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.
Present : October 2016
Steve collects his Americano and joins Wanda at their regular table in the corner. She’s already got her coffee and she sits with her hands cupped around the large steaming mug. Her wine-colored sweater echoes the fall decorations hung up around the cafe.
When Steve spots Pietro squeezing his way between the tables towards them, the sight no longer surprises him. About a month ago, for no reason at all that Steve can discern, Pietro started joining Steve and Wanda for their twice-a-month coffee ritual.
Pietro sets his pumpkin spice frappucino on the table. “You look like shit.” He sits down and pulls his chair in with a loud screech.
“Thanks.” Steve bites back a smile. “And how are you today.”
Pietro scans him with a jaundiced eye. “Better than you, I think.”
“At least I have a while to go before my hair goes all white.”
Wanda hides her smile behind the giant mound of whipped cream topping on her coffee but Steve can see the way her eyes crinkle.
“You can only wish you look this good when your hair goes white,” Pietro says, waving a hand down his body.
He’s probably right, Steve concedes.
“Are you alright, though?” Wanda says. “You really don’t look well.”
“Didn’t sleep so good.”
She tilts her head to the side and studies him with kohl-rimmed eyes. “Why not?”
Steve tamps down the sudden inexplicable flare of anger at Wanda’s question. He’s been on edge lately, snappish and short one moment, near to tears the next. He avoids sad songs, songs of loss and longing. His temper hasn’t been this uncertain since Sarah first told him about her cancer. Which doesn’t make sense at all, not when Sarah’s doctor is now quietly optimistic she’s going into remission.
“Strange dreams,” he says.
Wanda and Pietro exchange a look. She leans forward. “What do you dream about?” Her eyes are strangely intent as she watches him. Pietro stops shaking his foot and leans forward in his seat.
“I can’t really remember.”
He lies because he doesn’t want to talk about his dreams. They feel private. Precious. He hoards them, holds them close like secrets whispered in the dark. Reducing them to words that would make sense to a listener would only dissipate their sweetness.
“Get one of those dream journal things,” Pietro says, around his straw.
“You should,” Wanda agrees. “Write them down as soon as you wake. Dreams have meaning sometimes.”
“Maybe.” Although Steve doesn’t know what his dreams are trying to tell him. That he should take up gardening?
As if sensing that he’s not comfortable with the subject, Wanda changes it.
“We’re moving to a new apartment next week. A bigger one. Better.”
“Really? That’s great!”
Wanda’s eyes shine with excitement as she grips Pietro’s hand, her joy evident on her face. It’s the first time Steve’s seen her so openly expressive. She used to hide her smiles, would compress her lips, look down or away. Seeing her like this, Steve realizes how much more at ease the twins seem.
When he met them over a year ago at the youth shelter—two kids, not quite eighteen, with old, old eyes—they were wary and standoffish. Wanda took a liking to him, maybe because he didn’t ask questions about inconvenient things like where they came from, why they spoke with a European accent, and why a powerful mage like Wanda preferred to keep her abilities hidden. And maybe also that one time he brought Pietro to see Sarah when Pietro had come down with a cough he couldn’t shake.
Now, Wanda occupies her space with more confidence. She doesn’t angle her head down to hide her face behind her hair as much as she used to. As for Pietro, he doesn’t have the air of an animal backed into a corner anymore, always on the alert, quick to aggression.
Steve’s not sure when the change began, or what caused it, but he can see that something good has happened to them. Sometime in the last few weeks, Pietro and her have stepped out from the constant shadow of fear that used to hang over them.
“I won’t ask where it is,” Steve says. They’ve always been cagey about giving out their address. “If you want to—” Steve pauses when the waitress brings two slices of cake over and sets the plates in front of the twins.
Wanda frowns at the empty place in front of Steve. “You’re not having anything?”
“Not really hungry.”
“You’ve lost weight.” She looks at Pietro, who nods in agreement, his mouth too full of cake to answer.
Steve hasn’t noticed it himself, but it doesn’t come as a surprise. He’s been forcing himself to eat meals regularly for a few weeks now, his appetite seeming to have deserted him.
“You need to take better care of yourself.”
“It’s just a piece of cake, Wanda.” Steve can feel his eyebrows rising at the worry in her voice.
“Have dinner at our new place once we’ve settled in,” Wanda says. “We’ll cook you something nice.”
“I make good chicken dumpling soup.” Pietro waves at Steve with his fork. “You need some meat on your bones.”
“Thank you.” Steve’s eyes feel hot with unshed tears. That’s another thing that’s been happening a lot, swinging from anger to tears like an unpredictable, out-of-control pendulum. “I’d really like that. If you guys need help moving…”
Wanda pats his hand. “We’ve got it covered.” She shares a look with Pietro, one that seems oddly sad given the good news they’re sharing.
“Yes,” Wanda says with a smile that doesn’t quite reach her eyes. “Everything’s okay.”
Then why does he get the feeling they’ve both been watching him very carefully since he mentioned his dreams?
Past : August 2016
“What’s up with you, man?”
Steve stopped scanning the interior of the bar and turned back to face Sam. “What?”
“You’re acting all suspicious and shit. You’ve been watching the door all evening.” Sam paused in the middle of cutting into his inch-thick slab of steak and squinted at him. “What the fuck did you do, Rogers?”
Peggy looked up from her plate. Steve’s heart gave a little thump when their eyes met. “Steve, what aren’t you telling us?” she says,
Sam and Peggy exchanged looks.
Morita sat down just then with his bottle of beer. Catching the mood, he looked at Steve then back at Sam. “What’d he do?”
“Nothing!” Steve tried to inject the usual level of outrage in his response to his friends’ ragging even as he wanted to curl up inside. He hated lying, but he’d do it if he had to.
“You did something.” Sam pointed at Steve with the knife in his hand. “I just gotta figure out what so I can keep an eye on your sorry ass.”
“There is nothing wrong with my ass.”
Peggy hummed and gave him a sly look. Steve felt his cheeks burn up as his heart gave another little thump.
He resolved to stop looking over his shoulder quite so much before his friends got worried enough to really start digging. Which, of course, was when the door opened and Barnes walked in. The room seemed to shrink by about ten feet, his presence filling the available space.
Apart from a few curious looks, no one paid Barnes any attention. He fit right in with the crowd filling the bar in his long-sleeved shirt and blue jeans. No one else, Steve revised, except Peggy. She’d gone still beside him and looked between him and Barnes with an odd look on her face. A guilty flush crawled up Steve’s cheeks when he realized he’d been staring at Barnes. Thank God it was dim enough she probably couldn’t see it.
Steve was very aware of Barnes making his way to a shadowed booth in the corner of the room. Barnes would have a clear view of the room. And their booth. And Steve.
A couple who was heading towards the same booth as Barnes abruptly changed course when they noticed him bearing down on them. The relentless pace of his walk seemed to imply he’d mow them down if they didn’t get out of his way.
Steve stared down at his steak sandwich. Knowing that Barnes was there to find out who Steve could give up to save Sarah put a bit of a damper on his appetite. After a minute of pushing a fry around on his plate, Sam nudged him.
“Hot hobo over there is watching you.”
Hot hobo? Steve looked up. A shock went through Steve’s system when their eyes met. He hadn’t really noticed it before, but holy shit, Barnes was gorgeous. He looked like a model in one of those rustic, manly photo spreads. Long hair parted slightly to the side, several days’ worth of stubble on his cheeks, red Henley hugging his muscles. A lot of muscles. Not big and bulky like a gym rat, but long and wiry from hours of hard labor.
For a long, endless moment, their gazes remain locked.
Barnes was hitting all of his buttons. He didn’t know what to do with that information.
A hand on his arm pulled his attention away. “Steve?”
“What?” Steve blinked at Peggy, feeling like he’d been staring at the sun a little too long.
Peggy leaned forward with a concerned look on her face. “Why do you keep looking at him?”
“Well,” Steve said, dragging out the word to buy time to think of something to say. And then he realized he’d been presented with the perfect opportunity to ask Peggy about Barnes without raising her suspicion. “That’s him, isn’t it? The Hydra mage?” Everyone knew there was an ex-Hydra mage living somewhere in the city, just not exactly where.
“He’s what?” Sam straightened up in his seat and glared at Barnes.
Morita followed suit. Not wanting to draw attention to himself, Steve also frowned in Barnes’ direction. Barnes seemed unaware of the glares being directed at him as he studied his menu.
“Gentlemen.” Peggy put a hand on Sam’s arm. “You need to stand down. As a SHIELD agent, my orders are to protect him.”
“He’s Hydra,” Sam snapped.
Peggy narrowed her eyes. “Ex.” Her voice was clipped and crisp, biting off that one word. “Ex-Hydra mage. SHIELD wouldn’t let a Hydra mage live in New York.”
“But what the hell is he even doing here?” Sam said, voice vibrating with outrage. “I mean… he’s Hydra! Or ex-Hydra or whatever. He still fucking helped destroy part of Midtown! If it wasn’t for Iron Man and War Machine and whoever those four weirdos were who showed up to help, we’d all be living under a Hydra flag now.”
“Sam,” Peggy said, a slight edge to her voice, “please keep your voice down.”
“What is he doing here?” Steve asked, partly because it’d look suspicious if he didn’t contribute to the conversation, partly to defuse the situation he’d accidentally created. Mostly though, he asked because he really wanted to know.
“Everything about that man is classified.” Peggy’s lips compressed. She was rising fast in SHIELD, but the information on Barnes must still be above her security level. “And even if I knew, I couldn’t tell you.”
“What do you think is the reason he’s allowed to stay in the city?” Steve asked.
Peggy held out for ten seconds before she leaned forward. She must’ve been dying to discuss Barnes with someone for a long time. “I think… and this is based purely on guesswork, mind you—I have absolutely no access to any information on the man—I think either he defected, or he had information valuable enough that SHIELD was willing to reach an arrangement with him.”
Steve turned the word over in his head. That was the reason that felt right to Steve. There was a solidness and resolve about Barnes that didn’t fit with Steve’s idea of a turncoat who’d switch sides to protect himself.
“I still think it’s fucked up that he gets to stay here.” Sam folded his arms, a frown on his face. “You know how many people lost their homes? Their jobs? All the businesses got closed down, too. You think insurance covered that?”
Steve felt the anger that all New Yorkers still carried inside them flare up at the reminder of Hydra’s attack—nearly a hundred innocent people slaughtered on the doorstep of Stark Tower, catalyst for some kind of magical bomb going off in the heart of the city. The blast radius extended from the East River all the way to 7th Avenue. It left nearly one square mile of prime city real estate uninhabitable.
Even two years later, Hydra’s magic still contaminated it. Staying too long in the Dead Zone would drive people mad. A week or two was fine, but any more than that and people began seeing things out of the corner of the eye, became convinced something was following them. Paranoia would set in, and then madness.
Unless you were an ex-Hydra mage creating a little oasis of life right in the center of it.
“How do you know about him, Steve?”
Steve shrugged and tried to look casual as he answered Peggy. “Some of the kids at the shelter.” Wanda would kill him if he slipped up and let on to an agent of SHIELD that she knew the identity and location of the mage. “They’ve seen him coming out of the Dead Zone. Seemed a good guess that he’s the mage.”
“Be careful, Steve.” Peggy studied him for an uncomfortable moment. “That’s not a man who’s attention you want. And unlike the kids at the shelter, he isn’t someone you can try to save.”
Steve had a feeling Peggy was right, but not for the reasons she thought. Because it looked like Barnes was singlehandedly trying to replant a section of the Dead Zone, and he seemed to have the saving himself thing quite well in hand.
To Steve’s relief, in the face of Peggy’s stern authority, Sam and Morita limited themselves to glowering at Barnes while he ate his meal and drank his beer and displayed absolutely zero interest in subjugating the people around him. Steve was struck by how little Barnes resembled the fanatical Hydra mages he’d seen in the news, the ones who remained convinced of their superiority even as they stood trial for their crimes against humanity. By the time Barnes paid his bill and left, Steve got the feeling his friends found the infamous ex-Hydra mage living on the down low in New York almost anticlimactic.
It was nearly eleven when they left the bar. They four of them didn’t get to see each other all that often, so when they did, they tended to make a night of it, having a few beers and catching up. Steve found himself taking mental snapshots of everyone as the night progressed. Barnes had said he’d have to give up something precious, and for Steve, precious meant the people in his life. If it’d be anyone, it’d be Sam or Peggy. Just the thought of it was enough to set his hands sweating, but it was a price he was willing to pay.
Sam gave Steve a nudge, pulling him out of his reverie. Sam nodded in Peggy’s direction, waggled his eyebrows, and dragged Morita off to share an Uber home.
Steve glared after the rapidly dwindling backs of his friends before turning back to Peggy. He held out his arm. “Walk you to the station?”
Peggy smiled and tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow. Summer was slipping into autumn and there was a nip in the air as they walked in a comfortable silence. They’d known each other so long they no longer felt the need to fill it with conversation.
They were almost at the station when Peggy said, “How’s your mother?”
Steve sighed and shook his head.
Peggy squeezed his arm. “If you need anything, Steve, please come to me.”
What he needed was for Barnes to hurry up and cure his mother. But he couldn’t exactly tell her that. “Thanks, Peg.”
His words felt stoppered. Peggy was far too perceptive. If anyone could sense the hope suddenly burning inside him, it’d be her. He was almost shamefully relieved when they had to move apart to go through the turnstiles.
There were only a few other people waiting at Peggy’s platform so they grabbed seats while they waited. The back of Steve’s neck prickled like he was being watched. Was it Barnes? He looked around, but none of the other people waiting looked even remotely like Barnes.
“Nothing.” Steve looked back at Peggy. “I thought I heard something.”
“Sam’s right, you know.” She arched an eyebrow at him. “You’re very jumpy.”
“I—” He apologized silently to his mother for the lie he was about to tell. “I’m just not sleeping well, I guess.”
“You can call me anytime.” Peggy covered his hand with hers. “Night or day. You know that, don’t you?”
Steve nodded and felt like his guilt was written in flaming letters over his head. He tried not to twitch under the soft sympathy in Peggy’s eyes. When her train came, Steve held back a thankful sigh. “Text me when you get home,” he said, as she stepped aboard. She flashed him a smile through ruby red lips as the train pulled away.
Steve was halfway to his own platform when he noticed an unusually large black cat keeping pace with him. To Steve’s bemusement, the cat boarded the train with him and curled up on an empty seat near the back of the train. It got off at his stop and walked with him up the steps leading out of the station, its movements calm and stately. A very dignified sort of cat. Not the sort to roll about and get the zoomies. It disappeared into the dark after they left the station, and Steve bid it a mental farewell.
Steve gripped the stylus at the sound of Sarah coughing in her sleep. It was loud enough to filter through their shared bedroom wall, and had a dry rattle to it that hurt him to hear.
He dropped his head onto his hands. Where was Barnes? How was he supposed to keep his promise to Steve if he wasn’t even trying to identify the sacrifice needed for the spell? Two fucking days and he’d seen neither hide nor hair of Barnes. Steve was ready. He’d already sent out feelers for illustrator jobs in publishing houses based outside of New York.
Tomorrow, he was going to go and camp out on Barnes’ doorstep till he saw him. A thump on the window had Steve jumping, his stylus landing next to his tablet with a clatter. He spun about to face the window. It was the black cat from the train station. It stood on the window ledge and stared at him. Steve got the oddest sensation that it was trying to tell him something. He approached the window. Cat and man stared at each other for long seconds. Gray eyes, Steve realized. The cat had gray eyes… just like Barnes.
No. He was being ridiculous.
The cat stared at him harder.
Steve opened the window.
The cat flicked its tail as if to say About time, before stepping inside and jumping down to the floor. It circled the room once, checking all the corners. Seemingly satisfied, it gave Steve a look over its shoulder before going to the corner which couldn’t be seen from the window. The cat seemed to blur, like an image going out of focus, then where it had been stood Barnes.
Steve pointed at him. “You—You—”
Barnes quirked an eyebrow at him. Despite the more lurid speculations in certain corners of the internet, he’d emerged from the transformation fully clothed.
“You’re—” Steve broke off and lowered his voice, very aware of his mother’s presence in the next room. “You’re the cat!”
Steve’s exclamation was met with a shrug.
“It was you in the train station!”
Another shrug, but there was a definite glimmer of amusement in those gray eyes.
Steve sat down abruptly on his bed. He didn’t know why he was so surprised. The truly powerful mages could sometimes take on an animal form, and reavers were the most powerful of all. What else could Barnes do in addition to death magic, shifting, and making things grow in the Dead Zone like he had a green thumb on steroids?
At the sound of another cough, Steve shoved all his curiosity aside. “Did you find what you need? For the spell to work?”
Barnes shook his head, all amusement gone from his eyes. “Your friends are very important to you, but it’s not quite enough. I’ve seen your mother. Death walks with her. To pull her out from under his wing is no small task.”
A chill went through Steve. If giving up Sam or Peggy or any of his other friends wouldn’t be a big enough sacrifice, he had nothing else to offer up. Apart from Sarah, they were the most important people in his life. “Can it be combined? More than one of them? All of them?” He could hear the desperation in his voice as he tried to parse out his friendships, quantify their value.
“No. The spell doesn’t work that way. It has to be one thing.”
When he heard another cough from Sarah’s room, he gave Barnes a defeated look. “There’s nothing else.”
“There is still time.” Barnes glanced at the wall that separated Steve’s room from his mother’s. “I’ll keep looking.”
Barnes seemed to flicker in the overhead light, his edges going blurry. Next thing Steve knew, Barnes had changed back into a cat, jumped on the sill and out onto the fire escape. When Steve looked out the window, he was gone.
Present : October 2016
Thick gray gloves cover his hands as he digs through rich dark soil. They’re worn in and comfortable, sized just right for his hands. They feel familiar against his skin.
Just like his dream.
His sleeping mind slips into it with a sigh of relief. Every time he falls asleep, it’s with the hope that he can return to this place.
It’s quiet where he is, none of the sounds of the city he’s used to—no honking horns, rumbling car engines, loud voices raised in speech. The only sound he hears is the gentle whisper of wind through leaves.
He takes a trowel from the basket next to him and gently rakes the soil around the base of a sapling, one long orange thread trailing out from the contrasting hem of his glove. He pulls free any weeds that might compete with the young tree for nutrients.
