Chapter 1: Prologue - The World We Love Forever Gone
No one knew why the Fae slammed the doors on Underhill. No warning came before they were sealed shut, trapping the creatures from human myth forever in the mundane human world.
When the mythfolk realised what had happened there was panic, because it was impossible. They'd never survive. Without Underhill, without their home, to retreat to, to escape to... Underhill was the reason they'd managed to stay nothing but human legend and human myth; none of them could live wholly in the mundane human world and not eventually be caught.
In the aftermath of the disaster, in their desperation to find a way to survive, factions were ignored, old hurts and grudges forgotten, ancient rivalries set aside.
In the end it was Stark the Elder who saved them. Stark who was better known as Stark the crazy, Stark the strange, Stark the odd. Stark who no one had ever taken seriously because he was too obsessed with human invention, with human ingenuity, with all the pitiable products humans created out of their mundane necessity.
But mythfolk needed a way to hide in plain sight; the mundane world was now their only world, no convenient Underhill to duck into if they skirted too close to exposure, and Stark found the way. He took his knowledge and his strange magic, twisted it with science and a barely-born power called electricity, and created charms to hide mythfolk from mundane human sight, to make their eyes skate over anything which, by mundane human standards, couldn't be.
With Stark's charms and the ability to shape themselves into human form they eased into human society.
Stark the Elder never stopped searching for a way to punch through the barrier between worlds and find the way home. He never succeeded, but his ever more erratic experimentations did open a door. He found the way to the lower planes and suddenly the higher demons—incubi and succubi, yaogui and daeva—were free to walk the mundane world at will.
Luckily for the world they were intelligent, rational. They helped Stark bar the door against the mindless lower demons who, drawn from the substance of the lower planes itself, were a potential endless horde. In exchange they were given charms of their own and the mythfolk's numbers swelled.
As they grew more comfortable hurts and grudges were remembered. Ancient rivalries were recalled. Old factions reformed and new ones were born, springing from shared species and shared gods and shared resentments. Mythfolk postured and threatened and struggled for what scraps of power they could find.
But quietly, very quietly.
Stark's charms were potent but even they couldn't hide all-out war.
By the time Buchanan hatched, mythfolk were living side-by-secret-side with humans, nestled in like a guest they didn't know was there and couldn't ask to leave. Their secrecy was preserved by the charms of Stark the Younger, successor to his father, who matched the ever increasing sophistication of humans with evermore sophisticated charms.
It was preserved, too, by the shared iron commitment to one rule: do not expose us.
It was a rule Buchanan was in no danger of breaking when he tumbled, weak and panting, legs and wings akimbo, to sprawl like a flat black shadow on shattered egg shell and glass-smooth rocks.
His clutch hatched high atop a mountain Aerie, sheltered from the elements not by a mother's wing or a father's body but by high walls and a sturdy roof. Dragons came together to create a new generation, sometimes as loving mates and sometimes by formal arrangement, but the clutch was tended and raised by others.
Dragons were the least affected when the doors to Underhill slammed shut. Before, they'd lived high in their mountain Aeries, apart from other mythfolk. After, they lived high in mountain Aeries in the mundane world, apart from other mythfolk—except for the svartálfar, the metalsmithing dwarves who dwelled in the caves beneath their Aeries. The svartálfar traded the right to live there for their skill as craftsmen, their services as liaisons to the world, and their silence on the matter of dragons. It was a symbiotic relationship of sorts (although if you asked the svartálfar on a bad day they were more likely to mutter about parasites).
Dragons kept to themselves.
Dragons did not leave their mountains.
Even to other mythfolk, dragons were practically legend.
Buchanan was too young to understand any of that. But from the moment he pulled himself up, blunt-headed and wobbly, limp wings trailing behind him, he was desperately curious. As he grew he drove his clutch-watcher to distraction, poking his sharp nose and stubby wings into every nook and cranny, every room and forbidden place, he could find.
And there were a lot to find.
The Aerie was a place of great caves, carved from living stone, rock worn smooth by scales and claws. But dragons liked comfort in both their forms, and so houses clung to the mountain's curves like lovers, crafted from stone and metal and smooth wood, filled with luxuries bargained for by the svartálfar and paid for with much-begrudged dragon gold.
Buchanan was determined to explore every inch.
He was seven, barely old enough to flap short distances on his own, when the red dragon arrived. The dragons in Buchanan's Aerie were all blue or black or deep green—Buchanan was coal black, streaked with silver at claw and wing—and he greeted her arrival with unmitigated glee.
Natasha, which was the red dragon's name, seemed amused by her tiny shadow. She announced that Buchanan was a ridiculous name for a dragon so small and promptly christened him Bucky.
Bucky loved her instantly.
As he grew she taught him and trained him. All dragons learned to fight on the wing, with flame and claw, and on two feet, with sword and knife, but Natasha wasn't satisfied with what he was learning.
She taught him more. She taught him to be better.
Taught him to fight with both his bodies. Taught him to fight with tricks and with his mind and ruthlessly. Taught him to use human guns, which shocked every dragon in the Aerie because mythfolk didn't use guns and dragons especially didn't resort to fighting with something so very human.
The dragons' separation was born primarily of arrogance and an innate confidence in their own superiority—over other mythfolk but particularly over humans. Despite that, Bucky knew about humans and their lives. However much dragons might disdain humans they lived in comfort using increasingly sophisticated human inventions, relying on increasingly sophisticated Stark charms to keep their Aerie and its comforts hidden from human eyes.
But Natasha had lived among them. She told him of faraway places, of life in the cities, of what it was like to live shoulder to shoulder with mundane humans and with other mythfolk, the very people dragons were supposed to disdain.
Bucky never mastered that particular lesson—it never quite managed to stick in the face of Natasha's training and Natasha's stories.
He snuck into the caves of the svartálfar and befriended the smiths, who grew fond of a dragon who would pitch his flame just so when they were working with a tricky bit of metal, who would listen for hours to their tales, who would curl up around their forges and doze.
He flew far and wide away from the Aerie, watching the world from high above. He was careful, carrying Stark's charms to shield himself from mundane humans and their electronic eyes, from their radar and satellites. Even being seen by other mythfolk would be questionable—it having been made clear to him that dragons preferred to keep their existence the stuff of rumour and legend—but for that he'd have to rely on caution and skill.
Dragons did not come down from their mountains.
Except Natasha had. Natasha had been living in the wide world before she'd arrived in Bucky's Aerie, even if she'd been doing it on two legs, had been living a life of adventure, had met an incredible array of people.
Bucky wanted that.
What he didn't want, he realised far too late, was to inadvertently veer into the territory of a hydra.
As its many heads lifted above the ocean, roaring in anger and lashing out at him, he backwinged desperately, flamed a warning, but even with all Natasha's training he knew it wasn't going to be enough.
Sarah Rogers was three months pregnant when she knew something was wrong. She was a healer, she could feel it, feel the wrongness in the tiny body taking shape inside her. Knew her son might not make it to term. But she was a healer and she'd already lost her husband. She'd be damned if she'd lose their child, too.
It was touch and go, her power wobbling as it sometimes refused to distinguish between herself and her child, the wrongness in her child's body echoing through hers. It wasn't pain, not quite, but she wouldn't have cared if it had been—that was how a healer knew what to heal, knew how to mend what was broken, and this was her son.
The fisher clan, made up of selkies and kelpies and merfolk, who'd offered her a place when her husband died, rallied around her. Healers were prized, especially when your clan went after hydra and kraken, and her gift meant she straddled the line between mundane and mythfolk—after all, somewhere in every gifted human was a splash of mythfolk blood.
Sarah knew they were helping her for her own sake, not just because she was their valuable healer, but in the end she also knew it was up to her.
She did everything she could, gave him everything she had, and it was enough to see him born: weak and sickly, but alive. Still shaky from labour she cradled him close and poured power into him, grit her teeth against the echo of his hurts, of his body's flaws she could feel like they were her own.
And under it all felt the murmur of a warm green gift that matched her own.
Her son was a healer. She didn't know whether to laugh or cry. The gift was middling rare, wasn't usually passed down through family lines, and she couldn't help but wonder if he'd always have been one or if she'd made him into this, washing him in her power while he was still in the womb.
Then he looked up at her out of bright blue eyes and saw her and nothing else mattered.
Steven Rogers never grew as tall or as big as the other human children, certainly never reached the size of the mythfolk children, but he didn't let it slow him down. In their small coastal city he was the only human child with a gift, but he knew to keep quiet when he was with mundanes. Knew to keep the secret.
When Steve was nine he got into his first fight, defending a selkie girl against a couple of shifter kids who'd been taunting her about her sealskin, trotting out the old horror story of The Selkie Bride. He'd bloodied their noses before they put him down, but he was grinning around his split lip and bruised ribs when he finally made it home. "She was scared, ma. It's not just a story to her." Sarah didn't say a word, just healed him around a wince and a disapproving frown.
It wasn't the last fight he got into, not by a long shot. Sarah learned to deal with it. "You're a healer," she said to him one day when he'd come home limping, his jacket torn, one eye black. "You're not supposed to hurt people."
His look of devastation, of betrayed anguish, nearly broke her heart. "I'm not trying to hurt people, ma. I'm trying to stop people doin' that. Sometimes that means you've gotta make 'em."
"Oh, Steven." She'd hugged him tight. "I love you." Eventually he'd wriggled away, childish dignity not able to tolerate her embrace for too long, but he was grinning.
When Steve was nineteen Sarah went out with the boats as she sometimes did when the clan were hunting kraken, their parts of great value to magic-using mythfolk.
They never came back.
As Steve aged the pain lessened but it never truly left him. Some pain never does, but he knew, he always knew, that he'd been loved.
Many years later, Steve was walking deep in the forest that stretched to the sea, following his instincts and his nose and the pull of his gift.
When it was over, when there was time to think, he'd wonder how he didn't see it. How he'd missed the giant black bulk curled in the clearing between the trees, head down, eyes squeezed shut, sides heaving.
What he noticed was the silence.
The missing birdsong, the strange stillness.
The coppery smell of blood.
Maybe all of that was why he didn't see it.
He wasn't prepared for the deep rumble, like the earth itself was angry at him. When his eyes landed on the dull black, the streaks of silver, the spattered red, his brain couldn't make sense of it, colours and shapes without context.
Then there was no time. It was rising over him, wings half unfurled, teeth gleaming.
Steve stumbled backwards, but there was nowhere to go, nowhere to run, no point in running. His back hit the dirt. Hot breath rolled over him, smelling of smoke and fire, and the red-gold eyes were flickering, gleaming, the tip of the dragon's nose—dragon dragon dragon, his mind chanted, dragon—not quite touching his chest.
Steve was surprised at how calm he felt. It was hard to be afraid, the same way it was hard to be afraid of a storm, of lightning. They were forces of nature, too big to really grasp, and the dragon's teeth were the length of his forearm.
Teeth didn't bite him, claws didn't shred. The dragon shuddered and twitched and seemed to fold in on itself. It collapsed. Not on Steve. It heaved as it fell and its head, the long length of its neck, hit the ground next to him.
A new wave of coppery blood scent filled the air and Steve suddenly understood why the smell was so strong. What remained of the dragon's left foreleg was a mangled, torn mess. "That," he said, eyes fixed on the shattered bone, "that doesn’t look good."
There was a snort and a cresting wave of smoke. Steve didn't know much about dragons, no one knew much about dragons, only legends and stories and maybe they weren't even around anymore.
Except here one was and Steve was pretty sure it had just said the dragon equivalent of, "No shit."
"Can I— I can help you." He gulped, cold all over at the thought, but there wasn't a choice. "I'm a healer. The biggest thing I've ever worked on is a horse, not that I'm comparing you to a horse," he added quickly, "but I'll try if you let me." The more he studied the dragon, the long, elegant face, as long as Steve was tall, the wide bottom jaw, jutting forward a little, giving the dragon a weirdly familiar stubborn look, the more pain he could see. "Please."
The dragon finally nodded and Steve scrambled to his feet. He crouched in front of the mangled foreleg, studying it. There was almost nothing left below the shoulder. "I'm going to touch you." Waiting for a response and not getting any, he reached out, hesitating before making contact.
This was going to hurt.
Understatement of the century there, Steve. Breathing deep, he pressed his hands against the dragon's shoulder and carefully reeled out his power.
The dragon's pain punched him between the eyes like a hammer, burnt through him, he could feel it, feel it like it was his arm that had been torn away, ripped, shattered. He started panting, the world swam around him, and he clenched his eyes closed and hung on, dug deep. The dragon was too big, his pain too much, but Steve would be damned if he'd let it beat him. He clenched his hands—two hands, he had two hands—felt scales digging under his fingernails and used that to focus.
Not his leg gone. The dragon's. Not his pain. The dragon's. Ride it don't let it ride you. Don't set it free or it goes back to the dragon.
Gradually, he brought it under control; rose to the surface, floating on top of the pain. It was still there, beating in his awareness like a second heart, but he could think around it. Work around it. Think past the agony even as his body screamed at him.
There was so much damage, like something had grabbed the dragon's leg and twisted it around and around then pulled, ripping bone, tearing muscles, snapping tendons.
Steve could heal this but he couldn't save what was left of the leg. He gathered up the pain, holding it, and carefully slid out of the dragon's body.
To stagger, knees wobbly, and be caught by the dragon's head. His arm was draped over the long length between the dragon's eyes and his nose, those eyes looking up at him in shocked relief. Steve quickly caught his balance and straightened, left arm throbbing with echoed pain, left hand flat against the dragon's shoulder. "Feels better?"
The dragon nodded.
"I can do that, at least." The dragon looked at him in question. "I can heal you, but the bits of your leg that are left, I can't save them. There's not going to be anything below the shoulder when I'm done."
The dragon looked at his leg, at the mess of bone and tendon, the blood, then gently touched Steve with its nose. Steve wasn't sure, but he thought there was something a little sardonic in the set of its head, something a little better than what I've got now in its eyes.
"Okay then." This was what Steve did. He healed people. All kinds of people. Whoever needed it. Apparently that now included dragons. "Okay," he said again and pressed his other palm against the dragon's shoulder, took a deep centering breath, and sent his powers flowing into the dragon's body.
It was hard with that much damage to stop himself from pouring everything in like a rushing river, wild and uncontrolled, knowing that the faster he healed the damage the faster he could let go of the pain, but he reined them in, forced them to trickle slowly. He cut off blood flow to the bits of leg that couldn’t be saved, accelerated their death, felt them dry up and drop away, leaving a clean, smooth expanse of scaled skin.
He was starting to fade, pouring so much power into the dragon, but he was almost there, almost done, the pain was almost gone. He planted one last spark, a seed of healing to grow over time and ensure the dragon's health, and let go.
Felt himself drop back into his body, felt waves of exhaustion spread over him and through him and drown him, and slid down the dragon to hit the ground.
* * *
Steve woke to a pitch black sky. The moon was gone, the stars gone, and he gasped, struggling to sit up. The sky moved, replaced by a red-gold eye, and he realised it had been the dragon's wing. The dragon was curled around him and its wing had been folded over him.
The dragon nudged him and Steve definitely thought there was concern there. "I'm okay," he said, and realised he might be overstating things slightly. "You're just kind of big. Took a lot of energy." The dragon snorted softly, smoke curling into the air. Steve felt a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. "I know, stating the obvious. How are you feeling?"
Poking its empty shoulder, the dragon tilted its head back and forth, then nodded.
"Good. You should be fine. You'll be fine." Steve paused. "You will be fine, won't you? With only one front leg?"
The dragon nodded and blew a long warm breath over Steve. It smelt of campfires and woodstoves and comfort. Hesitantly, he raised one hand and slowly, tentatively, settled it on the dragon's nose. When the dragon didn't object, held still under his touch, he rubbed his thumb gently over the scales. They were smooth, almost soft, and the dragon's eyes slipped shut. "You should leave," he said quietly. "Pretty sure no one knows you're here, we'd already have company if they did, but someone will find you if you stay."
The dragon sighed and lifted its head, kept lifting it, sat back on its haunches, tail curling around its claws.
Steve clambered to his feet. "Are all dragons like you?"
The dragon tilted its head, gaze locked with Steve's, then shook it once. It spread its wings and Steve backed away, kept backing, and the dragon beat its wings, building up momentum, then crouched low and shot up into the sky.
Steve kept watching until long after it was out of sight.
It didn't really hit him until the middle of the night. Steve sat straight up in bed from a deep sleep, eyes wide, one hand clutching the blankets. "I met a dragon," he whispered. "I healed a dragon."
He never told anyone. In the first place, he wasn't sure anyone would believe him—some days, he barely believed it and it had happened to him.
And in the second place...the dragon was his.
A memory he could cherish. Something just for him.
It was his dragon.
Chapter 2: There's So Much Ahead
"You're sure this is what you want to do?"
Bucky looked up from packing, where packing was mostly cursing, swearing, sometimes kicking stuff, because it wasn't exactly easy to manage with one arm. Natasha was leaning on the wall, watching him, and he knew it wasn't really a question. He answered her anyway. "I'm sure."
She nodded and walked over to lift the bag out of his hand. "And you're sure the city's where you want to go? There's other places."
Bucky settled back on his heels, watching as she deftly sorted through his piles of belongings, his weapons, and started packing. "You don't have to do that."
"I know," she said. "You didn't answer my question."
"Didn't I?" The look she gave him would have been much more at home on her draconic face and a curl of smoke slipped out of one nostril. He'd been seeing that look a lot lately, on both her faces. Not usually directed at him.
The dragons of Bucky's Aerie had welcomed him back with shock and dismay at the sight of his missing leg, had listened with amazement to his tale of surviving a fight with a hydra—a fight he never should have had in the first place, the Elders had pointed out. They'd been less amazed by his tale of being healed by a human. Dragons' disdain for humans extended even to those who rode the line between the mythfolk and the mundane—the healers, the magic users, the priestesses and priests—even when they'd saved one of their own.
Except Bucky wasn't really one of their own anymore, not now that he was no longer whole. No longer perfect.
No one had said anything, no one had said he was less, but he knew what they thought. It was subtle, maybe it wasn't deliberate, could be entirely unconscious the way they seemed to look at him like they couldn't quite see his left side. He was a dragon who was missing a leg, an arm when he shifted into human shape, and no one was pleased to see him. He was forgotten, left out, overlooked.
Only Natasha treated him the same. Only Natasha treated him like he was still himself. He'd had enough. He was leaving. The subtle relief with which his announcement had been greeted, the gift of gold—gold, when no dragon willingly parted with gold—the Elders had offered as a starting stake, had pretty clearly communicated And feel free to not come back.
When he'd told Natasha she'd nodded like she'd already known and helped him decide where to go, offering her contacts and her knowledge.
Something smacked into the side of his head and he swatted at it, overbalanced, and fell on his ass. "Hey!" Natasha regarded him blandly, tossing another pair of balled up socks in her hand, but he could see the humour lurking in her eyes. "Should you really be throwing things at me?"
"Should you really be ignoring my question?"
He sighed and stood and went to join her, sorting through his life to decide what to take. Not easy when every dragon instinct was whispering: keep everything. He tried to ignore them. "Yes, I'm sure the city's where I want to go. For a start, it's where Stark is. The svartálfar say he's the only one who might be able to make me an arm."
"And they think he will? This is Stark we're talking about, the one who makes the charms everyone uses. They really think he's going to be interested in doing something for someone he doesn't even know? Someone who can't offer him anything?" She wasn't belittling him, he knew, just pointing out the reality of the situation—except the svartálfar thought he did have something Stark might want.
"They said he'd probably do it for the challenge of it." What they'd actually said was that Stark's mind was half metal and his body was half magic and he was possibly a little bit mad, but a genius with it and he craved challenge. That's why Stark charms worked so well, blinding mundane eyes, both organic and electronic, to things they shouldn't see, their distinctive pulse of blue offering reassurance and protection.
Bucky's friends among the svartálfar had inset one in the pommel of the short sword they'd crafted him as a leaving gift, had inset them into his knives, so he could carry them openly in the city without them being seen by the wrong eyes.
"And," Bucky went on. "That's where the guild is. You said it would be good for me, that Fury would let me join once he knew you'd trained me, but I kind of need another arm for most of what you taught me to do."
"You could learn to do without it."
"You could teach me to do without it, you mean." They exchanged quick smiles. "And I will if I have to, but I want to try this first."
"You're going to be stuck like that." She slanted a look at him. "No flying, no fire. Just plodding along on your lumpy feet like a human."
"Better than being stuck here," Bucky muttered under his breath. "And anyway, the city sounds," he hesitated, glancing over at her, not sure if she was going to tease him for this, "it sounds good. That many different mythfolk and humans, even the mundanes with no idea what's next to them, all living in the one place? I want to see what that's like." Natasha's eyes softened and she leaned into his left shoulder, never bothered by its emptiness, never bothered by his lack, and nudged him.
It should be hard, contemplating leaving his home—dragons were attached to their homes, they almost never left them—except this wasn't his home anymore.
It was just a place.
When he was packed she helped him carry his bags outside and he drew his dragon around him, stretching his wings out towards the glorious sky. It was harder to balance with only one front leg, he had to keep his weight shifted backwards, use his tail and his wings, but it wasn't hard.
Natasha strapped his bags to him and he curved his neck down to press his head against her. She rubbed the soft scales around his eyes and he blew a jet of warm affectionate air, like an embrace, and she shoved him away.
"Go. Stay out of trouble." She smirked as she stepped back. "If you can."
He snorted at her, leaned back on his haunches, spread his wings and exploded into the air, spiralling up into the sky.
He didn't look back.
Stark's mind might have been half-metal and he was definitely half-magic, a blue pulse in his chest so bright it was almost blinding, but he wasn't mad.
For all his words to Natasha, Bucky hadn't actually expected it would be all that easy to see him. Stark had the closest thing to true power that existed among the mythfolk's fractured factions: he was inviolate, sacrosanct, could probably walk across anyone's territory unharmed. No one would want to be responsible for something happening to Stark.
So when Bucky came calling he didn't expect to actually meet Stark. His—Bucky didn't know what to call her because Stark's keeper sounded rude, even if it seemed to fit—told him Stark was always on the lookout for challenges. For something different. Humans weren't smart enough, weren't clever enough, to come up with new technology that he had to beat, so he needed other things to keep him entertained.
("Apparently," she added dryly, looking over her shoulder at him, flame flickering in her red hair. Fire elemental, Bucky realised as he hid a smile.)
When Bucky explained what he needed: a new arm, something he could fight with that could also cope with a shapeshift, Stark had been intrigued enough to lead him into his workshop. It didn't smell of fire and smoke, didn't radiate heat like the caves of the svartálfar. Stark worked in living metal and electronics, forged computers and technology to craft his charms, the magic in the wires and the signals in the air coming to his hand like obedient hounds.
Bucky was in awe.
The awe dampened a little as time progressed, because Stark was also irritating and frustrating and danced, leapt, spun from moment to moment like everything was meaningless—or, Bucky came to realise, as if everything meant too much—but he was a genius.
The hard part came when he asked what Bucky shifted to. The taboo against telling anyone that he was a dragon—dragons didn't, it wasn't done, they kept that secret if they came down from their mountains—was so strong, so ingrained, he almost walked away. But Stark's eyes were surprisingly kind and this was literally his only chance, Stark needed to know to make his arm, so Bucky took a deep breath and forced himself to tell him.
Stark took it in. Considered it. Pointed at Bucky while he said, "Don't worry, I'll keep your secret, but I'm going to want to see that," and then crafted an arm from living metal and magic and will. It wasn't a new leg, could never be a new leg, but when Bucky became a dragon it would curl up, become just another silver streak tucked around his wing, and when he shifted back the arm would reform.
It was as responsive as his arm of flesh and bone had been. The fingers were deft enough to spin a coin between them, were incredibly strong but could hold an egg without breaking it...after some practice.
When Bucky was satisfied he could do everything with his metal arm that he'd been able to do with his old one he went to Fury.
No one knew what Fury was and even if it hadn't been the height of bad manners, the next thing to taboo, no one would have been brave enough to ask. Fury ran the guild. That was enough.
The guild was a collective of dangerous people, people who could fight and kill, who could protect and guard. They weren't employed by Fury. He enforced the rules, his reputation stood as guarantee, but every guild member made their own arrangements with the people who hired them.
Those who wanted (and could afford) someone with specific skills could come to the guild and be confident of what they were getting. If they wanted protection, they knew whoever they hired wasn't going to slit their throat. If they wanted something valuable kept safe, they knew whoever they hired wasn't going to steal it. It didn't mean the person they hired was going to be nice, however. There was no personality or morality test to get in: show the skills, sign the charter, agree to Fury's cut, and you were done.
Unless Fury didn't like you.
The guild had been around for decades. Bucky knew it was the only thing he was remotely qualified to do so he went, metaphorical hat in metal hand, explaining Natasha had sent him. Fury asked a few questions, demanded a demonstration, eyeballed his metal arm, and Bucky was in.
He was surprised at how quickly he became popular, job after job showing up for him. Trustworthy, people said. Friendly. He found a nice little studio apartment with a djinn for a landlord and it was always warm. Bucky was surprised when he realised it had become home.
When Natasha showed up a year later—like she'd been giving him time to find his feet, to make his own place—he wasn't surprised. She didn't join the guild; she didn't have to, because it turned out she was already a member.
Bucky was happier than he could remember being. He felt like he'd found somewhere to belong in a way he never had in the Aerie.
What he didn't expect, what he'd never expected, was to be relaxing in The Howl one afternoon, look up from his beer, laughing over he didn't even know what, something Nat had said, and see the healer who'd saved him.
Chapter 3: Could it Be That Everything Goes 'round By Chance?
"Happy?" Sam leaned in the doorway, arms folded, watching Steve.
Since Steve was currently leaning against the long wooden counter that ran down one side of the tiny shop with a distinctly proprietorial air, grinning hard enough he could feel the strain in his jaw, he figured he was lucky Sam was only watching, not laughing. "I would be if there wasn't a way too tall birdbrain blocking my door. How're my customers supposed to get in?"
Sam pointed a finger at him. "Okay, one you're not open yet, so they're not supposed to get in. I'm doing you a favour. Two, this birdbrain flew in half the stuff you just shoved into those jars back there, and three." He paused. "I don't actually have a three, but that's because you've been working me like a donkey and I'm ready to faint from hunger."
"I can tell," Steve said dryly, giving Sam, practically glowing with health, the once over. "You look like you're suffering." He straightened from his lean, gave the counter a pat. "Seriously, though. Thank you. I couldn't have put all this together without you. I mean, you're the one who found this place for me and—"
"Don't mention it. That's what friends do. And it's the least I can do after all the times you've healed me." Steve waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. "Hang on, I've got a three, seeing as you didn't answer my question. Are you happy?"
Steve looked around the shop. It still smelled faintly of paint, but that would clear in a couple of days. Behind him shelves stretched to the ceiling, filled with glass jars, matching shelves on the opposite wall with more jars and wooden boxes. They held a variety of harmless and helpful herbs, waiting to be sold to people who would brew them into teas or mix them into poultices, and a wide selection of pre-mixed teas.
His laptop was on the counter next to him and down the other end was an old fashioned cash register, gleaming black and silver. One corner of the shop was curtained off for privacy, which was where he'd do his real work, the herbs and teas reserved for people who didn't need his gift but needed (or wanted) something.
It was all his—well, his and his landlord's—along with the apartment upstairs.
"Yeah, Sam." He couldn't keep the warmth out of his voice and Sam answered with a fond smile. "I am. Come on. I'll buy you a beer and some lunch."
"A beer? A beer? Correction, you'll buy me many beers." Sam walked down the single step and into the alley, Steve following. The windows of the shop were clear, no writing, no signs. People would learn where to find Steve and the lack of signage would discourage mundane humans from wandering in. "And then I'm crashing on your couch. Drinking and flying don't mix."
"Good plan. I don't really want a repeat of how I met you."
"That was one time, Steve. One time."
"One time or not, Sam, you don't forget waking up to a drunk falcon hanging upside down outside your bedroom window." Sam scoffed and Steve grinned at him. "Where are we going?"
"The Howl. Good food, good beer. Mythfolk only, charmed nine ways to Sunday to keep it that way." At Steve's questioning look, he said, "And gifted humans, of course."
Sam led the way through the maze of back alleys, one way lanes and roads that went nowhere that made up this part of the city. The smells wafting over him were a mix of exhaust and asphalt and food that changed as they walked, with the occasional whiff of dumpster. A hit of chemical and wool—"Industrial dry cleaner," Sam explained—blasted his sinuses clean and then they were turning into a street blocked off by concrete flower beds, a red brick building rising above them, The Howl emblazoned in gold script across the windows.
Inside it was loud and friendly, tables and booths and a gleaming bar. Steve was pretty sure the group in the corner were selkies, but other than that he had no idea. Not that it mattered and it was beyond rude to ask. Sam snagged them a table, briefly disappeared, and came back with beers and menus.
They'd ordered their lunch and his beer was almost gone when Sam asked, "Steve, do you know that guy?"
He looked where Sam indicated. Tall, broad, dressed in black, and with a gleaming silver left arm, segmented plates running up it to disappear under his rolled-up sleeve. The arm was almost strange enough to distract Steve from the sword at the guy's hip, almost strange enough to distract him from how dangerously attractive he was, even compared to the redheaded woman he was sitting with.
Not strange enough to distract Steve from the fact that the guy was staring at him. "No, I don't."
"Okay, did you do something to piss him off?"
"I just told you I don't know him."
"Uh huh, and with anyone else I'd be willing to believe that ruled out you having done something to piss him off." Steve threw his bottle cap at him. Sam smirked and batted it away. "He's been staring at you for a good five minutes now."
"Yeah, and that's not exactly friendly." It was almost predatory and it was irritating Steve. The only sour note so far had been a few unfriendly stares. He wasn't used to it, but some mythfolk didn't like gifted humans, even if his gift pushed him a lot closer to mythfolk than mundane, and felt free to express it.
But he'd been enjoying himself and he really didn't feel like putting up with another one. This had been a good day and he'd be damned if he was going to let this guy ruin it.
He pushed up from the table.
* * *
The healer wasn't quite as small as Bucky remembered him being—not surprising since he was remembering him through dragon eyes—but he still wasn't large: narrow shoulders, narrow hips, and he was short even sitting down. But he was strangely attractive, bright blue eyes and a wide smile, golden hair catching the light.
Strong, he looked strong, stronger than his size, something about the way he moved, the way he held himself, the line of his jaw giving the lie to his stature.
Watching him, Bucky felt his heart give a weird lurch, felt strangely, wildly happy to see him. It was partly stupid dragon instinct, he knew, seeing something valuable and beautiful and wanting to hang onto it, but it was more than that. Dragon instincts said keep and hold it close. They didn't make his heart flutter while he watched graceful hands cutting through the air, listening to him as he laughed and talked with his friend.
He had to fight the urge to run over and do something completely inappropriate. Hug him, maybe, manage with arms what he'd done with body and wings all those years ago when Steve had healed him.
Because he knew his name now—Steve—but to Steve he was a stranger.
A total stranger.
A stranger who'd now been staring for way too long and Steve was glaring and coming over and shit.
He was right there, standing next to Bucky, arms crossed, completely fearless. "Do you have some kind of problem with me?"
"No." It came out strangled.
Natasha was looking back and forth between them but from the way she leaned back in her chair, lifted her beer and took a long sip, Bucky knew she wasn't going to get involved. He didn't know whether to be grateful or kick her under the table.
Steve's eyes narrowed. Bucky tried to convey I wasn't staring at you, I was just looking in that direction and you happened to be in the way and I'm confused about what's happening here using body language alone. He obviously failed, given Steve's glare intensified and Natasha snorted.
"Do you have a problem with humans?"
Bucky took a moment to process that one, because what? How had he gotten that from Bucky staring at him? It was a moment too long, Bucky's, "No, of course not," a moment too late, because Steve stood taller, hands fisted at his sides, and stared down at Bucky like he was ready for a fight.
"Because I've got just as much right to be here as you."
"Of course you do!" It seemed to give him pause and Bucky quickly turned to Natasha. "Of course he does, right?" Natasha inclined her head regally. "See? No problem here."
Steve looked back and forth between them, deeply suspicious. "Then why were you staring at me?"
"I...wasn't?" Oh Bucky, Natasha's gaze seemed to say. Why did you even bother to try? It looked remarkably like Steve's, who was once more glaring at him.
"Stop staring at me." Bucky nodded and Steve spun on his heel and stalked back to his table.
"Why were you staring at him?" Natasha asked when Steve was out of earshot.
"Bucky, you've been watching him like you were going to pounce on him for the last five minutes."
He contemplated not answering as he drew his fingers through the condensation on the table, glanced up at her, and then sighed. "He's the one."
Natasha's eyebrows shot up. "The one?"
"Not the one the one, come on, Nat." She gave him a withering glare. "No, he's the," he lowered his voice to barely above a whisper, "one who saved me. Who healed me."
"Oh." She turned so she could study Steve in the reflection above the bar.
"Yeah. I can't really throw myself at him and say thank you for saving me, thank you for changing my life, thanks for—" He shrugged.
"So instead your approach was to stare at him until he hated you."
"Idiot." It was fond, though, and she reached over to steal his beer, leaving him her empty bottle in trade.
Unfortunately for Bucky, it set the tone for their relationship. And their relationship seemed to be cursed. It always went wrong.
Like the time Bucky accidentally tripped him. He hadn't meant to; he hadn't even seen him. Bucky had been turning to call over his shoulder, Steve had walked out from between two parked cars straight into Bucky's leg, and gravity took over.
Bucky caught Steve just before he hit the pavement, caught what he'd been carrying, set Steve on his feet and thrust the box back in his hands in one smooth motion, but judging by the look on his face Steve was pretty mad. Bucky, favouring discretion over valour, left Steve standing in the laneway, the few people who'd witnessed it tittering into their hands.
Or the time Bucky was sure he was helping, he was so sure. Steve was bleeding from a cut lip and the waheela he was facing down looked ready to pound him into the ground, so Bucky had grabbed the waheela by the scruff of the neck and flung him squalling down the alley like an angry cat.
