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Soldier of Winter

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Steve remembers - will always remember, can never forget - the first time his world changed forever.

The day he lost Bucky.

Oh, Bucky’s not dead - he found that out later. Much later. No, it’s worse.

Steve signed up to fight against the Fae Courts almost as soon as the treaties were broken. Of course he did. And Bucky was right there beside him, as always, trying - with futility - to persuade him otherwise.

The high mages were looking to create an army that would win the war. To make all of their soldiers like the elves; strong, fast, brilliant. All they ever made was Steve. Steve, who was always scrawny and small, Steve, whose only saving grace was a trickle of magic, a sharp mind, a brave (reckless, Bucky’s voice echoed in his mind) spirit. And after they made Steve, there were no more. Only Wizard Erskine could perform the ritual, and Erskine was dead.

Steve knew why they chose him, with so many ranks of candidates clamouring for the honour. He was a sickly child, who became a sickly adult, but as a baby he had once been snatched from the fae; a changeling left in his place, healthy and radiant, and everyone had urged his mother to simply leave him with the fairies. But Sarah Rogers was made of more than that, and she had marched into the Queen’s Court herself to demand her son’s return. Ever after, Steve had been… strange. Uncanny. Elf-marked. Nothing tangible, except the single elf-shot pendant around his neck. But strange.

 


 

Steve is running through the snow on a high mountain. Bucky reaches out a hand, but it’s too late, and the iron and steel of the dogtags he wears have broken away from their chain, and Bucky is falling with the snowflakes.

Grief is rolling through Steve like a tide, like a tsunami, ripping away the foundations of his soul, and he doesn’t stop fighting, doesn’t stop running, but he stops caring, and when it’s needed - when he’s needed - he throws himself into the ritual circle, without a thought for his life, and he feels the ice creep across his shield, cold ferns winding up his gloves, cold striking like a knife into his joints - but he breaks the circle, his shield of iron strikes true, the Queen of Winter reels in agony and falls and falls and he is falling too, as the spell breaks like a whiplash, as the magic coils and recoils, and the ice creeps over his face and that’s all he ever knows.

And then years later, he wakes up.


New York is different now. The people are different now. The world is different now.

Wizards are no strangers to time-related shenanigans, and that’s a blessing; there are others like him, cast adrift in time, and those simply more long lived than they’ve any right to be. Peggy is older now, grey in her hair, but her eyes are as firm as ever; she is a comfort, but he sees the pain in her eyes as fresh as in his own.

They won the war, more or less, they tell him; the Courts do not prey openly on humans now, they keep to the shadows. It is… an agreement, they say, and Peggy’s eyes are sharp and angry as she says it. Lives are saved, he knows; but there are rumours, whispers, stories, and he knows - as Peggy knows - that they never truly stopped, merely withdrew their poison touch a little further.

But it is an agreement, and he cannot break it. Cannot. He must not break it.

Peggy has had seventy years more anger stored up inside her, and it takes all that he has to talk her down from breaking the treaties herself, more than once; in the small flat he rents in a dingy apartment building, she almost burns with rage as she tells him of the latest atrocity, or rumour; it’s she that introduces him to almost everyone he knows in this new world, all who have reservations about the treaties; and it’s her he goes to, right away, as soon as he realises what the Shield Order has become, what he’s become a part of.

Natasha is by his side, limping and bruised, and yeah, he’s mad at her too but that can wait, what matters now, right now, is that everything he fought for, everything Peggy built, is rotten to the core and he is going to burn it down .

Peggy’s eyes burn with the exact same fire as his, as she stands in the kitchen of Sam’s apartment; Sam, who isn’t even a mage of the Shield Order, but who is strong and smart and maybe the only safe person he knows; they listen, tense and on edge, as Natasha tells them about the Soldier of Winter.

“They say he was human, once,” Natasha says, her eyes sharp and her voice flat. “That’s how he can move so fast, and why he can’t be kept out by boundary spells. He’s somewhere in between.” Steve feels the weight of the elf-shot pendant at his neck in a silent reminder of his own history.

