Long after Thor had departed, Beatrice stayed motionless on the couch, staring at nothing. She didn't know what to think, what to feel. Wanda had appeared to take the news fairly well, but Beatrice suspected the younger girl was still so deep in her grief over Pietro that little else mattered to her. She remembered what that felt like, and, selfishly, almost wished to feel it again.
There was a knock at the door for the second time that day, but this one was softer, more familiar. Beatrice glanced up when Steve poked his head around the door, a hesitant smile on his face. "Mind if I come in?" he asked.
"Go ahead," said Beatrice, suddenly grateful for his company. Steve stepped inside and rounded the couch to face her, holding out an envelope. Beatrice reached out to take it, confused.
"A letter?" she asked, flipping it over and examining it closely. It was a plain white envelope, with her name and address written in block letters on the front. There was no return address. "But who knows about me?"
"I don't know," Steve admitted. "A Stark Industries employee found it in the mail room and asked if I knew who it was for."
In any other situation, Beatrice would have been curious, but there were more important things weighing heavily on her mind right then. She stuffed it inside her pocket for later and looked up at Steve, who was clearly interested in the letter but not wanting to ask her outright. Something in her gaze seemed to catch his attention, and his own eyebrows drew together in concern. "Everything all right?" he asked.
She gave a slight shrug. "Only if you don't believe having an Infinity Stone inside you is important."
Steve's eyes widened. "What?" he almost choked.
"Thor was here earlier. He told Wanda and I that the Tesseract and the scepter both housed Infinity Stones. According to him, there are six of them, each tied to different aspects of the universe." Beatrice counted them off on her fingers. "Space, Mind, Reality, Power, Time, and Soul. The Tesseract is the Space Stone. Thor said it can open up portals between realms, and I can alter the space between things, like gravity. The Mind Stone was in the scepter, and that's why Wanda is able to read our thoughts. He thinks it may be why Wanda has a connection to Vision, and to me." She threaded her fingers in her lap. "But we hold only a fraction of their powers. Wanda and I can be killed, like Pietro. I'm not sure about the Vision."
Steve's expression had turned unbearably gentle during her speech. "What about the other stones?" he asked, his blue eyes holding compassion but not pity, as Beatrice had feared.
"Thor doesn't know," she told him. "He's gone back to Asgard to try to find more information. He believes they're important somehow. He said that if someone manages to collect all of them, they'll be virtually unstoppable."
A tiny frown appeared on Steve's face. "Does he think someone is trying to collect them?"
"I think so. He said he had a vision of…of the end of the universe, and Earth is at the heart of it all." Beatrice struggled to explain Thor's words. "He doesn't think it's a coincidence that three of the stones have shown up within the past year. The Tesseract, the scepter, and something that he called the Aether that Jane Foster was involved with. He doesn't know about the others."
Steve's frown had only deepened at her words, the lines on his forehead standing out as they did whenever he was in deep concentration. "But why here?"
"Your guess is as good as mine," Beatrice said dryly. "He did mention that Earth is also known as a sort of cosmic backwater to the rest of the Nine Realms. I wasn't about to argue with him on that." She thought about the Tesseract, the catalyst that had sparked the Asgardian-Frost Giant war that Ivan had once told her about, hidden in Norway and unearthed by Johann Schmidt centuries later; the Mind Stone brought to Earth by Thor's adopted brother Loki, given to S.H.I.E.L.D. and stolen by undercover Hydra operatives, now in the Vision's possession; and the Reality Stone, discovered by Dr. Foster during the Convergence and now locked in what Thor referred to as the Collector's Museum on Knowhere, but he might as well have said it was in Narnia for all Beatrice had understood.
"He suggested that Wanda and I contact his friend Erik Selvig and ask for his help. Apparently he knows more about the Infinity Stones than anyone else, and he might be able to teach us about them." Now it was Beatrice's turn to frown in consideration. "Maybe I can ask Tony, too, when he gets back."
Steve seemed to jerk back to awareness at the mention of Tony, as if he had been lost in thought. "Tony is back," he said. "I ran into him on my way up here. I wouldn't strike up a conversation with him anytime soon though, if I were you."
Steve winced. "Pepper broke up with him. I guess Ultron was the last straw, but they've been on uneven ground for a while—she wants a stable relationship. One where you don't have to worry if the other person is going to come home that night or not." He glanced away from Beatrice for half a second. "I can understand her point of view."
