Chapter 1: Cryptid
“I’m sorry, you want me to what?”
Steve sits back in his chair and tries not to glare at Hill across the (sustainable hardwood) conference table. Steve has slept in beds smaller than this table. He’s lived in apartments smaller than this table. There has to be about thirty chairs arranged around it. Why they have to have a meeting of just the two of them here, and not somewhere a little less officious, is beyond him.
“Track down a cryptid.” Agent Hill tosses a dossier onto the table, and Steve has to stretch out an arm to reach across for it.
“A cryptid,” Steve repeats doubtfully. He wonders if he can get away with pulling out his phone and doing a quick bit of googling, and instead pulls the dossier towards himself and flips it open.
He is greeted by an A4 photograph of a dead body. The chest cavity has been cracked open, the lights and liver pulled out. They have been arranged clumsily around the body (male, from the blood soaked clothing, or at least identified as one). The heart is missing.
The next page details the discovery of the victim, found on a golf course just outside of Jackson, less than a mile from the Garden State Parkway. Hill keeps quiet as Steve slowly leafs through the pages; unidentified, decapitated and eviscerated. The next body was discovered off Ridgeway Road. Unidentified male, hands, heart, and liver removed, the cuts to the corpse jagged and clumsy, as if done in a panic or a state of high adrenaline.
Steve closes the folder and pushes it away. He’s seen enough, more than enough.
Agent Hill looks down at the table rather than meet Steve’s eye. “We sent an agent to check it out. Four dead bodies and the FBI wasn’t interested. Up until then the only people being taken were homeless guys and the unregistered.”
Steve scowls. He’s not been in the future long, a handful of years, but it didn’t take a genius to spot how many of the guys bundled up on park benches and in doorways had a certain look about them, a distance in their eyes. Meeting Sam and volunteering at the VA only confirmed his suspicions.
“And?” Steve wonders who in Shield liked golfing, and was willing to call in a favour.
“You should read the file,” Hill says grimly.
Steve opens the folder again, noting the last victim. He doesn’t recognise their name, or even their face. With so many operatives working in Shield it is damn near impossible for Steve to know everyone. The unfortunate operative was low level, trained in basic combat and armed, but they were still killed and dismembered. How would a homeless guy even stand a chance?
The pattern is the same: evisceration, removal of heart and organs seemingly chosen at random. The body positioned in the same odd pose, close to a main road.
“So what?” Steve asks, a sour edge to his tone. “It wasn’t a problem when they were killing homeless vets? Now they’ve picked on one of our own, you’re sending me in?”
“Steve.” There’s a pleading edge to Hill’s voice. “I know what you’re saying, and yeah, it’s not right. But now it’s on our radar.”
Steve presses the tip of his finger to the folder, moving it back and forth. The real question is why him? Barton is more than capable of this kind of field work, not to mention a dozen or more other agents. Sending him in would be like dropping a nuke on a case of insurance fraud.
“Is there any reason why you’re not sending Barton?” Steve bites the bullet. “He can take care of himself.”
“Hawkeye is on assignment in LA,” Hill replies. “And...”
Steve sits back in his chair and folds his arms across his chest. It’s not his best I’m-disappointed-in-you look, but it’s certainly in the top three. And enough to make Hill pull out a chair and sit down.
“Honestly? Transferring the title of Captain America from you to Wilson would go a lot more smoothly if you weren’t so…” she pauses, searching for the right word.
“What?” Steve struggles to keep his tone even. “I had no issues passing the shield to Sam. Hell, he’s a better Cap than I could ever be.”
“Twitter,” Hill says with an air of finality.
It had been one of Tony’s jokes, signing Steve up to Twitter. Ha-ha Captain America is old and dumb and doesn’t understand modern technology. Steve had figured out Hydra’s alien powered weapons in less than four minutes, but a smartphone would be beyond him.
And yeah, he was kicking his heels looking for something to do, stuck in a limbo of no longer being Captain America, but not being retired either. In the absence of alien invasions or hoards of killer robots there wasn’t much work for a serumed hundred-year-old with only a basic grasp on the 21st Century.
So he had kept @therealSteveRogers and started tweeting, and an hour later was in the middle of his first flame war.
Anti-vaxxers. Neo-Nazis. The Flat Earth Society.
After that his phone had been confiscated by a furious Ms Potts and returned a day later, rigged with some kind of emergency lockdown function that wiped the phone’s hard drive whenever he tried to log on to Twitter or look at Facebook.
“We feel that…” Hill pauses, choosing her words with some delicacy. “After your high-profile exchanges with everyone from Fox News-”
“They were lying, Maria.”
“-to the FDA,” Hill continues smoothly. “The Directors feel it might be wise to have you working something a little more low-profile.”
“So if I find this…cryptid then it’ll be a heroic return to form,” Steve scowls. “And if I get nowhere it’s only a couple of dead veterans, is that how it is?”
Hill turns away, which is all the answer Steve needs.
“Fine, I’ll do it.” He looks down at the folder, and lets out a sigh. “Is this all the intel you have?”
Seeing Maria’s head snap back to him is almost worth it. She quickly rifles through her files and pulls out another slim dossier. Steve opens it to find a map of the area, known locally as The Pines, with the dump site of each victim marked in red. A printout from a Wikipedia page catches Steve’s attention, and he picks it out, holding up up to the light.
“The Jersey Devil?” he asks incredulously.
Hill shrugs. “It’s a lead, isn’t it?”
I saw a creature with glowing eyes flying down the street. I saw two spots of phosphorus - the eyes of the beast. - January 16th 1926
It was up at the cemetary, a huge thing, like a dragon, with horns coming out of its head and great big wings. The Reverend saw it too, ask him. We armed ourselves with shovels and chased after the beast, and it flew away, shrieking. - November 8th 1949
I saw it walking down by the canal. It looked like some kind of bird, but a head like a dog. It saw me and screamed, such a horrible sound I’ll never forget it, and flew away. - October 12th 1953
Yeah, I seen the Jersey Devil. It’s tall, maybe ten feet, and walks like a man. It has wings, and a head like a horse, but its eyes are red, red like the Devil’s. - April 23rd 1966
Steve drops the reports on his coffee table, eyewitness accounts dating back almost a hundred years of a monster lurking in Pine Barrens, and a handful of drawings of some kind of half-horse, half-devil creature.
A hundred miles of sparsely populated forest to cover, with no leads and no witnesses, or at least none that he can take seriously. He might as well look for a needle in a haystack.
He rubs at his eyes, pressing his fingertips into the furrow in his brow, and gets up to make more coffee.
There are times when Steve can barely keep up with the 21st Century, but at least New York apartments are still cramped and overpriced. He can hardly call the corner of the living room where he makes coffee and toast a kitchen, but it has a refrigerator, a sink, and an oven that he’s probably never used in the two years he’s lived there.
He rinses out the empty coffee jug and drops the old filter paper in the trash, adding fresh paper and coffee from a can in the cupboard. Sam is always nagging (though Sam would call it ‘strongly suggesting’) Steve about keeping his coffee in the freezer, to keep it fresh or something. As far as Steve can figure, coffee is serious business in the future, with people obsessing over single estate beans and flavoured syrups, and then dousing it all in steamed milk. Back in his day coffee was never something you were supposed to enjoy - you drank it to stay awake, even if it made your teeth itch and your eyes water.
He stares at the machine while it hisses and spits, the first drips of coffee splashing into the jug, and chews over the assignment.
The attacks happened at random, or so it seemed. They weren’t linked to phases of the moon, or historical events. There seemed to be no logic at work, no system in place. Were they opportunistic? Killing people and slicing them up took planning and preparation. Did they have a van loaded up with supplies, and drive around looking for homeless people or hitchhikers? Is it someone working alone, or are there more of them? It takes strength to disarm and dismember a person, but it can be done.
Steve taps his fingers against the kitchen counter restlessly.
He doesn’t care why someone or something is killing homeless people, what drives them to kill, and cut people open. He just wants to stop them from doing it again.
The coffee machine lets out a gurgle and Steve pulls the jug out a little too soon, drops of coffee hissing as they hit the hotplate. He refills his cup quickly, and shoves the jug back in place before returning to the files.
Steve picks up the map marked with where the bodies had been found, marking a rough triangle of about thirty miles, somewhere east of the Garden State Parkway. So he has an area to focus on, at least, but what can he do? Ride around on his bike until he sees something suspicious?
He drops the map on the pile, and takes a sip of coffee.
Something unpleasant swims through his scattered thoughts, sleek and vicious. Hunting ground. Steve swallows, the taste of coffee acrid in the back of his throat. Maybe a thirty mile radius is all the killer needs.
He pulls his phone out of his pocket and taps out a few words in the search bar, looking for homeless shelters in the area. After several minutes of fruitless searching, he tries again, searching for soup kitchens, support networks, anything.
There are a handful of articles about the homeless population dropping, a few vague references to emergency shelters, but otherwise nothing.
Steve can admit that New York has its problems, but at least it has homeless shelters. Not enough, not by a long shot, but Brooklyn alone had a women's refuge and the Bowery Mission.
He stares at his phone, casting around for ideas. Even if there are no shelters, there must still be people. He taps out another question into the search box, and a few moments later he is reading a news article.
Less than sixty miles south of Manhattan there is a shanty town hidden in the forest. Over fifty people living without heat or running water, in abandoned cars and under lengths of tarpaulin. All living just south of the killer’s stamping ground.
Steve slips his phone back into his pocket, and comes up with a plan.
‘Plan’ is probably too generous a term for it. Sam would call it ‘half-baked’, if Steve ever told him about it. But if he did, Sam would also put a stop to it, no doubt while asking Steve if he was out of his goddamn mind.
It’s not the first time Steve has gone off on his own reconnaissance without informing those above him, and in all honesty it won’t be the last.
Steve goes through his wardrobe, picking out his warmest, shabbiest clothes. A pair of khakis, durable and hard wearing. The memories of shivering in a fox hole somewhere in Europe are still fresh in his mind, and he pulls on several thin layers of clothing; a t-shirt, a sweater, and his old brown leather jacket. He stuffs clean socks and t-shirts into a backpack, along with water and a couple of power bars. He doesn’t have a blanket spare, but figures he can manage a few days without. Mid-September is mild enough to sleep outdoors without freezing your ass off, though in a few weeks that won’t be the case.
If he’s still not gotten anywhere by then he’ll look into getting some more supplies, but in the meantime he’ll manage with what he has.
His motorcycle, a Harley-Davidson Softail Slim (his old WLA Liberator from his war days is on display at the Smithsonian, and rather than kick up a fuss and demand it back, Steve had gone to the nearest dealership with a photo and asked for the next best thing) is kept in the basement of his apartment building. New York being the way it is, it’s easier to take the subway than battle his way through the crowded streets and get knocked on his ass by a truck driver who’s never heard of checking your rear view mirror.
He drives south to Eastern Parkway, circling around Prospect Park and towards the Verrazano bridge, before crossing the Narrows to Staten Island.
It’s less than an hour’s drive to get to Lakewood, New Jersey.
Steve slows as he enters the town, taking in the busy streets and neatly manicured front lawns. A few heads turns at the sight of him, a nondescript man riding a Harley, and quickly look away again.
He takes a small road East, following the edges of a long lake, and the streets lined with houses quickly fall behind him. He navigates long, empty stretches of roads that cut through the Pines until he finds the camp.
He takes a detour as soon as he’s certain he’s found the right place, a few miles north along a dirt track leading into the woods. He pushes the bike into a dense patch of greenery, tugging a few branches into place to cover it completely, and takes a moment to memorise the location.
When he’s satisfied, he slings his backpack over his shoulder, and walks back the way he came.
It’s an hour’s easy walk through the woods to reach the campsite. Steve could run it in ten minutes, but he takes his time, breathing in the sun-warmed air, the first fallen leaves of the year crunching under his boots. After spending the last two years going back and forth between New York and D.C. he’d forgotten how much he liked being out in the woods, how much he missed going out on maneuvers with the Howlies across Allied territory. Not the constant rain or the sleeping in the mud or Dugan’s snoring (no amount of nostalgia would make him miss that. Or Dernier’s cooking). But the times when they’d moved through the dense woodlands in Europe, the evenings spent around a campfire telling stories, Steve sat with his back against a tree, sketching birds and late summer flowers while Falsworth dozed over his tin mug of tea. They had been good times, simpler times.
Steve adjusts his grip on his bag, and keeps walking.
It’s the smell that he notices first, stale sweat and woodsmoke and the distinct, pungent odour of human waste. It’s not harsh enough to make Steve want to cover his mouth, and frankly the streets of New York smell far worse. He finds a dirt track cutting through the woods, and follows it into the camp.
There is a hand painted sign by the side of the road reading ‘Welcome’. Leaning against it is a bald, muscular man, his body covered in intricate tattoos, clutching a half empty bottle of clear liquor. He glares at Steve suspiciously, and takes a swig from his bottle.
Steve nods to him and keeps walking, the road uneven under his feet where trees have been chopped down to clear the way. There are piles of broken pallets heaped up alongside the road, along with lengths of felled tree trunks. Up ahead is a clearing, with tents and shelters arranged almost haphazardly.
Some of the tents are small, only big enough to sleep one or two people, but most of them could rival the size of his apartment. Others are ridge-framed, a sheet or tarp thrown over a flimsy armature. There are even a few wigwam shaped tents, lengths of wood forced into the ground it a circle and then tied together at the top before being wrapped in canvas and plastic. Cars, none of which look roadworthy, are dotted around the camp. Further back from the line of tents, butted up against the treeline, is an old NYC subway car, its off-white painted exterior flaking with rust. Half the windows are missing, but both sets of double doors are still intact, and Steve finds himself walking towards it, his curiosity piqued.
There is a scorched circle of stones in the area in front of the carriage, several folding chairs and brittle plastic lawn chairs arranged in a circle around it. To one side of the carriage is a pile of old housebricks stacked into a funnel shape. A wire shopping basket has been flattened out and tucked in between the top two courses of bricks, and it takes Steve a full minute to realise that he’s looking at some kind of barbeque.
“Pretty sweet set-up, dontcha think?” a cheerful voice calls out from inside the subway car.
Steve jumps back as the doors open and a man with open, friendly features almost hidden under a baseball cap pokes his head out. He waves with the hand not clutching a mug of coffee, and jumps down onto the compacted dirt, walking over to Steve’s side and looking over the car with pride. “Got her from a cousin, who got her from a diner in Staten Island, they closed down back in 2012 and paid him a hundred bucks to tow it. He was gonna wreck it, but I said to him nah man, that’s like destroying a piece of art.”
“I remember these,” Steve says, half to himself. “They ran on the IND line from Brooklyn Heights.”
The man gives him a sideways look. “You must be older than you look, brah. My baby girl here ain’t run the IND line since the sixties.”
Steve bites his lip. “Yeah,” he says weakly. “I mean… I remember reading about them.”
The guy looks unconvinced, but finally notices the bag on Steve’s shoulder.
“You must be a new guy, right? Pretty sure I ain’t seen you around these parts before.” He looks over Steve’s shoulder towards one of the jalopies between the tents. “Hang on, lemme go get my buddy. I mean usually I’d just yell at him, or wave coffee in his direction, that usually does the job. But a big fella like you? Well no offence pal but you look kinda military, and looking kinda military and being out here? Well that's turning some Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes shit around in my head, right? Plus the kind of twitchy haunted look you got going on, I’m thinking you post traumatic and all that.” The man pats him on the shoulder. “And there’s no shame in that, man. No shame at all. We all got our shit to deal with.”
The guy stops, and looks at Steve expectantly.
“I’m sorry, what?” Steve asks helplessly.
“I’m gonna go get my buddy, Scott,” he says patiently. He points to the car across the way. “You ain’t got nothing to worry about, buddy. Luis is looking out for you.”
Steve finally grasps a thread of the conversation. “Luis.”
“That’s me.” Luis slaps his chest proudly, spilling more coffee. “You need anything? Guided tour, spare blanket, anything, you come find me.” He glances around before leaning in closer. “We gotta look out for each other, now more than ever, right?”
Steve nods, because it seems like the thing Luis wants him to do. Luis gives Steve a proud grin, and leaves him by the subway car while he goes off to wake his friend.
As Steve tries to parse their conversation, Luis bangs on the boot of the car.
“Scotty?” thump thump thump. “Scotty! C’mon, man, wake up. We gotta form a, like, welcoming committee.”
He takes a step back, and the boot creaks and pops open. A bedraggled looking man tries to climb out, and falls to the ground in a heap.
“I’m up,” he mutters weakly.
“Scotty, you want some coffee?” Luis waves the mug under his nose.
“No.” Scott screws his eyes shut, then snaps them open again. “Yes.”
Luis pulls him to his feet, and hands him his coffee before leading him back to where Steve is waiting.
“Scott, this here is…” Luis flicks his fingers at Steve expectantly.
“Steve.” Luis nods. “He’s new in camp.”
Scott takes a gulp of coffee and nods, some kind of understanding passing between him and Luis.
“Hey,” Scott grimaces at the taste of coffee. “You got a place to stay?”
Steve glances around the clearing. He’s no actor, and even he knows he’s a terrible spy. Natasha would probably have picked out an entirely different outfit and given him a tragic but convincing backstory. “Uh,” he flails around for an answer.
“I mean did you bring a tent, or a car or something to sleep in?” Scott explains.
Steve clamps his mouth shut, and gives a terse little shake of his head.
“Aww, no, that’s fine!” Luis waves an arm at the subway car. “Got plenty of room. Give you a couple of days to find your feet, figure shit out. It’ll be great.”
“Oh no,” Steve shakes his head. “I wouldn’t want to impose-”
“No imposition, I swear,” Luis bounces up and down. “You’re gonna love it! The seats are so plush, man. Best night’s sleep you had in forever. Well, better than sleeping in the dirt at least.”
Scott stares at Steve, moving his eyebrows up and down as if attempting to semaphore some secret message. Steve frowns at him, and when Luis looks away, Scott mouths ‘Say yes’, his movements slow and exaggerated.
“Thank you, Luis,” Steve says, keeping his eyes on Scott, who nods surreptitiously. “It’ll only be a few days, I promise.”
“Stay as long as you need,” Luis offers brightly. “Hey, can you-”
“How about I take Steve on a tour?” Scott cuts in.
Luis doesn’t seem to mind being interrupted, and sends them off down the dirt track with a wave before climbing back into the subway car to make himself some coffee.
“So…” Steve glances behind them to make sure Luis can’t hear him before continuing. “Thanks. For that.”
Scott shrugs, leading him down a side path between the trees. A handful of chickens wander around them, pecking at the dirt and ruffling their feathers.
“He’s a good guy, don’t worry about it. He just..” Scott takes another gulp of coffee. “He came here about six months before I did. It was a bad winter, coldest in decades or something and…” Scott pauses, and watches one of the chickens come over and peck at his scuffed trainers. “A couple of guys who were sleeping in cars froze. Like, solid.” He gently nudges the chicken away. “Kind of a shock, y’know? One day a guy’s walking and talking, the next he’s a… popsicle.”
Steve shivers. He still dreams of the ice. The Arctic waters crashing through the Valkyrie, punching through steel and glass like wet paper. The weight of the whole ocean pressing down on him, crystals of ice forming over his lips, crusting over his eyes until he could no longer blink. He dreams of the world slipping in and out of focus, hard edged and disjointed as his blood solidifies in his veins.
“You alright?” Scott asks, and Steve snaps back into the now.
“Yeah,” he mutters, trying to pull himself together. “Just… There but for the grace of…”
He trails off. He’s met a God, met a few of them. Thor is a decent soul, kind-hearted and brave, but prayers to him would go unheard and unheeded.
“Oh, yeah,” Scott agrees. “Divine intervention or dumb luck, take your pick.”
Steve snorts, and they keep walking.
There is a van up ahead, missing its wheels and propped up on breezeblocks. A woman sits on top of the cab, drumming her feet against the windscreen and sucking on a bottle of cheap bourbon.
Scott points towards her. “That’s Val. She’s nice enough, but she’ll kick your ass if there’s money in it.”
“Go fuck yourself, Lang,” Val shouts down.
“Hey, Val,” Scott shouts back. “Luis is making burgers later, you should come over. If you feel like, y’know… food?”
Val considers the offer. “Will there be beer?”
“Luis says you gotta eat at least one burger first, and no throwing out the pickles.” Scott shrugs. “House rules.”
Val wipes her mouth with the back of her hand. “Eh,” she says finally. “Maybe.”
Scott gives her a thumbs up, and pulls Steve away before she starts getting ideas.
“So…” Steve glances back up the path. “Is this gonna be some kind of welcome party?”
“What? The burgers?” Scott laughs and shakes his head. “No, nothing like that. Most of us get together to eat in the evenings, y’know? Do a headcount, make sure everyone's still here. Pitch in a little, try and be a… community… something… I don’t know.” He shrugs again, embarrassed. “Beats eating alone, you know what I mean?”
He nods his head towards an enclave up ahead, where a handful of ex-military looking jeeps are parked in a circle under a length of tarp. The little camp is closed off from the rest with lengths of camouflage netting hanging from the surrounding trees. “Though not everyone is so civic-minded.”
Steve watches as a man dressed in fatigues comes out to watch them pass by.
“Hey, Brock,” Scott says with forced cheer. “How are you guys…”
He falters as Brock glares at him, picking up the pace until they round another bend and the enclave is out of sight.
“Wouldn’t surprise me if he was behind all the missing people, y’know?” Scott gives Steve a nervous smile.
It’s an in, and Steve takes it. “Yeah, I heard a couple of people had gone missing.”
“A couple?” Scott snorts. “More like fifteen.”
“What?” Steve comes to a standstill, and Scott walks a few more paces before he notices Steve stock still in the middle of the road. Fifteen people dead, and nothing had been done about it.
“Don’t get me wrong, they only found a few bodies, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t more out in the woods.” Scott shudders, despite the mild weather. “It’s not like we noticed at first. I mean, this place isn’t exactly a long-term residence. People move on, try their luck elsewhere.” He kicks at a stone on the ground. “But they don’t leave all their stuff behind.”
“Have you called the police?” Steve asks, and knows it’s pointless before he’s even finished.
“We’re here illegally as it is,” Scott says. “They don’t give a damn.” He looks up ahead, at the cluster of tents that loop around to the main clearing, at the people gathered around their makeshift homes. “So we just… take care of our own.”
The more Steve walks around camp, the more he realises that most of the people in camp are unwell, one way or another. Long term illnesses that keep a lot of them from work, and the ones that could get disability found it wasn’t enough to get by. And there are the aches and sores and injuries that come from sleeping rough, from not having enough to eat. Steve remembers those pains, the nights in a cramped New York apartment with hunger clawing at his guts and cold freezing his bones, waking up more exhausted than when you went to sleep. Seventy years later and people are still struggling to make ends meet, are still sleeping rough. So Steve insists on helping out where he can.
Everyone he speaks to has something that needs doing, something they can’t quite manage themselves. He carries stacks of broken pallets and pushes rusted, useless cars out of the clearing. He fixes damaged roofing and digs a new latrine downwind from the shelters.
By the time the sun is dipping past the line of trees he is exhausted, but it’s a good kind of tired. He feels almost energised by it, looking over the camp and seeing the little differences he’s made.
He follows his new neighbours across the clearing, and over to where the subway car rests. Luis is officiating over the barbeque while two guys Steve hasn’t met yet work around him, opening up bags of out of date burger buns and catering sized jars of sliced pickles.
Most of the camp have already arrived, milling around and talking to each other, mostly about the new guy in camp. The people needing a little warmth are arranging chairs around the campfire, a heap of split logs and rotten pieces of pallet that Steve had piled up earlier, and sitting down.
“Hey, it’s Stevie!” Luis points his spatula in Steve’s direction. “Come over here, man! The way I hear you been working, you gonna get two burgers, am I right?”
Steve weaves through the gathering to join him, ducking his head in embarassment. He is hungry enough to take up the offer, and one of Luis’ friends puts a paper plate into his hand.
“This is Dave,” Luis says by way of introduction. “And this here is Kurt. They’re my logistics guys.”
Both men grunt in unison, and Kurt drops a burger onto Steve’s plate.
“Logistics?” Steve asks, as Dave offers the open jar of dill pickles.
“Dumpster diving,” Dave explains as Steve takes a pickle. “Stores throw out what they don’t sell. We appropriate it.”
“We liberate it,” Kurt adds. “With bolt cutters.” He makes a snip-snip gesture.
It startles a laugh out of Steve, and Luis beams at them. “My guys,” he says proudly.
As the evening winds down and the food runs out, the residents drift away in twos and threes, until Steve finds himself sitting by the fire opposite a pair that he’s not had the chance to speak to yet.
They are brother and sister, pale and wary and far too young to be out here. Steve can tell that they are only hanging around for the warmth of the fire, and doesn’t want to intrude.
“So, Stevie,” Luis has other ideas, and pulls up a chair next to Steve. “You’ve met the twins, right? This is Wanda, and her brother Pietro. Guys, this is Steve, he’s like, wicked-strong. Kurt said he picked up a Buick with one hand.”
