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This Side of the Blue

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This Side of the Blue title card

Prologue

 

Beware the song of the siren, lest she sing you to sleep.
Think twice before you heed her call, she’ll lead you to the deep.

 

Steve Rogers knew the lullaby before he knew himself, words sung low as he lay in his cradle, passed down from parents who had learned the rhyme when they themselves were small. Back and back and back. A hundred years. A thousand. The song was familiar to anyone who lived their life along the shore of Eascor. Wizened sailors and small children alike lived by the warning, cleaving to the old ways and paying respect where it was due. For they were not the masters of the frothing grey-green sea that swirled between the rocks, creating eddies and treacherous tides. The sea belonged to none but the sirens, and so for generations, the people who lived on the loam and took their living from the water heeded these words.

Steve's father Joseph was one of these people. A sailor by trade, he had fallen in love with Steve's mother, Sarah, the daughter of the local carpenter, and handy with a rasp herself. They were married on a Tuesday and took up residence in Joseph's weather-beaten cottage, which lay along a cliffside overlooking the sea. Their humble but happy life was made all the better when Steve arrived scarcely a year after their vows.

An inquisitive boy—sweet with a stubborn streak—Steve grew steadily. One, two, three, four years passed, until he was much too old for lullabies. Yet during those long days spent alone with his mother while Joseph was at sea, Steve sought comfort in her arms and in the familiar words of the song.

“What is a siren, ma?” he asked one morning as they sat together, scanning the horizon, ever-watchful for his father’s ship.

“Don’t you know?”

“Only that she sings a song and makes you sleep.”

Sarah smoothed an errant lock of hair from Steve’s forehead and hummed deep in her chest, just the way he liked. “Do you remember the mobile above your cradle?”

“Yes,” he said, though at five years old, he didn’t like to be reminded of babyish things.

“The carving of the woman with the tail of a fish. That’s a siren.”

Steve furrowed his brow. “But why?”

“Why what?”

“Why is she a fish?”

“Because she’s as the Fury made her.”

“What’s the Fury?”

“I—” she laughed, then kissed the top of his head. “Sometimes, starfish, I forget that you are very small, and that you don’t know all the things I know.”

“Then I think you’d better tell me,” he replied, solemn as ever.

“I suppose I’d better had,” Sarah said, holding him closer and reciting from memory the theological verses she’d learned as a girl—myths and legends of their own beginning.

 

Before the world was the world, there was only the Fury.

Lonely in the deep dark of the sky, without even a star for friendship, the Fury wailed and gnashed its teeth and in so doing tore itself into four parts. These children of the Fury were the Elementals, and in their creation so was the world begun.

The first was the Loam, who lifted great rocks from the void and smoothed them to form the land.

The second was Fire, who joined the Loam, bashing and crashing the rough shape of the world. Mapping the mountains with fists of molten flame.

The third was Wind, and when it saw what Loam and Fire had done, it blew in two directions, becoming the quick wind and the red.

Fourth and finally came Water, soothing the fire, covering much of the loam, and gentling the winds through its tides.

And so it was that the world was created by the children of the Fury.

 

Steve listened carefully to his mother and found no answer among her verses. "That's not sirens," he said. "That's Lellementals."

“There’s another bit,” she laughed. “Only I don’t remember the words exactly. I think the Fury returns…”

“But he turned into pieces.”

“I know, starfish, but it’s all a bit metaphorical and—”

“That’s not sirens,” he sighed.

“Steve,” she said, a smile on her lips. “It has been a very long time since I’ve been to a kirk, but if my memory holds, the next chapter says that sirens were created by the Fury as a gift to the Water. Same as fire forged the blacksmiths.”

“Oh.” Steve frowned. “So sirens aren’t real?”

“They’re real enough.”

“How come I never saw one?”

“Because nobody who sees a siren lives to tell the tale.”

Steve’s tiny body tensed, blue eyes widening. “Why?”

“It’s in the song,” she said, pressing her lips to his temple. “When sailors turn from the old customs, sirens sing songs that lure them close to where they lie in wait. The ships are lost, and those traitorous sailors? Well, the sirens eat them up.”

She punctuated the last words with a tickle and a squeeze, making Steve squirm and scream with joy.

“But!” he gasped. “Mama, surely they don’t eat them.”

“That’s what the legends say.”

“Mama—”

“Such a skeptic,” Sarah said, feigning horror. “Don’t you believe me?”

“Has Da ever seen a siren?”

“No. But your father keeps to the old ways. Do you remember what that means?”