"But what about Stark Industries?" Beatrice asked. "She's the CEO, isn't she?"
"Yeah," Steve said. "She'll still work for the company, but strictly in a professional capacity. Tony told me he's going to his house in Malibu for a while. He needs to work some things out."
Beatrice blinked. "Leaving? He's just…quitting?"
"Honestly, I think it's a good idea," Steve replied, giving her a rueful grin. "Ultron and Sokovia really messed him up. I know it's not entirely his fault, but he's not in a great place right now. Think of it as an extended leave of absence. He's giving us full use of the tower and all of his tech."
"So there are only three Avengers now?" Beatrice asked slowly. "Assuming Thor and Bruce aren't returning anytime soon?"
"Two, actually," Steve admitted. "Clint's taking a leave of absence too. He's going back to Iowa to look after his brother—he was really sick when we were there. So it's just me and Nat now."
Beatrice raised her eyebrows. "That's not a team."
"No, it's not," he agreed. "That's why I wanted to ask you to join us."
All the air felt like it had been sucked out of the room as Beatrice gawked at him. "Me?" she asked dumbly. "An Avenger? I thought you didn't want me to become one of you, that it was too dangerous."
"Yeah, I know," Steve said, looking sheepish. "Look, do you remember that argument we had one day in '43 after Bucky left for training camp? Where you tried to stop me from enlisting?"
"You'll have to be more specific," Beatrice remarked, only half-jokingly, earning herself a surprised chuckle from Steve.
"Okay, I deserved that one," he acknowledged. "What I mean is, there was a time when I wanted to fight in the war more than anything else. I couldn't stand it when people tried to talk me out of it. And this is your choice, Bea. You can turn down the offer if you want. Actually, I think I'd feel better if you did. But I'm not going to try to change your mind anymore. I saw you fighting in Sokovia, and Fury definitely seems to think you have what it takes."
Instead of answering right away, Beatrice asked, "Who else?"
"Sam, Rhodey, Vision, Wanda, and you," Steve explained. "I know," he said at Beatrice's surprised intake of breath. "But Wanda has proven herself. So has Vision. They'd both be incredibly helpful on missions."
He evidently expected Beatrice to think over her answer, to weigh the pros and cons, and indeed Beatrice surprised even herself when she suddenly blurted out, "Yes. Yes, I want to become an Avenger."
"Bea, you don't have to decide right away—"
"But I already know my answer," Beatrice argued. "If I was experimented on with an Infinity Stone, it's my responsibility to do as much as I can with the powers I've been given. I don't have to start going on missions right away. I'll train as much as you want me to."
After carefully searching her face, Steve nodded, but Beatrice could tell part of him had been hoping for her to refuse. "Okay," he said after a long moment, and something like a tiny smile touched his lips. "Nat will be thrilled. She was your biggest supporter, you know."
Something warm ignited in Beatrice at the idea of her niece arguing for her to have a place on the team—and then another thought struck her. "Steve," she began haltingly, her heart pounding, "I can't be an Avenger and look for Bucky at the same time."
It was the perfect excuse: if Beatrice was an Avenger, she didn't have to worry about lying to Steve anymore. She wouldn't have to tell him that she had found Bucky, because she wouldn't be searching for him in the first place. And then, someday, when they were all together again, she could admit the truth to him. Still, she couldn't help the stab of guilt that pierced her at the very thought.
"He'll come back," Steve said quietly. "If not for me, then for you."
He ignored her protest, shaking his head slowly from side to side as he stared down at his feet. "I told you once that if it had been you that went missing, Bucky would have done anything to find you. I don't think that's changed."
But Beatrice knew the truth. She had seen him in Bucharest, helped save him from Rumlow, and when she'd left he hadn't seemed inclined to follow her. Instead of answering Steve, she simply nodded and bit her lip, offering him a smile that she hoped he would interpret as grief, and not crushing guilt.
That night it took her a long time to fall asleep, and when she did she dreamed of the war. She was standing in an open field under a sky that threatened rain, staring at the rows of bodies lined up in neat rows on the grass, all the men that she couldn't save. The dead were wrapped in blankets, their open eyes unseeing, and if Beatrice squinted she could see the outline of the canvas tents that made up the 107th Field Hospital in the distance.
