Chapter 1: Part One
Steve stared because at this point, he didn’t know what else to do. Fresh blood twinkled in the sunlight, dripping from ripped flesh so carelessly torn apart. Whatever was eating his cows was ravenous and it didn’t care which part it bit into. It sank its teeth and just kept chomping. At this rate, Steve would have to round up the rest of his cattle and put them in one of the pastures for the horses. He’d even have to stay out at night with a shotgun or hire extra help. He couldn’t let his livelihood be killed night after night. Steve was a dairy farmer—everything came down to the cows for him.
“Damn.” Sam stood next to him, a hand on his shoulder. “Think it’s a wolf?”
“I dunno.” Steve began to feel his stomach churn. He wasn’t just staring at a lifeless tangled mess of flesh. This was Abigail. She had been brown with one blue eye and the other brown. She’d been a flirt and teased Steve’s bulls. Now she was dead. Steve felt the sting of tears in his eyes. His cows weren’t just dollar signs or how he paid his property taxes. They were friends too. He’d run around with his bulls, give belly rubs to his heifers. He stayed up at night with them while they had their calves. Now something moved in and it was destroying Steve’s family.
Sam crouched down. He picked at Abigail’s flesh like a detective would at a crime scene. Steve cringed. His mind was screaming at him—she was alive last night and I let her down.
“These marks are huge. Like—bigger than a wolf. Maybe a bear came out this way.”
“In Indiana? A bear’s in Indiana?” Steve huffed out a laugh. It was incredulous.
“You’ve been keepin’ up with the news right? They’re thinkin’ black bears are making a comeback. Maybe this is a young bear or somethin’.” Sam groaned when he stood. He stretched out his back, shrugging. “If it’s a bear though—you can’t shoot it. Hell, even wolves you can’t just shoot.”
Steve snorted. What else was he supposed to do? Watch his herd grow smaller night by night? Still, Sam was a hunter. His family hunted deer, duck, rabbit—any game legal in Indiana. They made their living off selling animal pelt, bone and jerky. Steve loved Sam’s deer jerky. But all this meant that Sam knew better than Steve and Steve would follow Sam's word. He wouldn't shoot a bear or wolf.
“I’m serious. Don’t shoot a bear, Steve. If it’s a grizzly, it ain’t gonna go down anyway.”
“I’ll move the cattle into the horse pasture.” Steve gave a resigned sigh, wiping his brow. It was Autumn but that didn’t make the sun any less hot after hours in the sun. The leaves had just barely begun to change, Summer still gripped on for one last final push.
“Nah man, I’m good. Thanks though.”
Sam nodded, frowning. He looked at Abigail one last time. “I hate to ask—”
“You can use whatever’s left to use. Hate to see her go to waste.”
“Pelt and bone’ll still be okay. Maybe a small pelt but her back’s mostly unharmed.”
“I’m gonna go into the house. You do what you need to.” Steve pointed back at his farmhouse. It was white, in need of a paint job and build in the 1800s. When one lived alone, it was hard to do everything around the farm. Steve hired some of the kids from the town during summer to give them a job and some income, but during the schoolyear, Steve was all alone.
Inside, Steve stared at the old kitchen table. There were dents from his whole life in that wooden thing. Dents he could remember and dents he couldn’t. He remembered Christmas Eve when the dog got the ham. He remembered birthdays and opening packages on the table with knives instead of careful fingers. He remembered the laughter of his parents. He sighed. The countertops were made of wood. The cabinets just the same. Paint was peeling off everything. He had mismatched bowls and plates. He’d let the place fall to ruin in his silent misery. He missed his family. He couldn’t bring himself to install life into the house when all he could remember now was death. Now even the cows were dying.
Moving from the kitchen, the floors creaked and shadows followed Steve. He sat in the parlor, cheek pressed into a palm. He stared at the old fireplace. He’d have to move the cows before it got dark. He looked up at the family portraits. There was one for every year Steve was alive. They lined the walls in the room in chronological order and placed like cherished collages. The last few were on the fireplace. The fireplace marked where his father died because all that was shown in the pictures was Steve and his ma. Four frames later, and they stopped. Steve didn’t think it made sense just to take a picture of himself.
“Oh—fuck.” He stood up, rubbing his eyes. He had a job to do.
Getting the cows into the horse paddock wasn’t hard, but it wasn’t easy either. Steve had been on a horse, whooping and hollering to get the cows into a fright enough to move. Once he double, no, triple counted that all cattle were accounted for minus the bulls that he’d put in the barn, he decided dinner was on the horizon.
He walked inside, heading for the kitchen. The house used to be so bright. His ma turned on every light in the house at night. She hated the darkness. Steve, on the other hand, he loved it. He looked up at the stars too fondly at night to be afraid. He moved through the house like a ghost, turning on the kitchen light when he arrived. He opened the old icebox and frowned at what was inside. He had plenty of cheese and milk, but nothing else. Maybe a visit to town wasn’t a bad idea. The cows were closer to the house now and the horses hadn’t been hurt yet. Whatever was roaming out there stayed away from the lights in the house. Steve decided he’d turn them all on. He also left on the TV loudly, hoping it could keep something away.
He got into his beat up old truck that was more rust than a vehicle at this point, and turned for the town. He lived a good thirty minutes away. Town was a few streets and a few houses that belonged to those who didn’t farm. The doctor. The lawyer. There were a few schoolteachers too. Steve leaned forward to change the radio station. He fiddled with the dial, trying to find something good. The radio crackled and shrieked, unable to catch a signal. Steve found himself more focused on the radio than the road.
Then it happened.
He looked up to see a pale, almost grayish figure. It was large and in the middle of the road.
“Oh shit!” He swerved to avoid whatever it was, slamming on his breaks. The tires screeched, the truck trembled from the maneuver. Steve assessed the situation when he came to a halt. His headlights were fine. Mist and darkness sprawled before him. He looked in his rearview mirror but whatever had been in the road was gone.
“Oh shit.” Steve got out of the car.
The bigger creature was gone, but there lying in the road was a little girl. She had a gash in her arm and was whimpering. Alive. She was alive. Steve hurried over to her. Tears streaked down her face and blood was smeared all over her dress.
“It’s okay,” Steve said. “I’m here to help. Can you move?”
“Don’t let it eat me,” she whimpered, “please-please—don’t let it eat me!”
“Nothin’s gonna eat you. C’mon. I’m gonna pick you up, okay?”
The girl sniffled, nodding.
Steve carefully scooped her up. She cried out, clutching her stomach. It was then that Steve saw the other gash. Her stomach was bleeding—fast. Steve ran over to his truck. He put her in the seat next to his and ripped up a flannel shirt he had in back of the cabin to apply pressure to the wound. “It’s okay. It’s all gonna be okay.”
“M-my necklace,” she said. Her voice was getting weaker. “It—it took—my necklace.”
Steve got into the driver’s seat, frowning. Animals didn’t take things. They didn’t use objects like humans. Unless it was a primate. Steve wondered if something from the Zoo had gotten loose. He’d know about that though, wouldn’t he? He hadn’t known about the black bear though. Maybe he wouldn’t.
“Just hold on, okay? I’ll get you to the hospital.”
They made it to the ER. The girl was weak and cold. Nurses carried her away on a gurney and asked questions Steve didn’t have answers to. He was offered a towel when things quieted down. At first, he didn’t realize why he’d need one. He wasn’t wet. Then he looked down.
He was covered in her blood.
Steve learned the girl’s name was Enola. She had a sister in town who taught piano and martial arts. Her name was Echo. When Steve saw her, he couldn’t hide the shock on his face. She laughed, pointing to the tattoo on her face. A white handprint covered most of it. It looked like paint, sinking into the skin, except paint wasn’t so smooth. It was a tattoo.
“Ya like? Most people tell me I shouldn’t destroy such a pretty face. Fuck them.” She spoke with a trace of an accent. One Steve couldn’t place.
Steve’s eyes widened more. He didn’t care about profanity. He was surprised by how frank she was. If his ma taught him anything, it was to admire a woman who didn’t play coy and meek. Being weak was for the privileged, she’d said. Sarah Rogers didn’t have the luxury of appearing coy. She was a woman of rough hands and a sore back.
“I’m Maya Lopez, friends call me Echo. You saved my sister and I can’t thank you enough. So you’re a friend.” Echo reached her hand out. They shook hands and Steve noticed the callouses along the woman’s hands. She too was a woman of rough hands. Steve liked her instantly.
“No problem. I mean—how is she?” Steve noticed the way Echo stared at his mouth when he talked.
“I haven’t—this is a small town and I’ve never seen you before.” Steve shrugged, a sheepish grin on his face. “Been here long?”
Echo crossed her arms, a crease between her black brows. “No.”
Steve opened his mouth, heart speeding up. He’d found himself at an impasse. He didn’t know whether to ask what brought her here or if he should’ve began talking about the weather. Luckily, a nurse came up. Her hands moved in easy, fluid motions. Steve was so transfixed that he didn’t realize what she was actually doing. He watched her facial expressions next, then noticed her mouth moved but no sound came from it. She was speaking in sign language. Echo used it right back. Steve filed the information away. Echo didn’t use an interpreter to talk to him, so he wouldn’t worry about it. Maybe he would speak a little bit slower? Or would that throw it all off? Oh no. He had no idea. Would she even ask him to slow down if she needed it? Should he have told her that was okay if she needed to?
It was in that moment that Steve realized he’d never spoken to a deaf person before. It shamed him. He’d gone into Indianapolis every so often with Sam, but it seemed bars and places for loud music weren’t exactly their scene. But then he thought back on his ma. “No one wants to be treated any differently. So don’t do it unless they ask.” Steve bit his lip. He’d wait and find out. Echo would tell him. He was confident of it.
Echo turned back to Steve, smiling. Steve smiled back. He adjusted his hands. They were a bit sweaty.
“She’s stable and wants to see you.”
“Me?” Steve pointed to himself, brows going high.
“C’mon, dummy.” Echo reached out and grabbed Steve’s arm. They walked down the halls in silence. The hospital wasn’t in Dublin. It was actually a county hospital and Steve had felt sure Enola would die before getting to the ER. But by some miracle, she’d pulled through. Steve thanked God, as he did every night and every meal. He didn’t make it a big deal. A silent thanks in his mind and then he moved on.
The room Enola had been moved to had little bears painted onto the walls. They held balloons in bright colors and seemed to fly up into the sky. The TV wasn’t on and Enola wasn’t smiling. She sat, eyes facing forward and her blanket up to her nose.
“Enola?” Echo moved closer, signing something in quick, nervous motions. Enola signed back and Steve felt dumbly out of place. They’d offered ASL when he was in high school. He’d taken French like an idiot.
Enola sighed, brow creased and lips frowning. She rested her hand on a hip, the other behind her neck. “Talk to her.”
Steve came forward. “Uh—hi.”
“It’s a wendigo,” Enola said. She took a moment to even out her breathing. “Our people know them well. Legend says they eat and eat and eat but are never satisfied. Don’t let it eat me.”
“I—” Steve looked to Echo for backup, maybe a roll of the eyes. Echo’s face was still poised as it had been before. Steve swallowed hard. “It can’t hurt you here.”
“Don’t let it hurt anyone else,” Enola whispered. She sniffed, staring at her toes.
Steve watched the sisters have a conversation all their own with motions and facial expressions Steve couldn’t keep up with. Signing was an art. It reminded Steve of his own taste for sketching, but Steve had stopped sketching when his mother died. He didn’t think he could pick it up again if he tried. As much as he wanted to capture Echo’s face—the stark white handprint on her skin—he didn’t think he could. He wasn’t sure Echo would want him to either.
“C’mon,” Echo said, leading Steve out of the room. She relaxed in the hall after closing the door. She slumped against it, sighing. “I need to be here with my sister, but I owe you an explanation.”
Steve cocked a brow. “Uh—we could go to the food court. I went out to go eat originally.” Steve hadn’t thought about the hunger he felt. Now it panged against his stomach, making his tongue sour and his eyes water.
Hospital food wasn’t Steve’s ideal situation for eating, but nevertheless, he found himself with the chicken tenders, a cup of mandarin oranges and a bag of pretzels. Echo grabbed a coffee, but nothing else.
“We’re Navajo. Enola grew up hearing stories about wendigo from an Algonquin friend of ours. We all loved ghost stories so much. I stopped believing so long ago but Enola’s young. It’s all still there and,” she sighed, “I can’t stop her from being afraid.”
“Wendigo?” Steve winced. He’d heard the word mentioned a few times before, mostly in horror movies or video games but he’d never really stopped to think about what it was.
“What is a wendigo?” Steve picked at his chicken tenders. Despite his stomach, he found himself oddly fascinated with the prospect of learning about something dark and terrifying. He thought of Abigail—of all his cows. It was dark outside now. He hoped they were okay. Maybe the wendigo was a bear but made fantastical by legend? Steve believed in God. Steve believed in ghosts and whispers in the wind. In fantastical tale, there was always truth. Sometimes it was hidden and sometimes it wasn’t. Steve would listen and he would learn.
“A monster.” Echo didn’t look Steve in the eye. “They’re cursed with ravenous hunger and never satisfied. To be one, you have to eat human flesh or do something pretty greedy. After that, evil spirits taint you and turn you into the wendigo.” Echo shrugged. “It’s a stupid story used to scare children and to ward off being gluttonous.”
“It’s interesting.” Steve offered a smile but Echo didn’t offer one back. He frowned, staring at his plate before eating a chicken tender. “Gaelic people have all sorts of terrifying myth. I used to love listening to them. The scarier the more entertaining.”
Echo smirked. “Better for the campfire story, huh?”
“Sometimes my ma even told them at Christmas. She and my da immigrated here before I was born. I’m sorry for what happened to Enola and I’m sorry it’s made the story real to her.”
Echo tilted her head, looking at Steve with parted lips. She regarded him almost like she had just seen him for the first time. Brown eyes stared into blue and Steve felt his being swallowed up. He averted his gaze, choking on food.
“That’s exactly the problem. I—I’m glad you see it. When I lost my hearing, I blamed stories because it was easier than facing what really happened. It took years to come to terms with it and accept that stories couldn’t bring it back.”
Steve nodded. He didn’t know whether to ask about her hearing or if he should wait and let her offer the information should she want to. He settled for that option. It was her life. What she wanted to share was her business. Steve wouldn’t be rude. His ma would kill him.
“So you live in Dublin?” Echo asked. “We’re not far from there. Got a house in the woods.”
“Yeah. I own a cattle farm and—shit—I really need to get back to them. Some wolf or—bear—killed Abi—one of my cows.”
“You’re terrible when it comes to speech, you know that?” Echo smiled.
“Was my worst class.” Steve stood up. “It was nice meeting you.”
“Wait.” Echo grabbed a napkin and pulled a pen out of her purse. She scribbled down numbers and offered it to Steve. “My number. I’d like to be friends with you.”
Steve smiled. “Yeah. Me too.” He tucked the napkin into his pocket and then left. Stories of the wendigo flittering around his head. He had a long drive home and he had to still set up humane traps or something to keep his cattle safe. He just hoped they’d been fine with the horses since he left. He hadn’t meant to be gone so long.
The farm was inky black when he came home. The moon even seemed to shy away from it. His house glowed like a yellow beacon in the darkness from the lights inside. Steve used the flashlight on his phone to find the barn. He checked on the bulls, satisfied that they were safe in their stalls. He turned on the barn lights. He wished he’d remembered to turn these on when he left. Light spilled out into the horse paddock. He regretted it the second his eyes focused from the beams. He found himself filling with distress. It sloshed into him like water into a drowning car. He couldn’t swim to the surface because it sucked him deeper and deeper. A startled sound escaped his throat but he couldn’t move. He stared at the slaughter, his cows, his horses. Dead.
All of them.
“No,” he whispered, “no no no no no.” Steve ran into the paddock. He checked the animals for signs of life, for struggling survivors. He found none. All lay still, blood staining the grass and soaking into the earth. It made it soppy and loose. Steve stared at the massacre. This wasn’t a wolf. Wolves didn’t hunt when not hungry. Bears—Steve didn’t know much about bears but he felt most animals operated much of the same. This was murder. It was needless and violent. He reached out a shaky hand, touching the cheek of the horse he’d used to bring the cattle into the paddock that afternoon. He closed his eyes, leaning forward. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
It was too dark to clean up their bodies. He felt cold and filthy when he walked away, blood from Enola and his livestock alike. His boots tracked in blood and he hastily took them off, falling to the floor. He pulled out his phone, dialing a freshly written number on a crumpled-up napkin.
The response was an ignored call followed by a text. I’m sorry. I should’ve told you to text me.
Steve felt stupid. He punched back: All good. Do wendigo only eat humans?
Steve saw the symbol for someone writing a message start and stop three times. He waited five minutes before a reply came: They eat anything.
Steve closed his eyes. I think a wendigo ate all my livestock.
Where do you live? The response was almost instant.
Steve texted Echo his address before locking his phone. He stared across the hallway, tracing his bottom lip with his thumbnail. He’d suffer income hemorrhaging because of this, but that wasn’t what hurt Steve the most. Steve was supposed to be the protector of this farm. He failed them. All he had left were two bulls. He couldn’t even breed back his cattle. “Fuck.” He slammed his head back against the wall, inhaling deeply. He felt like he was moments from panic. His heart beat quickly, thumping in his ears. He focused on his breathing, taking in deep—deep breaths.
He waited for hours.
Echo never came.
“You got insurance though right?” Sam asked as he walked among the bodies of Steve’s livestock. “I mean, you can get more cows? Horses?”
“I’ve got farming insurance yeah. But this’ll set me back years. I had a solid breeding program and everything.”
“Dude,” Sam said, “I’m so sorry.”
Steve crossed his arms. He wasn’t sure whether he was about to laugh or cry. The night had been nothing but adrenaline and creepy stories, polished off by a massacre. Today Steve was crashing. He thought about texting Echo again but didn’t want to intrude upon her life. It was strange that she’d asked for his address, but he understand she needed to be with her sister. He just wished she would’ve said something else so he didn’t sit there for hours into the night. Maybe he would have anyway. He sighed, biting his lip. He was just looking for someone to blame and blaming her was not the right decision.
This was on Steve. He wasn’t here to protect his cattle. But if he had? Then Enola would be dead. Everything happened for a reason. Enola’s life was saved and in exchange, Steve’s livestock had to die. He pushed his palms into his eyes, clenching his jaw.
“My dad’s gonna come and help dispose of the carcasses. You okay if we use some of em? We’ll give you a cut of anything we earn.”
“Go for it.” Steve couldn’t turn to face Sam. He kept replaying last night, trying to remember the shape of whatever was in the road when he found Enola. It’d been big and hunched over. Gray? Maybe white? It wasn’t dark. Steve wished he hadn’t been fucking with his radio. He could’ve seen if he’d been paying attention.
“Hey Steve?” Sam touched Steve’s back. “Someone’s here.”
Steve turned, seeing Echo. She walked up to the paddock with a sour expression, eyes fixed on the bloodied bodies.
“Hey,” Steve said.
Echo waved. She slipped between the fence and looked at the remains of Steve’s livestock. Her expression never changed.
“What’s she doing?” Sam asked, watching.
Echo eventually came back. Heavy bags were under her eyes. Her black hair wasn’t combed. She moved it to one side and pursed her lips. She finally looked up at Steve, brown eyes glistening with tears. “I am so sorry.”
“Do you know what killed them?” she asked.
“Gotta be a bear,” Sam said. “We need to call the cops and animal control.” Sam pulled out his phone. He looked up, realizing Steve hadn’t said anything.
“It’s okay, go ahead.” Steve turned to focus on Echo. “I know you don’t believe in them but is—is it possible monsters exist?”
Echo’s lips pulled down. “Steve, monsters are everywhere. They don’t need to look fiendish to be monsters.”
“I didn’t mean to make you drive out here. Last night I wasn’t thinking. You had that story in my head and then I saw all this. It made it so—real for me.”
“That’s why I’m here. I owe you a debt. Wendigo don’t exist, Steve. They’re a story. It’s a bear.”
Steve looked around the brutality, eyes misty. His stomach was tying itself in intricate knots, pulling his lungs down so he struggled to breathe. He wanted to believe it was just a bear. A bear made things easier in a way. He’d still suffer rebuilding his livestock. He’d still mourn the deaths of his favorite animals, but a bear was a bear. A wendigo was something else entirely.
“It’s a bear,” he finally said. His shoulders slumped and the pressure behind his sternum dissipated. He sucked in a deep breath and his stomach slowly unwound itself. “Thanks, Echo.”
She smiled, nodding. “Enola is gonna be in the hospital for awhile. If you don’t wanna be alone, I’m sure she’d like to get to know you.”
Steve didn’t want to leave the farm. Death billowed around it. He could feel the licks of it everywhere, nibbling at his fingers, caressing his neck. He wanted to bask in the odd sensation of being alive, yet surrounded by death. Death became a comfort to Steve, a surety that many fought but Steve welcomed. He didn’t know if it was because he was a strong believer in Catholicism or if he was just used to so many dying around him that the notion of dying was as ordinary to him as doing the dishes. He found peace in it, and right now with his heavy heart and frantic thoughts—it was a comfort he needed to be in.
“I’d love to but, another time? I’m just not feeling up to it right now.” Steve offered a crooked smile in hopes of that being earnest enough.
Echo looked him up and down, her lips pushed to one side. She nodded slowly. “Whatever you need.”
Before Steve could speak again, Sam returned. He pat Steve on the back, his face tight. “Cops’re on their way. Want me to stay?”
“Yeah,” Steve said. He wanted to stay on the farm, yes, but he also wanted to busy his hands. He’d prepare a lunch for Sam and they’d eat on the front porch. They’ve done that since childhood together. Steve’s ma would make them sandwiches and the boys would sit on the porch swing, laughing about nothing at all. Childhood was the best part of being human. It was a shame it was robbed from everyone just when they began to understand how perfect it was.
Sam started taking pictures of all the dead. Steve shoved his hands into his jeans, feeling like Sam was doing all the work and Steve was incompetent. He just felt stuck. How he’d get through the rest of this season was beyond him now. He had some stores left of cheese and he could quickly sell off the rest of the milk but how would he replenish it all? How would he get through the next year? He never had to use his insurance before, but he hoped the one he’d selected would provide. He didn’t want to entertain the notion it wouldn’t.
“I’m really sorry, Steve,” Echo said again.
“Not your fault.”
Echo crumpled up her expression. Steve wondered for a moment if she felt guilty and then his foggy brain finally put two and two together. Steve had saved Enola, but he’d lost his livestock.
“This isn’t your fault.” He reached out, giving her shoulder a friendly squeeze. He wasn’t sure what kind of person Echo was when it came to touch, but she didn’t recoil, so he called it a win. “I’m glad I was there to help your sister.”
“I’m glad you were too, but then I feel guilty for thinking that way when you lost so much.”
“Don’t. I’d do it again this way.”
Echo snorted, but a smile came to her face. Steve paused, looking over her features. High cheekbones, big brown eyes. He loved the tattoo on her face. Steve hadn’t felt it in a long time, but his hand tingled and he couldn’t stop entertaining the idea that he wanted to draw Echo. It was like his muse came back in the form of her spirit. He’d just met her. He wouldn’t ask to draw her just yet. He didn’t like the idea of being creepy. He tucked it aside for another day. He hadn’t drawn in a long time anyway, what was a few more weeks or so.
“I’m glad we met,” she said. She touched Steve’s face, giving it a light pat. “You’re a good person.”
Steve’s only response was a sheepish grin and a shrug. They moved away from each other and Echo pointed back toward her car—motorcycle. Steve almost laughed. He hadn’t seen it before, but now that his focus wasn’t on the livestock, the world came into view again. He saw the country road further down the hill from his property. He saw the lake that the cows used to love bathing in. He saw trees and the outline of his nearest neighbor’s home. There on his property was a red motorcycle and Steve found himself liking Echo just a tiny bit more than he already did.
“See ya,” Steve said.
Echo just waved.
Steve watched her start the bike’s engine and followed her form till it was out of view. He hoped Enola would recover quickly. He hoped he’d get to draw Echo one day.
