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love is more than the skin you're in

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Bucky’s being watched.

He can feel the heavy weight of someone’s gaze on the back of his neck, can feel the soft crinkle of leaves calling to him along with the soft pad of paws on the ground. The wind, as it ruffles through his trees, doesn’t whisper any threats, so Bucky lets himself be watched as he swims.

A sharp nail tickles his foot and Bucky laughs, twirling around in the water before ducking under it. Simystros gives him a sharp grin, her tail cutting through the water as she moves away from Bucky, wanting him to give chase.

Bucky does, because there is nothing more entertaining than playing with the fishes. Even if some of them, like Simy, could eat him alive. He draws in a breath and dives, chasing the sparkle of green and gold that dances off his friend’s powerful tail as she propels herself towards the depths of the water. It’s a futile game, as he’ll need air long before she will, but he gets far enough into the depths of the lake for others to join.

Thessalon and Derketto swirl and chase and try to grab at his legs, their laughter like songs echoing through the lake. Bucky himself smiles, happiness crinkling the corners of his eyes, his chest burning tight and begging for air.

Another minute, and he lets himself be caught. Laughter bubbles out of him as Simy hugs his waist, her scales cold and smooth against his skin. The strength of her tail propels them towards the surface faster than Bucky would have been able to go on his own, and they break the water together, laughter spilling into the quiet forest.

His friend’s laughter sounds raspier and higher pitched above the water, the beautiful sound of her voice warped by the thinness of air. “Caught you, nymph,” she teases, and Bucky smirks, wiggling out of her arms.

“But alas, you can’t keep me,” Bucky points out, already breaking towards the bank. “This is the tragedy of our story, my dear Simy. You can’t live on land and I can’t live in water.”

“You are also a man,” Simystros says, showing off her sharp teeth, “where I have no need or want for one.”

“A tragedy.” Bucky shakes his head. “I would brighten your life.”

“I wouldn’t know what to do with you if I did keep you,” Simystros concedes, and then the smile slides off her face as her eyes flick to the bank of the lake. “There’s something there, Bucky. By the edge of the trees.”

“I know.” Bucky gives her a small smile, his fingers digging into the soft earth underneath him. His power calls to him, rushing through his body and settling right above his heart. “They are not a threat.”

“How can you be sure? With one who changes their skin at will, nothing is certain.”

Bucky looks curiously at the treeline again, trying to peer into the thick growth. There’s nothing to see, though, just the sense of a presence just beyond what can be seen. Curious, he reaches out again through the earth, feeling the power of the living things around him. The trees and grass of his forest feel cool and dense in his chest, and the warm bursts of animals dance along his nerves; squirrels and birds and other small things. And there, right at the edge of the dense green of the trees, animal life so warm and bright it feels like sunlight in Bucky’s chest. There’s magic surrounding it held in ready for a change of skin. But there is no malice to it, no threat at all.

“The earth does not lie,” he says simply, smiling at Simy as she sinks to her chin in the water.

“Be careful,” Simy tells him, swimming away from him, “and be warned.”

Bucky nods, flicking his fingers in a small wave just before Simy disappears under the lake. He sighs and swipes his wet hair away from his forehead. The sun shines bright against the water and his muscles are pleasantly sore from his play, so Bucky doesn’t hesitate before he lies down on the cool grass, right under a patch of sunlight, sighing in contentment.

He brushes out with his power again, focusing on the sunshine that hides along the treeline. Bucky can’t feel any other presence like that near the lake, just this solitary beacon that calls out to him. The air around the skinchanger is thick with magic and crackling with interest, but he doesn’t approach.

Bucky can’t help but be curious, but he knows better than to speak. Right now, he’s happy to  lie on the soft grass, the sun's warmth on his skin, and lets the werewolf look his fill.

 

**

It happens again.

And again.

And again and again and again.

Bucky goes by the lake. He plays chase and swims with Simy and the other mermaids, he chatters with the birds, he breathes life into blooming flowers by the bank. He laughs and tells stories to the animals and spreads his magic around to balance the forces of life in his forest. It’s not a hard forest to look after, but it’s his, tied to him in his bones, and he nurtures it with all the love and magic he has to give.

Every time, Bucky can feel him. The wolf and his magic are sunlight pouring through Bucky’s senses, curious and strong and alive.

Bucky has a sense the wolf knows Bucky is aware of his presence, but he does not give up his hiding place by the treeline and Bucky leaves him alone. Despite Bucky’s burning curiosity, he knows to be polite.

Wolves, when offended, tend to bite.

The days pass by and this becomes routine. Bucky lets his wolf keep his secrecy and Bucky lets himself be watched. He knows that, sooner or later, the wolf will come to him.

All he has to do is be patient.

And Bucky, who has planted seeds on the ground and watched as they grew into trees as tall and as strong as giants, has that in spades.

 

**

 

They’ve been playing this game for a few weeks when it happens.

Bucky splashes Simy and grins as she swims away, before he settles on his favorite napping spot. He rests his head on the soft grass, wiggles his toes, and closes his eyes. His magic reaches out to the forest, seeking the familiar beacon of his wolf’s magic. When Bucky finds it, his heart leaps in surprise.

The wolf is moving, silently stalking through the trees and to the lake. To Bucky.

Curiosity burns through him, and it takes all his self-control not to sit up, call out, welcome with bright enthusiasm the presence that has grown familiar over the last few weeks, but remained unseen. But he can feel the hesitance in the approaching presence, be it some sense shared through magic or just instinct and good guesswork, and he doesn’t want to startle his wolf away.

Instead, he stretches out in the sunlight, feeling it warm his skin and dry his hair where it’s falling against his forehead. He can hear the sound of heavy steps approaching, muffled by the thick undergrowth, and he closes his eyes to hold onto the suspense a bit longer. Also, he hopes, to make his new friend feel less shy.

Still, he can’t help the grin on his face, or the way he can feel power drawing in around him, crackling and bubbling with excitement. Eyes still closed, he turns his face towards the feeling of the wolf as it steps into the grass clearing by the pond. “Hello,” he says softly, and finally opens his eyes.

The wolf sniffs and pads closer, head down and ears back deferentially. If the wolf’s presence felt like sunlight, Bucky thinks wonderingly, then his coat is grown to match. The wolf is massive, at least as long – nose to tail tip – as Bucky is tall, and in the bright light of the forest his coat seems to shine golden, all blonde and rusty red fur. Bright amber eyes meet Bucky’s gaze, and the wolf licks its snout, dropping down into crouch so he’s approaching on his belly, scooting in until he’s about five feet away. He lies down on the grass near Bucky, head falling to his paws as he makes himself comfortable. Those bright amber eyes are still watching Bucky watch him, tail thumping softly on the ground.

Bucky smiles, taking that as an enthusiastic hello. He still bites down on the inside of his cheek, swallowing back questions upon questions that threaten to spill past his lips. They have just met, after all, and Bucky does not want to push.

Together, they lay in silence, gazes locked.

 

**

 

It is a new routine, after that. Every day Bucky and his wolf lie together by the lake, enjoying each other’s presence as they soak up the sun.

Simy is still suspicious, glowing eyes shining through the water surface, watching and waiting to intervene if something goes wrong. “I will eat him if he hurts you,” she says, a promise hissed through sharp teeth.

“He won’t,” Bucky replies, conviction as strong as an oak. “He has not shed blood since he came here, he has not hurt me since he walked past the trees. He is good.”

“Did the trees tell you that?” Simy mocks, eyes turning into slits.

Bucky places a hand on the water edge, magic bleeding through his fingers. The lake ripples and bubbles and comes up to meet him. “Do not forget what I am.” Bucky lets his magic go. “Do not forget what I can do. The forest is mine and the forest is me. I know.”

Simy huffs and splashes him with her tail. “My promise stands.”

Bucky wipes at the water dripping from his lashes and smiles. “Thank you.”

His wolf waits until Simy disappears back into the water to come any closer. His eyes fall to the lake before shifting to Bucky, a question in his gaze. They haven’t shared more than hellos since they first saw each other, but Bucky doesn’t hesitate to speak up.

“She’s a friend,” Bucky tells him, crawling up to their spot and sitting down on the grass. “She worries.”

The wolf makes a little sound of understanding before he takes his place by Bucky’s side. He watches Bucky, like always, and Bucky watches back. There is something fascinating about the wolf this close, his magic so powerful and bright it makes Bucky want to lean in and touch. As it is, Bucky stops himself, fingers finding their familiar spot and digging into the earth.

It’s grounding, to let a little bit of his magic run free. There’s a new hatching of robins a few trees away, and their brand new life flutters like a pulse along his skin. Squirrels chitter and chatter above them, and a ways away he can feel the thump, thump, thump of a brace of rabbits foraging in the undergrowth.

When he pulls his attention back, collapsing his awareness back in on himself, he can’t help but notice  the way his wolf is looking at him. Alert and curious, the wolf’s head is tilted to the side, ears forward and tail up.

“Can you feel that?” Bucky asks, curious. He’s never spoken to a skinchanger before, has no idea how their magic feels compared to his own. The wolf just licks his snout and tilts his head to the other side, scooting a bit closer to Bucky, who laughs, taking that as an affirmation. “I can feel everything that happens in my forest, when I try. There are other nymphs, deeper into the woods where the life is thicker and deeper and wilder, but I like the water. The rivers and the lake... They feed the life.”

The wolf scoots closer again, the warmth of his body tickling Bucky’s side. His tail wiggles again as he looks up at Bucky, and he opens his mouth in something that resembles a smile.

