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Treasure

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Dear Becca,

 

I know it’s been a while since I last wrote, and I’m sorry for that. But you should know by now that you and everybody back home are always on my mind. It’s just been real busy lately. And yeah, I know, that’s no excuse. But things have been going well. Or well, at least they were. Because Becs, you are not going to believe the crazy I ran into today.

 

***

 

Steve was having a shitty fucking day. It was an even shittier day than the string of all the shitty days he’d been forced to endure. And this evening, between the first and second moonrises, it had become even shittier. Still, today was the shittiest day of all the shitty days he’d been having lately.

 

And even worse, no matter how much he growled and bit and tried to fight back, he couldn’t help but think it was going to be his last.

 

There was blood dripping from his nose, and a pain in his side every time he tried to take a breath. His shoulder hurt from where it had been nearly wrenched from its socket, and he knew there would be bruises on his back and blood in his piss if he lived long enough to see the dawn. He was already down on his hands and knees, and yet those assholes just kept coming at him, laughing with each strike and his every desperate gasp.

 

He hadn’t even heard them. He had been minding his own business, trying to follow the trail the stable-hand had assured him was the quickest way to Elaris, when they had come out of nowhere. Four of them, taller than him by half, and the slimmest one more than twice his weight. They had demanded his pack, and when he refused, without another word, they were on him, snickering and sneering as if this were fun for them, a game to be played, and he the prize no one wanted to win.

 

He’d fought back, of course he had. He knew he was small, but he was not prey, in spite of how weak he felt due to too many cold nights and a hunger that never seemed to end since he’d started on his journey. And his pack contained all his worldly possessions, everything he’d managed to so carefully collect since he’d left home. A home he was now certain he would never see again. He wondered how long it would be before anyone realized he was not coming back. Too long, he knew, for it to matter in the end. Sam would eventually come, he supposed, and more than likely Natasha would join him. But they had their own concerns now, things they needed to tend to. By then it would be far too late, and his name would be added to the Lost. His most important task, which he had barely even started, and already his path had crumbled to ash, like so much else.

 

Still, if this was going to be the end of it, he would make his mother proud, and die on his feet.

 

“Aw, look at the little mouse, still trying to stand,” the first of his attackers sneered, as Steve used the tree they had thrown him against to leverage himself up. He was the tallest of them all, barrel chested and thick of thigh, with a messy topknot holding together ratty brown hair, and meaty fists. He had been the first to strike, and Steve could still feel the blow in his solar plexus.

 

“Give me…back…my bag…” Steve managed to pant through a mouth filled with both saliva and blood.

 

“What, this?” the second asked, reed thin, with greasy skin and even greasier black hair, as he held up Steve’s pack, easily swinging it in a circle by its straps. “No can do, little mouse. It’s payment, see, for passage through these lands.”

 

It’s mine.” The words came out in a growl even Natasha would have been proud of, if not for the fact that they left speckles of blood on the dirt, Steve’s shirt, his chin.

 

“Not anymore, it ain’t,” the third, smaller than the other two but sharper, like a blade, a fang, a claw, hissed. “Like we said, it’s payment for passage.”

 

The greasy one stared at Steve, his head tilted to the side, nothing but mockery in the glint of his eyes, the curl of his lips. “Tell you what, if you can get it back, it’s yours.” Then with a sneer, he tossed the bag up and away, easily, as if the last three months of Steve’s life weighed no more than a feather, a pebble, so that it landed and caught in the lower branches of the nearest tree, laughing all the while.

 

That was when Steve struck. He didn’t have much, and he knew there would be even less of it, if anything at all after this, but he was his mother’s son and he would go down fighting. So he lurched forward, lungs burning and face throbbing, and used all his weight to plow into Greasy, knocking him backwards on his ass.

 

“You little shit!” Greasy cursed, before they were on him again, battering him with more fists, and kicks, and blows to his abdomen, until he was once again flung back against the tree by Meaty Fists, the force of the impact knocking the last of his breath from his lungs.

 

“The little mouse’s got spirit, you gotta give him that,” Meaty Fists laughed.

 

“Yeah, but spirit don’t bring coin,” the Sharp One hissed. “And he’s too skinny to be good for much else.”

 

“The Salzaar may take him,” Meaty Fists shrugged. “They’re desperate for anyone these days.”

 

“There’s not going to be enough of him left for even a half coin when I get done with him,” Greasy sneered, stepping forward.

 

“It’s too much effort for not enough payout. And he’s already seen our faces,” the Sharp One nodded toward Steve. “Easier to just get rid of him now.”

 

“Boss?” Meaty Fist asked, all three of them turning as one to glance back toward the fourth man, who had stood separate and still the entire time, not saying a word. His eyes were pale, flat, the color of faded whiskey, his hair as white as snow. He hadn’t said a word, but he didn’t need to. His silence, marked only by a slight tilt of his head, said more than enough.

 

“Right then,” Greasy said, pulling a blade from his belt as once again, in unison, all three of his attackers turned back to Steve. “This is gonna hurt. But that’s okay. You can scream all you want, no one’s gonna hear you anyway.” And Steve knew this to be true; the forest was dense and quiet, the night a heavy quilt resting over her shoulders, and he hadn’t seen anyone for miles. But even if there had been someone near enough to hear his screams, no one would have come to his rescue. In his brief time since he’d left home, he had learned that most of the people of the Six Nations were cold and cruel, indifferent to those they considered outsiders. He wondered when he did scream, because he could smell the cruelty on their skin and see the bloodlust in their eyes, and knew that he would, if his mother would hear him from her rest in the Stars, and abandon her treasure just long enough so she could carry him on her back, both scolding and laughing at him the entire time like she used to. It would be good to see her again, he thought, even if he had failed, and he decided in that last moment that if he were to die, it would be with his eyes open.

 

And that’s when it happened.

 

An arrow in Meaty Fists’ chest. A dagger protruding from Greasy’s throat. A heartbeat of silence followed by a crack of bone, and then the Sharp One was falling to his knees, his eyes wide, body spasming. A stillness, perfect and all consuming, that held and waited and watched, while the last man, who had stood by and said nothing, merely watched, while his gang of murderers laughed about Steve’s death, peered around into the darkness, searching for the threat. He was fast, a poniard in each of his hands as he crouched low and scanned the surrounding trees, his body tense, coiled, ready to pounce.

 

But not fast enough.

 

There was the flicker of a shadow, a glint of something that might have been steel, followed by a burst of red, before Steve’s last assailant collapsed forward, gurgling on his own blood.

 

It had taken less than fifteen seconds, and all four of the men who had attacked Steve were now dead, a twisted semi-circle of corpses surrounding what would have been his own grave.

 

And Steve the only one left alive.

 

He couldn’t help but wonder how long that would last, as he looked around him, battered, bruised and bloodied, each gasp of breath a burst of pain in his sides. The Sister Moons were kind, and they loved their children, but there were things that sometimes burned brighter or lived in the dark that everyone knew to treat with respect. Or to fear. Steve may have been a stranger to these lands, but he had listened, and listened well, to all the stories his mother told him when they sat together in front of their home fires. He knew he was brave, and could tread with respect when necessary, no matter what Sam or Natasha would have said of him, but he was weak now, and in pain, and he had no idea if what he would next be facing was friend, foe or something else. Would it even make a difference when he knew, at that moment, he was nothing more than easy prey? But whatever was out there in the dark, it had not killed him yet, when it had been so quick, so efficient before, and Steve could not help but wonder why.

 

There came a break in the cloud cover, and then the Sister Moons were laying their pale kiss upon the ground, a final shifting of the shadows, before a figure emerged, and with footsteps quieter than a cat’s, began to make its way towards him.

 

It was tall and lean, with broad shoulders and a hunter’s stride. As it drew even nearer, intent in every line of its approach, the clouds shifted again, and under the moons’ pale light, Steve realized it was a man, no more, no less, and all the more terrifying for what he had just done. He stopped, less than two feet away from Steve, just out of arm’s reach, and with a fluidity that again had Steve thinking of cats, he knelt, tilting his head forward to peer at Steve. Another shift of the clouds, another kiss from the Sisters, and Steve was able to see his face.

 

He had pale skin, almost as pale as the moonlight, and blue-grey eyes the color of clearest morning skies that were studying him intently through thick dark lashes and beneath finely arched eyebrows. High cheekbones and a sharp jawline, with a slight dimple in his chin. All of that was surrounded by a curtain of long dark hair that reached just past his shoulders, held back from his face by a small, tight braid at each of his temples. There was curiosity and intelligence in his gaze, but not much else that Steve could ascertain, and it did little to ease Steve’s wariness as this stranger knelt in front of him, conducting his own careful study. And then he spoke.

 

“Are you all right?” His voice was low, deep, with a bit of a rasp to it, but still smooth in spite of that, with an accent Steve had not yet encountered in his travels.

 

“Are you going to kill me?” Steve blurted instead of answering. The man blinked, but other than that his face betrayed no other reaction.

 

“Do you deserve to be killed?” he asked.

 

“No!” Steve lifted his chin to glance at the bodies behind them. “But…”

 

“Are you saying I shouldn’t have killed them? Even knowing they were planning to do the same to you? And not as quickly, I might add.” The man kept his gaze on Steve’s face, continuing his intense scrutiny.

 

“No, but…” Steve said again.

 

“But?” And there was the ever-so-slightest change to his expression, a slight cocking of his left eyebrow as he waited for Steve’s response.

 

“I had ‘em on the ropes.” Steve didn’t have much, especially not now, but his pride was still intact, in spite of whatever condition his body may have been in.

 

The man’s eyebrow cocked even higher. “Oh, is that what we’re calling it now?”

 

“They tried to take my things!” Steve argued.

 

“They’re just things. Nothing worth losing your life for,” he countered.

 

“They’re mine!” Steve growled.

 

“Well apparently your lungs are working just fine,” the stranger muttered under his breath. It was as if those words had released something in him, because where his face had been placid, nearly expressionless before, it shifted, becoming keen, fluid as he rolled his eyes in what Steve recognized as exasperation. He was very familiar with having that expression turned his way, especially from Sam.

 

And then, as if to prove the both of them wrong, Steve coughed, and the pain of it was enough to have him hunching over and gasping for breath. The man’s posture instantly shifted, his eyes regaining their studious intensity.

 

“How bad?” he asked, reaching out with his left hand. He could have been going for Steve’s face, but he could have also been going for Steve’s neck. He hadn’t hurt Steve so far, but Steve had just witnessed him take down four men as easily as a child plucking flowers from a field. And he was a stranger. So Steve couldn’t help it; he flinched. The man paused mid-motion and sighed.

 

“Look, do you have a name?” he asked.

 

“Of course I do!” Steve snapped back. The man rolled his eyes again, and brought his gaze back to Steve, the arch to his eyebrow expectant this time. And yes, all right, even Steve could admit he was being petulant. But it had been a really shitty day so far, after a string of them, and he thought he was entitled. And if this man was going to murder him, he should at least know the name of the man he was going to kill; it was more than those others had bothered to ask of him.

 

“Steve,” Steve finally answered with a glare. The man nodded, Steve’s glare rolling over him as easily as the shadows had.

 

"Right," he said, shifting his weight so that his spine straightened, even as he knelt there. “Steve, beneath the Sisters, I pledge it. Do no harm to me and mine and I will do no harm to you and yours. By The Five, I give you my word.” He held up his left hand.

 

It was a promise, a pledge, an Oath. Steve may have been a foreigner to these lands, but oaths were one of the currencies of his homeland, one of the most vital ones. And this stranger, this man, had sworn by The Five Gods. Those who followed their ways were rare now, from what Steve understood, not many believers left. But they were also known, even among his own, to always keep to their word once a promise was made. An oath from one of them was not easily given, and Steve knew to receive one was a treasure to be valued and kept safe. There were many things those from his homeland may have teased him for; that he was young, quick to anger, and there were things he still did not understand, but the one thing no one could say about him was that he did not recognize treasure when he saw it. And this one he would snatch and keep, especially if it kept him alive.

 

But there were rules to this, especially among his own, and even he would not break them. And names had value, even among strangers, especially among strangers.

 

“Your name?” he asked, instead of immediately taking the man’s hand. It got him another roll of eyes, but there was the slightest, just the slightest bit of respect in the man’s gaze this time.

 

“Bucky,” he finally said, with a slight nod of his chin.

 

“Bucky, beneath the Sisters, I pledge it. I will do no harm to you and yours and accept your oath to do no harm to me and mine. Underneath the Stars and all they hold between, I give you my word.” Steve held out his hand.

 

Bucky’s grip was firm and steady as he clasped Steve’s forearm in his own. But he held Steve’s gaze as their pulses met, Steve feeling the oath snap into place. It was a ripple, a shudder, blood against blood, a tingle that was more than a tingle, and for the first time since Steve first ventured onto this trail, he felt as if he could breathe again. It was obvious Bucky felt it too, his eyes narrowing slightly, but the pledge had been made, and it was too late to back out from it now. Steve merely smirked at him, offering no further explanation.

 

“Right then,” Bucky said, once he had let go and after another moment of careful consideration. “Now that that’s out of the way, I’m going to ask you again. How bad?”

 

“I’m all right,” Steve lied, shrugging one shoulder, unable to help the wince that followed.

 

“Uh-huh,” Bucky grunted. “Because that’s not the biggest pile of dragon shit I’ve ever heard.” Steve blinked at the words; that was not an expression he was familiar with.

 

“What?” he asked. Bucky sighed.

 

“Your lip is swollen, you’ve got blood on your nose, and a cut on your forehead, and that’s just from what I can see. You want to try that again?”

 

“I’m fine,” Steve lied again.

 

“Uh-huh.”

 

“Be better if I had my stuff though.” Steve glanced up at the tree where his bag was still hanging from the branches.

 

“Really?” Bucky asked, following his gaze. “You almost just got killed and you’re worried about your bag?”

 

“It’s mine,” Steve insisted.

 

“It’s not like it’s going anywhere,” Bucky argued.

 

“It’s mine!” Steve repeated, and even he knew he sounded mulish. But it was; why was it so hard for Bucky to understand that?

 

“Right,” Bucky sighed, rising to his feet, stepping around Steve. He was so comfortable in his body, his tread even and steady, sleek and agile, every movement belonging to him and under his complete control, unlike Steve’s, which, in spite of what others were always telling him, felt small, weak, and fragile, cracked both within and without most of the time. When he jumped, Steve found himself again thinking of a cat, as he easily shimmied up the tree, and untangled the straps of Steve’s pack from the branches, landing on his feet just as silently as when he had first appeared, the bag in his hands. Steve was already reaching for it just as Bucky dropped it at his hip. “Better?” And it already was. It may not have been much, but it was all Steve had in the world right now, and he needed it with him to feel safe.

 

“Thank you,” Steve sighed, clenching the bag to his chest, in spite of all his aches and pains.

 

“Now that wasn’t so difficult, was it?” Then Bucky was back, crouching down in front of him once more, his head cocked as he resumed his study of Steve. “They went at you pretty hard, but from the way you were complaining about that bag, anyone could hear that your jaw’s not broken –“

 

“I was not complaining!”

 

“And your lungs are obviously fine,” Bucky smirked at him. But then his face grew serious, almost drawn in the pale light of the Sisters. “But is there anything else I can’t see, aside from what they did to your face?” Steve was tempted to lie; he truly was. Only a fool would admit weakness to someone they had just met, oaths be damned. And Steve could not allow himself to forget that Bucky, in spite of his current demeanor, had risen from the dark like the deadliest of shadows and taken down four men as easily as a butterfly flapping its wings. He had sworn he wouldn’t harm Steve, but different people defined harm in different ways, and while friendly enough now, Steve had no idea what kind of man he was dealing with. So he tried, for once in his life, to actually weigh his options before answering. However, Bucky was not only deadly, but obviously intelligent as well, able to intuit the truth from the delay in Steve’s response.

 

“There’s no shame in admitting you’re in pain,” he said as he rested his weight back on his heels. “And there were four of them, and they were going at you pretty hard.”

 

“You seemed to be able to take care of them easily enough,” Steve countered, still not answering Bucky’s original question.

 

“Yes, but we’re not talking about me right now, are we?” Bucky shrugged off Steve comment as carelessly as if he were brushing a bit of dust from his shoulders. “I’ve already given you my oath and am offering you aid. Don’t be a fool and refuse the hand that’s willing to help you.”

 

“I’m not a fool!” Steve snapped back, clutching his bag even tighter to his chest, unable to prevent the small wince the movement caused.

 

“That remains to be seen,” Bucky said, unconvinced in his crouch. When Steve still refused to answer him with anything more than the jut of his chin, he sighed. “Look, lad –“

 

“I’m not a lad! I’m older than you,” Steve argued. He had no idea how old Bucky was; he was most certainly a man, far beyond the rosiness of childhood, or the lankiness of adolescence. But still young, in the earliest prime of his life from what Steve could determine. Yet if there was one thing Steve was certain of, on this night that had gotten worse and worse ever since he’d first set off, it was that he was the older of the two of them. It wasn’t his fault he was so small. That was why he had left his home after all, to finally fix that.

 

“If you say so, Steve,” and there was definitely a tone in his voice to match the roll of Bucky’s eyes this time. However, when he continued, his voice was softer, heavy with compassion that caught Steve off guard. “But believe me when I tell you that I understand pride, and how sometimes when we have nothing left, we cling to it all the harder, because it’s all we do have. Whatever you were doing out here is no concern of mine, but I’m guessing you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and now I’m offering you help. This is the last time I’m going to offer. Don’t refuse it because you don’t want to look weak. There are worse things out there than weakness. And it’s not something to be ashamed of.”

 

He was such a strange man, silent and deadly, somehow both fluid and still, and yet he had stopped those men from killing him, and retrieved Steve’s bag when asked. Steve did not know what to make of him, but still, how much worse could this night get. His gaze never faltered as Steve stared up at him, bluer in the moonlight than almost anything Steve had ever seen. There were secrets there, Steve could tell, but also…also kindness. Beneath the weight of that, Steve decided to tell the truth.

 

“I don’t think anything is broken,” he muttered, looking away. “But they did something to my shoulder, when they first grabbed me, and it hurts to breathe.”

 

“Right,” Bucky nodded, shifting his weight. “Would it be all right if I touched you? Checked your ribs to see if they’re broken?”

 

Steve nodded, holding his breath as Bucky slowly reached out, and with a touch that was surprisingly gentle yet knowing, began to palpate his ribs. Steve also couldn’t help but notice that in spite of what Bucky had done earlier, there was not a single drop of blood on his hands. He had been that precise.

 

“Are you a healer?” Steve asked, needing a distraction from that thought as Bucky ran his hands over his collarbones and down his shoulders.

 

“No, not a healer,” Bucky shook his head, before humming softly to himself. “But I have spent a bit of time on the road myself, and picked up a couple of things along the way.” He lowered his hands and once again leaned back on his heels. “Ribs don’t feel broken, from what I can tell, probably just bruised. And your shoulder’s not dislocated, although you’re definitely going to be hurting even worse tomorrow. What about your nose? Did anything snap when they punched you?”

 

“No.”

 

“Still probably going to wake up with a couple of black eyes. Any loose teeth?”

 

Steve ran his tongue over the inside of his mouth to double-check before shaking his head.

 

“Right then,” Bucky said, rising to his feet and turning away from Steve for the first time. “We should probably wrap your ribs, just to be sure. I’ve got a kit in my bag, with a few things that should definitely help. Will you be all right by yourself for a few minutes?”

 

“Where are you going?” Steve would refuse to admit, even at knife point, how his voice may have squeaked at the end of his question. Bucky must have heard it however, his eyes narrowing as he glanced over his shoulder back at Steve. He didn’t answer, instead walking over to Greasy’s corpse, crouching with his back to Steve the entire time. When he rose, the dagger Steve had been threatened with was in his hand. As he approached, he held it out to Steve, hilt first. Steve hated to admit how his fingers shook as he took it.

 

But not as much as he hated to admit how much more secure simply holding it made him feel.

 

“Better?” Bucky asked, something sympathetic and understanding in his voice. Steve swallowed and forced himself to nod. “And I’m going to get my things. Won’t take too long. Do us both a favor and try not to get into any more trouble until I get back.” And then he was gone, just as quickly and silently as he appeared.

 

Steve was left as he had been, except now he was surrounded by the corpses of his would-be murderers, the end they had intended for him staring back at him from four sets of blank eyes. It had been so quick, so sudden, and he found himself wondering if their bodies were still warm. He had not wanted to die, but he had no fear of death in and of itself. These men had been cruel, the motivations for their actions unfathomable to him. He had not threatened them, nor tried to take what was theirs. It had not even been sport, not really. What challenge could there have possibly been when they were so much larger and stronger than he was? Yet their actions defined them, and as a result he knew there would be no one coming for them to guide their spirits back to the Stars. But then again, that was their own fault, and Steve would not waste any sympathy on them.

 

Bucky, on the other hand, well, that remained to be seen.

 

As if summoned by the thought, the man himself returned not too long after that, although this time Steve heard his approach. Because this time when he reemerged into the small clearing that would have been Steve’s grave, he was not alone.

 

Behind him, following with steps that were just as confident, and only slightly louder than Bucky’s own, was a horse. Steve himself was not too familiar with horses, although that had changed somewhat over the past few months. But even he, with as little experience as he had, could tell it was a beautiful animal.

 

Tall and lean, less stocky than the ones most of those from the Six kept in their barns and stables, it had a dark coat that looked sable beneath the Sister’s light, glistening over sleek muscles with every step it took. It had bright, intelligent eyes and a black mane neatly combed back from ears that were cocked forward, which Steve had come to understand meant it was alert and curious, not afraid. That also showed in its gait, as it took confident steps behind Bucky, the lead held loose and easy in his hand. It was obvious it was a well-cared for creature, who was following its rider out of choice and not fear, choosing to be there instead of being pulled along. Steve couldn’t help but be fascinated as the two of them drew closer, Bucky smiling when he noticed where Steve was staring.

 

It was suddenly difficult for Steve to decide where to direct his gaze; at the striking horse, unlike any he had seen before, or Bucky’s face. Because his smile, filled with pride and obvious love, illuminated his entire face, brighter than the Stars, brighter than even the Sister’s light, and transformed it from something that had been in turns both intense and keen, into something youthful and almost innocent. It lit him from within, and Steve was certain that this, this was the first time he was actually seeing the real Bucky, who he truly was when there were no shadows to cover him.

 

“Yeah, she gets that reaction a lot,” Bucky laughed, actually laughed for the first time since saving Steve’s life. It was a soft sound, but no less sincere for it, revealing a crooked tooth, and dimples in his cheeks. It was lovely, and Steve recognized it was also probably very rare, another treasure to add to his meager collection. But Steve, in his current state, was in no position to refuse, even if he wanted to. Which he didn’t.

 

“Daturia, meet Steve,” Bucky went on, as if unaware of the gift he had just given Steve. “Steve, this is Daturia, the most beautiful lady in all of the Six.” However fascinated Steve may have been by the image the two of them made, Daturia appeared as if she couldn’t have cared less. She stared at Steve for less than a minute, before releasing a small huff, as if disappointed, before nudging her muzzle against Bucky’s shoulder. “Yes, yes, I know,” Bucky assured her as he led her toward a tree so he could tie her lead around its trunk. Steve also couldn’t help but notice that Daturia appeared indifferent to the dead bodies around them. “I’m sorry I kept you waiting for so long. But I had to keep this idiot over here from getting killed.”

 

“Hey!” Steve was suddenly a lot less enamored of the two of them.

 

“What in The Five’s Shadows were you doing out here anyway?” Bucky asked as he dug through his saddle bags. “Only an idiot ventures through these parts unarmed late at night.”

 

“It’s not my fault!” Steve snapped. “I was told this trail would take me to Elaris.”

 

“The trail that’s two miles east?” Bucky’s eyebrow was once again cocked in that way Steve already knew meant he thought Steve had done something stupid. “What happened? You get lost?”

 

“I’m not lost,” Steve insisted. “I just…”

 

“You just?” Bucky pressed when Steve didn’t go on.

 

“There were fireflies. I’ve heard about them, but I’d never seen any before. They were so pretty, and…” And they had been. Small but bright, Steve had been instantly entranced and wanted to see more. There had been so many of them, in so many different colors, and Steve would have sworn they recognized him, and were dancing for him, wanting to help guide him on his way. The sudden silence from Bucky told Steve even more than the arch of his eyebrow would.

 

“Are you telling me,” he began flatly, “that you wandered off the trail to Elaris in the middle of the night so you could chase fireflies?

 

“They were pretty,” Steve said again.

 

“The Five save me from the stupid,” Bucky muttered, pressing his face into Daturia’s flank. “How the hell have you survived this long?”

 

“It’s not my fault!” Steve argued. “How was I supposed to know those assholes were going to be here?”

 

“They’re more than just assholes, Steve.” Bucky’s voice was suddenly very serious, more serious than Steve had heard it during the entirety of their encounter. “They’re what’s left of the Obadiahs.”

 

“The what?” Steve asked, just as Bucky stepped away from Daturia, a bundle in his hands. He made his way closer to Steve, but stopped short, crouching down next to Meaty Fists’ body.

 

“The Obadiahs,” Bucky repeated.

 

“I don’t know what that is.”

 

“They’re a clan, or what’s left of one. And not a nice one. They were infamous for dealing in all sorts of nasty shit. They had a habit of raiding villages, killing the men and the elderly, and taking the women and children for the slave trade.”

 

“I thought slavery was forbidden in the Six,” Steve said, feeling ice fill his veins.

 

“It is,” Bucky nodded. “But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other places that don’t care where the people they’re buying come from. But that’s not all the Obadiahs were into. Extortion, prostitution, blackmail, and murder, if the right buyer had enough coin. They were causing a lot of problems, mostly up north. But then their leader was killed a few months back, and so was his heir. And then the one after that, and the one after that. They’ve mostly scattered since, what was left of them. But a few of them have taken to hiding in the forests, and preying on travelers who don’t know better than to wander off the road in the middle of the night to chase after fireflies.” Steve chose to ignore that last comment.

 

“How do you know they were Obadiahs?” he asked instead.

 

“See this?” Bucky lifted Meaty Fists’ left hand, extending the fingers outward, indicating with his chin there was something he wanted Steve to notice. It took Steve a few seconds to understand what it was he was supposed to be seeing; the missing tip at the end of his pinky finger. “It’s their pledge, proof of their loyalty, and how they recognize one another. So, you know, if you ever see anyone else with the same thing, just turn around and walk away as fast as you can.”

 

“They really were going to kill me, weren’t they?” The weight of the entire night was suddenly heavy upon Steve’s shoulders. He knew they were, but hearing Bucky speak so plainly, so calmly about it all, locked it into his bones like the coldest bits of ice.

 

“Yeah Steve, they really were,” Bucky nodded, dropping Meaty Fists’ hand with a calm disdain before coming closer.  “Now let’s see about wrapping your ribs and getting the rest of you cleaned up.”

 

Later, when Steve thought about this night, what he would remember most, in spite of his own fear, and the weakness in his limbs, was how gentle and assured Bucky’s hands had been, careful of his wounds and bruises as he wrapped Steve’s ribs and cleaned the cuts on his face. He made no comment on the prominence of Steve’s ribs, or the paleness of his skin, his gaze once again intent but lacking anything else. When Steve remembered this night in the future, what would stick out most prominently in his memories was the smell of the salve Bucky applied to his skin, the way the tonic he had instructed Steve to take only three sips of warmed him enough to ease his aches, and how his hair glinted in the moonlight, a river of minks cascading over his shoulders, the endless browns of it somehow both more striking and subtle than the red of the blood Bucky had spilled, still seeping into the ground.

 

***

 

Whatever appreciation Steve may have felt toward Bucky and Daturia the previous night was completely gone the next morning. Especially as the two of them stood over him with identical looks of amusement on their faces, even the stupid horse.

 

Once Bucky finished bandaging Steve’s wounds, the rest of the evening passed in an uneventful blur. Bucky had collected both Steve and Daturia and led them, one of them walking easily and proud, and Steve barely able to stumble along behind, to a second campsite about fifty yards away from the scene of the attack. There must have been something in the tonic Bucky gave him, because Steve fell asleep against his pack as soon as he lay down, before Bucky even finished building a small fire. His sleep had been dreamless and deep, the longest he had managed in far too long. When he woke, it was to an aching body and Bucky kneeling in front of the campfire in the middle of preparing what looked to be some kind of meal.

 

“So, it lives,” Bucky said without even bothering to look up.

 

“Ungh,” Steve groaned, rubbing his eyes. And then groaned again as his body reminded him the reason why the two of them had crossed paths last night.

 

“How bad is it?”

 

“Everything hurts.” It was true; it felt as if every part of his body, from his toenails to the tips of his hair, ached.

 

“You took quite the beating last night,” Bucky said as easily as if he were discussing the weather. But there was again that keenness in his eyes as he finally lifted his gaze from his task. “One look at your face and anyone would be able to tell.”

 

Cursing, Steve slumped back against his bag with a groan. He knew, from past experience, this was just the beginning of the healing process taking its toll. And he still had who knew how long of a journey ahead of him before he got to Elaris. He was seriously considering just giving up and going back home, no matter the consequences.

 

“And it’s only going to get worse before it gets better,” the asshole across the campfire had the nerve to laugh at him.

 

“I wish I was dead,” Steve moaned, just as his shoulder reminded him of all that had happened with a painful throb.

 

“With the way you were snoring I’m sure half of the forest wishes the exact same thing,” Bucky went on with a smile as he rose to his feet and approached Steve, a wooden cup carefully held in his hand.

 

“I do not snore,” Steve squinted up at him.

 

“Uh-huh. If you say so. All I know is that we didn’t have to worry about any bears trying to sneak up on us last night with the racket you were making,” Bucky laughed. “Now come on, sit up and drink this. It’ll help.”

 

“What is it?” Steve asked as he fought with his body to get upright.

 

“Tea, with a splash of Poppy’s Kiss,” Bucky explained as he handed the mug over.  “Not as much as I gave you last night, but it should help.” It did; not at first, and not completely, but as Steve drank more of the tea, the aches in his body slowly began to ease. Those were helped even further along by the flatbread and boiled eggs Bucky was kind enough to also share with him, so by the time Bucky was finished breaking down their camp, Steve thought he might, just might be able to make it to the trail, if Bucky were willing to spare him one last kindness and point out the way.

 

“Elaris, you said?” Bucky asked as he attached his bedroll to Datura’s saddle. “That’s at least a day and a half’s walk on foot.” Steve shrugged. It was the closest city and Steve had heard the residents were kinder to strangers. He had no reason to go there aside from his own curiosity, and there really was no other place for him to go. “Not going to be easy, condition you’re in.” Steve shrugged again.

 

“I’ll be fine,” Steve insisted.

 

“Uh-huh.” That seemed to be Bucky’s favorite response when speaking to Steve.

 

“I’ve managed so far.”

 

“Uh-huh.” Definitely his favorite response.

 

“Look, can you just point me to the trail? I promise I won’t get lost this time,” Steve pressed.

 

“Until you see a butterfly and decide you want to dance with it.”

 

“It was fireflies! And they were pretty!”

 

“Uh-huh.” Steve wondered how someone could imbue so much doubt into so few syllables. “Tell you what,” Bucky went on, fixing his gaze on Steve from over Daturia’s hindquarters, “I’m on my way there myself. And two can make the journey just as easily as one. State you’re in, I don’t trust you to not get eaten by a frog.”

 

“Look,” Steve clenched his fists. “I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, truly. But I’ve been on my own for a while now. Last night was just a horrible -“

 

“There’s even worse out there, you know,” Bucky cut him off, his voice once again flat. “People and clans that make the Obadiahs look like a pile of puppies. And they like to prey on lone travelers, especially in woods like these. You’ve got that knife now,” Bucky cut his gaze to the dagger Steve had still not let go of, “but believe me when I tell you if you cross their path, it’s not going to be enough. Nothing you do is going to be enough, especially not with the state you’re in.”

 

Steve’s throat felt thick, his bones leaden at the mere mention of the Obadiahs. And the thought that there was even worse was not a comforting one. Steve really was far from home, and alone, a fact that had never felt so weighted until that very moment. He suddenly missed Sam, Natasha, his mother, with an ache more bitter than all the bruises on his body combined.

 

“And besides,” Bucky casual voice interrupted Steve’s thoughts. “I’ve been travelling on my own for a bit as well. Wouldn’t mind the company.” It was that, more than anything on the tail end of his last thought, as if Bucky had heard them, that made up Steve’s mind for him. He nodded.

 

That had been less than been less than a quarter of an hour ago, and in spite of Bucky’s comment about conversation, he had been quiet as he efficiently removed all traces of their camp. Steve had been the one to break the silence the moment before they were about the leave, when he asked, “What about the bodies?”

 

“What about them?” Bucky’s voice was indifferent.

 

“Are you going to do anything about them?”

 

“What would you have me do?”

 

“I don’t know,” Steve shrugged. “Report them? Bury them?”

 

“Report them? To who?” Bucky shrugged. “There’s no border patrol out here.” And then he focused his pale blue gaze, still just as bright as the morning skies, but still just as sharp as the blades Steve hadn’t even seen him use last night on those men. “And bury them? They lived their lives scavenging off others. The Five will take their payment for that by making sure their bodies give back some of what they’ve stolen.” That had been the end of that, and Steve once again found himself wondering just exactly who this man, who had positioned himself as Steve’s temporary travelling companion, was.

 

Half an hour later, once they had reached the trail, Steve stumbling in pain during the last few steps, he was convinced Bucky was a demon, that’s who. Both him and his stupid horse.

 

Because the asshole was laughing at him. And so was his horse.

 

“It’s not funny,” Steve grunted, from where he hung halfway off of Daturia’s ass, both of his legs somehow tangled in the stirrups. Bucky’s continuing laughter told Steve he disagreed. “It’s not!” More laughter, followed by a choking gasp. At that exact moment, Daturia stomped her hind foot and flicked her tail, so that the hair hit Steve in his face.

 

“How - how in all the hells did you – did you get tangled up like that?” Bucky gasped.

 

“I don’t know!”

 

“Just – just swing your leg over.”

 

“I can’t! It’s stuck!”

 

“All right, all right. Just give me – just give me a sec,” Bucky panted from where he was standing, his hands on his knees, Daturia’s lead loose in his grip. Daturia gave another flick of her tail, followed by another stomp of her foot, and Steve felt himself starting to slip.

 

“She keeps moving!” Steve hissed, desperately reaching for something, anything, to grab onto.

 

“That’s because you keep wriggling like an eel,” Bucky snorted.

 

“She’s a stupid horse! I hate them!”

 

“She’s the one who’s going to make sure you get to Elaris without falling on your face. I would show her some respect if I were you,” Bucky admonished.

 

“She’s laughing at me! I know it! You both are!” Steve was starting to slip, and he was sure there was going to be a pile of horse shit waiting for him when he hit the ground. But then there were gentle hands on his waist, keeping him steady.

 

“She’s just very particular about who she lets ride her,” Bucky said. “Now hold on, hold on, easy there, steady, steady, just like that, and lift your leg over.”

 

“I can’t reach!”

 

“That’s cause you’re so short,” another snort.

 

“I know! It’s not my fault!”

 

“Haven’t you ever ridden a horse before?”

 

“They don’t like me!”

 

“I wonder why?”

 

It took a bit more shuffling and adjustments, accompanied by some soothing words that Steve couldn’t tell if they were directed at him or the hell-horse, but eventually Bucky got Steve seated in the saddle, before with one last smirk he easily swung his leg up and over, settling comfortably behind him. After another moment to make a few adjustments, Bucky did something with his thighs, and then they were off.

 

Despite Bucky using the excuse of conversation as a reason to accompany Steve, the ride passed mostly in silence. In spite of the tea, Poppy’s Kiss and filling breakfast, Steve’s body still ached, and he knew it had turned all its resources towards healing him. Winter was still far enough away that it was warm in the sun, and Bucky’s body was a steady and just as warm presence against his back. So Steve found himself drifting off from time to time, only come back to himself when he felt the careful clench of Bucky’s arm around his waist steadying him, usually followed by an accompanying grumble, cursing The Five and all the stupidity in the world. But never once did Bucky allow him to fall, and the rolling rhythm they fell into, combined with the scents of horse, leather, wool and fresh forest still clinging to Bucky’s skin was a balm both soothing and centering that allowed Steve to relax and slip away time and time again.

