"Anything new in the world of the cultish and uncanny?" Tony's hair was sticking up in at least twenty-seven different directions and he was leaning on the counter in a way Steve was sure he thought looked casual, but actually revealed that the counter was currently load-bearing where Tony was concerned and, in its absence, he'd be in serious danger of plummeting to the floor.
"Exactly how many hours have you been awake for?" Steve asked, leaning over the back of the couch to eye Tony with concern.
"Time is an abstract concept. It has no meaning." He gestured with his coffee cup, an expansive arc that slopped black liquid over the side. "It's an invention of man and so man controls it."
"That's not an answer," Bucky muttered from his spot on the couch next to Steve. His eyes were closed, his arms were crossed, and he was mostly invisible under a fluffy blue blanket.
"Well, your Star-Spangled boyfriend started it, since I don't recall being provided with any intel on the weird and the wonderful and developments therein despite asking extremely politely."
Steve sighed. Save the world from one demon-summoning cult (and resultant demon) and anything even vaguely cult related was suddenly his problem. Well, not his alone: he, Sam and Bucky had somehow wound up as the unofficial Cultish and Uncanny Division of the Avengers.
Tony had come up with the name.
And the acronym.
He'd even gotten JARVIS to make them special badges. They had a cow on them.
"No developments, nothing new. I'll let you know if that changes." He probably wouldn't unless the world was genuinely under threat; the rest of the team had a highly amused washing-their-hands-of-it attitude towards the whole thing.
"See that you do," Tony said, wagging a finger at him before whirling, stumbling once, and walking out the door.
"JARVIS, is he going to sleep anytime soon?"
"Ms Potts has been informed."
That was definitely a yes. Tony wouldn't know what hit him. Steve smirked, then let out a yelp as Bucky yanked him back down and wrestled him under the blanket, wrapping his metal arm firmly around Steve's waist to pull him close before he caught Steve's chin in his right hand and planted a kiss on him.
Steve knew his grin was the stupidest, sappiest grin, possibly that had existed in recorded history, and he didn't give even the smallest of damns as he wound his arms around Bucky and buried his nose in Bucky's hair.
"Stay," Bucky said firmly.
"Whatever you say, Buck. Whatever you say."
The dog was small and hairy and of indeterminate breeding, and it calmly trotted along beside the Leader. "Here, take it." The Leader thrust the leash at him and Ryan took it, concealing his surprise. There were only a few of them here yet, and he was the lowest on the food chain, the most recent convert, so he guessed he shouldn't be surprised that he'd be put in charge of the Leader's dog.
The dog sat and panted up at him and he crouched to offer his hand, which was immediately covered in slobber. "Good dog, that's a good dog." The dog offered his paw and he shook it, then offered his other paw, so he shook that. "She never really struck me as a dog person." He considered the dog. "Lie down?"
The dog lay down.
The dog sat up.
"Good boy." He stood and the dog snuggled against his leg as they waited for the others, the Leader tapping her foot impatiently as they waited for them to arrive. The torches flickered in the darkness of the empty field, smoke spiraling up into the sky.
Ryan didn't like to use the word cult when he thought of this. It was really no different than a lottery syndicate. They were just a bunch of people who, like him, wanted to find a way to get a better life. A bunch of people who met at midnight in an open field far away from people. Who kept their faces, their bodies, covered by flowing black robes and never used their real names. Who burnt twisted sigils in the grass. Who moaned and chanted strange demonic names.
Okay, maybe it was weirder than a lottery syndicate.
When everyone finally arrived and formed the circle, the Leader moved to the centre and spread her arms. "Tonight we will be taking a different approach. Thus far, we've seen no sign of the demon's favour, no riches, no fame, none of what we deserve, yet that's understandable. We've offered only words and words mean nothing. Tonight, we will offer blood." A murmur went through the cloaked and hooded figures, a frisson of excitement, but sudden understanding weighed like lead in Ryan's heart.
He looked down at the dog. The dog looked up at him trustingly, tongue lolling out of his mouth.
The Leader pointed at Ryan and intoned, "Bring forth the dog."