After the cops left, Steve found himself impossibly tired. His bones felt heavier than led and his muscles cried out with every little motion. He fell into the beat-up couch cushions and sighed. It’d been a long day full of questions, people walking all over his property and just when Steve thought they’d asked all their questions, more questions. Sam had left shortly after the cops. Silence blanketed Steve now, the only sound a faint tick from the grandfather clock by the stairs. It’d been the only thing his mother brought from Ireland.
In the silence, Steve found himself dozing. He really should’ve gotten up and prepared for bed upstairs, but the effort was too much and the couch was here and comfortable. He napped, coming in and out of consciousness. When he woke, it was to the sounds of something scratching along the side of his house.
“The bear,” he whispered.
Steve wouldn’t shoot the thing, but he’d shoot around it to scare it off. He grabbed his shotgun and went outside. “Hey!” he shouted. “Better run while you can, bear!” He held up a flashlight, checking the farm grounds. When he saw nothing, he felt he’d successfully chased it off. Eyes widening, Steve thought to check the bulls to make sure they were okay. They were the last remaining livestock he had. He jumped from the porch and jogged over to the barn.
He continued to use the flashlight, casting its beam all over. He checked the trees, around his truck and all around as he moved. Nothing was there, but he felt something. Mist crawled around the farm, coiling lazily around Steve’s thighs. He sighed, watching his breath puff out around him once he got to the barn.
He pulled the doors open, seeing his bulls alive and well in their stalls. Relief calmed the prickling sensation at Steve’s neck. He sat in a camping chair, listening to the bulls huff and snort. Maybe he’d stay with them tonight.
“You boys are all I’ve got left,” Steve said. Their responses were undignified snorts. He smirked.
He heard something scamper outside the barn, quick on its feet. Steve stood up, grabbing his shotgun and the flashlight. He went out, looking around. His hands shook a faint amount, but he wasn’t sure if that was because his heart was quick or if it was the nip in the air.
“I’ll shoot!” Steve shouted into the night. Silence. Steve didn’t even hear night bugs or owls. A cold chill crept up his spine at that. The night was too quiet. Steve had read all sorts of books, he’d seen all sorts of movies. When the world got too quiet, it was because there was something to run from.
Steve went back into the barn, deadbolting the doors shut. He stood there, breathing heavily and staring at the doors. He clutched his shotgun, sure he was trembling from fear instead of the cold. After winning his staring contest with the door, he went up to the loft to get a space heater. He looked out the window, but saw nothing but darkness except for the glow coming from the house. He heard no bugs, no owls, not even the wind.
He sat next to his bulls with the space heater and a blanket. His gun was pressed to his chest and the flashlight by his ankles. He was just about to nod off when he heard a long scratch against the barn. He bolted up, aiming the gun at the source of the noise. Bears didn’t tease their food. Wolves didn’t walk alongside barns and scratch their walls.
This was something else. Something far, far worse.
Steve breathed in shaky bursts, his hands too shaky to keep aim. “I’ve got a gun! I’ll shoot!”
The scratching stopped. Steve heard no other sound. Whatever it was, it was out there. Listening.
“Did you kill my livestock? Do you have any idea how fucked I am because of you?!”
Steve backed himself into a corner by the haystacks. He rationed this was a good spot in the event whatever was outside came in. He stayed there, listening to the harsh breathing of his bulls. His muscles ached from trembling and his hands were numbed from cold. He longed for the comfort of the space heater by the bulls.
The sound of groaning wood met Steve’s ears and his cheeks felt the sting of spraying splinters. Something cold wrapped itself around Steve’s neck. He tried to aim the shotgun behind him as he was pulled from the barn. Wood scratched along his back, cutting into skin. He cried out, afraid to open his eyes lest splinters would find their way inside. He shot off a single shell. The gun was pulled with a force that made Steve’s shoulders screech in pain. Steve squirmed, prying with his might at the cold claws around his neck. He opened his eyes, watching the barn get further and further away. Steve tried to roll his body. He kicked and pulled at trees that went past him. Each time he’d get a grip, he was yanked away. His body burned from the pain. With wide eyes, he strained to see his captor. Gray skin, emaciated and powerful all at once. Steve could see protruding bone from the spine, unruly wild hair and—antlers?
It turned, eyes aglow and brows quivering with a snarl. Steve couldn’t see its mouth because it had a ski mask covering it. It snarled low in its throat and Steve found himself whimpering, body going still as both fight and flight abandoned him.
“Just kill me,” Steve said. “I can’t do this anymore.” Death was kinder than life had ever been. Life was uncertainty and panic. Death was absolute and sure. Death brought along a fear unique to itself. What was on the other side? But Steve was certain that death wouldn’t plague him with the fears of life, and that was good enough for him. So death was kinder than life.
The creature brought up a clawed hand and with a brutal strike, Steve’s world faded into nothing.
When Steve woke, he was covered by soiled blankets and could smell dirt. He looked around, only hints of moonlight entering to paint where he was. Roots tangled above him, some snaking their way around the empty space to the ground. The earth was warmer here, only small trickles of chilly wind touched Steve’s face. He sat up, noticing piles of clothing, bloodied and torn. There was another pile of indiscernible junk. Steve’s eyes froze when they saw bone. Human and animal skulls helped support the base of wherever Steve was. He swallowed roughly. Steve tried to stand but searing pain wavered around him. He cried out, falling back to the soft ground. Something dark moved into the cavern—that was the best description Steve had for the spot.
It was the monster from before. It was bigger than Steve had realized. It hunched over, dropping a dead rabbit at Steve’s feet. Steve merely whimpered. It moved back, its claws clutching at its elbows. Steve knew that stance well. He sported it when he wanted to act on something but knew better of it.
“What are you?” Steve asked. “A wendigo?”
It didn’t respond.
“Why didn’t you kill me?”
It didn’t respond.
Steve looked to the rabbit, sighing. “I can’t eat this raw. Can we start a fire?”
Once again, it didn’t respond. It sat with its body pressed up against the curve of the earthen cavern. Its antlers blended into the roots behind it. Steve found himself captivated by the glow of its eyes. There was beauty in something so horrific, and something terribly sad. Steve could relate. He’d been terribly sad since his ma died.
“Are you alone?” Steve set his hands atop the blankets. He adjusted, wincing when pain blossomed on his right side.
The creature’s body seized, but then went still.
It looked like a man. Two arms, two legs, a head with hair. But talons replaced toes, claws replaced fingers. Glowing eyes and gray-like skin. Steve should have been more afraid, but coming face to face with a creature so lonely made him forget his already poor at best survival instincts.
“My parents died,” Steve said. “I’ve been alone for a long time now. All I had were my cattle and horses. Sam too. But—I can’t ask him to be there for me all the time. It ain’t fair to him.”
Steve saw it—him—blink. Steve assumed male. Maybe he was too quick to judge, but Steve felt wrong calling something so magical an it. So it was a him.
“You ate all my cattle didn’t you?”
The creature blinked again. Steve was beginning to find it amusing, watching the glow cut out, only to come back not a moment too late.
“Are you gonna eat me too?”
A sigh rattled in the creature. He turned his head away, grabbing a rock and became intensely interested in it. Steve wasn’t sure how to take that.
“I’m Steve. I don’t care if you kill me just—don’t make it hurt, please?”
The creature looked at him again, a whine in its throat. He pressed a clawed hand to his chest and just stared at Steve with wide open eyes.
“That’s what you want right? To eat me?”
The creature shook its head no.
“Oh. Then what?”
Steve tried to stay awake, but boredom and the silence began to claim him. He began nodding off, trying his best to fight it. The last thing he remembered before falling asleep was the creature leaving the cavern.
When Steve awoke, sunlight filtered in between the roots. They painted little dots and shapes on the dirt. Steve could see the area clearly now. The clothes and the pile of random knickknacks were there, the skulls that lined the base. There was a long opening that led out into the sunshine. Steve contemplated running for it. He felt something close to him move and turned. The creature was sleeping by him. Something rattled in its chest with each breath. Its skin wasn’t gray, just deeply pale and sallow. Ribs jutted out despite large muscles adorning it.
“Wendigo,” Steve whispered. There was something oddly satisfactory in finding a wendigo. Echo’s behavior was adamant about it not existing, Enola to the contrary. Now here it was. Here he was. From brow to top of the cheek, the creature had black smeared around its eyes. He wasn’t sure if it was makeup or coloring of the wendigo. His hair was curly and some of it tangled around the antlers. Steve wondered what was under the mask. He reached forward, putting his fingers between the cloth and cool skin. He pulled ever so slightly and the wendigo’s eyes flared open.
He snarled, coiling up into a defensive crouch and looked at Steve with enough intensity to make Steve’s bones want to rip from his body and run. They stared at each other, both breathing loud.
“I’m sorry,” Steve whispered, “I just wanted to see.”
The wendigo reached up and cupped the mask. He looked away, eyes no longer glowing but gray. He looked both absolutely dead and yet vibrantly alive. His skin reflected the sun, a glowing yellow hue wavering around him. His antlers were brown, matching his hair. Steve found him beautiful.
“No,” the wendigo said. His voice was a hushed whisper, nothing more. He moved away, growling while stretching. Steve watched him grab the rabbit from the night before. He turned away from Steve. It didn’t take a genius to know what he was about to do.
Bones crunched, muscle and tendon snapped away from the carcass. Steve grimaced, listening to the ravenous way the wendigo ate. His own stomach soured, shivering at the mere idea of raw rabbit. He wanted to vomit.
When the wendigo turned back, the mask was in place again and the rabbit’s remains were the bloodied bits he didn’t seem to want. He crossed his legs, holding the rabbit in his lap. He began pulling the remaining fur off, revealing a bloodied skull with wide, dead eyes inside. He plucked them out, one by one and pulled the mask out to slip them in.
Steve wanted to gag he was so revolted as he watched the wendigo’s neck swallow the eyes down.
Then the wendigo continued stripping fur and bone, wiping blood away on a blood-stained rag until they were cleaned enough for him. He put the rabbit skull on the ground and slipped it toward Steve.
“What am I supposed to do with this? I can’t eat it.”
The wendigo’s shoulders slumped. He discarded the rest of the bones in his pile of knickknacks and moved to the entrance of the cavern. “Stay,” he whispered.
“Don’t count on it.”
Sadness reflected in the creature’s expression. His brows pulled together, his eyes dulled. Steve found himself more sympathetic than angry. He’d been plucked from his life—his bulls and Sam. Would he ever leave this place again? Or would he die here? He’d rather die sooner than later. Worrying about his bulls was enough to make him sick.
The wendigo left, and all the fight in Steve did too.
The wendigo came back during sunset. He carried sticks and twigs, a few squirrel carcasses and some hawks. He started assembling a fire. Steve watched with curiosity as the wendigo’s claws moved in tactile ways. With ease, he started up a flame that quickly took to the sticks. He then grabbed a hawk and began plucking it.
“Hungry?” he asked.
Steve nodded. “A little.”
There was a snort in response. Steve let the sides of his mouth curl up. The wendigo had laughed.
“Why’s that funny?” Steve asked.
“Always hungry.” The wendigo took off one of the many necklaces he wore and broke it to use to make a rotisserie. Steve tried to count the necklaces but they were all tangled up.
“Do you have a name?” Steve pulled the blankets around him. It would get warm soon, but there was a slight nip to the air.
The wendigo nodded.
“What is it?”
“Bucky,” he whispered.
“That’s—I expected something different. Like—Bloody Fang or Shadowstalker. Bucky?”
There was only sadness in Bucky’s eyes, and Steve shut up, ears pink. They didn’t talk again. Steve entertained himself with drawing shapes in the dirt and the wendigo—Bucky—Bucky cooked the hawk.
The meat’s scent made Steve’s stomach growl. He looked up, noticing for the first time that Bucky didn’t have human ears—they were longer and furry like a deer. Deer ears. He had deer ears. They flicked and twitched, each independent of the other. Each time Steve’s stomach growled, they’d both flick. It was the cutest fucking thing Steve had ever seen.
“Sorry,” Steve said, clutching his stomach. “I haven’t eaten much lately.”
Bucky didn’t respond. He pulled the hawk from the spit and ripped it in half. A large, clawed hand offered the fowl to Steve. Steve took it with two hands, noticing how much longer and larger Bucky’s hands were than his. Steve was a big guy, but Bucky was larger. He had to be at least six feet five, if not more.
Steve munched on the hawk, feeling a bit guilty considering birds of prey weren’t allowed to be hunted. He learned that from Sam. But Bucky wasn’t of the human world, and the rules didn’t apply to him.
“Were you the one who I almost hit with my truck?”
Bucky nodded. He’d already ate his part of the bird and was beginning to eat some of the squirrel—raw. He turned from Steve, pulling his mask down and eating.
“Were you gonna eat Enola?”
No answer. Bucky ripped into his third squirrel. He ate frantically, bones crunching, blood drippling down his fingers.
“You can show me your face when you eat. I don’t care.”
Bucky froze. He took one more bite, slowing down his chewing. He turned to Steve, blood covering the bottom half of his face. His teeth were large and sharp, Steve wasn’t sure he could even close his mouth. His cheeks were gaunt but Steve could see a strong jaw.
“See? I don’t mind.”
Bucky shoved the animal carcass to his face, gnawing on it. He tore flesh apart. Steve listened to it snap and squelch in Bucky’s mouth. Steve didn’t see evil in Bucky. Wendigo were cursed. This wasn’t something one wanted to be, was it? To live a life knowing nothing but hunger. That sounded painful to Steve.
“Were you born this way?” Steve asked, because legends weren’t always true, even if Bucky’s very existence proved the legend wasn’t wrong either.
Bucky picked up the last squirrel, shaking his head. He shoved his face to it, eating it like he’d eaten the others. Steve wasn’t even finished with his part of the hawk.
“Did you want to be a wendigo?”
Bucky shook his head no.
Bucky shrugged, pushing back. He continued eating, blood falling from his mouth to coat his chest. Steve felt that familiar tingle in his hand. He wanted to draw Bucky. He was fantastical, horrifying and beautiful all at once. Raw power, absolute desperation and a terrible loneliness. Steve wanted to capture it all.
“You don’t remember or you won’t tell me?”
Bucky smirked, and Steve knew his answer.
“Fine. Why’d you bring me here?”
Bucky crunched a bone, looking at Steve with big eyes. He swallowed and cast his gaze to the floor. Steve thought he wouldn’t respond. He didn’t seem like one much for talking. But then he said, “I was alone.” His voice was hoarse, scratchy and unused. Whispers seemed to be easier for him. “So were you.”
Steve nodded. He picked at the white meat off the hawk, chewing thoughtfully. “How old are you?”
“Don’t remember.” Bucky looked to Steve’s hawk, his teeth pretending they had something to chew. Steve threw the hawk at Bucky and he hissed, grabbing it and bringing it to his mouth.
Steve watched him eat the whole thing, bone and all. He ate it so quickly that Steve wasn’t prepared for when Bucky looked up, anticipation and hunger still left on his face.
“Oh,” Steve said more to himself thank Bucky, “you’re still hungry.”
The bloodied smile on Bucky’s face was his answer.
“Do you—ever gain weight? Do you ever stop feeling hunger?”
Bucky shook his head. He curled into himself, keeping his distance from Steve in the cavern. Steve felt stupid. Echo said wendigo were cursed to feel hunger. It didn’t matter what they ate or how much. Asking about weight? What even was that? Steve slammed his head back against a root, wincing. He was an idiot.
Silence blanketed the cavern. Steve stared at the fire, grateful for it despite the sun above them through the twisted roots and bits of earth. Steve looked up. He wondered how far he’d been taken from the farm. They must’ve been close. Bucky had been killing his cows each night. If this was his home, then it couldn’t have been far.
“Do you live here?” Steve asked. At least it was sensible this time.
Bucky nodded. He put his mask back over his face. Steve grimaced, knowing that he hadn’t bothered with cleaning the blood off first. It would soak into the mask and stink. Steve could wash it—if he was even allowed to leave. Bucky had been lonely. His intention wasn’t to kill Steve, or so it seemed. Steve couldn’t simply relax though. One wrong move and he’d be dinner or a midday snack.
Bucky moved over to the knickknacks in the room. He kept crouched, moving more like an animal than a person. Steve smiled to himself, people were animals too—so maybe that wasn’t the best comparison. He moved like a tiger, his shoulder blades protruding when he moved, knuckles pressing to the floor. His arms were longer than a regular human’s. He sifted through the pile of oddities, looking at each piece like a treasure, eyes glowing softly. Grabbing a little box, he returned closer to Steve.
Steve noticed the distance between them though, he couldn’t deny he was thankful for it. The further away he was from Bucky’s teeth, it was probably for the better.
Bucky opened the little box, revealing a ballerina. She twirled around, dancing to a feather-light melody, all wrapped up in a soft twang. A music box.
“Do you like music?” Steve asked.
Bucky nodded, watching the toy ballerina spin and spin. The song filled the air around them, slow and a little sad. Steve should’ve been more afraid, but he found himself creeping closer to Bucky. He was close enough to reach out and touch him if he wanted to. The idea seemed more pleasing than Steve had thought. Bucky was fascinating in the way that a shark in frenzy was fascinating. People usually admired sharks from afar. Experts got to be the exception, but Steve wasn’t an expert on wendigo and therefore he didn’t get to be an exception. So he sat close to Bucky, not touching.
“What are you—gonna do with me?” Steve asked. The question had been prickling at the back of his mind. It swirled like blackened smoke, hardening and hardening as time passed. It wasn’t easy to think about his future last night when his whole body felt aflame and exhaustion had taken him. Now, his mind raced. “Can I go home?”
Bucky snarled, reaching out and grabbing Steve’s wrist. His claws were ice and they cut little red lines into Steve’s arm. “This is home.”
He backed away as quick as he touched Steve, moving to the other side of the cavern. He had a dirty blanket of his own and set the music box atop it. Steve continued to stare at the fire, focusing on his breathing. This—dirt cavern—was home?
That was when Steve realized he wasn’t here to be a friend. He was a prisoner.
Bucky had stomped out the campfire when night came. Steve had protested, but the wild glare in Bucky’s glowing eyes made his protests fall silent. Night was cold. Mist crawled upon the ground, tumbling into the holes between root and earth. It fell into the cavern, coating the dirt with a layer of sparkling wetness. The moon was brighter tonight, the rays not choking out before hitting the ground.
Bucky was gone.
Steve prayed Bucky wouldn’t kill his last two bulls. They’d be good on food for at least a few days. Since he’d been dragged violently from the barn, wounds and muscles healed slowly. Steve had stood a few times to piss, unsure where exactly to go, so he did so in the corner and buried it with dirt. He assumed leaving the cavern was grounds for a bloody death, so he opted to be smarter about it. If he was going to run, he needed to run when absolutely healed. He peeled off his clothes, twisting to see what damage had been done. In the moonlight, he saw angry lines, jagged and erratic scampering up his side. He traced his fingers along his spine, feeling gashes that made him cry out. He needed to rest. He also needed water, perhaps even alcohol. Being around dirt and decay wasn’t exactly a recipe to stave infection away.
When Bucky came back, he carried two thick legs that sported meat on the thigh and hooves. Steve’s heart sank. His bulls. The wendigo sat far away from Steve, clutching the legs. He tore into one of them, and Steve winced, watching fat and blood fall from Bucky’s lips.
Steve finally looked away. He didn’t have the heart to watch what remained of his bulls be eviscerated into oblivion.
“Can starvation kill you?” Steve asked.
Snarls and the sound of teeth scraping on bone was the only reply.
Steve carefully put his shirt back on, crying out only once when it went over the base of his spine. He heard the chomping and chewing of bone stop. He looked over his shoulder, staring at two glowing white eyes.
“Blood,” Bucky said.
“Oh, well, you cut me.” Steve’s heart panged, speeding up. A ringing cried into his ears and his face felt hot. He backed up against the walls of the cavern, arms spread. He didn’t want to fight, mostly because he knew he’d lose. For all his strength, his muscle and his stamina—Bucky was twice as large and twice as fast. Hands couldn’t defeat claws. Teeth could easily chomp into his neck and then that’d be it. Steve didn’t fear dying, but he did fear the pain of a slow death. He feared not telling Sam what happened and never getting to visit Enola again. Hell, even sketching Echo was something Steve longed for. Steve’s body, tingling and hot, made it abundantly clear that it was not ready to die. Steve’s mind may have been ready, but his heart disagreed vehemently.
Bucky dropped the mostly-eaten leg. He wiped at his face, smearing blood along his arm. He took one of the clothes from its pile and pulled Steve around. Steve found his face pressed into the earthen walls. A root pushed at his brow, scraping. Bucky’s claws went under Steve’s shirt and Steve yelped, both from the cold and the pain. He pressed the fabric to Steve’s back, rasping what was probably a hum. “Hold.”
Steve did as he was told.
When Bucky returned, he came back over to Steve and pulled the fabric away from Steve’s hand. It was then replaced with something wet and cold. Steve hissed, but Bucky didn’t seem to care if he hurt Steve or not. He moved the cloth around in little circles before slicing off the rest of Steve’s shirt.
Steve squawked, rather undignified. He tried to turn around but Bucky’s other big hand kept him put. Bucky worked the cloth over Steve’s back, up to his shoulders and biceps.
“Can’t have blood smell,” Bucky whispered. “I’ll eat you.”
“Lovely.” Steve huffed, letting Bucky continue cleaning his wounds. “I need alcohol though or something to clean the wounds, not just water.”
“This is alcohol,” Bucky’s graveled voice said.
“Oh.” Steve frowned. “Where from?”
Bucky didn’t answer. He stepped back, sniffing. He whined in his throat, clenching his teeth together. Stepping back, he turned and headed back to the bull leg.
“You killed both my bulls?”
“You weren’t gonna use ‘em.” Bucky chomped down, snapping the leg and began sucking at the marrow inside. Steve clutched his stomach when it churned. It was hard to continue being fascinated when Bucky had managed to disenfranchise Steve about wendigo myth. Bucky was rough, dangerous, cold, and he wouldn’t let Steve leave. That alone made him an enemy. Steve would heal and then he would run. He didn’t have a dairy farm to run anymore, but he did have Sam. Maybe he could help with the pelts and jerky business until the insurance money kicked in.
“They were for breeding,” Steve said.
Bucky sighed, but he didn’t stop eating until hardly any bone was left. He discarded the hoof, tossing it into his knickknack pile. Steve stared at it, wondering which bull it came from.
“What happened to you?” Steve asked.
Bucky froze, eyes closing. Steve watched his chest rise and fall. After what felt like a century, Bucky grabbed the music box, he opened it, breath quickening. Steve frowned, watching through the moonlight. Bucky’s skin seemed to drink up the silver rays because his white skin turned gray in the darkness. He didn’t reflect the moon like he reflected the sun. The moon seemed to pull its light way from Bucky, keeping him in the shadows. It was ironic when the sun seemed to care for Bucky more than the moon.
Steve’s attention snapped back to the present when he saw Bucky crush the music box. He turned to Steve, growling and moving like he had before, on all fours.
“B-Bucky?” Steve pressed against the wall. “What’re you doing?”
Drool dripped from Bucky’s open mouth, his glowing eyes focused directly on Steve. “Run,” Bucky hissed out.
Steve did his best to run. His legs were fine, but his back screamed when he pumped his arms to move. He tripped over a root at the front of the cavern, hearing Bucky scampering behind him. Steve managed to get up, bolting out into the night. He turned around, looking at Bucky. The wendigo was behind him, clutching the entrance to the cavern, growling and chomping on root and earth.
He’d been hungry. Steve was a warm body and Bucky craved him. But he’d let Steve go, he’d grabbed the roots and tried as long as he could to let Steve run far away.
When Steve ran to his house, he found the doors unlocked—just as he’d left them. He turned, bolting the locks shut and running for the basement door. There was a freezer where he’d be safe down there.
He didn’t sleep a wink that night.
Steve awoke to someone banging on his door upstairs. His muscles didn’t thank him from sleeping on the hard surface all night, but at least he’d been smart enough to go into the freezer he’d been thawing for a few days. He crawled up the stairs, his back searing in pain. He opened the door of his house to find Sam, eyes wide and mouth open.
“What?” Steve asked.
“Where the fuck have you been?” Sam barged into the house. “Jesus! What happened to you?”