Peace envelopes him as he works among the rows and rows of young plants, contentment like a still pool in his soul, joy like a lilting melody in his heart. Yet underneath it all is a sense of waiting, like he’s ten years old and waiting for the sound of his mother’s knock on the door when he still spent his afternoons with Mrs. Wong, the lady who lived in the apartment across from theirs. Only now, instead of a sound he’s waiting for, it’s—he doesn’t know what it is.
When he clears all the weeds around the base of the sapling, he moves on to the next one. There’s still plenty of work in front of them.
He’s always alone in this place. And yet, when he thinks about it, it feels right that he’s not. His happiness has the flavor of something shared, the quiet peace of working together with someone familiar, cared for. It’s nothing at all like the contentment of working alone on his art.
He becomes aware of an absence on his left, a hollow place that niggles at him like the empty, sucking wound left after a tooth extraction. His mind begins to worry at it.
A dull ache starts up in the back of his head as he tries to pick out details from the negative space next to him. But there's nothing. All he has is the conviction that something should be there.
The person he’s waiting for.
Some part of him knows that a countdown has started. He tears at the blankness, panic lending him strength. If he can just breach it, he’ll find the source of the happiness he feels in these dreams, the happiness he’s always trying to return to even in his waking hours.
A crack appears. Rage wells up from some deep untapped reservoir inside him. He focuses all his efforts there. He hammers at it with his fists, jams his fingers into the slowly widening crack. His torn nails leave smears of blood behind on the surface.
It widens an inch.
A white flash sears his eyelids as pain splinters his thoughts.
Steve wakes up.
Sour acid churns in his gut. He turns on his side so he doesn’t vomit from the pain in his head. There was some new detail in his dream, something important. There was—
Sickening waves of pain pulse outward from a point in the back of his head, his heart races in his chest. He tries desperately to remember, but the pain pushes everything out, leaving nothing behind but scattered hazy impressions. In the end, all he’s left with is the familiar ache of sweetness and loss.
There’s no point trying to go back to sleep now. He never can after one of these dreams, no matter how long he lies in bed hoping. And no matter how hard he hopes, the dreams don’t come every night. He only gets to return to that green place two or three times a week.
He sits up and reaches for his phone. A phantom pain twinges in his knuckles, pulling his gaze down to his hand. He’s not sure why he’s almost surprised to see smooth, unbroken skin.
Past : August 2016
Bucky paced the length of the alley on furred feet, trying to pick up some hint of the magic trail that had drawn him there. Nothing. His tail would be lashing with frustration if he were inclined to indulge in that sort of display.
Every time he picked up the rogue Hydra mage’s trail, the same thing would happen—he’d follow it till it would attenuate and disappear into thin air. He couldn’t figure it out. The mage was powerful but clearly untrained. They leaked magic like a faulty tap, leaving a trail of red-tinged magic with an all-too familiar taint of Hydra’s corruption behind them. But they also had this bizarre ability to disappear into thin air. It wasn’t teleportation, because then the trail would stop dead instead of stretching out into nothingness. The only thing Bucky could think of that would explain it was seven-league boots. Too bad they only existed in fairy tales.
If he didn’t track down the mage soon, Fury would have to call in Natalia from the field. Of the two of them, she was the better tracker. One year of having a rogue Hydra mage loose in the city was too long. They hadn’t made any moves so far, but SHIELD couldn’t take the risk that they weren’t planning to.
Giving it up for the day, he ran out of the alley and went back to tailing Rogers. Bucky was hurrying down the station stairs on silent paws when he heard something that made every hackle on his body stand up.
“I can… do this all day.”
Funny how after just a few meetings, he could tell that Rogers was about to do something monumentally stupid. Like walk into the Dead Zone to seek out a Hydra reaver. Rogers was either already in a world of trouble, or about to be.
Bucky ran down the stairs and skidded round the corner in time to see a short, stocky man standing over a crumpled form on the floor. Rogers. He was curled up on his side, one arm under him as he tried to push himself up. The man swayed unsteadily as he drew back his leg and kicked Rogers in the back even though Rogers was no threat to him.
Bucky hissed at the sound Rogers made when the kick connected. The man would pay for that. Bucky had the blood of too many innocent people on his hands, people who couldn’t fight back just like Rogers. He was not about to stand by and let more innocent blood be spilled.
Ten feet. He blew out the station’s CCTV cameras with his store of emergency power.
An Asian girl huddled against a wall. About 5’2”, late teens to early twenties, slight build, long hair pulled back into a ponytail. She looked torn, then resolve hardened her face and she advanced on the man. “Leave him alone!”
Rogers tried to wave her away. Gods save him from the foolhardy, Bucky thought.
He jumped on the man’s back and began clawing all the exposed skin he could reach. Back of the neck, ears, cheek. The man screamed as he flailed about trying to pull Bucky off him. He reeked of alcohol and sour sweat.
Once Bucky felt he had the man’s full attention, he dropped down to the ground and went to stand in front of Steve. He felt a vicious satisfaction as he watched the blood dripping down the man’s face.
Steve pushed himself into a sitting position and watched him with wide eyes, clearly recognizing his cat form. The girl’s eyes were equally wide as she eyed the man’s shredded face.
“What the fuck.” The man looked like he’d had all the drunk rage clawed out of him. He touched one of the bleeding scratches and stared at the blood on his finger. “What the fuck.” He looked between Bucky, Rogers, and the girl. And then he turned and staggered up the station steps.
Bucky’s lip curled as he watched the man disappear from view.
The girl rushed over to Rogers, who was dabbing at the blood seeping out from the cut on his lip. “Are you okay? I’m so sorry! I mean—thank you for helping me with that asshole, but I’m also so sorry.” She gave Bucky a wide berth as she kneeled down next to Rogers. “Here let me—I’ve got, um—” She pulled out her phone from the back pocket of her jeans. “I can call someone?”
Rogers pulled his phone out. “It’s okay. I’ve got someone.” After an uncertain look at Bucky, he pressed his finger to his phone, put it to his ear, and spoke to someone named Sam. Then he said to the girl, “It’s okay. My friend’ll come get me.”
“I can sit with you till they get here,” the girl offered. “This is my stop, so it’s not a problem.”
That would be interesting since there would be no Sam coming. Rogers had faked the whole conversation.
“You’d—” Rogers began.
Bucky sat down next to him.
The girl and Rogers both looked at him.
“—better get going,” Rogers finished. “It’s getting late.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure.” Rogers waved at Bucky. “I think the cat’s gonna keep me company.”
The girl looked at Bucky. He curled his tail around his body and looked back.
“That is one fucking weird cat,” she said.
If only she knew.
“Yeah,” Rogers choked out.
“Did you notice it didn’t bite that asshole?” she continued. “Just scratched him?”
“Really?” Rogers said weakly.
As if Bucky wanted some random drunk asshole’s blood in his mouth. Especially when said drunk asshole smelled like he was none to careful with his personal hygiene. Bucky resisted the urge to roll his eyes.
She continued to eye him suspiciously. “How do you know it won’t attack you too?”
A salient and prudent question. Bucky approved.
Rogers turned away from the girl to face Bucky. Sorry, he mouthed. Moving with the hesitant caution of someone expecting to get his fingers bitten off, he reached out and tentatively patted Bucky twice on the head before snatching his hand back. Bucky bore it with resignation, glad that Rogers didn’t try for an ear scratch. Only one person was granted that privilege.
“See?” Rogers said, sounding very relieved.
“You’re a lot braver than me,” she said, shaking her head. She got to her feet and gripped the strap of her backpack. With obvious reluctance, she thanked Rogers again and walked up the stairs.
The echoes of her footsteps had long died away by the time Rogers turned towards him. “Barnes?”
Bucky shifted back into his human form.
“The cameras—” Rogers choked out.
Bucky gave him an offended look. He may no longer be Hydra, but he was still a highly-trained battle mage. “I took care of them.” Even the concealed ones that most people didn’t know about. He scanned Rogers for obvious injuries. “Can you get up?”
Rogers’ voice was terse, even a little defensive. Interesting. At the sound of the approaching train, Rogers got his knees under him and tried to stand, but with a stifled gasp, he put his hand to his side and sank back down.
Bucky reached out with his power, sinking a tendril of it into Rogers’ chest. “Bruised ribs.” He should have stayed close to Rogers, shouldn’t have let himself get distracted by following the trail of red-tinged magic.
He cupped his arm around Rogers’ elbow and lifted him to his feet. “Do you go around looking for trouble.”
“I had him on the ropes,” Rogers said. His voice was thready and his breath shallow.
“Yes, that’s what it certainly looked like to me.”
“I couldn’t just let that… that bully hurt her.”
“You need to remain alive if you want to help your mother.”
Rogers flushed a bright red.
“Was it necessary to let him kick you,” Bucky said. He got the feeling the trick to managing Rogers was to keep him too distracted to notice he was being helped. Needling him seemed like the best way of doing that. “You couldn’t have run?”
“Well then that would have left him alone with the girl, wouldn’t it?”
“He might’ve chased you.” Bucky hustled Rogers onto the train. “The girl could’ve gotten on the next train that came along.”
Near ten at night, the train was mostly empty, so he guided Rogers to an empty seat. Rogers had met up with his friends again for dinner, which meant his mother was working late at the hospital.
“I didn’t want to take the risk he wouldn’t follow,” Rogers said. “Besides, I had pepper spray. I would’ve nailed him.”
“Right. Pepper spray. So how did you end up on the ground?”
Rogers’ face took on a mulish cast. “I tripped,” he muttered. “I forgot the steps were behind me.” Then he blinked and looked around in surprise when the doors closed with a hiss and the train pulled out of the station. He squinted at Bucky as though he suspected he’d just been tricked, but wasn’t sure just what he’d been tricked into. Bucky kept his expression neutral as he stared out the opposite window.
He let Rogers limp unaided off the train when they got to his stop. Bucky knew about pride and not being beholden to people. He walked quietly by Rogers’ side as he leaned heavily on the handrail and struggled up the stairs.
At least Rogers had enough sense to not make an issue of Bucky following him all the way back to his apartment. When Rogers opened his front door and stepped inside, a woman’s voice rang out.
“Steven Grant Rogers!”
Rogers froze, his eyes going wide. Bucky took advantage of his momentary distraction to slip inside. He got a brief impression of a cozy, welcoming space. Framed photos were scattered around the room, the furniture was worn and didn’t quite match but looked comfortable. Rogers shot him a guilty, embarrassed look before closing the door and turning around to face his mother. “I can explain…”
Sarah Rogers stood in the middle of the small living room, a thin, slight woman in a plain T-shirt and sweatpants. Her hair was the same fine blonde as Rogers’. She had the same determined jut to her chin and she held herself with the same straight-backed posture, like she refused to acknowledge the tumors in her body. Bucky could sense them growing inside her, feel their hunger for the blood that fed them.
Her eyes went from Rogers to Bucky and then back to Rogers. She took in his dusty and disheveled state and his split and swollen lip. He couldn’t quite hide the wince every time he took a breath. Mrs. Rogers’ pale face crumpled. Bucky didn’t need to extend his powers to see the strength of the bond between mother and son; the worry, the guilt, and under it all, the love.
What was it like to be on the receiving end of so much love?
“Oh, Steve…” she said, softly. “Again?”
Again? Just how often did Rogers get beaten up?
“I had to help, Mom.”
“I know,” she sighed. Her eyes were sad as she looked at her son. Rogers looked like he was going to cry.
“Bruised ribs,” Bucky said. Mother and son both turned to him with matching looks of surprise. He immediately regretted his impulse to distract them from what looked likely to escalate into an emotional scene. But he was committed now, so he could only go forward.
“I can help him.” Bucky made sure to speak with an American accent. From the corner of his eye, he could see Rogers’ startled expression. “If that’s alright with you, ma’am.”
Mrs. Rogers eyed him, some of her worry replaced by amusement. “And what do we do for bruised ribs?” she asked, as though speaking to a student.
Rogers flicked him an embarrassed glance. “Jesus, Mom.”
“Not wrap them,” Bucky said.
Mrs. Rogers’ eyebrows shot up. “And how do you know that?”
“I was in the war, ma’am. I can perform basic field medicine.”
Rogers looked slightly wild-eyed at this rather blatant shading of the truth. Not as though Bucky could tell Mrs. Rogers the whole truth… not if he wanted to be able to help Rogers.
Mrs. Rogers studied him for a long moment. Then, her lips curved into the slightest suggestion of a smile. For some reason, it made Bucky distinctly nervous.
“Steve,” she said, shifting her attention to her son, “is that okay with you?”
“Yes, Mom.” Rogers’ gaze lingered on the shadows under her eyes. “You should rest. We can handle it.”
“How about you introduce me to your friend, first?”
“Oh. Um.” Rogers waved a hand in Bucky’s direction, his movements stilted. “This is Barnes.”
Bucky held out his hand to his mother. “Bucky Barnes.”
Rogers sucked in a surprised breath that he managed to turn into a cough. Even his mother looked a little taken aback. She smoothed out her expression and gave him a warm smile. “Call me Sarah.” She shook his hand. “Thank you for helping my son.”
“It’s no problem.”
“The first aid kit is in Steve’s room,” she said dryly. “He’s the one who uses it most.”
“Mom,” Rogers protested, in a weak voice. Clearly, she wasn’t wrong.
With one last curious look at Bucky and a knowing little smile at Rogers, she went back to her room. Just before she closed the door, she pinned Rogers with a look. “Let him help you, Steve.”
The sudden silence following the sound of the door closing was broken when Bucky said, “The first aid kit?”
“Right.” Rogers cleared his throat. “In my room.”
“You don’t have to help me,” Steve said. He kept his voice down so Sarah wouldn’t hear through the walls. Steve was very aware of Barnes’ solid presence behind him as they entered his room. “I know what to do.”
Barnes took the first aid kit off the shelf next to the drafting table.
“I’m serious,” Steve tried again. “You’ve done enough.” He gritted his teeth and tried to ignore the throbbing in his arms and back.
Barnes opened the box, took out the antiseptic and the gauze, laid them on the table, and looked at Steve with a flat expression on his face. It was exactly like trying to engage in a staring contest with a cat. Which, Steve couldn’t help remembering, Barnes could turn into.
Steve drew breath to argue some more, but the sharp sting on his back reminded him that there were probably scrapes there from where he’d fallen against the steps. And he hated to ignore a direct request from his mother. She knew him too well. With a sigh, he shrugged out of his jacket. He was about to unbutton his shirt when it finally sank in that he’d have to take off his shirt in front of Barnes. Barnes, who, underneath the ragged hair and the scruff on his face, was extraordinarily good-looking. A fact that Steve had been trying very hard not to notice. Barnes would get an eyeful of his scrawny chest and pallid skin—
Get a grip. This wasn’t the end of a date. Steve wasn’t exactly sure what it was, but it certainly wasn’t that. His face still went red as he draped the shirt over the jacket and tried not to cross his arms over his chest.
The heat in his face climbed about ten degrees as he turned around and presented his back to Barnes. He hissed at the first burning touch of the antiseptic wipe on the raw skin of his back. Barnes worked with calm, gentle efficiency as he cleaned the scrapes and smoothed antiseptic cream over them. His fingers felt almost unnaturally hot, leaving a soothing warmth in their wake.
“So,” Steve said, to distract himself. “‘Bucky’? That’s really your name?” It didn’t sound like any kind of Russian name. Russia was Hydra’s stronghold, where mages ruled over those with no magical abilities.
Barnes’ hands stilled. In a very quiet voice, he said, “I think I remember my sisters calling me that.”
An uncomfortable twist of shame soured Steve’s gut. He’d never given any thought to Barnes’ past, or wondered how he’d ended up with Hydra. He’d only thought of Barnes as an ex-Hydra reaver and a means to an end.
“Where’s your family now?”
“I don’t know.” Barnes set aside the antiseptic cream and began bandaging the scrapes. “Hydra takes us young. Takes us from all over.”
That was the one thing Steve hadn’t been able to make sense of—there was a bone-deep decency to Barnes that ran counter to everything Hydra stood for. But if he’d been taken young, indoctrinated by Hydra—
“Done.” Barnes’ tone seemed to imply he wasn’t just talking about the bandages. “Let me check your arms.”
Steve turned around and held out his arms, eager to prolong this chance to get to know Barnes. Barnes held Steve’s wrists in a gentle grip and turned them this way and that to inspect the bruises already forming on his forearms. Steve could feel the callouses on Barnes’ right hand. His left was covered by the black leather glove Steve had never seen him without. What did the glove hide? Battle scars? A Hydra mark?
This close, Steve could see that Barnes had little crinkles at the corners of his eyes. He looked careworn and grave. Steve wondered what Barnes looked like when he smiled. He pulled back from that dangerous line of thought. “So then ‘Barnes’?”
“I thought it went well with Bucky.”
“It does,” Steve said.
Barnes’ gaze flicked to Steve’s before he went back to checking Steve’s arms. Seeming satisfied that there was nothing further to be done, he let go of Steve’s wrists. “Take a deep breath.”
Steve took a deep breath. “Ow.”
Barnes nodded in satisfaction. “Keep doing that every hour.” He pointed at the bruises on Steve’s arms. “Ice those.”
Steve rolled his eyes. “I do know what to do.”
“Yes. So I gather.”
Steve squinted at Barnes, unsure if that was disapproval he heard. He got an old buttondown from the cupboard and pulled it on slowly. There was no way he wanted to wrestle his aching body into a T-shirt. “Were you following me?”
Barnes raised an eyebrow. “I told you I would find something that will work. You expect me to do that from five miles out?”
Steve flushed. “Did you find anything?” he asked, even as he held out little hope. He’d give up his art in a moment if it’d help. And from that, he knew it wouldn’t be enough.
Barnes shook his head.
“How do you know? I mean… How can you tell what will work?”
Barnes busied himself packing up the first aid kit and didn’t meet Steve’s eyes. “The bond between a soul and it’s body is the strongest bond there is. That’s where the power of death magic comes from. Those of us with the ability to reave can also be trained to sense other types of bonds. Love, possessiveness, hatred. It made us better interrogators.”
Barnes closed the kit with a snap that made Steve jump. “You should rest. No, don’t try to get up,” he said, when Steve tried to do just that. “I’ll let myself out.”