“A changeling?” Peggy asks, and he knows she’s thinking it too.

Natasha gives a non-committal twitch of her head. “Nick didn’t think so. He’s too human for that.”

Sam lets his head fall back against the wall. “A human who can move like an elf. Or an elf who can act like a human. Great.”

Natasha’s eyes flick to Steve, just for a moment, and Sam makes a face as he catches up. “Sorry, Steve. I didn’t mean--”

“I know,” Steve says, cutting him off. “You’re right. Nobody’s ever taken this guy down, Widow?”

She gives a little grimace. “Not even me. I got close one time. He didn’t even flinch, left me with a fun scar.” Steve knows; he’s seen the scar. It’s not even a little fun.

Steve nods, and meets her eyes. “Then it’s about time someone did.”


 

And here’s another moment Steve will always remember; the second time that his world changed, forever.

Watching the Winter Soldier tear apart cars like they’re nothing, sending shards of jagged ice erupting through the tarmac, feeling the chill on his skin as he dodges a deadly snowcloud of whirling ice, caught in a deadly, icy dance; the moment he sees the man’s face, through a flurry of snowflakes, and he knows , and he almost stops in his tracks like he’s taken a hit to the gut, like a lorry load of ice has hit him deep in his soul, he feels the gutwrenching feeling of the world spinning out of alignment; because he knows that face, he knows that face, he grew up next to that face, saw it every day - that’s Bucky, his Bucky, and the dizzying hope of seventy years of grief collides with the searing pain of loss over again as he hears, “Who the hell is Bucky?”


 

They patch their wounds. They drink. They regroup. The plan changes.

Steve knows that whatever happens now, whatever happens next, he can’t leave Bucky there, can’t leave him with the Winter Queen - can’t let him go. And Peggy, as usual, is on the same wavelength; her grim, pale face, older and more lined than he’s used to (seventy years ago, or last summer) set in the familiar lines of decision. Neither of them can let him go.

Nat and Sam, of course, are more practical; they’re young, they haven’t had a century of sorrow weight their souls yet, although both of them, Steve knows, have grief enough and to spare. They’ll keep him and Peggy grounded; Nat, especially, knows that the Shield Order is too important to destroy utterly.

--

The thing about the Fae is that they follow rules.

They bend rules; they work around rules; they twist and turn and find their way about rules; but in the end, when a hard and fast rule is invoked, they can’t help but to obey it.

Steve is walking towards the treaty site, a little self conscious. He didn’t - couldn’t - tell the others his plan; they’d looked at him with pity, told him Bucky was beyond saving, but -- he had to try.

Steve runs his hand through his hair, looking about the lush green meadow. It’s odd, to think that such a haven of nature could be found in New York, but spells worked by the strongest Shield Order mages and the Queen of Winter herself meant that no wandering mortals would find this part of Central Park.

He wonders at the beauty of the flowers blooming about him, when the end of October was drawing close; his hand drifts almost of its own accord to the stem of a flawless pure-white rose. Peggy would like it, he thinks; he snaps the stem, tucking the barely-opened bloom into his jacket buttonhole, catching the sweet perfume as he breathes in.

“Why are you here?” comes a voice behind him, and Steve startles, his hand reflexively reaching for his shield. He turns, his heart seeming to have caught in his throat, and sees --

Bucky. Bucky, his face drawn, his eyes cold. Bucky, his hair grown long and tangled. Bucky, wearing the black garb of the Winter Court, his arm -- his arm replaced by that deadly prosthetic, wrought of fine elf-metal, delicate and beautiful and intricate in form but filled with ugly, deadly purpose.

Steve feels that deadly, broken hope, sharp as a shard of ice, flutter up inside him again. “Bucky,” he says, drawing a step closer.

Bucky doesn’t move.

Steve stops, logic overriding instinct for a moment. “Bucky,” he says again. “Do you. Remember? Do you remember me?” It hurts to spit the words out; they catch in his throat as though they were made of barbed wire, and his voice cracks just a little with the effort of contained emotion.