 

Until, sometime later, when the sun had passed its zenith in the sky and the shadows it cast were long, Bucky called a halt to their journey next to a stream, to break for mid-meal and allow Daturia the chance to graze.

 

That’s when Steve discovered that he hated horses all over again.

 

“Ow,” was all Steve could moan from the bush he had fallen over into once Bucky had helped him dismount. He didn’t know both his thighs and ass could hurt that much.

 

“Feeling it, are you?” Bucky was back to chuckling.

 

“Ow.”

 

“You’re lucky Daturia has as smooth a gait as she does. Imagine how much worse it’d have been if we’d been going at a gallop.”

 

“I hate horses.”

 

The reprieve was short, allowing only enough time for them to eat some lunch, followed by some stretches Bucky insisted Steve perform, before Bucky handed Steve a small jar of yet another salve he instructed Steve to go behind a tree and apply to the areas most inflicted, with a smirk on his face the entire time. But the stretches, the salve, as well as another cup of tea laced with just the smallest dose of Poppy’s Kiss all helped, and soon enough they were once again on their way.

 

As the trail expanded, merging with a larger roadway that led directly into Elaris’ city gates, Steve had to admit they made good time, much better than Steve would have if he’d attempted the journey on foot. And while Bucky had been a strange companion, both silent and snickering in turns, he had also been a kind one, making sure Steve arrived at their destination safely. Steve didn’t think he was going to miss him; they hadn’t spent enough time in each other’s company to even begin anything that could have resembled friendship, but Steve definitely was grateful for his assistance as well as his kindness, and wished there was something he could offer in return.

 

He said as much once they both dismounted from Daturia for the final time, preparing to say their goodbyes just inside of the city’s gates. Bucky merely waved him off.

 

“Do you have someplace to stay?” he asked instead.

 

“I’ll find something,” Steve answered with a shrug, and found himself again the recipient of Bucky’s intense stare.

 

“Have you even ever been to Elaris before?” he persisted.

 

“No,” Steve admitted. “But I was told I should be able to find work here, and they won’t care that I’m a foreigner.”

 

“They might not care, but that’s still not something you should mention out loud, especially in the middle of the street,” Bucky said.

 

“Why not?”

 

“Because you never know who might be listening,” Bucky told him. “And while they’re might not be bandits looking for the next idiot who wanders off the path in the middle of the night, that doesn’t mean there aren’t others out there who won’t slit your throat because you said the wrong thing at the wrong time. And right now you look like easy prey.”

 

“I can take care of myself,” Steve insisted while lifting his chin.

 

“Uh-huh.” And there it was again. Bucky’s two favorite sounds.

 

“And I’ll be careful – more careful this time.”

 

“Right.” Bucky sounded doubtful, the look in his eyes confirming the tone of his voice as he continued to stare at Steve, before he seemed to come to an internal decision, reaching out for Steve’s uninjured shoulder and leading down a small, side alleyway.

 

“Here, take this,” he said, once they were out of view of the entryway, holding out a small pouch to Steve. From the way it jangled, it was obvious it was filled with coin.

 

“I can’t take your money Bucky! I’m not a charity case!” Steve snapped.

 

“It’s not charity, Steve,” Bucky argued. “It’s half of what I found on those assholes who were trying to murder you.”

 

“You took it from their bodies?” Steve may have shrieked.

 

Sh!” Bucky hissed. “Keep your voice down. Remember what I just said? And why wouldn’t I? It wasn’t like it was going to do them any good. And after what they had planned for you, it’s the least you deserve. Take it. You’re going to need it if you hope to last more than a day here.”

 

Steve didn’t want to, he really didn’t. But there was a logic to Bucky’s words, and his own coin purse was perilously light. The money would definitely help. Yet still, Steve hadn’t really done anything; Bucky was the one who had done all of the work.

 

“I’ve got enough coin of my own,” Bucky said, as if he was once again reading Steve’s mind. “And I did say it’s only half of what I took.” Somehow it was that, more than anything else, that made it acceptable for Steve to take the pouch from his outstretched hand. Bucky watched, nodding his approval when Steve carefully tucked the bundle inside his shirt.

 

“Now, pay attention to this next bit, because it’s important.” Bucky waited until Steve met his gaze before he continued. “Follow this street for two blocks, and then make a right, and then a left, can you repeat that for me Steve?”

 

“Follow this street for two blocks, and then make a right and then a left.”

 

“Good,” Bucky nodded. “Head down that street for another three blocks, until you see a sign for The Yellow Wolverine. It’s a tavern that has rooms to rent. Don’t let them charge you more than two and a half silvers per night. That includes a room to yourself, a meal and a bath. They’re not the biggest, but it’s clean and it’s safe. There should be enough in that pouch I gave you to last you at least three weeks, while you figure out what to do, but don’t let them know that. Got all that?”

 

The Yellow Wolverine. Two and a half silvers per night. A room, a meal and a bath,” Steve repeated, knowing it was expected.

 

“Right,” Bucky said with one last nod before he straightened. And Steve knew then that this was goodbye. Bucky had been a strange companion, but not an unpleasant one, and had helped a stranger in need. Was still helping one in fact, even at the very end. Steve wished he had something to give him, more than words, because from the look in Bucky’s eyes, he doubted their paths would ever cross again. All he had were the contents of his own pack, meager though they were, and he needed those. That, and the pouch of coins Bucky himself had given him. All that was left, the only thing Steve had to give, were his words. And they seemed such a small and useless thing compared to all Bucky had done.

 

Yet still, they would have to do.

 

“Thank you,” he said, meaning it with every drop of his blood that still flowed because of this man. “You didn’t have to help me, but you did. You saved my life, and I’m grateful for that. More than grateful. Thank you.”

 

“Don’t worry about it, Steve,” Bucky shrugged. “Just be more careful in the future, all right? Try not to go chasing after anymore fireflies in the middle of the night.”

 

“They were pretty,” Steve insisted, but this time with a smile on his face.

 

“And you were stupid,” Bucky shot back, with a matching grin on his own. Rare though they were, Steve was going to miss them. And then, with one last glance, one last smile, Bucky took a step back. “May The Five keep you safe, Steve.”

 

“May the Stars guide you home, Bucky,” Steve returned Bucky’s nod with one of his own.

 

“Yeah well, home’s a long way away,” was the last thing Bucky said before he turned and walked back to the mouth of the alleyway, where Daturia had patiently stood waiting, keeping watch the entire time.

 

And then Bucky was gone, without even one last look over his shoulder, and Steve was alone again.

Chapter Text

Dear Becca,

 

Two letters in even less than a sennight. I guess I’ve just been thinking about you and everyone else back home a lot lately. I miss you all so much, and I know it’s taken me longer than I said it would, but I’ll be home soon, and you can yell at me about it then. I promise you. It shouldn’t be too long now.

 

But then again, it would probably go a lot faster if The Five didn’t decide to keep fucking with me. What is it they say about bad luck? It’s harder to get rid of then a bad copper piece? Because let me tell you Becs, you would not believe the shit I keep running into, it’s got to be a curse.

 

***

 

In the end, it took three days for Steve’s luck to run out. No more, no less. Just three days. Prior to that, things hadn’t been so bad. Much better, in fact, than any part of his journey since he’d left home. Once they’d parted ways, Steve found The Yellow Wolverine easily enough, and true to Bucky’s word, he’d been able to secure a small, but clean room for a very fair price, that did include a filling evening meal, and a bath in clean, hot water. The repeated baths, more than anything else, helped him in his healing, and while his shoulder still ached, he could now easily take the deepest of breaths with barely a twinge. His heart still stuttered a bit, but he’d learned to accept that long ago. He spent most of his time up in his room sleeping, only venturing out to procure something for breakfast, or double- and triple-checking the items in his pack. His possessions were all still there, and the comfort that gave him allowed him to relax enough to forget about his purpose, his friends back home, as well as, for just a little while, the rest of the world outside.

 

The time and solitude allowed Steve the opportunity to reflect on all that had happened and the things he had been forced to learn since he had started his journey. It was such a strange place, this land of the Six Nations when compared to his home. Four times as large, if not more, than the island of his birth, and much more densely populated. There were cities and towns with more people clustered together than he had ever fathomed possible. He wondered if that was why the peace that currently existed among the Six always felt so tenuous. So many cultures, too many opposing viewpoints, and not enough willingness to understand. Back home, as long as there was no intent to harm, differences were seen as something valuable, something to be cherished and shared, and prosperity meant nothing if someone else suffered. Granted, what belonged to one was fiercely guarded, protected at all costs. But there was plenty, and no one had to go without. Yet here, in these lands the inhabitants so casually referred to as the Six, the strangest things seemed to hold the greatest importance; borders and affiliations and the color of a uniform could all be a call to arms. Violence, when negotiation would do. Some had more and some had less, for no reason Steve could ascertain, and fights could break out over the stupidest of things. Which gods one swore themselves to, when everyone back home really knew that it was only the Sisters or the Stars, whose light was eternal, high, high up in their home in the sky, where they could see everything and lend Their guidance when it was needed, were the only ones who never lied. It made no sense to him; for all of their differences and the way challenges were oftentimes unavoidable, his home was a relatively peaceful place, something everyone agreed upon not long after they had settled there. Here, it was so different, and Steve was still struggling to understand.

 

But that too was part of the reason why he had come here. To learn and experience those differences for himself, the contrasts that made no sense. Those with more who took from those who had less. The stronger preying on the weak, instead of offering protection. Killers who could be kind, their knives dripping blood but their hands offering medicine and food and a temporary promise of safe passage when least expected. Such a strange and mercurial place, these lands of the Six. But after his most recent experience, Steve realized he needed to be much more cautious and wary than he’d previously been, and not make the same foolish mistakes twice. It would take time, he knew, but the Sisters and the Stars had been kind to him so far, and as he napped and recovered in his room, thinking on all he had been through, he was certain his luck had finally changed, and things would be different from now on.

 

He really should have known better.

 

It was on the third day, when he finally felt well enough to once again venture outside and start exploring that things quickly went to shit. And Steve once again found himself wondering why it was suddenly his fault.

 

It was just a cup after all.

 

Steve may have not known a lot of things about life in cities like Elaris, or the motivations of the men and women who lived there. But he could identify value when it crossed his path. Not only that, but he could also tell when those around him failed to recognize the worth of what they possessed. It was a talent everyone from home had been born with, and just because he was smaller than most, did not mean he lacked the skill.

 

And this cup, held so carelessly in the hand of the man two tables away, was precious. It was small, the dark wood worn shiny-smooth by the many who had sipped from it before. Even better, there was the slightest notch in its rim that spoke of a history, and all the stories it must have overheard. That stupid man was just waving it around as if it weren’t the most valuable item in the entire tavern.

 

That simply would not do.

 

It wasn’t as if there weren’t plenty of other cups just lying around waiting to be used; no one would miss this one. And he would take much better care of it than they had been. He just needed to wait for the right opportunity. So when the bar hand next came around to collect any plates and mugs no longer in use, pausing one table over from Steve with his tray cocked against his hip, he reached out, very discretely he thought, and pulled the cup into his lap.

 

“Ssh, ssh,” he whispered as he quickly slipped it into his bag. “You’re safe now, I’ve got you, I’ll take care of you, I promise.”

 

Except he hadn’t been as discrete as he thought; less than thirty seconds later, yet another meaty hand landed on his shoulder, accompanied by a gruff voice saying, “What the hell do you think you’re doing, lad?”

 

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” The words probably would have been a lot more convincing if Steve’s voice hadn’t gone high at the end. But the man’s fingers had started to pinch, and Steve was so tired of the people of the Six touching him without his permission. And it wasn’t like he had done anything wrong; he was just saving the cup, promising to give it the good home it deserved.

 

“Don’t lie to me, boy.” It was obvious the man was in disagreement, the press of his fingers growing even tighter. “I saw you pocket that cup. Is that the kind of place you think I run? We don’t abide pick-pockets or thieves here.”

 

“I’m not a thief!” Steve shot back, insulted. Because he wasn’t. He was many things, but certainly not a thief.

 

Don’t. Lie,” the man growled through gritted teeth. “I know what I just saw.”

 

And then, as if to make matters even worse, the man from two tables over who had been too stupid to know what he’d held in his hands, decided to join in.

 

“My coin purse is missing! The little shit probably just nicked that too!”

 

“I did not!” Steve would have risen to his feet, except the barkeep still had his hand locked to Steve’s shoulder in an immovable grip.

 

“Well it ain’t here, and I know I had it on me just a few minutes ago,” the man countered with exaggerated pats to both his sides and belly.

 

“Maybe that’s because you’re too stupid to remember where you put it!” Steve snapped back.

 

And that was when everything, once again, went to shit. Steve was getting really, really tired of this. There were shouts, and curses, and threats accompanied by a table being overturned. Less than five minutes later, Steve was being tossed to the alleyway outside on his ass, the barkeep’s face furious as he stormed toward him.

 

“Look you,” he hissed as he came even closer, his fists clenched. “I don’t know what shit you’re trying to pull –“

 

“Steve?” A very familiar voice suddenly called out, cutting off the barkeep. “Where the hell have you been? I’ve been waiting for you for over half an hour. Did you forget again?” When the both of them looked over, there was Bucky, easily making his way toward them with a long-legged and casual stride.

 

“Do you know this thief, James?” the barkeep asked. If the accusation surprised Bucky, he gave no sign, just kept walking closer as if he had all the time in the world.

 

“Thief? Who, Steve?” was all he said once he was less than two feet away. “Nah, you must have got the wrong man.”

 

“He tried to pocket a cup, I saw him do it myself. And then one of my customers said the little shit grabbed his purse,” the barkeep said with a jerk of his thumb over his shoulder.

 

“I did not! I swear it!” Steve interjected, praying that at least Bucky would believe him.

 

“What? Little Stevie?” Bucky glanced at him for the first time, and there was the ever so slightest cock to his eyebrow. “Stevie’s many things, Logan, but he’s no thief.” Bucky’s posture, his voice, his entire demeanor bore a relaxed and easy-going confidence, smooth enough to coax honey from bees.

 

“He took the cup, James,” Logan argued. “I saw him do it myself.”

 

At Logan’s words, Bucky sighed, as if being forced by his parents to tell a shameful secret, leaned closer to Logan, and in a mournful voice confessed, “Truth be told, the lad’s not all that right in the head. Has a tendency to get fixated on things sometimes, would probably follow a bunch of fireflies off a cliff if someone wasn’t there to keep an eye on him, while forgetting things he’s been told less than three days ago.” Steve would have protested, but at just that instant Bucky reached behind him and clasped him by the back of his neck. The grip didn’t hurt, but there was a definite promise of pain to come if Steve’s didn’t keep his mouth shut. “His aunt’s an old friend of my family, and she asked if I could help find him some work. It’s not been easy, since like I said, he’s not too bright. But he’s mostly harmless, and definitely no thief. I’m sorry if he’s been a bother, but well, if stupid was a crime, half of Elaris would be in jail by now. I’ll take him off your hands, and see to it that he causes no more trouble.”

 

Logan dragged his eyes, blue, but not nearly as blue as Bucky’s, from Bucky to Steve and then back, his brows pinched and his forehead creased as he considered them both. Bucky bore the scrutiny a lot less nervously than Steve did, as confident and self-assured as he’d been when he first walked down the alleyway. But his fingers kept their tight grip of the back of Steve’s neck, bands of immovable steel Steve was certain could easily cut off his airflow if he so much as twitched the wrong way.

 

“Your word?” Logan asked when he finally did speak, stepping back for the first time.

 

“My word,” Bucky swore, and then held out his free hand. Logan clasped it back, and Steve could have sworn he saw a glint of metal being passed between their palms. “Sorry for the trouble. Like I said, he’s a bit of a mess in the head.”

 

“Yeah well, just make sure he keeps his mess far away from my inn, and we’ll be fine,” Logan finally agreed.

 

“Will do,” Bucky nodded with a grin. “Say hello to Itsu for me. It’s been too long since we shared a meal. Tell her I miss her dumplings.”

 

“The next time you’re around, as long as you’re not cleaning up after any other ‘friends of the family’ you can tell her yourself,” was the last thing Logan said before he turned around and stomped his way back into The Yellow Wolverine.

 

“Bucky, I -“ Steve tried once the door had closed behind him, only to be cut off.

 

“Not one word,” Bucky hissed under his breath, his fingers still clenching the back of Steve’s neck. “Can you walk? Shake your head yes or no.” Somehow Steve managed to nod, the ice in Bucky’s voice much more frightening than anything that had happened that night so far. “Right. On your feet and come with me.” Steve really had no choice; Bucky pulled Steve upright, and in a move as casual as all his others hand been, but also just as fast as he’d been when they first met, Bucky draped his arm over Steve’s shoulder, and with that same casual nonchalance led him out of the alley. He did it so easily, so carefree, even Steve would have been fooled, if not for the way Bucky’s fingers were now digging into his shoulder instead of the back of his neck.

 

The charade lasted for a few more minutes, and several twists and turns, until Bucky nearly threw him into a darkened doorway down an empty small side street that smelled of refuse and piss.

 

“What the fuck Steve?” he demanded, and Steve was struck once again by how tall Bucky was. Logan had been taller than Steve, although not by much, and had used his body’s breadth to intimidate. But Bucky was a tower of muscle and strength, easily over six feet tall, all of it simmering with fury. “We part ways less than three days ago, after I save you from getting your throat slit, and you’re nothing more than a fucking thief?”

 

“I’m not Bucky, I’m not! I swear to you!” Steve argued.

 

“Logan saw you Steve, and he’s many things, but the man’s not a liar,” Bucky growled, taking a step forward.

 

“I didn’t take that man’s wallet Bucky, I didn’t!”

 

“Did you lie to me back on the trail? Was there a reason why the Obadiahs were after you? Were you working with them and then did a double-cross?”

 

“No Bucky, no! I swear I didn’t – Hey!” Steve was suddenly shouting, reaching out. Because Bucky had grabbed his pack, that Steve somehow managed to keep a hold of throughout the entire disaster of the evening, and was tearing open the straps, digging through it, as if he had a right to touch every one of Steve’s possessions, all that he had in the world. “Give that back!”

 

“Ah-hah!” Bucky practically crowed, holding up the wooden cup that had started the entire thing, tossing it to the ground as if it were nothing more than a piece of garbage, before he resumed his search.

 

“Stop it!” Steve cried, lurching to the ground to pick up the cup, cradling it in his hands before he turned back to Bucky, his anger rising like fire in his veins. Bucky ignored him, his hands digging through Steve’s things, discarding each one to the dirty ground. “Stop it, you asshole! Those are my things! Give them back!” Steve was torn between picking up each one of his belongings as they fell to the street, or smashing Bucky’s face with his fist, even if he knew it would be useless. Bucky was treating his things as if they were worthless, without a care for where they landed, as cruel as everyone else Steve had encountered so far while he searched Steve’s bag for the missing coin purse. All of Steve’s treasures, being tossed at their feet; the moonstone he had found by the river where he stopped to rest on his initial night away from home. The small white shell that had slipped from the braid of a fellow traveler along one of the many roads he had followed. The blue jay’s feather that reminded him of the color of his mother’s eyes. The comb, with the three missing tines, he found beneath the table at the first café where he had stopped to eat. His second set of clothes, the only spare he had. The knife Bucky handed to him four nights ago. The red shard of glass, that reminded him of Natasha’s hair. The green scarf that had been a gift from Riley when they’d last said goodbye, which meant it was also from Sam, since what was Riley’s was Sam’s, and what was Sam’s, Riley’s. All of it being tossed to the floor as if it, his small collection, and he their keeper, was worthless.

 

Steve couldn’t bear it. His temper, always quick to flare, scalded hot and bright in his chest, consuming him and burning away whatever reason he may have still had. So he lunged forward with all of his strength, and kicked Bucky in the shin.

 

Bucky didn’t even flinch.

 

He didn’t even move. In fact, he simply stood there, staring down into what Steve knew was the now empty bag, blinking at its depths as if confused.

 

“Give it back, you bully!” Steve demanded, swinging his leg back in preparation for another kick. It hadn’t worked the first time, and it more than likely wouldn’t the second, but it might make him feel better.

 

“Steve,” Bucky said after yet another confused blink, his voice soft this time, when it had been so self-assured before. “Steve…Is this all you have?” That brought Steve up short, and he froze, his leg sill cocked back.

 

“Yeah so? That still doesn’t give you the right to treat it all like garbage.” Steve knew it wasn’t much, but it was a beginning, his beginning. And all beginnings had to start somewhere.

 

“But it’s all just…junk,” Bucky whispered, as if he could not believe what he was seeing, as if he blinked enough, somehow the missing coin purse would magically appear.

 

“It’s not junk! It’s mine! Now give it back!” Steve demanded for the third time.

 

“Are you telling me that you’ve been travelling with just this? You don’t even have a water skein.” Bucky peered down at him, his eyebrows furrowed in disbelief.

 

“So?”

 

“By The Five’s Shadow, how have you managed to survive?” Bucky wondered aloud.

 

“I do all right,” Steve snapped, using Bucky’s distraction to snatch his bag back. Once in his hands, he knelt down on the cobbled ground to begin gathering his things, giving each item a careful inspection before he placed it back into his pack. “And I know it’s not much, but it’s mine. I don’t put my hands all over your things, calling everything you own junk.” From behind him, Steve heard Bucky sigh. And then Bucky knelt down, and began to reach for Steve’s belongings. “Don’t touch it! You’ve already done enough.”

 

“You’re right,” Bucky admitted softly. “I’m sorry. I had no right.”

 

“No, you didn’t,” Steve agreed, spreading Riley’s scarf over his thighs in an attempt to dust the grit from it.

 

“But I had to make sure,” Bucky explained. “Logan’s a friend, and it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been fooled by a pretty face.”

 

“I’m not a thief,” Steve repeated. “I didn’t steal that man’s wallet.”

 

“But you did steal the cup.” Bucky was balancing said cup in the palm of his hand. “Of all the things you could have stolen, you steal a plain old cup. At least the coin purse would have made sense.”

 

“I didn’t want his wallet.” Steve snatched the cup, giving it a thorough inspection before tucking it into his bag. “I wanted the cup.”

 

“Why?” Bucky asked.

 

“Because it’s pretty,” Steve mumbled, knotting his pack closed. As he did, he noticed a tear in one of the straps, and sighed. The bag had been his parting gift from Natasha, the very one she used when she started out on her own search. She had carried it for years; only three months into Steve’s journey, and it was already starting to fall apart.

 

“It’s pretty,” Bucky repeated, but this time there was no inflection in his voice Steve could identify.

 

“It is,” Steve insisted. “And it wasn’t like they didn’t have plenty of others. I know you don’t understand, but it wanted me to take it.”

 

“So you are a thief then,” Bucky concluded.

 

“I’m not,” Steve repeated, fingering the tear in the strap. “I don’t steal things. I save them. Promise to give them a home and keep them safe.” Bucky was quiet for so long Steve was unable to prevent himself from looking over at him.

 

“And who keeps you safe Steve?” was what Bucky asked when he did eventually speak. Steve could only shrug in response; that was also part of the reason why he had left home. It didn’t have to be a person; it could be anything. Everyone did it eventually, and the only thing they could tell him was he would know it when he found it. And those that never came back, well, they were the Lost, and even his own were hesitant to speak of them.

 

“I do all right,” Steve said, instead of trying to explain all of that.

 

“Uh-huh.” Oh look, Bucky was back to using his two favorite words. “Didn’t they even bother trying to explain to you what you’d need on the road before you left wherever it is you came from?”

 

“Natasha gave me my bag.”

 

“Natasha?” Bucky asked.

 

“A friend of mine,” Steve shrugged.

 

“And nothing else?”

 

“I’m supposed to figure that out for myself.” That was another part of his task; if he couldn’t figure out how to take care of himself, how could he ever prove himself worthy enough to take care of something else.

 

“Right, of course,” Bucky said, rising from his crouch. Somehow he managed to avoid getting his knees dirty. It was another reason for Steve to hate him. “How stupid of me to ask.”

 

“You are stupid,” Steve muttered, casting one last look around, wanting to make sure he hadn’t missed anything.

 

“Says the man who got thrown out of an inn after less than three days,” Bucky reminded him.

 

“That wasn’t my fault,” Steve huffed, being extra careful with his pack as he slung it over his shoulders.

 

“Of course it wasn’t,” Bucky retorted with just the slightest of smirks. “There weren’t any fireflies.” But then his expression grew serious again. “Were you hurt?”

 

“No,” Steve lied. Steve had hit the wall with his injured shoulder when Logan tossed him into the alleyway. But Bucky didn’t need to know that.

 

“Right,” Bucky said with a click of his tongue, perceptive as he’d ever been. “Well then, if you’ve got all your stuff, let’s go.”

 

“I’m not going anywhere with you,” Steve snapped.

 

“And why not?” Bucky asked.

 

“Why should I?” Steve countered.

 

“Because I’m thinking you could use a bit of help,” Bucky answered.

 

“You’ve already helped enough,” Steve shook his head. “I still have most of the coin you gave me left. I can find someplace else to stay.”

 

“But you’ve already been thrown out The Yellow Wolverine. And while the innkeepers in this quarter are a competitive lot, they make sure to keep each other informed of any troublemakers. It’s why this quadrant is one of the safest in the city.”

 

“Then I’ll just go to one of the other ones,” Steve insisted.

 

“Any place that’s safe in any of the others you won’t be able to afford. And any place you can afford is not somewhere you want to spend the night,” Bucky informed him.

 

“Then I’ll find something else. I always do,” Steve countered, dusting his hands off on his pants before turning and making his way toward the end of the alley. Beneath his feet, the muck gathered in the cobblestones squelched.

 

“Look Steve.” Bucky cut in front of him, blocking his way. “I’m trying to apologize, all right? You were right, and I was an asshole.”

 

“No shit,” Steve grumbled.

 

“Well at least your mouth’s still fine,” Bucky muttered.

 

“Apology accepted. Now get out of my way.” Steve tried to push past him, but Bucky was nearly twice his weight, and as immovable as a mountain.

 

“And if you’re going to keep travelling on your own, there’re some things you’re going to need, aside from what you’ve already got.” Bucky jerked his chin at Steve’s bag. “Let me help make sure you’ve at least got the basics.”

 

Steve peered up at him, unable to ascertain any motivation from Bucky’s face. Steve couldn’t understand him; he was brutal, violent, and efficient at killing. But also in turns gentle, quiet and compassionate when the mood seemed to suit him. It made no sense, and Steve was more confused by him than he’d ever been.

 

“Why?” he finally asked, when staring at Bucky’s face gave him no answers.

 

“Because you’re not the only one who’s had to start out with next to nothing,” Bucky admitted. “And I made plenty of my own mistakes until I learned better. Let me keep you from making the same ones. The Five might not thank me for it, but kindness is a rare coin, and one few of us have an abundance of.”

 

If what Bucky was saying was true, Steve had nothing to lose. He already had little enough, and experience shared also had worth. And Steve had to admit he’d been barely scraping by so far. It couldn’t hurt to accept anything Bucky was willing to share.

 

“You promise not to touch my things again?” Steve asked him with a squint. For some reason the question made Bucky smile, his real one, the one Steve had only seen him turn toward Daturia so far.

 

“You have my Oath,” he swore with a solemn nod of his head, but the smile remained in his eyes.

 

“Fine,” Steve sighed, wondering if he would end up regretting this. Knowing his luck so far, he probably would.

 

“Right then,” Bucky said, clapping a hand to Steve’s shoulder, glancing up toward the sky. While still firm, this time the touch was companionable. “It’s a bit late, but the markets should still be open. If we hurry, we’ll have enough time to get you kitted out.”

 

Two hours later Steve was sitting on the bed in a small attic room, slowly cataloguing all the things Bucky said he’d need if he was going to survive a week. Since Steve had already managed over three months on his own, he thought Bucky’s comment a bit unjust, yet as he slowly ran his hands over each and every item, they certainly appeared useful. More importantly, they were now his, even if he didn’t understand why all of them were necessary.

 

In a relatively short amount of time, Bucky had managed to procure a bedroll, small set of collapsible pans, a narrow carrying case filled with eating utensils, two water canteens, two flintstones, a traveler’s kit filled with vials of salves, medicines and bandages, an oilskin, (Bucky informed him could be used as a tarp if he was ever caught out in the rain), along with a poncho made of the same material to help keep Steve’s clothes dry, as well as three light-sticks, that were supposedly waterproof, a tiny compass, comb and shaving mirror, fishing twine and a hook, and a small, palm-sized foldable blade Bucky informed him would be particular useful if Steve ever found himself in crowded sleeping quarters, tucked into the small belt Steve could wear under his clothes, with hidden pockets designed to conceal any coin he was carrying. That did not include the two extra sets of clothes, four pairs of socks and several undergarments, leather gloves, a quilted jacket, and knit cap. Then there were the set of boots with heavy laces, that would reach mid-calf, made of durable leather and a much thicker sole than the threadbare shoes Steve currently possessed. Bucky had also gone so far as to purchase several packets of dried meat and hard cheese, and a small jar of honey.

 

It was a lot, more than Steve had previously owned, but each item had been designed with a traveler in mind, and if folded and placed in his pack just so, or attached to one of the straps on its sides, easy enough to carry, with enough space left over for anything else Steve may have wanted to pick up along his way. Even more surprising, they didn’t add all that much more weight to his pack; heavier, yes, but still easy enough for him to carry. None of it was new, but all of it was in good condition. And watching Bucky obtain the items had been one of the most interesting things Steve had ever seen.

 

He moved through the market square with purpose and determination, some past experience or hidden insight telling him to avoid certain stalls, while drawing him to others. Even more fascinating, he could switch from being doubtful and scornful, to laid-back and charming within a blink, knowing when either a dubious eyebrow, or flirtatious smile would reduce the cost of whatever item he was interested in. He knew when to haggle over a price, or quickly snatch up an item he would later whisper to Steve was a bargain, until after one additional stop, to purchase one last item, before the closing bells rang through the square, Bucky led him away and back to the room where he had apparently been staying while in Elaris.

 

He was instructing Steve how to use that final purchase now, while he sat cross-legged on the bed, looking over Steve’s shoulder while he followed Bucky’s instructions to mend the tear in the strap of his pack Bucky had not failed to notice. Bucky’s stitches had been steady and even, and Steve’s much less so. But Steve had never been stupid, and after a few clumsy first attempts, under Bucky’s concise tutelage, the tear was mended, and the strap nearly good as new.

 

“Just like that,” Bucky approved. “That’s done it. Now tie it off like I showed you and cut the ends, and it’ll be as good as new.” Steve nodded, and did as he was told, before replacing the needle to its place in the sewing kit, and rolling it up so that everything was secure. He carefully tucked it back into his bag, and first listened and watched, and then tied his bag closed with the knot Bucky informed him would make it much more difficult for a pickpocket to undo without being noticed.

 

“And there you go,” Bucky said with a final nod. “It’s not much, but it’s a good start, and it’ll take care of the basics.” Steve had no idea how Bucky could say something like that, and so easily, when these things, these new additions to Steve’s collection would help to ensure Steve was both safe and secure. Bucky hadn’t even let Steve pay for it, using his own coin for every purchase, merely shrugging Steve off when he protested.

 

“I’m not doing it for you,” was all he would say with a shrug whenever Steve pressed, and left it at that.

 

Now as he rose from the bed with a stretch to pick at the remains of their evening meal, Steve found himself once again wondering about the man whose path he kept crossing. Aside from his name, Steve really didn’t know anything about him. Bucky was tall and broad-shouldered with a lean physique, so it was obvious he had no problems providing for himself. The skin on his face was clear, with no scars except for a small faded crescent on his forehead, so Steve assumed he hadn’t suffered from pox or any of the other illnesses that often left their mark. His fingers were long and slender, the nails neatly trimmed and clean, and his hair glossy and well kept. His clothes were far from the highest quality, but were well-made and neat, and after their sewing lesson, Steve assumed that was due to the care Bucky took.

 

But he was also a chameleon, very good at making himself unremarkable, until suddenly he wasn’t. Even Steve found himself forgetting that from time to time, as Bucky smiled, flirted and charmed his way through every situation he encountered. But this was the man who had emerged from the dark as if he had been born from the shadows, and ended the lives of four men so quickly there hadn’t been a single drop of blood on him when he was done. Dangerous, and Steve needed to remember that, so that he never found himself at the end of Bucky’s blade. He would not be the one walking away, if it ever came to that.

 

Yet in spite of all that, somehow, Steve was once again in his debt.

 

“Thank you,” Steve found himself saying as he wrapped his arms around his pack. The new heft of it was a surprisingly satisfying sensation against his thighs.

 

“Don’t worry about it, Steve,” Bucky waved him off, popping a last piece of bread into his mouth. Steve used his distraction to take in the room Bucky had led them to for the first time. It wasn’t much, but it was clean, with a bed in one corner and a small chest of drawers in another, upon which rested a washbasin. At the foot of the bed was a low trunk, where a compact brazier provided enough warmth to keep the evening chill at bay. Aside from the small window in the upper corner and the slanting ceiling there was nothing else of note. But it was comfortable, close to the city center, but far enough away to be quiet enough for an undisturbed night of sleep.

 

“Where are we?” Steve asked, once he had completed his study.

 

“A room,” was Bucky’s answer.

 

“I know that.” It was Steve’s turn to roll his eyes. “But how did you even find this place?”

 

“It belongs to a friend of mine,” Bucky said around another mouthful of bread. “He lets me stay here whenever I’m in Elaris.”

 

“Huh.” Steve took another look around, noticing that aside from his presence and the plate of food on the chest of drawers, there were no other signs the room was occupied, not even a stray hair tie. It was yet another detail about Bucky to add to his small but growing list of them. “Are you staying here long?”

 

“Nope,” Bucky shook his head. “I’ve managed to take care of my business sooner than expected, so I’ll be leaving tomorrow.”

 

“Where are you going then? Back home?”

 

“Why are you asking?” Bucky countered, looking up from the plate.

 

“Just curious,” Steve shrugged. “It’s not a crime.”

 

“In some places it can be,” Bucky told him. His posture remained loose enough, but there was a warning in his voice.

 

“Pssh,” Steve waved it off. Verbal sparring he could do; all day in fact. All someone needed to do was ask Sam and he would gladly let them know. “How am I supposed to learn things if I don’t ask?”

 

“By being quiet and keeping out of trouble would be a good start.”

 

“Yes well, I’m not in trouble now, am I?” Steve argued.

 

“Sure of that, are you?”

 

“Please. You bought me socks. If you were going to do anything, you wouldn’t have gotten me socks.”

 

“Oh is that the rule then, is it? Socks mean you’re safe?”

 

“If it’s not, it should be,” Steve decided with a nod.

 

“The Five save me from the stupid.” Bucky collapsed back onto the bed with a groan, dragging his hands over his face.

 

“They’re very nice socks too,” Steve continued. “Very fuzzy and soft. I like the stripes.”

 

“Will you please stop?”

 

“They feel like wool, except wool can be itchy. They didn’t feel itchy when I tried them on.”

 

“Do you ever shut up?”

 

“Nope,” Steve admitted cheerfully.

 

“And I suddenly have a much better understanding of why Logan wanted you out of his inn.”

 

“I really like the hat too. It matches the socks. Do your socks match your hat?”

 

“What in the hells is wrong with you?”

 

“What?” Steve shrugged again. “I’m just curious, like I said.”

 

“You’re definitely something.”

 

“I can do this all day you know.”

 

“But why would you want to?”

 

“Because it’s fun.”

 

“I think I liked you better when you were snoring.”

 

“I do not snore!”

 

“Uh-huh. You just keep telling yourself that Steve.”

 

“Well, if that’s true, even though we both know it’s not, but if it was, at least better out that end than the other.” Bucky was about to discover Steve really could do this all day. And apparently Bucky had even less tolerance for it than Sam. He rose up onto his elbows and glared at Steve. However, Steve wasn’t done, far from it in fact. “I mean, I could give it a try if you wanted proof.”

 

But then Bucky fell back on the bed and, to both Steve’s shock and delight, actually laughed. It was a gift, that sound, another one Bucky had given to Steve. He would cradle it in his hands just as carefully as he had cradled the cup, keeping its memory just as safe.

 

“You really are something else, Steve.”

 

“That’s what everyone back home always said,” Steve grinned.

 

“Among many other things, I’m sure.” Bucky said with another chuckle, as he blinked up at the ceiling. “And I’m heading to Zaldura after this.” He paused, as if shocked by the admission, but then seemed to shake himself out of it.