By this point, Steve’s body was very loudly reminding him he’d just gotten beaten up so he sat back down. “Thank you,” he said. “For… everything. And for answering my question.” It seemed like the topic was a painful one. Steve regretted bringing it up, but since it directly affected him, he’d felt compelled to ask.
A nod, and Barnes was gone.
Steve lay back in his bed once he heard the front door close. He couldn’t help thinking of the warm feel of Barnes’ fingers against his skin. Gentle and careful. The touch of someone who nurtured life.
“Morning, Mom.” Steve sat down at the breakfast table opposite Sarah, only minor twinges curtailing his movements. Considering how hard he’d been kicked, he hurt a lot less than expected.
Sarah sipped her coffee and gave him a look that was a mix of concern and resignation. “I made you an omelet.”
Guilt rushed through Steve. “I could’ve done it.”
She reached out and patted his hand. “I can still take care of you if I want to.”
Steve blinked to stave of the burning in his eyes and turned his hand up to grip his mother’s hand. A quiet moment passed while both of them pretended the desperate clasp of their hands was normal.
“You can get it yourself, though. I’m not serving you.”
Steve snorted. “Yes, Mom.”
“So tell me about Bucky.”
Steve froze in the middle of getting up. “Bucky?”
“Yes, Steve. Bucky. You know? The man you brought home last night?”
“It’s not…” Panicking, he blurted out, “He’s a friend from work.”
“Really.” Sarah watched the guilty flush crawling up Steve’s cheeks with an amused smile.
It was good to see the twinkle in her eyes. He would bear any amount of embarrassment if it brought that light back. “Yes, really.” He went to get his omelet, glad for an excuse to hide his face. “We’re working together on a project.” Which was a hell of a whopper. Hopefully he hadn’t just damned his soul for all eternity.
“If you say so.” Sarah took another sip of coffee and studied him. “He seems nice.”
Nice? Steve’s mind boggled as he sat down with his plate.
“A little sad.” Her eyes went distant. “I’ve seen a lot of vets with eyes like his.” Then she leaned closer. “He’s very handsome. A little scruffy, but still handsome. I’ve got a good feeling about him.”
“Mom.” His mother was a very good judge of character. Her assessment added more weight to Steve’s suspicion that there was a lot more to Barnes than just an ex-Hydra battle mage who’d switched sides. There was also clearly nothing wrong with her eyesight.
“You’re interested.” The smile Sarah gave him was just a little bit smug. “I can tell.”
He chewed determinedly. He wasn’t. He was just… curious. About the man who was helping him, but who was also ex-Hydra. Who lived in a part of the city he might have helped destroy, but was now trying to restore. Yeah. Curious.
“Does this mean that you and Peggy are never…”
Steve coughed as a piece of omelet got stuck in his throat. “Peg and I are just friends.”
A feeling of possibility had hovered over their friendship ever since they’d first met in college, a feeling that they might spark into something special given a chance. He’d never given it that chance, though. Not with all his health problems and his limited life expectancy. But sometimes, he still hoped…
The smile on Sarah’s face was tinged with sadness. She understood his reasons even though she didn’t agree. “I wish…” Then she sighed and took another sip of coffee as Steve went back to eating. The Rogers family was not one for wishful thinking.
Wanda watched Steve over the rim of her cup. The thick dark eyeliner she favored gave her an almost haunted look. “You found him, didn’t you.” Her voice was soft, barely audible over the din of the coffee shop. “The reaver.”
Steve nodded. “Thank you,” he said. He didn’t ask how she knew. He’d learned not to ask these things. Maybe she could read it off him, maybe he carried some trace of Barnes’ magic. Who knew. All he knew was that if he asked, she’d clam up and leave.
“Do you wonder why I told you about him?”
The hair on the back of Steve’s neck rose as he nodded carefully, the murmur of voices and the clink of cutlery suddenly sounding very loud.
Wanda stared into the depths of her coffee cup, hands almost swallowed by the sleeves of her dark gray top. “I don’t think there’s anything I wouldn’t risk to save Pietro.” Her eyes took on a slightly reddish glow. “We’re not unalike in that sense.” She shrugged. “I can’t help your mother, but he can.”
Sometimes there was an uncanny edge to Wanda that made Steve wonder what sort of life she’d led. Pietro had it too, but his was blunter, more straightforward. Steve got the feeling that if anyone tried to hurt Wanda, that person’s body would be found in a dark alley somewhere. But if anyone tried to hurt Pietro, Steve wasn’t sure there’d be anything left to find.
“I’d warn you to be careful,” she continued, a wry curve to her lips, “but that would be hypocritical of me.”
“Yeah.” Steve returned the smile. “I guess that would.”
“Did you tell him about me?”
“No. I kept my promise. And I will continue to keep my promise.”
Wanda nodded. “Good.”
And for the hundredth time, Steve bit his tongue and did not ask just why Wanda was worried about an ex-Hydra mage learning of her and Pietro’s existence.
When they walked out of the coffee shop, Pietro was already outside, bouncing on the balls of his feet with impatience. The breeze ruffled his unusual shock of white hair. “Rogers.” He nodded curtly at Steve. Unlike his twin, Pietro had never warmed to Steve and continued to view him with suspicion.
“Pietro.” Steve held out a bagel wrapped in a napkin as Wanda went to stand by her brother’s side.
Pietro eyed the bagel. At a look from Wanda, he accepted it with a grudging thanks.
“I’ll see you in two weeks.” Steve didn’t frame it as a question just in case Wanda decided to say no. Their regular coffee meet-ups helped alleviate his worry that the city had swallowed them up.
She smiled her small smile, almost shy, and nodded. Times like these, she seemed painfully young.
“You’re always welcome to join us, Pietro.”
Pietro sneered, which was the response Steve was expecting.
“Maybe next time,” Steve said. “I’ll see you both in two weeks.” He stood on the sidewalk and watched the twins disappear into the crowd.
Present : January 2017
“Well now, Steven,” Dr. Erskine says when he walks into the examination room. The overhead lights turn his white hair into a fuzzy nimbus. “What can I do for you? You’re not due for a check-up for another few months.”
He peers at Steve over the top of his glasses and makes a disapproving sound. “Never mind. I can see why you’re here. You are not looking ‘so hot’.”
“Not feeling ‘so hot’ either,” Steve says.
Dr. Erskine takes a seat next to Steve. “How are you feeling?”
“Tired all the time. No appetite. I have trouble sleeping. I’m… I dunno, moody? I feel weird. Disconnected.”
“That does not sound like a good feeling.”
Steve huffs. “Yeah, it’s not.”
“How is your mother?”
“She’s actually doing great.” He can’t hold back his grin, doesn’t even try to.
“That is wonderful news!”
“Yeah. Her doctors are stumped. They’ve brought in all sorts of specialists to see her and none of them can explain it. It’s like her body decided to just… cut off all the blood supply to the tumors.”
“How very unusual. No wonder there’s been so much excitement over in Oncology. They must be lining up to write about it,” Dr. Erskine says, with a wry smile.
“She’s happy to let them, if it’ll end up helping someone else with cancer. The med mages are in and out to see her all the time trying to replicate the effect.”
“That is truly wonderful news. I’m very happy to hear it.” His dark eyes turn serious. “Which leaves me even more concerned by this malaise of yours. It must be severe if it’s troubling you even with Sarah getting better.” Dr. Erskine puts his hand on Steve’s shoulder, his face very grave. “I’m afraid we’re going to have to run some tests.”
Steve pretty much expected this outcome but he still has to stifle a groan. He hates the tests. Needles, cold rooms, anxiously waiting to find out what else has gone wrong with his body.
“Okay.” Steve allows himself a small sigh. “When do we start?”
“We can start right now,” Dr. Erskine says. “Good thing you came first thing in the morning. We’ve got all day to figure out what your body is up to.”
Three days later, Steve walks into the apartment and locks the door behind him on autopilot.
“Steve?” Sarah walks out of the kitchen with a ladle still in her hand. She takes one look at him and goes pale. “What did Erskine say?”
“I’m—my heart—It’s fixed.”
“He said my heart is fixed. The defect that caused the arrhythmia? It’s fixed.”
Sarah grips the back of a chair and slowly sinks down into it. “How is that possible?”
Steve shakes his head, still unable to really grasp the full import of the news Dr. Erskine had given him. The ticking timer inside him has been reset. Instead of having only a few short years left, he’s got decades—the narrowing borders of his life have suddenly been thrown wide. For the first time in months, the strange stasis that has a hold on him almost lifts.
“Is he sure?” she asks. Her eyes never leave his face as he takes a seat beside her.
“He triple-checked everything, used the MRI, got the med mages to have a look at me. It’s why he had me go back for extra scans before giving me the results.” His lips twist in a wry smile. “They’re calling it The Rogers Miracle.”
Sarah gives a shocked laugh. “The what?”
“The Rogers Miracle. Because both of us—”
“Got cured,” Sarah finishes. Her grip on his hand is so tight it’s almost painful. A frown creases her brow as the forgotten ladle in her hand drips sauce onto the dining table. “You know that day when I fainted in the break room?”
“That was… what… four months ago?”
Sarah nods. “I didn’t tell anyone this, but when I woke up… I just had this feeling that something good was going to happen.” She pulls a face. “I didn’t say anything because, well… it sounded nuts. Cho gave me a full check-up but she didn’t find anything. But the next week…” Sarah trails off, as if she can’t finish the sentence.
The tumors had started shrinking—wasting away as though they’d been walled off from the capillaries that brought the blood they needed to grow. Specialist after specialist was called in to verify the results. Sarah spent days being poked and prodded and scanned as every tumor in her body began to shrivel up and break apart.
“Maybe it was your guardian angel,” Steve says, only half joking.
An odd look crosses her face. “Maybe,” she says slowly, eyes going distant like she’s chasing down a memory. After a moment, she shakes her head as though to clear it. “And then there’s you,” she says.
And then there’s him. And his strangely healthy heart.
It reeks of magical intervention. But the amount of power it would take to fix both Sarah and him is of a magnitude he can’t even begin to comprehend.
“Your heart is fixed.” She laughs again, shaky and teary. Steve can feel answering tears spring to his eyes. “Steve.” The ladle drops on the table with a clatter as Sarah pulls him into a hug. “You’re fine. We’re both fine.” They’re crying and laughing and Steve’s glad they’re both leaning into each other because he’s not sure his legs can quite hold him.
“We’re both fine,” he whispers, and thanks fate for the miracle they’ve been gifted with.
Past : August 2016
Steve got off two stops before he was supposed to, changed line, and took the train that would put him near the Dead Zone. He finally figured out what he could do to repay Barnes for his help. It had taken him a week, and then he’d felt like an idiot because the answer was so obvious.
Visiting Barnes might also help answer some of Steve’s questions about the man. It was only natural to be curious about him—this was the man Steve was trusting to save his mother. It was in Steve’s best interests to find out as much as possible about Barnes. Simple curiosity and caution.
Fifteen minutes later, he dragged his fingers through hair damp with sweat. Three in the afternoon on a hot summer day was not a good time to be taking a brisk walk down a deserted road. The Dead Zone was not the kind of place that encouraged a leisurely stroll. At least he was almost at the park, if the weed peeking up from between the paving stones was any indication.
Steve looked about, paying more attention to his surroundings than he had on his previous two trips. He took in the little signs of life struggling to establish a foothold, noticed how there were more of them the closer he got to the cafe where Barnes lived.
He rounded the corner with its sentinel plant and halted when he spotted Barnes. He was pouring a bag of soil into a long, wide planter that was about a foot high, his hair scraped back into a tiny ponytail to keep it off his face while he worked. Despite the heat, he had on a long-sleeved gray Henley that was stretched tight over broad shoulders. Muscles flexed and bulged as he worked. Green gardening gloves covered his hands. When the bag was empty, he set it down next to a pile of empty bags. He went into the cafe and came out with a tray full of seedlings in small plastic pots. With gentle hands, Barnes tipped a seedling out of its pot and settled it into the soil of the planter. Without looking up from his work, he said, “What are you doing here.”
“You’re trying to fix this, right?” Steve waved a hand around them. “The park?”
Barnes nodded, hands not slowing in their work of transferring seedlings into the planter.
Steve let out the breath he was holding. “I can’t pay you back for what you’re doing, so I thought… I could help?” He shoved his hands into his pockets and tried not to fidget when Barnes looked up at him.
For one uncomfortable moment, Barnes studied him. Steve felt suddenly small and very ashamed. The plan was to offer to help Barnes with his work, sure. But Steve’s reasons weren’t all pure, and under those penetrating gray eyes, he felt like the words “ulterior motive” were stamped on his forehead in big, bold letters.
“Sure you’re not here to find out if you should trust me?”
He deserved that. But confronted by that bald question, Steve found that he did trust Barnes. His gut told him that he could, and he trusted his gut. Besides, it was kind of hard not to trust someone who treated vulnerable things with such care, didn’t matter whether it was a young seedling or an injured semi-stranger who’d gotten the shit kicked out of him.
“I trust you.” Steve bit his lip and made himself hold Barnes’ gaze. Several seconds passed, measured off by the sound of Steve’s heartbeat in his ears.
“Are you just going to watch,” Barnes said, “or are you going to make yourself useful.”
Steve let out a breath that was just a little shaky and approached Barnes warily. “What can I do?”
“You can help me plant these.”
Steve watched Barnes plant two more seedlings before he felt confident enough to try. The young plants looked so fragile and delicate and yet Barnes handled them gently enough that not even one leaf was bruised.
Okay. You can do this. Steve reached out and was about to pick up a pot when Barnes said, “Get some gloves first.” Barnes pointed over his shoulder at a small table outside the cafe door. “There’s a spare pair in the drawer.”
After a brief struggle to get the drawer open, Steve pulled on the brand new gloves he found inside. They were identical to the pair Barnes had on—from the bright green latex coating on the palms and fingers down to the large size. At least half an inch of empty space separated Steve’s fingertips from the tips of the gloves. Great. Now he had giant balloon fingers.
Over half the seedlings had been transferred to the planter when Steve finally gave in to his curiosity. “Why are you doing this?”
Barnes stilled for a moment before he went back to decanting more seedlings. “Seemed the right thing to do.” His tone of voice made it clear the conversation was at an end.
Steve snuck glances at Barnes, not sure what to make of his words. Was this his punishment for helping Hydra? No… that didn’t feel like the right reason. Barnes was a hard man to read, but he went about his tasks with the quiet determination of a man doing penance. There was neither the dull acceptance, nor the mute resentment, of someone serving out a sentence. Maybe this was why he wasn’t deep in the bowels of a maximum security prison somewhere.
This trip out to the Dead Zone was going to leave Steve with even more questions about Barnes.
When the last of the seedlings was planted, Steve stood up. He winced at the way his ribs ached. “I’m fine,” he muttered, when Barnes glanced his way.
“Sure,” Barnes said.
Spending an afternoon hunched over planters was probably not the best idea one week after getting kicked in the ribs. But while his body might be hurting, something about the act of helping new life establish a foothold left him feeling more at peace than he had in months.
He let out a long exhale and looked about him. “Shit,” he said. The sun was pretty close to setting. His stomach chose that moment to growl in protest, reminding him that all he’d eaten for lunch was a small sandwich.
“By the time you get to the train station, it’s going to be dinner time.” Barnes gave him an unreadable look. “You might as well stay.”
“No, I—You don’t have to.” Steve’s voice sounded weak to his own ears. There was no one waiting for him at home since his mother was working the night shift at the hospital. She’d been put on light administrative duties, but even then, she insisted on being on the roster for shifts. She refused every time Steve offered to change his schedule so they could eat together. He couldn’t help wondering if it was because she didn’t want to admit to herself how different her life was now.
“Are you staying or not?”
Well… he did want to find out more about Barnes. Turning down the chance to have dinner with Barnes seemed counterintuitive. Besides, there was something about Barnes' quiet gravity that tugged at him. So, even though he was sweaty and filthy and desperately in need of a bath, he nodded. “But please, let me help.” When he remembered that there was no electricity in the Zone, he swallowed back a little bubble of hysterical laughter at the thought of sitting down to a candlelit dinner with Barnes.
“Suit yourself,” Barnes said.
Bucky was already questioning his snap decision to invite Rogers to dinner as they walked into the dim interior of the cafe. But he’d found himself enjoying Rogers’ company as they’d worked side by side tending the plants, and part of him wanted to prolong their time together.
He didn’t understand the impulse—he’d spent two years seeing only a handful of people a few times a year. Natalia came by sometimes to recuperate from some injury obtained while hunting Hydra remnants with Fury. Knowing that he was around to stand watch let her relax enough to really rest. Clint would wander up to the front door when Bucky needed help with big projects like clearing the park. Even Stark occasionally dropped by, descending from the sky in his suit, suspicious dark circles under his eyes. Bucky put them all to work. Like him, they weren’t the sort to talk about things.
So what was it about Rogers that had him suddenly realizing his existence was a lonely one? The man had barged into his quiet life and knocked it off its stable little track. Bucky had left the Zone more in the last two weeks than he had in the last year. He’d gone into a bar, gotten involved in a fight, been inside Rogers’ apartment, met his mother. But once Bucky completed his task, Rogers would disappear, and Bucky would be left with... what? A sense of the lack in his life? He almost resented Rogers for that.
Just as he almost resented Rogers for making him see how bare the cafe was. Utilitarian. An empty space where the dining area used to be. His single bed pushed up against the wall. It was as secure as he could make it—he knew where all the trip wires were, the alarms, the hidden weapons. But it wasn’t a home. Not like the apartment Rogers shared with his mother, with its comfortable clutter and happy memories in picture frames scattered all over the place. The only personal thing on display in the cafe was the postcard from Natalia pinned to the corkboard that held his lists.
Regretting his decision even more, he flipped the switch to turn on the lights.
Rogers sucked in a breath. “How—?” He looked around the brightly lit room. “But there’s no power in the Zone!”
Rogers gaped. “You have an arc reactor.”
“In the kitchen.” Stark had rigged it up when he’d finally accepted that Bucky was serious about staying in the Zone.
“You have an arc reactor in the kitchen.”
Bucky’s lips twitched. Maybe having Rogers in his space wouldn’t be so bad after all. “Do you want to see it?”
Bucky led the way into the kitchen. The arc reactor sat in one corner, hidden behind a stack of boxes with a tarp draped over the top so only a faint blue glow leaked out.