Bucky laughs, and cautiously reaches out, hand hovering nervously over the wolf’s fur. Even this close, he can feel the warmth radiating from the creature, though be it magic or physical warmth Bucky can’t really tell. The wolf whines and rolls on his back, flopping his head down on the ground and looking at Bucky upside down. It’s quite silly, really, and Bucky laughs, letting his hand fall to rest on the thick fur at the wolf’s nape. His tail thumps once against the ground, and Bucky smiles, digging his fingers into the dense fur in a careful hello and then withdrawing them.

The wolf whines, twisting to alertness again, and Bucky laughs. “What brought you here?” he asks quietly, wonder and curiosity mixing as he holds his hand out to the wolf. “There are no others of your kind in this part of the forest. I’d know.”

A short, sharp whine escapes the wolf, and his ears drop flat against his head. Immediately, Bucky feels bad, and he reaches out on instinct, with hand and with magic alike. In his mind it’s like trying to touch sunlight, warm and elusive, but in the physical world the wolf moves forward to lick gently at Bucky’s fingers.

“I’m sorry,” Bucky murmurs, finding the softness of the wolf’s fur beneath his fingers again. “I won’t bring it up again.”

There is another whine, and the wolf licks at Bucky’s pulse. Bucky can taste the loneliness and hurt that wrap themselves around his wolf, but he can also feel a deep sense of gratitude and hope. Bucky doesn’t know why the wolf chose him, chose to show himself to him, but he’s glad that it happened.

It means his wolf will never be alone again.

 

**

 

Words flow between them like the wind rushes through the trees.

Bucky doesn’t hold himself back anymore. He’s well-accustomed to talking to things that don’t talk back. Simystros and the other mermaids are by far his most active conversation partners, and sometimes he can get a bit of chatter out of the pixies that live in the big elm tree near the two-fork stream, but most of the time Bucky’s talking to foxes or deer or blueberry bushes.

His wolf is much more attentive than the blueberries.

“So whatever you do, don’t offend the birds,” Bucky chatters as he lies on his side by the lake, mud and leaves sticking to his bare skin. “They won’t think twice before dropping things on you.”

The wolf snorts in assent, and then nudges Bucky’s hand with his snout. He tilts his head to the side and then looks up, drawing Bucky’s gaze to the falcon soaring high in the sky.

“I might have made one of them angry one time,” Bucky admits with a sheepish smile.

The wolf nudges him again, a little harder this time, a rumbly growl cutting through the silence between them.

“I’m okay,” Bucky promises, reaching out a hand and petting his wolf. “The birds and I have made peace. I’d even say we’re friends now.” The growl stops, replaced by a pleased rumble as his wolf leans into Bucky’s touch. Bucky laughs, heart full, body tingling with the joyful magic that wraps itself around them. “You like that, huh?”

His wolf doesn’t dignify that with a response, not that Bucky was expecting one. Instead, he wags his tail, tongue darting out to taste the crook of Bucky’s elbow.

Bucky laughs again, as he always does when he’s with his wolf. “I’ll take that as a yes.”

The more time they spend together, the more Bucky starts to feel like the wolf is taking part in their conversations. He can’t talk in this skin, but he’s so expressive and communicates so well, Bucky finds himself wondering how long his friend has spent as a wolf. The magic is all there, simmering under the surface, waiting for the change. And yet, Bucky has never seen any indication that the wolf has spent any time in anything other than his four-legged form. He knows better than to ask, it’s just rude to ask someone why they pick the skin they’re in, but he can’t help but grow increasingly curious as time goes on.

He loves having someone to talk to, loves having a new friend to tell about the goings-on in the forest. The mermaids, for as fond as Bucky is of them, have little interest in matters of land. Indeed, he thinks they tolerate him more as a weird interloper in their world than because they have any interest in his.

His wolf seems interested though. He listens and responds when Bucky talks of deer and bird and foxes and lynxes, body language open and interested. Talk of the pixies and trolls seem to make him nervous, ears pressed back on his head and licking over Bucky’s skin whenever he speaks of them, like his wolf has to check and make sure he’s not been harmed.

It makes Bucky so curious. There’s so much he wants to know. He wants to ask questions, to know where his wolf comes from, and why he’s here now in Bucky’s forest. He wants to know why he’s alone, when all the werewolves Bucky’s ever seen or heard tell of depend on packs. He wants to know where his wolf goes when they say goodbye, after the few sun-drenched hours by the lake. Does he eat alright? Bucky knows his wolf must hunt. He can’t pay attention to every life in his forest, and his wolf isn’t the only predator that lives among the trees. He hopes his wolf isn’t hungry.

Some day, he decides to himself as they lie stretched out lounging in the sun, some day he’ll ask. But not now, he muses dreamily, his wolf stretched out next to him with his tail draped across Bucky’s thigh. He feels lazy and sleepy and safe, with Simy and her cluster on one side and his wolf on the other. Some day he’ll know all about his wolf.

But not today.

 

**

 

As much as Bucky loves days spent by the lake with his wolf, the forest calls to him. There are things to take care of and tend to, and Bucky cannot ignore his duties.

It is a new day, and Bucky stands by the lake, skin dry and hair curling on the top of his head. He waits for his wolf, heartbeat quick in his chest, hoping he will accept the invitation Bucky plans to extend.

The wolf stops by the treeline when he sees Bucky, head tilted to the side in confusion. Bucky gives him a tentative smile and walks up to him, leaving the lakeshore and its warms waters behind. Today is a day for adventure, and Bucky does not want to be alone.

“Would you like to go on a walk?” Bucky asks, uncertainty creeping into his tone.

Worrying is a waste of energy, because as soon as the question is up in the air, his wolf gives an excited growl and bumps his snout against Bucky’s sternum. Bucky laughs and grins and feels giddiness spread through him, the loose leaves by the ground rising up in response to his magic. His wolf sees it and growls and runs to the leaves, leaping in the air, trying to catch them.

Bucky laughs until he’s breathless, his magic loose and bright and spinning through the woods.

“Come on,” Bucky calls out to his wolf, a grin still playing at his lips. “Let me show you the forest.”

The wolf bumps against Bucky’s side as they set off, and the forest chatters with life around them. It’s midday, and many of the creatures that live in Bucky’s forest are out and about. Bucky takes the lead, setting a moderate pace towards the clear cold stream which runs down from the mountain deeper in the forest. Unlike the two-fork stream, which is fed by a spring and has warm water, no magical creatures nest near this stream, so Bucky doesn’t worry about taking his wolf along with him.

“Sometimes the stream gets clogged,” he explains as they approach the bank and start to pace up river. “Then the waters start to flood and drown the things upstream, and the plants and animals that need the water further downstream start to die. I’m going to see if I can help clear the blockage.”

The wolf presses against Bucky’s side, its breath tickling Bucky’s hand. There’s a current of concern that flashes between them, and Bucky doesn’t hesitate before burying his fingers deep into his wolf’s fur.

“I’ll be fine,” Bucky says, smiling a little. “Maybe a little drained, but this won’t hurt me.” His wolf whines a little and presses closer, displeased. “Leaving things as they are will hurt me. Fixing it will just make me want a nap. I promise.”

The wolf bumps his snout against Bucky’s chest again, before lifting up onto his hind legs slightly and licking a stripe up Bucky’s cheek. Bucky pets his wolf behind his ears, just once, before he lets go and pulls back.

Bucky gathers his magic close to his heart. He pulls his power from the earth underneath his feet, the roots buried deep beneath the ground, the water that pools in the stream. Life pulses beneath his hands, and Bucky directs it to the tender spot that needs his help. There’s resistance, he can feel it in the way the water catches, the unhealthy swell and bloat of it. It’s a simple thing to push with all that power against the blockage, and to feel it crumble under the pressure like so much sand.

Magic, even when it’s your own, demands a price.

As water starts to flow down the stream again, exactly as it should be, Bucky’s energy flows out of him. He sways in place, chest feeling a little hollow and bruised, his eyes fluttering shut. Exhaustion settles in his bones and sleep threatens to drag him down. It is only soft fur and warmth against his side that keep him upright.

“My wolf,” Bucky slurs, a dreamy smile on his face. “Help me to the trees.”

Bucky stumbles a little as they walk, leaning heavily against his wolf’s side. The wolf takes his weight like it’s nothing, sunshine on Bucky’s skin, a silent beacon of support. Bucky can hear the displeased rumble coming from deep within the wolf’s chest, but he doesn’t bother to argue.

This is who Bucky is and what he does. He takes care of his forest and his forest takes care of him.

Bucky shudders when his feet meet the raised roots of one of his heart trees, old and tall and as strong as he is. It is only a couple more steps until Bucky can brace one of his hands against the trunk, bark biting into his palm.

“I need up,” Bucky says, still clinging tightly to his wolf. “Where the branches start growing, that’s where I’ll heal.”

His wolf nudges his cheek, but doesn’t move until Bucky has both hands pressed to his tree. Then, the wolf lowers himself at Bucky’s feet, amber eyes staring expectantly up at him.

Bucky knows what his wolf wants him to do, but his legs are clumsy as he tries to balance his feet on his wolf’s back. It takes him a couple of tries, and then his wolf is standing up and Bucky is wrapping his fingers around a branch and pulling himself forward, going up, up, up, until he is right where he needs to be.

Bucky lets out a sigh of relief when he sits down on a branch, leaning back against his tree. His body shakes with effort, but he can already feel the gentle magic of his heart tree seeping into his bones.

Below him, his wolf growls.

“Thank you,” Bucky murmurs, knowing his wolf will hear him. He opens his eyes, breath catching in his chest at the view before him. Here, on the edge of Bucky’s forest, on the start of the slope of the mountain, the trees and streams of Bucky’s forest stretch out in front of him. Emerald green and bright, warm and alive, Bucky’s heart clenches with the strength of life in his forest. His wolf paces below, agitated and restless, and Bucky sighs, letting the feeling of sweeping life wash over him. “I wish I could show you this. You can see my whole forest from up a heart tree.”

