Another wave crashed into the side of the ship, tilting the Valkyrie ’s mast nearly parallel with the swirling, white-capped waters below, and Steve nearly lost his grip on the wheel again. He staggered upright, caught the wheel before it could spin and heaved it starboard, managing to ride another one of the massive swells stirred up by the storm until the ship righted herself. For the moment.
The rain was coming down in torrents, making it all but impossible to see anything beyond the sides of the ship, though he knew the sea still churned with the storm’s rage. The foremast had long since splintered in two, its spiked remains pointing at the sky and the foresail billowing around the deck like a shroud. The entire below deck was overrun, all the stores, the crew quarters, everything, and Steve could see the icy fingers of the sea herself bubbling up from below with each swell, nearly to the top step like the sea was slowly crawling its way to the main deck. Even now, over the roar of the ocean, Steve could hear the groaning of the ship’s hull where she pitched and rolled against the sea.
It wouldn’t be long now, he knew.
Already, the ship rode far too low, making it all but impossible to crest the waves that had battered them nearly continuously during the storm. Maybe they could have made it had they not been so weighed down with cargo, or had Captain Zemo not waited so long to start tossing the extra weight. Or, better yet, had the good Captain not insisted on sailing the faster route that took them through the storm instead of trying to go around it. There were a lot of maybes, Steve thought, watching as another streak of lightning split the night sky where dark clouds still hung low, as if trying to touch the sea.
Maybe it would be quick, when the time came. Maybe drowning really was as painless as they said. Maybe the others would actually make it to safety against impossible odds. Maybe a lot of things.
They would make it, he told himself firmly. The ship’s single dinghy wasn’t much in the face of a storm like this, but it was sound, and the Valkyrie herself was taking on water faster than they could pump it out. There hadn’t been another choice. A short lull in the storm, one terrible chance for them, and no choice for him.
Someone had to hold the ship steady and see to the winches while the dinghy was lowered. It had seemed right to volunteer, seeing as how Steve had been the one to finally grow tired enough of the Captain’s indecisiveness to punch the man squarely in the jaw, knocking him to the deck and leaving Steve staring down a crew of scared sailors, many younger still than Steve. Just boys, really, and none with his military training. It had seemed brave, then. Obvious.
Of course, it should be him who stayed. A clear moment of purpose, when so much since the end of the War hadn’t seemed to matter, and maybe some part of him thought of this as penance, in a way, or a second chance to get it right. He hadn’t been able to save Bucky the day they hit the convoy of rebel wagons transporting the Confederate advisor who Grant had wanted so badly. The man who had come back from that hellhole at Andersonville had been little more than a shadow of himself, though Natasha’s last letter said he was making progress.
Steve sometimes thought Nat was a very good liar.
Watching the cabin boy, Peter, stare back up at him as the dinghy slowly lowered into the churning sea, desperately trying not to let it bash the hull while the men used the oars to brace against the side, Steve had felt that sense of calm certainty that he was doing the right thing. It was the same preternatural sureness that usually came over him on the eve of a battle, and God, had he missed that, the raw knowing that what he was doing was right and the feeling of freedom that came with it. It had been so long. So long since he had been sure of anything. Wasn’t that why he ended up down here in the first place, trying to find a new life in a world that didn’t seem to know what to do with him, now that the War was over?
But, now, it was just him. Just him, and the ship sinking beneath him, heaving with waves that would have topped trees back on land. Death had been just over his shoulder for too long to truly fear, but Steve hadn’t imagined when he struck out for fortune and adventure and anything that wasn’t the one-room apartment in Brooklyn he couldn’t stand to share with Nat and Bucky anymore, that his end would be a watery grave and little more than Sam’s promise that he’d see that the company sent Steve’s wages back home, something Steve strongly suspected would never happen.
Steve swiped at the wetness on his face, though it did little to clear the haze. Rain slashed across the bow nearly horizontally, and below him, Steve heard the ship give a low, creaking moan, like she was in pain. Not a good sign, he knew. It wouldn’t be long now.
He reached up and wrapped his hand around the round disc that hung from a leather cord around his neck. His sutler’s pin. A shield on one side, with UNION proudly engraved across the middle of it, his name, unit, and Brooklyn, N.Y., stamped on the other. He should have given it to Sam. He’d reached for it, meaning to press it into Sam’s hand along with the few casks of water and salted beef they had been able to grab before the stores flooded, but at the last moment, he hadn’t been able to part with it.