Something flickers over Bucky’s face then; flickers, and is gone. “What do you want?” he asks again, flatly. “This is a place of treaty.”

Steve blows out a breath. Right. “To talk,” he says, lightly, as though it is of no importance.

Bucky inclines his head, just a fraction.

Steve leans back against a nearby tree trunk, as casual as he can be. He wishes he had Nat’s skill for deception; she always said his face was an open book.

“So,” Steve begins, voice light. “How did you end up in Winter’s Court?”

“I am a vassal of my liege-lady,” Bucky says, emotionless. “How I came to her service is none of your concern.”

“Oh sure,” Steve says, trying for that charming smile he saves for the newsreels. He has a feeling it’s more like a grimace. “Say, what should I call you? “Winter’s Soldier” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.”

Bucky doesn’t respond. Steve feels like crying, but he pushes on. Time for the direct approach.

“Bucky,” he says, urgent, low, pushing forwards from the tree trunk and standing face to face with him. “Bucky, please. I know it’s you.”

There’s a glimmer of something in those cold eyes; Bucky looks tense, cornered, and there’s a flash of pain in his face.

“We grew up together, Buck,” Steve says, trying to push the emotion out of his voice. “You used to be -- you’re my. We,” and he breaks off, emotion flooding through him. “They said you were dead,” he says, voice hoarse. “They said you were dead and I -- when I saw you I just.” His sentences are growing shorter, more clipped; he draws closer to Bucky, still unmoving, places a wary hand on his shoulder.

Bucky hasn’t spoken, hasn’t moved, but he looks like -- like a man who is going through hell. He’s beginning to shake a little, his eyes fixed on Steve. Almost against his will, he raises his hand - the flesh one - and cradle’s Steve’s cheek, barely touching him as his fingers skim over his jaw. Steve holds still, stops breathing; the touch, barely perceptible, feels like a bolt of lightning against his skin, the once-familiar gesture made strange by his new height.

Bucky draws nearer. Recognition, tinged with deep grief, seems to be dawning in his eyes the longer he looks at Steve.

Steve inhales, sharply, almost dizzy with the breath he’d been holding. This close, he can almost catch a hint of Bucky’s familiar scent - but there’s a new, cold, metallic note, like frost on a winter’s morning, underlying everything. He raises his own hand to Bucky’s face, and feels the rough stubble scratch across his fingertips as he searches those once-familiar eyes, now bright with unshed tears.

Suddenly, with a rush, Bucky sways towards him, and Steve stumbles backwards, arms closing around him on instinct. For a moment he thinks Bucky has fainted, concern flooding him like a punch to the gut, but after a moment he feels his breath hitch in a sob and realises Bucky is crying.

Bucky is almost shaking, collapsed in Steve’s arms as he leans back against the tree trunk, holding him up. His voice quavers, an edge of something that sounds a little, heartbreakingly, like his old voice leaking through. The words seem to come from far away, and he can’t, won’t, look at Steve as he speaks.

“When I fell,” he begins, and Steve’s arms tighten around him protectively. “She caught me. The Queen caught me. And they… Stevie, they replaced my arm…” He breaks off for a moment. “They’ve been using me as their. As their attack dog ever since. The longer I spend there… the more I forget myself…”

Steve looks down at Bucky, slumped against him, the strange, cool metal of his arm digging into his chest; Bucky’s dark hair is covering his face, but Steve can hear the fear in his voice. He dips his head, pressing his face to Bucky’s hair, closing his eyes and holding him tight in his arms as though he could protect him.

“The Queen knows,” Bucky continues, his voice sounding far away. “That I’m losing my edge. So… she’s going to get rid of me.”

Steve stiffens, looking down at him. “Get rid of you?”

