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A Winter for Wolves

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New York City, March, 1942

The thin wall of the garret room provided no barrier at all to the rattling roar of the elevated train rumbling by mere feet away, its last stop on the last trip of the night. Inside the shivering cold room the walls seemed to vibrate with the sound, and the bare bulb in the ceiling swung as the building shook. Sitting on the edge of the small single bed, his legs covered by a thin woollen blanket, Steve flinched away from the damp cloth Bucky was attempting to dab against the cuts on his cheek and lips. Steve’s rail-thin frame was shaking along with the room, his gaunt collarbones stretching the thin cotton of his white singlet, spotted now with fresh blood.

“Stop being a baby,” Bucky said, “If you were as chicken about getting hit as you are about letting me fix you up, you wouldn’t be in this mess.”

“You’ll get blood on your uniform,” Steve protested, “and you’re shipping out tomorrow. You should be out enjoying the night.”

“Not a chance, pal,” Bucky said, pushing Steve down onto the narrow bed. “Now be a good patient and lie down. I’m right where I wanna be.”

Bucky stood, stopping the sway of the light bulb with the back of his hand. The train had passed now, and the sounds of the New York night were returning to the room: delivery trucks in the alley below; the barely muffled sounds of an argument in an apartment above them; music from a distant nightclub; soldiers, snatching a last night of laughter and light and music, stealing a few more hours of life, before the dawn. Through the window Bucky could see two uniformed men, arm-in-arm, weaving down the street, each of them holding a bottle in their free hand.

He looked back to his friend, curled up under the blanket. He was hugging his knees, his shoulders bared. The bones were painfully close to the skin, translucent in the yellow light of the bare bulb. Bucky began to unbutton his starched khaki shirt.

“Looks like you’ll have a uniform of your own soon enough” he said. “I don’t know what you said to that Doctor and it’s probably best you don’t tell me. I’ll just tell myself that he saw it was either let you in or you’d kill yourself trying.”

Steve looked up from the bed at Bucky, folding his shirt, and hanging it over the back of a chair, unbuckling his belt.

“What are you doing?” Steve asked. “I’ll be fine, Bucky. You don’t always have to be looking after me.”

Bucky stepped out of his uniform trousers, and stooped to pick them up off the floor. He folded them and put them with the shirt. It was a freezing night, and left alone here there was every chance Steve would catch cold again. His lungs were not good. If Steve missed this chance at service because of a night spent in the cold, it would kill him.

“That was the last train, bud. It’s sleep here or walk home, and it’s cold out there. So shift over.” It was the kind of lie friends tell each other.

“And I wouldn’t have to keep looking after you if you’d back down for once in your life. I don’t know what you were thinking. There were two of them!” In just his shorts and singlet now, Bucky looked down at Steve, who was lying on his back, one skinny arm behind his head.

For the first time since they’d come back to the apartment, a smile touched Steve’s battered face. “I had them right where I wanted them,” he said.

Bucky shook his head. “Never change, buddy,” he said, turning out the light. In the darkness, skin pricking against the cold, he slipped under the covers.

But sleep did not come. Steve’s shivering seemed to intensify as Bucky shifted in the bed, trying to get comfortable. The wire bed frame groaned and bowed under their combined weight, pressing their bodies against each other. Steve’s skin was cold, clammy. Bucky could feel the bones and wiry muscles beneath the skin, the rapid beating of Steve’s heart.

They’d slept in the same bed many times, as boys and as young men, as thoughtlessly as every other moment of their friendship. They’d shared a bed as naturally as they would share a meal or a magazine. But by the same unspoken communication, there was something different tonight. The fight, the beating Steve had taken, had knocked down some of his bravado, the raised fists and squared jaw he always kept between himself and the rest of the world. And then there were Steve’s recruitment papers, so long hoped for. There was the sense of being on the edge of a vast precipice, of great changes rumbling through their lives, shaking them apart, as remorselessly as the train had shaken the apartment.

Face to face now in the bed, wide eyed in the darkness, they looked at each other.

“Steve, I…” Bucky began to say.

As always, Steve was the brave one. It was the slightest of movements, just the tilt of his head, but it was enough. In the cold, dark room, their lips gently met.

Bucky felt Steve’s mouth on his own, hot in the cold night. His tongue was soft, hesitant, but not afraid. Never afraid. They kissed each other slowly, eyes wide open. The room was lit only by the city’s lights filtering in the window. Their arms tangled with each other and found purchase. Bucky pulled Steve even tighter against him, their bodies pressed together along their whole length. Steve was all angles and bones. His chest felt so thin Bucky feared he would crush it.

