Chapter 1: Prologue
Warning for off-screen horse death in this chapter, but they find the body. (It's not Goliath!) More details in the end note for anyone who needs them.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
A dusty dirt road leading to the Abbey of the Holy Spirit
"Nuns," Bucky said dubiously, giving Goliath a reassuring pat as Sam's bay gelding got a little too close. It wasn't that the horses didn't get along, Lord knows they'd spent enough time travelling together, Goliath just preferred a certain amount of space.
Or possibly that was Bucky.
"Don't say it like that," Sam replied with a longsuffering sigh. "Nuns are normal people, same as you and me."
The look Bucky gave him was as dubious as his voice had been.
"No, that's fair enough," Sam said after a moment, "but they're not scary."
Sam laughed at him and leaned over to whisper to Goliath, who perked his ears, since he was unaccountably fond of Sam, the traitor, "Your master's scared of nuns."
"Hey!" He flipped a foot out of the stirrup and tried to kick Sam, but Sam reined his gelding away, then nudged him into a fast canter, disappearing around a curve in the road.
"I'm not scared of nuns," Bucky said when they'd caught up with him, both horses slowing to an easy walk. "I'm cautious. Mostly because I can't figure out why a bunch of nuns are going to trust us to take one of their foundlings halfway across the country without a chaperone."
"Reading between the lines of the message the Abbess sent, I don't think they have a lot of options. Someone's been sniffing around her, someone with the power to take what he wants, which means they need to get her out of his reach. Now."
A thread of anger made Bucky's hands tighten on the reins. Goliath dropped his head, mouthing the bit, and he loosened his grip, scratching the horse's shoulder in wordless apology. "So they sent for you?"
"They sent for me. I've done work for them before, long before I ended up with your pale ass," Bucky rolled his eyes, "and they know they can trust me. Now, they get both of us. Don't worry," he grinned, "I'll make sure they know they can trust you, too."
* * *
He and Sam had done a lot of escort work in their time. People needed to travel and being safe meant being stronger, faster, and meaner than whoever was waiting to steal what they had—goods, body, life or sometimes all three—or hiring someone who was.
They'd escorted magistrates and priests between cities, guided newly betrothed and their companions and chaperones to their new families, and accompanied well-off merchants on pilgrimage. They'd even guarded alchemists and healers a time or two; they rarely offered much coin, but they paid in other things—knowledge and potions and poultices, which could be more valuable to fighting men.
Escorting Wanda, which was the foundling's name, all alone with no chaperone and no other women at all, was a new experience. It was uncomfortable at first, more because he expected it to be uncomfortable, Bucky thought as the days passed, then because of any actual discomfort.
The further they got from the Abbey the more Wanda seemed to thrive. Her mare was a solid, unflappable palfrey—a grouse took flight under her nose, so close its wings must have smacked her in the face, and she didn't do more than lay her ears back in irritation—for which Bucky was grateful, because Wanda wasn't the best rider.
"Not much chance to ride at the Abbey?" Sam asked her.
"No," she replied quietly, fingers tangled in her mare's mane. Then she looked up and smiled, bright as the sun glinting off her red hair. "I like it, though."
Sam raised a questioning eyebrow at Bucky. Bucky shrugged, but he was thinking the same thing, especially with the weeks of travel ahead of them.
"We could teach you," Sam offered. "How to ride properly. Like we do." He squinted at Bucky, then snorted. "Like I do, anyway. You don't want to ride like him."
Bucky just sniffed and nudged Goliath, twitching the reins, and Goliath lifted his legs neatly, prancing down the road while Bucky sat rocksteady on his back.
"See, can't even keep his horse walking properly."
"I heard that," Bucky called while Wanda laughed.
"I'd like to learn," she said, "but—" And she plucked at her skirts.
Bucky turned Goliath to fall back in beside them and exchanged another glance with Sam, who rubbed his chin. They were already so far outside the bounds of propriety, her travelling with them without a chaperone, what was one more thing?
That was how Wanda ended up dressed as a boy. It made things easier—not just teaching her to ride, but everything. When they had to enter a settlement or a town, it was much easier to be two men with a young man than two men with a young woman. Loose pants, a loose shirt, her hair bound into a tight braid, the hood of the long cloak Sam bought her raised—as long as she didn't talk, no one knew the difference.
Bucky could feel the sheer joy of it coming off her, sometimes, of having that freedom. He didn't know if it was the joy, the freedom, or that she was starting to trust them, but they were riding along a mountain path when she said, out of the blue, "It was the Bishop."
"Sorry?" Sam said, turning in his saddle to look at her.
Wanda didn't move, kept her eyes between her mare's ears, but she said, "The Bishop of Aquila. He's the one the nuns are getting me away from. The Abbey falls within his diocese and he was making his annual visit when I ran into him. It was an accident. I was late for my duties, I ended up in the courtyard when he was leaving, and he saw me. Talked to me. After that…" She shivered.
Bucky pulled in a deep breath. They'd said it was someone with the power to take what he wanted, but that was… He brushed his fingers over his sword, touched his knives. Reassuring himself.
"I'm not sure what to say," Sam said gently.
"Nothing," she replied, giving him a quick smile. "You don't need to say anything. I just thought you should know."
"Do you think I can learn to use your crossbow?"
"I don't see why not," Sam said, rubbing the back of his neck with a quiet laugh.
She was a good kid and she was taking to this life like she'd been born to it. Bucky thought he'd be sorry to see her go when they got her safely where she needed to be. He knew Sam would, but then Sam was always getting attached to people.
* * *
The City of Aquila, the Bishop's private rooms
The private rooms of the Bishop of Aquila were things of grace and beauty. Wide windows pierced the pale stone walls, with thick shutters discreetly placed, ready to block out bad weather should the need arise. Bold and colourful tapestries hung from the walls and rich, silken carpets, shimmering with complex and intricate patterns, were carefully laid out across the patterned tiles.
Pale cloth draped the windows, providing a buffer between the room and the sun—or, as it happened, the moon, since it was well past midnight. Candles burned, flickering in the breeze, and the Bishop, wearing his long robes of office, stood in front of the pentagram he'd drawn on the floor in his own blood so many years ago.
The carpet which usually kept it hidden was folded neatly nearby.
He held a copy of the Testament of Solomon, which was bound between the covers of a Book of Hours, but he didn't bother to consult it. The words he needed were engraved in his memory. As he spoke, he could almost see them come to writhing life before sinking into the space inside the pentagram, reaching down into hell to call his demon forth.
It was irritating, having to go through all this, but soon he'd have power of his own. It was a minor inconvenience, soon to be rectified, that it currently resided in someone else.
There was no blaze of fire, no dramatic curls of smoke. One moment the pentagram was empty, the next the demon was there. Tall and pale, pitch black hair falling over its shoulders, smooth golden horns curling back off its forehead.
Naked and shameless, it made no attempt to cover its manhood. At first it had tried seducing him with that nakedness, tried taunting him with it. When he'd remained unmoved it had abandoned those tactics, but he kept a watchful eye out for their return.
Eyes blazing with the fire of the pit, it said, "Alexander Pierce. Again, you call me."
"As I've told you before, demon, you will call me 'Your Grace'. I am a Bishop."
"Oh, but you've strayed so far from grace." The demon smiled, its teeth gleaming white and sharp. "How will you ever find your way back?"
"Have I?" He smiled. "I serve the Church and the Church serves God. I summon you and you serve me. It seems to me that I haven't fallen from grace so much as I've brought you inside of it."
"Of course you have. Your Grace," the demon added after a long pause. "Again I ask, why have you summoned me? Are you not yet done with your petty power plays?
"Petty." He huffed a small laugh. "Petty is your diabolical squabbling and your ranks of demons bowing before the hellish throne. I fight for men's souls. Do you know why this city was built?"
"I'm certain you'll tell me."
"It was built to defy the power of the papacy. It is ruled by a council of men and the hand of the King, and where is the Church in that? They built a cathedral, its people are my flock, yet the city itself shuns the glory of God. Aquila must be brought to heel and its rulers made to kneel at His altar."
"Are you sure you don't mean your altar?"
"Trying to tempt me? Everything I do I do in service to Him. They must be brought firmly under the hand of the Church, first Aquila and then the rest of kingdom, before its people are forever lost."
"And does the Church you fight so hard for know your plans?"
"They will, when its right." The demon gave him a sardonic look. "You should be glad I called you this time."
"Why, have you another child for me to eat?"
The Bishop ignored him. "There is a woman."
"There often is."
"A woman with powers. Powers she knows nothing about. Powers she wouldn’t know what to do with even if she knew she had them. Powers that can be used to further the ends of the Church. You're going to take her powers and give them to me."
"Such a thing may be possible, if the conditions are right."
"I expect you to make it happen. Remember, you serve me. Your will is mine." The demon's eyes flared red, anger rolling through them, and he smiled again. "As extra incentive, once I have them I won't need you anymore."
"And then you will free me from your summons?"
"We'll see. The nuns sent her away. I'll send my guard to retrieve her. You will deal with the men accompanying her. Understand?"
"I understand precisely."
"To obey my word is to obey Him."
"If you say it, it must be true." There was a long pause and the fire in the demon's eyes danced. "Your Grace."
* * *
The wilderness, a week later
"Are you with me?"
The words echoed strangely in Bucky's ears and he shook his head. Something flapped, pulling at his head, and he flinched away. It didn't get him anywhere. He was bound, twisted around, arms wrong, legs wrong…
His eyes flew open and he saw Sam. He was standing a few feet away, the pommel of Bucky's sword peeking over his shoulder, Goliath standing behind him, ears pricked sharply towards Bucky.
It was full dark, but the world was half-bright. He breathed in and it was full of smells: Sam, Goliath, night creatures, the trees.
"You're a wolf," Sam said calmly, but Bucky could hear how fast his heart was beating. "And I hope this works, because I'm tired of dealing with not-you. You're actually worse than you."
What he wanted to say was, Go to the devil, you motherless bastard. What came out was a muffled whining growl, and he flattened his ears and glared.
"That's promising. That looks like you know me and actively dislike me."
I do, Bucky thought. I really do.
"All right. I'm going to undo the rope on your muzzle. If you try and bite me I will choke you out."
He held himself still as Sam unwound the rope from around his muzzle, working his jaw when he was done.
"Do you know who you are?"
Bucky stared up at him, then started gnawing on the rope binding his front paws.
"James." Sam's voice was deadly serious. "I need to know you know who you are."
Surprised, he looked up. Sam never called him James. Slowly, he nodded.
Shoulders drooping, Sam muttered, "Thank God," and, "Stop getting drool all over the rope," as he knelt and dealt with the ropes around Bucky's feet.
When he was free, he pulled himself to his feet, shook himself, and stared at the ground. There was a puddle of drool in the dirt. You're a wolf. He was a wolf. He was a wolf.
"I don't know how much you remember," Sam said. "I was out of it for a couple of days. You've been, look, you've basically been feral for a week."
His head snapped up.
"You're not the only one that got hit." Being a wolf was good for one thing. He could see the tremor in Sam's hands as he coiled the rope and stowed it in Goliath's saddlebags. "It, it had to be a curse, and it got both of us."
He looked at Sam's lack of wolfness doubtfully.
"It's not all the time. It's—" He ran a hand down Goliath's neck, and Bucky knew how comforting the giant stallion could be. "Sun comes up? I turn into a hawk and you turn back into a man. Sun goes down, you turn into a wolf."
Bucky sat down with a thump, fought back a shiver. Being cursed, it was… He'd always expected he'd come to a bad end. If this was how it happened, it was how it happened. But Sam… Bucky would rather drown himself in a well than admit it, but Sam was better than this. Brighter than this. It shouldn't happen to someone like Sam.
"I've been herding you, keeping you away from people, away from settlements, away from hunters and traplines. Even when you changed from wolf to man, you were gone. Someone would have put you down or trapped you." He paused. "Or burned you at the stake. Men don't change into wolves, not unless the devil's taken an interest."
He smoothed a hand down Goliath's nose and the stallion lipped at Sam's tunic.
Bucky's lips curled back on a sudden surge of jealousy.
"Do not start with me, furballs." Sam heaved a sigh and crouched down so he was eye-level with Bucky. "I take back everything I ever said to you about your unnatural attachment to your horse. He's stuck with us, with you, through all of this."
Of course he did. Bucky huffed and took a cautious step forward, stretching up, and when Goliath dropped his head and touched his nose the world felt inexplicably better, a spot of rightness in his heart, gluing the fractures together.
But it only lasted a moment.
He turned to face Sam, shoulders square, head high. They’d been together long enough Sam should be able to read, Don’t bullshit me, tell me what's going on, even looking like this.
The sudden fury in Sam’s eyes made his hackles lift. "I don't know where she is."
He snarled, the sound ripping out of him and tearing through the air as it came back to him, sharp and fast, bleeding into his memory. The Bishop's men, the ambush. Throwing Wanda onto Sam's gelding—who was fast, faster even than Goliath—and telling her to run, the sight of her hunched over his neck as he raced away from the fight.
The bloody, brutal mess they'd made, Goliath charging the Bishop's men and knocking their horses flying. They'd been winning. They'd been winning—until pain had twisted through them, pain with no source. The curse, he knew now. It had to have been the curse.
He remembered the ground rushing up to meet him, Sam's harsh cry, Goliath's scream of anger and the sound of hooves on flesh. He lifted his head to gaze at his horse, tall and fearless, and wondered if he was why they were still alive.
"I don't know," Sam repeated. "I've been trying to track her, not easy when I've been trying to keep you out of harm's way."
Bucky flattened his ears and whined.
"Don't. We don't have time. We're going to keep looking, and I'm hoping it's going to be easier now that you're back." He tapped Bucky's nose, his scent almost overwhelming that close. "Think you can?"
* * *
He almost couldn't. They had to backtrack until he found a trail and even then, there wasn't much to follow. Scraps of scent: Wanda, Sam's gelding, the Bishop's men.
They followed the trail, such as it was. Nights fell and he went to ground to lose himself in the fur of a wolf, but he never lost himself. Mornings came, the sun rose, left Bucky gasping and naked, scrabbling at sunlight that felt heavy as wet snow while Sam fluttered into the sky, light as feathers on the wind.
Eventually the trail came to an end.
It came to an end in a clearing deep in the woods. A clearing marked by broad scorch marks and the acrid smell of lightning and fire and trees dappled with blood. Bucky's fur stood on end as they cautiously approached, Sam's torch illuminating the night, and Goliath snorted, tossed his head.
They found Wanda's cloak, the one Sam had bought for her, sword-slashed and soaked with blood, near the scattered remains of Sam's horse—what hadn't yet been eaten or dragged away by the wolves and small scavengers whose prints marked the churned-up dirt.
The clearing reeked of death.
"There's no body," Sam said.
Bucky nosed the cloak, then lifted his head to give Sam a long look, because yes, her body wasn't here, but there was also almost nothing left of the horse, poor brave beast, and it had been much bigger than Wanda.
"I know." He rubbed a hand over his mouth. "I know."
They'd failed their charge and Wanda, joyful and kind with a snapping fire inside and so young, could only be dead.
A whine came out of his throat; he didn't try and stop it.
"Me too," Sam said quietly, eyes deep and sad, and gathered up her cloak.
* * *
Bucky paid a priest to bury the cloak in a corner of his tiny church burial grounds—inside the walls, with the well-born—and say the prayers for Wanda.
The priest didn't ask any questions beyond what he needed to perform the rites. The gold piece didn't encourage it. The blank-eyed man who'd offered it—hawk on one shoulder, sword visible over the other, gigantic black horse standing loose at the front of the church—discouraged them entirely.
As they rode away, Sam perched on the front of the saddle, Bucky said, low-voiced, "I don't care if he's got the devil on his side. We were supposed to keep her safe and the Bishop got her killed. I think we should do something about that."
There was a hell in Sam's eyes that matched his own heart as he mantled his wings and let out a low cry.
She'd trusted them to look after her, to keep her safe, and they'd failed. They couldn't make that right, they could never make that right, the dead couldn't be returned to life.
But they could be avenged.
Extra detail about the animal death: they find Sam's gelding dead in a clearing. He's been mostly eaten by wolves and small scavengers, but nothing is described in detail.
Steve shoved himself farther into the corner, digging himself deeper into the pile of straw. It was cold in the jail and, through the bars, he could see the other poor bastards doing the same thing with their own filthy piles of straw.
Wistfully, he eyed the slits at the top of the wall, there to let in air and carry away the stink, and then the drain. He was skinny but not quite skinny enough to shove himself through either of them. The only way he was getting out of here was when they came to drag him to the whipping block tomorrow.
It could be worse, he thought. I could be in the prisons of Aquila waiting for a hanging. The whipping I might actually survive.
Probably not. The greased pig of a magistrate wasn't going to be lenient after what Steve had done, but he had no regrets. He'd left regrets behind a long time ago, lying on a fancy silken carpet next to his mother's body.
He shifted, trying to get comfortable, bony shoulders scraping the wall.
Raised voices caught his attention, coming from the front of the jail. He craned his neck to try and see but didn't get up. He might have abandoned regrets, but he wasn't stupid. Drawing attention in here would be a mistake.
Turned out, being careful didn't make a difference.
The jailer, a man as wide as he was tall with the shifty eyes of an untrustworthy weasel, appeared in front of his cell, jingling his keys.
"Steven, Steven, Steven," he chided, voice ringing with false concern. "What have you been up to?"
Steve stared silently back at him.
"Up you get, my lad. Got someone here who's going to take you off my hands."
Like he'd been waiting for his cue, a tall, dark-haired man, as wide through the shoulders as the jailer was through the body, appeared. He wore a fighter's leathers, all in black, with a long sword peeking over one shoulder. His eyes were a complicated grey, flecks of blue giving them richness, but they were…empty.
Steve fought not to recoil from the blankness, letting his gaze flick up to the bird perched on his other shoulder. It was some kind of hunting bird, maybe a falcon or a hawk, no hood or jesses, and it mantled, staring down at Steve like he was a mouse it was considering for dinner.
They were like something from a legend or a nightmare and they were here for Steve.
He balled his hands into fists.
"None of that," the jailer said, fake joviality replaced by anger as he unlocked the cell. "On your feet. He's paid good money for you and I've got things to do."
Things like altering the records to make it look like Steve was never here, Steve had no doubt. It wouldn't be the first time people had gone missing from the jail—but this time, with how angry the magistrate was, there was no way it was going to be overlooked. The jailer was an idiot. Steve almost wished he was going to be around to see what happened.
He glanced between Grey-eyes and the jailer, calculating, then smiled ruefully and rose to his feet. "Guess it's got to be better than a whipping."
"Make no mistake about that. Skinny as you are, that whip'd go right down to the bone."
Steve tilted his head in acknowledgement and made his way to the door. When it opened, he stepped through, as calm and complacent and cooperative as could be.
Grey-eyes gave him a once over, nose wrinkling. "He stinks."
"You paid for him as is, m'lord, and peasants stink."
Those grey eyes narrowed, and Steve wanted to laugh at him. He did stink; inevitable, given why he'd ended up in here, and here hadn't helped any.
"You can toss him in a horse-trough, drag him around a bit. That'll take care of the worst of the smell."
Grey-eyes nodded sharply, dug out a handful of coins—Steve's heart seized when he saw the glint of gold—and dropped them in the jailer's greedy hand.
"Pleasure doing business with you, m'lord."
Grey-eyes turned to Steve. "Come on."
Steve meekly said, "Yes, m'lord," and trailed after him, head bowed, through the door of the jail, down the stairs, and out across the cobblestone road where a huge black horse was being watched by two skinny kids.
They did a double-take when they saw Steve, and he tilted his head in something that wasn't quite a question. He knew them and they knew him, and while he didn't deal in favours, just like he didn't deal in regrets—he helped because sometimes people needed help, not because he expected anyone to owe him—maybe…?
The older one—Cor—dipped his chin in understanding. Steve nodded back and quietly gathered himself. Grey-eyes dug two more coins, these ones copper—Steve spared a moment to wonder what in the name of merciful God Grey-eyes could possibly want with Steve that was worth gold—that Cor and Filin accepted with a grin.
As soon as the coins were safely tucked away, they started pestering Grey-eyes.
"Can we sit on your horse?"
"Tell us about your bird."
"Yeah, how come it just sits on your shoulder like that?"
"Why doesn't it need a hood?"
"Can I hold your sword?"
"Yeah, can we hold your sword?"
Their questions were high-pitched, insistent, they danced around Grey-eyes, earnest and big-eyed, and Steve bolted.
Grey-eyes whipped around and the hawk on his shoulder launched itself into the air, but Steve kept running. He threw himself into the twisty mess of close-set houses, down the alleys, heart racing, breath already coming in tight gasps as booted feet pounded after him, but this was his territory. He knew it like he knew his own body and no m'lord on a fancy horse would ever be able to follow him here.
The boots chasing him faded away, which was good because he was having trouble breathing, lungs heaving, shooting pain in his side, and he went to ground, squeezing into a barely-wide enough space between a wooden shack and the tannery.
Breathing through his mouth, the stench from the tannery nearly overwhelming, he fought to get air back into his lungs and waited. All he had to do was stay here 'til night fell then make his way…somewhere. Grey-eyes would shake his money back out of the jailer, he'd be safely gone from the jail's records, so all he'd need to do was keep his head down, stay out of the magistrate's way, and get out of town. Maybe one of the farms would have work for him, or he could move onto another—
A hand clamped around his shoulder and dragged him out. He swung before he thought, fist smacking into Grey-eyes' cheek with a meaty thunk, feet kicking back hard to try and slam into his legs, his groin, whatever he could reach, but Grey-eyes hauled him straight up, he was dangling, he couldn't get a hit in, and then he was shoved against the wall, pinned in place by a hand in the middle of his back.
"Let's try that again," Grey-eyes said flatly.
