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La Belle et la Bête

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“Fret not, a leanbh,” Sarah used to say. “Darkness is only a part of light.”

That’s what got Steve through fifteen years of illness and pain and misery. He took sick too quickly; took too long to recover, panting for breath, unable to run with the other children, muscles constantly aching.

“Should have left him as a babe,” he heard people say more than once, under their breaths when they thought he couldn’t hear. He was hard of it often, between all his illnesses. But he was well enough to hear them, sometimes. “Always thought he was a changeling,” the old believers would mutter.

“Mamaí,” he asked one evening before bed. “Am I a changeling?”

“Where did you hear that?” Sarah asked sharply. She was endlessly patient and rarely harsh with her son, so her tone surprised him.

“In town.”

“No, a leanbh. You’re not a changeling. You’re my own precious child, and I wouldn’t have it different for anything on this earth.” She tucked the covers in firmly around him, mouth a flat line of displeasure.

“Are you mad?”

Sarah sighed. “Not at you, Steven.”

“Then can I ask another question?” He was forever asking questions, and his mother was forever answering them. This time was no different.

“Yes, you may.”

“What’s a changeling?”

Sarah smiled, exhaling a long breath. “Well, stories say that a changeling is one of the Fair Folk. A baby one that replaces a human child, and that the human baby goes to live off in the hills with the Fair Ones. It’s just a silly story, though; there’s no such thing as a changeling.”

“Because faeries aren’t real,” Steve finishes wisely.

His mother laughed. "No, a leanbh! Where did you get that idea? The Fair Folk are as real as you and me. It’s just the stories about them that aren’t always true. Changelings aren’t real in the least—some people just can’t understand when a baby cries and want to lay blame elsewhere than sickness or sadness. But the Fair Folk are real enough.”

“Really?” Steve tried to sit up, eyes wide with wonder. Sarah gently pushed him back down.

“Yes, really. But they’re tricky and temperamental. They’re just enough like us to fool you, but they’re not human and their customs are different, so you must be careful. Take care not to offend one—their magic is strong and canny and not always like the stories say.”

“How do you know all this, mamaí?”

“We’ve got a drop of the Folk in our blood, the Grants, and that means you do, too. It’s always best to know these kinds of things.”

“So then can we do magic? Like the Fair Folk do?”

“No, no. It’s nothing like enough for that. But if you’re ever in terrible trouble, go out to the sídhe and ask for help, and they might find you. It has to be dire, mind, with no recourse. They’re fickle like I said, and they’re as like to curse you as bless you. Do you understand, Steven?”

“No, mamaí,” Steve answered truthfully. Sarah’s eyes crinkled in another smile.

“Then no going out to look for the Fair Folk until you do. Promise me.”

“I promise.”

By the time Steve understood what the promise meant, he was also old enough to be skeptical of magic in general. People in town began calling his mother a witch, but Steve knew that the only mystery was how his mother could remember so many herbs and concoctions. She had a mind like a steel trap, remembering what had and hadn’t worked for so-and-so; what she had or hadn’t yet tried. Plenty of it was knowledge passed down from generation to generation in her family, the tag-ends of which were written in various tiny scrawls in a battered book.

“Whatever anyone says, never use barberry and hawthorn together,” Sarah growled once, thumping her basket on the ground. “Damn fool thinks he’s fainting because of spirits in the air.”

She had a higher rate of success than most other peoples’ ‘remedies,’ and certainly more than the fancy city physicians, but that somehow only earned the town’s ire. And to Steve’s horror, it only got worse as Steve grew and his health improved.

Around his fifteenth birthday, he finally began to grow. He was spindly like a newborn fawn at first, tall but rail-thin, and eating his poor mother out of house and home. Steve had to comb through the meadows and forest nearby to find enough to eat, risking his hands on stinging nettles to soak at night just to keep up with his appetite. But his lungs cleared up and his frame was sturdy, and his readiness to work to his limit built his physique. It wasn’t overnight, but within a handful of years, Steve had changed drastically from a changeling child to a lordling, and the people in town, who saw him only rarely, couldn’t seem to understand it.

“So what am I today, a leanbh?” Sarah would call when Steve returned from town. She tried to make light of it, probably because Steve worried so.

“Witch,” he would sigh, or, “Enchantress,” with a wry grin. Sometimes, “Best damn herb-woman they’ve ever seen,” which was often accompanied by tokens of thanks from whomever Sarah had helped the most recently.

“I wish you’d take this more seriously, mamaí,” Steve worried often. “That kind of thinking could be dangerous.”

“I take it seriously,” Sarah reassured him. “But I don’t let it stop me. Never let fear rule you, Steven.”

Steve sighed unhappily, reaching for his mother’s strong hands. “I just don’t know what I would do without you.”

And Sarah’s face would crinkle in a smile, reaching out to hold her son. “You’d live, a leanbh. You’d live.”

It came to a head so suddenly that it left Steve reeling. One morning his mother was calling that she would be in town if he needed her, and before the next dawn he was carrying her broken body away from the village, numb with shock and fear and feeling as though he was looking at himself from afar. No tears came to him that day, and he hated himself later for it. What kind of a son didn’t cry at his own mother’s pain?

Only one villager came to them that day. One of the dozens Sarah had helped, going to them at all hours of night and day, rarely asking for anything in return. One person out of the many lives she’d saved, risking her own health to do so. Steve’s blood boiled in his veins and anger and hatred reared up in his heart, ugly and unwanted.

“It was the sickness last month,” the woman, Fionnoula, told him quietly. “Sarah was in town near to every day but never took ill herself. It frightened everyone. They lost their heads.”

“She was ill!” Steve growled. He had set his mother’s bones and she had been unconscious for it all, for which he was thankful and frightened in turns. Setting them with her awake would have been agony for her, but he knew that after a beating like this, there was a chance she would not wake. “She was ill, but she went anyway. Tending your families. Helping your children.”

“She hid it too well,” Fionnoula murmured, wringing out another cloth for him. “Another child took ill yesterday, and everyone is already restless. They’ve been looking for someone to blame.”

“They were glad enough to have her help during.” In contrast to his words, Steve’s hands were gentle as he mopped his mother’s brow.

“They’re scared, Steven. Fear can make us do terrible things.”

Steve’s hands shook as he rummaged through what herbs his mother still had around. Fionnoula wasn’t to blame and he’d get nowhere taking his anger out on her.

One week and, though Sarah had woken, her condition only continued to deteriorate. Fionnoula hadn’t been by since that day, but Steve couldn’t exactly blame her. If the atmosphere in the village was as bad as all that, it wouldn’t be safe for her to be caught helping a ‘witch,’ and she had young ones to worry about. But they were running short on food and supplies, and Steve was terrified of leaving his mother alone in case the worst should happen.
But with his mother getting worse, he had precious little choice.

“I’ll be right back, mamaí,” Steve whispered. He hadn’t thought she was awake, but Sarah’s eyes slit open and searched him out in the moonlight.

“Don’t do anything foolish, Steven,” she croaked. “I’m here, waiting for you.”

“Nothing foolish,” Steve promised. He brushed his lips across her forehead, feeling the terrible heat under his lips. He was going to lose her if he didn’t do something drastic, and there was only one drastic thing he knew to try.

He walked east as fast as he could, hurrying out into the hills until he found what he was looking for. Carefully he took out his gifts—the last of their flour, a honeycomb, and the best of the vegetables from their garden, all wrapped in a plain, threadbare cloth. Climbing the sloping mound until he came to a small tree, he laid his gifts out and waited.

And waited.

When the sky began to lighten, he despaired. By all accounts, the aes sídhe rarely showed themselves in the light of day, and he couldn’t afford to wait for another nightfall. Falling to the ground with a thump, he braced his back against the tree and pushed the heels of his hands to his eyes, trying to hold back tears of frustration.

“Please.” He could only hope that something otherworldly was listening. “I could suffer it if it were anyone else. Just… not her. She’s done only good; risked everything, all on her own. We’ve only each other and I…” Steve screamed into the dawn; a horrible, tearing sound. “I can’t do anything! I’m helpless. Please. Please.” He curled his long legs to his chest and wrapped his arms around them, making his body as small as possible. Small enough to disappear, to hide from his pain.

A cool, long-fingered hand on his shoulder startled him out of his cocoon of misery. He twisted around fast enough to pinch his neck, catching a figure bending gracefully to offer him a hand. He took it numbly, rising to his feet to meet a man taller than he was, golden hair spilling over his shoulders, clothes cut of fine cloth but not in any style Steve could recognize. Behind the stranger, further up the mound, two others stood in attendance; another man and a woman, each holding part of Steve’s offering. He hadn’t even heard them pick up the items. He returned his attention to the person in front of him. There was no doubt in his mind that this was who he’d called for.

“Help us, please.” He tried to slide free, to kneel before the Fair One, but he gripped Steve’s hand tight.

“Your mother is known to us, Stiofán, son of Roger, as are you. We know all of our kin, no matter how distant.”

His mother had been serious when she said they had a drop of fae blood. Hope rose in his chest, threatening to choke him. “I would ask you a boon,” he managed.

“I will hear it.”

“My mother. She’s… the villagers…” He took a deep breath, marshalling his thoughts. The Folk wouldn’t be interested in hearing the story; only what he wanted. “My mother was beaten and is dying of her injuries. Fever and pain and bleeding. I want to heal her. Save her. Please.”

“That is a large boon to ask with so little to trade.” The fae gestured behind him to Steve’s meager offerings. Before Steve could say anything, the fae continued. “But Sorcha has helped us before with her talents, asking nothing in return. And it is noble to ask for another and not for yourself.”

Steve held his breath until the fae nodded. He beckoned to the male behind him, who gave Steve an herb shaped like a star. “After the sun sets again, crush this and mull it in wine. Give her a single ladle—no more and no less, and let her eat or drink nothing else until nightfall the next day. No matter how grave her injuries, it will save her life.”

Trembling, Steve took the herb and tucked it carefully into his handkerchief. He barely managed to stop himself from thanking the aes sídhe, bowing deeply instead. “I will.” He held his bow until he felt their presence fade. Then, heart lighter than it’d been in days, he turned his feet toward home.

“It’ll be all right, mamaí,” Steve murmured, gently combing his mother’s hair back. “The Fair Ones gave me something to heal you.” He pulled the herb carefully from his pocket, already looking for the last of their wine. He’d only just found the bottle when he realized his mother had been calling him weakly. Setting the herb and wine on their table, he hurried to her side.

“Just a little while longer,” he promised. “By nightfall next, and you’ll be on your way better.” He knelt when she reached for him, cupping her hand with his and carefully pressing his cheek to her fingers.

“Steven, stop.” Even the act of talking left Sarah sweating with pain, but still she showed her son a brave face. “What did they give you?”

“An herb that will save your life,” Steve told her eagerly. “Gifted to me. They knew of you, just as you said.”

“Even a gift from the Folk will come at a price, a leanbh.”

“They asked for nothing in return, and I didn’t thank them.” To one of the Folk, verbal thanks were practically an insult: a return of empty words in exchange for thoughtful gifts. He’d struggled with the etiquette, but he was proud to have managed.

“Even so. It was gifted to you freely, but the cost will be there all the same. Did you ask what it would be?”

“I’ll pay it, whatever it is.”

“What did they say it would do?”

“They told me it would save your life, mamaí.”

“Oh, Steven.” Sarah sounded so sad that Steve’s heart sank. She only sounded like that when she had a hard truth to share. “Something like that… the cost is always another life. Nothing that powerful can ever be free. Curing a cough, perhaps, or to mend a bone, but not to snatch back a life that should be taken. There is only ever one thing that is valuable enough in exchange.”

Steve shook his head in denial. He knew that if his mother had to choose between herself or her son, she would choose Steve every time. And this was her decision; he couldn’t—wouldn’t—force it on her no matter what he wanted. Any argument he had to the contrary could easily be turned back against him: He couldn’t bear to be without her. He loved her more than he loved himself. She was his only family. He had no qualms if he could know she would live and be happy.

“Yes, a leanbh. I won’t let you trade your life for mine. You’re my own precious son and you have your whole life ahead of you. What kind of mother would I be if I took that away? You are my pride and joy, Steven, and that you are here is the only thing I need to be happy always.”

Three days later, when the end drew near, Sarah found the energy to speak with him one last time.

“I know you’re angry, a leanbh. I know how a heart can hang heavy with sorrow and rage. But don’t let it consume you. Find something to love outside of your own self. Fill that heart of yours with it. Find peace.” Steve tried to hush her, to give her water to bolster her strength, but she shook her head. “I loved your father so very much, and even after he passed, that love carried me on. It showed me that there could be more in this world. It’s harsh, yes, and cold and even cruel. But even a single ember here…” Sarah tapped her own chest where, Steve knew, a cheap ring lay threaded on a leather cord. “Can bring you so much joy and hope. And look what it brought me.”

Steve leaned into his mother’s beckoning hand, aching to hold her again, to hug her tight and tuck his face against her neck as he did when he was young. But any movement like that would only hurt her more and he didn’t dare.

“Come. Let me hold you proper.” Sarah’s voice trembled and her arms were too weak to lift all the way, so Steve bit his lip and arranged them about his shoulders, carefully placing his knee on the bed so he could lean down into her, nose just brushing her soft shoulder, trying to ignore the terrible hints of pain and death that clung to his mother now. He focused on the wildflower-lye smell of her, familiar and comforting. She clucked to him under her breath, providing her only son with comfort in a time when he felt she should have needed the comforting. Her shaking hands stroked his hair, urging him closer so he could cry out his fear against her as he had as a bairn. Steve cried himself out in the safety of her arms, pouring his grief and anger and helplessness and uncertainty until he felt clean again; ready to accept what his mother wanted and strong enough to face her death.

“I love you, mamaí. More than the sky and the earth and all the seas.”

“And I love you, Steven. I love you more than the sun and the moon and all the stars. Now talk to me, a leanbh. Tell me one of your stories.” Her fingers traced gently across his features, over his eyebrows and down the broken arch of his nose. “Sing me to sleep.”

Steve pressed his lips together firmly until the urge to cry again had passed—a voice choked with tears would be useless in sending his mother off. He dragged over a lower stool and huddled close to the bed, putting himself at a height where she could easily lay her hand on his head and from which they could see each other without strain.

Voice soft, he began her favorite tale.

Steve buried his mother with the help of the priest from the next town over because the one nearby had been too afraid to agree with the sentiment of the townsfolk running high. Even then, they’d had to do the consecration and rites late at night. Sarah had saved the man from a fever many years before, and Steve was glad that she could be buried as she deserved. Steve laid her to rest not far from their little garden and built a cairn for her, tucking in a rosary the priest had offered.

After, he walked into their empty home and broke his fast with the scraps he still had around. When his mother had refused the herb, and on her advice, he’d planted the wilting bit of green in a bowl. Now it sprouted, leaves baby-soft and bright green, the only other sign of life in the house. He lay his head on the table and stared at it, trying to hate its existence and failing. A life for a life. High price to pay for something that looked so innocent.

The next day, he turned his back to the village and walked once again for the rolling hills and the sídhe he knew were there. The journey would soothe him, and used or not, it was good form to give an offering to the Fair Folk if they gave help. This time he brought with him a wood-burning of a bear he’d done in the traditional style, a glazed bowl, and the most beautiful flower from the garden.

Soon enough, another presence made itself known, the hem of a delicate skirt brushing Steve’s arm where it rested atop his knees. He hadn’t heard the Fae arrive, but now that she was there, he shot to his feet to bow, nearly overbalancing in the process. A musical laugh rang out as a delicate but strong hand wrapped around his arm to steady him. Flushed with embarrassment, Steve glanced up at his visitor.

The woman had an otherness to her that marked her immediately as not mortal. She smiled kindly at him and gestured to the ground.

“We can sit again if you’d like.”

Steve blushed and gestured for her to go first. She settled gracefully on the ground, skirts spread around her and strawberry hair shining in the sun. He felt like an ox in comparison, lowering himself clumsily to the ground.

“I did not expect to see you again so soon, son of Sorcha, although I cannot say I am displeased.”

“Thank you, my lady.”

“You may call me Radha.”

Steve bowed again from his seated position, honored. Although it was obviously not her true name, he’d been gifted with a name nonetheless. It was unusual and a sign of great favor. He wasn’t even sure what he’d done to earn it, if anything. “And I would be honored if you would call me Stiofán.”

“Stiofán,” she echoed, rolling the name around in her mouth and savoring it. “It suits you. And Sorcha, is she well?”

Steve hadn’t considered this particular obstacle. He couldn’t admit to refusing the gift he’d been given, but he also couldn’t be caught in a lie. “My mother… thought I was hasty in asking her to stay. She asked me instead for another choice, and I felt obliged to follow.” He peered anxiously at Radha through his bangs, hoping he’d picked his words well. To his surprise, she didn’t seem off-put at all. In fact, she seemed almost… pleased?

“It’s often in the nature of the child to wish for more time. It was right of you to mind her wishes. And what of the herb?”

“It’s been planted in a little bowl.” He held his breath, wondering if he should offer to return it. But, no, returning a gift simply wasn’t done. “If you have advice on its keeping…”

“It will die of its own accord, if it isn’t close enough to our magic,” she said easily. “I would keep it close, however. Its use isn’t to be taken lightly.” Radha looked at him expectantly, as though she was waiting for something else.

“Is there anything I can do for you, Lady Radha?” He managed finally. He had to work hard to keep his whole body from drooping with relief when she smiled. He’d hesitated for so long that he’d been convinced she would be offended.

“You may wed me,” she declared with the same kind of casualness and surety that said she already knew his answer. And Steve knew, with a horrible feeling in his heart, that his answer would not be the one she wanted.

“I…” Sarah’s voice cautioned him to be careful, so he swallowed his words and tried again. “May I ask why?”

“Because I love you.”

“We barely know each other,” he protested weakly. Love? Steve has barely even danced with a lass. He knew for certain that he’s never been in love.

“I know enough. There is much to love about you.” She cast another glance his way, and it startled him to realize that she’d been admiring him. “Your hair shines of gold and your eyes are the blue of the sky. Your body is young and strong…” She reached out with one hand to brush it against his shoulder. “Of course, we’d have to leave immediately, or you’d grow old and frail, but with your only family no longer here, it will be an easy decision to make.”

The callousness of the statement flared Steve’s temper, making him speak before he could think on his words. “That’s not love.”

“Of course it is,” Radha countered. “There are many maidens in your village who love you just the same as I, because you are so fair. And I know you’ve not offered for any of them yet. I shall know if you lie to me,” she warned.

His stubbornness would be his downfall, his mother always said.

“I haven’t proposed to any of them because they don’t love me,” he ground out. “Not a single one of them.”

“Of course they do. None of them are worthy of you, naturally. But I am. I will bear you beautiful daughters and handsome sons. They will be without equal.”

“And what of me?” Steve had to fight to keep his voice at a reasonable volume. He could feel the line of shoulders tense and his hands try to ball into fists. “What of my desires? What of my desire to love someone in return?”

“You will never find one more fair than me.” She stood to her full height, towering over Steve’s seated form. He stood to match her, eyes blazing.

“You’re not speaking of love, my lady! You speak of my face and my strength, but what of the rest of me? Love—true love—is not so easily measured, and my appearance should have little to do with it. My mother wed my father out of love, though they had little between them, and they were happy. Even when I was born small and sickly; even when my father took ill; even after he died, my mother loved him still. She was in love with his stubbornness and kindness and his laugh and even the way he clumped the porridge if left to cook. The best and the worst of him, she knew and accepted it, and that is what I hope to find—someone to love and love me in turn, whether she’s the bonniest lass or the saddest scullery maid in all of Eire.”

“True love is a myth, Stiofán son of Sorcha, and you’d do well to heed me on it.”

“Half of the known world thinks you are a myth, my lady,” Steve hissed, “Yet here we stand.”

“You dare defy me?”

“In this? Yes, I do.”

They stood toe to toe on the hill, eyes blazing and wind whipping at their feet. “If you’re so sure you’re right, then prove it!” She seized Steve by the forearm, grip tightening like a vise until Steve could feel his bones creak with the pressure of it. Too late, he realized he’d picked a fight he couldn’t win, but he still couldn’t find it in his heart to stand down. Instead, he grit his teeth, balling his fists and bracing against the pain. “You have a century for each gift you brought me to find this ‘true love’ of yours.” She pulled something from her pocket and pressed it to Steve’s forehead, where it immediately burned, binding to his skin with a feeling so like fire that he could swear he could smell the acrid stench of burning hair. Whatever was on his head grew longer and wider, crawling down his face and clinging to him like a second skin. The pain spread impossibly fast through his body, nearly driving him mad and leaving him helpless against its onslaught.

“They’ll need to accept you, all of you, body and soul for a year and a day without ever seeing your human face.”

Steve’s vision blackened around the edges, narrowing dangerously as he fell, writhing, no longer caring if he were screaming or not. Radha bent down to cup his cheek in her hand, running the bright flower he’d brought her across his skin gently, like a lover. “Mark your time with this bloom. From the time you cut it to the time the last petal falls, this ‘love’ of yours must stay with you and never see your face. You have only this one chance to prove me wrong. If you do, the enchantment will break, and you can stay with them, as young and as fair as you are now, with my blessing besides.” Steve fought to keep his body still; to let his breathing come naturally and the pain wash through him as he had so many times in his youth. The magic was finally letting go of his body.

The world felt different, as if he looked on it with new eyes.

Radha forcefully turned his head so he could see her touch the stem of the flower to the ground and watch it sprout as though planted there.

“But when I prove correct, and you never find this ‘true love’? You will return here and marry me, as it should be. So I swear.”

Steve struggled to get his arms under himself, to stand again, but his entire body felt wrong. His hands wouldn’t move as he asked, and the grass under his palms felt far away. Radha ignored his plight and dug her hands into the earth, which parted as cleanly as if she’d used a trowel. Scooping up the rose, she turned to place it in the shallow bowl—the last of his gifts.

“I am not unjust, Stiofán. For a fortnight once every thirty years, the flower can be moved like so. You can replant it within that time to establish your new home so that you may look for the fairest maid or the lowliest scullery. All your other needs will be attended to. All the day, you’ll be as you are now…” Steve can feel the faerie stroke his hair, but the feeling ripples wrongly over his skull and shivers down his neck. “But every night, from the third hour before midnight until the fourth hour after, you can remember the feel of your human self—the self you could have been with me instead of chasing this folly of yours.

“Remember: all it will take to end this curse is a single snip and a dropped petal.”

She was gone before Steve could manage even to stand. He looked at the bowl still on the ground, fighting off vertigo and the sensation of being slightly too tall in a slightly too small world. When he tried to touch his face, only claws met his vision, pads long, black, and heavy. They clicked off of something that felt both like his cheek and not, the texture wrong in a way that made Steve want to be sick.

No, he had to focus. Even now, on the wrong end of an enchantment and his future uncertain, he knew that he’d been right to refuse. A life like the one Radha had described was barely a life at all, and his mother had raised him better than to give in to a bully, supernatural or not.

He painstakingly knelt to pick up the precious flower, cradling it awkwardly in his clawed hands. He’d have to find somewhere to hide for now—if anyone saw the mark of the Folk on him, they might do something they would all regret, and Steve wasn’t going to take that chance. From her words and his form, Steve knew that for as long as the curse held, he’d have to learn to live while taking shelter in the dark. But he could bear that, he thought.

After all, darkness is only a part of light.

Illustration by sianimations


Chapter Text

James Buchanan Barnes makes the mistake of glancing at the mirror as he’s packing up in the morning. He watches himself as he grimaces, rubbing at the scruff on his cheeks and neck. It’s not even the sexy kind of scruff. Combined with his long hair and the damn arm, it makes him look a little more like a stereotypical biker bar lurker than he wants. Sure, he actually is biking around the country, and he does hit up a few late-night places and maybe hustles a little pool here and there, but that doesn’t mean that he has to look it all the time. In fact, he’ll have to shave soon if he wants to video chat with his little sister. If she sees him like this, she’ll worry that he’s not taking care of himself on his trip ‘to find himself’ as his Aunt Holly puts it. Bucky knows who he is, thanks. He’s a grumpy ex-vet who’s also now a cyborg thanks to a Stark-made prosthetic arm. He drinks sometimes, swears a lot, carries everything he needs in his bike’s saddlebags, and is maybe finding some kind of relief in knowing that he can go as far away as he wants to and still fend for himself.

It isn’t that he doesn’t love his aunt and uncle. They mean well, but the three of them get along better when there’s more distance between them. The longest he’s lived under their roof was when he and Rebecca had first been adopted, right after their parents’ fatal car crash, and then again when he’d come home missing an arm and maybe a little of his sanity and had to recover somewhere stable. It had chafed at him both times, and only Becca could make it bearable. So here he is, using some of his savings to wander around and try to wipe the feeling of being trapped at home, in bed, in his own damn body for once.

Sighing to himself, he backtracks and digs out his razor and shaving cream and goes back to the shitty sink for hot water. He’s not going to bother with his hair, though. He’s been growing it out since he was discharged and the non-regulation length gives him a fierce kind of satisfaction: one more thing that’s his and no one else’s. His smiles don’t come easy, his body is bulkier than he’s used to, he snaps at people too quickly and there are so many scars littering his body that Rebecca cried over the pain it must have caused him. They pull and ache sometimes, and he has to oil and warm them up like he really is a cyborg just to keep them supple and his mobility intact. But growing out his hair is the one thing he can control about his body and his looks, and damned if he won’t hold on to it even if it makes Uncle Paul tut about punks and Aunt Holly leave her hair shears in obvious places. He nicks himself twice while shaving and resolves to buy a new razor like he always does, even though he’s sure he’ll forget by the time he stops for supplies. At least he’ll be presentable when he calls Becca this afternoon.

He checks over his bike like he does every morning before leading her out. He’s cutting through upstate New York on his way back from Canada. He’s not sure yet what he’ll do when he gets back. The last few months have been freeing—no aunt and uncle hovering over him, no Becca giving him guilt-inducing looks, no groups or therapists pushing, pushing, pushing. He keeps up with his therapist via video or voice call, and his physical rehab therapist sends him exercises to add to his routine, but there’s something nice about not having to go in and listen to them face to face all the time. And while people still give him sympathetic looks, no one knows how long he’s been out of the service or when he sustained his injury, so they tend not to gush over how sorry they are for his loss or how sad it is to have happened to someone so young like they would at home. Well, if he can call it that. He never felt quite at home with his aunt and uncle, but it’s the closest thing he’s got. Maybe he’ll find a small apartment when he gets back—something close enough that he can see Becca regularly but not so close that he has to deal with the same nosy neighbors all the time. If nothing else, he’s pretty sure he’s proved his point that he doesn’t need to be babied just because he’s a little fucked up now, and the guys at the VA have already offered to help him find a job.

He promises himself that he’ll enjoy his last few days of freedom before he gets back to the grind. He’s in no hurry to return, and he hasn’t even told them he’s back in the country. He didn’t want them to make a fuss—or to have time to gear up familiar old arguments about going back to school, finding a desk job at the company Uncle Paul works for, dating so-and-so’s daughter because you’re a war hero, James, what girl wouldn’t want you? Even worse is when they manage to remember he’s bi. Oh, isn’t Amanda’s cousin’s friend gay? You could ask her for his number! As though Bucky can’t find a date for himself, the fact that he hasn’t dated since before he shipped out notwithstanding. And anyway, it’s none of their damn business

He shoves the thoughts away for later in favor of admiring the winding roads and clear skies. He’s still in the foothills of the mountains, which is maybe not the best driving on a motorcycle, but definitely makes for nice views. He even likes getting lost, almost, because it reminds him of a time when camping out in the wilderness and telling stories around a campfire seemed like fun. And maybe somewhere in those mysterious woods he and Becca would find a way into a magical land, or see a ghost, or rescue a lost hiker. Stupid fantasies he had as a child from watching too many movies. Fairy tales. But being out on the roads with the roar of the engine and the rush of wind, sunlight dappling through trees… it makes some small part of him wonder if fairy tales can’t be true sometimes.

Maybe filling his head with thoughts of Narnia and Lost Boys wasn’t the smartest thing to do with only a ten-year-old road map and no cell service, because he’s been wandering around for the past hour or so, looking for somewhere to ask for directions or even just a good place to stop and try again to read his map. It’s almost sundown before he sees anything of possible interest.

It’s the flowers that catch his eye. There’s a house—a mansion? It’s big enough to be one—in the distance, so between that and the dirt road it’s possible he’s trespassing, but he doesn’t see anyone around and besides, he just wants to look. He eases off his bike and takes off his helmet, hanging it carelessly off one of the handlebars. The garden is beautiful in a wild way, plants rioting over each other but never close enough to choke. It’s obviously tended to carefully, and his only real regret is that the sun is fading fast. Well, that and he discovers that his phone battery just died when he takes it out for a picture or two. He crouches and admires a long vine of tiny roses standing sentry over sweet, pale-blue blooms. He’s reaching out to carefully touch a velvet petal when another hand intercepts his.

He jumps. There’s a man with dirty blond hair and what looks to be a permanent case of bedhead standing there with pruning shears and a bucket. There might be something behind him like a shadow, but it could also just be a trick of the light. Bucky blinks hard and tries to ignore it.

“Oh, sorry. I was just—uh—admiring your garden. I’ve never seen anything like this.”

“My garden?” the man repeats blankly.

“Yeah?” Bucky gestures vaguely to the greenery in front of them, which makes the other man burst out laughing.

“Oh, man, no way. It’s not mine. Tasha’s gonna laugh when I tell her. Nah, I just help out sometimes. I’m supposed to cut some of the pink flowers and the leafy vines and make sure nothing’s choking. I don’t actually know what that would look like, but I’m gonna fake it.”

“So, wait, if it’s not your garden, then what are you doing… you know, gardening?” Bucky absently points out the pink flowers when the stranger starts poking around.

“Guy who lives in the house, my boss, he owns the place,” He points to the house in the distance. “I guess you could say I’m the groundskeeper. Tasha just thinks that because I can track a deer that means I can tell different flowers apart. I’m Clint, by the way.”

“James, but all my friends call me Bucky.”

“Parents who hated you or just an unfortunate nickname?”

“Nickname, but you try having five ‘James’ in your class and see what you decide to go by.”

That makes Clint laugh again. He has Bucky help him find the vine he wants, which turns out to be more difficult than he first thought. All vines, Bucky discovers, look much the same to the untrained eye. But it’s easy to talk to Clint despite the fact that they don’t spend that much time together. He’s a hunter, Bucky learns, or at least he was before he became a groundskeeper. He gets the impression that Clint has maybe served at some point, too—he has that too-aware air about him and mentions nothing about Bucky’s obviously prosthetic arm. By the time that task is complete, the light is almost completely faded.

“Hey, I gotta get out of here, but was there anything I can do for you?” Clint sticks the shears in the waistband of his pants and looks at Bucky expectantly.

“I got lost, actually,” Bucky admits ruefully. He’ll end up driving in the dark now, but it’s not as though he hasn’t before. If he can find the highway again, he should be fine. “Think you can point me in the direction of 30?”

Clint gives a long, low whistle. “30? You really are lost. It’s gonna be hard without the sun. In case you haven’t noticed, you’re pretty far off the beaten path. It’ll be easier if I just point you to the nearest town. You can rest up and get better directions in the morning.”

Bucky nods his agreement and listens carefully as Clint outlines how to take their tiny dirt road to find a bigger dirt road and so on until he ends up in the ass-end of nowhere. But, Clint explains, slightly less nowhere than where he is now.

“No one ends up here except by accident,” he adds. He looks at the way Bucky continues to fidget and grins. “You got something else to ask. Go ahead; shoot.”

“It’s just that the garden is real nice and… the thing is, I’ve got a little sister and I haven’t seen her in a while. I was thinking… I’ve never seen this flower before. She’s into botany—you think it’s okay if I take one? I figure I can press it or something and bring it back to her.” Bucky points to a green, star-shaped bloom growing in a nest of thorns. Leaves threaded with silver catch the last of the fading light, giving the whole thing a peaceful, otherworldly quality.

“You had to ask for that one,” Clint says ruefully.

“That herb holds sway over life and death,” a husky female voice chimes in. Bucky jumps. Once again, he hadn’t heard anyone approach. He whips around to find a redhead with sharp eyes glancing between him and Clint.

“So, it’s poisonous?”

“You could say that.” The woman gracefully insinuates herself between Bucky and the garden. “It could snatch a soul away from the brink of death, but the cost would be high—a life for a life. Its possession isn’t something to be taken lightly. We’re quite protective of it.”

Bucky wants to laugh—what kind of a ridiculous claim is that?—but when he glances at Clint, the other man looks grave. “You’re serious?”

“Weird, I know. But it’s true.” Clint shrugs and then, at the redhead’s pointed look, makes hasty introductions. “Natasha, this is Bucky… uh… James? Or…”

“James is fine,” Bucky clarifies.

“Sure. And James, this is Natasha.”

“It’s my pleasure,” Bucky says politely. Instead of returning the sentiment, Natasha squints at what’s left of the sun.

“It’s getting dark,” she says pointedly, never breaking her gaze from Bucky’s, “and the roads get treacherous at night. You should probably leave soon.”

It feels more like a warning than a threat, but either way, Bucky knows a dismissal when he hears one. Part of him wants to protest, or at least ask more questions, but he is trespassing on their land. Reluctantly, he walks back to his bike and grabs his helmet, swinging into the seat easily. “Uh, thanks for showing me the garden, Clint.”

“Not a problem, man.” Although Clint’s voice is still easy and laid-back, his body language suddenly mirrors the redhead’s. “Safe travels.”

Bucky nods and slips on his helmet, putting the garden at his back and starting the engine. When he looks in his side mirror, the two people are gone.

It takes Bucky longer than he thought it would to get back to any semblance of civilization—he was way more lost than he thought, although Clint’s directions get him solidly on the right path. He finds a room in the town’s only motel and takes some time before he goes to bed to sketch the mysterious plant on a relatively blank portion of his map, committing the story to memory. If nothing else, Rebecca will get a kick out of his weird encounter, and maybe it’s some kind of folk remedy that she’ll recognize.

It isn’t until much later that he’ll remember the map—and the mansion—at all.

Bucky’s homecoming is about how he imagined it would go. He’s covered in dust and grit from the road and he stinks to high heaven from sweating in his jacket, but Becca bursts from the house to throw herself at him anyway. He grins and lifts her up like she’s a kid again, which makes her laugh for a minute before she punches him on the arm. She almost immediately shakes out her hand, but he studiously says nothing.

“You asshole! You didn’t tell me you were going to be back tonight! Ugh, and you smell. Didn’t you take a single shower while you were away?”

Bucky plays at trying to put her in a headlock, but she dances out of the way, running behind his bike to escape him. Their game stops when he hears the door to the house open again and looks up to see Aunt Holly making her way down the porch.

“James! It’s about time you got home! But you didn’t give us any warning,” she scolds. “If I’d known, I would have had the neighbors over and we could have had a get-together. And Paul is in Maryland on business.”

“It’s not a big deal, Aunt Holly.” Bucky goes to give her a hug, but she waves him off as soon as she feels the grit on his jacket.

“No, take that off. I’ll clean it—don’t worry, I know how to clean leather properly! Go wash up. You’re in time for supper. All your things are just where you left them. I just tucked some lavender in your drawers and vacuumed once in a while; kept the dust from building up, you know.”

“Thanks.” Bucky smiles pleasantly and goes to retrieve his bags and put his bike away. “I’ll be right in, I promise.”

He takes his time putting his things away, resolving to make an appointment to get his bike tuned again as soon as he’s up tomorrow. When he goes inside, his room, as Holly said, is nearly exactly as he left it. It’s a little depressing, actually, with clothes that don’t fit him quite right (and a voice that sounds suspiciously like his therapist asks if the ‘not right’ is physical or emotional) and a bed with a mattress softer than he’s comfortable with and mirrors hidden away like a shameful secret. He digs around until he finds something clean and loose to wear, then retreats to the bathroom to properly wash up.

He has a luxuriously long shower using his sister’s fruit-smelling shampoo, and it isn’t until he’s standing naked in front of the fogged-over mirror when there’s a heart-stopping moment when he realizes that he’s forgotten to bring a towel in with him. He’s been on the road so long that he’s failed to remember that there are other people who’ll see his naked ass if he streaks across the hall. Not that his ass is necessarily what he’s worried about. It’s his shoulder, really, where the metal and flesh fuse not-so-prettily together. The trip wasn’t the most friendly to the knotted scar tissue there and he doesn’t have to look at himself in the steamed bathroom mirrors to know that it’s a mess of painful-looking white and pink swelling.

It was easier to ignore when he was on his own, or when the only people who were going to see were strangers in the hostels—people tend to respect outside scars a little better than inside ones. They assume the outside ones are the only ones there; the only ones to talk about, so they don’t think to ask after others. But family is different. These are the people who saw him leave for deployment arrogant and cocksure and return in pieces. He doesn’t think he can deal with his sister and aunt trying hard not to look at his left arm when all he wants is a damn towel. But he also can’t stand here dripping all over the bathroom floor. He steels himself and bolts down the hallway completely naked, holding his breath until he manages to make it to the linen closet with no incident, feeling that breathless mix of triumphant and terrified that might have thrown him into a panic attack, once upon a time. Clean and decently clothed, he gives himself a minute before wandering into the kitchen and sliding into place beside his sister, who gives him a quick peck on the cheek when he’s finally seated.

“I’d’ve at least baked a pie or something if you’d called ahead,” Holly nags. She finishes setting the last dish on the table.

“I didn’t want to make a big deal of it.” Bucky tries not to tense as he spoons food onto his plate. He’s not so naïve that he thinks he can just slip into a ‘normal’ life, but is it too much to hope that he can find his new normal without any fanfare?

“Did you bring me back anything?” Rebecca butts in. Bucky finds himself grateful for her heavy-handed but effective distraction. Aunt Holly shakes her head and tells Becca not to be so impatient, but as soon as Bucky says he picked up a few things here and there for all of them, even she looks intrigued. He promises to go through his bags after dinner, which makes both women hurry to reassure him not to rush and make promises they probably won’t keep about letting him sleep as long as he likes tomorrow.

