave. In despair, he stuffed Radio down the front of his shirt. “You probably haven’t heard of—”
“Ah,” said the man. “That place.”
He looked very grave, and not at all surprised. Steve looked up. “What do you mean?”
“Well,” said the man. “It’s not a very nice place, is it?”
“It’s,” Steve began, his instinct for truth warring with his instinct for loyalty. Radio was heating up like a hot brick against his abdomen, and his eyes were watering. “It’s—affordable.”
The man looked more sombre than ever. “Rent’s an important consideration in this economy, I know,” he said. “And I don’t want to tell you what to do. But just between you and me—that place is filled with riff-raff. I’d be careful if I were you.”
Steve’s torso was burning. He thought about Sam, gazing longingly out the thirteenth-floor window at the open sky. Natasha, curled up at her laptop with a tub of yogurt and a spoon sticking out the side of her mouth like a cigar. Bucky, Bucky in an apron and out of it, cooking and helping kids with their trig homework and looking for people’s missing shoes, and watching Steve all the while with those strange sea-blue eyes. He looked at the man’s well-cut suit, at his silver tie-pin and matching cufflinks, and wondered what he could possibly know about the economy.
“I’m always careful,” he said. “But thanks.”
“Good,” said the stranger, smiling once more. “I see you’re a pragmatic young man who doesn’t mind making unorthodox choices to get ahead. That’s the kind of spirit I admire. Just look after yourself.”
He turned to go back to the conference room. “Wait,” said Steve. His skin was in agony, and his shirt was starting to smoulder—Radio seemed to be cooking him alive—but he couldn’t leave without so much as finding out his mysterious benefactor’s name. “How should I address you, sir?”
“My name is Pierce,” said the man. “But please, call me Alex.”
Steve stumbled into the first empty seminar room he came to, with Radio trying to sear a hole in his solar plexus and his phone cawing Sam’s ringtone at the top of its volume dial. He slammed the door shut, locked it, and disgorged Radio from the bottom of his shirt. She’d left a sunburn-coloured rectangle in the middle of his abdomen. “Bad cat! What was that for!”
Radio squalled a burst of static. She looked completely unrepentant, an impressive feat given that she had no facial features whatsoever. Steve yanked out his vibrating phone and swiped to answer the call. “Sam, what the fuck.”
“So,” said Sam. “I’m guessing you woke up somewhere weird this morning?”
He sounded altogether too cheerful for having been booted out of his bed by a treacherous building at eight a.m. Actually, just for eight a.m., period. “The college library,” said Steve through his teeth. “It’s not the first time. You might have warned me before I signed the lease.”
No one would ever have called Steve even-tempered, not by a long shot, but this had to be the first time he’d been angry with a building. If not for Pierce, he’d probably be arriving in handcuffs at a police station right about now. “Oh, it doesn’t happen often,” said Sam. “At least, it’s not supposed to? It’s been picking up the last couple of weeks, God only knows why. It’s just that sometimes the building forgets to exist and you get rebooted to where you’d be if you never moved in.”
Steve considered this. Radio had shifted back into a cat and was prowling under the desks, snapping at dust bunnies. “Where’d you fetch up?”
“Claire’s couch,” said Sam. “Her new girlfriend wasn’t amused, but at least she didn’t point a gun at me this time.”
“You say yikes, I say small victories. I’m on my way back. You got your Metro card at least?”
“Yeah,” said Steve. “Also Radio, and no shoes.”
Sam laughed. “Join the club, pal. See you later.”
They hung up. Steve looked down at the floor. He didn’t feel like walking across miles of cigarette-strewn, bubblegum-splotched campus and getting on a filthy city bus on his bare feet. If he could summon some dead boy’s shoes, surely he could summon his own? It made sense to try, even if he couldn’t, according to the last-known natural and supernatural laws, perform the slightest hint of magic if his life depended on it.
He opened QuickSketch on his phone, picked up his stylus, and began to draw. He sketched his favourite camel-brown ankle boots, the ones his mom had bought him as a feel-better present after Sam left for Iraq. He drew them with their soft inner linings and worn rubber soles, and the gel inserts he’d put in to support his high arches. He left out the holes and mud splotches and the Jackson Pollock-esque drizzles of paint left over from his last street graffiti adventure. Then—feeling silly—he clutched his phone in both hands, squinched his eyes shut like a birthday boy, and wished.
There was a pair of thunks. Steve’s eyes shot open in time to see the boots hit the floor, one on either side of his feet. They were so clean they might have come right from the store, but when he slipped them on they were every bit as comfortable and broken-in as he remembered. He’d done it.
He was nowhere near caffeinated enough to deal with this.
“Miaow?” said Radio, pawing at the boots.
“Yeah,” said Steve. Once might have been an accident. Twice was harder to ignore. “I guess maybe I won’t have to buy shoes for the rest of my life?”
“Mrrrrrow,” agreed Radio.
She sounded so impressed, Steve decided to forgive her for nearly giving him third-degree burns. “All right,” he said, gathering her up. “Let’s go home.”
The rain was a gentle misting today, lighter than a drizzle and more insidious. Steve arrived to find his neighbours trickling back into the Night Light, all—he was relieved to see—as dishevelled and put-out as he was. He recognised the naked man from yesterday (he had shorts on under his tarpaulin this time), and Clint climbing out of a tiny purple car with Pizza Dog, wearing yoga pants and a woman’s jacket at least three sizes too small for him. There was some kind of bottleneck in the lobby: people were spilling out through the main door and onto the sidewalk, muttering and rubbernecking. “What’s wrong?” asked Steve, joining the back of the crowd. “Is the elevator broken?”
The man with the tarp shushed him. “I think there’s trouble.”
There was no point trying to see over everyone’s heads. Steve began to elbow his way into the lobby. He’d only been awake an hour, and already the day had overstayed its welcome. “Who the fuck is that?”
There was a quartet of strangers standing in the lobby, scruffy men who seemed to take up more space than their physical size warranted. Each of them had a suitcase with a shiny octopus logo on it. No, not an octopus, Steve thought: a hydra. They were trying to get into the elevator, but an equally imposing figure in a red henley and slouchy jacket was in their way. “You’ve got no business coming back here, Rumlow,” said Bucky.
Steve’s stomach performed a series of acrobatics. The foremost of the strangers, a tall wiry fellow, bared his teeth in a grin. So did the three others behind him. It was hard to tell them apart. They were all large and loutishly built, wearing the same nondescript dark sweatshirts and cargo pants. “Of course I do,” said the one called Rumlow. “I live here.”
Steve shoved forward. Radio beat him to it, streaking ahead to plant herself in front of Bucky, her hackles up, her bottle-brush tail swishing. “Is there a problem?” asked Steve. “I just called the cops.”
The strangers laughed. “Don’t trouble yourself, kid,” said Rumlow. “We’re just moving in.”
Someday Steve would be thirty, and people would still be calling him kid. “Your room’s taken,” said Bucky in a flat, deadly voice.
“What, 403?” said Rumlow. “That old dump? Nah, I’m up on the thirteenth floor now.”
The building’s heartbeat pounded away in the walls, a frenetic battle-hymn. Bucky was rigid as a scarecrow, his jaw clenched, his metal arm whirring and hissing like Radio. “There—is—no—thirteenth—floor.”
“Sure there is,” said Rumlow. “Count them.” He slapped Bucky on the back, like they’d known each other all their lives, and started to step past him to the elevator. “Guess we’re neighbours again, eh, Barnes?”
Steve kicked him in the crotch. It was a brutal roundhouse kick he’d learnt in middle school, when his ma had made him go for self-defence classes, and he’d had ample opportunity to practice it since. He did it coolly, unthinkingly, the way he made art, the way he never did magic. The onlookers drew a collective intake of breath. Rumlow howled. “Motherfuck!”
He staggered back. Two of his cronies caught him before he hit the ground. The third swung a punch at Steve. Steve side-stepped, putting his fists up, but he didn’t have to. Bucky caught the man’s wrist in his metal hand and squeezed, and the guy fell back in a torrent of curses, Radio raking bloody lines all down his trouser leg. “We’re here by right!” he screamed. “You can’t do this!”
Steve looked past them, into the crowd of his neighbours. He saw Sam near the lobby door with what appeared to be an actual falcon on his arm; Sharon with a revolver in each hand, and a large spider on her shoulder. Clint had pulled out a bow from somewhere, and wisps of shimmering red mist were swirling around Wanda’s hands. Riff-raff, Pierce had called them. Probably it was true. But they were the Night Light’s riff-raff, and they were going to fight for it with all they had.
Bucky was looking, too. His shoulders sagged. “Stand down.”
Steve hadn’t expected this. He spun and rounded on Bucky. “Are you fucking kidding me?”
Rumlow was smiling: an oily, toothy smile. “Can’t get rid of them this way,” said Bucky, his voice flatter than ever. “They’re not doing anything illegal.”
Radio seemed to see the sense in this. She retreated behind Bucky’s legs, curved like a Roman arch and spitting malevolence. Steve said, “If you think we’re just gonna stand by and let this fucking circus into our building—”
“Steve,” said Bucky. He looked exhausted. “Please.”
Thump, thump, thump went the walls, a slow and laborious dirge. Steve had always assumed Bucky was the same age as him, or maybe Sam, but he saw he was wrong. Bucky’s hollow-eyed stare belonged to someone who had seen a hundred years and felt every single one of them. It was not a look that invited argument.
Slowly, Steve put his fists down. The movement rippled across the room like an echo. Sharon holstered her revolvers, looking disappointed. Wanda’s red mists evaporated. Clint lowered his bow, and called, “Have fun in your fucking penthouse.”
The quartet pushed past Bucky and Steve, their hydra suitcases in tow. The elevator doors shut on them with a jittery whir. Radio sponged herself on top of Steve’s left foot, as if to keep him from following. Steve barely noticed. He was trembling with rage, and his vision had gone out of focus, so that Bucky blurred around the edges into a multitude of sad-eyed, soft-jacketed men. “Are you happy now?” said Steve. “Fond of the new neighbours?”
“Don’t Steve me,” said Steve. They’d outnumbered the strangers ten to one. They could have taken them down. And yet they’d all done what Bucky had said and stood down, even Steve. He couldn’t believe it. “Who do they think they are? What right do they have to tack on new floors to our building and move in like they own the place?”
Bucky stuffed his hands deep into his pockets and hunched over, hiding his face in his hair. “Maybe they do. You don’t know.”
The lobby had gone deadly quiet. Steve struggled to breathe. It was true, really. He didn’t know the first thing about the Night Light. What was it, really? A building that took in trash like Rumlow, and dumped tenants out in the city with nothing but the clothes on their backs whenever it felt like it? They would have fought for it, but it wouldn’t have fought for them.
He wrenched his foot free of Radio. “I’ll think better of standing up for you next time.”
Bucky didn’t answer. Steve shoved back through the crowd and out onto the sidewalk, found the fire escape, and crashed up the rickety metal stairs to his floor, making sure to rattle the steps with every stomp. He would have punched a wall too, if he thought the building would feel it.
Neither Bucky nor Radio emerged from their room for the rest of the day.
The door at the end of the fourth-floor hallway stayed shut, and everyone who came looking for help with math homework and gunshot wounds and other such domestic crises had to make do with Steve instead. Natasha knocked on Bucky’s door sometime after lunch; then, when it failed to open, took her spider form and scuttled in under it. She came out ten minutes later, looking thoughtful but relieved.
“Is he all right?” asked Steve. He was studying at the kitchen table again—going back to campus after that morning’s close shave felt like tempting fate—and he had arrived at that stage of procrastination where he went over every single thing he’d said and done in the last twenty-five years and felt paralysing guilt over each of them. He might also have been genuinely sorry for snapping at Bucky, but he didn’t want to think about that.
“I think so,” said Natasha. “Or he will be.”
She meandered around the kitchen, looking into cupboards, rearranging pots and pans. Steve was starting to learn her tells. “Are you okay?”
The clattering stopped. Natasha looked up, startled. “Yeah.”
“Where’d you wind up today?”
He wouldn’t ordinarily have asked, but the tenants of the Night Light compared space-time warps like kids compared bruises, and by now half the building knew about his run-in with the College Board. Natasha’s mouth made a wry contour. “Believe it or not,” she said, “it was a ballet studio.”
“Huh,” said Steve.
“It’s not so bad,” said Natasha. “Clint usually ends up in a dumpster.”
Steve tended to take statements like it’s not so bad with a grain of salt. It took one to know one, after all. But Natasha’s tone made it clear she was entertaining no follow-up questions. He stared moodily at the pages of Numerology while she checked the fridge, then the oven, then the microwave. “Look at that,” she said. “He really forgot to cook this time. Victory is yours, Rogers.”
He didn’t laugh. Neither did she.
Sharon came by a few minutes later, and after a brief whispered discussion Natasha left with her—probably to eat out, possibly to kill someone. Steve was glad when Sam came back from a truncated shift at the aviary with his yellow canary and a pile of takeout boxes. “Hey, Steve, you think Barnes will eat if I leave food outside his door and pretend it’s for Radio? You’ve got mail again, by the way.”
“Seriously?” said Steve. He shoved Sam a ten for the food (Sam never tried to give him things for free, part of the reason why he was Steve’s best friend) and stared at the proffered envelope in disgust. BOSTON WIZARDING UNIVERSITY, it proclaimed, and then, S. Rogers, 339B Bleecker Street. He got as far as We are sorry to inform you before he ripped up both the letter and the envelope into halves, then quarters, then eighths. “I’m positive there was no mail van. I’ve been here since this morning. How the hell do these things get here?”
Sam pressed the heels of his palms against his eyes. “You gotta learn to let things go, man.”
Steve shut Numerology with a bang. “Look,” he said. “Something’s not right about this building. I’m not just talking about the space-time stuff. The thirteenth floor? Those dickwads this morning? And we don’t even know who owns the place, or brings the mail, or how anything works at all with no landlord to run it. You can’t tell me you haven’t wondered.”
“Of course I’ve wondered,” said Sam into his hands. “I’ve lived here longer than you. I know it’s shady. I’ve lived shadier places, is the thing.”
“So have I,” said Steve. “And they all obeyed the laws of physics most of the time. I don’t think that’s a lot to ask.”
They gazed at the cartons of noodles and wontons, but made no move to unpack them. Steve had no appetite. All he could think of was Pierce saying, “Ah, that place,” the same way one might have said, I have some bad news about your mother, or, A WSAT score of how much again?—like you knew something the other person didn’t, like you were in on a dirty secret and struggling with armloads of tact and diplomacy you couldn’t quite handle. Steve was sick to his stomach of tact. He wanted the truth.
After a long moment, Sam sighed. “You gonna start looking at listings, then? I thought you liked living next door to me.”
He looked so crestfallen that Steve forgot to be angry. “Of course I do," he said. "Sam, I love it. I like seeing you every day. I like Natasha, and Radio, and—” He had to flail a bit. He wasn't so sure about Bucky. "—And everyone else. I wouldn’t go back to sleeping in the college library if you paid me. I just need some answers.”
“You and the rest of the world,” Sam muttered.
But he seemed relieved, and really, that was all Steve needed not to pack his bags and walk out the door that very evening. “Here’s what’s gonna happen,” he said. “I’ll skip class tomorrow and do some research. I’ll see if I can find out who owns the Night Light, maybe even contact the landlord. And I’m gonna get up at like four a.m. and stake out the mailboxes. The post can’t walk in on its own.”
“At four,” Sam repeated. He shook his head. “Steve, remind me never to get on your bad side.”
Steve scowled. “I don’t have a bad side.”
“Nah,” said Sam, though he did crack a smile. “You’re all bad.”
At 0345 hours on the dot, Steve rolled out of bed and hit the floor. He slithered to the kitchen in a blanket cocoon, made a pot of coffee, and drank most of it straight off under Radio’s disapproving stare. Then he got out Smart Spells to keep him company, and dragged himself downstairs to start his vigil.
He couldn’t believe he was doing this. He hadn’t gotten up this early since he was six and make-believing he was a soldier in World War Two.
He had the hazy idea that whatever brought the mail was a shy and savage creature, and wouldn’t show itself if it knew it was being watched. Instead of setting up camp in the lobby, he climbed to the first bend of the fire escape just below the second floor, where he could see the bank of mailboxes through the lobby window while keeping an eye on the road. He was freezing, but there was no conceivable way the mail-creature could evade him like this. It was a clever bit of strategic thinking, given that he was only thirty percent awake.
He took a fortifying gulp of coffee, and cracked open his workbook.
He was still on Unit 3: The Finding Spell, the same page he’d been stuck on all week. The questions were so stupid—things like, Code a spell to locate the nearest bathroom, and, Code a spell to pinpoint the strongest source of WiFi in your immediate surroundings (50m radius). Wizards were so pretentious, Steve thought. What was wrong with just walking around and following signs, like normal people? Or, heaven forfend, asking for directions?
Question 5(d) looked interesting, though. Compose a spell to recover something lost. It also had an enticingly broad margin for doodling. Steve drew Sam as he had been on the eve of his deployment to Iraq: a proud young Wingleader with tawny falcon wings, twisting and looping across a deep blue sky. He drew the Nataspider in vivid reds and greys, sleek and small and dangerous, lying in wait at the heart of an intricate cobweb. He didn’t know what Bucky had lost, but he drew him happy anyway, holding a tray of cupcakes with his science apron on and his hair up in its little bun.
The fire escape creaked. Steve jumped, banged his elbow on the metal rail, and slammed the book shut.
As Murphy would have had it, it was Bucky. He stood three steps above Steve, bundled into his usual hoodie with Radio’s head and front paws protruding above the zipper. God only knew how long he had been standing there. “What are you doing?”
He was probably referring to Steve sitting out on the fire escape at four in the morning, not doodling bishounen-style portraits of him in his spells workbook like a creep. He hadn’t been close enough to make out the drawings. He better not have been, because that would have necessitated Steve’s immediate evacuation of the solar system. “Lying in wait,” said Steve. “I want to see who brings the mail.”
