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Through The Woods

Chapter Text

 

“—fifteen hundred square feet, two bedrooms, two full bathrooms, loft area, remodeled kitchen with natural gas—”

Steve is only half listening to Mr. Stark (“Call me Howard, kid.” “I’m twenty-nine in five months.” “No shit?” ) while he looks down at the photograph on his coffee table of a beautiful two-storey log cabin with an abundance of windows.

“—mountain range to the west, if you were interested, but Bethune Lake is closer if you don’t mind the hike—”

Another photo lands on top of the first, showing an expanse of water with a tree-lined shore.

“—roughly six acres, mostly forest, all of which is private, of course, not that I’m insinuating that Abraham was a secretive man or anything, but—”

The next photo is an aerial shot of the cabin in a clearing, with a thick, dark forest surrounding it.

Steve squints, pointing at a white, circular spot by the side of the house.

“Is that—”

“A fire pit, and there’s a grill right beside it. You like barbecue?” Howard smiles at him gently.

Steve shrugs. Howard's smile falters, but he presses on.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Rogers. I know this must be difficult.”

(Not the word Steve would use.)

“But a change of scenery might help you through this time of grieving.”

“I’m fine,” he says tiredly. “It was a year ago.”

He remembers the gruelling eight-hour flight to Berlin, the cheap hotel room that smelled like cigarettes, standing alone at Erskine’s funeral as it rained and rained. He said goodbye to an old friend and mentor that day. The kind and generous doctor who worked with his mother during her residency and took Steve in when she died, who supported him as wholeheartedly through art school as he did through his half-assed attempt to get through medical school, who taught Steve that being a good man was better than being the best at anything else.

“Y’know, there’s no time limit on mourning,” Howard says patiently.

Steve glances over at the framed photograph of his parents on the wall, taken long before he was born. “Guess not.”

He doesn’t want to think about how long it’d been since he and Erskine had last spoken, mostly falling out of contact after he retired to Switzerland once Steve’s career picked up. He quickly made a name for himself in the art world, using his varied academic experiences to gain steady employment as a medical illustrator while dabbling in painting and comic book illustration on the side. With several projects that kept him solidly busy and no interest in bothering a new retiree, he limited himself to phone calls on birthdays and cards exchanged on Christmas and Hanukkah. When he got the news that Erskine had passed in his sleep, all that lost time hit him like a punch in the gut.

After all Erskine had done for Steve, he never expected to be in his will. The man had a family, after all. If you pressed him, Steve might have assumed to inherit the vintage medical books that Erskine used to keep on display in his office, with intricate anatomical diagrams printed on fragile pages. Not a summer home upstate that costs more than his student loans, apartment, and car.

“I can’t pitch this to you any other way. I’m a lawyer, not a real estate agent,” Howard continues, placing a few more pictures of the property on the table. Different angles of the cabin’s exterior, various shots of the rooms, a close-up of the fire pit that did, admittedly, look intriguing. “I’m just here because Dr. Erskine made it clear that he wanted this place to go to a Mr. Steven Grant Rogers.”

Steve distantly remembers Erskine mentioning the cabin on the occasions he’d disappear up north for a few weeks, but Steve certainly never visited, himself. He preferred to spend his summers working and taking art classes, not fighting off deer flies miles from civilization. What would he do up there? It didn’t even have WiFi. Like Erskine’s brownstone in Queens, it seemed too big for one person, too empty.

“What about his family?” Steve knew Erskine’s husband had died a decade prior, but they had children and grandchildren. Surely everything would go to them.

“Kid, I’ve been flying back and forth across the pond for months getting everything sorted out with them. The remaining assets have already been bequeathed, and this one was completely overlooked because they didn’t even know it existed. Not to mention, they’re all still in Germany. They have no intention of maintaining a property overseas.”

Steve picks up a photograph of the master bath, eyeing the freestanding cast-iron tub. It occurs to him that he misses baths, stretching out in near-scalding water as the aches and tensions melt out of his bones. Living in Manhattan means sacrificing floor space, and he couldn’t justify such a luxury. Maybe when his lease is up, he can move back out to Brooklyn and try to find a place with a tub.

“Keep it, sell it, rent it out, burn it down.” From the file folder in his lap, Howard pulls out a sealed envelope and hands it to him. Steve immediately recognizes his name scrawled across it, in familiar, looping script. “Do whatever you’d like. It’s all yours.”

 

 

He sets the envelope aside and successfully forgets about it until late April, busy with commissions that keep him hunched over his drawing tablet and otherwise dead to the world for hours on end. Between a dozen unfinished pieces and twice as many Tinder dates of varying degrees of success, Steve has very little time left for other responsibilities. Like eating food that isn’t takeout. Or getting the ‘check engine’ light on his car looked at. Or finding a new place to live when his landlord informs him that the building is being sold and rent is going up twenty percent come June.

The envelope, tucked into the pages of a Star Wars concept art book in his office, mocks him as he scours the internet for two-bedroom apartments within his budget. On such short notice, everything comes up too cramped, too far from decent grocery stores and pharmacies, in areas that are too gentrified. He tours a few places that smell of cat pee and mildew, others with thin walls and loud neighbours. He knows he’s being picky, allergies and asthma aside, but moving out this soon begins to look more and more like his only option is New Jersey.

Steve suddenly can’t get the envelope open fast enough.

He doesn’t know what he expected. The deed, maybe, or keys? He’s never inherited a house before, he isn’t sure how these things go. Instead, he finds a note.

From the desk of Abraham Erskine, the letterhead informs him, dated four years ago.

‘Steven,

I am so grateful to have seen you grow into the man you are today. Sarah was and would have continued to be proud of you, though you work too hard and forget to rest when you need it.

For her sake, and mine, take a summer off. The city can wait.

There’s Schnapps in the cupboard above the fridge.

Cheers,

A.E.’

 

 

Steve calls Howard the next day, signs the necessary paperwork, and gets the keys.

“I can still get online at some point, I just gotta find a Starbucks or something,” Steve reassures his agent and friend, Peggy, as he packs up his bedroom while she supervises over FaceTime. The list he’s drawn up includes clothes, entertainment, and some art supplies for both work and pleasure. Everything else in his apartment will go into storage for the time being. No point in bringing anything expensive or sentimental. “I’ll be back in a month or two, as soon as I find a new apartment.”

“Why you’re so averse to moving to DC is beyond me.” He watches her shake her head on his phone screen, phone propped up against a pillow on his bed. “There are vacancies in my condo, you know.”

He shrugs, rifling through his dresser for t-shirts that aren’t too badly paint-stained. “DC isn’t home.”

“Well, no, it’s not. But it could be, if you want to make it one.”

It was easy for her to say, a Londoner who lived and worked all over Europe before settling in the states, going wherever the wind takes her. Steve had always stayed well within New York City’s orbit and hadn’t even left the country until he was in his final year of art school, taking a semester abroad to study in Paris.

“It doesn’t work like that, not for me. I’m comfortable here. I know my way around. I know the people. It’s not a perfect home, but it’s mine.” He tosses a few pairs of jeans onto the bed, followed by shorts and sleep pants. “I ain’t deserting like the Dodgers.”

He doesn’t have to look up to know she’s rolling her eyes.

“Well, if you’re finally going to be offline, I suggest you make the most of this sabbatical. Finish whatever contracts you’ve already started, but I’m putting new ones on hold.”

“What? No.”

“How, precisely, are you going to stop me from Mansefield—”

“Mansewood, Steve interrupts, now sorting through his mismatched sock drawer.

“—When you can’t even check your emails regularly?” Her fingernails clack noisily across her keyboard. “Did you know the population of Mansewood is barely a thousand?”

“You don’t say,” He says flatly.

“And it’s a five hour drive from Manhattan.”

“Imagine that.”

“It’s so far north, the closest major city is in Canada.

“Always wanted to try poutine.”

“Steven.”

“Margaret.”

She narrows her eyes, then sighs. “Are you sure about this? I know Dr. Erskine meant well, but I don’t love the idea of you going off alone. You’ve never even been camping before and you don’t own a gun, how can you protect yourself?”

Truthfully, he hadn’t thought that far ahead. The town of Mansewood was a thirty-minute drive from the cabin, according to Google Maps, and the closest thing to ‘neighbours’ he had was a campsite on the other side of Bethune Lake. He really was about to go off-the-grid, wasn’t he? “I’ll manage. I read Hatchet when I was a kid.”

“Be serious.”

“I am.” Steve sits at the edge of his bed, takes his glasses off and rubs at his eyes. “If it weren’t for Erskine, I don’t know where I’d be today. Who I’d be. He didn’t have to help me, but he did, and the fact that he’s still doing so from beyond the grave is… Well. Finding out he left me a house at the same time I needed a new place to live, kinda seems like an act of God. I’m not gonna argue with it. And I sure as hell can't sell it, not when it's the last thing he gave me. So maybe I should take a break.”

Peggy seems to accept that answer, watching passively as he empties his closet and hauls his suitcases onto his bed.

“Pack your winter things, darling,” she says, softly. “It gets colder at night, up there.”

Steve glances over at his phone and gives her a lopsided smile. “Thanks, Pegs.”

“I mean it. No new contracts. Enjoy the scenery and watch out for black bears, bobcats, Canada lynx, Eastern cougars, Eastern coyotes...”

He snorts. “What, no wolves?”

After a moment of hurried typing, Peggy hums and reads aloud. “Timber wolves were once native to the area, but deforestation and unregulated hunting all but wiped them out in the early 1900’s.”

“A cryin’ shame,” he murmurs absent-mindedly from the depths of his closet. “But I brawl with New York City racoons like, once a week. I could probably take a wolf.”

“I have no doubt you’d try,” she says fondly.

 

 

Apparently, it isn’t that easy to just pack up and move your entire life into a secluded cabin in the middle of nowhere, so there are a hundred things to figure out before Steve can even think about leaving. As per the thirty-page PDF Howard emailed him, he has to call ahead and get the electricity, propane, and water reconnected. There should be tools and basic supplies already on-site, but he’d rather be safe than sorry, so he sweet-talks a neighbour with a Costco card into letting him tag along to stock up on toilet paper, wet wipes, sunscreen, bug spray, granola bars, and batteries of various voltages. He puts together a first-aid kit that looks more like a first aid briefcase, containing his newly refilled prescriptions, painkillers, cough syrups, bandages, hand sanitizer, EpiPens, creams and ointments for sun burns and bug bites.

He also buys flashlights, candles, matches, flares, and an aluminum baseball bat. Because he’s impulsive, but not stupid.

Everything gets piled into his trunk and the backseat of his car, slowly accumulating as he adds to his dragon hoard of wilderness necessities. Ten plaid shirts get tossed in there, too, when his friends and neighbours throw him a lumberjack-themed going-away party and make him watch a collection of Bear Grylls’ most disgusting survival moments.

When all is said and done, it’s a week into May when Steve’s affairs are in order and he can finally set out. He doesn’t have a schedule to stick to, not really, but he knows lingering will make it harder to leave.

After aimlessly wandering his empty apartment until well after midnight, he lays on the couch—one of the few pieces of furniture remaining—and thinks of spending long days at Coney Island and Jones Beach, of weekends in Boston and Atlantic City, business trips to DC. It’ll be just like that, he hopes. A nice little vacation away from it all, before he comes back to the hustle and bustle of real life. He has books on his Kindle, DVD box sets to watch on his laptop, podcasts to catch up on, and no plans for the immediate future.

Except, perhaps, a very long bath in a beautiful cast-iron tub.

Steve pays for his late night musings the morning after, when he wakes with a start and realizes it’s after two, and he slept through both of his phone alarms. By hours.

He had good intentions of watching the sunrise from his balcony, then heading down the street to his favourite café for breakfast, maybe grabbing a bodega sandwich to have on the road. That way, he’d get to Mansewood at a decent hour, buy some fresh groceries to tide him over for a couple of days, then settle in by evening. Instead, he’s resigning himself to a breakfast of room temperature ginger ale (in the cooler he has no time to fill with ice) and Cheetos he bought for the drive (and didn’t even have the foresight to get the party-sized bag) because leaving any later than right the fuck now would get him into the forest around nightfall. And that’s assuming he doesn’t get stuck in traffic.

Top 40 radio stations take him all the way up the I-87 to Poughkeepsie, the upbeat pop music keeping his mind off the fact that he’s never driven this far upstate before—least of all, alone. Hunger forces him to stop in Albany, where he parks at the nearest McDonald's to stretch his legs and down some cheap coffee.

With a bag of chicken nuggets buckled into the passenger seat, he gets back on the interstate. His phone’s GPS starts cutting in and out after Pottersville, along with the radio, so he is frightfully alone with his thoughts as he drives through unsettling quiet. Though he made sure to memorize the route and is doing his level best to keep a keen eye on the passing signs, the endless stretch of empty, unfamiliar road ahead of him still looms intimidatingly. More so with the sun rapidly setting behind the trees as he turns into the woods. The woods that seem to be getting thicker and thicker around him.

He cracks the window, just a little. Enough so he doesn’t feel stifled.

Several miles of regret later, he comes to a fork in the road. The sign on the right tells him he’s approaching Mansewood, along with the campgrounds and the lake. The left road is ominously unmarked, and though he knows it’ll take him to Erskine’s cabin, he hesitates anyway.

“You know what this needs?” Steve asks himself sagely, the keys to the cabin somehow feeling heavier in his jeans pocket than before. “Rain. Like in Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

He waits a beat to see if he’s jinxed himself, but no thunder comes, and he realizes he’s disappointed. The troubling sounds of the forest make him miss the eerie quiet of the interstate, so it would have been a nice reprieve from it all. The strange and startling bird calls. Crickets that have no business being so loud. His own harsh breathing.

It feels like another hour passes before Steve comes upon the dirt road he was looking for, leading further west. It’s marked this time, with the small wooden sign reading ‘Sommerhaus’ nearly obscured by the leafy overgrowth. Steve smiles, makes the turn, and drums his fingers impatiently on the wheel. He’s officially on the six-acre property. Erskine’s—his —cabin is just up ahead.

Despite the creeping darkness, he feels relief, perhaps even a sense of accomplishment.

He does not feel the curious eyes that follow him from the trees.

 

Chapter Text

Steve drives up to a foreboding scene, seemingly plucked straight out of a horror movie.

The clearing surrounding the cabin is drenched in hazy moonlight that spills over the trees, onto the overgrown grass and untended shrubs. Somehow, the house appears cold and uninviting, all pale wood and muted stone—a far cry from the warmth and luxury he expected from the photos. The large, empty windows give the impression of a blank, glassy-eyed stare. Leaves have collected around the rocking chairs on the wraparound porch. A paved path connects a side door to a grimy stone fire pit and wooden picnic table, which are similarly littered with detritus. The house is still in an unnatural way, and the forest seems to shiver around it.

Steve pulls into the driveway and kills the engine.

He waits.

He doesn’t know what he’s waiting for.

But he keeps waiting.

Predictably, nothing happens.

His phone has two measly bars of service, which is still two more than he could’ve hoped for. He considers calling Peggy. Emailing Howard. Tweeting his location and a farewell, lest he not survive to see morning.

He glances up at the house.

The windows look back down at him.

This is stupid.

Steve grabs his backpack from behind the seat and gets out of the car. The night air cuts through his thin jacket like a knife, and he fumbles to zip it closed as he pops the trunk and grabs all he can comfortably carry in one go. He hefts the luggage across the gravel, up the steps, and drops them onto the porch. He hurries back and forth from his car, bringing more bags as he goes, camping equipment and clothes and plastic bins full of delicate art supplies and electronics. After emptying the trunk and tucking the last garbage bag full of pillows under his arm, he heads back to the porch and pulls the keys out of his pocket.

He’s a foot from the door when he promptly drops the keys, and they clatter against the wooden steps.

The door is already open. By, perhaps, a handful of inches.

Was it always? It must have been. If it had been open any further, Steve would’ve noticed as he drove up.

How long had it been open?

He had to call people to set up the water and electricity, but surely they wouldn’t have needed to get into the house for that. Maybe it was a realtor, come to assess the property before Howard handed it over. It could’ve been campers on a hike, or kids from town who had tried to break in.

Steve wipes his cold, clammy hands on his jeans and takes a moment to think. It’s not too late to find a motel, but he’ll have to stop for gas somewhere, then head back to the city in the morning.

But then, where would he go?

He scowls. At himself, at the door, at the situation as a whole.

The forest shudders.

The house remains still, dark, and looming.

He pulls his baseball bat out of a duffle bag, grips it with both hands, and steps inside.

“Hey!” he calls out. “Anyone in here?”

He doesn’t expect a response, and doesn’t receive one.

From the front entrance, Steve can see the entire layout of the open-concept main floor; the living area to his left, the small dining area to his right, and the spacious kitchen at the far end. There’s enough moonlight streaming in through the windows for him to get by. He keeps his steps light and even as he inches his way inside, one foot placed carefully in front of the other until he reaches the foot of the stairs.

“Someone up there?” he tries again, and is rewarded with more silence. “Hello?”

Distantly, an owl hoots.

He adjusts his grip on the bat and climbs the stairs. It quickly occurs to him that it’s a foolish idea, putting himself in the direct path of whatever desperate person or skittish animal may be camping out on the second floor. He pauses, the wood creaking beneath his feet.

The sounds of shuffling, followed by a loud bang from downstairs startle him into action, and he nearly trips over himself on the way back down.

Steve reaches the main floor in time to catch the side door swinging open, and just beyond it, the trees and bushes rustle violently as something darts into the forest.

He heaves a sigh and takes comfort in the fact that whatever animal it was has been scared away, although he’s far from relieved when he flips the light switch on. Both the latch on the screen door and the door’s knob had been broken clean off. The door itself was heavily dented and hanging off the hinges precariously, like it'd been kicked down and forced open.

So that’s how people got in, then, and let all sorts of wildlife in with them.

Steve allows himself a moment to be angry on Erskine’s behalf, followed by a moment of gratitude that he only has to deal with a broken doorknob instead of a shattered window, but the stress of the day quickly catches up to him. The anxiety, dread, and panic finally come to a head and leave him exhausted and thoroughly irritated. He throws himself against the couch and slides it across the floor until it blocks the side door as a makeshift barricade. It’ll keep till morning, when he can have a closer look around the house and property. He doesn’t have it in him to worry about it until then.

Slowly, he drags his things inside the house and leaves them scattered anywhere there's room, then locks the front door soundly behind him. He takes his phone, baseball bat, and a pillow up the creaky stairs, turning every light on as he goes. He walks past the two bedrooms and makes a beeline for the loft; it’s a decent vantage point, where he can easily peer over the railing and see the floor below.

Just in case.

Steve pulls an old quilt from the linen closet, turns the light off, and arranges himself on the couch cushions without bothering to get undressed. It's not quite the hot bath and plush bed he expected for his first night there, but he resolves to have that bath the next evening, as long as he can get through another day.

He sleeps dreamlessly.

The forest watches, wide awake.

 

 

When Steve blinks awake under the dusty, unfamiliar quilt, he sneezes several times before he throws it off him. Birds chirp merrily outside, louder and clearer than he’s ever heard them before. He reaches for his glasses on his nightstand, and it takes him a few unsuccessful tries before he remembers his nightstand is in storage three hundred miles away.

“Right,” he says. “Fuck.”

He sits up and reorients himself, locating his glasses on the coffee table and stretching until his back cracks into place.

He’s in a cabin—his cabin—with a broken door, his luggage haphazardly strewn about, and no food. And those are just the immediate, pressing concerns. He doesn’t even want to begin thinking about how much cleaning he has to do, how much furniture he has to dust and wipe down, how many sheets he has to launder.

“Fuck.”

Breakfast is a large mug of instant coffee and a granola bar, which he eats on the go as he gets a proper look around the house. The main floor is flecked with dirt and debris, bits of dried leaves and twigs that need to be swept away before he can mop. He hadn’t noticed last night, but the living area is in complete disarray, with throw pillows on the floor and the rug askew. There are dark, muddy smudges against the lower half of the walls that lead from the side door to the kitchen, and he’s struck with the image of a muskrat waddling in to wash its paws.

The musty fridge could do with some airing out, and the cupboards stocked with non-perishable cans are littered with what Steve can only imagine are rodent droppings. He takes note of that, steps away to dry heave into the sink, and continues his inspection upstairs.

The loft seems okay, and he’s pleased to see that the cables for the television and DVD player haven’t been chewed through. Erskine probably didn’t have many channels, if any, but at least he racked up a decent collection of DVDs, including WWII documentaries, both Cosmos series, and a few seasons of House M.D. Steve grabs the quilt off the couch and leaves it in a heap in front of the linen closet, a reminder to wash them all before he makes up the beds.

The guest bedroom has a queen-size bed, is plainly decorated, and seemingly untouched. The same goes for the upstairs bathroom. It’s a relief, as Steve had anticipated the worst, and wasn’t mentally prepared to clean someone’s shit off the floor.

The master bedroom has a king sized mattress that Steve has to restrain himself from jumping onto, knowing he’d suffocate in a cloud of dust, but wondering if it’s worth it anyway. Then he spots the door to the master bath, eagerly crosses the room, and pushes it open.

It’s as gorgeous as the pictures suggested, perhaps more so in the soft morning light. The shower is massive, stone tile with a waterfall shower head. The double vanity has a real marble countertop, ice cold under Steve’s fingers. The beautiful tub—

He stumbles backwards away from it, turning his head and gagging into his elbow. His eyes water as he tries to get ahold of himself, and he has to grab a fistful of his t-shirt to hold over his mouth and nose before he peers into the tub again.

There’s a few inches of stagnant water, brown and murky. The rubber plug sits on the windowsill, but he can already see what’s clogging the drain.

More leaves. More twigs. Floating patches of moss.

And white fur.

Thick tufts of it, damp and half-yellowing in the scummy residue. Steve gives the side of the tub a kick, hoping to shake things loose, praying the carcass of an unfortunate rodent doesn’t surface. When he’s certain that nothing died in there, it only leaves him with more questions. It smells mouldy and rank, having been sitting in direct sunlight for who knows how long. He begrudgingly adds rubber gloves, bleach, and a jug of Drano to his mental shopping list.

The list grows after he surveys the property from outside, trekking through the dewy grass. Howard instructed him to check for all kinds of damage, from water to cable to decaying wood, and everything seems structurally okay—not that he’d really be able to tell otherwise—but it’s the fire pit and grill that need tending to. There’s blackened wood piled high in the stone circle, burned but never cleared out, and the grill had been used and left uncovered, full of charred, gritty residue.

It’s a small mercy that nothing appears to be vandalized or stolen, and that the broken doorknob can be replaced. At least the intruders were kind enough to give him that.

The animals, though. They were a little less considerate.

After a bit more poking around the house to locate tools and various supplies, Steve decides to take a quick shower before heading into town. There’s not much he can do without unpacking, and he can’t unpack until everything’s been cleaned up and sorted out for his own peace of mind. He also desperately needs to eat something that doesn’t come from a cardboard box. He spends a luxurious half hour under the running water, a little cold for his taste but refreshing all the same, and sets off with his cloth grocery bags and a specific craving for muffins.

The forest is quiet in a serene sort of way, so unlike the night before that Steve is almost convinced he went in the wrong direction. He soon comes up to the crossroads with the signs for Mansewood and its campgrounds, turning onto a well paved road where the trees quickly begin to thin out. It’s surreal how different the woods feel, only miles west of his cabin. Friendlier, he’d say, if he wanted to be poetic about it. Less hostile, if he wanted to be dramatic.

The edge of town is marked by several cabins, slightly smaller than Steve’s and much less isolated. Closer to town, they give way to streets of houses that look more pleasant and residential, the very picture of a typical suburban neighbourhood. He sees one Roman Catholic church. One grocery store. One bank. One gas station. The phrase “one-horse town” comes to mind.

He spots a small, nondescript building resembling a coffee shop, the plain painted window advertising all day breakfast and free WiFi, so he pulls into the first parking spot he sees and hurries to the entrance. A bell above the front door dings, announcing his presence.

The inside is decorated as plainly as the outside, in subdued browns and a faded teal colour that may have once been a bright eyesore. There are a handful of bored-looking people scattered amongst the dozen tables, and they all look up and give him a cursory once-over.

He offers the room a stiff smile.

A woman behind the counter gives him a friendly wave. “Sit anywhere you’d like, sir, I’ll be with you in just a moment.” She has deep red curls in a loose ponytail, and they bounce as she turns and heads through a back door, presumably to the kitchen.

Steve grabs a seat by the front window and glances over the battered old menu for Red’s Diner, propped up on the table against a small tray of single-serve sugars and creamers. It’s one page, slightly sticky to the touch, and looks like it hasn’t been updated since the 70’s—but apparently neither have the prices, so he can’t complain. He’s still deciding on which muffin to have now and which ones to take home when the woman appears at his side with a white mug in one hand and a pot of coffee in the other. He sets his phone on the table in preparation to ask for the WiFi password when he notices that TASHA is embroidered across her apron in neat lettering.

 

 

“Oh. You’re not ‘Red’, then?” He grins up at her. “You must get that a lot.”

She snorts, setting the mug down in front of him and filling it. “The Redding family, one of the founders’ of Mansewood. Sorry to disappoint,” she drawls, assessing him. “So which of the five boroughs are you from, city boy?”

“Brooklyn,” he says sheepishly.

“Knew it,” Tasha smirks. “Where are you headed?”

“Right here, actually.” With a half shrug, he tilts his head towards the road. “I have a cabin just outside town.”

At that, she raises her eyebrows. “Really.” It’s not a question, but Steve answers anyway.

“Yeah. Um, inherited. Moved in just recently. Like, yesterday, recently. But I’m only staying for the summer.”

This apparently gives her pause, and she starts like she’s about to comment on it before she notices Steve’s phone screen, open and waiting to connect to the internet. “Oh. The password is ‘peanutbutter ’, all one word.”

He reminds himself to add that to the grocery list, types it in, and is soon flooded with the chirps and beeps of emails and social media notifications. He sighs, relieved, while Tasha chuckles and pulls a pen and a small notepad out of her apron pocket.

“Guess you don’t get the best reception out here.”

“None. And animals got into the cabin, so the place is a mess. It’s like living in the Dark Ages. I don’t know how anyone does it,” Steve says with a grimace, before remembering his manners. “Not that I’m complaining—honestly—it’s really beautiful up here—”

“Relax, Brooklyn.” Tasha shakes her head. “I’m not from here, either. You don’t need to butter me up. Though, speaking of butter,” she clicks her pen open. “Ready to order?”

He gets a carrot-ginger muffin, warmed up and buttered, and she boxes up two banana-chocolate, one lemon poppyseed, and one mixed berry muffin for Steve to take home. And because she insists he eat something with substance, he also slowly works through a plate of scrambled eggs, bacon, some orange slices, and a cheese croissant. He’ll have to be rolled out of the diner, but it gives him time to mess around on his phone and respond to the messages that have piled up in his inbox.

Between keeping the other patrons fed and watered, Tasha continues to wander back to his table, topping up his coffee and helpfully answering his questions about where to get what, and who to talk to about this or that.

“You’ll wanna go to Hawkeye’s. They’ve got hardware, sporting goods, camping and hunting and fishing equipment, all that.” Sketching out a rough map of the main road on an unfolded napkin, she labels an intersection and circles it. It probably isn’t necessary, with Mansewood only having one main road, but Steve appreciates the gesture. “It’s run by a guy named Clint—sorry in advance—tell him Tasha sent you.”

Before Steve can thank her, she draws a star over another intersection. “I work at Red’s during the week, but I’m tending bar at Fury Pub every other weekend. Come have a drink before you go.”

“Oh.” Steve considers the rest of his week and the Absolutely Nothing he has scheduled. “Will you be there this Saturday?”

“Working in another town.” As if expecting the question before Steve can articulate it politely, she slides the napkin-map towards him and caps her pen. “I’m a dancer. Yes, that kind. Not much of an audience for that here, so I pick up shifts at clubs in other counties. Is that a problem?”

“No,” he says automatically, because it’s not, and because she’s regarding him with a look that pins him to his seat. “I draw guts for a living.”

She looks at him blankly. “Well, isn’t that something.”

“Medical illustration, I mean. I’m an artist,” Steve continues. “Which isn't the most steady or highly-respected job, either. Especially when your dad was a general in the army and your ma was the head nurse at NewYork-Presbyterian.”

She studies him for a moment longer, expression softening. “Sure,” she says magnanimously, handing him the bill before gathering and stacking the dishes. “I suppose I’ll see you around, Brooklyn.”

Steve counts out his cash, plus a ten dollar tip. “My name’s Steve.”

“Names are for locals,” Tasha says, not unkindly. “So don’t be a stranger.” 

 

Chapter Text

Hawkeye’s looks more like a slapdash, stripped-down warehouse than a proper store. The front doors are propped open with cement blocks, and upon entering, Steve is greeted with the smell of fresh lumber and paint. The inside reminds him of a Costco for people who want to build a deck, hunt Bigfoot, and buy hockey skates all in one go. Its contents spill over into the parking lot beside it, where boxes of fireworks, potted plants, and pre-assembled ten-person tents are displayed in disorderly rows.

Everything inside seems to be stored on rusty metal racks and standing shelves, or housed in glass cases that line the walls. There aren’t any signs that indicate what’s in each aisle, and seemingly no rhyme or reason for the way the products are set up. There are snowboards beside bug zappers, children’s playhouses in front of bottles of doe urine.

There are only a few other customers wandering around, rolling their rickety shopping carts through the narrow aisles. Steve grabs a cart by the door and follows suit, trying to make sense of the layout of the store while keeping an eye out for an employee to ask for help. It might be easier if he knew what their uniforms looked like, though so far, everyone but Steve is a stout middle-aged man with a thick beard and a baseball cap, eyeing him up like bug splatter on a windshield.

“You looking for something specific, man?”

A disembodied voice startles him, and Steve jolts and looks around. “Uh—”

“‘Cus you’ve been walking in circles for the past ten minutes.”

He locates the source of the voice when he looks up, startling again when he notices a man with ruffled, sandy hair perched on top of a metal shelving unit. His faded t-shirt has a bullseye on it, with the store name printed in dark purple.

“I don’t suppose you’re Clint?”

The man takes his sunglasses off and flashes him a grin. “My reputation precedes me, huh?”

There’s a ladder propped up against the shelves. Clint ignores it entirely and hops down easily, as if he wasn’t just ten feet in the air and landing on solid concrete.

“Clint Barton.” He takes Steve’s hand in his and shakes it firmly. “Owner. Baker. Candlestick maker. Just kidding on the last two. But I do have Yankee Candles, if you’re into that? You look like a Mountain Lodge kinda guy.”

“Uh, Steve Rogers,” he replies hesitantly, returning the smile. “That’s… Scarily accurate, but I’m good on that, actually. Tasha said you could help me?”

“Aw, that’s my girl. Sending campers to me instead of the Home Depot in Burlington.” A dreamy look crosses his face and he places a hand over his heart. “I knew she cared.”

“Oh, no, I’m not a camper. I’m… Summering here, I guess. Got a cabin nearby.”

“No kidding,” he says, sizing Steve up before nudging him out of the way and commandeering the shopping cart. “Alright, what do you need, Rogers?”

“Well, people broke in—”

“A shotgun?”

“—What? No. No, my door is just—”

“I mean, I’m partial to a crossbow, myself, but we’ve got a promotion on chainsaws this week because I just re-watched Friday the 13th —”

“—Jesus, no weapons, I just want to fix my side door, maybe add some more locks—”

“Oh, is that all? I thought you were gonna gimme something fun,” Clint grumbles, taking a sharp left at the end of the aisle. Steve hurries to keep up with Clint’s quick stride, passing mountain bikes and jacuzzis, tiki torches and vacuum cleaners. He rounds another corner, past a display of toilets, and slows down in front of a section devoted to building materials.

“Door hardware, door hardware,” Clint mumbles to himself, stopping abruptly. Steve walks into his back with an ‘oof!’.

“So, we got—” Clint points to the rack as he names each item. “Handlesets, electronic door locks, deadbolts, keyed door knobs, and keyed door levers. We also have door viewers, bolt and chain locks, screen door hardware, hinges and latches, and door plates if you need ‘em.” he turns to look at Steve. “You need ‘em?”

He blinks up at him. “It might be easier for me to buy a whole new door, at this point.”

“We have installation services, if you’re serious about that.”

Steve lets out a slow breath. “Yeah. I figure I am. How soon can you do it?”

Clint rocks back on his heels and looks up in thought. “Soonest might be two weeks from now, if you can manage that long.”

Steve winces. “Could you do any sooner if I pay extra?”

After some noises of uncertainty, Clint scratches his chin. “I gotta take another look at my schedule, see if I can make time or pull one of my other guys in for it… Where’d you say the cabin was, again?”

“‘Bout half an hour west, in the forest.”

“In the—in the forest? Your cabin is in the middle of fucking Mansewood Forest?

“Past it,” Steve shrugs. “On a six-acre private property.”

“Christ.” Clint runs a hand over his face. “Best I can do is Tuesday evening if I move some things around, but forget the extra cost.”

Steve raises his eyebrows in surprise. That’s four days away. “Really? Thank you. But, um, not that I’m not grateful that you’re going out of your way for me, it’s just… What should I do about the door in the meantime? It’s kinda just. Hanging open. And animals got in, so…”

Clint looks at him assessingly. “I can give you a really good deal on a rifle.”

 

 

After paying the deposit and exchanging contact information, Steve leaves Hawkeye’s with a business card, a Keurig, and a coupon for fifteen percent off at Lang’s Market, the local grocery store. (And no rifle, to Clint’s disappointment.) Steve would’ve preferred to be leaving with a door, but it’s good enough for now, as he does desperately need to fill up the fridge and pantry and it’s more convenient than driving to a Walmart in another town.

Lang’s also has an in-house bakery and a butcher shop. It seems well stocked for a rural grocery store, not that Steve has anything to compare it to, and it has the same feel as the smaller chain stores in the city. The signs say the fresh produce is locally sourced, and it gives him a kick to be supporting farmers that are just hours away. After sorting out laundry and cleaning supplies, he grabs ice for his cooler so he can buy things that need refrigerating, several cases of water, and enough food to last him about two weeks. Back home, he’d get groceries delivered to his apartment every few days and hire a cleaning service once a month, but those are a few of the many luxuries he no longer has.

He and his ma made do without all that, before. He can do it again.

But he resolutely does not feel bad about parking right beside Red’s Diner to use their WiFi one more time before heading back to the cabin.

It’s mid-afternoon by the time Steve’s pulling into the driveway. It’s later in the day than he would’ve liked to be back, but there are enough hours left to get things done. He sets his phone on the dining table and puts on an audiobook as he wipes down the cupboards and countertops whilst putting the groceries away. It’s The Martian, which he’d already seen the movie for twice—one of the astronauts was really cute, okay—and it keeps him occupied through mopping and sweeping the main floor, laundering three loads of bed linens, and duct-taping over the gaping hole left in the side door. He works up a sweat and has to stop to use his inhaler twice after kicking up all sorts of dust.

He can’t even think about the fire pit, let alone the tub. Not yet. So he thinks of his mother again and throws himself into an indulgent meal instead.

Dinner is baked macaroni and cheese with broccoli and bacon bits. And, because he skipped lunch, apple slices heated up in a pan with butter and cinnamon, topped with French vanilla ice cream. It’s comfort food, and he uses the warm and familiar smells to fill up the cold, empty cabin.

Outside, the sky is streaked like watercolours as the sun starts to dip below the horizon. Inside, Steve pulls a chair up to the fridge so he can reach for the cupboard above it. True to his word, Erskine left a new bottle of Schnapps and two glasses.

Steve takes them both down, sets them on the table, and pours the clear liquid with steady hands.

He raises one in salutation and speaks loudly into the silence of the house, “Prost.”

He throws it back and allows himself a smile, despite the burn.

The forest settles in for the night.

 

 

Two days later, Steve gets the bright idea to adopt a dog.

This revelation comes after quiet and lengthy contemplation, a great deal of which was spent sketching interesting birds he saw from the windows and burning through another book, with one long morning used to scrub the master bath within an inch of its life (where he then devoured said book). It reminded him of being sick as a kid, quarantined from the rest of the world, alone for days on end with nothing but a second-hand PlayStation and his own thoughts to keep him company.

So while Sarah was out working long hours, what did poor little Steve Rogers do, laid up in bed with no one else to talk to?

Bring home strays, of course.

It was usually cats. They weren’t easy to lure, but there were plenty of them in the neighbourhood. Leaving an open can of tuna on the fire escape for a few nights would usually do the trick, then putting a soft cushion out for them to lay down. Eventually, Steve moved that cushion to the window sill, then on top of the desk right under the window, until he could safely shut the window. This proved to be successful six times out of ten, though not for long—Steve was terribly allergic to cats and they couldn’t be hidden from his mother for more than a few hours, what with him sneezing up a storm. He didn’t care that they were a little mangy and smelled of garbage. It felt nice to have something to take care of, for a change. If he wasn’t afraid of all city racoons having rabies, he might’ve just settled for them, instead.

The last pet he had was when he liberated the class hamster on the last day of sixth grade, because no one appreciated Alexander Hamilton like he did. (He renamed it so it would have some dignity. The class had voted to call it Cheeseburger.)

Steve managed to hide it from his mom the entire summer, until it chewed out of the cardboard box and ended up under the couch, nestled in one of her slippers.

For months after, Steve would catch her cautiously shaking her slippers out before putting them on.

Eventually, he had to give Alexander Hamilton back to the school, with a written apology to his teacher and loss of class-pet-caretaking-privileges for the entire next year. Pets, in general, were out of the question for him. If he wasn’t flat out allergic to their fur, they’d still stir up trouble for his delicate lungs. They were also expensive to keep, and needed attention and care that neither he nor Sarah could consistently manage, with her long work hours and his propensity for falling ill. He tried to sweet talk his way into getting a service animal, but no dice. In high school, she allowed him a fish tank, but it wasn’t the same. He wanted a pet that he could…. Well, pet.

He always told himself he’d get one once he moved out on his own, as a housewarming gift to himself. A rabbit, maybe, or some sugar gliders. But that particular life milestone came and went, and he ended up in a building with a strict no-pets policy. That was fine. Maybe next time.

Then work picked up, and so did his life. He had friends, girlfriends, and boyfriends with pets, so he could get a quick snuggle out of them when he needed it. Having a furry companion stopped being a priority.

Now he’s an adult with his very own cabin, disposable income, and fuck all else to do.

And if he gets a dog, he might feel a little better about being alone.

He makes a pot of oatmeal for breakfast and watches his phone slowly load up a list of nearby animal adoption centres. He’s just considering it. Inquiring about things, really, because it would be stupid to just go out and adopt a dog on a whim. There’s a no-kill shelter in Franklin, the next town over, down the street from an art supply store. It’s a sunny, cloudless day, so he could explore the area, grab lunch, and make an afternoon of it.

He drives off feeling good about his plans for the day, and hopeful about finding a cafe with WiFi. These contented musings are quickly shot down when he drives past a sign outside a farmhouse, saying ‘FREE PUPPIES’. He throws his car in reverse and tells himself that he’s just going to have a look.

Naturally, he ends up back in the car with a fleece blanket draped across his backseat, and an old one-eyed dog napping on top of it.