Ryan thought about running, just grabbing the dog and bolting, but the Leader scared him. He knew she carried a gun. They all knew she carried a gun. And it wouldn't change anything even if he did get away. It might save this dog, but it wouldn't save the next. His brain was whirring, so fast he was surprised smoke wasn't coming out of his ears. The dog was smart. The dog was trained. It was worth a try.
Ryan brought forth the dog.
The Leader drew a gleaming blade from her robes and held it out. "You are the newest of us, you are the lowest of us. Prove you deserve to be here."
There were patterns burnt in the grass, curving lines that met in the middle, symbols that expressed their desire for the demon's favour. He led the dog over and told him to sit.
The circle began to chant as Ryan took the knife and the dog's ears pricked up. Ryan realised he wouldn’t trade a chance at a better life for the life of this dog. If this didn't work, he was just going to risk snatching the dog up and legging it.
He knelt in the grass and set one hand on the dog's neck. The chanting grew louder. He raised the knife high over his head. As he brought it down, he whispered, "Play dead," staring intently at the dog. Instantly the dog dropped to the ground like it had been struck by lightning. Ryan drove the knife towards the ground and through the fleshy part of his forearm—holy shit it hurt, and he bit back a scream—and into the ground next to the dog. Blood splashed over the dog's fur. He whispered, desperately, "Stay."
The dog didn't move. As the rituals concluded, it turned out no one wanted to deal with a dead dog. Ryan offered to dispose of it and there was rapid agreement. He carried the dog away, making sure to splash blood around, and put him in the boot of his car. The dog's tail wagged as he looked up at Ryan, all bright eyes and matted, blood spattered fur.
Ryan wrapped his arm in an old sweater and when he got home he bandaged it and put the dog in the bathtub, scrubbing him clean, then dried him, leaving him fluffy and bounding through the house. "Welcome to your new home, uh, Fluffy?"
The dog yipped once, quietly, and Ryan shrugged. "Fluffy it is."
"Check your email today?"
Steve looked up from where he wasn't watching YouTube videos. He was definitely not watching YouTube videos of the top one hundred hits of the decades he'd missed. Bucky was leaning in the doorway. "No, should I have?"
"Your pet PhD student sent you something. CC'd it to me since she knows you don't check your email."
"She's not my pet PhD student, she has a name: Anna, which you know," he pointed out and Bucky shrugged. "And the last time she gave me something we did end up saving the world." Probably. Abaddon hadn't been quite what any of them had expected...if any of them had ever actually expected to meet a demon from hell. The whole thing had been very strange.
Writing the briefing on it had been even stranger.
"I swear, Steve. It's Jenny Myers' kitten all over again."
"Bucky," Steve sighed.
"I'm just giving you shit." Bucky walked over and leaned down to kiss the top of his head. "Because it's fun. Check your email, make sure the world isn't ending." He leaned further forward and his eyes were dancing. "Let me know if I need to reassert my romantic and sexual claim on you in case any demons want to snatch you away."
Steve mustered a straight face with an effort, summoned his very best Captain America voice, and regarded Bucky seriously. "It's important to be safe. We should probably just pencil that in on a regular basis."
Bucky grin was bright as he leaned on Steve's back, hands sliding down Steve's chest. "I'll get my calendar."
Fluffy was asleep on Ryan's lap when the email arrived. It was from the Leader. Theleader322@gmail.com, to be specific, which he couldn't help wondering about. Were three hundred and twenty-one other leaders on Gmail or had she just chosen a random number?
She didn't go in for pleasantries, just got right to the point.
It didn't work, because a dog is too close to people. Too domestic. Too obedient. We need something closer to wild. You work in a butcher shop. Find something and bring it to the next meeting.
"I sell things," Ryan said to Fluffy, wishing he'd never told her what he did for a living. "I'm literally just a shop assistant. It's not like I'm out the back killing animals. We don't even have any animals to kill. All our meat arrives shrink-wrapped in boxes."
Fluffy woofed softly in agreement.
"But if I don't get something, someone else will."
Another soft woof.
"I wonder how fast you can teach a rabbit to play dead."
Craigslist helped him procure a rabbit, a great big brown buck named Garson. There was a tense moment between Garson and Fluffy, but he told them to get along, that he needed them not to fight, and they both sniffed and settled down.