He’d meant it for Peggy, once upon a time, when his uniform had been bright blue, all shiny and clean instead of the threadbare, bloodstained cerement that saw what was left of him home. When he left New York to come here to this God-forsaken place, Steve hadn’t been able to offer the coin to her, not when it was a promise they both knew he could not keep and she didn’t really want, not anymore. So he had looked at Sam and hesitated, waited too long, and now he wondered why he couldn’t, even now, even at the end, offer what he could of himself to Peggy, to let her know he’d been thinking of her, at the last. But, he hadn’t. He’d held on to it and watched as Sam swung a leg over the side of the ship into the dinghy with the rest of the crew, and then was gone, leaving Steve with a numb sense of relief that the moment where there was a choice had passed, and now, there was only purpose.
Lightning spread bright, forked fingers across the sky, so close Steve could feel his skin prickle even under the rain. A loud booming sound crackled over the roar of the storm, and for a moment, he thought it was thunder rattling the ship, but the sound didn’t settle right for thunder and his eyes darted up. He spared a moment of horror as the ship’s main mast rent in two, the top half falling towards the deck only to be partially caught by the rigging so it hung there, swaying wildly as the ship pitched in the waves. Steve managed to duck just in time to avoid the splintered end taking his head off, but it smashed through the wheel, cleaving it almost perfectly in two.
Another wave rolled the ship on its side. Steve reached for the railing and held on to it for all he was worth, though some part of him knew it didn’t matter. Not now. The die had been cast when he punched Captain Zemo, he supposed. Maybe before then. Maybe when he made the decision to get Zola and whatever information he held about Lee’s plans to Fury instead of going back to try to find a body. He should just let go, he thought, though he clung to the railing instead.
The waves lifted the ship, righted it for a moment, then seemed to drop it to the bottom of a swell. When Steve looked up, all he could see was a wall of dark sea topped with a ridge of white foam that rose up to some point far above where Peter used to sit the crow’s nest. A wave. Impossibly huge, coming right at the ship like the tip of a spear.
Steve stared at the wave with a strange, preternatural calm. This was it, then. He reached up and curled his hand around the sutler coin, feeling the familiar cool weight of it against his palm. Wiping the rain and seaspray off of his face as best he could, he tightened his grip on the railing. The ship listed to the side again, shaking violently with the motion, as if she, too, knew what was coming and what her end would be.
I was supposed to die a soldier , Steve had time to think, and then the wave curled in on itself, taking the ship with it, lifting it and tossing it as if it was nothing more than a child’s toy. Steve lost his grip on the railing and went sliding and tumbling down the near vertical deck, fingers scabbering uselessly for any kind of purchase. The sea opened up below him, a dark swirl of inky blackness, taking the wave and the ship with it, and he had time to think breathe , but when he did, there was only cold, salty water snaking its way down his throat.
A sharp, icy pain ripped across his calf, but his body couldn’t process anything except the need for air. He was hurtling around and around, unable to tell which way was up, with the storm having doused all the light from above that might have guided him. His hand found a piece of wood, a part of the ship maybe, and he reached out blindly for it, but couldn’t manage to catch hold before the sea swallowed it and sucked him down into the depths. His lungs raged, burning with the desperate need for air. His head pounded, an incessant need to open his mouth and just breathe, it didn’t even seem to matter that he knew in some distant part of his mind that it wouldn’t be air. He would have to, soon. There was no other choice.
Another surge propelled him forward with such force that it was like being pulled behind a train. His body screamed silently for air, and the need to open his mouth and breathe was almost overwhelming. He had the crazy thought that he should just try it, and then his head hit something very hard, his vision swam in bright pinpoints behind his eyelids for a moment, and he opened them to something impossible, and then everything stopped hurting.
Waking was something of a surprise.
He sat up to his elbows with a start. Too fast. His head throbbed and everything went sideways. Steve blinked slowly and tried to get his eyes to focus. They stung. He squeezed them together, and then opened them again. The taste of seawater coated his tongue and throat, making him cough great, hacking bursts of fetid air until his ribs ached with the effort and he let his head loll back, finally able to swallow without feeling like he was drowning again. His head felt like it weighed more than a cannonball, and his right leg was throbbing, just below the knee, but he was alive. Somehow. Impossibly, amazingly, wondrously alive.