Which instead of thanks and maybe a smile had gotten him a face full of aggravated Steve and an earful of I can handle myself and You've got no right to interfere and a Stay the hell away from me.
Bucky had raised his hands and backed away, kept backing until Steve had cornered him against the alley wall. Which was ridiculous, he barely came up to Bucky's nose and Bucky could break him in half without breathing hard, but there he was and there he'd stayed until Steve finally seemed satisfied and stormed off.
Bucky had kept leaning on the wall, looking up at the sky, wondering what it said about him that, angry as Steve had been, as badly wrong as that had gone, he kind of wanted Steve to come back and corner him some more. Bucky, you fucking idiot.
It always seemed to go wrong. It had reached the point Steve would cross the street to avoid him if they happened to find themselves in the same place.
Unless Bucky was hurt. Unless Bucky needed his gift.
"Where is he?" Steve was panting and out of breath as he came through the door. His eyes landed on Bucky but before he could reach him Natasha planted a hand on his chest. Steve didn't know what she was, but she was strong and her eyes were dangerous. He didn't care. "Get out of my way."
"No. I know how you feel about him. But you're here to heal him. I'll know if you hurt him, if you let him suffer, because you don't like him."
Anger unfurled in his belly, crawled up his spine, and he let it loose to glare out of his eyes, added a healthy dose of contempt. "Get. Out. Of. My. Way." He bit off each word. "I have a job to do." He shoved her hand off, not caring that her lips curled to show her teeth, and pushed past to get to Bucky.
* * *
He could hear Steve's voice, hear Nat, and he wanted to tell her not to be mean to Steve but he couldn't speak past the pain. Steve wasn't going to hurt him. He trusted Steve. He wanted...
There was a gentle hand on his forehead and warmth spiralled through him even as he heard Steve suck in a breath that sounded like it hurt. The fingers on his skin tensed, but they took the pain and left drifting lethargy and euphoria in its place. Bucky sighed, eyes fluttering open. "Steve."
"Hi Bucky." Steve's voice was calm and even, reassuring, and Bucky wanted to wrap it around himself and curl into a ball. "Didn't move fast enough, huh?"
"Nope. Sphinxes are quick."
"I'm going to pull these bandages so I can see what I'm dealing with, make sure nothing's in there that shouldn't be. All right?"
"You can do anything you want." Steve gave a strained chuckle that shot straight down Bucky's spine before lifting the bandages away with a low hiss. "Bad, right?"
"I can see your liver, so I'm going to go with yes, it's bad. But I promise you're going to be okay. Can you close your eyes for me?"
"I don't want to."
"Any particular reason?" I want to keep looking at you. Even drifting on whatever Steve was doing to him, Bucky managed to catch the words before they left his mouth. He shook his head. "Okay. Keep them open if you need to." The thumb on his forehead was stroking gently back and forth and Steve's other hand was pressed against his sternum, and there was warmth pooling at the point of contact, expanding out.
He heard Steve's sharp intake of breath and he tried to reach out for him, but then he couldn’t think, couldn't breathe, he was being pulled under by a wave of rolling warmth and then there was nothing.
After endless minutes he blinked. Blinked again. Steve's hand was still on his forehead but it was loose and lax. Bucky turned. There was no pain. No wound. Steve's forehead was resting against his hip and he was breathing in short gasps.
Tentatively, Bucky smoothed his right hand through Steve's hair. For one brief moment, he felt Steve lean into his touch, saw his eyes slip shut, then he stiffened and pulled away. Sat up and looked Bucky over with a critical eye. Steve was covered in blood. Bucky's blood. Bucky really didn't like it. He didn't like how pale Steve was or the way his breath was still short, even though he was trying to hide it.
"He's okay?" Nat asked, coming to stand behind Steve.
"Yes, but it'd be better if he moved faster next time." Steve met his eyes and there was a smile there, a brief moment of a shared joke, and then it was gone, shuttered behind a professional mask. "Lots of rest and lots of fluids." Steve pulled himself wearily to his feet. Turned his head to look at Natasha. "Do you have somewhere I can clean up? If I walk home like this people will think I killed someone."
"I don't know. Could be good for your rep."
"Yeah, that's just the reputation I want to cultivate," Steve said dryly. "Bloody handed murderer." He glanced down at Bucky. "You're okay. Just rest."
"Thank you," he said softly, and snapped his mouth shut before it could say anything stupid, like don't go, because Steve had been so gentle and kind and Bucky was one hundred percent fucking done, lost, gone, over. Please don't go, he didn't say.
Judging by the look on Natasha's face, she heard it anyway.
* * *
Natasha showed him to a small bathroom with a sink and a mirror. Steve scrubbed his hands, watching the blood swirl away down the drain. "I don't let how I feel about someone affect how I treat them." He tried to make it matter-of-fact, but he was tired, Bucky had been way too close to dying, he could still feel the echo of his pain, and it came out carrying shades of accusation he didn't precisely mean.
There was no answer, the silence stretching between them. Steve glanced up to see Natasha's reflection in the mirror. She looked thoughtful, didn't seem bothered by his tone. "I know that now."
"You should have known it before." He dried his hands on the towel. There was nothing he could do about his shirt and there hadn't been time to grab a change of clothes.
"Maybe," she conceded after a moment. "But most people I've known, it would have made a difference."
Steve let that settle, turning it around, considering it, then nodded. "Okay." He managed a brief smile. "You'll trust me to heal him again without the lecture?"
"What about you?"
"We'll see," she said with an enigmatic smile and Steve shook his head. He really shouldn't have expected any different. "I'll have someone take you home."
It was months later when Bucky went into The Howl just before they closed, so late it was almost early, but he'd just finished a job and he wasn't quite ready to head home. He didn't expect to find Jemma, the little sylph bartender, huddled in the corner, arms around her sylph husband who was shaking and pale, face buried in her shoulder.
When she looked up and saw him there was fear in her eyes.
He was instantly alert, looking for danger, hand on his sword. The place was almost deserted, one of the barmaids taking Jemma's place behind the bar. Nothing seemed disturbed. When he looked back, her fear had grown.
With a feeling like falling off a cliff and finding he couldn't change shapes, he realised she was afraid of him. "Jemma?" he said quietly, staying where he was. "What's wrong?"
It took soft words and gentle coaxing before she'd she let him come closer, before the fear faded, to find out what had happened to her husband and who'd done it. Bucky crouched next to them, as small as he could make himself, listening, and with every word anger rose higher in his heart. He didn't let it show. Kept himself calm and quiet and held the storm inside.
Eventually she let him take her hand, which even in human form seemed tiny in his own, her husband watching Bucky with wide, solemn eyes. "I promise I'll take care of this."
They both nodded and Bucky rose, turned, and walked away. Kept walking, perfectly still and calm, until he got to Natasha's.
"We're going to find Ward." Bucky stood over Natasha, opening and closing his metal fingers.
Bucky told her about his encounter in The Howl. "He's draining people, feeding on them, telling them if they do anything about it, if they fight back, he'll turn the guild against them."
"That's not how the guild works."
"I know that. You know that. You think the people he's hurting know that?" It came out on a rumble, smoke drifting from his nose.
Natasha closed her book and stood, stretched, and nodded. "Do you want to kill him?"
Bucky did, he wanted to kill him, but he took a quick breath and another and he would deny it to his dying day but he took a moment to picture Steve, those bright eyes, that smile, and it helped him settle. "Yes, but we don't need to. He's a coward who using the guild to scare people out of fighting back. Once he can't scare people..."
"So out of the guild, out of the city, and," Natasha's smile was cold but her eyes glittered with banked fire, "a lesson in why you don't hurt people?"
"And a lesson in what will happen if he ever does it again."
The winter solstice, a human celebration mythfolk had adopted as their own, was a time for feasting and drinking and dancing, for temporarily putting aside rivalries and grudges and hurts. The festivities were arranged by a joint effort between local Temples—Mokosh and Akka, Saule and Amaterasu, Danu and Demeter—and they enforced the peace.
It took place far out of the city, on land kindly offered by a pack of wolf shifters—normally this was a sheep paddock but it had been cleared out to make room for bonfires and musicians and dancing. For lights and food and wine. And, around the edges, for quiet, sacred spaces, where those who chose could pay respects to their deity of choice or take a moment to remember the year gone past.
For some mythfolk it was a time to remember Underhill and what they'd lost, for others a time to look forward to the future and what it might bring. For gifted humans, it was a time to reflect on the dual nature of the world in which they lived.
For mythfolk and gifted humans alike it was also a time for gossip. It wasn't often this many of them got together on completely neutral territory with the booze flowing freely and they were making the most of it.
Steve had eaten good food and drunk good wine and the gossip currently swirling through this part of the crowd seemed to be centred on Bucky. Apparently he'd beaten someone bloody and driven him out of the guild and out of the city. The reasons why varied from teller to teller: lovers' spat, competition for a job, didn't like his face, offence at some unnamed slight—the reasons went on and on.
It surprised Steve. Bucky rubbed him the wrong way, had done ever since that first encounter in The Howl—and Steve still wasn't sure what Bucky's problem with him was—but he hadn't thought he was a bully, had never pegged him for a thug.
Uncomfortable, Steve slipped through the crowd, avoiding that particular strain of gossip.
It wasn't quite so easy to avoid the subject of the gossip.
Steve turned from getting a fresh mug of mulled wine and ran straight into Bucky. Literally ran into him. Would have worn his mug of wine if Bucky, lightning quick, hadn't wrapped both hands around Steve's where they gripped the mug, keeping it safely in place and Steve wine-free. Momentarily caught by the contrast between warm skin and cool metal and the strength he could feel lurking under Bucky's gentle grip, Steve could only blink up at him in surprise.
Bucky stared down at him for what seemed like forever, the two of them caught in a bubble of silence, then Bucky jerked his hands away, backing up a couple of steps. "Sorry."
"No, that one was my fault," Steve said, hands suddenly cold despite the warmth of the mug. "Uh, thanks for saving me from a wine bath."
"No problem." Bucky fidgeted, nodded, opened his mouth, closed it, nodded again, and turned to go.
Healing someone, regardless of how Steve personally felt about them, came with a strange intimacy, came with a gut deep protectiveness. It rarely lasted past the moment, but something was obviously bothering Bucky and as Steve stood there, watching him, he found himself—prompted by wine and the gossip that hadn't sit right—remembering Bucky lying injured under his hands, depending on Steve. It was the only possible explanation for why he found himself blurting out, "Is everything okay?"
He immediately regretted it.
Surprise washed across Bucky's face as he turned back. "Yes?"
"Good. That's, uh, good." Steve folded his hands more tightly around his mug, looked down at the deep rich red of the wine, swirled it, making lights dance across the surface. Glanced up at Bucky, awkwardness crawling across his skin.
"And you're okay?" Bucky asked, taking a step closer.
"Me? Yeah, I'm good." Steve mustered a smile. "I'm fine."
"Good," Bucky said softly, then seemed to shake himself. "I'd better—" He pointed over his shoulder.
Steve nodded and, after a moment's hesitation, Bucky left, disappearing into the crowd, leaving him to breathe a sigh of relief. Uncomfortable conversations with people he didn't get along with weren't high on his list of solstice activities.
Even if he'd been the one to start them. What were you thinking?
Steve took a gulp of wine and weaved through the crowd, heading for the dancers. They'd be a guaranteed distraction and he could hear the music from here, drifting through the night air and lodging in his chest.
He found a clear space on the sidelines, settled in to watch, half-entranced with the combination of warm wine and swirling costumes, the beat of the music making his foot tap almost against his will, the antics of the dancers making him laugh and applaud along with his fellow spectators. A few people came up, offering a dance, but he waved them off, friendly and cheerful, and they moved on to the next person.
Steve didn't notice Bucky on the other side of the field, half-watching him with a wistful smile, didn't see Natasha arrive to stand next to him, fond and amused and exasperated all at once.
* * *
"If you're not going to ask him, I will."
"Nat, don't," Bucky groaned. "Come on."
"Why not? It's solstice, it's a night for having fun, for doing new things. Besides, he's seen me half-naked, dancing with me shouldn't be a big deal."
Bucky smacked himself in the face and peered out at her from between his fingers. "Please don't say it like that. You'd gotten clawed by a chimera. Seen me half-naked makes it sound like you're sleeping with him."
She grinned slyly and made her way around the edge of the dancers. With a pained sigh, Bucky followed her, so he was close enough to hear her say, "Come dance with me," to Steve.
Steve stared at her in surprise, then shook his head. "You don't want to do that. I really can't dance."
Nat held out her hand, one eyebrow raised in clear challenge, and Bucky watched emotions play over Steve's face. Finally, he leaned down to set his mug on the grass and put his hand in Nat's. "You'd better lead," he told her. "Or we're not going to survive."
It was awkward and a little clumsy, Steve stepped on Nat's foot more than once, but Bucky had never been more envious in his life. Especially when Steve started to relax. He followed Nat's lead, tried to meet Nat challenge for challenge, which wasn't surprising because Bucky had never known him to back down from anything. Bucky couldn't keep the smile off his face, watching them, watching Steve, hearing Steve laugh even through his obvious embarrassment.
Steve faltered when he saw Bucky watching, but then his chin went up as he shot Bucky a defiant look, and he threw himself back into it. When they were done, when the song ended, Nat ruffled Steve's hair, prompting a half-hearted glare she completely ignored.
Bucky couldn't help wondering if he'd been dancing with Steve if Steve would have relaxed in his arms, if Steve would have followed his lead, if Steve—
A sharp pain in his ear knocked his thoughts off their spiral. "Stop moping," Nat said, finger curled, ready to flick him again.
"I'm not moping."
The look she gave him was dripping with disbelief.
"I'm not, I was just...wondering."
"Idiot," she said fondly. "Let's dance."
Bucky couldn't refuse and realised he didn't want to. He held out his arms and Nat flowed into them. She'd taught him to fight and she'd taught him to dance, on foot and on the wing, and she moved with him like she was part of him.
They spun gracefully, steps measured and formal, then wild and silly as the music changed, always in sync, always in step.
Gradually, space opened around them, the other dancers giving way, standing back to watch as they whirled across the grass like they were in flight, moving together like they shared a mind. He grinned and spun her away from him, twirling her out and tugging her back; laughed when she dipped him, his hair brushing the grass, and he glanced up and met Steve's eyes.
A split-second flash of hurt passed through them before Steve's chin went up, his shoulders went back. And Bucky understood. Instantly, he understood.
Steve hadn't seen Bucky smiling as Natasha had led him across the grass because Steve was awkward and endearing and beautiful; he'd seen Bucky laughing at him. He didn't see Bucky dancing with Natasha as consolation because Bucky wanted to dance with him—because Steve was kind, compassionate, had a wicked sense of humour hidden behind guileless blue eyes—he saw Bucky trying to show him up.
It wasn't right, it was so far from right they were on different planes of existence, but after everything that had gone wrong between them Bucky could see exactly how Steve had gotten there. By the time he pulled himself up in Nat's arms and turned to try and find him Steve was gone.
Bucky sighed and banged his forehead on Nat's shoulder, then did it again for good measure, because where Steve was concerned it always managed to go wrong.
Chapter 4: A Year and a Half Later
"Are we still doing this?"
"Shut up," Bucky muttered as they cut down the alleyway. Natasha raised an eyebrow at him, a dangerous glint in her eyes, and he grimaced. "Sorry."
"This is a shortcut, anyway." Which was true, it was legitimately the fastest way to get where they were going, but it wasn't the main reason they were cutting down the alley and Nat knew it. Bucky knew it. It was possible the pigeons circling overhead knew it.
It was stupid, the ridiculous attachment he had to Steve, but all this time and he'd never been able to shake it. It didn't help that the times Steve had healed him it would get a boost from Steve's gentle voice and gentle hands and his calm reassurance and... Okay, enough.
Bucky's stupid attachment was why they were cutting down the alleyway, because it would take them past Steve's shop. He liked to check up on him, make sure everything was okay. Part of it was the dragon in him, the attachment to Steve triggering an urge to gather him in and keep him close, keep him safe.
Not that he was suddenly going to blame being a dragon for this. Start down that path and he'd be excusing all sorts of shady behaviour. Oh it's not my fault I kidnapped that prince. I'm a dragon, I can't help it. It was such bullshit. No, this was all on him and hoping he might catch a glimpse of Steve. Which, okay, yeah, that was a little creepy, but it's not like he ever did anything.
Just a quick glance at that smile, at those eyes, those deft hands, and he'd be happy.
"I'm pathetic," he said once they were past Steve's shop, Steve completely unglimpsed.
"I'm glad you realise this."
Steve stood on the roof of his building, eyes shaded, staring up into the sky, a pile of clothes next to him, a glint of silver peeking out. Pigeons flew overhead, grey shadows coming closer, and one landed, strutting confidently towards the coffee and paper bag sitting next to the clothes. Steve shooed it away and it fluttered half-heartedly into the air, settling itself a few feet away, beady eyes fixed on Steve. Steve eyed it, then went back to staring into the sky.
As he watched, a dot gradually grew larger, resolved into a bird, a falcon, too large by far if there'd been anyone to see who knew anything about avian physiology. Steve braced himself and held out his arm and the falcon backwinged to a delicate landing, talons opening and closing gently around his forearm, sending the pigeon into disgruntled retreat.
"Hey, Sam." Steve scratched his neck feathers and Sam twisted his head, giving him better access. "Nice flight?"
Sam lifted a foot, wobbled it in a so-so gesture, then leaned forward to delicately tug a bit of Steve's hair.
"So sue me, I didn't have time to brush it this morning. If I try and take that off your leg is it gonna zap me?" Steve nodded at the tube strapped to Sam's leg. In response, Sam held out his foot and Steve undid it, then carefully crouched to let Sam hop onto the ground, setting the message tube next to him.
Some mythfolk were happy emailing and texting just like mundane humans. Some refused, wanted messages they could touch and hold, could trust not to change while they weren't looking, and some messages were so important they had to be inscribed on parchment, sealed with wax, and delivered by someone who could keep them safe. Which meant couriers and made Sam very popular, since he could fly forever and fight like the devil in either form.
"I've got your clothes and your weapons, just like you asked, plus I brought coffee and breakfast. If you get changed now, I might even have time to eat with you before I open up." Steve kept his eyes on the sky as he listened, turned back when he heard the sound of coffee being lifted out of the carry container. Sam was human shaped and fully clothed, long slender blades like talons at each hip, the blue pulse of their Stark charms reflecting off the silver, sucking down coffee like it was the last cup in the universe.
"Man, I don't know what I'd do without you."
"Hit up one of your many caches around town? Go straight to your apartment?"
"Or just walk around naked until someone gave me coffee."
"And now I know why you bugged me to meet you," Steve said with a laugh, grabbing the other coffee and rummaging around in the bag to pull out a bacon and egg muffin and hand it Sam. "They were all out of rabbit, sorry."
"Yeah, you're funny. One of these days I'll actually bring you a rabbit, see how funny your jokes are then." He was grinning, though, and wolfed down the muffin fast enough Steve pulled out another one and tried to hand it to him. "I'm not taking your breakfast."
"You think this is my first time? I've got five of the things. You just flew in from...wherever and you've got to be starving." He shoved it into Sam's hands. "Eat it."
"I finished my coffee, too," he pointed out, eyeing Steve's.
"Fat chance. I'm a healer, trust me when I say it won't help. Won't help you. Me on the other hand..." Steve wiggled his fingers, something off about the way Sam was standing. "Do you need?"
"Nah, just got a couple of pulled muscles, but I'm fine. Save that for people who actually need it."
"Honestly, half the people that show up don't need a healer, they just want to see me because they think I'm going magically fix their problems."
"Can't imagine where they'd get that idea," Sam said dryly.
"Very funny. But some things it's better for the body to heal on its own. My friends, however, don't get to walk around or fly around in pain," he added before Sam could open his mouth. "You know that."
"Fine," Sam said with a longsuffering sigh and held out his hand. "Do what you've gotta do."
Steve wrapped his hand around Sam's wrist, sent out coils of power, green and warm, pain sliding into his body as he took it from Sam, used it find what was wrong with him. There were pulled muscles, a strained tendon, a— "Did you know you had a fracture in your left foot?" he asked once he'd healed him.
"I might have run into a little trouble," Sam muttered.
"What sort of trouble?"
"Couple of gargoyles. I guess they didn't like the look of me. It wasn't a problem, I dealt with them."
Steve gave him a stern look. "Next time, how about you lead off with that?"
"That's definitely a thing that could happen."
Steve rolled his eyes, let go of Sam's wrist, fished another muffin out of the bag and handed it to him. "Eat that. I don't know why I bother with you sometimes." Sam grinned and took a huge bite, dropping to sit cross-legged on the roof. "Are things going to slow down now?" Steve asked, sitting in front of him and sipping his coffee.
Certainly not in a taunting manner.
Sam narrowed his eyes. "Nope, they're going to get worse. Things are starting to get busy in the whole Clan Zephyr and Court of Flame unification thing, so I'll be flying all over the country."
"When's the wedding?" he asked, glancing up at the sound of wings. It was the pigeon that had fled at Sam's arrival. Probably. One pigeon looked pretty much the same as another, but this one had a familiar confidence to its strut.
"Six months, give or take, but there's a bunch of ceremonies and who knows what else beforehand and every invitation has to go out on parchment. I'm not the only one carrying them but I am doing all the big wigs." Steve smirked and opened his mouth, and Sam lifted a finger. "Do not even."
"What?" Steve said innocently, eyes wide.
"You know what." Sam grabbed a muffin out of the bag and shoved it at Steve's face, leaving him with no choice but to open his mouth and bite down or end up with it smeared across his chin. "I talk to people, you know, and they think you're this sweet, innocent guy, and I have to double check who we're actually talking about."
Steve finished chewing and swallowed the mouthful. "I'm sweet."
"Sure you are," Sam scoffed.
"So six months of this?" Steve asked.
"Yup. Six months of flying all over the country, hardly seeing my beautiful apartment or my comfy bed. Why can't they just use email?"
Steve leaned back on one hand, idly tracking the pigeon's progress as it eased closer, head tilted, eyeing the crumbs. "Don't some of these guys live at the hearts of volcanos and in the middle of hurricanes?" he asked, after taking another bite. "I doubt they have computers."
"Waterproof smart phone. Internet café. It's 2017. I know some of them aren't real fond of humans but you guys have invented some good shit. It's time to get with the program."
"Except then you'd be out of a job," Steve pointed out.
"Well, when you put it like that..." Sam nodded, conceding the point. "I should still get some sympathy.
"There there." Steve patted Sam's shoulder, sending the pigeon scurrying away a few steps. "There there."
"Hey, you said you wanted sympathy."
"I swear, you are the worst."
"I mean, it sounds like you're going to be incredibly busy, but Sam. They obviously want you because you're the best. That's kind of a compliment. And come on, how much are they going to be paying you?"
"And suddenly I feel better about the whole thing." The pigeon darted in, right under Sam's feet, pecking up the crumbs, and Sam shook his head at it. "Is there anything these things are afraid of? I'm a deadly predator, you know," he told the pigeon. "Falcons hunt pigeons." It cooed at him, head twitching this way and that like it was thinking it over, then went back to eating.
"It's okay, Sam," Steve said reassuringly. "I still think you're scary."
Sam rolled his eyes. "Uh huh. The things you aren't scared of keep me up at night," he said and Steve shrugged. "All right, I'd better go get this message delivered." Sam scooped up the messenger tube and rose gracefully to his feet. With an offended glare, the pigeon took flight, spiralling up into the sky. Steve gathered up the empty cups and shoved them in the bag as Sam headed for the stairs. He paused at the top, turning back. "Hey, do you know Laskaris?"
"Uh, no, I don't think so. Why?"
"No reason, really. He's a healer, lives over in San Francisco. Apparently he packed up and left, didn't let anyone know he was going. Couple of people I was talking to thought it was strange. I thought you might have heard something."
"Nope, sorry. I can let you know if I do so you've got something to contribute to the gossip next time you're back there."
"Hey, I don't gossip. It's an old-fashioned exchange of news and information. Part of the traditional role of the courier dating back to time immemorial."
Steve just looked at him.
"Not buying that one are you?"
"Not for a second."
"Had to give it a try."
"See you, Sam."
Sam waved over his head as he trotted down the stairs.
The Stark charm inset in the pommel of Bucky's sword hid it from the eyes of mundane humans, but this was one of the few places it probably wouldn't have mattered—no one here would think it was real. The place was full of humans dressed in far more outlandish gear than Bucky, including a woman with a broadsword on her back and two men with long cloaks and quarterstaffs.
It was one of the advantages to operating the guild out of a very popular costume and prop store favoured by a wide range of human customers, many of whom seemed to prefer a lifestyle very different from the average.
Bucky made his way through the displays to the back room where Wilf, who'd been running this part of the guild since it began, was perched on a stool. He waved to Bucky and slid a pile of papers across the counter. "Got three for you, including one of your usual. What do you do, Bucky, advertise for them? Have sword and gun and knife will champion?"
"Very funny, Wilf." It was a fair enough point, though. He did get offered more than his fair share of jobs where someone needed him to do their fighting for them.
He flipped through the three jobs, discarding one automatically. It was from someone he'd never heard of, an Arnim Zola, because there was nowhere near enough information and it looked like it was going to involve extensive travel. Bucky didn't take jobs without knowing the details and he wasn't comfortable travelling out of the country. Stark's charms were good but there was way too much human inventiveness involved once you wanted to cross an international border.
The other was detailed, from Pierce, who he'd at least heard of, but it was long term protection work, working almost completely in the mundane world, and he wasn't looking for anything long term.
The third was the one Wilf had been giving him shit about, one of the jobs he always seemed to get offered and, reading the details, he was probably going to take it. He didn't always. Some causes, some people, he wouldn't champion. This one, though, this was exactly the sort of job he'd always take: two packs of shifters, trapped by instinct in a territorial dispute, trying to find a way out that didn't lead to pack war or their alphas locked in a bloody battle to the death. They'd agreed to abide by the outcome of a single fight, which meant Bucky could help them find that way out.
"No to the first two, yes to the shifters," he told Wilf.
"I'll let them know."
When Steve had moved to the city, he'd done so with the clear intention of staying independent. He wasn't going to swear to one of the temples or join one of the city's many factions, no matter how often they asked. Eventually they stopped asking, and he'd somehow ended up as the city's only independent healer. It made him popular among the city's more solitary mythfolk and gifted humans, with members of the guild, with passers through, with factions that didn't have a healer.
It was hard, sometimes, being on his own, but it was worth it and it meant there was no shortage of call on his services.
He was used to being popular.
He wasn't used to being this popular with the city's avian mythfolk, who a couple of weeks after he'd last seen Sam started just popping in for a sachet of tea or the herbs for a poultice.
He texted Sam, Why are all your relatives coming to visit me?, not expecting a response. Sam's phone would be sitting in his apartment where it always was when he was couriering, but the message would be waiting when he got back.
Steve was just shooing the latest of Sam's suspected conspirators out of the shop, a lovely magpie shifter with the thickest Australian accent he'd ever heard, her hands clutching a paper bag of tea he was certain she had absolutely no interest in, when a human wandered in.
A mundane human, he was absolutely certain, an older guy, grey haired and pastel-clad, the fanny pack and camera around his neck screaming tourist. It wasn't usual, but it did happen. There was no one else in the shop and he was looking around a bit hesitantly, like he wasn't sure what sort of place he'd wandered into. "Is this one of those alternative stores?"
Steve bit back a smile, because yes was the answer to that one. "I sell tea and herbs, the kind you can also brew into tea or make into a poultice." At the blank look, he added, "Like a heat pack, just made out of herbs."
"So yes, then."
"Yes, that's a good way to describe it."
"You don't have any signs on your windows."
"No," Steve agreed, leaning on the counter. The guy was favouring one leg, limping as he moved to study the jars and boxes lining the wall across from the counter. He was in pain. Steve felt his gift stirring. There was no rule against healing purely mundane humans, just the absolute hard and fast one about not exposing the mythworld.
"My granddaughter, she loves this kind of stuff. Is there something I could get her?"
Steve smiled and pulled a jar from the shelf behind him. "You might want to try this." The guy was definitely favouring his right leg. "It's tea, grown locally up in the mountains. Supposed to calm the mind and clear the senses." Steve was a bit dubious about those claims, but it was excellent tea and it was grown locally. "It could be a nice souvenir. Here, smell."
He leaned in to sniff it, looking pleased. "Smells good. I'll take some." When they exchanged cash for a paper bag of tea, Steve held out his hand. "And let me officially welcome you to the city. It's kind of a thing we do."
"Well, okay. That's awfully friendly of you."
Steve shook his hand, held on for a bit too long as he snatched his pain, pulled it in, found a damaged hip, torn cartilage, bone spurs, and sent a burst of power spiralling into him. The guy tugged his hand away and Steve fought back a gasp. "Uh, thanks for the welcome." He clutched his tea and waved awkwardly. "Gonna see what else the city has to offer."
Steve leaned on the counter as the bell over the door let him know the guy was gone, pulling in deep breaths because that had hurt, doing it that fast, and he hadn't been able to fix him completely, but over the next few hours the guy was going to feel better. By tomorrow, his hip should be completely healed.
He probably shouldn't have, but he knew he wasn't the only healer who did it, who gave in to the temptation to help. Steve wasn't worried about getting caught, about humans storming his shop, waving pitchforks or whatever the modern equivalent was, when the guy realised he was better.
This wasn't his first time, and he'd long since figured out that mundane humans might be ungifted but they had a positive gift for explaining away whatever didn't fit their narrow view of the world.
The morning of the fight, Bucky arrived early to find his opposing champion already there. He smiled when he saw her. "Carter." The scent of roses filled the air, formal gardens overflowing with rosebushes in full bloom surrounding the perfectly manicured lawn he was walking across, the grass spongy beneath his feet.
They were deep in the botanical gardens that stretched for miles through the city, sunlight fracturing as it hit the trees overhead to cast broken shadows across the grass.
"Bucky. I've told you before to call me Sharon."
"Sorry, Sharon." He liked Sharon. They weren't friends, but everything he knew said she was good people. He had no idea what she was under her—he suspected deliberately disarmingly attractive—human form but her reputation was for fast, clean fighting. She wore a long sword across her back, the hilt peaking over shoulder, and a long knife strapped to her right hip, both glinting with the blue pulse of Stark charms.
"This should be fun," she told him with a grin.
He couldn't help laughing. "Hopefully. How long have you been wanting a fight with me?"
"Only since you got here."
"I'm glad you're getting your chance."
"You won't be when I kick your ass." It could have been aggressive, it could have been belligerent, but instead it was upbeat and cheerful and he had to turn away to keep from laughing again. He liked it when fights were like this. Yes, they were both here to do a job, both here to win, but sometimes whoever was on the other side was an asshole when there was no need.
He was wearing his sword but he hadn't brought his gun, even if he felt a bit naked without it, because the gun was only for killing. "Knives?" he called over his shoulder. "Or swords?"
"It's to first blood, so knives will be easier."
"Knives it is, then."
He unstrapped his sword and set it on the grass, checked his knives, and settled back to wait.
The shifters started arriving, almost palpable tension crackling between the two packs, visible in hunched shoulders, the occasional bared tooth, curled fingers that wanted to be claws. But there were also tired smiles and nods of acknowledgement, both packs trying hard.
Bucky went down to talk to the alpha of the pack that had hired him, a softly spoken young man who shook his hand. "I'm an otter," the alpha said with a small smile. "You were looking curious," he added when Bucky's eyebrows went up.
"I wasn't going to ask," Bucky said.
"This way you don't have to. Thank you for what you're doing. I'd rather think our way out of trouble, I don't want us to have to fight. I don't want you to have to fight, but—" He trailed off in frustration, eyes flashing briefly gold.
"Hey, it's okay. This is a good solution. It works. No one really gets hurt and everyone's satisfied. This is thinking you're way out of trouble, so you did your job," Bucky said seriously. "Now I'll go do mine."
Bucky met Sharon in the middle of the lawn, both packs scattered around them in a wide circle.
"Ready?" she asked.
Bucky was careful, waiting, because, her reputation aside, not everyone knew how to fight when it wasn't all out, no holds barred. First blood was very different from fight for your life.
Sharon didn't move, stood watching him, studying him, poised and alert. Waiting. Just like him.
Suddenly Bucky knew this would be over fast. Slowly she started to smile and Bucky answered her, their eyes locked. She shifted sideways and he matched her, both alert, knives held loose and low. He feinted and she laughed, his smile became a grin and, like a perfectly choreographed dance, they exploded into movement.
Spin, shift, twist, he blocked her, but she tossed her knife, spinning it from one hand to the other, came in low, and he arced away. She was fast, pure speed, and she pushed him, but he was almost as fast, he was stronger, and he pushed back, the two dancing across the space, neither quite quick enough, quite better enough to only draw blood, neither willing to do more.
Using his metal arm for leverage she launched herself into the air and might have had him, blade slicing for his shoulder, but he dropped to his knees like they'd been cut from under him and, as she passed over his head, drew a delicate line across her outer thigh.
A collective groan went up from her pack, a satisfied sigh from Bucky's, and he was on his feet, putting distance between them, just in case she took it badly, but she was staring down at the line of blood on her leg, looking disgruntled. "I would have had you if you hadn't ducked."
"That's why I did it." Her eyes narrowed. "I've got a band aid in my pocket. Want me to patch you up?"
"I've got a band aid in my pocket. That's officially the strangest thing anyone's ever said to me after a fight."
Bucky lifted one shoulder in a casual shrug. "One of us was gonna end up bloody."
She stared at him in disbelief and he shoved his metal hand in his pocket to pull out what wasn't actually a band aid but was a large sterile adhesive patch. He wiggled it in the air. Her lips twitched. "If you insist."
He wiped his blade on the grass, silently promising to clean it properly later, sheathed it, then knelt next to her.
The alpha of the pack Sharon had been fighting for made her way over to shake the otter shifter's hand and they talked quietly, both of them relaxed and at ease, the tension that had been flowing between the two packs gone as if it had never been.
