It had never hurt Steve to shift; he did it easy as he breathed, or ran, or threw his shield. It hurt Bucky something awful, in the months after Azzano. Steve’s easy slide from form to form was a terrible strain for Bucky – not difficult to initiate, he always said it was easier to start than finish, but agonisingly slow, as if his body was fighting the transformation even as it changed.
“It probably is fighting it,” Howard said. “It’s clear you got hit with something different to Erskine’s. Or maybe the Vita-Rays made the difference…” And he wandered off, nose glued to his files, muttering to himself.
“Trust Howard to give himself all the credit,” Steve said to Bucky, and stroked the glossy brown head, so much darker than his own. Bucky snapped at his fingers half-heartedly. “Quit it,” he growled, a deep rumble from the bottom of his chest; then, because after all he was just a big softie, he curled himself on top of Steve’s lap there on the lab floor to wait until he felt ready to face the shift back again. As a wolf, Bucky was strong and lean and limber, with streaks of dark gold running through his thick fur that mirrored the streaks in his hair in summer when the sun had bleached it; his eyes were the same pale grey they always were – Peggy had told Steve that his eyes stayed the same too. Steve stroked his flank and smiled when Bucky made a contented noise in his chest, easy and warm.
There they had been: the last two living lycanthropes in the world, and not even natural-born. It hadn’t exactly been what you’d call a problem for either of them, except that Bucky was impatient and angry with how much it hurt him to shift. Steve loved to shift, to run as a wolf and scout long distances, and at full moon they ran together, side-by-side, perfect equals at long last, and – in spite of the pain of the actual change – he knew that Bucky enjoyed it as much as he did.
It made Steve so fiercely happy that he should have known from the start it would end bloody and brutal.
He smelt it on Natasha of course, as soon as he laid eyes on her. There on the Helicarrier deck with Coulson between them they stood and looked at each other and knew. Part of Steve wanted to jump for joy; here was something completely unexpected, someone who might become a friend. She smelt like her human perfume and her shampoo and the last energy drink she had had, the detergent in which she washed her clothes, the worn-in leather of her boots; for a second, just a second, she smelt like home and safety, too, the same way Bucky always did. He wondered if she smelt the same thing on him.
(Had. The same way Bucky always had. Steve’s ribs had been cracked open and his chest was hollow and bloody behind them.)
It wasn’t until about a week later that he and Natasha got the chance to talk about it in private.
“It’s not in the files,” Natasha said.
“Isn’t it?” Steve was surprised.
“There’s a significant school of thought these days that suggests lycanthropes were a myth.”
“Hmm.” Steve sighed. “No one else knows? About you?”
“Fury does.” Coulson did, her clipped tone implied. “And Barton.”
He looked at her. It was past midnight; they were in the deserted mess hall, scavenging for leftover meals and coffee. In the fluorescent lights, her hair shone red as blood. “Do they not know about me, then?” He hadn’t thought to mention it at all; had assumed they would know.
She shrugged. “They’ve probably guessed.”
“Are you gonna tell them?” He didn’t mean to be confrontational; he was just trying to work out if he should bother to bring it up with them.
Natasha said, “I don’t know.”
Steve glanced at her, surprised. She looked surprised at herself, and crossed her arms over her chest, as if defensive, though he knew he wasn’t being threatening. Sometimes she reminded him of Peggy, a little, in the set of her shoulders and the calm, competent way she had about her; maybe it was that, combined with tiredness and hunger, combined with that little flash of commonality between them, that pushed him into saying something so – indiscreet.
“You smell like – like pack to me, you know. Like home.” What he wanted to say was let’s be friends, but his tongue wouldn’t seem to let him.
Her mouth pinched for a second. Then she snorted. “You sound like a bad paranormal romance novel.”
He flinched. She noticed, but didn’t seem to care. “I advise you to tell Fury yourself, Captain,” she said. If you don’t, I will eventually. That was fair. “Good night.” And that was that. Natasha pushed herself away from the counter she’d been leaning on; her boot heels echoed on the floor as she walked away. Some lingering bit of hope went with her, and god, he was such a fool. He didn’t know the first damn thing about talking to people, never mind women he was attracted to. There had been a chance there for friendship and understanding, and he had driven it away with a few over-eager words.