He ran his tongue over his cracked lips. Held his hands up in front of his face, then let them fall back to the…sand. Yes. Sand. Digging his fingers in, he felt the familiar wet, grainy feel of it, and couldn’t help a moment of awe. Sand. Sand meant land. Land meant…well, he didn’t know what it meant, he realized with a slight frown.
He tried to sit up a bit more, and immediately regretted it, letting out a gasp of pain, followed by a groan as he brought the heel of his hand to his forehead and dug in as his head fell back against the cushion of the sand. Above him, it was dark. Wait. Not dark. Rock. An arch of rock rose above him, but to his left he could see a swath of brightness and blue sky cutting between the huge boulders. Though he couldn’t see it, he could hear the roar of the surf. Beyond that, though, he couldn’t pick out any other sounds.
Gingerly this time, Steve tried sitting up again. Dizziness washed over him, and he shut his eyes, waiting for the world to right itself. Finally, the nauseous, rocking sensation passed, and his vision cleared a bit. He opened his eyes again and tried to take in his surroundings. It didn’t quite make sense at first, like his mind needed a moment to catch up to what his eyes were seeing.
He was in some kind of hollowed-out cave amidst the rocks, sheltered from the sun. It was large, extending a ways behind him until the rocks piled up and formed a barrier to the beach, and the arched ceiling was surprisingly high. Huge rocks, taller even than he would be when he stood, were piled together almost as if by a child’s hand, though the whole thing had a feeling of incredible sturdiness about it. Narrow shafts of light peeked in from between rocks, and between the ones in front of him, he could make out the sea beyond. It spilled in between the crevices in a gentle loll, emptying into a large tidal pool, filled with gumdrop-shaped rocks that would soon enough be swallowed by the tide, if the algae on them was any indication. Dark, green seaweed clung to their sides and drifted in the water like long trails of hair. Otherwise, everything was still.
His boots were gone, Steve noticed. He flexed his toes in the sand. Nothing broken, though his calf stung. He hadn’t been able to afford proper boots, so the company had loaned him a pair of what Steve could only assume had been the shoes of a giant, probably the only ones no one else wanted. They’ll take that out of my pay, Steve thought with a slightly hysterical edge to it. God, he was worrying about his boots and he was---where the hell was he?
Water lapped lightly at his bare feet where they sat in the sand, flowing in and out in a gentle rhythm around the base of the boulder. It was calm and oddly peaceful in here, away from the rough of the sea and heat of the sun, though by the water marks on the rocks, the tide would fill it before the end of the day. Still, not a bad place to find himself, all things considered.
Also, Steve noted somewhat grimly, not a place that he could possibly have simply washed up into, that was certain. Someone must have brought him here, though for what reason, he couldn’t fathom. Why not to their home or the authorities or a doctor, if this place boasted one? To hide him?
He looked around again, finding no answers, then frowned down at his leg and reached for it, wincing at the bright stab of pain that accompanied the motion. His calf was definitely injured. That much was clear, if not from the pain, then from the algae-covered poultice that was wrapped around it and tied with what appeared to be a part of the hem of Steve’s shirt. Steve poked at it with one finger, then pulled back on the edge of the fabric, and prodded at the skin beneath. He could see dark red spots of what must have been blood on the makeshift bandage, but the gash itself appeared clean and free of the telltale signs of infection for the time being.
Washed ashore and then brought here and patched up by some islander? It was possible, he supposed. To his knowledge, there weren’t any inhabited islands this far from Bridgetown, though it was certainly likely various uncharted settlements existed. Pirates were known to stash their bounties on unmapped islands, that was true enough, though pirates weren’t exactly known for rescuing sailors and patching them up.
Steve shook his head and tried to think, then instantly regretted it as a wave of dizziness hit him and he winced, gingerly reaching around to touch the back of his head. There was no blood, at least, though he could feel a raised knot on the back of his skull and an ache gripping his head like it was being squeezed from within. Still, not as terrible as he would have expected. Of course, he had expected never to see the light of day again, so there was that.
