Present : September 2016
When Steve wakes up, just for a moment, he’s sure he’s in the wrong place. He stares up at the dent in the ceiling, the one he’d made when he got a little too enthusiastic about popping the champagne after graduating college. Next to it is the green arrow Sam stuck there so Steve would never forget that night. It’s the same ceiling he’s woken up to for the last six months. But for some reason, his mind insists it’s the wrong one.
He blinks and the moment passes. He’s exactly where he’s supposed to be—in his room. Where else would he be?
He rolls onto his side to check his phone. Pain explodes in his head like a magnesium flare going off; white-hot, obliterating everything in its path. It fades just as quickly as it appeared, leaving behind a dull persistent pounding in the back of his head.
What the fuck was that?
Moving carefully in case his brain decides to explode again, he reaches for his phone. It’s just past ten in the morning. Thank God he works from home. He gets out of bed and staggers when his knees nearly give way. A dull ache makes its presence known in his chest, a weirdly full sensation that’s both physical and not.
At the sound of a key in the apartment door, he opens his bedroom door in time to see Sarah walking in still in her nurse’s scrubs.
“Are you okay?” Steve asks. He hangs on to the doorframe, thoughts feeling mangled and distorted and stretched out of shape, swirling around in his head like dirty dishwater draining out of a sink. “You’re supposed to be on shift till evening.” His voice comes out ragged from a throat that feels raw.
“Are you falling sick?” Sarah frowns. “You sounded fine yesterday…”
Steve’s throat burns when he swallows, his nose feels stuffy, his head throbs, his muscles are sore. “I think I might be coming down with a flu.” But at least his dizziness seems to have passed. “What about you? Why are you home early?”
Steve has learned to fear changes in Sarah’s routine. When she was diagnosed with cancer, she came home early. When she found out it was malignant, she came home early. When her doctor said there was nothing more they could do for her, she came home early.
Sarah gives him a sheepish smile. “I fainted in the break room.”
“Mom!” Steve rushes to her side, but she waves him off.
“I’m fine, Steve. I really don’t understand why I’d faint like that. I don’t remember feeling dizzy… I actually don’t remember much of anything at all.” A frown creases her brow. “I’m not even sure why I went to the break room.”
“Are you in pain?” Steve takes her shoulder bag and deposits it on the side table. “Is it getting worse?”
Sarah’s voice is matter-of-fact. There's no hesitation—like she’s talking about a cold. Steve still struggles to get the word out even though it’s been part of their life for nearly a year now. “I went to see Cho after I woke up. She didn’t find anything unusual. I feel fine. She still sent me home anyway.” She eyes Steve. “Did you just get up?”
“Yeah. A few minutes ago.”
“You really must be coming down with something… you don’t normally sleep this late when you’re working on something.” She tilts his face up towards hers. “Were you crying?”
“I—don’t think so.”
“You have your crying face.” Meaning his eyes are red and swollen and his face puffy. “And there’s these.” She taps his cheek.
When he touches the spot, he feels the trail of crusted salt left behind by drying tears. His eyes meet hers. “Must have been a dream?” His voice sounds weak to his own ears.
When Sarah’s arms close around him, he can feel the hot pressure of tears pressing at his eyes. His heart races like adrenaline is flooding his body.
“Take the day off,” Sarah says. “I’ll make popcorn and you pick something from the queue to watch. How does that sound?”
“Really good,” Steve manages. He keeps his face buried in her shoulder until he feels up to letting go.
“Go brush your teeth.” Sarah shoves him in the direction of his bedroom.
He does as she says, very glad that she’s home.
Past : August 2016
Steve tried to ignore the creeping shadows of the deserted buildings as he walked along 6th Avenue. They seemed to stretch a little too long for the time of day, lie a little too restlessly on the ground. He stifled the fear that threatened to overwhelm him and pushed on.
Here, almost in the heart of Midtown, his ears should’ve been assaulted with a cacophonous symphony of cars and bikes and honks and curses, but the only thing he could hear was his footfalls on the empty road. Even that sounded flat to his own ears, muffled and deadened. The air lay heavy on him like a quilt on a humid summer night. It seemed to resist his attempts to pull it into his lungs, and once he did, it felt clotted and starved of oxygen. It carried a faint hit of corruption, like fruits left too long on the counter during the summer months. Steve very much wanted an hour-long shower when he was done. And if he could physically scour out the insides of his nose and lungs, he’d do that, too.