Steve realized he wasn’t wearing a shirt. “Oh. Uh. I got attacked.”
“Holy fucking Christ on a cracker. What?”
Steve shrugged, blushing. “It’s okay. I just needed to lie down for awhile. Sorry if I scared you.”
“Dude, you need stitches.”
Steve had not looked at the wounds yet. He followed Sam into the hallway bathroom and checked. Gashes zig-zagged across his skin, angry and red. He was bruised all up one side and scratched to hell and back. “Fuck.”
“You need stitches!” Sam flailed, rolling his eyes to the heavens. “I came over yesterday and you never answered the door. I came over the day before and thought you just needed space. What the fuck happened?”
“It killed my bulls,” Steve said.
“Oh,” Sam’s face softened, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s not a bear. It’s—bigger.” Steve found himself wondering if telling the truth was better than spinning a lie. He knew Bucky wasn’t evil. He was lonely, desperate and hungry. But Bucky was killing things, lots of things. Steve knew it wasn’t his fault, per se, but he was still doing it. Did that make him unworthy of life though? What constituted something evil enough that needed to be eradicated. He’d let Steve go…
Sam had been waiting for Steve to tell him what it was. He sported a cocked brow and had his arms crossed over his chest.
“Or,” Steve pinched the bridge of his nose, “maybe it was. Sorry. I’m tired.”
“Will you let me take you to get stitched up at the urgent care in town? Your pasty complexion has taken a new leap. It’s like—pasty.”
Steve laughed, flicking Sam off. Sam clutched over his heart, pretending to be wounded. They walked out of the house and Steve followed Sam to his car after locking his doors. He knew Bucky could probably break in if he wanted to, but Steve needed the sense of security.
When they drove away, Steve saw the barn doors wide open. He cringed, remembering how Bucky had eaten the bull leg. “I need water,” Steve said, realizing he hadn’t had any in days. “Like—fast.”
“Okay. We’ll stop at the deli on the way.”
Steve relaxed into the seat. He felt something land on him and opened his eyes to see a hoodie in his lap.
“You ain’t going into an urgent care without a damn shirt on! Were you raised in a barn?”
Steve smirked. He put the hoodie on, grateful for something to cover his wounds. He knew the largest gash was still weeping—Sam had probably just sacrificed his hoodie to bloodied stains.
“You’re lucky to be alive,” Sam said.
Steve leaned against the door to the car, staring at the flat farmland around them. Indiana was flat. Steve was lucky enough to be one of the rare few that had a little hill on his property, but other than that, the state was flatter than a pancake.
“What happened?” Sam asked.
“Bear came at night. Grabbed a shot gun and I got scared. I shot around it thinkin’ it’d go away but it charged me.” Steve was astonished at how good a liar he’d suddenly become. He didn’t want a manhunt for Bucky. He wasn’t even sure he wanted to tell Echo about him and her people were the most familiar with them.
“That was stupid.” Sam gripped the steering wheel harder, sighing. “Real stupid.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“Yeah well, you’re alive. That’s what counts.”
Steve sighed, looking out the window. He was free. The thought made a smile curl at his lips. He breathed in the scent of Sam’s car, hints of sandalwood and pine from cleaning supplies. Sam cared for his car to degrees Steve thought almost insane. Sam joked that when someone had a car like Steve’s, of course they wouldn’t give a shit. Sam’s car was sleek, new and fancy. Leather seats and all.
They rode mostly in silence to the urgent care after that, Steve up in his head and Sam probably stewing in anger at Steve for being an idiot. Steve couldn’t stop smiling at the thought that roots weren’t above him and he wasn’t a potential meal. The sky had never looked so beautiful.
It wasn’t that Steve didn’t like Bucky, it was that he was scared of him too. Steve had spent a week after leaving the urgent care thinking about the wendigo out in his woods. He’d done a bit of research on wendigo too. He’d snatched up video games featuring them, watched paranormal TV shows about them and browsed the internet for the rest. There was one consistent them that Steve came to vehemently disagree with. Wendigo were evil according to media. Steve didn’t feel the same. Bucky had attempted civility. He kept his distance from Steve and when the temptation came to be too much, he’d let Steve go. Bucky wasn’t evil, he was just cursed. Some would argue the two were one in the same, to be cursed is to be touched by evil—Steve once again disagreed. To be cursed was to be tainted by something, it wasn’t a gift or something asked for. Bucky didn’t want to be that way. He just was.
Echo sat on the sofa, watching the last few minutes of a show about two guys who killed demons. She was curled up to the side, head resting in her hand. Her eyes gazed at the screen with disinterest, lips faintly parted. Steve’s hand tingled again. He watched her with a crinkled brow, arms crossed. Eventually, her gaze met his.
“What?” she asked.
“I’m about to ask you the rudest thing possible, and it’s about your hearing. So if you don’t want me to ask, just tell me.”
Echo sighed, but her lips twisted into a tired smile. It was obvious this was a subject she spoke on again and again. Steve didn’t know whether to take that as her true answer and leave it be or if he should wait to determine his next question. He waited, because he was curious. Objectively he knew it wasn’t kind to ask, but they’d become somewhat friendly now. Enola was out of the hospital, their aunt had come down from Canada to watch her as well. Enola was on bedrest, but at least she was home. Her being safe with her aunt meant Echo was free to see Steve, and she did often. Almost every day since Steve ran from Bucky.
He hadn’t told her about Bucky. He wasn’t sure if he should.
“Go ahead, Steve.”
“Yeah. It’s okay.”
Steve licked his lips, coming into the living room. He sat on the coffee table, a piece of furniture that he’d helped make with his da. It was made from trees cut from the woods nearby. Steve had cut three fingers helping make it. “Can you hear at all?”
Echo shook her head.
“But you can see what I say?”
“Were you born this way?”
She froze, her brow slowly furrowing. She opened her mouth to speak, or what Steve assumed was to speak, several times before she shifted to lean forward. She bit her lip, eyes downcast. The way her brown pupils darkened, the whites losing their luster—Steve knew he’d brought a memory back Echo didn’t wish to think about. He regretted it so much that he reached out to grab her hands.
“Don’t tell me if it hurts too much.”
“You’re a good person, Steve.” She looked to their hands and then up to Steve’s face again.
Steve dropped Echo’s hands like he’d been burned. He sat back, cheeks heating up.
“It’s okay,” she grabbed his hands again, “I’d have punched you if I didn’t want you touching me.”
Echo smirked before sitting back. She leaned her head on the sofa, looking up at Steve from her dark lashes. Steve felt his whole face flush red. He stood up, clearing his throat and scratching at his neck. It felt hot too. He walked from the room into the kitchen, grabbing a glass of water for lack of something better to do. He stared out the window into the night. He had no livestock to protect anymore, bulls, horses, cows—all gone. He needed to sell the last bits of cheese he had at the farmers’ market or he’d lose out on any chance of some kind of profit. He was running out of food.
“It was just an accident. But yeah—it resulted in the total loss of my hearing.” She shrugged, like somehow her hearing had never meant anything to her. Steve wondered if she heard anything, like the ringing in his ears when it was too quiet, or something muffled. Curiosity would be his downfall.
He was about to put his glass down to say something else when he saw something move in the darkness. His heart flipped, crushing into his throat with a quickened pulse. He leaned forward, gripping the sink’s edge. Nothing.
Steve moved through the farmhouse saying, “Be right back, Echo!” He closed the door by the time he realized she never heard him. Idiot!
Outside, Steve wrapped his arms around each other. He breathed loudly, eyes straining to see into the dark, chest rising and falling. Puffs of air circled around him as he breathed. His toes felt numb, he hadn’t thought about putting on shoes.
He saw Bucky at the tree line, standing to his full height with glowing white eyes. Comparatively, Steve wasn’t that much shorter than him, maybe just two or three inches. It was the antlers that made Bucky look so much taller.
“Are you okay?” Steve asked. He’d lecture himself on self-preservation later.
Bucky left. Steve heard his feet pattering over dried leaves and the snap of twigs.
Deflated, Steve went back to the house. He smiled at Echo when he sat down on the other side of the sofa. She stretched her feet out to rest on his thigh. He let her. It would be easier to try to forget about Bucky. Maybe Echo would be the better choice. Maybe it wasn’t a choice at all. A beautiful woman or a wendigo? Steve had always preferred men. Objectively, he found women beautiful but his romances had always been with men. He could try with Echo, maybe explore a side he’d never tried before. But then he thought of Bucky again, and wondered what that said about his sexuality when what he was pining for was a monster who’d rather eat his flesh than kiss his face.
Steve tapped Echo’s foot to get her attention. He’d learned that he couldn’t just say her name. She had to be looking at him for her to know what he was saying. She turned, her plump lips in a kind smile.
“Has anyone ever loved a wendigo?”
She groaned, dropping her head back.
Steve laughed. He should’ve anticipated that response.
“Wendigo are stories, Steve!” Echo playfully kicked his thigh. “You’re just like Enola!”
“I know! I just—they’ve fascinated me since I—well.” Steve slammed his mouth shut. He could either say since he’d been kidnapped by one or since Enola had been hurt by one. Either way, it wasn’t a good prospect. So he let the sentence crash into an early grave. He’d buried a lot of sentences with his foot in his mouth.
“There’s no such thing,” she said, “but if you want stories, I’ve got them. They’re kinda fun to tell. Probably why Enola believes in it so hard. I used to like freaking her out.”
“Please?” Steve’s brows twitched up, a hopeful curl to his lips.
“You look like a puppy, you know that? A big—Golden Retriever or—Labrador.”
“There are stories about loved ones trying to bring their husbands or wives back from the curse. But the wendigo only loves one thing—eating. I’ve never heard a story that ended well. The curse is said to be irrevocable. It’s kind of sad don’t you think? Loving someone and trying to help them but in the end it just—doesn’t go as planned.”
“Yeah. More tragedy than love story.” Steve found himself playing with the ankle bracelet on Echo’s foot. There were a few charms and a tiny turquoise rock.
“Wendigo didn’t eat your cows, though. Remember that.”
“Maybe,” Steve whispered. He wasn’t sure if she picked up on what he’d said, but she didn’t say anything else. Netflix asked if they were still watching their show and Steve picked up the remote. “Want more?”
Watching with subtitles took a little bit of time getting used to. Steve had to fight looking down at the text, but a minor inconvenience was nothing compared to Echo’s. He hadn’t asked her if she wanted it though. At first, he’d been nervous, always checking her face to see if she was angry with him. She’d never said to turn them off, but she’d never thanked him either. He wasn’t quite sure what to make of that.
Echo’s phone flashed in bursts. She looked down, reading her text. “Enola really likes you.”
“She does?” Steve had gone to visit her just a couple times before she’d been released from the hospital. They may have gotten into a little trouble by racing a wheelchair around the children’s ward. Steve liked kids. He wasn’t sure about ever having his own, but he liked interacting with them well enough. He liked the color they brought into the world.
“You saved her life. You’re her hero now.”
Steve bit his lip. He hadn’t thought of it that way. He’d seen a shape in the road and it was mere happenstance that he actually got out to investigate. Steve never did have a sense of survival. Curiosity and the preservation of others seemed to override his own. That, and he didn’t rather much care if he died. Well, so he’d thought. Being with Bucky had kicked his survival instincts up a notch. He wasn’t ready yet. He didn’t fear it, but he wasn’t ready for it. He didn’t need to be afraid of death to attempt to stave it off.
“You okay over there?” Echo asked.
“Oh. Yeah. I’m hungry. Want anything? I’ve got some frozen pizzas.”
“Steve,” Echo grabbed his wrist, “you’re acting weird.”
“How so?” Deflection, smooth Steve.
Echo narrowed her gaze, lips in a line. She glared at Steve until his whole body was prickling from it. Then she sat back, tucked her hands behind her head and said, “Don’t worry about it.”
Steve stood up, wandering to the kitchen. Hiding Bucky was like trying to hide a dog in his bedroom. It was only a matter of time before Echo saw him or Steve slipped up. He was a terrible liar. His lack of self-preservation led him into all sorts of awkward encounters where he just didn’t know how to phrase something well enough to keep the truth hidden. Sooner or later, he’d let it fall into Echo’s lap. She already thought he was weird. He didn’t like that feeling. It made his palms sweaty and his stomach tickle with butterflies. He wanted her to like him, it seemed. Maybe forgetting Bucky was the best course of action. Echo was a living, breathing human being.
Bucky was a monster. Was there even a choice?
With some insurance money in his pocket, Steve was faced with a tough decision. Replenish his stock and risk Bucky eating them, or waiting and risking total financial ruin. Sam had made it abundantly clear that Steve needed to get back into the game. There was a cow show at the county grounds and auctions were usually the best place to snatch up some basic breeding stock. Steve’s nurture and care for the animas would improve the quality of the cheese and milk. But he didn’t want to suffer the heartbreak of losing more cattle. He still mourned Abigail and his bulls. He mourned his favorite horse. He couldn’t in good conscience buy more livestock just to see them eviscerated by Bucky.
So Steve did the next best thing. He began installing high power electric fences round his property and laid out some bear traps. They’d be blocked off by the inner fence so the cows would be safe, but they’d be there if Bucky tried to get in. The idea of warding off Bucky didn’t sit well though. Bucky was reasonable, wasn’t he? He’d spoken to Steve. He’d let Steve go. Maybe they could come to some sort of agreement.
No one had ever successfully loved a wendigo, or so the stories said. Echo didn’t believe in them though. Steve furrowed his brow, staring at the fencing he’d have to start digging holes for. It was easy to dismiss the stories as easy or simple when one didn’t believe. But Steve knew someone who did. Enola. She was a child and the most experience with love she probably had was a Disney film, but she was a believer. Maybe she knew something Echo didn’t.
Steve dropped his shovel, leaving all the fencing material out in the open. Trespassers rarely came to his property, unless they were wendigo. He got into his truck and set off for Echo’s tiny little house. He’d been there the day Enola was sent home. It had four rooms and a tiny little back porch that was rotting off to one side. Steve had offered to fix it, but Echo had declined. “I’ll get to it eventually. Don’t worry,” she’d said.
Steve rolled up to the house, parking in the gravel. He jogged to the door, knocking. A woman with heavy crow’s feet at her eyes opened the door. She didn’t smile, which made Steve start to panic. He felt ice slip under his sternum and he took a step back. She cocked a brow.
“Come in,” she said. Her facial expression never changed.
Steve walked in, making it a point to avoid the yarn that was strewn about the room. The woman sat down and picked up her needles and went back to work.
“Enola in her room?” Steve asked.
“Right.” Steve knocked on the first door, Enola’s room.
“Come in!” her cheery voice called.
Steve opened the door with a smile, and was thankful to see a beaming one in return. Enola was in bed, but her arms were out and ready for Steve’s hug. He greeted her warmly, hugging her with care. He sat on her tiny bed, wincing when he’d found his ass came in contact with a doll. He picked the doll up, glaring at it.
“That’s Sooleawa. She’s a troublemaker.”
“I’ll bet.” Steve set the doll in a basket full of other dolls and turned back to Enola. She looked up at Steve with cherub cheeks and big brown eyes. It was hard to imagine Echo looking so young and vibrant once. Her smiles were tired and strained. He wanted to know what shaped her into the woman she was. She was soft, but there was a blade beneath the surface. Enola held no such steel beneath her skin. Steve wondered if she’d stay that way.
“I’ve got some questions, but if it’s too scary, we can talk about something else.”
“Is it alright if we talk about the wendigo?”
Enola picked at her nails, staring at her lap. “The one that hurt me?”
“All of them. I’m just curious. I think—I think I have one nearby, but he seems nice.”
“Is that possible? He ate my cows but he never ate me. He let me go.”
“He took you?” Her eyes widened, jaw dropping. Steve was amazed at how she was able to gather that from his words. Her belief is what Steve needed, because Echo dismissed Steve’s wonder, but Enola cherished it, even if it was scary for her.
“They eat and eat and eat.”
“Yes but,” Steve licked his lips, “has anyone ever loved one?”
Enola grabbed a stuffed wolf on her bed, from the looks of it, it was newer. She petted its fur, pressing her lips together, little brow creased in thought. She was taking this serious. Steve admired that. He worried about Enola telling Echo, but Echo didn’t believe in the wendigo. If Enola did, Steve could dismiss it as his own curiosity for the myth. There were plenty of ways to shy away from the truth if Enola said anything. Steve didn’t even have to lie that hard.
“Wendigo were people once. All of them had someone who loved them.” Her tiny voice was sad. She pulled the wolf to her chest, pressing her cheek to its head. “Even the one that took me.”
“Could one love a person?” Steve didn’t want to explain the complexities of his feelings for Bucky to a child. It wasn’t love he felt. Infatuation, absolutely. Curiosity? Definitely. But love was the easiest thing to ask a child when their lives were always experienced in extremes. Children either loved or they hated. They enjoyed or they feared. Adults learned the concepts of infatuation, lust, love. To children, it seemed all the same.
“If they didn’t eat the person, I guess. Wendigo are lonely.”
Steve nodded. He remembered Bucky’s words, “I was alone.”
“But they always eat them. It doesn’t matter. Loved ones have tried to break the curse. The stories say they always get eaten. My friend told me so. And I saw it on TV.”
Disappointment chilled Steve’s heart. He felt it sulk into his stomach. He ruffled Enola’s hair, laughing at her squealing protest. “Thanks. That’s all I needed.”
“Will you stay to play? Echo’s bringing dinner. She likes you. She told me.”
“She does?” Steve added extra enthusiasm into his inflection.
“Do you like her?” Enola’s eyes were large, staring up at Steve with impatient anticipation.
“I—maybe. It’s hard to explain.”
“Because I—because I don’t usually like girls.” God he prayed Echo didn’t chew him out over this. He had no idea if Enola knew about sexuality and its complicated fluidity. This was Indiana. It wasn’t exactly the most LGBT friendly state and they were in Dublin of all places.
“What do you like?”
“Boys,” Steve whispered, a shame he hadn’t felt in years pricked at the base of his sternum. He smiled to ease his discomfort, finding only more shame.
“I have an uncle who likes boys.” Enola’s little hands open wide and she stretches her arms to the sides, a smile on her face. “He’s my favorite.”
“That’s great.” Steve’s initial shame vanished, only to be replaced with shame for feeling shameful.
He remembered his mother on the day he came out. “Steven Grant Rogers, God loves all his children and if He hates you for being the way He made you, then He’s not a God I want to believe in anyway. You hold your head high and never let anyone tell you differently.” Steve hadn’t had the easiest of times with his youth. High school was brutal. His mother’s words had always emboldened him though. He did hold his head high, no matter how many times he got punched for it.
“I won’t tell her,” Enola said, “but you gotta tell her.”
Steve barked out a laugh. Words of wisdom, straight from the mouth of babes. “Good deal.”
They played with dolls and stuffed animals until Echo got home. Steve learned the older woman was named Nadie and she was from their mother’s side of the family. Steve learned Echo’s mother married a Mexican man whom she’d met in California. Echo and Enola had moved to Indiana for Echo to go to Purdue. They didn’t explain why Echo never finished school though.
Steve had made Nadie smile during dinner though, and somehow that made the whole night more than worth it.
When Steve got home, it was going on midnight. His breath circled him as he walked up to the farmhouse. He heard a tiny thwip and felt a sting blossom on his shoulder.
“OW!” He grabbed his shoulder, turning around. Bucky was standing there, breathing heavily enough to create a fog around his face. The mist coiling around both their legs made him look more monstrous than human. “What was that for?!”
“Fences,” Bucky growled out.
“You’ll eat my cattle and I can’t have that, Buck.”
Bucky looked away, grinding his teeth together. He whined deep in his throat and looked up at Steve again. “You’ll keep me out.”
“That’s the point.” Steve’s face softened. He stepped forward, but Bucky shrank back, his claws coming up to remind Steve to stay back. “I’ve upset you.”
Bucky just stared at his talons. Steve noticed he was wearing black, ripped up pants. He couldn’t remember if he’d ever noticed them before. It was a weird juxtaposition between man and monster—Bucky, the wendigo, wore pants.
“Look, if you promise not to eat my animals, I’ll keep the fences down. Just regular ones to keep the cattle in. Deal?”
“I can’t have you eating my livelihood!”
“But then you’ll keep me out.” The words poured from Bucky’s mouth, they’re full of dust and syllables long forgotten to a monster. Steve felt their sadness. It resonated inside him, curling around his heart and tugged.
“I don’t wanna keep you out,” Steve whispered, “but you can’t eat my animals.”
“They always leave,” Bucky said, voice crackling.
Steve wondered if Bucky had sought out human companions before. He offered out his hand, staring Bucky right in the eye. “Promise me you won’t hurt my animals, and I promise I’ll let you in.”
Bucky looked to Steve’s hand, innocence smoothing his features. His eyes blinked furiously and Steve was distantly reminded of a lightbulb fizzling out. “You will?”
“Yes, Bucky. Just—don’t eat me.”
Bucky smiled, the moon glistened off his serrated teeth. He took Steve’s hand and squeezed gently. Steve then reached his other hand out, and Bucky took that as well. Fingers and claws laced together, warm blooded and cold. Bucky made a choked sound, his claws trembling.
“It hurts. I’m sorry.”
Bucky took a step forward, and then another. He mashed his teeth together, whining as he breathed. Steve was sure that if he died tonight, his tombstone should have read: I Deserved It. Bucky pulled Steve to him, wrapping his arms around Steve’s shoulders. He squeezed hard, his breath erratic and rattling in his chest. It took Steve a moment to realize the wendigo was crying. He wrapped his arms around Bucky, feeling bone protrude from beneath cold skin. Bucky nuzzled Steve’s neck, hot breath puffing out that made Steve shiver. Bucky recoiled lightning quick, bolting for the tree line.
Steve watched on, eyes wide.
He’d allowed Bucky to hug him. Bucky had cried. The hollow feeling in Steve’s heart pushed him to move forward. He stumbled at first, reaching out to the trees. He ran after Bucky, a pace he was sure was far slower than Bucky’s.
“Bucky!” Steve called. “Bucky come back! It’s okay!” Steve’s foot got stuck under a root and he had to pause to slip it out. When he was ready to press forward, he came face to face with sallow cheeks and glowing eyes. “Shit!” Steve fell, staring up at Bucky. “Don’t sneak up on people like that!”
“It’s how I hunt.”
“Are you hunting me?”
Bucky was silent.
Steve stood up, brushing dirt and leaves from his jeans. He crossed his arms, doing his best to look at Bucky with irritation, but it failed miserably. He pouted, wanting Bucky to say something, to do something. Bucky’s body was tense, his limbs trembling. He kept gnawing his teeth together and the sound was enough to drive Steve mad.
“What happened to you?” Steve asked. “How’d you become this.” He found the parallel between asking Echo the same question one oddly fascinating. Why was it okay to ask Bucky what happened to him, when Steve had to apologize preemptively to Echo? In what way was that fair to Bucky?
Steve snorted out a bitter laugh when the answer came to him. He didn’t see Bucky as a person. The respect Echo deserved was one Steve hadn’t given to Bucky. How terrible of him. Steve wanted to eat his fingers off if nothing more than to atone for his blunder.
“I’m sorry,” Steve said, “don’t answer that.”
“I was a soldier for the Union.” Bucky wandered over to a fallen tree and sat down. He linked his arms under his knees. “We were in a coal mine, hiding from the Confederate.”
Steve felt this was the karma he deserved. It was best not knowing the answer sometimes, and now he’d carry this story to his grave—just as Bucky would.
“It collapsed and some of us died from suffocation. I managed to burrow into a little grotto with someone else.” Bucky froze, his glowing eyes the only thing that reminded Steve he wasn’t stone. “He died. I got so hungry waiting to be rescued. I could hear the men above us, digging and screaming they were coming. It took them days and I was so hungry.”
“You just wanted to survive.” Steve felt sick. How was that in any way shape or form okay? Bucky had been starving. It’d been an emergency, one that Steve wasn’t sure he could have ever faced. Bucky had been left with a terrible choice. He hadn’t wanted this. Steve would’ve given up and died, but Bucky had tried to fight on. Where was the reward for a man who wanted to keep living? Why should he have died instead?
