The rain is heavy, aggressive and cold. It scours down the sides of the buildings and streaks the windows, gurgling angrily through the downspouts before it crashes into the storm drains. It slows the ponderous traffic to a crawl and beats on the umbrellas and car roofs and races the staccato shush-tok, shush-tok of the windshield wipers as the drivers fight to see.
The cat remembers how much he hates the rain.
This is not a revelation, but it is a memory: one more tiny scrap of knowledge that can be added to the set of things that the cat knows come from him. This dislike wasn't put there by Hydra. None of his keepers needed him to hate how it feels to be wet and cold, or how awful it is when your fur gets sodden and heavy, or how miserable when the smells go away.
It didn't matter to his keepers, before. So this is his. One more minuscule, insignificant, beautiful little thing that actually belongs to him.
Of course, he's still soaking wet.
He's also hungry and cold, and his right front leg is broken and very painful, which makes it hard to walk. He also has broken ribs, and his lungs haven't felt right ever since he got out of the river.
It'd be easier to move in the manbody or twoskin, but much harder to hide and much harder to search. And there's someone he needs to find. His witch. The man who told him his name.
It's too cold and wet for that right now, though. So instead the cat curls up tighter in the corner made by the dumpster and the alley wall. It's almost dry here, and the stink is awful but it might confuse the dogs and keep away anyone who might be hunting him. He's not a small cat, but he's black and its dark, and where he is smells terrible and even the S.T.R.I.K.E. teams try not to be out in the rain.
Maybe it'll clear up by morning, and he can look again. He thought he smelled the man-who-is-maybe-his-witch before the rain started. If he's lucky there'll still be enough scent to find.
The cat doesn't know if he even wants a witch. But something's wrong with him. Something's missing. It's been missing a long time.
He just wishes he could remember what he's lost, instead of knowing he hates the rain.
The story doesn't begin here, but it could:
Steve Rogers falls into the water and the twoskin he called James Buchanan Barnes goes after him.
He should have killed him. Kotik doesn't know why he didn't, but keeping this man alive is an imperative even stronger than the geas tearing at him. Rogers said he was Kotik's witch. He saved Kotik when the girder fell and refused to hurt him. But that's not why the twoskin drags Rogers up onto the bank instead of letting him drown.
Kotik stands there watching the water trickle out of Rogers' mouth as he breathes, and the compulsion to kill him is so powerful that he's is trembling and his claws are stabbing pits into his hands. His right arm is weak, broken at the shoulder, but he still has his left arm and all his teeth and his claws. Rogers is unconscious. It would take no effort at all to give him a quick, clean death without any fear or pain.
That's the only good thing Kotik knows how to give, and the only thing he's ever been allowed to. The geas is tearing him apart and there's blood from his own claws dripping through his fingers and he must kill Steve Rogers now now now. But he doesn't.
Kotik wants to protect him. He wants Steve to be safe, even if that means the geas rips him to pieces. It's the first thing that's felt right and true and real in as long as he can remember, that he wants Steve to live more (far more) than he wants to live himself. So he changes from the twoskin to the cat, because the cat is too small to kill a man. And he runs.
It hurts, to run limping on a broken leg. But the geas fades a little every time he changes, and he can hide so much more easily like this if his keepers come after him. And he knows better than to be there when Steve's friends arrive.
So he runs. And for a little while he even tells himself that he won't look for Steve again. It'd be for the best if he doesn't. Steve will be safe.
The cat knows he shouldn't look for Steve. He does anyway.
Or it could begin here:
He's wet and very, very cold. So cold he can't move. He wants to move badly, but there's a sluggish disconnect between his limbs and his brain. He's also afraid of the other people in the room, but he's too cold to get away from them. He's very hungry.
Right now there's ice on the tips of his ears, and chips of ice still frozen to his tail and in his hair, and the clawbeds at the ends of his fingers are blue. This is all he knows: that he's wet and cold and hungry and the twoskin, and that if he doesn't get up they'll hurt him and if he does get up they'll send him out to kill. If they're happy with him afterwards, they'll let him take his muzzle off and eat. If they're not, they'll hurt him again. If he makes them very happy, his keeper might even pet him a little, like between his ears or on the back of his head. That's the one bearable thing, when a keeper touches him and it doesn't hurt.
Most of the time they hurt him, even when he does what he thinks they want. That's why he's afraid, because he can't guess what will make them happy. Even when he remembers.
He can't remember much, other than what they tell him for his missions. He doesn't know where he comes from or how old he is, or how he learned his skills or how long they've had him. He doesn't know why he dreams of falling, or of a redheaded girl or a skinny boy with blond hair and blue eyes. He doesn't know why his chest hurts all the time, or if he's ever had a name that really belonged to him.
His keepers call him Kotik or Kot-Prizrak or Amurskiy Tigr. He's their familiar. They own him. He can't run, even if he had somewhere else to go.
This is all he knows.
But the story actually begins here: with a witch, a kitten and a ghost.
That sounds like a joke, doesn't it? But no one's laughing in the alleyway. Not even the three boys who have the fourth one cornered against the brick wall and the metal garbage cans. The fourth boy is small and scrawny and on his knees with blood gushing hot and red down his face, misting into the frigid winter air. It's 1927 and He's almost eight and a half and too young to be dying and far more powerful than he knows.
He's too late to save the kitten, whose life is ending a puddle of steaming blood and melting snow. The boy was too late even when he heard its pitiful cry and rushed towards the three bullies instead of getting home safely from school. His books are still neatly stacked with the belt tight around them.
For the three bullies, stamping on the tiny, shivering ball of black fur was a momentary impulse, easily indulged and quickly forgotten. And it would've been, except for the boy who's barely bigger than the kitten himself. His tiny fists on his twig-like arms are hardly even an irritation, but his fury pricks their conscience like thorns.
They don't like that, so they break his nose. Now the boy's on his knees, and he can't breathe because his nose is bleeding and asthma from the cold and exertion is closing his lungs. He's dying—like the kitten—but he doesn't know it yet. He's too stubborn, too much of a fighter to stop trying to stand, even when the boys hit him again, and again. But he can't breathe.
The ghost knows the boy is dying, but only in the distant, abstract way that ghosts know anything. The ghost is there because of the impending deaths of the kitten and especially the boy, because ghosts are drawn to death the way moths are to flames. It resembles what they want so closely that they can't recognize it's actually completely different until it consumes them.
Ghosts want to live the way moths want light. And life burns brightest as it dissipates.
Perhaps you're wondering why the ghost exists at all.
Ghosts, you understand, are want personified. Only, most people think the want belongs to the ghost. We speak of burdens, unfinished business, the need to let go so that the soul can move on. Jacob Marley appeared to Scrooge wrapped in the chains of his greed. Anne Boleyn is said to walk the Tower of London, carrying her dripping head and lamenting her innocence.
The truth is, the want that binds the soul comes from the living.
The ghost was an eagerly-anticipated firstborn child: adored from the first rounding of the mother's belly; named for a girl or boy before the first fluttering of movement and discernable wet gallop of a heart. There was a glowing future already planned for a beautiful daughter or son by parents heady with joy to welcome them into the world. But they couldn't. There were complications. The baby died as he was being born.
No future, no beloved firstborn son. Just a tiny body in a tiny white coffin.
But the parents wouldn't let him go. They loved him too much, clung to their wishes and regrets and wanting until that little scrap of a soul was bound to the Earth tight as any cursed spirit. His mother would talk to him as she did her chores, window-shop for boy's clothing she'd never buy, plan birthdays that would never happen. His father would watch the little boys learning to catch or how to ride bikes or running into their proud papa's arms, and he would think that should have been mine.
And every Sunday after church, the childless parents went to visit their son's grave.
The stone read James Buchanan Barnes.
And so it goes.
Even chains forged with love can hold something down, so the child who almost lived spends the first nearly-nine years of his non-life trapped in the few square blocks that shape his parents' existence. The few square blocks that include the school he should have attended, and the boy who should have been his friend.
The ghost is only distantly aware of the boy, but the boy is powerful and full of more life than his fragile little body is capable of sustaining. And the ghost doesn't know what life even is, but he wants it like a moth wants flame.
So the ghost follows the boy into the alley when he hears the kitten and gets into a fight. And the ghost is there when the boy starts dying.
The boy doesn't want to die.
He doesn't know he's dying, not yet. He's too fierce for that, too stubborn. But his body knows. His body wants to breathe but can't, and his fingertips are turning blue from lack of air and the cold sliding beneath his wholly inadequate jacket. The only thing warm at all is the blood gushing from his nose, but it's in his mouth and he can't cough around it with the asthma clogging his lungs.
He doesn't know he's dying, but the desperation is there in every cell of his body, every thud of his weak heart, and in every shuddering pull of his inadequate lungs. On some level he's exquisitely aware that unless something changes immediately, he isn't going to get out of this.
The boy's terror is as pure as the white, crystalline snow turning to slush by blood and boots and dirt. And in his desperation and fear he wishes for help with every straining fiber of his failing being.
But he's not just a boy; he's a witch. An incredibly powerful witch, too powerful for his little body to sustain. It's his power that ruins his heartbeat and shrivels his lungs and twists his spine. It's his power that makes him short and skinny and far too small to contain the soul that blazes like the sun, even as it begins its inexorable slide from his weakening body.
He's a witch, and witches don't wish for things the way ordinary people do. They tug on the threads of the universe and reweave it to their bidding.
Witches cast spells.
The boy will never know what happens in that moment, when his wordless plea becomes a spell that reweaves the universe. What he's aware of is an agony so perfect it steals the world, eclipses every moment of experience and memory so that when it's over and he's lying sobbing in the bloody snow the first thing he's truly aware of is that he exists at all. The second is that he's alive and human, not just a receptacle for pain. The third is that he has a name, and it's Steven Grant Rogers.
What he doesn't understand, not then, is why he feels like he's been torn in half. But the reason for that is simple: it's exactly what happened.
The next thing Steven Grant Rogers is aware of is that there are now four other boys in the alley instead of three. But the fourth is moving so fast it's hard to get a fix on him, like a shadow boxing in the dark. He fights the three boys all at once, hitting and kicking and clawing and biting at them like a wild animal, until they run away screeching in fear.
Then the new boy stands with his back to Steve. His hands are in fists and his shoulders heave as he watches the bullies flee. There's blood on his fingers, dripping into the snow. In the distance the cars on the street honk and rattle like this is an ordinary evening. The other boy's breathing is very loud, almost as loud as Steve's own wheezing in his ears.
And the final thing Steve becomes aware of is that the boy has a black tail with maybe a hint of brown, flared out and bristly like a hairbrush. It flicks back and forth, lashing at the snow and the blood and the boy's bare ankles.
Steve coughs with shock and the boy whirls. He's completely naked, but that's the least notable thing about him, besides his flopping, completely unremarkable dark brown hair. Because he has two huge cat ears perched on the top of his head, covered with downy brown-tinged black fur like his tail.
The boy's eyes are stormy grey. Cat eyes. The long black pupil's gone oval in the winter dark.
There's blood all over his mouth, blood on his sharp teeth and spattering his neck and chest. But when he sees Steve he doesn't try to eat him. Instead he drops to his knees next to him in the snow.
"H-hey," he says, hesitant with something other than cold. He looks like he has to concentrate on how to form words. "Are…you o-kay, pal?"
Steve nods, too shocked to do anything else. Certainly too shocked to feel afraid. He is in pain, though. His nose aches and he's cold and his lungs are burning. And he feels like half of him is gone somehow, torn away like old newsprint. It doesn't hurt anymore, but the vacancy is actually worse than the pain. Like the edges of a wound.
When he tries to sit up and can't the boy reaches for him. Their hands touch, and instantly the vacancy, the terrible absence, is gone.
Steve gasps and sees the other boy's eyes shoot wide, his ears stand straight up from his skull. The sudden feeling of being complete again is as much a shock as the initial tear. All his other hurts, his bewilderment and confusion, dissipate like the mist from his breath next to the bright flare of two ragged halves of a soul becoming one again.
Steve lunges for the boy without even thinking about it, throwing his arms around him. His grateful laugh shatters into a sob and then Steve—almost eight and a half and still bleeding in the alley where he almost died—is weeping with his bony little chin digging into the other boy's shoulder. Steve feels the soft, inexplicable flick of his cat ear along the top of his head and the sturdy bones of the strange boy's back beneath his palms. They stay like that for a long time. Too long, in the dark and the cold, before Steve finally remembers where he is and how late it is and that he's with this boy who appeared out of nowhere and looks like a cat but feels like everything. And his ma's got to be worrying about him something awful and he doesn't know what happened.
Pushing back from the boy feels worse than getting his nose broke, but Steve does it. He only realizes when he can see the other boy's face that he's been crying too. "Sorry," he murmurs, because it's rude to bawl all over somebody you only just met, no matter what they look like.
The boy doesn't answer. He wipes his eyes, looking at the tears on his blood-sticky hands like he's not sure what they are. He licks them with a tentative poke of his tongue, then shrugs. He sniffles, wipes his nose, and shivers.
"Oh. You must be cold." Steve forgot the boy's naked.
The other boy nods.
"Um, what's your name? I'm Steve," he adds, remembering to be polite.
The boy sniffs and wipes his nose again. "James Buc-han-an Barnes."
"Wait—Barnes?" Steve stares at him. "You mean, like Winnifred and George Barnes?"
The boy—James—nods. "They're my mom 'n' dad."
Now Steve's gaping. "But…but, they don't have a son. They have daughters."
But James nods again. "I'm their son."
"Their son died."
He remembers now, Ma explaining in hushed tones why Winnifred looks at Steve sometimes with a longing that makes him feel scared and sad and lonely all at once. Or how sometimes George can't hardly look at him at all.
Their own boy died, Stevie. The poor thing never even drew breath in this world. When they see you, they see the child they never got to have. It's hard for them, love. You must be patient, and kind.
James answers that with a nod too. He rubs his chest like he can feel the same thing Steve does inside: the part that's whole when they're touching but raw and wrong when they're not. When he looks at Steve his eyes shine in the light from the street, like an animal's.
"What are you?" Steve asks him.
"I don't k-know," James says. He looks at his hand, the sharp, curving claws that come out when he flexes his fingers, then at Steve again. "D-do you know? You made me."
Steve shakes his head. "I gotta get home," he says, because he can't think of anything else. He tugs at the front of his shirt, plastered down and half-frozen with his blood. "Ma's going to kill me."
James' ears go flat, and he growls.
"Not for real!" Steve says quickly. "I just meant, she'll be real mad."
"Oh." James' tail's still flicking, but his ears slowly stand up again.
"You don't know much, do you?" Steve stands, or tries to stand, but he's so cold now that he can practically hear his knees and elbows creaking like old hinges and James has to help him get up. That's fine, though. It's good just being near him, but touching him's even better. Even if James is still naked and he has a tail.
Steve's lungs feel like they're stuffed full of sand but he's not panicked now and he thinks he can make it home before it gets worse. He's pretty sure there's at least one ampule left of Epinephrine for the nebulizer if he needs it, but maybe he can get by with Vicks and a warm bath. And Aspirin for his nose. His nose really hurts.
He's horribly cold, too, trembling like a leaf despite his mostly-dry jacket. Poor James is shaking even worse. He has his arm that's not supporting Steve wrapped around his chest, and he's shifting from foot to clawed foot so his feet won't have to touch the snowy pavement for too long. The blood where the kitten was glistens black and thick as it slowly freezes, but the tiny body's gone. Maybe it was all right enough to run away?
Black kitten, Steve thinks. Like James' black ears and tail. Steve doesn't know what that means.
You made me, James said. But Steve couldn't have. He doesn't know how, so how could he have done anything?
Steve takes off his jacket then wraps it around James' waist and ties the sleeves. James is cat-lean, but he's still taller and bigger than Steve. The jacket barely covers enough to be decent, leaves a gap going up to the top of one hip like a dancing girl. But maybe it'll be okay, in the dark.
"Come on," Steve says, and now his voice shakes along with the rest of him. He takes James' hand, remembers to grab his books with the other, though he's too weak to do more than drag them along behind him. He doesn't even protest when James takes the strap right out of his hand and hefts them like they weigh nothing at all.
"Are we go-ing home?" James asks him.
Steve nods, though he doesn't know which 'home' James means. Steve wants it to be his. He doesn't want to let James anywhere away from him.
His ma will fix this anyway, he figures. She's no witch, but she knows about magic and what spells can do and can't. If anyone will know what James is, he's sure she will. His ma knows everything.
They slip down the alley together like twin shadows, neither letting go of the other's hand. They head right for Steve's apartment. Steve's thinking of a warm bath and a warmer bed, with the cat-boy named James curled next to him and the ragged edge inside smoothed out and soft and nothing missing.
But when they get to his building, his ma's not alone. Winnifred Barnes is standing with Sarah on the front steps, breathing anxious white plumes into the night, waiting for them.
The thing is, Steve was a witch, and nobody knew.
Was. Because sometimes, if the spell's big enough, it takes the witch's every last ounce of magic to cast it. The universe can only be rewoven so many times.
And creating a whole, living being out of one live boy, one dead boy and one dying kitten through sheer dint of will and need is, as you might imagine, exceptionally big.
Afterwards, while he might still feel like a witch to those who can sense such things, he isn't one anymore. After all, a car is still a car without an engine; the only difference between a corpse and a living body is a soul. Things keep their shape and purpose even when they can no longer function as such.
And in the case of Steven Grant Rogers, the only difference between a witch and a boy who used to be one is a single, exceptional spell.
Winnifred Barnes screams when she sees the two boys.
Sarah Rogers doesn't—she gasps with her trembling hand covering her mouth—but they both race down the steps in their housedresses and slippers, heedless of the wet snow and chill. Sarah flings herself to her knees and crushes Steve to her like she could envelop his shaking little frame completely and save him from the cruelties of the world.
"I was so scared," she says. "I was so, so scared. You're an hour late, Stevie!" She pulls back, leaving her hands on her son's shoulders as she looks him up and down. "Good heavens, what happened to you?"
"I got into a fight, Ma." As if that wasn't obvious enough with him standing there bleeding. He glances at the other boy and Sarah can already see the glimmer of awe in her Stevie's eyes.
At first she thinks it's just admiration. And then she tears her eyes away from her own child long enough to see that he's still holding the other boy's hand: the boy barely covered by Steve's jacket, staring up with big, bewildered eyes at Winnifred. It's then Sarah realizes that the other boy has brown and black cat ears and a long black tail with a hint of brown. And he's nervous, so claws are curving out of his fingers and toes where the nails should be.
Winnifred is standing transfixed, both hands over her mouth like she's trying to hold in every other scream she might otherwise unleash on the dark. Her eyes are big and just as stormy grey as the boy's, her hair the same dark brown. But he has cat ears and claws and a tail, and the light in her eyes has as much terror in it as wonder.
"Let's go inside, Winni," Sarah says. Her voice is trembling but it has nothing to do with the cold. "We can find out what happened later. The boys will catch their death out here." She has Steve pulled flush against her belly, both of them wrapped in her housecoat except for his arm, because he won't let go of the other boy.
The boy swallows. His ears are swiveled forward like he's listening to Winnifred breathe, and his tail is lashing at the snow. He opens his mouth—Sarah can see fangs, still rose-tinted with the blood that's staining his face and neck and chest and hands—and his lips hover over a word like he doesn't know how to shape it.
"Mommy?" he manages at last. He's shivering so hard his voice is shaking.
When she hears it, the sound Winnifred makes is small and awful and broken. But she drops her hands from her mouth then reaches for the cat-boy, her fingers fluttering like startled insects over his ears. He flicks them back and forth and she yanks her hands away, but settles them on either side of the boy's face.
"James?" she says, and Sarah's heart stops dead in her chest, hearing it. "James?" All at once Winnifred pulls the startled, shivering boy into her arms. "James," she says again, his name tangling in the tears streaming down her face. "Oh, my God. James. My boy. My baby. My beautiful baby."
He hugs her too, holding her so fiercely that Sarah worries for Winnifred's back, but James has pulled in his claws. He makes a noise that isn't a word at all, but a chirping mewl. Like a kitten.
He doesn't sound the least bit human.
Winnifred hears it. She's still crying when she looks at Steve, and her expression is full of gratitude and astonishment and more than a little fear. "Why is he like this? What happened to him? What did you do?"
Ma and Mrs. Barnes make Steve tell them what happened at least a hundred times.
At least a hundred. And it's even more exhausting because he has to be real quiet, since Rebecca and Elizabeth are sleeping. He tells the story once to Ma and Mrs. Barnes, then another time while Ma is running him and James a bath, and then to just Mrs. Barnes again while he and James are taking the bath and Ma goes back to their apartment in the building next door to get pajamas. They have hand-me-downs from church that are too big for Steve but will probably fit James just fine.
Ma gets paler and paler with every telling, but she's the one who goes into the Barnes' kitchen to make tea when Mrs. Barnes gets wobbly and has to sit on the closed toilet lid and put her face between her knees so she won't faint. When Ma brings the tea back Mrs. Barnes' hands are shaking so bad that the liquid sloshes over the side.
James won't get into the water until Steve does, and then he seems much more interested in the bubbles from the soap than listening to what Steve's talking about. But every so often he looks at Mrs. Barnes and gives her a big, dazzling smile, like he's the happiest kid in the world. It's a little weird, though, with his fangs. But at least all the blood is gone.
Steve is finally warm and that's fantastic, and Mrs. Barnes gave him Aspirin for his nose so that doesn't even hurt very much anymore. But it's strange, taking a bath with another kid. Steve hasn't been in a bath with anyone since he was real little and took them with his ma. But it's easy to touch James like this—with his feet mostly, bumping against James' feet, or his shins, or his tail because it won't stop moving. And it still feels so much better to be touching James than not.
Mrs. Barnes can't stop touching James either: his face, his hands, or the end of his very wet tail and the tips of his bubble-frothed ears. And she's the one who scrubs him to within an inch of his life when he tries to lick off the soap.
James figures out how to talk really fast. But every time they ask him his part of what happened, all he says is, "The boys were stomping on me. Then Steve made me to help him." It makes no sense, but it's the only story he knows.
Well, it's not the only one. He also knows he was dead and that his name is James. He knows—well, he doesn't know—but he acts like a cat and he's got cat parts and he kind of remembers being one. But he also remembers being a ghost. He keeps asking when his dad's coming home.
"Soon, dear," Mrs. Barnes says. "I called his work. He was in the garage, but he said he'll be home as soon as he can." The bath is over and they're wrapped in about a dozen towels each, and Steve can't stop yawning.
To Steve, James is strange but wonderful, but he can tell the grownups don't think so. Mrs. Barnes keeps touching James like she doesn't quite want to but can't not. And he sees her hesitate before she rubs James' head under the towel. He makes a noise like he's purring and gives her another big, beautiful smile with all his pointed cat teeth. He doesn't seem to understand that his mommy keeps making faces like she's trying to smile back when she really wants to cry. It makes Steve worried.
Steve's ma is helping dry him off even though he doesn't need it, since unlike James he's had plenty of baths and used towels loads of times. She looks worried too, and she keeps glancing at James like he's the one she's worried about. Steve wants to ask her what's wrong but he won't, because it's rude with James and Mrs. Barnes right there in the room.
He doesn't realize he took James' hand again until Ma gently tells him he has to let go so he can get dressed in the Barnes' bedroom.
He's sure that as soon as he's dry and dressed that Ma will take him home, but even being away from James only long enough to pull on his pajama pants and button up the top feels really bad. Less bad than the way it did right after James appeared in the alley, but it's still like there's a big hole inside him. Steve's terrified of going back to his apartment without James. And what will happen when he has to go to school tomorrow? Just thinking about that makes him feel sick. Maybe he can convince his ma to let him stay home, and he and James can spend the whole day together—
James comes tearing out of the bathroom completely naked with his hair dry and sticking up everywhere and his cat ears flat and his tail straight out and bristling. He all but tackles Steve onto Mr. and Mrs. Barnes' bed, then lays on top of him, rubbing his cheeks against Steve's face and making miserable little kitten chirps.
When Ma and Mrs. Barnes try to pull him and James apart, James growls and shows his teeth, then claws and snaps at them when they don't back away. Only Steve can calm him down.
Mrs. Barnes coaxes James into a pair of pajama pants while Steve holds his hand—she cuts a hole for James' tail—and then coaxes both boys into the kitchen so they can finally have some dinner.
Steve and James sit so close together they're practically in each other's laps, but Steve's too exhausted to eat. His ma whisks the soup bowl away before he ends up drowning himself in it. James isn't much better, but he's hungry enough to stay awake and he finishes the rest of Steve's nearly-untouched soup as well as his own. He tries to lap up the soup at first. Mrs. Barnes has to teach him how to use the spoon.
Ma ends up carrying Steve like he's a baby, then tucks him into Mr. and Mrs. Barnes' bed. Steve's too muzzy to think much about that, other than how gigantic the bed seems and how grateful he is that there's plenty of room for James to crawl in beside him. Ma kisses him on the forehead and wishes him goodnight, and then Mrs. Barnes kisses James right next to one of his sleepily-twitching ears. She says she loves him, and Steve thinks that maybe there are tears in her voice, but he's too sleepy to tell for sure.
James curls up like a cat, and Steve kind of flings himself on top of him. And everything is warm and whole and perfect. And he still doesn't know what happened or what he did, or what James is or why he's here, but he's too content to mind. He falls asleep thinking that Ma will sort everything out in the morning.
He wakes up screaming.
He wakes up because someone's saying he's having a nightmare and shaking him and then Steve's eyes are open and he screams. Because it feels like…it feels like he's being twisted up. Like the top he has that he plays with by winding string around it, only it's just getting tighter and tighter and tighter and it hurts but nothing's letting go.
So he screams and he's in his room in his apartment but that's wrong because he was with James and where is James and why does it hurt and what are they doing to James? And when he gets snatched off the bed he struggles and kicks and fights until he's wheezing and the man who grabbed him whispers, 'Shh. Shh. Please, Stevie!' and Steve realizes he's in Mr. Barnes' lap, and they're in a corner of Steve's bedroom. Mr. Barnes is sitting on the floor, holding Steve upright and rubbing his back.
Steve's still exhausted and bruised and his nose really hurts and the twisted hollow space inside him is aching. The strain of fighting has set his asthma off again and Steve's heart is pounding so hard that hurts too. But Mr. Barnes knows him well enough that when he hears Steve struggling for breath he's able to talk him through his breathing exercises, until it's not so bad anymore.
"Where's James?" Steve gasps, trying not to cry so he can breathe. "What are you doing to him? Where's my ma? I want Ma! Ma!"
"Hush!" Mr. Barnes whispers. "Your Ma is with Winni. And James is…James is fine."
"No he's not!" Steve doesn't want to cry but he can't stop it. He wraps his little arms around himself and sobs because he's so scared and he hurts everywhere and it's all twisted up and it won't stop. "It hurts."
"Please, Stevie. You need to listen," Mr. Barnes says. He pushes Steve's sweaty hair off his forehead, rubs his back and wipes Steve's eyes. His big bear paw hands are shaking.
Steve's sobbing even though he's trying not to, only quiet because he doesn't have enough breath to wail.
Mr. Barnes keeps rubbing his back. "Like I said—your ma's with Winni. They're looking after James. A witch is with them."
Steve gasps. "A witch?"
Mr. Barnes nods. He holds Steve a little more tightly, but more like he's hugging him than keeping him still. "James…He's…not right, Stevie. You saw him. The witch is fixing him."
"He doesn't need to be fixed. He's not broken. He's not!"
"He's a monster." Mr. Barnes swallows. "You saw him." He sounds like he's trying not to cry himself. "You saw him. That's not…that's not my boy."
"He's not a monster." Steve's still crying but when he tries to sniff it makes his nose hurt. He rubs his chest. "The witch is hurting him."
"He can't feel anything. The witch did something to keep him asleep."
"She's hurting him. I can feel it." Steve rubs his chest some more but it doesn't help. "It's all twisted."
"He'll be fine. My son will be fine. He's a strong boy. He just…he just needs a little fixing. Everything will be fine."
"It's not fine," Steve sobs. "It's not. It's not. It's hurting."
Mr. Barnes just hugs Steve and doesn't answer, and Steve can't stop crying.
What feels like hours and hours later, his Ma finally comes home, but the witch is right behind her.
Steve's sure he's seen her before, on the stairs or coming home from the market. She's wearing a thin pink nightgown with lace trim at her swollen ankles and thick bedroom slippers, with a white housecoat over it. Her slate-gray hair is in curlers and tied up with a scarf. Mrs. Barnes must've gotten the witch out of bed.
She looks like anyone's grandma, except he knows she's a witch. He can feel it, the same way he can feel his pajamas or his ma holding him or the twisting emptiness inside that he has no name for.
She has a parrot on her shoulder, like a pirate. Steve can feel that the parrot shares something with her. Something important. It reminds him of James, but he doesn't know what it means.
Mr. Barnes leaps to his feet, still carrying Steve like he's forgotten how to let go of him. "Is it…done? Is he…." His breath shudders. "Is he all right?"
Ma nods and smiles, though she looks tired and worried and sad. "He's an ordinary little boy."
"Oh my God." Mr. Barnes looks down at Steve then back at Ma like he doesn't know what to do with him.
Ma instantly holds out her arms and Mr. Barnes puts Steve into them like Steve is as little as Rebecca. It makes him embarrassed, but he feels so awful he's not sure his legs would hold him if he tried to stand. She sits on his bed and he burrows against her as he hears Mr. Barnes all but running out of the room.
"Why is she here? She hurt James. I felt it!" He turns to the witch, bewildered. "Why did you hurt him?"
"I must," the witch says simply. She has some kind of accent, warm and thick and rolling. "No one wanted to hurt the little boy. But he can't stay as that. How can he go to school? How can he even go outside?" She shakes her head, making a clicking noise with her tongue. "People will look and think, 'monster'. You want that, for him?"
"Monster!" The parrot repeats.
"He's not a monster," Steve says. But even Mr. Barnes had called James that. And Steve remembers the way Mrs. Barnes looked at James, and all her fleeting touches, and her voice like she was trying not to cry.
"Of course he is not," the witch says. "But he looked like one. Boys have no tails."
"Most people are scared of what they can't understand, Stevie," Ma says quietly. "If people knew James had a cat's soul…." She shakes her head. "They'd call the police, and they'd take him away forever."
Steve stares up at her. "They would?"
"Oh, yes." The witch nods. "Take him away, lock him up, study him like animal. Maybe kill him too."
Ma pets Steve's hair. "Do you understand why Mrs. Tabenkin had to help us, now, Steve? You gave Winni and George their son back. You did such a beautiful, wonderful thing, Stevie. Like your father. He was incredibly powerful too. But James…."
James said Steve made him too, but it doesn't make sense. "I don't understand. How could I make him? I didn't do anything."
"You did." Mrs. Tabenkin comes closer, settles herself down on the floor with a grimace and creaking knees. Ma immediately puts Steve beside her on the bed and leaps up, but the witch waves her off with a smile. "This is fine." She beckons Steve. "Come here." She holds out her arms.
Steve's confused and his insides still hurt and he's scared, but he doesn't even think about it before he crawls into her lap like he does with his ma. Instantly, the pain stops. All of it: the empty twisting; the ache from his nose and his bruises; the tightness in his lungs; everything. When Steve gapes up at her Mrs. Tabenkin just smiles down at him. She's missing two bottom teeth.
"That is better." She chucks him under the chin like he's a baby. "You feel like a witch now, little boy. You can tell I am one too, can't you?" He nods and she does too. "But you, so much power in here." She pats his stomach. "Too much for a little boy, makes you sick and small. But oh, what you can do with it! You mix three souls, bring back the dead." She smiles, but for some reason now she looks sad too. "But your power is all used up." She snaps her fingers. "Poof! All gone. One beautiful spell, and then all gone."
"I don't know what I did." The parrot bends down and gently nibbles at his hair. "How could I make a whole person if I don't even know what I did?"
"Your power," Mrs. Tabenkin says. "You are witch. The best need no words. They just make." She puts her palm on Steve's stomach again. "They make the spell here. And so in the world." She grins at him again. "And so with you. But that is why you hurt, in here."
"It really hurt, before James…James came and helped me," Steve says.
His ma nods unhappily. "That was you giving him a piece of your soul, sweetheart. You share a soul now. You made James with three souls. One is his, one is from the kitten you tried to save, and the last part comes from you."
Steve stares at her. "Am I going to die?"
"No! No, Stevie! You are absolutely not going to die. And neither is James," Ma adds before Steve has to ask. "You're both going to be absolutely fine. It's just—"
"Your friend is one boy with three souls," Mrs. Tabenkin says. "They fit, like puzzle. But the cat-soul is in front, which makes him cat-boy. So I move it."
"Move it!" the parrot says.
Mrs. Tabenkin chuckles and scratches under her parrot's chin with one finger. "Just as Annushka says." She makes a kind of petting motion with her hand. "I smooth the tear, put the cat behind the two boy-souls. So, cat is inside. No more kitty ears. Just boy-ears. Like you." She gently ruffles his hair. "I can fix now for you, too." She rubs his stomach. "Make it smooth, where part is missing. So you don't need to touch so often. Less pain."
"Okay," Steve says.
"Good." Mrs. Tabenkin smiles again, then gently lifts Steve to his feet. "He should be on the bed for this." She pats his thin back and he can feel her soft palm on his spine.
He's scared, but he lies down like Mrs. Tabenkin said and Ma kneels on the floor so she's out of the way and can still take his hand.
Mrs. Tabenkin puts one hand on his forehead and the other over his heart, then closes her eyes and begins a raspy, crooning song in the same rolling language as her accent. And suddenly Steve's so relaxed and sleepy he can't keep his eyes open.
"That's right," his ma says, but he can barely hear her. "You go to sleep now, baby. And you'll have a new friend in the morning."
Steve wants to ask who, when he already has James. But he can't stay awake long enough to even try.
Ma keeps him home from school the next day. She says he had a bad asthma attack after school the day before and spent most of the night coughing and wheezing, unable to sleep.