Being around his aunt is actually easier than he remembered. Maybe the irritation will build up over time, but for now, Bucky feels like he has a certain amount of clarity that he’d been missing for the last few years since his discharge. It’s nicer than he remembers to sit down at the table and listen to Holly complain about her neighbors and talk about her book club. To tussle with Becca over who gets the last of the ice cream and have her fondly call him a dork when he uses his finger to lick the carton clean.

In the morning, he hands out gifts he picked up in different states and shows the family the pictures he hasn’t already sent Becca. He tells his sister about his odd encounter only a few days before, and lets her wax poetic on the history of medicinal herbs and their lore, a smile on his face. He listens to her new plan to pick up yet another subject minor and how she’d like to take a break before grad school; maybe join a cultural exchange program to teach English in another country. He hugs her and tells her how proud he is, and shares his new goal of getting a place not too far from their aunt and uncle.

“Good,” Becca tells him, draping his arm over her shoulder. “I hate how unhappy you are here.”

“It’s not that I’m unhappy,” he hedges. “It’s more that I don’t get along with them as well as you do.”

“And you’ll get along better with them from a distance?” she guesses shrewdly. Bucky laughs and pulls her in tight.

“Pretty much. Not sure yet who’ll hire a—” He cuts himself off at Becca’s sharp look. Right. Therapy, don’t belittle yourself, non-judgemental, etc. “Who’ll hire me,” he corrects, “But I’ll look around. At the very least, I’m good for menial labor.”

“You’re good for more than that,” Becca murmurs. “It’ll all work out, big bro. You’ll see.”

“Promise?” Bucky holds up his pinkie.

Becca catches it with hers, tugging at their joined fingers. “Promise.”

Like a spell, his sister’s promise starts to come true. Bucky gets a job as a home renovator. Well, on the team of a home renovator. They do things from knocking out walls to installing fixtures to power washing siding, and Bucky almost always gets the team a good tip from a certain, select group of their clients whenever he pours water over himself to cool off. His coworkers good-naturedly try to convince him to take off his shirt altogether, but he’s pretty sure not even the most desperate divorcee wants to see the mess that makes up his left shoulder.

He finally finds an apartment in his price range. Sure, it’s a studio flat and the faucets leak and it needs a fresh coat of paint, but in exchange for Bucky doing a bit of the work, the rent is affordable and the landlord throws in water, electricity, and internet besides. The latter is important since Bucky is browsing around online colleges that might be covered by the GI bill, tossing around the idea of getting a degree in something. The only thing stopping him is that he isn’t quite sure what he wants to do yet. He could try getting an electrician’s license like Jenna, his co-worker, is always bugging him to do, but honestly, he’s not sure how compatible that would be with an arm made of metal, and he’s not sure he wants to go to the clinic to ask. There are a few nonprofits he’s got his eye on, though, and maybe a degree in business or finance wouldn’t be amiss.

All in all, when the new year rolls around, he feels like there might actually be something to celebrate. He goes out with Becca and a few of her friends; even invites a couple of his coworkers when Becca asks. They watch the ball drop on someone’s big screen TV, glasses of cheap sparkling wine in hand and stacks of half-eaten crepes (he still doesn’t understand that one) all over the table.

“Remind me why you forced me into red underwear?” Bucky shouts into his sister’s ear.

“It’s for luck in finding love! We’re all doing it.” Then she does something she hasn’t done since she was five and proud of her Power Rangers undies, and flashes him a peek of the waistband of her panties. Bucky slaps his hand over his eyes—the one not holding his drink, luckily.

“Whoa. No more wine for you.” He takes her glass away and fills it with non-alcoholic sparkling cider instead before pushing it back into her hand. “Besides, I’m not looking for love.”

“That’s okay, bro, because love is looking for you.”

He rolls his eyes because he’s not sure she’s even making sense, but then the countdown starts and suddenly everyone is chanting and topping off glasses, getting ready to start the new chapter in their lives. It occurs to him suddenly that, despite being in a roomful of mostly-strangers and the constant crackle of fireworks in the background and all the jostling and yelling… he’s actually enjoying himself.

It’s the last time he’ll be happy in a long time.

Becca gets sick before spring. It starts off like a cold, and she’s upset because she needs to pass a physical before March if she wants to go teach abroad. Bucky drops by every other day to help her study instead, or to bring her whatever treat he thinks might cheer her up.

When the cold still lingers after two weeks, they start to get worried. She recovers bit by bit, but suddenly she falls ill again and this time it comes with intense pain but no fever. She tries to insist that she doesn’t need a doctor—too expensive, she says—but Bucky threatens to take her to the hospital if she doesn’t comply. He’s big enough to haul her there bodily if he wants to, and she knows he’s stubborn enough to do it and to pay for everything no matter how little he can afford it, so she caves and make an appointment with a physician.

Two weeks after that, she’s sent to a specialist.

Then another.

And another.

The worst part is that no one knows exactly what’s wrong with her. A tumor or cancer, maybe, but nothing is turning up on any of the highly expensive medical scans. Bucky and his aunt and uncle refuse to tell her how much each new scan or test costs, but Bucky quietly moves back into the house and finds a second job moonlighting as a security guard.

It’s harder than he ever imagined it would be, watching his sister struggle more with each passing day. When he was in the hospital, in recovery, being fitted and operated on for his prosthetic… He thought that he had felt hopelessness and pain then. But it’s rivaled now by the despair he feels when each new test comes back inconclusive; when they move on to a new specialist who ultimately shakes their head sadly and prescribes something “to manage symptoms, because that’s all we can do right now, Miss Barnes”; when Becca cries into his shirt at night and admits brokenly that she’s scared. It’s a terrible thing, the grief that wells within him.

As the months pass, they start turning toward anything that will give them even the smallest glimmer of hope—spirit healing, crystals, Eastern medicines, herbology. Bucky hauls his sister outside every day and wraps her up in blankets on the back porch, sitting on the swinging bench they installed especially for her and telling himself that he isn’t storing every moment against the inevitable. He has to believe there’s something else he can do; something they haven’t yet tried.

“We need a miracle,” Holly tells him quietly. They’re sitting at the kitchen table, sorting bills and updating the journal they keep on Becca’s condition and the remedies they’ve tried—every single one. “We can’t keep going like this, James. It’s not that Paul and I won’t keep trying, but we have to face reality eventually.”

Bucky presses his lips into a thin line, shoulders going rigid. He’s angry but not, he reminds himself, at Holly. She’s being practical. It’s even more or less the same advice that his therapist has given him. But he’s not ready to say goodbye to his sister. He’s not ready to be alone.

“We could do something nice—” Holly’s voice cracks, “make some new memories. Let her travel the way she always wanted. Paul’s always wanted to buy an RV, you know. Well, we’ve been waiting for retirement, but it’s not as though we can’t move things up a bit. Go across the country like you did.”

Bucky shoves away from the table abruptly, muttering something about being tired. He doesn’t want to remember that right now. Doesn’t want to remember how happy he’d been and how promising life had seemed when he returned. How Becca had insisted on hearing every dumb story he’d brought back with him of cheap hostels and wacky tourists and small, out-of-the-way corners of the states.

But there’s a part of him that wonders if Holly isn’t right. It wouldn’t be the glorious, globe-trotting adventure his sister has been dreaming of since they were small, but there are still wonderful things to be had.

That night, he rummages around the back of his closet until he finds the worn saddlebags that had accompanied him what feels like a lifetime ago. They still house some odds and ends he never bothered to unpack—unlikely things like a miniature sewing kit and parking stubs. A few peppermints covered in dust. And his map, foxed and worn thin in some places but perfectly serviceable. It isn’t until he’s shoving it back into his closet that his eye catches on the sketch sprawling across one corner. Frowning, he takes it closer to his bedside lamp, fingers tracing around the pointed petals outlined in black ink. He can still remember its delicate coloring; the way it sat so innocently in that garden.

How serious the woman had been about it, frowning and protective. How the man—what was his name again?—had sobered instantly as soon as Bucky had asked.

‘Sway over life and death,’ they’d said. It was an outrageous claim. Ridiculous. Superstitious. But if it were true?

It would be a miracle.

Chapter Text

He’s been riding around the area for ages. Other than getting lost somewhere in the Adirondack Mountains one to two hours east of Route 30, he has no clue where the mysterious mansion actually is. He’s been gone from home for four days now and his patience is wearing thin. Worse, no one seems to even know what he’s talking about.

“Rich people do all kinds of weird things,” a bartender tells him one night. “Maybe they wanted to go off the grid or something. There must be dozens of places you could hide a house around there.”

But Bucky is determined to find this place. He’ll grid search the entire area on foot if he has to. Before he knows it, finding the garden nestles obsessively into his thoughts, making him hypervigilant for anything that might jog his memory. The groundskeeper’s words keep popping into his head: “No one ever finds this place except by accident.” Bucky can only hope that was an exaggeration and not some kind of prophecy because he can’t face the thought of going home empty-handed. He shops around at bookstores and gas stations and rest areas until he finds what he’s looking for: a map of upstate New York with both details and topography, and large enough that he can make a proper grid. He painstakingly traces out all the areas he knows he’s been so far and lightly sketches in the last few places he remembers being before he got lost so long ago, narrowing it down from what amounted to half a mountain range to an oval around seventy miles long. It’s still a lot of ground to cover, but it’s nowhere near as bad. He stocks up, too. Industrial glow sticks, extra battery for his phone, pruning shears, even a watertight tube he can carry the plant in. He’s determined that this will work.

He’s starting to think he dreamed the whole thing up when he finally finds it. He gets there just before sunset and scopes out the place from the partial cover the nearby woods offer. His bike is hidden a little further in, ready to make a quick escape if he needs to. He doesn’t have an eidetic memory or anything, but even if the mansion is half as big as his memory tells him it is, the person might very well have some kind of security. If nothing else, the groundskeeper might double as some kind of bodyguard.

If it’s possible, the grounds are even bigger than he remembered. The house itself is more along the lines of a castle and seems farther away, although he might be getting that impression because of the new wrought-iron gate sprawling across what Bucky assumes is the property. It’s classy but not much of a deterrent as far as Bucky is concerned. Sure, it’s not easy to scale and he’s a little too big to fit between the bars, but this is one of those times that his stupid metal arm comes in handy. Shucking his boots and socks, he ties the laces and takes off his jacket before slinging his shoes over his shoulder. The jacket itself gets thrown on top of the fence, covering up a couple of the spikes. He strips off his right glove and shoves it in his pocket, then gives a little jump and grabs as high up on the bars as he can. The leather on his left hand provides the grip he needs to climb and gives it enough padding that he won’t scratch the prosthetic itself—it’s ridiculously sturdy, but he’s not eager to see what happens if he somehow gouges deep scratches into it and messing up the fine motor movements of his palm and fingers. Its grip is much stronger than a normal human’s and can lock besides, so it’s not as hard as it could be to haul himself to the top of the fence.

It’s a little trickier to avoid spearing his crotch when he gets up there, but that’s what the jacket is for. He jumps off the other side, rolling to control his momentum, cursing when his boots go flying. Retrieving them is necessary—he can’t leave any trace that he was here—but it also wastes his time. He has no idea if whoever owns this place has more security than the two groundskeepers and he has no intention of finding out. Strapping his boots on carefully, he keeps low and close to the fence, alert for any lights that might indicate a security sweep. It’s almost a disappointment when he doesn’t encounter anyone.

What he wants isn’t hard to find—in the night air, its petals actually glow softly in the tiny bit of moonlight. As he approaches the little grove of flowers, he feels a flash of guilt. They’re obviously valuable if the owner has people actually warning others away from them, and here he is about to take one without permission. But desperate circumstances make for desperate measures. It takes him a few precious moments to pick a star-shaped bloom he thinks will be missed the least, but as soon as he takes it to sever the stem, a thorn pierces his finger, making him hiss. He gentles his grip but makes the cut, reaching for the plastic cylinder he brought to transport the precious cargo.

“You don’t want to steal these ones.” The stranger’s voice is raspy and familiar, but Bucky can’t see the source despite knowing in his bones that she must be close by. “These ones come with a price.”

“I—I’ve heard that,” Bucky whispers. “Natasha, wasn’t it? But I need one regardless. If it can do anything at all…” He swallows hard. “You gotta understand. My sister... she’s dying, and if there’s even a chance, I gotta know that I tried.”

Delicate hands take the flower from his unresisting grip, carefully disentangling the small vine that had acted as a protector. A few drops of his blood still cling to it, glistening faintly as Natasha cups the flower in her hands. “Hope is so fragile, isn’t it?”

Bucky can feel his eyes drawn to the luminous bloom. “Yes, it is.”

“The cost of a life is a life,” Natasha says. “I’ll give this to you with the secrets of its healing, but as soon as your sister is well, you must send her back here to live with the owner of the mansion. She’ll belong here, with us, until the day she dies.”

“That’s crazy. You’re asking me to sell you my sister?” Bucky recoils at the mere thought of it, of delivering his baby sister to the mercy of strangers.

“No, I’m asking you to exchange one life for another. It’s the only way this works. Otherwise, the only thing to be gained from this flower is pain and, ultimately, the death you are trying so hard to avoid. Death is easy to find; it’s life that is difficult.”

“So then… any life will do?” Bucky asks cautiously. The whole encounter is so surreal that he almost feels like he’s not having it; like he’s living a dream from which he’ll wake at any moment. Only the stinging pain from his hand reminds him this is real. “Would mine?”

The silence goes on long enough that he starts to worry that he’s somehow offended her, and he needs the hope that flower can offer.

“What’s your name again?” she asks just as he’s about to beg.

“James?” He hates that it comes out like a question, but it’s such a non sequitur that it’s thrown him for a loop.

“Your full name,” Natasha prompts.

“James Buchanan Barnes.”

“Well then, James Buchanan Barnes, your life will do.” Her fingers brush the delicate petals of the flower. “A single full moon—that’s all it will take to heal her, even from the brink of death. You have until the night after that to come back here and fulfill the contract.”

“How do you know I’ll come back even if she gets better?”

Natasha laughs. “Because I’ll have your full name and your bond in blood.”

Bucky rubs his fingers across each other, feeling the tacky wetness where he’d pricked them on the thorns. He’d given her both so easily, without so much as a thought. Part of him screams about his idiocy, but a bigger part of him knows for certain that he’d do it again if this works. “I need more time with her after she gets better, so I can be sure she’ll make a full recovery,” he bargains.

“All right,” she agrees, perhaps too easily. “I can give you until the end of the cycle after. But—”

He knew it was too easy.

“—she’ll decline starting on the new moon. By the time it wanes again, she’ll have gone back to her original condition. Not even the flower will be able to save her then, and you’ll still be compelled to come back here.”

Bucky can feel himself blanch at the thought of seeing his sister get better only to have it yanked away in less than a month. “What if it doesn’t work?”

“It will,” Natasha informs him confidently. “But if it doesn’t, you’re under no obligation to return, and you’ll have lost nothing but a tank of gas and a few drops of blood. Do we have a deal?”

Bucky thinks of Becca’s face, pale against her pillow, and her quiet strength. He steels himself and reaches out for the flower.

“Deal. Now, what do I have to do?”

The ride home is a haze. He knows he has to come up with a reason for both his absence and the herb, but by the time he stands at the door of the house, his mind is still a blank. He stumbles inside, the only steady thing about him are his hands, still clutching the precious container.

They still have to wait for sundown. He still has time, and he’s so incredibly tired, drained from the entire ordeal, but he can feel adrenaline bubbling, familiar in his veins—he won’t be able to sleep until he sees the mission through. Not that his sister is a mission, he tries to remind himself, but he can’t help but shut down a little with how stressed he is.

Maybe a shower will help him snap out of it. At the very least, it should buy him time. But instead, Bucky finds himself standing under a cold spray, too scared to let steam wilt the flower and too paranoid to leave it in his room. He ends up camping outside of his sister’s door, his pack by his side and listening to her breathe, running the last twelve hours over and over in his head.

Even after everyone is awake, Paul passing him in the hallway and politely not saying a word about Bucky apparently sleeping there last night, Bucky still has no excuses or rationale for what he wants to do. Natasha said he had to do it tonight, though, and he’s out of time to invent something.

So he tells the truth.

He tells them about his odd meeting more than a year ago, and the cryptic insistence of the groundskeepers that the herb not be disturbed. He leaves out that he went back because he was desperate—that goes without saying. He also leaves out what he bargained for the herb. If he tells them now, Becca might refuse to try on principle. It’s hard enough to convince them to play along with his hare-brained plan as it is. In the end, they all agree on the idea that ‘it can’t hurt.’ Which is more or less Bucky’s thinking as well, so he can’t blame them.

Just after sundown, Bucky hands his sister a ladle of mulled wine and watches intently as she drinks it all.

Holly and Paul, when they pass, furtively shoot him ill-concealed looks of concern. He’s sure that they think he’s completely lost it—there is, after all, a fine line between optimistic and completely mad. He tells himself that if this fails—and there is a loud part of him clamoring that it will fail, despite another part of him trying to shout it down—he’ll work on accepting the worst possible outcome. That he’ll help Holly start planning that cross-country road trip, and he’ll even let Becca talk about hospice care without storming out of the room.

He spends the next night and day in a hard chair next to his sister. Natasha was explicit that Becca not ‘let anything pass her lips until sundown the next day,’ which Bucky assumed meant the next twenty-four hours. The enforced fast sounds harsh, but Natasha was adamant. He refuses to eat or drink anything in a show of solidarity, which Becca tells him is self-sacrificing and completely idiotic. He refuses to acknowledge that comment and deflects by pretending he’s considering dyeing his hair blond.

Her horror at his apparent hair color choices provides a solid hour of entertainment, at the end of which Bucky finds himself to agreeing to grow his hair out even longer so Becca can braid it properly. He’s not completely sure how she got him to agree to that, but looking up fancy braiding tutorials takes up another hour of their time. So they muddle through the day, challenging each other to board games and making bracelets from thread, which is apparently a sleepover activity but also very boring. They ignore their grumbling stomachs and watch brainless TV until Becca can’t stay awake anymore. By the time they go to sleep that night, Bucky can’t tell if Becca is any better or worse. The next full moon is in fifteen days—Bucky checked. So it can’t be that long before his sister starts showing signs of improvement, can it?

He’s answered less than two days later, when Becca is actually able to eat three square meals and keep all of them down. Bucky drives all over town picking up this entrée and that appetizer, but it’s worth it to see her actually enjoy food again. A day after that, she insists that she’s restless and they all go out to a park to walk around. Becca staves off all attempts to get her to take it slow, and she comes home smiling and smelling like sunshine. With only one day until the full moon, they’re all forced to admit that the herb has worked. Becca’s color is back, she’s no longer tired all the time, her cough and headaches have gone away, and she’s putting on weight again. She doesn’t even suffer withdrawal symptoms from any of her medications, which leaves the first doctor they see completely baffled.

Everyone they see says the same thing: that whatever mysterious illness she had is simply gone as quickly as it had come. Several of them want to do more tests, and one even offers to have it covered if she agrees to take her appointments at a research hospital, but the siblings are reluctant to jinx Becca’s recovery.

So, Bucky does the one thing he can think of: He packs a bunch of blankets and some binoculars and food and a hand lamp and invites his sister out stargazing. They don’t actually go very far; just enough that the light pollution isn’t quite as bad, and they settle on their backs in the dim light, barely close enough for their hands to touch. He sighs and tries to force himself to live in this moment instead of dreading what to come.

But, as usual, Becca finds him out.

“What’s wrong, Bucky? ”

He considers lying for a brief moment, but that seems pointless since he brought her out here to talk anyway. The finger he’d pricked those weeks ago throbs with phantom pain as though reminding him of the deal he made to save his sister’s life.

“It’s going to sound weird,” he warns. “And I don’t want you to think I’ve gone insane.”

“I’ll try to keep an open mind.”

“So, you know the thing that, uh, cured you?”

“As if I could forget.”

“I had to trade something for it, and I gotta go keep my end of the bargain. Soon. As in, one month from today.”

“Bucky…” Becca sounds sad already, and he has to fight not to cringe. She doesn’t even know what he bartered. “Is it your bike? You love that bike.”

“No, not the bike.”

“What was it then? Are you in trouble?” She sits up, alarmed. “Bucky, do you owe money or something?”

“No! Nothing like that. Calm down, Becca.” Now they’re both sitting up, and Bucky scrubs his hands over his face. Here it goes. “They told me that the price for a life was another life.”

“They want you to kill someone?”

“No! I just have to live there, with whoever owns the place.”

“Live there?” She repeats, lip between her teeth. “I guess that’s weird, but not really bad…”

“Forever. Well, not really forever, but for the rest of my life. That was how they put it, anyway.”

Becca is momentarily stunned speechless. “But you’ll get days off or something, right? They can’t just make you disappear. They can’t just… just buy you and keep you … like a slave!”

“I agreed to it. Contract and everything.” Well, kind of a contract. He never signed, but Natasha had seemed pretty certain that his blood was enough to hold him to it.

“Well… how do we even know this isn’t just some weird coincidence like everyone keeps saying? It could just be one of those power of suggestion things. If that’s the case, then I don’t see how you’d owe anyone a damn thing.”

Bucky pulls her against his side, hugging her close. “They said that you’d start getting sick again on the new moon if I don’t. Rebecca, you’re my baby sister and I promised I’d look after you. I just can’t risk it. I gotta see this through.”

“New moon. That’s a couple weeks, at least. Let’s just not think about it and do that diary thing like I said I would, and when nothing changes after those weeks and I’m just as fine as ever, you’ll see that this was just some weird coincidence. C’mon, big bro, you know it’s gonna be fine.” Despite her reassurances, her breathing is tight and controlled, like she’s trying not to cry. Always trying to be strong for her big brother.

Bucky presses his cheek to her thick hair and squeezes her maybe a little too tight. She doesn’t say anything; just pats his arm soothingly and lets him pull himself together. He might have believed her, even, if it weren’t for the persistent throbbing on his fingertip.

They take the next couple weeks relatively easy. They don’t change much in Becca’s routine, and they faithfully record any and everything in a notebook they put aside specifically for this reason. They also decide not to tell Holly and Paul. The two of them can be oddly superstitious, and the last thing either sibling wants is to worry them over potentially nothing. Or, in Bucky’s case, over something they won’t be able to change.

When the moon gets completely dark and nothing happens for a couple days, Becca raises her eyebrows and smirks triumphantly at her brother, which makes Bucky shake his head but smile back. But the third day the sun rises, he stops smiling.

Becca’s headaches come back first, much like she’d started. She chalks them up to not enough water and keeps a closer eye on how much she drinks in one day. Not too long after that, the dizzy spells start up. Then losing time, and the rasping cough that steals over her with no warning.

When they look at each other now, Bucky can feel his expression grow hard and determined, while Becca’s edges toward sad and even pleading. They both know what her big brother is going to do next.

Within a day, he has his affairs in order and she catches him the next afternoon, packing. She settles next to him, folding one of his shirts slowly.

“Do Aunt Holly and Uncle Paul know?”

“No.” He hasn’t figured out what lie to tell them yet.

“Is this everything you’re taking with you?”

The two of them pause in their folding and look at the items assembled on his bed and floor. Clothes, mostly. A notebook, a scrapbook Becca made him, his ID, a handful of pictures, his tablet, his phone, and a spare pair of shoes. It’ll make loading his bike up a little trickier, but he’s not bad at distributing weight evenly.

She studiously doesn’t look at him, keeping her eyes on the task in front of her. “ Don’t go.”

“I have to,” he says as he folds another shirt. “You know what’ll happen if I don’t.”

“Maybe I don’t care,” she argues hotly, though her voice wavers at the end and takes away the sting. “Maybe, if this is the consequence, it’s not worth—”

“No!” He cuts her off sharply. “Do not finish that sentence! You’re worth more than anything. You’re worth everything. And if going to this castle means you get to live? Then I’m going to do it. Gladly.”

Rebecca glares at him, her movements rude and abrupt as she finishes folding the shirt in her hand. “Fine. Fine, if you want to be a stubborn ass who wants—wants to leave—” She doesn’t even finish the sentence before he grabs her hand and crushes her to him, letting her curse him and hit him weakly until quiet, broken crying takes its place. He holds her until her tears run out, bundling her close like she’s a child again and pressing his cheek to the crown of her head. Until she sighs and he can feel the change in tension, until she shifts so she can hug him back, not giving up, but accepting the inevitable. Her grip on his arm is strong and her face against his shoulder is warm, and he wishes he could stay in this moment of peace with her forever.

The memory will have to be enough.

He expects the drive back to the estate to be just confusing and difficult as it had been the first two times, but to his surprise, it’s the opposite. He gets turned around only once, when he tries to leave the road to find someplace to eat, but he finds his way back to familiar territory in less than ten minutes. It’s like the path is illuminated in his mind’s eye, pulling him there no matter how much he’d like to put it off.

When he arrives at the mansion, it’s dusk again. The gates swing open for him silently before he even has a chance to look for a buzzer. He knows they’re not motion-sensing because they stayed stubbornly shut last time he was here, but maybe there’s a security camera? He doesn’t see one, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any. It would certainly explain how Natasha knew where he was that night, when the grounds are so obviously expansive.

He carefully drives his bike down a wide, packed-dirt road, making haste because he doesn’t want to be here after dark when it’s clear that there are no markers or lights of any kind on the road. He keeps thinking he’s almost there and being surprised when it’s a bit farther to go—how big is this place, anyway? It’s with relief that he finally makes it to the stone steps leading up to the house. A bright white square of paper on the door prompts him to walk closer.

James, it reads in neat, no-nonsense script, leave your bike at the bottom of the steps and we’ll take care of it later. The door is open.

Shrugging, he pockets the note and goes back for his things. Inside, wide windows let in what light can be had from the rapidly fading sun. It falls softly on opulent rugs and marble floors; heavy hardwood tables and velvet-covered furniture. There’s even a tapestry up on one wall, but it’s in shadow and he can’t quite make out what it’s about.

“I’ll show you to your room.”

Bucky jumps and hooks his elbow to the side, but all he feels is a rush of air where a body was moments before.

“Jesus, I wish you wouldn’t do that!”

Natasha gives a throaty chuckle, stepping properly into view. He can barely see her face, haloed in red hair and smiles wide. “It’s how I get my amusement. Now come on—you’re probably tired, and I’m sure you don’t want to eat in the dark.”

“Does the electricity here not work or something?” He hitches the strap of his bag higher on his shoulder and looks around. There are indeed a few lamps, but not a single one seems to be lit. “It doesn’t look like you’re hurting for money.”

“It’s a… preference, I guess you could say.” Natasha leads the way through a carpeted hall and up a staircase. “Technically you have your choice of bedrooms, but for tonight I’ll show you to the one we bothered preparing. Clint said you’d like it because of the view and the ease of access. It’s also one of the less ‘flashy’ ones we have. Feel free to poke around and pick something you like tomorrow, if this one isn’t quite what you want. I’m sure we’ll find you one.”

She turns a corner and leads him into… well, all right, if this is their idea of ‘not flashy,’ he’s officially curious about the other rooms. It’s dark hardwood floors are broken up by soft rugs; a huge four-poster bed dominates the middle of the room, but there’s still space for two dressers, two nightstands, a trunk at the foot of the bed that doubles as a bench, an honest-to-God let’s-find-Narnia-style wardrobe, bookcases, and even more furniture—a chaise lounge, two wingback armchairs, ottomans, and a fireplace. He’s pretty sure there’s a window seat over there, too. It’s ridiculous. One thing he does notice, though, is that there are no lights that he can find. There isn’t even an electric switch. Even the fireplace is dark and bereft of any wood or kindling, as though it’s just there for show. Some kind of odd purist movement? That… doesn’t believe in electricity even though it believes in, apparently, nineteenth-century upper-crust grandeur?

“Your cell phone won’t work here,” Natasha tells him as she beckons him forward. “We’re a bit old-fashioned. Not many electronics work at all, particularly after dark. We just work around it.”

Bucky checks his cell phone quickly to see what she’s talking about and frowns when it doesn’t boot. All it does is flash a red ‘Battery Low’ sign at him and shut off again. He knows he charged it just before coming here, so it looks like Natasha is telling the truth. It’s starting to feel a little Twilight Zone in here. “This is your bathroom.” Natasha nudges open an adjoining door. To his relief, the bathroom has all modern amenities including a shower, bath, sink, and toilet. It’s clean and made mostly of stone, he thinks, and porcelain. On his way out, he pauses at an anomaly.

“This is a vanity,” he says slowly, fingers brushing the back of the low wooden chair. He feels more than sees Natasha’s nod. “But there’s no mirror.”

“Mirrors are another thing that are… complicated.” He’s beginning to think there isn’t anything that’s not complicated in this place. “This isn’t the time to talk about it, but if you want one I can get one for you. Dinner.” She cuts off that line of questioning by tapping a tray set on top of the parlour table. “You can put the tray in the hall when you’re done, or just leave it here if you don’t mind the food smell. I don’t recommend staying up much past sunset. It’s not that you’re restricted to your room—it’s just that you don’t know the layout of the house yet and it’s easier to get lost in the dark.”

“So, when the sun comes up tomorrow?”

Natasha laughs. “If you’re up then, you can walk around if you want. Kitchens are downstairs and no one will stop you from getting food if you want it. Just don’t leave the house until you tell someone, or we’re liable to think you ran off in the night.”

“Not a great way to start off this relationship, is it?” Bucky mutters dryly.

“Not really,” Natasha agrees. “Need anything else?”

Bucky bites back on a retort about needing his freedom. This was his choice and he went into it with his eyes wide open. There’s no sense in taking it out on Natasha now, no matter how badly he wants to.

“No. I’ll look for you tomorrow?”

“Of course.” She sounds amused, like she’s in on a joke he isn’t. Actually, now that he thinks on it, that’s the vibe he gets from her more often than not. Instead of feeling condescending, though, it gives him the impression that she’s rooting for him; giving him vague little hints. “Good night, James. I hope you sleep well.”

“You too, Natasha.”

He catches the barest flash of a smile before she lets herself out of the room vanishing into the long shadows in the hall. Bucky follows her to the door and closes it slowly and locks the rest of the world out, if only for tonight.

Chapter Text

Bucky wakes up late; he can tell by the brightness of the sun behind the curtains. When he tries to check his phone to see why the alarm hasn’t gone off, he remembers what he’d been told the night before—that electronics won’t work here. So now his phone is dead and, when he checks it, his tablet is, too. He’ll have to see if they have one of those old wind-up alarms if he wants to keep a regular sleep schedule in his new... home.

After a quick shower, he pulls on fresh clothes and sets about filling his room with his meager belongings. The result is as pathetic as he’d imagined. His shirts and pants take up one out of sixteen drawers. His socks and underthings take up another. His shoes and jackets and sweaters disappear into the empty space still left in the wardrobe, and his useless electronics and the few books he has all have room to spare on the single shelf they actually take up. Even his toiletries look like they’re huddling together for safety by his sink.

When he opens his door, sunlight sparkles in the hallway, warm and inviting. The front of the house faces north, he notices, so the light doesn’t directly strike the windows there, but it’s enough to completely transform the place from the imposing entryway he’d glimpsed last night. The place isn’t as palatial as it had seemed in the dark, but it’s still massive. He wishes Natasha had the forethought to leave him a map, so he could find his way around. Since Natasha mentioned it, he decides to look for the kitchen first. Most kitchens are on the ground floor and close to an outside exit for practical reasons, and one built for a house this size must be large. Even better, if anyone is cooking in it, he can follow by smell. Besides, he’s sure to run into someone who can point him in the right direction soon.

He keeps an eye out for Natasha or Clint, but he doesn’t come across them. Point of fact, he doesn’t come across anyone else during his adventure in finding the kitchen. By the time he gets there, he suspects he’s going to have to make a map of the place. He can orient relative to other rooms fairly well, but it would be nice to have been better briefed on the place he expects to spend the rest of his life.

The kitchen is a study in contradictions. It’s both classy and homey, with stone and wood and even ceramic intermingling. There’s an electric stovetop, but also what he thinks is a large brick oven built into another wall. Beside a blender is a hand-turned eggbeater, both not far from an obviously high-quality drip coffee maker. Copper and stainless-steel pans hang from hooks on the wall, cooking knives line a magnetic strip, and the table is a heavy affair with a blocky rectangular top and long benches instead of chairs. The blond wood looks clean but careworn, like it sees a lot of use. A small vase of flowers sits in the precise middle of an aggressively cheerful table runner.

What the hell has he gotten himself into?

He finds eggs so fresh they’re simply in a countertop basket and bread that can’t be more than a day old. As he fixes up a quick breakfast, he notices that the stove and coffee-maker work perfectly fine, so it can’t possibly be all electronics that have a problem. Maybe there’s a difference because these are plugged in? There’s no logic to it as far as he can see, and he lets his mind worry at the puzzle over breakfast. He also keeps alert for voices or movement, but there’s nothing.

His momma brought him up right, so he cleans everything when he’s done with it, selecting a piece of fruit to eat while he waits again. The kitchen is the one place that everyone ends up at some time or another. He’s confident that if he waits long enough he’ll meet the other inhabitants here. Maybe even the so-called ‘master of the house’ as well, although it’s possible that someone who can afford a place like this, with all its eccentricities, might also not be the type to go to the kitchen in person.

He turns to take his seat again—and freezes.

There, sitting as pretty as you please on the top of the table, is the biggest spider he thinks he’s ever seen in his life. It could be a tarantula, he thinks to himself wildly. Only aren’t those supposed to be fuzzy? This isn’t fuzzy!

This arachnid is so far from fuzzy that it shines in the bright morning light, slender legs and jet-black body and all.

“Good morning.”

Bucky feels his pulse skyrocket at the voice. This isn’t the time for one of Natasha’s games. The spider just moved enough to show a bright red hourglass on its underside: a black widow. A giant black widow, and if he was more of a naturalist he’d be fascinated and maybe call some kind of college or research center or something, but right now he’s mostly wishing he had his gun and about three extra sets of eyes because he does not want to take his eyes off of it for even a moment.

“Bad time, Natasha.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because there is a giant fucking spider right there!” he hisses. Once again, he gets the sense that she’s laughing at him.

“Hello, there,” Natasha tries again. The spider waves its front two legs in the air.

Bucky’s not sure he’s in his body anymore.

“Hi.” Just one leg is waving now.

He’s definitely not in his body. There’s part of him that knows he’s having a panic attack right now. That the adrenaline going through his system has brutally met the illogical glitch happening in his brain, and that maybe it’s broken him a little. He watches himself lift a hand and wiggle his fingers about so that he’s waving. To a spider.

“You’re taking this very calmly,” Natasha—the spider?!—observes.

And then Bucky throws a pan at it.

The spider—Natasha?!—leaps to the side to avoid it, but watching it jump just sets Bucky off again. He grabs a plate this time and hurls it with better aim.

“Son of a bitch!”

The spider jumps straight in the air, but now that it’s there it can’t avoid the glass coming at it. Bucky is throwing it before he can even hear the clatter of the plate.

Something dives from the ceiling to intercept the cup, knocking it violently off-course so that it smashes into a lower cabinet instead.

“No one ever invites me to the fun stuff.” A bird—eagle? Osprey? Hawk?—lands and hops awkwardly on the table as well, almost upsetting the vase there. The voice is familiar.


This time, there’s no mistaking how the bird looks his way and awkwardly waves one wing. Bucky sits down hard on nothing, falling to the floor and jarring his tailbone.

“Wild, huh?” Clint-the-bird flutter-hops a little closer, turning his head this way and that to regard Bucky. “I thought I was crazy too, the first time.”

A fresh wave of adrenaline courses through him at his newest thought. “Wait, am I gonna turn into an animal too!?”

“No,” Natasha is out of sight but not, apparently, out of range. “We chose this, so calm down. Breathe, James.”

“You’re a spider!”


“Clint’s an eagle!”

“A hawk, actually.” Clint actually manages to sound offended.

There’s the clink of a glass, and he looks by his hand to find a cup of cool water waiting for him. The bizarreness of how it got there pales in comparison to the fact that he’s talking to people he’s met who are now animals, so he takes it and drinks, finding it in him to breathe slow and steady, counting his in-breaths. Clint and Natasha politely wait for him to regain his composure, Natasha staying blessedly out of sight.

“All right, I’m calmer. But I still… this doesn’t make sense.

“Bro, you accepted that a magic flower was going to save your dying sister. How is the rest of this any different?”

“Well, yes, but…” Bucky sputters. He can feel the fight go out of him about this, at least. What Clint is saying is logical, given a certain value for the word ‘logic.’ If Bucky willing to accept that a… magical, for lack of better word, flower could cure his sister, he also has to accept the idea that there’s a whole other world he’s been ignorant of his whole life. One where people can turn into animals (or animals turn into people?) and contracts are bound with blood. It’s unnerving and makes him feel like he’s lost touch with reality when he spent so long getting himself grounded in it.

“James. Bucky.”

Bucky startles when a wing bone nudges his knee forcefully. A blanket is draped over him now, but he hasn’t moved from the kitchen. The cold drink has been replaced with a hot one, he can’t help but notice. With some effort, he focuses on Clint.

“Hey. You went away for a second. You all right? Got any questions you want us to answer right now? Or you want us to leave you for a while?” Clint’s voice is just the right combination of gentle and unpitying that tells Bucky this isn’t an act.

“Is it okay if I take a walk? It might help.”

“Of course.” Natasha’s smooth voice comes from behind him, and he stoutly does not look. “There are a series of gardens just through the door. Feel free to explore any of them. And if you need one of us…” A small bell with a rubber cover on the mouth sets down gently beside him. “Pull the silencer off and ring that. One of us will come find you.”

A million questions run through Bucky’s head: Does ‘one of us’ mean there are more people than just Natasha and Clint? How many people are trapped here like this? What do they do here when they’re not human-shaped? What do they need him for? His mind is whirling and he knows he’ll only panic harder if he doesn’t take the time to get his thoughts in some sort of order, so walking in the gardens it is.

“Thanks. I’ll just… get my head on straight.”

“Make sure to be back before dark,” Natasha cautions. “And drink your tea.”

“You did what?”

Natasha shrugs unrepentantly as Steve paces. “He said he was desperate and willing to pay any price.”

