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Crows and Lesser Gods

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The sun. Is high enough. In the sky. So it is time. To see my friend. And give him. What I found. He will smile. And scritch my feathers. Just how I like. And for a moment. He will be happy. And all will be well.

 

*****

Bucky wakes when the sun is three fingers high in the sky, like he always does, the world still and quiet. He sits up in bed and reaches his hands over his head and stretches the sleep out of his bones and muscles, rubbing absently at the scars across his clavicle. He curses as his neck cracks, throwing his blanket down the bed as he climbs off it. He stretches again as he makes his way over to his clothes shelf and pulls down a chiton, fastening it at the shoulder with his favorite pin and wrapping his favorite leather belt around his waist. He gathers up his hair and ties it up loosely with a thin strip of supple leather.

When his stomach growls, he makes his way across his small house to the kitchen and finds fruit, bread, cheese, olives, wine, and cool water from a mountain spring waiting for him on his table. Living on Olympus chafes, but there are some pretty amazing perks. Like the food that magically appears before mealtimes or whenever he wants some. And the view. The view is something special, all right. Bucky makes himself a breakfast plate and carries it back across the house to his balcony, settling in on his favorite chaise to watch the sun glittering on the sea in the distance.

Bucky smiles when Crow lands on the balcony railing, squawking awkwardly around an object she’s holding in her beak. “Hey, Crow,” Bucky says and holds out his metal arm. Crow flaps over, lands on Bucky’s forearm, and waits for Bucky to hold out his other hand, palm up.

“What do you have here?” Bucky asks as Crow drops an item into his hand and caws expectantly. “You are a good girl, Crow, thank you.” Crow preens a little and hops onto Bucky’s thigh, bumping his metal hand with her head. Bucky huffs and starts scritching the feathers around Crow’s beak just how she likes. Crow closes her eyes and accepts the scritching happily. Bucky smiles down at her and keeps scritching.

He holds up the object Crow brought him. It’s a carved figurine, made from limestone, in the shape of a ram. One of the horns is broken off, and the carving is crude, but it was special to someone once, Bucky knows. The right front leg is more worn than the others, like someone used to rub that one for luck or as a nervous habit. Bucky runs his fingers over it gently to see if he can get an echo of the owner. Nothing. It’s a forgotten object, at least for now.

“Thank you, Crow, it’s lovely. Let’s find a place for it and then you can show me where you found it.”

Bucky stands up and Crow adjusts so she doesn’t fall off Bucky’s arm, gripping onto the metal harder than she would on Bucky’s flesh arm. They walk over to the main living space in Bucky’s house where the forgotten objects live. The walls in this room are covered in little nooks and shelves and cubbies carved into the thick stucco walls of the house. There are lines strung between hooks on the wall full of leather and cloth and furs.

Bucky hums softly when he finds the shelf with the sheep carvings on it and adds the little ram to the collection. “Welcome home,” he tells the ram as he pats it on the head. Crow caws her approval. “Map time,” Bucky tells Crow, who caws her approval again and flaps off Bucky’s arm and over to his table, perching on the back of a chair.

Bucky walks over to a long, narrow shelf in the wall, pulls out the map, and brings it over to the table, where he unrolls it. It’s made of the highest quality cow vellum and is almost the size of the entire hide. On it is a detailed map of Hellas and the surrounding seas. Parts of the map are lightly shaded in gray, and small pictures dot the land in shimmering gold.

“Where did you find the ram?” Bucky asks. Crow hops onto the map, careful not to damage it with her talons, and touches her beak gently to the island of Naxos. “Good girl,” Bucky says as he strokes Crow’s feathers. Crow preens a bit before hopping off to pilfer the grapes from Bucky’s fruit bowl.

Bucky waves his hand over Naxos, his fingers glowing bright, and a tiny picture of the ram is etched in gold on the map. He thanks Crow once again before rolling the map back up and putting it away. He leaves Crow to the grapes and picks up his needlework basket, taking it out onto the balcony to watch the sun rising in the sky.

Crow joins him a few minutes later, a bunch of grapes in her beak. Bucky puts down his sewing and takes the grapes from Crow, plucking off the bottommost grape and throwing it off the balcony. Crow swoops after it and comes back for more, cawing happily as she flies.

They’re halfway through the bunch when Crow lands on the balustrade and cocks her head and listens. “Time to work?” Bucky asks when Crow looks back at him. “Caw,” she crows sadly. “Go, then, and fly true and strong and safe.” He throws another grape off the balcony and watches Crow catch it and fly higher up the mountain to go get orders from her master.