“I just pushed it a little,” Steve shakes his head. “And it was facing downhill.”
“Nah,” Luis clicks his fingers. “Look at you man, the muscles on you! I bet you could pick up a city bus and, like, spin it around or something.”
Scott takes the seat on Steve’s other side, a six pack of beer in his hand. He offers one to Steve, who turns it down apologetically, before tossing one over to Luis.
Wanda holds her hand out for one, and Scott passes it over. She cracks it open and offers the first sip to her brother.
“So what’s your story?” Wanda asks Steve. Her accent is surprisingly thick, a little different from Kurt’s, but it tells its own tale, one Steve can guess at.
“Yesh, spill it, man!” Luis adds. “You were in the military, right?”
Steve doesn’t want to lie to these people, so he tries to offer some kind of truth.
“Yeah, I was.” He looks down at his hands, and almost wishes he’d said yes to a beer to give him something to do. “I got… replaced. And I don’t regret being retired, or the guy who took my place. Hell, he’s a better…” he catches himself before he says the word Cap. “He’s better than I’ll ever be.”
“Aww, man. No,” Luis says softly.
“He is,” Steve insists. “But I had the title so long I… I guess I forgot how to be anything else. So.” He holds his empty hands palm-up. “That’s how I ended up here.”
“Shit,” Dave mutters emphatically, and Kurt nods in agreement.
“Yeah, well.” Scott takes a sip of beer. “That makes me feel a little less shit about myself.”
“Oh,” Luis’ claps his hands together. “Here it comes!”
“So there I was, married to an amazing woman, and I had the best daughter in the whole damn world. I had this great job, I was really going places in this firm and…” Scott pauses and licks his lips. “Well, long story short, the company had been scamming their clients, hidden costs, extra fees, all that crap. When I stumbled over it, I thought it was a widespread system error, so brought it to the attention of my superiors.”
“And it wasn’t an error,” Steve guesses.
“I got fired. On the spot. No three months notice, no end of the day, they had security escort me out the building there and then.” Scott grimaces. “Didn’t even get a chance to clear my desk.”
“Seriously?” Steve asks, shocked. “What did you do?”
“He went Robin Hood,” Kurt says proudly.
“Not exactly.” Scott ducks his head, swilling the dregs of his beer around in the tin.
“Aww no, man!” Luis says emphatically. “Don’t go selling yourself short. You changed people’s lives. Hacking into all those databases and shit, stealing from the rich and giving back to the poor? You were a freakin’ legend.” Luis turns to Steve. “Our boy here gave all that money back to those people, and did he stop there? No he freakin’ didn’t! He hacked into insurance companies, into banks, you name it. You get turned down for a loan? Boom! Suddenly it’s been approved. Medicare won’t cover the cost of your insulin? Bam! Now your ass is covered. People chasing you for a loan? Wham, what fuckin’ loan. You get what I’m saying?”
“Come on, pack it in.” Scott blushes, and gives Luis’ chair a kick.
“Goddamn Robin Hood,” Luis says fondly.
Scott turns somber. “Didn’t take long for it all to catch up to me. They couldn’t pin everything I’d done on me, but they had enough to put me in prison for three years. When I got out my wife had divorced me, and said I couldn’t see my little girl until I started paying child support, but…”
Scott falls silent, and stares into the campfire.
“No one will hire you if you have a criminal record,” Steve murmurs. He watches Scott finish the last of his beer, and crumple the can down into a disc. All the time he’d been fighting, with the Howlies, with the Avengers, it had been against the forces of evil. Hydra, or Chitauri, or some other horror that measured human life against power or wealth and found it wanting. Steve had levelled buildings, watched whole cities burn in the name of truth and justice, and faced no consequences.
Sitting across from him, staring glumly into the fire, is a man who had put himself between corporations that only cared for wealth and power, and people, and it had cost him everything.
“Do you regret it?” Steve asks, his voice sounding strange to his own ears.
“Nah.” Scott offers him a bitter little smile. “I did good, right? I mean, that was the point. And I caught up with my old cellmate once I was out,” he looks over at Luis. “Who told me about this place. And I’ve been here ever since.”
Luis reaches over and pats him on the knee. “And here we freakin’ well stay, right, my man? No monster would dare fuck with us.”
Steve is lost in thought, staring at the flames, and it takes a moment for Luis’s words to sink in.
“Wait,” he sits up. “What?”
Wanda rolls her eyes. “Not this again.”
Pietro, sprawled in his chair as if trying to offer as much surface area as possible to the heat of the fire, lets out a sharp laugh. “You think the Jezinka are lurking in the woods? That they’ll pluck out your eyes and put them into their empty, bloody sockets so they can see?”
“That’s a seriously fucking creepy idea, kid,” Dave grumbles. “Thanks for that.”
“It not witches,” Kurt interjects. “It Satanists. They call up Devil, and he stomps through the woods, looking for lost souls.” Kurt raises a finger ominously. “Have seen him. His red eyes in dark.”
“You go drinking with Val, you’ll see all kinds of things, pal,” Luis points out. “There ain’t no Jersey Devil, it’s just a spook story.”
“Not true!” Kurt insists. “Did we not return in morning, and see trampled ground? Those claw marks on the trees?”
“It was trampled because you spent half the night trampling it,” Wanda sits forward in her chair. “You were drunk and chasing your own shadow.”
“I was not drunk,” Kurt retorts.
“Dude, you were so drunk,” Luis says soothingly. “You kept singing that song about a little rolling apple.”
Kurt slumps into his seat, muttering darkly to himself.
“There is something out there,” Scott concedes. “I’m not saying the Jersey Devil is a real thing, but. All those noises, late at night? There’s something weird.”
“There’s nothing,” Wanda insists. “It’s all in your head.”
“Then what happened to Jasper, huh?” Scott snaps. “You think that was all in his head?”
Wanda practically leaps out of her chair, and glares down at Scott. “There is no monster in the woods.” She kicks her brothers shin. “It’s late, I’m going to bed.”
She stalks away without another word, and Pietro gives the group a sheepish look before chasing after her, following her to their shared tent at the edge of the camp, where the trees are at their thickest.
Luis watches them leave, concern etched into his features. “So maybe it ain’t the devil, but there’s something out there. Folks are starting to pack up and move on, y’know? Figure it ain’t safe round here no more.” He picks at a loose thread from his sweater and flicks it into the fire. “Like any place is safe these days.”
“Aliens,” Dave mutters. “Running around New York City. Gotta be a couple that snuck out here or something.”
“Well,” Scott purses his mouth. “That’s a depressing thought.”
“Alright,” Luis claps his hands together. “That’s enough of the introspective shit, an’ I gotta be straight with you guys, we keep talking about this I am never sleeping again. I mean I dig the whole infinite possibilities in an infinite universe and all that, and Dave, I feel you man, seeing New York full of freakin’ huge insect men shit me up something fierce. So yeah, maybe the devil is riding out in New Jersey, and of all the places he coulda picked, none of us are shocked. And maybe there’s aliens in the woods getting all freaky and shit, I don’t know. I mean, my main concern is the being dead, and not so much on the what exactly killed my ass.”
“Is there a point here, Luis?” Scott asks wearily.
“Yes. The point is you fuckers are sleeping in the carriage tonight.” Luis points at the subway car. “I don’t wanna hear no arguments about how Scotty snores-”
“Hey, I do not!” Scott whines.
“You do, man,” Luis tells him. “I love you like a brother, man. You know I do. But you sound like a chainsaw at the bottom of a swimming pool. You need medical attention.”
“I have allergies,” Scott argues weakly.
“And I respect that,” Luis reassures him. “Just like I respect Kurt and his creepy-assed Russian sleep-talking that’s probably harmless but sounds like he’s planning a murder. That’s just the beauty of his native language is all. So c’mon, chop-chop.” Luis claps his hands together. “Let’s wrap it up.”
Steve collects his bag from where he’d stowed it away earlier, and mills around feeling useless while Luis puts out the last of the fire and collects up the trash. The others go off to collect their bedding, returning with armfuls of ragged blankets and sleeping bags.
Luis hustles them into the subway car, switching on a couple of little battery powered lanterns hanging from the ceiling, and Steve experiences an odd little rush of nostalgia as he climbs into the carriage. The originally white walls have long since faded to a nicotine shade of yellow, but the floor is the same venal shade of red that Steve recalls.
Most of the bench seating remains, along with the upright poles that Steve remembers clinging to when the car was in motion.
Dave pushes past Steve, making him jump a little, and tosses a sleeping bag in a corner. Kurt follows, piling up his own nest of blankets on the floor beside him.
Steve looks around the rest of the carriage, pausing at the curtained off area that must be where Luis sleeps, and sits down on one of the benches, its red fabric balding and worn. He’s too tall to lie down, and the distance between it and the opposite bench is too wide to prop his feet up comfortably, so he makes do with sitting sideways, his back to the carriage wall.
Scott shuffles in, pulling the door closed behind him, and picks one of the empty benches, seemingly at random. He curls up into a ball, and in a few moments is fast asleep.
Steve listens to the others settling down, and stares out the window at the darkness beyond.
There are pinpricks of light here and there, solar lanterns hung up lighting a path to the latrines, the dying embers of campfires, and torchlight moving in slow arcs behind canvas and tarpaulin.
The curtain at the end of the carriage pulls back, and Luis pads silently through, a couple of blankets under his arm. He crosses over to Scott first, and carefully drapes a blanket over him, before coming over to Steve.
“Here you go, pal,” he whispers, holding out a thick woollen blanket.
Steve reaches out gratefully, stuttering out something that's half gratitude, half apology.
Luis shushes him, waving his hand. “Forget about it, man. We gotta look out for each other, you feel?”
“Yeah.” Steve wraps himself up in the blanket, and settles down in his seat.
Luis turns, and makes his way back to his own bed, and Steve calls out softly to him. “Hey, Luis?”
“Yeah?” Luis turns back immediately. “You okay, bud?”
“What about you?” Steve asks. “How did you end up out here?”
“Nothin’ much. Petty theft.” Luis smiles, and gives a one shouldered shrug. “Never hurt nobody, though.” He takes one last look around. “Goodnight.”
“Goodnight, Luis,” Steve whispers back.
He rests his head against the carriage wall and closes his eyes, pretending to sleep long before sleep finally comes.
Chapter 2: Eyes in the Dark
A bare, pale skull turns to stare him down, its muzzle long and jagged like a goat. It’s empty eye sockets fix him with a sightless, terrible gaze. Dark, shaggy hair falls in loose waves around the skull, brushing the creatures shoulders, and a pair of horns corkscrew up from the top of its head.
Kurt was right, Steve thinks, through the high whine of panic filling his head. It’s the Devil himself
Steve wakes up cold and sore, his shoulder aching from being pressed up against the freezing carriage wall. Condensation from his breath misted up on the window and trickling down to soak into the collar of his sweater. The side of his face that was pressed to the glass feels cold and numb, the clothes he slept in twisted up and uncomfortable.
He sits up, yawning hard enough to crack his jaw, and shivers, pulling the blanket tighter around himself. Outside it’s still dark, a waning moon hanging heavily in the clear sky, and the trees seem to loom ominously over the camp.
Steve gets up slowly, pulling the blanket into a makeshift cloak around himself, and tries to shake his clothes out, pulling at his pants and sweater until they don’t feel so twisted up and constraining. He takes a few unsteady steps to the carriage door and cracks it open, stepping outside.
He closes the door behind him, quick and quiet, and walks over to the firepit. The embers have long since gone cold, starkly paper white in the gloom.
If it weren’t for his enhanced senses, he probably wouldn’t have heard the scratching.
On the far side of the camp, between the trees, something is moving.
Steve keeps his head down, his eyes on the charred remains of the fire. If he can keep still enough, slow his breathing enough, maybe it won’t notice him.
The shape moves slowly from tree to tree, working its way around the perimeter of the camp. Steve catches a glimpse of a shape between the branches, pale and long like a bird’s beak.
There is a rustle of branches as it stops near a single tent at the edge of the trees. Steve realises with a horrible lurch that he’d seen Wanda and Pietro entering that tent the evening before, on the edge of the clearing, right by the trees. Their tent would offer no protection against an attacker, who could snatch them and drag them into the woods before either of them could let out a shout.
He starts moving, letting the blanket fall from his shoulders as he crosses the clearing in quick, long strides.
There is a snap of branch, a shake of leaves, and something scrambles away through the trees. Something large and dark and silent, and Steve gives chase.
He runs past the tent and into the woods, the light of the moon giving precious little to navigate by. Branches whip at his arms, at his face. Vines catch at his feet, threatening to send him tumbling to the ground, and the thing he is chasing moves up, swarming up the trunk of a tree ahead.
Steve can barely make out the shape of it, a body broad and dark that seems to pull shadows around itself, something pale and wrong where its head should be.
“Hey!” Steve yells as it moves up out of reach, clambering along one of the higher branches. It leaps, its limbs outstretched, and seems suspended in mid air for a second that seems to stretch on far longer.
There is a dull thud up ahead, and Steve can make out, silhouetted against the Milky Way, the bowing of another tree branch. Then what he takes for a cluster of leaves shakes itself, and keeps moving.
Steve keeps up with the chase, knocking against tree trunks and crunching through fallen branches.
He stumbles, barely keeping his feet as the ground slopes down heavily, but whatever it is in the trees he’s gaining on it.
There is a blinding flash of light, and Steve lets out a yell, spinning away and covering his eyes.
“Steve?” The voice is unfamiliar, but the accent isn’t. “It’s Steve, right?”
Steve uncovers his eyes slowly and sees the kid from last night, Pietro, holding up a lantern.
The sudden change from near-black to harsh torchlight is disorienting, and Steve blinks, his eyes watering, bright lights blossoming behind his eyelids. “Get that light out my face, kid,” he wheezes, rubbing the heel of his hands against his eyes.
“Yeah, thought it was you.” Pietro lowers the lantern. “What you doing out here?”
Steve stops rubbing at his burning eyes and looks at him incredulously. “There was a… a thing. By your tent. Did you see which way it went?”
Pietro snorts, and waves a hand down his body. “It’s right here.”
Steve lets his hands drop by his sides. “What?”
“It was me,” Pietro says cheerfully.
“No,” Steve casts around, looking for something up in the trees, or on the ground, but there’s nothing. “No, it was-”
“I was just trying to have a quiet cigarette without my sister judging me, and then some crazy old man charges me.” Pietro swings the flashlight back and forth, illuminating the trees around them, empty and still. “What did you expect me to do?”
“That…” Steve frowns, screwing his eyes up in the lantern light. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
Pietro snorts at him, and starts walking back up the slope. “Camp’s this way, old man. Unless you want to run around the woods a little longer, see if you can find the Jersey Devil. Maybe Jezinka find you, take your pretty blue eyes.”
Steve sucks in a breath, and takes one last look around. Nothing huge and misshapen hangs from the trees, nothing crawls along the branches.
Pietro shouts something uncomplimentary, and Steve bites back a growl, before following him back to camp.
A handful of people are up and waving torches around, Luis at the front, when they reach sight of the camp.
“Steve?” Luis yells as he catches sight of the pair, Steve with twigs in his hair and scratches on his face from running through the woods. “What the hell happened?”
Pietro gives Steve an odd look, but says nothing, and walks over to where his sister is waiting on the edge of the gathered people. He murmurs something to her, low and soothing, while she fusses over him, more angry than worried.
“Nothing,” Steve says finally. “I thought I saw something in the woods.”
“And you what?” Luis’ voice hitches up a little. “After all the shit thats been going on, you just decided to go running after it? Dude, what is your problem? You could have been, shit, I don’t know, maybe there is a devil or some shit out there that wanted to eat really specific bits of you. Maybe it’s aliens, maybe you could have gotten lost and been wandering for days before dying of starvation and we’d never know what happened to you until someone tripped over what’s left.”
Steve can only hunch up his shoulders and stare at the ground. He’d faced down Colonel Phillips in his ire and Nick Fury in his wrath, but neither of them held a candle to Luis in worried mother hen mode.
“I’m sorry, Luis,” Steve holds up his hands placatingly. “I just saw something and didn’t think-”
“What did you see?” someone in the crowd asks.
If he tells them the truth, they’ll only panic, so Steve shakes his head. “I saw Pietro smoking a cigarette.”
One of the men, Steve thinks his name might be Quill or something, glares at Pietro. “Hey, you said you were out.”
Pietro shrugs and gives him the finger.
“Asshole,” Quill mutters.
“Alright guys, that’s enough,” Luis says. “Now it’s Steve here’s first night with us, and we got to telling a few local legends around the fire. First night in a new place and a bunch of ghost stories in your head? Shit like this is bound to happen, right?” The people mutter, keyed up and nervous. “Alright, so what say we go back to our nice, warm beds, yeah?”
There is a murmur of agreement, and they start to disperse, returning to their tents and shelters in groups of twos and threes, seeking safety in numbers.
Steve gives Luis another apologetic look, and gets a slap on the back. “Don’t sweat it, man. But seriously? Back up. Ask for back up. It’s a thing we do here. No heroics, you feel me?”
Steve rescues his blanket from where it had been abandoned by the fire, and thinks that you might as well ask the earth to stop turning. He’s been running headlong into danger for nearly a hundred years, he doesn’t know how to be any different.
“Yeah, I…” Steve is the worst liar, he knows it. “I’ll try.”
Luis scrubs a hand through Steve’s hair, shaking out the twigs. “Yeah, I get it. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly. And Steve has gotta be an idiot.”
Steve snorts, ducking away from his plucking fingers. “Something like that.”
Luis chuckles, and gives him a pat on the back, leading him back to the subway carriage.
Steve doesn’t buy Pietro’s claim about being the one outside his tent for a second, but without evidence there’s little he can say. He shrugs off any comments in the morning about bad dreams, and takes a walk around the camp in the early light, while Luis makes coffee. It’s silent and still, most of the people still asleep in their shelters. He checks the ground around the trees, looking for… something, and his thoughts keep turning to Kurt trampling through the woods, insisting that he’d seen the devil.
Luis calls him back for breakfast, and Steve finds himself with a paper plate of scrambled eggs over one of last night’s leftover burger buns.
He pokes at the eggs with a plastic fork, and remembers the chickens pecking at Scott’s feet yesterday. He goes over to the circle of chairs in search of Scott, slumped in a white plastic garden chair, clutching his third cup of coffee, his breakfast long since eaten.
“Hey, Scott?” Steve takes the empty seat beside him. “Can I ask you something?”
Scott squints up at him. “Hey, Steve. What’s up?”
“The chickens,” Steve points to his eggs. “What’s the story with them?”
“Oh, yeah,” Scott takes a gulp of coffee. “That’s Luis. I don’t know where he got ‘em. They all got names, though, I think after old girlfriends or something. Which is kind of weird and horrifying, now I think about it.”
If Steve were less hungry, he might be put off eating his breakfast, but Luis makes a decent scramble. “Have any of them… gone missing?”
“You mean did the Devil steal them?” Scott asks with a snort. “Last night was just your mind playing tricks with you. Don’t worry, it happens to us all. It's the woods, the trees make all those weird creaking sounds and there’s critters running around. You’ll get used to it.”
Steve takes a bite of eggs and chews thoughtfully. “That’s not a no.”
“No chickens have gone missing. Luis has an old Ford he puts them in at night, in case there’s any foxes wandering around.” Scott gives Steve a sideways look. “If the Devil has any sense, he’ll keep his hands off those birds. I don’t think even he’d stand a chance against Luis on the warpath.”
With that, Scott forces himself to his feet, and goes in search of more coffee.
However hard he tries, Steve can’t shake the image of the creature outside Wanda and Pietro’s tent. As much as he tries to put it to the back of his mind, he finds himself turning it over, poking at it like a tongue working over a sore tooth.
A gust of wind dislodges a rotten branch from the surrounding trees, and it smashes through the roof of one of the shelters. Luckily no one was in it, but the accident shakes up a few people. They start to mutter about bad luck coming in threes, and start talking about moving the shelters further into the clearing.
It feels like circling the wagons, but no one draws attention to it, as if saying so would make it more real.
The tents are easy enough to move, but the shacks and shelters have been in place for two or three years, and the only thing holding them together is spite and dirt. So by mid-morning Steve finds himself pulling nails out of the stack of broken pallets with a claw hammer, discarding the ones too rusted and bent out of shape and hoarding the viable ones to build something new with.
It’s oddly refreshing, after a life of destruction, of tearing down what needed to be torn down, to build things up again.
With a notable exception of Brock and his buddies in their enclave, who seem happy to remain in the trees, everyone pulls together with the build. Sheets of tarp and scraps of timber are offered up for use, and people pitch in with stripping down the shelters and helping people move their meager possessions. Some of the older shacks that had been lying empty, painful reminders of the people who had moved on, or just weren’t there one morning, are carefully taken down. What can be reused is, and what can’t is added to the woodpile for burning.
Steve scratches out a list of things they need on a scrap of paper. Some of it is easy to come by; sheets of cardboard for insulating the shacks and tents against the oncoming winter can be picked up by Dave and Kurt when they go searching dumpsters, and wood is easy to find, though cutting it to size is slow and laborious, even with Steve’s strength. But hinges for putting doors on the shacks, and brackets for securing joins are less easy to come by.
For a few hours Steve doesn’t think about cryptids, or Shield, or anything beyond a ready supply of nails and another timber to hammer them into. By the time the sun is dipping past the trees his hands are covered in cuts and blisters that will be gone before morning.
He waves up to Val, who is on the roof stapling the last pieces of tarp in place on one of the shacks. “It’s getting dark, let’s wrap this up.”
She salutes him with her stapler, a terrifying industrial contraption that fires inch long staples through pretty much anything, if the repairs on her van are to go by. It takes her a few more staples before she’s satisfied with the results, and slides down from the roof easily, landing on her feet.
“Nice job.” Steve takes a step back to admire her work.
“Spare me the male bonding,” she snorts, and wanders off in search of a drink.
Steve knows better than to go after her, and collects up his tools. There’s not much to work with, a blunt saw, a screwdriver, a claw hammer, and a pair of pliers so rusted up that only Steve can force them open, but it’s all the community has, so he handles them with care.
He sees Val talking to Luis as he takes the tools back to the subway car, and sees a bottle of what looks like tequila change hands.
“Luis,” Steve murmurs as she walks away. “Is that wise?”
Luis watches as she cracks open the bottle, and downs half of it in one go. “She’s got her own shit to deal with, y’know? Ain’t on us to tell her how.”
“Yeah, but-” Steve tries to argue, but Luis pats him on the shoulder.
“I know you mean well, man, but you can’t help somebody who don’t wanna be helped, you feel? That shit don’t work.” He watches Val climb up onto the cabin of her van. “If there comes a point when she don’t wanna do this no more, then yeah, we’ll all be here for her, we’ll do everything we can. But until she’s ready, it’s all just pissing upwind, right?”
Luis does a little mime, rotating his hips for added effect, and Steve lets out a snort.
“I know you wanna save the world,” Luis gives him a fond look. “You’re a decent guy, I can see that.”
“But back off?” Steve finishes.
Luis nods. “C’mon, you look beat.”
He gives Steve a nudge towards the campfire, and Steve doesn’t put up a fight.
While Luis sets to work making food, Steve sits in front of the fire with a scrap of paper and stub of pencil. He sketches out improvements to the existing shelters, thinking of the oncoming winter, and starts building up a shopping list of things for when he goes back to New York.
It’s a sharp little sting, each time the thought comes to him. He is a fraud, a tourist, pretending to be homeless and desperate like the rest of them. He has a motorbike hidden in the woods. He has a job and an apartment, he has a bank account. If it all got too much he could walk away. He has enough money to go to a sporting goods store and buy a new tent and supplies for every single person in camp, to keep every one of them warm and well-fed through the winter. And he would do it, he would do it in a heartbeat, if there was the slightest chance they would accept his charity.
And what about Scott? Surely Steve could get him a job somewhere in Shield? He could start paying child support, start seeing his kid again. And Luis too, a steady job and a place to stay, if he could ever be persuaded to leave the camp.
Guilt sits like a stone in the pit of Steve’s stomach, heavy and sour.
Wanda comes ambling over, carrying a sleeping bag. It’s a little frayed around the edges, but clean and serviceable. She drops it at Steve’s feet without a word, and goes over to the barbeque to see what Luis is cooking. She sniffs at the canned hot dogs being moved about on the grill, and starts gently bickering with Luis about spices.
Steve picks up the sleeping bag and frowns to himself. It’s hard not to feel like he’s being bought off, like it’s some kind of payment for keeping his mouth shut about the… thing he’d seen outside their tent.
He sees her move out of the corner of his eye, distracting Luis by waving a tub of paprika over the dogs while he squawks and grabs at it. Her other hand pulls a couple of bottles out of her coat pocket, and tucks them in amongst the jars of pickles.
Luis finally grabs the paprika, and sends her off to cause trouble elsewhere, muttering darkly. Wanda smirks, and goes over to join Steve by the campfire.
“Uh.” Steve gestures at the sleeping bag. “Thanks.”
“I have a better one,” Wanda shrugs. “Maybe if you get enough sleep you won’t be seeing things going bump in the night, hmmm?”