“They pay a tithe,” Bucky says, almost dreamily, “to -- to Hell, supposedly. Every seven years. And this year it will be me.” He looks up suddenly, staring directly into Steve’s eyes, his hands coming up to rest on Steve’s shoulders. “Halloween night. We ride -- we ride out --” He shudders, curling in on himself, his hands digging in to Steve’s skin. “I’ll ride -- the white horse --” he gasps out, and Steve helplessly cups his face with one hand, the other wrapped about his waist. He quiets a little, looking back up at Steve, and Steve’s mind tries to scream at the wrongness of it, at how he always looked up at Bucky.

“You have to drag me off the horse,” Bucky says, and Steve skims his thumb against Bucky’s cheek and nods, committing the information to memory. “At midnight. We’ll ride at midnight. I-- my arm, you can recognise me from my arm. She’ll turn me into things,” Bucky said, and there was a glint of his old determination in his eyes that made Steve’s heart ache. “She’ll turn me into animals but you can’t -- you can’t let go of me, Stevie, please don’t let go--” There’s a plaintive note to Bucky’s voice, and Steve’s arm tightens again around his waist, wrapping his free hand around the back of Bucky’s head and pulling him close in another hug.

“Whatever she turns me into, I won’t hurt you,” Bucky says, and Steve gives a huff of broken laughter.

“Yeah, Buck. I know,” he says, and presses a kiss to his temple, feather-light. “I know.”

“When --” Bucky began, and he shook, a whole-body shudder. “She’ll turn me into a -- and then I’ll be -- I’ll be me, and you’ll have won,” and then words fail him, the mantle of the Winter Soldier settling on him again like snow.

Steve watches in despair as cold blankness creeps into Bucky’s eyes, a mask of emotionlessness settling on his face. His body coils like a spring as Bucky - no, the Soldier - steps back from him, tear tracks on his face at odds with his hard, dry eyes.

Steve doesn’t trust himself to speak as Bucky regards him coldly, then bows, not an inch deeper than politeness demands.

“You have outstayed your welcome, Captain,” he says coolly. “If you have nothing to ask me, you ought not trouble yourself here longer.”

Steve nods, not trusting his voice. It’s clear that the Soldier barely remembers their conversation; that somehow, a glimpse of the real Bucky had shone through. He gives a curt bow, and leaves, feeling the Soldier’s eyes drilling into his back as he goes.


 

Steve walks home like a soldier marching to war. People scatter as he makes his way down the sidewalks; even New Yorkers know when to get out of someone’s way. His mind is running over endless strategies, options, plans. But he knows he has no choice. He owes Bucky… everything. He cannot, will not, leave him to suffer.

He cannot suffer this century without him.

Peggy sees him striding into the apartment with a face like a winter storm, and she rises at once to meet him. He bites out his report in cold, icicle words, and she offers no platitudes, no empty gestures of emotion; she just nods, sharp as winter winds, and follows him on his way to the door.

“Steve,” Natasha says, from where she’s leaning against the countertop. “Steve. I know how much he meant to you --”

“To us ,” Peggy says sharply, at the same time as Steve says “ Means ,” in a voice that snaps out like ice breaking from a glacier. “And you don’t.”

Steve ,” she says, undeterred. And he knows she doesn’t mean to be cruel, he knows - despite everything, he trusts Natasha, still. “You’re our ace in the hole. If you go after him, and things go wrong, and we lose you - everything is at stake.” He likes that about Natasha. No emotional pleas, just facts. She’s right, of course, but that changes nothing.

Sam steps forward next to her. “Steve. Dude. Have you any idea what that does to someone? Being enchanted for that long? If you bring him back, he won’t be the guy you remember.”

“He’ll be Bucky,” Steve says, and that’s all he needs.

Sam hesitates. “This guy - Steve. Maybe you can’t help him. Maybe he’s not the kind you save.”

“It’s a suicide mission,” Natasha says, and lifts her chin.

Steve’s throat is raw as he looks at her. “Been on one of them before.”

“None of us should be here,” Peggy says in clipped tones. “We never leave a man behind, Romanov. I thought Nicholas had taught you better.”

