Bucky really just wanted to stay in the fucking forest, possibly forever. His tiny, half-built hut was decent, backed into the side of a mountain so nobody could get near him without him noticing, and was about three days' travel from the nearest human being. It was nice. It had a roof and a door and rarely leaked during rains, and mostly it was quiet and it was safe and nobody bothered him, not even the bears anymore.
Instead of being in his wonderful, quiet, isolated home he was here on the edge of a small village, staring at the blacksmith's forge and wondering if he could get away with just leaving a note near the door and hoping someone would take pity on a request to deliver an anonymous message.
Probably not. Probably he was going to have to go into the village, talk to people – more than one most likely – and spend at least an hour or two getting his letter written and sent on its way.
Fucking Steve. If he'd just let Bucky disappear the way he wanted, he wouldn't be standing here trying to force himself to go ask who in the village would have writing materials. But when Bucky had finally got free of the medical tents and subsequent rehab and convinced all the doctors and wizards that he was fully healed and recovered and he had his discharge papers in hand, Steve had argued with him about going far, far away to regroup (and never return). After weeks of arguing -- which included Steve standing guard at Bucky's door and sleeping on his floor -- he'd relented. Probably helped by the number of times Bucky had woken up screaming, or, worse, with his hands closing around Steve's neck.
No amount of therapy was helping with that, and it was only the spells written into Steve's skin like armor and Steve's own too-stubborn nature that had let him survive Bucky's nocturnal assassination attempts. There was one condition, of course: Bucky had to send letters, twice a year, letting Steve know he was okay.
Otherwise Steve was bringing his battalion on “training missions” to hunt Bucky down and find out if he'd felled a tree on himself or fallen down a ravine or forgotten how to count six months by the moon. Bucky had tried arguing that the Queen wouldn't be thrilled with Captain Rogers making up his own orders and marching his troops across the entire breadth of the Empire, but Steve had gotten that determined look on his face which Bucky had been looking at since he'd been five years old.
So Bucky had drawn a spot on a map showing Steve where he planned on settling down and he promised to walk to a nearby town or village twice a year and send Steve word that he wasn't dead. Bucky had almost offered to take a batch of pigeons with him, to send his letters direct and save himself the trek to civilization. But the birds could be traced back to him and Bucky didn't want to give anyone the temptation to pay him a visit. The Empire's wizards had shown too much interest in the spells the Fellaine wizards had forced onto him and Bucky was tired of being poked, prodded, and questioned.
This was Bucky's second letter. The first time he'd gone south to the closest town, a small port city. He'd hoped it would be big enough for him to feel invisible, but it had had the opposite result. Most folks had easily spotted him as a war vet, due to his missing arm and scarred face as well as the only decent boots he owned being the ones the army had issued him. Everywhere he went people offered him drinks and asked for war stories and thanked him for the service he hadn't really provided. He hadn't been willing to tell them he'd been captured early on and held prisoner, only making his escape two years ago, well after the peace treaties had been signed.
Steve and the others had thought him dead, and the look on Steve's face when Bucky walked into camp had been worth at least half of the arguments they'd ever had over the years.
But now, ugh. He hated Steve's stupid earnest face and how it was making him do this. He'd gone east this time, a longer walk by half a day but to a much smaller town. The village here wouldn't have any sort of mail service, but it was only a couple hours' ride to the next town which was on the river. He could buy some paper, write up his letter, and find a kid willing to take it to town and see it into the mail for two coppers.
If he could get past the first hurdle and force himself to talk to the blacksmith. He knew the smith was home from the way the smoke was billowing out of the chimney and the clang of metal was echoing loud enough Bucky had heard it when he'd still been half an hour away. The village itself was small enough he could probably figure out who to ask for help if he just walked into the square, but dealing with the smith would mean only talking to one person, alone, and getting it over with.
The trouble was the smith's doors and windows were absolutely covered in magic spells. They weren't meant to be seen, but Bucky's stint as a prisoner of the Fallaine's black arts wizards meant that he knew how to see spells, even if he couldn't do anything about them. He knew enough to activate the spell on his arm – normally he looked like any other war veteran, missing his arm at the shoulder and scars crossing his face from shellfire. But the Fellaine wizards had taken advantage of the injury that had allowed Bucky to get captured and installed a magical arm, which appeared when Bucky wanted it to and was stronger than almost anything Bucky had ever known. Thank the spirits it wasn't stronger than whatever spells Steve had had placed on him, and hadn't that been an argument for the ages once Bucky had got home and found out. The wizards on both sides had been trying the same things: build soldiers who could withstand whatever the other side threw at them.
