Chapter 1: Despair
by being moved I exert my empire,
making the dreams of night real:
into my body at the bottom of the water
I attract the beyonds of mirrors...
-My Life, Rainer Maria Rilke
Kate placed the winning bid on a Fandom Trumps Hate auction for a 10k fic. So naturally I wrote a 30k+ fic for her instead.
Given free reign to write anything, this strange creation drifted into my thoughts, fully formed and impatient.
It's a love story, after a fashion
Every night the dream is the same.
There is a door. A door at the end of a long, dark corridor.
Steve has seen the door so many times in sleep that he can picture it clearly when awake. The damp, rough-hewn stone walls that stretch into the darkness. The heavy oak door, its hinges rusted and flaking like dried blood.
There is no door handle, no lock, no key. If you press your ear to the old, soaking wood, you can hear someone singing.
Death is before me today;
like the recovery of a sick man,
like going forth into a garden after sickness.
Steve doesn’t know where the door is. Why would his dreams tell him there is a door, and not tell him where it was? Or how to open it?
How do you open a door with no handle?
The door isn’t anywhere in the orphanage, he’s checked, even though Sister Mary Magdalene was vicious with boys caught wandering after curfew. And anyway, the bricks were all wrong, dark red and rectangular with no moss or lichen growing between the cracks.
If Steve had ever ventured outside the orphanage (New York Foundling embossed on the arch over the door) and down the steep stone steps to the street below, then maybe he would know where the door was. Maybe everyone knew where it was but just weren’t telling him. There were other boys in the dormitories, their neat rows of beds like graves in a cemetery, who he could ask about the door, but they would only beat on him for daring to talk to them.
Steve is small and sickly, with a crooked spine and a set of lungs that lock up in the winter and overwork in the summer. He knows the sisters are waiting for him to die, else they’d put him on the orphan trains going out west to Louisiana with the other blond haired, blue eyed boys.
Steve draws the door whenever he gets his hands on a scrap of paper and a nub of pencil. He draws it again and again, a little different each time. If he could just get the grains in the wood right, the shape of the stones around it, then maybe he could. Maybe he could open it. Splinter the wood. Shear off the hinges. Let the light in.
I’ll find you, he tells the door. I’ll get you out of there, I promise.
The song is so so sad, and when the singer reaches the end he pulls in a ragged, stuttering breath and starts the song again.
Steve knows that he is dreaming.
It’s not that he’s having one of those impossible dreams, the ones where he’s bigger and stronger and his Ma isn’t dead. Or his Dad never choked on mustard gas while Steve was still waiting to be born. It’s not a flying dream or a falling dream or a tied to the tracks and the train is coming dream.
He is standing in a garden, in front of a house.
The garden must have been lovely once. Now it is overgrown and choked with weeds, and Steve can barely find the path that winds to the front door.
The house, a little cottage with filthy windows and paint peeling on the sills, is in need of repair. The stone walls (The wrong kind of stone, the door is not here) are covered in moss and ivy, there is a hole in the tiled roof and a bird nesting in the chimney. A big black crow with greasy wings and bright, beady eyes.
Steve follows the path to the front door. It takes a lot longer than you might expect, considering how small the garden looks. But he doesn’t trample through the long grass to get there any faster. He keeps his eyes on his feet, seeking out each white stepping stone Do not leave the path winding back and forth between the overgrown roses with their sharp thorns and the tall spires of nettles that freeze and burn.
The door was once painted but the colour has long since faded, the iron door knocker rusted in place.
Steve knocks on the rotten, crumbling frame and the door creaks open a half inch. He hesitates, then pushes the door open.
“Hello?” Steve calls out, and steps through the door.
Beneath his feet are black and white tiles arranged in a chessboard pattern, cracked in some places and missing in others. He looks around, his mouth dropping open. The room is enormous.
It is larger than his dormitory, larger even than the chapel where they take Sunday Mass. There are carved marble pillars reaching up to an impossibly high ceiling, looming over a fountain in the center of the room, though water no longer flows, thin strands of ivy crawling down the marble bowl in a poor replica.
Along the far wall of the room are statues. Steve finds art fascinating, and has great plans to be an artist someday, so walks carefully across the broken tiles to study each one in turn. They are badly damaged and worn with age. Seven plinths, but only six are occupied.
On the first plinth is a robed figure, a yellow gemstone embedded in his forehead. His head is bowed, and Steve admires the way his cloak folds around his feet, at the faint traces of red and gold on the carved stone.
The second plinth has an odd, twisted shape on it, half formed and indistinct. There are traces of silver paint within its folds, and Steve paces back and forth in front of it but can make no sense of its shape. He moves past the empty third plinth to the fourth. There is a huge figure, turned away, its massive arm covering its face.
On the fifth plinth is a… woman? Small and lithe, hands on hips in an open, inviting pose, but the sharp curve of… his? mouth is predatory. Something about the statue unsettles Steve, so he moves on to the one beside it. The figure is more clearly male, the deep ridges and grooves carved into the marble give him a worn, haggard expression. There is a bow and a quiver of arrows slung over his slumped shoulder.
The final statue is of a young woman, her hands held in an oddly crooked position.
Steve is leaning forward for a closer look when he hears the sound of breaking glass and spins around.
Hidden behind one of the pillars is a doorway, and Steve follows the sound of soft cursing and glass scraping against stone to its source.
There is a second room much like the first, impossibly tall and worn, but this one is dominated by a grand marble staircase stretching up to the distant ceiling. At their lowest point the stairs are as wide as a trolley car, though Steve with his poor eye for distance cannot make out where they end. Sat on the bottom step is a man, empty beer bottles littered around his feet. He has accidentally kicked several over and is picking up the pieces of broken glass, cursing when they cut into his fingers.
In spite of everything he’s been told about talking to strangers, Steve rushes over to the man's side.
“Hey mister, be careful!”
Steve drops to his knees and starts to gather up the glass, plucking the pieces out of the leaf litter and dirt gathered on the lower steps with finger and thumb and putting them in a neat pile.
The labels on the bottles are covered in strange, curling script that he cannot read.
“Thanks, kid,” the man mutters, and Steve may not be able to read the labels but he knows the sour reek of beer.
The man sucks on his bleeding fingers, reaching into the pocket of his battered jacket and pulling out a box of band-aids.
They are like no band-aids Steve has ever seen before. The Sisters at the orphanage have thick, orange fabric dressings that are snipped from a roll kept in the nurse's office (Steve has spent a lot of time in there), but these are tiny little things, each wrapped in waxed paper. Steve watches curiously as the man unwraps one, a strange little cartoon of a cat imprinted on its glossy surface, and peels off the paper backing before slapping it onto a cut on his thumb.
By the time he’s finished, his hands are more plaster than skin. He pokes through the collection of bottles until he finds a full one.
“You want some?” he asks, holding the bottle out.
Steve should say no. He should at least ask for an unopened bottle. But it’s a dream, so he nods, and the man drops the bottle, warm and slightly damp, into his outstretched hand.
The beer tastes like burnt paper and chocolate malt and gasoline. Steve chokes on his first mouthful, warm and bitter. The second goes down a little easier. The third is no trouble at all.
“How old are you, kid?” the man asks.
Steve wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “Nine.” He hiccups.
“And what are you doing out here, hmm?” The man finds another bottle and takes a large swig. “You’re way off course, y’know. The fairground is down the hill. Or there’s the woods if you’re supposed be having one of those creepy dreams. Plenty of things in there to be chasing ya. Big teeth and sharp claws.”
He snaps his teeth together for emphasis.
“I don’t know about that, Mister.” Steve takes another sip of beer. “I just… went to sleep and I was here.”
“Well then, I guess you’re where you oughtta be.” The man nods sagely. “You got a name?”
Something prickles in the back of Steve’s thoughts. Old stories, read by his mother by the cradle.
“Steve,” he says finally. “You gotta name, mister?”
“Once.” The man laughs, though it is bitter and humourless. “We all had names once. We were all people once.” He takes a swig of beer, leaning back and knocking over the pack at his side, spilling more bottles, empty and full. Among the rubble Steve can see a bow and arrow, like the one carried by one of those statues in the other room.
“Are you Robin Hood?” Steve asks, the beer loosening his tongue more than is wise.
“Ha!” The man shakes his head, and then after consideration shrugs. “Maybe. Was a lot of things, once upon a time an’ all that. But then there was this…” He waves his hands in the air, spilling beer. “And those empty spaces have gotta be filled, y’know? Gotta have archetypes, your anfer… anthropo… athmorphic… shit.” He takes another swig of beer. “If there’s a void, it’s gotta be filled, right? And some of us may decide to turn our backs on our jobs, or just vanish without a trace or… or…”
The man slumps, the now-empty bottle slipping from his grip.
“Mister?” Steve says softly.
“Clint,” the man mutters. “I’m pretty sure it was Clint.”
Steve touches the back of Clint’s hand lightly. “It’s nice to meet you, Clint.”
Clint scrubs his free hand across his face, a couple of his plasters peeling away and revealing pale pink scars.
“Alright, kid,” he sighs. “You should get going.”
Steve pulls his hand away. “What?”
Clint gives him a tired smile. “Wake up.”
Steve sits up with a startled yelp.
The boy in the cot alongside him (Hodges? Or did Hodges take the Orphan Train?) grumbles at him to shut up.
Steve bites back the urge to tell him that it wasn’t his fault, but it would only get him a beating. He curls up under the thin blanket and closes his eyes. As hard as he tries, he can’t get back to sleep.
He doesn’t return to the house every night. Weeks, even months can go by before he finds himself on the doorstep again. But he does return.
The house is different every time, but he knows it is still the same house. He cannot say how he knows, but by the thrum of blood in his veins, the prickle of his skin, the strange twists of dream logic, he knows. Sometimes it is a castle, with rounded turrets and fire-blackened walls. Sometimes it is an amphitheatre, the churned up sand in the center stained rust red. Sometimes it is a hut strapped to the back of a giant chicken that pecks and clucks and tramples around the overgrown garden.
It is all these things and more, different and still the same.
He doesn’t see Clint again, at least not in the flesh, as it were. In each version of the house there is something of him: his portrait on the wall, a tiny model on a shelf, a Toby Jug with his weary expression, a Roman vase with an archer trapped within its fired glaze. It becomes something of a game for Steve, seeking out the image of his strange friend.
He sees the others too, those carved statues from the first time he came to the house, again and again. The robed figure, the blur of limbs and trailing robes, the broad set of shoulders turned away from the viewer and all the others. Sometimes there is an empty space where a figure should be, a faint outline like the ripples in a still lake where a stone has been thrown.
Steve pauses every time, and traces his thin fingers along the edge of the painting, the ceramic jug, the stained glass window, feeling the void where something should be. He hears the echo of a stuttering intake of breath, a melody on the edge of familiar.
The house is in disrepair, and it itches under Steve’s skin, like when a broken bone starts to heal.
He starts with little things: pushing chairs under tables, picking books up off the floor and putting them back on the shelves. He pulls up the weeds forcing their way through the cracks in the garden path, scrubbing the worst of the dirt from the pale stones with the flat of his hand.
He has no way of knowing how long he will be there each time he visits, how long it will be before he wakes up in his own bed. He could pick a book from the shelf (a plank of wood resting on two bricks. A small pine wood bookcase. A tower of pitch-blackened crates. An aperture carved in the wall of the cave) and find a comfortable place to sit and read, but he might get two pages or twenty before waking, and he has yet to see the same book twice.
Little by little the path is cleared, and room by room books go back on their shelves.
On the nights he comes to the house Steve wakes up tired, as though the efforts in his dreams amounted to work in his life. But the Sisters think him sickly anyway, and do not trust him to lift anything heavier than a pencil.
In his dreams Steve labours under the low hanging winter sun, and his lungs do not trouble him.
He thinks that he must be alone in his dream house, until he finds the caretaker.
Find might be putting it generously.
Steve is minding his own business, gathering up a handful of shimmering marbles that had rolled into a corner and cradling them carefully in his hands. They are light as air and fragile as a whisper, surrounded by the delicate shells of ones that had broken open, their colours faded. When they knock together they chime like silver bells, and each one glows with an ethereal inner light. Steve picks out a mossy green one and holds it up to the light, marvelling at the way the colours dance across the surface, when a short, amiable looking man brandishing a broom stumbles into him.
The man lets out a scream and Steve answers with a yelp of his own, fumbling the green marble but catching it before it drops to the floor. The marbles clenched in his other hand chime in alarm, and Steve pulls them close to his chest protectively.
The man tries to hide behind his broom, screwing his eyes shut and bracing himself for attack. When nothing terrible happens he cracks one eye open and peers at Steve.
“Oh, you’re a human.” His shoulders drop, and the broom with them. “Hey pal, you’re lost. The circus is down the hill. You wanna watch for the house of mirrors though, unless you’re looking for the Pleas-” The man frowns. “How old are you?”
“Twelve,” Steve says flatly. “I’m not lost.”
“Oooooh!” The man’s eyes light up. “Forget I said anything about the Pleasure Fields, gonna be a looong time before you’re going there. And between you an’ me, once you start checking that place out, you’re not gonna be wanting the carousel or the haunted house, y’know what I mean?”
The man winks, and Steve shakes his head. “No, sir. I don’t know what you mean.”
“Good!” The man shakes his broom. “That’s real good, because if you did know what I meant that would be kinda… bad? I guess? Well, never mind, eh?”
The man shifts from foot to foot, and finally takes in the dust on Steve’s clothes, his plain white t-shirt and khakis. Awake, he practically drowns in his clothes, too skinny and too small for anything to fit. In his dreams his pants fit without having to punch extra holes in his belt or tie a knot in the excess fabric of his shirts.
“Hey, it’s you! You’re the one who’s been cleaning up, right?” The man looks delighted. “I thought we musta got an infestation of elves or something. Don’t get me wrong, they’re cute and all, but it’s the terms and conditions, y’know? You gotta read before you sign those things else you got half the Seelie court fighting over your first born.”
“I’m not an elf,” Steve mutters, shifting the marbles around in his hands where they ring and shimmer.
“Nah, you’re not an elf,” the man agrees. He pats his chest proudly. “Luis.”
Steve tries to move all the marbles to one hand so he can offer a hand for Luis to shake. They roll back and forth perilously until he gives up. “Pleased to meet you, Mr Luis. My name is Steve. Steve Rogers.”
“Ah, no.” Luis shakes his head. “That business don’t fly around here, kid. Never tell anyone your true name. Don’t ask for it, neither, or you’ll get your ass hexed right off. And that’s a thing that happens, it ain’t pretty. You’ll never sit down again.”
In spite of himself Steve chuckles, and the man beams at him.
“Okay listen up, pal, because Luis has you covered.” He points to the marbles in Steve’s hands. “First of all, those little souls need putting back in their cases. Leave them out here and they gonna crack open like little eggs and those spirits are gonna float away.”
Steve almost drops them in shock. “They’re souls?”
“Yup,” Luis nods. “All them poor bastards that die in their sleep. Now usually Boss Man gathers them up and takes them where they need to be, but since he’s not here…” Luis scratches his head nervously. “Well, we’re working with what we got, you feel?”
Steve thinks of the empty paintings, and bare plinths, and the weeds pushing their way through the garden path.
“But they’ll get where they need to go eventually, right?” he asks.
“Sure,” Luis nods. “By hook or by crook, you get what I’m saying?”
“Yeah.” Steve nods, cradling his precious cargo. “Okay, show me where they go.”
“This-a-way.” Luis shoulders his broom and points down a hallway that Steve would swear blind hadn’t been there before. Luis catches his surprise and chuckles. “Don’t take it personal, the house is kinda shy, but y’know, clearly likes you, letting you come in and wander around. Though think yourself lucky you didn’t run into the librarian.”
Steve doesn’t ask for more details and Luis doesn’t offer.
The hallway is long and dark, lit by oil lamps fixed to the walls that only seem to make the shadows deeper. Steve looks but he can’t see an end, only a flickering line of lights that stretch into infinity.
“Okay, so first things first, kiddo.” Luis twirls his broom around once before marching down the hall. “When you meet someone, don’t straight-up ask their name, you gotta be civil. Say ‘How would you like to be addressed’ or ‘What are you known as’, something like that.” Luis looks at Steve sideways, and waits for a nod of assent before continuing. “You can go fancy and say ‘You may address me as’ or ‘I am known as’ or you can just point to yourself and say what you wanna say.”
“So your name isn’t Luis?” Steve asks.
“Little buddy, that’s rude.” Luis frowns.
“Sorry,” Steve mutters.
“Nothing to worry about.” Luis makes to elbow Steve in the ribs but remembers the marbles and thinks better of it. “Where was I?”
Steve looks back the way they came, but can see no sign of the room they had just left. He looks ahead, but there is only the dwindling line of flame dancing across old, worn stones.
The wrong kind of stones.
“The… Boss Man,” Steve asks hesitantly. “When is he coming back?”
Luis chews on his lip, looking worried. “I dunno, kid.”
“But he is coming back?”
“Yeah,” Luis nods. “Or something like him, anyway.”
There is a light in the distance, warm and yellow and slowly getting brighter as they walk.
Steve blinks, his eyes watering. “Is this it?” he asks, turning his face away. The light hurts, sharp and stabbing.
“Huh? What?” Luis asks, looking around. “Ooooh crap. Okay, so you didn’t hear that word from me. Give me the souls, quick!”
Steve doesn’t argue against the urgency in Luis’ voice, carefully pouring the marbles into his outstretched hands.
“Be careful,” Steve tells him, the light getting brighter and brighter, as the last, shining bauble falls from his hand.
Luis opens his mouth to answer, but whatever he says is lost in a rush of sound.
“Rogers? Rogers!” Sister Mary Magdalene shakes Steve by the shoulder. “Up you get!”
He sits up, grimacing as Sister Mary pulls back another set of curtains in the dormitory and goes to the next bed to shake his neighbour awake.
“Up!” she shouts with forced cheer. “Time to get up!”
Steve knuckles at his eyes and lets out a jaw cracking yawn while the boy in the next bed whines and gets threatened with detention.
When no one is watching, Steve checks his hands, half expecting to see something, an iridescent sheen, a fragment of glass, or dirt under his fingernails. But there is nothing.
Just a dream, he tells himself. Just a dream.
Chapter 2: Delirium
Catch me when you can Mishter Lusk
-Unknown author, 15th October 1888
In time, Steve comes to meet more of the occupants of the Dream House. Dream’s House, Luis calls it. The Librarian, an irritable man as short as he is wide, insists on calling it The Palace. It doesn’t look like a palace, in whatever form it takes, but Steve nods silently and hands the Librarian another book.
There are more books than can ever be counted, the Librarians says. Every novel ever dreamed up, every poem conjured in sleep that vanishes upon awakening, every haiku and every limerick and every daydream about a movie star trapped between the pages.
After learning that, Steve never dares to pull a book from the shelf and read it. It would be far too intrusive, far too rude, to poke around in a stranger’s thoughts, even if the thinkers were long dead.
Along with the Librarian and Luis the Caretaker, there are the Staff. Before whatever happened happened, according to Luis, there were hundreds of Engineers and Maintenance workers, who kept the House and Grounds running. Every day there would be new instructions for them to carry out, whole buildings to be torn down and replaced, spires and towers and cathedrals. There would be forests torn up and replaced with rose gardens and fields of lavenders, only to be pulled up again for a waterfall or a mountain or a dark cave.
Now, without instructions to fulfill, the Crew had disbanded, leaving only a handful to keep things moving.
Dave and Kurt were human, like Luis, though Dave never uttered a word, at least in Steve’s presence. Kurt spoke often, in an accent so thick Steve could barely understand him, both low and lilting like the growling of a bear.
And then there were the faeries.
“Rule number one, pal,” Luis hisses in Steve’s ear when he first catches sight of them on the stairs (a carved wood spiral staircase that twisted up and up into the clouds that gathered on the ceiling).
“Never, and I mean ever, say ‘Faeries’ okay?”
Steve manages to tear his gaze away from the tiny creatures. One is hunkered down on the bottom step, talking to something moving around its feet. The other hovers just over its head, its gossamer-thin wings moving so fast that they are a blur. They are tiny enough to fit in the palm of Steve’s hand, if he ever dared to offer.
From the look on Luis’ face, Steve must never offer.