This was the Dead Zone now—a place where no plant could grow and no tech could function with any kind of reliability. Even reality seemed none too solid in the Zone. It was the site of the last major battle between Hydra and SHIELD, and still carried the scars of the magic Hydra used, magic powered by the sacrifice of innocent human lives. Wanda refused to go anywhere near it.
Only one photo existed of that final battle. It’d been taken by a retro photography hobbyist in the building next to Stark Tower. The man had refused to be evacuated, preferring to trust his lead-lined walls to protect him. The film camera had been found a few days later next to his decomposing body.
In the grainy, black-and-white shot, four figures could be seen barring the entrance to Stark Tower. A bald, imposing black man in an ankle-length leather duster and an eye patch. A shaggy-haired man with a metal arm that glinted in the sunlight, dressed in black combat fatigues, his face almost completely covered by some kind of mask-and-goggles contraption. A woman with shoulder-length hair, also dressed in black. A man with a high-tech bow and a quiver full of arrows strapped to his back. Above them, Iron Man and War Machine hovered in mid-air in their tech-based suits.
Arrayed before them were a cadre of reavers, Hydra’s elite battle mages. Each reaver had shackled prisoners at their feet, ready to be sacrificed for the power contained in their souls. No one really understood how the reavers did it, but they were able to reap that power and use it to fuel their spells. It was that ability that set them apart from other mages and made them abominations to the rest of the world.
What happened after that, no one knew. When the dust settled, the reavers were all dead, and only Iron Man and War Machine remained to clear up the fallout from the battle together with SHIELD and the other alphabet agencies. No one ever found out the identities of the archer, or the mages that helped defeat Hydra.
Fitting that the Zone was where an ex-Hydra reaver had taken up residence. It was Hydra’s last, desperate, suicide attack on Stark Tower that had created it. Hydra had overreached in trying to destroy the Tower—the symbol of tech and a rallying point to those who opposed Hydra’s plans for a world ruled by magic users.
Steve stopped to catch his breath and check the printout in his hand. It was a composite drone photo of the Zone—poor quality since the residual magic played hell with electronics. He was pretty sure he hadn’t turned off 6th Avenue since he’d gotten out of 33rd Street Station, and yet… he looked around uneasily. When he spotted the Residence Inn sign, he let out a sigh. Still on the right track, then. Bryant Park would be just up ahead.
Wanda had only been able to point him in the direction of the Zone, so he’d had to come up with a list of places where the reaver might be staying. First on his list was Bryant Park. Two avenues away from the Tower, all its lush greenery was long dead. It was nothing but a bare, empty plot of land.
He walked until he spotted something up ahead that should have been an impossibility: a small sapling growing in a place where nothing was supposed to grow. And yet, there it was—healthy and very much alive in the Dead Zone. It was the first green thing he’d seen since crossing the invisible boundary that separated the Zone from the rest of the city.
The plant was placed at the corner of 6th and 40th like some kind of signpost. Steve edged closer, scanning the surroundings for signs of whoever was responsible for it. There was definitely someone, since the plant was growing out of a big pot.
When he reached the corner, he stopped dead in his tracks and gaped at the sight before him. Neat rows of long planters lined the road that ran alongside Bryant Park. An assortment of shrubs and saplings grew in them. One large planter even contained a well-cared for herb garden. Overhead, a black plastic sheet, the sort that was used to shade plants, fluttered in the light breeze, anchored by four tall, metal poles. Bright summer sunlight filtered through the slashes in the plastic sheet, giving the whole scene a dappled effect.
Steve felt himself straightening, the sight of all the life in front of him seemed to replenish the energy which had been sapped by his walk through the Zone. Even the air around him felt cleaner and less viscous.
“What are you doing here,” a voice rasped from behind him, a hint of a Russian accent coloring his words.