“Good night,” Steve said quietly.
And that had been that. He joined SHIELD; Fury put him through a battery of tests and training which he passed with flying colours, with the usual sole exception of higher math.
“Ask Bucky,” he said once, unthinking, and the ringing in his ears didn’t leave him for hours.
He had lived in worse places than Dupont Circle. It wasn’t that he didn’t like the place; it was just that – that –
That he didn’t care, one way or the other, where he lived or what the place looked like. Sometimes he thought he ought to try harder, but, well.
What was the point.
Sometimes, at full moon, he wanted to call her, to text and ask her to come running with him; it was so much better with two, and he hated to think of her alone at times like this, worried that whatever the Russians had done to her had been the same as what Zola had done to Bucky, so that her shifts were as painful as Bucky’s had been. But Natasha never mentioned their – their shared condition again, and over time Steve lost the habit of talking about it, in this shiny new future in which most people didn’t believe lycanthropy had ever existed. He lost the habit of running far or using his sense of smell too much; enhanced hearing and eyesight were just fine, but if he showed how acute his sense of smell was it seemed to creep people out. And he lost the habit of shifting whenever he wanted to, so that every month his wolf-shape felt new and awkward and ungainly. SHIELD didn’t even need him to scout; they had tech for that.
Fury had snorted, but taken it in stride. No one else knew. But then, there was so much about Steve that no one else knew, these days.
Anyway, what good did it do him? It was just a side-effect, a lousy complication to Erskine’s serum. Steve grew impatient with the whole business; then, slowly, to hate it. All it did was hurt.
He couldn’t pretend, at full moon. He couldn’t shut it out with work and history books and catching up on seventy missed years of novels, film, music. He couldn’t draw or cook or go out and disappear into a crowd for a few hours to watch other people and be reminded why he did what he did. When he shifted, there was nothing in him but silence.
Perhaps nothing would ever have changed if, nearly a year after New York, they had not gotten stranded in Alaska. It shouldn’t have been a problem – it was summer; they had a safehouse; no one was freezing to death or in danger of imminent starvation. The only trouble was, it was full moon.
“Well, at least he’s apologetic,” said Natasha sourly, putting the satellite phone down.
“Is that what that was?” Steve said, sighing. Fury had sounded impatient, to his ears; more inclined to chew them out for letting the terrorists blow up the chopper than be sympathetic to their – their condition. “Hell. The full three nights, too.”
“Even if they could spare a bird tomorrow, it’d be a really bad idea to risk a delay that might leave us exposed,” Natasha said, irritated.
“I’m tempted to say we should just run back,” said Steve, glowering.
She laughed out loud, and he stared at her: it was the first time he had ever heard her laugh, and it didn’t sound pleasant. “You think you could do that?” There was something mocking in her tone.
“Of course,” he said. “Well, during the war I could’ve.” Then, curious, “Surely you’ve –“
Natasha drew her mouth into an approximation of a grin. “Have you ever ripped a man’s throat out as a wolf?”
Steve snorted. “Of course,” he said again. “Tasted disgusting – like rotten meat. Scouts usually, if they came too close to our position.” Her expression didn’t change, but she blinked twice, silent, and her fingers clenched on the arm of the chair. Then it was his turn to laugh bitterly. “There you go. Noble, heroic Captain America, tearing people’s throats out like any common soldier. How dare he be made of ordinary flesh and blood.” He didn’t realise how angry he was until he was already talking; he was trapped, hemmed in and ambushed and left for dead and nothing would ever make it better, nothing, because not even Starks could turn back time and help him save the only – the most important thing. He kicked his boots off, threw his gloves into a corner, jittery with anger and hopelessness. “I’m going to run.” It was reckless and it was stupid: he shifted so little, these days; he would be completely off-balance, off kilter, potentially downright helpless.
He didn’t care. The shift came easy, at once, swallowed him up; he turned on himself a few times in the discarded puddle of his uniform, checking himself over. Then he looked over at her again, meaning to say I’ll see you, or something equally stupid, and was brought up short by her expression.
She’d sat forwards in the chair, wide-eyed, and it was her eyes that held him: stunned and shining and horrified. “But you’re beautiful,” she blurted then, and a wave of red crashed over her face from jaw to hairline, bright as her hair.