The last thing he remembered was being pulled towards a watery grave too far out into the ocean to have somehow miraculously found his way to land on his own. He must have been rescued. That was the only explanation. Found floating on a piece of the ship, maybe, and picked up by another vessel. Fishermen, caught in the storm as the Valkyrie had been, perhaps. But, if that was the case, why leave him here alone in this cave?
Wait, was he alone? He looked around again, then tried to call out, but his voice was raspy and caught in his throat. He tried to clear it, then swallowed salty-tasting saliva a few times before trying again.
“Hello?” Steve tried, then found himself coughing on the last part of the word. “Hello? Is—Is anyone there?” He frowned, and glanced over to where the sun shown a path through the rocks. “Hello! I’m—I’m awake now, if you were—ah, waiting. Thank you, I’m—I’m okay. I think,” he stopped, looking around, half expecting someone to pop their head through the cutaway in the rocks, but no face appeared. No one called back. Nothing. “Please…please…Is someone out th—”
A splash made him break off and whip his head around the other direction. It had come from behind one of the formations of rocks that sat near the middle of the tidal pool, though the waters were still when he looked.
“H—hello?” Steve called out again, a bit tentatively, frowning with confusion. “Is someone there?” It was dark there at the middle of the pool where only slivers of sunlight managed to reach, casting bands of light on the top of the water, but leaving shadows over the rest. “Look, if someone is there, would you please come out? Did you—are you the one who found me? My leg, did you…was that you? Please, just—if you’re there, please come out, I—” Steve stopped, flattened his mouth and shook his head. This was crazy. Who would be skulking about in some tidal pool behind rocks while Steve shouted for them? Probably just a fish or stray wave or, more likely, Steve’s mind playing tricks on him.
Still. Someone had helped him, he thought with a frown. Surely, they would return. Someone had… his mind drifting for a moment, flashing with, not an image, so much as a feeling. A sense of something. Being…safe. Held. Almost…enveloped. Floating. Drifting. In the water, it must have been. That made sense assuming he had been rescued, but it didn’t quite seem right, either. There had been something, though, he thought with a sort of abrupt flash of almost-realization.
He looked down at his wrist and slowly pushed the sleeve of his shirt up, though he couldn’t say exactly what prompted him to look. He stared in surprise at the ring of dark blue bruises that dotted his skin in a near-perfect circle around his wrist and up his forearm, all the way to his shoulder, he noticed, as he shoved his sleeve further up and pulled down the collar of his shirt. Like something had coiled around his arm and held on hard enough to leave a mark. A rope, maybe, Steve thought. Perhaps someone had used a rope to hold on to him. There was something not quite right about the thought, and as much as he told himself it made sense, the marks on his skin resembled something that was on the edge of his mind that he couldn’t quite name, but it wasn’t a rope. Steve frowned and rolled his shirt-sleeve down, looked around once more and called out a hello again, though the only answer he received was the slow undulation of the waves lapping against the rocks.
He scrubbed his hands over his face and sighed. There wasn’t anything for it. He was going to have to get up, drag himself out of here somehow and find whoever it was who had helped him. Maybe they were coming back, maybe they weren’t, but he needed food and water. Water more than anything. His throat was painfully parched.
Steve looked over at the bright, jagged spot between the rocks. It suddenly seemed so far away, he thought, feeling his shoulders sag. He blinked at the brightness, his leg throbbing, as if it was protesting the very thought of getting up. An aching exhaustion seemed to seep into his bones, weighing him down. He was so tired. The way out was endless steps, and then what? He had no idea, and a part of him feared what he would find out. This whole situation had a strangeness about it that settled cold in his gut. A sense of wrongness wound up his spine, but it was just another weight, pulling him down, one more thing to handle on top of everything else. He put his head in his hands and let his chin drop to his chest.
A thread of panic hit him then, and both hands came up to grasp and pat at his chest, but it was gone. His medallion. Of course it was. Probably at the bottom of the sea with the rest of the ship, he thought with a grimace. Not that it mattered, not really. It was probably better this way. The look of acceptance and almost relief Peggy had given him when he told her he was leaving and she was free of her promise to wait floated through his mind. No. No, he didn’t much need the coin now, he supposed.