Multiple hours of reading about animal training, multiple demonstrations of playing dead by Fluffy, and three days later Garson could play dead and stay dead, too. From what he'd read, Ryan knew rabbits were smart but that was something else. Garson was obviously special and he couldn't figure out why those people had wanted to get rid of him.
He bought a contraption off the internet that purported to help people sneak clean urine into their drug tests, and the night of the meeting he filled the bag with blood they sold at work and strapped it to his arm. At midnight, while the other members chanted and moaned, he whispered at Garson to play dead, slashed the bag as he drove the knife into the ground, and blood pumped out over the prone and apparently lifeless rabbit, the ground, and his robes.
Once again, no one wanted to stare at a dead animal and they were happy enough to leave the body to Ryan.
Garson was sure willing to stare at Ryan as he loaded him into the boot of his car. Accusingly. Deeply offended by the blood smeared all over his fur. "It's better than being dead," Ryan whispered defensively and Garson ran a paw over one ear and then stared at his paw, nose wrinkling.
It took two baths to get him clean.
Another email arrived in Steve's inbox from Anna, this one with coordinates and a news clipping. It was enough to send Steve, Sam, and Bucky out to have a look.
They ended up in a wide and untended field, the old barbed wire fence in various stages of falling down, the lumpy grass burned away in what looked like deliberate patterns.
"Something weird clearly went down here."
Bucky and Steve both nodded.
"Have you got Stark's...thing?" Steve asked.
Bucky and Sam exchanged a glance.
"It has a name, Steve," Sam said.
"Stark put a lot of work into making it for you," Bucky added.
"Calling it a thing, it just seems... What do you think, Barnes? Would you say it seems disrespectful?"
"Disrespectful. Just the word I'd use."
Steve stared up at the sky, wondering why he'd ever wanted them to get along. Wondering why it had never occurred to him back then that the first thing they were going to do was band together to give him shit. "I'm not calling it that."
"Calling it what?" Sam asked, all innocent enquiry.
"Yeah, Steve, calling it what?"
Steve sighed. Shook his head. Hid a smile. "Have you got the CUD Detector?"
The two of them giggled like little kids and Sam produced it like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. It was coloured in patches of black and white, resembling the world's sleekest, most aerodynamic dairy cow. "One CUD Detector, right here."
Tony and his apparently-a-sense-of-humour. "Send it up, see what it finds."
It was based on the same tech as Sam's Redwing, only Sam thankfully hadn't given in to the urge to name this one. While he piloted it across the field, scanning the ground, Bucky wandered over to lean on Steve's shoulder. "Does that make you the CUD Commander?"
He tried to maintain a stern expression, but he was fighting a grin. "Shut up."
"Make me." Bucky waggled his eyebrows.
"I don't think we have that kind of time."
"It's a big field; we've got some kind of time." Bucky was laughing softly as he pulled Steve close and kissed him thoroughly, winding his metal fingers into his hair. He managed to get Steve's shirt untucked, shoving his right hand underneath it to press skin against skin, and Steve melted into the touch with a long sigh.
"If you two are finished macking on each other," Sam called after some amount of time had passed. "Daisy found something."
"Oh good, you did name it," Steve deadpanned, pressing a kiss to Bucky's jaw before straightening.
"Of course I did." They leaned over Sam's shoulders as he took them through the readout on Daisy's display panel. "There were patterns burned in the grass, we can probably send them to your contact, get her to check if they're random or if they match up with something. But there's also blood. Animal and human, not a lot, but it's there," he pointed, "right where the lines meet."
"That's not good," Bucky said, and Steve hummed his agreement.
"No," Sam agreed. "It's not."
Ryan's parents had never let him have a pet, but he didn't understand what the big deal had been. Animals, it turned out, were easy. All you had to do was explain what you wanted, show them what you wanted them to do, get one of the other animals to demonstrate, and you were done.
All these trainers on the internet going on about how hard things were made it seem so difficult. But, Ryan thought, they were trying to make money, selling services or books or equipment, so he guessed it made sense.