Steve froze up in blank shock. Natasha swallowed hard. For a few seconds they just stared at each other. Then he said, slowly, “Come with me.”
She shook from head to toe. “You can talk? As a wolf?”
He settled on his haunches, puzzled. “Of course,” he said for the third time. She was staring at him as if he had told her he could fly, her eyes very wide and bright in her bloodless face. Then he went to her after all, and nosed at her hands; physical contact was so much easier as a wolf. She flinched back, trembling, as if she were afraid of him; why, what had he ever done? He didn’t understand. And she was a wolf herself. Surely she could match him? Wanting more than anything to make her feel safe, he licked her fingers; after a moment, she put her hands on his jaw, stroked her fingers behind his ears. “That feels good,” he said – he would have sighed in his human form – closing his eyes and relaxing into it. It was lovely to be petted, stroked, made much of by people you loved. At full moon sometimes, in London or on missions where the conditions were bad, he had come into Peggy’s office or tent as a wolf and curled around her chair, liked to feel her warm fingers in the fur at the nape of his neck. Bucky hadn’t liked it half so much, or rather he hadn’t liked it from anyone but Steve.
Natasha’s hands trembled madly for a second or two; then she slid off the chair and wrapped her strong arms around his neck, hiding her face in his fur. Her whole body shook. He wanted to put his arms around her, but she’d push him away as a human, he was sure.
“Natasha,” he said, letting it rumble in his chest, deep and comforting. “Come run with me.”
She laughed again, shaky and strangled. “Just like that. Oh Steve.” It was the first time she had ever used his name to address him. Then she drew a deep breath, fighting back a sob. “You smell like home to me too,” she said brokenly.
Her wolf-form was beautiful: sleek and slender and strong, her fur a rich russet brown threaded with red here and there, smaller than Steve, smaller than Bucky had been, but perfect in every detail. They went slow at first, never ranging out of sight of the cabin, only drawing circles around it again and again. She had never done this; that much was obvious. Shift had been short controlled bursts of violence for her, he guessed, and hours locked in narrow dungeons from moonrise to morning. Her stamina was at nil, but then again, so was his. They chased each other over fallen logs and streams and round dense tree-copses, jumping bushes and rolling in last year’s leaves, panting and exhausted, and Steve felt better than he ever had since – since.
When it grew dark they crept out from under the shade of the trees to curl together by the riverside, where the moonlight fell direct on them; it felt like a blessing. Silver-grey, the world seemed very loud and very bright and very beautiful to Steve, and for a long time they lay and gazed at the swift-running water in silence, breathing one another’s scent and lying close to keep warm.
At last Natasha snuffled, thumping her tail against the ground, and said slowly, “Do you think you could bring down a deer?”
Then she sucked in a breath. Steve carefully didn’t look at her. She hadn’t known he could speak as a wolf; that must mean she had not realised she could, either. Her voice was lovely, though. He could listen to it forever.
“I’ve never tried,” he said. Then, contemplatively, he added, “There was this cow in Poland once,” and felt supremely pleased with himself when she laughed.
Three days, spent shifted in the woods. Three days to run farther and farther out, to test their limits and grow used to their bodies again. Three days to sleep curled around each other, become so familiar with one another’s scent that, when they went back to the cabin and shifted to human in order to eat, it felt like a limb was missing if they were in different rooms. They barely talked; there didn’t seem to be a need. When, at last, the chopper was due, they went back to the cabin to shift and wash and put their clothes back on, and Steve didn’t think he recognised Natasha’s face.
“You look different,” she said, laughing, and touched his face. “Everything looks different. Very… new.”
“Yes.” He was smiling. “You do too.”
“I feel different.” They were on the couch, sprawling comfortably across one another’s bodies. “I’ve never been shifted so long before.”
“Sometimes,” said Steve. “We used to scout, during the war.”
“You love it, don’t you.”
“Yes,” he said, so easily it was as if the last few agonising months had never happened. “Wasn’t it glorious? The last few days?”
She put her head on his chest and didn’t answer for a few long minutes. Then she said softly, “Yes.”
