The village witch dies in winter, as village witches tend to do. There’s something about the heavy hours of darkness, Clint thinks, and the way the trees sleep. Thin barriers and hibernation and the high cost of spring. Or maybe it’s just the cold that takes them, the way it’ll take anything it can.
Whatever the reason, the village witch dies in winter, and the town sends a letter to the nearest council, inviting another witch to take up residence. They don’t have much to give, but they offer more than they can afford. They know the risks a witchless town faces.
When the last witch died, they waited five years for Alice to arrive to replace her. Half a decade of withered crops and pestilence and danger, children lured into the woods, old men eaten by wolves in their own homes. Unnaturally cruel winters, floods in spring, fires in summer. Autumns that felt more like a reaping than a harvest.
They do what they can.
Clint and the dozen or so people in the village who have any magic in them gather to burn Alice’s body and drip their blood over her ash and bone. She never liked to fight, their witch, but she had a mother’s protectiveness. They mark their doors with the mix of blood and ash and bone, and they hope there’s enough magic left in her and in them to keep the worst at bay.
In the first week without her, the wolves butcher three sheepdogs and feast on the sheep. The week after that, they take a baby from his cradle, rip out his mother’s throat.
Clint takes to walking the village at midnight, bow over his shoulder. He can’t sleep. This is what his magic does, the little bit of it that he has. He can feel danger, like a sound that’s almost a force, pressure on his throat, a hand slowly closing. He can’t sleep like this.
He’s no witch. He isn’t enough. He kills four wolves, but the pack howls from closer and closer every night.
He’s out again, late on a February night. It’s so cold he isn’t even shivering anymore. He should head home, but the wolves are in the streets, and they’ll be scratching at someone’s door soon enough. He can feel the threat of them, a vice squeezing his heart.
When the pressure disappears, he’s so startled by it that he almost loses his footing. He ends up braced against Andris’ store, one hand flat against the bricks, the other rubbing at his chest. He coughs, shakes his head.
“What are you doing?”
The voice is quiet and curious, and, underneath it, Clint can hear the mad scramble of wolves, dashing out of town.
“There’s wolves,” he says, lifting his head.
He knows a witch when he sees one. He knows danger, and he knows magic, and what he’s looking at right now is both.
This witch is black-haired and blue-eyed. He has dark clothes and long hair, a handsome face and an eerie, blank stare. He’s lost an arm. There’s a hunted look about him that suggests he’s lost other things, as well.
“The wolves are gone,” the witch tells him. “And what were you going to do about them if you found them?”
“Kill them,” Clint says. He tips his chin over his shoulder, toward his bow. “I’ve killed four,” he adds a second later, feeling defensive.
He’s not a witch, but he does well enough. He’s always done well enough at that sort of work.
The witch doesn’t smile. He does not look impressed. “Huntsman,” he says, “go home.”
“I’m not---” Clint breaks off. It’s none of the witch’s business what he is or isn’t. And there’s no reason for him to be out here anymore.
Clint turns on his heel, heads back toward his home. He gets several paces away before he’s struck with a sudden worry.
“Are you staying?” he asks, turning to look back. Village witches aren’t known for their wanderlust, but this is not a village witch. No bear or wolf took that witch’s arm. Clint’s fought warlocks before. He knows what he’s looking at.
The witch considers him. “If I’m welcome,” he says, finally.
It’s not Clint’s decision whether the witch is welcome or not. It’s the land’s decision. The trees and the seeds and the spirits that sleep in the waters and the dirt will decide. It’s the people, and the animals, and every soul left in the graveyard. It’s the old witch, her ash and their blood.
If this witch were the right kind of witch, there would be no question of his welcome.
“Well,” Clint says, because a warlock is better than nothing, and he’s got no right to reject anyone for having blood on their hands. “I’m glad you’re here.”
The witch still doesn’t smile, but there’s a shifting in his eyes, something a bit more human in the way he’s holding himself. “Thank you,” he says, more formally than is called for. “Go home.”
Clint goes home. He’s warm the whole way, feels someone else’s magic on him for the first time since Alice healed a bad cold nine months back. She chanted her way through it, fed him tea that tasted like half her herb garden. Most village witches need physical things to anchor their work. This witch hadn’t even moved his lips when he charmed the warmth of the midday sun into Clint’s clothes.
It’s good, he thinks, to have a strong witch in the village. If the plants won’t grow for him, at least the wolves will stay clear.