Steve twisted his neck and looked over his shoulder. Those grey eyes weren't blank anymore, but they weren't angry. Steve saw determination, resignation, irritation, but Grey-eyes didn't seem angry that Steve had bolted.
It was almost surprising enough to make Steve stop, except Steve was angry. He struggled against his grip, knowing it was futile—he could feel the strength pinning him to the wall—but that had never stopped him before, and it wasn't going to stop him now.
"Will you stop fighting me?"
"You can go to the devil."
Grey-eyes sighed. A kreeeee-ee-ee and a rustling of wings made Steve stiffen and turn his head the other way.
The bird was perched on a broken crate, watching with his head cocked.
"Yeah, you can laugh," Grey-eyes said. "You don't have to deal with him. Or smell him."
Another kreeeeee-ee-ee, and the bird took off, spiralling into the sky and flying off in the direction Steve had run from.
"Any chance you'll just come with me?" Grey-eyes asked.
"Sure," Steve said. "You let me go and I'll come with you as nice as you please."
Grey-eyes snorted. "Right. How stupid do you think I am?"
"About as stupid as you think I am if you think I'm gonna answer that while you've got me pinned to a wall."
There was no response, at least not in words. Instead, Grey-eyes dug a rope out of his belt pouch. Steve froze, then exploded, fighting harder, ended up with Grey-eyes shoving him against the wall with his whole body, one hand wrapped around both wrists while he tied the rope around them.
"There." He stood back. "That'll make sure you don't run off again. It wasn't easy to find you and I'm not going to lose you."
Steve didn't shiver, because you didn't. You didn't show weakness once they had you. That only made everything worse. He lifted his chin, stared Grey-eyes right in his stupid grey eyes, and refused to look away.
Eventually, Grey-eyes turned away. "Let's go."
Steve followed, because this time he didn't have a choice.
* * *
This wasn't how Bucky had wanted this to go. It was his fault it had, he wasn't blaming Steve, but it wasn't how he'd wanted it to go.
He was secretly a little impressed. Impressed at how completely Steve had feigned meekness—especially when Bucky should have known better, given the stories they'd heard—how easily he'd communicated with those kids, how fast he'd bolted. How effective he'd been at hiding.
If it hadn't been for Sam, he might not have found him. But they'd had to find him. They needed him. Steve was maybe the only chance they had, and it was only dumb luck they'd found him at all—maybe not even that if the gossip that had sent them after him through Bucky had given up counting how many villages and towns turned out to be nothing but.
And I'm sure he's going to be thrilled to cooperate now that you've put a rope on him, Bucky. Good job. God, why couldn't Sam be dealing with this? Sam was good with people, better by far than Bucky, but no; it was daytime, so it had to be Bucky.
Goliath was standing patiently where they'd left him, cropping the few scraps of grass that had grown through the stones of the street, Sam perched on his saddle. He lifted his head when they got close, whickering a greeting, and Bucky couldn't help smiling a little. It faded when Steve glared at him.
Right. Steve wasn't stupid. Bucky was taking him away. On Goliath.
He resisted the urge to bang his head on the saddle.
"Where do you live?" Everything they'd learned had told them Steve didn't have anyone to say goodbye to, but he could at least let him get anything he didn't want to leave behind.
"Why?" If suspicion was a living thing, that one word would be bigger than Goliath.
"Because it's going to be a long time 'til we come back here. If there's anything you want—maybe some clean clothes?—you need to get it now."
Steve glared again, or maybe still. Bucky didn't want it to be this way, but if this was how it had to go, this was how it had to go.
Sam gave a low call. Steve's eyes flicked to him and Sam flapped his wings then resettled, shifting on Goliath's saddle.
Steve stared past him, into the distance, over the town that stretched down the sides of the hill. "If you're serious," he finally said, "there is something I want."
"The Dog's Head." He pointed down the hill. "It's near the town gates."
Bucky had seen it when they rode in, a seedy looking tavern he'd made a note not to get anywhere near. "Get on." He nodded at Goliath.
"I can walk."
"If you're on the horse, you can't run off."
"Can't get on with my hands tied."
Bucky considered it, glanced over at Sam, who tilted his head, then, almost sure he was going to regret it, said, "Turn around." When Steve obeyed, he undid the rope from one wrist. "Now get on."
He ended up having to boost him into the saddle while Sam hopped up onto the pommel. When Steve was settled, he put a foot in the stirrup and got up behind Steve. It was easier for the short ride and with Bucky's long cloak pulled forward, Steve almost disappeared.
No one really looked at him as they rode through the town; it was all quick glances and then glancing away. That told him more than he wanted to know about how the well-born in this town behaved—badly—and he didn't much like it, but right now it was working to his advantage.
The streets and buildings got notably worse the closer they got to the gates, the people more willing to stare right at Bucky, and he left Goliath's tie loose when they went inside The Dog's Head. If someone tried to take the stallion, or tried to make off with the saddlebags or anything in them, Sam wouldn't need to trouble himself: Goliath would easily take care of them.
He kept Steve close, the rope around his wrist wound around his hand, and stood in front of him to hide it as they approached the barman, who barely looked up from the dirty glass he was making dirtier as he rubbed it with a filthy rag.
"You in trouble again?" he asked Steve indifferently. "Surprised they haven't hanged you yet."
"Not yet." Steve's smile was nothing but teeth. "Give me time."
The barman snorted. "You come for your bag?"
"Can you think of another reason I'd be here?"
It got him another snort. "Got your coin, have you?"
"He's paying." Steve jerked a thumb at Bucky.
The barman eyed Bucky, then grunted.
Bucky's eyes narrowed in annoyance, but all he said was, "How much?" The barman told him, and he set the copper pieces on the bar, reaching out to catch the bag that was tossed without ceremony across the counter.
"Pleasure doing business with you," the barman said as he gathered the coins.
Bucky handed the bag to Steve and left without another word, Steve following the tug of the rope on his wrist.
There were two half-drunk louts sizing up Goliath from across the street, and Bucky would have wished them luck—Goliath's ears were flat, one back leg cocked, and Sam was sitting on the saddle with his wings half spread—but they staggered off when he appeared.
He plucked Steve's bag out of his hands and strapped it to the saddle before he could argue. Sam took flight and Bucky swung into the saddle, then reached down to grab Steve's arm as he tensed to bolt.
"No," he said firmly, wearily, and half-hauled him up to sit behind him. "Hang on."
He gave Goliath his head, brushed him with his legs, and he surged forward, massive hooves eating the distance.
* * *
Steve clung to Grey-eyes—who hadn't even had the basic courtesy to introduce himself—as the giant horse turned off the road and into the forest. He didn't want to cling, but they'd been riding for miles and if he didn't cling he'd fall off and then he had no doubt Grey-eyes would, he didn't know, tie a longer rope to him and haul him behind the horse.
Somehow, he wasn't surprised to see the shimmer of water in the distance. His stench was probably offending Grey-eyes' delicate nose. Truth be told, it was starting to offend Steve's. He stunk, he was exhausted, he was sore—the horse was too damn wide—and he was, no matter how much he tried to deny it, worried about what was going to happen next.
They finally pulled up in a clearing between some trees, not far from the lake. The bird winged up and landed on a rock, clearly watching them, and that wasn't helping. Steve knew as much about birds as he did about horses—not very—but even he didn't think that was normal.
Grey-eyes swung his leg over the horse's neck and dropped down to the ground. "Off."
"Yes, m'lord. Right away, m'lord. Whatever you say, m'lord," Steve said under his breath, leaning forward over the saddle and managing to swing his leg over to slide down the surprisingly patient horse.
His knees went to water as soon as his feet hit the ground, but he didn't fall.
Grey-eyes grabbed him, hauling him up. "Should have expected that," he muttered.
As soon as he could stand, Steve pulled away, stumbling a few steps before he caught himself.
Grey-eyes was unreadable. "You have clean clothes in that bag of yours?"
"Go wash. I'll start a fire."
"What's to stop me from running off?"
"Him," he pointed at the bird, "and those," he pointed into the trees. "You don't want to be out here alone with what hunts in the forest at night."
Steve eyed the bird, who preened, then stared into the trees. The sun was starting to get low in the sky and, as much as he hated it, Grey-eyes was right.
"Fine." He pulled his bag off the saddle, then had to stop because the horse was sniffing him, soft nose nuzzling his hands, and it wasn't the horse's fault who his master was. He put the bag on the ground and stroked his head, half-smiling when his ears tilted forward, then scratched him under the chin.
"His name's Goliath." Grey-eyes' voice was soft, and when Steve turned to look at him his eyes were softer.
"Goliath," Steve said in disbelief.
"Because he's big."
Oh, that was defensiveness. Steve's eyes gleamed. "You named him Goliath. After the giant who gets beaten, no, not just beaten, gets killed, by the tiny guy."
Grey-eyes crossed his arms.
"With a stone," Steve added. "Aren't stones bad for horses? They get them in their feet, it makes them lame? I'm sure I've heard that."
The glaring had been joined by crossed arms.
Steve gently patted Goliath's nose. "You really need a better name."
"His name is fine," Grey-eyes said through gritted teeth. "Go take a bath."
Steve grabbed his one set of clean clothes out of his bag then headed down to the lake, stopping to strip down to nothing before wading in. He grabbed a handful of sand from the bottom to scrub himself, not caring if he took off a layer of skin.
When he was done, he planted his feet, water lapping at his chest, frowning down at his own distorted reflection.
"It's the gold that worries me," he told it. He had no illusions about his worth—he couldn't in the life he'd led—and there was nothing he could do and nothing he was that was worth gold.
Not unless Grey-eyes had peculiar tastes in who he bedded. Steve's jaw worked as he turned the thought around. It wasn't impossible. He was nothing much to look at, skinny and bony and short, but he'd heard of people with stranger tastes, and he was having a hard time coming up with anything else someone'd pay gold for, no matter how far-fetched the idea was.
He stormed out of the lake, dried himself with his dirty tunic, pulled on his clean clothes, and stomped back into camp.
Grey-eyes was sitting by the fire, a hunk of bread in one hand, a knife in the other, and Steve curled his hands into fists and half-growled, "If you're looking for a catamite, you made a bad choice."
Grey-eyes half-choked on the bread he was chewing. "What in the holy name of God put that in your head?"
"Gold. There was gold in the coins you gave the jailer. You want me for something and you want me bad enough to pay gold for it."
Grey-eyes winced, guilt sliding over his face that made Steve consider taking his chance with the forest, then it disappeared. He met Steve's eyes squarely. "I do want you for something, Steve, but it's not that."
Steve searched his face, then nodded and dropped to sit near the fire. "You know my name. Are you planning to tell me your name at some point? Or is it better I don't know, less chance you'll cut my throat when whatever this is is over."
He swore, clearly at himself, thoroughly enough that it almost made Steve smile. "My name is James. Or Bucky. Call me Bucky if you want. I'm not a m'lord. And no one's cutting your throat. No one's going to hurt you."
Steve lifted one eyebrow and Bucky had the decency to look away, grimacing.
"You're right. I already did that. But no one's going to hurt you, not like you mean. I promise I'll do my best to get you safely home."
Steve tucked away the do my best, because that wasn't the same as I will, but all he said was, "If you hadn't kidnapped me in the first place, you wouldn't have to."
Bucky inclined his head, but instead of answering, he cut the bread in half and offered a piece to Steve. He accepted it, because you always ate when you had the chance, no matter what.
As Steve ate, Bucky got up and came back with a waterskin and some chunks of dried meat. He offered both to Steve, saying, "I'll hunt tomorrow. This'll have to do for tonight."
They both lapsed into silence as they ate.
The sun started to sink in the sky, painting the blue in shades of red and gold. Bucky added some wood to the fire, went to check on Goliath, then returned with a long length of rope.
Steve was on his feet as soon as he saw it, but quick as he was, Bucky was faster, closing a hand around his arm. "Don't run. You won't like what happens next."
It didn't feel like a threat, but Steve didn't care.
Their brief struggle ended predictably enough, with his hands tied behind him while he glared at Bucky.
"I am sorry," Bucky said, "but I can't afford to lose you." He led Steve to one of the smaller trees, pressed him down to the ground, and tied the other end of the rope to the tree. While Steve wriggled his wrists, scowling as he realised there wasn't enough give to get loose, Bucky picked up Steve's bag and brought it over. "Here. Put your head on this."
"Yes, I'll be nothing but comfortable now."
Bucky shifted, once more showing Steve a hint of the guilt he'd seen before, then he glanced at the sky. The sun was almost gone. "This is how it has to be," he said, grey eyes sliding towards blank, and strode out of camp.
Steve looked over at Goliath. "I really hate him."
Goliath snorted, probably not in solidarity, and went back to grazing. His rope, Steve couldn't help noticing, was long enough to let him wander where he wanted.
Eventually he fell into an uncomfortable sleep.
He woke to the sound of wood being thrown on the fire. He opened his eyes, expecting to see Bucky.
He didn't recognise the man sitting next to the fire.
"I know you're awake." The voice was warm and the smile turned Steve's way had a little gap tooth in the front. "Want me to untie that rope?"
"That depends," Steve replied warily, cursing Bucky for tying him up and leaving him to the wolves. "Who are you?"
"Name's Sam. I travel with Bucky."
Steve's confusion must have been apparent, because Sam laughed softly. "You can't usually see me. I saw you, though. And I saw Bucky being his usual self. Hard to believe he used to be charming, isn't it?"
"Well, a lot's happened since then. Now, do you want me to get you out of those ropes? No," he held up a hand, as if to forestall the inevitable, "I won't let you run off. We need you."
Sam came over and made quick work of the ropes, stopping on the way back to the fire to scratch under Goliath's forelock, the horse snuffling sleepily.
Steve settled next to the fire, rubbing his wrists. "Can I ask why you need me? Bucky wasn't exactly forthcoming."
"Now that's a question that can have a long answer and a short answer, but both of them need a story first." He glanced at Steve. "It's not a fun story."
"Can you tell me?"
Sam didn't answer right away, spent long enough staring into the fire that Steve began to wonder if he'd forgotten he was there—and if maybe he should make a run for the trees.
"How about this," Sam finally said. "I'll tell you part of it, and Bucky can tell you the rest. And then, depending on how you feel about the story, you can ask Bucky what we need from you." He gave Steve a sideways look. "But by then you might know."
"Do I have a choice?"
"I'm not sure about that."
Steve let out a long slow breath that tasted like anger. "Thanks for being honest."
"I'm also not sure that's something you should be thanking me for."
Neither was Steve. "Tell me your story."
"Bucky and I used to be freelance guards. Good ones. People trusted us: with their safety, with their family. Enough that they'd hire us to escort their sons and their daughters when they needed to send them somewhere. You understand what I'm saying?"
"Yeah. They knew you weren't going to ravish your charges."
Sam blinked at him, then one corner of his mouth curled up. "Something like that. We took our jobs seriously, we took that trust seriously, and we were, not to sound arrogant, good at what we did."
"So you and Bucky have been friends for a long time?" Which would mean no chance of suborning Sam to Steve's cause.
"No," Sam laughed. "No, we always fought well together but we barely got along."
Steve made a confused face.
"Don't worry about it." Sam pulled one leg up and wrapped his hands around his knee. "To the point. We were hired to escort a woman," he shook his head, "no, she was a girl, really. She was a foundling, raised in an Abbey, no family, no protectors apart from the nuns—"
"I've met nuns, and they're plenty scary."
"You and Bucky," Sam muttered under his breath, then louder, "The problem was there was a," Sam's knuckles went white, "man of considerable power who'd taken an interest in her. That's why they were sending her away, to another Abbey, far outside his control. That's why they wanted us. They wanted her to be safe."
Sam stopped talking and the sounds of the night crept in around them: rustling in the underbrush, an owl's cry, and, far too close, a wolf howled.
"Something happened," Steve prompted.
"Yes, but this is where my part of the story ends. For the rest, you'll have to ask Bucky. And tell him," Sam stared into trees, "tell him Sam said you have to give trust to get trust."
"He'll know what that means?" Steve asked doubtfully.
"I hope so," Sam replied. "And you should get some sleep. It's going to be a long ride tomorrow."
"Are you going to tie me up again?"
Sam studied him. "Will you give me your word you won't run off?"
Ready to lie and say yes, of course, he made the mistake of meeting Sam's eyes. They were steady, sure, seemed to stare right into the heart of him, and he grimaced.
Sam's grin was only slightly smug. "Is that a yes?"
Heaving a deep sigh, Steve said, "I give you my word I won't run off, at least not until I talk to Bucky in the morning. After that, it doesn't hold."
"Fair. Now go to sleep or you'll regret it."
"Threats," Steve grumbled, going back to his slightly more comfortable spot and curling down with his head on his bag.
"Truth," Sam countered.
The last thing Steve saw before he fell asleep was Sam's silhouette against the fire. The last thing he thought he saw was a wolf sitting next to him, but that could only have been a dream.
Steve had had a lot of bad mornings. When you slept wherever you could, trading work for a spare corner or a place near the fire on good days, bunking in with the cows or horses or hay on bad, mornings tended to go that way.
This one should be ranking right up there. Instead, it was…strange.
He hurt, was the first thing that registered. Hips, knees, thighs—oh God, his thighs. That stupid horse.
The second thing, the surprising thing: he wasn't cold. He should have been. Icy air nipped at his nose, his ears, but he was warm. Suspicious, he opened one eye. A thick black cloak covered him from head to toe.
The fire was crackling. Bucky was sitting near it, not watching him. Instead, he was watching the rabbit spitted over the fire. Steve's nose twitched. His stomach twisted.
He sat up. Every muscle screamed.
In an even voice, Bucky said, "Good morning."
Steve…wasn't sure how to respond. Last night, meeting Sam, the barely half a story he'd been told, giving Sam his word, it felt like a dream. This, this was the reality.
He waited for Bucky to demand to know why he wasn't still trussed up. He didn't. All he said was, "You didn't run."
"I gave Sam my word."
Bucky looked up at that, grey eyes intent. Steve lifted his chin challengingly and the tiniest curl appeared at the corner of Bucky's mouth. "You did."
Steve forced himself to his feet, the cloak pooling on the ground, ignoring the way every muscle swore at him. "Where's your bird?"
"Hawk," Bucky corrected.
"Around," he said vaguely. "He doesn't usually go far."
It sounded as strange as the bird's—hawk's—behaviour yesterday, but what did Steve know about hunting birds? He reached down and scooped up the cloak, very aware of the cold scratching at his skin, and walked over to hold it out to Bucky.
"Keep it," Bucky said, "at least 'til we get going. It's cold this morning."
"I don't need it." He set it on the ground. Bucky frowned, but said nothing, and Steve turned away, heading off into the woods.
Bucky half rose to his feet. "Where are you going?"
"You want me to take a piss right here?"
Lips pressed together, he shook his head.
"I gave my word. Either it's good enough or it isn't."
Bucky's eyes weren't blank now. A fight raged in them, bloody and brutal, and Steve waited, curious to see which would win. Finally, he said, "Go."
When he came back, Bucky was watching the spot where he'd disappeared into the trees and his obvious relief, flaring like a sunrise, froze Steve on the spot. "Why?" he demanded. "What makes me so special?"
Bucky looked away.
Steve pulled in a deep breath, schooling himself to patience, feeling more like he was trying to lure in a skittish dog than demand truth from the man who'd kidnapped him. "Sam said to tell you: you have to give trust to get trust. He said you had to tell the rest of the story."
"How much did he tell you?" Bucky asked in a low voice.
"That you were freelance guards, that you were escorting a woman who'd been raised by some nuns to get her away from a man who'd taken an interest in her, that it was a dangerous journey, and that something happened."
"Thanks, Sam," Bucky muttered. "Always leaving the tough shit to me."
"He also said you two never used to be friends."
That made Bucky crack a smile. "Not sure we're friends now, given he's a complete bastard."
Steve's confusion from last night resurfaced and Bucky sighed. "Look, sit down. I'll tell you the rest."
He didn't want to do what Bucky said, didn't want Bucky thinking he could order him around, but he was cold, the fire was warm, and…he wanted the rest of the story, seeing as he seemed to be stuck in it.
With enough of a delay to make it clear this was his choice, he made his way over to sit near the fire.
Bucky didn't start talking. Instead he turned the rabbit, which was starting to smell delicious. He moved the cloak Steve had dropped on the ground further away from the fire, out of the way of a stray spark. Then he deliberately caught Steve's eyes. "You won't believe me. When I tell you who it was, you won't believe me."
"How about you leave that to me to decide?"
Bucky's low huff of a laugh made Steve shift uneasily. A sound drew his eyes up. Bucky's hawk swooped in low over the clearing, wings beating as it backwinged to a landing on the rock. It shifted from foot to foot, eventually settling with its eyes on Bucky.
"You want the rest of the story. You want to know the something that happened." Bucky turned to watch his hawk. "It's pretty simple. A few weeks into the journey we were ambushed. The man who'd taken an interest, his men ambushed us. They'd come to take her. We put her on our fastest horse, told her to run and we fought. Figured even if we lost, even if we died, she'd be away. She'd be safe."
He slowly shook his head.
"We were wrong. We lost, but we didn't die. She ran but she wasn't safe."
There was anger on Bucky's face, anger and guilt and sorrow and something else, something Steve didn't have words for.
"Her name was Wanda. She was young and kind and he wanted her, and she died. He killed her as sure as if he swung the sword himself."
Suspicion was crawling up his spine like a nest of spiders, because Sam had said another Abbey, outside his control, and Bucky had come for him. Bucky needed him. "Who was it?"
"We know what we have to do, but he's well protected, dug into the city like a bloated tick. We knew we'd need an edge to get to him. That's why we found you. That's why we need you. You're our edge."
"Who?" he demanded, but he knew. He knew.