“And you couldn’t, oh, I don’t know, come to me with this beforehand?

“Don’t be so dramatic,” she snaps. “What would you have done that could have been so different? Turned him away?”

Steve hesitates. Mutters, “Maybe,” and goes back to pacing. Would he, though? He doesn’t know. It’s a dangerous thing to use, that herb, and he’d have gotten rid of it long ago if he could. The damn thing insists on growing no matter where he goes, haunting him like a specter of his folly. As if he needs the reminder, he thinks bitterly. “He’ll resent us,” he says aloud.

“Possibly.” Natasha unfolds her closed stance and gives Steve a pleading look. “But, Steve, time is running out. You’ve got less than half a century left and you picked some godforsaken nowhere place to settle this time, even farther away from people than when we met. Don’t tell me you’ve given up already.”

“No!” Steve whirls to face her. He bristles with anger, hating those words: ‘give up.’ His mother raised him to persevere, and he’s trying. But as quickly as it rose, the anger drains away from him, leaving him shaky and uncertain in its wake. “I don’t know. It’s been so long, Tasha.”

“I know.” Natasha puts a hand on his shoulder. If he looks at her just the right way, he can see the vague shape of her true form. “But I don’t think he was going home without it, and I gave him a choice instead. If you’d seen him that night, I don’t think you’d have turned him away, either, and you’re lonely, Steve, I know you are. No—” She cuts him off before he can protest. “—I know you have me and Clint, but I also know it isn’t the same. Do me the courtesy of not lying. And think of it this way: If he gets restless in this gaudy castle of yours, we’ve only got ten or so years left here. Next time, we can move into a city to try again. He’ll be able to see other people.” And you will too, she doesn’t say, but Steve hears it either way.

Steve passes his hand over his eyes. He’d known they’d gotten a visitor last night, but he’d thought someone had gotten lost and either Natasha or Clint had taken pity. It’s not unheard of for them, and Steve just takes the extra precaution to not leave his rooms. What he hadn’t been expecting was for Natasha to knock on his door and inform him that they now had a permanent guest courtesy of a true name and a bond in blood. He’s a stubborn ass and wants to fight this, but he also knows how to pick his battles. Breaking a contract after half has been completed is nearly impossible.

“You planned it this way,” he accuses. Call him naïve, but he’d hoped that Natasha’s scheming, no matter how well-intentioned, had ended years ago.

She shrugs, completely unrepentant. “When opportunity comes knocking…”

He pummels down a rising sense of betrayal when he realizes that Clint had to have known about this before Steve himself did. Looking back on it, he and Natasha had been in a flurry of cleaning and moving things around for the past few days. Part of him wonders how Clint kept a secret like this for even one day, much less the better part of a week. But Clint and Natasha have always been thick as thieves after their initial misunderstanding, and Clint is a good liar when it suits him. And Steve can’t actually say in all honesty that he would have turned away someone as desperate as Natasha described. He knows how bitter it tastes and how far it can drive a person—he’d tried the same thing, after all. Saying that someone else doesn’t have the right to make that choice would make Steve a hypocrite.

He closes his eyes and prays for strength. When he opens them again, Natasha is already turning for the door.

“I’ll give you a couple of hours, then I’m sending him to the study to meet you.”

“Natasha, wait. You didn’t tell me his name.”

“It’s James.” He can’t see it, but he knows she’s smiling. “James Buchanan Barnes.”

“The master of the house will see you in his study.”

Bucky has only been back inside for an hour or so, thoughts finally in some sort of order and cautiously exploring the foyer, when Natasha speaks up. She’s making more noise now, he notices. A brush of fabric here; the drag of a foot there. She sticks to shadows and hidden corners, making it easier to pretend she’s an invisible person instead of what amounts to a giant talking spider. He’ll have to get used to her eventually, but right now it’s more than he thinks he can handle. Her choice to remain hidden is a thoughtful one.

“It’s in the west wing.” A single black leg flicks out long enough to indicate the direction. “The third door on your right. Just knock and announce yourself,” she advises.

He wants to ask what to expect; if he should change clothes or bow or even kneel. He has no idea what his place is. If the people who work here are enchanted animals, what the hell kind of master must they serve? Someone powerful, to keep something like that herb, and obviously someone of means if the estate is anything to go by. Other than that, he has no idea.

And what does he want with Bucky? There can’t be any benign reason to hold someone hostage; not that Bucky can think of. And he’s under no illusions that this isn’t a hostage situation. It might have been voluntary, but now that he’s agreed, he has no choice but to stay. ‘Until the day you die,’ Natasha had said, but not ominously, so they probably want him alive. Service, maybe? Is that how Natasha and Clint ended up here? It seems too personal a question for people he barely knows.

He stops at the third door without even thinking about it, his feet stilling before his brain can catch up. He doesn’t even know what to call this mysterious ‘master of the house,’ he realizes. Maybe it’s intentional, to keep him wrong-footed. If it is, it’s working. The double doors in front of him are oversized and made of carved wood, heavy and intimidating. He switches to his left hand to knock, listening to the solid thunk of metal on wood. Before he can announce himself, the door creaks open from the force of his knock.

“It’s James,” he calls, warily letting himself in. The study is spacious, somewhere between a library and an office with tall, draped windows and bookcases that stretch toward the ceiling. He swings his gaze around, taking in as much as he can, when a flash of movement catches his attention.

Bucky’s first instinct is to recoil. What he’s looking at is not exactly a man, not exactly a monster, hovering in an odd limbo that’s strangely unsettling. It’s like seeing double, a bear wrapped around a man but still the same being. The idea of a bear, maybe. His face is completely covered by what looks like a mask made of stained bone and silver, teeth jutting gruesomely from the bottom like a skull. He realizes, when bright blue eyes snap to his, that what he thought to be a mask has to be this… thing’s… actual face, the eerily smooth material easing into the hint of a jawline and the delicate skin around all-too-human eyes. The odd black flesh of his face is trimmed in long white fur that stands up and out like a mane before smoothing into the body. Fur covers the further shape of a man, close to but not quite ever his actual skin, giving the hint of an arm here or a clavicle there. Although his arms end in paws, the fingers are just dexterous enough to use his claws to do more delicate tasks—in this case, set the paper carefully side without a single rip or tear.

“Natasha has informed me of the situation,” the beast says gravely.

Bucky isn’t sure what he expected. Animal sounds, maybe, or a voice that was lost in growls and roars. But while its words are rumbling and rough-hewn, there is a mild, almost soothing baritone lurking beneath. It makes sense put in context of Clint and Natasha, but it surprises him nonetheless.

“Um. That I, uh, belong to you now?”

“You belong to yourself,” the beast tells him sharply. Bucky tenses, but the beast seems to realize his mistake. “I’m sorry. I lost my temper. I just…” He takes a deep breath. “No man ever owns another. Indebted personally, perhaps. Contracted, in the way of things. But you are your own self, no matter any other circumstances. Do you understand?”

Whatever kind of conversation Bucky imagined having with the mysterious master of the house, this isn’t it. “Yes.”

The beast sighs. “Good. Thank you. Now, do you have any questions for me?”

“If I’m not your slave,” Bucky starts, but he sees the line of tension snap through the beast’s shoulders and hastens to correct himself. “Or servant, I mean, or… help or whatever, what am I supposed to do here? Are there like… rules or anything? Are we… Is this still…” He trails off, unable to say out loud that he thinks he might be in another world.
“You’re my guest while you live here, or until you feel fit to call this your home,” the beast answers immediately. “Very few modern conveniences work at all—nothing that allows long-distance communication, for example, or anything that relies on a battery. Everything else stops working at sundown. You’ll learn to work around it. All lights extinguish at full dark, no matter the source.

“The rest… Clint explained how you reacted to the two of them, at first, and I want to assure you that we’re still in your world. Just part of it that you don’t see every day. Few people do anymore, so I ask you to keep an open mind. No harm will befall you here; not from any of us. You’ve free access to all of the house and grounds, but leaving them is…” He hums to himself. “Unwise, at least without one of us around.” A clawed hand taps absently against the cloth knotted around the beast’s waist, and his eyes flick to the side, voice softening. “I’d like to…”

The pause this time is so long that it takes Bucky awhile to realize that the beast might actually be nervous about voicing his request.

“Yes?” Bucky prompts.

“I’d like to break our fast together, if we could. All of us. It’s not mandatory, but it’s…”

Bucky can read between the lines. Out in the middle of nowhere with only the same two people for company? The beast is lonely.

“Let me warm up to it? I’ll come, I promise, but maybe next week?”

Bucky gets a nod.

“Of course. Anything you need, James.”

Anything except his freedom, which he bartered away himself.

“He’s miserable, Clint.”

“He’s in shock. He’ll survive.”

Survive? We are surviving. He deserves better than that. We all do.”

Clint tilts his head from side to side, peering at Steve from one eye and then the other, and fluffs his feathers. It’s a habit he has when he thinks someone is being dense, like the bird equivalent of an eye roll. “So do something about it.” He droops a little under Steve’s glare. “You know what I mean. Make him feel at home.”

“I would if I knew how.”

“So find out.” He makes it sound so clear-cut; so simple. Maybe it is, to Clint.

Steve wants to hit his own face on the desk in frustration, but he suspects that the desk will give way before he even feels it. “Please, just… be his friend? He needs one. Then we’d know what to do to make it better here for him.” Out of them all, Clint is easily the friendliest and most approachable. The last time they’d lived in a city, he’d been the one to coax neighbors to bring them things from nearby bakeries and the like. They thought it odd that he was only around at sunset or dawn, but no one asked that many questions.

Clint shakes out his wings in a little bird-sigh. “What about you?”

“You didn’t see his face when he walked in here. He wants nothing to do with me.”

“What happened to that famous Rogers stubbornness?”

“I lost it sometime in the last century or so,” he replies sourly.

“Aha, there it is.” Clint is grinning if his voice is any indication. “Seriously, though, you gotta at least meet the guy.”

“I just—”

Properly. Talk or something. He seems like a great guy, Steve. Just give him a chance.”

It’s not Bucky that Steve is worried won’t get a chance.

Clint spreads his wings and beats the air a few times, letting Steve lean back far enough to give him room to properly launch. “Don’t make me sic Tasha on you,” he warns. The door closes firmly in his wake, leaving Steve alone to stew in his own thoughts.

Chapter Text

Clint takes it upon himself to try and educate Bucky on his new home.

“There’s not a lot I can tell you. There are a ton of unused rooms around here—we were serious when we said you could have your pick. The ground floor is mostly public use rooms; parlors, gallery, study, library. That kind of thing. The second floor is living space. There’s a pool if you swim.”

“You have a pool?”

“Yup.” Clint sounds ridiculously smug. “That one was my idea.” He bobs his head toward the south. “It’s in this fancy room that way. I mean, it’s not huge, but it’s heated during the day and everything. What else… Oh, I don’t know if you heard it last night, but all the curtains in the house close after the sun is gone, so don’t worry if you hear that. It’s actually pretty quiet, all things considered, but watching them all move might take some getting used to.”

Bucky does remember hearing something last night, but he’d been in the bathroom with the door locked, and that room has no windows.

“Everything in the house and on the grounds are open for you to explore, with a few exceptions. Any door on the ground floor that’s locked is considered off-limits—usually that means the study and the room across from it, as well as all the rooms above. So most of the west wing.”

“Why? What’s in the west wing?”

“Just don’t. Someone will tell you if that changes. Besides that rule, feel free to explore. Although until you get used to it, I’d try to avoid walking around in the dark. I mean, you can, but you might fall or run into something, and I’m not above laughing at you for it.”

It’s still bizarre, talking to a bird perched on his arm, but Clint’s easy manner and complete acceptance of it all goes a long way to making everything seem normal a lot faster than Bucky thought it would. At least if he doesn’t think about it too hard.

“Sky parlor, rose parlor, drawing room, dining room,” Clint points out as they walk past, “solarium, and you’ve been in the kitchen. There’s a scullery attached, but we basically just use it as a work and storeroom.”

“This place is huge. How many of you live here?” Bucky walks back to the drawing room, a huge affair with a large fireplace along the back wall and copious amounts of overstuffed furniture.

“Just us three rattling around in here. And now you.”

He takes off after showing Bucky the upper east wing, a tour that consists mainly of, “Bedroom, bedroom, bedroom,” and a surprising, “Second floor of the library.” Bucky uses the daylight he still has left to poke around in the empty bedrooms, but he doesn’t find one he likes better than the one he has. He walks through the atrium and to the pool which, as promised, is pleasantly warm. Bucky didn’t bring anything to swim in, but it’s not as though he’s in public, is it? If he feels self-conscious, he can always keep his underwear on, but he also hasn’t been skinny dipping since he was fifteen. Maybe when he feels more comfortable here.

He takes dinner early and alone, surprised to find that someone has made and left out shepherd’s pie and roasted vegetables, along with some kind of crumble. The vase of flowers is now flanked by two bowls of fruit, so he pockets a few pieces before he retreats back to his room to wait for the sun to set.

The curtains closing are as odd as Clint said it would be, but it’s also curiously mundane compared to everything else that’s happened so far. It’s easy to pretend they close because of some kind of mechanic, although when he tries to part them, they refuse to move.

With the light gone, Bucky assumed he’d stay up longer with thoughts buzzing restlessly in his head. Instead, he falls asleep still fully clothed in the overlarge bed, completely exhausted.

The next day goes similar to the one previous. Natasha and Clint meet him in the kitchen and Bucky tries his best to pretend Natasha isn’t lurking under the table for his sake. He walks about the house and keeps trying to memorize rooms, poking around in them with Natasha providing him with information on what he’s looking at from wherever she’s hiding at the time.

The library, when he finds it, is… impressive. Dark hardwood shelves and ladders to reach the high places of shelves stuffed with books. Comfortable chairs, long tables, rugs and carpets and tapestries. A fireplace with a wide stone hearth lurks on a back wall, well back from any books or rugs. He sees neither hide nor hair of the master of the house, although part of that might be that Bucky is careful to listen for any noise so he can avoid it.

That night, he curses himself while he paces his room, counting steps back and forth: from the door to his bed; his bed to the table; the table to the hearth. Then back around again: Door to bathroom and the fixtures inside, and back to his bed. The water doesn’t work, but he remembers an old-fashioned wash basin in the corner, and sure enough, it’s there and filled with water.

That night, sleep doesn’t come easy. He paces his room until he tires of it, then runs through what he knows of the house in his mind. Tomorrow, he tells himself, he’ll find something else to occupy his time in the dark.

Day three shows Clint as his companion. Again, the day is similar to the last, although this time he decides to walk the grounds. Aside from the kitchen gardens and the ones Bucky knows lie towards the edge of the estate, there is a courtyard with ornamental plants and trees and trellises training thick ropes of what are probably wisteria when they’re in bloom.

“What do you do when it gets dark?” Bucky asks as they enter the shade of a tree.

“You know. Stuff. I mean, what do people usually do?”

“Well, normally I read or watch something on TV, but neither of those are an option here,” Bucky tells him dryly and not without a certain amount of bitterness.

“You could swim,” Clint suggests. “When you get better at navigating the house.”

“Our master said I shouldn’t leave without an escort.”

Clint fluffs up in surprise. “Our master? I’m not sure he’d want you to call him that.”

“Well, what am I supposed to call him, then?”

“I’m sure you’ll figure it out. He just hates titles like that.”

Bucky wants to argue, but Clint, despite it all, seems to be protective of who Bucky has privately started calling ‘the Beast.’ Clint is currently the closest thing he has to a friend in this place and he doesn’t want to get into an argument so soon, so he drops the subject. “What else is there to do?”

“I like to sing,” Clint offers. “But there’s the music room if you want to play something instead. Or learn to play. You can take whatever out of the room, as long as you can carry it.”

He waits until he’s alone again before returning to the music room. There are dozens of instruments both on display and safely kept in drawers and cases, but he keeps going back to the steel-stringed guitars, shiny and well-cared-for on their display stands. Bucky hasn’t played guitar in years, not since before he had both his own arms, but it’s still the instrument he’s most comfortable with. He realizes the folly of trying to play right-handed when he goes to make the chords when his metal hand clacks against the strings but takes it anyway, in case he can figure out how to work around it. It’s not as though he’s got much else to do to occupy his time.

That evening, he retreats to his room as usual, armed with finger foods and several glasses of water. He’d prefer a water bottle so he can avoid the indignity of spilling water all down his front every time he misses his own lips, but he suspects that a place as old-fashioned and upscale as this doesn’t have such a thing. At least no one is around to watch him fumble, just as no one is around to listen to the discordant twanging and clanking that ensues when he tries to position the guitar across his body.

Time stretches oddly with no light and no way to keep time. It could be minutes or hours before he coaxes some semblance of music from the instrument, playing the simplest tune he can remember. It turns out to be “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” The tune staggers a bit, but it’s recognizable, and by the third time through he’s feeling better about his prospects. He hasn’t completely lost the knack of it, then.

Partway through a fourth round, his slowly rising confidence stumbles as badly as the tune when he hears a low voice join in:

“…Si vous tardez plus longtemps, on regrette ces mo—”

The voice stops as abruptly as Bucky had several notes ago as the singer realizes his accompaniment is gone. Bucky has to make a conscious effort not to grip the neck of the guitar too hard as he takes six carefully measured steps to reach the door—still closed. His room is large and he hadn’t thought he’d been playing particularly loudly, but someone is obviously there. Even though he knows it isn’t, he calls out, “Clint?”

“Sorry, no.” The voice is fleetingly familiar in the way strangers’ voices sometimes are, like it reminds him of someone else, maybe. It’s also soft, almost cringing, as the person apologizes again. “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop.” The words have the slightest lilt, a foreign tinge and a homely welcome rolled into one. “I just… I heard you playing and I haven’t…”

Bucky waits for more, for an explanation, but there’s only silence. Then, finally,

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right.” Bucky frowns at himself in the dark. It’s not, really. It’s rude and a slight invasion of privacy, to listen at his door, but Bucky is curious. “I mean, it’s kind of rude, but I grew up with a little sister so I’m kind of used to it.” He waits for a response. Gets none. Soldiers on. “I’m James. The only people I've met so far have been Clint and Natasha, and they didn’t mention anyone else like them. Who’re you?” Blunt, but to the point.

“I live here,” is the dodgy response. Bucky doesn’t like it much, but then it’s in keeping with all the other little mysteries of the house. For all he knows, this person literally doesn’t have a name. “You play the guitar?”

It’s a weak attempt at turning the conversation, but Bucky takes it anyway. “I used to, a long time ago. And it sounds like you sing.”

“I used to, a long time ago,” the stranger echoes. Bucky almost smiles at that, at the hesitant way the other person says it, like he wants to be playful but has forgotten how.

“What were you singing?”

Another long pause. “I… you were playing La Confidence Naïve.” His voice wavers uncertainly, like he doesn’t know if that will offend Bucky.

“I was playing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” Bucky corrects, puzzled. He hums a rough approximation of the tune, and part-way through his visitor joins in, note for note.

“I learned it as La Confidence Naïve,” the stranger explains. “In French.”

“Huh. Innocent Confidence?” Bucky translates.

“You know French?” The voice is eager; the most emotion Bucky has heard so far.

“A few words, I guess. Curses, mostly. And whatever we borrowed from it. Baguette, croissant, omelette du fromage.

“So you can curse me and ask for breakfast.” Amused, definitely. His strange visitor sounds amused.

“You could teach me to curse you and ask for lunch,” Bucky suggests. “It’d make the day go by faster, and I’d be learning something.”

“I don’t, uh. I’m not around, really, during the day. So probably not.”

Bucky likes to think he’s good at detecting lies, and his stranger is definitely telling him at best a half-truth. But they’re all secretive, Clint and Natasha and especially the Beast, all of them hiding something; protecting themselves. Bucky knows because he does it, too. Has done, ever since he came back stateside.

“I could teach you at night, if you want,” his stranger adds hurriedly. “But only if you want.”

Well, what else does he have to do at night? With the light fleeing earlier and earlier, there’s no way he can sleep from dusk to dawn. He’ll go crazy if he sits by himself in the dark. “Sure. Let’s start with that song, The Innocent Confidence.

“Isn’t that a little ambitious?”

“I like a challenge. And music makes things easier to stick in your memory.” His visitor makes no move to get closer; no attempt to turn the knob or even knock on Bucky’s closed door. Instead, Bucky hears some shuffling and thinks that his visitor must be settling more comfortably on the floor outside for the foreseeable future. When the voice comes from closer to Bucky’s left, he knows he’s guessed correctly.

“Then you should start by using the correct title of the song.”

La Confidence Naïve,” Bucky repeats faithfully.

But his visitor laughs. “Your pronunciation is terrible. Try it again, like this: kon-fee-dahnse.”

The next morning, Bucky explains to Natasha why he’s lugged a guitar to breakfast. She listens to his fingers clack exactly five times on the metal strings before she sticks a few of her legs from under the table in agitation, waving them around. It startles Bucky into stopping, which seems to be what she wanted.

“Have you tried gloves?”

Bucky frowns a little. Why hadn’t he thought of that? But even if he had… “The only ones I own are for my motorcycle. I won’t be able to form the chords with them on.”

“I’ll see what’s around,” Natasha sighs. “Just leave your old ones here sometime today. Or I could measure your hands for you?”

Having Natasha touch him isn’t something he’s ready for. “I’ll leave them here,” he agrees hastily. “But in the meantime, do you have any books on how to speak French?”

It turns out the library has an entire section dedicated to French, from books on how to speak it to books written in it, to histories of its different time periods and cultural movements. He picks the two most likely language primers and one on notable musicians, then wanders until he finds the music section. Another book on playing guitar stacks onto his pile, and one on reading sheet music after that. It’s more nonfiction than he’s read in years, but it’s not as though he has much else to occupy his time.

The rest of the day he spends reading out in one of what Natasha calls ‘the pleasure gardens,’ on a wrought iron bench that’s exactly as uncomfortable as it sounds. He ends up on a patch of grass instead, wondering if he’ll get in trouble for stepping on the lawn.

His visitor comes again the next night, later than before if Bucky is any judge.

“No music today?” he asks.

Bucky’s door is still closed, but he lies on the floor in front of it, listening to the stranger’s voice through the crack by the floor. “Nope. Natasha made me stop until I can play without rattling the strings. I’m going to try gloves. But I started reading a book on French.”

The stranger drills him on pronunciation of the alphabet and foreign phonemes. It startles Bucky when the other man laughs at his sad attempts to replicate the ‘l’ sounds. His laugh is a bright, surprised thing, rough like he’s forgotten how.

“I can’t keep calling you ‘stranger’,” Bucky tells him when he gets sleepy and the other man gets ready to leave. “Assuming you haven’t given up on me, you’re basically my French tutor now. So what do I call you?”

After a brief pause, “Steve,” on a breath, like he has to steel himself to even say it.

“All right then, Steve. I’ll see you tomorrow? Or hear you, at least.”

“I’d like that. Sleep well, James.”

“These are for you.” Clint drops a pair of soft leather gloves on the grass by Bucky’s head, then finds a conveniently low branch to perch on. He waits while Bucky tries them on. They’re a little tight, but nothing a little water and wear won’t fix. The important part is that they let his fingers flex, even on his mechanical left hand. They have to be custom made.

“These should work. Thanks.”

Clint nods and keeps him company for the rest of the day, reading his French books over his shoulder. That evening, Steve comes by to continue his lessons, and Bucky starts to feel less alone. It reminds him, though, of the promise he made to the Beast.

He shows up to breakfast the next day, but only Clint is there, nibbling on the petal of a flower. He stops and somehow manages to look guilty when he sees Bucky.

“You’re down here early.” He sidles away from the vase on the table. The bird is probably trying to be subtle, but it’s difficult given that even the smallest of movements catch his talons on the table runner.

“I came to have breakfast with everyone. The B—” he stops himself. “The master of the house asked me to.”

“Hey, that’s great! I’ll tell him and Natasha. Can I tell them you want pancakes?”

“I’m guessing you want pancakes.” Clint has no shame, Bucky has learned. When all he gets is an innocent head-tilt, he sighs. “Fine, but I want blueberries too.”

And blueberry pancakes are what he gets the next day, after Clint comes to drag him into the solarium. Four places are set, one with a perch screwed down to the table in front of it. The Beast sits at one end, and Bucky takes the other. The plates are porcelain, delicate whorls and ribbons of color weaving around the edges, and he suspects that they’ve placed real silver in front of him. At least the pancakes look normal, although the syrup is in a heated porcelain pot with a gold-embossed handle. Fluffy omelettes, plump sausage, fluffy bread, and juicy fruits complete the feast, and Bucky wonders how they’re going to eat it all.

“Uh, it looks delicious,” Bucky says politely. He hesitates, but Clint is kind enough to break the silence.

“I cooked it.”

“Some of it,” Natasha corrects from under the table.

“Most of it,” Clint amends.

“Just pass the eggs,” Natasha sighs, and the Beast leans forward to delicately pick up the serving plate and offer it to the empty seat in front of where Natasha ostensibly hides. Bucky tries hard not to look, because he’s still not quite used to seeing her as a giant spider but, to his surprise, the serving spoon picks itself up and transfers a measure of eggs to Natasha’s empty plate. He stares at the empty air like it will explain what he just saw. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see the little pot pour an unholy amount of syrup on Clint’s plate. He gawks at that, too, until Clint turns to look at him, beak open like he’s about to take a bite.

“Something wrong?”

“Are there… is the silverware magic or something?” Bucky eyes the fork in his hand warily, trying to decide if it’s going to move.

“Oh, that! Nah, man, Tasha and I have hands. See?”

There’s a long pause while Bucky turns more fully to look.

“Right. You can’t see ‘em. Well, we’ve got hands. It’s pretty useful, since I wouldn’t be able to move anything around otherwise.” The pot of syrup returns to the table before Clint lowers his beak to the plate. “Wish I had a proper mouth, too,” he grumbles when the scrap of pancake he’s aiming for slips out of his beak.

“Invisible hands.” Bucky looks at Clint, who is struggling with another bit pancake, and then to Natasha’s setting, where the plate is carefully lowering itself onto the seat. “Makes sense.”

“I can serve for them, if it will make you more comfortable,” the Beast rumbles.

“No,” he says, maybe a little too quickly by the way the Beast looks down at his own plate. “I mean, it’s kind of pointless to not use your hands to do stuff just because I can’t see them, right? But I won’t… I mean, can I run into them?”

Clint looks at the Beast, who makes a little motion with his head but doesn’t comment.

“The simple version is ‘no’,” Natasha says from under the table.

“Try not to think too hard about it,” Clint advises. He goes back to mauling his pancake. After a moment, Bucky returns to his food, and by the sound of it, so does Natasha. It takes another minute for Bucky to realize that the Beast, despite having put a few pieces of fruit on his plate, isn’t eating at all. He wonders if the Beast is refraining because his eating is horrific, or if he’s shy, or perhaps doesn’t need to eat at all. It would probably be rude to ask.

When he’s eaten his fill and Clint has finally given up on trying to get any more of the shredded pancakes into his beak, Bucky thanks them for breakfast.

“And thank you for coming,” the Beast says softly. For a moment, he sounds almost familiar. “Will we see you tomorrow?”

“I’d like that,” Bucky lies. From the way the Beast tilts his head, Bucky isn’t sure the lie is very successful, but thankfully no one calls him out on it. “I’ll try to be here in time.” He allows himself a wry grin. “It’s been a while since I’ve had to tell the hour by the sun, but I’m getting there.”

That night, Bucky opens his door for Steve for the first time. The darkness obscures everything but the impression of short, pale hair and broad shoulders, but Bucky is more certain now than ever that he’s never seen Steve around the house before. They sit on either side of the threshold, practicing French and, later, Bucky clumsily strumming the guitar.

“I only ever tried mandolin,” Steve remarks, “but it’s not an instrument meant to be played by itself, so I stopped.”

“Then it looks like I have something I can teach you after all,” Bucky teases gently. “It’ll be harder to teach frets in the dark, but I think we can manage. It’s not like there’s much else to do all night.” Which isn’t true, because they’ve also talked about themselves and traded stories between lessons, but Bucky isn’t sure that counts. “I’ll look in the music room tomorrow for another guitar and make sure it’s in tune.”

“I’d like that,” Steve admits shyly. “I’d like that very much.”

“Oh, and Steve? …You might as well just call me Bucky.”

The next morning, the Beast brings a clock to the table. It’s heavy and the wood framing the face is carved in swooping patterns; the face sports keyholes in the upper left and right corners, and the hours are marked in Roman numerals.

“You’ll have to wind it every day,” he says, “but it will chime the hours.” He taps the right keyhole delicately with one claw. “This winds the clock itself.” Then the left. “And this one the chimes.” When he turns the clock, Bucky can see the winding key hanging on a hook on the back. “Setting it by the sundial in the garden would be the most accurate.”

“Thank you.” Bucky takes the clock, fingers running over the smooth wood. “It’s beautiful.”

His days start to take on a certain rhythm: Wind his new clock, then breakfast with the others. For the first week or so, he uses his afternoons exploring the house more thoroughly. He gets into the scullery and pantry, pokes around the herb garden, and decides to swim in the pool. When he gets bored of that, he practices French and guitar for a while. At night, he and Steve practice and trade stories, and before he knows it they’re sitting side by side on his settee, close enough to feel the heat of each other and for their shoulders to brush companionably.

He learns all kinds of things about Steve: He can read Latin and Greek, and he can speak French and Gaelic. He knits and sews, heatedly telling Bucky that all men should be able to do such things if they expect to care for themselves, and several of the throw pillows in the Sky Parlour were done by his hand. He plays harp and piano and flute, but he professes an inability to dance.

“I just never learned, growing up. It feels like I never had the time... or the right partner.”

Steve mentions being sick often, recalling his mother’s insistence that he would get better, even when he was at death’s door—“She taught me what courage is,” he tells Bucky seriously. Bucky can’t see all of Steve, but he can see enough to know that he is no longer the frail boy he still sees himself as. He doesn’t bring it up, though, just as he doesn’t bring up what else he can read between the lines of Steve’s stories—hardship and pain and poverty that he managed to endure, it seems, through sheer force of will.

He also learns that Steve is stubborn and sarcastic and can be a real punk. Despite his poor health, he got into many fights in his youth, none of which he’ll admit to starting.

“You punched him in the nuts!” Bucky laughs. “Anyone would chase you down after that!”

“Then he should have stopped picking on that girl,” Steve retorts. “I can’t abide by behavior like that, and I was too short to reach his face.”

When Steve gets excited about something, his accent grows thick and he gestures broadly, sometimes smacking Bucky in the face. The first time it happens, he feels Steve freeze moments before Bucky bursts into laughter.

“I’m so sorry!” Steve’s hands reach out in the darkness in a reflexive attempt to soothe whatever hurt he’s inflicted but all it does it nearly get his fingers jammed into Bucky’s nose, which only makes the brunet laugh harder. “It’s not funny! Did I hurt you? Bucky!” Bucky clutches at his own chest and wheezes, almost falling out of his seat, the sound of his own laughing spurring him on even more.

And then Steve snorts out a little laugh, literally snorts it, and the sound surprises them both so much that it sets them off all over again. Bucky feels like he hasn’t laughed like that in months, so hard that his stomach and cheeks ache with it.

It’s almost ten weeks into captivity when Bucky realizes he might be falling in love with Steve.

His relationship with the Beast improves, too. He’s kind in his own, silent way. Every morning he sits across from Bucky in the solar, pretending to pick at his own plate while everyone eats. At first, Bucky starts asking questions of Natasha and Clint to fill the silence—How long have you lived here? Who cooked breakfast today? Does the big oven in the kitchen really work?

It’s only fair that he answers some questions of his own, and that usually leads to them trading increasingly absurd stories from before they came to live here. The Beast never participates, but he tracks the conversation attentively, body radiating his interest and mirth when the three try to top each other for stupidest childhood stunt or biggest lie ever believed.

When Bucky mentions getting kicked out of the Chess Club, the Beast speaks up.

“Do you still play?”

Bucky’s lips part in surprise, but he swallows it down quickly. “I haven’t in years, but it’s not like the rules change.”

“Would you like to again?” the Beast asks. “With me?” he adds unnecessarily.

Bucky hesitates, but it’s asked so neutrally, like the Beast is already sure he’ll say no, that he finds himself nodding. “Sure.”

That afternoon, the Beast finds him and lays out a simple but sturdy set, the pieces and board made of gleaming varnished wood. They sit where they are in the library and play, the only sounds the soft shush of felt on wood and the Beast’s claws clicking against the pieces as he moves them around. They play only one match that first day, as though the Beast is too shy to ask for more, but at the strike of one in the afternoon the following day, he finds Bucky again and they sit to play.

“Are you going easy on me?” Bucky asks suspiciously after the ninth day. No matter what he does, the Beast only seems to win by the skin of his teeth. It might seem like they’re evenly matched, but Bucky remembers playing enough to find it odd so many times in a row. Especially given how short the games actually are. When the Beast stiffens and pauses in resetting the board, he knows he’s guessed correctly. “You are! Why?”

“I didn’t want you to get angry and leave.”

Bucky is taken aback at the blunt honesty of the admission. “I won’t,” he assures. “Well, I probably won’t.” He smiles as he says it to show that he’s joking. “It’s been good to get me used to playing again, at least. But it’d also be nice to find something I could beat you at.”

For the next two games, the Beast talks Bucky through what all his moves are and why he chooses them. He’s a good strategist and a better tactician, and Bucky starts to wonder if he was ever in the military with a mind like that. It’s brilliant how the Beast never wastes a move; how boldly he uses his king and queen as bait. The next day, though, he leads Bucky to a different part of the library.

“Anything but Hare and Hounds,” the Beast requests, showing him a case of old board games, each with a small book shelved neatly beside it to show how to play. “If Natasha finds out we’re playing, she’ll come just to put me in my place.”

Bucky kind of wants to see that, but he decides he can arrange it later. “What about this one? I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never played.” He tugs free a senet board and the book of its gameplay and history and sits them down where they can get the most light.

Four days after the Beast retires from their games, Bucky finds Natasha and asks her to teach him how to play Hare and Hounds. She asks to play at sunset, which is how Bucky learns that the changing of the day is the only time he can see Natasha or Clint as human.

“You have legs,” he blurts when he sees her again, her red hair echoing the sunset.

“So do you,” she snorts. She doesn’t even pause as she sits down and quickly puts the handful of pieces on the board. But he doesn’t. Not like Natasha does, large phantom spider-limbs arching from her back gracefully. As he watches, they sink through the floor and past the chair, melting into the closest shadows. He has no idea how he missed the spectacle when he first saw her, but the fainter the light becomes, the more quickly the legs fade out of sight. She beats him handily the first time, even while she explains the strategy and the rules.

“In a perfect game, the hounds always win,” she tells him, pushing her hare forward. “But if you let him play as the hounds, you’ll beat him faster.” She doesn’t have to say who ‘he’ is. “When he doesn’t have anything to protect, he takes more risks and leaves more openings. It’s easier to take advantage, then.”

When he finally insists on playing with the Beast, Bucky immediately chooses to play as the hare and beats the Beast handily.

“Natasha taught you,” the Beast mourns. “She’s a menace. She doesn’t know the meaning of retreat; it’s why she can play the hare so well. When you see her next, tell her that at least I died standing on my feet.”

“Tell him that he’s no Cú Chulainn,” she chuckles. “And change the game to Bear and Hunters. He’ll sulk less.”

Bucky conveys Natasha’s message, which makes the Beast dig in his heels and insists on playing Hare and Hounds even longer, his eyes narrowed in concentration. The Beast, Bucky has learned, suffers from the occasional bout of impatience; Hare and Hounds simply draws it out of him more quickly than most other things.

“Who is Cú Chulainn?” Bucky swaps the board for dominos when the Beast loses for the fifth time in a row. Grumbling, the Beast helps Bucky shuffle the tiles, careful to keep his claws from scratching up the porcelain.

“Cú Chulainn is an old hero and a long story,” the Beast finally sighs.

“I don’t have anywhere else to be,” Bucky points out. At that, the Beast looks taken aback, surprise in the way his fur puffs just slightly and how his head tilts to the side.

“Are you sure? That you want to hear it? The old tales aren’t precisely happy.”

“I’m an adult; I’m pretty sure I’ll survive.”

So the Beast slowly tells him the legend of Cú Chulainn, the hero of Ulster. He recounts the tales carefully and with a bit of a lilt, like the words should be sung instead of spoken. Sometimes he trails off and his body droops a little as though he’s tired. Bucky wonders if he’s even used to talking so much, and on those days he butts in with narratives of his own. Arthurian legend, mostly, but once the entire movie Jaws. He starts bringing his guitar with him to fiddle with if neither of them feels like talking, and the silences become less distant and more companionable.

The Beast, Bucky learns, is kind even when he doesn’t know how to express it. He remembers things that Bucky says he’d like, even in passing, and they find their way into his possession. The gloves, the clock, the games. A sturdy wool blanket to lay over the grass when he sighs over the stains on his clothes; a long, flat, oven-paddle after he expresses a shared interest in pizza with Clint. The Beast cares deeply about Natasha and Clint but is reluctant to say anything about himself. He hates Dickens and Austen and has never read more than ten pages of anything by Ayn Rand. He has a dry sense of humor, a quiet sense of wonder, and he admits that he could spend hours listening to Bucky read out loud.

“Guess it’s good that I like the sound of my own voice, then,” Bucky jokes, and that makes the Beast’s eyes crinkle in a silent laugh.

When the Beast gives him a leather-bound journal to log his thoughts in, he traces his fingers over the embossed leather thoughtfully. He opens the book to the first page and stares down at the heavy, creamy paper, realizing that there are tiny depressions where claws might hold pages still to bind them. Turning it over and over, he makes note of the slightly uneven trim of the pages; of the way the binding on the signatures is not perfectly straight; the shallow scratches where the endsheets would need to be smoothed before pressing.

Handmade, he thinks. By someone with claws.

It’s just past two months of stories and games and silent laughter before Bucky realizes he could find a home in the Beast.

Chapter Text

His whole left side is on fire.

No, it’s not, it’s… it’s cold. So cold that it burns, racing through him, through his bones, creeping into his blood.