Steve doesn’t answer, feeling oddly discomfited by her hard stare, and goes back to his sketches.
“Tonight we feast,” Kurt announces as he and Dave stride into camp, and presents the group with an enormous tub of expired potato salad. “Is still almost in date.”
Luis shakes the tub doubtfully, and gives the contents a sniff before deeming it acceptable. “You work your charms on the lady at the deli, huh?”
“More like pity,” Dave mutters.
“Fuck you,” Kurt retorts primly. “Am very charming.”
Luis doles out the potato salad, and in deference to Wanda gives her plate a dusting of paprika. He rummages through the jar of pickles and lets out a little squeak of delight.
“Holy shit, guys, we got Cholua!” He waves around the two bottles Steve had seen Wanda handling earlier. Chili sauce, as far as he can tell. Good chili sauce, from the way Luis is acting. “Holy shit, where did these come from?”
Wanda says nothing, taking her plate of sausage and potato salad with a murmur of thanks. So Steve says nothing either. He stares at her as she starts eating, long enough for her to glance up at him and smile, small and brittle, as though they were sharing a secret.
“I mean it, guys,” Luis cradles the bottles to his chest. “Who did this? ‘Cause you can’t go spending your money on me, y’know. You need that shit.” He gives Wanda a suspicious look, only to be met with a carefully neutral stare.
Steve suppresses a snort as Luis pours a liberal amount of chili sauce over his potato salad and starts eating, letting out the occasional happy little sigh.
Dinner is quiet, though no one lingers after they’ve finished eating, tired after a long day, and still with things to do before it gets dark.
The last few possessions get moved into the new shelters, and the tents repositioned. No amount of persuading from Luis or anyone else will convince Wanda and Pietro that the woods are dangerous, but they finally, and with some reluctance, agree to move their tent further into the clearing, positioning it along the blind side of one of the shacks, near the woodpiles, out of view of most of the camp.
Steve tries not to find it suspicious, the way they could walk from their tent to the treeline unobserved, but it’s a hard thought to shake. He watches them trade reassuring glances as they finish setting up, and tells himself to mind his own damn business. He makes sure the fire is safely out, and takes his sleeping bag into the carriage, where the others are settling down to sleep.
He’d feel like a large, ridiculous caterpillar if he zipped himself up and shuffled around on the bench, so Steve wraps the bag around himself, and folds the blanket Luis gave him into a pillow, tucking it between his shoulder and the carriage window as he tries to get comfortable. It reminds him of missions with the Howlies, sleeping in your boots, with your back against the gnarliest tree trunk in Bavaria and a thin green army-issue blanket tucked around your shoulders.
At least he’s under a roof here, and mud isn’t slowly seeping through his pants from sitting in the dirt.
With that, Steve closes his eyes, and quickly falls asleep.
Steve blinks, disoriented, his mouth tasting like damp wool.
He coughs, and realises his mouth is full of damp wool, the folded blanket he’d been using as a pillow slipping in the night over his face, covering his mouth with a heavy wad of unwashed cloth.
Every muscle grumbles in discomfort as he sits upright, carefully peeling away the corner of blanket stuck to his cheek, and picking a strand of fiber out of his mouth.
Something had woken him, and not the sour sweat odour of his own body, or the snores coming from the carriage floor where Kurt and Dave are sleeping.
He turns to the window and stares out at the camp. Even his enhanced vision struggles to make out anything in the darkness beyond the geometric bulk of the shacks and the deeper shadow of the woods.
Someone has placed lights under the trees along the edge of the camp, pretty little solar powered ones, the kind that suburban moms put in their garden. Plastic flowers that emit a thin, wan light in amber and blue, unable to gain much of a charge in the daytime under the dense foliage.
They’re pretty though, and Steve lets his attention wander, his gaze settling on the red lights up in the trees. Someone must have tossed a string of fairy lights up into the branches, or maybe they had gotten snagged and they hadn’t been able to reach-
A set of two red lights are snuffed out, only to reappear a moment later.
Steve frowns, and rubs his eyes. Strange. He watches the cluster of lights a little more closely.
A little further down, a pair of lights dim, and a moment later brighten again.
Steve slowly pushes his sleeping bag down from his shoulders, watching as a pair of red lights start to slowly descend the tree, pausing a few feet from the ground before vanishing and reappearing again.
Eyes, Steve thinks numbly. Eyes in the dark.
He pads through the carriage to the door and eases it open, pausing in the doorway before stepping down and gently pushing it shut behind him. He slips through the darkness, moving quickly from cover to cover; shelter and car and woodpile, keeping his time out in the open to an absolute minimum.
He creeps closer and closer, past Scott’s car and the shacks. Past Val’s truck and the tents. Wanda and Pietro’s tent is zippered shut and dark, and there is no sign of either of them loitering around.
But there is something moving about at the foot of one of the trees up ahead, something with eyes like candle flames. It raises its pointed head and sniffs the air, and retreats back to the trees.
One moment there is a string of dull red fairy lights high up in the branches, and the next they are gone.
Steve lets out a shuddering breath, his heart thumping in his throat. He takes one last look around the camp, touching the toe of his boot against the plastic tulips wedged into the dirt, emitting faint light in rainbow colours, and walks back to the subway car.
He wraps himself up in his sleeping bag, and sits down on the bench, keeping watch out the window until the first fingers of sunlight push through the trees.
Although Luis is usually up with the dawn chorus, most of the camp take a long time to get moving in the mornings, sleeping in until the sun is high up in the sky and the tents and shelters become stifling. Living one day to the next, without work or housing or heating, keeping warm becomes a priority, second only to food and water, and only an idiot would leave their warm bed before they absolutely have to.
Steve leaves his bag under the bench in the carriage, and goes out to find Luis out by the trees, cup of coffee in his hand and blanket wrapped around his shoulders. The chickens scratch at his feet, pecking at the dirt as he scatters dried corn.
“Morning, Steve,” Luis yawns, crouching down so one of the chickens can pick at the last few grains clinging to his fingers. “You sleep alright?”
“Yeah,” Steve lies, and it feels like grit in his teeth. “But…”
Steve hesitates, scratching his fingers through the few days of growth on his chin. When he had first arrived he only intended to take a walk around, check things out, and had ended up staying. Away from meetings and cellphones and the thousand little things that make up modern life, time starts to feel elastic, and it comes as a shock that it’s already his second morning in camp.
“Something up?” Luis straightens up, giving Steve his full attention.
“No,” Steve shakes his head. “I just need to… go away for a little while. I’ll come back, I still need to finish the building work, we need a couple of shelters setting up, and I’d like to get Wanda and her brother set up in something a little safer before winter sets in-”
“But you got your own shit to take care of.” Luis gives him a warm smile. “Nothing to be sorry about, man. You got shit to do, you go do it.”
“I’m coming back,” Steve insists. He means it too, as long as something is out there killing homeless people he’ll not leave them defenceless. “I left my bag under my seat with my blanket, so I gotta come back for them.”
“No worries, brah. I’ll take good care of your shit.” Luis pats him on the arm, light and reassuring. “You got time for breakfast?”
“Yeah,” Steve nods. “Sure.”
“C’mon, you can help me collect the eggs.” Luis chuckles. “Big city boy like you, I bet you never done something like that before, huh?”
Steve has a sudden flash of memory, an abandoned farmhouse in Allied territory, and Dernier chasing an escaped chicken through the rubble. “Funny you should mention it…”
The motorbike is where Steve left it, buried in the foliage an hour’s walk from the campsite. His phone and wallet are still where he left them too, in the lockbox underneath the seat. He turns on his phone, leaning against a nearby tree while he waits for it to boot up.
It’s not that he doesn’t trust Shield. Well, that’s not true, he doesn’t trust any organisations, be they shadowy council-run or government funded or whatever. They’re all run by people with their own agenda, and their ideas of what the right course of action is might not necessarily run in line with Steve’s. Col. Phillips and the US Army certainly hadn’t. And as much as hiding his bike and his phone from the camp is keeping his identity hidden from them, it’s also keeping their location hidden from Shield. Whatever happens, the last thing Steve wants is to see them in trouble.
The phone chimes with half a dozen messages, mostly from Natasha asking where he is, a selfie of Sam flying over the Pyramid of Giza, and one from Hill calling him in for a progress meeting.
Steve closes the messages from Natasha with a twist of guilt, and sends Hill a text that he’s on his way. He shoves the phone in his pocket, and pushes the bike through the bushes and out onto the road. It’s a little over an hour’s drive to the Tower, and the supplies he can pick up from a hardware store on the way back tonight, with any luck.
He guns the engine, and heads towards the coastline.
He stops off at his apartment to shower and shave, dumping his old clothes in the laundry before getting changed. He packs up some toiletries and a battery powered shaver, along with a few things to take back to the camp, and arrives at the tower with his hair still damp.
The indifferent-looking woman at the reception desk, a single steel podium in the otherwise cavernously empty ground floor of the building, barely glances up at Steve as he approaches, and tells him that Hill is waiting.
Steve mutters a thank you, because his Ma managed to instill some manners into him, and walks across to the elevators, the back of his neck prickling the whole way. He punches the button for Hill’s floor, and twiddles his thumbs while the lift rumbles gently to life, letting out a soft ping sooner than Steve anticipates, the doors sliding open.
“There you are.” Steve looks up to see Natasha standing in the doorway. “Where the hell have you been, Rogers?”
Steve steps out of the elevator, moving nimbly around her. “Nowhere.”
“Sure,” she mutters, keeping pace with him as he walks down the hall. “Try again.”
“Really, it’s nothing,” Steve perseveres. “Hill has me on busywork.”
“Twitter?” she cocks her head to one side. “They’re still mad about that?”
Steve offers no further comment, and to be truthful he’s still a little sore about the whole damn thing. He’d been giving orders and running missions before Fury was even born, so being scolded for exercising his right to free speech stings a little.
“It’ll pass,” Natasha offers. “Sooner or later something more important will come along, and you’ll be back on the team.”
The thought is not that comforting. This won’t last. Rather than unpick exactly why it bothers him so much, Steve nods vaguely. Natasha wishes him luck and heads off to her nefarious spy work, and he knocks on Hill’s door, waiting to be called in.
“Rogers,” Hill greets him from behind her polished glass desk. “Thank you for coming in.”
Steve stands at parade rest before her, wondering to himself why she has such a large desk when there’s nothing on it but a laptop. Hill points to the chair opposite her.
“Please sit down, before I get a crick in my neck.”
Steve lets out a quiet huff, but takes a seat. “Thank you.”
“You know, when I gave you this assignment, it was to keep you off social media. Not to have you drop off the face of the earth altogether.” Hill doesn’t bother with small talk before getting to the point. “You wanna tell me where you’ve been the last two days?”
Steve weighs up exactly how honest he’s willing to be. “You gave me an assignment, I’ve been working on it.”
“And what? You go off-grid completely? What if something happened? What if we needed to contact you?” Hill frowns at him. “For something a little more serious than four dead bodies.”
“Fifteen,” Steve says flatly.
Hill pauses, her delicate features paling. “I’m sorry, what?”
“Fifteen,” Steve repeats. He sighs and sits forward, folding his hands in his lap. “I’ve been in the Pines, speaking with a number of homeless people living out there. They say it’s more like fifteen people who have gone missing. Now granted, some of them may have been accidents, or people moving on.” Steve chews his lip. “I don’t know. But I find it hard to believe eleven people just up and vanished.”
Hill taps her painted nails against her laptop, processing the new data. “Do you have names? Details?”
Hill types up the scraps of information Steve has managed to pull from the people in camp. It’s not much to work with, nicknames and rough descriptions, but she promises to cross-reference the missing persons database and let him know if there are any matches.
They sit in silence for a few minutes, both lost to their grim thoughts, until Hill shakes herself off.
“Thank you for your work here, Rogers.” Hill closes her laptop with an overloud snap. “I’ll assemble a team to-”
“What? No.” Steve has to force himself to sit still. “You can’t reassign me.”
“Rogers, I can do whatever I damn well please,” Hill counters. “Now I admit that, when I gave you this assignment, I didn’t think anything would come of it. But this is a serious issue. There is something out in the Pines hunting people-”
“And I will find it,” Steve interrupts her. “I will put a stop to it.”
“Steve…” Hill says gently.
“There are people living out in the woods. Good people. They trust me, have opened up to me, and I owe it to them.” Steve doesn’t beg. He’s never begged in his life. “They’re scared and they have nowhere else to go, you can’t send a Strike team out there. They’ll scatter, they’ll end up dying of exposure in the woods or targeted by-”
“Jesus Christ.” Hill relents, sitting back in her seat. “Alright, fine. Like I can argue when you start acting all sincere.”
Hill keeps talking before Steve has the chance to feel relief. “No more going dark. You check in once a day, or I assume you’re dead and send a team to your last known location.”
“Three days,” Steve counters, lightning fast.
“Ugh,” Hill rolls her eyes. “Two.”
Steve stretches out his hand across the desk. “Deal.”
Steve manages to leave before Natasha catches sight of him again. He doesn’t sneak down to the garage, not really. He definitely doesn’t hide in a closet to avoid Tony, he had a legitimate reason to duck in there.
It’s still early afternoon when he drives out of New York, taking a detour to a hardware store to purchase a few things. He walks around the store, picking things up only to put them back again, and finally settling on the barest essentials. He can’t exactly ride into camp laden down with brand new equipment without raising some questions.
After staring at the display of torches and lanterns, he picks out the strongest handheld torch they have, as well as packets of extra batteries for it.
He no longer has his shield - that was passed on to Sam along with everything else - and the thought of going into camp with a gun or a knife doesn’t sit well with him. He hopes that a good flashlight and a reliable pair of fists will be enough.
The man behind the counter stares at Steve as he piles his goods on the counter; a saw, screwdriver, brackets, and a box of assorted screws. Steve knows the look well; the man recognises him, but he isn’t sure where from. Steve keeps his mouth shut, and shakes his head at the man’s leading questions until he gives up and rings up the total.
Steve pays up, and gets back on the road. He toys with the idea of stopping at a grocery store too, but he has no idea what he would buy, or how Kurt and Dave would react to him muscling in on their job in camp, however well-intentioned it might be.
There was no indication that his old hiding place had been found, but Steve finds a new place to stow the motorbike, a little further from the road this time. He switches off his phone and tucks it into the lockbox with his wallet before covering the bike with foliage, picking up his bag of supplies, and walking back to camp.
This time when he walks up the path the bald, muscular man at the entrance to camp raises his bottle in the air, the clear dregs sloshing back and forth.
“Our hero has returned!” he says proudly.
“In one piece and everything,” Steve agrees, and keeps walking until he reaches the subway car.
Luis is already building a fire for the evening, and greets Steve with the kind of genuine warmth that he hadn’t realised was missing from his life until now.
“There’s my good buddy,” Luis gives Steve a one-armed hug, leaving a smear of wood ash on his jacket. “You get your shit sorted out? You need any help? I mean I don’t know the kind of thing you’re up against, and sure as shit I ain’t no lawyer, but I got a decent right hook, if you ever need a guy punched.”
“I think I can manage,” Steve reassures him.
He stows the flashlight and spare batteries in his bag in the carriage, and takes the rest of his supplies out to the new shelters.
He can’t deny that, after working his way through the crowded, raging streets of New York and the anthill of the Avengers Tower, it’s a relief to be back in camp. To be trusted to take care of the job at hand, and not be treated like some kind of hindrance.
Kurt and Dave soon return to camp with more sheets of cardboard for insulation, and a sack of potatoes. They’re a little on the wrinkled side, and sporting little sprouts of new growth, but Luis picks out the best ones, scratches off the sprouts and wraps them in foil before putting them in the ashes of the campfire.
A rummage through his cupboard brings up a few cans of beans, which get holes poked into the top before being pushed into the dirt at the edge of the fire and left to heat through.
Steve eats his dinner quickly, and spends the rest of the mealtime sketching out plans for new shelters while Quill hovers over his shoulder, asking endless questions and making suggestions. Steve flat out refuses to make him a sauna, and he goes off in a sulk.
By the time the sun is slipping past the trees the food is long gone, and everyone starts making their way to their own beds. Steve helps pack away for the night, already familiar with the camp routines, and is the last to climb into the subway car.
The others are already asleep, Scott sprawled across the bench opposite Steve, his cheek pressed to the window, the glass fogging with every slow breath out. Steve checks for his torch, making sure he can reach it easily, and wraps himself up in his sleeping bag. It’s been a long time since he last stood watch over a sleeping camp, but it comes easily, like muscle memory, watching over the tents as darkness falls.
It’s not like the flicking of a switch, one moment there is nothing, and the next there is a presence in the camp. It is a slow, creeping change, a stillness in the air, as if the trees are holding their breath.
Steve gently slides his boot across the floor, nudging his flashlight forward, where he can grab it without having to break his line of sight, and scans the trees.
There. There behind Val’s truck, something in the trees, beyond the weak rainbow glow of the plastic flowers. It disappears from sight, appearing again a few minutes later a little further along, moving along the edge of the camp towards the cover of the woodpile.
Steve pushes off his sleeping bag, letting it fall to the floor, grasps the flashlight and gets to his feet. He’ll lose sight of it getting to the carriage door, so he waits, gauging its speed and direction before he risks moving.
He slips out of the carriage, careful not to make a sound, and trots quickly through the camp, light on his feet, searching the trees for where the creature should be.
He catches another glimpse of it; as tall as a man, with a pale, bird-like head and something dark and heavy over its shoulders, like a blanket or a cape of some kind. Steve recognises it, the same creature he saw that first night, the one that went for Wanda and Pietro.
Steve moves quickly, keeping low as he skirts around the shacks, circling around until he’s approaching the creature’s location from the opposite side. If it’s looking for the twins again, he can ambush it, get between it and and the safety of the trees this time. He hunches down behind a clump of ferns, his back to a tree, the torch gripped tightly in his hand, and waits for the creature to break cover.
The night sky is clear overhead, and the wash of stars dusts the camp in faint, blue-edged light. The sound of a tent being opened, a zipper yanked down, cuts through the silence and almost catches Steve off guard.
Wanda emerges, wrapped in a thick coat. She turns towards the subway car, staring at it for a few minutes, before turning her attention to the woods.
Steve fights the urge to duck when she glances his way, and watches as she takes a careful step towards the trees, her vision slowly adjusting to the dark.
Out of the corner of his eye, Steve sees a shape touch the tree beside him. A hand, with slender fingers and neatly trimmed nails. The fingers flex, nails digging into the the bark, and the creature steps forward, towards the girl standing in the clearing.
Steve leaps to his feet, his flashlight raised, and before he can turn it on, the thing lets out a harsh sound, throwing out its cloak. It smacks into Steve’s chest, far too heavy to be made of cloth, and knocks him to the ground. The creature turns, the cloak billowing out around it and then snapping up tight against its body, and it tears off through the trees.
Steve scrambles to his feet, charging through the undergrowth in pursuit.
Branches whip at his face and tug at his clothes as he runs, exposed roots threaten to trip him up and snap his ankles. It’s too dark to see under the canopy, the ground under his feet constantly shifting, soft earth and thick, hard roots and fallen branches. But Steve keeps moving, getting closer to the creature up ahead, tracking the snap of twigs under its feet and the rustle of leaves as it pushes its way through the foliage.
Somewhere behind him he can hear movement, a beam of light flitting through the trees.
Flashlight. Steve switches on his own, and harsh white light floods the way ahead. The creature pauses, its pale beak slicing back and forth, and Steve turns the beam towards it. He can’t get a clear view of it, between the tree branches and the thrashing of its cloak. It stumbles away, blinded by the light, and crashes through the trees into a clearing up ahead.
Steve chases after it, holding the flashlight up high as he burst through the last few trees, and the creature turns to face him, hands raised to block the light.
Steve has seen many terrible things in his life, far too many terrible things, monsters and gods and horrors. He freezes, hand clenched around the torch in a death-grip, heart thumping so hard in his chest that he fears it might punch right through his ribs, when he sees the creature.
It stands like a man, with arms and legs much like his own, but what Steve had taken for a cloak are wings - great, pale wings, leathery and vast. In the torchlight he can make out veins and capillaries stretched across the tan skin, can see flexible bones radiating out in a fan as the creature spreads them, moving lightly from foot to foot as they flap back and forth.
But it’s the face, that makes Steve freeze. A bare, pale skull turns to stare him down, its muzzle long and jagged like a goat. It’s empty eye sockets fix him with a sightless, terrible gaze. Dark, shaggy hair falls in loose waves around the skull, brushing the creatures shoulders, and a pair of horns corkscrew up from the top of its head.
Kurt was right, Steve thinks, through the high whine of panic filling his head. It’s the Devil himself, torn from the pages of his own mother’s bible.
The creature lifts up into the air, carried aloft by the beating of his wings, and Steve swallows down his fear and launches the only weapon he has at the monster - his flashlight.
It arcs through the air, the beam of light strobing across the tangled branches around them, and smacks the creature in the face. There is a sharp crack, and its muzzle shatters, spraying shards of bone onto the woodland floor.
The flashlight lands with a heavy thud, the beam stuttering before sending a blaze of light across the clearing as the creature lands heavily, clutching its ruined features.
“Ow, fuck,” it yelps, its fingers prodding the splintered bone. “You bastard sonofabitch!”
The creature fumbles around the back of its head, and Steve can see a glint of metal. It unfastens a buckle, pulling a strap loose, and carefully unfastens the skull.
A mask. It’s not the Devil, it’s a mask, and Steve chokes out a sob of relief.
The sound is cut short as the skull is pulled away, revealing a human face. Blue eyes, sharp cheekbones and plush, dark red lips (handsome, what’s left of Steve’s rational thinking offers. Very).
The horns do not come away with the mask. Nor do the great, leathery wings.
Wanda crashes into the clearing, her torch raised. “Bucky?” she shouts, and darts forward, throwing her arms around the creature before Steve can move to stop her.
“Hey, sweetheart.” The creature gives her a one-armed hug, the broken skull hanging from his other hand.
“What?” Steve finally utters, soft and confounded.
The creature glares at him. Its wings bristle as it shakes the mask in Steve’s direction.
“Do you have any idea how hard it is to find these things?” It asks. “I’m gonna have to get another one on Etsy or something.”
Chapter 3: In The Pines
“You gonna give me a kiss too, huh?"
Steve Rogers has faced down a lot of bad guys in his time. He’s fought Nazis and aliens and a sizable portion of the white male New York population in the late ‘30’s. Every one of them felt compelled to make speeches, to explain in great detail why they were destined to rule, and just how much pain was headed Steve’s way. Not a one of them had called him a bastard son of a bitch while hugging an illegal immigrant.
In the end, that’s what makes him hesitate, makes him lower his fists.
He stares as Wanda reaches up to cradle the creature’s… Bucky’s… face in her hands. There is a bruise forming on his cheek from where the skull mask broke, and she strokes her thumb across it, muttering darkly while Bucky reassures her that he’s fine, quit fussing.
“Jesus Christ,” Steve murmurs, and both Bucky and Wanda turn to glare at him.
“Usually get mistaken for the other one,” Bucky mutters sourly.
Steve hopes it’s too dark to see the flush forming on his face, because that had been his first thought, before Bucky opened his mouth. He had seen the horns and the wings and thought monster.
Bucky lets out a derisive snort, and drops his skull mask on the forest floor. “What the hell is Captain America doing out in the Pines anyway?”
Wanda starts, and takes a closer look at Steve. He takes an instinctive step back, retreating from the glare of the flashlight.
“This is Steve,” Wanda explains. “The one who came to the camp a few days ago.”
“Who needed the hinges?” Bucky asks incredulously.
“Wait a minute,” Steve takes a step forward. “You know about that? What else do you know about the camp?”
“Only what I’ve told him,” Wanda cuts in. “The others don’t know about him, you can’t tell them.”
“Why not?” Steve asks, and Bucky lets out a cough of laughter, bitter and low.
“Not everyone reacts as well as you do, Captain.” His mouth twists up. “And I’ve already been chased through the woods by that Russian guy.”
Steve clamps his mouth shut. He hadn’t stopped to ask questions, just taken one look at Bucky and attacked.
Wanda shines the light in Steve’s face, tilting her head to one side.
“You are Captain America,” she gasps.
“No, I’m not,” Steve hisses.
“Yes, you are,” Bucky snorts. “A little different from the USO tour days, but it’s definitely you.”
“Matka Boží,” she breathes. “Steve Rogers. What is Captain America doing hanging out with a bunch of homeless people?”
“I’m not Captain America,” Steve says a little more loudly.
“You’re here about the murders,” Bucky realises. “Don’t tell me Shield actually cares enough about a bunch of dead hobos to send Captain America to investigate.”
“I’m NOT Captain America,” Steve snaps.
Wanda takes a step back, lowering her flashlight and pushing herself into the safety of Bucky’s arms. Steve lets out a sigh, his shoulders sagging. “Not anymore,” he says quietly.
Wanda sets her jaw. “Say nothing,” she says. “Say nothing about seeing Bucky and I won’t tell the others who you really are.”