He was glad that they were all exaggerating, though, since his collection of animals was getting bigger. And even gladder that he had such a big backyard and that everyone was getting along. Fluffy and Garson seemed to be in charge, and that was fine with him. They seemed to be in charge of him, too, but that was also fine with him. Someone needed to be, since the Leader kept sending him emails, telling him to get more animals. The...syndicate had needed to move to a different location, since the Leader has somehow known someone had been sneaking around the field, but that hadn't changed anything else.
So far he'd acquired—and successfully taught to play dead and stay dead—two ferrets, a cockatoo, a black cat, a skunk, an elderly fox, a pot-bellied pig, and a pygmy goat. It was amazing what Craigslist could provide.
When the email arrived, telling him they were going bigger, he hit Craigslist again. He wasn't sure why he was still doing it. Part of it was that he didn't want any animals to die, but part of it, he suspected, was the same reason people kept buying lottery tickets even though they knew they wouldn’t win.
But mostly he thought it was the animals thing.
They were back in the field, but it was untouched since last time they'd been here. "Whatever they were doing, they've moved," Sam said.
"Or stopped," Bucky offered.
"That's a possibility," Steve replied. Hopefully. Give him an enemy he could fight—or rather, don't, his preference was always going to be for peace, but if fighting was on the cards he wanted something real. Even invaders from another dimension were something solid and understandable. This supernatural bullcrap, this maybe, could-be, might-be, might-not-be shit kind of drove him nuts, but he'd seen it, up close and way too personal, to dismiss it out of hand. "Keep up the automatic surveillance, and wait and see if anything else turns up. There's not much else we can do."
Neither Sam nor Bucky offered anything to the contrary so Steve shrugged and led the way back to the car. At least it was a nice drive in the country, so it wasn't a total waste of a tri—
"Shotgun!" Sam called, dashing ahead to claim his prize.
"Dammit," Bucky muttered and Steve snickered under his breath. "How come you always get to drive? We should make your ass sit in the back seat."
"My ass is driving because it's my car. Next time, be faster." Steve grinned at him and, as they reached the car, opened the back door with a flourish. "Least I can do," he said graciously to Bucky's dark look.
He squeaked in surprise as Bucky goosed him as he slipped past and into the car, radiating innocence. "Hey, you're the one who was talking about your ass," Bucky pointed out. "How am I supposed to resist?"
Ryan stared at the alpaca. The alpaca stared back, obviously unimpressed with what it saw, chewing its cud in a vaguely threatening manner.
"She doesn't really like people," the alpaca's owner explained, scratching his beard.
Chewing her cud, Ryan mentally corrected himself. He reached into his bag and pulled out a banana. The alpaca's ears went forward and she stopped chewing. "What's her name?"
"Never really gave her a name. She was gonna be food, and you don't name food. But my husband's onto something called the lunar diet now, it doesn't involve fresh butchered alpaca, so we don’t need her anymore."
Ryan and the alpaca shared a significant look and he offered her the banana. She plucked it out of his hand and proceeded to devour it, rubbery lips working overtime to keep it in place while she squished it and squooshed it and made it disappear like oversized spaghetti. Ryan hid a grin. "Noodle," he decided. She looked at him doubtfully and he shrugged. "It's not a bad name."
She sighed and stepped forward, regally allowing him to scratch behind her ears. He clipped the lead he'd bought to her halter and she followed delicately as he led her to the car.
"Sam, I need you to check something for me." Bucky's voice was oddly distant, which was strange given he was sitting in the back seat, right behind Steve. They weren't going anywhere, traffic was at a standstill and had been since they hit the city, and Sam was engrossed in his phone.
Steve looked over his shoulder: Bucky was gazing bemused through the windshield, but he didn't seem upset. Steve looked through the windshield but didn't see anything strange.
"Can't you bug Steve?" Sam asked without looking up.
"No... No, I think I need you for this."
"I'm trying to beat this level. What's so important you have to drag me away from Angry Birds?"
"I want you to notice me letting that one go and tell me if I'm hallucinating." Bucky pointed over Steve's shoulder to the car one vehicle ahead of them. Sam and Steve followed where he was pointing to see nothing, until suddenly—
"What the hell?"
"You see it too?"