Natasha says something complicated in Russian. Steve, who learned a little in the war, catches only a few words. Peggy, to his surprise, responds fluently.

Sam meets his eyes and shrugs. “Man, I don’t know what’s going on either. But I’m not letting you throw yourself into this damn fool nonsense without backup.”

Steve feels a rare grin spread across his face. Peggy and Natasha are watching him; though they are so very different, with Peggy’s salt-and-pepper hair and Natasha’s smooth red curls, their gaze holds the same sharpness that drew him to them both. He and Peggy never quite worked out, with one thing and another, and Nat is far too terrifying for him to ever think about, but they’re his two strongest allies, one way or another.

“Nat?” he says, using the nickname he knows she hates.

She scowls at him. “You couldn’t get anywhere on your own except into trouble.”

Peggy stifles a snort of laughter. “She knows you so well, Steve.”

Steve nods slowly. “I’m starting to think so.”


 

Halloween begins to draw to a close. Fine tendrils of fog start to wind through the streets.

Steve doesn’t get stage fright. He doesn’t get nerves before missions. But as he watches the fog, matching tendrils of fear begin to creep into his heart.

The streets of New York are never empty. It is, after all, the City that Never Sleeps.Right now, Steve wishes it would take a nap.

They’re in Central Park, near the treaty site; it’s the usual place for portals to and from the Faerie Strongholds. Steve hopes they’re right about the place. The roar of the city is dimmed a little by the space; the fog and the gathering dusk seem to put a little distance between them and the seething tides of humanity that fill the streets.

The hours tick down. Steve was never good at this - at waiting. Bucky could sit still for hours, waiting to take a shot, but Steve was always impatient. A sharp stab of longing pierces his heart. The world he’d left behind hadn’t been simple by any means, but it was the kind of complicated that he could understand.

Steve resists the urge to check his watch, again. Midnight isn’t for another half hour yet, and the Courts are nothing if not punctual. Natasha, who is hidden in a nearby tree so well that he can barely pick her out even though he watched her climb it, smirks at him.

She’s good at waiting.

Sam is nearby, but out of sight. Peggy is… somewhere. They have a plan, of sorts: attack everyone possible and cause chaos while Steve grabs Bucky and then.... Steve could barely think past “then”. It seemed too much to hope for.

Attacking the Faeries, especially their Queen, could be an act of war, Steve knows. But Natasha, normally so level headed, and Peggy, sharp as a tack, didn’t tell him to stop; maybe they knew he wouldn’t listen.

But Steve pays attention, sometimes, and he listens to what Peggy has told him. The Courts have been breaking the treaties, but always subtly, too hidden to mention. And the Shield Mages - everything that he and Peggy had set out to build had been corrupted. But the Courts couldn’t deny the evidence of Bucky, standing right there; nobody could fault the Order for acting with such open provocation.

Steve knows that this rescue is a political manoeuver. He doesn’t care.

He doesn’t blame them, either; navigating the complex cage of rules they’ve built is no picnic, and he knows that for Natasha, for Peggy, perhaps for Sam, it’s no slight to Bucky that they make use of him.

Time passes. Steve is snapped from his thoughts into alertness by the faintest crackle of sparks - the beginning of magic. He watches, alert and tensed, as a line of cold white fire snaps through the autumn air, tracing an arch, a door; then, with no fanfare, there simply is not what there was, and there is what there is.

Elven knights, high courtiers, ride through first; they are moving quick, a fast trot, and their weapons are unsheathed. Steve sets his jaw and waits.

Behind them come more knights, and Steve counts them grimly. Their horses are black like the deep midnight, almost invisible. Their armour, too, is dark, unearthly in its beauty.

Four black knights pass Steve as he crouches in the shade of a thicket. But the next rider is not a Knight, and Steve hears a barely-silenced gasp over their communication spell. Sam, he thinks; he was too young to have seen her on the battlefields.