*****

The morning’s grapes are gone, and Crow doesn’t have work yet, so Bucky unrolls his map and calls her over. “I feel like going on an adventure today, Crow. Where should I go?” Crow takes her time looking over the map before touching her beak to an island in the Aegean called Sifnos. Bucky hums. “Good choice. Do you want to come with me?” Crow caws. “Okay, hold on.” He holds out his metal arm and Crow hops on. Once she’s settled, Bucky close his eyes and transports them to Sifnos.

The sun is bright on the island, the azure water sparkling as it laps onto the sandy beach. Bucky looks around to make sure there’s no one in sight before popping into existence on the beach close to the tide line. Crow caws happily and starts flying around looking for shiny pebbles or interesting shells. Bucky watches her fly for a while and turns to take in the island. The mountains start close to the shore and rise steeply, green scrub popping against the brown of the sun-baked earth. Bucky can’t see any huts, but he knows people live on this island. He must have brought them to the windward side.

They spend a few hours exploring. Crow flies to the other side of the island and tells Bucky about the little hamlets she finds there, about the people tending their sheep and goats and gardens. Bucky smiles wistfully and shakes his head when she mentions that he can come look, too, maybe talk to some people. Bucky takes them back to his house after that, and Crow caws at him reproachfully.

Bucky brings his map to the table and unrolls it. He fetches a sharpened charcoal and lightly shades in the island of Sifnos. Crow caws at him. “I know, girl. Maybe one day. Thanks for coming with me today. Did anything else interesting happen?” Crow caws for a while. “Sounds like you had fun with that little girl. I’m sorry her mom chased you away. You know how superstitious humans are.” Crow caws softly, and Bucky strokes down her back in long, soothing motions.

“It’s getting late. You’d better get back. I’ll see you soon, okay?” Crow butts her head against Bucky’s face, startling a laugh out of him, and flies away.

*****

Crow finds a plain gold ring a week later and brings it to Bucky. He puts it on the ring shelf and leaves the map out after he marks the ring’s location. “Want to go on another adventure today?” Crow caws happily and turns her attention to the map. She touches her beak to another island, Thasos this time. “What’s with you and islands lately?” Bucky muses. “Thasos it is. You ready to go?” Crow caws and hops onto Bucky’s metal arm.

They pop into a wooded area on the side of a small mountain, the space between the trees filled with tall grasses and bushes and saplings. Crow immediately takes to the air to scout out the terrain. Bucky hears goats bleating in the distance, a counterpoint to the buzzing insects and chirping birds. He starts picking his way down the mountainside, setting his feet carefully even though the terrain isn’t very steep. There are rocks scattered here and there, and Bucky would rather not step on one and go careening down the mountain, thank you very much.

The sun is hot but the breeze is cool, and Bucky can see the sea from the mountainside, and it’s all so lovely, pastoral, and distracting that Bucky doesn’t realize how close he’s come to the flock he heard earlier until he comes face-to-face with a goat. The goat takes one look at Bucky and bleats its stupid head off.

“Shh!” Bucky hisses, to no avail. The wretched thing bleats even louder, a smug look on its face, as Bucky waves his hands around to try and get the thing to shut up already before its bleating makes the herder come running. “Zeus’s balls, will you just be quiet already!” Bucky hisses again. The goat does not quiet down. Bucky hears Crow laughing at him as she flies overhead. “Not helping!” he hisses a third time, freezing as he hears a deep voice call out, “Yogurt? What’s wrong, buddy? You need some help?”

The goat — Yogurt, apparently — bleats again, and Bucky glares at it as he moves behind a tree, hoping the herder won’t see him. “There you are,” the herder says as he comes into view, and oh. Oh, no, he’s beautiful. Bucky stares at the man, golden hair glowing in the sunlight, his body small but strong, and that voice; it’s deep and rich and wholly unexpected from such a lithe frame, and it sends a shiver down Bucky’s spine. He’s never been so captivated by anyone before, including the time Cupid accidentally shot him with an arrow. Bucky shifts to get a better view and steps on a twig, the sharp crack echoing off the rocks as it snaps in half. The herder freezes and looks up the mountainside.

“Is someone there?” he calls. “Hello?” Bucky holds his breath. The breeze picks up. Crow circles quietly overhead. No one moves a muscle. Even Yogurt is finally silent.

“I can see your chiton blowing from behind the tree, you know,” the herder calls out.