"Yeah, man. I see it. If what you're seeing is an angry ball of fuzz sticking its head out of that window."
"What is it?" Bucky asked.
"I think it's a llama," Steve said, wondering what it was doing in the back of a car in downtown New York.
"Nah, too small. It's an alpaca."
"It could be a baby llama," Steve pointed out.
"If it was a baby llama it'd be a cria, not a baby llama, but it's not a baby anything. Way too much fuzz. It's an alpaca."
"Why's it so angry?" Bucky asked, elbowing Steve in the gut as he half-clambered into the front seat to get a better look. The alpaca disappeared and Bucky made a disappointed noise.
"Hey, you'd be angry too if you were made of hair and someone shoved you into the backseat of a car." Sam stopped and a shit-eating grin slowly spread across his face. He reached out to grab a handful of Bucky's long hair, hanging free and loose. "You should be able to sympathise."
Bucky whipped his head around and scowled at him and Steve stifled a laugh. Badly. Bucky whipped his head around to glare at him at the same time the alpaca reappeared and they looked so similar, eyes narrowed in identical angry glares, that Steve burst out laughing.
The windows were down and Steve's laughter was loud and happy. Alpacas, as it turned out, had excellent hearing. Ears back, it craned its head around, eyed them, worked its jaw, and all three of them instinctively ducked as a wad of chewed-up yellow mush impacted forcefully on the windshield.
Lined up precisely with where Steve's forehead had been.
"Holy shit!" Sam exclaimed, looking between the alpaca and Bucky.
Bucky sat back, looking pleased. "You know what, I take it back. Me and alpacas?" He held up his metal hand and crossed his fingers. "Like that."
The Leader was furious. "It's been weeks and it's not working," she hissed, and her hands were curled like claws, blood red nail polish glinting in the light of the torches. "The demon ignores us, he ignores our sacrifices."
Around the circle, everyone cringed away from her fury, heads tucked low. Ryan started to sweat. The alpaca he'd been supposed to kill was curled up under a blanket in the back of his car. Alive. Not dead. Not killed. Not sacrificed to her demon.
If she figured out what he'd done, she'd kill him. She'd sacrifice him in the place of every animal he'd saved. He knew it like he knew the sun would rise tomorrow. Ryan's heart was racing and he kept his head down, terrified of drawing attention to himself. "You. Procurer of Beasts."
Slowly, unwillingly, he lifted his head. She was pointing at him. The people on either side of him drew away. "You will acquire for us a black ram, as is traditional. And we will sacrifice it to our demon. If that does not work, we will consider..." She paused and it was filled with blood and death. "...alternatives."
"Yes, Leader." He didn't dare say anything else.
"Anna thinks she's found them again. One of her contacts sent her a photo, and it matches the markings we found at the other field."
Bucky sighed and snuggled closer to Steve, threw a leg over him and pinned him to the bed. "Remember when I said you should check your email more often? I was an idiot. You shouldn't have listened to me. I was stupid."
Bucky's face was pressed against Steve's bare chest and his hair was messily flung forward, hiding his features, but the affection in his voice made him want to wrap Bucky up and steal him away, to just disappear to somewhere no one could disturb them and leave all this behind.
But they'd talked about that. Someday it might happen, but that day wasn't today. It wasn't tomorrow. They weren't there yet. He tossed his phone on the bedside table. "I've been telling you that for years."
A baleful eye peeked out from between strands of hair. "That I'm stupid?"
"Yeah," Steve said softly, brushing Bucky's hair back so he could see him. "You're an idiot." It sounded like I love you and a slow content smile pulled the corner of Bucky's mouth up. He kissed Steve's chest, tongue darting out to taste, and Steve shivered.
"I love you, too." He dragged himself up, straddling Steve's hips. "And it can all wait until tomorrow." He leaned down until they were nose to nose. "Right?"
"I know better than to argue with you."
A muttered, "That'll be the day," was just audible, but he didn't care because Bucky was kissing him, slow and deep, and his hands were sliding down Steve's chest and nothing in the world mattered more than this moment.