She does not ride a horse; she sits side-saddle on a steed so big it seems almost impossible, standing higher than Steve; a full grown elk, velvet fur clinging to its spreading antlers. Somehow she does not appear dwarfed by its sheer size. Her bridle is made of a spider’s web bejewelled with dew; her skirts are of emerald pine needles, woven somehow to form a flowing cloth. Her hair is pale, like frost-rimed grass, flowing down her back.

The Queen of Winter is a force to be reckoned with. Steve should know. He punched her in the face once.

Over the comms he hears Peggy, quiet and hushed. She is murmuring a spell of seeing. Steve feels the familiar tingle of Peggy’s magic catching in his throat, like the bubbles from a cool lemonade on a hot day, and the Queen’s terrible, unearthly beauty is no longer unbearable. He wrenches his gaze away from her and makes a note to thank Peggy; elven Glamour is a subtle, powerful thing.

While he was mesmerised by the Queen, she has ridden on; the second pair of knights have emerged from the portal behind her, this time on brown horses. Steve bites his lip. At least nobody else seems to be riding a white horse; the last thing they need is a case of mistaken identity.

Another pair of knights emerge, on brown steeds, and Steve takes a slow breath in, calculating numbers. They’d known the Queen would be in play, that their only chance lay in surprise, but they hadn’t anticipated this many of her knights would be riding with her.

Steve’s strategizing was derailed when Bucky arrived.

He’s riding the white horse, just as he’d promised; he is clad in that uncanny faerie armour, but his face is visible behind his long dark hair. Steve’s stomach twists as he sees that vacant coldness on Bucky’s face.

He waits, muscles burning to move, as Bucky draws nearer. The procession iss moving fast, the Queen already past him; two more riders on gold coated horses are emerging from the portal behind Bucky; the white horse is approaching, closer, closer -- and Steve flings himself up in a burst of desperate motion. One step, two, and Steve is vaulting up onto the horse, which lets out a surprised whinny; he has his arms around Bucky’s waist and is moving again, flinging them both off the horse, dragging an unwilling Bucky with him.

They hit the ground hard, Steve taking the impact, letting out a pained grunt, and roll, one over the other across the scrubby grass until they fetch up against Natasha’s tree. Steve is upright again in an instant, adrenaline burning, his arms locked tight around Bucky, scanning the clearing.

Natasha had already moved, dropping from her branch upon the first black rider, the cold iron of her blade moving swift as a summer storm. He dropped from his horse without time to even make a sound and Natasha gathers the reins and wheels the horse around, striking out at his partner as she did so. The white horse rears in surprise, its careless foreleg striking a brown rider; he lets out a yell as it wheels and makes for the portal, clutching his obviously broken arm. Steve grins in satisfaction.

Bucky is struggling in his arms, hair hiding his face. Steve can see the internal struggle of the Soldier warring with Bucky’s true self, but he tightens his grip and holds on.

The golden riders have broken off and made for the portal, as though to send for reinforcements; shards of burning light strike the ground in front of them before they can reach it, causing their horses to rear and wheel, and Sam appears through the tree line, the ghostly silver shimmer of his wings coruscating in the midnight air. Steve can’t help but admire Sam’s mastery of flight spells; no other mage has ever quite perfected them the same way. A flick of his wings sends more bolts streaming at the Knights, knocking one to the ground.

Natasha has taken down the second of the four black knights and had unhorsed the other two. She’s moving faster than Steve’s eye can track, weaving a deadly ballet around them. Elven knights are stronger than humans, and faster, but Natasha’s magic hides deadly secrets that not even Steve knows all of, and her red hair swirls like blood in the water as the two knights let out cries of pain and stagger. One deflects her knife, shield striking sparks, but Natasha meets him with a raised fist, and a jet of blood red fire lances from her wrists and burns at his eyes, leaving him stumbling. A twist of her blade and he, too, falls.