Eventually the Fellaine's magic spells had blown up in the their faces, and Bucky had used the chance to escape, only to find the rest of the war had ended and the Fellaine troops withdrawn. His march back to home camp was a long and confused one, but it had helped give him time to get his bearings before being surrounded by Steve's troops.
After the fuss, Bucky could have retired back home, got himself set up with a pension from his service and done something quiet and peaceful with his life. Steve had elected to stay in the Army, as he'd always meant to serve even before the war had begun, following in his father's and grandmother's footsteps.
But Bucky hadn't felt safe around people, and his nightmares around Steve gave him supporting evidence of same, so after arguing with Steve's stupid face about it, he'd left to live in the mountains, far away from the Fellaine border and from anything else at all. The only thing he attacked anymore were giant bears, and only when he couldn't just scare them away. Most of them knew him by now and skirted his hut by miles.
Now he was wondering how a blacksmith in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere had such intricate spells on the doors and windows, protecting those inside from attack. From the color and shape of them, Bucky had a feeling they could blast even him away if he tried to hurt anyone inside.
It made him relax, a little, and feel a lot better about going up to talk to the smith.
It occurred to him that he was standing right on the edge of the smith's property and if Bucky had been the one laying spells on the doors, there would also be some in the ground and trees alerting the smith to visitors.
He looked, and – oops. Yeah. He'd already set them off. They were clearly in standby, waiting to see what he was going to do, but all of them in the ring he could now see where perfectly well aware of him and aimed in his direction. Bucky sighed and grabbed his pack, settling it on his human shoulder, and walked ahead. The smith would know Bucky was here and know he'd been standing there basically casing the place for awhile. He'd probably be waiting to blast Bucky into smoke and ash if he blinked wrong.
Bucky walked up towards the smithy and around the corner to find the entire front of the building was open to the elements. The huge forge was alight, and Bucky stared at the smith who simply continued working, hammer clanging down on the metal in a steady rhythm.
Holy crap, those arms, Bucky thought. He stared, because clearly the smith knew he was there and didn't mind, so Bucky didn't see the point in rushing into having a conversation. As he watched, the smith raised his arm, the hammer came flying down, the sparks and reverberation of the metal practically thrummed throughout Bucky's entire body.
He didn't even realise when the smith had turned to look at him until the man lifted his goggles and pulled the cloth from his face. He had a beard that was well-trimmed and fancier than anything Bucky had seen outside the cities.
“You aren't here for work,” the smith said, and he sounded amused, like maybe he was used to being stared at this way. Well, he looked like this, maybe he was, Bucky thought.
“I need paper,” Bucky found himself saying. The man's face was as mesmerizing as his arms. Short, trimmed beard and eyes that were definitely laughing at him, what the fuck. Bucky realised he was still staring like an idiot and shook himself. “I mean, I was just. I need to send a letter. There a place I can buy paper and borrow a pen?”
The smith set his goggles down on a bench and picked up a towel, rubbing it over his face. He looked for all the world like he was posing – he probably was, the bastard. Like Bucky could look away as it was, he needed this kind of aggravation? But then he looked at Bucky again and smiled, like he was actually happy and relaxed and not at all worried about the stranger that had been watching his place for half an hour before walking in.
The spells didn't make it seem like he was all that trusting, and for that matter what kind of blacksmith needed that kind of fortification? Bucky glanced towards the window at his left, and the spellwork on it was the same as the others, intricate and beautiful. The alarm was in stand-down, Bucky saw, which made him wonder if the smith had given a command he hadn't seen. But Bucky couldn't see any magic in the smith at all.
When he looked back, the man had narrowed his eyes, calculating. “You're not a wizard, but you can see them?”
Bucky shrugged. He didn't exactly want to explain that he was basically a piece of spellwork, himself. He didn't think it was his business to ask what these spells were for. The blacksmith himself wasn't a wizard – Bucky could see the complete lack of magic in him. It was just everywhere around him, almost completely encasing his home and the land surrounding it.
“It was put in place for me,” the man said casually, off-hand like he was talking about the weather, and he'd relaxed again, like he'd only briefly considered Bucky a threat, then dismissed it.