Back in DC, he couldn’t sleep. The bed was too big, too pristine, too enclosed; he smelt nothing but himself in the whole apartment, and it made him anxious, restless. He was tired to the bone, but he was missing something – something vital – something more immediate and stinging than the constant dull ache of Bucky’s absence, the hole that would never be filled again. This was different. This, he could fix.
There was nothing else for it. He flung himself into shift and jumped down his fire escape in three graceful bounds. Then – then. It was late, and the streets were quiet; Steve made little effort to hide unless he was near a subway station or a main road. He picked up her scent in Foggy Bottom, crossing his path tantalisingly, and followed her trail swift and silent as a shadow to a place in Georgetown, a small old house with bay windows and a tiny front yard. He knew at once that she had bought it because it had a basement she could secure herself in, during shift. Anger and protectiveness and pity twisted in his chest, remembering how hesitantly she had spoken her first words in wolf form. What had they done to her to make her believe she was such a monster?
One of the downstairs windows was open. He jumped through easily; it was just big enough to fit him. Or her. Maybe she had left it open on purpose.
Natasha was on her bed, the covers pristinely neat beneath her; she had jumped up when she heard him come in, when she had smelt him on the stairs. She was wearing a thin white shirt-thing with spaghetti straps, and panties, and as far as Steve could tell nothing else.
He stopped in the doorway, feeling like a creep and an intruder. But her smile lit up the room for him, and when she patted the bed beside her he jumped up easily.
“Missed you,” he said.
“Me too,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep at all.” She didn’t shift; just curled up beside him, bigger than him for a change, in her human form. He licked her face to tease; she cackled helplessly. “Stop. Or you’re taking the floor.”
And then, with her scent in his nostrils and her warmth against him, he slept at last.
“Next time bring a change of clothes,” Natasha said next morning.
“Yeah I didn’t really think this through,” Steve admitted.
By the next full moon Steve had more or less moved into Natasha’s place. They ran together every chance they had; they slept in the same room, and if they were alone together chances were good that one or both of them would be shifted. The house was old and empty – Natasha didn’t seem too bothered about excessive furniture – but pristinely kept, all wooden floors and wide windows and light, and Steve loved it. His books began to journey over from Dupont Circle in twos and threes; his clothes of course, and his records, and one evening she dragged him to his feet to try and make him dance, laughing, and he told her about Peggy in a single desperate waterfall spill of broken words.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry.” She petted his hair as if he were in wolf form, gentle and slow.
“It’s all right.” Steve sighed, and sniffed, and held her close, his head pillowed on her chest. Her legs wrapped around him, a quick tight squeeze.
For another moment she was silent. Then, softly, she said, “I lost someone too.”
He bit his lip. “I’m here,” he said gently. “I’m always here.”
That made her shake, but she kissed his temple and said nothing.
At SHIELD they tried not to let their changed relationship show too much, but it was hard; harder than Steve had thought it would be. They touched so frequently, and it was so good to be close, to talk and laugh and work together, a seamless, perfect team. They had always worked well together, but this was something else. Talk got unnecessary sometimes; when they were on the same page, they were on the same page. And even when they weren’t, quite, they didn’t need to talk much. It was good to just sit together and breathe each other’s scent, the way he and Bucky had spent long lazy summer afternoons together as boys, silent in some rooftop hideaway with a book each and a sketchpad or a pile of homework or the balance books from Mr. Barnes’ grocery store that Bucky always did for him. To just be, with someone close who understood you…
After Alaska, Natasha dragged Steve down to the gym by the ear and taught him mixed martial arts, and half a dozen other fighting styles as well. It wasn’t payback in a purely transactional sense for all the things he had taught her about being a lycanthrope, but Steve sensed her need to give something back to him, to balance their partnership. He thought she enjoyed it too – he certainly did – there was no one else who could match them, and if they used the gym late at night and turned the cameras off they could each let rip, almost as good as running together.
The one thing Natasha would never do was shift in a fight. The first time Steve had bowled her over by shifting out of her grip she had lain underneath him and stared up into his face, expressionless and white as a sheet.
“What’s the matter?” Steve bent to nuzzle her throat, just under her jaw where her scent was strongest, and felt her tremble. “Tasha?”
“Don’t,” she said, and had to stop. “Don’t expose yourself like that again.”
“Expose –” said Steve. “By shifting?” He stepped back and sat down, curling his tail around his haunches. “Are you all right?”