"Win or lose," Bucky said, glancing up at Sharon. "We did a good thing."
"Shut up and stick that band aid on or I'll tell everyone what a softie you are." But she was smiling as she said it.
Steve was cooking, for a given value of cooking, when a knock on the door interrupted his attempt to dice onions without surrendering to tears. He ran his hands under the tap and was drying them on his jeans when he pulled the door open to find Sam on the landing.
"Sam, hey! What are you doing here? I thought you were off flying around the country."
"Are you crying?" Sam asked, seeming torn between concern and amusement.
"Onions," he explained. "Get in here, will you?"
"You really shouldn’t get so attached to your vegetables. And I was," he said as he came inside. "I am. I scheduled in a detour to see you."
"Grab a seat. Coffee? Can you stay long enough for mediocre stir-fry?"
"Yes to coffee." Sam sat on the couch, settling in with a tired sigh. "And how can I possibly resist stir-fry if it's mediocre? You've discovered my one weakness."
"I know way more than one of your weaknesses," Steve told him. "Remember that when you decide to give me shit about dinner. Does this have something to do with all the birds you sicced on me?"
Steve just looked at him.
"Okay, I might have asked a few friends to check up on you."
"Uh huh. You know how I feel about stuff like that, Sam."
"I know, I know. In my defence I only asked a couple of people to look in on you, but birds, man." Sam made a helpless gesture. "They flock and you end up with everyone."
"And why did I end up with all the flocking birds?"
Steve was surprised when Sam didn't react beyond the corner of his mouth lifting briefly. "You remember a few weeks ago when I asked if you knew that healer, Laskaris?"
"Yes?" Steve paused in pouring the coffee. "I don't have any gossip for you, sorry." He walked over to pass Sam the mug, then returned to the kitchen to keep working on dinner.
"Not what I'm looking for," he said after a long sip of his coffee. "The other way around, actually." Sam pulled a knee up, turning to lean over the back of the couch to face Steve.
"I'm not following."
"Neither am I, not for sure. It's all just rumour, no one knows anything for certain, but there's at least three healers in addition to Laskaris that seem to be gone. Maybe they packed up and left, maybe they didn't. No one seems to know, but no one's heard from them. It's fishy."
"And you think, what," Steve pulled carrots out of the bag, set them on the cutting board, "something happened to them?"
"I don't know."
"But you think it's possible."
"Look, maybe it's just gossip. People exaggerate and stuff gets blown way out of proportion when it gets passed around. But is there someone you could check with and find out? Some sort of healer grapevine? Because if there is something going on there's a healer a few feet away from me whose ugly mug I'd miss if it suddenly disappeared."
"Are you really worried?"
Sam wobbled his hand in the air. "Yes and no. Like I said, it could just be gossip."
"I guess I could talk to Bruce," Steve said after a few moments' thought. "He tends to keep tabs on some of us, in a haphazard don't come near me kind of way. Have you got the names?"
"I wrote them down." Sam pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and set it on the coffee table. "Let me know what you find out."
"Do you want me to call him now?" Sam took long enough to answer, Steve said, "I'm going to take that as a yes. Here, you keep working on dinner. I'll call Bruce. Let's just hope he's having a good day," Steve muttered. At Sam's questioning look, he added, "You wouldn't like him on a bad day. There's a reason he wants people to stay away from him."
He surrendered the kitchen to Sam, which if he was honest with himself could only improve the quality of the meal, scooped up Sam's list, and called Bruce. Who was, it turned out, having a relatively good day. He only growled down the phone a little bit, listened to what Steve had to say, then promised to make some calls and be in touch.
Steve put it out of his mind for the rest of the night, enjoyed dinner with Sam and a chance to catch up. He was surprised when Bruce called back the next morning, sounding even growlier than he had the night before. His answer was maybe.
As far as Bruce had been able to tell, no one attached to a temple was missing—Steve wasn't surprised. Deities tended to take it personally when you messed with their chosen and smote wasn't a good look on anyone.
But there were some people he knew he hadn't been able to get in contact with, including the names Sam had provided. "It might mean something. It might mean nothing. Watch yourself, Steve," Bruce finished. "I'll be telling everyone else I know to do the same."
Sam wasn't pleased when Steve passed on the news, his expression carefully neutral, but Steve had known him too long. He could see the worry. "You know, I've been meaning to take a break. I could hang out here, spend some time with you." Steve glowered at him. "Or not."
"You have a job to do. I can look after myself. Besides, if it's got a heartbeat I can use my gift to knock it out."
"And so can every other healer," Sam muttered.
"But how many other healers used to get into scuffles the way I did?" Scuffles had been Sam's word, the first time Steve had told him about the fights he used to get into. They didn't really happen anymore, since no one wanted to piss off the local healer, but he knew those instincts were still there.
"Okay, you can," Sam said after a long moment of silence. "But will you?" His eyes were gold, his shoulders slightly hunched, and Steve had the impression of mantling wings. "I don't remember any of your stories ending with and then I knocked him unconscious with my power."
Steve's return look was flat. "I'm not using my healing gift in a back alley scuffle," he said, then added, sounding amused, "and it's not exactly instantaneous. If someone's about to punch you, you're a lot better off ducking or trying to punch them back."
"You see why I'm not feeling better?"
"But this is different. You don't have to worry about me."
"Don't have to doesn't mean I'm not going to."
"I know." Steve patted his arm. "But I'll be fine."
Chapter 5: Please Don't Tell Me This Has Been in Vain
Bucky was fast asleep, having a pleasant dream filled with golden smiles and blue eyes. He grumbled when something hit him. It happened again and he opened his eyes in time to get smacked in the forehead with a balled up sock and went briefly cross-eyed. "That's a good look for you."
"Natasha, why?" There was no whining. He was dragon. He didn't whine.
"Fury's calling a full guild meeting."
"What? How come?"
"That's probably what we'll find out at the meeting." Natasha grabbed his arm and hauled him out of bed to clonk onto the floor. "Up."
"I was sleeping."
"You were snoring. It's a good thing there's no smoke detector in here. Come on, it's after dark. You shouldn't be lazing around in bed all day."
"I was out on a job last night," he protested. "Why do I put up with you?"
"What makes you think you have a choice?"
That was an excellent point. He rolled to his feet and went into the bathroom to splash water on his face and brush his teeth. No way Nat was going to give him time for a shower. Clothes, weapons, and he was ready to go.
"Were you planning on doing something with your hair?"
Bucky sighed and ran his fingers through it, dug around in the back of the armchair until he found an elastic and pulled it into a bun. "Satisfied?"
She tilted her head, considering him, and tapped one long finger against her chin. "At least it looks like high class rats live there. Ones that drive nice cars and send their kids to expensive schools."
When the mundane city government had built the motorway under the river, they'd also built huge storage spaces to store the massive machinery and associated equipment. Afterwards they'd sealed them off, finding it cheaper and easier to wall them up than fill them in. They'd quickly been claimed and repurposed by mythfolk.
This one was Fury's, a gigantic cavernous space lit by a combination of electricity and magic until it was as bright as day. He was standing in the middle, the shadow he cast longer than it had any right to be.
The guild was bigger than Bucky had thought. He and Natasha stood shoulder to shoulder, watching carefully, because while there were people here they both liked the only people they truly trusted were each other.
When Fury spoke, the words reverberated with a strange timbre, echoing where there shouldn’t have been echoes, and Bucky found himself torn between wondering what Fury was and really hoping he never found out. "I'm well aware most of you would rather not be here." A low chuckle ran around the room. "So I'll cut to the chase. I've received word that some healers are not where they're supposed to be and no one seems to know where they've gone."
Bucky straightened, mind automatically flashing to Steve. He felt Natasha shift beside him. Knew she knew what he was thinking. "Nothing's happened here—yet—and we can't rule out that they've just packed up and left because we don't know anything, but I don't like it."
"How is this our problem?" a voice rang out.
"It's your problem because I say it's your problem. I don't want shit going down in my city and the guild charter every one of you signed when you joined, you know, the one you all initialled to say you read—" A low mumble ran across the room, indicating that most of them probably hadn't read it; Bucky and Natasha exchanged idiots glances. "—clearly states I can require you to take on minor duties. I'm officially declaring that keeping an eye out for anything strange and reporting it to me is one of those minor duties."
"And how will we know if something's strange?" It was a different voice this time.
"Strange. Out of the ordinary. Unusual. Not commonly encountered." Fury's voice was drier than the desert wind. "If you need more, buy a dictionary. Any other questions?"
There were no other questions. While everyone trailed out, evidently eager to get away, Bucky hung back. Natasha gave him a long, knowing look and left him there.
Once everyone was gone, Bucky approached Fury. "Fury?"
"Was something unclear?" he asked, not looking up from the handful of papers he was reading. This close Bucky could see the pale, otherworldly light leaking from under the patch covering his left eye. He wasn't sure what it covered but he knew he didn't want to find out. He wasn't sure he'd survive the experience.
"Not unclear. I wanted to ask about Steve. Rogers."
Fury looked up, face absolutely neutral. "What about him?"
"If healers really are going missing..." He let it trail off and looked questioningly at Fury, who sighed.
"They might be."
"But you think it's more than that."
"Let's just say I don't believe in coincidences."
Bucky nodded, faint trails of unease slipping up his spine. "Then shouldn't one of us be protecting him? Directly, not just keeping an eye out for anything strange. He's the only healer in the city who doesn't have someone watching his back."
Fury folded the papers he'd been reading and slid them into his pocket, folded his hands together behind his back, and watched Bucky closely. Bucky suddenly flashed back to the moment he'd flown into the hydra's territory. "If any of you actually worked for me, I'd be sending you off to do just that. But protection work isn't exactly minor duties, so until and unless he hires one of you that's not going to happen." A beat of silence. "Unless you're volunteering?"
Of course he was. Of course he was. It was dragon instinct—hold him close and protect him and keep him safe and he was so attached—and it was more than that, because it was Steve and he knew he was ridiculous, but he was not going to leave Steve alone and unsafe if there was even the slightest chance something could happen to him. "If I was?"
"Then I guess he'd be protected. But no one's going to pay you."
"If someone wants you for a job you'll have to make a call whether to take it or stay with Rogers."
"All right then. Protect Steve Rogers, if you can get him to agree, for however long you can make that last."
Bucky wasn't sure why the wave of relief washed through him; he didn't need Fury's permission, but maybe having it made this formal, maybe it would help him convince Steve. "Thank you." Fury waved him away in clear dismissal and Bucky turned to go.
Turned back, struck by a sudden realisation. "Did I just do exactly what you wanted?"
Fury smiled. "Let me know if you have any expenses you can't meet."
Which was definitely a yes, but Bucky didn't care. Fury could manipulate him all he wanted if it got him where he wanted to be: making sure Steve was safe.
Although he was pretty sure Steve was going to slam the door in his face.
Even if he had to go out, find a door, and bring it back to wherever Bucky finally managed to talk to him.
Natasha was waiting outside, leaning against the wall. "Tell me you didn't do what I think you just did." Bucky avoided her gaze even though it was clear from her tone she already knew. "Oh, Bucky."
"Look, leaving aside everything else, if something out there really is targeting healers, someone has to protect Steve. How many times has he healed me, healed you? I would have been dead after that sphinx if not for him, not to mention—" Bucky wiggled his metal fingers.
"That someone doesn't have to be you."
"Who else is going to do it? Who else in the guild would you really trust to make sure he's safe if they're not being paid?" Bucky met her eyes and for once, possibly the first time ever, she looked away first. "You and me and that's about it. Unless you want to do it?"
"I wouldn't want to get in your way." Her lips curved, sly and sharp. "Thinking you might finally have a chance to stop being pathetic?"
"Oh no, I'm sure I'm going to drag myself to startling new heights of patheticness. It doesn't matter. I just," tension crawled up his spine and he made himself take a deep breath, had to focus to keep it from coming out smoky, "I need him to be safe."
This time her smile was sympathetic. "I know you do."
"Now I have to figure out how to get him to let me do it."
"Want some advice?"
"Channel your inner Natasha."
Bucky looked at her with such abject horror she started laughing.
Steve lifted his head from his book at the knock on the door. It was late, but that didn’t mean much. A healer's services could be needed at any time. He picked up the barbed-wire wrapped baseball bat, rubbed in a variety of oils debilitating to any number of mythfolk—Sam had made it for him before he'd flown out and Steve did find it oddly comforting—and approached the door. "Who is it?"
"It's, uh, Buchanan. Bucky?"
"Are you asking me who you are or telling me who you are?"
"It's Bucky. Can I come in? I need to talk to you."
Steve frowned, because he didn't sound hurt—but he could be a messenger. "Are you currently bleeding to death, suffering from more than one broken bone, or wearing any of your internal organs on the outside?"
"Are you here on behalf of someone suffering from any of those symptoms?"
"Then no, you can't come in."
There was a long silence and when Bucky broke it his voice was soft, almost pleading. Steve had never heard him sound like that. "Steve. Please. I wouldn't be asking if it wasn't important."
Steve thought about it, weighed it up, then sighed. "Fine." He undid the lock, opened the door, and stepped back, baseball bat in hand. He half-expected Bucky to laugh at it, but when Bucky saw it he nodded in approval. "You've got five minutes."
"Can I sit?" he asked as Steve relocked the door.
"That chair." Steve pointed at one of the wooden chairs pushed under the table and stayed standing.
"Right. Okay, five minutes." Bucky rubbed a hand over his mouth as he sat down. "You've heard about the healers who've gone missing?" Steve nodded, hands tensing around the baseball bat. "Of course you have. Sorry. Stupid question. Fury's concerned."
"How does Fury know about it?"
"How does Fury know about anything? He's asked us to get involved, keep an eye out for anything strange."
"Because that's going to make everything better." Steve's sarcasm could have stripped paint off the walls.
Bucky's mouth went flat but he didn't rise to the bait. "I'll just cut to the chase here. Fury told me," Bucky paused, the way a man does at the edge of a cliff, then threw himself off, "to protect you."
It didn't quite register at first and then Steve burst out laughing. Bucky kept watching him with a steady gaze and Steve shook his head, laughter fading. "You're serious."
"As a heart attack."
"Not actually all that serious considering you're in the same room as me."
"You know what I mean."
After a beat in which Steve stared at Bucky like he was giving him a chance to take it back, Steve said, "So you're proposing to, what, follow me around and keep me from going missing?"
"That's about right."
"And who's paying for this? Cause I sure as shit can't afford you."
"I told you, Fury asked us to get involved. It's covered."
"What part of no was unclear?"
"We don't know what's happening. You might not be safe."
"I'll be fine, thanks. And your five minutes are up." They weren't, but Steve didn't care. This whole thing was ridiculous. If not for how serious Bucky looked, if not for the mention of Fury, he'd think it was a prank.
Bucky didn't move, flattened both hands on the table, light reflecting off his metal fingers, and met Steve's eyes. "There's two reasons you should say yes."
Steve was tempted to tell him to take his reasons and shove them, but there was something serious in that gaze, something open and honest in his voice, and instead he found himself saying, "And they are?"
"You're the only healer in the city who's on his own. Everyone else has someone to watch their back, is part of some kind of group: temple, pack, clan, something. I know you can look after yourself. I know. But when you're healing someone you're vulnerable and so are they. I speak from experience." A tiny half-smile, there and gone, and Bucky lifted one hand, palm up. "That's one time you can't protect yourself. You can't protect whoever you're healing. If someone, something, comes after you you're not going to be able to fight back. It's not just you in danger, it's whoever you're working on." Steve bristled and Bucky said, voice soft, "Not an insult, Steve. Just reality. "
It hit harder than he liked, anger spiking, because Bucky was right. "And your other reason?" He kept his voice even only through force of will.
It took Bucky a moment to answer and his hands slid off the table as he leaned forward. "We don't know what's going on. All we know is that people with the healing gift are missing. We don't know why, we don't even know for sure if they've been taken." Steve gave him a sceptical look and he nodded. "I know. Hard to imagine they just up and left. That's why I'm here. But Fury says we don't know anything and he's right. If I'm with you, protecting you, and someone does try for you? It might be a chance to figure something out. Find out what's going on. Maybe a chance to stop it."
Steve blinked, scrambling for a response, because he hadn't known what Bucky was going to say, but he sure as hell hadn't expected that. "You're saying you want to use me as bait?"
Bucky's eyes went wide. "No! No, Steve. I'm just saying there could be," he paused, obviously searching for words, "an added bonus if you let me protect you, not that I want to use you as bait."
"Because I'd be okay with being bait if it meant maybe stopping whatever's going on."
"Fuck's sake," Bucky muttered and scrubbed his right hand over his face. "Of course you would." He fixed Steve with an intent look. "Okay. If that's what it takes to get you to agree? Yes, I'm using you as bait."
"You're not though."
"But it'd basically be the same thing."
"I feel like anything I say here isn't going to go well for me."
"Good instincts." Steve gazed at the floor, tapping his fingers against his thigh. Thinking. Glanced at Bucky who was watching him and weighed it up. Bucky was right about what happened when he was healing, much as it killed him to admit it. On its own, that wouldn't be enough. But with the rest...
He couldn't say no.
And Bucky knew it, damn him. "If I say yes, it's on one condition."
"Let's hear it."
"If something happens while I'm with a client you protect them first."
"That's not how protecting you works."
"It's going to have to be." Steve pointed the bat at him. "They're your first priority. If something attacks or whatever you think is going to happen, you make sure they're safe first. No matter what."
He watched Bucky closely but there was nothing to see on that perfect face, those blue-grey eyes locked up tight. Finally he nodded. "I can work with that."
"Your word on it. Swear on your name." Bucky wouldn't be able to wiggle his way out that one. Swear on your name and you were trapped, the consequences of being foresworn rebounding on your life like a freight train of bad luck.
Bucky's jaw worked, but then he nodded. "I'll do it," he said slowly. "But I've got a condition of my own. You have to swear on your name to let me put you under my protection." Steve didn't respond. "Two way street, Steve. Fair's fair."
"Fine. But you first."
Bucky nodded and touched his heart. "I swear on my name that if you're attacked while you're with a client I'll protect them first."
"Then I swear on my name," the words could not have been said more begrudgingly as Steve touched two fingers to his heart, wondering what the hell he was letting himself in for, "to let you put me under your protection." A palpable wave of tension left Bucky's body and Steve looked at him askance, wondering exactly what sort of trouble he'd have been in if he'd left without Steve's agreement. "You can start in the morning."
"That's not how this works. You're under my protection."
"Yes," Steve said slowly, suspiciously.
"That means I stay with you." Bucky spread his hands. "With you, all the time. Starting now." He glanced around Steve's living room. "I can't protect you if I'm not with you. The couch looks pretty comfy."
"That's not happening."
"You swore on your name."
"I didn't swear to let you stay with me all the time. In my house. On my couch!"
"Actually you did." There was something almost apologetic in Bucky's tone. "That's what being under my protection means. I can't protect you if I'm not with you."
"You have got to be kidding me." Bucky slowly shook his head. Steve's eyes narrowed and he glared at Bucky, who looked back calmly. "You sneaky son of a—" He bit off the rest, filled with a kind of distant, resentful admiration. "Was that really necessary?"
"I don't know." Bucky was eyeing Steve like he was waiting for the explosion. "Was it?"
It could have been sarcastic, it could have been smug. Steve stared hard at Bucky and realised it was neither. It had been an honest question. Bucky truly didn't know. And as he thought about it, Steve realised he didn't either. He folded his arms, tapping the bat against his foot. Maybe it was his own damn fault for not asking ask what under my protection meant. "Tell me what else."
"That's about it. I'll stay with you, go where you go. I'll need to go home to pick some things up tomorrow. I'm not." Steve was surprised to see him hesitate, to hear his voice gentle. "I'm not trying to disrupt your life. All I want to do is make sure you're safe."
"Yeah, you take a lot of pride in doing your job well."
Something flitted across Bucky's face, there and gone so fast Steve couldn't tell what it was. "That's it exactly. Wouldn't want word to get around that something happened to you on my watch."
"I'm going to bed. If someone comes knocking on the door in the middle of the night, don't kill them. Don't threaten them. Don't beat them up."
Bucky touched two fingers to his forehead in salute. "Will do."
Steve fetched him a blanket on his way to bed, ingrained manners winning over personal inclination, tossing it over the back of the couch without a word. He brought his bat with him. He wasn't worried about Bucky, however unhappy he was having him in the house, but he'd always looked after himself and he'd keep looking after himself, no matter what.
That had actually gone better than Bucky had expected.
Except for the part where you lied to him.
Except he hadn't lied, exactly. He'd just strung different true things together in a specific and slightly misleading way. Fury had told them to get involved. Technically he had told Bucky to protect Steve. He'd said those exact words. And it was covered. Bucky was volunteering his time, so there was nothing to cover.
And tricked him.
Bucky winced and pulled the blanket over his head. Maybe channel your inner Natasha hadn't been the best advice.
But Steve was under his protection and didn't that send every stupid dragon instinct screaming to the fore. Protect protect protect. Gather him in and keep him safe and never let him out of your sight. A tiny curl of smoke escaped, then a low rumble, and he shook his head and breathed deep and shoved all of it away.
Steve, mad as hell and rightly so, would hit him with that barbed wire baseball bat if he tried that crap.
Bucky stretched out on the couch, shifted so he had a good view of the door, and touched sword, knife, gun, reassuring himself, settling himself. If someone or something came after Steve they weren't going to reach him. They weren't going to touch him.
Chapter 6: Never be the Same
A noise woke him. It was small, quiet, but it didn't belong and right now that was enough. Steve scooped up the baseball bat and slowly eased the bedroom door open, sliding along the wall, bat raised, ready to swing.
There was someone in his kitchen, someone tall, broad, with long dark hair, a metal arm— "Fuck." He let the bat fall as Bucky turned, registering the presence of the bat with visible surprise, then he nodded in understanding.
"You forgot, didn't you?" He held out a mug of coffee.
"Maybe." Steve leaned the bat against the wall and took the coffee. It was black, not his favourite way to take it, but right now he didn't care. He should be mad at Bucky for making himself at home in his kitchen, and he was, but there was also coffee, so it was hard to hang onto. "Why is it so early?" he asked the coffee.
"It's when I wake up." Bucky poured another coffee for himself. "I didn't mean to wake you, though. You can go back to bed."
"No point now."
"Sorry," Bucky said, wincing a little. They drank their coffee in slightly uncomfortable silence which Bucky finally broke. "We should probably talk about how this is going to work."
"I've got a question for you first." It must have been percolating away in his brain overnight, because it had just leapt upon him fully formed. "You're here protecting me."
"Yes," Bucky said cautiously.
"What about all the other healers? Who's protecting them?"
"As far as I know, you're the only independent healer in the city. All the others have got someone looking out for them."
"In this city, sure. But what about everywhere else? Who's making sure they're safe?"
"I don't know. The ones that are part of a faction or sworn to a temple, they'll have their people, but the ones like you?" Bucky grimaced. "No one, I guess."
"And that doesn't matter because it doesn't affect you." Rising tension swirled between them as Steve stared at Bucky, fingers tight around his mug.
"No." Bucky set his coffee on the counter. "But what do you want me to do?"
A beat of silence passed and then Steve sighed, the tension that had held them fading as Steve slumped against the counter. "I don't know."
After a minute, Bucky said. "I'll talk to Fury, ask him to send the word out." Steve looked over at him. "But it's not like there's someone in charge to send it to. It's not like the mundane world. We don't have cops. There's no governor of mythtown. We only have the guild here because of Fury and he's only getting involved because he's Fury. But," he paused, rubbed the fingers of his right hand over his metal knuckles, "but I've got some contacts. Not many, but I'll ask them to keep an eye on the healers like you, the ones that are on their own. The jobs we do, they've got a vested interest in having someone to put them back together again."
Steve pulled out the stool shoved under the counter and sat down, keeping his eyes on Bucky. Bucky wasn't looking at him, was staring at his metal hand, kept rubbing his fingers over it. To say Steve was shocked would be an understatement. He'd expected...he hadn't been sure, his brain wasn't quite up to running speed, but dismissal at best would have been where he'd have been laying bets. He hadn't expected Bucky to listen. To take him seriously. To offer his own personal contacts to help.
It didn't make sense, but whatever his reasons, and Steve was certain he'd find them out eventually, he'd still offered to do it. "Bucky?"
Bucky looked up at him.
After a second, the corner of his mouth pulled up and he nodded. Without speaking, he grabbed the coffee pot, refilled his mug and held the pot out. Wordlessly, Steve accepted the refill and they drank their coffee in silence.
Bucky called Fury while Steve disappeared back into his room to get dressed for the day. He didn't worry about waking him up; as far as anyone knew, Fury didn't sleep. Ever.
Fury listened, Fury called him a number of uncomplimentary names, questioned his parentage, and asked if Bucky really thought Fury hadn't already done that?
But Fury also told him he'd done well to think of it then told him not to bother him with petty bullshit and terminated the call. Which, since Bucky couldn't remember Fury ever telling him he'd done anything well—or anything badly; Fury tended to save personal commentary for true fuckups and Bucky, as a rule, didn't tend to fuck up. He was good at what he did—left him slightly discombobulated.
He sent texts to the people he knew: guards, protectors, fighters for hire, a few with less savoury professions, letting them know what was going on. Suggesting if they wanted to be patched up next time something went wrong on a job they might want to lurk pointedly in the vicinity of their friendly neighbourhood healer.
It was all he could do. He felt better for having done it, and not just because he knew it would make Steve happy.
And Steve favoured him with a smile when he emerged from his room and Bucky filled him in. With a small smile and another sincere, "Thanks." Bucky was going to start hoarding them, the smiles and the thanks both. Which was a perfectly reasonable thing for a dragon to do. Shut up, Nat.
"What now?" Steve asked when the silence had stretched too long.
"Now I need to get some things from home. Clothes, weapons. Toothbrush," he added with a grimace.
"You're basically moving in with me."
Warily, Bucky nodded.
"Oh, this is going to be fun," Steve muttered.
Bucky let it pass without comment, asking instead, "Are you ready to go?"
"My home. Clothes, weapons, toothbrush..."
"I don't have time. I have to open up the shop. I guess you'll have to go on your own," Steve replied and Bucky supressed a groan.
"You know I can't do that."
"I'm not sure when I'll have time." Steve shrugged, deliberately casual, and Bucky's eyes narrowed. He knew when he was being fucked with.
Bucky spared a moment to wish he'd gone to his place first, instead of straight to Steve's from the guild meeting, but he'd thought showing up with a pile of gear would have doomed him to failure. "It's fine. I'll ask Natasha. She'll know what I need." Nat wouldn't normally be willing to play fetch and carry for him, for anyone, but for the chance to give him shit? She'd make an exception.
"Does under your protection extend to making me breakfast?"
Bucky looked up from texting Nat. Steve might wake every damn dragon instinct he had, might make his heart flutter like a trapped songbird, might reduce Bucky to cutting down alleyways just to catch a glimpse of his smile, but Bucky knew that if when Steve pushed he didn't push back, didn't answer challenge with challenge, this would quickly turn into a nightmare. "No."
"That's a shame." Steve smirked at him, but turned away and started rummaging around in the kitchen. Attention split between a text exchange with Nat—going about as well as he'd expected—and staying alert for anything that didn't belong, Bucky wasn't paying much attention to Steve.
When Steve slid a plate of scrambled eggs in front of him he was so surprised he almost dropped his phone.
"Eat." Bucky turned the surprised look on him and Steve folded his arms defensively, chin raised in clear challenge. "I'm a healer. Breakfast is important. So eat." He pulled a stool out and sat down with his own plate. "And it's not like you can go and grab something if I don't feed you," he muttered.
"Yeah, whatever." Steve waved a hand. "Just eat your eggs."
Careful not to smile, Bucky did as he was told.
Bucky had never been inside Steve's shop. Past it more times than he really cared to think about, but never inside.
The times Steve had healed him, Steve had come to him.
It was soothing, the walls a pale cream, the shelves and long counter dark wood, the privacy curtain in the back corner a deep burgundy. A rich, earthy scent greeted him as soon as he set foot inside, the ringing of the bell a bright counterpoint, and the large windows let in a surprising amount of light for something that looked out into an alley.
Bucky picked a piece of wall with a good view of the door, where he'd be able to hear what went on behind the curtain, where he'd be able to get to Steve easily if he needed to, and settled in.
Steve frowned at him. "You're going to scare my clients."
"I'm not going to scare them."
"You are." Steve looked him up and down critically. "Could you lose the sword at least?"
"That would make it difficult for me to do my job."
"You scaring people is going to make it difficult to do my job."
"Why do you think they're going to be scared of me?"
Steve raised an eyebrow, asking clearer than words, Really? You have to ask?, and Bucky nodded. Steve waved a hand, indicating all of Bucky, and Bucky looked down at himself. Yes, he was wearing black, some of it was leather. He had a knife on his right hip and a sword on his left, strapped to his leg so it didn't bang around, both lit by the blue pulse of their Stark charms, but it was what he always wore on the job. His metal arm was barely visible under his long sleeve. Hell, his hair was even tidy, pulled back into a neat bun, impressive considering he'd done it with his fingers.
He met Steve's eyes with a questioning tilt of his head. Steve sighed. "You're not scared of me," Bucky pointed out, then hesitated, an unpleasant feeling curling in his stomach. "Are you?"
"No," Steve scoffed. "Don't be stupid."
Relief whooshed through him. "Your clients won't be scared, Steve. I'm going to stand here quietly. I'm not going to make trouble. I'll even smile if anyone seems worried." Steve still looked doubtful. "People aren't supposed to be scared of me." He hesitated, then went on, "Most of the time. Sometimes I need them to be. That’s part of the job."
Steve snorted. "Let me guess, that's the part you enjoy best."
It hurt, like an unexpected kick to the gut he hadn't seen coming and couldn't block. "No." He looked away, fiddled with the edge of his sleeve. "I don't like it when people are afraid of me."
Unexpectedly, there was a hand on his arm, Steve's fingers brushing lightly across his sleeve. "I'm sorry. That was shitty and uncalled for." Bucky glanced at him and saw truth, his blue eyes open and clear. "Really shitty. This is all just a bit," he pulled his hand away, ran it through his hair, making it stand up in messy loops that Bucky wanted to smooth down, "yeah. We don't like each other but that doesn't mean it's all right for me to say shit like that to you."
"It's really not but let's move on." Bucky nodded. "If you do scare people, we're going to have to figure something else out. Deal?"
Steve opened for the day, his shop warm and cosy and smelling of pine and oakmoss, cloves and lavender. Bucky was leaning on the wall and Steve had to give him credit: he looked as unintimidating as a man in black with a sword and a knife could possibly look.
His clients gave Bucky a few strange looks, but no one asked and no one seemed particularly concerned. Just like always, some of the people he saw needed healing, some left with a paper bag filled with tea or herbs, and some just needed a few minutes of conversation. Steve never hesitated to heal someone who needed it, but at the end of the day there were some things it was better left to the body to deal with naturally.
He was finishing up with a grizzly bear shifter, whose only problem was the several bottles of tequila she'd imbibed the night before, ushering her out from behind the curtain with a sympathetic pat on the shoulder, when he stopped, staring.
Bucky was crouched low, playing what appeared to be patty cake with a young sylph—she was tiny, fragile, Bucky using his fingertips to tap her palms—under the fond gaze of the sylph Steve knew was her father. Steve blinked, because what? When Bucky saw Steve he gently patted her head and rose to his feet, blank expression firmly in place as she giggled and dashed back to her father.
When both sylphs were behind the curtain, Steve asked, voice low, "You don't mind her playing with Bucky?"
He laughed a little. "With Bucky? No, Bucky's good people. He'd never hurt her."
Steve kept the surprise off his face and didn't ask anything else, just let his powers flow through the child, feeling her pain, the aches and wrongness that told him where to find the tiny flaws in her shoulders and ribs that would have kept her from flying once she was grown.
"Patty cake?" Steve asked Bucky once they were gone.
Bucky's bland expression didn't change, but there was a ribbon of smugness in his voice. "I told you they wouldn't be scared of me."
Bucky checked the time, then looked over to where Steve was sitting on the couch. "Natasha will be here soon."
Steve looked up from his book. He'd grabbed it when they'd come upstairs after closing the shop and had been reading it ever since. "That's fine."
Bucky was looking forward to a shower and clean clothes and brushing his teeth. He wasn't precisely looking forward to Nat, wasn't sure what tack she was going to take.
A knock at the door told him he was about to find out. He intercepted Steve, wrapped a hand around his arm, let it go at the dark look he received. "Let me. It's part of how this works. No answering the door unless we know who it is. Even then I'd prefer to do it myself."
"Knock yourself out." Steve gestured grandly at the door and sat back down on the couch.
Natasha was standing on the other side when Bucky pulled it open, a duffel bag over her shoulder, another in hand, and a bag full of takeaway in the other. "I've got your stuff and also dinner." She smiled, showing all her teeth, looking very pleased with herself. "Invite me in."
"Come in," he said, resigned to his fate.
"Hello, Steve," she called as she came inside, giving the apartment a blatant once-over. "I love what you've done with the place." She held up the bag of food. "Dinner?"
"Hello, Natasha. Thanks, I'd love some."
She dropped the duffel bags out of the way behind the couch while Steve grabbed plates and cutlery from the kitchen. "Have you declared your undying love yet?" she whispered.
She patted him on the chest, smiled like a dragon, and went to sit at the table. Bucky trailed after her and spent the meal in silence, listening to Steve and Natasha discuss a book he hadn't read. It was pleasant, letting their conversation wash over him, and he was happy to sit on the outskirts, attention drifting to the sounds of the city, listening for anything strange.
Eventually they wound down, sliding into silence. Nat turned to face him. Bucky braced himself for whatever was coming, but she just tilted her head thoughtfully then turned back to Steve. "He's one of the best, you know. He won't let anything happen to you." Steve frowned in surprise. Bucky echoed it, because her words had come out of nowhere. "He doesn't let how someone feels about him affect how he treats them. You should know that."
After a minute Steve sat back, holding Natasha's eyes. "I should have known it before?"