Steve knew the ritual well; had seen his father perform it even during the small fishing excursions they took in their battered old rowboat: two fish were thrown from the starboard side before turning home. Every time.

“Yes, I remember, but it doesn’t make any sense,” he said.

“It doesn’t?”

“The sirens! If nobody lived, then how come we know what they look like?”

Sarah frowned. “Huh. I suppose one person must have lived and told the story to someone who wrote it down.”

“Oh,” he said, accepting that as logical fact in the way of most children. “Do sirens really have tails?”

“Mmm. Tails and teeth like a shark.”

“I guess you’d need very sharp teeth to eat someone.”

Sarah laughed at that and kissed the shell of his ear. “How practical of you, starfish.”

Steve smiled, then turned his eyes back to the horizon and declared, “I should like to see a siren.”

“I shouldn’t like you to,” Sarah tutted, shaking her head.

“I wouldn’t get very close.”

“Oh, well, that’s alright,” she teased. “I’ll need your solemn promise, though—when you meet a siren, you must keep your distance.”

“I promise.”

It took twenty-six years for Steve to break his word, but he broke it in the end.

image of Red Hook Bay

Chapter One

In the end, he drowned.

Slipped beneath the waves, clinging to the cold air with the tips of his fingers until they, too, sank into the dark.

He was not frightened. He did not fight.

He acquiesced. Released the breath from his lungs and watched it leave in a series of bubbles rising to the world he’d come from. The world to which he would never return.

Strange to feel comforted, there in the dark, in the deep, in the inky blackness of his tomb.

His eyes fluttered shut, and he allowed that darkness to swallow him whole.

 

Steve sucked in a breath, hands flying to his chest. He began to cough, imaginary water filling his lungs as he struggled his way into the waking world, still half-trapped in his dream.

The prophet dream. The dream he’d had countless times in his thirty-one years.

It was always the same—the stormy skies, the churning seas, the sense of inevitability. The correctness of it all.

The dream had first come when he was fourteen, on the night his father died. His mother had called it an ill-omen; foresight of the terrible news that would not officially reach them for two more days. Steve wasn’t sure he believed that—of the two of them, Sarah was more prone to sorcery and superstition. Still, the drowning dream had come to him for seventeen years now, most often descending on nights when he was especially anxious or troubled.

Which would explain why it had come knocking on the eve of this bitter morning.

With a sigh, Steve rubbed his eyes and looked at the ceiling to greet the view that had been his own every day of his life: the slanted roof of rough-hewn beams that lined the attic loft of the cottage he shared with his mother, plaster coming away in places, exposing the lathes. Steve had spent many a sleepless night listening to the wind whip around the eaves, shivering in his too-small bed. He would miss it, this room, with its cracked ceiling and rough sheets topped with the patchwork quilt Sarah had pieced for him years ago when she was well, and his father still walked the world. A paradise, running the length of the three rooms below. Steve's dominion, to do with as he pleased.

The whistle of the kettle pierced his thoughts. Peggy had arrived, then. Had to be Peggy, as Sarah had a hard time managing the stove these days. Yawning, he stretched his fingertips toward the jagged hole of missing plaster that looked like a ghost’s smile before sitting and twisting the bulk of his body so his head wouldn’t hit the slant.

“I hear you creaking!” came Peggy’s voice from the bottom of the steep, rickety staircase. “You’d best get a move on if we’re to make it to Penston for the noon train.”

“Give me a minute,” he called back with a groan, hating that she was right—Penston was nearly seven miles away, and only one train departed its single platform daily.

All the same, Penston was a metropolis when compared to their tiny town of Red Hook, which boasted very little, save for being the northernmost populated place in the country of Eascor. This was not much of an accomplishment, but considering the state of the town and the people in it, they would take the unearned victory bought by their ancestors who had settled there first.

Steve swung his feet out of bed and placed them on the rough pine boards, shivering as he stood. Not to his full height—it had been years since he’d been able to stand properly in his space—but enough that he could crack his back and shuffle to the chair where he’d laid out his traveling clothes. He’d chosen a brown tweed jacket that wouldn’t show stains, alongside a blue shirt that had been his father’s, and a pair of trousers that needed hemming. None of it fit him well—the jacket too small across his broad shoulders and too loose in the waist—but the clothing was clean and pressed and would see him through his trip.

There you are,” Peggy teased when he descended the steps some minutes later, fully dressed and holding the valise he’d be bringing with him. “I was just about to come and find you.”

“You’d have gotten an eyeful,” he said, crossing to the rocking chair where his mother sat, swaddled in blankets, and pressing a kiss to her thinning hair. “Morning, ma.”