 

“Zaldura? The city of the lakes?” Steve asked, suddenly breathless. A huge city built on a bay between two massive lakes, Zaldura was supposedly a center of trade, politics and scholarship, known even among his own. He had heard it was a colorful and fascinating place, where people from all corners of the world lived and worked side by side in peace. “I’ve never been to Zaldura.”

 

“You’d never been to Elaris before three days ago either,” Bucky reminded him.

 

“Yes, but,” Steve waved the comment off. “Zaldura.” Steve tried smiling his most charming smile, remembering the way Natasha always tilted her head just so when there was something she wanted. Apparently, his smile was a lot less effective because Bucky merely stared back at him blankly.

 

“Did you swallow a bug, Steve?” he asked when he did finally speak.

 

“No, I didn’t swallow a bug.” He was definitely going to have to practice in a mirror when he got a chance. No one ever asked Natasha if she had swallowed a bug when she smiled at someone.

 

“Then what’s with that look on your face?”

 

“I do not have a look on my face!” Steve argued.

 

“Are you sure about that? Because that definitely looks like a look.”

 

“It’s not a look!” Steve insisted. “It’s me thinking about going to Zaldura.”

 

“No one’s stopping you.”

 

“With you –“

 

“No.” Bucky’s voice was as cold as a winter storm, as flat as a desert plane.

 

“Why not?” Steve wanted to know.

 

“Because I said so.”

 

“That’s not a reason,” Steve insisted.

 

“But it’s the only one you’re going to get.”

 

“But why?” Steve demanded. “You’re going to Zaldura, and I want to go there. Weren’t you the one who said two can travel together just as easily as one? I don’t see what the problem is.”

 

“The problem is there are things I need to do, and I can’t be wasting all my time keeping your ass out of trouble.” 

 

“Oh please,” Steve waved him off again. “Both of those times were not my fault and you know it.”

 

“And yet you somehow manage to attract more trouble than cheese attracts mice.”

 

“What exactly is it that you do anyway? You never said.” It was time to engage Annoy Sam Tactics once more.

 

“No, I didn’t.” Except it seemed as if this time, Steve’s strategy wasn’t going to work. Throughout the entire exchange, Bucky’s tone remained the same, now accompanied by a gaze that was just as flat.

 

“Well, now’s your chance,” Steve decided to press.

 

“You need to be very careful of the questions you ask, Steve. Especially of strangers. You might not always get an answer, but you will get a response. And probably one you won’t like.” And this room, that up until then had been cozy and safe, now felt as if it was filled with millions of shadows. Just like the night when they had first met. Steve found himself trying not to succumb to the shivers dancing up his spine, and forced himself to swallow.

 

“I was just curious,” he murmured, looking away. “And we’re not strangers. Not really, not anymore.”

 

“But we don’t know each other very well either, do we?” The question felt like the tip of a blade pressed to Steve’s carotid. And Steve knew, had seen for himself, just how sharp Bucky’s blades were.

 

“No, I suppose not,” Steve shook his head, clenching his pack tighter against his chest. The silence hung between them like the pause between heartbeats, the weighted instant before a spark caught and flames burst forth. Steve thought it would have lasted a millennia, until Bucky finally sighed, breaking the spell.

 

“You need to be more careful Steve,” he said from his sprawl on the bed, loose and easy as if their previous exchange hadn’t happened.

 

"Sorry,” Steve mumbled with a shrug, the gesture small, just like everything else about him. Bucky sighed again, his turn to shake his head.

 

“And I’m a courier, if you must know,” he said.

 

“A courier?” Steve repeated.

 

“Mm-hmm,” Bucky hummed. “I deliver the right things to the right people in a very short amount of time.”

 

“And you can make a living doing that?” Steve asked, back to being fascinated instead of fearful.

 

“I’m very good at what I do.”

 

“You must have travelled a lot then,” Steve continued. “All over the Six.”

 

“I’ve been around.”

 

“Even Zaldura,” Steve decided to press.

 

“No Steve.”

 

“But –“

 

“No.”

 

“I just –“

 

“Look,” Bucky began, sitting up. “I am not taking you to Zaldura with me. I need to get there as soon as possible, and I can’t waste all of my time making sure you stay out of trouble.”

 

“I wouldn’t Bucky, I swear –“

 

“What I will do is make sure you get some breakfast, and then introduce you to someone who can see about getting you some work.”

 

“But –“

 

“Take it. That’s all you’re going to get.”

 

***

 

Except the next morning, after a night where Bucky refused to take Steve with him to Zaldura, no matter how hard Steve pressed, cajoled and reasoned, Bucky changed his mind.

 

There must have been something in the air, because as Steve sat wiping up the last of the egg yolk from his plate with his final piece of toasted onion bread, he began to notice a tension in the other patrons of the small café Bucky had brought him to. It travelled in a wave of whispers, always followed by a startled gasp or look of doubt, that passed from one person to another like a secret that was no longer so secret. Steve turned to look for Bucky, who had risen to settle the bill, only to find him engaged in a quiet conversation of his own with a tall, thin man, with prominent ears and a neatly trimmed mustache. Bucky’s expression mirrored those of everyone else, before the man nodded, and with a quick clap to Bucky’s shoulder, stepped away.

 

“Right, change of plans. We need to go,” Bucky said as he made his way back to the table, his stride purposeful.

 

“What? Now?”

 

“Yes, now. C’mon, grab your things, we need to get out of here,” Bucky insisted.

 

“Why?” But Steve had already risen from the table, swinging his pack over his shoulders, following Bucky outside.

 

“I don’t know, but something happened last night, something big, and my friend just told me the High Guard are planning to close the city gates. We need to get out of Elaris before they do, or we’ll be stuck here for who knows how long.” Bucky had his own bag over his shoulder, and was somehow managing to cut through the crowds like a minnow through a current. But he seemed to know where he was going, and all Steve could do was follow in his wake.

 

“What about Daturia?” Steve asked as he stumbled after him. The extra weight of his pack wasn’t much, but it was going to take some getting used to.

 

“She’ll be fine.” Bucky didn’t even bother to glance over his shoulder. “Now be quiet and follow me. Keep your head down, and by The Five, do not get yourself in the middle of anymore trouble. I will leave your ass in the street if you do.”

 

But in spite of how quickly Bucky made his way through Elaris, cutting down side streets and alleyways, once they reached the gates it became apparent he wasn’t the only one attempting to leave the city. A crowd had already gathered, growing more and more restless which each passing moment. It was a mixed group, some travelling on foot, and some on horses. There were tradesmen’s wagons, and even a few carriages whose fancy gilding and insignias told Steve that whatever had happened, it was bad enough that even the wealthy had decided to leave their homes. It was as Steve stood waiting next to Bucky, directly behind one such carriage, that he began to overhear snippets of conversation that gave him a hint as to what had happened.

 

“…right in his own bed.”

 

“Supposed to be safe…”

 

“If they can’t keep him safe, how can we expect them to keep anyone else?”

 

“Murdered…”

 

“High Chancellor Zola…”

 

“Musta had enemies though…”

 

“Who? Everybody liked him…”

 

“…Not the only one.”

 

“My cousin-in-law…three…”

 

Steve was about to ask Bucky three what?, only to find him scratching his nose, when there was a commotion ahead of them in the line, and when Steve looked, one of the horses pulling the carriage in front of them was rearing, angrily thrashing his hooves. The driver started cursing, and most of the Guard gathered round the carriage in an attempt to prevent the stallion from bolting. It created a small break in the crowd, which Bucky pulled him through without a word, until they were face to face with one of only three guards left minding the gateway.

 

“Hey Jackie, you stuck on duty today?” Bucky reached out to clasp the other man’s forearm as if they were old friends.

 

“I should’ve just stayed in bed,” Jackie exhaled.

 

“I’m sure Melissa would have loved that,” Bucky grinned. “How’s she doing by the way?”

 

“I dunno. I haven’t seen her for more than two hours in three days. And she’s usually snoring by the time I get home.”

 

“Yeah, this one’s exactly the same,” Bucky nodded toward Steve, draping the arm Jackie had just released over his shoulder.

 

“I do not snore!” Steve immediately protested.

 

“Why do they always say that?” Jackie cast his eyes towards the sky with a sigh.

 

“At least it keeps the bears away, right?” Bucky laughed.

 

“There is that,” Jackie conceded, looking back at Bucky. “Anyway, leaving already?”

 

“Yeah,” Bucky nodded. “With what’s happened, figured it was better to get out of here now  before it gets any worse.”

 

“Smart of you. It’s going to be a fucking mess.” Then Jackie stepped back, and with a nod toward the other two guards, waved them through. “Take care of yourself, James.”

 

“Always do,” Bucky grinned. “Give your beautiful wife a goodbye kiss for me.”

 

“Give her one yourself,” Jackie yelled after him.

 

“If she didn’t snore so loud I would!” Bucky called back, and with his arm still draped over Steve’s shoulder, led them out through the city’s gates, and onto the road, Jackie’s laugher echoing behind them.

 

And just like that, in under half an hour, they were out of Elaris. Steve was astounded by how easy it had been, how carelessly Bucky managed it, because when he glanced over his shoulder, he could see that as of yet, the carriage carrying the nobles had not made it through. Bucky was either blessed, or very, very lucky.

 

“Head down, and keep walking,” Bucky muttered out of the corner of his mouth, the tightening of his arm over Steve’s shoulder a reminder to keep his eyes on the road. “Don’t call any attention to yourself.”

 

“What was that all about?” Steve asked, just as the clang of the gate’s lowering echoed through the air. When Steve looked back, he saw only a few more people had made it through.

 

“Dunno,” Bucky shrugged, his pace never altering as he led them along the roadway. “Don’t care. It’s not our problem.”

 

“I heard them saying someone was murdered.”

 

“Probably some nobleman got caught sticking his dick into someone else’s husband or wife.”

 

“Really?” Steve asked. The thought was unfathomable to him. Everyone knew if you promised yourself to someone, the bond was unbreakable. That was why it happened so rarely among his own. Sam had Riley, and Natasha had Clint. They had somehow both been very, very lucky. But it had been a risk, and so much could have gone wrong. Very few from his homeland were willing to take that chance. “Huh.”

 

“Yeah well, like I said, it’s not our problem,” was the last Bucky had to say on the matter as they reached the first curve in the road, dropping his arm from Steve’s shoulder. “Now come on, we need to hurry.”

 

Bucky maintained his brisk stride for another mile and a half, past several twists and turns in the road, until they reached a small fork-way, that Bucky cut down, whistling as he went, until they were face to face with yet another man, who appeared out of nowhere.

 

“So you did manage to get your ass out of there in time,” he smirked. He was a tall man, almost as tall as Bucky, handsome of face and dark skinned, with close cropped hair.

 

“Yeah well, Jackie was manning the gate. He waved me through.” As he spoke, Bucky reached out and clasped the man in a loose, one-armed embrace. The man returned it with several slaps to Bucky’s shoulder before they parted.

 

“The luck you have, James,” he laughed, before turning his attention to Steve. “And who’s this?”

 

“Trouble,” was Bucky’s answer.

 

“Hey!”

 

“Don’t you got enough of that already in your life?”

 

“You know how it goes Gabe. The Five can be kind but they always demand their price,” Bucky said with an easy familiarity.

 

“You and your Five,” Gabe rolled his eyes.

 

“Better than those Sisters of yours,” Bucky teased.

 

“Well James, sometimes less really is more.”

 

“I bet that’s what you say to all the women you try to sleep with.”

 

“You would know, wouldn’t you?” Gabe countered.

 

“Anyway, this one’s temporary,” Bucky tilted his head in Steve’s direction.

 

Hey!” Steve felt it necessary to object.

 

“That’s what you always say.” Gabe was back to smirking.

 

“Doesn’t make it any less true. Now how’s my lady? Did she give you any trouble?” Bucky asked, trailing Gabe as he turned and began to walk even farther down the road until they reached a small bend, concealed by several tall trees. Beneath the shade they cast was a sturdy looking covered wagon, hitched to two horses. And carefully tied to its left side stood Daturia.

 

“Fussy as she always is when it’s anyone but you.” Bucky ignored Gabe’s response, smiling brightly as he approached his horse, his hand already reaching for her, Daturia neighing happily in response.

 

“There you are, my darling,” Bucky practically purred, running his hand over her mane while Daturia nudged her muzzle into his shoulder. “Did you miss me?”

 

“You and that horse,” Gabe muttered from where he climbed into the back of the wagon.

 

“Don’t be jealous Gabe, it doesn’t suit you,” Bucky said as he began to untie Daturia’s lead.

 

“Just because Daturia’s the only woman that’ll let you ride her doesn’t mean I’m jealous.” It was obvious Gabe was digging around for something, with how his words were muffled.

 

“Once you find the right one, you don’t need to ride anyone else,” Bucky shot back, while giving Daturia a careful once over.

 

“Oh come on now James, everyone knows variety’s the spice of life,” Gabe repeated, jumping down from the wagon, with Bucky’s tack and bags in his arms.

 

“Did they give you any trouble at the gate?” Bucky ignored the comment, his voice back to being serious as he took his possessions from Gabe.

 

Gabe shook his head. “I got there early enough, it wasn’t too bad. Jackie saw me, he waved me through.”

 

“Gonna have any trouble going back?” Bucky asked, attaching his bags to Daturia’s saddle.

 

“Nah,” Gabe waved off Bucky’s concern. “I’m doing a run to Birmingdale. That’ll take me at least a week. By the time I get back, the gates should be open again.”

 

“Thanks for this. I owe you one,” Bucky said solemnly.

 

“James, everything you’ve done for me and mine, you never have to ask.” Gabe’s voice was just as serious as Bucky’s.

 

“Still…”

 

“Still nothing,” Gabe insisted. It was his turn to reach out, yet instead of spreading his arms for an embrace, he cupped Bucky’s cheeks in his own and brought their foreheads together. “The Sisters watch over you and keep you safe, James.” He pressed a kiss of kinship and brotherhood to Bucky’s forehead.

 

“May The Five always look kindly on you and yours, Gabe,” Bucky returned, and then gave Gabe’s forehead a kiss of his own.

 

It was such a strange exchange to witness, and Steve was once again captivated. This was yet another side to Bucky, another skin he had wrapped himself in. Or perhaps…perhaps, it was the first time Steve was seeing Bucky without any of his masks or shadows, the truth of him when he was in the presence of someone he loved. He found himself again yearning for both Sam and Natasha. Although theirs was a different dynamic, it ran as deep and as true as the one obviously shared between Bucky and Gabe. Steve would need to treat this with care, preserve the memory as best he could, because it was a rarity, and rare things were always precious.

 

But then the moment passed, the two stepping apart, smiles on both their faces. Nothing more needed to be said between them, it seemed, and after giving Steve a curt nod, Gabe climbed into the front of his wagon, settled himself, and with a gentle flick of the reins, rode away.

 

“Right then,” Bucky nodded, once the sound of Gabe’s horses’ hooves faded in the distance. “That’s that. Now come on, we wasted enough time. We need to be getting on our way.”

 

“To Zaldura?” Steve asked, watching as Bucky double-checked the straps of Daturia’s saddle.

 

I’m going to Zaldura,” Bucky reiterated. “You’re going to the first place that doesn’t have a cliff you can somehow fall off of.”

 

“But Bucky,” Steve whined.

 

“No Steve,” Bucky insisted. “There are things I need to do and places I need to be. I can’t be wasting anymore time because you saw a bunny, and decided you wanted to chase it into a dragon’s cave.”

 

That comment brought Steve up short. “Why would a bunny go into a dragon’s cave? That’s just stupid.”

 

“My point exactly.”

 

“How would the bunny even find the cave? I mean,” Steve paused to hitch his pack higher on his shoulders, “everyone knows that dragons don’t even exist anymore.”

 

“And yet here you are, probably planning to follow every rabbit we come across just to see if it’s true.”

 

“I am not!”

 

“Uh-huh.” And oh hello, there were Bucky’s two favorite words again. Steve couldn’t say that he’d missed them.

 

“It’s just…how would the bunny even know?”

 

“And this is why I’m not taking you with me to Zaldura,” Bucky said from where he had knelt down to inspect Daturia’s hooves.

 

“But –“

 

“But nothing.” Bucky had moved from one hoof to the next. “I’m on a schedule, and I need to make several stops before I get to Zaldura. That’ll take me enough time. I’ve already wasted enough -”

 

“But Bucky –“

 

“I don’t need to be wasting anymore.”

 

“I won’t slow you down, I swear it!” Steve protested.

 

“No, you won’t. Because I’m dropping you off at the first township we reach, and you can be their problem.”

 

Yeah, they’d see about that.

 

But once Bucky was satisfied with the condition of both Daturia and his pack, his bow and quiver hanging comfortably over his shoulders, right before they set off on the road, Steve could have sworn he heard Bucky say, softly, quietly, under his breath so it was obvious he hadn’t meant to be heard, “And I wouldn’t be so sure about the dragons.”

Chapter Text

Dear Becca,

 

It’s been way too long, but it’s been a crazy couple of weeks. I must have pissed on a grave or something, because The Five sure as shit seem to enjoy fucking with me, because you would not believe what I’ve had to put up with.

 

But aside from that, things aren’t going too bad. In spite of a bit of trouble, I’ve had a couple lucky breaks lately, thank The Five. And it shouldn’t be that much longer before I come home.

 

Speaking of, I need you to thank Ma and Da for me. I didn’t realize it at first, but they did real well by us, taught us a lot. I didn’t know that when I left home, and we both know I’ve made lots of mistakes since, but they taught us how not to be stupid. Or at least too stupid. You need to give them both a kiss from me, and tell them that. Because I swear Becs, there are some parents that send their children out into the world even stupider than the day they were born.

 

***

 

In spite of how annoyed Steve’s presence made him, and the fact that he grumbled about it constantly, Steve found travelling with Bucky a relatively enjoyable affair. It was certainly much easier than his previous travels, and while mercurial, Bucky was for the most part a pleasant companion.

 

Or at least he was for the first day and a half of their journey, until they paused for a short break to relieve themselves, and Bucky almost tore Steve’s hand off when he saw which leaves he was reaching for to clean himself once he was done.

 

What in the hells are you doing?” he almost screeched, his fingers tight around Steve’s wrist. It was the loudest Steve had ever heard him.

 

“I’m getting some leaves, for…you know…after,” Steve tried to explain, confused by the look of incredulity on Bucky’s face.

 

“And you decided Witch’s Teeth is what you were going to use?” Bucky gaped at him.

 

“What witch?” Steve asked, looking around. He had never met a witch before.

 

“The Five save me from the stupid,” Bucky groaned. “Not a witch, Witch’s Teeth.” He gestured toward the leaves Steve had been reaching for with his chin.

 

“I don’t know what that is,” Steve admitted.

 

“Don’t know what…” Bucky trailed off with an exasperated sigh and shake of his head. “Were you born in a chicken coop? No, obviously not, because the chickens would have killed you as soon as you said your first word.” He shook his head again, in an obvious attempt to regain his composure and looked back at Steve.

 

“Witch’s Teeth,” he began to explain. “Looks harmless enough, but if any part of it touches any of your skin, within a minute you’ll break out into a rash.”

 

“Oh,” Steve said, suddenly understanding Bucky’s actions a lot more.

 

“Five minutes after that, the itching starts,” Bucky went on.

 

“Oh.”

 

“Two hours after that, the blisters form.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“Painful ones, that burn.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“It’s not fatal, but there’s no cure that works. You just have to ride it out.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“For three weeks.”

 

“Ooooooh.” Steve carefully began to pull his hand back, thankful Bucky allowed it.

 

“Yeah, oh. It’s pretty common around these parts, and one of the first things parents usually teach their children to look out for.”

 

“I didn’t know.”

 

“Obviously.” Bucky squinted at him, releasing Steve’s wrist. “How did you not know this Steve?”

 

“I’m not from around here,” Steve shrugged, suddenly wanting to be anywhere but on the opposite end of Bucky’s gimlet stare.

 

“Obviously,” Bucky repeated. “Where did you say you were from again?”

 

“I didn’t,” Steve looked away. Bucky hummed, quiet and thoughtful.

 

“And just where are you from Steve, that you don’t know what Witch’s Teeth is?” Steve knew Bucky was still staring at him, could feel his eyes boring into the back of his neck. He also knew Bucky would sit there, as patient and still as a cat, until Steve gave him an answer.

 

“North,” where the winds are strong and clean, and the Stars burn bright. But Steve would never say the second part aloud. Bucky wasn’t the only one with secrets; there were reasons why everyone from Steve’s home kept theirs, important ones, and Steve would not be the one to break the covenant.

 

“From Aeriella?” Bucky asked.

 

“No,” Steve shook his head. “Even farther.”

 

“There’s not much past Queen Carol’s kingdom. Just some cliffs, and then the Forbidden Seas from what I’ve heard. Must be a hard life,” Bucky pressed.

 

“We manage,” Steve mumbled, and then decided it was time to change tactics. “What about you? Where are you from?”

 

“Someplace that knows what Witch’s Teeth is,” Bucky said.

 

“Yeah? And where’s that?” Steve turned, using his own natural curiosity to shape his expression.

 

“South,” was Bucky’s response.

 

“Where?” Steve wanted to know. He had never encountered anyone from the South before, and it would explain Bucky’s accent. Except, as he stood there next to the apparently very sharp Witch’s Teeth, Steve realized Bucky’s accent changed, an exact match of whoever it was he was speaking to. It was so subtle, so naturally done, Steve hadn’t noticed it until this very moment. He wondered if anyone else ever spent long enough in Bucky’s company to do the same.

 

“You wouldn’t have heard of it.” It was Bucky’s turn to shrug. “Small place, on the southernmost edge of the Six. Not even on any map.”

 

“Me too,” Steve said, instead of pressing for more. Something, some old instinct buried deep within, told him any further questions would not be welcome. “Where I’m from,” Steve continued when Bucky looked back at him. “It’s not on any map.”

 

“And apparently they don’t know what Witch’s Teeth is either,” Bucky sighed, and then seemed to shake himself out of it. “But we need to get back on the road. So instead of setting your own ass on fire, use these.” Bucky reached over and grabbed a handful of leaves that didn’t appear all that much different from the Witch’s Teeth. “And be quick about it. We haven’t got all day.”

 

After that, something in Bucky seemed to change. He still tended to roll his eyes whenever he witnessed Steve attempting to do something he obviously shouldn’t, muttering to his Five, but he also began to explain things when he realized Steve’s actions were caused not by stupidity, but a lack of experience and knowledge.

 

To Steve’s delight, and surprise, he was a very good teacher. Concise and patient, as long as Steve didn’t venture into personal territory, he was willing to answer any questions Steve had. It wouldn’t be much as they didn’t have a lot time; it was only be four days until they reached Bucky’s next destination, a small trading hamlet on the outskirts of the Kingdom of Helia, but it would have to do, and hopefully keep Steve from making the mistakes even a beginner should know how to avoid.

 

So Bucky pointed out various plants and leaves, letting him know which ones were edible or otherwise useful, and for what, and which were poisonous and needed to be avoided. When they came across a river or creek, Bucky taught him how to tell if the water was clean, and when it wasn’t, how to boil it so it would be drinkable. When they made camp at night, Bucky showed him exactly what he was doing, explaining why, and before they set off the next day instructed Steve to break everything down, and then clean up, so not a single trace of their presence was left behind. During their third night on the road, when there had been a light rain, Bucky went so far as to demonstrate how to use the tarp he had purchased for Steve, using several branches to create a small tent easily big enough for someone of Steve’s size, so his sleep was warm and dry. The following morning, he even attempted to show Steve how to use the hook and line he now possessed, in order to catch a fish for breakfast. Steve’s attempts had been disastrous, scaring all the fish away, according to Bucky’s grumble. But Bucky did assure him, albeit begrudgingly, that it would come with practice, before he shooed Steve away, ordering him to go back to their camp and prove he hadn’t wasted his coin or his time, by building a small cooking fire with the flintstones Steve now carried.

 

Steve, grateful for the knowledge Bucky had been kind enough to share, decided to be gracious enough to allow Bucky to cling to that belief, even if he failed to suppress his grin when Bucky returned to their camp, carrying three mid-sized fish, and paused, looking startled at the compact but well burning fire Steve had started.

 

“Nicely done,” he admitted after a bemused blink.

 

“Thanks.” Steve couldn’t help his smirk. Fire, he could do.

 

“At least something’s finally managed to stick in that thick head of yours,” Bucky continued as he approached the fire.

 

“Hey!”

 

“Now go grab one of those pots from your bag, the flat one,” Bucky said. “And your dagger. I’m going to show you how to gut a fish.” Steve was suddenly a lot less grateful.

 

But only for a little while, especially once the fish had been cooked, and his belly was filled with a very satisfying breakfast.

 

Mostly though, Steve was thankful for the lessons. He wasn’t stupid; these were just things he hadn’t known, or that anyone had thought to tell him before he set off. His mind was sharp, and his memory eidetic, so Bucky only had name something once, pointing it out, and Steve would have it committed to memory. It was the same whenever he demonstrated something. Aside from the fishing, it usually only took Steve one or two attempts before his hands could mimic what Bucky had just done, another addition to Steve’s quickly growing repertoire. Bucky had looked a bit puzzled the first time Steve had broken down their camp without forgetting anything, and Steve could have sworn he’d heard him utter something about parents underneath his breath. Or maybe it was The Five, who knew; Bucky tended to grumble a lot. So much so Steve started to shrug it off, and simply accepted it as part of Bucky’s nature.

 

But there was even more to it than that. Bucky didn’t just teach him how to break down a camp, which mushrooms were edible and which were hallucinogenic, or which grasses were strong enough to be used as a temporary tie should one of Steve’s break. Once he realized Steve really was a stranger to these lands, after another pointed look, he began to explain the politics of the Six, and the dynamics of each of the nations within.

 

“Six countries, each a sovereign state, sharing a border with at least two of the others,” Bucky began Steve’s first lesson on the second night, sitting around their campfire, and using a stick to sketch out a rough map in the dirt. “Aeriella, ruled by Queen Carol and her High Lady Consort Maria in the North. Shares their western border with Helia, governed by a Council of Seven, led by Prime Minister Hill. To their west lies Wakanda, the richest and largest of the Six. They’re the most self-contained and protective of their borders, but that’s started to change since King T’Challa inherited the throne. Queen Nakia is supposedly the most beautiful woman in all the Six, cunning and sharp, and Princess Shuri is one of the most brilliant minds the lands have seen in centuries. Next to that lies Ultrona, a supposedly peaceful country with the strictest of laws, whose guard cover themselves in metal, and follow the rulings of their Eminent Overlord with a nearly insane devotion. Next to them is Jarvia, whose wealth mostly comes from their jewel mines. A meditative people, they call their leader the Visionary, and I’ve heard tell he’s both logical and fair. Finally, to the North and East lies Amerand, the most militaristic of the Six, even more so than Ultrona. It’s a harsh, mountainous country, with lots cliffs and little to offer in trade. Their leader, the Supreme General Ross, is supposedly an elected official, but no one can remember the last time an election was held. It shares its eastern border with Aeriella, and their relationship is tenuous at the best of times, depending on what mood Ross is in on any given day.”

 

“But there’s peace now, isn’t there, throughout the Six?” Steve asked, staring down at the circular conglomeration of countries Bucky had drawn. In spite of how detailed Bucky attempted to be, to Steve it looked like a lumpy pie, with six uneven slices.

 

“Not until fifteen years ago,” Bucky said. “That’s when Queen Carol came to power, and began to urge for peace. Helia and Jarvia were quick to agree, and decided to open negotiations. They invited King T’Challa, and to everyone’s surprise he showed up. Eventually, Ultrona agreed. And while he wasn’t happy about it, since his country is bordered by both Jarvia and Aeriella, General Ross agreed to sign the treaty.”

 

“And it’s been better ever since?”

 

“The first five years were really rough, with lots of border disputes and raiding parties. And there were plenty of factions who felt their power slipping away, and had to find other ways to maintain their control. Still are a few, although not as many as there once were. But then things started to improve. Better trade and infrastructure, aid when needed, and a feeling of peace instead of the constant threat of war. By and large, people are pretty happy with the way things are now, and supportive of the treaty.”

 

“Huh,” Steve murmured, focusing on the map, committing its details to memory.

 

“We’re currently in Helia, and Zaldura is here.” Bucky pointed to the shared border between Aeriella and Helia. “It’s a big city, safe and well-kept. They say Queen Carol and Prime Minister Hill are old friends, and they work hard to keep it that way. But every city has its underbelly, even the best ones, so anyone travelling there still needs to be careful.”

 

“You’ve been there before?”

 

“Several times,” Bucky nodded. “I’ve got a few old friends there I’m looking forward to seeing again.”

 

“And it’ll take us how long to get there?” Steve asked, certain his voice sounded innocent enough.

 

“It’ll take me about two and a half weeks.” Bucky wasn’t fooled. “It’ll take us about two more days to reach Tremondale. And that’ll be where we part ways.”

 

“But Bucky,” Steve had to try.

 

“It’s a small fishing village, but they can always use an extra set of hands. It should be easy enough for even you to find work there,” Bucky said over Steve’s objections.

 

“But –“

 

“I’m serious Steve.” Bucky leaned forward and used his hands to wipe away the hastily drawn map. “I can’t waste any more time. And I think even you have to admit, I’ve already done more than enough.”

 

“Yes, but –“

 

“No, Steve.”

 

“But –“

 

“No.”

 

Face to face with the inevitability of their separation, Steve was surprised to realize that two days suddenly didn’t seem like anywhere near long enough.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER NOTES - POSSIBLE TRIGGER WARNING

Please note, in this chapter there is an attempted sexual assault. It is not graphic, and it is thwarted, but as always, I wanted to give anyone reading this the option to make up their own mind as to whether or not they wanted to read it. PLEASE be safe. **hugs** 

 

 

Dear Becca,

 

Remember how Da used to say mold will stick to anything dark and damp enough, and once it does, good luck trying to get rid of the smell?

 

I wonder what that says about my soul. The Five must be punishing me. Either that or I sat in a swamp. Did you have any idea that mold could be blond? Neither did I. And no matter what I do, I can’t get it off my ass.

 

***

 

Two days later, Steve had to concede Sam was right when he said both the Sisters and the Stars always had a plan, and all you could do was rise to the need when summoned.

 

Steve just wished they were kinder about it. Or that their calls involved a lot less blood. He was really getting tired of bleeding.

 

And this time, it was most definitely not his fault.

 

They had arrived at Tremondale just as the sun was setting. As promised, it was a small fishing village, sitting on the cusp between a river and the forest. It wasn’t a bad place, Steve supposed, although it did smell like fish. But it would have to do, because Bucky was insistent on getting to Zaldura, but still refusing to allow Steve to accompany him. By the time they arrived, Bucky had even stopped responding to Steve every time he asked him why, and determinedly made his way to yet another tavern he was apparently familiar with, not bothering to glance back to see if Steve was following. At least it was on the side farthest from the river, even if it did still smell like fish. Once inside, Bucky ordered Steve to “Sit your ass down at that table and don’t move. Try not to get into any trouble while I’m gone. I’ll be right back.”

 

He returned in under five minutes, accompanied by a man he introduced as Davy, who was willing to hire Steve on as a dishwasher in exchange for a couple of coins a week as well as a pallet next to the ovens in the kitchen. Steve knew nothing about such arrangements, but Bucky assured him it was a fair trade, and that Davy would treat him kindly. Once they shook on it, Davy retreated back to the kitchens to get their meal, a goodbye dinner, Bucky gleefully informed him, that he was generously agreeing to pay for, before he went back to the road.

 

“You’re not even staying the night?” Steve asked, glaring at him over a well-seasoned but completely unappetizing piece of fish.

 

“Nope.” Steve thought Bucky’s response way too cheerful. “There are places I need to be, and I’ve already wasted enough time.”

 

“It wasn’t a waste,” Steve mumbled into his fish. “At least not for me.”

 

“I know.” This time Bucky’s voice was serious, kinder than it had been. “But our acquaintance always was going to be only temporary Steve, and this is where we part ways. Tremondale’s not a bad place, and Davy is a man of his word. He’ll do right by you while you figure out what you want to do next. Just remember everything I taught you, and by The Five, try to keep out of trouble.”

 

All Steve could do was nod sullenly at his food, before he remembered another lesson he had learned since he’d come to the Six, lifted his head and said, “Thank you.” Bucky tilted his own head in acknowledgement, and went back to eating.

 

That had been a little less than an hour ago, and contrary to his insistence he was in a hurry, Bucky hadn’t left yet. Once he finished his meal, he spent some time talking to several other patrons, and was now at the bar in a quiet conversation with a woman with a long braid of blonde hair hanging halfway down her back. Their last evening together, and Bucky couldn’t even be bothered to share it with him. It annoyed Steve, even if he couldn’t exactly pinpoint why, and he decided right then and there to put it out of his mind and focus on other things, just like Bucky had.

 

It was then Steve noticed that while his belly was full, so was his bladder. Rising from the table, he shouldered his bag, and made his way outside to where Davy told him the privy was. Once that task was complete, Steve was about to make his way back to the tavern, when a muffled sound and a flicker at the periphery of his vision made him pause in his steps and turn.

 

Not too far away in the distance, hidden beneath the shadows of the nearby trees, was a hint of movement. Steve would have brushed it off as an animal, if at that exact moment the Sisters hadn’t decided to slip past Their veil of clouds, so that the light They cast revealed two men in the dark, and between them a young girl, who was desperately trying to get away. There was a rustling of cloth, followed by a whimper, and then the sound of a hand striking flesh.

 

That was all Steve needed to hear before he was moving.

 

“Leave her alone!” he snarled, swinging his pack at the head of one man, and jumping onto the back of the second.

 

“What the?” the first man gasped, stumbling from the impact of Steve’s bag, while Steve used his fists to pound on the head of the second. Between them, the girl had fallen to the ground, staring up at the three of them in shock. She was panting, her face tear-stained, her cheek red and one of her sleeves torn.

 

“Go! Run! Get out of here! I’ll keep them away!” Steve told her as he delivered another punch. She didn’t need to be told twice, quickly scrambling to her feet and scampering off into the woods as quick as a rabbit. Steve hoped that when she reached her cave, there would be a dragon waiting for her.

 

But not for long. Because while he may have had the element of surprise, the two men were much bigger than Steve, and quickly able to regroup. Steve only got one more punch in before the first man tore him from the back of the second, and flung him against one of the trees, the impact jarring Steve’s spine and causing stars to bloom in his vision.

 

“What the fuck are you doing?” the first man growled, while the second straightened.

 

“What the fuck were you?” Steve snarled back.

 

“Nothing that’s any of your business, you little shit!” the second man cursed.

 

“When you try to hurt someone, it becomes my business!”

 

“Is that so?” the first man delivered, along with a kick to Steve’s ribs. “Well, since you decided to chase away our fun, maybe you should take her place. You’re pretty enough.”

 

“No tits though,” the second one observed, as if Steve were a cow at market they were considering purchasing.

 

“Don’t make no difference in the dark,” the first one said, with another kick, this time to Steve’s gut, that caused Steve to curl over himself, gasping for breath.

 

“True enough,” the second agreed, reaching out and grabbing a painful fistful of Steve’s hair. “Blond too. I like ‘em that way.”

 

“I leave you alone for five minutes and already you’ve gotten yourself in trouble.”

 

The voice came from nowhere and everywhere, a whisper in the dark that somehow still managed to echo in the night. It caught all of them by surprise, even Steve, and Steve wondered if he should be grateful for its source, or terrified for his own life.

 

Where the Sisters had lit Steve’s way, showing him what needed to be seen, the shadows They cast wrapped themselves around Bucky, keeping him hidden until he wanted to be seen.

 

“They were – they were trying to hurt a girl,” Steve managed to gasp, his hands around the wrist of the man still holding him nearly off the ground by his hair.

 

“Is that so?” Bucky’s figure emerged from the shadows, as if they had chosen just that moment to part for him, like the curtains of a stage. His footfalls made no sound as he approached, a perfect predator who had nothing to fear.

 

“What girl? I don’t see any girl. Do you see any girl?” the first man asked, suddenly all smiles and his hands held open in a gesture of peace.

 

“We was just taking a piss, minding our own business, when this one attacked us for no reason,” the second added.

 

“They’re lying! She was here, I saw her! I heard them hitting her!”