She pushed herself up. “Yes. Just. Don’t do it. You’re vulnerable like this, Steve.”
“I’m over a hundred pounds of werewolf with enhanced reflexes and very sharp teeth,” he pointed out, wanting to grin.
“Opposable thumbs are much more useful,” she said, and he laughed. After a second, she grinned too. “Your shorts are gonna be stretched to hell.”
“Yeah it’s uncomfortable,” he agreed. Then he came back to her and licked her face though she did giggle and shove him away – she was ticklish, it was the most delightful discovery he had ever made. “Are you OK?”
“Yes,” Natasha said, and put her arms around his neck the same way she had in Alaska, the first time she had seen him shifted. “Yes, I’m all right.”
She was a voracious reader, but she didn’t seem to own many books – got them all out of the library. It wasn’t until after Steve had shifted most of his own books to her house – where, lacking a set of bookshelves, they mostly piled in haphazard towers on the living room floor – that she began to buy them herself, a little hesitantly, as if she were always afraid they might suddenly be taken away.
The nightmares faded. They never went away, and the dull ache in his chest where Bucky was supposed to be did not lessen, but it was easier to sleep now, easier to breathe when the first thing he smelt was Natasha’s scent. She made him cut his hair short, into a more modern style, and it did suit him. Sometimes he looked at himself in the mirror and thought he looked like he belonged in this century, at least a little.
And then, one day, Fury cornered him in the elevator. “Moving a little fast, don’t you think.”
“Hmm?” Steve frowned at him.
“Fast?” Steve was still puzzled. “Oh! Uh. That’s not –”
“If it’s to do with your – your condition,” he said, “and if it’s anything that could impact your work…”
“Condition,” said Steve, scathing. “I’m a lycanthrope, Nick. And so is Tasha.”
Fury blinked, once. Then he said, “Werewolf support group?” in tones that wavered between faintly horrified and almost relieved.
“Real people call it having friends,” Steve said dryly.
But – but. Before Alaska, they had never exchanged a word that was not professional, not since that night in the mess hall. Steve took to frowning at the walls in spare moments. Moving a little fast, don’t you think. Were they? And he still knew next to nothing about her, not really.
Well that wasn’t true either. It was just that none of the things he knew about her were… traditional getting to know you facts. What had it felt like with Bucky? Oh, what was the use of comparing; he had known Bucky inside out and backwards since the age of four, just as Bucky had known him. Both of them being lycanthropes had done nothing but solidify their friendship, in spite of how it had come about. But maybe there was a point in comparing – did he and Natasha not act the same way he and Bucky had, frequent touch, sharing a bed, an easy, wordless understanding between them… And the thought of being apart at next full moon was a terrible one.
Steve threw in the towel, metaphorically speaking, and hied himself to the library.
“What’s all this?” Natasha found him bent over a pile of printouts and photocopies the next morning, at the kitchen table.
“Scientific research,” said Steve, half-drowned in his coffee mug.
“About?” She picked up a sheaf of papers curiously.
“Nick said some stuff the other day.”
“About you and me.” She flipped through the pages.
“It was almost a shovel talk.”
Natasha laughed out loud. Then she shoved at his shoulder; he sat up, and she slid onto his lap, hooking an arm over his shoulder companionably, curling herself against his chest as she read. For a few long moments, Steve buried his face in her hair and held her, perfectly content.
Then he realised. “Uh, I think this was what he meant.”
“He knows better than to bug my house,” Natasha said absently.
“Yes,” said Steve, “but before Alaska you would’ve cut your right arm off before you touched me.”
“That’s not true!” She looked up at him, surprised – maybe a little hurt. Then, thoughtfully, she looked down at herself – perched on his knee in her thin pyjamas – for a moment an odd look crossed her face, and Steve made sure to hold her close and tight and steady. “Hmm,” she said.
“There’s a lot of stuff here about lycanthropes being essentially psychic with one another,” said Steve. “Lots of it is totally over-the-top stories about reading each other’s minds. But some of it – if you dig through the sources, and the academic stuff about lycanthrope societies – it’s interesting, most of them were illiterate, there’s very few manuscripts written by actual lycanthropes – some of it maybe…” He dug his notes out and handed them to her. She skimmed them with her lower lip caught between her teeth.