Bucky stuck out his lower lip. “Your fingers are turning blue.”
Steve looked at his hands. They were indeed an interesting shade of midnight blue around the nail and cuticle, somewhere between lapis and berry. He hadn’t noticed. “Wow.”
Radio gave a soft incredulous growl. The stair creaked again, as Bucky shifted his weight from foot to foot. The noise came together with the building’s heartbeat in a syncopated rhythm, creak-thump, creak-thump. Steve could hear Bucky thinking. “What?”
“I think this is where I’m supposed to give you my jacket,” said Bucky. “But then my arm will get cold.”
Steve raised his eyes to heaven and prayed to his mother’s saints for temperance. “Also I’m still mad at you.”
“Also you’re still mad at me,” said Bucky gloomily.
Steve thought he was going away, presumably to bake his feelings into thirty thousand bite-sized cupcakes or something, but instead he came farther down the stairs and sat down next to Steve. He was not a small man, and the fire escape was not wide. Steve wondered if there was a spell for preventing cardiac arrest. “What are you doing?”
“Huddling for warmth,” said Bucky. “Penguins do that.” Then he added, as if it explained everything, “Sam made me watch a documentary once.”
This late at night, he didn’t smell like sugar and baking. There was a good clean scent to him—a mix of shampoo and cologne and fresh sheets, underlaid by something sharper, like heated metal. Clearly Steve’s prayer had gone unanswered. He stared, silenced by disbelief, while Radio oozed out of Bucky’s hoodie and set about applying her claws to the hems of Steve’s jeans. “Why does it matter who brings the mail?” asked Bucky.
“Why wouldn’t it matter?”
“Good Lord,” said Bucky. “You were the kind of kid who stayed up all night on Christmas Eve to ambush Santa, weren’t you?”
“Only once,” said Steve. “Because I wanted to yell at him for not getting gifts for the sick kids at the hospital. Then I was disillusioned forever when I ripped off his beard and found he was just boring old Mr. Sharpe from down the street.”
Bucky rubbed his eyes. “This explains so much about you.”
“Oh, are we getting to know each other now?” said Steve. The more he looked at the cuddly shape of Bucky beside him, the more combative he felt. “Why don’t you tell me where you went this morning? When the building disappeared?”
“Bullshit,” said Steve. “Everybody goes somewhere. Sam told me how it works. The Night Light drops out of existence now and then and you get warped to wherever you’d be if you weren’t living here.”
“I don’t go anywhere,” said Bucky. His hand was still over his eyes. “I just—go.”
Steve had learnt, from talking to Natasha, to recognise the ring of finality when he heard it. He abandoned that line of questioning. The building breathed and sighed around them, settling in for the coldest part of the night; and presently Bucky lifted his head. In the orange glow of the streetlights, his lashes cast long, feathery shadows over the high curve of his cheekbones, and the bow of his lips was a sweet soft pink. Steve found himself longing for his pastels.
A new mystery added itself to his list of unanswered questions: how it would feel to trace the arch of Bucky’s mouth with his own, to rasp his fingers across Bucky’s jawline and tangle them in his hair.
He shook himself. “Those people yesterday,” he said. “Who were they?”
Radio made a grumpy noise and sank her claws into Steve’s left boot. Bucky sighed. “Will you leave it alone if I ask you to?”
“Only if you can convince me that no one’s in danger,” said Steve. “And I don’t think you can.”
“I can’t,” Bucky admitted.
He was watching Steve watch him. With a heroic effort, Steve collected his thoughts and rallied his muscle groups and moved his gaze to his feet, where Radio was trying and failing to add claw-patterns to the leather of his magicked boots. “That man Rumlow,” he began. “It looked like you knew him. Did he—was he—”
He wrestled with the vagaries of syntax and semantics. The night had gone thick and treacly, the air between them hard to breathe. “Did he hurt you,” he said at last.
Bucky thought about this for a moment. “Not in the way you’re thinking.”
“I’d fight him,” said Steve. “If he did.”
The words slipped out of his mouth, brash and thoughtless. “You already fought him,” said Bucky.
“I’d fight him again.”
Bucky’s bow mouth did not smile, but the rest of his face did. Fine crinkles gathered around the corners of his eyes, and in the half-light between streetlamp and shadow, he looked young and shy and uncertain. “You’re just being nice.”
“Nah,” said Steve. “I’m still mad at you.”
Time dilation was a curious thing. In hindsight it felt as if the night went still and hung between them for a single invulnerable moment, suspended like a frozen raindrop, like a teetering vase in the instant before it started to fall. Steve could have done anything, and he did not know what he was going to do. Schrödinger’s kiss: it might have happened, or it might not; right up till the second Radio interrupted them with a sudden yowl, and leapt to the bottom of the fire escape.
They both jumped to their feet. The cat poured to the ground via a complex series of pipes and loose bricks, and streaked along the sidewalk to the front of the building. Steve stared. There was a strange falling sensation in the bottom of his stomach, as if he’d missed a step on the stairs. “Is it the mail?”
In the same odd flat voice from this morning, Bucky said, “No.”
He was right. When they got down to ground level and followed Radio round the building, there was a black van idling at the front door. The window were tinted, the engine tuned to a low purr hardly louder than Bucky’s arm. It was most certainly not a mail van. Radio snarled, her tail a furious question mark. Steve took a step towards the van, but whoever was inside must have realised they’d been spotted. The engine revved, and the van began to pull away.
Steve looked at Bucky, then at the row of cars parked outside the building. “Do you drive?”
The light that had come into Bucky’s face on the fire escape had left it again, and the crinkles around his eyes were worry lines this time. “No.”
“Watch and see where they turn at the junction,” said Steve. “I’m gonna go hotwire that Chevy.”
Bucky grabbed his arm. “Steve, no.”
The shock of the touch was the only thing that kept Steve from wriggling free. Bucky was holding his wrist; Bucky’s metal hand was curled around Steve’s forearm, and it was not cold, like Steve had imagined it would be. The plates were warmer than skin, thrumming with the whir of the powerful servos beneath. It was like touching the hood of a car whose engine had been running for a while. Steve’s brain shorted out for a second, long enough for Bucky and Radio to hustle him into the lobby between them. “Don’t do that,” said Bucky. “Don’t mess with them. Please.”
In a crystalline flash of insight, Steve understood. “You know who they are,” he said. “You know everything about this place, don’t you? Is Rumlow the one making the building disappear? Who the hell was in that van?”
“Something much worse than old Mr. Sharpe from down the street,” said Bucky. “Don’t give them a reason to hurt you too.”
“What do you mean, too?” said Steve. He tried to pull his wrist away, but Bucky’s metal fingers had no give in them at all. It reminded him of the time he’d got his hand stuck in a vending machine fighting it for a tube of Oreos it wouldn’t give up, only this time there was far more at stake than a dollar fifty. “Answer me.”
“Fine,” said Bucky. His cheeks were suffused with high colour, his eyes wide and rabbit-bright. “You want answers? I’ll give you one. We don’t have a landlord because the last one’s dead. He’s been dead for years. You wanna know why?”
Steve said nothing. “They killed him,” said Bucky. “He asked too many questions. He got in the way. So they chased him across the city and blew up his car and shot him dead. That’s why.”
Steve let him finish. Then he held up his arm, the one stuck in Bucky’s hand, and gave him a heavy look. Bucky mirrored it back, his jaw set. Thumpthumpthumpthumpthump went the heartbeat in the walls. A pipe gurgled, and a light buzzed, and the strained silence prolonged itself; until at last Bucky looked away first, and let go of Steve with a whir. People always looked away first, so long as you stood your ground.
“You don’t frighten me,” said Steve. “I stand by what I said. I’ll fight the lot of them. I’ll fight you too if you try and stop me.”
Bucky didn’t move, his eyes downcast. Radio gave a small, sad meep. Steve left them standing there and stalked back up the fire escape to where he’d left his books. He had the sense of having won a fierce, joyless triumph, a Pyrrhic victory, and the night seemed that much colder and longer now that he was alone in it.
He waited and waited, while the stars changed and the sky revolved the hours away; but the mail did not make an appearance, and neither did Bucky.
“He nearly forgot to cook again,” said Natasha. “What the hell did you do?”
This was what Steve had done. He’d studied—or doodled—for hours, and worked on his commissions, and played Candy Crush on his phone until he ran out of lives, and then taken to stomping up and down the fire escape in a futile effort to stay awake, until Clint threw open his window and yelled at him to go away. Steve had finally gone back inside around seven, defeated. Then he’d run into Bucky making omelettes in the kitchen, so he’d had no choice but to stand at the fridge and ostentatiously shovel granola into his face for five solid minutes before he could go back to sleep. It had been a trying morning.
“Nothing,” said Steve. “I did nothing. Don’t get sauce on my bedspread.”
Natasha nudged his sketchbooks aside to sit at the foot of his bed, balancing her plate on her lap. Lunch, it seemed, was spaghetti and meatballs. The smell of tomato sauce invaded the room. “Did you eat granola for breakfast and lunch?” she asked. “Seriously, that might be the second meanest thing anyone’s done to him.”
Steve didn’t ask what the top meanest thing was. “He’s a coward,” he said loudly, to mask the growl of his stomach. “I don’t have patience for cowards.”
“I thought we were talking about food,” said Natasha. “But I promise you, he is not. Don’t mistake gentleness for cowardice.” She leaned over to look at his workbook. “Ooh, did you try the heart’s desire spell again?”
Steve had, in fact, given the spell another shot. This was because his recent success with the shoes seemed to indicate that he had more magical ability than he’d thought; but also because his memories of last night on the fire escape had mixed and muddied, coalescing in the melting-pot of his confused morning dreams in such a way as to leave no doubt where the spell should have pointed. His heart’s desire was nothing so abstract as the college or the hospital; it was something much earthier than that, and much more selfish. But the spell hadn’t worked any better this time, and that was just as well.
“Oh, well,” said Natasha. She bounced up off the bed again. “Are you sure you don’t want any spaghetti? Not even a single meatball?”
“No, thank you,” said Steve. “I don’t want Bucky’s meatballs.”
He played back what he’d just said, uttered a horror-stricken groan, and rolled off the edge of the mattress to flop face first on the floor. Natasha cackled all the way back to her own room.
Steve was not thwarted for long. The next day, he ditched class again—just like a real delinquent, he thought with a thrill—and set out to put the next part of his plan in motion.
Since Bucky refused to tell him anything about the Night Light, he was going to have to find out for himself. Google informed him that the other residential buildings in their neighbourhood—luxury condominiums for the most part—were owned either by Stark Industries, or a firm called AP Real Estate. Steve had never heard of the latter; but about the former, he knew more than he’d ever wanted to. And since the Night Light elevator was Stark tech, he figured that was as good a place as any to begin.
It was a long time since he’d visited Stark Tower. Steve had known Tony Stark in high school, when the latter had been a precocious little shit chiefly occupied with blowing things up in his advanced science classes and seducing every girl in the school. Steve hadn’t been at all surprised to learn that he’d earned his first degree at the age of seventeen and now co-headed an enormous weapons manufacturing conglomerate, on top of owning a frankly unethical amount of real estate across five continents. He didn’t have Tony’s number, or any other means of contacting him. The entirety of his plan consisted of showing up at the Tower, corralling the first person who looked like they worked there, and demanding to see the Chief Engineer.
This, like so many things in Steve’s life, proved more difficult than he anticipated.
The front hall of the Tower was a masterpiece of what he’d heard referred to as solarpunk, all soaring walls swarming with leafy green plants and floor-to-ceiling windows that let in air and light. People in office clothes were scurrying to and fro past the leaping fountain in the middle of the hall, clutching tiny paper cups of coffee and shaking hands with each other and saying things like, I’ll have my people call your people. The lady at the front desk was politely incredulous when Steve went up to her. “I’m sorry? You want to see who?”
“Mr. Stark,” said Steve. “I’m, uh, an old school friend of his. The name’s Rogers.”
“Then you’re aware that Mr. Stark is not currently entertaining visitors? Not even shareholders?”
“I’m not a shareholder,” said Steve. Then he realised this was probably the wrong thing to say. It was strange, how difficult it was to speak to receptionists and wait staff when he’d been both those things himself. “It’s personal. And important. I only need five minutes.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” said the lady with a vague smile. She turned back to her computer and proceeded to do absolutely nothing.
Fair enough, thought Steve. Plan B, then.
He found a vending machine and got himself one of those thimble-sized cups of coffee, in order to show the corporate hordes that he was One of Them and meant no harm. Probably he should have worn something other than ripped jeans and an old paint-flecked shirt that said FUCK THE ESTABLISHMENT—maybe a suit jacket and lanyard, like how zoologists who worked with pandas put on panda suits?—but it was too late now. He sat down by the fountain, got out his sketchbook, and began to draw.
He drew Tony as he remembered him: a short gawky kid with glasses and a mop of intractable dark hair, in a Science Club shirt and jeans that were too long for him. Then he stared at the picture and wished. It was harder than summoning shoes. His mind seemed to come up against something and get stuck—something slippery and viscous and elusive, like a membrane, and he knew it was space-time resisting his efforts to rearrange it. Reality was a stubborn thing, his mother used to say. It took its own course. Lost shoes wanted to stay lost, bodies wanted to break down, time wanted to happen just the once. Bending the world to your wishes took strength, like wrestling an angry bull. That was why most people couldn’t do magic.
Steve was still pushing, wondering if it would help to draw Tony taller, or better-dressed, or on fire, when there was a shout that rang through the hall. Someone plopped down next to him. “Steve Rogers! Steve, my man! Am I hallucinating or are you really here?”
Steve looked up. The angry bull had given way. Tony looked exactly like he did in the drawing, except older and without glasses, and in a black tank top instead of the Science Club shirt. Something bright and round gleamed through the front of it. Steve was pleased to note that the receptionist was staring at them, looking mortified. “I’m really here,” he said.
“I can’t believe it,” said Tony. “I was in the middle of taking my workshop apart to invent a new element, as one does—don’t ask, it’s the longest, saddest story ever told—when suddenly I got the urge to drop everything and go downstairs to exercise my flesh prison for a bit, and who do I find but the Wizard Wannabe? Did you finally get into college? How’s the magic going?”
Steve’s triumph was rapidly segueing into horror at the realisation that he had, in essence, just summoned a person the way an evil wizard might summon a demon. Or maybe it was just the usual baseline horror he always felt when confronted with Tony Stark. “I didn’t,” he said flatly. “And it’s not going. How many days have you gone without sleep this time?”
“Three? Four? Seven? Who’s counting? How’ve you been? Go a whole year without calling your high school BFF even once, do you?”
They had not, in fact, been BFFs. Most of the time Steve was not even sure they were friends. They had just been thrown together a lot, being the two biggest misfits in their school: Tony, the prepubescent prodigy three years younger than everyone else, who had blown up the physics lab seven times in freshman year alone and knew more about everything than any of the teachers; and Steve, who was sick two days out of every school week and spent the other three in detention or remedial classes. They had nothing in common, except having even less in common with the rest of the student body. Somehow they’d made it through high school without killing each other, which Tony seemed to think made them friends for life. Maybe it did.
Tony was still chattering, unfazed by Steve’s reticence. “Did you fall off the face of the earth or something? Where do you live now? I’ve been trying to find you on Facebook but you don’t seem to have one, which, fair, who even still uses Facebook anyway, but do you not have any social media at all? Twitter? Speaking of which, are you still dating that bird guy?”
Steve threw back the rest of his horrible coffee in a single gulp. Given time and sufficient alcohol he could have explained the vagaries of his relationship with Sam in a witty, concise, and minimally revelatory way, but he had neither. “I have Twitter. Also Tumblr. And I still live in Brooklyn, like I always have. You ever hear of a place called the Night Light?”
“The Night Light?” said Tony. “You live there? Are you shitting me?”
Steve opened his mouth to say something rude, but Tony was already three sentences ahead. “I stayed there for a while when I was recovering from a heart surgery I didn’t tell my girlfriend about—no, really, don’t ask—but holy shit, dumpster bros. Which floor?”
Steve blinked slowly at him, like Radio. This was a lot to take in. “Fourth,” he said. “Heart surgery?”
Tony whooped. “Perfect square bros! I was on the ninth.”
He brandished his hand for a high-five. Steve obliged him, just to get it out of his face. “Seriously. Heart surgery?”
“Oh, you know,” said Tony, with a breezy wave at the glowing thing in his chest. “The rock n’ roll life takes its toll, even on the young and the glamorous. Do I detect a hint of concern, Rogers? A note of regret? A glimmer of guilt that I could’ve died and you wouldn’t even have known?”
“The whole world would have known,” said Steve. “It would’ve been all over the news. Also the tabloids. Probably live-tweeted.”
Tony gave a shit-eating grin. He really hadn't changed at all. “True."
“Why were you at the Night Light?” asked Steve. “Why not, I dunno, the Ritz-Carlton or something?”
Tony shrugged. “It’s supposed to be magic, right? My dad used to say it had healing properties. He stayed there back in the seventies when some evil scientist put a radiation curse on him, and he was cured in like a week. Pretty sure he was making that up, though. I was laid up a whole summer and I felt like death the whole time.”
Cautiously, Steve said, “Does Stark Industries own the building?”
“No clue,” said Tony. “Hang on, lemme check.”
He pulled out a tablet and did something that made a holographic screen pop up in front of them. Evidently this was a common enough occurrence in the front hall of Stark Tower that nobody stared. “Did it do the disappearing thing while you were there?” asked Steve.
“Hmm?” said Tony. “Oh, yeah, once. I was off life support by then, thank goodness.” He typed rapidly. Lines of text poured over the screen. “Nope, we don’t own it. That’s annoying.”
“So who does?”