 

“If that were true, she would have screamed,” the first man shrugged, as if it were obvious.

 

“I didn’t hear anybody screaming, did you?” the second said, just as Bucky reached them. Strangely enough, his attention wasn’t on them, but focused on the ground near their feet. Something had caught Bucky’s attention, causing him to tilt his head, his face expressionless, before he took a step back, glancing from one man to the other.

 

“You need to let go of him,” was all Bucky said when he finally did speak.

 

“Aw come on, it was just a bit of fu-“

 

And then Bucky moved.

 

A blade made out of shadows, a fire that burned black, silent, swift and deadly, he was both ungraspable and inescapable. Neither man ever stood a chance.

 

They tried, for all of the five seconds it lasted. But before the first man even landed on the ground, choking in pain while cradling his balls, Bucky had a fistful of the second’s man hair, a brutal mockery of how he’d been holding Steve, using his grip to ram the man’s face into his already raised knee, the crack of bone followed by a burst of blood, crimson even in the dark.

 

And just like that, it was over, Bucky still on his feet, not even a hair out of place.

 

“Just a bit of fun, right?” Bucky wasn’t even panting, the only emotion he gave any hint of a bored disdain. “Do you still want to play?”

 

“Who – who the hell are you?” the first man gasped, tears now glistening on his cheeks, before he curled forward even further and vomited in pain. Steve was as sympathetic to them as they had been to the poor girl they had cornered.

 

“Don’t ask questions you don’t want answers to,” Bucky said quietly. “Now get out of here while you still can, before I decide to really have some fun.” This time when he spoke, he casually flipped the knife that had somehow appeared in his hand.

 

The men, while stupid, were no fools, and as best they could they rose to their feet on trembling legs and scurried away, crabs returning to the muck beneath the dark. Bucky stared after them, unmoving, until their pants and curses were nothing more than a distant memory, before he finally turned his attention toward Steve, his eyes glinting. Steve had no idea what thoughts were running through his head, and for a fleeting second he wondered if he’d be next.

 

“She was here Bucky, I swear it,” Steve swore, unable to straighten from the pain radiating from his core. “I went to take a piss, and when I came out, she was right here, and they were trying to force themselves on her. I couldn’t let them do that Bucky, I couldn’t.” Bucky had knelt while Steve spoke, his knife vanishing as quickly as it appeared.

 

“I know,” Bucky told him. When Steve was finally able to lift his head, Bucky was holding up his left hand, his first two fingers extended.

 

Between them was a small white button.

 

“Is she all right?”

 

“She got away,” Steve managed to gasp with a nod. “I think I stopped it before - before they really hurt her.”

 

“Even that’s too much,” Bucky said softly, sadly. “And what about you?”

 

“I’m just sorry I didn’t get here sooner,” Steve shook his head. “And I didn’t mean to cause you more trouble Bucky, but I couldn’t just let them…”

 

“You did the right thing Steve,” Bucky assured him. And for the first time, he smiled. It was small and considering, but it was there. “Could have probably been smarter about it, but needs must, and you did do the right thing.”

 

“Why would they do that to her?” Steve heard himself ask. The idea of it, just the very thought, left him shocked, stunned, cold in the marrow of his bones.

 

He knew what rape was; it was the one of the things everyone made sure he was aware of before he’d left on his journey. He’d heard their words and their warnings, but he hadn’t understood, not really, until just this very moment. It was such a foreign concept to him, to all his own. Why take something that could be so happily given, and was all the more precious as a result? Sex was a common thing in his home, easy enough to obtain if you wanted it, an exchange happily shared, especially for those like him. All one had to do was express interest, and either find someone else when declined, always good naturedly, until you found someone willing. Then there was a discussion, sometimes brief, sometimes much more intricate, where desires, interests and boundaries were discussed. If everyone was in agreement, then the next few hours, days or even weeks were spent in a lovely exchange of shared kisses, sighs and the joys of skin against skin. Steve had had plenty of lovers in his past, and he treasured the gifts each had so generously given him. Nancy had been his first, the first time he ventured down from his home in the cliffs. When he’d told them of his inexperience, their smile had been gentle and kind, and they’d been very patient with him. Months after his mother died, when he’d sought them out again, Nathaniel had taken him into their arms, and held him close, offering their body freely so Steve could remember pleasure instead of grief. And not too long after that, when Steve decided it was finally time for him to set off on his travels, Nancy had been there to see him off, with yet another kind smile and an even gentler kiss to his cheek, before they pressed a small flower into his hand for luck. One of many Steve had spent time with, but they were a favorite, and Steve hoped they were doing well. The thought of them being hurt, forced to submit to another was horrifying to him, an aberration his mind could not comprehend. He knew there were some that enjoyed pain during sex, although it wasn’t his preference, but even that was something carefully negotiated, so everyone was satisfied and well-cared for once it was done. Why take, when you could ask? Why hoard tears and violence, when something freely given was so much more precious? It horrified him, and made it easier for him to understand why his own had isolated themselves as they had.

 

“Because some people are cruel,” the quiet timbre of Bucky’s voice cut into Steve’s thoughts. “Mean, when they’ve no reason to be. They get a sense of power by taking what they want, thinking because they’re stronger that gives them a right to hurt anything they view as weaker. They don’t care about their victims, or the damage they leave behind. They just take and take and take, until there’s nothing left, and then move on to someone or someplace else.”

 

“It’s horrible,” Steve shook his head, knowing Bucky’s words were true, but still finding them unbelievably unfair.

 

“It is what it is, Steve,” Bucky told him. “But sometimes there’s kindness too. Not much, but sometimes. And that girl was very lucky you had to take a piss. I think her night would have ended very differently if it hadn’t been you.”

 

“You would have stopped them, wouldn’t you?” Steve suddenly had to know.

 

“I would have,” Bucky nodded. “There’s lots of things I’ll overlook, but rape isn’t one of them. But it wasn’t me, it was you.”

 

“At least she got away,” Steve forced himself to remember.

 

Bucky hummed thoughtfully, before reaching out with his right hand to brush Steve’s bangs back from his forehead. “Can’t same the same about you however.”

 

“I’ve had worse,” Steve found himself admitting with a snort.

 

“Yes, I know,” Bucky laughed, pulling his hand back, before his expression grew serious. “Now the question is, what are we going to do with you?”

 

“Get me back inside?”

 

“Obviously, but it’s the after I’m worried about.”

 

“Why?” Steve asked, looking up at him. “You took care of them.”

 

“For now. But that doesn’t mean they won’t come back, or have friends that’ll feel like they need to teach someone a lesson. Shits like that don’t like it when they think their toys are taken away from them –“

 

“She wasn’t a toy!” Steve snapped.

 

“No, she wasn’t,” Bucky agreed. “But that doesn’t mean they won’t try to rip your arms off instead. And you’re not a toy either. I mean, you are small enough to be mistaken for a doll –“

 

“Hey!”

 

“But you’re pricklier than a hedgehog –“

 

“Hey!” Steve felt it necessary to object, even if he had no idea what a hedgehog was.

 

“Although nowhere near as cute.”

 

“Hey!”

 

“And hedgehogs don’t snore.”

 

“I do not snore!”

 

“Like. A. Bear.” Steve couldn’t help it; Bucky’s words caused him to burst out laughing. Until his ribs reminded him they had been hit again, in less than a week, his laugh turning into a gasp of pain.

 

“How bad?” Bucky asked.

 

“Not too bad,” Steve said through gritted teeth. “Didn’t feel anything crack. Just bruised again, I think.” Bucky had remained as he was, crouched in front of Steve during their entire exchange. It fascinated Steve, how Bucky could be so still for so long. Steve was loud, and he knew not the most graceful of people; his mother used to laugh at his earliest attempts at running, saying she could hear him from mountains away. But Bucky was all precision and control, and perfect, perfect balance. Ghosts were probably louder.

 

Bucky continued to study him for another long moment, his thoughts unfathomable, before he eventually shook his head and sighed.

 

“Well then, you definitely won’t be up for leaving tonight,” was what he said when he finally did speak.

 

“Leaving? Why would I be leaving?” Steve asked.

 

“Because I obviously can’t leave you here.”

 

“But you said you were in a hurry, and this was where we were going to part ways.” There was suddenly a spark, small, but very, very bright, coming to life in Steve’s heart, allowing him to forget for the first time all the horrors he had just witnessed.

 

“I know I did,” Bucky acknowledged. “But that was before tonight. And while I like Davy well enough, he’s got an inn to run, and customers he needs to keep happy. I can’t trust him to look after you when that’s obviously a full-time job.”

 

“Does that mean…?”

 

“Yes Steve,” Bucky sighed as if he were exhausted with the world, and all the bears, hedgehogs and Steves it contained. “I’m taking you with me to Zaldura. Now come on, on your feet if you can. We need to get you looked over. And I’m definitely going to need to stock up on more Poppy’s Kiss if we’re going to be travelling together for the next couple of weeks. Ear plugs too.”

 

“Hey!”

 

To their mutual surprise, Steve was able to get to his feet, albeit slowly. Bucky was uncharacteristically patient, standing close but not hovering, until they were both sure Steve wasn’t going to keel over. But before they started to make their way back to the tavern, Bucky paused and held out his left hand. In his palm was the small white button, that he had not let go of, offering it to Steve.

 

“No,” Steve shook his head.

 

“Are you sure? For your collection?”

 

“No.” On this Steve was adamant. “I don’t want it. It’s not a good thing.” There was no other way for him to explain it, no words he could use to make Bucky understand. It was not precious, but instead tainted with fear and pain, and he wanted it nowhere near any of his other things.

 

“No it’s not. But you should still keep it,” Bucky insisted, pressing the button into Steve’s hand, forcing him to take it. “The Five have Their ways of marking the balance. Something light for something dark, and vice versa. Only a fool refuses Their coin when offered. Take it. You might need it later.” Bucky stood and patiently waited, until Steve begrudgingly put the button into his pocket, and then slowly, very slowly, mindful of Steve’s pain, led him back into the tavern.

 

 

***

 

In spite of his beating, and accompanied by a healthy dose of Poppy’s Kiss, which had been given to him after a brusque examination in the main dining room of the tavern by the local healer while Bucky stood at the bar, Steve slept well that night, dreamless and deep. So much so that by the next morning, after a hasty breakfast, his aches were minimal enough that he knew he would not be too much of a hindrance to Bucky as they continued on their way to Zaldura.

 

They were in the inn’s stables, Bucky giving Daturia yet another careful going over before they set out on their way, when from behind them came the sound of a throat softly being cleared. Steve jerked at the sound, startled, but Bucky merely lifted his gaze as if he had known someone was there all along.

 

He probably had.

 

When Steve turned, he saw a tall, lanky youth, standing next to…the girl from last night. She looked better than she had; her hair pulled back into a loose braid, and her clothes worn but well-tended, although there was a bruise on her right cheek. And she was pointing at Steve. The lad gazed from Steve, back to the girl, and when she nodded, he took a step forward.

 

“Excuse me?” His voice was a bit high, and cracked, just on the cusp of shifting into manhood. “Are you the one who helped Emma last night?”

 

“I didn’t do much,” Steve shrugged.

 

“Not according to her,” the lad said. “She said those men were trying to hurt her, and it would have been much worse if you hadn’t stopped them when you did.”

 

“Are you all right now?” Steve asked, looking at Emma. She gave him a bashful smile and quickly nodded.

 

“I’m her brother Elliot, and once she made it home and told me what happened, she wanted me to find you so she could thank you,” Elliot said. He glanced back at his sister, who was now gesturing with her hands, before he nodded and looked back at Steve.

 

“She can’t speak, and people sometimes thinks she’s stupid because of it, but she’s not,” he went on.

 

“Of course she isn’t,” Steve insisted. The gestures were familiar to him; he couldn’t understand what they were saying, but he had witnessed Clint and Natasha communicating in the same way from time to time.

 

“But she was insistent I find you, to let you know how grateful she was for your help.” He turned from his sister and looked directly at Steve. “How we both are.”

 

“I’m so glad you’re okay,” Steve told Emma, who had joined Elliot’s side and was now standing directly in front of Steve. “I’m just sorry I wasn’t there sooner.” She smiled at him with a shake of her head. She had freckles on her nose, and dimples when she smiled. Steve thought her lovely, and brave, to be able to smile again and seek him out after everything she’d been through. And then he remembered the coin he carried, the one Bucky insisted he take.

 

“Oh, wait, I have something of yours,” Steve said, reaching into his pocket for the button. “I’d understand if you don’t want it, but we found it in the dirt. And it’s yours, if you want it.” He held out his hand, palm up, just like Bucky had last night, so she could see it for herself. She glanced down at it and then back up at Steve, before with careful fingers, she gingerly took it from him with a small smile. It wasn’t much, Steve knew, and he couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to keep it. But while they were both clean and looked like they had enough to eat, their clothes were worn and far from fancy. A button wouldn’t seem like much, but Steve understood how even the smallest bit could make a difference when you were in need. And they had each other; even without words Steve could see the love they shared.

 

“Just to let you know,” Bucky spoke for the first time, interrupting the moment, “I spoke to someone about those men. They won’t be bothering your sister anymore.”

 

“Thank you,” Elliot said, directing the words to Bucky this time. Steve ignored them. Because Emma was still staring at Steve, her eyes alive and bright. She may not have had any words, but she had fires of her own, and Steve was relieved by the knowledge that she would be okay. She slipped the button into a pocket in her skirts, and then reached for her braid. When she was done, she held a small hair pin in her hand, cheaply made, but with a blue bead at the tip, offering it to him. Steve tried to refuse, but she was insistent, pressing it into his hand, using her own small ones to close his fingers around it, before she rose up on tiptoe to lay a light kiss to his cheek. All Steve could do was accept the gift, thanking her for it in the way of his own, by curling both his hands into fists, and holding them against his heart while bowing his head. She laughed then, silent but somehow still musical, before she went back to her brother and took his hand into her own.

 

As they watched the siblings walk away, Steve thought there must have been some truth to Bucky’s words about his Five and Their balance. Something light for something dark, and something dark for something light.

 

Because this was a very good thing, and Steve would spend the rest of his life keeping it safe.

Chapter Text

Dear Becca,

 

So, it looks like I’ve picked up a travelling companion, for at least a little bit…

 

 

 

 

 

Stop laughing.

 

***

 

While sore, Steve was able to resume traveling with Bucky without too much difficulty. It probably helped that Bucky once again insisted they ride together, his body a long warm line pressed against the length of Steve’s back as they sat astride Daturia. Steve still thought her a stupid horse, and he was certain she felt the same about him. She had fussed and danced in place when Steve tried to mount her, until a soothing word from Bucky convinced her to tolerate Steve, and she allowed him to climb on. But her gait was smooth and easy, just like Bucky claimed, and Steve found himself dozing as they made their way north. When he was finally able to keep his eyes open for longer than five minutes at a time, it was late afternoon, and Steve was surprised to find most of his aches greatly reduced.

 

“You’re not getting a fever, are you?” Bucky asked, pressing the inside of his wrist to Steve’s forehead. “You were feeling a bit warm.”

 

“M’fine,” Steve mumbled as he stumbled into the bushes to relieve himself.

 

“Watch out for –“

 

“Yes, I know!”

 

They ate a quick meal, and then travelled for a few more hours, before stopping at a small traveler’s hut to rest for the night. By the next morning, Steve felt perfectly fine, and after a first meal of sausage rolls and cold tea, they were back on their way.

 

Steve was surprised there was a rhythm to it, one the two of them had developed and was familiar to him by now. Bucky was in turns contemplatively quiet, and talkative during others. He never gave away anything too personal, but neither did Steve, so that was all right. Instead he kept up his lessons, explaining the terrain to Steve, what was useful and what needed to be avoided, and going deeper into the political climates of each area they travelled through. He asked questions too, wanting to make sure Steve had been paying attention, nodding when Steve answered correctly, and going into further detail when it was obvious something confused him. His knowledge seemed endless, and Steve was once again appreciative of his willingness to share.

 

This time around, Bucky’s lessons were different, even more practical than the previous ones had been. Instead of just observing while Steve set up and then broke down one of their camps, he explained why he had chosen the location, what factors would make it a safer place to bed down than another. How to listen and what signs to look for that would indicate water was close by. How to construct a simple but very effective snare, that was merciful, so there would be fresh meat when they woke, and then how to skin and cook whatever had been caught. When Steve asked him why, Bucky explained it was best to live off one’s environment as much as possible when travelling, in order to avoid digging into their stores, which might be needed at a later time, when the temperatures dropped or in places where towns and villages were further and further apart.

 

There was a logic to it, opaque at first, but which grew clearer and clearer to Steve as each day passed, and his own knowledge and experience grew. In just two weeks of Bucky’s company, Steve gained more skills than he had during the three previous months. When they inevitably parted ways, because Steve wasn’t so stupid as to think it wouldn’t eventually happen, Steve was confident he’d be able to manage much better, with less risk to himself too.

 

Because during this leg of their travels, aside from all the other things Bucky taught him, he decided to add an additional set of lessons, ones he began on their second night together after they had set up camp, and insisted were necessary.

 

“You want to teach me how to fight?” Steve asked in disbelief.

 

“Yep,” Bucky nodded. “With the way you attract trouble, you need to learn.”

 

“None of those times were my fault!” Steve insisted.

 

“Maybe, maybe not, but you somehow still managed to end up in the middle of it.”

 

“Yes, but,” Steve looked away from Bucky, forcing himself to swallow his pride. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m small.” Steve hated his body, absolutely hated it. It ached and he sometimes had trouble breathing, and he knew his senses weren’t as sharp as they should be. He felt weak and disposable, easily ignored, since coming to the Six, something he’d never had to experience before.

 

“It’s kind of hard not to notice that, Steve.” Bucky was smirking at him when Steve looked up to glare at him. “But that’s why it’s even more important you learn how to defend yourself.” As he spoke, Bucky began to circle Steve, looking for who knew what.

 

“And so what if you are?” Bucky continued once he completed his circuit. “That doesn’t mean you’re weak or helpless. It just means you have to fight a different way.” He must have been able to tell Steve was unconvinced, because he leaned forward, making sure to catch Steve’s eye before he went on.

 

“Have you ever heard of the Pegasus Cavalry?” he asked, his voice kind.

 

“No,” Steve shook his head.

 

“They’re one of the most dangerous regimens in all the Six, Queen Carol’s elite fighting squad, whose members make up her own personal guard. They’re unbelievably deadly, and the hooves of their horses approaching is the last thing anyone wants to hear. They are also made up entirely of women. Because they’re smaller and lighter than men, they’re faster on their mounts, but no less dangerous because of it,” Bucky began to explain. “And then there’s the Dora Milaje.”

 

“The Dora what?”

 

“The Dora Milaje,” Bucky repeated. “The Wakandan Royal Guard. They make what the Pegasus Cavalry’s capable of look like child’s play, and they’re also only composed of women. Now granted, many of them are taller than you. But not all. And even I wouldn’t want to take on the smallest one. They fight to kill, and I wouldn’t be the one walking away if I ever came face to face with one.

 

“So, you see Steve, it’s not size that’s always the most important thing in a fight. It’s knowing how to use what you have. Yes, you’re small, but that just makes it harder for someone to grab you. You’re pretty quick on your feet too, which is another advantage, and that’ll get even better with practice. There’re plenty of tricks I can teach you so the next time you find yourself in the middle of a fight, you’ll have a much better chance of at least getting away.”

 

“Really?” Steve asked, still doubtful.

 

“Yes, really,” Bucky assured him. “And we’re going to start with the basics. Make a fist. I’m going to teach you how to throw a proper punch.”

 

While Bucky was generous when he decided to share his knowledge with someone, when it came to fighting, he was an exacting and demanding teacher. Still patient, and Steve knew he was holding back whenever they practiced together, but precise when it came to things like form and what he expected from Steve.

 

But he was fair, and adaptable, always providing the reasons why he wanted Steve to do something.

 

He did indeed start with the basics, telling Steve such things as;

 

“Keep your thumb on the outside of your fingers when you’re going to throw a punch. You risk popping the joint if you don’t, and then you’re going to have to pop it back in yourself, and trust me, you don’t want to have to do that.”

 

“You want to use the muscles of your core, instead of just your shoulders or arms when punching someone. It’ll give the hit more force and help you keep your balance.”

 

“Don’t lock your knees. Always remember to keep your stance open and loose. It gives you more range of movement, and makes it harder for someone to knock you off your feet.”

 

Bucky then progressed to teaching Steve tips and tricks that would give him an advantage when fighting a much bigger opponent; a pressure point between the thumb and forefinger, that would immediately make someone’s grip to grow slack. Another one on the inside of the shoulder that caused Steve’s arm to go tingling and numb for over an hour when Bucky demonstrated it on him. How ramming his heel into an instep would cause enough pain to give Steve the chance to get away. Doing the same with his elbow, but to an opponent’s solar plexus this time, should they come up on Steve from behind.

 

There were also dirtier methods Bucky insisted were very useful when caught in a fight. They felt like cheating to Steve, but Bucky merely rolled his eyes when he said so.

 

“The only goal in a fight is to the be the one who walks away in the end. And there’s no such thing as a fair fight, Steve. Don’t think anyone else you come to blows with will be following some supposed code of honor. They won’t be. So if you have to bite, you bite. If they give you the chance, jab your thumb into their eye –“

 

“Ugh,” Steve shivered.

 

“Yeah, but it works. Use what you have, and always remember that whoever you’re fighting would do the same to you without any hesitation.”

 

He also disabused Steve of any previous notions about fighting Steve may have had.

 

“Yeah, a kick to the nuts can work, but it’s not always effective, especially if you’re fighting a woman. And while it definitely hurts, it won’t always slow a man down either. In fact, some of them it’ll just piss off more.”

 

“It seemed to work fine when you did it to that asshole,” Steve reminded him.

 

“I didn’t just knee him in the nuts, Steve. I busted his balls, literally. But you are small, and it’d be hard to you to get that kind of leverage. It’d be more effective for you if you used your foot to kick out the knee from under someone, and when they fall, ram the base of your hand up into their nose. If you do it just right, it’ll break, and that’ll stop just about anyone dead in their tracks. At least long enough for you to get away.”

 

And so on and so forth. It appeared as if there were a million things Steve needed to remember when fighting, including footwork, which Bucky insisted was just as important as anything going on above the waist, and how everything someone did in a fight, from a shift in stance to a sideways glance, was a clue as to what they were going to do next that Steve needed to learn how to read. But every night without fail, unless they were staying at an inn, for two hours Bucky taught Steve fighting techniques.

 

It fucking hurt, and once the lessons were done, Steve would lie in his bedroll with muscles he didn’t even know he had burning, cursing at Bucky. But even that was a lesson, according to Bucky. Not just how to land a blow, but how to take one, rolling with it and using the momentum to power a counter-attack. It did make sense, but it still fucking hurt.

 

But…

 

But…

 

It helped. Bucky was a demanding instructor, but also an effective one. While Steve knew he would never be a match for someone of Bucky’s skill, he was learning, and as they slowly made their way toward Zaldura, he felt less helpless than previously. He would never use what Bucky taught him to start a fight, but he liked knowing his chances of defending himself had improved. It gave him a sense of self he hadn’t realized he’d been lacking, a greater comfort with his body as he grew more aware of what it could do.

 

Especially the one time, and only time, he managed to catch Bucky by surprise, even if it was short-lived.

 

“Fuck!” Bucky cried, jerking back from where he had pinned Steve to the bank of the stream where they had made camp that night, when Steve rammed his forehead against his. “What the hells were you trying to do?”

 

“You said…you said to always use…whatever I could…to get away,” Steve panted, his own forehead throbbing with a slicing pain. It may have worked, but Steve didn’t think he’d be trying that move again.

 

“Yeah but still…Is your head made of rocks? That would at least explain the stupid.”

 

“Worked, didn’t it?” Steve would have smiled, if his own head didn’t feel like a bell that had been rung. “Although…Ow.” When he finally managed to open his eyes, through tears of pain, Bucky was rubbing his forehead, glaring at Steve.

 

“I did say that, didn’t I?” He cocked his head slightly. “Although I would have done something like this.” That was all the warning Steve got before Bucky flung a handful of dirt into Steve’s eyes, rolled them both over, and flipped Steve backwards into the stream. “Just as effective, and it’s harder to fight when your clothes are wet.”

 

“You jerk!” Steve sputtered when he finally gained his footing.

 

“Now, now, don’t be like that. Remember, all’s fair in love and war.” Bucky was already on his feet, grinning, and also, Steve couldn’t help but notice, very dry. “Now c’mon. Get out of there. Our dinner should be ready by now. Let’s eat it before it turns into charcoal.”

 

“I hate you!” Steve shouted at Bucky’s retreating back. Bucky just laughed.

 

“That was a sneaky move, by the way. Not bad,” Bucky called back to him. “Although I’d save that for when someone’s behind you. You’ve got more force if you use the back of your head, and it’s less painful for you.”

 

Sometimes Steve really, really hated him.

 

Spending so much time in Bucky’s presence also gave Steve the opportunity to notice things about him he hadn’t had the chance to before.

 

For one, for someone who spent as much time on the road as Bucky claimed he did, he was remarkably clean. He bathed nearly every day, even if the nights were chilly and the water they’d camped beside cold. He was quick about it, not seeming to notice the way the temperatures made goosebumps rise all along his flesh, but made sure to give his entire body a thorough scrubbing before he put on his clothes. If they stayed at an inn, he always paid extra for a bath, handing off his current clothing to be laundered, before climbing into the steaming water with a sigh of relief. But once he was done, he insisted Steve take a turn while the water was still warm.

 

Steve always averted his eyes when they were in such close quarters. The people of the Six could be much more modest about nudity than his own people, although that depended on which gods they worshipped or what province they were in. Sometimes baths were shared, sometimes separated by gender, and there were some that bathed only when the opportunity presented itself. But Steve knew better than to presume. Still, Steve could not help but catch glimpses of Bucky’s body, the corded muscles of his arms and legs, and the sharply defined ridges of his abdomen, a testament to his strength. Well-proportioned and comfortable in his own skin, it made Steve very aware of their differences, and Steve would hunch over whenever he was in the bath, to hide his own knobby spine and sharp collarbones. If Bucky noticed Steve’s embarrassment, he made no comment on it. But after the first night they shared a room, Bucky started to casually give Steve his bread, or insist he take the first cut of meat from that night’s catch whenever they were back on the road.

 

He also shaved every day, using one of his blades to remove the previous day’s scruff, and even if the water was cold, he never nicked himself, running the fingers of his left hand over the area he’s just gone over, double-checking the smoothness of his skin. He did it like he did everything else, with an efficient precision, and Steve doubted he even needed the small shaving mirror he used.

 

And then there was his hair.

 

If there was one thing Bucky was fastidious about, even more so than his bathing, or his upkeep of Daturia, it was his hair. He spent longer on it than any other aspect of his appearance, a good ten minutes brushing it every morning, before with an ease that spoke of years and years of practice he would quickly weave it into either two tight braids that held most of it back from his face or pull it back into a single one that hung heavy and thick, ending just beneath his shoulder blades. In all honestly, Steve couldn’t blame him. Bucky’s hair was lovely, with its mix of sables and browns, with hints of a deep, dark auburn in a few of the strands. If Steve had hair like Bucky’s, he’d spend even more time than Bucky did taking care of it.

 

Still, it was a lot of attention on his appearance, that puzzled Steve, until he finally asked why, and Bucky told him, “In my line of work, how I look is important. People tend to want to work with somebody who looks clean and like they know how to take care of themselves. They wouldn’t trust me with the things they do if I looked desperate or smelled bad. But not too fancy either. That can draw too much attention as well, and usually not the kind you want.”

 

Steve supposed that made sense, and was true as well. Bucky took care with how he looked, but nothing about him really stood out. His clothes, while well fitting, were simple and all in muted shades of browns and greys, nothing about them particularly remarkable. There were no shiny buckles, or garish belts, and he wore no jewelry. Basic traveler’s clothes, that spoke of experience but not wealth, and allowed him to seamlessly blend into any group of people they encountered. A useful skill, Steve had to admit, even though it didn’t take Steve long to realize there had to be more to it than that. People tended to ignore or notice Bucky, depending on whether he wanted them to or not, which was fascinating to Steve. Bucky was a handsome man, aesthetically pleasing, with his creamy pale skin, full lips and striking blue-grey eyes. He possessed the kind of beauty Steve knew was highly valued and sought after in the Six, yet no one seemed to comment or take much notice of it, as if that too were something else Bucky was somehow able to control.

 

Although it did make him wonder about the kind of attention Bucky was trying to avoid. Because if there was one thing, even more remarkable than his cleanliness, the condition of his clothes, or the maintenance of his hair, about Bucky that Steve noticed, that he couldn’t fail to notice, after spending so much time with him, it was his weapons.

 

Bucky had a lot of them. A lot of them. More than anyone Steve had ever seen carry. Not noticeable at first, aside from the obvious ones, but caches of them concealed beneath his oh-so well-fitting clothes. There was the sword attached to the pommel of Daturia’s saddle, that he wore from a belt around his hips when on foot. And the bow and quiver full of arrows he was seldom without. He carried it like an old friend, with an easy familiarity, as if they’d been together for years. He had attempted to instruct Steve on its use, but after the fourth time Steve shot an arrow up into the branches of a tree, instead of its trunk, Bucky just shook his head and called an end to the lessons.

 

“Sorry,” Steve mumbled, as they stood beneath the tree, staring up at the leaves.

 

“It’s not your fault,” Bucky sighed, not bothering to roll his eyes this time. “The bow’s not the right size for you. It’s got too much pull, and you don’t have enough upper body strength to control it. Although how you managed to not even hit a leaf when you were shooting up into a tree full of them, I’ll never know.”

 

“Talent?” Steve suggested.

 

“Something.”

 

“Yeah well, archery is stupid,” Steve decided to use his old standby.

 

“It’s a skill, just like anything else,” Bucky corrected him. “And just like any other skill, it takes practice. In the right hands, a bow like this can take down a wild boar with a single shot from over a hundred yards away.”

 

“Could you?” Steve asked.

 

“The only thing I’m going to take right now is the next fifteen minutes to climb this tree and get my arrows back.” That had been the last time Bucky let Steve anywhere near his bow.

 

But the bow and arrows, and the sword, were far from the only weapons Bucky carried on him. And as well-kept as they were, they were far from his favorite. Those would be his knives. An endless array of them Bucky somehow managed to conceal on his person. Steve had no idea how many Bucky had, they were so well-hidden. The only reason Steve was aware there were more than the usual one or two most people carried was because every night, right before going to sleep, Bucky sharpened them. Never more than a pair at a time, but Steve had a keen eye for detail, and he could tell no set was the same. Some were longer than others, and some thinner. Some could fit in the palm of a hand, and others in the smallest of pockets. All in different shapes and sizes, a few even Steve hadn’t seen before, but they all shared one thing in common; a deadly sharpness Steve could make out even in the dark. Bucky took meticulous care of them, and Steve could almost hear their sighs of pleasure under his ministrations, making it obvious he knew how to use each and every one of them.

 

A fact Bucky made sure to remind Steve of a week and a half into their travels, when they were in another room at a roadside inn Bucky had decided to pay for, and Steve, noticing one of Bucky’s bags was a bit too close to the fireplace, reached for it. His fingers had been less than an inch away, when a knife was suddenly between them and the strap. Steve hadn’t even heard Bucky move.

 

“I wouldn’t touch that, if I were you,” was all Bucky said.

 

“I was just going to move it away from the fire,” Steve struggled to get the words past the dry, hard lump in his throat.

 

“Even so,” Bucky said, rising from the bed to collect both his bag and the knife. “You don’t like it when somebody tries to touch your things. I’d appreciate it if you showed the same respect towards mine.”

 

“Sorry,” Steve mumbled, silently cursing himself for forgetting there were sides to Bucky he needed to remember and be wary of.

 

That had been a strange night. Once he’d tucked his belongings under their bed, Bucky seemed to merely shrug off the entire exchange, leading them to the dining area with a carefree smile. They ate a very satisfying meal, and there had been plenty of sweet wine, so much so they had both stumbled up the stairs back to their room. For some reason, Bucky had been insistent that Steve take the bed, when usually Steve slept in his bedroll next to the fire. Steve had been too drunk to question it, collapsing on the relatively clean and only slightly lumpy mattress with a contented sigh, before passing out.

 

The next morning, much too soon in Steve’s opinion, Bucky was shaking him awake, informing him they needed to get an early start on the road. Steve had barely enough energy to open his eyes, but he was able to see that Bucky’s hair was damp, and his eyes suspiciously bright and clear, with no signs of being hungover. Steve thought it horribly unfair, when he would have sworn Bucky had ordered as many cups of wine for himself as he had for Steve.

 

“Nngh. Go away,” he groaned, rolling over onto his side, burrowing under the blankets.

 

“Now none of that, come on. We need to get going,” Bucky ordered, yanking the covers away. “We’re only a few days away from Zaldura, and I want to get back on the road as soon as possible.”

 

“Ugh. Hate you,” Steve hissed at him, noticing Bucky was fully dressed, and the bag Steve had reached for the night before hanging from his shoulders.

 

“So you say. But you better be ready to be out of here in five minutes or I’m leaving without you.”

 

“Can I at least throw up first?”

 

“You can do that on the road. Now move it.”

 

Steve did end up throwing up on the road, or at least in a bush. Because in spite of Bucky’s insistence on speed, for the rest of that day, they didn’t travel along the road they’d been following, but through the forests instead. And Steve could have sworn they were going in circles for a while, but then again, he was so miserably hungover, he would have walked off a cliff and not cared so long as it ended the pounding in his head.

 

But he hadn’t been too hungover to forget Bucky’s warning about his bag. After that night, he never reached for it again. Whatever its contents were, it was obvious they were precious to Bucky, and Steve could respect that. He had no idea what it contained, or how heavy it was. Perhaps it was filled with the messages and documents Bucky was hired to carry, and he needed to ensure the privacy of those who hired him. Or maybe it held something else; extra coin or Bucky’s own treasures. Whatever it was, Bucky was fiercely protective of its contents. The only thing Steve knew for sure it carried was a sheaf of papers, securely bound within a well-worn leather carrying case. And he only knew that because one night in the forest, when Steve had woken up and stumbled from his bedroll to take a piss, he came back to find Bucky with them on his lap, a charcoal pencil in his hand.

 

“What’re you doing?” he asked, rubbing his eyes as he resettled in his bedroll.

 

“Writing,” Bucky answered him flatly. 

 

“I can see that, but what are you writing?” Steve couldn’t help his curiosity.

 

“Remember what I told you about the questions you ask, and who you ask them of?” Bucky’s pencil never ceased its rhythmic scribbling.

 

“Yes, but what’s so important you’d have to be writing it in the middle of the night?” Steve wanted to know.

 

“Steve.”

 

“I mean seriously, why couldn’t it wait ‘til morning?”

 

“By The Five, do you ever stop talking?”

 

“I’m just curious.”

 

“Yes, I know. Endlessly so, even when you should know better.”

 

“Pfft,” Steve dismissed. “I’ll never know better. You’re the one who should have figured that out by now.”

 

“True enough,” Bucky conceded.

 

“So…?”

 

“It’s recipes, if you must know.”

 

Steve blinked at him. “Recipes?”

 

“Yep.”

 

“For cooking?”

 

“I’m calling it How to Roast a Tiny Blond So He Finally Shuts Up.”

 

“Can I see it?” Steve decided to go back to his old standby; Annoy Sam Tactics.

 

“What?”

 

“Can I see it?” Steve asked. “I mean, if you are going to eat me, I’d like to know if you plan to use butter or mustard.” Bucky just blinked at him. “Or maybe applesauce?” Bucky blinked at him again. “I think you’re lying,” Steve continued with a nod. “I don’t think you’re writing a recipe at all. I think you’re writing a book. Is it one of those books? Is that why you don’t want to talk about it?”

 

“One of what books?” Bucky asked through gritted teeth.

 

“You know,” Steve waved his hand in the air, “one of those books. The supposedly naughty ones you aren’t supposed to read in company. Although I don’t see what all the fuss is about. The one I read was pretty interesting, but I don’t know why the lady who lent it to me was blushing when she handed it over.”

 

“You’ve read one?”

 

“Uh-huh,” Steve nodded. “It was all about the forbidden love between a prince and a pirate. The prince runs away from home to be with her, except it turns out in the end the pirate was the princess of her own lands. So their love was not so forbidden after-all. They end up getting married and uniting their two kingdoms. It was a bit silly, but they had a lot of sex, and those parts were pretty good. But still, nothing to be embarrassed about, although the princess was a bit shouty during most of it.”