Bucky heard Steve inhale sharply as they kissed harder, and felt fresh blood from the cuts on Steve’s lips. He pulled back, wary of hurting his friend. But Steve’s hand was knotted in Bucky’s hair, gripping in a tight fist, and he pulled Bucky back towards him even harder, so that their mouths were locked tight together, their tongues raking each others’ teeth, their lips slippery and wet. Bucky tasted blood in his mouth.

It was Bucky who snaked his hand between them, found Steve’s cock already wet and free, and tugged his own straining cock from his tight shorts. There was no pause, no moment to consider, it was simply the fulfilment of a deep urge, an insistence from deep within. He wrapped his hand around both of them, pressed between their bodies, their singlets riding up, their bellies starting to slick with sweat, sliding against each other.

Steve’s breathing became ragged, both his arms wrapped around Bucky he held him close, their faces pressed together, side by side, his mouth against Bucky’s ear. Their bodies ground together, Bucky’s hand holding both of their cocks between them, the centre of both of their concentration. They thrust in unison now, finding a rhythm, their breathing coming in grunting gasps.

Bucky could feel a pressure building inside himself, the skin of his cock felt taut, their combined wetness and sweat making them slippery. Where the heads of their cocks touched there was a rawness, like a light too bright to look into. For a wild, breathless moment, Bucky felt himself overcome. He threw his leg over Steve’s hip, throwing him onto his back, riding him, one fist buried in the pillow beside Steve’s thrashing head, the other still holding their cocks against each other. The shafts throbbed together in his tight grip. His hips bucked, and his breath hissed between clenched teeth. Bucky gasped one last time, his back arched, grinding into Steve, and then there was a burst of wetness, a pause, and then another. Steve, eyes clenched tight shut, hands gripping the iron headboard, thrust upwards against Bucky’s weight, the wetness between them spreading now, slick and hot. Steve shuddered, the wetness between them grew, and then they were still.

*****
Unknown Location, April 1942

Despite Dr. Erskine’s kind bedside manner, and the calm and logical explanations he had given, many times over the last few days, Steve was feeling decidedly unsure of his choices. Of course he wanted to help the war effort in any way he could. He would die for his country and be glad of the chance. Many times he had imagined himself, bullet-riddled, breathing his last, his dying eyes looking with joy at the proud flag still flying over the battlements. Or flinging himself onto a grenade, or diving in front of a commanding officer to take the sniper’s bullet in his chest. His weak body, his short life, was not much, but he would throw it into the gears of the Nazi war machine without hesitation.

Leaving Bucky that morning, Steve had not looked back. His country, finally, needed him, and he would not fail it. He would give his life. Harder still, this new, precious thing he had found with Bucky. Before he even knew what it was, he would give that too. He had not looked back through the training, through the examinations, through Erskine’s kind but terrifying explanations of the process he would go through. He had not flinched.

But now, strapped to a leather-covered board, seeing the machinery around him, the needles, the electrical apparatus, the cages, the wolves, Steve began to feel nervous.

“The process, you see” Esrkine had explained, “has taken time to perfect. Many failures, many tragedies. Many good men. But we have succeeded, my friend. Never fear!”

Steve now seemed to recall a note of hysteria in the Doctor’s tone. Who had he been trying to convince?

“The secret was to look beyond the human!” Eskine had gripped Steve’s arm, hard. “We must connect with the primal, the ancient. I found it! The transforming principle! But not from humans, no! Too civilised, to weakened by all this.” Erskine gestured around at the walls, the window.

“We must look to man’s ancient companion. The wolf!” Steve had looked at Erskine hard, then, to see if the German scientist was joking, but Erskine was lost in his own words. “It is in the wolf that we found the key to stabilising the transformation. The wildness, yes, the strength, that primal vitality. But also, the key! A wolf can be tamed! Don’t you see?”

Restrained, sweating, Steve felt the prick of a needle in his arm. Like fire, the serum ran through him. His back arched He threw back his head. The blood rushing in his ears sounded like a thousand wolves, howling.

*****
Italy, Late 1943

Bucky leapt off the back of the truck, his boots hitting the ground at the same moment as half a dozen others. They poured out of the vehicle and took position in the rubble-strewn village. The truck’s engine and the shouts of the men were the only sound in the old Italian plaza. Azzano, they’d called the village in the briefings, but it looked the same as all the others. Sounded the same too. Quiet.