Whatever was going on, Bucky wasn't following, but it obviously meant something to Natasha, because her lips curved in a satisfied smile. "Exactly."
Steve huffed a soft laugh. "I'll keep it in mind."
"See that you do." She stood. "And now it's time to go. Things to do, places to be. Good night, boys." And she was gone.
Bucky stared at the door then turned back to Steve. "I'm sorry, I don't know what that was."
"Don't apologise. I get the feeling Natasha does what she wants." He pointed his chin at the duffel bags behind the couch. "Can you leave me alone long enough to take a shower? You probably want clean clothes more than just about anything else at this point."
Steve was right, he did. But... "I'm going to leave the door open," he warned.
"Of course you are," Steve said, deadpan. "Go take a shower. Brush your teeth. I'll try not to get kidnapped out of my own apartment while you're doing it."
It was a good shower, it was a great shower, considering he'd been wearing the same clothes for two days now, and he revelled in it. If there was a little bit of smoke mixed in with the steam, no one had to know. Clean clothes, comfortable clothes instead of working clothes, and he was a happy dragon. A happy dragon with a gun in one hand and a pile of dirty laundry in the other that he had no idea what to do with. "Steve?" He stuck his head out the bathroom door.
"What do you want me to do with my dirty clothes?"
After a minute, Steve sighed. "Stick them in the hamper, I guess."
There was something so wrong with him that tossing his dirty clothes in with Steve's made him happy. What did I say? Startling new heights of patheticness.
There was a pillow on the couch and sheets and a comforter as well as the blanket and Bucky blinked at them before glancing at Steve, who folded his arms and stared back, daring Bucky to say something. Bucky declined the challenge. He just set his gun and his sword on the coffee table, tucked a knife under the couch cushions and one under the pillow, and stretched out under the pile of fluffy warmth with a quiet sigh.
Steve paused on his way to bed. "You're different than I expected."
Steve was gazing at him thoughtfully and Bucky wasn't sure what to do. What to say. "Good different or bad different?"
He bobbed his head in acknowledgement. "Let me know what I need to do to make it good different." The words just slipped out and he could tell he'd surprised Steve. That Steve didn't know how to respond.
"Good night, Bucky," he finally said, and continued to his room.
"Night, Steve," Bucky called after him. "Sleep well."
Chapter 7: A Cottage in the Mountains
Nevena had been exceedingly happy to retire to this cottage in the mountains, her closest neighbour a cranky bridge troll, the closest town sixty miles away.
Won't you miss the city, they'd asked, being out there so far from everything?
No, had been her answer as she'd packed up and hightailed it out of there. Sure, living in a city was easier, especially since she was getting old—she was only human, she only got the standard threescore and ten, not the thirteen score or thirty score or, what did she know, maybe three hundred score mythfolk got—but it was also full of people who would not leave her alone.
And she'd done her time.
She knew most people would be happier without the bridge troll, but she was certain his presence discouraged casual visitors. Retired she might be, but she was still willing to heal people who desperately needed it—and let's face it, she thought, you'd have to be pretty damn desperate to haul your ass all the way up here and across a bridge with a giant anti-social troll underneath it.
All in all it meant her retirement was exactly that. She could eat her breakfast in peace, drink a cup of tea that started hot and stayed hot, and no one came knocking on her door wanting her to heal a hangnail or a hangover or a papercut.
That life was for the young and stupid.
With a contented sigh, Nevena poured herself another cup of tea, still so piping hot steam swirled from the pot. Picked up the sugar tongs and dropped in two lumps, contemplated it, then added a third.
Her peace was shattered when cold clawed fingers wrapped themselves in her collar and dragged her from her chair. She crashed to the ground, hip aching at the impact, then her cottage was gone, replaced by hot rocky ground and a red sky.
Shock paralysed her, held her immobile for long seconds, then she surged to her feet, ignoring the shooting pain in her side, and slammed the sugar tongs into the creature holding her's pitch black eye. There was no blood, no reaction beyond a wide-open mouth, showing row after row of jagged teeth, and she sent her power into it, to drive it into unconsciousness.
It didn't work. There was nothing for her to grab onto, no proper flesh and blood beneath her hands.
She kicked, punched, fought with everything she had, but there were too many, they were too strong, and even all her rage couldn't save her.
They carried her, dazed and shaken, through the red tinged landscape and finally dragged her through a doorway back into the world. She looked up into cold blue eyes and a man in a suit stared down at her. "Welcome. You're going to be very useful to me."
Chapter 8: I'm Rising to My Feet
It had been a week and nothing had happened. Nothing had threatened Steve, nothing had tried to take him. It was both a relief and not, felt like waiting for the first shoe to drop, never mind the other one.
Steve... Steve had been a surprise. Ever since his you're not what I expected he'd been thoughtful when he looked at Bucky when Bucky had expected to see nothing but irritation.
Bucky had to take it as a good sign.
Every morning he touched base with Fury, despite the strict instructions not to bother him with petty bullshit. He needed to know if he'd heard anything.
He had not.
This morning, sitting quietly with a mug of coffee and his phone, his heart sank. There was a text from Malfliet. Malfliet was not a good guy. Malfliet was three hundred pounds of troll: teeth and muscle and amoral bad attitude, but Malfliet was also a pragmatist.
He'd agreed to keep an eye on the healer that lived near his bridge.
The healer that was now gone.
No signs of a struggle, no blood, nothing broken, she was just gone like some unseen hand had plucked her from her life, her home and belongings untouched. Or they had been until Malfliet arrived.
Don't steal her stuff, you asshole, Bucky texted. She might come back.
Malfliet's only response was: None of them have come back.
Bucky put his phone down and rubbed his temple. He could feel a rising wave of dragon instinct, whispering to go and wake Steve, make sure he was safe, curl around him and tuck him close. Keep him and never let him go.
Then Steve would shove his baseball bat where the sun didn't shine and be completely justified doing so.
Bucky texted Fury. Then he texted Nat. For once, he wasn't looking forward to Steve waking up. This was news he'd rather not break.
Steve knew something was up from the moment he walked into the kitchen. Knew it from the way Bucky was sitting on a stool instead of leaning against the counter. Whatever it was, he decided he needed coffee for it, but Bucky slid a mug to him before he could reach the coffee pot. It was already doctored with milk and sugar, just the way he liked it.
He decided to lean, if Bucky was going to sit. "What's up?"
For some reason he expected Bucky to prevaricate, but he just folded one hand across the other and asked, "Did you know Nevena?"
"Not that I know of. Who was she?" But the sinking feeling in his chest told him he knew what Bucky's answer was going to be.
"She was a healer, lived out in the mountains. A, definitely not a friend, a bridge troll I know, he was keeping half an eye on her. He let me know this morning that she's missing."
"Right." Steve wrapped his hands around his coffee to chase away his sudden chill. "He couldn't stop whatever took her?"
"That's not the sort of person he is. I'm lucky he agreed to keep an eye out at all and he only did that because he's a pragmatist, figured he might get hurt one day. He said she's just gone. No sign of a struggle, no blood, so it's possible she just up and left, but..."
"But it looks like if she did she left everything behind."
"Which isn't very likely."
He put his coffee down untouched. "Thank you for telling me." Bucky didn't say anything, just gave a single nod. "I'm going to get ready to open the shop." He paused at the doorway to his room. "Bucky?"
"Thank you for what you did. For asking your contacts to keep watch. For," he gestured, hands drawing an arc before falling to his sides, "for helping. You didn't have to."
Bucky ducked his head in acknowledgement, hair falling over his face, but he didn't speak and Steve kept going into his room.
The shop was busy all day, a mix of people needing healing and people wanting to talk about their ailments and their aches and pains, and a surprisingly large number of people wanting to buy their favourite tea. Steve spent half an hour talking to a woman about her pet cockatrice (sometimes he was vet as well as healer); they were puzzling out how best to keep a poultice on a cockatrice's wings when Bucky made a quiet-voiced suggestion that solved the problem.
After the morning's news, Steve didn't mind being busy. It meant he didn't have time to think. For the first time Bucky's solid presence, leaning patiently against the wall of his shop, was comforting.
Not because Bucky was protection, although Steve believed Bucky would protect him. Natasha throwing his own words back at him had planted the seed of that certainty, which had kept growing all on its own. No, it was because Bucky knew what was happening. Bucky understood. Steve thought Bucky cared and it made him feel like he wasn't alone. It was a strange sensation, didn't quite sit right because it was Bucky, but.
But there it was.
The day passed quickly and when Steve crawled into bed he pulled the covers over his head, not expecting to sleep, but he must have drifted off eventually or Bucky's knock wouldn't have woken him.
At two am.
Neither of them were happy—Bucky tense and wary, Steve simply tired when he stumbled out of bed—but somehow after the way the day had started it really wasn't a surprise.
It was Bucky's first late night callout but this was what Steve did. People needed him to heal and they didn't always need him in daylight hours. "Or in walking distance," Steve muttered, because the messenger had flown off into the night leaving Steve to find his own way.
Bucky looked over, grinned way too wide for two am, and said, "I've got just the thing." Steve looked at him doubtfully. "Come on." Steve, not completely sure it was a good idea, followed as Bucky led him on a short walk that ended outside a parking garage. Bucky waved a Stark charm at the card reader and they made their way down two flights of stairs, through a second charmed door and into a hidden level, then Bucky stopped and gestured proudly.
Of course Bucky had a bike.
Of course he did.
Steve wasn't going to lie to himself—it was beautiful, black and silver and he knew nothing about motorcycles, but even standing still it looked it could break the sound barrier.
"It's practical," Bucky explained. "Best way to get around the city."
"I'm sure that's why you have it." Bucky's smile was innocent and Steve barely supressed an eye roll. "And this is?" he asked as Bucky handed him a charm, pulsing with Stark's ubiquitous electric blue.
"Helmet and leathers," came Bucky's surprising reply. "The equivalent of, anyway. It's cheaper than buying the real thing, one size fits all, and you can literally store it in your pocket."
"And the fact that it doesn't mess up your hair is just a bonus?"
"The wind in your hair feels good, Steve." Bucky was completely unrepentant. If Steve didn't know better, he'd think Bucky was trying to cheer him up. Bucky swung his leg over the bike, holding out a hand to Steve. "Come on, this will get you where you need to go."
He was right, of course. Steve usually had to opt for a taxi or a ride sharing company, had lists of mythfolk drivers he could contact if whoever came calling didn't have a conveyance. With an emphasis on conveyance, and a sleek, smooth motorcycle certainly beat the hell out of moose-back. That memorable journey was the only time he'd ever wished Stark's charms were a little less effective, because then no one would have thought galloping through the city in moose form was a good idea.
"Never been on a bike before?" Bucky asked when Steve perched behind him uncertainly.
"Put your arms around my waist and hold on, move with me, lean when I lean. It's easy."
It was much better than a moose. There was a bite in the air, but Bucky was warm and blocked the wind, and maybe Steve wasn't too sure about being this close to him, about hanging onto him this tightly—because he was hanging on tight; Bucky didn't travel at a sedate pace—but it was a relief to know they were going to get there this fast. It wasn't life or death, the messenger had made that clear, but it was still someone bleeding and in pain, serious enough to need Steve, and the faster they could get there the better.
And Bucky was right, the wind in his hair did feel good.
Bucky parked the bike and they ducked in through the hidden entrance, cut through the backways, and came out in the tunnel that led to the collective owned by the lamias. The lamias were gracious and pleasant and here, in their homes, they wore their true forms: snakes from the waist down instead of legs.
"Hey," Steve said, when they let him in. "Balere called for me. Her mate is injured?"
The lamia slithered away, gesturing for Steve and Bucky to follow.
* * *
Bucky followed Steve as the lamia led them further into the tunnels. He liked lamias. Had an unfortunately disturbing tendency to think of them as younger cousins, which would horrify pretty much any other dragon but Natasha.
Their guide pointed down the tunnel and left them, but before they could take more than two steps another lamia slithered forward, blocking their path, drawn up to her full height, swaying back and forth.
This lamia he wasn't thinking of as a younger cousin. This lamia he was starting to think of as a threat.
Like the snakes they partially resembled swaying was the prelude to attack. Bucky didn't draw a weapon, but he did draw closer to Steve. She hissed. He reached for Steve, pulling him back, and stepped forward, standing between them.
Steve said his name, a note of warning in his voice, but Bucky ignored him.
"I don't know you." The lamia didn't blink, her eyes fastened on Bucky.
"I don't know you either," Bucky kept his voice calm and even, "but I can't let you threaten Steve."
"You will not bring weapons near my mate."
"Steve's under my protection, so if you want him to heal your mate I will be going with him and so will my weapons."
Her swaying was becoming hypnotic, her eyes hooded and strange, but Bucky was a dragon and she was only a lamia; her reptilian tricks wouldn't work on him. He kept his hands away from his weapons, but she hissed and her tongue was forked, her fangs dripping with venom.
Steve's voice cracked out. "Balere, plant your tail." Balere spun down into a compact coil, tail tip twitching like an irritated cat's, but she obeyed.
"Bucky, enough." Bucky twitched, didn't look away from Balere, and Steve's hand closed over his right elbow. "Back off." After a moment, Bucky eased down, took a step back. "Better." Steve let go of his arm. "Now both of you, just sit quietly. I swear if I hear another peep out of either of you..."
Bucky found himself nodding, briefly meeting Balere's eyes, and then they both looked away.
"Good. I swear, it's like dealing with children," Steve muttered and stomped past them up the tunnel to the injured lamia lying in a huddle of blankets, long snake's tail lying limp and lifeless. "I'm going to take your hand, okay?" She nodded and Steve gently wrapped both hands around her long fingers, careful of the delicate webbing. "You're going to be fine," he soothed, voice gentle and calm, but Bucky could see the tension in his body, see the slight tremor that went through him as the lamia relaxed from her pained curl. "There you go."
Steve ran a hand over her forehead, his other hand pulling back the blankets to expose a deep, oozing gash running from mid-rib to what would be mid-thigh if she had legs, and he pressed his hand against her scaled stomach, just skirting the edge of the wound.
Steve's eyes were half-closed, his jaw set, and Bucky could almost see the power flowing out of him. As time ticked past he could see the gaping wound in her side closing, disappearing as if it had never been. "There, you're okay," Steve said as he sat back. "See? You're fine." She trilled and patted Steve gently. "You're welcome."
Balere was already by her side, stroking her and alternating between trilling and short little hisses.
Steve stood, ceding his spot, stumbling a little, and Bucky darted to stand behind him, a hand on his shoulder, giving him something to lean on. Steve tensed. "Didn't I tell you to stay over there?"
"Technically you told me to back off and sit quietly." Steve was still tense under his hand. "I'm sorry if I made that harder."
Steve searched his face, then nodded. Bucky let his hand fall.
"I'm sorry, too." Balere looked past Steve to Bucky. "Sorry. I shouldn't have, but," she slowly ran her hand across the other woman's head, "I was worried."
"It's fine," Bucky told her. "No harm done."
"Not actually fine, but I'm glad you both suddenly remembered you're adults," Steve said dryly. "Balere I'm going home. Come by the shop and we'll work out what you owe me. Be glad I'm not adding a pain in the ass surcharge." His gaze shifted to woman on the floor. "Make sure she gets some rest and plenty to drink, okay?"
"Thank you, Steve. I don't know what we'd do without you."
"Remember that next time you decide to act like an idiot."
Balere grinned, giving Bucky another look at her impressive fangs, and Steve just shook his head.
Bucky led the way unerringly out into the night and they both took a deep breath of the crisp clean air, a relief after the close, cloying atmosphere of the lamia's collective. As they approached the bike, his eyes sweeping their surroundings automatically, Bucky could hear Steve's silence, feel the weight of his gaze. "She was acting like a threat and I'm supposed to keep you safe."
"She wasn't a threat. She was afraid for her mate."
That didn't change the gut reaction, the instinctual whisper that said it didn't matter why, but he knew that wasn't helping. "If I overreacted, I'm sorry." Bucky leaned against the bike. "I might be a little on edge from this morning."
Steve studied him. "I need you not to do that again. The people I help, sometimes when they get hurt they get angry, they get aggressive. Their friends, their family, their pack, their mates, they get angry and aggressive. It depends on what I'm dealing with. There's a big difference between a lamia and a sylph, a lone bear shifter and a wolf shifter with a pack around them. But whoever, whatever, it is, I need you to back down. I need you to stay behind me. I need you to let me take the lead. There can't be a repeat of tonight." He waited, giving Bucky a chance to reply, but Bucky wasn't sure what to say. "You're here to protect me, right?"
"Well, none of them are a threat to me. I've never been hurt. Sometimes I have to holler at people, verbally knock a few heads together, before they start behaving, but that's as far as it goes."
"How did you do that?" Bucky asked curiously.
Steve smirked. "It's a gift."
"Not a gift gift, though."
"No, I didn't control her with magic, if that's what you're asking. I'm just good at yelling at people when they're being, or have been, or are about to be, stupid. I'm good at recognising the signs."
Bucky didn't even try and keep the grin off his face. "I bet you are."
"Hey, watch it." Steve scowled, but there was no heat to it, and Bucky raised both eyebrows. Eventually Steve sighed and looked away. Bucky tried not to feel like he'd won something. Yelling at bear shifters. Injured bear shifters. For fuck's sake, Steve. "So." Steve stepped closer, close enough if Bucky took a deep enough breath their chests would touch. "No more repeats of tonight?"
"No more repeats of tonight. If someone's getting aggressive I'll let you handle it." He paused and tried to put in his voice, in his words, in his body, that this was not negotiable. "Unless they draw blood. If I see your blood, I step in."
After a bit of thought, Steve nodded. "Agreed."
"Okay. Time to go?"
"Time to go."
Chapter 9: I'll Say it Straight and Plain
Steve was awash in mixed emotions.
Sam was going to be here soon. It was always good to see him after one of his long stints on a courier run, and with everything going on Steve wanted to see him. But this was the first time since Bucky had shown up that Sam had been back in the city. Worried about Steve and with a gift for charming phones out of people wherever he was, Sam had made a point of keeping in touch as he flew from point to point across the country. Yet somehow, every time, Steve had conveniently forgotten to mention Bucky.
Steve rubbed his forehead and contemplated moving to the Andes and becoming a healer of goats. No, it was llamas in the Andes. A healer of llamas. Steve Rogers, Llama Healer. He could have business cards printed.
"I almost hate to ask what you're thinking," Bucky said, interrupting his thoughts.
"What do you know about llamas?"
Bucky spluttered a laugh, quickly cut off. "Nothing."
"Me neither, so that's that idea down the drain."
"Now I'm glad I didn't ask."
Steve glanced over. Bucky was leaning on the counter again—and seriously, what was with him and leaning on things?—flipping a knife between his metal fingers. "It was probably the smart move. Can you put the knife away?"
Steve pointed. "The knife?"
"Oh, sorry." Judging by his expression, Bucky hadn't realised he'd been doing it. It quickly disappeared somewhere in his clothing.
"Thanks." Steve kept watching him as he scanned the apartment, eyes slightly unfocused in the way Steve was getting used to seeing when he was looking for threats. It was strange. He should hate having him here. But he was finding that he actually didn't mind. Bucky was surprisingly good company. Not what Steve had expected.
His gaze crossed Steve's and Bucky smiled, just a small thing, fleeting but soft, eyes warm, and it caught Steve, pulled him in. Made him blink in sudden surprise, because—
A knock at the door jolted him free of his thoughts. Bucky straightened.
"It's going to be Sam," Steve said.
"I need to be sure."
"Who is it?" Steve called, giving Bucky a look that said I'm humouring you as he pitched his voice loud enough to be heard on the landing.
"What do you mean, who is it? Who else is it going to be? It's Sam. Are you going to let me in or am I going to have to fly in the window?"
"Happy?" Steve slanted a glance at Bucky.
Steve rolled his eyes and went to open the door. Sam was standing there, a bag of food in each hand, an odd expression on his face, hint of gold shading his eyes. "Hey Steve." He looked over Steve's shoulder, no surprise in his voice, just calm challenge as he said, "And Bucky."
Steve stared at him, then sighed. "A little birdie told you?"
"Got it in one." He held up the bags. "I brought food. For two," he added pointedly.
"I don't need your food," Bucky said.
"Good, cause you're not getting any. As I was saying, I brought food and I'm going to need to hear an explanation. Two explanations. What he's doing following you around, because I know you didn't suddenly decide to hire yourself guild protection, and why I didn't hear it from you."
"That's a long story."
"Good thing I've got time." Steve waved Sam into the house. While Steve got dishes and drinks and cutlery from the kitchen, figuring it was better to just get it over with, he explained how he'd ended up with a Bucky-shaped shadow. He started with Bucky showing up at his door, ran Sam through the basics, and did not mention playing bait, because Sam's reaction to that—however much Bucky hadn't been suggesting any such thing—would probably threaten the integrity of his living room. He also forgot to mention any swearing on names that might have happened.
"So he's not holding you hostage," Sam said as they sat on the couch. "Writing a biography of your life, planning to sell you as human foie gras once he's fattened you up enough, hasn't suddenly discovered he has the healing gift and become your apprentice, and you didn't get cursed to stay within twenty feet of each other. Or get secretly married."
"What? No! What the hell, Sam?" Steve sputtered, glancing at Bucky, who gave him a deeply confused don't ask me look, then turned back to stare at Sam. "What are you talking about?"
"That little birdie again. Or birdies, actually," Sam said. "I really didn't think that last one was likely. Pretty sure she was just distracted by his shiny arm."
"None of them are likely," Steve said firmly. "All of them are ridiculous."
"Gossip can get like that." Sam leaned back, outwardly relaxed, but his eyes still had a sheen of gold. "What I can't figure out is how he convinced you to let him live with you."
Steve considered it, then sighed, because after the litany of possibilities Sam had just rolled out, at least this was sane. "He got me to swear on my name to let him put me under his protection. Which I then found out was a twenty-four hour thing."
Sam looked back and forth between Steve and Bucky. "Seriously?"
It was Bucky who said, "Yes."
"How in the hell did you manage that?" Sam asked Bucky, sounding half-way between outraged and impressed, and Bucky lifted one shoulder.
"I don't want to talk about it," Steve muttered because he managed to trick me because I was an idiot was ammunition Sam did not need.
Sam's quirked eyebrow promised at some point he'd get the details. "And you didn't tell me all of this why? Because now that I've heard it, it's really not a long story."
"Because I figured this would be a lot less painful in person?"
"Hmmm." Sam gave him a dubious look but let it go and dug into the food.
It smelled delicious, it was delicious, and there was more of it than both of them, even with one of them a shifter, could eat. Steve looked at the containers spread out on the coffee table, then raised both eyebrows at Sam, who shook his head. "Come on, Sam."
"Uh uh, no way."
"I don't like it any more than you do, but it hasn't been that bad."
"Doesn't mean I have to feed the guy."
Steve kept looking at him until Sam finally let out a low, frustrated sigh. Steve got up to get another plate and held it out. "Bucky, here." The genuine surprise on his face set off a little guilt bomb in Steve's stomach. "There's enough for three."
"Correction, there's enough for two and then breakfast. That's Steve's breakfast you're eating."
Bucky didn't roll his eyes, and it was so obvious he wasn't rolling them Steve had to bite his lip not to laugh. "I'll buy Steve breakfast. I can make him breakfast." Bucky flashed a glance at Sam. "Since I'll be here in the morning."
Sam's eyes narrowed. Bucky's eyebrows went up, the very picture of innocence as he spooned noodles onto his plate, followed it with curry, then snagged a couple of dumplings and went to sit at the table, leaving Sam and Steve to talk.
* * *
Sam was, based on everything Bucky had heard, a good guy. A strong fighter, a strong flier—Bucky felt a touch of smug superiority, because at least he didn't have to get naked just to change shapes—but Bucky didn't really like him. He didn't dislike him, precisely, he didn't really know him, but he couldn't help the touch of wistful envy at the way Steve smiled and laughed with him, at the casual touches, the easy trust.
Idly following their conversation, Steve sounded happy. Or at least he did once they got past Sam grilling him about Bucky and the missing healers. Bucky was honestly surprised to hear Steve say that Bucky being there wasn't that bad, but they dropped the subject in the face of Sam's worry and Steve's insistence that he'd be fine.
It wasn't completely surprising that, when Steve went to the bathroom, Sam rose, graceful and predatory, eyes shading to gold, to stalk across the room.
Bucky met him halfway.
He was stronger than he looked, but then shifters were. Bucky let himself be pushed back a step, Sam's hand fisted in the front of his shirt, but only that one single step. Then he braced and stopped. Sam might be strong, but not much was stronger than a dragon.
Surprise flashed across Sam's face, quickly masked. "You're guild and I know you're not being paid to be here. You and Steve, you are not friends. So whatever you're really doing here, if you hurt him, if you do anything to him, I will find out what you are, I will find out your weakness, and I will end you."
It touched anger, touched instinct, it called for fire and flame and to throw Sam across the room, to shred and tear. Bucky did nothing but study Sam's face. His eyes. He saw anger and he saw, deep down, a hint of fear. Not of Bucky, he knew. For Steve.
Deliberately, he forced himself to relax. Opened his hands, palms facing forward, saying no weapon, no threat. "I'm here for one reason. To protect him, to keep him safe. That's it, that the whole thing. Do you want me to swear on my name? Because I will if that's what you need."
"Swear then." There was challenge and I dare you and I know you won't in Sam's voice, in the hand holding Bucky's shirt. Part of him admired Sam's fearlessness and he wondered if Sam got it from Steve, if Steve cast it like a shadow and it clung to anyone it touched. Sam snorted at Bucky's silence. "I knew you wouldn't."
Softly, quietly, Bucky said, "I swear on my name I'm here to protect Steve, to keep him safe." He wormed his metal hand between them and touched his heart. "I'm not here to hurt him."
It shocked Sam, Bucky could see it shoot through him like lightning. His fist eased in Bucky's shirt. "You know he can't stand you."
"I know." Bucky wasn't sure that was quite as true as it had been, but then he wasn't sure it wasn't.
Bucky considered the ceiling: faded white, a cobweb in one corner. "Do you know how many times Steve has healed me? At least two of those he was saving my life. Even though he can't stand me." It wasn't a lie, it was just nothing even close to the truth Sam was looking for, but he dropped his gaze to Sam's, who nodded.
"Not something I ever expected to hear from you, but okay. I get it." He paused. "I still don't like you."
"Feelings entirely mutual."
Steve came out of the bathroom and they jumped apart. "You know," Steve said, looking between them. "I don't even want to know."
Steve was tired but not tired. Sam was gone, back to his own place for a couple of nights before he was due to fly out again. He wasn't sure what had been going on between him and Bucky when he'd come out of the bathroom, but Sam had seemed less actively disapproving of Bucky afterwards. Less didn't mean he approved, not by a long shot, but they seemed to have reached some sort of understanding.
Steve wasn't sure how he felt about that. Steve wasn't sure how he felt when he realised he wanted Sam to think better of Bucky. He was trying not to think about it.
Sam had hugged him hard, told him to be careful, to watch himself, given Bucky a long warning look, and then he'd left. It had been late then and it was later now, but Steve wasn't quite ready to sleep.
He was curled up on one end of the couch, the TV flickering with some sort of show about competitive cooking. He didn't know, he wasn't really paying attention. Bucky was sitting at the table, a cloth down to protect the surface, an array of weaponry spread across it.
Half-mesmerised, Steve watched him slide a whetstone down a blade, the light reflecting off his arm, off the knife. His gun was sitting next to him, black and deadly, waiting its turn. "You use a gun."
Bucky looked up. "What?"
It took Steve a bit to realise he'd spoken, another little while to figure out what he'd meant. "I've never seen anyone with a gun." Bucky's eyebrows went up. "No, I mean mythfolk, not humans. I didn't think they used guns."
Bucky set the knife down and gazed back at him. "Most of us don't."
"Why do you?"
"Why do you want to know?" Bucky asked, expression neutral.
Steve sat up a little straighter and thought about it. "I...I'm not sure. The sword, the knives, they seem...is it weird to say they seem friendlier?"
A touch of warmth snuck onto his face. "A little bit weird, yeah. You'll be just as dead if someone stabs you as if someone shoots you."
"I know." Steve frowned, trying to unravel it. "I know it doesn't make sense."
Bucky let him stew in silence for a bit, then said gently, "That's why."
"Your reaction. That's why I know how to use a gun. The person who trained me, she said I had to know because they're a reality. Unless you want to stay locked away in some mythfolk only enclave, they're out there and they're never going away. If you're a fighter, especially if you're going to take jobs that'll mean you're operating in the mundane world, you can't afford to freeze when you see one. If you're not used to them, if you're not comfortable with them, you're going to."
"That's why you carry one?"
"No, I carry one in case I need to use it, but a gun," he blew out a breath and uncertainty crept into his eyes, like he didn't know how Steve was going to react, "it's only for killing. I almost never have to use it. I don't take those kinds of jobs. If I have to kill someone on a job it's because there was no other choice, not because someone thought they could whistle me up and pay me to do it."
"I believe you," Steve said, because he didn't like that look in Bucky's eyes and was gratified when it slowly faded. He looked away, feeling like he'd been given a glimpse into a part of Bucky he wouldn’t usually share. After a few minutes, Bucky picked up the knife and the whetstone and went back to sharpening. Steve stared at the TV, learned how not to separate an egg, watched someone else create perfect fluffy meringue, then turned back to Bucky. "Tell me more about what you do?"
"I guess you don't mean in my spare time," Bucky said lightly, like he was trying to back away from the previous emotional weight.
"No. I mean sure, if you want to, but no, I meant with the guild."
"I do pretty much anything interesting people offer me, some guard work, protection work—as you know," Steve rolled his eye and Bucky flashed him a quick smile, "and—" He studied Steve. "You know that things don't work for us like they do for the mundanes, right? There's no courts, no police, no higher power to appeal to unless you're in good with one of the deities who's into direct intervention."
"You know, but do you understand?"
"I understand as well as I can, Bucky, but now I'm a little worried about what you're going to tell me," he said, deliberately teasing, deliberately light, and Bucky made a face at him.
"I also do a lot of champion work. Never to the death, like I said, I won't take those jobs, but people keep wanting me as their champion."
"I'm not sure I understand," Steve said, leaning over the back of the couch.
Bucky sat back in his chair, gesturing with the whetstone. "You get territorial disputes, leadership disputes, disagreements between factions over all sorts of things. Once they would have just fought it out. Quietly, but most of the time it meant people would die, sometimes a lot of people. These days, some of them are trying to find a better way. They agree to resolve whatever they're disagreeing about with a single fight, each side with a neutral champion." Bucky gave him a quick smile. "I keep getting offered those jobs. I keep taking them because I like helping them find a better way. I fight the other champion, usually to first blood, sometimes until one of us yields, and the conflict gets solved with no one dying."
Steve blinked at him, because it was so different from the picture he'd painted of Bucky, of what Bucky did, he felt like the world tilted a little out of focus for a minute. "None of that was what I expected you to say."
"What did you expect me to say?"
"I don't know." Bucky was guild and the guild was a bunch of dangerous people who took money in exchange for their skills. Sometimes they were protecting people or places or things, but sometimes not. Steve had healed more than a few people who'd come by their injuries at the hands of a guild member and it wasn't because they'd been trying to hurt someone.
But everything Bucky had told him...it was admirable. It spoke of care and thoughtfulness and an awareness of how dangerous his skills made him, of taking his skills and turning them to something good. Steve didn't know how to put that into words. Didn't know how to say I think you might be a good man. "I just know it wasn't that. Thanks for telling me." That wasn't enough. "Thank you for trusting me enough to tell me."
Bucky looked up and a smile broke over his face like a sunrise, warm and with the promise of a beautiful day, lighting up his eyes, and Steve felt it spark something deep inside him, an answering light, an answering warmth, and he didn't know what to do with it.
Chapter 10: The Tunnels Outside a Kitsune's Den
The tunnels were dimly lit, but Tae could practically see in the dark, even in human shape, and she knew this path, this last stretch before her den, by heart. She was tired, but it was a good tired, a clean tired, warm and satisfied, because she'd left life behind her.
She was the only kitsune she'd ever met with the healing gift. They were mentioned in the records, she'd heard stories, but she'd never met another. Her family had been shocked, had bustled and hemmed and hawed when it had manifested instead of the more usual array of kitsune powers.
They'd worried that with only a healing gift she'd never have more than a single tail.
Tae didn't care. The first time she'd placed her paws on someone and healed them through will and power alone, knit flesh and bone and tendon together, banished pain and infection and created a whole person where before they'd been broken, been dying, she'd known it was truly a gift.
She'd gladly sport one tail until the end of creation for the chance to heal.
It had brought her here to one of the largest cities in the country and she was one of a dozen healers, not counting the ones sworn to a temple. Sometimes she thought she should maybe have chosen somewhere a little quieter. The sheer size and noise and mass of people were overwhelming—she tended to keep to her den when her gift wasn't needed—but it meant her gift was needed. People knew where to find her and every market day she set up her little stall so newcomers could meet her and find out and—
She stopped, nose twitching. Something smelt... It was strange, acrid, like someone had set plastic on fire.
She turned, trying to find the source, and long arms snaked around her, dragged her from the tunnel into red tinged darkness that stunk of burning, dragged her into dozens of clawed hands she couldn't fight. Pitch black eyes stared at her from sickly white faces and then they lifted her and were moving.
She shut down, fox in a trap, and squeezed her eyes shut. When she left the burning darkness she hit a tiled floor in a room faintly scented with bleach and old blood. A cool, calm voice said, "If you cooperate this will all go much easier for you."
Tae whined once, low in her throat, and curled into a ball.
If at any point in the last year someone had taken Steve aside and told him that he'd sit half-asleep in his kitchen, bathed in the morning sun, close enough to Bucky he could feel the warmth of his body, he would have laughed until he'd cried.
Or possibly tried to get them to sit down so he could check for a head injury.