“Wanda, that’s cold,” Bucky mutters, and she elbows him in the ribs. “Ouch. Fuck.”
“Swear it,” she says, fixing Steve with an icy stare. “You’ll say nothing, and I’ll say nothing either.”
“Wanda-” Steve tries to placate her.
“Whatever is out there, whatever is killing people, it’s not Bucky.” Her voice cracks, and Steve can hear desperation between the words. “My brother would be dead if it wasn’t for him. Please.”
Guilt twists under Steve’s ribs, hot and sharp. Whatever Bucky was, Wanda seemed to trust him, and he’d made no attempt to attack Steve, or anyone else in the camp. Steve couldn’t say the same, he had taken one look at Bucky and assumed the worst. He had seen the horns and the wings and thrown a missile at his face.
“Alright, I won’t tell the camp anything.” Steve casts a glance towards Bucky, still trying to see some kind of fault in his appearance, some proof that he was just a regular human in some kind of costume.
They wouldn’t believe him back at camp anyway, and they’re panicked enough over the murders without having Steve announce that the Jersey Devil is not only real, but has a foul mouth.
Bucky seems to relax, taking Steve at his word, and shoves his hand into his pocket, pulling out a small cardboard box. He throws it at Steve, who catches it easily, the contents giving a metallic sounding rattle in his hands.
“Sorry it took so long,” Bucky mutters, shoving his hands in his pockets. “Same day dispatch my ass. And it's free shipping, so eBay won’t let you bitch about it.”
Steve opens the box, and a dozen assorted hinges glint in the torch light.
“Wasn’t sure what size you needed, so got a mix,” Bucky shrugs. “That was before I knew you were a fucking superhero, so next time get your own.”
“Of course,” Steve gives the box a shake. “How did you know I needed these? I never said anything…”
“You kept making those lists,” Wanda mutters. “And Bucky, he gets the things we need, things we can’t get for ourselves.”
Steve thinks of Wanda sneaking around camp, handing out sleeping bags and hiding bottles where the people who need them will find them. “The chili sauce,” he murmurs, looking at Bucky. “That was you?”
Bucky shuffles from foot to foot, looking embarrassed, and that hot little kernel of guilt under Steve’s ribs blossoms outwards, twisting up his throat until he feels like it will choke him.
Bucky seems to notice Steve withdrawing into himself, and straightens up a little. “Well, not to say I’m not having the best time out here in the woods with you guys, but you should probably head back to camp.” He gives Wanda a gentle nudge. “Before someone notices you’re missing and freaks out.”
“Yeah,” Wanda agrees, casting her torch around looking for the way back.
“Though I’d feel a lot better if you and your brother would-” Bucky begins.
“We’re not leaving the camp,” Wanda cuts him off. “We’ve been over this.”
“Just for the winter,” Bucky spreads out his arms, his wings spreading out to mirror them. “Y’know, so you don’t freeze to death or get murdered.”
“Bucky,” she hisses.
“Alright, fine,” Bucky holds his hands up. “But I’m gonna keep asking.”
“And I’m gonna keep saying no,” Wanda says firmly. She relents a little when Bucky pouts at her, and reaches up to kiss him on the cheek before turning to the trees and giving Steve an expectant look.
Steve looks back at Bucky, who snorts and turns his cheek to Steve, giving it a tap with a fingertip.
“You gonna give me a kiss too, huh?”
“Uh,” Steve says eloquently. Wanda grabs him by the sleeve, and pulls him into the trees.
Steve lets himself be pulled along the path he trampled through the woods, Wanda’s grip on his forearm relentless as they stumble over fallen branches and moss covered stones. It takes Steve far too long to realise he left his flashlight behind in the clearing with the… with Bucky. He glances over his shoulder, and wonders if it’s worth the hassle of going back for it.
One glance at Wanda tells him it’s not.
“So,” Steve clears his throat as they come within sight of the camp.
“What?” Wanda snaps, her voice hushed.
Steve thinks about all the questions he wants to ask, but he keeps thinking of the worried way Bucky had looked at her when she’d refused his help. Of the box of hinges sitting heavily in his pocket.
“He’s right, you can’t spend winter in a tent,” he says instead.
She stares at Steve, startled enough to loosen her grip on him. “Not you as well?”
“Just hear me out, okay?” Steve nods to the camp, where he can make out her tent in the gloom. “If we build a shelter where your tent is now, and add a second woodpile over there,” he points to a space the other side of it. “That’s clear enough of the trees to keep you safe, but covers you from most of the camp if you need to go into the woods unseen.”
Wanda lets go of his arm, stepping clear of the trees and looking up and down the line of sight.
“That’s the reason you’ve been so against leaving your tent, right?” Steve follows after her, his voice pitched low. “You didn’t want anyone seeing you, coming after you.”
Wanda hums to herself. “There’s still a clear view from the subway car,” she says finally.
“Yeah,” Steve doesn’t deny it. “There’s still something out there, I gotta make sure everyone is safe.”
“You’re staying?” she murmurs, almost to herself.
“Yeah,” Steve nods. “I’m staying.”
No one seems to have noticed their absence, and Wanda gives Steve a last, searching look before unzipping her tent and climbing inside.
Steve pauses, his hands resting on his hips, and looks back at the woods. He chews on the inside of his cheek, a sharp little pain that pulls his thoughts into focus, and walks back to the subway car.
He pushes open the door and slips inside, careful not to wake the others. Kurt mumbles in his sleep as Steve picks up his abandoned sleeping bag and wraps it around himself.
Across from him, Scott cracks open one eye, and clears his throat. “Y’okay?” he mumbles, his voice hushed.
“Yeah,” Steve nods, sitting down on his bench and turning to the window.
“You see something again?” Scott shifts into a less uncomfortable position. “Did you run into the Jersey Devil?”
Steve snorts, and Scott shuts his eyes, burrowing into his blanket until just his nose is poking out. After a few moments he starts snoring.
Yes, Steve thinks to himself. I saw the Jersey Devil and he was…
He tucks his face into the sleeping bag and screws his eyes shut. The vision still lingers, clear blue eyes and a wide, laughing mouth.
“You gonna give me a kiss too, huh?”
Steve wakes to the sound of Luis bustling around in the carriage, damn near mummified in his blankets. He cracks open the carriage door and heads outside, bag of chicken feed in hand, and goes off to rouse the chickens.
Steve scratches the hint of stubble on his cheeks and yawns, circling around the events of the night, and forces himself up. He leaves the others to their sleep, and goes out to meet the day.
By now he’s familiar with the routines in camp, and rakes out the firepit. The ashes he scatters over Luis’ vegetable patch, spreading it between the rows of corn and pumpkin.
Rumlow wanders out of his enclave, yawning and scratching his belly. He leers at Steve while he’s bending down to pull a few weeds. “Ain’t you a little bitch, huh?”
Steve ignores him, tossing the weeds to a nearby chicken, and Rumlow snorts, yelling to Rollins to get up before disappearing behind a spread of camouflage netting.
Steve spends the time before breakfast getting started on the shelter for Wanda and Pietro, marking out an area and cutting wood to size, leaving the actual building work for when people are up and about, and less likely to complain about the noise. By mid-morning he has a framework in place, much larger than their tent, and with separate areas for sleeping. The walls he makes as solid as he can with his limited supplies, sandwiching cardboard between the wooden planks for insulation.
He takes a step back, studying the structure with a critical eye, and gives Wanda a sheepish little smile when she comes over to join him.
“Well?” Steve asks when Wanda peers through the doorway. Steve hasn’t hung a door yet, but he has a piece of plywood set aside, as well as the box of hinges from Bucky.
Wanda hums, taking her time walking around inside. She runs her finger along the woodwork, taking in every supporting bracket and repurposed nail.
“Wanda, c’mon,” Steve mutters, and she turns to him, a wary smile tugging at her mouth. “It’s not finished, there’s still the floor and the door and I need to persuade Val to help out with the roof. There’s enough tarp to cover it, keep the rain out, and Kurt says he can provide something for the floor. You’ll need to keep it ventilated, because-”
Steve clamps his mouth shut when he realises he’s rambling, but that wary smile of Wanda’s has grown into something bigger and brighter.
Wanda seems to catch herself, and takes a last look around the shelter. “It will suffice,” she declares, then says, a little more softly, “thank you.”
Steve fidgets with his screwdriver, moving it from hand to hand. He spent half the night turning over what happened, facing down what he had thought would be a monster and… wasn’t. The more time passes, the more he wonders about something Bucky had said.
“I…” Steve hesitates, arranging his words carefully in a line. “Bucky. Could I… Would I be able to speak to him?” He tries to smile as Wanda’s expression clouds over. “I don’t mean him any harm, I promise, I just…” Steve licks his lips. “I just want to ask him a few questions.”
Wanda scowls, glancing around to make sure no one can hear them talking. “Is this a bribe?” She points to the shelter. “You think you can just build me a house and I’d sell him out?!”
“No,” Steve holds up his hands, placating, screwdriver still clenched in one fist. “No, this is yours, whatever happens. You can tell me to go to hell, and I’ll still finish building it.” He glances to the line of trees. “He’s not the only one worried about you.”
Wanda hisses at him in a language Steve doesn’t speak, but he knows when he’s being sworn at.
“I just want to talk, that’s all,” he says quietly. “That’s all.”
Wanda gives him a last, baleful glare, and walks away without another word.
Steve watches her leave, gripping the screwdriver tight enough to leave finger shaped indentations in the handle. Her refusal to help wouldn’t necessarily stop him, one phone call to Natasha would be all it takes to find where Bucky lives.
But. That would definitely put him on Shield’s radar- as much as he likes Natasha, she’s a Shield agent. As soon as she figured out what Bucky was (who, Steve thinks guiltily. Not what) they’d go after him, bring him in for questioning and god knows what else.
Steve looks down at the screwdriver, rubbing his thumb over the dented handle. He won’t let it come to that. If he has to spend his nights scouring the woods looking for Bucky on foot to keep from exposing his whereabouts, that’s what he’ll do.
Steve lets out a sigh, rolling his shoulders to loosen them up a little, and gets back to work.
With some persuading, Val climbs onto the roof of the shack and starts fixing the tarp in place with her staple gun. Steve gives her a wide berth while she’s working, especially when she starts staring him right in the eye while punching inch long staples into the wood.
Steve retreats to a safe distance, and grabs a bottle of water from the stash by the fire pit. There is no water supply in the camp, so they manage with bottled water, usually brought in by Kurt and Dave. Supplies are limited enough to restrict it to drinking and cooking, and even Steve would baulk at the number of bottles it would take to have a shower, and a cold one at that. Most people in camp try to keep clean, using wet wipes or a damp cloth to wash with.
Steve is minding his own business, sipping his water, when Pietro comes wandering over. He fetches himself some water, and watches Val climbing over the roof of his shelter, muttering under her breath as she reloads her staple gun.
“One day I will wake up and she’ll have stapled me to a tree with that thing,” Pietro announces. “If I’m lucky she’ll have me upright, so I don’t drown when I piss myself.”
Steve coughs out a laugh. “Yeah. She’s… emphatic.”
Pietro snorts, and kicks a stone across the clearing. “Wanda says you want to talk to our friend.”
“Yeah.” Steve screws the cap back on his water bottle. “Yeah. I just want to ask him a couple of questions.”
“He didn’t kill anyone,” Pietro kicks at another stone.
“I know he didn’t,” Steve says softly.
“Hmm?” Pietro glances at him curiously. “Wanda says-”
“I’ve seen true monsters, men who have looked at their fellow man and decided they were unworthy of life. They...” Steve brushes his thumb across his mouth. “Well, he’s not like them.”
It’s a poor explanation, the truth being far too tangled and confused, and Steve can’t really pick it apart just yet, can only trust his gut. Whatever Bucky might be, he’s not a monster, and Steve owes him an apology.
Pietro gives Steve a rueful smile. “Did she tell you how we first met him?”
Steve shakes his head. “She said he saved your life.”
Pietro lets out a sharp little laugh, prickly and bitter as a string of brambles. “We were born in Sokovia. I’m sure you know how we ended up here.”
Steve bows his head, unable to answer. The Avengers had done everything they could to clear the city of Novi Grad, hell, maybe Steve himself had pushed the twins onto the helicarriers in the rush to evacuate. But the city was lost, nothing more than a crater now. The impact had devastated the surrounding region, making it uninhabitable.
“We were brought to New York for processing. On the helicarrier they told us a new life would be waiting for us, a chance to start over.” Pietro’s expression slackens, his eyes unfocused and distant. “We were rejected, along with thousands of others, because there were ‘too many of us’. We had no family to go back to, no country to go back to, so they put us in detention camps while they worked out what to do with us all.”
Steve swears softly. He doesn’t dare reach out to Pietro, so clings to the doorframe of the shelter instead.
“It was a bad place to be in, a bad place to be a kid. Worse place to be a girl.” Pietro chews his lip, and shrugs it all away. “So we escaped. Put our backs to the sea and started running. In the woods we could hide. We’d go out to the towns to steal food when we could. But I got sick, and Wanda, well…”
“I’m so sorry,” Steve whispers.
Pietro looks at him, cocking his head to one side. “When he found us I thought he was the Devil, and I was relieved. Hell would be warm, at least. But he took us to his home, and when I got better, when the winter passed, he told us we could stay if we wanted.”
“Why didn’t you?” Steve asks.
“Pride, I guess.” Pietro tucks his hands into his pockets, rocking back on his heels. “We don’t want to live on handouts, you know? We just want a chance to… I don’t know. Live, work, be a part of things. But as soon as we show our faces out there, they’ll toss us back in those detention centers. So…” He smiles, a brittle little grimace. “Here we are.”
Steve shifts back and forth, his blood cold in his veins. “There must be something, an appeals process. We could get you a lawyer.”
“Pfft!” Pietro rolls his eyes. “What could they do? You ever heard of the Convention of the Rights of the Child? ‘The right to survival; to protection from harm and abuse and exploitation’. Like, thirty years ago the United Nations got together and agreed that children should be kept safe from harm. The only country that refused to ratify it, and we are talking every single country, is the USA.” With no stones left to take out his frustration on, Pietro kicks at the dirt. “Land of the free, eh?”
Steve opens his mouth, but nothing comes out. What could he say, that he didn’t know? That no one told him? Blaming someone else for not keeping himself informed?
Pietro runs the toe of his battered trainer across the dirt, smoothing it down. “Go east, until you reach a lake, it’s pretty big, you can’t miss it. There’s a big oak tree on the north side. Put your back to that and walk north a couple of miles. If he wants to talk to you, he’ll find you.” Pietro smirks, and it strikes Steve that it’s miraculous the boy still knows how to smile. “If he doesn’t, I’m sure you can find your way back to camp before dark.”
Steve packs up his tools for the day as soon as Pietro leaves. There’s not much more he can do before Kurt and Dave come back with more cardboard, and he is uncomfortably aware of how little time he has before nightfall.
He puts his tools away in the subway car, and paces back and forth, feeling oddly restless. He has been working in the sun all morning, building up a sweat in the clothes he wore yesterday, and his hair hasn’t seen a comb since the last time he showered.
Steve catches himself, and pauses in his pacing. Why does he care? There are people in camp who haven’t see a bath since the summertime, so why is he fretting that it’s been 24 hours since he last had a wash?
It doesn’t take much searching to find Luis, who is happy to provide a washcloth and boil up a kettle of water for him to clean up with. He gets a bit of an audience when he strips off his shirt and scrubs himself down. Val and Quill wolf-whistle and cat-call while Steve blushes furiously, turning blotchy red across his cheeks and halfway down his chest and he scrubs his face a second time, just so he doesn’t have to look at them. He gives the dark blond fuzz on his throat and face a once over with his electric shaver, pretending he can’t hear Luis asking if he has a date over the buzzing, and when he ducks back into the subway car to fetch a clean t-shirt, the audience disperses, chatting amongst themselves.
Steve grabs a power bar from his bag, tucking it into his back pocket, and waits until they are definitely gone before coming out again, though Luis is still hanging around.
“So, c’mon Steve. You got a date or something?” Luis scrunches his face up, like nothing would make him happier.
Steve shakes his head, and runs his fingers through his hair, trying to smooth it down. “Just meeting someone.”
“Ah,” Luis nods. “Gotta make like you’re not a crazy-eyed hobo.”
Steve offers a weak smile. “Something like that.”
“Well, good luck to you pal, whatever’s going down.”
Luis offers up a fist, but Steve is far too self-conscious, and wipes his damp palms on his pants instead. “C’mon, brah! Don’t leave a guy hanging,” Luis wheedles, and Steve hesitantly offers up a fist.
Luis taps it gently. “Go kick some ass, big guy.”
Steve flusters a little, but mutters a thank you before heading into the trees.
The Pines are easier to navigate in daylight, Steve finds. Underfoot there is dense growth of ferns and brackens, obscuring the occasional trunk of a fallen tree and brittle twigs that snap underfoot. The tall spruce and pine trees that give the region its name stretch up into the sky around him. He walks easily through the woodland, the trees widely spaced apart, until he reaches dense thickets with the trunks little more than a handspan apart that he has to navigate around.
He can feel the ground changing under his feet as he gets closer to the lake, the earth soft and damp, his boots sinking in a little with each step, the woodland floor sloping downhill. The air is filled with the rich scent of lush green growth, underlaid with the pungent tang of decay, rotting wood, and wet earth.
The lake is wide and deep, the edges ill defined, and Steve picks his way around, pushing through the braken, his feet slipping in the soft mud, until he reaches a large Black Oak.
The dirt is disturbed around its roots, and Steve scrapes at it with the heel of his boot, soil clinging to his wet soles. He catches the lid of a battered metal box, and crouches down, pushing his fingers into the dirt and levering up the lid, soil spilling into the box. It’s empty, but the metal lip where the lid connects to the box is scratched and shiny, indicating recent use.
It must be a place where Bucky leaves supplies for the twins when he can’t get to camp, and Steve closes the lid, carefully brushing soil back over the top until it’s covered.
He puts his back to the tree, facing north, and starts walking.
It takes another half hour of walking, maybe more, before Steve knows he’s not alone.
Something scrambles up a tree to his right, and he fights the urge to spin around, to chase after the sound. Just behind him there is a loud shriek, quickly bitten off, and a sudden scuffle in the undergrowth. Steve keeps walking, keeps his pace steady, his breathing calm, and pushes his way through a dense patch of scrubs. Out of the corner of his eye he sees a flash of white, catching a glimpse of a banded tail disappearing between the leaves. He stops, and reaches into his pocket for the power bar he’d brought with him. The label says almond, though Steve seriously doubts it from the others he’s tried. He tears open the packet, and breaks off a piece.
Steve has never been much good with animals. He likes dogs well enough, and when he was a kid his neighbour had a cat that he had loved to draw. But he was a city boy at heart, and like any idiot city boy convinced that he had a natural affinity with animals. He makes a little kissing sound, pressing his teeth to his lower lip and sucking in air, and holds out the treat.
Whatever is in the trees doesn’t seem convinced by the almond flavour either, and after a minute of standing in the middle of the woods with his hand outstretched, Steve feels like an idiot. He crumbles up the piece of bar in his hand, scattering it on the ground in case they change their mind, and puts the rest of the bar back in his pocket.
There is a scrabbling sound from the trees, and a pointed snout peeks out from between the branches. It’s a little larger than a cat, with a long, fox-like face. Its eyes look brown until they catch the light, where they shine red. It creeps along the branch, sniffing the air in Steve’s direction, its black and white fur bristling.
Steve takes out his bar again, and slowly edges his way towards the creature, holding it up.
It retreats a little, its wet down nose flaring as it scents food, and Steve pauses before taking another step closer, holding up the bar just out of reach.
The creature leaps forward, snatching the bar out of Steve’s hands with its dexterous little paws.
“Hey!” Steve laughs as it clambers up into the higher branches. “You’re supposed to share.”
He gets a little rain of crumbs and a discarded wrapper for his troubles. Steve chuckles, picking the wrapper up and shoving it into his pocket. He looks up, checking which way is north, and starts walking.
A path starts to form under Steve’s feet, well trodden dirt weaving between the pine trees, and Steve slows down, wary of blundering where he isn’t wanted.
Something hits his shoulder, before tumbling to the ground. Steve bends down to pick it up. A pinecone. He rolls it between his fingers, humming thoughtfully, and another one smacks him on the back of the head.
“Ow!” Steve spins around, rubbing his head, but he can see no one hiding behind the trees.
He tosses his pinecone from hand to hand, and looks up. Half hidden among the pine needles, crouched down on one of the thicker branches, is Bucky.
“Wondered when you’d show up,” Bucky says lightly, his wings twitching out, keeping him balanced.
The sun is still high in the afternoon sky, and Steve can finally get a good look at him. He’s wearing jeans and a jacket, zipped up to the throat. His long, chestnut-brown hair is swept off his face. His horns are a few shades lighter than his hair, the same russet of his wings, and curve upwards in a loose corkscrew.
His eyes are clear and blue (Beautiful, the word twists around Steve’s ribs, making his breath stutter and his hands clench. Very.)
Steve clears his throat, the sound jarring in the quiet of the woods. “Uh,” he swallows, his mouth dry.
“You got questions, I take it,” Bucky drops down from the branch, his wings spreading out, cupping the air and slowing his descent, and he lands lightly on the balls of his feet. “My place is this way.”
Bucky points to a stand of oak trees, and starts walking, his wings drawn up tightly to his back to keep from getting snagged on branches. The back of his jacket has been cut, two parallel lines from the hem to the shoulder to accommodate his wings, strips of velcro fastening the hem back in place. Steve catches a glimpse of bare, honey coloured skin underneath the jacket, and swallows.
When Steve doesn’t respond Bucky glances over his shoulder, holding out a hand towards Steve and twitching his fingers.
“You coming or what?”
Steve finds his feet, if not his tongue, and follows. They walk in silence for a while, Bucky leading him away from the path and deeper into the woods until the trees suddenly part and they are in a clearing, the brown-edged braken giving way to wildflowers; delicate little white blossoms and late flowering wild lupins. In the middle of the clearing is a log cabin with a front porch and sloping roof.
Bucky turns to Steve, waving his arm in an expansive gesture. “Welcome to my humble abode.”
Steve takes in the sight of the cabin, the log pile stacked up against the sheltered side of the building and the chairs arranged on the porch. There are potted plants on the windowsill and sweet scented herbs growing in the backyard. It looks cosy and well lived in. It looks like a home.
“What?” Bucky looks at him sharply. “Did you think I just hung upside down from a tree or something?”
“No!” Steve says hastily, his voice pitching up. “No, I just…” He pauses, trying to bring his vocal range somewhere outside of ‘dog’ and back to ‘human’. “It must have been a tight squeeze with Wanda and Pietro here.”
That seems to mollify Bucky a little, the tight line of his shoulders relaxing. “Not as cramped as their tent is.”
“Yeah, well I’m working on that. It’s not much, but it’s got two rooms, so there’s some privacy. The door needs fitting and the floor-”
“You built them a house?” Bucky tilts his head to one side. “Seriously?”
“I wouldn’t call it a house,” Steve flusters. “Hell, calling it a shed is generous. But it’s tall enough to stand in, and keeps the rain off.”
“Huh.” Bucky scratches the base of a horn. “So… You want some coffee?”
There is something in the slope of Bucky’s shoulders, in the way he traces spirals in the dirt with the toe of his boot, that makes Steve relax. “Yeah. Yeah, that would be great.”
There are books everywhere. Every shelf in the cabin is piled high with books, stacked on top of bookcases and in wobbly piles on the floor. Leatherbound hardbacks and well-thumbed paperbacks, their pages yellowing, nestle cheek to jowl on tables. Brick-like tomes are stacked on the window ledges, between pots of spike leaved plants and succulents.
Bucky kicks off his trainers, and gives Steve a glare that suggests terrible things will happen if he doesn’t do the same, so he quickly unlaces his boots and pushes them against the wall next to Bucky’s.
Appeased, Bucky waves him towards a couch in the living room, low-backed with squared armrests, the kind of thing Steve has seen in magazines that come flat packed and need a twisted piece of metal to put together. A nest of blankets are bundled up at one end, and at the other there is another pile of books.
There is a cast iron fireplace against the wall opposite the couch, the fire banked and spreading warmth through the room. Steve unzips his jacket, shrugging it off and draping it over the back of the couch. He picks up a few books, making space for himself, and sits down while Bucky busies himself in the kitchenette in the corner of the room. On the counter is a sleek object made of metal and black plastic that would look at home in Stark’s kitchen. Bucky fills the device with water and switches it on.
“So what coffee do you like?” Bucky asks, rummaging through a battered cardboard box next to the machine. “I got French Roast, Colombian, Costa Rican. There’s an Italian Roast if you want your coffee tasting of ash and remorse.”
Steve gives him a blank look, and Bucky tips the box forward, showing several little foil pots. He gives the box a little shake, and Steve looks down at the books in his hands. Books he understands. “Uh. Just coffee is fine.”
“Just coffee? C’mon, choose,” Bucky gives the box another shake. “You can’t have the last Kenyan, that’s mine.”