Bucky shouted to the other men in his section, ordering them out of the street, into cover. But they were slow and complacent. One of them stooped to pick something up from the street, showed it to his friend.

“Novak! Get in formation!” Bucky barked. The tall man guiltily shuffled into cover.

Bucky couldn’t blame them for being unconcerned. It was the same as the last two towns. Undefended. The civilians had gone to the hills or were hiding behind locked doors. The German garrison had fled, or worse, had been caught before they fled.

There was someone killing Germans in these remote mountains. Scouts, patrols, and even whole garrisons disappearing, just ahead of the Allied advance. Nothing was left except bloody corpses and whispered stories. The men were calling it the Howling Commando, and claimed it was the work of a single man. More likely it was a band of partisans, resistance fighters mad with revenge. The rumours that it was just one man made no sense. No one man could have done this. No sane man. When he closed his eyes, Bucky could still see the bodies they’d found in the last village. Throats torn out; eyes, open wide with terror; guns thrown aside; blood everywhere. He came at night, the villagers had said. They saw nothing. All they heard was gunfire, then screams. And the howling.

“Sergeant! You’d better see this,” Novak said. The lanky Pole held something out, and Bucky took it from him. It was the object he’d picked up from the street. A German officer’s Luger. The men liked to take them as trophies. But there was something wrong with this one. The barrel, hard steel, had been bent back on itself.

“Wasn’t no partisan did that, Sir,” Novak said, his eyes wide, fearful.

“Get back in position, Private,” Bucky said. “And quit the superstitious crap. You Poles are worse than the Italians!”

Novak grumbled and went back to the line. But Bucky knew he hadn’t heard the last of it. He’d almost rather a stand-up fight with the Germans than this creeping sense of dread.

And then the sound of gunfire broke the eerie silence. Immediately there was panic. Men hit the ground, fired randomly, ran for cover. Bucky saw one private, eighteen years old if he was lucky, standing in the middle of the road, looking around himself like he was lost. The poor kid was probably straight off the boat. There was a terrible electrical sound, and suddenly, where the private had been, there was a hideous, charred and smoking skeleton.

Bucky shouted over the din of battle that had descended on the Italian village. All around him, men were running, falling. Skeletons still covered in awful blackened flesh lay in the street where they fell. The attackers were coming from all sides. Bucky glimpsed one, firing down from the second-story window of a grocer’s shop across the street. This was no Wehrmacht soldier. The black uniform reminded Bucky of an SS officer, but the awful black face mask was new. So was the evil red logo on the soldier’s armband. A many-armed monster. The soldier fired another burst from his strange, glowing rifle, and beside Bucky, a man fell. His flesh had dissolved before he even struck the ground.

“Follow me!” Bucky shouted. Snapping off a shot from his rifle, to keep the black-clad soldier’s head down, he ran across the street. He threw his shoulder against the stout door of the grocer’s store. The door gave, and Bucky stumbled into the cool of the shop. The shuttered windows admitted slanting bars of light. The trays of vegetables were nearly empty, and what produce remained was withered and old. At the back, behind a low counter, stairs ran up to the second story.

There was a sound behind Bucky, and he spun to face it. It was Novak, the Pole. Of Bucky’s section, he was the only one to make it across the killing zone in the street. Over Novak’s shoulder, Bucky saw desperate men were cowering, falling, firing futile shots at assailants that seemed impervious to harm. For a moment, Bucky was overcome. The sound, the violence. He could not think. Then he saw Novak’s eyes widen. Before Bucky could react, the tall Pole had thrown him to the side, against the wall of the shop. The shot grazed Bucky’s arm, burning. But Novak was not so lucky. Throwing Bucky to safety, he had taken the full force of the shot in his chest, and staggering back into the street, the flesh fell burning from his bones.

Bucky sprung from the ground, and his rifle barked as he fired on a masked soldier on the stairs. The man barely flinched, Bucky’s bullet simply ricocheted off his armoured chest. Silently, the soldier raised his own weapon. Bucky’s second shot clipped the soldier’s mask, and the man’s head whipped to the side from the impact. Bucky fired twice more, this time at the unarmoured legs, and the man crumpled, clutching the wounds. With a yell, Bucky ran across the room, and with the butt of his rifle, bludgeoned the masked face. The soldier lay still.