He lay back down on the cool sand and stared at the jagged ceiling of the cave. His breath came out in a long, ragged rush. His eyes stung. He told himself it was the salt, but, well…the coin had been with him through the whole War, and losing it now—he cut the thought off and shook his head, trying to clear it. His eyes stung. He swiped at them and told himself it was the sting of saltwater and grit.
It didn’t matter. It was just a thing. The War was over. He didn’t need it anymore. He wasn’t even a soldier, not anymore. He wasn’t anything now. He didn’t need— it was just a piece of metal, dammit , he shuddered, squeezing his eyes shut until they burned. It wasn’t who he was, not now, not here. Wasn’t that why he came here? To get away from being Captain Steve Rogers? It was probably a good thing it was lost. He didn’t need it. Another dry sob burst out of him, and he swiped a hand angrily over his eyes. He was being stupid, he knew. It was just a thing. Worth nothing to anyone save him.
It didn’t mean anything. He didn’t need it.
It didn’t mean anything , he told himself harshly.
Steve forced his eyes open again, staring up at the rocky ceiling where the boulders were propped up against each other like a child’s blocks, somehow impossibly balanced. Small cracks of light shone through, making Steve blink. He needed to focus on what did matter. Out there, there was sun and daylight and people. People who had helped him. He didn’t need a damn piece of jewelry, no matter what sentimentality it held. What he did need was to figure out where he was, who helped him and how to get home.
He would get up and crawl out of here if he had to, though he thought his leg might actually be able to bear some weight. He had a plan. He would get up and go and find his rescuers. Right after he just…closed his eyes for a moment. Just a moment. A short rest. His fingers flexed around the place the coin should have been one more time, and, distantly, his mind registered the movement of something in the water, but it seemed very far away, and he was so tired, still, and this was just for a moment. Just a short rest, he repeated to himself.
When he woke this time, it was noticeably darker in the cave. The sun was still burning through the gaps in the rocks, but it was a golden glow this time, not the white blind brightness of earlier, and the cave was shadowed with haze. He ran a hand over his eyes, and looked up. Then frowned.
The ceiling of the cave was different.
Steve sat up in a jolt, causing a stinging, twisting burst of pain to spike through his head, but he couldn’t help it. The ceiling was, of course, not actually different. The ceiling had probably not been different for hundreds of years, if not longer. He was different. Or, more accurately, he was in a different place. The water had risen as the tide came in and filled the pool, that much was readily apparent, and there was now a trough through the sand from where had been laying earlier to where he was now.
Someone had moved him. Someone had moved him while he slept. Someone had moved him while he slept and…placed a large silver bowl filled with sparkling water in it by his head. Even stranger, next to the bowl sat a bright, green palm frond, on which was laid a dark amber fruit Steve recognized as naseberry and next to that, a pile of burgundy seagrapes and a bright yellow carambola. By the fruit sat a bevy of fresh oysters, already cracked open, and two small, chalky-blue birds’ eggs the size of large grapes.
Steve looked around, but again, no one appeared. His stomach cramped insistently with a pang of hunger, but it was the bowl of water he reached for first. He tipped it to his cracked lips and drank it down so fast he started coughing and choking and had to force himself to slow down. When he’d finally had his fill, he wiped a hand over his mouth and reached for the fruit, finishing it off in quick succession. The oysters were next, salty enough to make him thirsty again, and then the eggs, which he cracked open and let drop down his throat in one swallow. He coughed again, then drew in a deep breath. His thirst and hunger finally sated, the strangeness of it all settled over him, making the hairs on the back of his neck prickle.
Someone had come in while he slept and moved him to keep him out of the creeping tide, then brought him food and water, even knowing enough to let the water sit in silver to cleanse it. The turn of events was odd enough in and of itself, but in light of his rescue, the care to his wound, and his current state, it seemed even more bizarre. It had to have been someone strong enough to move him, but careful enough not to wake him. Even if he had still been somewhere past mere exhaustion from his ordeal, he was a light enough sleeper that it surprised him.
Was someone hiding him here, keeping his presence a secret? If so, why? Steve had heard the other sailors talk about natives who supposedly cooked and ate their enemies, but sailors, particularly those who were enjoying the watered-down wine that most ships provided, were full of all manner of tales. Still, Steve found himself assessing his surroundings with a keener eye than he had earlier. Pirates, perhaps, but that relied on some notion of a friendly pirate risking his or her neck to save him, and that seemed more unlikely than just about any other story he could tell himself.