He typed some more, and a street view of the Night Light appeared on screen. Steve felt a funny twist in his chest at the sight of it—the familiar grime-streaked, rain-shrouded walls, the rusty fire escape, the tesselation of bright windows. Home; or the closest thing he’d had to home since he’d sold the Bleecker Street place, at any rate. It was as if a piece had been taken out of his heart and projected on the hologram for all to see. “There we go,” said Tony. “The Night Light, residential building, pre-war, pre-Depression, 2,070 square feet total land area, holy shit, that’s the size of my rooftop pool. I hope you know I’m hacking into a real estate database to look this up for you.”
Evidently he still remembered that it was faster to read things out to Steve than to wait for him to wrangle letters and numbers into submission. Steve found that touching and insulting in equal measure. “Are you? I’m glad you’re being so discreet about it.”
Tony took the hint, and shrunk the hologram screen by an inch. “Built in the 1920s, maybe as early as 1917, but it doesn’t say by whom. It was run by a couple called Carter and Martinelli—oh, hey, that’s Aunt Peg and her GF, that must be how Dad met them—and then they retired to California in the eighties and handed the management to one Fury, N. J. That’s the last known owner of the property.”
Steve sat up. “Can you find their contact details?”
A Google search page came up. Tony frowned. “Might have to call in the Long Island Medium for that, Stevey. He was killed in 2014.”
So it was true, thought Steve. The last landlord had been killed. “But who owns it now? Someone has to, right?”
“It doesn’t say,” said Tony. “I bet that’s pissing off every property developer in town. That’s a prime plot of land, you know. A few years back we lost a bidding war with, I think it was a company called AP something, for the site just across the street from you. Pepper’s still not over it.”
“That’s one of those fancy condos,” said Steve.
“Yeah,” said Tony, making a lemon face. “At least the Night Light’s still there, being an eyesore and lowering the property value of the whole street. God, I love that place.”
He vanished the hologram with a flick of his hand. Steve stared at the spot in the air where the picture of the Night Light had been, feeling cold to the stomach. He imagined a developer buying over the land, turning them out with a demolitions crew, and an edgy new condo springing up where his building had once stood. The back of his throat was bitter with bile. “Do me a favour, Tony,” he said. “If the Night Light ever goes on sale, grab it before anyone else can.”
“Yeah, duh,” said Tony. “What do you think we’ve been trying to do? And, uh—”
He shuffled his feet, looking unsure for the first time. “I know it’s not the most reliable place to stay. So, just saying, if you ever need somewhere else to crash, I have four whole guest floors no one ever uses. Just FYI.”
Steve bit back his instinctive rude answer. Tony had helped him for nothing, despite looking like he just needed to lie down and sleep for a week, and he hadn’t even asked why Steve needed to know. That was in part because Tony was a scientist and understood curiosity for curiosity’s sake, but Steve knew it was also because Tony was, on occasion, a far more generous friend than he deserved. “I’ll keep that in mind,” he said.
Tony rattled off his number for Steve to save, and then, after a further moment of foot-shuffling, leaned over and hugged him. Steve was not a hugger, but the occasion seemed to merit it. He took pleasure in making himself as pointy and elbow-y as possible, and then slithered loose and gathered up his things to go.
As he headed to the exit, he had a fleeting glimpse of Tony checking his own reflection in the sliding glass doors, and heard him say, “Wow, where’d my eyebags go? I look about seventeen.”
Steve glanced into his sketchbook. Sure enough, he’d forgotten to do eyebags, and most of the worry lines. He had to smile.
Stepping out onto the sidewalk, Steve was dazzled for a moment. There was something about all that glass and concrete in Midtown, the bright billboards and the multiplicity of reflecting windows, that always made the sun seem ten times brighter than usual. Lost in thought, with his hand up to shield his eyes, he didn’t see the group of execs until they were right on top of him.
There were four of them. They formed a kaleidoscope of trousers and ties, pencil skirts and white cotton shirts, all immaculate, all indistinguishable. “Good afternoon,” said one of them, a woman with her hair slicked into a severe bun; or maybe it was the man who looked like he trimmed his moustache with a ruler. Steve couldn’t tell any of them apart. They shared a strange overlapping place in his mind, like two ends of the same snake. “Mr. Steve Rogers, sir? Do you have a minute to spare?”
It was a purely academic question, since they were already surrounding him like a pack of sharks. Steve shifted his weight to his toes. “Yes?”
The moustached man smiled, or maybe it was the woman with the badly bleached curls. It was a very broad, shiny smile. “If you’ll just come with us, our employer would like to have a word with you.”
“I just saw him,” said Steve. “If Tony wants something, he can call me.”
The smiles widened. “We do not work for Tony Stark,” said the woman, or maybe it was the man with the blackheads on his nose.
Steve was losing his patience. It was sweltering, and he longed to be home, safe in the rainy gloom of the Night Light. “Who’s your boss then?”
The blackhead man—or maybe it was the slicked-bun woman—pressed a business card into his hands. There was no name or contact information on it, only a vector drawing of a grey cityscape, and beneath that, the words AP REAL ESTATE.
Steve’s heart skipped a beat. He said, “Take me there now.”
The suits were already in motion. Moving as a single entity, they flowed around Steve, jostling him to the edge of the sidewalk where a black van with tinted windows was idling at the curb. It was the same one he and Bucky had seen outside the Night Light the day before. “Step this way, Mr. Steve Rogers,” the quartet chorused.
Steve wished they would call him either Steve or Mr. Rogers, not both. He got into the van, and wondered if he would ever get out again.
They purred away from the curb. At first Steve glued himself to the window, trying to keep track of where they were, but the driver circled round and doubled back so much that he soon got confused. He kept thinking he saw familiar landmarks, the Empire State and the MoMA, but juxtaposed against parts of Manhattan he didn’t think he’d ever seen before. That couldn’t be possible; he’d lived in New York City all his life. He got out his phone to send Sam a quick in-case-you-don’t-hear-from-me text, only to find he had no network signal.
He eyed the execs, wondering if they had done something to his phone. “Where are we going?”
They smiled at him indulgently, and busied themselves on their laptops. Steve felt small and gnat-like. He shut up.
They had been driving for God knew how long—thirty minutes? forty-five? Steve’s phone claimed ten, another improbability—when the van pulled up outside a tall office tower. It was so sleek and sharp-angled, it looked more or less two-dimensional. Steve didn’t recognise the avenue they were on, or any of the other skyscrapers along it. It was empty of people as far as he could see, and the only other vehicles on the road were black vans like their own. The quartet whisked him out onto the sidewalk with their shiny smiles. “This way, Mr. Steve Rogers.”
Steve remembered the unknown Fury, N. J., murdered for asking too many questions, and his limbs went leaden. But there was no chance of getting away now. He let himself be swept through the sliding doors and into a front hall, just as devoid of people as the street outside. It could have been a showroom for all he knew: spotless white walls, a spotless white floor, glass armchairs, glass side-tables, glass vases with glass roses in them. The only painting on the wall appeared to be of a single white square. “What’s this place?”
No one answered him. The execs ushered him into the elevator. One of them hit the tiny glass button for the 99th floor, and they went up.
They got out into a lobby with teak wall-panelling and a plush red carpet. The execs shepherded Steve across it, and through a door with a glass plaque that read SENIOR DIRECTOR. Steve didn’t have time to read the name on it before he was swept through into the office beyond, and the quartet chorused, “Here he is, sir.”
Steve’s first impression was of immense, annihilating wealth. Most of the room was taken up by an enormous mahogany desk with two paper-thin computer monitors on it, and the high walls were lined with heavy-laden bookcases. A number of unidentifiable golden instruments orbited each other in mid-air above the desk, thrumming with magical energy. In the far corner of the room was a small square of glass Steve recognised as a Morgan’s cube, a kind of wizard safe protected by powerful wards and locking curses. This one didn’t seem to contain anything valuable, only an old tattered book with a bright red cover and a black star on the front.
In the midst of it all, Alexander Pierce stood smiling down at Steve, his hand outstretched to shake. “Mr. Rogers! Or should I say, Mr. Hodge?”
It appeared that Steve was not, after all, going to be taken out to a dark alley and shot. After the initial rush of relief, he remembered that he owed Pierce a rather large favour. He was also conscious that he had been snatched off the sidewalk, put in the back of a strange van and driven around in circles, exactly like a kidnap victim. He couldn’t quite return the warm smile, but neither could he ignore the outstretched hand. He shook it. “Steve will do,” he said. “I didn’t know you were the AP in AP Real Estate.”
Pierce laughed. The quartet had gone out, leaving them alone together. “Ah, well, I’m a bit of a busybody. Got to have a hand in every dish. Property is my life’s work, but I’ve been on the College Board ever since my daughter matriculated. Can’t look at condos and malls all day long, you know? Care for a glass of wine?”
“No, thank you,” said Steve. “You wanted to see me?”
“I wanted,” said Pierce, “to be the first to congratulate you. Take a seat, Steve.”
Baffled, Steve perched himself on one of the glass squiggles that passed for an armchair. Pierce sat too, and slid a thick white envelope across the desk. It had Steve’s name on the front but no address, and the crossed sceptres of the NYWC in the corner. “Go on,” said Pierce. “Open it.”
Steve did. The first page was a letter. It took even longer than usual to read it with Pierce watching him, but he knew at once what he was looking at. He could smell the words. They said:
Dear Mr. Rogers,
We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted for admission to the New York Wizarding College with effect from the Fall Semester of AY 2017/18. Your high school record and WSAT scores are outstanding, and we have the further pleasure of offering you an academic scholarship valued at $60,000 ($15,000 annually)—
Steve stopped reading. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to go on. His eyes just sort of glazed over. There was so much to take in—brochures about on-campus accommodation options, itineraries for freshman orientation, an endless succession of matriculation forms to fill in. Something small and hard fell out of the envelope while he was shuffling through the papers, and he looked down to find a student ID card lying in his lap. This one had his real name and photo on it, and Class of 2021 under the matriculation number.
Steve put everything back in the envelope the way he had found it. He sealed it again and put it on the desk between him and Pierce. His heart was pulsing erratically, and his face felt hot and cold. So Pierce had known he wasn’t really a student. “Sir,” he said.
He stopped, and swallowed. He was standing at the edge of an abyss whose murky depths could only be bridged by careful words. “I know my high school record. I know my WSAT scores. So I realise what a task it must have been for you to contrive this.”
Pierce’s smile was warm and kindly. “You’re very modest.”
Steve wasn’t, at all. He knew this too. “I don’t want to be ungrateful,” he said, “but I need to know the conditions of this offer.”
“Conditions?” said Pierce, like it was a dirty word. He looked taken aback. “I assure you, Steve, I don’t want your money. Quite the contrary. In fact, I’d like to offer you a job.”
Steve said nothing. He was not sure he could have spoken if he tried. The admission papers were exerting a pull on him, dragging his gaze towards them whether he wanted to look or not. Seven years of futility, of filling in the same applications over and over again like Sisyphus on his hill, and all the rejection slips he’d saved would still have made a smaller pile than this envelope.
“I recall,” said Pierce, “you live in a place called the Night Light?”
Steve’s gaze shot up. Belatedly, he saw what all this was about. “You’re trying to buy it.”
Pierce’s look of surprise lasted only a fraction of a second. “Ah,” he said. “But of course, you went to see my dear friend Mr. Stark this morning, so you know all about that. See, young Tony and I are having a friendly bidding war over that particular street—though of course, I am more than able to outbid him in an open sale. The trouble is, the owner of the Night Light is not selling.”
Steve was finding it hard to concentrate. It was very hot in the room, and his attention had been sinking down to the envelope on the desk again. Its gravity was almost planetary. “You know who the owner is?”
“I do,” said Pierce. “If you agree to take up my commission, I’ll tell you who it is. Your job would be to convince this person to sell.”
“And what makes you think they’ll listen to me?”
“You live there,” said Pierce. “You have an inroad I don’t have. When you speak up about the living conditions there, people will listen.”
Steve wrenched his gaze up for the third time. “What are you talking about?”
He did not altogether succeed at matching Pierce’s tone of corporate gentilesse. Pierce heard it too. He sighed. “It’s not a pleasant thing to talk about, but I think I can be frank with you. The Night Light was built a hundred years ago as a halfway house of sorts, a place of healing and safety for those who needed it most. Orphans, single mothers, the sick and the elderly…”
“Curse victims,” Steve added, thinking about Tony’s story.
“Yes,” said Pierce. “There was a time when the building was safe and clean and well-maintained, when people could go to sleep at night without having to worry where they’d be when they woke up in the morning.”
He gave Steve a meaningful look. “It’s fallen a long way, as you’ve seen. Much of the healing magic has leached out of the building, frittered away by poor planning and inept management. The last owner—I’m sorry to say—was an irresponsible man with a large network of criminal contacts and singularly poor judgement, who had no compunctions about filling the place with tenants as shady as he was—”
“Excuse me,” said Steve.
Pierce leaned back in his swivel chair, his hands relaxed on the armrests. “Don’t be offended, Steve. You know your neighbours better than I do. I need not name names. There is, I believe, a very dangerous spider shapeshifter who takes the form of a young woman, though she’s a lot older than she looks. Did she ever mention that she was a KGB experiment? That she was used by her former employers to spy on suspected traitors and political dissidents in Soviet Russia? Did she tell you how many children she stung to death in their cradles?”
Steve’s protest died in his throat. He remembered Natasha pacing the narrow aisles of their kitchen, her voice low, her face turned away. I was bred to kill. Pierce wasn’t done yet. “How about the teenage witch who nearly destroyed her home country of Sokovia when her brother was killed?” he asked. “The rampaging giant who rips a swath of destruction across town every few months or so? The exiled godling who brought on us the Chitauri invasion of 2012, and who is singularly responsible for most of the freak weather conditions on the East Coast to boot?”
Steve unstuck his tongue from the roof of his mouth. “Stop.”
Pierce’s eyes were sharp but compassionate, the same pellucid grey as window-glass. “The Night Light can be restored,” he said. “But it’ll take a strong hand to do that. I plan to transform that rat trap into the safest, most luxurious wellness retreat you can imagine, and when you graduate I’ll turn the management of the place over to you. I don’t think there could be anyone more qualified to run it than the son of the great healer S—”
“I said,” said Steve, “shut up.”
The office grew still with a poisonous silence. Steve could hear the harsh rasp of breath in his own lungs, feel the weight of Pierce’s stare like an iron band around his chest. He didn’t think anything in the world could have stopped him from picking up his glass chair and smashing it over Pierce’s head if he’d dared utter his mother’s name.
“I think, sir,” said Steve at length, “there’s a critical flaw in your plan.”
His voice had struck a note of glacial calm it had never found before. “Those people you mentioned are my neighbours. My friends. I can see how we might lower the resale value of those ugly condos on our street, but I assure you, we have no complaints about each other. If you want to bulldoze them out of their homes, you’ll have to bulldoze me first.”
Pierce looked aggrieved. “You misunderstand me,” he said. “I only meant—”
“I understand you perfectly well,” said Steve. “And I decline your offer. In fact, I’d burn the Night Light down before I see it fall into your hands.”
With a screech of chair legs, he got up to go. Pierce gazed at him, wearing a look of profound regret that might almost have been genuine. “I’m sorry to see you make such a rash decision,” he said. “I thought better of you than that—”
“I don’t care what you think of me,” said Steve.
“—but I’ll keep these papers with me,” said Pierce, picking up the NYWC envelope. “In case you change your mind.”
“I won’t,” said Steve. “Burn them.”
The quartet was ready for him when he shoved back through the office door. With the same smiling efficiency as before, they bundled him into the elevator, down to the front hall, and back onto the deserted sidewalk, where the black van was waiting. “Where shall we take you, Mr. Steve Rogers?” they chorused.
Steve was still so furious that the grey buildings that made up the skyline of this strange not-Manhattan swan and wavered like a mirage before his eyes. “I can show myself out.”
They smiled at him, four identical sets of bright bared teeth. “Trust us. You can’t.”
He didn’t want them anywhere near the Night Light, so he had no choice but to tell them to drop him off at the college instead. He might as well try and get some studying done. “Mr. Pierce will be in touch soon,” the quartet chirped, as they let him out in front of the college gates.
“Tell him where to shove it,” said Steve.
He still had the AP Real Estate business card in his pocket. He tore it in half and threw the pieces in the trash on his way inside. At least, he thought he did, but when he dug out his wallet to get a Coke from the soda machine near the cafeteria, he found he still had two AP cards on him. He tore those up and threw them away, too. But when he sat down at his usual desk in the library and dug out his pencils, he found both cards were still in his pocket, and two more besides.
Studying was a washout, as usual.
Steve got out Smart Spells and spent most of his time doodling a response to Question 11(e), Compose a spell to improve general health and wellbeing. He didn’t know how to draw health, but he drew Tony asleep in a proper bed, little ‘z’s and smiley faces circling his head to indicate restful sleep and sweet dreams, and a happy cartoon heart for good cardiac functioning. He must have overdone it, because the next thing he knew he was blinking awake in a blast of hot air that smelled like the inside of an apothecary, and one of the librarian-genies was ballooning over him. “Closing time!” it gusted. “Clear off! No students in here past midnight!”
Steve cleared off. It still felt bizarre, leaving campus at night with a real home waiting for him.
The storm tonight was impressive. Rain came down on the Night Light in twisting, writhing eddies, and the gale howled at the windows and moaned against the walls. Steve’s umbrella quailed and tried to fly away. He was so busy wrestling with it, rain streaming into his eyes like a violent baptism, that he didn’t hear the noise from the lobby until he was right at the door.
It was a metallic clacking—the sound of things being fed through slots, a great many of them; a sound Steve had heard many times before, but never here. He pushed the door open, and saw what it was.
It was the mail. There were envelopes and postcards and leaflets and parcels tied with twine, all cascading out of a huge sack onto the floor. The sharp corners of Radio’s clock form protruded from the top of the sack, churring Adele in sleepy bursts, and a soft-edged figure in a hoodie hummed along as he picked up letters and fed them through the mail slots. Clack, clack, clack. It was Bucky.