No. It’s numb. He can’t feel it, everything from his shoulder to his hip, and he looks to see what’s happening even though he doesn’t want to, doesn’t want to know, but some part of him whispers look, look so he does.

Becca is there, lying on top of his arm, numbing it to pins and needles, but something is wrong, wrong, wrong. It takes him a moment to figure out what it is, but when he finally does he wants to throw up with the wrongness of it: Her eyes are closed as though in sleep, but her body is cold—is what was making him cold, face pale and blood dark on her lips. He struggles to get away because something tells him that it’s going to get so much worse, but he’s locked in place, fighting his body for control, helpless and trapped inside his own flesh. Bitter smoke fills his lungs and now Becca is sitting up, lighting one of those stupid Camel filters that Diaz always liked so much; that’s where the smoke is coming from, only it smells like gunpowder and sweat and not like tobacco at all.

He shudders and tries again to get away, suddenly and terribly aware that not too far from him something is happening and he needs to get there; needs to be there. He wrenches away with a gasp but he doesn’t look down. If he does, if he looks, he really will be sick and he doesn’t have time for that. Not while someone is calling for him. He knows it’s Steve, somehow, voice drowning in the steady roar of Humvee engines, so he tries to tell him he’s coming. Hold on, hold on, I’m coming, Steve tells him, It’s okay, calm down, take your time, Buck, trying to soothe him even though Steve is obviously in trouble. Bucky just needs to push himself that little bit more. Just a little more and he can make it, he can do whatever it is that’ll make this all stop, will make it turn out well again—

He wakes up with a gasp, sweating, tears streaming down his face, throat sore from screaming. Something moves near his feet and he lashes out instinctively, kicking out and rolling, scrabbling away and reaching for a weapon that isn’t there. At the other end of the couch, crouched as low to the ground as possible, is the Beast. He’s shrinking in, trying to make himself as small as he can, hands open and in front of him in the universal gesture that says ‘I’m unarmed.’

Shaking, Bucky bites back a sob and lowers himself to the floor. The Beast makes no move to help him; doesn’t flutter or hover close as some people are wont to do, and Bucky finds that he’s grateful. He can’t stand the thought of someone touching him right now.

“James? Are you awake?” the Beast asks cautiously. He’s obviously trying to keep the deep rumble out of his voice, but it’s a lost cause. Bucky appreciates it anyway.

“Yes. Yeah, I’m…” He scrubs at his face angrily. Although he still has nightmares regularly, they tend to fade with the morning light. This is different. He hasn’t had a night terror in so long that he’d almost forgotten how truly awful they can be. He’s angry at himself for getting complacent. “I’m awake. I’m fine now.”

“You’re not fine. James, you’re—”

“I said, I’m fine,” he roars. When the Beast flinches back, Bucky grabs hold of his temper with both hands and breathes deep. In for four, hold for seven, out for eight. Again and again, until he feels the anger start to abate.

“You’re not fine. You’re hurt,” the Beast repeats when Bucky opens his eyes. He gestures to his own arm, then nods again in Bucky’s direction. He realizes that he’s clutching the prosthetic, cradling it to his chest like it’s broken. He lets go as though burned, flexing his fingers and rotating his wrist.

“I’m not. I just—” He flinches at the smell of blood, real this time, and finally looks at his shoulder. It’s bleeding under his shirt, just where the metal joins flesh.

“You were clawing at it in your sleep,” the Beast tells him quietly.

Movements jerky, Bucky grabs at the hem of his shirt with his right hand, yanking it up and over his head. His left is sluggish to respond, but he knows from experience that nothing is actually wrong; that the lag between his thoughts and movement is purely psychosomatic. It doesn’t make it less real, or less frustrating. Angry again, he balls up the shirt and presses it to his shoulder. The Beast’s gaze is neutral, but to Bucky it feels heavy with pity.

“Okay, I’m not fine,” he growls. He presses the cloth even harder to his wounds just to feel the pain. “I’m not—I’m not fine. I thought I was and now…” A hysterical laugh bubbles past his lips. “It’s all mixed up, you know? My brain and all those memories. And I was working on it and it’s better but it’s not… I’m not… I’m not better.”

Now that Bucky has started, the words keep spilling from his lips: a confession.

“You saw. How I have dreams. And my arm. I just… I lose it sometimes. I’m all right and then next thing I know it feels like the world is ending. And it’s not always the same. Fireworks, engines, hell, even guns. I can do all that. It’s fine. But then something like this—All I did was fall asleep. I just wanted a goddamn nap. That should be easy, right? If I can go to the gun range then I can nap on a fucking couch in my own fucking home. But then it turns out I can’t and it’s like… Like I’m broken. And I’m patching it up with tape and glue and popsicle sticks and what the hell am I even saying?” He presses his hand to his mouth; tastes the blood and recoils. “Can’t fit in as a civ, can’t fit in with my family, can’t even fit in at a magical fucking castle.” He has to bite his cheek until it almost bleeds just to keep from laughing again. If he starts, he doesn’t know if he’ll stop until he’s a sobbing mess on the floor, and he’s already embarrassed himself enough for today. “So there you are. Shitty end of the deal, huh? Traded for a life and got a broken, scarred-up sonofabitch instead. Guess you shoulda looked at the fine print.”

“You may be scarred, but you are not broken.” The Beast says it low and steady, like it’s a fact and not an opinion. “Yes, you have flaws, but James, you are only human. I am grateful for each imperfection because they make up the whole of who you are. Everything—the parts you feel are broken or ugly, the parts you hide; the parts of you that you take pride in and that bring you joy. And while a person can change, the bones of who they are, what makes them, does not. Even if I wanted to, there is no way to tailor a person to your liking, picking traits like fruit at a market—you must accept all of them or leave them, completely and wholly as they are. And in any life, I would much rather know all of you than none at all.”

And Bucky is stunned speechless by a surge of emotion. It’s not pity the Beast is offering—it’s love. He loves Bucky as a whole, as a person, no matter how broken and scarred. And Bucky…doesn’t know what to do with that. No one other than his family has offered him that kind of love since he returned home. He’s not even sure that anyone ever has, and now the Beast gives it to him so freely, as though it should be obvious. He wants to reciprocate, but the words stick in his throat. How does he truly feel? The fondness in his heart, the warmth he feels when he’s around the Beast… is that love?



Bucky stammers to a halt. “Sorry. You go first.”

The Beast assesses him but finally inclines his head. “Since you’ve shown me something you’d rather keep hidden, let me show you something, too?”

Bucky nods and climbs to his feet, watching as the Beast does the same. Beckoning, the Beast leads Bucky from the drawing room and into the hall, their steps dull on the smooth stone. They walk past the foyer and into the west wing. Past the music room and the billiards room; the library and the gallery, until they stop outside a room that Bucky has never entered. It’s always locked, the heavy wood door shut tight against the world. The Beast opens a pouch at his belt, extracting a brass key that fits neatly into the matching lock. The click of the door turning is almost disappointing in how soft and ordinary it is, but when he follows the Beast inside, the room is anything but.

The walls of the room are unlike the rest of the house—raw stone, stretching up to a ceiling opened to bright, mid-afternoon light. Plant-life riots across the floor and up the walls, bursting from joints in the stones and creeping up decorative pillars that stretch towards the sky. The Beast stands aside and allows Bucky to wander, taking in the wild growth: greens of every shade, from bright emerald to deep forest; flowers and leaves in a wide spectrum of colors; even spills of roots peeking out through cracks, seeking new footholds into this pocket Eden. The abundant life surrounding Bucky brings with it a sense of peace, of life going on regardless of pain or misfortune, as though somewhere in all this chaos lies purpose.

“This way.” The Beast gestures Bucky to the center of the room, where a broken fountain acts as a bastion against the vegetation. “Tell me what you see.” It’s a question and a request in one, and Bucky looks closer at the fountain before him.

In the center, below the empty, gaping maw of the lion-head spigot, a modest knot of thorns and leaves surround a single blushing bloom, pushing up where the drain should be, the stone around it cracked and splayed as though from the force of its upward growth. It’s the only flower in the wide basin, everything else ending at the boundary of raised stone edging the fountain. But other than its location, nothing about this one flower stands out. Already, Bucky has seen flowers larger, more colorful, more exotic than the one in front of him. But somehow…

“It feels more real,” he says slowly. With a glance at the Beast to make sure he’s allowed, Bucky steps closer, over the lip of the fountain until he can crouch directly in front of the barely-open flower. Modest pink and conspicuously trimmed of its wicked barbs, it grows alone among the grey stone, uncaring of the grand flora surrounding it. It’s small and so strikingly normal in the midst of the supernatural beauty of the garden that it forces his attention; captures and captivates him, pulling him with quiet but vibrant life.

“It is the foundation of the entire house,” the Beast tells him quietly. He reaches out, claws stopping just shy of touching the velvet petals. “This rose…” His voice trails off, words not coming for long moments. “It’s the source of everything,” he says finally.

The Beast is showing him a weakness, Bucky realizes. Somehow this rose is a weakness, whether it’s the literal foundation of the house or some kind of metaphor doesn’t matter—it clearly means a great deal. And now Bucky knows about it; knows how to find it and what it means.

“Thank you,” Bucky manages shakily. “For showing me. For trusting me.”

“No thanks are needed.” The Beast unfolds himself almost gracefully, waiting patiently for Bucky to follow. He leads them both around the room so that Bucky can take in more of the garden before they reach the door. “I want this place to feel like a home. Your home.”

Bucky watches the Beast lock the door behind them and bites down on his tongue so he doesn’t say, ‘It already does.’

“The moon is supposed to be full tonight,” Bucky says. He winces, because as a segue it’s not doing much for subtlety. Beside him, Steve stops plucking notes on his guitar. He’s getting better at playing, but slowly. When he gets frustrated enough, he drags Bucky downstairs to play on the piano in the drawing room, “To keep you humble,” Steve says smugly.

Today, he just puts the instrument aside. “Yes?”

“I just… Well, the house is always dark, and I get that,” he adds hurriedly. “I mean, I don’t get it, but I understand that’s how it is. But up until two weeks ago, I never even bothered going downstairs. And now that I have…”

“You want to go outside,” Steve says slowly, finally catching on.

“Yes,” Bucky sighs, relieved. “Is that allowed?”

“Of course. You’ll want a coat, though. It’s not exactly getting any warmer.”

Bucky shoots up from his seat and almost runs into a chair in his haste to get to his wardrobe, feeling around inside for his lined jacket and boots. Giddiness sweeps through him—he feels like a kid going on a field trip, excited and eager to see something new. Some part of him had feared being denied, but now that he’s gotten permission, he berates himself for not asking sooner. He would have rolled down the stairs weeks ago if he thought he’d get to go outside the walls at night.

Steve walks him down the stairs, then west to the kitchen. Just as they pass the kitchen table, however, Steve falls back. Bucky, several happy steps ahead, stops when he realizes he doesn’t feel Steve’s presence at his back.

“Don’t tell me you’re nervous?” he teases. He has to pick his steps carefully to backtrack, unused to the layout of the kitchen in the dark. He’s already banged his shins twice, and he’d like to avoid more bruises if he can.

“I’m not going out,” Steve mutters, self-conscious. “Please, just… don’t ask.”

Even though Steve just said it, Bucky finds it on the tip of his tongue to demand why. Is Steve trapped here? Is he afraid of something outside? Is it part of some kind of contract, or servitude? He bites his questions back and consciously loosens his shoulders. Steve can’t read his body language, but it’s easier to pretend this way. “Sure. You’ll be all right if I go, though? I’ll try not to be too long, maybe half an hour.”

“Take your time. It’ll be nice to have a break from your terrible music for once,” Steve teases, trying to lighten the mood.

“Yeah, yeah. You know you love it, Stevie,” Bucky banters back easily.

“I do,” is all Steve says in response, dropping it into the space between them before it can get awkward. It’s unspoken permission, and Bucky feels his shoulders loosen even as he holds in a sigh of relief. “Now get out of here so I can have some peace and quiet,” Steve orders.

Despite his words, Bucky can feel Steve’s eyes on his back as he makes his way to the door. He looks back, but the moon barely penetrates the threshold, as though a veil blocks the light from seeping through. Disappointed in a way that he can’t quite describe, he turns his face back toward the open garden, takes a deep breath, and steps outside.

He catches a cold. It takes him a day and a half of sneezing and aching and slowly growing misery to admit it to himself, but he’s definitely sick.

To be fair, he does remember something about incubation periods and sudden changes in temperature and compromised immune systems… But he knows that he’s also spent a long time outside the last few days, both soaking up what sun could be found and taking advantage of the bright moonlight and clear skies. And, sure, maybe he shouldn’t have been hauling mulch around and essentially playing in the dirt in nothing warmer than his motorcycle jacket, but it never hurt him before.

“Roaches and colds,” Bucky grumbles from his seat in front of the fire. It goes out when the house turns dark, not even embers left, but it’s wonderful to have during the day anyway.

“What was that?” Natasha pushes his cup of tea pointedly closer, small body mostly obscured by the heavy tea table.

“At the end of the world, only two things will be left,” Bucky sniffs, “Roaches and colds. We’re alone out here! How can I even catch a cold?” So maybe he’s whining a little, but he’s stuffy and headachy and he doesn’t even know if they have medication around here. He’s entitled.

“Well, if you hadn’t spent so much time grubbing in the dirt—”

Bucky tries to make a rude noise but just ends up coughing.

“—then maybe you would have remembered to wear a proper coat and eat sometimes,” Natasha continues serenely, completely without pity.

He retreats to his room after that, determined to sulk in peace. Instead, he falls asleep and doesn’t wake up until an hour to sunset, and then only because Clint is beating at the door with his wings fit to break it down.

“S’ unlocked,” Bucky groans. He forces himself to roll over and squint at the clock, groaning again and swinging his legs over the side of the bed to get up when he sees the time. If he doesn’t get moving, he’ll have to eat dinner in the dark.

“You look like shit,” Clint tells him bluntly as the door swings open. “Get back in bed. I’ll bring you something to eat.”

Bucky wants to tell him that he isn’t an invalid and that despite complaining to Natasha earlier he can, in fact, get his own food. But when he starts to protest, he ends up sneezing in rapid succession, which makes Clint startle and shy away, flapping his wings hard enough to kick up a good breeze that cools Bucky’s too-hot skin.

“Don’t get me sick! You know how bad of a nurse Tasha is? You’re lucky I’m around,” Clint grumbles. “I’ll be back with food. And tea. Lots of tea.”

Clint doesn’t exaggerate about the tea. They really believe in tea here, he learns, and there are at least three different types on their own special tray that Clint brings up second. Pointing with one wing, he goes through them. “Willow bark-cherry,” he recites, “lemon-ginger, and dog-rose-vervain. Tasha said to drink all of them or she’ll come after you, and if she does I’m not helping you out.”

Although it’s been a while, Bucky remembers being this sick enough to know that he needs to eat while he still has an appetite. He nods, pours himself the first cup of tea—Jesus, three types, but at least the pots are all modestly sized—and starts working his way through his meal.

He manages to finish dinner and get washed up just as the darkness settles in over the house, and he’s wondering how to pour tea in the dark when there’s a knock on his door. He’s not sure why Steve still bothers knocking, especially since Bucky has yet to turn him away, but he clears his throat and tells Steve to come in all the same.

“You sound terrible,” Steve declares. He always seems to be able to see better in the dark than Bucky, and tonight is no exception. Usually, they meet at the door or seated at Bucky’s settee, but Bucky just sits heavily on his mattress and Steve finds him there.

“Thanks. You really know how to flatter ‘em, Stevie,” Bucky drawls. He decides that pouring hot tea is too dangerous and takes the lid off the pot instead. He’s pretty sure Steve won’t judge him. But just in case—“Don’t judge me,” he warns, and tips the pot back carefully to guzzle the sweetened tea inside.

“Okay, not judging, but that’s maybe not the best—”

Bucky sputters and almost chokes as a clump of bitter leaves and twigs hit his tongue. He spits tea all down his front, swiping at his mouth frantically. Through his coughing fit, he hears Steve sigh.

“No strainer,” Steve explains, taking the offending pot away. “Come on, off with it.” He tugs at Bucky’s shirt and he takes the hint, shucking it off and using it to mop at his chest. Vaguely, he’s glad that it’s dark so Steve can’t see him, but mostly he’s embarrassed that he was dumb enough to get a mouthful of raw tea leaves. He takes the glass of water Steve presses into his hand and gulps it down as soon as he’s able, gasping between swallows until his lungs stop burning. Then he allows Steve to coax him into sitting back in bed, feeling for his pillows to pile them up against the thick headboard. There are always more than he needs, so most of them live either on the floor or on the unused side of the bed and it takes him a while to find enough to make a comfortable mound to recline on. By the time he’s done, Steve has apparently moved aside the other pots and is pressing a modest cup of tea into Bucky’s hands.

“Drink it slowly,” he cautions, half-playful and half-serious as Bucky raises the cup to his lips.

“Sorry I’m stuck here. Doesn’t mean you can’t practice, though,” Bucky hints. Judging by how slowly he’s learning, Steve is either a terrible musician or he only practices when Bucky makes him. Given that he knows Steve can play at least two other instruments, it has to be the latter.

“If you drink the rest of the tea,” Steve bargains, but he’s already moving across the room to find the guitar Bucky keeps for him there. Steve plays while Bucky drinks, then tucks him back in when he returns from the bathroom and strums a slow, thoughtful lullaby until he falls asleep.

Bucky wakes up in the morning with a cough and a chill, but he tries to stagger downstairs to breakfast anyway. He’s promptly caught at the end of the stairs by Clint, who glares him in that raptor way until Bucky gives up and slowly hauls himself back up to his room. That night, Steve fusses at his bedside, feeling for a fever and worrying so hard that Bucky can feel it, even in the dark.

“Seriously, Steve, it’s not so bad. No one ever—” He feels Steve tense even more beside him and trails off.

“People have died of things like this, Buck,” Steve tells him quietly. Bucky can hear him pouring even more tea. He’ll be happy if he never sees or hears another porcelain cup after this. “I’ve watched it happen. I’ve watched priests called up for last rites and heard the mourning. Been on the wrong side of it once or twice, myself,” he adds without a trace of self-pity. “Which is how I know your chest hurts like hell and that you have to rest.”

“I hate being confined to bed,” Bucky croaks finally. “Reminds me of when I first got home. Can’t stand it.” It’s a perfunctory explanation at best, but he thinks that he’s told Steve enough of his past that he can get a general idea.

Steve sighs. Then, to Bucky’s surprise, Steve reaches out and squeezes his hand. “I know. How about I take your mind off it?”

“Not sure listening to you butcher Bob Dylan is gonna cut it right now.” He offers a smile in Steve’s general direction, forgetting for a moment that the gesture would be lost.

“I was thinking I’d just tell you a story,” Steve corrects easily, brushing aside Bucky’s jibe.

“What, like a fairy tale? I’m a little old for that, don’t you think?”

“Not when it’s history.” Steve shifts where he sits on the edge of Bucky’s bed, so they’re facing each other. Bucky can feel the pressure of Steve’s knee through the thick blankets, and it’s more of a comfort than he cares to admit right now. “So, I’m going to tell you of Cú Chulainn, first named Sétana, who was born of the god Lugh and raised by Amergin the fierce warrior and skilled poet…”

Bucky is lulled quickly into a half-doze by the curious, rough-musical lilt of Steve’s storytelling voice spinning a tale about warrior-queens and magical sleep. When he feels a hand in his hair, he rouses for a moment, smiling sleepily.

“‘S nice,” he mumbles when Steve pauses. “Don’ stop, please.” He’d never thought he’d like to have his hair played with—Becca used to help him tie it back, putting it safely out of the way for his PT sessions. At the time, he’d been angry and depressed about the fresh loss of his arm, and then he’d been insistent to do it himself in a fit of needing to reclaim his independence. This… is nothing like that. This is soothing and calm, about the simple act of a caring touch. He’s so distracted by it that he only notices the hitch in Steve’s breath when he stops his gentle stroking. It wakes Bucky up, alarm at Steve’s distress providing enough of a rush to clear his head.

“Hey, hey, what’s wrong?” He fumbles in the dark for a moment, finding Steve’s hand and giving it a comforting squeeze. He can feel a hot tear hit their entwined hands, and his stomach sinks.

“I just—a long time ago.” Steve takes a shaky breath. “I did this for someone else, a long time ago.” His free hand goes back to carding through Bucky’s hair even though it shakes a little.

“I’m guessing it didn’t end well,” Bucky says quietly. He keeps his hold on Steve but settles back again, letting him soothe them both with the touch.

“No. It didn’t.”

Bucky lets the silence go on until he can’t stand it anymore. “Okay, that’s it. Get in here.” He shuffles over to make some space, jerking at the covers until Steve takes the hint and moves enough that Bucky can peel them back. When nothing else happens, he reaches back out and grabs Steve by the arm. “Get in. Come on.” He jerks on Steve’s arm impatiently until he folds himself carefully into the space beside Bucky, although he resolutely tugs the downy comforter back up and lies on top of them first.

It’s on the tip of Bucky’s tongue to assure him that he’ll try not to breathe on Steve too much when the other man rolls onto his side to keep combing back Bucky’s hair.

He can feel his body start to relax despite himself. “You don’t have to, if it stirs up bad memories,” Bucky murmurs.

“I want to, if that’s all right.”

“Sure, Stevie. I’d like that.” He burrows closer, until his head is pillowed on the other man’s chest, and allows his eyelids to droop while he listens to the steady thump-thump of Steve’s heart. “But how about you tell a happier story?”

Steve laughs at that. “Not sure I know any. Most of the old tales don’t exactly have nice endings.”

“Then we’ll give it a better one. That’s the beauty of stories, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, Buck. I guess it is.”

Bucky falls asleep to stories about bluebird princes and falling gold, and if he feels a dry brush of lips across his forehead—well, he can only hope that it’s not the fever playing tricks on him.

For days after, Bucky waits until Steve arrives, then loudly makes room in the bed for Steve. Steve never comments on it; just climbs in and lies atop the covers like a gentleman. He doesn’t move even when Bucky falls asleep and tilts off his mound of pillows and onto his shoulder, and he only reaches for a new tissue if Bucky sneezes or coughs on him. It occurs to Bucky to worry about getting Steve sick as well, but the other man’s only answer to that is, “That doesn’t happen to me. Not anymore,” in such a distant tone that Bucky takes his word on it and doesn’t ask again.

After that, something is different between them. Maybe it’s the way Bucky leans harder into the friendly press of their shoulders, or how Steve’s hands linger when he helps count the sloppy stitches on Bucky’s knitting. It’s tense and heavy and makes Bucky think of a rubber band stretched too tight and ready to snap. He knows that the sting of rubber is nothing compared to the agony of waiting, but he also needs to prepare himself for the inevitable. Something is going to change—has changed, and the only thing he can do is try to steer it in the right direction.

Chapter Text

Steve doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t know if Bucky can feel it, the way Steve waits too long to touch, and then too long to let go. How he lets their thighs press together when they’re seated side by side and how very badly his fingers itch to comb through Bucky’s soft hair. He’s in trouble and he knows it, because already when he sees Bucky’s face in the morning, he finds himself thinking of returning to the garden and making the one small cut that will seal his fate. But he has no way to know how Bucky feels. If he might be open to the idea of love at all. Steve talks himself out of it constantly now, and then he starts all over again when he sees Bucky’s slate-blue eyes and thinks, Love is a leap of faith.

He thought he’d gotten used to the burden of the curse; accepted it, even. But now that he knows Bucky in both forms, there’s part of him that fights it. He wants to stay in a single body. Wants to offer Bucky an explanation and an entreaty. He wants to feel whole again—a single person can hope to be worthy of a man like Bucky, instead of the patchwork parody he’s become.

Stubbornness is writ in his bones, in his very soul. It’s not in his nature to give up—that’s what has kept him sane for the unnatural life he’s led so far. So he fights all of it, from the twilight transformations to the compulsions that lock away certain words, details, confessions. When he tries to tell Bucky who he is, who Natasha and Clint are, what keeps them here, the curse freezes his throat, the words never coming even when he feels them like heavy weights on his tongue. And those are only the things locked away in his mind.

The physical change is always painful, but fighting it… Fighting slows it down until time starts to lose meaning and he’s certain he’ll black out from the agony. Fighting it means he feels every grind and pop of bone stretching or shrinking, every claw that pushes through his fingertips or sheds its nerves and blood to flatten back into his hand, every red-hot sliver of fur that erupts or burrows back into his skin. It means he waits with something like fear in his heart for the horrible splitting sensation as the ursine visage slowly grows over his face or the shattered, raw feeling left when it disappears. For the first time in nearly two centuries, he screams through a sunset, locked away in his room at the far end of the west wing. Clint comes running, pacing helplessly until Steve is more human than not and he can drag him upright and shove a glass of water into his hands.

“You need to stop this.” Clint refills the glass from a nearby jug and forces it into Steve’s shaking hands.

“Thanks, I’ll take that under advisement,” Steve grinds out. He’s being surly and he knows it, but he still turns away from Clint’s hard look. He’s not in the mood to be chastised.

“Just do something.”

“I’m drinking it. Give me a moment.”

“Not about that, you ass.” Steve finally snaps his gaze around at Clint’s tone. Usually, only Natasha manages to sound that caustic and long-suffering. “About him. Say something. Do something. Do anything. Just stop all the moping.”

“I don’t—I’m not moping!” Steve tries to stand in protest and nearly falls over, still shaky from the change. It makes him all the more angry to know that his body is betraying him even in this. “Clint, it’s complicated,” he tries instead.

Clint crosses his arms across his chest and lounges on top of a trunk. “How complicated? Enough to make you give up?”

Clint is pushing his buttons deliberately and Steve knows it. That doesn’t stop him from rising to the bait. “I’m not giving up!” It takes every ounce of his self-control not to throw his glass at Clint’s head and growl like an animal. “I can’t tell him—the curse won’t let me. Every time I try to explain, nothing comes out.”

“Can’t tell him what? That you feel for him? That seems like an oddly specific thing to keep you from doing.”

“Of course not,” Steve snaps. He doesn’t appreciate the sarcasm. “I can’t tell him who I am, or what we are, or even what he’s doing here. I can’t tell him anything important.”

“So what? He knows who you are, Steve. He’s been around you for months, now. You know he asked me if it was possible to make some modern board games so he could play them with you? And he’s been eyeing the piano like he means to take it up. You think he does that out of happenstance? I mean, I’m dense but I’m not that dense, and neither are you.”

“Those are two different things—Clint, he thinks I’m two different people. There’s the ‘master of the house’ and ‘Steve,’ and there’s a line between them in his head.” Steve’s tightens his grip on the glass, knuckles turning white. “He has a companion to speak to and play games with during the day, and a different one who he can touch and laugh with at night. I don’t want half of him, and I don’t want him to have only half of me! It isn’t… it isn’t…”

“Fair?” Clint suggests drily.

Steve clenches his jaw and nods. He hates that phrase, because fair or not is irrelevant. If it isn’t fair, he fights through it or to change it, as his mother did. As his people did. It’s just that fighting for as long as he has is tiring, and what if— “What if he hates me?” Steve whispers. He hates how weak it makes him sound; how young and vulnerable when he should be anything but. “What if he finds out and hates me for who I am—or who I’m not?”

“Then I guess you gotta figure out if it’s worth it,” Clint shrugs. “And put your pants on. If I have to wear them then you do too.”

At least his body has settled into itself by now. Steve slips on his clothes using the last of the fading light, getting a final glimpse of human hands and pink skin. The spell that keeps them as something other than human provides them with better vision in the dark, but it’s different from being able to see things in color—less real, somehow. Like he’s less real, hovering in an awful twilight-state for eternity.

Like maybe he’s asleep, and he’s waiting to see if this is a dream or a nightmare.

“Do you ever feel like you’re not real?” Steve asks Bucky later. Steve is plaiting Bucky’s hair for lack of anything else to do, and because Bucky challenged him that he couldn’t do it in the dark.

“Sometimes,” Bucky tells him thoughtfully. “This isn’t exactly how I expected my life to go, you know?” He makes a sweeping gesture with one hand, taking in the house and everything that comes with it.

“No, not… not things. You. Do you ever feel like you’re not real.” Steve drops his hands, frustrated at his own lack of words. He feels more than sees Bucky turn towards him.

“Yes,” he says softly. “There’s a bunch of fancy terms for it, but yes. Sometimes I look down at myself and think, is that really me? Is this my body? And it feels really far away.” Bucky unfolds himself from where he’s sitting at the floor between Steve’s feet and sits on the chaise with him instead. “But not all the time. And there are things that help.”

“Like what?” Bucky is so, so close, leaning into Steve’s space earnestly. He can hardly breathe with it.

“You. Being around you; hearing your voice or feeling you there. It makes everything feel… more.”

It’s like the air still around them, the whole night waiting with bated breath for what Bucky will say next. “More what?” Steve whispers.

“More real. More of myself. Just… more.”

And Steve’s world narrows to this one point. To this one breath between the two of them, time dilating, making space for his mind to lay everything out clearly: his mother’s hope, his thousands of nights spent alone, the sudden burst of joy in his chest the first time Bucky smiled at him, Clint’s conviction that a simple solution exists. Offering only half of himself—that’s what Steve is doing now, but it has nothing to do with the form he takes during the night or day and everything to do with what of himself he’s willing to give. What he’s willing to risk. And he knows the answer to that.


Bucky’s touch makes him stammer to a halt, warm and firm on his shoulder, then sliding up to cup the side of his neck and bring them close. Close enough to feel Bucky’s breath on his lips; to feel the warmth on his skin. “I’m going to kiss you,” Bucky says hoarsely. He hesitates for a moment, giving Steve the chance to push him away, but Steve is frozen in shock and anticipation and isn’t sure if he can breathe, let alone move, and then…

And then…

It’s soft and chaste, and Bucky’s lips are a little rough and chapped, and it’s a little off-target because they can’t see each other properly. Bucky’s hand shakes where it cradles the back of Steve’s head, and Steve’s lips are maybe a little too pliant, but they’re kissing and it’s everything he ever wanted. His heart skips a few beats and when they part, two seconds and an eternity later, Steve is lightheaded and finally lets out the breath he’d been holding. Bucky’s hand squeezes the back of his neck the slightest bit before he loosens his grip like he’s going to let go, but Steve isn’t ready for that yet. He isn’t ready to lose the warmth and the closeness and he needs to know if the thrill that ran through him was real or imagined and if it will be as heart-stopping, skin-tingling, breath-stealing as the next one. So he lunges back in clumsily, hands braced on Bucky’s thighs as he leans in to capture his lips again.

Bucky gives a startled hum of surprise, but soon he’s lifting both hands to Steve’s face, tilting him just so until their lips slide together and, oh, it’s even better than before. Steve parts his lips the slightest bit, just enough to taste, and finds to his relief that Bucky has too. He gets a thrilling swipe of Bucky’s tongue against his bottom lip before they part, breathing harshly into the space between them.

“What did you want to say?” Bucky’s voice cracks when he breaks the silence, still close enough that Steve imagines he can feel his lips move with the words.

Steve can feel a smile spreading over his face and a flush heating his cheeks. He feels—confused, and happy, and surprised, and scared, and hopeful, and so relieved he could cry. And there are a million things he could say now, but what comes out is, “I was going to ask first, you ass.”

Bucky barks out a startled laugh and then they’re kissing again, teeth clicking together because they’re both grinning too much and breaking too often to chuckle disbelievingly. Bucky keeps one hand cradling the back of Steve’s head and Steve moves his grip to wrap around Bucky’s back, allowing himself to finally truly feel the play of muscles there; the soft but firm warmth of another body so close to his. One he’s allowed to touch. One whose touch welcomes his. It feels like freedom and it’s dizzying and addicting. He’d worry that he’s rushing into it except, oh, Bucky’s hands are moving too, his flesh one tracing down the front of Steve’s shirt and the metal one splayed across Steve’s back to keep him close.

They wrap tighter together until Bucky breaks off to nudge Steve’s jaw with his nose, encouraging him to expose his neck to Bucky’s questing lips. He lays feather-soft kisses down the tendons of Steve’s neck and laps at his collarbone, tongue licking across Steve’s skin in a way that makes him shiver with want. Bucky tugs at Steve’s shirt to taste even more of him, gently scraping teeth across the muscle stretching to Steve’s shoulder in a way that makes the blond shiver with want. Steve is far from new to pleasures of the body, but nothing in his past experiences can quite compare. He’s reduced to panting and digging his fingers into the tight curve of Bucky’s waist, trying to hold on as Bucky’s careful exploration makes his skin tingle pleasantly and his heart thunder in his chest.

“You’re allowed to touch,” Bucky reminds him a minute later, nibbling the bottom of Steve’s ear in a way that sends shivers racing up his spine. “If you want,” he adds.

“I want,” Steve manages. Shaking with excitement and something akin to fear, he slides his hands under the hem of Bucky’s shirt so he can skim across his flat stomach; feel the tremble of muscles and the shallow, sharp gasp Bucky gives when he feels Steve’s hands on his bare skin for the first time. Dear God, Steve can feel the breath in Bucky’s lungs and, when he dares to venture farther up, the pounding beat of his heart. He’s not sure he’d wanted to be so close to another person in his too-long life. He brings his other hand to join the first and splays them both so he can span Bucky’s ribs, feel him so gloriously, wonderfully alive under Steve’s hands, but as he does it his fingertips brush across Bucky’s chest and over the peaked nipples there, and Bucky gives a full-body shudder and hisses a breath against Steve’s neck. Steve freezes, pulling his hands away from Bucky’s skin quickly. “Did I—are you—”

“Do it again?” Bucky’s voice is breathless before he goes back to sucking gently on the side of Steve’s neck, one hand now pawing at Steve’s shirt hem as well, rucking up the back of his shirt to play with the waistband of his pants. Steve hesitates for a moment before thumbing Bucky’s nipples again, just as shy and gentle as the first time, and Bucky has to pull his mouth away before he bites down, moaning quietly with pleasure. Bucky’s fingers dip lower, so that Steve can feel them brush the top of the swell of his ass, and then it’s his turn to moan with want. He pushes gently at Bucky’s chest until the brunet takes the hint and lowers himself so that he’s stretched out flat on the chaise, left arm hooked around the back of Steve’s neck to drag him down as well. Steve is forced to pull away one hand to brace under Bucky’s arm, trying to keep his weight from crushing him. One knee carefully slides up between Bucky’s legs to take even more of his weight, but Steve doesn’t stop until his thigh is a scant inch away from Bucky’s groin. Steve’s breath stutters when Bucky undulates beneath him, pressing their bodies together and allowing him to feel his hardness between them, rubbing now against Steve’s leg. He groans and lowers himself so they can keep kissing, barely noticing when Bucky drags Steve’s shirt up and over his head.

Steve is burning up, alive and on fire with sensation, his whole body straining to chase the pleasure being offered. Which is what makes it so hard for him to pull back even for a moment. To put a firm hand on Bucky’s chest to keep the other man from giving chase. “Wait,” Steve gasps. Bucky shudders and tenses, but he stops.

“What’s wrong? Are you all right? We don’t have to—”

“No, I want to,” Steve says hastily. “Only—I don’t know how much you want. I’m happy to be with you however you want, but the way this is going, I wanted to be sure—”

“Now who’s the ass?” But it’s said fondly and without any venom. “Didn’t I already tell you that I’ve been hoping for this? I want anything you’re willing to give.” His fingers trace Steve’s brow and down his nose, like he can see Steve through the touch.

Steve lets his eyes flutter closed and doesn’t even try to stop the swell of emotions in his chest. “Everything. I want to give you everything, Bucky.”

When Steve says he wants to give Bucky everything, the words feel heavy with meaning between them. Bucky lets them sink in; lets himself treasure them before he tugs Steve down for another gentle kiss, slower and more exploratory than a moment ago.

“Do you have experience?” he asks when they break for breath. Steve certainly kisses like someone with experience, but Bucky knows better than to assume. “With men?” he clarifies.

He can feel Steve twitch with interest. “Yes,” he says hoarsely, “but it’s been a while.”

“A while which way?” Bucky prods. “What do you prefer?”

Steve whines and buries his face in Bucky’s shoulder, making the brunet chuckle and sweep a soothing hand down Steve’s naked back. “Either. To both questions.”

Bucky rolls his hips up against Steve’s and hums in thought. Feels amazing against him, and part of Bucky wants to grope him and feel him squirm with pleasure. But another part of him wants to know how Steve will approach this; what kind of lover he’ll be. Not to mention that Bucky suspects that Steve can actually see in the vague glow that is all that keeps the house from complete and perfect darkness.

“I’d like to know what you feel like inside me,” Bucky admits. He’s never put it quite like that before, but his usual turns of phrase seem too crude to use in this moment, with Steve pressed against him and kissing him like it means something. Like he matters, and it’s been so long since he’s allowed himself this kind of intimacy. Part of him knows that it’s because of the dark—that Steve can’t see the scars littering Bucky’s body, or comment about the horrible mismatch of his left and right sides. But part of it is just… Steve, and the longer Bucky thinks on it the more he realizes that his body has perhaps always recognized Steve’s as safe; as belonging to a kindred spirit—a friend. Maybe that uncomplicated intimacy is what he needs, and who better to trust himself to than Steve?

Steve shudders atop him, hips bucking instinctively in response. Bucky smiles a little to himself because that more than anything tells him how much Steve likes the idea. “We’ve no oil,” Steve whispers to him, “and I won’t risk hurting you.”

Bucky has to kiss him again for that, for the sweetness of the statement and the way Steve says it, like it’s not a refusal but a problem they’ll fix together. “If you’re talking about lube, I’ve got some by the bed. I promise it’s better than oil.”

“Bed, then,” Steve agrees warmly. He gets up and finds Bucky’s hand to tug him in the right direction, pulling off clothes and tripping their way to the bed. They’re naked by the time they hit the sheets, and Bucky has to feel around for the mostly-empty container of lube he keeps politely out of sight in his bedside drawer. He pops the cap and starts to pour some onto his own fingers, but Steve’s hand gently interrupts him. “May I?”

