Steve let the bike roll to a stop at the top of the long, winding driveway. He double and triple checked the address on his phone since the secluded neighborhood and large property hid the house from the main roads. Large oak and maple trees, gnarled and almost completely devoid of their leaves, shielded him from the last of the sun’s light. Fallen leaves stuck to the black asphalt from the day's rain, the reason he was calling upon the Stark house so late. They crushed into the tread of his tires and now to the bottom of his boots as he dismounted. The cold seeped in through his layers during the ride, his leather jacket damp from passing underneath the dripping trees.
There were a few lights on inside the house, but none outside. The Victorian was well kept and stately, painted black with white trim that looked relatively fresh given the age of the home. There was a large, red brick carriage house turned garage off to the side. Steve pulled the bike up by the large bay doors, under the awning in case the chill rain returned. Fifty years of searching, seventy-five since that fateful night that started all of this, and this was his last lead.
Steve popped his helmet off, running a hand through his hair to fix it. His riding boots thudded against the dark wood of the porch as he made his way to the door. It was ornate with a cast iron knocker, and as black as the rest of the house in the gloom of the passing rain. The house was a dark beauty, reminiscent of a woman with hair like ink and large brown eyes framed with thick eyelashes. One with red lipstick and a dress to match.
There didn’t seem to be a doorbell, so Steve grabbed the ring and knocked three times, letting it fall back against the wood with a dull thump. The ruby-eyed stare of a wolf, or maybe it was a fox, above the ring, seemed to watch him as he stepped back, hands in his pockets. The little jewels in the sockets caught whatever dim shine would creep through the tree line as the day faded and the storm clouds parted.
The porch light kicked on, and a moment later, the door opened. The man was handsome, surely Maria’s son with his large brown eyes and thick lashes framing his face. His head of thick, inky hair, shot through with little touches of silver, curled a bit in every direction. Either artfully styled or haphazard bed head that’d been ruffled throughout the day. Steve felt something tug him forward, like a string anchored in his sternum pulled taut at seeing him.
“Can I help you?” he said, looking Steve up and down before continuing. “Little out of the way for soliciting.”
Steve laughed. “Yeah, it certainly was a trek to find you. I’m looking for Maria? Her maiden name was Carbonell?”
“Yeah, it was.”
The man raised his hand to stop him. “Sorry, but you can’t speak with her.” He looked apologetic, shaking his head at Steve.
“Please, I’ve been looking for her for so long.” Steve put his hands together in front of his chest, praying to a God that had long forsaken him. “I just need five minutes of her time.”
“Well, unless you packed a ouija board on your Harley, I can’t help you. She’s been dead for almost thirty years.”
Steve’s heart dropped to the floor. “Dead.” So the death certificate he found was real. Fuck. He figured she would have outfoxed death and the passage of time for herself as well.
“Yeah, I mean, were you even born then? How did you know my mother?”
Steve chuckled to himself and glanced past the doorway to his reflection in the window, at the face he’d worn for so long now. He scrubbed his hands through his hair again, “You wouldn’t happen to still have some of her things? I’m looking for an item. It’s been missing since 1943, and she was the last known owner.”
Brown eyes narrowed at Steve with a squint, probably assessing whether he was insane or here to rob him. Or both.
“Is this like an Indiana Jones thing? Was Mom trafficking stolen Nazi artwork or something?”
“Not quite. But it was something that was owned by my family. Grandpa served in Italy and met her. All I have is a name. Please.” Steve couldn’t let it end here. He needed the stone, no one else could help him. “I promise I’m not here to hurt you. Just...it was his dying wish to get this back in the family.”
“Ok, sure.” The man still looked skeptical. “I keep all of their things in the basement.” He opened the door wider, stepping aside. “Name’s Tony, by the way.”
“Steve,” he replied, wiping the grime off his boots as he walked in. He hung his jacket and helmet in the entrance. “Thank you so much, I promise not to take up too much of your time.”
The house was warm, decorated in deep reds and golds and black. It evoked a different time, but with a modern twist. The fireplace was a commanding presence in the sitting room off to the left, banked by plush, velvety couches and wingback chairs. A mix of bright, new trinkets and tarnished antiques decorated the mantle, a few framed photos tucked in among them. A huge, gilded mirror sat above the mantle, reflecting the light of the chandelier, black, and dripping with shiny black crystals twinking in the firelight. Soft music was playing, and Tony must have been enjoying his evening; a rocks glass of dark liquor and a sleek tablet sat on the coffee table.
The anteroom and hallway around the stairs had a few mirrors and geometric sculptures of animal heads mounted to wood. But instead of fur, they were made of shiny, black-glazed ceramic. It all gave Steve the feeling of being watched, even though the strange deer had no eyes to see him. Tony asked him to follow as he set off down the hallway, cutting around the stairwell leading deeper into the house. Steve’s body was on autopilot, letting the tug guide him.