Bucky heard shouts in German outside, and running feet, coming towards the grocer’s shop. Wrestling with the rifle’s bolt, Bucky ejected his spent clip, and slotted in another. Facing the door, he pushed his hair out of his eyes. He raised the rifle, ready to go down fighting.

Then he heard a howl. A long, ululating cry, cutting through the sounds of gunfire, of dying men, of shouted orders. It was a sad sound, a lonely sound. It seemed to come from all directions at once, and the soldiers outside were thrown into panic. Bucky could hear them shouting at each other. The howling stopped, and then the screaming started. There was a sickening crunch and the building shook. Something had been thrown against it, hard. There was the sound of the soldiers’ strange rifles being fired, then more screams. A black-clad soldier stumbled through the doorway, his mask torn away. His face was bloody, and as he breathed, blood bubbled from his mouth. His throat had been torn out. The soldier fell face forward and did not move.

Behind him, silhouetted in the doorway, was a figure from nightmare. Hulking, muscled arms burst from the remains of a blue vest. Red and white stripes at the waist were obscured by splashes of fresh blood. On the chest, a white star. Matted hair, hacked short. A grizzled beard. As the thing stepped into the building, Bucky saw the eyes. Cold, piercing. Blue.

His finger tensed on the trigger of the rifle, which was still raised, and pointing at the thing in the doorway. But Bucky hesitated. A bead of sweat ran down his forehead. Slowly, he lowered the rifle.

“Steve?” He said. “Is that you?”

*****
Austria, January 1944

The last weeks had been a blur of endless marching through wilderness. Avoiding roads. Avoiding open country. Desperate hiding in farm buildings and ditches. Somewhere along the way, they’d missed the start of the New Year. They were cut off from what was left of their unit. But they weren’t fleeing back towards their own lines. Steve was taking them deeper into enemy territory.

Steve. Bucky watched his friend warily, across the low fire they’d carefully built in this abandoned barn. Sometimes there would be flashes of his old friend: a smile; a laugh; a joke about the strange new world they’d found themselves in. But then the darkness would descend again. It was like Steve was afraid to remember what they’d once been to each other. Like he wanted to forget his past. He’d been driving them like a man possessed. They were tracking the black-clad soldiers back to their source. But Bucky could see that Steve was tiring. His blue eyes were hiding pain, exhaustion. He’d caught a bullet through his arm in the last firefight, and though he seemed to heal incredibly fast, Bucky could tell the wound still pained him. He was ragged, filthy. But he was not beaten yet.

Bucky took the pot of water off the fire.

“What are you doing?” Steve asked. “That’s not boiled yet.”

“You’re gonna have to wait for your coffee, pal,” Bucky replied. “I’m sick of looking at that dirty beard. Tonight we’re cleaning you up.”

Bucky took soap, a small tube of gel, and a razor from the small shaving kit he carried.
Steve started to protest. “We don’t have time for that.”

“You planning on going anywhere before dawn?” Bucky asked. “This is happening.”

Steve rubbed the thick hair on his face, and a small smile touched his face. “I guess I don’t exactly meet regulations. If the drill sergeant could see me now, I’d be in a world of trouble.”

Bucky worked up a lather, dipping them into the hot water and then rubbing the soap between his hands. He shifted around behind Steve, who was leaning against a small bale of hay.

“Lie back” he said, working his fingers into Steve’s beard.

The hair was coarse, brittle from sun and sweat. Bucky took his time rubbing the soap into the beard, softening the hairs, making the skin slippery. Steve closed his eyes. His hands, clenched into fists, relaxed.

Wordlessly, Bucky worked. Bit by bit, he drew the razor across the skin, shearing away the hairs and cleaning away the dirt. He rinsed the blade in the hot water, and returned, again and again. Inch by inch, he revealed the face of the friend he’d grown up with. In rest, he was more like his old self than ever. Bucky’s hands traced Steve’s strong jaw, straight nose, and high cheekbones. Steve’s eyes were closed, the lashes long. A good face, Bucky thought. It was an honest face, and kind. Kneeling behind Steve, working with the razor, Bucky could almost believe that the previous weeks had all been illusion. That he’d not seen this familiar face contorted in a snarl, not seen the things that Steve had done.

With a small cloth, Bucky wiped the last of the lather from Steve’s face slowly, almost reverently. Finally, taking the tube of shaving cream from the kit, he squeezed out a precious drop onto his palm, worked it onto his hands, and rubbed the oily cream into Steve’s skin, feeling the muscles in Steve’s jaw relaxing under his touch. Soon the skin was smooth and soft, the way Bucky remembered it.