His wolf whines, a mournful sound that echoes through the trees and weighs heavily on Bucky’s heart. Bucky closes his eyes once more, letting his magic flow through him and heal his hurts.

The sun is hanging low in the sky by the time the ache in Bucky’s bones has settled. He stretches, wincing as his joints click and snap, and places his hand on the bark of the great tree. It throbs with magic, ancient and alive, and he breathes it in for one more moment.

He’s half expecting the wolf to be gone when he comes down from the tree, but he’s not. He’d been lying patiently, paws crossed and chin resting on them, but when he catches sight of Bucky he leaps up, pouncing at him. Bucky laughs, allowing himself to be headbutted and nuzzled to the wolf’s content. Burying his fingers in the warm thick fur, Bucky rests his forehead against the wolf’s crown, and murmurs, “Thank you for waiting for me.”

He gets a sharp yip in reply, and another headbutt to the chest, and he laughs again. “I’m fine,” he promises, straightening up and holding his arms out for inspection. The wolf sniffs his hands and seems to look at him suspiciously, but drops his hind quarters to the ground nonetheless.

His tongue lolls out happily.

“Did I pass?” Bucky asks with a grin, laughing again when his wolf headbutts him one last time. “Now that you’re satisfied, what do you say about going for a walk with me?”

The wolf’s ears perk up, and he doesn’t hesitate to follow when Bucky leads him away from the heart tree and deeper into the woods. Bucky breathes in deep as they move, his magic reaching out to the life that surrounds him.

His wolf is a gentle presence at his side, trotting along, and Bucky points out interesting features of the forest as they walk along. The wolf stops sniff at an interesting growth of mushrooms, and sneezes, which makes Bucky laugh in delight. “There’s more of those where my kin live, deep in the wood. I don’t go there often,” Bucky admits, halting in his steps and looking deeper into the trees.

They’ve come further than he usually goes. Bucky’s section of forest is bracketed on one side by the mountain stream and the two-fork stream on the other, capped off by the rocky outcroppings at the base of the mountain where few things grow. In between, there are ponds aplenty and the big blue stretch of the mermaid lake, so many bright green living things, but here at the edge of his pleasant forest, the woods grow dark and the magic grows wild.

His wolf senses his hesitation and stops, sniffing at the air around them. Bucky knows his wolf can smell the wild tang of magic, running free through deep dark woods. A low growl rumbles in the wolf’s throat. He presses against Bucky’s hip, protecting him, as if to guide him away from a threat.

“It’s okay,” Bucky says, running his fingers through his wolf’s fur, touch soft and comforting. “Nothing will harm us. Not if we don’t cross past this line.”

His wolf presses against his hip again, nosing at Bucky’s stomach and huffing in frustration when Bucky doesn’t move. Bucky gives him an amused glance, resisting for only a few more seconds before he lets himself be pushed away. He gets a light nip on his wrist for the trouble.

“Alright, alright,” Bucky murmurs, lips curling up in a smile despite himself. “Come on, we can head back to our spot.”

His wolf growls in approval at Bucky’s suggestion. Bucky tries his hardest not to roll his eyes, although he can’t help the rush of affection that brings a blush to his cheeks. “Someday I’ll take you up to the hills, in between the two-fork stream. The view isn’t quite as good as in a heart tree,” Bucky muses as they walk. “But it’s still beautiful. And you can get to it on four paws, no need for your human skin. You just need to be nice to the pixies.”

He shoots his wolf a teasing glance, gathering his wolf’s reaction to the mention of his human skin. It is, after all, very rude to ask a skinchanger to change for you. The wolf just snaps his jaws aimlessly in reply, which makes Bucky laugh.

They’re almost back to the clearing near the lake when the wolf slows, coming almost to a stop. Concerned, Bucky turns to his friend, only to find him standing in a pose that could almost be described as sheepish. “What is it?” Bucky asks, curious and a little bit worried his wolf has taken offense, and the wolf trots a bit closer. In one swift movement, he rears onto his hind legs, paws planted on Bucky’s shoulders.

He’s about to ask again when a warm tongue licking across his cheek startles the question out of him, and he splutters then giggles as the wolf drops to all fours. “Really,” he says softly. “Whenever you’re ready. And only when you’re ready.” His wolf nuzzles against his chest, then turns and trots away into the trees.

Confused, Bucky makes to follow, but the wolf looks back over its shoulder, giving a sharp yip in response. Bucky halts, wary, but he’s willing to trust in this. The wolf disappears into the trees, leaving Bucky standing alone.

It’s not until he feels the ripple of strong magic tugging through the surrounding wood that Bucky realizes what’s happening. His heart beats in his throat and sweat breaks across his palms, understanding shocking him into stillness and stealing the breath from his lungs.

When his wolf breaks through the trees and comes back to him, he is not a wolf at all.

Bucky’s breath catches as he takes in the sight of the man before him. His wolf has been in his animal skin for so long that his hair and beard have grown long, the color so alike his fur that Bucky aches to run his fingers through it. His body is well muscled and lean, peppered with light brown hair, with all the strength and grace of a hunter compacted into a human skin. His shoulders are broad and he’s taller even than Bucky in this skin, though he’s hunched a bit in shyness. Bright blue eyes look at Bucky hesitantly, and he knows he must look a fool standing there wide-eyed and open mouthed, but gods.

His wolf is beautiful. Just as Bucky knew he would be.

“Oh,” Bucky whispers, the soft sound escaping past his lips as he forces himself to stay still. Just because his wolf has shown him this, given him this gift of trust, it does not mean he wants Bucky all over him.

His wolf smiles, a hesitant twitch of his lips, his cheeks a light pink. He clears his throat, takes a step forward, and says his first word, “Hi.”

Bucky laughs, unable to contain himself any longer, and throws his arms around his wolf. Strong arms surround him as he’s scooped up easily, spun around in a delighted greeting, his wolf’s beard tickling his neck. Once he’s set back on his feet, he indulges another impulse, stroking his fingers across the soft golden beard so like the fur he’s used to. “Hello, my friend,” he says, tipping his forehead against the other man’s.

He’s squeezed in reply, and his wolf nuzzles against him, nose and cheek dragging against Bucky’s. The feeling of the beard dragging against his own soft skin, the scratch of it, draws a blush to Bucky’s cheeks. There’s a deep rumble of contentment from within his friend’s chest, and then a lick to his cheek surprises a laugh out of Bucky.

“Well, hello.” Bucky giggles, sliding his hands down so he can rest them on his wolf’s shoulders. Bucky, still smiling, goes up on his tiptoes, and then leans in and licks his wolf’s cheek right back.

His wolf rumbles and lets out a sound that resembles a laugh, and all Bucky can do is beam brightly in return. He also can’t resist himself, hands going back to stroking and petting his wolf’s beard and hair, fascinated by the color.

“They’re as soft as your fur,” Bucky murmurs, running his fingers through the hair at the wolf’s nape. His wolf preens, letting out a deep and pleased growl.

Bucky pulls away, ignoring the sad little sound his wolf makes in return. Delight and mischief burn through Bucky’s blood, calling out to his magic, and he lets a smirk twist at his lips. He grabs his wolf’s wrist, feeling his pulse beneath his palm.

“Tell me,” Bucky teases, eyes glinting, “are you as fast on two legs as you are on four?”

Bucky doesn’t wait for an answer. His laughter echoes through the trees when he takes off running, not bothering to check if his wolf is following. Bucky knows he is. He can here his wolf’s laughter, feel the disturbance of grass and leaves as he gives chase.

They wind their way through Bucky’s forest, through the paths made by animals and magical folk, leaping over fallen trees and weaving through the undergrowth. Bucky feels alive, in a way he’s not sure he’s even experienced before, the blood and magic both pound in his body as he dances away from his wolf. He can tell that if he was actually trying to overtake Bucky, the wolf could have done it by now, but he seems to be enjoying the chase as much as Bucky is.

It’s dusk by the time they complete the wide circle Bucky had been leading them on, crashing through the undergrowth into the clearing near their lake. It’s here Bucky allows himself to be caught, slowing enough that when strong arms encircle him, they find a grasp. The two of the tumble to the ground with a crash, their mingled laughter ringing through the trees.

His wolf licks at Bucky’s neck, a triumphant grin on his face, and Bucky laughs. “You caught me. Are you going to keep me?” He reaches out, sinking his fingers into blond hair damp with sweat. “Do you have a name, my wolf?”

Bucky feels his wolf shiver against him, before he noses the side of Bucky’s neck. Bucky stays quiet, waiting, his hands busy holding his wolf close.

“Steve,” his wolf says, voice rough with disuse. “My name is Steve.”

Bucky smiles at him, so wide his cheeks hurt. “A good name for a good wolf,” he says, getting a laugh from his wolf. “Steve,” he repeats, familiarizing himself with the taste of the name. His wolf shivers once more and pulls back, staring down at Bucky with bright blue eyes. Bucky notices, stomach flipping. “You like it when I say your name.”

“No one’s said it for a long time,” Steve admits, sadness and longing coloring his tone.

Bucky swallows down all the questions he wants to ask. Just because Steve can speak to him now, it does not mean Bucky should push. He wants to know how long Steve’s been in the woods, how long he’s lived as a wolf, how long it’s been since he last spoke to someone.

Bucky also wants to knows what happened with Steve’s pack, since it’s obvious he doesn’t have one. Bucky knows enough about the workings of wolves to know that lone wolves rarely survive a winter, much less years on their own. It is clear Steve has been by himself for a long time.

The words stay lodged in his throat, giving way to fierce protectiveness. His wolf, his Steve, might have been alone before, but things are different now.