Steve can't really remember any of it, except for being on his knees in the snow and trying to breathe, and he's got a lot of bruises and his nose is all red and bumped like he fainted. It wouldn't be the first time that happened. He's just glad he made it home.
He actually likes missing school, sometimes, when he's not so sick he can't enjoy being able to read his comics or draw or play. And today he mostly feels fine, even if he's still a little bruised and tender in places. So he's excited about meeting the boy who Ma says helped him get home.
The boy's name is James Buchanan Barnes, and he's just a little older than Steve though he's much taller, like nearly all the kids Steve knows. James has dark brown hair and dark grey eyes and a huge, kind of mischievous smile. And it's weird, but Steve feels like he already knows him. Like they've been pals their whole lives.
They aren't—James just moved in with the Barnes a couple days ago. Mr. Barnes is his uncle; James' own parents died of influenza. James got so sick that he doesn't remember anything before arriving at his aunt and uncle's apartment.
That seems kind of sad. But maybe James is actually better off, since he can't miss his parents if he doesn't remember them. Steve thinks he'd rather miss his mom than forget knowing her, though. But James is really happy to be with Winnifred and George and already treats them like his real parents. And Rebecca and Elizabeth are ecstatic to have a big brother, and Steve can't stand thinking about his ma dead and gone at all. So maybe it really is better this way.
It's probably selfish too, but Steve is real glad James is happy and not missing his folks. Because the first thing James does after they shake hands is drag Steve outside to play. James barely has anything since he just got there, and Steve can't do much on account of the asthma, so they just make chalk drawings on the sidewalk where the snow's been swept away, or have a careful snowball fight so the cold doesn't give Steve trouble, or chase Rebecca and Elizabeth really slow 'cause they're both so little. But it's still one of the best days Steve's ever had.
When Steve finally has to go home it actually hurts a bit in his chest, even though he knows he's going to see James the next day at school. But James gives him a big hug and tells Steve he's sure they're going to be best pals forever. And Steve knows James is right, because it already feels like they are.
Being powerless doesn't make Steve any stronger.
He doesn't remember being a witch any more than he remembers making James. But even now that he can't cast spells he doesn't become healthy. His lungs don't choose to competently inflate, and his heart never decides on an adequate rhythm. He's still short, and his spine is still curved securely towards the ground. He still gets sick like gummed-up clockwork every winter, and every spring and sometimes in the summer too, just to keep things interesting.
He's still out sick more schooldays than he attends. But now he has a friend to bring him the work he missed and help him with anything he doesn't understand.
And Steve is a lot less lonely. Even on his worst days, he has something—someone—to look forward to. Even on his worst days, James (he goes by 'Bucky' now) can always make Steve smile. Other than his ma, Bucky is the best thing in Steve's life. Steve loves him.
Steve loves Bucky so much that sometimes when they're not together it hurts right inside his heart, like without Bucky there's just a jagged-edged hole in his place and nothing else will ever fill it. Bucky is Steve's everything.
They spend every day with each other, sleep in each other's beds more often than not. It's so normal to see them together that people talk about them like one entity: Bucky'n'Steve. People assume they're related, like brothers or cousins.
Once, one of the old men who lives in Steve's building says that Steve must be Bucky's familiar, then laughs like he's just told them a joke. Neither Steve nor Bucky know what he means.
"He meant a special kind of companion animal," Ma says when they ask her to explain. "Witches have them, sometimes. They're smart as a person. A few can even talk. The familiars help their witches and accompany them wherever they go. It's very, very rare, though. At least in America. I've only met one witch with a familiar my entire life."
"Who?" Steve asks, curious.
Ma just smiles and shakes her head. "You've never met her. She died a few years ago."
"Oh. That's too bad." It might be neat to meet a witch with a familiar. They sound interesting. "But, neither of us is a witch. And I'm a boy, not an animal."
"You're small enough to be a mouse, though," Bucky says. He just turned 12 and thinks everything he says is either charming, brilliant or hilarious.
Steve rolls his eyes. Bucky grins.
"I'm sure he was referring to how you two always seem to be in each other's pockets," Ma says. She ruffles both their hair, making Steve squirm and blush and Bucky just wrinkle his nose.
Bucky shrugs, then gives Steve another grin. "Then I guess we're each other's familiars, then."
"Weren't you listening? Familiars have to be animals, Buck." Steve shakes his head. He gets fed up with Bucky's sense of humor sometimes. "Ma just said that."
"That's right. I did," Ma says. But she won't look at Bucky for some reason.
Steve figures she's fed up with his sense of humor, too.
The rain doesn't clear up by morning.
Instead it settles in and hunkers down under slate-gray bricks of clouds, bombarding the city like it wants to drown Washington and everyone in it.
The cat certainly feels more than half-drowned as he limps along the sidewalk, stopping every few steps to shake the filthy water out of his eyes. The manbody hardly got wetter than this when it pulled the man-who-might-be-his-witch out of the river.
Should've stayed as the manbody. At least the manbody had clothes and didn't have to limp on a damaged front leg. The cat has nothing except cold and wet and pain, and the trace of a scent so faint he keeps losing it, keeps getting lost himself. Maybe the man went so many places in this city that his scent is everywhere. Maybe all witches just smell the same. Maybe the cat is imagining a scent when there's really no scent at all. The cat is hurting and hungry and tired and wet and cold and wet, and maybe he's just imagining everything because his head aches so much his thoughts are rattling like dice in a jar.
Everything aches. His lungs rattle too, and he woke up coughing. He just wants to go somewhere dry and warm and sleep. Maybe his maybe-witch will have a dry and warm place for him?
The cat keeps walking, following a scent that may not even be there anymore, if it ever was. But he has nothing else.
The cat keeps walking.
It's April, 1933, and Bucky's been 16 for less than a month. He's wearing his coveralls from the same garage his uncle works in and sitting on the Rogers' fire escape. He's also drinking illegal alcohol that tastes like something that he drains from the engines. It's late—after his normal work he works for the Italians, fixing bootleggers' cars.
There's blood mixed with the grease on his coveralls and his family are at home in the apartment building just next door and probably have no idea where he is.
Bucky's on Steve's fire escape because the Rogers aren't home, and even though he has a key he won't go in unless Steve's there. Not like this. Mrs. Rogers would be horrified at the blood and the bruise on Bucky's face.
He's a lot more concerned about Steve not being home than about the blood. It's late and it's not all that warm and Steve has no reason to be out, as far as Bucky knows. And Bucky hasn't seen Steve in nearly a week now because of his jobs, and that place behind his ribs is hurting. Bucky's already checked at the college where Steve takes his art class and the grocery store where he works when he feels well enough, and all the soup kitchens he knows Steve goes to when he's sick of taking what he feels is charity from the Barnes.
Bucky's already agreed with himself that as soon as his flask is empty he'll go out and look for Steve again. And then he's just about to go look for him anyway when he finally sees Steve cross the alley next to the building.
"Steve!" he hollers. Bucky's so relieved that he forgets he's drunk and has blood on him.
"Buck? That you?" Steve squints into the alley. He can't see in the dark the way Bucky can 'cause his eyes are so bad. "I've been looking for you. Are you okay? What're you doing there?"
"Waiting for you." Bucky's glad Steve can't see if he's smiling or not, because right now he couldn't fake one to save his life. He points his thumb at the closed window behind him. "You gonna let me in, or what?"
"Of course," Steve says, instead of the eye-roll and sarcasm Bucky was expecting. That's a little strange—for Steve—but Bucky's just glad he doesn't have to explain that he's waiting for the window because he's not sure he'd be steady enough to get down the ladder.
It takes a long time for Steve to climb the stairs to his apartment, since he can't go fast 'cause of his lungs, especially when it's cold. But that gives Bucky enough time to recap the flask and hide it in a pocket. The alley tilts a bit when he stands up, but it's not too bad. Definitely not as bad as he wants, but he's not going to get that drunk in front of Steve.
He only stumbles a bit when he climbs through the window and he's opened his mouth to blame it on sitting still for so long when Steve wrinkles his nose and says, "Geeze, Buck—you smell like a distillery," and the jig's up just like that.
And then Steve gets a real look at him and his already pale face goes white. "Oh my God. What happened?"
Bucky looks down at his coveralls and winces. He didn't think they'd look quite this bad in the light, and he kind of forgot about the bruise that's probably already gone purple on his cheek. He rubs his chest. He feels better now just being next to Steve, but the other pain that's been there since three hours ago is probably never going to go away. Suddenly Bucky realizes what a fucking idiot he is; how stupid it was to come here when he's only going to make Steve upset. Hell, Steve's already upset, and Bucky hasn't even said anything.
He cards his fingers through his hair, opens his mouth but then closes it again. All the ways he was thinking of to tell Steve what happened are gone, vanished out of his head. "Where's your mom?" he asks instead, because it's the only thing he can think of.
"At the hospital. She's working late so I brought her dinner," Steve says distantly, still staring at him. "Do you need her to patch you up?" His fingers hover over the biggest stain but don't land, like he's afraid to touch the blood. He pulls them back and rubs his chest as well, like he's copying Bucky. "I've been…I've been worried about you all evening. Is this your blood? What the hell happened?"
Bucky swallows. "I-I think…." He takes a breath and his heartbeat starts going like one of the bootlegger's engines. "Steve?"
Whatever's in his voice makes Steve look up at his face, and then whatever's on Bucky's face makes Steve go even paler. "What is it, Bucky? What happened?"
"I think I killed somebody," Bucky finally gets out, and then he's crying in Steve's kitchen, shaking with the enormity of what he's done.
"Oh my God," Steve says again. "Oh, Bucky." And because he's an idiot he hugs him instead of running away. Bucky hugs him back, hanging on desperately. "It's gonna be all right. Whatever happened, we'll get through this. I'll help you. It'll be fine." And he's a God-damned liar but Bucky needs to hear it so badly he doesn't even care.
"Come on." Steve pulls Bucky to the ratty couch in his tiny living room and pushes Bucky so he sits down on it beside him, turned so they can see each other's faces. Steve has to look up to meet Bucky's eyes. "Okay, I want you to tell me exactly what happened."
Bucky would rather throw himself off the fire escape, but he nods and swallows again and starts talking. "I was on my way home after…after working late." He hates lying to Steve, but Steve doesn't know Bucky works for the Mafia and Bucky'll never tell him. "And there was this girl…."
Steve nods. "Okay."
"Yeah. Uh. So, this girl's real pretty, but there was this guy…I think he'd offered to walk her home, 'cause it was late. But I don't know. Maybe he just found her. But he…he was trying to make time with her and it was obvious she didn't want it, you know?"
Steve grimaces, understanding what Bucky hasn't said. "He was getting fresh with her?"
"Yeah. Well, no. He was…." Bucky hesitates, trying to decide how much he should tell him. It's not that Steve's…delicate. Not exactly. It's just that he's still a virgin, barely even looked at a girl as far as Bucky knows. Bucky's not that much more experienced, but there's some kinds of ugliness people like Steve should never have to know exists in the world.
But in the end Bucky's too selfish not to tell him. "He had her on the ground and he…he'd ripped her blouse and had her skirt up, and he was trying—"
"So you pulled him off her?" Steve says quickly.
Bucky nods. "Yeah," he says, rough. "And, and I beat him so bad, Steve. I didn't—" He stops, takes a breath. "I did. I did want to do it." Admitting it only makes him feel worse, because Steve's right there and Bucky can't pretend it didn't happen anymore. "I wasn't even angry, Stevie. I mean, at first, yeah. 'Course I was. Some animal attacking a dame like that? I wanted to rip his fucking balls off and make him eat 'em."
"I would've too," Steve says. "No one should treat a girl like that."
"I know. But…I didn't stop, Stevie. Not even when he was begging me. Not even when the girl begged me." Bucky clenches his eyes shut, but it can't dispel the images in the darkness behind them. "I let him up. Let him go to let him run. Only I went after him again. I fucking ran him to ground like a wolf or something," he says quietly, looking at his hands. The knuckles are bruised and split and there's dried blood all over his fingers. "I wanted to do it. It was…It was fun. I liked it. Like the animal was me."
"Is he dead?"
"I don't know. The girl—Hazel. Her name's Hazel." Not that it matters. Bucky's not ever planning on seeing her again. "She did something. Cast a spell, I think. Took her awhile to make it, but it…knocked me out for a couple minutes. Sort of. When I came to, she had my hand and we were somewhere else."
Steve blinks at him. "She took you with her?"
"Yeah." Bucky screws the heels of his hands into his eyes. "She didn't want the cops to find us."
He doesn't tell Steve that Hazel said that spell shouldn't've worked on you. He doesn't tell Steve how she gaped at him and said, Why did it? What are you?
What. Not, who.
He doesn't tell Steve how he bolted the second she let go of him, fleeing into the cold and the dark. And how he ran to all the places where he thought Steve would be, because he was so desperate to find him. And then when he couldn't, Bucky ran all the way here and then sat on the fire escape getting drunk while he waited for Steve to come home.
Steve's just looking at him like he's considering something. "So, you're saying, if this person—Hazel—hadn't cast a spell on you to make you stop, you would've killed the guy who almost raped her. For fun."
Bucky swallows, but he nods. "Yeah. It was fun. Hunting him."
"But you don't know if he's dead or not, because you didn't see the body?"
"Okay." Steve gets up. They're both still wearing their jackets and shoes, so he just goes and stands next to his front door with his hand on the knob. "Well? You coming?"
Bucky just blinks at him. "Where?"
"To wherever you punched this guy's ticket," Steve says like it's completely obvious. "To see if he's alive or not."
"And what if he's not?"
Steve shrugs. "Then we hide the body."
Bucky stalks over to Steve. "Are you nuts?" he hisses, worried now that the neighbors—that his family—will hear, know what he's done. "If…if he's dead, and the cops find out it's me and you helped, they'll get you too."
"I know. So we make sure they don't find out," Steve says, like it's the easiest thing in the world.
"Jesus Christ." Bucky rakes his fingers through his hair, leaves his hands on his head while he tries to figure out what the hell he's going to do when it feels like the world's been tilted off its axis. "Steve. I don't—I might'a killed somebody 'cause I liked it, and you're talking about hiding the body, for fuck's sake! Do you even know what you're saying?"
Steve doesn't even blink. "What was the fun part?"
"Just what I said. You said it was fun. So, what was the fun part?" Steve repeats. "Was it hurting him? Or the idea of killing him? Did you want to kill him?"
"Of course I—" Bucky stops. "No," he says at last, wonderingly. "I didn't want to kill him. Or hurt him, really, after…after I got him away from Hazel. I wanted to hunt him. Run him to ground. Like I said."
"So, when Hazel made that spell, what were you doing?" Steve looks pleased, like he already knows the answer.
Bucky bites his lip. "It's kind of blurry. But…" He looks at his hands, as if his swollen knuckles would tell him the full story. "I tackled him." He lifts his head, his eyes wide. "I hit him. A couple times. I remember that. But then I…I think I told him to get up. To run."
"You mean, you told him to run away from you?"
"Yeah. But it was so I could go after him again." Bucky remembers the fierce, wild exaltation of it. The reason he'd started the fight in the first place didn't matter anymore. The only thing that did was the hunt. The hunt was everything.
He realizes he's curled the fingers like claws and closes them into fists. He's started shaking again. "I would've kept doing it until he died, Stevie. Letting him go then running him down. Over and over again. What's wrong with me? Steve, what the hell is wrong with me?"
That spell shouldn't've worked on you.
What should've it worked on?
(What. Not, who.)
"Hey, hey. Bucky, calm down. Calm down, all right?" Steve's got his hands on Bucky's arms. Bucky looks at him and God, Steve's so small. And fragile, like a bird. It'd be so easy to chase him down—
Bucky gasps in horror and he staggers back, dislodging Steve's hands. "Sorry," he rasps.
"It's fine," Steve says quickly, but his expression is deadly serious. "Bucky, there's nothing wrong with you."
The noise Bucky makes is too strangled to be a laugh.
"No, listen to me. You saved a girl from a rapist, Bucky. You fucking pulled him off her. What the hell does it matter if you got off from hunting him like the animal he is?"
Bucky shakes his head. "No. No, you're not hearing me. I know what I did. Normal people don't do that, Stevie. They don't…they don't treat other people like, like they're mice, for God's sake!"
"Normal people don't attack girls, Bucky," Steve says, implacable. "Normal people—good people—help them. Like you did. You keep talking about this asshole like he's the important part. He's not. Hazel is. Would she really have taken your hand and led you out of there if she thought you were going to hurt her?"
Bucky blinks. "I don't know."
"Well I do. And the answer is, no. She wouldn't." Steve yanks open the door like that's the exclamation point at the end of the discussion. "So let's go find this guy, and if he's alive you can chase him right into the East River for all I care. And if he's not…" Steve winces. "We'll worry about that if it happens." He cocks his head. "Now, you coming? Or am I going to have to go by myself?"
"You don't know where I was." It's on the tip of his tongue to tell Steve everything, about the way Hazel looked at him and what she said. But he can't make himself do it. Because then Steve'll know. And if Steve knows, it'll be true. It'll mean Bucky's really not human.
So he doesn't say it, and he follows Steve like he always does. And he convinces himself that Steve's right, it doesn't matter if he got his kicks from treating a rapist like he was a rabbit and Bucky was a wolf. It's no more than the guy deserved anyway. It doesn't make Bucky some kind of animal. It doesn't mean anything.
What are you?
It doesn't mean anything.
In the end it's not even important, because when they get to the alley where Bucky had the fight, the guy's gone.
But the wanting to hunt, that doesn't go away.
It gets worse. Little by little, until the wanting to chase, to run someone down gets so bad sometimes that Bucky stays away from Steve, from anyone, in case he can't control himself. He'd rather die than hurt Steve or Sarah or his own family, and he'd never forgive himself if he hurt some stranger for nothing. But sometimes it's so hard. Something will move out of the corner of his eye and suddenly the entire world narrows to the need to go after it. Sometimes he can't even stop himself in time and then he has to make up some dumb excuse about why he lost focus, or took off in the middle of a conversation.
It helps when he's working on something that needs all his attention. It helps when he gets to fight in the illegal boxing matches set up by the same Mafia guys he fixes engines for. But it doesn't help enough. He gets a reputation for being erratic at the garage. A little stupid, even. It doesn't matter until the owner has to choose between him and some other mook and Bucky's the one out the door.
Luckily at the docks they don't give a shit how stupid you are as long as your back's strong enough. Bucky's nearly full-grown now and tough from fights, and he doesn't mind doing overtime or working in lousy weather. And the more tired he is at the end of the day, the easier it is to ignore the animal inside him.
And he has the fights. He's pretty sure the guy who runs the matches knows that there's something…not right with him, but the guy doesn't care. Likes it, even. Talks Bucky up like he's some kind of demon. They call him The Wolf, and Bucky loves that. And they cheer when he lets his battered opponents up only to go after them again. Bucky loves that even more.
He never loses.
He barely gets hurt, even, though he can't explain away the swollen, split knuckles and the marks on his face that easy, so it becomes another reason to avoid Steve. That place behind his ribs gets to hurting so much that Bucky almost stops noticing it. It's just another thing wrong with him.
It's 1936, and Bucky just turned nineteen and Steve's mom is dying.
Steve's basically been living at the sanatorium, watching his mother whither like a leaf about to fall. He draws her pictures and wipes the blood from her lips, and puts on such a brave face it breaks Bucky's heart.
Bucky goes to the sanatorium whenever he can, to bring Steve food or books his mom thinks Mrs. Rogers might like Steve to read to her, or just to cheer Steve up after his visits. So he's on his way when he knows Mrs. Rogers is dead.
It's not as if he knows that's what happened, but he's heading to the subway when all of a sudden the near-constant ache behind his ribs bursts into agony so bad that he staggers and clutches at his chest like he's having a heart attack. A couple people even ask him if he's all right, but he manages to shake them off. He leans against the nearest wall until the pain fades enough so he can breathe.
He doesn't know it's 'cause Steve's mom just died, but Bucky knows something terrible just happened to him. And given the circumstances, even a dunce like him can figure out what.
The pain's almost too awful to move, but Steve needs him, so he does.
Bucky pushes himself back onto the sidewalk, and forces his legs to work until he's running.
A few weeks later, Bucky does something really stupid and tells Steve to move in with him, because the idea of Steve grieving all by himself is worse than the hunt. And awful as the funeral is, sitting next to Steve is the first time in weeks that the pain in Bucky's chest is almost gone.
(He's wondered for years if Steve feels it too. If when he rubs his chest sometimes it's for the same reason Bucky does, or if that's just Steve's heart and lungs giving him trouble again.)
Steve agrees, eventually, and then they're sharing Bucky's ratty apartment and Bucky can't hide the bruises anymore. Steve knows when Bucky comes home late. He knows when Bucky's been fighting.
"It's not that I don't understand why you do this, Buck. 'Cause I do. And I appreciate it, you earning money like that. Even if it is illegal."
Bucky just rolls his eyes and smirks. They're in the bathroom, with Bucky sitting on the closed toilet lid and Steve on the edge of the bathtub, cleaning out Bucky's knuckles. It stings, but Bucky's high on the fight he just won and Steve touching him. Hell, just being close enough to Steve for them to touch feels better than anything has in months. "So nice to be appreciated."
Steve snorts. "Ass," he says, even though Bucky kind of meant it. But Steve's even gentler when he cleans the next split on the back of Bucky's hand. "I do appreciate it. It's just, I hate seeing you hurt." When Steve looks up his eyes are big and sad. "And you come home beat up almost every night."
Bucky shrugs. "Doesn't hurt that much. Really," he says at Steve's look. "I barely feel it during the fight. And then after…." He shrugs again. "It ain't all that much. You should see the other guy." He grins with all his teeth. They feel sharp.
Steve looks Bucky up and down then winces. "'Don't think I wanna see the other guy." He sighs, puts the cloth down on the sink. "I don't want you to get beat up anymore, Bucky. Not for me. We don't need the money that bad. Or, I'll get another job or something. I just hate seeing you like this." He reaches out like he's going to touch Bucky's bruised jaw, but pulls his hand back.
"I'm fine," Bucky says, but he's not. Steve hasn't let go of his hand and the way he's looking at him….
Bucky's heart's going double time, like it does during a fight or when he needs to hunt. "Steve?" he says, but it comes out more like a breathless mewl.
Steve swallows, but he doesn't drop Bucky's hand or look away. "I'm right here, Bucky." Then he leans forward and kisses him.
And, oh. This is, this is…this is like being able to breathe for the first time in years. This is the most incredible warmth in that space behind his ribs, like he's been cold his entire life but never knew it. This is Steve sighing into his mouth like he's been waiting his whole life to be warm too.
Steve's the one who has to break first for air. He leans his forehead against Bucky's, laughing and gasping at the same time. "I didn't think I was going to do that."
Bucky smirks, though he feels exactly as overwhelmed as Steve sounds. Steve's hands keep running up and down his arms like he can't stop touching him. "Me neither."
Steve pulls back, blinking at him with his huge blue eyes. "Was that…was that all right?"
"Oh God, Stevie. You got no idea." Bucky kisses him again because he can't not, and it's perfect. It's perfect.
Until Steve pulls back one more time, cocks his head and says, "Are you purring?"
Bucky blinks, realizes the happy rumbling is coming from him and shuts up so fast he needs to remind himself to keep breathing. "Sorry," he stammers, terrified. "I didn't….That wasn't….It just—" He can't make sense above the frantic pounding of his heart: Not right not right not right not right.
He's on his feet and at the bathroom door before he even thinks about moving.
"Wait! What's wrong?" Steve's standing too now, looking nothing but adorably confused and beautiful, with his palms out and moving slow like Bucky'll run if he doesn't. "I was just curious, is all. I didn't mind it." He quirks an unsteady smile. "It was sweet. I liked it. You don't need to be embarrassed, or anything. I probably, um. I was probably making lots weirder noises than that."
"No you weren't." Bucky clears his throat, feeling as embarrassed now as Steve seems to think. Here he is, making some stupid noise that's not even a big deal and then panicking for nothing. He cards his fingers through his hair, still feeling the chug of his pulse. "You were great."
Steve grins, all self-satisfied. "Well, why'd you stop, then?"
There's no good true answer to that, so Bucky just ducks his head and looks up through his eyelashes. "Maybe I was just thinking we should take this someplace more comfortable."
He can see the pretty bob of Steve's throat when he swallows. "Oh. Yeah. Sure, we could do that." He doesn't move though, and Bucky can practically feel the sudden unease pouring off of him.
And Bucky relaxes, because he's used to this: stepping between Steve and whatever might hurt him. "Only if you want," he says. "We'll do whatever you want. I just want to be with you."
That sounds so corny to his own ears that Bucky expects Steve to roll his eyes, but Steve just smiles.
"Me too," he says, like he's never wanted anything more than that. And he takes Bucky's hand.
It's only in the middle of the night, when Bucky wakes up with Steve still in his arms, that he realizes the need to hunt that's been beating at the back of his skull for years has gone quiet as an empty room.
It never goes away, but it's better. Easier, now that Bucky has Steve. He's more able to focus, starts getting compliments at his shitty job instead of just reprimands. He doesn't have to fight anymore, though he still does sometimes 'cause he likes it. He comes home straight from work more often than not. Because Steve's waiting for him.
As long as they're together, Bucky feels human. He can almost forget that maybe he's not.
"I'm going to Canada."
"What?" Bucky looks up from his half of the newspaper they're reading at the kitchen table. It's 1939 and a quiet Sunday afternoon. It's too rainy out to do anything but nice and cozy in their apartment. Steve's started making bread to save money. So far the results have been hit-and-miss, but it makes Steve happy and keeps the kitchen warm so Bucky doesn't mind. "You're going where?"
"Canada," Steve says again, with a decisiveness that makes Bucky sit up very straight and put his newspaper down.
He has a bad feeling he already knows the answer, and then he's right when Steve rattles the pages in his hands. "Because the Nazis have just driven the British out of France. They're taking over Europe one country at a time and we're not doing a damn thing about it." He slaps the paper down onto the table, glaring at it like the newsprint offends him. "Canada's already sent troops. I'm sure they need more men."
Bucky gapes at him. "You're not seriously thinking of going to Canada to fucking enlist, are you?"
Steve switches his glare from the paper to Bucky. He crosses his arms. "I'm not thinking about it. I'm going to do it."
"How, exactly?" Bucky's angry now, the kind that comes from fear. Because Steve's absolutely serious. He's going to leave. "We don't have a car, and we sure as hell can't afford train fare."
Steve shrugs like that's a minor inconvenience. "It's not that far from here. I can hitchhike."
Bucky imagines tiny, skinny little Steve with his bad back and worse heart and lungs walking for miles on the side of the road. Then he imagines Steve trying to go through basic training and he wants to shove the table over. He yanks his hands behind his back when he realizes how close he is to actually doing it. "Are you out of your fucking mind?"
Steve looks stung, but then he snatches up his paper and rattles it again. "Innocent people are dying, Bucky! I can't just sit here and do nothing!"
"So you're gonna collapse from asthma by the side of the road or have a damn heart attack while you're training? How'll that help anybody? And what makes you so sure the Canucks'll take you anyhow? They can't be so hard up they need a Yank with asthma who's barely 90 pounds soaking wet!" He gestures at Steve, who looks hurt and furious and everything Bucky never wanted to make him feel. But Bucky's terrified and that place over his heart is aching. Steve can't go anywhere. He can't. "You don't have what it takes to be a soldier, Stevie. Not physically. If they were recruiting on guts or heart or decency, sure. You'd be the head of the line. But as-is, you got no chance. It's not your fault, but that's the way it is. And you hauling yourself all the way to Canada or England or wherever isn't going to change that."
Steve rubs his chest like his lungs are bothering him. Bucky almost goes to him to make sure he's all right, but Steve's glower keeps him back. "Maybe they won't take me because I'm not physically sound enough, but at least I'll've made the effort. That's more than you're willing to do."
That's fucking low. Bucky stands, putting his fists on the table. He leans into Steve's space. "Yeah? Well, guess what? While you're out there 'making an effort', I'm the one who works every damn day at a lousy job I hate so we have a roof over our heads and don't starve to death. And my boss is plenty sore at me already for all the days I've skipped work." He doesn't say that he's skipped work to look after Steve when he gets sick, but by Steve's expression he doesn't have to. "If I fuck off to Canada to join the goddam army, who's going to keep feeding you or making sure you don't croak the next time you catch a cold?"
A hot flush runs up Steve's neck. He stands up as well, fists clenched. That place right in front of Bucky's heart goes from aching to blade-sharp pain: steady and gnawing like he hasn't felt for years. "What makes you think the Canucks would even take you anyway? I don't think they accept recruits who get their jollies from giving a fella a beating."
For a moment Bucky's so stunned that he can only gape at him. And then Steve's words really hit and it's like a fucking hammer to his chest.
He knows, Bucky thinks. He knows, he knows, he knows.
Of course he does. Steve was there the first time it happened. He was there because Bucky fucking went to him on purpose, when the hunt was pounding in his head and he was terrified he'd killed that guy. Steve's probably known something's wrong with him the whole time.
Bucky feels hot and cold at once, and so sick he thinks he might vomit. "You fucking son of a bitch," he snarls—he snarls—and he's shaking, so angry he stalks forward like he's going to take a swing at him. The table's in his way and he shoves it aside hard enough that it topples, hits the counter with a bang.
Steve backs away from him. "I'm sorry!" he says, real quick, and he shouldn't ever sound like that, like he's afraid of the man who loves him—
The blast of pain in front of Bucky's heart sends him to his knees. He squeezes his eyes shut and claps his hands over his chest, so overcome with pain he can't breathe to scream.
"Bucky? Bucky! What's wrong?"
Steve puts his hand on Bucky's shoulder and the pain goes away enough so he can move. He unclenches, snaps his head up. But it's wrong, there's something wrong. Steve looks like a photograph, not a person. Grey and sharp with everything too bright. And then Steve sees his face and gasps and jerks away, backs up 'til he's on the other side of the room.
Bucky lurches to his feet, choking on the cry that sounds like yowling. He races to the front door and slams it open, ignoring whatever Steve shouts as he runs out into the rain. He's barefoot and only wearing a light sweater over his trousers, but he keeps going, fast as he can so Steve won't be able to catch up to him. If he's really lucky Steve won't even try. It's cold, Steve could catch his death out here.
Bucky might hurt him.
He doubles over in an alley and throws up until there's nothing but bile washing away with all the other trash. He scared Steve. He was angry and…did he try to attack him? He can't remember. He can't remember but Steve had his hands up and he backed away like he wanted to run and he was afraid.
There's not just something wrong with him, Bucky's a goddamn monster.
He lurches away from the wall and into the gathering dusk. The rain keeps falling.
Hazel Wilson is not an exceptionally powerful witch. She is, however, blessed with an excellent memory and a particular talent for perception. Some people would call this a 'Sixth Sense'. Hazel calls it her 'knack', or 'a damn pain in the neck', depending on the moment.
This moment, it would definitely be the latter.
At least, she thinks as she heaves her extremely pregnant self out of her armchair and waddles to the door, she had the foresight—or second sight, really, ha ha—to have the strong suspicion that her husband really needed to be out playing poker with his brother and their friends. Which means he's not there to take the revolver down from the closet and try to shoot whoever's knocking on her apartment door like he's trying to bring it down.
She knows she won't like whatever's going to happen next, the same as she knows it has to happen. But she also knows that the person out there means her no harm, so she's not worried for her own safety when she undoes the lock and pulls the door to the extent of the chain.
Doesn't mean the man out there isn't dangerous.
She didn't expect it'd be James Barnes, though in retrospect maybe she should've, for all that she only met him the once six years ago. He's taller than she remembers, but that's natural. Just as movie-star handsome, though. Or he would be if it wasn't for that wildness in his eyes.
The wildness is definitely the same.
"Hazel?" he asks. He's breathless like he ran the whole way, but she can tell he's panting from nerves just like she knows the weather's not why he's shaking. He's so frightened she can practically hear it jangling like bells under his skin. "H-Hazel Sampson?"
She nods. "It's Wilson, now. But that used to be my name."
"Yeah." He swallows heavily. "Can you…" He stops, looks away, breathing through his clenched teeth.
She waits him out.
James finally swings his head back and his wild-sad eyes are lined in red and the water under them doesn't come from the rain. "Can you tell me what I am?"
He sees her belly after she's opened the door to let him in. He blinks, then stops halfway over her doorstep. "Oh. I'm sorry. I—I should—"
"James," she says, "If I didn't want you to come in I wouldn't've opened the door."
"Thank you," he says softly, like he knows her trust is a gift. He comes inside, finally, dripping all over the floor. She sits him at the kitchen table and brings him a fresh towel so he can dry his hair, then takes the blanket from the couch and puts it around his shoulders. She tells him that she's going to make them some tea and he nods vacantly, staring into space.
"How did you find me?" She considers her tea canisters for a moment, glancing at him sidelong. She chooses the chamomile, thinking she won't get anywhere at all unless he relaxes some.
James seems to shake himself back from a long distance before he turns his head to look at her. "I don't know." It sounds like that's just as much a surprise to him as it is to her. "I just…I remembered you were near the docks. And then I…found you." He closes his eyes and tilts his head a little, inhaling. "Roses. It was roses."
"Huh." Hazel uses rosewater soap, one of her only indulgences. "Like this?" She puts her wrist near his face.
James blinks at her, then blushes, but he leans forward a bit and inhales. He nods. "Yeah." He swallows, scared again. "I didn't…I didn't know that was you. I just…followed it."
"Mmm." As far as she knows, only dogs have noses that can track someone's scent for miles. And then there was that spell she used, back in '33 when they met. The one that made him follow her before he beat that asshole to death. The one her mother taught her as protection from vicious stray animals. She'd thrown it at James on instinct because his wildness had frightened her, made her think of wolves or dogs or tigers. And the spell shouldn't have worked. But it did.