Bucky nods, realizing belatedly that there’s no way Steve can see him. Instead of a verbal answer, he finds Steve’s hand in the dark and coats his fingers in lube, settling in on his side and leading Steve’s hand behind him. It makes him blush like a virgin to be so vulnerable, so he presses his overheated forehead to Steve’s shoulder, hiding in the solid warmth of the other man’s body. He feels Steve press a soft kiss to his temple as his fingers trace around Bucky’s rim, spreading the lube and massaging, trying to get him used to the sensation. Steve isn’t the only one it’s been a while for, and Bucky has to remind himself to take steady breaths more than once. He’s helped along by Steve’s slow, drugging kisses and the way he nuzzles Bucky’s neck behind the hinge of his jaw. He rasps his teeth across Bucky’s stubble and nips playfully the first time he breaches Bucky’s body with one careful finger, making the brunet yelp and thrust back, pushing his finger deeper and Bucky’s eyes flutter closed at how easy it is to open up for the man in front of him. He was right to trust this, he thinks. He smiles into the skin of Steve’s shoulder and drops a kiss there in thanks.

“I’m not a virgin,” Bucky reminds him. “I know what I want.”

“And what do you want, a ghrá?”

“More.” Bucky surges up for another kiss, swallowing Steve’s moan and licking into his mouth to punctuate his urgency. Steve takes the hint and adds another finger, stretching Bucky until he needs to retreat and fumble for the lube again. Bucky finds it first and squeezes a slightly over-enthusiastic amount onto Steve’s hand, but it’s worth it when he returns with three this time, brushing the pads of his fingers against Bucky’s prostate. Bucky goes tense and then breathless, unable to stop himself from grinding against Steve’s hip and then back against his hand, biting at his lips demandingly. “Now. I’m ready, Stevie. Now, please.”

“One day, I’m going to teach you patience,” Steve teases. “I’ll go so slowly you’ll curse my name, and I won’t listen to all this ‘now, Steve,’ even if you do say please.”

The words ‘next time’ ring warm in Bucky’s mind. “But not today.”

“Not today,” Steve agrees. He moves to roll Bucky onto his front, but Bucky twists until Steve is on top of him instead.

“Bucky, a ghrá, it’ll be easier if—”

“I’m more flexible than I look, I promise. I want it like this.” He traces his fingers feather-light down the bridge of Steve’s nose, across his cheekbones and around his jaw. “I want to be able to kiss you.” He accepts the kiss Steve gives him then, smiling into it. “And touch you,” he adds, sweeping both hands appreciatively down Steve’s back to cup his firm ass. “I want to feel all of you. Everything.”

Oh,” Steve breathes, and by the way he says it Bucky would think that Steve was the one about to be taken. Steve sits up a little and Bucky misses his weight immediately, but within moments he can feel Steve pushing at his legs up and apart until his feet are flat on the bed, tilting his hips up and making him comfortable. He hooks an arm under one of Bucky’s knees and twines his clean hand with Bucky’s right, pinning it above his head. Bucky tilts his head back and smiles to himself at the gesture, savoring the feeling of being so close. He breathes out when he feels Steve’s cock at his entrance, willing himself to relax, welcoming Steve’s body into his as best as he knows how.

Steve rocks in and out in careful, shallow motions despite the way Bucky can feel his body shivering and tense with the effort of not thrusting in as fast as he must want to. So Bucky uses what leverage he has to roll his hips closer to Steve’s, punching a breathy moan out of him and making Steve slide in more quickly than before. Bucky voices his approval and grabs Steve’s arm, tugging him closer, begging for more. Steve gives it to him, until their hips are flush together and he’s as deep as he can get. Then he stills, giving Bucky time to adjust while they both tremble under the weight of the moment. Steve pants against his chest, hot and humid, and brushes kisses to the skin there, adding kitten-licks to taste the clean sweat misting him. Bucky breathes through it, bringing their clasped hands to his mouth to kiss Steve’s knuckles before he nods, then nudges him with his heel to signal his readiness.

He can feel Steve brace himself above him and swivel his hips, grinding into Bucky for a moment before pulling back a few inches and sliding in again and again in a pace that’s slow and deep and not nearly enough. Bucky releases Steve’s hand so he can haul him closer, pulling him into a messy kiss that shows more than words what Bucky wants right now. “More,” he growls.

“You’ll tell me if anything is wrong. Or if we need to slow down,” Steve pants between them. Bucky nods, then speaks up, “Yes, yes,” and nearly shouts his ecstasy when Steve thrusts in hard enough to push the breath from Bucky’s lungs. Bucky wraps his arms around Steve’s back and digs in with his fingers, arching his back and meeting each movement with a roll of his hips that pulls broken noises from Steve’s mouth, even after they seal their lips together in a desperate attempt to meld even closer together. And then Steve shifts, hefts Bucky’s leg a little higher, and—

“There! Oh, God, please!” Bucky claws at Steve’s back so hard he feels skin break under his short nails, whole body alight with pleasure. He sobs as Steve repeats the motion, jerking and flailing when his free hand closes over Bucky’s cock, lips descending to litter sucking kisses across any part of Bucky he can reach with his mouth. Sensation assaults Bucky from all sides; his ears fill with the music of skin sliding together and the harsh breaths between them, all the little noises that escape involuntarily to fill the air. Steve murmurs words into his skin and each one is its own little caress, giving Bucky the sense of them even though he doesn’t recognize the language. It’s enough to make him drunk with the assault to his senses, and he realizes in a flash of clarity that he doesn’t need to see Steve to know the other man is looking at him with passion, because it’s in every thrust of his hips. Bucky can see Steve’s pleasure in the way he says Bucky’s name; watch him lose himself to their lovemaking with every slurred endearment; witness his determination in the flex of muscles and firm strokes of his hand.

His orgasm is an inevitability that he can feel in the tingling of his toes and fingertips and, dear lord, it feels like even the ends of his hair thrill with anticipation. Steve hitches Bucky’s legs around his waist so he can press in closer, pushing himself in so deep that Bucky chokes with it, drowns in the feeling of being so close to another person, someone who cares, who sees him, really sees him…

Steve’s lips are still sealed over his when he comes—he can feel himself pull the breath from Steve’s lungs into his own and his promise echoes in Bucky’s head: “everything.” It pushes him higher into his pleasure, so high that he sees light burst behind his eyelids, bright as day as he sobs Steve’s name, clawing and crying with it. Steve strokes him through it, slowing down as Bucky slowly relaxes, giving him room to catch his breath again. Steve’s own breaths are unsteady and ragged against Bucky’s neck, whole body trembling as he whispers praise and love into Bucky’s skin. It takes Bucky a moment to realize what’s wrong, but when he does, he smiles.

“Do it,” he murmurs. “Come on, Steve. I want it.” He gently taps one heel against Steve’s leg, urging him on. Steve shudders and sighs against him but doesn’t question Bucky’s demand. He just moves again, and Bucky kisses any part of him he can reach, running his hands over the rest until Steve comes with a choked-off cry, face hidden in the crook of Bucky’s neck and cradled against his body like everything he needs can be found there. Bucky sighs and strokes Steve’s hair as his lover calms down, and Steve shifts to the side to avoid crushing Bucky under his weight. They’re sweaty and tacky and Bucky is all kinds of messy, but he finds that he doesn’t really care. He could get up to get clean, or ask Steve to do it, but that would mean parting and he can’t bear the thought of it right now. He maneuvers both of them around so he can pillow his head on Steve’s chest and listen to the steady beat of his heart.

“Don’t go,” Bucky murmurs. “I want to see you in the daylight. I want to wake up with you.” He can feel Steve go unnaturally still under him and his heart sinks.

“I’ll stay as long as I can, but…” Steve burrows closer to Bucky, mess and all, as though he can hide from the words themselves even as they drop reluctantly from his lips. “I have to leave before morning. I’m sorry, a ghrá, I’d stay with you if I could. Say you believe me?”

“I do.” And it’s true, but that doesn’t mean he has to like it. Part of him wants to argue, but it’s a small part. He doesn’t think Steve would sound so heartbroken if he had another choice, so Bucky just holds him close and, later, lets him fuss and clean them both up. He falls asleep under the covers with Steve held tight to his side.

When he wakes up in the morning, the space beside him is cold. Tucked into the place where Steve had lain is a single rose, plain and pink and more real than anything else Bucky has ever known.

Chapter Text

The pink rose lives in a slim glass vase on Bucky’s nightstand now, the first thing he sees in the morning and the last thing before the sun sets at night. It makes him smile to see it, to know that Steve doesn’t want him to feel alone. After the first night, he asked after it, worried that it might be from the locked-away garden the Beast keeps closed. Steve had assured him that all was well and Bucky had a choice: trust Steve or not. He hadn’t been surprised to realize that it wasn’t much of a choice at all, and so he’d never asked again.

What is surprising is how little things actually change between them. It’s easy—so, so easy—to be with Steve. To kiss him and hold him and make love to him. It’s also easy to just hold his hand and talk, or to sit side by side and tease him about his clumsy attempts to learn the guitar, same as they did before. He knows they’re in the honeymoon phase of their relationship. He’s not a stranger to dating, or whatever it is he and Steve are technically doing. So he knows there are problems that are bound to come up at some point. He just didn’t think they’d come from him.

It hits him hard and fast, almost a month later. The day starts off innocently enough: breakfast with Natasha, Clint, and the Beast. Then he retreats to the drawing room to wait for the Beast, who claims to need to retrieve something first. Bucky strongly suspects it’s some new game that his host will know and Bucky won’t, which the Beast will pretend to lose at for a round until Bucky properly learns all the rules. There’s comfort in the familiarity of it all, and he props his feet up while he considers the next game he’ll choose when his turn comes. Gin rummy, maybe, because Bucky has always been good at it and it’ll be funny to watch the Beast try to handle the slick deck of cards. Or he could hunt through the library for the dustiest, most complicated game he can find. He’s up and smiling as soon as hears the tell-tale click of claws on wood, but he stops short when he sees what the Beast is holding.

It’s a navy-blue wool coat, double-breasted and heavy and wrapped in a protective linen cloth. Bucky’s mouth drops open in surprise until the Beast finally holds out the coat, gesturing for him to take it.

“For me?” he asks dumbly. There’s no one else it could be for—no one else in the room other than the Beast, and the Beast never wears more than a wrap around his waist despite the growing cold.

The Beast’s shoulders stiffen; his feet shuffle in place and his chin tilts down as his gaze slides to the side. “I thought… it’s bound to snow any day now, and you seemed cold already. You said you didn’t like the cold because of the, ah, desert?”

And it comes to Bucky, suddenly and terribly, that the Beast is the person who maybe knows the most about him. That he’s told him more about his deepest fears, shown more of his frayed edges and cracks than anyone save his therapist. And that he’s done it almost without noticing, of his own volition. Because he trusts the Beast with it all; maybe even looks to him for comfort. And the Beast has been listening, filing it away for moments like these when Bucky might need the extra support. He stares at the bundle of fabric in his arms, seeing not the deep blue but the dozen little gestures the Beast has shown—quiet company during Bucky’s occasional flashbacks, a delicate cup of tea on days that seem too oppressive to bear, subtle suggestions of projects that, when Bucky thinks on them, served no other purpose than to occupy and quiet Bucky’s restless mind. And now this.

It was about a week ago, he thinks, that he’d mentioned that the cold has never been the same since he came back. That the bite of it occasionally made him angry or feel itchy under the skin. Hypervigilant. Maybe it was that it reminded him of late nights at posts or sniper’s nests. Ironic, he’d said at the time, because you’d think the desert would make him hate the heat, but it had been January and a whopping -2 Celsius on the one night that turned his whole life upside down. But it could have been the sterile hospitals and long recuperation when what was left of his ravaged arm would ache and burn. Even fully physically healed, the doctors told him, his body will remember the pain. He’s much better now—he’d actually related the feeling in talking about the frustration of acclimating to civilian life—but here is proof positive that the Beast has been really, truly listening. And it makes something deep inside Bucky light up with warmth even while another part of him sits up in alarm.

He’s with Steve. He’s happy with Steve. They talk and laugh and touch; whisper together late at night and play music that’s imperfect and more beautiful for it. But Steve doesn’t have this hidden part of Bucky, the part that the Beast knows so well. He could tell Steve, of course. But how would he bring it up? How can he tell him that the laughing, joking man who makes love to him at night sometimes panics when just because the temperature dips a little? That it took him nine months before he could get into any car bigger than a compact without hyperventilating? Jesus, he hasn’t even told Steve that the reason he needs to walk outside almost every night is because otherwise, he feels like he might crawl out of his skin. Or that the blackout of the house is a blessing in disguise because it makes the whole place feel secure, now that he’s memorized his way around. Yet telling it to the Beast feels natural.

“James?” The Beast’s voice interrupts his reverie, and he can only hope that the frantic spiral of thoughts hasn’t shown on his face. “Is it all right?”


“The coat. I should have asked first, but I thought a surprise—”

“No, it’s wonderful. I love it.” The words feel weak in the face of what he truly feels, so he carefully sets aside the protective cover and swings the coat over his shoulders, tugging it into place. The collar rests perfectly against his neck, a warm caress. It makes him want to hide in shame, how much he likes it. How much he thrills at having a symbol of the Beast’s feelings when he already has Steve’s. What kind of person does that make him? “Do you mind if I try it out? Outside? We could have lunch, after,” he offers lamely. He’s running away and he knows it, but he needs to buy time to think.

“Of course.” The Beast agrees so easily that it drives shame deeper into Bucky’s heart. “I’ll be in the study if you return early.”

Bucky barely waits until the Beast is out of the door before he bolts outside, not slowing down until he’s deep in the sleeping ornamental gardens. His heart is beating too fast and he’s forgotten his gloves and his boot laces are untied and the coat is perfect and…


And he feels like his world is falling apart. Neither Steve nor the Beast has ever asked anything of him. Sure, to sit with him for a meal, or to listen to him play, but they’ve never demanded anything real and they’ve each given him everything, in their own way. He thought he’d been doing the same, but he hasn’t, has he? He’s given each of them only part of himself, darkness and light, and isn’t it ironic that he’s more himself with a beast than he is with a man?

Now that he knows what he’s been doing, he can’t continue feigning ignorance. He knows what each of them is offering, and it’s not just friendship or brotherhood or sex. It’s love, plain and simple, expressed in their own ways but there nonetheless. It would be a betrayal to treat one as less than the other, and he knows he’ll have to explain this terrible, complicated, mixed-up thing inside him to one of them in a way he can only hope they’ll understand. That he can be a friend, a companion, a brother, but never a lover. Not the way they might hope. Not the way that he might hope. Steve can offer physical intimacy in a way the Beast can’t, but Bucky thinks he could get used to being closer to the Beast. Touch doesn’t need to be sexual to be intimate. And while the idea of unearthing the darker things lurking in Bucky’s mind and heart scare the hell out of him, he can hope that Steve will understand and choose to stay.

He just needs to figure out who he wants to take that risk with, and that’s something easier said than done. Especially here, wrapped in the warmth and care of the Beast, well-cut coat cutting the chill of the wind and care easily seen in each line of stitching. Nothing about it says ‘off the rack,’ and somehow it also avoids the sense of being a grand gesture or bribe as well. It’s exactly what it looks like: A kind, thoughtful present to keep a loved one warm. When Bucky’s fingers trip over the buttons, he finds another surprise. Down his left side, each button is carved with the face of a different flower. Roses and lilies and marigolds catch the dark staining and create their own shadows on the face of the wood, while the right side hosts… he looks closer to identify a spider, a bird, and a wolf, among others. Most of the plants depicted are in the gardens, though in different locations and blooming at different times. This coat isn’t just something to keep his body warm—it’s an invitation to be part of them. Part of a family. Part of a home.

Confused and overwhelmed, Bucky stumbles deeper into the garden until he’s certain that the trees and hedges will hide him from any prying eyes. He finds a place to curl up, surrounded in warmth and gentle landscaping and a slow, sleeping world and, for the first time in years, he cries not for someone else but for himself.

By that evening, he thinks he might have a plan. He’ll just try to tell Steve something deeply personal about himself, he thinks. He won’t take his customary walk, he won’t try to initiate sex, he’ll just… he’ll try to give Steve a glimpse of the little cracks and shadows he normally tries to hide.

But when night comes, the darkness is so soothing and comfortable that all thoughts of ruining it with his own demons slide away. Steve sounds so happy to be with him, eager to show him a lyre he’d found somewhere, letting Bucky feel around the instrument with careful fingers and explaining how it’s somewhere between a harp and a guitar because even though it doesn’t have frets, it’s got a sound box. Bucky smiles and lets Steve put the instrument in his lap, bending his head to pluck a few haunting chords from the steel strings, thinking of Orpheus and Eurydice and wondering if Steve will disappear like a ghost as soon as Bucky tries to drag him into his world.

Mid-chord his brain skips and suddenly there’s only him in the room, him and this stupid lyre and the blinding, suffocating dark. He can’t see Steve and Bucky has to touch him. He has to know that Steve is real. That there’s someone there, even if he never sees him in the daylight. So Bucky stands up and reaches out, trusting Steve to find him and hold on.

A broad, warm hand slides into his own, and Bucky has to hold in a sigh of relief. Real. This is real.

“Where are we going?” Steve asks timidly, apparently cowed by Bucky’s sudden departure from the sofa.

“We’re…” Bucky casts about for a good reason to have stood up so suddenly. “We’re going to dance.”

“Buck, you know I can’t,” Steve stammers. He chuckles nervously and tries to tug away, but Bucky just clutches him that much tighter.

“No, it’s—it’s easy, Stevie, I promise. All you have to do is hold on.”

He feels Steve settle closer to him, and he loosens his grip so they can position their hands properly, dragging Steve’s left to his shoulder and putting his right on Steve’s waist. He breathes a little easier when Steve clings to him, even if it means their movements will be stilted and jerky.

“Now what?” Steve keeps shifting his weight from foot to foot, his grip too tight and stiff. Bucky waits for Steve to shift again before swaying into the motion, leaning in until he can croon into his ear,

“Hold me close and hold me fast. The magic spell you cast, this is la vie en rose.”

The tension in Steve’s shoulders unspools as Bucky tugs him gently into a turn. “Il me dit des mots d’amour—des mots de tous les jours, et ça m’ fait quelque chose.” Bucky winds Steve’s arms around his neck and relaxes into his hold, feeling his smile against his jaw. “Il est entré dans mon coeur, une part de bonheur dont je connais la cause…”

He tightens his grip, heart full to bursting. “See? You’re doing it,” he whispers as Steve nuzzles closer.

“You make it easy, Buck.” He’s so close that Bucky can feel the soft huff from breath from his words. “Je t’aime.”

Bucky’s breath catches, tears springing unbidden to his eyes.

“What’s wrong, a ghrá?” Steve’s thumbs stroke away the wetness marring Bucky’s cheeks, cupping his face so carefully in his hands. “Tell me what sorrows you so.”

“It’s nothing, Stevie.” He blinks fast, like that will stop the damning tide of his tears. “I’m just happy.” And it’s true. He has more happiness than he deserves. Is receiving more love than any one person should. Bucky never wants to let go, but it isn’t just about him, is it? He has to put an end to this, even if the selfish part of him clings to the rose-tinted evenings and blush-petal dawns. Maybe he can have this for one more moment. He pulls Steve closer still and turns them slowly.

“…Il me parle l’a tout bas, je vois la vie en rose.”

Just this one last night.

Bucky wakes up the next day alone, Steve’s side of the bed already cold, only the rumpled sheets and soft indent of his body showing that he’d been there at all. He rolls over and places his hand where Steve’s heart would be if he’d never left and asks himself if this would be a choice at all if only Steve would stay. But it’s not fair to any of them to wish for what-ifs.

Today, the flower on his nightstand taunts him, asking for an impossible decision until a knock at the door pulls his attention back to the room.

“James? Are you all right?” comes Natasha’s low voice. When he checks the clock, he realizes that he’s been so distracted that he’s failed to wind it. His biological clock isn’t giving him any feedback—how much time has he lost in his own head?

“I’m just tired.” He drags himself to the door and opens it a crack, looking down in time to see one of her legs withdraw. “I’m sorry. Can you just… eat without me?”

The leg makes a reappearance, followed by one rounded side. Shining eyes peer up at him with heavy consideration. “You’re not ill?”

No, only heartsick. “Just tired,” he repeats. He hopes desperately that Natasha will leave him to his recalcitrance—she’s interfering when she wants to be, he’s learned. But she only taps two legs on the floor a few times before shuffling away from the door.

“It’s all right to need time to yourself,” she murmurs. He often wishes Natasha could have facial expressions. He wonders if right now she’d look pitying or understanding. Perhaps both. “I’ll give your excuses to the others. Take all the time you need.”

He closes the door against the soft skitter of her retreat, rolling his forehead against the cool wood. She means well, but time is something he doesn’t think he has. Time will only make things worse. He looks at the blurred shadows on the carpet and retreats to draw himself a bath. Once upon a time, it had been one of the few places he could ensure he’d have privacy with his thoughts. Baths had been recommended by his physicians and even his therapists, and no one wanted to walk in on him in the bathroom. It was his one small freedom, and even in an almost-empty house it still feels the most private.

He sinks into the water until it covers his face and he can peer up at the pale ceiling through the clear, shimmering veil and try to piece together his thoughts with only his heartbeat for company. He stays until the steam stops curling in the air; until the water chills his skin and even the prosthetic feels like it’s trying to shiver. Then he washes up and towels off, finding himself standing in front of his wardrobe blankly, hair drying in the afternoon light slanting through the windows. Dragging on clothes, he lets his eyes skip over the rose again, unable to face it just yet, and scoops up his mantle clock—it’ll need resetting by the sundial outside, and if he can get there without running into anyone else then so much the better. His beautiful new coat is draped over the arm of a chair near his door, where he hovers for a moment, hand just shy of touching the dyed fabric. Taking a deep breath, he balls his hand into a fist and reaches for the door instead. Like the rose, he can’t bear to look at it for long. Not until he settles this one way or another. He settles the clock more securely in the crook of his arm and pokes his head out of his room, finding it as quiet as he could hope for.

Somewhere between draining his bath and pulling on his softest shirt, Bucky had made up his mind. He knows what he has to do. He also knows, deep down, that he’s going to break his heart either way.

The apology and explanation about seeing Steve should be first, he thinks as he descends the stairs. It will be hard, because although the Beast is still unfailingly polite, Bucky thinks they’ve gotten past the stiff formalities that plagued their early interactions. He trusts the Beast, and he thinks that the Beast trusts him. Despite their differences, Bucky thinks that they have something else in common—some kind of loss that deftly inserts itself between them and anyone else, but that recognizes itself in each of them. Telling the Beast that Bucky is ready to not just slip behind from, but to break that wall, but with someone else altogether… He’s not sure how that will end. It feels like leaving a man behind, and despite appearances the Beast is one of the best men he knows. He’ll have to sacrifice something of himself to do it, he thinks, but isn’t that a requirement of all love?

Walking out into the cold is like a slap in the face, shocking him out of his spiraling thoughts and clearing some of the fog in his mind. He hadn’t thought to take even his old jacket with him on the way out of his room, too eager to escape all the little reminders there. Still, it’s surprisingly tolerable, no wind to speak of and the sun doing its level best to warm the earth. He takes a moment to turn his face up towards the light before setting his feet to the path that will lead him to the closest sundial.

Setting and winding his clock are calming somehow, and he’s just tucking away the winding key when he catches the barest hint of a sound. His first thought is to berate himself for not considering the possibility that someone else would be outside with him, but now that his ears are straining for it, the noise comes into sharper focus: Someone humming. Something about the tune makes part of his brain sit up and take notice and he cocks his head to the side, considering. Whoever it is must be up the path a bit more, maybe where it dips down to the winter garden that sprawls with green things long after everything else sleeps.

Setting down the clock on the face of the sundial, he pads quietly towards whoever is humming. The hedges and trees are still thick and tall enough to keep him from immediately identifying his mystery singer, especially when Bucky determines that they must be, as suspected, in the winter garden. He turns his feet towards the path and follows it, straining to hear more of the tune as he watches the plants slowly brighten into deep greens and reds. It isn’t until he’s level with the first tendrils of winter jasmine that the humming turns suddenly into words:

“When you press me to your heart—”

It can’t be.

“—I’m in a world apart—”

But if he takes away the baritone rumble, maybe.

“—A world where roses bloom.”

Bucky’s hand stretches out like he can touch the words, like if he tries hard enough to can catch them to make sure they’re real. Because that—that’s—

“And when you speak Angels sing from above—”

“Everyday words seem to turn into love songs,” Bucky rasps, lyrics landing heavy and tuneless from his lips. He turns the corner just as something clatters to the ground and the Beast is there at the bottom of the sunken garden steps, basket and shears discarded on the fitted stone. He looks so vulnerable and small in the sunken garden, eyes wide and pleading, shoulders already hunching in. Bucky stands at the top of the shallow stairs, hope burgeoning painfully inside of him.


“James, let me explain.”


The Beast flinches like he’s been slapped and he doesn’t look back up. “I understand. I’ll make sure to—”

“No, I mean. I mean my name. What you call me. Say it.” He’s not making sense, none of this makes sense, but he has to know.

The Beast—Steve—glances up at him for confirmation before shifting his stance carefully and taking a breath so deep that Bucky can watch his chest rise and fall with it.


Bucky’s eyes flutter shut because there it is. He’d know the shape of his name in Steve’s mouth anywhere, in any time, any place, any body.

“Steve. Oh my God.” Joy and sorrow and relief and confusion swamp him all at once, choking his words with tears.

“I’m so sorry, Bucky,” he whispers.

“Why are you sorry?” He shakes his head, cutting off Steve’s next words, trying to show that the reason isn’t important. He approaches Steve carefully, afraid that this moment will somewhere disappear. “Can I touch you?”

Steve holds himself unnaturally still, body language screaming uncertainty. His answer, when he gives it, is certain but trembling. “Yes.”

Carefully, projecting his every movement, Bucky reaches up. When his hand is only a hair’s breadth away from Steve’s face, Steve flinches subtly away. Bucky waits him out patiently, hand still outstretched, expression sympathetic but not pitying.

“You’re sure this is all right?” he whispers. There’s no one but them in the garden, but whispering seems appropriate somehow.

Steve’s blue eyes flick to him, then the window and back again, anxious and uncertain. He takes a slow, deep breath and locks his eyes onto Bucky’s. “Yes. Yes, go ahead.”

Bucky tries again, bringing his hand closer and pausing that one breath away, letting Steve prepare himself before—

The carapace of Steve’s face is blood-warm; startling for something that looks like it should be made of ebony or bone. He thinks that if he pressed hard enough it might yield only barely to his touch, as though it protects soft flesh underneath like the shell over a turtle. He wonders if doing so would hurt; if Steve has any sensation at all here. He strokes his fingers over where Steve’s jaw should start, the silvery lines rough compared to the rest of his face, as though they’ve been burned into him. Carefully, Bucky traces up until his thumb rests just below the ridge under Steve's left eye so that he’s cupping Steve’s face, tips of his fingers barely brushing the fur just beyond. Lips parted in amazement, hardly remembering to breathe, he watches as Steve’s eyes flutter closed and he leans into the touch with the barest of pressure. Bucky can practically feel the waves of pained relief in the crease of Steve’s eyebrows; the slight tilt of his head; the glow in his eyes when he finally opens them to look at Bucky again.

Illustration by maichan

“Still okay?” Bucky strokes his thumb gently under that eye-ridge, offering more touch, trying to soothe.

“Yes.” Steve’s voice is hoarse and choked with emotion, and Bucky wonders for a moment if Steve is going to cry; if he’s holding back or if he simply can’t when he’s like this. Would that be another part of whatever kind of curse this is? That he could feel sadness but never cry? Bucky lets his fingers slide through white fur, incongruously silky and warm, and Steve leans into that too, more shamelessly this time. “It’s been ages since anyone’s touched me this way.”

Ages. Bucky wonders how long that must mean to someone like Steve. Aloud, he asks, “Natasha? Clint?” They’re all so close, living here together. Surely…

“Not when I’m like…this.” Not when he’s in this body, he means. Not when his body seems more beast than man; not when he might need it most. When a caring touch might be all he craves. Steve’s hand comes up in an aborted movement, as though he means to clasp Bucky’s but thinks better of it. Bucky’s heart cracks.

“It’s okay. You won’t hurt me.” He reaches down for Steve’s hand, but Steve flinches away again.

“You can’t know that. It took me a long time to get used to them.” He turns a palm up and curls his clawed fingers into a loose fist to emphasize his point. The wording more than the reminder leaves Bucky breathless. ‘Them.’ ‘It.’ The way Bucky had thought of his own arm as something alien living on him instead of his own body. He looks at his own silvery hand and reaches out again.

“Well, I guess it’s good that it’s pretty hard to hurt me, then.” Steve’s claws scrape a little on the metal, the small vibrations odd but not unpleasant, and Bucky watches the tension slowly leave the other man’s shoulders when nothing untoward happens. “See? We fit.”

Illustration by maichan

Steve’s hand gives his a gentle squeeze and Bucky squeezes back, smiling at how incredibly right something as simple as holding hands can feel. He can already feel his heart calm and his mind start to clear, the doubt that had been chasing him condensing into uncomplicated truths:

No matter what form he’s in, this is Steve, and Steve has been by his side for months. Has been in love with Bucky for months. Knows who and what Bucky is, and has loved him anyway. With Steve, Bucky thinks he can be happy. No, he knows it, somewhere deep in his bones. Water is wet, fire burns, and Bucky Barnes is happier by Steve’s side. It’s enough to build a life on. And now they can.

A cool knuckle comes up to wipe away a stray tear and he looks up to see Steve’s face, eyes soft with concern. “What’s wrong, a ghrá?” he murmurs.

Bucky laughs through more tears, not bothering to stop them as they fall. “Nothing, Stevie. Nothing’s wrong. I’m just happy. I’m so—” His legs finally buckle under him and Steve helps him to one of the benches nearby, touches fleeting and uncertain except for where he still holds Bucky’s metal hand, the brunet refusing to relinquish his grip. Steve crouches in front of Bucky to look up at him anxiously from the ground, close but not too close and that means… that means he’s too far.

Bucky yanks at Steve’s hand until he can bury his face in the soft fur at the top of his head, careful of the round ears there, cautious of how the seam at the shell of his face might cause discomfort, but leaning into Steve as much as he dares. It’s awkward and uncomfortable and everything he never thought he could have. He lets the tears come, unafraid and unashamed because they’re tears of love.

“I’m happy.”

Chapter Text

Christmas that year is quiet but cheerful. He makes Clint a new breakfast perch and Natasha teaches him how to make her weird, heavy black bread, and they spend an entire afternoon making snow-sculptures. Clint gives Bucky not one but three bottles of lube, and Bucky has no idea where he got them but he takes them without an ounce of shame and thanks Clint for it. When he tells Steve that night, the other man groans and mutters something about roast birds being traditional.

By the time the new year rolls around, Bucky is happier than he’s been in years. The happiness itself is not exactly what he thought it would be—he doesn’t feel like a glowing cloud of sunshine. He doesn’t smile 24/7 until his cheeks hurt from it. His problems don’t vanish. But contentment spreads through him, saturates him enough that he can find it when he reaches; feels safe in knowing that even if it slips through his grasp, Steve will be there to help him discover it again and again. Being alone doesn’t feel so lonely, now, and somehow that makes it easier to be around the others more. He even stops jumping when Natasha leaves the table after breakfast, although he suspects she might be disappointed at that development.

Steve still vanishes at dawn and dusk; still refuses to go outside in the evenings, but Bucky finds that it’s something he’s getting used to. Not that he wants to—actually, he wishes that he and Steve could just talk to him about it, but every time they try, Steve pleads for Bucky to just trust him, trust that he wants to but just can’t stay. Bucky tries to change his sleeping schedule to be more nocturnal, hoping to claim more time with Steve in the form that the other man is clearly more comfortable with, but it ends disastrously—sleeping too much during the day makes him susceptible to terrors, and he screams himself awake five afternoons in a row and has an explosive argument with Steve about it before he gives up on the idea. The one good thing that comes from it is that Steve makes more of an effort to allow Bucky to touch him during the day. He still flinches sometimes, and he’s hesitant to do much more than lean close, but Bucky is proud of both of them anyway. And there’s something undeniably soothing about sitting in an armchair, a fire in front of them, a book in his lap, and Steve’s fuzzy head leaning against his knee while he reads out loud.

In the spring, Bucky gets restless and decides to plant an entire garden of his own. He picks an unused patch of dirt just outside the scullery and spends an entire week meticulously reading up on what flowers and vegetables might thrive in his little garden while Steve uses the silent little laugh he has whenever he thinks Bucky is being cute but doesn’t want to offend. Bucky nobly ignores him and plants enough lettuce and radishes to choke a man, then promptly loses half his crops to the most adorable bunnies he’s ever seen. He can’t even be angry—he’s a city boy born and bred, and the only other time he’s seen rabbits have been at petting zoos. He ends up making another garden entirely dedicated to tempting the rabbits away, placing a low wire fence around his own and hanging bells and chimes on the perimeter. And although Clint constantly jokes about how tender rabbit meat can be when Bucky is picking through his garden, he catches the hawk chasing predators away from the rabbit garden on more than one occasion.

In summer, he grows strawberries and sunflowers and puts up with Steve rubbing sticky aloe sap over his shoulders at night. The first handful of sunflowers he grows, he cuts carefully and ties with a bow before bringing them to lunch. He hands them to Steve, the yellow bright against stark white fur and the dark cast of his face. It emphasizes the blue of his eyes until they blaze, and he looks at Bucky with such surprise and gratitude that it doesn’t matter that his face isn’t quite human—Bucky can see him smile just fine.

“Think you can help with the flowers at the gate later?” Clint asks over breakfast the next day. “Since you’re a professional gardener now and all? It’ll be just like old times. We could make it an annual event!”

For a moment, Bucky has no idea what Clint is talking about, but then he puts it all together. “It’s been a year?” That feels… wrong, somehow. Inaccurate. He feels like he’s been living here for much longer, but also like he arrived just yesterday.

“It’s mid-June,” Natasha adds blandly. “Zucchini is ready to harvest, by the way.”

“Happy anniversary!” Clint enthuses. Across the table, Steve’s gaze catches his before quickly darting away, face unreadable. If Bucky didn’t know better, he’d say that Steve looks… guilty.

A year, though. He’s a little ashamed to think that maybe he hasn’t put enough effort into finding ways to talk to Becca as he should have. After adjusting to not having phones or internet or, hell, even television, he’d written a few letters that he’d stashed away. At first, he’d been too preoccupied getting used to his new home, and then things had just become so normal. He’s just trusted that she was safe, or maybe part of him just thought that if something happened to her, somehow he’d just know. But he doesn’t, does he? He feels familiar panic bubbling to the surface.

“Excuse me, I think I left something in my room,” Bucky says abruptly, shoving his seat away from the table. It’s a sorry excuse, but one that they’ve each used in the past when they’ve just wanted to leave their little family meals. It’s their own code for, ‘I need to get out of here; please leave me alone,’ and generally gets the job done. But not today.

He makes it as far as the foyer before Steve catches up with him, catching him gently by his left wrist, the scrape of claws familiar and comforting in its own way. Steve lets go as soon as he’s certain he has Bucky’s attention, giving him the option to walk away if he wants to. “Do you want to talk about it?”

He does. He doesn’t. Bucky turns to grab the railing, then changes his mind and sinks down until he can sit on one of the carpeted steps, raking a hand through his hair. Steve kneels in front of him until they’re level. “What kind of a brother doesn’t at least try to get in contact with his sister?” he demands. It comes out less harsh than he’d wanted it to; more despairing. “She’s my only family, and I don’t know if she’s happy, or worried, or if she got to go study abroad after all, or…”

“Breathe, a ghrá,” Steve rumbles.

“I’m the worst brother in the world,” Bucky mumbles, covering his face with his hands. Steve doesn’t get any more into his space or try to pry his hands away. He just puts a grounding hand on Bucky’s ankle, letting him know that someone’s got his back. “I know it’s kind of late for it, but I just wish I could tell her I’m happy and not to worry.”

“You could,” Steve says slowly. Bucky looks at him sharply, but Steve is looking off to the side, gaze distant in a way that tells Bucky he’s thinking hard. “I think. But you wouldn’t have much time.”

“What are you talking about?”

Steve shifts his weight; flexes his hand where it still clasps Bucky’s ankle. “Summer solstice is in a fortnight or so,” he explains. “From sunset the day before to sunset the day next, I can let you go home. But you must be back before then.”

Part of Bucky wants to say, ‘Or?’ To challenge the unspoken threat in Steve’s words. Only somehow, Steve doesn’t make it sound so much like a threat as an inevitability, that something terrible will happen if Bucky doesn’t return on time. He doesn’t want to test whatever might make Steve sound like that. “I could really go see her?” he asks instead, voice small.

Steve nods, and just like that Bucky’s smile returns.

A fortnight is a long time when you’re waiting for something at the end of it, Bucky discovers. Well, and as Natasha keeps reminding him, it’s actually a little longer than a fortnight to the solstice. Bucky suddenly and vividly remembers the way every day left of his deployment seemed to stretch out longer the closer he got to his leave. Back then, he couldn’t afford the distraction, so he forced himself to focus on task after task until he was on the way home. Now, he doesn’t have anything urgent to occupy his time and it’s driving him up the wall. He knows that not everyone—okay, no one—feels the same enthusiasm as he does about getting to go home, so he tries hard to keep himself at least somewhat restrained. He takes it out on swimming in the pool, on weeding the gardens on a rotating basis, and finally on deep-cleaning the kitchen until Natasha catches him and forcefully pushes him out of the space with instructions to go clean his own room if he must.

He does keep his room clean, thank you very much, but moving in that direction reminds him that he still has to pack. It’s only a day, but he could bring a few things back. Maybe some of the things he’s grown in the garden? Which clothes would be best? Since arriving, he’s gotten a decent wardrobe update. New clothes just kind of started turning up whenever his laundry did, even though he did his laundry himself. Initial inquiries had only earned him blank, polite stares, so he’s pretty much given up on asking. He has some favorites that he wears again and again, and he’s got a few of those thrown over his bed for inspection when Steve knocks on his door that afternoon.

“Natasha told me she banished you,” he says as Bucky invites him in. “What’s all this?”