- - -
The seeds are sleepy in the spring. In Clint’s garden, even the spinach refuses to grow. The peas wind tiny shoots along the bottom of the trellises, and one brave broccoli sprout puts out two true leaves and then waits.
The witch’s garden is a stunted thing, as well.
“I should leave,” the witch tells him, one morning, when Clint steps outside to find him pacing on his porch.
“My house?” Clint asks, still too dazed from sleep to be much good.
“The town,” the witch says. “This place. I should leave. I’m not helping.”
Clint takes a long, bracing sip of coffee. “No wolves,” he points out. “No dead lambs or missing chickens. No fevers.”
The witch stares at Clint’s spring garden, halted in its early stages, waiting for the right season. “Nothing’s growing. Not many lambs at all, dead or otherwise.”
“Still early in the season,” Clint says, although it’s not so early anymore. The winter has been milder since the witch came, but it’s lasting longer than it should.
The witch breathes out. He’s agitated. There’s something about him that makes Clint feel uneasy. Not threatened, exactly. But knocked off his axis, spinning in an unusual direction.
“I’m not,” the witch says and then stops. He paces some more. He turns suddenly and clatters down the steps off the porch, gets his heavy boots planted on solid ground. “This is what I wanted,” he says, “when I was young. I wanted this. But it’s not—I’ve been something else for too long.”
Clint’s been something else, too. In this village, he’s a hunter. Some people call him huntsman, but only those too old to shake the habit or too young to know the context. Most people who know anything about the war know better than to call him that.
Outside of this village, over the mountains, there are graveyards scattered like wildflowers, crosses blooming in the grass. He put witches in the ground.
They didn’t burn the bodies. They didn’t mix ash and blood. He put arrows into hearts, and they fed the bodies to the dirt.
“I used to be something else, too,” Clint tells him. He thinks the witch already knows. Every witch he’s met since the war has known. Alice had taken his hands and cried when he came home, held him like he was something young and lost that had shown up wounded.
“Huntsman,” the witch calls him. It doesn’t sound like a curse. It just feels like one.
“I’d prefer you use my name,” Clint says. “I don’t use that title anymore. I’m not—I hunt deer now. Turkey sometimes. Rabbits, when I find them. Not—I don’t hunt witches.”
And the witch does smile then, a weird sideways thing, as stunted and strangled as the peas still fighting to climb. “No,” he says, “it’s not the season for it anymore.”
Clint swallows. There’s no reason for it to hurt so much. The witch doesn’t even seem to mean it. Anyway, they all did horrible things in the war. If the seeds won’t grow for this witch, it’s probably because he owes too much debt to death.
“I just meant,” the witch says, “that the war is over.”
“Sure,” Clint says. “Like winter.”
The witch raises his eyebrows. He’s an eerie thing at midnight, but here, in the morning sun, he looks pale and out of place. Warlocks, Clint remembers, always attacked at night. They liked stillness and quiet, the vulnerability of diurnal animals in the dark.
“I’m trying,” the witch tells him. “I’ve asked them to grow. I’ve tried to explain that it’s supposed to be spring.”
And what right, Clint thinks, do any of them have to ask for spring? What right do they have to ask for sprouts and calves and gentle rain?
Three years ago, they were burying witches like offal. The ground in those graveyards will be cursed for three generations, all that magic rotting in the dirt. And they did it so their enemies would raise three generations of children with almost no magic among them. They did it so their enemies would have a hundred years of cold winters, dry wells and dormant seeds, wolves and pestilence and terror.
They did it so their enemies would need their mercy too much to risk attacking them again. And so what right do they have to ask for any mercy of their own?
“Huntsman,” the witch says, “I’m not the only reason nothing will grow.”
“My name is Clint,” Clint says. “You should use it.”
The witch shrugs. It’s an unsteady gesture, lopsided. “Before the war, my friends called me Bucky.”
“And what do you friends call you now?”
The witch smiles again. It looks just as strained and crooked as the first one. “Nothing,” he says. “They’re dead.”
- - -
Bucky is a strange name for a witch. But their witch is a strange witch.
“I don’t think that’s going to help,” Clint says, when he finds the witch the next morning, sitting on the ground with his hand buried wrist-deep in the soil of his barren garden plot. “What’re you doing, anyway?”
“Speaking to the worms,” the witch says, eyes closed. “I have an affinity for worms.”
Clint raises his eyebrows. “Do you?”
“Worms, and crows, and vultures,” the witch says. When he opens his eyes, they’re completely black. It feels like staring into a freshly dug grave. “Foxes, when they’re hungry.”