Yet here he was, perched on a stool, drinking the coffee Bucky had made. It was perfect, just the way he liked it. Bucky was leaning against the counter, sipping his own coffee, looking not even slightly out of place. He wasn't wearing his sword or his gun, but he was still dressed in his usual black and had who knew how many knives scattered about his person. Yet he weirdly seemed to fit, like he belonged in Steve's kitchen.
Maybe Steve had suffered a head injury. It was a shame he couldn't heal himself. Maybe he should ask Bucky to check him for a skull fracture or unusual soft spots. The thought of those strong fingers combing through his hair, gently touching, made him freeze for a split second, and he shook his head.
He just needed more coffee.
His phone buzzed and Steve, grateful for the distraction, picked it up. It was a text from a number he didn't recognise—It's Sam. Call me on this number—which was par for the course when Sam was couriering. He called the number.
"It's me. What's up?"
"What's up is I'm pretty sure there's another one gone. She hasn't been seen in a while, no one's sure exactly how long. She's a kitsune, and apparently pretty shy, but she's not in her den and they're telling me she always shows up to the monthly market, yet here it is market day and no kitsune."
Steve's heart sank, a deep well of anger and a tiny trickle of fear opening in his stomach and swallowing it down. He glanced at Bucky, who straightened, looking at him with concern. "Thanks for letting me know."
There was a long pause. "Are you going to be okay?" Sam asked.
"I'll be fine."
Another long pause. "Is Bucky there?"
"He's here," Steve said.
"Can I talk to him?"
"You want to talk to Bucky?"
"Just for a second."
Wordlessly, Steve held out the phone and Bucky took it. "Hello?"
Steve ran his fingers through his hair then planted his elbows on the counter, leaning on his hands as he listened to Bucky's side of the conversation.
There was a long pause, and then Bucky said, "I see." Pause. "I understand." Another, longer pause. "Of course. For fuck's sake, Sam." Deep breath. "You know I will. You know. Right, it's okay. I get it. Okay. Do you want to talk to Steve?"
Steve lifted his head to take the phone as Bucky handed it back. "You stick with him, okay?" Sam said. "I know you don't like him because I sure as shit don't, and I know you can look after yourself, but just stick with him. For me."
"I will. Watch yourself, okay?"
"Hey, you know me. If I can't outfight it I can outfly it." Sam sounded so deliberately, over-the-top cocky Steve had to smile, which he was pretty sure had been Sam's intention. "I'm gonna go. You take care of yourself and I'm going to check in with you on the regular."
"Bye, Sam," he said quietly, not really wanting to let him go.
"See you, Steve. Remember what I said."
"I will." He ended the call and put the phone down on the counter. Looked up to find Bucky watching him, expression a mix of concern and compassion. "What did Sam want?"
"To tell me what happened. And warn me what would happen to me if anything happens to you."
"Oh. Sorry?" Steve offered.
"It's okay. I'm not going to let anything happen to you." It was calm, measured, absolute, sent warmth prickling over his skin to settle in his spine, and Steve had to look away, Bucky's eyes too intent.
"Aren't kitsune powerful?" he asked. "What could take one?"
"Some kitsune are powerful. It depends on how many tails they have. Nine tails and they could just about wipe out the city, but one tail?" Bucky lifted one shoulder and Steve nodded. "But they're fox spirits, tricksters at heart. They more than anyone might decide to just disappear to somewhere new."
"Do you really believe that?"
Bucky leaned on the counter next to him, leaned his shoulder against Steve's. "No."
"What's going on, Bucky? Why would someone want healers? We're not good for anything. We just," he lifted his hands, "heal. If someone needed that all they'd have to do is ask."
"I don't know, Steve."
It made the corner of his mouth tick up. "Thanks for being honest."
Bucky nodded. "I'd better let Fury know, if he doesn't already."
"And I'd better tell Bruce."
While Bucky notified Fury he sent a message to Bruce, then put his phone down and stared at the counter. He felt Bucky move around to stand behind him and there was a fleeting brush on his shoulder, a gentle squeeze, then Bucky had moved past. Steve wished he'd come back and do it again. Then he shook himself and sat up.
"I have an appointment I need to keep today." It was maybe not the best day for it, but he wasn't going to make Clint wait.
"Okay. Where are we going and when do we need to be there?" Steve told him where Clint's apartment was and when Clint was expecting him, and Bucky nodded. "Do you want to get something to eat first?"
"I'm not really hungry."
"If you're going to be healing, you need to eat."
"I won't be using much power." Bucky looked at him doubtfully, but let it drop.
Steve hadn't lied when he'd said he wouldn’t be using much power. Clint was a special case. Steve wasn't really seeing him as a healer at all, even if he'd met Clint when he'd been half dead, his body shutting down from starvation.
He'd found him, literally stumbled across him, behind a dumpster where Clint had taken refuge and he'd had to fight Clint to let Steve even touch him. Steve had poured power into him, healing his physical body, but it wasn't enough. Clint had needed food. The problem had been that Clint was an incubus; a hamburger wasn't going to cut it.
Uncomfortable, more than a little worried—incubi might be higher demons, flesh and blood and intelligent, but they were still demons—Steve had offered himself. Maybe it hadn't been smart, but he'd never backed down from a fight and Clint was not going to die.
Which was when he'd discovered what the actual problem was: Clint was an incubus who didn't like sex, who wouldn't enthrall anyone, which was why he was starving.
It had left Steve staring, dumbfounded, until Clint had rolled over and curled into a ball, muttering that mythology wasn't destiny and that Steve should have left him behind the damn dumpster. Steve had apologised, because he wasn't an asshole, and racked his brain for a solution. What they'd eventually figured out was that Clint could feed on him, without enthralling, without seducing, if he didn't feed on Steve's life force but on the power of his gift. Clint had to be incredibly careful, controlled, just brush the surface, and it wasn't quick, left Steve a bit brain hazy, but it worked.
Of course, he'd never had to manage it with an overprotective Bucky in tow.
When they arrived at Clint's apartment building, Steve stopped outside Clint's door. Clint's place wasn't exactly top of the line luxury chic, more understated early trash, like Clint had developed a kinship for dumpsters and was trying to recreate his earlier experience.
"You're not going to be willing to wait outside, are you?" he asked Bucky, except it wasn't really a question because he already knew the answer.
A smile flitted across Bucky's mouth. "No."
"I knew that," Steve said with an answering smile. "I'll need you to wait in the living room, though, and I'll see Clint in his room."
Bucky nodded and Steve knocked on the door. Clint seemed more than a little surprised to see Bucky, looming behind Steve like a particularly protective shadow, but Steve cast his eyes heavenwards, wanting Clint to be at ease, and Clint bit his lip, amused. "We'll need to use your bedroom. Bucky's going to be pacing the living room, guarding us from things that go bump in the night."
"It's daytime," Clint pointed out.
"From things that go bump in the daytime, then," Steve said.
"Steve?" Bucky said.
"I need to check his bedroom first." Bucky said it apologetically and Clint's eyebrows shot up.
"Is that okay with you?" Steve asked Clint.
"As long as you don't judge me for being King of the Slobs, be my guest." He waved a hand at the door.
Bucky was quick and when he was done, Clint led the way into his bedroom. Steve firmly shut the door and leaned against it. "Why is Bucky guarding you from things that go bump in the daytime?" Clint asked.
"Do you know him?"
"Pretty much everyone knows him."
"Of course they do," Steve said on a sigh.
"Not answering my question." Clint patted the bed and Steve sank down on it to sit next to him. "What's going on?" Steve explained and Clint nodded, a faint hint of worry passing over his face when Steve reached this morning's news. "That's not a bad thing."
"I hear things." His eyes were strange, pupils contracting to slits, as he stared into nothing. "And some of those things tell me it's not a bad idea to have someone like Bucky on your side." He shook himself and was Clint again. "Ready?"
Pushing up his sleeve, Steve held out his hand. Clint pressed his fingertips against Steve's skin and rested his chin on Steve's shoulder. It was comfortable and familiar, nothing even remotely sexual about it, and slowly he felt the tickle of Clint's power gently reaching into him. It was so light he could barely feel it, just barely brushing the surface, and he knew how careful Clint was being even as his brain went hazy.
Steve was vaguely aware of time passing, of a knock on the door, of a voice saying his name. He knew the voice, it sparked equal feelings of irritation and fondness and confusion, of safety, but he couldn't quite surface enough to answer.
* * *
Bucky wasn't happy about leaving Steve alone. It made him antsy and angry and worried all at once. He'd checked Clint's bedroom—it was safe enough, the tiny window locked up tight—and he was leaning against the wall next to the door, so he'd hear if anything went wrong.
But what he could hear was nothing. Nothing but soft breathing. He had a bad feeling. He knew how long it took Steve to heal someone. Knew how long it took Steve to heal someone even if they were bleeding out and close to death and it took less time than this.
Something wasn't right.
He knocked and called Steve's name. There was no answer.
Mentally promising to apologise, he slowly opened the door and peeked inside. Steve wasn't healing. Steve was sitting on the bed, Clint's hand wrapped around his wrist, Clint's mouth too close to his neck, and Clint's skin was the rippling red of an incubus. Steve's face was slack, Steve completely out of it.
Clint was feeding on him.
Rage shot through him. He lunged and caught Clint by the throat, dragging him off the bed and pinning him to the wall.
"Okay, this looks bad," he choked out. Bucky bared his teeth and fought the urge to rip him to pieces. He'd been feeding on Steve.
He'd been feeding on Steve. Steve came here to help him and he'd been feeding on Steve. He'd been going to do who knew what else to him and Bucky had just been standing by, letting it happen.
He was supposed to protect Steve, supposed to keep him safe, and—
Sudden shooting pain, fingers dug into nerves he hadn't known existed, made him drop Clint. Steve was suddenly between them, Clint on the floor gasping for breath, Steve's hands on his face, healing him. Bucky lunged. Steve held up one hand. "No." It was absolute, unarguable, Steve was made from steel, from mountains. Bucky stopped. "He wasn't hurting me."
"I wasn't," Clint said.
"He was feeding on you."
"Yes he was."
Bucky didn't know what to do with that, anger stumbling to a confused halt in the face of Steve's bald agreement. "He's an incubus."
"Yes he is," Steve said. "Now back off."
Bucky looked down at Clint, who was sitting where Bucky had dropped him, knees pulled up, looking—Bucky frowned, because he looked sad. He took two steps back. "I don't understand."
Clint snorted. "Understatement of the century."
"Do you want me to tell him to go to hell or do you want me to explain?" Steve asked Clint and Bucky could hear anger simmering beneath the words.
The look Clint turned on Bucky was long and searching and Bucky was surprised when he said, "You can tell him. Don't know if he's going to believe you, but you can tell him. I'm going to bed."
"Okay. Did you get enough?"
Clint flopped down on his bed, wrestled the blankets over his head, and a muffled, "I'm good, Steve. Thanks," escaped.
"If you're sure?"
Steve patted his head then turned to Bucky. "Come on. We're leaving."
Bucky waited until they were in the living room, Clint's bedroom door firmly shut, before he ventured, "Steve?"
"No. Don't talk to me right now." Bucky followed Steve out of Clint's apartment with the feeling he was walking a tightrope. Steve didn't say a word, just got on the bike behind him, sitting stiffly, holding onto him but only enough to keep himself from falling off.
Steve still hadn't said anything by the time they were back in his apartment. Bucky shut the door and turned to face him. Steve's arms were folded, his eyes snapping with anger. "I thought we had an understanding."
Bucky jerked back in surprise. "What?"
"You stay behind me, you let me take the lead, unless you see blood. There wasn't any blood. There wasn't any aggression."
"Because an incubus was feeding on you. You're human. You can't fight an incubus once they've got you under." He was half-pleading with Steve, trying to make him understand. "Once an incubus rolls you, that's it."
"Not this incubus."
He sounded so certain. Bucky took half a step forward, hands raised. "He's an incubus, a demon, and he was feeding on you." Every instinct he had was snarling at him to grab Steve and never let him go. He would not give in to them, but nothing he'd said was wrong. "Steve, he's a demon."
"Yes, he's a demon." There was challenge there, and warning, and Bucky wrestled with himself. Incubi were demons, were not to be trusted, especially not around humans. Okay, they weren't the mindless hordes that inhabited the lower planes, ready to be summoned up by any lunatic with the right book, but they were still demons.
But this was Steve. He had to trust him. He did trust him. He took a deep breath and asked, "What am I missing? What have I got wrong?"
The challenge, the warning gave way slightly to make room for approval. "Better. I met Clint when he was starving to death."
"He couldn’t enthrall anyone?"
"He wouldn't enthrall anyone. He doesn't like sex."
Bucky's jaw dropped. "He's an incubus."
"Mythology isn't destiny, which is what he told me. So we have an arrangement. I feed him, not my life force, he feeds off my power, off my gift, without seducing, without enthralling. He skims the surface, he's careful, he keeps his powers under control. It works for him. He's happy, he's healthy. And he's my friend. Who you tried to kill."
"I didn't try and kill him," Bucky protested.
"No. I just needed to get him away from you. I thought he was hurting you. I thought you were in danger."
"You were wrong."
A heavy weight of silence pressed down on them. Bucky contemplated his boots, rolling words around in his head like dice. Finally, he lifted his gaze to Steve's. "How was I supposed to know that?"
Steve didn't answer.
"I'm here to protect you. That's what I do. I thought you were being hurt. Everything I saw, everything I know, said you were in danger." He said it quietly, not an accusation, just truth offered freely. "I didn't know you were safe."
Steve's face was a mask. Bucky had no idea what was going on behind it as the minutes ticked past. He almost jumped when Steve slumped and ran a hand through his hair. When Steve said, "Shit," in a cracked voice.
It was Bucky's turn to remain silent.
"This was my fault." Steve squared his shoulders, lifted his chin. "This was completely my fault."
Bucky stirred. "No, I—"
"Yes." Steve slowly walked over to stand in front of him. "You're right. You couldn't have know because I didn't tell you. I should have told you. Especially after this morning, I should have told you." Steve held Bucky's eyes. "Not about Clint, not the personal stuff, but about what I was going there to do. You needed to know so you'd know I was safe."
"No it's not." Steve raised his hand and it hovered in the air between them before he laid it gently against Bucky's chest. "It's not okay. I should have trusted you. You've earned that." He stopped, frowned down at the floor, fingers curling almost absently against Bucky. "No, that's not right. That's," he shook his head, "it's not about earning it. I trust you." He looked up. "Bucky, I'm sorry."
"I’m sorry, too." His instincts were still pacing inside him, because Clint had been feeding on Steve, and Steve was his to protect, his to keep... Except he wasn't. Steve wasn't anyone's but his own. "I'll apologise to Clint, if you think he'll want to hear it from me."
"I don't know. I'll ask him when I'm delivering mine." Steve looked tired, suddenly.
Not giving himself time to think about it, Bucky covered Steve's hand with his own. "Let's call this one a joint effort, okay? I mean, it's good we're working together. We just need to aim for better outcomes." The corner of Steve's mouth twitched. "And next time you'll tell me."
"Next time I'll tell you," Steve said. He gave Steve's hand a gentle squeeze before letting go, and it must have been wishful thinking that made him see disappointment in Steve's eyes.
Oh my gosh, there's art of Steve and Clint, done by the amazing AyaroS92. Go, enjoy, leave lovely comments and kudos!
Chapter 12: Everything Gets Clear
Bucky was staring out the window, watching a distant dot circle in the sky while Steve texted Sam. He was staring out the window because otherwise his gaze had a distinct tendency to wander back and land on Steve. He knew his inability to keep his eyes off Steve was mostly the lingering after-effects of yesterday, of Clint, of their fight—was it a fight? He wasn't sure—of You're someone I can trust.
He didn't know what was causing Steve's matching tendency to look over at him, but it did mean he kept getting caught. Staring out the window was safer.
"I'm going to head down to The Howl to meet Sam," Steve said, interrupting his thoughts.
Bucky looked over at him. "Okay?"
"You're not going to object?"
"Only if you try and leave me behind."
At the beginning, it would have been an irritated exchange, maybe accompanied by Steve's scowl. Certainly a sigh of resignation. Now it was call and response that made them both smile and Steve said, "No, I wouldn't do that."
The Howl wasn't crowded and Bucky had a clear view of several tables. "If you want to spend some time without me you can sit there," he pointed at one of them, up against a wall, "and I can stand over here. You can just let me know when you're ready to leave."
Steve stopped dead and twisted to stare up at him. "What are you talking about?"
"Well you're not leaving without me. As we've been over several times, that kind of defeats the purpose."
"No, what do you mean you can stand over here?"
"I'm good enough, fast enough, to get to you from here if something goes wrong. You can spend some time without me. Or as much without me as you can be."
Steve stared up at him—thoughtful, focused, pinning Bucky in place until Bucky wanted to squirm away. "No," he finally said. "Come sit down. You're not lurking over here and staring at me. I got enough of that the first time I saw you."
When Steve turned away, leading them through the bar towards the table, Bucky felt warmth spread through him, patter down his spine with little kitten feet and curl in his stomach. Pathetic, he imagined Natasha saying. Don't care, he replied as he pulled out a chair and sat down.
As his eyes travelled over the bar, Bucky was surprised to see the real thing walk in, accompanied by several guild members and a few people he didn't recognise. She glanced up, like she'd felt his eyes on her, and crooked a finger at him. He scowled and she frowned, pointing at the ground next to the table as her group sat down. He sighed.
When Steve looked at him in question, he tilted his head, pointing. "Natasha. I'm being summoned. Can you give me five minutes? I'll be right there, you won't be out of my sight, and if something happens me and Natasha will be right here."
Steve was laughing at him, he was certain, but all he did was nod solemnly. "I promise I'll survive if you go and talk to Natasha for five minutes." Bucky pushed out his chair and stood, then hesitated. "Bucky, go."
Steve was definitely laughing at him. He could see it in his eyes.
* * *
Steve watched Bucky make his oblique way across the bar so Steve was never out of his line of sight. Steve was laughing at him, keeping it safely on the inside, but it was...fond. It was the same feeling that had spun up inside him when Bucky had suggested leaning on the wall while Steve had lunch with Sam.
Even if that frustratingly fond feeling—alliteration, Steve, that's great—hadn't made itself known, it'd be a cold day in hell before he'd make Bucky stand around waiting for him.
Not after yesterday. Not after the way he'd fucked up.
He'd fucked up so badly. Clint had gotten hurt and he'd hurt Bucky, all because he hadn't trusted Bucky. Because it hadn't occurred to him to trust Bucky, Bucky who'd done nothing but prove over and over again he was someone Steve could trust. Someone Steve could rely on.
Steve had been so angry when Bucky had burst in, when he'd hurt Clint, and he was still angry, could feel it curl in his gut, hot and sharp, but it was pointed at the right person now: himself. Bucky's voice, calmly saying I didn't know you were safe, when he would have been justified hurling it like a spear after the way Steve had torn into him, kept replaying in his mind. I didn't know you were safe. No, because how could he? Steve didn't tell him.
Steve sighed and put his elbow on the table, rested his chin on his hand. Steve, you fucking dumbass.
And then Bucky had just forgiven him. Said he was sorry, that he'd apologise to Clint, when Bucky was pretty much blameless in the whole thing. Steve wasn't quite sure what he'd done to deserve that. What he'd done to deserve him.
That fond feeling had kicked into overdrive when Bucky had covered his hand. Steve hadn't wanted him to let go and he wasn't sure what—
"You okay?" Steve jumped. Bucky was leaning over him, one hand on the table, concern in his eyes, and Steve had the odd sensation he was looking at a double image, Bucky overlaid on Bucky, the man he'd thought he was overlaid on the man he'd come to know. "Steve?"
"What? No, I'm fine. I was just distracted. What did Natasha want?"
Bucky slid into the chair across from him, the one that would give him a clear view of the bar. "What does Natasha always want? To make my life more difficult. She pointed out I haven't trained with her since I started protecting you."
"You know," Steve wasn't sure what he was about to say, but the words were coming like a dam breaking, no way to stop them even if he'd been gagged, "the night you got me to swear to let you protect me you were a kind of an asshole the way you tricked me into it." Bucky slumped in his chair, avoiding Steve's eyes. "But." Steve paused until he glanced up. "But to finally answer your question? I think it was really necessary. I don't think anything else would have worked."
"I couldn't think of anything," Bucky muttered.
"It doesn't make it okay, but I understand."
A weight of expectation seemed to hover above them, casting silence like a shadow. Bucky was very still when he broke it. "You're not going to ask me to release you?"
Steve smoothed his fingers across the table. He'd sworn on his name and it would hold until Bucky released him from his word. "Would you?" he asked, meeting Bucky's eyes.
Voice low, eyes never leaving Steve's, he said, "Yes. If you asked me to, yes."
Steve believed him. "Even if I released you, you'd still be trying to do it, right? Trying to keep me safe?"
"I would. No matter what." Bucky's eyes were intent and there was something there, something Steve wasn't quite grasping. It was just out of reach and he had the feeling if he only tried hard enough he could understand... Then Bucky looked away and the moment was gone.
"Then let it stand. No." Bucky looked back, expression worried. "No, in fact consider it freely given."
"Steve." He didn't seem to know what to say, finally settled on, "Thank you," but his eyes were alight with warmth. After a moment, they shifted to focus behind Steve.
"Really? You had to invite him?"
"He's protecting me, Sam, it means he goes where I go." Steve stood up and Sam pulled him into a hug.
"I know, but it doesn't mean I have to be happy about seeing him."
"And it's always nice to see you, too, Sam," Bucky deadpanned as Steve sat back down.
"Your nose is going to grow, you keep telling lies like that," Sam said and Bucky feigned offence, metal hand pressed against his chest in mock-shock.
"Don't you know mundane fairy tales are offensive? It's bad manners to bring them up. For all you know they could have traumatised me as a child."
"You being traumatised as a child would explain a lot about you now." Sam paused in pulling out a chair to glare at Bucky. "And I'll have you know, my manners are excellent. It's just certain people happen to bring out my bad side."
"Sorry," Bucky cupped one hand around his ear, "did you say they bring out your bird side?"
"You heard what I said."
"Take it easy, Sam. I'm just falcon around."
"Yeah? Well why don't you go buck yourself."
They exchanged cloyingingly sweet smiles and Steve groaned and dropped his head down to thunk on the table. "Okay, enough." He held up his hands. "Can we please decide what to order? I'm starving."
"I think I'll have the chicken," Bucky mused and Steve kicked him under the table. Bucky glanced up, eyes dancing, but he subsided.
They collectively decided on burgers, with a brief argument over who was actually going to go order, before Sam finally went, grumbling the whole time. When Steve and Bucky went to collect them they discovered Sam had accidentally ordered Bucky's with extra extra hot sauce, but he just smirked and added more, prompting Sam to declare him unnatural.
Steve was happy to let their bickering—which had no real heat to it—wash over him as he ate, and he sat back, hiding a laugh, when Bucky smiled sweetly and snagged the last fry, prompting an impressive glower and a Really? Really? I have to put up with this? look from Sam.
Bucky simply let his gaze drift outwards and Sam shook his head before turning to Steve. "How are you?" he asked. "Really how are you, none of this everything's fine, I'm fine, don't worry about me bullshit."
Because it was Sam, Steve said, "I honestly don't know."
Sam nodded. "Yeah, I get that." He lowered his voice. "Everything okay with?" He nodded his head at Bucky, who was obviously keeping his attention focused elsewhere, giving them the privacy he could.
Considerate, in the way Steve had come to expect from Bucky. It made him smile. "No, that's good. That's," he tapped the table, ran his finger along a line in the wood, "yeah, that's not a problem."
"Huh. Not what I expected, but all right." Sam was eyeing him like Steve had done something surprising. "So what's not okay?"
"Not knowing what's going on. Not being able to do anything about it. Knowing there's healers out there that are just gone and not knowing if they're okay." He paused. "Knowing they're probably not okay."
Sam studied him, head tilted, concern in the lines of his face. "Are you worried about it happening to you? "
"No." It came out faster than he'd meant it to, wrapped in rock-solid certainty. He saw Sam's surprise before he covered it, but Steve knew Bucky would protect him. I didn't know you were safe.
His eyes settled on Bucky, drawn to him like metal to a magnet and it was like waves parting. Suddenly he could see Bucky. Before he'd always been obscured by a vague fog of irritation but now Steve could see all of him: the fine, strong bones of his face, the jawline that curved back under his flowing hair, his stormy eyes that always warmed when he looked at Steve.
Steve didn't know what to do with it. With the tingle in his fingertips that said reach out and touch.
He knew Bucky's body, because he sometimes snuck out of the bathroom without a shirt, making a run for the duffel bags that held his clothes, he knew the movement of muscles under his skin, knew the elegant, graceful length of his back, the segmented flow of his metal arm.
Now he could see it and he wanted to slam his head down on the table and make it stop because he had no idea what to do with any of it.
All this time, the space he'd had in his head labelled Bucky had been wrong, the wrong shape and the wrong size and wrong. Now that he'd stopped trying to fit this Bucky, the real Bucky, inside it he could see him.
"Earth to Steve."
He jumped. "Sorry?"
"I said you'll let me know if that changes, right?" Sam's brow was furrowed in concern. "You sure you're okay?"
"Yeah, Sam. I will. I'm fine." He dragged his eyes away from Bucky. "Everything's fine."
Chapter 13: My Life in Your Gifted Hands
"I'm just saying, if we went out where there were more people, maybe you could lurk out of sight, see if anything jumped out at me."
"Steve. No. It's one thing if trouble comes calling, but we're not going to actively go looking for it."
"Didn't you say you wanted to use me for bait?"
"No, you said I wanted to use you for bait. I said I wasn't saying anything because it was only going to get me in trouble."
Steve was looking at him earnestly from his spot on the shop counter, legs dangling. Bucky leaned next to him, not quite close enough to touch, and resisted the urge to turn and bang his head on the counter, maybe rummage through some of the jars, see if there was anything for stress. His gaze cut sideways. Steve's expression was a little too earnest. "You're messing with me, right?"
"Mostly, yeah," Steve said and broke into a grin.
The door swinging open, bell jingling cheerfully, saved him from having to answer. "Buchanan," the new arrival said, smiling as she spotted him.
"Sif, hi." Bucky straightened, since something about Sif always made him want to stand to attention. "What brings you down to the city?"
"I'm in need of a healer."
It was exactly the wrong thing to say—or exactly the right thing to say, depending on your state of health—in Steve's presence. Steve hopped off the counter and was at Sif's side, was reaching for her hand before Bucky could reply. Her hand was one of the few spots of bare skin available, since she was well-covered in functional black leather, swords at each hip, the blue pulse of Stark charms visible in the hilts.
Her lips twitched in amusement as she gently caught Steve's fingers. "I'm not injured," she said. "I'm in need of your services tomorrow."
Steve was left blinking up at her and Bucky felt a flash of mingled jealously and sympathy, because Sif had that effect on people. She opened her fingers and Steve pulled his hand back. "Sorry," he said. "It's reflex."
"No apologies necessary and your reflex tells me I've come to the right person," she replied as Steve made his way back to the counter.
"Steve, this is Sif," Bucky said, gesturing between them. "Sif, this is Steve."
"I'm pleased to meet you," Sif said.
"Likewise," Steve replied, pulling himself back up to sit on the counter. "What do you need me for tomorrow?"
"I and my cohorts train young people to be warriors. The culmination of the training is a game, meant to take place tomorrow, but for that we need a healer."
"Isn't tomorrow kind of short notice?"
"We had arranged healers, one from the Temple of Sekhmet and one from the Court of Flame, but both have decided that with the current situation and the potential threat to healers they will not be sending them. The game takes place high up in the mountains, away from the city, and despite my pledge to keep them safe they won't risk any danger. Which is why I'm here."
"They just cancelled at the last minute?" Steve asked, obviously unimpressed.
"They say it's just a game and we can hold it later. But it's not just a game. It's important. Perhaps we could delay it, but my students have been waiting for this since the beginning," she raised both her hands, palm up, and let them fall, "and I'd prefer not."
"And you want to know if I'll do it." Sif nodded. "Can you give me an idea of what I'm getting into?"
"It will be hard," she said and Bucky supressed a groan, because Steve's eyes immediately lit up, the way they always did when faced with a challenge. "There is a reason we've always had two healers. We have thirty students. There are no deliberately mortal wounds permitted in the game, but few rules beyond that. We wish our students to use all of their skills and that can result in a great many injuries, although they usually lessen as the game progresses."
"Why do they lessen?"
"No, why are they getting so injured they need a healer in the first place?" Bucky didn't know if Sif would hear the thread of protectiveness under the question, the way Steve bristled on behalf of people he didn't even know.
Sif glanced at him, and Bucky could see the doubt in her eyes, see: This is a human. Am I wasting my time if I explain? Should I even try? Bucky nodded once and eased closer to Steve, so his hip was pressed against Steve's leg. Steve glanced at him, briefly startled, but didn't move away, just settled back, waiting patiently for Sif's answer.
"In the days after the doors to Underhill slammed shut, trapping us here, we forgot our differences."
Steve's eyes went wide and he sat up straight. "You—" He cut himself off. "Sorry."
Her quick smile spoke of forgiveness. "We remembered them soon enough, once we had the luxury to do so, split up again into our little groups. But in that brief time we were together we achieved more than we could have alone. I think someday we can have that again."
"People have tried before and failed," Bucky pointed out—not that he'd been around to see it, but he knew their history.
"I'm going to live a very long time. I have the luxury to keep trying," she told Bucky, waving a finger at him like he was a troublesome child. He held back a smile, because to her he probably was, and he could feel curiosity thrumming through Steve, feel him wondering what Sif was, even as he knew Steve would never ask.
"Many of our people, they have the instinct, the drive, to fight. There are not many left who can teach them to be warriors instead of brawlers and thugs, so they are willing to send me their young, regardless of faction. I teach them, not just combat and control, but to think and to question. They learn to work together, regardless of what they are or who they come from." Steve nodded, leaning forward, elbows on his knees, chin on his hands. "The game gives my young warriors a chance to test themselves, to test their skills, in mock battle. There are few rules, which means they get hurt. The injuries are important. Being hurt, hurting others, it means they know undeniably those skills have consequences. It also teaches them that it's not enjoyable to use them against people they've learned to call, if not friend, at least comrade-in-arms." She sighed. "Or that's the intention. I admit it's a lesson that doesn't always take."
"You said it's a mock battle but you also said it's a game. Are they going to have weapons?" Steve asked. "I'd like to know what to expect."
"Yes, but they are limited in number and we use practice blades. And as it's game and battle both, the fighting is a means to an end. That's not how it used to be. Once it was only mock-battle, fought with a full complement of weapons, but the injuries were great and death was sometimes inevitable. It was actually something from the human world that inspired the new way."
"What's the new way?"
Sif's grin was disturbingly sharp, her eyes bright and gleaming. "They fight for a ball."
Steve blinked and exchanged a puzzled glance with Bucky. "Uh, okay. Yeah, I'll do it. No problem. I'm not sure if the bike will get us up to the mountains, though."
"I will send a car for you at dawn tomorrow. And you will receive the fee for both healers who are not coming."
"You will be doing the job of both so it's fair."
Bucky could feel Steve wanting to argue, but he didn't, just nodded.
"Until tomorrow then," Sif said, inclining her head in something far too regal to be called a nod, and swept out of the shop.
They were silent in the wake of her departure and then Steve blurted out, "I can't believe I met someone who's been around since..." before trailing off in awe.
Bucky nodded in understanding; Sif had always exuded a feeling of age, but he'd never known she was that old.
"You're not?" Steve's hand was suddenly on his shoulder, warm and heavy.
"What? No. No, I'm only about as old as you."
Steve's, "I'm glad," was so soft Bucky almost didn't hear it, distracted by feel of Steve's hand on his shoulder, the line of warmth that was Steve's leg against his arm.
Bucky leaned out over the rocky edge, staring down at the drifting cloud, and closed his eyes.
Imagined wings spread wide, catching the swirling breeze, and launching himself into the sky.
He could feel his dragon pressing against the inside of his skin.
The car had collected them at dawn and the mountain road had wound ever higher, carrying them up through misty fog and drifting cloud to this green plateau. Behind him, Sif's warrior students were raucous and loud, their calls and laughter echoing around him, Sif's voice and the voices of her cohorts cutting through them like a blade.
Bucky ignored them. He lifted his head into the breeze and breathed in. Imagined flight, the wind streaming across his body, Steve tucked in the curve of his neck, flying with him. His toes curled, fingers curled. He breathed out.
A touch on his shoulder called him back. "You okay?"
He turned to see Steve looking at him with concern. "I'm okay." And he was now, his dragon subsiding in Steve's presence, grounded by his touch. "Really," he added at Steve's obvious doubt. "I just like heights."
"You don't have the urge to jump off do you?"
Bucky couldn't help it. He tipped his head back and laughed, and Steve's brow furrowed in confusion. "Only sometimes, Steve. Only sometimes." He patted the hand on his shoulder. "Come on. I think Sif wants us."
Sif did want them. The game was about to start. She was standing in the middle of the wide expanse, wooden structures, shaped like a U on a stick, erected at each end, tossing an oval ball in one hand. Her students were gathered around her, divided into two teams, one wearing red and one wearing blue, and most not wearing a human shape. Bucky's eyes picked out shifters in their half-form, harpies, waheela, a goblin, two lamia—a mass of mythfolk, armed and armoured to supplement their natural weapons, eyes bright and locked onto Sif while she spoke.
"You all know the rules. All of your skills can be used but the ball is sacrosanct. No flying more than three feet above the ground. No deliberate infliction of mortal wounds. If you are seriously injured you will immediately leave the field and see the healer. One point for each time the ball goes through the goal and the first team to thirty points wins."
She eyed them all, pinning them in place. "Is this understood?"
"Yes," was roared back and she smiled wide and slammed the ball into the ground. It impacted then bounced high into the air and she moved off the field as thirty beings lunged for it.
It was impossible to follow, neither rhyme nor reason to what was happening, just an absolute determination to capture the ball turning the field into a swirling mass of chaos. It wasn't long before blood was flying, not long after that before Steve got his first patient, and then Bucky was too busy watching Steve to pay much attention to the game.