It definitely wasn’t a puppy. The puppies were loud and small and beautiful, and the old farmer politely let Steve coo over them for as long as he wanted. The dog was tied up in the yard, quietly watching Steve with one big, brown eye as he walked past.

 

 

“That stupid, useless mutt?” the farmer had grunted, spitting over the side of his porch. “A stray. Old and dumb as shit. Went and knocked my poor sweet dog up, now we got all these little animals to deal with… Eh, I haven’t had a chance to head into town, but I’ll leave ‘im at the pound. What am I supposed to do with a half-blind dog?”

Steve looks back at the scruffy, golden-haired angel, snoozing away behind him, without a collar or a friend in the world.

“Don’t worry about your left eye, buddy,” he whispers. “My left ear isn’t so great, either. We gotta stick together.”

The dog wakes up when they get back to the cabin and is more than happy to polish off an entire bottle of water before walking laps around the clearing, curious about his new surroundings. Steve follows close behind, unsure whether or not he’ll bolt and get lost in the woods, but he okay to sniff at things and go about his business. Steve eventually corrals him into the house, where he does a few more curious patrols through the main floor. He moves slowly and doesn’t seem to be very aggressive, doesn’t bark or bite—the most Steve hears from him is a snuffly noise, and a sneeze when he sticks his nose into the fireplace.

Dinner is roast chicken, carrots, canned corn, and sweet potato wedges, split into seasoned and unseasoned batches. Mostly because that’s what the dog can eat, and he does, heartily and without complaint. He then follows Steve around as he washes the dishes and tidies up, and curls up on the armchair to fall back asleep. Though it’s not very late, Steve doesn’t blame him for being tired—he has no idea how long that farmer had him tied up outside, likely without anything to eat or drink—and he’s not about to begrudge a weary old dog of a nap he deserves. So Steve gives him a gentle pat on the rear, goes upstairs, has a long shower, and reads in bed. It’s a quiet and comfortable ending to an unexpected day, and he expects the rest of the summer will work out just as nicely.

Instead, he’s awoken hours later by something loud and grating. He can’t place it at first. Something squeaking? A record scratching? It’s only when the barking starts that Steve realizes it’s the dog crying and whining, so he hurries downstairs with his glasses crooked and only one slipper on to find the dog facing the side door. It’s not open and still has the couch barricading it, but he’s going back and forth from sitting to lying down to getting up as he cries and barks, all in the direction of the door.

“What’s wrong, buddy? What happened?” Steve really needs to give him a name. “Something scare you?” He cautiously reaches out, and when he’s sure he won’t get bitten, he pulls the dog into his chest and firmly pets his sides and scratches him behind the ears.

Yeah. He needs a name, and a bath.

“It’s okay. The forest is scary, I know. But you’re okay, big guy.”

He soon quiets down and they’re both yawning after a while, so Steve herds him up the stairs and into the bedroom. He’s gotta wash the sheets anyway, so he lets the dog up onto the bed before he settles in, himself.

“You gonna be good and let me sleep?” he asks. The dog, curled up at the foot of the bed, gives a soft snort in reply.

Steve later learns that the dog is a liar, because he’s back downstairs and whining at the side door an hour later.

He tries calming him down again, bringing him back upstairs, and locking the bedroom door, but the dog just starts scratching at the door and barking until Steve opens it. Then the dog heads back downstairs to do more some crying while the wind howls outside, like some unholy nocturnal symphony. At a loss for what more he can do, Steve gives up and lets him cry. He might just be upset about being kept in a new place, but Steve doesn’t feel good about tying him up outside, either.

When Steve finally ambles into the kitchen the next morning, he shoots a glare at the dog happily snoozing on the armchair.

“I thought we were friends,” he mutters tiredly, making himself a strong pot of coffee before starting breakfast.

He takes the dog for a walk around the clearing, as he’s still reluctant to go into the woods to look for any of the hiking trails. He knows there’s a lake somewhere that he’d like to see at some point. Maybe they could go together, when he has a better grasp on the layout of the property.

The dog gets a thorough hosing down in the yard, which leads to them both getting soaked, and muddier before they get cleaner. They have a nap in the afternoon, go for another walk around the cabin, and the dog sits obediently on the front porch while Steve draws him from his seat on the rocking chair. In the light of the setting sun, his hair shines like burnished gold, and he’d love to try painting that the next afternoon. He says so, out loud, before realizing that Clint is supposed to be coming by then to replace the door.

“Maybe that’ll make you feel better, huh? No more scary broken door to bark at?”

It thunderstorms that night, with lightning slicing through the dark sky and heavy rain pounding at the windows. Storms like this wouldn’t even register with him in the city, but out here, everything is brighter and louder. Between that and the dog howling downstairs, Steve manages two hours of sleep.

“Please. I don’t know what’s wrong. I don’t know what to do,” he groans, gathering the dog up in his arms as he cowers in the living room, still aiming his complaints at the side door. “We can’t do this every single night. We can’t.”

The rain tapers off just before sunrise, and so do the dog’s whines. He only leaves his post in favour of the armchair when Steve gets up off the floor and shakes out his sore limbs, stiff from having sat in one spot all night.

“Fuckin’ hardwood,” he hisses, cracking his back into place. “If I break something because of you, you better be able to run to town and get help, you hear me?”

The dog is already asleep.

Steve sighs. “I’m having a bath, then.”

He relaxes in the scalding hot water until it cools down and his fingers start to prune. It does wonders to soothe his aching body, especially with the epsom salts he found under the sink, but doesn’t do much to help wake him up. He would’ve liked to have gone into town for pet supplies and some more fresh vegetables, but after two nights of poor sleep, he’s too tired to do anything productive. It just about takes all the energy he has left to put his bathrobe back on and put some food out for the dog, for when he decides to wake up.

Steve thought having a pet would give him more to do, something fulfilling to break up the monotony of the day. So far, he’s been kept up all night, been exhausted all day, and is constantly cooking because he doesn’t have any dog food. And he doesn’t even have anyone to complain to, who can respond and validate his grievances. After he moves the couch away from the side door and back into the living room, he sweeps the floor and ruminates. He’s aware he’s just feeling sorry for himself, dealing with the consequences of an impulsive decision and a poor, nervous dog that clearly needs time to adjust. But a man can only do so much cleaning and re-watching of The Office before he starts to lose it.

 

 

It’s just after dinner when Steve hears someone pulling into the driveway.

The dog only barely lifts his head at the sound, passively watching from the loft.

“Oh, so you’ll bark at nothing, but not when someone’s actually there,” Steve says, rolling his eyes. Out the window, he sees a large silver truck with the Hawkeye’s logo painted on the side, and two men getting out of it. He recognizes one of them as Clint.

Steve opens the front door and waves from the porch. “Hey! Thanks for coming.”

Clint salutes in return, then jerks a thumb at the other man, who is making his way towards Steve with his hand outstretched. “This is my assistant, Wilson.”

“Sam Wilson,” he corrects. “And I don’t work for him, to be clear. I just owed him a favour.”

“Steve Rogers,” he smiles, shaking Sam’s hand. “Thanks for helping, anyway.”

They unload the new door and toolboxes from the truck, waving Steve away when he tries to help carry anything, and go around the cabin to the side door. They get to it right away, and Steve doesn’t know precisely what they’re doing, but watches with interest as they attack the frame and tear the door out by the hinges. He doesn’t want to hover or get in the way, but they both seem fine to carry on conversation as they work.

They ask how Steve happened to come upon the cabin, what he does for a living, how he’s liking his ‘break from civilization’. Steve learns that Sam is former Air Force, moved up here from DC to try his hand at farming after his partner died, and when that didn’t work out, he ended up in Mansewood, working at the campground and volunteering with the local fire department.

“Was it hard, getting used to a small town?” Steve asks, delivering Sam another bottle of water.

“I guess. I missed the sounds of the city for a while, and feeling so alone was tough at first.”

Steve nods in agreement. “I’m still in that phase. That’s why I got a dog, but I don’t think he’s too impressed by me.”

“Aw, I always wanted a dog,” Clint sighs, setting his hammer down and wiping his hands off on his jeans. “Where’s he at? Come here, boy!”

“He’s upstairs. I’ll go see if he’s—” Before he can offer, the dog comes bounding down the stairs towards them, tongue flopping out, practically leaping into Clint’s legs. Steve might’ve only known him for all of two days, but he’s never seen him look this excited, this energetic. Steve frowns.

“Well, hey there, handsome.” Clint kneels down and readily accepts some slobbery kisses. “No collar, no masters, huh? What’s your name?”

Steve scratches the back of his head. “I haven’t really named him. Yet.”

Clint clicks his tongue. “Dog this beautiful needs a beautiful name. I’ll bring you some toys when I come back and visit, how’s that sound?” The dog, traitorous as ever, pants happily in reply.

Their conversations and dog-related distractions turn the short installation into a long evening. The sun has long since set, the new fibreglass door has a large frosted window and looks as shiny and modern as the rest of the cabin, and they end up sitting around Steve’s living room with slightly-burned brownies (from when Steve fell asleep waiting for them to come out of the oven) and cans of ginger ale, because he doesn’t have any beer.

“If we’re hanging out now, Rogers, you gotta have beer,” Clint says, petting the dog laying over his lap on the couch. He wags his tail so hard, it knocks a throw pillow onto the floor.

“And more brownies,” Sam demands. 

Steve smiles into his drink. “Alright.”

He knew he missed human company and conversation, but it really hits him then, just how much he needs it. He might be exhausted, and he might definitely be disappointed that his dog likes Clint more than him, but for now, he’s relaxed and looking forward to their next visit. It might even be like a proper housewarming.

It’s dark out by the time they’re all yawning more often than speaking, and Steve divvies up the rest of the brownies for them to take home.

“Thanks again for rushing the door,” he says gratefully, watching them pack up the truck. The dog stays locked up in the house, because he won’t leave Clint alone, otherwise.

“Don’t worry about it. Living in these woods, you need all the protection you can get.” Clint gives him a pointed look.

“For the last time, I am not getting a shotgun,” Steve reminds him.

Sam laughs. “He tried to sell me one for the first year of me living here. But he’s right, you gotta be safe if you’re on your own, or able to call someone if you need it. Might wanna look into getting a landline or a signal booster so you can use your phone, at the very least.”

“I would if I weren’t leaving in a couple months,” Steve shrugs. “Just seems like a waste of money to invest in that.”

“Your call,” Sam raises his eyebrows. “We’ll see how you feel when a bear wanders into your front yard.”

“Wilson, you know bears are the least of his concerns out here,” Clint says slyly.

“What?” Steve blinks.

Sam shakes his head. “Ignore him.”

Steve means to ask more, to know what’s worse than a bear, but the dog begins his nightly ritual of crying and howling from inside the house.

“He okay?” Clint asks.

“No,” Steve says through gritted teeth, running his hands through his hair and pulling at it. “Every night, he does this. Just wails at the broken side door like it’s threatening him, doesn’t stop ‘til morning. I thought getting it fixed would help. Hang on.” He heads back into the house, but Sam and Clint follow.

The dog, now barking louder than Steve’s ever heard, is on his hind legs and trying to scratch down the side door.

“Something out there must've really spooked him,” Sam murmurs.

“Whatever it is, it keeps spooking him.” Steve folds his arms over his chest. “Maybe he’s just afraid of the forest. I don’t know, at this point. But he’ll be at this all night, no matter what I do.”

Clint clears his throat. “If it’s the forest… I could take him? For the night?”

“Clint,” Sam chides.

Steve turns sharply to look at him. ‘No’ is on the tip of his tongue, but he thinks about it for a moment and takes a deep breath. “That’s not a terrible idea,” he concedes.

If there’s something about the house or the forest that’s upsetting the dog, they’ll find out if he can sleep through the night somewhere else. But if behaving this way is normal for him, it’ll be Clint’s problem for now, and then Steve can look into getting him in to see a vet to see what’s wrong. Either way, Steve can finally get some rest.

“All he has is a blanket, really, and I haven’t even washed it yet,” Steve chews his bottom lip. “I was gonna buy him more stuff, y’know, like a leash and actual dog food.”

“S’okay. We’ll figure it out. Right, Lucky?” Clint says, pulling the dog away from the door. He doesn’t put up much of a fight, and is back to sticking to Clint like a shadow.

“You be good and quiet for Clint, or his neighbours’ll complain,” Steve says sternly as he reaches down and gives the dog a farewell scratch. “Why ‘Lucky’?”

“Because he’s lucky to have me.”

Sam snorts.

They load up in the truck after Steve gets a few more minutes of goodbye petting and kisses, and apologies that he couldn’t do more to help him settle down at night. Lucky politely tolerates it until Clint whistles to get his attention, at which he runs away and hops into the backseat. The humans then say their goodbyes, and Steve swears to have them over again. They drive off into the darkness of the forest, and Steve watches from the front door as the headlights dim and disappear altogether.

He figures he’s sad, what with his short-lived career as a Pet Owner having gone as well as his history would suggest, but if it’s better for the dog, that’s all he can ask for.

But at least he has a quiet house, a working door, and all the time in the world to catch up on sleep.

It’s only momentarily disrupted, to his frustration, when he dreams of Lucky howling and scratching again. It’s so real and so vivid that it startles him awake, same as it did the first night.

And, same as the first night, the chilling realization that it is real feels like ice water dripping down his spine.

But it’s not Lucky, who’s miles away in Mansewood. The howling is louder, deeper, almost more hollow-sounding. The scratching, sharper and more insistent.

Steve doesn’t get out of bed. He doesn’t investigate, doesn’t peek out the windows. His heart pounds almost loud enough to drown out everything else. He waits it out, breathing shallowly with his hands fisted in the blankets, until it suddenly stops.

It could be minutes later. It could be hours. But when panic loosens its grip on him and exhaustion eventually wins over, he falls back asleep.

The forest is blanketed with silence, as though nothing had happened at all.

Chapter Text

Steve’s hands tremble as he pours himself a coffee, and he briefly, seriously considers telling Clint he’s changed his mind about the guns.

He still doesn’t know what happened last night, but he doesn’t want to dwell on it, either. It was a bad dream, surely. It had to have been. That’ll happen when you’re stressed out, haven’t been sleeping well, and are isolated in an unfamiliar place. It makes sense, he reasons to himself, that he’d start imagining things for mental stimulation. It was definitely influenced by Lucky’s odd behaviour, and the knowledge that animals had already gotten into the cabin.

Yet there’s still an itch under his skin that tells him he has to get out of the house today, and that he has to get home well before nightfall.

He doesn’t want to think about why.

Steve heads into Mansewood for breakfast, laptop and drawing tablet in tow. He taps his fingers on the steering wheel, impatient to get into town and unnerved by the way the pine trees seem to loom, still dark and heavy with morning dew. Hopefully Tasha doesn’t mind him mooching off the diner WiFi for a few hours while he gets some work done, and if it’s not too crowded, he’d like to sneak in a Skype session with Peggy. He's on edge. Talking to someone reasonable and level-headed will sort him out. He hopes.

When he gets to Red’s, Tasha greets him warmly and directs him to a corner booth. Small talk leads to Steve telling her that he met up with Clint and Sam, and she smiles fondly at their mention, despite rolling her eyes.

“I think Clint likes you," Steve teases.

“He’s trouble, but at least he’s got good taste.”

Truthfully, Steve doesn’t have much of an appetite, but he agrees to waffles anyway, at her suggestion. They come out golden and crispy, topped with syrupy peaches and freshly whipped cream. Tasha watches expectantly until he takes a bite, then smiles triumphantly when he makes a noise of pleasant surprise.

“They’re spiced?” he asks, delicately dabbing syrup off his chin with a napkin.

“My recipe,” she preens, pleased as punch. “But you can’t grow peaches up here, so I use canned when they’re out of season, and flavour them myself. You keep that a secret,” Tasha winks, setting down a glass of milk.

With the lunch rush starting up—or as much of a rush as you can have in a town that small—she busies herself with the other customers. That suits Steve just fine. As good as it is to see a familiar and friendly face, he’s been needing to throw himself into a project that requires all his attention and takes him out of his head, even if only for a little while.

Over his drawing of the anatomy of an eyeball, he has to keep reminding himself to finish the waffles. He’s only taken a couple more bites when Tasha comes back to his table, hands on her hips.

“You don’t like it.”

“No, I do!” Steve shovels a heaping forkful into his mouth. “I could eat a jar of these like ice cream.” Bits of waffle fly out of his mouth and onto his tablet.

She looks unconvinced. “You’ve just been picking at them. Don’t lie to me, Brooklyn.”

“I’m not,” he says, wiping at his mouth. “I just had a rough night, not really feeling so hot.”

“What happened?”

He furrows his brow, looking down at the table. “I don’t… Know.” It’s a vague and unhelpful answer, but it’s the best one he has. “I had a weird dream, that’s all.”

“Mmm,” she hums, offering a gentle pat on the shoulder. “Let me refill your coffee and get you some danishes to-go, see if that’ll help.”

It won’t, but the sentiment is there. He accepts them gratefully and keeps working until his fingers start to cramp up and his laptop alerts him that it’s on low battery. It’s well past lunch, which he could easily order, but he’s jittery from sitting for hours. He’s got to get a move on.

“Where’re you off to now?” Tasha asks, handing him back his change, which he drops directly into the tip jar.

He didn’t think that far ahead, but an idea strikes him that seems worth pursuing, if only for his own peace of mind.

 

 

When he gets to Hawkeye’s, he navigates through the cluttered aisles and heads straight to the back wall. He passed by them without a second thought, last time he was there, but now he seeks them out—

Animal trapping supplies.

There are snares, lures, cables and chains. Expensive, steely bear traps and smaller, coil spring foot traps.

His eyes land on the cage traps, escalating in size. Chipmunk traps, squirrel, raccoon. He stops in front of the largest cage, one he could easily fit in. The idea makes him shudder.

“That’s not for Lucky, is it?” Clint’s voice shakes him out of his thoughts, and Steve turns to find him ambling over with a brown paper bag full of kettle corn. “He’s not that bad, Rogers, jeeze.”

“God, no,” Steve shoves his hands in his pockets. “How, uh… How was he last night?”

Clint grins broadly, holding the bag for Steve, who politely declines. “He made friends with the pug across the street, ate some ham, and passed out on my bedroom floor. Snores like a fuckin’ jet engine, but didn’t have any problems, otherwise.”

“Good!” Steve says, a little too quickly. And it was good. For the dog, anyway. “I’m glad he’s doing better here. With you.”

A beat of uncomfortable silence passes before they try to speak at the same time.

“Are you—”

“I can just—”

“My bad,” Clint gestures at him to continue. “You first.”

Steve takes a deep breath. “I figure, if Lucky’s okay, and you don’t mind,” he shrugs. “He should stay with you.” He barely gets the last words out when he’s being trapped in a full-body squeeze, lifted off his feet, the kettle corn flying.

“You’re a good man, Steve Rogers. A damn good man.” Clint’s voice is muffled against his shoulder. “As thanks, I’ll give you a free bolt-action rifle—”

No. Put me down, asshole.”

“Fine. But why the interest in trapping, all of a sudden?” Clint sets him back down. “Animals bothering you? If that’s the case, I gotta say, I’m not convinced you’d know what to do with them, even if you did manage to trap them.”

It’s a fair assumption, but Steve bristles anyway. “No. I mean, yes, but.” He eyes up the largest cage again. “What’s something low-effort and non-violent that I can do to keep them away from the cabin? I don’t want to hurt ‘em—honestly, it’s not that big a deal anyway—”

“Hey. It’s okay to be scared out in the woods,” Clint says patiently. “You’re a soft city boy who doesn’t know how to shoot a gun, living alone in a forest so dense that no one can hear you scream. Hell, I would’ve expected you to have boobytrapped your entire yard by now. Walk with me.”

He leads Steve to a display of huge spray bottles, plastic tubs, and large resealable bags. “Animal deterrent sprays and powders. Hope you don’t have asthma.”

“I do, actually.”

“Ah. Hang on,” Clint reaches into the next aisle and produces a box of surgical face masks. “Anyway, some of these are for specific animals, like snakes, and some others are pretty general. Like this one’ll keep deer, rabbits, and squirrels away, and one application lasts a couple months. This other one’ll cover squirrels too, along with groundhogs, raccoons, dogs, cats, and skunks, but only lasts up to thirty days.”

He gestures to larger boxes on the bottom shelves. “There are also motion-activated spikes that can detect movement from thirty feet away. All they do is spray water, but it’ll spook a deer for sure. But if they’re really persistent, you can go for the electronic repellents. Runs on AA batteries and gives them a little shock. Nothing lethal, just enough to make ‘em scarce after they’ve had a taste.”

“Well, they all sound great,” Steve says neutrally, aiming for nonchalance. “What do you have for bigger animals?”

Clint chuckles, picking up a spray bottle of one of the general deterrents and handing it to him. “Guns, man. Come on, it’s on the house if you come to lunch. I’m meeting with Sam. Have you eaten?”

“Uh, no—”

KATE!” he hollers. “I’m taking my lunch break!”

LIKE HELL YOU ARE.” A higher, shriller voice calls back. “YOUR BREAK ISN’T FOR ANOTHER TWO HOURS.”

“Ignore her, I run this place.” Clint shakes his head, slinging an arm over Steve’s shoulders and leading him through the building. “I’m Hawkeye, you know?”

Something dark whizzes past overhead, and Steve barely registers it until he sees the tail end of an arrow embedded in a bag of mulch on a shelf just behind them.

“Okay, okay, we both run this place, and we’re both Hawkeye,” he grumbles. “I’M TAKIN’ THAT OUT OF YOUR PAY,” he yells, then grabs Steve by the arm and runs out the front doors before Kate decides to get any more target practice in.

In the parking lot, he tosses his phone at Steve. “Call Wilson. Tell him we’ll meet him at the deli.”

Steve searches for his name in the contacts—unhelpfully saved as fire emoji, fire emoji, WILSON, flexing arm emoji, emoji with sunglasses —and waits for the call to connect. “There’s a deli in Mansewood?”

“Eh. Close enough.”

They get in their cars and Steve follows him down the main road. The deli ends up being a small corner establishment, even smaller than Red’s and decidedly more plain, if that were possible. It’s no frills in the way the best delis are in the city, but here, Steve is understandably more wary. The chairs are made of cracked orange plastic and the place seems yellowed and dingy, despite the ample sunlight streaming in through the large windows.

He studies the menu, which is less varied than he’s used to, and settles on an orange juice, freshly squeezed with lots of pulp. Clint gets a coffee, two different sandwiches, stuffed cabbage, and three cookies. He then pesters Steve to try a bite of everything until he admits that it’s “decent” .

Sam arrives a short while later, grabs his own sandwich and coffee, and settles into the table across from them. “Sorry, got held up at work.”

“A fire?” Steve asks through a dry mouthful of corned beef, taking in Sam’s work shirt with the name of another town on the logo.

“Small town fire rescues don’t actually deal with many fires,” he admits. “We’re a catch-all for things ranging from medical assists to traffic control to clearing downed power lines. This morning, we had to catch and corral some horses that got loose, and I just had to do some paperwork about it.”

“I don’t think there’s been a real fire in a while.” Clint points his sandwich at Sam. “The high school seniors who set a football on fire and accidentally kicked it into a tree, maybe?”

“Yep. Couple of years ago. Most fire calls up here are for forest fires and camping-related incidents,” Sam continues, talking to Steve again. “But it’s tough because our call time is way down. One fire department covering these many towns all spaced apart, sometimes it takes us up to twenty minutes to get to the scene.”

Steve agrees that that is, indeed, tough, and the conversation drifts along to less sombre topics. He only half listens, engaging enough to react when appropriate and zoning out when he can get away with it. He finds himself drumming his fingers on the tabletop like a fidgeting child, somehow exhausted and restless at the same time.

“You okay, Steve?” Sam asks cautiously, drawing his attention by waving his hand in Steve’s face. “You look dead on your feet. I thought you would’ve slept better last night, without all that barking and crying.”

Steve wants to laugh out loud, but can only find the energy to grunt in response. “Had a weird dream.”

“Weird like Steve Irwin leading you through a sewer system on a floating mattress, or weird like a nightmare?” Clint asks seriously.

“That was… Way too specific.” Sam says with a grimace.

“I guess kinda like a nightmare,” Steve confesses. He wants to choose his words carefully, to hopefully convey that it’s really all just in his head and he’s being anxious about something stupid.

But it comes out anyway, in a rush of words he can barely contain.

“It was like some big animal was outside the cabin, scratching at the door and trying to get in. And it was howling,” he adds, as an afterthought. “Guess my subconscious missed Lucky more than I expected, huh?”

He means to lighten the mood with an empty chuckle, but is met with two blank stares.

Clint slowly turns to Sam, his smile sharp. “Howling?”

“Can you try to look less smug?”

“Nope,” he turns back to Steve. “You, my friend, were clearly visited by the White Wolf.”

“A wolf?” Steve frowns, thinking back to Peggy’s half-hearted warnings. “Aren’t wolves extinct in this area?”

“They are,” Sam says firmly. “I'd know, as I work in the forest.”

“Well he’s not a real wolf,” Clint counters. “He’s a werewolf.” He says it matter-of-factly, like a commentary on the weather and not a claim of the existence of a supernatural creature.

“A werewolf,” Steve deadpans. “Mansewood has a werewolf.”

“Yes!” Clint says, at the same time Sam emphatically says, “No.”

“You think I wouldn't know all about it? I grew up here!” Clint sits back in his chair and crosses his arms over his chest.

“So you’d have proof by now. Where is it?” Sam retorts. “Listen, there are a ton of wild animals in the woods. Mostly they leave humans alone, but sometimes they can get curious. If a really big one keeps coming back to your property, you’re going to have to take some precautionary measures—”

“—Mountain ash at every entrance, silver bullets and wolfsbane—”

“Shut up, Clint. Steve, I really wish you’d reconsider getting a landline, you’d need to be able to call emergency services if something happens to you out there—”

“—Oh, come on, Sam. No one has a chance against the White Wolf—”

“If it’s real, and that’s true, why was he trying to break down Steve’s door? He’s not a hunter!”

“Maybe he wanted to greet his new neighbour! Steve’s the only one out there for miles! Wait… Lucky.” Clint slams his hand down on the table. “That’s why Lucky was freaking out every night. He clearly felt the White Wolf’s alpha presence—”

“Oh, here we fuckin’ go,” Sam says, throwing his hands in the air.

“—And when Lucky was suddenly gone, the White Wolf was trying to find him and see where he went. It makes sense,” Clint says decidedly, nodding in agreement with himself. “Right, Rogers?”

“No, it doesn’t,” Sam interjects. “If Steve gets mauled by a coyote because he’s ill-prepared, that’s on you.”

“Hey, I’ve been trying to give him a gun, though crossbows work better on werewolves, anyway—”

“Clint—”

“Okay, okay, fine. We’ll both prepare him. I’ll tell him everything he needs to know about the White Wolf. You do your… Stuffy Park Ranger bit, and that way, he’ll have all his bases covered, no matter what happens.”

Sam rolls his eyes, but doesn’t argue. Clint looks from him to Steve, waiting for any objections.

Steve hunches down in his seat. “I’ll take what I can get,” he says, defeatedly. “It can’t hurt.”

Clint, clearly pleased by this, barrels on. “Well, historically, wolves had been mostly hunted out of this region about a hundred years ago. There used to be a hell of a lot more trees and animals, but overhunting and logging happened, so the timberwolves native to this region either fled or died. That is to say, it wasn’t easy to hide out in these woods by then.”

This echoed what Peggy had told Steve an in eerily uncomfortable way.

“Sometime in the thirties or forties, a pack of werewolves from the north were driven south by a clan of hunters, and they hid out in Mansewood for a while, posing as humans. It was still a new town, still establishing itself, so the people welcomed them, easy as anything. They might’ve had a fair shot at settling here for good if the clan hadn’t eventually caught up to them. Legend has it, out of the entire pack, the White Wolf was the only one to survive.”

“Survive what?” Steve finds himself asking.

Sam frowns disapprovingly.

“If werewolves are at their strongest on full moons,” Clint continues. “They’re at their weakest during new moons, right? So the hunter clan waited until the new moon and stole the youngest wolf out of his bed. Werewolves age a lot slower than humans, but he was still just a kid. A pup who couldn’t defend himself. They used him to lure the rest of the pack into the middle of the woods. Where they slaughtered them all, one by one, and made the kid watch.”

“Jesus,” Sam mutters.

“I’m going to be sick,” Steve whispers.

“They were saving the kid for last, but before they could finish him off, the few werewolves who still had any breath left in ‘em started howling. They couldn’t shift, couldn’t even raise their heads, but they howled and howled until the only other timberwolves left in the area came to their rescue. It wasn’t a fair fight, a handful of wild wolves against two dozen armed men, but they attacked long enough to get the kid free. He shifted and ran off with the timberwolves, and they took him in.

Now, the story goes, he was raised by these wolves, and lived among them until they all died out. And he stayed. He lived here long enough by then, so he was a stranger to the north, but his massive size and white coat made him a dead giveaway in these dark woods, so was obvious he’s not native, either. He was an outsider through and through, but he couldn’t shake this place, no matter what happened to him here. It might not have been his ancestral home, but it was the closest thing he had. For decades, he’s just been watching and waiting. Biding his time in the forest until that hunter clan shows their faces again, to get his revenge and spill their blood where they took his pack’s lives.”

A heavy weight sits in Steve’s stomach. Urban legend or not, a lot of that doesn’t sit right with him, and bothers him in a way he can’t quite put into words. “I see,” he says uselessly. “Hell of a guy. Or, wolf.”

“I’ve lived here my entire life, and so have generations of Bartons before me. The White Wolf is out there. And he wants justice—”

“No, enough outta you, you’re done lying to him and terrifying him,” Sam snaps. “There hasn’t been a single wolf sighting in almost eighty years, and if he’s as big and white as you claim he is, that wouldn’t be true. But it is. The White Wolf is a fairytale that parents made up to keep their kids out of the woods and make them eat their vegetables. That’s all.”

Clint scoffs. “Says you.

“Yeah, says me.

They sit in stony silence, regarding each other with disdain.

“I’m just trying to help. You get that, right, Rogers?” Clint asks.

Steve nods glumly.

“Well, you’ve had your turn, so let the grown-ups speak, now.” Sam pointedly ignores the finger Clint flips him. “I think that, and understandably so, you don’t feel at ease with where you’re currently living.”

Understatement of the year.

“So come back to my office at the campgrounds, I’m going to show you a map that encompasses the forests around Mansewood, including your property, so you have a better idea of the layout of the land. I’ll print you a copy and show you where the cabin is, so you’ll know exactly where you are, where the hiking trails are, where the mountains are, nearby towns, and so on. I know that once you get used to it and get more familiar, you won’t be so disturbed by the woods. You might like it. Hell, you might love it. You just have to give it a chance.”

 

 

Bethune Lake Campgrounds are Mansewood’s biggest source of revenue, and the scenic expanse of land is three times the size of the actual town. It includes the lake and boardwalk, a good section of the forest with trails of varying lengths and difficulties, and clearings that offer baseball fields and soccer fields. Erskine’s property begins at the lake and carries on westward, nearly into the mountains, while the campground spreads out towards the east. The forest surrounds the cabin on all sides. In some directions, it goes on for miles, and would take days to get through. Steve knows this, as Howard had told him so, but he’d never considered what that would really look like.

Standing in Sam’s office, gazing up at the map posted on the wall, Steve traces the boundary lines with a finger and realizes just how far away he is from everyone else.

“I could probably take a wolf,” he remembers saying.

Probably.

 

Chapter Text

Steve asks Sam for three copies of the map. He keeps one in the glovebox of his car, another goes in his backpack, and the last is stuck to the fridge with a magnet. He looks at that one most often; contemplating it while he cooks breakfast, glancing over at it when he sits in the living room, squinting at it when he gets up in the middle of the night for a glass of water. He isn’t trying to memorize it or look for anything in particular, and still has to tamp down a growing sense of panic when he thinks about how far the cabin is from the nearest living soul, but Sam was right—having an idea of where he is in the world is better than nothing.

As though the map is some sort of talisman, there’s no more howling and scratching, be it from malevolent cryptids or his own cabin-fever-induced paranoia. It’s peaceful that night, the next, and the one after that.

A week passes and the cabin is as it was, and the forest quiets down again. Like ambient noise that begs to be ignored. Like a moment spent holding your breath.

Steve wonders if it’s better to be alone, or simply feel that way.

 

 

It’s still only the tail end of May, but this time of year felt warmer in the city. Maybe it was all the pollution and people—scratch that, it was definitely all the pollution and people—but Steve finds himself constantly wrapped up in layers, with only a brief two or three hour window where he can get away with a t-shirt, so long as he’s sitting in direct sunlight and slathered with mosquito repellant. With each passing day, the fireplace seems more enticing. He’s never used one before and is certain there’s more to it than just throwing some wood inside with a lit match, but it’s about time to figure it out. After he masters that, he might even make an attempt with the fire pit, because spending an entire summer with a fire pit and not making a single s’more sounds like a criminal offence.

He keeps a notepad on the fridge, right beside the map, and has taken to writing out his next purchases (apple juice and paper towels), things he has to do (go to the gas station, ask Tasha where to buy bath bombs, visit Lucky) and important phone numbers to remember (Sam’s office at the campgrounds, the fire department, the nearest hospital and poison control centre). He adds “firewood” to the short list of supplies for when he’s next in town. He won’t need to go for a while. A long, dull while.

His eyes drift over to the map.

Sam highlighted the easiest trails for hiking and biking that wind through Erskine’s end of the forest, close enough for Steve to reasonably find and follow if he were so inclined. Sam also circled the nearest outhouses, “just in case”, though Steve would rather piss in the middle of the road than willingly lock himself in a moth-infested wooden death trap.

A marked trail, two miles east of the cabin, leads a half-mile north to the lake. Two miles of deep forest. Two solid, unforgiving miles in the wilderness.

Before Steve left town last, Clint had fitted him for a pair of hiking boots. They sit by the front door, unworn and ready to be broken in.

He keeps the trail in mind. Just in case.

 

 

After three more uneventful weeks, he’s run out of ways to entertain himself. Sure, he still has a backlog of various media to work through, but restlessness wins out and he starts pacing through the house, just to give his body something new to do. His daily rituals of cooking and cleaning become tedious. Even having a long soak in the tub loses its appeal. Once again, he’s resorting to the playbook of his adolescence for something to do to pass the time.

Jerking off. And lots of it.

He can start his days with it and bask in the peaceful afterglow before his morning coffee. He can go a second time later on, usually in the shower, where he shivers against the cold tile and breathes in the steam. If he showers early enough, he can have a third go in bed, coming with a soft exhale. It clears his head and helps with the restlessness, enough for him to focus on other tasks. Which is just as well, because he needs to do laundry twice as often.

For all the worst-case-scenario planning he did, he certainly never expected to be touching himself this often, judging by the fact that the only thing he brought from the secret shoebox under his bed was a half-empty bottle of lubricant. It isn’t even his preferred brand, so it feels like an afterthought—a blueberry-flavoured mess of chemicals that he hasn’t yet bothered to use up or throw out. He shoves it in the nightstand drawer to deal with another day.

Steve can get by like this a while longer, sprawled out on top of the bed with nothing but his glasses on, palming at himself like he has all the time in the world.

He quickly finds that he gets a thrill out of laying out like this, something he wouldn’t dare do it in the city. There are too many variables to consider. Roommates who forget to knock. Nosy neighbours with binoculars. Fire alarms. Burglars. Having a heart attack and dying, only to be found weeks later with his shrivelled dick on display.

(That last one is a long shot, but still a valid concern.)

Here, alone, in a big, empty house, Steve has no plans and no threat of interruptions. The door and windows are wide open. The air is still cold and crisp as it comes down from the mountains. No one around for miles. The early afternoon sun is soft on his skin, dancing across his pale torso and bare legs. His pubic hair shines gold in the light.

His fingers glisten from sweat and precome, steadily leaking over his knuckles as every pull of his foreskin reveals the flushed tip of his dick. He brings his other hand up to his chest and scratches at his nipple with his thumbnail. Arching up into it, he licks his thumb so he can slide it over the rosy bud and work it into hardness. He squirms, whining a little and cursing a lot, and it feels absolutely filthy to be making so much noise by himself in the otherwise quiet house.

He moves his hand down to his balls and firmly rolls them between his fingers, swearing and bending his knees, thighs falling apart. This change of position leaves him open and exposed, and that dirty feeling kicks into overdrive, as though anyone could just walk in and see him panting for it with his legs spread.

But there’s no one, just Steve and the birds chirping outside. So he tilts his hips up and circles his hole with a fingertip, letting out an obscene moan as he slides it in, to the second knuckle.

“Oh,” he cries out, toes curling. “Oh, fuck—”

It’s a little dry and the angle isn’t quite right, but he’s burning inside and simply clenching down on something already has him on the razor’s edge of pleasure. He has to let go of his cock before it builds up too quickly, hissing as it smacks against his lower abdomen. He pulls his finger all the way out of himself before slipping back in with a second one, thrusting them shallowly just to feel the stretch, the way his body tightens around the unyielding intrusion. Dropping his head back onto the pillows and keening, he fists the head of his cock, thumb slipping into the foreskin to feel how wet he is.

Steve knows he can come like this if he keeps at it, just grinding against his hand and fucking himself with two fingers like he’s getting everything he needs. The hot ache inside him grows sharper and steadier and his legs start to cramp in their fight to stay spread apart. The little gasps and punched out noises he makes sound like they’re miles away, with only the feeling of his hands coming into focus as they work him over, rough and fast. He pulls his knees up towards his chest and draws his fingers in a little deeper, gritting his teeth, and it burns just enough to be on the right side of painful. He strokes himself wildly and the world distills into one point of pleasure, reaching its crest and flooding over.

“Fuck!” he’s shouting into the empty room, dissolving into it, dick pulsing in his fist as he spills onto his stomach and chest. Uh—uh—God,” his hips jerk as he milks himself through it, riding it out until he’s shuddering and twitching.

He doesn’t have long until his sweat will start to cool off in the breeze coming in through the open windows. He should clean himself up and replace the sheets, as well. But for now, Steve lays there, still, breathless, and sated.

Until his stomach growls unhappily, and he has to rise and face the rest of the day.

Already, his limbs feel looser, and nervous energy no longer thrums just under his skin, making him itch for stimulation. He feels… Good. Better. Ready for whatever’s next.

It’s still early yet. Maybe he’ll pack his lunch and take it down to the lake.

Outside, the forest goes about its business, vibrant and lit up in the afternoon sun.

 

 

Steve knows which direction he should be heading. He just doesn’t know if the direction he’s walking in is the same one, despite what his phone’s compass tells him. His unease increases with every step he takes. The further into the forest he goes, the more he wonders if he should turn back.

To be fair, he always had the option to drive into town and take one of the clearly marked, well-travelled trails from the campground. It would’ve added another hour onto his hike, but it’d be safer. “For a city boy,” Clint winked.

And he was right. That was Steve through and through. Which is why he endeavoured to find the trail on Sam’s map that leads to Bethune Lake from his cabin, even if it meant getting lost in the mountainous backwoods of upstate New York in the process.

Steve scowls at the treetops and tries not to think about the Blair Witch Project.

Ten minutes later, he’s glad for his new, sturdy hiking boots, heavy as they may be.