Anger rose as moments ticked past, as Steve didn't think he was going to answer, then Bucky said, calmly, too calmly, "The Bishop of Aquila."
Desperate rage roared in his ears, drowning out the world, and Steve was on his feet, grabbing Bucky's shoulders, fingers sinking into the leather. "Tell me you're going after him. Tell me."
Shock bloomed on Bucky's face and the hawk's wings lifted sharply, like he'd strike, but Steve didn't care. He shook him—or tried to; Bucky was a solid mass of muscle and barely moved. "Tell me!"
"Steve." Bucky caught his hands and dragged them free. "Steve, calm down."
He couldn’t, he couldn't. He was shaking. He was shaking so hard he couldn't stand, and Bucky pushed him down, half holding him so he didn't fall. He was breathing too fast, heart pounding. A strong hand wrapped around the back of his neck, firm, grounding, a thumb rubbing against his skin in long slow strokes.
"Steve, breathe. I need you to calm down for me. I need you to calm down for you."
He was right, damn him. Steve closed his eyes and focussed on the feeling of that thumb, pitching his breathing to match, pushing everything else away. Pushing away the intricate patterns of a silken carpet, stained with a trickle of blood, and eyes as cold as a winter sky.
Head bowed, he finally opened his eyes, lifting his head to see Bucky's worried expression. "Why did you buy me?"
"I didn't buy you, I bought you free."
Steve drew in a breath, ready to dismiss the distinction, then he nodded once, sharply. They weren't the same. "Why?"
"We chased a rumour. We followed it a long, long way and it led us to you," he said.
"Why?" he demanded again.
"Is it true you trained as a servant in the Bishop's household?"
On his knees, the weight of Bucky's hand heavy where it still rested on his neck, Steve stared up at him. "You are going after him."
He could see the moment Bucky threw caution to the winds. "We're going after him. We can't bring her back, but we can avenge her."
"It's true. And I'll help you however I can. Give you whatever you need." He closed his hands on Bucky's thighs, digging his fingers in, didn't realise he'd done it until Bucky gently pried his hands loose. "But I want your promise that you'll kill him."
Bucky's eyes cut to his hawk. It shifted from foot to foot, mantled its wings, then let out a shrill cry. "I can't promise we'll succeed. But the only way we'll fail is if we're dead."
"Alright." Steve was exhausted. He wanted to curl up into a ball. He wanted to pull himself up onto Goliath and go, now, because the Bishop had been alive too long in the world already.
"Steve?" Bucky said, and it felt like he was choosing his words with care. "Can I ask why?"
Steve bared his teeth and spoke words he'd never said aloud. "He killed my mother."
* * *
Bucky drew in a sharp breath, suddenly understanding. "Steve. I'm sorry. Your mother…"
Steve shook his head, sharp, vicious, and Bucky shut up. "I don't need you to be sorry. I just need your word."
"You have it."
"If we can kill him…" He breathed deep, let it out slow. "Not just for Wanda. Not just for my mother. For everyone. Everyone he's hurt. Everyone he's going to hurt. I don't know how else you stop someone like that."
It felt a little like the time Bucky had taken a boot in the gut. A sharp shock and suddenly he didn't know how to breathe.
Because Steve was looking past his own pain. Thinking about someone he didn't even know. Thinking about everyone. That wasn't just vengeance, that was… Bucky didn't even know what to call it.
Steve had kept his word. He could have run off—not that he would have gotten far—but he hadn't. Because he'd given Sam his word.
Those kids had been willing to risk Bucky's wrath to help Steve escape.
What exactly had he pulled out of that jail?
The sudden urge rose to tell him the rest. He glanced at Sam, who was giving him a deeply suspicious look, head tilted, wings half-mantled, like he was thinking maybe he was going to have to take a chunk out of Bucky to keep him from doing something stupid. The urge subsided.
Some things were better shown, anyway. If Steve was going to travel with them willingly, if he was going to help them—Bucky hadn't missed Steve's we; he'd said we, ranging himself alongside them—he needed to know the rest of the truth. He already knew the most dangerous part.
Sam whistled, long and low, and snapped Bucky out of it. He shook himself, gave Steve a little tug to get him up off the ground, and said, "We can't do anything if we don't eat," pulling the rabbit off the fire.
"I'm starving," Steve said, settling himself next to Bucky.
He stabbed the sharpened stick into the dirt. "Eat up. We'll try and find somewhere to buy food today."
"Hope you're paying. My grand collection of coin is maybe enough for a stale heel of bread."
"I'll pay," he said, then added, because he couldn't help himself, "and we'll see if we can find you some warmer clothes. It's only going to get colder." Steve's eyes narrowed and Bucky could hear the protest coming. "You're useless if you freeze to death and I don't think you want to cuddle at night to keep warm."
Steve ripped a chunk of rabbit off, chewed it aggressively, swallowed, and said, pointedly, "I'll take the clothes."
Bucky could hear the distinctive kree-kree-kree of Sam laughing at him, wings flapping for emphasis. He didn't give him the satisfaction of acknowledging it, but he did give him a chunk of rabbit.
* * *
It wasn't until two days later that their path led them to a town, somewhere Bucky could get clothes for Steve, grain-cakes for Goliath, and food that would travel.
He'd spent those two days keeping a close eye on Steve and knew Sam had been doing the same.
It wasn't that he doubted Steve. He could still feel the imprint of Steve's clenched fingers on his thighs, feel the beat of Steve's racing pulse under his thumb. He believed Steve's we, but he'd needed to be sure.
Last night, after they'd made camp and the sun had dipped towards the horizon, Bucky had said, "I'm going to patrol, make sure we're alone out here."
Steve had looked up from lighting the fire. "And leave me alone? You trust me not to run off?"
It had sounded like a challenge. It had sounded like a test. "You want what we want, Steve. You're not going to run off."
Steve had bowed his head in acknowledgement, or maybe agreement, hair falling across his eyes, and Bucky had been sure.
He was also sure it wasn't going to last much longer, him disappearing and Sam appearing. Sam disappearing and the hawk showing up. Steve was too smart, too unwilling to just accept what he was given.
It could at least last the rest of the day.
As they rode into town, Sam launched himself off Bucky's arm, whacking him in the face with his wings, his amused kree-kree-kree trailing behind him as he spiralled into the sky. Bucky cursed and plucked a feather out of his teeth.
He felt more than heard Steve stifle a laugh behind him. "Not very well trained."
"No," Bucky said. "He's not."
It wasn't much of a town, rough stone buildings surrounding a busy communal outdoor area where children did chores, chickens scratched in the dirt, and laundry waved in the breeze. There were a few shops, but the tavern, such as it was, had pride of place in the centre square.
"Let me down, will you?" Steve said. "I need to stretch my legs."
Bucky offered him an arm, but Steve ignored it, leaning forward until he was half-plastered against Bucky's back to swing his leg over and slide down Goliath's flank. He groaned when he hit the ground and muttered, "Goliath, you're too wide."
Bucky grinned down at him and Goliath snorted, twisting his neck to flick his ears at Steve.
"I don't want to hear it," Steve said and wandered, half-limping, towards the chickens.
"I'll get food," Bucky called after him as he dismounted. "Meet me when you're done."
Bucky beckoned to one of the dusty kids hovering around the tavern and offered him a coin to keep an eye on Goliath and get him some water. He agreed, eagerly, and promised Bucky that, despite the tavern being mostly open to the weather, its bar nothing more than planks laid across barrels, it had hot food and good beer.
They weren't the only travellers. Not surprising, given the lack of other options. Bucky nodded politely to the monk who was nursing a small beer at one of the long benches—given how ratty his robes were, Bucky doubted he could afford much more than that—and very politely to the woman in the corner, given her smile was sharp enough to cut.
She studied him, then offered, "I'd avoid the pottage. It's mostly horse, and old horse at that. The mutton's good."
"Thanks," Bucky said. "Appreciate the warning."
She nodded slightly and turned back to her food. A beam of sunlight light glinted off her red hair, just visible under the half-pushed back hood of her cloak, and with a pang he was reminded of Wanda.
He shook it off and went to get their lunch. Mutton and bread and ale. No pottage.
When Steve wandered in to sit across the table from him, he was wearing a thoughtful look.
Bucky immediately got a bad feeling.
He settled in to eat without saying anything. Bucky thought maybe the look wasn't going to go anywhere, until Steve swallowed, took a sip of beer, and asked, "I have to know. How did you find me?"
Relieved, Bucky replied, "We rode through Luco dei Marsi on market day. Sam heard them telling stories."
Steve winced. "Oh."
Bucky nodded. "It still gets trotted out when they're gossiping and reminiscing, and don't get mad at me, they're not my words, the story of the dirty peasant boy who tried to fool people into believing he was trained as a servant in the Bishop's household."
Instead of getting mad, Steve just smiled wryly. "I did look like, no, I was, a dirty peasant boy, so that's probably fair." He sighed. "It was winter, I was starving, and things were getting pretty desperate or I wouldn't have tried it, but I knew the wool merchant needed kitchen servants and…" He swirled his mug, making the beer slosh. "And it wasn't a lie."
"You were about as desperate as we were, probably. We got your name, and what you looked like, so we followed your trail, hoping you'd been telling the truth."
Now Steve gave him a sharp look. "That was years ago. How was there a trail to follow?"
"You make an impression," Bucky said dryly. "Didn't you ever learn to leave well enough alone?"
Steve snorted a soft laugh. "No."
* * *
After lunch, Bucky bargained for what they needed. Not as hard as he would have liked, since Steve wouldn't let him. He didn't say anything, simply gave him a look when he decided the price was low enough. Bucky found it tough to argue with the look.
"Is there a reason you wanted to make these people richer?" Bucky asked him when they were riding out, Steve perched a little awkwardly on Goliath's bulging saddlebags but wearing warmer, tougher clothes than he had been.
Instead of answering, Steve reached around him to tap the sword hanging from the front of the saddle.
"You could just take it if you wanted. You could bargain them down to nothing."
"I believe you. But they don't know that."
Bucky wasn't sure what to say, was saved from having to answer by Sam winging in. He held out his arm and Sam landed, heavier than he needed to. Bucky glared at him and Sam preened smugly before hopping down to perch on the pommel of the saddle.
"You may not be a m'lord, but to them you may as well be. It's like the jailer," he felt Steve shrug, "that's what they see, and they treat you that way."
"It worked out with him."
"It did." Steve went quiet, then he sighed. "And, look, you did it in the shittiest possible way, but I'm going to say thanks for getting me out of there."
Sam cocked his head, mirroring Bucky's surprise. He turned to look at Steve over his shoulder. "I don't think you should thank me for that."
"Maybe, maybe not, but I don't think I would have survived past the next day, so I'm going to."
"Fine. Then you're going to take this: I'm sorry I did it that way. I couldn't let anyone think too hard about why I might be interested in you."
"Because of course the first thing they'd be thinking is you wanted me to help you kill the Bishop," Steve said dryly.
"I didn't want them thinking anything. Which meant acting like they'd expect me to act and getting you out of there as fast as possible."
"Jailer probably did think you wanted me as a catamite," Steve said.
"I don't care."
Bucky stared at the play of light on Sam's feathers as he ruffled his wings. "Steve? I should have done what Sam did and talked to you."
After a few moments of thoughtful silence, Steve said, "Maybe. Maybe not. Not sure it would have worked coming from you."
Sam preened, each feather radiating smugness, and Bucky glanced over his shoulder. Steve was grinning. Bucky decided he'd humbled himself enough. "While we're on the subject, can I ask what you did to end up in there?"
"Interfered with the local magistrate."
"What does that mean?"
"Kept him from running over an old man with his cart."
He pulled Goliath to a halt and turned in the saddle. "What?"
"The magistrate was trotting along in his fancy little two wheeled cart, paying no attention to anyone or anything, because the whole world should get out of his way—he's a magistrate, after all. He wouldn't stop, there was no way to get the old man out of the way in time—he's only got one leg, so he doesn't move fast—so I slung a bucket of dog shit at his head."
"You just happened to have a bucket of dog shit with you."
"The tanner was paying me to bring him buckets of dog shit, so yes, I did. It worked, too. He yanked back on the reins so hard the horse reared up when it stopped. He also started screaming for the guard." Steve shrugged. "One thing led to another and they tossed me in jail. If the magistrate wasn't such an ass, they probably would have kicked the life out of me before locking me up, but he is, and they didn't." He grimaced. "Lucky me."
Bucky stared at him, then shook his head, turning back around and nudging Goliath into a fast walk. "I suddenly understand why you smelled so bad."
It startled a laugh out of Steve, and Bucky kneed Goliath into a canter.
They needed to make camp before the sun went down.
* * *
Tonight's camp was tucked near a thicket of bushes, one lone old tree stretching overhead. A fire was crackling, the ground around it cleared down to dirt. Goliath was grazing peacefully.
As the sun began to sink, Sam flew off. Steve watched him go but didn't ask.
Bucky stood, a bundle under one arm. "I won't be far." He paused, staring after Sam, then added, "And I'll be back soon."
He slipped off into the bushes, hurrying now, left his bundle where Sam could find it, leaning their sword next to it, and kept moving as the sun slipped beneath the horizon. He didn't need to see it. He could feel it. Tugging at his bones, his skin, his heart. He stripped and left his clothes tucked into the crook of a tree, then crouched in the dirt, waiting.
It hit with full dark and he knew Sam was going through the same thing. Body shifting, changing, melting between one shape and the next, painful but not, wrong but not, because if something happens enough it stops being wrong and becomes just how things are.
They both knew there was no way out of this; this was their life and there was no point fighting it.
He came up off the ground and shook himself, thick black coat easily shedding the dirt. It was an entirely different world when he was the wolf. A simpler world: smells and sounds and the feel of the night around him. He tipped his head back and howled, long and loud, to discover if he'd wound up in the middle of pack land, but there was no answer.
He howled once more for good measure, then, satisfied, trotted towards the camp.
He'd made his decision.
Sam was going to hate it. His tongue lolled out of his mouth in a wolf grin. That wasn't why he'd made it—Steve was why he'd made it—but an unexpected bonus was always nice.
He slowed as he got closer, circling around to greet Goliath. He had no idea how Goliath knew it was him, how he knew it was Sam, when they were in their animal forms. He always had, had always taken it in his stride, and it was just another reason that Bucky loved his horse. He stretched up, Goliath dropped his head, and they touched noses, Goliath snorting gently.
He sat under Goliath's belly while the horse went back to grazing, a patch of shadow where a black wolf would go unnoticed, and watched Steve.
He was talking with Sam, who couldn't have been back in camp for long.
There was a hint of bafflement in Steve's voice as he asked, "How did you find us? How did you keep up with us? Do you have a secret horse stashed somewhere out there?"
"I'm a good tracker," Sam replied vaguely.
"Alright," Steve said. "And does that explain why you're wearing Bucky's sword?"
Bucky had been right; this couldn’t have lasted much longer. He felt a weird sort of pride.
"Dinner?" Sam asked, holding up a pair of pigeons. He must have brought them down before he changed.
Steve snorted at Sam's non-answer and said, "I could eat. There's bread and apples to go with them. We stopped at a town."
"That explains the fancy new clothes."
Steve grimaced and tugged at his thick wool tunic. "Bucky threatened to cuddle me to keep me warm. This seemed like the better option."
Sam choked on a laugh, prompting a glare from Steve and Bucky chuffed quietly.
"How would you like it?"
"Not at all, I promise you."
Bucky rolled his eyes—feeling's entirely mutual, Sam—and stepped out from Goliath's shadow into the light of the fire.
Sam stiffened, and Steve turned to see what had caused it, eyes falling on the wolf who'd just walked into their camp.
He rose to his feet, and Bucky could smell a faint whiff of fear, which wasn't surprising—he wasn't just a wolf, he was a giant wolf, black as night—but no panic, no terror, just that barest hint, then Steve planted his feet and didn't move.
Whatever was happening, Steve knew it was more than it seemed.
"Oh, we're doing this now, are we?" Sam said, sounding exasperated. "Don't want to maybe talk about it first?"
Bucky looked at him, ears flat back, a curl of lip showing tooth, then tossed his head, indicating Steve, because Steve deserved to know.
Sam's mouth flattened and he folded his arms, but after a moment he said, "Fair enough. I guess even you have to be right sometimes."
"You're talking to the wolf," Steve said flatly.
"You're talking to him like he understands."
"I'm talking to him like he's a damn pushy bastard who thinks he gets to make all the decisions."
Bucky's lips curled back off his teeth and he snapped at Sam, but Sam waved a dismissive hand at him.
"Save it for someone else, furballs."
Bucky took a careful step towards Steve. The faint scent of fear had disappeared completely, replaced by exasperation.
He held his ground and frowned at Bucky, like he was a puzzle that needed solving, then slowly turned to stare at Sam. "Am I dreaming?"
"Sorry, Steve. You're not dreaming."
"Are you sure?"
"If it's a dream, we're stuck in it with you."
Steve acknowledged that with a grimace then took a deep breath. "We're back in you think I won't believe you territory, aren't we?"
Bucky tilted his head.
"Yeah, I thought so. Except I do. You're Bucky."
Bucky very deliberately nodded, feeling a burst of pleased pride he knew was almost entirely down to being the wolf.
"And you're the hawk," Steve said to Sam, who inclined his head. "You're sure this isn't a dream?"
"It'd be a nightmare if it was anything."
Bucky watched Steve turn it over, watched him accept it, something so impossible it had taken him and Sam weeks to come to grips with, and wondered again what he'd brought out of that jail.
"This is the rest of the story," Steve said, not quite a question, and for a moment his scent was heavy with sorrow, tinged through with fury—Bucky flattened his ears, caught a whine before it escaped—that disappeared like it had never been. "The Bishop did this to you."
"It's how he beat us," Sam said. "We were winning, and out of nowhere…" He trailed off, eyes meeting Bucky's as they shared the memory of that moment. The pain. The helplessness. "Now I'm a hawk by day and he's a wolf at night. Stupidest curse I've ever heard of, but there you go."
"And Goliath is…?"
Bucky let out a series of deep chuffs, the closest he could get to laughing in this shape.
"Is he choking?" Steve asked, alarmed, and that set Sam off, laughing so hard he had to brace his hands on his thighs.
Steve crossed his arms, tapping his foot impatiently while they got themselves under control.
Sam was wiping his eyes when he said, "That mess of a sound is him laughing, and Goliath's just a horse."
Bucky glared at Sam. Goliath was not just a horse.
Sam rolled his eyes. "Sorry, furballs. I meant he's a magnificent horse, the finest stallion that ever graced the land, but he's not a cursed anything."
"He really likes the horse, huh?"
"He really does."
Bucky shoved forward, closing the distance between him and Steve, and reared up to put his front feet on Steve's shoulders. Steve gave him an unimpressed look. "I still think Goliath's a stupid name for him."
He dropped to the ground with a huff.
"What happens now?" Steve asked.
"Now?" Sam threw him a pigeon. "Get plucking if you want to eat."
"I meant now that I know."
Steve squinted at him doubtfully.
"It'll make things simpler. No more trying to hide it from you, but it won't change anything. We're still going to kill the Bishop. You knowing about the curse won't change that."
"Except a wolf and a hawk can get places no human can, especially a hawk. We might be able to use that."
Sam tipped his head. "True."
They settled in to pluck their pigeons, Bucky lying on the other side of the fire, watching them both.
Eventually, he dozed off, the fire warm against his fur, listening to the familiar murmur of Sam's voice and the rapidly becoming familiar sound of Steve's.
They needed to start planning, he and Sam needed to learn everything they could from Steve about the ins and outs of the Bishop's household, but for right now it was simpler to give in to the wolf and rest.
"No," Bucky said in a voice like stone. "You're getting out of this, you and Sam, and that's final."
The storm clouds boiled above them, hiding the sun. Thunder rumbled, the wind whipped Bucky's hair against Steve's face and tangled Goliath's mane around Sam, who was huddled on the saddle in the lee of Bucky's body.
"And what about you?" Steve asked, raising his voice to be heard over the wind. "We go to an inn, get tucked away, what happens to you?"
Bucky shrugged, the clouds roiling behind him a match for his eyes as he turned in the saddle to look at Steve. "I'll go to ground. Wolves are made to survive, Steve. I'll be fine."
Sam let out a disagreeing croak.
"You want Goliath out in this storm when it hits?" Bucky asked. "As tall as he is, he could get struck by lightning."
Goliath's neck was bowed, his head tucked low, obviously unhappy as he trotted into the wind, but he flicked an ear when he heard his name.
Steve glowered, but in the end Bucky won the argument, wielding Goliath like a sword and the wolf like a shield. There was nothing Steve could do but sit in Goliath's saddle under the threatening sky, Sam hunched in front of him, and watch him run into the woods.
Even after a week's travel, Aquila was still a long way away, but that week had been enough time for them to trust him with their secret. For Bucky to trust him with Goliath. Enough time that he was sitting here on this giant horse, worrying.
As bad as they'd started, Bucky was right. He was part of them now. Whether they'd known it or not, he had been from the moment Bucky had given his promise to kill the Bishop. Knowing what the Bishop had done to them had only made it stronger.
Steve frowned at the trees, muttered, "You'd better be alright," and guided Goliath towards the inn.
* * *
Before getting Goliath settled in the stable, Steve surreptitiously left Sam and some clothes in a sheltered outbuilding.
While he waited for the sun to set and Sam to change, he piled the saddlebags in one stall, set the sword across them, and got Goliath his dinner. The stallion was happily munching away in the stall next to their gear while Steve worked on getting his saddle and all its accompanying bits off. The bridle had been easy. This was a lot more complicated.
Steve looked up. There was a woman leaning on the wall of the stall three down from Goliath's that held a grey horse, its nose buried in a bucket of hay. She looked a little familiar, her red hair glinting in the lantern light—but then, with how much he'd travelled in his life, a lot of people did.