Clint holds his ground. He doesn’t sense any danger. The witch is unnerving, but he doesn’t mean any harm. “We don’t need crows and vultures,” he says. “We need you to wake up the bats and the woodchucks and the badgers. We need the songbirds to come home. We need spring.”
The witch’s eyes turn slowly blue, the whites of his eyes fading in like dawn. “Yes, but the scavengers owe me favors. They’re the only ones I’ve fed.”
Clint sighs. The sun shines for longer and longer every day, but nothing will grow, and the animals that sleep all winter are still asleep now.
“They’ll starve,” he says. “The hibernators. If they don’t wake up, they’ll starve to death. That’s what happens without spring.”
“We’ll all starve without spring,” the witch says. He seems unconcerned. But Clint remembers how that is. Death is something you get used to.
“If I leave,” Bucky says, “another witch will come.”
“If you leave, the wolves will get here faster than any witch. Last time, we waited five years. And that was before the war. You’re what we have. If you leave, maybe we don’t ever get another witch.”
Maybe it’s what Clint deserves. He killed so much magic.
But there are children in this village who were born after the war, and people who stayed home, who had nothing to do with the fighting. And it’s not right that they should suffer with him. They never did a damn thing to deserve it.
“Listen,” Clint says. He crouches down in front of the witch. This close, he can feel his magic. It’s that tense, breathless feeling that comes before a storm. “It’s been winter for too long. We need spring.”
“I know,” Bucky says. “I’ve been trying. This isn’t my kind of magic.”
That first spring after Clint came back, he couldn’t hunt at all. It was such an odd thing. He’d spent years killing people, and then, when it came time to go back to killing deer, he couldn’t. He dreamed about the people he’d killed, the bodies he’d buried, the friends who’d died. Alice made him a tea to drink at night, and she helped him till and plant his first garden. She fed him all spring from her own kitchen.
He cried after he killed the first deer. Even now, he can’t explain it. He hadn’t cried at all in that last terrible year of war. And then he came home, killed a deer in summer, and cried the whole time he cleaned it.
He gave all the meat to Alice. He couldn’t stop thinking about the alertness in the buck’s eyes, the careful way it picked its way across the clearing. It was a living thing that wanted to live, and Clint killed it.
It’s the natural order of things. He hasn’t cried since.
Clint tells Bucky what Alice told him. “Everything heals in its own time.”
Bucky smiles again. He still looks like someone who doesn’t know what he’s doing, like he’s only ever read about smiles in books. He looks pointedly toward the place where his missing arm should be. “Some things don’t heal at all.”
Clint knows that. He’s hurt people in ways they never healed from. He thinks Alice was making a different point. “Everything moves on,” he tries again. “Spring comes after winter. The whole damn town can’t stay dead forever.”
Bucky’s eyes go black again. All at once, without any warning at all. “Some towns do,” he says. “I’ve killed--”
“I don’t care who you’ve killed,” Clint says. “It doesn’t matter. It’s done. Winter’s over. It’s springtime. Make it spring.”
He shoves himself to his feet. He feels like he’s shaking, but every part of him is steady. He leaves before that changes.
- - -
It’s halfway through May, and, some mornings, there’s still frost on the ground. Nothing will grow. Most of the trees still haven’t leafed out. Everything and everyone is starting to get that hollowed look of being too hungry too long. It reminds Clint of the war.
Ever since Bucky came to town, damn near everything reminds Clint of the war.
He’s hunting more than he should, taking more than he normally would. But his people are hungry, and, if the plants won’t grow, killing is more or less the only way anyone’s going to eat.
He’s thinking about that, brooding over it, when there’s a knock at his door. “Clint,” Bucky says, and the door swings open, unlatching easily from the inside.
Clint thinks it’s funny. The seeds won’t wake for Bucky, but no door will stand against him. Alice could never open Clint’s door uninvited. Clint’s magic is small but stubborn. The things he does with intention tend to hold.
But maybe it’s not that Bucky’s magic is so strong. Maybe it’s just that Clint doesn’t want to lock him out.
“Evening, Bucky,” Clint says. “Pretty late for a social call.”
Warlocks, he remembers, always did attack at night.
“There’s something,” Bucky tells him. He’s pacing again, and he’s holding flowers in his hand. “There’s a ritual.”
“A ritual,” Clint repeats. He gets a flash of memory, thinks of other warlocks’ rituals. “You want a drink?” he asks, shifting to his feet.