“Never use the F-word,” Steve confirms.
“Well, that’s a given,” Luis concedes. “But don’t use this F-word neither.”
“Okay.” Steve purses his mouth. “What do they prefer?”
Luis claps him on the back, hard enough to sting. “Yeah, you’re getting the hang of it!” Luis beams at him proudly. “The Fair Folk. The Lords and Ladies. The Kindly Ones.” Luis leans in conspiratorially. “Don’t believe a word of it, yeah? These little cats are vain, conceited and will hex your eyes backwards if you so much as look at them wrong. An’ they’ll steal away smart little fellers like yourself with empty promises and pretty words. You eat nuthin’ that they offer you, alright? You drink nuthin’ neither. You feel me?”
Luis’ usually kindly expression turns severe.
“Eat nothing, drink nothing,” Steve repeats somberly.
Luis pats him again, a little more gently this time. “Damn right. ‘Course all that shi-” Luis pauses and starts again. “All that stuff don’t count in Dream’s House. As long as you’re here you’re under his protection, and that kind of thing counts even when he ain’t around.”
Steve chews his lower lip as Luis pushes him towards the F- towards the Fair Folk. “But he is coming back, right?”
“Yeah, course he is.” Luis shrugs. “Or at least someone like him.”
Steve digs his heels into the floor (plush sage green carpet). He likes the Dream House. He likes being able to do things without his back aching and his lungs seizing. He likes having friends.
“Will he let me stay?” Steve whispers. “The Boss Man, he won’t make me leave?”
“Yeah, pal.” Luis curls his hand around Steve’s Steve’s shoulder. “He’ll let you stick around.”
The Fair Folk are nothing like the storybooks at the Orphanage suggested.
The one with wings and sharp, elegant features emphasised by her bobbed black hair is called Hope. She looks up at Steve disdainfully before fluttering away.
The other one is called Scott, and is far more grounded in every sense. There are ants milling around his feet, looking for crumbs of food like a gathering of excited dogs. Scott looks Steve up and down, before pulling a paper wrap out of his pocket and unfolding it. Inside are grains of sugar, barely a pinch worth, but Scott scoops some up and tosses it to the ants, who scramble after it.
“Hey, Luis. Who’s the new crew?”
“Oh,” Steve hastens to interrupt. “I don’t work here. I’m just. I just. I’m sleeping.”
“Scotty, this is my buddy Steve,” Luis gives Steve a gentle shake. “He’s been helping out with cleaning an’ stuff.”
“Ah, the mystery guy, you fixed the window, right?” One of the ants tugs at Scotts pant leg, waving its antenna for a treat. Scott holds out his hand and lets the ant pick at the sugar clinging to his fingers. “Nice to meet you.”
Steve opens his mouth to explain that the window wasn’t broken, it was just detached, and needed sliding back into place was all, but Luis starts talking before he gets the chance.
“Kid’s wasted in cleaning,” Luis confides, ignoring the way Steve pokes him in the ribs.
“Shh, I am not,” Steve hisses.
“I’m serious, we gotta get him an allocation somewhere.”
“Luis, shut up.” Steve pokes him harder, and only gets himself a sore finger.
“Luis, allocation isn’t up to us,” Scott looks apologetic. “That’s up to the Boss.”
“Yeah, but if he made himself indispensable,” Luis grins, “Boss Man has to keep him.”
Steve stops poking and slumps into Luis’ gleeful embrace. It’s a nice thing he’s trying to do, and Steve shouldn’t pitch such a fit about it.
He listens to them throwing ideas back and forth, until his eyes start to itch and his vision starts to blur, the early warning signs of waking up.
Summer flu is the cruelest kind of illness, it seems to Steve.
Everyone gets sick in winter. The nurse, the Sisters, even the other boys in the dormitory, the ones who grow like weeds and corner Steve behind the trash cans for a beating with a regularity that borders on mundane. It happens often enough that when Steve shows up at the nurse’s office, his nose bloody and broken, she sighs and points him towards the supplies, telling him to take care of the injuries himself.
Steve is good at fixing himself up, at gritting his teeth while he cleans the grit out of his wounds. He can already suture and wrap bandages and find a vein, but the nurse never jokes that he’ll grow up to be a doctor.
He’s heard the Sisters whispering, big words like arrhythmia and defect and pernicious anemia. They never asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up (artist) or if he wanted to take the Orphan Train west (no). They never planned for a future he didn’t have.
In the fall he always gets a cold which settles in his chest. By winter it develops into bronchitis or pneumonia. In spring his allergies flare up, which triggers his asthma, and his heart stumbles and trips too-fast and too-slow. The nurses give him herbal cigarettes, which only make him cough harder, and sit him by an open window where he can breathe fresh air filled with tree pollen that makes his eyes water and his nose run.
The summer, already hot and humid, should be a relief, but his only respite comes in his dreams.
There is no asthma in the Dream House, no bronchitis or pneumonia or the taste of blood in his mouth.
Three days before his fourteenth birthday Steve comes down with the flu.
At first it doesn’t seem that unusual. Fevers and chills. But the days pass and Steve gets gradually worse.
The nurses move him out of the sick ward and into a private room the size of a broom closet. There isn’t even a window to look out of, and Steve spends his days coughing until he throws up, and then coughing some more, the sharp smell of bile filling his nose and the roof of his mouth, acrid and hot.
He does not visit the Dream House when he is is sick.
He tries. When his eyelids become heavy and he can no longer focus on his grim little room, he thinks of the house, in all its forms, as if he could wish himself there.
But instead he finds himself lost in dark forests. Adrift in flimsy little boats made of prescriptions on a vast and choppy sea. Walking down endless whitewashed corridors in search of… something. In the dreams he is searching desperately, though for what he cannot say.
As the days drag on and he gets steadily worse, he starts to wonder, his thoughts chasing each other around his lonely little room. Had his friends in the Dream House forgotten him? Were they looking for him?
(Would he fall asleep while dreaming of a little boat on stormy seas? Would his soul-marble sink to the bottom of the ocean, never to be found?)
The dreams creep into his waking hours. The four walls around his bed are trees, looming over him. The Sisters great white birds, like herons or swans, clucking and honking as they go about their business.
The floor is a rough sea, white waves dashing against the door. The bed is a ship, creaking gently as it rolls with the waves, the sails bundled around his legs.
Steve clings to the mast, his skin drenched in sea spray, and tries not to be sick again.
Steve isn’t sure if he’s asleep or awake, though he is lying down in a bed, so that must mean awake.
He shifts under the covers, and no part of him doesn’t ache. Even his bones ache.
There is a girl sitting on his bed.
Steve slowly pulls down the covers, peering down at the end of the bed.
There is a girl sitting on his bed.
Steve shifts and shimmies, working himself into a sitting position, careful not to disturb the girl, who is staring up at the bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling, watching it flicker on and off.
New York Foundling has girl orphans as well as boys, though they are kept in a separate ward. It’s possible that the girl could have gotten lost.
At night, when the Sisters have gone to bed, the older boys tell stories of the children kept downstairs, the ones who will never get a seat on the Orphan Trains. The ones whose parents are still alive, but didn’t want them, because they were… they were…
Maybe the stories were true. Maybe the girl had escaped.
Steve straightens up. He has to help her.
“Miss,” Steve tugs at the blanket, trying to get her attention. “Miss? Do you need help?”
The girl turns to face him.
And she is a girl, maybe of leaving age, but she is also old. Old like mountains are old, like stars are old, not like people are old. Her hair, warm brown and tinged with fire at the tips, falls down to her shoulders. Her eyes are green, except when they are red, and in her hands are butterflies.
They flap their wings, red and ochre and scarlet, and flutter up into the air towards the light. The girl laughs, tracking their movements, her crooked fingers dancing in the air after them.
Steve watches the butterflies flit back and forth, trailing faint plumes of smoke. He blinks rapidly as they slowly dissipate, leaving a faint red haze around the stuttering lightbulb.
Maybe he is still asleep.
The girl lifts up her hands, and the red smoke drifts down to curl around her outstretched fingers. She twists her fingers in a fluid, complex gesture, and a dozen little red birds flutter up, darting and swooping through the air above them.
Steve reaches up without thinking, and one of the birds, no bigger than a robin, perches on the tip of his thumb. It weighs nothing, and when he looks closer he can see right through it, it’s body as insubstantial as smoke. The bird takes off again, and Steve feels no push, no resistance against his thumb that propels the little bird upwards to join its friends.
He turns to the girl to ask her how she makes them. It must be something in the way the flickering light catches her, or the turn of her hands, but Steve recognises her.
He has seen her face a hundred times or more. In statues. In paintings and vases and twists of wire and plaster. In the portraits that line the entrance hall of the Dream House.
“I know you,” Steve coughs out.
The girl smiles at him. “Oh, course you do, Stevie.”
Her voice is rich, not as thick as Kurt’s, but with the same melodic burr. Steve hadn’t expected her to accept the revelation so easily, and is struck dumb. The girl turns back to her birds, calling them back into her waiting hands, where they roost and chatter and return to smoke.
“What are you doing here?” Steve finally finds his tongue.
“I was lost.” The girl twists the red smoke around her fingers. “I was looking for my brother and I got lost. And I got scared, and I followed you here.” She looks thoughtfully at her hands. “You have really weird dreams. They should be mine but they’re his.”
“Sorry?” Steve offers, confused.
“That’s okay,” the girl smiles, cocking her wrist. “Dreams aren’t my thing anyway.”
Steve thinks back to the portraits in the Dream House, of the empty frame. Brother, the girl had said.
“He’s coming back,” Steve tries to sound confident, like Luis. “Your brother.”
“You saw him?” The girl looks excited, her accent getting stronger, him becoming heem. “You spoke to him?”
“No,” Steve quickly shakes his head. “But Luis says he’s coming back. Or someone like him.”
“Oh.” The girl visibly deflates, and her smoke wreathed around her hands seems to sink a little with her. “You mean the other one.”
“The… other one?”
“I know he’ll come back someday.” The girl rolls her eyes. “He would never leave his post.”
Steve wracks his brain, trying to think of who the girl is talking about. “Robin Hood?”
The girl laughs and twists her fingers. Tiny red frogs hop across the blankets.
Steve counts through the statues in his memory, his head sore and fogged with fever. The Archer, The Girl, The Empty Plinth, The Hooded Man, until he remembers broad shoulders and a towering figure turned away.
“The big man?” Steve asks. “The hulking great-”
“Yes!” The little frogs hop up and down and ribbit in unison. “Have you seen him?”
“Ah.” Steve’s happiness at guessing correctly is short lived. “No, sorry. Has he been missing long?”
“Since the war,” the girl sighs. She calls her frogs back to her, and they hop lightly across the bed.
“I’m sorry,” Steve says, and he means it. “I lost my dad in the war, too.”
“Oh, he wasn’t in the war.” The girls scoops up the frogs, their long, webbed limbs poking out between her fingers. “He was the war.”
There’s not much Steve can say to that, so he watches as the frogs return to smoke, and the girl trails it between her fingers like a game of cat’s cradle.
“I never had any brothers,” Steve tells her. “Or sisters. It was just me and Ma.”
“He was a nice brother. The others were nice too, but Clint has his brother-sister to talk to and Vision has his books and Bucky was always working.” She emphasises ‘working’ like its a singular horror and Bucky should be ashamed of himself. “But Bruce was always kind to me, especially after-” The girl swallows. “He even gave me a name. The one before me didn’t have a name, he didn’t call her Wanda.”
“Wanda?” Steve says quickly. “Is that what you’re called?”
She nods, and a single, blood-red fish swims out from her hands and starts to circle the room lazily. With every pass over their heads it seems to grow larger and larger.
“That’s a nice name,” Steve agrees.
“The one before was called Delight. Alliteration or something,” Wanda shrugs as the fish mouths at the bare lightbulb curiously. “But you don’t want to hear that story.”
“Yes, I do.” Steve sits forward. “I’ve been stuck in this room for days, Wanda. You’re the first person I’ve spoken to in…” Steve doesn’t know how long it's been. “Please? Tell me?”
Wanda looks doubtful, but tucks her feet under the blanket and brushes her hair out of her eyes.
“There was a doctor.”
“There was a doctor in a big old city, and one day he shattered. No one could see it because the pieces were on the inside.” Wanda glances at Steve, before returning her gaze to the fish swimming overhead. “There were people living in a city, ones who had everything and ones who had nothing. The ones who had nothing fought each other for their morsels of nothing. There were girls in the city, and they had nothing too. They sold their teeth and their hair for money to buy bread, and when they didn’t have any of that left they sold their time.”
The fish swims down into Wanda’s arms and curls up like a cat.
“The doctor went looking for the girls, and it wasn’t enough to have their time, he wanted all the pieces that you couldn’t buy. He took them apart like pocket watches, looking for their tick-tock, and then stacked up the pieces neat as can be. But things aren’t supposed to be taken apart, and they never tick-tocked again.” Wanda runs her hands over brightly shining scales. “And the people of the city weren’t horrified, not deep down. They were fascinated. The old world got sliced up and the new one made out of its tick-tocks and gutters and thrupenny uprights, and there was no more Delight.”
Wanda sniffs, pausing in her stroking. Steve hesitates, and leans forward, the movement making him dizzy. He can’t quite reach her, but he puts his hand on the blanket by Wanda’s knee.
“Well, I like you just fine, Wanda.”
She sniffs again, tipping her head back and swallowing in a practiced gesture, blinking until the tears no longer threaten to spill.
“I like you too,” she says, her voice a little thicker. “Will you help me find my brother?”
“Sure,” Steve agrees readily. “But I gotta get better first.”
She looks about ready to argue, but takes in the flush of Steve’s cheeks, the tremors in his limbs, and relents.
“Okay. I’ll tell my brother to leave you alone until we find him.”
Steve frowns. Which brother? “I’m sorry, what?”
But Wanda is already gone.
The fever breaks, and Steve is returned to the main dormitory. He should be happy to be reunited with the other children but he is not. They keep their distance, at least. Steve is still pale and his knees feel like rubber when he tries to walk, his arms shake under the weight of a glass of water, and there is no fun to be had in beating someone already on his knees. So the other boys keep their distance, beating up a skinny runt of a kid is one thing, but Steve looks like one decent knock would kill him, and none of the boys want that hanging over them, at least not in front of witnesses.
Steve hates it. Hates feeling weak, hates being frail. He resolves to get stronger, and when the other boys are playing stickball in the yard, he hides in the dormitory and does push ups until he feels about ready to throw up.
Six. Six is all it takes to have him wheezing, curled up on his side like a shrimp. Steve swipes away the snot and tears with the back of his hand, and rolls onto his stomach.
Seven. This time he’ll manage seven.
Steve lifts his head, and sees nothing but long, weed-choked grass. Did he pass out? Did he fall asleep on the dormitory floor? (Will he wake up before the other boys come in and find him?)
It takes a minute to work out where he is, it feels like so long since he was last at the house. “Luis?”
“Heeeeey!” Luis looms over him, blocking out the sun. “There you are. You had me worried, little pal. Thought you’d forgotten about us.”
Steve smiles and holds up his hands, letting Luis pull him to his feet. “Never.”
“What you doin’ out here, huh?” Luis pats Steve down, brushing off the stray blades of grass clinging to him. “Hell of a place to take a nap, kid.”
“I was…” Steve rubs his hands over his eyes. “I was doing exercises.”
Luis frowns. “Why?”
Steve lowers his hands slowly. “So I can get stronger?”
Luis blows air between his loose lips in a loud, obnoxious thhhrrrrp. “You already super-strong, little guy. Look at all the sh- at all the stuff you do here.” He pats Steve on the shoulder. “Ain’t none of that matter here, y’know? What good is a strong body when you don’t got a strong mind. And you, pal? You got an iron will. Gotta have, finding your way back here all the time.”
Steve isn’t convinced, but appreciates that Luis is trying, and gives the hand on his shoulder a gentle pat.
“Thanks Luis, but I gotta do this. I made a promise to someone, and I gotta help her.”
Luis’ eyes light up. “You have a quest?! Oh wow, that’s great! Is that where you’ve been? That’s so amazing, little pal, I always wanted to go on a quest.” His expression turns grave. “Is it your destiny? Are there monsters to vanquish? Do you need a squire? I could totally be a squire.”
Steve chuckles, warmth spreading through his chest at the sight of his friend. “I’m not going now, Luis.”
Luis lets out a huff of relief, and gives Steve a gentle shake. “Well, that’s a fu- that’s good to hear, because we totally need your help.”
Luis gently starts pushing Steve towards the Dream House, a sad-looking little hut on stilts over a lake. The garden path a set of wooden slats winding through the long grass and forming a jetty reaching over the water.
“Oh,” Steve says softly, taking in the drooping straw roof.
“Yeah.” Luis rubs his nose. “It missed you.”
Steve feels his cheeks burn and ducks his head. “Oh,” he repeats dumbly. “I missed it too. And… well… you know.”
Luis scrunches his face up happily. “Right back atcha, pal.”
The house warps around them as Steve climbs up the jetty and through the doorway, the walls shifting and reforming from cracked mud to rough hewn planks of oak. They creak and groan as the house lists from side to side, tall masts stretching up to the open sky above them, sails unfurling and catching the wind.
“Ooooooh.” Luis reaches up to pull on a length of rigging securing the sails to the mast. “Not seen this in a while.”
Steve follows him across the deck, marvelling at the wide open seas surrounding the ship, and the salt spray on his skin. Luis gestures for Steve to follow him below decks, climbing down a rickety ladder and weaving through the maze of cabins in the bowels of the ship.
“So you can draw, right?” Luis calls back as he stops at a heavy oak door.
Steve nods, then realises Luis can’t see him. “Yes.”
“Ah buddy, you are a fu- a freaking lifesaver, y’know.” Luis knocks on the door, and after a moment it is opened by Kurt, who welcomes them in with a sweep of his arm. “Thanks, man.”
Steve follows Luis through the door and into the Captain’s quarters. The room is sparsely furnished, a large wooden table covered in maps and cartography instruments, a plush chair, a small bookcase. Behind the table is a row of small windows, looking out to sea. On the table are little carved wooden figures, and Steve instinctively seeks out the familiar shapes of Wanda and Clint, next to an odd-looking statue of a black cat.
“So we were in the throne room moving this big-assed plinth with a statue of a kitty-cat balanced on top. And yeah, we should’ve moved the kitty first, lesson learned and all that, but we didn’t, and Kurt went left when I went right, and we sorta broke the royal portrait.”
Luis points to the wall beside the door, where a gilt-framed painted hangs crookedly, the canvas torn in two.
“This is the throne room?” Steve asks incredulously.
“Not the point here, but yes,” Kurt says from his place by the door.
Steve takes another look around. He’s never been in a throne room before, he had expected something a bit more… In all honesty Steve didn’t know what to expect.
He points to the picture, the upper part of the canvas has torn cleanly across, the flap of cloth hanging down to cover the rest of the painting. “Is that the Boss Man?”
“Yup,” Luis nods. “Pretty good likeness.” Luis looks to Kurt for confirmation, and he nods in agreement.
Steve walks slowly towards the painting. In all his visits to the Dream House he had never once seen the Boss Man. Gone, Luis always said. Gone but he’ll come back. Him or something like him.
Steve lifts up the fold of canvas and looks.
Boss Man is tall and lean, his skin is pale as marble, and his coal-black hair falls down to his shoulders. Around his neck he wears a silver chain, weighted down by a shining blue pendant as big as a fist.
“That’s the Tesseract.” Luis points to the pendant. “The source of Boss Man’s powers.”
“It not source of power,” Kurt cuts in. “Him make Tesseract to store power. Boss Man power come from all of us.”
“Yeah, whatever,” Luis shrugs. “So can you fix it?”
Steve runs his fingers along the painted canvas, tracing the line of Boss Man’s jaw. He is handsome, Steve thinks abstractly, but he looks sad, and that plucks at Steve’s heart.
“Yeah,” Steve says softly, almost to himself. “Yeah, I can help.”
Luis claps his hands together in delight while Kurt punches the air. “Stevie, kiddo, you are the best! What d’you need? Huh? Name it, it’s yours.”
Steve looks around for somewhere to work. “Uh. Can you clear the table?”
Kurt moves into action, collecting up the maps and figures while Luis helps Steve move the picture to the table.