Rogers stared at it, aghast. “This is a cutting edge source of clean power and you just… dumped it in a corner behind some boxes?”
“The light was driving me mad.” Bucky pulled off the tarp and moved the boxes out of the way to reveal a metal cube about a half a foot in height. Nestled in the center of it was the round metal housing of the arc reactor. Uncovered, it’s blue glow lit up the whole area.
Rogers stared at it, eyes wide with wonder. He walked around it, studied the trail of wires that snaked out from the back of the cube and up to the fuse box, bent down to peer at the arc reactor.
“Stop that,” Bucky said. “You’ll go blind.”
“I can’t believe you stuffed it into a corner.” Rogers stood up and backed away.
Bucky covered up the reactor again because really, that constant blue glow was very irritating. “It’s just a fancy battery for my microwave.”
Rogers snorted and turned to Bucky. He still had a look of wonder in his eyes. It made Bucky uncomfortable. He wasn’t used to people looking at him like that. To break the silence, he said, “Do you want to shower?”
Rogers blinked, as though surprised by the abrupt question. He looked down at his dirt-stained shirt. “Um.”
“I can lend you a shirt.”
An odd expression crossed Rogers’ face. Bucky would almost think he was blushing, but the pink tinge to his cheeks was probably due to his hours spent under the sun. “Okay… thanks.”
Bucky was dicing up onions at the kitchen counter when Rogers came out. A packet of ground beef was defrosting on the counter, and three colors of peppers were in a bowl waiting to be chopped. Bucky liked the taste of them, but mostly, he liked the colors they added to his pasta sauce.
Bucky glanced up and nearly sliced his finger. His T-shirt was far too big for Rogers and the neckline had slid down to reveal on bony shoulder. Fair skin gleamed against the black of the borrowed shirt. Bucky couldn’t help following the elegant line of the revealed collarbone with his eyes, all the while very aware that it was his shirt that Rogers was engulfed in.
When Rogers tugged the neckline into place as he looked around the kitchen, Bucky was glad for his long hair. Hopefully his staring hadn’t been noticed. Feeling guilty, he made himself focus on the onions and continue chopping.
“What can I do to help?” Rogers asked.
Bucky pointed at a bowl of tomatoes with his knife. “You can wash those.”
“Did you plant these?” Rogers asked, as he washed the tomatoes in the big, industrial-sized sink.
Bucky turned to look at Rogers. Only four feet of space separated them. It was closer than Bucky allowed most people. “I bought them from the supermarket.”
“Oh.” Rogers said. “I thought with all the… you know… plants—”
“How am I supposed to know? There’s always just produce in the supermarket when I go there, doesn’t matter what season.”
Bucky's lips twitched.
“Yeah, yeah,” Rogers said. He pressed his lips together like he was holding back a smile.
They worked side by side in a comfortable quiet—a continuation of the ease that had sprung up between them after an afternoon spent working together. The pot of meat sauce was soon simmering away on the stove.
“If you watch the sauce,” Barnes said, “I can go and clean up.”
“Sure,” Steve said. He turned away from the bookshelf full of books on horticulture and gardening. Scattered among them were books on technological advances of the past few decades and science fiction novels.
Barnes handed him the ladle and disappeared into the bathroom.
Surprised at being left unattended in what was effectively Barnes’ home, Steve stayed in the kitchen and minded the sauce. He didn’t want to jeopardize that show of trust. Also, Barnes didn’t seem the sort to take long showers. Steve stirred the sauce every few minutes and ignored the way his stomach growled at the rich, hearty smell coming from the pot.
He set the table, gave the pot one last stir, and wandered over to take a closer look at Barnes' extensive collection of spices and dried herbs. The herbs were roughly chopped and stored in an assortment of jam jars with handwritten labels. Barnes' handwriting was a messy scrawl. Steve didn’t know why he found that endearing, but he did.
At the sound of footsteps behind him, Steve turned around. Barnes walked in wearing another long-sleeved T-shirt despite the heat—a maroon one this time, with the leather glove still on his left hand. When Barnes noticed Steve staring, his face closed off and he slipped his hand into the pocket of his sweatpants.
“I think the sauce is ready,” Steve said, to cover the awkward silence. “It smells amazing.”
Barnes nodded. “I’ll get the pasta.”
“How long have you lived here?” Steve asked as he sat down at the long metal work table in the center of the kitchen.
Barnes set down two plates of pasta drowning in sauce on the table and took the seat kitty corner to Steve’s. “Awhile.” A soft exhalation. “Since the war ended.”
Steve tried not to stare even as he felt like he was being gifted with something precious. “Have you—All that time… have you been here alone?” The war had ended two years ago. That was a long time to be living all alone.
“Where else would I go? I have no family that I know off. At least here…” Barnes looked down at his plate. “I could begin to set things right.”
“You don’t seem like…” Steve trailed off when Barnes looked up at him. He felt flayed by the look in Barnes' gray eyes.
“Like Hydra?” Barnes finished for him.
Steve nodded carefully.
“You don’t always get to choose which side you fight for.”
Taken young. That’s what Barnes had said earlier. He’d been taken young from his family, probably raised by Hydra on a diet of propaganda.
Steve felt sick.
“It was you, wasn’t it,” Steve said. The jumble of information and theories that had been swirling in his head since he met Barnes finally lined up into something that made sense. “The man with the metal arm. That’s you.”
Barnes went absolutely still, like a predator that had sighted prey. “Who told you.”
“No one,” Steve blurted out, the hair on the back of his neck standing up. “No one told me about your arm. I guessed from the glove. And… I don’t know, the hair, maybe. You just don’t seem like someone…” Steve tried to find the right word. He shrugged apologetically. “Bad.”
“‘Bad’? If you know I’ve done death magic, then you know I’ve killed people just to harness the power in their souls.”
“But like you said, you don’t do that anymore. You chose to fight against Hydra. You’re choosing to fix the damage done by the war.”
Barnes stared at Steve for a long moment, his gaze hard. “How did you find out about the death magic? Was it your friend, Carter?”
“No!” Fear made the answer come out sharper than intended. Barnes may not be bad, but he could certainly be scary as fuck when he wanted to be. “No, it wasn’t Peggy.”
“If not her, then who.”
Steve made himself meet Barnes’ gaze. “I can’t tell you. I made a promise.”
“To someone who pointed you in the direction of a reaver. Are you sure you should be protecting this person?”
“They did it as a favor to me! They said they couldn’t help cure my mom, but that you might be able to.”
“At the cost of your life?” Barnes’ voice was scathing. “They felt this was an acceptable solution?”
“I did,” Steve said. “That’s what mattered.” Please, he thought. Please don’t make me choose between keeping my promise and helping my mom.
“You asked this person for help.” A calculating gleam entered Barnes’ eyes. “So that means a mage.”
Steve kept his mouth shut, but he knew that in itself was an answer.
“There are not five people in SHIELD with the ability to sense what I’ve done, and none of them are based in the city. How has this person avoided drawing SHIELD’s attention.”
“Not my place to say.”
Barnes nodded, as though he’d reached some kind of conclusion. It made Steve distinctly nervous. He didn’t look forward to the conversation he needed to have with Wanda about Barnes.
“Have you been staying here all this while?” Steve asked, desperate to change the subject.
“I was at Stark Tower first.”
“Is that where you got your arm?” Steve’s eyes widened when he realized what he’d just said. “I’m so sorry. That was really rude of me.”
Barnes paused with a forkful of pasta halfway to his mouth. “Yes,” he said. “It was.”
Heat rushed into Steve’s cheeks. Then, he saw the glint of mischief in Barnes' eyes and slumped back in relief. “I am really sorry, though.”
Barnes waved away the apology. “To answer your question, yes, it’s where I got my arm.”
“Can I ask what happened…?”
“I cut it off when I was escaping Hydra.”
“Hydra kept its reavers on a tight leash.” Barnes shrugged and didn’t look at Steve. “Magic requires a price.”
“Jesus,” Steve whispered. “Jesus. Barnes…”
“It’s not so bad,” Barnes said softly, looking embarrassed. “Stark gave me a metal arm to replace it. After all the things I’d done for Hydra, it seemed a small enough sacrifice to make to fix things.”
Steve stared at Barnes with wide eyes. His throat felt clogged with a tangle of words and feelings he couldn’t sort out in his head. “You are,” he finally said, “a very good man.”
Barnes' head jerked up at Steve’s words. He opened his mouth, probably to argue with Steve, but Steve set his jaw and glared at Barnes. With something almost like bewilderment in his eyes, Barnes closed his mouth and stared back. Steve held his gaze without wavering. It was Barnes who backed down first, looking down at his plate with his fork gripped tightly in his hand.
Good. Barnes wasn’t going to argue the point. There were so many more questions Steve wanted to ask, but he stopped himself. Barnes had already shared more than Steve had any right to expect.
After that charged conversation, the rest of their dinner passed in a surprisingly companionable silence. When the last of the dishes had been dried and put away, Steve stared out the windows at the darkness that encircled the cafe. He wasn’t sure if it was just his imagination, but the darkness looked thick and clotted… almost soupy. The lights from the buildings beyond the Zone seemed very far away.
“I can walk you out.”
“You don’t have to.” Steve gripped the strap of his satchel and hoped his nerves weren’t obvious. “I know the way.”
Barnes gave him an amused look. “You may know the way, but the way doesn’t know you.”
The worrying thing was that Barnes sounded like he was only partly joking.
Steve’s relief must have been obvious because Barnes went to a cabinet and pulled out a torchlight. “Let’s go.”
“Can’t you just… make light?” Steve eyed the torchlight in Barnes’ hand. It was at least a foot long, black, and looked like it could be used to bludgeon someone to death. He wasn’t sure whether to be more reassured by it, or less.
“I’m an offensive weapon, Rogers, not a walking torchlight.”
Steve snorted. “Call me Steve.”
The walk through the Dead Zone was a quiet one. The oppressive darkness engulfing them seemed to encourage silence. Beyond the circle of light cast by the torchlight, Steve could’ve sworn he saw things swimming through the dark. He didn’t notice how close he’d edged to Barnes until he bumped into him.
“Sorry,” Steve muttered, and left a little more space between them. He peered into the darkness. “Are there things out there? Because it feels like there are things out there.”
Barnes made a noncommittal sound that was most decidedly not a ‘no’. “Hydra summoned beings that don’t belong here. We destroyed them, but the memory of them remains. In the absence of light, memory can sometimes have a tangible form.”
Steve bumped into Barnes again, earning him an amused smile. “They’re harmless for the most part. But I don’t recommend being in the Zone at night, not unless I’m with you.”
Something about that statement made Steve’s heart speed up.
“What happened here? Why’d everything die?”
“To rip a soul from its body just to tap the power of the life bond is an abomination.” Barnes’ voice was tight with an emotion that Steve couldn’t quite decipher. “It blights the land. Death seeps into the very ground, poisoning all life.”
“But you’re making things grow?”
“That’s how you push back death,” Barnes said. “With life.”
Barnes was trying to undo the damage done by Hydra. Steve stole a glance at the man walking beside him and vowed to help in whatever way he could. For the city, for himself, for Barnes.
About a block away from 33rd Station, they crossed the unmarked border that separated the Zone from the rest of the city. The air lightened and the darkness no longer pressed on Steve. The sounds of distant traffic rang clearly in his ears. Up ahead, he could see street lights and light shining through the odd window or two. This close to the Zone, the surroundings were still pretty deserted, since the boundary had a tendency to drift back and forth.
He turned to see that Barnes had stopped just over that unseen line.
Barnes said, “You’ll be fine from here?”
“Yeah.” There was a moment’s silence as they looked at each other. “Thanks, Barnes.”
“Bucky,” Steve repeated, lips curling into a smile. It would’ve felt odd to call him that before. But now that Steve had spent more time with him, the name didn’t seem like such an odd fit anymore. There was an innocence to it that suited the man trying to bring life back to the Dead Zone.
Just as Steve was about to walk away, Bucky said, “Steve.”
Steve turned back so fast his satchel bumped into his hip. “Yes?”
“If you want to help me with the planting, you should probably be warded for the trip through the Zone.”
“Okay,” Steve said slowly.
“I’ll have to…” Bucky licked his lips, almost like he was nervous. “My power works through my blood.”
“I don’t have to drink it, do I?”
“No. Nothing like that. But I will need to rub some onto your skin.” Bucky tapped the inside of his own wrist. “Here. Where your blood flows near the surface.”
“Sure,” Steve said, after a moment’s hesitation. He tried not to think about what his mother would say about letting someone rub their blood onto his skin.
Bucky pushed his right sleeve up, then pulled out a knife from somewhere. It looked wickedly sharp, like something from an action movie, wielded by someone who threw around phrases like ‘black ops’ and ‘wetwork’.
“You’re just gonna”—Steve flapped his hand at the knife—“cut yourself?”
“How else will I get blood?”
Which, okay, valid. But still… “It’ll hurt you.”
“It will be fine. I only need a bit.”
Before Steve could protest, Bucky sliced a thin cut on his inner arm. Blood welled up, thick and dark. The light of the street lamp reflected off the silvery lines that marked Bucky’s skin from elbow to wrist. Cut after cut after cut. Orderly rows of them. Some rows had overlapping scars. The sight of them hurt Steve in a way he couldn’t explain.
Bucky swiped up the blood with a gloved finger and approached slowly, like he thought Steve would spook and run at any sudden movement. He wasn’t exactly wrong.
“May I,” Bucky said, almost diffidently.
Steve swallowed and held up his right wrist. With one last look at Steve, Bucky dabbed his blood over the pulse point. Steve couldn’t help thinking about the fact that the hand inside the glove was made of metal.
A surprised gasp escaped him when Bucky’s right hand closed warm and gentle around his wrist. Heat seemed to emanate from where Bucky was rubbing his blood into Steve’s skin. It flowed over him like a warm breeze, enfolding him before sinking into his skin. In its wake, Steve could feel traces of a quiet strength that reminded him of Bucky. Coupled with the fact that Steve was still wearing Bucky’s shirt, the sensation was intimate… and oddly comforting.
“There.” Bucky let go and stepped back. “Stay out of trouble.” He turned, took two steps, and was swallowed up by the darkness of the Zone.
Steve stared at his wrist, expecting to see smears of blood. There was nothing. Not even a trace was left—like it’d been absorbed into his skin.
After having Bucky’s company on the walk out of the Zone, the journey home felt almost lonely. Which was ridiculous—he took the train home by himself all the time. Almost, he considered the possibility that he might be falling for Bucky. But no… there was no way that could happen. Not when he had Sarah to worry about. He’d managed to keep his feelings for Peggy in check for years, he didn’t see why he couldn’t with Bucky.
He trudged up the stairs to his apartment and let himself in. His muscles ached pleasantly from the physical labor of helping Bucky with the planting. Considering he’d spent the better part of the afternoon gardening, his healing injuries hardly hurt at all.
The reason for that became clear when he took off his jacket and discovered two cloth pouches in the inside left pocket. A fresh, herb-like smell wafted off them. He’d seen things like this before. They carried simple spells tailored to help with specific things. Hedge witches made them. Wanda did too, although she was no simple hedge witch.
He turned the first pouch over and saw that Bucky had written something on the fabric: Steve - for aches and pains. The other pouch said: For Sarah - general ease and comfort.
Something pressed at his chest—warm, almost an ache. He put away the pouches and went to dig out the emergency inhaler he kept in his room even though he hadn’t had an asthma attack in years.
Present : January 2017
Steve knocks on the door of the Maximoff’s apartment. He wasn’t really sure what to expect when he arrived at the address, but he’s glad to see that the building seems generally well maintained, if a little old. Footsteps approach and the door opens to reveal Wanda’s smiling face.
“You look frozen,” Wanda says with a laugh. “Come in!” She takes the bottle of soda and the bag of fruits he holds up with a reproachful look. “You didn’t have to, Steve.”
“Least I can do for that chicken dumpling soup I was promised.” He steps through the door and feels a tingle cascade over his skin even through his many layers of clothing. It’s like stepping through a curtain made of static electricity.
“Go sit down.” She makes shooing motions at him before taking his gifts into the kitchen.
“Can I at least set the table?” he calls after her receding back.
“No,” she shouts back.
Deciding to be obedient, he hangs up his jacket and scarf and takes a seat on the sofa. The apartment is a small two-bedroom in a not-quite seedy part of the city. He’s pretty sure he doesn’t have to worry about their safety though, not if the tingle he felt when he walked through the door is any indication.
A small jade plant sits in the middle of the coffee table, safe from the bitter winter cold. Something about the pot, maybe the design painted on it, or the shape, draws his attention. He leans forward and traces a plump green leaf with his finger as emotions he can’t explain clog his throat.
Steve jerks his hand back when Pietro walks out of the kitchen carrying a large steaming bowl of chicken soup with dumplings floating on top. He’s wearing a gray apron over his T-shirt and sweatpants. The words Fast and Foremost are emblazoned on it in bold white letters. Wanda follows behind him with a bowl of salad.
Pietro places the bowl on the table with a flourish. “Let’s eat!” He tosses his oven mitts back into the kitchen as they all take a seat.
“This is good!” Steve says, as soon as he takes his first spoonful. It’s a wonderful blend of the light sweetness of the vegetables and the heartiness of the meat, all melded together by the buttery smoothness of the dumplings. It’s the perfect meal for a cold winter day, and for the first time in a long while, he actually wants to put food in his mouth.
“See?” Pietro says smugly. “I told you. I make good chicken dumpling soup.”
“Yes, you do,” Steve and Wanda say in unison, as Pietro holds his arms out to receive his accolades.
When Steve finishes the last drop of soup in his bowl, he leans back with a satisfied smile. “Is this some kind of traditional recipe?”
“Please.” Pietro rolls his eyes. “I got it from the internet.”
“Whoops,” Steve says.
“We didn’t have… a traditional childhood.” Wanda doesn’t look up from her bowl as she stirs the dregs of her soup.
“I’m sorry to hear that.” It feels so inadequate to mouth platitudes, but they’re all Steve has to make up for his thoughtless remark. It’s not like he didn’t already suspect their childhood hadn’t been an easy one.
Pietro waves off the apology. “Don’t worry about it. We’re much better off here than we ever were at home.”
“Then I’m glad you’re here and you’re safe.”