Bucky looks down and curses when he notices it’s true. The herder shields his eyes as sunlight glints off Bucky’s metal arm when he raises it for Crow, who comes diving down to perch on it. Once she’s secure, Bucky takes them back to his house, where they land in a heap on the floor. Crow opens her mouth but is cut off by Bucky. “Not one caw,” he says, “not one gods-damned caw, Crow.”  Crow shuts her beak with a clack and goes off to search for some grapes, merriment glistening in her eyes.

*****

“Huh,” Steve says succinctly. He’s sure there was a man behind the tree not twenty feet away from him, but then there was the glare of the sun and the crow, and then they’d just...disappeared. He’d climbed up to where he swore the man had been, but there was no trace of him. “That’s...odd. Don’t you think that’s odd, Yogurt?” The goat looks at Steve impassively and goes back to munching on a shrub. “I swear there was someone there. No, I know there was someone there.” Yogurt continues eating. “Fine, I see how it is. Keep your counsel, then. I’ll just ask Sam what he thinks this evening. Come on, let’s get you back with the herd.” Steve tugs on the goat, who takes one last bite of the shrub and follows along.

Steve tells his family about the incident over dinner. His mother excuses herself to go pray to her household gods. Clint and Natalia exchange nervous looks. Sam just says, “you’d better go find something to sacrifice because that was a supernatural being, and I sure as Hades don’t want you to get smote anytime soon.” Steve just rolls his eyes.

“Come on, you know that’s all just superstitious nonsense. The gods aren’t real.”

Steve can hear his mother gasp from her bedroom. “Are you trying to get yourself turned into a rock? Take it back!” Nat admonishes.

“Come on, guys. Religion is just a way to explain the unexplainable in everyday life that’s been co-opted by the theocracy to keep people from asking too many questions about their own status in life, to keep them scared, and to keep them from rising up and overthrowing their oppressors.”

Nat groans as she folds her arms on the table and drops her head into them. Clint looks like he’s torn between comforting Nat and agreeing with Steve. “You’re going to regret saying that when whatever it was you saw today comes back and zaps you with a giant bolt of lightning,” Sam says as he shakes his head.

“Sam, that’s not going to happen. It was probably just some random guy who ran away faster than I could track him and had a piece of metal in his hand and used it to confuse me. There is no chance I’m ever going to see him again.” Sam raises an eyebrow.

“No chance, Sam, I’m telling you.” Sam raises both eyebrows.

“Fine, you know what? I’ll take the goats back to the same place tomorrow and stay there all day. And when no one shows up, I get to gloat in your face all evening.”

“Deal,” Sam says as he shakes on it.

Steve takes the herd back to the same spot the next day in his bid to prove Sam wrong. He spends the entire day there and doesn’t see anyone else. Just as he’s about to take the goats back home, a man with shoulder-length brown hair, eyes like the stormy sea, and a bronze metal arm pops into existence a few feet away from him.

“Hi. Have you lost anything today?” the man asks.

Steve screams.

The man screams back.

Steve picks up a rock and throws it at the guy, hitting him in the forehead. “Ow, the fuck!” the man shouts. Steve bends down to get another rock to throw, but the man is gone again by the time he straightens up.

Steve sighs. He’s never going to hear the end of this from Sam.

*****

Steve tells Sam and Clint about his encounter that evening in their room, voice low to avoid Nat and his mother overhearing.

“So let me get this straight: you threw a rock at a supernatural being and hit him in the forehead with it?” Sam asks, trying to hold back a smile.

“Yeah.”

“Oh, man. You are so fucked, Steve. Well, it’s been nice knowing you,” Clint says.

Steve groans and flops back onto the bed.

*****

Crow squawks in alarm when Bucky pops back into his house bleeding from the forehead. “It’s fine. I tried to go visit that herder from yesterday, but I startled him and he threw a rock at me.” Crow stares at Bucky for a moment before she starts cackling at him. Bucky rolls his eyes and goes to get a cloth to wipe off the blood. By the time his face is clean, the wound is healed and he’s laughing, too.

Bucky spends the next few days pottering around his terraced garden. It’s a small plot, and since all the food he can ever want or need just magically appears in his kitchen at mealtimes, he doesn’t actually need to grow anything. But he loves his garden, loves tending to the plants and watching them grow. He knows most of them wouldn’t grow this high on a mountain without him using a little of his godly powers to keep them healthy and strong, but that’s between him and the plants.