“Really,” Steve shifts the books around in his hands, stacking them up neatly so the spines are aligned. “I’ll take it as it comes.”
Bucky drops the box on the counter with a huff. “Give me something to work with, here. You like it sweet? I got a Caramel, there’s probably a Pumpkin Spice in here somewhere.”
He pauses, tugging his lower lip between his teeth in a way that makes Steve suddenly pay very close attention to the books in his lap. He runs his fingers along the spines; a book on wildflowers, a worn copy of the Hobbit, and a collection of short stories.
The machine beeps, and Steve watches curiously as Bucky picks out one of the foil pods and lifts a lever on the front of the machine. It cracks open, revealing an aperture just the right size for the pod. Bucky places the pod, and closes the lid, pushing down the lever firmly. He fetches a mug from one of the overhead cupboards, puts it under the machine, and presses a button.
There is a hiss and a rumble, and coffee starts pouring out the machine in a steady stream. The machine gives a last gurgle, the stream of coffee cutting out with barely a drip, and Bucky pulls up the lever again and pulls out the pod, a small hole now pierced in the lid.
“I’m guessing you’re not into milk or sugar, or anything like that?” Bucky takes the now full cup out of the machine and puts it on the counter, nudging it towards Steve, before fitting a new pod into the machine. In less than a minute he has a second cup of coffee made, and brings them both over to the couch.
“Here,” he holds out the first cup, and Steve carefully places the books on the couch before reaching up to accept it.
“Thank you,” he murmurs as Bucky goes over to the fireplace, the tips of his wing brushing lightly across Steve’s leg as he passes.
Steve doesn’t flinch, but he sees Bucky watching him out of the corner of his eye. Steve sits back with his coffee, keeping his shoulders relaxed, his posture at ease, and Bucky seems to settle a little, as though Steve had passed some kind of test.
Steve watches him crouch down in front of the fire, pulling down the zip of his jacket and spreading out his wings a little. It’s sweetly reminiscent of a cat basking in the sun.
“Aren’t you hot?” Steve asks.
Bucky looks over his shoulder at Steve, raising his eyebrow, and Steve takes a sudden, powerful interest in his coffee. It smells sharp and bitter, and Steve takes a sip. It’s surprisingly smooth, with a strong taste of hazelnut. It’s… good. Bucky smirks, but has the good grace not to say anything.
“So,” Steve clears his throat, aware that he is drinking his coffee much too fast (and what happens when he finishes it? Does he have to leave? He doesn’t want to leave, not yet). “It’s a nice place you have here.”
Bucky gives him a sly look. “You disappointed I don’t live in a cave or something?”
There is a teasing note in his voice, a quirk of his lips, and Steve ducks his head down. “No,” he mumbles.
“I’m just messing with ya,” Bucky flaps a hand in Steve’s direction. “It was my Grandma’s.”
Steve takes another sip of coffee. “You from around here?”
“Nah,” Bucky curls his hands around his mug, soaking up the heat even though he’s hunched in front of the fire. He turns around to face Steve, spreading his wings wider and blocking all the heat. The open V of his jacket reveals a hint of broad chest and defined stomach muscles, until Bucky lifts his cup to his mouth, obscuring the view.
Steve falls silent, chewing over what he wants to ask, and how the hell to ask it.
“I don’t know what’ll give you an ulcer faster,” Bucky says finally. “The gut-rot coffee you must’ve been drinking or whatever you’re gearing up to ask me.”
Steve huffs, a soft puff of air not quite a chuckle and not quite a sigh. “USO tour,” he says softly. “Most people when they recognise me, I mean… they see the costume before anything else.” Steve pauses, because that is an unpleasant thought, and pushes it aside. “People grew up with the comics, yeah, but none of those artists ever seemed to get my face right. Hell, some of them were ridiculous, like my chest was out to here.” Steve holds his hands out in front of him, cupped around like he’s barrel-chested.
Bucky snorts. “Yeah, those were really something.”
“When people recognise me,” Steve continues. “It’s from the news. Or those after-school specials Coulson talked me into.” Bucky chuckles, and Steve feels his face warm. “Yeah, not my finest hour.”
“Is there a point to all this, Rogers?” Bucky asks.
“The only people who remember the USO tours are historians, and the people who saw them,” Steve says slowly. “Old fellers in retirement homes who served, laughing about those posters. About me up on stage fluffing my lines.”
There’s barely a mouthful left in his cup, but Steve swallows it down, and waits for an answer.
“Stanley Theatre, Jersey,” Bucky says at last, getting up and walking to the window. “Grandma was still with us back then, and we drove an hour to get there. Waited until after the show started and the lights went down, so missed out on the dancing girls.” Bucky smiles to himself. “Not that that was a problem for me, y’know?” He glances at Steve, as if looking for something, and then turns back to the window and gestures to his horns. “These bad boys hadn’t kicked in yet, so it wasn’t too hard to get me in.”
Steve could claim it was shock, surprise at finally meeting someone who was as old as he was and not in a care home.
“How old are you?”
Bucky raises an eyebrow. “Didn’t your mother teach you manners, Rogers?”
Steve rubs his thumb across the rim of his cup, where a drip of coffee has stained the white ceramic. “Sorry.”
“Forget about it,” Bucky shrugs it off. “Honestly, I ain’t sure how old I am. Grandma found me in the spring of…” He scrunches up his face, tilting his head to one side. “Uh. ‘16? ‘17? Something like that. She was living in Brooklyn Heights at the time. Took out the trash one night and… there I was, wrapped up in a blanket.”
Steve fumbles his mug, and it falls to the floor with a clatter. “What?”
“Her kids had flown the nest by then. When it got harder to keep me hidden, they upped sticks and moved out here.” Bucky smiles to himself. “I could go running around in the woods without being seen. Sometimes I’d stumble into some folks out camping, don’t know who was more scared.”
Bucky snorts, but Steve doesn’t have it in him to laugh.
“Ain’t looking for pity,” Bucky murmurs. “You wanted to hear my life story? That’s pretty much it.”
“I’m not-” Steve sighs, and picks up his fallen mug. “I don’t pity you, okay?”
“Okay,” Bucky murmurs, and seems to take Steve at his word.
Steve casts around the room, looking for something, anything to break the silence that has fallen between them, turning the cup round and around in his hands. He gets up, keeping half an eye on Bucky still standing at the window as he walks over to the bookcase. He doesn’t recognise half the titles there, the shelves piled two rows deep with paperbacks. He does notice a framed picture on one of the higher shelves, a man and woman, old and careworn with faces creased with as much laughter as sorrow.
“Is this them?” Steve asks, putting down his mug so he can pick up the photo and take a closer look.
Bucky comes over to join him, and doesn’t seem to mind Steve handling his belongings. “Yeah, that’s them. George and Winnie Barnes, a real pair of reprobates. George died back in ‘46, Winnie in ‘49.”
Steve snorts, and puts the picture back on the shelf, nudging it with his fingertip until it’s in position.
“Ma died in ‘36,” Steve says. He’s not sure what makes him say that. Maybe it’s trade for Bucky’s honesty, or in thanks. “I know that was eighty years ago, but. It feels a lot less.”
“Well, it was,” Bucky agrees. “For you it all happened five minutes ago.” His mouth crooks up in the corner. “You had to be all melodramatic.”
Steve lets out a little offended yelp, and gives Bucky a sharp elbow to the ribs. Bucky lets out a cackle, skipping out of the range of attack. “Drama Queen,” he sing-songs.
“Am not!” Steve puts on his best Captain America face, but Bucky just sniggers, snatching his cup from the bookshelf and taking it back to the kitchen counter.
“Still,” Steve thinks of the old news clippings. “Must get lonely.”
“Nah, ain’t too bad.” Bucky rinses out the mugs and puts them to one side. “Not with the internet these days. And Halloween is pretty good, I go up to New York, do some bar-hopping. The things people are wearing for trick-or-treating these days, they make me look fake.”
Steve bites back a smile at that. “I doubt it.”
“Oh, you’d be surprised.” Bucky pours himself a glass of water. “Makes it a hell of a lot easier to hook up with a guy if he’s not screaming and throwing shit at ya.”
It takes Steve a few seconds too long to parse that statement, feeling the blood drain from his face only to return in full force when… Oh. He means... oh.
Bucky takes a slow drink of water before speaking, his voice as brittle as his smile. “No need to get jealous, Rogers. I’d let you grab me by the horns.”
Steve works his jaw a couple of times, but no sound comes out. Bucky snorts, and walks over to him, holding out the glass. Steve takes it gratefully, and swallows the whole lot down in a single gulp.
“We okay, Steve?” Bucky murmurs.
Steve doesn’t trust himself to open his mouth without saying something stupid, so nods instead.
“Well,” Bucky takes the glass out of Steve’s hand. “That’s the life story of Bucky Barnes. You got any other questions before you go running for the hills?”
Right up until the moment Bucky said that, he had been thinking of an escape route. Not that he thought ill of Bucky or his life choices (that isn’t entirely true. The thought of Bucky in the alley behind some bar with a random stranger makes Steve’s guts churn. Makes the back of his throat tighten until he can barely breathe). But there is a challenge in Bucky’s forced smile, and Steve Rogers has never backed down from a challenge in his life. He sucks in a breath, and looks Bucky in the eye.
“How do you get your groceries?” he asks, straight-faced. “I’m guessing you don’t just walk into the corner store.”
Bucky’s eyes crinkle up a little, though his mouth doesn’t move, and Steve bites his cheek to keep from grinning.
“Mailbox,” Bucky says, wrinkling his nose. “Kinda feel bad for the mailman, dropping parcels in this box by the road in the middle of nowhere.”
“Yeah, but what if the package is too big for the mailbox?” Steve counters. “It won’t fit.”
“It’s a big box.”
It’s too much, after such a weighted, tense conversation, and Steve bursts out laughing. He leans back against the bookcase and laughs for what feels like the first time in a century, in a lifetime. He laughs until tears prickle at his eyes and he can’t catch his breath.
“C’mon Rogers,” Bucky pats him on the back. “You can’t die on my property, Wanda will pitch a fit.”
That just makes Steve laugh all the harder, the wooden shelves behind him digging into his spine, Bucky’s hand still resting on his shoulder.
“Oh god, yeah,” He finally pulls himself together, wiping his damp eyes with the heel of his hands. “Bad enough I nearly had an aneurysm in your front room.”
Bucky snorts, and gives Steve’s shoulder one last pat before pulling away. The loss of contact is odd, and leaves Steve briefly disoriented.
“So, this isn’t me running for the hills,” Steve steps away from the bookcase, rubbing absently at the small of his back where a copy of Howl's Moving Castle had been jabbing him. “But I gotta get back to camp. Luis will be getting worried.”
Bucky nods. “Yeah, makes sense.”
Steve picks up his coat from the couch, but doesn’t put it on yet. He waits until Bucky’s back is turned, rummaging around in a cupboard for a plastic bag. “Can I come by again sometime?”
Bucky pauses in his searching. “Yeah. Sure,” he says, and finds what he’s looking for, knocking the cabinet shut with his hip. “I’ll show you the quick way. There’s some apple trees there.” He shakes the bag at Steve.
“You planning on making a pie?” Steve asks, taking the bag and pulling on his boots.
“No, dumbass,” Bucky laughs, low and fond. “They’re for you guys.”
Steve pauses in lacing up his boots. “Oh,” he breathes. “Uh. Thanks.”
Bucky huffs, and goes back to the kitchen, pulling open a drawer and poking around until he finds a sharpie. “C’mere,” he says, pulling off the cap and securing it onto the other end of the pen.
When Steve comes over Bucky reaches out, curling his fingers around the back of Steve’s hand and pulling it towards him.
“Uh,” Steve stutters as Bucky pushes back his sleeve, exposing the delicate skin of his wrist.
“You have a cellphone, right?” Bucky quirks an eyebrow up at Steve’s dumbfounded expression, and writes a number on his forearm in elegant, curling script.
“Of course I have a cellphone,” Steve grumbles, pulling his hand free. He glances at the number, trying to be subtle about memorising it before tugging down his sleeve. “I’m 99, I’m not dead.”
“Good,” Bucky grins, sharp and sly, catching his lower lip between his teeth. “So call me.”
Chapter 4: The Vitruvian Man (or something)
“I am dying a death slow and terrible,” Bucky intones grimly. “Bring me coffee.”
“Okay, okay, I’m on my way,” Steve assures him.
“If you’re going into town get me a grande nitro cold brew from Starbucks.”
“A what?” Steve nudges the kickstand back on the bike, and starts pushing it one handed towards the road. “Pushing your luck, aren’t you?”
“And an almond biscotti,” Buck adds, and hangs up.
Thank you to Darling for beta reading and enthusiasm.
Special thanks go to Shycrusadeconfection for their beautiful moodboards for this fic.
Shoutout to Jillian and Trish, who are terrible, awful people, damn them.
You can find me on Tumblr reblogging the work of funnier, more interesting people, and far too many pics of Sebastian Stan (also a terrible influence)
Steve looks up from his phone (and the video of a Golden Retriever Bucky had sent him with caption ‘DIS U?’), and sees a nervous looking Shield agent waiting for him.
“Yes?” he turns off the video, muting the sound of the dog’s owner wheezing and yelling, and shoves his phone into his pocket.
“Hill will see you now.” The agent bobs slightly, like they don’t know whether to bow to Steve or salute him, before giving up and holding out an arm to where Hill’s office is. The office that Steve has visited a hundred times or more. “This way.”
Steve humours them, getting out of his stylishly uncomfortable chair and following them to Hill’s office.
He puts his foot down at having them actually knock on the door and announce his presence, and gently puts himself between them and the door.
“I can manage from here, thanks,” Steve smiles, and they give him another awkward little bob before scurrying away.
He knocks once on the door, and opens it when Hill calls him in.
“Captain Rogers,” She smiles at him from behind the expanse of her desk, and gestures for him to take a seat. “I read your report. Do you have anything more to add?”
Steve nods in response, pulling out the chair and sitting down. His hair is still damp from a hasty shower when he got back to the city, the back of his collar soaking up the stray droplets from his hair.
“I’m still following up some leads,” he says.
“Leads,” Hill mutters doubtfully. On the desk in front of her is Steve’s most recent report. Even to him the contents looks sparse. “I’m gonna need more than that.”
Steve clasps his hands in his lap, trying to keep his posture relaxed. “I’m working with a long-standing resident of Lakewood, building up a map of events. I don’t have a list of suspects as of yet.”
Hill smirks. “So it’s not the Jersey Devil?”
Steve huffs, but not for the reason she’s no doubt thinking. “No, it’s not the Jersey Devil.”
Hill reads through his report again. It doesn’t take long. “While I’m sure you’re not treating this assignment like some kind of outback adventure, you are a valuable resource to Shield, and there’s only so long I’m willing to let you run around in the woods while there is actual work to be done.”
“You wanted me off the grid,” Steve’s voice is clipped and impatient. He doesn’t much like being referred to as a resource.
“Yes,” Hill pushes the file to one side. “But I didn’t plan on wasting everyone's time.”
“There have been no further kills since my arrival,” Steve points out. “That has to be a good thing. It also means that whoever is doing the killing knows someone is onto them and they’ve gone to ground. If I leave, they’ll go back to killing, and they’ll not be satisfied with the homeless. They’ll escalate, and then you’ll have a much bigger problem on your hands.”
Hill sits back in her seat. “And what do you suggest?”
“I need more time,” Steve says. “It’s been, what? A month? They’ll be getting frustrated, impatient. And that is gonna make them reckless.”
Hill considers Steve before speaking. “Fine, go play Grizzly Adams. But if there’s an army of zombies or some other matter of national security, we will be calling you in.”
When Hill offers no further comment, Steve pushes himself to his feet, and makes for the door.
He’s halfway down the hall and in sight of the elevator when Natasha appears at his side, and Steve would swear she has some kind of cloaking technology, the way she seems to materialise out of thin air.
“Hey Steve,” she says lightly. “How’s the hobo jungle?”
Steve suppresses a twitch. He has no idea where Natasha gets her intel, but she quickly figured out that he was spending time in the camp, though as far as he was aware, she had never been sighted there. Quill for one wouldn’t shut up about it if someone like Nat showed up.
He takes extra care when walking out to Bucky’s cabin, avoiding the quick route in favour of a slower, more circuitous path through the dense thickets of trees.
It’s not that he doesn’t trust Bucky to keep himself safe, or have strategies in place if he is discovered. The time he spends in Bucky’s cabin, scrutinizing a map of the Pines, or sitting on the couch with a mug of coffee and a book, Bucky sat across from him, his feet tucked under Steve's legs for warmth, have become precious to him. He can’t stand the thought of losing that because he was too impatient to cover his tracks properly.
“That good?” Natasha adds, when Steve doesn’t answer.
“It’s fine, Nat,” Steve mutters.
The elevator finally opens, and Steve walks inside, positioning himself against the wall, his hands by his side, as Natasha joins him.
“Getting anywhere with the case?” she asks, her tone light and amused. “Tracked down the Jersey Devil yet?”
“Yes,” Steve looks at her askance. To hell with it. “We had coffee just yesterday.”
“You did?” Natasha humours him. “I can’t picture you drinking a Flat White in Starbucks with a cryptid.”
Steve shrugs. “He’s more of a single estate bean kind of guy.”
Natasha stares at him for a moment, before giving a minute shake to her head. The elevator shudders to a halt, and the doors slide open.
Steve gives her a nod. “Agent Romanov,” and heads for the exit, doing his best not to look like he’s fleeing the scene. Natasha lets him go, and a quick glance over his shoulder confirms that she’s watching him with the unnaturally still intensity of a predator sighting its prey.
Steve drives back out to the Pines, and maneuvers his bike into a dense thicket of spruce. Bucky had told him he could leave his bike out by the cabin, but after the conversation with Natasha, Steve is reluctant to do so. Leaving his bike anywhere near Bucky’s place would be a giant flashing arrow over the cabin. So he finds a suitable place south of the camp, even though it means he won’t get a chance to see Bucky until tomorrow.
He tries not to let it sour his mood, and pushes his way through the trees. It doesn’t take long to reach the camp, and he arrives in time for dinner.
Luis looks up from his barbeque, where he’s arranged several ears of corn, still tightly wrapped in their husks. “There’s our boy!”
Steve must have missed the corn harvest. Luis’ pride and joy is his vegetable patch, a cleared area behind the subway car where he grows whatever he can - beans and squash and the sprouting potatoes he picked out of a sackful a while back. Though at this time of year it was mostly covered in large, deep orange pumpkins and fat chickens.
“Hey, Luis,” Steve pulls a packet of sea salt out of his jacket pocket and holds it out, waiting patiently for Luis to put aside his cooking tongs. “It’s regular, I’m afraid. They were out of coarse.”
“Hey pal, you’ll get no complaints from me.” Luis grabs the packet and opens it up, taking a deep sniff of the contents. “You know the squash is just about ready for picking, and this is gonna be just perfect. You ever tried barbeque squash? Thick slices on the grill with a bit of spice?”
Steve tucks his hands into his pockets. “Can’t say I have.”
“Well, you’re gonna,” Luis grins. “It’s gonna be so amazing, Steve. Like oh my god, angels are gonna be dancing on your tongue.”
“I look forward to it,” Steve chuckles, and takes a seat, listening with half an ear as Luis tells him what he’s missed while he was out for the day.
The rest of the camp start arriving in ones and twos, bundled up in blankets and coats as the evenings turn colder and gathering around the campfire.
Kurt and Dave had managed to score a few boxes of sausage patties, which get cooked on the barbeque with the corn, as well as a few loaves of slightly stale bread.
Steve isn’t entirely sure what to make of his meal, and in the end folds his slice of bread around the sausage patty, and eats it like a sandwich. The corn he eats afterwards, the kernels sweet and tender and bursting under his teeth.
“Hey, ladies,” a harsh voice cuts through the peace. “Y’all having yourselves a good time?”
Steve swallows, corn skins sticking between his teeth, and looks up to see Rumlow swaggering through the camp, his shadow Rollins at his heel. He looks twitchy as all hell, his eyes red rimmed, his pupils like pinpricks.
“What’s up, man,” Luis mumbles, keeping his head down.
No one else says anything, keeping their eyes on their meals while Rumlow and Rollins saunter by. Rollins, wiping his nose with the pad of his thumb, glares at Steve as he passes, and Steve glares right back, until he finally turns away, hurrying to catch up with Rumlow as he crosses the clearing.
“Can’t we just…” Pietro waits until they’re definitely out of earshot. “Kick them out?”
“For what?” Scott asks. “Being kind of creepy?”
“Yes,” Wanda says emphatically.
Luis shakes his head. “What you gonna do, call the police? Excuse me officer, can you arrest this guy for being a creep. Please ignore the rest of us trespassing on government property, and parole violations and whatever shit we all done.”
“Public nudity,” Quill offers with a grin.
“Dismemberment,” his tattooed friend adds, and lets out a loud guffaw.
Quill elbows him. “Dude. Not funny.”
“It was most hilarious,” his friend insists.
The mood sours a little after Rumlow and Rollins visit, and people quickly make their excuses and turn in for the night.
Steve takes a last walk around the camp as it gets dark. The shelters are holding up well, and Wanda and Pietro seem happy in theirs. Steve still sleeps in the subway carriage, uncomfortably aware that his place in camp is not permanent enough to warrant building his own shelter, not that the others know.
He is pretty sure that Bucky still comes out to the camp some nights. There are mornings when he sees Pietro handing out candy, or Wanda wearing a new sweater, or one of the women in camp will knock on the door of her shelter asking for tampons or wet wipes. Steve has offered to take supplies back to the camp himself, but Bucky has always turned him down.
The idea makes Steve feel restless, like an itch he can’t reach, that Bucky might be nearby, but not to see him. It’s stupid and selfish, he knows it is. He gets to spend time up at the cabin, gets to poke through Bucky’s books and drink his coffee. That should be enough.
Steve lets out a sigh, looking out past the camp to the line of trees. He needs to get his head together, complete his mission. Even if that means he’ll have to leave.
He shakes off the grim thought, and walks back to the subway car, where he wraps himself up in his sleeping bag and sits by the window. One by one the lights in the camp go out, until he drifts off to sleep.
Steve spends the morning splitting logs and making a new woodpile. With the colder weather Luis is starting to fret about people being warm enough, though he draws the line at fires in the shelters. A couple of the wigwams are set up to have fires in them, and in the worst of winter most of the camp can take shelter in there, but for that they need wood.
Last year had been a bad winter, according to Luis. They managed to get by taking turns going out into the woods to collect fallen branches when their stores ran out, piling them up inside the entrance of the tents to dry them off enough to burn. Keeping the fires burning had been hard work, and the camp had frequently been blanketed with plumes of thick, eye-watering smoke.
The work is simple enough, and there are plenty of fallen trees for Steve to work through, cutting the trunks into foot long slices with a saw before splitting with an axe. The chickens get underfoot while he works, climbing over his boots and trying to roost on his chopping block. They get excited whenever he moves a fresh log, pecking at the exposed wood and the earth beneath in search of insects. Steve chuckles every time it happens, taking a simple kind of pleasure in watching them be chickens.
He stops for lunch, packing his tools away and washing his hands and face before eating some leftover bread toasted over the fire and spread with peanut butter.
When no one is paying him any mind, he slips through the trees, and heads north.
Steve checks the cabin door and finds it unlocked, so lets himself in.
“Bucky?” he calls, kicking off his shoes. He nudges them into a line by the door and shrugs off his jacket, hanging it up on the line of hooks by the door next to Bucky’s new skull.
It’s a little smaller than the old one, hanging up by its strap and buckle. Seeing Bucky wear it the first time had nearly given Steve a heart attack, but he understands its purpose. No one would believe a story about a creature with wings and a deer skull wandering the woods, and the myth has kept him safe. All the same, Steve worries about Bucky alone in his cabin. The world has changed in their lifetimes, and Steve can’t shake the thought that if people can accept a big green Hulk and an army of flying robots, maybe they could handle one foul mouthed cryptid from Brooklyn.
“Bucky,” Steve calls again. “You home?”
“In here,” Bucky answers from the kitchen, where he’s stirring a pan on the stove.
The air is filled with a sweet aroma, which takes Steve a moment to place.
“That’s a funny way of making tea, Buck,” he peers over Bucky’s shoulder, and Bucky twitches a wing out of Steve’s way, giving him an unimpressed look.
“It ain’t tea, it’s kombucha,” he says primly. “Dumbass.”
Steve snorts. “Never thought I’d see you drink something other than coffee.”
“Pssh,” Bucky takes the pan off the heat, and adds a handful of tea leaves. “How did the meeting go?”
“Hill’s getting impatient,” Steve leans against the counter and folds his arms across his chest. “She wants results.”
“People ain’t dying,” Bucky mutters sourly. “I’d call that a result.”
Steve hums in agreement. “Resolution, then. She says I can’t stay out here forever.”
Bucky chews on his lip, looking irritated. “Don’t see what business it is of hers.”
Steve smiles, and leans over until his shoulder bumps up against Bucky’s, applying just enough pressure to put Bucky off balance. “C’mon, Buck. You know where I’d rather be.”