Bucky whined low in his throat, more the sound of a wounded animal than a person. “I was born in Indiana. I came back hoping—I wanted something familiar.” He wiped at his face. “Nothing’s familiar to me anymore.”
Steve didn’t know what to say. The world moved on while Bucky fell more and more into the wendigo curse. Trains progressed into planes. Steam became coal that became nuclear and solar. Carriages became cars. The world moved on. Steve had always felt like an old soul trapped in a world too shiny and new for him. Bucky was living a nightmare that Steve couldn’t even imagine.
“What can I do?” Steve asked. “Is there anything I can do to help you?” He moved to sit next to Bucky on the tree. Bucky whined again, curling up in Steve’s lap. He was careful not to scratch Steve with his antlers. Steve started combing his fingers through Bucky’s curly hair, trying his best to get the tangles off from Bucky’s antlers.
Bucky’s body flushed warmer. His skin a gentle glow in the moonlight. The moon didn’t shy her rays away from him this time. Steve smiled, wondering if it was the connectivity that had anything to do with it. Steve wasn’t fighting a monster. He was battling a curse. Bucky hadn’t deserved this. The least Steve could offer was kindness.
Self-preservation? Steve hardly knew her.
Steve waited for Bucky to appear the next night, and the night after that, and the night after that. The fences stayed unfinished, but Steve had purchased a few new horses for the time being. It was almost a test.
He’d almost given up on waiting on his porch when he saw a dark figure walk from the tree line. Steve waved, but Bucky didn’t wave back. He slunk over to Steve’s porch, coming to stand right before it. Steve looked up and smiled. Bucky didn’t smile back. He kept his jaw clenched, claws balled up at his sides.
“You look like you’re gonna punch me.” Steve cocked a brow.
“You don’t understand,” Bucky whispered. “It burns so much.”
“Does it always? No matter how much you eat?”
Bucky nodded. “It can’t get any better, but it can get worse when I don’t.”
Steve frowned. Hunger sucked, and that was just the kind that Steve felt in the morning while he brushed his teeth before breakfast. He couldn’t imagine the icy pain in his stomach all the time.
“I’ve got some chicken in the fridge?” Steve pointed a loose thumb behind him. He leaned back against the wooden stairs, feeling the warped wood stab at his spine.
Steve stood, his gaze darting from Bucky to the house. Letting Bucky inside was akin to letting a rabid dog stay for the night until the vet came in the morning. Letting Bucky inside would’ve been the hospitable thing to do. Steve once again didn’t treat Bucky like a person. For his own safety, he walked inside the darkened house. He padded to the fridge, pulled out the chicken and cursed at his selfishness all the way back outside.
Bucky was lying on the cold ground, mist swirling around his body. He was like a mountain in winter air. The mist moved around him, but his body barely twitched.
“You—you there?” Steve hadn’t even offered out the chicken before Bucky was swiping it from his hands, slicing into the palm of Steve’s hand with his claw. Steve let out a yelp, pulling his hands back to his chest. He stared down, listening to the snapping of bone and chomping of teeth. Blood pooled along the lines of his hands.
When he looked up, Bucky was staring at him with those glowing eyes. He cracked a little bone in half, chewing it loudly.
“You cut me.” Steve didn’t offer his hands out again.
Bucky turned away, breaking apart the chicken’s breast and licking between bone.
“Am I—am I gonna be one too?”
Bucky snorted. He kept eating.
Fear tingled at the back of Steve’s neck. Gooseflesh peppered his skin, enveloping him with the bite of cold in the air. He shivered, sweating.
“No.” Bucky sat down once he’d devoured the chicken. He stared up at the sky, brown curls tangling with his antlers. “It’s not like a zombie or werewolf.”
“Are those real?” Steve just had to be sure. A cryptid would know better than a person.
“Are you joking?” Bucky cocked a brow. “No. Well—at least not zombies. I don’t really know about werewolves. I’m what I am so I guess anything’s possible.”
Steve wasn’t comforted by that. “I’ve gotta clean up my hands.” Steve was almost to the door when Bucky was in front of him, blocking Steve from his home. “Bucky.” Steve glared.
“P-please. Just let me lick it clean.”
“Ew. No!” In high school, Steve wasn’t often described as smart. Dumb, impulsive, angry. He hadn’t much changed. He shoved Bucky from the door and walked inside.
Bucky snarled, shoving Steve to the wall inside the foyer. It was this moment that Steve hadn’t let Bucky inside before. A house didn’t allow someone to run like a bat out of hell. A house was full of corners, junk, precious antiques and pictures of his ma. A house held places to hide yet no chance of escape.
“I won’t bite you.”
“How can I even trust you?” Steve pushed Bucky’s biceps, cold, hard skin that stood immobile like stone. He saw smears of black from where blood stick to Bucky’s skin in the darkness.
“Please.” Bucky’s voice was pitched high, a wounded animal more than one of danger. He waited, claws trembling where they held Steve’s wrists in place. The patience was what won Steve over. It was evident Bucky could take whatever he wanted. He’d dragged Steve off to the little cave beneath the roots. Bucky could take whatever he wanted from Steve and there wasn’t anything Steve could do about it.
Bucky’s tongue was soft and warm. It tingled where he lapped. Steve bit his lip, watching as blood coated Bucky’s lips. He had full, pouted lips and Steve wanted to kiss them. His tongue glided back and forth along the lines of Steve’s hand.
Steve dropped his head back against the wall. He listened to a crash as a crochet piece his mother did and framed fell to the floor. He prayed it wasn’t damaged. He could already hear her yelling at him.
Steve watched Bucky’s tongue slip up and down his palm, his teeth careful to avoid biting down into flesh. Steve’s cock was getting hard. Bucky’s claws were large and they cupped Steve’s hands delicately. His tongue darted effortlessly over the wounds in Steve’s hand. Steve let out a gasp.
Their gazes locked.
Bucky licked at his lips, a slow, tantalizing display that had Steve’s knees trembling and his cock throbbing.
Bucky traced a claw up Steve’s chest, cutting the cotton shirt he’d been wearing open. Steve’s chest touched air, gooseflesh tingling along the trail Bucky’s claw had been. Bucky crowded into Steve, slotting a knee between Steve’s legs.
“B-Bucky. I—” Steve’s body was trembling. It wasn’t because of a chill, but more that Bucky absorbed all the warmth around them and still couldn’t to produce his own warmth. He suffocated the room, depriving it of light, of warmth, of sound. Steve could hear his heart beating in his ears, fast and wild. He pulled Bucky’s tattered pants by the belt loops and their hips bumped.
Bucky whined, his claws trembling as much as Steve was. He buried his face in Steve’s neck, nuzzling up the vein.
Steve leaned his head to the side. “I—I think I trust you.”
Bucky slipped his tongue over the vein and Steve’s pulse raced. Claws were tangling in Steve’s hair, holding him still. Their bodies touching and breath mixing. Steve whined. Fear held him still. Arousal kept him flushed and uncomfortable. But need was what controlled him. He wanted Bucky’s teeth in his throat. He wanted to give something to Bucky that no one else ever had. Bucky wasn’t a monster.
He was cursed.
Steve wouldn’t let Bucky be lonely anymore. Steve thought of Echo. He’d allowed her into his life and in his confusion—he’d sent her more than a few mixed signals. But his breath didn’t catch when he thought of her. His body didn’t respond with such a visceral need that he was left trembling and impatient. Steve wanted Bucky. Wendigo curse and all.
Bucky didn’t have to be told twice. Teeth slipped beneath Steve’s skin, gentle and with a reverence that Steve hadn’t expected.
Steve held still, focused on his breathing as he stared at the shadows that skittered around his home’s entryway. Blood pooled at his collarbone, Bucky’s tongue laved at the wound his teeth had created. Pain hummed at the wound, a barely-there tingle that felt colder than the rest of Steve’s body. His blood was almost too hot as it scampered down his skin.
Bucky picked Steve up, growling and sucking at the wound. He pushed Steve into the wall, knocking a farm landscape painting down that Steve must have done in high school. His ma had put it up and Steve never had the heart to take it down, even if he hated it.
Their lips met, cold and chapped. There was no warmth between them. The room was losing its life and it was harder and harder for Steve to breath without the back of his throat burning.
Bucky wasted no time in tearing the rest of Steve’s shirt off. He kissed Steve, teeth cutting into Steve’s tongue. Their kisses were sloppy and loud. Bucky sucked on Steve’s cut tongue, and Steve responded by shoving his hips forward. Arousal agitated Steve’s body, pressing his cock against his zipper. He rocked up and down in Bucky’s embrace. Their kiss continued, deep, sloppy and wet.
Steve tasted copper. He traced his tongue along Bucky’s teeth. They were jagged and coarse, not slick or smooth like a human’s. His tongue felt raw. He licked his lips, watching the way Bucky’s eyes glowed harsher in the darkness. A shadow, gaunt cheeks and blood-smeared pouted lips.
“Fuck me. W-will you fuck me?” Steve wrapped his hands around Bucky’s neck, twisting his fingers into Bucky’s hair.
Bucky nodded, breathing out a shaky breath. He slotted his mouth against Steve’s again and with a clawed hand, he unsnapped Steve’s jeans and sliced open his briefs.
Steve jerked in Bucky’s hold, nervous that Bucky’s claws could harm him. Bucky kissed him soft, all lip and so feather-soft that any fear Steve had was evaporated in the gentleness of that single kiss. He trusted Bucky implicitly. This desperate, starved creature. Steve trusted him. Wanted him.
Bucky’s claw trailed up and down Steve’s cock, sending so much pleasure that it was almost maddening. He traced the tip of his claw to the slit of Steve’s cock. Steve went limp and saw only white.
“I’ll be good to you.” Bucky kissed Steve’s cheek. “I swear.”
Steve didn’t need Bucky to swear to know that Bucky would be good. They were far past the fear of Bucky eating Steve. He rolled his head to the other side, watching with hooded eyes as Bucky spit into his claws and his hand disappeared between their bodies. He did it several times before Steve felt his jeans being ripped from the ass forward.
“You’re gonna make me lose all my good clothes.” Steve pouted, but he couldn’t hide the smirk that whispered at the corners of his mouth.
“Next time don’t wear so many.” Bucky kissed Steve again, a fierce, bruising kiss that left Steve dizzy and swimming in his own head. He was lowered against the wall and gasped when he felt Bucky’s cock at his hole. It was cool, just like the rest of him. “I don’t got nothin’ else for this.”
Steve laughed once he figured out what Bucky was referring to. “I’ve got—fuck it. Lube’s too far away and I kinda like you doing me raw in my hallway.”
Bucky snorted. “Doing you raw. Words are so different now.” He let Steve fall over his cock and Steve’s body rebelled.
Steve hissed, fighting the burn as he slipped over Bucky’s cock. Bucky spit into his hand a few times more. The pain wasn’t anything Steve couldn’t handle. It made his stomach churn and of course the sensation of having to shit reared its head, but Steve knew it was because the muscles weren’t ready. In the end, Bucky would be inside him and sooner or later, his muscles would be okay with it. They just had to catch up.
Bucky didn’t seem one for foreplay. Or maybe he didn’t know how with another man. A man from the Civil War was probably a man who believed in God, went to church every Sunday and thought he’d marry a nice meek, little woman. Steve wanted to ask what made Bucky want a man. Was it the deprivation of human contact for so long that any person was good enough? Was it that Bucky had always been interested?
Who was Bucky before he was a starved creature? Steve wanted to know.
Steve arched his back, letting Bucky slip in more. Pain was slowly subsiding and Bucky’s hips moved at a pace that spoke of unfounded control and patience for a creature so impulsive and hungry. As a lover, a wendigo didn’t seem so bad. As a dinner guest? Probably a nightmare.
“This is good,” Steve said.
“You’re lying.” Bucky rolled his hips, bumping his hips to Steve’s ass. “But I’m not stoppin’.”
“Don’t. How—when was? I mean—” Steve could feel himself flush red. It was the only heat in his body and it seared his cheeks.
“I can’t remember.” Bucky kissed Steve’s lips. He rested his nose against Steve’s, breathing harshly.
“Before you were like this?”
“You’re the first person who didn’t run.”
Steve’s heart shattered. Tears smeared his vision. Bucky’s face was hidden behind them and maybe that was for the best. Steve didn’t want to see the expression on a wendigo’s face who hadn’t known anything but fear from others for hundreds of years.
Steve wrapped his arms tighter around Bucky. He rested his head down on Bucky’s shoulder. Words didn’t seem appropriate anymore. Bucky was still human despite the curse that ravaged his body. His cheeks were sunken in. His eyes glowed. His teeth were sharper than a sharks—he was still human.
There was a beautiful, tortured man inside the wendigo curse and Steve couldn’t stop thinking about if there was a possible end for it. Was it only death? Or was there a chance that Steve could save Bucky? He prayed, he prayed so hard that he could save Bucky.
He jerked from his thoughts when Bucky’s cock hit his prostate. He arched up, moaning loudly. He fidgeted atop Bucky’s cock to get his own to slip up and down between their bodies. Bucky rocked forward, letting his bellybutton press against the tip.
Bucky huffed out what was probably a laugh.
They fucked against the wall until Steve’s body was covered in sweat. Bucky’s control was unparalleled, especially compared to how he’d behaved before with food. He rocked his hips slow, letting Steve feel all of him as he pushed deeper and deeper into Steve’s body. He kissed at the wound on Steve’s neck, a flicker of his tongue slipping out to lave over it.
Steve’s body was melted wax, oozing against the wall and slipping over Bucky with ease. He felt no pain or cramps. All he could feel was the numbness in his curled toes and how open he was from Bucky’s cock. He kissed Bucky’s lips, soft and easy. Then his nose.
Bucky pulled back, smirking.
“What?” Steve asked through his blissed-out daze.
“I’ve never—I’ve always wanted to know what it was like.”
“What you feel right now.”
Steve blinked the stupor out of his eyes. “Want me to fuck you?”
“W-well—I mean—you’re enjoying—”
“It’s fine, Buck. I’ll do it. I like it both ways.”
Bucky gave one last thrust, deeper than he’d ever done which left Steve whimpering as he was pulled of Bucky’s cock. He stood, nibbling his lips until they were cracked and bleeding.
“Hey,” Steve cupped Bucky’s face. “Relax. But I’m gonna do this the right way for you. So just—just wait?” Steve took a step back from Bucky, watching the glow of his eyes before turning and running up the stairs. They creaked and wailed as Steve went all the way up. He rummaged through his room, a simple, small bed with a simple chestnut dresser and drawings of years past along the walls. He’d left his parents room untouched so that left him with his boyhood room. He’d never felt it right to move their things out of the room they’d loved so much.
He grabbed lube and out of habit, a condom. He stared at it, cocking a brow. He was pretty sure it was probably useless on Bucky. Then again, Steve didn’t entirely know if wendigo carried anything, but Steve had already had Bucky inside him. He took it anyway, if nothing else than to show Bucky the respect he’d been deprived of all these years.
Bucky was naked when Steve came down the stairs. He was hidden away in the living room, but the windows offered moonlight and the moon seemed to love Bucky’s skin now. He glowed silver in the light, his eyes glowing with a new vigor. He wasn’t frightening this way. Big, naked and shimmering. He was like an ancient statue except for his twitching ears. Steve liked his ears.
“It’s easier if you get on your hands and knees and kinda like—let your chest fall to the floor? We’ll put pillows down for you.” Steve grabbed some throw pillows and tossed them to the floor.
“So we did it wrong?”
“Ha. No. There’s a lot of ways but—I don’t wanna hurt you.”
“But I hurt you.”
“Hey.” Steve pulled Bucky down on the floor with him. Their bodies mixed together. Steve shivered. He was now acutely aware of how cold he was. “I didn’t mind it.”
“I bit you.” Bucky hid his face in his claws. “Oh God. I’m sorry.”
“Hey. Hey, shh. Shh.” Steve rubbed little circles over Bucky’s back. His spine jutted out, a jagged mountain on an otherwise smooth plain. “It’s okay. I’m not hurt. I’m okay.”
“I—I blank out sometimes. What if—what if I’d—” A choking sob broke off his words. He cut his face with his claws, trembling.
Steve pried his claws away before they’d do more damage. Little cuts dribbled blood a tiny bit, but otherwise Bucky would be fine. Steve wiped the blood away with his thumb, lapping at his own finger to clean it away before repeating. Bucky watched, silent. “My ma did this to me whenever I had a cut. I never asked her why but I guess it’s easier than trying to go find a paper towel.”
Bucky sighed, it rattled around in his ribcage before squeezing through his throat.
“We’re doing fine. And if you ever need to stop, you just tell me. We’ll stop immediately. I’m not afraid of you, so, don’t worry.”
Bucky’s only reply was turning over and doing as Steve had instructed before. His ass cheeks spread out naturally and Steve had to suppress a moan as he shook his hips naturally, getting into a more comfortable position.
Steve slipped his fingers between Bucky’s cheeks. His skin wasn’t supple or soft, but coarse and filled with muscle. Everything about Bucky was designed to be a powerhouse. He brushed his fingers over Bucky’s hole. Bucky gasped. Steve put a hand on Bucky’s lower back.
“It’s okay. Just trust me.”
Bucky nodded into a pillow.
Steve pulled his fingers back and focused on the lube. He squirted out a liberal amount and coated his fingers. “Okay, it may make you cramp a little bit, but it shouldn’t hurt.”
Bucky looked back, watching Steve through thick lashes. The glow of his eyes casted off the tips of his cheeks and the corners of his nose.
Steve spread Bucky’s cheeks, swirling his fingers around the rim. He massaged at it slowly, taking his time before breaching it. Bucky trembled, pushing his face into the pillow. His legs were taut, muscle quivering beneath skin.
“Good?” Steve asked.
Bucky muffled something back, but he pushed his ass into Steve’s fingers, so Steve assumed it was.
Steve slid the tip of his finger inside, trailing it along the inside of the rim. He watched Bucky’s body freeze, holding so still that Steve wasn’t even sure if he was alive.
Steve slipped his finger in to the knuckle, swirling it just as he had before. He worked it in and out a few times before slipping another along with it. Bucky kept still. Steve thrummed his fingers along Bucky’s prostate, watching as his muscles shivered and his spine curved. He moaned a long, steady vibrato before collapsing back into the pillow.
“You like it?”
Steve slipped a third finger in, running them over Bucky’s prostate with a casual rhythm. He smirked, watching Bucky writhe. When he heard nails digging into wood, he pulled back, gaze now focused on the claw marks scratching down the beat-up wood in his living room. He’d have to sand that to hell and back to get the marks out.
“You want more?”
“Wh-what could be more?”
“My uh—my dick?” Steve’s cheeks flushed warm.
“Oh.” Bucky braced himself on his palms. “I didn’t know this wasn’t that.”
“It’s okay.” Steve kissed Bucky’s heaving shoulder, shivering at the cold sweat that clung to Bucky. In the darkness, their shadows moved with life of their own, encouraged by the writhing muscle, the sharp gasps. Steve had had sex in the dark before, but there was something more tantalizing with a wendigo. But also sad. He wondered if Bucky was focused on the pleasure or if he was still just as hungry as always.
“Do you want me to take you like this or do you wanna face me? We can face each other if that’s more comfortable for you.” Steve rubbed Bucky’s back, hands almost numb from how cold Bucky was. The more he moved, the colder he became.
“N-no. I’ll—I don’t wanna face you.” Bucky shoved his face into the pillow, growling. “Just like this.”
Steve frowned. Something felt—off—in the way Bucky clung to the pillow. Fear pricked at Steve’s neck, but he did as Bucky wanted. He only wanted to make this good and let Bucky feel something he hadn’t felt in ages—or ever. Steve hardly knew.
Yet here they were.
Steve put the condom on, pinching it at the top and giving it a little tug to make sure it fit snug. He slotted between Bucky’s legs, wincing when Bucky trembled more. “Are you sure you want this?”
“God damn it, Steve, fuck me before I eat you!”
“Oh.” Steve slicked himself up hastily and wasted no time in filling Bucky up with him.
Bucky seized, back snapping up and almost howling. He curled into the pillow, biting it until its cotton innards spilled out around him.
Steve let out a shaky breath. Bucky was as cold inside as he was outside. His dick was enveloped with strong muscle, brittle and unyielding. Bucky wasn’t an easy fuck—but that wasn’t the point for Steve. It may have started that way, but it wouldn’t end that way. Bucky deserved something to make him feel human, and if this was that? Steve would take that risk.
He rocked his hips, biting down on his lip when Bucky’s body would clamp around him harder. Cold had seeped down into Steve’s bones, making him tremble and lips quiver. He held Bucky to the floor, a hand right at the base of his neck. Bucky didn’t protest. He kept his face smashed into the ruined pillow.
It got easier. Friction led way to warmth and Bucky’s body was somewhat more pliant than the rigidity it was before. Steve kept his hand pressed in Bucky’s neck. He curled his fingers into the strands of sweaty hair, giving a light tug that had Bucky purring.
Bucky was moving with him now, rolling into his hips, their bodies kissing soft and easy. The power of the wendigo curse letting humanity slip out, even if it was only for the moment where hip met the curve of Bucky’s ass.
Steve felt Bucky’s muscles clench in a pulsing frenzy. He watched Bucky curve into the floor, his ass teetering from side to side in the air. He breathed easy, the ordinary sharp metal twang that rattled in his lungs was gone.
“I—I need you to stop.”
Steve pulled out immediately, eyes wide. “Oh God—Buck! I’m so—”
But Bucky didn’t let him finish. He scampered out the farmhouse, a shadow pummeling into the tree lines.
Steve watched from behind the yellowing lace over the window, heart racing, eyes prickling wet. When all went still, he turned back to where Bucky had just been. Something wet and shiny glistened where Bucky’s body had been. Steve touched it, smooshing his fingers together. Semen. Maybe the intensity of the moment had been too much for Bucky? Maybe he was just too hungry? Steve could think of a thousand reasons why it had ended so abruptly but the only that screamed at him the loudest was the one that, rationally, was least likely. But it was there nonetheless.
He’d somehow fucked it all up. And he’d lay awake in bed that night playing it all over and over, blaming himself for Bucky’s pain.
Sweat clung to Steve’s brow, his back ached and he was certain he had more than a few splinters. He’d just finished decimating one of the sanding sheets, ready for another when his front door opened. A chill of cool air came with whoever entered, reminding Steve of how freezing he’d been when he’d been with Bucky. Had it been love-making? Fucking? Just—fooling around? Had it meant anything to Bucky?
Steve hoped it had. It’d meant something to him.
Sam plopped down on the couch, boots up on the coffee table and hands behind his head. He smirked, watching Steve. “I like a man on his hands and knees.”
“Ass.” Steve sat up, cringing when his back ached more from the change in position.
“What the fuck happened to your floor? A dog get in?”
Steve looked to the claw marks. He’d barely even smoothed them out. They looked up at him, a costly reminder of the creature he was dealing with. Bucky was, first and foremost, not human. It was easy to forget when he tried to be kind and the way he’d cried into Steve’s shoulder. But he was dangerous. Something Steve had been careless with.
“Uh—somethin’ like that.” Steve tossed the sanding paper and used the fireplace to stand up. “Oh—fuck my knees aren’t what they used to be.”
Sam snorted. “Saw the new horses. They doin’ okay? No—bears or wolves?”
“No. Not yet anyway.”
“And yet you’ve got one hell of a scratch on that floor.” Sam shrugged, trying his best to look uninterested. Which meant he was entirely interested. “No reason?”
“No reason. Just an accident.”
“You’re a really strange person, you know that? I mean—you’re not a serial killer are you?”
Sam sat up, palms out. “I just mean cause you know—white dudes and serial killing. Scratches on floors. Strange behavior…” His grin was ear to ear and Steve couldn’t stand how badly he wanted to laugh.
So he laughed. His hand traced over the scratches, but his smile wouldn’t fade. He did have secrets, but those secrets didn’t include hiding bodies in his crawlspace.
“You’ve lost your damn mind.” Sam was still smiling. “I mean, maybe this whole time it’s been you killin’ cows. Oh man, what a good book that’d be. Has anyone wrote that yet? Nice white boy out in a small town, beloved by all, starts killing his whole farm and then starts killing the town? I’m sure serial killers are overdone. Fucking Law and Order.”