“Steve,” Bucky says once more, just because he can, and then makes a promise of his own, “I’ll keep your name with me.”

Steve whines, tucking his head under Bucky’s chin, pressing as close to Bucky as he possibly can. Bucky gathers him close and kisses Steve’s forehead, sealing his promise in his heart.

His wolf would never be alone again.

 

**

 

Things change between Bucky and his wolf, his Steve.

They still meet at the lake, Bucky fresh from the water, drops sliding down his wet skin. Steve first meets him in his wolf skin, still distrustful of Simy and the other mermaids, but soon shifts into his human form. They greet each other with a hug, Steve’s arms wrapping themselves securely around Bucky’s waist.

“Hello.” Bucky giggles, shivering at the feeling of Steve’s beard scratching the sensitive of his neck. Steve rubs it against him, and Bucky knows enough about wolves to know Steve is marking him with his scent. Something warm and pleasant settles in Bucky’s gut, and he lets Steve lick a wet stripe up his neck and to his jaw. “Are you done?” he teases, tilting his head and giving Steve a fond look.

Steve sniffs and gives him another small lick to his cheek. “For now.”

Bucky steps back, taking Steve’s hand in his. “I want to show you something,” he says, a small swell of excitement bubbling in his chest. He gives a little tug and Steve grins, nodding.

“I want to see.”

It’s a bit different now, to babble at Steve as they walk through the forest, when he’s in his human skin and has the capacity to answer. But even if he still doesn’t talk much, he’s as attentive to Bucky’s words as he ever was, and gradually the oddness of it fades. Bucky still itches to ask how long Steve spent in his wolf skin, what drove him to the isolation and solitude that robbed him of his words, but he knows better than to push. He trusts that Steve will tell him in time.

Instead, Bucky reaches his awareness down into the earth, letting the bright pulse through his magic guide his feet. He quiets his steps as they approach, holding his finger to his lips and motioning for them crouch. Steve looks at him curiously, but follows Bucky’s lead, crouching and moving forward on Bucky’s heels.

A fallen tree lies on the forest floor, already old and starting to give in to decay, but it’s not the heavy feeling of plants returning to nature that’s calling to Bucky. No, he reaches out with tips of energy, senses the pulse of five tiny bright new lives in the center of that dark mass, a den buried in the shell of the great tree. It skitters along his nerves, exciting and new, and he feels giddy, turning to Steve with a grin.

“C’mon,” he whispers, taking Steve’s hand again. “Stay behind me and we won’t scare her.”

Leading the way, Bucky approaches the den obliquely, so they can just peek inside and get a glimpse of the fox and her five brand new pups, so new to the world they haven’t opened their eyes yet.

“I felt them last night,” Bucky whispers to Steve, watching enthralled as the fox eyes him warily and then starts grooming one of her pups. “Five new spots of life blinking into existence. Like a burst of light through the darkness.”

Bucky smiles when he feels Steve rest a hand on his hip, his chest brushing against Bucky’s back as he leans forward.

“They don’t look like much,” Steve says, hooking his chin over Bucky’s shoulder.

Bucky elbows him and huffs, turning his face so he can scowl at Steve. “They’re beautiful.”

Steve laughs, eyes glinting with amusement and crinkling at the corners. “Your love for them is beautiful,” he says, and then raises a hand to trace his fingers lightly over the arch of Bucky’s cheek. “It lights you up inside.”

Bucky licks his lips and swallows hard, feeling blood surge to his cheek and making him blush. He can’t look away from Steve’s soft gaze, even as Steve smiles at him. He leans back into the solid presence of Steve’s big body behind him, Steve’s hand still on his cheek. Bucky doesn’t pull back when Steve leans in closer, nosing at his hairline, lips brushing against his forehead. He just sighs, and then turns to watch the pups wiggle around their mother. Steve’s hand settles on his waist, and Bucky shivers, feeling surrounded by the bulk of his wolf’s body.

“It’s been years since I’ve seen any pups,” Steve says, his voice so quiet and sad that Bucky feels the rumble of it through his chest more than he hears it. Bucky’s heart aches for his lonely wolf, and he tilts his head back to nose at Steve’s jaw.

“You had pups?” He asks, as gently as he can, but Steve shakes his head.

“Not me, but my... pack. My packmates had pups.” Sadness aches through his words, and Bucky suddenly wonders if maybe bringing Steve here was a bad idea, if he hurt his wolf without meaning too.

But then Steve nuzzles his cheek again, and starts to speak, “I don’t know how much you know of wolves?”

“I know some,” Bucky admits, sighing at the feeling of Steve’s beard dragging against his skin. “I knew what you were when we met. I could feel it.”

Steve hums, and sighs. “Pups are the heart of the pack. They are what brings us together, what makes us strong. They give purpose to those who need it, although they aren’t all that drives us.”

Bucky blinks, understanding dawning on him. “A little bit like our heart trees.”

Steve tilts his head to the side in consideration, and nods slowly. “In a way, yes. We fight and die to protect them, with our packmates and with our mates.”

“You didn’t have a mate,” Bucky guesses, heart in his throat, but Steve shakes his head.

“No, I didn’t.”

He falls quiet again, and Bucky aches for him silently, lets himself be held while they watch the fox pups and their mother in the den. He still desperately wants to know what happened to Steve’s pack, but it’s tempered by the tender feeling of trust growing between them. He feels honored to have been trusted with as much as he was, with this insight into Steve’s life.

After a handful of silent moments, Steve rests his head against Bucky’s and sighs. “Thank you. For showing me this. For sharing it with me.”

“I didn’t mean to make you sad,” Bucky says by way of apology, and he can feel Steve shake his head.

“You didn’t,” he assures, then amends. “At least not in a bad way. It’s good to remember new life exists. Sometimes it’s easy to forget.”

“I’ll remind you whenever I can,” Bucky vows, heart heavy with it.

Steve chuckles, rubbing his cheek fondly against Bucky’s. “My sweet nymph, every moment with you is a reminder of the power of life. You see the world with such wonder.”

Bucky flushes again, butterflies flipping in his stomach. He hugs Steve’s arms to him, enveloping himself in the warmth of Steve’s body. “I’m glad I can give you this,” he confesses, cheeks pink.

“I wish I could give you something back,” Steve admits, nosing at the warmth of Bucky’s skin, drawing in the scent of his blush. The idea of it makes Bucky shiver, makes him ache in a way he doesn’t really understand, and he sighs, squeezing Steve’s arms.

“You do,” he promises. “You keep me company. You let me share my world, and help me with my magic. What more could I ask?”

“Everything,” Steve tells him, a growl behind his words. “You could ask for everything.”

Bucky’s breath hitches in his chest and he turns around in Steve’s arms, resting their foreheads together. Steve breathes in deep again, his arms wrapping themselves tight around Bucky’s waist.

“Everything is too much,” Bucky replies, brushing their noses together. “I will only ask you for what you are willing to give.”

Steve smiles at him, just a minute twitch of his lips. “My answer remains the same.”

“Steve,” Bucky huffs, cupping Steve’s face between his hands and squeezing his cheeks a little. “My wolf.”

Steve hums, shrugging his shoulders. Bucky rolls his eyes and lets go of Steve’s face, but not before he runs a hand through Steve’s hair.

“You’re a fool,” Bucky murmurs, hand sliding down to the back of Steve’s neck.

“And you still like me,” Steve says, and then he grins, wide and bright and pleased with himself.

The sight is so new and beautiful that it makes Bucky want to weep, but instead he settles for pulling Steve to him, his nose finding the arch of Steve’s neck. Bucky nuzzles his face against Steve’s beard, a mirror of Steve’s actions from before, marking Steve with his scent.

It’s only fair, after everything.

Steve lets out a choked-off whine of surprise and then lets out a pleased rumble, letting Bucky scent him. Bucky can feel the fast beat of Steve’s heart against his chest, the way he shudders and presses closer, as if asking for more.

“Come back to the lake with me,” Bucky asks, sinking his fingers into Steve’s hair. “We can go by the apple grove, bring back fruits and lie in the sunlight. Stay with me until it gets dark tonight.”

“Yes,” Steve agrees, clutching Bucky close. “Anything.”

“My silly wolf,” Bucky says, fond, then reluctantly pulls away. Standing, he offers Steve his hand, grinning when it’s taken without question. “Let’s chase the sunlight.”

Steve grins — and there’s something of the wolf in it which makes Bucky’s heart skip — and takes off at run.

Laughing, Bucky lets himself be tugged along.

 

**

 

Steve doesn’t spend every day in his human skin.

Bucky hasn’t figured out the rhyme or reason for it yet, because most days he’s human for at least part of the day. As days and weeks go by and they fall into the pattern of passing their time together, Steve starts talking more. He still avoids talking about his past too much, only small tidbits about places he’s gone or things he’s seen slipping out on occasion.

However, Bucky gets the sense still that Steve is more comfortable in his wolf skin, and that he stays human for Bucky’s sake, so they can talk and laugh and touch as equals. But some days when Steve comes out of the forest, it’s on all fours, ears tucked back every time like Bucky might be mad at him for needing to be a wolf today.

“Hi there,” Bucky murmurs, opening his arms and reaching out for Steve. He smiles when his fingers bury themselves in Steve’s soft fur, and he gently starts petting Steve on all his favorite places. “I like you like this,” he admits, feeling Steve’s hot breath against his cheek. “I like you as a human, too, but you were my wolf first. You’re soft and warm and fit right into my arms.”

Steve whines a little and presses closer to Bucky. All Bucky can do is hug him closer and continue to pet him with long and gentle strokes of his hand. He doesn’t know how much time passes with them like that, pressed against each other, but he knows that with each exhale, Steve relaxes more against him. There is no more fear from him, just calm and happiness, and Bucky is glad to know Steve understands that, to Bucky, it makes no difference what skin he wears.

