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Repaid

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New York wasn’t the same place it had been when Bucky left it. It made sense, places change, but Bucky suspected that what he was experiencing was abnormal.

There were pixies in Prospect Park. They flitted from flower to flower, chatted with each other in a language somewhere between insect chirping and birdcall, and Bucky watched them, knowing he shouldn’t be able to see them. No one else in the park could, so therefore he shouldn’t either.

The pixies weren’t the only things he shouldn’t be able to see. He’d seen gargoyles winking at him from the roofs of churches and the NYPL, miniature dragons bothering the pigeons and stealing bread crumbs from ducks, and he’d even caught a glimpse of a unicorn in between the trees in Central Park.

All these things were only some of the reasons why Bucky was having difficulty fitting back into life on Earth, even after three months. He was living with Sam and Steve in their apartment, and they insisted they didn’t mind, and that he should be there, but Bucky could tell they were at a loss for how else to help him. Bucky had been declared KIA five years earlier, so he technically didn’t exist. Or rather he did, but in an empty grave in his family plot. There didn’t seem to be any story he could tell that would explain where he’d been those five years, why he was suddenly back in New York with no record of how he’d made it there from Iraq. He didn’t even know how he could talk to his family about it. After all, you can’t just answer “Where have you been, how are you not dead,” with “I was kidnapped and brainwashed and turned into a Fae assassin in another world.” While Bucky agreed with Sam that he needed someone to talk to, he’d rather that person wasn’t a doctor at a mental hospital and telling the truth seemed like a fast pass to institutionalization.

So instead Bucky was taking long walks, re-exploring the city he’d grown up in, and cautiously interacting with people who weren’t his friends.

It was a lot harder than it should have been. It was frustrating. Bucky just wanted to be normal, but it was so hard. He was already two points down by having white hair and missing an arm.It certainly didn’t help his case that he couldn’t help but look when a pixie flitted by, or that his fingers twitched with magic he could remember using but didn’t have the power for anymore. On top of all of that, sometimes an echo of a whisper of Pierce’s voice murmured in his head.

But he was trying, because that’s all he could manage to do.

He sat on a bench in his favorite spot in Prospect Park, watching the pixies chatter. It was a lovely September day, still warm, but signs of autumn were starting to bleed through the foliage. Bucky hadn’t talked to anyone apart from Steve and Sam that morning, so even as he relaxed in the park his brain reminded him that he had to fill his Human Interaction Quota at some point. He was thinking he could go to Starbucks for that.

As he was debating whether or not ordering a drink from a barista could count as conversation, a young woman sat next to him.

“Hello,” she said softly. She was holding a bouquet of wildflowers, just picked, and there was a pixie on her shoulder, eyeing it jealously.

“Hello,” Bucky replied cautiously. The girl had a sort of feeling about her--a kind of aura that Bucky recognized. It felt like magic.

“May I tell you a story?” Her voice was quiet, and she had a gentle accent he recognized but couldn’t quite place.

Bucky shrugged. “If you want.” It would fill his quota, after all.

“When I was a girl,” she started, braiding the stems of the flowers together, “my twin brother and I were the joys of my parents’ lives. At least, I like to think so. We were very happy. It was Sokovia, before the war.”

Bucky blinked at that, and frowned. Something about that statement didn’t seem right to him, but he’d been having trouble keeping Earth history separate from centuries of Faerie history, so stayed quiet.

“One day, I was playing in the woods with my brother. He had hidden--I was trying to find him. I never did. I searched for hours until a strange woman found me instead and took me in. She was Fae. I had crossed over without knowing it, and the woman, wanting a child of her own, adopted me instead of taking me home.” She said all of this as though it were a simple fact of life, like crossing over into Faerie was something that happened to everyone every day. Bucky stared at her, his brow furrowed, disconcerted by how plainly she spoke of it.

“She insisted I forget my family,” the woman continued, just as easily, “that she was my new family, but she was cruel. She didn’t want a daughter, really. She wanted a pretty pet to love and control.”