“Trying to decide what to bring. I mean, it’s only about a day, but I figure I’ll change right before I get there and then again that evening if they want to go somewhere. Hey, do you think it’s all right if I bring them presents?”

Steve’s absently taps his claws against the bed frame. “I don’t mind, but things produced by the house tend to be… capricious? It’s best if you stick with things that have been made by your own hand, or by ours if you must. And there is a limit to what you may bring. From the house, you can only take with you as much as your arms can carry.”

Again, phrased not as a demand or a threat, but as a fact. Bucky wonders what would happen if he tried to sneak out one thing too many, and what Steve means when he says ‘capricious.’

“Well, better reconsider what I’m bringing them, then. Thought Aunt Holly might like that end table Natasha hates, but it’ll be tricky carrying it down the interstate,” he jokes, trying to lighten the mood. It must work because Steve heaves out a sigh and grumbles something about people who think they’re so clever.

“I’ll leave you to your own wit, then. I just wanted to give you this.” Steve digs in the pouch at his waist until he comes up with a small, thick, circular pendant in a dull silver. The bail is generously sized, though nothing runs through it yet. “I didn’t know if you preferred necklaces or bracelets,” Steve confesses, eyes darting around uncomfortably. “But I’d be honored if you’d wear it. At least until you come back?”

Bucky blinks down at it, then folds his fingers over it and smiles. “I’ll look for a cord as soon as Tasha lets me out of solitary.” He leans up to give Steve a chaste kiss to his cheek. “Thank you.”

In the end, Bucky packs only clothes he brought from home since his last visit, a slightly-lumpy scarf he’d hurriedly finished, and whatever fruits and veggies he thought would last the trip with him. Steve sees him to the door of the estate, cradling Bucky’s face in his hands and staring like he might never see him again. Bucky smiles and reaches up to cover Steve’s hands with his own. “I’ll be back before you know it.”

“I hope so.”

“Will it cheer you up if I promise to bring you back a present?”

“Actually…” Steve blinks heavily, gaze distant for a moment before snapping back to reality. “Your family might try to get you to bring things back with you. They’ll mean well, I’m sure, but… Return only with those things you leave with? Please?”

“But minus the presents I’m giving them, right?” Bucky squints shrewdly, and Steve nods. “Then I don’t see the problem. They’ll probably just try to get me to take leftovers, so it’s a great excuse not to bring them.”

“Thank you. Now, you’ve not smuggled in anything that belongs to the house?” Steve looks down at Bucky’s saddlebags but takes his word on it when Bucky shakes his head no. “Not even the end-table?”

“You think you’re so funny.” He rolls his eyes and hefts his bags over his shoulder, then turns at the last second and pulls Steve into a hug. “I’m gonna miss you anyway.”

Steve squeezes back gently before stepping back. “Go enjoy your time with your family, Bucky.”

Clint and Natasha are waiting for him at the gate that leads out to the road, his motorcycle gleaming like new in the setting sun. He lets it warm up while he double-checks his bags, then waits while they each grab one side of the gate apiece, hauling it open in perfect synchronization.

“You two practiced that,” Bucky accuses, checking the fit of his helmet. “I know you never have to open this thing.”

Clint shrugs and looks at Natasha, who just smiles wide. “Is that a fact?” She laughs when Bucky grumbles and slams his visor down, though he can still hear her tell him to have a good time above the rumble of the motor. It’s a little surreal to approach the edge of what he now thinks of as his home, and for a moment he feels a thrill of fear that he might not be allowed to leave after all—but a moment later he’s in gear and away, watching Clint and Natasha shrink in his side mirror.

Being on the road is nerve-racking at first, but transitions quickly into excitement. He slept for most of the day so he could travel overnight, and he even decides to stop at an all-night diner just because he can. Even with stopping for shitty coffee and shittier pie, he makes fantastic time to his aunt and uncle’s home in Pennsylvania, arriving in the wee hours of the morning with the sudden realization that he never warned them he was going to be there. Becca might not still be living with them. They might not even be in town. He panics for a moment, wishing he’d at least spared a thought to call first before he realizes that Paul’s car is in the driveway, meaning that at least some of his family is in.

He cuts the engine and yanks off his helmet, shrugging out of his protective jacket while he considers what to do now. It’s nowhere near light out yet, so knocking will just wake everyone up. It’s easy enough to find the spare key behind the porch light, though, so he lets himself in as quietly as he can, saddlebags over his shoulder. He can just crash on the couch, he figures, and surprise them all in the morning.

It’s a plan that’s ruined immediately when he hears the quiet click of the safety being thumbed off a gun.

“Just turn the hell back around and leave.”

Bucky freezes, carefully turning around.

“That’s right, son. Back out the door.”

“Paul,” he tries.

“Slow, now.”


“How does he know your name? Are we being targeted?”

“Holly, shush, I’ve got this.”

Paul!” It’s probably not a great idea to shout at your uncle when he’s got a gun pointed at you, but this is still family and no one can annoy quite like blood relations can. “Put the gun down!” He opens the door to let the porch light flood in, tilting so they can get a look at his face. “I’ve been trying to tell you it’s me!”

“Oh my God, James!” Holly shrieks. Bucky winces but manages to brace himself in time to catch his aunt with one arm, letting her have a fair go at squeezing the air out of his lungs. Paul turns on the lights and puts the gun down on the counter seconds before another door in the house flies open and Bucky is tackled from the other side.

“BUCKY!” Rebecca drags him down with the force her hug. Paul helpfully takes his bags from him so Bucky can wrap Becca up tight, burying his face in her hair. When Becca’s grip loosens even a little, Bucky makes room so Holly and even Paul can join. He can only stand the group hug for so long, though, and eventually they let him when he complains that he can’t breathe.

“You should have called first!” Aunt Holly chides. “We could have put something together!”

“I can only stay today,” he says reluctantly. He looks at Rebecca when he says it, and her eyes narrow angrily, eyebrows twitching. He frowns and tilts his head at her, telling her without words that she doesn’t get a say in it, and they’ll talk later.

“But you just got here,” Uncle Paul protests. “That’s not nearly enough time. We could have at least picked you up from wherever you were coming in from. It’s been a year since we’ve seen you, and you never call.”

“Bad luck with cell phones,” Bucky lies. “I’m still working on it.”

“Well, you should rest while you can, then,” Aunt Holly declares. “I’m making a full breakfast in the morning and no mistake. Your room is still open if you want it.” She says the last part like she’s not sure how it’ll be received, so Bucky makes sure to smile.

“You didn’t have to do that, but I appreciate it. I could help you sort things to box up if you wanted to convert it to—”

“Maybe next time,” she interrupts firmly. “For now, go sleep. The sun’s not even up yet, James, I swear…”

“Come on,” Rebecca hisses, grabbing Bucky’s arm and dragging him off. She pushes him into his bedroom and onto his bed, both her arms anchored firmly around one of his. There will be no getting rid of her until she’s good and ready, and Bucky is starting to think that won’t be for a while.

“Becca, come on. At least let me shower. I smell like the road,” he tries.

“No. You’ll just avoid me and I need to know—” Her voice breaks. “I need to know that you’re okay, Bucky. I called and you didn’t answer, and I even tried to get someone to do that, you know, ping thing like on TV but it didn’t work—”

“You tried to get someone to illegally locate my phone?!”

“As far as I’m concerned, you’d been kidnapped!”

“I went by choice; I told you that!” Bucky hisses. Their argument never raises above a harsh whisper no matter how heated it gets, which is something so uniquely them that it actually makes Bucky happy for a moment. He has to resist the urge to smile because Becca definitely won’t take that the right way and this doesn’t need to escalate just because Bucky’s sense of nostalgia is weird and misplaced.

“I didn’t know I wouldn’t be able to hear from you for that whole time! Not a text, or a call, or even a letter? Telegram? Smoke signal! Something to tell me that you hadn’t been ax-murdered or sold as horse meat or something?”

“I’m here now telling you that I’m fine, Becca. Now tell me about you. You still doing okay?”

Rebecca gives him the evil look that says she’s graciously allowing him to change the subject for now, but that they’ll be revisiting her grievance sooner than later. “Perfectly healthy still,” she huffs. “Everyone keeps telling me that it’s like a miracle and no one has an explanation. I only go to a few doctors now, and one of them only because he’s literally paying me to do a study. It’s pretty nice to have the pocket change.”

“How about college? Study abroad? You still gonna do that? Are you still getting my checks?”

“Well, now that I know you’re not dead I might take a few months to travel. A friend from undergrad moved out to study in Galway Ireland and she said she’ll put me up for a while. Not my original plan, but I can’t apply for the program again until next spring, so…” She shrugs. “I’m still excited about it.”

“Hey, that sounds great! I’m proud of you.” He butts the side of her head gently with his own in lieu of hugging her.

“Now you.”

“Becca, I’m actually pretty tired. I drove all night—”

“Then just tell me if you’re safe.” Her grip tightens, looking up at him with heartbreaking vulnerability. “Tell me if you’re safe or if I have to mount a rescue because if you’re not, Bucky, I can’t lose you too. I’d rather risk it, and now that I know, I get a say.”

“I’m safe,” he assures her. He pushes her hair back from her face, placing a loving kiss on her forehead. “I promise, Rebecca. I’m safe. Would I lie to you about this?”

“Yes,” Becca mutters rebelliously, but she loosens the death-grip she has on his arm. “But I believe you this time. We still need to talk, but… I guess after you’ve rested is all right.”

“Thank you.”

“But I’m sleeping in your room.”

Bucky sighs and just tosses one of the pillows to the floor before grabbing a set of clothes and retreating to the bathroom to clean up. By the time he returns, Becca has made up a pallet of sleeping bags and blankets on the floor, where she sits up so that they’re eye level when he falls into his own bed.

“I was scared,” she tells him, only her eyes truly visible. She says it with the same gravity as she did when they first arrived at Paul and Holly’s house a lifetime ago, when she was young and trusting and too serious to be Bucky’s sunny little sister. It’s a truth that makes her vulnerable because she trusts him to fix it somehow, because he’s her big brother and fixing things is what he does.

“I know.” He leans in until she goes cross-eyed looking at him. “But there’s nothing to be scared of anymore. It’s gonna be fine, Becca, I promise. It’s fine.”

She closes her eyes for a moment before taking a deep breath and heaving it out in a long sigh. “Night, bro.”

Bucky is up just after the sun rises whether he wants to be or not. Sometimes he can close his eyes and go back to sleep, but he’s not used to being in this house anymore and his body won’t let him. Sighing to himself, he carefully tiptoes around Becca’s sleeping form and sneaks into the living room to go through his bags. He’s still sorting through the veggies when Holly walks in, hair up and house robe tied tight around her.

“James!” Holly envelops him in another hug, looking somewhere between surprised and delighted. “I was starting to wonder if I dreamed it all up. We’ve missed you so much.”

“I missed you guys, too.”

“A whole year with no contact, though…”

Bucky holds back a wince. He’d hoped that his one day wouldn’t be filled with this kind of guilt. “It’s complicated, Aunt Holly. Here, why don’t I make breakfast?”

“Don’t be silly, you’re a guest. Good Lord, you didn’t need to buy so many vegetables!”

“Oh, I uh… I grew them, actually.”

“James Buchanan Barnes!”

Bucky really does cringe this time, but it doesn’t stop him from piling strawberries into a basket.

“You wouldn’t even help me trim the hedges out in the yard!”

“Raising stuff’s different,” he protests. “People get to eat it and appreciate it.”

“And that’s why you cook now?” Rebecca has apparently been woken by all the ruckus and leans sleepily against the countertop, snagging the closest berry and shoving it into her mouth. “Oh, these are actually good.”

“You don’t have to sound so surprised,” Bucky grumbles good-naturedly. “And I learned how to cook from a… roommate.” Natasha is kind of a roommate, right?

“All the same, this is my kitchen, and I’ll thank you to get out of it,” Holly says firmly. She pushes him towards the table and shoos him and Becca away. A moment later, they hear her rummaging for ingredients in the fridge.

“Roommate?” Becca asks lowly, not quite whispering but also not loud enough for their aunt to hear over his own noise.

“Yes.” Bucky wasn’t told not to tell his family anything, so he decides to use his own discretion. “She hates cooking but she’s good at it.” He considers telling his sister how intimidating Natasha can be in the kitchen but stops when he catches her looking at him funny. “What?”

“You sound happy.”

“I am. I’m here with you, aren’t I?”

“I mean happy when you talk about that… place. And I can see that you’re getting enough sun.” She pokes at his arm, which sports a nice tan.

“Why? Did you think I was going off to some kind of underground dungeon?”

Becca flushes and turns her face away. Bucky catches her by the chin and forces her to look at him. “Hey, kiddo. I told you things are fine and they are. Look at me—I sleep, I eat, I run around in the sun. Hell, last week I went swimming and then Clint tried to teach me how to do a backflip.”

“Bucky, you can already do a backflip.”

“He didn’t know that before.” He looks so smug that Becca laughs, shaking her head.

“Okay, so they’re giving you regular food and exercise. But they won’t let you come home?”

“This is temporary,” Bucky agrees reluctantly. “Summer solstice. I’ll have to leave early tomorrow. I made a promise, Becca,” he adds when her face falls. “I just wanted to make sure you were all right. That you’re happy and safe.”

Becca frowns and opens her mouth to answer, but then Paul enters and greets Bucky and it’s hugs and exclamations all over again, and then a breakfast of non-stop chattering as everyone catches Bucky up on what he’s missed in the last year. He dodges or redirects most questions about himself, and when that fails he gets a little creative with the truth.

“What kind of job is this?” Sorry, need-to-know-basis only.
“Government, then?” No, not precisely.
“Why haven’t you been calling?” There’s no reception out there.
“How about writing?” Not sure on the procedure for that—I’ll check when I get back, but no promises.
“You meet anyone interesting?” Yes, but I don’t want to gossip.
“Are you coming again for Christmas? We missed you last year!” No, sorry, I don’t think that’s possible. Even taking this overnight trip was pretty difficult to organize.
“So you’ll be coming back again next year?” I don’t know.
“Can’t you say a little longer? Surely one more day of rest…” I really have to go back.

He thinks he fools everyone but Rebecca, though she keeps her opinions to herself and just narrows her eyes occasionally to show him that she’s seeing through his bullshit.

They have a late lunch of cold cuts and bread from the market, and for an appetizer that night, Bucky impresses everyone by frying up the zucchini blossoms stuffed with cheese. After dinner, they take some wine to the porch and watch fireflies wink in and out in the backyard, trading remember-that-time-when stories.

“I can have breakfast here if it’s early,” Bucky concedes. “But I really have to leave tomorrow morning.”

“And you’re sure you won’t take something with you? We got that lovely honey cake, and there are fresh preserves. At least take something for lunch.” Holly gives him a pleading look that does nothing to rival Steve’s or Becca’s, but he knows she’s coming from a loving place so he agrees.

“But only if Uncle Paul packs it,” he stipulates. Paul looks alarmed as his wife rounds on him with a scowl, and Bucky smirks at him behind her back. His uncle knows too well how much food his wife will try to push on Bucky for ‘lunch,’ but with him on Bucky’s defense, Bucky knows he can count on the amount of food to actually be reasonable for once. He turns in for the night after hugging both his aunt and uncle, and Becca follows him back to his room.

With the door closed and locked, she sits in his bed, folds her legs under herself, and says, “Spill.”

“I told you everything already, Becca,” he tries.

“You haven’t told me details. You’re not wasting away, okay, I’m glad. But what do you do there? What do they even want you for? Is it just you and some kind of magician or drug-lord or…”

“Honestly, I think they just want company. There are some other people there. Uh, there’s Natasha—she taught me how to bake bread, actually. And Clint. I think he might have been in the military at some point, but I don’t know.”


Why does she know him so well? “And Steve,” he sighs. “He’s… I guess he’s the master of the house?”

Rebecca squints at him for a moment before taking the shade off the lamp, nearly blinding Bucky in the process. “Say that again,” she demands.

“What? Master of the house?”

“No, who do you live with?”

“Uh… Natasha, Clint, and… Steve?”

Becca stares at him for a solid five seconds before she replaces the shade and buries her face in her hands. “You like him. This Steve-guy. The one who owns you.”

“He doesn’t own me!” Bucky protests. “He was really insulted that I thought so. I’m just kind of a guest. A really long-term guest.”

“Right, like these two other people.”

“Not really? I think they work there. Or something.” He’s always felt like that might be a delicate question and hasn’t quite gotten up the courage to ask.

“Well, tell me more about them. The girl cooks—how stereotypical. She wears house-dresses too? Put her hair up in a kerchief?”

“Er…” The image of Natasha with a polka-dot dress fluttering around her eight legs and a kerchief tied above her glassy eyes pops into Bucky’s head, and it’s one he doesn’t know if he should laugh or gag at. “Not really her style.”

“Okay, what is her style, since apparently I have to force everything out of you?”

She’s angry. Angry and frustrated and still worried, and Bucky doesn’t know how to fix this in only twelve hours. But all he’s got is the truth, so he figures he’ll just bite the bullet and tell her. “She’s a spider?”

“A spider.”

“Yeah. She’s a spider. A big one.” He leans over the side of the bed to demonstrate Natasha’s height. “But she can talk. I have no idea how and no one will tell me, and I still can’t really watch her eat, but yes. She’s a spider. And before you ask, Clint is a hawk.”

“A literal, actual, bird of prey.”

“Yes. I mean, he says he’s a hawk but I don’t know anything about birds, really.”

“And he can talk too.”

“Look, I know it sounds crazy, but you haven’t been there! It’s… it’s not normal but it’s…” He grips at his hair frantically. Good God, he sounds like he should be committed.

“You have a picture or something?”

“No. My phone and laptop won’t work there. It’s really weird. I don’t know. It’s magic, Becca. I don’t know how it works.” Holy shit, is he crazy? Has he been living alone in the woods this whole time? “Am I crazy?”

Becca crawls closer so she can give him a consoling hug. “I’m not gonna lie, you sound a little crazy. But you’re clean and healthy and you look—well, you look happier than I’ve seen you in years. And there’s the whole thing about that miracle-herb. And some people believe in aliens, you know, so I guess I can take your side on all this magic business.”

“You don’t actually believe that.”

She sighs and butts her head against his shoulder. “I don’t know what to believe. I was gonna die and then suddenly I’m fit as a fiddle. You know I ran a 5k? No training, and I finished in the top five. I’m literally healthier than I was before. And you lost an arm and then you got a new one even better than the old one—I bet that’s like magic to a bunch of folks, too. So I don’t know if I believe in magic or miracles or whatever, but I do believe in you, and I guess that’s enough for me.”

Bucky stares for a few moments, blinking fast to get rid of tears. “Did you practice that speech just for me?”

“Shut up,” Rebecca says as she socks his arm, and just like that they’re on the same team again. They both pretend not to see each other wiping away tears, but Becca stays pressed to his side, and somehow a box of tissues has migrated closer to the two of them. “So, you live with a couple of literal animals.”

“Well, I think they’re people, if that helps. Sometimes they’re people.” It takes him a while and a few glasses of water to explain things to Becca—the opulence of the house and his struggle to understand. The weird rules and the house locking down at night. How he’s the only one he ever sees if he steps out after dark. How even though he’s seen them before, it’s still rare to see Natasha or Clint around sunset or sunrise. And he tells her about Steve. What he looks like and the sadness he carried around with him. He tries to skim over the whole ‘lovers’ thing, but Becca makes him back up and tell her ‘the juicy details.’ He compromises by offering a few vague details, including showing her the pendant he was given before he left.

“Silver? So he’s not a werewolf, I guess,” she mutters. Bucky snorts in amusement. Fiddling with it, Becca jerks his arm to the side so she can inspect the bracelet in the light. “You know this is a locket, right?”


“Oh my god, it’s a lover’s token. And you didn’t even know it. Maybe it’s got his picture inside.” Bucky watches while she slides a nail into a small groove he hadn’t noticed and gives it a careful flick. Sure enough, it falls open to reveal a clear panel, behind which is a short, slim braid of white hair tied with a bit of red thread.

“That’s his fur, I think,” Bucky murmurs, raising it to eye level. Snowy white and he knows that if he could touch it, it would be soft as silk under his fingers.

“Hmm.” Becca taps her bottom lip in thought while Bucky tries to figure out how Steve would have gotten the fur in there in the first place. “There’s something I don’t get, though,” Becca starts slowly, “Your locket, from what I understand, is stuff from daytime-Steve, right? The ‘Beast.’” She waits for his nod to continue. “But usually you’d put a lock of hair in those kinds of things. Like, you know, human hair. So why didn’t he? Why’s it fur instead?”

“Maybe it’s the magic stuff?” Bucky guesses, unbothered.

“Okay, then why haven’t you ever seen in-between Steve? The others are okay with being seen when they’re doing the human thing, right?”

“They’ve never said anything.” Bucky frowns. “But maybe they’re just comfortable with it. Steve’s… kind of shy.”

“But he says he loves you.”


“And you believe him.”

“Yes.” There’s not a lot that Bucky can be sure of in life, but the way Steve feels is one of them. “And I love him, too,” he reminds her.

“Right, right. But if he loves you so much, shouldn’t he at least give you the option to stick around? You said it doesn’t look too weird for Natasha and Clint.”

“Maybe it’s different for him.” Bucky doesn’t really see where this is going, but it’s making him nervous. Becca with a point is like a terrier chasing a rat—nothing can make her stop except victory.

“Then why doesn’t he walk outside with you at night?”

“Maybe he can’t leave the house?” he says, knowing it’s a weak excuse. He’s never asked Steve these things. It just… hadn’t seemed that important. They don’t need to be glued to each other’s sides at all times, and truth be told it’s nice to know for certain he has some things that are his and his alone. But now that Becca’s pointing these things out… He reaches for locket and twists it between his fingers again. “Just tell me what you’re getting at,” he sighs.

“What if he’s not human at all?” she asks seriously.

Bucky’s mind blanks for a moment, trying to take that in. “What else would he be?”

“I don’t know, Bucky. Something else. You’ve only ever seen him when he looks like a beast, right? He looks over the place, he’s mysterious and closed off, he doesn’t talk about why he’s there or why he’s got two other people living with him or why they say he’s the master of the house. The other two don’t care if you see what they look like when the sun goes down, but Steve always disappears? If he’s another human or, hell, even just human-shaped, why should he care? What’s he hiding?”

“He feels human, and I’d know,” Bucky argues.

“No offense, but as people, our brains do a lot of rationalizing for us. I mean, okay, maybe he’s generally human-shaped. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t really something else. Something… I don’t know. Something scary. Or bad. Something else he doesn’t want you to see. You’re too close to it, Bucky, but it’s really suspicious.”

Looking at it from the outside, he knows she has a point. Maybe he is too close to it.

“I’ll give you a minute to think,” she murmurs, patting his shoulder. She picks up their cups and slides out of the room. He’s so conflicted about the way he feels, torn between his sister’s concern and his faith in his lover, that he doesn’t even know how long he’s been alone when Rebecca finally returns and resumes her seat in front of him.

“Here.” Grabbing his wrist, she slips a single, tapered candle and a book of matches into his hand. When he does nothing but stare at it, she sighs and explains, “So you can see for yourself. He doesn’t even have to know. You said that sometimes he falls asleep with you, right? He just gets up earlier to leave. So wait until he’s asleep, then you can light the candle and take a peek. Just enough to know what he really is, and he’ll never have to know, and then you’ll know that he’s not tricking you or anything, and that you’re safe.”

“No lights work after dark,” he reminds her, trying to give the items back. But she stubbornly refuses to take them.

“No, you said they all go out. And I’ll bet you never even tried to look for matches or a lighter or anything. I mean, it’s not your fault,” she adds hurriedly. “Why would you? But this way you have them, in case it’ll work. If they won’t light, then they won’t light, but at least you’ll have tried. Please? For me?”

It’s so hard to say no to her. She’s honestly concerned; he can read it in her face and in her body language. It’s not like he has to do anything with the candle and matches, even if he takes them. The matches probably wouldn’t light in the house anyway. And if he takes them, it will at least ease her mind for a while. He could take them for now. Hide them away, or just toss them before he reaches the house, and ask Steve or Clint or Natasha about it later. Steve might even bring up the whole evening thing on his own.

“Thank you,” Becca breathes when he finally closes his hand around the candle and matchbook. She leans in to hug him tight, relief in every line of her body. “I love you. I’m just worried about you.”

“Yeah, I know. And I love you, too.” He hugs her back and changes the subject, telling himself that her distrust is misplaced. He’ll go home to Steve and forget this conversation ever happened.

“Back with all your original bits and pieces?” Natasha greets him as soon as he walks in the door.

“Plus some saddle-sores to boot,” Bucky grumbles. Clint met him at the gate since Bucky has yet to see Natasha go outdoors in the daytime, but the hawk had insisted Bucky go ahead and that he could take care of the bike.

“Good visit with your family?”

Bucky can feel the way his face lights up when he turns and sees Steve, who steps in close enough to give him the cheek-to-cheek nuzzle he uses in place of a kiss during daylight hours. “It was pretty good, actually. They were surprised I could grow all that stuff… which is actually kind of insulting, if I think about it.”

Steve falls in step with him, ascending the stairs towards Bucky’s room. “And your sister? She’s still doing well?”

Suddenly, he’s hyper-aware of the bags on his shoulder and the candle and matches stowed within. The weight of Bucky’s attention to them is almost tangible; enough that he stumbles under it, and Steve has to reach out a hand to steady him. For the first time in months, the dry scrape of his claws on Bucky’s skin feels almost… menacing. He covers his slip by assuring Steve that Becca is fine and then mentioning that he must be more tired than he thought. He feels bad about the lie, even if it’s one of omission, and feels even worse when Steve just nods in understanding and says he’ll leave him to nap.

Alone in his room, Bucky pulls the candle and matches, staring at them for long moments. Then he grabs one of his shirts, rolls it around them, and shoves the whole bundle to the back of the lowest drawer of his nightstand; the one that’s sat empty until now. Out of sight, out of mind. He might have brought them to reassure Rebecca, but there’s no harm in them just being here, right? And now he never has to think of them again.

Chapter Text

Summer bleeds into fall with very little fanfare. His summer excursion aside, there’s not much excitement in their little household. Well, not excitement as most people would recognize it. There’s a kind of thrill to exploring the house more thoroughly, moving things around here and there. They prank each other constantly—Natasha and Steve somehow manage to shift everything in the drawing room one inch from its normal space, making Bucky stub his toes and Clint fly into lamps and high-backed chairs for a week. And then they move them back. In retaliation, Bucky and Clint switch all of Natasha’s spices around, but it backfires when she stolidly cooks anyway, using all ingredients as labeled. It only takes one bite of breakfast the next day—eggs with sugar and mint—for them to crawl back to the kitchen with their tails between their legs to fix all the confusion. Even worse in Bucky’s opinion is the fact that since Steve doesn’t eat during daylight hours as far as Bucky can tell, he doesn’t even fall victim to the breakfast disaster. After that, food is considered off-limits.

Walking outside, on the other hand, is a much safer activity. One that doesn’t involve figuring out what coriander is or barking one’s shins on the same tea table eighteen different times, and comes with the bonus of spending time with Steve outside the confines of the mansion’s walls. In the summer, with the sun beating down mercilessly, Steve would only agree to walk in the ornamental gardens closest to the pool. The few times Bucky managed to coax him out of under the tree cover, Steve’s pale skin had burned even through his fur. The pained lines of his shoulders and the pitiful sounds he made as he tried to get comfortable atop the covers were enough to convince Bucky not to press the issue. He still doesn’t stay out for more than an hour at a time, but whether it’s because of the increased cloud cover or perhaps because his fur seems thicker, he’s more agreeable to being outdoors.

They’re roaming the grounds hand in hand when a stiff breeze blows across the lawn, chilly and sharp. Bucky shivers, thinking longingly of his coat. Steve, as ever, is clad only in his hip-wrap with its belt and precious little else. His fur provides a certain amount of insulation, but it’s thin enough in places that Bucky catches glimpses of skin, and it’s enough to make him worry. Surely Steve feels some cold? Perhaps not right now, but in the colder months? He mentally runs through the previous year, but when he thinks on it, they only ever took short walks with Steve carefully monitoring Bucky for any sign that he’d want to retreat. And they’d been so new to this thing between them that he’d been too preoccupied to notice much else.

“Don’t you get cold walking around without anything on?”

“It’s not too bad,” Steve says easily. “Fur and all.”

“Right, but what about the wind?” Bucky presses. “You know, biting frost and…” he waves a hand eloquently. “Stuff. Do you never wear other clothes? Pants, or shirt... Jacket? Cloak?”

“Not really. It doesn’t matter much, and besides, I’d look ridiculous wearing anything more.”

Bucky hates it when Steve puts himself down like that, even when there’s a certain amount of truth to it. Sure, it might be a little odd to try and get him into a shirt, but if it’ll stop Steve from feeling cold then why should that matter? “Hey, I’m not going to let anyone talk bad about my man, even if he’s the one doing it,” he scolds. “We can get something in dark brown; really make your eyes pop. I’m sure you’d look amazing.”

Steve gives a self-deprecating little chuckle and turns to Bucky. “Even like this?” He gestures vaguely at himself, taking in his form.

Unbidden, Rebecca’s worried face pops into Bucky’s mind. He’d shoved her concerns to the back of his mind the last few months, but just last week he’d been searching for something and encountered the bundle again, knocking it back to the forefront of his thoughts. This is an opportunity to ask without forcing the subject, he thinks. “Well, I know you wear clothes at night,” he prompts. Then adds, “Sometimes,” because the innuendo is too obvious to let go.

“That’s different,” Steve dismisses immediately.

“How so?” He’s glad that they’re still walking because it helps disguise the nervous tremble of his right hand on Steve’s arm. This could be it—Steve will tell him what’s going on and Bucky can throw away that stupid stick of wax and tell Becca that she was wrong once and for all.

“Because I’m—I—” Steve does this sometimes, Bucky’s noticed. He stumbles over explanations, even backtracks part of the conversation like he has something to hide. And whenever it happens, he always has some variation on the same request, “Because it is. Please, just trust me?”

Bucky wants to press it. He wants to ask, ‘Why won’t you tell me?’ and ‘What aren’t you saying?’ but Steve already looks so torn that he can’t force the words past his lips. They’ve had this argument before, and it always ends with Steve begging Bucky to give him time, saying that he’ll ‘find a way soon,’ whatever that is supposed to mean. And maybe Bucky is being naïve, but he believes it, every word. He believes that Steve is doing his best, but is struggling somehow to explain. He believes that Steve believes he’s doing the right thing and that he isn’t withholding anything out of malice or spite. That on some level, he does want to explain things to Bucky. Knowing that in his bones—knowing Steve in his bones—helps, but it feels like it’s getting harder by the day.

“Soon, though?” he pleads. He needs the reassurance, even if it’s more of the same; even if it won’t stop the worst-case scenarios from popping up in his head.

“Soon, a ghrá,” Steve husks out. “I promise.”

Bucky shoots awake from a nightmare, pulse pounding, heart racing, drenched in cold sweat. It’s hazy somewhere in the back of his mind. Something about Steve, twisted up, furred skin splitting like a horror movie, Bucky reaching for him, trying to hold him together, but Steve is screaming

It goes on and Bucky knows it’s not in his head this time; knows that it’s real. It might even be the screaming that provoked his dream, and his first instinct is to reach for Steve just to be sure, to know that he’s there and safe… but the bed is empty. The place where Steve sleeps, where he belongs is still warm, so he can’t have been gone long. Which means it really could be him screaming, and Bucky has no idea why. He panics, tumbling out of the bed and nearly braining himself on the nightstand, too tangled in the sheets to brace himself properly. He fights his way out, nearly ripping the fabric before he’s free, and rushes for the door. He’s barely shoved it open when something barrels into him, throwing him off-balance for a moment and forcing him back into his room. He hears the door slam shut again as he regains his footing, lashing out to catch whoever it is that attacked him. His blow stops short just as the curtains slide open, letting in the little light there is to be had at first stirrings of dawn.

It’s Clint, he thinks, based on the general shape of him and what color Bucky can see. He’s blocked Bucky’s left strike quite nicely, even if his arm will probably bruise from the force of it. Bucky doesn’t spare time feeling bad about it—Clint should have known better than to startle him, and now he’s between Bucky and the exit. Between Bucky and Steve.

“Move,” he snarls, not bothering to be polite. He can hear his own voice tremble with both fear and anger, and it doesn’t come out quite as the fierce declaration he means it to be. “Move before I make you.”

“Can’t.” Clint anticipates Bucky’s next move and braces himself against the door, body-checking Bucky out of the way when he lunges for the knob. “Bucky, you can’t go out there.”

“Yes, I can! Get out of the way, Clint! I heard him and he needs help!”

“Heard who?” Clint’s bid for innocence is undermined by his stubborn refusal to let Bucky at the door. Friend or not, Bucky is seriously considering decking him to get him out of the way. But that might escalate; might get messy, because Clint obviously knows how to hold his own and is just as determined to keep Bucky inside this room as Bucky himself is to get out of it.

“Don’t play dumb. Steve! I heard Steve.”

The light is only a few shades brighter, but it’s enough to let Bucky see the grim set of Clint’s face as another scream tears through the hall outside, further away this time. Westward, Bucky realizes with a jolt. The sound is fading to the west, where he’s been banned from entering. How long has this been going on? Is that why he’s never been allowed there? Even after everything they’ve shared, Steve is still left to—what? Bucky doesn’t even know, but he knows now that Steve faces it alone.

Clint stands firm, face set in grim determination. “He’s fine.”

“You call that fine?!” Bucky sounds hysterical and he knows it, but he doesn’t care. The dream still lingers, Steve’s tortured eyes behind the swirls of black and silver, and he’s close, Bucky knows, just on the other side of the house—“I thought you were his friend! How can you just stand here like this?”

“Because this is what he wants,” Clint hisses angrily. “You think I like hearing that? I hate it just as much as you do, but this is something we can’t help with, so stand down.”

Another non-answer. He hates that it makes him feel suspicious of the people he loves. All at once he feels the fight drain out of him, leaving only resignation in its wake. This must have something to do with the ‘soon’ Steve keeps promising, but how ‘soon’ will it be before Steve comes to him with it? At least the screaming has stopped—or moved too far away for Bucky to hear, but he shakes that thought out of his head. “I’m trusting you,” he says instead, backing away from the door. “All of you,” he adds pointedly.

“Thank you.” Clint sags with relief. “I really didn’t want to fight you.” He stays where he is, though, still guarding the door. Bucky understands why, but it irritates him anyway.

“I’m taking a bath,” he snaps. What he wants to say is, ‘I’m not a child you need to babysit, so get the hell out of my room,’ but he knows that would just sound petulant, not to mention that he tried to fight his way out the door only a few short minutes ago. So he’ll go cool off. Literally. “And I won’t be eating breakfast. I need some air.”

“Sure thing,” Clint agrees easily. “We’ll be around. You know, whenever you’re ready.” He puts his hand on the door as if to go. Bucky guesses Clint is going to wait just on the other side in case of an escape attempt, but at the same time, he can’t really blame him. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry,” he says haltingly. “It’s gotta be tough, but… well, we’re glad you’re around. You, uh, make him happy, you know? Steve, he’s the kind of person who finds a way into your life, but he makes it hard for you to find one into his. But you’re the closest I’ve seen, so… thanks. For not giving up. He just needs time.” Clint looks to him pleadingly, silent question hovering between them.

Bucky turns his back without answering. “I just need to walk it off,” he says gruffly. “Got me up from a nightmare and it’s…” He takes a deep breath, holds it, and lets it out nice and slow. “I need to reset, you understand? So, I’m going to take my bath and then I’m going outside, maybe add to that stack of firewood, and get my head back together. Okay?”

“Whenever you’re ready,” Clint repeats. Bucky walks to the bathroom without waiting for Clint to leave, hearing only the click of the door.

A hot bath and then a cold rise wake him up; help him start shaking off the anger still clinging to him. Eating an apple, core and all, gets enough sugar into his bloodstream to improve his mood marginally. Taking his frustration out on some very unfortunate pieces of wood is even better.

By the time he’s done with that, he can almost call himself human again. Half a loaf of bread and some cold cuts aren’t what most people would call lunch, but it’ll do. He takes it from the kitchen without a second thought and decides to circle the grounds. There’s a forested area nearby and he doesn’t have to go very far into it before he loses sight of the house.

The forest is different from anything else in the house. It has none of the neatness of the gardens, or the carefully cultivated chaos of the atrium. It’s not even like his memories of the garden behind those closed doors, where the vegetation runs dense but colorful. Enough of the trees are evergreens that the canopy is still nice and thick, and the forest floor cushions his footfalls nicely. Everything is fine and dandy until he trips over a hidden root and staggers to regain his balance. He manages to hit the ground correctly, but he sticks his arm through a low shrub in the process. He’s lucky that it was his left on and not his right because he realizes quickly that it’s covered with thorns. Scowling, he retreats and finds somewhere to sit down and make sure he hasn’t accidentally scratched himself up anywhere else.

He’s fine except for a few of the dried twigs that detached and clung to his clothes. He doesn’t quite toss away the last one, instead balancing it on his knee while he pulls out his haphazard lunch and starts to eat. His eyes trace the shape of it almost meditatively, back and forth, skimming the outline of the thin thorns while a thought niggles at the back of his mind. He’s down to the last bite when the thought finally surfaces properly:

The lone occupant of the little vase on his nightstand, barbed and defiant and once so radiant, is dying. Whatever magic had been keeping the flower alive for so long has obviously worn out—it’s down to the last petal, and even that has only the most tenuous grip. It unfurled slowly for more than half a year before coming into full bloom, and it took months after that to lose the first petal. Actually, when the first one dropped, he’d panicked. He knows the rose is special—important, even—but he’s not completely sure how. Steve never explained it to him and no one else has ever commented on its presence. When he’d voiced his concerns to his lover, Steve had only kissed him and said that things were fine and not to worry. Bucky keeps each petal as it falls in a little box, faded and waiting for the last of their number to join them. Maybe it shouldn’t matter so much, especially if no one else seems perturbed, but Bucky can’t shake the feeling that something essential will change when it’s gone.