"Hartley! Get over here!"
In a daze, Beatrice whirled around and saw the camp's head doctor running across the field, prepared to help unload the convoy of jeeps that had suddenly appeared behind her. Wounded soldiers spilled out of nearby ambulances, medics shouting for plasma as they hurried litters into the hospital tents, the familiar groans and cries of injured men…
Acting on instinct, Beatrice moved to rush forward, to help triage the men, but her legs wouldn't move. She was frozen to the spot. She began to panic, using all of her strength to lift just one foot off the ground, but she couldn't move. She couldn't even fall backward.
Wild-eyed, Beatrice searched her surroundings for the source of the voice until her eyes landed on a feminine figure sitting up amidst the dead men, her white ward dress stained with blood. A knife stuck out of her chest from where Heinrich Zemo had impaled her with it. Diana Murphy watched Beatrice calmly, her expression completely blank. Her hair didn't even flutter in the breeze.
"It won't do anything," she continued. "You're just wasting your energy."
"Diana!" Beatrice gasped; she would have fallen to her knees if she could. "You're still alive! Stay there—I can help you—"
Something foul and ugly twisted the beautiful girl's face. "No, you can't," Diana said. "You're not even a proper nurse."
Beatrice stared at her, uncomprehending. "What?"
Diana rolled her eyes, as if unable to believe the other girl's stupidity. "Why do you think the rest of us got promoted to first lieutenant and you didn't? You didn't even go to nursing school. Phillips only allowed you in because of your connections. How much do you think Howard Stark had to pay him for that?"
"That's not true!" Beatrice tried to argue. "I wanted to go to nursing school—I took night classes—"
"Hartley, move it! Even those chorus girls would do a better job than you!" Flynn shouted again. Beatrice watched helplessly as a G.I. fell, screaming, out of the back of an ambulance, twitching madly as if he was being electrocuted until he finally went deathly still.
"You don't belong here, Beatrice," Diana said, almost soothingly, when Beatrice turned back, horrified, to face her. "You don't belong anywhere."
And Beatrice knew, deep within herself, that Diana was right. She had tried to find belonging in the field hospital, in her work, but she had always been removed from the other nurses. She had been just as isolated then as she was now.
"Rosie," another voice croaked from beside Diana. "Rosie…help…"
Beatrice would know that voice anywhere, know it at the end of the world. "Bucky!" she shouted, the sound scraping her throat raw. She tried frantically to find him, but the blanket made no distinction between the bodies that lay under it. "Bucky!"
"Rosie, please, help!" Bucky yelled now, terror in his voice. "Help!"
"Diana, help him!" Beatrice screamed at her, but Diana only continued to watch her, unmoving. Panic clawed its way into her chest, knowing that she was too late, that she couldn't save him, just as she couldn't save Diana herself.
When the rain began to fall, the water was mixed with drops of blood.
Beatrice jerked free of the dream with a muffled cry, her heart thudding in her throat. She half-expected to be met with Diana's disapproving glare again, but she was alone in her dark bedroom, the sheets tangled around her legs and the drawn curtains fluttering slightly in front of the open window. She dragged a hand down her face and gave a shuddering sigh, knowing that the remnants of the nightmare wouldn't disappear so easily.
The faintly glowing numbers on her alarm clock informed her that it was just after three in the morning. Far too early to be getting up, but she knew with a grim resignation that it would be impossible for her to go back to sleep. Possibly for the foreseeable future.
She sat up and gazed almost hopefully around the room, but Wanda's clever illusion was absent tonight. A shame, Beatrice thought to herself. Trixie was starting to grow on her. And if she'd ever needed a nighttime distraction, this was it.
She remained in bed for another minute, waiting to see if sleep would retake her anyway, but her mind stayed alert, probably not wanting to risk falling into the dream again. A hazy, half-formed idea began to flutter at its edges, and Beatrice felt the familiar pull that tugged at her whenever she started to plan something foolish. She tried to talk herself out of it, but the alternative—lying here and replaying the nightmare over and over—was hardly more appealing, so she climbed out of bed and walked over to the closet, quickly changing into the most average, unremarkable clothes she could find. Someday she would have to ask Natasha for tips on blending into her surroundings.