She can feel the rough edges inside every time she touches him, just like she could back then: pieces that make a whole but that don't match up right all the same. She can feel the cracks along the seams, the twisted shape of it like something forced to grow wrong. His soul's been like that for a very long time. But even if it was set right, it wouldn't make him human. She doesn't know what the hell James Barnes is, and that's terrifying.
She knows he's here because he's afraid he's a monster. Hazel's not sure he isn't.
But he saved her and never said a damn thing about her being colored or what she was wearing, or how she must've wanted it or she wouldn't've been out on her own. She owes him, and now he's the one who needs her help. He's dangerous, no question. But he's also scared out of his skin.
He sits in silence, watching the rain patter against the window. Normally Hazel would be drawing him out, asking about his day or the weather or some other inanity that she rarely cares to know the answer to. It makes a rapport, which is useful later when she starts using her magic. But James needs to dig himself out of wherever's he's gone in his head first. And, well, she can guess how his day's gone. And she already knows about the rain.
Hazel goes to her altar while the tea's brewing, takes a moment for a quick prayer to ask for guidance and the strength to help this man get what he needs, to thank Jesus for sending him to her if he thinks she can help. And to know what and how much of what she learns to tell him.
They drink their tea in silence. "Take it slow," she murmurs when it looks like he's going to gulp it all at once. "It helps me read." That's true, though people think she means the leaves when she means the cup. The longer they hold it the more she can get from them.
When James finishes he puts the empty cup on the table. "What now?" He sounds like he doesn't want the answer.
"That depends. You're dry enough not to ruin my couch, if you want to sit there. Or we can stay in the kitchen. It's up to you."
He bites his lip, thinking. "Here's fine."
"All right." She moves her chair to sit closer to him, then picks up his cup and holds it in both hands. As soon as she begins to murmur the words to the spell she can feel the imprints of his fingers on the cup like they're her own skin.
Her knack for knowing some things works no matter what, as automatic as blinking her eyes. But a true reading, like this, that takes more effort. Normally she doesn't put in as much effort as this, or recite the spell half as many times. Normally she wouldn't do this at all without being paid for it, and never for a man without Joshua in the apartment. But James Barnes saved her and she owes him. A free reading is little enough payment for that.
Hazel knows the spell's complete when knowledge blooms behind her eyes. It starts out dark red, like blood on snow, and then there's a light so bright she has to clench her eyes shut and turn her face away. She hears laughter and shouting and the hard, wet thwack of fists on vulnerable flesh. The scrape of machinery. Screaming. The staccato rage of guns.
It ends in a mechanical roaring, and wind and a white drop that takes her breath, then blood that turns black as an oil slick. And snow, and cold, and ice. So much ice, and pain, and a cat yowling—
The crash that brings her back to the present is the teacup shattering on the floor. James is holding her arms, his eyes huge and frightened.
"Hazel! Hazel, are you all right? You...you're crying."
"Yes I am." She wipes her eyes. "I'm pregnant. Makes me emotional. It's not the first time I've cried over a reading. Don't worry about it." It's a flimsy lie but at least it gets him to stop holding onto her like she's about to faint. She pulls in a deep settling breath, lifts her shoulders and turns to face him. She takes his big hands in hers. They're cold. "Look at me."
He does. "What—"
"Quiet. You want to know what you are, but you already know the answer, don't you? You're a hunter, James. You've got a predator's soul."
He goes white. "I'm a killer?"
Hazel nods, but she has both his hands and she tightens her grip when he'd pull away from her, get up and leave. "Don't. It's all right. You already knew that. You know that's in you. That's why you came here. You got angry and then you got scared of your anger. But you're not looking at it the right way."
James swallows. "You were there, the first time. You saw what I did."
She nods again. "You saved my life. You pulled that son of a bitch off me and made him wish he'd never been born."
He looks away. "I almost killed him. You had to stop me."
"Yes I did. But not for him. I stopped you because you didn't deserve to have his death on your conscience. But I was never scared of you. And I'm not scared of you now, or I never would've let you near me. I know the people you fight for call you a wolf. Wolves are killers, sure, but they also live in packs and they all look out for each other. They protect and provide far more than they kill anything. If you were a different person, I'd've made sure my husband was here to protect me and our baby. But you're not." She lets go his hands to put her palms on either side of his face, turning him back towards her. "You're a predator, James, but you're not a monster."
James shakes his head and she pulls her hands away. "No. You don't understand. I attacked my friend."
"That's not what I saw. I saw you tip over a table, and then I saw you run before you could do him any harm."
He takes a heavy breath, swallows again. "Harm is all I do."
"It isn't. But you're the one who needs to believe that." She takes his hands again, chafes the knuckles with her thumbs because they still feel like ice. There's so much cold in his future, It'd be nice to take at least this much from him. "The world needs predators, James. It always has. And there's a war on now. America can't stay out of it no matter what Roosevelt says. We're going to need predators more than ever. We'll need creatures like you."
His eyes are still too big and haunted, but Hazel knows that's nothing she can change. "I don't want to be a predator. I don't want to leave—I don't want to go fight."
"Yes, you do." She knows why he doesn't want to leave. "Maybe you don't want to leave, but you do want to fight. You're a hunter, and you want to protect the people you care about. You were born for this. We both know it."
He swallows again. "When I go…will I die?"
Hazel catches the tiny, startled noise in her throat. "No, honey," she says. She's very good at smiling wide and bright like she means it. "I promise, you aren't going to die. You have…." her voice falters a bit, unsure of which lie to tell. But he deserves to know this much, at least be as prepared as he can. "You have a long road, James. And it'll be hard, no question. But you'll get through it, and you won't die. And you're going to come home."
"Really?" The hope in his voice is heartbreaking. "I'll be all right?"
Hazel swallows, keeps smiling because she can't give him anything more than this bit of hope. "Yes you will. I promise, James, you'll be all right."
It's still raining when Bucky leaves Hazel's apartment. She offers him one of her husband's old jackets, but he refuses. He'd have to give it back, and he's not planning on ever seeing her again.
He doesn't go home. He knows he's being a coward, but he can't bear to see Steve's anxious face and the forgiveness he knows he doesn't deserve.
Hazel said she didn't see Bucky trying to hurt Steve, but that doesn't mean he wasn't planning it. She might trust him—hell, Steve probably still does trust him, the idiot—but that doesn't mean Bucky trusts himself.
Tomorrow, he thinks. Tomorrow he'll figure out what the hell he can say.
So he doesn't go home. Instead, Bucky wanders in his bare feet and sodden sweater, ignoring everyone who looks at him with pity or disdain, like he's one of the thousands of men still without a job. By the time he figures it's late enough that Steve will be asleep, he's thirsty and starving and soaked to the skin again, hugging himself and shivering. His bare feet feel like blocks of ice, and all he wants to do is get inside and get warm.
He goes up the fire escape, since he doesn't have his key, praying that Steve left the window unlocked. If he didn't, Bucky's choices will be to keep walking, go to his aunt and uncle's apartment, or sleep on the fire escape and hope he doesn't freeze to death. He already knows he'll keep walking.
But Steve left the window cracked open.
Bucky breathes a sigh of relief that curdles in his lungs when he turns on the kitchen light and sees the note on the righted table. It's next to a plate holding a sandwich wrapped in wax paper, but Steve's a good man. It'd be exactly like him to give Bucky a sandwich with the letter saying he's leaving.
He drinks about a gallon of water and eats the sandwich first—peanut butter and grape jelly on freshly-baked bread—more to put off having to read the note than because any hunger survived the dread gripping his stomach. He cleans his hands, then the plate, and then carefully folds the wax paper and puts it away, and then when there's absolutely nothing left to stall with, Bucky picks up the note and reads it.
I'm really sorry I was such a jerk earlier. I can understand why you'd be so mad after what I said to you. I know that you fight for Leoni because it brings in extra money, not because you enjoy beating people up. I was angry, but that's no excuse for treating you like that.
I know how hard you work and I know how much time you spend taking care of me when I get sick. I wish you wouldn't, because it's not fair to you and I don't want you to get in trouble for it. You shouldn't risk your job for me, Buck. Especially when you do too much for me as it is. You're always looking after me, and I hate that I can't do the same for you. I wish I could make it up to you, but I can't. I'm so sorry I can't.
You're right that it was a dumb idea to try and go to Canada. I just hate that people are suffering and dying and America's not doing anything. And you're also right that I'm short and sickly and weak and they probably wouldn't want me anyway. But it doesn't make it any easier to hear it.
But it was still a lousy thing for me to say to you, Bucky. I really am sorry.
I didn't mean to scare you, either. Your eyes just looked weird in the light for a second, and we were both upset anyway so I snapped out over nothing. I know you
think you're worry about things sometimes, but I promise it was nothing. I wish you hadn't run, so I could've apologized in person. But I didn't know when you were coming back and I didn't want to leave it unsaid.
The table's fine, in case you were worried. No harm done.
Bucky has to read the letter twice before he realizes that he was wrong. Steve wasn't talking about the need to hunt that still beats at him sometimes. He has no idea about Bucky's soul.
Bucky sags in relief with his hands on the tabletop and his head hanging between his arms. The newspaper is across the table from him, neatly folded beneath the headline about Dunkirk that got Steve so sore. It seems so far away from Brooklyn and their cozy little apartment.
It seems that way, but he's not naïve. He knows the war's coming. He knows he's going to have to go, to make sure the Nazis never get to America. To make sure no one hurts Steve.
Wars don't need idealists with more integrity than strength; they need creatures like him. They need predators with the hunt beating in their skulls. They need monsters.
And they'll have one. And if it keeps Steve safe, maybe Bucky won't mind it so much anymore.
It takes another day and a half for the rain to finally stop.
By the time it does the cat is…the cat is almost incapable of caring. He's been in so much pain and misery for so long that he's gone right through it to the icy numbness on the other side. He's never been there as an animal before, but that doesn't matter. It's the same path and the same destination, even if he walks it with four feet instead of two.
Three and a half feet, since his front leg is damaged. Injured. Whatever. The cat can barely think anymore, barely remembers why he's walking, why he's bothering to keep moving at all. He needs to find something. Someone?
There's something, he thinks. His mission? The geas? But no, that's not—
The cat stops moving so suddenly he nearly tips over onto his face. The scent is gone. The scent is gone again and the cat doesn't know when it disappeared. He doesn't know where he is anymore.
No, he does. At least, he knows what this place is. He's in a cemetery. The sun's come out and the grass looks very green.
He sits down, coughing and distantly bewildered and mostly numb, until the wind turns and suddenly the scent of the man (his witch?) is so strong the cat reels with it, then leaps to his feet and runs.
Running brings back the pain but he's used to that. The cat ignores the pain in his front leg. It's harder to ignore his broken ribs and his lungs rattling because they make it more difficult to breathe, but he does. He's used to it. He knows he's been through worse even if he doesn't remember.
(The cat is beginning to remember. That's a kind of pain all of its own.)
The cat runs, following the scent that is finally, finally getting stronger now and why did he have to be at the entire other end of the cemetery can't he ever make my life easier fucking idiot and maybe he should switch to the manbody again, but that will hurt so much the cat's step falters just thinking of it. And he won't be faster anyway, not on two man legs. Not even him.
But up ahead the witch—his witch. Steve. His Steve—is getting into a car with the man with wings and the cat is almost there almost there almost there stop stop stop fuck but the car doors slam and it drives away.
The car drives away.
The cat tries to run faster to catch it, but he can't. His legs give out.
He can't do anything. The witch is gone. His scent is evaporating like the rain and the cat needs to get up and follow it before it's gone too and he's lost again. But he can't. He can't.
So he lies there in the wet, neatly-trimmed grass. The cat never had a voice, not like the manbody or twoskin, so he cries the only way he can: yowling his frustration and anguish and misery and pain to the indifferent graves. And when he can't even do that anymore he lets his head drop to the ground and closes his eyes.
He is not, actually, waiting to die. Mostly because he knows he won't. He can't. Eventually he'll heal.
(The cat is not healing, but he's not aware of that yet.)
He's not waiting for Hydra either, though the cat is distantly cognizant of how black fur is easy to spot amongst a sea of white and grey and green. He'll get up soon and go…somewhere. Once he figures out where. Once he gets some of his strength back.
Maybe he'll go back to the museum.
Except someone's coming. A witch. Another witch. Not his.
"Kotofei!" she calls, "Kotofei!" And the cat opens his eyes and rockets upright in a surge of panic, only to topple over again. He can smell this is not his witch. The scent isn't right but he knows it—he knows it—and that means….
Every time he's known a scent it meant he was going to be hurt.
He growls as the woman stops in front of him, hisses and spits when she crouches down, swipes at her fingers when she holds out her hand. He draws blood, but she doesn't pull away.
"Stop being stupid, Kotofei," she says in Russian. "You know I'm not going to hurt you."
The cat knows no such thing. Except.
Her blood. The smell of her blood is the same. The same as from the bridge when he shot her shoulder. And before that when he shot her side.
And long, long before that, when he wasn't trying to shoot anyone, when the cat was just looking for some food and a safe place to sleep, and he wandered into the big room instead. And in the big room there were beds and beds and beds but only five girls, all held to their beds with handcuffs. And only two who were bleeding, and only one who was awake and crying.
And the cat had remembered another little girl, a girl who was nothing like the bleeding one, but who'd been crying too, once. He didn't remember who the girl was, or why she was crying, or why he knew her at all. But the cat still remembered enough to hate seeing a little girl cry. And he remembered enough to want to do something.
He couldn't hug her and without the manbody or twoskin he couldn't help her escape. So the cat had snuggled on the girl's chest and licked her tears, and hadn't gone near the blood under her eye even though it was warm and he was hungry. But he'd smelled it.
She hadn't felt like a witch then. She does now (and she feels like something else too, something like him but he doesn't understand it). But her blood is the same.
She's not his witch, but he remembers. And she smells safe and warm and like comfort, and he purrs because he remembers and because he's so tired and in so much pain. And the next time she offers her hand he doesn't claw but licks her fingers instead.
The witch who isn't his but who was once his everything carefully slides her hands under his body and lifts him up. It hurts, but everything hurts, so he doesn't do more than meow and then keep purring.
"I missed you, brave Kotofei," she says in Russian. "You're safe now. I promise. I'll look after you."
That's not his name, but it sounds a little bit like it so it's probably okay. Then the witch kisses the top of his head the way she did when she was a girl, and he lets her carry him to her car and take him home.
It's 1943 and Steve's being measured by a pretty nurse who's at least a foot taller than he is, when another, older woman stalks over with a clipboard and stands there and stares at him.
She has a pretty, white angora cat twining around her feet, which is awfully strange considering Steve knows animals aren't allowed in hospitals. It's true a recruitment center isn't the same, but there're enough similarities that he can't see the rules changing. But the younger nurse doesn't even bat an eye.
The new nurse feels…odd, to him. Which makes no sense, because he doesn't 'feel' anything from people. He can tell when they're angry or happy or whatever, sure, just like anyone else. But this nurse feels different. Odd. He can't explain it.
Maybe that's why she's staring.
Steve, who's wearing nothing but his boxers and is fairly certain he looks like an underfed plucked chicken at this point, blushes to the roots of his hair. She doesn't look disgusted with him, though, or amused, which is a nice change from three of the other five recruitment centers he's been to this week. But she won't stop looking, and Steve quickly goes from embarrassed to worried to annoyed.
The other nurse, he's noticed, has vanished. Steve feels decidedly outnumbered.
"Is something wrong, ma'am?" he says when he can't take the nurse's vaguely disproving curiosity anymore.
In response she just narrows her eyes some more, then steps back and lifts her pen over her clipboard. "How long have you been a witch?"
Steve's staring at her now. "What?"
She stares back. "You didn't check hearing problems on your form."
That's because he's never thought his ears were that bad, but maybe he was wrong. "You just asked me how long I've been a witch."
She arches a neatly-plucked eyebrow the color of cigarette smoke. "And I'm still waiting for you to answer."
"I'm not a witch."
Her second smoky eyebrow drifts up to join the first. "Young man, you are aware it's illegal to give false information at a recruitment center, aren't you?"
Steve nods, because the scary metal sign was right on the wall of the room where he was sent to change clothes. But the only information he falsified was his home address. "Yes, ma'am. I'm not lying. I'm not a witch."
She blinks slowly, like a stern owl. "And you are honestly telling me that no one has ever said that they can tell you're a witch before."
Steve nods again. "I swear, ma'am. You're the first."
"And you can't tell that I'm one either."
"You're a witch?" Steve manages not to gape. "Is that why you feel…different?"
"Yes," she says, somewhat kindly. "Just like you feel 'different' to me." She cocks her head a little. "You've never met another witch?"
"Not that I know of." He scratches his head, then drops his hand quickly in case she thinks he has cooties. There was Mrs. Tabenkin, but he can't remember if he ever got closer to her than waving distance. He thinks maybe she had a parrot, but that was a long time ago.
"Hmm." She blinks at him another moment, then scribbles on the clipboard before she looks up again. "So, if I ask you where your familiar is…"
"My parents are dead."
"Not your family." She tsks and shakes her head like he's being dense on purpose. "Your familiar. Your animal companion. Like Sweetie, here." She tips her head at her cat, then lifts her very mobile eyebrows again, waiting for his response.
Steve frowns. He got an odd feeling from the cat too, come to think of it. But, "I don't have an animal companion."
The nurse sucks in a breath through her nose and stares at him like she'd like to drag him somewhere by the ear. She and Sweetie look at each other as if commiserating on what an idiot Steve is. Finally, the nurse purses her lips. "Hold still." She takes another breath and smacks her palm against his forehead.
Steve gasps in surprise but does as he's told, barely daring to breathe while she chants some kind of spell, never taking her eyes off him. The warmth from her palm rises to a heat just shy of burning, which travels in waves down through his neck and chest and shoulders and then down his spine until he can feel it tingling like electricity in his fingertips and toes. A strange lassitude sweeps over him, despite the uncomfortable heat and unpleasant tingling, like he's fast asleep even though he's awake and standing. When the soft murmur and pressure on his forehead abruptly ceases Steve almost drops to the floor before the nurse catches him.
"What…?" he mumbles, tongue slapping uselessly around his mouth.
"You'll be fine." She pats his cheek, then leads him to one of the examination rooms, Sweetie following, and helps him lie on the bed. He gazes dully at the ceiling until she comes back and gives him a cookie. "The doctor will be in shortly to finish your examination." She has the clipboard again, writing in it while she talks. She glances up at him, frowns a little and goes back to writing, shaking her head. "I have to say you're quite an enigma, Mr. Rogers. You feel like a witch, but you aren't one. And you seem to have a familiar somewhere that you don't know about."
"'Don't hava pet," Steve murmurs. His tongue's still not working right and he wouldn't mind taking a nap, though he knows he can't sleep here. "Jus' alley cats. Feedem sometimes."
"You'd know if you had a familiar, believe me. Eat your cookie. You'll feel better."
Steve eats the cookie. He does feel better, until the doctor comes in, barely glances at him and tells him to get dressed.
"You're not even going to examine me?"
"Nope." The doctor shakes his head then finally looks up again. He's young, tall and handsome and reminds Steve of Bucky. Except Bucky never looks at him with that dismissive scorn in his eyes. "If you were a practicing witch—especially a witch with a familiar—it'd be another story. But as-is? You'd be disqualified on your scoliosis alone. Go home, kid. We can't use you." He shakes his head again, like all Steve's done is waste his precious time.
Bucky's drafted before he gets the chance to sign up.
No, that's wrong. He's drafted because he has plenty of chances to sign up, but he doesn't take any of them. It's not that he doesn't want to fight; he does, like Hazel said. But he doesn't want to leave Steve behind.
Not that Steve'll be abandoned, or anything. Not with Bucky's aunt and uncle and Becca and Lizzie all promising to look out for him. It's just, Bucky won't be there. He loves Steve more than anything, but he won't be there to rescue him when he's too dumb to run away from a fight, or patch him up afterwards. He won't be there to keep Steve warm or take care of him when he's sick, or make sure there's enough food and the rent gets paid.
And Bucky doesn't know what'll happen when he's on the other side of an ocean and Steve won't be there to quiet the need to hunt that keeps kicking at the back of his skull. Or ease the small, steady ache behind his ribs that's always there whenever Steve's not with him.
But Bucky's not a kid anymore, and he's learned how to focus all his attention on one thing at a time so he doesn't get distracted. And he's learned enough control that he can hunt and fight and hurt as much as he needs to but no more than that. And in Basic he finds out he can see and hear and even smell better than the other G.I.s. And he might not be smart, but he's strong and he can sneak like a cat and run like a rabbit.
The brass love him.
By the time he's ready to ship out, he's a sniper and a sergeant with his own little squad. When he goes on his last furlough, his cousins coo and gush over him and his aunt fusses, and his uncle drags him down to the garage where he works to show him off like a shiny new car.
Bucky swaggers and grins and basks in the attention, and tries to think about how he's finally going to do what he was born for, and not about how he's leaving Steve behind.
But he escapes his family to go find Steve the instant he's able.
And they're supposed to spend one last evening together, but Bucky ends up hugging the stupid punk goodbye outside yet another recruitment center. And as Bucky walks away, maybe forever, he ignores that small, aching part of him just behind his ribs, that doesn't care if Steve is safe. The part that hopes this time Steve will actually get accepted, so Bucky won't have to go to war alone.
Dr. Abraham Erskine is a witch. So is Howard Stark, though Howard likes to call himself a 'technomancer', because all his spells are for his mechanical creations. Erskine's specialty is alchemy, though he looks embarrassed when he tells Steve that. Apparently the modern term is 'molecular transformation'.
It's still changing something into something else: lead to gold; weak to strong; Steve Rogers into….
Good becomes great, Erskine tells Steve the night before his transformation. Bad, becomes worse.
Erskine is convinced that Steve will become great, because he knows what it's like to be weak. And because he threw himself on a grenade when everyone else had the sense to run.
(Peggy didn't run, but she's a woman so it doesn't matter. Bucky wouldn't've run either. But Bucky probably could've scooped the grenade up and pitched it away from everyone before it exploded, and still had time to cuff Steve on the back of the head for being an idiot. But Bucky's not there.)
After Erskine leaves with the schnapps Steve never gets to drink, he lies on his solitary cot in the empty, packed-up barracks and stares at the dark. He misses Bucky so much it's like a hole in his heart, and he keeps catching himself rubbing his chest even though it doesn't do anything for the ache deep inside. It feels like something's been torn out of him, just big enough for him to feel it all the time. Steve's wondered for years if Bucky feels it too, but he's never dared to ask.
It's probably nothing, anyway. God knows he's got enough health issues that a pain in his chest could be anything.
After tomorrow, maybe he won't have any health issues ever again.
Or maybe he'll die, or end up like Johann Schmidt. Maybe Steve's not as good as Erskine thinks he is. Steve knows he has too much pride, sometimes. He knows he gets into a lot of unnecessary fights.
If he dies, will anyone let Bucky know?
Is Bucky even safe, where he is? He's probably in England by now. Maybe in Europe already. Maybe already fighting. Maybe already dead.
No. No, that's stupid. Bucky's fine. If he were hurt or…or anything else, Steve would know. He's sure of it. And as soon as Erskine's serum works, Steve's going to find him. He and Bucky will fight side by side, just like always. Only this time Steve won't need Bucky to save him.
Maybe this time, Steve can save Bucky for a change. Steve sure as hell owes him.
It's not exactly a cheering thought, but it's the one Steve can sleep on, anyway.
The serum works, it turns out, only because Erskine uses all of his power up on the spell.
It means he can't heal himself after the Hydra agent shoots him. It means he dies.
It means Steve gets to choose between being a lab rat or a dancing monkey.
He chooses the monkey, because at least it means he's doing something. And Senator Brandt promises him that he'll eventually go overseas with the tour.
Steve hopes to hell Bucky will still be alive by the time he gets to him.
Bucky feels it when Steve gets transformed.
He doesn't know what the hell it is, naturally. It's not the feeling that something terrible is happening he got when Steve's mom died. This is just pain. Fathomless, meaningless pain that hits him out of nowhere while Gabe talks to their contact in the French resistance.
It's edging on twilight when it happens, under a beautiful sunset in the French countryside. They're just about on the Italian border, and they're surrounded by the kind of rolling pastoral scenery and quaint stone houses that are so far away from his life in Brooklyn he might as well be on Mars. Bucky's standing at the window, keeping his keen eyes on the forest at the far end of the bucolic meadow, where any likely attack will come.
He's very carefully not paying attention to the contact's familiar, because he can't stand the thing. It's a crow named 'Fainéant', who sits on her shoulder and whispers into her ear. Bucky can easily see how useful a bird familiar would be for a spy, especially a talking one. But the witch gave the crow part of her soul, for fuck's sake. So now it can think like a person and even speak. It tells her what it sees when it flies over the enemy lines.
Useful, sure. But it's not natural. She's bound to it now, and it to her and it's creepy as hell. Bucky can even feel it. Like, he knew there was something weird about them as soon as he stepped into her house.
Then again, she looked at him funny, too. Guess it's mutual.
He looks out the window, trying not to feel the crow's black, beady little eyes on his spine. Can Fainéant and his witch read each other's minds? What would crow thoughts be like, anyway? Is the witch more like an animal now herself? She seems normal, but maybe she has a thing for worms. Maybe she has dreams of being part of a flock and eating corpses.
Can they even be apart anymore? And what happens when one of them dies?
It's not natural and Bucky can barely stand being in the same room with them. He's not sure how Gabe can be so nonchalant about them, but he's been in Europe longer so maybe he's just used to it. Familiars are definitely old-world stuff. Bucky didn't even know they existed until he was eleven or something, and he never met anyone who had one until now.
Bucky suppresses a shudder. He needs to keep his mind on his damn job anyway, and right now his job is making sure no one sneaks up on them.
He's bored, despite the creepy bird, so he's being careful, keeping his focus so he won't get distracted and end up bounding off after a rabbit or something. And then every single cell in his body bursts into flame.
That's what it feels like: a sudden, consuming agony worse than anything else he's ever endured. He drops like a brick, instinctively curling into himself. It doesn't help because the pain is in every part of him. He's distantly aware that he's screaming, even more distantly aware that if the pain doesn't stop he won't be able to move. He can hear Gabe and Dum Dum calling to him but he can't answer. He can't do anything except burn alive, and it goes on and on and—
"Oh God, he just kicked the bucket," Dum Dum says. "Sarge? Sarge!"
"Still here," Bucky croaks. He uncoils, letting his two Howlies help him to sit against the wall. As soon as he's upright Gabe goes to their host and talks to her in rapid-fire French. Bucky can recognize some of the words—Gabe's asking for water for him, making up some bullshit story about a recent injury—but Bucky isn't interested in staying on the floor. "Help me up," he says to Dum Dum, reaching up with a hand that's not even shaking too bad anymore.
"You sure, Sarge? You were kinda'…."
"I'm not now."
The witch and her crow familiar are both staring at him, which makes sense, but the woman's got her hand over her mouth and her expression looks like she just watched a train wreck. Bucky tries to smile at her but can't really find one.
Dum Dum helps him up, but Bucky can stand on his own, doesn't even need to have his hand on the wall after about a minute. He feels fine.
But something's happened to Steve.
Bucky runs his fingers through his sweat-damp hair, leaves them on the back of his head. He wants to get out of here, find Steve and help him with whatever the hell just happened more than he wants to keep breathing. But he can't. He can't. He's a God-damned ocean away on another fucking continent and he can't do a fucking thing.
And while he's trying to deal with that, Bucky's hit with another burst of pain, and this one is definitely the same as when Steve's mom died and Bucky knew, like some cosmic fucking joke. It's not as bad as that was, or maybe it is and Bucky can't tell because the other, inexplicable pain was so much worse. But he's startled into gasping and clutching his chest and stumbles back against the wall, and thank God for small mercies because at least he doesn't collapse this time. And the pain gets tolerable fast enough to let Bucky shake Dum Dum off when he wants to lay Bucky on the floor again.
And now the witch is looking at him like he's about to croak right in front of her.
"I'm okay," he says quickly to the two Howlies. Then, "Ça va, ça va," to the witch.
He can tell she doesn't believe him, and Dum Dum and Gabe look like he's handing them a line too. But Dum Dum just gives him a slow nod and Gabe turns back to their contact, trying to finish getting the information they came here for in the first place. And Bucky tries not to crawl out of his skin.
Steve needs him, right now. He's hurting and something awful's happened and Bucky can't do anything. He can't even tell anyone, because how the hell could he even explain? He doesn't know what this is, and if the Howlies guess that he might be inverse, Bucky's cooked. Sunk. He knows his squad have a lot of time for him, but he can't see them putting up with a homo given them orders.
He wants to go outside. He wants to run, hunt something. God, he'd run all the way back to Brooklyn if he could. He's so scared for Steve. He's never felt this helpless in his life.
"You sure you're okay, Sarge?" Dum Dum looks really worried.
"I'm fine," he says, swiping the tears out of his eyes. Great. All he needs now is to start bawling in front of his men.
The icing on the cake is the witch taking another glance at him, then all but shoving Gabe aside and rushing over like she's Bucky's mom. She looks like she's about to bawl too, which is nuts, and she's still got Fainéant peering at him from her shoulder.
Bucky manages not to flinch when she cups his face in her hands. She says something in soft, deeply sympathetic French that mostly goes over Bucky's head. He looks at Gabe.
Gabe blinks at the witch like he didn't hear that right. "She said that your familiar will be fine. She could see how much it hurt, but whatever happened, they'll be all right and she's sure they'll come back to you. She said that if your companion animal died, you'd know it."
Bucky stares at Gabe, then at the witch, bewildered. "I don't have a familiar," he says. He repeats in in French.
The witch says something else. She drops her hands, stepping back from him. She asks Gabe another question.
"She, uh, says you have to have a familiar." Gabe looks like he doesn't know if he should be worried or just confused. "She says you have a…." He speaks to the witch in French and she nods. "Yeah. She says your soul is shared. She can feel it."
"She's wrong," Bucky says to Gabe. He turns back to the witch. "Je n'ai pas un familier. Je n'ai rien comme ça, même pas un animal ordinaire."
"What the hell are you even talking about?" Dum Dum cuts in. Gabe shushes him.
The witch blinks at him and then her eyes get bigger and the crow shifts from twiggy foot to twiggy foot on her shoulder like he's picking up her unease. "Mais, si ce n'est pas vous qui avez le familier, alors…."
Her eyes go huge. She backs away from Bucky until she hits the wooden table, then points to the door.
"Sortez!" she screeches, and fuck—she's looking at Bucky like he's a God-damned Nazi and she's shaking in fear. "Sortez! Partez!"
"Partez!" Fainéant shrieks. Then the fucking bird leaps off her shoulder and comes at Bucky like it wants to peck out his eyes.
Bucky slaps it out of the air.
The witch screams and runs to Fainéant and Gabe grabs Bucky's wrist and practically drags him out of the house. Bucky looks over his shoulder and he can see the witch picking the crow up and holding it to her chest. The crow's worse for wear but alive. Bucky's not sure if the wave of nausea is from relief or how his last glimpse of the witch is her cradling her familiar like a baby.
"Can someone tell me what the hell just happened?" Dum Dum's looking around as they run, covering them. Bucky's grateful that he's there to do it, since his thoughts are bouncing around his skull so bad that if Gabe wasn't still yanking him along he'd probably run into a tree.
"No idea," Bucky gasps. "She just went crazy."
"No fooling," Dum Dum says. "Did you get what she was saying, right before she started yellin' at us, Gabe?"
"Not really. It didn't make sense anyway. Just mumbling about something." Gabe glances at Bucky, but Bucky has no idea what's going on behind his sharp brown eyes.
"Yeah. I didn't catch it ether," he says. "Probably didn't mean anything."
Dum Dum snorts. "I figured." He looks over his shoulder at the farmhouse. "Too bad we lost our informant, though." He chuckles. "You really got a way with the dames, Sarge."
Bucky forces a laugh. "That's what your momma said."
They finally reach the trees. Gabe and Dum Dum slow down, half-blind at the sudden change in light. Bucky automatically goes in front.
He's the squad leader, after all, and he's never had a problem seeing in the dark.
Later, when they're alone, Gabe says to him: "You know you can trust us, right, Sarge?"
Bucky nods over his lighter as he sucks the flame to his cigarette. He trusts his squad with his life, but that's as far as it goes. He doesn't need more than that. He has Steve.
God, he hopes he still has Steve.
"I don't know what the witch was talking about," he says, because he knows that's what Gabe's going to ask next, and that's not a lie. He really doesn't.
Gabe looks at him for a long moment, long enough that Bucky starts wondering if he can see that Bucky's got a predator's soul. If Gabe can tell there's something wrong with him.
Bucky stops himself from snarling at him to mind his own business, since the best way to make someone suspicious is to act like you've got something to hide. So instead Bucky forces his shoulders to relax, takes a long draw on his cigarette and blows smoke out the side of his mouth. The acrid heat of it is calming. "Getting' an eyeful there, Jonsie?"
Gabe smirks. "Like I'd want an eyeful of your ugly mug." His mouth spreads into a warm smile, but it's not quite there in his eyes. "Well, if you have anything you want to tell us, you know you can, right?"
"Sure," Bucky says.
"Good. That's good." Gabe nods. "You know, the Howling Commandos are all a bunch of damn misfits. No one's going to think any less of you if you…if you're a little different from the rest of us." He shrugs a shoulder like anything he just said could be true.
Bucky offers the pack to Gabe, who declines with another smile. "Well, I'm a lot better lookin' than the rest of you ugly misfits," he says around the cigarette in his mouth. He gives Gabe a big grin, terrified Gabe'll notice how bad his heart's hammering.
Gabe just laughs (Thank God thank God thank God), then claps Bucky on the shoulder. "Jerk." He shakes his head as he wanders back to the campfire.
Bucky goes a little further away and leans against a tree trunk. He makes sure he's mostly out of sight, so no one can see him trembling.
It's winter 1943 and they're captured by a bunch of Nazis who are such evil assholes they fire on the other German troops before rounding up whoever's left. They call themselves 'Hydra'. The wounded who can't walk are culled: a bullet to the head for the ones who are conscious enough to beg; the ones who aren't are left behind.