Later that day, when Steve decides to shift back into his human form, he sits down next to Bucky on the hill by the streams, their knees brushing together. It’s a beautiful day, sunlight streaming down onto the grassy hill, and all kinds of life is buzzing around them. It makes Bucky feel lazy and bright, like he’s swallowed sunlight. Having Steve so close only makes that feeling stronger, the warm pulse of his magic leaking into Bucky’s blood. He leans against his friend, enjoying the warmth of Steve’s body.

“It’s easier, sometimes,” Steve starts, his voice thick and a little rough from disuse. He always sounds like this after he’s spent some time in his wolf skin: jagged and a little bruised.

“What is?” Bucky asks, rubbing his cheek against the bare skin of Steve’s shoulder.

Steve turns his head and nuzzles the top of Bucky’s head, his voice muffled when he answers, “Being a wolf. It’s… feelings are different when I’m like that, not as complicated. Sometimes it’s easier to deal with them in that form.”

“Or not deal with them,” Bucky adds, heart tugging painfully in his chest.

Steve huffs out a humorless laugh. “Exactly.”

“That’s okay.” Bucky snuggles closer, hooking an arm around Steve’s own. “I like you both ways. I like you all ways.”

Steve’s laughter, this time, is a little brighter. “I like you all ways, too,” he says, the words falling like a confession between them. “Even when you pull my tail during runs.”

Bucky grins, cheeks flushing pink. “All's fair in the forest.”

“I think you cheat, little nymph,” Steve teases. He loops an arm around Bucky’s waist, tugging him in close. “I think you let me catch you when we run.”

“But it’s so nice to be caught,” Bucky replies, snuggling into the warm of Steve’s chest. He sighs, feeling lazy and dizzy on the outpouring of life around him. On days like this before, he would have climbed up a tree and drunk in the magic of his forest, safely distant from it. Now, though, he can be in the middle of it, guarded by his wolf. Absently, he reaches up to scratch his fingers through the hair on Steve’s chest, nuzzling and leaving scent behind.

“It is,” Steve agrees, sliding a hand up and down Bucky’s back, scenting him. “Not so nice to let you go.”

Bucky’s stomach flips, and he settles his hand flat above Steve’s heart, not really knowing what to say. “Oh?”

Bucky doesn’t know what he’s expecting, but a second later he’s flat on his back, Steve’s weight settling on top of him as his wolf growls right next to his ear. Bucky, startled, flips them over on reflex, only for Steve to flip them again. They roll around the hill, laughing and tangled together, until Bucky finds himself on his back again, Steve cradled between his legs.

“Caught you.” Steve grins, eyes bright and teeth a little sharp.

Bucky leans up and licks him, a wet and broad stroke from Steve’s jaw right up his temple. Another growl resonates deep inside Steve’s chest, and he noses at Bucky’s cheek, drawing a blush to the surface. “You’d make a good wolf,” Steve murmurs, his voice low and fond, and licks Bucky in return, over the pulse point on his neck. It makes Bucky shiver.

“I make a better nymph,” Bucky replies, voice washed with a bit of sadness.

Steve sighs and licks him again, right before nipping at Bucky’s pulse. “You really do.”

They always parted ways at sunset, and even though they never said as much, Bucky knew Steve left to hunt. He wondered if his wolf thought Bucky would be angry or disgusted by this, but in reality it was the most natural thing in the world. Steve was a predator, all wolves needed to hunt, as much as deer needed to eat leaves and birds needed to eat insects. Though Bucky himself could never take a life, he’d eaten fish with the mermaids before. When presented with food it was impolite to refuse.

But this evening, as the sun sank below the trees, something felt different. The forest shone golden orange in the setting light, but still Steve made no move to leave the hill. In contrast, he only wound his arms tighter around Bucky, burying his nose in the hair on the back of Bucky’s neck and sighing.

“Steve?” Bucky asks, wrapping a hand around one of Steve’s wrists and squeezing. Steve doesn’t say anything, just makes a little wolfy noise of displeasure and burrows closer. Bucky takes a deep breath and relaxes into Steve’s hold, understanding him without words. “You don’t want to leave.”

“I caught you,” Steve answers. “Fair and square.”

Bucky laughs, amused despite himself, his heart speeding up in his chest. “You did, many times. You’re a good wolf.” Bucky bites at his lower lip when Steve growls, and then corrects himself, “The best wolf.”

Steve presses his lips to the back of Bucky’s neck. “I don’t want to leave.”

“Okay.”

Steve pulls back, sighing sadly. “I don’t want to leave, but I need to.”

“Why?” Bucky asks, twisting around to look at his wolf. “If you don’t want to, then don’t. I don’t need you to leave.”

“There are things you don’t know,” Steve starts, and Bucky sighs, cupping his cheek, rubbing his thumb across the smooth texture of Steve’s beard.

“I know you need to hunt. I’m a nymph, all life is my business. I know what life must do to sustain itself.”

“It’s not just that,” Steve says, and Bucky can practically feel the tension running through his wolf. “If I stay then it’s too much like–”

“Like a pack,” Bucky guesses, and Steve winces, but nods all the same. Bucky wants, desperately wants, to tell Steve that he can stay, that they can be a pack. Nymphs usually live alone, but Bucky’s found he quite likes having a companion.

But he doesn’t know what happened to Steve’s last pack, and doesn’t want to push his wolf. Instead he just leans in close, pressing their foreheads together. “Whatever you need, my friend.”

Steve sighs, brushing their noses together. “I’ll find you tomorrow,” he promises, and Bucky smiles. Tomorrow they can go find the hive of honeybees on the far side of the lake, and collect some honey so the colony doesn’t start to slow and die off. Tomorrow will be another good day with his wolf.

“Come find me whenever you like.”

“Are you sure?” Steve asks, like this somehow breaks the routine they’ve built together so far.

Bucky closes the distance between them and licks at the corner of Steve’s mouth. “I’m sure. I’ll be waiting.”

“Thank you,” Steve tells him and, with a final nuzzle, gets up to leave.

Bucky watches him go with a heavy heart, but knows Steve needs this time for himself.

That night, when he’s up his heart tree, the sky dark and sparkling with stars above him, he hopes Steve will change his mind. He hopes whatever hurts Steve has will heal, and thoughts of his pack will bring him happiness instead of pain. Alas, that is not happening today.

Bucky squirms up onto one of his branches, making himself comfortable up his tree, the bark digging into his back. The branches curl towards him, the leaves ruffling and sometimes tickling his feet. The forest is quiet, but still brimming with life, as certain beings sleep while others awaken.

He’s not aware of falling asleep, but he must, because he startles from a doze later on, abruptly shaken awake by another presence approaching his tree. He draws magic into him instinctively, ready to protect himself and his heart tree from an unknown threat, before the particular sunshine glow of familiar magic registers to him.

He releases his magic with a breath of relief, all of the trees around him rustling as though in the wind as they absorb the drawn-in power. “Steve?” He calls down, curious and concerned, and slips from his branch to the one below, beginning his descent.

Steve yips in response, his pink tongue lolling out as he looks up at Bucky. Bucky gapes down at him, concern making him trip a little on his feet once he jumps from the last branch. Steve trots up to him, bumping his head against Bucky’s chest in a familiar gesture.

“Are you okay?” Bucky asks, hands already running through Steve’s fur and checking for injuries.

Bucky isn’t expecting the powerful surge of magic that steals his breath away a second after he asks the question. He also isn’t expecting for Steve’s fur to turn into warm skin right beneath his palms.

“I’m fine,” Steve replies, like he hasn’t just shifted right in front of Bucky for the very first time. “Stop worrying.”

“Steve,” he gasps, fingers clutching at warm skin. He gets a nuzzle in return, a soft whine and a lick to the corner of his mouth. He shivers, off balance and confused, but Steve holds him close.

“I missed you,” Steve whispers. “I didn’t want to miss you anymore.”

Bucky’s heart leaps, and he smiles. “Then don’t. Stay,” he asks, and when Steve nods, it’s all Bucky can do not to tackle him back into the forest floor. Instead, he takes his wolf’s hand, and starts to lead him up the tree. Tonight, Bucky won’t have to sleep alone.

Neither of them will.

 

**

 

Storms, proper heavy storms, are rare in Bucky’s forest.

They would get rain fairly often, with wind strong enough to blow around leaves and spread seeds and keep life moving. But the kinds of storms that crack trees and start fires with lightning are rare. It’s been years, since Bucky was still young and green himself, before the trees he has nurtured from saplings had deep roots here.

Yet he still remembers the way the air tasted sharp, like the crackle after magic, and the way everything felt heavy and quiet and calm beforehand. He knows enough realize what’s coming when he wakes up a few days later, alone in his tree, to feel a charge collecting in the sky. It’s coming soon, and death hangs like a heavy presence on the edge of his magic, warning of a threat.

His forest is in danger today.

The lake swirls as he approaches it, a strong wind already blowing through the trees near the bank. Bucky sends a surge of magic through the ground, securing roots and lending strength to the life that surrounds the water. It won’t be enough to secure everything from damage, but it should help keep everything in its place. Or so Bucky hopes.

Simystros meets him at the shore, glowing eyes focused entirely on him. “There is trouble.”

“Yes, and I need a favor.”

Simy tilts her head, sharp teeth showing up through a smile. “Favors don’t come cheap.”

“Good, because you owe me,” Bucky reminds her, kneeling on the ground before her.

Simy huffs, blowing bubbles in the water. “Speak.”

“I need you to get a message to Steve.”

“Who is Steve?” Simy asks, practically vibrating with curiosity.