“Write it anyway.” Steve smirked. “I miss your writing.”
“Always thought you’d keep at it. I mean, jerky’s a good business. But—I did like your writing.”
“Thanks, man. I really kinda needed to hear that.”
Steve sat on the sofa, nudging Sam’s shoulder the way they had since childhood. “You okay? Things here are calming down so, don’t be afraid to talk to me if you need me.”
Sam stared at the fireplace, his eyes following the portraits Steve kept in the room. He looked to Steve and then back at the portraits. “I just had a fight with my dad about the business. He of course wants me to take it over but I was thinking about maybe—moving?”
“I don’t know if you ever noticed, but we’re the only black family here. And that might not really be an issue. But I don’t wanna stay in a small town where nothing changes or happens my whole life. I wanna live. Instead of just writing stories about living. Maybe doing both wouldn’t be such a bad thing.”
“I’d miss you,” Steve bit his lip, smirking, “but I think you’re a soul that needs to see the world. I’m kind of stuck in the past. I think it’s a good idea.”
“You do?” Sam’s brows rose.
“A great one.”
They hung out the rest of the day, Bucky and Steve’s suddenly strange life set aside. Stupid horror films, burnt mac and cheese and enough beer to make Steve’s head swim. It’d been a long time since Steve just sat back and enjoyed himself. Sam was good that way. By the end of the night, Steve hit his pillow satisfied.
Steve sat on his porch steps. He listened to some of his new horses out in the pasture neigh or flick their tails. He needed to start letting the sleep-in stalls at night. Especially considering Bucky was always out on the prowl, but at least he’d left Steve’s farm alone since they started whatever it was they’d started. Steve wished he could talk to Bucky about it. He hadn’t seen him since that night they’d slept together. If that’s even what it was. Steve still wasn’t so sure what happened. He’d let Bucky feed from him. He’d grown so damn horny just watching Bucky lap at his hand. He’d fucked into Bucky’s body. What should have been relatively clear cut was now muddled, the image distorted and Steve couldn’t make heads or tails of it.
Then he heard a twig crack.
Steve’s head snapped up, shoulders tingling and alert. He scanned the tree line, looking for a shadow or any sign someone was there. He didn’t even blink he was so afraid he’d miss something. Frowning, he went into the house and back into the kitchen. He yanked on the junk drawer, wincing when it screeched and jammed over and over. Once open, he grabbed a flashlight and went out into the night.
His breath spiraled around him, an excited ghost and his only companion. He followed along the trees, pointing the flashlight in hopes of seeing something—anything. The cold seeped into him, the blackness of the night only blanketing the earth with more of a chill than its darkness. He still kept searching.
“Bucky!” he shouted. “Bucky, come out, please!”
He stepped into the woods.
Steve wandered in what felt like circles. The trees all started to feel too similar. Owls, rodents and insects became more sinister. He felt hunted. Steve tried to turn back for the farmhouse but he’d long since lost his way in the woods. He wandered, shivering cold and utterly lost. He couldn’t even hear his horses anymore. There were no lights to guide him home. Why he didn’t turn on every single lamp in the house was now beyond him. Darkness was a silence that Steve enjoyed, and he didn’t want to chase Bucky away either. But now? Now he was lost because of it.
“Bucky! Please!” Steve hit his knee on a stump and hissed in pain. He looked down at his sweatpants, cursing when he saw the little tear. “Fuck, it’s so fuckin’ cold.” He wandered more, flashing his light in the directions of fluttering trees and mocking darkness.
Steve couldn’t feel his fingers anymore when he stopped to try to make sense of where he was now. The trees were greener, a moss blanketing the earth like a mother tucking in a child. He touched the fluffy foliage, his lips chattering. He wished he was blanketed and warm. “Fuck.”
“Bucky! Bucky please I’m lost!” Steve’s voice cracked. He pushed his back into a tree and dropped the flashlight. It sent its beam up into the dying canopy above. Fall had taken root, but it was the icy threat of winter that claimed Steve. He hadn’t even been smart enough to wear more than a hoodie. Quieter, begging, Steve said, “Please find me.”
Steve wrapped his arms around himself, snuffling as warm tears slipped from his eyes. He pushed his face into his knees and sobbed. He’d been foolish. Bucky didn’t want him anymore. He’d gotten whatever he needed from Steve and he’d moved on. He’d even said that Indiana didn’t feel like home anymore. Bucky was still searching for that.
Steve brushed the tears from his eyes, his breath shaky and swirling around him in icy puffs. He stared up at the night sky, the stars looked faint and the moon dull from the drying leaves above. “Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!” Steve banged his head against the tree. He saw a flash of white before a searing pain rushed from his head down his neck. At least the pain would make him forget about the biting cold. His feet up to his ankles were numb. Would he die like this? He’d heard freezing to death wasn’t the worst way to go. A peacefulness was supposed to take effect eventually—like drowning. Steve hoped it was quick.
At least he’d see his parents again. He’d been such a shit son though. Fights, his stubbornness, his outright refusal to accept things just because it was the way something was. Oh, he put his father through the ringer. His mother had been more patient.
Steve tried to grab the flashlight but his fingers were too stiff to close. He stared at it, watching dirt flecks swirl in front of the beam. He bet if he pushed his fingers to the lens, it would be warm. His body was so heavy.
“F-f-f-fuck,” he chattered out. He wondered what his tombstone would say. Probably something like Here Lies Steve the Idiot Who Thought a Wendigo Was a Good Boyfriend. Something about him being an idiot.
When he finally passed out, relief flourished inside him. At least it would be over soon.
At least it would be all over.
When Steve woke, the first thing he noticed was that he was in fact—not dead. He sat up, grinding his teeth together when pain surged inside him. The second thing he noticed though, was that he was warm. There were embers beside him, glowing soft and warm. He was covered in dingy blankets, some moth-eaten and others so soiled their original colors were lost to dirt and grime.
Bucky was on the other side of the little cavern. His long arms were crossed over his knees, claws twitching and dangling menacingly at his sides. His face was obstructed from being nestled in his arms.
“B-Bucky?” Steve’s throat was raw.
“I wanted to eat you. You tasted so good and you were so—warm.” Bucky’s voice crackled, a dying flame all its own. “I thought I could last night. You were almost dead. I should’ve let you die.”
Steve’s heart broke. His lips shook, but this time it wasn’t from the cold.
“But I—I couldn’t. I don’t—I don’t wanna exist without you. You’re—you’re the only one who doesn’t see me as a monster.”
Tears slipped out of Steve’s eyes. He sniffed, taking the moment to focus on the pressure in his nose instead of the words being uttered through that metal-grated tone.
“I’m always gonna wanna eat you. No matter how hard I try.” Bucky bit his left arm, growling around it.
Bucky yanked his teeth out of himself. Blood smeared around his mouth, his dark eyes hidden beneath the black circles smeared around them. Hair tangled around antlers. He was everything that Steve shouldn’t have wanted. And yet…
Steve crawled out of the blankets. He wore his same clothes as the night before, torn sweatpants and all. He sat next to Bucky, their shoulders touching. Bucky whined, his muscles growing stiff. Steve leaned against him, letting all his weight fall on Bucky. Bucky seemed to do the same back. Their heads rested together, antlers tickling the tops of Steve’s hair. They stayed there, silent and unmoving. Steve lost in his mind, just as much as Bucky was lost in this life. Then Steve reached his hand out, and Bucky laced his claws with it.
Steve closed his eyes. This—whatever it was—this was where Steve wanted to be. He would fight for it. Believe in it. He would make Bucky believe in himself again. Just as Steve believed in Bucky. Another part of the outline filled in.
“When you left, was it cause you wanted to eat me?”
“Sex made me hungrier.”
“Makes sense,” Steve said. He licked his chapped lips, still looking at their enjoined hands. His smooth, soft hands and Bucky’s large, rough claws. He could squeeze and Steve’s fingers would be chopped to ribbons. “But I didn’t hurt you?”
“Good.” Steve nodded, still staring at their hands.
Silence befell the cavern again. Birds above the sprawling roots above them didn’t even chirp. The sun’s dim rays hardly slipped through the cracks. Life was cast in muted sepia, a gentleness that Steve hadn’t appreciated the first time he was in this place.
“You don’t want to exist without me. Exist. Did you—did you say that on purpose?” Steve turned his head to see the tips of Bucky’s lashes flutter from behind the curtain of his wiry hair.
“Am I living, Steve?”
Steve looked to their feet. His were stubby little toes with blond hairs at the knuckles, all pale and slightly red. Bucky’s were large, pale and stained brown at the pads with talons sharp enough to shred trees. What did Bucky’s feet look like before he was transformed? What did his smile look like before it was full of teeth and unwavering hunger? His skin. His hair.
“Have you ever tried—I mean,” Steve found himself struggling, “don’t take this the wrong way—but—have you tried to kill yourself? If you don’t think you’re living?”
Bucky growled low in his throat. “I don’t wanna die like this.”
Steve’s lips parted. He leaned forward, his gaze now firmly set to Bucky’s face.
Bucky hung his head low, his teeth poking out between his lips. Hair sharpened the edges of his already sharp cheeks. Misery wafted off him in a stench so profound that it knocked Steve back.
Steve moved to kneel before Bucky. He grabbed Bucky’s knees with one hand and then tucked his hand beneath Bucky’s chin to force their eyes to meet.
Bucky did. Bright beautiful gray eyes. A stormy coast. A fog in the morning. The silver of the moon.
“I will never let you be alone again.” Steve squeezed Bucky’s stubbled jaw, an attempt to bring the sentence home, to penetrate that thick skin Bucky had.
Bucky mashed his teeth together. His gaze bounced wildly from Steve’s face, to his hand and around the cave. He closed his eyes, body relaxing before Steve moved to sit in front of him.
Steve looked over to the embers. “You wanted to eat me but you saved my life. This curse is so—stupid.”
“Is there a way to break it?”
Bucky’s smile faded away to a lifeless line. “I dunno.”
Enola. Her interest in the wendigo myth was surely to have some kind of clue as to cures or ways to break the curse. Steve stood up, brushing dirt and dead leaves from his sweats. “I’m gonna find out.”
Bucky sighed, rolling his head, he wouldn’t look up at Steve. “You’re a stubborn idiot. Anyone tell you that before?”
Steve smirked. “Quite a few times. Actually.”
Google hadn’t been the best direction to find a cure, but it was at least a nice start. Steve tore himself from his laptop near midnight. He was safe in his house, a blanket wrapped around him, a steaming cup of cocoa beside him. He cracked his back, stretching after being hunched over for hours. Standing felt like a release. He padded into the kitchen to fix himself something to snack on, finding Bucky at the table in the dark.
Steve startled, his bones clattering in his skin. “Jesus!”
“No. Just me.”
Steve narrowed his eyes at the attempt of a joke, except Bucky hadn’t been smiling. Steve flicked on the lights, looking at how odd it was to see Bucky at his round wooden little table. There were enough dents and dings in it though that some claw marks wouldn’t matter. Steve distantly thought about letting Bucky feed his cock into his mouth, but he didn’t want Bucky to run away again. Sex made Bucky hungry.
But Jesus, Steve wanted to suck on Bucky’s cock.
“You okay?” Steve asked, walking over to the refrigerator and pulling out some celery and dip. He sat at the table, wary of the way Bucky was watching his hands. He was certain it wasn’t because of the celery. Bucky tasted these hands once before.
“You said I don’t gotta be alone.”
“You—you wanna move in?” Steve nearly shot out of his seat. It wasn’t that he didn’t like the idea. Hiding a wendigo away in the forest was hard enough.
Steve relaxed. “We can do that.”
“I wanna kiss you, Steve.”
Steve slunk out of his seat and wrapped his legs around Bucky’s waist. He cradled Bucky’s face, watching as Bucky’s lips trembled, his eyes fluttered—he was always hungry. “Kiss me.”
Bucky did. His fangs nicked Steve’s tongue and copper spilled into Steve’s mouth. They kept kissing. Steve rocked into Bucky, more out of habit than thought. Bucky brought his big hands down to Steve’s hips to stop it.
“I—I don’t think with you,” Steve admitted, his forehead against Bucky’s. They breathed in each other, icy breath from Bucky and hot puffs from Steve. “I just—I just really—like this.”
Bucky smirked a proper wolf’s smile. “Me too.”
“I mean, you could—the wound hasn’t entirely healed on my neck?”
“Steve,” Bucky’s voice was strained, a desperate tremble deep in Bucky’s chest, “I can’t ask you that.”
“But it’s mine to give.” Steve tugged at his crewneck. “It’s mine, and I wanna give it to you.”
“You don’t know what you’re saying.” Bucky pushed Steve off, clinging to the side of the kitchen. “You can’t just offer me your life, Steve!”
“You wanted it last night!”
“That!” Bucky turned, digging his claws into the kitchen wall and letting them screech a long, angry line into the wood. It tore the wallpaper, the remains sagging lifelessly. “You want me to kill you?”
Steve bit his lip. “No. Just. I don’t want you to suffer.”
Bucky brushed by Steve, hitting him with enough force to knock Steve to the floor. “Nothin’ you can do to change that.”
Steve scampered up. He wouldn’t just let Bucky leave when things got complicated. He ran after Bucky, yanking him by the shoulder. Their eyes met, Bucky’s wild and glowing. He growled at Steve, his mouth hanging open in a display of terror and serrated teeth. Steve just wrinkled his brow, his eyebrows casting stark shadows over blue eyes. “You don’t get to walk out that door just because we’re fighting!”
Bucky growled again, sinking lower into a lunging position.
Steve held is ground. “You gonna rip me apart? Eat my face off? Go for it. Do it! I dare you!”
“Steve,” Bucky warned.
“Do it! Prove to me you’re everything you think you are! Because I don’t believe it! You’re hurting! You’re sick! But you’re not too far gone. There’s still a person in there, Bucky! I’ve seen him and he’s beautiful and I know we can get him back!”
Bucky deflated, his snarl slowly dissipating from his face. He crumbled to the floor, covering his face with his hands. A choked, mangled sound came from his throat, his ears twitching low.
“I’m gonna—we’re gonna fix you.” Because no matter what Steve did. This wasn’t about him getting to play hero. In this story, Bucky was his own hero. Steve was merely the grasshopper that whispered in his ear. It was up to Bucky if he wanted to stand up and change or fall further into the wendigo curse. He had to save himself. And Steve had to remember that.
“How?” Bucky asked, dropping his hands. He stared up at Steve, eyes dim and more human than Steve had seen before in the night. “Summon a demon? Pray to God? There is no God, Steve. Would a God do this to me? Something that claimed to love me?!” Tears filled Bucky’s eyes. “I saw the crosses in here. You believe in God?”
“Unconditionally.” The hairs at the back of Steve’s neck stood on end.
“Then ask Him why he did this to me? All I wanted was to live. He was—he was already dead. How come we can kill deer, horses and cows but the second I ate a person, I’m this!”
Steve’s throat ran dry. The horror in the moment wasn’t that someone was challenging Steve’s faith, but the reality that Steve had known this all along. Would God punish a man for trying to survive? Where was the law on this and how come no one had told Steve about it? Steve wanted to believe in God. He wanted to believe that he’d see his ma again. He needed to believe. But looking at Bucky, muscle clinging to bones that protruded from his torso, those teeth, the antlers—what God would let one of his turn into something like this?
Steve dropped to his knees. He sniffed once, trying to gather himself. “Who were you? Before this? What did you do?”
“I farmed. Just like you.”
Steve closed his eyes. “And who were you? A good man?”
“Went to Church every Sunday if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Not just that. Who were you?” Steve met Bucky’s eyes. “Who was Bucky before the war?”
Bucky smiled, his eyes filling with tears. He kept smiling, his lips twitching as they thought of more to say than they could give. “I—I was the oldest of sisters. Loved them. Had two parents who loved me. We all worked on the family farm here. Your—your land.”
“S’okay, Steve. I’m not here to get vengeance on you or nothin’. I learned how to braid hair, tie a corset, which blushes looked best with certain dresses. I sang my sisters to sleep. Prayed they’d find good husbands who saw them how I did.”
“As you did?”
“People, Steve. Back then—girls like Echo would’ve been killed for being witches.”
“You know Echo?”
“I watch you.” Bucky looked away, sniffling. “She’s the one who’s sister I hurt. Haven’t eaten people since—besides you.”
“You haven’t eaten me.”
“I ate your blood. Drank it. Same thing to me.”
Steve sat across from Bucky, arms crossed and face stern. “Whatever.”
Bucky smirked. “I was fallin’ into all this. My curse. But then you saved that girl and I remembered my name. The more I’m with you—I know who I was. Slowly.”
“That’s good!” Steve inched closer, smiling. “Maybe that’s how we fix this?”
“We fall in love and the curse is broken? Please.” Bucky narrowed his eyes, snorting. “I stopped believin’ in fairy tales the day I hugged my eldest sister goodbye. War changed me even before the curse did.”
The bloodiest war in American history. Steve grew up hearing all about how gruesome the Civil War was. It wasn’t just about a bad guy versus good, there were families that divided, brothers—lovers. It all seemed so stupid now, so clear-cut. And Steve wasn’t dumb to glorify the past or excuse it just because they “didn’t know any better” because they sure as shit should have. People were people. Didn’t matter their color. But past the war, there were real human lives that changed forever. Bucky’s sisters. His parents. Every single man they knew. Bucky. Bucky went off to a war and never came back. Steve could only imagine what his family felt, all the fear and wonder if he’d ever return.
“Are they buried here?” Steve finally asked.
“Your family. Are they buried here?”
“Guess so.” Bucky clenched his jaw together, mewling out a long groan. “Fuck—I have–I’m hungry.”
“You can go. But what was your last name? What was theirs?”
“George and Winifred.” The haste in which Bucky answered seemed to even surprise him. His eyes widened, expression made even more astonished from the black that was around his eyes. “Rebecca—uh—my last name. My last name is—is—Bucky—Bucky—I don’t—I don’t know!” He collapsed forward into his hands, arms obstructing Steve’s view as he hid beneath them. “I can’t remember!”
“It’s okay,” Steve said. He stroked his fingers through Bucky’s hair, trying his best to detangle it from the antlers. “Maybe one day.”
“Yeah.” Bucky stood up, wiping tears from his eyes. “I’m real hungry.”
“I know. I’ll see you soon?”
Bucky didn’t answer, just ran like he always did.
Steve had spent most of the day trying to find ways to talk to Echo about his feelings, or rather, lack of feelings for her, but standing there in now—he had no damn idea. But Enola said Echo was interested and Steve wasn’t, and he wanted to make that clear. Or maybe he was but he’d decided Bucky was the one who really needed him. Honestly, Steve wasn’t sure.
Enola was more than happy to see Steve, and her delight showed as she let Steve pick her up and swing her around the tiny little living room.
Echo stood in the doorway from the kitchen, her face an amused grin. Nadie sat on the sofa and Steve was astonished that she could knit away without even caring that Steve nearly hit her with Enola’s foot.
“Can we talk?” Steve said to Echo.
“Sure” Echo lifted off the archway and turned into the kitchen.
Steve’s shoulders sank. He hated the thought of hurting her. But he had to make sure they both understood what they were to each other.
“So, I know that you and me have kinda, well you know.” Steve looked to Enola, her little eyes round and staring up at him. He wished he didn’t have to do this in front of her.
Echo stepped closer, a smile spreading on her lips. “What?”
Steve’s face flushed hot. His brain was swimming, too much fog and heat pulsing from his body. He licked his lips and cleared his throat. “Well, I just think it needs to be said that—well—see—there’s—”
“Oh Steve, wait—you don’t think I—”
“He likes boys.” Enola clung to Steve’s leg, her little voice barely registering in Steve’s ears. “He likes boys!” Her voice was much louder, even Echo’s gaze had moved from Steve’s face to Enola’s.
Echo signed and Enola signed back. Then Enola signed something else and Echo’s lips parted.
Steve’s face flushed pink. He looked to Enola, rolling his eyes. She unashamedly smiled big at him.
“More or less. I don’t really think much about it.”
“Okay so, I appreciate the candor but—I think you read something wrong.”
“Huh? But Enola said—”
Echo started laughing. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry! Steve, I don’t have a crush on you. Never did.”
Enola’s mouth was wide, staring at them both.
Steve wanted to bury himself in a hole and never come out. Theoretically, he could do that. He’d just have to find Bucky’s cave.
“I just thought—well Enola said you liked me and there was that day on the couch and I guess—shit. This is so embarrassing.”
“You said you liked him!” Enola shouted, her little brow furrowed.
“Yeah, like a friend. I like him as in he’s a good guy. I didn’t mean like-like.”
“Oh!” Enola’s hands raised into the air, her brows shooting up along with them. “That makes sense.”
Steve just smiled tightly, trying his best not to feel like a conceited asshole.
“You’re a good guy, Steve.” Echo cupped his face. “Sorry I lead you on? But I guess it doesn’t really matter since you’re gay?”
“Or something like that. Sometimes when I meet a nice girl I start—questioning it.”
“Oh.” Echo hopped up onto the counter and sighed. “You thought I was nice?” She smiled.
“Yeah. I mean—hell yeah.”
Enola giggled, her big eyes looking between both Echo and Steve. Steve liked the pride he felt when he thought about Enola’s admiration of him. He wanted to be a hero. Maybe it was selfish, but the idea that he got to be a hero to someone was more than enough to make him keep striving to be better than who he was the day before. To Enola, he was the hero. To Bucky? He couldn’t make that decision.
“Well, now that this is out of the way, we’re all on the same page yeah?” Echo asked. “All friends and no one harboring any weird love-crushes, right?”
“Right. One-hundred percent.” Steve’s ears were still burning.
“So since you’re here, stay and help me make dinner. Oh, and tell me about the boy.”
“The boy?” Steve’s jaw dropped.
“The one that’s got you all twitter-pated. That prompted this whole thing? You got one, right?”
Echo laughed and hopped from the counter. “There’s a boy. No one gets that red when there isn’t one.”
“You have a boyfriend?!” Enola bounced on her heels. “Oh what’s he like!”
“Enola,” Echo said, shaking her head. She signed something and Enola deflated, and trudged out of the room.
It wasn’t that Steve didn’t want Enola to know, but more that he didn’t think this conversation was one that she needed to her. Steve’s life was a mess. Enola didn’t need to sift through that.
“Help me cut veggies? We’re gonna make a stew.” Echo pulled out two cutting boards and then went about the kitchen, finding knives and the vegetables. “You can do the smelly onions and garlic.”
“Sounds fair.” Steve bumped his shoulder into Echo’s, remembering exactly why he’d been so confused before. He’d liked her in some way, but her openness with him had never been about desire. It was just who she was. Steve liked that about her, everything open and honest—no doors to hide behind or skeletons to stuff into a closet. He really should have learned from her.
Echo rolled her eyes and started cutting into some tomatoes. “Do your job and tell me about him.”
“His name’s—Bucky.” Steve looked to Echo for any sign that she knew him already. Her stark disbelief of wendigo could have been all a ruse. In Steve’s mind, she could have been a wendigo hunter and on the move for Bucky. But Echo made no indication she knew, she didn’t even pause cutting up the tomatoes into diced little squares. “He’s—he’s a handful.”
Echo made sure to watch Steve, her eyes darting back and forth from the tomatoes to his lips. Steve waited each time for her to look back to his mouth.
“He’s kind of grumpy, but really sweet when you get it out of him. He’s got some shit he’s dealing with but—I can’t just leave him because he’s a little damaged.” It was like the floodgates opened. Getting to talk to someone about Bucky was like a cool glass of water on a hot day. Steve felt revived and found himself falling more and more for Bucky. “He’s got these pretty gray eyes and they’re so bright it’s like they glow.” Lies, they did glow. “He’s taller than me, which is kind of impressive.”
“He’s good.” Steve stopped cutting the onions. He clutched the counter, stabilizing himself. “He kind of came out of nowhere and I just got—I’m all swept up and I can’t find my footing.”
“You love him?” she asked.
“I—it’s all so—maybe?” Steve started chopping the onions again before he let himself think too much on whether he loved Bucky or not. He’d made promises to Bucky, promises that he’d never be alone or Steve would help find a way to end the curse. Was it out of love or sympathy? Was it wrong if it was a bit of both?