Steve spun about, swallowing a curse. The reaver stood in the shadowed doorway of one of the empty shops opposite the park. He was a tall man, leanly muscled, with shaggy, shoulder-length dark brown hair that looked like he cut it himself. He wore faded jeans and a blue long-sleeved Henley, sleeves pulled down despite the summer heat. A black glove covered his left hand. He watched Steve with cold gray eyes that betrayed no emotions.
Death magic. Wanda’s whisper echoed in his head. That man carries the taint of death magic on his soul.
“My—” He licked dry lips. “My name is Steve Rogers. I was looking for you.”
“My mother is dying.” Steve pushed down the despair that welled up inside him at having to speak the words.
“We’re all dying.”
“Well she’s dying sooner than she should,” Steve snapped. He gave a frustrated sigh. Catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, Steven. Sarah liked to say that when he got a little too vinegary. He unclenched his fists and took a few deep breaths.
“I know you do death magic,” Steve tried again. “You could…” An oppressive chill came over the street, matching the chill in the reaver’s eyes. Shadows seemed to crawl and writhe on the ground, long tendrils reaching for Steve at the periphery of his vision. He fought the urge to step back. “You could cure her,” he said, with just the slightest shake in his voice.
“Death magic requires a death.” The reaver’s voice was quiet and cold. “Whose do you offer?”
The world went still around them. Steve froze under the cold gaze that dissected him, feeling like prey in the sights of a predator.
“Go home,” the reaver said. He turned around and disappeared into the shop. The door banged shut behind him with the tinkle of a bell.
That cheerful sound snapped Steve from his momentary paralysis. “Wait—!” He rushed towards the shop. Five steps away from the door, Steve’s hands began to sweat as terror sank cold fingers into his gut. Four steps away and his throat started to close up. Three steps and his heart pounded fast and irregular in his chest, so fast that it hurt, so fast that he worried he might have an actual heart attack.
He backed up. The terror fell away with each step he took. He pressed a hand to his chest and tried to calm his racing heart. Jesus. He’d felt terror like that only twice before in his life, and both times had been when he’d nearly died because his heart forgot how to beat properly.
The closed door seemed to mock him with its pretty mint green blinds. There was no way he was getting past that. He might actually die from a heart attack, and then where would that leave Sarah. The sun was already starting to set and the sky to darken, so waiting for the reaver to come out was probably not an option. Making the ten-minute walk out of the Zone in the dark seemed like a very bad idea.
He set his jaw and straightened up. He’d survived this encounter. That was a good sign. He’d come back again tomorrow. Sarah Rogers had not raised a quitter.
When Steve let himself into the apartment, Sarah was already home, showered and changed out of her nurse’s scrubs into an old T-shirt and sweatpants. She sat at the dining table which was almost completely covered with sheets of paper.
“Mom? I thought you were on shift tonight.”
She looked up with a wan smile, the overhead light glinting off the ends of her short-cropped hair. “Simmons told me to take the night off. I’m mostly doing administrative work now, and Anna said she’d cover for me, so… here I am.”
Steve’s heart squeezed at the grayish cast to her face and the thready sound of her voice. He could tell from her strained expression how upset she was about not being able to finish her shift. It must’ve been bad if she’d actually agreed to come home. Most days, with the palliative treatments keeping her symptoms in check, it seemed like she just had a persistent bad cough. But some days, she’d be short of breath and constantly rubbing at her chest like there was a pain there she couldn’t ease.
“I’m sorry,” he said, because he didn’t know what else to say. “I’d have come home for dinner if I’d known—”
“I didn’t want you to rush on my account, Steve.” Her eyes were sad as she looked at him. “You hardly get a chance to go out anymore.”
“You’re out late,” she said, cutting him off, a question evident in her voice.
“Oh.” His hand tightened on the strap of his satchel—the satchel that held printouts of the Dead Zone. “I was with…”
After a moment of watching him flounder, a knowing smile curved Sarah’s lips. “Peggy?”
Steve gave a nervous laugh and shoved his fingers through his hair.
“I’m glad, Steve. You shouldn’t be alone.”
She didn’t say After I die, but then she didn’t have to. They both knew that’s what she meant. Steve wanted to break something. Instead, he pointed at the table. “What’s all this?”