Tony passed an imposing, carved mirror, wood darkly stained and the glass spotted and weathered with age. His reflection doubled, then stair-stepped into the man himself and another figure. One with riotous jet black curls. Steve was frozen. The mirror’s surface rippled again, his own reflection catching and dissipating like fog.
“I live with the ghosts of my parents.”
That snapped the trance Steve was under; he jerked his head toward Tony. His voice cracked like brittle wood. “What did you say?”
Tony stepped closer, dark eyes vitreous and nearly black in the muted light of the hallway. “I mean...don’t we all? Live with the ghosts of our parents? This mirror was Mom’s.” He stroked a hand over the carving, a lion in mid roar. One canine had snapped off some long time ago and was now smoothed over, but no less fierce. “From her mother.”
“Oh.” Words felt too weighty on his tongue. “Yeah, of course. All the stuff left after they…”
“Exactly. Are you feeling ok? I hope you didn’t catch a cold riding in this weather.”
No matter how long Steve watched, the mirror didn’t change again. Tony’s image and his own stared back, static and clear, and almost glowing in the silvered surface. He turned back to Tony and gave a smile. “Yes, I just thought...it’s a beautiful piece, caught my eye is all.”
Tony nodded and turned to walk back towards the rear of the home. The scent of dinner was heavy in the air as they went through the kitchen, something beefy and thick with red wine and herbs bubbling on the stove. Tony stopped to give it a stir and a taste, adjusting the seasoning. He chatted away about the dish needing this or that while Steve stood off to the side, nodding when it seemed like Tony wanted an answer.
Tony’s profile was beautiful, classic, like a Roman statue. Like Maria’s was. The same face from his dreams, lit by a bubbling concoction, but now with a masculine sharpness and finely trimmed facial hair. Her echo here was so strong... Did he inherit her abilities as well? But despite that, Steve felt entranced. Standing in this kitchen idly chatting about spices and wine vintages felt natural, like this was where he was always supposed to be.
Once he was satisfied with the dish, Tony flicked on the light to the basement stairs. The bulb flickered like electric candlelight as they descended. The house showed its age with every whine of the steps under their feet, the groaning and creaking of old bones and settling wood.
The basement was taken up by a large workshop. Tables and cabinets took up most of the space, full of wires, and computer screens, and bits and bobs Steve couldn’t even begin to understand what they were.
“Everything’s over here. I guess it was an old pantry or coal room back in the day, but it stays dry enough for storage,” Tony said, pointing to a closed door.
The room was cramped and windowless but updated to have an overhead light at least. Tony started pulling a few boxes and rearranging plastic totes, pushing some towards Steve and reshelving others while talking to himself. Steve held himself awkwardly to the side, the atmosphere tense with Tony arguing with his dead father about random boxes of junk.
Tony gave the go ahead to start looking, a quick flutter of his hands in the direction of the boxes while he continued to hunt through the stack. Steve squatted near the pile. The first box flapped open in a cloud of dust and old perfume. Like roses on a dark Italian night, deep red ones that bloomed in a witch’s garden. Inside was a collection of measuring tools, a scale, bits of twisted metal and glass that Steve remembered from a lifetime ago. Maria had used them to measure out ingredients, crushing them together with the mortar and pestle Steve found wrapped in old newspaper.
He set the box aside and grabbed the next. It was weighed down with a collection of leather-bound journals. Steve brushed away the dust from the topmost journal. Hopefully, she wrote about the little stone he needed. The pages were all inked in Latin, of which Steve was rusty. So much of the research he had done about spellcraft necessitated learning the language, but he wasn’t nearly fluent enough to crack Maria’s delicate script. Maybe Tony would let him borrow them, or come back later if his soul wasn’t carefully packed away in yesterday's comics like everything else.
Steve put the journals back, closing the flaps of the box back up and sliding it aside. Tony bent over at the waist to shift another box Steve’s way, his gray T-shirt falling away from his body. A necklace, one Steve hadn’t noticed before tumbled out of the neck of Tony’s shirt, swinging forward from the momentum of his body. It hung in the air like lead, blackened silver caging a gem the size of a marble and glowing a sickly blue. An icy stone Steve was intimately familiar with, having nearly seized with the force it took to cough it up seventy five years ago. The necklace cast its color upon Tony’s face as he turned to look in Steve’s direction.
“Everything ok? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Steve wanted to laugh or scream or both but he couldn’t force anything out. Rising out of his crouch, Steve stalked forward. He knocked a box out his way with his foot, eyes fixed firmly on the other man, on the necklace, until he had him backed up flush with the wall. The shadow of Steve looming over Tony made the sharp light from the stone nestled over his sternum brighter, causing shadows in the dark hollows of his cheeks and sockets of his eyes. It made his eyes shiny and almost glittery in the way they reflected the glow.
“Steve, hey, buddy,” Tony stuttered out, “can you back up a little?”
Steve pointed to the necklace. “That is what I’m here for, if you could hand it over.”
“My mother gave me this.” Tony clutched the pendant, clouding the glow, a few rays escaping between his fingers.