Steve didn’t stop to think. He launched himself forward. “It’s you! You’re the mail-creature!”
Bucky jumped. Envelopes went flying. A flash of lightning split the sky, illuminating his face in a split-second snapshot of panicky oversaturation. “Steve—”
“You didn’t say!” Steve shouted. It was a shout that had been building in him all day, from the moment he stepped into the crowded front hall of Stark Tower and found himself surrounded by minimalist décor and corporate mice. He seized Bucky by the hoodie and shook him, or tried to. It was like being Samson with his locks newly shorn. “I sat there watching for hours, and you knew what I was there for, and you didn’t say! The fuck, was it funny to you? Do you work for the new landlord? Are you the new landlord?”
Radio snarled, shifted into cat form, and sank her teeth into Steve’s leg. She had nipped him before, but this was a proper mauling. The sudden pain shook him out of his transport of rage. He swore, hopping on one foot, with hot blood oozing down his calf. “Stop it! Bad cat!”
“For shit’s sake, Radio,” said Bucky. “Don’t kill him.”
Radio detached herself from Steve’s leg and curled up just inside the mail sack, looking rumpled and martyred. “What the hell is wrong with her?” demanded Steve, out of breath. “She’s never done that before!”
“You’ve never yelled at me before,” Bucky pointed out, straightening his hoodie. “Also you smell weird.”
“Oh, wow, real mature—”
“It’s not that,” said Bucky. “Radio couldn’t sense you. And I couldn’t hear you, because of the rain. Or we wouldn’t have let you see.”
He looked down at the envelopes at their feet. With immense irritation, Steve saw that the closest one sported the letterhead of the Massachussetts Institute of Magical Studies, and S. G. Rogers, 339B Bleecker Street. “Oh,” he said. “I’m so sorry. In future I’ll herald myself with trumpets and stomp everywhere I go, so you’ll have time to pick up your guilty conscience and crawl off like a fucking cockroach—”
Lightning split the sky again. Thunder crashed. The lobby lights flickered, and half of them went out. “I do not,” said Bucky, “have a guilty conscience.”
He said it without anger, without malice, only as a statement of fact that needed no proving. He looked Steve up and down. “Someone planted something on you. Hand it over and I’ll tell you whatever you want.”
The next fuck-you was already taxiing to the tip of Steve’s tongue when it dawned on him that he knew exactly what Bucky was talking about. He put his hands in his pockets, first the front ones, then the back, systematically pulling out business cards. There were eight of them now. Bucky took them between thumb and forefinger, his nose wrinkled in distaste. “AP Real Estate,” he read. “Yes. That’s what it calls itself in public.”
He balled up the cards in his metal hand, made a sharp flicking motion, and threw them on the floor. They started to transform in mid-air. Steve caught a glimpse of whipping tentacles, and by the time the thing hit the floor he could discern a heaving red body and eight rearing heads, each with a mouth glistening with teeth. Radio hissed, and pounced.
It happened so fast Steve barely saw what happened. The cat sank her daggerpoint teeth deep into the creature’s gelatinous body. Her claws slashed, a clean perfect arc, severing all eight necks in a single stroke. The thing let out a shrill shriek and a belch of black smoke that smelled like sulphur. Lightning flashed. When the thunder rolled, it was dead.
Bucky let out a breath. His servos were whirring at such a fevered pitch it was almost a scream. “You have to cut off all the heads together. Or they regenerate.”
The creature was smoking away before their eyes. Wind howled through the open door, driving off the stench of sulphur and showering them both with fat droplets of rain. Radio prowled back into the mail sack, reassumed her clock form, and crackled out what was almost certainly the guitar line from We Are The Champions. “That’s right,” said Bucky. “Good cat.”
“Excellent cat,” agreed Steve. His legs felt shaky. He couldn’t decide if he wanted to punch something, or take a hot shower and stay in bed for the next five years or so. “What was that thing?”
“Trojan horse,” said Bucky. “They keep finding their way in here. Bobby pins, parking tickets, your goddamn IKEA screws. Business cards are a new one. Be careful what you bring home.”
Steve started to ask what it was for. Then he thought back to all he had seen that day, and realised he knew. “They—eat into the fabric of space-time, don’t they? Little assaults on reality, but they add up. That’s why the building keeps disappearing. Pierce wants the land for himself.”
Bucky gave a thin smile. “You mean the Hydra.” He gestured at the remains of the creature on the floor. Already rain was streaking across the tiles, washing it away to nothing. “It’s been making copies of itself for years. Sometimes it likes to wear a sharp suit and a human body and call itself Alexander Pierce, but there’s nothing human about it. Don’t be fooled.”
Steve watched the rainwater soak into the envelope that bore his name; watched the MIMS letterhead turn dark with moisture and disintegrate into pulp. His arms were goosebumped. “I met it today,” he said. “It said it knew who owned the Night Light. That’s you, isn’t it?”
Bucky laughed, low and savage. His eyes were shadowed with deep purple bags, and he looked ancient and careworn and exhausted. “Steve,” he said. “I am the Night Light.”
“All right,” said Steve. “Explain.”
He was sitting in his boxers on Bucky’s bed, daubing antiseptic on the Radio-shaped teeth marks in his calf. Bucky was hovering at his side, his arms folded across his chest, as if he had to physically prevent himself from trying to help. Ordinarily this would have been cause for acute embarrassment, but Steve had so much on his mind that there was no room left over for awkward feelings. He had achieved a state of intense, aggressive calm.
Bucky’s eyes were transfixed to Steve’s gouged-up leg. “I don’t know where to start,” he said wretchedly.
“Decide now,” said Steve. “I’ll wait.”
He had never been inside unit 404 before. It was as tidy as his own room, with none of the compulsive clutter of Natasha’s or the amiable disorder of Sam’s. There was no secret oven. The only thing out of the ordinary was the array of newspaper clippings pinned behind the door, some recent, others yellow and crumbling. AP Real Estate acquires five local property firms, one said. Man killed in violent car chase across Lower East Side, proclaimed another. That one went on to say, The victim has been identified as one Nicholas Fury, 65, owner and manager of a Brooklyn hostel known as the Night Light.
“Winifred Barnes,” said Bucky at last, apropos of nothing. “She was the architect witch who built me. My maker. My—mother.”
Steve fastened a bandage across his calf, but made no answer. It was hard to speak. The smell of gauze and surgical tape always reminded him of his own mother.
After a brief hesitation, Bucky came and sat on the bed next to him. “She cast so much strong magic on me that it gave me a soul. You know what they say about old buildings having a personality? The Night Light’s seen a lot. Wars, recessions, 9/11, the Chitauri invasion… other things that don’t make the news. I didn’t always manifest as a human, but I was always sentient.”
“Why ‘Bucky’?” asked Steve.
The question seemed to surprise him. “Buchanan Heights,” he said. “That was my original name. I wasn’t called the Night Light until the late thirties. A power outage hit Brooklyn and I was the only one whose lights stayed on, and the name kind of stuck.”
He paused. Radio climbed into his lap and shifted to her clock form, humming old-school Fall Out Boy in a tuneless, desultory way. “I like the name,” Bucky added, a tad defensively. “It’s like a superhero alias.”
Steve liked it, too. He didn’t want to say so. “I thought you were a tenant. If I hadn’t seen you bringing in the mail—which, by the way, how do you even do that—”
“I summon it,” said Bucky. “Most mail trucks can’t find this place. It’s easier to do it myself. Doesn’t matter where the mail’s addressed to; as long as it’s got a tenant’s name on it, I can reach it.”
“You could’ve said something.”
Bucky did his retracting trick. His hair was down, and shaggier than usual, so he could retract very far indeed. “I know,” he said. “I’ve been hunted a long time. Secrecy becomes a habit.”
He stared at his feet. Their knees were half an inch from touching, and Steve could feel the warmth of Bucky’s metal arm through the thin cotton of their shirts. He thought he should probably put his jeans back on, but they were draped over the back of Bucky’s chair as if they belonged there, and he didn’t want to draw attention to them. “Most of the others don’t know,” said Bucky. “Natasha does. Wanda. Probably Thor. I think Pizza Dog heard it from Radio the first week Clint was here.”
“Speaking of Radio,” said Steve pointedly.
“Oh,” said Bucky, glancing at the purring clock in his lap. “She was Peggy Carter’s familiar. That was two landlords ago. Miss Peg knew the Hydra had its eye on the Night Light even then, so she put a piece of her soul into Radio and left her to guard the place when she retired.”
Radio gave a happy squeak of static. Steve eyed the bandage on his leg, and thought Peggy Carter was not a person he would have liked to cross. “How old is the Hydra even? That must’ve been decades ago.”
“It’s ancient,” said Bucky. “As old as the city. All that greed and filth and prejudice has to go somewhere. It sluices off into the sewers, into the river, but it doesn’t wash away. It grows and grows and every year it gets hungrier.”
He looked down at his hands, folded on Radio’s small dusty form. “It’s been trying to get in since Winifred’s time. All the magic here, it’s a prize too great for it to resist. I’ve been fighting it off, but the attacks have grown fiercer and more focused ever since it found out I was the soul of the building. I don’t know how much longer I can hold out.”
So that was where the Night Light’s magic had gone, Steve thought. All that healing, nurturing power, channeled instead into a brutal fight to stay free. It made his sinuses ache to think about it. “How’d they find out?”
Bucky sighed. “My own fault. A—spy—infiltrated the building and I didn’t realise until it was too late. They blew up the place—”
“It wasn’t a big deal,” said Bucky hastily. “No one was killed. And Tony Stark was living here at the time, so we even got a brand new elevator out of the mix. But it was pretty hard to hide the fact that me and the building, you know, came out of it with matching injuries.”
Steve remembered the oddly modern elevator, and the smooth whirring hum it made when it rose and descended. Abruptly, he realised what it had always reminded him of. “Your arm.”
Bucky grinned—bitter, but not without pride. He tapped his metal hand with his flesh forefinger. “Sweet, isn’t it? I have Stark to thank for that, too. That kid’s a wonder. Casually invents a world-class prosthetic from his sickbed while recovering from his own near-death experience, no big. Anyway, it was all over once they knew who to go for. The spy broke into my room, stole the deed to the property while I was laid up in hospital. Pierce has it now.”
“There’s a deed?” said Steve.
“’Course there is,” said Bucky. “Nick gave it to me for safekeeping when he realised he was in danger.” He nodded up at the news clippings on the wall. “There was a time when I could’ve lifted everyone’s curses within a week of their moving in, fed them, healed them, found them their goddamn shoes. Now I can’t even stop them from murdering my fucking landlord.”
His voice was hollow, his face in such deep shadow that Steve could hardly see his eyes. At some point Steve’s knee had come to rest against Bucky’s without him noticing. It would be awkward to move it away now, so he let it stay put, conscious of his pasty skin, his knobby ankle, the size of Bucky’s thigh next to his. Was the Night Light’s magic all gone yet? He didn’t think so. He’d loved art ever since he was old enough to hold a pencil, but none of his drawings had come to life until he moved in here.
“This deed,” he said at last. “Does it by any chance look like a red book with a black star on the cover?”
Bucky’s eyes narrowed. He shook the hair out of his face. “Yes.”
“And it’s the reason we can’t get rid of Rumlow?”
“Yeah.” Bucky’s lip twisted. “He’s lived here on and off for the past year and not even Radio can dislodge him. I tried to keep him out by making sure all the units were full, but apparently the Hydra can just manifest extra floors now.”
Steve tried not to think about Rumlow living in 403, so close to Bucky. It made him sick. “So we gotta get the deed back,” he said. “I know where Pierce keeps it. I just saw it today. If we can sneak into his office somehow—it’s in Manhattan, but not our Manhattan, I don’t think—”
Bucky retracted all the way into his hair and put his face in his hands with a groan. “See, this is why I didn’t want to tell you. I knew you’d try something stupid and get yourself killed. Sam too, he’s just as bad.”
This was ludicrous. Steve wasn’t stupid, he just did what needed doing. And it wasn’t Sam’s fault he was so brave, braver than anyone else Steve had ever known. “Do you have a better idea?”
“It’s not worth it,” said Bucky into his hands. “The Night Light’s sunk too far. I’ve been thinking it might be safer just to sell. Find new places for you guys, put one last curse on the property, dare Pierce to make something out of it if he can.”
“Are you shitting me?” said Steve. He heard, with a wince, his own voice growing loud and sharp, but couldn’t make himself do anything about it. “What the hell would happen to you?”
Bucky shrugged. “I guess,” he said, “we’ll just have to find out.”
Steve’s temper had been growing progressively more slippery all evening. Now he lost his grip on it altogether. “We’re not a bunch of stray puppies you can rehome when it gets inconvenient,” he said. “And you’re not a thing to be bought and sold. For fuck’s sake, they stole the deed to your—your soul. Doesn’t that bother you at all?”
“Feelings have nothing to do with it,” said Bucky. “I—”
For the second time that night, Steve grabbed hold of his sleeves and shook him. Radio gave a protesting guitar screech, shifted into a cat, and hopped out of Bucky’s lap to seek refuge in the mail sack again. “Bucky. Look at me.”
It took a moment, but Bucky did. His eyes were wide and wary. Steve thought about the spiel Pierce had given him, about his bribes and promises, and felt a kind of effervescent rage bubble through him. If the Night Light had fallen from glory, it was the Hydra’s doing, not Bucky’s. “I’ll get the deed back,” he said. “I won’t let them hurt you.”
“Don’t sell,” said Steve. “I don’t want to live anywhere else. Promise me.”
Bucky inhaled, and exhaled. So did the walls of the room. Their faces were inches apart. Steve felt he was seeing him properly for the first time: a Baroque sculpture of a man, neither young nor old; timeless, monumental, all vivid lines and expressive shadows. “I promise,” said Bucky.
Steve leaned in and kissed him. It felt like the most natural thing, the only honourable thing to do, a solemn sealing of a vow. He slid one hand into Bucky’s hair, and rested the other on the jean-clad thigh that had been distracting him for the last few minutes. He hadn’t kissed anyone in a long time. But in a way, he had kissed Bucky every day since they’d met, in dream and in fantasy; and his body remembered its training. Bucky tasted like butterscotch, like shortbread, like all the good things he baked for them. His stubble left a delicious burn in its wake when it scraped across Steve’s chin, but elsewhere—his ears, his cheekbones, his flesh hand, everywhere Steve touched him—his skin was smooth as a baby’s, and just as vulnerable.
Bucky’s mouth was red when they pulled apart—red and glistening, like his eyes. Steve cupped his face between his hands and thumbed his tears away. “It’s going to be all right.”
Bucky said, softly, “You make it so easy to believe.”
The rain slowed to a rhythmic drumming in the hour before dawn. Steve sat squashed against the narrow headboard, watching as Bucky slept curled up on his side, clutching Steve’s leg like a bolster in his arms. It felt like a privilege to see him like this—not in motion, not taking care of anybody, but being taken care of for once. Steve slipped his hand around the nape of his neck to cradle the pulse there, feeling out the Morse code of its tender declarations. When he pressed his ear to the wall, he could hear Bucky’s heartbeat there, too.
He glanced at the nightstand. Beneath the Moleskine journal, the National Geographics, the cookbooks and a paperback titled Quantum Physics for Poets, there was a crumpled sheet of scrap paper Steve thought he recognised. Gently, he eased it out for a better look. It was one of the doodles he’d done the day he’d summoned Pietro’s shoes: a Bucky bust smiling out of the page in three-quarters profile, a circlet of forget-me-nots vined around his tousled head.
Steve put it back. He stared out the window at the rain, surrounded by the soft sounds of Bucky’s life weaving itself through the walls; and breathed and breathed until the fluster of butterfly wings in his stomach calmed. It was still there, but harder now—a cool, quiet resolve that he would protect Bucky for as long as he lived, a sentiment no less strong for its sweetness.
“Wait, what?” said Sam. “Bucky’s the building?”
Steve explained while they mucked out the penguin enclosure in the aviary, and Sam made furious interjections at appropriate points. “Pierce offered you what?” and then, outraged, “They’re trying to buy Bucky?” and then, resigned, “That explains why Radio chewed up half my junk mail the other time.”
“I know,” said Steve. He leaned on his mop, his spine popping. Cleaning was hard work. “We gotta do something.”
They’d run into Rumlow and his friends in the elevator that morning, and it made them uneasy enough that Steve had walked Sam to the bus shelter. Then he’d just wound up going along to the aviary, since it gave him an excuse to miss Relativity seminar. Given his present state of mind, he would probably have teleported himself to the late Cretaceous by mistake, or straight up deleted himself from existence. “Can’t you summon the deed the way you did that kid’s shoes?” asked Sam. “You know what it looks like, right?”
“Yeah, but it’s in a Morgan’s cube,” said Steve. “One of the high-end ones. There’s no way I’ll get it through all those wards.”
Sam scratched absently at his wing-stumps through his multiple layers of fleece. It was below zero in the enclosure, and the stench of guano and fish was overpowering. “So we gotta invade a corporate wasteland and find some other way to get the deed back,” he said. “Hey, you guys up for that?”
The penguins honked and flapped. They were the small kind, about knee-high, huddled politely in the far corner of the enclosure while Steve and Sam sloshed around with pails and mops. One of them skrilled loudly at them. “Shut up, Susan,” said Sam. “I’m a grown-ass man, I’ll be as reckless as I want.”
The penguin squawked again. “Yeah, yeah,” said Sam. “I promise I won’t summon you anywhere unless there’s AC. What’s up with you and Bucko anyway, Steve?”
Steve thought about the gentle comma of Bucky’s body curled around his leg, and the fuzzy, half-disbelieving smile that had spread over his face when he woke to find Steve still there. “Nothing,” he said, and his brain went, Nothing yet. “Do you think I could draw you back your wings? I’ve been doodling you with them a lot lately.”