"He is," Steve agreed.
"I don't suppose you'd consider selling him?"
Steve stared at Goliath, who politely tilted an ear in his direction even if he didn't lift his nose from his grain, then down at himself—and the clothes he was wearing were nicer than anything he'd owned in a long time, courtesy of Bucky, but they weren't the kind of clothes that owned a horse like Goliath—then narrowed his eyes at the woman. "No."
She smiled, said, "Neither would I," and turned back to her horse.
The storm had arrived in earnest, the wind shoving at the stable door and rattling the shutters, rain drumming across the roof. Thunder rolled, lightning flashed, and Goliath snorted, annoyed. The grey laid its ears back, half-reared, and the red-head had her hands full getting it calmed down.
Steve didn't even try not to feel smug. It helped keep the worry at bay.
The door to the stable opened a crack and Sam pushed through, shaking himself to shed the rain, and he smiled when he saw Steve. "Hey."
"Hey, Sam," he said, raising a hand in greeting.
"It's getting bad out there," Sam said, walking over. Goliath abandoned his grain in favour of Sam and Sam murmured nonsense as he scratched under his forelock before sending him back to his dinner.
Steve couldn't help a long look at the door, but Sam nudged him. "He'll be fine."
"He's too stubborn and too stupid to die."
"So that was my mistake. I asked the servant. I should have asked the master."
Sam's hand twitched, like he was reaching for the sword that was lying across the saddlebags, but he casually turned and leaned an elbow on the stall door, which placed him between Goliath and Steve and the red-head.
Steve didn't believe for one moment that it was a coincidence.
Neither did the red-head, to judge by the placating smile and the, "Pax. I'm just wondering if you'd consider parting with your horse."
Steve watched, fascinated, as he eased into a charming smile that Steve knew was a lie, since he could see Sam's rigid back. "No."
He didn't, Steve noticed, correct the servant part.
After a moment in which it was obvious she was waiting for him to say something else, and Sam very pointedly didn't, she tilted her head, glanced at Steve, gave them both another smile, turned and left.
"I think," Sam said when she was gone, "we'll sleep out here tonight."
"Good plan," Steve said. He doubted Goliath would let someone steal him, but he also doubted any attempt would be tidy and the last thing they needed was attention. "Not your servant, though."
Sam waved a hand and said, "Easier than trying to explain," which Steve figured was fair enough. "You want me to show you how to get that saddle off?"
"Why are there so many buckles?" Steve muttered and Sam just grinned.
Of course, when morning came and Bucky found him curled up outside Goliath's stall with Sam perched on the stall door, a certain amount of explanation was required, but, "Someone was a little too interested in your horse," covered it.
Steve eyed Bucky's expression—only a little concerned with a lot of smug—and added, "But probably because she didn't know his name." He laughed when Bucky threw a glove at him and missed and ignored the surge of warmth that felt like more than relief at knowing Bucky'd made it safely through the storm.
* * *
As they drew closer to Aquila, they started to work out how, exactly, they were going to accomplish their goal. As plans went, kill the Bishop was simple, but unlikely to succeed. it needed some work. Bucky and Sam needed to know what Steve knew.
Which was why he was drawing maps in the dirt. He'd been drawing maps in the dirt for the past few days, their journey delayed until later in the day so he'd have the light, but it wasn't going to be enough.
Steve put down the stick he'd been drawing with, rubbed his hands together, blew on them, then shoved them between his thighs, because it was cold this morning, even huddled close to the fire under Bucky's cloak. "I need paper."
"Sure, let me just pull some out of thin air," Bucky said, waving his hands around. "Oh, look, it didn't work."
Sam kree'd at him, smacking him with a wing, and Steve nodded his thanks. He could appreciate Bucky's sarcasm, just not when it was misdirected, and right now, Steve needed him to rein it in.
"I remember the rooms. I remember the hallways. I remember the doors and the corridors and, God help me, I even remember the sewers," Steve said, striving for patience, "but drawing maps in the dirt isn't helping you learn what I know, especially not when we pack up and leave them behind. We need something we can keep. Something you can both make marks on, since you can't talk to each other. That means we need paper."
Bucky was staring at him, brow furrowed.
"Why do you remember the sewers?"
Steve flinched as memory clawed at his walls, then forced it back. "It doesn’t matter why," he said firmly, folding his hands around his elbows. "What matters is that what I know isn't going to help you if you can't learn it."
Bucky exchanged a concerned look with Sam. Because of the flinch, Steve knew. He hadn't been paying enough attention. Hadn't expected the question. He lifted his chin, daring Bucky to press him on it, and Bucky rubbed his forehead.
"There might be a place," he finally said. "Sam?"
Sam shifted, raising his wings and letting them fall.
"Alright then. It's going to take us out of our way, but they'll have paper and they should be willing to sell me a few sheets. It won't be cheap, but there's not a lot of other options."
* * *
Bucky's intended destination was a rogues' den, and it wasn't somewhere he particularly wanted to go, but he wasn't sure where else to get Steve what he wanted. There were no paper mills close by, no cities filled with merchants catering to the Church and the well-born, that would sell luxuries like paper. This was the closest source, the only source, and as long as he was willing to pay, no one would ask any questions about why he wanted it.
Steve was a slight weight behind him, leaning against his back. He doubted Goliath even noticed, but Bucky did. Bucky had started noticing it too much, was disturbingly comfortable having him there, especially when Steve looped his arms around his waist and leaned on his back.
He tried not to think about.
As they cantered down a rough trail, Goliath putting each hoof down with precision, Steve hummed thoughtfully.
"Just wondering if there was any way to make you look more like a dog."
Before that moment, if someone had asked Bucky if he was proud of the wolf, he'd have thought they were an idiot. Which was why the sudden offence came as such a surprise. His back stiffened—Goliath's stride shortened, and he snorted in protest—as he said, "A dog."
Steve muffled his laughter against his back.
"Stop what?" Steve asked innocently.
Bucky opted not to reply and patted Goliath's neck in apology as the stallion smoothed once more into a flowing canter.
"The reason I'm wondering is, when it's time to get into Aquila, the city guard will ask why you're there. If we make you look like a dog, we could pass Sam off as a hunter, come to offer his services."
"Or we pass me off as a hunter and I could carry Sam."
"Not really. Nobles hunt with hawks, and they hunt rabbits, pigeons, grouse. Small things. No one's going to take you seriously as a hunter, so you'd still need a reason for being there. But someone with a huge, tough looking dog, one that's maybe part wolf, that's a serious hunter. Boars, maybe, or wolves."
"It could get us inside the walls."
"Fewer people around at night."
"I'm not a dog!"
"That's what you're worried about?" Steve asked, half-laughing. "Bucky, you're not a wolf, either."
It struck him, in the gut, in the heart. "Except I am," he said quietly.
"I am. We are. We are now. I'm a wolf. Sam's a hawk. This is who we are now. Forever."
"You don't think there's a way to break it?"
Steve drummed his fingers on Bucky's hip—Bucky wasn't sure he knew he was doing it—and when he spoke, it was slow, measured, each word chosen with care. "Maybe this is forever, but I don't think you're a wolf and I don't think Sam's a hawk. You look like one, but you still seem like you to me. You still act like you. Like a person, not an animal, and so does Sam."
Part of him wanted to lash out, to snap that Steve didn't know. That he'd gone feral, could have killed people if Sam hadn't kept him away, that Steve was talking about things he knew nothing about. The rest of him grabbed hold of Steve's words and wrapped itself in them like a warm cloak.
He must have been silent for too long, because Steve's fingers stilled and he shook his head, hair brushing the back of Bucky's neck. "Sorry. I probably should have kept my mouth shut on that one. I've got no idea how you feel."
"No, it's fine."
Steve's fingers tightened on his hip, Bucky gave him a smile over his shoulder that he tentatively returned, then Sam was flying straight towards him.
"Can you get him?" Bucky asked.
Steve held out his arm and Sam, graceful and using a lot more care than he did with Bucky, backwinged to a landing.
"You're heavier than you look," Steve said, folding his arm in and bracing it with a hand on Bucky's bicep.
Bucky laughed, and Sam tucked his wings in tighter and gave him a dark look.
"Don't look at me like that," Bucky said. "Wait 'til you hear Steve's idea."
Sam tipped his head towards Steve.
"We turn Bucky into a dog."
Sam's kree-kree-kree of delighted laughter wound down the trail behind them.
* * *
"Tell me more about turning Bucky into a dog," Sam said, walking out of the trees and making Steve jump.
"Don't do that," Steve said, clutching his chest.
Sam just grinned and sat across from him at the fire. "You need to pay more attention."
"You move like a cat," Steve replied. "Doesn't matter how much attention I pay, I'm not going to see you."
"You may have a point."
"And it's not like Goliath reacts to you." At his name, the stallion lifted his head, ears tilting towards Steve.
"Also a point."
"So you need to stop sneaking up on me."
"Hmm, no," Sam said. "It's funny when you jump."
"Why did I think you were nicer than Bucky?"
Sam scratched the back of his neck, corner of his mouth tipping up in a half-grin. "I'm much nicer than Bucky."
"Sure you are."
"Wounded, I'm wounded, Steve."
"You will be," Steve muttered. "Did you eat before you changed?"
"I saw what Bucky made, so yes, I ate."
Steve had thought the porridge, made from grain Bucky had bought from some farmers and then decided wasn't good enough for Goliath's dinner, had been pretty good, but probably not appetising to a hawk's eyes. "And it doesn't sit…badly when you change?"
Sam put his chin in his hand and regarded him with bemusement.
"It really doesn't bother you, does it?"
"That you turn into a hawk?"
"That I turn into a hawk."
"That's a question with a short answer and a long answer."
Sam snorted softly. "Do I get a story first?"
"Nope, no story."
"Alright, give me the long answer."
"It bothers me. Bothers doesn't even start to cover it, Sam. This was done to you. It was done to Bucky. And to hear Bucky tell it, it's forever."
He glanced at Sam, who slowly nodded.
"So yeah, it bothers me. It would even if you were both terrible people, but you're not. You're good people who were trying to protect someone." He took a deep breath. This wasn't his anger. He wasn't entitled to it; it belonged to Sam and Bucky. "But the fact that you turn into a hawk? That Bucky turns into a wolf? It's strange, don't get me wrong, but it doesn't bother me."
"Who are you?"
"What do you mean?"
"Never mind." Sam shook his head. "And to answer your question, you get used to it. It's not something I worry about anymore."
* * *
It had been cool when Steve had fallen asleep, but he woke up freezing. He shivered, curled into a tighter ball, and contemplated getting up and moving closer to the fire, when a heavy weight lay down behind him.
"What are you doing?" he whispered.
A cold nose poked his ear, like Bucky was telling him to shut up, and he shuffled closer until Steve had a wolf pressed against the full length of his body.
A warm wolf.
"You keeping me warm?"
The low huff was definitely a yes.
Bucky's teeth snapped together, which meant Sam was hunting, or doing something Bucky thought was stupid. Either way it meant he wasn't in camp. Steve propped himself up on his elbow and looked around the camp. "Goliath's gone."
Bucky yawned and shoved Steve with his nose. He took the hint and lay back down. It wasn't the first time Sam had disappeared in the night, and Steve didn't blame him. Steve wasn't great company, what with being asleep, and Bucky couldn't exactly hold a conversation even if he and Sam managed to communicate just fine. The farm where Bucky had bought the grain wasn't far from where they'd set up camp, and there was a village—with, no doubt, people and a tavern and who knew what else—not far from there.
Deciding to make the effort to stay awake longer, so he could talk to Sam, he let himself snuggle back into Bucky. Bucky, who was incredibly warm, and didn't think too much about it.
Bucky gave a smug, satisfied whuffle and Steve elbowed him in the gut. "Shut up. I'm just cold."
It didn't take him long to fall asleep, curled under Bucky's cloak, Bucky warm against his back. He woke to the sound of hoofbeats, clutching a handful of wolf fur, and it wasn't long before he was staring up into Sam's grinning face.
"This looks comfy."
"Hey, Sam," Steve said sleepily, rubbing a hand over his eyes. "You're back."
"I am back." He was still grinning, but he wasn't talking to Steve anymore; he was looking past him at Bucky, whose head was resting on Steve's shoulder. "Pretty cold tonight. I might need to crawl in there with you guys."
The only reason Steve knew Bucky was growling was because he could feel it, rumbling against his shoulder. He elbowed him again, and it abruptly cut off. Sam's grin got wider, his eyes gleaming in the reflected firelight. Steve glanced up at Bucky, whose ears were tilted at a distinctly unimpressed angle.
"You really want Sam to freeze?" Steve asked him, voice dripping with disappointment.
Bucky's ears flattened.
"It's fine," Sam said, his grin fading into something softer. "I'm gonna bed down near the fire, and I don't feel the cold like you do."
"If you're sure."
"Alright. Uh, good night then," he said, suddenly feeling a little awkward.
"Good night, Steve." The grin suddenly came back. "Bucky."
Bucky gave a disgruntled huff and put his head back down on Steve's shoulder.
"Move your head."
Still no reaction, so Steve shoved it off. Seemingly unbothered, Bucky rearranged himself and the next thing Steve knew the sun was rising, Bucky was saddling Goliath, and Sam was perched on a branch above him, peering down at him.
"Is that your hobby now?" Steve asked, "Staring at me?"
Sam flapped his wings and laughed at him: kree-kree-kree.
"Glad I could entertain," he muttered as he stood, stretching. "We're leaving early?" he asked Bucky.
Bucky didn't look at him. "Sooner we go, sooner we can get back on track. You can eat while we ride."
As Steve knew from having done the reverse, saddling Goliath wasn't simple. There were what seemed like a hundred buckles and loops and straps, and Bucky tested each one as carefully as if it was going on a lover's skin, but there was something deliberate about the way he wasn't turning around, not even glancing over his shoulder.
"Go take care of business. You've got time for a wash if you're fast."
"What is it?"
"Can you look at me for a moment?"
"We don't have time—"
"Make time," he said firmly, glancing at Sam, who spread his wings before resettling on the branch. Steve chose to take it as approval.
Bucky wrapped one hand around Goliath's nose and the stallion bowed his head, then he turned around. Avoiding Steve's gaze. He looked…embarrassed. The irritation that had started building faded away.
"Thanks for keeping me warm last night."
Bucky—Steve had to bite his lip to keep from laughing—dug his toe in the dirt. "You're welcome," he muttered. "You looked cold and," he waved a hand, "you didn't have to be."
"You sure you wanted to do it? You seem pretty uncomfortable now."
"Yeah. Things are just simpler when I'm a wolf." He shrugged. "But we do need to go."
Dried meat on the back of a cantering horse wasn't even close to the worst meal he'd ever had. Add in one arm looped around Bucky, Sam flying overhead, and it came close to one of the better ones. He knew that said something about his life, but he refused to think about what.
Life was simpler when he was a wolf, but it was starting to feel simple when he wasn't. He knew it was an illusion—they were riding somewhere dangerous so he could get Steve paper so he could draw maps so they could make a plan to kill a Bishop—but it felt simple.
Ride through the day, Goliath under him, steadfast and sure, Steve behind him, a steady weight who had learned to move with him instead of jounce and cling, Sam flying above them or swooping down to perch on the saddle.
Three constants in his life. Three points of truth. Three things he could rely on. Sam, Goliath, and now Steve. He wasn't sure when Steve had turned two into three, but somewhere along the way, he had. Maybe it was when he'd knelt in front of Bucky while Bucky had promised to kill the Bishop. Maybe it was when he'd understood without being told about the wolf and the hawk.
Maybe it was when Bucky had curled up behind him to keep him warm—or when he hadn't let Bucky get away with pretending it hadn't happened. Just as well he hadn't, since the nights hadn't gotten any warmer.
The last few nights, once he'd finished his patrol, ranging far and wide around their camp because something was pricking at his instincts, he'd stretched out behind Steve. Steve hadn't sent him away.
He knew Sam found it hilarious. Sam was happy with a spot close by the fire—the weather would have to get pretty dire before they'd huddle together for warmth—but he seemed even happier to be gifted with the sight of Bucky snuggling up to Steve every night.
"He gets cold," Bucky had muttered to Sam this morning while Steve took care of business in the bushes.
Uh huh, Sam's look seemed to say. I'm sure he does.
"What's Sam laughing at?" Steve had asked when he came back into camp.
Bucky had hurriedly said, "Nothing," while Sam winged his way into the air, the kree of his laughter trailing behind him.
That had been this morning. But it was afternoon, now, and there wasn't much of a ride left before he reached his destination. But however short a ride it was, he wasn't taking Steve on it.
He drew Goliath to a halt, scanning the land at the side of the track, then turned to follow a deer trail.
"Where are we going?" Steve asked.
"You and Sam are going to make camp."
"And you're going to be?"
"I'm going to go get that paper you wanted."
He could feel Steve thinking about it. He half-expected this to go badly, but there was no way Steve was coming with him. There was borrowing trouble and there was opening the door and inviting it in and taking Steve into the rogues' den would be sending out invitations.
"Because the reason I'll be able to get paper from the place I'm going is because some of the people there specialise in forgery. They're not nice people and you look like the kind of man who'd be an easy target." He ducked to avoid a low hanging branch, Steve following his lead, half leaning over his back. "You're not," he added, glancing back, "but we don't need the hassle of getting into fights to prove it."
"I look like an easy target." Internally Bucky winced at Steve's tone; it was raring for a fight. "Because I'm skinny and short."
"Yes. If someone doesn't bother to look at your eyes, then yes. They'll see skinny and short and think, 'hey, there's an easy mark'."
After a long stretch of silence, Goliath carefully picking his way down the trail, Steve said, "What are you talking about?", the fight replaced by bafflement.
"What are you talking about?"
"'If they don't look at your eyes'?" Steve repeated. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Bucky turned in the saddle, staring at Steve in confusion. "You're lousy at hiding who you really are, it shows in your eyes, and you're as big as Goliath with enough fight for an army. Anyone who looks at your eyes and still thinks you'd be an easy target is soft in the head."
Steve stared at him, jaw working, and Bucky didn't know if he was about to get yelled at or punched again, then Steve laughed softly under his breath and let his head fall to rest on Bucky's shoulder.
"You should watch where Goliath's going."
He took the hint and turned around. "Are you alright?" Did I say something wrong?
"I'm fine, Bucky." Steve's arms went around his waist, even though Goliath was walking so slowly he didn't need to, and he tucked himself against his back. "I'll set up the camp while you get the paper."
* * *
Steve watched Bucky ride out of the sheltered area they'd chosen for their camp. It was deep in the forest, surrounded by thick underbrush and ancient trees. Goliath's unimpressed snorts—he didn't like having to squeeze between trees and through underbrush—drifted away as Bucky disappeared from view.
He turned to Sam, who was watching from his perch on the pile of saddlebags—Bucky had taken Goliath and his weapons; he'd left everything else behind.
"Guess he didn't want anything that might tempt people into a fight," Steve said. "Never mind," he added when Sam cocked his head in query.
He was just as glad Sam hadn't been around for, You're lousy at hiding who you really are, it shows in your eyes. He still didn't know what to make of it, or the swooping warmth, the surge of emotion that had cut off any anger before it could take root.
He shook it off, the shiver of Bucky seeing him, and made himself consider practical things.
"Is there water around here anywhere?"
Sam hopped into the air and flew to a nearby branch, waiting expectantly.
"Hang on." He dug the waterskins out of the pile then followed Sam as he led him through the underbrush and trees, birds erupting in panicked flight as he passed through their hiding places.
When they reached the spring, Steve filled the waterskins then leaned against a tree and considered Sam.
"You know," he said thoughtfully, and had to hide a grin as Sam gave him an unimpressed look. "Don't look at me like that. You haven't even heard my idea."
Sam landed on the ground and walked over to stand in front of him, staring up doubtfully.
"No, this is a good one. All those birds I scared up." Sam cocked his head and kree'd. "Oh, now you're interested." Sam clacked his beak. "Sorry. What if we take the water back to camp, then go hunting? If I flush them out, you should be able to take them down."
Steve had never thought of birds as being expressive, but it didn't take much to tell Sam was deeply offended. He ruffled his feathers, making himself look twice his usual size, mantled his wings, and tilted his head to regard Steve, obviously wondering if Steve had been dropped on his head recently.
"I'm not saying you need me," he soothed. "I know you don't need me. You're an amazing hunter. All I'm saying is it'd be easier to catch a lot of them if I help. And between you, me, and Bucky, we eat a lot."
Sam gave a low cry, mollified, then shot up into the air and circled, leading the way back to camp. Steve scooped up the water, grinned, and followed him.
* * *
Watching Sam hunt was amazing. He had a hawk's speed and precision with human intelligence and a fighter's eye. Steve flushed out another copse of birds and Sam dove into them, talons sinking into one as he pivoted on the wing to smack it into another and send it plummeting to the ground, shaking the first one loose to follow it. A balled fist took out another and a quick beak strike yet another. In less time than it would have taken Steve to set a rabbit snare, four birds were dead or stunned on the ground and Steve quickly finished off the stunned ones.
This was their third copse and would be their last. They had nine birds and one unlucky rabbit, enough to eat well and trade the rest—meat and feathers both, if he was careful when he plucked them.
"Nice job," Steve said, grinning as Sam swooped down to inspect his kills.
Sam preened, strutting a little as Steve bent to gather them up, then his head shot up and he screamed a warning, shooting into the air just in time to avoid the net that landed where he'd been standing.
Steve dropped the bag and the bird and drew his knife, turning to face the four men who stepped into view. One was reeling the net in, two others held knives, the fourth a makeshift club.
"Now, lad, no need for that," said the one with the club. "We just want the bird."
"Good bird like that, we can make our fortune," said the one with the net as they fanned out to surround him. "You just call him back."
"Call him back and we won't have to hurt you," the one with the club said, grinning a little and showing missing teeth.