Everything passes, he reminds himself. Change isn’t always bad. He just has to ride out this feeling and have faith that something good waits on the other side.

Now to convince his heart of that.

He returns to the house before nightfall and makes his way to his room quietly, still unsettled but not quite as badly as before. He’s ready to see Steve; maybe try to explain the tangled-up feeling simmering low in his chest. But he’s had enough of the day to himself and not enough words to express how he feels, so when Steve shows up at Bucky’s door that night unsure of his reception, Bucky sets his own problems aside for later. Being a partner means being strong when the other isn’t, and right now Steve needs comfort as much as Bucky himself does. He’s taken Bucky’s absence to heart—while he’d honored Bucky’s wishes and given him time alone, he’s obviously worried that something more is amiss.

“I just needed to work through it, darlin’,” he explains softly. “I’m not mad.”

“I’m so sorry,” Steve repeats. He’s curled up with his head in Bucky’s lap—has been for the past half hour or so, while Bucky cards a hand through his hair. Even after telling himself that Steve is fine, that he would tell him if anything was truly wrong, Bucky finds that he needs to feel Steve; needs to be absolutely sure that he’s whole and hale. If he can’t convince himself of that, he might never be able to silence the echo of screams in his head.

He bends down until he can brush his lips against the silk of Steve’s hair. “I love you,” he murmurs. He wants to add that none of his distress is Steve’s fault, but Bucky doesn’t quite know if that’s true. He wants to believe it’s true, because he wants to believe that Steve would do everything in his power to help Bucky understand if he could. But he can’t be sure, and so he utters the only truth he knows will bring comfort. “I love you so much.”

In his lap, Steve rolls onto his back so he can crane his neck and catch Bucky’s lips in a kiss, soft and achingly sweet. Bucky cups a hand under Steve’s head to give him support and starts working his way down his lover’s body. He sweeps a line of feather-light kisses down Steve’s neck, sliding himself lower until he can reach Steve’s shoulders with his mouth to worry at the fabric he meets there. Under his hands he can feel Steve’s breath pick up, hitching as he responds to Bucky’s gentle ministrations.

Yes. This is what Bucky needs. He needs Steve’s pulse hard and fast against his. He needs to feel the heat of his body and put breath in his lungs; feel the strength of his grip and know that they’re here and real and true. He needs to know that Steve believes him when Bucky says that he loves him and that he’s here to stay, contract or not—needs to press it into Steve’s flesh until it sinks down into his bones.

“Bed,” he husks. He waits for Steve’s moan of agreement before standing up, grabbing Steve before he can spill to the floor and all but dragging him in the direction of the bed. They’re a tangle limbs and hushed moans and kisses, Steve tugging at Bucky’s shirt until it’s swept off his body. He shivers at the chill of cool air against the seam of his arm and Steve palms the flesh and metal there in apology, running fingers up and down the join until they come to an abrupt stop at the edge of the mattress. Bucky growls happily against Steve’s mouth, “Hold on,” and grabs a fistful of Steve’s shirt, hooking a leg behind his and twisting his hips until he feels Steve tense and then relax suddenly, letting Bucky control his movement as he falls. Bucky doesn’t let him fall far, sweeping his other arm under Steve’s back to ease him onto the bed before hastily shedding his pants and crawling in after him, settling into the cradle of Steve’s hips.

Steve whimpers and arcs up into Bucky’s touch, soft fabric of his pants rubbing against Bucky’s bare skin. Running blunt nails lightly up Steve’s sides, Bucky works his hands under his lover’s shirt and follows it with his mouth, soft kisses and kitten-licks trailing in his wake. He stops for a moment to give Steve’s chest the attention it deserves, nipping lightly at the skin there and pausing with his lips over the reassuring beat of Steve’s heart. Steve sighs happily and cradles the back of Bucky’s head against him until the brunet urges him to curl upward so they can shed his shirt together, casting it aside without a second thought. They lose a few minutes to kissing, caressing and exploring each other like they haven’t done this a hundred times before, like it’s new again. But better, maybe, because it’s all of the wonder without any of the uncertainty and they can touch with the confidence of knowing the other will like it, will want more.

Soon enough, Bucky finds himself grinding down while Steve anchors them together with a leg twined around his, using the leverage to urge Bucky on. Bucky stills Steve’s hips, pinning him to the bed with a firm hand until he breaks the kiss of his own accord, panting and squirming, body pleading wordlessly for more. As soon as Steve’s body stills, Bucky slips a careful hand under his ass, cupping the firm muscle there and kneading it suggestively, making a little questioning noise in the back of his throat. Steve nods furiously and, when that doesn’t get him what he wants, pointedly unbuttons his own flies and makes room for Bucky to get a proper grip on his ass. Charmed, Bucky chuckles and reaches across him for the things stashed up by the headboard, letting go of Steve long enough to let him finish taking off his pants. Bucky can hear them hit the floor over the side of the bed, but it barely registers because he can feel Steve reaching for him again. Practice makes it easy for him to insinuate a towel between Steve and the bed, sucking at the thin skin at the crease of his thigh to distract him from the slide of cloth. It’s on the tip of his tongue to ask if Steve is sure when the other man presses the bottle of lube into his hand.

“I guess that answers my question,” Bucky murmurs, already warming some up on his fingers as he slides down Steve’s body. He ignores the shiver that goes through Steve at the subtle vibrations of Bucky’s voice across his skin in favor taking Steve’s cock into hand, steadying it so Bucky can huff a teasing breath across the tip and flicks his tongue out for a taste. He hums in satisfaction before giving Steve a few teasing pumps with his hand, making sure to roll the foreskin over the head in a way that he knows makes Steve weak at the knees. It does the job, making Steve splay his legs out wider to properly accommodate the width of Bucky’s shoulders and give him access to absolutely all of him.

Bucky takes a slow breath before swallowing Steve down as much as he dares on the first go. It’s all he can do not to moan around his mouthful, salt and musk and clean skin on his tongue, the scent of Steve all around him. He bobs his head and adds just enough suction to make Steve cry out inarticulately, hands scrabbling at the sheets for purchase. Bucky pops off to breathe and smiles, kissing Steve’s hip and then diving back in, massaging his tongue down the shaft and carefully opening his throat, trying to get the right angle to let it slip down for just a few moments. Steve whimpers and tries hard not to move, body thrumming with contained energy. Bucky backs off enough to breathe deeply through his nose, and presses a finger against Steve’s ass in warning, giving him another opportunity to back out. But Steve just nudges at Bucky’s arm with one leg and squeezes out a breathless, “Please.”

Bucky wastes no time in taking Steve back into his mouth, pacing himself to keep from choking but keeping as much of Steve inside his throat as he can. A second finger slips into Steve smoothly, eliciting a slightly deeper moan and another shift of his hips that he quickly stills of his own accord. His legs start to tremble and every time Bucky backs off to catch his breath or let Steve adjust, he turns his head to brush his lips against whatever part of Steve is closest—his knee, his thigh, his hip. When Steve is ready to take a third finger, Bucky picks up the pace. He hums and strokes carefully with his fingers inside Steve until he jolts and cries out; until he starts tapping urgently at Bucky’s hand, patting his face, even tugging a little at his hair trying to get his attention between sharp gasps of pleasure.

“Bucky, Bucky, I’m… I’ll.. Slow down, a ghrá, or I’ll—”

Bucky curls his fingers and spreads them slightly, twists his wrist just so and relaxes his throat just in time for Steve to bow off the bed, shouting as his orgasm consumes him. Not for the first time, Bucky wishes he could see what Steve looks like when he comes, but he pushes the thought out of his head quickly. This is about what they have, not what they don’t have, and Bucky gentles Steve through the aftershocks before swallowing and wiping his hand on the towel, crawling back up Steve’s body to nuzzle his temple.

“Turn over for me, Stevie. ‘Less you’re done for the night, sweetheart, and that’s okay.”

Steve starts shaking his head as soon as he hears the word ‘done.’ “I can do this all night.”

Bucky can feel the smirk that pulls at Steve’s lips and smiles back, getting up just long enough to help Steve onto his stomach. Bucky has to reach back for the lube, warming it again before making sure Steve is prepped enough. He uses the rest to coat his cock and presses his grin into Steve’s shoulder when he feels his lover arch his back and spread his legs invitingly. He feels around and lines himself up with Steve, trembling with anticipation as Steve pushes back against him, saying louder than words that he’s ready and tired of waiting. Steve has to be oversensitive still, but he knows his own body best so Bucky hooks his left arm around Steve’s stomach to take the pressure off his hips and uses his grip to help him slide in.

It’s perfect.

He has to pause for a moment, shuddering and pressing his forehead tight to Steve’s back to ground himself. God, Steve’s body welcomes him in so sweetly. He wants to cry with how perfect it is, rocking in and out until he’s fully seated. Steve’s muscles ripple under him as he accommodates Bucky’s weight, shifting to get more comfortable and spreading wider so that Bucky can press even deeper into his body. Bucky repositions so that his flesh hand can cup Steve’s still-soft cock protectively and keep it from chafing against the towel under them. Steve moans as Bucky ruts into him again, small movements that keep him deep and the two men pressed together as tight as they both crave. Bucky keeps up the steady roll of his hips until he feels Steve’s cock start to harden again in his hand.

Bucky can taste the clean salt of sweat under his lips when he mouths at the back of Steve’s neck, letting the other man get his knees underneath him so Bucky can fuck into him properly. He’s still face-down on the bed, head turned to the side so that Bucky can hear the little breaths pushed out of him to the rhythm of their increasingly frantic lovemaking. Bucky noses around Steve’s back, up his spine until he finds the exact spot between his shoulders that drives Steve wild and bites. It’s firm but not vicious and he scrapes his teeth over that spot as Steve shudders and bucks, clawing at the sheets and gasping for more. Bucky sucks at the area with a wicked smile just to hear the music of Steve whining and calling his name before giving him a reprieve, moving on to Steve’s shoulders and grabbing at his hips to pull him more firmly onto his cock. Steve is well and truly hard now, breathing labored and cock hard and heavy between his legs, full and beading with pre-come when Bucky slips a hand down to check. Steve twists in his grip again, trying to get more stimulation, trying to get Bucky to move faster or drive deeper or—

Bucky braces an arm around Steve’s waist and buries himself into Steve as deep as he can, rearing back, muscles straining as he lifts Steve with him, still seated firmly in Steve’s body. Bucky drags his hands down Steve’s sides until he can fit them around his trim waist; leans in and whispers, “Go on, sweetheart,” and that’s all Steve needs to lift himself up and drop down with a satisfied moan, letting gravity help him take more of Bucky deeper, harder. Bucky starts using his grip on Steve’s waist to pull him down faster, snapping his own hips up to meet him. Steve’s hands fly to Bucky’s for a moment, then he reaches around himself to grasp for Bucky’s shoulder, his hair, his leg, anything to hold on to while Bucky pumps into him fiercely. He finally settles with one hand on Bucky’s hand and one gripping his thigh, feeling the coil and movement of the muscles there. Bucky gives Steve what he wants, reaching forward to grab his cock and jerk him off tight and fast the way he likes it.

And then he stops.

Steve tries to move again, brain lagging behind for a moment while it tries to process why they’ve stopped, but Bucky lets go of Steve’s cock and locks his metal arm around his waist, pushing him hard into his lap and refusing to move. When Steve tries to touch himself, Bucky bats his hand away, catching his wrist and giving it a warning squeeze.

“Why?” Steve squirms, trying to get it back—the friction or the movement or the slide of Bucky in and out of his body—but Bucky just shushes him gently. “Bucky, why? Please, I’m so close!”

Bucky shushes him again, tugging at Steve’s hand until he can lean over and kiss it, brushing his lips soothingly over the backs of Steve’s knuckles. Letting go, he strokes along Steve’s sides and across his chest, rubbing and kneading, massaging until he feels Steve’s breathing calm down. Then he moves his hands and Steve has half a second to brace before Bucky lifts him almost all the way off and yanks him back down, startling a cry of pure pleasure from his lips. He gets a firm grip on Steve’s cock and lets their motion push him into the circle of Bucky’s hand, slick with sweat and lube and pre-come. Steve’s pulse races and his muscles ripple and clench all around Bucky’s cock, reluctant to let go and eager to keep him deep inside Steve where he belongs. The heat and softness are too much and not enough. Steve cradled in his arms gripping at him hard enough to bruise is not enough. The cracked cries bubbling from Steve’s lips and spilling into the darkness of their chambers are not enough.

He stops again just as suddenly as he started and this time Steve sobs his frustration, keening and cursing and pushing against the unyielding strength of Bucky’s metal arm. Bucky lets him, murmuring endearments and praise in equal measure, nuzzling his nose just behind Steve’s ear so he can nibble at the lobe, trying to bring Steve’s attention back. Finally, his lover lets Bucky bear his weight, leaning back until his head lolls on Bucky’s shoulder and they can trade sloppy kisses, doing little more than touching lips and breathing into each other’s mouths.

“You’re so wonderful, Stevie. You’re perfect. There’s not anything you could be, anything you could do that would change that, darlin’. Do you hear me? It’s everything or nothing, you said, and I’m asking for everything.” Bucky is so far gone that he almost doesn’t know what he’s saying. He’s so close to his climax that he can taste it, but first he wants push them so hard that the heat clinging to the air around them softens their edges and melds them into something new. Bucky slides his hand up Steve’s chest until Steve tilts his head back to expose the smooth column of his neck. Bucky nuzzles into the space there, fitting the way everything about Steve seems to fit him neatly, and lets his lips rest feather-light against Steve’s pulse so he can feel it pound bold and sure against him. His hand settles lightly at the base of Steve’s throat, right above his collarbones. It’s just enough that Bucky imagines he can feel the air as it moves through Steve’s throat and into his lungs, breath after breath. Steve reaches up to cover Bucky’s hands with his own, holding him closer the only way he can.

“I love you,” Steve sighs. His breath still comes too fast and choppy and he can’t seem to stop trembling, but he trusts Bucky in this. Trusts that wherever this is going, they’ll get there together. “I love you so much, my beautiful heart. Do you know this? You make the years worth living. I’ve never—ah!

Steve cries out when Bucky thrusts again, hard enough to jolt them both, hard enough to force Steve off of him for a moment, pulling out almost all the way before Steve falls back again into Bucky’s lap. Bucky is helpless to stop this time, too sensitized, too close, too swamped with emotion to know anything other than the hot clutch of Steve’s body around him and the wild thrum of his pulse under Bucky’s lips. Steve has no choice but to hold on as best he can while Bucky finds the angle he wants, on his knees with Steve’s legs spread wide around him, cock grinding relentlessly into Steve’s sweet spot. Steve starts to shake, muscles tightening, and Bucky reaches down in time to feel Steve’s cock stiffen that impossible fraction before it pulses and spurts in his hand. Steve freezes, breath caught in his lungs for long moments before leaving him all at once in a strangled cry that vibrates straight through Bucky’s body and catapults him over the edge.

Steve catches on quickly and flexes his muscles until it feels like he’s milking Bucky for everything he has to give, the ripple and clench of Steve’s ass around him almost too much to bear. He still has a hand on Steve’s cock, weakly working him through the aftershocks until Steve pushes his hand away, twisting around to kiss him. It’s a proper kiss this time, breathless and artless, but real.

Bucky’s lips quirk up in an exhausted grin, although it turns into a grimace of discomfort as Steve pulls away from him and Bucky slides out, soft and wet. But however uncomfortable it is for Bucky, Steve must be worse. He braces Steve before he can collapse onto the bed and grabs the towel first, giving a perfunctory swipe up Steve’s chest and then between his legs before he lets him fall onto a pillow with a sated sigh. Bucky retreats to the bathroom to wet the towel from the wash basin he keeps for just this reason. The water is cool by now but he uses it anyway, washing himself off quickly and wetting another portion of it. This time he holds it close to his chest so that by the time he reaches Steve, it’s at least marginally warmer. Steve lets Bucky dote on him, making sure he’s clean and offering him something to drink. Steve refuses the drink but rolls onto his back so that Bucky can slide into bed next to him.

Bucky rolls onto his side and hooks his head over Steve’s shoulder, placing his hand atop Steve’s heart. Steve wordlessly laces their fingers together, turning to brush a sleepy kiss to the crown of Bucky’s head.

“I love you,” Bucky says again.

“I love you too,” Steve murmurs, words already slurred with sleep. “More than the sun and moon… and all the stars in the sky, a ghrá.”

Bucky listens to Steve breathe for a while longer, mulling over his words. Love stronger than the sun. He glances at the curtained window, the afterglow of their lovemaking vanishing. Whatever it is that made Steve sound like that yesterday will likely happen again soon, when the sun starts its trek across the sky. By Bucky’s reckoning, that’s still at least four hours from now, and Steve will likely sleep through most of them.

Decision made, Bucky waits another half hour to be sure his lover won’t wake up. He unwraps himself from around Steve’s body slowly enough not to disturb him before sliding out of the bed, body thrumming with nerves as he slides open the bottom drawer of his nightstand to pull out the candle. It smells faintly of honey and beeswax, and he has to feel around for a little while to make sure the wick is right-side up and clear of wax. The matches are next, and he removes one before making his way to the opposite side of the bed.

The wick catches on the first try. Bucky snuffs out the match quickly and moves the candle closer to the bed. It’ll only be for a moment, he tells himself. Just a glimpse. Whatever he sees won’t change how he feels, but he just wants to know

Illustration by sianimations

Steve is not only human, but beautiful. Bucky takes him in, committing every line of Steve’s body to memory. He’s as tall and muscular as Bucky thought, with broad shoulders and a surprisingly trim waist. He’s lying on his back, one arm draped across his chest, and Bucky can still feel the heat of Steve’s body against his; the reassuring solidity of him as he’d cuddled close. Steve’s other arm rests atop the covers, hand palm-up and lax, showing off the strong, lithe fingers of an artist. He looks… peaceful. Almost happy, in a way Bucky knows he hasn’t seen in the daylight. He sits on the bed and leans in for a closer look, moving the candle to his left hand so he can softly push aside a stray piece of Steve’s hair, strands catching like molten gold in the light. Everything about Steve as a human is both foreign and sweetly, achingly familiar. It’s surreal, how much he both knows and doesn’t know the man sleeping in front of him—Bucky’s eyes have until now only ever known the form of the Beast, but his body knows Steve as he is in the shelter of candlelight. The only thing missing is the bright blue of Steve’s gaze, but Bucky already knows what that looks like, even if not set in this face. He imagines it for a moment: Steve gazing up at him from under the dark sweep of lashes, eyes shining with the love he so easily gives. He’d gaze up at him and say,


Pulling back, Bucky realizes too late that Steve had shifted in his sleep. His hand, which had been fanned against his chest moments before, now reaches across to press against his opposite shoulder. Bucky looks down at the candle, noticing only now that he’d ignored the phantom sensation of heat on his metal hand; that the wax had pooled in his grip until it overflowed onto Steve’s skin. He struggles for words, to find anything to say, to speak

Steve blinks owlishly up at him, confused but content until another bead of wax drips hot onto the back of his hand. Steve’s expression falls as he pushes himself up and looks at his own skin, at the bluntness of his nails, at the nakedness of his flesh. “Oh, Bucky, what have you done?”

“I’m sorry! I—”

Something cracks. Literally, maybe, but the sound whips through the air like a physical thing, ringing in Bucky’s head and in his bones. Steve recoils too, clutching at his chest now like it’s something inside him that caused the sound, something snapping into pieces.

“Steve, what’s wrong?” Bucky reaches out to steady him, to check for damage, but it’s like touching a hot brand. He pulls away with a hiss and Steve looks at him mournfully.

“One more day and I would have been free.”

“What are you talking about?” The curtains rip violently back and the windows slam open, wind cutting through the room so fast that it smothers the candle. Bright moonlight, silver and cold, takes its place.

“A bargain from one of the Fair Ones, to find love and prove it true until the last petal on the rose falls—a year and a day, from bloom to bare.”

“What? What does that mean?”

“If I failed, I’d have to wed her instead. And fail I did.” The wind is so loud that it howls through the room and down the corridors until Steve has to shout to be heard over it. “I’m so sorry, a ghrá. I love you.” He manages to press his lips to Bucky’s for the space of a single, searing heartbeat before the wind rips them apart, screaming like a mad thing. The force of it presses Bucky to the ground no matter how hard he fights it; claws at his skin and fills his ears and makes his eyes water until the world is a shadowed blur.

Bucky has no idea how long it takes for the wind to die, but when it does, he’s alone.

Chapter Text

The house is gone. Most of it, anyway. When he’s finally able to lift his head and look around, he’s in a room with an uneven stone floor, weeds poking periodically between the cracks. He works the leftover candle wax out of the joints of his metal hand while he tries to get his bearings. A low ring of stone in the shape of a circular basin finally tells him where he is—Steve’s garden. Where the rose grew once upon a time, before Steve entrusted it in Bucky’s care. He looks around at the skeletal ruins of the place he lived for the last year and a half. Steve’s trust, Bucky thinks bitterly to himself, was misplaced.

He finds a pair of his pants just inside the basin. They look clean, but even if they hadn’t, it’s October and too cold to walk around naked. Instinct has him calling Steve’s name, even though he knows somehow that Steve isn’t there anymore. His absence is like a physical ache behind Bucky’s ribs, but that doesn’t stop him from trying.


Despite the waning moon, the sky is clear and the light is bright enough that he can see where the hall used to be, though precious little of it is left. In fact, most of the west wing is gone save the garden and jagged rubble of the walls, like a giant grabbed a handful of the house and ripped it away. From here, he can tell that the east wing is torn open but intact; a rotting, cutaway of a model home. And it’s old, too. As though it’s been this way for hundreds of years instead of standing tall less than half an hour before. Trees and shrubs push up against what’s left of the floorboards and moss softens the crumbling edges of walls.

“Natasha! Clint!” He’s in shock, he thinks. Everything feels surreal—or is that just an effect of the moonlight?—and he starts to panic because he has no idea where his friends are; where his men are. Where are his men? He can’t leave them—


Bucky whips around at the sound of a voice, body tensing even as his mind races to catch up. He knows that voice. That’s—

“Clint,” he breathes. Clint scrambles through what’s left of the library and meets Bucky halfway, hugging him unashamedly before grabbing him by the shoulders to hold him an arms-length away, visibly checking him over for wounds. Bucky doesn’t bother to pretend he’s not doing the same, though if anything Clint seems to be in better shape than Bucky himself is. Clint, at least, is wearing a full set of clothing.

“What the hell happened?” Clint asks breathlessly. He yanks Bucky to a corner of the ruined house that provides some shelter from the wind, wedging himself close to Bucky’s side to provide warmth.

Bucky tells him as much as he knows. He tells him about his visit home and Steve’s request not to bring anything back; about Becca’s concern and the candle Bucky smuggled in on her insistence; about hearing the screaming and not knowing what to do. He tells him about lighting the candle and getting to see Steve for the first—and last—time. “I don’t know what he meant, though. ‘One more day’? Who’s he going to marry?”

Clint heaves a sigh and straightens up. “It’s probably another three hours until dawn, so we’ll have to find something keep you warm until then. I’ll explain what I can while we look.

“Steve’s been around for a long time. I mean, we all have, but Steve kind of took me and Tasha in, I guess you could say. But for as long as we’ve known him, he’s had this curse. I don’t know the exact circumstances, but he had one shot at breaking it: he had to find someone to fall in love with and give them that rose. Then that person had to love them without ever looking at his true face until that flower died, a year and a day later. If he never finds someone, or if the rules get broken, he has to go back and marry the person who put the curse on him in the first place.”

“So why didn’t he just tell me?”

“He couldn’t. Physically. Curse wouldn’t let him. He had to have faith that you’d stick to the rules and not look.”

“So this is my fault.” Clint hadn’t been accusing him, but even if he had, Bucky has no defense. Because it is, objectively, his fault. If he hadn’t looked; if he’d just listened when Steve had asked him to wait…

“Hey, no, wait. I didn’t say that!” Clint stops what he’s doing so he can turn around and glare at Bucky. “Damn, you two are cut from the same cloth. Look, sure, if you’d waited like, a day this would have turned out differently. But there was no way for you to know that! I get that love is about faith or trust or whatever, but he wasn’t giving you a whole lot of work with, and I know that starts to run thin after a while. And you’re human! You’re going to make mistakes. We all make mistakes. In fact, Steve, Natasha, me… our mistakes landed us all here in the first place. It’s what you do after that matters.”

Bucky stops too, taken aback.

“And now you made me give a speech! I hate speeches,” Clint grumbles. “Look, I’m trying to say that finding someone to blame isn’t going to fix anything, even if that someone is yourself. Especially if that someone is yourself.”

“Okay, so…” Bucky bites at his bottom lip, chewing it in thought. “So, I fix it. Right. How?”

“Man, I don’t know. But Tasha might.”

Bucky’s eyes snap to Clint’s immediately. “Natasha’s okay?”

“Probably.” Clint shrugs, still sorting through things to find something Bucky can wear so he doesn’t freeze to death. “But we’d have to find her first. I have an idea, but it’ll have to wait for morning.”

They manage to find a few items in the rubble in conditions ranging for rotting to pristine, but Bucky has no idea why. It isn’t until Clint holds up a rectangle of fabric in triumph that Bucky even thinks to ask him.

“I knew she made this!” Clint crows. He shakes it out and hands it to Bucky to wrap up in for now. “Tasha said she hadn’t woven anything since becoming a spider, but I knew that was a lie.”

“And this is definitive proof, somehow?”

Clint has gone back to poking through the house, but he talks as he wanders around. “Yeah. If it was made by the enchantment, it would’ve started to fall apart. I mean, that seems to be what’s happening. But if someone else actually, physically made it, it’s stuck around.”

Bucky thinks about what that means as they wander through. A painting with bright colors but a faded canvas—Steve must have created that. Some carved ornamental pieces on mantles or door lintels. The heavy perch Bucky made for Clint last Christmas stands completely unscathed. They do find a few more of Bucky’s things lying around, but the prize is the navy-blue wool coat Steve gave him last year. Not a single stitch is out of place, though the garment itself is pooled on the floor where it fell from a rotten wall-peg. Even the buttons are still perfect. He thought that maybe Steve had it created or purchased or whatever he did to produce most of Bucky’s clothes, but it looks like it was made by hand. Steve’s hand, because Bucky knows him well enough to know he’d never ask Clint or Natasha to do something like this on his behalf.

He helps Clint gather enough dry brush to make a small fire. They never do find Bucky’s matches, but Clint seems undeterred. He hunts along the ground and comes back with a variety of rocks, then yanks a small knife out of his pocket and starts experimenting. He goes through three of the rocks before he seems to find something he likes—Bucky can tell because Clint doesn’t curse at it and throw it over his shoulder. Instead, he pushes his tinder together and starts striking, getting a few sparks on his fourth try and an actual flame going on his fifth.

Bucky means to sit up and help tend the fire. He doesn’t think he can sleep anyway, mind inundated with new information and emotions still keyed-up, but the next thing he knows he’s curled up on his side and blinking into daylight. Clint is gone, but Bucky doesn’t have much time to panic before he sees him. Human. It’s definitely well past sunrise and Clint is still as human as it gets, although now he has a bow in one hand and a sack in the other.

“And he awakens. I found some stuff that I think will help. And some of Tasha’s bread. I mean, I found it in the dirt, but it’s better than actually eating dirt, so I figured you’d appreciate it.”

“And a bow,” Bucky observes, accepting half a loaf from Clint. It’s odd to watch Clint eat with actual hands and a regular mouth. “Where did you even get a bow?”

“I found a couple arrows, too,” Clint tells him proudly. “Must have survived from the armory upstairs. I also found—” Clint upends his haul onto the ground between them: Bucky’s shoes, a few shirts, his wallet and keys, his cell phone, of all things, and a box he doesn’t recognize. The flower inside it, though, he would know in his sleep. The last petal still clings to the rose, both taunting and soothing. After a few moments, he tugs the petal free, then opens the little locket still around his wrist and closes the petal inside. The locket itself must be something else Steve made, although the braided leather holding it to his wrist is now cracked with age.

When he looks up, Clint is busy inspecting arrows, checking the fletching and the straightness of the shafts. The last thing in the pile is a book—an atlas, to be more specific. It’s lost several pages and even more are damaged with age and water, but some of the illustrations are recognizable. Before Bucky can wonder what Clint wants with a book, the other man speaks up. “I need you to find a map.”

“Okay…” Bucky winces when opening the book results in a dry popping sound and more pages falling out. “What kind of map?”

“Map of the world. Or all the parts of the world, even if they’re different pages. Whatever you can find, really, so long as it covers—”

“—the whole world. I got it.” It takes a little while, but Bucky manages to find a few pages that are still mostly whole depicting each continent. He helps Clint lay them out in roughly the correct regions and weigh each page down at the corners with rocks. “Now what?”

“Now, we use this.” Clint holds up his forefinger smugly. When Bucky’s expression doesn’t change, he sighs and gets closer, until Bucky can see a thin, shining strand wrapped around the space between his second and third joints.

“Is that hair?” And at Clint’s nod, Bucky continues, “And you just carry this kind of thing around?”

“What? No! That’d be disturbing even for me. I found it.”

“You found a single hair in all of this,” Bucky deadpans, gesturing to the ruins and encroaching forest all around them.

“Tracking things used to be part of my job, and I was good at it.” He gestures for Bucky to follow and starts walking roughly east, where the foliage is thinner. When they’ve walked far enough that they can no longer see their camp, Clint stops and holds his bow out for Bucky to hold, then starts fiddling with the arrow he brought.

“Sorry, are we going hunting?” Bucky asks incredulously.

Clint turns and gives him an astonished look. “Why the hell would we do that? I thought you wanted to find Steve.” He gestures impatiently for the bow.

“You’re the one standing out here with a bow and arrow!”

“Yeah, so we can find Tasha, so you can find Steve.”

“With a bow and arrow.”

“Yup. See, I tie Tasha’s hair around this arrow,” he shows Bucky where the hair has been wrapped and tied just below the arrowhead, “and fire it at those maps…” He takes a stance, drawing the bow tight and sighting down the shaft, then abruptly aims up and releases the string. “And we see where it lands.”

“You fired it straight up into the air.”

“I never miss my mark.” Clint leads the trek back to camp. Sure enough, the arrow pierces one of the maps, Natasha’s red hair still glinting in the light. Clint yanks it out of the ground, then picks up the map and shakes it out. Bucky leans in to inspect the hole left behind. “And it looks like she’s in Saint Petersburg, Russia.”

“And this whole arrow thing really works?” Bucky takes the map from Clint skeptically, inspecting it himself. The hole punched through the map is unmistakably on top of the city.

“Man, how should I know? I’m a hunter, not a sorcerer.” He shrugs when Bucky just glares at him. “Do you have a better idea?”

Bucky really doesn’t. “When I get there, how am I supposed to find her? Saint Petersburg is huge.”

“Honestly, she will probably find you. Either way, you’re on your own for that one. There’s no way you’re getting me inside one of those airplanes.”

Bucky can’t disagree about Natasha finding him. She’s uncanny like that. But— “Clint, you’re a bird. You fly all the time.”

“First, I was only a bird sometimes. And second, that was on my own power. I’m not going to trust my life to a giant, flying, metal, death-tube.”

Bucky scowls, but he can’t really disagree. He’s known plenty of people with that exact same opinion. “Okay, so you’re not coming with me. But even so, how do you propose I get to an airport?”

Clint beams proudly. “I told you I was great at my job, didn’t I?” He tosses something to Bucky, who catches it easily. “Found your bike. And I call shotgun.”

He looks down at the keys in his hand, then back up at Clint’s grinning face, full of optimism and hope. He’s got friends, a plan, and Steve to rescue. This isn’t the time to second-guess himself—this is the time to act. He grabs the sack of their things and stomps out the rest of the fire.

“Let’s go.”

He’s on a mission, and there’s no room for failure. No room for doubt, or anxiety, or anything that’s not finding Steve. But that doesn’t mean those things don’t creep up on him. Sixteen hours is a sizable amount of time to spend cooped up on a plane with nothing but his thoughts for company. In that span of time he’s had three panic attacks and run the emotional gamut from anger at himself and at Steve, disbelief, blame on himself and everyone else, sadness, self-pity, and finally back to exhausted determination. It’s the last one he clings to—that and the seed of hope that refuses to be dislodged from his heart. Everything else he shoves from his mind now that he’s here, boots on the ground of Saint Petersburg. And somehow, he has to find a single redhead in a city of more than five million people.

No room for doubt. Right.

He figures that the first step is to go downtown, where the highest concentration of people will be. Maybe find someplace to grab a shower and a couple hours of rest, then go back out on foot to comb the city. Part of him wants to wander the streets calling for Natasha, but he won’t because 1) She’s neither a child nor a lost pet, and 2) He’s in Russia and there are probably dozens of Natashas in yelling distance, even in the tourist areas. Well, he’ll call it Plan B for now.

Finding a hotel isn’t hard, and he’s back outside only four hours later with his backpack and a giant cup of coffee in tow. Another two hours later and Plan B is looking more and more attractive by the minute. He’s walked from the Square to the Admiralty slowly, inspecting the faces around him as closely as he dares without drawing suspicion to himself, and his feet are freezing through his shoes. His nose feels like it’s about to fall off his face and his throat is only warm because he wrapped Natasha’s scarf around his shoulders and neck and flipped the collar of his coat up, fastening the latch to keep it snug. To top it off, it’s only just occurred to him that it’s possible to miss Natasha because he’s been moving around so much, and that it’s possible that sitting in the Square and people-watching would yield better results. Angry with himself and the wasted time, he turns back towards the hotel—and stops.

“Hello, stranger.” Natasha’s hair blazes bright red above the black peacoat hugging her body, both things accentuating the smirk tugging at her lips. She removes one glove and holds up her hand, moving it as though flashing him a ring. Around her forefinger winds a length of dark yellow thread, the exact color of the shawl Bucky has wrapped around his neck. “I think you have something of mine.”

Bucky hates crying. He really, really does. But he’s so relieved right now that he kind of wants to. Natasha must see it on his face because she just leans in and hugs him awkwardly around the shoulders. “We’ll get him back, James.”

She tugs her glove back on and takes Bucky’s arm in a firm grip. “Now, talk and walk at the same time. Tell me everything that happened.”

Bucky does. He tells her everything he told Clint, from his suspicion to the eerie wind, and then what happened after. She pries even more out of him; details of that night he hadn’t even realized he’d remembered. When it seems she’s heard enough, she twists her lips in thought.

“So, we need to find Steve before he and this Lady get married,” Natasha sums up.

“If they aren’t already.” That’s one of the things Bucky’s had time to worry about on his flight over—what if he’s too late? What if Steve married this Fair Folk person as soon as he’d vanished? It’s been two days now, and Bucky has no idea what he’s up against or what kind of timeline he’s racing.

“They won’t be.” Natasha glances at him, taking in the skeptical look he shoots her way. “They’re all about transitions, the aes sídhe—change, renewal, rebirth. So, starting a new life as a couple? I’d bet my life that it won’t be done until the new moon, meaning you still have about three days.”

“How do you know all this?”

“I’ve been around for a while. Not as long as Steve, but long enough.”

“And how long is that?” He’s wanted to ask this for a while, but somehow it never seemed like the right time. With everything falling apart around him, though, there may never be a better one.

She raises an eyebrow at him. “It’s rude to ask a lady her age. But I’ve seen at least one other century than this one. Now stop prying. We have more pressing matters.”

Bucky leads them to the room he rented out, fumbling a few times before he manages to actually get the door open. The room is blissfully warm, and he sheds layers so he can pry off his frozen boots with a sigh.

“You’re not dressed for this at all.” Natasha hangs her coat up neatly and holds a hand out for her shawl, which Bucky is still wearing. She shakes it out and smiles, folding it until the embroidery Bucky noticed is face-up, threads dark against the yellow fabric. “Putting it over your heart was a good idea,” she tells him approvingly, fingers tracing the outline.

“I’d take credit, but it was coincidental. I just needed to keep my neck warm.” He avoids the bed because if he gets on it he knows he’ll just lie down and fall asleep. With only three days and no location on Steve, he doesn’t have time for sleep. “What’s the next move?”

“We need something of Steve’s. The closer to him the better.” She sighs, expression suddenly pinched. “That means going back to the house and hoping Clint can find something.”

And they’ll lose two days on that alone, Bucky knows. He leans against the wall and covers his eyes with his hand, trying to think. A sudden spot of cold taps against his lip and he startles, opening his eyes and focusing on the round of metal dangling from his wrist. Cloudy with cold, the dark silver hangs innocently. He has to watch his breath to control the shaking of his hands while he fights to get the bracelet off, prying open the locket to get at its contents. He manages to catch the petal sandwiched there before it falls, tucking it securely into the palm of his hand before flipping it around to show Natasha. Snow-white fur practically glows behind the clear crystal inside. “Will this do?”

She comes closer to see, not touching but scrutinizing the charm so closely that Bucky makes a little gesture indicating that she can hold it herself. But she steps back, shaking her head. “If Steve gave that to you, it’s because you matter to him very much.”

“My sister called it a lover’s token,” Bucky confesses reluctantly.

“It is. And he gave it to you to keep. He gave you a private part of himself, James—don’t treat it so casually.”

Bucky wants to protest that Natasha is a friend, that he would have kept an eye on it the whole time, and that these are dire circumstances. But he takes her meaning, holding his tongue while he closes his hand around the locket and cradles it to his chest. She gives him an approving smile. “That being said, these are exceptional times. I need at least half of what you have there.” She moves around the room as she talks, pushing furniture around while he works at prying open the clear panel of his locket. He decides to keep a third of the braid for himself but stops short when he realizes that he has nothing to secure Natasha’s portion.

Natasha seems to realize his dilemma, pausing in her task of shoving a bed upright against a wall to help him. Her deft fingers re-braid his section into something thinner, closing the ends with the original thread. Taking her own bundle, she sits on top of the desk in the corner of the room and unwinds the yellow thread around her finger. While she works, Bucky carefully folds the flower petal until he can wedge it into the back of the locket before coiling what remains of the fur on top of it and popping the crystal panel back in place.