Half an hour later, he’s regretting not bringing more supplies. In the backpack slung over his shoulder, he only has a sketchbook, pencils and erasers, a blanket, bug spray, his inhaler, two water bottles, and a haphazardly thrown together sandwich for lunch. In his pockets, the map and a phone at half-battery. For starters, he could’ve done with another pair of socks, having long since sweated through the ones on his feet.

Forty minutes later, he reaches the trail and is finally hit by a gust of wind carrying the unmistakable smell of damp earth and lake water. He follows it north until the trees begin to clear and give way to a rocky shore, without a single other soul in sight.

Bethune Lake, dark and inviting in the late afternoon sun, stretches out for miles ahead of him.

He sags against a tree and takes it all in, breathing deeply, blistered feet and sore back momentarily forgotten. Walking a ways along the shore, he chooses a grassy patch in the shade to stop and put his blanket down. Once he’s seated comfortably, he kicks the hiking boots off and wiggles his toes in relief.

Steve doodles mindlessly; the view of the tree-lined horizon from the shore, the painted sign on the window of Red’s Diner, peeling and weathered; Lucky, curled up on the recliner in the living room. He’s glad for the beautiful view, and enjoying the weather despite the fact that the cheese on his sandwich has begun to sweat.

The sun inches westward, eventually lighting up his shady patch of grass and warming the back of his neck. He shuts his eyes, and tilts his face up into the bright heat. He can almost feel himself freckling, cheeks and nose undoubtedly going pink.

A loon calls in the distance. The lake murmurs serenely, a calming presence around him.

Steve scoots down on the blanket, yawning and stretching out like a house cat before curling up on his side. He can rest his eyes for a moment. Just a moment.

The forest lulls him to sleep.

 

 

He dreams of ice. Of cold water that bites at his skin and freezes his lungs.

He sits up in a panic, gasping for breath, his fingers stiff from the frigid night air.

Night air?

With wide eyes, Steve frantically looks around. It’s well after nightfall, the sunshine having been abruptly replaced by the dim, clouded glow of the moon. The rocky shore is shadowed ominously by the looming trees. The water is murky, black, and unnaturally still.

He fell asleep at the lake.

He struggles with the zippers on his backpack as he searches for his inhaler. It falls from his grasp as he tries to get his shivering under control with little success, his thin sweater offering no comfort. He scrambles to his feet, stiff back aching in protest, and shakes the blanket out before wrapping it around his shoulders. The fabric is mucky and damp on his skin, leaving him colder than before. He shoves the hiking boots on without bothering to lace them up before crouching down again and huddling into his knees.

Steve fishes his phone out of his back pocket. “Fuck, piece of shit, come on,” he growls, making four attempts at his passcode before the screen lights up.

It’s just before midnight. No signal. Eleven percent battery. Not enough juice to use the compass for longer than fifteen minutes, even on the power-saving mode.

He has options, none of them ideal. Waiting out in the open for five or six hours until sunrise isn’t safe. But after he finds the trail again, he’s going to have to choose between a blind two-mile hike west to the cabin, or following the trail for a five-mile hike east to the nearest campsite.

The knowledge that the cabin is only two and a half miles away taunts him, makes him regret not packing his flares, or a real compass, or even a fucking portable phone charger.

He brings his fingers to his mouth, huffing warm breath on them as he mulls over the situation. He can’t panic. It won’t help him now. He has to focus to come up with a plan. An idea of what to—

A twig snaps sharply behind him.

He jumps, but does his level best to calm himself. It’s just a forest. Forests makes those sounds.

Branches and leaves rustle, stop, then rustle again. He barely hears it over his own wheezing breaths.

Against his better judgement, Steve slowly stands up and turns around, squinting into the darkness.

He doesn’t see them at first, not through the dense, impermeable shadows of the underbrush. But then a pair of bright eyes meet with his, freezing him in place.

The silence of the forest is suddenly deafening.

Instinct spurs Steve into action, and he’s taking off down the shoreline. He doesn’t spare a thought for his abandoned backpack and doesn’t aim for the trail, not when he throws a glance over his shoulder and sees something start to emerge from the forest, something that forces the air out of his lungs and makes his chest clench with panic.

Something massive, covered in white fur that catches silver in the moonlight.

Steve slips through the woods, shedding the torn blanket after sharp branches tug it away from him. Pine needles whip and scratch at his skin and leaves tangle in his hair. He stumbles across the uneven forest floor, tripping over roots and sliding over mossy rocks with heavy boots that threaten to fall off with every step. His heart pounds in his ears and he chokes on each breath,throat threatening to close.

Legs pumping, muscles screaming, he chances a look behind him.

Sharp grey eyes, locked on his—

A blur of white, crashing through the trees—

It snarls and the sound seems to reverberate through the ground—

A scream rips through Steve’s throat as his boot gets lodged under a twisted root. He falls forward, losing the shoe, forced to his hands and knees on damp soil. He struggles to his feet and takes off again, only realizing he dropped his glasses when he trips over a downed tree and lands heavily against the trunk of another one, head slamming against it.

His shaking legs refuse to cooperate and give out under him. His vision tunnels, blurring and blackening at the edges. His ears ring and he’s gasping and heaving, but can’t get any air.

It’s a mercy that his vision goes before he feels hot, bitter breath on his face.

The world rapidly slips away from him, but he throws his fists out anyway. He always knew he’d go down swinging. The shadows close in and he faces his fate, waiting for the brilliant pain of unyielding fangs, for slicing claws to rend flesh from bone.

Instead, he makes contact with… Soft fur. The body under it rumbles low and soothing, like contained thunder.

There’s barely a moment to consider that when the fur disappears—along with the last vestiges of Steve’s consciousness—and he’s lifted off the ground by a pair of strong, deceptively human arms.

 

Chapter Text

The first thing Steve registers is bright light and consuming heat. He draws a ragged breath in, past his chapped lips and desert-dry mouth, and squeezes his eyes further shut, turning away from the inconsiderate sun. He can’t have slept very long if he’s still bone tired.

His ma must’ve come into his room and opened the window. Brooklyn summers have always been terribly humid, the nights leaving him sticky and uncomfortable. Still, she always insisted that fresh, hot air, was better for his lungs than no air at all. Then he’d remind her that they lived in New York City and there ain’t no such thing as ‘fresh’ air , and she’d flick him on the ear for talking back.

Maybe he could drag their old electric fan out of the hallway closet. They picked it up at a garage sale a few years back and it mostly just swirls the air around, but if he sets it right at the foot of his bed, he could get back to sleep without melting. If she let him sleep in this late, he must not have school today. Yeah. There’s an idea.

Steve steels himself and tries to roll over onto his back, but his arms and legs sit like dead weights and his head throbs from the strain of moving. It takes him a moment to realize he’s wrapped up in blankets, pulled up to his neck like a swaddled infant. How did he manage that? He twitches his nose, suddenly itchy against the thick carpet his face is buried in. Did he fall asleep on the floor? He contemplates this as a wet cough rattles through his chest, loosening phlegm and saliva.

Suddenly, the carpet beneath him jolts and shifts.

The world he dreamt up falls quickly away as he forces his eyes open. He doesn’t wake up in their apartment in Red Hook, sprawled on the floor of his childhood bedroom.

He comes to in the living room of Erskine’s cabin, buried in quilts and laying on a man’s chest.

Steve lifts his head and looks up at him, startling at unnervingly familiar grey eyes, and the foggy memories of the night before catch up to him. Running, falling, darkness—

“Wha...” He rasps, and the sound has jagged edges that tear at his throat.

The man abruptly draws back and takes the warmth with him, and it’s only then that Steve realizes with horror that the man’s arms were around him.

As soon as he’s freed, Steve flies into action. He already fled, but now, now he wants to fight.

He shoves himself backwards, untangling himself from the blankets and skidding across the hardwood. All the furniture had been moved haphazardly, enough to accommodate a nest of blankets on the rug in the middle of the floor, in front of the fireplace. Miraculously, it was on, although the fire had since burned down to smouldering remains. It looks as though every single length of fabric in the house had been piled together, from bedspreads to towels to scarves. Steve turns and ducks behind the couch, putting several feet of distance between himself and the intruder. Steve quickly takes stock of his person—still dressed in the same clothes as yesterday, ripped and muddied and without his glasses, his whole body aches but nothing seems to be broken or too badly injured—before he stands and turns his attention back to the man.

“Who are you?!” Steve shouts hoarsely, pelting him with throw pillows that miss by a mile, but the man twitches out of the way, anyway. “What is this? What are you doing? How did you get in here? Get the fuck out!”

After a beat, he demands, “Why are you naked?!”

Incredibly, the man looks alarmed, like he was the one who woke up being spooned by a stranger. His eyes are wide behind the curtain of long wavy hair that spills down past his shoulders, and he holds his hands out placatingly, slowly rising to his feet. He hunches over as though trying to appear smaller and non-threatening, although it does nothing to hide his imposing stature. His body is all hard angles and lean, corded muscle, and golden skin covered with more hair than Steve has ever seen on a person. It’s dark with streaks of white woven through it, growing thick over his forearms and legs and denser in the centre of his chest and stomach, concentrating into a trail that leads further south than Steve can handle right now.

“Hey! Answer me!” he insists shrilly, through wheezing breaths.

The man opens his mouth and shuts it again helplessly, then bends down and pulls Steve’s backpack out from under the pile of blankets.

 

 

“WHOA,” Steve squeaks, “Don’t fucking—that’s mine—you—”

The man produces Steve’s inhaler from one of the pockets and his glasses from another. He holds them in outstretched arms, eyeing Steve warily, like he’s afraid he’ll bolt or attack. He tosses them gently onto the couch, within Steve’s reach, before taking a step back.

Steve hesitates before grabbing them, hurriedly putting his glasses on before he uncaps his inhaler. They sit a little crooked and one lens is scratched, but they’ll do. He shakes the inhaler profusely, tilts his head back and depresses the canister into his mouth, all the while keeping his eyes fixed on the man once his dark, blurry form comes into focus. He looks wild, feral even, but doesn’t move, only watching Steve with something that might look like concern, if Steve was gullible enough.

When his chest settles and his lungs no longer lock up with the effort of talking, he pockets the inhaler and straightens himself out, still keeping the man within his sights. Steve thinks about the aluminum baseball bat in the hall closet, the lamp on the table, and anything else in the vicinity that he can grab and use to defend himself. If he’s quick about it, he could dart up the stairs and lock himself in one of the bedrooms. There’s a crowbar in the shed outside—

“Bucky.”

Steve squints, turning to face him. “Huh?”

He looks away and shifts uncomfortably on his feet. His voice sounds like gravel and he hangs his head and grimaces as he speaks, as though it hurts to do so. “You asked,” he murmurs, rolling his shoulders and standing a little taller. “They called me Bucky.”

Steve raises his eyebrows. “Bucky,” he repeats dryly. “Your name is Bucky ?”

Bucky nods, but still doesn’t look him in the eye. “Last night, you… I found you.”

Steve glares. “Keep talking.”

Bucky’s mouth twists. “Forest. Lake. I was… You fell,” he manages roughly. “Hit your head.”

When he gestures to Steve’s temple, he reaches up and touches the sore lump that’s sprouted there. He hisses and drops his hand, and it comes away with flakes of dried blood. “Right. Shit.”

“You were cold. I had to get you warm. Uh. That’s how we... Sorry,” Bucky continues sheepishly, because he’s apparently determined to answer Steve’s questions in order. “Picked your things up. Used your keys to get in.”

That explains the fire, the blankets, the retrieved backpack and glasses, but not much else.

“I tried to help,” Bucky sighs in defeat. “You weren’t supposed to see me, I didn’t mean to...”

He finally looks up, eyes flashing, and Steve inhales sharply.

“No. No fucking way. You’re not—” he pauses, gripping the back of the couch. “No.”

Bucky lowers his gaze and smiles without humour. “No one’s supposed to see me. But I couldn’t leave you there.”

Steve purses his lips. “I need to sit down for this. You just... Stay there.” He rounds the couch and gingerly takes a seat, remembering with a start that there is a still-naked man standing in front of him, and he’s getting a proper eyeful now that he has his glasses on. “Um, can you, cover up, your,” he says haltingly, cheeks burning.

Ridiculously, Bucky snorts . He reaches into the blankets and picks up a tea towel, which does absolutely nothing but make Steve blush harder.

He scowls. “Okay. You’re telling me you’re the White Wolf.”

Bucky huffs an amused laugh and shrugs, such a casually human gesture that it throws Steve off a little. “If that’s what they call me.”

“Uh-huh,” Steve pinches the bridge of his nose. “And you fucking chased me into the woods.”

The corner of his mouth ticks up. “Only a little.”

Steve grabs another cushion and hurls it at Bucky, who deflects it easily.

“You were lost,” he grumbles defensively. “I was trying to…” He makes a shoo-ing motion with his free hand, and Steve has to fight the urge to giggle.

“You were trying to herd me? Like a sheepdog?”

Bucky gives him a withering look before baring his teeth, canines lengthening before Steve’s eyes. “Werewolf,” he corrects, then shuts his mouth. And just like that, it’s out there.

Steve isn’t nearly caffeinated enough for this.

“Do you drink coffee?” he asks loudly, suddenly getting to his feet.

Bucky blinks. “Coffee?”

“Or I have tea. Do you like tea?” Boldly, Steve turns his back to him and makes his way towards the coffee maker. If he hasn’t been killed yet, he might not be, but at least he’ll have a fighting chance at grabbing a steak knife in the kitchen.

Though he’s the one still nude in the living room with a tea towel over his johnson, Bucky looks at Steve in bewilderment, like he’s sprouted another head. “What?”

“Well,” Steve gets the Keurig going and dry-swallows two Tylenol before he washes his hands and starts looking for a pan and cutting boards. “Waking up in someone’s arms usually means breakfast.”

The weak joke falls flat, and Bucky looks even more confused.

“Forget it. Have a seat.” Steve gestures to the stools under the island as he goes through the fridge. “But put a towel down first,” he adds hastily.

Bucky approaches with great trepidation, then obediently drops the tea towel onto the stool and sits on it.

“I guess that works, too,” Steve takes a deep breath and gets started on an omelette. He chops onions, mushrooms, bell peppers, and ham more roughly than strictly necessary, as if to drive the point home that he’s wielding a knife. They go into a pan with olive oil and several eggs, topped with salt, pepper, and shredded cheese. He slices some crusty French bread to toast in another pan before looking for some fresh fruit.

Bucky silently watches him flit around the kitchen, hands patiently folded in his lap.

Steve is two cups of coffee deep by the time he’s assembled their plates, splitting the eggs between them and spreading butter over their toast. They each get a pile of strawberries and some cucumber slices. He sets a bottle of water in front of Bucky and puts a knife and fork down beside it. “Go for it.”

Bucky glances down at the food with suspicion, then looks back up at him.

That’s a bit rude. Steve puts his hands on his hips. “Well?”

Bucky forgoes the utensils and pokes at the eggs with a finger. A filthy, blackened finger with dirt crusted under the nail. Steve grits his teeth.

“Do you not eat this?” he asks. “You can eat… Cooked food, right?”

Bucky grunts. “I haven’t in a while.”

Of course not. It’s not much of an answer, but it makes something in Steve’s chest clench. He clears his throat. “You’re not going to hurt me.”

He says it— declares it, really—like he’s challenging Bucky to say otherwise.

Instead, he looks at Steve tiredly. “I don’t do that,” he says, simple and honest.

“Alright,” Steve nods. He pulls his stool closer to Bucky and takes a seat, spears some eggs onto his fork, and holds it up to Bucky’s mouth with determination.

If this is how Steve dies, he has no one to blame but himself.

Bucky regards him skeptically, then leans forward, nostrils flaring as he gives the eggs a sniff.

“You’ll like them, I promise,” Steve says gently, like he’s coaxing a picky child.

That seems to be good enough, because Bucky gives Steve one last look of distrust before opening his mouth. He maintains eye contact while he chews thoroughly and swallows, giving no indication of whether or not he likes them until he opens his mouth again, expectantly. Figuring Bucky’s presumptuousness is no fault of his own, Steve loads the fork up again and finishes what he started.

Every third or fourth bite, he switches to his own fork for his own plate, eating under Bucky’s watchful eye. When he picks up his toast, Bucky leans in to sniff that, too.

“Wanna try this next?” Steve takes the bread from Bucky’s plate and holds it delicately to his mouth. Steve catches sight of his sharp canines again and keeps his fingers as far away as he can manage.

He staunchly ignores the heat coming off Bucky’s thighs, only inches from his own, the bulging biceps and the strong smell of earth and sweat. This close, Steve gets a better look at him, and he looks his fill while Bucky sniffs and chews and gets crumbs in his unruly beard. There’s a furrow to his brow, and a few lines crease his forehead and the corners of his eyes. Yet not nearly as many as you’d expect from someone as old as he must be—nearing a hundred if Clint’s story is right. Steve supposes werewolves don’t age like humans. This is the first time he supposes anything about werewolves, if he has to be honest.

Bucky’s nose is strong and straight, his lips a tender sort of pink that peek out from under his mustache. His hair falls in waves over his chest and down his back, greasy at the roots and dry at the ends. Even slouching in his seat, he’s got several inches on Steve, in all directions.

He stops that train of thought before it goes any further while Bucky nibbles at a strawberry between Steve’s index finger and thumb, the cool juice of it dripping down his chin.

Plush lips and coarse facial hair brush against Steve’s fingertips, making his cheeks grow warm, but he doesn’t waver. Slowly and steadily, they work their way through the longest breakfast of Steve’s life.

 

 

Bucky ends up finishing all his food and half of Steve’s, and doesn’t seem apologetic about it in the slightest. He belches contentedly and doesn’t say another word while Steve rinses the dishes off, quietly monitoring him from his perch at the island. It might be a companionable silence, if he weren’t acutely aware of Bucky’s eyes on him, making his skin prickle.

Steve runs out of things to fiddle with in the kitchen, finally turning to face him while he wrings a dishcloth between his hands. A hundred questions churn restlessly in his mouth.

As though he knows, Bucky tilts his head back, quirking an eyebrow.

“Thank you,” is what Steve settles on. A blanket statement for the past twelve hours—for getting him to the cabin, for retrieving his belongings, for keeping him warm, for not biting his hand off. Graciously, he doesn’t mention the fact that most of those things were Bucky’s fault in the first place.

Bucky sniffs in reply.

“I’m going upstairs to wash up,” Steve says cautiously. “Do you… I mean, if you want…” He briefly glances at the front door.

Bucky moves to stand and his nakedness is unhelpfully brought to Steve’s attention again. “You want me to leave.”

“You don’t have to,” he says quickly. “I just didn’t know if you. Had. Plans. Or something.”

He knows he deserves the dry look Bucky gives him, but frowns anyway. “I don’t know what werewolves do all day.”

There’s a dark twist to the half-smile that crosses Bucky’s face. “Survive,” he says. “That’s all.”

Steve lets out a long, slow exhale. “I’ll get you some pants.”

Upstairs, he digs through the drawers for anything that might fit. He settles on a pair of basketball shorts that he sometimes wears to bed that are definitely from two ex-boyfriends ago, who might’ve been as tall but not nearly as muscular. He hands them off to Bucky, who waits at the foot of the stairs with his backpack, and runs back up to brush his teeth and assess the damage in the mirror.

The bruise on the side of his forehead isn’t too bad, and the cut stings, but isn’t bleeding and doesn’t look infected. He washes it with antibacterial soap and dots some ointment onto it, deciding to shower after Bucky leaves. The idea of leaving him out of his sight for too long makes him uneasy.

He has another bruise on his hip and scraped up hands, but nothing else that needs tending to. He doesn’t unpack his backpack but plugs in his cell phone and waits for it to turn on, coming to realize it’s well into the afternoon. After a quick change of clothes, he goes back downstairs to see Bucky rearranging the living room, putting the furniture back in place. The basketball shorts were a questionable choice, Steve realizes, their shiny silver fabric stretching obscenely over a high, firm ass as Bucky bends down to pick up the pillows Steve threw at him earlier.

After staring for longer than he’d admit to, Steve clears his throat, and Bucky acknowledges him by jerking a thumb at a laundry basket in the corner of the room, stuffed with all the blankets they slept on. “Figured you’d wanna wash those,” he explains.

“I can do it later,” Steve says, helping to push the coffee table. Really, he should do it now. He’d have to hang half of them outside to dry while the sun is still out, but watching a werewolf carefully fluff a couch cushion is much more deserving of his time and attention.

When the room is sorted out, they stand back up and look at each other, for lack of anything else to do. “Do you need anything?” Steve asks, before that uncomfortable silence returns.

Bucky considers him for a moment longer. “Like what?”

“I don’t know,” he admits. “More clothes? More food? Do you want a bath?”

With a snort, Bucky takes a seat on the armchair, and Steve is struck by the image of a massive white wolf curling up on the chair the way Lucky did. “I’m good.”

Steve could argue. Instead, he bites his tongue and sits on the couch. “Well. If you’re sure.”

Bucky sucks his bottom lip between his teeth, working his jaw as he looks around the room. He looks less on edge, which Steve finds strangely endearing.

“You want a tour of the house?” he offers. “I could show you around the property, too.”

A curious blush colours Bucky’s cheeks, not completely hidden by his beard. “No, thank you,” he says, oddly polite.

Steve squints.

“I should go,” Bucky says, clearing his throat.

“Where?” Steve blurts out, already regretting the stupid question.

But Bucky seems more amused than anything, already standing and slipping the shorts off. Because he’s a grown man, Steve resists the urge to cover his eyes, but still holds his hands out and shakes his head. “No, uh, keep them, they’re yours.”

“I don’t really have a use for these,” Bucky tells him patiently, crumpling them in his hands and tossing them into the laundry basket.

Steve huffs. “I’m not letting you leave without some food. I have to use some stuff up before it goes bad, and I need to get more groceries soon, anyway. So just hang on a second.”

Bucky gives him a wry look, voice pitching low, almost threatening if it weren’t for the gleam in his eyes. “You’re not letting me leave?”

It might be meant to tease, but Steve stiffens and doesn’t reply.

Bucky shakes his head and chuckles on his way to the front door, and he’s reaching for the doorknob when Steve gets up and follows him. “Wait—”

Quick as lightning, Bucky turns and lunges towards him, and Steve gasps and flattens himself against the wall. Bucky looms over him, one hand braced on the wall beside Steve’s head. His hair nearly falls into Steve’s face and his scent is strong and heady, like wood and smoke, petrichor and wind.

Steve takes a deep, trembling breath, eyes wide.

“You don’t want me to stay,” Bucky murmurs into his ear, his breath scorching against Steve’s neck. “You fear me.”

He swallows loudly.

A predatory smirk stretches Bucky’s mouth to one side. “I can smell it,” he continues in a growl, leaning closer still. “On your skin.”

Like the night before, Steve can imagine the inevitable scrape of teeth against his flesh, the hot rush of pain that will follow, and his heart pounds wildly in his chest. He screws his eyes shut and holds his breath in wait.

And he waits.

And waits.

The warmth is gone by the time he opens his eyes, and so is Bucky. The front door is open and Steve hurries onto the porch, just in time to see a black shadow fade and ripple into a white mass before he loses sight of it in the trees.

 

Chapter Text

Eyes still fixed on the gap in the treeline that Bucky disappeared into, Steve grabs the porch railing with both hands and sags his weight against it. He doesn’t quite know what to do with himself now, and he’s faintly aware of needing to use his inhaler again, but he remains rooted in place and peering into the trees until he’s dizzy. Eventually, he pries himself from the wooden handrail and shuffles back into the cabin, feeling a strange sense of detachment.

After a moment’s deliberation, he locks the front door soundly behind him.

With nothing left to do, he briskly undresses and tosses his clothes into the overflowing laundry basket, then heads up to the bathroom to turn the shower on. He quickly washes the worst of the mud and grime away, then draws himself a hot bath. He doesn’t bother with salts or oils this time, just eases himself in and lays back, staring up at the ceiling. His scrapes sting and burn and his head throbs again, but he shuts his eyes to it, enduring the heat until it soaks into his bones. He sinks deeper into the water until only his nose breaches the surface.

The White Wolf is real.

He’s real, and he’s in the woods.

He carried Steve to the cabin, ate breakfast with him, and soiled his tea towel.

The legend is real.

Bucky, Steve reminds himself, is real.

He slowly sits up, pulls his knees up to his chest, and wraps his arms around them. He could easily stay there and ruminate until the water cools and his teeth start chattering. He should, if it could help him process the events of the day, to come to grips with the reality of the world he thought he knew. But Steve’s never been one for inaction.

He drains the bath and dries himself with his robe when he remembers that all his towels had been seized the night before. He gets the laundry started, fitting as many linens into the washing machine as he can, so he’d at least have sheets for the bed. Toeing the line between exhaustion and restlessness, he gives the living room another once-over, straightening things up and adjusting a few pillows.

He glances at the kitchen.

At the front door.

At the fireplace.

The cabin had always been a little too cold and far too quiet. Now, somehow, it’s more pronounced.

 

 

Later, after filling half a sketchbook with rough, strong hands and bright eyes peeking out from behind a curtain of long, tangled hair, Steve starts on dinner. He packs a tupperware container with buffalo chicken wings, garlic bread, and green grapes, steps outside, and secures the lid tightly before setting it down at the end of the driveway.

“If you were hungry,” he announces, to no one in particular. “Goodnight.”

 

 

The next morning, the container is licked clean and placed in front of the door.

 

 

Dinner that night is baked meatballs, onion rings, carrot sticks, and snap peas.

“I’m running out of finger foods here. If you just came back and told me what you want,” Steve says in the general direction of the woods. “Then I’d know what to cook.”

The container is returned to the front door the morning after, empty and waiting.

 

 

“If you come inside, you can have a proper dinner. Tomorrow, I’m making stuffed peppers. I make them kinda spicy. Do you like spicy food? I can also make shepherd’s pie with jerk seasoning, if you do. Anyway, you need to eat that with a fork, and, well… If you want to come back. I could teach you how to use one.”

 

 

“Bucky, I know you’re out there. I’m not… I’m not scared of you. I know what you are. But I’m not scared.”

 

 

It rains heavily overnight but quickly tapers off to a light drizzle by early morning. The sun is already out and shining in full force by the time Steve opens the front door. He can see a set of muddy paw prints on the porch, leading up to a still-wet container on the welcome mat. He frowns and brings it back inside.

He has to go into town today. His shopping list has grown enough that it warrants the trip, and he’s getting tired of the feeling that he’s being closely watched by something that refuses to just come inside and say hello, already . A few hours in civilization would do him some good, and he did promise to talk to Peggy this week (he’s located three spots on Erskine’s property where he can get decent cell service, and one that gets him the slowest internet access in the Eastern seaboard, but still, it would be nice to make a phone call that doesn’t break up or cut out after ten minutes). After breakfast, he packs two coolers full of ice and chucks them into the trunk of his car. He feels a curious obligation to say goodbye, to announce where he’s going and that he’ll be back.

But if Bucky wants to know, he can damn well ask. So Steve drives off.

Normally, he wouldn’t dare grocery shop on a Sunday morning. There are too many people, which means long lines, fighting for carts, and no parking. But that’s the city, and in Mansewood, he can park right by the entrance of Lang’s. He can grab a cart and take his time, flash congenial smiles at the dozen other shoppers, and peacefully peruse the baked goods aisle.

He wanders leisurely through the store, checking things off his list as he goes. The payment for an old commission finally came in, so he indulges in some expensive cheese and flavoured olive oils. He looks through the herbs and spices and thinks about making some bread, maybe a rosemary focaccia. He hasn’t baked bread in months, as he didn’t have the time or patience. Now he figures he has too much of both.

What does Bucky do all day?

Survive, Steve’s mind unhelpfully supplies.

Well. If Bucky doesn’t want to talk to him. Maybe the White Wolf will.

Steve stops his cart in front of the frozen meats with a plan and selects various cuts of chicken and pork. He picks up some salmon fillets and ground turkey as well, which weren’t on the list. Smoked sausages are on sale. So are bags of peeled frozen shrimp. They aren’t on the list either, but he grabs them anyway. He’s patiently waiting for the butcher to finish wrapping several hunks of beef when he spots Sam nearby, in the fresh produce.

“Steve,” he nods in acknowledgement, waving a head of broccoli. “How you holding up? Animals still bothering you?”

“Nope! Not at all,” Steve says cheerfully, and perhaps a little too quickly. “Day off?”

“Yeah. Just planning dinner,” Sam says, eyeing the stacks of meat in Steve’s cart. “You know, if you have an iron deficiency, there are pills you can take.”

Ha ha,” he says good-naturedly, internally scrambling for an excuse. “I just thought... It was high time to get the grill going.”

“Oh! Yeah, sun’s finally out,” Sam grins. “Great idea.”

“I’ve just been craving the Filipino barbecue my neighbour used to make when I was a kid. She always sent a plate down the hall for me and my ma. Best sauce I’ve ever tasted, she gave me the recipe before I moved out,” Steve says offhandedly as he collects the cuts of meat and organizes them in his cart, patting himself on the back for inserting a sentimental truth into the easy lie.

The relief is short lived.

“Need any help? I know you’re a self-sufficient city boy and all, but have you ever used a charcoal grill?”

“I can manage,” Steve says automatically, sticking his chin out.

The grin fades into a look of disapproval. “You’re out there alone and it’s a safety hazard,” Sam says sternly. “As a firefighter and park patroller, I have to insist.”

Steve scowls. “You just want free food.”

“That, too,” Sam concedes, expression softening. “Really, though. I’ll teach you for next time. It’d make me feel better about you messing around with lighter fluid in a very flammable forest.”

“You have a point,” Steve winces, thinking of Bucky and reluctantly agreeing. “What do I need for the grill?”

Sam shakes his head. “I got it, it’s my treat. Gimme a couple hours.”

Steve exhales and smiles, now awkwardly holding a wrapped, raw tenderloin to his chest. “Thanks, Sam.”

“Don’t worry about it, you can thank me by making that sauce. I’ve never had Filipino barbecue before.”

Right. That. “Will do.”

And, because he’s already in so deep, he adds, “Bring Clint and Tasha, if they’re not busy?”

They part ways and Steve trudges back to the aisles. Lang’s doesn’t have much by way of an ‘international foods’ section, but he thinks he can make do with some ingredient adjustments and substitutes. He adds burger buns, more vegetables, napkins, soda, and wooden skewers to his cart, as well. Like any good host would, he grabs some drinks—ciders, beers, a bottle of red wine.

Does Bucky drink alcohol? Can werewolves get drunk?

He ponders this while lining up at the register, cringing at the growing total price of his groceries as each item is scanned. All the meat will just barely fit into the three reusable bags he brought, and the rest of the food will have to go into plastic ones.

“So that’s what happened to all the T-Bones,” a gruff voice drawls from behind him.

Steve looks over his shoulder and takes in a brown uniform fitted over a solid chest, with a star-shaped badge and a name tag labelled ‘RUMLOW’ at eye level. Despite the teasing tone, the man looks down at him with contempt written all over his stubbled face. He might’ve been handsome if he wasn’t sneering, or had breath that didn’t stink of coffee. “Awful lotta meat, is all. I was hoping for steak tonight, myself, but you beat me to it.”

“Sorry, sir,” Steve says, though he isn’t at all. Something about him makes Steve’s skin prickle. “I only come into town once in a while, so I like to stock up.”

“Huh,” Rumlow raises his eyebrows. “Yeah, I’ve never seen you around here before. You a camper?”

“I have a cabin in the forest. Just spending the summer up here,” Steve murmurs, turning away while he pays for items.

“The forest. I see,” Rumlow says, glancing over all the fresh and frozen meat again. “Well, if you need anything, I’m Brock Rumlow, the sheriff of this county. Pleased to meet you…”

Steve purses his lips, shoving the bags back into the cart. “Steve Rogers.”

“Steve Rogers,” Rumlow repeats, tipping his hat with a grin that has no warmth behind it. “Enjoy your summer. Hope the woods don’t spook you too much.”

Steve smiles primly in lieu of a response, gathers his things, and heads out to the parking lot. He calls Peggy while he gets a few more errands done, unpleasantness forgotten, and keeps the conversation light. He asks about any new work ("Absolutely not, you’re on vacation.”) and what she’s been up to (“Not being on vacation, that’s for sure.”) and makes no mention of almost dying at the lake, werewolves, or greasy small-town law enforcement. She asks if he’s found a place yet. He doesn’t have to lie when he says it’s completely slipped his mind.

When he gets back to the cabin, he puts the groceries away and immediately starts on the barbecue sauce. Really, the meat should marinate overnight, and Steve is mortified about sullying Tita Rosalie’s good name, but that’s what he gets for lying. And now he has to make enough to feed four people, with plenty of leftovers for a certain elusive guest.

He moves onto shaping thick burger patties next, then washes and seasons the salmon. Everything goes into the fridge except the shrimp and bacon, which need to be defrosted; the former for kebabs and the latter to wrap around asparagus. He also throws together a fruit crumble while saying a heartfelt apology to Sarah Rogers for using store-bought frozen berries, and leaves it in the fridge to bake later on. He’ll wait to sort the vegetables out right before they go on the grill, so in the meantime, he does a thorough tidying of the common areas before hopping in the shower to wash the smell of garlic and vinegar off his skin. He’s barely just put his pants on when he hears two short honks coming from outside.

“Door’s unlocked!” Steve yells from his bedroom window, because he’s taken to leaving it that way.

“Took you long enough to invite me over! I brought you a jar of peaches!” Tasha yells back.

“And I brought Lucky!” Clint chimes in, and Lucky barks happily in agreement.

The forest bristles, shuddering in the breeze.

 

 

After greetings and small talk and ten minutes of Lucky licking Steve’s face, they get started on dinner. They lay a plastic tablecloth over the picnic table and carry out plates and cutlery, and a bucket of ice for their drinks. Steve leaves them all by the fire pit, knowing Sam has much more experience at manning a grill than he does—which is to say, no experience at all. Sam did show Steve how to turn the damn thing on, and helpfully gifted him a new fire extinguisher.

“The trick is to let the lighter fluid soak into the charcoal for a few minutes before lighting, so it doesn’t make your barbecue taste like chemicals.”

“Right,” Steve agrees, knowing full and well he’d never try it, alone. “Well, I’m gonna go finish putting the kebabs together.”

“I know you’re not about to store lighter fluid in a log cabin, Steve,” Sam calls out after him.

“Where else am I supposed to keep it?” Steve calls back. “I haven’t cleaned the shed out yet!”

Steve slips into the kitchen and shoves the canister under the sink before giving his hands a thorough scrubbing. He starts assembling the tray and almost doesn’t hear Tasha follow him in over ‘Grill-Master Barton’s Essential BBQing Tunes’ blasting from the speakers in Clint’s pick-up truck.

“Hey, need another beer?” Steve calls out over My Generation , trying to play off the fact that he was shimmying to it just moments ago.

“No, just wanted to help,” she says, washing her hands before sidling up next to him at the island. They poke peppers, zucchini, onions, and shrimp onto wet skewers in a companionable silence that lasts all of five minutes before Steve catches her sneaking glances into the living room and taking deep, measured breaths.

“Is everything… Okay?” he asks, looking over at the nearly pristine room across from them.

Tasha smiles at him, though it doesn’t quite reach her eyes. “Fine. Sorry. Must be allergies.”

To what?

The blankets and pillows had been put back, the floor swept, the rug vacuumed, and the coffee table in front of the fireplace had been wiped down with disinfectant wipes.

Steve knows intimately what allergies look like, and that isn’t it.

He doesn’t have to press her to explain, because she continues, arranging the kebabs on the tray with nonchalance. “Hey, Brooklyn… You feel safe out here? By yourself?”

Steve does his level best to keep from laughing hysterically.

“I guess so,” he says mildly. “I’m getting used to the quiet, I think. No one’s tried breaking in again. I haven’t had to deal with coyotes or bears or—”

“—Wolves?”

He turns to her, gauging her expression. She’s not smiling anymore.

“I wasn’t aware there were any in this area,” he says carefully, still fiddling with the food. “Sam and Clint did mention some fairytale from town, though. Something about a werewolf, right?” Steve says as casually as he can manage, throwing in an empty chuckle.

Tasha studies him for a moment, then takes his wrist, stilling his hand. “It’s not a story.”

He freezes.

With her other hand, she untucks her shirt from her jeans and lifts it up, revealing pale skin and an intimate sprinkling of red hair. Immediately, Steve’s cheeks colour, and he means to turn away until his eyes are drawn to four long, white scars that run across the flesh of her hip. They’re jagged and puckered where the torn skin tried to knit itself together, and time has done little to fade them.

“Tasha…” he whispers, horrified.

She drops her shirt and tucks it back in.

“Not a story,” she repeats. “You be careful out here. Promise me.”

“I will,” he says quietly and tears his eyes away, balling his fists up until his knuckles go white.

 

 

They stay until well after dark, moving back into the house once moths and mosquitos decide to join them. Steve can’t quite keep up with their stories of town gossip but is content to sip on his ginger ale and listen. The cabin has never felt so full, alive with good company and conversation. He wants to bask in it, but he’s still rattled by what Tasha showed him. She, however, smiles and laughs and carries on as though the conversation never happened. He should probably push it to the back of his mind and do the same, but it sits in the pit of his stomach and takes root.

When they leave, it’s with warm goodbyes and promises to host the next get-together. They make tentative plans to go to Sam’s place ‘next time’, for the sole fact that he won’t shut up about how well he can sous-vide a steak. They help Steve with the bulk of tidying up, including dishes and scraping the grill clean. Tasha gives him a firm, lingering hug before they pile into Clint’s truck—a reminder. A warning.

Steve steps outside hours after they’ve gone, greeted by crickets and birds of the night. The cold moonlight makes him think of when he first arrived, when the cabin felt unsafe, a violated shell of a house. Apprehension takes him, unbidden, in a way he hasn’t felt since then. He steels himself anyway, gravel crunching beneath his shoes as he walks to the end of the driveway.

He crouches down, placing the tupperware container at his feet. It’s bigger than the last one, full to bursting with grilled meats and vegetables, and a generous portion of Tasha’s spiced peaches.

Steve swallows, addressing the forest. “You said you wouldn’t hurt me.”

His voice doesn’t carry, and his words suffocate in the trees.  

“You said,” he accuses, louder. “You ‘don’t do that’.”

There’s no reply, though he’s not sure he expected one.

Steve turns and heads back inside. He doesn’t lock the door behind him.

 

 

In the morning, he finds the container still on the driveway, ignored and untouched.

He tries again the next night. And the next, and the next.

After several days, his concern turns to anger. He screams curses into the woods and slams the front door. He dumps the cold food onto the dirt in the mornings, burying it in the soil, unable to stomach the sight of it.

But the anger soon fades back into a hapless worry. It troubles his sleep and keeps him close to the windows, staring into the treeline. Waiting. Hoping. Wondering.

 

 

 

Steve stops putting food out after two weeks of silence.

After three, he spends his afternoons using the WiFi in town, inquiring about vacancies in Park Slope, DUMBO, and Williamsburg.

All the while, he’s gripped by the early stirrings of illness. The burning heat of it settles behind his eyes, in his lungs, in his joints. His body aches and it worsens by the day.

He locks the doors and closes the windows, shutting the forest out.