“It’s all speculation,” she said.
“Mostly. But it – still.” He scratched the back of his neck, awkward. Dubious Victorian anthropology was all very well and good, but there was no explaining it away that the basic facts of this new relationship between them matched the common descriptions of a lycanthrope pack-bond pretty well. “I’m sorry if I – did this to you.” Maybe it was because of Bucky’s death; surely the two of them had had a pack-bond, and his broken half had latched onto the first lycanthrope he met.
That sounded ridiculous even inside his own head. Suddenly he realised that she was forcing herself to stay still on his lap, forcing herself to look at him.
“You didn’t. I – it must have been me.”
He snorted. “Don’t think so.” His sweet girl who had been beaten into believing her wolf form was a monster she had no or little control over… not likely she would have been able to initiate a pack-bond with him, when she had been so desperate to bury her lycanthrope traits. He let his hands fall away from her; immediately she stiffened and stood up, her face turned away from him.
“That someone I lost,” she said, “we were – he was.” A lycanthrope. Steve bit his lip. “They broke our bond before they killed him. I felt it. I didn’t know – I thought I was going crazy. But that must have been what it was.”
Sheer fury choked him for a second. “Natasha…”
She shrugged sharply. “It was a long time ago.”
“I had a bond with Bucky,” he said. “I must have done.”
She looked at him then. “Your friend? Barnes? He was – this?”
“He was a POW at Azzano,” Steve said. “Zola did something to him… it wasn’t the same as mine, it always hurt him to shift, but he was a lycanthrope.”
Natasha grinned, mirthless. “What a pair we are.”
He reached out and wrapped his fingers around her wrist, very lightly. “I’m glad for it – for us.”
And something snapped in her; the tension in her shoulders bled out, and she back to him easily, settled in his lap. “So am I.” She hid her damp face in his neck. “So am I.”
And then, just when they had begun to settle into this new life they were building for themselves, Project Insight.
“We have to,” Natasha said quietly. “It’s the only way.”
“It’s torture,” Steve said hoarsely, spasms still running through him. “We’re proposing to torture him.”
“Don’t you think I don’t know that.” She was shivering herself, but she held him tight and steady and warm, and he buried his face in her stomach and tried not to weep. The cold air in the bunker tasted of concrete and mould, and the smell of her blood was in his nostrils. “But it’s the best chance we have, Steve. They time his missions – he hasn’t shifted in seventy years – and the arm is pumping inhibitors and toxins into his bloodstream every second. It’s keeping him from shifting freely. If we can force a shift on him, his body will reject it, and he’ll get free.”
“We might help him break the mindwipe but we’ll never get through to him past the drugs,” she said softly. “They’ve changed everything – they block our bond, they change his scent. I’ll lay money on it he can’t smell us at all. Shift will clean them out, if we can just get him there.”
It made sense. It really did. And yet – the memory of the shift Rumlow had forced on him on the bridge was burning under his skin, pain like electric shocks lingering past the time he had finally been able to shift at will back to human. It made him sick to his stomach to think of doing this to Bucky. But Natasha was right. And she had been through so much; this agony he was in was a fraction of the pain she had suffered. He could pull through, for her, for Bucky. He had to. He had to.
If he weren’t in so much pain it would have made him laugh. They were such idiots, he and Natasha, such fools. All along the reason they had each smelt like home to the other within seconds of their meeting was because the same man had always been home to both of them.
Well, they had each lost him once, separately. Together they could get him back. And tie up some other loose ends he’d apparently left dangling behind him in ’45 besides.
The first thing Bucky Barnes was aware of when he woke up was the sand crusting on his bare skin. It was scratchy as hell and more uncomfortable than any Army-issue blanket he had endured in his entire career; even more uncomfortable than his Aunt Ida’s knitting, and that was saying something. He reached up to brush it off his face, blinking in the sunlight. A column of smoke drifted across the blue sky above him, and the world seemed very still and quiet – he couldn’t even hear any birds.