Eyes still closed, Steve began to speak. “Bucky, I’m sorry. I can’t always control it. The things I’ve done. I shouldn’t have brought you with me.”

Bucky did not reply. Leaning forward, with one hand still cupping the side of Steve’s face, fingers curled under his chin, he slowly, gently, kissed Steve on the mouth. In the dark barn, lit only by the low fire, they kissed for a long time.

Bucky shifted, lay his body next to Steve’s, put his hand on the broad chest, felt it hesitantly rising and falling as Steve’s breath came irregularly, the heartbeat fast. Gently Bucky stroked the side of Steve’s face and kissed him again, looking into his wide blue eyes. As they kissed, Bucky felt Steve’s body, rigid with tension, slowly relax. His hand drifted from Steve’s face, down his chest, rested on the taut belly. With infinite concentration, his hand went further, over Steve’s worn and faded fatigues, finding his cock hard and pressing against his trousers.

Bucky stood, taking Steve’s hand in his own, drawing him up. Steve looked up at Bucky, and stood up with him. They faced each other in the low, flickering firelight. Bucky looked at Steve’s tall, broad frame. The change in his body was alarming, impossible, but somehow also seemed right. It was as if Steve’s body now reflected the man he had always been, inside. Strong, unbending, unbreakable. But also gentle and kind. In Steve’s stance now there was none of the untamed aggression Bucky had seen over the last few weeks, none of the lurking threat of violence that had crouched just below the surface, springing out at the slightest danger. Steve was smiling now, shyly. He looked away, then looked back to Bucky. Gesturing to himself, he gave a wry grin.

“I guess the Army really does make a man of you.” Steve had a smile on his face again. For Bucky it was like sunshine after rain.

Bucky smiled, but didn’t say anything. Keeping his eyes locked with Steve’s, he unbuttoned his shirt, and tossed it aside. Steve, serious now, followed suit. Silently they undressed until they were both standing naked in the barn, their bodies lit by the red glow of the fire. Steve’s body was all well-formed curves. Wide chest, stomach rippling, each thigh two lobes of muscle. Bucky was smaller, wiry. The weeks on the run had stripped all the fat from him and he was whip-thin, muscles tight below the skin, like a greyhound poised before a race.

Bucky took a step towards Steve. His lips moved.

“You’re beautiful,” Bucky whispered. He sank down onto his knees, and his eyes dropped from Steve’s face to Steve’s half-erect cock, emerging from its bed of softly curled blond hairs. One hand on the curve of Steve’s hip, he took Steve’s cock in the other hand, warm and soft, and raised it to his lips.

It was heavy, the texture velvety under his tongue. He could feel the veins pulsing, Steve’s cock throbbing as it gradually stiffened in his mouth. Using his hand, he stroked the base, ran his fingers through the hairs, his lips slid back and forth on Steve’s cock, taking it deeper and deeper, his mouth opening wider as it swelled. Bucky could taste salt. His mouth was wide open, the head of Steve’s cock hard and hot, pressing against his tongue. He could hear Steve gasping with each stroke of his lips, muttering under his breath, calling his name.

Bucky felt Steve’s hands in his hair, first pulling him closer. Steve’s hips rocked, and Bucky felt Steve’s cock pushed deep into his mouth, against the back of his throat. His eyes widened. His hand on Steve’s hip tightened, but he did not push Steve away. Breathing out through his nose, he took Steve’s short, bucking thrusts. Then Steve’s hands clenched to fists in Bucky’s hair, and Bucky was pulled back off Steve’s cock, a glistening trail of spit hung from his lips, and Steve’s cock stood wet and hard in the firelight.

Bucky looked up into Steve’s eyes, and saw in them a wild light, bright and blue like a pilot flame. Rough now, Steve pushed Bucky backwards. Bucky fell, caught himself on his elbows, and looked up at Steve with wide eyes. This roughness was new, and frightening, but it was also powerful, exciting. With the back of his hand, he wiped saliva from his mouth. He watched as Steve knelt between his splayed legs. With one hand Steve gripped Bucky’s cock, roughly tugging on it, making Bucky gasp. With his other hand he reached for Bucky’s mouth, pushing three fingers between his teeth, his thumb along the underside of Bucky’s chin, gripping, holding Bucky in place. Bucky moaned against Steve’s fingers, a muted, animal sound.