“No,” Bucky says, waving him off. Suddenly, he pauses, turns quickly his direction. “Do you have any wine made from last year’s grapes?”
Clint blinks at him. “Exactly what kind of ritual is this?”
The look Bucky gives him does not bode well. He looks guilty. Uneasy and ashamed.
The last time a warlock looked at him like that, he’d burned a house with a whole family inside it. A village witch and her two adept daughters, the husband already dead in the yard. I needed their magic, the warlock told Clint, desperate and pleading. You don’t have to do this. We’re on the same side.
Clint killed the last warlock who looked at him like that. He really, really hopes he won’t need to do the same thing to Bucky.
“To break a frost,” Bucky says, “call the songbirds home. Wake the seeds, and the sleepers.”
Clint nods, slowly. “So it’s for spring.”
Bucky looks tortured. And Clint would know what tortured looks like.
Bucky steps across the room and offers the flowers to Clint. “You don’t have to take them,” he says, like he’s already begging forgiveness for some sin he hasn’t committed.
Clint studies the flowers being offered to him. Primroses and daffodils and marsh marigolds. Bold yellows and the stubborn green of living things. He would ask where Bucky got them, but Alice’s flowers loved her dearly, and Bucky’s flower garden is the only garden in the village that seems to know it’s spring at all.
“What’ll happen to me if I do?” Clint asks. “Is this a blood sacrifice?”
Fair’s fair, he thinks. And he would, if asked. He’s taken enough from others. If what the village needs is his blood, he’d let Bucky spill the whole batch of it into the dirt. His blood is no more precious than anyone else’s, and he’s harvested too much blood to balk about it now.
Bucky flinches. His eyes close tight, and Clint expects darkness when they open, but they’re bright blue and strangely beautiful, the cold shine of ice in moonlight. “It’s a sacrifice,” Bucky says. “But it’s not—it isn’t blood.”
Clint blinks at him. “Oh,” he says, as the whole world seems to stop around them.
Bucky swallows, and his eyes drop to the flowers in his hand. “Sorry,” he says, drawing back. “We don’t have to—there are other rituals.”
Clint takes the flowers. It’s just a bouquet of wildflowers. Almost any other spring, he could’ve gathered the same bunch on a walk to his neighbor’s porch. But there have been very few flowers this spring. It feels like he’s holding something rare and precious, like Bucky offered him a handful of gemstones.
It’s such a strange thing. Him, standing there, holding flowers. In his whole life, only three people have ever brought him flowers. Layla Howell, the witch who grew up three houses over, and Johnny McCullough, from across town. Both of them left for the war, and neither one came back.
And now, here’s Bucky.
“What’s it mean, Buck?” Clint asks. The flowers feel warm in his hands, like they were harvested moments ago. They feel like they have sunshine inside them. “What’s the sacrifice?”
Bucky’s looking at the flowers in Clint’s hands. His magic is especially strong tonight. Clint can feel it against his skin. It’s jarring, the power of his magic and the lost, shocky look in his eyes.
Bucky shifts on his feet. He moves like he’s going to pace again and then goes still. He doesn’t say anything.
“Flowers,” Clint says, lifting them up as evidence. “Spring, sacrifice. So, what is it, Bucky? We have to—is it sex? Is that what we’re doing?”
He means to say fuck. That’s the word in his head, when he starts the sentence. But Bucky’s flighty and skittish, looks like any harsh word would send him right back out into the night.
“We don’t have to,” Bucky says. “But the ritual—the magic. It’ll make us want to.”
Clint shrugs. He wishes he’d gone for that bottle of wine when Bucky asked. “That’s not a sacrifice for me,” he says. “I already want to.”
He does, and he doesn’t. He wouldn’t have asked if Bucky hadn’t offered. It’s complicated. These days, everything is.
Bucky gives him a sharp look up through his lashes, head ducked and jaw tight. He’s beautiful, and Clint’s wanted to touch him since he first saw him, but he never, ever would have. He doesn’t have the right to touch anything beautiful.
“Are you sure?” Bucky asks. “Because it doesn’t have to be this, and it doesn’t have to be you. I can—there are other sacrifices.”
Clint knows all about other sacrifices. He remembers what a warlock’s work looks like. Bucky came home from war and wanted to be a village witch. Clint came home and wanted to be a hunter. And he knows Bucky would go back to the old ways just the same as Clint would, if he had to, if his people needed him to.
But they have done enough of that kind of work.