After slipping her cell phone into the pocket of her jeans, Beatrice quietly left her suite and moved down the hallway to the elevators, suddenly thankful that Steve's rooms were on the other end. If he heard her, he would surely want to come along, and Beatrice knew this was something she had to face alone.
When she stepped out of the elevator into the lobby, she pulled up the hood of her jacket and kept her head down as she made her way to the front entrance, past the night doorman who had replaced Aaron Jensen as the tower's head security guard. Not that they needed to worry, Beatrice thought to herself. This time, there were two Avengers upstairs, plus F.R.I.D.A.Y., Tony's A.I. replacement for J.A.R.V.I.S. She, at least, hadn't yet questioned Beatrice about leaving in the dead of night.
Speaking of J.A.R.V.I.S., her eyes caught movement by the revolving doors ahead, and she suppressed a sigh as she recognized Vision hovering near them, staring at the still-busy streets outside. His reddish-purple skin glowed slightly in the long shadows from the streetlights, and Beatrice could see his reflection looking back at her. She should have known that leaving wouldn't be so easy. Come to think of it, she had never given much thought to how Vision spent his nights—surely he didn't require sleep.
"Hello, Beatrice," the android greeted with his usual formalities, turning around to face her. He had never been anything but polite to her—and the others—and she felt a strange prick of guilt as she remembered the lengths she went to avoid him. She couldn't be the only one who did so.
"Hi, Vision," Beatrice replied, glancing longingly over his shoulder at the revolving doors. There was no way she would be able to keep this excursion from Steve now. "I didn't mean to disturb your…contemplation."
Vision's eyes widened in an eerily humanlike gesture of surprise. Maybe he could feel some measure of emotion, after all, Beatrice thought. Or at least synthetic emotion. Frankly, it made her head hurt to think about. She was no scientist. "You did not disturb anything," the android assured her, his gaze almost uncomfortably sharp. "I was merely wondering if it would be wise to go for a walk. There are fewer people about, but I believe I would still stand out."
Beatrice considered him for a moment. "Unfortunately, I think you might be right," she said dryly. "But then again, this is New York. There's a chance you won't even turn any heads."
Vision inclined his own head in acknowledgement, and Beatrice found her eyes drawn to the brilliant yellow gem sparkling on his forehead. The Mind Stone. How was it, she thought, that such a thing could create Ultron and Vision himself, two disparate beings? She reached out clumsily with her senses to see if she could feel the pull to Vision that Wanda had mentioned, the one she felt to Wanda herself, but she could grasp at nothing.
"Can you not sleep?" Vision asked her politely, seemingly oblivious to Beatrice's inner monologue, and she quickly scrambled herself back to the present.
"No," she ruefully admitted, shifting from foot to foot and stuffing her hands into her pockets. Great—she was even picking up Steve's mannerisms now. "I was going to Brooklyn. There's a place there I used to visit, back when I lived there…" She trailed off, realizing she was speaking to herself as much as Vision. Did the subway even still run at this time of night? She had no idea, nothing more than a vague, half-formed notion in her mind of what she wanted to do, and yet she was still acting on it anyway.
Vision blinked at her, and she could almost see his unnaturally advanced brain working faster than she would ever be able to think. But when he spoke, his words were careful and deliberate. "Would you mind if I joined you part of the way?" he inquired. "That would likely be more inconspicuous."
A year ago, if someone had told Beatrice she would be taking a late-night walk with an artificially intelligent robot made of vibranium who possessed an Infinity Stone, she would have laughed until she cried. But as it was, she simply nodded slowly and smiled at him. "Of course," she said, and nodded in the direction of the revolving doors. "Let's go."
The night was unseasonably cool, and a bitter wind blew past Beatrice's face as she walked quickly down the sidewalk, carrying with it the light mist of seaspray. She would never have been able to detect it before the serum, but now she could detect too much: the buzz of the electric lights in the buildings that lined the street; the sound of her footsteps crunching loudly against the gravel; the labored breathing of a jogger across the street. She wished she could shut it all out, even if only for a minute, and hear nothing but her own thoughts again.
But did she really want to hear her thoughts? The ones that lingered nastily in the back of her mind, the ones that whispered she was something other, something diseased, something unnatural. The girl frozen in time, who wouldn't begin aging again for another century. It was Zola's serum that ran through her veins, not Erskine's. She would always have a part of Hydra inside her now. The thought made her faintly nauseous.