A tiny sigh escaped her. “Trying to sort everything out for when…” Her lips compressed into a tight line before she gave him a forced smile. “It’s good to be prepared. Just in case.” She stood up suddenly. “I think I hear the kettle.”
Steve hadn’t heard anything, but then his hearing wasn’t exactly perfect. Feeling useless and small, he watched her hurry into the kitchen before he turned back to study the papers on the table. Rental agreement for the apartment, medical insurance, and—and a will. He turned on his heel and followed her into the kitchen.
Sarah was standing by the kitchen sink when he walked in. As he watched, she clenched her fist and hit the countertop with a controlled, quiet rage before wrapping her arms around her waist and hunching over. By the way her shoulders shook, he could tell that she was crying. The kettle wasn’t plugged in.
His mother didn’t cry. She was calm, cheerfully practical, terrifyingly efficient. She was the center around which the nurses at Brookdale University Hospital’s stroke unit revolved. She didn’t cry. Or maybe she’d just never let him see her cry so he’d have faith that she was strong enough to be both mother and father to him.
He didn’t know what to do. Go in and talk to her? But he didn’t know what to say. In the end, he backed out of the kitchen on silent feet, heart pounding in his chest. She’d hidden her tears for a reason. Even as he left, he wasn’t sure if he was doing it to respect her privacy or because he couldn’t think of what to say.
He sat down at the table and stared at the papers that covered it. His eyes kept returning to the will.
When Sarah came out a few minutes later, she seemed calm, normal. If Steve hadn’t seen her in the kitchen, he would never have noticed the slight redness of her eyes. How many other times had she cried and he’d not noticed? That question helped make up his mind about something.
“I heard about this drug trial they’re running in Mount Sinai—”
“Steve.” Sarah’s voice was tired and sad. “We’ve talked about this. No trials. No experimental drugs. Nothing not covered by insurance.”
“I can get another job, open up more commission slots, whatever we need. I already spoke to Phillips about taking on more illustrations—”
Steve clamped his mouth shut.
“I’ve seen too many patients bankrupt themselves chasing cure after cure.” She cupped his cheek. “You’ve already given up your lease and moved back here. You’ve done enough. Promise me you won’t try to raise the money.”
“Is it because of me? Because you’re worried I’ll need the money for my heart? Because I don’t, mom. I don’t want it. I’d rather you used it to get better.”
“Steve.” She pulled him into a tight hug. “I’m your mother. I will always worry about you. Don’t do this, Steve. Don’t fall into this trap. I know about the trial. Cho discussed it with me. The chances of success are minimal at best.” She pulled back and looked him in the eye. “We’re not doing this.”
“We’re not doing this,” he repeated dully.
“You’re a good son, Steve.” She brushed his hair back. Her smile was a little watery, now that he knew to look for it. “I have no regrets.”
“Mom,” he whispered. His eyes burned with unshed tears.
“It’s late,” she said, getting up. “I should be getting to bed.”
“I can tidy up.” He waved at the papers on the table.
When he heard the door of her bedroom close, he tightened his hands into fists and resisted the urge to sweep all the papers onto the floor. His impotence in the face of Sarah’s cancer was fuel to the rage that had powered him through his search for the reaver. He would get the cure for Sarah. He refused to accept any other outcome.
Bucky frowned when something crossed one of his boundary wards. Was it that tiny spitfire again. Steve Rogers. A lionhearted man crammed into the body of a spitting kitten. A man in too much of a hurry to throw away his life for Bucky’s peace of mind. A man just generally not very good for Bucky’s peace of mind.
Just in case it wasn’t, he bit the inside of his cheek. The taste of blood flooded his mouth. His extremities began to tingle as the power stored in his lifeblood filled him. Then, he bent his head back to the task of weeding the planter that held the current crop of saplings.
Five minutes later, Rogers rounded the corner and approached him warily. Bucky ignored him. He released the stored energy from his blood into the soil so it wouldn’t go to waste. With a second of concentration, he sent it twining around young roots to help them withstand the poisoned magic that still remained from Hydra’s attempt to destroy Stark Tower.
Rogers cleared his throat. “You didn’t give me an answer yesterday.”
That deep voice coming from that thin form still surprised Bucky. It seemed all of a piece, really. He let Rogers wait for a bit before he stood up and folded his arms. He did his best to loom as he studied Rogers with the flat, blank stare that was useful for intimidating people who got in his way.