“Don’t be crass,” Sarah replied, smiling and tilting her head so she could take a look at him. “I ought to have hemmed those trousers.”

“They look fine,” Steve said. What was the use in fussing over a hem? Sarah could hardly hold a spoon these days, much less a needle. “What’s for breakfast?”

“Bacon and hash,” Peggy replied, wiping a hand on the apron she’d tied over her trousers.

“Don’t burn it,” he said, moving behind her to steal a piece of potato. The spud was hot, burning his fingers as he hissed and dropped it back into the oil.

“Serves you right,” she teased.

Steve sulked, sucking on his sore fingers, then busied himself with stirring Sarah's porridge, as her stomach couldn't tolerate much more than that these days. Satisfied that it was soft enough, Steve scooped some into a bowl before pulling a chair near her rocker and holding it up, pressing a spoon into her palm so she could maintain a bit of dignity in feeding herself.

It was a nasty business, the disease they called the thrux. Ate people from the inside, freezing their bones and turning them into statues until even opening and closing their mouths became too much to bear. There was no rhyme or reason to who suffered from the affliction, though it affected the very young and the very old more than most.

Privately, Steve blamed the war. Sarah had only begun showing symptoms after the armistice—after the black years. The starving years. The years when she and others in Red Hook had subsisted on crusts of black bread and soups made of boiled seagrass. When Steve had gone to war, he’d left a healthy woman behind. Upon his return, he’d found her succumbing to one of the nastier ends a body could have. And though he couldn’t prove it to be the case, it didn’t take a genius to put the pieces together.

There was no cure for the thrux, only a balm. It was a shame—if the treatment had been simple, perhaps Steve could have managed it. Sold the house, begged favors, any number of things to afford a single dosage of something. Instead, the remedy came from a combination of three different drugs which needed to be taken daily for the rest of the life of the afflicted.

In short, it was a rich person’s remedy, and not one Steve could afford with the state of things in Red Hook. Perhaps if he’d had a ship or other means of support, he might have scraped by, but his father’s livelihood had sunk to the bottom of the ocean alongside him, and there had been no insurance.

When presented with the problem, it had been Peggy who devised a possible solution. For she knew a rich man from her time in the war. A Lord—one of the wealthiest men in Eascor—who resided in the capital city of Columbia, several hundred miles from Red Hook, and far from any shore. Columbia was where Steve intended to take the train, a letter of introduction from Peggy in his pocket. He planned to ask this lord for a job, either in his own household or elsewhere. The pay was better in Columbia, and Steve would be able to buy the medication his mother needed and have it shipped home.

Sarah had protested his leaving, but Steve was as stubborn as she was, and would not be dissuaded. He couldn’t dwell on how much he was going to miss her. Couldn’t wander down the worrisome path of whether the medicine would help. Whether or not he’d ever see her again.

Thank the gods for Peggy, with her good humor and practicality, serving herself and Steve a hearty breakfast, helping him move Sarah closer to the table, and keeping up a steady stream of conversation about the day ahead as they ate.

“Soon as I have Steve settled, I’ll come back and check on you. My mother’s minding the boarding house, so we’ll manage just fine, between us.” The repetition of the plan was more for Steve’s benefit than Sarah’s—Peggy’s way of reassuring him that she would be there to take care of Sarah until he was settled, and the money and medication began to come through.

It was nearly nine o’clock by the time they finished breakfast, Steve washing the dishes and Peggy helping Sarah get comfortable in her chair before going to hitch up her horse and wagon. That left Sarah, Steve, and a miserable goodbye between them.

Looking at her—really looking at her, as he did now, sitting there in her chair, wrapped tightly in a half-dozen blankets—came as something of a shock. When he had been small, Sarah had seemed a giantess. Larger than life and formidable as a queen, holding his hand as they stood on the edge of the cliff overlooking the water, skirts whipping in the wind. Now, she was tiny. Gaunt and frail as he bent to embrace her.

“Be smart,” she said, straightening his lapels with her gnarled fingers. “Be careful. Be good.”

“I will,” he said, blinking twice and kissing her temple.

“I love you, starfish.”

Ducking his head, Steve squeezed her hands and offered her a smile. “I love you, too, ma.”

 


 

Shutting the door to the cottage felt like locking himself into a prison from which there was no escape; a prison made from the world outside the home he longed for, while the person he loved most waited within those four welcoming walls.

Steve turned to where Peggy was waiting in the wagon and tossed his valise into the bed before climbing up beside her. She knew him well enough to know he'd rather not talk, so she flicked the reins and told the horse to walk on.