Chapter Text

Steve sticks a spoon into the simmering pot of broth. He blows on it until it’s cooler, then takes a tentative slurp.

He wrinkles his nose. It’s missing something, but he can’t quite place it.

He turns the stove off, adjusts the blanket wrapped around his shoulders, and shuffles out of the kitchen and into the living room. He’ll figure it out later. Right now, he needs to sit down.

Steve is used to being sick. He spent the better part of his formative years in bed, in and out of doctors offices, cycling through sniffles and coughs. He also spent a great deal of his fiery adolescence patching up his own bruises and scrapes. Raised by a nurse and taken in by a doctor, he knows what medicines to take and when to get himself to a hospital. As an adult with a slightly better grip on his health, he usually doesn’t let it stop him from getting work done, attending to his responsibilities, and generally living his life.

But that doesn’t mean he can’t feel terrible.

He’s been coughing for a week. How many days has he had this fever? Three? Four? Time blurs together when you’re awake and fitfully sweating all night, then sporadically napping throughout the day. It’s a good thing that the fridge and first aid kit are well-stocked because he wouldn’t trust himself to drive into town, nor be desperate enough to ask any of his new friends for help. They’d just worry, and he doesn’t need to be coddled. He just needs soup.

Steve scowls, laying across the couch with the blanket now thrown over his head.

He coughs himself awake in the same position hours later, after night has fallen. His joints creak and pop as he sits up, sore muscles getting sorer as he stretches them out. “Damn it,” he murmurs, shivering as he hurries to pull the blanket around him again.

His stomach growls viciously, reminding him that his bland soup has definitely gone cold.

Steve decides immediately that he doesn’t have the patience for it anymore. He grabs two cups of yogurt and a spoon and carefully climbs the stairs, trying not to slip on the quilt trailing behind him. He eats his sad dinner in the dark, on bedsheets that need washing, in clothes that need changing. He takes his glasses off and watches The Princess Bride on his laptop while he rubs Vicks Vaporub onto his chest and wallows in his own filth. He briefly considers jerking off after the sword fight at the Cliffs of Insanity. He has no one to impress.

Westley is in the middle of being mauled by a Rodent Of Unusual Size when Steve hears a loud tap against the window.

He looks over and squints, but doesn’t see anything there. Might’ve been one of those large, freaky bugs. Or a bat, chasing a bug. Or a bird, because that happened once and it nearly made him shit himself.

He turns back to the movie and gets a minute of peace and quiet before he hears another tap. He ignores it this time, but a third one follows it. He sits up and jams his glasses onto his face, looking to the bedroom window, watching in disbelief when a rock hits the glass as if being thrown from below.

“What the f—” Steve gathers his blanket cape and gets up, marching to the window. He pulls the curtain back an inch and peers down, seeing a man step out of the shadows, bending down to pick up a fistful of gravel. Everything in Steve seizes up in fear and panic before he realizes who it is.

Before more rocks gets thrown, Steve lifts the screen up, pushes the glass open, and sticks his head out to glare at Bucky on the ground.

A tense moment passes.

“Let me in,” Bucky says gruffly.

“No.”

Bucky looks genuinely taken aback, as if he never considered that response. Steve doesn’t know whether to feel smug or apoplectic.

The silent standoff continues until Bucky shoves his hands into the pockets of his jeans—he’s wearing jeans? —and sighs.

Please let me in?”

Steve looks him over, shirtless and barefoot, hair as wild as ever. “Why?”

“You’re sick,” he says, like it’s the obvious answer.

“So?” Steve challenges.

Bucky sighs again, like it pains him to continue this conversation. “You’ve been sick for nine days.”

Steve leans further out the window, if only to glower more effectively. “Do I even want to know how you know that?”

Insufferably, Bucky beams up at him. It’s an easy, toothy grin, knowing and frustratingly handsome, and it’s the first time Steve’s seen him look anything other than sullen and leery. If he weren’t spitting mad and holding onto the window frame, Steve might’ve sat down in shock.

“If you let me in, I’ll tell you,” Bucky offers.

Steve holds his gaze for a long, stiff moment before he slams the window shut. He hikes up the blanket still hanging off his shoulders and stomps downstairs. He throws the front door open, only marginally surprised to see Bucky already waiting on the porch. “Shut it behind you before moths get in,” he orders, curling up on the couch.

All previous cockiness having vanished, Bucky gingerly wipes his feet on the welcome mat before stepping inside. He shuts the door gently and stands in front of it, looking at Steve with uncertainty.

He might’ve gotten Bucky a pair of house slippers by now, and doesn’t that thought piss him off even more? “You’re not a vampire,” Steve says sharply. “I don’t have to formally invite you in.”

Bucky’s lip twitches, like he wanted to say something but thought better of it. In the end, he takes a few steps forward and folds his arms over his chest, looking oddly meek.

“Well?” Steve prompts.

Bucky looks over his dishevelled appearance, and Steve fights not to shrink away from his eyes. “You have uncooked beef with the bone still in?”

Steve blinks slowly. He fears a blood vessel might burst. “If you came here to ask for food ...”

“No—not for me—” Bucky explains, faltering. “I thought—bone broth?”

Annoyingly, that isn’t a bad idea. Steve should’ve thought of it himself. But he won’t admit that, not when he’s still riled up and confused. “If I knew how to make it, I’d have done that by now.”

“I’ll make it.”

Steve raises his eyebrows. “You can cook?”

Bucky smiles a little, lopsided and hopeful. “When I have to.”

He looks so earnest, Steve finds it difficult to say no, no matter how cranky he feels. “You’re just full of surprises, aren’t you?” he mutters rhetorically.

He peels himself off the couch and waddles into the kitchen, Bucky following a polite distance behind him. Steve sits on a stool at the island, tucks the blankets up under his chin, and looks at him expectantly. “Wash your hands first,” he says, and supervises as Bucky lathers up at the sink. He even scrubs under his nails, which are noticeably shorter now.

Bucky looks at him once more, waiting for further instruction. Steve puts his elbow on the tabletop and props his chin up with his fist. “Yes?”

“Meat?”

“Freezer.”

“Pots?”

“Under the sink.”

“Knives?”

Steve hesitates, and if Bucky notices, he doesn’t react to it. “Drawer to your left,” Steve eventually murmurs. “The cutting board is under the sink, too.”

Bucky doesn’t ask anything more, and Steve doesn’t offer. He watches as Bucky gets to work, pulling large Ziploc bags out of the freezer, sniffing them, and separating the beef from the others. The bags go in a salad bowl he grabs from the cupboard, which goes in the sink to be filled with hot water. He pokes around in the fridge and pulls out an assortment of vegetables, then digs through the spices. He dumps everything on the island, then locates the cutting board and a baking pan. He busies himself with preheating the oven, putting aluminum foil down, roughly chopping the vegetables and eating the bits he discards. He moves through the kitchen with surprising grace, handling the knives with suspiciously practiced ease. Steve barely has time to wonder where and when he picked these skills up when Bucky goes back to the sink, takes the meat out of the hot water, flexes his hand until his nails extend into fucking claws, and starts shredding the flesh away from the bone. Steve can only watch, eyes wide.

The meat goes back into the bags, which Bucky reseals and drops back into the freezer. The bones and vegetables get scattered over the baking pan and placed into the oven. The claws retract as he licks his fingers clean, one by one. He washes his hands and looks over his shoulder at Steve, lips shiny and reddened.

“Can I use the biggest pot? It needs to simmer overnight,” he says pleasantly, like he didn’t just tear into frozen meat with his bare hands as easily as one would peel a banana.

“‘Kay,” Steve replies, for lack of a better response. “How long do the bones need to be in the oven?”

Bucky shrugs, moving on to wash the dishes he’s used. “I can smell when they’re done.”

“Right,” Steve says, because of course he can.

Seemingly out of things to do in the meantime, Bucky leans back against the countertop, slouching with his shoulders up to his ears as he looks away from Steve; the very picture of discomfort. Neither of them speak for a while. For Steve, he barely knows where to start. In Bucky’s case, it’s more likely that he’s just not fond of conversation.

But Steve breaks the silence first, placing both hands on the countertop and clasping them together. “So you do own pants,” he observes casually. The jeans sit low on Bucky’s hips and hug his thighs, faded and flecked with mud, fraying in ways that look less intentional and more from actual wear and tear. They fit too perfectly to be stolen from someone else. And there’s no way he’s wearing underwear. Other realizations rapidly flicker in. “And you know how to cook food. And use a stove. And handle cutlery.”

Guiltily, Bucky gnaws on his bottom lip, sharp white teeth showing through the darkness of his beard. “Yes.”

The admission grates on Steve, so he makes the executive decision to remove himself from the situation. “I have to shower,” he declares, hopping down from the stool. He stops at the foot of the stairs and grinds his teeth before asking, “Are you going to leave while I’m gone?”

Bucky looks up at this, his expression irritatingly unreadable. “No,” he says. “I’ll stay.”

“Good,” Steve blurts out before he can think better of it.

After a moment’s pause, Bucky agrees. “Good.”

Steve accepts that and heads up to the bathroom.

As soon as the water hits his skin, he figures the shower was long overdue. He must have stunk like sick and old sweat, and he flushes hot with embarrassment knowing how he smelled to Bucky. How he smelled for ‘nine days’ , apparently. No wonder he came back. Probably thought Steve had died and started rotting away.

He scrubs at his skin until it turns pink and raw, and lingers under the soothing spray until the tension in his muscles ease up. When he gets out, he brushes his teeth and puts on soft, clean sleep pants and a long-sleeved shirt. Before he starts feeling awful and tired again, he strips his bed and puts new sheets on, changes the pillowcases, and replaces his blanket with a fresh one from the linen closet. As comforting as it is to continue wearing it like a cape, he puts a hoodie on, instead. He opens the windows to air the room out, then heads back downstairs.

The contents of the pan are now presumably boiling away in the pot. Bucky stands by with a spoon, scraping at the fat bubbling up and collecting on the surface.

“Feeling better?” he asks without turning around.

“Sure,” Steve says half-heartedly and yawns into his hand. It’s late, according to the time on the stove, but Bucky seems perfectly alert. “Are you gonna stand there and watch it all night?”

Bucky doesn’t answer for long enough that Steve is convinced he hasn’t heard him. Before he can ask again, Bucky turns his head, though not enough to look Steve in the eyes.

“I can,” he says. “You should rest.”

“What about you? It’s after midnight,” Steve frowns.

Bucky works his jaw, like he’s turning the words over in his mouth. “This is the time I hunt,” he begins. “I sleep during the day, when it’s hottest.”

Steve lets that fact sink in, like the fever returning. It makes sense. Bucky doesn’t have a pack to rely on during the day, and all that white fur is too easy to spot through the dark trees. “Did you hunt yet? Tonight?”

Bucky pauses, turning back to the stove. “I’ll try in the morning.”

Steve purses his lips. “I have meat, you know.”

Bucky doesn’t respond.

“Take some,” Steve says, then stops halfway up the stairs. “My name is Steve, by the way,” he adds.

At that, Bucky turns around, looking at him carefully. “Steve,” he repeats, in his low, rough voice.

Steve swallows and nods, then goes back to the bedroom. He throws himself onto clean sheets that feel blissfully cool against his warm skin and falls asleep faster than he has in a week.

 

 

When he jolts awake, he has a dizzying, disorienting moment that transports him back to waking up at the lake. It’s freezing and he’s shaking, gasping through the night air.

In his haste, he left the windows open. He sweated through his layers, making him even colder.

Steve groans, then yelps when he hears sharp knocks at his door.

It opens a few inches, enough for Bucky to peer into the dark room. “I heard… You weren’t breathing right. I turned the stove off.”

Steve sighs heavily, and it whistles in his lungs. “What time is it?”

“Almost four.”

“Jesus,” Steve croaks. He rolls over onto his back, still shivering. “Do I smell like a dying animal to you? Be honest.”

Bucky opens the door a little more, flips the light switch on, and leans against the doorframe. “No,” he says, amused. “Just sick. Dying smells… Bitter.”

“What does sickness smell like?”

Bucky hums in thought. “Sour.”

Steve cringes. “That’s not much better.”

“Better than dying,” Bucky says, softly.

“That’s fair,” Steve concedes. He makes a half-hearted attempt to get his sore, aching limbs under the covers but stops when he remembers he has to shut the windows. He groans again.

“Can I help?” Bucky asks.

“M’fine,” Steve grunts and sits up, fixing his glasses that have gone askew. “You can get me another blanket from the closet in the hallway, though. Fuckin’ freezing.”

Bucky doesn’t move from the doorway. Steve looks over at him, taking in the furrow of his brow. “If you’re cold,” Bucky gestures to the bed. “I can—like before?”

Steve juts his chin out, hoping the sudden flush in his cheeks can be mistaken for fever. “I’m fine,” he says coolly. “I can take care of myself. Just grab me that blanket.”

“I run hotter than a blanket,” Bucky insists. “I’ll just lay sit beside you this time. We don’t have to—”

“The blankets are clean and won’t get mud on my sheets,” Steve cuts him off before he can finish, preemptively embarrassed about what Bucky might say they were doing ‘ before’.

“I’ll shower.”

“You know how to use a shower?”

Bucky tilts his head. “You have questions for me. I’ll answer them.”

Steve is thrown by the offer, but narrows his eyes. “What’s the catch?”

“Nothing,” Bucky says and looks sincere about it.

Steve is still unconvinced, but is interrupted before he can argue.

“And… I won’t leave again. I’ll come back.”

It cuts to the core of him, because that’s the truth of it all, isn’t it? Steve was upset that Bucky left. That he didn’t come back. Steve should be upset, now, having that exploited and used against him, but he can’t find the energy. His curiosity outweighs his annoyance, and he nods and rubs his eyes, mollified. “Fine.”

By the time he looks up again, Bucky has disappeared and he can hear water running from the master bathroom. Steve takes the time alone to pull himself together. He takes a few steadying breaths, shuts the windows, and changes out of his sweat-soaked clothes. Distantly, he supposes he should feel more self-conscious about his clammy skin. He tries on three different shirts before he gives up and chooses the softest, thinnest one, because he’s just going to sweat through it, anyway. At the last minute, he puts a thick pair of socks on, and gets back into bed.

He places his glasses on the side table and pulls the blanket up to his chin. He waits, trying not to stare at the door across the room, wondering if it would be too weird and intimate to put some music on. The quiet is unnerving and the anticipation makes his stomach churn.

The water stops. Steve hears movement, Bucky shuffling around and opening cabinets for an unusually long time. What’s he looking for?

Steve sits up again and gets as far as swinging his legs over the side of the bed when Bucky opens the door, and Steve is wholly unprepared for the sight of him with his hair up in a towel with another one slung around his hips. He’s not dripping on the floor, which is appreciated, and his dense body hair looks fluffed and shiny over the taut muscles of his chest and stomach. Steve immediately curls his toes.

“Can I use a spare toothbrush?”

“Can you— huh?” Steve asks, a little distracted. “Uh—”

“You have two new ones under the sink, and...” Bucky runs his tongue over his teeth and exhales. “I just ate.”

“Oh,” Steve says faintly. “Go for it.”

Bucky retreats into the bathroom and Steve listens to the sink turn on, turn off for a while, then turn back on. Of course, he wouldn’t let the water run. Werewolves must have some opinions about the environment. That’s something Steve can add to the laundry list of questions he already has lined up. He lays down and entertains the thought of having Bucky and Sam discuss local deforestation and overhunting when the door creaks open again.

Bucky comes in, towel still tied around his waist, hair damp and smelling of Steve’s orange body wash. The reality of what he’s agreed to hits him hard then, when Bucky inches closer and looks over the bed. Steve’s heart rate picks up, and he knows Bucky hears it by the way he glances up at him with concern.

“I could… Shift?”

Upon realizing what he means, Steve pales. “I don’t think I’m ready to see that.”

Bucky drops his eyes. “I could put my jeans back on?” he suggests after a moment.

Steve makes a face. “Ugh. Do you want to? Do you even like wearing clothes?”

He shrugs. “I wear them when I need to. They’re constricting.”

“‘When you need to,’” Steve echoes. “Is that… Not often?”

Bucky shakes his head.

Steve sighs, scooting over to the furthest edge of the bed and pulling the blanket back. He lays on his side, face half-smushed into the pillow. “I’m still pissed off,” he warns. “Shut the door. And hang that towel somewhere. And turn the lights off.”

Bucky turns around to hang the towel on the doorknob, and Steve screws his eyes shut after an inadvertent but solid eyeful of hairy backside before the lights go out. He doesn’t open them when he feels a weight settle on the bed, nor when that weight shifts closer, bringing radiating heat with it. The blanket moves a little and Steve fights the urge to tug it back towards him. Finally, everything is still, and all he can hear are crickets outside and a deep, even breathing that makes his own wheezing sound that much worse.

Cautiously, he opens his eyes and is relieved to see that Bucky is on his back, staring at the ceiling rather than at him. In the moonlight, Steve takes in the sweep of his eyelashes, the lines and shadows of his face. “How old are you?” he asks, because he might as well start there.

Bucky hums in thought. “A hundred, I think.”

“You think?”

A sad sort of smile pulls at Bucky’s mouth. “There’s no one left who would know for sure.”

Right. “Sorry. I knew that already. Stupid question,” Steve mumbles.

Bucky turns his head, just enough to look at him. “You know about me,” he says. He states it like a fact, but Steve can hear the question in it.

“A little. Maybe. I heard a story in town,” he says. “Didn’t think any of it was true, but here you are.”

“Was it a bad story?”

Steve doesn’t expect a question like that, and he casts about for an answer. “It wasn’t very happy,” he admits.

Bucky smiles again, ruefully, but doesn’t ask anything more.

Steve bites his lip and the moment of softness vanishes. “There’s something I need to know.”

Bucky makes an inquisitive noise, giving him the go-ahead, but Steve isn’t sure how to ask. Isn’t sure he even wants to hear it. But it’s gnawed at him for weeks, an uneasy anger that shifts from betrayal to confusion and back again. Steeling himself, he sets his jaw and says, “Why did you hurt Tasha?”

Something like bewilderment flickers across Bucky’s face, which only serves to irritate Steve even more.

“You know. The woman with red hair. The one who came by for my barbecue the day you stopped coming back. Her name is Tasha,” he snaps. He sits up now, and regrets it when his head immediately starts to swim. “Were you trying to kill her?”

To his credit, Bucky looks contrite, but not nearly enough for someone who attempted murder. “What did she tell you?”

“You said you were going to answer my questions, not ask me more. She asked me if I was safe out in the woods, and showed me the scars in the middle of my fucking kitchen. Bucky, what the hell?” Raising his voice grates at his throat and makes something behind his temples throb, but Steve can’t help it now. “Why did you do it?” He stiffens.

The creases in Bucky’s forehead deepen as he looks over Steve’s face. “She was trespassing,” he finally says.

“And what the fuck does that mean?”

“I had to do it,” Bucky turns over, shifting until he’s on his side. He glances up at Steve curiously, as if gauging his reaction. “She didn’t submit to me.”

“What are you saying?” Steve demands. “You think you own this forest? Am I trespassing, too? Because I sure as fuck never submitted to you, either—”

“I think you need to lay down,” Bucky interrupts, worry clear in his voice. “I can hear your heartbeat.”

“Fuck you,” Steve growls, breath coming in shorter and shorter gasps. “You attacked her. Why should I trust you? How do I know I’m not next?”

“Steve—”

“No, answer the question.”

“Please, you should calm—”

“Don’t tell me to calm down!” He’s shivering harder, and sweat is beading on his forehead. “She’s my friend and she’s worried about me!”

Bucky sits up with a fierce look of determination in his eyes. Steve gears up to have a proper yelling match but is unceremoniously grabbed around the middle and pushed face-down onto the bed. Solid warmth covers his side as Bucky half-pins him down, securing him in place with a heavily muscled arm. The force of it nearly knocks the wind out of Steve so he has to turn his head away from Bucky to avoid suffocating in the pillows, and ends up shouting into them. With his arms trapped under him, all he can do is scream profanities with his behind in the air, wiggling from side to side as he kicks his legs out.

“WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING GET OFF ME YOU BASTARD —”

“Just relax,” Bucky says evenly. “This isn’t good for your health.”

“OH GO TO HELL ASSHOLE WHO THE FUCK DO YOU THINK YOU ARE —”

“That’s not nice.”

“I’LL FUCKING KICK YOUR ASS HOW’S THAT FOR NICE —”

“It’s good to know you aren’t actually scared of me,” Bucky muses, too casually for someone who’s dick might be nestled up against Steve’s hip. “When you’re done, I’ll tell you everything she didn’t.”

That gives him pause, and Steve huffs before slumping down into the bed. “What do you mean?”

Bucky leans his head down a little, and Steve feels Bucky’s hair and beard, coarse and damp, tickling the nape of his neck. He shudders. “You’re not gonna like this,” Bucky says.

“Like what ?”

Bucky takes a deep breath, and Steve can feel the pressure of it against his back. “When she got here, we had a territorial dispute. She tried to challenge me.”

“A territorial…?” Realization dawns and Steve quickly starts up again, feverishly kicking and struggling to break out of Bucky’s grasp. “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me,” he yells, turning his head towards Bucky now. “Tasha’s a werewolf!?”

“I told you, you weren’t gonna like it,” Bucky says, eyes wide. An open, honest expression that Steve finds difficult to doubt. “Did you tell her about me? Or did she scent me first?”

He thinks back to their conversation, to the way she reacted to the living room. He deflates again, sinking into the mattress, forcing deep breaths until he stops trembling. Bucky, stalwart as ever, holds him through it.

“But I cleaned after you left,” Steve says petulantly. “I put away anything you touched.”

“I might have… Touched...” Bucky hesitates, looking a little sheepish. “Everything.”

“What! Why?” Steve sputters.

“Well, it wasn’t that night,” Bucky clarifies, as if that’s supposed to make Steve feel better.

“Then when did you touch everything?”

Bucky presses his face into the pillow and sighs. “I thought this cabin was abandoned,” he says, muffled. “The old man hadn’t come back in years. Towards the end, I could start to smell the bitterness there, so I thought...”

Erskine.

Steve goes silent again, for long enough that Bucky chances a peek up at him. “Did you… Know him?” Steve asks softly.

“No. I left him alone,” Bucky says. “He only came in the summers. Hardly ever went into town. Played a lot of classical music.”

“Sounds like him,” Steve murmurs. “He did pass away, yeah. Left me the cabin.”

Bucky blinks at him. “He was your family?”

“Oh, no. He was close friends with my ma, and he took me in after she died. Helped me get through school and get a job, made sure I kept my nose clean.”

“Sounds like family,” Bucky says gently.

Steve smiles tightly. He might have done his grieving, but it’s not a conversation he’s ready to have yet, not like this. He clears his throat. “So, Tasha tried to challenge you and she lost. That’s all?”

“I’m twice her size. If I tried to kill her, she’d be dead,” Bucky says, matter-of-factly.

“Uh-huh,” Steve says with a grimace. “So, you really do think these woods are yours, then.”

Bucky looks at him with another one of those small, indecipherable smiles. “I watch over them,” he whispers. “And everything in them, from the mountains to the lake.”

“Is that why you…” Steve exhales a shaky breath, sharply aware of the scant few inches between their faces. “Rescued me? And came back when I was sick?”

“Yes,” Bucky says, easy as anything. “You’re hard to keep safe, you know.”

A laugh unexpectedly bursts out of him, and he tries to tamp it down to giggles when Bucky frowns at him. “I heard that a lot, growing up, that’s all,” Steve explains. “You can’t keep me safe from being sick, though.”

Bucky snuffles indignantly, like he’s going to try, anyway. “I’m making bone broth,” he reminds Steve.

“You are,” he agrees, barely stifling a yawn.

Bucky takes that as a sign to loosen his arm around Steve. Before the comforting weight of it leaves, Steve grabs his wrist and pulls it back.

“Don’t,” he murmurs. “Don’t move. This is good.” If he could only open his eyes a little more, he might be able to tell if Bucky is blushing, but Steve doesn’t know for sure. He only knows that he’s warmed right through and more comfortable than he’s ever been. He turns his body towards Bucky, enough so that he can free his arms and tuck them up between their chests.

Bucky stays perfectly still, not moving an inch from where Steve left him. “Are you sure?” he asks quietly.

“Mhm,” Steve hums, eyes falling shut. To prove it, he pulls the blankets up and shifts a little closer, until his head is tucked up under Bucky’s chin. He’s met with a faceful of chest hair, which feels pleasantly softer than last time.

He feels Bucky’s other arm slide under the pillows. The one thrown over him relaxes.

“I’m still kinda mad at you,” Steve mumbles.

“Should I say sorry?”

“No. But I’m gonna ask you more questions in the morning.”

“Whatever you want,” Bucky promises.

“And… You can ask me questions, too. If you want.”

After a while, Bucky tightens his arm around Steve. “Okay,” he says.

Steve rests his forehead in the crook of Bucky’s neck, finding it the perfect place to fall asleep.

 

Chapter Text

It turns out that waking up snuggled into a werewolf’s chest a second time still isn’t enough to get used to it. Steve ends up sneezing himself awake, shoving Bucky until he nearly falls off the bed, shouting at him with renewed vigour until he remembers that they had (somewhat) resolved things late the night before, and that most of his anger is hunger-related. Steve shrugs him off and throws himself into a cold shower, then goes downstairs to see Bucky back in his jeans, tending to the large pot of soup again.

“You can toss those in the laundry if you want,” Steve asks, by way of an apology.

Bucky looks down at his legs. “Do they look that dirty already?”

Steve cocks his head to the side. “When’s the last time you washed them? No, wait—how long have you had them?”

With a shrug, Bucky shoves a hand in the front pocket, his finger poking out through a hole. “I think I got them at a Salvation Army in Pittsburgh, sometime in the eighties?”

“Christ,” Steve says, sidestepping around him to get to the coffee maker. “No wonder they’re falling apart.”

“I have some stuff that’s way older,” Bucky says defensively, reaching into a cupboard for a mug to hand to him. “A leather jacket from the fifties. A denim one from the seventies. Pair of boots from the sixties. They all held up just fine.”

Steve squints at him. “You have a whole human wardrobe? Even underwear?”

Bucky chuckles, moving back to the stove. “Not underwear.”

Steve shuts his eyes and heaves a long-suffering sigh. “How stupid of me to ask,” he says tiredly. “So where do you keep all your stuff? Don’t tell me it’s hiding somewhere in the cabin and you break in to get— oh my god, you’re the one who broke in, aren’t you!”

He doesn’t give Bucky a chance to respond, just reaches out and gives him a solid punch to the stomach.

“Ow, hey—”

“I had to get the whole door replaced!”

“I told you, I thought it was abandoned—”

“And you clogged the fucking bathtub!” Steve gives him another smack. “I thought something died in there!”

“I was shedding my undercoat,” Bucky pouts. “It was hot. I wanted cold water.”

“There’s a whole lake out there,” Steve mutters.

Bucky, at least, has the sense to look sheepish. “The algae makes my fur look dirty. I wanted clean cold water.”

“Oh, of course,” Steve rolls his eyes, turning away and glaring at the coffee maker. “Wouldn’t want to look dirty, being a lone werewolf who lives by himself in a forest, with literally no one to impress.”

When Bucky doesn’t reply, Steve glances over at him, not expecting to see downcast eyes and a tightness to his mouth that makes Stev feel suddenly more ill. “Alright. I’m an idiot,” he says, gently nudging Bucky with his elbow. “But now, I’m the idiot you gotta impress.”

That earns Steve a hint of a smile. “Hope you like clothes I stole from church donation bins over the past seventy years.”

“Vintage is really trendy,” Steve says, with all the conviction of a Brooklyn hipster. “I’d have to spend a thousand dollars at an Urban Outfitters for the same look.”

Bucky grins in a friendly way that lets Steve know he has no clue what he’s talking about, but nudges him back all the same.

Steve makes the conscious decision then, to go a little easier on him.

The bone broth continues to simmer. Though it’s well past lunchtime, Steve makes them breakfast—oatmeal topped with bananas, raspberries, and pumpkin seeds for himself, plain oatmeal and an entire package of breakfast sausages for Bucky. They sit in the living room to eat so Steve can curl up comfortably, and trade easy questions back and forth.

“What’s your favourite human food?”

“Bacon cheeseburgers with lots of barbecue sauce. Where are you from?”

“Brooklyn, originally. My family’s from Ireland. Can you talk to animals?”
“Not like how humans talk to each other, no. What happened to record players?”

“We still have those, but most people carry their music around on their cell phones, now. Does it hurt to shift?”

“It’s not comfortable. All my bones snap and reform, but it happens pretty quick. Do you have a job?”

“I’m an artist. And yes, that’s something that makes money these days. Sometimes. I can show you some of my work if you’d like. Where do you sleep?”

“I have a den miles out from here, it used to belong to a bear. Do you know how to play cards?”

Steve produces an old, scuffed deck from the back of a kitchen drawer full of candles and matches. The afternoon passes with Bucky beating Steve at every game they both knew, and most games they had to teach each other, their past grievances forgotten in favour of new, more lighthearted ones. They move up to the loft to raid the cabinet under the television for the chessboard, which gets abandoned when Steve puts on a documentary about the ocean for background noise that ends up taking all of Bucky’s attention.

It’s hard to think of him as a fearsome, dangerous beast of legend while he’s hugging a throw pillow to his chest, deeply fascinated by jellyfish.

“You can go to an aquarium and see those up close, you know,” Steve suggests lightly, his personal feelings on animal welfare aside.

Eyes still glued to the screen, Bucky exhales, long and slow. “Maybe… One day.”

Steve isn’t sure what to make of their new arrangement, of the situation he created that he may not have entirely thought through. He knows with certainty that his interest in Bucky is driven by a longing curiosity and, bitterly, the selfish need to not be ignored. Steve also knows, to an extent, that it’s like a dog with the primal urge to chase his own tail; once he finally catches it, what does he plan to do with it?

But with Bucky stretched out beside him on the couch, a warm and steady presence, Steve supposes it’s a line of thought he can pursue after a short nap.

 

 

Later, over the rim of the bowl, he catches Bucky’s eyes, wide and expectant.

“It’s…” Steve smacks his lips together. The flavour is thin, like watered down soup stock, but the texture is unpleasantly oily. He nearly has to chew it to get it down. “Kinda thick?”

Bucky leans back against the kitchen counter, looking relieved. “Good bone broth is supposed to be.”

“Well. I guess you’d know.” The bland, gelatinous contents of the bowl quiver as Steve sets it on the island. “Aren’t you going to have any?”

“I made it for you,” Bucky reminds him. “I’ll hunt at sunset.”

Steve frowns. The sun had already started to set. “There’s food here.

When Bucky starts to chomp down on his bottom lip, a habit Steve realized often precedes a vague or dodgy answer, he presses on. “Do you not like my cooking? Is that it? You can just tell me, you know.”

He was half-joking, but the lack of response and serious look on Bucky’s face makes Steve shift uncomfortably on the stool.

“It’s that bad, huh?”

“I need to shift,” Bucky says quickly, nearly speaking over him. “I’m not used to being in this form for this long. It feels… Ugh,” he mutters, running his hand across his chest. Steve can’t help but follow the movement. “Like I’m trapped. Like I’m going to burst out of my skin.”

“Oh,” Steve says dumbly, thinking of Tasha working long days and busy nights. “Is that normal? For all werewolves?”

Bucky, who has the patience of a saint, gives him a half smile. “I don’t know. It’s been a while since I’ve had someone to ask.”

Steve glances out the kitchen window at the streaks of orange and gold that wash over the evening sky, and wonders how many more times he can stick his foot in his mouth. “Will you… Are you coming back?”

“I said I would,” Bucky says softly. “Before dawn, if all goes well.”

“Wow. That long?” Steve asks.

Bucky looks down and away, and Steve feels a pang of guilt for how tactless he must sound. “Take all the time you need,” he amends. “I’ll be here. Obviously.” He lifts the bowl of broth, trying to swirl it enticingly, but all it does is tremble like ominous jello. “I’ll be drinking this, which, um. Thank you, by the way.”

Steve expects—hopes—that Bucky might crack a smile at that. Instead, he gives Steve a pensive look. “Don’t stay up and wait for me,” he says. “You’re still sick. You need rest.”

Steve blinks. “Why do you think I’d stay up and wait?” he asks crossly, knowing full and well that he had every intention of doing just that, but not appreciating being called out for it. “I don’t need to be tucked in, I’m nearly thirty!”

“Alright, Steve,” Bucky murmurs, completely unconvinced. “I’ll go now, so I can be back soon. Is that okay?”

“More than okay,” Steve says mildly. “Go on. Have fun. Don’t get hurt. I’ll be in bed, so don’t make a racket on your way in.”

“Uh-huh,” Bucky straightens up, shaking his head. “I’ll leave now, then.”

“Great.”

He takes a few backwards steps towards the front door, still looking at Steve. “And I’ll be back.”

“Fine.”

Bucky gives him one last, pointed look. “Please rest.”

“You can’t tell me what to do,” Steve fires back, pursing his lips and watching him go. But before Bucky disappears through the doorway, Steve calls out, “Bucky—”

Bucky stops, eyebrows raised, looking as amused as Steve feels crabby. “Yes?”

Steve gives him a good, long glare before responding. “Leave your pants.”

His eyebrows immediately drop, knitting together over the sharp point of his nose. “My pants?”

“Yes. I’m going to wash them,” Steve announces, before taking a loud, jiggly slurp of the broth. “And bring back anything else you want washed.”

With a questioning look in his eyes, Bucky slowly tucks his thumb behind the top button of his jeans. Steve grips the soup bowl a little tighter, afraid it might slip out of his suddenly sweaty hands.

“You sure?” Bucky asks.

Steve shrugs, aiming for impassivity. “Might as well.”

Bucky pops the button.

Steve busies himself with taking long, delicate sips of flat ginger ale, eyes averted.

“Don’t wait up,” Bucky warns once more, and by the time Steve has set the glass down and turned back to sass him again, he’s gone, with the front door left open and his pants in a heap on the floor.

Steve sighs loudly, and chokes down half the bowl of broth before he rises to his feet.

He’s not in any rush. He has no plans, nowhere to be, no pressing matters to attend to. Nothing should feel different from any other day he’s spent at the cabin, but it does. While he’s not waiting for Bucky , per se, Steve is still expecting him, and it makes him antsy. He hasn’t had to anticipate someone’s arrival like this since he had roommates, which is a strange thought in and of itself. Bucky doesn’t live with him. They have no responsibilities to each other. Steve pushes the door shut, tosses the muddy jeans in the laundry hamper, and kicks it out of sight.

He makes himself a cup of decaf lemon green tea and takes it upstairs. He might turn in early, put a comforting old movie on. He never did get to finish The Princess Bride.

It takes him less than twenty minutes to turn it off, unable to pay attention or find a comfortable position in bed. He can barely hear the film over his coughing, anyway.

His eyes flicker over to the window. A thick fog obscures the moon in the dark, murky sky. He hears crickets, birds, and wind rustling through the trees. Sounds he’s come to find relaxing, that have easily lulled him to sleep.

Steve shouldn’t feel this keyed up.

He grabs a sketchbook out of the desk drawer, turns the lamp on, and lays on his stomach across the bed. Drawing is something he can easily get lost in, something that can both focus him and clear his head. Unsurprisingly, the disembodied doodles eventually begin to take on a familiar shape, but he lets them. He lets the lines guide him, settling on a form he knows too intimately.

It’s an aesthetic appreciation. That’s all.

He fills three more pages before his back begins to tense up and his eyes blur with the strain of drawing in half-darkness. He sits up, cracking several joints as he goes, and takes his sketchbook and cold tea down to the living room. There’s better lighting there, and a very cozy waffled throw he brought from home that he likes to drape over his legs when he sits on the couch. It’s a perfectly valid reason.

And it’s where Bucky finds him, several hours later, still clutching his pencil in one hand.

Steve is only faintly aware of being moved, of his feet dangling as he’s hoisted into the air. He inhales the scent of cold earth and coppery blood, and feels a deep rumbling that accompanies a low, soothing voice, too quiet to hear. He gets put down as gently as he was lifted, pleasantly sinking into something soft, but the warmth that covered him leaves all too quickly.

Stay.

The plea comes to mind, unbidden. Whether or not it makes it out of Steve’s mouth, he doesn’t know, but the encompassing heat returns, and a solid mass with it. He can just manage to turn over, to press himself against it and hold on.

 

 

They don’t talk about it, and Steve supposes he’s grateful.

Bucky graciously feigned sleep as Steve came to, his face buried in Bucky’s armpit, a leg wedged between Bucky’s bare thighs. Awareness trickled in, slow and syrupy, but he was far too comfortable to do anything about it. He simply shut his eyes again and absent-mindedly stroked the soft fur within his reach.

Bucky trembled beneath him. Steve tried not to smile.

It’s an easier morning by far.

So he makes pancakes and bacon and drowns their plates in maple syrup, because he’s feeling leagues better and wants to eat something free of bone marrow, now that he can stomach it. Bucky devours his breakfast like a starving man—Steve assumes the hunting didn’t go so well—and has seconds and thirds before doing the dishes as thanks.

There’s something captivating about the way the muscles of his back flex and stretch. Steve’s eyes linger on old scar tissue that hair hasn’t been able to grow over, the width of his shoulders, the swell of his ass. Bucky’s unabashed nudity is still a novelty to him. He wonders if he’ll ever get used to it.

After ogling for much longer than is polite, Steve clears his throat and stands up. “Did you get a chance to bring some clothes back?”

Bucky turns the tap off and looks over his shoulder at him. The morning sun streams in through the window behind him and brings out the rusty amber tones through his hair, lighting the white streaks up like a halo. “Just a shirt,” he says slowly, like he’s still unsure about the whole thing.

Steve wants to ask why he only brought the one, if that’s the only shirt he owns, if he’s ashamed or doesn’t trust Steve or anything else. “Okay,” he says, instead. “I can do laundry now. Where is it?”

“Already left it in the basket,” Bucky says, then pauses. “I’ll shower and put them on.”

It’s an earnest offering. A gesture to put Steve at ease, at the expense of his own comfort. It’s unnecessary, but Steve doesn’t say so. “Alright. I can lend you a pair of socks, too. I guess you don’t need them to keep your feet warm, but they’re pretty comfortable.”

“Sure,” Bucky says with a wholly unexpected grin that bares all his teeth. It’s a bit like looking into the sun, so Steve has to excuse himself before his whole face goes pink.

Their second day together brings new revelations. Bucky still speaks in stops and starts, admitting to not having had so much active conversation in decades. Steve is patient about it, and that approach seems to coax more smiles out of Bucky, each one more dazzling than the last. Still, there’s something unmistakably wild about him, something that can’t be softened under the smell of fresh laundry. Bucky manages to humour Steve with human pleasantries while carrying himself with the deliberate poise of an apex predator, though it seems much easier to talk to him when he’s fully dressed.

Steve can’t help but wonder about spoiling him with superficial comforts. About the kind of life Bucky’s lived that would have him marveling at the feeling of cashmere socks, and clutching onto any pillows within his grasp for the feeling of something plush against his skin.

After mulling it over for a long while, Steve comes up with the nerve to do something about it. The opportunity arises in the living room sometime in the evening, towards the end of a Jurassic Park marathon that has Bucky completely engrossed.