Bucky didn't think it was necessary to start detailing the training he'd been forced through or the fledging Fellaine soldiers he'd been forced to train on by killing. The spells did look like they could take him, even though their signature didn't look anything like the magic that had been all over Steve. “For a man hiding behind a lot of protective spells, you don't seem real concerned about a total stranger wandering in.” It was as close as Bucky wanted to come to asking any of the things he wanted to know. Asking questions meant inviting questions in return.
Instead of answering, the smith was looking him over, again, then the man held out his hand. “Name's Tony.”
Bucky blinked. He held out his hand, thankfully the real, meat one, and shook Tony's hand. Hot from the fire and callused from the work, Bucky found himself not wanting to let go. “Bucky,” he finally said, close to getting caught again in Tony's eyes.
Which were crinkling, and then – yes, Tony was laughing at him.
“What the fuck?”
“They don't let you in if you plan on assassinating me,” Tony said, waving his hand at the wide, framed doorway. Bucky looked over his shoulder, stared for a moment at the spells there. He'd seen the protection in them, the alarm set to sound if someone entered unwelcome. But – oh. There in the edges of it, was another spell. It was hard to see, hiding itself in the grain of the wood, but once Bucky had caught it he could see it clearly.
“It reads intent.” Which mean one of the best wizards in the entire fucking Empire had laid these spells. He looked back at Tony, who just smiled at him.
“If you'd meant me harm, you'd be vaporised as soon as you got near. If you have work for me, it lets you in.” Then he smiled wider, invitingly, and gave Bucky a wink. “It knows exactly what you were thinking about when you stepped across the threshold.”
Bucky blushed. “I--” Well, Tony didn't seem to mind, but traveling by foot through Lord Stark's Eastern Forests wasn't exactly going to make Bucky look or smell very appealing.
Tony seemed to take some sort of pity on him, as he just waved Bucky to follow him, out of the forge and into a small office. There were blueprints tacked on the walls, scrolls and books piled everywhere on the shelves. Bucky opened his mouth to ask how safe it was to have them so close to the forge, then he saw the fireproofing spells laid into the walls, snaking up to the ceiling like vines.
“Whoever did your spells was amazing,” he said.
“I'll let him know,” Tony said, a small sort of smile that said something Bucky couldn't understand. He dug into the stack of papers, and held out a clean sheet. “Can you write, or do you need me to scribe for you?”
Bucky shook his head. “I can write it. I..wouldn't mind washing my hands, first, though.” He glanced down at them, the dirt and gunk still under his fingernails even though he'd rinsed them in the creek after he'd trapped and skinned his dinner. It wasn't technically legal to hunt in the Lord's forests, but the guy had officially titled his land and holdings over to the Queen after the war and she seemed like the sort to let a hungry man hunt and cook his own dinner. Well, from what he'd heard, Stark was too, but legally a Lord was allowed to yell at people for doing so and make them pay for the meat.
Bucky had never actually met either of them, despite serving in the man's army. He thought Steve might have, a few times, and Steve had thought the guy a brilliant strategist but an asshole of a person. Steve said the people were lucky that Stark had given the Empire over to Lady Virginia Potts, as she was a better ruler for times of peace.
Had the war never happened, Bucky supposed Stark would have continued to just be a local Lord, landholder and one of many such Lords and Ladies in a loose affiliation of trade agreements and shared political desire for not bothering one another. But then Fellaine had attacked, first the lands in the North then making their way one by one through the entire region. The Lords and Ladies had had to band together to fight them off, and under Stark's leadership and plentiful resources, they'd fought off the intruders and forced them to agree to peace. Then they'd all voted to unite permanently, forming the current Empire. Re-forming it, Bucky mused, because a few generations ago they'd been an Empire as well, before it had fallen apart to bickering and back-stabbing.
Bucky didn't really care about politics or Empires. He cared about being left alone so he couldn't be forced to hurt people, or talk to them if he didn't want to. The Fellaine wizards had fucked with his head as well as his body, making him think for the longest time that he was still fighting on the right side and that he was killing enemies.
He sometimes felt twinges in his spelled arm, especially if he didn't summon it for a few days. Like it had a mind of its own; Bucky was honestly afraid it might manifest and kill someone all without him being able to stop it.
He glanced at the spellwork on Tony's walls. There was magic that looked stronger than even what had made his arm. He wondered, briefly, if he should ask for the wizard's name. Steve had offered to take him to the apprentices for the guy who'd done Steve's own spells – the wizard had died in the war, but Steve swore his trainees would be able to help. By then Bucky had been aching with exhaustion and had just wanted to get away. Besides, he knew there was no way he could afford anything like that, or justify asking for that kind of favor. He'd done nothing in the war except get captured. Steve was one of the heroes – he was the one who deserved free drinks and folks gathering around listening to him tell stories.