The cottage lay nearly three miles down the road from Red Hook, which they'd have to pass through on the way to Penston. For the first eighteen years of his life, Steve had known no more, and no less than that road—a childhood spent running the distance between home and town, where he'd attended the one-room school and befriended a fierce little girl with a cunning mind and a sharp tongue. He and Peggy had been inseparable since they were small, through good and ill—the loss of his father and hers cementing their loyalty to one another. Some, including Peggy's mother Amanda, had hoped the two of them might find romance somewhere in the complicated web of their friendship, but it was not to be. Steve knew from an early age that he preferred the mast to the hold, while Peggy had no use for masts at all.

When they were eighteen, war had come to Red Hook. The rumblings were distant at first, the clash several years in the making. Rumors of a conflict with Vedoria, a country which lay across the sea that separated the Eascorian Republic and her neighboring countries from the continent on the other side of the globe. It meant nothing to them at first, this war fought in faraway places, toy soldiers laying down their lives for a cause they assumed was noble and just.

Until that eighteenth summer, when a damaged Eascorian warship had sought refuge in Red Hook Bay. There had been hundreds of soldiers on board, and for a time, the sleepy town had become a base of operations. Telegraph wires were strung, supplies came and went, and Peggy and Steve grew fascinated with the machinery of war, each wanting to do their part.

Peggy went first, her talent for subterfuge spotted by a commanding general who sent her over the sea as a spy. It was eight years before Steve saw her again, and during their time apart Peggy had adventures aplenty—making the acquaintance of the fancy lord, and falling in love with a Vedorian refugee who had later abandoned her.

Steve’s opportunity to serve had come not long after Peggy’s. As it happened, he’d intended to enlist in a more conventional manner, but one day, whilst out in his small rowboat, he came across a man floating along in a newfangled motorboat which had lost its capacity for motoring.

“Abraham Erskine,” the drifting man had said by way of introduction, before accepting Steve’s offer of assistance.

Turned out, this Abraham Erskine was seeking men like Steve. Men who could sail, silent and swift. Sneak through rough seas and choppy waters to keep troops fed and supplies moving. Serving in an unofficial capacity, but serving all the same.

Steve hadn’t hesitated, and had gone straight home to tell his mother, who was smart enough to know she ought to let him go; that he wouldn’t have been happy sitting idle.

Erskine supplied him with a proper ship. A crew. Men who referred to him as Captain, though he had no real rank to claim. It had been good work, and Steve had grown into himself during his time away. Gone was the boy who had never left home, and in his place stood a man who was sure and capable. Who gave orders and expected to have them followed. Who understood his place in the world, and believed that the work he was doing was just.

Until it wasn’t.

Until he began to understand the toll of war. The famine. The death. The realization that he was fighting the fight of wealthy men who sent poor soldiers in to die in their stead. By the time the armistice was declared, Steve was weary of war, and he returned home in search of some comfort.

What he found instead was an ailing mother and no opportunities to speak of.

Red Hook had dried up, the war industry receding along with the troops. The telegraph lines fell into disrepair, Peggy’s boarding house barely scraped by, and Steve was left foundering for coin and purpose both.

For five years they’d managed, with Steve taking work as a crew member on one of the few successful fishing boats remaining in Red Hook. This year, though, there was no managing. Not with Sarah so much worse, and the medicine so sorely needed.

Which meant that for the second time in his life, Steve was leaving home. Only this time there was no excitement to be had. No sense of adventure. Just work—finding it, performing it, and subjecting himself to it for his mother's sake.

It was half noon by the time Steve and Peggy reached Penston, Peggy bringing the wagon to a stop in front of the so-called station—a single platform, steam train chuffing in anticipation, and a ticket booth staffed by a dozing older gentleman.

“You’ve got the letter?” Peggy said.

Steve patted his breast pocket, feeling the weight of the envelope bearing the name ‘Howard Stark’ in her familiar scrawl. “Right here.”

“I’ve told you he’s odd—” she said. “Don’t fuss at him when he’s…well, he can be rather…Howard.”

“You say that as though you’re intimately acquainted,” he teased, leaning over to kiss her cheek.

“Don’t be stupid,” she snapped in her ridiculous Columbian accent—acquired during the war, and put on when she was feeling especially imperious. Or emotional. She was smiling, though, in spite of herself.

“Wouldn’t be me otherwise.”

“True,” she agreed, twisting her mouth up, eyes bright. Steve knew that face—had known it since the day she’d tripped and scraped her knee on a rock when they’d been all of six, sitting on the side of the road with her cheeks gone scarlet, eyes bright with unshed tears. “Howard knows everyone in Columbia, he’ll see you get situated.”