True to Sif's prediction, injuries died down as the game progressed, but dying down didn't mean they were done and Steve had been healing almost nonstop. Bucky had been keeping a close eye on him, keeping him hydrated, getting food into him, and he was beginning to realise something he'd never fully understood.
Healing hurt Steve.
Really hurt him.
It wasn't until the harpy with the dagger embedded in her shoulder—turned out even dull practice blades could pierce skin and muscle with enough force behind them—that he'd been sure.
Steve had pressed a hand against her feathered sternum, the other wrapped around her wrist, and froze. Surprised, Bucky had glanced at him and seen a flash of agony on his face even as she was relaxing, her pain falling away. It only lasted a few seconds then Steve had told Bucky to help lay her on her back, careful of her wings, and dropped to his knees next to her. His voice had been strong and even as he'd asked Bucky to pull the dagger out, inch by slow inch, as he'd healed behind it.
But Bucky was looking for it now and he could see the pain in Steve's eyes, hear it in the slightly ragged undertone of his voice, in the tiny hitch in his breathing.
The more he watched, the more certain he became.
Bucky remembered when he'd nearly died because of that damned sphinx and making a choice between his life and a bunch of unarmed bystanders. As out of it as he'd been, the memory of Steve turning back the clock on that choice was crystal clear—and so was the brief moment when he'd leaned into Bucky's touch.
When Steve set his hands on the next injured student, Bucky settled his right hand on Steve's shoulder, fingertips pressing against his collarbone, gentle but firm. When Steve was done, the student bouncing back into the fray, he looked at Bucky questioningly, one eyebrow raised. Bucky gazed back calmly but didn't offer an explanation.
He was pretty sure he only got away with it because Steve was already drooping with fatigue.
He kept doing it. Steve didn't object and Bucky, even as he acknowledged it could be imagination or wishful thinking or some combination of the two, thought Steve might be having an easier time of it.
Steve was beyond exhausted, sitting slumped cross-legged, Bucky standing behind him, when a waheela, brown-furred and sharp-clawed, staggered up and gingerly lowered himself to the ground. Both his arm were broken and he had a deep slash across his chest.
As Steve gently touched his clawed hands, Bucky knelt behind Steve, not sure what he wanted to do, just knowing he wanted to do something, something more, and settled for pressing his shoulder, his hip, against Steve's back. Giving him support if he needed it.
There was no visible reaction, but Bucky felt Steve sway backwards, leaning into him until Bucky could feel the delicate line of his spine, the wiry muscles of his back.
Eventually Steve lifted his hands away from the waheela sitting patiently in front of him. "You can go," Steve said, and he grinned, displaying short, curved fangs, murmured thank you, and bounced to his feet, running back towards the game. Steve watched him, shaking his head, and slumped a little more against Bucky.
"How much does it hurt you?" Bucky asked quietly.
He turned his head, just enough to meet Bucky's eyes. "Do you really want to know? Most people, I think they'd prefer not to."
"Yeah, Steve. I want to know."
"I feel everything they feel. Like it's happened to me."
Memory flashed through Bucky, so strong, so visceral, he could smell the blood. A forest, his leg torn off by a hydra's jaws, blood and bone and Steve's hands on him. The agony of it, suddenly gone. He shuddered. Steve had felt that. There was something under his hand, his fingers were wrapped around something. With a start, he realised he was clutching Steve's arm. "I'm sorry."
"Bucky, it's okay." Steve covered his hand. "It's how the healing gift works. The pain," he blew out a breath, studied Bucky's face, tone doubtful, "you sure you want to know this?"
Whatever Steve saw, it must have convinced him. "When I touch you, I take your pain. You stop feeling it and it, I don't know how to explain, it helps me know where to send my power, know what needs to be fixed. That's just how it works."
"I didn't know. I mean, I knew it wasn't exactly pleasant for you, but I didn't know it was that bad."
"No reason why you should." Bucky wanted to shake him, because yes. There was every reason why he should. After a long moment of silence, Steve added, "I think that's why there's not many like me."
"Not sure there's anyone like you," Bucky said on a breath of something that would have been laughter if he wasn't trying to process what it cost Steve to heal. Trying to process that Steve did it so readily, trying to process that whenever Steve healed Bucky, Bucky had been hurting him.
"Not what I meant, and no giving me shit when I'm too tired to give it back." Since Bucky had been completely serious he didn't say anything, just shifted a little closer so Steve could put more weight on him, fighting down the urge to pull him into his arms. "I meant healers that are on their own. Healing hurts. A lot of the time, it fucking hurts. It'd be a lot easier if you had a bunch of people looking out for you and taking care of you afterwards, if you had someone to lean on while you were doing it."
"How come you don't?" Bucky held his breath as Steve turned, his head falling to rest on Bucky's shoulder. "I'm not sure there's anyone in the city who wouldn't take you. Hell, Fury would sign you up as permanent guild healer if you'd let him."
There was a long moment of silence before Steve answered. "Because then they'd make the call. It's my gift. It may hurt like hell sometimes and maybe it's hard, but I'm the one who makes the call. I'm the one who gets to decide. No one ever gets to tell me who I can help."
It was so Steve, fit everything he knew of him, it was like being told a truth he'd always known. "I understand," he said quietly, not sure if Steve would believe him.
Steve tilted his head enough to see Bucky's face. "You do, don't you?"
"Yeah, I do." Raucous cheers broke out behind them. "Guess it's over."
"Thank fuck," Steve muttered and closed his eyes. "Just leave me here. I'm gonna sleep for about a million years."
* * *
The whole world was soft and swimmy and Steve had absolutely nothing left. He was aware he wouldn’t have said most of that if he'd been awake and alert, but he couldn't find it in himself to care.
Bucky had reached for him when he'd had no reason to, when Steve was swimming in other people's pain and barely keeping his head above water. His touch had been a lifeline. Had grounded him and given him an anchor to hang onto. Mixing your metaphors there, Steve. Whatever, he was exhausted.
Point was he couldn't care about telling Bucky stuff he wouldn't normally tell people when Bucky had seen what people didn't usually bother to see and then done what he could to help.
His head was on Bucky's shoulder and the inside of his own eyelids was the best thing he'd ever seen, Bucky was warm beside him and he really could just stay here forever. Become the old man of the mountain. There were footsteps and a voice asking, "Will he be all right?" Not as old as Sif.
"I just need to get him back to his place. He's exhausted," Bucky replied.
"Steve?" Sif said.
With an effort of will that was usually reserved for climbing unclimbable mountains and moving immovable objects, Steve pried his eyelids open. "Mmmrhmp?"
Sif smiled at him. "I will pretend that was a coherent response. I want to thank you for your services today. You have done well beyond what anyone could have asked of you."
"It's my job."
"No, it is more than a job." She studied him, disconcertingly intense. "You are a warrior in your own right."
"I'm a healer not a warrior."
"You battle death at great cost to yourself. You take the wounds of others into your body." Sif's eyes were vast, an eternal landscape, studded with stars, deep and inhuman. Steve couldn’t look away. "If I say to you that the battles you fight make you a warrior?" Her voice was gentle but it was bound with iron and blades. "It is fact. I am uniquely placed to know the truth of such things."
Beside him Bucky went still. Steve swallowed and nodded.
"Very good." Warmth flowed back into her and she patted him on the shoulder, turned to Bucky. "You should take your healer home." She rose to her feet and returned to her students.
Steve glanced at Bucky and met Bucky looking back at him. "You okay with pretending that didn't happen?" Steve asked.
"If you are."
"Good. I don't have the energy to deal with it." He put his head back down on Bucky's shoulder.
After a minute, Bucky asked, "What will you do to me if I pick you up and carry you?"
What do you know, he had a little more energy left after all. "Nothing you're going to like."
"That's what I thought. In that case, just lean on me and we'll head to the car." Bucky rose to his feet and pulled Steve after him. Steve would have protested except there was a strong, solid arm around his waist and a warm, solid body to lean against. "Come on, one step at a time." By the time they got to the car, Bucky was practically supporting all his weight and when the driver opened the door Bucky sneakily scooped Steve up and deposited him in the backseat. Steve was too exhausted to do more than grumble at him. "Save it for tomorrow," Bucky said.
"You save it for tomorrow." Which made no sense and he heard Bucky's muffled laugh.
The movement of the car was soothing and Bucky was warm and comforting and Steve couldn't stop himself from tipping over to rest his head on Bucky's shoulder again. He felt Bucky brush the hair off his forehead, murmuring, "I know it annoys you." His fingers lingered, gentle and reassuring, and Steve sighed. Because it did annoy him when it flopped across his eyes and he liked that Bucky knew that. Had done something about it.
He pressed a little closer and then huffed in irritation. "Your sword's poking me."
There was a long silence. "No, you're too tired. I'm not saying it."
"Shutting up." The rest of the ride passed in silence. Steve didn't fall asleep, just listened to the sound of Bucky's breathing, regular and even and soothing, the world still swimmy and soft but it didn't matter because he had Bucky.
He had Bucky.
That was important. He tried to hang onto it, to remember it for later, but it slipped away, a fish in the sea of his exhaustion, even as he grasped after it.
"We're here," Bucky eventually murmured. "Changed your mind about letting me carry you?"
"Changed your mind about something bad happening to you?" He was pretty sure it came out garbled but Bucky seemed to catch the gist.
"Never change, Steve," Bucky said as he supported him up the stairs. "Never change." Once they were inside, Bucky didn't let him go, even as Steve looked longingly at the couch. "Okay, here's the plan. I'm going to put you to bed, but you need to promise you'll eat something before you go to sleep." Steve was not proud of the whining noise that came out of his throat. "No, you have to. You'll hate both of us in the morning if you don't eat."
"I won't hate you. I could never hate you."
Bucky jerked, like someone had stuck him with a cattle prod, then pulled him a little closer. "That's good to know, but it doesn't get you out of eating."
"Good." Bucky led him into his room and lowered him to sit on the bed. "You get ready for bed, I'm going to get you something to eat."
Steve watched him leave, then half-heartedly kicked off his shoes, tugged at his jeans until they were finally off, taking one sock with them. He left the other sock where it was and pulled his shirt off, getting briefly stuck. He contemplated just staying like that, staring at the dark material in front of his face, then scrabbled at it until he was free and shoved at his blankets until he found the t-shirt and cotton pants he slept in. He pulled them on and crawled into bed with a deep sigh, pulled the blankets over his head, closed his eyes and contemplated the utter joy that was sleep.
"No. No no no." Something poked him in the side. "No. Wake up."
"Can. Come on, Steve. Sit up and eat this." The blankets were ruthlessly pulled off his head and he blinked up at Bucky, who was standing over him with a container in one hand and a fork in the other. The fork Steve was pretty sure he'd just used to poke him.
"Did you poke me with that?"
"I'm proficient with lots of weapons."
"A fork is not a weapon."
"In my hands anything is a weapon." Steve gave him what he hoped was a sufficiently sceptical look and Bucky sat on the edge of the bed. "Here. Eat." It was leftover Chinese and however much Steve wasn't hungry his stomach snarled ravenously at the smell. "See? I told you. You need to eat."
Steve took the container and the fork and found himself wolfing it down. Bucky chuckled and reached out to smooth his hand over Steve's hair. Startled, Steve lifted his head and Bucky pulled his hand back, looking apologetic. "Sorry. It was sticking up everywhere."
"It's okay. You can do that." He blinked at the food, looked back at Bucky. "It's, if you want to. You can do that. I want you to."
He went back to eating, brain ponderous and slow with exhaustion, not sure what he'd just said, what he'd just done, what he'd just meant. When Bucky tentatively reached out again and gently ran his fingers over his hair, smoothing it into place, fingers trailing through the strands, brushing the back of his neck, he realised it didn't matter, because it felt good.
It felt right.
Bucky's hand fell to his shoulder, curling around it, then he took a deep breath and pulled it away, resting both hands in his lap. When Steve was done, he took back container and fork and set them on the floor as Steve lay down, eyelids heavy. Bucky pulled the blankets over him, smoothed them down, then stood like a shadow next to Steve's bed. Steve carried the image into sleep with him and his dreams were quiet and peaceful and warm.
Chapter 14: Looks a Mile to My Feet
It had been different between them since Sif's students. Since Bucky had tucked Steve into bed, since Steve, exhausted and half out of it, had given Bucky permission to touch him, to stroke his hair. Since he'd said he wanted Bucky to.
He'd half expected the next morning to be awkward, but it hadn't been.
It had been nice. Steve had thanked Bucky for looking after him. Had smiled a little—Bucky hesitated to apply the description to Steve, but just this once it fit—shyly. Of course the shyness hadn't lasted, and they'd been back to their ordinary selves by the time Steve had opened the shop, but he thought there was something else there.
Or maybe Bucky was imaging things. Maybe it was wistful, wishful thinking. Maybe his patheticness had finally developed into a very specific kind of brain damage.
Whether he was or was not imaging that, he wasn't imaging this. A text from Fury. Why was Fury texting him? Bucky called him with no small amount of trepidation while Steve was in the shower, Bucky leaning near the wall outside the door so he could pay attention to both of them. Not in a creepy way, thank you. In an my attention's going to be split and I'm supposed to be protecting him kind of way.
"You have a job offer."
"Hear me out. The person who's requested you is Pierce. He's one of our major links to the mundane world, got a lot of pull with some of the big temples, and this is a purely mundane gig."
"Still no. I'm staying with Steve."
"This is important."
"And it's in the guild charter: we can refuse any job we want. I'm refusing."
There was a profound silence and Bucky bit the inside of his cheek, because no one talked to Fury like that. Maybe he wouldn't have to worry about the guild charter for much longer. But Fury came back with something completely unexpected. "I'd regard it a personal favour if you'd take the job. I'd like someone I trust keeping an eye on anything that involves him. Can you get someone else to cover Rogers?"
Bucky pulled the phone away from his ear and stared at it. Because what? Fury trusted him? Since when? When he put it back to his ear, Fury was saying, "I'd prefer Natasha, but he specifically requested you. Apparently you have a solid reputation."
The world made a lot more sense, because of course he'd prefer Natasha for something like this. Who wouldn't? But to be asked was still important. Bucky chewed his bottom lip. They'd had no word of any more healers disappearing—which didn't mean that none had, just that they hadn't heard about it. But... "It's only for one night?"
"One night and travelling time."
"I'll talk to Steve. And Natasha. It's up to Steve, but if he's happy for her to take over and she agrees, I'll take the job."
"I need to know by ten," Fury said and the call went dead.
The shower door opened and Bucky's brain spiralled to a slow stop because Steve emerged, wearing only a towel slung around his hips. He wasn't ready to cope with that. This day was not being kind to him.
"Are you okay?" Steve came closer, looking up at him in concern. "Bucky?" Bucky blinked down at him and Steve put a hand on his chest. Maybe the day was being very kind to him.
"I'm good." He touched the back of Steve's hand where it was resting on his chest and smiled. "Just talking to Fury."
"Is it?" Another healer, he didn't say, but he didn't have to.
He squeezed Steve's hand. "No, nothing like that. But I do need to talk to you. Go and get dressed?" With a last look at him, Steve went and Bucky called Natasha. When he explained, including what Fury had said about preferring her, which amused her to no end, she agreed to take over protecting Steve if he took the job.
Now he just had to explain it to Steve.
Who was suddenly standing in front of him, holding out a mug of coffee.
Excellent guard work, there, Bucky. Observant to a fault. "Why do you need Natasha to take over?" And had heard the end of that call, shit. "You don't want to protect me anymore?"
"No! Steve, that's not it." A grin snuck out of corner of Steve's mouth. "You know that's not it."
"Nice. That's nice. Thanks for that."
"No problem." Steve thrust the mug at him. "Take your coffee and explain what's going on."
Bucky took it and explained the job he'd been offered. "But I don't know if I'm going to take it."
"Why wouldn't you take it?"
"Because you're under my protection and I can't do that if I'm off playing protector for someone else."
"Are you afraid Natasha won't be able to do the job?"
"Natasha's good. She's better than me. Nothing's going to get past her, I swear."
"Bucky." Steve's hand came up and covered his briefly where it was wrapped around the coffee mug. "I trust you. I know you wouldn't leave me unprotected. I don't understand what the problem is."
"Because I'm supposed to protect you." I don't want to leave you, I want to hang onto you and never let you go, dragon instinct rumbling to life at the thought of leaving Steve, not caring that it had been his idea. "I told Fury it was your decision."
Steve looked briefly surprised. Bucky half expected him to refuse to make it, but he studied Bucky, then nodded. "This Pierce guy, he's important, right? Protecting him, that's the sort of thing that could be good for you, good for your reputation, right?"
"That's not a big deal. Not a big enough deal to leave you." Their eyes met, held, and Steve looked away first, hands fiddling with a spoon sitting on the counter.
"Fury trusting you is a big deal, though."
"Go." It was Steve's voice of steel, of mountains. It shivered down Bucky's spine, made him stand straighter. "Take the job."
"You said it was my decision. This is my decision."
"I'll let Fury know."
"But Bucky?" He paused, because there was something in Steve's voice, something new. "Come home safely."
Natasha showed up, talked to Bucky for twenty minutes in a hand-over Steve hadn't been able to overhear but seemed to consist equally of her giving him shit and reassuring him.
Steve didn't want him to go. Not because he was concerned or afraid or doubted Natasha. He just...didn't want him to go. But he said goodbye and good luck and made Bucky promise to be careful and Bucky left.
Natasha was completely professional, accompanying Steve to his shop, taking up position where Bucky usually stood. When they went out to get lunch she made ordinary small talk about the weather, about books, about the latest goings on in the neighbourhood. It was surprising.
Once they were back in Steve's apartment that evening, she seemed to shift in some small way, like she was shedding her professional skin. She stretched and wandered around his apartment, seemingly casual, but Steve had spent enough time with Bucky to recognise when someone was checking the place over.
"Everything okay?" he asked.
Steve was standing in Bucky's usual spot, not examining why too closely, leaning on the end of the kitchen counter, watching her, and she walked over. "What do you and Bucky usually do now?"
"Uh, watch something dumb on TV, grab something to eat, sometimes I read and he does whatever he does with his weapons."
Steve folded his arms. "We go down to The Howl sometimes, or out to other places."
"Dumb TV sounds good," she said and went to sit on the couch, patting the space next to her. "Come sit with me."
He settled next to her, dug the remote out, and handed it over. She flipped through channels and finally settled on something that involved a lot of swearing, falling into pits of mud—at least he hoped it was mud—and eating unidentifiable items, all for the hope of winning cash prizes. "What is this?"
"I have no idea, but it's very entertaining."
He had to concede the point and they settled in to watch.
"Pity we don't have more time together," Natasha said as a man on TV dived into a vat of orange soda and began swimming frantically towards the bottom. "I could take you to the gym, teach you how to hurt people."
Startled, Steve turned to look at her. "That's not something I want to learn how to do."
"You should learn. Everyone should. What if you get attacked and Bucky's not here?"
Steve laughed, he couldn't help it. "You think I've never been in a fight before?"
"I got into my first fight when I was, I think, eight or nine."
"Really." It was delicately doubtful, hinting at disbelief without coming right out and calling Steve a liar.
"I'm not saying I won," Steve admitted with a grin. "But yes, Natasha, I've been in a few scuffles. Not for a while now, most people don't want to piss off the local healer, so if I say back off they back off, but yes. That's not the same as hurting people, though. That's," oh, and it hurt suddenly, a dull ache under his heart, because he remembered the first time he'd said these words, "that's stopping people from getting hurt."
"Steve?" There was unexpected concern on her face and he knew he must have let it show. Or maybe not. Natasha... He thought Natasha could probably read people through brick walls.
"First time I said that was to my ma. I'd come home from another fight, had a black eye, I think, and she told me I was a healer, I wasn't supposed to hurt people. I remember being upset, because she didn't get it, and saying that to her." He wound the edge of his t-shirt around his finger. "It's funny the things you remember from when you were a kid."
"Why were you getting into fights?"
He shrugged. "Didn't like bullies and kids are assholes. Never could stand by and let bad things happen if I thought I could help. But I was a skinny little shit back then, not that I'm much better now," he flashed her a quick grin and she answered with one of her own, "so yeah, mostly I lost. But—" He shrugged again.
"But you did it anyway."
"But I did it anyway."
"You know," she said after a minute, a smile playing across her lips, "I'm starting to understand what Bucky sees in you."
Steve stared, dumbfounded, as she stretched to her feet and walked into the kitchen, returning with the takeaway menus that had been stuck to the fridge. She dropped them in Steve's lap. "What do you want to eat? We're going to need a lot, because I'm starving."
"I changed the sheets on the bed for you," Steve said, coming out of the bedroom. Natasha was lounging on the couch, their dinner dishes were cleared away, and she looked more relaxed than he could ever remember seeing her.
She craned her neck around to look at him and he frowned, because there was something slightly off about the movement. "Steve, are you being a gentleman?"
"What?" he said distractedly. "Uh, yes. Sorry?"
"I'm not sleeping in your room. I'm here to protect you, I'm not your houseguest."
"Right. I know that."
She snapped her fingers. "Are you paying attention?"
"Yes. Is there something wrong with your neck?"
"I've never had any complaints."
Steve waited, eyebrows slightly raised, and when she didn't say anything else he said, "That wasn't a yes, I'm okay." She kept looking at him and he sighed. "I'm a healer, my friends don't get to walk around in pain. If something hurts, let me do something about it."
"Are we friends?"
That threw him for a loop and he paused, a little flustered, because it was a good question. They probably weren't. Were they? He liked her, he realised. She was prickly but funny and she obviously cared for Bucky and that counted for more than maybe it should. "Is that, I mean, I'd like us to be?"
She'd been watching him as he'd gone through his little bout of mental gymnastics, he realised, and was amused. "We'll see," she said, and it only half looked like she was laughing at him. "Yes, it's sore. You can do something about it if you want to."
Steve went to sit next to her and, with a quick glance for permission, pressed his fingertips just above her collarbone and let his power flow, feeling knotted muscle, mild strain and wear and tear, and healed it all. "There." He let his hand fall.
She stretched, rolling her head and then her shoulders. "Feels better."
"I'd really have screwed up if it felt worse."
"So, Steve." She looked sly now and Steve suddenly wanted to flee. "Are you friends with Bucky?"
"Yes." It came out automatically, but then he stopped. Thought about it. "Yes?" He liked Bucky. Maybe a lot? But it wasn't quite, it wasn't...Oh. Oh, that was. Bucky wasn't quite fitting under friendship in his head. Shit. Natasha was watching him, something knowing in her eyes. "I think I'm going to head to bed. It's been a long day." He hopped up. "Good night, Natasha."
"Good night, Steve." He could feel her eyes following him as he retreated to his room. "Sleep well."
"Can you take the charm off your sword?" Pierce asked.
Bucky turned slightly so he could see him in the back seat. "No, it's part of the pommel."
"Pity. It would have made an impression. The arm will have to do."
At a party full of humans? Bucky imagined the sword would have made quite an impression, but it seemed to be what Pierce was going for. Bucky's sleeves were rolled up to show the gleaming metal of his left arm and he was wearing his usual black leather, even though he'd offered to wear a suit.
Pierce was wearing a suit, an expensive one, and a standard human form, a bit older than Bucky was used to seeing. It gave Bucky no clue as to what he actually was, but he exuded the same sense of age as Sif and his eyes were a cold pale blue.
"Any special instructions?" Bucky asked.
"Stay at my left shoulder and look dangerous."
Bucky nodded and suddenly missed Steve a hell of a lot.
The driver pulled up outside a glass and steel building and they were whisked inside towards the sounds of music and people. Double doors opened on a sweeping marble-floored room, pillars stretching to a ceiling high above, gold and cream and careful lighting creating the impression of glowing warmth.
Musicians perched on a dais at one end, a singer holding court while she crooned low-voiced, creating a counterpoint to the hum of conversations. Waitstaff circulated with drinks and food, moving in an elaborate dance that let them weave seamlessly through the crowd—who helped themselves to what was offered but never quite acknowledged their existence.
Pierce made his way through the room, working the crowd of expensively dressed and heavily jewelled humans. They were all human, all mundanes, Bucky knew that, but every single one had a distinctly predatory air and Pierce was far from the only one who'd brought a guard. He stayed at Pierce's left shoulder, looking dangerous as instructed, even if he felt like an idiot scowling at anyone who made eye contact. Pierce was smiling as he shook some hands, kissed others, and he remembered everyone's name, their children's names, important facts about their lives.
Eventually they drifted away, leaving Pierce to sip his drink in peace. "Enjoying yourself?" Pierce asked him.
Since the answer would have been a resounding no, Bucky replied, "I'm not here to enjoy myself. I'm here to make sure no one harms you."
"True," Pierce acknowledged, cold blue eyes travelling around the room, a predator searching for prey, before landing on Bucky again. "You know, I offered you a job not that long ago."
It took Bucky a minute to remember. "You were looking for someone to do long-term protection work in the mundane world."
"That's the one. Is there a reason you didn't take it?"
"I'm not looking for anything long term."
"Could I change your mind?"
"Not at the moment."
"That's a shame. You interest me." Bucky couldn't quite catch the surprise before it escaped. "No, you do. I think you're a little like me." This time, Bucky managed to keep his expression completely blank, because what? "We're both interested in power."
"How do you figure that?" Damn it, that just slipped out. He used to be good at this, but he'd spent too much time with Steve; it'd dulled his reflexes for not saying what he thought.
Pierce didn't seem bothered. Quite the opposite, he seemed pleased to have finally provoked a response. "Between you and me, isn't that why you do it?"
"Do what?" he asked, genuinely confused.
"Take all those jobs as champion. Settling territorial disputes, settling leadership disputes, all those fights where you're the deciding factor in what happens to one faction or the other."
He raised his eyebrows and when Bucky didn't reply, he finished his drink and made his way to the bar. Bucky followed silently, unsure where Pierce was going with his rambling. Pierce lifted a single finger and the bartender hurriedly placed another drink in front of him.
"You're good at what you do," Pierce continued, lifting his drink, "so nine times out of ten you win. That means nine times out of ten you’re the person responsible for the extra territory, you're the one the new leader's thanking for putting them on the throne." A flash of contempt darted across Pierce's face. "Such as it is. You favour those jobs, you're known for them. Why else would you be doing it if not for the power?"
Bucky's jaw didn't drop only because he'd clamped back down on his self-control. "Why else," he said as neutrally as he knew how. Pierce nodded, looking pleased, walking up the curved staircase to the balcony that would let him survey the entire room. He leaned on the railing, swirling his drink, and Bucky moved to stand at his left.
"You should come work for me. Our world's a dead end, the same thing day in and day out. There's no power there, only petty squabbling factions. It's about surviving and nothing more. The mundane world, that's about thriving. That's where the power is. The only thing close to power in our world is the temples and deities are notoriously fickle. The key," he glanced at Bucky out of the corner of his eye, gave him a quick, flashing grin, "is to be the god, not serve the god."
It wasn't the first time Bucky had done protection work for someone who thought they had all the answers. It was the first time he'd done protection work for someone who'd tried to pull Bucky into it. 'I think you're a little like me.' I don't think so. He made a noncommittal listening noise, which seemed to satisfy Pierce.
The stairs were marble, he'd hear anyone coming, so he let himself zone out a little and think about Steve. Steve and how it had felt to run his fingers through his hair. How it had felt when Steve had said he wanted Bucky to. It washed away most of Pierce's unpleasantness.
"You know what they key to power is?"
Pierce was talking again. Bucky supressed a sigh. "No."
"It's finding something everyone else wants and being the only person who can give it to them. You find a way to do that and you can write your own ticket, no more following people around putting your body on the line."
"I'll keep that in mind."
It was a relief when Pierce re-joined the main party. Let the humans listen to him talk; they'd invited him in the first place.
Steve was rubbing his eyes when he came out of the bedroom, following the scent of coffee, and he beamed when he saw Bucky. He was standing in the kitchen and Steve had the sudden, wild urge to hug him. He ruthlessly quashed it. "Welcome back."
"Thanks." Bucky was beaming back at him.
He was aware that Natasha was leaning over the couch, watching them, but he was completely focussed on Bucky. "When did you get in?"
"A couple of hours ago. I was quiet, didn't want to wake you."
"I wouldn't have minded." Steve let his eyes travel over Bucky. "Can I check you?"
"I'm fine, Steve. I stood around and listened to people talk too much at a way too fancy party. The most exciting thing that happened was someone dropping a tray of drinks."
"For my peace of mind." He held out his hand and Bucky, after a moment's hesitation, set his right hand in it. Steve covered it with his other hand and sent his power flowing through Bucky, looking for anything wrong, glancing sheepishly up at him when he didn't find anything.
"You're right, there's nothing wrong." But he didn't let go of Bucky's hand. He could feel its strength, its warmth. There were callouses on Bucky's fingers, on the edge of his palm, rough skin contrasting with smooth, and he rubbed his thumb along Bucky's almost absently.
"Steve." Bucky voice was very quiet as he curled his fingers around Steve's hand.
"Excuse me." They jumped apart and Natasha, face carefully blank, filled her mug from the pot, took a long sip, then walked out of the kitchen. Mug in hand, she picked up her bag, said "Bye, boys," and was gone out the door.
Steve stared after her, ignoring the way his heart was racing in his chest. "Did she just steal my mug?"
Bucky sighed and leaned back against the counter. "She does that."
Chapter 15: Somewhere For Us To Find Tonight
The noise was quiet but sharp and it woke Bucky instantly. There was a tiny fairy tapping at the living room window, transparent wings reflecting the moonlight. He studied her for a minute and she gestured emphatically, then mimed being stabbed and pretended to fall over.
It was very dramatic. He let her in.
She was hard to understand, her voice high and piping, but he gathered she'd been sent as a messenger and she wanted Steve. She refused to speak to him beyond that. Reluctantly, Bucky left her flitting around the living room and went to wake him.
Steve woke, sleepy and trusting, when Bucky placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Bucky?"
"There's a fairy here to see you. Someone's hurt but she won't talk to me."
He was instantly alert, throwing back the covers and jumping out of bed. Bucky followed him into the living room. The moment she saw him the fairy flew over and landed on Steve's outstretched arm. "A selkie by the overpass that crosses the narrow part of the river. Her skin is ripped to pieces and she needs you."
"Can you give us more guidance that that?"
"Near the trees that grow in the water's edge."
"We can find that." She cocked her head expectantly. "What else?"
"She said you would pay me for my message."
"Ah." Steve glanced at Bucky, then nodded. "Right. The usual?"
The fairy grinned, showing tiny needle-sharp teeth. "Yes." It was nearly a hiss.
Bucky watched suspiciously as Steve carried her to kitchen. She hopped onto the counter and Steve took the milk out of the fridge, poured some into a saucer, then pulled a knife out the drawer. Before Bucky could react, he pierced the tip of his finger and bled into the milk. "Enough?"
Steve pushed the saucer across the counter and she greedily began to drink while Steve fished out a bandage and stuck it to his finger. When she was done she flew back out the window and disappeared into the night. "Do you know where that is?"
"I think so."
"Then let's go."
"You might want to." Bucky waved at him and Steve looked down at himself, at his pyjamas, then smiled faintly.
"Good call. Let me get changed."
It didn't take long to get there and they found the selkie tucked in the deepest shadows of the overpass. It was a vast, cavernous space, the sound of the not-too-distant river and the occasional hum of a car passing far overhead the only sounds. It was not a place where mundane humans went, charms and glamour encouraging them to stay away.
"Hi, Steve." The selkie tried to smile, but her voice was thready with pain. Her sealskin was half-attached, clinging to her thighs and stomach, crawling up her ribs, but it hung in bloody tatters.
"Ciar, hey," Steve said soothingly, dropping to his knees next to her so he could grab her hands. "What happened?"
Bucky saw the pain drop off her face as Steve paled and Bucky knew he was taking it into himself. All he wanted was to slide his hand over Steve's shoulder, brace him, give him someone to lean on, but he couldn’t. Not here. This wasn't a peaceful mountaintop with Sif keeping watch. He had to do his job.
"Stupidity," she said in a small voice. "I didn't get out of the way of a boat. The boat didn't care about a seal. I made it to land but," her voice cracked and she bit her lip, "my skin. I can't change with it like this."
"It's okay. I can fix it." She searched his face, looking scared and small, but Bucky heard Steve say, "I promise," in his voice of steel and mountains and watched her fear fade. With a reassuring smile, Steve bent his head, moving his hands to press one against her hip and the other against her torn skin. Slowly, gradually, the tears began to shrink, the fur began to regrow, spreading across the skin like wildfire, brilliant and golden, and the heavy mass of the sealskin rippled like a living creature.
Eventually, Steve pulled his hands away with a long sigh and sat back.
"Steve!" Ciar stroked the soft fur of her sealskin, lifted it to rub it against her cheek, her eyes suspiciously bright. "It's perfect."
"I told you," he said and she made a face at him. "But really, how did it happen, you're usually so careful. Were you distracted by something?"
"I promise I wont."
"There's this swanmane..." Her cheeks went pink as she trailed off and Steve hid a smile.
"So pretty," she sighed.
"Is she nice?"
"Steve, she's the nicest and I think she could break a troll's arm in half with her wings."
"That's a very important quality in a girlfriend," he said solemnly. "What about instead of being distracted by her you talk to her. I don't want to get called out in the middle of the night again because you're hurt. It's not the middle of the night part I object to," he said as she opened her mouth. "It's the hurt part."
She went pink again and nodded. "What do I owe you?"
"I'd say don't worry about it, but I know you'd hate that," he added as she started to scowl. "So why don't you talk to my landlord? He eats a lot of fish, so see what he'd like in the way of fish for part of next month's rent and if you're happy with that we can call it good."
"You're the best." She leaned forward and kissed his cheek then leapt up and ran for the river. "Thank you!" She dived off the bank and by the time she hit the water she was a seal.
Steve stretched to his feet and watched her swim off. It didn't take long before she was out of sight. "Playing matchmaker?" Bucky asked.
He shrugged. "Everyone deserves to be happ—"
Bucky didn't know what made him shove Steve to the ground. What made him draw his sword and whirl. It was instinct and training and something was wrong, a noise, a smell, a breeze, something wrong.