Steve’s attention is distracted from the scene at hand by the way that Bucky, in his arms, begins to change; suddenly he finds himself scrambling to keep ahold of a wolf, huge and heavy, snapping and snarling at him. Steve dodges a set of razor teeth and a snarl that wakes a primal fear in his brain and tightens his grip around the wolf’s chest, stumbling back against the tree under the weight of him. He grips the scruff of the wolf’s neck tightly, trying not to think about its size, and pins it against him. “Bucky,” he says with a huff. “C’mon, Buck. Please.” The wolf’s yellowed fangs graze his ear and Steve’s arm itches to grab his shield. “Bucky!”

The wolf growls, then lets out a melancholy howl as it begins to change again. Steve grapples with the thick fur and heavy weight, barely keeping his grip as it shrinks, then becomes smooth in his grip. Steve finds himself holding an armful of snake, which slithers across his shoulders in thick loops.

He finds the Bucky-snake’s head, which is resting on his shoulder, and sees the flicker of fear in those reptilian eyes.

“Hey, Buck,” he whispers, trying to keep his voice level. “Is that a snake in your pants or are you just happy to see me?”

He’s never seen a snake roll its eyes before.

Steve grins with relief at seeing Bucky - not the Soldier - in his friend, but the relief dissolves like snow under sunlight as the snake starts to tighten its coils around him. Steve takes a deep breath in on instinct, pushing aside the sparks of fear coiling around his heart as Bucky coils around his chest.

Sam has unhorsed the other golden rider and landed on the ground to engage them, but the brown riders, noticing their comrade’s plight, have broken off and are headed towards him and Natasha; Sam lays out one knight with a swing of an iron-clad fist and sends a volley of light shards at another, jumping back into the air and soaring effortlessly above the two brown knights and their injured golden comrade.

Natasha, who has dismounted from the black horse and begun to stalk towards the Queen’s mount, barely blinks at the two brown riders galloping towards her and draws her knives to counter them. One rider suddenly stumbles, his horse falling to one knee and the knight flying forwards in a clatter of armour; as the same fate befalls one of Sam’s attackers, Steve can see the sharp tracery of golden light speeding across the darkness to the horse’s legs and grins. Peggy always was a good shot.

The Queen, seated upon her steed as though she were upon a throne, seemed unfazed by the attack, watching with a slight, supercilious smile as the battle rages. She meets Steve’s gaze squarely as he clutches the snake’s ever tightening coils to him.

“Captain,” she says, her voice somehow audible across the sounds of fighting. “I did not expect to see you again.”

Steve lifts his chin. “Likewise, ma’am.”

“Still causing trouble, I see,” she says, and guides her elk a little closer. “Interfering with a Knight of Winter’s Court? Reckless, little one, even for you. Tis against the treaties.”

“Taking a Mage of the Order,” Steve says evenly, “is also unwise.”

She tilts her head. “Twould be so, mortal, if it had been done. Alas, picking up what others throw away is of no consequence to the treaties.”

He was not thrown away ,” Steve snaps out. He almost steps forwards to her, but stops, his arms freezing around the Bucky-snake. Natasha, across the clearing and pausing a moment, shoots him a warning glance before ducking a sweep of a sword and returning to her fight. He forces himself to stand still, to hold Bucky tight, and to think clearly.

The Queen is watching him with that slight, infuriating smile. “I recall, wizard,” she said offhandedly, “that at our previous meeting you offered great insult to me.”

“I recall you were attempting to wipe out large portions of humanity,” Steve says. He’s aware of Bucky shifting again in his arms, and tightens his grip.

She laughs, a sound like ice shattering. “Tis so, but do you not wish I had succeeded?”

“Depends how bad the holdups on the F train are,” Steve responds, feeling Bucky growing in his arms.

Sam is down to only two opponents, Peggy’s golden magic glimmering around him as he swoops through the air. Natasha has only one, and she’s fighting hand to hand so fast they both seem like blurs. The Queen is laughing again, and Steve fels the growing urge to repeat his punch in the face, just as Bucky becomes an enormous bear.

Steve locks his arms around the bear’s neck, feeling himself lifted off the ground as Bucky rears up, flailing claws barely missing him. He winds his hands into the deep fur, ignoring the stink of the bear’s hot breath on his cheek, closes his eyes, and holds on.