“I was thinking,” Steve begins.

Bucky grunts in acknowledgement, but doesn’t look away from the laptop screen.

“I thought I could brush your hair. If you’d like that.”

Bucky’s gaze shifts from the movie, not looking at Steve, but away, as if in thought. He reaches up and tugs at an unruly lock of hair. “I don’t know,” he finally replies.

“Oh,” Steve says, trying to sound less dejected and more casual. “That’s fine, too. I just thought it’d be nice—”

“I don’t know if I like it,” Bucky clarifies, furrowing his brow. “I don’t remember. It’s been…”

He trails off, and Steve gives him the span of two breaths before stretching his leg out, tapping Bucky’s thigh with his toe. “It’s okay. I’ll go get the comb.”

It’s in the bathroom drawer, and Steve takes his time pulling blond strands out of it and giving it a thorough wash in the sink. He wishes he had a brush, something that’d be better suited for long, thick hair, but he’ll just have to go about it slowly. When he gets back to the living room, the laptop and coffee table had been moved aside as Bucky relocated to the floor. It surprises Steve a little, but he doesn’t show it.

“You can still see the movie from there?” he asks, settling into the space on the couch behind Bucky. “Want a cushion?”

Bucky nods, and Steve hands him a large throw pillow, which immediately gets tucked under his chin and hugged to his chest. “I think this is how I used to get my hair brushed, before.”

“My ma made me sit on her bed because of my back,” Steve offers, settling his feet on either side of Bucky. “You can come closer.”

Bucky leans back into him, his thick arms brushing against Steve’s shins, nestled perfectly between Steve’s spread thighs. “Like this?”

“Yeah, just like that,” Steve says, grateful that Bucky can’t see him blush. Slowly, he gathers Bucky’s hair and spreads it out over his lap. Despite the knots, it doesn’t feel as bad as he expected, especially since it had been washed earlier. It could do with a trim, and Steve laments not having any hair conditioner, but he redirects himself to the task at hand.

He sections the hair as best he can and starts at the ends, holding the mid-lengths while working the comb through matted tangles so he doesn’t tug at Bucky’s scalp too much. “Tell me if it hurts,” Steve murmurs quietly.

“Doesn’t hurt. Feels good,” Bucky whispers in response. Steve curls his toes.

It’s not long before he feels Bucky’s shoulders start to sag. After one particularly troublesome knot is smoothed out and Steve is able to run the comb smoothly from root to tip, Bucky lets out a heavy sigh and tilts his head back a little. “I like this,” he says. “I always did. I remember now.”

“I’m glad,” Steve says, running his fingers through the deep waves, near-black and frosty white. “Did you always have long hair? Back then?”

Bucky tenses.

Steve continues brushing.

“No,” Bucky says softly. “I had to cut it short. That was the style back then, how boys wore their hair. We had to look like everyone else.”

“That makes sense,” Steve says encouragingly. “Was it your mom, you remembered? Who brushed your hair?”

“Yes,” he breathes, like a confession. “I had older sisters and they took longer, but sometimes my mother brushed my hair until I fell asleep.”

Steve keeps going over sections he’d already finished, just to carry it out longer, to let Bucky have this moment of peace and familiarity. “You had a big family, huh?”

“Pack,” Bucky doesn’t hesitate to correct him. “Nine of us, I was the youngest.”

“Sorry. Pack, then,” Steve agrees gently, choosing his next words more carefully. “I feel like I’m always saying the wrong thing, and it’s because I don’t know what the wrong thing is. I heard… Well, I don’t care much for what I heard. For all I know, none of it’s true, anyway.”

Steve’s fingertips brush Bucky’s temples as he smooths his hair back, away from his face. “So I’d rather hear it from you, if you’d tell me,” Steve says, keeping his voice steady.

Bucky’s hands tighten into fists around the pillow.

“We’re white wolves,” he says roughly, after some time. “We were safe in the winter, hidden in the snow, but the seasons changed and hunters found us. We headed south. We didn’t have a choice.

“All werewolves had a bounty on their head from the Lerna clan. I didn’t… I still don’t know much about them, just that they had eyes and ears everywhere. Still do. Some bigger packs had to split up just to have a fighting chance. We didn’t. Maybe we should’ve.”

Steve doesn’t have much to say to that, nothing that would help, in any case. He settles for placing his hand on Bucky’s shoulder and giving it a firm squeeze before going back to combing his hair.

 

 

“We stuck to the trees until they started hunting all wolves. We couldn’t stay on the run anymore. We had to settle down, blend in,” Bucky spits the words out, like he hates the taste. “We aren’t humans. We shouldn’t have had to pretend. We should’ve fought back from the start.”

Steve feels Bucky’s back shudder as he draws in a ragged breath.

“We knew about Mansewood because of another pack that helped establish the town, but they were gone by the time we arrived. Heard hunters caught wind of them, so they separated and went into hiding. The town was so small, so out of the way, and I loved the damn lake. Spent all day there when I could. I begged and begged to stay. After a month of quiet, we thought the hunters moved on. After a year, we didn’t think they’d come back.”

“Fuck,” Steve exhales.

“We shouldn’t pretend to be human,” Bucky reiterates, the defeat in his voice tempered by a simmering rage. Steve knows it all too well, the sound of holding back, of keeping yourself in check. “This form dulls our senses. Things feel muted. Hearing, vision, smell. We’re weaker, we move and react slower. It’s a useless, cumbersome, inelegant body.”

“I don’t think it looks that bad,” Steve says faintly, twirling a lock of Bucky’s hair between his fingers.

“The night they got to us…” Bucky’s voice wavers. When he unclenches his fists, blood pools in his palms from where his nails broke skin. “It was my fault.”

“Don’t say that,” Steve admonishes, putting the comb down. “You were just a kid, you couldn’t have—”

“I don’t know what you heard about me, Steve. What you think you know,” Bucky growls. “But I wasn’t a kid anymore, I was old enough to know better. By then, after a few years, we had made a home here. I thought we were safe. I thought it was over,” he swallows thickly, then barks a watery, mirthless laugh. “Teenage rebellion isn’t just a human thing, you know? I snuck out a lot, shifted and ran around the woods by myself. Wasn’t supposed to, not even on full moons. I did it anyway. Someone in town mentioned seeing a wolf in the forest, but it was just talk. Rumours. Something to tell children to keep them from wandering. The townspeople didn’t pay it any mind, so I thought I got away with it. The next time I went out, the hunters were already there. Waiting.

“In the end, there were too many of them. They cornered me, wanted me to shift and howl, call for help, but I wouldn’t.” Bucky’s voice cracks. Steve’s heart breaks in sympathy. “There was one pack of grey wolves left, who kept to the mountains. Only five of them, but they heard the commotion and came running. They could’ve— should’ve stayed hidden, but they came for me. They howled for my pack, but my pack didn’t do anything. Wouldn’t have done anything. We were in hiding, we wouldn’t have answered to an unfamiliar call. After I’d gotten away, I started howling when I realized the wolves were taking me away from the town, not towards it.”

“They were saving you,” Steve says.

“They hid me in the mountains, but they should have abandoned me,” Bucky says in a small voice, bowing his head. “I was scared. I didn’t know where I was. I was running on instinct, not thinking, and I just wanted my pack. Because I called for them, they walked right into an ambush.”

“Bucky…”

“I was stupid, so the Lerna clan got lucky. I was selfish, so my pack got killed. It was my fault. All of it. I ran away from this place because I was afraid, but came back because I had nowhere else to go. I don’t want to hurt anyone, I swear,” he rasps brokenly, turning his hands over in front of him. The blood had already dried. “I don’t know or care what lies they told you. The hunters are the ones who survived to tell the story. They’re the ones who won.”

Steve’s leaning down before he even realizes it, sliding his arms around Bucky’s shoulders and pulling him close. Bucky’s hands lock around Steve’s forearms, holding him in place.

“I’m sorry,” he murmurs into Bucky’s hair. “But that’s not true. They didn’t win. They’re long gone, and you survived. See?”

But Bucky’s eyes are closed, and the tears that slip out roll down his cheeks land in fat, wet drops on Steve’s shirt sleeves.

“You didn’t run away, Buck.” he insists, squeezing him tighter. “You’re here. You’re still here. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” Steve repeats, voice dropping to a whisper, holding Bucky as he takes silent, quivering breaths.

 

 

It’s a long while before either of them move.

Steve takes Bucky by the elbow and leads him upstairs, helps him undress, and lays him on his side. Steve sits behind him again, smoothing Bucky’s hair with the comb, then raking through the silky strands with careful fingers until he stops shaking.

Once Bucky falls asleep, Steve gently climbs out of bed. He goes downstairs to put his shoes on and sit in his car, where he can cry into his hands until he’s exhausted enough to sleep, too.

Chapter Text

They have a quiet morning. The early hours of it are spent laying together, this time without the shy pretense of sleep. They curl up close under the mismatched quilts with their red-rimmed eyes open, warm and present in the soft sunlight.

Steve reaches out and tucks Bucky’s hair behind his ear. Bucky indulgently leans into the touch, like he’d purr if he could.

“You smell better,” he croaks, the first words spoken between them in hours.

Steve yawns. “Better?”

“Not sour anymore,” Bucky says with a sniff. “Except for your breath.”

“Oh, eat me, ” Steve snarks back, flicking him on the nose.

The growl deep in his throat reverberates through the bed. “Don’t tempt me,” he says with an especially wolfish smirk. Steve throws a pillow over his face, if only to hide from the look in his eyes.

Over breakfast, Bucky spends more time chewing on his lips than the food. Perhaps he means to talk about the night before, or something new that’s troubling him. He ends up asking if they can go out for a walk that day, and while it doesn’t entirely answer Steve’s questions, it does seem to soothe Bucky’s nerves when he agrees.

“What should I wear?”

Bucky shrugs noncommittally. “Whatever is comfortable. And boots.”

Steve grimaces. “Do I need my inhaler?”

“Bring everything,” he says, with a smile Steve doesn’t trust.

The afternoon finds them deep in the woods, Bucky shouldering Steve’s backpack and leading the way with a light step. Despite being barefoot (with the cashmere socks tucked into the back pocket of his jeans), he looks perfectly at ease. The wine red of his henley gives his eyes a greener hue, and he runs his hands through his hair with barely concealed pleasure. Steve wonders where he can find some hair elastics in town.

“I hope you’re paying attention,” Bucky says dryly.

Steve grumbles in response, stomping along behind him. “Where are we going?”

“You’d know if you were paying attention.”

“How would I—are we going to the lake?

“Uh-huh,” Bucky says, then, “Watch your step.”

Steve doesn’t, trips on a root, and flails in mid-air before Bucky catches him and sets him upright. “Uh, why are we going there?” he asks.

“So I can show you how to get back.”

“Oh,” Steve blinks. “That’s… Actually a good idea.”

“I know,” Bucky says, slinging an arm over his shoulder and tugging him along. The casual and increasingly frequent touches have Steve reeling. It’s contact without purpose or motive, just for the sake of being close. He can’t think of the last time he was like this with someone. He doesn’t want to think of the last time Bucky had this, either.

“It’s been a while since I’ve come through here in this form, but I have to make sure you can take this path, too,” Bucky says as they sidestep a rotten stump, pulling Steve out of his thoughts. “Is it okay so far?”

“I don’t know,” Steve says honestly, more focused on the uneven ground beneath him and doing his best to keep up. He wipes the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand. “How much longer is the walk?”

Bucky twists his mouth. “Another mile or so? I don’t really have a good sense of time,” he admits. “I used to have a wristwatch, but it broke about forty years ago and I never got another one. Wolves don’t really need them.”

Steve snorts. “So, I guess you aren’t in this form a lot,” he ventures. “Can I ask about that? If it’s not too...”

When he looks up at Bucky, he’s already looking back down at him with something that Steve might mistake for fondness. “Yeah,” Bucky says. “It’s okay.”

Steve learns that his pack used to split their time evenly in both forms, with houses at the edge of town and a large den not far from it. They hunted, spent time amongst the humans, and had peaceful allies in the packs they shared territory borders with. Bucky remembers going to a schoolhouse when the weather allowed it, to learn to read and write in French. He recalls going to a Catholic church on holidays so the townspeople would leave them be. While on the run, they lived as wolves, and in Mansewood, they lived as humans full-time. Afterwards, Bucky stayed in his wolf form in the mountains for as long as he could get away with, until overhunting had shrunk the population to nearly nothing and he had to shift back for the first time in years.

“I went back and forth when I had to,” Bucky says, recounting the times he had to shift if there had been wolf sightings in the forest or when he overstayed his welcome as he drifted through towns, stealing what he could, when he could. Once things had settled down, it was safer to stay a wolf, so long as he was careful about it. It ensured his senses stayed keen and sharp, and he hunted at night and kept away from roads and trails.

He only shifted back to travel, because it was easier to go unnoticed as a scruffy looking drunkard. Hitchhiking, sneaking onto trains and the backs of trucks, even walking for days down lonely stretches of road, if it came to it. He made his way up, down, and across the country. “I’d been on my own for years at that point, so I wanted to find others like me,” Bucky explains. “I had to try.”

“How far did you get?” Steve asks.

“From north of here, all the way to the West coast of Canada. Anywhere they had enough forest, I had to look. I met a handful of smaller packs, twice as many lone werewolves. All hiding out, same as me.”

“You met—” Steve gapes. “You found other werewolves! Why didn’t you stick with them?”

“Steve,” Bucky sighs.

“I mean, not that I’m not glad you’re here , but if you had a chance to join or start another pack—”

“That’d be like walking into someone’s house and telling them you’re family now,” Bucky says patiently. “You can’t just beg or negotiate your way into a pack. They’re not always flesh and blood, but they’re bonded like it, and it’s not something you can force. It just happens. Unless they’re a pup and got nowhere else to go, then you’re a real jerk if you turn them away.”

That quiets down Steve for a while, but he still can’t help but feel for Bucky, spending all that time alone.

“It wasn’t all bad,” he continues, like he can tell what Steve is commiserating about. “I’ve done a lot, kept myself busy picking up survival skills. I learned how to steal and drive a car, how to cauterize a wound, how to—”

“Cook?” Steve asks accusingly.

Bucky chuckles. “Cook,” he agrees. “I also read a lot of books, then learned a couple different languages so I could read more. Thought I’d like to write one, someday.”

“I’ll illustrate it if you do,” Steve offers, and Bucky squeezes his shoulder in reply.

“I met others , too,” he adds. “Not just werewolves.”

“Other… Creatures?” Steve’s eyes widen. “Like who, Bigfoot?”

“Bigfoot isn’t the name of one being,” Bucky says. “It’s a species. I’ve met two. They exist all over the world, actually, going by different names. They’re all just shy.”

“Holy shit,” Steve says under his breath. “Who else? Mermaids? Aliens? Wait, no, I gotta think local. Are wendigos real? Have you met the Mothman? The Jersey Devil?”

“Wendigos are real, and they’re assholes. Wolves always get blamed for their attacks, so we try to stay away from them,” Bucky says with contempt. “Haven’t met the Mothman, I hear he’s a busy guy, but I did meet the Jersey Devil. He’s nice, made me a cup of coffee after he realized I wasn’t there to hurt anyone. He’s pretty easy on the eyes, too.”

Steve isn’t sure what to do with that information and tries to keep the scowl off his face.

After only a few more stumbles, they get to the lake by noon, and lay out a blanket to eat lunch in the shade. Conversation flows from Bucky’s travels to the decades he’s lived through, and the changing world he’s seen during his sporadic forays into civilization.

“Did you like disco?”

“No.”

“Have you ever seen a movie in a movie theatre?”

“No.”

“Did you have any human friends? Or...”

Bucky raises an eyebrow.

“Romantic… Companions? I guess?” Steve tries not to cringe at his own choice of wording. “I was just curious. You told me when we first met that no one was supposed to see you.”

Bucky sits back, stretching out his legs and looking to the treetops across the lake. “I don’t like to be seen these days, not so close to my den. But. There were some humans,” he begins slowly, still deep in thought. “I didn’t stay anywhere too long, but a few were kind to me. Wanted me, even. I sometimes went back to see them, if I was passing through.”

Steve notices the faraway look in his eyes, his slightly downturned mouth. “Was it… Did you love them?”

Bucky shakes his head without a second thought, with a sad sort of laugh that seemed to be more for himself than Steve. “I didn’t tell them what I am because I didn’t trust humans. So I didn’t stay.”

They pack up quietly and head back into the woods. From the treeline, Bucky points to the shore, at a huge mossy rock with a long and unnaturally straight groove carved into it. It seems easy to miss, if you didn’t know it was there. “I did that when we decided to stay here. That line points north, where we came from. This is where you’ll start.”

Claws extended, Bucky tears into the trunk of every third tree as they head back towards the cabin. The scratches are deep and clear, but he keeps them just out of eye-line. Some are a little lower, some are higher, and they wouldn’t be obvious unless you knew what to look for.

“Go slowly and carefully. You could still miss one and get lost,” Bucky warns.

“Then I can just fall down and you’ll come running,” Steve reminds him cheekily.

Bucky rolls his eyes, but smiles back. “You’ll need to know how to get back and forth by yourself, eventually. You’ll thank me in the winter, when this trail gets you home faster.”

Oh.

Steve purses his lips while Bucky chatters on. “You know how to ice skate, right? The lake is solid for most of December, all the way to February—”

“I’m not going to be here in the winter,” Steve says gingerly. “I’m going back to the city.”

That gives Bucky pause, his smile fading, but he shrugs it off just as quickly. “Well, you’ll know for next summer, then.”

“Buck,” Steve says, voice soft. “I can’t. I’m not coming back. Staying this long is already eating into my savings, and I can just barely afford the apartments I’m looking into. It’s hard to explain. My whole life’s in the city.”

In the silence that follows, they continue their pace, but Bucky’s stopped marking the trees.

“I’m sorry,” Steve offers, but Bucky just shrugs. “I should’ve told you.”

“When?” he asks quietly. “When will you go?”

“September. Two months from now,” Steve says, having decided that just then. “Two whole, entire months of me raising hell in your forest.”

Bucky doesn’t smile again, but his expression softens enough that Steve can breathe a little easier. “That’s not so bad,” he concedes.

“It’s plenty of time,” Steve insists.

Bucky finally looks at him, with something unreadable in his eyes. “For humans,” he says. “Sure.”

 

 

Once back at the cabin, they take turns in the shower. Steve tells him to throw his stuff in the laundry basket and tries not to blush when he hands Bucky those obscene basketball shorts again. Steve also leaves the comb on the bathroom counter, and is pleased to see Bucky’s hair brushed sleek and smooth when he’s done. That does not, however, mean Steve doesn’t have to mop up the muddy footprints trailed up and down the stairs.

“The floor’s just going to get dirty again,” Bucky complains.

“No, it won’t, because I wear slippers,” Steve retorts. “You said you own boots. Wear them outside, then wear socks in here.”

Bucky grumbles about it, but puts the socks on anyway.

They settle in the living room with a bowl of white cheddar popcorn, and Steve grabs his laptop and puts Ghostbusters on while he teaches Bucky how to use his Kindle. Bucky takes to it immediately, curling up in the corner of the couch, brow furrowed in concentration as he holds the tiny tablet with a delicate grip. Steve watches, rapt, as Bucky munches through a handful of popcorn, licks his fingers clean, wipes them carefully on a tissue, then gives the screen a poke to turn the page. “Fuckin’ amazing,” he whispers.

“Can I draw you?” Steve blurts out loudly, unable to stop himself.

Bucky doesn’t even look up. “You already have.”

“Wha—how did you—you went through my shit?” Steve tries to kick him, but Bucky grabs his foot before he even gets close.

“Sorry,” Bucky says, not sounding like it at all, and still not looking up. “You like my hands.”

Steve pulls his foot out of Bucky’s grasp, then puts the popcorn bowl in his lap, out of Bucky’s reach. “Asshole,” he mutters.

“Did you draw that, too?” Bucky asks, ducking a split second before a handful of popcorn is thrown at his head.

Dinner later that night is haphazardly thrown together, using whatever food is left before it goes bad. It had been a couple of weeks since Steve had last gone into town, and he’s desperately due for another grocery run. After washing up, he stands in the kitchen and scribbles out a list, checking and double checking his cupboards and pantry. “I’m going to buy more food tomorrow morning,” he announces, loud enough for Bucky to hear him from the loft. “Want anything specific?”

After a beat, Bucky calls back, “Don’t get me anything.”

Steve sighs. “You don’t have to be shy about it. Just tell me.”

Bucky still doesn’t reply. Steve sighs again.

“Fine,” he says. “Dog treats, it is.”

A near-deafening and positively feral snarl from upstairs makes Steve nearly drop the pen. “Christ, Bucky, it was just a joke.”

A minute or two later, he hears heavy footfalls above him that make their way down the stairs and onto the main floor. “I’m going,” Bucky says.

“Hmm?” Steve takes his head out of the fridge to look out the window. The sun had already set. “Oh. Right. I guess you didn’t get to shift yesterday.”

He goes back to taking stock of the diminishing food supplies when he hears the sound of the dryer opening. “They aren’t done yet,” he says with the pen between his teeth, then frowns and pulls it out. “You’re wearing your human clothes to go hunting?”

Steve pokes his head out of the kitchen, just in time to see Bucky tucking his damp clothes under his arm while he sheds the socks and basketball shorts. “Buck?” Steve asks, but he doesn’t look up.

“I’m going,” Bucky says again, pointedly.

“Okay?” Steve squints, bristling at his tone. “Hope you’ll be in a better mood when you get back.”

“Not coming back,” Bucky says, turning away from him to walk to the front door.

Steve drops the pen this time. “What?”

Bucky stops a foot from the doorway, shoulders tensed. “You’re better now,” he says neutrally. “There’s still more bone broth if—”

“Fuck the bone broth,” Steve snaps, feeling as though his stomach is crawling it’s way up his throat. “You said you weren’t gonna leave again.”

“I said I’d come back,” Bucky corrects him as he pulls the door open.

“When?” Steve demands.

Bucky sets his jaw, turning to look back at him. “When I have to.”

Steve scoffs loudly, stomping towards him. He doesn’t even bat an eyelid, and that pisses Steve off even more. “When’s that gonna be? Do I need to get sick again? Do I need to be in danger? Is that when you’ll have to come back?” Steve pushes him aside and kicks the front door shut. “Damnit, Bucky, why can’t you just stay? Why are you running away?”

It’s a low blow, he knows it the second it comes out of his mouth, but Bucky doesn’t even flinch.

“Why should I? You’re not even staying,” he counters, gnashing his teeth, stepping forward and towering over Steve. “Tell me. What am I doing here?”

Steve swallows, looking dead into eyes that are bright and wild.

His breath catches in his throat again, but this time, he doesn’t waver.

“Stay,” he pleads. “For me.”

Bucky tenses, so Steve takes another step closer. “I’m not fucking scared of you,” he says in a low voice, grabbing Bucky by the wrist. “But I know you’re scared of this. Of me.”

“You don’t know what you’re saying,” Bucky says intensely, but doesn’t look away.

Steve narrows his eyes. “Do you smell fear on me, Bucky?”

His nostrils flare, and his warm breath ghosts over Steve’s face. Bucky leans in closer, and Steve’s heart races. Heat floods through his body, like an electric shock down his spine.

“You wanna know what I smell on you?” Bucky growls, eyes flickering down to Steve’s mouth.

Steve licks his lips. “I know what it is.” He grips Bucky’s wrist tighter. “I wanna know what you’re gonna do about it.”

The challenge hangs in the air between them, still and charged like the moment before a storm. It stretches out for an eternity before chapped lips meet his, and Bucky must’ve dropped his clothes at some point because he cups his hands around Steve’s face, simultaneously pulling him closer as he shoves him up against the closed door. Bucky kisses him without finesse, deep and messy and perfect. Steve’s glasses are pushed uncomfortably against his face and the doorknob digs into the small of his back, but he ignores it all in favour of chasing that heat, the rough press of Bucky’s teeth and tongue, and all the hair and muscle he can get his hands on.

“Upstairs,” Steve begs, eyes screwed shut. “Please, Buck.”

Bucky pulls back enough to press the pad of his thumb against the swell of Steve’s bottom lip, to scrape his teeth along Steve’s jaw. He whines, knees threatening to give out under him. “Bad idea,” Bucky murmurs with a gravelled edge to his voice, though he eases his leg between Steve’s thighs anyway.

The noise of protest dies in his throat as he grinds down, moaning when he feels Bucky’s cock hardening against his. “No, it’s not,” Steve insists between shaky breaths, hips jerking.

He looks up at Bucky from under his eyelashes, then slowly tilts his head back to bare his throat.

Bucky’s eyes grow impossibly darker, nostrils flaring.

“Upstairs,” Steve repeats.

Bucky doesn’t protest this time, pulling Steve’s legs up and around him without warning. Steve gasps and grabs onto Bucky’s shoulders to keep himself steady, locking his ankles around Bucky’s waist. Bucky’s mouth is on his again as he holds him up with one hand like he weighs nothing, an easy display of strength that leaves Steve breathless and dizzy. Then they’re moving across the floor and up the stairs, each step jostling Steve as he shamelessly grinds against Bucky, only stopping once they enter the bedroom and he’s dropped onto plush sheets.

Bucky stands at the edge of the bed, skin flushed red under his beard, eyes wide and unguarded, catching silver in the moonlight.

Steve sits up on his knees and looks him over, from his broad, heaving chest, to the thick cock hanging heavy between his legs. Unable to help himself, Steve reaches out and places his hand over Bucky’s heart, feeling the steady beating under his palm.

“Do you want this?” he asks quietly, watching the muscles tense at his touch.

Bucky exhales. “I don’t wanna hurt you.”

“You won’t,” Steve says defiantly.

Tucking a finger under Steve’s chin, Bucky lifts his head up to meet his eyes. “I might,” he says, rough voice tinged with concern. Steve wants nothing more than to kiss the tightness away from his mouth, to smooth the creases in his forehead.

“You won’t,” Steve says, surer than he’s been of anything. “I’m not a virgin, Bucky, I know—”

“I’ve never done this before,” Bucky says in a rush, a pleading look in his eyes. “Humans are… It’s different for us. It’s not the same for werewolves.”

Steve frowns and drops his hand from Bucky’s chest, but shifts forward and wraps his arms around Bucky’s neck before he can panic about it. “What about the humans you mentioned before?”

Bucky sighs. “I told you, I didn’t trust them.” He closes the distance between them as he rests his forehead against Steve’s. “We did… Some things. Not everything.”

He’s close enough for Steve to kiss, so he does, keeping it sweet and lingering. “Do you want everything?” he breathes, catching Bucky’s lip between his teeth.

“Yes,” he groans.

“With me?” Steve asks, brushing the tips of their noses together.

Bucky makes a sound like he’s hurt. “Fuck, Steve,” he whispers, like he hates to admit it. “Yes.”

Steve pulls away to switch the bedside table lamp on, and makes quick work of tugging his shirt over his head. It ruffles his hair and knocks his glasses askew, but he bares himself anyway, imperfections and all. He thinks about the picture he must make, pale and lean with a crooked spine, nipples pebbling up in the cold, old scars from surgeries that saved his life. The life that led him here, to this moment.

He can’t be self-conscious now. He refuses to be, when Bucky looks at him like he’s only just seeing him for the first time.

“Can you show me?” Steve asks, taking his hand. “What you’ve done before?”

Tentatively, Bucky climbs onto the bed. The worry in his eyes turns to determination as he lays Steve down and covers his body with his.

It’s nothing they haven’t already done, but there’s a newness to it now, the thrill of knowing he can want, and is wanted in return. Knowing he can spread his legs for Bucky to nestle perfectly between them, that Steve can toss his glasses onto the side table, because Bucky won’t be far enough to lose sight of.

He shifts and tilts his face up expectantly, silently asking for kisses, but Bucky chuckles instead, pressing his mouth against Steve’s neck.

“Wait.”

“Tease,” Steve accuses, tangling his fingers into Bucky’s hair.

Bucky hums, not disagreeing, and the vibrations of it against his skin make Steve shiver. “Can’t rush me,” Bucky says, laving at his collarbone. “You don’t know how long I wanted… God, if you only knew—”

“Please,” Steve says, arching his back, not exactly certain what he’s asking, though Bucky happily obliges. He moves lower, tonguing patterns across Steve’s chest until he can scrape his teeth over Steve’s nipple. He cries out, so Bucky repeats the movement with his other nipple until Steve’s whining and writhing beneath him, hard and desperate for friction.

Bucky slides a hand over Steve’s hip, teasing at the skin just above the waistband of his sleep pants. “Can I?”

Steve doesn’t answer, just starts kicking them off himself, but Bucky stops him and leans back to look him in the eyes. “This is my favourite part,” he says softly. “Let me.”

Steve nods, but he’d agree to anything at this point, with the feeling of Bucky’s solid mass over him and his chest rubbed raw from beard burn. Bucky rewards him with a kiss, too gentle and fleeting for Steve’s liking, but the kisses trail south until Bucky’s licking into his navel. Steve knows he’s helplessly leaking through his boxers now, watching Bucky nuzzle into his groin, nosing at the bulge.

“You smell good here,” Bucky grins.

“I’m gonna pass out if you don’t hurry up,” Steve threatens breathily.

Bucky clicks his tongue, but hooks his fingers into the waistband of Steve’s underwear, slowly pulling them down with his pajama bottoms. Steve inhales sharply as his hip bones come into view, his pubic hair, his cock. Bucky leans back to pull his pants off the rest of the way, then sits up and looks over him hungrily. “Look at you, honey, Jesus,” he drawls, running his hand up Steve’s bare leg. “So smooth. Soft all over.”

Brazenly, Steve draws one knee up, spreading his legs further and drawing Bucky’s heavy-lidded eyes.

“Not all over,” he corrects.

Bucky smirks. “You’re right.”

Steve smiles crookedly at him, tilting his head. “So what else?”

“I want to touch you,” Bucky replies without hesitation. “And… I want you to touch me, too.”

“We’ll do that,” Steve agrees, lifting his leg to slowly slide his foot up Bucky’s inner thigh. Steve’s toes stop just short of his dick, where the hair gets thicker and his body feels impossibly hotter. “Then what?”

Bucky exhales wetly. Even in the dim glow of the lamp, his lips are blood-red from biting at them.

Taking pity on him, Steve scoots over to the edge of the bed, reaching for the bedside drawer. He feels around for that small, sticky bottle he’s glad he didn’t throw out. “Do you know how to do this part?” he asks, tossing it to Bucky.

He catches it in one hand, squinting to read the label. “This isn’t real blueberry,” he mutters.

“Well, you’re not gonna be eating it,” Steve says with a sigh. “Maybe you should just watch.”

Brows knitted together, Bucky holds the lube to his chest, like he’s afraid Steve would make a grab for it. “I got it,” he says. “It’s just… Been a while.”

“Go slow and I’ll be fine,” Steve reassures him. “And use more than you think you need.”

He lets his gaze fall to Bucky’s cock, half-hard and somehow already intimidating. “A lot more. Come on, lay down with me, I need a better look at that thing.” Steve rolls over onto his side and pats the space on the bed in front of him.

Bucky eases himself down, mirroring his position, and barely has time to get comfortable when Steve swings his leg over Bucky’s hip and wraps a hand around Bucky’s cock. He hisses in surprise, weakly thrusting into it.

“Sensitive, huh?” Steve says, following a vein down the length of it with his fingertips.

Bucky doesn’t have to answer that, already groaning when Steve tugs his foreskin down and swipes his thumb over the flushed tip.

“Responsive, too,” Steve says appreciatively, looking down between them. Bucky is a generous weight in his hand, thick enough that he can just barely get his fingers around it. He strokes him lightly and slowly, and sneaks his other hand to cup his balls. Bucky practically yowls, hardening further.

“Steve—”

“Focus,” Steve admonishes, nuzzling his nose into Bucky’s neck and continuing his teasing touches. He feels a rumbling, deep in Bucky’s throat, then a warm hand slides down his back, groping at the curve of his ass. Steve pushes back into it encouragingly, disappointed when the hand moves away until he hears the cap of the lube being popped open.

The hand returns, slipping between his legs from underneath, sliding cool, slick fingers up and down his crack before finally pausing at his the furl of his hole.

Steve holds his breath, hiking his leg up further.

The first shy, tentative press just barely breaches him, drawing back before pushing in deeper. Steve sighs into it, savouring the stretch and the promise of more. “Good,” he purrs as Bucky starts a slow pace, almost pulling out entirely before he thrusts his finger back in. Steve’s hole catches on the knob of his knuckles, making Steve’s cock twitch against his stomach.

He lets go of Bucky to stroke himself, then cants his hips forward to take them both in hand. Bucky moans above him, cockhead drooling generously as each drag of Steve’s palm slides them together.

“One more,” Steve urges. “Just one more, Bucky, that’s all I need.”

“I don’t think—” Bucky swallows thickly. “Four would be better.”

“Buck, you’re big, but I’ve taken a dick before,” Steve keeps grinding against him, resisting the urge to roll his eyes. “I like it this way. I wanna feel it.”

On the next thrust in, a second thick finger joins the first, sudden enough to make Steve grit his teeth. “Feel that?” Bucky murmurs, working them in deeper.

“Shut up,” Steve snaps. He reaches down to squeeze Bucky’s cock in retaliation, unexpectedly getting a handful of something else; a firm, fleshy mound at the base of his dick, hidden in his dark thatch of pubic hair. “What...”

“You don’t have to,” Bucky grunts, taking his hands off Steve completely. “I told you it’s not the same for werewolves—we can stop—”

Ignoring him entirely, Steve wraps his fingers solidly around it, and Bucky chokes out a startled gasp. It’s only slightly thicker than the rest of his cock, but with more give. “Buck…” he looks up, shaking his head at the dismay in Bucky’s expression. “Don’t make that face, just talk me through this. It’s a werewolf thing?”

Bucky frowns, and doesn’t answer until Steve gives it another squeeze. “Fuck, okay, it’s a knot,” he says quickly. Without giving Steve time to react, he continues, “And it gets bigger, uh. Inside.”

Steve raises his eyebrows. “Inside me ?”

Bucky pouts until Steve tightens his grip again, making his cock jump and leave a wet smear across Steve’s stomach.

“That feels good?” he asks. “Squeezing?”

Like he’s ashamed about it, Bucky shrugs a shoulder. “You’re supposed to… Put pressure on it. It hurts if you don’t.”

“Huh,” Steve says absently, running a finger along the seam where the knot flattens into the rest of Bucky’s shaft, making him shiver. “So this is why you’ve never ‘done this’ before.”

Bucky looks away, so Steve surges up and kisses him, licking into his mouth with fervour, rolling onto his back and pulling Bucky on top of him. When Steve breaks for air, Bucky looks dazed, with colour high on his cheeks and his hair mussed over the pillows.

“Three fingers?” Steve asks, waggling his eyebrows as he feels through the sheets for the lube. “Final offer. I really want it in me, actually. For science.”

Bucky hesitates. “Four would be—”

“What is this, you’re trying to fist me? You gotta crawl before you run—”

“Christ, you’re impossible,” Bucky grumbles, holding his hand out for Steve to drizzle it over his fingers.

“I’m a delight,” Steve insists.

He scoffs. “This what you wanted, Stevie?” Two slick fingers enter him without preamble, plunging in deep and curling. Steve yelps, legs falling further open and clutching onto Bucky’s shoulders.

“Fuck yes,” Steve keens. He tosses his head back and Bucky moves closer, latching lips and sharp teeth onto his neck. Each nip and suck goes straight to his dick, has him trembling like a live wire while Bucky works a third finger into him.

“You know… I heard you,” Bucky admits in a low voice, into the hollow behind Steve’s ear. Bucky’s other hand curls around Steve’s length, too large, too calloused, too hot. “The day you went to the lake. The sounds you were making up here. So loud, like you didn’t care who was listening.”

Steve shuts his eyes, too far gone to be embarrassed now. “Yeah? What’d you think?”

Bucky licks a stripe up the side of his neck. “That you oughta shut your windows.”

Steve laughs and bears down, relishing in the burn, the way he has no choice but to give into it. But these are just fingers, and his body will have to yield to Bucky’s girth, then an unrelenting knot. The thought alone is enough to have Steve clamping his legs shut and squirming. “Enough, enough,” he pants, “I’m ready.”

Bucky carefully withdraws his fingers and rolls off him, and Steve grimaces at the emptiness.

“M’sorry,” Bucky drops a kiss on Steve’s shoulder, then suddenly looks hesitant. “How do you usually, uh... What position… Do you like?”

Steve considers his endearingly nervous face for a moment before sitting up and throwing a leg over him, like he’s wanted to do since he was certain Bucky wasn’t going to eat him. “How about I start for now, and then you take over when you’re comfortable?”

Mollified, Bucky nods, watching breathlessly as Steve pours lube into his hand. He warms it up between his palms as a courtesy, holding Bucky’s gaze as he covers his length with it, coating it from the tip, down to the swelling base.

“I’m going to ride you now,” Steve says, stroking him loosely. “Okay?”

Bucky nods again as Steve scrambles to his knees, one hand braced by Bucky’s head, the other holding Bucky’s cock steady as he eases himself onto it. They both moan as the head pushes in past the initial resistance, a blunt pressure that opens him up and knocks the air out of his lungs. Bucky’s hands immediately reach for Steve’s thighs, holding him like an anchor.

Gravity does most of the work, which Steve is thankful for. Each uncompromising inch makes his legs shake, the strain of trying to relax competing with his natural urge to push out has his hole spasming around Bucky. “Oh, god, oh,” Steve gasps, rocking his hips in an effort to adjust to the feeling.

He glances down at Bucky’s face, the sweat beading on his forehead, pupils so blown out that his eyes look black. He bares his teeth, watching Steve work the last few inches in, stopping just short of his knot.

“Buck,” Steve says, circling his hips. “You can touch me. I’m not gonna break.” With great effort, he sits up, grabbing Bucky’s hands and moving them to his hips. They almost entirely span the width of him and grip tight like a vice, a reminder of Bucky’s sheer mass and strength.

“I could hurt you,” he rasps.

“You could fuck me,” Steve counters, bracing himself before slamming down the rest of the way.

Bucky howls, hips jerking at the same time, making Steve clench down and cry out. But he keeps up a slow grind, reveling in the unbelievable fullness and the way Bucky whines under him. Steve’s cock slides against Bucky’s abs, his stomach hair damp with precome and sweat.

Steve leans back with his hands fisted in the bed sheets, and the change of angle has Bucky’s dick stuffed in deep, reaching places inside him that throb and ache with pleasure. “Shit, so good, Buck, so huge, Jesus,” he babbles.

Bucky coaxes his hips up more with each thrust, little by little, so more of his fat length slides out and plunges back in with every movement. “Uh, uh, fuck,” he grunts between heaving, open-mouthed groans, eyes roaming over Steve like he’s not sure whether to look at his face or where he’s spread taut around him.

Steve makes the decision for him, pulling one leg up at a time until they’re bent at the knees with his feet flat on the bed. Like this, with his thighs spread wide, his hole is on full display, stretched to bursting as Bucky fucks up into him.

Bucky responds with a pleased growl in the back of his throat and holds Steve by the meat of his ass, digging his feet into the mattress, then hammering his hips upwards.