His fingers wet now with Bucky’s spit, Steve reached between Bucky’s legs, cupped his balls, his fingers searching deeper. Bucky pulled his legs wider, and leaned back against the hay. Steve’s fingers found Bucky’s asshole, pressed against it, and slid inside. Bucky threw his head back, his dark hair across his face, his mouth wide open, gasping. Steve worked the finger deeper inside him, and Bucky felt himself opening up, stretching.

From the floor where it had fallen, Steve picked up the tube of shaving gel, and squeezed it into is other hand. He rubbed the slick, oily stuff onto his cock and then reached back between Bucky’s legs, his fingers pushing deeper. Bucky gave a long, sighing breath. Steve’s hands were on his hips now, pulling him forward. Bucky tucked his knees back towards his chest, and felt Steve’s cock slide into him. There was pressure, a moment of sharp pain, and Bucky drew in a hissing breath. Then there was relief as something relaxed within him, and there was nothing but the full, complete feeling of Steve’s hard cock deep inside him, Steve’s hips pressed against him.

Bucky tried to look into Steve’s eyes, but Steve was looking down, between them, focused. He put one hand on Bucky’s shoulder, pulling him tight, and the other, still slick from the shaving cream, on Bucky’s cock. Then, stroking Bucky in time, still looking down, he began thrusting.

Bucky’s breathing was coming in gasps, and he moaned with each stroke of Steve’s cock, faster and faster. He felt open, vulnerable and small in a way he’d never felt with Steve before. He reached behind his head, found the wooden crossbars of a stable door to steady himself with, and braced against Steve’s hard, pounding thrusts. Steve’s teeth were gritted now, and there were beads of sweat on his forehead, glittering with the light from the dying fire. Steve’s hands had shifted to Bucky’s waist, pulling him against himself, so strong that Bucky was thrown back and forth, his back arched, his feet in the air, thrashing.

“Easy, buddy!” he said, looking down again at Steve.

Steve’s breathing was rasping in his throat, like an animal’s panting. Veins stood out on his forehead, and his teeth were bared. In the firelight, Bucky thought he saw the teeth shift, lengthen, the canines growing into fangs. He felt Steve’s fingernails digging into the flesh of his hips, sharp. And then Steve looked up, and he saw the savage look in Steve’s blue eyes. Frenzied. Feral. Not human. Suddenly, he was afraid.

The wild look on Steve’s face suddenly flickered, he blinked. Steve abruptly pulled away from Bucky and stood, looking down for a moment at Bucky, sprawled on the floor of the barn. Then, fists clenched, he turned, and disappeared into the darkness at the back of the barn. From the blackness, Bucky heard a low, growling voice, barely recognisable as Steve’s.

“Get out of here Bucky, NOW!”

Bucky paused. He could hear pain in Steve’s voice, and fear. He got to his feet, slowly approaching the dark corner of the barn where he could just make out Steve’s hulking form, hunched over, rocking back and forth. He reached out a hand toward’s Steve’s shivering back.

Steve flinched away from the touch, and his head snapped around. Steve’s face made Bucky recoil, staggering backwards. His lips were peeled back off his teeth, which were huge and jagged in his twisted, thrusting jaws. His eyes were blazing blue fire. The thing that had been Steve snarled, and then turned away away again. Bucky heard Steve’s ragged breathing turn into savage growls. Steve’s hands, claws now, were clenched. The nails raked the wooden floor of the barn.

Bucky snatched up his clothes, struggled into his trousers, and, looking back over his shoulder, staggered out of the barn, into the snow. The cold air shocked his lungs, and he pulled his coat around himself. He ran blindly, the farm path they had followed to the barn was obscured now. He tripped several times, rolled down a snowbank, and came up disoriented and gasping for air. In the silence of the snowy night, he heard a long, echoing howl.

Bucky ran, hearing a crash behind him, not daring to look back. His heart was racing, not from exertion, but from an urgent, primal fear that had arisen in him. It was the fear that a prey animal feels as it flees a predator. The howling had stopped now, and there was silence. Across the white field, a bright beam of light glittered in the falling snow. In its wake, billowing black smoke against the black sky, a long train thundered through the night. Bucky changed his direction, increased his pace, angled across the field to intercept the train. In this cold he would not last the night, even if he could outpace the snarling horror on his heels. The train was a gamble, he might be throwing himself from one danger straight into another, but it was a gamble he’d have to take. He ran alongside the train, stumbling in the loose gravel beneath the tracks. Reaching up, he snatched at a handle as it rushed past, and swung himself up, into the pitch blackness of the railcar.