“If you can do that,” said Sam, “you’re a greater wizard than all the avian specialists in the Air Force put together. It was a physical injury, not a magical one. You can’t just lift it like a curse. Also, don’t think I didn’t notice you changing the subject.”
“Huh,” said Steve. “Worth a shot.” He eyed the lumpy shapes in the back of Sam’s parka, and filed the thought away for another time. He couldn’t research avian physiology, safebreaking and property law all at the same time. “I guess I better get going for Numerology.”
“Is that the one with the cranky ex-military professor?” asked Sam. “Man, you must really hate school if cleaning out a penguin enclosure is your idea of procrastination.”
“I don’t hate school,” said Steve at once.
“Sure you don’t,” said Sam.
Steve didn’t have a rebuttal to that, and Sam didn’t press the point, not till they finished the last of the mopping and let themselves out of the enclosure with their mops. “You know,” said Sam, while they were stripping off their fleece layers in the changing room, “you’re doing that thing I used to do. When I first lost my wings, and I was trying to convince myself I didn’t hate walking on my feet like—well, like a penguin.”
Steve dumped his parka into Sam’s locker. He still smelled like dead fish and wet plumage. “I haven’t lost anything,” he said. “Don’t compare us.”
“Hard not to,” said Sam. “We’ve been friends so long, sometimes I forget which parts of me I got from you and vice versa.” He shut his locker with a decisive clang. “All I gotta say is, don’t go to fucking Numerology just ‘cause you think your mom would’ve wanted you to.”
This was why fights with Sam were the worst. He said things that made Steve feel like there were toothpicks stuck under his fingernails, and he was usually right. “Sam, I don’t wanna argue.”
“Oh, that’s a first.”
Steve knocked a pile of mops onto him. He wasn’t mad, not really, but he couldn’t think about this now. “All right,” said Sam. “You don’t want to talk about your manly feelings, I get it. But don’t forget you were the one who made me get off my ass and take care of myself when I first got back, and I promised to return the favour.”
“You’re returning it all right,” said Steve sourly. “Why don’t you go for a waddle with Susan, and I’ll go to Numerology, and we can go on talking about our manly feelings tonight.”
“Your funeral,” said Sam, but he didn’t sound mad either, just tired. “Don’t forget to leave your answers to the third decimal place.”
Steve gave him the finger, waved goodbye to the penguins, and headed out to the subway station to get on the J train to campus. He didn’t hate school, he thought. He loved it. Or maybe it was the constant thrill of rulebreaking that he loved, the feeling that he was getting away with something huge, but that was close enough. He was going to tell Sam so, as soon as he got home that night.
As it turned out, though, he didn’t get home that night. Neither did Sam, or any of them.
Numerology wasn’t so bad that day. Phillips had the wizard flu and gave an entirely theoretical lecture from an armchair his TA conjured for him, stopping every so often to wheeze into a handkerchief. “The number four,” he said, “has the singular misfortune of being a homonym for the word ‘death’ in Korean, Japanese, and many dialects of Chinese. It is considered deeply unlucky in many East Asian cultures, like the number thirteen in Judeo-Christian belief—so unlucky it’s often omitted entirely from street addresses.”
Most of the class was half asleep, but Steve was on fire, scrawling notes as fast as he could go in the semi-pictographic shorthand he’d invented for this purpose. This was interesting stuff, and more importantly, required him to do no math at all. “Many older buildings in Hong Kong, for instance, omit the fourth floor entirely,” said Phillips. He surveyed the seminar room. “Can anyone name me an advantage and a disadvantage of this practice?”
Dead silence. The kid on Steve’s left was snoring gently. The one on his right was levitating a bit of paper to the girl across the aisle. Steve wished Phillips would just tell them the answer and get on with it. He wanted to hear the rest of the lecture. “Anyone?” said Phillips plaintively.
Steve sighed, and put his hand up. He might as well. “Advantage. It reduces the risk of hauntings, like having your tonsils out to prevent infection. Disadvantage. If a supernatural entity is strong enough, it could always manifest the missing floor and haunt it anyway.”
One or two students looked around, surprised to hear an unfamiliar voice this late in the semester. Phillips blinked at Steve. “Correct,” he said. “Very good, Mr. Hodgers.”
Steve figured he deserved that. Phillips clearly remembered the last time he’d seen Steve, but he didn’t look like he was going to call campus police and have him thrown out of class either. Emboldened, Steve raised his hand again. “Can you get rid of a phantom floor with a standard cleanse-and-sweep exorcism? Would that harm the building?”
Phillips stared at him for a prolonged moment. “As with any exorcism, the root of the haunting must be dealt with first. No use banishing a ghost if, say, the bones of the dead person are still on the premises.”
“But if the root is external?” Steve persisted. “Like, uh, a real estate warlock trying to buy over the building by force?”
A titter rippled across the room. The other students were stirring from their private stupors, roused by this talk of hauntings and exorcisms. Phillips conjured up a new handkerchief, and took his time blowing his nose into it. “In that case,” he said, “that warlock must first be eliminated. A standard exorcism would be useless since the fault doesn’t lie in the building itself. But that, as you surely know, is beyond the scope of an undergraduate course.”
Steve didn’t push the subject. But later, when the bell went and he was filing out of the seminar room with the rest of the class, Phillips motioned for him to stay. “You know your stuff,” he said. “I’ll give you that. You’re hopeless at spellcasting, but you understand the theory.”
Of course he understood the goddamn theory, Steve thought. His mom had been teaching it to him since he was five. “Thank you, sir.”
But Phillips did not dismiss him. He sat back in his armchair and squinted up at Steve, as if he’d smelled something bad and was trying to pinpoint its source. It must have been the penguins, Steve thought sadly. And they’d been getting along so nicely for once. “Is that your workbook?” asked Phillips, nodding to the copy of Smart Spells under Steve’s arm. “Let me see.”
Reluctantly, Steve handed the book over. He’d answered maybe one question out of every ten, and incorrectly at that, but Phillips didn’t seem to be interested in his badly composed spells. He held the book at arm’s length and peered over his glasses at the doodles in the margins. “Did you draw these?”
Steve spotted a potato-shaped Bucky chibi under the header of Unit 4: The Divining Spell. He wished the ground would open up and swallow him whole. “I—yeah.”
Phillips made a thoughtful platypus noise, and blew his nose some more. “I see now why your spells don’t work,” he said. “Aside from your complete inability to add, or to close your brackets, it’s like trying to make a double bass play high C.”
“That must be it,” said Steve coldly. “Thank you, sir.”
He held out his hand for his book, but still Phillips did not relinquish it. “If you don’t mind,” he said, “I’d like to borrow this for a few days to show it to a colleague—a Professor Erskine, you wouldn’t know him, he teaches Symbology over at the Queens Institute of Visual Magic. He’ll be fascinated. These runes are so powerful I could sense them all the way across the room.”
Steve’s hand fell limply to his side. A familiar heat was rising to his cheeks. “I just—they’re not—they’re just doodles.”
“Are they?” asked Phillips dryly. “This one”—he tapped on a Bucky with hairband and apron, an angelic closed-eyed smile on his face—“looks like he’s going to step off the page and bury me alive in cinnamon rolls. I suggest you transfer to an art school and get some proper training before you accidentally rearrange the planets or start the apocalypse with a ‘doodle’.”
Steve felt as if the planets had been rearranged. Mars and Venus had switched places, Pluto was unionising the dwarf planets, and Jupiter was taking its moons on a field trip to Alpha Centauri. He thought of what Sam had said this morning, of the growing stack of rejection letters he kept in his room like a squirrel’s hoard. He could do magic. Why had he been so eager to prove he couldn’t? Because then his conscience would leave him no choice but to be a healer like his mother, and he didn’t want to?
Phillips was scrawling something on a Post-It. “Here,” he said. The note read, A Brief History of Runic and Visual Magic, and what looked like a library call number beneath. “Get the genies to dig this up for you. It’s an audiobook, so it shouldn’t give you trouble. And close your mouth before I fill it with frogs.”
Steve did so, and then realised he had to open it again to speak. “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
“Move along, then,” said Phillips, not unkindly.
Steve fled, clutching the Post-It in his fist. He wondered what Sam was going to say; what his mother would have thought. One way or another, he was pleased to leave Smart Spells behind.
Visual spells, it seemed, worked in much the same way as traditional spells. You drew pictures or symbols and channeled energy into them, and the enchantment took effect. Not all magic users could do it. You had to be able to draw, and draw well. It could be time-consuming, and often counterintuitive, and so over the centuries fewer and fewer wizarding schools had bothered to teach it, until the practice had almost died out altogether. It had a long history, though. Da Vinci had been a famous visual enchanter. So had Caravaggio, Artemisia Gentileschi, and—for some reason—most of the Cubists.
Steve scrawled half-legible notes. He drew charts. He listened to the audiobook twice through, and was starting on a third listen when a violet cloud of genie descended on him in a puff of perfumed smoke. “Closing time!” it billowed. “Pack up! Clear off!”
It was the same librarian who’d driven him off the night before. Steve was almost sure of it. He recognised those cumulonimbus puffs. “It’s not midnight yet,” he protested.
“Idiot boy!” howled the genie. “It’s Friday! Closes at eleven! Clear off!”
Trying to borrow the book with Gilmore Hodge’s student ID was probably pushing his luck. Steve put it back on its shelf, and resolved to come back first thing Monday morning.
Past the library doors the building was quiet, and the spiral stairs that led to the ground floor were in shadow. Steve started down, lost in thought. This changed everything. Now he would need to research the Queens Institute of Whatever on top of everything else. If he were allowed to draw spells instead of code them, he might not hate studying magic so much. Did he hate it? Maybe Sam was right. Maybe he’d draw a garden of roses and sunflowers for Bucky when he got home. Did the Night Light have room for a garden? On the rooftop, perhaps? But surely all that rain couldn’t be good for plants.
His feet hurt. He was still on the stairs, even though the library was only on the second floor. He’d also thought, for some bizarre reason, that he was going down to the campus bus stop, but of course he was ascending, dragging heavy feet up to the library. The genies must have left by now. He could break in, crawl into his sleeping bag at last. It’d been a long day. What had he even been thinking about? Flowers, gardens—a man with dark hair and kissable lips, and eyes like the sea?
It was absurd. He must have been very tired, or very lonely, if he was making up handsome strangers in his head.
The genies were gone, the library empty. Steve tiptoed past the locked doors, found his way to the window with the broken latch, and slid it open, the way he’d done every night since January. Then he eased himself through, and reached behind the shelf of dictionaries for his sleeping bag.
Instead he got a handful of something small, fat and grey. The thing sank sabre-sharp teeth into the meat of his palm and clung on, growling like a pack of tigers. Steve practically levitated. He staggered into the nearest shelf with a crash, and only just managed to stifle his shout. The creature let go of him and dropped to the floor, its spiky tail straight up in the air. “Radio!” hissed Steve. “The fuck are you doing here?”
The corollary of that thought came back to him. The fuck was he doing here? Radio shifted into clock form, her LEDs flashing the time. 23:56. That couldn’t be right. Steve couldn’t have been climbing the stairs for a whole hour. Then the digits shifted before his eyes, and became letters: BUCKY.
Steve swore. He understood now. The Night Light had vanished again, taking his memories with it. For an instant, his world had shrunk once more to the alcove behind the shelf of dictionaries: a world where he did not live next door to Sam, where he had never met Natasha, or kissed Bucky. “Bucky,” he said, seized by a sudden surge of panic. “Is he—”
There was a soft pop, like a cork sliding out of a bottle, and the smell of apothecaries filled the air. “Trespasser!” gusted a familiar voice. “Idiot boy! Bad boy! Know it’s you!”
A wisp of bright purple smoke was rushing up through the aisles towards him, its balloon arms raised, its mouth open to pronounce a curse. It was his genie nemesis again. “Sorry!” yelled Steve. “I’m just going!”
He stuffed Radio into his book bag, hurled himself out the window, and ran. More bottle-corks popped. The shelves rattled, and purple faces swirled out of the darkness of the library to peer at him through the dark windows. He pelted desperately down the hallway to the stairs. A revelation was coalescing at the back of his mind: he could never come back here again. The librarians knew him now. In a minute or two they would probably find his sleeping bag and report him to campus police. If Pierce managed to buy over the Night Light, Steve would be well and truly homeless.
He didn’t stop running until he reached the bus stop and flung himself aboard the bus that was just pulling away. His nose made a strange musical whistle every time he inhaled, and he could hardly breathe for the stitch in his side. He was about to have an asthma attack. Or a heart attack. Or both. “Bucky,” he gasped, pulling Radio out of his bag. “Did something happen? Is he okay?”
Radio emitted a screech of static, so loud that everyone on the bus winced and covered their ears. BUCKY, screamed the clock display. The bright green letters cycled quickly, like a crazed marquee: BUCKY PIERCE HYDRA PIERCE BUCKY STEVE STEVE STEVE HELP.
“Goddamnit,” said Steve.
When he alighted from the bus, he thought at first he’d gotten down at the wrong stop.
He’d had to use his inhaler. His legs felt like soggy cotton wool, and his head seemed to be stuffed with the same substance. Rain was blowing down the sidewalk at a vicious slantwise angle, beating against his cheeks, blurring the glossy, colourless shapes of the condos down the street. A crowd was gathered on the pavement under a motley assortment of umbrellas. Construction hoarding had been put up along the sidewalk, around the perimeter of what should have been the Night Light, and a bright green sign read:
HYDRA HEIGHTS: UNDER CONSTRUCTION
a new luxury condominium
brought to you by
AP REAL ESTATE
estimated date of completion:
we apologise for the inconvenience ☺
Above the hoarding, there was nothing but sky. The Night Light was gone. It hadn’t been torn down. It was just—not there.
He promised, Steve thought. There was no room for anything else in his mind. He promised me he wouldn’t sell. He was expanding, rarifying, his atoms losing their grip on each other. He couldn’t feel the ground beneath his feet, and his head was floating away, high as the sky. “What the fuck,” he said. “What the fuck is this.”
“Steve,” said a voice. “Steve, hey, come back.”
It was Sam. Using his voice as an anchor, Steve managed to float a little way back to himself. He looked out at the crowd, at the familiar, worried faces of his neighbours. In the orange incandescence cast by the streetlights, the sea of umbrellas looked eerie, enchanted: each one a floating dome, like the roof of a fairytale castle. Sam was at his side, in an electric yellow raincoat that made him look like Piyo Piyo. Sharon was holding an umbrella over Natasha, who was soaked through, and Bruce was sharing his tarp with Wanda and Clint. Some way off, Thor stood under the worst of the rain with his hair plastered to his face, Pizza Dog splashing in circles around him. There was no sign of Rumlow and his friends.
In a weird, high-pitched voice he did not recognise, Steve heard himself say, “Where’s Bucky.”
No one knew. They looked at him, then at each other. “I think they took him,” said Natasha at last. She was oddly pale, and against the pallour of her cheeks, her hair looked redder than blood. “One moment we were having supper in the kitchen, and then—”
She shrugged, brusque and off-handed. “Ballet studio.”
Steve sneezed. Then he sneezed again, and again. He had started to shiver. “Shit,” said Wanda. “Here, sorry, I wasn’t thinking.”
She did something with her hands, and all at once the rain stopped beating down on Steve. He looked at himself. His clothes were dry, as dry as they had been on the bus. The rain was still sheeting down, but as far as he could see, the droplets hit an invisible barrier an inch or so from his skin and bounced off to the ground without touching him. The air felt several degrees warmer. “Oh,” he said. “Thanks.”
Cautiously, the others lowered their umbrellas. Sam shrugged out of his raincoat, and Radio shifted into a cat and poked her head out of Steve’s bag. “You’re a wizard, aren’t you?” said Clint. “Can’t you, I dunno, summon him?”
Now that he was warm, Steve found he could think clearly again. “Not if Pierce has holding spells on him,” he said. “I don’t think he can just walk out of wherever they’ve put him.”
“We’ll find him, whatever it takes,” said Bruce. “Deep breaths, everyone.”
Steve breathed. In the wake of the adrenaline, a preternatural calm had descended on him. He could feel his feet on the ground again, and his heartbeat was rapid but steady. The street around him had gone very bright and clear, and very far away, as though he were looking at it through the wrong end of a telescope. Thoughts arrived in his head one at a time, in a calm and orderly fashion. “We have to go to the AP Real Estate headquarters. That’s where they’ll have taken him.”
“Okay, but first we gotta do something about all these people,” said Sam. “They can’t stand here all night. Hey, does everyone have somewhere to crash? A friend to call?”
Most of them looked dubious. Steve remembered what Bucky had said, that no one would live in the Night Light if they had anywhere else to go. Another slow, crystalline thought plopped into his head, as if he had summoned it with magic. “Hang on,” he said. “I know where they can crash.”
He dialled Tony. It was one a.m., still early for an insomniac. The phone rang and rang into a crackly silence, while Steve stared unseeingly at the sign on the plywood hoarding and wondered where Tony was. Probably busy in his workshop, juggling microscopic black holes or inventing a flying bike or something. Most likely he wasn’t going to answer.
But he did. There was an enormous yawn, and a bleary voice said, “Fuck you, Rogers.”
Steve’s brows shot up. “Wait, you were sleeping? Who are you and what have you done with Tony Stark?”
“Ha,” said Tony. “Ha. Ha. Ha.” He yawned again. “I actually got sleepy at eleven? So I went to bed and fell asleep, like, immediately? This is a symptom of brain damage, right? If you weren’t such a shit wizard I’d accuse you of putting a curse on me.”
Steve remembered his sleepy doodles in Smart Spells, and almost cracked a grin. “Or maybe you’re finally taking the first step towards adulthood,” he said. “So you know how I only ever get in touch when I want something?”
Tony groaned. “Oh my god, what is it now.”
“Well,” said Steve. “Currently I’m standing on the sidewalk with forty homeless people and a dog.”