He realised he'd been staring into air, not moving or saying a word. Normal enough for him, but never in front of other people. Hence wanting to get away from them, Steve. He glanced over at Tony, who was just watching him, patiently.
“Sorry, I got--” He stopped.
“It happens,” Tony said, gently. “Especially to those of us caught up in the war. Battleshock, they call it, but I know for a fact that it lingers. Even when you're supposed to be safe.” Tony glanced at the walls where the spellwork lay.
Bucky looked at him. Yeah, the man was certainly the right age to have served, and a man with the skills of a smith would have – well, he'd either have been fixing wagons and horseshoes, or making and designing the weapons they'd carried. Stark's weapons had been the best the soldiers had had, one of the many reasons they'd won the war.
But he didn't ask. He didn't want to get into old home week, sharing stories with another veteran and the inevitable discovery that Bucky was a monster, not to be trusted, and what if he's still under their control. What if he's been sent here to kill us in our sleep.
He'd heard the whispers; he'd have to have been deaf not to. He had plenty of reasons to want to leave, after all.
“You can wash up in here,” Tony said, still calm and gentle like Bucky might still spook. He led the way out of the office through another doorway, into the back of the building where it turned out were his quarters. There was a small kitchen with a sink which pipes that led away into the ground. His own water supply, Bucky thought. He must have saved someone important's life. Maybe even the wizard who laid the spells. It would certainly make sense and it meant Bucky really didn't want to ask.
He stepped up to the sink where Tony had begun to run water and accepted a small bar of soap.
There was a window above the sink that showed the woods very near where Bucky had stood. The spellwork wound all around the window, fingering into the walls. From here he could see the trees holding their own spells, fire and destruction just waiting to prevent anyone from coming to close who wished the blacksmith ill.
Bucky realised he felt safe here. If he tried to hurt Tony, the spells would stop him. He felt his shoulders loosening just a little. It was like being back home in his hut, except – well, there was also Tony's face to look at, and that laugh that was nice when it wasn't directed at him.
He washed his hands, and went back to Tony's office to write his letter to Steve.
He wasn't surprised when, after finishing his letter at Tony's small but incredibly well-stocked desk, that Tony had started lunch, inviting Bucky by dint of serving up two bowls of plain soup. Then after lunch Tony asked if Bucky could handle a bellows, because he had something he'd been wanting to do but it required the fire staying super-hot for longer than Tony could manage on his own.
Bucky found it easy enough to do; Tony hadn't asked him to pay for the paper, after all, so he owed the guy something. One chore led to another and before Bucky realised it, Tony was talking about dinner and did Bucky like hard rolls with his more of the same plain soup. There was always more work needed than ready cash to pay for it with, so more often than not the villagers paid for their work with small birds or game, or baskets of potatoes, or loaves of bread. Tony admitted to having no talent at all in the kitchen other than serving food, so he'd been grateful to accept the villagers' offerings in return for fixing pots and forging new pins for wagon wheels. Needed food more than money, Tony said, giving Bucky a half-sort of smile. He could manage soup, and he could grill meat when someone else did the butchering, and otherwise he lived on toast and casseroles brought to him by villagers concerned he wasn't eating enough.
Remembering lunch – filling, but like eating vegetables boiled in plain water – Bucky quickly offered to take over the cooking of dinner. Tony cheerfully let him, then while Bucky cooked a proper stew, regaled him with explanations of the harness Tony had been working on most of the day for a company in the river town. Turned out folks came up all the time to give him work. Tony brushed off the implication that he was just that good, but Bucky figured he could tell, from having spent the entire day watching Tony work. Tony had no business living in a village of about thirty people, he should have been in a city or even the Empire Seat, earning a living that justified his skills. But Bucky didn't say so; he sure didn't want to share his secrets with Tony, so he knew better than to pry into Tony's.
Having escaped the war was reason enough, Bucky figured. Might not just be him that couldn't stand to be around people. But it was nice listening to Tony talk as he described some of his work, mostly farm tools and parts for wagons, while they ate. Tony seemed happy enough to carry the entire conversation, letting Bucky sit quietly and just listen. As they cleared up Tony paused, then very casually mentioned that he had a cot in the smithy, which Bucky was welcome to use.
Bucky didn't have an excuse to accept, he was perfectly capable of hiking away and making a dry camp in the dark, well away from Tony's place. Tony would see his letter off to Steve and it would be done for another six months.