“Don’t suppose anyone wants to tell me what’s going on?” Steve questioned lightly to the empty cave, his voice reverberating a bit off the rocks. “Didn’t think so,” he said to the silence.
With a sigh, Steve got his legs under him and started to stand, or tried to. The world swayed before his eyes, and a sharp pain seemed to bang against the inside of his forehead with the movement. He steadied himself and waited for it to pass enough to push forward, but as soon as he put weight on his injured leg, it gave out from under him and he hit the sand again with a startled gasp of pain.
“Damn it!” Steve shouted, pounding a frustrated fist into the sand.
He shook his head and pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers, breathing through his teeth while the pain receded. With a grim determination this time, he started to push himself off the ground again, wincing at the effort, and then he heard a splash, the same as earlier, though louder this time. He stopped mid-motion and lifted his head to peer out towards the tidal pool and the stand of rocks near the deeper part at the center. He frowned. There had definitely been a splash. Something bigger than a mere reef fish, that was certain.
“Hello? Hello? Is someone there?” Steve called out, brows drawing together. “I’m—I’m not going to hurt you, okay? I’m—are you the one—did you help me? Bring the—the food and water? Or, do you know who did? I—I swear, I’m not going to hurt you. I promise. I just want…I want to thank you…you saved my life. Please. Please, if you’re there, please come out.. Please.”
Steve waited, staring at the rocks, though it was too dark now to see much. There was something, though, he thought, squinting harder. A shadow a bit deeper than the rest of the shadows hugging the side of the larger of the rocks. A slight movement rippling the water in between waves.
Steve opened his mouth to call out again, then stopped, mind going blessedly blank for a long moment while he tried to process what his eyes were seeing. The shadow was moving closer, growing larger as it made its way to the shallower water, spreading out in long, thick waving shadows that dipped in and out of the water as it moved. It was impossible. His mind playing tricks on him. The shadows. He had hit his head, hadn’t he? Perhaps he still slept. A hundred possibilities vied in his mind, but none could quite explain what he was seeing.
It was a man. No. Not a man, Steve’s mind corrected almost instantly. Definitely not a man. The creature gliding smoothly through the water was no man, though it had the torso, arms and face of a man, dark haired, strong, with shapely muscles under skin tanned by the sun. As the thing moved close enough to touch the shore, Steve could see a finely-trimmed beard and goatee and wide, dark eyes that were slightly downcast with what Steve read as hesitancy. That alone would have been remarkable enough, a man rising out of the ocean as if being born, but the rest of him was something beyond astonishing, for the man’s waist tapered into a set of long, thick tentacles of dark red, speckled with dots of golden yellow, that twisted and undulated as he moved.
Steve’s mouth fell open in shock. He could hear his mind telling him to move, run, anything, could feel his body coiling into the beginnings of motion, but he sat there, rooted to the spot, staring in amazed horror at the creature emerging from the pool. It hovered there at the water’s edge, looking down at him, then made some kind of high-pitched trilling noise that made Steve jump and knocked him out of his reverie. He scabbered back across the sand, heedless of the pain in his leg, until he collided with a rock that jutted up from the sand and nearly cracked his head on it before he registered that the thing was holding his hands out in front of him, palms out, making what Steve would have called a placating motion and more sounds, though these were slightly more distressed.
“Stay back!” Steve ordered with a tone he hadn’t heard from himself since the battlefield. He glanced around almost blindly, searching for a weapon, but the stones here were far too heavy to be of use, and there was nothing else within reach between him and the creature. The thing pulled up short at his barked order and dropped its hands to its sides. It recoiled its tentacles, looking down at Steve with a stricken expression.
“Stay back,” Steve said again, firmly, but more calmly this time. He blinked at the thing, shook his head and grimaced at the surge of pain from the motion, then wiped a hand over his face, but the thing was still there, and if this was a fever dream, Steve’s efforts to wake himself didn’t seem to be working.
“I—oh, God—what— what are you ?” Steve asked, horrorstruck.
The creature lifted dark, almost sad, eyes to him, then carefully, hesitantly, stretched out a tentacle in front of it.
Then dropped Steve’s medallion in the sand in front of him.