Bucky hums, looking mollified, and moves the pan to one side to cool. “Well, what say we take another look at the map? See if we can get her off your back a while?”
The map had been Steve’s idea. A detailed chart of the Pine Barrens, with the murder site of each victim marked on it in red, along with names and dates. Between Steve’s Shield reports and Bucky’s extensive search of the woods, they had managed to pinpoint the kill sites of nine out of the fourteen dead. The ones that had been moved to the roadside were harder to locate, especially with so much time having passed.
Steve unfolds the map and lays it out on the rug, sitting down on the floor by the couch so Bucky can take the space in front of the fire.
“Why do you always do that?” Bucky asks, setting a cup of coffee down at Steve’s side.
“Hmm?” Steve fumbles for his coffee, attention on the map before him.
“You never sit in front of the fire,” Bucky sits cross-legged, spreading his wings out to soak up the heat. “Ain’t you ever cold?”
“I used to be, before the serum.” Steve takes a sip of coffee. It’s one of Bucky’s Central American blends, and Steve is pretty sure Bucky is trying to make him some kind of aficionado. “The place I grew up in in New York was freezing in winter and stifling in summer. But, I don’t know, I guess I run warmer now.” He puts down his cup carefully. “Besides, you need it more.”
“Oh yeah?” Bucky pulls his wings in a little, shifting on his heels as he turns to warm his side. “How’d you figure that out?”
“Well, you never take that jacket off,” Steve points out. “And when we go out walking, you kind of curl in on yourself, like you’re trying to retain body heat.”
Not that Steve spends more time watching Bucky, his head tilted up to the sun like a flower, then he does the path in front of him.
“Look at you so smart,” Bucky grins, and takes a sip of coffee. “Yeah, you ever see elephant ears? Large surface area, blood vessels right under the skin. Good for keeping you cool on the savannah.” He shifts to the other side. “Freeze your ass off in New Jersey.”
Steve chuckles, though he’s aware of Bucky’s eyes on him.
“How come you never asked?”
Steve picks up his coffee for something to do with his hands. “I figured it wasn’t my place. You’d tell me if you wanted.”
Bucky moves away from the fire, and lies on his stomach on the floor, his wings pulled up close to his back, his horns casting a shadow over the map.
“So I checked the woods around here,” Bucky shifts the map around, and points to the area near the golf course. “If there was anything, it’s been washed away by rain. But I doubt it would have been much use. The killings are too random.”
“I don’t know,” Steve frowns. “There’s some correlation to the full moon.”
“Pretty sure its opportunistic,” Bucky counters. “There was one that happened on the full moon, yeah, but others happened the nights before or after. It’s the light they need, trust me. You can’t see a damn thing out there when it’s overcast.”
“I still think we need to consider it. It could be the work of Satanists or some kind of ritual sacrifice.”
“It’s not Satanists,” Bucky snorts. “You basing your opinions on Dennis Wheatley novels?”
Steve sits back, and gives Bucky a shrewd look. “And you’re an expert?”
“Look, Satanism is based on pragmatism, on free will. It ain’t about killing goats, and yeah, it’s an eye for an eye ethics, but that’s all actions having consequences.” Bucky sits up, crossing his legs and wrapping his hands around his knees. “Whoever’s doing this is a sick bastard, not a Satanist.”
“Bucky, are you a-” Steve isn’t sure he can finish the question, and is almost grateful when Bucky interrupts him.
“No, of course I ain’t!” he snaps.
For a few minutes neither of them speak, Bucky chewing on the inside of his cheek while Steve drinks his coffee.
“Might’ve hooked up with one a couple of times, though,” Bucky mutters.
Steve glances up sharply. “What?”
Bucky shifts, pulling his hands into his lap. “There was a bunch of them out in the woods, would have been back in LaVey’s time, the ‘70’s were weird for everyone, y’know?” Steve doesn’t respond. “Yeah, well I walked in on one of their rites. I was in the full stalking the woods get-up, had this horse skull back then, jeez that thing even scared me, and they freaked out, thought I was Baphomet.” Bucky huffs. “Most of them were just kids messing around, pretty much shit themselves having Satan himself yelling at them about forest fires. But there was this one guy who hung around.”
Something hot and acrid rolls around in Steve’s guts, and he puts his coffee to one side, he has no stomach for it now. Bucky keeps talking, and Steve has a sudden, horrible urge to clamp a hand over his mouth, to make him stop.
“So, it’s not like we were dating or anything.” Bucky rubs at his scalp absently, avoiding his horns as he tucks a strand of hair behind his ear. “Don’t get me wrong, it was nice. He was nice. But… it wasn’t me he was into, y’know? I just looked like a drawing from his books.” Bucky sighs heavily. “Can’t fucking win.”
Steve bows his head, and doesn’t utter a word. If he opens his mouth, he might be sick.
“This really bothers you,” Bucky says, far more gently than Steve deserves. “Doesn’t it?”
Steve nods, a single, sharp dip of his chin. He hates himself, hates his own body for how viscerally it reacts to this side of Bucky. All the years he’d spent fighting bigotry and hatred, and he was no better than any of them.
“It’s okay, Steve,” Bucky pulls the map up and starts to fold it away. “Maybe we should call it a day.”
Steve nods, getting to his feet. He takes his cup to the kitchen and pours the rest of his coffee away, rinsing out the cup and filling it with water. He sips, but it doesn’t quiet the unease in his stomach or the burning in his throat. Not when Bucky is keeping his distance, standing over by the window with his coffee in his hands and his wings dragging along the floor.
Steve fetches his coat and shoes, pulling on the laces hard enough to warp the leather around the eyelets.
“I’ll see you in a couple of days, yeah?” Steve struggles with the zip on his jacket, like his fingers have lost all sensation.
Bucky nods. “Sure thing, Steve.”
The sun is still high up in the sky when Steve leaves the cabin, and the wrongness of it crawls under his skin. He glances back at the cabin, but Bucky is no longer in the window.
He finds the path through the trees, and takes his time, doubling back on himself and crossing his own path on the way back to camp.
It doesn’t take long before he has company. The racoon-like creatures start following him, climbing from branch to branch overhead. At first their shrill yips and barks had unsettled him, but Bucky had assured him they were harmless. Some kind of genetic experiment, they were supposed to be bred for cage fighting, but despite being loud and boisterous, they were not even slightly aggressive. Steve had watched them countless times playing in Bucky’s yard, running up to him for treats and rolling onto their backs, exposing their soft, round bellies for a tickle.
They don’t trust Steve in quite the same way, not yet. But they follow him through the woods until he reaches the camp, their eyes bright, their bushy tails quivering, and Steve pats at his pockets in search of some snacks and comes up empty.
The creatures stop following when he’s in sight of the camp, and watch him reproachfully as he steps into the clearing, before disappearing into the trees.
Steve looks around the camp, feeling at a loss, and with nothing else to do, gets back to chopping firewood.
“Steve,” Luis calls as he walks across the camp. “Hey, Steve?”
Steve pauses the swing of his axe, and wipes the back of his hand across his forehead. Sweat is soaking into his hair and gathering between his shoulder blades, making his shirt stick to his back.
For the last two days he’s done nothing but chop wood, enough to fill the wood store by the wigwams and start a new logpile by the subway car.
“Hey,” Steve rasps as Luis offers him a bottle of water. “What’s up?”
“Nothin’, man. Nothin’ at all,” Luis says with a nervous smile. “It’s all good, y’know?”
Steve twists off the cap and downs half his water in one long swallow. The air is chilled, but he’s worked up enough of a sweat not to notice. He looks over to where Wanda and Val are watching him work, both of them looking perfectly at ease. And ready to resume their cat-calling as soon as Luis is out of earshot.
Steve takes another swig of water and gives Luis an expectant look.
“Alright, man,” Luis holds his hands up. “I was just thinking, and you know you can ignore me, right? Because I got your interests at heart, bro, that’s my only motivation-”
“C’mon, Luis,” Steve sighs.
“I think we got enough wood now,” Luis says quickly. He swallows, glancing around, and leans in closer. “I’m grateful to you, pal. We all are. But we’re gonna run out of woodland at this rate, and I figured you could maybe, y’know, take a break.”
Steve screws the cap back on his bottle. “Alright, if you say so.”
He had expected that to be the end of it, but Luis wrings his hands together, looking anxious.
“Seriously Luis, just spit it out,” Steve grouses.
“Okay, so this is none of my business, and it comes from mi corazón alright?” Luis slaps his hand to his chest. “But it ain’t escaped my notice that you’ve been mooching around camp the last few days, when ordinarily you’d be off in the woods doing whatever it is that you do. An’ you tend to spruce yourself up a little before heading out, like you were seeing someone special-”
“Luis,” Steve growls.
“I’m not saying you got a girl or nothing, I mean your business is your own, man. I respect your privacy, I do. But you used to be out and about a lot more, and now you’re not. And, I don’t know, you seem… sad.” Luis quickly takes a step back, twisting his fingers together. “I just worry about you, man.”
“I’m fine, Luis.” Steve pauses, and shakes his head. “Okay. I’m not fine. I had a… fight. With a friend. I was an asshole and… I don’t know how to get past that.”
Luis brightens up. “Oh, well that’s easy. You just tell ‘em you’re sorry. All fixed.”
“I was out of order, and I don’t… I don’t see my way of thinking changing any time soon.” Steve can’t bring himself to say the rest of it. To admit that, for all his fighting for truth and justice, when it came down to it he was a hypocrite and a homophobe. Whatever Steve did, however he tried to to get past it, nothing worked. And the thought of Bucky being with another man sickened him to his stomach.
Some of his shame must be broadcasting across Steve’s features, because Luis looks at him sympathetically. “They your friend?”
Steve nods. “Yeah.” Even if he can’t talk to Bucky anymore, he still believes that.
“So go tell ‘em you’re sorry. Tell ‘em you fucked up, and you’re sorry. They’ll understand.”
“It’s not that simple, Luis.” Steve says, pained. “I can’t.”
“Yeah, it is.” Luis grins at him. “Go talk to ‘em. If they need to be mad at you, let ‘em be mad. Clear the fuckin’ air, you know?”
Steve knows better than to argue with Luis when he’s got an idea in his head, but he buys himself a little time to think, heading back to the subway car for a change of clothes. He finds a quiet place under the trees to strip and wash himself down, shivering a little as he sluices cold bottled water down his back.
He dresses, his clothes sticking to his damp skin, and teases his fingers through his wet hair, working out the snags and tangles.
When he runs out of distractions, he puts on his jacket, squares his shoulders, and walks into the woods.
The bike is where he left it last, hidden behind a tangle of brambles. He opens up the storage box on the back, and gets his phone, checking that it has enough battery and signal before opening the message program.
He runs his thumb over the keys, uncertain of how to proceed.
Rogers: Hey. You around?
Barely a second later, the phone starts ringing, Bucky’s number coming up on the screen. Steve swipes to answer, pressing the phone to his ear, his damp hair soaking his fingers.
“Hello?” he says cautiously.
“Rogers! There you are, I am fucking dying here.”
“Bucky?” Steve asks, his heart rate kicking up a notch.
“I have no coffee, Steve. None. I ordered this mixed case on Amazon, and it’s vile, even you wouldn’t drink it. I swear to Carrie Fisher, I will leave the worst feedback on these fuckers.”
Steve pinches the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. “Christ, Bucky. I really thought you were in trouble.”
“I am in trouble! I’ve got three k-pods of Columbian to my name. Steve I am dying.”
“Bucky, you’re not dying,” Steve can feel the tension that’s been knotting up his spine start to loosen. “Just order some more.”
“I can’t,” Bucky whines. “There’s a creepy redhead hanging around the golf course, I can’t get close enough to piggyback onto their wi-fi.”
Steve straightens up. “What do you mean, a redhead?”
“Some woman has been skulking around the dump sites. I thought she was part of some investigation at first.”
Steve closes his eyes, biting back a curse. Natasha. “Did she see you?”
“What am I, an amateur?” Bucky snorts.
“Are you sure?” Steve asks. Natasha is smart, she was a damn spy. If anyone can find Bucky, it’s her, and she wouldn’t be scared off by a mask.
“I am dying a death slow and terrible,” Bucky intones grimly. “Bring me coffee.”
“Okay, okay, I’m on my way,” Steve assures him.
“If you’re going into town get me a grande nitro cold brew from Starbucks.”
“A what?” Steve nudges the kickstand back on the bike, and starts pushing it one handed towards the road. “Pushing your luck, aren’t you?”
“And an almond biscotti,” Buck adds, and hangs up.
Steve parks a little ways east of the cabin, and pushes his way through the trees to the clearing. He sees Bucky sitting on his front step, one of the racoon creatures curled up at his feet. Bucky looks up at Steve and smiles, holding out his hands impatiently.
“Give give give!” he snaps his fingers, and Steve pushes the clear plastic takeaway cup into his hands.
Without another word, Bucky jams the straw into his mouth and sucks, and the racoon-creature rolls to its feet and comes trotting over to Steve, sniffing around for a treat.
Bucky pulls the straw out of his mouth long enough to say “Biscotti?” and jams it back in again.
Steve nods, putting a paper sack of k-pods he bought from a store in town (and Bucky doesn’t need to know how many stores he went around looking for the kind he likes) in his lap.
The rustling of the bag as Bucky pulls it open gets the attention of the racoon creature, and it comes back to him, shoving its pointed nose into the bag while Bucky chuckles and pushes it away. He unwraps the biscotti and holds it out to the creature, who snatches it up in its nimble little paws and sits down to eat.
Bucky looks up at Steve, still standing on the grass, wary and watching. “I guess you can come in.”
He tucks the bag under his arm and gets up, pushing the cabin door open and going inside. After a doubtful pause, Steve follows.
By the time Steve has taken off his boots and hung up his jacket, Bucky is sitting on the couch, tapping the straw against his full lips. Steve takes his phone out of his pocket and checks that he has a signal before holding it out.
“What?” Bucky asks, the word muffled around his straw.
“You wanted to order more, right?” Steve asks. “So order.”
Bucky gives him an arch look. “You already paid your dues, Steve.”
Steve huffs. “Yeah, well I don’t always have my phone to hand. Can’t have you dying on me.”
It seems to be reason enough, and Bucky takes the phone, tapping at the screen one handed while he scrapes the tip of his straw against his lips.
“Can I use your credit card?” he asks, his voice low and teasing.
Steve huffs. “No.”
Bucky gives him another sly grin, and turns his attention to his ordering. Steve puts his back to the fire for once, and takes in the sight of him. Looking at Bucky after time apart feels like cold, sweet water to a parched throat, and Steve cannot turn away from the curve of his mouth, or the creases at the corner of his eyes.
He had always imagined that falling in love would come as some great revelation, that the world would switch from black and white to technicolour in the blink of an eye. That his heart would soar. But the plants on the windowsill are the same shade of green, and the cabin doesn’t fill with the sound of violins.
Bucky glances at him. “What are you looking at?”
Steve scrubs his heels against the floorboards, and turns to the bookshelf. He runs his finger along the spines, picking something at random before joining Bucky on the couch.
There is a jumble of books and blankets on the couch, and Steve moves the stack to the floor, and drapes the warm woolen blanket over the back before sitting down, intensely aware of Bucky beside him, the way the weight of him distributes the couch cushions. The way his lips pale where he presses his straw to them.
Bucky shifts until he’s sitting sideways on the couch, his back against the armrest. He twitches his wings out, shaking them off before folding them up neatly against his back, the ends hanging over the arm and brushing the floor.
Steve opens his book, and tries to concentrate, but he skims over the first few lines three times before he realises he hasn’t absorbed a single word of them. Bucky tucks his bare feet under Steve’s thigh, wriggling his toes as Steve loses his place yet again and goes back to the start of the page.
“Here, I’m done,” Bucky announces, and holds out Steve’s phone.
There must be a way of doing these things, but Steve doesn’t know what it is. He’s never gone out on dates, no matter how many times Natasha has tried to set him up. He’s never asked someone out for coffee, learned the code phrases to get someone to know that you’re interested, or recognise when they’re interested in you.
But Bucky has teased him before, flirted with him and taken delight in Steve’s red face and tangled words. It must mean something, Steve thinks. And when Bucky holds out his phone he reaches out, not to take it, but to rest his fingers on the back of Bucky’s wrist, and lean over to kiss him.
It hardly counts as a kiss when it comes down to it. A clumsy press of lips to Bucky’s mouth, slack and unresponsive, and it takes Steve a second too long to realise that he’s not being kissed back.
He withdraws, his eyelids flicking open (when had he closed them?) and sees Bucky staring at him, looking confused and… and angry.
“What are you doing?” Bucky hisses.
“I…” Steve licks his lips nervously. “I was kissing you.”
“Yeah, I get that,” Bucky’s voice starts to drop, not into the pleasant, honeyed burr he gets when he’s sleepy, but something bordering on vicious. “Why?”
Steve tries to smile, but it won’t stay put. He wraps his hands around the unread book in his lap, the spine cracking in his grip. “Why not?”
Bucky glares, throwing his phone down. It bounces off the couch cushion and lands face down on the floor. Silently, not taking his eyes off Steve, Bucky points to his horns.
“Come on, Buck,” Steve feels the cardboard and leather cover under his hands buckle. “I like you, and I thought maybe… maybe you…” Steve stops, swallows. His mouth feels dry, the words he wants to say catching in his throat.
Bucky doesn’t settle down at Steve’s words. If anything, he coils up like a spring, his shoulders hunched, his eyes dark. A trickle of ice water flows through Steve’s heart, ice spreading out across his skin, freezing his lungs and filling his stomach with cold splinters
“You don’t,” Steve whispers.
The book drops to the floor to lie with the phone, and Steve is on his feet. There should be frost on his hands, ice between his fingers, how can he feel so cold, so lifeless, and have nothing to show for it?
He walks over to the fire, clenching his hands to keep them from shaking. How did he manage to screw up, how can he possibly fix it?
“Forget it,” he chokes out. “I’m sorry, I don’t know… I wasn’t…”
Steve covers his face with his hands, and silently berates himself. How could he have been so stupid? So naive? Good things didn’t happen to him, not before the serum and not now, and-
“Steve, hey Steve,” Bucky murmurs, and cool hands wraps around Steve’s wrists, pulling his hands down from his face. “Come on, Stevie, you’re spiralling.”
Bucky is standing in front of him, hands on his wrists, thumbs moving in slow, reassuring circles.
“What?” Steve manages to mumble. His vision is blurring, fine tremors dancing across his skin, making his arms shake, making his teeth chatter.
“Anxiety spiral, you’re getting stuck in a loop,” Bucky’s voice is gentle, as gentle as his touch. “Bad thoughts just running round and round in your head like panicky little rabbits.”
Steve blinks until his vision finally clears. “Rabbits,” he says dumbly.
Bucky nods. “You gotta breathe, Steve. Can you do that for me?”
Steve nods, sucking in a stinging, painful breath. His lungs ache with it, every shuddering exhale and sharp, burning inhale. “I’m sorry-”
“Nope,” Bucky shakes his head. “None of that shit, thank you. I reacted badly, okay? I ain’t good with... “ Bucky sighs. “You get that you’re like scientifically designed perfection, right? You’re like the Vitruvian Man or something. And I’m… people look at me and call me the Jersey Devil. And I gotta be honest, it’s the Jersey part that hurts most.”
Steve coughs out a laugh, wet and pathetic, and lowers his head, pressing his forehead to Bucky’s. “Yeah, that’s gotta sting, a Brooklyn boy like you.”
Bucky’s grip on Steve’s wrists loosen, but he keeps cradling his hands, like they were something precious. “I thought you hated it… I thought you hated me.”
“No,” Steve shakes his head emphatically. “I just… couldn’t stand the thought of you and…” Steve sighs, the whole damn mess suddenly pulling into focus. “You and someone who wasn’t me.”
Bucky lets out a startled little chuckle, reaching up to grip the loose cotton of Steve’s t-shirt. “Well, ain’t we a pair.”
“Bucky,” Steve says softly. “You’re not a monster.”
“No?” Bucky asks ruefully. “What am I, then?”
“You’re the kindest, sharpest, funniest guy I ever met,” Steve murmurs. “You look out for Wanda and Pietro, and all those people in camp who’ve never even met you.”
“Yeah, no wonder.”
“You’re a pain in the ass,” Steve ignores Bucky’s comment. “And you’re beautiful, okay? You’re the most-”
Steve doesn’t get to finish his point, as Bucky tightens his grip on Steve’s shirt and pulls, crushing their mouths together.
The first kiss had been clumsy, a graceless touch of lips. The second consumes like a forest fire.
Bucky twists his head to one side almost as soon as their mouths meet, slotting them together as he pushes his way between Steve’s teeth, his tongue hot and rough and shocking in its onslaught. He tastes overwhelmingly of coffee, rich and earthy-sweet.
Steve’s hands bat at the air for a moment, before settling on Bucky’s hips, pulling their bodies together, and Bucky lets out a sound of pleasure. Steve swallows it down, that joyful little whine, and it melts away the last traces of ice in the pit of his stomach, filling him with heat.
Bucky reaches up, wrapping his arms around Steve’s shoulders and anchoring him in place, as if there was any chance he might pull away. He pushes his knee between Steve’s thighs, his thickening cock a line of heat against Steve’s hip as he drags his tongue across Steve’s teeth.
Steve groans as Bucky nuzzles at the corner of his mouth, sucking his lower lip between his teeth and pulling, slow and merciless. His cock twitches against Bucky’s thigh, and he has never felt so desperate. Bucky rolls his hips, slow and filthy, just to hear the way Steve moans. “Jesus, Steve,” he rasps, barely audible, and kisses him again, deep and rough and desperate.
At Bucky’s persistent pushing and nudging, Steve stumbles across the floor, until the back of his calves hit the couch. Bucky gives him a firm shove, and he half-sits, half-falls, sinking into the cushions. Bucky stands over him, wings spread and quaking, his head cocked to one side. He is transcendent in the shaft of sunlight filtering through the window, catching the loose strands of his hair and burnishing it with gold.
Bucky grins, sharp and sly, and kicks Steve’s feet apart. He drops down between Steve’s legs, easy and fluid, his hands braced on Steve’s knees.
“Bucky?” Steve gasps as his hands work their way up Steve’s thighs. “What’re you-”
“You want me to stop?” Bucky asks, his hands pausing over the buckle of Steve’s belt. “Just say the word.”
Steve manages a shake of his head, and Bucky unfastens his belt, dragging it out through the loops of his pants and tossing it on the floor.
“Bucky,” Steve says again as he works open the button of his fly. “You don’t… you don’t have to…”
“I want,” Bucky tilts his head up, and Steve can’t deny him a kiss, soft and sweet and far too brief. “I want to.”
Bucky pulls down the zipper, and tugs the open fly until Steve lifts his hips, pushing his pants and underwear down to mid-thigh in one quick, decisive move.
Steve’s cock twitches, the length of it curving upwards to smear a trail of precome across his stomach as Bucky crouches over it, his breath gusting across the head. The tips of his horns brush Steve’s chest, and Bucky looks up at him, under lashes long and dark.
“You can touch anything you want,” Bucky smirks, and ducks down, swiping his tongue across the crown of Steve’s cock. He drags the tip of his tongue over the slit, tasting the beads of fluid forming there, and Steve throws his head back, his stomach muscles clenching, and tries not to come there and then.
Bucky sits back on his heels, reaching down to unfasten his own pants and rub the heel of his hand against his cock, and Steve wants to touch him, wants to taste him, but Bucky is moving again. He cups Steve’s balls in the palm of his hand, nuzzling the dark blond fuzz at the base of Steve’s cock, his other hand moving slowly between his legs, stroking himself.
Steve whines, low in his throat, as Bucky licks his way up his cock, pressing his tongue to the thick vein on the underside, and mouths at the crown, light and teasing. His horns scratch across Steve’s chest again, and Steve lifts a hand, palm damp, fingers twitching, and rests it on the tip of one horn.
It feels rough under his fingers, like dry bark, and he draws his finger down its length, feeling the change in texture down to his scalp. Bucky closes his mouth around Steve’s cock and bobs his head, sealing his lips around the shaft and pulling up in a slow glide.
Steve moans, his grip tightening around the base of the horn, but he doesn’t pull, or try to guide Bucky’s actions. His fingertips brush through Bucky’s hair, tangling in strands the colour of fallen leaves, and Bucky wraps a hand around his cock, pumping his fist as he swallows him down again.
Steve shudders, tension building at the base of his spine, and he tightens his grip on Bucky’s horn, trying to pull him away, not towards.
“Buck,” he gasps. “Stop, I’m gonna…”
Bucky pulls off his cock in a slow, teasing slide. “Kind of the idea,” he laughs, his voice wrecked.
Steve lets his head fall back onto the couch, and Bucky pushes his hands against Steve’s hips, pressing his tongue to his crown again, lapping at the pearly fluid seeping from the slit. Steve curses, almost half-heartedly, as Bucky squeezes him, working his fist up and down his length.
“Come on, darlin’,” Bucky’s lips rasp against his cock. “Come for me.”
