“What makes you pull the rose, the rose?
What makes you break the tree?
What makes you come to Carterhaugh
Without the leave of me?”
“But Carterhaugh is not your own,
Roses there are many,
I'll come and go all as I please
And not ask leave of any.”
One week before the anniversary of his mother’s death, Steve Rogers was at the park, regretting his decision to go. Usually going to the park to draw was a good idea for some stress relief after a day of soul-sucking corporate graphic design, but that day everything was reminding Steve of his mom. Every person lounging on a park bench or under a tree was his mom relaxing on a Sunday after church. People feeding the ducks became Steve and his mom seeing who could throw bread the furthest, then picking a duck and making a contest to see whose duck could get to the furthest crumb fastest. Kids climbing trees... they were his best friend Bucky, showing off.
The anniversary of Bucky’s death was coming up, too. It made June a month Steve dreaded.
Unable to keep walking around as he was constantly pummelled with memories of his mother and his best friend, but unwilling to go home and force his mood on his roommate Sam (who’d probably been inundated with enough morosity at work already to have to deal with Steve’s on top of it all) Steve found the quietest place he could. It was far enough away from the path that it almost felt like he’d escaped to a forest somewhere rural, instead of being in the middle of one of the biggest cities in the U.S.
Steve flopped down next to a rose bush and sighed as he stared at it. His mom loved roses. Bucky would wave a bouquet of them under Steve’s nose before a date sometimes. “Girls love flowers, Stevie,” he’d say with a grin. “It’s a fact. Rule number seven of dating: Surprise her with flowers. Don’t need a reason for it. Just do it. They’ll love it.”
Steve pulled his sketchbook out from his work bag. First he drew his mom holding a bouquet of roses, smelling them, her eyes closed. Then he drew Bucky, grinning, holding a single rose out. Steve considered the sketches. It’d been five years since he’d lost them both. Maybe doing a painting of each of them would help with the grief. Or maybe it’d make it worse. But he was already imagining a grayscale portrait of each of them, the roses bearing the only color. Maybe Bucky could be pricking his finger on a thorn, a droplet of blood welling from the wound. Steve tapped his pencil against the paper, sighing. Sam would probably tell him it was morbid, but Steve liked the idea. He reached out to a rose and ran his thumb gingerly across a thorn, feeling the sharpness of it without letting it break skin. The potential for pain was there, and Steve was tempted to squeeze and feel it, just to have something physical to show for the emotional pain that had been trying to consume him all day.
“Don’t pick that.”
The voice startled Steve, turning to see who it was. He wasn’t usually opposed to making conversation with strangers in the park, but today? He really wasn’t in the mood. Ready to reply with a sharp remark, the words died in his throat as he looked over the man addressing him.
Steve’s first thought was that there had to be some kind of Renaissance Faire or LARP going on in the park he didn’t know about, because this guy had to have walked right out of something like that. He was dressed head to toe in black leather armor that he probably had spent way too much money on, judging from the construction and silver detailing on it. The left arm was totally encased in plate armor, which admittedly looked cool, though Steve questioned the practicality of it. Half of the man’s face was hidden behind a black leather mask (the guy apparently really liked black leather), and cold, eerily blue eyes glared at Steve from above the mask. He’d make for an interesting drawing subject if he wasn’t clearly offended by Steve’s very existence.
“Why not?” Steve asked, trying to keep himself calm.
“They’re not yours to pick.”
It was a bad time for anyone to try to tell Steve what he couldn’t do, especially in that tone of voice. The guy might as well have said “I dare you not to.” Steve’s eyes narrowed, and his grip on the flower’s stem tightened.
Roses were hard to pick. Their stems were tough, and the thorns tended to deter most people from picking them at all, much less by hand. But some random Ren Rat had told Steve he wasn’t allowed to, so goddammit, he was going to do it anyway. Because fuck that guy.
It hurt. A lot. The thorns bit into his skin, and by the time Steve was able to pull the rose away from the bush, he could feel blood welling up on his fingers and in his palm. But Steve never looked away from the Ren Rat asshole’s bright blue eyes, and he kept his voice steady.
The Ren Rat asshole’s gaze flickered down to the flower in Steve’s hand and his brow furrowed. “You’re bleeding.”
“Yeah, well, every rose has its thorns, right?”
“That was an unbelievably stupid thing to do. What are you trying to prove?”
Steve blinked. He was thinking about Bucky too much. He had to be, if this jerk was reminding him of his best friend.
“Nothing. This is a public park, I can pick a flower if I want.”
“It’s not. You’re trespassing.”
“Excuse me?” What the hell kind of delusion was this guy under? “There’s no such thing as trespassing in Central Park. Look, if I’m intruding on your LARP or fucking Ren Faire or whatever, you could just ask me to move like a normal person, without a goddamn mask on, instead of posturing like a complete dick.”