Craigslist supplied a black ram. It was an ancient, angry thing, owned by an urban farmer who'd bitten off more than he could chew when he'd acquired his little herd of sheep. The actual farmer who'd sold it to him had seen him coming a mile off and offloaded what must have been a perpetual problem.
Ryan stood on the other side of the fence and spoke to the ram. "I kind of need you and I kind of need you not to kill me." The ram's size, his curling, gigantic horns, the light in his eyes, made that a very real possibility. He stepped over to look up at Ryan, moving with ponderous, regal grace, and appeared to consider his words. After several minutes, he walked down to the gate. Ryan breathed a sigh of relief.
He breathed another one when Garson and Fluffy consulted each other, then sniffed noses with the ram. The three seemed to reach an accord, the ram in charge of the yard, Garson and Fluffy in charge of the house. All three of them now in charge of Ryan.
He named the ram Samson.
Samson learned the play dead and stay dead trick faster than anyone yet. When it was time to leave Ryan prepared the contraption on his arm under the watchful eyes of Garson, Fluffy and Samson and loaded Samson into the car.
The entire household was watching when he drove away, lining the windowsills or pressed against the fence.
Samson lay on the back seat like a king. Ryan swallowed hard when he pulled on his robes a few miles out, but he drove up and led Samson up to the circle. It was a strange sort of circle, because it had a big gap in it, no one willing to get close to Ryan.
Well, no one was willing to get close to Samson.
When it was time he led Samson forward, settled him on the right spot, put his hand over his throat, raised the knife, whispered, "Play dead," and Samson dropped to his side as Ryan slashed the bag, sending blood splashing over everything.
It was fine, it was good. They were chanting, moaning the demon's name, the Leader loudest of them all. She turned to face the circle, her back to Ryan, and in a blur of movement Samson rose to his feet, dropped his head, and charged.
Maybe the Leader was magic, maybe there was something to her claims of power, because she couldn’t have seen him, couldn't have heard him, but she whirled and threw herself out of the way all the same.
Ryan dropped the knife and threw himself after Samson, threw himself at Samson, holding him back, and then the world went swimmy when the Leader pulled a gun.
Pulled a gun and aimed it...at Samson.
"Okay, I don't know what the hell's going on down there, but the dead sheep just got up and tried to take out one of the cult members, and now she's pointing a gun at him." The proximity alarms had summoned the three of them to the new location and Sam had the surveillance streaming onto his phone as Steve drove.
"Zombie sheep," Bucky said flatly. "You're seriously telling me we're dealing with zombie sheep."
"I'm not saying there's zombie sheep, I'm saying that the dead sheep got up and tried to take out one of the cultists. Which is fair enough, if someone tried to kill me I'd try and take them out, too." There was a beat of silence. "Present company excepted, of course."
Bucky rolled his eyes. "Yeah, yeah, I love you, too, Wilson. But is it a dead sheep or not?"
"I don't know. It looked pretty dead. Big knife, lots of blood, fell over like it got shot. Oh, that might have been a poor choice of words since the cult guy who killed the sheep is now standing between the one with the gun and the sheep."
Steve dearly wanted to take his eyes off the road. Not to look at the footage Sam was watching. No, so he could stare at Sam in disbelief.
Bucky shoved forward to stare at Sam's phone. "Steve, can you go faster? Someone's gonna die and if we've got an outbreak of zombie sheep, that probably means an outbreak of zombie zombies and I was really, really hoping to get through my life without zombies."
"It's not a zombie sheep," Sam said.
"How do you know?"
"Because that would be stupid."
"Sam, if stupid was a reason for things not to happen how much of our lives wouldn't exist?" Bucky asked. Steve could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times Bucky had called Sam Sam.
Sam blinked at him, then nodded once. "Steve? Go faster."
They screamed through the gate, the three of them piling out, Bucky leaping on top of the car and slamming on a floodlight to illuminate the scene, following it up with his rifle prominently displayed, to make it very clear that everyone should stay right the hell where they were, thanks.
The black-robed cultists froze and then slowly began raising their hands.
But even rifle-wielding Bucky in full black, metal arm glinting silver, I'll kill you and eat your family look firmly in place, couldn't keep them from continuing to ease away, with placating looks at Bucky, from the tableau in the centre.