His sword met bloodless flesh that wasn't flesh, that parted and reformed like smoke, and he drew his gun and fired, watched bullets pass through it like it was water. It was short and long limbed, pale like the belly of a cave dweller, had vaguely human features in a too long face, eyes wide and black from edge to edge.
Steve scrambled to his feet, stayed behind him, and Bucky counted it as his only blessing. He backed away from the thing facing them, slow step after slow step, and took Steve with him.
It watched, as if confused by their slow movements.
"It's a demon." Bucky's words fell into a sudden echoing silence. The demon's mouth dropped open, showing row after row of sharp crooked teeth, and he felt his heart seize, because none of his weapons could kill a demon.
Faster than thought, it suddenly sprang forward, tried to dart around Bucky, lunging for Steve, but Bucky sidestepped, got between them, sword raised. The demon twisted under the blade to try and gouge its way through Bucky's chest, like it could get to Steve that way, and Bucky barely blocked it in time. He slammed his boot into the demon's gut, sending it flying back, but knew he was only delaying the inevitable. "I don't have blessed steel."
Bucky glanced back and saw fear in Steve's eyes where there was never fear. It touched off rage. Steve shouldn't be afraid. He whirled to meet the charging demon, dropped his weapons, snatched it out of the air with his metal hand and hurled it with all his strength, sending it flying.
Only blessed steel or utter destruction could kill a lower demon.
Reaching inside, he called his dragon. The change shimmered over him, wings and claws and scales and size, his metal arm curling around the base of his wing, and he planted himself over Steve and roared. The demon paused in its skittering charge and looked up, and Bucky breathed fire, flamed it until it was nothing but ash and smoke, kept going until the asphalt was charred and broken and melted.
His fire died and silence spread.
Steve was crouched beneath him. Bucky could hear him breathing. Deep breaths. Steve rolled out from underneath him and stood. Looked from Bucky to the mess of ash and melted asphalt and back, his eyes traveling over the length of Bucky's body, from his curving spiked tail to the arch of his neck to his long, elegant head, as long as Steve was tall.
He stared hard at the space where Bucky used to have a left foreleg.
Bucky obeyed, shifting, dwindling, his metal arm reforming as he shimmered into human form, and he waited. Steve came closer, looking him over. Bucky met his eyes briefly but Steve wasn't giving anything away. "Steve..." He trailed off, because he didn't know what came after that.
Steve didn't leave him wondering for long. Steve punched him, no technique but all the weight of his body behind it, and Bucky was so surprised he fell on his ass.
"You should have told me."
"I understand why you didn't, back at the beginning. But after, later..."
"I know. I'm sorry."
"That hurt." Bucky gingerly prodded his face.
"You deserved it." But Steve dropped to his knees and gently pushed Bucky's fingers aside, pressing his hands against Bucky's cheeks and there was no pain, his face was healed. Steve didn't move, stayed where he was, kneeling at Bucky's side, cradling his face. "That was a demon."
Cautiously, Bucky lifted his right arm and slid it around Steve's shoulders. "I know."
"What's going on? Why would someone send a demon after me?"
"I don't know, Steve. But I'm not going to let anything happen to you." He exerted gentle pressure, easy for Steve to resist if he wanted, but Steve didn't, Steve moved with it, let Bucky pull him down until their foreheads were touching. "I swear."
They couldn't stay for long. Sooner or later someone was going to come by, drawn by the gunfire, by Bucky's roar, and they'd notice the mess.
When Steve climbed on the bike behind him, Bucky said, "We need to make a stop and then I want to take you home. To my home. You'll be harder to find there."
Steve nodded and wound his arms around Bucky's waist, pressed his cheek against Bucky's shoulder and closed his eyes. It took everything in him to start the bike and ride away when all he wanted to do was turn around and wrap his arms around Steve as hard as he could. But they weren't safe. Not if there were lower demons. Nothing Bucky had could kill them and dragon fire wasn't usually going to be an option.
That's why they were here.
"The Morrigan?" Steve's voice was laced with disbelief. "Your stop is the Morrigan's temple?" It didn't look like much from the outside, a small stone building, dark curtains in the window, but even now, in the small hours of the morning, there were crows everywhere.
"Blessed steel, Steve. I need it and Her priestess can give it to me."
"Why the Morrigan?"
"I'm asking for blessed steel to bring death, there isn't really anyone better, and I did a job for them a couple of years ago so they might remember me favourably. Come on."
Steve followed him to the door, but he paused before going in. "Are you sure you want me to come inside? Healers and the Morrigan aren't the best mix."
"I'm not leaving you alone out here and anyone can approach if they've got honest intentions in their heart. Wanting to kill demons is a very honest intention." Bucky hesitated, then held out his right hand. After a moment, Steve put his hand in Bucky's and Bucky threaded his fingers through Steve's. Together they went inside.
"Buchanan." The voice had a strange timbre, an echoing quality, and it shivered right down Bucky's spine and lodged in that deep dark part of him that was rarely visited, the part that said no matter how big a predator you might be, you can always be something's prey.
"Priestess." He bowed and Steve bowed beside him.
"And you've brought a companion." She looked ordinary, tall and slender with long dark braids falling down her back, the candlelight reflecting off her dark skin. Ordinary until you saw her eyes. They were crow's eyes.
"He's under my protection."
"Is he?" It held a hint of amusement and Bucky was glad he'd met her before, hoped it would count for something here in the seat of her power.
"What is you wish at this late hour?"
"I come seeking the blessing of the Morrigan."
"What do wish to do with this blessing?"
"Kill." The crows perched on every surface cawed their approval.
"What do you wish blessed?"
"My blades and my bullets."
"And will you a pay a price for this blessing?"
"The price will be blood."
Steve stirred beside him and Bucky squeezed his hand once and let go. "How much blood?"
"One drop for each blade and bullet."
Which seemed fair. "Agreed." He laid his sword on the floor, began pulling out knives, wished he had more than one spare clip and laid it next to the knives.
The Priestess held a knife and a bowl, nicked the base of his thumb, and counted out the drops. When she was done, Steve asked her, "Can I?"
Again she seemed amused and inclined her head. There was a tiny spool of warmth as Steve pressed his fingers to the pad of Bucky's thumb, the tiny wound disappearing, and Bucky touched Steve's hand in thanks.
"It's a bold move to bring life into the middle of the Morrigan's temple." She was watching them, head tilted, mirrored by each and every crow.
"I did ask for permission," Steve pointed out.
"So you did."
Wings rustled and fluttered and then crows were landing on Bucky's weapons, on his bullets, and they were hidden from his sight, nothing left but inky pools of feathery black and the gleam of light reflected off staring eyes.
As quickly as it began, it was over, the crows taking flight and resettling themselves around the temple. "You may take your weapons and your healer," she proclaimed, stepping close to Bucky's side to whisper in his ear. "And he looks sweet enough to eat. I always thought you'd pick an adorable one."
He pulled away and stared at her in disbelief. She smiled serenely before making a gesture that clearly indicated it was time for them to leave. Bucky rearmed himself and they left under the watchful eyes of the crows and, he was sure, the amused eyes of the Morrigan's priestess.
Bucky knew the Morrigan was a goddess of war and death in battle and maybe fate. He'd never realised she was also the goddess of fucking with people.
When they got outside, Steve asked, "What did she say?"
"Nothing worth repeating, Steve. I promise."
It wasn't a long trip home, Steve warm against his back, Bucky watchful and alert. When they stepped inside his apartment he wasn't ready for the gut punch of having Steve in his home.
He should have been, should have known it was coming, but he hadn't been ready. The threat to Steve, the shift to his dragon shape, it drove everything to the fore and having Steve standing there, in the middle of his home... Suddenly Bucky was nothing but instinct and want and greed. Steve was here. Steve was his. Steve was never leaving. Steve was his.
He fought it down, fought it back, struggled out from under the weight of a thousand thousand years of dragon evolution screaming protect and keep and mine and got himself under control.
"Give me a minute." The very clear picture of what Steve would do, how Steve would react to something like that, helped. A punch on the nose would be the least of his problems. He tried to visualise it, tried to imagine exactly how colourful Steve's language would get, and just as suddenly he was calm again. "I'm okay."
"Did you know there was smoke coming out of your nose?"
"You don't have to apologise."
"Here, sit down." Bucky indicated the only chair, excluding the ones at the table: big and overstuffed and comfortable. It was Nat's when she visited. Nat was the only other person who'd ever been in his home. And now Steve was here. "Do you want something to drink?"
"I want you to talk to me."
"Let me just do a quick check." Bucky watched while Steve settled in the chair, felt a little puff of warmth that had nothing to do with stupid dragon instincts and everything to do with Steve, but it quickly faded as he checked the place over, making sure it was still secure, all his early warning systems in place. When he was satisfied he unbuckled his sword, set it on the floor, and then settled next to it at Steve's feet.
"You're my dragon." It made Bucky smile, because it was entirely true. "I mean, you're not my dragon, you're the dragon I—"
"Yeah, Steve. I'm your dragon."
"How long have you known I'm—"
"My Steve?" Steve quelled him with a look. "Sorry. The one who saved my life? I've always known. I recognised you the first time I saw you in The Howl."
"That's why you were staring at me."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"Because people aren't supposed to know. We're not, we don't tell people that we're dragons. We're not allowed to tell people. It's beyond taboo. It's just, we don't. Dragons don't."
"Right. Is something going to happen to me now that I know?"
"No. Please don't tell anyone. I can't stop you, but please don't."
Steve leaned forward. "Bucky. I'm not going to tell anyone what you are. I wouldn't do that."
"No, I didn't think so." They were left looking at each other. "I have another confession."
"On top of me being your dragon."
"You can stop saying it like that." Bucky was never going to stop saying it like that. "And you didn't exactly confess. You changed into a dragon and breathed fire..." Steve faltered and Bucky shifted closer to close his hands over Steve's knees.
"It isn't. Bucky, there was a demon. Why would a demon come after me? Who could hate me enough to send a demon after me?"
"I don't know." He gave Steve's knees a squeeze and leaned back. "I'll let Fury know, see what he thinks, but I've got the weapons to deal with them now and I'm not letting you out of my sight."
"I've never been happier about that. Remind me to thank Fury for sending you to protect me."
Bucky winced. "That's my confession," he said quietly. "He didn't. Not exactly. I volunteered when we found out something was happening to healers. Fury did tell me to protect you, but it was more in the good luck with that sense than in the assigning me to you sense."
Steve looked at the floor. "I see. Why?"
"That part wasn't a lie. I wanted you to be safe."
"And that's the part that doesn't make sense. We never liked each other. Why would you..." He stopped, struck by sudden understanding. "No. It was just me, wasn't it?" Bucky couldn't help smiling and he knew it was a little sad. "And I was wrong. All the reasons I didn't like you and I was wrong." He sat back and sighed, rubbed his eyes with the backs of his hands. "Fuck."
"Not your fault. You weren't working with all the information."
He dropped his hands. Leaned forward again. Caught Bucky's chin and Bucky stopped breathing. "I think it was my fault and I'm sorry. I was wrong about you. You're a good man—no." He smiled and it was heartstoppingly beautiful, golden and sweet, and all Bucky would have to do was lean forward and he could kiss him. He didn't. "You’re a good dragon."
Steve's hand was warm and strong, Steve's thumb was stroking his skin, and his eyes flickered over Bucky's face. Paused on his mouth. Bucky didn't dare move, couldn't help hoping, but the moment passed and Steve let him go. "I won't lie to you again," Bucky promised.
"Then I forgive you. Forgive me for being so wrong about you?"
Silence fell, covering them like a blanket, and Bucky wanted to put his head on Steve's knees, close his eyes and rest, but he couldn't. For so many reasons. Steve covered a yawn and slumped lower in the chair. "I'm going to text Fury," because Bucky didn't want to have this conversation with Fury at this hour of the night, "and then we both need to sleep." Steve glanced around the studio apartment and Bucky added, "You take the bed, I'll sleep in the chair."
"Bucky, we're adults. I think we can share the bed."
The idea made him irrationally happy, but it also summoned all those stupid dragon instincts. If he tried to share a bed with Steve he knew exactly what was going to happen, no matter how determined he was to stay on his side. "It's not a good idea. I'm a dragon. That's," he shook his head, "just take the bed. It won't be the first time I've slept in the chair."
"What do you mean, you're a dragon. Being a dragon means you can't share the bed?"
"Not with you. You wouldn't like what would happen."
Steve looked deeply unimpressed. "I don't know what that means. Are you going to ravish me if I get into bed with you?"
"What?" Bucky barely recognised his own voice. "No!"
"Well, the way you're carrying on..."
"Dammit Steve, that's not funny."
"Dragons, it's instinct to grab hold of, of valuable things and not let go and you're here, in my home, and if you're in bed with me and I'm asleep I'll—" He stopped, not sure how to go on, because he sounded like an idiot.
"So you'll be compelled to, what, cuddle me?"
"Something like that," he muttered.
"Well it's better than sweeping me into a pile and sitting on me."
Bucky stared at him, because what?
"Like a pile of gold?" Steve drew the rough outline of a pile with his hands and Bucky burst into startled laughter. "Better. Share the bed. I'll survive. You'll survive. Honestly," Steve looked away, "after tonight I don't think I'd mind all that much."
When they went to bed Bucky held himself rigid on the edge until Steve sighed and said, "Bucky. It's okay. Do what you need to do."
After a minute he moved over and carefully slid his arms around Steve. He'd thought—hoped, really—Steve would fit against him like a puzzle piece. Instead, he accidentally elbowed Bucky in the gut, just about kneed him in the crotch, and then lay there, awkward and tense.
It was uncomfortable and Bucky felt a tug of sadness. He tried to rearrange himself to make it better, but every time he tried he just seemed to make it worse. "I'm sorry," he finally said. "I can sleep on the chair."
Steve didn't reply, but Bucky could see light reflected in his eyes as he stared up at the ceiling. Steve glanced sideways, studying him, then he briefly closed his eyes, let out a long breath, and the tension flowed out of him. He shifted, turning on his side, like he somehow knew Bucky wanted to curl around him, and Bucky tucked him into the curve of his body.
They fit together like Steve was made to be there.
Bucky flattened his palm over Steve's heart, felt it beat and it was racing, but gradually, as Bucky held him close, it slowed. Steve was relaxed and content. Bucky blew a long warm breath over him and in a sleepy voice Steve said, "You smell like smoke. Not bad, like a campfire."
"Dragon," Bucky replied. Steve shook with silent laughter and wrapped his fingers around Bucky's wrist where his hand was pressed against Steve's chest. Hanging on. Holding him in place.
Everything in Bucky was finally at peace.
He had Steve, he had him here, safe and protected, was curled around him, and Steve was holding onto him right back.
Chapter 16: Don't it Feel Like Sunshine After All
The next morning Bucky leaned against his kitchen counter, drinking coffee, while Steve stumbled, sleepy and sleep rumpled, around his home. Steve paused at the end of the bed, brow furrowed, studying Bucky intently, then made a beeline for him. When Steve lifted the coffee mug straight out of his hands Bucky laughed softly.
He stopped laughing when Steve put it down on the counter.
Stopped breathing when Steve stepped closer, pressing his warm body against Bucky's.
Stopped thinking when Steve wound his fingers into his hair and kissed him, slow and soft and sweet, just leaned into it, metal arm sliding around Steve's waist, and he sighed softly when Steve pulled away.
Steve's eyes were bright and piercing, looking right through Bucky, seeing everything Bucky didn't even think to try and hide. Didn't want to hide. "You are my dragon."
It sent heat spiralling through him and he wrapped Steve up in his arms. "I am your dragon."
After tonight I don't think I'd mind all that much. When Steve had said those words, he'd meant them. He just hadn't realised how much he'd meant them until Bucky was climbing into bed with him.
Bucky, who was a dragon.
Bucky, who was his dragon and he couldn't quite wrap his mind around that, around Bucky being his dragon from all those years ago. He'd been briefly, blindingly furious but his anger had faded like smoke, drifting away, leaving wonder in its wake.
Wonder and crumbling denial.
It wasn't that he didn't mind if Bucky held him. It was that he wanted Bucky to. Yes, it had been a traumatic night and he wasn't ready to deal with being attacked by a demon, but that wasn't why he wanted Bucky to hold him.
It wasn't for comfort. He had feelings for Bucky, feelings that had spiralled into vibrant explosive technicolour when he'd been sitting in that chair, Bucky at his feet, and he'd wrapped his fingers around Bucky's chin. God, he'd almost kissed him.
When Bucky had pulled him into his arms he couldn't relax, was unsure and uncertain, because what was he supposed to do with how he felt? Until Bucky had apologised, like it was his fault. Which had been enough for Steve to make himself relax and let go, because it wasn't Bucky's fault Steve was an idiot who'd fallen for him.
I am your dragon. He kept saying it like that and it's instinct to grab hold of valuable things and I wanted you to be safe. A dozen small moments and touches and Bucky's voice saying I didn't know you were safe and Steve drifted off to sleep, warm and protected and wrapped in Bucky's arms, possibilities swirling in his mind like a dream.
The next morning, standing at the end of Bucky's bed, in a moment of blinding clarity he knew.
He was sure he was right.
But if he was wrong he'd live with the consequences, because even if he was wrong about Bucky he wasn't wrong about himself. He knew how he felt. It was razor sharp, so overwhelmingly, perfectly clear he almost couldn’t breathe with it.
He walked right up to Bucky and kissed him. Reached up and tangled his fingers in that mane of messy hair and leaned into his warm, solid body and kissed him.
Offered what he thought was true. "You are my dragon."
Felt his heart leap when Bucky wrapped his arms around him and said, "I am your dragon."
The only thing to do was kiss him again, sinking into it, eyes closed and pressing closer, hearing a rumble in Bucky's chest as Bucky half lifted him off his feet. It was good, it was everything he'd wanted, Bucky's lips warm and soft and he kissed Steve like he was precious, like he was never going to stop, never going to let go, but finally he pulled back, Steve sliding down his body to settle back on his feet.
Bucky's eyes were wide and filled with warm happiness, with joy like Steve had never seen, and he was struck with a sudden certainty. "All this time?"
Bucky cradled his jaw, dipped his head to brush a soft kiss across his mouth. "All this time."
"Even when I was being a complete ass to you?"
Gently brushing his thumb against Steve's cheek, like he was trying to decide something, Bucky finally asked, "Do you remember when I threw that waheela down the alley and you got so mad you cornered me against the wall?"
"Yes," Steve said slowly.
"When you finally left I just wanted you to come back and do it again."
Steve stared up at him then buried his face in Bucky's shoulder, laughing. Bucky smiled, stroking his fingers through Steve's hair. "I know. Pathetic."
"No. Not pathetic." Steve leaned up and pulled Bucky's head down so he could kiss the tip of his nose. "Never pathetic. Patient."
"That sounds better. Whatever you want to call it, I am your dragon. I think I have been since the day you healed me in the forest. Dragons, we get attached. There's a reason the legends all say we hoard valuable things and guard them forever against anyone who'd steal them from us."
Bucky's eyes were dark, fixed on Steve's, and Steve drew in a shaky breath.
"It's okay, Steve," he said gently. "I'm not asking you for anything. There's too much going on, too much happening. I just wanted you to know. I never want to lie to you." Bucky's hand was warm and heavy, curving around the nape of his neck, and he pressed both palms against Bucky's chest. "Not by omission, not in any way. I will never lie to you." He paused and the corner of his mouth ticked up. "Or trick you."
Steve smiled up at him. "What about being an asshole?"
"Well, I'll probably be that sometimes," he admitted.
"Glad to hear it." He rested his forehead against Bucky's collarbone and just...breathed him in, closing his eyes. Bucky wrapped his arms around him, rested his cheek against the top of his head and blew a stream of warm air, making his hair flutter, the smell of campfires and cosiness filling him with a sense of peace. "Is that a dragon thing?"
"One of them."
"You hold onto valuable things and you breathe on me. Anything else?"
"I'm not going to want to let go of you."
Steve slid his arms around Bucky, pulling himself closer. "I think that's mutual."
"No, I mean ever. All I want to do is hold onto you, curl up around you, and never let you go. I know I can't," he kissed the crown of Steve's head, "but I'll always want to."
"We may need to negotiate a little on that last bit, but I'm sure we can work something out." He pressed a kiss over Bucky's heart and looked up at him. He didn't have words for the expression on Bucky's face, warm, adoring, intense... Maybe he did have the word but he shied away. "You're my dragon. I have to look after you."
He barely got the last word out before Bucky was kissing him, both hands on his face, the contrast between cool metal and warm skin making him shiver. Bucky walked him across the kitchen and Steve gasped when Bucky pressed him against the wall, used it to push up into Bucky's kiss, meeting it with an intensity he didn't know he could feel. It rippled like fire across his skin as he kissed his dragon, his Bucky, as he wound his arms around him and went up on his toes to deepen the kiss. The world spun away until it was nothing but Bucky's warmth under his hands and Bucky's breath and his mouth and the beat of his heart, everything he never knew he wanted and wasn't sure he could live without.
When they separated, Steve rested his forehead against Bucky's chin, Bucky's lips just grazing his skin. They were both a little breathless and Steve held onto Bucky tightly. "Much as I'd like to stay here and keep doing this for the rest of the day, we need to go back to my place. That's where people know to find me."
Bucky tensed under his hands. "That's why we shouldn't go back there. We should stay here in my home, where it's safe."
Steve heard the worry under his words. "And that sounds amazing, but we need to."
Bucky leaned back, slid his hands up to cup Steve's face. "A demon came for you last night. Not a demon like Clint, a lower demon, something someone summoned up and sent after you, and we have no idea who or why."
"And you stopped it." He turned his head to kiss Bucky's hand. "You have blessed steel and we won't leave my place once we get there unless someone needs me." Bucky still didn't look convinced and Steve covered his hands with his own. "People need to be able to find me. I can't stop being a healer because of what happened."
"I know." Steve watched, fascinated, as a curl of smoke drifted out of Bucky's nose. Finally, with a sigh, he turned his hands and wrapped them around Steve's. "We'll go back to your place."
Trying to find a way to ease Bucky's tension, Steve suggested, "What if we invite Natasha over? And Sam, since I think he'll be back in the city tonight." Bucky's hands tightened around Steve's and his eyes went opaque. "Not because I doubt you. Never because I doubt you, Bucky. But you might be a little less stressed if you weren't on your own. Besides," he went up on his toes, paused with his lips hovering over Bucky's, "wouldn't it be nice if you could just concentrate on this for a while?"
He felt Bucky's slow smile against his mouth and then Bucky gave a quick tug on his hands, pulling him off-balance so Steve fell against him, and maybe with someone else, at some other time and some other place, Steve would have bristled.
But not here, not now.
Not with Bucky.
Steve leaned into Bucky's kiss, losing himself in the feel of him, in Bucky's hands holding his tightly, in the feel of Bucky's heart beating against his chest, in the strength of him, and when Bucky pulled back he sighed at the loss.
"Do you want to call them now?" Bucky asked, freeing one hand to skim a cool metal finger over Steve's cheek.
"Maybe we could wait a bit longer."
Steve's place didn't feel as safe as Bucky's had, but he knew that was mostly illusion, just the natural dragon tendency to feel better when he was in his home. It was as safe as he could make it, locked up tight and warning systems in place at every entrance. He had blessed steel to protect Steve and if another demon attacked, Bucky would turn it into smoke and ash in half a heartbeat.
He'd bristled at Steve's suggestion that they call Nat, that they call Sam. But not for the reason Steve had thought. It was because Bucky didn't want to share. He couldn't even blame it on dragon instinct; that one was all on him.
Steve had texted Sam when he hadn't answered his phone, just the basics: Something happened, I'M OKAY, but can you come by when you get in? Then he'd made a noise somewhere between a laugh and a groan and buried his face in Bucky's shoulder, muttering about the fun of explaining this to Sam.
Nat had answered, terse and abrupt since she was on a job, but she'd listened as Bucky explained everything from when the fairy had tapped on the window what felt like a million years ago.
Not quite everything.
Steve, tucked under his arm, had leaned up to kiss his chin, and Bucky had an inkling Nat knew anyway. She promised to be there when she was done.
It eased his tension. It was eased even more by Steve's willingness to indulge him, to let Bucky wrap himself completely around Steve while they curled on his couch, those dragon instincts that said keep and hold him close and protect snoozing in self-satisfied slumber.
Even with everything, and everything was huge, happiness was bubbling up inside Bucky. Yes, they'd been attacked by a demon. Yes, Fury's response to Bucky's text had essentially consisted of: What the motherfucking fuck, a demon? Leave it with me. Yes, healers had disappeared and Steve was still in danger.
He had Steve.
He had Steve.
Something he'd never thought would happen. The most he'd ever dared hoped for was something like the friendship Steve shared with Sam. Even that he'd known was pushing it. He'd known it.
But Steve had kissed him. Out of nowhere, Steve had kissed him, had kept kissing him, had realised just how long Bucky had been....Just admit it, Bucky. After all this time, just say it...in love with him. And he didn't think Bucky was pathetic. Never pathetic. Patient.
You are my dragon. If he hadn't been in love with him before that he would have fallen forever, right then and there.
What those words did to him...Steve's words, Steve's voice. It didn't make sense; all Bucky's instincts were about Steve being his and here Steve was, claiming Bucky, and Bucky was undone. He'd always known those instincts were bullshit.
He hadn't wanted them to come back here, to Steve's place, but he understood. Steve wouldn't be Steve if he was willing to hide away where he couldn’t be found when people might need him. Steve was the one who stood up, stood tall, didn't run. It might make Bucky cringe sometimes, might make him the first ever prematurely grey dragon in existence, but he didn't love Steve for who he wasn't.
Bucky loved him for who he was.
He settled himself further back in the corner of the couch. Steve was lying between his legs, his chest against Bucky's, Bucky's arms around him, his head tucked under Bucky's chin, one of Bucky legs curved over both of his. Bucky's sword and gun were on the coffee table in easy reach, so they wouldn't jab Steve, but he still had all of his knives.
"Are you always going to be like this?" Steve asked, a thread of amusement in his voice.
"Probably," Bucky admitted. "Maybe worse sometimes. Is that okay?"
"I think so." He turned his head to kiss Bucky's shoulder and wiggled a little, getting more comfortable.
"You can just hit me with your baseball bat if I get too bad. Honestly, dragons are the worst."
"I don't know." He ran his fingers lightly down Bucky's neck, making him shiver. "It's all right so far."
Bucky pulled him closer, wrapping himself around him more tightly, and Steve laughed under his breath.
When it happened, it happened fast.
With no warning.
Bucky was getting coffee. Steve was curled on the sofa, wrapped snugly in a blanket Bucky had tucked around him. Bucky's gun was on the kitchen counter next to him, in easy reach. On the television, someone was being taken to task for allowing their soufflé to sink.
The portal opened silently and demons poured out. They grabbed Steve and hauled him off the couch. His cry of anger warned Bucky, who whirled and threw a knife at the demon with its claws in Steve's shirt. Blessed steel drove into its throat and it flashed into smoke and ash. For the briefest second he considered his gun, then ignored it, pulled another knife. The demons were wrapped around Steve, dragging him away. One erratic move, one jink, one jag, and he'd hit Steve, and blades were more forgiving than bullets.
Bucky hurled the knife, pulled another and threw it, demons flashing out of existence, but they kept coming and it was like he didn't exist. Their only focus was Steve, who was fighting, twisting like a fish, like a serpent, fists flying, but he was hampered by the blanket.
They were dragging him through the portal.
Bucky lunged, grasping, felt the edge of the blanket slide through his fingers, but it was too late.
Steve was gone.
The portal was closing.
Bucky dove forward and it snapped shut behind him.
Chapter 17: In Your Darkest Times it's Enough to Know it's There
Steve knew it wasn't hell, not like humans meant it. Knew theoretically it was just another plane of existence, the one where demons came from.
But right at this moment it was hard to remember that. It looked like every story of hell he'd ever heard, red-skied and hot, landscape charred and broken, stinking of smoke and flame. Not like Bucky—it stunk like burning tires and plastic and it was wrong. He tried to pull his shirt over his mouth. He tried not to be afraid. The first was a lot easier than the second.
Was this what had happened to the other healers? Had they been carried through the lower planes? Fuck it. Carried through hell?
Was Bucky okay?
Bucky—god, Bucky was going to blame himself. That was enough to make him fight again, twisting, trying to get away, kicking and punching. It was pointless, like trying to fight the tide. The demons were strong and only reacted to grab him more firmly. Their skin was slick and smooth, unnatural under his hands, and there was nothing for his power to grab hold of, no way to send them down into unconsciousness. Eventually he subsided, saving his strength.
Bucky, I'm pretty sure I love you. I sure wish I'd told you. Hope I have a chance.
He wasn't sure how long or how far they'd travelled when they stopped, the demons staring fixedly at a single point which opened into a portal, and they unceremoniously dragged Steve through.
No sword, no gun. No fucking boots and his socks were lousy protection against the hot rocky ground. Bucky ignored the discomfort, kept his eyes fixed on Steve and the pale demons carrying him through the lower planes.
Ignored the twin desires that said dragon and kill them all. But a dragon would be noticed, drawing attention down here the last thing he needed, and killing the demons with their clawed mindless hands all over Steve would do nothing but strand them both here, maybe forever.
Bucky didn't know how to open a door back to their world but they must and he did know they'd grabbed Steve for someone, because lower demons were literally mindless. Someone had to have summoned them up and sent them after Steve.
Must have sent them to catch all the other missing healers, because now it made sense how they'd all disappeared out of their lives. Bucky hadn't known demons could open a portal like that, could pull people into the lower planes, but it explained why there'd been no signs of them going missing.
If Bucky hadn't been there, the same thing would have happened to Steve.
Had happened to Steve even with Bucky there.
He pulled in a deep breath, instantly regretted it, and put everything out of his mind but Steve. He was going to have to be fast when they got to wherever they were going, ready to jump after him.
All he had left were half a dozen knives. Half a dozen knives and a willingness to burn down the world to get Steve back.
It would have to be enough.
Steve was almost blinded by the abrupt change from dull red to gleaming white tile and stainless steel, bright floodlights glaring down from above. As he glanced up, squinting, he saw a high ceiling inset with long rails, running from one end of the huge room to the other. Stainless steel racks lined the walls, metal stairs leading to a walkway and a door.
In the centre, looking out of place, an interloper at a party too worrying for anyone to make leave, was a large black padded chair, fitted with restraints.
Demons gripped his arms tightly and there were more demons piled like lumps of mold around the room. There were men with guns standing along one wall. The guns weren't pointed at him, but he felt like they could be, like they wanted to be, and a man with cold blue eyes in a suit as sharp as a blade was walking towards him across the tiled floor.
The tiled floor that had drains in it. Why did it have drains?
That was all he had time to notice, and it couldn't have taken more than ten seconds even if it felt like it went on forever, because suddenly someone slammed into him, sending him sprawling and dragging the demons down with him.
He instantly knew who it was. Bucky, you shouldn't be here. Whatever's happening, it's nothing good and it's bad enough I'm here.
The man in the suit didn't seem concerned. "If you've changed your mind about the job this isn't the best time."
That made Steve hesitate. "Bucky?"
"Shh, Steve. It's okay." Bucky wasn't getting up, wasn't moving except to cover more of him, ignoring the demons that were still hanging onto his arms.
"I can see why you'd be interested, because if he was your job it's definitely over," the man in the suit continued. "Get him up," he said to the demons and Steve was hauled to his feet, Bucky unceremoniously dumped off him, the demons irresistible obedient forces. Steve heard Bucky climb to his feet, felt Bucky move up behind him. The guns had given in to their urge; they were now pointed at him, at both of them. "I guess you're why we missed him the first time. That's never happened before, so it's good to know the reason."
"Bucky, do you know him?"
"Remember when I left you with Nat? This is the asshole I was guarding, his name's Pierce. Were you using me to find out about him?" Bucky demanded.
"Of course not. If you remember, I was interested in you. The offer's still on the table if you'd care to change your mind."
"Not a chance." There was a snarl under Bucky's words, a rumbling anger that sharpened Pierce's attention, made him look at Bucky with too much interest.
A filigree of fear crawled up Steve's spine—not for himself, for Bucky. He leapt into the fray with the only weapon he had, drawing himself to his full height, thrusting his chin out, pouring contempt out like water. "And you thought demons were a good alternative to Bucky? You couldn’t get him so you thought, what, you'd summon up mindless minions from hell? I mean, I guess it makes sense. Your lack of personality suddenly wouldn't be a problem, since you don't have to convince them to do what you say. They don't have a choice."
"Mindless minions from hell. I'll have to remember that one." Steve saw anger pass over Pierce's face, a flash of what could have been rage, but it was gone, subsumed by ice like it had never been. "No, I have them because your gift doesn't work on them." A little smile came and went. "Until you're properly conditioned I need something to handle you. Everything else they can do is just a bonus."
Steve went cold. "What do you mean properly conditioned. What the hell do you want with me? I'm just a healer, I heal people. I'm not good for anything else."
"That's where you're wrong." Pierce gestured at two of the men standing against the wall. "Time to give up your weapons," he said to Bucky. Bucky tensed, drawing closer to Steve. "Give them up or they'll shoot him. I know he can't heal himself, so it's going to be unpleasant."
Steve could feel Bucky's anger, feel it beating against his back, but Bucky stepped away and started pulling out knives, handing them to one of the men.
"Pat him down." The man complied, then nodded and stepped back, dropping Bucky's knives on a rack. "Better. As I was saying, you're wrong. You're going to be very useful to me."
"You're sick? I mean besides the obvious," Steve said. "Because I've got a shop, you could have come by, I open at nine."
It got him something that was almost a laugh. "Funny. No, I'm not going to be the one using your gift. You have what people want. I'm going to be the one giving it to them."
Bucky sucked in a breath and Steve glanced back at him. His eyes were locked on Pierce and Steve could see the anger flickering in them. "They're your key to power," he said flatly.
"Very good." Pierce looked genuinely pleased, like Bucky was a prized pupil. "I wasn't sure you were paying attention."