The guy looked taken aback by that, and Steve felt a rush of satisfaction at landing a blow in the only way he really could. But that feeling didn’t last, as the man stepped forward, his eyes narrowing. Fuck. Steve didn’t think he could get into an actual fight with a guy in armor and carrying weapons, even if they were fake. Any person with armor as elaborate as this guy’s had to have at least a little bit of fighting know-how. One of these days, Steve really had to get himself to a self-defense class or something, asthma be damned.
But all the guy did was ask “who are you?” like he couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing.
Steve had that effect on a lot of people. He frowned. “That’s none of your goddamn business. And you got no right asking that when you’re the one wearing a mask.”
The man huffed, a strange half-laugh that was muffled weirdly. He reached up and pulled off his mask.
If it weren’t for the stabbing pain in his hand from the rose’s thorns, Steve would have been certain he was dreaming. Because there was no chance in Hell that he was seeing what he was seeing.
Staring back at him, with too-blue eyes framed by too-long hair, was his best friend.
“Bucky?” It came out as a gasp, and Steve could feel, as if it were happening to someone else, his heart racing and his breath starting to quicken. If he wasn’t careful, a frustratingly calm part of him noted, he’d start to hyperventilate, and maybe he’d have an asthma attack. And wouldn’t that be an embarrassing way to react to the ghost of your best friend.
Bucky--it couldn’t be Bucky, it was impossible, but it was --looked confused. “Who the hell is Bucky?” he asked.
“You are!” Steve blurted out. “But that’s… that’s impossible, you died, in Iraq, you got a military funeral and everything, I was there.”
“Then you explain why you look like a hobo Ren Rat alternate universe version of my dead best friend!” Fuck, this really wasn’t good, he had to calm down…
“I am the Winter Knight, and mortals like you should not be in Faerie lands.”
That stopped Steve right in his tracks. For a moment he just stared. This had to be a dream, or a hallucination, because there was no way he could actually be here, with Bucky looking like that, saying that.
“Please tell me I’m dreaming.”
“Because it really sounds like you got brainwashed by LARPers.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“Well if you’re not Bucky then at least tell me who you really are. Please, just tell me I’m not crazy, please. ”
“You need to leave.”
“I’m not leaving until I know what’s going on!”
Bucky--or whoever it was--looked frustrated and confused, which Steve could relate to.
“Steve, you’re bleeding. You need to go take care of that.”
Steve leaped on that, gesturing at Bucky with the rose wildly.
“I didn’t tell you my name. Drop the act, Bucky, tell me what’s going on.”
Bucky stepped back, looking absolutely horrified. “I didn’t… I don’t…”
Unwilling to back down, even with Bucky looking so upset, Steve pressed his advantage. “Bucky, come on. This isn’t funny. I thought you were dead.”
Abruptly, Bucky’s expression changed from confused and upset to livid, and he pulled a sword, swinging the tip of it to barely a centimeter from Steve’s nose.
“Stop,” he growled, and Steve stared at the sword, horror blanketing everything else. That was a real sword. Bucky was pointing a real sword at him. What the fuck was going on?
“You are going to go home,” Bucky said slowly, angrily, “and you are going to forget you saw me. You are never going to come back here, do you understand?”
As Bucky spoke, Steve felt a slowly growing pressure on his brain, like an oncoming migraine. He struggled for breath, the humidity suddenly getting to him like an aggressive fog, pushing at him from all sides. Bucky’s words sounded… almost convincing. Reasonable. A part of him wanted to do exactly what he said.
But the rest of him was so adamantly opposed to the idea that he fought off the thought.
But Bucky was turning and leaving, walking purposefully away through the trees.
“Bucky, wait! Bucky! ” Steve ran forward, but Bucky had already disappeared. Steve took another few steps, looking around wildly, but Bucky was gone, like Steve had imagined him after all.
His heart hammering in his chest, Steve sat down, trying to catch his breath. He stared at his hand, still clutching the rose, smeared with sticky blood, though the bleeding was slowing to a stop.
What the hell had just happened?
The migraine didn’t go away, and it only got worse as Steve went home. Every step he took he went over the entire encounter in his head, trying to parse out what had happened. Why Bucky had been acting so strangely? How he could possibly show up in Central Park after five years, when everyone thought he was dead?
Steve knew he wasn’t imagining it. He wasn’t. Though the longer he thought about it, the more he started to doubt himself.
As soon as he got home, Steve dumped his back in the entryway, kicked off his shoes, and went straight to the bathroom, walking past Sam in the living room on the way.
“Hey man, you go to the park today?”
Steve ignored him and locked the bathroom door behind him. He took off his glasses, took out his hearing aids, and pinched his nose, taking a few deep breaths. He reminded himself that he didn’t have a history of hallucinations or mental illness. He had seen Bucky in Central Park. Bucky, who had been killed in action five years ago. Bucky, who had remembered Steve’s name, even if he apparently couldn’t remember his own.