“Okay.” Steve taps his thumb to his mouth thoughtfully. He can’t sew the canvas back together, like how his Ma used to darn his socks. It would need patching, like the knees on his pants when they wear through.
“I need some glue,” he tells Luis. “And a piece of cloth and some paint.”
Kurt and Luis rush around finding him what he needs, and Steve turns the painting over so its face down. On the raw canvas side he smears glue on each side of the tear, and carefully sticks the patch of fabric in place.
“Why are you fixing the back?” Luis asks in a hushed voice. “The picture’s on the other side.”
“Because this is how you fix things, like if you tear a hole in your jacket?” Steve says patiently. “You put the patch on the back, so it doesn’t tear any worse, and then you got something to stitch the rip to when you turn it over.”
“Wow,” Luis looks at him in awe. “You’re really good at this whole fixing thing.”
Steve shakes his head. “My Ma was good at fixing things.” He bites his lip. Thinking about his Ma is like poking his tongue against a bad tooth. It hurts to touch but still he worries at it. “She was a nurse, and there was nothing she couldn’t fix.”
“Can she come and help?” Luis asks brightly. “We got a lot of stuff that needs fixing.”
Steve bites the inside of his cheek, the pain sharp even in dreams. “She died.”
“Aww little man, I’m so sorry,” Luis whispers, and Steve shakes his head quickly, focusing on the job in hand.
“Help me turn it over.”
He climbs off the painting, and the three of them turn it right-side up. It takes a little dab of glue at each raw edge to stick the last of the tear down, and Steve mixes up some paint while the glue dries and covers up the scar of patching cloth as best as he can.
“Just like new,” Luis says as they put the painting back up on the wall.
Steve can still see the faint scar across the top of the painting, the uneven colour of the repair, but the room is gradually getting brighter, and he knows it won’t be long before he’ll come to, cold and disoriented, on the dormitory floor.
Chapter 3: Destruction
The smell of gunpowder is still in Steve’s mouth, fear and cordite coating his tongue.
“I don’t want to kill anyone,” he says quietly.
Warnings for mentions of the Holocaust.
Major US newspapers, including the New York Times and Washington Post, reported on the situation in Germany from as early as 1933. There were, in addition, reports of the Nazi concentration camps from the summer of 1942, and widespread reporting of the murder of 2 million Jews in November 1942.
So yeah. You can't convince me that Steve didn't know what was going on, and wanted to stop it.
It’s no surprise that the Recruitment and Induction Center is crowded, even on Christmas Eve. Less than two weeks have passed since the attack on Pearl Harbor, and in the waiting room the rows of hard wooden chairs are filled with young men waiting to enlist.
Steve hunches over in his seat, trying to focus on his newspaper as the next applicant is called up. The other men tower over him but he's used to being towered over.
“Rogers, Steven G,” a voice calls, and he folds up his newspaper and leaves it on the seat where he found it before walking over to the counter.
Ahead of him a line of men answer questions before being sent to private examination rooms, and Steve tries not to fidget. Luis had told him not to come today. Luis had begged, but here he is, shivering in his vest and khakis while people mill around him.
The doctor at the desk looks at him sharply when he reaches the front of the line, and pulls his records closer. Steve glances down at the typed sheet and the laundry list of medical conditions there, the asthma and the heart condition and all the rest, and grits his teeth.
He barely gets a chance to speak before the doctor dismisses him, stamping his papers with a 4F and sending him on his way.
Steve waits until he’s a block away before he shreds the documents and tosses them in the trash. He’ll keep trying, he’ll go to New Jersey if he has to, there’s a recruitment center in Paramus.
Steve shoves his hands into his pockets, shivering at the biting cold wind, and takes the subway to Penn Station, switching trains to get to his place in Queens. It had been a hardship leaving Brooklyn but work was scarce, and the room he rented on Alameda Avenue was cheap and less than an hour’s walk from the art school.
He wasn’t an art teacher or one of those artists in residence they’d bring in once in a while, he was a technician. He mixed paint and made frames and stretched canvases for the students, setting up the studios at the start of the day and cleaning up at the end of it.
It was hard to be bitter, he has access to materials and reference books, and the teachers don’t mind him sitting in on the classes if he doesn’t have work to get on with. He learns about the colour wheel and perspective, how to reduce the human form to geometric shapes and then build it up again. With his scavenged knowledge of oils and charcoals and light and shade, the students are as likely to come to him for advice than their teachers.
More than anything Steve uses the school as a chance to learn new techniques. He learns to weave and make paper, to sculpt in clay and wax and to cast in bronze. Whenever the teachers come up with a new technique, he learns everything he can from it. He has to, because he is the Restorer of Broken Dreams.
Steve comes to in the Throne Room with a start. He must have fallen asleep at his desk again, at least that's what the distant ache in his back seems to tell him.
The Throne Room is a perfect replica of the Reading room of the British Library this time, which means the house is in a good mood. Steve looks up at the circular walls lined with books, craning his head back to admire the domed ceiling in gold and blue. The back of his head touches the seat of the throne, an elegant wooden chair with a padded seat in sage green, and Steve lets his head rest there a moment.
“Hello,” he says to the Dream House. “I missed you.”
The Librarian says that the house is sentient, that it is an aspect of the absentee Dream. While it stands, the world is still able to dream, and now more than ever it seems important to Steve that people can dream.
As nice as is it to just sit and be with the house for a while, there is work to be done, and Steve heaves himself upright, the sage carpet plush and indulgent under his feet. A doorway forms between the bookcases, and Steve ducks through, trusting the house to lead him where he needs to go as the walls form and reform around him.
Wood panelling becomes brick not the right kind of brick and a plain blue door appears before him.
“Thank you,” Steve murmurs as he opens the door.
The workshop is one of the few places in the house that doesn’t change. A cosy little room with rough plastered walls and an open fire in the corner. One wall is lined with shelves and shelves of books and catalogues alongside the door that leads to the storeroom. Whatever Steve needs every day he will find in that room, even though it is barely the size of a cupboard.
The view out the window changes on the houses whims; one day it will be of the Fortezza di Belvedere in Florence, the next day a river choked with water lilies or a field of wheat bracketed by cypress trees. Today it is a forest of seaweed, with otters darting between the fronds in search of anemones. Steve checks that the window is sealed shut, and makes himself coffee before starting work.
Luis comes bundling through the door as soon as coffee is ready, a box tucked under his arm.
“Hey, Stevie,” he says, setting the box on Steve’s desk. “How ya been, buddy?”
Steve pours Luis a cup of coffee along with his own. “Hey, Luis. What you got for me today?”
Luis drains half his cup before speaking, and Steve takes the opportunity to have a peek in the box. There is a folded up sweater at the very bottom, along with a wooden pull-along dog that’s missing a wheel and a strange little lump of clay. Steve picks up the clay object first, turning it around in his hand. It’s hollow and roughly the size of a chicken egg. As far as he can tell it was shaped like a bird, or at least it was before it was broken.
“That’s an ocarina,” Luis explains between gulps of coffee. “It’s like a musical instrument, right?”
Steve nods absently. He can see where holes have been drilled through the clay, positioned where fingertips could be easily pressed. “Alright, that shouldn’t be a problem.”
“You’re the best, man,” Luis says fondly, and Steve’s cheeks colour a little.
Luis watches, fidgeting with his empty mug as Steve unpacks the rest of the box, putting the other items to one side while he focuses on the ocarina.
“If you want more coffee, help yourself,” Steve says, getting up to search through his books. “You don’t have to wait to be asked.”
“Yeah, I know.” Luis taps at the rim of his cup. “I was just, y’know, wondering.”
Steve hums, distracted, as he flicks through the pages of a museum catalogue until he finds the right reference.
“I was wondering if you…” Luis bites his lip. “Enlisted.”
Steve doesn’t answer, which is an answer in itself.
“Oh come on, man!” Luis burst out. “Are you kidding me?”
“Luis,” Steve sighs. He doesn’t want to have this argument again.
“Stevie, why you gotta be like this, man? You seen the killing fields, right? There’s people losing their minds out there. Poor kids choking out their last on barbed wire and drowning in mud, and you wanna be one of them?” Luis’ voice drops, beseeching. “There’s other stuff you could be doing, why you gotta fight?”
“I’m not gonna sit out the war in a factory, Luis,” Steve tells him curtly, fetching a piece of clay from the storeroom. “Don’t ask me to.”
“You think bleeding your last in No Man’s Land is gonna make a difference?” Luis doesn’t snap, and Steve doubt’s he’s even capable of raising his voice in anger, but he’s agitated.
“That’s my point!” Steve snaps. “There are men laying down their lives, why should I do any less than them? I’m not looking to be a martyr or anything like that, this isn’t about me.”
“Aw man, that’s bullshit and you know it.” Luis dumps his empty coffee cup on the table. He takes a breath, pulling himself together. “I just don’t want you dying is all.”
“Luis.” All the anger leaves Steve in a rush. “I’m not going anywhere. If I die in dreams, I get to stay here, isn’t that right?”
“Yeah, but.” Luis sniffs. “You gotta live before you die. Go make friends, see the world, that kind of thing.”
“I already got friends.” Steve gives Luis a pat on the shoulder, and gets a damp, snuffling hug for it. “I promise I’ll make more friends, okay? And, I don’t know, visit France or something?”
“And get wasted, like, falling over wasted.” Luis’ voice is muffled against Steve’s shirt. “And kiss a pretty girl. Or a boy. I don’t know, whatever kind of thing you’re into.”
Steve’s thought turn to the portrait hanging in the Throne Room, and just as quickly skitter away again.
“Alright, I promise.” Steve says softly. “I promise.”
Luis, after scrubbing his eyes with his sleeve and helping himself to another cup of coffee, leaves Steve to get on with his work.
He sits down at his desk and picks out a couple of sculpting tools from the pot at the top of his desk, and sets to work.
The clay object is old, far older than Steve can imagine, and he studies it carefully before getting started, pinching off little pieces of clay from his block and pressing them into place. He follows the contours of the rough surface, dipping in and flowing out, until he is holding the shape of a proud little bird in his hands.
He takes up one of his tools and starts to refine the shape, smoothing out his finger marks from the soft clay and adding score marks for the flight feathers on its wings and proud crest on its head. Finally he takes an awl and punches four holes in the hollow body, blowing away the stray fragments of clay with a quick puff of breath.
Satisfied that it’s finished, Steve holds the ocarina to his mouth, holding his fingers over the holes, and blows.
A thin, high note trills out of the mouth of the clay bird, and its body darkens under Steve’s hands, the patina of wet clay overlaid with a red ochre glaze. Steve blows again, his fingers tip-tapping over the holes like a cavorting spider.
The air fill with the sharp, verdant scent of green. Towering stalks of corn whip back and forth around him, their long, crepe-paper leaves rustling in the wind. The ground under his feet is dry and cracked, dry dust on the breeze, and between the stems small brown birds dart back and forth.
The ocarina struggles in his grip and Steve opens his hands, the fields of corn and the blue skies gone as quickly as they came, and the clay bird launches into the air, spiralling around the room in a burst of song.
He hurries over to the door and pulls it open, and watches as the ocarina flies out into the hallway, flying off to wherever it needs to go.
Steve washes the clay from his hands and makes a fresh pot of coffee, before picking up the next broken dream.
Even the war effort seems to shut down for Christmas and New Year, and it’s January before Steve gets another chance to enlist, as Steven Grant, at the Recruitment Center in Long Island. They reject him outright, and he adds another 4F form to his collection. Like the others it gets shredded and tossed in the trash.
He tries again a week later, taking the subway to Port Authority and from there a bus to Paramus.
It’s a two hour journey and half a days wages, but after a perfunctory medical exam Grant Rogers is rejected over a weak heart.
He spends his days at the art school, half asleep on his feet as he scrubs the brushes clean in the stained bristol sink and sweeps the floor. At night he returns to the Dream House, and the bricks (or rough hewn logs, or polished marble, or cave walls) seem to sigh a greeting. Steve runs his hand along the dark wood walls (or the moss covered stones, or the crumbling adobe) and whispers his own hellos in return.
He loves the house, loves it with a fierce, proud devotion. And the stones and the marble and the stained glass loves him too, though he cannot explain how such a thing could be possible. He only knows it, deep in the marrow of his bones.
It is one of the students that talks Steve in to going to the World Fair over in Flushing Meadows. Steve turns down her offer at first, but the girl (Connie? Bonnie? He can’t tell them apart) gives him a spare ticket and refuses to take no for an answer. So much so that she and her friend (Bonnie? Connie?) insist on meeting up with him there.
Steve doesn’t have it in him to argue, and Luis would be thrilled to hear that he has some kind of social life. And maybe it's the thought of telling Luis about it later that finally makes him agree.
The World Exposition of Tomorrow is a riot of noise and colour with fireworks and fairground rides, and a huge model of a revolving globe at the center.
Steve climbs up to the viewing platform to admire the work on the globe, enormous steel hoops marking the longitudes and latitudes of the earth, with beaten panels cut to the shape of the continents welded in place on top.
The welding work leaves something to be desired, but Steve admires the grandeur of the piece and what it represents before taking a look around the rest of the exhibits.
He spends a long time staring at Phineas Horton’s Synthetic Man. There is something chilling about the figure, its eyes closed, its body unnaturally still, encased in a glass cylinder. Steve has a sudden, desperate urge to shatter the damned thing, to break his knuckles and drag the poor man out of his prison.
Steve shivers, tears pricking at his eyes, and goes in search of a distraction.
He finds Connie and Bonnie at the Stark Industries presentation, where the notorious inventor Howard Stark is showing off his flying car. Steve watches the car lift a few feet off the ground, hovering in midair to the gasps of astonishment from the crowd, before crashing down again.
It doesn’t compare to the wonders of the Dream House and Steve wanders away, stopping off at one of the vendors to buy a bag of boiled peanuts.
Fireworks light up the skies around the fair, starbursts of red and white and blue as he counts out his change and hands it over to the vendor. He takes the candy striped bag and pops a peanut in his mouth, walking away from the stand in search of a distraction. He’s chewing absently, his thoughts not really on anything, when he sees the man.
Steve has never seen him before, a quiet, kindly looking man with tousled greying hair and wire rimmed glasses, but Steve knows him.
Steve frowns, throwing another peanut into his mouth. How can that be possible? How can you know someone, know them like your own reflection, but have never seen them before?
Another volley of fireworks explode across the skies as the man glances Steve’s way. He catches sight of him staring and quietly walks away.
If nothing else, Steve knows suspicious when he sees it, and starts to follow, twisting the top of his bag of peanuts and shoving them in his pocket as he goes.
The man ducks behind one of the support struts holding the globe up, and Steve recognises him. Not from his face, Steve has never seen his face before, but his back. A thousand times in a thousand ways, daubed on cave walls and stained glass and oils and wood, his back turned to the viewer. His pale, rumpled shirt is painted rainbow colours by the fireworks, red and gold and green.
“Hey!” Steve shouts and starts running after him. “Hey, stop!”
“Shh!” He hisses, grabbing Steve by the arm and pulling him behind one of the striped marquees.
His grip on Steve’s arm is painfully tight, and Steve braces himself for a punch.
“Wait, no. Stop that!” The man, though he is not a man, recoils as if Steve’s arm burns, taking a step back. “I’m not. I’m not gonna hurt you. I don’t hurt people.” He wipes his hand across his face, dislodging his glasses. “Not anymore.”
“I know you,” Steve blurts out. “You’re the one who left. You turned your back on-”
“That’s none of your damn business!” he snaps, rage welling up and subsiding in him faster than Steve can keep up with.
“I’ve seen your picture,” Steve continues, undeterred. “I know who you are.”
“You don’t know a damn thing,” the man who is not a man snarls, and for an instant Steve can see the figure from the statues, tall and thickset, his teeth bared. As quickly as it happens the moment passes, and he is a small, unassuming man again. “Leave me alone.”
He straightens his glasses, turning away, and Steve does the only thing he can.
“Wanda is looking for you.”
The man who is not a man falters, but doesn’t turn back.
“Your sister, Delirium. Wanda,” Steve persists. “She misses you.”
His shoulders sag, and the man who is not a man turns to face Steve, his careworn features crumpling. “I’m not going back. I’m sorry but I… I can’t.”
Steve opens his mouth to speak, but the man who is not a man starts walking, away from the crowds and into the darkness. The sky lights up around him, flashes of phosphorescence followed by distant thunder.
“Hey, wait!” Steve shouts, running to catch up to him. The ground under his feet shifts, one step concrete, the next thick, churned mud.
Steve slips, his shoes sinking into the mire, but keeps moving, struggling to keep up. Another burst of light paints the sky white, and Steve sees an endless valley surrounding them, marred with pits and craters and snarls of barbed wire. There is a dull thump, like a hammer striking the earth, and the man who is not a man keeps walking. There is a odd sound ahead that Steve can’t place, like the drumming of fingers on an empty coffee can.
“It wasn’t always like this,” he calls over the noise. “There was always fighting; man against man, tribe against tribe, country against country. A tooth for a tooth, and they’d skulk away and lick their wounds, until they forgot the sound of steel against bone and started up again.”
The rat-a-tat-tat rises to a crescendo as he speaks, and bright lights burst around them, spraying dirt and rocks and shattered bone.
Under the flash and boom and hammering Steve can hear breathless, exhausted moans, and voices raised in song.
“When the seas filled with sinking ships, I thought this is bad. Pressganged men drowning in their hundreds” the man who is not a man says, almost conversationally. “When the north and south set against each other, and while they fought the ones left behind starved, I thought this is it. This must be it. And then you took the skies.”
He looks up, and through the smoke and the blinding bursts of light Steve can hear the sound of engines.
“Wait!” Steve yells as the ground to the left of him explodes, showering him with debris.
He coughs, choking on dirt, and stumbles forward. The mud clings to him, stinking of gunpowder and blood, and Steve has to brace his hands against the earth to lever himself free.
In the distance a white light starts to fill the sky, like a terrible sunrise, and a gale rips across the landscape.
“I thought that must be it.” The man looks to the blinding light sweeping towards them. “But it’s going to get so much worse.”
The light floods the valley, scorching everything it touches. Mud and dirt and bone and wire are burned up, and Steve covers his head with his arms, dropping to the earth as he feels his flesh and bones sear and crumble to ashes.
“I’m not going back.”
Steve opens his eyes. He’s curled up on the ground at the edge of the fair, scraggy clumps of grass poking up through the concrete. The man who is not a man, the man who was once Destruction, watches the firework display, sorrow etched into his features.
Steve sits up, his heart pounding jackrabbit-fast. He presses his fingers to the ground, reassuring himself of where he is. He is shaking as he gets to his feet, tremors coursing through his body.
“And what about why?” Steve asks, tasting blood and gunpowder. “What about the reason why we fight?”
“Oh, I know all about that,” Destruction snorts. “Honour and glory.”
“No,” Steve spits. “It’s the right thing to do.”
“The right thing to-” Destruction looks at him incredulously. “I have seen the heart of you, kid. You long to get into a fight. You’re desperate for it.”
“That’s not true.”
“Of course it’s true!” Destruction is suddenly towering over Steve, a huge, hulking creature of muscle and bone and rage. “Guts and glory, that’s all you care for!”
Steve plants his feet on the patched concrete and stares the creature down.
The creature grimaces, baring its teeth. “You want to kill Nazis.”
“Sobibor,” Steve says quietly, as fireworks sparkle and burn over them. “Treblinka. Dachau. And I don’t know how many more there are. I live in a poor neighbourhood, sir. And I hear my neighbours talking. They talk about uncles and aunts back home being dragged out of their houses. About scraping enough money together to buy a ticket, and if they’ll still be there when it comes in the mail.”
Steve pauses, scrubbing his hands over his eyes and finding them wet. There are the dreamers too, who wander the halls of the Dream House, lost and frightened. They had been promised a shower, they’d said, and then they said nothing more.
He and Luis did what they could, taking the ones that lingered out to the gardens, and collecting up the faded little marbles, packing them up in tissue paper and putting them in boxes.
“That this could happen in my lifetime,” Steve says, dragging in a deep breath, though it makes his lungs ache.
When he looks at Destruction, he is a man again, his face in his hands.
“I don’t want to fight,” Steve says quietly. “But I have to.”