The rest are forced to march for days.
They're taken north, likely across the border into Austria, and finally stop at a cross between a giant factory and internment camp. All the soldiers who survived this long are packed into cages that look like cylinders sticking out of the floor. There's not enough room to sit down, but a Brit who goes by Monty and a guy from Fresno named Jim offer to hold Bucky up so he can actually sleep.
Bucky's near crying with gratitude, he's so exhausted. But before he can do more than nod a pudgy guy in a bowtie and lab coat comes strolling down in front of the cages. He's got two huge, anonymous thugs with him, like the caged prisoners are any kind of threat. But they seem to be there more as protection for a girl who looks like she's Bucky's age.
She's in a crisp but softer version of the black uniform the masked guards wear, with her face exposed and a patch of the Hydra symbol on her shoulder like she's proud of it. The way she walks reminds Bucky of a soldier.
"Bloody hell," Monty murmurs. "It's the girl." He and Jim share a look of pure panic. "Get in the back," he tells Jim, and Jim nods and squirms his way through the crowd. All the guys who were already there when the 107th got marched in move in front of Jim like a thick human wall. Bucky can see the prisoners in the next cage over doing the same thing for a man in a blue civilian shirt. Dum Dum and Gabe are in there and they move to the front as well, just like Bucky does for Jim.
He doesn't know what he's doing it for, but he'll be damned if he lets these Nazi fucks do anything to a fellow soldier if he can help it.
The girl stops about three cages away, and points at a bewildered-looking corporal from the 107th. The pudgy guy steps up to the cage then leans in, adjusting his glasses over his eyes while he squints at the soldier. He looks him up and down, humming in consideration, then finally steps back and shakes his head.
Bucky doesn't know much German, but Gabe does. In the cage next to him, whatever the little guy in the coat says to the girl makes Gabe suck in an anxious breath. Then Gabe presses himself against the bars nearest to Bucky's cage.
"Sarge!" he hisses. "Sarge—move back! Get behind—"
Dum Dum yanks Gabe back with his meaty hand over Gabe's mouth. "Shh!"
The two guards open the cage and haul the soldier out. One of them kicks his leg to make him kneel. Then the other one holds the man there by his shoulder while the first shoots him in the back of the head.
"What the fuck did you do that for?" Bucky yells, too overcome with horrified shock to stop himself. He's far from the only one making noise, but the girl's head snaps to him like he's the only man in the entire prison.
She marches right up to his cage. She's pretty, he thinks. She'd be a real looker if she wasn't in a fucking Hydra uniform. But right now her pretty face is frowning at him like she doesn't know what she's looking at. And fuck. He's getting the same feeling from her that he did with the French witch and her crow.
"Wo ist Ihr Tiergeist?" the girl says to him, right on cue.
"Sorry, doll," Bucky snarls. "Ich spreche kein Nazi bitch."
The little guy in the lab coat comes over. His kindly smile makes Bucky's skin crawl. "Excuse me, but Miss Auer would like to know where your familiar is."
Bucky realizes he telegraphed his surprise when the guy blinks at him. He goes for his best 'fuck you' smile to make up for it. "Must've left it in my other suit."
That gets him a bland smile in return, before pudgy says something to the girl—to the witch—and she frowns, then looks at Bucky again. She comes a little nearer. Bucky backs up a couple steps. She shakes her head, says something else to Lab Coat, a bit of urgency in her tone that sends ice down Bucky's spine.
This time, pudgy's smile is politely menacing. "Where is your familiar, sergeant?"
It's like the informant's house all over again. Why the hell do these witches think he has a fucking familiar? It's part of what's wrong with him, he knows that. But he doesn't know what this is, what the hell the monster inside him is telling everyone all of a sudden. The worst part is, he doesn't know what to say, which answer would be worse. He's never had one? He's always had one but it's not here? Refuse to answer at all?
It'd be easier to pick something if he wasn't so tired.
Bucky crosses his arms over his chest, partially to hide his shaking hands. "None of your damn business."
Pudgy blinks mildly at him. "I'm afraid it is. Indeed, you'll find that the witches here and what happens to them"—He glances pointedly at the dead body of the soldier, lying face-down in a puddle of his own blood—"is exclusively my business." He comes closer, not smiling anymore. "So I will ask you one more time, sergeant. Where is your familiar?"
"Go to hell."
"I see." Pudgy pulls off his glasses and cleans them on an immaculate fold of his lab coat. He says something to Miss Auer in German without looking up from his task. She replies, pointing to Jim over Bucky's shoulder.
"Here is your choice, sergeant," pudgy says with that same mildness. "Either you answer the question properly, or Miss Auer will find every witch who has attempted to hide from us, and they will be shot in the head just like that unfortunate young man. And if you still fail to answer the question once all the witches have been killed, we will choose prisoners at random, beginning with the men who arrived with you."
The guards unlock the cage and yank the door open. Bucky tries to block their way but they're bigger than he is and haven't been marching for three days with no food or sleep. One of the two guards shoves him aside and starts hauling Jim out by an arm.
"I don't have one!" Bucky shouts. "I don't have a familiar! Let him go!"
Pudgy raises his hand and the guard stops. Bucky and Monty grab Jim's other arm to pull him back into the cage. Pudgy nods at the guard to let Jim go before they start a tug-of-war.
"Thank you," pudgy says pleasantly. He translates for Miss Auer. She looks confused, then shakes her head. She responds in rapid German, gesturing at her heart in a way that makes Bucky think of the space behind his ribs, that hasn't stopped hurting since he left Brooklyn. He doesn't have to know why she's making that gesture to know it's really fucking bad.
A grey mouse crawls nimbly out of Miss Auer's breast pocket and climbs onto her shoulder, where it sits daintily washing its paws. Bucky doesn't actually throw up.
The little guy is peering at him the same way he did to the soldier before he got shot. "Miss Auer is quite adamant that she can feel your bond, sergeant," he says. "Such bonds only exist between a witch and their familiar, as I'm sure you're aware." He squints his eyes. "So, we are left with two options. Either you are a particularly adept liar, or you aren't a witch. And if you aren't a witch…."
He says something to Miss Auer. Her eyes go wide and she steps away, just like the informant did. Like Bucky really is a monster.
Right now he wouldn't mind being one, if it meant he could get everyone the hell out of here.
She speaks to Pudgy, and he hums in thought. "Clearly, we've been asking the wrong question. Allow me to start again. Where is your witch, sergeant?" he says with the same bland smile.
Bucky gapes at him. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"You share a soul, sergeant," pudgy says. Bucky's sure that after this he'll never be able to hear his rank again without wanting to puke. "And the only way that can occur is because either you have a familiar, or you are one."
"No." Bucky backs up until there're too many people behind him and there's nowhere else to go. "I don't know what you're talking about. I don't share a soul! You're wrong! I'm not some kind of animal! I'm a man! I'm human!"
Pudgy just smiles, and says something to the guards.
The cage door is still open, so it's easy for them to step right in and drag Bucky out. He fights them with every ounce of strength he has left, fueled by fear and desperation.
It can't be true, what the man in the lab coat said. It can't be true. Because if Bucky has any kind of shared soul at all, it's with Steve. And Steve's not a witch. And Bucky's human.
(You're not you're not you're not beats behind his terror like the need to hunt at the back of his brain. He's a predator. Hazel Wilson told him that years ago. But he already knew.)
There's always been something wrong with him. And he's got this aching space in front of his heart when he's not with Steve. And when something terrible happened to him, Bucky knew.
He fights, but he's just about got nothing left, and one good pistol-whip to his head lays him out.
"Let's see what you are, sergeant, shall we?" Pudgy says pleasantly as the guards drag Bucky away.
He never really knows what they do to him.
They take him to a place called the 'Isolation Ward', like it's supposed to be for helping people when it's really a dingy laboratory to experiment on them. They drag him over to a narrow cot set in the middle of a dark red circle decorated with symbols Bucky's never seen before. Traditional magic. Old-world. Like having a familiar. All he knows for sure is that he doesn't want to die there.
They strap him down, then Pudgy stands back politely as Miss Auer places her dainty hand on his forehead and recites a spell. At first it's just waves of heat radiating down through his body from where she's touching him, then it feels like electricity dancing over his nerves. It becomes uncomfortable pretty quickly, but she does something else to him at the same time that must put him to sleep, because suddenly he's gasping awake with pudgy stabbing his arm.
"My apologies, sergeant," he says. "I know this is unpleasant." He pulls the syringe out and places it on an instrument tray. There are three other syringes, all filled with greenish-blue liquid. "You will undoubtedly find this interesting," he goes on conversationally as he stabs Bucky again. "Miss Auer said she wasn't able to do a proper reading. Did you know that the true nature of your soul is hidden?" He glances at Bucky, eyebrows raised, then makes a humming noise and plucks the last syringe. "Evidently not. How fascinating. Whomever did it is extremely powerful. The spell has been there for years. You must have been quite small."
"You're lying," Bucky spits. The guy has to be. He'd remember something like that.
"I am telling you the absolute truth, sergeant." Pudgy stabs him with the last syringe, which hurts even more than the other two. Bucky can't even flinch because of all the straps holding him down. "It seems that the spell included you not remembering it." He gives Bucky a warm smile. "We are quite fortunate that Miss Auer is as talented as she is. A lesser witch wouldn't have noticed anything unusual."
Whatever shit Pudgy's put into him is starting to affect Bucky now. He feels lousy: feverish and achy as if he's coming down with something. His joints hurt, muscles trembling like after a full day of work. "What…" he tries, "what did…?"
Pudgy just keeps smiling like he's Bucky's fucking favorite uncle. "So, we will try again to find out what you are in a few weeks, once I've done more work and Miss Auer's had time to, hmm, recruit some…help, as she told me. But for now, she assures me that your particular nature should make you more likely than a mere witch to survive the procedure." He adjusts the floor lamp and pries open Bucky's eyes one at a time, making that humming noise again. "Uniform dilation so far. Good."
"Pr-proceed…?" Bucky's mouth isn't working well enough to form words anymore. He's shivering like he's outside in a blizzard, though he feels too hot, not cold.
Pudgy lifts his head and beams at him. "You are fortunate, sergeant. You are at the forefront of the research to replicate the Super Soldier serum."
Super Soldier serum? What the hell? But Bucky can't talk well enough to ask.
"I admit I don't expect you to survive much longer than our previous volunteers." Pudgy turns back to his instrument tray and picks up a scalpel. "But that is the beauty of science, is it not? The power to test one's hypotheses." His smile goes thin and cruel. "I'm afraid this will most likely be extremely painful."
He loses time. His universe narrows to the blue-green poison pudgy pumps into him and the torture they inflict on him in between.
The guy's name is Arnim Zola, he casually tells Bucky at one point, hours or years after he was first strapped down. Bucky holds onto that name so he can find him again, if he ever gets out of this hellhole. So he'll know who to hunt down and hurt the way he's hurting now.
They cut him with scalpels and blind him with sickly bright green light and burn him and hit him and break his bones. At least, Bucky thinks they do. He's in so much pain all the time that he can't keep track anymore.
He doesn't know why he's still alive, or why they're doing this. They never ask him any questions.
They only stop once, and when Bucky can finally open his eyes and see anything Miss Auer's there again. He also thinks he recognizes the civilian in the blue shirt, looking wet-eyed and scared and generally pretty damn worse for wear.
There are four of the masked Hydra mooks in the room. Three of them have guns on the civilian. The fourth is holding a small white bulldog with his gloved hand in the scruff of the animal's neck. The dog is the man's familiar. Bucky can feel it just like he could with the French witch and her crow, and this Hydra bitch and her mouse.
"This is Jacques," Zola says, gesturing at the other prisoner like they're at a party or something. "He will be aiding Miss Auer in discovering what you truly are."
Miss Auer says something to him, and Zola's mouth twitches in regretful distaste. "Miss Auer wishes for me to tell you that this will most likely be quite painful, but that she will try to make it as quick as possible."
"T-tell Miss Auer to go fuck herself," Bucky says.
Zola smiles blandly. "I am continually impressed by your spirit, sergeant." He steps back and gestures for the two witches to take his place next to the cot.
Gabe's been teaching Bucky French, so he can understand Jacques when he shakes his head and says, "No. I'm not going to help you torture this man." He pulls himself up, lifting his chin in defiance. "I don't care what you do to me, but I won't help you."
"Oh dear," Zola says in English. He gestures sharply with his head, and the guard holding the dog changes his grip on the animal's scruff, then holds him away from his body. The dog yelps, little legs windmilling in the air. "I truly had not wanted to do this," Zola says in French to Jacques. Then Zola says something to the guard in German, and the guard pulls his pistol with his other hand and presses the barrel to the dog's head.
"Jupie! Jupie! Non! Non!" Jacques tries to run to his familiar, ignoring the other guards and their guns until one puts him in a chokehold.
The little dog whines in fear, and if Bucky didn't already know that Jupie was Jacques' familiar, the dog yowling, "Jacques! Jacques!" in perfectly-accented French sure as hell would've done it.
Bucky fucking hates familiars, but they're going to shoot it. And Jacques looks like they're tearing his soul out. And even if it was a regular dog Bucky couldn't do this: lay here and let it get shot for nothing.
And Zola knows it, the son of a bitch.
"Stop! Don't! Don't shoot it!" Bucky's voice is practically a non-existent scrape after screaming his lungs out for God even knows how long, but Zola instantly barks at the guard to stop and he pulls the gun away. Jupie kicks and squirms until the guard loses his grip. The dog falls and lands hard on the floor, but still runs into Jacques' arms. Jacques holds his familiar tight, crying and murmuring apologies into the animal's fur.
"Vas-y," Bucky says to him.
Jacques snaps his head up to stare at him. "No," he says in French, saucer-eyed. "You don't understand, you don't know what it will do—No!" he cries out when the same guard tries to yank the dog back. "No, please!"
"Do it! Do the spell! Bucky rasps at him. "Do the spell," he repeats when the man looks at him again, clutching his dog. "Keep your familiar safe. I'll be all right."
"No you won't," Jacques says. There are still tears in his eyes, but he looks at Miss Auer and nods. He tries to put Jupie on the floor but one of the guards takes him. Jacques looks stricken, but he swallows and steps forward. "Forgive me," he says to Bucky.
"Not your fault, buddy."
"God forgive me, then."
"We start now," Miss Auer says in passible French. She puts her hand on Bucky's forehead the way she did the first time and begins to recite the spell. She gives Jacques a quick glare and he puts his hand over hers, then starts singing in a reedy tenor.
Bucky's mouth twitches at the less-than-pleasant pressure, but he closes his eyes and waits for the uncomfortable electricity and heat before the spell knocks him out again.
Only it doesn't.
Oh, sure, he still falls into that place where it feels like he's asleep, but this time he stays aware of everything. He's completely paralyzed, even beyond the confinement of the straps. He can't even open his eyes.
He can't scream, even when the electric burning gets so bad it feels like lightning searing him from the inside out. The pain he got from Steve is nothing compared to this. And he's still awake and he can't scream or move or do anything….
And then he hears Miss Auer make a small, pleased noise, and then something…
Something inside him…
He's not being electrocuted anymore, but this is worse than pain. This is a black wrenching like death, like something vital falling out of place and pulling everything else with it. This is him unravelling.
James Buchanan Barnes unravels and learns what he is. And when he's finally able to scream it sounds like the anguished cry of a dying animal.
At first, Steve can't understand what's wrong with him.
It's not that he's inattentive, far from it. It's not that he doesn't miss Bucky, because that's constant, like missing a limb. It's just that he's used to feeling lousy all the time. Pain and Steven Grant Rogers are old friends. The first few—the first several—times he wakes up in a cold sweat with his body aching he just assumes he's fighting a cold. He's only been Captain America for a couple months, and nearly all of that's been as Senator Brandt's dancing monkey. He has no idea what his new limitations are. Or what they aren't.
Truth is, 'normal' to Steve still means being short of breath with his heart racing. Normal means headaches for no reason and sore muscles and aching joints and fevers and fevers and fevers. Normal means pain.
So when he stumbles off the stage in Milwaukee, he assumes he's been working too hard. When he gets so lightheaded in Chicago he almost falls on his face punching out Hitler, he dismisses it as leftover nerves. When his fever spikes so high in New York even Senator Brandt suggests cancelling the show, he figures he must be coming down with something again. He's sure he'll get over it.
When he's so sick on the boat trip over that he can barely leave his cabin or keep anything down, he agrees with the sympathetic USO girls that he must get seasick real easy.
It's not until he's in Italy that Steve finally figures out what it's been all along.
He's sulking and miserable and trying to draw on notebook pages damp with humidity from the rain, and then he's curled up in the dirt in an agony like nothing he's ever felt in his life. And then it gets worse.
It's as if something inside him that was twisted for so long it grew like that is suddenly freed, but it's not better; it hurts like nothing he's ever felt. It's like re-breaking a badly-set bone. It's like living in darkness and then walking into searingly bright sunlight. Only worse. Infinitely worse.
It's not pain, but God, it hurts. The twisted thing was that way for so long it can't be fixed anymore, just forced into a different kind of broken. There was a knot that's been sliced apart, but what's left is unravelling.
Bucky is unravelling.
Steve comes back to the world piece by piece, half-lying in the mud and clutching Peggy Carter for dear life. He's the one making those awful animal noises, the one gripping Peggy so hard he's probably hurting her. The one trembling with tears streaming down his face.
Colonel Phillips is there too, and he dismisses what looks like half the camp who came running when they heard Steve's scream. Steve's sure he's extremely embarrassed about that, but he can't get to it right now. He can't get beyond anything but the agony and the realization that this is Bucky. That something's happening to him that's so awful even the echo of it is almost more than Steve can bear.
Gradually, gradually, he's aware of Peggy drawing symbols on his forehead with her index finger, murmuring that he can stop this now; he's going to be all right; he just needs to breathe. She's as muddy as he is, and when her calming spell works he's left a very large wet spot on her uniform shirt from his tears and likely drool and snot. But she's kind, and poised enough to pretend not to notice it. She just cups his face and clears the water from his cheeks with her thumbs, and quietly hands him a handkerchief for his nose.
"What the hell was that, Rogers?" Colonel Phillips says, not unsympathetically.
Steve takes enough deep breaths to let him finally form words. "Sergeant B—I mean, the 107th. What…what happened to them?"
Steve has to sneak out of the infirmary to get to Howard's plane. Peggy visits first to draw a spell on his back to make sure no one notices him. No one does, which just shows how powerful she is—these days he's pretty hard to miss.
He's still in his stupid muddy costume, so he's grateful when Peggy hands him a jacket and actual pair of boots. He would've liked a helmet, but he's fairly sure he can survive without one. Provided he can survive, period.
This is, quite possibly, the single most stupid thing he's ever done. Steve's okay with that. As long as Bucky's alive, Steve figures he'll be okay with anything.
He doesn't feel like he's unravelling anymore, but the sense of wrongness won't go away, hangs inside him like a weight.
What the hell happened to Bucky? What did they do to him?
He should've been with him. All this time, all these months prancing across the U.S. when his best friend needed him. All those weeks when Steve was feeling Bucky being tortured and he was too dumb to know what it meant.
Steve should've fought harder, gone AWOL, run to Canada like he'd planed back in '39. He should never have agreed to anything less than shipping out as a G.I. He should've done anything to get to Bucky.
Should've. Should've. Should've.
He's been Captain America for three months. Jumping out of an airplane over an Austrian forest with no backup, no map and no real plan is the first time he feels like Steve Rogers.
Steve and Sam have barely made it to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway when Steve gets a text from Natasha. It's a photo of a black cat with the message Look who I found underneath it with a surprised emoticon. The cat's incongruously fluffy considering how pissed-off it looks, glaring up at her phone from a nest made of a pillow and a fleecy blanket. It's almost completely covered with a fleece pajama top Steve would've bet money Natasha wouldn't be caught dead in, with a bowl of milk next to it on the couch.
"That Natasha?" Sam asks, keeping his eyes on the road like a responsible human being. "What'd she send?"
"She found a cat," Steve says. He smiles a little, turning his phone sideways to make the picture larger. The cat's eyes look like they might be grey; maybe it's a fancy purebred of some sort that got lost. "I didn't even know she liked cats, but she's made it a bed and given it milk and everything."
Sam grins. "She's softer than she looks, Cap. You should know that."
Steve nods. "That's true. And I do. It's just easy to forget sometimes, with how dangerous she is."
The cat looks like it'd be soft if it wasn't damp and matted from the rain, though even at first glance it's obvious the animal's not well. Steve hopes it's not too sick to survive, because he can already guess that'd break Natasha's heart. The only person he knows who's lived with animals is Clint, but maybe he knows a good veterinarian.
It's weird, though. There's something about the cat. Steve keeps staring at the picture, wondering why those eyes look so familiar. "Hey, Sam," he says absently, "Do you know any good…."
"What?" Sam asks when Steve stops talking. "Steve? Holy shit, what's wrong? You look like you're going to throw up."
"I'm fine," Steve croaks. "But we have to go back. We have to go back now."
Sam, bless him, doesn't even hesitate before he starts carefully edging towards the exit lane. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," Steve says, dimly aware he probably couldn't sound like a worse liar. "But, the cat. Natasha's cat—it's Bucky. She found Bucky."
It was hard to be sure at first, since he'd only caught a glimpse of him like this years ago. But Steve remembers it from the war: the black cat that pretended to hurt Dernier's familiar and then turned into Bucky mid-leap.
The cat on the screen has eyes that are the same storm color as Bucky's. It doesn't matter what they look like; Steve would know them anywhere.
"You can't tell him," Sergeant Barnes says. He's pacing back and forth in front of Gabe and Dernier while he talks, restless as a cat in a cage. "Please. I'm begging you guys. Just…don't tell him what I am."
"Whoa. Hold on." Gabe puts his hands up, not really expecting it to do anything. Sure enough Bucky stalks right on by on his next pass. "Tell who what?"
"Steve!" Bucky snaps, then grits his teeth and looks around, but they're well away from the phalanx of rescued prisoners here, since Bucky was terrified of anyone overhearing them. Gabe doubts they'd understand much anyway, since the three of them are speaking French. Bucky has suddenly gone from competent to completely fluent and Gabe has no idea when or how. He's not even sure Bucky's aware he's not speaking English. "He can't know, Jonesie. He doesn't know. We can't tell him."
"Sarge—Bucky," Gabe says. He reaches out and snags Bucky's arm, finally getting him to stop. "I swear on my momma's grave I won't tell him a damn thing you don't want me to. But I gotta know what it is."
"He's Captain Rogers' familiar," Dernier murmurs. His own familiar Jupie is in his arms, where he's pretty much lived since Dernier came back from being forced to help 'Miss Auer' at the factory. Dernier won't talk about what they made him do.
Gabe stares at Dernier, then at Bucky. "No. No way. That's impossible. He's human. You're human."
Bucky grinds out a laugh that's mostly hysterical, then shakes his head. "No, he's right." He runs his fingers through his hair, whirls and starts pacing again. "I remember it. The spell…I remember everything." He turns again and stops, looking off at the trees with that thousand-yard stare Gabe saw on the prisoners who didn't survive. "I was…I was being crushed. But, I was already dead. I'd been dead for a long time." He gives his head a sharp, painful-looking shake. "It's crazy. I know it's crazy. But it happened. I remember it. I remember being…being made, Jonesie!" He clutches the lapels of Gabe's shirt, like he's trying to make him understand. "I was there, but I didn't exist. And then suddenly I did, and—"
"Whoa. Whoa. Ease up, Sarge. You're okay. Everything's okay." Gabe grabs Bucky's shoulders so that they're holding onto each other, hoping to hell the contact will ground him before Bucky goes spiraling so far they can't get him back. Bucky's breathing too fast, looking like he's about to drown himself somewhere in his head. "How 'bout you sit down and tell it a little slower, all right?"
"I'm fine," Bucky says, but he still sits obediently enough when Gabe helps him down. Gabe and Dernier sit down too, so they're in a small circle like kids.
Jupie immediately squirms out of Dernier's arms and climbs into Bucky's lap. Bucky's eyes are fixed somewhere on the ground in front of him. He barely seems to notice Jupie licking his chin.
"You gotta know what I'm talking about, Jonesie." Bucky's calmer now, but not in a way that makes Gabe feel any more sanguine. "You were in the house when the witch and her crow started looking at me like I was a piece of meat. They knew what I was. You heard her say it." Bucky lifts his head, focusing on Gabe like it takes an effort. "You even asked me about it, after."
"Oh. That." Gabe yanks off his wedge cap, rubs his forehead and smacks it on again. "I, uh, thought you were a witch, and you had a familiar somewhere, like Dernier. But you didn't want to say." He mostly manages a smile. "I was imagining all kinds of nasty animals. Like spiders or toads."
Bucky doesn't smile. He shakes his head then goes back to staring at the ground. "I collapsed because I felt it when Steve went through Project Rebirth. That's what they called the…" He makes a vague gesture that seems to have something to do with Steve's size. "The procedure. He told me it only hurt a little, but it hurt like screaming hell when it was happening. Believe me."
"She felt that you share your soul with him," Dernier says. "Any witch with a familiar can feel it in others. I felt it, but I didn't know what it meant. And I did not want to ask."
"Thanks," Bucky says.
Dernier gives a typically Gallic pouting shrug. "Some things are better not to know." He blinks, then looks at Bucky wide-eyed. "But, if Steven is your witch, he would have felt what happened to you as well. Always. But, how could you be bonded to each other and not know it?"
"My…." Bucky sucks in a breath and loses what little color he had from his face. He looks like he's been stabbed. "Oh my God, they're my parents. I never had—" He cuts himself off, drags his fingers through his filthy hair then leaves them on the back of his head. "My whole life. My whole fucking life. That bitch took my parents! She took…she took my whole life and they let her! They told her to! And I didn't even know!"
"Hey, calm down, Sarge. It's okay." Gabe reaches for Bucky's shoulder but Bucky shrugs him off, moving so violently that Jupie leaps away from him.
"It's not okay!" Bucky's still speaking French but he's loud enough now that Gabe's worried the others might hear them. "It's not okay." He's panting through his clenched teeth, tears of rage in his eyes. "She didn't hafta take my parents. They could'a let me know they were mine." He swallows. "She made me forget everything. Every damn thing. And…and she must've done it to Steve, too. My whole life, I knew I was born wrong. That I'm some kinda' monster. But I didn't know why."
"Hey, no," Gabe starts. "You're not—"
Bucky speaks right over him. "I am. I am, Gabe. You're not hearing me. I've always been a fucking monster." He glances at Dernier. "Jacques knows."
"No he doesn't," Gabe snaps.
"Familiars are not monsters," Dernier says quietly, petting Jupie.
Bucky sucks in a shuddering breath then quickly wipes his eyes with the heel of his hand. "I'm a fucking predator in a human body that belongs to a witch. How the hell does that not make me a monster?"
"Becoming a familiar makes you more, not less," Jupie says. Gabe and Bucky startle. The dog almost never speaks where anyone but Dernier can hear him. "And you saved my life. The monster is the one who would've shot me."
"If Jupie had died, I would have lost my soul," Dernier says. "I don't know if I would have survived it. I do know I wouldn't have wanted to. So you saved us both."
"And Morita," Gabe adds. "And hell, all of us Howlies, at one time or another. What kind of monster does that?"
"I have met men with only one soul who are far worse monsters than you could ever be," Dernier says.
Bucky shakes his head. He wipes his eyes again. "I know you're scared of me, Jacques. You should be." He looks at Gabe, defeated. "You say I'm not a monster, but you have no idea what I really am."
"Pretty sure we just said we do."
"I'm sorry I'm afraid," Dernier says. "I know you're a good man. It's just…Everything I learned says you shouldn't exist. It's difficult to accept that you do."
"You and me both, pal." Bucky looks at them imploringly. "Steve still doesn't remember. So don't tell him, okay? I can't…." He takes another breath. "Just, please don't tell Steve. Or anyone."
"I swear I will tell no one," Dernier says.
"I promise," Gabe says. "But I hope you have enough faith in him to tell him yourself."
"It's not my faith in him I'm worried about," Bucky says, but he sighs in relief, sagging with it. He puts his face in his hands. "Thank you. Really. I—" He stiffens, lifts his head then shoots to his feet, frantically clearing the last of the tears out of his eyes. "He's coming."
Gabe didn't hear a damn thing and he can tell by Dernier's expression that he didn't either. Jupie did, though.
He and Dernier stand as well, and Gabe's even managed to fish a pack of cigarettes out of a pocket and pull one into his mouth by the time Captain Rogers strides into their little clearing. His clouded expression brightens the instant he sees Bucky, like the sun coming out.
"There you are! Glad I found you. We're about to move out again. If we can go another few miles 'til nightfall, we should make it back to camp sometime tomorrow afternoon." He crosses the last few feet to Bucky and claps his shoulder, then leaves his hand there as he smiles at him. He doesn't seem to notice that Bucky's answering grin doesn't reach his eyes. "What were you guys doing all the way out here, anyway?"
"Sarge was just telling embarrassing stories about you," Gabe says, lighting his cigarette. He offers one to Dernier who takes it gladly. Bucky wrinkles his nose and shakes his head.
He used to love smoking, before they were captured.
"Yep." Bucky chuckles, easily picking up the lie. "I'd just finished telling them about the time you puked after riding the Cyclone.
Rogers blushes crimson, but he laughs. "I still owe you for that. Come on." He throws his arm across Bucky's shoulders and steers him towards the camp. "You tell them about how we met?" He looks over his shoulder, smiling proudly at Dernier and Gabe. "This knucklehead here saved me from freezing to death when I'd passed out in the snow during a really bad asthma attack." He grins at Bucky. "You probably remember it better than I do."
"Not really," Bucky says.
The witch who was once his girl says her name is Natasha, but that her name was Natalia a long time ago. She tells him that they met as adults when Natasha had become her name. He was in the manbody then (Natasha says 'human form'), so she didn't recognize him. And Hydra had stolen his memories so he didn't know her.
She tells him he trained her, taught her how to fight and to kill, and that she called him Vanya. She tells him that she was able to save the life of someone she loves dearly because he taught her how.
The cat almost remembers:
A young, beautiful woman with red hair smiling at him. Asking, "Will you let me see what you are?" and him in the manbody answering, "Yes, if it's only you." He remembers a warm touch he expected to hurt but he didn't know why, and the soft rasp in her voice as she sang the spell. But the memory fades after that.
The cat has no idea what he taught her that could have saved anyone, but his animal form can't speak so he has no voice to ask. Still, it makes him happy to think that she learned more than death from him.
He's in Natasha's lap. She's holding the bowl of milk under his nose, trying to get him to drink it, when Steve comes in with the other witch with the wings behind him.
The cat leaps to his four shaking legs, but he doesn't know if he wants to run to Steve or away from him. It doesn't matter because a second later his strength gives out and he flops onto his side.
"Bucky!" Steve runs across the room and reaches for him.
The cat hisses.
"Careful. If you move too fast he'll think you're a threat," Natasha says. She's staring at Steve like she's never seen him before, and when she puts the milk on the table her hand is trembling. "It's all right, Kotofei," she says to him in Russian, and massages the back of his neck. He relaxes a little, but he doesn't feel safe enough to purr.
"Right. I'm sorry." Steve keeps his hands raised so the cat can see them. "It's just…" He smiles, but it looks sad. "I really missed you, Bucky. Can I…Can I touch you? Please?"
The cat has no name, and the manbody has two and neither are that one, and the twoskin has one name but it's not that either. The name Steve used is wrong, but the cat can't speak to say so.
"Let him sniff you," the wing-witch says. "Hey, Bucky. My name's Sam. I'm Steve's friend." He smiles, big and bright and easy like he's not afraid. "No hard feelings about the wings."
The cat thinks he might nod, if he were in the manbody or twoskin. He blinks instead, hoping wing-witch Sam will understand it.
"He's making nice," Natasha says.
Sam's smile becomes a grin. "Well, how about that."
Steve smiles a little at Sam over his shoulder, then puts his fingers near the cat's nose. "I'm not going to hurt you, Bucky."
The cat knows Steve's scent already, just like he already knows his once-a-girl and wing-witch Sam, who smells like someone the cat thinks he knew once but doesn't remember. But he does appreciate Steve putting his fingers within biting distance like that. He licks his witch's fingers before flopping back to the blanket.
"You…do you remember me, Bucky? Can you…" Steve pulls his hand away to rub his chest. "Can you feel me in here? I couldn't when we fought before, not even on the helicarrier. But maybe now that you know me, if I can touch you again…."
The cat couldn't answer even if he had a voice. He knows Steve by his smell, nothing else. All he feels is pain. He doesn't know what else he's supposed to feel.
But Steve is his witch, and the cat wants so badly to remember him.
He purrs, to let him know it's all right. In response Steve makes a noise almost like a laugh, but his eyes have tears in them.
Steve slowly lowers himself to his knees in front of the couch. He holds his hands over the cat but hesitates. His breath speeds up a little as if he's afraid.
"Come back to me, Bucky," he says, and buries his fingers in the cat's matted fur.
There's nothing. All the cat feels is the warmth and careful weight of Steve's hands, and then the tiny tremble in his fingers. The cat lifts his head to look at Steve, but he can tell by his witch's face that nothing changed for Steve either.
Steve ducks his head and squeezes his eyes shut, just for a moment. The breath he pulls in shudders.
"Nothing?" Natasha asks him.
Steve shakes his head before he lifts it and opens his eyes. He swallows. "No." He pets the cat as carefully as he touched him, trailing his fingers though the fur. "Could I hold you? I won't, if it'll hurt you. But can I…?"
The cat lifts his head to look at Steve and purrs more loudly.
"Thank you," Steve says, rough. Natasha helps him, moving the cat as gently as possible so Steve can slide his big hands underneath him, and then placing the cat in his arms.
The cat isn't small, but he feels as tiny as a kitten cradled like this. Steve is bigger than he remembers, but also somehow not. The cat wishes he could ask why, but he'd need a different body for that and he's too tired to deal with the pain of switching forms.