"What do you mean, your key to power? What are you talking about?" Steve clenched his fists and glared at Pierce. "Tell me what the fuck you're doing with us."
"Humans...humans will do anything not to die, not to be sick, not to be inconvenienced by their bodies. They'll hand me secrets, give me money, property, leverage. All the things that equal power in the mundane world. And you're going to join my little stable of healers downstairs and keep that power rolling in." Horror filled Steve, overflowed his heart, burst onto his face like a dam breaking and Pierce rolled his eyes. "Please. Even I wouldn't let them know about our world. No, to them it's all miracle cures and secret scientific breakthroughs, whichever one they're more likely to believe. We put them out before I bring the healers in."
"I won't heal for you." The words came out strong as iron but he wasn't sure. Wasn't sure what he'd do if Pierce said: heal or we'll hurt Bucky, heal or we'll kill Bucky, but Pierce didn't seem to realise he had leverage.
"You think so. Your kind, well, not precisely your kind, mundane humans, are amazingly inventive. They have to be." Pierce's eyes were glowing pale blue, casting highlights across his skin which was growing paler by the second, pale as snow, pale as ice. "They built me a device," he nodded at the chair, "one that'll strip that wilfulness right out of you. Once we're done, you'll heal whoever I tell you to heal." Steve could hear a hint of perverse satisfaction as he added, "If you survive."
Steve's head jerked up and he heard Bucky's low rumble.
"Oh, did I forget to mention that? Like anything built by humans it's not perfect. We lost some healers along the way. The more you resist, the more you fight? The more likely it is to kill you." He shook his head, the picture of avuncular sorrow. "It wouldn't be necessary if you'd just cooperate, but no. None of you would. You all refused, so really, you all brought it on yourselves."
Steve looked at the chair, crouched like a spider in the centre of the room. At its restraints. At the metal prongs curving from the headrest. The more he stared the more wrongness he saw oozing out of it.
He didn't want to sit in that chair. He flicked his eyes back to Pierce and saw an echo of that same wrongness. "Why are you doing this?"
"Because the mundane world has what I want." He was close enough Steve could feel his breath against his skin and it was ice cold. "Besides, the way I see it, I have as much right to your gift as you do. You didn't do anything to earn it except be born, and you have one of us to thank for it somewhere back in your ancestry, and you've never done anything but waste it healing whoever showed up."
The faint scent of smoke curled around him, campfires and woodstoves and comfort, and settled in his heart. He could feel the heat of Bucky at his back and when Pierce gestured at the demons to take him to the chair he turned his head to meet Bucky's eyes.
Because Bucky might have lost his weapons but he was still Steve's dragon.
* * *
It was hard to hear Pierce past the beating of his heart, past the wash of rage, but Steve met his eyes and Bucky saw it there, clear as day: Do it.
It was their only chance. He'd have to be fast enough. Steve was not going in that chair.
Bucky was changing as he lunged forward, wrapping his dragon around him as he threw himself over Steve. It whistled over him like lightning, like fire, faster than he'd ever thought possible, so fast it hurt, wings ripping out of skin that shimmered into scales, knocking the demons flying.
So fast he was left dazed, barely tracking as a voice called, "That's a dragon. I'm not fighting a fucking dragon!"
As Pierce answered, "He's a dragon but you have guns. Shoot him."
Bucky hunched low, hiding Steve from sight, curved his head down to protect his eyes, wrapped his tail around his claws, braced his left wing on the floor for balance. He felt Steve curl small under his belly and all he could do was hope it was enough to protect him.
He was barely in time. The gunfire was deafening.
He grunted as scales shattered. They were meant to protect him from claws and blades, not from bullets—they tried, kept the bullets from going too deep, but they couldn't stop them. It didn't matter as long as nothing hit Steve. The onslaught shredded his wings, severed his neck spikes, and pain was a living thing, burrowing under his skin.
Then it was gone, cut off like a flipped switch.
Steve. Bucky could feel warmth spiralling through him, healing him, could hear Steve panting, feel his shaking hands pressed against the scales of his belly.
Curls of smoke filled the air and he bared his teeth in a rumbling roar. They were still firing, still hitting him, but all he felt was impact. Impact and a rising rage, knowing Steve was taking the pain, the agony of every shot as he healed Bucky, wounds closing behind bullets pushed from his skin.
Bucky held perfectly still. The gunfire slowed, stopped. Whether they needed to reload or thought he was dead, he didn't know. He didn't care. He snapped his head up and engulfed them in flame, lashed them with his tail and flamed them again, leaving the gunmen still and broken and smouldering.
Turned to face Pierce, who gestured and demons were leaping for him in a sickly-white wave.
He met them with tail and wing and teeth, pivoting on his front leg, because he couldn't flame them without risking Steve. Steve, who darted out from under him. He wanted to yell after him to get the hell back; it came out as a muted roar but Steve returned holding one of Bucky's knives, plucked from the floor where it had fallen.
Blessed Steel. Steve, be careful.
But he stayed under Bucky's neck, back to his foreleg, slashing at demons who came in reach, clumsy with lack of skill. Skill didn't matter when all it took to dissolve them into smoke and ash was breaking their skin with blessed steel. Bucky grabbed them in his teeth and flung them in front of Steve, who stabbed them.
Then they were gone and Bucky was lunging for Pierce who was lunging to meet him.
His human form was gone, melted away to reveal a frost-pale creature with cold hungry eyes and long fangs, pale tattered wings and pointed claws. Ice and fog swirled around him. Bucky didn't know what he was, had never seen, never heard of anything like what he faced.
Steve threw himself to the side, back against the wall, clutching the knife, and Bucky was terrified for him. He pivoted on his foreleg, lashed out with his teeth, but Pierce dodged, slashed Bucky's neck and it burned with cold, frost spreading over his scales. He didn't dare rear back on his haunches, couldn't risk exposing his belly, couldn’t use his front leg to fight. All he had were his wings and his teeth and his flame.
And his head.
Using his neck for leverage, he smashed his head into Pierce and sent him reeling, buffeted him with his wings, lunged forward to crash into him and unleashed a jet of fire. Pierce twisted like a dervish to meet it with a cresting wave of icy fog that snuffed it out of existence. Pierce breathed again and the fog flowed over Bucky.
Bucky felt himself growing sluggish, head drooping. Ice was creeping through him, rising up in his bones, pushing him down into the deep deep dark and he could only stare as Pierce reared back, claws poised to tear into Bucky's eyes.
Pierce's sudden howl of anger cracked his frosted stupor.
Steve was standing behind Pierce, too close, too close, and Bucky's knife was coated in pale blue where he'd stabbed him.
Pierce turned, lunged, claws driving for Steve, who skittered backwards, knife held high, ready to fight, but he'd die, he'd die, and instinct and fire and rage blazed through Bucky's soul, burning away the cold.
He sank his teeth into Pierce's wings and flung him across the room.
Drew in a breath and breathed flame, kept breathing while Pierce writhed and twisted, icy fog fighting back against the heat of dragonfire, kept breathing even when he had nothing left, kept breathing until the fog subsided, until Pierce went still, until there was nothing left but a charred pile of bones.
Steve stumbled forward and braced himself against Bucky's chest, knife clutched in one hand, the other wrapped around Bucky's leg. They were both breathing hard, Bucky's sides heaving like a bellows.
They were the only living things left in the room.
After a long moment, Bucky dipped his head low to nudge Steve, soft and careful. Steve looked up, let the knife fall, and leaned against Bucky's head, forehead pressed between his eyes, hands flat against his scales. Bucky felt him tense moments before the green warmth of his power spiralled through him. He snorted his disapproval as the pain from the slash Pierce had given him, from the strange cold burn that had eaten away at his scales, disappeared, but Steve murmured, "Shut up, I'm doing it."
Bucky carefully shifted his weight and folded his wings forward, curving them around Steve, curled his tail around so it was pressed against the back of Steve's legs. He was wrapped around Steve, as much as he could manage without dislodging him.
After a few minutes, Steve straightened, went to step back, but Bucky tightened his tail, his wings. He couldn't let go, not yet, couldn't make himself, but Steve gently stroked the scales over his eye, murmuring, "Change back," and Bucky let out a long smoky sigh and obeyed, even as every instinct was fighting it.
It was slow this time, like his too-rapid change had hurt something, pulled some non-existent muscle, but he shimmered into human shape, metal arm reforming.
Steve was staring at his feet. "Socks?"
Bucky glanced down and wiggled his sock-clad toes. "Didn't exactly have time to grab my boots."
"I guess not," he said and then he grabbed Bucky's shirt in both hands and pulled him into a kiss, desperate and almost painful. Bucky dragged him closer, wrapped him in his arms, lifted him off his feet and kissed him like a promise until they were both breathless. "You followed me," Steve said when Bucky lifted his head and set him back on his feet.
He nuzzled his nose against Steve's cheek, kissed his temple, tucked Steve's head under his chin as he said, "No other choice."
Steve breathed against Bucky's throat, lips against Bucky's skin. "Pierce, what was he?"
Bucky looked around the room. At what was left of the enemies that had threatened Steve and been properly dealt with, at Pierce's smouldering bones. "I don't know. I've never seen anything like him."
"He said the other healers were alive, that they were here." Steve's eyes were intense, pinning Bucky in place. "Bucky, we have to find them."
"We will," he promised, pulling Steve closer. "But I think we need to call someone. The things Pierce was talking about, the things he was doing, they're bigger than just us."
"Fury told the guild to call him if we saw anything strange, and I think this qualifies." He leaned back so he could see Steve's face. "But I want to call Nat first." He needed Nat, needed her here to help keep Steve safe. His brain knew the danger was gone but his heart, his instincts, were still snarling at him. And after everything that had happened, he just needed her.
"Okay," Steve said, studying him. "We'll call her. But I need to find the healers." There was something almost anguished in the back of Steve's eyes and Bucky pulled him in close.
"I know, Steve. I know. We will."
Bucky collected his knives and they left the room with its smoking corpses, heading up the metal stairs. They found an office with a landline and some old papers that revealed they were in what had once been an abattoir. Steve couldn't supress a shiver and Bucky stroked his fingers down the back of Steve's neck, soothing him.
Steve sat on the desk, fingers drumming a tattoo on Bucky's hip while Bucky dialled Nat's number. "Where are you," she said when he spoke. There was banked anger and worry and the edge of a draconic rumble in Nat's voice, and he never heard that from her, her control beyond perfect.
"An abattoir," he replied which made her pause long enough for him to explain. Explain what had happened, explain what Pierce had been doing, explain everything. When he was done, he listened to the loudest silence he'd ever heard.
"We'll be there soon," she finally said, and then explained that we was her and Sam, who'd shown up at Steve's apartment in time to find Natasha breaking in. Once they'd sorted that out—and someday Bucky was going to ask for details—and found Steve's apartment empty they'd known something was wrong. Which was why we also included Fury, who might have been able to stand against Natasha but hadn't been able to hold out against the combined forces of Natasha and a pissed off, deeply worried Sam. "Hold on, Sam wants to talk to Steve."
Bucky handed the phone to Steve, who listened and then said, "I don't know if I'm okay. I will be, though." Steve reached out his hand and Bucky slipped his fingers through it. "Sam, I need you to do something for me. Natasha will tell you what happened," he looked a question at Bucky, and Bucky nodded, "but the healers who were taken, some of them are still alive."
There was no room for doubt in Steve's voice, it was a thing of absolute faith, and a tiny part of Bucky braced itself for what would happen if they weren't.
"I need you to get other healers here," Steve was saying. "Whatever Pierce did to them, they're going to need help. Talk to Maria Hill at the Temple of Athena, they'll send their two if they know it's me asking. And," he paused, eyes momentarily closed in thought, "and see if Wanda and Pietro from over in Beacon Hill will send theirs, she's good people. And, uh," Bucky squeezed Steve's hand and Steve took a deep breath, "and ask Erskine. His people don't leave their enclave much anymore, but for this they might." There was a long pause and then Steve said, "Thank you." Another pause. "I will be, Sam, I promise. Bucky's here and you're on your way."
When they were done they went looking for the healers. Downstairs, Pierce had said, and down they went, stopping when they found a soundproofed room. Judging by the door it had once been the cold room, where dead animals were stored.
The fury on Steve's face was worrying. It grew brighter, grew incandescent when they got the door open, Bucky using brute strength to rip it off its hinges, and they found the healers.
There were only four.
They were locked in glass fronted cells. A kitsune, her red fur dull, ears drooping, tail flat. A rusalka, her long blonde hair matted, scales flaking away in the dry air. A young human, his arms wrapped around himself, thin and quiet. A gnome, small and spindly, limbs half hidden by his long, dishevelled beard.
None of them reacted when the door was torn away, when they came into the room, just kept sitting quietly on their cots. Heads lolling slightly to the side, eyes soft and distant, they looked like puppets, waiting for someone to come along and work their strings.
Bucky saw anguish slip across Steve's face and he reached for Bucky's hand, squeezed it tight enough to hurt as he stared around the room, then went straight for the closest cell. Bucky didn't speak, just broke the lock and stood ready, alert, when Steve opened the door, but the kitsune inside didn't react beyond a flick of her ears, barely seemed to realise Steve was there. When he sat next to her on the cot and grasped her paws, she simply sat compliant.
"Steve?" Bucky asked softly as he finally sat back.
"I think I can fix it. It, whatever Pierce's chair did, it's," he took a deep breath, "it's physical. It's her brain."
Bucky hesitated before asking, "You've got other healers coming. Do you want to wait?" He already knew the answer, but he still had to ask, to remind Steve he wasn't on his own with this.
"I can't, Bucky. I can't." He shifted to meet Bucky's eyes and they were swimming with distress and a deep seated anger like he'd never seen. "I can't leave them like this. Not for a second longer than I have to."
Bucky wrapped his right hand around the back of Steve's neck, thumb brushing the soft skin behind his ear. "Do what you have to do. I'm here. I've got you."
Steve was gone for a long time and when he came back with a pained gasp, the kitsune lay down with a long shuddering breath. "I put her under."
"Probably for the best."
"Yeah." Steve's fleeting smile was sad. "Let her wake up somewhere safe."
Steve did the next one, and the next and he was exhausted, whole body sagging, but Bucky didn't suggest he stop, just held him, supported him, and then they were done, standing in the middle of the room, surrounded by unconscious healers. Steve was leaning on him, eyes closed, and Bucky pulled him close and kissed his forehead.
That was how Natasha and Sam found them, Fury following behind and he had Stark of all people with him. Their eyes landed on the healers but Steve, whose eyes had opened but otherwise hadn't moved, said, "Don't touch them," sounding tired but very firm and no one did, even if they did look at them with concern.
Stark shook himself, then gestured over his shoulder, saying to Bucky, "Nice mess you made upstairs. Didn't leave me a lot to work with. Also, not sure your secret's gonna stay a secret if you keep doing stuff like that."
Bucky just shook his head and Stark disappeared. Fury said, "He knows human devices and he can make sure all of this is kept hidden from the mundane world. They're both unfortunately valuable traits," and then he disappeared after him.
Sam was reaching for Steve and Bucky surrendered him with a muttered, "Don't let him fall," which Sam ignored in favour of pulling Steve into a bone crushing hug.
Natasha came up beside Bucky and touched his cheek, looked into his eyes. "It's okay," he said. "I'm okay."
She looked politely doubtful but stroked his cheek and said, "If you say so."
Eyes showing slivers of gold, Sam thumped Steve gently on the back. "Do not do that again. You scared the shit out of me," he said while Steve returned the hug. It wasn't until Sam leaned back, holding Steve at arm's length to study him, that Bucky realised Sam was wearing his sword.
Natasha's hand shot out, holding him in place as she reacted to his instant anger, rising on a wave of dragon instinct. "I've got your gun and we split your knives, but your sword's the wrong size for me. We knew as soon as we saw your weapons something had happened. We knew you'd want them." Sam was watching him carefully, Steve looking between them.
Bucky felt his anger flash higher—his knives, his sword—Natasha was one thing, but Sam…
Slowly, it faded. If he'd died, Sam would have picked up his sword and come after Steve. Sam had picked up his sword and come after him. It meant... Bucky drew in a breath, let it out slowly. It meant if someday he couldn't protect Steve, Steve would still be safe. "It's okay. But I'm going to want those back now."
Sam, head tilted, eyes far too sharp, looking like the falcon he was, said, "Steve or your weapons?"
"Both," he replied. Sam snorted but unbuckled the sword. It didn't take long for Bucky to get his weapons back in place and then Steve slipped his arms around Bucky's waist and sighed as Bucky folded himself back around him.
"Nice socks," Sam said. Bucky wiggled his toes and shared a glance with Nat, who shook her head at him in mock despair. "This," Sam said to Steve, waving a hand at Steve and Bucky, "is going to be talked about. Don't think it's not."
"Sam," Steve turned his head so he could half-smile at Sam, his cheek against Bucky's chest, "we can talk about it all you want, but I love him so it's not going to get you anywhere."
Both Sam and Bucky went still, Nat grinned, and everything inside Bucky rose up in a moment of joy.
"Yes, him." Steve tilted his head back. "I probably should have told you that first, huh?" he said to Bucky.
"As long as you tell me," Bucky said, kissing his forehead. "I don't mind who finds out first."
* * *
Fury hadn't just brought Stark. He'd brought Sif and some of her students to help secure the building. Every healer Steve had asked for had been sent and they came downstairs as soon as they arrived. Maria Hill, sworn to Athena, had been deputised to act as guardian for all of them, what had happened deemed too important to worry about faction lines.
The healers approached Steve, who found the energy to stand up straight as he explained what he'd found in the captive healers, what he'd done, what they'd need. The new healers nodded, looking in turns concerned, angry, nauseous, grief-stricken.
Bucky approved and, feeling Steve start to flag, surreptitiously shifted to take more of his weight.
Steve, seeming older than his years, said, "I'm counting on you," to the healers and they stood straighter, made solemn promises of care, and hurried off. Once they were gone, he slumped against Bucky and closed his eyes.
Fury returned and wrung every last detail out of Bucky. When Bucky stopped at the part of the story that would mean revealing he was a dragon—especially given who else was in the room—Fury sighed and said, "One, what makes you think I don't already know what you're worried about telling me, and two, don't you think the fact that what's left of Pierce is still on fire might give it away?"
Sam twitched, Nat looked inscrutable, and Steve burst into tired giggles, obviously too exhausted to stop. Bucky put his hand over Steve's mouth, realised that at some point tonight he'd stopped caring about keeping the secret of being a dragon, and kept telling the story. When he was done, the hand over Steve's mouth having turned into a hand curled around the nape of his neck, fingers threaded into his hair, Bucky asked, "Do you know what Pierce was?"
"Much as it pains me to admit it, I don't." The unearthly glow leaking from under Fury's eyepatch flared brighter, making Bucky look away. "Now how about you get Rogers home. We'll take care of things here."
When they were settled in Natasha's car, Steve in the backseat with Bucky, Sam riding shotgun because no one drove Nat's car but Nat, Sam turned around to fix Bucky with a sharp stare. "You're a dragon?"
Bucky said, "Yes," in a voice that didn't invite discussion.
"Huh," Sam said and turned back to face the front. "That explains a lot." Judging by the tiny smirk Bucky could see reflected in the windshield he wanted Bucky to ask what it explained, but Bucky decided he didn't care.
They were safe, Steve was safe, curled against his side. Natasha was here, hell, Sam was here, and that meant he could relax. Bucky let his head fall back and stared out at the night sky as the car ate up the miles.
Chapter 18: Be With Me Here
When they reached Steve's apartment, Bucky wanted to scoop Steve up and carry him, but he didn't, just snugged him close and helped him up the stairs. When they got inside, he kicked the door shut and manoeuvred Steve across the floor to sit on the couch, then knelt in front of him.
Steve smiled and ran his hands though Bucky's hair. "You're beautiful, you know?"
"I smell and I need a shower and I look like I got dragged through the lower planes in my socks."
"It's got nothing to do with what you look like." Bucky's breath caught and he gave in to the urge from what felt like a hundred years ago to put his head down on Steve's knees and close his eyes. "My dragon."
"Never stop saying that."
"Never gonna." He stroked Bucky's hair, the soft skin behind Bucky's ear, traced his cheekbone down to his mouth, ran his fingertip delicately over his bottom lip. "Bucky?"
Dragons didn't purr, but he was getting close. "Mmm?"
"You kind of do need a shower."
He burst out laughing, grabbed Steve's hand and kissed it, then sat up. "I'm not the only one. Want to join me?"
"I'm exhausted. I'm not sure I can even stand up long enough to shower."
"Even more important we do it together." Steve's expression was gently doubtful, his fingers threaded through Bucky's. "I just want to shower with you. I'm not looking for anything else." He lifted Steve's hand and pressed a kiss to his palm, gazing at him through his eyelashes, deliberately ridiculous. "Not right now, anyway."
It made him laugh and pull Bucky in for a kiss. "Okay, then."
Bucky undid Steve's shoes and pulled them off along with his socks, then stood and pulled him to his feet, Steve a solid weight against his side. He had to prop him against the bathroom wall while he got the shower going and Steve's eyes were half-closed as Bucky started undressing him. "I wanted to be awake to enjoy this," Steve said sleepily.
"Next time." He kissed him softly and pulled the shirt over Steve's head, then unbuckled Steve's pants and pushed them down along with his underwear. His hands wanted to shake a little, because...just because, but at the same time he was serene. This was Steve trusting him. This was Steve exhausted after a night of hell, barely awake and hardly functioning, placing himself entirely in Bucky's hands and the sheer trust hit him the way nothing else could have.
He couldn't help the moment of appreciation as he stepped back, because Steve was beautiful, but he stripped out of his own clothes and looked up to see Steve watching him out of half-closed eyes. "I wanted to be awake to enjoy that."
"Definitely next time," he promised, pulling Steve into his arms and every nerve ending caught fire. He felt Steve shiver against him, heard him gasp a little, and pressed a line of kisses along his shoulder, up his neck, behind his ear. "Come on, shower and then you need to sleep."
Steve's grumble made him smile and he walked him into the spray, handed him the soap and kept a hand on Steve's back while Steve scrubbed himself, his eyes closed as he leaned on Bucky. Bucky took the soap back when he was done and washed himself, then held Steve close under the water until they were rinsed clean, kissed his shoulder and breathed deep, then forced himself to step back. "Ready to get out?"
A sleepy mumble was the only response, so he turned off the water, dried him, led him to bed and rifled around in a drawer until he found Steve's pyjama pants. He left Steve struggling into them, clumsy with exhaustion, and ducked out to pull on a pair of soft worn cotton pants from his gear in the living room and grab his phone, just in case. He came back in time to see Steve flop down on the bed and bury his face in a pillow.
Bucky set his phone on the floor, turned off the lights, climbed in next to Steve, and pulled him in close. Steve tucked his nose into the hollow of Bucky's throat and whispered, "I love you."
"I love you, too, Steve." Bucky brushed his hand down the smooth skin between Steve's shoulder blades, then let it settle in the small of his back. "Sleep."
Bucky woke to the feel of gentle fingers stroking the join where the metal of his arm met the flesh of his shoulder. Trails of warmth coiled through him and he breathed deeply and opened his eyes. The morning sun cast the bed in golden light, flowing over Steve until he seemed to glow. He was lying on his stomach in the curve of Bucky's right arm, left elbow propped on the bed, chin resting on his hand, eyes fixed on his fingers as they moved across Bucky's skin, careful and slow, like he was memorising every inch. He pressed his palm against the shoulder joint, cupping the metal, and it warmed under his touch.
"It was a hydra." Bucky's voice was gravelly and low.
Steve's eyes flicked to his.
"That's how I lost it. I was stupid, not paying attention, and I flew into a hydra's territory. Barely got away with my life but it kept my leg. Probably would have died but this healer came along and saved me."
Bucky nodded. "There I was, a huge dragon, leg all torn up, and he was never scared of me."
"Sounds pretty brave."
"He was. He is. Gorgeous, too, like sunlight, but inside," he brushed his knuckles down Steve's cheek, whisper soft, "inside he's made of steel and mountains."
Steve slowly slid his hand down to rest it over Bucky's heart. "What happened to him?"
"Lucky for me, I found him again. Lucky for me, he loves me."
"Yup," Bucky said, brimming with happiness. "I'm his dragon."
"Know something else?" Steve shifted until he was lying across Bucky's chest, ghost of a smile dancing across his face.
"He's yours, too."
It rang through Bucky. All those instincts he'd been fighting that said Steve was his—mine to protect, mine to keep—and here Steve was, offering it like a gift. Bucky brought his hands up to cradle Steve's cheeks and his, "Yeah?" came out just this side of shaky.
Steve was searching his face, lightly touched the back of Bucky's right hand. "Of course."
Bucky shook his head once, mingled disbelief and joy, then he was kissing him, kissing him like he'd never be able to stop and Steve's tiny, pleased sound made him smile against Steve's mouth. Steve pushed up, one hand on the bed, the other tangling in Bucky's hair as he deepened the kiss and Bucky slid his hands slowly down Steve's back, fingers spread wide, memorising every inch of him, every wiry muscle, the way they moved under his hands, every notch of his spine, the feel of warm bare skin. With an impatient noise, Steve nipped Bucky's bottom lip, then kissed the corner of his mouth, the edge of his jaw, began trailing kisses down his neck. Bucky pulled him closer, hands sliding lower, spanning his waist, and—
The sudden shrill beep of Bucky's phone made him jump and bang his head against the wall with an audible thunk. Steve started laughing and buried his face against Bucky's chest, shoulders shaking. Bucky sighed. "You'd better check," Steve managed to get out. "Could be important."
"Nothing could be that important," he muttered but he wrapped one arm around Steve as tight as he could and leaned over to pat the floor until he found his phone, distracted by the tiny kisses Steve was pressing against his chest. As he read the message he slowly smiled. "I was wrong."
Steve lifted his head. "Bucky? Is everything okay?"
"Better than." He stared at the phone, read the message again, then turned it off and set it on the floor. "Fury thought you'd want to know that the healers are awake and doing well." He settled his hand on the back of Steve's neck, pressed a kiss to his forehead. "Thanks to you."
Bucky disagreed, because it was Steve who'd exhausted himself fixing whatever Pierce had done to them, but he let it slide. "He also says they're all relieved Pierce is dead."
"Thanks to you," Steve said.
"To us," Bucky corrected. Steve shook his head and kissed him, but it was light, fleeting, and he settled back down on Bucky's chest.
"Are you okay?" Bucky asked, stroking his right hand down Steve's back.
"I think so," he replied after mulling it over. "I can't promise I'm not going to have nightmares about it, but I'm for damn sure not sorry he's dead. I don't think I'm sorry any of them are dead. They tried to kill you, they shot you, I know how many times. Pierce mutilated those healers because he thought he was entitled," the word twisted in Steve's mouth, "to their gift." He stopped, spread his hand wide over Bucky's heart, staring at his fingers. "And he killed the others. He killed them, Bucky. I don't know how many. We might never know how many."
He covered Steve's hand with his metal fingers, pressed his other hand under Steve's chin, urging him to look up. "We'll find out. We'll figure out all the ones who're missing. We'll let their people know what happened. And if they don't have people, well," he paused, rubbed his thumb over Steve's cheek, "we can be their people. We'll make sure they're not forgotten."
"Do you really think we can?"
"There's three of us with contacts all over the country and you've never learned how to give up on anything, so yeah, I think we can. I think we will."
Steve's eyes were clear and blue, something like wonder in them as he gazed at Bucky. "I really do love you."
It sent a jolt through him, warm sparks like static down his spine, and he thought it probably always would. "I love you, too, Steve. Not quite sure I have the words to tell you how much."
"You do. You just did." Steve pressed a kiss to Bucky's collarbone, turned his head to rest his cheek over Bucky's heart, and they lay quietly, Bucky running his fingers through Steve's hair. After a while, Steve stirred. "I guess this means it's really over."
"It's going to be hard getting used to not being with you every day."
"I'm still going to be around. Just try and get rid of me."
"I know, but it's not going to be the same. Unless." Steve stopped and propped himself up on his elbows, looking uncertain.
Bucky looked at him curiously. "Unless?"
"How attached are you to your place?"
A delicate fizz spun through Bucky at the question, like his blood was suddenly carbonated, bubbles swirling through his body. Steve didn't seem to notice, kept talking while Bucky watched him, fingers curling against Steve's skin—but then he couldn't know what that kind of question meant to a dragon.
"Because I was thinking," each word was careful, like Steve was testing the waters as he offered it to Bucky, "we've basically been living together all this time. Maybe you'd like to keep doing it? My place is big enough for two if," and here the uncertainty disappeared, replaced by laughter and anticipation and Bucky could see banked heat, "you don't mind not sleeping on the couch anymore."
"You're asking me to live with you," he said, not quite sure how he'd found himself here, where he'd never thought he could be.
"Yes, Bucky, I'm asking you to live with me, to keep living with me." It was a little dry, with a touch of hope and a dash of gentle teasing, but underneath it was brimming with love—a potent cocktail and Bucky felt a little drunk, his dragon roaring to the fore, because yes. He thought of his apartment. When he came to the city it had become his home, but he realised it wasn't anymore. Hadn't been since Steve had walked across the floor and kissed him, had claimed him as his dragon, like Steve had gathered up everything that made it home and claimed that too.
He caught Steve's face between his hands. "Dragons love their homes, they get very attached to them, sometimes you have to drive them away to get them to leave, but—
"Hey, it's okay." Steve cut him off, trying to hide his disappointment behind a light tone. "It was just a thought. I—"
He wrapped Steve in his arms and flipped them over, Steve pinned beneath him as Bucky curved above him. Bucky heard himself rumble, felt it low in his chest, as he caught Steve's mouth and kissed him deeply, Steve's hands twining around his neck to pull him closer as he returned the kiss enthusiastically, like he was never going to stop, one leg curving over Bucky's to hold him in place.
"You didn't let me finish," he breathed as Steve blinked up at him, breathless and slightly dazed. "Dragons get very attached to their homes. But Steve?" Bucky rested his forehead against Steve's, smiling as Steve curled his fingers into his hair. "My home isn't a place." He saw sudden understanding on Steve's face, the beginnings of a grin, possessive and perfect and filled with love. "My home is you."
Chapter 19: Epilogue - Chase This Light With Me
Six months later
"I'm not saying I've thought about it." Steve measured out the long coil of soft rope between his hands. "I'm not admitting anything, but if I had thought about tying you up? This wouldn't have been what I had in mind."
Bucky's brain flatlined for a minute, then he craned his long neck around to stare at Steve. Steve didn't look at him, just tossed the rope over Bucky's shoulders, a barely there smirk on his face, then crouched down to reach under Bucky's chest to grab the dangling end.
The desire to fly with Steve had been a banked coal flaring into brighter life the longer they were together, burning incandescent when he'd finally voiced it and Steve had said, "Yes."
Bucky wanted it, he craved it, but he wasn't willing to risk Steve falling and the spikes at the base of his neck had never grown back after being shot off, so there were no convenient handholds. Steve's, "You'd catch me if I fell," delivered in tones of rock-solid faith, in his voice of steel and mountains, had successfully derailed the discussion for several hours but it hadn't soothed Bucky's worry. The rope was their solution, tied around Bucky's neck and soft and silky so it wouldn't hurt Steve's hands.
Except now all he was thinking about were Steve's hands and dropping his dragon shape, and wondering just how private Sif's mountaintop plateau really was.
Steve's smirk got wider as he securely tied the rope and stepped back, regarding Bucky. "You know for a dragon, with the scales and the claws and the wings, you're awfully cute when you're stunned like that." Bucky's eyes narrowed and Steve laughed. "Yes you are. You're my adorable dragon."
Moving carefully, Bucky pivoted on his foreleg, spread his wings for balance, and reared back, settling his weight on his haunches. He reached for Steve, wrapping his talons around Steve's body to pull him in close, curving his neck until he was nose to nose with Steve.
Steve kissed the tip of his nose. "Is that supposed to be scary?" he murmured and Bucky tilted his head so he could give Steve a look. "Didn't think so," he said with a faint smile. "You really are beautiful like this."
Bucky echoed the sentiment completely. One of Steve's arms was resting on Bucky's talon, his hand curling around the sharp silver claw, his other hand stroking the long line of Bucky's head, completely unconcerned, completely trusting. And why would he ever be afraid? Bucky was his dragon. Incontrovertibly, inarguably his dragon.
Steve leaned forward and rested his cheek against Bucky as Bucky blew a long warm breath around him. "Take me flying?"
Bucky opened his talons and Steve stepped back so Bucky could settle himself flat on the ground. Gingerly, obviously not wanting to hurt him, Steve climbed up and straddled the base of Bucky's neck, sitting over his shoulders, and wrapped his hands around the rope.
As Bucky rose to his feet he shifted his weight to adjust for Steve, not as easy as it would have been if he'd had both front legs, but he spread his wings wide to help. He sensed more than felt Steve's heartbeat kick up as he reached the cliff's edge and paused, turning his head to meet Steve's eyes. Steve gave him a blinding grin. "I love you."
I love you, too, Steve. So much. Bucky briefly touched his nose to Steve's knee then turned back to look out over the open air.
One second passed, two, and then Bucky dropped into nothing. His wings snapped out to catch the wind and they were soaring through the overcast sky, the sun hidden by a thick blanket of clouds, the world rolling out beneath them like a carpet of distant lives.
Steve was crouched over his neck, a spot of warmth against his scales, and Bucky tilted sideways to slip through the air, heard Steve gasp as he turned on a wingtip to spin them back the way they'd come.
"Now you're just showing off," he called, and Bucky could hear the love in his voice.
The thread of an old conversation rose from memory as Bucky spiralled through the updrafts and he wanted to laugh, settled for blowing streams of smoke to trail behind them like a veil, because:
"He's the one."
"Not the one the one, come on, Nat."
He'd been so wrong.
Bucky beat his wings harder, sending them higher, and Steve's laughter, fearless and joyous and overflowing with light, chased after them as they burst through the clouds and into the glorious, brilliant sun.