Destruction sniffs and takes off his glasses, rubbing the smudges on the lenses away with the hem of his shirt. He puts them back on, pushing them up his nose, and looks at Steve closely.
“Well,” he sighs. “No wonder he likes you.”
Steve blinks. “Excuse me?”
Destruction starts walking back to the fair, his head bowed, his shoulders pulled in, and Steve follows him to an Army recruitment stand.
“Sir?” Steve reaches out to grasp his arm.
“Bruce,” Destruction answers, shrugging off Steve’s hand. “Wanda called me Bruce.”
“Bruce.” The name feels strange on Steve’s tongue, but oddly fitting. “I tried to enlist. New Haven, Paramus, I tried them all. They won’t take me.”
“You’ll try one more time,” Bruce says, pointing to the doorway.
Steve looks at the stand, at the recruitment posters and the tall, strong men standing in line to be seen.
“Wanda,” he says finally. “I promised her-”
“I’m not going back,” Bruce repeats. “But I’ll see her, I promise.” He gives Steve a pat on the shoulder. “Good luck, kid.”
Steve bites down on the inside of his cheek as Bruce starts to walk away, scuffing the ground with the toe of his shoe. He looks down at the worn leather of his heel, no trace of mud to be seen, and his head snaps up.
“Bruce!” he shouts and Bruce pauses, clenching his fists as he turns back to Steve.
“Do you know where Bucky is?”
If Bruce is surprised that Steve knows his name, he doesn’t show it. “I wish I did,” he says. “But I know the Dreaming is in good hands.”
He gives Steve a last nod before slipping in to the crowds, and is gone.
“Rogers, Steven G?”
Steve looks up from his magazine and sees the enlistment officer looking around the waiting area.
“Yes,” he says, getting up and dropping the magazine on his chair.
“This way, please.”
He follows the enlistment officer to a private room, empty but for a desk and a chair. They point him to the solitary chair. “Wait here please.”
Before Steve can utter a word the enlistment officer leaves, shutting the door behind him with a loud click.
Steve doesn’t fidget, not exactly. He sits on his hands and tries not to panic, though that gets harder and harder as the minutes tick by on the large bakelite clock hanging on the wall.
The door opens and a grey-haired man wearing wire-framed glasses looks in. Were it not the grey stubble and receding hairline Steve might think it was Bruce in disguise.
“Mr Rogers, yes?” the man asks, looking down at his clipboard. His voice is soft and low, his accent unexpected.
“Yes,” Steve says hesitantly.
“Not Mr Grant?” The man smiles, his eyes bright and warm. “Or Mr Stevens?
“Uh.” On the wall behind him is a poster warning against lying on enlistment forms. “Maybe you have the wrong-”
“Maybe you need to work on your pseudonyms, yes?” The man smiles to himself, flicking through his files. “Steven Rogers from 804 Alameda Avenue, Queens. Is that where you’re really from?”
“Yeah.” Steve sits up straighter. “Where are you from?”
“Utopia Parkway,” the man replies. “Before that, Germany. Will that be a problem?”
Steve shakes his head, and the man gives him a warm smile. “I am Dr Abraham Erskine of the Strategic Scientific Reserve, and I’m curious as to why you have tried to enlist on no less than five separate occasions. Can’t you take no for an answer?”
Steve bristles. “Excuse me?”
“Five times,” Erskine says. “Why? Are you that desperate to kill Nazis?”
The smell of gunpowder is still in Steve’s mouth, fear and cordite coating his tongue.
“I don’t want to kill anyone,” he says quietly.
Erskine stops leafing through his notes. “So why are you doing this?”
Steve hesitates, Bruce’s words still echoing in his ears. “Because someone has to fight for the people who can’t.”
“And that someone is you, hmm?” Erskine doesn’t look amused. His expression is intent, as though something hangs on Steve’s next words.
“It’s all of us,” Steve tells him. “This is not a fight we can turn our backs on. This is on all of us.”
Erskine hums to himself, walking over to the desk, and Steve watches him in resignation as he scrawls something on a slip of paper. He stamps the slip before picking it up and waving it in the air to dry out the ink a little faster.
“Congratulations, Mr Rogers.” He holds out the slip. “We will be in touch.”
Steve takes the offered paper, barely noticing as Erskine leaves the room. In the bottom corner, where he has only seen a 4F before, there is a 1A.
He is in the army.
Chapter 4: Desire
You, darkness, that I come from
I love you more than all the fires
that fence in the world,
for the fire makes a circle of light for everyone
and then no one outside learns of you.
You Darkness- Rainer Maria Rilke
The Strategic Scientific Reserve is located in Camp Lehigh, a sprawling military base just outside of Wheaton, New Jersey.
Steve arrives on the back of a jeep with a group of other candidates, a bag containing all his worldly possessions tucked between his feet. The men in the truck around him are everything Steve is not; tall and thickset, they shout and heckle each other the whole journey, trading insults and play-fighting as the jeep takes them down the long, tree-lined road into camp. The officer in charge, sat up front with the driver, watches the antics with amusement while Steve, tucked in an out of the way corner, ignores the scuffling in favour of watching the camp come into view ahead.
Galvanised steel buildings, long and low half cylinders laid out in neat rows like pieces on a board game. Jeeps and military vehicles drive back and forth, loaded with crates of munitions and supplies. There are soldiers everywhere, running in formation or moving back and forth between the buildings, and the jeep comes to a rattling halt in the clearing in front of them.
“Out ya get, ladies!” the officer yells, slapping the side of the jeep, and the men scramble out. Steve has to sit back, dodging the flailing arms and thick soled boots as he waits for them to get past, climbing out last.
His boots hit the compacted, dry dirt, his bag hefted over one shoulder.
The officer steps out of the jeep, slamming the door shut before sending the driver on his way, and Steve barely notices as it rumbles off down the track, his attention on the buildings.
All steel, some subconscious part of him bourne of habit assesses. No stone walls here, leading to strange doors.
The officer bellows at them, a stream of curses and code words that Steve doesn’t understand. Fall in? Fall in what? The rest of the recruits form a line and Steve tags onto the end, following them across the camp to a low wooden building. He forces open the door, the wood groaning, and orders them in.
Steve looks around their barracks doubtfully. The rest of the compound is made of steel but this one is planks of pinewood, no signs of weathering or wearing on them. Even inside the support struts are made of the same raw wood.
What have you gotten yourself into?
They are assigned beds and barked at about cleanliness and routine before the officer leaves them to settle in.
Steve doesn’t join in the backtalking and posturing that starts up as soon as the officer is gone, and takes in his new home.
There are fourteen steel-framed beds in two rows along the long wall of a building that could take twice as many. Each one made up with a sheet and a coarse wool blanket. Each bundle is topped by a bundle of army issue clothing and a pair of sturdy boots, the name of a recruit scrawled in pen on a tag inside. Aside from a small table beside each bed, there is nothing else to be seen in the barrack.
But for the raw wood and good boots, Steve could be back in the orphanage. The thought makes him uneasy, but he tries to shake it off, walking around the beds and looking for his own name.
The other recruits argue about which bed they’re taking, one named Hodge being the loudest of them all. Some of them have brought steamer trunks with them, filled with blankets and snacks and the odd bit of contraband, like playing cards and dirty magazines. They get moved to the end of the beds, to be used as chairs or tables, and it doesn’t take long for a game of poker to start up.
Steve finds his assigned place, and drops his bag on the end of the bed. All he has in his bag is his books, and he unpacks them carefully, dragging his fingers across the worn covers and the cracked spines.
It’s okay, he tells himself. You can live like this, you can go home when you’re sleeping.
“So what’s it like?” Luis asks, hefting one end of the rolled up rug onto his shoulder.
Steve grimaces, not just for the wellbeing of the rug. It is a dream in sore need of repairing and too big for Luis to carry up to Steve’s studio alone, which is how they both ended up somewhere in the ever shifting cellars of the Dream House, hauling it between them. The house is helping as best as it can, keeping the floors level and the doorways wide, and so far they have been no spiral staircases.
“Buddy, you make me nervous when you get all frowning-like.” Luis waits for Steve to adjust his grip on his end of the rug before they carry on down the hall.
“It’s… fine,” Steve says finally.
“Wow,” Luis huffs as they reach another staircase. “Slow down there, pal. I can hardly keep up with ya.”
Steve says nothing while they climb the stairs, concentrating on his breathing. He’s never had an asthma attack in the house, but he can’t shake the habit. While he has to navigate the waking world it’s probably best he doesn’t.
“Folks givin’ you a hard time, huh?” Luis asks sagely. His concern quickly morphs into a wide, delighted grin. “Hey, you wanna go look for ‘em? They’ll be around here somewhere, probably the pleasure fields, that type of fella always hangs out around there. Can’t get any tail in the waking world, on account of being such assholes, y’know what I’m talking about?” Luis waggles his eyebrows. “We could fuck around with them, make their dicks turn black and drop off. That’s always a blast.”
Steve flushes, and not just from the walking. “Luis, no. It’s fine, really it is.”
“You sure?” Luis wheedles. “It’ll be fun.”
“I'm sure,” Steve insists.
“Hmpf. Well, the offer stands.” Luis falls silent as they continue up the stairs. It gnaws away at Steve’s gut, Luis is never silent.
“Really, there’s not much to say,” he finally says when he reaches the top step, winded but otherwise alright. “There’s a lot of shouting. And a lot of exercises.”
“Exercises?” Luis asks, looking chagrined. “Aw man, you should have said! No wonder you been so worn out of late.”
“It’s fine,” Steve says quickly. He’d sooner pass out on the training ground than not pull his weight here where it matters.
“Hey guys!” Up ahead Scott is hanging from an ornate crystal chandelier, the sparkle of cut glass and silver chain incongruous against the obsidian the wrong kind of stone walls. “What about exercises?”
Luis stops and stares at the chandelier. “Dude, that ain’t supposed to be here.”
Scott slips from his perch, but manages to grab hold of a dangling crystal just in time. “What?”
“Nah, man,” Luis waves his hand around the hallway. “Why the hell would Boss Man have a fancy-assed thing like that down here?”
Scott manages to scramble his way back onto the curved silver arm of the chandelier, and pauses to catch his breath. “I don’t know,” he huffs. “Brighten up the place?”
“Dude, it belongs in the ballroom,” Luis laughs.
“There’s a ballroom?” Steve asks, the rug slipping in his grip.
“Yeah, you ain’t seen it yet?” Luis’ eyes sparkle.
“I’ve never seen a ballroom, period,” Steve admits.
“Well listen up, bussy, you’ll never see another finer.” Luis waves his arm in a dramatic arc. “Chequered tile floor and these marble statues everywhere, serious Propylaea and Erechtheum shit, y’know? And this fountain, I don’t know what was in it, but you didn’t go drinking, y’know what I mean?”
A memory washes over Steve. A man, haggard and lovely, sitting on the steps of a staircase that lead into the sky. Empty bottles rolling around on the tiled floor under his feet.
“And there’s these fancy-assed chandeliers hanging from the ceiling,” Luis finishes, oblivious to the distance in Steve’s expression.
“Aww, you’re kidding me?” Scott slumps against a crystal. “I just finished putting it up here.”
“No worries, Scotty,” Luis assures him. “We got you covered. Right, Stevie?”
When Steve doesn’t respond, Luis gives the rug a quick tug, gaining his attention.
“Oh.” After a moment Steve catches up.”Sure. We’ll just drop this off and come back. Just sit tight a minute?”
Scott nods, slumped against a crystal, and waves at them as they start to carry the rug up to Steve’s workshop.
It takes no time at all to get the rug safely in place in the workshop, and before Steve knows what’s happening they are back with Scott and the chandelier. No matter how much time Steve spends in the Dreaming, he is always, in retrospect, surprised at the elastic nature of time there. On waking he won’t recall taking down the chandelier, or the circuitous route the house takes them on to reach the ballroom. He’ll remember the weight of the silver and glass in his hands, the way the crystals refract the candlelight and cast rainbows over his skin.
And Luis, his eyes bright, pushing open a set of ornately carved doors.
Steve recognises the room immediately, although it looks so different now. The chequered tile floor, once cracked and weathered, is polished to a high shine, the lights of a thousand candles reflecting off the glaze. Stepping onto the floor is like walking among the stars, and there is something that itches in the back of Steve’s mind, something familiar about the spark of lights playing against the glossy black tiles.
“Aww, man,” Scott points up. “Look at them all.”
Steve wrenches his gaze up and sees a high, domed ceiling, a broken ring of chandeliers around its circumference. Directly below the dome is the fountain, the white marble decorated with carved strands of ivy leaves and jasmine flowers.
There should be roses.
The voice is rough edged and rasping, as though from disuse, but there is a honeyed edge to it that sounds familiar. Steve whips his head around, searching the ballroom for the source of the voice, but there is no one to be seen.
“Did you guys hear that?” he asks as Luis takes the chandelier from him and starts working out where to put it.
“Hear what?” Luis goes over to a far wall and pokes around in an alcove behind a statue of a tapir-like creature, before reappearing with an extendable ladder. It looks so bizarrely out of place that Steve almost forgets what he’s saying. “What did you hear, Stevie?”
“Someone said there should be roses.”
Luis hums and opens up the ladder. “Hey, Scotty? You been around here longer than me, was there roses in here?”
Scott scrambles up the ladder, carrying the chandelier with him. He huffs and struggles, but manages despite his small size. “Oh, yeah. White ones, climbers. They grew up around the fountain, really pretty.”
Steve listens out for the voice again, and when it makes no further comment he walks over to take a closer look at the fountain, and finds soil hidden under the shallow curve of the wide bowl. He takes another look around the room but there is no one else with them.
While Steve takes a look around Scott fixes the chandelier in place before scrambling back down the ladder. He takes a step back, wiping his hands on his thighs, and admires his work. “Looking good,” he says proudly.
“Looking real good,” Luis agrees, bending down and patting him on the shoulder with a fingertip.
“This must have been a hell of a sight when it was in use, you know? All those fancy-assed types in their glad-rags twirling around like scraps o’ paper.” Luis packs up the ladder and starts twirling around, dancing it back to the hidden closet.
“Oh, yeah. It was really something.” Scott takes a look around the room. “Boss Man didn’t dance, though.”
Luis packs the ladder away, but the mood to dance stays with him, and he shuffles around the floor in a jaunty one-two step. “C’mon, Steve, dance with me!”
“Oh, no,” Steve holds up his hands. “I don’t… I don’t dance.”
“Whaaat?” Luis moves towards him in a shuffling, hip swinging gait. “C’mon, man!”
“Really,” Steve backs away from him. “I don’t.”
“How are you supposed to charm the pretty girls if ya don’t dance with ‘em?”
“Luis, no girl would ever want to dance with me,” Steve says quietly. “They’d step on me.”
Luis comes to an abrupt halt, all joy gone from his face. “Oh, no. We ain’t having that, pal.” He points to the floor. “Come here, I’m gonna teach you how to dance.”
Once Luis’ mind is made up, there is no reasoning with him, and Steve gives in, slumping across the floor towards him.
“C’mon man, chin up,” Luis smiles at him. “You look like you being sent to the gallows.”
Steve stands up straight in front of him, chin raised. “Okay, first of all, we ain’t boxing, we don’t need to be toe-to-toe.” Luis takes a half step to the left, so Steve is facing his right shoulder, and raises his right hand. “You gonna spook if I touch you?”
Steve huffs. “C’mon.”
“Just making sure,” Luis wriggles his fingers until Steve reaches up and grasps his hand, their fingers interlocking. “Okay, other hand on my shoulder, nice and relaxed.”
Steve puts his hand on Luis’ shoulder, though he wouldn’t call his posture relaxed. “This is stupid.”
“No shame in stupid once in a while,” Luis grins, resting his free hand on the small of Steve’s back. “Okay, now I want you to picture a square on the floor, right? Four sides, four points and all that. Don’t look!” Luis adds quickly when Steve’s head starts to drop. “Only thing you need to pay attention to is my pretty brown eyes.”
Steve snorts and gives him a nod. “Alright, box on the floor.”
“Okay, so I’m gonna lead on this one, okay? I got my feet on the bottom points on our imaginary square, and I’m gonna go right foot forward, then left, you get me?”
Steve risks a quick look down at their feet, before looking up again. Damnit, he will get this. “Go.”
Scott pulls out a pennywhistle from somewhere, and strikes up a lilting little tune as they pace across the floor. Steve trips and stumbles a few times, but Luis is patient, letting him figure things out at his own pace and not yelling too loud when Steve stamps on his feet or trips him over. They spin around the room in erratic little circles, first Luis leading, then Steve.
As much as he hates to admit it, in this case Steve is better at following than leading, stepping forward a second too soon every damn time and knocking right into Luis, who skitters back quickly, counting out with the music until Steve picks up the rhythm again.
“Jeez, how is this supposed to be fun?” Steve grouses as Luis lets out a pained whimper and they seperate again.
“Trust me, pal.” Luis sits down on the chequered floor and pulls off his boot. There is a hole in his sock, his big toe poking out, and he gives his poor foot a massage. “When it’s with someone you’re into, it’s a lot easier. You get yourselves all close and snug, and you’re moving to the music, and it’s like there’s nothing in the world but you and your sweetheart.”
Scott packs away his pennywhistle and nods along, and Steve tries to imagine what such a thing would be like.
Someone taller than him, that’s a given. With long hair curling around their ears, the colour of burnt sienna and umber. For a brief, shining moment he can feel their hand clasped in his, warm and rough, the play of their breath against his ear.
The sensation is gone as quickly as it came, and Steve shakes his head, trying to dispel the last traces of it.
“Yeah, I doubt I’ll get the chance.” He gives Luis a pat on the back. “Thanks for the lesson anyways.”
Luis shrugs him off, and starts putting on his boot again as Steve takes another look at the fountain.
“Hey, Scott?” he asks. “Where can I find some roses?”
After a few weeks, Steve quickly learns the dull truth about basic training. Routine.
They are shouted awake before dawn by the Drill Sergeant, and then shouted around the perimeter of the camp on the morning run. After a short break for breakfast the rest of the day is spent training, though training for what none of them are sure.
Steve lags behind in everything and he hates it. He’s smaller than the other recruits by a head, and weighs about half as much as the average. His asthma knocks his feet out from under him on a daily basis, making him wheeze until he throws up. His heart hammers against his ribs, so hard and so loud he can feel it beating in his wrists, at his temples.
Sometimes he passes out, his lips tinged with blue, and one of the recruits is sent off to fetch Dr Erskine. He offers Steve a respite, a few days to recover, the rejection already hanging heavy on his brow before Steve’s mouth has even formed the word no.
Steve thinks he’d at least put on a bit of muscle for all the work, but in the scant hour of personal time before lights off at 9pm he’ll sneak into the head and pull up his shirt. His reflection is still scrawny, his stomach concave, his ribs sharp under the thin layer of skin.
Routine. Routine and pain and the taste of bile in the back of his throat. So he stands up a little straighter when one morning the Drill Sergeant announces that they have visitors.
The recruits fall into line at the Drill Sergeants command as a jeep pulls into the camp. Two senior officers, dressed in dark brown uniforms decorated with insignia, climb out.
The first introduces himself as Colonel Phillips; greying hair and craggy features, he looks exhausted at the sight of them, barking a few reprimands at the Drill Sergeant before stalking off to one of the buildings.
His colleague pauses to take stock of the recruits, and Steve realises with a shock that it’s a woman.
Not only a woman, but the most beautiful woman Steve has ever laid his eyes on. Her long brown burnt sienna and umber hair falls to her shoulders in soft curls, her lips painted crimson. Steve stares at them, the only colour in a world of brown and grey, entranced as they part and pout and shape words.
One of the recruits; Hodge, because it’s always Hodge, wolf-whistles and makes a derisive comment about Carters accent, plum-rich and rounded. Carter doesn’t miss a beat, striding over to him and slinging a roundhouse punch right into his face.
Hodge drops to his knees, blood pouring from his nose as he clutches his face and shrieks. None of the other recruits dare move a muscle.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake man!” Carter snaps at him. “Get yourself to the infirmary.”
Hodge, one hand still mashed to his face, manages a ‘sir, yes sir’ before scurrying off, and Steve catches sight of Phillips watching the whole performance with wry amusement.
Carter tells them to get back to work. Steve drops to the ground with the rest of them and struggles through his push-ups.