Bucky closes his mouth over the head, sucking and twisting his wrist, and Steve comes. His hips jerk of their own accord, thrusting into Bucky’s willing mouth, hands on his hips to keep him from pushing too far. Every swallow around him makes Steve spill a little more, again and again until he whines, oversensitive, and Bucky sits back, wiping his hand across his his mouth.
“Huh,” Bucky says absently.
Steve tries to sit up, feeling lightheaded and slow. “Muh?”
Bucky meets his eye, then looks down to his lap, where his cock juts up, stiff and proud. “Well, that’s a new one,” Bucky says brightly.
“Oh,” Steve blushes, and tries to tug down his t-shirt and cover himself up. “Yeah. That. That’s the serum.”
Bucky bats his hand away, and Steve slaps his hands over his face, if not his dignity. “You don’t have to-”
Bucky climbs onto the couch, straddling Steve’s lap as he tugs his hands away. “You gotta stop telling me what I don’t have to do, Steve,” he says, and gives Steve a quick kiss on the mouth. “This.” Another kiss. “All in favour of.”
The blush doesn’t recede, especially when Bucky pulls off Steve’s t-shirt and kisses a line down his throat. He pauses at Steve’s collarbone, grazing his teeth along the hard ridge. When Steve kicks and whimpers he nips and sucks, leaving a trail of marks that fade within minutes, though Steve’s skin still tingles long after they’re gone.
“Buck,” Steve sighs, and reaches up to the zipper of his jacket, pulling down slowly.
Bucky sits back, arching his spine, and shrugs off the jacket, shaking out his wings, and Steve is struck anew by the beauty of him. The breadth of his shoulders and the taut muscles of his stomach, the plush of his lips. The curve of his smile as he slips off Steve’s lap, and works down his pants.
Clothes are a terrible idea, Steve thinks wildly, and from the way Bucky laughs he must have said it out loud too. Bucky strips Steve’s pants and underwear away, kicking them to one side. He slides down his own in a coy striptease, his lower lip caught between his teeth as he stands, naked and defiant, his wings arched around him and translucent in the sun.
“Come here,” Steve breathes, and holds out his hands.
Bucky steps out of the pool of his clothing, and climbs onto Steve’s lap, his elbows resting on Steve’s shoulders, his cock, hard and hot as a brand, nudging against Steve’s own.
“Beautiful,” Steve whispers reverently, his hands moving restlessly over Bucky's cool, honeyed skin.
“Sweet-talker,” Bucky laughs, and leans in to kiss him, sweet and lazy. He dips his tongue between Steve’s parted lips, slow and teasing, before easing their mouths together. Steve opens up to him, his kisses deep and hungry, and drags his hands across Bucky’s hips, thumbs pressing the crease of his thigh.
It is Bucky who brings their bodies together, dragging his cock against Steve’s, still slick from Bucky’s mouth. Steve draws the palms of his hands up Bucky’s sides, moving to meet him with every thrust and kick of his hips.
Steve loses himself in the glide of skin against skin, in Bucky’s mouth against his own, his body heating and damp with sweat. Steve shudders and comes, spilling between them. He gasps into Bucky’s mouth, the aftershocks making his breath stutter, and smooths his hands up Bucky’s chest, cupping his shoulders.
Bucky breaks the kiss and curses, loud and vehement, spattering Steve’s chest with come.
“Fuck,” Bucky gasps, and has enough sense left in him to reach down to the floor and grab Steve’s t-shirt. He gives it a perfunctory swipe across Steve’s chest, and Steve doesn’t have it in him to care about the mess, sliding down to lie full length across the couch, his head pillowed on the armrest. He tugs at Bucky’s arm, trying to get him to lie down with him.
Bucky snorts, balling up the t-shirt and dropping it on the floor, and lets Steve pull him into his arms. He tucks his face into his shoulder as Steve pulls the blanket off the back of the couch and shakes it out, draping it over them both.
Bucky unfurls his wings before folding them up tight against his back, but Steve still manages to work his arms under them, one around Bucky’s shoulders and the other his waist.
“Mmmm,” Bucky rumbles, his lips against Steve’s throat. “Warm.”
Steve huffs, pressing his cheek to Bucky’s brow. Sweat and traces of semen are cooling between them, and it should be unpleasant, but the last thing he wants to do is move. He kisses Bucky’s forehead, and gets an answering kiss on the shoulder.
Sprawled out on the couch, Bucky a warm, grounding presence against him, Steve’s eyelids grow heavy.
“Hey,” Bucky whispers, “Don’t you fall asleep.”
“M’not,” Steve mumbles. “Resting my eyes.”
“Wake up,” Bucky pokes him in the ribs, though with a finger this time. “There’s a crazed murderer out there. He’ll kill us in our sleep.”
Steve chuckles, hugging Bucky tighter. “You’ll have to protect me then.”
“You’re on your own, Rogers,” Bucky huffs, his laughter warm and damp against Steve’s skin. “I ain’t fightin’ anyone with my dick hanging out.”
Steve yawns, his jaw cracking. “Your pants are right there.”
Bucky frowns, his brow wrinkling against Steve’s shoulder. “Where’s the fun in that?”
Steve runs his thumb along the nape of Bucky’s neck, and feels the last traces of tension there ease, before drifting off to sleep.
Chapter 5: The Devil's Acre
“I’m taking a walk,” Steve says. What can it hurt? “With my… with my boyfriend.”
There is a loud snap overhead, followed by the crack and rustle of several branches being stuck by a heavy weight, ending in a muffled thump and rustle of dead leaves.
“Agent Romanov?” Steve pushes aside a pine branch, holding onto it so it doesn’t whip back and smack him. “Come on out.”
The woods are silent and still, the mid-morning air cold enough to cloud his breath.
“Natasha, come on.”
There is a rustle of leaves, and Natasha appears, like something out of one of Kurt’s folk tales.
“How did you know I was here?” she asks, looking put out.
You’re not hidden from above, Steve thinks. “I’m not completely useless.”
Natasha looks doubtful, but slips gracefully through the trees to join him. She’s dressed in loose, comfortable clothes that subtly blend in with their surroundings, the flame red hair that gave her away tied back in a ponytail.
“What are you doing out here?” Steve asks.
“Nothing,” she says, daring Steve to argue. “What are you doing out here?”
“Nothing,” Steve replies, defensive.
Natasha snorts. “You expect me to believe that?”
Steve huffs, tucking his thumbs into his belt, his fingers braced around the buckle. “I could be checking the area for evidence of a recent attack.”
“Yeah, because you’re a real Sherlock Holmes.” She narrows her eyes, shrewd and assessing. “What are you really doing out here? Your precious camp is way on the other side of-”
“I’m taking a walk,” Steve interrupts. What can it hurt? “With my… with my boyfriend.”
There is a loud snap overhead, followed by the crack and rustle of several branches being stuck by a heavy weight, ending in a muffled thump and rustle of dead leaves.
Natasha’s attention fixes on the sounds, tracking them down from the higher branches to the ground.
“That’s your-” she tilts her head towards a soft cursing.
“Is he one of those homeless guys?” There is a slow smile spreading across Natasha’s face. “The one with the criminal record?”
“No,” Steve says sharply. “He’s got a place.”
“Not telling you.” Steve tries to smile, but ends up just baring his teeth.
Natasha doesn’t seem to take offence, folding her arms and cocking her hip. “Well no wonder I could never get you set up with anyone.”
Steve keeps his mouth shut, casting his gaze in every direction but the one where the noises came from.
“Is this where we have a long, boring conversation about privacy?” she asks.
“No,” Steve says flatly. “It’s a really short one.”
Natasha laughs at that, and gives him a nod. “Whatever you say, Rogers.”
She gives him a salute, two fingers to her forehead and snapped away, and walks off through the trees, taking care to make a lot of noise as she does so.
Steve waits until he’s certain she’s gone, and picks his way through the stand of pines, back the way he came.
It doesn’t take long to find Bucky, lying face down in a pile of leaves, his folded wings blending in with their russet and amber tones.
“You okay, Buck?” Steve hunkers down beside him.
“Ow,” Bucky rolls onto his side, rubbing his hip.
“You want me to kiss it better?” Steve asks, raising an eyebrow.
Bucky pulls up the hem of his jacket, exposing the crest of his hip. “Yes.”
Steve obliges, bending down and pressing a gentle kiss to the strip of skin.
“Lower,” Bucky grins at him, sly and sharp. “And over to the front a bit.”
Steve snorts, and gives him a shove. “Come on, up you get.”
He holds out his hands, and Bucky grudgingly reaches up to grab them, letting Steve pull him to his feet.
“You called me your boyfriend,” Bucky says softly. There is something in his eyes, shyness perhaps. Or pride.
“Yup,” Steve agrees.
Bucky drags his teeth across his lip. “Never been a boyfriend before.”
“Never had a boyfriend before.” Steve flushes, pulling the cuffs on his jacket straight. Bucky tugs on his sleeve, getting his attention, and leans up to kiss him.
One kiss becomes two, becomes a dozen, and leaves Steve breathless.
“Let’s go home,” Bucky whispers in his ear. “If you’re very lucky I’ll-”
Steve silences him with another kiss. “You know I should be getting back to camp.”
“You didn’t let me finish,” Bucky chides. “Rude.”
“You’re very persuasive,” Steve curls his fingers in Bucky’s hair. “You keep talking, I’m gonna say yes.”
“That’s the point,” Bucky nudges his nose against Steve’s cheek. “It’s an evil plot, keeping you enthralled with my supernatural dick.”
Steve chokes out a laugh, and Bucky kisses him again, light presses to the corner of his mouth.
“You’re terrible,” Steve huffs.
“I am,” Bucky agrees. “But you love me terrible.”
“Yeah, I do.”
There’s no sense in denying it, the words long since whispered against heated skin, over cups of coffee, under the dappled shade of cedar and pine.
Scott comes hurrying through the camp, wild-eyed and dragging a borrowed comb through his hair.
“This is a big mistake,” he whines. “Big. So big. Huge.”
Luis climbs out from the subway car, following the sounds of his panicking, and Steve looks up from his efforts to build a fire in the pit.
“You’re gonna be fine, Scott.” Steve piles a few more dry twigs on the fire, and blows on them until they catch.
“Yeah, man,” Luis agrees. “You got this.”
“No. No no I don’t got this,” Scott frets. “I’ve changed my mind, cancel the interview.”
“Hey, nobody's cancelling anything,” Luis says with surprising firmness. “Now our boy Stevie worked hard getting you this meeting, so you’re gonna go and you’re gonna charm them and you’re gonna get a goddamn job.”
Scott pulls the comb out of his hair. He scrubs up pretty well, Luis had managed to scare up a decent suit that more or less fit, and Steve had provided him with dress shoes. He’d even sat, still and terrified, while Val gave him a wet shave with one of bald guys scary hunting knives.
“I can’t get the job,” Scott whines. “I live in a car.”
Luis wags a finger at him. “Don’t you start with me, Scott Lang. We all worked for this. We bought gas for this.” He points to where Kurt and Dave are sat by the fire. “Didn’t we buy gas for this, you guys?”
“Damn straight, we did,” Dave nods.
Kurt gets to his feet, pulling his threadbare overcoat straight before speaking. “Is not about Scott Lang. Is about whole camp.”
“Yeah,” Luis nods frantically. “If Scotty can get a job, then anyone can, y’know?”
“Luis,” Steve mutters.
“I don’t mean that in a bad way,” Luis stumbles over himself. “I mean, like, this is you representing, you feel? If you get your shit together, get this job, get to see your kid again.” He looks around, at the people who have started to gather, curious about the fuss. “Well, there’s hope for all of us.”
Scott runs his thumb along the teeth of his borrowed comb. “Shit,” he sighs. “I have to get the job.”
Luis wipes his hand on his pants and claps Scott on the back. “That’s my guy right there.”
“Okay.” Scott tries to look positive. “Okay, we’re doing this.”
Luis gives Dave a gentle nudge with his boot. When it doesn’t get him a response, he kicks.
“Ow, Jesus!” Dave leaps to his feet. “Fine, let’s go.”
He starts walking over to where his freshly-gassed car is parked up, Kurt following close behind. Scott stays where he is, hesitant and fretful, before turning to Steve. “Any advice?” he asks. “I mean anything. Really. Anything.”
Steve rests a hand on Scott's arm, and he visibly sags under the weight. “You’ve nothing to worry about, okay? Just keep calm, answer the questions, and try not to swear too much.”
“Okay. Keep calm,” Scott nods. “This lady I’m seeing, she doesn’t like swearing?”
“Agent Hill is fine with swearing,” Steve assures him.
“Yeah, pal,” Luis chimes in. “That’s just, y’know, interview baseline. Don’t show up high, don’t wear flip-flops, don’t cuss like a sailor, that kind of shit.”
“You’ll be fine, Scott.” Steve pats him on the shoulder. “Good luck.”
It takes a gentle push to get Scott moving, stumbling across the clearing after Kurt and Dave.
“You think he’ll get the job?” Luis asks when Dave’s car has vanished out of sight.
Steve draws in an uncertain breath. “Well, we can’t keep this camp running forever.” Not a week goes by without someone from the local press complaining about the homeless problem, and though it’s been a while since the last murder, no one has forgotten about it, or become complacent.
“Well if I had to put all my hopes on one guy, Scotty is a pretty good choice.” Luis gives Steve a fond look. “You did good, Steve.”
Steve ducks his head, and picks up a piece of firewood. “Thanks,” he mumbles. “I appreciate it.”
“Things sure are changing around here, though.” Luis picks up a stick and pokes at the fire. “Folks moving on. Couple more are packing up, heading some place warmer. Some place without a serial killer wandering around, hopefully.” He throws a glance Steve’s way. “An’ I’m guessing you won’t be around for much longer.”
“What?” Steve freezes.
Has Luis worked out who he was? Did Wanda break her word and give him away?
“Aw, c’mon man, don’t play dumb.” Luis takes the wood from Steve’s hands and places it on the fire, nudging it with his stick until it’s where he wants it. “We all seen it. You first came here, you were all… pulled in on yourself. Don’t think I didn’t see you awake all night staring out the window, all brooding and mysterious.”
“Luis,” Steve says quietly.
“You’re happy,” Luis smiles. “You’re hardly around camp lately, but when you are, you’re happy. And I ain’t putting it down to you getting a girl or something like that,” Luis pokes at the fire some more. “That kind of shit is untenable, y’know? Can’t put your happiness on someone else, she don’t deserve that kind of burden, or the job of fixing you.”
“He,” Steve says, without even meaning to. But once the word has left his mouth, he feels no regret or shame. “He,” he says again, and is proud to.
“Daaaaamn, Stevie!” Luis grins, broad and bright as the sun, and bounces up and down. “This ‘he’ of yours got a name?”
Steve tucks his hands into his pockets. “Bucky,” he says, and the word tastes like coffee and warm kisses.
“He a local fella?” Luis jabs his stick into the dirt until the smouldering tip is snuffed out. “Your Bucky?”
“Yeah,” Steve nods. “Has a place not far from here.”
Luis whistles. “Look at you going up in the world, huh? You should bring him over for dinner sometime.”
Steve mumbles something noncommittal, but doesn’t take him up on the offer. Luis seems to pick up on Steve’s discomfort and excuses himself, going back in to the subway car. Steve adds another log to the fire, and wishes he’d been able to say yes.
He stays in camp for the rest of the day, keeping himself busy with odd jobs around the site. He covers the squash and potatoes still in the vegetable patch with sheets of cardboard to protect against frost, and takes down the shacks of the latest people to pack up and move on. The wood and tarp can be reused elsewhere, and there’s something depressing about having empty shelters in camp, even ones that are barely standing.
The racoon-creatures come sniffing around, drawn towards the camp by Steve’s presence.
“Hey, Steve,” Luis hisses, pointing to the reddish-grey shapes in the trees. “You seen this?”
Steve follows the line of his finger, to a trio of pointed snouts peeking out of an oak tree.
“They’re chimera, Bucky says.” He searches his pockets and finds a cereal bar. Luis watches, fascinated as Steve tears the wrapper with his teeth, and breaks the bar into pieces. “Back in the ‘50’s there were these experiments, trying to create these hybrids. They’re a bit fox, a bit racoon, and bred for fighting.” He holds out his hand, and one by one the creatures climb down and grab a piece of cereal bar, before scurrying back up into the trees. “When they wouldn’t fight, they got dumped in the Pines, and have been here ever since.”
Steve grins at the way Luis’ eyes widen, and offers him a piece of cereal bar.
Luis takes it, walking closer to the tree and holding it up, making little kiss-kiss noises until one of the creatures comes down.
He pulls his hand away a little. “C’mon, little guy. Come to Papa, I ain’t gonna hurt you.”
The creature lets Luis pick it up, and curls up in his arms like a baby. It bats at his hands with its paws until he gives up the treat, and gnaws contentedly while Luis strokes its pointed ears.
“Mírate chico guapo,” Luis sing-songs. “He got a name?”
Steve shrugs. “Bucky calls them all Rocky, like that Beatles song ‘Rocky Racoon’?”
Some evenings Bucky sings to them, sitting on the porch wrapped up in a blanket, a cup of coffee in his hands. It’s hard for Steve to put his back to the sight and return to the camp. Some day soon he won’t.
“Rocky, huh?” Luis tickles the hybrid’s ample belly. “I should call you Gordito.”
Gordito chomps down on the last of his snack, and bats at Luis’ hands for more.
When Dave’s car finally pulls up the drive and into camp, a crowd gathers. Val and the bald guy keep to the back, while Pietro and Quill cluster around the car, rapping on the hood and yelling. They all mill around impatiently, waiting for the engine to silence and the doors to open.
Scott bursts out of the car first, hands in the air, and runs straight for Luis.
“I GOT IT!” he screams, throwing his arms around Luis and knocking him to the ground.
The racoon-creatures that have been shadowing him all day scatter, climbing up the nearest shelters and yelping, the sound drowned by Luis’ whooping and cheering.
Bald guy lifts Scott onto his feet, and he gets passed around the camp, getting slapped on the back and patted on the shoulders like some kind of good luck charm.
“So what happened, man?” Luis asks, grabbing Scott by the arms and shaking him. “C’mon, spill, don’t leave me hanging!”
“It was great! They were great! They gave me a work phone!” He pales, and searches his pockets. “Shit, what if I broke my phone? That’s gonna look so bad if I-” He finds it, a sleek black oblong of StarkTech. It lights up in his hands, and Scott thrusts it into the air. “I GOT WI-FI!”
Steve takes a step back from the group, laughing as they crowd around Scott, showing off the features on his new cell phone. A clamour of voices rises up, asking him to check their emails or send a text, and Scott is happy to oblige, going around the camp one person at a time and making sure everyone gets a chance. The rest of the evening he spends taking photos, filling up his phone’s storage with pictures of people around the campfire. Then he hides himself away in the subway car, and writes a long message to his ex-wife, and an even longer one for her to pass on to his daughter.
Steve helps Luis with dinner, feeling a twist of guilt at not offering up his own phone for people to use. They were so clearly desperate for contact with the outside world, and Steve could have offered them that little bit more help.
“Hey, Steve.” Luis bumps his shoulder to Steve’s, then pointedly rubs his arm. “Ow.”
“What’s up, Luis?” Steve asks.
“Why so glum?” Luis stops rubbing his arm. “You missing your guy?”
Yes. “No.” Steve shakes his head. “I just… never thought having a cellphone would make such a difference. I can’t help thinking I should have done something about it. I could have-”
“Oh, no you don’t.” Luis gives him a shove. “Quit that. You already done so much here, built shelters, kept us warm, got Scotty that job.”
“Scott got himself the job,” Steve argues. “That wasn’t me.”
“Yeah, my boy done good,” Luis says proudly. “But you got him that chance. You done enough for us, Stevie. You can’t take the weight of the world.”
“Yes I can,” Steve mutters, and Luis bursts out laughing.
“Does your guy put up with this shit?” he asks. “Does he let you get all puffed up and heroic?”
“No,” Steve smiles to himself. “He kicks me in the shin.”
“Damn right,” Luis cackles.
After dinner is eaten Kurt brings out his stash of vodka, and they sit by the fire, passing a bottle around. Steve skips his turn each time the bottle comes his way, and Val sticks to her own stash. No one questions Steve’s reluctance to drink, or Val’s drinking to excess, and the conversation flows back and forth, embarrassing stories told a dozen times before, comforting in their familiarity.
Luis dozes in a lawn chair, Gordito sprawled in his lap, and Scott takes a last few photos before turning in for the night.
One by one people take to their beds, whispering goodnight to each other, and Steve drapes a blanket around Luis before taking a last walk around the camp.
He debates going back to the subway car, wrapping himself up in a blanket and trying to sleep. Instead he slips through the trees, the light of the waxing moon filtering through the branches, showing him the way home.
The cabin door is locked when he arrives, but he knows where the spare key is hidden, behind a planter where a night flowering jasmine grows, its delicate flowers scenting the air.
Steve closes the door behind him, careful not to make too much noise. He shrugs off his jacket and toes off his boots, putting them in the spaces left for them to fill. It almost overwhelms him sometimes, when he stops to think about it, how easily he has moved into Bucky’s life, how in return Bucky has barged his way into Steve’s, filling the empty spaces within him that he hadn’t even known were there.
He moves quietly through the darkened cabin, pushing open the bedroom door and finding Bucky in bed, blankets tangled around him.
“Steve?” Bucky calls sleepily, his voice a low rumble.
“Yeah.” Steve pulls off his shirt and unfastens his belt buckle.
“This a booty call?” Steve can practically hear Bucky grinning as he pulls down his pants.
“No,” Steve blushes. “I just…”
“C’mere,” Bucky yawns, pulling back the covers.
Steve climbs into bed beside him, barely getting comfortable before Bucky wraps around him, head pillowed on his shoulder, knee tucking between his thighs.
“Did he get the job?” Bucky asks, voice is muffled against Steve’s shoulder.
“Yeah,” Steve curls his fingers through Bucky’s hair, twisting the dark strands around his fingertips. “Starts next week.”
“That’s good.” Bucky smiles against Steve’s chest. “I missed you too.”
“Bucky,” Steve huffs. “I’ve only been gone a couple of days.”
Bucky grumbles, but quietens down when Steve runs his hands down his shoulders, fingers working at the knotted muscles around his wing joints.
“So did we establish if this was a booty call or not?” Bucky flicks a fingernail across Steve’s nipple, making him flinch.
“Ow,” Steve digs a thumb into Bucky’s shoulder blade. “Stop calling it that.”
Bucky drags his fingernail back across the tight nub, a little slower this time. “That didn’t sound like a no.”
Steve lets out a soft moan as Bucky follows the line of his finger with his tongue, and then his teeth. He curses, breathless, grabbing Bucky by the shoulders and pulling him up for a kiss. Bucky presses him into the pillows, his kisses rough and hungry, and Steve swallows them down and asks for more.
“Bucky?” Steve brushes a strand of hair behind Bucky’s ear. “Bucky, wake up.”
“Hrmf.” Bucky screws his eyes shut. “No. No more, my dick’ll drop off.”
Steve burst out laughing, though it comes out as more of a wheeze with the weight of Bucky lying on top of him. Bucky cracks open one eye. “Quit it, you’re a terrible mattress.”
Steve laughs some more, and Bucky rolls over onto his side, their bodies tacky with drying sweat and semen.
“Ugh,” Bucky scratches at the dried flakes of come on his chest. “You got everywhere.”
Steve chuckles, feeling lax and lightheaded. “You weren’t complaining at the time.”
Bucky drags the blankets off Steve’s body, pulling them around himself. “Why am I awake and without coffee?” He glances over at the window, the fading light filtering through the glass, and ignores Steve’s attempts to reclaim the covers.
“Nope,” Bucky snatches back a stray blanket that Steve has managed to grab. “Bring me coffee and you can have one.”
Steve sits up, every muscle aching, sweet and sharp, and gives the edge of a blanket another half-hearted tug. “Can I have one on account?” he asks.
Bucky shakes his head. “No coffee, no blanket.”
“Okay, keep your blankets,” he chuckles. “I’m gonna grab a shower.”
“Your priorities are fucked up, Rogers,” Bucky announces, his wings bristling. In his bundle of quilts and covers, he looks like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon. Albeit one yelling at Steve for coffee.
The cabin has a little bathroom with a toilet, sink, and bath with shower attachment. Steve pulls the curtain across the bath and turns on the shower, brushing his teeth in the sink while he waits for the water to heat up.
On the windowsill is Bucky’s collection of toiletries; herb scented soap, shampoos and bath bombs. There are salves to keep his horns from flaking and emollient creams for his wings. Above the sink is shaving soap, the kind that comes in paper wrapped bars that fit into a carved wooden bowl, and seeing it gives Steve a warm rush of nostalgia. In his younger days the bars were never made with sea buckthorn or tea tree oil, and he picks up the bowl and breathes in the scent of it, sharp and clean.
He showers, scrubbing himself clean with a bar of soap that smells like rosemary, and mildly regretting it when it comes to the more delicate places on his body. He rinses himself off and shuts off the shower before he uses up all the hot water in the tank, and shaves while the room is still clouded with steam.