He has giant pots of flowers and herbs — marjoram, thyme, oregano, and mint. There are two potted olive trees, and a pergola with a grape vine growing up and across it on the terrace abutting his house. The terrace opens onto three small garden plots, each one further up the mountain than the last, separated by stone walls that hold back the earth. He grows grains and vegetables and flowers for his honeybees, who flit happily from flower to flower, enchanted to withstand the cold and the strong winds of the mountainside. Apollo had laughed at Bucky the first time he came to check on Crow and saw his gardens, but Apollo is a dick sometimes, so who cares what he thinks?

Bucky knows he’s gardening to avoid thinking about his herder. Well, not his herder, but in the moments when Bucky lets himself be truly honest, he’d like him to be. Gardening is a piss poor distraction anyway, because all Bucky can do is think about the man with the golden hair and the deep voice, and when Bucky accidentally rips an entire mint plant right out of its pot, he has to concede that this was a bad idea. First he’s going to fix the mint, though. Then he can concede this was a bad idea.

Bucky goes back into his house and paces across the floor as he tries to decide what to do. On the one hand, he really wants to get to know that herder and see if there’s something there. Bucky’s entire body had lit up when he saw the man, in ways he hasn’t felt in...well, forever, if he’s being honest with himself. He knows he’s lonely and that he should try and make some friends besides Crow — it’s just that the other gods are assholes and humans are so fragile. It’s better to keep to himself. Right? Yeah.

Is it, though?

*****

Steve doesn’t see the man again for a week. He’s out with the herd all by his lonesome, until he isn’t. The man steps out from behind a tree while Steve is staring right at it, which is...disconcerting to say the least. He’s far enough away that Steve can see him but probably can’t hit him with another rock, which is a good strategy, all things considered.

The man is dressed simply but the cloth is clearly very fine, and it’s clean, as is his long hair. He gives a little wave with his metal hand and starts walking down the mountain toward Steve.

Who is this guy? He just pops into existence with a metal arm and waves like it’s no big deal, and he’s unfairly hot, all muscled and tanned, and that jawline. Good gods, that jawline. One thing’s for sure, and that is he’s a man who is walking directly toward Steve and getting closer every second. Okay, Steve. Think. Don’t panic.

The man stops a few feet away from Steve and asks, voice husky like it doesn’t get used much, “have you lost anything today?”

Steve panics. “Are you a god? Because if you are and you’re here to try and claim me or fuck me or something, let me tell you, pal, I do NOT consent to that. I refuse to be part of you and your kind’s patriarchal cult of entitlement, so you might as well just kill me now or transform me into a tree or swan or some other stupid thing that makes no sense because I promise that I will use every ounce of my strength to fight you.”

The man blinks.

Steve picks up a rock and throws it at the man, who sees it coming this time and sidesteps in time to avoid getting hit in the head.

“I’m not that kind of god,” he says.

Steve, another rock raised for throwing, pauses. “What?”

“I’m not that kind of god. I can’t do transformations and shit. No, I like my partners enthusiastically consenting. Not that I’ve found anyone who’s wanted to enthusiastically consent in a while, but. Wow, that is information you did not need to know. I’m going to stop talking now.”

Steve lowers his rock. “How long is a while?”

The guy crosses his arms, and Steve tries not to whimper at the flex of his triceps. “Definitely not talking about that.”

“Right. Sorry.”

The silence stretches between them.

“Sorry about the whole ‘you’re a rapist’ thing.”

The guy shrugs. “It’s okay. Not like you’re wrong about most of them.”

“What kind of god are you, then?”

“I’m sorry?”

“You said you weren’t the kind who can do transformations. So what kind are you?”

“Oh. I’m the god of lost things.”

“Huh.”

“Yeah.”

“I wasn’t aware there even was a god of lost things.”

Bucky sighs wearily. “Not many people are, really.”

The silence stretches between them again, even more awkward than before.

“So,” the man finally says, “have you lost anything today?”

“Uh, no.”

“Oh. Okay.”

If the silence were any more awkward, it would come alive and instantly be plunged into the depths of a horrific puberty, its voice cracking as it said “you too” when the server told it to enjoy its meal.

“Okay, bye,” the man says as he disappears right in front of Steve’s face.

*****

As soon as Bucky pops back into his house, he finds the nearest wall and bangs his head against it. Repeatedly. And then once more with feeling.

Crow finds him a few hours later sitting in a chair, his head cradled in his hands, staring into nothing. She hops onto his metal shoulder and unfolds her wing and pats Bucky gently on the shoulders. He sighs softly, so she does it again and again until he sits upright and takes a few deep, fortifying breaths.

“Thanks, Crow. You’re a good girl.” She caws in agreement and goes to find the grapes.