He could smell, though. He took a deep breath, trembling – smoke and fire and rubble, melted plastic and hot metal, gunpowder; all the usual battle-smells. Blood, but not the rotting stink of bodies. Trees, grass, dirty water, the cursed filthy sand. Natalia’s beloved scent so close, her heartbeat calm, her breathing steady. Steve’s scent too, sweet and warm and home – he was injured, his pulse was faster than Bucky would have liked, but he was breathing fairly easy.
Wait a damn minute. He sat up suddenly; it made him dizzy, and he flung out his left hand to brace himself; the tree bark scraped at his raw palm. After the spinning had stopped, he blinked his eyes hard.
Natalia was sitting against a tree two feet away from him, filthy and bloodstained and fiercely, beautifully triumphant; Steve was lying across her lap, his wounds haphazardly bandaged and his eyes closed. She had her hand in his hair, was holding him protectively.
“Hello, Soldier,” she said softly. “Welcome back.”
“What.” He wet his lips. “What the fuck happened.”
“We forced a shift on you,” she said bluntly. God, yeah. That explained – he shuddered. But it didn’t take a genius to work out…
“It brought me back.”
“You hadn’t shifted in seventy years,” she said quietly. “It set your body right.”
“Well.” He looked down at himself, naked and filthy and beaten black and blue; new scars and old ones, and the pink new skin of his left arm. The last time he had held her, it had not been flesh and blood. “Tell me it didn’t grow back.” He felt mildly horrified.
She laughed. “I don’t know. When you shifted your body rejected the metal arm, and you had four legs – just as you should. After you’d shifted back your arm was – your arm.”
“Oh well, thank god for that.” He was hoarse; he stopped to cough and work moisture into his dry mouth and throat. Come to think of it, Steve had had three of the fingers on his right hand blown off once in ’44 and the same thing had happened. They were damn hard to kill, and more than a little unnatural. “Steve’s injured.”
“It’s not too bad.”
Bucky rolled his eyes. “Like I’ve never heard that before.”
She made a noise that, in any other woman, he would have called a giggle. “He’s a stubborn asshole.”
“Yes.” He smiled at her. Then he came close, reached out to touch, and she shivered all over when his fingers brushed her face.
“Missed you so much.”
He couldn’t honestly say the same; he had not remembered she existed, had not remembered Steve existed. But the hollow pit in his chest that he had used to paper over with his orders, with the mission, was filled in perfectly, now. For the first time in seventy years he felt… whole.
“I’m here now,” he said. What else was there to say? And how in god’s name had she and Steve even met? It was a mystery. It was worrying, too. Bucky Barnes had a type, he wasn’t dumb enough to think different, put ‘em together and god alone knew what would come of it. He grinned so hard his face hurt, and she turned hers into his palm, sighing; Bucky dropped his other hand to Steve’s chest, resting over his heartbeat, and sat in silence, breathing their scent, until Fury’s deputy came to find them.
He slept a lot, the first week or two. They brought him home to Georgetown, to a house that held their scents in every nook and cranny, and Bucky slept through almost all the aftermath of what they’d done: he dozed on the bed next to Steve as he recuperated, or he slept on the couch with his head on Natasha’s lap. The shrink Fury made him see approved of this orgy of unconsciousness. Bucky was ‘re-integrating his experiences’ or something.
Bucky laughed at him. “I’m sleeping a lot because I’m safe,” he said, and the shrink pinched his mouth and asked some other damn fool question.
They cracked his skull open like a can of beans to get the neural interface chip for the metal arm out of his brain, and when he woke up, groggy and helpless, in the hospital afterwards Natasha was asleep on Steve’s lap in the chair beside his bed.
It was totally imaginary, but Bucky thought his whole body felt lighter, after that.
It didn’t last, of course. Full moon was coming. Steve, being the same useless lug he had always been, was looking forwards to it; Bucky thought of his painful shifts during the war, and remembered the agony of the forced shift on the Helicarrier, and tried not to be afraid. Even if it hurt, that was just the change: he had no responsibilities, nothing to do and nowhere to go; he could stay shifted for the full 72 hours if he so chose, and between times he and Steve would run as they had run during the war, slip out of the window and chase each other through the streets and parks of this strange city, this new home. That would be ecstasy. The only trouble was the shift itself.
Two more hours till moonrise. Bucky sat on the couch in the living room and tried not to think about it. What was Natasha reading? A murder mystery. He stuck his nose into the book curiously.