“Okay, firstly,” said Tony, “that is a sentence only you could ever say. Secondly, on a scale from that angry chihuahua that nearly mauled me in freshman year to Cheddar from Brooklyn Nine-Nine, how cute is the dog? Oh, and thirdly, is the building doing the thing again?”
“That should probably have been at the top of your list,” said Steve. “I don’t know either of those dogs.”
“I just woke up from the soundest sleep of my life, give me a break,” said Tony. “You okay, though?”
“We’re, uh, having a worse building situation than usual,” Steve admitted. “But I know how to fix it. I just need somewhere for my neighbours to spend the night. I think you said something about having four empty guest floors the other day? And also about us being BFFs?”
“Oh, god,” said Tony. “Why are you always like this? Who did I piss off in a past life? That was a rhetorical question, I don’t hate myself enough to debate metaphysics with you at ass o’ clock in the morning. If you stop talking now I’ll get Jarvis to send a car.”
“A bus,” said Steve. He was going to have to draw good health and restful sleep for Tony for the rest of his life. He didn’t know how to say thank you, so he added, “Also I might need bail money.”
“Jarvis,” said Tony, “change his name on my phone to Midlife Crisis.” He paused. “Also bail him out of jail if he needs it, but only if he hangs up right the fuck now.”
“I’m hanging up,” said Steve. “Sweet dreams.”
Jarvis sent two buses. They were not the only vehicles that arrived. While the residents of the Night Light were piling on board, with Pizza Dog snoofing at their ankles and getting in the way, a tiny blue Volkswagen Beetle pulled up behind the second bus and honked once. “That’s me,” said Sharon, pulling open the passenger door. “I don’t know what you’re going to do, Steve, but good luck.”
Steve eyed the revolvers holstered at her waist. In the dark, he couldn’t see who was driving the Volkswagen. Everybody else had climbed aboard the buses by now, except Sam and Natasha, who—to nobody’s surprise—had arrived at some kind of unspoken agreement to stick with Steve. “You could come with us,” he said.
“I’d like to,” said Sharon. “I really would, but—”
An inscrutable look passed between her and Natasha. “She has something else to do,” said Nat with a tight, brave smile. “It’s all right, babe. See you on the other side.”
Sharon pecked her on the cheek, then got into the car. They all drove off, first the Volkswagen, then the two buses, taking the worst of the thunderclouds with them. Steve looked around at Sam and Natasha, and at the cat grumbling in his book bag. It would have been better if Sharon had come with them—it seemed important that they should be a quartet—but Radio would do for a fourth until they found Bucky. He checked his phone. 84% battery. Good.
“Okay,” he said. “Let’s do this.”
The first order of business was to find his heart’s desire.
He sat down on the rain-soaked curb and got out his phone. This time he didn’t bother with Natasha’s code. Instead, he pulled up QuickSketch and drew a big green arrow that filled the whole screen, like the one the original spell had conjured. He cupped his hands around his phone; thought about Bucky, curled warm and sweet around his legs; and watched as the arrow began to rotate.
This time there was no confusion, no listless hesitation. The arrow made a full turn, getting its bearings, and then settled down to point northwest. “Manhattan,” said Steve. “Or Hydra’s version of it, anyway. That’s where they’re keeping Bucky.”
Radio let out an impressed mrrp. “It didn’t work the first time because we were in the Night Light,” said Natasha, low and marvelling. “He was all around you.”
Steve wondered if he ought to be embarrassed. He might have been, if his heart’s desire had been anyone other than Bucky. “God, you guys are so cheesy,” said Sam. “What do they want with him anyway? If they can vanish the entire building, they don’t need him, right?”
Steve didn’t know. He looked at Natasha for help. She was more gaunt than ever, and there was a distinct deer-in-headlights quality to her eyes that he had never seen there before. It was like witnessing a rock face tremble. “The disappearances are just a side effect of the Hydra’s magical attacks,” said Natasha. “They’re only temporary. They have to make him sign over the deed or they can’t legally build anything on the land.”
“He won’t sign,” said Steve automatically.
Natasha gave him a fleeting look under her lashes. “They’re very persuasive.”
Steve glanced at Sam, uneasy. He didn’t want to ask what Natasha meant, or how she knew. They took in the sign on the plywood hoarding again, the empty street where the Night Light had once stood; and then Sam sighed, breaking the spell. “We better get a move on.”
None of them had a car, and instinct told Steve that there was no point getting an Uber. No driver could find that unearthly not-Manhattan, any more than mail vans could find the Night Light. There was nothing for it but to walk.
The green arrow led them down quiet streets, past strip malls and Prospect Park, and bright islands of neon and fluorescence where 24-hour diners threw their defiant lights into the night. It circled around quite a bit—they crossed the Brooklyn Bridge not once, but three times—and Steve wondered if the spell knew what it was doing, but then he remembered that the quartet in the black van had doubled back a lot, too. The not-Manhattan wasn’t a place you could get to by walking in a straight line. He couldn’t see the clock on his phone, because the spell was on it, but he could feel Friday night ebbing away to Saturday morning around him—the air cooling, the roads emptying, cabs spilling drunk people out at their doorsteps.
It took hours, and felt like days. He could only hope that Bucky held out, wherever he was.
It was the liminal hour before dawn when they reached the glimmering avenue Steve had seen before, with its flat, sharp-angled office towers rising like obelisks out of the mist. They all looked the same; it was unlikely he could have picked out the AP Real Estate building without the spell pointing him to it. A light was on in the front lobby, though all the upper windows were in darkness. Through the sliding doors, he recognised the glass armchairs and the glass vases and the abstract square painting on the wall. The bank of elevators was just beyond. Bucky was here, somewhere.
Steve stepped up to the sliding doors. They didn’t move. “Find the back door,” he told the spell.
The arrow didn’t move, either. “I don’t think there’s a back way,” said Natasha.
Steve muttered a variety of profanities under his breath, and banished the useless arrow with a flick of his hand. Every minute they wasted was a minute Pierce had Bucky, and he didn’t. “I’m gonna draw these fucking doors open. I’ll draw them broken. I’ll draw them burning.”
By now he was so desperate that he might just have started kicking his way through the glass, if Sam hadn’t taken his arm and pulled him away. “Better not. There’ll be warding spells on them. Let’s find an open window.”
Steve had climbed through enough windows to last him a lifetime. “They’ve all got bars on,” he said through gritted teeth. “Look at them. It’s like a fucking prison. Unless Nat can pick the lock—”
He glanced over his shoulder, and saw only empty sidewalk. “Nat?”
They looked at each other. They looked around the dark street. Then Steve regained some of his wits, and looked at the floor. A small red-and-black shape was crawling across the pavement, through the sliver of space under the glass doors and into the lobby. It disappeared into the shadows. After a moment they saw Natasha’s human head moving around the lobby, looking for a switch; and then the doors slid open without a sound.
“Mrow!” said Radio.
Steve and Sam hurried inside. Natasha was holding the elevator for them, smiling with a kind of joyless satisfaction. “Being a creepy-crawly does have its benefits.”
Steve could have hugged her. Sam did. “There’s nothing creepy about you,” he said.
“You don’t know about that,” said Natasha. She was still ghostly pale, but it might just have been the lighting in the lobby. She took Steve’s phone and spoke into it. “Which floor?”
The number 23 appeared onscreen. “Got it,” said Steve. He hit the elevator button, and up they went, towards Bucky.
The elevator opened on a small bare hall, with a heavily barred door in the far wall. The only light came from a single naked bulb in the middle of the ceiling, and the cold stale air smelled vaguely like industrial disinfectant. Natasha unholstered a pistol from somewhere inside her jacket and took the lead, sidling towards the door on the balls of her feet. Sam followed, gripping a rather sizeable knife. Steve just had his phone and stylus, and Radio inside his shirt. He brought up the rear, thinking only, Bucky. Bucky’s here.
“I don’t think you can crawl under this one,” Sam whispered.
There was no gap under the door. Natasha looked it up and down, both hands still on her gun. “Triple locks,” she said. “Keycode, metal bars, strong wards. I can’t—Steve, no!"
Steve’s stylus was already slashing across the screen. In a few rough penstrokes he drew the outline of a door cracked open, a set of grilles hanging akimbo from the doorframe like a broken leg. Almost at once there was a loud metallic crunch, and the grilles crumpled off their hinges. The door began to swing inwards. He was getting the hang of this. “See,” he said. “Don’t tell me what to d—”
The room was flooded with a harsh white operating-theatre light. A siren began to blare. A moment later it was joined by several more, some from below, some from the floors above, producing a deafening concerto of wails. Sam put his hand over his face. Radio spat in disgust.
“Oops?” said Steve.
“Well,” said Natasha, giving him a withering look. “That works too. I guess.”
She pulled out a couple more small pistols from under her hoodie and threw one at him, the other at Sam. “What do they say in those war movies? Onward, boys?”
She led the way through the open door into the room beyond, with Sam covering her six. Steve followed, struggling with the unfamiliar weight of the gun. He had just enough time to register another room just like the lobby, all bare concrete and stark shadows, and then the world turned over on its side.
They were in a laboratory of some kind. It was full of machines Steve recognised from his mother’s surgery—a ventilator, a defibrillator, an EEG—and others, more sinister, that he didn’t. Several large wall-mounted screens displayed vitals readouts. In the midst of everything, strapped into what looked like Tim Burton’s idea of a dentist chair, was Bucky.
Steve ran to him. “Bucky!”
There were two large metal plates clamped around his head. In the sliver of face visible in between, Bucky’s eyes were wide open, the pupils vast. Even here, they were the same blue of the ocean. “I’m gonna get these things off you,” said Steve.
“Wait,” said Natasha. She ducked behind the EEG machine and plucked a thick stalk of wires out of a wall socket. “Okay, now.”
Steve couldn’t look at the machines. He didn’t want to think what they were for; what Pierce had done to Bucky, his Bucky. Gingerly, one at a time, he peeled the metal plates away from Bucky’s face. “Hi,” he said. “What’s a nice boy like you doing in a place like this?”
The ocean eyes were hazy and faraway. Steve wasn’t sure if Bucky had heard him, if Bucky even knew him. His hands went to Bucky’s shoulders, his hair, his damp forehead, as if to find him wherever he had gone and bring him back to his body. Radio gave a loud wrrrrowww of distress. She slipped out of Steve’s shirt and scrambled up Bucky’s chest to lick at his face with a bright pink tongue. Bucky drew a sharp breath, and his eyes focused. “Radio?” he whispered. “Good. Good cat.”
He sounded hoarse, as if he had been screaming. He looked around him, taking in the lights, the sirens, the machinery. “Steve,” he said; and at the sound of his name in Bucky’s voice, a tight and painful knot loosened in Steve’s chest. “Didn’t sell. Just like I promised.”
Steve’s heart was gonging in his ears, allegro agitato. “I know,” he said. “I know. You’re so brave.”
“Guys,” said Sam loudly. “Guys. Incoming.”
Steve came back to himself. The earth stopped orbiting a dentist chair in a dank cell and resumed its usual trajectory around the sun. The sirens were still wailing, more of them than ever, now to the accompaniment of shouts and pounding feet. Then came a softer sound, closer at hand than all the others: the ding of the elevator.
Radio leapt off Bucky’s lap and streaked across the room. Before any of them could react, she slipped out the door, shifted to her clock form, and began to beep her shrillest and most obnoxious wake-up alarm. Bucky said, “Radio—”
Steve made to go after her, but it was too late. A quartet of burly figures in security guard navies was already tramping out the elevator. He had just enough time to glimpse the assault rifles couched in their hands, the walkie-talkies on their belts, before Sam slammed the door shut in their faces and bolted it. “My God,” said one of them. “What the fuck is that?”
“Is it a bomb?” said another.
“Of course it’s a fucking bomb, there’s a fucking countdown!” screamed a third. “Five minutes, shit, they’re going kamikaze—”
“Sitwell, get a bomb squad in here,” said a fourth. “Garrett, see if you can get round by the back stairs—shit, shit, shit, what the fuck!”
The beeping had intensified. “Two minutes!” yelled the first voice. “It’s not counting right! We don’t have time for the bomb squad!”
The bickering voices devolved into pandemonium. “Huh,” said Steve, reaching for his phone again. “So there’s a back way.”
He doodled a pair of manacles in a few hasty strokes, then slashed them wide open with the eraser tool. The heavy cuffs holding Bucky’s wrists to the chair cracked down the middle and fell off. Steve slung an arm around his shoulders and, by some miracle of adrenaline, managed to heave him to his feet. “Good cat,” said Bucky breathlessly, swaying against Steve. “But bad at counting.”
“Where is the back way?” said Sam.
“Here,” said Natasha. She shoved the ventilator out of the way and threw a smaller door open. It set off a fresh wave of sirens, but none of them paid any attention. “You guys go, get the deed. I’ll hold them off.”
They all stared at her. Bucky went rigid against Steve. The elevator ding sounded again; more feet tramped out into the lobby, and several new shouting voices joined the din. "Alone?" said Steve.
“Nat, there’s like eight of them now,” said Sam. “That’s shitty odds even for you.”
Natasha’s expression had slid once more into judicious blankness. It was a look Steve had come to dread. “Radio can’t scare them off forever,” she said. “The door won’t hold once they start shooting. If you don’t get the deed we’ll have come for nothing.”
“Thirty seconds!” screamed a voice just outside the door. “Someone get Pierce!”
“Steady, steady, stand your ground, boys, open fire on my command—”
“Open fire? At a live bomb? Are you outta your mind?”
Beepbeepbeepbeepbeep went Radio, an octave higher than usual. “I’m going out there,” said Natasha, cocking her pistol. Her mouth was twisted in a hard, venomous grin, and her eyes glittered. “Don’t just stand here. Make it worth it.”
“You don’t have to do this,” said Bucky.
“I stole the deed,” said Natasha. “I have to make it right.”
The room went still as a tomb. Steve stopped breathing. Sam, too, looked as startled as he felt. But Bucky only took a swaying step towards Natasha, still holding on to Steve’s shoulder for support. “Oh, Itsy Bitsy,” he said, his voice thick with anguish. “You know I never held it against you.”
“That doesn’t change anything,” said Natasha.
Beepbeeeeeeepbeepbeepbeepbeeeeeeeeep. “Guys, there is no time for this,” said Sam. “Steve, you know where the deed is. You go find it, get Bucky out of here. I’ll stay with Nat.”
Natasha said, “For heaven’s sake—”
Sam stuck two fingers in his mouth and gave a whistle, low and hard and strong. It was a melody Steve had heard before, though only ever in the context of Avian Corps documentaries and exhibits at the Smithsonian. The guards in the lobby recognised it, too. The shouting broke off. Steve staggered under Bucky’s weight, his phone and his gun slippery in his sweaty hands. Whatever happened next, it was very likely going to be the last thing any of them saw.
Then the air filled with wings.
Birds soared down through the room in a bewildering circus of colours, falcons, eagles, swans, crows, canaries, every one screaming like a Greek phalanx singing the paean. Steve couldn’t see where they were coming from; there were no windows in the room. Sam flung the door open, and the terse silence from the guards outside turned to screams. The birds poured out into the lobby, wings beating, talons slashing, beaks opened to bite and carve and peck. Radio blurred into a cat with a joyous mwowww, and leapt into the fray. Steve saw the frontmost guard go down with a shriek, his head lost in a cloud of swooping magpies, his leg gushing blood.
“Totally got this!” yelled Sam. “Now go!”
He launched himself into the lobby in a blaze of gunfire, Natasha a step behind. Steve didn’t need telling again. They’d wasted enough time. He felt his way to the back door, dragging Bucky with him. “This way.”
They were in a narrow passageway that led to a fireman’s elevator. This dinged open too, and out came two more guards with rifles and tasers. Bucky grabbed one in his metal hand with a shriek of servos and flung him at the other, and they both went down with a crash. Steve was already in the elevator, hitting the button for the 99th floor. Bucky dived in to join him, and in a sudden lurch of motion that seemed to leave Steve’s stomach behind, they were going up.
“You okay?” asked Steve, breathless.
Bucky was standing on his own now, but his arms were still looped loosely around Steve’s shoulders. He glanced fretfully around them, as if hoping to see right through the elevator doors to where Sam and Natasha were. “I don’t want to leave them.”
“They’ll be fine,” said Steve, trying to sound convincing. “Nat’s unbeatable. And you’ve never seen Sam in action, but I have.”
The ocean eyes were fixed on him, hungry, searching. “You came,” said Bucky. “They told me you wouldn’t.”
Steve shrugged. It was hard to form sentences, with Bucky looking at him like that. “I ran out of granola.”
Bucky’s mouth twitched. He pulled Steve in so they were standing chest to chest, forehead to chin, his grip crushing but not violent. “You shouldn’t have come,” he said. “If they had you, I would’ve given them anything.”
“You wouldn’t,” said Steve. “You’re stronger than anyone knows.”
“I wasn’t,” said Bucky. “Not in that chair.”
There was a violent rushing noise in Steve’s ears. Adrenaline made it hard to see clearly, so his senses absorbed Bucky only in sweeping impressionistic brushstrokes: the fall of his matted hair, the solid warmth of him under his ever-present hoodie; the curve where his neck met his shoulder, at just the right height for Steve to rest his head. Bucky didn’t smell like baking that day, but of hospitals, of laboratories full of death. It was another wrong that would have to go on Hydra’s tab.
They got out at the ninety-ninth floor. Up here they could still hear the sirens, the swoop of wings and the caw of furious birds, but softer now, as if the sanctuary of the Senior Director’s office was too civilised a bower for such noises to penetrate. Steve paused to get his bearings. They were in a passage identical to the one on the lab floor, with an unmarked door ahead that he guessed must lead to the lobby outside Pierce’s office. “Here,” he said, reaching for the knob. “Now we just gotta find a way into that Morgan’s c—”
He stopped. Every muscle in his body, in fact, came to a sudden jerking halt. They were in the lobby. It was exactly as Steve remembered, with the thick red carpet and the seamless teak walls and the shiny doors of the main elevators, with the one, rather major exception that there were now four people standing in the room. Three armed guards, and Alexander Pierce.