And she was a freak. An experiment. She could barely contain the power of the Tesseract inside of her; the serum was the only thing that kept it from destroying her, Bruce Banner had once explained. Even if she learned to control it, it was yet another thing that set her apart from everyone else.
She wanted to be an Avenger. She wanted to feel belonging again, to feel as if she was part of this world and this time. She wanted to stick close to Steve and find Bucky, for them to bring him home together. She wanted some semblance of normalcy again, some hope that maybe she could find her footing with the boys, her boys. All three of them had somehow made it here. She had to cling to the belief that there was some sort of meaning in that.
Loud, raucous laughter echoed from somewhere ahead of her, and Beatrice glanced up to see a group of youths lounging in front of the brightly-lit windows of a nearby corner store, passing around a bottle and lighting up cigarettes. Not wanting to draw attention to herself, she pulled up her hood and lowered her head so that she was staring at the ground. It was a lesson her father had drilled into her as a child: if you don't want trouble, don't make eye contact with anyone.
Luckily, this seemed to hold true even ninety years later, and she was ignored as she slunk past the group and stopped at the nearest crosswalk, waiting for the light to turn green. It should be somewhere around here—
And then her eyes landed on a familiar street corner, and she couldn't help the short intake of breath that followed, a quiet gasp. She didn't take her eyes off of the building until she had crossed the street and was standing in front of it, gazing up at its façade.
The dance hall had long closed, the faded sign painted over multiple times—Beatrice thought she could make out an advertisement for a furniture store and, underneath that, an arcade—the windows boarded up, the doors tightly locked, but she could still see a phantom light pouring out from the building and hear the faint echo of swing music. This was where she had danced with Bucky for the first time; danced, period, for the first time. He had spun her around to the crooning of Frank Sinatra and gathered her close to his chest, staring down at her with that half-smirk and warmth in his eyes. She had kissed him for the first time here, caught up in a dizzying rush of feeling that she didn't understand but desperately wanted to.
She turned away from the dark windows, twisting Bucky's bracelet around her wrist and tilting her head up to the sky. Here she was, standing outside a long-abandoned building in Williamsburg, searching for ghosts. Vision had accompanied her as far as the Brooklyn Bridge, but maybe Beatrice should have asked him to come along. Standing here completely alone, she realized that she would have liked some company, even if that company wasn't entirely human.
The unfamiliar voice snapped Beatrice out of her thoughts, and she turned, disoriented, to see one of the youths jogging up toward her, his hair flopping over his face and his bare arms inked with a myriad of vulgar tattoos. He smelled like cigarettes and sickly sweet cologne. "Do you have any spare change?" he asked sheepishly. "I'm really hungry."
Beatrice's eyes flickered above his head to where his friends stood loosely grouped across the street, wide grins on their faces. She raised an eyebrow. Seventy years, and Brooklyn was still the same. The thought gave her a peculiar sense of comfort.
Reaching into her pocket, she fished around for a handful of coins and tossed them to the boy before turning around to see the other teenager sneaking up behind her, preparing to pickpocket her while she was distracted. "Is that enough for a sandwich?" she asked lazily.
The boy looked grudgingly resigned, if not annoyed, that the ploy hadn't worked. "I guess," he muttered, shuffling his feet awkwardly.
"Choose your target more carefully next time, kid," Beatrice said with a slight grin. "You never know who's from around here."
A commotion from the other side of the street caught her attention then, and Beatrice glanced over to see another young boy burst out of the entrance of a store opposite, his pockets overflowing with candy, as he tore down the street. As if on cue, the youths standing under the light scattered, sprinting off in different directions as an older man appeared from the storefront, wearing a bathrobe and shouting angrily in Italian. Beatrice cast around for the boys who had approached her, but they had also disappeared: belatedly, she realized that they had just tried to distract her, and it had worked.
The man, whom she presumed was the shopkeeper, brandished his fist at the boy's retreating back and bellowed a word Beatrice hazily understood from her time in Italy: "Ladro!"—thief.