 

Bucky just sat there, staring at him from across the campfire, his mouth agape.

 

“What? Why are you looking at me like that? Haven’t you ever read any of those?”

 

“You can read?” was what Bucky asked when he finally regained the power of speech.

 

“Why wouldn’t I be able to read?” Steve was insulted. “Everyone where I’m from can.”

 

“Can you write as well?”

 

“Of course. Can’t everybody?”

 

“No Steve, not everybody can.”

 

“Oh, well…I didn’t think it was that big of a deal.”

 

“Just All-Speak?” Bucky asked.

 

“No,” Steve shook his head. “All-Speak, and The Trader’s Tongue, Helias, and a couple of other dialects from the North.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Yes, really. Why?” Steve was starting to feel smug. He knew he had a gift for languages; it was a trait all his own shared. He knew even more than he’d told Bucky about, and Natasha liked to tease him over the ones she knew that he didn’t. “Can’t you?”

 

Apparently, Bucky was a bit of a polyglot as well, knowing a few of the local dialects Steve hadn’t encountered yet. He spent the next hour testing Steve, merely shrugging it off when he spoke in a language Steve didn’t know, and growing more and more impressed every time Steve answered one of his questions in the same tongue.

 

“That’s a good skill to have,” he admitted, once he was finally done. “You should have mentioned it sooner.”

 

“Why?” Steve asked.

 

“Because it’s not something many people can do, and highly in demand,” Bucky informed him. “They’re always looking for translators or scribes, especially in places like Zaldura. It’ll make it easier for you to find a job once we’re there. A better paying one too.”

 

“Oh,” was all Steve could say. He hadn’t known that. He supposed it was an option, one that would suit. Although, he was coming to realize he was rather fond of a life on the road, especially now that he had a better idea of what he was doing.

 

But then again, it could have been the company he was keeping.

 

When he looked back across the campfire, Bucky had already tucked his papers and pencil away into his bag, and appeared to be bedding down for the night.

 

“Anyway, you should try to get some more sleep. Sun’ll be up soon,” Bucky told him. “And we need to be getting an early start.”

 

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

 

“I’d like to get at least a few hours before we hit the road. So try not to snore this time, if you please.”

 

“I do not snore!”

 

“Like. A. Bear.”

 

“I do not!”

 

“If you say so.”

 

“You’re a jerk, Bucky.”

 

“Uh-huh. G’night Steve.”

 

“G’night Bucky.” But Steve couldn’t help his smile as he said it.

 

It wasn’t until later, after they had broken camp and were well on their way, that Steve realized somehow Bucky had managed to avoid answering his question, and never did tell him what he’d been writing.

Chapter Text

Dear Becca,

 

If anyone ever asks you, you can tell them that as pretty as Zaldura is, it’s still another shithole. Just like all the other shitholes throughout the Six. But I’ll be visiting an old friend of ours, that we haven’t seen in a while. I’ll give him your regards.

 

After that, well, we’ll see what’s next. But if all goes well, I should be that much closer to finally coming home.

 

***

 

Zaldura was a large city of towering blue and white spires, and golden domed buildings that sat on a peninsula that separated a huge body of water into two smaller, but still sizeable, lakes; Aerelyn, which was a part of the Kingdom of Aeriella, and Leonas on the Helian side, each stretching out farther than the eye could see. The city itself had always had a strange relationship with the Six, a trade center welcoming to both ships and caravans from all over, but whose ownership was a constant source of warfare between the two nations it divided. Until the treaty had been signed, and Queen Carol and Prime Minister Hill decided to share it, as if it had always been as simple as that, equally dividing the responsibility of government and security. Their detractors thought them insane, but each woman was well-versed in the ways of diplomacy, devoted to the well-fare of their people, and what they had wanted was peace. When they combined their strengths, they were able to come to an agreement, each compromising when necessary, and as a result, Zaldura thrived.

 

Steve learned all this from Bucky, as they made their way over the carefully maintained and well-guarded peninsula into the city proper, along with the rest of the crowds. There were a lot of people, not only fellow travelers, but vendors who had set up food carts and small stands to peddle their wares along the way, and while slow moving, it was a relatively organized affair.

 

“Is it always this busy?” Steve asked, from where he was perched atop Daturia’s saddle, while Bucky used her lead to sure-footedly guide them.

 

“Zaldura is always a busy place, with people coming and going,” Bucky told him absently, his focus on avoiding the caravan wagon in front of them. “But right now, it’s even busier than usual. It’s Tenth Month, and that’s when they hold the annual meeting of the Council of the Six, as well as the Harvest Festival. People come from all over to attend or sell their goods. Plenty of deals and negotiations, stuff like that, too.”

 

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people,” Steve marveled, with another look around.

 

“If you think it’s bad here, you should see the port. It’s even worse. The harbormaster probably hasn’t seen his bed in over two weeks. And he likely won’t, for at least two more,” was the last thing Bucky said before he lowered his head, his hair loose for once, and turned all his attention toward getting them across the peninsula.

 

Once that was accomplished, Bucky guided them toward the city stables, where after a bit of negotiation and a healthy addition of coin, he was able to secure a stall for Daturia during his stay.

 

Then Bucky took Steve to not an inn, but a hostel, where after a brief conversation with the proprietress, Bucky found Steve a bed he could use for the next two weeks, until he got himself on his feet. Next, over sandwiches of some type of fried bread, made with corn and mixed with cheese purchased from yet another cart, Bucky gave Steve a very clear and concise set of directions, that he made Steve repeat three times, which would lead him to a transcriber’s shop. He was to ask for Paulie, and introduce himself as a friend of JB’s, who recommended he seek him out to see if he had any work available. Bucky advised him to do it as quickly as possible, today if Steve could manage it, as given the festival there would be plenty of need for someone who could take dictation so they could send letters home, which given Steve’s knowledge of several languages, Paulie should be more than happy to hire him on for at least the rest of the month. After that, it would be up to Steve to make his own way.

 

It was kind and generous, the way Bucky could so often be, and not something Steve had expected when their paths first crossed. But however mercurial Bucky’s moods, and how secretive he was about certain things, Steve thought that this, this kindness, this generosity, was the truth of Bucky’s nature.

 

And Steve was going to miss him. But it was time for them to say their goodbyes; Bucky had brought Steve with him to Zaldura, and there were no more excuses or reasons Steve could think of for them to remain in each other’s company. Steve had an entire city to explore, and he knew Bucky had work he needed to do. Yet it still didn’t make it any easier to say goodbye.

 

“Will I see you again, while you’re still here?” Steve had to ask.

 

“No,” Bucky said, as calmly and simply as that. “I have a few friends I need to catch up with, and a couple of messages to deliver, but once I’m done, I’ll be back on the road. I’ll be long gone before the festival’s even over.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“Chin up, Steve,” Bucky told him with a small smile. “You’ll be fine. Just try not to do anything too stupid while you’re here, alright?”

 

“How can I?” Steve forced himself to grin. “You’re taking all the stupid with you.” Bucky laughed, his honest one, short but bright, before he tilted his head, and without another word, turned and walked away.

 

There must have been a breeze from one of the lakes. Either that, or Zaldura succumbed to the cooler temperatures of fall earlier than any other place Steve had travelled to so far. Because as he stood there, watching Bucky disappear into the crowd, he found himself shivering from the cold, thankful for the jacket Bucky had bought for him.

 

***

 

Zaldura was indeed a very large and thriving city, filled with more people than Steve had ever seen before, and food and wares from all over the world. Something was always happening somewhere, and he knew the festival crowds were keeping the combined city watches of both Helia and Aeriella, easily recognizable in their uniforms of either indigo blue and white stripes, or royal blue, red and gold, very busy.

 

Or at least so Steve had been told.

 

Truth was, seven days into his stay at Zaldura, Steve hadn’t seen very much of the city itself, other than the cramped and cluttered desk in the scrivener’s shop Bucky’s friend Paulie owned. Paulie had indeed been desperate for extra help, and when he found out Steve could speak, read and write in Namora, he’d been more than happy to hire Steve on, adding extra to Steve’s earnings at the end of each day because of it. Steve knew the wages were generous, but the fact was, in and of itself, the job was boring. He spent most of his day, from sunup to sundown, except for a few latrine breaks and half an hour allowed him for lunch, hunched over a small desk, quill in hand, transcribing correspondences and contracts for the city’s visitors. Paulie’s customers seldom wanted to converse with him, and the work itself was dull and tedious, and at the end of the day when he was finally able to head back to the hostel, his fingers, wrists, shoulders and neck all ached.

 

Not that the hostel was any better. He had to share his room with five other single men and Steve found himself desperately missing Bucky’s obsession with cleanliness. He also had a lot more sympathy for Bucky’s complaints about snores. Because not only did his roommates not seem to know what a bath was, but one of them, Ralph, snored from the moment his head hit the pillow to the moment he woke up.

 

Very loudly.

 

If that wasn’t bad enough, Johnny, the man who slept in the bed directly next to Steve’s, farted constantly, and also very, very loudly.

 

All. Night. Long.

 

Steve did not think he was exaggerating when he confessed to one of his co-workers he thought he was going to suffocate to death long before the festival ended.

 

Steve attempted to find another place to stay, an inn, or even a bed at another hostel. But he quickly discovered there were no other accommodations available, and since it was the festival month, he was lucky to have even found the bed he had at such short notice.

 

At least it was close to the public baths.

 

And while the owner of the hostel, a round faced woman with a kind smile named Gwennie, swore her rooms were safe, and that she tolerated no trouble from her renters (except apparently for snores and farts), Steve knew that didn’t mean her boarders would feel the same way. So he took to carrying his pack with him at all times, keeping it safely tucked beneath his feet while at work. He thought Bucky would approve.

 

He found himself thinking of Bucky quite often. He hadn’t seen neither hide nor hair of him since they’d parted, but Steve couldn’t help but wonder where he was, how he was doing, and if he’d left Zaldura yet. It was as if he was just gone, a figment of Steve’s imagination. He’d considered going back to the stables to see if Daturia was still there, but decided against it in the end. What would be the point? It would just tell him Bucky was still in the city, with no interest in even stopping by to see how Steve was doing.

 

All he could do was get on with it, try to experience what he could of the festival and then see what he’d do at the end of the month.

 

At least there was always something to do. Steve did not know if that was due to the festival or just the natural rhythm of the city itself, but the streets were always busy, and no matter the hour, Steve could always find something to eat. Perhaps the visiting vendors didn’t want to risk the loss of potential business, and that was the reason at least two-thirds of the stalls and carts set up in the central market square remained open at all times. So Steve took to walking either late at night or before work when he could no longer bear Ralph’s snores or Johnny’s gas. He’d discovered a few items of interest, although nothing he’d felt compelled to add to his collection. It was still an interesting way to spend his time, out in the comparatively cleaner and much quieter air.  He quickly discovered he liked doing it in the mornings best, when the grey skies were tinged with just a hint of pink, and if he were lucky, he could catch a last glimpse of The Sisters. It was the quietest time of day, and the owners would usually share with him a sleepy smile from behind their stalls or the backs of their wagons. As he made his way towards the outer end of the square, he noticed a few seemed to have started packing up, as if they’d already managed to sell all they had to offer, or acquired whatever it was they were looking for, and were preparing to leave.

 

He felt himself drawn to one doing just that, its owner easily hefting crate after crate into the back of his wagon, the only thing left on display a few badly frayed and water-swollen books. Steve decided to see what was on offer; books, no matter what state, were always of interest to him, and these looked like they each carried a history of their own. And who knew, maybe there’d be one of those books, which he had certainly enjoyed.

 

“Don’t mean to be rude, lad, but I’m in a bit of a rush. So, if you see anything that interests you, just give me a shout.” He was a tall and burly man, with muscles Steve could see bulging beneath his tunic, a bushy mustache, and the strangest hat Steve had ever seen. “But try to take something from me, and I’ll run you through with my knife, and fuck whatever any of those fancy guards might say about it. I’m in a hurry, I’m not blind.”

 

“I wouldn’t,” Steve shook his head. “I’m just looking.”

 

“See to it that’s all you do, if you’re not going to buy.” The man gave him a curt nod, before he stacked another crate into his wagon.

 

“Leaving already?” Steve asked, perusing the few titles. There wasn’t anything in particular that drew his eye, until he came across one whose battered and torn cover read The Mermaid’s Forbidden Kiss. That certainly had potential.

 

“Ayup. Business was good this year, better than I expected. But it’s always best to leave sooner rather than later. It’ll be a madhouse in just a couple of days, and the city watch always gets cranky by the end of the festival. Here James, grab the other end and pull it into the corner by you.”

 

“James?” Steve frowned, all thoughts of The Mermaid’s Forbidden Kiss forgotten as he stared into the back of the wagon.

 

“By the Five, are you fucking kidding me?” asked a very familiar voice.

 

“Bucky? What are you doing here?” Steve asked, staring into a very distinct pair of clear blue eyes, peering back at him from a shadowed corner of the wagon’s carriage.

 

“Bucky, is it? Haven’t heard anyone call you that in years,” the man’s voice was surprised, causing him to pause with the last of the crates in his arms. But only for a second, something drawing his attention from across the square that caused him to toss it into the back of his cart with a reckless abandon.

 

“Shut up Dum Dum. Now’s not the time,” Bucky hissed back.

 

“No, it most certainly ain’t,” the man, apparently named Dum Dum agreed, swiping the books from the table, including The Mermaid’s Forbidden Kiss, dumping them into the cart, and with a speed that was surprising given his bulk, did something to the table that caused it to fold over so it was half its size and perfectly flat, before shoving that in the back as well. And then he asked Bucky one of the strangest questions Steve had ever heard.

 

“Is he yours?”

 

“What? No, he’s not mine –“

 

“Yes, yes I am,” Steve cut Bucky off. He had no idea what was going on, but something definitely was, and whether it was The Sister’s will or the guiding light of the Stars, he knew in his blood and bones and belly, when he needed to heed their call.

 

“By The Five, Steve, I swear -“

 

“Right then, we need to be getting on our way.” Dum Dum reached out and grabbed Steve by the seat of his pants, tossing him into the back of the wagon as brusquely as his crates. “The two of you can sort it out later. You know where everything is, Bucky. Get yourselves settled. This is probably going to take a while.” Dum Dum slammed the two back panels shut, and then locked the lower grate in place, sealing the two of them in a heavy and stilted darkness. Even though he couldn’t see his expression, Steve knew Bucky was glaring at him.

 

“So…um…where are we going?” Steve eventually dared to ask.

 

“To your funeral,” Bucky growled.

 

“Yes, but…before that?”

 

Bucky never got the chance to answer, because there came two quick knocks from the front of the cart just before it slowly began to move. It seemed to be a signal of some sort, stirring Bucky to action. He began to shove and shuffle the crates around with an obvious familiarity, using one of his knives to pry up an invisible seam that concealed a hidden panel beneath.

 

“Listen, you pain in my ass, you are going to do everything I say, and not ask one damned question or utter a single word, or I will slit your throat myself. Do you understand me?” This was the Bucky from the night they first met. Cold, calm and indifferent, meaning every word he said. Steve forced himself to nod. “Good. Now grab your pack, and climb down in there. Don’t you dare move or make a sound. I don’t want to hear a single complaint either. You asked for this, and if you fuck this up, you’ll be ruining a good man’s life. Got that?” Steve didn’t bother nodding that time, doing as Bucky instructed instead, and trying to make himself as small and inobtrusive as possible. Bucky slid in after him, doing something that shifted everything to the side, into an even thicker and more suffocating darkness.

 

It was possible that at some point in the future, Steve would think of this as an adventure, or laugh about it when he spoke of it to others. But at that moment, all Steve could do was lie very, very still, and try his hardest to barely breathe.

 

He had no idea what was going on, but something must have happened, some reason why Bucky was sneaking out of Zaldura in the dark when he had simply walked into it before. Steve was also beginning to understand there was method to this madness, because in spite of Dum Dum’s insistence they needed to hurry, from what he could tell from the motions of the cart, they were trundling along at a sedate pace. It felt like hours as Steve lay there next to Bucky, breathing air that was damp and heavy, and growing more so with each passing moment, the only sound the rapid thunder of Steve’s heartbeat in his ears. It seemed to go on forever, the tension as thick as blood from a cut. But few things could last forever, and slowly, drop by drop and inch by inch, Steve felt his muscles begin to unclench, his heartbeat slow, and whatever was happening, he began to believe they were going to be fine.

 

Until three more knocks, quick and light, cut through the silence, and the wagon drew to a halt. Then came the sounds of voices and a muffled discussion Steve could barely make out, except for a few isolated words, home and registration and where are you from? And then, more clearly as the back doors were opened, “We’re going to need to have a look inside, double-check that everything’s been documented,” just as Bucky clamped a hand over Steve’s mouth.

 

“’Course,” Dum Dum agreed amiably. There were more sounds then, of the crates being shifted and lids being opened. Even worse was the tapping, along the sides, at their feet, directly above their heads, as if whoever it was, was searching for something. A secret compartment maybe, just like the one concealing the two of them. It felt like it went on for days, the footsteps, the endless taps, the shuffling above, more questions asked and answered. Until finally, finally Steve heard a distinctly female voice say, “There’s nothing here. He’s free to go.” Steve wanted to cry in relief, but he knew that it, whatever this was, was far from over. So he remained silent and still, listening to the sounds of things being rearranged, the doors closing, and then felt the blessed relief of movement, when Bucky at last pulled his hand from Steve’s mouth.

 

They remained in the cramped dark for a few hours after that, Dum Dum’s cart never changing speed, until eventually it drew to a stop, followed by two more knocks and Steve felt like he could breathe for the first time in far too long. There was some more shifting and things being moved about, followed by the blissful feel of fresh air kissing Steve’s skin as the trapdoor was opened at last.

 

“You a’ight?” Dum Dum asked as first Bucky and then Steve crawled free. Bucky did it with his usual grace, but Steve stumbled, his muscles stiff and sore from being locked in place for so long.

 

“Yeah,” Bucky said, stretching his arms above his head. “How about you? It sounded like they were determined to give you a hard time.”

 

“No more than usual,” Dum Dum grinned, while playfully tapping the side of his cart. “And old Nelly here hasn’t failed me yet.”

 

“She’s a good girl,” Bucky agreed.

 

“What the hells was that all about?” Steve asked, instantly regretting it, when it drew Bucky’s attention back to him.

 

“That’s what happens when Bucky sticks his dick where it don’t belong,” Dum Dum answered instead.

 

“Dugan.” Bucky turned his glare back to Dum Dum, only to get a cheerful wink in response.

 

“What? It’s as good an answer as any. Although I can see why you’d want to keep this one around. He’s certainly more your type.”

 

“He is not my type. And I don’t want to keep him. He’s a pest, worse than fleas, and no matter what I do, I can’t get rid of him.”

 

“Sure about that, are you?” Dum Dum laughed.

 

“What he is, is dumber than dirt. He had a good setup in Zaldura. He was supposed to stay there and leave me the hells alone!”

 

“Bucky, I –“ Steve tried to interject, but they ignored him.

 

“I’ve got things I need to do, things I’ve sworn by The Five to, and I can’t do them with him in the way. He keeps showing up, and…and Becca…”

 

“I know, James. I’m one of the few that do,” Dum Dum said calmly, gently, his face kind. “But you just said it yourself, you’ve made a promise to your Five. Aren’t you the one who’s also always saying only a fool refuses Their coin when you find it at your feet. If he keeps showing up, maybe this is Their way of helping you. Dark for light and light for dark.”

 

“It’s not that simple,” Bucky protested.

 

“Are you sure of that?” Dum Dum said, laying a companionable hand to Bucky’s shoulder. “Maybe you should think on it for a bit before you make up your mind. Our gods, all of them, have their own ways of seeing things get done. You, more than any other, should remember that.” He gave Bucky a quick shake before he let him go. “Now come on, let’s go unhitch your girl before she decides she’s had enough of all of us, and takes Nelly for a joy ride.” Dum Dum lowered his hand, stepped back, and made his way toward the horses hitched to the cart.

 

Bucky stood there, staring after him, his hands on his hips, wordless and still for a long moment, before he glanced at Steve out of the corner of his eye.

 

“So, um…where are we going next?”

Chapter Text

Dear Becca,

 

Do you ever think about fate and why things happen the way they do? Because I have. I’ve actually been thinking about it a lot lately. It’s no secret I’ve never been a favorite of The Five, but I’ve always tried to do the best with what They’ve given me, knowing it was all I was ever going to get.

 

But then Dum Dum, of all people, said something to me the other day, and it got me to thinking, that maybe there’s reasons for why things happen the way they do. Who knows? Clara’s the philosopher of our family, not me. I’m probably just being maudlin.

 

Dum Dum’s fine, by the way. Still up to all his old tricks, but a good friend none-the-less. He sends his love.

 

I send mine too. Not too much longer now though. I should be home soon. I can’t wait.

 

***

 

“What does it mean, what you said to Bucky?” Steve asked Dum Dum, staring after Bucky who had led Daturia more than twenty paces away so he could fuss over her in the way Steve was coming to recognize was Bucky’s way of calming himself down.

 

“I said a lot of things to James,” Dum Dum said carelessly, reaching past Steve for a crate. For all of his size, he moved with an easy-going grace, different than Bucky’s, but one Steve was still envious of. “You’ll have to be more specific than that.”

 

“About coin,” Steve clarified.

 

“Don’t you know what coin is boy?” Dum Dum rolled his eyes, his big, bushy eyebrows dancing like caterpillars across his forehead. “It’s what you use to pay for goods, like that book you keep eyeing. Don’t think I haven’t noticed that.”

 

“My name is Steve, not boy.” Steve raised his chin to glare at Dum Dum. “And I know what coin is. I may not have much of it right now, but I know what it is. But I don’t think that’s the kind of coin you were talking about just now. And Bucky’s said something to me about it before, but it didn’t really make sense then either, not really. I’m just trying to understand.”

 

“Did he now?” There was something in Dum Dum’s voice, not the mockery of before, but a quietness, an almost understated sense of knowledge that told Steve that just like Bucky, there were hidden depths to him, edges that someone would never be able to make out unless Dum Dum wanted them to. It reminded him of Sam, just a little, almost enough to distract him from his original line of thought. Almost, but not quite.

 

“He did,” Steve nodded. “And from the way he said it, I get the feeling it’s more important than what somebody carries around in their pockets.”

 

“It is,” Dum Dum agreed, glancing over his own shoulder at Bucky, who was still fussing over Daturia, carefully running his fingers over and through her mane, before Dum Dum brought his attention back to Steve.

 

“What do you know about The Five and thems that worship them?” There was a quietness to Dum Dum’s voice when he asked the question, and Steve couldn’t tell if it was because Dum Dum didn’t want Bucky to overhear them, or if he was trying to avoid the attention of someone, something else.

 

“Not much,” Steve shrugged, kicking his feet out from where they dangled beneath him from the lip of Dum Dum’s cart where he had perched himself. “Just that the people who worship them are few, and that they always keep their word when they make a promise to you.”

 

“True enough.” Dum Dum lifted another crate into the wagon, and then paused, pulling a handkerchief out of his pocket to wipe his forehead. Studying him, Steve realized he was using it as a distraction for whatever it was he was about to say. “They’re a rare lot, these days. There used to be more, soldiers mostly, but that was before the peace treaty was signed. They spook most people, but most people are idiots.” It was a sentiment Steve found himself unfortunately agreeing with, as it bore true to what his own experience in the Six had taught him.

 

“But I’ve known quite a few of them aside from James, from back in the day, and they’re a good lot, hard-working, and if you’re lucky enough for one of them to consider you family or a friend, there ain’t nothing they won’t do for you, true to the very end.”

 

“Then why are so many people spooked by them?” The word felt strange, unfamiliar to Steve’s tongue, and he hoped he was using it correctly.

 

“Because of their Five and Their Balance,” Dum Dum said with another shrug.

 

“Why? Are The Five evil?” As far as Steve knew, no gods were evil, but they could ask a heavy price of their followers.

 

“No,” Dum Dum insisted with a shake of his head. “They’re not evil. They just are. From what I’ve been able to best figure, and mind you, this is all from what I’ve been told, those that follow them don’t even consider them gods. They’re elementals, or the essence of life, and They’re everywhere and in everything. Earth, Water, Wind, Fire and Spirit, from what I understand. Five points of a bright white star, connected by a circle, that lights the way. But it’s not just the light that’s important to them, but the dark as well. Those that follow Them believe in Their light, but also respect the dark that’s in between. Say that one can’t exist without the other, just like night can’t exist without the day, or life without death, and that that balance always needs to be respected. So when you hear them talking about coin, that’s what they mean. It’s how they believe The Five are protecting the balance. It can be dark sometimes, very dark, but those that follow The Five never shy away from it, just accept it as a part of life, something that needs to exist or be done to protect that balance. It’s why so many are wary of them. They think they’re fanatics, when they’re just doing all they can to respect the balance as best they can. Fools, if you ask me, that haven’t taken the time to try and understand. But they’re good people, those that worship The Five, the best people, even if their path seems dark to an outsider. Always try to remember that, whether you’re dealing with James or someone else who follows The Five, and you’ll be fine. Fuck them over, and well, there aren’t many of them left these days, but that just means The Five themselves are even more protective of those that do still follow Their ways, and when it comes time to pay Their coin, it might be you who’s paying it.”

 

“What are you yammering on about now Dum Dum?” The owner of that low, dark and deep voice, Bucky himself, was much closer than either of them realized, and his sudden proximity startled both of them. Steve couldn’t help his flinch, and while Dum Dum didn’t jerk, it was obvious Bucky had caught him just as unawares. Thinking on all he had been told, and the new, while by no means complete understanding it had given him, Steve decided to be the one to pay the coin for this toll.

 

“We were just trying to figure out where we’d be going next,” Steve smiled cheerfully at Bucky. “You never did say.” He was willing to pay the coin, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t do it in his own way.

 

***

 

Next was further west into Aeriella.

 

Or at least it was once Bucky finally calmed down enough to stop grumbling under his breath every time he looked in Steve’s direction. Dum Dum thought it hilarious, so much so he gifted Steve with The Mermaid’s Forbidden Kiss, saying Steve deserved it if he was going to be travelling with Bucky. Bucky cursed him for it, but Steve gratefully accepted the book, even more valuable now because it was being given, tucking it carefully into his pack.

 

“I don’t get why you’d even want to leave Zaldura, after the way you kept begging me to take you there,” Bucky scowled while helping Dum Dum restack the crates in his wagon. “You had a well-paying job and everything. And Paulie was certainly happy with you.”

 

“You spoke to him?” Steve asked, as Bucky handed another crate to Dum Dum. For all of Dum Dum’s greater size, Bucky handled the heavy boxes as easily as he did.

 

“’Course I did,” Bucky hefted another crate, “I had to make sure you made it there safely, instead of being eaten by a pigeon, knowing your luck.”

 

“Uh-huh,” came Dum Dum’s voice from the back of the cart.

 

“Shut up, you.” Apparently Bucky was no fonder of those words being used on him than Steve was when Bucky did it.

 

“It was boring, Bucky,” Steve tried to explain.

 

“So? The pay was good. And you had a safe place to bed down every night.”

 

“That was even worse,” Steve grumbled.

 

“Why?” Bucky wanted to know.

 

“Because of Ralph and Johnny.”

 

“Who?”

 

“Ralph and Johnny.”

 

“Were they giving you trouble? They shouldn’t have. Gwennie’s very careful about who she lets into her house.” Bucky paused mid-lift to stare at Steve.

 

“No, no trouble,” Steve shook his head. “But Ralph snored, really loudly Bucky, all night long.”

 

“Oh, did he now?”

 

“Shut up, I do not snore,” Steve immediately protested. “But Johnny was even worse.”

 

“Why? What’d Johnny do?” Dum Dum asked curiously from over Bucky’s shoulder.

 

“He farted. All the time. I thought I was going to suffocate.”

 

While Bucky stood there, blinking at him, Dum Dum burst out laughing. “By the gods, he’s perfect for you!” he guffawed.

 

“He is not,” Bucky snapped back at him. Dum Dum merely shrugged it off, as easily as if Bucky were a kitten batting at his ankle.

 

“Can’t say I blame him though. Between Ralph and good old Johnny, I’d want to get as far away from Zaldura as possible too.”

 

Bucky chose to ignore Dum Dum, turning his attention back to Steve. “You just had to make it through one more week, then something else would’ve opened up.”

 

“I thought I was going to die.” From behind Bucky, Dum Dum snorted again.

 

“You might still,” Bucky muttered through gritted teeth. “I haven’t made up my mind yet.”

 

“Ignore him, Steve, was it?” When Steve nodded, Dum Dum winked at him. “He gets like this before he’s had his breakfast. Just rub his belly and he usually calms right down.”

 

“Really?” Steve asked. That was definitely a good trick to know.

 

“Dum Dum,” Bucky growled.

 

“Like I said,” Dum Dum nodded. “Perfect.

 

“Do you want me to rub your belly?” Steve offered, reaching out with his hand.

 

The sound of Dum Dum’s laughter echoed on the wind, long after he had driven off.

 

Bucky stood there, Daturia’s reigns in his hands, not saying a word while he watched Dum Dum drive away, his face unreadable. Until with a final sigh, he shook his head, and began to lead his horse toward the tree-line, only saying, “Come on. We best get moving.”

 

He grew quiet after that, never saying much over the following three days as he led them to their next destination. Steve didn’t mind; it wasn’t oppressive, and it certainly smelled a lot better than Zaldura. And they had, however unintentionally, developed a rhythm of their own since they’d first met. So without needing any words between them, Steve would set up their camp, avoiding touching Bucky’s things, while Bucky gave Daturia a good brushing, and made sure she had enough grasses to eat and water to drink. The mornings passed in much the same way, still quiet, but with a certain peace of its own. And although few words were ever said, sometimes Steve would look up to find Bucky staring at him, a strange look on his face, as if he were searching for answers, but still hadn’t figured out the right questions to ask. Natasha sometimes stared at him that way, so Steve was used to it, even if her gaze felt very different from Bucky’s.

 

It lasted until the third night, when Steve returned from his own bath in the small creek they had camped beside, to find Bucky sitting with his back against a tree, his sheaf of papers once again resting on his knees.

 

“Why did you leave home, Steve?” Bucky asked quietly, just as Steve settled in his bedroll. Both the question and the abruptness of it caught Steve off guard, especially after three days of Bucky not saying much of anything to him at all. Steve found himself searching for an answer. It wasn’t something to be spoken about, at least not with someone who wasn’t from his home. He doubted he could even explain it to a citizen of the Six in a way they would understand.

 

Yet still, he knew he owed Bucky something. He had inserted himself into Bucky’s life, after being rescued by him. And as of yet, Bucky hadn’t turned him away, was being kind to him in fact, when Steve knew he was, in truth, nothing more than a burden. So Steve took a moment, to gather his thoughts, find his words, in an attempt to answer Bucky’s question.

 

“It’s something we do, where I’m from,” he began.

 

“The North, you said,” Bucky murmured, proving his memory was as sharp as Steve’s.

 

“Yes, the North,” Steve nodded. “It’s a…tradition, I suppose you’d call it. When some of us reach a certain age, we’re supposed to leave home, and go out into the world and – and seek our treasure.”

 

“So you’re yet another young fool who’s left home to find his fortune in the Six?” Bucky shook his head.

 

“It’s not like that,” Steve insisted. And it wasn’t, not really. This was why it was so difficult to explain it to someone from the Six. When one of them heard the word treasure, they immediately thought of gold, jewels, trinkets. And yes, those had value and were guarded fiercely among his own, but what Steve was searching for was something else. Something infinitely more precious, that meant safety, security, a heart that was content. There were no words for what it was; Steve just knew he needed to find it.

 

“Then what is it like?” Bucky asked.

 

“It’s…It’s…” Steve faltered, waving his hands uselessly in the air. “It’s important. The most important thing.”

 

“Do you even know what it is?”

 

“No, not yet,” Steve shook his head. “Everyone that’s done it before me just said I’d know when I found it.”

 

“Did they even give you a map? These ‘everyones’?” Bucky pressed.

 

“No,” Steve shrugged. “I’m supposed to find it by myself. That’s part of the test.” From where he sat, only a few feet, but feeling miles away, Bucky stared at him, the flickering shadows caused by their campfire dancing over his features, before he finally made a tch-ing sound and shook his head.

 

“So you left your home because you were supposed to find something, you don’t even know what, without even knowing where to start looking for it,” he eventually said.

 

“Yes, it’s tradition,” Steve repeated. “I got started a bit later than most, but there were reasons for that. But it doesn’t matter, I’m still going to find it.”

 

“Hmmm,” Bucky hummed. “I suppose you will. If anyone is stubborn enough to manage it, it’d be you.” Bucky glanced back down at the papers in his lap, quickly scribbling down a few more words, before he shook his head again and smiled a small but strange smile. “Although I have to say, you must have done something to piss off your gods –“

 

“The Sisters and the Stars,” Steve interjected.

 

“Yes, them, the Sisters and the Stars,” Bucky conceded with another nod, “because here you are, far from home and all alone, looking for something that’s supposed to be important, but not knowing what it is, and they threw you in my path. You unlucky sod.”

 

“Maybe you’re the one who’s supposed to help me find it.” It was unusual, but not unheard of. And Steve had to believe there was a reason the Sisters had led him to Bucky when they had.

 

“Don’t count on it,” Bucky snorted. “I’ve got plenty of things of my own I need to do, just as important as yours. And if I find any fortune, I’m telling you right now, I’m keeping it for myself. Now get some sleep. We need to get –“

 

“I know, I know, an early start,” Steve grumbled, curling up on his side.

 

“And try not to snore. I’d like to get at least a few hours rest.”

 

“I do not snore!” But Steve was smiling as he said it.

 

“Like. A. Bear.”

 

“You’re a jerk, Bucky.”

 

“And you’re a pain in my ass. Now be quiet and go to sleep.”

 

***

 

After that, things went back to normal. Or what normal passed for between the two of them. Bucky grew more talkative, answering most of Steve’s questions as long as he didn’t venture into anything too personal, and he stopped constantly complaining about Steve’s presence. When Steve asked him why, cautiously one night when they were bunking down in a traveler’s hut, Bucky merely shrugged and said,

 

“It is what it is Steve. It looks like we’ll be travelling together for a while, at least until you find whatever it is you’re looking for. When we need to go our separate ways, we will. For now, it’ll have to do.”

 

Steve supposed even he couldn’t argue with that logic.

 

And Steve had to admit, travelling with Bucky was enjoyable, and certainly much more interesting than sitting at a desk all day. There was always something new to see, and he was learning more and more about the world as they made their way from town to traders post to fishing village, with plenty of nights spent sleeping beneath the trees in between.

 

As per usual, Bucky seemed to always know someone wherever they went, usually being greeted with either a smile or fond clap to the shoulder. Sometimes he introduced them to Steve, and sometimes he would slip away to speak to someone quietly, like the night Steve had looked up from his meal, to see Bucky talking to a tall, bald, dark-skinned man, wearing a leather coat and eye-patch. Steve knew better than to stare for too long; Bucky seemed to have a sixth-sense letting him know when someone was watching him. So Steve went back to his dinner, and when he looked up again the man was gone. Steve just assumed he was another of Bucky’s clients, and left it at that. He knew by now that privacy was a hallmark of Bucky’s trade, and that Bucky’s discretion was highly valued.

 

And there was usually something new to see in all of the places Bucky took him too. The bard, playing an instrument Steve had never seen before while singing a bawdy tale about a cook, serving girl and thief. The vials of various scented waters he’d found at a stall in the much, much smaller marketplace in a mid-sized town Bucky visited, claiming he needed to stock up on supplies. Steve ended up purchasing one that smelled of rosewater, because he liked the scent, and the women in the books he read always seemed to be dousing themselves in it, especially right before they attempted to seduce whatever man or woman had caught their eye. The fight that had broken out in the corner of the saloon where Bucky had decided to dine one night, with the table being overturned and knives drawn. Steve never got to see what the outcome was; Bucky had dragged him out by his ear as soon as the first threat was uttered.

 

“What was that all about?” Steve wondered aloud once they were back out on the street.

 

“Card game, most likely,” Bucky answered.

 

“Really? All of that over a game?”