Clint holds the flowers to his chest. They smell sweet and fresh. They smell like spring, and he wants more. That’s it, in the end. That’s what decides him. He’s tired of winter, and he wants spring. He thinks, in that moment, that he’d pay any price asked. And this, it’s hardly a sacrifice at all.
“I’m sure,” he says. “Let me get that wine.”
- - -
Bucky leads him out to the cottage that used to be Alice’s, a little farther from the village than Clint’s home, hemmed in on all sides by the forest. He builds two fires and settles between them, sets out a blanket and blinks up at Clint until he sits down beside him, still holding his flowers.
They split the bottle of wine, and Bucky brews a hot drink in a silver cup that seems like eggnog but finishes lighter, leaves his mouth tasting like honey and cinnamon. Clint thinks it should weigh too heavy, all that wine and this drink Bucky makes, but he’s warm and content, almost lazy. He doesn’t know if it’s the fire or the magic, but he can’t even feel the chilled bite of the evening breeze.
“Could I have those back for a moment?” Bucky asks. He’s glowing, a little. Not the warm glow of sunshine, but the gentle white of moonlight. Clint stares for so long that Bucky starts to smile, and then he reaches over and carefully takes the flowers out of Clint’s hands.
“Wait,” Clint says, pushing himself up on his elbows. “What are you--”
“Here,” Bucky says. He’s had those flowers for less than a second, and now they’re weaved into two perfect crowns. He sets one on top of Clint’s head, and Clint should feel ridiculous, but the magic in the crown works down his spine like a shiver, makes his blood heat up in his veins.
“Damn,” Clint says. His tongue runs across his lip. He wonders if this is what Bucky meant when he said It’ll make us want to.
Bucky smiles at him, small and uneven but more genuine than any other Clint’s seen. He settles the other crown on his own head, and his eyes spark with starlight. It’s difficult to look at him and impossible to look away. Clint watches as the stems braid themselves into Bucky’s hair.
“What’re they for?” he asks, reaching up to touch his own crown. It’s warm to the touch. He shivers again.
“Protection,” Bucky says. He pauses and then shrugs. “Tradition. When you go begging favors, it’s best to be polite.”
Clint swallows. His eyes go warily to the darkness outside their twin fires, and he wishes, suddenly, for his bow. “Who are we being polite to?”
Bucky shakes his head. “I am being polite,” he says. “You don’t have to worry about that.”
Clint hefts the wine bottle, tips it back until the very last drops spill into his mouth. It’s only when he’s licking the last bit of it off his lips that he realizes, in all this talk of being polite, he’s forgotten his manners altogether. “Oh, sorry,” he says. “I should have offered to share.”
Bucky leans over and kisses him, simple as anything. It’s chaste as first, like he’s waiting for Clint to pull back, and then he’s licking into Clint’s mouth, chasing the hints of wine.
“You’re sharing enough,” Bucky says, lips an inch from Clint’s, eyes dropped to study the shape of Clint’s mouth.
The last time someone was this close to Clint, he was dying, and Clint was pressing a knife into his belly, shoving up until the blade cut right into his heart. The last time Clint felt someone’s breath on his face, it was his very last one.
Clint pulls back. There’s a breath caught in his chest that wants to be something loud, but he holds it back until it’s nothing but a sigh, easily lost under the crackle of the fire and the soft shushing of the wind.
“So,” he says, setting the wine bottle aside. “What do we do?”
Bucky stares at him for a long moment and then he stands up, holds his hand down to help Clint to his feet. “You’ll need to take off your shirt,” he says.
Clint hesitates, but only for a moment. By the time his shirt is dropping to the grass, Bucky’s out of his own. He has his eyes closed, hand raised palm-up in front of him. Clint studies the muscles of his chest and the branching lines of scar tissue running down from his shoulder. They’re neat, those lines. Magically inflicted and magically healed.
And the ash gathering in Bucky’s hand, that’s magical as well.
Clint watches it rising from the fires, spinning through the night, mixing together. He expects it to be hot, but Bucky doesn’t seem to notice any pain. And when Bucky steps toward him and starts drawing on Clint’s skin, the ash is blood-hot but not burning.
Clint holds himself still, but every move of Bucky’s fingers across his skin raises goosebumps. He can’t remember the last time anyone touched him like this. Some camp somewhere, he thinks, both of them knowing better than to ask for a name, neither one interested in adding someone else to their list of people to miss.
It aches, almost. Being touched like this. It hurts somewhere deeper than his skin. He can’t help but lean into it, even though he knows he’s probably making a mess of Bucky’s careful designs. All his spirals and his lines, his messages in a language Clint doesn’t understand.