“Do you know how death magic works?”
Rogers swallowed and shook his head. He was nervous, and yet, he stood his ground where many powerful mages would have retreated.
“It’s like splitting an atom,” Bucky said. “Severing the bonds that hold you to life releases latent energy which can be harnessed to power spells. Blood is the vector.” He leaned closer. “It’s not a gentle process. And it hurts. From the way they scream, it hurts a lot.”
Color washed out of Rogers’ face. Perhaps he had some sense after all, Bucky thought.
“Stop trying to scare me,” Rogers said, in a hard voice. “I’ll do whatever it takes.”
So much for sense.
“Look,” Rogers said, sounding exasperated, “will you do it or not? Is there something, some payment that’s required for your… your services?”
Bucky’s eyebrows climbed. Was he being solicited? He couldn’t stop himself from studying Rogers’ face, letting his gaze pause on plump lips, scan down the slim body and all the way back up. From the way Rogers’ eyes were wide with consternation, Bucky guessed not.
But what the hell, he thought, and stepped closer to loom a little more. He dropped his voice to a low, menacing growl. “What are you willing to offer?”
Instead of backing up, Rogers—who barely came up to Bucky’s eye level—actually leaned closer. “Like I said, I’ll do whatever it takes. If it’s mine to give, I’ll give it.”
Fierce blue eyes bored into his. Bucky could taste the resolve in the man, like a tang of metal in the air. He couldn’t call Rogers’ bluff because Rogers wasn’t bluffing.
Had Bucky ever been this innocent? Did Rogers have any idea how much a person could be made to suffer under the hands of another? Bucky was one of the best reavers Hydra had ever produced. It was a combination of the raw talent he’d been born with and some fluke of personality that helped him survive the cruel and brutal training he’d been put through. They’d pushed him harder than everyone in his cadre. There were places on his body that still ached on cold, rainy days even though it was many years since he’d gotten free of his trainers. And what they’d done to him was nothing compared to what was done to those that Hydra deemed unnecessary.
“Have you thought,” Bucky said, trying a different approach, “about what your death will do to your mother?”
Rogers shrugged and pressed a hand to his chest. “She was always supposed to outlive me. I can go anytime. She’s prepared.”
Bucky sank his power into the man’s chest. This was his unique ability, the one that made him such an effective killer—the ability to send his power into another person’s body, rupture arteries, stop hearts. But this time, he only explored. Realization dawned. Rogers’ heart was failing. No wonder he was so willing to bargain away what was left of his life to help his mother. Sadness weighed heavy on him that he had to turn Rogers away, but he had sworn a vow, and nothing would make him break it.
“No one is ever prepared,” Bucky said.
“How would you know what my mother is or isn’t prepared for?”
“I’ve seen a lot of people die. No one is ever prepared.”
“Why are you doing this?” Rogers raked his fingers through his hair, leaving tufts of it standing up in disarray. “This is the only thing I can do for her, so can you just give me a straight answer, yes or no, so I can stop wasting your time and mine?”
“What if I said no.”
“Then I’ll find someone else.”
Bucky gave a tired sigh. “You’d better come with me.” He turned and walked towards the bench outside the cafe that served as his home, trusting the man to follow.
Rogers hurried after him, his shorter legs stretching to keep up with Bucky’s longer stride. When Bucky pointed at the bench, Rogers frowned, but sat down. Bucky crouched down opposite him and began weeding his herb garden. The weeds, being hardy survivors, were always the first to withstand the blight left behind by Hydra’s attack. They were able to sprout and flourish just from the leftover bits of magic he used to shelter his plants from the blight’s toxic effect.
After a moment of silence, Bucky looked up to find Rogers watching him with a nonplussed expression on his face. Bucky swallowed an exasperated sigh and raised an eyebrow at him.