Carter watches them perform calisthenics for a few minutes, studying their form and progress, before she goes to join Phillips and they continue on to the officers mess.
Steve’s heart trip-traps in a way that has nothing to do with his exertions, and at the Drill Sergeant’s orders he struggles to his feet and starts performing jumping jacks, his tags smacking him in the face.
He steals a glance towards the officers mess, but Carter and Phillips have gone inside.
Something cold and leaden settles in Steve’s stomach. Guilt. He feels guilty.
Steve blinks the sweat out of his eyes. Why would he feel guilty? He’s not with anyone, is he? And there was no ring on Carter’s finger.
Why did he notice something like that? And why does it bother him that he did?
He thinks of the ballroom in the Dream House, a hand clasped in his as they moved across the floor, and wonders who they were, if their lips were painted red.
If it wasn’t enough that Peggy Carter was beautiful, she is brilliant too. The more Steve sees her, the more fascinated he is.
She doesn’t shrink into herself in the presence of the male officers, like Phillips’ secretary Lorraine. Nor does she act brash and aggressive like the dames who run the mess. She walks with an unrepentant swagger, occupying her space in the world with shoulders squared and chin raised, and Steve adores her for it.
Not that she has any idea, he can barely string three words together in her presence.
With the arrival of the senior officers they finally find out what they’ve been brought together for. One evening Colonel Phillips shows up during mail call, Carter and Erskine in tow.
“Gentlemen,” Phillips announces. “It has no doubt been preying on your minds what the hell you all are doing here.”
There is a murmur of agreement among the recruits, but Steve keeps his attention on Phillips.
“General Patton says that wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men. So what we are looking for here is the best men - or man - for starters. We will take that man, one of you sorry souls, and we will remake him into something stronger, something better.”
Phillips pauses and gives Steve a hard look. Steve stares right back at him. He’s read the papers, he knows what Patton has said about the war. He also knows what he’s said about the Japanese and the Arabs, and decided that if he ever gets to meet General Patton, he’ll punch him in his damn bigot mouth.
“The Strategic Scientific Reserve is an Allied effort, combining the best minds of the free world.” Phillips casts his hand towards Carter and Erskine. “And at the end of this week we will choose one of you to be the first of a new breed of soldier. I expect nothing less than your best.”
He takes a last look around the room, and seems disappointed with what he sees. “Alright,” he sighs. “As you were.”
“So what exactly is it they gonna do to you?” Luis asks.
Steve pours himself a cup of coffee, and regrets opening his mouth. “I don’t know, he didn’t say how he was gonna do it, just that one of us is getting picked for this program.”
“So all this crawling through mud and climbing ropes has been what? A test?” Luis gulps down half his cup of coffee in indignation.
“I guess so?”
“That’s bullshit, man,” Luis exclaims, waving his cup around. Steve moves the cross stitch sampler he’s restoring out of the way. He’s worked half the night on it, and doesn’t want to spend the rest of it cleaning coffee stains as well.
“It is what it is, Luis,” Steve sighs, picking through his threads for the right shade of red for the roses he still needs to finish.
“What the hell does ‘remake’ even mean?” Luis leans his hip against Steve’s desk, jolting him slightly. “Do they chop you up and stitch you back together like Frankenstein or some shit?”
“It wasn’t Frankenstein who was stitched together,” Steve says absently, piercing the cross stitch and drawing the needle through the taut cloth. “It was the creature. Frankenstein was the scientist.”
“Engineer,” Luis swirls the dregs of his coffee around in his cup. “Scientists write all their shit down an’ extrapolate from the available information, y’know? They’re empirical. And yeah, Frankenstein did all those tests on little critters, but none of them worked, and he went ahead and tried it on a human anyway.” Luis points his finger at Steve. “Mad engineer.”
Steve snorts. “If you say so.”
“With any luck you won’t get picked,” Luis clicks his tongue. “But if someone straps you to a big-assed table and tries to send a bolt of lightning through your ass, you better run for the hills, though.”
The corner of Steve’s mouth twitches up. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
The Drill Sergeant pushes them harder than ever in the days running up to the decision, as if the presence of the senior officers has lit a fire under his ass. The recruits are screamed out of bed an hour before dawn, and the orders to move faster, jump further, climb higher, don’t stop until after sundown. Throughout it all, Carter and Phillips move back and forth, watching the recruits with careful eyes.
Project Rebirth, the Drill Sergeant calls it, the brainchild of Erskine and some big shot inventor in Manhattan.
Steve gives everything he has as they’re given rifles and told to crawl under acres of barbed wire. He lags behind as they run mile after mile, but swallows down the bile and keeps pushing, through the shakes and the adrenaline crash, until he has nothing left to give.
It says more about the state of the other recruits when they don’t start jeering when Erskine finally intervenes. They watch in sullen, weary silence as Steve, insensate but insisting that he can do it given a chance, is loaded onto a stretcher and taken to the infirmary.
Steve wakes in a long wooden hut filled with empty beds. He sits up, wincing as his body protests at the movement, and rubs his aching chest. He’s not dressed in the clothes he passed out in, and someone has washed him down and put him into clean clothes, a plain white t-shirt and pair of cotton pants.
Shame burns in Steve’s throat, and it tastes like tears, hot and bitter. To be manhandled while unconscious and put into a nightshirt like a child. He hates it, he hates his weak flesh and his fragile bones.
“Ah. You’re awake.”
Steve looks up and sees Dr Erskine approaching with a flask of water and a tin cup. “How are you feeling, hmm?”
Steve scrubs at his hair. “Like I’m out of the running.”
There was no way Phillips would pick him for the program, not after he’d been carried off the training course on a damn stretcher. Erskine hums sympathetically and pours Steve some water.
“Here, you must be thirsty.”
“Thank you.” Steve’s hand shakes a little as he takes the cup, spilling a few drops on the mattress. He takes his time sipping his water, delaying the inevitable a little.
“So what happens now?” Steve asks at last. “Do I get discharged?”
Erskine ignores his question and sits down on the empty bed next to his.
“Have you ever heard of Hydra?”
Steve frowns and takes another sip of water. “You mean the Greek myth?”
“No, no,” Erskine shakes his head. “Hydra, the Nazi science division. Headed by Johann Schmidt.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t,” Steve says, apologetic.
“Ah, well. No matter.” Erskine offers him more water, and Steve accepts. “When I was a young man back in Augsburg, younger than you are now, I was working on a formula, a serum that enhances strength, makes a man powerful. Now Schmidt is a believer in the occult, in myths and legends. He found out about a relic, and with it a spell to ensnare an ancient god, trap them in a cage and take their power as his own. And it only requires a stronger man to wield it.”
“You… you’ve met him?” Steve asks warily. “Schmidt?”
“Oh, yes.” Erskine nods. “He heard about my work and when I would not join his crusade he sent his men after me.” Erskine looks tired, so tired, and Steve reaches out to grasp his arm. Erskine smiles and pats Steve’s hand. “I should have burned everything, I should have run. But it was my life’s work.”
“Did he take the formula?” Steve asks, his drink forgotten. “Did it work?”
Erskine tilts his head to the side, neither yes or no. “He took the formula and claimed his prize. In the aftermath I managed to escape.”
“And he has the power of a god?” Steve can’t help his incredulous tone. “Which one?”
“Death,” Erskine says simply.
Steve sits back and barks out a single, humourless laugh. In every iteration of the Dream House, Death is there in the gallery of the Endless. Steve has never met him, but knows Luis has. ‘Run off his feet, poor bastard,’ is all Luis has to say about it.
“Death?” Steve snorts. “Whatever he's got, it's not Death.”
“You seem very sure of that,” Erskine murmurs. He doesn't even question Steve's acceptance of Death being something tangible, someone tangible, and Steve searches quickly for something else to say.
“Alright, say that Schmidt has Death in a cage. Why isn’t he running Europe with all that power?” Steve asks. A terrible thought occurs to him. “The formula? It didn’t work, did it?”
Erskine smiles, warm and bright. “My dear fellow, the formula worked, but not in the way I had expected. It doesn’t make you stronger, it amplifies what is already there. Greed, hate, pride.” He spreads his arms out. “There is no love in Schmidt’s heart, nor is there courage. You, however.” Erskine taps a finger to Steve’s chest. “You are a good man, and the new formula will make you a great one.”
“What?” Steve says slowly.
Erskine’s mouth twitches up into something bittersweet. “I have submitted my recommendation to Colonel Phillips. You are the clear choice for Project Rebirth.”
Steve looks up from his book. While he is confined to the infirmary, Erskine has been kind enough to lend him reading materials, mostly academic papers written in such bone-dry language that it makes his brain feel parched and wrung out. He reads them nonetheless, because what else is there to do?
There is no one else in the infirmary, not since the unlucky guy who cracked his pelvis falling from the climbing ropes got discharged. Steve marks his place in his papers with a finger and sits up, taking a look around to be certain.
“Hello?” Steve calls out, and something moves in the shadows across from him, cat-like and sinuous.
A figure steps into a shaft of light slanting through the window. Small and slim, with a sleek bob of red hair and green eyes that are almost luminous in the gloom. There is something feminine in the softness of their jaw, in the curve of their hips, but the word woman doesn’t come to Steve’s mind.
“Do I…” Steve puts down his article. “Do I know you?”
They smile, sharp edged and voluptuous. “No, but you know my brother. And I know you, Steven.”
One of the Endless. Steve thinks of the row of statues in the Dream House, placing each one against their likeness until something sparks.
“Oh.” Steve pulls his blankets up around himself. “Uh. What should I call you?” he asks, remembering his manners.
Steve wonders if it is short for Natasha or Nathan, and then realises that such questions are beside the point. “What do you want?”
Nat glides towards him. They are wearing a black suit that flatters and obscures the lines of them in equal measure, and Steve’s eye is drawn to the curve of their shoulders, the jut of collarbone glimpsed under their shirt.
“Oh,” they smirk. “Now that is a question. I could ask the same of you, Steven Rogers. What do you want?”
Steve fights the urge to recoil as Nat draws closer, folding his arms across his narrow chest. “What business is that of yours?”
Nat’s smirk widens into a full grin. “I make it my business to know what you little creatures long for.”
They climb onto the bed and make themselves comfortable, sprawling across the thin blanket like a pasha. Steve draws his knees up, trying to keep as much distance between them as possible, much to Nat’s, to Desire’s amusement.
“So shy,” Nat muses. “No wonder you never get anywhere.”
“I do fine,” Steve answers tartly.
Nat looks at him thoughtfully. “But you could do better.”
Steve sputters, and opens his mouth to protest, but Nat cuts him off. “Kristen.”
Nat nods. “If you ask, she’ll say yes.”
Steve shakes his head. “I’m not asking.”
Nat is silent for a long minute, tilting their head to one side as though listening.
“What are you-”
“Lorraine,” Nat interrupts him, leaning into his space. “You’re not her type, but all these big soldiers make her uneasy, remind her of her father. She’ll push you around a little, use you to regain a little confidence, work out a few things about herself.” Nat inches closer as they speak. “In the meantime, she’ll-”
“Lorraine is Colonel Phillips’ secretary,” Steve says quickly, clambering out of the bed and taking a few paces across the floor, getting a little distance between them. “Not gonna happen.”
“Oh, you’re no fun. No wonder he’s so taken with you.”
“Who?” Steve chafes his hands down his arms, feeling the chill now he’s out of the bed.
Nat doesn’t answer, stretching out on the bed languorously, sleek and long limbed like a cat.
“Come along now, Steven,” they purr. “What’s stopping you? Too shy?” Their grin turns sharp. “Too scared?”
It’s bait, Steve can see it as clearly as if it were dangling from a fishing hook. What’s worse is how knowing it’s bait doesn’t stop him wanting to take it.
“Get off my bed,” he mutters instead.
Nat makes no attempt to move, rolling onto their front and pulling the pillow under their chin. “Peggy.”
The world seems to pitch sideways for a second, and Steve’s heart forgets how to beat. When it finally remembers it works overtime, hammering against the cage of his ribs.
“Excuse me?” Steve utters harshly.
“Peggy Carter,” Nat tilts their head. “I know you think about her.”
“I… I don’t know wh-”
“She admires you,” Nat looks amused by the thought. “She doesn’t want you, but she could, given the right…” Nat pauses for emphasis, “Persuasion.”
Steve shakes his head sharply. “You stay the hell away from her.”
“Oh, settle down.” Nat props an elbow on the mattress, resting the point of their chin in their cupped hand. “It would be consensual, nothing would happen against anyone’s will.”
“All the same,” Steve moves further away from the bed, a tactical retreat. “No, thank you.”
“Don’t you want her?” Nat asks plainly. “Don’t your eyes seek her out, across a crowded room? Searching for the silk of her hair, the red of her mouth?”
Steve closes his eyes. He can’t lie to Desire. “Yes.”
Nat laughs, low and mocking. Steve blocks it out, and thinks of a chequered tile floor, and the press of a hand in his. With that breath of air against his ear he comes to a realisation, that there is a world of difference between desire and love.
The laughter comes to a sudden stop.
“What are you thinking, Steven?” Nat asks curiously, and Steve opens his eyes.
Where the infirmary had been there is now a dance hall. The walls are lined with plush red velvet panelling, the ceiling above him bowed like the galvanised steel buildings of the camp. Chandeliers dangle on long golden chains from the curve of the ceiling, reflected off the polished parquet floor at his feet.
Steve looks down at himself and finds he is wearing not his standard issue sleepwear or his uniform, but a pair of paint splattered khakis, worn at the knees, and an ink-stained t-shirt.
“Nat?” Steve calls out, and his questioning tone is met with laughter.
He turns around looking for a door, some way out, but there are no doors, only panelled walls and crimson cloth.
But that’s not all he sees. Across the room there is a figure, a body curled up on the floor dressed in rags, in feathers, the tattered cloth exposing thin strips of skin pale as moonlight.
Steve’s body turns cold, hope and fear welling and receding in his throat. He knows that figure, he knows him, though they have never met before. Steve has seen him in marble and stained glass, in the painting hanging in his workshop, the scar on the canvas still visible in the right light.
The body shifts, each movement slow and pained, and he raises his head as Steve approaches.
His features are pale and bold, as though drawn in slashes of ink on fine paper. Firm jaw and sharp cheekbones, and ink smudges under his eyes.
His eyes, dear gods Steve would never tire of drawing his eyes. Great washes of darkness, scattered with stars.
“I know you,” he whispers. His voice was melodious once but whatever sweetness has been rasped away. “You’re Steve.”
He smiles, sudden and bright and beautiful, before letting out a gasp of laughter painful and low.
Steve drops to his knees beside him, his hands hovering in the air, uncertain. Can he touch the Endless? Is that allowed?
“C’mon, we gotta get you out of here,” Steve whispers, turning to look again for a way out.
Bucky husks out another laugh. “We can’t.”
“Yes we can,” Steve says automatically. “There’s gotta be a door here somewhere.”
“We are not in the waking world,” Bucky reaches out and grasps Steve’s arm, fingers curling gently around his wrist. “This is Desire’s realm, I have no power here.”
In the painting hanging in Steve’s workroom Bucky wears a pendant around his neck, a cube of light that casts a strange glow on his features. The Bucky before him wears no such thing.
“If there was a way to get in here, there’s a way to get out, right?” Steve asks, but doesn’t resist when Bucky keeps him from walking off, nor argue when he shakes his head.
“The realms of the Endless exist on the edges of existence, in the līmen,” Bucky says patiently. “They are the threshold between the here and the there, a moment of existence stretched to infinity.”
Steve frowns at him. “You mean this isn’t real?”
Bucky smiles. There are creases at the corners of his eyes, at the upturn of his mouth, that deepen when he smiles, and Steve’s gaze is drawn hopelessly to them. “I never said that.”
“Come here,” Bucky says softly. “Let me look at you.”
Steve sits down clumsily on the floor before him, shivering as Bucky draws fingers lightly along the tilt of his chin, the narrow cage of his ribs, as if mapping out the shape of him, cautious and curious.
“I have waited so long to meet you,” Bucky tells him and Steve flushes, bowing his head.
“Sorry, there’s not much to look at,” he mumbles, feeling clumsy and self-conscious at Bucky’s attention.
Bucky tuts reproachfully. “As if you are anything but perfect.”
If Steve thought his face couldn’t turn any redder he was mistaken, and he rubs his hand over his burning cheek. “I don’t know about that.”
“I want to thank you,” the motion of Bucky’s hands slow, framing Steve’s shoulders. “For all you have done for me. You have taken such care of me, and of my kin.”
Steve shakes his head. “No, really. I haven’t. I just...” Steve pauses. Bucky has been lost, missing for years. How can he know what has been happening? “How do you know about that?”
The creases around Bucky’s eyes deepen, the stars of his eyes spark and burn. “The Palace. The Palace is a part of me, an aspect. It keeps the Dreaming alive in my absence.” Bucky lets his hands trail down Steve’s arms, until they rest against his wrists.
“Oh,” Steve whispers. The Dream House had always welcomed him, provided him with a sanctuary when he’d had no place else to go. Of course he had taken care of it, had grown to love it.
But when he looks at Bucky, he doesn’t feel the warm affection that he gets from the house. He feels something else, like the difference between a light shower of rain and a thunderstorm. As though there is electricity in his veins and it would only take the slightest touch, a sharp intake of breath, to make lightning flare across his skin.
But this is Desire’s realm, Bucky had said. A threshold between one place and another. When desire is quenched, will it cease to exist? Will this be the last time they see each other?
“Steve?” Bucky asks gently, and Steve grasps his hands.
“Dance with me.”
It’s a ballroom and ballrooms are made to be danced in, so Steve gets to his feet, pulling Bucky with him. If this is all the time they have, he will make the most of it, draw out a fleeting moment to infinity if he can.
“Steve, I haven’t danced in a long time,” Bucky rises to his feet, his movements slow, but there is grace in them, a body remembering itself.
“Well, I’m a terrible dancer,” Steve counters. “Don’t we make a pair?”
Bucky smiles at him fondly, and Steve has to look away. When Bucky takes Steve’s hand, he wonders if he’s made a terrible mistake. When Bucky wraps an arm around his waist, holding him close, he concludes that if it is a mistake, it’s one he doesn’t regret.
They move slowly at first, step by hesitant step with no music to guide them, stopping and starting as they bump into each other or take a step in the wrong direction. But Steve can’t feel frustrated, not when Bucky laughs at his own mistakes, a soft rasping huff against Steve’s ear that sends a tremor down his spine.
And when they least expect it, suddenly they are moving together, smooth and easy, turning in slow circles around the empty room. Little by little their steps become shorter, vanishing in increments like the distance between them.
Steve lets his head rest on Bucky’s shoulder, breathing in the scent of his skin. He smells like warm wool and crisp, cold mornings as he wraps around Steve, holding him closer.
It should feel sinful, when Steve tilts his head up, brushing his lips against Bucky’s jaw. It should feel like an abomination to take such liberties, but it doesn’t. Bucky lowers his head, the stars of his eyes flaring, obscured by the hair falling in a curtain across his face. Steve pushes it aside with a crooked finger, umber and burnt sienna, tucking it behind Bucky’s ear before pressing their lips together.
Heat crackles under Steve’s skin, sending threads of fire along his veins as he offers up kiss after kiss. Bucky takes each one gladly, and offers his own in return, his lips parting as he darts his tongue between Steve’s teeth. Steve folds his arms around Bucky’s neck and pulls him closer, turning his head and sealing their mouths together at last.
Steve flinches, and breaks the kiss, though he keeps his arms wrapped around Bucky, who holds him tightly in turn.
“What was that?” Steve gasps, and see’s Bucky’s expression cloud over.
“Our time has ended,” Bucky says, though he doesn’t let go.
“What? No!” Steve scowls. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Rogers! On your feet, maggot!
Bucky smiles at him, weary and bittersweet. “We will see each other again.”
The room starts to shake, the chandeliers above them flaring out in a blinding white light.
“I’ll find you,” Steve yells as Bucky fades away. “I promise I-”
“Rogers!” The Drill Sergeant throws back the blanket and grabs Steve’s leg, pulling him out of the bed.
Steve lets out a yelp, twisting around as he lands on the floor and banging his hip. He curses vehemently as the Drill sergeant balls up the blanket and throws it onto the bed.