Wanda smiles and nods.
“There’s actually something I’ve been meaning to ask you.” Steve toys with his spoon. “This may sound strange but… did you have anything to do with—” He scrubs a hand over his face. “Okay, you know my mom had cancer, but that she’s better now. I know I asked you…” He trails off, suddenly wondering why he’s so sure he asked Wanda for help with Sarah’s cancer.
“If I could help?” Wanda asks, voice careful. “Yes, you did.”
“Okay.” Steve tries to pull up some memory of that conversation. It’s there, but while some parts of it come into focus, others are hazy, like they were bits of dreams that got mixed up with his memories. He remembers that he asked her in the cafe where they meet for coffee twice a month. He remembers the kid at the next table whining about the summer heat. But he can’t seem to remember what they said to each other. Which was odd since that should’ve been a pretty memorable conversation.
“I told you I couldn’t help you.” Wanda flicks a look at Pietro. “I don’t have that kind of ability or that much power.”
Steve frowns. The answer feels familiar to him, but he still can’t remember any specifics. “Did I ask you anything else?”
Steve nods, but the feeling that he’s missing something nags at him. “The reason I’m asking is because… well, I also had some good news recently.” Just for a moment, the twins seem to freeze, but it’s so brief that he’s not sure if he imagined it. “I was born with a heart defect. I wasn’t expected to live much past twenty-five. I’m nearly two years past the use-by date now.”
Wanda’s eyes go wide with worry. Even Pietro has stopped eating to give his full attention to the conversation.
“But… you’re alright now?” Wanda asks.
“I am. Very much so.” It still surprises him whenever he says it. “The defect fixed itself somehow.”
“But also very strange.” Steve looks Wanda squarely in the eye. “Do you know of any kind of magic that might do this—cure both my mom and me?”
“That’s… a lot of power.” She chews her lip. “No one has that kind of power naturally. What did the med mages say?”
“They’re stumped. They can’t find any trace of magic on us, but then, it might’ve already faded by the time they thought to check.”
Wanda frowns thoughtfully. “I really can’t say I can think of anything that would be able to do that.”
Pietro makes a weird choking sound. When he notices Steve looking at him, he thumps his chest a few times. “Dumpling,” he says by way of explanation, and coughs. “I’m fine. Carry on.”
“I knew it was a long shot,” Steve continues. “But I had to ask.”
“Of course.” Wanda’s smile is regretful. “I’m sorry I can’t be more help.”
“Well,” Pietro says, suddenly enough that Steve startles. “I don’t know about you, old man, but I need more than soup to fill me up. Wanda made brownies.” He stands up. “Recipe from internet.”
“Who’re you calling old.” The response is almost automatic as Steve starts clearing the table while Wanda gets the brownies from the kitchen.
It’s nearly ten o’clock when Steve bundles back up to face the cold. He’s feeling warm and replete, full of fortifying soup, and brownies that had been smothered in ice-cream.
“Thank you for having me over.” He points at Wanda, then at Pietro who’s propping up the wall behind her. “It’s my turn next time. My mom would love to meet the both of you.”
“We’ll think about it,” Wanda says with a smile.
“You’d better.” He steps through Wanda’s wards and waves goodbye before walking down the hallway.
Past : August 2016
Steve sat across from Sarah at the dining table and all he could think of was that he needed to make the most of his time with her. He opened his mouth to tell her he loved her, but when he looked at her thin form, head bent over her plate, he couldn’t get the words out. They’d sound exactly like what they were—a goodbye.
“How was work?” he said instead. It sounded so trivial, but it was the only thing he could think of.
“Quiet,” she said, her smile preoccupied. “Our patient records haven’t been this organized in a long time.” She didn’t elaborate, her mind already somewhere far away.
She’d been like that ever since they’d sat down for dinner. Steve was still thinking of a way to ask if everything was okay when she said, “Where did you get the charm, Steve?”
Steve’s head jerked up. “Did it help?”
“It did,” she said. “I feel so much better. Not as tired. It’s better than anything the hospital has.” She looked at him, strangely intent. “Where did you get it?”
Steve’s mind raced as he wondered what to say. In the end, he settled on the truth. “Bucky made it for you.”
“Did he now…”
Steve finally recognized the look in her eyes. “Mom…”
“Is he a med mage?” Her eyes blazed with hope. “Can he—” She broke off at the look on Steve’s face. “He can’t, can he.”
“But why can’t he?”
There was still so much hope under that appeal for an explanation. Steve felt his heart cracking at having to disappoint his mother. “He’s not a med mage.” He didn’t say that she already knew there was no med mage powerful enough to help her.
“But he made that charm. It helped me.”
“Mom,” he said, unable to keep the pleading tone from his voice. “You know about charms.”
As a nurse, she often worked side by side with the hedge witches that patients brought in to help reduce pain and increase their sense of wellbeing. She seemed to be willfully ignoring that as she clung to the desperate hope of a miracle cure. Just like those cancer patients she’d told him about, the ones who fell prey to unscrupulous doctors or med mages.
Steve had done that to her—raised her hopes only to disappoint her.
“You’re right.” The fervid light in her eyes faded and she subsided back into her seat. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking.” Her smile was more grimace than anything else. “Please thank him for me. It was very nice of him.”
“I’m sorry,” Steve choked out. “I shouldn’t have—”
“No. No, it’s fine.” She looked at him with her pragmatic mask firmly back in place. “It really helped me get through the day.”
Dinner was very subdued after that. The energy that had carried Sarah through cooking for both of them seemed to evaporate. Even though he’d lost his appetite, Steve forced himself to finish his food because his mother had cooked it. He wasn’t surprised when Sarah excused herself after dinner and went to her room.
Bucky ran down the alleyway behind Steve’s apartment in cat form. Two minutes of climbing found him outside Steve’s open window on the fourth floor of the apartment building. When he peeked inside, he saw Steve hunched over his computer, staring intently at the screen. Bucky resisted the urge to hiss. Steve’s back was turned to an open window, leaving him vulnerable to anyone or anything that climbed through it.
He jumped onto the windowsill and let himself land with a loud thump. Steve jerked upright and turned around, but relaxed immediately when he saw Bucky. Trusting idiot. Bucky entered the room and shifted into his human form. He was about to launch into a lecture on safety when he noticed Steve’s red and swollen eyes.
Steve shook his head, fidgeting with his pen so he didn’t have to meet Bucky’s eyes.
Message received, Bucky thought. He needed to remember that he was only in Steve’s life for one reason and one reason only—he was a means to an end. He fished in his jacket pockets and pulled out two pouches. “For you and your mother.”
“Oh.” Steve reached forward and took the pouches, a strange, soft look on his face. He brushed a thumb over the names Bucky had written on them. “You came all this way—Thank you.” Steve pressed his lips tightly together as his hand gripped the pouches. His breathing turned ragged and his face became red and splotchy.
“What’s wrong,” Bucky tried again.
“My mom… I—I had to tell her something she didn’t want to hear.” Steve’s face was pale and strained, deep grooves bracketed his mouth. “I think she took it pretty hard.”
No words came to mind, no comfort to offer. He was ill-equipped to handle a situation like this. But he hated to see Steve in pain so he did the only thing he could think of—he stepped closer and placed a hand on Steve’s shoulder.
Steve sucked in a shaky breath and tipped his head forward. His pale gold hair caught on the fabric of Bucky’s T-shirt. One step closer and his forehead would be pressing against Bucky’s chest. His breaths got more ragged.
The sound tore at Bucky. Deciding that the risk of getting shoved away was an acceptable one, he wrapped his arms around Steve. For a second, Steve froze. Then, he burrowed into Bucky’s chest and his shoulders started to shake. Bucky held him quietly while Steve soaked the front of his shirt with tears.
When Steve finally pulled away, Bucky dropped his arms to his side and stepped back. Steve wiped his eyes and blew his nose. For the first time, he looked… small. Bucky wished he could do more. But even after following Steve for days, Bucky had only found two people who came even close to being enough. The night he’d gone to the bar when Rogers was having dinner with friends, Bucky had studied the golden threads of the bonds that spun between them. The strongest bonds, the ones that gleamed the brightest, linked Rogers to the woman with forthright brown eyes, and the black man with the gap-toothed smile. The power in those bonds was strong… but not strong enough.
“Thank you,” Steve said softly. “You give good hugs.”
Bucky looked down, not quite able to bear the sad gratitude in Steve’s eyes. “It’s no problem.”
“I’m sorry about—” Steve waved at the damp patch on Bucky’s shirt.
“I don’t mind.” Bucky took another step back. “I should get going.”
Bucky froze, startled by the slightly panicked tone in Steve’s voice.
“Can I at least get you a drink before you go?” Steve asked. “I’ve got um, water, and uh—Snapple?”
Being invited to stay longer was not something he’d expected when he’d jumped through Steve’s window. He got the feeling Steve didn’t want to be alone with his thoughts
At Bucky’s continued silence, Steve’s face fell. “You don’t have to—”
“No,” Bucky said hurriedly. “I—Snapple?” he blurted out. Being raised by Hydra trainers didn’t exactly leave him with a great store of small talk.
Steve shrugged. “I like iced tea.” He stood up. “You should try it. I was gonna take a break anyway.” His lips compressed. “I haven’t really been able to concentrate.” He paused in the doorway and looked uncertainly at Bucky, like he thought Bucky was going to jump out the window the moment his back was turned. “Wait here, okay?”
Bucky nodded. Once Steve left the room, Bucky’s attention was drawn to the computer screen. On it was the half-colored art Steve had been working on—a baby T-Rex attempting to pillow fight with a brother and sister in red polka-dot pajamas. The innocence and joy in the scene made him ache to see it. Were there books like that in the bedroom from which he’d been taken? Had his mother read them to him at night? To his sisters?
He was still staring at the screen when Steve came back in with two bottles of Snapple in his hands. “You drew that?” he asked.
Steve looked over at the screen. “Yeah. It’s for the children’s book I’m illustrating.” In a mock-serious voice, he said, “When Dinosaurs Attack.”
“It’s very good,” Bucky said, unable to take his eyes off the art. He could feel Steve studying him. He arranged his features into a neutral expression and turned back to Steve.
“Here.” Steve held out the bottle. “Drink it while it’s still cold. It’s gross when it’s warm.”
Bucky accepted the bottle and sat down on the window seat, grateful that Steve hadn’t noticed his reaction to the art. “You do all your art on the computer?”
“For work, yeah.”
Steve’s eyes flicked to the sketchbook tossed next to a tablet. He sat down in the computer chair and moved the tablet aside, placing it right on top of the sketchbook. Interesting. Bucky couldn’t help wondering what was in the sketchbook.
He tried some of the iced tea and pulled a face at it’s tartness. “You like this?”
“It’s an acquired taste.” Steve’s lips quirked up into a smile, blue eyes mischievous under his floppy fringe.
Did Steve know how tempting he looked like that, even with his red nose and puffy eyes? Bucky downed half the bottle in one go to stop himself from noticing. “I doubt I’ll ever acquire it.”
“I’ll be sure to get something milder for you next time,” Steve said.
Bucky’s heart turned over at the ‘next time’ even though he knew he was being a fool. Steve was grateful for the charms. That was all. He finished the rest of the drink and stood up. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I have to go. Thank you for the drink.”
“Oh.” Steve straightened up in his seat. “Okay.” He stood up, arms dangling by his side before he shoved them into the pockets of his sweatpants. “Thank you for the charms. They really help her.”
“I’m glad. I’ll bring new ones whenever they’re depleted.”
“I’d really appreciate that.” Steve gave him a half smile. “I’ll have better drinks for you, I promise.”
Steve held up a hand. “Don’t say it. Please let me. It’s the least I can do.”
Bucky nodded, already looking forward to the next time. A shimmer and a shift, and he was looking at the world from a lot closer to the ground. He waved his tail once and jumped out the window.
Sarah was in the kitchen frying up eggs for breakfast when Steve walked out of his bedroom the next morning. A plate of fried bacon lay on the table and there was bread in the toaster.
“Mom, you know you don’t have to…”
“But I want to.” Sarah’s smile was tinged with sadness. She set the plate of fried eggs on the table. “Come and eat.”
When Steve sat down with coffee for the both of them, Sarah placed her hand on his. “I’m sorry about last night. That wasn’t fair of me.”
“No. You don’t have to apologize. I know it’s not easy…”
“But I still shouldn’t make it any harder on you.”
Steve lurched out of his chair to hug her. “You didn’t and you aren’t and you have nothing to apologize for.”
Her arms came up around him. She’d lost so much weight that Steve could feel the sharp jut of bones pressing into him. He refused to think about what that meant, refused to let the tears fall—if he started, he had the feeling he might not ever stop.
Only the sound of the bread popping out of the toaster reminded Steve that they were in the middle of breakfast. Sarah seemed equally surprised. She returned Steve’s embarrassed smile with one of her own. His eyes were probably as wet as hers. He pulled out the charm Bucky had delivered last night and held it out.
Sarah’s eyebrows shot up in surprise as she took it out of Steve’s hand. “Another one?” She studied the plain cloth pouch before slipping it into her pocket.
“Bucky came by last night to drop it off.” And Steve had proceeded to fall apart all over him after one act of kindness.
“That was very kind of him.” Sarah’s voice turned gently teasing. “He must care a lot about you to come by just to drop it off.”
“That’s just the kind of person he is, Mom.” A slow tide of heat crawled up Steve’s face at the memory of strong arms around him. “Kind.”
“Coming by late at night? One night after he gave you the first one?” She studied his red cheeks with amusement. “That seems a little more than just kind, Steve. Did he stay long?”
“No, he came just to pass me the charms.”
“Steven Grant Rogers,” Sarah said, sounding scandalized. “I hope I raised you better than that. Surely you offered him something to drink, at least?”
“Of course I did!”
Sarah folded her arms and looked very pleased with herself. “So he did stay longer.”
“Mom.” Steve felt all of eight years old, caught out in a lie.
“‘Charms’? More than one?”
“There was one for me as well,” Steve admitted.
“Seems like a lot more than just a friend from work,” Sarah said. “I think he’s a keeper. I hope he sticks around. He seems good for you.” She reached out to touch his cheek. “You seem less stressed lately.”
A large part of that had to do with the fact that Bucky could actually help Sarah. Not that Steve could tell her that. Now if only they could figure out what Steve had to give up to make it happen.
Present : March 2017
“Let’s celebrate,” Sarah says, one afternoon two months after Steve gets the good news about his heart.
In three hours, they manage to throw together an impromptu pizza dinner with friends. Sam, Morita, and Mariah sit around the dining table chatting with Sarah. Anne and Jeff, Sarah’s fellow nurses, are also there. Pizza boxes litter the table. Steve’s at the table with everyone, and yet he feels apart from it all, observing more than participating. Waiting, always waiting… For what, he doesn’t even know.
The doorbell rings. Steve opens the door to find Peggy and Gabe in the hallway, holding up a bottle of wine each with wide smiles on their faces.
At the sight of Peggy’s face, Steve catches himself waiting that little, habitual half-second for the butterflies in his stomach to settle. Seems like six months without them is still not quite long enough to break a habit that’s taken years to develop.
“Wine,” he says, as he leans in to hug first Peggy, then Gabe. “Might be too classy for this party.”
“Which is why we brought these as well,” Peggy says. Gabe holds up a shopping bag full of Chinese takeout and shakes it in Steve’s face.
“I guess you can come in then.” He ducks out of the way with a laugh when Gabe fakes a punch at his shoulder.
Shouts of welcome ring out while Steve brings the takeout into the kitchen to transfer to plates. When he walks out, Peggy and Gabe are sitting together at the table, heads bent together as they talk. Gabe looks up. A guilty look flashes over his face as he straightens up and puts a little distance between himself and Peggy.
Steve should… probably do something about that. Talk to Peggy or Gabe and clear up the whole bro code issue of not getting in the way of another friend. Because between one day and the next, that lurch of anticipation whenever he sees her is gone, his heart doesn’t race like it usually does when she’s around.
He can trace it back almost to the day it started. The day he woke up to a spike of white-hot pain in his head. Ever since then, everything started feeling… off.
Steve blinks. From the worried pinch of Sam’s lips it’s probably not the first time he called Steve’s name.
“Hey, man. You with us?” Sam’s voice is careful, concerned. Steve’s friends have been talking to him in that tone a lot lately.
“Yeah,” Steve says. “Sorry… got a little distracted.”
“Sarah was telling us you’ve got some good news?”
Expectant faces watch him. He swallows and wishes he was somewhere else.
“You know I went for some tests a while back?”
“For your heart,” Morita says. “You had to keep going back but wouldn’t say why.”
“Well, according to my doctor, my heart’s fine.”
“Fine?” Peggy leans forward in her seat. “What does that mean?”
“You know that deformity on my valve? Well… it's gone.”
“Hell yeah!” Sam bangs the table. “A toast to your good health!”
Everyone jerks and laughs at Sam’s shout. They raise cans of beer and wine glasses and congratulate him on his good health. Morita punches him lightly in the arm, expressing himself in his usual irascible way. Across the table, Sarah’s eyes glisten with tears. Steve smiles and almost can’t feel the empty ache inside himself.
“Okay,” Morita says, once the toasting dies down. “But how did your heart just fix itself?” He exchanges a glance with Sam. As EMTs, they have more than a passing familiarity with how the human body works. “That’s a congenital heart defect you’re talking about.”
“Dr. Erskine can’t explain it. None of the doctors can. Best theory is magic, but who has that kind of power to spare? And why waste it on me? Next guess is that the human body is just capable of some weird shit, and my body decided to heal itself.”
“Weird shit is right,” Sam says.
“If anyone can bend the laws of nature through sheer will alone, it’s Steve.” Mariah toasts him with her glass.
“Perks of being a stubborn mule,” Steve toasts her back.
“Word.” Morita’s voice is bone dry.
Sam raises his beer. “To the stubborn ass.”
“Mule!” Steve insists, with a laugh.
The dinner plates have all been cleared away by the time Steve’s temper starts to fray. Another thing that’s been happening lately. There’s only so much noise and loud company he can handle before he starts to crave quiet and solitude.
He slips into his room, leaving the door ajar so he doesn’t appear too antisocial. He curls up on the little bench seat next to the window and rests his forehead on the cold glass.
He’s not sure how long he’s been there when Peggy pokes her head into the room. “I wondered where you’d got to.”