But while he opened his mouth to say so, he found himself hesitating. It had been nice, today, helping Tony in the smithy and not being forced to talk much. So much nicer than following Steve around and brushing off the constant looks of pity and concern. Something about Tony and his intricate and expansive spellwork gave Bucky a feeling of warmth and safety that he hadn't quite been able to capture even living alone as far away from people as he could manage. Maybe there was even something in the spells, giving off the suggestion that Bucky could feel safe.
Maybe Tony was planning on murdering him in his sleep and his spells were lulling Bucky into a false sense of safety.
Whatever. Bucky figured he was welcome to try, one of them would pay the price for it and if Bucky murdered an innocent blacksmith then at least the locals would hang him for it.
Somewhat to Bucky's surprise, however, he woke up the next morning having slept the night through with no bad dreams and no blacksmiths sneaking in to kill or rob him. He found Tony in the kitchen, fighting with the stove to heat water. Bucky could smell the coffee grounds and he shoved Tony over with his hip and grabbed the canister.
Tony let him, gratefully taking the first mug of coffee and inhaling it before it was cooled enough not to burn. Then he poured a second mug and looked at Bucky, his eyes going wide in surprise.
“Huh,” was all he said, and went back to drinking his coffee.
Bucky waited patiently, counted to thirty even, then demanded, “What huh?”
“You didn't kill me in my sleep, rob me, or sneak out to molest the chickens.”
Maybe the smith wasn't awake still. Or maybe he was crazy. “You don't have chickens,” Bucky pointed out.
“Be that as it may,” Tony said. “The spells told me you were safe. But still.”
“You telling me you don't normally let wandering travelers stay the night?” Bucky grinned at him. He was in a good mood, the best one he'd felt in a long, long time. Probably due to a good night's sleep, but maybe also because he'd eaten probably twice as much food yesterday as normal, since he hadn't had to hunt and gather everything for himself. And they'd had bread yesterday, which Bucky didn't have any way to make and so hadn't eaten any in well over a year.
He would happily eat his body weight in bread if Tony had any more loaves handy.
But Tony was looking at him thoughtfully. “Never have,” he said. “Usually I don't even let them stick around while I work.”
Bucky blinked. “You fattening me up to kill and eat me, then?” Everyone was pretty sure trolls weren't real, but they'd all been told stories as kids. Eaten by trolls if you don't get home before dark, Mama would say. Eaten by trolls if you piss off Old Man Warner again, Mrs. Rogers told them, over and over. Stevie would just say they hadn't been eaten yet, so it probably wasn't ever going to happen.
Tony grinned at him. “I-- There are so many things I could do with that line,” he said, shaking his head. “I should be good. I should-- oh, Hell. Would you like to be eaten?” he asked, giving Bucky was was clearly his best leer.
Bucky sputtered into his coffee, despite having seen the line coming a mile away – once upon a time he'd used lines like that, himself. On both ladies and gentlemen and those who were willing enough to not let him need a line, just will you and let's go and Bucky had to admit he didn't truly miss all the games.
But Tony – his face made Bucky want to pull closer, and there was no denying that he'd spent a good portion of yesterday staring at Tony's arms, unabashedly. But he wanted to kiss Tony, not just fuck him, and that sudden realisation made Bucky pull up. He wanted to sit and listen to the man talk for an hour without looking up to see if Bucky was still listening. Which he had been – Bucky had learned more yesterday about iron and melting points than he'd ever known there was to learn.
“Yeah,” Tony said, nodding like he knew what Bucky was feeling. “If you're only here long enough to get your letter sent, I'd say, let's stop wasting time and spend the day in my bunk.” He rubbed a hand along his cheek and for a second he looked shy. “Something makes me want to ask you if you'd like to stay for awhile.”
“I would.” The words slipped out, shocking Bucky. He knew he was gaping like a moron, but he didn't want to take the words back, either. But he felt safe, here, and – well. It wasn't like he was planning on moving in, but he could certainly let himself stay a few days and enjoy himself. Tony's spellwork would keep him safe, or at least give Bucky a fighting chance to get away if something happened. Tony himself, and his home, were soothing in a way Bucky hadn't even realised he wanted.
A few days and his arm wouldn't make a menace of itself, then Bucky could leave and maybe he could plan to come back this way in six months' time to send Steve's next letter.
He gave Tony a smile, feeling it all the way to his bones. “I could stay for a little while.”