Steve planted his feet, shifted the grip on his knife, and said, "No."
For one moment, even though he'd learned to taste violence on the air, he thought they might back down. Thought they might turn and go, but then the club was whistling for his arm. He skittered out of the way and Sam screamed in, raking the man's eyes.
The club hit the ground as the man bellowed, clutching his face.
It was a blur after that, no time to think. All he could do was react. Sam was everywhere, beak and talons, and Steve lashed out with his knife and fists and feet, but they were too many, too strong, and even as he fought they bore him to the ground.
Sam swooped low, buffeting them with his wings, trying to drive them back, but the net shot out and tangled him up, sending him plummeting to the ground. Steve lunged for the man holding it, managing to slice his arm before he was dragged away. A meaty hand wrapped around his throat, squeezing, dragging him up as the man with club, blood running down his face from his ruined eye, advanced on him.
Steve struggled, fighting with everything he had, smashing his head back to feel the crunch of a broken nose, knowing he'd pay for every hurt he gave them, but every moment they were fixed on him was another moment for Sam to get away.
His knees were kicked out from under him, he hit the ground, he could hear Sam fighting, the sound of wings flapping, Sam's scream of anger, then the hands holding him disappeared.
Dazed, he lifted his head to see a slender, hooded figure tear through them, sending blood and teeth flying.
"Dead or fled?" it asked—no, she asked, and he took a few moments to realise what she was asking.
"Fled," he got out.
They ran and the woman turned towards Sam. Her hood had fallen, revealing short red hair and pale skin and he knew her. He knew her. She'd been in the stable, she'd wanted Goliath, but it didn't matter, just like it didn't matter that she'd saved him, because her eyes were locked on Sam, Sam who was trapped in a net, who couldn’t fly free, who was helpless, and they weren't the eyes of someone looking at an animal.
He didn't know how or why, but she knew.
She stalked towards Sam, eyes intent, and whatever she wanted with him, judging by her expression, it wasn't anything good.
Steve dragged himself up and threw himself over Sam, curling his body around him, lifting his head to meet her gaze. "You'll have to kill me first."
She stopped, and Steve thought he saw a flash of surprise, quickly hidden behind…nothing. Her face was as blank as Bucky's eyes the first time Steve had seen him.
Steve didn't move, didn't dare breathe as she studied him. She fingered the hilt of her knife. Sam's wings flapped as he struggled to get out from under him, but Steve didn't budge.
"You mean that."
"I mean it."
Without another word, she turned and walked off into the forest. Steve didn't move, not until she was gone, not until the forest noises started up again, and then he sat back and stared at the spot she'd disappeared.
Sam squawked and Steve jerked, startled, then got up and found his knife, came back and started cutting him through the net.
"Are you hurt?" he asked when he'd cut enough off him that he could shake himself free.
Sam glared at him.
"I'm going to take that as a no." Steve's shoulders slumped. His head hurt, his neck hurt, his...just about everything hurt. "Let's get back to camp."
The bag with Sam's kills hadn't been damaged, so he scooped it up, shoved in the birds, and limped back to camp. Even if Sam was glaring at him, he was flying slowly from branch to branch, leading Steve at a speed he could manage.
* * *
Bucky was in a good mood. He'd been expecting his little trip to the rogues' den to be difficult, maybe involve a fight or two, or at least a confrontation. It hadn't. He'd ridden Goliath up to the stables and been greeted cheerfully enough, gone inside, looking for anyone he recognised—and found no one. The place seemed to have changed completely. It was cleaner, for one thing, and brighter.
He'd almost begun to wonder if it wasn't what it used to be, if the criminal contingent had found somewhere else to gather—it had been a very long time since he'd been there, so it wasn't impossible—when he'd finally seen someone familiar. Not someone he knew, exactly, just someone he could put a face and a speciality to.
Reassured, he'd made his way to the bar, had a quick conversation with the barman helped along by some coin, and been pointed towards someone who could help. Of course, they weren't there, and it'd been a bit of a ride to get where they were, but they'd been happy to sell him several unfolded sheets of paper. No questions asked by either of them and he'd ridden off, pleased.
His good mood vanished when he rode into camp close to sunset and found Steve sitting on one side of the pile of gear, looking like he'd gotten into all the fights Bucky had been happy to avoid, Sam perched on the pile, glaring at him.
He knew Sam and Sam was spitting mad, and that was something it was hard to do.
He swung off Goliath's back, dropped his reins, Steve turned to look at him, and he saw the red mark around his throat. Shaped like a hand. Next thing he knew he was on his knees next to him, one gloved hand wrapped around his arm, the other curled around his chin, tipping it back.
Steve stiffened, jerking his head away. "Don't manhandle me," he grit out. "I'm not your horse."
Bucky pulled his hands away. "I'm sorry." It was itching at him, the mark on Steve's throat, and he curled his fingers to keep from touching.
Steve's eyes were intent. "Ask first."
"Can I?" he asked, swallowing hard.
At Steve's tight nod, he pulled off his gloves and gently pressed the tips of his fingers to Steve's chin, feeling Steve yield to his touch and tilt his head to the side. He smoothed his hand down until it was curled around his jaw, thumb brushing his skin, and he touched the tip of a finger to the bruise.
"What happened?" he asked, voice amazingly even considering what was bubbling up inside him.
"Sam and me ran into some trouble in the woods."
Sam's sharp call was impressively angry. Bucky let his hand fall, resisted the urge to let it rest on Steve's knee, and said, "Why is he so mad?"
Steve cast a quick look at Sam before turning back to Bucky and Bucky wondered what the hell had happened while he'd been gone. "There was a woman."
Bucky's eyebrows climbed his forehead.
"What? No, not like that. She knew what Sam was. I'm sure of it. People don't look at animals the way she looked at Sam. She knew Sam was Sam, that he isn't a hawk."
Sam flapped his wings, hard, and gave Bucky a look he couldn't decipher even with as long as he'd known him, but he was clearly unhappy.
"You disagree?" Bucky asked.
Sam shook his head and Bucky's hand dropped instinctively to a knife. Someone who knew. Someone who knew what they were. What they became. They'd be burned at the stake for consorting with demons. They'd be burned as demons.
"If you're right, we need to move. We need to put distance between us and her." He started to rise, but Steve caught his arm.
"Bucky. We've seen her before, she's seen us before, me and Sam."
He slowly sank back down. "What?"
"In the stables, during the storm. She's the one who was interested in Goliath."
"She's been following us?" Except it wasn't possible. Maybe someone could conceal themselves from Sam, from him, but no once could hide from the wolf.
"I don't know," Steve ground out and Sam croaked in frustration.
He looked up at the sky, even though he didn't need to. He never needed to. "It's too close to sunset. Sam, is there any chance anyone's close enough to camp to see us?"
Sam shook his head again.
"Alright. We change, then we go. You two ride through the night and I'll watch our trail. Agreed?"
"Yeah," Steve said and Sam gave a low cry Bucky knew meant yes.
"Is she the one who hurt you?" he asked.
"No. That was some men who wanted to steal Sam."
Sam hunkered down and glared some more. Bucky looked between them, feeling the pull of the fading sun. "Sam."
Sam ignored him.
"Are you going to change right there?"
Sam continued to ignore him.
"Alright then." He dug around in the saddlebags under Sam until he found Sam's clothes, set them on the ground, unbuckled their sword and set it next to the clothes, then made his way into the underbrush.
The change came as the sun fell, calling the wolf out from under his skin, and he shook himself then pushed out through the bushes in time to see Sam pulling his clothes on, Steve politely staring up into the sky.
Sam was still angry. He could smell it now as well as see it, but he could also smell the fear woven through the anger. Whatever had happened, it had scared him just as much.
When Sam was dressed, he stalked closer to stand over Steve. "Don't ever do that again."
Steve, bruise red on his throat, met Sam glare for glare. "What, you want me to promise?"
"Yes, Steve, I want you to promise."
"Sorry, I only give my word if I know I can keep it."
Sam looked like he wished he had hair like Bucky's, just so he could tear it out. His frustrated growl would have done Bucky proud. "You don't get to risk your life for mine."
Bucky's heart stopped. He pushed between them, rumbling, wordlessly demanding an explanation.
"This one here," Sam pointed at Steve, "decided it would be a good idea to tell that woman—and Bucky, she definitely knew I wasn’t just a hawk—that she'd have to kill him to get to me."
"I was just supposed to let her go ahead with whatever she had planned?"
What had he pulled out of that jail? Bucky pawed at Steve.
"Don't manhandle me," Steve told him, but softly, and he rested a hand between Bucky's ears before telling Sam, "You saw her face. You know whatever she was planning, it was nothing good. If someone's threatening you, if someone's going to hurt you, when you're a Godbedammed hawk and can't defend yourself, I get to do anything I damn well please."
Sam folded his arms. "You remember we basically kidnapped you, right?"
Steve dug his fingers into Bucky's fur. "A lot's happened since then."
"You. I." He threw his hands in the air, then pulled Steve up and into a hug. "Don't do it again if there's any other option."
After a moment's shock that Bucky could feel, Steve said, "That I can promise," and hugged him back.
"Good." Sam let him go. "I'll hold you to it."
Warning for this chapter: Steve relives his mother's death. More detail in the end notes with minor spoilers.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"Steve," Bucky said. "Are you awake back there?"
If he said yes, it wouldn't be a lie. Mostly. He and Sam had ridden through most of the night, stopping just shy of dawn so Steve, Bucky and Goliath could sleep while Sam kept watch. Sam was currently fast asleep on the saddle in front of Bucky, emitting high-pitched whistling snores with every breath.
Steve made a note to point that out to him tonight.
He yawned and turned his head to lean his cheek on Bucky's back. His neck still ached, and he knew the mark on it was darker this morning—at least he guessed it was, judging by Bucky's reaction when he'd seen it this morning. His fingers had curled as he'd lifted a hand, but he hadn't tried to touch.
He didn't need to. If Steve closed his eyes, he could still feel yesterday's. The first one, and the second. The first had made him angry, coming too close to everything that had happened, even if it hadn't been entirely unwelcome. The second…
He refused to think about how the second had made him feel.
Just like he refused to think about how different riding behind Bucky was from riding behind Sam. It should be the same. They were both tough, muscular, moved with Goliath like they were part of him, both happy to let Steve lean on them and hang on. But riding with Bucky, being that close to Bucky…
It was the same as not thinking about the second touch.
There was no time for it, no space for it, no room for it. They had a job to do, one they might not come out of, and there was no time for Steve to think about things like touches.
No matter how they made him feel.
"Steve?" Bucky sounded like he didn't know whether to be worried or amused.
"Sorry. I'm here."
"I know you're there, what I don't know is if you're awake."
"I'm awake. What do you need?"
"So many things," Bucky said under his breath, then cleared his throat. "Tell me more about the woman. And about the men who hurt you."
"There's not much to tell."
"What you can."
Steve sighed and straightened. "Which first?"
"Men, then the woman."
"They were, I don't know, poachers maybe. There were four of them. They wanted Sam, because he was such a good hunting bird. One had a net, he was trying to catch Sam. He managed it, but only because Sam was trying to help me."
"You didn't think of running away?"
"Hard to run away when you're surrounded."
Goliath's stride faltered, then smoothed out.
"They said call Sam or they'd hurt me, I said no, they kept their word, and things might have gone badly."
"Might." Bucky snorted.
"Probably would have," Steve conceded, "but what was I going to do. Give them Sam?"
"Yes? And then Sam outsmarts them and flies away, or the sun goes down, he changes and escapes."
A suspiciously awake sounding whistle came from in front of Bucky.
"Sure, except what if they decide he's too much trouble and kill him? Or decide to eat him? Or lock him up in something he can't get out of and then he changes? Or sell him before he changed and then he changes back in some noble's—or criminal's, considering where you were—household? What then? He dies, or gets kept as a freak, or handed over to the Church as a demon."
Bucky turned to look at Steve. "You thought of all that while you were surrounded and being threatened."
"Of course." Bucky had turned around in the saddle to look at him strangely. "What?"
"Nothing." Steve scowled at him. "Honestly, nothing, Steve. Just not a lot of people would have thought all that through."
That made him stare at Bucky, because how could they not? They were right there, possible paths branching out. He shook his head. "That's when the woman showed up. The same one from the stable. She trounced them, could have killed them if she wanted. She would have, but I told her not to."
"She listened to you?"
"She asked me. She said, 'Dead or fled?'."
"And you said fled."
"Yeah. That's how I knew she wouldn't kill me when she went for Sam."
He could see the muscle working in Bucky's jaw. "You're lying to me."
"No, she went for him. Maybe she wasn't going to kill him, but she was going to do something. I could see it."
"That's not what you're lying about. You didn't know she wouldn't kill you."
After a long silence, he said, "No. I didn't. I took a chance. And I'd take it again, for either of you."
Bucky didn't speak, but his hand slipped down to cover Steve's where it was resting against his stomach.
* * *
They pushed hard, covering the distance, avoiding the roads. Sam flew on ahead, scouting, and as the sun began to fall he led them to an old barn, half falling down and obviously abandoned.
Bucky pronounced it good enough and they took shelter for the night. Steve helped him unsaddle Goliath, both working to rub him down, the normally tireless stallion showing signs of weariness.
"It'll do him good to be able to rest and graze," Bucky said as he pushed the brush he was using into Steve's hands. The sun was almost gone. Sam had flown up to the old hayloft. "Keep working on him for me?"
With a quick smile, Bucky pulled a bundle of clothes out of a saddlebag and tossed them up to the hayloft, leaned the sword against the ladder, then disappeared into a cobweb-laden stall.
Steve leaned on Goliath's shoulder, scratching the stallion's cheek when he snuffled his hair. "You're a good horse," he said, "even if your name is dumb."
A muted growl came from Bucky's stall. Steve stifled a laugh and went back to grooming Goliath.
"Are you making fun of his horse?" Sam asked, climbing carefully down the ladder. He stopped at the bottom, scooped up the sword, and buckled it on.
"No, making fun of Bucky for naming his horse."
Bucky trotted out of the stall, shaking his head miserably, face coated in cobwebs.
"Did you stick your head in a spider's nest?" Sam asked in disbelief.
"Come here," Steve said, pointing at his feet.
Bucky came over and sat on his feet, looking pitifully up at him while Goliath snuffled his fur.
"Stop it." Steve started picking the webs off his face. "I'll help you without the look."
It disappeared, replaced by a tongue-lolling grin, and Bucky chuffed.
"Yeah, you're real funny," Sam said.
Bucky chuffed again. When he was web free, he paced over to Sam, ears tilted, eyes serious.
Sam crouched down. "I'll make sure he's safe," he murmured, so quietly Steve almost couldn’t hear it. "Go do what you need to do. Make sure no one followed us."
With one last, quick look at Steve, Bucky whirled and trotted out of the barn.
"What was that about?" Steve asked.
"He can be a little protective." Sam leaned on the wall of Goliath's stall. "He doesn't like that you got hurt."
"Even though it wasn't his fault?"
Steve ran the brush along Goliath's flank. "He does realise there's a good chance we won't make it out of this alive."
"For me and him, yes. For you, no. He made you a promise, that he'd get you home safely. We both intend to keep it."
"You're in a big hurry to die?"
"No, nothing like that." He leaned on Goliath's side, glad the horse was too tall for him to see Sam. "I'm just not sure where it is your supposed to be getting me."
Steve doubted it, but he didn't say anything.
"Bucky's protective streak made him good at what he did. It was part of why we kept working together even though we never really got along, but I always figured it would break his heart someday."
Steve hesitated, then ducked under Goliath's neck so he could see Sam.
Sam gave him a mild look, almost like he could see the questions churning through Steve's head.
"You keep saying you're not friends. You don't like each other."
"Because we don't," Sam grumbled.
"Right. So how did you end up working together?"
Slowly, Sam smiled. "You want the start of the story."
"Only if you'll tell it."
"Finish with Goliath, then we'll see."
He didn't rush, because Goliath deserved better, but he didn't linger. When Goliath was groomed, watered, had his grain and was tethered where he'd be able to graze, he made his way to where Sam had set up a little camp near a hole in the barn wall.
"For a fire, if Bucky's says we're clear. Until then—" He handed Steve a handful of dried meat and half the bread.
He briefly mourned the birds they'd abandoned at last night's camp before saying, "Thanks," and gnawing on the meat while giving Sam an expectant look.
He'd just swallowed a mouthful when Sam said, "I met Bucky when he tried to kill me."
Steve choked and Sam had to get up and pound him on the back.
"You alright there?"
"Fine," he said, eyes narrowed, because there was no way the timing had been accidental. Sam grinned as he resumed his seat. "Bucky tried to kill you?"
"Mmmm. It was a misunderstanding—"
"That the devil's own misunderstanding."
"Isn't it? Turned out we'd both been, let's call it misled into believing each other was a threat. Set up to kill each other and stop being a thorn in certain people's sides. Thankfully Bucky can't shut up, kept telling me what a terrible person I was while he was trying to kill me, so it gave me a chance to set things straight." Sam's voice was almost fond, like this was a memory he treasured. "We corrected the problem together and I ended up stuck with him."
"But you're not friends."
"Not even a little bit."
Steve barely kept himself from snorting, because they did a good impression. Sam eyed him, but Steve just gave him an innocent look and took a bite of bread. When he was finished eating, he asked, "Have you and Bucky always been this?" To Sam's raised eyebrow, he hastily added, "Freelance guards, I mean."
"Bucky, well, I know he'd done a lot of things before we met, I know for sure he'd fought in more than one noble's war, but he doesn't talk about it. For me…" He gazed at Goliath as the stallion rubbed his head against the barn door, scratching an itch. "Yes and no," he finally said. "A long time ago, it feels like a lifetime ago, now, I was working my way through the ranks of the Church guard."
He picked up an apple, split it neatly in two, handed half to Steve and when he spoke again his voice was hard.
"Then I lost one of my men, because the Priest we'd been sent to escort didn't care enough not to put us in harm's way for no reason. It made me see the world differently. Made me realise there was no loyalty, no honour, no care."
Steve made a small, inadvertent noise of protest and Sam's expression softened.
"I don't mean they don't exist," he said. "I know better. But there was none for us. We served a man of God, we would have laid down our lives for him, but all he cared about was power and the only thing he loved was himself."
Steve nodded slowly, half-mesmerised, knowing anything he said wouldn't be enough—or would, with the memories wakened by Sam's words, be far, far too much.
"So I got out. Used my reputation, used the Church's reputation for only training the best, to go freelance. Then Bucky tried to kill me, I got stuck with him, and, well," Sam shook his head, "you know the rest."
"I guess I do," Steve said softly.
A wolf's howl—Bucky's howl—sounded, loud and long, and Sam tilted his head, a little smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. "And that's our signal."
* * *
Steve stayed awake longer than he should have, staring into the fire, his feet tucked under Bucky's fur, Sam a solid shape next to him. They'd started off talking over their plans for tomorrow but had eventually drifted into silence.
His eyes kept slipping shut, but he forced them open. It was only when Sam shook him from a half doze that he gave in and went to curl under the comforting weight of Bucky's cloak.
It didn't take long for the dream to find him.
"Ma. Ma, it's late. Do we have to go tonight?"
"Steven, it's important that we don't leave things undone."
He knew it was a dream. He knew it was a dream and he knew it was a memory and he knew there was nothing he could do to change it, but it didn't stop him from trying.
"Ma, no. We shouldn't go." He tugged at her sleeve to try and stop her, but he was too small, too young, and she kept walking up the stone steps that lined the tower wall, each one taking them closer and closer…
"I know you're tired, and it should have been done earlier, but with two of the girls off sick, we all have to help." She turned to smile at him, , kind and heartbreaking, her basket of dried purple flowers over one arm, and he wanted to weep. He wanted to scream. "It won't take long. We'll put fresh lavender in the garderobe, collect the dinner things, make sure everything's in order."
The bells rang out, loud and clear, each peal pounding in his heart.
"See? It's matins, the Bishop will be long in bed. There's no need to worry."
"Ma, please," he begged. He begged and pulled on her sleeve with all his might, but she didn't see and didn't feel because this was a dream and a memory and nothing he did could change what was about to happen.
They walked up the last of the stairs and pushed open the thick wooden door that led to the Bishop's private rooms. The hall stretched out forever and they walked slowly down it, each step echoing in Steve's ears.
There was nothing he could do. It was as it always was.
His mother's indrawn gasp, a tiny sound that stabbed into Steve's heart. The Bishop, looking up from the book in his hand.
The candles and the bloody pentagram.
The demon. With eyes of fire, curling golden horns, naked as a newborn, it could be nothing else.
His mother's prayers as she shoved Steve behind her, but it didn't matter. It was already too late.
The Bishop's sigh of irritation as he said, "Kill her."
The demon flicked his fingers. His mother gave a tiny gasp and fell to the floor, blood trickling from her ears onto the silken carpet, obscuring the pattern.
Steve dropped to his knees. "Ma. Ma, get up. Ma. Please."
She didn't move, her eyes staring sightlessly at the ceiling.
"Ma, please," he begged, but the child he'd been then and the man he was now knew she'd never answer.
With a cry, he hurled himself at the Bishop, punching, kicking, biting, the world gone red-washed.
The Bishop grabbed the front of his tunic and hauled him up, nose wrinkling, eyes as cold as winter's frost. "They breed like rats, you know," he said as Steve tried to kick him. "I sometimes wonder if it would be simpler to have them birthed directly into the prisons."
He tossed Steve into the pentagram, saying, "Deal with this."
Steve hit the ground hard enough the world spun and sprawled across the floor, but he dragged himself to his feet, turned to face the demon, who caught his arm in an unbreakable grip, sharp nails pricking his skin.
"Eat it if you want. Consider it a reward for a job well done. And dispose of the body," the Bishop added, waving his hand at Steve's mother. "I'll return shortly."