This, he thinks, must be what Bucky meant when he said it’ll make us want to.
He wants to kiss Bucky again. He wants Bucky to kiss him. He’d let Bucky draw on him with embers pulled fresh from the fire if he’d just kiss him again.
“Please,” Clint says, and then he bites hard into his lip, swallows the rest of it back.
The look Bucky gives him is sympathetic. “Anything,” he says. “But you have to wait.”
Clint feels like he’s been waiting for years. He’s been waiting since he left home.
“Alright,” he says, and he waits.
He waits while Bucky finishes his drawing, and he waits while Bucky summons more ash and draws on his own chest, and he waits while Bucky speaks, finally chanting like a real village witch should, eyes closed and eyebrows pulled together, leaning into his magic in a way Clint’s never seen him need to do.
Clint can feel it. It’s an electrical storm, a drop straight down into the lake from the tallest cliff. It’s something wild, brewing up around him.
“Clint,” Bucky says. Clint thinks he’s been saying it for a while. His hand is suddenly in Clint’s, holding tight. “Clint, it’s time. We have to--”
Clint kisses him, because he’s been waiting. And if it’s time, then he’s finally allowed.
Bucky makes a noise into his mouth, kisses him like he thinks it’s the only chance he has. “Clint,” he says, pulling away. “We have to--”
“Alright,” Clint says. Because he will, whatever it is. Whatever needs to be done. He will.
Bucky looks at him for a moment, struck and wide-eyed. The flowers in his crown are growing, putting out new buds, blooming, fresh starbursts of yellow against his dark hair. He takes one step, and then another. There’s a half-second where Bucky’s pulling away, and then Clint moves to follow, and suddenly they’re running.
There’s magic after that, too much for Clint to follow. They’re running, and they’re jumping, leaping clear over the flames. When they’re running, Clint’s not thinking anything at all, but something happens to him when they leap.
They jump over the first fire, and Clint thinks about leaving home. He feels the pain of it, the ache and the fear. The news that passed from village to village: They’re coming here. They’re going to cross the mountains. They’ll hurt us, and they’ll kill us, and they’re coming. He remembers setting off with Layla and Johnny and all the others. He remembers how none of them said goodbye. For luck, they’d said, but there had been so little luck, spilled unequally between them, and Clint came back, but Layla’s ash marked the foreheads of her friends for days after she died, and they never even found enough of Johnny to burn.
He hits the ground between the fires, and he stumbles. Bucky stumbles, too. But when they leap the second fire, the memory burns up, fades like smoke.
They wheel back. Bucky’s hand is tight in Clint’s. They jump again.
And now it’s war. It’s war, all over again, in Clint’s head. It’s long weeks of nothing, of midnight hours on watch, of being so tired he feels like his eyes are going to bleed, like it’ll be a mercy when his eyes start to bleed. It’s hunting witches at night, putting arrows into the hearts of people who had lovers and plans and favorite songs. It’s dead friends and dead enemies and bodies, stacked and stacked, until the weight of them leaves Clint gasping, until the whole world is rot and blood and death.
They touch down between the fires, and there are tears on Clint’s face, smeared all the way to his neck, like he’s been crying for hours.
They leap the second fire, and it’s done. The war is gone. The bodies are burned or buried.
They turn back, and they jump.
And it’s nothing, or it feels like it. It’s long nights in winter. It’s hunting wolves, gutting deer. It’s the slow trudge toward dawn, when it’s been dark for so long that sunrise feels like a promise the gods forgot. It’s looking for his dead friends in all the places where they were young together, and it’s being alone at festivals, alone in a town of the old and the young, where almost no one is his age. It’s sleeping through springtime. It’s not putting down roots. It’s stasis and stagnation, breathing because his lungs need air, breathing because it’s easier than choking.
When they come down from the first fire, Clint doesn’t have the heart for the next one. It’s so much to ask, he thinks. From him and for him. He doesn’t have a right to ask, and no strength for it anyway.
But Bucky’s hand is in his. And his eyes are closed, jaw locked, like he’s holding something terrible inside him, like he’s afraid to look.
Clint is not a good man. Maybe Bucky isn’t either. But they can’t get any better, staying here.
Clint’s hand tightens in Bucky’s. He pulls. Bucky follows. When they get to the fire, they jump.
The third time, when their feet touch the ground, the whole sky splits open with lightning and then the ground shakes with a roar of thunder so loud that Clint laughs, immediate and instinctive.