By the time he goes back to the bedroom to fetch his clothes, Bucky is up and in the kitchen, banging cupboard doors in his search for coffee. Steve takes the cup out of his hand and kisses his cheek.
“Go on,” he says. “I’ve got this.”
Bucky stifles a yawn and goes for a shower while Steve makes coffee. He’s getting better at using the Keurig, though it still requires some swearing on his part. By the time Bucky is out of the shower and rubbing a soft bristled brush over his wings, there is coffee waiting for him.
Bucky looks askance at the single cup. “Any point in talking you into staying?”
“I gotta go check on the camp.” Steve gives him a hopeful look. “You could come with me?”
Bucky grabs the coffee with a snort, and slopes over to the couch.
“I’m serious.” Steve follows him. “Luis invited you to dinner.”
Bucky looks startled, but covers it quickly. “You told him about me?” He sits cross-legged, holding his cup up to his mouth. “What did you say?”
“That I love you, and you kick me when I’m being pompous.”
Bucky snorts. “Sometimes you need kicking.”
Steve sits down next to him, and reaches out to rest a hand on his knee. “It ain’t the same world out there, Buck. Things have changed. People have changed.”
“Ain’t changed that much, Steve,” Bucky murmurs, but doesn’t pull away.
“Look, I work with much weirder, okay?” Steve rubs his thumb across Bucky’s knee in little circles. “Dr Banner? He turns into this huge green… thing, and kids dress up like him for Halloween.”
Bucky snorts, and after a moment shakes his head. “I don’t know, Stevie.”
“I’m not saying we march through Times Square tomorrow.” Steve pauses, tilting his head to one side. “To be honest, if we marched through Times Square tomorrow, I doubt anyone would notice. But maybe think about it? Give people a chance, they might surprise you.”
“Yeah?” Bucky bites his lip. “You think?”
“Some of them will be assholes,” Steve admits. “But I’ll be here, okay?”
He turns his hand over, his fingers splayed, and Bucky reaches out to him, lacing their fingers together.
“I ain’t saying yes,” Bucky tightens his grip. “But I’ll think about it.”
Steve leaves Bucky to his coffee, and heads out into the evening.
The sky is clear overhead, the air cold and crisp and promising frost. Up above he can see the moon, lemon yellow and full, the first stars pricking out one by one.
Racoon-hybrids climb the trees, their shrill cries and sharp yips passing back and forth around him as he follows the path back to camp.
It’s later than he’d like, and he wants to get back before dark, so takes the quickest route through the woods. He pays little mind to his surroundings, keeping his eyes on the ground before him, looking out for dips or stray branches on the ground, but when the woods suddenly fall silent he comes to a sudden stop.
Being a city boy, he’d never realised until he came to the camp just how loud the woods were. The trees were always creaking and rustling, filled with the calling of birds and the chitter of insects.
The silence feels strange, feels wrong.
Steve turns in a slow circle, careful not to lose his sense of direction, and hears the sound of footfall through the undergrowth.
“Bucky?” he calls out.
A figure steps onto the path in front of him, greasy black hair slicked back and shining in the moonlight. “Who the hell is Bucky?”
He takes a step closer, a shaft of light falling across his face. His eyes are bloodshot, his pupils oddly dilated.
“Rollins?” Steve shifts his weight, planting his feet firmly in the soft earth. “What are you doing out here?”
Rollin twitches his head to one side, rolling his shoulder until it pops, and pulls a bowie knife from his belt. He lifts the blade up, silver in the moonlight, and charges.
Steve dodges to one side, evading the first slash of the knife, and kicks out, catching Rollin’s in the gut. He stumbles back, catching hold of a tree trunk to regain his balance, and charges again.
Steve blocks the strike with his arm, knocking Rollins’ hand up, but he keeps a tight grip on the knife, and slices down again. Steve tries to jumps back and stumbles on the uneven floor, knocking into a tree. The trunk cracks under the force, and topples to the ground. Rollins charges him again and Steve reaches out, grabbing him by the wrist and twisting the blade away.
Rollins snarls, pulling out of Steve’s grip, and slashes at him wildly. Steve feints, twisting to one side, and punches him in the face.
It should have thrown him to the ground, should have knocked him clean out, but Rollins just gives a shake of his head, blood filling his mouth, and grins. “That ain’t gonna work on me,” he sneers, and attacks.
They crash through the trees, Rollins striking out again and again, reckless and vicious. Steve keeps on the defensive, moving between the trees in tight circles, using the trunks as a shield when he can, drawing the fight away from the cabin and the camp. He lands a few punches, some luckier than others, but Rollins refuses go down.
“Give it up, Steve,” Rollins snarls. “You got nowhere to go.”
The realisation when it comes is almost too much for Steve to stomach. There were no monsters lurking in the woods, no cryptids or fairytale horrors, just two assholes pumped full of chemicals who take pleasure in killing.
“It was you,” Steve dodges another attack. “You killed those people.”
“I did,” Rollins sniggers. “Sliced them up like the dirty pigs they were. Did the world a goddamn favour.” He turns his head and spits a mouthful of blood. “An’ I’m gonna enjoy gutting you.” He squeals like a pig, and attacks.
Steve lets Rollins think he has the upper hand, slicing the blade through the sleeve of his jacket and spilling his blood, and grabs the front of Rollins’ fatigues. He slams his forehead into Rollins’ face, feeling his nose crunch, blood and cartilage spraying across their faces.
The trees shake overhead, dead leaves tumbling down around them, and Rollins clutches his ruined face and screams. He darts forward, driving his knife into Steve’s shoulder.
Steve lets out a yell as Rollins pulls the knife out, and punches him in what’s left of his nose, jagged bone splitting the skin of his knuckles, and Rollins slashes at him again. Steve drives his fist into the man’s face again, and he lets out a howl, dropping to his knees.
“Stay down,” Steve rasps, kicking the knife out of Rollins’ grasp.
With the wound in his shoulder, and the cuts on his arms, Steve doesn’t notice the pain at first. A numb, deadening sensation on his back, just under the shoulder blade. He looks down, sees blood soaking the front of his jacket. There is a small, silver dart of metal poking through his chest.
One man couldn’t do it alone. There must have been two of them.
Steve jerks forward, and feels the knife twist, scraping against his ribs, and turns around.
Brock Rumlow, his eyes bloodshot, his pupils blown wide, clutches a bloodied hunting knife in his fist. “Oh, I’ve been waiting for this.”
Steve kicks out before he has a chance to strike, catching Rumlow in the knee. He roars in pain, bringing the knife down, catching the front of Steve’s jacket and ripping it apart.
Steve throws a punch, catching him in the jaw, snapping it closed. There is a spray of blood as Rumlow bites through the tip of his tongue. He snarls at Steve, blood streaming down his chin.
Steve moves forward to attack again, aiming for his weakened knee, his exposed throat, and is pulled short. He throws out his hands, trying to grab hold of a nearby tree before he loses his balance. His knee twists, pain sharp and shocking, and he looks down to see Rollins holding onto his leg, digging his fingers into Steve’s knee and making it buckle. Steve drops to the ground, and Rumlow lets out a roar of triumph, brandishing his knife as Steve forces his elbow into Rollins behind him. Rumlow makes the most of Steve’s distraction, and sinks the blade into Steve’s gut, just under the ribs, before yanking it free.
Steve wheezes, breathless with the shock of pain, and slumps down, his eyes rolling back. Above them in the trees he catches a glimpse of something large leaping from branch to branch, of red eyes looking down at them. A shape drops down onto Rumlow, great wings spread.
“Bucky!” Steve yells as Rollins tries to wrestle him down, jamming his fingers into the knife wound in Steve’s back and making him scream.
Rumlow and Bucky roll around in the dirt, Rumlow slashing with his knife as Bucky punches him in the face. His wings tear under the blade, great rents opening up as Rumlow slashes at him again and again, until they hang in tatters, soaked in his own blood.
Rumlow gets a hand around Bucky’s throat, and slams him into the trunk of the nearest tree. There is a sickening crack, and Bucky lets out a roar, dropping to the ground. He reaches up to touch his horns with shaking hands, the right spire bent at a terrible angle and bleeding profusely.
Rumlow takes hold of his knife and gets to his feet, pulling at his jaw with a bloodied fist until it cracks back into place. He kicks at Bucky, a crumpled heap at his feet.
“What the hell are you supposed to be, anyway?” Rumlow asks, wiping the blade of his knife on Bucky’s pants.
“Fuck you,” Bucky rasps, blood soaking into his hair and trickling down the side of his face.
Rumlow turns his back on Bucky, and squats down on the ground beside Steve. Behind him Rollins twists his fingers, opening up the wound in Steve’s back, laughing as his fingers catch hold of a rib and tugs.
“I’m gonna take my time with you.” Rumlow drags the point of his knife down Steve’s cheek. “Get a little bit of payback for what you just done to us.” He swipes the blade down sharply, slicing through Steve’s cheek, the knife striking teeth before he withdraws it. Steve clamps his teeth together, as if trying to bite through the blade, and snarls.
“That’s right, you put up a fight. Make it last.” Rumlow taps Steve’s shoulder with the point of his knife. “You’re gonna learn ab-”
Rumlows lets out a whistling breath, his air punched out of his lungs, and blood blossoms over the front of his fatigues. He paws at his chest, blood soaking his hand, and turns to see Bucky standing behind him, broken horn held in his hand like a dagger, the tip stained red with blood.
Steve lunges forward, grabbing Rumlow’s knife and turning it. He aims blindly, and the blade sinks into Rumlow’s throat. The world lurches and spins, and Steve collapses.
Rollins lets out a panicked wail, yanking his fingers out of Steve’s wound, and he scrambles away, crawling on his hands and knees through the bracken as Rumlow chokes on his own blood.
Bucky drops the horn, and crashes down beside Steve.
“Stevie?” His hands pat at Steve’s torn clothes, sticky with blood. “Shit, this is bad. Darlin’ you gotta stay with me, okay?”
Steve reaches up, the back of his hand bruised and bloody, and rests his palm against Bucky’s cheek. He can see his own bones poking through the torn skin of his knuckles.
“Your horns,” he breathes, grimacing as Bucky applies pressure to his shoulder.
Bucky makes a strangled, wet sound, and Steve can’t tell if its laughter or tears. “Seriously? You give a shit about that?”
“I love them,” Steve strokes his thumb along the sharp line of Bucky’s cheekbone. Everything is getting grey and out of focus. “I love everything about you.”
Steve could swear there were other voices, but they pitch in and out of his hearing, some close and some far away. None of it matters, not when Bucky is still with him. Steve blinks slowly, and feels Bucky’s lips against the palm of his hand.
“It’s okay, darlin’, just stay with me.” Bucky says something else, but it's oddly pitched, as if it’s not meant for Steve.
He closes his eyes, trying to stop his head from spinning, and when he opens them again he can see stars bracketed by trees. Bucky’s hands are still on him, safe and familiar, and lets himself drift away.
Awareness returns in drips and trickles, like water from a leaking faucet.
A weight at his side. The harsh glow of phosphorescent striplights. A scratch of needle in the crook of his elbow. The steady beep of a heart monitor. The smell of coffee.
Steve opens his eyes, and sees a white painted ceiling. He swallows, his mouth dry, and turns his head.
Something tugs at his shoulder; tender, newly formed scar tissue and adhesive dressings. He lifts his hand, only wanting to touch the dressings, soothe his aches, and feels a sharp tug. A cannula taped to the back of his wrist, tubes leading up to an IV stand. Steve lowers his hand again, and looks around.
A private room, white walls and white floor. A second bed, the covers rumpled but not slept in. There is a chair to his right. In it sits Luis, his chin resting on his chest, his eyes closed.
With every passing minute Steve’s mind clears, his thoughts sharpen, and he forces himself to sit up. His gut twinges, another strip of gauze across his abdomen, he presses his hand over the hospital gown, feeling the edges of medical tape against his skin.
The door to the room opens, and Bucky walks in, a mug of coffee in his hand.
He’s dressed in pale blue scrubs, the back scissored open to allow for his wings. He looks like he’s showered recently, his hair and skin scrubbed clean. There are several long strips of dressing on his wings, that are folded up tightly against his back. His horns are lopsided, one twisting up, the other a stump covered in bandages.
Steve takes in every last detail, because he is alive. They’re alive.
“Stevie?” Bucky rushes towards him, slamming his cup on the bedside table, its contents sloshing over the side, and throws his arms around Steve’s shoulders, hugging him tightly.
“I don’t care if it hurts,” Bucky says, his mouth pressed to Steve’s shoulder. “Just shut up and let me hold you.”
Steve coughs, his throat too dry to laugh, and hugs Bucky in return, fingers tucking under the jagged edges of his scrubs to touch cool, honeyed skin.
“Son of a bitch, you had me scared,” Bucky grouses, and Steve rubs his thumb along his wing joints, soothing and familiar. “You got stabbed, like, so many times. You absolute bastard.”
Bucky finally lets go, and sits down on the edge of the bed. He grabs his coffee and takes a sip, shaking his head when Steve reaches out for it.
“Oh, no. You get water, you bastard.” Bucky pours him a cup of water from a jug on the table, and holds it up to his mouth, steadying the base and keeping Steve from drinking too quickly.
Steve swallows and swallows, until Bucky takes the cup away and puts it back on the table. He reaches for his coffee again, and something obvious clicks into place.
“You got coffee,” Steve nods to the cup.
“Yes. You can’t have any.” Bucky takes another pointed gulp of coffee.
“No,” Steve smiles. “I mean you got coffee. Did you go to a cafeteria or something?”
Bucky hesitates before answering. “The nurse's office. They have the good stuff. Only you would drink the shit they got in the cafeteria.”
A hospital. While he was out of it Bucky has been walking around a whole damn hospital, getting friendly enough with the nurses that they’d cut up a set of scrubs for him to wear and share their coffee.
Bucky glares at Steve, daring him to say something, and Steve has never been any good at backing away from a challenge.
“And no one came after you with pitchforks?” Steve asks, looking innocent.
“Fuck you,” Bucky scowls. “This is a Shield facility, it doesn’t count.”
Steve looks over at where Luis is slumped in his chair.
“Luis,” Bucky says primly. “Also doesn’t count.”
“It looks good on you,” Steve murmurs softly. “Being out in the world.”
Bucky ducks his head a little, plucking at the bedsheets. “It feels good.”
He looks up at Steve and smiles, hesitant, but no less beautiful for it. Steve reaches up to press his hand to Bucky’s cheek, not caring about the way the IV tugs his hand. “I’m sorry you got hurt,” he whispers.
“It’s fine,” Bucky turns his face to Steve’s hand, and kisses his palm. “Nothing that won’t heal.” Steve looks up at Bucky’s horns. “Yeah, even them. There’s plenty of blood vessels in there and no damage to the base. It’ll grow back.”
Bucky gives him an impatient shove, pushing him to one side of the bed to climb in, wedging himself against Steve’s side with a familiarity that is far too telling.
Steve lies back, wrapping his arms around Bucky’s shoulders, adjusting the IV as he does so.
“People have been…” Bucky pauses, and scratches at the base of his broken horn. “Understanding.”
“That sounds terrible,” Steve teases, and gets a jab in the arm.
“Shut it, you.” Bucky tucks his hair behind his ear. “I was sitting there thinking you were dying in my arms, and suddenly I was surrounded. And Luis, fucking Luis just takes one look at me and goes ‘you must be Bucky’.”
Steve holds him a little bit tighter, pressing his nose to Bucky’s hair.
“A bunch of the others went after that guy Rollins. Turns out he and Rumlow had this set-up in their little enclave cooking up some nasty shit, made them resistant to pain, gave them heightened strength.” Bucky gives him a half-hearted glare. “The effects were temporary, but made them strong enough to kick your ass.”
Steve presses a kiss to Bucky’s hair. “But then you showed up.”
Bucky scowls, dragging his fingertips across Steve’s chest, as if reassuring himself that he is still alive, still whole. “We carried you back to camp. Scott was the only one with a cellphone, and was supposed to call for help, but he freaked out and called the only number in his contacts.”
“Hill,” Steve sighs.
“Hill,” Bucky confirms. “So you were busted, and everyone lost their shit over Captain America being a freakin’ hobo.”
“I’m not Captain America,” Steve reminds him.
“Nah, you’re Steve.” Bucky’s mouth crooks up. “Hill sent that nosy redhead friend of yours to get us, and Quill has every intention of seducing her by the way, he was pretty vocal about that.”
“Oh my god,” Steve says softly.
“And in all that no one screamed at me, or threw a flashlight at my face.” Bucky gives Steve another poke. “That Russian guy asked if I’d been cursed by a Gypsy and Luis smacked him one. Gave him a big lecture about racial stereotypes, and the correct nomenclature being Roma.”
“Yeah?” Steve yawns. The weight of Bucky against him, lips against his ear, is comforting, and each time he closes his eyes it gets harder to open them again.
“Go to sleep, you idiot,” Bucky murmurs.
“Hmn?” Sleep sounds like a good idea, at least if Bucky is there with him. “You’ll be here when I wake up?”
“Always,” Bucky promises, pressing a kiss to the corner of Steve’s mouth.
Steve leans into the touch, and sleeps.
“Bucky,” Steve runs his thumb along the seam of his wing, where the skin meets his back. “C’mon, wake up.”
He runs the palm of his hand across the folded wing, feels the light thrumming of Bucky’s pulse against the russet skin, the change in texture when his fingers pass over a scar, tracing along their edges.
The wing is warm, and clings slightly to his touch, and Steve turns his hand over to run his knuckles against the expanse of it, drumming them in a way he knows is ticklish.
Bucky flinches, and Steve increases the tempo of his tickling, grinning as Bucky squirms and shifts and finally cracks open one baleful eye.
“What?” Bucky looms over him, grabbing his wrist and pinning it down on the bed.
Steve lifts his head, brushing his mouth against Bucky’s jaw, against his cheek until Bucky gifts him with a kiss, slow and languid.
Steve hums, contented, as Bucky moves away from his mouth, trailing a line of wet, heated kisses along his jaw and drawing the lobe of his ear between his teeth.
“Mmpf,” Steve makes a half-hearted effort to pull out of Bucky’s grip. “We gotta get up, we’ll be late.”
Bucky bites down on Steve’s ear, not hard enough to leave a mark, but enough to make his breath catch. He swipes his tongue along the crest of Steve’s ear. “So we’ll be late.”
Steve groans as Bucky nibbles at the sensitive skin under his ear, working down to the line of his jaw. He’s tempted, so tempted, to give up on the day and stay in bed, Bucky warm and pliant against him.
“C’mon,” Steve slaps Bucky on the hip. “Up.”
“You’re unemployed, Steve,” Bucky grumbles. “You’re supposed to spend all day in bed.”
Steve tickles him again, and Bucky rolls onto his side, letting him sit up.
“Just so you know,” Bucky pulls the blankets around himself. “This is me lodging an official protest.”
Steve huffs, rubbing at the stubble on his chin. His skin still tingles where Bucky kissed it, like a sense-memory. “I’ll put it on the list.”
He grabs clean clothes and stumbles to the bathroom to shower and shave, and by the time he gets back, feeling part-way presentable, Bucky is out of bed and buttoning up his pants. He’s shirtless, and Steve leans on the doorframe, taking in the sight of him.
His bare shoulders are sunkissed by the light streaming through the window, his wings translucent, almost golden in the early morning light, and Steve is tempted to give up on the day and stay right where he is. He could fetch his sketchbooks and charcoals from the living room, and spend all day drawing. The curve of Bucky’s shoulder demands to be rendered in pencil and ink, the fall of his hair and the curve of his wing in watercolours.
“If you’re gonna spend all day staring, I’m getting back in bed,” Bucky huffs.
His head is turned a little, and Steve can make out a smile playing across his lips, creasing his eyes.
“I’m not staring,” Steve comes into the room. “I’m admiring.”
“Yeah, well admire me into this, will ya?” Bucky shakes a sweater at him, and Steve comes over to help.
The new clothes came from Pepper, of all people. Steve doesn’t dare think how much it cost to get them tailored, but they fit beautifully, and the thermal layers keep Bucky warm.
Bucky untangles the sweater, threading the collar over his mismatched horns and over his head, pausing to tug his hair out before putting his arm through each sleeve. Steve steps up behind him, fastening the hem in place at the small of his back, before smoothing the last strip of fabric down his spine between the wings and fixing it in place at the hem.
“I swear you have as much fun dressing me as undressing me,” Bucky says, combing his fingers through his hair.
Steve kisses the nape of Bucky’s neck, and goes to the kitchen to make coffee.
Despite Bucky’s best efforts, they leave the cabin for the meeting with time to spare, and walk through the woods to the site, the racoon-hybrids scampering around them as they go.
They’ve taken the woodland trail often enough that it has become a clear path, and Steve has taken the time to cut down errant trees and lay down bark chippings. It’s an odd thing to focus on, but he likes the idea of the way being open and clear, no hiding in the undergrowth, no skulking in the shadows. And the path is wide enough for Bucky to stretch his wings and catch the sun.
The path opens out to a clearing, and the sounds of the woods are replaced with that of hammers and circular saws, and the tinny thrum of a radio playing.
Luis looks up from his table by one of the new houses, a blueprint spread out before him, weighed down at the corners by spare tools. He waves his arms, beckoning them over.
In the few days awake in hospital, Steve had a lot of time to think. Time he hadn’t needed, he knew almost as soon as he woke up what he was going to do, and since anyone who was anyone insisted on visiting (and Steve had no illusions that they were there out of curiosity rather than altruism), it wasn’t that hard to persuade them. Not when he had Bucky sitting at the foot of the bed, wings loosely furled, looking for all the world like an avenging angel.
The winter months they’d spent looking at parcels of land, and when they found the perfect location, persuading the owners to part with it for a respectable sum of money. Tony had insisted on doing the design work, incorporating clean energy technology into an entire housing community.
Steve had agreed, and then paired him up with Luis, who knew far more about what people actually need to survive than a billionaire living in Manhattan. He was also the only person who could get Tony to shut up for five minutes, which made him very popular with the contractors.
Thirty houses, rent free with amenities provided. Not enough to change the world, but a start.
There were internship programs being set up, education and apprenticeships, more things than Steve could keep track of. A place to start again, to catch your breath and pick yourself up. A second chance, for the people who never get second chances.
“Guys!” Luis greets them with open arms. “So I got the best news! We got a family for the last house. Ain’t that awesome? I mean, they gotta wait in a motel until we finish putting the roof on these things, but that’ll take, like, weeks. Tops. No problem.”
“All the houses are taken?” Steve frowns. “How long did that take, a day?”
“Less than,” Luis grins, sly and delighted. “I may have asked Ms Potts to help me with the shortlist. And left her with all the rejected applicants. And made her read them all.”
“Devious,” Bucky approves.
“So yeah, with a little bit of persuading, I think she’ll be amenable to other setups like this one.” Luis pats Steve’s arm. “But this one’s always gonna be yours, right? Just saying it's the kind of thing that should be going nationwide. You know how many billionaires are out there could be doing all this? The fucking 1% man, gotta kick their asses.”
“And you’re the one to kick ‘em?” Steve asks.
“You’d better fuckin’ believe it,” Luis beams. “Takes every last damn one of us to save the world, man.”
Bucky nods, scratching the base of his broken horn, and Steve tugs on his sleeve.
“No scratching, Buck.”
“It itches,” Bucky grumbles.
Steve tucks Bucky’s hand into his, linking their fingers together. “No scratching.”
Bucky pokes his tongue out at Steve, and turns back to Luis. “Who got the last place?”
Luis scrunches up his face in delight. “Brother and sister. Immigrants. Their application got screwed up when they first got here, but lucky enough my cousin Ernesto works for the Young Center? I gave him a call and he kicked serious ass, I love the guy, even though he banged-”
“What are their names,” Bucky interrupts, a slow grin spreading across his face.
Luis gives him a coy look. “Don’t play me man, you know who it is. Also Wanda says she still owes Steve a ‘shovel talk’.”
“Oh, I’m so dead,” Steve mutters.
“Yup,” Bucky grins.
“So, Bucko, it’s only fair that I get to give you the shovel talk on Steve’s behalf!” Luis adds brightly. “I also got a few words on safety too, y’know. Wrap it before you tap it, especially when you’re tapping a cultural icon.”
The grin drops off Bucky’s face. “Fuck.”
Luis cackles, throwing his arms around their shoulders and leading them towards the site. “I came up with the best name for this place too, you wanna hear it? Gonna put it on a great big sign on the way in, an’ shit.”
“This is not gonna be good.” Bucky glances at Steve.
“Trust me, guys,” Luis spreads his hands out, like a magician revealing his trick. “Devil’s Acre.” When no one says anything, he points to the site. “Because this is an acre of land, and you’re-”
Steve shakes his head firmly, and Bucky starts laughing.
“Aww, come on you guys! It’s perfect.”
“No,” Steve shakes his head. Bucky doubles over, laughing so hard there are tears in his eyes. “Definitely no.”