 

“You’d be surprised what people will do when coin is involved. Some people cheat, and others don’t like to lose. You throw drink into the mix, and it can get very nasty, very quickly.”

 

“Really?”

 

“You ever see something like that starting, you get your ass out of there as soon as possible. It’s not just the fight you have to worry about. There’re usually plenty of other folks in the crowd who will happily take advantage of a distraction like that.”

 

“Really?” Steve asked for the third time.

 

“Yes, really,” Bucky insisted as he dragged Steve along. “Why do you think that man accused you of stealing his purse when Logan cornered you at The Yellow Wolverine? Probably thought he could get a free night’s stay out of it, or at least not have to pay his tab.”

 

“Huh.” Steve supposed that made an awful sort of sense. He had wondered why the man had been so adamant in his accusation when Steve hadn’t gone anywhere near him or his purse.

 

“Remember what I’ve said about opportunities, and how there are people out there who’ll take advantage of any they can?”

 

“You did tell me that,” Steve said.

 

“And that’s exactly what I meant. Make sure you remember that from now on.” Steve would. Only a fool would forget a lesson as important and painful as that had been, and Steve was trying very hard to not be foolish.

 

There were other opportunities as well, at least according to Bucky. The first one being the resumption of Steve’s fighting lessons. Not only would they improve his skills, but increase his strength, or so Bucky claimed. Steve had forgotten how much his muscles ached after each one, but as much as he complained, he couldn’t deny that once again Bucky was right. And he was getting better, slowly but surely, and bit by bit. He would never be Bucky’s match; Bucky was the wispiness of smoke, the speed of lightning, the precision of a perfectly taken shot every single time. But as they continued to practice, on different surfaces at Bucky’s insistence, his footing grew steadier, his muscle memory improving, so it got to the point where Steve was able to last longer, rolling with Bucky’s movements instead of being slammed by them. Or at least he could until the jerk used some new tactic which always ended with Steve flat on his back.

 

“Not bad,” Bucky admitted, reaching out a hand to help Steve to his feet. “You’re definitely getting better.”

 

“Not good enough though,” Steve grumbled.

 

“Don’t take it so hard Steve,” Bucky scolded him mildly. “I’ve had years of practice. But you’re a fast learner, and you’ve got good instincts. It’ll just take time. Be patient with yourself. Now come on, again. Try coming at me low this time.”

 

For all of that, Bucky was a very good teacher. He always pointed out when Steve made a mistake, but he wasn’t cruel about it. But he also let Steve know when he’d done something right, or how to adapt something Steve attempted so it would be more effective. His knowledge was endless, and Steve sometimes wondered, although never aloud, if he was a former guard or member of some city’s watch. Bucky would never tell him even if he did ask.

 

There was more to fighting than just fighting though, and Steve needed to learn about that as well. Almost as vital as what Steve did with his body was an accurate assessment of his opponent. The twisting of a leg that indicated an old injury, which side they favored that gave clue to a weak spot. Or how to tell how many weapons someone carried.

 

“How many knives do you think I have on me right now?” Bucky asked, standing as casual as could be in front of Steve. Steve took a moment to carefully consider before he finally answered.

 

“At least six,” he finally said. “One in each of your boots, one strapped to each thigh, and one on each of your forearms.”

 

“Impressive,” Bucky nodded. “But do you know that cos you’ve made them, or because you’ve seen me strapping them on?”

 

“A bit of both, I think,” Steve had to admit. “I wouldn’t have been able to tell, before. But now that I know they’re there, I know what to look for. I mean, not the ones in your boots. But the ones on your arms and legs. Your clothes hang just a little differently there. Not in a way that’s obvious, and I think you’ve done something that hides them even better, maybe an extra pocket or something else. But now that I can see it on you, I think I’d be able to see it on someone else.”

 

“Like I said, a sharp eye,” Bucky said, with just a hint of pride. “Just so you know, I’ve got more than double that. But most people wouldn’t have even made the ones you did. Not bad.”

 

Bucky also began to teach Steve how to assess a room, using a subtle glance to determine which areas were welcoming and which safer to avoid, and to always keep his ears open. Listening was an important skill, and you could learn a lot about what was up ahead, the mood of a place, or if there was any danger to look out for just by paying attention to what was being said while pretending not to. That particular lesson was an easy one for Steve to master. His own people were naturally curious, nosy by the standards of many others, and knowledge was a currency highly valued among them. Steve liked to listen, for all that Sam and Bucky claimed he never shut up. While much of it could be boring, sometimes one learned such interesting things. And gossip, stories, myths, beliefs, were always precious things to be gathered and kept safe.

 

And news seemed to travel fast throughout the Six, especially when drink was involved and tongues grew looser, Steve discovered one night, as he and Bucky dined in yet another roadside inn on the trail between two cities Bucky claimed he needed to visit.

 

“Did you hear about what happened in Zaldura during the festival?” Something in the way the words were whispered, rushed, tingled Steve’s ears, telling him to pay attention.

 

“No, what?” This voice was female.

 

“Three murders,” the first voice went on.

 

“What?” the female voice again.

 

“I heard it was only two, and they was bad enough,” a third voice joined in. “Senator Stern and Chancellor Schmidt. The Senator’s throat was slit, and they say Schmidt was poisoned. No one even knew, until two days later, when he didn’t show up to greet the delegation from Wakanda.”

 

“Yeah well, there’s them, but then my cousin’s brother-in-law said they found the harbormaster’s body floating in the bay three days after that, not a mark on him. Sitwell, I think his name was. But after the other two, it’s got to be murder. Apparently the Queen’s furious, and so’s Prime Minister Hill,” the first voice whispered. “And before that, something happened not too far from Elaris.”

 

“No one saw or heard anything?” the woman asked.

 

“No. Not a thing,” the first voice said with what Steve could swear was a terrified delight. “They’re saying it can only be the work of the White Wolf.”

 

“The what?” the female voice asked, just as the third hissed “Ssh! Don’t mention his name.”

 

The White Wolf,” the first voice went on, ignoring the third’s warning. “Nobody knows who he is or where he came from. They don’t even know if it’s a man or woman. Only that once he sets his sights on you, there’s no escape. He –“

 

“Or she,” the third apparently decided to join in.

 

“Or she,” the first speaker acquiesced, “has been at it for at least ten years. They never leave a trace, except for the bodies, and no one’s ever been able to catch them.”

 

“Maybe it’s a ghost,” the woman murmured, as if this were the obvious answer.

 

“Could be. A vengeful one if it is, cos I heard if they kill you, it’s cos you probably deserved it,” the third contributed. “Maybe it’s the Sisters’ way of meting out their justice.”

 

“What do you mean?” the woman asked.

 

“It’s said they’re the one who took down the Obadiahs, when Helia had been trying to catch them for years. They went quiet after that, for a bit, and everybody thought it was one of their own that their leader must have screwed over. But then they started up again, going after HY-“

 

“You best be keeping your mouth shut, Freddie,” a fourth, gruffer voice suddenly interjected. “You don’t know who might be listening.”

 

“Yeah but they say whoever it is, they’ve got even them shitting their pants in fear.”

 

“Freddie!”

 

“Right, right. Sorry,” Freddie mumbled. Steve’s ears were ringing, and he was desperate to know more, so much so he was tempted to turn around and ask the other diners even more questions, when Bucky, who had been engaged in a conversation with the barmaid the entire time, kicked his ankle under the table. Somehow Steve knew it was a warning, telling him to mind his own business. Still, Steve couldn’t help but be fascinated. He knew he should probably be afraid, but there was something about the story, and this supposed White Wolf, that intrigued him. A murderer no one had been able to catch, who had taken down the Obadiahs and was now going after a second group. Steve knew from personal experience how horrible the Obadiahs were; there must be some reason why the White Wolf was pursuing this other clan, whatever their name was. It almost felt as if this person was a character in a story he had read, someone dark and deadly, with motivations no one knew, but perhaps justice, or maybe some sort of revenge.

 

It occupied his thoughts for the rest of their meal, throughout the night, and into the next morning, like a sore tooth he couldn’t keep from probing with his tongue, so much so he even ended up asking Bucky about it.

 

“Have you ever heard of the White Wolf?” he blurted, midway through his breakfast pasty once they were again back on the road. He knew the question was abrupt, but he had learned that sometimes asking a question out of nowhere could startle an answer out of someone. It worked often enough with Sam, although Natasha never fell prey to the tactic.

 

“The what?” Bucky asked around a mouthful of food. Apparently he shared Natasha’s immunity, his stride never faltering as he continued to guide Daturia by her lead with one hand, scratching at his hip with the other.

 

“The White Wolf,” Steve repeated.

 

“Why are you asking me about that?” Bucky’s expression didn’t even look mildly curious, telling Steve Bucky either never heard of the mysterious Wolf, or even worse, had and didn’t care.

 

“It was just something I overheard a bunch of people talking about last night.” Steve took another bite of his pasty; he wanted to finish it while it was still hot. “It was interesting.”

 

“Oh really? And what was so interesting about it?” Bucky was done scratching his itch, and was now using his hand to brush a stray lock of hair back behind his ear. He’d done it in a style Steve had never seen on him before, several braids on each side that he’d combined with the rest to twist up into a bun at the back of his head, while leaving a few long bangs to hang free. It was deceptively simple looking, although Steve had to admit it was pretty, and he again wondered who taught Bucky to do his hair.

 

“Just,” Steve resumed speaking when he realized Bucky was still waiting for a response from him, “that there were three murders back in Zaldura, and they said it was him, or her maybe, they didn’t seem to know for sure. Not only that, but whoever it is has supposedly been at it for years, and no one’s been able to catch them yet.”

 

“Three murders,” Bucky shook his head. “That’s a lot of trouble.”

 

“I heard them say the Queen was furious about it,” Steve agreed.

 

“Anything else?”

 

“Well that’s the thing that makes it so interesting,” Steve continued. “One of them said that this White Wolf supposedly only goes after people who really deserve it, even if it doesn’t seem like it at first. Said they’re the ones responsible for getting rid of the Obadiahs, and are now going after some other group or clan, although he never said their name. But it was the way they were saying it, like it was a secret everyone was supposed to know, and they were afraid but still couldn’t stop themselves from talking about it. As if just by saying the name, it’d make you the Wolf’s next target. One of them even thought it might be a ghost or a vengeful spirit or something like that.”

 

“Huh,” was all Bucky had to say.

 

“So?” Steve pressed.

 

“So what?”

 

“So what do you think about them?”

 

“Think about who?” Bucky asked.

 

“The White Wolf, Bucky, haven’t you been listening to a word I said?”

 

“The White Wolf?”

 

“Yes,” Steve said, shoving the last bit of pasty into his mouth. “Have you ever heard of them? Do you think they’re real?”

 

“Everybody’s heard of the White Wolf, Steve.”

 

“Really? And?”

 

“And what?”

 

“And what do you think? Is it true?”

 

“I think the people you were listening to were probably very deep in their cups, is what I think,” Bucky said with a derisive shake of his head.

 

“But -“

 

“The White Wolf is a fairy tale, a myth, or maybe that one person had it right and it’s a ghost story. Something parents tell their children before they go to bed, so they’ll behave. ‘Oh, you better be good and stop pulling your sister’s braids, or the White Wolf will come after you next,’” Bucky ended in a high falsetto.

 

“But what about the murders?” Steve pressed.

 

“Remember what I said to you about every city having its dark side?” Bucky countered.

 

“Yes.”

 

“Well politics is one of the darkest sides of any city. Two councilmen get into a fight, and one of them decides to get rid of his opposition. Or a senator signs a trade deal that favors his district, undercutting the profits of another. A bottle of wine with a single drop of a slow acting poison takes care of that problem.”

 

“But one of the murdered was supposedly the harbormaster, not a senator or councilman,” Steve protested.

 

“And who do you think controls what gets in and out of a port like Zaldura? What cargo gets overlooked, and which ships get docked at certain piers when someone wants to sneak something illegal in, all while getting a nice thick cut under the table. It’s a position with a lot of power, and the harbormaster probably did a double-cross and somebody wasn’t too happy about it.”

 

“If that were the case, then it would make sense the White Wolf went after him,” Steve concluded. Bucky rolled his eyes and sighed, as if asking his Five for patience.

 

“Like I just said Steve, politics is a nasty business, with plenty of back-stabbing and throat-slitting. But it’s easier to blame some mysterious figure that doesn’t exist, instead of admitting parts of a system are corrupt. Use the excuse often enough, and it takes on a life of its own. And then every time something unexplained happens, or someone needs an alibi, they start using the same old excuse. ‘Oh no, twasn’t me Constable. I know you saw me fighting with my good-for-nothing brother-in-law last night, but I went straight home to my dear, sweet wife right afterwards. It couldna been me that killed him, it had to be the White Wolf.’

 

“Oh.” Even though he was disappointed, he had to admit Bucky’s words made a lot of sense.

 

“The White Wolf’s just a story, one of many,” Bucky concluded.

 

“There are others?” Steve asked, his curiosity relit.

 

“Plenty of them,” Bucky nodded. “You end up hearing lots of them when you’ve spent as much time on the road as I have. Most of them are bollocks, but some are pretty interesting.”

 

“Like what?”

 

“Like the one our barmaid was telling me last night. Said her cousin’s husband thinks one of their sheep can predict the future. Is convinced it’s a prophet.”

 

“You’re lying!” Steve accused.

 

“I wish I was.”

 

“I mean…I guess it could be true?”

 

“By The Five, Steve,” Bucky sounded exasperated.

 

“But how would he even know? And how would that work?”

 

“Maybe he sees portents in its big, stinking piles of shits. Just like the one I’m going to throw you in as soon as we come across it.”

 

“You wouldn’t.” From the way Bucky was glaring at him, Steve couldn’t be so sure that was true.

 

“Tell you what, after I toss you into it, I’ll ride back to their farm and ask him if his sheep predicted that.”

 

“You’re not funny, you know.”

 

“I’m hilarious,” Bucky grinned at him. “Just ask the sheep.” Steve couldn’t help the snort that escaped him. They fell quiet after that, enjoying the quiet stretch of road, the clomp of Daturia’s hooves, when combined with the early morning birdsong, a soothing counterpoint to Steve’s thoughts. But still, Steve had more questions.

 

“Did you get their name?” he asked.

 

“Whose name?”

 

“The sheep. The one who tells the future. Does it have a name?”

 

“Steve!”

 

“What?”

 

***

 

And then, not too long after that, Bucky once again did something that surprised Steve. Something Steve never would have expected when he bedded down for the night, and out of nowhere gave Steve something truly, truly precious.

 

***

 

 

“Steve. Steve, come on Steve, you need to wake up.”

 

Steve was in the middle of a dream of talking sheep and smiling wolves, when Bucky’s hand shook him awake.

 

“Go ‘way. ‘M not snoring,” Steve mumbled, trying to roll over.

 

“Come on Steve, open your eyes.” Bucky began to lightly slap Steve’s cheeks with his hand. “Come on, that’s it. Just like that. Now get up and out of your bedroll. And be quick about it. We don’t have much time, and you’re not going to want to miss this.”

 

“Miss wha?” Steve asked, rubbing his eyes and sitting up at the same time.

 

“The Dragons, Steve,” Bucky exhaled excitedly, pulling Steve to his feet.

 

“The what?” That certainly caught Steve’s attention and he was now wide awake.

 

“The Dragons,” Bucky repeated. “But we have to hurry. They won’t be there for long, and we don’t want to waste a single second.”

 

Bucky led Steve to a flat outcropping of rock less than fifteen meters away from their camp, which he easily climbed, while instructing Steve to do the same. Then he lay down on his back, and stared up into the inky black of the nighttime sky, saying nothing else. Steve had no idea what Bucky was so excited about, or what it was about this particular indigo sky compared to all the other ones they’d slept beneath. Something about it must have done something to Bucky, because Steve had never seen him like this before. His eyes were wide and young, younger than Steve had ever seen them, and each bated breath he took seemed laced with an innocent and almost heartbreaking excitement. Yet still, nothing in their surroundings appeared to warrant Bucky dragging Steve out of bed, and Steve certainly didn’t see any dragons.

 

“Bucky, what –“ Steve started to ask after four minutes of this when Bucky cut him off, raising his hand, pointing at the sky.

 

“There. See,” he barely breathed. When Steve followed his finger, he saw what had Bucky so excited; a small, brightly burning stream of color, streaking between the stars.

 

“Oh,” was all Steve could say, his own eyes wide, and heart starting to soar.

 

“Wait for it, wait for it,” Bucky whispered. And sure enough, just a few seconds later came another. And then another. Followed by even more. Ribbon after ribbon after ribbon of light, some gold, some ice white, others almost red, but each one more beautiful than the last. Steve suddenly understood why Bucky had been so excited, wanting to laugh with joy, while at the same time desperately hungering for his home. Happiness and sadness, freedom and yearning, peace and a deep, deep sense of loss, that was too many things at once, and yet still somehow not enough.

 

“This is what you wanted me to see?” Steve asked as softly as he could, not wanting to disturb the moment. Bucky nodded.

 

“The Dragons,” Bucky whispered back, his own eyes alight.

 

“It’s beautiful,” was all Steve could murmur.

 

Bucky hummed softly in agreement. “It happens once a year, and only for a few hours. We’re lucky to be even seeing them, you usually can’t this far north, but I thought maybe this year it might be different. And it seems I was right.”

 

“Is this why you insisted we make camp so high up?” Steve had wondered why Bucky had been so determined to get to higher ground, when he usually preferred to break for the night next to a stream, beneath the cover of trees.

 

“Uh-hmm,” Bucky hummed, his hands resting on his belly. “Worth it, wouldn’t you say?”

 

“Definitely,” Steve had to agree. “How’d they get their name?”

 

“Some people call them shooting stars, and sailors call them Namor’s Tears,” Bucky answered, never taking his eyes off the sky. “They’re meteorites, passing by us high, high up in the air. But where I’m from, we always called them The Dragons. Seeing them is supposed to bring you luck.”

 

Steve would have to remember that; he thought it would be something Sam and Natasha would love to hear.

 

“Are there lots of stories about dragons where you’re from?” Steve wanted to know.

 

“There are lots of stories about dragons everywhere in the Six. I’m surprised you haven’t heard a bunch of them yourself by now,” Bucky answered, never taking his eyes from the sky and his dragons. “It’s said that a long, long time ago, they even walked among us, that we lived together side by side in peace.”

 

“Really? They say that?” Bucky was right; Steve hadn’t heard any tales about dragons since he’d travelled to these lands. He’d simply thought there weren’t any, anymore.

 

“Yep. But then one day, they just left, no one remembers why. Probably wars or human greed. We people are stupid that way, selfish, always wanting more, never appreciating what we do have until it’s too late. But somebody’s always got some story their cousin’s brother-in-law’s uncle’s best-friend’s great-great auntie twice removed told them, about looking up and seeing a dragon flying overhead, especially where I’m from. There was even one passed down in my family, that my grandmaman loved to tell at family gatherings. About how her great-great-grandmaman looked up one day, and saw a red dragon flying close enough that if she’d reached out, she’d have been able to touch it. My grandmaman always said she claimed it was the reddest thing she had ever seen, like living blood or rubies on fire.”

 

“She must have been very lucky,” was all Steve could say.

 

“Dunno about that,” Bucky shrugged. “They also said she was very fond of the drink too, so who knows how true it is. But it was one of my favorite stories, and I always used to beg my grandmaman to tell it to me whenever I saw her.” Bucky paused, his gaze growing pensive and far away. “As for the rest of it, I don’t know. If there are any dragons still left out there, I hope they’re happy and somewhere safe, high up in their skies. Can’t say I blame them for leaving either, if they ever did actually exist.” The reflected starlight looked like tears in Bucky’s eyes as he followed the last of his dragons make its way to wherever it was going. “We humans didn’t deserve them. We never did.”

 

***

 

A strange night, one Steve would never forget. And with still more surprises for Steve.

 

Once the last dragon disappeared, Bucky didn’t show any interest in moving or returning to their camp. He just lay there, quiet, calm and more relaxed than Steve had ever seen him, staring up into the starlit sky. Steve thought he would be content to stay there for the rest of the night, until about a quarter of an hour later, Bucky again lifted his hand, pointing up at the sky.

 

“The Great Hope,” he said, his finger directed at the brightest star.

 

“Which one? That one? The big blue one?” Steve asked.

 

“Yep,” Bucky nodded. “They call it that because you can always find it, no matter the season, and if you follow it, it points north and will help guide you home. That no matter how dark your life is, if you look up, there’s always hope to help you find your way back.”

 

“I like that,” Steve smiled.

 

“Most people do, sailors especially. It’s always on all their star-charts, and a good navigator will always know where it is, and use that to guide them.”

 

“What about the rest?” Steve shifted so he was more comfortable, settling in to listen to whatever Bucky was willing to share.

 

“The Bridge of Three,” Bucky said, pointing to the three stars between the span of the two moons. “When they’re lit like that, they say one sister is visiting the other. They’re not always perfectly aligned, so when one of the Sisters goes dark, it’s because she’s stuck at the other’s house, and can’t go back until they realign. Which Sister is visiting who depends on which moon is waxing or waning, but eventually they both manage to make it home, and that’s when the two moons are full. Until one starts missing the other, and the cycle starts all over again.”

 

“Trelia’s Bounty,” was the next cluster Bucky named. It was a grouping of ten stars that when Steve followed the motion of Bucky’s finger resembled a figure eight, with a star in the center of each circle. “Or Trelia’s Tits if you want to be crude about it. She’s a favorite of prostitutes, and you’ll almost always find an alter to her somewhere in most brothels. It’s said that’s because her breasts have the sweetest milk. New mothers will usually light a candle to her too.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Yes really.”

 

“That’s kind of gross.”

 

“What’s gross about it?” Bucky asked, tearing his eyes away from the sky for the first time that night.

 

“Just…the idea of breastmilk, pouring down on you from the sky. Who wants that?”

 

“You’d be surprised,” Bucky smirked at him. “Although not my thing, there are plenty who would pay healthy coin for a chance to sip from the right pair of breasts.”

 

“Ugh.” It wasn’t Steve’s thing either, but then again, who was he to judge the tastes of others as long as both participants were willing.

 

“And you can’t blame a mother for wanting to make sure she has enough milk.”

 

“I suppose,” Steve had to admit. The idea was still strange to him, not one he’d ever had to consider before, but it did make sense. “What else?”

 

There were lots of stars hanging in the sky that night, and Bucky seemed to know the names of all of them. The Archer, the Tomb, the Ravens of Time, the Beggar’s Bowl, The Key, and next to it, The Hidden Door, the darkest patch of sky, which was supposedly a favorite of assassins. So many of them, and each with their own story, that Bucky generously shared.

 

“What about you?” Bucky asked when there were no more stars left for him to name. “What do they call them all where you’re from?”

 

“We don’t name them. It’s just not something we do back home,” Steve said, shaking his head.

 

“Really?” Bucky asked in disbelief. “Not any of them?”

 

“It’s not that they don’t have names, it’s just we don’t presume to know them. You’re supposed to ask, and if they want to tell you, they will. And if they do, it’s a secret you’re not supposed to tell anyone else. Natasha says she knows them all, but she always acts like she knows everything all the time.”

 

“Natasha?” Bucky brows furrowed. “You’ve mentioned her before.”

 

“She’s a friend of mine,” Steve said, unsurprised Bucky would have remembered. “Most of the time, anyway. She’s bossy as hell, and always trying to stick her nose where it doesn’t belong.”

 

“She sounds like a good friend,” Bucky laughed.

 

“She is,” Steve had to admit. “I miss her a lot. Her and Sam, another good friend of mine.”

 

“Well, if things go well for you, and you find whatever it is you’re looking for, hopefully you’ll get to see them again soon.”

 

“I guess so,” was all Steve could say. “But this isn’t too bad either. I’m glad I left home. It was definitely worth it.”

 

Bucky was quiet for a long time after that. Until eventually, quietly, so softly Steve wasn’t sure he hadn’t imagined the words, he thought he heard Bucky say, “I’m glad you did too.”

Chapter Text

Dear Becca,

 

So I guess it’s time I finally told you about Steve. It’s only fair, I suppose, since I’ve already told him about you and everybody else back home.

 

Steve is…well, Steve is a pain in the ass, is what he is. Always getting into trouble, and can’t tell his ass from his elbow most times. And the mouth on him Becs, you would not believe the mouth on him. Always shooting it off at the worst possible time.

 

He’s also stubborn, determined, and curious too, always asking questions when he should know better. He refuses to let anything keep him down, even though he’s shorter than Ma. And he’s brave, so brave, and smart too, able to think on his feet when he needs to. I think you’d really like him, even if he does snore louder than a bear.

 

***

 

“What are you writing about now? Is it another one of your stories?” Steve wanted to know. They were in an old, abandoned barn this time, that smelled of mold and unwashed feet for some reason. But at least it was dry, and given the storm that was raging outside, it looked like they’d be staying there for a while. They’d been there for three hours, had already eaten a meal, and sparred for two. Once Bucky called an end to their training, he settled himself in a corner, pulled out his papers and pencil, and been quiet ever since. Steve knew he should probably leave him alone, but he was bored and needed a distraction, especially from the smell.

 

“Remember what I said about the questions you ask –“

 

“Yes, yes, yes, I know. Wrong questions, wrong people, blah-blah-blah,” Steve waved him off. “I know you’re not going to kill me for it by now.”

 

“Sure of that, are you?” Bucky didn’t even bother looking up from what he was doing.

 

“Oh please. If you were, it would have been when I fell out of that tree and dropped your knife in the river.”

 

“Please don’t ever mention that again.”

 

“I did find it again, and okay, it took me two hours, but I did find it. Eventually.”

 

“Steve.”

 

“And there were apples, Bucky, apples. They looked really, really good. I just wanted to try one.”

 

“By The Five, will you shut up?”

 

“And don’t tell me you’re writing down more recipes, cos I know you’re not,” Steve said, sitting on his knees at Bucky’s side in the stale hay. “Is it one of those books? You can tell me if it is, I promise I won’t laugh. In fact, I could probably help.”

 

“Help? With what?” Bucky asked, finally looking up.

 

“With the sex scenes.”

 

Bucky started to make a choking noise, hunching over and pounding on his own chest. “The – the sex scenes?” he wheezed once he could speak.

 

“Yes, the sex scenes,” Steve nodded. “I’ve read lots of those. Some better than others, but still lots. If you’re writing about a lady, make sure she uses plenty of rosewater before she goes after whoever she’s interested in. They always douse themselves in rosewater whenever they’re about to do that, even if it’s another lady. The entire room must smell like a rosebush by the time they’re done.” Bucky just sat there, blinking at him, his mouth agape, before suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, he burst out laughing.

 

“You cheeky little shit,” he gasped.

 

“What?” Steve shrugged. “I’m just saying, is all.”

 

“Is all,” Bucky said, in the same tone he usually reserved for his uh-huhs. They sat there, staring at each other, until Bucky eventually shook his head and looked back down at his lap.

 

“And I’m writing to Becca, if you must know,” was what he said when he did finally speak.

 

“Becca? Who’s Becca?” Steve asked, the name sounding familiar to him. “Is she your wife?” Bucky had never mentioned being married, but Steve had never thought to ask. He supposed it was possible Bucky had a wife somewhere, who he must miss terribly, considering all the time he spent writing to her.

 

“No, not a wife,” Bucky said quietly. “My sister, Rebecca.”

 

“You have a sister?” Steve was instantly fascinated. He didn’t have any siblings of his own. And he couldn’t help but wonder what it was like.

 

“Three of them actually,” Bucky smiled, something like fondness in his eyes.

 

“Three? Really? That’s a lot.”

 

“Rebecca’s the oldest, then there’s Clara and Elisabeth, the twins, then me. I’m the baby of the family, and the only son.”

 

“Twins? Really?” That was rare where he was from, siblings too, where most mothers only had one child. It was difficult to raise even a single child, so Steve couldn’t begin to imagine what it would have been like growing up in a household with three siblings.

 

“Yes, twins. And that seldom happens here too,” Bucky said as if reading his mind.

 

“What are they like? Your family…If you wouldn’t mind telling me about them.” Steve knew he had to approach cautiously. Bucky was fiercely protective of his privacy, and family was precious, one of the most precious things of all. Steve would understand if Bucky refused to talk about them, although he hoped he wouldn’t. But he also hoped Bucky also knew, at least by now, that Steve would never wish any harm to Bucky or one of his own.

 

Bucky considered him for a second, the depths of his eyes shadowed with colors more complex than Steve had ever seen, before he again glanced down at the letter in his lap, this time with a small smile.

 

“They’re my family,” was what he said when he finally spoke, which answered none of Steve’s questions. “A loud bunch, always shouting at each other about something, except for my da. He’s probably the quietest man you’d ever meet. How he ended up with my mother is anybody’s guess. He always says it was the sound of her laugh, and that when he looked up and saw her with her head tossed back, laughing with all of her heart at something her friend just told her, he knew she was the one for him.”

 

“What does your mother say?”

 

“My ma always says she was drunk that night, but if the fool still wanted to be with her even after he found that out, who was she to turn him away. She can drink anyone under the table, my ma, and still walk away with a smile while you’re puking on your shoes.”

 

“She sounds,” alive, Steve wanted to say, vibrant, full of life and humor. But he didn’t think it appropriate, so instead he settled for, “like one of a kind.”

 

“She is.” Bucky’s smile grew somehow brighter and softer at the same time. “And don’t let her fool you. No matter what she says, she’s as crazy about my da as he is about her. They always seem to know where the other is, even if they aren’t in the same room. She calls him her GiGi –“

 

“GiGi?” Steve asked.

 

“My father’s name is George, but that’s what she always calls him.”

 

“And your mother? What’s her name?”

 

“Winifred. But my da always calls her My Big Win.”

 

“Is she…Is she large, your mother?” Steve asked, not understanding why Bucky laughed at that.

 

“Nah, she’s a tiny thing my ma, even shorter than you –“

 

“Hey!”

 

“But when he says it, My Big Win, just like that, he’s letting her know that even now, all these years later, he still thinks she’s the luckiest thing that ever happened to him.”

 

“Oh,” was all Steve could say, understanding why Bucky had smiled the way he had when he’d said it.

 

“You’ll never meet two people more in love than my ma and da. She still laughs whenever he calls her that, and she’s the only one who can get him to look up from his forge, no matter what he’s working on, just by calling his name. Well, my ma, my sisters and me.”

 

“Forge?” Steve asked, wondering if Bucky had meant to let that slip. From the look in his eyes, again considering, careful, it was clear he hadn’t. But then he seemed to shake it off, and shrugged instead.

 

“I come from a family of craftsmen,” he eventually went on.

 

“Really?” Steve was fascinated. Although there were plenty of craftspeople at home, he’d never met one, or someone descended from one, before.

 

“Yes, really,” Bucky nodded. “My ma is a leatherworker, place any piece of leather into her hands, and in a few days she’ll give you back the most beautiful and supple saddle or sheath or belt you’ve ever seen. And my da’s a bladesmith, a true master, the best in all the Six. There are none better. Queen Carol and her High Lady Consort Maria each wear one of his swords at their hip, a matching set, commissioned by Prime Minister Hill as a personal wedding gift to them. My ma made their scabbards.”

 

“Your father must have been so proud,” Steve said.

 

“He was. Always says they were the finest blades he’d ever made, except, well…”

 

“Except?” Steve asked, when Bucky’s voice trailed off. Bucky was staring at him again, something different in his eyes this time. Not quite ice, although just as breath-stealing as the first gasp of a winter storm, and not quite hot, although just as molten as freely flowing lava. Something in between, neither and both, there in the flecked blue of his eyes.

 

But then Bucky lowered his head, and the colors and all that they held were gone, before Steve had a chance to decide whether or not they were something he should try to keep, and carefully tucked his papers into their folder, laying it gently to the ground. He lowered his hands to his hips, and when he lifted them, his fingers were wrapped around the hilt of two blades, that he had drawn from their sheaths without a sound.

 

“Except for these.”

 

Steve had to stop himself from reaching for them. He knew these blades, had seen them before. They were the ones Bucky spent the most time tending to, took the most care with, his gaze always loving as he made sure they were clean and the tip of each sharp enough to meet his standards.

 

And even Steve, who had very little experience with knives before Bucky, could see these were not just daggers, but pieces of art. Long and thin, with an edge that gleamed in the dark, simple looking, with no etchings on the blade or hilt, but all the more elegant and deadly because of it. Perfectly still in Bucky’s hands, and yet somehow in possession of life, an awareness of their own, as if they knew what they had been created for, and would only submit when held by the right person. Then they would dance and sing with the one who held them, silently, but what would it matter when they and their partner would be the only ones left standing in the end.

 

Only a true master could have forged blades such as these. But only a true master could wield them.

 

Bucky was just such a master.

 

“Howl,” Bucky said, raising the left one slightly, “and Command,” doing the same with the right. “The truest blades my father ever made, according to him. Sharp enough to cut a second in half. Then that half in half again.”

 

“They’re beautiful,” was all Steve could say. “I’ve never seen the like.”

 

“And you never will again,” Bucky said, his voice laced with pride. “That’s my mother’s work, on the hilts.”

 

Steve took a second, closer look, at the leather braided around the handles. It did indeed look soft and supple, but, Steve couldn’t help but notice, a perfect fit. The work of one master seamlessly blending into the work of another, so that each half would be lacking, somehow less, without the other. Much like the way Bucky’s parents must love each other, from what he’d said.

 

 

“And they gave these to you?” Steve asked, wanting, but knowing better than to reach for them.

 

“My sister gave them to me.” Bucky’s answer surprised Steve.

 

“Your sister?” Steve tore his stare from the knives to look back at Bucky’s face.

 

“Rebecca,” Bucky nodded, returning Howl and Command back to their sheaths just as easily, as silently, as he had removed them. “My father made them for her, when she came of age. She’s the one who taught me how to use them.”

 

“Really?” Steve asked. Something in his voice must have given away his doubt, causing Bucky to squint at him.

 

“Yes, really. Why?”

 

“It’s just, I’ve never seen anyone who could use a knife like you do. She must be very, very good if she was the one who taught you,” Steve clarified.

 

“Oh.” Steve’s response must have been the right one, because Bucky’s face instantly relaxed. “She’s a master swordsman, even better than me.”

 

“Really?” Steve heard himself ask again.

 

“Oh yes. She came of age just when the treaty was signed, and wanted nothing more than to travel to Zaldura and become a member of the Pegasus Cavalry.”

 

“Did she ever make it?” Steve asked, unsure if he wanted to know the answer. Because if Bucky had a sister in the Pegasus Cavalry, Steve was certain he would have mentioned it while they were travelling there. And he hadn’t.

 

“No, she didn’t.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“Things happen, and plans change. She’s at home with the rest of my family.”

 

“And you have two other sisters, you said?”

 

“Elisabeth and Clara, the twins,” Bucky nodded, his smile returning.

 

“What are they like?”

 

“Bossy like you would not believe,” Bucky laughed. “Elisabeth will never let you forget she’s the older of the two, by all of twelve minutes. She’s loud and loves to laugh, just like my mother. Has her talent with leather too. Clara’s the thoughtful one, quiet, even quieter than my da. Loves working with him in the forge too. My da says she’ll be an even better bladesmith than him one day.”

 

“They sound lovely,” Steve said, almost, almost jealous of these people he had never met.

 

“They’re pains in my asses, the lot of them. I think my ma was happy the day I was born, if only because it gave the twins something new to play with. I wasn’t so much a brother, but a doll to them. They used to spend hours dressing me up and doing my hair. Ma says it was the only time Elisabeth was quiet enough for her to get any work done.”

 

“Are they the ones who taught you how to braid your hair?” Steve wanted to know.

 

“Yep,” Bucky nodded with a fond smile. “And once I was old enough, they started demanding I do theirs as well. I was probably the only eight-year-old who could not only tell you the difference between a stiletto and a dirk, but a fishtail and milkmaid braid as well.”

 

 “Is that why you always braid your hair now?”

 

“It is,” Bucky admitted. “I miss them, and doing it like that is like carrying a piece of home with me wherever I go. Until I remember all the other shit Elisabeth used to get into and tried to blame me for.”

 

“Because you were completely innocent, I’m sure,” Steve retorted.

 

“I’ll have you know I was an absolutely perfect child.”

 

“Uh-huh.” It felt good to throw Bucky’s words back at him.