Steve shrugs and drops his chin back on his folded arms. “I just needed a moment.”
“Are you alright, Steve?” She takes a seat on his bed. “You’ve been very quiet lately.”
“It’s… been a lot, I guess. First Mom. Now me.”
It’s not much of an answer because he doesn’t really have one—he’s not alright and he doesn’t know why. He should be happier but instead he’s restless all the time, increasingly plagued by an odd sensation—like there’s something he’s forgotten, but he can’t figure out what, like there’s someplace he needs to be, but he doesn’t know where. He feels… not depressed but melancholy. Homesick for a home that seems to exist only in his dreams.
He’s not sure if the way his feelings for Peggy have changed are another symptom of the strange despondency that’s gripped him, or a result of it. All he knows is that his life feels unbalanced without that constant comforting pull towards her—like a house with one of its foundations crumbled away.
“If you’d needed me, I’d have been there.” There’s just the faintest hint of a question in Peggy’s words, a slight tinge of hurt.
“I know. And it means a lot to me to know that you’re there for me. All of you.” Steve waves in the direction of the living room. “But it was mostly just test after test and nothing to show for them. Then after I got the results… I guess I didn’t dare talk about it for fear of jinxing it.” Because really, what were the chances? Sarah and him? Both of them? He keeps waiting for fate to notice the distortion of luck around them. But so far… nothing.
“I’m really glad for you. For both of you.” Peggy’s smile is warm and beautiful and generous.
“You and Gabe,” Steve says. When Peggy’s face goes blank at the bald statement, Steve wishes he’d been able to think of a better opening for this conversation they need to have. “I think you guys would be good together.”
“Is that so.” Peggy straightens the seam of her vintage wool pants.
“God, I’m so bad at this, Peg.” He joins her on the bed and takes her hand in his. “I always thought we could’ve been something special, if… you know, I wasn’t born in this body.”
“But now that you’re better,” Peggy says, “you think differently?”
How like Peggy to cut straight to the point. Steve wishes he could hide from her direct gaze. “It’s not that I think it. I just… I don’t even understand it myself. It’s like my feelings shifted, but I don’t know why.” He ducks his head. “I mean, I don’t even know if you felt the same way, and maybe I’m just being an idiot, but—”
“You’re not an idiot.” She disentangles her hand and curls it in her lap.
“I’m sorry,” Steve says, heart heavy with misery.
“Well.” Peggy gives him a forced smile. “I’m glad we had this talk. It does clear some things up.” She gets to her feet. “I’ll be with the rest.” With a swish of fabric, she’s gone.
Steve collapses back on the bed and wishes for the night to end.
Past : September 2016
Bucky was already working among the plants when Steve arrived around three on a Saturday afternoon. His tall form moved between the rows of saplings as he checked them for signs of the Dead Zone’s blight, metal arm glimmering in the sunlight that filtered through the plastic sheet shading the plants.
Ever since the night nearly a month ago when Steve figured out his identity, Bucky had stopped trying to conceal his arm. Considering it was made by Tony Stark, the arm was surprisingly plain—just smooth gray metal plates that fit together almost seamlessly. It was still a work of art, a mechanical wonder that Bucky could use like a real arm, but it wasn’t flashy like everything Steve associated with the Stark name.
Steve could feel his heart lightening with every step closer he took to the cafe. The vibrant, earthy scent of life surrounded him. He let all his worries out on an exhale. They’d still be waiting for him outside the Zone.
They were finally going to transfer the saplings from their temporary pots to tree beds in the park. Steve had planted some of those saplings on the day Bucky had finally agreed to help him. They’d grown to nearly two feet in height and were strong enough to be left out in the open.
He set his things down on the workbench and got his gloves from the drawer. Not the green ones Bucky had lent him his first time helping out. These were gray with a snazzy orange trim around the cuff, and they were sized just right for his smaller hands. Steve had found them in the drawer the next time he’d gone to help Bucky with the plants. The memory brought a smile to his face. As he pulled them on, he made yet another mental note to snip off the loose thread trailing out from the cuff from when he’d snagged the glove on a twig. He’d get around to it. One day.
He collected his tools and walked out to join Bucky. “Today’s the day,” he said, by way of greeting.
Bucky nodded as he brushed off his hands and stood up. “About time you got here.”
“Lemme see you get through the lunch hour rush faster than me.”
Bucky raised an eyebrow and tilted his head in a way that was distinctly catlike.
“Show off,” Steve muttered, biting back a smile. Bucky in cat form would definitely beat him in a race through the rush hour.
Bucky didn’t ask after Sarah, and for that Steve was thankful. It wasn’t like Bucky wouldn’t know anyway, with his ability to see inside another person’s body. He’d probably known about the cancer spreading to her brain even before Steve had.
After he’d gotten the news, late that night, when it was quiet and there was nothing to distract him, he thought about the chances of finding something that would work in the little time Sarah had left. If even Sam and Peggy weren't enough, he didn't see what else he could give up. He didn't know what he’d do when the final choice left to him was to convince Bucky to break his vow, or watch his mother waste away.
But this wasn’t the place for such thoughts. The park had become his refuge, the place where he could set aside his worries for awhile.
He helped Bucky load up a wheelbarrow with saplings and followed behind as Bucky wheeled it to the freshly turned soil of the tree beds.
“Here, you dig.” Steve held out the shovel to Bucky. “I know you’re fussy about where they go.”
“It’s called a plan, Steve.” Bucky wrapped his hand around the shovel handle with slow menace, his hint of a Russian accent making his words sound even more threatening. “You should look up the meaning of the word someday.”
Bucky’s cold stare would probably have been terrifying if Steve hadn’t already seen the funny eye-scrunch, lip-smacking thing Bucky did when he tasted his food while cooking.
“Hey, I make plans!”
Bucky looked up from his digging to give Steve an incredulous stare.
“I had a plan when I came in here looking for you,” Steve said, indignant.
“You call that a plan?”
“I had a contract and everything,” Steve said, mostly to get a reaction from Bucky.
Bucky made a small, pained sound as he closed his eyes. “It’s true. The gods favor the foolhardy.”
“You did agree to help me.”
“Which only proves my point, doesn’t it?”
With a quirk of an eyebrow that showed he knew he’d won that round, Bucky went back to digging until he’d made a small hole about three feet in from the edge of the tree bed. With careful hands, Steve removed the sapling from the plastic pot that had been its temporary home, loosened the root ball like Bucky had taught him, and settled it into the soil. Bucky pulled a knife out from somewhere.
“Whoa.” Steve pointed at the knife. “What is that for.”
Bucky gave a huff of amusement. “We’ve been through this, Steve. I’m a blood mage, remember?” Then, with a look of concentration on his face, Bucky pricked his index finger and squeezed a few drops of his blood onto the root ball before covering it with earth.
Steve looked over at Bucky’s makeshift nursery and the rows and rows of pots and planters full of plants. Was this how Bucky was doing it… reviving the Zone one green thing at a time with his own life’s blood? Steve’s breath caught as a strange sensation fluttered in his chest.
In the midst of tamping down the soil around the newly planted sapling, Bucky stiffened. He looked around as though some distant sound had caught his attention.
“What?” Steve’s mouth went dry as he looked around the empty park. He’d been in and out of the Zone so many times he’d forgotten how dangerous the place could be.
“I thought I heard…” After a moment, Bucky shook his head. “It was probably nothing. Come on,” he said. “Next one.”
Over the next couple of hours, Steve watched wordlessly as Bucky pricked his finger again and again, squeezing out a drop of blood onto the roots of each and every sapling. Steve tried not to picture how many pints of blood Bucky had given up to get his plants to this stage.
The sun was setting by the time all the saplings were planted in irregular groupings down the length of the tree bed. Steve stood next to Bucky and admired their work. The twenty young London planetrees were a long way from replacing all the ones that had been killed by the blight, but when Steve looked at the newly planted trees in the bare ground of Bryant Park, it felt like a good start. From the quiet satisfaction he could see in Bucky’s face, Steve guessed Bucky felt the same way.
A terrible thought occurred to him.
“What’re you gonna do when you have to lay the turf? I mean…” Steve waved at the wide expanse of bare earth. “That’s a lot of ground to cover.”
“Eat lots of liver, take iron tablets.”
“Bucky.” Steve stared up at Bucky’s profile. He didn’t look like he was joking.
“No shortcuts, Steve. Magic has a price.”
“So you’re just gonna cut yourself again and again? You’re gonna run out of skin!”
Bucky put a hand on his shoulder, gentle, soothing, like Steve was a cat with its hackles up. “Stark is working on something. A sprayer with a tank customized to hold my blood and keep it stable. He’s shown me a prototype. He filled it up with fake blood he dyed neon pink because he thinks he’s funny.”
“You’re gonna fill up a sprayer with your blood.” Steve had seen sprayers in documentaries about Monsanto. He was already picturing Bucky with a huge tank strapped to his back. “You are gonna pass out. That’s too much blood.”
“It’s okay, Steve. We’ll do small sections at a time. Trust me, I know exactly how much blood I can use and still remain functional.”
Steve really really didn’t like the use of the word ‘functional’ in that sentence. He pinned Bucky with a glare. “You better not do it when I’m not around.”
There was a sweetness to the curve of Bucky’s lips and a softness in his eyes that made Steve’s breath catch. He blinked and reached after his fragmented thoughts. “I’m gonna hold you to that,” he said weakly.
“Come on,” Bucky said. “Let’s get ready for dinner.”
They tidied away their tools and went into the cafe. Steve headed for the shower while Bucky got dinner ready. In the bathroom, Steve touched the folded towel Bucky had left for him on the counter. A sign of the routine that had sprung up between them, that he was welcome in Bucky’s space. That strange congested feeling in his chest wavered again and lingered through his shower. It was still there when he walked into the kitchen and saw Bucky standing at the range. The air was redolent with the rich meaty scent of the stew that had been simmering while they worked.
“Bathroom’s free.” Steve rubbed at the ache in his chest. “I can take over now.”
With a smile, Bucky brushed past Steve in the narrow confines of the kitchen. The heat of Bucky’s body seemed to linger on Steve’s skin as he set the table for their meal.
Steve handed the last dried plate to Bucky and hung up the tea towel to dry. “Are you finally gonna tell me what you plan to do with the rest of the park now that the trees are in?”
With an almost mischievous smile, Bucky put away the plate. Then, he pulled out a file from the bookshelf and carried it over to the worktable.
“So you really do have plans.” Steve sat down next to Bucky as he pulled out some papers from the file. “I was starting to think you were talking out your ass.”
Bucky gave him a speaking look as he spread out the papers. They showed a scale drawing of Bryant Park from the top. Bucky had colored in the trees as well as varicolored bushes and flowering plants. It looked nothing like the Bryant Park Steve remembered—gone were the straight lines and right angles, replaced by curving lines that looked organic and natural.
“Bucky…” he breathed. “This is beautiful.” Steve could already see it in his mind, the deep emerald greens of the bushes that grew around the tall trees bordering the park. The clusters of flowerbeds that bloomed red, and pink, and lilac. Meandering paths wound around the plant clusters and separated the famous lawn from the plants. Steve had eaten more than one lunch seated on that lawn. Here and there, benches were scattered at the edge of it so people could sit and enjoy being surrounded by the little piece of nature that Bucky had crafted. “It’s going to look amazing once it’s done.”
A blush tinted Bucky’s cheeks. “You think so?”
“I know so.” Anticipation bubbled in his veins at the thought of helping Bucky bring his vision to life. “When do we start on the bushes?”
Bucky gave a soft laugh at Steve’s eagerness. “Tom’s ordering in the plants that he doesn’t have on hand.”
Steve looked back down at one of the drawings and pulled out one that showed a close-up of one corner of the park. He pointed at a bush colored yellowish-green. “What’s this one?”
Bucky began identifying all the plants, where they were from, how they were suited to the climate. Which ones would attract butterflies, and which ones would be good for bees. His plans for handling the soggy soil at the upper left hand corner of the park.
Steve had never seen Bucky quite like this; his expression open, eyes shining with excitement, hands waving to illustrate his points. For the first time, Steve could really believe that Bucky was only a year older than him, Bucky’s grim and difficult past falling away to reveal the kind and generous soul underneath.
The full feeling in Steve’s chest intensified as he watched Bucky talk. It was a sweet warmth that filled him up, an easing in his soul like the relief of curling up in his warm bed after a long day.
Bucky froze mid-sentence.
“What?” Steve said, worried by the horror he saw on Bucky’s face. He straightened up in his seat and looked all around the cafe but couldn’t see anything that would put that look there. “Bucky… What’s wrong?”
“I know what will work.” Bucky’s voice was barely a whisper.
“Work? You mean for the drainage issue?”
“To cure your mother,” Bucky said, with eyes gone lightless. “I know what will work.”
Steve’s heart pounded with a fear he couldn’t explain. “What is it?”
“What?” Steve shook his head. “No… How—?”
The fear he’d refused to acknowledge finally crashed down on him. He’d purposely blinded himself to the risk because he’d wanted too much to have this time with Bucky—told himself there was no way he could fall for Bucky. But when he thought about never seeing Bucky again, of not being able to work side by side with him, and not having his quiet presence in his life anymore… The way his mind refused to even comprehend it told him that it was true.
“I will take your memory of me to power the spell. The sacrifice is enough.”
“So I’ll forget you, but you’ll remember me?”
Steve could finally recognize the look in Bucky’s eyes. It was pain.
“But that’s not fair,” Steve whispered. He wasn’t stupid enough to think that his company hadn’t been welcome, that their friendship didn’t mean anything to Bucky. Bucky didn’t hide his quiet pleasure whenever Steve arrived. But seeing the pain in Bucky’s eyes, Steve began to realize just how much he’d come to mean to Bucky. “Doesn’t that mean you’re paying too?”
“It’s a price I’ll gladly pay.” Bucky reached out and brushed Steve’s cheek with a gentle finger. It came away wet with tears.
“You shouldn’t have to,” Steve grated out, through a throat that felt full of crushed glass.
“There’s no other way.”
“Can’t you remove your memory of me instead? Won’t that count as my sacrifice?”
“The spell won’t work on me.”
Bucky put his hand on Steve’s. “There is no other way.”
Steve lurched out of his seat and backed away from the table. “There has to be!” He’d walked into the Dead Zone weeks ago ready to give up his life and yet here he was trying to find a way out of the trap he’d made for himself. And Bucky. He hated himself for it, but he couldn’t hold back the words. “We can keep looking.”
Hope flared in Bucky’s eyes, lighting them to silver from within. He opened his mouth. Closed it again. His eyes went dull. “She doesn’t have much time left, Steve.”
Steve suddenly felt every tired, aching muscle in his body. He shuffled back to the table and slid into the chair. “I’m sorry.” He threaded his fingers through Bucky’s and held on as tightly as he could. He’d been asking for the impossible. The chances of him coming to care for someone even more than Sam or Peggy were probably in the region of millions to one. And that one chance had already been taken by Bucky. It wouldn’t happen again.
Bucky shook his head. “Don’t apologize.” He squeezed Steve’s hand and gave him a lopsided smile, a small hurting thing. “At least this way, you won’t have to move to another city.”
“Don’t,” Steve said, voice cracking. He could hardly bear to see Bucky trying to make him feel better. “I would move halfway across the world if it meant—” He broke off, unable to continue. “Do we have to do it straight away? Can’t we just… wait a few days?”
Bucky’s face had gone still as stone, only the anguish in his eyes giving away his emotions. “Please don’t ask that of me. It’ll already be hard enough—” Bucky broke off and looked down at the papers covering the table.
Steve nodded, even as he felt like his heart was cracking. No matter how much he wanted it, he had no right to ask. Bucky was the one who would be left behind with the memories, after all. The choice should be his.
“Alright,” Steve choked out. “How soon do you—”
“Tomorrow,” Bucky said softly. “I need one day to prepare everything.”
“I should—” Steve stood up. “I should go.” He collected his satchel and his jacket while tears trickled down his face. Bucky remained hunched silently over the table.
As Steve was about to walk out the door, Bucky said, “Wait.”
“Yes?” Steve spun around, scrubbing at the tears on his face.
“Can you…” Bucky released a long sigh and looked at Steve. “Can you stay? For tonight? Not to—to—” Bucky’s face went red. “Just so we don’t have to sleep alone tonight.”
“Yes.” It was one of Sarah’s nights at home, and Steve had been planning to spend time with her catching up on her Netflix queue, but from tomorrow, he would have plenty of time to spend with her. Tonight was all he would ever truly have with Bucky. “Yes.”
The room was quiet, no sound but their breaths and the hum of the fan. It was a good thing that Steve was thin, because Bucky was big and the bed was small. Steve would’ve felt ridiculous in a borrowed T-shirt and boxers that were folded over twice at the waist just to stay on, but the clock ticking down in his head put little worries like vanity into perspective.
He tried his best to memorize Bucky’s face as they lay facing each other in the bed. His wide gray eyes, his strangely fuzzy eyebrows, the broad nose that should be too short for his face. Soft, almost vulnerable lips. Steve had drawn Bucky’s face so many times. He hoped some trace of it would remain in his muscle memory.
“I wish I could’ve met you in another life, without all of… this in the way,” Steve whispered.
“You wouldn’t have looked at me twice.”
“My friend called you a hot hobo. I’d definitely look at you more than just twice.”
In the low light, Steve could just make out the way Bucky’s eyes crinkled at the corners. “You know,” Steve said. “With the hair, and the stubble. And your whole face.”
“Hot hobo,” Bucky repeated, as though testing the sound of it. He gave a huff of laughter. “Okay.” His lips curved. “I thought you looked like a hot angry kitten.”
Steve smacked Bucky on the arm. “Hey.”
“I did say hot.”
“Be still my heart.”
Steve reached out and brushed a lock of Bucky’s hair back behind his ear and tried to ignore the emotions that clogged his throat when Bucky caught his hand and twined their fingers together. The thread of awareness between them thickened, but Bucky seemed as inclined to ignore it as Steve was, the knowledge of what would happen in the morning coloring their every interaction.
Bucky’s grip on Steve’s hand tightened. “I want to tell you,” Bucky said, as though forcing the words out, “about Hydra.” Shadows played over his face as his jaw worked. “But it’s not an easy story to hear.”