“You do. Your ears are all pink. Your nose. You’re freaking precious, you know that? A fucking puppy.”
“I guess I do then.”
“I’m happy for you.”
Steve sighed, inwardly cringing about the little detail about Bucky being a wendigo. He’d save that for after dinner.
Enola came back into the room, her face a grin from ear to ear. The three of them finished cutting the veggies and the meat up with only a few losses during their mini food flinging battle.
After dinner, Steve stood in Echo’s room. There were music sheets hanging in frames, stapled to a corkboard, tossed atop a guitar. He turned when she came in, pointing to them all.
“Just because I can’t hear it doesn’t mean I can’t feel it. I think I told you I teach music still, yeah?”
“I love the feeling of it all. The vibrations of the guitar against my chest. The way a piano feels when you spread your fingers.”
“How many instruments you play?” Steve asked.
“A few.” She crossed her arms, smirking. “Maybe I’ll play for you one day.”
“I’d like that.” Steve read over a few sheets of music, finding it harder to remember what he’d learned in music class back in elementary. It’d all but disappeared from his mind.
Steve brought up his art and how he’d always wanted to sketch Echo. She flipped over a music sheet and let him draw. Halfway through, she picked up her guitar and began strumming, humming to the rhythm of the vibrations of the strings. He drew that too, the joy on her face as she slowed or sped up the music.
They’d fallen asleep together, both above the covers and leaning into each other. Steve woke to pee, waking Echo in the process. She yawned, stretching.
“Fuck. My neck hurts something fierce.”
“Sorry. I’ll drive home.”
“It’s okay. We can sleep under the blankets and it’ll be fine.”
Steve chuckled. “I gotta pee.”
“Go, weirdo!” Echo slid off the bed in a big back stretch. “I’m gonna change anyway.”
Steve went to the bathroom, did his business and padded back as quietly as he could. He didn’t relish the idea of waking a sleeping Nadie. She’d probably kill him.
“I know you don’t believe in wendigo, but I kinda want your opinion?” Steve slipped off his socks and jeans. If he was going to stay the night, he may as well be comfortable. He’d keep his shirt on.
“Shoot.” Echo moved closer to one side and pulled the covers back so Steve could share. The bed was big enough, a nice double.
When he got into the bed, it creaked out its protest but settled when Steve did. “Is there a cure to being a wendigo? Do you think?”
“Oh my God. What horror movies are you watching? You haven’t had anything eat your new horses, right?”
“No, but—I’m just curious!”
They turned toward each other, both on their own side of the bed with a respectable amount of distance between them. Guilt lodged a lump in Steve’s throat, wondering if Bucky would be confused when he showed up at Steve’s and Steve wasn’t there. He wished there was a way he could talk to Bucky without always having to see him. Though a wendigo with a phone sounded far too comical for Steve’s taste.
“No cure, Steve. That’s not how the myth works. It’s not about redemption. It’s about greed. Maybe someone from the Algonquian tribe would have a different opinion, but I’ve never heard anything. To be honest—most people don’t really think about wendigo? They’re not popular like werewolves or vampires. So they don’t get much of a story to play with.”
“So they’re a warning story, not a redemption one?”
“Some myths offer redemption. Wendigo don’t. I mean, it’s all legend so what’s real and what’s not, right?”
“Sure.” Steve was on pins and needles. “But wait, greed? What about greed?”
“Wendigo become wendigo because of greed. The selfish desire to eat, maybe even to save their own skin. The curse is objective. You eat a human or you’re greedy? The wendigo can get you. So be a giving and kind person and don’t eat each other and you should be fine. It’s a great way to scare kids into behaving. I also think there was a real cannibalism issue in tribal people, so that plays a part too, but I’m not really an expert on the histories. I just used to like the myths.” Echo scrunched up her nose. “Gaelic people have stories like that right? To stop people from doing stuff?”
“Yeah, absolutely. This one’s just so—sad. So, if it’s greed? Do you think they’d have to like—give something back? To heal?” Steve sat up, his heart racing too much for lying down.
“I think so.” Enola’s little voice came. Steve looked to the door, Echo not soon after. Enola stood in the doorway, holding one of her stuffed animals. “If they’re truly a good person and don’t deserve the curse, they’ll show it by sacrificing whatever they wanted in the first place.”
“But what if it was just to live? And they got punished for that? Just surviving.”
Echo didn’t say anything, just frowned, looking between Enola and Steve. She tapped her cheek over and over. Steve knew she was figuring it out. No one focused on something like this without some motive. It was useless to hide now.
“Then they need to be willing to let someone else survive instead,” Enola said with a nod. “And maybe the curse will go away. That’s what I believe.”
Steve was only left with more questions, but he was certain neither Enola or Echo knew the answers.
“Steve?” Echo touched his arm to get his attention. “Why so many questions about a wendigo? Really.”
“Because,” Steve felt like he was going to vomit, “Bucky’s a wendigo.”
Chapter 2: Part Two
Yeah, the bulk of the story was def part 1 but here's the last part!!! I can't remember if there's any minor additional warnings for this chapter despite literally just finishing it. Oh, speaking of that, it's not beta'd! I do not have a beta so expect typos!!
Thanks for reading!!
Sitting in his kitchen, Steve felt entirely out of place. Echo was by the sink, leaning forward and breathing hard. Her knuckles were almost white from how hard she gripped the counter. Steve watched the way her muscles shivered beneath her skin. He wanted her to scream at him, to shove a finger in his face and yell about all the reasons he was crazy or stupid.
She didn’t. She just kept clenching the counter.
“Echo?” Except she wasn’t facing him. She wouldn’t hear.
Steve sank into the chair, crossing his arms. He sighed, slipping even further down, his jeans too slick for the wooden seat. Eventually, he decided watching the clock above the refrigerator was a better game than watching Echo’s form.
“Are you out of your damn mind?” Echo said.
She whirled on him, her cheeks flushed. Her tattoo looked more like it wanted to rip from her face and smack him than stay against the curve of her cheek.
“Oh, you mean about Bucky?”
“You have any idea what you did? You told Enola a wendigo is real!”
“But he is real.” Steve failed to see why this was her concern and not that in fact a wendigo did exist.
Echo sneered before rolling her eyes. She turned again, her leg shaking irritably.
“I can show you?” Steve said. He stood up and tapped her on the shoulder. When she turned, he said again, “I can show you.”
Echo looked him up and down, her lips bunched beneath her nose. “Will he eat me?”
Steve smiled. “Oh no. He’s—he’s been doing real good about people.”
“So he’s not what attacked Enola?”
Steve bit his lip, his gaze flicking around the room in a panic. “Why—why was she so far from home? I’ve been thinking about that. I found her miles from where you live.”
Echo crossed her arms, sulking. She shook her head before letting it roll back. Her hair spilled down her back like an inky waterfall.
Steve wanted to touch it.
“She was staying with a friend. Even then whatever got her—dragged her.”
“Yeah. Jesus is right.” Echo smacked her hands down on Steve’s shoulders, her gaze hot against Steve’s face. “Answer me, was he the one who attacked Enola?”
Steve was a terrible liar. His ma would tell him all the time how incapable of lying he was. Now was no exception. He closed his eyes, his bottom lip a quiver. “He’s not like that anymore.”
Echo ripped from Steve, spewing curse word after curse word beneath her breath. She crumpled her nose, shaking her head, lips twitching. “And you kept this from me? That monster attacks my kid sister and you kept this from me?”
“I didn’t know at first! But then I saw the necklaces and—”
Steve fell back into the counter, his hands gripping the mouth of the sink. Echo’s anger was smothering him. He could feel it clawing into his pores, ripping his throat raw to pull the truth from him. He didn’t want to betray Bucky. Bucky hadn’t killed Enola, but he could have. He may have changed, but he still did what he’d done. Echo, standing there in all her fury, her muscles still trembling beneath skin, was evidence of that enough.
“He has—necklaces. The people he—eats. Ate.” Steve heard his blunder too late. He slunk down, a miserable lump on the dingy floor. There’d be no going back from this. Echo would always hate Bucky. Telling her what he was had been the biggest mistake of his life. He needed to protect Bucky, not lead a hunting party to his cave beneath the tangled roots of the trees.
“I wanna see him.” Echo kneeled before Steve. She grabbed his collar, tugging him forward. Nose to nose, her brown eyes bore into Steve, hellfire swirling in her pupils. She sneered, her tattoo looking more and more like a weapon than art. “I want to hear it from his damn mouth. I don’t want excuses. I want truth.”
“He’s a wendigo!” Steve threw his hands up. “What else do you expect?”
“Well you love him! You’ve talked to him! So obviously he can hold back somehow!”
“He almost killed me!”
“Oh! Great! Fucking great, Steve!” Echo threw herself back, coming to land cross-legged and irritated. She pinched the bridge of her nose, her nostrils flaring. “You’re the dumbest pendejo I’ve ever met in my life!”
“The dumbest what?”
“Nevermind! This is why my mom warned me to not fuck with white boys.” She stood up and huffed a final time. Then, she offered her hand down to him, shrugging. “C’mon. I wanna meet your lover boy and I promise not to kill him. If he doesn’t try to eat me. Then all bets are off.”
“That’s fair.” Steve accepted her hand.
“How do you get him? Sacrifice a baby goat?” She walked in front of him to the door, her hand hovering above it.
“No. I just kinda yell for him.”
“Look—I know that—” No. Steve wouldn’t justify Bucky’s actions, not to the person who was on the receiving end. Enola deserved more than some excuse. Echo was smarter than that. Bucky was a monster, whether he wanted to be or not. No amount of kindness would change him at his core. He was wendigo.
Steve stared up at the night sky as they walked the steps. They creaked and howled beneath their weight. He flicked his fingers, trying to free loose paint chips. He’d need to paint the house in the summer.
Echo stood a few feet away, her arms crossed, a brow raised high. She scrutinized Steve with every move he made.
Eventually, Steve cupped his hands over his mouth and yelled, “BUCKY!” He waited, scanning the dark tree line. He knew Bucky could hear him. What he didn’t know was if Bucky would show himself when another person was around. “BUCKY! IT’S OKAY! SHE JUST WANTS TO TALK!”
Steve jumped, turning around. Behind Echo, hidden in the shadow of the barn was Bucky. He loomed, a black figure with glowing eyes. Steve pointed and Echo turned. She gasped, jumping as high as Steve had.
Bucky kept to the shadow, his claws clinging to the barn. He looked smaller in the dark, or maybe he was hunched into himself.
Echo wasted no time in walking to Bucky. She marched over to the barn.
Bucky scampered back. He moved away from the shadow, his body soaking up the moonlight. Silver glinted in his brown curls, his spine casting a valley’s shadow along the gray of his skin. He moved close to Steve, crouched on all fours. He wouldn’t meet Echo’s eyes.
“So you’re real,” Echo said when she came to stand before Steve and Bucky. “A real fucking monster.”
Bucky said nothing.
“Wendigo,” Steve said.
“One in the damn same.” Echo tapped her fingers against her jaw. “I can’t fucking believe it. What else is real?”
Bucky didn’t answer. He whined low in his throat, curling more into himself.
“It hurts huh? Being around fresh, living meat.”
“Echo—” Steve attempted.
“Oh don’t even, Steve! This thing tried to eat my sister!”
Bucky swallowed hard. He kept his teeth smashed together, the muscle in his jaw trembled.
Echo crouched before him, her shoulders relaxing. She brought her hand up to wrap a strand of Bucky’s hair around her finger. “You’re so dirty. How does Steve even kiss you?”
Steve balked, wondering if he’d even heard that right.
Bucky licked his red-stained lips. “I—bathe.”
“In the river?”
“You’ve never let him shower with you?” Echo looked up, a smirk on her face.
“What? I mean—he’s usually not in the house. I mean, he can if he wants. He just—doesn’t wanna stay.”
“Would you let Steve bathe you? Brush out your hair?” Her voice was soft, sweet. She spoke to him like a mother spoke to a child. Nothing in her body language indicated she was playing him either. A switch had flicked and Steve was still in the background, trying to figure out which one and why.
“I-if he wants.” Bucky whined. He pushed his face into his arm.
When Steve saw the lines of blood, he dropped to his knees. “Bucky!” He grabbed Bucky’s jaw, pulling it gently.
Bucky let him pull his mouth away from his arm. He’d left a bleeding circle, glistening in the night’s light. Blood trickled along his forearm, darker than human blood. Steve was certain it was pure black.
“Why’d you do that?” Echo asked. “You could lose your arm like that.”
“One human’s hard. Two is—harder.” Bucky shoved his face into his knees and sobbed. “You smell so good and I don’t wanna hurt you.” He wrapped his arms around himself, shivering.
“We should get him inside.” Echo ran her fingers through Bucky’s hair.
Steve was absolutely certain he saw Bucky lean into her touch. “What about you coming back and talking to him one on one?” Steve asked. “So he doesn’t bite his arm again. I’ll get him bathed and you can see him?”
“I wanna talk to him now. I can’t sit on this, Steve.” Echo licked her lips. “But I can stay downstairs while you clean him up. That okay, Bucky?”
Bucky sucked in a sharp breath, but he nodded.
Echo held back while Steve walked Bucky inside. They climbed the stairs together, Steve supporting most of Bucky’s weight. Bucky stayed pressed to Steve, his body shaken. Every bit of skin Steve touched was rough and cold. He stroked his hand over the jut of Bucky’s spine, feeling the bones move and slot together under skin.
In the bathroom, Steve started the shower. “Want me in there with you?”
Steve slotted close to Bucky, hands on both sides of Bucky’s face. “It’s okay. You’re okay.”
“She’s nice—and I almost ate her sister.” Bucky stared at the shower. He sniffed the air, his nose twitching. “Hot water?”
Bucky moved over to the shower, his claws running beneath the stream. A delighted smile lit up his face. He turned, and for a moment Steve saw who he was before. Gray eyes lit up with mirth, cheekbones high and refined. A man was inside, and he was celebrating something so trivial as hot water.
“I haven’t been in hot water since—I don’t even know.”
“Get out of those gross pants and get in it. You can borrow some of my sweatpants. They’re not gonna be long enough but, it’s a start at least.”
“Sweatpants?” Bucky cocked his head to the side.
“They’re comfy. C’mon. Get in.” Steve slipped out of his clothes, leading Bucky by the hand into the shower.
They moved close to each other, Steve’s hands trailing down the plains of Bucky’s abs. He followed his fingers up to Bucky’s nipples, a devious little bite to his own lips before he flicked a finger over one.
“Y-yeah. I guess. Doesn’t hurt.” Bucky hunched his shoulders, his face gaunt and narrow as he turned away.
“But do you like it?” Steve slipped against Bucky—his wendigo fucking lover. He wasn’t a gang member, he wasn’t a mob boss. He was a bona fide all-American wendigo. Steve could hear a chorus of mothers groaning about why he couldn’t have just found a nice boy. He leaned forward, pressing his lips to Bucky’s unresponsive ones.
Steve opened his eyes, watching Bucky stare at the shower tiles. He caressed Bucky’s cheek and traced a thumb along his lips.
“So bite. Just don’t take it off.”
Bucky bit down lightly, his jaw barely even having to work to break the skin. His lips wrapped around Steve’s thumb, sucking.
Steve let out a shaky breath. He rubbed his cock between their bodies. It would be inappropriate to do this now, especially with Echo in the house and because it made Bucky hungrier. The last thing Steve needed to do was make Echo look like a more enticing meal. Still, he let his cock rub up between them, warm water sloshing down it from between their bodies. He ached for more, toes curling.
Bucky kept his eyes closed, long black lashes clumping together. He sucked so tenderly that Steve felt he could pull his thumb back at any moment. Maybe it was intentional. Bucky didn’t want to corner or frighten Steve. Steve smiled. Bucky was thoughtful and attune to Steve’s needs. It warmed his heart, filling him with air that couldn’t be stopped. He laughed.
Bucky opened his eyes, dropping Steve’s thumb immediately.
“Oh—it’s okay! I’m happy.”
Bucky grinded his teeth together.
“You can keep sucking. I don’t think you even took much.”
Bucky licked the corner of his mouth before turning around. He let the shower hit his face. Excited streams danced down the curves and sharp juts of his back.
Steve wrapped his arms around Bucky, pressing his cheek between Bucky’s shoulder blades. “This okay? Did I do something wrong?”
“No,” Bucky whispered, “you didn’t do anything wrong. You’re—so wonderful.”
Steve smiled before pressing a kiss to Bucky’s skin. It was the warmest he’d ever felt it. The shower’s steam swirled around them, keeping them tucked close together. The stream pulled them in, tantalizing them with its warmth. Bucky was warm beneath Steve’s touch. Steve never thought he’d feel it. When he closed his eyes, resting his head against Bucky’s body, he listened to the even rhythm of Bucky’s lungs. He felt Bucky’s back rise and fall. If Steve kept this still, it was like they were two people, lovers drawn together from work or school. Almost like they were both human.
“I love you,” Steve said, because he couldn’t not. It bubbled out of him with all the intensity of a shaken bottle of ginger ale. It would’ve exploded inside him otherwise and he’d be left with a flat mess of something once delicious but turned into distaste.
“Why?” Bucky asked.
“Because I do. It may be fast—I dunno. But I do.” Steve wrapped his arms around Bucky, his palms spread on Bucky’s chest. “I love you.”
“Never been in love before.” Bucky’s voice was thick, the sound of a man holding back tears and emotions someone with his condition probably didn’t feel often. Steve would let him cry if he needed to. Steve would let Bucky do almost anything at this point. If it meant Bucky would stop suffering. “What’s it feel like?”
Steve would hide the way his heart squeezed, its burning desire for Bucky’s love in return set aside. He rubbed his thumbs over Bucky’s chest, aimless and wandering. They didn’t move from each other.
“It’s like—almost like you’re sick. There’s this feeling inside and it won’t go away. It pulls and pulls and makes your head spin when you think about it too hard. You picture that person’s face and you just—you’re in awe. You know there’s faults. You know there’s things you don’t really much care for in that person, but you accept them all the same. You’ll either help them or you’ll learn to cope with those things you can’t change. It’s an awareness that you don’t need to make that person compromise who they are. All you want to do is make them happy.”
Bucky whined, a broken sound that echoed in the room more than Steve wanted it to. It chilled Steve to the core, haunted and gray.
“You’d—love me? You?” Bucky hung his head, his spine coming to jut into Steve’s cheek.
“Yes,” Steve said. “Unconditionally.”
“I’ve killed people. Eaten them and piled their bones in my home.”
“I’ve hurt your friend. Ate your cows.”
“I bite you.”
Bucky whirled around, eyes glowing. The cream titles flickered with his eyes’ luminosity.
Steve wanted to take a shower in the dark with nothing but the glow of Bucky’s eyes to see how it would all look. Would he be terrified? Excited? He wanted to know what it’d be like to be with a monster in the dark like this.
Bucky’s claws squeezed Steve’s shoulders, his face a small breath away. It came out in chilly puffs, tingling Steve’s nose. He trembled, teeth chattering. “You can’t be like that.”
“Why not?” Steve asked, indignant.
Bucky cupped Steve’s face, his own crumpling up. “Because you’re so beautiful. You could have anyone. That girl downstairs. A movie star. Anyone.”
Steve placed his hand over Bucky’s, folding his fingers between the claws. “I chose you.”
Bucky choked. He squeezed his eyes shut, the light on the tiles subsiding. He dropped his face into Steve’s shoulder and let out another harrowing whine.
Steve held him, his fingers wrapped up in Bucky’s tangled hair, his chest pushing up into Bucky’s to keep him balanced. He held on so tightly that his back ached and his fingers shook. “I chose you, Buck. I chose you.”
“I would give up everything to be worth you,” Bucky whispered, body shivering.
“You don’t need to. I love you just the way you are.” Steve kissed Bucky’s fuzzy ear. It flicked, a little dance all its own. Steve smiled. He’d loved those ears from the moment he saw them. Playful little things that moved however they wanted, whenever they wanted. They gave Bucky the appearance of a creature both beautiful and horrifying. A man with ears like a deer. A man with teeth like a wolf. Antlers. Claws. Talons. Gray skin. Steve sucked in a breath. Bucky was a monster, but he’d been human first. He’d been a man who’d gone off to war and he never came back. Bucky was still at war. He’d replaced canons with hunger. The morality of the Civil War warped into the morality of survival and what made someone human.
Steve did not let Bucky go. He held him tight. He could feel the way Bucky’s lips trembled against Steve’s shoulder. They begged to open, his teeth inside probably vibrating to sink into the meat of Steve’s arm and rip. Steve still did not let go.
“I chose you,” Steve whispered again. “You don’t have to be anything more than you already are.”
Bucky made a strained sound between a cough and a sob. He backed away, hand covering his mouth.
“It’s okay,” Steve said. He inched close, hands coming to rest on Bucky’s face. “Love bites are always okay, if you need them.”
“What if I hurt you?”
“I know you won’t.”
Bucky snarled. “You don’t know that!”
“Yes. Actually. I do. You’ve had plenty of chances now. From the moment you dragged me into your cave, you could’ve hurt me. You never did. So you won’t now. I know you, Buck. You would never hurt me.”
Bucky sighed, his face turned to the door. “We should get out.”
“Probably.” Steve didn’t want to get out. He wanted to draw them a bath, let Bucky lay against him and wash his hair. He wanted to comb the tangles of Bucky’s hair, scrub behind his ears and let him feel cleaner than he had in decades. “At least wash your hair.”
So Bucky did, quick and mechanical. He’d gotten his hair all up in his antlers and Steve could see the developing knots but he’d handle that later once they were out.
Steve didn’t have much in the way of wendigo clothing, but he did have sweatpants that were even too big for him. He handed them off to Bucky, wondering where Bucky managed to get the pants he’d worn. Somethings, Steve thought, were better not known. Bucky looked clean and his skin had a soft pink glow at the shoulders and on his cheeks. Steve would brush Bucky’s hair out downstairs with Echo.
Downstairs, Echo sat in the never-used dining room. The stuffy scent of dust clung to the room, making Steve’s nose tingle. He pulled out a chair, listening to the screech it made over the worn wood beneath. Bucky stood in the corner.
“Sit in front of me and I’ll brush out your hair,” Steve said.
Bucky obeyed, his glance twitchy and uncertain.
Echo tilted her head to the side, lips bunched at the corner. She watched Steve start combing out the mats in Bucky’s hair.
Bucky grabbed the floor, claws digging into the soft wood. Steve would have to get the flooring replaced at this point. Not that he could afford that—Bucky did eat all his cows.
Steve stared at the yellowing lace curtains crowding the windows. He used to look through those when snow covered the ground and he’d sit by the register to get warm. Now they just make Bucky look bulky and out of place.
“How’d you become a wendigo?” Echo asked.
“Ate someone,” Bucky said.
“Why?” she asked.
Steve cleared his throat. It was apparent Bucky didn’t want to dish out his story. It had been hard enough for him to tell Steve was it was. Even so, Steve continued to brush out the curly strands of Bucky’s hair. He did his best to tug as little as possible, but Bucky’s hair had wound itself into the antlers for years now—possibly even longer.
“And you were gonna eat my sister?” Echo crossed her arms over her chest. Darkness swallowed the brown of her eyes. She stared at Bucky like a bear coming after a hunter. Her nose twitched just ever so slightly and her fingers curled into the fabric of her sweater.
“Yes,” Bucky said. “I lost myself.”
“The fuck does that even mean?”
“It means,” Bucky said with a hefty serving of annoyance, “that for a long time I just existed. Steve—Steve reminded me of who I was.”
Echo’s lips parted. “What d’you mean?”
“He woke me up. I was just—a monster. I didn’t think. I didn’t control myself. I did what the curse demanded and I didn’t question it. But he woke me up. I remember more of who I was every day. It’s just there, swirlin’ around in my head now. My name is James Buchanan Barnes. I was born in Indiana. I raised cows and chickens. Pigs. I had four sisters. I know how to braid and what bows look good with dresses.” He looked up, eyes misty. “I had a sister like yours. Small and spunky. You know she actually smacked my face. I was seconds from putting her head in my mouth and she—reached up and smacked me.”