“Look alive, you little sack of shit!” the Drill Sergeant snaps. “I want you dressed and ready for inspection five minutes ago.”
Steve feels sick to the stomach, his head spinning, his heart aching. “Why?” he snarls.
“The powers that be have reached their verdict,” the Drill Sergeant sneers. “Congratulations, you been picked for Project Rebirth.”
Chapter 5: Destiny
“In my garden there are many paths, many possible futures. Which one you take is your decision.”
Steve looks around them, at all the different ways that lead from their straight gravel path; wide lanes between marble statues and stepping stones across grass, winding roads and spiralling lines in every direction. “But there are no signposts,” he says. “How do you know which is the right one?”
“Hey, Luis?” Steve pauses to pick a stray thorn out of his thumb. He should have worn gloves for the job, but he doesn’t mind the odd prickle, not with something so close to his heart.
“I’m still not talking to you, remember?” Luis grumbles, leaning against the handle of his broom.
He’s been cranky ever since Steve told him about Project Rebirth, though not cranky enough to say no when Steve asked for help in the ballroom.
“C’mon, Luis,” Steve murmurs, peeling the last sheet of damp newspaper wrapped around the rose. The Librarian promised him that the flowers were white, a cutting taken from the original ballroom rose and grown in a patch of sun out by the cloisters.
“Don’t ‘Come on, Luis’ to me, pal,” Luis shakes his head emphatically. “You were supposed to keep your head down, remember? No getting into trouble.”
“It wasn’t my decision,” Steve points out.
“Yeah, and you got a bridge you wanna sell to me,” Luis sniffs.
Steve shrugs and gets back to work, carefully bedding the rose in place under the fountain. Every last trace of weeds have been pulled out of the soil, and he’d turned it with his hands until it was a light, crumbly tilth. ‘A labour of love’, Scott had called it, and he wasn’t wrong. Steve had managed to track down a strand of ivy, growing out of a crack in the chimney of the house, and the jasmine in the front yard, and the rose was the last thing he needed to finish it.
Luis watches him working, and it doesn’t take long for him to crack, silence going against his very nature.
“What’s so damn important about a fountain anyways?” he blurts out. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty an’ all, very Roman de la Rose-”
“It’s a what?” Steve laughs.
“Romance of the rose, like the poem?” When Steve gives him a blank look, Luis gives him a gentle jab with the handle of his broom. “What do they teach you kids in school? Alright, so this kid has a dream of a walled garden, and a fountain in the middle, right? And of all the pretty flowers he could set his heart to, it’s the rose that he wants, you with me so far?”
“A man dreams of a rose,” Steve confirms.
“Fuckin’ A. So this rose is a metaphor, right? Anyway, the guardians of the rose hide it behind all these fortifications, and this guy pines away for his rose that ain’t a rose. The end.”
Steve pushes the last of the soil in place and sits back on his heels. “The end?”
“Yeah,” Luis gives the soil-dusted floor a half hearted sweep with his broom. “It’s about courtly love an’ shit, not getting your end away.”
Steve coughs out a laugh. “And how did the rose feel about all this?”
Luis shrugs. “Damned if I know. So who you planting roses for, Stevie? Don’t think I can’t see you looking all moon-eyed.”
“I am not moon-eyed.” Steve gets to his feet, an edge of defensiveness in his tone.
“Dude, you are so moon-eyed!” Luis grins.
Steve takes a step back from the fountain, choosing his next words carefully. “I saw Bucky, I saw the Boss Man.”
“What?” Luis lets out a yelp, his broom crashing to the floor. “Are you serious? Are you serious right now?”
“Yes, I’m serious,” Steve says softly, and Luis lets out a whoop.
“Is he coming back? He’s coming back right? What happened to him, like is he okay? Where is he?”
Steve holds out his hands, trying to stave off the deluge of questions. “I don’t know where he is, but I’m gonna find him, I’m gonna bring him home.”
“So how did you see him? I mean if you don’t know where he is how are you gonna fetch him?”
Steve draws in a breath, Here goes nothing. “We met in Desire’s realm. In a ballroom.”
“What? What has Nat got to-” Luis’ eyes widen, and he points a finger at Steve. “Oh. Oh shit.”
“Luis, calm down,” Steve takes a step back but Luis comes barrelling towards him. “No, wait!”
Luis tackles him with a yell, knocking them both to the ground. It takes a few minutes of struggling before Steve realises he’s not under attack, just being hugged.
“Can’t breathe,” Steve wheezes, and Luis scrambles to his feet.
“Shit, sorry!” Luis grabs Steve’s hand and pulls him to his feet. “I’m just… an’ a ballroom? Aw, shit!”
Luis grabs him again but Steve manages to stay upright this time, clinging to the back of Luis’ shirt to stay balanced. “So I take it I got your blessing?”
“Dude, I am so thrilled for you guys! I mean, he was there, right? So that means he-”
“Yeah,” It hits Steve all over again. “Yeah, he does.”
There has to be a point where Luis stops hugging, but Steve doesn’t see it coming any time soon. He pats Luis’ back and again finds himself picking over his words carefully.
“I wanted you to know, before the procedure,” he says slowly. “In case I don’t come back.”
Luis recoils as if struck by a physical blow. “What?”
Steve shoves his hands into his pockets. “Erskine says the procedure will change me.” He hates what he’s about to say but he needs to get everything out, the good and the bad, however much it hurts. “It’ll fix me. And… It could be that none of this is real, that it’s all in my head.”
“Steve?” Luis sounds pained.
“I hope it’s not,” Steve says quickly. “And sure as hell I don’t want it to be. But I can’t say for sure whatever it is that lets me come here… that I won’t lose it. But if that happens, I’ll still find Bucky, I promise. However long it takes, I’ll find him. But if I don’t come back with him.” Steve rocks back on his heels. “Well, you’ll know why.”
For a long moment Luis doesn’t say a word, his features turned to stone.
“Bullshit,” he hisses.
“No!” Luis holds his hand up, palm to Steve. “No. That is bullshit, Steve. You know it is. Whatever they gonna do to you, strap you down and send fifty thousand volts of lightning up your ass, I don’t fucking know, you’re still you, okay?” He waits until Steve nods. “So you gonna find Boss Man, alright? And then you gonna come home, understood?”
Steve nods, blinking away the prickling behind his eyes. “Understood.”
When Steve wakes up he packs up his few belongings and takes a last look around the empty barracks. The other recruits were dismissed when the candidate for Project Rebirth was announced, some stayed on at Camp LeHigh to continue basic training, while others were sent on elsewhere. Steve had never really formed any kind of attachment to them, but still he wonders what their futures will hold, and if he will see any of them again.
Project Rebirth is not in New Jersey, but in the lab of some scientist (Engineer, Luis sing-songs in his memory) in Manhattan.
The barrack door creaks open and Erskine shuffles into the room.
“Ah, there you are,” Erskine says brightly. “All ready for this afternoon?”
Steve nods, his back straight, his chin held high. “As ready as I can be.”
“No fluids?” Erskine had given him a long talk the evening before about pre-operative procedures and Steve had been warned against food or drink. Hunger gnaws at his stomach, but it is a pain he has long since grown accustomed to.
“Not a drop.”
Erskine hums approvingly and sits down on the edge of the bed. “Are you nervous?”
That on is easy to answer. “Yes.”
Erskine looks surprised, more at Steve’s honesty than his nerves. “Might I be able to allay your fears?”
Steve thinks of the Dream House, and all those who dwell within it. He hopes he will see them again.
When Erskine makes an enquiring noise, Steve shakes his head. “Probably not.”
“Well, yes,” Erskine tick-tocks his head from side to side. “All this talk of relics and gods must seem quite fantastical to you.”
Steve coughs out a laugh. “You have no idea.”
Erskine’s mouth twists ruefully. “Still, you must have some questions.”
Erskine is nervous, Steve can see it in the restless motion of his hands, in the twitch of his mouth. Maybe talking will distract him, distract them both.
“So tell me about this thing of Schmidt’s, this relic?” Steve offers.
“Oh yes,” Erskine sits back. “The Tesseract is the source of Erskine’s power, without it-”
“What?” Steve interrupts. “The what?”
“The relic,” Erskine explains patiently. “It’s called the Tesseract.”
Steve’s stomach twists. When he found Bucky in Desire’s realm he was weakened, powerless. The pendant that hung around his neck in every portrait in the Dream House missing. Luis had called it the Tesseract, not the source of his power but the cache of it.
“Was it…” Steve hesitates before holding his hands up, sketching out the rough shape of a cube in the air before him. “Something like this? Shone like moonlight on blue water?”
Erskine’s look of shock is answer enough, and Steve falls into silence. No coaxing from Erskine will get him speaking again, not until Peggy Carter arrives to take them to the laboratory for the procedure.
If she sees something unusual in his grim expression, in the taut line of his jaw, she doesn’t speak of it, and leads them out to the waiting car.
Erskine elects to sit up front, where he can go through his papers one more time, and Peggy takes the back seat alongside Steve.
Having her sit down next to him is enough to pull him out of his grim mood, his mother raised him to have some manners in front of a woman, if not confidence.
“Ma’am,” Steve says politely, and at Peggy's frosty expression quickly amends it. “I mean Agent Carter.”
Her expression softens a little. “Are you nervous?”
Steve shakes his head emphatically. “Impatient.”
Peggy raises her eyebrows. “You’re impatient to undergo a dangerous and untested medical procedure?”
Steve coughs, colour rising on his cheeks. “Ah. No. I mean. I’m ready to get it over and done with.”
“Of course,” Peggy nods.”No sense in waiting around when a decision is made.”
“It’s not that-” Steve hesitates, wondering how much he can reveal without looking crazy. “I just. You read my file, you know how many times I’ve tried to enlist, right?”
Peggy looks amused. “You’re… tenacious. You’re that desperate to fight?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Steve shakes his head. “I mean, sir. Agent.”
She frowns nonetheless, and looks somehow disappointed in him. “You soldier boys are all the same, desperate to make a martyr of yourselves. You think you’re going to die in glory on the battlefield?”
Steve thinks of the places in Dream’s realm where the soldiers go, and the little glass marbles Kurt collects up from the battlefields. “There are worse ways to go.”
Peggy makes a low sound of disgust, turning to look out the window at the city rolling past.
“I made a promise,” Steve says quietly, and it doesn’t matter if she doesn’t hear him, the words aren’t for her. “A long time ago, to someone I love very much. And I’ll see it through to the end.”
The car pulls up outside an antiques store, and Peggy climbs out. It takes Steve a moment to work out that they have reached their destination, and he scrambles out after her. Erskine brings up the rear, shoving his paperwork into a battered leather briefcase as he follows them into the store.
Peggy walks over to the counter while Steve looks around at the stacks of old furniture and shelves of polished brass and silver plate, and the woman running the store takes them to a back room. There is an elevator that takes them down to a hidden laboratory; a circular room lined with banks of of machinery and filled with panicking technicians. To one side Colonel Phillips is standing with a handful of old men dressed in military dress, and Peggy walks over to join them. All the while a photographer is walking around, taking pictures.
But Steve hardly notices any of it, his attention on the casket in the center of the room.
A sleek silver pod, it dominates the space, and a familiar looking man fusses over it, checking that the last of the wires are fixed in place.
“Mr Stark?” Erskine calls out, and goes forward to shake the man’s hand. “I don’t believe you’ve met our subject yet.”
Stark. The man with the flying car.
“Oh, hey!” Stark’s gaze lands about a foot over Steve’s head, and when Erskine inclines his chin, drops down to where Steve is. “Oh. You’re a shrimp, aren’t ya?”
Steve frowns but keeps his mouth shut as Stark turns back to his machine.
“Are we ready, Mr Stark?” Erskine asks.
“Ready as we’ll ever be.”
Erskine gives Steve a last, concerned look. “Are you sure?” Steve nods and gets a pat on the shoulder. “Good man. You’ll need to take off your shirt and tie.”
Steve looks around for Peggy and sees her standing with the old men. “Who are they?” he asks as he works his tie loose.
“With Colonel Phillips?” Erskine glances in the direction Steve is looking in before getting back to his preparations. “That is Senator Brandt, he has been vital in getting the Senate's approval for this project.”
Erskine takes Steve’s tie and gestures for his shirt, and Steve complies.
“So he runs the show, huh?” Steve asks thoughtfully.
“I suppose so, yes,” Erskine hums. “Him and the Colonel.”
Steve hands over his shirt, and Erskine hands it to a passing assistant before directing Steve to the silver pod. He pulls on a lever and it opens with a pneumatic hiss, unfolding like a venus fly trap. The thought is not lost on Steve, and he hesitates before climbing inside.
“Comfortable?” Erskine asks.
Erskine gives him a pat on the arm, then turns to Stark. “Are we ready, Mr Stark?”
“Levels are at one hundred percent, doc. We’ll probably knock out half the lights in Brooklyn, but we’re good to go.”
The photographer brings a microphone to Erskine, and he looks at it warily. “What is this?”
“To record the proceedings,” the photographer says and bustles off again.
“Hmm. Is this working?” Erskine taps the microphone and there is a corresponding crackle over the P.A. system. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sure you are all aware of why you are all here. We will begin with a series of micro injections of the formula into the subjects major muscle groups. The subject will then be saturated with vita-rays, stimulating a cellular transformation.”
Steve listens to the announcement with some trepidation. At least they’re not using electricity, he’d never hear the end of it from Luis.
Erskine gives Steve a last, concerned look. “Begin procedure.”
He pulls on the lever again, and the pod closes in around Steve. There is a small viewing window, but all he can see through it is the opposite wall as the pod hisses and clanks around him.
“Mr Stark?” Erskine calls. “Serum injection in three… two…”
A hundred needles pierce Steve’s skin in sharp little scratches, flooding his veins with cold. A sharp, yellow light starts to fill the pod.
“Vital signs are normal,” Erskine reports.
“Twenty percent,” Stark calls out. “Thirty percent.”
With the light comes pain, bright and burning, and Steve bites on his tongue to keep from screaming. Blood pools in his mouth, seeps from his ears, clogs up his nostrils, and his bones are on fire.
“Forty percent,” Stark yells. “Fifty percent.”
“Vital signs are dropping,” Erskine taps on the viewing window. “Steven? Steven can you hear me?”
There is a garden.
Where the garden of the Dream House is a wild sprawl of wildflowers and herbs, of tall spires of larkspur and foxgloves, the garden Steve stands in has no flowers at all.
There is gravel at his feet, fine chips of warm golden sandstone that shifts and murmurs as he moves, arranged in orderly geometric patterns around him. There are paths that lead in every direction, some disappearing into mazes of tall hedges, the branches trimmed in smooth planes and sharp corners.
Trees are carefully placed around the garden, each one meticulously trimmed so not a leaf is out of place.
There is a garden, and Steve stands at a crossroads in the center of it.
In the distance, he can see a figure moving towards him. From far away it appears vast, wrapped in a flowing red robe and carrying a heavy leather bound book so large it needs to be held in two hands. As it approaches it seems to diminish, and when it stops before Steve, red hood obscuring its face, it is not much taller than he is.
Steve tips his head to one side. “You must be Destiny.”
The figure moves his book to one hand, and pushes back the hood of its robe. Steve had not expected a human, but he hadn’t expected a machine.
“Steven Grant Rogers, born July 4th Nineteen Eighteen to Sarah Rogers and Joseph Rogers.” The machine smiles. “I have been looking forward to making your acquaintance.”
“I’d rather be a friend than an acquaintance,” Steve replies honestly, and the machine’s smile broadens.
“If I can, I will be that also.”
The book in Destiny’s hand is filled with blank pages, but as Steve looks, thin, spidery writing crawls across the page.
But as Steve looks, thin, spidery writing crawls across the-
Steve looks away, rubbing at his eyes with a knuckle. “So that’s my book, huh?”
“It is,” Destiny draws a hand across the page. The book is neither thick nor thin, neither full not empty.
“How does it end?” Steve asks.
Destiny’s smile drops a little. “Do you really want to know?”
Steve considers his answer before speaking, watching the ink trail across the blank page. “There isn’t one, is there?”
Destiny nods, approving. “The future is unwritten, Steven. Of course there are… outcomes that are closed to you now, futures that will never come to pass. But nor is what is to come set in stone.”
“Well, that’s something, I guess,” Steve mutters. “Do you have everyone’s futures to hand, or just mine?”
Destiny doesn’t answer, instead gesturing to one of the paths leading through the trees. “Walk with me.”
Steve looks at the other paths open to him, stretching into dark mazes and wide open spaces. He can’t be certain, but he sees something moving in the shade, something too fast for the eye to see. “Will I regret it?”
Destiny closes the book and tucks it under his arm. There is a design embossed on the leather cover, a star within concentric circles. “I’m afraid I cannot be the judge of that.”
He starts to walk away, and after a moment Steve follows, the heels of his boots digging into the gravel and marring the smooth surface.
“What do I call you?” Steve asks as he catches up.
“Excuse me?” Destiny says, the slightest trip in his step.
“The others, the Endless, they have names,” Steve points out, falling in alongside him. “You must have a name.”
“Wanda-” Destiny seems to hesitate. “Wanda calls me Vision.”
Steve nods decisively. “Vision.”
If his skin were not made of metal and plastic, he might have blushed. But Vision only gestures to the path behind them. “All roads lead to Death, but some are shorter than others,” he says quietly.
Steve looks back, but the path is unclear, as though a light mist had descended upon them as they walked.
“I would have died?”
Vision nods. “The combination of serum and vita rays would have been too much for your heart, already weakened from basic training.”
“I’m not weak.” The words come automatically, and Vision smiles again.
“No. No, you are not.”
“In my garden there are many paths, many possible futures. Which one you take is your decision.”
Steve looks around them, at all the different ways that lead from their straight gravel path; wide lanes between marble statues and stepping stones across grass, winding roads and spiralling lines in every direction. “But there are no signposts,” he says. “How do you know which is the right one?”
“You don’t,” Vision says plainly. “Choice is not binary, it is infinite. Every step we take is a choice, and every step we do not take a future that will never come to pass.” He stops and points to a path leading down a slope to a natural amphitheater. “There you survive the procedure, and become a… ‘performing monkey’ I believe you called yourself. You participate in stage shows to entertain the troops, with mixed success I might add.”
Steve grimaces, deciding against that path. “So which one should I take?”
Vision shakes his head. “That is not for me to decide.”
“But you already did,” Steve points to the way behind them, lost to the encroaching mists. “Back there, you told me to walk away.”
Vision’s mouth twists ruefully. “Yes. You’ve rather got me there.”
He takes a look around the diminishing garden, and chooses a path. It is narrow and unkempt, winding away from the orderly garden into a tangle of tall grasses and wildflowers. They walk in silence until the stones beneath them start to split and jag out in different directions, like stepping stones disappearing into the undergrowth.
“The way is unclear,” Vision says, with some regret. “I can go no further.”
Steve grits his teeth, and when he looks back the way they came, he sees only mist. “Bucky,” Steve says, turning back to the only path left to him. He thinks of all the times he found his way through the overgrown garden surrounding the Dream House. “Schmidt has him, doesn’t he? He tried to trap Death, to gain his powers, and he got Dream instead.”
Vision holds Steve’s book to his chest, bowing his head.
“Do you know where he is?”
“Steven, I must warn you,” Vision says firmly. “The path you take is a dangerous one. Do not martyr yourself in my brother’s name. He would want you to live.”
“Do you know where he is?” Each word come out clipped and vicious, slicing like a blade.
For a moment Vision looks about to argue, but instead he says, “He is somewhere in the Swiss Alps, hidden underground. I have tried to find him, but the way is hidden from me.”
“Thank you,” Steve says, and walks into the wilderness before Vision can stop him.
The cracked path under his feet quickly disperses, leaving single, irregularly shaped stones dotted in the long grass. Some Steve steps onto because they are the only ones he can reach, others he avoids as they are crumbling around the edges, or in perilous looking places.
The further he travels, the fewer they become, and it is harder and harder to make a choice, as each step becomes the only one possible. The mist follows at his heels, swallowing up the paths not taken.
He sees a fountain in a clearing, its marble surface cracked. He sees a tangle of white roses, stained with blood, and he puts his back to them and keeps walking.
He walks until the path runs out, and stands on a last fragment of white stone as the mist rolls in around him, until even the tall spires of foxgloves and larkspur vanish from sight.