“—Cube,” Steve finished. He wrestled the safety off his gun, and fired wildly.
Pierce flicked his hand. The air in front of him took on a hazy grey quality. The mist was translucent, but apparently solid; Steve’s bullets pinged off it and ricocheted harmlessly into the walls. The guards were not so lucky. One of them screamed, clutching his chest. Another tottered, his hands over a bloody gash in his stomach. The third took a bullet to the throat and went down like a domino. They were changing before Steve’s eyes, their skin going red and gelatinous, their limbs turning to tentacles. Thick black smoke poured from their wounds, giving off a smell like rotten eggs.
“Oh, dear,” said Pierce. He twitched his hand again, and the thrashing hydra-men disappeared. The carpet wasn’t even stained. “Gut shots are such an inefficient way to kill.”
Behind the grey mist-shield, his features wavered and pulsated like a glitching hologram. He was in one of his perfectly pressed suits, though it was something like five-thirty on a Saturday morning, and he had a revolver cocked and trained on Bucky. The gun, Steve thought, looked strange against the backdrop of the suit. One imagined white-collar executives to be above things like firearms. “I didn’t want to be efficient.”
“Ah, yes,” said Pierce. “You have a ruthless streak. Just one of the many things we have in common. Don’t you agree, Mr. Barnes?”
Bucky’s arm made a horrible grinding noise. “You’re not even fit to talk to him.”
Pierce laughed. Floor numbers were ticking on the elevator display behind him—64, 65, 66. More guards must be coming. There would be at least four; they always operated in quartets. Steve wondered how fast he could draw corpses. “Drop that gun, Steve,” said Pierce. “And that phone too, or I shoot Mr. Barnes.”
Bucky creaked a laugh. Under the fabric of his sleeve, his arm plates rippled and recalibrated. “Go on,” he said. “I’m indestructible. You should have figured that out when you made Natasha blow me up the other time.”
“Oh, I don’t need to destroy you,” said Pierce. He looked frankly amused by the thought. The numbers kept ticking; 72, 73, 74. “Ever wondered what would happen to the Night Light if you lost a kidney? Or the other arm? Or, say, most of your frontal lobe? I have a team of dedicated scientists who’d love nothing more than to find out.” He twinkled his most fatherly smile at them. “I won’t ask again, Steve.”
Until a minute ago, Steve had never fired a gun in his life. He wasn’t even sure he could have pulled the trigger in cold blood. Now, he knew without a doubt that he could have emptied the entire cartridge into Pierce’s smiling face and gone down in a blaze of rage and glory; that he would have, if he’d been alone with nothing to lose. But he wasn’t. He ignored Bucky’s glare, and threw his phone and pistol on the floor.
“Well done,” said Pierce. He allowed the mist-shield to dissipate, so Steve could see him clearly again. “I always knew you were a man of sense. And, it appears, even more magical talent than I first thought. Tell me, how on earth did you manage to get here without my people to guide you?”
86, 87, 88. He was trying to keep them talking until his backup arrived. A good sign: it meant he saw them as a threat. If they stalled long enough, Sam and Natasha and Radio might still get away. “Finding spell,” said Steve. “Don’t be facile. Any freshman wizard could’ve done it.”
“My wards are more than strong enough to confuse the average finding spell,” said Pierce. “But there’s nothing average about you, is there, Steve? What spell was it really?”
Bucky’s arm crunched again. This time he was looking at Steve, his eyes a fraction wider than usual. Steve’s heart sank. Bucky had been there too, the morning Natasha had helped him with the heart’s desire code. He knew perfectly well which spell Steve had used. Pierce deserved to die a billion bloody deaths, at least twenty of them for this alone. “Let Bucky go,” said Steve, “and maybe I’ll tell you.”
96. 97. “Oh, you’ll tell me whatever I want once you get your turn in the chair,” said Pierce genially. “Won’t he, Barnes?”
Bucky took a step forward. His arm was screaming. Pierce actually fell back, the smile sliding from his face. Steve was frozen, his eyes on the elevator doors. There was no time to move, to dart towards his gun. 98. 99. Ding.
“Late as usual, Rumlow,” said Pierce, without taking his eyes off Bucky. Steve didn’t think he was imagining the note of relief in his voice. “Take them down to the lab, and be quick about it.”
But there were only two people in the elevator, and neither of them was Rumlow. One was a colossus of a man with a billowing leather trenchcoat and a patch over one eye. The other was Sharon. Both had guns, and both had them trained on Pierce’s back. “How about no,” said the billowy man.
He fired. Pierce started to turn, but the bullets ripped through the back of his suit jacket and into his heart, leaving a blotch like a wine stain on the expensive fabric. So this, thought Steve, was the efficient way to kill a man. He watched with great interest as Pierce hit the ground without ceremony, accompanied only by the now-familiar belches of black smoke and sulphur. His hand twitched towards his own gun. Steve stomped on the hand—it was half tentacle now, and changing fast—and kicked the weapon away.
The billowy man came to stand over Pierce. “How does it feel to be shot in the back?” he asked. “Oh, yeah, that’s right. Like shit.”
Pierce stared up at him with an expression of utter bewilderment. It was almost funny. One also imagined white-collar executives to be above things like death. “Fury,” he breathed.
“Yup,” said the billowy man; but by then Pierce was in no position to respond.
Bucky swayed against Steve again, clinging painfully to his arm. It was a bit like trying to hold up the Leaning Tower. He was staring at the newcomer, his breathing ragged and hoarse. “Nick,” he said. And then, with a cracked laugh: “I see you found a good necromancer.”
Nick Fury. Steve had heard that name before. He couldn’t think where. For the first time, he was becoming aware of the fact that he had gone nearly twenty-four hours without sleep; that he had trekked halfway across the city on foot, and all his limbs were heavy with exhaustion. “I had a few lined up,” Fury agreed, vanishing the twitching body on the floor with a flick of his hand. “But the only foolproof way is not to die at all. You never know if they’ll put your bits back right.”
The dead landlord. That was it. Except he was standing whole and corporeal in front of them, giving Steve an appraising look through his one good eye. His trenchcoat was still billowing, though there was no wind. Steve felt the sudden urge to jump to attention and salute. “Is this the NYWC freshman who’s been cutting swathes of power across Manhattan with graduate-level magic?”
Steve said, “I—”
“Yeah,” said Bucky. “That’s him.”
“Oh, that explains it,” said Sharon. “We couldn’t get in here past the wards before. But a couple hours ago, it was like the whole place was blasted wide open. All we had to do was follow the trail of your magic.”
Steve blinked. He was so tired, it was entirely possible that the last twenty minutes had been one long hallucination. “You mean you’ve been working together? You’re a mole?” He rounded on the not-dead landlord. “And you were the one driving the Volkswagen?”
“My spinal column will never be the same again,” said Fury solemnly. “Agent 13 here is with the CIA. She’s been helping me keep an eye on the Night Light ever since I had to fake my death.”
“I called Nick as soon as Bucky was taken,” said Sharon. “I thought maybe we’d have to mobilise my entire unit and break this place down by force, but it looks like you guys found a quicker way.”
“You didn’t tell me,” said Bucky. He crossed his arms and performed a moderate retraction into his hair. “I knew you were hiding something, but I thought it was just that you were Miss Peg’s niece.”
Sharon winced. “Great-niece.”
Steve knuckled at his temples. He was still having difficulty parsing any of this. “Nat and Sam are on the twenty-third floor,” he said. “With Radio and like a million birds. They looked like they had things under control, but I dunno.”
“So that’s what the bird hurricane was about,” said Fury. He exchanged a look with Bucky. “God, I’ve missed my tenants.”
“We’ll take care of it,” said Sharon. “Get the deed and get out of here. You can take my car. My boss Maria was dying for an excuse to bring in the chopper.”
Steve had nearly forgotten about the deed. Bucky’s arm hummed gently around him as they watched Fury and Sharon disappear back into the elevator; and Steve realised Bucky was holding him up now, instead of the other way around. In a gentle undertone, Bucky said, “All right?”
The arm was so strong, so warm, Steve was tempted to sag against it and let Bucky take his entire weight. “Yes,” he said firmly. With a great effort, he pulled away and bent to gather up his phone and Natasha’s gun. “Should I draw the office door open?”
“Nah, I got this,” said Bucky. He ambled over to the closed door of Pierce’s office, with the plaque that read SENIOR DIRECTOR, and studied it for a second. Then he drew back his metal arm, and let it swing.
The door flew off its hinges and fell inward with a crash. Steve’s mind took several seconds to process this. He was fairly sure that, if they made it out alive, he would be processing it for the rest of his life. “Wow,” he said. “You’ll have to do that for me again when we get home.”
They stepped into the office, with the mahogany desk and the strange floating instruments, and the Morgan’s cube with the red book by the wall. Bucky’s mouth went thin and hard. “I can do it right now.”
He swung his fist again. The surface of the cube flashed red. Even for a high-end wizard’s safe, the energy discharge was impressive. Steve was bowled halfway across the desk in a hurricane of papers and files, and even Bucky skidded back a few feet. He stared down at his arm with a mix of astonishment and disgust, as if it had somehow betrayed him. Steve began to giggle.
“That wasn’t supposed to happen,” said Bucky. “Stop laughing.”
Steve hadn’t realised it before, but he had arrived at that stage of fatigued somnambulism where everything was side-splittingly hilarious. He had to lie on the desk for a few seconds, wheezing and clutching his ribs, while Bucky stared at him with his brows knit together and his mouth downturned. “Okay,” Steve gasped. “Okay, okay, Plan B.”
Bucky wiggled his arm in its socket, still looking put out. The red book bobbed up and down in its glass casing, as if taunting them. It nearly set Steve off all over again. “What’s Plan B?” asked Bucky.
“No idea,” said Steve. He rolled off the edge of the desk and regained his footing. “Shut up, lemme think.”
"No idea?" said Bucky. “You came here without knowing how to break through one of these things? What were you thinking?”
“You were missing,” Steve pointed out. “There was no time for deep contemplation.”
He thought about what Phillips had said in class the day before. The root of the haunting must be dealt with first. “What happens if the deed is destroyed?” he asked. “Would it hurt you?”
Bucky looked startled. “I guess not,” he said. “It hurt when the building got blown up, but this is different. It’s not part of me.”
He scratched the back of his neck, gazing through the glass at the red book. It had stopped bobbing abruptly, and looked much less pleased with itself. “I don’t think anyone would be able to own the Night Light again, though. No more buying and selling. No more landlords.”
Steve thought about this. They’d gotten along just fine with Bucky and Radio to run the building, after all. “Is that a bad thing?”
“Huh,” said Bucky, his brow furrowing with deep lines. “No. It’s not.”
“Got it,” said Steve. “Gimme thirty seconds.”
He began to draw. Bucky hovered and whirred over his shoulder, keeping watch with the gun. Steve drew the red book in the Morgan’s cube—by now it had fled to the far side of the glass case, as if trying to get away—and added tongues of flame in big swooping loops of red and orange. He heard a faint crackle, but didn’t look up. He filled the sketch with fire, more and more of it, until his phone screen couldn’t contain any more; and then he erased it and started a new drawing. He drew the Morgan’s cube again, this time empty save for a pile of ash at the bottom.
“Holy shit,” said Bucky.
Steve looked up to survey his handiwork. The Morgan’s cube was not on fire, per se—its protective spells were too strong for that—but it was full of fire, sizzling and snapping and crackling as if a tiny dragon was trapped in there. The red book was completely engulfed, and bits of leather and charred paper were drifting to the bottom of the cube in curls of smoke. The fire was not the kind you could start with a lighter and some gasoline. It burned much faster, much brighter than that; and even when Steve stepped right up to the cube and put his face up to the glass to watch the book smoulder away, he could feel no heat.
It took less than a minute. The deed was gone, reduced to ashes, and the fire guttered out soon after. “Quickest way to get around the warding,” Steve explained, grinning up at Bucky. “I couldn’t possibly summon the deed through all those layers of curses and wards, but I could warp reality and get at it from inside—oh, stop gazing at me like that, I’ve been burning things down ever since I was old enough to cast spells.”
He quite liked the doe-eyed gazing, though. It was cute. “It’s what you do best,” Bucky agreed, linking his arm with Steve’s. “Let’s get out of here.”
They rode the elevator back down to the front hall, and walked straight into a maelstrom of chaos.
The lobby was full of people. Some were in guard uniforms, others in office clothes, and none of them seemed to know what to do with themselves. They thronged around Steve and Bucky with vacant eyes, thrusting flyers and business cards and clipboards into their path. “Step this way, Mr. Steve Rogers,” one of them chirped. Another said, “The Senior Director has been delayed, but we are trying to get in touch with him,” and still another, “Thank you for your interest in a career with AP Real Estate.”
Steve knocked a brochure out of his face. “Back off!”
“They’re not dangerous,” said Bucky. He put his flesh arm around Steve to anchor them together, and shoved through a gaggle of businessmen with his metal fist. “Pretty much just headless chickens without Pierce. They’ll slough off their human skins soon enough. Where the hell is the door?—I said, get back!"
He fired a warning shot into the air. None of the corporate drones so much as flinched. “Our mission is to make customers happy,” protested one blank-eyed woman, as Steve threw off her clutching hand and elbowed past her. “If you are in any way dissatisfied with the service you have received—”
“Very dissatisfied!” Steve bellowed. “Zero stars, would not recommend! Back off!”
Somehow they waded through the sea of zombies to the main door and out onto the sidewalk, where Sharon’s tiny Volkswagen was waiting with the keys in the ignition. Steve flung himself into the driver’s seat and found he couldn’t close the door, what with all the arms and heads in the way. He felt like a boyband member being chased by paparazzi. “Where’s everyone else?”
“I think that’s them,” said Bucky.
Steve looked up. The babble of the drones had been loud enough that for the last few minutes, he had lost track of the birdcalls from the lab floor. What he saw now was a descending tornado of wings, as what looked like every bird in the city swooped down to the sidewalk with Sam held aloft in their midst. It was a bit like one of those famous Renaissance paintings of the Assumption of the Virgin, Mary being borne up to heaven by a great flock of angels; except in reverse, and with much more screaming.
“Looks like he’s having fun,” Bucky commented.
Sam was laughing, open-mouthed and ecstatic. Steve hadn’t seen him laugh like that since before Iraq. He had a vivid memory of his own eighteenth birthday, when Sam had flown over the Bleecker Street place to surprise him by showering the house with confetti; how Steve and his mother had watched like stargazers, giggling and snapping pictures, while Sam did lazy figure-eights against a backdrop of Fourth of July fireworks.
In a way he had gotten his wings back, thought Steve, and for a moment the building and the birds and the black helicopter circling overhead all dissolved into a thin sheen of watery mist.
Sam reached the sidewalk with Radio squirming in his arms. Natasha blurred into human form next to him, and together they fought their way through the drones to pile into the backseat. “Nick’s here,” Natasha told Bucky, absent-mindedly snapping an arm that had tried to follow her into the car. She was glowing, her hair windblown, her face streaked with dirt. “I just watched Sharon kill four of these things with one bullet.”
“They tried to rescue us in the chopper,” added Sam, equally radiant, “but we didn’t need rescu—hey! That’s not for eating, you menace!”
Radio left off snapping at the bright yellow canary on Sam’s shoulder, and wafted herself over the passenger seat into Bucky’s lap. “Good cat,” said Steve fervently, reaching over to scratch behind her ears.
“Premium cat,” Bucky agreed. “Let’s get out of here.”
With a bit of manoeuvring, they managed to get the doors shut. Steve blared the horn, slammed his foot on the gas, and set about bulldozing a path through the drones.
The crowd chased the car, transforming as they ran. Hands and tentacles scrabbled against the windshield, clawing at the windows, grabbing for the tyres. Sam whistled again, and the bird hurricane descended once more on the drones, tearing, scratching, crying, cawing, as the car roared down the ghostly avenue. The office buildings rippled and heaved, like a fading dream, and more arms—human and hydra—stretched out of the glassy windows towards them.
“Hey, Nat,” said Steve. He was no longer tired. The exhilaration was so strong, it was practically an out-of-body experience. “You got any more of those guns?”
Natasha handed another small pistol to him. “Here you go.”
“Thanks,” said Steve. He hit the controls on his door, and all the car windows began to roll down.
The four of them opened fire in unison, severing tentacles, lopping off limbs, as the Volkswagen tore onto the Brooklyn Bridge. Steve kept one hand on the wheel and the other on his pistol, firing without taking his eyes off the road, as if he’d been doing this all his life. The hydra heads fell away from the car one by one, and the shimmering office buildings began to evaporate like a mirage. When he looked back in the rearview mirror, all he could see was the familiar skyline of FDR Drive, Fury’s chopper a small dot above the dark ribbon of the East River. The spooky not-Manhattan was gone.
“All right, guns down,” said Sam. “We’re in civilian territory.”
Steve let his empty pistol fall away. The cloud of birds above their car broke up into smaller groups and disappeared. They had reached the Brooklyn side, and the streets and sidewalks were just coming alive with the first stirrings of a weekend morning. “It’s gonna take the Hydra years to come back from that,” said Natasha with satisfaction.
“Decades,” said Bucky, smiling across at Steve. Radio coiled herself into a fuzzy ball on his lap and went to sleep. “Is anyone hungry? Should we stop at a MacDonald’s drive-thru?”
“Nah,” said Steve. He was smiling, too. “I was hoping you’d cook.”
The Night Light was back.
It was the first thing Steve saw when they turned onto their street: a proud monolith of brooding windows and dirty yellow walls, crowned with thunderclouds and cloaked in folds of driving rain. The sky was so dark, it looked more like midnight than seven a.m. The second thing Steve noticed was the pair of Stark Industries buses double-parked along the end of the street, and the knot of people gathered once more on the sidewalk under the vaulted ceilings of their umbrellas. The third thing he noticed was the quartet of men sprinting down the street in a stampede of pumping limbs. They were all screaming, and the one in the front was Rumlow.