“My wolf,” Bucky admits with a blush, hoping Steve won’t be angry with him for sharing his name. “I need you to tell him I won’t be able to meet him. And that I need him to stay safe. The storm will kill tonight.”

“You’ll be out there,” Simy guesses, frowning in displeasure at him.

“It’s what I need to do,” Bucky tells her, not in the mood for arguing. There is still much that needs to be done. “Promise me you’ll tell Steve.”

“You have my word.” Simy nods. “If you promise to stay safe.”

Bucky grins at her, a small smile touched with concern. “I’m always safe.”

Simy disappears beneath the water once Bucky bids her goodbye. The itch of his magic has been building, drawing in over the course of the conversation, and now he allows it to lead him, following its pull.

He starts by the lake, and works his way towards the mountain stream, following the tug of his magic. Spreading his power across the roots of trees, reinforcing the dens and nests of animals in his forest, he’s entirely absorbed by the task of protecting what’s his. He skirts the base of the mountain, which is strong and tall and has roots deeper than anything Bucky could touch, and picks his way towards the two-fork stream.

The sky darkens as the day progresses, the sun smudged out by the inky blackness of heavy storm clouds. It hangs on him, a building pressure that feels physical, driving him on even as the magic begins to take its toll, draining him. By the time he gets to the heart-tree near the pixies’ hollow, he’s weak, barely able to stand. It’s all he can do to drag himself into the lowest level of branches, and try to draw in as much strength as he can.

The roots of a heart tree go deeper than anything else in the forest, stretching deep down into the center of magic that connects all living things. He would be safe if he stayed in his tree, close to the heart of it and in the lower branches. But there’s still a whole part of his forest left untended. Towards the open expanse of trees, where the forest darkens and thickens into gnarled wood, more sinister things than storms lie. Things which would love to take advantage of weakness.

Bucky rests until he can stand again, drawing magic in tight to himself, then he sets off again. The storm has finally begun, wind gusting around him and rain pattering down, blowing leaves and other debris around as he passes through, seeding magic behind as he goes.

Bucky’s skin is chilled and covered in goosebumps, but he has more work to do before he can bring himself to stop. The rain hurts like thorns as it hits his skin, cold and harsh and unforgiving. His hair sticks to his forehead, dripping water into his eyes, and Bucky has to wipe it away every few seconds. It is a useless endeavour, but Bucky needs to see his forest around him. He needs to see the destruction, the weak points, so he can fix them as best as he can.

Shivers wrack through his body as he sends his magic through the forest, as wild as the storm that gathers above him. Distantly, he hopes Steve is safe, out there somewhere in his den, warm and protected. Soon Bucky will be done with this and up his own heart tree, waiting for the worst of the storm to pass.

A cry catches his attention as he makes his way past the rusalka’s home, stopping him in his tracks. Bucky sends more of his magic out, seeking and searching for whoever it is that needs his help. He can feel a small beacon of light out near the pond, feel the fear and pain that consumes them. Bucky runs to them, trying his best not to slip in the mud and water.

He retraces the path he took with Steve weeks ago, to the fox and her den. The storm has well and truly arrived by the time he makes it through the thrashing trees and slippery mud to the den, but he can just make out the figure of the crying mother fox and four of her pups.

Only four.

Lightning cracks the sky, shaking the earth with powerful thunder as Bucky reaches out with his magic, searching for the tiny pulse of life that is the baby fox, wandered away from the den. He can only hope it’s not dead already, lost to the swell of water or flying debris.

But no, there it is, a tiny flickering pulse of light, in the shadow of a nearby tree. Bucky rushes to follow  the path his magic marks out for him. He breathes a sigh of relief when he sees the tiny body stuck in between the rocks, the fox’s mouth opened in a cry. The pup is still alive, squirming and trying their best to get themselves free. Bucky can see the trickle of blood that runs down the rocks, his heart hurting at knowing this little fox is injured.

It’s hard to find purchase in the wet rocks, but Bucky’s quick fingers manage to grab hold of one of them. He lifts the rock, careful of his shaking hands, and throws it somewhere behind him. The pup isn’t pressed down against the ground anymore, terrified gaze flickering up to meet Bucky’s.

“It’s okay,” Bucky soothes, trying to wrap the fox in a cocoon of calm and magic. “I’ll get you out of here.”

Bucky uses his magic to displace the rest of the rocks. With a gentle grip, he cradles the pup in his hands, pressing a soft kiss to their snout. The pup has a cut on their hind leg, deep enough to stain their fur red with blood. Bucky closes his eyes, concentrating as he uses a bit of his healing magic to seal the cut. The fox trembles in his hands and then goes limp, exhausted and eager to go home.

“Me too,” Bucky sighs, holding the pup close to his chest, trying to give them a bit of his warmth. “Me too.”

It’s a short distance to travel, back to the den where the mother fox is waiting, crying and watching him intensely. The slick surface of the rocks under his bare feet pose a challenge, but Bucky focuses all his energy on keeping the little bundle of life at his chest safe, and keeping his footing. He’s so focused, in fact, that when another crash of lightning strikes nearby, he startles against his will. The slick rocks give way under his feet and he’s crashing to the ground, curled in tight around the baby in his arms.

Sharp spikes of pain lance up his leg, and the wind leaves him as his back collides hard with the solid rock. The little fox yips, and he can feel its spike of fear through the pain swimming in his mind. It is a sharp and almost blinding pain that radiates from his calf and up to his thigh, making him grit his teeth and swallow back a scream. Bucky breathes slowly through his nose, tears gathering at the corners of his eyes.

“I’m going to get you home, little one,” he promises to the fox, trying to soothe it, even as he looks down at his own leg, bloody and obviously broken. “I’ll get you home.”

If this was any other time, Bucky would have enough magic to fully heal himself. As it is, he only has enough to patch up the cut in the meat of his leg, until it is shallow enough that no more blood pours out of it. The bone is still broken, but now Bucky doesn’t have to worry about slipping on his own blood.

Cradling the baby fox to his chest, he works his way across the rocks in a laborious crawl. A journey that should have taken seconds feels like it stretches out into hours, and by the time he reaches the foxes’s den, he’s shaking. He’s sure he would be drenched with sweat if he weren’t soaked through with rain. Gingerly, he lowers the baby fox at the entrance to the den, where their mother can scamper out and pick them up by the scruff of the neck. She spares him only a glance before disappearing back into the shelter with the rest of her brood, but he knows the baby fox will live, and should heal with no lasting damage.

His job done, Bucky collapses back against the edge of the fallen tree, looking desperately out into the howling wind and thundering rain that is consuming his forest. He hadn’t managed to complete the circuit – a quarter of his forest left unprotected– but there’s no way he’d be able to do anything about it now. He can’t even stand to make it back to his own heart tree to heal himself.

Dangerously drained of magic and beyond the point of exhaustion, he leans back against the fallen tree and prepares to wait out the storm. He digs his fingers into the earth and calls for help, a slow and very small trickle of magic surging up to meet him. It won’t be enough to get him walking again, but at least it will keep him alive until this is all over. Or so Bucky hopes.

Bucky doesn’t know how long he stays there, slumped against the fallen tree. His eyes are closed, chest rising and falling with each panting breath, his heart beating in his throat. The pain in his leg sharpens with each burst of wind against his body, and he has to bite down on his lip not to make a sound. There are a lot of beings out there who would love to stumble across him in this situation, and Bucky is not willing to risk it.

It is minutes or hours or lifetimes later when Bucky hears movement behind him. A branch snaps under someone’s weight, and Bucky tenses. He knows he’s utterly vulnerable like this, with no magic to draw on even to shield himself. A shadow jumps up from behind him and Bucky tries to scramble away. He only manages to slump to the ground, the pain in his leg so strong it makes his vision go white.

This is how I die, Bucky thinks.

But no attack comes. Instead, there’s a familiar shiver and compression of golden sunlight, and then a gentle hand on his back and a warm familiar voice. “Bucky,” Steve murmurs, and Bucky sobs in relief, the last of his strength leaving him as he lets go of the need to fight. His wolf is here now. He’s safe.

Consciousness fuzzes on him, a bit, but he can just register himself being gathered into Steve’s strong arms, tucked against his wolf’s solid chest. He rubs his cheek against Steve’s collarbone absently, a greeting and a thank you, only to be shushed by his wolf. “Be still, little nymph. You’re hurt.”

Bucky’s well aware he’s hurt, and would like to inform Steve of that. What comes out of his mouth is a pitiful and hurt sound, nothing like words. Steve holds him tighter, and all Bucky can do is cuddle closer before consciousness fuzzes out on him again. When awareness returns, he realizes they’ve traveled some ways, almost the entire length of his forest.

“We’re near the mountain,” Bucky observes, looking around at the trees and shrubs being blown about in the storm. At least his magic seems to be holding, he notes dimly.

“We are,” Steve agrees, but says no more. He carries Bucky up a path between the rocks where he seldom goes, where no plants grow in the solid rock of the mountain. They stop at a wide fissure in the rock, and Steve looks down at him. “Put your arms around me,” Steve murmurs, and Bucky complies, looping his arms around Steve’s neck and supporting some of his own weight. Steve adjusts his hold on Bucky, and then they’re sliding between the fissure which... is not a fissure at all, but the opening of a cave.

A cave, which is warm and dry, even in the roaring of the storm outside. There’s a fire crackling in a pit near the front, tucked in a corner where it cannot be reached by wind or water. Piled on the floor near the fire is a mountain of soft looking furs, and Bucky can hear a trickle which can only be the sound of a natural spring somewhere near by.

“This is your den,” he says, full of awe, as Steve carries him over to the furs.