Someone nudged his knee, and when he looked up he dropped the book in astonishment.
Natasha stepped back at once. “I didn’t mean to startle you.” And he’d thought her voice was husky in her human form.
“No, I –” He trailed off, staring openly. She shook herself a little, and then preened, turning a circle so he could see all of her, the long strong legs and the lean flanks, the shape of her head, the red glints in her rich russet fur. Only once before had he ever seen her shifted; she had been caged and muzzled like all the other assets, and it wasn’t until days later that he had seen the ID number in her files and realised that it had been her.
“You’re beautiful,” Bucky said at once, and slipped off the couch to the floor, holding out a hand to her. She came to him at once, nuzzling his fingers, curled onto his lap. “You’re so beautiful.”
“Thank you,” she said smugly.
“And beautifully vain.” He scritched her ears.
She wriggled in his lap indignantly. “Vain!”
“Yes, love, very.”
“I don’t really think I’ve got to take this from a man who –”
“If you’re referring to the sheer, you know, the sheer amazingness that are twenty-first-century skincare products –”
“Vain, vain, vain!” she said, and rested her head on his knee. “Where do you want to run, then?”
“You’re coming?” His voice rose in surprise. That was a mistake. He felt her drawing away, and caught at her quickly, tugging her back into his arms. “I’m so glad. I know how bad shift was for you – I didn’t think you’d want to come.”
“Oh!” Natasha went soft and pliant against him. “I – Steve showed me.”
How lovely it could be. Not to be afraid. Steve had showed him the same thing, after Azzano, tugging him out of the bunker and into the moonlight, the fresh air, the forest. Bucky smiled into her fur. “Me too.”
They sat in silence for a little while, until they heard Steve’s footsteps on the stairs; he was already naked, bottom lip caught between his teeth to keep back a smile, and as he came across the room to them he shifted, the same easy grace he had always had, and now Bucky had two hundred-pound wolves on top of him. Steve licked his face cheerfully, and Bucky put a hand in his face to shove him away.
“It’s official, I still hate that.”
“Killjoy,” said Steve. “C’mon, up and at ‘em.”
“You’re like a puppy,” Bucky told him. “An overgrown and extremely annoying puppy.”
“I think, when it’s wolves, the technical term is cub.”
“The technical term can kiss my ass.” Bucky sighed. “All right, fine. Let’s do this.” If he waited for moonrise and the slow dizzy melt of his bones it might be worse than if he just pushed through it already. He stood up, shucking t-shirt and sweats, and looked down at himself; having his left arm back still made him feel strangely off-balance. He had grown used to the weight of the metal, the glint and shine of it. The scars of the join were still there on his skin, pale but visible, and the new skin was paler than the other arm, as if he’d been out in the sunshine in a shirt with only one sleeve.
He drew a breath, and reached for shift. At once his bones dissolved; he shook himself, unbalanced, and scrabbled for purchase in surprise, his claws sliding across the wooden floor until he remembered what his tail was for; he raised his head in surprise and found himself, for the first time, the same size as Steve; not just the same height but bulky too.
“It didn’t hurt,” he said in blank surprise, and wanted to whoop to hear his own wolf-voice again, clear and deep as ever.
“Well!” said Natasha. “I guess we re-set you from the ground up.”
Steve laughed in delight. “You’re still gorgeous.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” said Bucky. He settled on his haunches and surveyed himself curiously, as much as he could see. The chief difference between now and the last time he had shifted, before the train, was the grey fur at his left shoulder where the scars ran. “Hmm.”
“Vain,” Natasha said again, and came close, curious, nuzzling at him, wrapping herself around him when he stood up.
Bucky nosed at the thick fur at the nape of her neck, pressing their sides together. “This is new.” And very lovely.
Her tail flicked in triumph and delight, and then it was Steve’s turn, and this was so familiar it made him want to weep.
“Welcome back,” Steve said. “I missed you so damn much.”
“It’ll be all right now,” Bucky said quietly, and here, like this, shifted on a full moon night with the both of them beside him, he could believe it with his whole heart. “Everything – the three of us. It’ll be all right.”
“Come on,” Natasha said, twining between them, lithe and strong and lovely. “Let’s run.”
They slipped out the open window, silent as shadows, and ran.