When he was gone, the demon crouched in front of him. "I don't believe you're a rat. You're barely a mouse, and a small one at that."
Steve raised his fist as tears ran down his face, ready to fight even if he only had one hand.
"Can you swim, little mouse?"
Steve raised his fist higher.
"It's important." The demon's eyes were flickering flame, he smelled like the giant ovens in the kitchen, his golden horns curled, sharp and scary, above his head, but his face was… It wasn't frightening. It was serious, like what he was asking really was important.
Steve slowly nodded.
"I must do as I'm bound, little mouse. No different than a sword or a knife. I'd not have killed her if I'd had a choice. But I have a choice with you. Deal with you, he said, that pustulent weeping sore of a Bishop. You'll need to swim for your life, so I dearly hope you weren't lying."
The demon raised his hand. He snapped his fingers.
Steve was falling, falling down to splash into the water. He surged desperately to the surface and scrabbled at the slimy walls, half-blinded by tears as he tried to find his way out.
* * *
Steve came up out of sleep with a gasp, heart racing, eyes wet. Sorrow and fury sat in his belly, tangled threads reaching up to snare his heart, and he wrapped his arms around himself.
A shadow fell across him—Bucky lifting his head, turning from where sat with Sam by the fire.
Steve breathed deep, trying to calm his heart, trying to push the memories back behind their wall, but before he could do more than blink away the afterimages, Bucky was settling down next to him, head resting on Steve's thigh, eyes lifted to watch his face.
"I'm fine," he murmured. "Go back to Sam."
Bucky nudged him, shifting closer, stretching out to his full length and Steve rolled to put his back against him, his solid strength a comfort. He pressed a little closer, and Bucky sighed and settled, and Steve closed his eyes.
If he kept his attention on the wolf at his back, on Bucky's warmth, maybe he could keep it from coming back.
Or maybe not. He thought he knew why he'd had it. He'd been barrelling forward, keeping the memories walled away, until they'd finally burst through, refusing to be ignored—because they couldn’t be.
Tomorrow, he was going to use a chunk of burnt stick to draw maps of the Bishop's household and the cathedral grounds so they could plan a way inside to kill him. But it wouldn't work. For all that Bucky and Sam had tasted the Bishop's power, they were still alive. He had to tell them what had happened. It was the only way to make them understand.
He wouldn't let them throw their lives away.
* * *
Steve must have been awake before the sun rose, because when Bucky opened his eyes he was sitting cross-legged, watching him. Bucky yawned, wide and with a little whine, then smacked his lips. Steve smiled, but it faded, leaving him looking thoughtful and smelling a little…sad.
Bucky wondered if it was left over from Steve's dream. No, Steve's nightmare, since Bucky had been able to smell his fear and pain, hear his racing heart, and he'd no more been able to stay away then he could walk on two legs under the starlit sky.
Stretching out his nose, he nudged Steve's hand. Steve wrapped his fingers around his muzzle, giving it a little shake. "Go change."
He huffed, pulling his head back and giving Steve an offended look as he stretched to his feet, but he was secretly pleased. Any way Steve wanted to touch him was fine with him.
His clothes were in the stall where he'd left them, their sword leaning against the wall where Sam had put it, and he closed his eyes and waited. The pull and the stretch and his body reforming around him almost hurt but not quite, like falling into a frozen lake, the shock of it stealing his breath away.
It took him a few moments to pull himself together, harder to go from wolf to man than the other way—for the wolf, everything was simpler—then he stood, got dressed, and buckled their sword on as he went back out to join Steve.
"Morning," Steve said.
"Good morning," he replied, stretching, and went to greet Goliath, rubbing his forehead as the horse lipped at his tunic. "Everything alright?"
"He doesn't sound all that fine, does he?" Bucky said to Goliath.
"Are you talking about me to the horse?" Steve asked.
"This is a private conversation," Bucky said over his shoulder, then continued to Goliath, "Eavesdropping. Can you believe that?"
"I believe you're an idiot," Steve replied with so much warm affection Bucky slowly turned to stare at him. Steve's eyes were warm, his smile was warm, Bucky took an involuntary step towards him… And it disappeared. Steve cleared his throat. "You, I mean. Not the horse."
"I knew that." Wondering if he'd imagined it, Bucky fetched more wood for the fire, letting it blaze up and cover his confusion.
Sam flew in through the door, backwinged to a landing on the hayloft ladder, then turned to face them.
"Morning, Sam," Bucky said.
He whistled a greeting and cocked his head.
Steve took the deep breath of someone being led to his execution and stood up. "After breakfast I need to talk to you both."
Bucky looked over to meet Sam's eyes and saw his own sudden dread reflected back at him.
It was a silent affair, Steve and Bucky dutifully eating. The only one who seemed to be enjoying it was Goliath, and even he whickered unhappily when he finished his handful of grain and was relegated to grazing again.
"Alright, talk," Bucky said when they were done, leaning on the hayloft ladder, Sam perched above his shoulder.
Steve took a drink from the waterskin and cleared his throat. "There's some things I didn't tell you. Things I didn't think— No, things I didn't want to matter. Things I didn't want to think about. But they matter. You need to know them. They're life and death."
"Is this about the nightmare you had last night?"
"Other way around," Steve said. "I think it's why I had the nightmare."
Bucky couldn’t help glancing at Sam, but his eyes were locked on Steve. Steve, who was holding his elbows, looking like his world was about to come crashing down around him. Bucky didn't know whether to go and hang onto him, try and hold him together, or run—because a bad feeling was rising in his bones.
"You won't believe me. That's what you said to me, Bucky. You said I wouldn't believe you and I'm saying it right back to you, because you're not. You won't."
"No. Just let me get through this. If I stop I'm not sure I'll be able to start again." He breathed deep and there he was, big as Goliath, chin high, shoulders back. "I told you the Bishop killed my mother. I didn't tell you how."
Bucky went cold.
"She was a servant in the palace. Trusted enough that she helped look after the Bishop's private rooms. Trusted enough they let her son help her when he was older—it wasn't kindness; they had their eye on him as a servant, too, so it was just training him up early." The corner of his mouth twisted. "I never lied about being trained, I just left out some details."
Sam was very still next to him, not a feather shifting as they listened to Steve. They both knew where this was going, no way to stop it.
"There were… Some of the other servants were sick. Things were left undone. It was late, the bells had just rung for matins. There shouldn't have been anyone around. The Bishop shouldn't have been there, should have been in his bedchamber, but he wasn't. He was there and he— God."
Bucky didn't know if it was a curse or a prayer.
"There was a demon. He had a demon, right there in his rooms. His private rooms are at the top of a tower, but he hadn't even bothered to bar the door. Maybe his guard knows what he does, must know what he does, but he didn't think of the servants. Didn't think of my mother, who just wanted to make sure everything was done right, that nothing was left undone, and so we walked right in and saw what we shouldn't, and he killed her."
Steve put his head in his hand and laughed, breathlessly, angrily.
"He killed her, she died because she didn't matter enough to think about. I'm only alive because I think the demon hates the Bishop as much as we do. He told the demon to deal with me and the demon dropped me in the sewers because deal with isn't kill."
Steve was so tense he looked like he'd shatter at a touch and there was nothing Bucky could do for him but what he'd asked: let him get through it.
"But my mother he told the demon to kill. That's how she died. But the Bishop's responsible." Steve drew in a long, deep breath. Bucky had seen a lot of courageous things in his life—last ditch charges and people selling their lives at the point of a sword—but he wasn't sure he'd ever seen anything like the way Steve lifted his chin and met his eyes with absolute steadiness. "That's not what's important now. What's important is that it took a flick of his demon's fingers to kill her. You can't fight that."
There were so many things Bucky wanted to say. So many emotions fighting to be heard, but over everything was Steve watching his mother die, and Steve's mother dying, without even a chance to fight back. "What was her name?" Bucky asked quietly.
"Sarah. Her name was Sarah."
She must have been incredible to raise someone like Steve. "Sarah," he repeated softly
"That's why you can't kill him."
Bucky blinked, felt Sam startle.
"You can't, because you'll lose. He has a demon, a demon's power. He killed my mother without even touching her. He cursed you. If you fight him, you'll die, you'll both die and nothing's worth that. I can't, I don't—"
The steadiness cracked, Steve bowed his head, and Bucky gave in, crossing the distance between them and pulling Steve close.
"I told you not to manhandle me," Steve choked out.
"I'm not," Bucky said, cupping a hand around the back of his head and Steve pressed his forehead against Bucky's chest. "Say the word and I'll let go."
Steve shook his head and hung on tight, like he'd never let go, and Bucky realised he'd be fine with that. It wasn't the time for inconvenient realisations, though, so he shoved it away and just held him, rubbing a hand up and down his back.
"We'll be alright," he said softly.
Steve shoved hard against his chest, leaning back to glare at him. "I told you you wouldn't believe me. I told you, but I need you to be smarter than that. I need you to believe me."
Shock coursed through him. Steve hadn't been talking about demon summoning and death when he'd said they wouldn’t believe him; he'd meant being able to kill the Bishop. "No. I believe you." A rustle of wings heralded Sam's arrival, Bucky's shoulder dipping under his weight before he braced himself. "We believe you. If that's what we have to face, we'll find a way to counter it. Someone with magic, or maybe a man of the Church who's actually a man of God, if any of those actually exist."
Steve searched his face and Bucky looked back, an open book, wondering what Steve might see in his pages, and finally, finally, Steve relaxed against him.
"We'll find something," Bucky promised, letting his fingers curl around the back of Steve's neck, letting his cheek press against Steve's hair, as Steve once more rested his forehead against his chest.
It was a moment of peace, shattered utterly when, "I might have a suggestion," rang out from the barn's doorway.
Extra detail from the top about Steve reliving his mother's death: he has a dream where he relives the memory of his mother being killed by the Bishop of Aquila. He's a child and she's killed (instantly) in front of him by the demon at the Bishop's command. It's described in minor detail, with some blood and staring eyes.
Bucky shoved Steve away and unsheathed his sword while Sam mantled on his shoulder with a warning cry. Goliath snorted, throwing his head up, ears flat back, half-rearing in affront at people who appeared from nowhere.
From the corner of his eye Bucky saw Steve draw a knife, but he kept his gaze firmly on the slender hooded figure.
"That's her," Steve said. "The woman who went for Sam."
Bucky was in the wrong shape for it, but he growled anyway.
"Pax, wolf," she said, confirming that she knew. Bucky's heart beat faster but she calmly shook her hood back, revealing familiar red hair, and held out her hands, showing no weapons.
"I've seen you before," Bucky said. She smiled, sharp as a blade, and he knew. "The tavern. You warned me off the pottage."
"You're welcome," she said, shifting her gaze to Steve. "I wasn't going to hurt the hawk."
"You sure didn't look like you were going to help him," Steve said.
"I did save your life," she pointed out.
"And I don't trade my life for the lives of my friends."
She acknowledged it with a slight dip of her chin.
"Was all this because you want Goliath?" Steve demanded.
For half a heartbeat, her face was wreathed with amusement. "No, as fine as he is, I don't want the horse."
"Then what do you want?" Bucky slid closer, putting himself more thoroughly between her and Steve while Sam spread his wings, golden eyes burning.
She pursed her lips and instead of answering said, "I was operating under a misunderstanding. A misunderstanding which has since been been corrected."
Sam and Steve both jerked, and Steve stepped forward, anger blooming to life on his face. Bucky flung out an arm to stop him, grateful when it worked.
"You were eavesdropping," Steve said.
"How were you eavesdropping?" Steve asked, obvious confusion warring with the anger. "How did you hide from him?" He put his hand on Bucky's arm.
"The same way I can shield you from the power the Bishop commands. Interested?"
"No," Bucky said before Steve could reply. "Not without an explanation. What misunderstanding? Who are you? What's it going to cost us?"
"Which do you want answered first?"
"The misunderstanding," Bucky said.
"I guess I shouldn't be surprised. Are you going to invite me in?"
"No." Bucky said. "Not yet. Possibly never."
"Very well." She made herself to all appearances comfortable, leaning against the ragged wood that lined the half-tumbled barn's entrance, gaze shifting towards the beams of light illuminating the dust and cobwebs that lined the still strong beams.
Bucky lowered his arm, but Steve stayed close by his side, still gripping his knife. Bucky didn't sheathe his sword, just set the point on the ground and settled his hands on the hilt. Sam tucked his wings close and stayed on his shoulder, golden eyes fixed on the woman in front of them.
She didn't seem concerned.
"I thought Steve served you from fear or the promise of a reward. My intent with the hawk was to truss him up more thoroughly, then spirit Steve away with the promise of freedom or a better offer."
Without looking, Bucky put his arm out again, blocking Steve. He could feel the anger vibrating off him. "What do you want with him?"
"The same thing you do." She leaned forward. "I want what he knows. But you hold him by his loyalty, and I can't match that."
"Damn right you can't," Steve snapped out.
She was wrong. Not about being able to match it, but about it being loyalty. That wasn't what it was. Steve wasn't loyal to them, like he'd sworn allegiance to their cause. It was…Bucky didn't know. It was something more. Something deeper. They were part of this together.
Sam let out a soft, questioning cry, interrupting his thoughts, and Bucky's eyes narrowed, because he thought he knew what Sam was getting at. "What are you planning that you need Steve for?"
She hesitated. It was small, but it was there. "Before I answer, you should know that we did try to find you."
He couldn't hide his surprise. They'd taken care to cover their tracks as best they could when they'd searched for Steve, but it had been more to be safe, to be careful, than because they'd seriously thought anyone would be looking for them.
"Why?" he asked, baffled. "Who are you?"
The only warning he had was her bracing herself, like she was preparing for a fight, and then she said, "Wanda isn't dead."
Steve's grip on his wrist was bruising, fingers digging into his skin, and it wasn't until Sam's talons drew blood that he realised he was growling, a long low sound that belonged to the wolf, had lunged forward, only Steve's hand holding him back.
"You taught her to ride a horse like men do." She hadn't moved, but her eyes were wary. Bucky went still. "You let her dress as a boy. You treated her well. You treated her like a friend. You gave her freedom, and, in the end, you were prepared to die to save her."
"How do you—" He stopped, swallowed, used the sharp points of pain that were Sam's talons in his skin to gather himself. "How do you know that?"
"Wanda told me."
The words rang in his ears, bounced through his mind, and slipped back out the other side without taking roost. Steve's hand tightened on his wrist.
"Bucky," Steve said and he turned his head to look at him. "Are you…" He paused. "No, you're not."
"What's your name?" he said, turning back to the woman.
"Natasha. What did you say?"
"I said that Wanda told me."
"No one walked away from that clearing. I could smell it. The trail ended there."
"No. None of the Bishop's men walked away, because Wanda destroyed them. She walked away, not unhurt, but she didn't leave a trail."
Bucky looked at her helplessly.
"Explain," Steve said, a snap of command in his voice and his grip was strong and sure on Bucky's wrist. "You let them think she was dead. Explain what you're talking about."
The wariness was gone from Natasha, but it had been replaced by something else. Something that was weighing him up. Weighing them all up. Testing them by some measure he couldn't begin to fathom. Finally, she said, "The Bishop didn't want Wanda because she was a woman. He wanted her because she has magic."
Sam twitched and Bucky said, "What?"
"Magic. She didn't know, but when she was cornered, when she was facing death, her power woke up. It saved her. It also let us find her."
Bucky remembered the clearing's scent of lightning and fire, its scorched earth and blood-dappled trees. Wanda destroyed them. He believed her. How could he not? Nothing ordinary had done that. Maybe he should be horrified or terrified, but all he felt was savage gladness that, whatever that part of Wanda was, it had chosen that moment to wake up and save her.
"Us?" Steve was asking and it drew him back. "Who's us?"
"She has a family. She has a clan."
Sam shifted on his shoulder, silent disagreement, and Bucky said, "No. She was an orphan. A foundling."
"An orphan, yes, her parents died a long way from home, but her brother, her twin, wasn't with them. He's the one who felt her power wake. He's how we found her, and we brought her home." Fierceness rolled through her voice, before it faded once more to matter-of-factness. "She told us about the two of you, she made us try and find you, but we couldn't."
"So when you talked to me in the tavern," Bucky said. "Did you know who I was?"
"Sort of." Bucky frowned at her and she added, "Honestly, I recognised your horse first."
Bucky had to laugh. He had to. If he didn't laugh he didn't know what he'd do. Sam spread his wings, talons no longer digging into Bucky's flesh, and nipped Bucky's ear, sobering him up. "Of course you did," he managed.
"And I was going to find you after I killed the Bishop—which I needed Steve for—but then everything else happened, so I'm here, suggesting we join forces, because Wanda isn't dead, but she is in danger."
"And killing the Bishop will stop it?"
"Yes. He still wants her power, and he's figured out a way to do it. A way he doesn't need her to be present and it's not something she'll survive. I can't protect her, because he's got a piece of her body."
Steve looked at Natasha like she was crazy. "What are you talking about?"
She made an impatient gesture. "Hair, blood, bone, it creates a link that can't be severed and can't be blocked. I don't know how he got it, but he has something of hers."
Bucky's gut churned, remembering the bloody cloak they'd put into the ground. He glanced sideways, meeting Sam's eyes.
"What is it?" Natasha asked sharply. "What do you know?"
"We might know what he's got," Bucky said. Gaze never shifting from Sam's, he added, "It might be our fault." Might. As if there was any chance it wasn't. Sam ruffled his wings. From the corner of his eye, he saw Natasha straighten, standing off the wall, saw Steve move, putting himself between them and her.
"We, there wasn't anything left in the clearing we tracked her to, just what was left of Sam's gelding, what hadn't been dragged away or eaten. We found Wanda's cloak. It was cut, covered in blood." He rubbed a hand over his mouth. "We thought it was all that was left of her. We paid a priest to bury it properly in his churchyard, to say the prayers for her."
"Did you tell him her name?" Natasha asked.
Sam gave a low, affirming call as Bucky slowly nodded, head as heavy as his heart. "We just wanted to do right by her," he said softly. "And instead we handed her to the Bishop."
"No." Steve whirled to face him, fierce enough to block out the world. "You don't get to take that on yourselves."
"If we hadn't—"
"Did you know?" They all three stiffened at Natasha's question, as if they'd collectively forgotten she was there. "Did you know she was alive? Did you know blood could be a weapon? Do either of you know anything about magic?"
"Then no. No." Steve grasped his shoulder with one hand, curled the other around Sam's neck, fingers sinking into his feathers. "You took what you had, so some part of her," Steve faltered, voice hitching before it smoothed out, "would get a proper burial. You did right by her, even at the end. We should all be that lucky." He leaned in a little, holding their eyes in turn. "This was not your fault, either of you. It belongs at the feet of the Bishop."
"And that's where we'll leave it," Natasha said, "along with his head."
Steve's hands slipped away, and he turned to face Natasha, his back brushing Bucky's chest.
"Soon the world will be in flux," she said. "With his demon and Wanda's blood, he'll be able to take her powers."
"Unless he's dead," Bucky said.
"Unless he's dead. What do you say?"
Bucky's mind was starting to stagger under the weight of it all, but he couldn't, wouldn't, commit them to joining her, not until Sam had his voice. He had no doubts what their choice would be, but Sam had to have his say first. "Give us until after sundown. Don't eavesdrop, stop hiding from us, and we'll come and find you."
She gave him a long look followed by a brief nod and slipped out of the barn.
Sam shifted from foot to foot on his shoulder, making the punctures sting.
"You alright?" Such a stupid question, when he knew the answer was no.
He clacked his beak then spread his wings and flapped them. Bucky held up his arm and Sam hopped on, turning his head to give Bucky a questioning look.
"Go. We'll be fine."
Sam launched himself, then flew out the door, spiralling up into the air and vanishing from sight. Bucky sighed, closing his eyes, then jerked them open at Steve's touch on his shoulder.
"You should probably clean those up," Steve said, indicating the points of blood soaking through his shirt.
"Come sit down, I'll do it."
"You don't have to."
"If I had to, I wouldn't."
Even in the face of everything, Bucky had to laugh quietly at that, because it was the truth. He followed Steve to where the bags were piled, leaned the sword against the wall, let Steve push him to sit, then skimmed out of his shirt. The punctures were neat and not very deep, but they were bloody.
Steve wet a cloth with a waterskin and knelt next to him, gently dabbing at the wounds. "I need to say something," he said quietly.
"Whatever you and Sam decide, I'm going with her. I'm going to help her."
A whirlwind rushed through him, lifting him up, spinning him around, and he had to stare at the top of Steve's head to ground himself.
Of course you are, he thought, and, of course we're going, but, "You don't even know Wanda," was what stupidly came out of his mouth.
"No." He sat back on his heels, looking up at Bucky. "But I know what it's like to have the Bishop take something from you, and the Bishop is, he's evil, Bucky. What he'd do with powers like that…" Steve's mouth firmed. "He has to be stopped."
"I know." Without being told, his hand reached out and cupped Steve's cheek and he felt Steve's breath against his skin. "I'll still do my best to kill him for you and Sarah." It felt like a vow. Steve was kneeling in front of him, but that felt backwards; Bucky should be kneeling in front of him.
The feeling intensified when Steve leaned into his touch, and quietly said, "Thank you."
He let his hand fall, reached out to grab his shirt and pull it back on, then squeezed Steve's shoulder before going to grab Goliath's tack. He had a feeling they'd be riding long and hard after tonight. He might not have another chance to give it a thorough going over.
* * *
It had been a very long day. Steve had pitched in with helping Bucky work on Goliath's gear, even if his contribution had mostly been cleaning. When Bucky had expanded his attention out to all their gear, checking everything, then settled in with a pile of clothes and a needle and thread, Steve had sat next to him with the paper and a stick he'd blackened in the fire and started working on the maps.