“My mother,” Rogers began. Bucky caught a glimpse of a tightly compressed mouth and flushed cheeks before Rogers turned away. When he continued speaking, face still turned away, his voice was tight and very controlled. “She was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. It’s spread all over her body. We thought it was just a cough, one that wouldn’t go away. It’s—”
By the elevated breathing and the clogged sound of Rogers’ voice, Bucky could tell he was struggling not to cry. He wanted to tell Rogers to hide his weakness, to not draw attention to his vulnerability. But he’d been out long enough to learn that not everyone responded to tears the way Hydra trainers did. That didn’t mean he knew what to do for Rogers, though.
He looked about, feeling a little desperate. His gaze landed on the apple he’d left on the small table by the door. He picked it up and stuck it in front of Rogers’ face. The surprise of being suddenly confronted by an apple seemed enough to derail him from incipient tears. Bucky breathed a little easier and went back to his weeding.
“Thank you,” Rogers mumbled. He took a bite, chewed, and swallowed. Took a few deep breaths. “The doctors gave her six months. There’s nothing more they can do for her except ease her symptoms. The med mages can’t help her because—” He looked down at the apple cradled in his hands. “Because the cancer’s spread too much. This isn’t how it was supposed to go.” His voice was nearly inaudible over the rustle of leaves in the breeze. “My dad—he died when I was six. I barely remember him. She gave up so much to raise me. She shouldn’t be the one going first.”
Bucky paused in his weeding and looked up. Their gazes held for a moment before Rogers looked away.
“I have a bad heart,” Rogers said, with a shrug. “I’m not strong enough to survive a transplant, not rich enough to pay for a med mage to help fix me. If I’m dying anyway, I might as well do some good with it.” There was bitterness there. Shame. “My mom… she’s a nurse. She helps people. She deserves more time.”
Bucky looked down at the sturdy little weed in his hand. He shouldn’t get involved, he knew this. But it was hard not to be swayed by Rogers and his burning need to help his mother. It was also that burning need that concerned him. Every instinct told him that Rogers would not give up. Sooner or later, he’d find a mage who’d take advantage of that willingness to sacrifice his life. Rogers would probably end up throwing away his life for nothing. Bucky swallowed a groan and let go of the weed.
“I cannot create something from nothing. There must be a sacrifice.”
Rogers straightened up in his seat, eyes glowing with hope. “Me.”
Bucky shook his head, dismayed anew by the casual disregard Rogers displayed for his own life. “I don’t do that anymore.”
“Giving up your life is the ultimate sacrifice; that bond is the strongest. But a reaver can harness the power from breaking other bonds as well.”
“Whatever you need, you can have it.”
“It’s not so simple. If your mother is as sick as you say, you will need to sacrifice something that’s very important to you.”
“When you say sacrifice,” Rogers said. “What exactly do you mean?”
Finally, a show of caution. Bucky was beginning to think Rogers was incapable of it. “Whatever it is that you treasure most, I will take it from you. It can be a person, or a thing, but it cannot be your mother. The spell won’t work on her because she’s the reason for the sacrifice.”
“Take a person from me how.”
“I will rip them out from your soul.” There. That should make Rogers think twice. “Severing the bonds will release the energy I need to cure your mother. When I’m done, it will be like you had never known them.”
Rogers went pale. But then he set his jaw and gave Bucky a wary look. “But you won’t hurt them.”
Bucky swallowed a sigh. “Will it hurt them to lose a friend?”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“I will not raise my hand against them.”
Rogers returned Bucky’s gaze with calm, sure eyes. “Whatever you want,” he repeated, “it’s yours.”
“You haven’t heard my conditions.” Bucky held up one finger. “No one can know you’re doing this, or my role in it. If you talk, I will find out, and I will make you regret it.”
Rogers nodded, a hint of fear in his eyes.
Bucky held up another finger. “If your sacrifice is a person, then you will break off all contact with them and leave the city.”
“Why do I have to leave the city?”
“If you stay, sooner or later, someone will figure it out.” The last thing Bucky wanted was more idiots traipsing into the Zone asking for favors. He studied Rogers’ dismayed face. “Still want to go through with it?”
This time, the answer took a little longer coming, but when it came, it was delivered in a voice with an iron will.
Bucky wasn’t even surprised anymore. He had never met a person with so much stubbornness compacted into a human-sized body. “Tell me about yourself.”
“Why?” Rogers frowned up at him.
Bucky raised his eyebrow. “So I can find something important to you.”