Echo smirked. “Sounds about right.”
“My favorite candy’s toffee chews. I hate beer but ale’s okay. Wine makes me sick.”
Steve could cry. He stopped moving, listening to Bucky ramble on about the man he’d been.
“I never kissed anyone before Steve. Never did—anything before Steve.”
Steve’s face heated up, his gaze snapping up to Echo. She smiled at him, a little waggle of her brows. Steve could have literally died from how hot his face was.
“Corn on the cob’s my favorite with a good steak. I fucking love steak. Momma always cooked it too long and it drove me and my father crazy. I was supposed to marry a girl. I didn’t—I didn’t think she was all that bad but she’s no Steve.”
Steve snorted. “I look better in a dress, I’m sure.”
“Fuck yeah you would.” Bucky grabbed Steve’s wrist, looking up with big, weepy eyes. “I think I love you too.”
Echo dropped her elbows on the table, her face resting in her palms. “I may be Navajo but I’m no Algonquian. No story ever told about a wendigo being human again. Just humans becoming wendigo. Them killing. I don’t think it’s even possible to go back now. It’s good you got your memories, or whatever you’ve got. But—you’re cursed. Forever.”
“Echo—” Steve raced to say.
“No, he should really hear this, Steve. I know I’m not an expert. But this isn’t a story. You’re cursed. Curses don’t lift unless there’s some fairy watching you or whatever and this isn’t a Disney movie. You are what you are. I just can hardly believe it. If I wasn’t seeing it with my own eyes.” She shook her head. “Fuck. What else is real? I’m never gonna let Enola out at dark.”
“I already knew that,” Bucky said. He stayed as still as he could while Steve worked on a mat in his hair, untangling it from the base of an antler. He winced, his eyes glowing in anger before settling again into stormy gray. He deflated, shoulders curling in.
“I wasn’t saying it for you,” Echo met Steve’s eyes, “but for Steve.”
Bucky turned, his eyes round. He stared up at Steve like a child staring at a parent the first-time death becomes something real. Wordlessly, he looked away.
“I’m not giving up,” Steve said. “You don’t know what could happen.”
“You’re right,” Echo stood, “but I know enough to know that if he turned back into a person, he’d be nearly two-hundred. Would he just die? Age into that? We have no damn idea, Steve!”
“That’s not our decision to make!” Steve stood up, stepping around Bucky and meeting Echo, both leaning over the dining table. “It’s his own damn decision! I promised I’d help him—I’m not just gonna abandon that!”
“There’s nothing to fix, Steve! He’s a monster!”
A crash echoed in Steve’s ears. He turned, eyes wide as he stared at Bucky.
Bucky had punched his hand into the window, shattering it and letting it all tumble around him. He glared, his face ripped up into the monster he was. Wendigo stared at Steve, eyes glowing and mouth glistening. He growled low in his stomach, a sound that even vibrated Steve’s feet.
“Don’t talk like I’m not here. This is my—my curse. You don’t make decisions for me. Either of you.”
Steve ducked his chin. “I’m—I’m sorry.”
Bucky leapt out the window, scampering on all fours toward the trees.
Steve chased after, pressing his hands into the jagged glass. He leaned out the window and yelled, “Bucky! Bucky come back!”
Bucky did not come back.
Echo slid a hand onto Steve’s shoulder, delicately pulling him from the window. She turned his hands over in her palms and sighed. “I’ll clean you up.”
“I fucked up,” Steve said, staring at the tree line. “I fucked up.”
“No, I did. I inserted myself into something where I didn’t belong.”
“No,” Steve winced when she pulled a shard out of his palm, “that’s on me. I dragged you into this. I shouldn’t have—I just kept asking so many stupid questions.”
“They’re not stupid. It’s—a little racist that you kept asking me cause I’m not even the right tribe, but I know you didn’t mean to be.”
“Oh.” Horror grabbed Steve, yanking him about the room. He pushed his feet into the floor before he fell. “I’m so sorry. I—I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay. You know now. And Enola loves her stories. So I get it.”
“Google didn’t have much, if I’m being honest.” Steve offered a sheepish smile.
“Wendigo aren’t all that popular. Now werewolves. Those are Navajo myth. I wonder if they’re real too.”
“Maybe.” Steve shrugged. “Maybe everything is and it’s just good at hiding. Strange things happen all the time.”
“That they do,” she said. “That they do.”
Steve didn’t see Bucky for a month. No horses went missing. No neighbor reported missing cows or people. It was like he’d turn to dust and blown away. Steve was smarter about his search this time. He packed a bag full of granola, blankets, water, jerky—even brought out his survival bag from boy scouts.
“Hey Sam,” Steve said when the beep prompted him to leave a message, “I’ll be out in the woods for a few days. Dunno how long but I just need to clear my head a bit. Can you check on the horses some? They should be good but just in case bad weather or anything? Owe you one. I’ll have my phone but once it’s outta juice it’s outta juice.” He hung up, staring down at the cell. It felt so strange to be calling Sam when he was about to go wendigo hunting. Something surreal about technology and Bucky mixing together. Bucky had never seen a single movie Steve grew up on. Even that struck Steve as peculiar.
He ventured out into the night, grateful for his coat and gloves. The chill in the air wasn’t surprising. It was the dead of winter. It was the brightness of the moon. It painted the ground, spilling into the darkness to wash it away. Steve knew the moonlight was only a reflection of the sun’s, but it felt like the moon was burning bright to light Steve’s way.
The woods had never terrified Steve. Even knowing wendigo traveled the world, the woods did not terrify Steve. His heart pumped steadily in his chest, a soft cadence that he marched along to. The earth guided his way, lifting his feet and balancing his hips when he moved over fallen trees. He went further and further, deeper and deeper.
At least he had sense enough this time to bring a compass. He continued checking it, quick little flicks to make sure he hadn’t ventured from his course.
The world was loud around him. Wind whispered at his ears, owls hooted, branches snapped. There was no quiet in the night. It was only a different sound that humans didn’t pay attention to. The world never stopped singing. Humans just stopped paying attention.
Steve didn’t know if Echo was right or not. The world wasn’t a fairytale and Steve’s kisses had never turned Bucky into a strapping young lad. No Beauty and the Beast would play out for them. Steve smirked at himself. He got to play Beauty in that daydream.
Children died, women were raped, men shot each other. In what world would kindness be extended to the wendigo when it did not extend kindness to humans either? Steve sighed, checking his compass again. If the curse couldn’t be broken, that wouldn’t change anything. He’d be with Bucky for as long as Bucky wanted him.
“I’d die—though.” Steve lost his balance over a root but regained it before he fell. He wasn’t sure if it was kindness to love Bucky and then leave him. Bucky was immortal with his curse. Steve saw more age lines each and every day. They crawled out of nowhere on his face, but when he smiled, they glowed bright, signaling to all that Steve was a tired man. There’d come a day when Steve would be too weak to get out of bed. Would Bucky cook him breakfast? Care for the cattle? Love Steve’s old and wrinkled face when he had to wear diapers and prunes became a staple in his diet to get him to shit?
Would it even be fair to ask that of Bucky?
“He could just eat me.” Steve laughed at himself. The thought had been silly, but quickly became more and more viable of an alternative to Steve. He didn’t want to live if that meant Bucky would suffer. If he grew old and became incapable of caring for himself, he would probably let Bucky eat him. One last act of proving to Bucky how much he meant to Steve.
It was why he was out in the wilderness now, huffing and puffing as he climbed up a giant hill. At the top, he stopped to take a break. His breath billowed out in dancing shapes. He looked at the trees with their frosted tips and the shine of ice on their branches. Evergreens filled the white space in an attempt to blanket the earth from the snow. It was beautiful up here. Steve almost didn’t want to leave.
He turned to see glowing eyes in the distance. They blinked at him a few times before fading away.
“Bucky!” Steve scrambled forward, falling into the snow. He shoved himself back up and kept running, his backpack sloshing to each side on his back. “Bucky, wait!”
Bucky walked in long strides, each step was two of Steve’s. It felt impossible to catch up to him. He wore Steve’s sweatpants. They were brown and caked from dirt and mud. There were tears and the cuffs were jagged. They hung low on his hips, exposing the top curve of Bucky’s ass. It would’ve almost been alluring had Steve not been so frantic to reach him.
Bucky whirled around, eyes aglow, body ready to lunge and strike. He growled, his lips trembling from the vibrato.
“Bucky. Please come back.”
“I should kill you,” Bucky said. “I eat humans.” He pointed to his face. It was bright red in contrast to the silver of the night. Fresh blood dripped down his throat and coated the tips of his claws. He had more necklaces than he did last time. They clacked and chinked together as he swayed.
“Why? You were—”
“Abstaining? I was starving myself, Steve! Starving!” He growled again, turning to grab a tree and tore a branch away. He threw it and Steve had only a moment to roll out of the way.
He jumped back up, breathing heavily.
“I thought I could change.” Bucky tore off another branch but threw it to the ground. “I thought I could be what you wanted!”
“Buck. You are. You are what I want!”
“No! NO!” Bucky let out the most horrific scream Steve had ever heard. It pierced Steve’s ears, shocking him down into his spine where it scampered along his nerves and pushed needles into his eyes. It horrified him, drained his face of color and stopped his lungs. Steve could feel it vibrate in the air, slicing through whatever was close enough to hear. Steve felt the whole world had heard it.
Bucky had crumpled into a ball. He’d torn off one of his antlers and the other had cut a deep gash along his back and shoulder. He looked up, breathing loud. Saliva dripping from his mouth. “I should eat you.”
“So do it.” Steve stepped forward, and Bucky took a long lunch back. “Because I don’t want to go back, Buck. I can’t. You were just existing? Well so was I. My parents are dead. I’ve got—two friends. It’d been Sam for years. I live in a house full of my parents’ things because I don’t know how to live for myself. I’ve always lived for others. I wanted to be in the army until they said I was colorblind. It would’ve been easier living for that then living because it’s expected of you.”
Bucky’s ears lowered, his face softening.
“So eat me, Buck. Just don’t make it hurt. I’ve never been a fan of pain.” Steve looked to his snow-drenched boots, sniffing.
Steve waited for the sharp bite and hot rush of breath that never came. He remained focused on his boots, wondering when Bucky would lunge, where he’d tear into Steve’s skin. Would he start at the throat? The belly? The head? Steve hoped it wasn’t the head.
When he looked up, Bucky was gone. All that was left was smears of blood and disturbed snow. Steve sighed, looking out into the trees with their spindly branches, all knotted fingers and distorted spines. Snow fell silently around Steve, absorbing the sound.
The night was quiet. The night was actually, completely, utterly quiet.
Steve had never been so horrified.
He followed along Bucky’s tracks, slow and careful. The snow crunched beneath his feet, a comforting sound in the oppressive silence. Steve thought the world would always stay loud. The owls were gone. The branches didn’t knock into each other. There was no wind. He now believed in quiet nights. Except they were not peaceful, welcome things. They were sorrow, horror, and pain.
It hurt Steve to keep walking, to chase after a creature that didn’t want him anymore. He wasn’t even good enough to eat, apparently. The cold bit into Steve’s face, burning his cheeks and freezing his nostrils hard. He wiped warm tears from his eyes before they turned to ice along his cheeks.
It horrified Steve to hear the silence that suffocated around him. He clung to the crunching of his boots, the sharp intake of his breath, and the way trees snapped when he moved through them. When he focused on the sound, he forgot how muffled the earth became, drowning beneath the snow.
But worst of all, Steve was sad. He thought he’d come so far with Bucky over fall and into winter. Steve had helped Bucky feel like a person again and the claws that initially frightened Steve had sent thrills through him. He wanted to curl up with his wendigo lover, kiss his neck and whisper how he’d always be there for him. He wanted to cook pound upon pound of meat for Bucky. To give him Thanksgiving and Christmas. He wanted to see if hoodies could hide the way his bones clung to his muscle. To bring him to a fucking movie theater. He wanted to let Bucky experience life.
He stopped, blowing out a long puff of air. “It’s his choice.” Steve looked behind him, two pairs of tracks now. “I can’t. I can’t do this to him. Fucking stupid.”
If a man pursued a woman like this, it wouldn’t be okay. Steve had gone out into the woods to find Bucky before, nearly getting himself killed. But Bucky had always appeared when he wanted to appear. Steve had to give Bucky that respect. He wouldn’t chase him. He wouldn’t force him into something that he clearly didn’t want.
Steve sat down and pulled out a notebook and a pen. He prayed the ink wasn’t frozen.
He scribbled out a short note and left it to be lost to the wind.
I love you. I’ll always love you. But I understand if you don’t love me. I’m sorry I didn’t put your feelings before my own. You’ve made it clear I don’t get to decide how you live, as no one should decide that but you. I got selfish. And that was wrong.
Steve watched the piece of paper skid across the snow before getting stuck at the base of a tree. Steve had no idea if Bucky would find it or not. It didn’t matter, in the end. Steve’s actions would speak louder than his words.
He wouldn’t dare to ever make another choice for Bucky as long as he lived. Bucky was his own man. He’d remembered who he was and Steve would let him do whatever he wanted with that.
Turning back was the hardest thing Steve had ever done. But he did it. He spent a few more hours out in the woods, enjoying how they became more alive the closer Steve got to the farm. He heard the owl again. Could hear lone cars trailing down the backroads. The world became loud again. Even the snow could not snuff it out.
Steve got to where he’d long ago abandoned the electric fence around his property. He took one more look back into the trees and smiled through his tears. Letting Bucky go was the hardest thing he’d done in his entire life. Admitting to his mother he’d broken her favorite china wasn’t even as hard as this.
Steve made a quick call to Sam, telling him the horses would be just fine and he was home.
“You need me to come over?” Sam asked.
“Nah. I’m gonna get into bed. I just needed the silence to calm me down.”
“You’re a damn drama queen.”
“I know. Night, Sam.”
Steve spent a long time staring at the claw marks on the living room floor. He lay next to them, tracing the sides, dipping his fingers into them. He was a dramatic idiot. But it was so easy to remember the way Bucky had let him enter his body. The way he’d looked back at Steve, waiting. How he’d taken Steve in the hallway.
Steve stood up, having had enough of his own theatrics. He had a farm to run, winter to deal with, and a life to lead. Just because Bucky didn’t want to be part of it didn’t mean Steve could check out. He had friends now, a whole family that enjoyed him. Enola’s smile flashed into his mind. Echo’s eye-rolls and even Nadie’s unamused blank stares. Sam had his parents and they loved Steve just as much as they loved Sam. People cared about Steve, and Steve cared for them.
He’d make it through without Bucky. He was just glad he’d gotten to even know his wendigo. A story for the ages.
Steve took another glass of eggnog, his stomach bursting but when Nadie handed him food or drink, he didn’t dare turn it away. He looked out the window at the snow-filled road. He’d probably stay the night again. His horses would be fine. He could celebrate Christmas with Sam and his family tomorrow night if the roads took awhile to get better.
“So if St. Nick and Santa are the same person, why does everyone not just call him St. Nick?” Enola asked from her perch on the couch arm. “I mean, is Claus his last name?”
“Oh no, we’re getting philosophical.” Echo scooped Enola into her arms, spinning around. Enola squealed in delight. Their hair spun out around them, fans made of silken coal.
Steve started sketching in the new sketchbook Echo had got him for Christmas. He’d given her a new bow for her violin since she’d broken her old one. Enola had more presents to open tomorrow, but she was enjoying the little Nintendo DS Steve had gotten her over Echo’s protests.
“Are you drawing us?” Enola asked when she hopped onto the couch next to Steve.
“Sure am. See?” He pointed to the blobs he’d jotted down just to make sure he’d get their movement right.
“That looks like jellybeans.”
Steve snorted. “I’ll show you when it’s all ready. K?”
“Okay.” She slid from the couch and crumpled into a tiny blob on the floor, the DS inches from her face.
“Hey, too much of that’ll rot your brain. Dinner’s now anyway.” Echo reached for the DS but Enola shrieked and scampered away.
“I’ll put it in my room, it has to charge!”
Steve smiled up at Echo, pink settling into his cheeks. “Sorry. I hope she doesn’t become too much trouble with it.”
“Oh no worries. I’ll beat her ass.” Echo flicked her sister on the head a sly grin on her lips.
“Hey!” Enola ran into the kitchen.
“Any word on Bucky?” Echo asked. She tried to make her voice softer but it faded in and out of a whisper and her speaking voice.
“No.” Steve tried to smile but he could feel claws tearing down his throat. He let the smile slip from his face and stared between himself and Echo. He felt exposed, but he wore a thick Christmas sweater adorned with reindeer. All it did was remind him that Bucky had antlers. Or had. Since he ripped one off, Steve wasn’t sure how long that’d take to grow back.
“I feel horrible for what happened.”
“Echo, no.” Steve grabbed her hands in his, giving them a little squeeze. “He didn’t wanna be with me anymore. Nothing you could’ve done.”
“I keep replaying that day over and over in my head. He was at your feet and then he wasn’t.” She sighed, closing her eyes. “I’m sorry.” She purposefully didn’t meet his gaze and turned quickly so Steve didn’t get to tell her for the umpteenth time, that it was okay.
In the kitchen, Nadie was scooping out her oven-roasted roots, quinoa and wild rice stuffed squash. The tenderloin was still in the oven and Steve kept himself busy with pulling it out to carve. He busied himself with slicing, listening to Enola regale Nadie about the video game she was playing.
“And it’s got this little elf and he runs around and there’s this bad guy and he’s really ugly and he—”
“That’s nice, darling. Go wash your hands.”
Steve brought the tenderloin over, setting it down in the middle of the table. He gave a lopsided grin and sat down, his chair creaking beneath his weight.
Echo started filling up Enola’s plate while she was washing her hands.
“Thought I’d be meeting the boyfriend for Christmas,” Nadie said.
“Oh. Aunt Nadie—no.” Echo signed something quickly and Nadie signed back.
Steve felt like a child when parents spelled instead of used the actual word. He was babied and untrusted to handle the situation with maturity. So he did what any mildly peeved man would do in his situation. Smiled, took a large portion of the tenderloin and said, “Got dumped.”
Nadie pretended to look sympathetic.
“There’s plenty of fish in the sea.” Nadie smiled, the crow’s feet at her eyes crinkling wide. “Boy with your face, you’ll find someone.”
Steve offered a small smile, but his stomach was being punched to smithereens.
“The wendigo dumped you?” Enola said from the archway.
Steve looked up, mouth ajar.
“Enola! Sit down.”
Enola scooted back, her tiny brows pulled together, bottom lip jutting out. “No!” She softened, looking to Steve. “Did he go away?”
“Oh. I made him something.” She rushed into her room.
Steve could hear her clattering through her things.
Echo dropped her silverware, pinching the bride of her nose.
Steve pat her on the back as Enola came back in. She gave Steve a handmade card of construction paper, pink and green, with crayon drawings on it.
“I made it for him for Christmas. I wanted to give it to him myself, but Echo would say that’s a bad idea. Since he eat-eat-eats.”
“Yeah,” Steve said, looking through the card. Stick figures and hearts adorned it, all misshapen and entirely perfect at the same time. Steve loved to see where children started with art. He liked to think that if Enola kept up with it, she’d only get better and better—like he did.
There was a giant blob with jagged triangles coming off it with red eyes. Steve assumed that was Bucky. He traced around it, smiling. Next to the wendigo there was a little girl holding his hand. “This you and him?”
Enola nodded. “He was nice to you. Maybe he’d be nice to me if he knew we were friends.”
“I’m sure he would have.” Steve looked over to Nadie. She sat with an unreadable expression, gaze stuck on Enola.
“He gave me my necklace back.”
Echo leaned forward. “He did what?” She grabbed Enola and pulled her crew neck down. There around her neck was a beaded necklace with a turquoise pendant in the shape of a teardrop. “When?!”
“I dunno.” Enola shrugged, her tiny shoulders coming up to her chin. “In the night awhile ago. I heard scratches and then I saw it on a bush outside.”
Steve sighed heavily, his heart squeezing out every tear he’d tried not to shed. He missed Bucky. It was supposed to get easier, but it never did. Each day he looked into the trees. Each night he waited on the porch until he couldn’t take the cold anymore. He cried in the shower. Sam had become more and more aware of Steve’s deteriorating mood. It was beyond time to tell him. Steve thought that if things went south, not telling Sam was protecting him. Now it was just getting ridiculous.
“Steve?” Enola asked, crawling into his lap. “Are you sad?”
He tried to smile, but tears welled at the corners of his eyes. He cradled Enola, his gaze honing into the little scar on her throat. It was from Bucky all those months ago.
“No. We’re celebrating Christmas so there’s no sadness.” He looked to Echo, grateful she couldn’t hear the way his voice broke and scratched with each syllable.
Nadie harrumphed. She dug into her food, her gaze staring into the middle of the table.
“Let’s eat, huh?” Steve said as he scooted Enola into her own chair. “I’m starvin’ and this looks so good!”
Enola smiled, but Steve knew that smile. He’d been giving it his whole life. It was uncertain and fully aware people were lying to her. Yet she was smart enough to ignore it.
Steve tried to eat, but the more he thought about Bucky, the harder it was. Eventually, he pushed his plate away and excused himself into Echo’s room under the lie that he didn’t feel well.
At least they all knew better than to disturb him.
Telling Sam about Bucky wasn’t hard. The words spilled from Steve’s mouth. His hands gripped a cocoa mug full to the brim with the steaming liquid. They were surrounded by chatter from others who felt getting coffee or hot chocolate the day after Christmas was a great idea. The night before, it’d been all about Christmas and celebrating with Sam’s family. Today though, today was when Steve finally let Sam in on his closely kept secret.
“So let me get this straight,” Sam said. He wore the distinct expression of a man who couldn’t decide if he wanted to haul his best friend into an asylum or just punch him. “You got yourself a boyfriend. But not just any boyfriend. Some Civil War cursed wendigo-boy who attacked Echo?”
“Who attacked Enola, and even after her nearly losing her life to him, your dumb ass still thought ‘hey he’s hot, let’s bang!’”
Steve rubbed his hands back and forth over his head. “It’s not that simple. He kidnapped me, remember?”
“You mean when I drove you to the hospital? That dude attacked you and you still thought kissing his face was a good idea? Jesus Almighty, I’m gonna—hit you so hard. Maybe.”
Steve laughed. “I know. I’m an idiot.”
“That doesn’t even begin to describe the dumbassery you are.”
Sam grimaced, wrenching his hands. “So if I go to Echo, she really gonna tell me you’re not just fuckin’ crazy? She’s gonna tell me wen-don’t-give-a-fuck-o’s exist?”
“Yup. Call her.”
Sam shoved back from the table, knocking into the brick wall. He let out a long exhale and pressed his palms to the table. “Fuck all ya’ll. Fuck. All. Ya’ll.”
Steve flicked up his brows, smirking. “I know.”
“Would you stop sayin’ that! Jesus!” Sam pushed Steve’s hot chocolate closer to Steve. “Drink the fuck up lover boy. I paid for that.”
Steve did as he was told. He let the steam hit his nose first before leaning down to take the tiniest stip. It was still a little too hot, but he could manage little sips like this.
“You know, I’m glad you didn’t tell me till now.”
“Really? I thought you’d be upset.”
“I would’ve killed him for hurting you. Straight up. Shotgun to the face.”
Steve laughed. “Yeah, I’m sure.”
“Fucking leaves you bleeding all over and needin’ stitches then acts like it’s all fine. Fuck that nonsense!”
“Shh! You’re getting loud!” Steve reached a hand out, laughing. Sam had a superpower. No matter how upset Steve was, no matter how angry he was at the world or done with it—Sam would make him laugh. It wasn’t choked or placating. It was alive, a song all its own and Steve sung it each and every time Sam made him.
They flicked whipped cream at each other, bothering the people sitting near them, only laughing more when the second group got up to move away from them. Children, no matter the age.
After they’d drank their hot chocolate, they wandered through the tiny town of Dublin, admiring Christmas lights strung up on decaying houses. People didn’t seem to care much for the paint on their fences or the rotting wood in their stairs. Steve felt perfectly at home with people like this. The walls in his own home were losing color and the stairs creaked too much for comfort. In towns like this, appearances didn’t really matter.