 

“I was!” Bucky cried with mock offense. “It was always Elisabeth’s fault, always. There was this one time, I must have been seven if I was a day, she told me there was a golden egg in a nest at the top of the tallest tree in our backyard, and that we needed to get it to bring it back to ma and da. But I had to be the one to get it, since I was the smallest, and the only one light enough to get up to the highest branches without them breaking. When I refused, she started laughing and called me a coward. You have to understand, I was barely seven summers and just couldn’t let that stand, so after she gave me a boost, I started climbing the tree to find the egg. Except I get about halfway up, and I’m still not seeing any nest. When I looked down to tell her that, higher than I thought, her and Clara were gone. They’d just left me there and I didn’t know how to get back down.”

 

“That’s horrible!”

 

“It’s the type of shit siblings do to each other,” Bucky shrugged it off. And then his expression changed yet again, growing far off, as if he were searching for something in the distance.

 

“It was Rebecca who finally found me, hours later, after I’d been crying for so long my voice had given out,” he murmured, as if he were reliving the moment, seeing his sister standing there in front of him. “She climbed right up that tree after me, wrapped me in her left arm, and carried me down, as easy at that, never once letting go of me the whole way home. The twins got into so much trouble after that. My ma was furious, and it was one of the only times I’d ever heard my da shout. But Becca just cleaned up my face, tucked me into bed and promised me it wasn’t my fault. Then she told me stories until I fell asleep.” He closed his eyes, for just a moment, and it was heartbreaking, the love Steve could see on his face.

 

“I love the twins, my ma and my da, with all of my heart. But I adored my sister Becca growing up, practically worshipped the ground she walked on.” He paused to swallow. “Still do. Best sister anyone could ever ask for. I must have driven her crazy, but wherever Becca was, was where I wanted to be, and she never once complained about it. And even when she got old enough, and all the other lads and lasses started trying to catch her eye, she never once abandoned me. In fact, used to say that anyone who didn’t like it couldn’t possibly be good enough. Cause I was her baby brother, and she loved me, and anyone who wanted to love her had to love me too.”

 

“She sounds…beautiful.” Precious, a treasure, and Steve could understand why Bucky had kept her a secret for so long.

 

“She is,” Bucky was back to smiling. “All of my sisters are.”

 

“Really?” Steve found that hard to believe, especially after knowing what Elisabeth had done to Bucky as a child.

 

“Oh yes,” Bucky said, obviously not understanding what Steve had meant. “Elisabeth and Clara are short, like my ma. Me and Becca were the ones who got my da’s height. But the girls all look like him, with his tan skin and light brown curly hair and dark eyes. I’m the only one who looks like my ma, almost an exact copy, right down to our eye-color. Elisabeth likes to say that’s the reason I’m so spoiled.”

 

“Were you?” Steve asked. “Spoiled, I mean?”

 

“I was the baby, so yeah, probably,” Bucky shrugged. “Didn’t know it then, how lucky I was. We weren’t rich, but we weren’t poor either. And my parents loved and indulged us. My da likes to say Becca was the fighter, Elisabeth the troublemaker, Clara the philosopher, and that I was the smart one.”

 

“You? Really?” Steve cast a doubtful eye at Bucky.

 

“Yes, really.” Bucky glared at him. “When I wasn’t chasing after Becca or letting the twins do my hair, I had my nose in a book. I loved to read and was always good with numbers. My teachers used to say I was the brightest in the class. I was even accepted to go to the academy in Wakanda when their borders first opened.”

 

“The academy?” Steve asked.

 

“The first scholar in our family. My ma and da were so proud,” Bucky went on as if he’d forgotten Steve wouldn’t know why what he’d just said would be important. “I wanted to study astronomy, and Wakanda has the best telescopes in all of the Six.”

 

Steve knew what telescopes were. He had never seen one, but he’d heard Tony going on and on about the ones in his collection often enough to know they were rare and expensive. Then something else clicked, giving him a greater insight into who Bucky was.

 

“That’s why you knew about the Dragons, and what all the stars were called.”

 

“I didn’t always plan on being a courier, Steve,” Bucky said dryly.

 

“Why did you then, instead of going to Wakanda?”

 

Bucky shrugged. “Like I said, things happen and plans change. There was work that needed doing, debts to be paid, and I was the one who could do it. So that’s what I did. Becca gave me her knives as a goodbye gift, and I’ve been on the road ever since.”

 

“Do you see them often?” Steve asked.

 

“It’s been far too long, I have to admit. There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t think about and miss them. But they’re all at home, waiting for me. And if this last run goes well, I should be seeing them all again soon.”

 

“You must be happy about that.”

 

“I am,” Bucky said, although there was something at odds with the words he’d said and the tone he said them in. “What about you? Who’s waiting for you back home? A wife?”

 

“No, no wife,” Steve shook his head, pulling back, pulling away from what had felt like the strange intimacy Bucky’s revelations about his own family had woven between them.

 

“Family?”

 

“Just Sam and Natasha,” Steve shrugged, picking at the dry pieces of hay at his knees. “But no family.”

 

“Oh,” was all Bucky said, quietly, gently, as if he suddenly understood something about Steve he hadn’t before. Steve decided, on this night that was cold and wet, but in a barn that was safe and dry, to share some truths about himself.

 

“It was just me and my mom growing up,” Steve said, now picking at a stray thread at the end of his tunic. “Big families aren’t really common where I’m from, so it was just us. But that was okay, as long as we were together, it was more than enough. But then she got sick.” Sick. Such a simple word, and no way close to describing what had happened to his mother. But there was none other that would even begin to suit. “I didn’t realize until later she probably had been for all of my life. But I was still a child, and didn’t know any better. She was just my mom, you know?”

 

“All children love their mothers. Think the sun rises and sets with them, and that there isn’t anything they don’t know how to make better,” Bucky offered kindly.

 

“Just so,” Steve nodded, relieved Bucky understood. “And then she started to get worse, and stopped being able to do all the things we used to love to do together. And then one day, she couldn’t even get up anymore, and I knew.”

 

“I’m so sorry, Steve.”

 

“It’s why I left home later than most. She was dying, and after everything she did for me, I didn’t want her to die alone.”

 

“Then you gave her a great gift. Not an easy one, but a great one. No one can ask for any more than that.”

 

“I hope so,” Steve whispered. “She said…” Steve had to stop and close his eyes. Those days had been dark, and he had been so lost, and it was still hard to speak of it now, even all this time later. But Bucky had given him tales of love from his own family; maybe it was time to give his own to someone else as well. He could be brave, just like Bucky, just like his mother had been. “She said, just before the end, that she knew it was going to happen, had for a long time. But I was her child, and she wanted to live long enough to teach me everything she could, make sure I had everything I needed to make it on my own. It’s hard, where I live, and not every child makes it to adulthood. But she did it.”

 

“She sounds like an amazing woman.”

 

“She was. She is.

 

“What was her name?” Bucky asked gently, careful of the wound he must have sensed was still fresh.

 

“Sarah.”

 

“Well then Sarah, wherever you are, you should know your son’s doing well. You did an excellent job. He’s a good sort, even if he snores like a bear.”

 

“Hey!” Steve protested, startled into a laugh. But it was welcome, a relief from the heaviness of just a few seconds ago.

 

“But at least he doesn’t fart like Johnny. No offense Sarah, but if he did, I’d have to chuck him off a cliff.”

 

“I’d’ve chucked myself off a cliff if I had to spend one more night in a room trapped with him,” Steve agreed, matching Bucky’s smile with one of his own. And he was sure, suddenly, with a certainty in his bones and blood, that up in the Stars, wherever she was, his mother was smiling too.

 

“Now go away and leave me alone.” Bucky made a shooing gesture with his hand, before reaching for his folder. “I’ve got things I need do before we douse the light, and I can’t do them with you yammering away at me all night.”

 

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Steve sighed, reaching for his own pack. He felt calm now, peaceful, and he thought the next chapter of The Mermaid’s Forbidden Kiss would be a nice way to end such a companionable evening. “Tell Becca I said hello.”

 

“I will,” Bucky said after a thoughtful second.

 

“Also tell her, if it had been me, I would’ve have left you up in that tree.”

 

“If only because you couldn’t reach,” Bucky retorted right back, without missing a beat.

 

“Jerk.”

 

“Pain in my ass.”

 

“Goodnight Bucky.”

 

“Go away.” But Steve knew, he just knew, Bucky was smiling as he said it.

 

***

 

By morning, the storm had broken, and they were back on the road. Steve never knew where they were headed next, but Bucky must have had some innate knowledge of where they were travelling, aware of which city or township was closest, just from looking at the sky, the shape of the trees, or some other act of magic he refused to share with Steve. Because Bucky always seemed to know where they were, and he never once used a map.

 

Although Steve sometimes found himself questioning Bucky’s certainty. There were some days Steve was sure Bucky was leading them in circles, or spent an entire day going in the direction Steve would have sworn they’d just come from, travelling through the forests instead of using the main road. There was also the time they had spent three days in the mountains, following some trail Steve couldn’t see, but Bucky insisted was there, because it supposedly cut off four days from their travel time. Steve thought the four days would have been worth it, if it meant they’d have been able to sleep at an inn or traveler’s hut, instead of out in the cold, but Bucky ignored his protests. Then there was the morning Bucky had hauled Steve up in front of him on Daturia’s saddle, and spent most of the day urging her on hard and fast through a shallow stream, only saying he had a deadline he needed to meet and this was once again the fastest way to travel. She was a strong and steady horse, and never once faltered, and Bucky spent extra time that night brushing her down, and feeding her apple after apple in reward.

 

Bucky must have known what he was doing however, because whenever they reached their ultimate destination, there was always someone there to greet him, and his clients certainly didn’t seem to have any complaints. It made Steve again think of their conversation in the barn, about family and home, debts that needed to be paid and missed opportunities. Steve couldn’t help but wonder what Bucky would have been like if he had been able to follow his first dream of astronomy and stargazing. That Bucky was lost, he supposed, never meant to be. And this Bucky, the one he knew, the only one he ever would, while sometimes strange and still mercurial, was the one Steve had met, and the one Steve could now readily admit that he liked. A lot.

 

Steve liked to think Bucky felt the same way, or at least he hoped so. While Bucky still kept a lot of things to himself, after almost two months in his company, Steve had better learned how to read his moods; how the cock of his eyebrow could mean he was frustrated, the way he quirked the corner of his lips meant he was amused, or even better, how to tell when that was actually just for show, and when he really meant it, the dimple in his left cheek made an appearance. The difference in his sighs when Bucky was satisfied with a meal, or tired at the end of a long day. How Daturia was often the loadstone Bucky used to calm himself when he was truly upset, spending even longer tending to her, paying special attention to her tail and mane. And how sometimes, when Bucky’s shoulders were tight, by just the slightest of increments, it meant he was truly upset, for reasons he never shared with Steve, and what he really needed was quiet and to be left alone. Steve had a full catalogue now of miniscule gestures and tiny signs he had learned that gave him a greater insight into Bucky, ones he held close and gathered greedily, because he doubted anyone else had even that much.

 

There were still the things that had always been constant about him as well; not only the quietness of his movements or the stillness he could wrap himself in, the easy and fluid control he had over his own body. But also his generosity, and a bit, just a bit, of a tendency to mother-hen. He never failed to make sure Steve had enough to eat, and that Steve was warm enough when they bedded down for the night. Normally, even back home, Steve would have refused. Yes he was small, always had been, but he wasn’t helpless. Yet Steve couldn’t deny that all of Bucky’s nitpicking was having an effect. He was no longer as skinny as he once was; it was lean muscle that he felt under his fingers when he bathed, the bones of his ribs and spine not as pronounced. He was still no match for Bucky, doubted he ever would be, but there was a strength in him now he could feel, and his pack barely felt like any weight at all. And the cold seemed to have little to no effect on him either. When they bedded down at night, Bucky usually no more than a few feet away in his own bedroll, Steve sometimes felt as warm as he had back home, when his mother had still been alive, and they would curl around their own fires to keep warm.

 

So there was definite improvement, tangible proof he was learning, growing, changing. All because of a random encounter, that had started with blood and somehow bloomed into a friendship. Luck was such a strange thing, Steve sometimes found himself thinking, capricious at best, but always somehow managing to find its own way, just like Steve was.

 

Until the night Bucky must have done something to piss off his Five, and all that changed.

 

***

 

It was a night, like so many others, in yet another coastal town, slightly larger than most of the others they’d been to, whose docks were filled with barges. When Steve asked Bucky why there seemed to be so many of them, Bucky informed him that caravans and ships were the main ways trade was conducted amongst the Six, and with the winter coming, many of the larger roadways would become too perilous for the larger caravans to navigate, so the rivers were being utilized to take up the slack. The town itself was a bit rundown, a shabbiness to the buildings Steve had come to learn was a rarity in Aeriella, but busy enough. Bucky claimed he had several messages he needed to deliver, which he did, leaving Steve to amuse himself once he’d gotten them settled in a small inn that had a busy main room where meals could be had or card games played. He did that sometimes, whenever they arrived somewhere new, and now at least trusted Steve enough to leave him on his own. Depending on the hour, Steve would often go out exploring, with his newly acquired but ever-present awareness of his surroundings Bucky had helped him develop.

 

He sometimes found new things to add to his pack; a blue marble, that whispered of children’s laughter when its gleam caught his eye from a muddy puddle. A small tin vase, dented, that with a little polish and care would be even better than before, that someone had left discarded on the floor in a bathhouse of all places. Yet another wooden cup, to match his first one, with curious etchings along its inner rim that, okay, yes, Steve might had taken from the bustling café he had stopped in for lunch while Bucky was visiting another client. But just like the first one, it was shiny and bright, and obviously unappreciated. It was Steve’s duty to rescue it, which he did, quick and spry, before he left with a casual nod at the distracted proprietor. Small things, useless to most, but proud additions to his collection.

 

On this day, Steve ventured down to the docks, observing the workers, and even engaging in several discussions with a few quartermasters and seaman when they didn’t mind his questions. Trey proved to be a nice enough fellow, proudly pointing out his barge, smaller than most, but which he claimed made it faster. They spent an easy and carefree hour in friendly conversation, before Steve noticed the position of the sun, and decided to start making his way back to the inn.

 

Bucky was already eating his dinner when Steve arrived, not saying much except to inform Steve they would be staying here for another day or two, as there were a few old customers he still wanted to check in with to see if they had any work for him, before asking Steve about his day. Over a plate of mutton and potatoes, Steve told him, and it was pleasant enough evening, Bucky in one of his more subdued moods, but still listening intently to everything Steve said.

 

The second day passed in much the same way, Bucky off doing his business while Steve explored some more. Truth be told, Steve found the town a bit boring, with nothing much to capture his interest, so he wandered back to the docks, once again finding Trey standing by his ship, who spent several hours regaling Steve with all of the adventures he’d had, living a life on the rivers.

 

But once he got back to the inn, it seemed as if Bucky had indeed managed to get more work, and as a result was willing to splurge on several bottles of wine. Steve’s cup was never empty, and he knew his cheeks were flushed as they stumbled up to their room, Bucky laughing at Steve’s flailing limbs, as he insisted Steve take the bed. Steve was asleep before his head hit the pillow, his last thought how he planned to sleep undisturbed for the next eight hours, no matter how early Bucky tried to rouse him.

 

His bladder had other plans, and a few hours later, its pressure refused to let him be. He sat up with a groan, noticing the fire had gone out, and the room empty. Thinking Bucky’s bladder had the same idea as his, he clumsily made his way to the water closet at the end of the hall, taking one of the longest pisses in his life, before stumbling back.

 

He was just resettling himself under the covers, trying to find his previous pocket of warmth, when he heard it. Heavy, shambling footsteps, just outside in the hallway, arrhythmic and way too loud. Then the doorknob was rattling and the door opening, the dim candlelight of the hallway illuminating what could only be Bucky’s silhouette. Bucky half stumbled, half fell inside, barely managing to close the door behind him, before nearly collapsing to his knees. It was not the movement of someone who was drunk, but something else, something worse. And from the way Bucky was panting, as if in pain, Steve knew something was wrong.

 

“Steve, Steve,” he gasped. “You need to get up, Steve.”

 

“Bucky?” Steve asked, already on his feet.

 

“Oh thank The Five, you’re awake,” Bucky rasped, making his way closer to the bed. “Listen to me Steve, listen to me, you need to grab your pack and get out of here. Go down to the stables, take Daturia and go. Get out of here. Now.”

 

“Bucky, what’s the matter?” Steve worried, his fingers fumbling with the matches as he struggled to light the small oil lamp on the bedside table.

 

“Don’t argue with me Steve, just go. Get out of here. Now!” Buck hissed, before collapsing on the bed just as the wick finally caught, illuminating the room.

 

Steve had no idea you could be shocked sober. But that’s what happened when he turned around and saw Bucky for the first time.

 

He had never seen Bucky like this. His face was beaded with sweat, his eyes wide, and his skin even paler than usual. He was hunching over himself, one of his hands pressing a bundled cloth to the very top of his thigh. Steve smelled it before he saw it; the blood coating Bucky’s fingers.

 

“The Sisters, what the fuck happened to you?” Steve asked, surprised he had any voice to speak with at all.

 

“Don’t argue with me, Steve,” Bucky panted. “I’m telling you to go. You need to listen to me.”

 

“Yeah well, fuck you and you’re always telling me what to do. I’m not going anywhere. Not without you,” Steve shot back, using his hands to press Bucky back into the bed, trying to be as gentle as possible while straightening him.

 

“Steve -“

 

“No, Bucky,” Steve growled, already reaching for his hip. “I don’t know who, by The Sisters, you think I am, but I am not leaving you. Especially not like this. Never like this. Now what the fuck happened?” Bucky stared at him, his eyes wide, unbelieving as they flickered in the lamplight. Steve thought he might have stared at him like that forever, but they didn’t have time for that, not right now. “Tell me now Bucky, what happened?”

 

“Bad card game,” was Bucky’s answer when he finally spoke.

 

“Card game?” Steve asked. “This is from a card game? Aren’t you the one always telling me to stay as far away from those as possible?”

 

“Thought I’d try my luck. It was going well-“

 

“By the Lost,” Steve could only gasp, once he pulled the bundle out of Bucky’s hand, revealing the wound beneath. It was deep and long, and very, very red. “That’s a lot of fucking blood.”

 

“Asshole…The asshole had a knife on him.” Bucky paused to swallow. “Should have seen it, but I didn’t. Went for the femoral artery. It’s…It’s a killing wound, but I blocked in time. He didn’t hit it.”

 

“Looks like he got close though,” Steve said, studying the wound. “Bucky, this needs a healer.”

 

“No!” Bucky refused through gritted teeth, his hand reaching out lightning quick to grasp Steve by the wrist. “No healers. No one can know.”

 

“Bucky! This is bad, it’s going to need stitches.”

 

“No! No healer. No witnesses.” From the look on his face, Steve could tell Bucky would not be swayed. Steve could not imagine why, but that left him with an injured Bucky and a wound that needed tending to, and he the only one in the room who could do it.

 

“Right, no healers,” Steve said, pressing the cloth back against Bucky’s thigh. “Think, Steve, think.” Steve lowered his gaze, rerunning all of Bucky’s lessons over in his head, some of Sam’s too, before it came to him, sharp and quick, and he knew what he needed to do next. “Right, hold that there and don’t move.” Steve jerked to his feet and bolted across the room. He knelt down, reaching for the flintstones, and with a flick of his fingers the fire in the hearth sprang back to life. Then he grabbed his bag, digging through it for what he’d need so it was already in hand by the time he returned to Bucky’s side. He grabbed one of the pillows from the bed, trying to be as careful as possible while shoving it under Bucky’s thigh, before sitting back to reach for the pitcher and basin next to the lamp.

 

“What are you doing?” Bucky asked him through narrowed eyes.

 

“I’m going to stitch you up,” Steve told him, spreading out the small medical kit Bucky had built for him on the bed, and then unravelling his sewing case. “I have to sterilize and thread the needle first.  Try to keep your thigh as elevated as possible and pressure on the wound while I get everything ready.” Steve was amazed his hands didn’t shake as he located the needle, the thickest one, and held it in the lamp, before using one of his own shirts to wipe it clean with witch-hazel. And that they didn’t shake when he thread the needle, managing to pull the black string through its eye on the first try. He poured as much of the witch-hazel on his own hands as he could, before he realized he had forgotten something, something vital that needed to be done before he could proceed.

 

“What are you doing?” Bucky asked again, once Steve carefully rested the needle on the table, and reached for his groin.

 

“I need to take your pants off,” Steve told him, going for the laces.

 

What?

 

“I need to take your pants off,” Steve repeated. “I can’t stitch you up while they’re still on, and I need to make sure the wound’s clean.”

 

“By The Five, Steve, give a man some warning, would you?” Bucky protested as Steve worked on getting the ties undone.

 

“Now is not the time for any fucking modesty, Bucky,” Steve argued, pushing Bucky’s hands aside. “I have seen you naked before. And even if I hadn’t, I can assure you your cock’s not the only one I’ve ever seen. I’ve got one myself, and I’m no virgin. As long as it doesn’t poke me in the eye, we’ll be fine. Just cover it with your hand and push it to the side or something.” Steve had finished undoing Bucky’s breeches, and with a firm yank, he pulled Bucky’s pants down to midthigh.

 

“Fuck! You’re stronger than you look,” Bucky blurted in surprise.

 

“It’s all that training we’ve been doing,” Steve murmured absently, peering down at the cut. It was deep, yes, but it appeared clean enough, with no stray threads or any dirt he could see. He poured some of the witch-hazel on it anyway, just in case. “And like I just said, I’m no virgin. I know how to get a man out of his pants when the motivation’s right. Now hold still. This is probably going to hurt. I’m going to try to be as gentle as possible, but it’s still going to hurt. I’m sorry about that, but, well…” There was nothing more to say, and things Steve needed to do. So he picked up the needle, leaned forward and went to work.

 

Stitching flesh was not too different than stitching cloth. But it was also in no way the same. It was bloody and the materials much more slippery, and any mistake could not simply be undone and repeated until perfectly even. Still, there was a rhythm to it, and Steve allowed himself to sink into that, finding it easier if he simultaneously didn’t think about what he was doing while sharpening his focus. It went quicker than he thought it would, Bucky bearing it silently, except for the one time he interjected with a quiet, “Tighter. They need to be tighter,” to which Steve nodded and did as instructed. Then Steve was leaning back, examining his work, a three-inch long line of thick relatively even stitches that didn’t look so bad, tying it off and leaning forward to snap the end with his teeth. Definitely not a healer’s work, but he hoped it would do. He rewet his shirt, cleaned the area as best he could, and then applied a salve to the wound, the one Bucky used when he tended to the many scrapes and cuts Steve often ended up with after they sparred, which Steve knew from personal experience stung like blazes. Bucky didn’t even flinch. His breathing had calmed, but he was still pale, too pale, his hair drenched in sweat. His lips were red and swollen, from where he had bitten into them to keep from crying out, a kiss of pain instead of pleasure, and all the more horrific because of it. But, as Steve covered the wound with a bandage, the bleeding appeared to have stopped, and that was all Steve could ask for at the moment, as he re-sterilized the needle and replaced everything back to its original place.

 

“Poppy’s Kiss?” he asked, holding up the small vile. Bucky refused with a shake of his head. “Why not Bucky? You’re in pain and it’ll help.”

 

“No,” Bucky said. “Need to keep my wits, not be drifting on poppy dreams.”

 

“Idiot,” Steve cursed, but he put the vial away before reaching for the rest of Bucky’s clothes.

 

“Steve -“

 

“Don’t argue with me now,” Steve warned him, as he unlaced Bucky’s boots, tossing them to the side, before working his pants off the rest of the way. They were unlike anything he’d ever seen Bucky, or anybody really, wear before. Black, heavy and thick, with leather straps crisscrossing the thighs and hips, and certainly a strange thing to wear to a card game, Steve couldn’t help but think. “We need to get you into something warm and dry as soon as possible.”

 

“Steve, listen to me!” Bucky demanded, reaching out and once again grabbing Steve by his wrist.

 

“Bucky, it can wait!” Steve snapped back, pulling his hand free and going for Bucky’s shirt.

 

“No Steve, it really can’t,” Bucky insisted as he flopped back on the bed once Steve had gotten him out of his shirt. “I got away Steve, but there were others. And they’re going to come looking for me. You’ve got to get out of here while you still can. You don’t have much time.”

 

“If they come, they come,” Steve countered, rolling the garments up as tightly as possible, and shoving them into one of Bucky’s packs, not caring if it was the one Bucky had drawn a knife on him for going near in the past. “We’ll handle it.”

 

“Steve -“

 

But it was already too late. Steve could hear it, a ruckus at the end of the hall, the angry voice of the innkeeper, shouts and heavy footsteps and a demanding knock on the door closest to the stairs.

 

“Shit! Steve -

 

“Shut up Bucky! I’ll take care of it!” Steve hissed, casting frantic eyes around the room. There was his bloodied shirt, the sheets and pillow, along with a now completely naked Bucky on the bed. Not much else, but not a lot of time either. Their room was at the other end of the hall, so it would buy him some time. Not enough, but it would have to do.

 

Then an idea came to him. Either inspired or ridiculous, depending on who was asked, but it was all Steve had and he would make it work.

 

He dashed back to the bed, tearing the case from the pillow, and ripping the bloodied sheet off of Bucky. Thankfully this inn, while not having much to offer, was at least generous with its bedding, and Steve’s tucked the remaining blankets around Bucky’s hips. Gathering everything into his arms, including his own bloodied shirt, he tossed them into a fire, whispering a quiet, ‘Burn, and leave no trace,’ in his own tongue, a language he had not used since his mother had died, feeling the smallest burst of joy when the cloth sparked and flared, leaving nothing but ashes behind.

 

The voices were getting louder, coming closer, as Steve kicked off his own pants and smallclothes, before balling them up and shoving them into his own pack, a faint glint catching his eye as he did.

 

Thank you, Sisters,’ he murmured softly, kicking all their bags under the bed, turning back to Bucky with the small bottle of rosewater in his hand. It was his, one of the few precious things he had found since he’d started this journey. But Bucky had sacrificed for him, was still sacrificing for him, willing to risk his own life in an effort to make sure Steve was safe, so it was a small price to pay. Not even a price, or a trade, but a gift he would willingly give. He uncorked the bottle and began to douse himself, the bedding, even Bucky with the scented water. He poured the remaining drops in his hands, rubbing them together before running his fingers through his own hair, trying to make himself look as unkempt as possible. Then in one last bit of inspiration, he came back to Bucky and did the same thing to his, finishing by slapping his cheeks several times, not too hard, but with enough force to bring blood to the surface so he looked flushed.

 

It had taken him less than a minute to do, and not a second more. Which was all the time he had when a furious pounding rattled their door, demanding entry. He closed his eyes, and sent a wish, a prayer, a hope to his mother, before he reopened them, and met Bucky’s startled gaze.

 

“Just play along,” he mouthed, before he climbed off the bed, and stomped forward, pulling the collar of his shirt open so it hung off his shoulder, and wrenched the door open by only a few inches with a snapped, “What?

 

Two men stood there, wearing black leathers of their own, looks of malice and determination on their hard, weatherworn faces.

 

“We’re looking for someone,” the first one, copper haired and brown of eye, snarled at him.

 

“Yeah, and?” They could snarl at him all they wanted. Steve had been snarled at all his life, most recently by Bucky. And he had always known how to snarl right back. “Everybody’s looking for something, what of it?”

 

“And we need to make sure he’s not here,” the second, bald, with a ruddy complexion, and eyes even darker than the first, growled, trying to push his way in. But Steve had wedged his foot against the door, so it didn’t give. It wouldn’t hold them out for long, but it was an extra layer of resistance. Use what you have, Bucky had told him time and time again. Steve didn’t have much, but a foot and a determination that when pushed was enough to cause even Natasha to back off.

 

And these men were certainly no Natasha. She would eat them for lunch.

 

“Trelia’s Tits,” Steve spat, rolling his eyes. “Is that why you’re making all this racket, and disturbing my business? I can assure you, gentlemen,” Steve ran a disparaging eye over the both of them, “we’ve been here all night. Got paid good coin for it too.”

 

“Yeah well, we still need to check,” the first one insisted, with another shove.

 

“If you want into my bedroom, you’re going to have to pay me for it, just like everyone else. I’m booked tonight, like I said, but I can probably squeeze you in tomorrow. But I’m not cheap, just so you know, and I demand all my payment up front.”

 

“Little thing like you,” the second sneered at him.

 

“I ain’t little where it matters.” Steve lowered his eyes slightly, before looking back up at their faces. “Unlike some people.”

 

“We just need -“

 

“Is there a problem, sweetness?” From somewhere behind, Bucky’s question cut the first man off, his voice as smooth as honey, as soft as silk. It was enough of a distraction that Steve jerked, giving the men the chance they needed to push the door open the rest of the way. Steve wanted to curse Bucky; he had been managing, holding them off, but now Bucky had ruined it.

 

Except, when he turned around, Bucky was standing in the middle of the room, as easy as could be, looking relaxed and loose, but slightly perplexed. He was still completely naked, except for the sheets he held bunched over his groin, somehow managing to arrange them in such a way they hid his wound. His cheeks were still flushed, his hair mussed, and his swollen lips added the perfect final touch to the illusion of a night spent in reckless debauchery.

 

“No darling,” Steve answered him sweetly, adding an exaggerated roll to his hips as he sauntered to Bucky’s side, sliding an arm around his waist. “Just some nonsense about some trouble, trying to ruin our fun.”

 

“I hope it won’t be too long,” Bucky murmured, somehow managing to lean over enough to press a kiss to Steve’s forehead.

 

“It shouldn’t be,” Steve purred back, before turning to once more glare at the two men. “As you can see, gentlemen, whatever it is you’re looking for, it’s not here. Just me and Micky, and I can tell you from past experience, he doesn’t like to share. Now,” Steve stepped away from Bucky, hoping he was strong enough to remain standing, “will you let me get back to my business, so you can get back to yours?”

 

The two men slowly took in the room, the rumpled sheets, Steve and Bucky’s sweaty and flushed faces, the cloying scent of rosewater hanging in the air, and nodded at each other.

 

“Right, he ain’t here,” the first one said.

 

“Right,” the second one agreed, before turning his attention back to Steve. “Sorry for disturbing your business, sweetness.

 

“See that you don’t do it again,” Steve crossed his arms and jerked his chin toward the still open door.

 

“C’mon Larry, we still got four more rooms need checking, and then old Marty’s place,” the first one said, turning on his heel and walking out. Larry blew an exaggerated kiss in Steve’s direction and followed, not bothering to close the door behind him. Steve stomped after him, slamming it shut, before he leaned against it with a relieved sigh. When he looked back up, Bucky had collapsed on the bed, hunched over himself, wheezing.

 

“By The Five, by The Five, the balls on you, Steve,” he laughed quietly, then gave an aborted gasp of pain.

 

“Worked, didn’t it?” Steve turned the lock on the door and rushed back to Bucky’s side. “Lie back down, you need to rest.”

 

“And you certainly ain’t little where it matters,” Bucky couldn’t help but snort.

 

“Well I’m not,” Steve insisted, guiding Bucky back into bed.

 

“You sure ain’t. Oh fuck, that hurts,” he panted. But then he sobered, his eyes growing serious. “But Steve, they’re going to come back. You bought some time, but they are going to come back.”

 

“I know.” And he did. It had been a gamble, his charade, one that had paid off. But even Steve knew, without Bucky having to tell him, that the best players always quit while they were ahead. “How long?”

 

“An hour and a half, maybe two.”

 

“Right,” Steve nodded, making sure Bucky was as comfortable as possible before he reached under the bed for his pants. “Will you be all right, if I leave you here for just a little while?”

 

“I’ll be fine, Steve. Do what you have to do.” The tone in Bucky’s voice…Steve hated it. It spoke of abandonment, the parting of ways, and goodbyes. It was not a tone Steve ever wanted to hear in Bucky’s voice ever again, especially not in regards to him.

 

“What I’m doing is finding us a way out of here,” Steve said to him as he laced up his breeches.

 

“Course,” was all Bucky said. Steve stomped back over to the bed and took the fool’s face into his hands, holding him there so Bucky had no choice but to look into his eyes.

 

“Bucky, beneath the Sisters, I pledge it. I am going to find a way to get us out of this shithole of a town. Once I do, and even if I don’t, in less than an hour and a half, I will come back for you. Underneath the Stars and all they hold between, I give you my word. Do you believe me?”

 

“Steve, you shouldn’t -“

 

“Do you believe me?” Steve demanded, the snarl back in his voice.

 

Bucky stared at him, for one second, and then another, before he finally, finally nodded.

 

“Good.” Steve released his face and straightened, going for his boots. “Do you have Howl and Command? Do you need me to get them for you?”

 

“Underneath the pillow,” Bucky told him.

 

“Of course they are.” Steve shook his head, and finished lacing up his boots. “Now don’t get out of that bed. I don’t need you popping those stitches. If I come back and you’re bleeding, I’m going to kick you ‘til you’re dead.”

 

Then Steve pulled his bag out from underneath the bed, digging through it until he found his coin purse. He shoved it into his belt and took one last look at Bucky, nodding before he left the room, leaving his pack behind.

 

That, more than anything else, would tell Bucky that he was definitely going to come back.

 

***

 

The Sisters, the Stars and his mother must have all still been looking out for him, because Steve was able to procure safe passage out of the city with hardly any trouble. An exaggerated tale, told with just the right amount of enthusiasm, accompanied by an exchange of coin, and Trey was more than willing to make room for them in the cargo hold of his ship. But Steve would have to hurry; something was in the air tonight, trouble Trey could smell, and while he liked the profits docking in Peldraen always earned him, when it got like this, it was a dung-heap of a town, and even Trey was beginning to wonder if it was worth it. Steve thanked him, promising to be back soon, and dashed to inn and up to their room, only to find Bucky already dressed, their bags neatly stacked and ready to go by the door.

 

“That was fast,” was all he said.

 

“Idiot,” Steve hissed at him.

 

“Just doing my bit.” Bucky sounded winded, and he was still pale, but at least he was now wearing clothes. That would save them time.

 

“I told you I would take care of it,” Steve said, swinging his pack over his shoulders.

 

“Did you manage to find something?“

 

“Yes,” Steve assured him. “I booked us passage on one of the barges. Trey’s willing to take us to Bemaril.”

 

“Daturia -“

 

“Yes, yes, he’s willing to take your stupid, spoiled horse too. Now can you walk, or do you need my help? And be honest.”

 

“I could probably use some help.” Steve could see it pained Bucky to admit that, another pain ontop of the ones he had already endured this night.

 

“Right,” Steve said, handing Bucky one of his bags and holding on to his other, moving close enough so Bucky could drape his arm over his shoulder, Steve taking most of his weight. “We’ll just pretend you’re drunk, and I’m helping you. Shouldn’t be too hard. We’ve both had plenty of practice at it.”

 

Bucky snorted, and they began to slow and tedious journey down to the stables, where Daturia was saddled and waiting, just as promised. Steve slipped the stable-boy an extra coin, helped Bucky up and then climbed into the saddle in front of him. Daturia was still a fussy thing whenever anyone but Bucky handled her, but she was growing accustomed to Steve, and the two could tolerate each other.

 

It also probably helped that Bucky was there, and with a single, soothing word from him, she settled. Steve took her reigns in his hands, nudged her sides, and they were off.

 

“Just so you know,” Steve informed Bucky as they made their way to the docks, “I told Trey that your pregnant wife just gave birth to your first baby, a healthy little girl, and that’s why you want to get out of here and back home as soon as possible. I said you’d probably be drunk, because when I left to find a way out of town, you were in the tavern celebrating.”

 

Bucky snorted, just once, before he conceded, “Clever. And who are we to each other? With that tale, I can’t still be your customer.”

 

“I’m your friend-slash-servant. Known each other for years, and because of that, I could swear that you’d be no trouble, just a bit drunk. That should explain the state you’re in.”

 

“That was smart of you,” Bucky said, his voice sounding strained.

 

“Now try to relax as much as possible, I’ll take care of the rest,” Steve promised him, just as Trey’s ship, The Wooden Shark, came into view.

 

Trey was waiting for him, just like he said he would. And as promised, there was space for them in his cargo hold. Steve led both Bucky and Daturia below the deck, into a small corner, that wasn’t much, but was dry, and had enough room for both Daturia and Bucky to spread out in. Steve prepared Bucky’s bedroll, got him settled and tied Daturia’s lead to one of the many rings on the wall. Once done, Steve leaned back against the inner hull, his ass sliding to the floor, and let the entirety of the night wash over him.