“Oh.” Rogers cleared his throat and looked abashed. “Well, I—”
Bucky pointed at a patch of soil next to himself. “Weed while you talk.” Concentrating on another task often freed the tongue. Plus the herb garden needed weeding.
Steve crouched down next to the reaver, still not quite believing he’d done it—he’d managed to convince the reaver to cure Sarah. He’d made the journey expecting it to be his last, but not only would Sarah get her cure, he didn’t have to give up his life to secure it. He took a few deep breaths and tried to calm down. No way he could get a grip on the tiny shoots poking through the soil with the way his hands were shaking.
“You never did tell me your name.” Steve stole a glance at the quietly intense man next to him. He tried to reconcile the gruff compassion the reaver had shown to the fact that he’d killed innocent people just to harness the power in their souls. The two didn’t seem to match up.
The reaver ignored the question and continued weeding. Just when Steve was about to give up waiting for an answer, the reaver said, “Barnes.”
“Nice to meet you, Barnes.”
There was no response.
So Steve got to work and began to tell Barnes about himself. There wasn’t all that much really. He’d achieved embarrassingly little in his twenty-six years of life. He wished he had more to show for it, but his body had other ideas.
He told Barnes about his job as an illustrator and his volunteer work at the homeless shelter. He told Barnes about Sam and Peggy, and felt a cold spike of fear when Barnes’ eyes sharpened on him when he spoke of them. He told Barnes about Maria and Jim and Gabe. He didn't tell Barnes about Wanda and Pietro.
So few lines, Steve thought, after he’d finished sketching out his life. His life could be stripped down to so few lines.
“There might be something there.” Barnes tilted his head in thought. “But I’ll have to follow you around for a few days to be sure. When I find a suitable sacrifice, I’ll know it when I see it. I’ll also need to see your mother.”
“Don’t hurt her,” Steve responded without thinking.
“You want me to save her life, but you won’t let me near her.”
“I—” There was really nothing he could say to that. He closed his mouth, feeling flayed by the cold bite of Barnes’ words. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize.” Barnes went back to weeding. “I wouldn’t trust me, either.” His hands stilled and there was a challenge in his eyes when he looked at Steve. “For the record, I don’t need to be near her to take her life.”
Steve paled at this reminder of who exactly the man next to him was. He wasn’t sure if that was meant to reassure him or terrify him. It was hard to get a measure on Barnes. He was the most opaque person Steve had met, and that was saying something since he met with the Maximoff twins several times a month. Even after three years, he had no idea where they’d come from beyond a European country, and that was based solely on their accents.
“Why are you agreeing to help me?”
“If I don’t help you, you’ll probably do something even stupider. You invite all sorts of trouble when you go around offering your life up to people.”
“But the contracts—?”
“Are only paper.” Barnes pinned him with a look. “How honorable do you think people willing to do death magic are?”
That was a very interesting question coming from someone who had definitely done death magic. As was, perhaps, the use of the word ‘willing’.
“So I guess there’s no point in asking you to sign a contract?” Steve said, only semi-jokingly. He tried not to think about the draft contract in his satchel, one he’d tried to make as watertight as possible.
“I’ll sign it if you want.” Barnes slid him an unreadable glance. “But you have neither the skill nor the ability to bind me. It’ll be completely worthless.”
Steve realized how close he’d been to an absolute fucking disaster. The only people he’d found willing to even discuss reavers were anon posters on a Hail Hydra subreddit. He’d known relying on their advice was a big risk, but when he couldn’t find anything else, what other choice did he have? And likewise, Barnes could be running some kind of elaborate con, but again, what choice did Steve have?
“My mother,” Steve said, going back to their original conversation. “She’ll ask questions. She can’t know.”
“She won’t know I’m there,” Barnes said. “Be ready for me. I will come find you.”
“I can pay you—”
“I don’t want your money.” Barnes looked him in the eye like he could guess what Steve was going to say next. “I don’t want any payment. Not having your wasted death on my conscience is payment enough.”
Steve closed his mouth, very relieved he didn’t have to make that offer, but maybe stinging a little from that blunt statement. He’d figure out some other way to repay Barnes—it didn’t sit right with him for Barnes to help him without him doing something in return.