"All virtue, all evil, are contained only in people. There is none in the universe at large."
-Lois McMaster Bujold, Mirror Dance
The water of the lake rippled, flashing silver and gold under the bright sun. Beautiful. Seductive. Ruffled by the breeze, it lapped at Bucky's knees, curling around his calves, inviting and cool and he took one small step forward and—
"Hey!" The nasal voice cut through his momentary lapse like teeth ripping into flesh.
He turned and the short man in the garish flowery shorts and equally garish shirt frowned at him. Maybe it was a scowl. Probably it was a scowl. Bucky wasn't great at human expressions. Whatever it was, he wasn't happy. "You going to get our boat ready sometime this century, or what?"
Be polite to the customers, Bucky, Bob had told him, and Bob had given him this job, so Bucky did his best. Even if sometimes it didn't quite work. Like now, smiling wide with all his teeth—it was a smile, it counted as polite, even if it made the man pale and back away.
"It's right here." He gestured at the green two-seater pedal boat, its colour faded from years in the sun. "You need life vests," he added as a woman in shorts and a shirt of equal garishness wandered over. "You don't want to drown." He picked up the vests from the pedal boat's seat and handed them over, staring until they put them on.
The woman gave him a smile as he held the boat still for them to climb in and said, "Thank you."
He returned her smile, and this time his was small, no teeth, friendly, and she gave him a little grin. When they were settled, he gave the boat a push, splashing out into the water, half-envious as they trundled their way towards the lake's centre, her laughter and his grumbling carrying back to him.
The other half, the half that wasn't envy, that was deeper and darker and bloodier, was under his control.
Hydra had taught him that. They hadn't meant to, but he'd learned anyway.
* * *
How Hydra figured out that legendary creatures actually existed was anyone's guess. The idea to capture and repurpose one was, like so many plans with unintended consequences, probably arrived at by committee.
On paper, it made sense. Legendary creatures were exactly that: legendary. Almost no one believed in them, and the ones who did generally fell on a sliding scale from odd to genuinely mentally unwell. Legendary creatures were faster and tougher than humans, some were next to impossible to kill, and they had powers and abilities no human could duplicate and very few could defend against (if they even thought to, given the creatures were, well, legendary).
Like so many plans that looked good on paper, it had a few hiccups. The primary one being that, in addition to being legendary, legendary creatures were creatures.
They weren't animals, which could, for the most part, be reliably trained. They weren't humans, with a known psychology and physiology that could, for the most part and depending on the lengths to which someone was prepared to go, be reliably brainwashed and controlled.
They were something different. More than animals but less than human. Deadly but unaware. Special tactics were necessary. For the most part, these involved the application of force. Electricity was especially effective.
They picked the kelpie because, unlike some legendary creatures, it was a simple killer. All kelpies were—there was nothing special about the one they chose; it was just the easiest to get to. Kelpies were killers, shapeshifters with a gift for staying hidden, and they ate the body, everything but the entrails.
To Hydra, these were highly desirable traits.
* * *
His lake had been quiet, peaceful. Secluded. Almost no one came there, because they knew it was a kelpie's lake, warnings passed from generation to generation. Sometimes people, usually children, came close to the shore—close, but never to the lake's edge—and he rose up to watch them, a black shadow of a horse, half-concealed by the water, but they kept their distance and eventually ran away, their fear an acrid taste in the air.
Sometimes strangers came, strangers who laughed at the warnings they were given. Strangers who dove in to swim in the lake or walked its edges and reached to pat the pretty horse even though they'd been told not to. Even though they'd been warned. Strangers who never left the lake, apart from a little pile of entrails on the shore.
Then They'd come and trapped him and hurt him and he didn't understand. They put him in a tiny lake, far from the sun and the sky, a lake with hard walls and bitter water. When They came to the edges of his new lake and he tried to catch Them, tried to drown Them and eat Them, They punished him for it.
He didn't understand.
They hurt him until he changed, horse to human-shape so he looked like Them, using long poles that sparked and smelled like lightning and hurt. They forced him to dress in clothes, stiff and black and made from the skin of dead things, forced him to use weapons and learn to hurt people with them, people who had never come to the edge of his lake.
They took him out into the world and made him kill, but They wouldn't let him kill the ones who came to the edge of his hard and bitter lake. The people They made him kill hadn't come to the edge of Their lake. They made him go to other people's lakes—not actual lakes, but it was the same, somehow, even when it was nowhere near water—and kill them and that was, that was…
For the first time ever in all the time he'd been alive, he wondered why. Why kill this one and not that one? It was the first word he spoke to Them. "Why?"