“Bucky!” Steve shouts, the force of it nearly knocking him off balance as pleasure blooms in a pulse through his groin. “Yesyesyes,” he says, whining at the feeling of the bulge that teases at his rim with each slick slide.

“Your knot, oh god,” he wheezes, bouncing and squeezing around it. “Gimme it, come on, make me take it—”

Steve’s suddenly shoved off Bucky and left horribly empty for all of a moment before he’s pushed face down onto the bed. His ass is pulled up into the air and Bucky’s lining up and thrusting back in, setting a merciless pace. Like his patience has run out, he pounds into Steve, holding him in place by the hips as the bed creaks precariously under them.

“Tell me you want it, sweetheart,” Bucky says roughly, an inhuman snarl to his voice that makes Steve seize up. “Tell me you want my fucking knot.”

But Steve’s lost to it, arms tucked uselessly under his chest, drooling against the sheets as his hard cock swings with each shove forward. The bulge grows, a steadily increasing pressure. “I want it, god, I need it,” he pleads hoarsely. He can feel it at the end of every thrust, swollen and blood-hot as it pops in and out of him. He spreads his legs a little further, arches his back a little more, and Bucky groans his name before shoving his knot deep into him one last time, jamming his hips against Steve’s ass as he locks them together.

Steve sobs at the sensation, the astounding thickness of it, the burning ache of his hole stretched to its limit. Bucky’s cock jerks and pulses, going off like a firehose inside him as he moans softly behind Steve, hips stuttering with little thrusts that he can’t seem to help.

Before Steve can reach down and bring himself off, Bucky hauls him up, pressing Steve’s back to his chest. He sits upright and settles Steve into his lap, turning his head and seeking his lips. Steve can barely breathe, let alone kiss, but he lets Bucky lick into his mouth as he encourages Steve to swivel his hips. Bucky’s hands wander over Steve’s front, teasing at his nipples, tugging at his balls. Steve whimpers, reaching back and tangling his fingers into Bucky’s hair as Bucky presses down on the swell of his abdomen. Steve greedily tightens up around the knot lodged in his ass and moans as Bucky continues to unload into him.

 

 

“There you go. Keep milking me, just like that. Doin’ so well. I knew you would,” Bucky murmurs gently and bites into Steve’s shoulder, holding him steady and gently moving against him. “Can you come like this? On my knot? Please try, Stevie. Let me see you.”

Bucky’s knot presses up into all the spots inside him no one else can reach, making Steve clench down in pulses. He’s so full he can barely breathe, senseless to everything but the building pleasure deep inside him. Steve’s swollen, aching cock leaks steadily, the knot pushing precome out of it with every circle of his hips. “Ah, ah, close,” he mewls, in time with each thrust.

He rocks up once more, and Steve tenses up and shoots off untouched, spilling wet across his stomach, splattering the sheets under them. He sobs in relief and Bucky kisses him through it, licking the salty sweat off of his neck, holding him close as he settles them down onto the bed, still tied tight together.

Steve sighs Bucky’s name and shudders through the aftershocks, tears and sweat burning his eyes. Each movement jostles the knot inside him that presses ruthlessly against his prostate, drawing out his orgasm into miniature earthquakes that make his cock twitch and dribble. He’s lightheaded, completely drained and struggling for air, but his limbs feel loose and the burn dulls into a satisfying ache, a comforting fullness that he surrenders himself to. Bucky wraps a quilt over them, continuing to shush Steve until he stops trembling and quiets down.

Lips brush against his temple, and he weakly reaches for Bucky’s hand and holds it to his chest.

“Thank you,” Bucky whispers.

“Uh-uh. Wanna nap,” Steve yawns, the first coherent thing he’s said in ten minutes.

Bucky chuckles and Steve feels it rumble through his back. “Sure thing,” he whispers tenderly, then yawns, too.

 

 

Steve doesn’t know when he fell asleep, how long he was asleep, or what time it is now. He only knows that the lamp had been turned off, leaving the bedroom in near-darkness, and that the fuzzy memory of a dull ache in his gut is swiftly being forgotten as he blinks awake. He finds himself on his stomach, one leg pushed up, something hot and wet circling his empty hole.

“Buck—” he croaks.

Bucky laughs behind him, the hot puff of breath against his wet skin making Steve jolt. Something warm trickles out of his ass at the movement, and Bucky spreads him further, chasing it with his tongue.

“Too much,” Steve complains into the pillows.

“You sure?” Bucky asks, pressing his thumb against the rim, holding it open so he can push his tongue into him. “I’m just trying to help clean you up,” he continues innocently. “You were really messy.”

“And who’s fault is that,” Steve grumbles, shivering when Bucky scrapes his teeth over the sensitive skin, his beard rough and damp against his taint.

With his tongue still buried in Steve, Bucky hums, making Steve clench down again. More warm come leaks out, and Bucky sighs dreamily as he languidly laps it up.

“Wish you could see yourself,” he says, easily slipping three fingers into Steve’s hole without warning. “I like you like this.”

Steve moans, pushing his ass down into it, grinding back onto Bucky’s fingers. “Tell me?”

“You’re just...” Bucky crooks them, working them in and out until Steve is keening.

“Sloppy. And loose. Opening up like you’re still ready for me, ready for my knot again,” he muses. Steve nods in agreement, reaching back with one hand to help hold himself open. He can’t come again, not yet, but he’s hard and rutting against the sheets.

Bucky sucks a kiss into his inner thigh. “So, you really liked it, huh?” he asks, with something like wonder in his voice.

Steve glances back over his shoulder, at Bucky’s sleep-mussed hair and the hopeful look in his eyes. “‘Course I did,” Steve says with an honesty that surprises him. “I like everything we do together. Even arguing.”

Like that’s the most romantic thing Bucky’s ever heard, he grins and slides his fingers out, eagerly replacing them with his tongue. He licks deep into Steve, slowly and thoroughly, savouring the taste.

Steve’s hole opens up to it and makes slick, obscene noises that have his face burning with shame, but he does his best to keep still and take it, to bear down until more of Bucky’s come trickles back out.

Eventually, when Steve’s in a peaceful, blissed out place between painfully aroused and deliriously exhausted, Bucky pulls away, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, and says, “Pork chops.”

Steve lifts his head. “What the hell did you just call me?” he slurs.

“Can you buy pork chops? When you get the groceries in the morning?”

Steve exhales and puts his head back down. “Good night, Bucky.”

Chapter Text

Steve expected Bucky to snore.

Maybe because of how he looks; the masculine bulk of him, the endless expanse of dense hair. He seems like someone who’d rival a motorcycle engine, but he barely snuffles in his sleep, taking deep, even breaths, occasionally snorting.

Steve snores. He knows he does, thanks to seasonal issues with his sinuses and throat and lungs. Likely, it’s enough to wake Bucky up, with his sharpened senses and watchful nature. That’s probably why he’s always awake long before Steve.

Not this morning.

He must be worn out.

The word ‘dog-tired’ comes to mind, and Steve has to bite down on his tongue to keep from giggling.

He shifts closer instead, slow as he dares, until he can slide an arm over Bucky’s stomach.

He waits.

Bucky’s eyelid twitches.

Steve inches closer still, and delicately rests his head on Bucky’s chest. It’s solid beneath his cheek, rising and falling with every breath. There’s a deep rumbling within him, like the floor under your feet when a subway train pulls into the station.

His chest hair tickles at Steve’s nose. Where it parts, ruffled from sleep, Steve can see flashes of tanned olive skin and dusky brown nipples. He gently pets the tuft in the middle of Bucky’s chest, watching as it flattens and stubbornly springs back up.

Bucky doesn’t stir.

Upon further, tentative exploration, the hair is coarser over Bucky’s chest and noticeably softer across his abdomen. Further down, Steve now knows, it grows thicker and rougher again, scratchy over Bucky’s thighs.

Just because he can, Steve slides his bare thigh over Bucky’s crotch.

Bucky inhales sharply.

Steve smiles to himself.

The phrase ‘the cat that got the cream’ comes to mind, too.

He thinks about the ways he might wake Bucky up, sweet and unhurried, but Bucky cracks a bleary eye open before Steve can decide between getting his mouth on an especially enticing patch of skin at the base of Bucky’s throat, or just rutting up against his thigh like he’s in heat.

Do werewolves have heats?

“When’s your mating season?” Steve asks.

Bucky grunts and shuts his eye. “We don’t really have that.”

“Oh,” Steve says, with a curious sense of disappointment.

Opening both eyes now, Bucky peers down at Steve warily. “Werewolves… Mate more during the winter. Keeps you warm,” he offers.

“Huh. Makes sense,” Steve murmurs. “Good morning, by the way.”

In lieu of a response, Bucky frowns, gently pushes Steve onto the bed, and pulls the blankets back enough to get a good look at his naked body.

“Hey!” Steve yelps, trying to curl up onto his side. “Cold!”

Bucky ignores his protests entirely, eyes roaming over him with concern. “I did hurt you,” he mutters, pressing his fingers to the side of Steve’s neck, making him twitch.

Tamping down his gut-instinct to argue, Steve puts his glasses on and takes a moment to assess the situation himself. His body is dotted with bites and bruises, the skin irritated in some rather intimate places from Bucky’s hair and beard. Steve’s back aches. His muscles are sore. The sheets are torn up. Unsurprisingly, his ass feels like he might’ve given birth from it, the pronounced emptiness and slick feeling between his cheeks making him blush.

“Well,” he says with a shrug. “It’s not as bad as it could’ve been. And it wasn’t anything I didn’t want.” He sits up a little, grabs Bucky’s face in both hands, and pecks him on the mouth. Adorably, Bucky’s cheeks are pink when Steve pulls away, so he gives him a second nibbling little kiss. “We’ll be better prepared for next time.”

Bucky gives him a searching look. “Next time,” he echoes.

It’s not a question, but Steve grins and responds to it anyway. “Yeah, Buck. Next time. We have a lot to figure out before then, in any case.”

He catches Bucky’s lower lip give the slightest tremble before he collapses onto Steve, enveloping him in muscular arms and addictive warmth. Steve pats him on the back. “Okay, pal. Breakfast? Shower?”

They do both, in that order, eating together but showering apart. Not that Steve would’ve been opposed to sharing the water, but Bucky still seems a little shy, a little unsure, and Steve knows not to push. Bucky does, however, happily steal kisses whenever they pass each other, lighting up like he still can’t believe he’s welcome to do so.

By the time Steve is dressed and trying to remember where he put his car keys, Bucky is still wandering the kitchen in a towel, restlessly puttering around the way only someone desperate to kill time would.

Steve sighs heavily, watching Bucky inspect the apples in the fruit bowl for the third time in ten minutes. “Go be a wolf. Stop pretending like you aren’t getting itchy about it.”

Bucky pauses, then slowly puts the apple back down. “I didn’t want you to think I was just leaving again,” he says, as if Steve couldn’t be more fond of him, already. “I’ll be close by when you get back.”

“How will you know when I’m back? It’s not like I can text you. Should I honk?”

Bucky snorts. “This is my forest, Steve. I’ll know.”

Steve files that away as a fascinating-but-unnerving piece of information to ask about later, as Bucky ditches the towel and crowds him up against the wall for something with too much bite to be called a kiss. On his way out the front door, he kindly informs Steve that he should wear a scarf because his neck looks indecent, and the car keys are wedged between the couch cushions.

Previous fondness dissipating, Steve pulls a thin hoodie on and fills his backpack for an afternoon out. He decides to put some distance between himself and Mansewood and head into Old Kingstown, over an hour’s drive away, because the thought of going to Red’s and getting scented by Tasha is more than he can handle right now. Steve doesn’t know how he’d explain it, and he’s not eager to try.

This late into June, he can’t really get away with wearing a sweater, so he rolls the windows down before he drives off. Still, it’s cooler upstate than in the city. This might be the first birthday he has in years that isn’t in the middle of a heatwave, when he wouldn’t mind being outside and away from air conditioning. Maybe he could have another barbecue, just for him and Bucky. The older he gets, the less he cares to celebrate, but he wouldn’t mind a cake. He doesn’t expect Bucky to insist on candles and singing, anyhow.

But maybe he would. How long has it been since Bucky’s had someone to celebrate a birthday with? Or any holidays, for that matter?

Steve does his best to keep that train of thought from going any further, to keep undue stresses and anxieties from spoiling his mood. He’s happy. He should be. He’s supposed to be basking, not worrying, not when there’s no reason for it yet. Besides, they need the day to process, to settle into… Whatever they are, now. Whatever they will be.

If Steve has to be honest, he reckons he’s taking this whole werewolf thing pretty well. He didn’t have much of a choice, being rescued by one who looked to be carved out of marble and dreams. Who ended up being a sweet, inquisitive, thoughtful, sarcastic little shit. Who, despite being a powerful mythological creature, makes Steve feel kind of gooey inside.

It’s a troubling thought, just being another soft human memory in Bucky’s long life. It doesn’t sit well with Steve, but if it’s what he can get, it’s what he’ll take. He has to go home, eventually. They both do.

 

 

Old Kingstown is considerably larger than Mansewood, so he finds a lot more to do. His first stop is the public library, where he can catch up on emails and social media. He peruses the Local History Nook at the back of the room while he waits for his movie downloads to finish, skimming through old newspaper clippings and wondering if there’d be any mention of Mansewood. Instead, he finds several decades-old articles on the hard-working, prolific families that founded many towns in the area. A chill runs down his spine as he reads about someone with the surname Lerna listed as running a thriving pelt business. The attached photo is a grainy shot of a grim-looking man brandishing a shotgun, his foot triumphantly placed on the flank of a dead wolf. 

Steve believed Bucky from the start, of course, but seeing the proof in print has him turning away and fighting the overwhelming urge to vomit.

Having wasted enough of his afternoon, he puts it out of his mind and gets a move on with the rest of his day. He pokes around some charming local antique shops, checks out some garage sales, and stops into a drugstore for no-snag hair ties and the largest bottle of lube they have.

It’s almost dinnertime when he finishes up at the grocery store, and he’s starving by the time he’s turning left at the crossroads towards the cabin. He thinks back to what Bucky said about knowing when Steve will be back, and it makes him all the more unsettled by the creeping awareness and dread that comes over him when he drives through the woods at night.

He knows now, that it’s the feeling of being watched.

Steve shakes it off as best he can, pulls into the driveway, and pops the trunk.

“Gee, it’d sure be nice if I had a big, strong guy to help me carry these,” he says under his breath, sighing at the dozen cloth grocery bags he has to haul inside. He looks around with hands on his hips, as though Bucky might materialize behind him. “Nothing?” Steve asks, apparently, to himself.

“Bucky,” he raises his voice a little louder and is met with unremarkable silence.

“Seriously, Buck, I gotta start dinner,” Steve calls out. “You said you’d be nearby!”

Nothing.

He shouts Bucky’s name twice more.

It’s a huge forest, surely a wolf’s idea of ‘close’ would not be the same as a human’s. He looks to the sky, washed pink with the coming sunset. Steve frowns and tries again, to no avail.

He only allows himself to panic a little after that.

“Come on,” Steve says, circling the clearing that surrounds the house. “Where the hell did you go?”

Maybe he didn’t give Bucky enough time. Maybe he’s sleeping in his den. Maybe Steve’s stirring up a commotion that’s ruining his hunting.

Can he even understand humans, as a wolf? Does he hear his name?

“Alright, time to embarrass myself,” Steve gripes, rolling up his sleeves and cupping his hands around his mouth.

He takes a deep breath—

And howls

And the hair on the back of his neck stands up, skin prickling with goosebumps when a responding howl pierces through the birdsong.

“Shit,” Steve murmurs, turning to the direction of the noise. He howls again, and the answering call is drawn out and resonant.

The trees rustle, and he catches a flash of white through the deep, shadowy green.

Steve waits with bated breath and the seconds pass syrup-slow as things come into view. A broad snout. Enormous front paws. Long, wiry fur, white as untouched snow. A powerful body, barrel-chested and strong.

The branches seem to bow as they part, and the White Wolf emerges.

When Steve finally exhales, he’s certain it comes out as a squeak.

The wolf pauses in the tree line, regarding Steve warily, a reluctance that keeps him rooted in place.

His eyes, Steve thinks distantly. He’s seen that look before, another time, in another form.

Bucky’s eyes.

“Hi,” Steve whispers when he can find his voice. “It’s okay.”

At that, the wolf stalks forward with his tail raised; a predatory walk, near-silent on the gravel despite his size. On all fours, he comes up to Steve’s chest, easily. It should scare him, being dwarfed by a creature of folklore and nightmares. And yet, the wolf approaches with caution, ears flicking, each step more hesitant than the last.

Steve plants himself firmly, knowing he can’t hide his racing heartbeat, nor the scents coming off him. The swirling mess of nerves and awe that makes his mouth dry. The thorny twinge of fear that makes him tremble. And weaving through it all, the warmth of affection that settles in his chest. He hopes that it’s clear. He hopes that it’s enough.

“Come here,” Steve says with an arm outstretched, steady as he can manage.

And the wolf does, with tentative steps. He bows his head the closer he gets, until he’s stopping just short of Steve’s hand.

They look at each other, asking permission in a moment of silent understanding.

Steve nods.

The wolf sniffs him thoroughly—and even that is endearingly familiar—before pushing the wet pad of his nose into Steve’s fingers, rubbing the side of his muzzle against Steve’s open palm.

He sighs, stepping forward and bringing both hands into the dense fur. The wolf leans into it, sitting down and shoving his nose into Steve’s stomach. Steve scratches behind the wolf’s ears, smooths his hands down his neck and over his back, and smiles at the solid muscle and dizzying heat that he already knows so well.

“You’re still the same, huh? Still Bucky,” Steve says fondly, watching as the wolf’s tail wags excitedly behind him. “Well, I don’t want you to get a big head, but you’re beautiful like this. I’m sorry I was scared.”

The wolf whines quietly as he presses his face into Steve’s chest, nuzzling over the left side, right over his heart.

 

 

“Sap,” Steve teases, but keeps petting him, anyway. “Can I draw you like this, sometime?”

The wolf leans up and licks him across the face, eyes twinkling, teeth sharp as knives.

“Hey!” Steve wipes his nose off on his sleeve. “That’s it. No pork chops for you.”

Whining again, the wolf moves away, just out of Steve’s arms.

“Wait, I was just—” he says, the panicked apology stuck in his throat as the wolf hunches over, then rears back on his hind legs. His body towers over Steve before crumpling and folding in on itself, rapidly getting smaller and smaller. Steve recoils at the muffled sound of snapping bones as things morph and change shape. The white fur darkens as it shrinks, as though growing in reverse. It ripples and settles over tanned skin on a decidedly human body, as Bucky rolls his shoulders back and flips his hair out of his face, keen eyes on Steve.

Steve might have squeaked again, he can’t be sure, because he suddenly has another armful of werewolf, hoisting him into the air and licking him again.

“Is this really necessary?” Steve grumbles but doesn’t do much to resist as the licking turns into kisses, peppered all over his face. Steve squirms and laughs, tightening his hold around Bucky’s neck.

Bucky pulls back enough to rub their noses together, and Steve feels warmed through to his toes.

“You howled,” Bucky says, smiling broadly.

“So did you,” Steve replies, suddenly hit by the enormity of it all. “Oh...” he breathes.

Bucky leans in until their lips barely touch. “Oh?”

“I called for you, and you answered,” Steve says with wide eyes.

They hold each other, aglow in the remnants of the fading sun, and for now, it’s enough.

Chapter Text

It’s another day before Steve works up the nerve to have the What Are We? talk, and he feels very much like a floundering twenty-year-old again. There’s too much to say, but no words that sound right, and he’s bitten his nails down to the quick, mulling over it.

Bucky must’ve had enough, because he elbows Steve halfway through watching The Three Musketeers in the loft, eyebrows raised expectantly. “You want to talk about something,” he states.

“It’s just… What do you want?” Steve finally asks, already cringing and bracing himself for the answer. “From this, from me?”

Bucky’s expression softens. “Is that all? Steve. Sweetheart,” he chides. Steve doesn’t know whether to feel embarrassed or ashamed.

“Your time,” Bucky says earnestly, without the weight of worry. The words came easily to him, like he’d been patiently waiting to be asked. “If we only have two months, that’s all I want.”

It almost makes Steve feel better.

He nods and goes back to pretending he’s paying attention to the movie, though the tentative peace is short-lived.

“But if I can ask for a couple more things,” Bucky drawls, inching closer.

Steve watches him passively from the corner of his eye, defeatedly leaning into Bucky when he slips his arm around Steve’s shoulders. “Yeah?”

“Hmm. Can you brush my hair again?” Bucky asks, nosing at the hollow behind Steve’s ear.

“Ah—okay,” he says, breath catching in his throat.

“Can we have French toast tomorrow morning?” Bucky sinks his teeth into the fleshy part of Steve’s earlobe.

“Sure,” Steve agrees, eyes fluttering shut.

Bucky hums, pleased, breath hot on Steve’s neck. “Can you go get that big bottle of slick you’re keeping in the spare bedroom?”

Steve groans, face burning as he gets to his feet. “I can’t hide anything from you, can I?”

“You can try,” Bucky says, patting Steve on the butt on his way out.

 

 

The routine they fall into doesn’t change much from the past week, and it works well for the both of them. They talk, they fight, they watch movies, they try new recipes. Breakfast and dinner are had together, the former at the kitchen island and the latter, curled up on the couch. Lunch varies from day to day, depending on whether or not Steve needs to buy more food (which is more often, now that he’s cooking for what feels like six people) or if Bucky has whatever wolf business to attend to. Something about keeping his territory marked and maintaining his scent through the woods, Steve isn’t entirely sure. All he knows is that Bucky sometimes returns with bits and belongings; another piece of threadbare clothing, a few worn, well-read paperbacks, a chipped mug that says James , the name they called him at school. They slowly begin to appear throughout the house, haphazardly placed on any available surface, like Bucky is extending his territory just a little bit further.

Rather than admitting out loud that it makes him a little teary-eyed, Steve assigns Bucky half the household cleaning duties, hoping that it gets the point across in another way.

And then, there’s the sex. It’s not a surprise that Bucky takes to the new level of intimacy like an enthusiastic fish to water, and his increasing skill and confidence with it is a true testament to his natural ability to adapt. (There isn't a flat surface left in the entire cabin that went unchristened, and Steve tries his best not to think of Erskine in those moments.) They don’t always knot, what with it being a hell of a lot more taxing on Steve’s body than sex ought to be, but Bucky is happy to use other means to make Steve go cross-eyed. “Payback for making me listen to you all those times,” Bucky informs him, teasing him through his third orgasm in as many hours. Steve humbly accepts the consequences, because he is nothing if not honourable. 

Bucky also starts spending time shifted in front of Steve, now that they’ve established that he can handle it without his heart giving out. While seeing a massive white wolf circling the cabin or stretching out over the couch is still a little jarring, it’s nice having another side of Bucky to marvel at, who’s less argumentative and delightfully even more furry. In either form, he’s not shy about asking for touches and attention, and Steve obliges so long as Bucky sits still long enough to be drawn. He’s given up on clothing altogether with the summer heat rolling in, and Steve happily fills a dozen sketchbook pages in half as many days with drawings he could never show another living soul.

Bucky does sacrifice his late night hunting schedule somewhat, now heading out for a few hours just before sunrise or just before sunset so Steve never wakes up or goes to bed alone. He protested that he doesn’t need to be babied, but Bucky silenced him the way he’s learned to do best; fitting his mouth over Steve’s especially sensitive spots that he’s mapped out from head to toe, until Steve is begging him to both stop and keep going.

It’s not the worst way to lose an argument, all things considered.

Steve still heads into Mansewood to show his face, at Bucky’s insistence, though not as often as before.

“I adopted a really needy cat,” he tells Clint, when he stops by Hawkeye’s for more bug spray.

“I’m busy working on a painting,” he informs Sam, when they run into each other at Lang’s again.

“My back has been acting up,” he sighs to Tasha on the phone, after having ignored her voicemails for four days.

He hates lying to them, so he sends them a group text asking them out to a pre-birthday lunch, the day before the holiday. It’s less complicated than telling the truth.

CB: No fuckin way

CB: Come ON ur bday, we’ll get shitfaced!!! Can’t do fireworks tho, Lucky won’t like em

TR: I’ll be working at the pub, come get free drinks and nachos <3

CB: YES

TR: Not you

CB: Aww………….

SW: Steve is NOT getting shitfaced if he has to drive home

SW: I’m not drinking because I’ll be on call. Want me to DD?

CB: Just crash at my place Rogers

Steve rubs his eyes, thankful for the shoddy reception. It allows him to take a few minutes to think of a convincing compromise as he wanders the cabin, trying to find more cell signal.

SR: Thanks everyone, but I want to do something chill and low key. Loud, packed bars aren’t really my thing

SR: How about one drink and some apps at Fury Bar?

SR: I’m a lightweight and I don’t wanna be out too late, forest gets kinda creepy at night haha

SW: Works for me

CB: Fiiiiine

TR: Sounds good, BKLYN

Relieved, Steve relays these plans to Bucky, asking if a long, hot shower would be enough to get werewolf stink off him.

“I don’t stink,” Bucky frowns.

“I mean, I’m not an idiot. Once you told me she was a werewolf, I put two and two together,” Steve says matter-of-factly. “My guess is that she goes out of town to shift, not work—”

“I could’ve told you that. She shifts just outside of Lawrence.”

“—But it’s only every other weekend, so I wonder if her senses are that much weaker than yours—”

Bucky’s frown deepens. “You didn’t tell me it was your birthday soon.”

“I… Meant to,” Steve says apologetically. “Woulda just spent it here with you, anyway. I’ll only be gone a few hours in the evening.”

Bucky looks away. “Alright.”

“I’ll be home early, too. And I can try to bring a cake back?”

“Sure,” he says, sounding unconvinced.

Steve sighs. “Was there something you wanted to do?”

 

 

Turns out, there was.

On July fourth, Steve wakes up to the fragrant smell of food, which nearly makes up for the fact that Bucky’s side of the bed is disappointingly empty. His nose leads him downstairs where Bucky is wearing nothing but Steve’s apron, and cracking eggs into a pan of something red and simmering.

Bowls of chopped fresh fruit are arranged on the as-of-yet unused dining room table, with a pitcher of iced lemon water, a plate of sliced pita bread, and a single cup of coffee, still steaming. The oven timer goes off, and Bucky slips on an oven mitt and pulls out a tray of tiny puff pastries.

“Shakshuka and pain au chocolat,” he says, finally turning around with an endearingly uncertain smile. “Doesn’t really go together, but it’s what you had in the refrigerator. So. Happy birthday.”

Breakfast smells delicious. The sun is shining. The birds are out. Bucky’s ass looks wonderful.

“I’m going to sit in your lap, and you’re going to feed me,” Steve declares, because it’s his birthday and he says so.

Bucky, the paragon of mercy, gives him an hour to digest before he clears the table, lays Steve out on top of it, and adds deep-throating to his list of Surprise Skills. Regrettably, that’s the extent of their morning celebrations, because Bucky decides to make himself scarce for the rest of the day to make it easier for Steve to wash his scent off. It’s a good idea. Steve hates it anyway.

So he has a quiet afternoon to himself, the first in what feels like ages. The cabin is colder and emptier without Bucky getting underfoot, but the silence of the forest doesn’t rattle him anymore. Not when he knows what’s out there, watching him. He can howl out the window, and the monster in the woods will howl back.

His mood improves significantly by the time he gets into town, not realizing how much he’s missed his new friends until he sees them again. He’s met with hearty hugs and a handmade banner that reads ‘ OLD MAN ROGERS’ hanging above their seats at the end of the bar, amongst the rest of the patriotic decorations; a greeting far warmer than he ought to deserve.

Tasha’s pleasantly neutral expression doesn’t give anything away when she leans across the bartop to give him a hug, and Steve supposes that’s as much of a truce as he can ask for. For now.

Where they’re seated, she can join them when she’s not attending to the other patrons, and supplies them with beers and onion rings as they catch up. Steve’s one drink is an apple pie shot with extra whipped cream, which Clint buys several of. Sam gives him a boat rental voucher, good for one day at the lake.

“You hiked out there yet?” he asks. “Weather’s been good.”

Steve sips on his Coke with uninterest. “Once or twice.”

“Do you fish? We should go fishing,” Clint adds.

“Well,” Steve murmurs. “I almost drowned in the ocean when I was a kid, it sort of put me off being in open water…”

“But there are life jackets —”

“Leave him alone, Clint,” Tasha warns, giving him a sharp look.

Sam winces. “Sorry, Steve, I had no idea.”

“It’s okay, really.” Steve folds the voucher and tucks it into his pocket. “I’ll rent a boat at some point. Might be nice to get over that fear,” he says.

“Life jacket or not, don’t go alone if you can’t swim,” Sam reminds him.

“I won’t go alone, I promise,” Steve says, mind already drifting to someone who’d love to tag along.

Tasha’s eyes flicker over to Steve, though she doesn’t turn her head.

Clint looks like he’s gearing up to volunteer to take Steve out on the boat, but Tasha cuts him off before he has the chance. “So, Brooklyn,” she starts, addressing Steve seriously. “How’s apartment hunting going? You’re still looking for places in the city, right?”

“Uh,” Steve scratches the back of his neck, if only to strategically place his hand over a bite mark from the day before. “I’ve heard back from a couple promising places, but I’d have to give up being close to a subway station or a good supermarket, or living somewhere that has a two-year construction project right next door.”

“Slim pickings,” Clint says sympathetically. “That’s the Manhattan housing market for you, though. I could never hack it down there.”

“Your life would be a lot easier if you looked just outside the city. You can work from anywhere with an internet connection, right? Long Island ain’t half bad. Now, I get that no one wants to live in Jersey, but…” Sam shrugs.

Steve sighs good-naturedly. “I know, I know. It just doesn’t make sense for me to settle in the suburbs right now. I don’t need all that space, it’s not like I have a family or anything. No point in an empty house.” It might sound evasive, but it’s the honest truth. Before that dampens the mood too much, he sneaks Clint’s apple pie shot and tosses it back.

“Hey! What happened to ‘one drink’ ?”

“First one was for my birthday,” Steve says, wiping whipped cream off his mouth. “Second one was for America. Tasha, can I get more deep fried pickles, please?”

“And a glass of water,” she says pointedly, which she slides across the bar to him. “Bottoms up, lightweight.”

As the night goes on, Fury Pub starts filling up, and they have more and more people to greet. It’s Steve’s first real interaction with others in town, so Sam and Clint introduce him to two dozen new people, who all wish Steve a happy birthday. Even Rumlow nods at them in acknowledgement on his way in (which Steve could’ve done without).

It isn’t long until Sam checks his watch and shakes his head. “Alright, I gotta head out. I have to oversee the fireworks at the campground.”

“That’s not for another two hours!” Clint says, checking his own watch.

“Gotta help set up,” Sam grabs his wallet and counts out some cash, tucking ten dollars into the tip jar. “Everyone’s gonna be on the main road if I wait any longer. Last year, I got stuck behind a drunk guy on a tractor for twenty minutes.”

Steve perks up. “Should I go now, too?”

“If you wanna avoid the Mansewood version of traffic, absolutely,” Sam says.

Steve scrambles for his wallet, but Clint beats him to it and throws some bills onto the bar. “We got you, Rogers, it’s your birthday. Go on, I’ll grace Tasha with my company a little longer.”

“Oh, joy ,” Tasha says sarcastically, though Steve can see the hint of a smile peeking through.

They all say their goodbyes and part ways, and Steve waits until he’s off the main road to push past the speed limit a little. All in all, it was one of the more enjoyable birthdays he’s had in a long time, but he’s still eager to get back and end the day, contented and comfortable. The lights in the cabin are on when he pulls into the driveway, and he wonders if he can convince Bucky to get into bed early to continue where they left off that morning.

These cozy, sexy plans are thwarted when Steve gets two steps past the front door and sees Bucky, fully dressed with two backpacks set on the kitchen island, stuffing them both with various containers and plastic bags. Steve recognizes one bag as his own. The other is significantly more tattered.

Bucky looks up and raises an eyebrow. “Should I care that you smell a little turned on after you were out with other people?”

Steve rolls his eyes. “Sure. Wasn’t thinking about you at all.

Bucky snorts and zips up the backpacks. “Put your boots on, we’re going for a walk.”

“Are you kidding? It’s night time.”

“So?”

“So, it’ll be cold out soon. I’m tired. I haven’t seen you all day and I wanted to get laid.” No point in beating around the bush.

“Grab a jacket and I’ll carry you the whole way,” Bucky responds, ignoring Steve’s last complaint altogether.

“You suck,” Steve grumbles, reaching into the coat closet and doing a double-take when he sees three unfamiliar jackets hanging beside his own. He selects one at random and puts it on, not caring that it smells like a musty old basement or that the sleeves fall past his hands.

When he turns around, Bucky’s cheeks look noticeably pinker. He clears his throat. “Suits you.”

“Uh-huh,” Steve says. “So what, you’re going to wear two backpacks while you carry me bridal-style?”

In the end, Steve wears one backpack and Bucky holds the other, while he gives Steve a piggyback ride on a brisk march through the woods.

“Where are we going?”

“Guess.”

“A romantic, moonlit clearing that you set up with candles and cushions so you can have your way with me under the starry night sky?”

“Huh. That probably would’ve been a nice idea.”

“It’s not too late—”

“Shh. We’re almost there.”

“Where’s there?”

Steve gets his answer a few minutes later, as they break through the trees and end up on a sandy bit of shore.

“The lake,” he says flatly, when he’s finally set down on slightly wobbly legs. “You brought me to the lake.”

“I did,” Bucky says, starting to unload their backpacks. He lays out two thick blankets, one on top of the other. He produces cans of cider, bags of chips and gummy candies, and one of Steve’s thick, knitted beanies. “For your ears,” he explains.

Steve obediently puts it on and shoves his hands into the jacket pockets, watching Bucky arrange everything on the blankets before he sits down and motions for Steve to join him. Steve reluctantly gets between Bucky’s legs, his back pressed against Bucky’s front.

He wraps an arm around Steve’s waist and hooks his chin over Steve’s shoulder. “Comfortable?”

“Sure,” he says with indifference. “You know, it was nice of you to do all this for me. I didn’t expect it, so thank you. And I don’t want to sound… Ungrateful, because I’m not,” Steve begins slowly, leaning into Bucky as he tears into a bag of chips. “But we’ve been to the lake before—”

“Not on the Fourth of July,” Bucky counters, leaning down and stealing the chip from between Steve’s fingers.

As if on cue, something bright zips across the sky in the near distance, followed by another, and another, which burst and explode over the treetops like fiery blooming flowers. From where they sit, the rainbow of colours reflects across the lake, sparkling through the darkness.

“Oh. Wow,” Steve whispers.

 

 

Bucky’s arm tightens around him. “I wasn’t sure if you cared about fireworks, but we can leave whenever you want.”

“No, I want to watch them with you,” Steve murmurs absently, eyes still fixed on the lights above them as he sags into Bucky’s warmth. “We can go home when it’s all over.”

Behind him, Bucky breathes deeply. “Yeah. We’ll go home.”

Chapter Text

July brings afternoons of bright and inescapably scorching sunlight, streaming into the cabin through the large windows and making Steve freckle up just from sitting in the living room for too long. The air conditioning is a lost cause, having gone years without use and costing more than he can stomach to get it repaired. He can handle another few weeks like this, but he feels terribly for Bucky, covered in hair and built for harsh winters. Steve’s had to hose him down in the yard when he comes back with his tail between his legs, whining and panting because the shade of the trees wasn’t enough. On especially hot days, he spends the worst of it napping in the tub, up to his chest in cool water while Steve feeds him ice chips.

“M’not made for this kind of weather,” Bucky grunts, wincing as Steve kneels behind him and carefully collects his hair into a bun at the top of his head. “Ouch.”

“Sorry.”

“It’s too hot.”

“I know, Buck.”

“Too hot to do anything.”

“Yeah.”

“Even sex.

Steve sighs. “Even sex,” he echoes, recalling their attempt a few days prior that left him with heat rash and a rattling cough. Apparently getting knotted when it’s almost a hundred degrees outside, isn’t great for his asthma.

“I miss snow,” Bucky mutters.

“I’ll bet.”

“Do you like snow?”

Steve hums in thought as he secures Bucky’s hair with an elastic. Steve had to learn how to tie a decent ponytail for sweltering days like these, helping to get Bucky’s hair off his neck and out of the way. “In the city, unless you went to a park, the snow usually turns grey and slushy right away because of all the cars and people.”

“That’s sad.”

“I guess so.”

“It is,” Bucky says, eyes shut in bliss as Steve gently works his fingers into the sides of his neck. “You don’t know how beautiful it is the morning after a storm; when the snow lays over the land like a thick quilt and sparkles in the light like sugar.”

A smile tugs at Steve’s mouth. “That’s awfully poetic of you.”

“You’d understand if you saw it,” Bucky murmurs. “Maybe if you come back one winter, I could show you.  I wouldn’t let you get too cold,” he adds, even quieter.

Steve doesn’t pause his movements, but he doesn’t answer, either. Instead, he drops a kiss to the crown of Bucky’s head. “Hey, what would happen if you shaved all your body hair off?”

He furrows his brow without opening his eyes. “It’d grow back the next day.”

“Seriously?”

“Tried it once during a really bad summer. Went through a whole pack of those cheap disposable razors, cut myself up pretty good, and it all came back within hours. My body needs hair.”

“You’re kidding. What about the hair on your head? Your facial hair?”

“That grows back a little slower. Before summer hits, I try to find some scissors so I can cut my hair and trim my beard, but I didn’t get a chance this year.” Bucky turns his head and opens his eyes, looking at up Steve significantly. “Somebody moved into my forest and distracted me.”

“Good,” Steve smirks and tugs at his earlobe. “I like you all hairy, anyway.”

Bucky reaches for Steve’s hand, his skin warm under the cool water. “Then you’ll love me in the winter.”

 

 

It’s not that Steve gets bored. It’s hard to be when he’s got a terabyte of music, movies, and shows to watch, a vast and beautiful forest to explore, and a curious werewolf to share it all with.

But he wishes he had something new to do once in a while. Something challenging and stimulating. So Sam calling in an ‘artistic favour’ one morning was perfectly serendipitous. Steve leaves Bucky to pout in the cabin and drives over to the Bethune Lake Campgrounds, where he’s directed to the west side of the main office building to look at the bare, white wall.

Sam nudges him, beaming and raising his eyebrows behind his sunglasses. “Well? What do you think?”

Steve squints under the brim of his cap. “I’ll be honest. I’ve never painted an outdoor mural before, and I’ve never done something this size by myself.”

“How hard could it be?” Sam asks, with all the ease of someone who has no idea.

Steve looks at the wall again, running a hand over the surface. “I have to come up with a design that you approve of, or reject over and over until it’s right. I have to wash this wall. I need to apply primer, find some big brushes, get paints that are made to withstand the outdoors. I have to let all the layers dry and seal them. I’m not even sure how to get the design up without a projector. Maybe a grid…” he trails off, taking a step back tilting his head.

“Sounds like it could take a while,” Sam says with a low whistle.

“Yeah,” Steve shrugs.

“Well. We got you covered for the tools and we’ll pay for the design and the labour if you got the time.”