Natasha moves aside so Steve can sit on the couch with his arms under the cat's belly, holding him against his chest. It's not comfortable—it goes against every instinct he has to be constrained at all, especially with his legs hanging. And it's putting pressure on his injuries—but the cat knows he's felt worse, even if he can't remember it. It's worth it anyway.
"God, I've missed you," Steve says. He puts his cheek on the cat's fur. Steve's breath hitches, and he's crying again, getting the cat's fur wet.
The cat nuzzles his arm and purrs as loudly as he can.
"Steve," Natasha says, so carefully that Steve looks up at her. "Do you remember what you asked me when we met for the mission to the Lemurian Star?"
Steve nods, then sniffs and swallows before he can speak. "Of course I do. I asked what'd changed, because you felt different. Like…" He frowns. "Like you have a familiar. But I know you don't. Same as me."
"You're right, I don't," she says easily. "But you do. That's what I felt. I didn't understand it then. But I do now." Natasha juts her chin at the cat. "It's the cat. It's him. He's your familiar."
Steve holds the cat a little more tightly. It hurts but the cat stays still, keeps purring. He can tell his witch is upset. "No," Steve says, hushed. "You're wrong. That's not possible. Bucky's…. We met when I was eight and he'd just turned nine. He's human."
"Um, I'm guessing not entirely," Sam says.
"He's your familiar," Natasha repeats. She looks at Sam, who's still standing. "I'm right, aren't I?"
Sam shakes his head. "Sorry. Steve just feels like a witch to me, same as you."
"I'm not a witch either," Steve says. He's getting frustrated. "People have said I was a witch my whole life, but I'm not. I've never done anything with magic."
Natasha and Sam look at each other. Sam shrugs. "I guess it's possible you could feel like one even if you're not. But—"
"You could find out," Natasha says to Sam.
Sam stops, blinking. "Yeah. I guess I could."
"Could what?" Steve says.
"Find out if you're a witch, and maybe why you feel like you have a shared soul with James," Natasha says.
"Isn't that obvious? We've known each other since we were kids. I love him."
"I know, believe me." Sam grins wryly. "Believe me, I know about your epic, undying love for James Buchanan Barnes. Anyone who spends longer than five minutes with you knows about your epic, undying love for James Buchanan Barnes. But that doesn't actually explain why you keep giving off vibes like you're a witch with a familiar." He comes closer. "I won't do anything, if you don't want. But seriously, don't you want to know what's up with that? If it were me, I'd sure as hell want to find out what's going on. It won't hurt," he adds. "Not you or Bucky."
Steve swallows, rubs his cheek against the cat's head. The cat licks him, because he wants to know if Steve is really his witch, too. "Will it let me…feel him again?"
"I don't know," Sam says. "But at least you'll know why you did."
Steve nods. "Yeah, okay." He sounds scared. "What, um." He looks around him. "Should I lie down? Or…."
"You sitting here is fine, though you might want to put Bucky down." Sam purses his lips. "Could I have a glass of water, please?" he asks Natasha.
"Do you need that for the spell?" Steve asks him as Natasha goes to get it.
Sam laughs. "I'm just thirsty."
When Natasha comes back, Sam drinks the water then puts the glass down on the coffee table and pushes the table aside. He cocks his head, then smirks. "Okay, you will have to be laying down for this. You're too damn tall."
Steve's answering smirk is nervous as he stretches out on the couch. He's tall enough that his head is on one armrest and his feet are on the other. He sets the cat on his chest, but puts his arms at his sides. He licks his lips. "Is this okay?"
"That's fine." Sam smiles at Natasha when she hands him the pillow she gave the cat to sleep on and he kneels on it on the floor. "I swear, this won't hurt a bit, Steve. I'm just going to look, see if I can find out what's making you feel all witchy. But I won't do it if you tell me no."
"No, it's okay," Steve says. "I want you to."
"All right then." Sam rubs his palms together, then puts one hand on Steve's forehead. Sam closes his eyes and starts chanting. It reminds the cat of something…someone?
Yes. Yes. Someone. A woman: young and strong and then older and wise and then older still and sad. She was kind, and the cat knew her. And she—
Steve gasps and sits bolt upright, clutching the cat to him.
"Oh my God." He looks wildly from Sam to Natasha to the cat in his arms. He's holding the cat too tightly now and it hurts a lot, so the cat struggles and hisses and Steve lets him go. The cat jumps to the coffee table, trying not to use his front leg. Sam picks him up and puts him gently on the couch, then stands up and moves away to give Steve room.
Steve looks at the cat as if he's terrified of him. That's…. The cat doesn't like it, but it doesn't feel wrong. Steve-the-witch was his mission. It makes sense he'd be terrified of him. And it never mattered what the cat liked or not.
"I made him," Steve says, very quietly. He sounds horrified and his eyes are wet. "I made him. Oh my God. I did this. All these years, and…." He swallows. "I didn't know. I'm so sorry, Bucky." He wipes his eyes with his fingers. "I never meant to do anything. This is all my fault." He reaches for the cat but hesitates, then pulls his hand back. "I made you. I was hurt and scared and I made you to save me. And you knew. You were the one who told me. But our parents made us forget." He turns to Sam and Natasha and wipes his eyes again. "I didn't know what I was doing. I'd tried to save a…a kitten. Some boys were stomping on it, and when I stopped them they started hitting me. One of them broke my nose, and I couldn't breathe so well and I got scared. But, I didn't know what I'd done. You have to believe me! I'd never—!"
"Hey, it's cool, man," Sam says. "We believe you." He glances at Natasha, who nods. "But, this isn't your fault, Steve. It's nobody's, 'cept maybe those kids who were beating on you."
"You must have used up all your power," Natasha says. "That's why you feel like a witch but aren't one."
Steve wipes his eyes. "One of our neighbors was a witch. Mrs. Tabenkin. Bucky's ma brought her over. She did something to Bucky. To both of us. Made us forget."
"I'm sorry," Natasha says. She rubs her chest, then glances out the window like she's waiting for someone.
"Thank you," Steve says to Sam. "I needed to know." He looks at the cat but still doesn't try to touch him. "God, Buck." He takes a shuddering breath. "Our entire lives, Bucky knew there was something…something different about him. But we didn't know what. And then, after he was captured at Azzano…." Steve grits his teeth, wipes his eyes angrily. "I thought it was what Arnim Zola had done to him. But, but it was me. The whole time, it was me. Bucky was so scared it meant he was some kind of monster, and it's my fault. God, I don't even know if he knows."
The cat can't remember Steve making him, but he remembers Steve dropping his shield with the helicarrier failing around them. He knows deep as whatever part of his soul is still his own that Steve-who-is-his-witch has never wanted to hurt him. He knows even without remembering that Steve would never do him harm.
So the cat totters onto his four unsteady legs and lurches close enough to Steve that he can flop down with his head butting Steve's thigh. And the cat purrs as loudly as he can, to tell his witch it's all right.
At first Steve doesn't know what jolts him awake. Only that he's suddenly blinking at the low ceiling of the tent with his heart pounding. It's not Bucky, he doesn't think. At least Steve's not in sympathetic pain.
It's very dark. Snow started falling while he slept, wet enough to catch on the canvas and block out the light from the moon.
Steve goes absolutely still, listening in complete silence. He holds his breath, but he can't do much for the steady thudding of blood in his ears.
Even so, he can hear Dum Dum's soft snoring and the squeak of snow under Monty's boots as he does his usual pacing across the clearing, mumbling songs under his breath. Tonight it's You'll Never Know. Monty's keeping so quiet that Steve's sure he's the only one who can hear him lamenting his lover's incredulity. But that's not what woke Steve up.
He yanks on his gloves—the only things he took off before he went to sleep besides his helmet—and crawls out of the miserably low tent. "Evening," he says softly to Monty. The word's carried out of his mouth on a puff of vapor.
Monty blinks at him. "It can't possibly be time for your watch, unless I've gone barmy." He glances up at the sky, where the full moon shines in between scudding clouds, then turns to Bucky's tent. "Barnes' turn is next."
"You haven't gone barmy," Steve says with a smile. He shrugs. "Something woke me up." He glances at his tent, then smirks self-depreciatingly. "Probably heard the snow."
Monty scoffs. "It's a pea under a mattress, Captain. Not snow on a roof. At least it's stopped now." He gestures at the tent. "Might as well brush it off and go back to sleep."
"I will," Steve says. But instead of doing that he looks at Bucky's tent instead.
"Haven't heard a peep from him," Monty says. He grimaces. "If he's having nightmares they must be quiet ones."
Steve winces in painful agreement. "I'm just gonna check on him."
Bucky doesn't sleep well anymore, hasn't since before he became a P.O.W, from what Steve heard from the other Commandos. It only got worse after that, whatever Hydra did to him. Steve wishes Bucky would talk about what happened, but he won't. But he's seen how Gabe looks at Bucky, how Dernier has trouble meeting his eyes sometimes. Steve's noticed how Jupie will climb into Bucky's lap more often than not, or crawl into his tent in the dark.
Steve asked Gabe and Dum Dum why Dernier's familiar likes Bucky so much, but Dum Dum just shrugged and Gabe said, 'He and Jacques owe him'. But no one would tell Steve why.
Then again, Steve hasn't told Bucky that he felt what they did to his soul either. He's not even sure why he hasn't said anything anymore, but the longer he doesn't the harder it is to talk about. It feels like it would betray Bucky somehow, to let on that he knows how much pain Bucky was in.
If Bucky's sleeping peacefully for once Steve's going to take middle and last watch. He'll be glad—hell, he'll be overjoyed—to deal with Bucky's anger in the morning, if it means he finally gets to sleep through the night.
Bucky hates what he calls 'special treatment': the Commandos making sure he sleeps, that he does more than pick at his food or slip into that awful stillness so deep that sometimes it seems like he'll never climb back out. Bucky can only see it as coddling, as if Steve wanting his second in command to be healthy is somehow treating him like a child.
The way Steve sees it, it's not coddling if the guy who needs maybe four hours sleep a night takes watch for the guy who can barely sleep at all. But sometimes he thinks the problem is as much that Bucky's so used to looking after Steve that he can't accept Steve finally being able to return the favor. Steve's just grateful that he finally can, that for once in his life he can actually give Bucky something instead of always taking from him. He knows he should talk to Bucky about it, but he can't figure out a way to say it so Bucky'll understand.
And Steve loves Bucky so much that sometimes it's like he can't even breathe. Making sure Bucky gets to rest is nothing, compared to what Steve would give.
Bucky's tent is right on the edge of their campsite, nestled between two trees. Steve kneels down carefully, slowly tugging down the zipper. He only opens the flap halfway, just enough to look inside and see how Bucky's doing.
But Bucky's not there.
Steve surges to his feet, racing the few steps back to Monty. "He's gone," he says, as breathless as if he's been running for hours. "He's not there, Monty. Do you know when he left? Did you see him leave?"
"No." Monty shakes his head, looking stunned. "I didn't know he'd gone anywhere. You're absolutely sure—"
"Of course I'm sure," Steve doesn't quite snap. He drags his fingers through his hair, turning as he looks around the entire clearing, trying to see the darker shadow of Bucky's jacket, or footprints. Anything. "God in heaven, he could be anywhere—"
"Captain," Monty says. They're both barely speaking at a whisper but his voice still has that particular English crackle to it that gets Steve to stop, pay attention. "There's no call for panic. For all we know he's taking a piss. There's no reason to start acting as if he's gone charging off to attack Red Skull on his own."
Steve considers that, nods reluctantly. "You're right." He feels a little stupid, but not enough to stop worrying. "I'm going to go look for him. Just in case."
It's gratifying to see that despite his words, Monty nods in immediate agreement. "Right. Of course." He squints at his watch, then scowls. "Can't see the bloody numbers. Well, let's just say that if you're not back soon we'll come after you."
"Wouldn't have it otherwise." Steve claps Monty on the shoulder, then he goes to his tent to get his gun and shield, and then goes into the forest.
He takes a gamble and heads towards the river they'd been following and filled their canteens from the afternoon before. The river's almost entirely frozen over, but there's enough of a current that the center's still free-flowing. He can easily hear the gurgling of it against the night's silence.
He picks up Bucky's footprints almost immediately. Bucky was moving fast by the length of the stride, almost running.
Steve breaks into a jog as he follows. He's looking around at his surroundings, not his feet, so he almost trips over the first body.
It's—it was—Hydra. It's easy to tell from the black uniform. Ridiculous arrogance. Even the Nazis know to wear white in the snow.
The man's lying on his front, but his head's twisted so far around he's staring up at the sky.
He still has his Mauser. The barrel's cold when Steve touches it, no sign it was fired. No sign of anything other than the two sets of almost-buried footprints in the snow. The Hydra soldier was coming towards their campsite. Bucky headed away from it.
The next Hydra soldier died just as efficiently as the first, choked to death.
The third was able to pull his gun and fire it. The single shot must've been what woke Steve up.
This one was…. Steve doesn't know what happened. The man's throat was torn out. There's blood everywhere: on the tree the soldier's slumped against; soaking his uniform; splashed on the snow like ink under the moonlight. Thick, black splotches of it run alongside Bucky's footprints like Braille.
Bucky's boots and gaiters are there, set neatly against a tree with his socks tucked inside.
Steve bites back a gasp of uncomprehending alarm and forces himself to go slow, go carefully, along the last few yards into the clearing next to the river. All he wants to do is keep running, but there might be Hydra soldiers left alive.
Steve finds three more bodies before he gets to the clearing. Another one with his throat torn open. The one after that was attacked so violently his belly looks shredded. The last one struggled. Bucky grabbed a rock and hit him so many times the man's head is an unrecognizable mess of red mush and fragments of bone.
It's the brutality of the deaths that makes Steve's blood run cold. Bucky's a sniper. His aim was excellent before but now it's phenomenal. Steve has very carefully not wondered why. But Bucky's always been good in a fight—he had to be, with how often he pulled Steve's fat out of the fire—and he has no problem with fighting dirty. But he doesn't do this. He doesn't turn men's heads into pulp, or rip their bodies into tatters.
And he would never hunt men like prey (yes he would; Steve remembers Bucky crying in Steve's apartment when he was sixteen, how he was terrified he'd hunted a man to death), or take on six of them on his own. None of this makes sense, and that's what sticks Steve's voice in his throat as he edges into the clearing.
Steve thought Bucky was fine, after he pulled him off that table in Zola's isolation ward. That…unraveling feeling that hit him before he found out the 107th was decimated is still there, hasn't changed. But Bucky was fine. He could walk in seconds, he was running minutes after that, and he made it across the beam and then out of the factory and stayed right by Steve's side the entire walk back to camp.
He was fine. Only he's not. Not at all.
There were two other Hydra soldiers. The head of the first one is gone. Ripped off. It's like Bucky curled his fingers under the man's jaw and heaved until it came away like a doll. Except Bucky's not strong enough for that. He can't be strong enough for that. Steve's that strong, but he'd never do anything so brutal.
And the other soldier….
The man's on his back with a hunk of his throat missing. His uniform shirt's ripped open, exposing his belly, which is ripped open too. The corpse is steaming, releasing the last of the man's heat into the air.
Bucky's sitting cross-legged next to the corpse, eating the man's liver.
Steve wants to call his name, but for a moment he can't remember how to breathe.
Bucky's human ears are gone. In their place are two huge black cat ears, going up to points at the top of his head. They swivel towards Steve and Bucky's head snaps up.
And his face….
He doesn't look like anyone Steve recognizes. He barely looks human, with the blood staining his mouth in thick, deep red from his lips to his waist, soaking his jacket. His eyes have slit pupils, like a cat.
Bucky's ears go back and he snarls around the mouthful of liver he just sheared off with his teeth. He gnaws and swallows it without taking his eyes off Steve, or stopping the growls that rumble from his throat. Warning Steve away from his kill.
Steve is so shocked it's like he's gone numb with it. Everything about this is like a nightmare, so far from what Steve thought he knew that he's running towards Bucky before he even thinks about it, ignoring the animal warning signs because this can't be real, this can't be Bucky. Bucky doesn't look like a cat. Bucky doesn't rip people apart. He doesn't. He doesn't—
The next thing Steve knows is that he's on his back on the riverbank and his jaw's aching and he can't breathe. Bucky is snarling at him, lips pulled far back from bloodstained, pointed teeth. He has both his hands around Steve's throat. His claws are stabbing into Steve's neck.
"Bucky!" Steve wheezes. Bucky shouldn't be this strong. That, at least, Steve knows is absolutely true. "Bucky, it's me! Stop!"
Bucky doesn't recognize him. He might kill Steve before he remembers.
Steve doesn't want to hurt him, but he can't pull Bucky's hands off his neck and his blood is cooling as it soaks into his collar and spots are forming in front of his eyes. Steve grits his teeth and kicks Bucky in the shin as hard as he dares without breaking the bone.
Bucky doesn't do more than grunt and shift his weight, but it lets Steve finally wrench his hands away from his neck and shove Bucky into the river. Steve doesn't want to freeze Bucky any more than he wants to hurt him, but he's hoping that the shock of the cold will bring him back.
Steve scrambles to his feet as Bucky comes up flailing and sputtering, yowling in shock and rage. He claws his way up the bank and charges at Steve again, ears so flat they're invisible against his wet hair. He's roaring around his pointed cat-teeth like he wants to take a chunk out of Steve. His bare feet have claws too.
"Bucky! It's me, it's Steve," he says. His shield's still on his back but he doesn't want to use it, doesn't want to hurt Bucky any more than he already has. "It's Steve! I'm not going to hurt you." He risks a step closer, holds his hands out. "Please, Bucky. It's Steve. Don't…don't you recognize me?"
Bucky stops growling. He narrows his cat-eyes and sniffs the air like he's getting Steve's scent. "Steve," he says, like he's just learned the word. He blinks a few times and suddenly even with the cat features he looks like Bucky again. Human. "Steve?"
"Yeah, Buck," Steve says. He swallows. "I'm right here."
Bucky looks around the clearing like he's never seen it before, then notices the blood staining his waterlogged jacket and all the blood on his hands. "Steve…what…?" He begins to hyperventilate, violently shaking. "What happened? What happened to me? What did I do?" He registers the soldier he tore open and he stumbles over to the corpse, his eyes wide in horror. He licks his lips, then all at once he drops to his knees and vomits onto the snow.
"Bucky!" Steve goes to him, but Bucky shoots to his feet and knocks Steve's hands away.
"Don't touch me!" He staggers back from Steve then lifts a clawed hand to stop him when Steve tries to approach again. "Don't. Please. I-I might…." Bucky gags then whirls and crashes back into the water, scrubbing frantically at the blood. He tears at his jacket with his claws then just rips it off in a panic, dropping the pieces to sink or float away. There's blood on his sweater too—It's like he's been bathing in it—and Bucky tears the wool away like it's strangling him. His pants have slipped down his too-thin hips, waterlogged, and Steve realizes Bucky has a tail: long and black as his ears and thrashing in the water like an eel, telegraphing his distress. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I'm sorry," he says, close to babbling. "I didn't mean…. Oh, God. You weren't supposed to see...."
"It's all right," Steve says immediately, ignoring Bucky's wild laugh of disbelief. "We'll fix this. I promise. Hey, wait. Stop!" Steve splashes in and grabs Bucky's wrists when Steve realizes Bucky's tearing his skin along with the cloth of his singlet. "Bucky, stop. Stop. You're hurting yourself. Stop, please. It'll be all right. Whatever…whatever this is, we'll get through it. You'll be okay, I promise."
"You're a damned liar," Bucky says, but he's calmer. Steve lets go his wrists and Bucky wipes his eyes with the heels of his hands. He leaves faint bloody smears like paint. There's still blood around his mouth, but his lips are tinged blue and he's shivering. Steve's terribly cold himself and he's fully clothed. They have to get back to camp before Bucky goes hypothermic.
"Come on, we need to get out of the water."
Bucky shakes his head. "No. No. They can't see me like this. I'm not…I'm not clean." He turns away from Steve and starts washing again, trying to get off the blood.
"Bucky, you're going to freeze to death! Stop!" Steve grabs his arm and Bucky hisses, showing teeth, then makes an awful noise of fear and tries to jerk away.
"Don't, it's all right. It's all right, you didn't hurt me. But please, come out of the water." Steve's sure he's doing the wrong thing but he doesn't know what the right thing is and the longer they're in the river the more danger they'll both be in. He tries to climb out, pulling Bucky with him, but it becomes a fight. Bucky's alarmingly strong and when he yanks his arm out of Steve's grip Steve can't stop him. The sudden movement sends Bucky tumbling back into the water. This time he sinks like a rock.
Steve yells in alarm and goes after him again. He hauls Bucky's head out of the water by one of his enormous cat ears, then drags him up the bank with his arms around Bucky's chest while Bucky coughs up about half the river and trembles like…
Well, like a kitten.
Steve scoops Bucky into his arms and runs with him back to the camp. Bucky's fighting to stay conscious now, but he still manages to slap Steve's chest hard enough to get him to pay attention.
"Stop. S-stop," he slurs. "Can't. Not like this."
"They're gonna care a lot more about you freezing to death!" Steve snaps at him, barely slowing down.
"No. Dernier…. Please."
Steve slows down, because Bucky sounds desperate even though he's not making sense. "Yeah, Dernier can probably help, but Jim's the one with the healing spells."
Bucky shakes his head, then grits his pointed teeth. He clutches at the cloth of Steve's uniform, groaning through his clenched jaw until he can't contain the scream that tears out of him. It abruptly cuts off as he goes limp.
"Bucky!" Steve stops, adjusts his grip to better see Bucky's face. He's out cold, terrifyingly literally: his body's freezing. But his ears are regular human ears again, and only normal human teeth are visible in his slack mouth. Steve no longer has to worry about tripping on Bucky's tail.
Everyone's out of their tents when Steve gets back to camp. They all heard Bucky's scream.
"Good Lord!" Monty runs to them. "What happened to him?" He gasps. "Is that blood?"
"Yes it is." Steve's a terrible liar, but he's been an actor and he's good at moving the truth around a little if he needs to. He really needs to now. "He must've heard a Hydra patrol. He went after them on his own with just his field knife. He got them all, but…I think Zola did something to him. When I found him he was trying to wash off the blood, like he didn't remember what happened. And…and it took a couple minutes before he recognized me."
"Holy fuck," Jim breathes. He elbows his way in front of Monty, closes his eyes for a second and whispers a short phrase in Japanese. He rubs his palms together than puts his hands on Bucky's chest. He winces. "He's not physically injured besides the cold, but he's had a hell of a shock."
"Was that him screaming?" Dum Dum asks.
Steve nods. "What do we do?" he asks Jim.
"Get him warm. Hopefully that and some rest will deal with…whatever happened," Jim says. "Otherwise, maybe me and Dernier can figure something out."
Dernier bobs his head nervously. "Yes, of course."
Gabe helps him with his shield before Steve takes Bucky into his tent. Hauling a completely limp Bucky in with him is not easy, but Steve manages to maneuver him out of his half-frozen pants and then both of them into his sleeping bag. They're lying chest-to-chest with Bucky on top of him, and his being deadweight like this makes it a little hard to breathe. It reminds Steve of when they'd share one bed in the winters back in Brooklyn, but they were both smaller then.
On the other hand, he and Bucky haven't been able to share space like this in a long time. Steve's missed being able to wake up with Bucky in his arms more than he wants to think about. He just wishes that right now he could be in any way happy about it.
He doesn't sleep, just rubs Bucky's back and keeps Bucky's icy feet between his calves until Bucky stops shivering, then holds onto him until they're both too hot. When Steve's finally sure Bucky's safe, he leaves him sleeping and inches his way out of the tent.
Steve joins the others in the light of dawn. Dum Dum's making coffee over the fire.
"How is he?" Jim asks. He's holding his hands near the flames, trying to warm them.
"Sleeping. I left because it was getting too hot." There's an obvious joke there, but no one seems to feel like saying it.
"Glad he's all right," Gabe says.
"What happened to him?" Steve asks, looking at all of them. "He won't talk about it, but you were there. What did Zola do to him?"
"Not a fucking clue," Dum Dum says, shrugging miserably. "I told you what I know. Last I saw him before you got to us was a couple Hydra fucks dragging him away."
"He pretty much offered himself up so they wouldn't take me," Jim says. "He saved my life. But I don't know anything more than that either."
Steve knows about that—he requested a commendation for Bucky because of it—but he nods anyway.
Monty just shakes his head. He spreads his hands. "I'm afraid I haven't the faintest idea either, what they did with him. All I know is that they didn't think he was a witch, but something close enough to one that they took him anyway."
"Zola's pet witch wanted to know where his familiar was," Dernier says in French.
Steve didn't know that. He blinks at Dernier after Gabe translates. "He doesn't have a familiar."
"Yeah," Gabe says quietly. "We know."
Bucky crawls out of Steve's tent four hours later, demanding to know what he was doing there and what the hell happened to his clothes and where the hell are his boots? He insists he doesn't remember anything about the night before, but for the first time in weeks when he smiles it reaches his eyes.
Unlike Steve, Bucky's always been an exceptional liar. But he seems so bemused, and then so genuinely pleased to hear that he somehow single-handedly protected the whole team from a Hydra patrol that it's impossible for Steve not to believe him.
And Steve wants so badly to believe him, because maybe it means that what Steve saw won't ever happen again.
Maybe it means that Bucky will be all right.
Steve doesn't bring up what happened at the river, and if Bucky remembers any of it he does a damn good job pretending he doesn't. They finish that mission and another Hydra stronghold goes down, then they rest for a few days back in England before going out again. Other members of the 107th rotate in and out, but the core group of Howling Commandos always stays.
They look out for each other, so everyone tacitly ignores how Bucky spends more time away from his tent at night than not; how often he walks out of the woods in time to help with breakfast and breaking down the campsites in the morning, but with no evidence that he's actually slept there. He's always there to take his turn at watch, and he's always got that lazy, sarcastic drawl and that beautiful smile of his. So if he looks pale sometimes or hollow-eyed, or if he startles more easily and keeps insisting he's not hungry when he passes Steve or Dum Dum his half-finished meals, well. It's so much easier for Steve not to think about it.
Steve promises himself that the next time they're on leave, he'll talk to Bucky and find out what's going on. He assures himself that as soon as the war ends he'll take Bucky somewhere warm and peaceful and just let him rest for as long as he needs. He tells himself that as soon as the war's over, they'll both be fine. They'll be able to start their real lives together again.
He pretends the steady, persistent ache in his chest is a muscle strain or bruised ribs or, when it's really bad, a carryover from before the serum. And when Bucky crawls into his tent at night in nothing but his trousers and with his breath smelling faintly of blood, Steve doesn't ever say anything.
They don't talk about it at all. Steve follows Bucky's lead and gives him whatever he can: words; contact; comfort. The hot, heady slide of hands and lips and tongue so that when Bucky's shaking in Steve's arms it's from something good. And for a few minutes the ache in Steve's chest eases. But it never goes away.
"I wish you'd talk to me, Buck," Steve tells him once. "I miss you. I wish you'd talk to me."
"I'm right here," Bucky says. He holds him a little tighter all the same.
"Do you have to love Dernier 'cause he made you?"
"What?" Jupie lifts his ugly pug face from whatever he'd jammed his nose into and blinks at Bucky with his shiny black eyes.
"You love your witch, right?" It's nighttime, just the two of them awake next to the remains of the fire. Bucky volunteered to take Gabe's watch. He wasn't sleeping anyway.
Jupie nods, his little nose quivering. "Yeah, sure. Why?"
"Yeah. Well, I love my witch." Bucky rubs his chest. All he's felt for months is aching there, like an old wound. He knows Steve is worried about him, and sad, but he can't change anything without telling Steve the truth. No way in hell is Bucky ever going to do that. "But, maybe I have to, 'cause we share a soul. Maybe he has to love me, too."
"Yeah, sure. So?" Jupie flops on his back in the cooling embers.
"So, he should have a choice," Bucky says. He cards his fingers through his hair, making a face at how greasy it is. He thinks about turning into the cat so he can lick himself clean, but it's too damn cold to be naked and he doesn't want to risk anyone seeing him. "He shouldn't be stuck with me 'cause he made himself a familiar by accident."
"People can choose when they fall in love?" Jupie lifts his head, looking genuinely shocked. "So, when they smell different, it's on purpose?"
Bucky stares at the dog. "People in love smell different?" He knows how Steve smells, of course, and the guys tend to get kind of…musky, after a night in town. But Steve's just Steve. He's never been different. And Bucky hasn't really tried to tell any scents apart.
"Of course they do." Jupie looks at Bucky like he's crazy for not knowing that. "Sometimes they really stink, even. You and Steve stink all the time."
"Yeah, well, you ain't no fucking bed of roses yourself." Bucky pulls up his knees, then folds his arms on top of them and rests his chin on his arms. "But, that don't change how Steve made me by accident. It's not like you and Dernier. Stevie didn't want me, you know?"
Jupie rolls back to his feet, shaking ash everywhere. "Sure he did. He wouldn't've made you, otherwise, right?"
Bucky shakes his head, scowling. "He didn't want me, stupid. He was getting the ever-living shit beat outta him. He wanted help, is all."
"Right," Jupie says. He flops down right next to Bucky. "You help a lot, just like he wanted. That's why he stinks so much when he looks at you."
"That makes no fucking sense." Bucky starts petting Jupie's belly, making the little dog squirm in happiness, his stubby leg going like a trip hammer.
"It makes perfect sense." Jupie stretches, wiry fur rippling. "You'd agree with me if your nose worked properly." He licks Bucky's hand. "Everyone loves you. You're very helpful."
"Thanks, I think," Bucky says, still petting the dog. "I think Steve loves Peggy Carter," he says softly. "Or, he would. If he wasn't stuck loving me."
Jupie sneezes. "I don't know. I don't think Jacques feels stuck. Do you feel stuck?"
Bucky rubs his chest. "I feel a lot of things. Not many of 'em good." But no, stuck isn't one of them. He wants to be with Steve. He's happy with Steve. At least as happy as he ever gets these days.
"Maybe Steve doesn't feel stuck either," Jupie says musingly. He looks up at Bucky with his big shiny eyes. "You should ask him."
"No fuckin' way." Bucky shudders. "He doesn't know what I am. And if you tell him, I'll murder you. Got it?"
"You're mean," Jupie says.
"Damn right I am." Bucky nods, still petting him. He can hear—not smell—Steve coming out of his tent a few seconds before he emerges. When Steve sees Bucky he grins. And God, Steve looks so damn happy, like he's not stuck at all, but exactly where he wants to be.
"How are you doing, Buck?" Steve says, quiet so he won't wake up anyone. He sits down next to Bucky and wraps his arm around his shoulders, pulling Bucky into his side. "Oh. Hi, Jupie."
"Hi, Cap!" Jupie says brightly in French. Either he has no idea that he makes Steve a little nervous, or he's too dumb to care. "Bucky thinks you want someone else and that you wouldn't love him if you had a choice about it."
"What?" Steve speaks enough French now that Bucky knows he got what Jupie said. That's why Steve looks anxiously around the campsite. "What do you mean? Of course I love Bucky. He's my best friend." Even whispering, Steve's nervousness is so obvious it makes Bucky wince.
"You don't smell like friends," Jupie says with authority. "You stink like you're in love."
"Shut up!" Bucky hisses. He snatches up Jupie by his scruff and hangs the dog in front of his face. "Nobody can know about that, got it? Nobody. You breathe a fucking a word about us and I'll skin you alive."
"I won't! I won't!" Jupie yelps, trembling.
"Bucky!" Steve grabs Jupie around his stomach and Bucky lets him go, then gently wraps his hand around Jupie's muzzle to stop him talking. "Shh."
"Sorry," Jupie says much more quietly. "I won't tell anyone how you smell. I promise."
Bucky runs his fingers through his hair, feeling like a heel. "I'm sorry," he says. "I should never've done that. But I'm serious. The Howlies are all right, but that doesn't mean they'd be jake with us…smelling like we do to you. They might tell Phillips, and we'll both get arrested."
"I'd never let that happen, Bucky," Steve says.
Bucky shrugs. "Not like you'd have a choice."
Jupie stares at him. "Arrest, like, put in cages? Like the Hydra people did?"
"Exactly like that." Bucky nods. "Fellas ain't supposed to be like us. It's against the law, even."
"Oh," Jupie says, subdued. "I promise I won't tell anyone."
"Swell. Thanks." Bucky pets the dog again, letting out a breath in relief.
"What were you saying, though, about me wanting someone else?" Steve asks in English.
Bucky shakes his head quickly. "It's nothing. Never mind." But he can see that Steve's got it in his head and he's not going to let it go now. He's giving it the same measured consideration he gives their options before a raid.
Steve smiles crookedly. "Honestly, I'm not sure if there was ever a time I didn't want you."
"I know." Bucky nods miserably. "You never even dated anyone. I'm the only…I'm the only person you ever did anything with."
"That's true." Steve doesn't seem too broken up about it. He leans back on his hands. "But, I'm not like you. I know you made time with girls before, um, you know." Bucky's eyes are good enough that he can see Steve's cheeks pinking. Despite everything it makes Bucky smile. "But, I never wanted anyone else. Not ever. No one's ever turned my head or caught my attention the way you did."
"Not even Peggy?" Bucky hates how small and uncertain his voice sounds, but he can't help it. He doesn't even try.
"Peggy?" Steve blinks, then tilts his head, thinking about it. "She's one hell of a dame—woman—for sure. And I do love her. And…" He sighs. "I know the safest thing would be for me to court her and for us to get married and have three kids and a dog and for you to be the doting bachelor uncle." He makes a face as if the words taste bad. "But I love her like a friend. Maybe like a sister, even." He sits up, jostles Bucky's shoulder so he'll look at him. "Not like you."
"It's not fair, though. You didn't have—" Bucky cuts himself off because saying you didn't have a choice will make Steve ask questions he'd rather die than answer. "You've never been with anyone else. Like you said. What if…what if you're not really supposed to be with me?"