They hurt him a great deal after that. It didn't help him understand, but it did make him angry.
He didn't ask again, but he watched. He watched and he tried to understand, and he swam in the bitter waters of his tiny lake and he watched Them walk around the edge of it, untouched and untouchable, coming to hurt him whenever They felt like it. Not because They wanted something from him, but because They thought it was fun.
They laughed and jostled each other and watched him twist between his shapes: human-shape and the horse and the eating shape. They didn't like the eating shape. The eating shape scared them, and They punished him for Their fear.
The longer They had him, the more They hurt him, the more They made him kill—the more he wondered. The more he learned.
He learned what They were called: Hydra. The individuals came and went, died and were replaced, but always They were Hydra.
Time passed and a new man came, one who was in charge of Them, in charge of Hydra. One who decided who lived and who died. Who chose.
The new man never smelled of fear, no matter what shape he took.
They gave him a new lake of bitter water and They hurt him and once, only once, one of the new Them tried to ride him. He gave Them their wish, but there was only so far he could run in the tiny lake with its hard walls and flat hard shore and They stopped him before he could drown his rider, before he could eat him—and for the first time ever in all the time he'd been alive he wanted to.
He'd never wanted to before. It had just been what what he was, what he did, the same way he'd breathed and swam and lived in his first lake. He'd never chosen to kill the people who came to the edge of his lake, just like he'd never chosen to leave his lake to hunt for people to kill or chosen to leave his lake and kill the ones who came near to stare at him.
'Bucky' they called him after that ride. He'd been called things before, given little pieces of plastic with names on them when They took him out into the world, but Bucky was different, he realised eventually. It was his name. Just like They all had names.
The second word he spoke was: "No." No, because now he knew what it was to want to kill someone. It meant that he knew what it was to not want to. He was done killing for Them. Done with letting Them choose.
That baffled Them as much as it made Them angry, the man in charge staring at him from his blue, blue eyes, but he didn't give Them time to hurt him. He twisted into his eating shape, sharp hooves and sharper teeth, terror made flesh, and attacked. He was a tsunami turning on the unsuspecting ocean that birthed it and tearing it to pieces. When he was done, everything Hydra that had once been alive was dead, scattered in chunks across the blood-washed floor.
He'd been a kelpie, a piece of nature no more aware than a wave or a wildfire. He was still a kelpie, still a deadly piece of nature, but now he could choose.
Hydra had taught him that.
* * *
Bucky—and he'd kept the name, because however he'd gotten it, it was his—had wound up here because of the lake. However much he wasn't a kelpie anymore, he also still was and he needed the water. He needed to be near the water, in the water, of the water. It was who he was.
Who. That was different. Being a who. Before Hydra, he'd never been a who.
He had a job because Bob had found him staring at the lake from the end of his dock and gently shooed him away. After a week of finding Bucky there every morning, gently shooing him away—even if it took longer and longer every day, since he started talking to Bucky before chasing him off—he'd ended up offering Bucky a job.
First, he'd offered Bucky a coffee. The day after that he'd asked Bucky if he wanted to work. Not once, even when he'd clapped Bucky on the shoulder, startling him so badly he'd jumped and whirled, did Bucky have the urge to eat him.
He'd said yes and now he worked for Bob's Boat Hire, being polite to customers—even if sometimes it didn't go right.
Bob gave him cash, and didn't ask any questions, and let him sleep in the boathouse, and at night he could change and swim out into the lake, black horse's body next thing to invisible under the starry sky.
He was spotted one night by a bunch of half-drunk young men trying to turn themselves into full drunk young men around a campfire on the beach.
They tried to lure him out of the water. Why they thought a horse would be tempted by beer, he wasn't sure, but he was tempted. Humans at the edge of his lake, reaching hands. Old urges rose, dark and bloody—ignored, because he wouldn't kill them; he wouldn't eat them—but surely a wild ride wouldn't hurt.
Step by step, he let them draw him out until he was standing on the beach. They were laughing and cheering, so proud of themselves. Apparently they thought they'd rescued him.
He turned his head, arched his neck, delicately pawed one hoof.
"Ride it!" It wasn't clear who started the chant, but soon they were egging each other on until one stepped forward. Tall, brown hair, big hands, glint in his eye. Bucky curved towards him and he grinned and grabbed Bucky's mane while they boosted him up.
"Don't fall off!" one of his friends called, but there was no danger of that. Once you touched a kelpie you could never get free. He was stuck as surely as if he'd been glued there.