“Whatever you want to tell me I want to know.”
The tightness around Bucky’s eyes eased. “I was raised to believe in Hydra,” he said, in a soft voice tinged with shame. His gaze slid to somewhere over Steve’s shoulder. “To believe that the world needed to be kept safe and peaceful, that Hydra could bring about that safety and peace. As long as I could remember, I was taught that using my abilities in service to Hydra was how I could help people. That I had to kill for the greater good.”
Steve could hear the pain in Bucky’s voice as he spoke. Bucky was someone who treasured and nurtured life. All his work in the Zone was proof of that. Hydra had twisted that need to their own ends, and tried to turn a kindhearted child into a killer.
“As I got older, it became harder and harder for me to reconcile the two. I saw the fear in people’s eyes when I walked past. I saw our enemies fighting to their deaths to protect their freedom; non-combatants, young, old; didn’t matter. They gave their own lives while we hoarded our own and harvested other people’s lives. We gave nothing of ourselves even as we claimed to be protecting them. No wonder they hated us.”
“Bucky,” Steve whispered. His heart ached for that younger Bucky, lied to and used, and the older Bucky who still blamed himself for the things he’d done before he’d seen Hydra for what it was.
“I started to watch and listen,” Bucky continued. “That’s when I discovered the plans to destroy all tech and subjugate the world to magic users—Hydra magic users. They weren’t trying to protect, they just wanted to be free to use people however they saw fit. The way they used me and everyone I grew up with.” He smiled, bitter and knife-edged.
“After that, I knew I needed to get those plans to SHIELD.” Bucky shrugged one shoulder. “And that’s where my story ends.”
Except for the part where Bucky had helped SHIELD defeat the last cadre of Hydra reavers. “You saved a lot of lives, Bucky,” Steve said.
Bucky’s eyelids slid down to hide his eyes, but not before Steve saw the guilt that still filled them. Bucky still blamed himself for all the lives he’d taken, and he probably always would. If only Steve could spend the rest of his life convincing Bucky he wasn’t to blame.
“Thank you for telling me,” Steve whispered. “I wish—”
“No,” Bucky said. “No more wishing.” In a softer tone, he added, “It never changes anything.” He tucked Steve’s hand against his chest and pressed a kiss to his forehead. “We should sleep.”
Steve bit his lip and nodded. But it was a very long while before either of them fell asleep.
Steve sat on his bed and watched with gritty eyes as Bucky crouched down and unfolded the bundle of white cloth he’d taken out from his satchel. It was barely past nine in the morning and they were already back in the empty apartment. At Bucky’s instruction, he’d changed into his sleep clothes while Bucky began setting up for the ritual that would cut him from Steve’s life and save Sarah’s.
Steve wanted to be back in Bucky’s bed, curled around his warmth. That was how they’d woken up. He’d pretended to be asleep until Bucky had nudged him and said, “I know you’re awake.” But then, Bucky had wrapped his metal arm around Steve and held him close for a few minutes longer.
Bucky laid the strip of cloth flat on the floor revealing a small copper bowl about three inches wide and a dagger in a matte black sheath. Strange sigils are etched into the handle, sigils that made Steve’s eyes hurt when he tried to untangle them.
“You need to give me everything that might remind you of what happened.” Bucky’s eyes were dull, almost blank, as he looked up at Steve from his position on the floor. “Anything to do with me, or your search for me.”
Steve’s gaze went to the sketchbook by his bedside table. A flush crawled up his cheeks when he thought of all the sketches of Bucky he had in there.
“I won’t look through it if you don’t want me to,” Bucky said. “You can destroy them before we start.”
“No, I—Do you want them?” He pulled a face. “They’re mostly of you, anyway.”
Bucky had a fascinating face, one that was a challenge to draw. He seemed to look different from every angle, and Steve had become maybe a little addicted to trying to capture all his different faces. That’s what he’d told himself, anyway, after a tenth practice sketch turned into another drawing of Bucky.
“Are there any of you in there?”
Steve shook his head. At the disappointment he saw on Bucky’s face, Steve said, “I can do one now?”
“Please,” Bucky said.
Steve wasn’t sure what to draw, so he grabbed the framed photo of him and Sarah from his graduation, turned the sketchbook to an empty page, and started drawing. The whole time he worked, he could feel Bucky watching him. The sketch was pretty rough, but Steve thought he got most of it down. His big nose, bushy brows, stubborn chin. He held out the sketchbook, page still turned to the drawing of himself. “Sorry it’s not much.”
“Thank you.” Bucky’s voice caught on those two words as he looked at the sketch. He closed the sketchbook and put it into his satchel. “Is there anything else? At your work? With your friends?”
Steve shook his head. “I never told anyone.” Wanda didn’t really count since she already knew about Bucky.
Bucky gave a small nod. “Your computer. Did you use it to find me?”
“Shit, yeah.” Another five minutes is spent deleting his browser history and all his notes on his search.
“You found me using satellite imagery, drone photography, and guesswork?” A smile tugged up the corner of Bucky’s mouth. “I’m impressed.”
“I… kinda had help.”
Bucky folded his arms and gave him a look that said he’d been waiting for this moment. “You’re going to have to tell me about the mage who told you about me. You know that right?”
“I made a promise.” Steve sighed. “I think they have their reasons for hiding.”
“Would it help if I promise not to do them harm?”
“You don’t have to promise me anything,” Steve said, fiercely. “I trust you. It’s just… I gave them my word.”
“I need to remove all of it, Steve. I’ve seen people start to doubt their own sanity when they notice gaps in their memory they can’t explain.”
“Okay,” Steve said, finally. He could see how that could happen, and he didn’t want Wanda to blame herself, or try to help him. So he told Bucky about the two haunted kids he’d met in a shelter. He couldn’t tell Bucky where they lived, because he didn’t know, but he had some guesses based on information they’d let slip. By the end, he was mostly rambling to put off what was coming, but Bucky made no protest, so he continued.
When Steve’s words finally ran out, Bucky said, “We should start.”
Steve swallowed back his instinctive protest and sat down on the floor opposite Bucky. The strip of white cloth separated them. Bucky pulled off his gloves, picked up the knife in his right hand and extended his left one to Steve.
This was it.
Steve’s breath went ragged and his throat tight as he thought of waking up with all his memories of Bucky gone. Bucky watched him struggle, made no move to take his hand. Steve had to make the choice himself, and it was the hardest thing he’d ever done. For Sarah, he reminded himself, he had to do it for her. He sucked in a breath and placed his hand palm-up in Bucky’s cold, metal hand.
Bucky’s face was strained as he sliced open the palm of Steve’s hand with the knife. Steve made a tiny sound as pain burned icy-hot across his nerves. Bucky angled Steve’s hand so the blood welling up from the cut dripped down into the bowl, each drop landing with a low, melodic note.
The small bowl held about half an inch of blood when Bucky held his right hand over Steve’s cut palm. A brief whisper of warmth, and then the cut sealed up, leaving behind only an aching throb that Steve felt all the way in his teeth. He wiped up the blood with the tissues Bucky handed him.
Bucky repeated the process on himself, letting his blood mix with Steve’s in the bowl. After healing and cleaning up his own cut, he took a deep breath. He nodded once to Steve, a goodbye in his eyes. He held his hand over the bowl.
Bucky stilled, his eyes jerking up to Steve’s.
“Promise me,” Steve whispered. “Promise me you’ll come find me.”
“You won’t remember me.”
“I will. I swear it.”
“Go find your Peggy.” Bucky cupped his metal hand around Steve’s cheek. “It’s what you wanted when you first came to me.”
Steve shook his head and gripped Bucky’s wrist. “That was before I met you.”
“Once I take your memories, we will never have met.”
Steve saw naked pain in Bucky’s gray eyes. “Promise me.” He didn’t care that he was begging. “Please.”
“I can’t make that promise. Where there’s hope there is no sacrifice, Steve. You must pay the price in full or I can’t help your mother.”
Rage boiled up inside Steve. Bucky had already been through so much and had come out the other side still a good and decent person. He deserved all the happiness the world could give him. As for Steve… all he wanted was to be the one to share that happiness with him.
For a moment, he let himself imagine what it would be like to abandon his plan so he could be with Bucky. It would be a quiet life—restoring the Dead Zone was a life’s work, and Steve didn’t see Bucky giving up on it. Steve would help, of course, while still working as an illustrator and doing commissions. He would rope his friends in to help as well.
It was a lovely dream.
But that was all it would ever be—a dream. He would never forgive himself if he didn’t do everything in his power to save Sarah. So he made himself let go of Bucky’s wrist. He swallowed his anger, pushed down all the pain, packed everything away into a tight kernel that burned hot and bright inside him.
And maybe… maybe…
Fate had brought him to Bucky’s doorstep once. Maybe it would again. And maybe his anger could be good for something other than getting into fights for once. Maybe it would help him remember. He knew it was dangerous to hope, but then, hope was dangerous like that… difficult to eradicate once it’d taken root.
“You wouldn’t be who you are if you did any less,” Bucky said. “Don’t you know what you’ve already given me?” He cupped Steve’s cheek. “I’m a sacrifice big enough to save a life. I never thought—” Bucky broke off, shook his head.
Steve turned his cheek into Bucky’s warm palm and felt like he was dying. He had never felt pain like this, like he was physically being torn in two. No wonder it was enough—it felt almost like a life for a life. Tears flowed freely down his face when he threw his arms around Bucky and held on as tightly as he could. “Thank you,” he whispered into soft brown hair. “You are the best person I have ever met.” He let go before Bucky could react, and knuckled the tears from his eyes. “I’m ready.”
Bucky’s face was pale and set as he held his hand out over the bowl, palm-down. Their mingled blood began to swirl in uneasy waves.
Steve felt a tugging sensation in his mind. He braced for pain. Bucky had warned him it would hurt. Badly. The deeper a memory was rooted, the more it hurt to cut it out. And that’s what it felt like, like an ice-edged dagger sawing into his brain. A small whimper escaped him. Bucky’s face paled at the sound.
Steve gritted his teeth and tried to hold back the scream clawing at his throat—because of the pain, because of the thought of losing Bucky.
Hold it back. Hold it back. Don ’t hurt Bucky. Just a little more. Hang on. For Mom.
He felt a tearing sensation in his head, like the very foundations of his mind were being torn out. It was too much—
He screamed. The edges of his vision turned red. Dimly, he heard Bucky whisper, “Goodbye, Steve.” Then the world went black even as he tried to open his eyes one last time to say goodbye.
Bucky lay Steve on the bed and pulled the covers up around his unconscious body. He let himself brush a lock of blond hair back before making himself step away, soul aching, heartsick and weary. Removing Steve’s memories had been harder than expected, whether because the memories were rooted so deep, or because he had to fight himself to remove them, he didn’t know.
Conversely, he also felt full to the brim and effervescent with power freely given. He would never forget the golden feeling of Steve’s strength filling him—warm earth over an iron core. He knew he would forever crave it.
It was more, so much more than the power Clint had shared with Natalia and him in that final battle with Hydra. And it was nothing at all like the oily, tainted power he’d wrested from his victims. His trainers had lied to him as he’d vomited up bile the first time he’d taken power from another person’s blood. They’d told him that was normal for any power that didn’t come from his own blood. He hadn’t realized the true abomination of his crimes until he’d felt the untainted power from freely given blood.
He turned away. The longer he watched Steve lying peaceful and calm in bed, the harder it would be to leave. He cleaned up the bowl and the knife and packed them away, gathered up all the bloody tissues. He removed every single scrap of evidence that he’d ever been in the room. He was a ghost to be banished.
After scanning the room one last time, he picked up his satchel and left the apartment. The extra weight of the sketchbook seemed to drag at him as he walked down the hallway and out of Steve’s life.
Now to keep his end of the bargain.
Bucky lurked in the hospital stairwell as he waited for Sarah to take her break. He’d already visited all of Steve’s friends who’d seen him at the bar. He couldn’t take the risk that they’d mention the night to Steve. Their memories of him were ephemeral things and easily removed—he was more concept to them than a real person. In his cat form, they hadn’t even noticed his presence as he’d stolen their memories of him.
Sarah would require more care.
She finally left the nurse’s station to take her break five minutes later. She had lost weight since he’d last seen her. In her light blue scrubs, she looked pale and ill.
He stepped out of the stairwell. “Sarah,” Bucky said.
Steve’s mother turned around in the empty corridor, eyes wide. “Bucky! What are you doing here? Is Steve—?”
“He’s fine, I’m sorry.” Bucky slouched a little to make himself look smaller. “I shouldn’t have scared you.”
“No, no. That’s fine.” Her gaze sharpened. “What are you doing here, then?”
Bucky rubbed his neck and let embarrassment bleed into his voice. “I wanted to ask Steve out. On a date. And I wanted to ask your advice on what I can do to make it special.” He gave her a sheepish smile. “If that’s alright with you?”
Bucky felt bad for relying on the infiltration skills Hydra had taught him, but he wanted to make the process as easy for Sarah as possible. He wasn’t even lying. In an ideal world, a world where he got to be happy, he would have wanted to make sure the first date he brought Steve on would be as memorable as possible.
“Oh!” Sarah’s eyes brightened. “Well I’ve got a few minutes now. We can go the break room.” She started walking. “It’s this way.”
Bucky knew where the break room was. Just as he knew it’d be empty and would remain that way for at least twenty minutes because of the repelling spell he’d put on it. People would conveniently find somewhere else they’d rather be than the break room.
“Thank you,” he said, exactly the way a polite young man with nothing to hide would say it.
They walked in silence to the break room. He let her precede him into the room before closing the door quietly behind him.
Sarah spun about at the sound of the door closing, an uneasy look in her eyes. “What—?”
“I’m sorry, Sarah.”
He knocked her out with a spell and laid her gently on the floor. He wasn’t a med mage, but he knew human anatomy because it made him a more efficient killer, and with Steve’s power boosting his own, he could manipulate her cells at a microscopic level. Power flowed to his fingertips with barely a thought, so much power, so easy. It could be addicting if he wasn’t careful.
Sending that power inside Sarah, he sought out the tumors growing inside her and strangled each and every capillary that fed them the blood and nutrients they needed. It would take a few weeks for the tumors to completely waste away, but they were all already as good as destroyed. The irony of him using his skills at death to help the living was not lost on him.
Once he was done with the tumors, he skimmed her mind, catching and scooping up all memory of him. Her memories of him came away with the ease of skin sloughed off after a sunburn. As he lifted them away, he couldn’t help but sense her bittersweet happiness that Steve would have his support after she died. He also sensed her sympathy for him, a soldier struggling with guilt.
Steve had clearly inherited her generous heart.
“Everything will be alright now,” he whispered. “I promise.”
In less than fifteen minutes, he was done. He arranged her to look like she’d collapsed in a faint, then he left the room. He waited to make sure someone found her before walking away. He’d done all he could to give Steve more time with Sarah. That knowledge made the pain of losing Steve easier to bear.
Now to tie up one last loose end, a thread that connected him to Steve. One that couldn’t be easily snapped.
Bucky looked around the tiny studio apartment. With the information Steve had given him, he’d been able to track the twins from the coffee shop where they met with Steve back to their place. Funny to think that the person he’d been hunting all along, the source of the red-tinged magic that stank of Hydra, was the one who’d led Steve to him.
Breaching the red-eyed witch’s wards had been child’s play. She was powerful, but still largely untrained. Not long before his own escape, he’d heard about the children who’d escaped one of Hydra’s training facilities, leaving madness in their wake. Somehow they’d ended up here in the same city as him. Was there some sort of beacon, he wondered. Or perhaps after the attack, New York was the safest place to hide from the remnants of Hydra.
The apartment was meant for just one person, but there were two mattresses on the floor. A privacy curtain separated the two mattresses. All the furniture in the room looked like they’d been scrounged up from a dumpster. There were no personal items lying about, nothing that would be missed if the occupants had to leave in a hurry.
He thought about what note to leave for them. In the end he decided to keep it simple.
I mean you no harm. Like you, I was raised by Hydra. Like you, I escaped them. There is a problem regarding our mutual friend that I must discuss with you. You can email me at email@example.com.
It was very dramatic. Like something out of one of the action movies he’d come to love. Good people won. Bad people lost. Everything nicely wrapped up in under three hours.
Before he could pin the note to the table with a half-empty cup of water, the front door was kicked open and he was thrown back against the wall hard enough to knock the breath from him. A red glow wrapped itself around him and pinned him to the wall.
Wanda and Pietro Maximoff stepped into their little apartment, faces grim. Not so untrained after all, if they could sneak up on him.
This wasn’t how he meant for the meeting to go, but an experienced operative could always roll with the punches. Besides, he could use a distraction. He bit his tongue and let the iron taste of blood fill his mouth. Pulling his power around him, he broke the bonds that held him. The red glow around him dissipated into nothing. He remained where he was and waited to see their response.
Wanda’s eyes widened and she raised her glowing hands. But before she could attack, her brother put his hand on her shoulder and whispered something to her. Her jaw set, but she lowered her hands. They were still wreathed in red, but it looked like Bucky would get the chance to speak after all.
“What do you want,” Pietro said.
“It’s about Steve.”
The red glow abruptly flickered out. “What happened?” Wanda asked. “Is it his mother?”
“She’s fine. He’s…” Bucky thought about his last sight of Steve, asleep in the bed.
“You did it. You cured his mother.” Her eyes went wide. “So he’s d—”
Bucky shook his head, not trusting his voice.
Wanda exchanged a confused look with her brother. Whatever else Pietro saw in that look had him standing down.
“You look like you need to sit down,” Pietro said to Bucky.
“I’m only here to ask a favor. It’s for Steve.” At Wanda’s nod, he continued, “I’ve done what he asked of me. He paid the price, and I cured his mother. As part of that, I removed all memory of me from his mind. You were the one who told him about me.” Wanda nodded again. “I should remove all memory of that from you and your brother, but I won’t.” He smiled. “I don’t think I can. Memory is the seat of your power.”
“So this favor,” Wanda said. “You want us to lie to Steve?”
She studied him for a long moment while Pietro loomed over her shoulder. Her eyes widened and turned sad. She reached back and grabbed Pietro’s hand. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“What did you do,” Bucky growled. If this girl had looked into his mind—
Pietro stepped in front of her, but she pulled him back. “Sometimes emotions leak through. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…”
Bucky waved away her apology because he really didn’t want to think about his emotions. “You must never remind Steve of this—that you told him about me, that he met me, that I cured his mother. You understand that magic must have a price.”