“Everyone, huh?”

“Everyone who’s anyone,” she said. “And you’ll write once you’re settled?”

“I promise,” he said, before taking a deep breath. “Peggy, I—”

“Don’t worry about your mother,” she said, anticipating him. “I know that you will, no matter what I say. But I’ll look after her for you, my darling.”

“I was only going to say,” he said, reaching over to squeeze her arm. “That I hope you don’t start crying. Because you’re ugly when you cry, and—”

Peggy swatted his hand, bursting out laughing. “You’re a shit, Steve.”

“Can’t help it,” he said, pulling her into a fierce hug and kissing the top of her head, even as she tried to squirm away. “Don’t do anything stupid while I’m gone.”

“How can I? You’re taking all the stupid with you.”

That made him snort, and he squeezed her even tighter before letting her go. “I love you, you know.”

“I am well aware,” she smiled, as the train blew its whistle. “Now go, before I have to look at you another second!”

Steve chanced one more kiss to her cheek before hopping down and going to fetch his bag, which he set on the platform, then turned to face her one last time, shielding his eyes from the sun.

“I will miss you,” she conceded. “Even if you are an ass.”

“I’ll miss you,” he agreed. “Even if you’re a mule.”

“Don’t pick fights.”

“Don’t take the bait.”

“Don’t pull your punches.”

Steve grinned. “Never.”

The whistle blew again. “Go!” Peggy laughed, waving him off.

Steve gave her a mock-salute before turning to the ticket booth, where he purchased a third-class fare and stepped into the carriage, finding his place on the hard bench. He had never been on a train before, as he much preferred travel by boat. Fifteen minutes after the train departed the station, he'd decided that he hated it. Hated the way the belching beast of steam and soot trundled across the countryside. Hated the sound of the glass rattling in the windows. The scream of the whistle. The squalling of the child in the row behind him.

As the day wore on, things only got worse. There were dozens of stops, each one bringing with it more travelers to fill up the car. Five to a bench, squashed in so tightly that Steve found himself cramped and miserable, arms folded in his lap as sweat soaked the collar of his suit. The stench of the car was unbearable, but opening the window brought with it nasty, sooty air, so after a brief encounter with that bit of unpleasantness, he decided he would make do with the pungent stench of humanity instead.

It was ten o’clock at night before the train reached its terminus—a smallish city by the name of Pompton. He took a room in a cheap inn nearest the train station and fell asleep dreaming of ocean breezes.

The next day brought with it a new train, departing at eight in the morning from Pompton’s central station. He reached the end of that line, took another room, and did it again the following day. More of the same followed, stop after stop, and while there were faster ways of traveling—express lines that bypassed the endless stops with their squealing brakes and rush of new riders—Steve was in no position to afford them.

It took six days total to reach Columbia’s grand central station—twelve tracks under a dome of glass and steel, ornate and overly fussy to Steve’s tired eyes. The final leg of the journey had been on a night train, which had him stepping down from the car in the grey light of dawn, still wearing his rumpled brown suit, hundreds of miles from home and smelling of grease and grime and perspiration, jostled by the crush of humanity that had traveled alongside him.

The teeming crowd carried him from the station and into the street, where he was faced with a cacophony the likes of which he’d only ever seen on a battlefield. This place was chaos—vendors screaming their wares from stalls. Children darting between the wheels of carriages as they rolled past. Shit on the streets and not a cooling breeze to be found. He’d known the south of Eascor was hot, but this was unbearable—wasn’t even summer yet, and he had sweat running down his forehead in rivulets.

Upon spotting someone useful, Steve marched over to a man in a navy blue uniform and a silver badge, requesting directions to the home of Lord Howard Stark. The policeman set him on his way, and as he had no other means of transportation, Steve began to walk. It soon became apparent that people like Lord Stark did not live near that squalling city center. People like Lord Stark, in fact, lived some miles away, where vast estates spread themselves out behind high, iron gates, lush lawns and thick foliage separating these castles from the commoners. Smelled better, too, though Steve’s neck still prickled with resentment at the opulence.

When he arrived at the address he’d been given, he found a home that was grander than the rest by half—a palatial structure of red brick ringed by lush, dark hedges, hidden behind a massive golden gate. Despite his height, Steve felt small standing there in his crushed suit, cheeks hot, perspiration on his brow, and dried mud on his shoes. Probably they’d take one look at him and send him packing.

Still, for his mother, he would have to try.

Squaring his shoulders, Steve rang the bell.