She made a split-second decision: before she had time to think it through, to form a plan, she was suddenly running down the sidewalk, the wind tearing at her hair. The street was deserted, and so she channelled all of her energy into her legs, feeling herself propelled forward at a speed that never failed to astonish her. Within seconds she was gaining on the boy, her feet pounding the concrete, the lights in nearby buildings little more than brief flashes as she tore past them. The boy glanced back when she shouted at him to stop, and she was close enough to see his eyes widen in shock at her proximity. He immediately made a sharp right turn, disappearing into a narrow alleyway, where Beatrice was certain his friends were waiting for her, possibly with weapons. She slowed down to a jog, her breathing only slightly labored, and her eyes caught on the shadow of an old, rusted fire escape. The boy may have set up a trap for anyone chasing him, but few knew Brooklyn as well as Beatrice did.
She wasted no time before rushing to the fire escape and swinging up onto it, the metal creaking under her sudden weight. Beatrice leapt up the stairs two at a time, feeling the railing swaying slightly on either side of her, and she was suddenly in Bucharest again, fleeing from Rumlow, or in Sokovia rushing to find the Avengers. Sometimes it felt as if all she had done since being awoken was run. So why was she chasing after this boy, paying attention to such a petty crime when there were far worse things occurring in the city—in the borough? Maybe she just wanted to feel alive again, to prove to herself that she was worthy to become an Avenger, too.
The gravel on the rooftop crunched under Beatrice's feet as she sprinted across it, glancing down at the dark streets below her. She caught a glimpse of the boy again as he emerged from the alley, seemingly alone, throwing furtive looks behind him as he ran; clearly he hadn't noticed her jump onto the fire escape. Beatrice reached the edge of the roof and crouched down, keeping her eyes fixed on him as he slowed his pace, breathing heavily. They were close to the Navy Yard now, and the promenade that was usually crowded with tourists during the day was empty. Beatrice could hear the rhythmic pulsing of music blasting out of a nearby open window and murmured voices from the balcony directly below her.
Hoping the loud music would be enough to muffle the sound, she dropped down onto the adjacent balcony, staying low so that the others outside wouldn't spot her. When she was certain the conversation hadn't paused, she swung her legs over the side of the railing before leaping down to the ground, breathing a silent sigh of relief when she felt concrete under her feet again.
The boy whirled around when he heard her approaching him and swore loudly; Beatrice expected him to give up, knowing he was caught—but he simply raced across the promenade, and vaulted over the balustrade.
She stood frozen in shock for half a second before dashing forward, coming to a halt at the edge of the promenade and staring down into the East River. The boy was already swimming away, moving with quick, sure strokes through the water in the direction of Brooklyn Bridge Park. Even if she ran as fast as she could on foot, she would never be able to intercept him in time. The only way she stood a chance of catching him was if she jumped into the water, too.
The thought made Beatrice's stomach twist, and she fought to control a sudden, intense wave of vertigo, the world abruptly tilting under her. She forced herself to take deep breaths, a reminder that she was in New York, not Austria, and she was free and not a prisoner of Hydra, and that Schmidt wouldn't suddenly appear and force her head down under the freezing water until spots swarmed in front of her eyes and she silently begged to die—
Beatrice wasn't aware that she had sunk down onto the ground until she felt the cold concrete of the balustrade digging into her back, but she just dropped her face into her hands, not caring who saw her now. It wasn't even about failing to stop the boy, not really. It wasn't even about Schmidt. This was just the final nail in the coffin, the thing that proved Diana was right, that she really didn't belong anywhere—least of all here. She had failed; failed to stop even a petty thief; failed to control her powers; failed to bring Bucky home; failed to tell Steve the truth, the most important thing of all.
How could she possibly think she might ever have a chance at being an Avenger? She would do nothing but let them down again and again. She wasn't even a proper nurse. She had no place in the world; she never had.
Beatrice sat there until her hands grew numb, and when she finally moved again pins and needles shot through her extremities. Something crinkled against her side when she shifted position, and, frowning, she reached into the pocket of her cardigan to find the envelope Steve had given her earlier: she had forgotten about it until now.
Grateful for a distraction, she slid her thumb under the seal and shook out its contents, but there was no letter inside. Instead, a rusted chain of metal slid out, pooling onto her palm, and her fingers traced over the worn inscription on a set of dog tags.
So, how about that Infinity War, am I right, guys?