Steve looks up at the wall, at Sam, then back at the wall. “Yeah. I got the time.”

He spends a few days sketching out possible ideas. Sam had let him run wild with it, but he tried to keep it simple while incorporating as many things from the environment as he could; the sun on one side of the wall, the moon and night sky on the other, the mountains hidden in fog, the lake, and local wildlife.

Bucky begrudgingly gives his input, correcting Steve when he draws the wrong kind of trees and plots the wrong constellations.

“I know you won’t go see it for yourself, but I want to get your forest right,” Steve tells him, pacifying him with a kiss. “Thank you.”

Bucky grumbles in response, but doesn’t argue.

It takes Steve a full day to wash the wall, get the grid up, and outline the design. When he gets back to the cabin that evening, Bucky is waiting with dinner and an apology for shredding a pillow in the bedroom, because he was “being a wolf” and for some reason it felt like “the right thing to do, at the time” . The ‘No Wolves on the Second Floor’ rule is born.

Then, the painting begins. Steve lays down the first coat, blocking out the sky, water, and the bulk of the trees. It’s hard work, and he knows his back and arms are going to be useless to him the next day. He gets three mosquito bites and a sunburn on his nose and the back of his neck. When he comes back to the cabin, Bucky jerks him off in the shower and rubs aloe all over him before bed. Steve pops two extra-strength Tylenol and falls asleep, feeling more rested than he has in a while.

In the days after that, the mural starts coming together. Details finally emerge in the sky and recognizable shapes take form, all the while gaining something of an audience. People on their way in and out of the campsite honk and wave. The staff checks in on him with bottles of water and power bars, holding the ladder for him as he fills the sky with birds and clouds.

One afternoon, a young girl comes by and asks if she can help, so Steve hands her a tiny brush and asks if she can stay in the lines. It takes her two hours to ask Steve thirty questions about being an artist and fill in one yellow flower. The next day, five more young volunteers show up, and more arrive the day after that. He quickly runs out of flowers to assign, so he adds a few small animals, nestled in the trees.

“You smell happy today,” Bucky informs him when he settles down for dinner.

“Then I must be,” Steve says, stealing a meatball from Bucky’s plate.

It takes just over two weeks for Steve to finish the wall. He seals it at sundown, something that feels too symbolic to be a coincidence. It doesn’t get officially unveiled, but the campground staff presents him with a box of cupcakes and the check for the last half of his payment. He doesn’t tell Peggy about the mural until it’s finished, and she predictably berates him for turning his vacation into work, tells him to take clearer photos if he wants to add it to his online portfolio, and asks if he’s found an apartment yet.

But Steve’s worn out in the best possible way, and all he wants to do is get in bed with Bucky. Everything else can wait.

 

 

Bucky holds out an entire day before he sneaks off to see the mural in the middle of the night. He comes back in the early hours of the morning and doesn’t let Steve out of bed until well into the afternoon, kissing him as thoroughly and touching him as tenderly as their first time.

“You saw, huh?” Steve mumbles, sleepy and sex-addled. “Did you like it?”

Bucky buries his face into Steve’s neck and doesn’t answer, but he doesn’t need to. Steve doesn’t have to smell him to read him. Even if he can’t hear Bucky’s heart, he can still feel it.

 

 

Miles away, immortalized in a mural capturing the life and spirit of the forest, a tiny pack of white wolves dart in and out of the trees under a bright, full moon.

 

 

Steve can’t go into Mansewood anymore without being stopped and asked for his business card. People want their wedding photos painted on large canvases, portraits of their pets, redesigned logos for their storefronts. Someone from the town council asks for a series of watercolour renderings of the area to hang at the town office. “You should think about teaching some art classes at the church,” they say. “The kids would love that.”

“So would I,” he replies earnestly, letting himself get lost in a moment where he pretends he can stay.

 

 

As Steve’s familiarity with Mansewood grows, so does his familiarity with the neighbouring towns. They’re interesting places to explore, rich with history and character.

Old Kingstown is the largest of the nearby towns, just south of Mansewood with a population three times the size. It’s not quite big enough for a Starbucks, but there’s a historic, water-powered cider mill that he thinks he might like to visit, so he can’t ask for much more than that.

Franklin is the nearest town, further east. Its population barely exceeds that of Steve’s old high school but it somehow manages to be more rural than Mansewood, as it covers a greater expanse of farmland. Steve is particularly fond of their open air market where he occasionally indulges in bags of expensive granola and jars of lemon curd.

Lawrence rests in the shadow of the mountains. It’s the only place with a Christmas tree farm for miles and miles, but doesn’t have much to say for itself, otherwise. The journey there is certainly picturesque, though it takes much longer to drive around the forest to get there, than it would to simply hike through.

Bucky mentioned traveling through these towns, long ago. He doesn’t mention wanting to go back.

Steve doesn’t ask, though he can’t help but think about it. About taking Bucky into a town with him, or maybe even into the five boroughs. It’s been decades since Bucky’s been to a city, and if the sounds and smells of urban life don’t overwhelm him, Steve might like to take him to see the landmarks and tourist traps. Bucky might like Coney Island, the billboards and digital screens in Times Square, the way the city lights up after dark. When it comes to food, he’d be spoiled for choice.

But would he like Steve’s apartment, small as it would be, tucked away in a crowded neighbourhood full of material comforts and room for little else? It’s not like he could shift and hunt in Prospect Park. It’s a stupid thought to entertain. It’s no life for a werewolf.

“You should have the cabin,” Steve tells him one day. “I can try to manage the bills for a while longer so there’d still be electricity and water—”

“Don’t.”

The sharpness in Bucky’s tone makes Steve stop short. “It was given to me, and I’m giving it to you. You were here long before I was, and you’ll be here long after I go. You need this place more than me and you’re already here. It wouldn’t be any different.”

Bucky looks at him, and for the first time, Steve gets a glimpse of his age. Years of weariness line his face, crease his brow, frame his eyes in darkness. “I can’t stop you from leaving. From giving me this cabin. From doing anything you want,” he says evenly. “But you can’t tell me what I need, and you can’t tell me everything won’t be different.”

He shifts before he even gets out the front door.

 

 

Bucky doesn’t come back for two days.

In the heavy silence that fills the space he left behind, Steve understands what he means.

They don’t talk about it again, but they hold each other a little tighter in the nights that follow.

 

 

August approaches at a crawl, but not before a week of thunderstorms that thankfully cool down the forest. Bucky goes out anyway, unbothered by the rain, coming back happy as a clam and tracking mud through the house. It’s sweet for all of two seconds before he shakes his fur out and gets mud on the walls.

Steve institutes a ‘No Wet Wolves in the House’ rule, effective immediately.

Adding to the growing list, he sets rules against eating raw meat without a plate, leaving the shower drain clogged, and touching his phone when he’s not around—a direct result of him unlocking his phone at the grocery store and being accosted with several selfies of Bucky, in order, from his awed discovery of the camera, to the devious smile that crosses his face, to a shot of his penis.

Steve gives Bucky a lecture on phone etiquette, safety, and consent, but doesn’t delete the photos. He’s only human.

In fact, Bucky encourages him to take a few more of him, and of them. Eventually, the sexual nature of the photoshoots wanes to nothing, with Bucky insisting Steve take photos around the cabin, the surrounding grounds, the woods.

“Why do I need ten pictures of the same trees I look at every single day?” he asks, when Bucky tells him to capture the view from the bedroom window.

Bucky shrugs. “So you don’t forget,” he admits, and the nonchalance in his tone claws at Steve’s chest. “Humans get old. They forget.”

Steve can’t argue with that. Doesn’t want to. There wouldn’t be a point.

“Then I won’t forget,” he says firmly, snapping the picture. “You, or anything else.”

 

 

Steve is stress-cleaning his car when he finds the voucher for the boat rental.

He’s stressed because of an email he received that morning, about one of the apartments he’d been looking into. It’s perfectly located just off a main road, within walking distance of a subway station and grocery store, has two bedrooms, a balcony, and a kitchen larger than an airplane bathroom. The rent is on the higher end of his budget, but still within it, and Steve convinced himself that it must’ve been the scene of a murder to be going for a price like that. There’s even a good Vietnamese restaurant right down the street.

On a whim, he called and inquired about it, as he wouldn’t be able to come down and see it himself. He was sent a thorough video tour of the unit, the lobby, the pool and gym and sauna. It confirmed that it is, indeed, a beautiful apartment with a fair price.

Despite all that, Steve asked if it was possible to add a clause into the contract that allowed him to back out without penalty at any point up to the September first move-in date, in case it ended up not being what he wanted. Just in case.

The email he got back wasn’t a rejection. It was a lease, rewritten to include the clause he asked for, ready to sign. There was always a time limit to this summer, an end date that dangled perilously over his head. It’s the start of a new chapter and the closing of an old one.

One he doesn’t feel ready to see end.

So he takes the voucher and marches back into the house. “Buck,” he calls, walking into the living room and shaking Bucky by the shoulder. “I’m going to rent a boat from the campgrounds. We’re going fishing.”

From where he’s curled up on the couch for his afternoon nap, Bucky yawns and rolls over to face him, but doesn’t open his eyes. “Why?”

“I hear it’s something people do to relax,” Steve says. “So let’s go. I’ll meet you on this side of the lake.”

Bucky snorts. “You don’t know to drive a boat.”

“I also don’t know how to swim, but wasting time in here isn’t gonna help that, either,” he says stubbornly.

He feels awful taking that tone with Bucky, who doesn’t deserve it, and regrets it twice over when Bucky opens his eyes in surprise. “You can’t swim?”

Steve sighs. “Forget it. It was a dumb idea anyway.” He turns to leave, but Bucky sits up and grabs his hand.

“Honey,” he says calmly, tugging Steve closer until he’s sitting in Bucky’s lap. “I’m sorry. You smelled stressed out all day and I don’t like it. If fishing is going to help you, let’s go.”

“I don’t think I actually want to rent a boat,” Steve confesses. “I just…”

“Okay,” Bucky says. “Let’s go to the lake anyway. Splash around a little.”

Steve barks a laugh. “Yeah, no. No way.”

“What, you don’t trust me?”

He pauses. There’s a challenge in Bucky’s eyes that Steve can’t help but respond to.

“I do,” he says, testing the words out. It doesn’t feel like a lie. “I do trust you.”

It earns him a slow, wide smile. “Then you’ll get in the water with me,” Bucky tells him. “And you’ll love it.”

Steve isn’t convinced. “What if I want to stop and get out?”

“Then we’ll stop and get out.”

“And you won’t let go of me? Even as a joke?”

“Never.”

He holds Bucky’s gaze for a few moments. “But I didn’t bring anything to swim in.”

Bucky raises an eyebrow, unimpressed.

Steve blushes. “Ugh. Fine. I’ll get the towels.”

The hike to the lake feels twice as long with Steve trying his damnedest to stop thinking about anything , and they reach the empty shore by late afternoon. The sun is just grazing the dark treetops, the waves glisten like crystals in the slowly fading light. Bucky makes a valiant attempt at folding his clothes after he strips down, then helps Steve out of his clothes with practiced ease and only minimal groping. Though it’s still mortifying to be naked outdoors, the sweet touches and encouraging smiles almost make the situation bearable. He doesn’t resist when Bucky moves to take his glasses off.

“So, how do you wanna do this?” Bucky asks, laying their towels over a rock closer to the water. “I go in first and you walk out to me, or I carry you in.”

“Mmm,” Steve wraps his arms around himself. He doesn’t like either option. “How cold is it?”

Suspiciously, Bucky ignores him and wades further into the lake, only stopping and turning around when the water reaches his knees.

 

 

“Ready?” he holds his hand out, a blurry shape just out of Steve’s reach.

“No,” he confesses, but steps into the water, anyway.

The first touch is icy . Not intolerably so, but enough to make him yelp. He wants to recoil, to put his pants back on and head back to the cabin. He has bigger things to worry about now, and no amount of fucking around and wasting time is going to put a stop to the countdown looming over them.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? He wants this. Fucking around with Bucky. Wasting time with Bucky.

At the end of it all. It’s Bucky.

And that makes it easier to put one foot in front of the other, until the Bucky-shaped blur comes into focus. To forget that he’s chilled to the bone, because he has something warm to look forward to. To stop dreading what’s to come next, because what’s happening now is that his hand fits perfectly into Bucky’s.

Steve exhales, relieved, and they join their other hands as well. Bucky walks backwards, pulling him along over the slippery rocks and gritty sand beneath their bare feet. The cold water sloshes up his thighs and he grits his teeth to keep them from chattering.

“Still with me?” Bucky asks as if Steve could ever say no.

He hurries forward into Bucky’s chest, like not being close is suddenly too much to bear. Maybe it is. And Bucky readily accepts him, chuckling when Steve’s arms wrap around his neck, a wordless plea to be picked up. There was something novel about it; being lifted so easily, carried around, and liking it. In any other circumstance, it would be demeaning, an unwanted and infantilizing move for someone of Steve’s height and size. But this was not another circumstance. Bucky never made him feel less than. Bucky, as always, was the exception.

So up he goes, losing himself in the familiarity of it all. A wall of unyielding muscle, wild hair over hot skin, the musk that smells strongest at the base of his throat. And, deeper than that, safety, comfort, love . Steve’s come to know this place better than anywhere else under the sun, could trace it with his eyes closed, could find it in the darkest night. Even as the water rises around them, as he feels the moment Bucky’s feet no longer reach the lake floor, Steve knows where he is. Where he’s always been.

“I got you. I’m here,” Bucky tells him softly, though he doesn’t need to. He reminds Steve with morning kisses and steady hands, with secrets shared and promises kept. It’s in the scent of Steve’s laundry detergent on Bucky’s clothes and the food made with care.

Steve holds tight and revels in his words, in the dying light of the day. “I know,” he says with Bucky’s lips pressed to his forehead, because they’ve forged a home for themselves in the heart of the forest, miles from the rest of the world.

 

 

Steve quietly sits on the idea for a while.

Staying.

It’s a freeing concept, like a taking a deep breath of fresh air, filling and wholly relieving. He doesn’t have to go. He can keep this, and he wants to. Brooklyn will always be home, but when it comes to the place he wants to rest his head at night, he’s found it.

But the magnitude of this decision is not lost on him. Like his initial move to the cabin, there are a hundred things to sort out, from having his permanent address changed to deciding where to hang a framed cross-stitched lemon tree made by one very talented Sarah Rogers. The weight of these tasks is daunting, but none of them are impossible. The second bedroom can be converted into his office and studio after he gets cable, internet, and a landline hooked up. He can buy a network extender for his cell phone. He can clear out his storage locker in the city and drive everything upstate. He can have his little corner of the woods, his cabin, his wolf.

Steve thinks on it a while longer, going through the motions of his day with the thought in the back of his mind that this could be it. All the good and bad, the benefits and dangers. Would the sacrifices be worth it? Would it be enough to make him happy in six months? A year? Five?

Beyond those selfish thoughts, would Bucky even want him for that long? Would he tire of Steve and leave him in his old age? He’s had and abandoned human companions before. How can Steve presume to be any more important?

And long can Steve live in isolation and keep a secret lover, hidden from everyone else in his life? How long until it drives him mad?

He knows what his next move will be, and the opportunity arises in the middle of August, on a day he set aside to run errands. He’s cutting it close, already having started half-heartedly packing his clothes away under the pretence of leaving in a couple of weeks, and barely enduring the sad smiles Bucky throws his way that fall off his face a second too early. Steve wants to tell Bucky that he wants to stay. He just needs to be sure, first. He needs to know that they can do this, together.

“I gotta ask you something,” Steve whispers in bed that morning, whilst straddling Bucky’s lap, fingers tangled in his hair, mouthing at his neck.

Bucky makes one incoherent noise after another, his head falling back against the headboard. Steve takes it as his cue to continue.

“You can say no, but I want you to consider it before you do.” He slides a hand down Bucky’s chest and scrapes a fingernail over his nipple. Bucky groans in response, tightening his hold around Steve’s hips and nodding sharply.

“It’s just...” Steve sits back enough to look Bucky in the eyes. “I thought we could go out for dinner this weekend. In town.”

Bucky blinks, and after a moment, his grip on Steve loosens. “Oh,” he says, irritatingly neutral.

It’s not really an answer. Steve tries not to frown. “You can say no,” he reminds him. “But can I tell you what I was thinking?”

Reluctantly, Bucky nods, so Steve takes a deep breath and barrels on. “Well, you know, I’m supposed to be leaving at the end of the month,” he begins.

Bucky looks away and nods again.

Steve places a hand on Bucky’s cheek. “I understand how private you are, how much you value your safety. But you’ve been in hiding for years, Buck. You’ve been alone for so long.”

Bucky closes his eyes and leans into Steve’s palm. He makes a sound low in his throat, perhaps in agreement, perhaps in protest.

“So I figured going for dinner would be a good way for us to end the summer. We don’t have to cook and do dishes, and I get to take you out and show you off. Wouldn’t that be nice? And it doesn’t have to be Mansewood, we can go anywhere you want,” Steve murmurs encouragingly. “You deserve one night where you don’t have to be feared, or in fear. One night where you don’t have to be the White Wolf. You can just be my... Bucky.”

Slowly, he opens his eyes and looks up at Steve with amusement. “ Your Bucky?”

Steve feels his face heat up. “If you want to be,” he adds, shrugging. “Until you want to be someone else’s Bucky, obviously—”

“No,” he interrupts firmly, looking baffled that Steve would even suggest it. “No one else.”

It’s Steve’s turn to look away, but Bucky catches him by the chin and tilts his head to face him again, placing a lingering kiss to his lips that only serves to make Steve blush harder.

He clears his throat, trying to regain his composure. “So, yes, um, if you please could think about it,” he continues awkwardly, moving to climb out of Bucky’s lap. “I’m heading out to pick up more bread and eggs, and I thought maybe we could use the grill sometime this week if you wanted ribs or—”

Bucky silences him with a hand around his wrist. “Pants.”

Steve pauses. “Pants?”

“For the restaurant,” he clarifies. “I don’t want to embarrass you.”

Steve looks at Bucky for a moment, then climbs back into his lap and kisses him until he needs to stop and get his inhaler. They decide to talk about it more when Steve gets back, and he uses every ounce of self-control he has to keep himself from driving all the way to the Macy’s in Albany.

Bucky’s limited wardrobe isn’t much to go off of, but Steve might have an idea of what he’d wear. On the way to the grocer’s, he stops at a thrift store and spends half an hour scrutinizing every pair of pants in Bucky’s size until he finds a pair of dark washed jeans with very minor fraying. While he’s there, he picks up a cobalt-blue button down and a pair of brogue boots in a warm brown, slightly scuffed and in need of new laces.

Just until Bucky can go with him, next time they go shopping. For winter clothes.

It’s enough to keep him smiling through buying groceries, all the way back to the cabin. He tries to tamp down his excitement during dinner, when Bucky reluctantly asks for details like what they’d do, what they’d eat, where they’d go.

Steve knew Tasha would be out of town, and it didn’t seem likely that Sam nor Clint would suddenly turn up at the only family restaurant in Mansewood on a random Sunday evening. None of them had ever mentioned The Shamrock to Steve before, so he felt safe in assuming that it wasn’t much of a hotspot. He only knows that they serve typical greasy homestyle American food that seems to go down well with campers and truckers passing by. It’s almost at the very end of the main road, sandwiched between the only motel and only post office. He had spotted the place by accident, noticing it across the street from the gas station that Bucky says used to be a mercantile.

“If I have to go back,” he says in bed that night, the words muffled in Steve’s hair. “I want to do it right. I want to see how much has changed, since...”

Steve snakes his arm around Bucky’s middle, holding him tight. “You’ve changed, too. It’s not always a bad thing.”

Bucky takes a deep breath. “You’re right,” he says distantly. “I think I could stand a little more change, if you don’t mind giving me a hand tomorrow.”

“Anything you want.”

 

 

“Are you sure this is what you want?” Steve asks uncomfortably, kitchen scissors in one hand and a fine-toothed comb in the other.

In front of him, Bucky perches on a stool that he dragged up to the bathroom from the kitchen, giving Steve a reassuring smile.  

“It’s just a trim. Couple inches off the ends, is all.”

Steve grimaces. “How many inches? What if I cut it too short? What if it’s uneven?”

“It’s hair, Steve. It’ll grow back.”

“What if I fuck it up and you have to go into Mansewood tonight looking like Edward Scissorhands?”

“Unless there’s a waterbed at the restaurant, I think we’ll be okay,” Bucky says patiently, standing up to give Steve a kiss on the forehead. “Come on. Make me look like a real human.”

Steve huffs and nudges Bucky to sit back down, handing him the scissors and moving to get behind him. “When did you get so calm and composed?” Steve mutters rhetorically, running the comb through the ends of Bucky’s hair to loosen up the tangles that accumulated overnight.

“When you told me I don’t have to be hide or be alone anymore, actually. I realized you were right.”

Steve bites down on the inside of his cheek, a surprised smile threatening to take over his face. “Really?”

“Really. I ought to get used to people again. Learn how to be around them, blend in, get by.”

“That’s good, Buck,” Steve says, giving him a gentle scratch behind the ears before trading the comb for the scissors. “I’m glad you see it that way.”

Bucky clears his throat. “Yeah, well. Thought it’d be useful one day, if I ever get the chance to visit you in the city. If you let me, that is. I didn’t want to presume anything.”

Steve pauses, his heart breaking just a little.

“But if you’d rather not see me again, I understand,” Bucky continues stiltedly, his shoulders tensing up. “Just wanted to be ready, in case you do. I haven’t exactly figured out how you’d be able to tell me, either way. Maybe you could write, or I’d have to get a cell phone or—”

Steve takes a shaky breath. He doesn’t know what makes him feel more sick; the idea that Bucky would just wait around for him, or knowing that Bucky thinks Steve would make him wait at all. Bucky, gruff and wild and untrusting, wearing his heart on his sleeve. Bucky, who’d already lost so much, being brave in the face of losing something else.

Minding the scissors, he throws his arms around Bucky’s neck. “I have a surprise for you when we get back from dinner,” Steve says in a rush. “You won’t have to worry about any of this.”

“Is it a cell phone?” Bucky asks, which would almost sound like a convincing joke if his heart wasn’t pounding hard enough for Steve to feel under his skin.

“Better than that,” Steve promises with a squeeze, then straightens up and gives Bucky’s long hair one last tug. “Now, stay still.”

 

Chapter Text

It’s a good thing Mansewood is a straight shot down an empty road, because if Steve had to be paying attention to any traffic, he would’ve crashed his car five minutes into the drive.

In the passenger seat, Bucky stretches out, idly watching the forest passing by out the window. He’s fully dressed, shirt sleeves folded to the elbows to combat the summer heat. His hair, now shoulder-length, is tucked under a dark ball cap. His beard has been trimmed almost all the way down, revealing a jawline sharp enough to cut glass.

Steve cannot stop glancing over at him, marvelling at how ordinary he looks in his worn clothes, light scruff, and a pair of Steve’s sunglasses hanging from his collar. Eye-catching in a perfectly normal way, like some sort of country boy wet dream.

 

 

At the root of it, that is the truth. Especially the wet dream part.

Bucky tilts his head and gives Steve a look. “Do you need me to drive?”

“Huh?” Steve asks eloquently.

“The speed limit’s forty. You’re going twenty. Should I drive so you can stare at me properly? You’re making me nervous here, pal.”

Steve blushes, turning back to the road and speeding up. “I’m not staring.”

“Sure, you aren’t.”

“I was just thinking.”

“Yeah, I can smell exactly what you’re thinking.”

Steve purses his lips jabs at a button beside him, rolling both their windows down.

Bucky turns towards the trees, inhaling deeply as the wind ruffles his hair. Steve surreptitiously watches him from the corner of his eye, taking in the way Bucky keeps bouncing his knees and tapping his fingers against his legs.

“How do you feel?” Steve asks.

“Not sure,” Bucky eventually says. “Still nervous. Excited, too. A little scared.”

Steve nods in understanding. “Let me know what you need, even if it means leaving right away. Just say the word.”

Bucky nods, still curling his body towards the open window. For a while, a peaceful silence settles over them, with the car radio on low and the birds chirping outside. But the closer they get to town, the more Bucky fidgets, so Steve puts a hand on Bucky’s thigh and tries to project an air of calm.

Bucky places his hand over Steve’s and exhales. “Thanks,” he murmurs. “I think I needed that.”

Steve chuckles. “It’s not exactly a hardship to touch you, Bucky.”

“I’m from a time when men couldn’t just do this in public.” Bucky wraps his fingers around Steve’s wrist, settling them over his pulse point. “But I like when you stay close. It’d help.”

Steve nods and thinks over his next words carefully. “You should know that I’m not ashamed of it at all, but people might say something, or stare, at the very least. Small town, and all.”

Bucky contemplates that, chewing viciously on his bottom lip. “I’m not hiding anymore,” he says softly, like he’s reminding himself of it. “And I don’t want to hide you, either. So let them look.”

Three beautiful, terrible words threaten to spill from Steve’s mouth. “We’re almost there,” he says, instead.

Eventually, they reach a street sign that welcomes them to Mansewood. Bucky sits up a little straighter.

“That used to be wooden,” he says distantly. “Painted white and yellow.”

“Yeah, I think I saw a picture of that in the town office.” Steve looks over at him and thinks back to that grainy photograph hanging on the wall, dated decades ago. How old was Bucky then? Was he around to see it carved and posted, or was it already there to greet his pack when they first arrived? Will seeing all the changes in town make it better for him, or worse?

Steve swallows the lump in his throat as he turns down the main road, and the buildings that line the street come into view. “Wanna get dinner out of the way first? Then you can decide if you want to have a look around.”

It takes Bucky a minute to respond, but he finally nods, his eyes still glued to the town just ahead.

Steve squeezes Bucky’s hand. Bucky squeezes back.

They drive along without another word, and if Steve slows down a little, Bucky doesn’t complain.

 

 

There aren’t many other cars in the parking lot by the restaurant, so Steve chooses a spot closest to the doors. He rolls their windows back up, shuts the engine off, and unbuckles his seatbelt. He looks to Bucky, who slowly unbuckles his seatbelt as well. After a pause, he puts the sunglasses on.

Neither makes a move to get out just yet.

“Well. It looks okay.” Steve drums his fingers on the steering wheel and glances at the red brick building beside them. The green and black signs advertise combos that feature far too much coleslaw and one suspicious ‘Chinese food’ special. “It’s not exactly five-star, but…”

“It’s fine,” Bucky says, soft but sure.

Steve offers a small smile. “I just want you to have a good night, you know?”

Bucky seems to consider that for a moment before he leans over the center console and kisses Steve soundly. Their noses bump and the brim of Bucky’s hat knocks against Steve’s forehead, lightening the mood enough for them to laugh about it as they pull apart.

“I’m having the best night of my life,” Bucky says reassuringly, settling back into his seat. “I’m with my best guy, about to eat the ‘best chicken parm in New York state’ ,” he reads aloud, pointing at a sign in the restaurant window. “See? Everything’s the best. Stop worrying.”

Steve snorts. “I should be the one comforting you, not the other way around.”

“We can comfort each other,” Bucky says easily, and isn’t that the simplest answer?

Steve steals another kiss before they get out of the car, and then hurries over to the passenger side to take Bucky’s hand. “Okay?”

“Yup,” Bucky says quietly, looking around before pulls his hat down lower over his face. “You gonna keep asking me that?”

“Yup.” Steve threads their fingers together and tugs him towards the front doors.

The Shamrock is only larger than Red’s by half, which still isn’t saying much. Steve’s been to roadside McDonalds’ that were more spacious. But like Red’s, it’s quaint and has character to it that can only be cultivated from years of family-owned-and-operated love and community support. The interior is plainly decorated, dated but clean. Everything is dark stained wood, save for the black chairs and green tables. A small flat-screen TV mounted on the wall plays ESPN on mute, wholly ignored by the handful of other patrons.

Bucky quickly points out a corner table, and they sit across from each other with their feet tangled together. He stiffens when the waiter comes by to get their drink orders, so Steve takes over, asking for two ice waters, and a black coffee for himself. It buys them time to look over both sides of the plastic menu so Bucky has something else to focus on.

“Sorry,” he mutters.

“Nothing to be sorry about,” Steve shakes his head. “So, what are you in the mood for? Anything specific, or should we just order everything?”

Noting the way Bucky visibly perks up at the idea, Steve goes ahead with the order and asks for the dishes to be brought out as they’re made. They go for honey garlic chicken wings, fish and chips, cheesy garlic bread, the soup of the day, and bacon cheeseburgers made as rare as they can manage. “With extra barbecue sauce, right?” he adds, throwing Bucky a wink.

It’s easier to see him flush pink with his beard trimmed down.

When the first basket of crisp fries comes out, Bucky inspects it warily and doesn’t reach for one until Steve does. “Don’t be shy,” Steve insists, but it seems to make Bucky withdraw further. There’s a tightness to his shoulders that Steve aches to relieve. It’s like their first breakfast together, all over again; quiet and uncertain, thrumming with nervous energy.

So Steve slides into the seat beside Bucky, grabs a greasy fry, and pokes it into the corner of Bucky’s mouth.

“Really?” he grumbles.

“Really,” Steve says cheerfully. “Hey, did I ever tell you about the summer I spent babysitting our downstairs neighbour’s kids, and the only thing they’d eat were tater tots and yogurt?”

Bucky furrows his brow but accepts the fry, even tolerating a few more until he takes over and starts feeding himself. All the while, Steve jabbers away about the kids crying when he tried to feed them broccoli and getting so sick of fried potatoes that he couldn’t eat them for an entire year. Bucky nods to show he’s listening, if only absently, so Steve carries on and talks about other glamorous jobs he’s held, from barista to dog-walker to his brief stint as a pizza delivery boy.

The basket of fries almost empty when the soup and garlic bread come out, and by then, Bucky has gotten comfortable enough to respond with actual words. He keeps his voice hushed and head down, but finally takes the sunglasses off. It’s a relief to be able to see his eyes.

“What’s an elf?” Bucky asks around a mouthful of hamburger, smearing mustard on his chin. “And why did you have to pretend to be one?”

“Like, Santa’s elves. You don’t know about Santa? Okay, we’re watching ELF tonight, I don’t care if it’s August.” Steve slides a napkin towards Bucky and motions to his mouth. “Anyhow, that job lasted all of two weeks. I wasn’t getting paid enough to handle rude, entitled, Manhattan moms. Christmas in the city is already stressful enough.”

Bucky grunts in response, dabbing at his mouth and missing the mustard entirely. “All cities are stressful. Humans don’t value the peace and quiet.”

“Fair point,” Steve concedes good-naturedly. “But I think I’m starting to see the appeal.”

They steadily work their way through the food, and though most of it is for Bucky, he does urge Steve to nibble at everything alongside him. Steve keeps the conversation light, discussing what they should do with the upcoming rainy weather, arguing about Game of Thrones theories. Steve presses their thighs together and Bucky slowly loosens up a little more, and doesn’t even flinch when their server comes by to top up their waters.

“Will you guys be needing anything else, or are you ready for the bill?” he asks kindly, stacking their empty plates on a tray. He doesn’t bat an eyelash at their closeness nor at the mass amounts of food they just consumed, which immediately earns him a generous tip, as far as Steve is concerned.

Like he’s just realized they actually made it through dinner, Bucky turns to Steve with wide eyes. “Are we done? Already?”

“Guess so. Unless you wanted something else,” Steve shrugs casually. “Dessert, maybe?”

“We make damn good milkshakes, if you ask me,” the waiter suggests. “We got the regular flavours, but we also do mint chocolate chip, caramel fudge, peanut butter cookie dough—”

“I want that,” Bucky says under his breath, glancing at Steve before directing his attention to the waiter. “Can I get one of those? Please?”

“Absolutely. And for you?” he asks Steve.

“Strawberry, thanks. Can we get them to go?”

“Coming right up.”

As soon as their dishes are whisked away, Steve leans in and elbows Bucky. “You’re doing great,” he grins. “Still okay? Feel like a walk? You might have to carry me, though. I’m stuffed.”

“Sure,” Bucky says. He ducks his head to hide under the brim of his cap, but Steve can still see the smile that tugs at his mouth. “This ain’t half bad.”

“Aw, that’s what I like to hear on all my dates.”

“You eat garlic bread on dates?”

“You ate it, too!”

Their milkshakes come, shortly followed by the check. Bucky helpfully holds (and sips from) both plastic cups while Steve settles up, and only pauses at the door for a second before they head outside. The sun still hasn’t set, but it’s getting there, casting long shadows over the quiet road. Most shops have closed early for the evening, leaving this end of town empty and still. Steve takes his milkshake back and offers his hand.

“Show me around?” he asks.

It’s a silly request, and they both know it. Steve’s been all over Mansewood a dozen times in the past month and already knows a handful of people on a first-name basis. Bucky hasn’t been back in a lifetime, and the town has grown tremendously since then.

But Bucky chuckles and takes his hand anyway, leading him down the street for the first time, Steve hopes, of many.

 

 

It’s a surprise to both of them how many buildings remained from Bucky’s youth, though many were repurposed and remodelled. The memories trickle in slowly, told to Steve in bursts between squinting at each structure and suspiciously eying the people passing by. The doctor used to live in this building. That parking lot used to be a house. Behind the church, Bucky had his first kiss with a girl, and on the front steps a week later, she slapped him across the face.

“Did you deserve it?” Steve asks.

“No. Maybe. I kissed her sister.”

“You definitely deserved it.”

The main road takes all of forty minutes to walk from one end to the other, but it takes them twice that at the pace they set, stopping frequently and backtracking as Bucky remembers something else. His trepidation is slowly replaced by nostalgia and enthusiasm as he fondly recalls story after story. It’s the most disjointed history lesson Steve’s ever received, but he listens attentively anyway. He’s never heard Bucky talk this much. He doubts Bucky’s spoken this much in years.

When he finally runs out of words, they wander quietly through some side streets that didn’t exist when Bucky lived there, lined with houses and trees. He still looks around as diligently as ever, though more out of wonder than worry. The further from the main road they get, the more spaced out the properties become. The older houses look almost like fairytale cottages, and some even have above-ground swimming pools or boats parked in their driveways. Steve catches himself before he suggests to Bucky that they should get a hot tub, but is thrown by an awful, familiar noise.

“What—” he turns to look at Bucky, who’s stopped walking and is glaring at a house down the street, too far for Steve to see. “Bucky? What is that?”

A deep, low growl comes from deep within Bucky’s chest as the distant sound gets louder, but he doesn’t answer. It takes Steve a moment to connect the dots, and he elbows Bucky sharply when he does. “Will you leave Lucky alone!” he hisses. “He’s nowhere near us!”

Bucky growls again, though softer, finally looking down. “I didn’t even do anything to him.”

“You’re menacing him,” Steve says. “He doesn’t cry like that around Tasha.”

“Because Tasha’s territory is miles away. He was trespassing on mine.”

“So was I!”

“Yeah, but I liked you.”

Steve scowls to hide the dumb smile that threatens to take over his face. “Just keep it moving, asshole,” he grumbles, and they carry on as the sun sets behind them.

“You still okay?” he asks later, as they near the main road again. The sky above is dark and getting darker. He shivers, the chill of the night catching up to him. “We can stay longer, but I think we’re almost back to the car.”

“I’m okay,” Bucky confirms, looking him over. “You cold? We can go if you’re cold.”

“I don’t mind walking around some more. I think I have a jacket in the trunk,” Steve says, pressing closer to Bucky’s side for warmth. Bucky obliges, wrapping an arm around him. “I just didn’t think we’d be out for so long, but I’m glad we are.”

“Sorry, I just… It was nice to be out here,” Bucky says with a shy shrug. “It’s different now, but not in a bad way. I thought I’d miss how it used to be.”

“But you don’t?”

Bucky shakes his head. “The town’s moved on. I needed to see that. It kinda makes me think that I should, too. Could be nice to finally put down roots somewhere.”

Steve stops them abruptly, grabs Bucky by the collar and pulls him down for a kiss.

“I was thinking the same thing,” he murmurs against Bucky’s lips.

There’s a question in Bucky’s eyes, but Steve doesn’t give him the chance to ask it, just takes him by the hand and leads him across the street. “I know you can’t get drunk, but this is something that deserves a toast,” Steve clarifies, pointing to Fury Pub at the corner of the road. “Up for a little more socialization?”

“Uh,” Bucky makes a face. “But you’re driving.”

“I’ll only have a sip. What are you, my mom?”

“You’re going to buy a whole drink to have one sip?”

“Sure. Or you can drive. You said you would, so I could stare at you properly. I’ll take you up on that offer now.”

Bucky sighs. “Let’s go.”

Predictably, the place isn’t very busy, only a few booths of men talking in low voices or standing around pool tables, waiting their turn. They sit at the end of the bar, by a dartboard that Bucky eyes up with interest. “Wanna play?” Steve nods towards it.

“It’s okay. I’m not very good,” Bucky says dismissively, swivelling around on the stool. “Let’s make this quick, I’ve been wearing pants for too long.”

Steve privately shares the sentiment, so he swiftly orders them some beers. He almost regrets not planning a speech, something sappy and embarrassing that’s sure to make Bucky blush, but the whole thing would’ve gone out the window anyway. It’s Steve’s turn to be nervous and excited, restlessly picking at the label of his beer bottle as soon as it’s in his hands. It doesn’t help that he desperately has to pee.

“... Are you okay?” Bucky asks, frowning. “You’re jittery. Your heart’s racing.”

“More than,” Steve says honestly, setting the beer down. “I’m just gonna use the restroom, if you’re okay to wait a sec by yourself.”

Bucky looks unsure, but nods anyway.

Steve wanders to the back of the bar, where the single-stall restrooms are tucked away. He relieves himself and splashes cold water on his face, and tells himself to chill out in a stern voice. People ask their boyfriends to move in with them all the time. Granted, they’re not usually werewolves who spent almost a century isolated from the human world, and spoiled city boys who’ve never lived anywhere that didn’t have a subway system, but still. They’ll figure it out.

Steve wipes his glasses clean, pats his face dry with a paper towel, fluffs his hair into a more agreeable shape, and heads back out to the bar.

As soon as he spots Bucky, he knows something’s off.

He’s hunched over, head down, hands clenched into fists. Though he was only gone a few minutes, Steve immediately regrets leaving Bucky alone. He quickly walks over, ready to apologize and suggest that they just leave, when someone bumps into him and nearly knocks him down, spilling beer down Steve’s shirt.

“Jesus— hey!” says a gruff voice. Steve straightens up and looks over at the man clad in a brown uniform, his annoyance reaching critical levels.

“Sheriff,” he says flatly.

“Steve Rogers, right?” Rumlow says with a smile, too familiar for Steve’s liking. He has a beer in one hand and a dart in the other, which he holds up and motions to the board. “Sorry about that, I was backing up and didn’t see you there.”

“My fault,” Steve says, holding the hem of his uncomfortably sticky shirt away from his body. He grabs a handful of napkins off a nearby table and pats at the stain. “I shouldn’t have been rushing.”

“What’s the hurry?” Rumlow asks. “The night’s still young.”

Steve glances over at Bucky, who’s already looking back at him with his lips pursed.

“Just heading back to my place,” Steve replies vaguely. “My friend isn’t feeling well.”