“Yes,” Steve murmurs, setting him down gently, careful of his leg. The warmth from the fire hits Bucky’s skin and he shivers, turning into the heat instinctively. Steve makes a shushing sound, stroking his hand over Bucky’s wet hair. “I need to bind your leg. You’re safe here, but I need you to be still, little nymph.”

Bucky nods, trying to swallow past the lump in his throat. “Give me something to bite down on.”

Steve hands him a slip of leather, running his hand through Bucky’s wet hair one more time. “It’ll hurt,” he says, resting their foreheads together.

“It already hurts.” Bucky rubs their noses together. “I trust you.”

Steve kisses his forehead, light and quick, before he readies himself to splint Bucky’s leg. Steve’s touch is gentle as he moves Bucky around, getting in position. Bucky hisses through his teeth, shaking his head at Steve when his wolf whines and looks up at him.

“Just… be quick, please,” Bucky asks, snapping his eyes shut and biting down on the leather.

“On three,” Steve tells him. “One, two—”

The pain of it is a sharp, quick spike, followed by the ease of re-location. The scream of bone out of place eases, and Bucky sobs with it, slumping back into the warmth of the furs behind him. He’s barely aware of Steve fixing the splint to his shin, and then he’s being positioned again, laid down next to the fire. “I’m going to get water to wash your cuts with,” Steve murmurs, pressing a kiss to Bucky’s forehead. He shudders, a soft and needy sound escaping him against his will as he reaches for his wolf.

“Stay,” he begs weakly, and Steve catches his hands, kissing the scrapes on his palm.

“I’ll be right back,” Steve promises, and then he’s slipping away.

It is a blink or two before Steve is back again. Bucky watches him from under his lashes, pliant under Steve’s touch as Steve wipes the blood from his skin. Bucky is still in pain, but his heart is lighter. He knows he’ll be safe, because his wolf is here with him.

“I saved a pup,” he murmurs, as Steve’s sure hands clean his skin. Steve pauses, looking up at him, and Bucky smiles a little. “One of the fox pups, they were trapped in the rocks. I saved them. They  will live through the night.”

Something complicated crosses Steve’s face, something like pride and fear and pain. “So will you,” he replies gruffly, and Bucky smiles, bright and fond.

“Because of you,” he points out, happy and sleepy now that he’s warm and dry and safe. “You saved me.”

Steve sighs, sitting back on his haunches. In the firelight, his skin glows golden, his muscles shadowed, the brown hair standing out in dark contrast on his skin. He’s beautiful and strong, and looking at him sends a shiver of something through Bucky’s body, electric and hot. Then he’s touching Bucky again, his hands gentle as they stroke up Bucky’s neck and into his hair. “Try not to need to be saved, please.”

His voice is full of pain, and loss, and Bucky makes a hurt noise, reaching up to tug at his wolf. His wolf, who has lost so much, who saved him today. “I will,” he promises, and Steve finally gives in to the tugging, lets Bucky pull him down into the pile of furs.

“I like your den,” Bucky says happily, snuggling into the warm of Steve’s chest as strong arms wrap around him. Like this, they’re pressed together shoulder to knee, and warmth floods into Bucky, making him shiver. “Needs some plants though,” he observes, and the shiver takes him again.

“You’re cold,” Steve observes, nudging Bucky until he rolls over, so Steve can wrap around his back, pulling furs over his front.

“That’ll be over soon.” Bucky shivers again, this time not from the cold. “It’s impossible to stay cold with you wrapped around me.”

Steve huffs a small laugh that tickles the back of his neck. “I hope so,” he says, lips brushing Bucky’s nape. “How’s the pain?”

Bucky takes stock of himself. None of his cuts and bruises hurt anymore, but he still feels sore and achy. His leg is another matter entirely; it still throbs from the pain, even in the splint. It is a different kind of hurt than before, though, muted, as if the injury is a few days old instead of hours.

“It’s… fine,” Bucky says with a frown. He still doesn’t have enough magic to heal himself to that point, or at least he shouldn’t have. He reaches inside himself, to the core of his very soul, and finds the sparkling of light that makes him who he is. His magic is there, yes: depleted, but still pulsing. There is something else around it, though, little tendrils of light that envelop him like a hug. Bucky’s breath catches in his throat, his eyes going wide. “Oh.”

“What is it?” Steve asks, propping himself up on an elbow so he can stare down at Bucky’s face.

Those little tendrils, that magic, is as familiar to Bucky as his own. He recognizes the feel of it, the warmth, the intent behind it, because he has felt it before. He feels it everyday, and has for the past few months. Now it’s woven into his own magic, giving strength like a heart tree, that bright source of light feeding his power and caring for him. Just as Steve’s cared for the injuries to his body.

“Do wolves share magic?” he asks, stunned, because he never heard of skinchangers with empathy magic before.

A crease forms on Steve’s brow, and Bucky wants to soothe it away with his fingers. “I’m not sure what you mean.”

Bucky sighs, frustrated. Most magical creatures can’t feel the forces of magic the way nymphs and rusalkas can, whose jobs it is to preserve balance in the forces they draw from. How to explain this to Steve, when his magic only does one thing and whose awareness of it must be limited to that.

“You’re helping me heal,” Bucky blurts out, straight to the point. He is too tired to skirt around the subject, even though he does not wish to hurt his wolf. “I can feel it, your magic reaching out to me, feeding me strength when I need it.”

Steve swallows, arm tightening reflexively on Bucky’s waist. “I know we’re stronger in packs. That doesn’t just mean... strength in numbers, but we hunt better, grow better, heal better, get stronger when we pack-bond. I don’t know if that’s magic.”

“It must be,” Bucky muses, mind slowly working at the implications of Steve’s words. Then  worry strikes and he has to ask, “It’s not hurting you, is it? I don’t want to take what you can’t afford to give. I’ll go, I just need to get to a heart tree–”

“Hush,” Steve cuts him off, and then Bucky is pinned gently but firmly under the bulk of his wolf’s body. “Don’t you remember,” Steve murmurs soft and low. “I said I would give you anything. Everything.”

“But–”

“I’m not hurting, sweet nymph,” Steve promises, nuzzling at Bucky’s cheek, and then brushing their noses together. “I feel stronger than ever.”

“Steve,” Bucky whispers, closing his eyes against tears that threaten to spill. “Do you understand what this means?”

Silence falls between them for a few seconds. There is only the beat of their hearts, the soft sounds of their breaths, and the pounding of heavy rain outside the cave. Bucky keeps his eyes closed, waiting for Steve’s answer, terrified of what it might be.

“Bucky,” Steve starts, voice rough and filled with something Bucky would think is amusement, “how do you think I found you in the first place?”

Bucky opens his eyes, turning his head to he can gaze up at Steve. His wolf looks serious, but there is a small smile playing at the corner of his lips.

“You know I’m pack,” Bucky answers, letting the truth fall between them. “That’s how you found me. That’s how you’re helping me heal.”

Steve nods, nuzzling Bucky’s cheek once again. “I don’t know if it’s magic that makes this possible, but that’s how it is.”

“How it is,” Bucky repeats, and Steve smiles, pressing his lips against Bucky’s skin. A gentle lick, warm and fond, makes Bucky giggle. “Told you I’d be a good wolf.”

“Told you you’re a better nymph,” Steve returns, then he’s tugging Bucky close, cradling him against the curve of Steve’s big body, still careful of his leg. “Don’t need to be a wolf. You just saved a whole forest, Bucky. You’re perfect as you are.”

Bucky doesn’t say anything, can’t seem to find the words. He just hugs his wolf closer and lets their bodies tangle together as they hold each other. Slowly, the warmth of Steve’s body and and the fire and the furs seep into his bones. The events of the day catch up to him, and he happily lets exhaustion take him, protected and safe in his wolf’s arms.

 

**

 

Bucky’s not entirely sure where he is, in the groggy moments between sleep and wakefulness.

There is warmth all around him, softness under his skin, and strong arms keeping him safe. The air smells thick and rich with smoke and fur and leather, and when he cracks his eyes open, he’s met not with the view from his heart tree, but with the swirling greys and browns of earth-cut stone. The arm around him tightens in reflex to his subconscious movements, and the familiar scent of his wolf brings him back to himself.

Bucky wiggles his toes and smiles to himself, remembering last night. His legs doesn’t really hurt anymore, although the splint digs uncomfortably into his shin. He can still feel a bit of Steve’s pack magic tangled through his, lending him enough strength to heal.

Behind him, Steve shifts again, one of his hands sliding from its place on Bucky’s hip to cover his stomach. The touch is instinctive and possessive, as Steve curls closer around his body and nuzzles at the back of his neck. Bucky’s breath catches in his throat as tingles shoot up his spine, making him shiver, his entire body coming alight.

The nuzzling doesn’t stop, and Bucky twists a little, trying to peek at Steve over his shoulder. One bright blue eye cracks open, a smile splitting Steve’s face even as he squeezes Bucky closer. It makes Bucky giggle, happy and flushed, and with a little bit of careful wiggling he’s able to turn in Steve’s arms so they are facing each other.

“Hello,” he murmurs, his free arm curling around Steve’s waist, the other hand settling in the center of Steve’s chest.

“How are you feeling?” Steve asks, voice sweet and rough from sleep. He leans in for a quick nudge, nose brushing against Bucky’s. “Leg’s better?”

“Yes.” Bucky cuddles closer, fingers idly playing with Steve’s chest hair. “All but healed,” he admits, and then gives Steve’s chin a quick lick. “Thank you.”

Steve laughs, pulling him closer and rubbing his cheek against Bucky’s own. “Always. Want me to take off your splint?”