Steve looks at Bucky like he's lost his mind. "Bucky, if I wasn't supposed to be with you, I wouldn't be. I know my own mind. And I know my own heart." He rubs his chest, in the same spot Bucky does that he's never dared ask him about. "What we have is special." He grimaces. "That sounds trite. I mean, what we have is amazing." He gives Bucky one of his enormous grins. "You're amazing. I've never been with anyone else because I've never wanted to. And I never will. You're my best guy, Bucky. Just you." He leans over enough to bump his head against Bucky's. "Just you," he repeats, more softly. Somehow it sounds like a promise.
"Okay," Bucky says, rough. He clears his throat. "Likewise, ya big dope."
Steve chuckles and sits up and puts his arm around Bucky again. And Bucky leans into him and soaks up some of his incredible warmth and pets the stupid dog. And for the first time since Azzano he lets himself believe that maybe everything will be all right.
The great thing about being a sniper is that you get to stay back and watch, see the Hydra assholes creeping up on your team, and then kill them before they have a clue what's happening.
The lousy thing about being a sniper is that you stay back and watch, so you're not there to help when your team gets captured and taking the shot means they all die.
"Oh, no. Oh, no. What are we going to do?" Jupie's next to Bucky, dancing in anxiety. Bucky's not sure when he became the familiar's babysitter or whatever the hell the dog thinks he is, but somehow whenever he hunkers down in his sniper's nest the dog always comes with him.
"Pipe down," Bucky hisses. He worries at his bottom lip, looking through his rifle scope at the Howlies, all standing in a cluster back-to-back with their hands up and about a hundred Hydra fucks pointing their guns at their heads. And some of the guns are the ones that use that crazy blue light that will even take Captain America apart.
He knows that if he fires now he won't be able to take down all the soldiers before they have a chance to shoot his team. And he's pretty damn sure who they'll shoot first. Hell, Steve will volunteer if it buys the others a few more seconds to keep breathing. And if the Hydra guys don't let Steve die first, he'll do something to force their hand.
No damn way that's going to happen.
Bucky sits up, stripping off his jacket then his sweater and undershirt, then his boots and socks. He's got this down to a science now, so he's mostly naked in seconds. The air is unpleasantly chill on his bare skin, but the cold doesn't bother him that much anymore. He's got bigger things to worry about anyway.
He winces, staring at the terrain. The Howlies are being marched back to the Hydra base, and there's nothing much between them and the ugly grey building in the distance but open, rocky ground. Bucky can move real quiet these days, but he's not small and he'll stand out against the snow. There's no way they won't notice him. Like this.
"Fuck," Bucky breathes. He's avoided doing more than shifting form once and then shifting back, but right now that's not an option.
Damn it, but those bunch of idiots are going to owe him.
(He tries not to think about how they'll probably look at him, after this. Tells himself it doesn't matter, it'll be worth it. He can live with anything.
"Okay," he says to Jupie in French, trying to keep his breath even despite how he's anxious and he knows just how bad this'll be. "I need you to go down there and distract 'em for a bit."
Jupie blinks his river-stone eyes at Bucky. "Right. How?"
Bucky rolls his eyes. "Do your stupid yappy little dog thing. Only, try to make it cute so they don't shoot you." Hopefully Dernier will be smart enough not to let on that the dog's his.
"Stupid yappy cute dog. Right." Jupie bobs his head in a frantic nod that reminds Bucky bizarrely of Dernier.
"Don't start barking 'til you're near them, all right? I don't want anyone to see me," Bucky says quickly, before Jupie goes nuts and gets them all killed.
"Right. Right." Jupie nods some more, then whirls and races down the hillside in a ridiculous tangle of tiny doggie-limbs with his dumb white stub of a tail straight out behind him. He stays quiet until he's almost at the heels of the last Hydra solder in the line and then starts barking his stupid head off. He startles the hell out of the soldier but luckily the guy only kicks at him. Jupie yelps theatrically—Bucky hopes it's theatrically—and rolls and writhes his little feet in the air, still yapping. It's doing a fantastic job of distracting the guards. Bucky just hopes Dernier can keep it together while his familiar's in danger.
Hell, Bucky hopes he can keep it together. But it's not like he has another choice.
He winces, then shoves his pants and underwear off and gets on all fours. Then he clenches his jaw and shifts.
He's done it enough times now that he doesn't scream, though it still feels like every one of his cells are tearing in half. At least it's over quick.
The black cat races down the hillside towards the group of men. Jupie's still doing his, 'don't hurt me, I'm adorable' bark-and-dance routine. No one's shot him yet, which shows a hell of a lot of restraint. Bucky would've perforated the little shit by now. But the soldiers have all slowed down to watch.
He hears one of the soldiers exclaiming, "Hey, look, a black cat!" and pointing like he's never seen an animal before. Bucky only doesn't roll his eyes because real cats don't do that. He takes a swipe at Jupie as he goes by, though he's too far to do anything. The dog squeals like Bucky's just gutted him though, then streaks off in the other direction. Most of the Hydra fucks watch the dog.
Bucky waits until nearly everyone's looking at Jupie, then he shifts again.
Shifting from the cat to the body Bucky calls the half-cat feels just as unbelievably awful as shifting from human to half-cat and back, but at least it's not any worse, which is what he was worried about. He's still able to keep his scream mostly buried in his chest, and the first Hydra soldier dies without even realizing his throat's just been ripped out.
Jim realizes what's happened of course, but he only stands gaping at Bucky for a second before he whispers a couple words in Japanese and the soldier nearest him clutches his head like he's been hit by a bag of migraines. Dernier is lousy with combat spells, but he's a scrappy little bastard like his familiar and he elbows the guard on him in the nose.
Bucky grabs that one as he stumbles back and crushes his spine with his teeth. The leather of their uniforms tastes disgusting.
Steve kills two more soldiers with a couple of brutally efficient blows. Gabe and Monty team up for one more. The others have finally clued in that they're under attack by then, and one of them gets off a shot that almost hits Bucky's side. Then Dum Dum grabs the shooter in a chokehold. Bucky leaves that guy twitching in Dum Dum's arms and whirls to the next soldier, but Steve takes him out first.
Bucky grins at Steve with all his teeth and leaps at the next Hydra goon, who looks about ready to piss himself when he sees nearly 200 pounds of predator coming at him. Bucky scoops out his guts with a kick then throws himself into a roll to avoid one of the blue beams that turns the dying soldier into atoms.
Bucky leaves that shooter to more of Jim's magic while he hamstrings another soldier and punches a third so hard that his fist smashes the lens of his goggles. That one probably thought it was a privilege to carry Captain America's shield, but he's too dead to regret his choice by the time Bucky wrenches it off his back and wings it at Steve. Steve catches it mid-stride without even looking, then scythes it into the midsection of the Hydra guard who was aiming his regular gun at Dernier. That mook doesn't even grunt before he drops, but Bucky barely glances at him before he rushes the next fucker and the next.
He maybe loses track a bit after that, so deep in the hunt that he forgets about the other Howlies, even forgets about Steve. There's nothing but the next target, the next screaming prey, and the terrible joy of using his body to kill them. And the hot, salty scent of blood and the taste of it.
And then someone calls, "Bucky! Bucky!" and the word doesn't mean anything but the voice sounds like safe home love and he knows it, he knows it. He just has to think….
Bucky is wrenched back to himself mid-swipe of his claws. He drops the very, very, extremely dead Hydra soldier and whirls, chest heaving and tail bristling like a fucking pine tree and Steve's staring at him like…
Like he's looking at a monster.
"I'm sorry!" Bucky blurts (fucking mother of Christ he's naked and covered in blood and he can taste it and no, no no) and takes off back to his sniper's nest, where he left his clothes and his boots and his gun.
And maybe his humanity. Except he never had any, did he? And now everyone's seen it. They know what he really is and what the fuck is he going to do now?
"Bucky!" Steve calls after him, "Stop! You're bleeding!"
Bucky just laughs, high and awful, because no fooling. He's covered with it.
He doesn't realize until he's frantically trying to scrub it off with the snow that oh, yeah. Some of it's actually his.
Jim's their medic. He knows all the healing spells for the bad wounds and he's the one who hauls out the antiseptic and the bandages for the not-so bad ones. So it's Jim who takes care of the deep bullet graze between two of Bucky's ribs while Bucky sits shirtless on a rock and doesn't look at anyone.
"I could'a sworn it was bleeding more than this," Jim says. He's painting the graze with iodine, which hurts, but Bucky's too miserable to do more than twitch. Switching forms feels a hell of a lot worse anyway.
"It was," Steve says, and he'd know because he doesn't forget a damn thing. "Bucky?"
Bucky closes his eyes and swallows, then lifts his head. He wants to smile or make like everything's fine, but he's so upset he knows there's no point in trying. "Yeah?"
Steve licks his lips, his eyes darting to the top of Bucky's head like he's still expecting the cat ears, even though Bucky switched back to human as soon as he got up on the hill.
"Is all this…the healing and your strength and…and everything else because of the experiments Zola did to you?"
"Yeah," Bucky says, rough, then has to look away fast before he starts to cry or something just as pathetic. "He kept injecting me with stuff. Green-blue liquid. I don't know how many times, though. I, uh, I kinda lost track."
"There was magic things as well," Dernier says in his lousy English. He's got Jupie in his arms again, of course, and just looks at the animal's back when he talks. Bucky wonders if he and Gabe are the only ones who've figured out that Dernier does that when he's lying. "I was forced to help. I do not know what they did."
"Me neither," Bucky says, then laughs because he's probably never told a bigger lie in his entire life. He knows exactly what Miss Auer did to him. "Well, I guess I do," he goes on, spreading his hands. "Since I'm some kind of were-cat thing now." He forces himself to look up at Steve. "'Guess your next report to Phillips is gonna be more interesting than you figured, huh."
Steve blinks at him. "What do you mean?"
"Wait a moment." Monty looks between Bucky and Steve. "You're not really planning to tell Colonel Phillips about this, are you, Captain?"
"Sarge just saved our asses, Cap!" Dum Dum cuts in. "You can't go squealin' on him to Phillips! Hell, they almost made you into a lab rat, right?" He gestures sharply at Bucky. "Well, we gotta lab cat right here! They'll think it's fucking Christmas!"
"Christmas and all their birthdays combined," Gabe adds. "They'll never let him see the light of day again."
"You're not serious, right?" Jim asks Steve. "You're not really going to tell Phillips about Barnes?"
"Or Agent Carter," Monty adds. "I know you trust her, Captain, but when it comes to one of our own—"
Jupie takes a flying leap out of Dernier's arms and does an impressive belly-flop on the snow. Then he runs in front of Bucky and stands there growling at Steve.
"Hey!" Steve shouts. "I'm not telling anyone!" He glares at all of them. "I'd never betray Bucky like that! Have you all lost your minds?" He looks at Bucky, who's still having a hard time meeting his eyes. "I'd never betray you! Of course not!"
Bucky nods, though the sick relief in his throat is making it too hard to speak.
Steve should tell Phillips or Carter about him. He belongs in a cage. He hates how happy he is that Steve isn't going to.
Jim pats Bucky's shoulder. "Way I see it, what that bastard did to you, it just serves him right that it's coming back to bite him in the ass."
"Literally," Dum Dum says, and everyone laughs.
Everyone except Bucky.
The Howlies treat Bucky the same as they ever did, pretty much. Though if maybe he catches Dum Dum or Jim or Monty staring at him sometimes he pretends not to notice it. And of course Dernier and Gabe already knew.
They're good friends, though. They never say anything.
Steve doesn't stare. Sometimes Bucky wishes he would. Sometimes Bucky wishes Steve would just stop pretending that everything's all right when Bucky knows there's no way in hell it can ever be all right again.
Steve already saw him by the river. But after changing form again where they all could see Bucky can't pretend the river never happened anymore. He can't pretend that he's still human.
He knows he should stop crawling into Steve's tent at night, but he doesn't. He wants Steve too much—he loves Steve too much—and he's too damn selfish to stay away. So maybe he doesn't actually love Steve enough at all. But then Steve will smile at him or kiss him or hold him like Bucky's still worth something, and it's like a kick in the chest, every single time.
So Bucky keeps going to Steve, even though Steve deserves so much better than a monster who only exists because he was made by accident. But Steve acts like what Bucky is doesn't matter. Like Steve doesn't even care.
But everyone still treats Bucky like he's almost the same, when he knows that really, he's just damn lucky that no one shot him. The fact that none of them are going to tell Phillips about him is a goddam miracle. And Bucky sure as fuck doesn't deserve that. But he promises himself that he'll damn well try.
He promises himself that he won't change form again. He won't sneak out at night to go hunting. He'll pay them all back by pretending to be human, even though he's not, so they don't have to.
And maybe if he pretends well enough, long enough, it'll actually make it true.
(He knows it won't. But he keeps trying anyway, because the only thing he has left is hope.)
Bucky doesn't break his promise, even when he's trapped in a train car and out of ammo with the Hydra soldier almost on top of him.
He doesn't break his promise when Steve goes down and Bucky picks up his shield to protect him.
But he breaks his promise when the handle snaps and he falls, because in the clarity of panic he thinks cats land on their feet and he changes form.
The cat is still trying to struggle out of Bucky's jacket when he hits the ground.
Steve doesn't forget anything anymore, ever since the serum. But he never remembers how he gets back inside the train.
He never remembers the echo-pain of the impact, either. He never knows what Bucky felt when he shattered like porcelain in the snow. The first thing he's aware of after reaching for Bucky and missing Oh God Bucky no no please no is lying on the cold metal of the train car bed, curled in an agony of grief around the empty place in his chest where his sense of Bucky used to be.
There's not even any pain, and maybe that's the worst part. It always hurt when Bucky wasn't near him. But now Bucky is dead and there's no pain. There's nothing at all.
His heart is gone. There's nothing but a ragged edge inside him now, surrounding a void bigger than the world. Steve thinks he might be dead, except death would mean he didn't have to feel anything and instead he's cold and empty as the alpine air.
Steve wants to be dead. He wants to drag himself back to the tear in the side of the train and fall the way Bucky did. The only thing keeping him inside is duty, duty, duty. It beats at him like the erratic throb in the space that used to be his heart.
He can't die. Gabe's still on the train. Steve can't abandon him. He can't abandon the other Commandos. He can't abandon the war.
That's how Gabe finds him: with Bucky gone and Steve forcing himself to keep breathing.
The cat never remembers falling.
He remembers waking up as he's being carried, held against someone's chest and enveloped in a thick, dark blue jacket that smells like him and has his blood on it. He's still cold, and in so much pain he can't even tell how badly he's hurt. He can barely breathe and all four of his legs are broken, so he can't get away from the man carrying him. He can't run but he knows he has to. There's someone…
Someone's waiting. Someone needs him to come back. The cat can't remember who, but he knows they're terribly important.
There's an emptiness inside him that's not painful but hurts all the same. It has something to do with the one who's waiting, and it's ragged and dark and terrible but the cat doesn't know why.
He mewls, because he's cold and in pain and afraid of the hole inside him, and the man carrying him shifts the cat in his arms.
The cat doesn't know who's carrying him either, but the thud of their heartbeat is comforting and the low rumble of their voice feels nice even if the cat doesn't know the words. He begins to purr because he's in pain, and the man carrying him pokes his finger inside the jacket to pet the cat's head and his voice sounds pleased.
The cat falls asleep, despite the pain and the void in his chest and the urge to run.
He wakes up days later; he doesn't know how many. Everything smells and looks different and his body's healed, but the hole inside him is so big and awful it makes him want to lay down and never move again. But he's in a cage and he doesn't know what's happening, and his instinct to escape is too strong to ignore.
He's riding on the passenger seat of a truck. The man driving isn't the same as the ones who found him. This man is dressed in black except for a red patch on his arm that looks like a skull perched on a swarm of tentacles.
The cat doesn't know why this terrifies him.
He hisses and spits, crowding himself into the back of the cage, as if that would let him get away.
The driver just pats the metal grid and smiles. "Ich bin froh zu wissen, dass Hydra mit Ihnen die richtige Wahl getroffen hat," he says. "Sie werden unser Erster sein." He chuckles. "Oder sollte ich sagen, unsere Krallen?"
The cat understands every word. He just doesn't know what they mean.
Jim only knows how to heal flesh and bone, and Dernier never really specialized. Peggy uses her magic mostly for spy work. So Howard Stark is the one who casts a spell on Steve so he can function.
Getting back to London is hell. The ragged void inside Steve is like a maw, consuming him by increments. It doesn't hurt, but the nothingness is its own kind of pain and Steve's grief is eating him alive.
Everyone thinks it's the grief that's destroying him, and maybe it is. The world around him is a slow, meaningless blur. It's like before he got the serum, when he'd get a fever and everything stopped making sense. The only thing he knows is the vacant agony gnawing at him.
Steve can hear Howard's shock at his appearance, then his protesting that he doesn't know anything about living bodies. Peggy argues that most of Howard's magic is ephemeral anyway, and since he helped Erskine with the Serum he should damn well be able to help Steve now.
Steve doesn't think he can be helped, and he's not sure he wants to be. This hole inside him is the only part of Bucky he has left. But he can't remember if he even tries to protest. And if he does no one listens.
He never finds out what spell Howard casts on him, but something slams shut inside and suddenly he can think and breathe.
"'I just…numbed it, pal," Howard says when Steve asks him. "You know, like Novocain." He shrugs, looking apologetic. "I couldn't fix it, but at least it won't keep you down for the count anymore. Sorry. It's the best I could do."
"That's fine," Steve says. "Thanks." He doesn't realize he's rubbing his chest until Howard's eyes flicker to the movement. Steve yanks his hand back.
He knows he's happy that the emptiness is still there. He just can't feel that he's happy. He can't feel anything at all.
Four days later, Howard's spell gets Steve though his last mission: preventing Schmidt from obliterating most of the United States. There are probably other ways of bringing down the Valkyrie, but Steve makes his choice and crashes the plane.
He's sure he's relieved when the freezing water takes him.
The cat doesn't recognize the blonde witch who comes into the sterile room and stares at him. He's being held down on a table by two men in black leather uniforms. Both men are bleeding. The cat is fiercely proud of that.
He doesn't recognize the witch, but he knows he hates her with every fiber of his being.
She scratches him on the back of his head with her pretty, tapered nails. He tries to turn enough to bite her but he can't move. She smiles, then closes her eyes and says something, then nods at the men. They let go of the cat, but he still can't move. It's like she's parked a fucking truck on top of him.
Then the witch puts her hand on his head and starts speaking again. The cat expects heat and electricity, though he doesn't know why. But what happens instead is as if she reaches inside him and pulls and it fucking hurts and suddenly he's something else and he has no idea what the hell she's done to him. Except that he's half cat and half human, like he's wearing two skins at the same time.
The witch screams like she had no idea that would happen—that makes both of them—but he's not going to waste time wondering about it when what felt like a truck to the cat feels like nothing at all to this body, and suddenly he can get free.
The witch ran to the other side of the room, so the twoskin launches himself at the nearest guard. They both crash to the floor but the guard's head hits first and the twoskin can feel his skull splitting beneath the leather cowl. Swell.
He leaps at the second guard and that one gets a throat full of teeth and then there's just the witch. The twoskin whirls on her, but she says something and—
And he wakes up back on the table, so many straps holding him down he can barely budge his fingers. There are some kind of gloves over his hands so he can't use his claws.
The twoskin doesn't know the pudgy guy with glasses any more than he knows the witch. But the terror and rage that seizes him is like something he was born with, it goes so deep. He struggles so hard that some of the bands crossing his arms and chest snap. Something in his left arm snaps too, but he doesn't care. He'll break every bone in his body if it means he gets his hands (claws?) around that pudgy bastard's throat.
It's not enough. He can't get free. He's still fighting with everything he has when the witch comes back. And then she says something and he can't move again.
"You are remarkable, Sergeant Barnes," Pudgy says. He pats his chest where two of the straps broke, then uses his disgusting stubby fingers to clear the tears out of the twoskin's eyes. The twoskin can't even snarl. "You will be the claws and the teeth of Hydra. You will help us change history."
The twoskin—Sergeant Barnes? Is that his name?—would rather die. But he can't move, he can't do anything. And then pudgy says, "We only must deal with your soul, hmm?" And he turns to the witch. "Bind him to us. As tightly as you can."
She frowns. "His soul is exceptional. I may not have enough power to hold him."
Pudgy's smile is cold and cruel. "A third of that exceptional soul is no longer our concern. You will bind Barnes to us, or we will find another witch to do it."
The witch takes a step back, and Barnes can tell that got to her. She's afraid. "A spell like that may take all my power."
Pudgy's smile doesn't change. "Then, Miss Auer, Hydra will be grateful for your service."
She folds her hands into fists as pudgy walks away, then turns to Barnes. She just looks at him for a long moment, then sighs. "If this is any consolation at all, I want to do this as little as you want to experience it."
Fuck you, he thinks. But he can't move enough to say it.
Miss Auer places one hand on Barnes' forehead and the other on his chest where pudgy's was. Her touch is only slightly less sickening. "I'm afraid this will hurt."
Sometimes, if Kotik is very, very good and carries out the mission exactly the way his owners tell him to, they might even let him eat his kill.
Most of the time they don't. The muzzle is to remind him of that: Kotik eats only what they give him and only when they say he can. But sometimes they want to send a message, and he gets to take the muzzle off.
Those are the missions where they want him to kill with his teeth and claws instead of a rifle. Where it doesn't matter if anyone sees him because none of them will get out alive. Those are the missions where he's not the Ghost; he's the Tiger.
He loves the missions where he doesn't wear his muzzle, because it means he can hunt.
It means that for a few hours or days he's not hungry, scared or in pain. It means he's free. But they own him. He's their familiar. He has to go back.
He always goes back. If he doesn't, they find him anyway. And then they make sure he regrets it.
But sometimes, if he's been very, very good, his real reward comes after, when they put his muzzle back on. Because then, as long as he kneels next to his keeper's chair, as long as he holds his arms behind his back and his head down, the man will pet him.
Kotik stays very, very still as his keeper massages his neck, strokes his hair and even scratches behind his ears. He almost never gets to have this. Normally he isn't touched at all unless he's being punished. He can't even remember the last time he was rewarded like this, because his memories are taken away after nearly every mission now. But he has a feeling it's been a long time. He's bad so often that he almost never earns petting anymore.
It's because he fights. He attacks the teams he's supposed to work with, or the technicians who wipe his memories and put him into the ice, or the doctors who keep him healthy. Kotik knows he shouldn't, but sometimes he gets so angry he can't stop himself. He can't stop himself and he lashes out with his fists, claws or teeth. Sometimes he refuses to eat or drink. Once or twice (or more, he doesn't remember) he tried to run away.
He doesn't understand where this compulsion to fight comes from. He's Hydra's familiar. He's their teeth and their claws. They take care of him and send him on missions. He's supposed to do what they want. Familiars don't disobey, not ever. And the punishment when he does is so awful he shakes just thinking about it.
They make sure he always remembers the punishment.
But sometimes what Kotik does—what he is—feels so wrong that he can't stop the anger. And he lashes out, despite what it costs him.
He lashes out a lot, so he almost never gets petted anymore. And he misses it. He misses it so badly that sometimes the need for contact crackles like electricity under his skin. When it gets that bad, he'll do anything his keepers want, just to have someone's palm linger on his shoulder, or for their fingers to card through his hair.
Kotik's owners like him best like that, when he's so touch-starved he's desperate. Because he stops trying to fight what they've made him into. He stops resisting and when they set him loose he tears their enemies apart without question or remorse.
(That's not true. There are always questions, but he locks them away because he's punished for showing confusion or doubt. There's always remorse too, but they don't let him remember it.)
But this time he's been very, very good, so he gets petted. But only as long as doesn't move or make a sound. Because as soon as he does it stops.
Kotik doesn't move his tail. He sure as hell doesn't try to headbutt or rub his face on his keeper's leg, because even with the muzzle on that would be taken as a threat. He keeps his head down and his eyes closed, every muscle rigid so he won't move accidentally. He holds his tongue between his pointed teeth to make sure he stays silent.
Except, it's been so long and it feels so good that he forgets not to purr.
He doesn't even notice the soft rumble in his own throat until instead of a caress his keeper grabs Kotik's ear and yanks as if he's trying to pull it off Kotik's head. The keeper forces Kotik up onto his heels, his head tipped so far back he's looking at the cracked concrete ceiling.
It's not pleasant, but he's had a lot worse. Except he knows how this will end.
"Did I tell you to make noise?" the keeper demands.
Kotik shakes his head, which pulls more painfully on his ear. He could break his keeper's hold easily. He could kill him. He could kill everyone who's looking through the one-way mirror they think he doesn't know about. He could probably kill everyone on this floor of the facility before he got shot. But he belongs to Hydra. He's their familiar. They own his soul, and there's nowhere for him to run.
His keeper shoves him away. "Go back to your cage."
He stands, ignoring the guards and their guns trained on his back. He steals a glance at his keeper's watch before he goes. The petting lasted less than four minutes. Not even four minutes before he fucked it up, and this time maybe he won't ever get any again.
His cage is narrow and made of concrete and metal bars, with a military cot and a wool blanket and a toilet and a sink. The guards follow him there, lock him in and leave.
Kotik lays on his cot facing the cracked concrete wall, desperation crackling like electricity under his skin. He runs his fingertips back and forth along his left forearm, then closes his eyes so he can pretend the touch is from someone else, that he's not utterly alone.
He almost always imagines a man with blond hair and gentle blue eyes. Sometimes it's a girl with hair red as fire. It's comforting, somehow, though he doesn't know where the images come from. He doesn't even know if the man and the girl ever existed.
Most of the time he hopes they didn't, because if they really were alive once maybe they're not now because he killed them. Maybe that's why they've never come for him. He's killed a lot of people he doesn't remember.
Kotik pretends it's the blond man or the girl with him anyway. It's the only thing he has.
It's 1973, and Hazel Wilson is coming home from the grocery store when she sees a ghost.
"Ah," she mutters to herself. All day she's had that unpleasant feeling that something was going to happen. She put off her trip to the store until late afternoon because of it, cancelled all her readings. And now she finally knows why.
She never, ever, expected that it would be James Barnes. She knows he died, just like Steve Rogers. She read the news just like everyone else, said a prayer for another two boys who'd never get a future. But she's not so old that she's stopped trusting her eyes or her memory, and even with the shaggier hair and the stubble she knows beyond a doubt that this is the young man who saved her when she was seventeen, and the young man who showed up at her door six years later, with eyes as wild as the rainstorm soaking him.
He's sitting on the stoop, hunched over with his arms wrapped around him, in just a long-sleeved shirt and jeans even though it's cold now, nearly November. He lifts his face when he hears her coming, and wild as he'd looked back then, it's nothing compared to his eyes when he looks up at her now. There's something horribly empty behind them, like the blank white of a landscape after snow. And he reeks of magic. It's not a scent—there's nothing physical—but Hazel can feel it pushing against her like a wall. It's ugly stuff, too. As if he's wrapped in something viscous and cloying and dark.
It's not just ugly, it's disgusting. Evil. If this is why he's alive….
Well, Hazel would rather be dead, herself. And she's damn grateful that her son Samuel is in his grave, instead of something like this happening to him.
"Hello there, James," she says to him. She smiles, because he looks like he could use someone smiling at him.
He sucks in a breath and his eyes widen in shock. Then he hugs himself more tightly, as if he's trying to find some protection. He swallows. "You know me?" His voice sounds rough, like he doesn't use it often.
Hazel's had a lot of practice smiling at bad news; she's very glad for it now. "Yes, honey," she says. She tilts her chin at the front door of her building, because her arms are full with the two paper grocery bags. "Let's go inside. It's awful chilly out here, and I'll bet you're hungry." She knows he is, just like she knew he was bewildered and afraid before she even saw his face. "Here. Take these so I can get the door."
He does, holding them obediently, then follows her inside when she tells him. She makes certain to lock her door, though she knows it won't do a damn thing to protect her if his owners come for him.
Owners. The word is as disgusting as the magic caging him, but it's right.
"Thank you. You can put those on the counter." She points before she takes off her coat. "Go ahead and sit down. I'll get you something to eat."
He puts the bags down exactly where she pointed, but then hesitates. "I know you too." He's uncertain, as if he doesn't know why he knows her. Or as if he doesn't know if he should.
"Yes you do," Hazel tells him. "That's why you found your way here. Because you know me."
"I followed your scent," he says, but like he's not sure.
"It's been awhile. Here." She pulls back the sleeve of her blouse and puts her hand in front of his face. He leans forward a little and takes a few, rapid sniffs of her palm. "Scents don't change much, huh?"
James doesn’t respond to that. He licks his lips, looking around. It's a different apartment than the one she had in '39, but some of the furniture and the knickknacks and the couch cushions are the same. He closes his eyes and sniffs the air like he sniffed her hand.
"I know you," he repeats when he looks at her again. He's shocked, she can tell, but she doesn't know if it's because he knows her, or because he recognizes anyone at all.
"Yes. You've visited me before. But it was a long time ago." She's very aware of her grey hair and wrinkles and the weight that's settled around her hips like the years on her shoulders. "I look a lot different than I did. You don't, though."
He has no answer to that either, no more than she does. He's almost as young and just as handsome as she remembers, but he's diminished somehow. He takes up less space than he should. It's the magic clinging to him.
"They call you a ghost, don't they?" Hazel says before she thinks about it.
James nods. He doesn't seem surprised that she knows. "I don't remember visiting you."
"Well, maybe it'll come back to you in a bit." She knows it won't, but she's also used to doling out hope like the bits of her clients' futures she trades for money. "Sit down, honey," she tells him again. "Let me put these groceries away and I'll get you something to eat."
He sits at the kitchen table with his hands in fists on the tabletop and his eyes on the door. Hazel has the sad and uncomfortable certainty he's guarding her.
She puts the perishables into the fridge, taking longer than she should just to have a tiny respite from the fear that seems carved into his bones. "I'd like to do a reading for you," she says as she gets a plate out of the cupboard.
James doesn't answer, and when she glances at him his entire attention is on the two pieces of raw liver she's just unwrapped and put onto the plate next to the stove. Hazel doesn't like liver. She had no idea why she felt compelled to buy it at all, let alone as much as two pounds. She knows now.
She turns her back on him for a minute to wash her hands and get a frying pan out of the drawer, and when she straightens up he's standing at the counter with a piece of liver in both hands, biting off chunks and barely chewing before he swallows.
"Good lord!" she gasps, hand over her heart.
He drops the liver back to the plate instantly, then stands with his spine rigid and his hands behind his back like a prisoner. His face is perfectly blank but his eyes are bright with fear. There's blood running down his chin.
"No, you don't have to do that. You just startled me, is all. You're so quiet." Hazel puts her hand on his arm. His muscles are tight with tension. "Go ahead and sit down. If you want it raw, that's fine. Sit down, James," she repeats when he doesn't move. "It's not good to eat standing."
James looks at her like he's sure this is some kind of trick, but he sits again. He's clearly dumbfounded when she slides the plate in front of him. She considers getting him a fork and knife, but looks at his blood-sticky hands and decides not to bother.
"Go ahead and eat. But slowly. You're just going to make yourself sick, if you wolf it down."
He looks at her for another long moment, as if he's sure she'll change her mind. She keeps still and smiles until he decides it's safe and starts eating again, barely more slowly than before. Hazel busies herself with tidying the already neat countertop so she doesn't have to watch. She's known about the predator inside him since he nearly beat her would be rapist to death; she called him a wolf over 34 years ago. Seeing him eat raw meat like he killed it isn't as much of a shock as it could be. But that doesn't make it any more pleasant.
When he's finished, she sighs inwardly and gives him the two chicken breasts she did want, then has him wash his hands and face in the sink after he's wolfed those down too. He sits at the table again when she tells him, and drinks three glasses of milk. And then finally he loses some of the tension he's been carrying.
She sits down across from him and takes his hands in hers. He could splinter her bones with no effort, but he cups her fingers as gently as if he's holding one of her porcelain cups. Touching him like this makes her skin crawl. The miasma of the spell he's under is putrid, clogging her throat. "Do they feed you enough, James?" It doesn't surprise her when he shakes his head. "I'm sorry to hear that. It's hard, being hungry all the time. I remember growing up like that. Going to bed hungry and going to school hungry, thinking about the bread and butter I had waiting for lunch all morning."
He licks his lips, swallows. "They don't…they don't feed me like this. It's not good for me."
She has no idea what he means—raw meat? At a table? At all?—but whatever it is, it's a lie. "You should be able to eat when you're hungry."
He lowers his gaze, but he doesn't say anything.
"James, look at me." She can feel his reluctance, but he lifts his eyes to hers again. "That's right. I'm going to do a little bit of magic. I promise it won't hurt you," she adds immediately when he draws back, his eyes huge. "It won't hurt you. It's for a reading. I'm going to tell you your future. I did it for you before, a long time ago."
"I don't remember."
"I know." She can feel the void in his history, how much less he is now than he was then. "That's all right. I can remember for both of us." She squeezes his hands a little. "Will you let me see your future?"
He nods slowly, painfully unsure.
"Good boy. I promise, you won't feel anything." She sends up a quick prayer for strength and guidance, and she begins.
Hazel barely gets through one complete recitation of the spell before she rockets up from the table and runs to the sink with her hand over her mouth. She stands like that for a while, trying not to vomit. James comes up behind her, hovering worriedly.
"Did I hurt you?"
Oh, he did. But Hazel shakes her head because it's not his fault. It's what's been done to him. She can feel it clinging to her like a stain. "No. I was just startled. You didn't do a thing." She runs the water and splashes her face, then dries off with a dishtowel. She manages to smile when she turns around.
"What's wrong?" he asks.
"Nothing. I'm fine." She draws herself up and doesn't hesitate before she takes his hands again, looking into his guileless grey eyes. "Your name is James Buchanan Barnes, and you are a good person. You are a person, no matter what anyone tries to make you believe. Do you understand?"
He just blinks at her. "I'm a familiar."