“Aw, is that so?” Rumlow turns to Bucky, but Bucky quickly looks away. “Nothing a little fresh air and friendly competition can’t fix. Come on, fellas, stay a while. Deputy Rollins won’t be here for another hour or two, and darts is no fun by yourself.”

“I wish we could, but we really have to get going. Don’t wanna stink of beer all night,” Steve gestures to his shirt.

“This whole place stinks of beer, no one’ll notice,” Rumlow insists, holding the dart out for Steve to take.

“It’s okay, really,” Steve says. “We should go.”

“Just one game?”

“I’m sorry, sheriff.”

“Come on, Steve—”

At that, Bucky finally stands up, the stool legs scraping viciously across the floor. Steve grits his teeth at the sound. Bucky’s in front of Rumlow in two steps, grabbing the dart from his outstretched hand, and whipping it at the board.

It hits a perfect bullseye.

There’s a moment of stunned silence before someone feebly claps from the other side of the bar.

“Well, damn,” Rumlow mutters, sizing Bucky up. “Should’ve been asking your friend to play, instead. Hey, you from out of town, too?”

“Not interested,” Bucky grits out without looking at him. He turns to Steve and makes a move like he wants to reach out to him, but stops himself. “I’d like to go back to the cabin now,” he says under his breath.

“Sure thing,” Steve murmurs, putting a hand on his elbow and giving it a reassuring squeeze. When Bucky exhales quietly, Steve slides his hand down Bucky’s arm, nudging his wrist into Bucky’s palm.

He wraps his fingers around it and presses his thumb over Steve’s pulse point. “I’ll be in the car,” Bucky says, briefly linking their fingers together in thanks before heading out the doors without another look back.

“Be right there!” Steve calls out to him, already getting his wallet out. Rumlow sidles up to him in the time it takes him to count out a few bills.

“You been drinking?” he asks dubiously.

“Nope.”

“You sure? What about him? I could give you two a ride.”

Steve snorts. Judging by the slur of his words, Rumlow’s a couple drinks in, himself.

“You still up in that cabin?” he continues. “By the lake, right?”

“Uh-huh,” Steve says, grabbing a few more napkins and heading for the door. “Good night, sheriff.”

“Drive safe,” Rumlow grunts after him. “See you soon.”

Hope not, Steve thinks bitterly.

It’s colder out now, colder still with wet fabric clinging to his torso. Steve shudders and crosses the street, following the dim street lights until he gets to the parking lot. He finds Bucky leaning against the driver’s side door, unbuttoning his shirt and handing it over, leaving himself in a thin undershirt. “Change into that,” he instructs in a clipped tone, but makes no move to let Steve into the car.

“Really? Now? Out here?” he asks belligerently.

“Yes.”

Steve grimaces, but peels his wet shirt off and quickly replaces it with Bucky’s. It’s hot and soft on his skin, a welcomed relief. He’s only got it half-buttoned when he realizes Bucky’s tossed the beer-stained shirt into the dirt. “What the hell, Bucky, I can just wash that!”

“It reeks.”

“It’s just beer.”

“It reeks of him, ” Bucky clarifies, his voice dipping into a snarl.

Steve blinks. He’s missed a few buttons, but it seems like a secondary concern. “Is this a territorial jealousy thing?” he asks seriously. “He’s just a weird guy on a power trip.”

Bucky doesn’t respond, just holds his hand out expectantly until Steve sighs and gives him the car keys. Steve circles the car and gets into the passenger seat, watching as Bucky adjusts the mirrors and starts the engine. He pulls the cap off his head and tosses it into the backseat. He doesn’t put on his seatbelt. “When’s the last time you drove?” Steve asks.

“Late nineties.”

“Yeah? Who taught you?”

“Taught myself. Cars keep changing, getting harder to steal.”

“Oh. Right.”

He peels out of the parking lot and damn near floors it on his way out of Mansewood. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Bucky doesn’t adhere to speed limits, and Steve is silently thankful for the lack of other cars on the road.

If they get stopped for speeding, at least Rumlow won’t be the one arresting them.

The drive is quiet and tense until they hit the forest, when Bucky finally eases up on the gas and clears his throat. “I’m sorry for,” he begins, then seems to give up. “There was… Something about that guy.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” Steve says with a shrug. “I met him one time, and right away, I didn’t like him.”

“He just smelled...” Bucky trails off roughly and furrows his brow, hands tightening around the steering wheel as he exhales, long and slow. “Never mind. Forget it. Sorry," he adds, subdued. 

Steve thought Rumlow just smelled like cheap aftershave and cheaper beer, but he keeps it to himself. After a few minutes of wringing his hands in thought, he takes a deep breath. “Please don't let this ruin our day. I thought we were having a good time, and I hoped you thought so, too. I know it isn’t enough to change anything, but—”

“Hey. Come here. Don’t be stupid,” Bucky says tiredly, holding his arm up so Steve can lean into his side. “I didn’t think I’d ever see that town again. Didn’t think I’d ever want to. But then you show up in my forest, and you don’t take no for an answer, and suddenly, you got me making soup and talking to humans and wearing fluffy socks.”

Steve can’t help but giggle, and Bucky kisses him on the temple. “What’ve you done to me, huh? Most fearsome creature in a hundred miles, and I’m taking bubble baths with you.”

“You love bubble baths.”

“The point is,” Bucky barrels on. “You already changed everything for me. For the better." He gives Steve's shoulder an appreciative squeeze. "Sometimes, the thought of going back to…”

“Your musty old den?” Steve jokes. “Got used to the high life of indoor plumbing, huh?”

Bucky doesn’t laugh, just presses his nose into Steve’s hair again and inhales. “Being alone,” he says.

The smile falls from Steve's face.

“Like I’ll ever let you be alone again," he says.

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep, sweetheart,” Bucky chides. It’s so soft, Steve nearly doesn’t hear it.

“I’m not,” Steve mumbles sleepily.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Steve says, yawning. “Fuck you.”

Bucky chuckles. They continue on in a comfortable sort of silence with Steve nestled in the crook of Bucky’s arm. Judging by how long ago their last turns were, Steve figures they’re almost at the clearing, so he makes a half-hearted attempt to stay awake. He wasn’t even tired before now, but he’s gotten so used to Bucky’s warmth and weight in bed that he can’t help but feel the pull of sleep.

He wonders if he’ll be able to get to sleep without Bucky. He wonders if he’ll ever have to try.

Steve yawns his way through the rest of the drive and reluctantly pulls himself out of Bucky’s embrace once they’ve parked at the cabin, but the shock of stepping out into the frigid night air gets him moving quickly enough. After fumbling with the keys and nearly tripping over his own feet as he slips his shoes off, it isn’t until he’s walked into the house when he notices Bucky hadn’t followed him in.

“Buck?” he asks, poking his head out the door in time to see Bucky crossing the yard as if propelled, stalking through the tall grass towards the treeline.

It had been a day or two since he last shifted, so it was likely overdue. Still, it was unlike him to do so without at least letting Steve know he’d be gone. Steve steps onto the front porch, shoving his cold hands into his armpits. “You heading out?”

At his words, Bucky stops at the edge of the clearing. After a deep breath, he looks back over his shoulder at Steve. “No,” he says hesitantly. “I was just…” He turns back to the trees like he’s searching for something between them, then brings a hand up to rub at his nose. “I thought I...”

Steve frowns, watching Bucky drag his feet as he slowly walks towards the cabin and up the porch steps. “Something wrong?”

“No,” he says, then pauses and shakes his head. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s nothing.”

He takes his time kicking his shoes off and setting them against the wall, all the while gnawing at his bottom lip until it looks close to bursting. Steve shuts the front door and leans against it, watching Bucky with concern.

“Maybe it’s not nothing,” Steve suggests. “We had a pretty big day, it could be residual nerves. It takes a while for that excess energy to work through the body, sometimes.”

Bucky makes a noise in response, neither agreeing or disagreeing. His eyes drift to the window, and past it, to the trees.

It’s not lost on Steve that he keeps fixating on the direction of Mansewood, but whatever’s on Bucky’s mind can wait until morning.

“Come on, let’s go to bed,” Steve murmurs gently, pulling him out of his thoughts. Bucky reluctantly shifts his gaze away from the window and follows Steve up the stairs with heavy, sluggish footsteps.

If Bucky isn’t ready to talk about it, Steve can wait. Will wait. He isn’t going anywhere. Whatever it is, they’ll weather it together.

They brush their teeth side by side, moving to the bedroom to undress and lay down. Bucky climbs in after Steve and curls around him from behind, pulling him in and holding him in place. Bucky noses at the side of Steve’s neck, his breath wet and warm.

Steve sighs, letting his eyes fall shut. Bucky continues, sliding his mouth over Steve’s skin. His stubble is itchy and rough, but his lips are soft. Steve shivers as he feels the hot press of Bucky’s tongue where his neck meets his shoulder.

“Sleepy,” Steve complains again, though he grinds back into him anyway. Tired as he is, his body reacts, melting into the syrupy warmth. "What's gotten into you?"

Bucky kisses the nape of his neck. “Just... Werewolf stuff,” he whispers. "Wanna be close."

“M’right here,” Steve whispers in reply. “Not going anywhere.”

“You mean that?”

“‘Course I do.”

Bucky exhales slowly. “Even if…”

Steve’s hand reaches for Bucky’s and pulls it up to his chest. “Even if, what?”

 

 

Miles away and hours later, a truck approaches a crossroads.

Chapter Text

Bucky’s side of the bed is cold and empty, and it’s been a long while since it was either of those things.

Steve takes a deep, shuddering breath. Looking at it doesn’t feel good, he decides, but turning over and not looking feels worse. Like if he let his mind wander, he’d forget and expect to roll back over into a hard, furry body. Like he might reach out and seek warmth, but would be met with a barren expanse of rumpled sheets and unused pillows instead. It’s jarring and uncomfortable to know what should be there, but isn’t. To remember what he had, and to watch it walk out the door.

He doesn’t like this—hates it, in fact. But it had to be done, so Steve won’t let himself think of the ways he should’ve said goodbye, or dwell on the things he never said at all. Regrets won’t help him now.

He just didn’t think that it would feel like this.

That he would feel like this.

Cold and empty.

Steve shuts his eyes and wills sleep to come, if only to save him from his own thoughts.

 

 

Loud, pounding knocks rouse Steve from something too pitiful, too fitful to be considered rest. He blearily checks his phone and scrambles for his glasses in the dark, barely remembering to pull a sweater on before shuffling down the stairs.

The knocking continues, insistent and unrelenting. Steve squares his shoulders and opens the front door to two men in black tac gear, barely blinking at the gun levelled at his face.

“Sheriff,” Steve says evenly. “To what do I owe the pleasure at three in the fucking morning?”

Rumlow smiles without warmth. Deputy Rollins doesn’t lower the gun.

“Oh, don’t be like that, Steve. I’m just doing my job. Mind if we take a look around? For your safety,” Rumlow clarifies politely, roughly pushing him aside and shouldering his way into the cabin. Steve grunts as his back hits the wall, fists balling up in an effort to keep from swinging at him.

“Check upstairs,” Rumlow barks to his deputy as he unholsters his own gun and aims it at Steve’s chest. “Hands where I can see ‘em.”

Steve gives him a bloodshot glare as he raises his arms.

Rollins makes his way up the stairs, kicking doors open and pointing his gun into the empty rooms like a bad action movie. His cursory sweep is punctuated with redundant announcements of “Clear!” and the sound of heavy boots stumbling into furniture. Steve makes an effort to ignore it and focus on something else, though his only other option is to consider the way Rumlow eyes him up curiously.

“Well, I’m not much for beating around the bush. We’re looking for your, uh, friend from the pub, but since he’s gone, I take it you already know why,” he states, drawing the words out as though talking to a child. “Which means you know who we are.”

Steve glares at him in silence until Rollins ambles back downstairs and shoves the muzzle of his gun into Steve’s neck.

“Lerna clan, I figure,” he grits out. “Though I wouldn’t exactly call you hunters, since you still haven’t caught anything.”

The gun is jammed deeper into the side of his neck, but Steve doesn’t budge.

“Y’know, it makes sense that you’d get into law enforcement,” Steve continues. “Helps you continue that needlessly bloodthirsty, power-hungry legacy, huh?”

“Careful, Steve,” Rumlow warns, clicking his tongue. “We’re in the business of protecting humans, not harming them. But if they get in my fucking way,” he says gravely. “I have no problem with collateral damage.”

“You’re too late,” Steve growls and narrows his eyes. “He knew you were coming, so he left. And he’s never coming back,” he says, voice wavering in a way he’s not proud of.

Rumlow holsters his gun and sighs, like he’s more disappointed with Steve’s tone than his answer. “Where’d he go?”

“I don’t know, and I wouldn’t tell you if I did,” Steve snaps. “Vermont? Canada? You could try his den out by the lake. It’s not that far, maybe if you run, you’ll catch him on his way out,” he adds sarcastically, half-bracing himself to be punched or pistol-whipped.

Instead, Rumlow’s gaze turns icy, and a slow grin stretches across his face.

“His den?” he asks with amusement, eyebrows raised. “Not that far—is that something you know from experience?”

Steve’s hesitates, stomach churning. “I—I didn’t—”

“Nice night for a run,” Rollins muses.

Steve swallows uneasily, his pulse throbbing under the cold metal of the gun.

 

 

Graciously, they let him put on his jacket and hiking boots before zip-tying his hands behind his back and frog-marching him outside.

For all the firearms and Kevlar they have strapped onto themselves, they were entirely unprepared for anything more than a shootout. Nothing for trapping, nothing for tracking, and not a compass between them. They managed to scrounge up one flashlight with a weak battery from the back seat of their truck, and a half-empty emergency kit with gauze, flares, and a rain poncho. Steve has half a mind to ask what kind of hunters they are, but he had already answered his own question earlier. Apparently, Hawkeye’s wasn’t keeping this lazy, inexperienced generation of hunters well-stocked; a thought Steve is privately thankful for. He counts it as a blessing that they didn’t raid the cabin for supplies, though he laments not having brought a hat or inhaler.

The woods are tense and unwelcoming in a way he hasn’t felt in weeks.

Steve hobbles his way through it, aided by the muted glow of the flashlight and a faint inkling of the ‘right direction’. The crickets chip, twigs snap underfoot, and the trees offer no guidance. The trek is already treacherous during the day; in the cold clutch of night, it seems impossible.

Steve can’t help but think, bitterly, that he deserves this.

He keeps his chin up and tries to give the impression of certainty as they head deeper still, where the unforgiving canopy is so thick, moonlight suffocates before it can reach the forest floor.

“We close?” Rollins asks after walking for an age, giving Steve a push.

Steve stumbles forward with a grunt. “Probably.”

“You said that twenty minutes ago.”

“We’re probably closer than that, then.”

“Alright. Fuck this,” Rumlow chuckles cruelly, and shoves Steve to the ground.

“Do you wanna know? How I figured it out?” Rumlow asks, squinting to inspect the gun in his hand before pointing it at Steve.

From where he kneels in the leaves and moss, Steve resists the urge to roll his eyes.

“The howling,” Rumlow declares. “There hasn’t been howling in Mansewood since my grandfather’s time, God rest his soul. He was there to see the last of that wiped out.”

Steve stiffens, glancing up at him sharply.

“Now, it was a funny thing, you moving up here. Perfectly content to be living in the middle of nowhere, by yourself, with not a care in the world. I know city folk are always itching to get away from it all, so I wouldn’t have looked into that too much if I hadn’t seen you buying out all the raw meat at Lang’s,” Rumlow says, tilting his head consideringly. “And sometime after that, the howling started.”

Steve inhales sharply.

He thought he was being careful. Maybe if he tried a little harder, if he had been smarter about it, maybe Bucky could have—

“And I thought, no way, not you. No offence, man, but look at you. Small and soft. Weak, really.”

Steve sets his jaw.

“But if not you, who? You were the only thing that changed, the only new variable. All the signs pointed to you,” Rumlow says condescendingly, mouth twisting with displeasure. “Until—”

Steve screws his eyes shut.

His mouth goes dry.

His heart races.

“Well. You brought your friend into town. I gotta say, he looks exactly the way the reports from the forties said his family looked. That jaw, the hair, those eyes. He was the only one listed as ‘ missing, presumed dead’, but I guess that just ain’t enough, is it? The White Wolf lives.”

Suddenly, Steve can’t get any air.

Rumlow drops down on one knee in front of him, taking the flashlight from Rollins and shining it into his face. “Steven Grant Rogers, born in Brooklyn on July fourth, 1989, to Irish immigrants Joseph and Sarah Rogers. Deceased. Inherited the cabin from a Dr. Abraham Erskine. Deceased. An artist who works from home with no current fixed address and no living relatives? Tell me, Steve, who would look for you? Who would care?”

He grits his teeth and doesn’t answer. His chest heaves with the effort of taking deep, steadying breaths. Rumlow just shakes his head.

“You think we’re murderers, sure. You think what we’re doing isn’t right. But my family’s been in this business for centuries. We’re not hunters, we’re protectors of humanity. Mankind is safe today because of the dirty work we’ve been doing for hundreds of years. These unnatural beings, these… Abominations, do you want them to outlive us? Outrank us? To turn against us, rise up, and take over? No, Steve, I don’t think you do. It doesn’t matter how peaceful they pretend to be. What matters is that they will always have the upper hand on us. And until we deal with them, humans will always be in danger. Maybe not now, but one day, and it’ll be too late. It’s us or them. You understand?”

Steve blinks at him. “That’s impressive,” he intones. “Did you practice that speech on the drive out here?”

Rumlow scoffs and stands back up, giving him a long look. “Well. If you won’t lead us to him, we’ll lead him to us. Now, I just want you to know—”

He rears his arm back.

“—This isn’t personal.”

Steve only has a half-second to turn his head and brace himself when the flashlight cracks against the side of his face.

White-hot pain bursts from his cheekbone, sending him backwards into the dirt. He may have screamed, he isn’t sure, because a sudden, booming snarl fills the air and nearly shakes the trees around them.

“What the fuck was that?” Rollins raises his gun and looks around, unsure where to aim.

Steve struggles to roll over and get onto his knees. “Shit,” he whispers, dizzy and breathless.

Rumlow grabs him by the hair and pulls him up. Steve cries out, trying to tug himself free.

The sound rumbles through the forest again, as though coming up from the earth. Birds flee from their perches, squawking and shrieking cacophonously.

“That’s him,” Rumlow mutters, dropping Steve and turning around with wide eyes, glancing in all directions. “Where the hell’s that coming from?”

Leaves rustle.

A growl echoes into the night, deep and bone-chilling.

There’s a sudden blur of white through the dark.

“The flashlight!” Rollins yells.

Rumlow thumbs at the button and shakes it in his hand, curses, and tosses it. “Fuck, it broke! Get the flares!”

Rollins throws his backpack to the ground and pulls two road flares from it. He tosses one to Rumlow and they fumble with the caps.

Quickly, quietly, Steve crawls to a nearby tree and tucks his body behind it.

They wield the lit flares in one hand and guns in the other, frantically searching for the source of the noise and movement. The flares cast shadows that flicker and dance, the trees groan and the wind howls through the branches.

“Come on, you little bitch, come out here,” Rumlow grunts. “Time to finish this.”

Steve leans against the tree trunk and puts his weight on it to help him up to his feet, wrists still restrained and chafed from the zip tie.

“Wait—There!” Rollins shouts, and they raise their guns.

Steve knows he should go.

Delirious as he is, he knows.

And yet.

I’m so sorry, Bucky.

Steve rushes forward and ducks his head down, throwing his full body weight at them. His shoulder slams into Rollins’ side, the impact throwing him off balance. He falls into Rumlow, and they go crashing over a gnarled mess of roots beneath them.

Steve recovers first, rolling aside and kicking back to get as far away as he can. He stomps on the hands flailing out to grab at him, and to his satisfaction, gets a solid strike at Rumlow’s face with his heavy boot.

It’s only then that Steve realizes they’ve dropped their guns.

And the flares.

The leaves around them start to glow, igniting small plants and fallen branches.

“Fire!” Rumlow shouts.

They rush to separate.

Wind whips through the trees, carrying the sparks with it. The fire crawls across the ground, spreading and consuming, and Steve struggles to his feet before it can reach him.

The fire starts to climb its way up the trees, blowing smoke and ash around.

Rollins and Rumlow unholster their other guns and take aim once more, this time, at Steve.

A powerful, deafening howl pierces through the night.

Steve is out of plays and out of plans.

So he holds his breath, ducks into the underbrush, and runs.

 

 

He knows he hears gunshots, screaming, howling. It’s all so faint, he hasn’t yet decided if they’re happening in the distance, or if they’re just a memory he only half-recalls.

He hears the crackling and snapping of wood as it burns, smells the smoke and tastes it in his throat.

His head throbs and he strains to see through the dark, through cracked lenses, through thick grey clouds. Sweat burns his eyes as the fire catches up to him.

Steve doesn’t know how long he’s been running, or where.

But still, he runs. One unsteady step after another, lungs burning, chest heaving. Hands fastened behind him, fingers frozen and aching.

He runs until everything starts to fade into the smoke, until he can’t see the trees or taste fresh air.

He thinks of Bucky, and of home.

He thinks he’d like to see both again.

He thinks… He knows there’s no difference between the two.

Steve can dream it up so clearly, now. Falling to his knees, having his hands freed, being scooped up and held close. He knows that embrace, all-encompassing and heady. Warmer and stronger than any fire. A steady heartbeat that grounds him. It’s something he can’t plot on a map, can’t limit it to four walls and a roof. Can’t put it into words, but maybe he’d try if given the chance.

What does love smell like? he wonders.

“You,” a gravelled voice murmurs softly into Steve’s ear. “God, Stevie. It smells like you.”

“Oh,” he breathes, the corners of his mouth tug into as much of a smile as he can manage.

“I tried to get us good and lost,” Steve rasps weakly. “Did it work? D’you think they’ll find their way out?”

“Don’t worry about them. Just hold on, sweetheart. I’m gonna get us out of here.”

Steve exhales and shuts his eyes.

Bucky sounds far away, too, but it’s alright.

He’s taking them home.

 

 

Steve eventually comes to, slowly and reluctantly. When awareness finally settles into the aching torment that is his head, he finds himself on the couch, wrapped up in a blanket, nestled into Bucky’s bare chest.

With no small amount of effort, he opens his eyes and tries for a smile.

Even with his face creased in worry, he’s so handsome, Steve’s heart hurts a little.

“We gotta stop meeting like this,” he says roughly.

Bucky makes a sound that might be a laugh, but could just as well be a sob. His arms tighten around Steve until he starts to wheeze.

“Why’re we in the living room?” Steve asks through a dry cough. “I have more questions, but we’ll start with that one.”

“Uh. I thought it would be rude to go upstairs. When. Um,” Bucky sniffs, gesturing towards the kitchen. Steve turns his head and peeks over the arm of the couch.

Even without his glasses on, there’s no mistaking the bright red head of curls.

“Tasha?” he squeaks. “Hang on, where are my... I can’t see—”

Bucky helpfully (and crookedly) slides Steve’s glasses onto his face. They’re cracked something awful, and one of his eyes is mostly swollen shut, but that does nothing to obscure the sight of a woman perched atop the island with a mug of tea, looking expectant and wearing nothing but Steve’s bathrobe.

“Oh, jesus, you’re,” he stammers, quickly looking away. “This doubles my list of questions—”

“You shouldn’t be talking,” Bucky frowns. “You were out cold for twenty minutes and your lungs still sound bad, we can go to a hospital once the fire department gets here—”

“The what?” Steve struggles to sit up, his sore body aching in protest. “They’re coming? Here?”

“I called Sam ten minutes ago,” Tasha chimes in with a shrug, hopping down off the island to rinse her mug out in the sink. “But we don’t need to evacuate, the fire’s nowhere near us and it’s mostly out. It just started to drizzle.”

“They’ll be a while,” Bucky murmurs. “Sun hasn’t even risen yet.”

“Thunderstorm’s coming in, too,” she says, cracking the window open. She leans towards it and inhales deeply, looking up at the murky sky pensively. The smell of smoke is faint, wafting in on the cool breeze. “Yeah, I feel it. Maybe an hour or so.”

“That should help,” Bucky says, relieved, pressing a kiss to the back of Steve’s head.

“Might make things a little messier for us, though,” she says cryptically as she pokes around the kitchen, opening cupboards, sorting through the freezer.

“Or easier to clean up,” he pointedly suggests.

Steve looks between them, trying to read the room and get a sense of what the fuck is happening. “I’m sorry, are you friends now? No more… Land disputes?”

Bucky clears his throat.

Tasha snorts, walking over to the living room to hand him a water bottle and a sandwich bag full of ice cubes, wrapped in a hand towel. Bucky reaches for it, but Steve grabs it first.

“I can do it,” he mutters before thanking Tasha and gingerly pressing the cold compress over the swollen side of his face.

“When things went south last night, Bucky tracked me down and sent me after Rumlow and Rollins so he could pull you out of there,” she says, elegantly dropping herself into the recliner across from them and crossing her bare, shapely legs. “We came to an agreement.”

“Which is?” Steve prompts, directing the question to Bucky now.

He purses his lips.

“Access to the woods.”

Steve gapes. “Buck… You gave up your territory for me?

“Oh no, he didn't give it to me,” Tasha clarifies. “I just want somewhere a little closer to home to spend full moons.”

“You weren’t supposed to be there. You weren’t supposed to get hurt,” Bucky insists. “I would’ve given her the entire state to save you.”

“And I wouldn’t have wanted it, because I would’ve dispatched them for free,” she says primly, before looking to Steve. “I clawed my way back here and hung around for decades, waiting for some Lernas to get sloppy. Then I moved back into town a few years ago to keep a closer eye on things, because someone chased me out of the forest.”

She shifts her gaze back to Bucky. “But believe me when I say we’re even, the pleasure was all mine, and on behalf of my pack, we officially welcome you and yours.”

Steve pauses. “Your pack?”

“Red,” she says, quirking a perfectly arched brow. “You were right the first time. I’m all that remains of the Reddings.”

“The pack that left Mansewood before mine got there,” Bucky explains.

“Oh. Oh my god,” Steve mumbles. “Just how many other werewolves live around here?”

“Right now? We’re the only ones who risked it,” she assures him. “It’s Lerna-claimed land with an active hunter presence. Or, it was.”

Suddenly remembering them, Steve sits up and grips Bucky’s arm. “They’re not going to find their way out of the woods, are they?”

“They won’t,” Bucky says seriously.

“But,” Steve protests. “What if—”

“Trust me,” Tasha says, very nearly smiling. “They won’t.”

He shivers.

Bucky takes Steve’s hand and threads their fingers together. “More than one way to skin a cat, I guess.”

“Christ,” Steve says faintly. “Well, if that’s all over… What’s next?”

“I was thinking the same thing, Brooklyn,” Tasha hums and tilts her head, considering the two of them, all wrapped up together. “I’ll have to borrow something to wear so we can tie up a few more loose ends, but once things settle down… I’ll keep your secrets, if you keep mine.”

Steve looks up at Bucky, who nods at him.

Consent. Permission. Trust, placed right into Steve’s hands.

“Okay,” he says cautiously. “What do we need to do?”

 

 

By the time emergency services arrive, Rumlow’s truck is long gone. He was smart enough not to use the official county sheriff’s truck, but not smart enough to take his keys out of the ignition. Likely, he figured it’d make for a faster getaway. And it did, if you count Bucky taking it on a speedy joyride to the north side of the lake and dumping it.

“Sorry we took so long,” Sam says with a grimace. “We kept trying to get ahold of the sheriff, but he’s not answering. What the hell is he up to?”

The statement Tasha gives one of the deputies is convoluted and suspicious, but she gets the perfect amount of misty-eyed and filled-with-righteous-anger towards the middle, so he seems to buy it. Something about getting harassed at the gentlemen’s club she works at, Steve coming to pick her up and getting punched in the face by a man who was accosting her, spending the night at Steve’s in case the man decided to follow her home, and noticing billowing smoke from the forest when she got up for a glass of water.

“And you don’t wanna press charges against that guy?”

“I might lose my job,” she says grimly.

“What about you?” he asks Steve.

He shakes his head and immediately regrets it, wincing. “I didn’t get a good look at him, anyway.”

“Alright. And who are you?” The deputy asks, addressing Bucky, who sits stiffly on the couch.

Steve has one brief moment of worry before Bucky takes a deep breath. “James,” he says steadily. “Steve’s boyfriend. I was here the whole time, but I didn’t see or hear anything on this side of the woods. Did you ask at the campgrounds?”

After commending Steve for having an incredibly stocked first aid kit, the only other medical attention they can offer is a cursory once-over, some help with bandaging, and the suggestion to head to urgent care if he starts experiencing any symptoms of a concussion. He promises to do so, and one by one, the emergency vehicles peel out of the clearing.

“Sam has to do more paperwork, so I’m hitching a ride back with someone from town,” she tells them on the front porch, bundling up in one of Steve’s jackets.

“Alright,” Steve nods, throwing his arms around her and squeezing her tight. “Thank you for everything.”

When they pull apart, she sniffs and wrinkles her nose. “Wow,” she says, giving Bucky a look.

He carefully doesn’t react, which is the most obvious reaction of all.

“What?” Steve asks.

Tasha furrows her brow ever so slightly, looking back and forth between them before settling on Bucky. “You didn’t tell him?”

“Tell me what?” Steve demands.

Bucky’s cheeks go pink. “I couldn’t.”

“Why not?” she insists.

“I didn’t wanna…” he bites his bottom lip. “Make that decision for him.”

“What?” Steve asks again. “What decision?”

“What are you waiting for?” she presses on. “You don’t think he’s ready? Or serious?”

Bucky seems to be at a loss for words, but Steve has plenty to spare.

“Hello?” he says loudly. “Can I know what I’m not ready for, or serious about?”

“Tell him,” Tasha says firmly, pulling the hood over her head.

Steve looks at him. “So?”

Bucky looks back at him helplessly. “Steve—”

“God, you’re taking too long,” she announces, heading down the porch steps. Once she gets to the bottom, she turns around, taps the back of her neck, and announces, “Werewolves mate for life.”

Steve blinks, raising his hand to touch the back of his own neck.

“Bye, Bucky. See you later, Steve,” she calls out as she heads down the driveway.

The shock of hearing his own name from Tasha’s mouth almost makes him forget everything else he meant to say. “Hey! You called me Steve!” he yells back at her, grinning.

“Well, you’re a local now,” she says decidedly, waving before she gets into the car and leaves them in the gray, dewy stillness of early morning.

With his mood significantly improved, Steve turns to Bucky and waggles his eyebrows. “So. Werewolves mate for life, huh? Am I your mate?” he teases.

Bucky sighs and gently knocks Steve’s hand away from his nape, replacing it with his own.

It should be a casual touch, but the tenderness in his eyes and the intimate way his thumb rubs soft circles into Steve’s skin has his toes curling in his house slippers.

“More accurately,” Bucky confesses. “You’re my life.”

Steve clamps his mouth shut. Bucky continues to look at him with a pitifully shy sort of smile, waiting for him to cotton on.

“You really didn’t…” Steve frowns. “There was no one else?”

Bucky shakes his head, his eyes never leaving Steve’s. “And there never will be.”

“But…” Steve frowns deeper. “I was going to leave. You were going to let me leave?”

His hand moves up from the back of Steve’s neck and into his hair. “Human lives are short,” he says simply. “I couldn’t ask you to spend a moment of it somewhere you didn’t want to be.”

It takes Steve a moment to parse what Bucky’s telling him, to appreciate the magnitude of it all.

“I know where I want to be,” Steve says, easy as breathing.

The sky darkens, and true to Tasha’s word, thunder rolls in.

The rain is heavy and lashes at the windows, falling like it may never stop. But it also soothes the blackened forest and restores the parched earth in the way only a force of nature can.

The world will be thankful for it, once it’s warmed and dry again.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Epilogue

 

The wolf doesn’t move as silently as he usually does.

The prey he stalks doesn’t necessitate it, and the wolf almost wants to be heard, wants to give his prey a chance. Will he run? Hide?

Fight back?

The prey keeps him guessing, and that’s what keeps the wolf intrigued.

In the shadows of night, he listens, filtering out the ambient sounds and smells of the forest to hone in on—

Careful footsteps, disturbing the undergrowth

The thread of something fragrant, arousing and warm

A heartbeat picking up, irregular in its normalcy

The wolf follows the prey with his ears for a time, until hunger wins out and he slips through the trees. He walks until his nose is filled with the prey’s scent, until he glimpses pale flesh and lean limbs.

The wolf’s tail rustles a branch, and the hears the heartbeat quicken and race.

Hears a sharp intake of breath.

Then—

The wolf gives his prey a merciful moment to dart ahead, but his mercy can only go so far. The prey gives chase and crashes through the shrubs and bushes, narrowly missing the trees, stumbling over roots and rocks. His breathing worsens as he tires. His feet grow clumsy.

He looks over his shoulder at the wolf, eyes wild in the light of the full moon, crying out when the wolf gains on him and leaps towards him—

Bucky rolls onto his back to catch the brunt of the fall, securing Steve in his arms before they land on the forest floor with a solid thud.

“Found you,” Bucky says cheerfully.

Steve scowls at him before dropping his forehead onto Bucky’s chest. “I thought I was getting better at this,” he says through heaving breaths.

“That was a little better than last time,” Bucky says gently. “You got further, I swear.”

“You gave me a head start,” Steve complains, the words muffled in thick chest hair.

Bucky grins, only because Steve can’t see it. “Just a little.”

Steve groans, and Bucky rubs his back patiently. “Cold yet? Wanna put your clothes back on?”

“You’re hot,” Steve says, as though it’s an answer.

They lay there a while longer, with Steve’s head pillowed on Bucky’s shoulder and the summer wind tickling the leaves around them.

“Sorry I’m no good at full moon runs,” Steve continues, his face too far away for Bucky to kiss the pout off of his mouth. “I know this can’t actually be fun for you.”

“You’re plenty good,” Bucky insists. “And it’s plenty fun.”

Steve lifts his head to look at him and squints a little, the way he does when he doesn’t have his glasses on and wants to make sure of Bucky’s reactions. “You said this is how werewolves play ,” he says. “They chase each other and hunt together and howl at the moon. I can’t do any of that stuff with you.”

Bucky sighs, but takes advantage of the fact that Steve’s forehead is now within kissing distance. “First of all, I said this is how packs bond ,” he corrects him. “If I really feel like chasing someone, I can always grab Tasha. But we buy groceries and cook together, which is close enough to hunting.”

And because it’s a full moon, and Bucky’s a little keyed up, he slides one of his hands down to cup Steve’s backside. “And if you really wanna howl at the moon—”

“Pfft,” Steve reaches up to flick him on the ear.

“Hey, I mean it,” Bucky says, more earnestly now. Steve takes him more seriously when he’s not smiling, so Bucky tries his best not to. (Though it’s hard for him, when they’re wrapped up so close. And even when they’re not.)

What the hell. He chances a smile anyway. “I promise I don’t care what we do, or don’t do. I just care that it’s us.”

Steve works his jaw like he’s chewing on his next argument. Bucky waits, even-tempered, until Steve finally swallows it down and smiles back. It’s a small one, but it’s more of a reward than Bucky thinks he deserves for just being honest.

“Come on,” he says, giving Steve a firm pat on the butt. “Think you can find the lake from here?”

And he can, of course. By now, he’s forged his own trails through the woods and made his own mark on the land. The limits of human perception mean he may not be able to see it, but it’s there. Bucky feels it. It hangs in the treetops and is woven like veins through the earth, it dances across the water and sings with the wind. Bucky’s things have their own place in the cabin, somewhere they live and share, but he belongs with Steve the way he belongs to the forest. It’s a place he feels safe, a place he protects. A place where he is nourished and whole and welcomed.

A place he couldn’t bear to leave again.

Side by side, they walk along the sand. Energy thrums through the woods, vibrant under the glow of the moon that sits full and luminous in the clear sky. Bucky stops and takes a moment to breathe, to feel the crackling of electricity under his skin, the fullness in his chest that seems fit to burst.

“Bucky?” Steve asks, a ways away down the shoreline. He’s radiant in the moonlight, though he wouldn’t appreciate being told as much.

“I’m okay,” Bucky says. “Just thinking.”

“About?”

“You.” It’s an easy and obvious answer, and always true.

Cheeks stained pink, Steve clears his throat. “You know, it’s been a year, almost. Since I moved up here. And I guess it’s here that we met.”

It’ll be a year in five days, Bucky knows with certainty. A year of fights and love and pleasure and challenges. Keeping track of time never felt more fulfilling.

“Any regrets?” Steve asks. There’s a teasing tone in his voice.

Bucky shakes his head. “Not finding you sooner, maybe.”

Steve flashes him another smile, and Bucky indulges in it for a moment before he poses the question back. “What about you?”

With a half shrug, Steve looks out over the water. “I wouldn’t have been ready, if I met you any earlier. I think I met you at the exact right time.” He glances down, then back up at Bucky. “But I’m sorry I made you wait.”

“Nothing to be sorry for,” Bucky says. “When you’ve got as much time as me, you get good at being patient.”

Steve chuckles and wraps his arms around himself. Bucky itches to hold him.

“Hey,” he says suddenly, his smile fading a little. “Why… Why did you wait? I know it was hard for you to trust anyone, but… Why…” Steve takes a deep breath. “Why me?”

Bucky tilts his head, watching Steve for a moment. His heartbeat is faster, his hackles are raised. Anxiety mars his scent. Is he expecting a bad answer?

He thinks of the day Steve barrelled into the forest, of their first meeting, of Steve providing for him though he was wracked with fear. Steve pushing him to return and accept the luxuries he didn’t deserve. Steve being patient with him, trying to understand him. Accepting him. Fighting for him.

It almost hurts that he’d have to ask, why him.

He never gave Bucky much of a choice.

Words fail him, as they sometimes still do. Bucky chews at his bottom lip in thought.

“This was a place we had to be, but you made it into a home,” is what he settles on. “Our home.”

Something sharp and urgent spikes through Steve’s scent.

Was that the wrong thing to say? Did he not feel the same?

Yet Steve is hurtling towards him, kicking up sand, and it’s reflex and muscle memory that allows Bucky to catch him with ease when Steve hops up into his arms.

He has always kissed like he has a point to prove, like it’s a fight to win and Bucky is happy to concede. Steve’s hands find purchase in Bucky’s hair and he groans when Bucky grips his ass, squeezing and spreading him open. “Bucky,” Steve murmurs, arching his back. He sucks on Bucky’s tongue and scrapes his teeth over his chin, with a whine low in his throat like he’s barely holding himself together.

 

 

His skin is still cold on Bucky’s, but Steve wraps his legs around his waist, rutting against him and steadily growing warmer. “Want you,” he whispers.

Bucky nips at the side of Steve’s neck, where he presses his scent every night. “Always want you.”

Steve pulls back, face flushed, eyes wide and bright. “Chase me to the cabin?” he asks breathlessly.

Bucky grins and lets him down, laughing as he watches Steve disappear into the tree line.

Even if Bucky gives him a head start, if he ever  loses his scent or the sound of his heartbeat, there are a hundred things in the world to lead him back to Steve. In all of Bucky’s years, and the years to come, he’ll never find a clearer path home.