*****
Siberia, October 2014

The sound of Steve’s motorbike engine cut through the silence of the high tundra. The road was barely worthy of the name, little more than a dirt track. But snow and ice scoured hard by the wind made a more than adequate surface for the bike, and he could open up the throttle, with nothing but the steel-grey sky above, sparse trees flashing by, and the long road ahead of him. With wind and the bike’s engine drowning out all sound, and his whole conscious attention focused on the road ahead, his mind could drift.

As many times as he’d played the events back through his mind, they always happened the same way. When Bucky jumped that train he couldn’t have known it was transporting a whole platoon of guards for the Hydra facility. He’d fought, but it would have been hopeless. Steve’s memories of the night were fragmented, filled with blood and screams and Bucky’s face, afraid. But he remembered the desperation he’d felt, seeing Bucky board the train, hearing gunshots. He remembered fear, then rage. Then all was blood and hunger and the hunt, until that final moment. He’d thrown a man across the railcar, his body nothing but a twisted rag, hanging in the shattered door. His squad-mate had turned, screamed, and fallen to Steve’s claws. But it was too late. Bucky was hit, staggering backwards, to the open door of the car. And then he fell, disappearing into the whiteness of falling snow against the frozen river far below. In quiet moments like this one, Steve always saw the same scene. Bucky, shot, bleeding, eyes wide with fear, toppling backwards off that train. Was it just the shattered bones in his arm, the shock, that stopped him reaching out for Steve’s hand as he fell? Or was it something else? Was it fear? In that moment, could he tell Steve apart from his enemies, or was he all part of the same horror?

It was an old pain now, an ache like a wound badly healed. Like a scar. The thought no longer brought the blood pounding in his ears. It no longer turned his vision red, or started the howling in his mind. He was wise to the wolf inside him now. Not stronger against it. It could not be fought. But he was wiser. He could ride with it now, guess where it would attack and be ready for it. He could turn the rage and pain into focus, power. He carried the guilt like an anchor, something to hold him down, reminding himself that he could never, ever let go.

The device on his wrist throbbed once. Glancing at it, he saw an aerial map of the area, a red dot growing closer. He was close to the target. He’d arrive at the abandoned silo in a few minutes, if the satellite reconnaissance was accurate. The photographs he’d seen showed the target had returned here after his last assignment.

The dossier had called the target The Winter Wolf. An assassin, a ghost. Even in the world of international espionage that Steve now found himself embroiled in, the Winter Wolf was spoken of in hushed tones. He didn’t just eliminate targets, he slaughtered them. He didn’t leave witnesses. Not alive, anyway. He attacked at night, and always worked alone. The few photographs that existed were blurred, confusing. SHIELD had told Steve to wait, that it was too risky. The lead was too flimsy, they said. It was madness to chase a ghost halfway to the Arctic. But to Steve, there was something he recognised about the fury of the Winter Wolf’s attacks. And something in those grainy photographs, a blur of grey and black amongst splashes of blood, seemed to call to an old ache inside him.

It erupted from the snow banked on the side of the road. Steve reacted instantly, throwing the bike into a slide, but it was too late. Something huge, dirty black, a slash of shining steel, collided with Steve and they rolled together across the ice into a hollow beneath a snow-covered tree. Steve came to rest on his back, his eyes full of snow, his head ringing. Acting on an instinct borne of many beatings worse than this one, he brought his knees up, kicked out, threw the thing off him. He heard it snarl. It had not anticipated his strength. The moment of respite was all he needed to roll to his feet, fluidly unlimbering the shield from his back, turning to face the thing, poised to throw. And then he froze.

It was covered in grizzled grey and black fur, its face pure wolf, lips drawn back off its teeth in a snarl. Half wolf, half man, a shaggy mane surrounded its neck, bursting from scraps of clothing, military webbing, an ammunition belt. It was half-crouched, one huge, muscled arm was braced against the ground. The other was already raised in a guard against Steve’s throw. The arm was made of gleaming steel, smooth, shining, huge and clawed. But Steve barely noticed the arm. All he could see were the thing’s eyes. Grey-blue, cold, furious, and yet somehow painfully familiar.