The reason for the stampede was soon evident. The sky was full of Tony Starks. At first Steve thought he was having a psychedelic nightmare. Then he realised that only the first two suits were occupied—the flashy one in red and gold was definitely Tony’s, and the one with the machine gun must have contained his friend Colonel Rhodes. The rest were remote-operated. They swept up the street in a storm of rock music that made Radio’s ears perk up in approval, herding the quartet towards the front of the Night Light. The crowd of residents was waiting.
Bucky rolled down the window. “Remember to get them all at the same time!”
Given the size of the mob, it would have been difficult not to do so. There was a shimmer of red mist. A spray of arrows. A crack of lightning that split the sidewalk, and dazzled Steve for a few seconds. Then utter silence.
“Ew,” said Wanda. “Gross.”
Steve drove up onto the sidewalk to get around the buses. By the time they got out of the car in front of the Night Light, the only sign left of Rumlow and his cronies was a heap of twitching tentacles. Wanda made shooing motions with her hands, and then that, too, was gone.
Steve looked up at the building, with rain whipping into his face. There were definitely just twelve floors now. “Good job, everyone.”
Tony and Colonel Rhodes landed with twin thunks in the middle of the road, shaking the asphalt beneath their feet. Fortunately, the other suits made no move to land, or the street might have sunk halfway to Australia. “Oh, wow,” said Rhodes. “Every time I see this place, I have to convince myself all over again that you actually lived here.”
“I know, right?” said Tony. He flipped up his mask and waved wildly at Steve. “Hey, Midlife Crisis, I just thought of a joke. A wizard, a bird king, a shapeshifter and a building walk into a bar—”
Steve rolled his eyes. “I thought you’d still be in bed.”
Behind him, Bucky and Sam were eyeing the robot suits with a mixture of bafflement and envy. Natasha made a beeline for Clint, and Pizza Dog came bounding over with a gleeful bark to greet Radio, who slithered down to the pavement and condescended to be grovelled to. “Nah, couldn’t go back to sleep after you called,” said Tony, “which, by the way, I’m still mad about—”
“So then of course he had to wake me,” said Rhodes, “and we decided to help round up your evil neighbours. Good to get some cardio in before breakfast, right?”
“The moment the Night Light came back, we felt it,” Clint explained. “We called in the cavalry and came back immediately. Found those thirteenth-floor asshats loitering around trying to make the building disappear again, so we attacked. Chased them halfway to Jersey and back.”
“I broke Harlem again,” said Bruce sheepishly, from the folds of his tarp.
“Only a little,” said Thor, with a reassuring smile. “Do you know, my friends, I believe the rain is stopping.”
They all looked up, incredulous. It was true. The wall of stormclouds was breaking up, and the sun was making a tentative sally out into blue sky. “Oh,” said Wanda, wide-eyed. “Thor, I think your curse is lifting. Is it, Bucky?”
All heads swivelled around to Bucky, who at once tried to retract behind Steve. “Uh,” he said. “Maybe? We beat back the Hydra, so I have some magic to spare.”
A smattering of cheers went up from the crowd. The rock music grew louder, pulsing from all of Tony’s remote-operated suits. Radio climbed up Bucky’s leg and curled up in his arms, swishing her tail in time to the beat. Steve grinned.
“I guess,” he said, linking his arm with Bucky’s, “the Night Light is healing itself.”
He had been hoping to get some time alone with Bucky as soon as the excitement died down. But the fourth-floor kitchen saw a constant stream of visitors all day, people who’d had their curses lifted and wanted to thank the Night Light: a girl who could now kiss her boyfriend without killing him, and a guy from space who could listen to his mixtapes without being compelled to dance, and a complete stranger who clapped Sam on the back and told Steve, “It’s nice to finally get to talk to you.”
Steve looked up from the kitchen table, where he was working on his overdue commissions after a long and wholesome nap. “I don’t think we’ve met.”
“Nah, we have,” said the man. “But I was literally ant-sized for the last few months, so you probably didn’t notice.”
Fury billowed into the kitchen with Sharon sometime around noon, just as Steve was thinking he might finally manage to steal Bucky away. “Everything’s in order,” he announced. “We cast a strong holding spell on the Brooklyn Bridge. The Hydra’s alive and well in that other dimension, but it won’t be breaking out anytime soon.”
Radio gave a happy chirrup, and treated Fury’s left boot to an enthusiastic head-rub. “Good to hear, sir,” said Bucky. “Uh, me and Steve better tell you something.”
Steve snapped to attention. He had been watching Bucky make lemon drizzle muffins in his science apron, thinking how soft he looked next to the sleek lines of Fury’s trenchcoat and Sharon’s jumpsuit. “Oh, yeah,” he said, distracted. “We set the deed on fire. Sorry about that.”
He wasn’t really sorry, and didn’t care if anyone knew it. Bucky was human, even if he was also a building—Steve had been listening to his pulse in the kitchen walls all afternoon—and no one ought to own him, not Pierce, not Fury, not Miss Peg. Bucky shuffled his feet, but managed not to retract. “It was the only way we could think to get rid of it,” he added. “And it’s working, ‘cause the space-time attacks have stopped and I’ve been able to lift some of the tenants’ curses.”
“I noticed,” said Fury dryly. “It was nice being able to walk five feet from my chopper to the main door without getting drenched.”
He looked around the kitchen in an assessing sort of way, taking in the sun streaming in through the open window, the tray of muffins cooling on the counter. Sharon gave him an encouraging nod, and he seemed to relax a little. “Guess you’re on your own now, Barnes. I held on to the deed as long as I did because I was afraid for you. But I think you’ve got this.”
Bucky’s lower lip jutted out. He looked both pleased and shy, in a way that made Steve want to vault the kitchen table and pull him into a hug. “You’re always welcome to stay, sir,” said Bucky. “We have some rooms free now that people are moving out.”
“Good,” said Fury. “Save one for me. High floor, north- or south-facing. I admit, I’ve gotten a bit too fond of having my own kitchen and bathroom—”
“And garage,” said Sharon, “and heli pad, and quinjet hangar.”
“—but I could use a bolthole here from time to time.” Fury turned to Sharon. “What about you? Your job’s done. You can go back to your aunts in DC if you want.”
Sharon smiled, and stole a muffin from Bucky’s tray. “I think I’m staying,” she said. “This is a place for putting down roots, if you know what I mean. Anyway, where’s Natasha?”
No one knew where Natasha was, or when she had disappeared. In the end it was Radio who sniffed her out. The cat gave Steve’s leg a few insistent boops, and Steve obligingly followed her to the lobby, out the window, and onto the fire escape, where he found Natasha watching something on her laptop. “Whatcha watching?”
Natasha blinked at him, startled, but not quite displeased. She shifted to make room for him—she was almost as tiny as Steve, so it wasn’t a tight fit—and handed him one of her earbuds. ”The Great British Bake-Off,” she said. “Bucky and I used to watch it together. It’s—soothing.”
Steve put in the earbud just in time for the young woman on screen to wail, “It’s all ruined!” in a thick English accent and dump an entire rhubarb pie in the trash. He said, “Ah.”
He could hear baking in both ears: Bake-Off through the earbud in his right, Bucky clattering around the kitchen in his left, while Sam taste-tested and offered commentary. They watched for a few minutes. Then Radio showed up and announced herself by curling up on Natasha’s laptop, perfectly positioned to eclipse as much of the screen as possible. Natasha tried to move her away, but she had suddenly become very heavy and acquired adhesive properties, so they gave up on the show and lapsed into a companionable silence.
“That was very brave,” said Steve, “what you did last night.”
Natasha wove her earphone wires round and round her hand, until they sat snugly on her fingers like a set of bronze knuckles. Steve had already seen how she always had to be in motion at times like these. “It’s not brave if you had to do it.”
“You didn’t have to. Bucky doesn’t hold it against you.”
“I do,” said Natasha. “I hold it against me.”
She scratched at the wisps of grey fur on Radio’s head. On the sliver of screen not occluded by cat, someone pulled a tray of meringues out of an oven and promptly started cry-laughing for no reason Steve could see. “The KGB sold me to Hydra when the Soviet Union fell,” said Natasha. “That’s how I ended up working for Pierce. I could have run away, but I was afraid. I wanted food, a place to stay.”
“We all do,” said Steve. “Nat, you don’t have to explain yourself to me. That was years ago. You’re different now.”
“Am I?” said Natasha. She smiled, a little mirthful, a little sad. “I’m not a real spider, but I’m not great at being a human either. It took a place like the Night Light—it took destroying a place like the Night Light for me to open my eyes. Everyone was so kind. Nick, and Sharon, and Clint—even Bucky, after I’d hurt him—”
She looked down. Radio vibrated gently between them. “I thought I knew what good and evil were, until I came here.”
“So you’re either very brave or very ethical,” said Steve. “Pick one.”
Natasha laughed, then looked shocked that she had. “The thing about me,” she said, “is that I had to teach myself to be human by taking cues from the people around me. If I’ve ever been good or strong or tender, it’s because I’m friends with those who are.”
“Same,” said Steve, thinking of Sam and Bucky, of his mother. “I think that goes for most people, really. It’s not a bad way to live. Hey, can I show you something?”
He pulled out his phone and opened his Notes app to a page crowded with scribbles and diagrams. Natasha leaned over, squinting at his pictographic shorthand. “Are those—”
“Web shooters,” said Steve. “I’m pretty sure I can draw them for you. I just need to make sure they’ll work when you transform. I’m gonna get that kid Parker to help me with the tech side of things, maybe Tony if I can bribe him. Do you want them on your hands or feet? Or both?”
Natasha stared at him. Her eyes were wide, the irises a brilliant green. “Why would you do this?”
“Why not?” said Steve. “I want to do prosthetic wings for Sam too. I already have the concept art”—he swiped to the next page and showed her his schematics—“but he’s gonna have to teach me a lot more about aerodynamics before they’ll be anything close to functional.” He shrugged. “What’s the point of being the magical equivalent of a 3D printer if you don’t print weird gifts for all your friends, right? It’s nice to be able to do something for someone.”
“Yeah,” said Natasha quietly. “It is.”
She hesitated, then wrapped her arms around his shoulders and squeezed, just for a moment. “Don’t ever move out. You’re good for Bucky and Sam. You’re good for me.”
“You couldn’t pay me to live anywhere else,” said Steve.
The lobby window squeaked open just then, and Sharon poked her bright head out onto the fire escape. “There you are,” she said. “Sam and I finished all the muffins, but there’s still a couple peach tarts left. Oh, yeah, Steve, Bucky’s asking for you. I think he wants to give you something, but I assume he also just wants you in general?”
Steve all but shot forward like a sprinter at the starting line. Natasha laughed. “He’s been waiting all day,” she said. “Off you go, Steve. Sharon’s gonna watch Bake-Off with me and pet Radio until we fall asleep in the sun.”
Doing his best to keep a straight face, Steve scrambled through the window so Sharon could take his place on the fire escape. He liked to think he crossed the lobby in a calm and casual fashion, but he knew better than to hope. “Tell me who wins,” he called over his shoulder.
“Spoiler, it’s you,” Natasha yelled after him.
All the visitors had left, and the fourth floor was quiet now. Marvin Gaye was wafting out from the open door of unit 402, where Sam was asleep in an armchair with his tiny yellow canary nestled on his lap. Steve paused to pull a quilt over him, and then tiptoed past his own room to the door at the end of the hall. His heart had begun to palpitate.
Bucky’s room was crammed wall to wall with mail sacks. There were four of them, and Bucky was kneeling in a sea of envelopes and parcels, trying to sort them by tenant. “I’m very backlogged,” he said ruefully, when Steve came in. “Sit down if you can find the floor.”
Steve wedged himself between Bucky and the bed, pleased with the excuse to cuddle. Bucky was warm and soft, and there were icing stains on the front of his hoodie. “I can help.”
“Later,” said Bucky, shoving the sacks away so he could settle down next to Steve. “Open this first.”
He handed Steve an envelope. As usual, it was addressed to an S. Rogers at 339B Bleecker Street, but the name was handwritten in a loopy old-fashioned cursive, and the college logo on the front was unfamiliar. Steve stared at it accusingly. “Are you kidding? Now I’m getting rejected from colleges I didn’t even apply to?”
Bucky hummed thoughtfully. His metal arm was stretched out along the bed behind Steve, bracketing his shoulders in the gentle heat from its servos. “I don’t think it’s a rejection notice. It looks personal.”
This was true. Steve tore it open and shook out the letter inside. It was a single sheet of plain printing paper, covered almost top to bottom in the same calligraphic script that had been on the envelope. Steve couldn’t even remember the last time he’d received a handwritten note. “Want me to read it to you?” asked Bucky. “I can do a chipmunk voice.”
“Nah, I got this,” said Steve. It always took longer than usual to corral letters and words into position when he was this pumped up, but he had the sneaking sense that this note would be worth the effort. It said:
Dear Mr. Rogers,
You may have heard a teacher of yours, one Professor Phillips, mention that he wished to show me some samples of your work in visual magic. I have had a look at your workbook, and was doubly struck by the artistic merit of your drawings (hasty and desultory though they were) and the immense amount of latent magical energy I could sense in them. It is evident to me that you are both a gifted artist and a powerful wizard, and this rare conjunction of talents manifests itself in even the sketchiest of your “doodles”.
You must be aware by now that the New York Wizarding College, where I am given to understand you are currently attending classes, offers only the most rudimentary courses in visual magic. I would be very much saddened to see your gifts go untrained and unharnessed. As such, I would like to invite you to my office for a chat about the possibility of your transferring to our institution with effect from the next academic year. I would also like to see your art portfolio, and perhaps an on-site demonstration of your powers, if you are willing.
Enclosed is my phone number. Do call and schedule a meeting with me at your earliest convenience. I look forward to seeing you in person soon.
Queens Institute of Visual Magic
“Huh,” said Steve. He put the letter down. “Huh.”
Bucky was watching him, his servos emitting a deep Radio-like rumble. His eyes were crinkled up around the corners, as if he wanted to smile, but didn’t know if he ought to. “Should I offer condolences? I heard you prefer rejections.”
Steve swatted him with the letter. Not too hard, in case he crumpled it. He didn’t know what to think. “This Erskine guy didn’t say anything about WSAT scores,” he said. “Or my high school GPA. Or admission essays.”
“I guess they don’t go in for that kind of thing,” said Bucky. “Art school, you know. Probably full of weirdos.”
“What, like Hogwarts?” said Steve. “Someone crashes through my door, goes, Yer a wizard, Stevey, and hands me my matriculation forms?”
“Something like that,” said Bucky. He did smile now, peering out at Steve through the curtain of his hair. “It’s not a terrible commute to Queens. I was afraid some hipster college in Paris would invite you over and I’d have to figure out how to move the building.”
“I don’t even speak French.”
“How was I to know that?” asked Bucky. His metal fingers alighted on Steve’s shoulder, a brief feather touch; and Steve heard his pulse quicken in the walls, thumpthump, thumpthump. “You’re full of surprises. Heart’s desire, huh?”
Steve could hear his own pulse, too. He thought about how, if Pierce hadn’t forced his hand, he might never have been able to cast the heart’s desire spell; how Bucky might have gone weeks, months, years, thinking Steve didn’t care for him as anything beyond a neighbour and friend. “Oh, yeah,” he said, with a blithe wave of his hand. “That spell really knew what I needed. A nice steaming plate of meatballs and pasta.”
Bucky grinned. “Is this for real? The Age of Granola is over?”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Steve. “Long live real food, or whatever.”
He reached up and traced the cleft between Bucky’s eyebrows, the bags beneath his eyes, the worry lines around his mouth. Bucky had been fighting for the better part of a century, and that sort of thing left its mark. He was still a soldier, even if his long war was over. One day they were going to have to talk about what, exactly, the Hydra had done to him—one day soon, Steve thought, though not today. “You okay, Buck?”
The muscles in Bucky’s throat worked. “Yeah,” he said. Then—“No. But I will be.”
“I said I was gonna keep you safe,” said Steve softly. “The offer still stands.”
He slid his arms around Bucky’s waist to pull him in, and they kissed: a slow, languid kiss, lazy and sleepy, a kiss for a Saturday that had started too early and lasted too long. Their bodies fit together like a jigsaw, shoulder against forearm, elbow against hip; and Bucky held him so close that even when they broke apart for breath, their foreheads were still touching. It reminded Steve of church—of taking communion, and receiving the priest’s benediction after.
“So maybe this is not the best time to bring this up,” Bucky murmured, “but you’ve only known me for a couple of weeks.”
Steve reached up to cup the line of his neck, light and reassuring. “What can I say, I’ve always been decisive.”
“Also I’m a building.”
“Oh my god,” said Steve. “I can’t believe I didn’t notice.”
Bucky jabbed him in the side. Steve laughed, and felt Bucky’s breath puff hot against his face in an answering giggle. “While we’re sharing our darkest secrets,” said Steve, “I snore really loud when I’m sick. I’m an aggressive little spoon and I steal all the covers. Also one time I kicked Sam in the ass while I was dreaming and he flew halfway across the room.”
Bucky looked dubiously at Steve’s calf muscles. “A nightmare?”
“Nah,” said Steve. “It was a great dream. I love fighting.”
Bucky sighed. “I guess I’ll have to live with that.”
“I’m also a pretty decent kisser,” said Steve, “if that’s any consolation.”
Bucky’s eyes glinted, dark and restive as the sea. The lines around his mouth had smoothed over, and he looked younger, more relaxed. “Really? I’m not convinced. Show me again.”
Steve smiled. They could hear Radio burbling a slow ballad from the fire escape. Downstairs, Pizza Dog barked in response. A light was buzzing out in the hallway, and the walls pulsed and breathed: all the familiar sounds of the Night Light enveloping them like a tender embrace, as golden sun poured in through the window. He said, “Come here.”