It’s raining, when it’s been clear and dry for days, and the rain is cool but not cold against his skin. Spring rain, he thinks.
All those terrible memories, that blank feeling of endlessly waiting for nothing at all, they dissolve in the rain.
He’s still laughing, he realizes. He’s laughing, wild and happy, and he hasn’t laughed in so long. He’s forgotten how to do it; he’s out of practice and out of breath. Bucky is smiling at him like he’s something miraculous.
Bucky lets go of Clint’s hand and reaches up to touch the flowers in his hair. There’s something fragile and new in his eyes. “It worked,” he says. When he lifts the crown off Clint’s head, it’s an absolute riot of blooms, a wreath of them, an interlocking, interwoven mass of fresh flowers.
“It worked?” Clint repeats. He’s giddy and breathless, feels like he could laugh for days.
Bucky smiles. It’s small and sweet, surprised. “It worked,” he repeats, under his breath. When he looks up, away from the flowers and right at Clint, it freezes Clint in place, stops the breath in his throat.
Oh, he thinks. And now he feels it, rising in him. The weight of all that magic, settling over his skin. The pull of it, resolute and inevitable. This is what he meant.
“Bucky,” he says.
“Inside,” Bucky says, jerking his chin back toward the cottage.
“There’s a blanket,” Clint says, wheeling around, remembering the blanket Bucky had set between the fires.
“It’s raining,” Bucky says.
It’s pouring, actually. They’re soaked. All those careful designs Bucky drew on them have washed right off.
Clint doesn’t care. The blanket is good enough. The ground is good enough. In the rain, in a snowstorm, in broad daylight. He doesn’t care.
But when Bucky takes his hand again and pulls, Clint doesn’t fight. He’d follow him anywhere, he thinks. And that’s partly because it’s Bucky, and partly because it’s been so long since he felt like he was going anywhere at all.
The door crashes open in front of them and slams shut in their wake, and Clint knows he was wearing pants when they were outside, but they’re both naked now. They’re in the front room, and then in the bedroom, and Bucky’s magic is a wild thing, stuttering them all over the place.
“No, wait,” Clint says, when he finds he’s been backed right up to the bed. Bucky rears back like a startled cat, and Clint gets his hands on his waist, tugs him close. “I’m a mess,” he says, trying to explain.
Bucky’s bed is clean and neat, and Clint was outside in a rainstorm, wearing ash on his skin.
“I don’t care,” Bucky says, and shoves him backwards.
Clint is on his back in a soft bed, with a warm body on top of him, a hot mouth on his neck, and there’s a gentle rain outside and nobody to kill in the morning. There’s no one left to fight; the war is over.
His hands are shaking when he runs them up Bucky’s bare back. His fingernails catch on old scars. Bucky pushes himself up far enough to look down at him, his hair hanging between them, wet strands brushing against Clint’s face. It feels like tears. Or maybe he’s crying. It’s hard to call one way or the other.
“You’re alright,” Bucky tells him, like he knows, somehow, that Clint needs to hear it.
“Don’t leave,” Clint says. And it doesn’t make any damn sense. They’re in Bucky’s bed. They’re in Bucky’s house. Bucky isn’t going anywhere. When this is over, Clint will be the one leaving.
Bucky studies him for a while and then leans in, presses a kiss against Clint’s mouth. The magic wants something fierce and urgent, rushes in Clint like floodwaters after the April thaw, but Bucky’s mouth is careful and soft. And something about that, about how gentle he is, when both of them are scarred to hell and back, takes something small and critical in Clint’s chest and snaps it right in half.
It’s a dam breaking. Clint’s hands are shaking again when they wind into Bucky’s hair, but he has other reasons now. He pushes up, pulls Bucky down, presses every inch of his skin into every inch of Bucky’s until they’re woven so tightly together that they might as well be one person.
It’s frantic and desperate, and Clint thinks he’ll be embarrassed later, but he can’t take his mouth off Bucky’s, can’t keep his hands off his skin. Bucky works a line of biting kisses down Clint’s jawline to his throat, and Clint loves every second of it, but he feels like he’s going to rip apart when Bucky’s mouth moves lower.
“No,” he says, tugging Bucky by his hair, reeling him back up. “Don’t go.”
“I’m not--” Bucky says, in that space between kisses, when they’re both trying to catch their breath. “I just want—my mouth, Clint. I want to--”
“Later,” Clint says, because he thinks he’ll die. He thinks he’ll shrivel up and disappear, if Bucky’s not right with him.