Bucky nods, but stays on his back as Steve disentangles their limbs. His wolf is careful removing the splint, gentle fingers tracing Bucky’s previously bruised skin. His injuries are all but gone, just a small ache left behind. Steve’s mouth follows the patterns of his hands as he places light kisses up Bucky’s leg, from his ankle to his knee. Bucky giggles at every brush of Steve’s beard against him, ticklish.

“C’mere,” he murmurs, holding his arms out, making a grabbing motion at Steve. His wolf grins back, sharp and predatory, then he’s pouncing on Bucky. Laughter echoes through the cave as they tussle in the furs, Steve ever careful of Bucky’s newly healed leg.

He’s panting by the time he lets Steve pin him, sweaty and breathless with the play. Steve growls happily, pinning Bucky’s hands over his head, the bulk of his big body pushing Bucky down into the furs. Shivers race up Bucky’s spine, and he tilts his head back, letting Steve lick up the side of his neck. “Got you,” Steve murmurs in his ear, low and warm.

Bucky arches into Steve, their chests brushing together, a familiar rush of affection and a new wave of heat flowing through him. Bucky shivers again, skin tingling, his nipples tightening to peaks as they rub up against Steve’s chest hair.

Bucky, lying like that beneath his wolf, can only say, “Keep me.”

Steve’s eyes shine as he stares down at him, a deep and low growl building up in his throat. “Are you sure?”

Bucky huffs, because he knows what he’s doing. He’s wanted Steve to keep him since his wolf first revealed himself to him, a ray of sunlight turning Bucky’s life a little brighter. He knows the stakes, knows what it means to give himself to Steve this way, and there is nothing he wishes more than that. He wants to belong to his wolf and have Steve belong to him in return.

It is with those thoughts that Bucky lifts his head up, his eyes never leaving Steve’s as he closes the distance between them. This time when Bucky licks Steve, it is to taste the plumpness of his bottom lip, soft and pliant under Bucky’s tongue. Steve’s mouth parts at the touch, a sharp intake of breath echoing between them. Bucky, feeling brave, traces his tongue across Steve’s lip before sucking the flesh into his mouth.

Steve’s groan is a low rumble in his chest, and Bucky can feel it, oh he can feel so much. One of Steve’s hands comes to cup the back of his head, cradling his skull and scratching through his hair, and Bucky shivers, clutching at Steve’s waist.

“Buck,” Steve murmurs, and then he’s pushing closer, tilting Bucky’s head for a kiss that runs hot and sweet through his entire body, like stoking coals in a dying fire. It steals Bucky’s breath, and he never wants it to stop, wants to be closer to his wolf, wants to touch every bit of his skin. Heat pulls between his legs, an insistent ache, and when Steve shifts against him, he groans helplessly.

Trying to get closer still, he wraps one leg around Steve’s waist, shivering as cool air shifts around where he’s sensitive and hot. Steve breaks the kiss suddenly, groaning, pulling back to look at Bucky with eyes blown wide. “Sweet nymph,” he murmurs helplessly. “Oh Bucky, sweetheart, do you know how good you smell?”

“Steve,” Bucky gasps, trying to pull Steve closer as his nails dig into Steve’s broad shoulders.

Bucky’s body feels like it's on fire, and he’s suddenly aware of Steve in a way he wasn’t before. He’s used to nudity, to Steve’s bare skin pressed against him as they run and play and press close together. Yet there is something so strikingly different this time, as he cradles Steve between his legs, their bodies touching and seeking more.

It is something Bucky is not used to, this all-consuming heat and eagerness to be as close to his wolf as possible, get as much skin contact as he can. They are not feelings he’s experienced for himself before, or has ever wanted to chase, but he can’t help but spread his legs a little wider, try to bring Steve closer, have as much of Steve as he can.

“So sweet, so good,” Steve says, nosing at Bucky’s jaw, his mouth a hot brand over Bucky’s pulse point. “Wanna taste you.”

Bucky whimpers, nudging Steve’s cheek with his nose until he can capture Steve’s lips with his own. They kiss until they’re breathless, the hot sweet slide of it making Bucky shiver, making the pleasant ache between his legs escalate. He breaks away with a soft slick sound that he will remember for the rest of his life, shivering and clutching at his wolf. “Steve,” he pants, fingers digging in.

“I’ve got you,” Steve promises, shifting, and suddenly their cocks are lined up and Bucky nearly swallows his tongue with how good it feels.

Bucky moans and rocks his hips up, wanting to be closer, to feel the hot press of Steve against him. His stomach is slick with both of them, the head of his cock sliding up against Steve’s shaft, making it all sticky and oh-so-sweet. He catches Steve’s mouth in another kiss that is as sloppy and wet as he feels, all heat and hunger and eagerness.

Something else rises between them, something more than passion and want. It builds up in Bucky, a certain kind of magic surging up and rushing through him, lighting his body on fire. It comes up in answer to their kisses and touches and the slow thrust of their hips, as Bucky’s body and magic prepare to open themselves up for Steve, to welcome him inside if Bucky so wishes. Slick gathers between his cheeks, his hole open and sensitive, and he’s arching his back, as pleasure and magic build in him.

“I can smell you,” Steve whispers against Bucky’s neck, and Bucky’s hands clench down reflexively on Steve’s broad back. “My sweet nymph, you want me so.”

“Yes,” Bucky whines, rutting his cock helplessly against Steve’s as the feeling builds in him, pushing him higher. “Yes, please.”

Bucky whines into Steve’s mouth as they kiss again, all sharp teeth and tongue. He can feel a trail of heat through his body when one of Steve’s hands slide down to rest on the small of his back.

“C’mon, sweetheart,” Steve pants against Bucky’s mouth, rewarding him with a kiss when Bucky hooks his leg higher up on Steve’s hip. “Yeah, that’s it. You feel so good.”

Bucky grinds their hips together, whimpering as the pressure between them builds. He feels so small and protected like this, surrounded by Steve’s warmth, Steve’s scent in his nose and Steve’s taste on his tongue. His nipples drag against the hair on Steve’s chest, sending sparks down his spine as his wet cock drags against Steve’s taut stomach.

“Steve,” Bucky pleads, fitting his mouth against the curve of Steve’s shoulder and suckling at the salty skin.

“I’m here,” Steve rumbles, petting Bucky’s skin, hands hot and sure as they rub against Bucky’s back, his sides, over his thighs and up his waist.

Bucky’s swept away in another kiss, hot and slick and consuming, so he’s also surprised when Steve’s strong, broad hands wander down to cup his ass, kneading and squeezing the swells of his cheeks. It makes him moan, makes him clench up where he’s slick and achy, breaking the kiss to throw his head back.

Then there’s a gentle exploratory touch, fingers ghosting over his hole, and oh, oh, oh, that. That brings the swell of pleasure and magic to a peak, and Bucky lets out a high shocked sound, coming in waves as magic expands out from him, throwing energy and life force into the forest outside the cave.

Pleasure crests in him in a way he’s never known, and as it breaks and fades he’s left shaking in Steve’s arms, clinging desperately and panting. When he comes to, Steve is whining against his cheek, rutting his cock through the mess on their stomachs, nose tucked under the shell of Bucky’s ear.

“Steve,” Bucky murmurs, hand resting sure on the nap of Steve’s neck, holding his wolf close to him. “Let me make you feel good.”

Steve whines again, a sound that Bucky swallows with his mouth. This kiss is different from the others, more desperate, with Bucky licking into Steve’s eager mouth and bringing him closer to the edge.

Steve growls against his lips, body moving as he slides his cock against Bucky’s soft one, the base thickening and catching against Bucky’s pelvis. Bucky lifts his hips to meet him, stroking his hand down the hot skin of Steve’s back all the way down to his ass. Bucky grips Steve’s cheeks, pulling him closer, wanting to make his wolf feel as good as he did.

“C’mon, Steve,” he murmurs, arching up so he can lick softly at his wolf’s lip, sweet and tentative. He can tell Steve is close, the magic rising up between them in a surge of heat and passion and want. “Mark me. Make me smell like you.”

With a sharp growl and high keening sound, Steve’s coming between them, grinding the swell at the base of his dick against Bucky’s stomach. Bucky soothes him, cradling his wolf the best he can, between his legs and arms around his shoulders. Steve’s hair is damp with sweat as Bucky cards his fingers through it, whispering soft reassurance and affection.

“Take such good care of me. Kept me safe,” Bucky murmurs, nuzzling Steve’s hair as his wolf pants, teeth nipping gently at Bucky’s neck. “Thank you for sharing your home with me. Thank you for taking me into your den.”

Steve’s gentle nips turn into him sucking a mark onto Bucky neck, which Bucky promptly bares for his wolf. They are still wrapped around each other, limbs tangled and hearts beating in tandem.

“My nymph,” Steve murmurs, lips brushing against the new bruise high on Bucky’s neck.

Bucky smiles, heart full in his chest and magic singing around him. “Thank you for making me yours.”

Steve scents him, rubbing his beard against Bucky’s shoulder and then his cheek. “Mine?” he asks, words followed by a quick lick against Bucky’s bottom lip.

“I am, aren't I?” Bucky whispers, nuzzling Steve. “I’m yours. I’m pack. And you’re mine.”

“My mate,” Steve whispers, almost shy in a way Bucky hasn’t seen him in a long time. He grins, tugging Steve in close for a soft kiss, then another, then another.

“My mate,” he repeats, brushing their noses together. “I’m so glad you found me.”

“Never letting you go,” Steve promises, and Bucky grins.

Outside the cave, he can feel life returning to his forest, animals shaking off the damage done by the storm. Seeds blown around in the wind are taking root, damaged or dead things are being reclaimed by the earth. Soon he will have to leave this warm comfortable space, venture out and spread magic and care for what is his. But he won’t have to do it alone, not anymore.

And for now he can rest, safe in the arms of his wolf.