“You were his price,” she whispered.
He looked down, unable to bear the sympathy in her eyes.
“I promise,” she said.
“I promise, too,” Pietro said.
Bucky nodded and turned to go. His task was completed. Now, all he wanted was to hide away for a week, a month, a year while he tried to forget what might have been. He’d never guessed that Steve might feel the same way, and so it had never occurred to him to check the bond between them.
Halfway to the door, the sight of the bare apartment kicked at his conscience. He turned back to the two teenagers trying to pretend they were just like everyone else.
“I know what it’s like,” he said. “Hiding.”
“What would you know about hiding, reaver?” Pietro’s words were sharp. A young man trying to conceal his fear with aggression.
“Enough.” Natalia and him had split up to increase their chances of getting Hydra’s plans to SHIELD. It had taken him months to make his way to Stark Tower. He’d spent most of it in a constant state of fear. For all his ability, he was still only one man, and one struggling to cope with the loss of his arm. “Enough to know it is no way to live. SHIELD owes me some favors. I can help you get papers. Maybe find someone to help you master your powers.”
The twins exchanged a glance.
“Think about it.” Bucky pointed at the note on the table. “My email address is there.” Then he turned and left. Just before he reached the door, the girl called out to him.
“We will watch over him for you.”
Bucky nodded and walked out the door without looking back. It eased him to know that there would be someone else helping to watch over Steve now that he could no longer do it. A part of him though, a small, jealous part, almost hated them because they got to do it instead of him.
As he walked down the stairs, he gathered up the last golden traces of power, all that was left of Steve’s sacrifice. If he boosted it with his own power, there was still enough, he thought. Enough for one last gift to Steve.
Present : May 2017
“We are definitely coming back here again,” Peggy says, as Steve and her step out of the ramen bar on West 28th Street and onto the sidewalk.
Steve nods, only half listening. His attention is drawn to the rows of potted plants displayed outside a shop on the other side of the road. Something about the sight tugs at him, making his chest ache for no reason. His feet are moving before he even knows he’s decided to take a closer look.
“Steve?” Peggy’s voice is careful.
“I’m just gonna go take a look,” Steve says, over his shoulder. He sidesteps a group of people walking in the other direction and crosses the road.
Rows and rows of houseplants are arranged on small tables set up on the sidewalk. A jangling dissonance starts up inside Steve. It’s the unsettling feeling of seeing something that’s almost, but not quite right, like a familiar face with its proportions just a little bit off.
Peggy takes her time joining him, engrossed in tapping away on her handphone. A small, pleased smile curls up one corner of her lips. Gabe, Steve guesses. He’s glad they’re edging their way into a relationship. He thought maybe seeing that happen would wake some of his former feelings for Peggy, but there’s nothing beyond a quiet joy at seeing two friends find happiness.
“Are you getting a plant, Steve?”
“I thought it’d look nice in my room.”
Peggy gives him an odd look, like she can tell he isn’t telling the whole truth. He pretends interest in a small, prickly succulent nestled in a pot no higher than the length of his middle finger.
He doesn’t know how to explain his dreams of green things and rich dark soil—how content and happy he is in that place, the loss he feels when he wakes. Maybe if he gets himself a plant, he might be able to recapture that feeling.
He picks up the pot. “This is the one.” It looks hardy enough to withstand his lack of knowledge about plant care. He points at the shop. “I’ll go pay.”
Peggy nods. “I’ll wait for you out here.”
As Steve is about to walk into the shop, a tall man carrying two bags of potting mix steps out. He has dark, shoulder-length hair and cheekbones sharp enough to draw blood. When their eyes meet, a shock goes through Steve—his hands start to sweat, his heart pounds so hard and so fast he can hear it like a drumbeat in his ears. It feels like terror, and yet… not. The man seems equally surprised to see him, eyes seeming to ignite with some inner fire that lights his clear gray eyes from within. The air around them feels heavy with expectation.
Words he has no conscious thought of forming press at him. His lips part—
He jerks his gaze away to find Peggy rushing towards them with a fierce look on her face. The man’s gaze shifts to Peggy, face gone completely expressionless. For some reason, a guilty flush crawls up Steve’s cheeks even as he wonders if he imagined the glow in the man’s eyes.
Like an idiot, Steve stands there blocking the doorway while the man edges around him with his bags. A tearing ache blooms in Steve’s chest as he watches the man walk away. His feet twitch with the need to follow after him.
Go after him, a voice whispers in his head. It sounds a lot like his own. He turns around. Takes a step forward—
A light touch on his arm breaks the strange spell. He shakes his head, trying to clear the fog clouding his mind.
“Steve.” Peggy steps in front of him, blocking his view of the man as he disappears into the crowd. “Did that man say something to you?”
“Because you don’t seem yourself.” Peggy studies him while he blinks stupidly at her. “Do you know him?” she asks.
“No.” And yet, Steve nearly hesitates before giving the answer, even though there’s no way he’d forget someone who looked like that. He was the most beautiful man Steve had ever seen, a blend of harsh lines and soft, sad eyes—
“Steve,” Peggy says sharply, like she’s trying to get his attention.
“Yes, okay.” Steve focuses his attention on her and tries not to think about the man.
Peggy watches him with worried eyes. “Are you sure he didn’t say anything to you?”
“Well. If you feel any strange urges to go looking for him, I suggest you don’t.”
Peggy considers her answer for several seconds before she says, with obvious reluctance, “He’s ex-Hydra.”
Everyone knows there’s an ex-Hydra mage living in the city. It’s probably New York’s worst kept secret. Whatever Steve had been expecting the mage to look like, that careworn man cradling two bags of soil and looking very much like he needed a hug would not have been it. And yet… the information slots into place in his head, filling an empty space he didn’t realize was there.
“SHIELD keeps tabs on him. He’s powerful, Steve. Very powerful.”
Steve tries not to stare in the direction the mage had taken. “He doesn’t seem dangerous.”
“You, of all people, should know not to judge by appearances.” A worried frown creases her brow as she comes to some sort of decision. “He was one of Hydra’s reavers. That is not a good man.”
Steve bites his lip to hold back his sudden and intense need to defend the man who is a total stranger to him.
“Please, Steve. Stay away from him.” Peggy puts a hand on his shoulder and searches his eyes. “You’ve been acting oddly for months now, it’s like part of you’s been asleep. And now you’re awake, and it has something to do with the reaver. Come by tomorrow. Let SHIELD’s mages have a look at you. If he’s done something to you, they’ll figure it out.”
Everything in Steve rebels at the thought of letting SHIELD’s mages examine him. But he knows better than to say that. “I’ll think about it.” Peggy is right about one thing, though. The torpor that’s cocooned him is gone, burned away like mist in sunlight the moment he looked into soft gray eyes.
Peggy opens her mouth to answer, but her phone rings. It’s her office ring tone, and it can’t have come at a better time.
Steve holds up the pot in his hand. “I’ll pay for this while you get that.” He ignores the suspicious look Peggy throws him and enters the shop.
A man with salt-and-pepper hair stands behind the till. His T-shirt has the words Tom’s Green Thumb printed on it in brown letters covered with ivy. “Hi there,” he says, smile reflected in his friendly blue eyes. “I’m Tom. Can I help you with that?”
Steve nods and puts the plant down on the counter for Tom to ring up.
Peggy’s definitely out as a source of information about the mage. Steve has to try an alternative source. “That man that was just in here,” Steve says, hoping he sounds trustworthy and innocent instead of manic and intense. “I think we went to the same high school.”
Tom bags up the plant. “Is that right?”
“Yeah. Does he shop here often?”
“You got a name for this friend?”
“I’m pretty bad with names.” Steve assays a rueful smile. “Better with faces. I think he was on the football team.”
“I don’t think that man’s ever played football a day in his life.” Tom gives him a level look. “I think you have the wrong guy.”
“I guess so.” Steve accepts his change and collects his plant under Tom’s watchful eyes.
Well, that was a bust. The only thing Steve managed to learn is that Tom is protective of his customers’ privacy. Steve leaves the shop with his plant, too guilty over his failed attempt at snooping to stay inside to browse the shelves. He waits on the sidewalk for Peggy to finish her phone call. From the corner of his eye, he sees Tom typing on his phone and stealing glances at him through the glass front of the store. Clearly, Steve can never set foot in Tom’s Green Thumb ever again.
As soon as he gets home, he locks himself in his room. He sets the plant on the window sill, picks up his sketchbook and pencil and starts to draw. He feels almost driven to capture the mage on paper. A face forms, emerging from the graphite of his pencil while his hand moves without hesitation in swift, almost urgent, strokes.
After five minutes, Steve’s done. There on the page is a picture of the mage. It’s a hell of a likeness, something he shouldn’t have been able to achieve after one face-to-face encounter.
The mage stares out at him from the paper, lines radiating from the corners of his eyes. He doesn’t look like he has much to smile about, so Steve guesses they’re from squinting in bright sunlight, maybe while doing whatever it is that needs two bags of soil. He has a dimple on his chin, half hidden by stubble. Steve stares at that dimple. His subconscious sure had absorbed a lot of details in the few short moments they’d faced each other on the doorstep of the shop.
He closes the sketchbook, feeling a little more settled in his skin now that he’s discharged some of his nervous energy into drawing. He taps his finger on the cover.
His mind keeps circling back to his dinner with Wanda and Pietro at their new apartment. He thinks again of the strange hazy quality he discovered in parts of his memories while talking to Wanda, and the twins’ cryptic comments about his dreams. Peggy’s words echo in his head. A reaver. A very powerful mage.
He pulls out his phone.
“Wanda,” he says, when she picks up. “You know that ex-Hydra mage?”
Five seconds of silence pass, punctuated by the escalating beat of Steve’s heart.
“Why do you ask?”
“I saw him today.”
“Do you know where I can find him?”
Pietro suddenly speaks up, sounding very close. “Twilight Zone.”
“Pietro,” Wanda hisses.
Steve hears the sounds of muffled conversation, like Wanda’s covered the phone with her hand. After a few seconds, she comes back on.
“Did you hear that?”
“Yes?” Steve says.
The phone goes dead in his hands. He hits redial, but it goes to her voicemail. Looks like that’s all the help he’s getting from that quarter. Now it’s up to him.
From Wanda’s reaction, Pietro must have given him a valid clue. But what the hell is it supposed to tell him? What does an old TV show have to do with—
He scrambles over to his computer and starts googling the Dead Zone. If there’s any place in New York worthy of being called the Twilight Zone, the Dead Zone is it. After several hours of going over satellite photos of the Zone block by block, his face nearly pressed up against the screen, he spots it—a strange pixelated quality to images of Bryant Park. A possible sign of magic interference.
He hunts down as many drone photos of the Park as he can. There are a lot of them. New Yorkers hate the idea that a whole section of the city is closed off to them, so the drones serve as their proxy, going where they can’t. All the photos confirm what he sees on the satellite photo. Every shot of Bryant Park is just a little blurred.
Steve stands on the corner of 6th and 34th. Behind him, cars crawl along in a bumper to bumper jam, people hurry along the sidewalk, pigeons roost on building ledges, cooing and jostling. In front of him, empty streets and sidewalks, abandoned buildings. Nothing moves. Even the pigeons won’t enter the Zone.
He’s either stupider than a pigeon or braver, because he’s about to go where the pigeons fear to tread. The answers he seeks are in Bryant Park, right in the middle of the Zone. After his phone call with Wanda and Pietro, he’s sure of it.
He takes one step, then another, and another, ignoring the curious looks of people walking by. The sounds of the city fall away as he crosses some unseen border.
A tiny point of heat flares to life on the inside of his right wrist. It spreads outwards all over his body and envelops him in a gentle warmth.
Steve jerks his arm up to check his wrist. There’s no mark there, no indication of what’s causing the tingling warmth. It doesn’t feel like something that poses a danger to him. In fact, the warmth is almost comforting as he walks through the desolation of the Dead Zone.
Steve keeps waiting for something—some sense of the dread people speak about, the feeling of being watched—but there’s nothing. The thing that unnerves him the most is the quiet and the complete lack of life—Midtown should never be this quiet, this still. The only movement he sees is his reflection passing from window to window as he makes his way down the center of the road. He can’t quite make himself walk on the sidewalk where dark, empty doorways gape. He’s pretty sure it’s mostly his own mind freaking itself out rather than some effect of the Zone, but he still can’t do it, all the same.
He’s honestly very relieved by how mundane the Zone is turning out to be. His dreams the night before were bad ones—blood, knives, pain. The sound of his own scream as he feels a vital part of himself being cut away, slice by agonizing slice. It was almost enough to make him rethink the trip into the Zone.
But his need for answers is greater. He wants to know why Sarah and him both got cured. He wants to know why his memories feel almost insubstantial in places, stretched out of shape, like a too-small patch over a too-big hole. More than that, though, he wants to find the source of the contentment he feels in his dreams. Every dream increases his craving for that sweetness and warmth. Every time he wakes up, he resents it just that little bit more. The dreams sometimes feel more real to him than his waking life.
After walking through the eerie silence for about ten minutes, he comes across a sight that has his mouth hanging open.
Rows of planters arranged in orderly lines on the road next to the park. Every one of them full of young plants. And Bryant Park… it’s green again. Young trees grow, small bushes flourish, grass covers the lawn in a fresh, spring green. As his gaze passes over the plants, their names come to him; London planetree, clematis, bee balm, butterfly bush, azalea. He can name almost every species there. He knows how to plant them, how to care for them.
A tangled knot in his chest he didn’t realize was there loosens, that constant sense of homesickness that’s been plaguing him for months begins to recede. Almost in a trance, he walks into the park, follows meandering stone paths to stand next to the trees that reach to about head height. He can almost picture how it will look when the trees are full grown—like a little piece of nature transplanted into the city from a forest somewhere. It will be very different from the formal park that flourished there before the Hydra attack.
He sits down under the shade of the young trees and presses the heels of his hands to his eyes, trying to ease the hot ache of threatening tears. Once, just after he graduated, he spent nearly two weeks in hospital when a winter cold turned into pneumonia. When he finally got to go home, anticipation tugged him down the familiar hallway leading to his apartment. He feels the same sense of anticipation now… a few more steps and he’ll be home.
A bell chimes as the door of a cafe opposite the park opens. The mage steps out. He’s just as tall and beautiful as Steve remembers. Even though it’s a pleasantly cool spring day, the long sleeves of his blue T-shirt are pulled all the way down. A black leather glove covers his left hand. His faded blue jeans hang a little low on lean hips, like he’d lost weight recently. When he folds his arms, corded muscles shift under the fabric of his shirt.
Steve scrambles to his feet. Something about seeing the mage in this particular doorway, in this particular setting, and Steve knows.
He knows that in the drawer of the sun-bleached table by the cafe door is a pair of worn gloves sized for small hands. He knows the plants he dreamed of planting are the very ones in this place. He knows he’s found what he’s been looking for.
No words come to mind. How do you tell a total stranger that you’re sure you dream of him. The mage’s expressionless face doesn’t give Steve much hope that his crazy conviction will be met with anything but disbelief.
He looks around, at a loss for words. His gaze snags on a small pot of rosemary near the door. “I bought a plant yesterday,” Steve says. “But I don’t really know how to take care of it.” He gestures at the plants surrounding them. “You look like you know what you’re doing… Would you teach me?”
“I don’t think your girlfriend would like that,” the mage says, brusque and short. He turns to go back inside the cafe.
“She’s not my girlfriend.”
The man hesitates, a brief flash of surprise flickering in his eyes. He stares at Steve as though he’s trying to see right inside Steve’s head.
“You walked all the way into this cursed place because you want me to teach you how to take care of a plant.”
This time when the mage speaks, Steve can make out a hint of a Russian accent. His voice is like the brush of velvet against skin; soft, low… almost gentle. It shouldn’t fit his hard angles and sense of solid strength and yet it does. Steve’s so entranced by it that it takes a moment before the meaning of the words register. A flush burns his cheeks. Put like that, his reason did sound wildly implausible.
“Why are you really here,” the mage says.
Steve chews his lip as he wonders how to answer. He decides on the truth. Because really, what does he have to lose? Either he’s right or he’s gone nuts.
“I’ve been here before.” Relief permeates Steve at finally getting to say the words that have been bottled up inside him since he saw the park. “I dream about this place.”
The mage goes perfectly still, watching Steve with an intensity that should be terrifying as Steve walks to the table by the cafe door. Please be there, please be there. He opens the drawer, his hand knowing to angle it to the left when he pulls. Sure enough, the drawer sticks a little on a section of wood that had warped out of shape after being left in the open too long.
Steve stares at the contents of the drawer for five long seconds before he’s able to accept what he sees. A trowel. Pruning shears. A pair of green gloves too big for him.
He’d been so sure.
Had there really been nothing special about those dreams? Were they really just regular ones spun by his own mind?
He refuses to accept it. His gut tells him everything he’s searching for is right here.
“What were you hoping to find?” the mage asks.
“My gloves. They used to be in here. Gray, with an orange trim.”
A look of indecision flashes over the mage’s face. Then he turns around and walks back into the cafe. He returns holding something in his hands.
Gloves. Steve’s gloves. Exactly as he saw them in his dreams—gray, with an orange trim, down to the loose thread hanging from the cuff of the left glove.
Steve feels like he can’t get enough air, like his heart is taking up all the room in his chest. He takes the gloves from the mage with careful fingers. “You took my memories.” It’s not a question.
The mage’s jaw clenches, so tight that the muscles in his cheek flex. “Yes.”
Steve nods. The mage watches warily as Steve turns the gloves over in his hands. That’s the answer Steve was expecting. It’s no surprise, really. There’s nothing he won’t do to save his mother. He’s pretty sure that includes making a bargain with an ex-Hydra mage known to do death magic. Why he only lost memories instead of his life, and had his heart fixed in the process, those are questions he’ll save for another day.
He holds out his hand. “I’m Steve.”
The mage’s grip is warm and gentle. His lips curve into a slight, almost disbelieving smile. The light that Steve hadn’t imagined after all flares back to life in the man’s gray eyes. “Bucky,” he says, softly.
A familiar sweet warmth wells up in Steve’s soul. “Hi, Bucky.”