Steve with shield and Sam with gun made their way forward, black-robed cultists hopping out of their path, towards the possibly-a-zombie-sheep, the guy, and the gun wielding woman, the black hoods of the latter two thrown back to expose their faces.
"You're why we failed, you're why he didn't come to us, didn't love us, didn't hear our worship. You sabotaged us," the woman hissed. The gun in her hand wavered between the guy and the sheep he was holding onto.
"Hey!" Steve called and she took one look at him, the uniform, the shield—held high, waiting for her to shoot—then threw the gun away and bolted.
"Okay, that I did not expect," Sam said.
"Samson, no!" the guy yelled, clutching futilely after the sheep as it bolted after her.
In the distance, from the darkness, they heard an angry baaing and a thump, followed by a high pitched squeal and another thump.
Samson trotted back, looking proud and regal, and planted himself in front of the guy. Sam and Steve exchanged a glance and Sam pulled out a flashlight, flicked it on, and went to check on her.
He came back a few minutes later. "She's breathing but unconscious. Doesn't seem badly injured but we shouldn’t move her. I called all of this," he waved a hand to encompass everything, "into the local LEOs."
Steve nodded and they both turned their attention to the guy and his sheep. He quailed a bit, but moved to wrap his arms around the animal. "Please don't hurt him."
"It's not a zombie sheep, is it?" Sam asked.
"No," the guy said slowly, giving Sam a weird look. "I don't think that's a thing. And he's a ram, not a sheep."
The ram looking out from under the guy's arm made Steve wonder if this cult had actually summoned up a demon and just didn't realise it. It was huge and black, its long horns were curled around on themselves, its lips were pulled back to show its teeth, blood coated its neck and throat, and, as it caught Steve's eye, it stamped the ground, hard. The guy laid a hand on its skull, between its horns, and the ram settled, still watching Steve and Sam closely.
"I think we can manage that," Steve said.
It didn't take long to get the guy's name and the full story out of him. The cult, what it was trying to do, the Leader showing up with the dog and how he now he had a house full of animals who knew how to play dead.
"Wait, you're telling me you trained them to play dead and stay that way in, what, a few days?" Sam asked.
"Yes?" Ryan looked between them. "I thought that was strange, but then I figured I just got really smart animals."
"Uh huh." Steve knew that expression, that tone: it meant something deeply strange was going on and Sam was pretty damn dubious about the whole thing.
Once the local police took everyone away—and whether they'd done anything wrong besides trespassing was thankfully not Steve's problem—the paramedics took the cult leader, and animal control took the ram, Sam explained that what Ryan had described wasn't possible. "I'm not claiming to be some sort of animal training expert, but I had a dog growing up, I knew guys at the VA who worked with service animals. I know what it takes to train a dog. And that's a dog, not a crazy-ass ram or any of the other animals he was talking about. Either he's lying through his teeth or something weird is going on."
Ryan, as it turned out, wasn't a liar. After some discreet investigation by a specialist unit of SHIELD, who took one look at Steve's briefing and seconded a trainer from the dog-handling unit for the duration, they decided Ryan must be some kind of mutant.
SHIELD couldn't quite narrow down the exact specifics of his power—and there was no point, it wasn't of any readily offensive use, not in Ryan's hands—but he must have some kind of animal empathy. It was the only explanation, they concluded, that made sense. Steve, remembering the look in the ram's eyes, thinking of spilled blood and a guy who didn't want animals to die and a ritual whose entire purpose was to get a demon to give you what you wanted, deliberately put the whole thing out of his mind.
Later, when Steve filled Tony in on the details, Tony grinned at him. "Your logo's a cow, of course you were going to end up dealing with some kid who could talk to animals."
Steve groaned and tried to disappear into the couch cushions while Bucky laughed at him.
"Where are the animals now?"
"Most of them are being held by the local shelter. He can't keep them in a residential neighbourhood and they've got some strict rules about numbers of the animals that can be kept."
"Hmmm." It was all Tony said, but Steve eyed him, because that sound was how he'd ended up with a CUD Detector.
Somehow Steve wasn't surprised when a month later the invitation dropped onto his desk. "Here," Bucky said. "Stark told me to give you this. Said he didn't bother getting me one since he knew I'd be your plus one."