"I know. But not theirs. They stole you. You don't belong to them. Your ordeal isn't over. I can't stop it. I'm not powerful enough. But one day it will be. One day your witch will tell you your name and you'll remember. Your real witch, not the ones who did this to you. There will be people who will help you, and you'll be whole. But you have to hold on. "You will get through this, James Buchanan Barnes. You'll be with your witch, and you'll be whole. You just have to hold on."
"My name is Kotik," he says.
"It's not," she says, angry. "You're James Buchanan Barnes."
"I don't remember," he says, but he looks like he wants to believe it. Then he blinks, lifting his head. He tilts it like he's listening, and then goes tense, all watchful stillness like an animal. "I can feel them." He closes his eyes, drops into a different kind of stillness. "Not long." He grimaces. "They're coming for me."
"I know. I'm sorry." She holds his hands more tightly before he can pull away. "You are a good person, James Buchanan Barnes," Hazel says fiercely. "You are a person, and you are good. Those are the only things that matter. Don't forget them."
"James Buchanan Barnes," he says, but she doesn't know if the words mean anything at all. And as soon as she loosens her grip he steps back and drops her hands.
"I need to go." He rubs his chest like it hurts. "If I'm here they'll find you."
And they'll kill her, she knows. She doesn't want him to leave like this, but she doesn't want to die for nothing either. And she can't help him more than she already has: some comfort; a bit of hope; a name. All of them ephemeral, and all about to be torn away. And she'll never see him again.
"Take care, James," she says, and he nods like it's an order. She follows him to the front steps and watches until he's out of sight.
"All right, I'm here. Everyone can relax. Though I'd really like someone to tell me why I needed to bring the contents of an entire PetSmart with me."
"Clint's still in Romania, and you have a jet," Natasha says.
"Several jets, actually." Tony comes through the door, nodding his thanks when Sam steps in to help him with the stack of litter box, cat toys, high-protein cat food and bedding in his arms. "But that still doesn't explain why my text message said, 'Found Bucky. Bring cat stuff.'"
"This is Bucky," Steve says from Natasha's couch. He has what looks like a cat on his lap, though all Tony can really see is a black feline nose poking out from a blanket. Tony's no expert on, well, anything biological, but the cat looks sick. Or hurt. Or something. Steve certainly looks like there's something wrong with the cat, considering he can barely tear his eyes away long enough to acknowledge Tony's existence.
What the cat doesn't look like, however, is a terrifying assassin. "So, when you said you found Bucky," Tony says to Natasha, "you meant that you found a cat named Bucky. Or, you found a cat that you named Bucky. Not that you, you know, found Bucky."
"This is Bucky," Steve says again, more pointedly. He glances up and seems to actually notice all the cat crap Tony and Sam are putting down on the coffee table. "What's all the cat stuff for? He's not a cat."
Tony stares at him. "I think I just said that." He turns to Sam. "I did just say that, right?"
"You did," Sam says on a sigh. He runs his palm over his head, looking distinctly unhappy. "And you're both right. Bucky's not a cat. But he's not a man right now, either."
"He's Steve's familiar," Natasha cuts in. She comes over to the coffee table and picks up one of the cans of cat food then reads the ingredient list. "Organic. Nice."
"Of course," Tony says absently, attention on the cat. He looks back at Steve, not that Steve's looking at him. "James Barnes, otherwise known as the Ghost Cat. Otherwise known as the fucking Siberian Tiger, is Steve Roger's kitty cat familiar." He points. "This kitty cat familiar."
Steve nods. He finally looks up and, whoa, he's crying. Jesus. "I made him when I was a kid. I didn't mean to. I didn't even know I'd done it. But, that's why I'm not a real witch anymore. I used all the power I had when I made him." He knuckles his eyes clear, swallows. "This is my fault. All of it." His next breath shakes. "God help me, the last thing I wanted—"
"Hey," Sam says. "None of this is your fault, Steve. You didn't ask to make him any more than he asked to be made. And you had no control over what those sick fucks did to him."
"No one asks to be born, Steve," Natasha says.
Steve nods faintly, which Tony is sure means he's not actually agreeing but isn't interested in arguing the point. What he just said helps explain a bit of the Bucky-Cat thing. But if there's anything Tony's less good at than bio it's humans in general, so he'll leave the psychological battles to Nat and Sam and deal with what he was presumably contacted for. Besides being BuckyCat's sugar daddy.
Tony walks the few steps to where Steve is, then kneels down to get a closer look at Bucky. He reaches to touch but hesitates. "May I?" he asks Steve, then waits until he nods to gently pull the edge of the blanket back. "I didn't know you had a familiar," he says softly. The cat still looks like a completely unremarkable sick cat. Very sick cat. This close Tony can hear his little lungs rattling. "I mean, I didn't know powerless witches could keep their familiars."
"They can," Natasha says with that kind of tone you don't argue with.
"He's not just…" Steve sighs. "It's complicated."
"No kidding." Tony looks back up at Steve. "Your furbaby is definitely sick, as well as injured, but I know you know that. Just like you know I can't fix anything with a pulse." He looks at Sam and Natasha expectantly.
Sam shakes his head then pats his chest. "I'm only good for the soulwork, man. I can't heal bodies."
Natasha shakes her head as well. "If I could, I would have already." She juts her chin at Tony. "Right now, you're actually our best hope."
Tony blinks, then grimaces. "Awesome. No pressure, Obi Wan." He sighs, looking back at the wretched furball. "So, what is it you think I can do?"
"Can you help Sam find out what's wrong with him?" Steve asks, and the tight control he has over his voice is more telling than any waver of desperation. "He's like me. Hydra gave Bucky a version of the Super Soldier serum, so he should be healing. But he's not. He's not getting better. Even with me here. I thought…." Steve swallows. "Sam thinks the problem is because of what was done to him. His soul. But I was hoping, maybe together you could tell us what's wrong."
"Sure. Solve the problem, Tony. Easy." But of course he shuffles over when Sam comes to sit cross-legged on the floor beside him. "Okay, Dark Angel," he says quietly to Sam, "Walk me through this. But be gentle, it's my first time."
Sam doesn't even roll his eyes. "Follow my lead." Tony's too anxious about fucking this up to make another crack, so he just nods. "Great. Now, you just do your thing. But when you feel my magic, don't fight it, okay? Sometimes witches get nervous when they feel more than one spell, but just let them flow together and it'll be fine."
"I feel like we should be singing Age of Aquarius."
"Shut up, Tony," Natasha says.
"Whatever works for you," Sam says mildly. "Okay, I'm going to start now." Steve moves his hand and Sam puts his on the cat's back. He closes his eyes and starts chanting: a soft, meandering cadence that should be annoying but isn't.
"Okay," Tony whispers. Normally he works his spells by muttering them to himself or, occasionally, kind of yelling them out loud. He knows that right now it'd be a spectacularly bad idea—let sleeping cat-sassins lie, and all that—so instead he concentrates on Sam's gentle murmur, latching onto the chant the way he'd normally use his own words and more-or-less murmuring them along with him.
Tony's particular talent with magic is decoding systems. He may not understand flesh and bone the way he does metal and circuitry, but things only work in certain ways. He may not be able to fix what's broken, but he figures he should be able to at least find out where the breaks are. Especially with Sam's—
Jesus Christ. Sam's magic is beautiful. It's all starbursts and fractals and swirling lines folding out in endless patterns like a kaleidoscope. Tony's always seen his magic as bright blue light, but Sam's magic is more like a fucking psychedelic rainbow spinning into glorious infinity. Tony's not nervous with Sam's magic there. Hell no. He has to remind himself that he needs to be doing something, not just gaping like an idiot.
He pulls himself together and concentrates. Sam's all about the soul magic. He reads souls. Or something. Magic is disgustingly imprecise. Tony's always hated that about it.
It means that even with a gun to his head, Tony couldn't actually explain what the hell it is that either of them are doing right now. All he knows is that he's both leading and following Sam's kaleidoscoping fractals at the same time, while Sam reveals Bucky's soul for Tony to ferret out how it's working.
Or not working.
"What the fuck is this?" Tony has no idea if he's talking out loud or not. All he's aware of is his light and Sam's patterns and the…God, the fucking mess of Bucky's soul.
It should shine. Tony may not do bio but he's a witch and he sure as hell knows what a soul looks like. They shine. They shed light like the sun or glow like the moon. They shimmer, flare or sparkle. And they're always in colors that reflect who the person is. Tony's soul tends to flash like a disco in gold and electric blue and racing red. Steve's is indigo that swirls like water with ridiculously pure white light. Natasha's is flowing waves of rose pink and ruby red and Clint's is spiraling amethyst purple. Bruce's is gold and green, pulsing like warning lights. Thor's bursts yellow so bright Tony can't look at it. And Pepper is the warmest, clearest sea blue Tony's ever seen. Sam's is shimmering copper threaded with gold.
Bucky's is dull gray and deep burgundy-red like clotted blood, with tendrils of black worming through it like an infection. It reminds Tony horribly of when his own reactor was poisoning him.
The kid's soul's been ripped apart and deliberately put back together wrong. The black tendrils are binding the pieces, turning what should be a perfect mix of color into the horrific gray and red Frankenstein. The only indications that it might even be salvageable are the occasional pulses of light: White light and indigo, like Steve's, flickers through the sickly red. There's also a warm but colorless glow like perfect daylight, and a fiercely glorious cobalt peppering the gray like precious stones. How there could be anything left of the person Bucky once was at all after this damage is fucking awe-inspiring. His soul's been like this for decades, after it was purposely turned into wreckage. It kind of makes Tony want to throw up. But Bucky's still here, still fighting.
But it's no wonder he's not healing, not if his soul's like this. Eventually every stressed system reaches a point beyond which it can't function anymore.
They have to fix this. They have to fix this. Just the existence of an abomination like this is so offensive to everything Tony is as a witch and a human being that he'd be compelled to repair it regardless of who the soul belonged to. But it belongs to Steve's familiar, and that makes it about a million times worse.
It's hard to figure out where to begin, but the logical place would have to be those fucking black lines stitching the pieces of Bucky's soul together like a tattered quilt. He figures that if he gets rid of them, the soul will have to go back to the way it was supposed to be. Maybe if the pieces are in the right place, Bucky can slough off the disgusting red on his own.
Tony knows systems. They have to be set up right or they don't work. Tony's going to set Bucky's soul right or fucking die trying. So he fastens onto the thickest, ugliest black tendril, and yanks—
And then he's half on the floor and half in Sam's arms, and Jesus fuck that's him screaming, tears and snot on his face, and he hasn't felt like this since Afghanistan….
Sam's chanting again, Tony realizes. And if he closes his eyes and just listens, the terrible feeling of something sick and evil thrashing around inside him isn't so bad anymore. So he listens some more and when he feels like he can open his eyes again he's exhausted and weeping and soaking with sweat and shaking like a kitten in a blizzard but the sense of violation is gone.
"Fuck. Fucking hell. Is Bucky—" he breaks off coughing because his throat is wrecked. Sam helps lever him upright and is basically holding Tony in his arms, but that's great. Tony is perfectly fine with that. He could stay here for a few more hours, thanks. "Is Bucky okay?" he croaks. He glances at the couch but the wheezing furball's not there.
The furball's on the other side of the room, only he's not a furball anymore. He's…
He's like nothing Tony's ever seen. At first glance it's just, yeah, sure: naked, underfed Ghost Cat who could really use some medical attention. And then there's the—holy fuck—ears and the tail, and the way the claws on his fingers and toes are gouging lines into Natasha's hardwood floor.
He's on his knees with his left hand on the floor and kind of hugging himself with his right. His giant, fuzzy black ears are flat to his head and his tail's bristled like a pipe cleaner and thrashing like crazy. His eyes are black slits in a sea of stormy grey. He also has very sharp teeth.
"Holy shit," Tony croaks. "Did I do that?"
"No," Steve says.
"You knew about that? That he could do that?" Sam asks.
Natasha says something in Russian that Tony would love a translation for. Bucky's ears twitch towards her then flatten again.
Steve nods slowly, never looking away from Bucky. He swallows. "I've seen it before."
"When?" Tony asks. "On the helicarrier?"
Steve ignores him. "You're safe, Bucky," he says to him. He has his hands up, non-threatening, and slowly lowering himself down to crouch on the floor.
Bucky growls at him.
Steve stands up. "I'm sorry. I won't come near you." He takes a step back. "You're safe. It was an accident. Tony was trying to help you." He glances back at Tony, and the look on his face makes Tony very, very glad they're friends.
"He's right," Tony says, then has to cough some more, then wipe his nose with his sleeve. "I was trying to fix what they did. Your soul…." He maybe throws up a little in his mouth just thinking about it. "It's a mess. It's a fucking mess. That's why you're not healing. Fuck, I can't believe you're still functioning after what they did to you."
"Yeah," Sam says, and Tony is going to love him forever and ever for agreeing. "It felt like rolling around in a badly infected wound. And part of it's bound up, like…like it's wrapped in chains. Only it's more like worms, writhing around."
"Maggots," Tony says. "It's like his soul's fucking necrotic and infested with maggots. So I tried to fix it." He makes sure Bucky knows he's talking to him. "But I had no idea it was going to go tits-up like that. It's my fault, not Steve's. And I'm sorry."
Bucky glares at him, but then nods. Tony doesn't know if he's been forgiven or marked for death. But all Bucky does is shift position by increments until he's more-or-less lying on the floor, propped up by the wall and one forearm. Steve tries to help and Bucky hisses at him. Bucky's still holding his torso, panting in pain with his mouth open and tongue visible like a cat. He swipes what are either sweat or tears off his face, and Tony's heart kind of implodes with guilt.
"You shouldn't've done that, Tony. You had to have known Hydra wouldn't let their Asset be taken from them." The admonishment in Natasha's tone would probably be more effective if she didn't hand him a glass of water at the same time. She has an afghan blanket under her other arm, which she unfolds and puts near enough for Bucky to reach, though she stays well back. Bucky grabs the afghan and pulls it to him, packing it against his chest.
"Bucky, you're injured," Steve says, as if Bucky could somehow be unaware of that. "Let us help you, please?"
Bucky shakes his head. He pushes himself to his knees, but his legs give out when he tries to stand. He ends up back on the floor with the afghan underneath him. His tail's stopped moving, which somehow seems like a bad sign.
Tony winces, wondering if Natasha's going to have to use one of her whammy spells to knock Bucky out so they can at least get him into a bed. "Don't you know, um, painkiller spells?" he asks her, because 'whammy' probably isn't the best word choice under the circumstances. He nods in Bucky's direction. "'Cause I think Nermal over there could use some painkiller spells."
"I can't anymore," Natasha says.
Tony blinks at her, then gives his head a quick shake. "Come on, Bucky. Steve didn't do anything wrong. Let your boyfriend help you." It's only after he sees Steve's back go tight that he realizes, oops, maybe he shouldn't've said that. "Um, let Captain America help you."
Bucky looks up at Steve, and his expression slides from glaring to wistful to confusion. He lets his head drop to the afghan like it's too heavy to lift. "Captain America is my mission."
"Captain America is also Steve Rogers. He's me," Steve says, and Tony wishes he could see more than the back of Steve's head. "And I'm your friend. I'm not going to hurt you."
"Wasn't the Fur and the Furious, like, on your lap when I walked in?" Tony says.
"Tony, shut up," Natasha snaps.
But Bucky blinks slowly, like he's figuring something out. "The cat is Steve's familiar."
Steve nods quickly. "Yeah, Bucky. You…you're my familiar, and I'm your witch. We share a soul."
"I can't feel you."
"I know." Steve crouches again, and this time Bucky just watches. "I can't feel you either. It's like…." He rubs his chest. "That place is numb where you used to be. Hydra did that. They tried to make you their familiar, instead of mine." Steve's on his knees now, close enough to touch Bucky if he leans forward just a little. "They tried, but they failed. You came back to me, and I'm never going to leave you again. But we need to fix what they did. You heard Tony and Sam." Steve glances back at the two of them, as if to make sure they're still there. Tony gives him a thumbs-up. "They damaged your soul on purpose, and we have to fix it so you can heal. None of us want to hurt you. We want to make you better. But you have to let us help you. Will you do that, Bucky? Please?"
Bucky shakes his head, and Tony stifles a groan. But the kid says, "Bucky. That's wrong."
Steve looks away from Bucky for a moment, shutting his eyes and swallowing. Tony can see tears on his face. "Okay," he says softly when he turns back. "Okay. We can call you whatever you want. What name do you want?"
"Kotik." Bucky says it so softly it's hard for Tony to hear. It's like he's ashamed.
"Kaw-teek?" Steve says.
"Kotik," Natasha corrects Steve. "It's Russian."
"What does it mean?" Sam asks.
Natasha looks back at them, and her mouth moves like she's tasted something awful. "It means, 'Kitty'."
He dreams about the helicarrier and the mission the mission the mission and the need to complete it, to kill him is like agony but it's Steve. And No, no, no he can't hurt him, and wakes himself up with his own horrified cry. It's just a dream, but he throws himself off the bed trying to escape the memory, right onto Natasha's wooden floor.
He hears feet running: Steve and Natasha, and wing-witch Sam, with the murmur-witch farther behind. Natasha opens the door first, slowly instead of flinging it. Kotik's sure he'd appreciate that more if he wasn't too caught up with just trying to breathe.
"Bucky!" Steve calls him the wrong name, but he sounds so upset it makes Kotik's chest hurt in a way that has nothing to do with the helicarrier or the bond he can't feel. He wants to open his eyes, tell Steve to go away, run, before he hurts him. But he can't speak because no sound no sound stay quiet is pulsing red behind his eyes, and he keeps his eyelids shut tight and his claws sheathed and his tail tucked and he can't move even though he knows he can. Because if he does they'll punish him again.
He hears Natasha softly pad in to the room, Steve more loudly. Sam and Tony stay in the doorway, probably because they're the most vulnerable of the four of them. Kotik wishes he could tell Sam and Tony he's not going to attack.
Natasha sits on the floor. A moment later Steve does the same.
"You're safe. It was just a nightmare. No one's going to hurt you," she says in English. "You're in my apartment in Washington D.C. It's April 2014 and you escaped from Hydra and no one's going to hurt you. You're safe, James. It was just a bad dream."
That's the wrong name too, but he can't tell her.
"Bucky?" Steve comes closer. Kotik can feel the heat from his hands but Steve doesn't touch him. "Nat, what's wrong with him? Why won't he move?"
"Is he conscious?" Sam asks from the doorway.
"Yes. Listen to his breathing," Natasha says. "You're safe, James. It's all right. No one's going to hurt you. You can open your eyes."
"C'mon, Buck," Steve says. "We're right here. Open your eyes."
That's an order, even if Steve's still using the wrong name. Kotik opens his eyes to look up at them.
"Hey, beautiful," Steve says. He's smiling but he looks scared. "Are you all right?"
Kotik nods slowly, watching Steve in case it's a trick.
(He knows it's not a trick, damn it, but he can't get his body to believe him.)
"I think that bruise on his chest is worse," Sam says.
"Yeah." Steve nods. "Can you move, Bucky? You really need to get off the floor."
That's close enough to another order that Kotik can actually get up. He's still moving slowly, but now it's mostly because he's weak and doesn't feel well. "Kotik," he says, because they both keep using the wrong name.
Steve grimaces, but he just nods. "Can I touch you? I'm just going to help you back onto the bed." He waits with his hands hovering until Kotik nods before he takes one of his arms.
Something as simple as getting on a bed shouldn't be so fucking difficult, but Kotik's panting like he's climbed a mountain by the time he's able to flop back onto the bed. He's got sweat dampening his hair and the waistband of the dorm pants Natasha gave him. "Everything hurts."
"I know," Natasha says. "You're sick, and your injuries aren't healing."
Steve puts his hand on his forehead.
"Shhh, it's all right. I'm not going to hurt you," Steve says, because he can feel the trembling that Kotik can't control. "He's too hot," he says to Natasha. He brushes the hair back from Kotik's forehead, then smoothes his hand along one of his ears.
Kotik freezes, then scrambles clumsily to his knees, making Steve and Natasha jerk back in surprise. He drops his head and puts his hands behind his back in loose fists, ignoring the discomfort because this is so much more important. His muzzle's gone so he turns his face away, then stays very, very still. And waits.
"What are you doing? What's wrong?" Natasha asks.
"Bu—" Steve bites back the name so fast his teeth click. "What's going on?"
He could tell them, he knows that. He's allowed to speak here. Natasha said he's safe and he believes it. But Steve was petting him, and Kotik wants that so badly he can't say it. Instead, he carefully maneuvers his head under Steve's palm.
"Oh," Steve says softly. He tentatively drags his hand down the back of Kotik's head to his neck. "Like this?" He does it again, starting from Kotik's forehead.
Kotik drops his head even further, biting his lip.
"Okay." Steve keeps up the gentle pull of his hand, all the way to where Kotik's fists rest above his tail, then back up to his nape. "God, Bucky. I can feel every bone of your spine."
"Kotik," he corrects him, again. He has no idea why Steve would care about his bones, but Steve's palm sliding over his back feels so fantastic it's the only thing he can concentrate on. He allows himself a small breath that's not loud enough to be a sigh. His tail thrashes—he's too keyed up to hold it still.
"He liked this as a cat," Natasha says, and she scritches behind his ears where they meet his skull.
Jesus Christ. That is…that's….
He mewls helplessly at the sheer pleasure of it and tilts his head into Natasha's fingers without thinking. He only realizes he's lost all control when he tries to purr and starts coughing instead. That feels terrible.
"Shh, shh, it's okay. I got you." Steve holds him up as Kotik's lungs heave behind the broken cage of his ribs, coughing 'til they feel like they'll turn inside out if he doesn't stop. When he can finally suck in a breath that doesn't kill him he's clinging to Steve and gasping, his brain looping dizzily inside his aching head.
"Ow," he wheezes. "Fuck. That hurts."
"I know. I'm so sorry, Bucky." Steve starts the petting again with Kotik still curled against his chest.
Sam comes into the room, Tony a careful step behind. "You need a doctor," he says.
"No!" Kotik startles himself with his outburst, then cringes, waiting to be shoved away or worse. But Steve's hand only freezes for a moment before he starts petting again. Kotik clenches his teeth, reminding himself forcibly that he's allowed to make noise here. He's safe.
"You're not healing," Natasha says simply, even as she goes back to the scritching behind his closest ear. "You're not healing, and you're getting sicker instead of better. I know you don't want anyone poking and prodding at you, but you need help."
"Um, I hate to piss on the petting party here, but can a doctor actually do anything for him?" Tony says. "I mean, he's kind of unique. Not to mention that once they start the poking and prodding, they'll know what he is."
"Oh my God, I hadn't even thought of that." Steve pulls Kotik a little closer, as if he's worried he'll try to escape. "And I can only imagine how awful the idea of someone using magic on you must be." He glances at Tony and Sam. "We should've asked before. I didn't even think about it. None of us did. I'm really sorry for that."
Kotik doesn't know why Steve's apologizing. No one has ever asked before they used magic on him. His wants are irrelevant. "'Didn't hurt that much," he says, because maybe that'll make Steve feel better.
"I'm glad," Steve says, but he doesn't sound like he is. And he holds Kotik a little bit tighter.
"I'm not going to run."
"I know." But Steve doesn't let go of him. Kotik doesn't understand Steve at all, but Steve's running his hand up and down his back and Natasha's scritching both his ears again and it's all so good he can't muster up the energy to care about anything. It doesn't matter that his soul's not right and that he can't feel his witch and that his right arm and his ribs hurt and his lungs feel heavy and cold. He melts against Steve, letting his eyes slide shut.
He doesn't mean to fall asleep, doesn't even know he has. But he dreams about the vault, and Pierce, the last witch who owned him.
Kotik's in the manbody because Pierce doesn't like looking at the twoskin, and he's just thrown one of his keepers across the room because he remembers falling and someone saying Sergeant Barnes, the procedure has already started and he knows that he doesn't belong here and what they're doing to him is wrong wrong wrong and he doesn't respond until Pierce backhands him across his face.
And then he asks Pierce who the man on the bridge was, the one he fought when he lost his muzzle. The one who called him a different name that felt like it could be his.
Pierce lies to him, tells him pretty words about his work being a gift, as if killing could ever be a gift to anyone. And then when Kotik asks about Steve again, Pierce doesn't answer.
Instead he nods like he's decided something. He stands. "Reinforce the geas," he says.
One of Kotik's keepers—the twitchy one who's always dressed like he's going dancing—looks anxious. "He's been out of cryofreeze too long," he says. "We'll have to redo it entirely."
Kotik's glad about that. He hates cryofreeze. It fucking hurts, and it always feels like he's dying before he gets so cold he can't feel anything. But then Pierce tells the keeper to wipe him and start over, and that's even worse.
In the dream he's is terrified of the pain he knows is coming, but he lets them push him back into the chair and give him the mouth guard and he doesn't fight because they own him. He's their familiar; he can't do anything else. And then his arms are trapped and the machine clamps around his head, and then the electricity and the magic tangled together burn through him like lightning. It scours his mind until there's nothing but the white blankness and pain. And a sense of loss so profound it's like he could fall into it and never come out.
When it's over and he's lying there empty and trembling another of his keepers comes. She's not young or blond or beautiful but he always expects to see a mouse and he never does and he hates her without knowing why. And then she uses a grease pencil to draw shapes on his forehead and chest and he remembers why he hates her so much before everything is eclipsed except the need to hunt beating inside him and his prey is Captain America—
Kotik wakes up in the doorway of Steve's room. He can hear Steve's heartbeat and his even breaths, and the fundamental necessity of ending them both surges like the blood roaring through his veins.
He doesn't know what makes him hesitate now any more than he knows what made him hesitate before on the helicarrier. He doesn't want to hurt Steve, but he's never wanted to hurt anyone. It's never mattered.
He must do this. The geas is inexorable, inescapable. He can't stop it any more than he can end his own life. (He's tried. He's tried so many times.)
He can't kill himself and he can't stop it. But he can resist. For a while.
He extends his claws and rakes four furrows across his left thigh. The pain is insignificant compared to the geas—the geas is burning him alive—but it lets him focus on something else. Maybe if he can distract himself long enough, Steve can stop him.
I'm not going to fight you.
Steve has to. There's no other choice. Either he fights or he dies.
The word is so quiet that it settles like dust in the silence, but it's still enough to make Steve open his eyes.
He sits up in bed, very carefully doesn't glance at his shield which he left beside him on top of the covers, ready to use. He knows Bucky saw it. "What's wrong?"
Bucky edges further into the room. His ears are flat and his tail thrashes and now Steve can see all twenty of his claws, gleaming in the glow of the lights of the city. His hands are shaking; the left one scatters drops of blood.
"Help me." Bucky comes closer, moving stiffly in a way that goes beyond the injuries his body isn't healing. His wheezing breath reminds Steve of his asthma. "Steve, please. I don't—" He lurches forward another step, and now Steve can smell the sweat on him, see how his cat ears and human hair are wet, his torso glistening. But Bucky's shaking like he's cold.
"What is it?" Steve flips back the covers, puts his feet on the floor. His eyes keep jumping to the minute trembling of Bucky's hands and he grabs the edge of his shield. He has no illusions about how much danger he's in. The blood on Bucky's left hand is terrifying, and then Steve realizes that what he thought was sweat darkening one leg of Bucky's pajama pants is actually blood too. He can count at least eight slash marks on the outside of Bucky's left thigh. "Oh, no." Steve stands to go to him. But he takes his shield.
"Stay back!" Bucky grits his sharp, sharp teeth like he's in pain. "Please. I need…. You're my mission."
"I'm your friend," Steve says automatically. He can barely lift his eyes from the wet sheen of blood. "What's going on, Bucky? What did you do?"
"That's not my name." He grimaces. "Help me. Please. I don't want…." The words elide into a groan and he steps closer. He's sobbing with effort, shuddering. "The geas. It-it—I can't…." He takes another step but then stops, swaying. "It hurts. I have to…I need…."
"Oh my God." Steve recognizes this now: the crazed fear in Bucky's eyes on the helicarrier; how he kept coming despite his injuries; how he missed every kill shot when the Ghost Cat supposedly never did. Steve raises his shield. "Fight it. You fought it before, on the helicarrier. I know you did. You can do it again—"
"I'm trying! I'm trying. You don't…you don't know. It gets worse, if you don't. I tried, but. The c-compulsion…." He drags his claws across his thigh.
"No! No, Bucky, don't do that!" Steve starts towards him but stops when Bucky growls. "Don't. Don't hurt yourself."
"I'm trying not to kill you!"
"I'm not gonna let you hurt yourself." Steve relaxes his stance, but keeps his shield up in front of him. He licks his lips, making a decision. "You've been hurt enough, Bucky. It's okay. Come at me."
"My name. Is. Kotik," Bucky grinds out. "Kot-Prizrak. Amurskiy Tigr. Not Bucky. I'm not Bucky!" He lurches forward, then sucks in a breath and rakes his thigh again, deep enough that he hisses in pain. "Get out or put me down. Please!"
Steve sets his jaw. "I'm not leaving you again."
"Please, Steve. Please, don't make me do this." There are tears in Bucky's eyes. He backs up a step with what looks like terrible effort, then wobbles before he regains his balance. He's leaving bloody footprints on the floor. The tip of his tail's wet where it keeps dragging through it.
"Damn it, Bucky!" Steve barks. "Come at me! I want you to!"
"No!" Bucky yells, then moans in pain. He shifts to the black cat, then scrambles out of his ripped pajama pants and hurtles to the farthest corner of the room before Steve can grab him. He changes back to his human form and stands leaning heavily against the wall, his chest heaving. "Please," he rasps. "You have to stop me. I told you. Get away or put me down."
"I won't do that, Bucky." Steve tries to go closer but Bucky flinches so hard he bangs his head on the wall. "I told you I'm not leaving you again. 'Til the end of the line, remember?"
"This is the end of the line!" Bucky shouts. "Either you kill me or I kill you! That's it! There's nothing else! There's nothing—!" The words fracture into a yowl and he turns into the cat again, and then to the half-cat and then back to fully human. He makes a small, awful sound and clutches his head with his hands. "I can't fight it. I can't, I can't—" His eyes roll back and his knees buckle.
"Bucky!" Steve leaps to him, dropping his shield to grab Bucky before he falls. He was burning with fever earlier, but now his skin is clammy and cold under Steve's hands. "No. Oh, God, no. Bucky! Bucky, please!" Bucky doesn't move. He barely looks like he's breathing. "Guys, help!" Steve calls, but of course Tony, Sam and Natasha are already in the doorway. It's not that big an apartment. They heard everything.
Sam comes in first because he's the one with the medical training, with Natasha right behind. She has her Widow's bites on her wrists, and Tony has his Iron Man gauntlets on his. Sam's carrying a gun, but he immediately engages the safety and leaves it on the nightstand.
"What the hell happened?" Tony demands as Steve places Bucky as gently as he can on the bed. "Fucking hell. Did he slice himself?"
"Yeah," Steve says grimly. Natasha's turned the lights on, and the slashes Bucky's made on his leg stand out gruesomely red against his pale skin. "I think he's under some kind of spell. He said he was trying really hard not to kill me, but there was a compulsion to. He called it a 'geas'."
"That's a lot of blood," Tony says.
"He was distracting himself with the cuts, I think. Please," Steve says, looking between Sam and Tony. "Please. I think he's dying. You have to help him!"
Sam looks like he did when they were going into battle on the helicarriers. "Tony?" he says to him.
Sam's voice is nothing but calm, but Tony goes white. He looks at Sam, then at Steve and then Bucky. Tony's hands clench and his breath is stuttering in fear, but finally he nods. "Fuck," he says. Then he sheds his gauntlets and claps his hands together, rubbing them briskly like he's trying to get warm. "Yeah, okay. Sure. This'll be fun."
Tony doesn't do bio. He doesn't do bio because Howard Stark was the best fucking technomancer in the world, and Tony decided when he was five that he was going to be the best one after him.
He was. He is. Still didn't make his dad pay a damn bit of attention to him.
Tony also doesn't do bio because living things are unpredictable, and unpredictable is dangerous. Living things get hurt, and too often they get hurt in ways that can't be fixed. Machines can't die, not really. They can be repaired, or rebooted, or even rebuilt from scratch, if that's what it takes. But people…
People are fragile and vulnerable and when they die they don't come back. And Bucky's soul is already so fucked up that Tony would've sworn there was no way in hell he could've made things worse, but he did. He doesn't want to face the hell inside that kid again, but mostly he's terrified of what else he might do in there. There are things more terrible than just killing him.
But then Tony takes another look at Steve's face, and he knows he's going to try to fix Bucky again anyway. Because Steve looks exactly like the most precious person in the world to him is dying, and fuck him if Tony wouldn't do just about anything to fix that.
So he says, "Fuck. Yeah, okay. Sure. This'll be fun." And he goes to the bed where Steve's just put Bucky and climbs onto the far side and sits cross-legged next to him while Sam keeps one foot on the floor with his bent knee on the bed. "Um, could he be less naked for this, though? Because he's really, ah, naked. And, you know, I have no problem with that, but he might."
"No he won't," Natasha says. But she grabs another afghan from a shelf in the closet and Steve helps her drape it over Bucky.
Sam looks at Tony. "We'll do the same thing as before. Only this time we work together, all right?"
"Sure. Yeah. Right." Tony nods.
Tony nods again, then closes his eyes and listens for Sam's wandering chant to latch his own magic onto. It takes a few seconds for Tony's voice to stop shaking enough to let him begin his own muttering. When he does, it's mostly variations on, "Don't fuck up, don't fuck up, you can do this. Just free the guy's soul, no problem. Just don't fuck up."
Sam's magic is as beautiful as it was the first time, and Tony follows it down. He's dimly aware of Natasha more-or-less not dragging Steve out of the room, and Steve more-or-less letting her. And then the real world is gone and they're in.
They're in the seething mass of Bucky's disgusting seeping infection of a soul, surrounded by the dull grey and clotted red, and the swarming black tendrils threading through it like necrotic veins tying him down. Tony wants to run. Hell, he wants to throw the fuck up. He's sure that as soon as he touches anything he'll probably go fetal with revulsion the way he did the first time. But he has no choice. Sam is counting on him and Bucky may be dying, and it doesn't matter how fucking terrified he is; it's just cake or death, here. There's no door number three.