Steve closes his eyes. The mist deadens the sounds of the garden, swallowing the rustle of leaves and the drone of insects. He strains for something, for a sound to guide him.
Someone is singing. An old song, low and lamenting. They draw in a pained, ragged breath, and they keep singing. A song sung Steve’s whole life, calling to him. He steps off the path, and follows the sound.
Death is before me today;
like the odour of myrrh
like sitting under a sail in a good wind
The pod cracks open, and Steve crumples forwards. Erskine reaches out to grab him, supporting his weight as Stark rushes over to help.
“Holy mother of God,” Stark marvels, his hand against the hard lines of Steve’s stomach.
“It worked!” Erskine pats Steve on the chest. “Steven, it worked!”
Steve blinks, forcing his eyes open as people crowd around them. They all look so small.
“We did it,” Stark laughs. “We actually did it!”
Peggy pushes her way through the throng, reaching out to touch Steve and stopping short. “How. How do you feel?”
Steve draws in a breath. Sweat is clinging to his skin, and his body is screaming. It feels wrong, as though his flesh is no longer his own, but something utterly alien, something deeply wrong.
“Taller,” he says, because ‘make it stop’ doesn’t seem in keeping with the celebrations going on around him.
Senator Brant comes striding over, Colonel Phillips at his side. They start to congratulate each other when Steve notices something out of the corner of his eye.
A young man, his tangle of grey hair like thistledown an odd contrast to his youthful face. He nods to Steve, and the photographer pulls out a gun and makes a shot.
Steve doesn’t think, his body acts without his input, grabbing a steel tray of instruments from a nearby table and spinning it across the room. It strikes the fleeing photographer between the shoulders, and he drops to the ground like a stone. Peggy is the first to reach the downed man, grabbing his gun and turning him over.
“Steven?” Erskine holds his hand to his breast, blood pooling under his fingers.
“No!” Steve yells, taking hold of Erskine and helping him down to the floor. “It’s alright,” he babbles. “Stay still, you’re gonna be alright.”
Erskine reaches up and presses his hand flat against Steve’s bare chest, blood spilling from his mouth.
“Listen to me,” Steve whispers hoarsely. “It’s not gonna be like they told you. You’re gonna open your eyes, and you’ll be in a garden, and it’s the most beautiful garden you’ve ever seen. And there’ll be someone waiting for you. He’s kind, I promise you, he’s kind and he’ll take you where you need to go. You’re gonna see things you never dreamed of, worlds you couldn’t imagine. You’ll see-”
Erskine’s worn face slackens as his eyes cloud over, and his heart never beats again.
“Hail Hydra,” the photographer hisses, and bites down on a false tooth. He shudders in Peggy’s grip, foaming at the mouth, and is dead in seconds.
“Cyanide pill,” Peggy snarls and gets to her feet, his gun still in her hand. She turns to Steve, cradling Erskine in his arms. “Abraham.”
She rushes over to Steve’s side, while Stark paces in panicky little circles.
“He said Hydra,” Senator Brandt says. “Who is Hydra?”
“The Nazi science division,” Stark answers before anyone else can. “Run by Johann Schmidt.”
“They’re practically a cult,” Colonel Phillips adds. “Schmidt thinks he can become a god or some nonsense.”
“And what do you plan to do about that?” Brandt asks incredulously.
“The SSR needs to regroup,” Colonel Phillips looks around the room. “Find another way to-”
“Colonel Phillips.” Steve lays Erskine's head gently on the floor before getting to his feet. “We don’t need to regroup, we need to take the fight to Hydra’s front door.”
“Don’t speak to me in that tone, son,” Colonel Phillips growls. “You’re nothing more than a lab rat.”
“Schmidt has a base hidden somewhere in the Swiss Alps.” Steve looms over Phillips. “Now I don’t care what you think of me, but I will find him and I will end him. And I will do it with or without your permission, sir.”
“Steve?” Peggy says cautiously. “What are you going to do, walk to Europe?”
“If I have to,” Steve snaps.
Stark holds up his hand. “I have a plane. Just saying. It’s a lot quicker than walking.”
Colonel Phillips looks between Steve, Stark and Peggy. “God help me,” he sighs. “Pack your bags.”
Chapter 6: Dream
“Shh!” Steve hisses. He holds up a hands and they fall silent, watching in confusion as Steve tilts his head to one side. “Can you hear that?”
A slow, pained breath being drawn between bared teeth, before a song starts up again.
The days blur in the rush to get organised. One moment Steve is standing by a grave, half-listening to a litany of names he does not know, the next he is on a plane bound for Europe.
He doesn’t sleep for days, his new body like a live wire, a crackle under his skin, a buzz in his ears.
Peggy sits in silence in the seat across from him; her eyes tight, her mouth a hard line, and Steve remembers that before Erskine was his friend, he was hers.
“I’m sorry,” Steve says softly as she stares out the window. “About Erskine. He deserved better than this.”
She blinks, and it takes her a few moments to respond. “He would be proud of you.” She pauses. “He was proud of you.”
Steve ducks his head. “I don’t know about that.”
“What you said to him,” she turns towards him, leaning forward in her seat. “Did you believe it, or was it just… comfort to a dying man?”
“Would that be so bad?”
“No,” Peggy studies him closely. “But it seemed to have… meaning.”
Steve scrubs his hands over his eyes and tries to remember the last time he walked in Dream’s House. Luis had been mad at him, and he had planted roses under the fountain. How long had it been?
“Steve?” Peggy says again, but he is already asleep.
When Steve opens his eyes, he is standing in the garden behind the Dream House. The house resembles the small, overgrown cottage from his childhood, though the windows are clean and the chimney standing. It must be early summer; the lavender by the back door is in bloom, and the first frothy white blossoms are opening on the wild oregano.
He walks through the herbs to the door and unlatches it, the plain wood warm under his hands, and the house seems to unfold before him.
He is the same as he was before in the Dreaming, no serum has touched him here. He presses his shoulder to the wall, so relieved to be home, to be him, that it’s a struggle to stay on his feet.
“I’m coming for you,” he tells the walls. “Bucky, do you hear me? I’m on my way.”
There is more he wants to say, but the house around him starts to shake, and there is a distant light through the windows growing steadily brighter.
Peggy gives him a firm shake and Steve opens his eyes.
“We’ve landed,” Peggy says.
Everything comes rushing back to him and he sits up sharply. His shoulders feel too broad, straining at the seams of his borrowed clothes. When he stands his head brushes the ceiling of the plane. He feels too odd, too unbalanced, as though wearing someone else's skin.
He follows Peggy out of the plane and onto the landing strip. While Peggy walks over to a waiting army vehicle, Steve stops to take in his surroundings.
The airport is a private strip of land southeast of the town of Bern. In every direction there are snow capped mountains reaching up to the sky, and for a minute Steve can only stand and stare. The air is cold and sharp, at first he risks only shallow breaths, until he remembers that he no longer has to contend with asthma and draws in great gulps of freezing air.
The driver leans on the horn irritably and Steve walks over to the vehicle. It looks like one of the jeeps he’s seen around Camp LeHigh, but fitted with snow tires and a winch. He bends down to glare at the driver and see’s Stark grinning back at him. Of course, it must have been Stark flying the plane.
“C’mon Rogers, you’re gonna have plenty of time to gawk,” Stark shouts, and Steve climbs in without a word.
It’s a three hour drive from Bern to their destination, the vehicle clattering along back roads and high passes before skirting along the banks of the Thunersee and into the snow covered foothills.
Peggy unfolds a map and lays it across her lap, tapping a red-painted nail on their destination.
“Zermatt,” she says. “There we will meet up with the rest of the unit.”
“There’s a rest of the unit?” Stark yells over his shoulder. “Who’s crazy enough to be out here?”
“The Howlies,” Peggy replies.
“The what?” Steve and Stark ask in unison.
“There was unit of over two hundred men taken in Azzano, Italy. They were transported to a Hydra base and forced into hard labour, building weapons and machinery for Johann Schmidt.” Peggy moves her finger along the map, tracing along the mountain range. “The Howling Commandos are the ones who made it back.”
“How many?” Steve asks. Peggy glances at him, and he knows from her expression that the answer is not good. “Peggy, how many made it back?”
Peggy smooths out a crease on the map. “Five.”
“Son of a bitch,” Stark whispers.
“And they know where the base is?” Steve pushes. “They’re willing to go back?”
At this Peggy’s mouth pulls up in something that can’t be mistaken for a smile. “They saw unspeakable things there, Steve,” she says grimly. “They want to see the damn place burn.”
They arrive at Zermatt shortly before sunset, and Peggy leads them through the quiet town to a cosy little bar in the shadow of the Matterhorn.
Inside it is all dark wood and dim lighting and a rowdy, disparate group of men holding court at the bar. Peggy calls out to them and they roar with delight at her arrival. The ringleader, wearing a battered bowler hat and a bushy mustache, calls for another round and starts making introductions.
“You must be the lab rat we’ve all heard so much about,” he booms, shaking Steve’s hand.
The comment is made with such cheery enthusiasm, and by a man with dark shadows under his eyes, that Steve can only nod along.
“Just like Frankenstein,” he confirms and the Howlies roar with laughter.
“Hey,” Stark cuts in. “I’m Frankenstein in this set-up, thank you very much.” He leans over to shake the ringleaders hand. “Howard Stark, pleased to meet ya.”
“Dugan, but the lads here call me Dum Dum,” the ringleader says proudly, and points out each member of the group. “That ugly fucker there is Montgomery Falsworth, our Limey.”
“Charmed, I’m sure,” Falsworth says drily.
“The handsome bastard next to him is Gabe Jones, our comms expert. Speaks half a dozen languages, but still can’t get my order at the bar right. That weasel next to him is Jacques Dernier, our explosives expert.”
“Bomb voyage,” the last Howlie says with a smirk.
“Va te faire foutre,” Dernier retorts.
“Clever little shit there is James Morita, the medic.” Dum Dum finishes. “And that’s the lot of us.”
The barman starts bringing fresh glasses of beer to the counter and the Howlies fall on them with enthusiasm. Beer gets passed along to Peggy and Stark and finally Steve.
He looks at the huge, frosted glass of cloudy beer in his hand and glances around. Since the serum beer has had no effect on him, his body processing the alcohol faster than he can drink it. But it smells sharp and refreshing, so he takes a sip, savouring the fizz and tang of hops and wheat.
While he drinks, the Howlies joke back and forth, teasing and good humoured. It is so far removed from his days of basic training that he feels a pang of disappointment. Maybe this is what it feels like, to be part of something.
“So Rogers,” Dum Dum breaks into his thoughts. “You’re the man with the plan, then?”
Steve pauses to rub the foam from his upper lip. “Uh. It’s not really a plan, as such. Just find the Hydra base and wipe it off the map.”
His words are met with a roar of approval. “That's good enough for us!” Dum Dum says and swigs his beer.
“To be honest,” Steve adds, “I don’t see why you haven’t done it already.”
The Howlies fall silent, each one of them fixing him with a gimlet stare.
“I mean,” Steve adds hasily, “You know where the base is, right? Why haven’t you-”
“Colonel Phillips believes it would be a waste of manpower,” Falsworth says flatly.
“That we’d lose more men than we’d save,” Jones adds.
“Putain de lâche,” Dernier adds, and Jones nods in agreement.
“But what about the other prisoners?” Steve asks, horrified. “You said there were others.”
“There are,” Morita says. “Working night and day building weapons for Hydra. And there’s an advanced bomber plane, the Valkyrie, Schmidt’s pride and joy.”
“We told Colonel Phillips all this,” Dum Dum says grimly. “He still believes the best rescue mission is to win the war.”
“Well, to hell with that,” Steve growls. “Tomorrow we go up there and we bring that mountain down on their heads.”
His words are met with another roar, and a call for more beer.
When the barman throws a damp towel over the hand pumps they retire for the night at a nearby billet, traipsing through the snow. Steve has never known weather like it, even in the worst of Brooklyn winters, and for once is grateful that the serum seems to make him run hotter than most people, so the chill doesn’t affect him much. The other Howlies (and he is one of them now, there was a loud and over-dramatic pact over the dregs of their beers) are too inebriated to feel the cold, the fug of alcohol keeping them warm on the walk to their lodgings.
Steve dozes fitfully on his pallet, but doesn’t dream. Tension prickles up his spine. Tomorrow, he thinks to himself. It’s a strange thing, after so long. What if he’s wrong and Bucky is hidden somewhere else, in some other base between here and the Italian border. It would take a lifetime to search these mountains.
He presses his face to his thin pillow, muffling the sound of snoring around him. He would give a lifetime, he would give more, just for a chance to see him again.
The Allies who provided their lodgings also supply them with clothing for the journey ahead; warm woolen clothes, sturdy boots and thick, fur-lined coats. Steve, despite being relatively impervious to the cold, is given a fleece lined leather jacket. Like everything else it is worn and not quite fitting, a dead soldiers name scrawled in pen on a tag at the seam.
There are weapons handed out too, and while the others are happy to take rifles, Steve settles for a pistol, something small he can tuck into the waistband of his borrowed pants.
The Hydra base is half a day’s hike through the Alps, so as well as picks and ropes they are given provisions, packs of rations and slabs of mint cake. They are nothing like any cake Steve has eaten; camphorous squares of hard sugar that dissolves on the tongue, but he accepts them with thanks, tucking them into his pockets.
Peggy gives him a last once over, before giving him a brief, hard hug goodbye. “Take care of yourself, Steve,” she says crisply. “You have a radio, so use it. Keep us updated.”
“Thank you, Peggy,” Steve says softly. “For everything.”
She doesn’t tell him to come back, just takes a step back to where Stark is waiting. They will remain in Zermatt, watching the mountains and waiting for their return.
The Howlies are quiet throughout preparations. Steve can’t imagine what ghosts they carry with them, what it will cost them to return to hell. They gather the last of their possessions, and Peggy makes no comment on the bottles of brandy and wine poking out from their packs, just wishes each of them success and tells them to come back in one piece.
They start the climb in silence, a funereal air hanging over them as they pick their way through the foothills towards the mountain path. The climb is easy at first, a steady incline of grasses and scrub dusted with snow. Dum Dum takes point, his memory of the way the clearest. The others follow in a ragged line, Dernier taking up the rear. From his pack Steve can see where his nickname came from, all manner of explosives poking out from under the canvas straps, a lit cigarette dangling permanently from his mouth.
They cross a running stream, the water icing along the banks, and Steve starts to hum.
Death came for me today, he sings under his breath. Like the course of a stream, like the return of a man from the war-galley to his house.
“What was that?” Dum Dum calls back from his place in the lead. “What you singing there, laddie?”
“Oh. Nothing,” Steve says dismissively, a little embarrassed to be caught singing, he’s never been much for carrying a tune.
“Oh, come along old chap,” Falsworth pauses to catch his breath. “Times like this we need a sing-song, lift the spirits.”
“That didn’t sound like a spirits lifting song,” Dum Dum mutters, rummaging in his coat for his hip flask.
“It’s not.” Steve can admit that at least. “It’s a call for help.”
“Venez m'aider?” Dernier asks, catching up with them.
“Something like that,” Jones agrees.
Dum Dum takes a deep swig from his flask, and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “Alright ladies,” he screws the cap back in place. “Onwards and upwards.”
Dernier strikes up a tune, his clear, sweet voice carrying through the cold air. From the way Jones sniggers at the end of every verse, Steve can only assume it's a bawdy number and doesn’t ask for translation. He can make out up the broader details from what French he has picked up.
Even Dernier falls silent as the way becomes steeper, and most of them resort to scrambling up on all fours in some places, searching out handholds on the jagged black rocks.
Dum Dum and Steve power on ahead when the going gets too steep. Steve listens while, between panting breaths, he tells of his years as a circus performer before the war, lifting weights in a tiger striped costume for the crowds. Steve thinks that he’s spinning a yarn right up until the moment he unfurls the coil of rope thrown over one shoulder and sends one end down the slope. The rest of the Howlies grab onto the rope gratefully, cheering as Dum Dum hauls them up the rocks.
“Circus, huh?” Steve marvels as the the last of them are lifted on the safety of a ledge.
Dum Dum tips the brim of his hat, and keeps climbing.
The closer they get to the base, the quieter the men become. There is no more singing, no more telling stories, just quiet determination and a grim focus on their goal.
Morita scouts ahead, keeping low, his body flattened against the rocks. He gives a low whistle and the Howlies fall into formation, Dum Dum grabbing Steve by the scruff and hauling him into the shelter of an outcrop. They wait in silence, Steve’s heart hammering in his throat, until Morita signals that the coast is clear.
The move in single file, crouched down among the jagged rocks until they reach a clearing. Falsworth climbs up first, poking his head up for a second before dropping down again.
“How many?” Dum Dum whispers as he slides down to join them.
“Three,” Falsworth answers. “Armed and alert.”
Dernier lifts his shoulder, indicating his pack of explosives, and Dum Dum shakes his head. “Time for that later. We can’t draw attention to ourselves just yet.”
Dernier looks disappointed as he sucks on his cigarette, the tip glowing cherry red.
“Quick and quiet, lads,” Falsworth adds, looking to Steve for assent. “Let’s give the bastards hell.”
They move in formation along the rocks, skirting around the long, narrow clearing. Steve’s gaze keeps being drawn back to it. It must have taken endless hours of manpower to clear and level an area that size, and it can only be a runway. It leads to an opening in the mountain, a gaping mouth into darkness, flanked by guards.
“Come on, Rogers!” Jones hisses, and he returns his attention to the task at hand.
It takes a few moments to bring down the guards and hide the bodies, and they sneak through the mouth of the cavern, keeping close to the walls.
They are in an aircraft hanger, a sleek black bomber parked up at the far end. Hydra guards holding weapons stalk around the plane while workers carry supplies and munitions up the ramp.
“That’s the Valkyrie.” Dum Dum points towards the plane.
“We can’t hang around here,” Falsworth whispers, gesturing to a set of doors up ahead leading further into the mountain.
“What do you suggest?” Dum Dum growls. “We ask for directions?”
“Shh!” Steve hisses. He holds up a hands and they fall silent, watching in confusion as Steve tilts his head to one side. “Can you hear that?”
A slow, pained breath being drawn between bared teeth, before a song starts up again.
Steve is on his feet and running before they have a chance to argue, shoving his way through the doors and into a corridor. Steve barely hears the sound of the Howlies in pursuit, hissing and whispering for him to tell them what the hell is going on, every ounce of focus on the gasp and stutter of a familiar voice.
Across to a gantry and down a flight of metal stairs, his boots raising a rattle and clang that can’t drown out the sound, and the further down into the mountain he goes, the louder it gets.
Steve half stumbles down the last flight of stairs to the very bowels of the mountain lair. His feet splash through puddles of water as he walks across the uneven floor, lights strobing across the walls as the Howlies pull out their flashlights and flares, bringing light to the darkest places.
A few crates are abandoned here and there, along one wall is a row of empty cells.
“Oh,” Jones falters. “I remember this place.”
“What?” Steve asks, glancing around.
“This is where they did the experiments.” Jones points to a collection of hospital gurneys shoved up against one wall. “Some formula they were testing.”
Steve’s pulse quickens. “What happened?”
“Nothing,” Jones says quietly. “It didn’t work, whatever it was, and eventually they stopped trying.”
Steve turns in a slow circle. “Erskine’s formula,” he whispers, as the light plays across the wet stone.
Something catches, like a hook snagging into his thoughts.
He presses his hand to the stone, sees the faint blossom of lichen between the cracks, the dark tufts of moss.
“The right kind of stones,” he whispers. “Bucky!”
“What?” Dum Dum asks. “What’s a Bucky?”
“Look for a door!” Steve yells, picking up speed as he moves around the level. “An oak door. Solid, wet, no handle. It’s here somewhere, find it!”
The air fills with the clatter of metal as the Howlies shove aside the gurneys and the cages, looking for the door,
“Ici, c’est ici!” Dernier yells, and Steve throws himself across the room, his boots skidding as he comes to a halt before the door. The Howlies all train their lights on it as Steve runs his hand across the wood, water stained and mottled with lichen and grey patches of mold. There is no lock, no key, no handle. The hinges are rusted and flaking away, and when he presses his ear to the wood he can hear singing.