It’s a stupid thing. It’s a fear he thought he’d left behind. After all, people have died beside him. People have died while he watched. Layla bled to death in his arms, begging him to save her.
But he thinks if he keeps his eyes on Bucky’s, his mouth on Bucky’s, then there’s no one in the world who’d dare take him away. Not right now.
Bucky looks at him, stares right into his eyes, and they’re still for a moment, breathing together. And then Bucky nods and kisses him again, sweet and sloppy, barely catching the side of his mouth. “Alright,” he says.
They kiss like they’re young again, like it’s the best thing they know. Like no one has to be on watch in the next half hour, like their scars are from innocent work.
Bucky’s hand moves across Clint’s body, and it’s a revelation, every time, because there’s nothing about this that hurts. Not even in that melancholy way that means they’re both thinking of someone else, someplace else.
Bucky kisses him like he could kiss him all night, languid and thorough and mumbling quiet, pleased noises against the skin of Clint’s throat. Clint’s patience wears out first. The magic and the wine and the wanting hit a feverpitch, and he’s reaching down between them, palming at Bucky’s dick.
Bucky makes a punched-out, desperate sound, presses his face into Clint’s neck. “Fuck,” he says, earnest and breathless, and it’s the least magical he’s seemed, the most he’s ever sounded like something Clint could touch, something he might get to keep. “Fuck,” he says again, squirming a little, hips pressing into Clint’s. “Clint,” he says, almost begging.
I’d give him anything, Clint thinks. I would.
It’s been a very long time since he had anyone to give anything to.
He curls his hand around Bucky, strokes slow and careful, testing. Bucky makes another noise in the back of his throat, presses into Clint like he can’t bear to be apart.
It’s its own kind of magic, really. That, after all the things Clint’s done with his hands, he can still do this.
Bucky leans up, catches Clint’s mouth with his own. They keep kissing, even when Bucky loses most of his coordination, keeps making soft, desperate noises into Clint’s mouth until he catches his breath, pulls back, comes apart.
Clint gets some echo of it, the magic running high in their minds, sharing the sharper sensations back and forth. His head lolls back against the bed, and he’s blinking, shaking, squirming his hips against nothing, feeling like he’s breathing too fast and not at all.
Bucky barely touches him, and it’s over. The whole world muting out, all that magic sparking between them so bright and strong that Clint swears he can feel every seed from here to the mountains shivering awake in the soil.
He’s gasping when he settles back into himself, not used to magic with that much kick, not used to feeling that much under his skin. Bucky’s beside him, eyes watchful and alert. Clint smiles, dazed and sleepy, content in a way he barely even remembers. He hooks Bucky’s hair back behind his ear, tips his chin up to ask wordlessly for one more kiss.
Bucky kisses him, sweet and almost shy, and then leans up to kiss him again, on his forehead, his temple, his cheek.
Clint closes his eyes. The magic and the urgency have drained out of him, and he’s asleep between one breath and the other, dreams of nothing at all, like he used to, years ago.
- - -
In the morning, Clint wakes up first. Bucky’s sprawled half across him, face pressed into the space between Clint’s shoulder blades, arm wrapped lazily around Clint’s waist. He makes a persecuted noise when Clint moves to squirm free, so Clint resettles on the bed, stretches as far as he can to push the curtains back, try to figure out what time it is.
It’s midday, judging by the sunshine.
The long stretch of yard between Bucky’s doorstep and the road is overrun with the bright blooms of early spring wildflowers.
“You’re a romantic, Buck,” Clint says, barely louder than a breath.
Bucky grumbles, moves to reel him back in. About halfway through it, he seems to blink awake. He goes still and stares at Clint. “Oh,” he says, with an uncertain smile. “You stayed.”
Clint should leave. The chickens will be rioting in their coop, and there are a dozen other tasks he needed to finish hours ago.
Bucky shifts like he’s bracing for it. The warmth in his eyes dims to something Clint could bear to look away from.
The thing about spring, Clint thinks, is that it’s about risk. Growing in darkness, praying for light. Praying for warmth and food and rain. It’s about hoping tomorrow will be kinder than yesterday. It’s about drawing a line and saying After this, I won’t starve anymore. After this, I will grow again.
It has nothing to do with what they’ve done. It’s irrelevant, really, who they used to be.
Everything heals in its own time.
The winter is over. It’s time for spring.
“I’m staying,” he says. When he leans down to kiss him, Bucky meets him halfway.