Every passing shadow had him looking up, but while there were birds passing overhead, none were Sam.
He didn't come back until the sun was worryingly low. Bucky had been out, returning with a brace of rabbits that were spitted over the fire, and was not quite pacing while he obviously waited for Sam.
When he swooped in, flying straight for the hayloft, Bucky sighed in relief and disappeared into the stall.
Steve stayed where he was, sitting near the fire, tending the rabbits. It was eerily quiet when they changed, like the world went still around them. He'd never noticed before, but maybe he'd never been paying enough attention.
The black wolf that was Bucky poked his nose out of the stall, then walked over to stand at the bottom of the hayloft ladder, staring up.
"I'm coming," Sam said, like he could sense he was there. Maybe he could? After Bucky's growling this morning, he couldn't help wondering if they brought some of the animal with them when they changed. "Hold your horses, furballs."
Bucky huffed and sat down.
Before long, Sam climbed down the ladder. Bucky moved out of the way, then followed him, nose practically attached to his hip, as Sam walked over and buckled on the sword. "Steve."
"Hi, Sam." He wanted to ask if he was alright, but he didn't know if he should. He didn't want to make it worse if he wasn't alright. "Are you…"
"Am I what?" Sam asked mildly.
Bucky shoved Sam hard with his nose, making him stumble, and Sam whirled to face him.
He caught the edge of Sam's shirt in his teeth, tugging at it, and Sam glared at him.
Bucky didn't stop, he tugged harder, half pulling Sam down, until Sam crouched to wrap his hands around Bucky's muzzle.
"Don't mess around with me, furballs. I am not in the mood."
The soft whine that came out of Bucky's throat seemed to take Sam completely by surprise. He stared down at him and Bucky shoved his head into Sam's chest.
He whined again, and Sam shuddered, hunching in on himself. "We gave her a grave, even if there was nothing but that cloak to put in it," he whispered, sinking his fingers into Bucky's fur. "The priest spoke the words for her, and I knew it was my fault she died."
Bucky growled and Sam laughed wetly.
"Our fault, then."
Sam let his head fall, pressed his forehead between Bucky's ears, and Steve had to look away. This was private, this wasn't for him, but he couldn’t close his ears and he heard Sam say, "But she's not dead and we did right by her, trying to lay her to rest. Any wrong that's come from that, that's on the Bishop."
Bucky rumbled, a deep growl of agreement.
After a long silence, Sam said, "Alright, furballs, we'd better tell Natasha we're with her."
Steve glanced over to see Sam sit back and wipe his eyes with the back of his hand.
"You're with us?" Sam asked him as Bucky walked over to peer up at him.
"Yeah, Sam. I'm with you."
They rode hard for Aquila, only stopping each night when the sun began to sink. Natasha would stay with them to eat, and to work together to shape their plans, but she slipped away soon after, returning in the morning when it was time to ride.
Steve knew it was short-sighted. They needed to get used to each other, needed to start trusting each other, because they were going to have to count on each other.
Which was going to be hard to do with Sam waiting for Natasha to disappear to her single camp and then saying things like, "This could be a trap."
Steve paused in his attempt to assemble a single rich outfit from their combined clothes and stared at him. "A trap."
They'd settled on Steve's original idea of entering the city just after sundown. Sam would be a successful hunter, come to offer his services to Aquila's City Council, with Bucky as his wolf-dog and Steve as his apprentice, adding a thoroughly-cloaked Natasha as his assistant—although Bucky's lips had curled back off his teeth when Natasha had offered to get him a collar. But for the plan to work, Sam needed to look as prosperous as they could make him.
"Can you think of anything that would get us to throw in with her faster than convincing us Wanda's still alive?"
Steve took his time replying, not sure what was behind Sam's question. Bucky crept closer, nudging his hand, apparently deciding he was taking too long. He glared at him briefly, then said, "If we've somehow become worth something this elaborate? We were dead anyway."
Now Bucky was glaring at him, but a tiny smile pulled at the corner of Sam's mouth. "Reassuring."
"No, think about it. If the Bishop somehow found out what we were planning, all he has to do is wait for us to come to him and kill us. Or send out his guard. We're not enough of a threat that he'd need to go to elaborate lengths to save himself from us."
"You're saying we can trust Natasha because the Bishop could have us killed whenever he wanted?"
"Yeah, pretty much."
Sam chuckled, then tipped his head back and gave voice to full throated laughter.
Bucky shook his head, grumbling discontentedly, and shuffled forward to rest his head on Steve's thigh, but his ears were pointed at Sam.
"I'm not sure that's reassuring," Sam said when he'd stopped laughing, "but I take your point."
"Then let's finish finding you something to wear. You're not going to impress anyone into thinking you're a mighty hunter if you look like a jester. And Sam?"
Sam lifted his eyebrows at him.
"You're the one who said you've got to give trust to get trust."
Sam snorted softly, but he was wearing a thoughtful expression as he picked through their clothes.
* * *
After several days of travelling they were closer to Aquila but no closer to a final plan. Natasha still slipped away to sleep, even though Sam had quietly invited her to stay. She'd refused, but told him, "It's not personal."
"If you change your mind," Sam had replied, head tilted towards an empty space near the fire and she'd offered him a lopsided smile in return.
Steve smoothed out the rough sketched maps next to the fire and Bucky stretched out next to him where he'd have a good view.
"The problem is," Sam muttered, finger hovering over Steve's sketches as he traced the various possibilities, "we don't know where it's going to happen. And we don't know when."
"When is soon," Natasha said.
Bucky snorted from his spot next to Steve. Steve agreed, because soon was about as useful as boots to a snake.
"When we get closer to Aquila, I've got a contact. She'll be able to tell me. But you're right, that won't tell us where in all of this," Natasha waved a hand at the maps, "it's going to happen. We're going to need too many contingencies."
Steve stared at the maps and felt certainty settle around him as he considered and discarded all the possibilities. From what Natasha had told them, the Bishop would need his demon and privacy and time. There was only one place it could be.
"I know where," he said, burying his hand in Bucky's fur.
Bucky's ears tilted in concern and Steve loosened his grip.
"His private rooms. That's where he summoned the demon, where—" He stopped. Took a breath. Continued. "It's the only place that makes sense. It's the only place that's completely private. He's used it before. No one will disturb him if he tells them not to. It's isolated, there's nothing else in the tower, and it can be secured from the inside."
"If you're wrong," Natasha started, but Steve cut her off.
"I'm not. I know. It has to be there."
"Steve," Sam said quietly. "How sure are you?"
"Bet my life on it."
Bucky's low growl rumbled around the camp and lodged under Steve's sternum.
"You'll be betting all our lives on it, and Wanda's," Natasha said.
"But I'll be betting mine first." He said it almost absently, because he wasn't here anymore. He was tumbling down a long shaft to splash into cold water, grasping desperately at slippery walls. The musty earth scent of the camp was gone, driven out by the smell of the sewers. He could feel the frantic fear, the panic as he scrambled for safety…
A sharp nip brought him back to himself. Bucky was staring up at him, ears flat, one paw heavy on his leg.
"Sorry." He curled his fingers around Bucky's ear and looked up. Sam and Natasha were watching him, Sam worried, Natasha cautious. "I'll have to go in the way I got out. If you can get up there, up the stairs, past any guards, I can let you in. It has a bar that can be dropped from the inside, but I can lift it. I know he didn't use it before," Steve smiled grimly, "but I bet he does now. I can climb up from the sewers and open it."
Bucky leapt to his feet, head low, lips curling back off gleaming white teeth, whole body screaming, No.
He grabbed Bucky's head and dragged it down so their eyes were level. "This is why you tracked me down. This is why you bought me out of jail. This is the reason I'm here."
Bucky growled a denial.
"Yes it is."
"It's not, actually," Sam said, raising both his hands when they turned to glare at him. "Don't look at me like that, I'm just setting the record straight. We never expected you to go in with us, Steve. We only wanted what you knew."
"Things change. If you have a better idea for getting inside, let me know. You might be able to fly in the window, Sam, but you wouldn’t be able to lift the bar."
"And when they see you climb out of the drain?" Natasha asked. "You think they'll smile and wave you over to open the door for us?"
"They won't see me. The drain's in a separate room near the door. Wouldn’t do for the Bishop's nose to be assaulted by the stench of the sewers."
"You're going to climb up the garderobe," Sam said in sudden understanding.
"That might actually work without getting you instantly killed," Natasha said approvingly.
"I think so."
Bucky swivelled his head between Sam and Natasha, then flipped his ears in obvious, hopeless, exasperation, before turning deep pleading eyes on Steve.
"Don't bother," Steve told him. "This is the best way. It's maybe the only way. And you know those eyes don't work on me."
He held out a hand. With a soundless sigh, Bucky shoved his head against Steve's chest.
Steve rested his chin between his ears, fingers curling into his thick ruff. "It's going to be fine."
Bucky's huff said he very much disagreed, but he eventually relaxed enough to lie down at Steve's feet, head on Steve's knee while they worked out the rest of the plan.
* * *
It had been late when Steve had finally lain down to sleep and he'd been aching with exhaustion. Now, with the morning sun bright against his eyelids, the world felt soft and warm, but the warmth wrapped around him wasn't just physical. It was reaching inside him and curling around his heart and soul. He sighed, because he couldn’t remember ever feeling this contentment, this safety, this sense of peace.
He woke up a little, then a little bit more, because there were arms wrapped around him and he was sure they were the source of the feeling.
He shifted and Bucky pressed his nose against the back of his neck. Of course it was Bucky, Bucky who slept curled as a wolf against his back every night and was gone every morning. Except…except this morning he was still here. And was no longer a wolf. He was very, very human and was wrapped around Steve like he'd hold on forever.
Steve wanted him to. It was revelation after revelation this morning and he shivered.
The arms holding him, the body curved around his, tensed. Bucky was awake. And he was something else, as well.
"Are you naked?"
Bucky's, "Yes," was a little strangled.
Steve wasn't sure he was, not entirely.
"I should go and do something about that."
Bucky sat up.
"Not that this isn't…" Steve trailed off, leaving the good unspoken.
Bucky heard it anyway. "It is?"
He nodded firmly and turned to look up at Bucky. Even with keeping his eyes above the waist, there was a lot of him to look at. A lot of gorgeous smooth muscle. A lot of beautiful naked skin.
More than a few scars. Some raised and ridged, some shiny and flat. His eyes couldn't help tracing them. Bucky glanced down, following Steve's gaze, and his eyes shuttered, blankness he hadn't seen in a long time reappearing.
"Hey, no." He reached out to catch Bucky's arm. "No. Whatever you're thinking, it's wrong. I hate that you were hurt. I'm glad you were strong enough to survive. That's all."
Bucky didn't reply, but the sudden soft light in his eyes, the warmth of it, the way Bucky was looking at him, were clearer than words.
He moved his hand to Bucky's chest, fingers spread wide over his heart, remembering the way Bucky had cupped his face. The way Bucky had held him. The feel of Bucky's fingers curling around his jaw.
Under his palm, Bucky's heart sped up to match his.
Maybe this would have been better if Bucky hadn't been naked. It definitely would have been better if they weren't days away from possible death. But waiting for a perfect moment meant you could wait forever; sometimes you had to make your own.
Heart in his throat, Steve sat up and kissed him. Just a soft brush, offering, and pulled back, waiting to see what Bucky would do.
He didn't wait long,
With a shuddering sigh, Bucky slipped an arm around Steve, one hand cradling his jaw, and offered a kiss of his own. Steve pressed into it, reaching to pull Bucky closer, Bucky's skin warm under his hands as the kiss deepened and he lost himself a little.
Eventually, breathless, they had to separate, and Steve rested his forehead on Bucky's shoulder, turning his head to press a kiss to the side of his neck, along the edge of his jaw.
"Still naked," Bucky offered, but it was light, teasing, as he slid his hand around to cradle Steve's head, fingers tangling in his hair.
"About to have Sam and Natasha arrive," Steve pointed out, half-laughing as he nuzzled his nose against Bucky's neck and leaned back.
"True." With a last soft kiss, Bucky pulled away, snagging the cloak off Steve and wrapping it around himself. He stood, grey eyes deep, then crouched back down. "I don't know what's going to happen. But I do know this." He gently touched a finger to the spot above Steve's heart. "I'm not looking for a quick tumble. I see you. I want all of you."
Steve's breath caught, tangled up his words, and he couldn’t do more than stare at Bucky. After several tries he managed to get out, "But you wouldn't say no to a quick tumble, right?"
With a crooked smile, Bucky said, "Maybe to the quick part," and gave him a quick kiss before disappearing into the bushes to get dressed.
Steve stared after him, Bucky's words echoing in his heart. I see you. I want all of you. The warmth, the contentment, the peace he'd woken up with was filling him again, like Bucky's arms were still wrapped around him.
* * *
Another day of travelling left them only two day's easy ride from Aquila. Sam led them to a sheltered and secluded spot to set up camp and perched in a tree, surveying them all.
Steve slid off Goliath, and Bucky swung off after him, but Natasha turned her grey back the way they'd come.
"Where are you going?" Bucky asked.
"There's people I need to talk to if you want to know more than soon."
Steve half-expected Bucky to protest, but all he said was, "Be careful."
Steve wasn't sure if Natasha was more surprised or amused, but she inclined her head gracefully, said, "I always am," and nudged her gelding into a canter.
* * *
Natasha returned well after dark had set in, her gelding looming like a ghost out of the darkness. Steve was relieved she was back. He was thrilled at the scent wafting out of the sack she was carrying, which she set down in front of them before going to see to her horse.
"Pasties," she called over her shoulder. "For the people. I'm assuming the wolf fed himself."
Bucky let out an undignified whine—Sam choked with laughter and even Natasha cracked a smile—then looked horrified, sitting up, ears straight, gathering the shreds of his dignity around him. Steve didn't blame him—as good as the smell was to him, he couldn't imagine how much better it was to a wolf nose.
"I'll share mine with you," Steve promised, slinging an arm around his shoulders.
"Furballs came back to camp wearing feathers, so he's definitely had dinner. He doesn't need to be eating your pasties," Sam said.
Bucky gave a little grumbling huff of grudging agreement and stuck his nose in Steve's ear. It shouldn't make Steve's heart warm—Bucky's nose was cold and wet—but it did. He wrapped his hand around Bucky's muzzle and gave it a shake then playfully shoved him away, and Bucky's jaw dropped in a wolf grin.
When he turned around, Sam was watching them thoughtfully, but anything he might have said was interrupted by Natasha joining them, grabbing the sack, pulling out a pasty, and handing the sack to Sam. He happily took two, handed it to Steve, who looked inside it and laughed. There were a dozen—or had been—plenty for Bucky to have some.
"Thanks, Natasha," he said, grabbing two for himself, and then setting two in front of Bucky.
He looked doubtfully at Steve, then at Natasha, who said, with a tiny sigh, "Yes, there's enough for you," and then set to devouring them.
When dinner was done and they were all comfortably full, and Steve was plucking bits of pastry out of Bucky's fur, Sam asked, "Did you bring anything back besides dinner?"
Steve had noticed Natasha was made of subtle changes. Now was no different, the relaxed woman shifting into alertness. It wasn't obvious, Steve couldn’t have explained the difference, but he could see it as she said, "I brought back information."
"Reliable?" Sam asked.
Sam was more shifting breezes than subtle changes, and Steve watched him decide to accept that. "And that information would be?"
"Two things. Day after tomorrow, the Bishop isn't performing Mass. He's leaving it to his Coadjutor, which is something that usually only happens when the Bishop's dying, or someone important enough to have a Bishop attend them is. And…" She gave each of them a searching look.
"And?" Steve prompted.
"I found out what's going to put the world in flux," she said, and stopped.
"And that would be?" Sam prompted after a moment.
She sighed and said, "Apparently there's going to be a day without a night and a night without a day, funnily enough right around the same time the Bishop has decided he isn't going to be performing Mass."
Steve stared at her, Bucky tilted his head, one ear twisted back, and Sam said, "What does that mean, a day without a night, a night without a day? It sounds like nonsense. I mean, we're having a night without a day right now."
Natasha shrugged. "It might sound like nonsense, but she doesn't make mistakes."
"All right, say we accept that. A night and a day happening at the same time." Sam pointed his chin at Bucky. "Does that mean we'll both be people, or both be animals?"
"I don't know."
"We'll have to plan for both," Steve said, leaning on Bucky's shoulder. "Bring pants."
Bucky huffed his agreement, even if he still looked doubtful about the whole thing.
"Great. That's great."
"It is," Natasha said, "because it means we finally know when 'when' is. The Bishop will try to take Wanda's powers while the," she gave Sam a sardonic look, "nonsense is happening, so we need to kill him before that. If Steve's right—"
"I am," Steve said.
"We know where he'll be, so it should be simple."
"Simple," Sam replied, dry to match her sardonic. "Just the word I wanted to use. It's going to be a long hard ride tomorrow if we want to get there just past sundown."
"That reminds me." Natasha stood, went to her saddlebags, dug around and came back dangling a long strip of dark, metal-spiked leather from one hand. "As promised."
Bucky's lips curled and Sam snorted a laugh, reaching up to take it.
"A wolf collar," he said, turning it over, testing the spikes with a fingertip. "Very nice."
The low growl made it clear Bucky didn't think so.
"Hey, we already agreed on this."
"And she did get one that matches your fur," Steve pointed out.
With an annoyed huff, Bucky shoved his head between Steve's feet and refused to acknowledge anyone.
* * *
Steve woke the next morning, the morning of the day that would take him back to Aquila, with a naked Bucky once more wrapped around him. He didn't waste any time wondering or worrying. He just flipped Bucky's cloak over them both and turned so he could wrap his arms around him.
He buried his nose in the hollow of Bucky's throat, breathing him in as he felt Bucky wake, and Bucky's arms tightened, pulling him closer.
They both knew Sam wouldn't be far, that Natasha was asleep—or not—on the other side of the camp, since for the first time she'd agreed to stay so they could get an early start.
But still. Still.
He tipped his head back, so he could see Bucky's face. It was soft with sleep, bright with wonder and something deeper, stronger, something he shied from naming even if he knew he could. Even if he recognised it. Hard not to when its twin was beating in his own heart. Instead, he kissed him, lifting a hand to curl around the back of his neck, sliding his fingers through his hair, and Bucky sighed softly as they lost themselves in each other.
Not completely. They knew they weren't alone, but they both knew what tonight and tomorrow would bring. This moment was just for them, soft kisses and gentle touches, no need for words when he could feel Bucky's heart beating under his hands.
When Sam landed on a branch above them with a low call, the hawk equivalent of clearing his throat, they broke apart.
He glanced up. Sam was very pointedly not looking at them. It made him laugh under his breath and pull Bucky closer for one last, fleeting kiss. "Go get ready."
Bucky wrapped himself in his cloak and disappeared into the brush. Steve rolled onto his back and stared up into the sky. Which meant he was looking up at Sam. Who was now looking back with an indecipherable expression.
"I hope we make it through this, Sam."
They might not, he knew. But he really hoped they would, because he saw Bucky, too, and he wanted all of him.
They'd had to ride hard, pushing the horses, but just as planned, even with their brief stop to change, they reached Aquila and its towering walls not long past sundown and rode towards the closed gates.
Bucky was staying close by Goliath's left foreleg, doing his best to ignore the collar and rope he was wearing—but maybe he deserved a taste of what he'd put Steve through those times he'd used a rope on him.
Steve. He'd slipped quietly off Goliath's back as they'd approached the city, ducking under a bridge and out of sight with a quiet splash. There'd been no time to say goodbye, no time to do more than send a quiet huff after him.
He'd looked back and whispered, "See you soon," and then he'd been gone.
All Bucky could do now was play his part and trust Steve to do his.
The city guard on gate duty was eyeing them, even with four people in line before them—travellers still on the road after sundown weren't unusual, and no one wanted to be caught outside the city after dark. He wasn't paying any attention to Natasha, hooded and cloaked and riding at Sam's stirrup. No, he and everyone else only had eyes for Bucky and Sam—he was obviously at least part wolf and Sam looked good, prosperous, all in black, with every piece of leather and metal polished to a high shine. Even Goliath, weary as he was, seemed to have picked up the mood, lifting his hooves high and setting them down with careful precision, giving the impression that he could explode at any moment, only Sam's hands on the reins keeping him under control.
Bucky grinned at the guard and he twitched but turned his attention back to the merchant he was dealing with.
When it was finally their turn to go through the gates, the guard spoke to Sam, but his eyes kept dropping to Bucky. "What brings you to Aquila?"
"I understand you have something of a wolf problem, that livestock's being taken." Not unexpected when there were so many villages grazing herds of sheep in the hills and valleys that surrounded the city, villages that looked to Aquila for leadership and protection. Where there were sheep, there were wolves; where there were wolves, they needed hunters.
"That we do, as a matter of fact. Have you caught one of the beasts?" the guard asked.
Sam gave him the look a mother would give a small and misbehaving child. "No," he said after a long moment. The guard looked abashed. "We hunt wolves and are here to speak with the City Council about hiring our services."
The guard visibly perked up at that, and Bucky started to feel optimistic when he spotted another member of the city guard making his way towards them. Purposefully. Natasha followed his gaze and tensed, her hand disappearing under her cloak.
"What's going on here?" the new arrival asked sternly, and their original guard blinked in confusion.
"They're wolf hunters, come to speak to the Council."
"Very good. I'll take it from here."
"But I'm supposed to be on gate duty..."
"Consider yourself relieved."
"Yes, sir," the first guard said and, with a puzzled backwards glance, hurried away.
When he was out of earshot, the new guard relaxed and rubbed his nose, which looked like it had been broken more than once.
"Is there a problem?" Sam asked.
"No," the new guard said. "I saw you from the top of the wall and I was wondering… Can I pat your dog?"