They crossed over a train track, heading to Sam’s car when Steve looked up. He saw in the trees, gray skin and glowing eyes.
“Sam,” Steve said before bolting.
Steve could hear Sam calling after him, but Steve wouldn’t stop this time. He wouldn’t just give up and move on. It was evident Bucky hadn’t either.
Bucky ran from Steve, using all fours to gain a hefty advantage before Steve had lost sight entirely.
Heart pounding so hard he felt he may pass out, Steve wouldn’t stop. He was so close. Bucky couldn’t just show up like that, watching him, and not expect Steve to try to find him again. If Bucky didn’t care, he would’ve left and never showed up again. But he did show up. And so Steve kept running. He ran and ran until nothing surrounded him but trees and a train track.
“BUCKY!” Steve screamed, voice hoarse. “BUCKY COME BACK!”
Steve’s legs begged Steve not to keep running, but he did anyway. His throat threatened to close in at any second, childhood asthma be damned. Steve didn’t stop running. If he didn’t find Bucky this time, he’d lose it. It never got easier. He never moved on. He never used that dating site Echo suggested. He would never be able to move on if he didn’t find Bucky and hear it from his own lips.
It was either they were together or Bucky told Steve he didn’t want him. What kind of wendigo ran from his prey?
One who loved it.
So Steve kept running. His eyes burned from the cold, tears leaking from the corners as he suffered onslaughts of brutal wind and the dry cold temperature.
Steve stopped at a bridge, looking over a river. He looked down at the water, rushing and gurgling below. The train tracks kept going, and Steve knew Bucky had kept going.
“Steve! J-Jesus—stop! Steve stop!”
Steve whipped his head around to see Sam jogging behind him. His phone was to his ear and his other hand lazily tossed in the air while he jogged behind Steve.
“Echo says stop! I’m saying stop! Stop chasing—whatever!”
“I can’t,” Steve whispered. “BUCKY!” Steve startled, watching a flock of birds that didn’t fly south scatter into the wind.
“She says you don’t know if he’s regressed or not—whatever the fuck that means!”
“He hasn’t.” Steve stepped out onto the train tracks, careful not to lose his footing. He took each slat carefully, placing both feet on the slats before moving forward, hands out on either side.
“Steve! This is how people die!” Sam wouldn’t leave the comfort of the earth. He was out as far as he would go, whispering frantically to whoever was on the phone. Steve knew it wasn’t Echo. Nadie? Enola? Whoever it was, they were with Echo.
Steve thought he saw a flash of gray and he took off into a run. He lost his footing and his body collapsed onto the tracks, his leg getting stuck between the slats down to the thigh. “Shit!”
“Ah hell, he’s stuck!” Sam said into the phone.
Steve tried to wiggle free but his thigh was jammed between the slats. He shook and pushed his fingers into the meat of his thigh to give himself wiggle room, but he remained jabbed between, the water rushing louder beneath him—laughing at him.
“BUCKY!” Steve screamed. “COME BACK!” He broke off into a sob, biting his lip. “God damn it.” Steve slammed his hands on the tracks, eyes widening when he felt them begin to vibrate. He looked up, seeing nothing and then put his hand on the metal. He leaned as best he could down onto the track, listening. “Oh no.”
Sam figured it out not a second later. He spoke fast into the phone before shoving it into his pocket and carefully but quickly hopping the tracks toward Steve.
“No! Sam, no!”
“Fuck you! I’m not gonna let you get smashed by a damn train!”
Sam kneed next to Steve, tugging at his leg. “Clench your leg. It helps.”
Steve did. He shimmied it a bit, able to move his leg back and forth but not up. He smacked his hand against the metal, exasperated. He moved like a worm on the edge of a hook, writhing and desperate to escape. Over a bridge like this, if he knocked the train off the tracks, whoever was inside could get hurt. Odds were it was just shipping cargo, but there were people who manned trains.
“Sam, Sam get me out.”
“I’m trying!” Sam grabbed Steve’s arm and pulled.
Steve watched in horror as the slats they were on bent and groaned. “Wait! Wait!”
Sam stopped pulling.
“Don’t. You’ll break the bridge.”
“Look!” Steve pointed to where the stress fracture was. It gleamed up at them, a bitter and cruel joke. If Steve got freed, he risked dropping Sam into the river.
“I’ll just stand on the metal. It’s fine.” Sam reached out, hand shaking.
They heard the howl of the train. It rushed for them, breathing heavy and hissing as its wheels spun and spun and spun.
“C’mon!” Sam grabbed Steve’s wrist, pulling up as hard as he could till his face went red.
Steve’s leg didn’t budge. The slat Sam stood on cracked open and he kicked it away, shifting to another slat.
“Sam! Just—just go.”
Sam looked up, the train was in sight, barreling at them as it climbed to full speed. Now out of the tiny town, it could climb to full speed ahead. Steve wondered how quick a death it’d be. Would he feel it as it crushed into his head, broke his nose and flattened his heart? Or would it be painless, fast and merciful?
“Just go!” But it wasn’t Steve who shouted.
The pair looked up, eyes wide and mouths both hanging open. Bucky stood at the other side, his face stained with drying blood. He’d long ago abandoned the mask he first met Steve in. He wore no necklaces and his pants were clean. He looked like a ghost, so pale in the brightness of the sun. His hair was the only thing colorful on him.
“Go,” Bucky growled again, moving with ease over to them. “I’ll help.”
“You’re—real.” Sam pointed to Bucky’s ears, his teeth. “You’re real. Holy fucking shit.”
“GO!” Bucky barked and Sam turned to get off the tracks where Bucky had just been. The train was already on the other side. It was far too late now.
Bucky wrapped his arms around Steve, one swipe of his claw into the wood and it was splintering away. He sheltered Steve angling his back to the train.
“It’ll hit you!” Steve yelled over the roar of the train. It was there. It was breezing past Sam and Steve was sure Sam was screaming. He saw his friend’s arms waving manically, mouth moving but Steve heard nothing. He looked to Bucky, breathing hard. The last moments of his life, and Steve couldn’t stop thinking about how beautiful Bucky’s eyes looked in the day.
“I love you,” Bucky said as the train collided with him.
They were blasted from the tracks, Steve now free and wrapped in long limbs, pressed to a body cold as ice.
Water roared over Steve’s ears, his body snapping frozen from the intensity of the cold river. He tumbled, tumbled, tumbled. Unable to breath, body pressed into Bucky’s, he screwed his eyes shut. If he were to die, he would die with Bucky—who was most assuredly dead. A fucking train hit him.
Steve heard the crack in his arm, shrieking under water. They’d collided with the rocks beneath the river, still in turmoil from the speed of the current. He was yanked from the water, pulled like a heavy bag of potatoes over to the shore.
Shivering and screaming, Steve looked to his broken arm. His bone jutted from skin, blood trickling down, providing warmth on otherwise frozen skin. Shock enveloped him, quieting the gurgle of the river, the howl of the train. He looked up, eyes blurring. Bucky was alive. His face was before Steve’s and his skin was olive. Olive. His eyes were still the same beautiful gray, just before the storm. He looked smaller, his hands softer as they scurried up and down Steve’s body.
Sam was there, his voice muffled as he spoke to Steve.
Steve couldn’t keep his gaze from slipping back over to Bucky, confusion wafting through his brain, slow and easy without any care. It hovered, reaching into the corners of his mind, back into the untouched crevices that seldom thought anything at all.
Steve’s eyes rolled back and eventually everything went black.
When Steve woke, he was lying in a hospital bed. The first person he saw on his right was Sam. He had a book in his lap, his eyes closed. He’d long before dozed off. Music played quietly in the room, Steve was sure it belonged to Sam. It was something quick with a horn, a beat that made Steve’s toes twitch.
He turned his neck, whole body searing in pain like the train was hitting him all over again. Echo had Enola in her arms. They were bundled up on the other bed beside Steve’s, fast asleep.
In the chair next to Steve, was a man he didn’t recognize. Brown hair fell in easy tousles around high cheeks and a scruffy beard. His skin was radiant, like the sun glowed softly beneath it, olive and living. Lips were pink, soft and parted in a way that begged kiss me.
His eyes slipped open, and Steve stared at the two most beautiful gray eyes he’d ever seen.
“Bucky.” The name resonated throughout the room, sloshing back into Steve, setting his bones on fire. He wanted to pinch himself but if he moved, he’d feel that pain gain and he didn’t want it. So he stared, afraid that if he blinked the image of the man before him would go away.
“Hey Steve,” Bucky said. His voice wasn’t sheet metal against coal. It was hot chocolate in the dead of winter, a fifth of whisky and maybe a pack of cigarettes. It wasn’t anything like the voice, unused and abandoned, that the wendigo had used before. But this was undoubtedly—wholly—absolutely—Bucky.
Steve’s gaze slid down to a single hand. He looked to Bucky’s other shoulder but noticed he too was in white patient garb. There was no arm where his left should have been.
“I wanted to watch you sleep. Was worried.” Bucky licked his lips. “They needed the sleep more than me.” He jerked his head in Echo and Enola’s direction.
“No—not that. The—the—” Steve reached his good arm out, tracing in the air all over Bucky’s visage. His muscles cried out, too hot and sore from being flung from the tracks to falling and tumbling in the river.
“Oh.” Bucky smiled and there were honest to God teeth—a single tooth out of place but teeth all the same. He could close his mouth. He could smile wide and all Steve would see would be an adorable snaggle tooth lined by pink kissable lips. “Yeah. It’s—it’s gone.”
“He gave up himself to save you,” Enola said from her spot on the bed. Echo was still fast asleep. “Sam said he held you when the train came.”
Bucky looked away, sucking his lips in. He looked up at Steve with a bashful grin, one that spoke of cornfields, slow dancing in barns, hayrides and cows. Bucky looked not a day over twenty-five. He was tan from the hours spent in the sun. His hair long because that’s how his day wore it. His beard fuzzy and Steve could just imagine it between his thighs, on his lips, rubbing against his chin.
Bucky Barnes—was a human being.
“I’ve never been so scared,” came Sam’s voice.
Steve turned his head gingerly, looking Sam’s way.
“Don’t you dare do that again. Ever.” Then Sam smiled. “But I’m glad you’re okay. I’m glad you’re both okay.”
Steve looked at Bucky again, tears spilled over his eyes, smearing the world with bright colors. “I wanna touch you.”
Bucky stood up, his face contorting into a grimace. He hobbled over, careful to keep his bad side from Steve. Slowly, he sat on the bed, letting out a sigh of relief once his ass hit bed. He carefully slid himself next to Steve so he didn’t have to sit up. Their noses brushed together.
Steve reached a hand out, stroking fingers through soft bristles, running a thumb over pink—unbelievable pink lips. He dipped his thumb into Bucky’s mouth and Bucky took Steve’s thumb between his teeth, smiling.
Bucky nodded, kissing Steve’s thumb.
And then they kissed. They kissed so hard Steve’s arm pulsed with pain. His eyes stung with tears and they spilled down his face, racing one after the other. He whined into Bucky’s mouth and Bucky’s hand came up to cup Steve’s cheek. The world wasn’t cruel. People died. Children suffered illness. But for every tragedy, there was a miracle. The world was balanced. The wendigo was proof of that. Objective curses with objective solutions. Take but give.
Bucky would have given his life for Steve on that bridge. In a balanced world, that was enough for it. A selfless act, resigned to death or whatever consequence may come, Bucky used his body to protect Steve’s.
“You love me,” Steve finally said when they broke for air.
Bucky pressed his forehead to Steve’s, a smile spread upon those swollen kiss-loved lips. Tears wet his cheeks, his pupils glassy. No more could Steve see the way his mouth twitched or gnawed into itself. No more could Steve see the desire to eat in his eyes. Bucky was alive, a man—a human.
“Yes,” Bucky said, kissing Steve.
Enola laughed from her spot on the other bed. Echo’s sleepy eyes had rolled open and she looked on with a warm smile, stroking her fingers through Enola’s hair.
Steve wrapped his arm around Bucky, whimpering when the pain became too much.
Bucky, carefully, put Steve’s limbs back where they belonged and brushed strands of hair off Steve’s forehead. He kissed Steve one last time and whispered against his lips, “You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Steve smiled. “You too.”
“Technically aren’t I the best thing?” Enola said. “Without me, you wouldn’t have met.” She crossed her arms, smug.
“You’re right,” Steve said. “You’re the best thing.” He looked to Bucky. “And you’re the second-best thing.”
“I’ll take that.” Bucky kissed him again.
With a cast and a long list of medicines Steve couldn’t pronounce, he was released from the hospital a few days later. Bucky hadn’t been released, but that didn’t stop him from sneaking out somehow anyway. As far as anyone knew, he’d died 150 years ago. The hospital wouldn’t be able to trace him even if they tried.
Steve lay in bed, his eyes fluttering as he tried to stay awake. Bucky was nuzzling and kissing up Steve’s thigh, his teeth coming out to graze over the skin. He brushed his beard over Steve’s thigh, smiling a devil’s smile when Steve bowed off the bed, moaning.
“This is nice,” Steve said with closed eyes.
“Mhmm.” Bucky purred like a cat, his focus on peppering kisses around Steve’s cock before swiping his tongue out over it.
“Oh. Shit.” Steve reached with his good arm, treading fingers through clean hair. No antlers. Just Bucky.
Bucky lapped at Steve’s cock, humming and kissing up to the tip before sucking softly. He took Steve’s length in, bobbing up and down without hurry. He kept flicking his gaze up, watching the way Steve stared at him through hooded eyes. He let his mouth close over Steve’s dick, rubbing his lips back and forth against the tip.
Steve’s legs pushed into the bed. He wanted to grab the headboard but fast movements hurt. “You’re torturing me on purpose.”
“Shh.” Bucky straddled Steve, rubbing his ass over Steve’s dick. “I’m gonna take care of you.”
“Your arm. Or. Lack of.”
“It’s fine. Echo’s gonna get antibiotics for me and Nadie’s a nurse.”
“She is?” How did Steve never know that?
Bucky pushed his hand into Steve’s chest, fingers splayed. “Just let me give you this. It’s about time we did this right.”
“Condom and all?” Steve quirked a brow.
“Did you know we used animal intestine for that? Rubber just started getting popular by the time the war happened.”
“I did not and that’s gross so just kiss me.” Steve pulled Bucky down, their mouths tangling together.
Bucky’s beard scratched along Steve’s jaw, a tickle that Steve never wanted to go away. His breath came out in harsh puffs and it was warm and alive. No more was his breath ice but fire. It fueled Steve, burning his insides and swelling his cock.
They rubbed against each other, Steve’s hand trying to get their cocks in his hand to stroke. He achieved it every now and then. The kiss was more his focus.
Bucky rolled away, slipping between Steve’s thighs to kiss down the curve of his ass to his hole. His tongue darted out, a flirtatious little swirl that sent Steve’s spine arching through his stomach.
Bucky put his hand on Steve’s belly, holding him down. “Not as strong as I was before, so, behave for me?”
Steve’s mouth wordlessly fell open. Behave for me.
Steve pushed his hips up, getting more and more of Bucky’s mouth on his hole. He shivered when he felt tongue slip inside, pressing up into him and swirling around, prodding him for all his worth. He dropped his legs open, licking his lips. Heat pooled inside, his cock drooling onto his hip. He looked down, a shiny little twinkle that blinked up at him.
Bucky’s beard scratched between Steve’s cheeks, delighting him each time his chin surged forward to shove his tongue further inside.
Steve wrapped his hand into Bucky’s hair, hips rocking back and forth. His eyes fluttered shut, mouth unable to make sound as pleasure radiated from his body. A private Chernobyl, wavering off in varying degrees of intensity as Bucky slipped his tongue more and more inside, pushing a finger along with it.
Steve’s hand squeezed the sheets. He tugged at them, gasping and wrapping a leg around Bucky’s neck.
Bucky growled, curling Steve onto his side. He fucked his finger into Steve, his tongue swirling and lips sucking.
Steve rocked into Bucky, cock untouched, but body brimming with heat. The sun sat next to him, radiating beneath Bucky’s skin, begging Steve’s skin to break out into sweat, his lungs to wheeze and beg for air.
Steve’s cock seized, squirting come in an arch up to his shoulder. He cried out, writhing and scurrying to no avail. Bucky’s finger brushed over his prostate again and again, his beard scratched at Steve’s asscheeks, his mouth sucked—sucked.
Steve panted, his leg dropping to the bed, boneless and amiable.
Bucky purred, nosing along Steve’s neck to kiss his face. He brushed a sweat bead from Steve’s face, licking t it. “Mm, salty.”
“Ew.” Steve swatted at Bucky, turning his face away.
“No, stay there. I wanna look at you.”
Steve cocked a brow.
“I never got to see you come—the first time. When I did it just—it wasn’t as good as this.”
“I want you to come this tome too though.” Steve pouted.
“Yeah, but this is different. I don’t have to worry about turning around and biting that face off.”
“That would be horrific.” Steve stuck his tongue out.
“You want in me or me in you?”
“I already came, dunno if I wanna again. I get so tired.” Steve closed his eyes for emphasis. “If I’m in you I gotta do the work.”
“Not if I ride you.” Bucky kissed Steve’s cheek.
“Mmm, okay. That sounds good.”
Bucky grabbed the lube and condom from the bedside table. He tossed it Steve’s way after taking some lube into his fingers. He reached behind himself, his lips parting as his fingers slipped up into his hole and stretched himself open.
Steve was already sagging. He stroked at himself, watching the way Bucky jerked his hips, how his heavy cock bounced with each thrust. His face heated up when he saw the way Bucky was looking at him, all knowing and smirking.
“Keep touching yourself,” Bucky said.
“Behave for you?” Steve just wanted to keep hearing Bucky give him orders.
“Damn right. Be a good boy for me, Steve.” His grin cracked wider.
Steve was hard in seconds, cock red and swollen at the thought of being Bucky’s good boy. He slipped the condom on, his gaze never leaving Bucky as he worked himself open.
Bucky took the lube and drizzled into Steve’s cock, using his fingers to trace the slick up and down the shaft.
Steve arched his neck into the pillow, mewling.
“This isn’t illegal anymore.” It was a statement, not a question, but it still left Steve with a raised brow. “Being with a man. I mean.”
“No Buck. Not for a long time.”
“Good.” Bucky slid a leg over Steve. He arched his back, looking behind himself to take Steve’s cock into his hand and line them up. He lowered himself, slow and easy.
Steve bit his tongue to keep from whining when his tip met Bucky’s tight ass. He kept his hips still, almost trembling with how bad he wanted to rock into Bucky. Bucky’s body was solace, reprieve and the balm Steve needed to survive. He was warm and Steve was sweating from how hot he felt. Heat rose between them, coating the walls with their heady desire for each other. Fire and fire.
Bucky rocked forward, eyes fluttering shut. He undulated into Steve, biting his pink lips till they were shiny and swollen.
Steve raised up, wrapping his arm around Bucky and kissing him everywhere he could. Shoulder, chin, collar bone. Their tongues sloshed into each other, bodies connected far beyond the whisper of a kiss, but the shriek of love.
Bucky’s muscles shook and quivered around Steve, holding him inside, coaxing him to come again. His body broke out into sweat, his cheeks flushed red. He’d never looked more beautiful and alive. Olive skin. Bright gray eyes. Eyes that once glowed in the night, that lured Steve in with mystery and danger.
Now Bucky was human, his needs as simple and as extravagant as Steve’s. To sleep. To eat. To lounge on the sofa and kiss all day. To laugh. To love.
Human beings. They were human beings, loving each other in the deepest way they knew how.
Bucky came, his come squirting out onto Steve’s chest in streaks of milky white. Steve gasped, looking up at the way Bucky arched himself back, muscles shaking beneath living skin.
They fell into the bed, lazy kisses and even lazier thrusts. When their lips grew chapped and jaws ached, Steve pulled away, slipping from Bucky and tossing his used condom to the floor. He’d clean it up later. He grabbed his sketch book and opened it up to a blank page, sketching something he had sketched a few other times from memory.
Bucky watched, his face nuzzling on Steve’s shoulder, careful to avoid the healing arm. He clicked his tongue, a breathy laugh on his lips. “Me.”
“You.” Steve smiled, proud of the little outline. “The first time I met you.”
Bucky pointed to the antlers. “They were bigger.”
“I’m pretty sure they looked like this. You didn’t see yourself much.”
“I saw myself enough!” Bucky laughed, kissing Steve’s temple. “I love you.”
“I love you too.”
Steve scratched his pencil over the sketchbook, his eyes tearing up as he remembered pained, desperate eyes that begged for an end to the hunger. He sniffed when he thought of whines and broken sobs from a man who most ran from. He startled, his eyes wide when he saw the little tear sink into the page.
Bucky looked to Steve, his brow knitting slowly.
“Thinking of everything that happened to you. The hunger. The loneliness.”
“It’s over now.”
“But you still felt it. I wasn’t there for so long and you’d—when you ran away. Over Christmas. Were you ever gonna come back?” Steve looked at Bucky, red-eyed and lip quivering.
“I—” Bucky sat up, running his fingers over his head. It was such an impossibly human gesture that Steve shouldn’t have been startled he did it, but Bucky spent more of his life as a wendigo than as a human. So it startled him, brought him from the moment and planted him in a memory where two little fuzzy ears flicked without care and antlers wreaked havoc on tangled hair. He loved Bucky as any way he could have him, but he’d be wrong if he said he didn’t miss the wendigo too. After all, he loved that first.
“I thought,” Bucky said, “that leaving you was the best thing to do. I worried Echo was right and there was no saving me. You brought me back but—I was still a wendigo. It still hurt every moment of my existence. I didn’t wanna drag you down or worse—kill you.”
“You wouldn’t have.”
“Maybe. But I’m not so sure. Sometimes I’d look at you and get this feeling down in my gut. It hurt like ice shoved in my intestines and my throat had a fire behind it. You were the only thing that could offer any comfort and it was so hard to turn away. I was trying to protect you. All I wanted was you to be happy and alive. If that meant no me? Then—I would give you up.”
“But you don’t have to anymore. The curse is gone and we’re together.” Steve inched closer, kissing Bucky’s cheeks, one after the other.
“It’s over. And we’re together.” Bucky kissed the tip of Steve’s nose. When he pulled back, his cheeks were flushed red, his eyes clear and gray, silver like a champion’s armor. “And I love you more than life itself.”
“I noticed.” Steve looked to Bucky’s missing arm, all wrapped up in bandages. “Do you need to take anything right now for that?”
Bucky shrugged. “Probably. But I’d rather lie in bed with you for another hour.”
“Who are you, Bucky Barnes?” Steve asked. Steve thought he’d known once. Bucky, the lonely wendigo. Bucky, the cold, distant lover. The man that lay beside Steve was warm. His kisses were free and unending. His smile was easy and his eyes bright without ever glowing. It was good, unbelievably good. Steve could get dizzy from how good it was that Bucky’s curse was gone. But the wendigo hadn’t just been Bucky. It was part of him. It displayed in his personality. In his hesitancies. His sacrifices.
“I’m who I was always supposed to be,” Bucky said. “Before the curse got me. But if you miss it—I could always bite your neck and lap at the blood.” He crawled onto Steve, growling and nipping up Steve’s neck.
“Oh-ho-ho!” Steve wrapped his arms around Bucky, smiling. “Don’t tempt me.”
“Steve,” Bucky said, his face serious. “Is this okay?”
“Yes,” Steve said fast. “I’ll always love two sides of you. The man I wanted you to be. And the wendigo that you were. It’s hard to explain. But I miss that side of you. I love you. I’m so, so happy that it’s over. But I loved it too.”
Bucky sat back. He let his jaw fall open, moving from side to side. His teeth mashed together and it pulled a bubbling laugh from Steve’s chest. “What?”
“You did that before. The teeth mashing.”
Bucky smiled, kissing Steve’s cheek. “See? Still me.”
“Yeah.” Steve pressed his fingers to Bucky’s collarbone, tracing the bone. “Only healthy now. Happy. Maybe even mortal?”
“Maybe. Guess we’ll have to grow old together to find out.”
“Yeah,” Steve said, “guess so.”