The hesitation nearly cost him his life. With terrifying speed the thing sprang from its crouch, jaws open for a killing strike at Steve’s throat. Steve fell back as it sprang and brought up his shield with only moments to spare. It landed on him, hard, but the jaws clamped shut on the shield’s rim, instead of around Steve’s neck. In the next moment the huge black wolf-thing had twisted its great neck and his shield was torn from his grasp, thrown to the side. Steve pummelled the thing with his fists, each blow enough to shatter concrete, but though the huge grizzled head was buffeted to side to side, it paid him little heed. Steve felt the claws gripping him, cutting into his flesh. He was lifted from the ground.

Steve could feel his own fury rising in him like a red tide. He did not fight it now, as he had for many years. He let it fill him, swelling his muscles with strength. He tasted blood on his tongue. But he did not let it consume him entirely. The wolf was out of its cage, but he still held a leash.

As he was lifted, he lashed out with a foot, caught the wolf’s jaw with a vicious kick that caused its grip to loosen. With new strength filling his arms, he tore himself free. The wolf in him strained forward, aching to slash and bite, to taste blood. But he mastered it, and, bleeding from wounds in his sides, cautiously backed away.

The Winter Wolf did not know caution. As soon as it had recovered from the kick, it sprang again, jaws snapping. But Steve was ready for it. He sidestepped and his fist swung out in a crushing blow to the thing’s ribs. Then he danced back again. He heard himself growling, hot saliva from his mouth melted the snow at his feet. Again and again the thing sprang at him, and each time he got the best of the clash. He was bleeding from slashes to his face and chest, and breathing hard, but the wolf thing was slowing, each spring a little slower than the last. Finally, when the thing was on the edge of exhaustion, barely able to stand, Steve could recover his shield. The wolf looked at him sullenly, not admitting defeat, as he slowly approached, and raised the shield double-handed above his head, to bring the edge down for a killing blow. Steve looked again into those grey-blue eyes.

*****

Bucky awoke to the sound of a crackling fire. He felt fur against his bare skin. There was red firelight, the smell of cedar, old hides, and beneath that another smell that brought memories swirling into his head. His mind felt like a shattered mirror, each shard reflecting a distorted vision of a moment in a life he barely recognised as his own. Gunfire, blood, and crushing cold. Cutting, tearing, something flowing in his veins like fire, and then the howling.

He was lying on an ancient wolf pelt in front of a blazing fire in a tiny wooden hut. On the walls were more pelts, and rusted implements of iron. Traps. His lips curled, exposing his teeth, and he growled. His aching body tensed again, and slowly he tried to rise.

The door of the cabin opened, and Bucky flinched away from the sudden light. He looked back, and felt his swirling, churning thoughts suddenly go still. The thousand shards of his mind all at once each reflected the same face. Steve, as Bucky had seen him all throughout his life. He saw them as children, friends from the first. He saw Steve’s face that first night when they had kissed in that ice-cold apartment before the war had thrown them apart. He saw Steve’s icy blue eyes looking at him from a face distorted with rage. And he saw Steve looking down at him, arm outstretched, his face full of fear and loss, as Bucky fell into the icy cold.

Steve, standing in the doorway, dropped the armload of wood he was carrying. He rushed to where Bucky lay in front of the fire. Bucky recoiled back, crouched and raised his arms to protect himself. Slowly, as Steve knelt in front of him, he lowered his guard. They faced each other, both kneeling now on the old white pelt. For a long moment, they just looked.

“How?” Steve asked. But he saw nothing but confusion on Bucky’s face. He reached out then, cupped the stubbled cheek in his hand, and felt the warmth of Bucky’s skin, Bucky’s breath hot on his wrist.

“Steve,” said Bucky. It was not a question, it was a confirmation. A reassurance to himself. He had been lost in the cold, and now, suddenly, he was home.

And then they were in each others’ arms. Holding each other. Steve’s hand cupped the back of Bucky’s head, cradling it, holding him close. Pressed tight, Bucky could feel the rise and fall of Steve’s chest as a pressure against him. He could feel wet tears on his cheek, where Steve’s face lay alongside his own.

How many days they stayed in that abandoned hut in the Siberian wilderness, later, they could not say. That time was a single, perfect, crystalline memory of snow, of firelight, of eating what they could hunt and each night lying in each others’ arms. When they had first come to each other, naked and wide-eyed in the dark cabin, they were shy, afraid. There was a wildness in both of them which could not be contained. But as the passion rose in them, locked together, sweating and gasping, they did not fight the rising tide. They found that they were equal to each other in strength and in passion, that there was nothing they need hold back. Together, they could allow themselves to be free.