It was beautiful, heavy cream paper and delicate gold embossing. It was definitely Pepper's hand at work; if it had been Tony's design it would have been screaming red and gold. It was an invitation to the opening of the Stark Foundation Animal Sanctuary.
"I'll be damned," he said quietly. When he looked up at Bucky, Bucky quirked an eyebrow at him and shrugged.
The field which had consisted of burned patterns in lumpy grass, surrounded by half-collapsed barbed wire fences, was transformed. There were sturdy shelters and strong fences and Steve didn't know anything about animal sanctuaries, but it looked good and it smelled good, Ryan was ecstatic and the animals looked content. There were people milling about, kids running around, laughing and calling to each other, and the air was filled with a buoyant happiness.
It was beautiful in a way, but right now Steve had had more than enough of people. All he wanted was— Sam materialised beside him mid-thought, smiling fondly. "Looking for Bucky?"
"Yeah, he kind of disappeared."
"He's through there." He pointed at a door marked 'Staff Only'.
Steve looked between it and Sam. "I can stay if you—"
Sam cut him off. "Nope. Watching you mope without Bucky is not my idea of a fun time," his grin took any sting out of the words, "and I've got people to mingle with." He waved a hand at a little group of the blindingly beautiful who were watching Sam expectantly. "Off you go."
Sam gave him a little shove and Steve went, not worrying about the sign on the door—they'd been told they could go behind the scenes, not that it would have stopped him when he knew Bucky was back there—as he pushed the door open.
He stopped dead and let it swing shut behind him. Bucky was sitting cross-legged on the floor in a pile of hay, leaning against the rough wooden wall. In his lap, fast asleep, were three baby goats. Bucky's face was soft, his hair curling around his jaw, and he was smiling, a small, gentle thing. The goats were tiny and delicate, all long legs and longer ears, tucked in the curve of Bucky's legs, one lying against his metal arm, deeply asleep.
Love welled up inside him, so strong he could hardly swallow, and he fumbled in his pocket for his phone. Bucky glanced up, saw him, saw his phone, but didn't stop him, just smiled a little wider as Steve took a photo, wanting to preserve this forever. He shoved it back in his pocket and slowly approached.
"Hey, Buck," he said softly as he crouched next to him.
"Hey, Steve." He nodded down at his lapful of goats. "Gotta be quiet, you don't want to wake them up."
"No." He reached out to run a finger down the nose of the closest and it shifted with a little sigh. "Can I join you?"
He settled next to Bucky, as close as he could get, and Bucky rested his head on Steve's shoulder. "They're sure cute."
"We should get some for our floor in the tower."
"Uh huh," Bucky said in the tone one adopted when humouring the one you love.
"No, I'm serious." He wasn't serious, but the Captain America voice was good for more than just speeches. How Bucky hadn't figured out yet that it was a red flag for Steve teasing him, Steve would never know. Earnestly, he said, "We've got so much space."
"I don't think that's—"
"No, it'd be great, and we'd always have fresh milk. Think about it, we could have our own herd."
Bucky eyed him, baffled. "A herd of goats."
"Aw, Buck." He let the grin out that he'd been fighting to hold back. "Of course I've heard of goats. What do you think I am, some kind of city slicker?"
Slowly, Bucky's expression shifted from baffled to I will kill you. "Steve Rogers, you're damn lucky I've got a lapful of baby goats I don't want to wake up."
"I know." Steve kissed the tip of his nose.
"They'll wake up sometime."
"Yup, and then I'll pay."
"You don't sound at all worried about that and you really should be."
"Well," and he shouldn't, he knew he shouldn't, but he'd never been one to walk away from trouble, "you could just be kidding around."
Bucky's expression was one of dawning wonder, then he let out a breath of laughter. "I love you. I have no idea why sometimes, but I love you."
"I love you, too. Always have, always will." He settled back against the wooden wall and slid his fingers through Bucky's. Soon enough the goats would wake up, wander off to wherever baby goats went when they weren't sleeping safely in the laps of deadly former-assassins, and Bucky would definitely, absolutely, make him pay.
He couldn't wait.