Meanwhile, Natasha is just finishing up her task. She’s looped the fur carefully and bound it in a thread from her shawl until it almost forms a star shape. When she sets it next to the embroidery of her folded shawl, the similarity jumps out at him—it’s a doll, cruder in shape than the wooden girl stitched into the fabric, but a doll just the same. Although she sees him looking, Natasha only says, “We need enough room on the floor for us to sit, plus a large map. I’ll be back soon.”

Bucky sets to it, carefully tilting the beds on their sides and shifting things into the small bathroom. He’s almost done when Natasha gets back, a folded map and lighter in tow. She immediately lays everything out and starts flattening the map as much as she can. Bucky helps her until she seems satisfied. Shuffling over to the desk, she picks up the little doll of fur and balances it on top of the depiction of Russia, then lights its spindly legs on fire. Bucky starts to protest—won’t the whole thing just go up in flames?—but she shushes him, eyes intent.

Instead of the moving down to consume the dry paper underneath it, the fire flashes and burns down low, eating the fur like it’s wood and not hair at all. Natasha leans in close and huffs a soft breath over the growing pile of ash. To Bucky’s awe, instead of puffing into the air or pushing away in an arc, the doll skids across the map, trailing ash to make a thin line heading east. He holds his own breath while she continues to blow on the rapidly-crumbling fur, pushing it around the map with complete disregard for the hills and dips of the crinkled paper until the line stops moving as though it’s hit an invisible wall. The rest of the form crumbles abruptly until it forms a circle around one spot. Natasha sits back with a sigh, then gropes around for a pen so she can mark the interior of the circle.

“That was way creepier than what Clint did,” Bucky murmurs, watching in fascination as the ash stops holding its shape and starts obeying the laws of physics again, getting all over Natasha’s hand as she reaches over it to inspect her mark.

“I’m surprised Clint knew how to cast a finding at all,” she says dismissively. “I didn’t think he had it in him. Here.” Natasha takes the free paper from the hotel and dumps the rest of the ash into it, twisting it into a sealed packet and handing it back. “You might need it later.” Next is the map, which she folds until it shows only Ireland, the western part of which she’d marked with a little ‘x’.

“He’s in Ireland?” Bucky looks up at Natasha, who leans back on her hands to think.

“Looks that way. He said something about Fair Ones, you said?”

“Yes. If it’s Ireland, then does that make them faeries?”

Natasha flaps an impatient hand at him. “Don’t call them that. They hate it.” She sits forward and stares at him intently. “Look, you’re only going to get one chance at this. I don’t know much about them, but from what I understand, the Folk change moods like some people change shoes. Be polite. Don’t make them angry. And they might look it, but they’re not human. They’re something else—they don’t understand mercy, they never do anything for free, and they don’t like letting go of what’s theirs.”

“Steve doesn’t belong to them.”

Natasha’s eyebrows rise. “You saying he belongs to you?”

“I’m saying he belongs to himself.” Bucky means to snap out the words, but he’s just so damn tired. “Although I’d like it if he wanted to belong to me. I’d like to belong to him.”

“That’s why I think that if anyone can make this work, you can,” Natasha tells him quietly. She reaches up to cup his face in her hands. “The Folk don’t like to lose, but neither do you. Not to anything, even if it means you have to change fate itself. I saw it in you the first time we met. That’s why you have a chance, and that’s why I was willing to bet everything on you. I still am.”

Bucky can feel tears prick at the backs of his eyes. He thinks Natasha might be feeling emotional too, but she keeps her gaze focused on him like she can sear the confidence she feels into his soul. Maybe she can.

“Okay.” Bucky takes a few calming breaths. “Then I need to book a flight to Ireland. I know someone who can help.”


He whips around, scanning the crowd for a familiar face. Becca jumps up and down in a bright purple sweater, hair piled on top of her head in a messy bun. She frowns in concern, lips turning down more firmly when he rushes to her and hugs her tight. As soon as he’d landed in Dublin, the realization that he had only two days left had hit him in a rush, adrenaline flooding through his veins and forcing him to stop just to breathe, staving off a panic attack. Two days left, and he still doesn’t know precisely where Steve is.

“Are you okay? Bucky, you’re shaking.” Rebecca grabs him arms to steady him, digging in her fingers into his skin to grab his attention. “You never told me why you needed to come here so suddenly. What’s wrong? I called Uncle Paul and Aunt Holly and they said they didn’t know either…”

“Steve,” Bucky manages finally. “It’s Steve. I fucked it up, Becca. I shouldn’t’ve—” He groans in frustration, finally slumping down with his head on her shoulder. “I gotta fix it.”

“Okay, okay, we’ll fix it,” she soothes, sweeping a hand up and down his back. “You need to pick up any bags?” When Bucky shakes his head no, she takes his hand in hers. “Okay, come on. Elisa is waiting with the car.”

Elisa is a petite thing with a pleasant smile and large brown eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses, fluffy sweater about a size too big, and the rounded shoulders of someone who carries around a lot of books. All in all, she looks like the kind of person his little sister would take under her gregarious wing. And then she surprises him by opening her mouth.

“You must be James.” She holds her hand out and briskly shakes his, then looks at the ground by their feet. “Travel light, I guess? Good for you. Door’s unlocked.” And she shuts the trunk and climbs in, not even waiting for a reply. It would be incredibly rude if she weren’t so cheerful-sounding about it.

“She takes a little getting used to,” Rebecca consoles, opening the door for him. “Although she’s nosy as hell,” she adds more loudly, climbing in the tiny vehicle.

“I’ve been blessed with the spirit of inquiry,” Elisa corrects, twisting around to face him in the backseat. “Welcome to Dublin. You’re welcome to crash on the floor of my place if you want. Rebecca didn’t really tell me what was going on; just that it was urgent and that you might need a place to stay.” Bucky likes her more and more by the minute.

“It’s complicated,” he hedges. “And actually, I need to be kind of… west of here, I think, as soon as possible.”

“Most of Eire is west of here,” Elisa drawls, sarcastic but not mean. “Can you be more specific? Something you’re looking for, or…?”

“Yeah. Uh, I have a map, but I don’t know exactly where I need to be. I just know I need to be there before the new moon.”

“Well? Let’s see it.”

He only hesitates for a moment before digging into his bag to find the map, unfolding it as much as he can in the tiny car. The girls lean in to examine it. Bucky doesn’t need to—he doesn’t think he can forget it, he’s stared at it so many times.

“Somewhere between Doolin and Keelhilla?” Elisa mutters. “This isn’t a town or village that I can tell. What’s here?”

Bucky looks helplessly to his sister. He knows that anything even remotely close to the truth he tries to say will sound ridiculous. But Becca doesn’t really know what’s going on; just that it has to do with Steve. Elisa looks to Becca as well, eyebrows raised.

“Research.” Becca even manages to sound somewhat convincing. “It’s a—uh—semi-spiritual thing. With his boyfriend.”

“Spiritual?” Elisa echoes, not entirely convinced but also too polite to demand details.

“It has to do with fae—” Bucky remembers Natasha’s advice at the last minute. “With the Fair Folk. And if they can be found.”

To his utter surprise, Elisa’s face lights up. “Really? Is he Irish, your boyfriend? I guess you’re meeting him here for something—no, it’s okay, you don’t have to say anything if it’s private…” She peers hopefully up at him but just shrugs when he doesn’t offer any other information, completely undeterred. “The intermingling of Christianity and traditional regional beliefs is one of my areas of interest. No pressure, but if he’s interested in doing an interview for me, maybe after I help you guys out…? I’ll help either way,” she hastens to assure him.

“Elisa is working on her doctorate in anthropology, specifically mythology and folklore,” Becca explains while her friend beams beside her.

“I’ll see what he says,” Bucky manages. “I just gotta do this… thing… first.”

“Right. Of course.” She straightens out the map to inspect it again. “Well, if you want to encounter one of them, twilight is your best option. This is at least three hours away, not counting finding the exact location of your meeting-place.” They all look out the window, where the sun is already sinking below the horizon. “So I guess setting out tomorrow is our best option.”

Bucky wants to argue. This is one entire evening he’ll be wasting; one more day gone. He wants to find Steve now. But even while he starts opening his mouth, he catches his sister’s angry glare. He scowls back, and Rebecca pointedly sweeps her eyes over his unkempt clothes and three-day stubble. He tightens his grip on his backpack and shakes his head a little.

“Do you know, I used to wish I had a sibling closer to my age, but now I’m kind of glad I didn’t have one,” Elisa says suddenly. “This is even more awkward than screaming at each other.” They turn as one to look at her in surprise, Rebecca already starting to look sheepish.

“I’d rather find a way to get there now, if you think you can point me towards a car rental?” Bucky says before his sister can respond.

“No offense, but you look really rough,” Elisa informs him. Rebecca looks vindicated. “We can get going at first light if you want. I’ll get you as close as I can if you tell me what you’re looking for, but I won’t help Rebecca’s brother get lost in the Irish countryside. If you really want to take off tonight, you’ll have to do it on your own.”

“Now I know why you’re friends,” Bucky mutters sourly.

“Look, just crash for tonight. Eat dinner, clean up, get some rest. Even if you left right now, how are you going to find wherever you need to be in the dark? You said yourself you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for. If you’re meeting your boyfriend or something, I doubt he’d want you to get lost and freeze to death to do… whatever you’re doing.”

He closes his eyes and tries to think, hating that Becca’s friend makes sense more sense than he does right now. Hates how he must look so bad off that a complete stranger is concerned for his health. The girls’ solution is perfectly logical, but he doesn’t want to be logical. He wants to find Steve. But he also understands how important patience and planning are in an op.

“Tomorrow, then.”

Chapter Text

Agreeing to rest isn’t the same as actually resting. Rebecca is obviously concerned for him, but Elisa’s flat is so small that there’s no way they can talk without her overhearing. So he eats and lets his host set up a makeshift bed for him on the floor. Then he cleans himself up and lets them ply him with tea before he begs for information.

Elisa seems only too happy to provide, rambling over mugs of strong tea about the importance of oaths and taboo in ancient Celtic culture, and the possible historical significance of what are referred to as ‘fairy mounds’ or ‘fairy forts.’

“What about deals? Like contracts? Or bargains?”

Rebecca, sitting beside him on the lumpy couch, grabs his hand and squeezes tight. He knows that she’s thinking of desperate hope and golden herbs. Elisa hesitates as she looks between the two siblings, but when they offer no explanation for Becca’s reaction, she shrugs, reaching for one of the references she has scattered on the coffee table.

“They’re definitely fond of them. Rather, I should say they’re fond of rules. But a contract is basically just a bunch of rules with a reward at the end, right? If you do it correctly. See, this is actually one of the biggest things for them: the spoken word. Accounts almost universally agree that the Folk can’t lie, but they can bend the truth, and they’ll do it ruthlessly to come out on top. Thing is, a human could do that too, but in most of these stories, we’re just not cut out for it. We’d rather lie, which when you think about it is an interesting perspective concerning the negotiation of—” She visibly reins herself in before she gets too far off-topic. “Long story short: don’t lie. The Folk win by default if they catch someone in a lie. But there are instances where people have been clever enough to manipulate events or words in their favor. It’s kind of like dealing with unscrupulous lawyers—they’ll obey the letter of the law but not the spirit of it, so you have to be willing to do the same.” She taps the book in her lap and flips it around for the siblings to look at. “Lots of stuff about technicalities and cautionary tales where people have left things open to interpretation.” Bucky has taken the book and is poring over the pages when Elisa suddenly leans in and covers the text with her hand. “Wait. You’re not thinking of making a bargain with one, are you?”

He flicks his gaze up to her, feeling Becca turn to look at him with the same serious expression as her friend. His lips thin and he remains silent. He doesn’t know if he’ll have to, but he doesn’t know if he won’t, either.

“I feel obligated to caution you heavily against it, James.” She snatches the book back quickly, like that will somehow change his mind. “I’m not of the faith, as it were, but I’m positive the community would tell you not to even try. It’s dangerous. It’s—whatever you and your boyfriend are doing, I really hope it isn’t to do with that. It’s always better to angle for a blessing if you’re looking for anything at all, but even those can be double-edged swords.”

“What about—”

“Bucky,” Rebecca snaps. He jumps and even Elisa looks shocked—Becca rarely uses that tone of voice; the one that demands she be heard. “I need to talk to you. Outside.”

He doesn’t want to do this now, doesn’t want to have this conversation, but he’s going to have to.

“What’s this about making deals?” she hisses as soon as they’re out on the sidewalk. Neither of them have even bothered to put on a coat. Their anger will have to be enough to keep them warm.

“I don’t know if I’ll have to,” he tries to soothe. “I need to find out what happened to Steve first.”

“About that.” She gives him a pointed look.

“I don’t know, Becca.” And it’s like all the exhaustion of the past few days catch up with him all at once. It feels like his bones are being dragged to the ground under him. “I don’t know if I understand all of it. I don’t know if I can explain.”


“Whatever this was, it has something to do with the Folk. And they have him now. It’s my fault,” he bursts out. “I didn’t trust him enough, Becca, and now he’s gone and I don’t even know for sure if I can find him. But he’s human, he is, and he’s wonderful. And I love him.”

“Bucky…” Rebecca sighs and hugs him, letting herself take his weight. “You can’t just go around saving everyone, you know. All these trades… you’re lucky you got free of the last one.”

The bargain for Rebecca’s life suddenly flashes to the front of Bucky’s mind. It’s only been a few days, but—“What about you? I was supposed to spend my life there but now it’s not there and… how do you feel? Be honest, Rebecca, I need to know if—” God, what if he loses his sister too?

“I’m fine! Really, nothing out of the ordinary, not even a sniffle or a headache, and practically everyone has a cold right now. I’m healthy.” She reaches out and gives him a little shake to grab his attention. “But that doesn’t mean you can still just run off and do it all again. You need to come back to me this time, you hear? I’m your little sister and I worry about you, and now that I know you’re mixed up in all this stuff—God, I’ve been friends with Elisa for long enough to know that there’s never a happy ending in these kinds of things.”

“Not never,” Bucky mutters. Not that he can think of one right now. Maybe Elisa will know.

“Don’t even think about it,” Rebecca warns. “Don’t do anything stupid, bro. Please. Please.

He doesn’t know how to respond to that. He’s not planning on doing anything stupid, and he’d do anything for his sister—but he’d do anything for Steve, too. He can’t give Rebecca the answer she wants. “I’ll try, Becca. I really will.”

She practically vibrates in place, expression stormy, but finally just hauls him in for a hug. It’s stronger than she looks capable of, and he breathes an internal sigh of relief. She seems to be telling the truth about her health, at least. “I know I can’t force you to do what I want,” she mutters into his shoulder. “So I’ll try to be supportive. But I still expect you to come back.”

Bucky nods and holds her until the temperature drives both of them back inside, shivering and ready to curl up under the blankets.

For Bucky, sleep lasts a sadly short amount of time. He thought the exhaustion that hit him outside and the stress of worrying over his sister would knock him out for a good six hours at least, but he hasn’t even gotten four. Compared to the almost complete darkness of the mansion, it’s easy for him to navigate his way around Elisa’s tiny flat by the glow of the streetlamp at the end of the block. It’s not too hard to open the door a crack and slip back outside, where he can look at the last sliver of the moon on the front stoop.

“You too?” Elisa looks up at him, nearly buried under a mound of blankets. He sighs and lowers himself to one of the steps. “You’d be surprised how many academics have insomnia,” she remarks, pulling a hot water bottle out from under her swaddling and handing it over.

“I need to ask you about getting out of a deal or a contract with the Folk,” he says, no preamble. He doesn’t have enough time to beat around the bush. “What if something happens and you were physically unable to fulfill your end of the deal?”

“Like what?’ She’s intrigued—she doesn’t know he’s talking about Rebecca and her continued health. About her life.

“Say that someone gave you medicine for someone in exchange for you…” he thinks, trying to come up with something plausible, “becoming their servant. Forever. You gotta stay there forever so the medicine will work on someone. Fix them. If they go away and leave you there, what happens to the person who took the medicine? Does that… negate it or something? Will they get sick again?”

“Probably not?” Elisa hazards. “Depends on the original contract.”

“The cost of a life is a life,” Bucky recites from memory. There are some things one simply doesn’t forget. “I’ll give this to you with the secrets of its healing, but as soon as this person is well, you must come back here to live with the owner of the mansion. You will belong here, with us, until the day you die.

“So if the mansion and the people are gone, but this… servant… isn’t—does that mean the medicine stops working?”

“If they picked up and left without the servant, that sounds seems like an out clause to me. Voluntary release of a contract is different than wiggling your way out. It’s rare, but not unheard-of. But if it didn’t, whoever got the medicine would probably fall ill again right away. It tends to work like that when otherworldly magic is involved—lots of absolutes. You’re a swan and then you’re not. You’re young and then you’re dust. You’re healthy and then you’re dead.”

Meaning Rebecca is probably safe. That’s one less thing on his conscience, then. He’s still trying not to be too obvious with his relief when another thought hits him. “You said ‘out clause.’ Are there other ways to get out of them? Bargains and things?”

“This makes me think you’re going to do something really ill-advised,” she says, shifting uncomfortably. “I mean, I don’t want to misrepresent—part of the point of my research is to glean better and more thorough perspectives from the point of view of—”

“I won’t mention it to anyone else, and I’ll take what you say with a grain of salt. It’s just that…” He struggles to come up with a plausible excuse. “This thing me and my boyfriend are doing? He, uh, he’s grown up with this stuff but I haven’t and I was hoping for some insight before I—before we get into this…” Ceremony? Deal? Summoning? “…thing,” he finishes lamely.

“For the record, I’m really worried and I’m adamantly advising you to not seek the Folk to make an offer or bargain of any kind,” she stresses. “But if it could help later…” She rubs at her face wearily. “Okay, getting out of them. There’s always being released, like the example you gave me. And loopholes. Interpreting things widely or creatively. Like if you bet that you can finish before the cock crows and they assume that means dawn, but you wake a rooster up early and get it to crow even though it’s still dark, you’d win on a technicality because no one actually said it needed to be dawn. Just when the cock crows.”

“Got it.”

“And conflict of interest,” Elisa adds. “Prior claims or obligations that keep you from fulfilling the contract until they’re taken care of. If you owed your life to someone else, for example, they couldn’t make another claim on you. Or if you owed a debt of honor and had to go complete that, you might be allowed to go do that first. These have to be really important obligations, though. Something so profound that even the Folk would understand.”

Prior obligations. Oaths. Honor.

“When do you think most places will open tomorrow?” he asks thoughtfully, looking at his hands. “There’s something I need to get.”

He wishes now that they hadn’t left quite so early in the morning. Even not knowing exactly where they’re going, even with the stop Bucky requests and pausing to read the map, even after taking a few wrong turns, the entire trip takes just under four hours. They spend another half hour arguing again about leaving Bucky in the middle of nowhere until after sunset, but eventually he convinces them to leave.

He watches the car shrink into the distance—the girls will go sightseeing in Doolin, just a few hours away, while they wait for sunset. He takes out a map of the local area Elisa purchased for him and carefully marks out a grid. Although she explained about sídhe and rath, Elisa had also admitted that neither are uncommon and added that other places could be tied to the Folk as well. Without anything better to go on, a grid search is now Bucky’s best bet.

It takes him the rest of the day to work through the grid, carefully marking anywhere likely. The problem is that he needs as much time as possible as soon as twilight starts to try and convince this Good Neighbor to let Steve go, and he has almost a dozen promising sites dotted on his map. He doesn’t know how long he might have to wait for something to happen, and this is his last and only night to act.

Desperate, he paws through his ratty backpack for something—anything—that might help him decide. His hand closes around a twist of paper that crinkles in his grip and he yanks it out without thinking. It’s not quite dark enough for the sky to change colors, but it’s getting close; twilight could start at any moment. Hands shaking, he opens the little packet and stares at the ash inside. Natasha had said to keep it ‘just in case,’ but had she told him anything else that was useful? He spreads the gridded map out on the ground and places the paper next to it. Finding spells. Twilight. Tokens.

It takes a few tries to undo the clasp of the bracelet on his wrist, but he finally pulls it free and opens it, running his fingers over the silver and crystal. Something rough tickles the sensitive pads of his fingers and he tilts the locket towards the sun, catching a scratch of metal brighter than the tarnished silver around it. Squinting, he opens the locket as far as the hinges will allow, rotating it until the thin scratches form words: Steven Grant Rogers.

Bucky has to consciously stop himself from crushing the locket in his grip. Steve gave himself to Bucky, even without knowing this might happen. He gave Bucky his name, and names have power.

He closes the locket again and carefully returns it to its place on his wrist. Breathing deeply, telling himself that this must work, he tilts the contents of the packet onto the surface of the map and breathes Steve’s name.

Nothing happens.

He can feel failure looming already, as dark and heavy as the ash on the paper. And it’s childish and destructive of him to do, he knows, but he grabs the entire map and wrenches in half in anger. Ash puffs into a cloud around him, making him cough and his eyes rough with grit. None of it helps his situation—none of it does a single damn thing to get him closer to Steve and now, now he can see the faint glimmer of the first star of the night, meaning twilight is already upon him.

It’s then, breath still harsh in his ears, that he realizes not all of the noise comes from his muttered swearing and pounding heart. That he can hear the faint swish of boots and low voices coming from somewhere north and west of where he stands. He stuffs the map in his pocket and ignores the way his breath rasps in his lungs, intent only on locating the owner of the voice he would know in any form.

A blond man who can only be Steve wears a white shirt with a green waistcoat, brown boots, and breeches, looking absolutely like a man about to go to the altar. Beside him stands a redheaded woman, tall and lithe and impossibly graceful, but there’s an otherness about her that makes him think of Clint and Natasha slowly fading into their human forms as twilight stretches on.

“Steve!” Even after seeing his true face for a mere handful of moments, Bucky still recognizes his Steve. Everything in him sings with a sense of rightness as soon as the other man turns, and he doesn’t waste a single moment of it. Reaching into his coat pocket, he closes his hand around one of the bands there, withdrawing it and throwing it in an arc over the grass, trusting Steve to catch it.

Catch it he does, and Bucky pulls the second band from his pocket and slides it onto his right hand. “Put it on! Right hand!”

Steve moves to do it before the woman can stop him, settling the ring on his finger neatly. Bucky walks up toward the hill at a more sedate pace, trying to catch his breath. It’s a mound not unlike a half dozen others in this area, though an old tree grows thick and proud partway down the slope.

“What is the meaning of this?” the woman demands.

“I beg your pardon, Good Lady,” Bucky pants.

“How can you see me?” she asks. “No mortal should—” She reaches out and grabs a speck of ash drifting on the air, smudging it between her fingers. “Someone has given you sight,” she hisses.

Bucky ignores her accusation—the sun is setting and he hasn’t even made his bargain yet. “I understand that you’re going to marry Steve. But you cannot.”

Her eyes narrow. “Cannot is a strong word to use. Some would even say unwise.”

“Human tradition dating for hundreds of years states that by accepting my ring, he has pledged himself to be my husband.” He glances to Steve for support, trying to convey without words what he’s attempting to do. “As he is not yet a married man, his obligation to me stands.”

“Is this true?” the woman demands, rounding on Steve. His jaw juts out stubbornly as he twists the cheap ring on his finger.

“It’s true,” he affirms. “Rings are the traditional tokens of mortals who have pledged themselves to marry. It’s an agreement on both sides, Lady Radha.”

“Equal claim.” She stalks between the two of them, considering. “We have some time yet before I must return home. What will convince you to release your claim upon Stiofán…?”

“You may call me Bucky,” he fills in. No real names—he’s learned that lesson once already.

“Bucky, then.”

“I want to challenge you. I won’t just give up and I know you won’t, either. Whoever loses forfeits their claim. Those are my terms.”

“Agreed. And as the challenged, I name swords as our weapon of choice. To forfeit or death,” the Lady responds immediately. Bucky shrugs like it doesn’t bother him, but Steve pales.

“Rules: There will be a ring. Stepping outside is to forfeit. As I have no extra…” he hesitates, “...talents to speak of, no Folk abilities may be used upon me. Mortal weapons only.” Bucky sheds his coat, handing it to Steve for safekeeping while Radha nods briefly before coaxing a ring of tall grass on the flattest land around them.

“Bucky, she will cheat,” Steve hisses urgently. He reaches out to grab Bucky’s arm, shaking him hard to get his attention. “She’ll find a way to cheat—the Fair Folk don’t like to lose. Do you even know how to use a sword?!”

“No.” Maybe it’s the start of the adrenaline trickling into his system or the rush of knowing he’s so very close to his goal, but he finds it in himself to smile at Steve. “But I did great at CQC. Third-best in my group. Knives are kind of like swords, right?”

“Bucky, no,” Steve tries again, but Bucky silences him by crushing a kiss to his lips before turning to enter the ring with the Lady.

She stands with an assortment of items at her feet: two swords, two daggers, and two knives. All shining bronze-gold and equally weighted from what Bucky can tell. She allows him first pick of each before taking the rest for herself.

Bucky mimics whatever Radha does, from her stance to her grip, and meets her at the center of the ring. He bows when she curtsies and just as he wonders how to know when to attack, she makes her first move. He barely blocks but the clash of metal reverberates disconcertingly through his bones, making the metal of his arm hum unpleasantly. Another lucky block and he drops the sword entirely, giving up on the bulky weight of it. He dances out of the way of her next blow, careful of the boundary, and draws the dagger next. This is more what he’s used to, a knife just a little shorter than his forearm from tip to pommel. He flips it into his right hand and shamelessly uses his left arm as a shield. A lucky twist gets her sword caught on one of the shifting plates near his elbow and he wraps his hand around the blade as close to the grip as he can, ramming her with his shoulder until she lets go.

They’re even now, and he can tell by her face that he’s doing better than she’d expected. He pauses to push a stray lock of hair out of his face, resisting the urge to look at the position of the sun or at Steve, waiting there on the sidelines. He shifts his grip on his dagger and comes in low, swiping up under her defense but barely even snapping threads of her kilted-up dress. It occurs to him now, somewhere in the adrenaline-fueled haze, that it’s possible the Folk can’t even die by these means. But he’d agreed to forfeit or death, and he’ll abide by those rules no matter what the consequences.

Radha whirls clear, dagger flashing red-gold in the light, a small smile on her face like victory is already hers. It’s a predator’s smile and while Bucky doesn’t yet feel like prey, he still has no idea the extent of her talent and he’s tiring fast. A quick victory is in his best interest before she can see the full extent of his training, before he can second-guess himself or let her learn to read his body language. He whips the knife from the small of his back, then violates the first rule of his training and throws it. It misses but provides the distraction he needs to get close again, flipping the dagger once more and bracing to shove it through the soft part of her gut.

The dagger parts the bold green of her shirt and stops short, his momentum gone, his reach overextending as she again dodges. Bucky hits the ground hard, not even breaking his fall when his legs catch on some resistance and fail to respond. Radha circles him, clicking her tongue disapprovingly as she bends to scoop up one of the discarded swords.

“Do you forfeit, then, Bucky?” she asks. Bucky struggles up, yanking at the thick grass and vines twining up his legs angrily.

“You agreed to no magic!”

“No magic upon you,” she corrects calmly. “Not upon the ground on which you tread.”

The letter and not the spirit. Rules. Technicalities. Everything Natasha and Elisa told him come flooding back.

“Forfeit,” she demands.

“Never,” he spits, hacking at the plants with his dagger. He told himself long ago that if death ever came for him, he’d face it with his eyes open. He thought that time had come, far from home with only blood and sand and gunpowder to stare upon. But this is so much worse.

It’s a gruesome sound, louder for being the only one in the clearing: the wet tear of flesh and the scrape of metal on bone. The tip of the blade is incongruously clean, just a shade darker than the gold of Steve’s hair as he stands in front of Bucky, shielding him with his body. Radha releases her grip quickly, backing up in surprise and dismay. It makes the heavy weight of the sword drag at Steve’s body so that he slumps onto his knees. The sound he makes then can't quite be called a scream with how it whistles through a puncture in his lung, the rest of the noise tapering into a bubbling cough. Bucky finally frees his legs in time to try to stretch Steve out, elevate his torso, call for a medic—

It’s a bad idea to remove the sword, he knows, but with it moving so much he’s afraid it will do more damage than it already has. He rips at what’s left of Steve’s shirt, once wedding-white, and wads it up to press at the wound in Steve’s back. Another one goes into Bucky’s hand in an attempt to stop the blood seeping from Steve’s front, pressure firm. No medic. No hospital. No doctors. No…


“The plant,” he gasps, looking up at Radha. “Lady, the herb. The one you gave Steve, that will cure anything. Do you have it? Would it save him?”

The Lady looks taken aback by the request, but she reaches into the folds of her skirt and shakes out a single, star-shaped herb, veins shot through with shining silver. “You know the cost of this,” she cautions, still keeping it in her hands.

“My life. And I’ll pay it gladly.”

The Lady’s lips twist, uncertain. Steve has mercifully slipped into unconsciousness, still laboring wetly for breath. Even so, his face turns towards Bucky, every part of him still intent on his lover.

“Your life now,” the Lady says instead, slowly at first but then with more confidence. “Your life of the last few years, when you met Stiofán. Surrender your memories of that time to me, give up the life you had with him, and I’ll consider the debt paid.”

“Make me forget Steve? You can do that?” He looks down at Steve’s pale skin and the pained furrow of his brow and knows that he’ll agree.

“One draught is all it will take.” Bucky isn’t looking at her, so he doesn’t know where she gets the slender glass vial that she offers to him. “Take this and it will heal him—the life you’d had in exchange for the one he’ll regain.”

“You first.” He extends his hand and takes the vial, but waits while the Lady crushes a single leaf of the herb in her hand, massaging and rolling it until a beautiful scent fills the air. When she’s finished, she holds a single pill no larger than a sunflower seed between her fingers. Bucky takes it from her and carefully opens Steve’s mouth, pushing the herb as far back as he can before massaging his throat gently, waiting for him to swallow. Pushing aside the tatters of Steve’s shirt, he watches as the wounds begin to heal until he can detect the change in Steve’s breathing to something clear and steady. Then he wipes the blood off his hands and backs away under Radha’s watchful eye until she looks satisfied at his distance.

Then he opens the vial and drinks.

Steve sits up with a gasp, shirtless and shivering. Lady Radha stands over him, face as impassive as ever. She hands him a long shirt and waits for him to stand, then beckons with one hand. “Come, Stiofán, we have time for a ceremony still.”

“Ceremony? But… Did… Is the challenge complete?” His memory of the event is still clouded by pain, but Bucky stands only a few meters away, still whole and hale. Looking at his own chest, Steve realizes that he’s clean of blood, skin smooth and healed despite the fact that he can viscerally feel the heavy cut of the blade.

“No need. He bargained this—” In one hand she holds a familiar plant missing a single star-shaped leaf; in the other, she holds a slim glass vial. “—for this. He relinquished his memories of you, Stiofán. The life he had with you. So, there is no longer anything for you here.”

“No,” Steve grits out. He backs away from Radha, trembling. Because the Folk don’t lie—they can’t. And if she says that Bucky has done this, then it’s the truth. But he can’t accept that. “No,” he repeats. “He would never—”

“See for yourself,” Radha invites him. It’s not condescending or gloating—it’s matter-of-fact, and that’s perhaps the worst of all. “Ask him.”

Steve takes one uncertain step towards Bucky, and then another. The brunet still looks somewhat dazed, a little lost in his thoughts. “…Bucky?”

Hope swells when sleet-grey eyes look to him, but it shatters when Bucky speaks.

“Do I know you?”

Those four words rip through Steve more painfully than a blade ever could. They crack his heart and freeze over his soul, stopping the breath in his lungs and the blood in his veins. Do I know you. He doesn’t even know how to respond to that. It feels like anything he says will only drive the pain deeper.

“Are you all right?” Bucky’s expression is one of concern, brows furrowed and head tilted, but somehow it’s not the same. His body language is all wrong. When he talks to Steve, his shoulders should always turn toward him, inviting and shielding all at once. His hip should cock closer, ready to slide close to Steve’s hold; his left hand should be turned subtly towards him—the hand Steve prefers, because he knows he can’t hurt it. But now Bucky’s body is closed off in the gentle concern of a stranger, left side hidden as though ashamed of that part of himself. Steve is a stranger to him.

“Can I kiss you?” The words spill from Steve’s lips before he can stop them. And maybe he should feel rude or ashamed asking for such a thing, but there’s only room for grief, now. He doesn’t even know which will be more painful—being denied or being the only one of them to know it will be the last kiss they ever share.

Bucky frowns deeply at him, glancing at Radha as though for guidance in the unusual situation in which he finds himself. He turns back to look directly into Steve’s eyes as though searching for something, gaze so intense that it’s difficult to keep. But Steve refuses to back down. Bucky has all of him, whether he remembers it or not, and Steve has nothing to hide.

“Just…one,” Bucky says haltingly, brow still furrowed like he thinks there’s a trick hidden in the request somewhere. “No tongue or anything.”

“Chaste,” Steve agrees and prays that somehow, this will give him closure.

It’s an awkward few moments of Steve getting near enough to Bucky to kiss, leaning in close but not too close, uncertain how to stand relative to each other. Steve finally settles a hand on Bucky’s cheek and Bucky rests his own hands to lightly frame Steve’s hips. It’s all the blond can do not to sway further into his grip.

The kiss is cool at first, stiff and too dry, but Bucky relaxes into it surprisingly quickly, letting Steve tilt his head for a better angle and letting their lips meld together. Steve’s heart aches so badly he thinks he may cry, and he never wants this moment to end.

He breaks it off of his own accord, before Bucky can recoil or push him away, before Steve truly breaks down in front of a love who no longer knows him. Even in the dimming light, he can see Bucky’s eyes flutter open, expression confused but peaceful as Steve turns away.

And stops, jerking to a halt when his wrist catches on something.

He looks down at the glint of metal encircling his right wrist, following the line of it up until he focuses again on Bucky’s puzzled face.

“Sorry, I don’t know why—” Bucky looks down at his own hand again, like he’s telling himself to let go. “I know you,” he murmurs slowly, drawing out the words to test the truth of them in his mouth. “I know you.”

In his periphery, Steve can see Radha slowly draw closer, eyes wide. “Impossible.” Her fist clutches at the empty vial in her hand.

Steve’s breath goes short and shallow in his chest. “You do. You know me, a ghrá.

Bucky’s metal grip tightens hard enough to bruise as his lips shape a word so quietly that not even Steve can hear it before it’s snatched away by the breeze.

“No.” The Lady sounds stunned and the entire world quiets down, distilling to a single, fragile moment.


A sob tears its way from Steve’s chest as he lurches forward and throws himself into Bucky’s outstretched arms, finally, finally where he belongs.

“Oh my God, Steve,” Bucky gasps.

Steve laughs hysterically, grabbing Bucky’s face in both his hands and kissing him the way he aches to, messy and perfect, cheeks stretched in a smile. Bucky reaches up, too, fingers wiping away Steve’s tears as fast as they fall—just as joyful, just as sweet, just as loving.

“How?” Radha breathes.

Steve can’t help the way he tightens his grip on Bucky, attempting to pull him behind him even while the other man does the same. But the Lady makes no move to separate them, only shifts her gaze from one to the other, face slack with disbelief.

“My power is strong and sure; the draught true. I know that it worked. You should not remember.

“I didn’t, at first.” Steve reluctantly lets Bucky stand forward, closer to the baffled Lady, and Bucky’s voice is careful and kind. “But I knew him, somehow. It hurt, almost, in here.” He taps his chest with his right hand, left still twined with Steve’s. “I knew I loved him and he just… came back to me.”

“True love is a myth,” she says, but her words warble uncertainly, almost asking for the truth of it. “But you’re saying it can break even our power.”

“Love doesn’t break, Lady,” Steve asserts. He takes his place again by Bucky’s side so that they stand even. “It only makes, only heals. And it’s real.”

“Something like that…” She lifts the slender vial in her hand, considering it carefully. “I envy you.”

Steve tenses, because the envy of the Folk is not something any mortal wants to draw. But Radha’s face remains gentle.

“I’d heard stories, but this kind of thing is not given to my people. To feel so deeply, not lust, but love as you two have… How do you not fear something so powerful?”

“My mother told me that fear is not something that goes away, but rather that you put aside so that good things can come.”

“Sorcha was always very wise,” Radha murmurs. “So, Stiofán, son of Sorcha, you think this is something one of the People can find?”

“The People? Or you?” Steve takes another step forward. “Because I believe everyone capable of love, but it’s you I believe wishes for it.”

“I would.”

“Then we wish it for you.” Behind him, Bucky nods.

“Even after all this?”

“Love only heals,” Bucky reminds her. “In a way, we’re together now because of you. So, yes, even after all of this.”

The Lady reaches out to cup Steve’s face, leaning down to kiss his forehead. “My blessing, as promised.” She moves past him to do the same to Bucky, lips soft as a breeze. He closes his eyes for a moment, and when he opens them next, she’s gone.

To say that Rebecca is shocked is an understatement. It’s almost insulting how she reacts, as though she hadn’t believed in Steve’s existence and had only been humoring her brother this whole time. Elisa, of course, doesn’t bat an eyelash. She just offers Steve a ride and politely says nothing when they both curl up in the back seat of her car, even when Bucky offers to pay for separate rooms at an inn if they’re willing to stay overnight.

He’s almost afraid to look when he wakes up the next morning, sunlight creeping in around the cheerful floral curtains of the room he and Steve share. Part of him expects the bed to be empty as always, but he can already feel a warm, heavy presence beside him. Another part of him clamors not to look in case everything evaporates.

Steve’s bright blue eyes peer up at him when he turns his head. Blond hair glints in the light and soft skin lies creamy-pale against the white sheets.

“Good morning,” Steve whispers. He twines his fingers with Bucky’s, lips turning gently up at the corners.

“Good morning,” he whispers back. Lying here with Steve, able to see his face, bodies pressed close and simply breathing together… he wonders if it’s a novelty that he’ll ever tire of. He nuzzles closer, not yet willing to leave the peaceful world they’ve built around themselves. “What are we going to do now?”

Steve lights up, smiling and laughing through what promises to be the first kiss of many today.

“Well, a ghrá, I guess we live.”

Illustration by maichan