Of course, that doesn't mean he has to be stupid about it.
Tony doesn't grab for the thickest black tentacle vein this time, but one of the smallest ones. He can sort of still hear Sam, and he knows on some level that he himself is mumbling about being careful and not triggering anything. But all he's really aware of is prying the black cord away from the moldy grey and blood red it's twisted itself through. He's painstakingly careful, the same way he'd be if he were moving circuit filaments or programming an A.I. When the tendril is finally loose it flails around like an amputated tail. Tony sears it out of metaphysical existence with a blast of blue light.
That feels awesome, but he's already exhausted. And there's only about a million more to go.
"Fuck," he breathes, no idea if he's saying it out loud or not. He can feel Sam pulling at another black cord and Tony lowers his head and wades back in.
He's carefully pulled out another six bits of Hydra's Cthulhu knitting when he finds the tiger.
"Holy shit!" He almost throws himself right out of the spell, but he manages to turn the exclamation into magic, muttering: "holy shit. Shit. No, not gonna do that. Not gonna fuck up. Gonna help the kitty. Nice kitty. Don't kill me."
The tiger doesn't look like he could kill time, actually. He's so scrawny calling him skin and bones would be generous, with patches of scraggly, brittle fur in the few places that aren't leathery with illness or weeping bloody pus from ulcers and scabs. The black tentacles are wound so tightly around each of his legs that they've grown right into them like parasites.
The tiger isn't a real tiger; Tony knows that. This is Bucky, or the closest psychic equivalent. Sam might be seeing the black cat Bucky turns into in real life, or an angel, or a particularly vicious merman. Tony's own avatar could be a doughnut for all he knows. But the important part is the sickly black vines holding the tiger down. And how, as tony watches, a new one breaks through the parchment skin of the tiger's shoulder like he's being sewn up. The Bucky tiger is so weak he can't lift his head, but he's still struggling, trying to break free despite how much it's costing him.
"Oh yeah, don't think we can take it slow anymore, Sammy." Sam can't respond out loud, but Tony can still feel his reluctant agreement. They've managed to avoid traps so far with the careful prying. If they go all slash and burn they won't.
Fuck it, Tony thinks. Then he grabs the nearest black tentacle and just rips the fucking thing out.
He regrets it immediately. But at least he was expecting it this time, so the onslaught of soul-deep violation doesn't make him curl up and start sobbing. "Fuck you, Hydra," he says, murmuring it over and over like Sam's chanting, adding a few other words in here and there just for the hell of it. "Fuck you, Hydra. Fuck you. Fuck you and all your black tentacled sludgy shit and your soul-warping asshole witches. Fuck you, Hydra. And yeah, that's it. Come to papa you fucking misbegotten shitspawn…."
Sam's with the tiger, yanking out the evil black tendrils like he's ripping apart a particularly offensive suit. Bucky keeps making the tiger equivalent of screams of pain but he doesn't try to stop him. Instead he lifts his head enough to get his teeth around the nearest cord in him and tugs it out too.
And so it goes. Tony doesn't exactly lose track of what he's doing so much as get into a groove with it: Grab disgusting, evil Hydra tentacle; rip it out; do not curl into fetal ball in horror; burn disgusting, evil Hydra tentacle. Repeat, repeat, repeat. He's vaguely conscious of sweat soaking into his tee-shirt and the dorm pants he was trying to sleep in, wetting his hair and stinging his eyes. He knows that at some point Bucky grabbed his hand and now they're gripping each other like long-lost BFFs. He's aware of how much pain Bucky's in through their connection. He knows that without Sam's exceptionally beautiful magic to guide and fortify his own he'd be gibbering in the back of the closet with Natasha's afghans.
But it's also working.
It's getting easier to pull the tendrils up. They writhe and whip around like grotesque vines looking for something to latch onto before he blasts them into electric blue oblivion or Sam's rainbow lasers dissipate them like steam. The clotted blood red pulses and undulates like a dying worm and the grey—God, that horrible, diseased, corpse slab grey—heaves and soughs like something out of a David Lynch movie. And Tony can see flashes and pulses of the white and indigo Bucky got from Steve, and the colorless light and the marvelous cobalt. The light is stronger, Bucky's soul fighting with all the ferocious, stubborn power that's kept any part of his essence alive for so many years. The colors of the man he was and should always have been keep bleeding into the red and grey and turning it indigo and white and brilliant, brilliant blue.
"Yes! Yes, you go, you fucking Red Scare badass tiger motherfucker!" Tony shouts, then incorporates it into his spell, murmuring about badass tigers and Cold War relics who are just like their dumbass American counterparts who don't know when to quit. And the black worm vines come up by the handful after that and it is God-damned glorious. And he's going to town blasting the electric blue fuck out of what's left of Hydra's influence on Kitty-Bucky. And Sam's magic is scything through whatever Tony doesn't get to. And it's fucking great.
And then the Tiger bucks and kicks off the last of the black cords and Sam slices them into ribbons that puff out like smoke. Bucky still looks like hell, but he heaves himself onto shaky legs and growl-roars like a tiger, like he's challenging the entire motherfucking universe to a death match. And the world around them surges like a great, glowing ocean and the last of the black and grey and red is seared out of existence in a burst of blue and white—
And Bucky's soul blasts apart like a plate that's been dropped on the floor.
Natasha's been watching Steve pace for nearly an hour. He finally sat back down on her couch five minutes ago with his face in his hands, rocking gently back and forth like a child trying to comfort himself. It's simultaneously endearing and tragic.
She rubs his back. "We'd know by now if something was wrong," she says quietly. It's far from the first time.
"I know." He drops his hands, wiping tears with a knuckle of his forefinger. His eyes are red, his hands shaking with enough adrenaline to drop a normal person. "I'm just scared."
"I know. I am too." She puts her arms around him and he lets her hold him like that, resting his big hands over hers. "But he's strong. You know he is. He couldn't've lasted this long if he wasn't. And Sam and Tony are the best witches I know."
"You used to be the best witch I knew," Steve says. He glances at her. "But you feel different now. And you lost your magic, didn't you? What happened?"
"I made a choice. The only one I could. I don't regret it."
"Then it must've been worth it." Steve squeezes her hand a little. "I'm just sorry that we won't have your whammy spells. They were useful."
She smirks. "I'm sure I'll find a workaround."
He nods, but all his attention's on the bedroom again. "I just wish I could feel him. I used to be able to know when something was wrong, at least. But there's nothing." He rubs his chest likes it hurts, then his voice drops to a whisper. "I'm so scared I'll never be able to feel him again. But I'm more scared he'll never remember me."
"He'll remember you," Natasha says with more confidence than she feels. She's still taking the continuing chanting and muttering—and the occasional shouts and grunts of pain—as good signs. But it's been over an hour and she knows nothing about soul magic.
Steve just shakes his head. "The way Tony was talking about how disgusting Bucky's soul is. I don't know if—"
He stops at Tony's sudden exclamation. For the first time it sounds like Tony and Sam are winning, that Bucky's fighting his way free. And then Steve lurches so violently that he nearly pulls her off the couch before she lets go of him.
"Steve! What is it? What happened?"
He stares at her, eyes enormous with shock and an expression caught halfway between wonder and pain. He has both hands pressed to his chest like his heart's about to smash out of his ribcage. "Bucky," he says breathlessly. "It's Bucky. Oh my God. He's there." He lets out a burst of wild, incredulous laughter. "He's there. I can feel him. Oh my God, Nat! I can feel him! I—" He gasps, then rockets off the couch to run into the bedroom and then they hear Bucky scream. "Bucky!" Steve manages one more step before he cries out and drops to the floor.
"Oh no." Natasha falls to her knees next to him. He reaches blindly for her and she pulls him into her arms. He holds onto her for dear life, keening in pain. "Shh, shh. It's all right. Hold on to me, you'll be fine." Nonsense words of comfort while he's wracked and sobbing in agony. She can't tell what's going on in the other room, whether it's only quiet compared to Steve's pain or truly quiet and what that quiet might mean. All she can do is anchor him until whatever this is releases enough of its hold that he can move. And as soon as that happens he throws himself to his feet and runs into the bedroom. Natasha follows a moment behind.
Sam is on the floor with his back against the side of the bed, his legs splayed and his hands palm-up on his thighs. He looks like he's just finished a battle. "Hey." He tiredly lifts a hand in greeting before letting it flop back to his leg.
Natasha helps pull Sam to his feet, but Steve barely glances at him as he goes straight to the bed.
Tony's stretched out next to Bucky, staring blindly at the ceiling. He looks wrung-out and dazed and like it's a very good thing he's already lying down. He gives a weak thumbs up without even moving his eyes. And Bucky….
Bucky's still sick and pale and too thin and he's got hectic color in his cheeks and his breath wheezes in and out from his laboring lungs. But there's a presence to him, a solidity that wasn't there an hour ago. He looks real, like he's truly part of the world.
He's also in his in-between form again, with the cat accoutrements. It might just be the light, but there seems to be a brownish tinge to his ears and tail.
He looks like he's fast asleep, but as soon as Steve's next to him he cracks open his eyes. They're grey, with slit pupils like a cat.
"Bucky?" Steve says, rough and hushed with hope.
"Geeze, Stevie," Bucky slurs. "You look terrible."
"Bucky?" Steve reaches for him but stops with his hand hovering. "I can feel you," he says, awed. "Are you…can…?" He swallows, wipes his face roughly on the shoulder of his tee-shirt. "I thought you broke. I thought you died."
Bucky blinks slowly, like he's having a hard time keeping his eyes open. He smiles crookedly, one of his wickedly sharp eyeteeth denting his bottom lip. "I thought you were smaller."
"Oh my God. Bucky," Steve breathes. "You…do you remember me? Are you okay?"
Bucky nods. He's barely awake, but he raises his arms to Steve. They're trembling with fatigue.
Steve's laugh is far too close to a sob, but he climbs right onto the bed and doesn't hug Bucky so much as engulf him, he wraps Bucky so tightly in his arms. Bucky starts up a rusty, wheezy purr and hugs Steve back just as ferociously.
Tony rolls off his side of the bed but manages to catch himself with his feet before he hits the floor. "Great. Awesome. Big happy reunion. Yay." He straightens with a huge effort and wobbles around the end of the bed. "Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go die." He pats Bucky's ankle as he teeters past him. "And by the way you're welcome, fish breath."
"I'm sure he'll thank you later, Tony," Sam says. He leans heavily on Natasha and Tony totters to her other side, so she ends up supporting both of them as they make their way out of the room. "Boy do I need a shower. But I don’t think I can stay awake that long."
"Fuck the shower. I'm going to sleep naked," Tony proclaims, then yawns loudly right next to Natasha's ear. "Whoops. Sorry."
"What happened?" she asks as she steers them both towards the other guest room.
"You mean when things got all screamy? Yeah, um." Tony pushes his sweaty hair off his forehead. "There were some complications."
"Bucky has three different souls." Sam blinks when Natasha just nods. She's known that for years. "Thing was, they weren't…set up right, is the best way I can think of it." He sighs gratefully as he sits on the bed. "I don't know if Hydra did that to him or not, but they'd been that way a long time. When we freed him from the spells on him—"
"Kablooey," Tony interrupts. He flops back on the bed beside Sam then makes a vague, weak gesture with both his hands before letting them drop to his stomach. "It was like…" He huffs out a tired sigh. "Fuck, I have no idea. Just like, the Bucky-tiger bit through the last black tentacle and everything exploded."
Sam turns his head to blink at him. "Tiger?"
"Yup." Tony closes his eyes, shifting as he makes himself more comfortable on the pillow. "Big, white Siberian Tiger. With, like, mange or something."
"Huh. He looked like himself to me, in his WWII uniform," Sam says. "But, yeah. Everything busted apart. Tony and I both lost the thread of our spells—"
"And then cue the screaming," Tony breaks in again, opening his eyes. "I figured the kid'd bought it, right there. And then Steve starts screaming, and I was sure we'd fucking killed them both." He shudders. "And then suddenly the Buckster's all furry-kink again and everyone's fine."
"I don't know what he did, but he fixed himself." Sam's eyes are closed now too, but he grins. "He's one stubborn fuck, I'll give him that."
"He comes by it honestly," Natasha says.
"Restored to the factory settings," Tony murmurs. "Big, fuzzy, default factory settings." He sounds more asleep than awake.
She leans down and kisses Sam on the forehead. "Thank you," she says softly. Then she goes around to the other side of the bed and kisses Tony too.
He grins without opening his eyes, then reaches blindly for her and gives her hand a brief squeeze when she grips his. "You're just lucky we're so fucking awesome."
"Yes I am."
Steve wakes up because Bucky's thrashing tail keeps hitting him.
Daylight shines in through the window, lighting the room and creating a glow around the edge of the curtains. Steve has no idea if he fell asleep next to Bucky last night or days ago.
Bucky's moving like a dreaming cat, twitching and pawing. His eyes are half-open, but whatever they're focused on is deep in his sleeping mind.
It's nothing good. That's obvious by the way he's tossing his head and how his ears are flat to his skull. Bucky starts growling, and then his vague pawing turns into a fight. Bucky's claws extend and Steve rolls off the bed before Bucky accidentally takes his eyes out.
Steve's about to wake him when Bucky shouts, "No! NO! Steve!" and startles himself awake. He bolts upright, moving as far away from Steve as possible without throwing himself off the bed. His eyes are wide, the black cat-pupils bare slits from fear.
There's something different about Bucky's face, but Steve's attention is on calming him down. "Shh, shh. It's okay. I'm right here. I'm fine. We're in Natasha's house and you're safe, Bucky. No one's going to hurt you."
Bucky blinks several times like he's trying to reorient himself. He swallows. "Did I hurt you?"
"No. Not at all." Steve climbs slowly back onto the bed, but leaves plenty of space between them despite how all he wants to do is pull Bucky into his arms. He rubs his chest without thinking about it; he can feel how agitated Bucky is, and much as he wishes Bucky were happy, Steve will never stop being grateful that he can know again. "You never hurt me, Bucky. Not on purpose. Not even when I told you to."
"You're a fuckin' liar, Stevie." Bucky rubs his eye with the heel of his right hand, like his arm's not hurting him anymore. The back of his hands and arms are covered with dark brown lines, as if he was painted with henna. His eyes are circled by lighter brown, with light brown lines going from each of his eyes to his hairline, and two more that start at the corner of his eyes and curve around the sides of his head. There are more brown lines on his cheeks, but what Steve cares about is that Bucky's breath is calming and his claws have retracted. He feels calmer to Steve as well, though his tail's still thrashing. "On the helicarrier I just about ripped your fuckin' heart out."
"That wasn't you," Steve says simply. "You didn't know me and you were under a geas. And even then you ended up saving my life. Remember?" He moves closer, still going slowly, but Bucky moves nearer to him too.
Bucky nods. "I remember that you refused to fight, like some kinda' idiot." He pushes his hair off his forehead, then frowns. "You were always a damn idiot. Either you were too dumb to run away from a fight, or too dumb not to. I told you that, right after you were dumb enough to walk into a Hydra base all by your lonesome for a lost cause."
"'Wasn't lost, Bucky. I got you back." Steve's throat is a little thick. "You remember that?"
"Yeah, sure I do." Bucky sounds like he has no idea why Steve's even asking. Then he gasps. "I remember." He looks at Steve with an expression of amazed joy. "I remember! Oh my God, I remember. I remember, Stevie!"
Steve hugs him again, holding him tight. Bucky holds him just as tightly, and when he starts purring and unconsciously kneading Steve's back with his claws, Steve just laughs and pets him for a while, loving how Bucky’s enjoying it. Finally he kisses the side of one huge, twitching cat-ear.
The cat ear is brown, and this time Steve pulls back because he can't ignore it any longer. "Holy cow," he says, taking it in. "Bucky—you look different."
"What?" Bucky frowns at him. "I know you've seen the twosk—the half-cat before."
"Sure I have. That's not what I mean. Seriously. Look at your hands."
Bucky does, then stares. Then he goes up on his knees to look at his arms and the rest of his body, then twists to see his back. "What the hell?"
His ears and tail are mostly medium brown, the same color as the hair on his head. The brown's lighter than normal for Bucky's hair, but that's not nearly as astonishing as the striping. There's a thick line running through the part of his hair down his spine to the tip of his tail, so dark brown it's almost black, like he's been painted. Another stripe goes up the back of each of his ears, and more lines branch out unevenly from the stripe down his back, curving around his no-longer bruised ribs and abdomen. More stripes ring his arms and his thighs, getting progressively lighter until they reach his feet and the backs of his hands.
He looks adorable and strange and faintly ridiculous and so damn beautiful that Steve can't help gaping, and then laughing, and then he's got tears in his eyes again. "It's amazing," he says. "It's you, Buck. I mean, the real you. This is…. You should've always been like this. But you never got the chance." He remembers the brown tinge in Bucky's fur the night he made him. Maybe this is what Bucky would've looked like that first morning, if Mrs. Tabenkin hadn't caged his soul.
And that's why Steve's crying again: because he only had to wait until he was twenty five for the chance to become the man he always felt like inside. But Bucky never got to be who he really was. Not before now.
"Guess so," Bucky says. He's still looking at himself, and he's still naked so there's a lot to see, and most of it's striped. Bucky rubs his chest absently, then looks up with an uncertain quirk in his smile. "Always knew I was a freak. Now I got proof, huh?"
"No! No, Buck. It's different, sure. But you're not a freak. You're unique. You're beautiful." Steve grins, and it's wet but he really doesn't care. "And you're here. That's all that matters to me. But, you're beautiful."
Bucky gets that look on his face that means he thinks Steve's handing him a line but it's Steve so he's going to be nice and not call him on it. Then he looks worried. "Jesus. What if I still look like this when I'm human?"
Steve's eyes widen. "I hadn't thought of that. Can you check?" He winces. "No, forget it. It'll hurt."
Bucky shrugs. "I'm used to it." He shimmers and the ears and tail are gone and he's Bucky again, with his normal dark brown hair and grey eyes and pale skin. But if anything he looks more shocked than when he saw his stripes. "It didn't hurt." He gapes at Steve. "It didn't hurt. It always hurts." He blinks. "Wait." He shifts to the cat—no longer a fluffy black cat but a sleek brown tabby—then back to his human body. When he returns to the half-cat form his eyes are alight. "It doesn't hurt!"
He whoops and hugs Steve again and they're still laughing when Bucky kisses him, purring so loudly Steve can feel it rumbling in his heart.
This is where our story could end:
The brown tabby limps into what used to be the cellar of the abandoned restaurant, mewing piteously.
One of the bored thug guards whacks the other on the shoulder with the back of his hand. "Hey, Bogdan," he says in Russian, "check out the cat."
Bogdan sniffs, unimpressed. "I hate cats."
"Asshole. Aw, she's hurt. Look." He crouches down and holds out his hand. "Here, kittykittykitty. Ignore that big, mean asswipe who doesn't like kitties. Who wouldn't want a pretty kitty like you?"
The cat chirps and rubs against his leg, and then when the thug grins and reaches to give the cat a pet, Bucky switches to half-cat and knocks him out. The other one—Bogdan—Bucky kills with a quick, clean slash across his throat when he raises his gun.
It's not because Bodgan isn't a cat person. It's because he's Hydra's thug, and the other guy isn't. Bogdan reeks of it: chemicals and magic that Bucky can't forget no matter how much he wants to. Steve might be pissed, but the only good Hydra is a dead Hydra, far as Bucky's concerned.
The other guy he ties up with the dead one's gear. The one problem with Bucky's Avengers uniform is that unstable molecules make it hard to carry anything. His outfit looks a lot like Natasha's, only the same blue and red as Steve's uniform (thank you, Tony. Screw you, Tony) without sleeves or any of Nat's bells and whistles. He also doesn't have boots, just the leggings that extend around his foot but leave his toes bare. It sure beats the hell out of being naked, but he's only able to carry a couple blades and that's it.
Luckily both the thugs had nice big guns. Bucky grins as he puts the strap of one of the machine guns over his shoulder, then goes still, taking quick sniffing breaths with his ears swiveling. Hydra built a tunnel down here with four rooms, given the smells and where he can hear people shuffling around. The prisoner's down at the end. Poor bastard's in a lot of pain, giving his stress-sweat. Ten more thugs between here and the prisoner, most of 'em Hydra. Bucky's grin widens. Easy.
He takes them all out in under three minutes, K.O.-ing the regular mooks and making sure the Hydra dicks never get up again. He doesn't even need the gun.
The prisoner's lying on a medical cot in a room that looks enough like every medical bay-slash-isolation ward-slash-laboratory Bucky's ever been in that for a second he freezes in the doorway with his heart pounding in fear. He almost switches to the cat and runs, but he's a fucking Avenger and Hydra doesn't own him anymore, and this guy needs him.
"W-who's there?" the guy says. He's breathless with pain but he still lifts his head, still struggles against the restraints. Reminds Bucky of himself when Hydra got him, both times. At least until they fucked up his soul.
This guy's soul hasn't been fucked with yet. Looks and smells like they've been more interested in his blood. He smells of magic the way Steve and Bucky and Natasha do. This Hydra cell must've been trying to reproduce whatever makes this schmuck special.
"You're safe, pal. I'm an Avenger. I'm here to rescue you." Bucky changes to human so he won't freak him out any more than he already has, including switching out the uniform for a pair of normal-looking jeans and a white tee-shirt with an aggressively adorable tiger on it, courtesy of Tony Stark. Of course. "I'm going to get you out of here."
The guy doesn't look reassured. If anything the closer Bucky gets, the more he shrinks back. "You're not human," he says. His dark eyes are huge and he's looking right at Bucky, but it's obvious he's not seeing him. "What are you?"
"I'm the fella who's getting your ass out of here, pal," Bucky says. He switches back to the half-cat since it doesn't seem to matter, but the prisoner freezes and gasps as soon as he does, like he can tell even though he can't see. "Did they do something to your eyes?"
He shakes his head. "Please…what are you?"
"My name's Bucky." Bucky tears off the straps holding down the guy's wrists and ankles.
As soon as his wrists are free, the prisoner reaches out for him. "Let me…?"
Bucky grimaces, but he allows it, staying still as the guy ghosts his fingers over Bucky's face, then along one ear. The guy makes a noise that's disbelieving but more wondering than scared. "No wonder you smell like a cat. You're Ussuri, aren't you?"
"That's right. And you’re Daredevil," Bucky says, relaxing. Ussuri cats are a rare, semi-wild Russian breed that're tough, smart and athletic, and kickass hunters. They're also loyal but fiercely independent, which Bucky figures fits him pretty well. He chose the code name because he liked making the Russian culture Hydra imposed on him into something of his own. It's his body and his life, and he gets to decide how he uses it. He never chose 'Ghost Cat' or 'Siberian Tiger'. He sure as hell never chose 'Kotik'. But 'Ussuri' is his. "You can call me Bucky, though. I didn't mean to scare you."
"You didn't. But you did confuse the hell out of me." He yanks the tubes out of his arms with a grimace and lets Bucky help him to his feet. "It was like you had a cat with you, but I couldn't hear one. I'm Matt," he adds. He leans heavily on Bucky as they make their way out of the building.
"Pleased to meet you, Matt." Bucky does his best to guide him carefully along the tunnel, but Matt has no problem placing his feet. Bucky's getting an idea of what the magic in Matt's body did to him. "I have to warn you, though—the other Avengers are creating a diversion so I could get you out. It might get kind of loud. Oh, and I'm not the only one who'll smell like he's got an animal with him."
"Thanks for the heads up, but I've been hearing your team for the last several minutes." They're at the cellar now, starting up the stairs with Matt still leaning on him. Bucky's ears are swiveling like crazy, listening for any more threats. But other than his team kicking ass it's just the two of them. And Steve's fine. Bucky's sense of him is warm and calm, despite how he's in the middle of a fight.
"Your ears're better than mine," he says. They're in the restaurant, empty except for the three dead Hydra Bucky took care of on the way in.
Matt grins. "I'm sure yours are cuter."
"Damn straight." Bucky kicks the door open and they're outside in the fresh evening air. He twitches his right ear in the way that turns on his radio. "I got him. Heading to the rendezvous point now."
"Copy that, Ussuri." Bucky can hear the smile in Steve's voice even if he's a little breathless. "We're just cleaning up here. I've sent Hawkeye to make sure your path is clear."
"Hey, Catppuchino, try not to bite him this time," Tony adds gleefully.
"Hey, Iron Face, try not to be such an asshole."
"Catppuchino?" Matt asks.
Bucky rolls his eyes, but he smirks when he answers. He can hear Clint coming but no one else around they need to worry about. "I call this body the half-cat. Apparently that's like a coffee thing."
Matt grins. "Half-caffeine. That dog I've been hearing is your teammate, right?"
"Got it in one." Bucky nods at the incredibly ugly yellow dog, who grins with his tongue lolling before changing to Hawkeye between one paw step and the next.
"Hey, you're the blind vigilante dude." Hawkeye holds out his hand to Matt. "Hawkeye. I'm a big fan."
Matt grins and takes Clint's hand almost unerringly. "The archer, right? I didn't know you could turn into a dog."
"It's a kind of recent development." Hawkeye smoothly turns the handshake into draping Matt's free arm across his shoulders, and the two of them help Matt to walk like that until they get to the Quinjet. "Strap in," Clint says to Matt. "I'm taking you to Avengers tower. The others will catch up once S.H.I.E.L.D. comes in."
"Just take me home," Matt says, grimacing as Bucky helps lie him down on the gurney. "No need to—ow—trouble yourselves. I have friends—"
"Yeah you do. And we're taking you to Avengers tower so you can get fixed up." Bucky shucks the gun and secures it, then deftly straps Matt in, making sure he knows what's going on and how to get up if he wants to. "I'm going to help with the clean-up," he tells Clint. "You going to be okay taking him back?"
"Other than the excruciating loneliness? I think I can manage," Clint drawls. "Don't get yourself dead, Mocatchino. Steve would cry."
"'Mocatchino' is just stupid," Bucky says. "Clint'll take good care of you," he tells Matt, then gives him a salute before he remembers that Matt can't see it. He trots down the gangway and watches the hatch close and the little craft take off before he changes into the cat and races out of the vacant lot they'd set down in.
He arrives back at the Hydra cell just in time to switch to the half-cat and take out the fucker about to shoot Iron Man down with a rocket launcher. The look of terror on the guy's face when Bucky leaps at him is priceless, especially since the launcher's right on his shoulder and he's too shocked to pull the trigger before Bucky stabs him through the eye with one of his molecularly unstable knives. The guy dies faster than he can change expression, which is a hell of a lot kinder than what Hydra would do. Or has done. Or made Bucky do for them.
Kind of makes Bucky's predator side want to tear the guy's heart out and eat it. But he doesn't need to do that anymore. He'll always have the urge to hunt, but it's easy now. Ignorable until he wants to use it.
Everything's easy now, including loving the big lug who's sliding his shield back onto his harness, looking like he's been for a light jog instead of cracking skulls for the last half hour. "Everyone okay?"
"Clint and the devil guy are on their way to the tower and the building's secure," Bucky reports crisply, then grins. "Just sorry I missed the action out here."
"Aw, it wasn't much. Almost all the heads are gone and what's left of Hydra is desperate and sloppy. They barely put up a fight." Steve slings his arm around Bucky's neck and tugs him close, dropping a kiss right next to his ear. "But I'm sure Tony's grateful for the save."
"Tony could've totally handled it, for the record. But thanks for wasting your time on my behalf, Catté."
"That's almost as stupid as Mocatchino." Bucky waves at Natasha, then slides his arm around Steve's waist. He switches to full human form again though he keeps his uniform, because he can see the completely inconspicuous black S.H.I.E.L.D. Humvees driving up, and Fury's already gotten on his ass a couple times for scaring the crap out of his agents.
"I like Catté," Steve says.
"Of course you do." Bucky shakes his head, then gives Steve a quick kiss on the corner of his mouth before letting go of him. He stretches, taking a deep breath of the cool air. The city almost never smells good, but there are rats nearby. Maybe he'll come back here later as the cat and have some fun. Clint might like to come too, though he gets so excited he barks his ugly head off and scares everything away half the time.
Natasha comes up beside him and he stops, letting Steve go talk to Maria Hill. "All the Hydra operatives are dead, Kotofei?" she asks him in Russian.
He nods. "You know they are."
"Yes I do," she says seriously. "If you hadn't killed them, I would've."
"I know." It wasn't Hydra who raised Natasha to be an assassin, but the Red Room worked with them. And it was Hydra who left Clint Barton bleeding out on the side of a Symkarian highway, next to the corpse of the dog he hadn't been able to save. If Natasha didn't have enough reason to hate them before, she sure as hell does now.
He takes her hand as they walk over to join Steve and Tony, vaguely considering changing to the half-cat just for shits and giggles. But in the end he decides to play nice. He's one of the good guys now, after all, and he likes it. But it probably means he should act the part.
Steve puts his hand on Bucky's shoulder as soon as he's close enough, and warmth flows through his chest. He doesn't have much to add to the debriefing, so he just stands there as nonthreateningly as possible until Hill frowns and looks at him.
"What's that noise?" she asks. Then, "Are you purring?"
Bucky blinks, then realizes that oh, yeah, that's him purring. He shrugs, unrepentant. "We kicked ass, saved a guy…. Yeah, 'course I'm purring. I'm happy."
But the story ends here:
It's 1983 and Sam Wilson is five years old. He's at his grandma's house with his daddy. They've just come back from visiting Uncle Samuel's grave. Samuel died in a place called Vietnam, a long time before Sam was born. Sam wishes he could've met him, but he knows his uncle was a hero and Sam's proud to have his name.
Daddy and Grandma miss Samuel a lot and they're still sad. Sam hates seeing them sad, so he's been giving them lots of hugs and kisses and he tried to be a good boy all day and not a 'wild hooligan' like his mommy says.
He's in his daddy's lap at the kitchen table, next to Grandma. She gave him a cup of tea just like a grownup, though she put in milk and sugar because otherwise it's gross. As soon as he finished it she took it back and now she's doing her magic. Sam's trying not to squirm, but he's so excited to find out what he'll be like as a grownup.
"Patience, little man. She's almost finished," Daddy says.
"In fact, I am right now." Grandma lifts her head and she's smiling again, but it's the still-sad one like she had at the grave.
Daddy sees it too, because he asks her what's wrong.
"Nothing. Nothing's wrong," she says, but she wipes her eyes because there are tears in them and Sam leans back against his daddy because now he's afraid. Grandma sees it though, just like she sees everything. "I mean it, sweetheart. It's just, you've got a big future. You're going to do wonderful things. Amazing things. But sometimes it'll be awful hard and you're going to have to be brave."
"I'm brave!" Sam says. He barely even cried when he broke his wrist falling off the monkey bars, and he always sleeps with the lights off now like a big boy.
"Yes you are." Daddy hugs him tighter. "Is this private, Mom?"
"I don't mind if you stay, David," Grandma says. "But it's up to Sam. This is for him."
Daddy leans his head closer to Sam's ear. "Do you want it to be a secret between you and Grandma, little man?"
Sam shakes his head.
"All right then." Grandma's smile looks better now. She takes both of Sam's hands, the way she does when she's going to tell people true stories about what'll happen to them. Her hands are wrinkly and warm and very, very soft. "You're going to be a soldier, Sam, just like your uncle. And you're going to be a hero, just like him."
Daddy takes a breath like all of a sudden he's the one who's scared. "You don't mean—"
"No. He'll come through all right."
Daddy takes another breath and lets it out slow. "Thank God." He kisses the top of Sam's head.
"You're going to save peoples' lives, Sam," Grandma says. "But not just because you're a soldier." She rubs Sam's tummy, which makes him giggle. "You've got power in you, the way I do, and the way your uncle did." She grins, but when she blinks her eyes are a little bit wet again. "And one day, you'll use that power to help fix people who are sad and frightened, just like Samuel would've, if he wasn't taken from us so soon."
"You hear that, Sammy?" Daddy sounds excited too, which is lots better than frightened. "You're a witch, and you're going to be a hero!"
Sam nods to show that he's been listening because this is important, but he's a lot more excited about the hero part than the witch part. "Will I be really strong like Captain America?"
Grandma laughs, but she shakes her head. "No, sweetheart. But you'll have wings. Big, silver wings that will let you fly like a bird. That's how you'll save people's lives." She makes a diving motion with her hand. "Swooping in like a falcon and rescuing them when they need it." She strokes her hand over his head, still smiling but serious again. "But some of the best things you'll ever do won't be with your wings, but with your power as a witch."
Sam's mouth falls open, and he leans so close to Grandma that he almost tumbles into her lap. "What? What?"
She tuts and shakes her head. But she's still smiling so Sam knows she doesn't really mind. "You're going to have to be patient, Sam. It's not going to happen for a long time. Not until you're around your daddy's age."
That's probably about 100 years he thinks, which is disappointing. But Sam reminds himself to be patient and behave so he just nods. "And then what will I do?"
"You're going to make new, incredible friends, and be a different kind of hero. You'll help a lot of people, Sam. You'll save a lot of lives and a lot of souls. And there'll be one time, your magic will save someone's life and their soul, both." Grandma dips her head so she's speaking right next to Sam's ear, soft like she's telling a secret. "And you know what?"
Sam's eyes are very wide. "What?"
"The life and the soul belong to someone who saved my life. A long, long time ago. And you're going to pay him back for me."
That sounds both excellent and perfectly reasonable to Sam. But Daddy says, "Mom, how's that even possible?"
Grandma smiles, but for some reason it dips into the one that's a little bit sad again. "When the time comes, Sam will tell you."
Daddy sighs, but Sam thinks that's great. One day he'll know more than Daddy, and Daddy knows everything. "How'm I going to pay him back, Grandma?"
"Well now," she says, voice as warm as her hands, "one day, you're going save three lives wrapped up in one: a soldier, a ghost, and a cat."