And on, and on, and on. A statue of ice so cold it burns; a shrieking owl-like creature; a lion whose jaw snaps shut on empty air only because he ducks in time; a tiny bat, shrieking and biting with needle-sharp teeth, so small that he almost drops him; a red hot sword blank, glowing with the heat of the forge -- and then suddenly Bucky erupts into an enormous spider, greater than any non-magical creature, its chittering mouthparts right in front of Steve’s face. He recoils from its mandibles, which seem to be dripping some kind of venom.

“Bucky,” he says, the first words he’s spoken in what feels like years. “I love you, but I am drawing the line right here at spiders. You absolutely owe me for this.” He thinks he can hear Natasha laughing in the distance, but Bucky’s changing again --

And suddenly, Steve finds himself holding Bucky, human and whole. Over his shoulder he sees the Queen, her elk steed stamping in displeasure, her lips drawn thin; Natasha, dispatching her knight with the help of a golden blur that could only be Peggy; Sam, clubbing his last opponent to the ground and turning to him.

“Bucky,” Steve says, holding him close. “Bucky. Hey.” He cups the back of Bucky’s neck as he leans forwards against him. “Buck?”

Bucky raises his head, his hands on Steve’s shoulders, and a tremor of fear shoots through Steve.

Bucky’s eyes are cold and lifeless.

“Well have you fought, mage,” Bucky says. Calm. Cool. “And much harm have you dealt to my liege-lady. None have come so close in millenia.”

Steve’s mouth is dry. He keeps his eyes focussed on Bucky, so as not to see Natasha’s look of pity, Peggy’s despair. “Bucky,” he says again. “Come on. Remember me?”

“Suffer your loss with dignity,” the Soldier says. “Die as a warrior must.”

Steve shakes his head numbly. “Please,” he says, his voice breaking. “Buck. Come on.” Is that a flash of sorrow in the Soldier’s eyes? He keeps talking. “Remember what we promised. I’m with you to the end of the line, but we ain’t there yet.”

At last, the Soldier’s cold gaze breaks like ice in the thaw and it’s just Bucky, Bucky standing there, Bucky leaning towards him and saying “Steve?”

Steve sees the struggle in his eyes, hears the Queen’s gasp of rage, but heeds none of it. Unable to stop himself, he leans in and meets Bucky’s lips with his own, pulling him in. Bucky’s hands slip from his shoulders, then catch his waist, pulling him closer and tangling in his hair.

Steve breaks the kiss, resting his forehead on Bucky’s.

“Welcome home, Buck,” he says softly.

Bucky gives a familiar, if hesitant, lopsided grin. “Heya, Stevie. Been a while.”

“Yeah,” Steve says, grinning like an idiot. “Yeah, yeah it has.”

A shriek of rage breaks their moment and they turn, Steve stepping in front of Bucky to protect him. The Queen is almost crackling with rage, ice crystallising in the air around her.

“You,” she hisses, like the snow that starts an avalanche. “You have insulted me for the last time, mage. You have stolen away my most loyal servant. For this, may you be fated to die painfully and alone.”

Steve lifts his chin. “He was never yours to start with.”

She spares him barely a sneer, rounding on Bucky with a snarl. “And you! After all I have given you, all the power you were offered! Had I known the depths of your disloyalty, I should have dashed out your pretty eyes along with your arm!”

Steve unclips his shield from his back and begins to brace himself for an attack, but Bucky is already walking forward, a little slow and stiff, to stand beside him.

“You never owned me,” he says quietly. “You only controlled me.”

From the corner of his eye, Steve can see Natasha talking quietly to Peggy, sharp eyes tracking the Queen’s movements.

“We’ve now reached the portion of the plan marked “run like hell”,” Sam mutters over the communication spell. “Steve. Be ready.”

Steve glances at Bucky, who nods. Steve looks back at the Queen and grins. “Your majesty, I’d like to invite you to go f--”