Death came for me today, like the home a man longs to see, after years spent as a captive.
“It’s that song!” Dum Dum gasps. “The one you were singing.”
Steve doesn’t answer. He puts his shoulder to the door and pushes with all his strength.
When it doesn’t give way the Howlies join in, grabbing whatever they can and beating on the door with it. The old wood creaks, and groans, and finally gives way.
Behind the door is a room, the stone walls damp and coated in moss. In the center, scrawled on the rough stone, is a circle drawn in blood and chalk and silver. In the center of the circle lies a heap of rags and feathers, and glimpses of pale skin like moonlight.
Steve snatches the iron bar that Dum Dum had been brandishing and brings it down on the edge of the circle. The stone cracks, the iron bar shattering, and the figure within lets out a sharp gasp.
“Bucky!” Steve cries out, tumbling into the circle and dropping to his knees.
He gathers Bucky up in his arms, too pale, too cold, too still. “Bucky?” he whispers, pushing his fingers into his long, damp hair, smoothing the strands of it out of his face.
Bucky flinches, his brow creasing, and his eyes open. Black, black as ink, and lit with distant stars that flare and burn.
“Steve?” His voice is a low rasp, and the sweetest sound in all creation. “I thought you were smaller?”
“Yeah?” Steve’s heart falters, and Bucky cups a hand under his chin.
“So who is this fellow?” Falsworth whispers loudly. “And what’s all this… Oh!”
Bucky tilts his head up, inviting, and Steve bends down to kiss him. He only means to give the briefest of kisses, but Bucky opens up to him, his tongue darting out to touch the seam of Steve’s lips, and he is lost.
He twines his fingers in Bucky’s hair, letting out a startled sound as Bucky presses his thumb to the hinge of Steve’s jaw, easing his mouth open further. Bucky’s tongue creeps its way past the barrier of his teeth, dragging against his tongue, and Steve welcomes him in. If he could, Steve would open up to him like the shore welcomes the sea.
Dum Dum clears his throat. Loudly. “Time’s a-wasting, lads,” he says gruffly.
Bucky takes his time departing, and Steve is in no mood to rush him, though he feels a sharp sting of disappointment when their lips part.
“I knew you’d come,” Bucky murmurs, his voice softer, sweeter, and Steve takes the hand still cradling his jaw and presses a kiss to his palm.
“You're freezing,” he realises, taking in Bucky’s ragged shirt and threadbare pants. Steve quickly shucks off his coat, wrapping it around Bucky’s shoulders and threading his arms through the sleeves. Bucky presses his nose to the fleece lined collar and breathes in the scent of him, the corners of his eyes creasing.
“We need to get moving,” Dum Dum says, a little more softly, and Steve helps Bucky to his feet.
They cross the basement, Bucky’s bare feet barely causing ripples in the puddles, and reach the metal stairs.
“Can you manage?” Steve asks. Bucky nods, taking hold of the railing and hauling himself up the steps. The Howlies watch warily before following.
“The Tesseract,” Bucky hand reaches up to his throat, where the crystal once hung. “He took it from me.”
“Schmidt,” Steve hisses.
“When he captured me. I put too much of myself into that thing, and without it I was powerless. He has been using it to build his weapons.” Bucky’s eyes burn fiercely. “I will drag him into endless nightmares for what he’s done.”
“You’ll get no quarrel from me,” Dum Dum says grimly. “That bastard needs to pay.”
Bucky turns to him, and Dum Dum flinches at the constellations of his eyes. Above them the mountain starts to rumble.
“He knows I am free,” Bucky says softly, and Steve picks up the pace.
When they reach the ground level, the Valkyrie has already powered up, the roar of its engines shaking the mountain itself as the guards scramble clear.
“He’s making a run for it!” Falsworth yells as the plane starts to roll along the runway towards them.
Bucky rouses, letting out a low growl as he stalks forward, planting himself on the runway in front of the taxiing bomber.
“Bucky!” Steve yells after him, struggling to be heard over the sound of the engines echoing through the cavern, but Bucky doesn’t come back.
“Alright, new plan!” Steve yells. “We’re going after Schmidt, you guys take down the base.”
Dernier raises his shoulder, indicating his backpack full of explosives. “Oui?”
“Blow it all to hell, fellas,” Steve rasps and chases after Bucky.
Bucky stands in the center of the runway, unflinching as the bomber charges towards him, wind whipping at Steve’s jacket.
“Bucky!” Steve yells, dashing towards him, intending to pull him out of the way. Bucky grabs hold of Steve’s arm, sidestepping, and launches them both into the open cargo bay as the plane thunders past.
Steve lands awkwardly, the wind knocked out of him, and Bucky pulls him to his feet.
They stagger into the cargo bay and Steve looks around in horror.
The bomber is filled with miniature planes, dozens upon dozens of them. And all around them are armed Hydra soldiers. The soldiers swarm around them, their guns raised, and Steve throws his hands up, trying to put himself between Bucky and the weapons. There are too many of them, too many barrels pointed at them from every side.
Bucky raises his head, his star-strewn eyes dimmed. “Go to sleep.”
The soldiers fall as one, slumping to the floor in a heap.
Steve can only stare as they fall, his heart hammering in his breast too loud, too fast. He takes one uncertain step forward, followed by another, until his feet carry him to the nearest plane.
“What the hell?” Steve mutters when he looks into the first one, and quickly hurries over to the next. They are small, too small for a pilot to operate, and must work by some form of remote control. And each one is filled with enough explosives to wipe out a city. Each one with a destination stencilled on the side. Boston. Paris. Warsaw. Chicago. London. Berlin.
He turns back to look at Bucky, who is staring out of the open cargo bay doors at the mountain below.
There is a series of low, percussive sounds, and the side of the mountain sheers away, crumbling into dust.
“Did they make it?” Steve asks, not daring to move.
Bucky tilts his head to one side, as though listening. “They live, and will for many years to come.”
Steve’s knees threaten to give way, and he leans against the nearest plane. The control panel inside is lit up, despite there being no pilot to operate it.
The plane lurches, and Steve pushes himself up. “We need to keep moving.”
They find Schmidt at last in the cockpit, his hands moving over the controls. He spins around when Steve and Bucky arrive, and Steve is suddenly grateful that his stomach is empty.
Whatever Johann Schmidt had been before, now he is a monster.
He clutches the Tesseract in his right hand, and its unearthly glow bathes the ruin of his face in light.
His skin looks like a half-melted candle, his flesh red and twisted. There is a vestige of nose, a sharp jag of bone, eyes milk-white and bulging from their sockets.
“Stay back!” Schmidt roars, brandishing the Tesseract, and a little more of his fingers melt away, until he is clasping the cube with bare bones.
“Give me the Tesseract,” Bucky says, his voice a bass roar. “It was not made for mortal hands. Give it back before it devours you completely.”
Schmidt snarls. “You think me a fool? I know what this is, the source of your powers!”
“Hand it over, Schmidt,” Steve takes a step towards him. “Give yourself up.”
Schmidt looks to Bucky and then the Tesseract in his hand. “Even gods can be killed.”
He smashes the Tesseract down on the nearest surface - the console - and the cube shatters in a blast of searing light. Steve is thrown across the cockpit, slamming against the far wall and tumbling to the ground.
The cockpit twists in and out of focus as Steve shakes his head, trying to dislodge the ringing in his ears. He tries to stand but his legs give way, and he collapses onto the cockpit floor, groaning as the air is knocked out of him.
“Bucky?” Steve looks up, but his surroundings blur and shift, bright sparks dancing before his eyes.
Schmidt is gone, there is nothing left of him but a smear of red on the floor, and Steve pulls himself to his feet. “Bucky?!”
He stumbles over to the control panel. Lights still flicker in places, and the steering column still responds to his touch. He casts his eye over the readings and sees the destination set for the Eastern Seaboard.
“Oh my God,” Steve whispers.
The belly of the Valkyrie is filled with remote controlled planes, all set with coordinates that Steve can’t begin to undo. He looks around the cockpit again, his vision clearing, but there is no sign of Bucky.
Steve fumbles through his pockets, emptying them out onto the damaged console. A clip for his gun, lost somewhere in the chaos, a slab of mint cake, a radio.
He presses his thumb to the switch on the side, and draws in a breath.
Chapter 7: Death
Death is before me today:
like the home that a man longs to see,
after years spent as a captive.
-From "Dispute between a man and his Ba" (12th Dynasty/2000 BC), papyrus from the Middle Kingdom of Ancient Egypt.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Peggy’s voice is a faint hiss over the radio waves when she answers.
“Schmidt is dead. The base is destroyed,” Steve tells her, his voice a listless monotone. “I’m on Schmidt’s plane, the Valkyrie. Peggy.” He pauses. He need time. Time to think, time to plan. But the seconds are ticking away, like precious few grains of sand in an hourglass. “Peggy it’s loaded down with bombs, these remote control mini-planes.”
“Give me your coordinates,” Peggy’s voice is strained, determined. “We’ll find a safe place to land.”
“I can’t.” Steve shakes his head, though there is no one to see him do so. “There’s no place on earth that’s gonna be safe. I.” Steve presses the back of his hand to his mouth to keep from screaming, counts his breaths until he can speak again. “I gotta put it in the water, Peggy. I’m sorry.”
It pours out like a litany, a final prayer to be weighed against the balance of his sins, and he shuts off the radio rather than hear her reply.
She would try to argue, try to find a solution, but Steve knows there is no other way. And he cannot afford to delay, not in a plane loaded with weapons armed against the whole world.
And what is one life weighed against the world?
It doesn’t take much to override the controls. He leans against the steering column and watches the Atlantic rush towards him.
“You must be Steve.”
Steve spins around, but it’s not Bucky he sees. A young man, his eyes far older than his body, save for his shock of thistledown hair. Steve remembers him, he was there in the laboratory the day Erskine died.
He half expects a to see a robe and a scythe, but he’s wearing a t-shirt and jeans, stained with dark red patches of dried blood, as though strafed with artillery fire.
“Pietro.” The kid grins at him. “Lets just go with Pietro for now.”
Steve nods. He feels numb, somehow distanced from himself, as though watching the proceedings from behind a pane of glass.
He can't bear to finish the question, can’t bear to have fought so hard, to have searched for so long, only to lose him now, when Bucky was so close to gaining his freedom.
“He’s alright,” Pietro assures. “There was power in that stone, more than he realised, I guess. So cracking it sent out a shockwave, knocked through the nine realms. Gave us all a bit of a turn, I can tell you.”
Steve’s eyes prickle, relief and disappointment warring in his breast. “Then why isn’t he here?”
Pietros expression turns sympathetic. “He’s trying. But this is a nexus point, y’see? The eye of the hurricane. Until reality snaps back into place we’re all kind of…” He trails off, and lets out a tired sigh. “The next few years are gonna be interesting.”
Exhaustion floods through Steve’s body, and whatever in the serum that had kept him going for so long finally gives out. He shakes from the last traces of adrenaline shivering in his veins, so damn tired he can barely stand. “Did I… did I get it right? There were so many paths, did I take the right one?”
Pietro shrugs. “It ain’t about right and wrong, Steve.”
It’s getting harder to breathe, getting harder to function, and Steve shakes his head. “There’s no time, is there? There’s no time for him to come-”
“If he could, he would, I promise. I’m just here because-” His mouth twists. “Well, I’m sure you know why.”
Steve turns back to the console. On the viewscreen he can see the ocean, the waves frozen in place.
“We don’t have much time,” Pietro sounds apologetic. “You throw a stone into the sea, you’ll get ripples, but they only last for so long. The world keeps on turning, and we all turn with it.”
“Of course,” Steve says softly.
Pietro picks up an overturned chair and sets it down the right way up, giving it a prod to make sure that it’s stable before taking a seat.
“I wanted to say thank you,” he says, twisting his fingers together. “I guess that’s what I’m doing this for. Most of the time there’s not so much chatter, y’know?”
Steve nods, the corners of his mouth drawing down.
“Bucky held us all together.” Pietro smiles fondly. “Sure he was stubborn, and kind of a pain in the ass, but he always looked out for us. Especially when me and Wanda came along. And then he was gone, and we all started to fall apart.” He gives Steve a tired smile. “Until you showed up.”
Steve tries to say something, tries to demur, to deflect, but his throat closes up every time he starts to speak. “I just wanted to help,” he chokes out.
He had wanted to fight for so long, wanted to stand proud beneath a flag and battle for what was right, wanted to die for a cause he believed in. And now that he is here, he wants to live. He wants to go back to the Dream House, he wants to see his friends again. He wants to hold Bucky in his arms and kiss him again, to draw his fingers through the silk of his hair and taste his mouth when he smiles.
He thinks of all those paths in Destiny’s garden, all the ones that led to sorrow and dead roses.
“Don’t tell him,” Steve bursts out. His throat opens up and the words flow like water. “Don’t tell him that I loved him. Don’t tell him I’m gone. It’ll only hurt him, and I don’t… I don’t want...”
Steve bows his head and screws his eyes shut, fighting back the tears.
Pietro gets to his feet, walking over to Steve’s side and laying a hand on his shoulder.
“You should get some sleep.”
Steve’s head snaps up again, and whatever tears that might have spilled are gone from his eyes. “What?”
“It’s been a long day, you’re tired,” Pietro says slowly, though there is no condescension in his tone, he doesn’t act like he’s speaking to an overwrought child. “Go to sleep.”
Is this what Death does? Takes you in his arms and lulls you to a sleep from which you never awake?
Steve does as he’s asked, for once in his damn life, and stretches out on the floor. He watches as Pietro walks over to the control panel, and takes hold of the steering column.
Steve closes his eyes. He’s so tired. He’s so tired.
The Dream House is not a house, but a ship, a square masted brigantine rolling in a stormy sea. The waves rise up and dash against the sides of the ship, sending it tilting and wheeling against. Lightning cracks across the sky, illuminating the heavy black clouds and the endless churning sea as rain lashes down against the sails, stretched taut against the winds. A storm, a great and terrible storm, but the ship does not succumb to the waves, and is bound for calmer waters.
Steve can see it in the distance, though he has to shield his eyes from the rain. A break in the clouds up ahead, a patch of blue skies and gentler waters, and the ship strains towards it.
There is no crew up top, no sailors in the crows nest above him, or manning the wheel, they must be below decks, riding out the storm.
Steve makes his way across the rain-lashed deck, his boots sounding against the wooden boards. His body feels familiar, compact and wiry, and not the hulking great mass that he struggled against in the waking world. He climbs down the ladder to the quarters below, finally out of the ravages of the storm.
He finds the crew in the Galley, Luis and Dave and Kurt sitting at the long, low tables, each drinking a mug of ale. Scott sits in an empty tankard to keep from rolling around with the ship, brandishing a thumble filled with ale. He raises his makeshift cup in the air when Steve approaches.
“Stevie!” Luis yells, delighted, and scrambles over the bench towards him. He throws his arms around Steves shoulders, holding him tightly. “You made it!”
Steve hugs him back, fresh tears prickling at his eyes. It feels like so long since he last saw them all, and now he is here he can’t bear to let go.
They all gather around him, the people he knows, and the new ones he doesn’t, faces familiar and strange. Their voices rise in a clamour, calling back and forth.
“They’re all coming back,” Scott says, perching on Steve’s shoulder. “Soon as the Boss Man got here they started finding their way back.”
“Bucky’s here?” Steve asks, looking around, but he doesn’t see any sight of him.
“Shockwave give people big scare.” Kurt leans towards him, the smell of liquor on his breath. “They come running home.”
“Damn right they did.” Scott waves his thimble of ale.
“Where’s Bucky?” Steve asks again, though no one will answer.
“C’mon,” Luis puts his beer to one side. “Enough of the carousing fellas. The storm’s passing and we got work to do.”
The others grumble, the new people and the old, and Luis claps his hands together. “I said to work!”
They finish up their drinks and Luis sends them around the ship in little groups, giving each one a task to be getting on with. Steve stares as they start going their separate ways, spreading out across the ship.
“Are you in charge, now?” he asks.
“Boss Man was impressed with how we took care of shit while he was gone,” Luis says proudly. “So yeah, your boy got himself a promotion! No more sweeping floors for Luis.”
“That’s great, Luis,” Steve says, pride filling his words.
Luis throws his arm around Steve’s shoulder. “I’m still gonna sweep floors, though. Can’t forget where you came from, you feel me?”
“No, you can’t,” Steve agrees.
Luis keeps giving out orders, there are sails to be mended and decks to be scrubbed, and soon they are the only people left in the Galley.
“C’mon, Stevie,”Luis gives him an affectionate shake. “Let’s get you where you need to go.”
Luis leads him further into the ship, passing cramped little quarters hidden below the deck. Steve catches sight of the Librarian, putting fallen books back on their shelves in one room, Scott and Hope hanging a painting in another.
Everywhere he looks, the Dreaming is being pieced back together.
Luis stops in front of the Captain’s quarters “Okay, here you go, pal.”
“This isn’t the workshop,” Steve says, worry creeping along the edge of his thoughts.
The ship is full of crewmen now, workers who know how to repair the Dreaming, how to put things back the way they were. What do they need him for?
Luis gives Steve a last hug, before knocking on the door and hurrying away, too fast for Steve to catch him.
“Come in,” a familiar voice calls, and Steve pushes open the door.
The throne room seems much like the first time he saw it, all those years ago. Sparsely furnished, the center taken up with a large wooden table. Behind the table is a row of small windows set into the wooden beams of the ship, and each window looks out on a different landscape. Steve catches sight of Wanda dancing past one pane of glass, weaving her hands through the air as a trail of little red fish swim after her. The next window shows a beach house overlooking the ocean, two figures walking across the sand. The next a garden, a figure in the distance walking along one of the many paths.
Whatever else the windows look out on Steve doesn’t notice, because beneath them stands Bucky.
He is dressed in black, but for the brown leather of Steve’s jacket, and he leans over the table, his hands on a small, wooden casket. He doesn’t look up at Steve, drawing his fingers across the lid and carefully opening it, revealing the contents. Glass balls, nestled in tissue paper, each one filled with a dim light. Steve remembers those marbles, remembers gathering them up and storing them carefully. Each one the soul of someone who died in dreams.
Bucky picks one up, and holds it up to study closely, the pale light within burning a little brighter at his attention.
“Am I in there?” Steve asks, a tremor in his voice.
Bucky looks up and smiles at the sight of him, the corners of his eyes creasing. “Steve.”
His name is spoken with such affection, such warm devotion, that Steve can’t stop himself. He stumbles forward, circling around the table and into Bucky’s arms.
Bucky wraps around him, the bauble still cradled in his hand, and presses his lips to the top of Steve’s head.
Steve closes his eyes, breathing in the warm wool and cool air scent of him. If this is all he has, a last moment before whatever comes next, it will be enough. He can die at peace knowing Bucky is home and safe.
Bucky tuts, as if he can hear Steve’s morbid thoughts.“Death will not touch you,” he whispers into Steve’s hair. “Here or anywhere.”
Steve clings to him tighter. He can feel the weight of the ocean around him, at the edge of his senses.
“That’s a long time. You sure you want me around that long?” Steve asks, his voice muffled against the leather of his jacket.
Bucky laughs, warm and sweet, a low thrum that reverberates through Steve’s chest. “Where would I be without you? The Restorer of Dreams.”
Steve flushes and is suddenly, intensely grateful Bucky can’t see his face. “Luis mentioned that, did he?”
Bucky cups his hand under Steve’s chin, gently coaxing his face up. “I have loved you for so long.”
There are no words good enough to answer with, that express all the things Steve wants to say, so he kisses Bucky instead. He pours all the years of searching and the hours of wanting and all the hope he has carried into kisses, a dozen, a hundred, a thousand. He could press kisses to Bucky’s sweet mouth for a hundred years and still not be done saying his piece.
“Show me?” Steve murmurs, when he has to pause and catch his breath. He looks to the marble still held in Bucky’s hand, the glow within warm and silver-bright.
Bucky smiles at him, the creases at the corners of his eyes deepening, and Steve wants to kiss every last one of them.
“Here.” Bucky takes Steve’s hands in his, pressing the ball of light into his cupped palms.
Steve tucks against his side, listening intently as Bucky talks him through releasing the soul within. There is so much to learn, so much to be done, and a future to be faced together.
The ship sails on through stormy waters, to blue skies ahead