Steve opened his eyes and stared at his blurry reflection in the mirror. Some kind of conspiracy-level bullshit was going on, and he was going to get to the bottom of it.
If his brain wasn’t the one bullshitting him. Which he really, really hoped it wasn’t.
Steve carefully washed his hands, bandaged the thorn punctures on his right hand, popped some aspirin, put his glasses and his hearing aids back on, and went back out to the living room. Sam was already looking concerned.
Steve thought about that for a moment. “That’d be a resounding ‘no.’”
Sam nodded slowly. “We talking physical or emotional?”
Sam nodded again. “Anything I can do to help?”
Steve sighed and was about to reply with “no, thanks,” but Sam put up a hand to stop him.
“Hey, look. I know you’re usually all about going it alone, and I appreciate that you don’t unload all your problems on me like I’m your own personal live-in therapist, but Steve. Come on. I’m your friend. It’s okay to talk to me.” He paused a moment, then added, “besides. You look like shit. What the hell happened?”
Steve struggled with himself. On the one hand, he really wanted to talk to somebody about what had happened, but on the other, he knew how crazy it sounded. He sat down in the chair across from Sam and stared at his hands. The right one still ached, and his migraine wasn’t going away yet.
Sam was quiet, waiting for Steve to talk, which Steve was grateful for.
“So. I’m pretty sure I saw Bucky at the park today.”
Steve resolutely stared at his hands. He really, really didn’t want to look up and see Sam staring at him like he’d sprouted two heads, or like Steve’s puppy had just died in his arms, which is what Steve was pretty sure he’d see. It was bad enough that the silence stretched on for as long as it did.
“You sure about that, Steve?” Sam’s voice was gentle, concerned, and it made Steve want to punch him. He leveled Sam with the most stern expression he could muster.
“Yes, Sam, I am absolutely sure.” Because fuck it, he wasn’t going to back down now. And yeah, now that he was looking at him, Sam was definitely giving him the overly-concerned friend expression.
Sam sighed. “Steve,” he began, but Steve really didn’t want to hear it.
“Before you start, yes, I know Bucky’s been dead five years, I realize I’m in an overly emotional state because of it. But Sam, I saw him. I did. He looked like one of those Ren Faire enthusiasts. He pointed a sword at me. How could I imagine that? Why would I imagine that? If I was going to imagine him, he’d be… he’d be like he was before he left and he’d…” Steve stopped himself there. He and Sam talked about a lot of stuff, but his unrequited crush on Bucky was something he hadn’t ever wanted to go into, though he was pretty sure Sam had figured that one out. But it didn’t matter. Because Bucky was dead, and Steve had moved on. Not that his last two attempts at relationships had thought so, but it didn’t matter. Anyway, apparently Bucky wasn’t dead after all.
“The brain is a delicate organ, there’s all sorts of reasons you could’ve thought you’d seen…”
“Goddammit Sam, you’re not my shrink, you’re my friend!”
“You’re right, and as your friend, I think maybe you should think a little about what you’re saying.”
“You think I haven’t? I’ve been thinking about it the whole way back, Sam!”
Sam rubbed his face and lifted his hands in surrender. “Okay, okay. Just… why don’t you have a seat and calm down and tell me exactly what happened?”
Steve didn’t particularly want to calm down, but he knew arguing with Sam wasn’t going to get him anywhere. So he sat, and he related what happened. Maybe he glossed over the rose bit a little, but he could see the way Sam frowned and looked down at his hand, guessing at what he wasn’t quite saying. But Sam didn’t say anything so Steve kept going.
When he was done, Sam was quiet. Steve waited, getting antsy.
“You gonna say something?”
“That’s a hell of a story, Steve.”
“Yeah, and it all happened.”
“It did, Sam.”
“Look, maybe it was just…”
Steve groaned and put his face in his hands. “Please, Sam. I’ve had a hell of a day. Please, can’t you just believe me?”
Sam was silent. Steve felt the sudden urge to cry, but he took deep breaths and swallowed it back. If he started crying now, it felt like he’d never be able to stop.
“Steve. Steve, hey. Look at me.”
Steve took another deep, shuddering breath, and looked up.
“Something happened. I believe you. Maybe that guy was Bucky, maybe not. How are we going to find out for sure? You said he just walked off.”
Steve blinked, his face tight and his head aching, and he knew with sudden clarity what he had to do. “I have to go back,” he said. “I have to find him.”
Sam was quiet a moment. “Alright. Then I’m going with you.”
Steve glanced outside. The sun was starting to set. But if they went quickly, they could get back to the park before it got dark. He looked back at Sam.
“You ready to go now?”
Sam shrugged. “I got nothing else to do tonight. Hell. Let’s go ghost hunting.”