“I’m sure she did,” Steve replied, “but it’s mine. I’d like it back.”
“I can’t give it to you. You didn’t even know her.”
“Tony. Your mother was a witch.” Steve saw something odd pass over Tony’s face, but continued on. “And that is a part of a curse she put on me. She lied to me.” Steve ran his hand through his hair. “I was stationed in the area. We had just liberated her town, but it was a hard fight, with a lot of close calls. I had gotten a night of leave and...she told me she would help get me home.”
“And you feel you didn’t get to go home?”
“I made it back, started a family, bought a house next door to my best friend. But I couldn’t pretend I wasn’t aging. I’ve looked twenty-five for over seventy years. I...I need that to break it. To rest. Please.”
Tony’s hand fell away from the necklace, his body visibly releasing the tension he’d been holding. “Mom always was a little vague when she wanted to be.” He gave a small laugh.
Steve stumbled back a step. “What?”
Tony ran his fingers up and down the chain, the only sound in the room the zip of his nails catching the links. “You’re right about Mom. I don’t think Dad ever caught on. Too busy. Too drunk, I guess? But I figured it out.”
“Are you…?” Steve gestured his fingers at Tony and then at the boxes.
“No, sadly. I didn’t get confirmation until after, when I packed all this up. Got all of Dad’s genius and none of Mom’s magic,” he replied. Tony huffed out a breath, eyes cast down at the boxes. “Mom had visions of the future. I don’t think she intended to hurt you.”
“I had to give up my family, my friends. Everything.”
“To meet me. She saw you in her visions. And me. Us. I read it in her journals.” He pointed toward the box Steve had just gone through, “She saw a lot of things that she knew had to come to pass, and some she knew she could change. She wrote that she had to help this one along. Help you come”--he used air quotes--“home.”
Steve tilted his head and looked at Tony. He was undeniably handsome, and smart, if what he said earlier was to be believed. Steve couldn’t deny the instant attraction he had felt before focusing on finding the stone, before the house set him on edge and drowning in his own memories. The tugging pull between his ribs had grown stronger the closer he got to Tony.
“Well, regardless of what she saw, what she meant, I still think I should get that to the magic specialist I saw in New York City.” Steve held his palm out. “I don’t think it would be very fair to either of us if you kept aging and I stayed the same.”
Tony was silent for a few beats. Somewhere, water was dripping, breaking the tomb-like silence of the basement. He looked up at Steve with a crooked smile. “I could come with you?”
“Can’t take it off?”
Tony nodded. “The night they died.” His pause became long and heavy, he looked like he was steeling himself to continue. “She knew, I found out later. She knew that once she got in that car with Dad, she wasn’t coming home.”
“I’m so sorry, Tony,” Steve replied.
“She put this around my neck before she left, said I couldn’t lose it. That I needed it to find my soulmate.” He shook his head before meeting Steve’s eyes again. “I thought it was just...bullshit. I tried taking it off a few days after everything, and I felt so sick. I thought I was just tired, had too much to drink, too much stress. But it all went away when I put it back on.”
Steve looked down at the pendant. “Have you tried since?”
“Of course. The most important part of the scientific method is repeating the results.” Tony gave him a smile. “Every time it comes off. Stomach ache. Headache. The feeling of...dread. Like something bad is going to happen if I don’t put it back on.”
“Well, it’s not the most conventional first date, but I guess it’ll have to do,” Steve said, feeling the corner of his mouth tug up in a grin. Tony returned the gesture and warmth settled in Steve’s chest, the creeping unease he’d been feeling ebbing away. He reached out, clasping Tony on the shoulder.
At that moment, the necklace dropped. Like a marionette from cut strings, it fell to the floor between their feet. The cage broke apart at the seams, the stone turning to powder and scattering. The only things left being ashes and bits of silver.
“Well, I guess that solves that,” Tony said, looking down at Steve’s boots, dusted with the remains of the spell.
“I guess so. Now what?”
Tony looked up and did a double-take, mouth dropping open in what looked like shock. “Steve…you aged.”
Steve looked at his hands; they didn’t seem any different. He touched his face, and it felt relatively the same as it had that morning when he had gotten ready for the day.
“I mean, you don’t look like a raisin, but if I had to guess, you’d be in your forties now.” Tony laughed. “At least it won’t look like I’m robbing the cradle, if, you know, you’re still interested.”
Tony looked different as well, like wholly himself, no lingering cling of his mother in every expression and angle of his face. “I am,” Steve said. It felt like the house let out a breath it had been holding, an almost audible sigh passed through them. The lights were brighter, shadows shrinking and fading away, finally at rest.
“Wonderful I hope you’re hungry. I have enough dinner for two. I normally don’t make so much, I don’t know what came over me when I was putting it on.”
Steve decided not to give voice to his thoughts about what wasn’t being said. “Starving.” He held out his hand, the heat of Tony chasing away the last chill of being frozen in time, and smiled.