Even Goliath craned his neck around to stare.
Sam, after a long puzzled, moment said, "He's mostly wolf."
The guard took this in stride. "Can I pat your wolf?"
With a quick glance at Bucky, Sam said, "Sure."
Bucky glared at him but submitted to being patted by a stranger. Who, he had to admit, did have good technique and hit just the right spot behind his ear. In the interests of smoothing the way forward, he let his tail tick, just once.
The guard looked pleased. "I've never had the pleasure of patting a wolf before."
"It wears off after a while," Sam said.
The guard just grinned and waved them through with a last pat and a, "Good luck."
Bucky dutifully trotted alongside Goliath as Natasha led them through the cobbled streets. Before long they were settled behind an inn, a pile of hay for the horses and a corner of shelter for them up against the outer wall itself, while somewhere under their feet Steve was making his way alone through the sewers.
* * *
"I wonder if the smell's not as bad as I remember or if it's improved over time." Steve knew he should probably keep his mouth shut, given he was in a sewer, but he'd never been good at keeping his mouth shut when he was supposed to, and right now the sewer was more water than…sewer.
The twists and turns he had to follow were a gleaming path in his memory, as if it had been only yesterday he'd splashed, half-drowned, through these sewers. Maybe gleaming's not the right word, he thought, carefully avoiding the other memories as he stared at the dark, slimy walls. The patches of rusting metal. The floating chunks he chose not to identify.
He kept swimming until he struck the rusted iron lattice that was supposed to stop people from swimming under Aquila's walls. It would have worked better without the large hole in the middle. He took a deep and unfortunate breath, closed his eyes, and pulled himself down, hand over hand, then squeezed through the hole. It scraped against his ribs, stinging then burning as he dragged himself through.
"Alright, it's not that large," he gasped as he broke the surface on the other side, taking a moment to catch his breath before swimming on.
He was well inside the city walls, now. If he had the timing right, Bucky and Sam would be, too. And Natasha, of course. "Be careful," he whispered to the air, knowing it was stupid, then shook his head.
No more talking. Too much chance of being overheard. He doubted anyone would think to check the sewers if they heard a voice, but it wasn't worth the risk. Better to be silent. And anyway, the sewer was becoming more sewer and less water, and keeping his mouth shut was going to be the wisest course from now on. If only he could shut his nose.
You thought I stunk when you got me out of jail, Bucky. Wait 'til you smell me now.
* * *
The morning dawned grey as ancient stone.
Even hidden behind the clouds, Bucky could feel the sun pulling at him. He and Sam took refuge behind Goliath, tucked into their little corner with their backs to each other.
Natasha kept watch, her back turned, all the privacy she could give them.
It was the first time they'd ever changed so close to each other. Strange, but simpler in some ways. When they were done, Bucky dressed and buckled on their sword. He packed away what Sam had been wearing and dug out a pair of his pants and a shirt. If Natasha's nonsense turned out to be true, there was no telling whether they'd be men or animals. Steve was right, they had to plan for both.
He rolled the clothes into a compact bundle and tied it around his waist. "Just in case," he told Sam, who was perched on the wall.
They had time. They wouldn't move until the bells rang, calling people to Mass.
While they waited, they ate. Bucky didn't want to, too worried about Steve to be hungry, but he did anyway, because you always ate before a fight.
Before they left Bucky undid Goliath's lead, leaving him untethered. "You stand, but if something happens, you don't let anyone take you."
Goliath wouldn't understand the words, but he knew what it meant when Bucky left him like that. Don't let anyone he didn't know touch him. If Bucky didn't come back for him, if someone tried, he'd get himself away. Only Steve or Sam would be able to get near him after that.
Bells rang through the city, calling the faithful, and Bucky stood, offering Natasha a hand to draw her to her feet. He knew she didn't need it, but she took it anyway. They both checked their weapons, pulled their cloaks around them, then he looked up at Sam, who flapped his wings.
"Alright. Let's go."
Sam led the way, guiding them through the streets, ducking into back alleys where needed to avoid the city guards as they made their way up through the circling streets towards the low tower that held the Bishop's private rooms. It opened into a walled garden, peacocks strolling through it, but they scattered when Sam's shadow passed over them.
It was simple to go up the wall, Natasha boosting Bucky up, Bucky pulling her up after him, and crouch, silent and still, on top of it when Sam signalled the all clear.
There were two guards stationed at the entrance to the tower. Not city guards, in their red and white, these were the Bishop's guards, and Bucky spared a moment to wonder if they knew the truth about their Bishop.
Either way, it didn't matter. There was only one way to deal with them.
Sam swooped down low, distracting them—one held out his arm, as if Sam was an errant hunting bird he thought he could catch without so much as a lure, while the other laughed at him for it.
He and Natasha moved together, caught them before they could react, before they could cry out. She put a dagger through the eye of hers, twisting, and he went down without a sound while Bucky slit the throat of his, one hand clamped over his mouth, twisting him so the guard's blood splashed over his own tabard, only a few spots spattering the stone.
Sam gave a low croak from inside the tower and they dragged the bodies in, dropping them in the corner where they wouldn't be seen from the garden.
"Did you hear that?" The question came from above them.
Bucky looked up. There were the stairs, marching up the inside of the tower, which they'd expected, and a wooden landing, which they hadn’t. He met Natasha's eyes and they both held very still.
"I don't know. Something."
"No, I didn't hear something. What does something sound like?"
'Go', Natasha mouthed, and Bucky went. They slipped silently up the stairs, Sam watching them, wings half-mantled in frustration, but he couldn't hop quietly up stairs and he couldn’t fly slowly, so he'd have to wait.
Not for long.
The stairs opened onto a landing full of guards. They had one moment of the guards' shock, one moment of a guard triumphantly proclaiming, "I told you I heard something," while another rolled his eyes, and then he and Natasha hit them hard. Vicious. It was mostly knives and fists and knees in the close quarters, not much room to swing a sword, and Sam was there, talons raking a guard's eyes, sending him reeling blinded onto Bucky's blade. Bucky opened his guts and kicked the corpse away, listening to it clatter down the stairs.
They didn't have time to kill them all, Steve would be waiting, and Natasha slipped through, aiming for the stairs up, Bucky following as Sam swooped and slashed, keeping the guards half-blinded and off-balance, and they half dragged, half drove the melee up the stairs.
* * *
Steve had spent a lot of nights cold and a lot of nights wet, but he'd never spent a night as cold and wet as last night. Given he'd been clinging to an iron spike sunk into the wall of a drain, up to his waist in…he was calling it water for his peace of mind, that was hardly surprising.
But now it was morning. Even down here he could tell, light from the many grates illuminating the darkness and a shaft of light piercing straight down, showing him where he had to climb: straight up.
It was hellish. There were handholds, bent iron hammered into the stone, but it was a long way up. Not as awful as he'd thought it would be—it was obviously flushed out regularly—but the climb was long. His shoulders, his knees, every muscle, was burning by the time he reached the top. And then he had to wait, listening for the bells, praying—and this time it was true prayer, a message sent up to God—that no one used the garderobe while he clung to the sides.
His prayer was answered. He didn't push his luck and ask for anything else.
All he had to do was climb out and slip into the hallway to unbar the door. No one should see him.
There was no way to know if they were actually coming. If they'd actually made it. If they'd be on the other side of the door. If they weren't, he'd die.
Steve didn't hesitate.
The garderobe was a tiny room. The overwhelming scent of lavender nearly made him gag, memories trying to fight their way to the surface, but, eyes watering, he shoved them back. The door was barely worthy of the name, didn't even fill the doorway, but it meant he could peer underneath it. And he wanted to, because he could hear voices.
The hallway was empty. Made sense. No one would want to stand around outside this room. He could see the door, see the bar: thick, solid wood he was going to have to move silently.
Grateful for his bare feet and for the time he'd spent waiting that had let him mostly dry, he eased the door open and stepped out into the hallway to the thick wooden door.
He put his hands on the bar and couldn't help glancing back. At this angle, he could just see a sliver of the Bishop's private rooms. What he saw was backs. Backs in the uniform of the Bishop's guard. Guards were bad, but backs were better.
One of them shifted and, through the narrow gap, blazing eyes met his.
Steve went cold.
The demon, golden horns gleaming, smiled a terrifying smile that pinned Steve in place…and then looked silently away.
Steve whirled to the door, wrapped his hands around the wooden bar, and quietly, so quietly, began to lift it free. Sliding would make too much noise, he couldn’t risk it, and he managed to get one end free and lower it to the floor.
The other end, he didn't know if it was the angle or his desperation or plain bad luck, but it wouldn't come loose. He tugged and pulled and finally resorted to banging it with his hand, but it wouldn't move. It wouldn't budge. Frustrated, he banged it again, it shifted slightly, and then he was grabbed and pulled away, lifted straight up by a hand clamped on the back of his neck.
The guard shook him like a terrier with a rat, but Steve pulled his knife and stabbed, sinking it up to the hilt in the guard's thigh. He yelled, cursed, howled, and Steve twisted in his grip to kick the bar, lifting it free and sending it tumbling it to the ground as the guard squeezed harder. Steve knew he was about to get his neck broken, but then Bucky burst through the door and ran the guard through, growling like he was the wolf.
Natasha plunged past him, Sam swooping to follow, a single bleeding guard lunging after, and Steve danced aside as she whirled to stab the guard through the throat.
Bucky caught him with one hand, bloody sword in the other, and for one moment everything was as still and clear as water on a calm day. Bucky was streaked with blood, Steve reeked of the sewer, they still might die today, but for this one single heartbeat of time none of it mattered.
Then Bucky whirled away, sword high, charging after Natasha, and Steve pulled his knife from the dead guard and helped himself to a few more before following them into the room.
The Bishop was standing on one side of the room, fingers resting on a book that sat on a desk, watching as Bucky and Sam and Natasha fought his guards. His long robes were pristine, cream and ivory and gold brocade, and his winter cold eyes were calm, even as a guard choked and died, blood pouring across the silken carpet.
On the other side of the room, the demon grinned, crouching naked in his bloody pentagram, just like the first time Steve had seen him, black hair curling back from his long golden horns.
The heap of cloth was new. Piled in the pentagram, Steve knew it must have been a blood-stained cloak once; now it was little more than tattered rags, rotted and stained with soil.
No one was paying attention to Steve, so he began to make his way around the edge of the room, knife firmly in one hand, heading towards the Bishop.
When the Bishop raised one hand and said, "Kill them," pointing at Bucky and Natasha in turn, and the demon—Steve's gaze snapped to him in horror—gestured languidly with one hand, he tensed to launch himself, but Natasha's laugh stopped him.
Steve's heart once more began to beat.
"Did you think we wouldn't have thought that?" she called mockingly and while the Bishop's eyes narrowed thoughtfully, studying her like she was an inconvenient bug that had somehow found her way into his dinner, Bucky disengaged from the guard he was fighting, twisted, and threw a knife.
It flew unerringly towards the Bishop, as if guided by the hand of God, only to bounce off nothing and clatter to the floor.
"And did you think I wouldn't have thought of that?" the Bishop asked, sounding disappointed that anyone would think him so stupid.
Pounding footsteps heralded the arrival of more guards, pouring into the room. Outnumbered, Bucky and Natasha were fighting in earnest, and for the first time Steve understood how skilled they were. How fast. How strong. They might be outnumbered, but it was the guards who were giving ground.
Sam darted and wheeled to slash and rake, and the Bishop…just looked interested. Even as another guard died. He watched it all like a man at a play, like this was a performance put on solely for his benefit.
Steve mastered the surge of anger.
As much as he wanted to leap in, to join the fight, he knew he'd hinder as much he'd help—not least because he knew Bucky would put Steve's safety ahead of his own. He couldn't attack the Bishop, pointless when he'd seen Bucky's knife fall out of the air, but maybe…
Steve slipped carefully around the wall towards the pentagram. The demon watched him come, his look of avarice making Steve's blood go cold.
"Little mouse," he said once Steve reached him. "I knew you'd return some day, but I didn't expect it to be in company with the other seeds I'd sewn."
He took a deep breath, regretted it when he caught a whiff of himself, and faced the demon. "I know you hate him. Will you stop protecting him?"
The demon's nose wrinkled. "You stink. I can't speak to you when you smell as if you've been crawling through a sewer."
"I have been crawling through a sewer."
The demon flicked a finger and Steve's stench was gone. "That's better."
Steve didn't know what to say, so he didn't say anything. "Will you?"
"Will I is not the question to ask, now, is it? As if my will had anything do with my actions in this benighted place." The demon's eyes burned. "You should know that better than anyone."
He should, and he did. "Can you, then?"
"I cannot. I am compelled to serve the Bishop and while I remain bound in this seal, the protection stays in place. If I were to be freed, however…"
"You're a demon! I can't set you free."
"Yet I freed you. You owe me a debt of freedom, little mouse, which means you're the only one who can." Steve hesitated. "It would serve us both," the demon crooned, "and do a great disservice to the leprous toad who calls himself a Bishop."
Steve knew what the Church said about demons, but: I'd not have killed her if I'd had a choice. Those words had become part of him, as much as his mother's death. Of the two, man of the Church and demon from hell, only one had murdered his mother.
"Will you go home?" he asked. "If I free you, will you go home?"
"You mean back to hell?" the demon asked, one eyebrow quirked. Steve gave a quick nod. "I will make a bargain with you, little mouse. I give you my word that if you free me I will return home, and my word will be worth exactly as much value as you place upon it."
A bargain with a demon. Before he could answer, a shadow crossed the room and he looked through the window to see a black circle begin to swallow the sun.
* * *
Bucky was starting to flag, bleeding from half a dozen small wounds, Natasha wasn't doing much better, and Sam could only do so much, hemmed in by walls and a ceiling.
They'd had three more chances to kill the Bishop, moments when they'd broken through the guard, had clear lines of sight to throw a knife, but none of them mattered when blades bounced off him.
At least Steve hadn't been dragged into the fight. He was over in the corner, talking to the demon—and it said something about Bucky's life now that, when confronted with a demon, an actual demon, gleaming horns and flaming eyes and naked as sin, his only thought was: Steve's safer with the demon than anywhere near the Bishop.
Bucky gutted a guard, shoved him out of the way, and put his back to Natasha's. She'd kept them safe from the Bishop's power, but he wondered what it had cost her, since she was slowing faster than him.
As he crossed swords with another guard, the room began to dim. No. He hadn't lost that much blood, he hadn't taken any serious injuries, so why…
It wasn't him. The whole room was growing dark. Through the window he could see the sun disappearing behind a dark circle.
"Day without a night, night without a day," Natasha muttered. "I told you."
"If I turn into a wolf, this is going to get rough."
"I've seen your teeth. We'll be fine."
He snorted, then there was no time for talking, no breath for talking, because the guard was pressing him, clever and skilled, sword twisting to bind his, knife in his other hand coming for Bucky's face.
Sam dived over Bucky's shoulder, vicious talons gleaming red, then suddenly the guard was down, head twisting around with a loud crack, a naked Sam sprawled across him.
For a whisker's worth of time everyone froze, because a hawk turning into a man isn't something people are equipped to deal with, then Sam leapt to his feet, he and Natasha closed around him while he stripped the bundle from Bucky's waist, and soon enough he was dressed, had snatched a sword from the ground, and joined them as they fought their way across the room.
Even if they couldn’t kill the Bishop—the Bishop, who was moving swiftly towards the demon, towards Steve—they had to stop him.
* * *
The Bishop was heading towards them, gesturing at the demon, mouth opening to order the demon to do the very thing they were here to stop.
He was invulnerable, sword and knife couldn't hurt him.
All Steve could do was take away his weapon.
Give trust to get trust. I don't think Sam meant it for demons. With a heartfelt prayer, he stepped forward and rubbed his bare foot over the line, expecting to have to scrub and scrape—but the blood dissolved to powder and scattered like blown ash.
Triumph blazed in the demon's eyes, his curling golden horns gleaming bright as he stepped out of the broken pentagram and loomed over Steve. "You have my thanks, little mouse."
"I don't need your thanks. We made a bargain. You gave me your word."
The demon cocked his head. "And you took me at it." He smiled, slow and sly and surprised. "Very well. For you, who trusts where no one else would dare, I will keep it."
With a snap of his fingers, the demon was gone.
The Bishop's, "NO," rang out, and he snatched a sword from a fallen guard and stalked towards Steve, robes swirling, their gold brocade edges stained with blood.
Steve shifted the grip on his knife, knowing it was next thing to useless against a sword, but he didn't care.
"You don't understand what you've done." Anger was burning through the winter cold. "You don't, you can't, understand the harm you've caused."
"I understand exactly what I've done. I stopped you from hurting Wanda. I stopped you from hurting anyone else. And I've made my mother proud. Remember her? 'They breed like rats' you said, right after you made your demon kill her." Steve bared his teeth as the Bishop's eyes flared in recognition. "That's right. You should have made sure your demon killed me, too."
"An oversight I can rectify." He raised his sword and Steve gathered himself, ready to lunge under a strike, but it never came. The Bishop went rigid, his mouth worked soundlessly, sword slipping from lax fingers, then he crumpled to the ground, blood spreading in a slow stain across his robes.
Behind him, Bucky stood with his sword raised, fury in his eyes that was fading into satisfaction.
* * *
Bucky heard Sam and Natasha mopping up the last of the guards as the Bishop fell, felt his heart start beating again as Steve stared down at the robed corpse. His expression was too complicated for Bucky to understand, but he knew Steve was safe. For right now, that was all he needed to know.
Without looking, Steve reached out and Bucky took his hand. Steve squeezed, hard enough it must have hurt him, given Bucky's thick gloves. Then the corner of his mouth curved up, he nodded once, and turned to look at Bucky.
"Just one more thing." He slipped his hand free and walked over to gather up the tattered pile of cloth.
"It's over," Sam said from behind him. "It's done."
Bucky went still, momentarily shocked as he checked the window. The sun had returned to its full, bright glory. He turned to stare at Sam. To stare at Sam, bathed in the sunlight, as human as he'd ever been with not a feather in sight. "Sam…"
Sam smiled. It started small, but it grew, grew until it was as wide and bright as the sun he was standing in. Bucky wasn't sure which of them moved but suddenly they were hanging onto each other, Bucky laughing as he said, "You're you."
"I'm me." His hands fisted in Bucky's shirt. "Never thought I'd see the day."
"You're not a feathery pain in my ass anymore," he said. "You're just a plain old pain in my ass."
"Speak for yourself, furballs."
"Maybe none of those anymore," he said, and Sam gave him a hard squeeze.
"Broken for one is broken for both," Natasha said and they let go of each other, turned to look at her. She was gently taking the bundle of stained and tattered cloth from Steve. "You're both free. I wasn't sure, but I thought that might happen."
"And you didn't say anything?" Sam asked, but he didn't sound upset. Bemused, maybe, but not upset. "Didn't think maybe we'd want to know?"
"Hope's not always a gift," she replied.
"You and I need to have a long talk," Sam told her, but he was grinning at Bucky as he said, "We're free."
"We're free." It was too much, he didn't know what to do with the feelings surging through him, but Sam clamped a hand on his arm. "Curse or no curse, you know we're still stuck with each other."
It settled something. He didn't know why, they weren't friends, but it did. "Who else would put up with you?"
Sam laughed and shoved him at Steve, who paused long enough to grasp Sam's forearms, staring up at him in fierce joy that was twin to Sam's own, before spinning away to hit Bucky like a runaway horse.
Bucky didn't hesitate, dragging him as close as he could get him, lifting him off the ground completely and Steve caught his face in both hands and kissed him until they were both breathless, foreheads pressed together, just breathing each other in.
"We need to go." Sam prodded him, none to gently. "Sooner or later someone's going to come looking and we need to not be here."
"Right." Bucky let Steve slip down his body, reluctantly letting him go, and they made their way down the stone steps, Steve leading the way, Sam and Natasha close behind.
It was easy to make their way through the city. The sky had gone dark, the sun had disappeared, even if it had come back again; no one was paying any attention to four people who weren't panicking or causing trouble.
Goliath was where Bucky had left him, standing nose to tail with Natasha's gelding, and before the bells could toll to signal the end of Mass they were riding out of the city gates, waved through by the distracted guards, Steve and Bucky on Goliath, Natasha and Sam on her gelding.
As they rode away from Aquila, the city fading into the distance behind them, Bucky was half-listening to Sam explain to Natasha why hope was important, but then Steve wrapped his arms around his waist, leaned forward to kiss the back of his neck, and the rest of the world faded away.
"We made it," Steve said, breath whispering against Bucky's skin.
"We did." He freed a hand from the reins to lift Steve's hand and kiss his palm.
"Wanda's safe and the Bishop's dead."
There was nothing but satisfaction in Steve's voice, satisfaction and relief, but Bucky still felt a pang. "I'm sorry I didn't give you the chance to kill him yourself."
Steve went quiet, arms tightening around his waist, "No. No, it's." He huffed quietly, his breath a puff of warmth on Bucky's neck. "I would've, gladly, but you promised you'd kill him for me, and you did. That's enough."
"For you and for Sarah."
He felt Steve smile against his skin as he kissed the corner of his jaw. "For both of us. Thank you."
He covered Steve's hand and squeezed, and Steve wound his fingers through Bucky's.
"And you and Sam—your curse is broken."
"That's something I never expected."
"No, you didn't, did you?"
"No." He squeezed Steve's hand again. "There's only one thing left."
"Get you home safely." Steve tensed against him. "I promised that, too. It was the first promise I made you."
"Bucky." It made him shiver, the way Steve said his name, and he turned his head to look over his shoulder. "You already kept it."
He frowned in confusion and Steve pressed up to kiss him. It was awkward, he had to crane his neck around, but it was good. It was right.
When he pulled back, Steve was smiling softly, eyes warm. "This, right here, with you? I'm already there."