Bucky frowned. She smiled wanly.

“Who was it?” he asked.

She shook her head. “A witch somewhere in the wilds. I don’t know her name, or even what others called her, because she never told me. I was to call her ‘Mama’ and never leave her lands. I don’t even know if she was Seelie or Unseelie or something else.”

She picked at the stems of the flowers and then smiled up at Bucky again.

“She told me about you, of course. You were a ghost story--the Winter Knight who would come to gobble me up if I was naughty and didn’t do as she said. She never mentioned you were like me.”

It was Bucky’s turn to smile. “I don’t think that many people knew.”

“No,” she agreed, “but the similarities are interesting, are they not? We’re both changelings, in our own way.”

“How did you escape?”

Her smile grew cruel, but not at Bucky. “She had a book of magic. I’d heard enough tales to know what I should do. I studied it while she was gone and while she slept, and learned enough to explore my own innate magic.” She lifted a hand, and her eyes glowed red as the same red shone at her fingertips. “It turns out I have a talent for seeing into minds and twisting what is there. I could practice on her and she never knew.” She sighed. “I locked her in a nightmare and escaped, but it was several years in the wilds before I found someone who explained the barriers between worlds. When I finally made my way back, it had been much longer on Earth than it had been in Faerie.”

Bucky said nothing. He could guess what was coming.

She was quiet for a long moment before she continued. “My whole family had been killed in the war, a war that was over thirty years ago.” More quiet. She smiled again, sadly. “I’m not asking for your pity, or any words of compassion. It’s been several years since then. I have built a new life for myself, and become… perhaps not who I was meant to be, but someone I am proud of nonetheless. May I braid your hair?”

The abrupt change of subject startled Bucky, but he nodded, oddly calmed by the woman’s presence and her words, even though they were tragic. She moved forward, setting the flowers in her lap so she could comb her long fingers through his white hair.

“I would guess,” she said softly as she worked, “that you are having a similar problem of finding yourself.”

“How did you know where to find me? Or who I was? Or that I was here at all?” Bucky knew it was interrupting, but the questions had suddenly come to him and he couldn’t ignore them.

“All good questions. I met a friend of yours--Sam. I saw him flying, and since there aren’t so many of the Fae-Touched in this city, I thought it best to introduce myself. We got to talking, and he told me his story, and I told him mine. He thought it might be helpful to you if I told it to you as well. My name is Wanda, by the way.”

“Bucky,” he responded, then swallowed. “Did… did Sam tell you what happened to me?”

“No, only parts. Only you can tell your story.”

Bucky sighed. “I’m still working out what exactly my story is.”

“It takes time,” Wanda agreed. “I could help, if you like, but it would involve me seeing into your mind.”

Bucky flinched. “Uh… no. Not… yet. But… thanks for the offer.”

“You’re welcome.” He felt her tie off his hair and he turned to face her. The flowers were gone from her lap. He reached his hand up to touch his hair gently, and felt the braid, and the flowers she had worked into it. She smiled at him.

“You look very pretty,” she said.

Bucky could feel himself blush as he smiled back shyly. He wondered if Steve would like it.

“I would… like to talk to you again sometime, though. I think that would help. And I… would like it, I think,” he said brokenly.

Wanda smiled. “I would like that too.” She touched her many necklaces, her expression thoughtful, then pulled one off and and settled it around Bucky’s neck instead. He looked at it. It was a simple cord with a small stone tied around the end as a pendant. It was smooth, polished, with a hole in the middle, but otherwise somewhat ordinary. He did, however, feel a soft pulse of magic from it, warm and friendly.

“Hold that in your hand and think of me,” she said, “and I’ll hear and answer.” Wanda smiled and tucked a strand of hair behind his ear, then kissed him gently on the forehead. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Bucky. I hope to hear from you soon.”

She stood, and Bucky watched her go, her skirts swishing around her as she walked away.


(art by Alicia)