*****

My friend. Is sad. About something. But he is also. Determined. And more full of life. Than he has been. In ages. It is confusing. But it could. Be good. I will find out. Why he is like this. And help make. It good.

*****

Bucky frets for two days before going back to see the herder, who doesn’t even flinch when Bucky pops into view, so he’s going to consider that a good sign.

“Hi. Lost anything lately?”

“No,” says the herder. “Sorry.”

“That’s okay.”

The silence stretches between them again, broken only by the sound of a goat bleating in a repetitive pattern that’s getting louder and louder as it goes on until —

“Hades’s tits, that goat is loud. Are they always that loud?” Bucky asks, turning to face the herder. Who is staring at Bucky, mouth gaping. “What?”

“Did...did you just say ‘Hades’s tits’?” He asks, the corners of his mouth turning up like he’s trying to hold back a laugh.

Bucky thinks back a few seconds. “Y-yes. It seems I did.” He stands up straighter in case he has to defend himself and his choice of curses, but the herder just claps his hands together delightedly before slapping himself across the chest and throwing his head back as he bursts into laughter, and Bucky has never seen anything more ridiculously endearing in his long life, and wow, he is so gone on this herder, so so gone that he’s even rambling nervously in his inner monologue, and he can’t seem to stop, nor can he stop watching the beauty that is his little herder and his boisterous laugh that’s doing all sorts of things to Bucky’s stomach and heart and seriously, please, someone come save him from himself already because this is just getting —

“That is the best thing I have ever heard!”

Bucky smiles and shrugs a bit, and the herder just beams up at Bucky, and yeah. So. Gone.

The herder chuckles a bit more. Bucky frowns when he hears a rasping sound as the herder takes a breath, and then a sort of wheezing, and suddenly the herder is gasping for breath, hands on his knees as he struggles for air. Bucky rushes to his side and wraps his arm around the herder’s chest and hauls him upright. He moves in front of the herder and puts his hands under the man’s armpits to hold him up. Looking him in the eye, Bucky says, “hey, look at me. Look at me!”

The herder struggles to look up but finally does. “Good. That’s good. Now breathe with me.” Bucky starts to inhale and exhale slowly, and the herder whines and wheezes as he fights for air. Bucky encourages him with soft praise, keeping his breaths long and slow. Eventually the herder begins to match Bucky’s breathing, and the worst of the breathing attack seems to pass.

“You okay?” he asks once the herder can breathe normally again.

The man nods. “Yeah. Thank you.”

Bucky nods. “What’s your name? It would be nice to stop calling you ‘herder’ in my head.”

The man snorts a little. “Stephanos. But you can call me Steve.”

“Steve,” Bucky grins. “It suits you.”

“What about you?”

“Oh. You can call me Bucky.”

Steve takes a moment to breathe some more before coughing a bit. Bucky moves toward him again, but Steve waves him off.

“Bucky, huh? That’s uh...I’ve never heard that name before. Can I call you that because it’s your name or just what you want me to call you? Oh, shit, are you secretly Zeus in disguise and you don’t want to blow your cover or something?”

“Ew, no,” Bucky frowns. “I’m not Zeus. I already told you I’m not that kind of god, remember?”

“Yeah, but you could be lying.”

“That’s fair, I guess. But I’m not. Lying, that is. Look, my name is really Iákōbos, but there are a million people with that name, so Bucky comes from Bucephalus, which is my middle name.”

“Bucephalus...like the horse?”

“Technically, I was born first, so Horse Bucephalus is like me, not the other way around.”

“Oh. Still. It has to be annoying that more people know the horse than know about you.”

“You know, it really is?”

Steve huffs out a laugh and Bucky smiles at him. Steve smiles back when he realizes laughing isn’t going to trigger another breathing episode.

They end up talking for a couple of hours as the goats graze and bleat and laze about. Steve waves goodbye and drives the herd back down the hill. Bucky watches until he’s out of sight, the setting sun bathing Steve in soft light. He’s so beautiful. Bucky wants suddenly, what he’s not sure, and he barely knows Steve, but it doesn’t seem to matter. He wants to get to know him and let himself be known in return, and what a dangerous thought but he can’t stop thinking it. It should scare him, the depths of this desire, but instead he feels buoyant.

Bucky sighs happily and pops back home. Crow is there waiting when he gets there. She starts hopping around on the floor when she sees Bucky’s face, and he laughs and grabs his lyre and starts picking out a song. They hop and dance around, cawing and laughing together well into the night.