For one moment Bucky stood still, then he gathered himself and launched forward. The young man on his back yelled, "Fuck!", scrabbled desperately at Bucky's mane, and Bucky ran, wild as the wind, up and over impossible obstacles, because he was a kelpie and a kelpie wasn't bound by the normal rules.
He could feel the young man's fear, but it wasn't fear alone. He was laughing as he leaned over Bucky's neck, obviously having figured out he wasn't going to fall. The wind was whipping past them with the speed of Bucky's run, and he plunged into the lake, running through the shallows, leaping over boats and docks, impossibly high, and his rider's laughter surrounded him, turning his fear into something sweet, flowing into him, feeding some part of him he hadn't known was starving.
The lake was there, its depths waiting, calling for him to drown and feed, but he turned away. He could feel his rider flagging, sagging over his neck. He cantered back close to where he'd found him. It was hard to let him go, to release his hold and let him slide off to fall in a heap, but he did it.
"That was awesome," the young man said, laughing as he rolled onto his back, arms outflung. "Better than a roller coaster."
Bucky snorted at him and left.
* * *
It wasn't the last time.
It was amazing how many humans were prepared to ride a strange horse they found wandering by the lake (and he knew then that there were no kelpies in this country).
Bucky quickly learned to tell the difference between the ones who were horse crazy and the ones who were just crazy—the ones who enjoyed being scared, the ones he could take on a wild ride and their fear would be matched by excitement and turn sweet. It was something in their eyes. In the way they stood. They were the ones he chose.
Not often, but enough he felt more alive than he had since he'd said, 'No'.
He always returned them close to where he found them. He always returned them safe. He never hurt them. He never hurt anyone.
Until the night of the full moon.
Until the night he saw the man near the shore, but he wasn't alone.
He had a child with him. He had a child and it was afraid. True fear, not the excitement-fear that Bucky shared with his riders. This was terror. He could taste it in the air and it was bitter.
He snorted, swimming closer, and he could see the man was holding a weapon close to the child's skin.
He knew about weapons. They had taught him about weapons. Guns and knives and this was a knife made for killing.
He could smell blood alongside the fear.
Bucky wasn't sure he chose, exactly, but he trotted out of the water and shifted, standing naked in the shallows, and the child looked at him with eyes that begged for help and the man stared at him with eyes that looked like Hydra's.
It was simple to catch the man's wrist in his moment of distraction, dragging him away from the child, breaking it so the knife fell, as he told the child to, "Run to the road," but he didn't wait, because the man was trying to fight back.
He shifted to the horse and the man was stuck, caught, held fast, and Bucky whirled and dragged him into the water.
The man stunk of other people's blood, their pain, their fear. Their death. Children's, probably, given the knife and the child. Bucky's anger stirred and he surged towards the centre of the lake, swimming down deep as the man struggled, gasping, fighting to escape.
Afraid he was going to drown.
Not something he needed to worry about.
Deep in the depths of the lake, in the cold and the black, only the barest trickles of light leaking down from the full moon above, the man's legs feebly kicking, he called his eating shape.
His mouth opened wide, wide, and wider still, splitting his long horse's head all the way back to his neck. Sharp teeth flashed, wolf teeth, shark teeth, teeth with no place in the mouth of anything equine, and he snaked his head around and lunged, tearing chunks from the man as he tried to scream.
It didn't last long. The water churned red, and Bucky kept eating until nothing was left but the entrails.
* * *
His life had been easier when he could just toss the entrails on the shore of the lake.
Truth was, his life had been easier when he didn't know anything, when he hadn't existed, before Hydra had made him a who, had taught him to choose. But this was what he had to deal with now, and he wasn't going to toss entrails on the shore where anyone could stumble across them.
Grumbling, he swam back to land and found a garbage can, then wrapped them up securely in multiple layers of plastic bags, grateful that humans threw so many things away, and put them in the trash.
Then he sat down on the shore and stared at the water. Far across the lake, close to where he'd found the man and the child, he could see red and blue lights flashing, reflected off the water.
He was going to have to leave. The child had seen him. Had seen him change.
Tentatively, he prodded at what he'd done, and decided he was satisfied with his choice. The man had tried to hurt a child at the edge of Bucky's lake. He'd been blood-soaked, pain-soaked, death-soaked and he'd been human. He'd been free to choose, had always been free to choose, and he'd chosen that. Bucky snorted, pure horse, pure disdain. Now he couldn't choose to hurt anyone else.
But he was going to have to leave.
It didn't take long to pack up his few belongings. He did leave a note for Bob. He was proud of it. It said he'd had to go because of a family emergency. It was a good lie. He also said thank you for the job and the place to stay. That part wasn't a lie.
Then he picked a direction and started walking.