 

It was terror, and relief, and exhaustion. The last vestiges of his hangover, and the knowledge that he had done it; he had kept them safe and gotten the both of them out of there. A night he had never expected, and one he certainly did not want to live through again, but a successful one. He had been able to manage, and take care of things, proving he was growing strong and clever enough, that when he finally found his treasure, he’d be able to offer it protection, safety, shelter from whatever it needed. He had done it, and it had taken Bucky to make him see that he could.

 

It was a gift, in its own way, that Bucky’s misfortune had given him. Or maybe it was another time when Bucky’s Five worked their balance: light for dark and dark for light. Either way, as he made himself as comfortable as possible in preparation for the upcoming three days, Steve hoped Bucky knew he was grateful for all he’d given to Steve, unintentional as much of it was. And that once they did go their separate ways, Bucky back to his family waiting for him at home, and Steve in search of what he’d been looking for his entire life, that no matter what, or how much time passed, Steve would never, ever forget him.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER WARNING

In this chapter, there is the reference to the death of a child. It is not graphic, but it is there, and I once again wanted to give everyone the chance to make their own decisions as to whether they read it or not. **hugs**

 

 

 

 

Dear Becca,

 

I was thinking the other day about all those silly books Elisabeth loves to read. You know the ones, about the milkmaid who saves a stupid prince from a cow, and they end up falling in love and getting married. Or the baker who falls in love with forest spirit and starts leaving rolls shaped like flowers beneath a tree, until the forest spirit decides to leave her home to be with him for the rest of their lives. We used to laugh at her about it, because they were just so stupid and we both knew that’s not how love works, at least not for regular folk, until Ma and Da would tell us to hush.

 

But I’ve been thinking about those stories a lot lately, and I don’t know, Elisabeth might have been right.

 

Because I think…I think I might be in trouble.

 

***

 

Under any other circumstances, Steve supposed he would have enjoyed travelling by ship. He had done it before, when with Namor’s permission, he had crossed the Forbidden Seas. That journey he could barely remember, he’d been both so nervous and excited as they drew closer and closer to the Six. But this wasn’t the start of his most important task, and it wasn’t all the upcoming unknowns preoccupying his mind. And this time, there were things he needed to see to, and a patient to tend.

 

Bucky spent the majority of the first day sleeping, which would have worried Steve, except for the fact there was no fever every time he checked. He also remembered Riley telling him that sleep was the best thing for someone recovering, so it didn’t cause him too much concern. It also made it more believable when Steve told Trey that Bucky was just sleeping off his hangover. By the second day, Bucky spent more time awake, even if he was still in pain. He wanted to get up, growing cranky when Steve insisted he needed to avoid putting any unnecessary stress on his thigh, until Steve threatened to sit on him. It took even more arguments, and Steve actually yanking off Bucky’s boots and socks and hiding them, before he finally capitulated.

 

“And you have the nerve to call me stupid,” Steve grumbled at him, grabbing his pack and settling at Bucky’s side. “Now you just sit there and be quiet and don’t dare try to move. I’m going to tell you a bedtime story.”

 

“I’m not a child, Steve,” Bucky argued.

 

“Then stop acting like one,” Steve snapped, pulling out The Mermaid’s Forbidden Kiss. “And don’t you dare interrupt me. Now,” Steve flipped open the cover, “chapter one.”

 

Steve began to read aloud, and the quiet lasted for all of an hour before, just as they were getting to one of the good parts, Bucky interrupted with, “By The Five, are these the kinds of stories parents tell their children before bedtime where you’re from?”

 

“My mother told me even better ones,” Steve said, turning the page. “Now be quiet, I want to find out exactly where Mermella is going to hide those pearls.”

 

“I have a pretty good idea where she’s going to hide them,” Bucky muttered.

 

“So do I, but I want to see how long they stay there. Wouldn’t they eventually fall out?”

 

“And would anyone want to touch them again after they did?”

 

“Well, they are underwater after all. I suppose that would help,” Steve shrugged.

 

Bucky snorted. “If this is what you spend all your time reading, I now know why you had no problems pretending to be a Silk Boy.”

 

“Told you they always use rosewater,” Steve said with a small grin, and went back to reading until Bucky dozed off again.

 

By morning of the third day, nearing the end of their journey, they got into a fight. When Trey asked why no one had seen Steve’s travelling companion up and about yet, Steve lied and said Bucky was suffering from sea-sickness, and unable to keep to his feet. Trey had laughed, but been sympathetic, and then insisted the best thing for Bucky would to be up on deck, where the roiling of the waves would be much less pronounced. Worried Trey would start asking too many questions if he refused, Steve was forced to agree, and went back to their little corner in the hull so he could accompany Bucky up to the rails. From the way Bucky staggered and leaned on Steve, it was obvious he was still in pain, but it made the lie believable. They stayed up there for nearly an hour, returning only when it became obvious Bucky could not take much more.

 

He grumbled and complained about it the entire way down, not at Steve, but his own weakness, obviously embarrassed by the reversal of their usual roles.

 

“I still don’t get why you’re doing this,” Bucky snapped, when Steve pushed his pants down far enough to inspect the stitches. Thankfully they had held and there was no bleeding, at least from what Steve could see. 

 

“Doing what?” Steve asked absently, pressing his fingertips to the wound. It didn’t feel warm, which from what Steve understood was one of the first signs of infection.

 

This. All of this!” Bucky snapped, slapping Steve’s hands away and pulling his pants back up. “I told you to go, get away, and you didn’t listen! And now instead you’re here on a boat that smells like fish, playing nursemaid, when you could have just taken Daturia and gone.”

 

“You would have been killed if I left you there by yourself!”

 

“I’ve had worse happen to me. And I’ve always managed, somehow.” Bucky closed his eyes and looked away from Steve for the first time. “It’s a hard life, this life I live. But it’s one I signed up for. You didn’t, and you shouldn’t have to deal with that because you think you owe me some sort of debt. You’re under no obligation, you never were. And if you think you were, you’ve more than paid it back by now.”

 

Steve was speechless, unable to believe the bullshit that had just come out of Bucky’s mouth. All he did know was that Bucky’s words had filled his veins with ice, and set his bones to blazing, something he would have never imagined possible. It was a cut, an insult, to everything Steve had been raised to believe, everything his mother taught him, and it made something in him want to roar with rage. But he couldn’t roar, and he didn’t have Howl and Command to cut with. All he had were his words, and he would use them.

 

“Now you listen to me Bucky, Brother to Clara, Elisabeth and Rebecca, Son of George and Winifred,” he said lowly, his voice a rumble in their dimly lit corner, rising to his knees so he loomed over Bucky, something he had never done before.

 

“Don’t you dare insult me that way. Don’t you dare. And look at me when I’m speaking to you!” he ordered, the tone in his voice commanding, causing Bucky to jerk and turn his eyes back to Steve.

 

“You think you know me or who I am? You have no idea. I come from a land of cliffs and mountains, with bitter winds and harsher winters than you could ever imagine. I’ve said to you before, most children don’t even make it to adulthood. And those of us who have, have had to fight every day to survive. Because of that, when we find warmth and companionship, we know its worth and the value it holds. It’s not all things to us, but it is one of the most important, and we will fight, with our very lives, to keep it safe. And we never, ever abandon it, especially if it needs us. That’s not our way. And yes, when we met, it is very likely I would have been killed if not for you. But you also made it very clear that I owed you nothing for it, and I know you well enough by now to know you would have likely done the same for anyone in the same situation. Everything else from you since then has been out of kindness. My own value kindness as much as the ability to survive. But that was also moons ago, and while I may have been foolish back then, I was never a fool. Nor was I ever one to abandon a friend in need. I have few enough of those, and I know their worth.  Do not mistake me for whatever assholes you have known in the past who made you think that that was ever okay. I am not like them, and I never will be like them. Do not insult me by trying to imply otherwise. Do you understand me?”

 

It was now Bucky’s turn to be struck speechless, as he lay on his pallet, blinking up at Steve.

 

“Do you understand me, Bucky?” Steve repeated, as one moment dripped into another, as slow as wax down the sides of a candle. Bucky swallowed, then swallowed again, before finally nodding.

 

“You’re a fierce one, aren’t you?” he barely breathed, but in his words were the echoes of certainty that had been in Steve’s. “Small, yeah, but you burn twice as bright because of it.”

 

“You have no idea,” Steve said, knowing his smile was as sharp, sharper even, than all of Bucky’s blades.

 

“And I’m sorry, Steve,” Bucky continued, his voice growing stronger. “I meant no insult. I just want what’s best for you, for you to be safe.”

 

“Apology accepted,” Steve said, as simple as that, waving it off. And it was. “And you let me worry about what’s best for me. I am an adult after all, I can make up my own mind about things.”

 

“You certainly can,” Bucky agreed.

 

“And don’t you forget it. Now, how much pain are you in? Do you want some Poppy’s Kiss?”

 

“It’s bad, but no worse than before. And I think I’d rather wait ‘til we’re back on land before I take anything.”

 

“Suit yourself,” Steve shrugged, and left it at that. He’d said what he’d needed to, and Bucky had listened. For now, it would have to do.

 

The rest of the trip was uneventful, and by early evening they had docked at Bemaril. Trey was kind enough to allow them to disembark first, after a few friendly words and a congratulatory shake of Bucky’s hand. Then he turned back to his crew and began supervising the unloading of his ship’s cargo.

 

“Any recommendations on where we should stay?” Steve asked, as he led Daturia away from the docks, while Bucky slouched in the saddle.

 

“Just keep going straight until you reach the city square. Once there, I’ll tell you how to get to Morita’s. Jimmy, the owner, is an old friend of mine.”

 

“Why am I not surprised?” Steve asked, doing as Bucky said.

 

Twenty minutes later, Steve was introduced to Jimmy, a lean man with golden skin, and a fold in his eyelid more common in the south than in Aeriella, but who was indeed an old friend of Bucky’s, and obviously very familiar with him.

 

“Should I send for a healer then?” he asked, after releasing Bucky from a hug and giving him a quick once over.

 

“No -“

 

“Yes,” Steve said over any protests Bucky was about to make. “And some food too, if you can manage it. He hasn’t had anything today yet, and he gets cranky when he doesn’t eat.”

 

“Oy,” Bucky grumbled, but Jimmy just laughed.

 

“Knows you pretty well, this one. Now go on up, third room on the second floor. I’ll send the rest up as soon as possible,” Jimmy grinned, pressing a key into Steve’s hand.

 

Not too long after that, there was a knock on the door, and when Steve answered, a healer stood there, saying she’d been told her services were needed.

 

“This doesn’t look too bad,” she announced after a thorough examination. “The stitches are a bit clumsy, but you did a passable enough job, and I’ve definitely seen worse. And there’s no infection, from what I can tell, which is the most important part. Your blood’s a little thin, but that’s to be expected after something like this, and I have a tonic I can give you to help with that. Just keep an eye on it for the next few days, and if anything changes, if it gets hot or there’s puss or swelling, fever, anything like that, call for me right away. Mostly, just keep it clean and dry, and don’t put any stress on it. Light walking’s fine, but nothing more than that. Stitches can probably come out in about four more days. Until then, I’d also recommend eating as much liver and drinking as much bone broth as you can stand. That’ll also help your blood.”

 

“Thank you,” Steve breathed out, relieved, exchanging a coin for the small glass bottle she held out to him. He had thought Bucky was doing okay, but it was a comfort to have that confirmed by someone with much more experience in such things. She smiled at him, took her leave, and then Steve headed back downstairs to see about getting Bucky some liver.

 

The next few days passed easily enough, with Bucky consuming as much liver and bone broth as possible, while drinking his tonic, which was one of the worst things Steve had ever smelled, and Bucky swore tasted like goat spit. But he drank it, and his color returned, less pallid than it had been, and more like a child of The Sisters. He walked as much as possible, but did nothing more, under threat from Steve, until eventually the stitches could come out. He’d have a scar, but Steve had noticed plenty of other scars, some small, some long and deep, on Bucky’s body, and he was alive. To Steve, that was the most important thing, and seeing Bucky's delight in finally being able to take a full bath once again eased the shivers in Steve’s heart and knots in his belly.

 

But Bucky, being Bucky, still managed to turn their time at Morita’s into an opportunity. Whenever Steve turned his back on him for more than five minutes, he would find him in deep, whispered conversations with Jimmy, looking thoughtful. And when they left Bemaril five days later, Bucky informed Steve he had indeed managed to secure more work he would have to see to.

 

However, that could wait, because they needed to stop someplace else first.

 

Two days later, they rode into Caleria, a bright, bustling city, with well paved roads, and red thatched roofs. There was a lot to see, and people almost everywhere, but Bucky warned him, as he once again stabled Daturia, they wouldn’t be staying long, just to make a few stops, saying no more, no matter how many questions Steve asked. He led them down several streets, along several avenues, until they reached a cul-de-sac of shops, stopping in front of one with a green awning. 

 

“Come on,” he said, pushing the door open, a bell above it jangling as he did. “I think you’re going to like this place.”

 

“Really? Why?” Steve asked, and then froze.

 

Because the shop wasn’t just any shop, but a bookstore, filled with rows and rows of shelves, filled with more books than Steve had ever seen. Hundreds of them, thousands of them maybe; a cornucopia of stories and knowledge and words, all there for Steve to peruse.

 

“Yeah, I thought you’d react that way,” Bucky grinned at the expression on Steve’s face. “Pick as many as you like, but don’t forget you’re the one that’s going to have to carry them, so whatever you do pick has to fit in your pack.”

 

“Bucky,” Steve whispered.

 

“Take your time. Just remember we don’t have all day,” Bucky told him. “And before you make up your mind, you might want to take a look at the shelves in the back corner. This place carries a huge selection of those books you’re so fond of. Pretty well known for it in fact.”

 

“Thank you.” It was the only thing Steve could say, and it in no way came close to the warmth he felt blooming in his chest at Bucky’s generosity.

 

“Go on,” Bucky waved him off. “Just come find me when you’re done.”

 

In the end, Steve decided on four books. One was a history of the Six, going back over five hundred years. The second was filled with myths and illustrations of dragons. And the final two were indeed selected from the back shelves, and the ones Steve really was the most excited to read. Once Steve had made his selections, he looked up to find Bucky at the end of the aisle, staring at him with a look on his face Steve had never seen before; soft and fond and something else, something deep and endless that Steve could not find words for. When Steve met his gaze, Bucky ducked his head, his lips curling as if he knew something Steve didn’t; he probably did. If there was one thing Steve knew for certain about Bucky, it was that he carried his secrets like others carried coin. But then the moment passed, and Bucky, his own arms laden with a sheaf of blank papers, and three more pencils, guided Steve to the front counter, where he paid what he claimed was a very fair price for their goods, and led him out of the store.

 

He wasn’t done surprising Steve yet either. Once they left, Bucky brought him to another shop two stores down, that sold the strangest and most beautiful pieces of glass Steve had ever seen. Steve puzzled over their small, flat shapes, until Bucky explained to him that the people of Aeriella believed hanging one in their window kept nightmares away, and then instructed Steve to pick one.

 

Each one was beautiful, and handmade, and Steve could feel the care and the love, the belief that went into their making as he looked over butterflies and birds, flowers and musical notes, before settling on a star of the most striking blue, no bigger than his palm, (later, much later, he would realize it was an exact match for Bucky’s eyes, but that would be later). The proprietress smiled at him as she wrapped it in a heavy layer of lambswool, and then sealed it in a box, promising that would prevent it from breaking, even when travelling on horseback, before waving at them as they left.

 

“But why?” Steve asked, as they sat in another courtyard, drinking a thick and rich drink Bucky told him was something called hot chocolate and unlike anything Steve had ever tasted, while on the opposite end, two musicians banged out a vibrant and invigorating rhythm on a set of metal drums.

 

“To say thank you, for everything you did,” Bucky shrugged.

 

“Bucky, I didn’t do that expecting anything in return,” Steve said, pulling his gaze away from the drummers.

 

“I know you didn’t Steve,” Bucky told him. “But it was still a kindness, one I’m grateful for. I wanted to thank you for that. And maybe, just maybe, I wanted you to have something to remember me by, so you’ll think back on this day and remember me kindly, after you’ve finally found whatever it is you’re looking for.”

 

As if Steve could ever forget. Bucky had given him gifts, precious things to add to his collection, that he would always keep safe. Once he did finally find his treasure and returned home, he would display them proudly, remembering this day, with its books, pieces of beautiful glass, his first taste of chocolate, and the music that matched the happiness in his heart.

 

He really was a fool.

 

***

 

It was the last kind day they had for a long while after that.

 

Once they left Caleria, it was back to a life on the road, Bucky pushing them hard, insisting there was lost time he needed to make up for. They stopped in five towns in seven days, sometimes staying for no more than a few hours, and sometimes overnight, Bucky almost always waking him up before dawn, claiming they needed to leave. Steve cursed at him for it, but stumbled out of bed, Bucky barely giving him enough time to take a piss before they were back astride Daturia and on their way.

 

It was rough going, and a demanding pace, and then to make matters worse, the weather turned, winter announcing its arrival with a blizzard that seemed to come out of nowhere, surprising even Bucky. They’d been travelling over a mountain pass, and ended up having to bunk down in a cave, deep enough to shelter them from the elements, but with little else to offer comfort.

 

Bucky kept a fire burning the entire time they were there, his tendency toward mother-henning back in full force, consistently worried Steve wasn’t warm enough, trying to ply him with his own blankets, and adding more kindling to their fire. There was always the risk, with Steve’s smaller stature, of him contracting a winter lurgy, and Bucky fretted and fussed constantly about it. So much so that if the storm hadn’t finally broken two days later, Steve would have strangled him, just to get him to shut up.

 

The cold hadn’t been bothering him. The first jacket Bucky had purchased for him was thick and warm, as were the boots, gloves and hat. When combined with his bedroll, the blankets Bucky kept piling on top of him, and the ever-present fire, Steve barely even noticed the cold. In fact, it seemed to be having more of an effect on Bucky, with his chapped lips and red-tipped nose, although Bucky never complained. But Bucky was insistent, and Steve thought they might have come to blows if the storm had not broken when it had.

 

It was a relief to leave the cave, even if it was slow going, as they had to be careful of their steps as they made their way down the mountainside. It took them nearly the entire day before they reached its base, and the isolated village nestled there. It was so small, it only had one inn, that was filled to near capacity with other snowbound travelers, except for a single, cramped attic room, barely big enough for the both of them, with only one bed. But they did have bathing facilities, which was a relief after so long, and the two of them took advantage of it, afterwards supping on a hearty stew of venison and potatoes, before retiring to their room to bed down for the night.

 

They had never shared a bed before, which Steve thought strange, but relegated to another quirk of those from the Six. He said nothing of it now, but then neither did Bucky, if he even made note of it at all, before he doused the light, and with a murmured goodnight, rolled onto his side.

 

Sleep came quickly to Steve, heavy, dark and deep, but also very, very welcome. In fact, Steve could not remember the last time he had slept so well, feeling warm and safe and secure. It must have been when his mother was still alive, and the two of them would curl up together, the love Steve could feel pouring from her heart, and the returning swell of it from his own, more than enough for the both of them. He welcomed it, embraced it, knowing he would wake up feeling better than he had in a long time, thankful for its return.

 

Or at least he was until he was roused by a hand on his shoulder, frantically shaking him, and a desperate voice in his ear, saying, “Steve, Steve, come on. Come on Steve, open your eyes, you need to wake up.” Then the voice shifted, as if the speaker was turning away, and said, “Do you see what I mean?”

 

“And how long has he been like this?” a second voice asked. It was male, and somewhat raspy, sounding older, and not one Steve recognized. It was that, more than anything else, that had Steve opening his eyes and sitting up, suddenly alert, something flaring in him, a warning that felt like a call to action, a need to defend.

 

“Oh thank The Five,” Bucky gasped. “You’re awake.”

 

“What’s going on?” Steve asked, taking in the room until his eyes settled on a man standing quietly in the doorway, a medical satchel held in his clasped hands, visible beneath the long hems of his sleeves. “Who’s that?”

 

“What’s going on is you were burning up, hot enough I could feel it even in my sleep. It woke me up. And no matter what I did or said, you wouldn’t open your eyes. I had to get a healer,” Bucky explained, his own eyes worried as they ran over Steve.

 

“This is your friend?” the man asked quietly, carefully placing the satchel by the door. He was indeed older, taller than Steve but shorter than Bucky. He had thinning grey hair, a neatly trimmed beard, and spectacles, through which a pair of dark brown eyes stared at Steve with a knowing intent.

 

“Yes, this is Steve,” Bucky nodded. “Steve, this is Healer Erskine, and he’s going to look you over. Let him, and don’t make a fuss about it.”

 

“Bucky, I’m fine,” Steve insisted, still wary of this stranger in the room with them. There was something in his gaze, the way he was studying Steve that spoke of a familiarity he was not entitled to.

 

“Steve -“

 

“Master James,” Healer Erskine said calmly, but with an undertone that said whatever he was about to ask for, he would not accept any refusal. “Can you please go down to the kitchens and ask them for a tea of ginger and honey. If this is the lurgy, like you suspect, it will help him to sweat it out, and the sooner we get some in him, the better.”

 

“I –“ Bucky stared between the both of them, obviously hesitant to leave. Steve was just as hesitant to let him, but then Erskine stepped into the room for the first time, bowing his head respectfully. “I am a healer, and I have sworn to all the oaths under all the gods to do no harm. You came to my house in the middle of the night because you needed me to see to your friend. The sooner I can, the sooner the healing will begin. The tea will help. Please.”

 

Bucky took one last glance at Steve, before he turned to the healer with a nod, and rose from the bed.

 

“I’ll be right back, Steve,” he said, as he left the room. Healer Erskine gave him a second, before he reached behind him, and quietly shut the door. And then he placed both his hands to his heart, and bowed his head.

 

“Hello, Honored One,” he said softly, quietly, his voice filled with reverence and respect. Most surprising of all, the words were said in the language Steve had not heard since coming to the Six. “You are very far from home.”

 

“You’re from The Valley,” Steve breathed out, a mixture of relief and comprehension flooding his veins.

 

“I am,” Healer Erskine said with a nod. “Abraham Erskine. And I apologize. When your friend sought me out, I had no idea it was to see to one such as yourself. I never would have disturbed you without your permission first, had I known.”

 

“It’s all right,” Steve assured him. “It’s not your fault. You didn’t know.”

 

“Still, I apologize for my rudeness,” Healer Erskine went on, his head still bowed.

 

“Apology accepted,” Steve told him, knowing those were the words required to put the healer at ease.

 

“Thank you, Honored One,” Erskine said with yet another bow, before he straightened.

 

“I go by Steve here.”

 

“Thank you, Steve,” Erskine smiled, and drew his shoulders back. “And you should know that I am, in fact, a healer.” He used his right hand to lift his left sleeve, revealing his inner arm, where just beneath the crease of his elbow was a tattoo Steve was very familiar with.

 

“You’re one of Sam’s,” Steve said, staring at the two wings, one gold and one a deep rich brown, spreading out from the center, their tips curling around the parallel ends of Erskine’s arm.

 

“I was Riley’s apprentice, for many, many years, before I began practicing on my own,” Healer Erskine acknowledged, before lowering his sleeve.

 

“What are you doing here?” It was rare, so rare, to meet someone from The Valley, this far from home. Few ever left. Steve had heard it was a possibility, but as of yet he had not encountered anyone, even all these months later.

 

“I spent many, many years, working in The Valley. But then one day I realized, like a lot of us do, that my life was more than halfway over, and I had seen very little of the rest of the world. I wanted to change that, so I swore the Oaths of Secrecy, and began travelling. I’ve been to much of the Six, but eventually decided to settle here, where my skills would best serve those around me. It’s quiet and relatively out of the way, but still sees enough travelers to keep it interesting,” Healer Erskine explained.

 

“Riley will be happy to know you’re doing well, as will Sam,” Steve grinned. “I’ll be sure to tell him the next time I see him.”

 

“You know Samuel?” Erskine asked.

 

“We’re good friends,” it was Steve’s turn to nod. “Riley even gave me a scarf as a token of luck when I left home.”

 

“It was your time?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“And have you -“

 

“Not yet,” Steve shook his head. “But it hasn’t been that long.”

 

“Are you sure?” Healer Erskine cocked an eyebrow at him.

 

“Of course I am! I would know if I had!” Steve insisted.

 

“If you say so. These things take time, but you’re still very young yet.” Erskine sounded amused.

 

“I’m older than you,” Steve growled. That just made the smile on Erskine’s face grow wider.

 

“In years, perhaps. But not experience.”

 

“I would know,” Steve repeated with a growl.

 

“Of course. Peace, Steve, I meant no disrespect.” Healer Erskine bowed his head again. “And speaking of friends, yours was quite worried about you. Said you were running a fever so hot it woke him up. So would it be all right if I took a look at you? I would have to touch you to do so, but only if you would allow it.”

 

“You have my permission, but like I said before, I’m fine,” Steve rolled his eyes. “Bucky’s always worrying about things. He fusses like you wouldn’t believe.”

 

“Does he know?” Erskine asked softly.

 

“Of course not. If you’ve spent time with Sam and Riley, then you should know that’s not how it works,” Steve said through gritted teeth.

 

“Then he would have every right to be worried,” Erskine said, pressing his wrist to Steve’s forehead. “You are running very, very hot. Not for one such as yourself, but he wouldn’t know that, and think it dangerous.”

 

“He’s always trying to smother me in blankets, never listens when I tell him I’m fine,” Steve grumbled.

 

“And how has the cold been affecting you? Any problems dealing with it since you’ve left home?” Erskine asked in all seriousness, the earlier, gentle teasing now gone from his voice. “From what I’ve been told, it can be very hard at first.”

 

“It bothered me a little bit, at the beginning, but it’s fine now. I don’t even notice it anymore.”

 

“And your heart? Any weakness? Palpitations?”

 

“No, not for a while now.”

 

“The same with your breathing?” Healer Erskine carefully took Steve’s chin into his hand, gently turning his head back and forth, staring into Steve’s eyes.

 

“None.”

 

Erskine nodded as if this was the expected answer. “And you don’t look thin, so you’ve obviously been eating enough.”

 

“Bucky’s always trying to shove food down my throat. It’s like he thinks I’ll blow away in the wind or something if I don’t eat enough. But,” Steve paused to shrug. “It’s helped. I’ve actually put on some weight recently.”

 

“He sounds like a good friend,” Erskine said as if this were of great importance, as if Steve didn’t already know, before releasing his chin, and sitting back on the mattress, his hands once again folded together in his lap.

 

“He…is,” Steve heard himself admitting. “I was lucky our paths crossed when they did. I don’t think I would have made it this far, if not for him.”

 

“The Sisters must be looking out for you.” Healer Erskine’s eyes were kind, and for some reason, he looked pleased.

 

“I’d like to think so,” Steve had to agree.

 

“Then perhaps you should start listening to them,” Erskine instructed.

 

“What is that supposed to mean?” Steve asked.

 

“Just what I said,” Erskine grinned at him. “Now as for the rest, there’s nothing wrong with you. Yes, you’re hot, but that’s to be expected, as is everything else. My only recommendation is -“

 

“I’m back with the tea,” Bucky announced, bursting into the room with a mug of steaming tea cradled carefully in his hand. “How is he? Is it the lurgy?”

 

“He’s fine,” Healer Erskine assured him, easily switching back to All-Speak as he slowly rose to his feet. “It’s not the lurgy.”

 

“Are you sure? He was running so hot I could feel it in my sleep, and he wouldn’t wake up, no matter what I did or said.” Bucky came closer, running his eyes over Steve.

 

“He’s from the North,” Healer Erskine said, as if that would explain everything. “Their bodies are bred for weather like this. When the winter comes, their blood thickens up, and they tend to sleep really deep while that happens. That’s why you couldn’t wake him.”

 

“You’re positive?” Bucky asked.

 

“I’ve seen several patients from the North. Not many, but a few. Their constitutions are a bit different than ours. You’ve nothing to worry about. It’s normal for them.” Healer Erskine took the mug from Bucky’s hands and passed it to Steve.

 

“Oh thank The Five,” Bucky exhaled, looking exhausted, as if his worry had been a heavy weight he’d been carrying for far too long. Steve suddenly felt the urge to switch places, have Bucky sit down and drink the tea. When he glanced back at Healer Erskine, he was smiling at Steve as if he could read his mind.

 

“Now with that out of the way, I’ll be taking my leave. There’s an expectant mother I should check up on, see how she’s managed during the storm before I finally get back to bed,” Erskine said, heading toward his satchel by the door.

 

“Thank you, Healer Erskine,” Bucky said, approaching him. “I’m sorry to have bothered you for nothing, especially so late at night.”

 

“It’s no bother, it’s what I’m here for. It’s always better to be safe than sorry. And thanks won’t be necessary, Master James.” Erskine waved off the coins Bucky tried to hand him.

 

“Are you sure?” Bucky pressed.

 

“Absolutely. It was my pleasure.” Erskine stopped in the doorway to smile at them. “Best of health and luck, to the both of you.” He cocked his head at Steve. “Think on what I said. Once you do, I’m certain you’ll understand.” And then he was gone, quietly closing the door behind him.

 

“What a strange man,” Steve murmured into the silence Erskine had left behind.

 

“Hmm,” Bucky hummed in agreement. “But when I asked, everybody said he was the best healer the village’s ever had.” Bucky turned his attention back to Steve. “Are you sure you’re all right?”

 

“I’m fine, Bucky,” Steve groaned in exasperation.

 

“Right, then I’m going back to bed.” Bucky began to work his boots off. “Try not to boil us to death with your thick, Northern blood. I swear by The Five, it’s almost worse than the snoring.”

 

“I do not snore!”

 

“Like. A. Bear.”

 

“You jerk.”

 

“Pain in my ass,” Bucky grumbled, blowing out the candles and sinking into the mattress.

 

“G’night Bucky.” Steve settled down besides Bucky, and closed his eyes, confident that despite all the interruptions and weird conversations, sleep would come easily.

 

“G’night Steve.”

 

Sometimes he really was a fool.

 

***

 

Two days later, they were back on the road. After the blizzard, the temperatures had warmed up enough for the snow to melt, and the roads, while muddy, were certainly passable enough for them to resume travelling. Bucky informed him it was often like that during the early winter months in Aeriella; strong, sudden storms, followed by a few days of thawing out, before the cycle repeated itself, and that it was best to take advantage of fair weather while you could. Steve trusted his judgement, filing it away in his increasing collection of facts about the Six, and continued doing what he’d done since they first met, following Bucky wherever he said they needed to go next.

 

There were two more river towns, another trading post, and nights spent in several traveller’s huts along the way. A small farming community, which Bucky said was common in this part of the country, where resources could be scarce, but people banded together in order to survive. They were a welcoming group, happy to see Bucky, eager for any news of the Six he was willing to share. They even spent some time traveling alongside a caravan, whose master was also named James, but who went by Monty, another old friend of Bucky’s. They shared stories, news and gossip, Bucky telling Monty about his most recent encounters with Gabe, Dum Dum, Jackie and Jimmy, laughing in the way only old friends could. Steve went quiet, and observed, not happy for the interruption to their usual routine, but eager for any opportunity to learn more about Bucky’s past. They travelled together for a day, before Bucky turned them west, while Monty and his long line of connected wagons continued north.

 

There were a few more stops after that, in places much like the ones they had already visited, before Bucky led them north, claiming they were starting to run low on certain essentials, and needed to resupply their stores. He guided them toward a yet another small town, more of a hamlet really, but which Bucky assured him would have everything they’d need. Whether they did or not, Steve would never know, because the first thing that greeted their eyes once they arrived were the now familiar wagons they had last seen less than four days ago.

 

“That’s not right,” Bucky murmured under his breath as he took them in.

 

“What’s not right?” Steve asked.

 

“Monty said he was taking them through to the Rivellyn pass. They should have gotten there days ago. Why’s he here?” Bucky wondered, more to himself than to Steve.

 

“Dunno,” Steve answered anyway.

 

“I need to talk to him, find out what’s going on.”

 

Bucky told him to stable Daturia while he searched, and by the time Steve had done as he said, finding Bucky at the only tavern in the town, Bucky was already in a deep conversation with Monty, the expression on his face somber and worried, as he repeatedly shook his head. The one on Bucky’s face only grew darker and darker with each passing word, until he clasped forearms with Monty, rose from the table, and stormed toward the door.

 

“Come on, we need to go,” was all he said as he brushed by Steve.

 

“But I just got Daturia settled -“

 

“Now, Steve! Don’t argue with me,” Bucky snapped, his voice dark and foreboding, frigid in a way Steve hadn’t heard in a very long time.

 

“What’s happened?” Steve had to jog to keep up with Bucky’s brutal pace.

 

“Nothing, I hope. But The Five have always had a taste for blood when they think they’ve been ignored,” was all Bucky would say on the matter, before bolting down the path Steve had just taken to return to the stables.

 

In under five minutes, they were on their way, Daturia’s hooves barely touching the ground as she galloped under Bucky’s command. Bucky’s body was coiled and tight underneath Steve’s arms, like a snake preparing to strike, the countryside turning into a blur as they raced along. Bucky refused to answer any of Steve’s questions, no matter how often he asked, the only indication he gave that what they were heading toward was not good being when he used each of his hands to undo the clasps on Howl and Command’s hidden sheaths.

 

And he was right. Horribly, horribly right. Because what they ended up riding into was a nightmare, unlike any Steve had ever encountered before. Even worse, it was one knives, even knives as sharp and deadly as Bucky’s father’s blades, would not be able to cut down.

 

They crested a hill, and in the distance Steve could make out a small cluster of tiny farmhouses, surrounded by fields. But it was too quiet, too still. There were no signs of smoke from any of the chimneys, either from cooking fires or hearths. No one in the fields. And no voices carrying in the wind.

 

Somehow, Steve just knew.

 

They came across the first body a few minutes later. Face down in the ground, the gash in his back so deep his spine was severed. Two minutes later, there were three more, also face down, one with their head nearly cleaved off, one whose arm was a bloodied stump, and the last, a young girl, the back of her skull smashed in. All turned away, as if they had been running for their lives, but not being able to outrun whatever had chased them.

 

There were more after that, just as grotesque, just as horrific, but that was far from the worst of it. The worst was when they finally reached the houses, Bucky leaping off his horse as if he had wings and could fly, Howl and Command ready to sing in his hands, and burst through the doors of the largest one, Steve barely able to reign Daturia in before stumbling after him.

 

Once, it may have been a temple, or a schoolroom. Or maybe it was the place where this small community came together to celebrate weddings and births, or give thanks when the harvest was over. Now, it was a morgue, a hall of death, filled with corpses and eyes that would forever stare but never see another sunrise. Nine of them. Six adults, three children, and all of them dead.

 

“No. No. Nonononono. Not again. Not again. Not again,” Bucky chanted under his breath, turning his back on them and running to the next home. And then one after that. And the one after that. And then the one after that. He checked each and every one, climbing into lofts and checking for cellars. But the results were always the same. Whether empty or occupied, not a single survivor remained.

 

“Fuck! Shit! Fuckfuckfuckfuck! You fucking assholes! You fucking shit-eating, pig-fucking, rot-infested, may The Five devour your souls, assholes!” Bucky shouted as he stomped out of the last house, fisting his hands in his hair. Then he fell to his knees, curled over himself and started to scream.

 

It was a roar, a howl, an explosion of rage, and the deepest lament of sorrow Steve had ever heard. It was the death of Steve’s mother, the loss of faith, and watching a soul tear itself apart. It was yet another horror, on top of a day filled with so many of them, and Steve felt the agony of it ripping through his core. It went on and on, but nowhere near long enough, until finally, finally, finally it stopped and Bucky fell silent.

 

“B-bucky,” Steve whispered, his own throat clogged with everything that had been in Bucky’s screams. “What–what is this? Wh-what happened here?”

 

At the sound of his voice, Bucky’s head jerked up, as if he’d forgotten Steve was here.

 

“What happened?” he repeated, his voice hoarse. “What happened? This is what happens when I let myself get distracted by pretty things, and forget promises no one’s ever heard but me.” Bucky slowly rose to his feet, once more a specter of shadows and intent, in spite of the sun still hanging high in the sky. “And this, this is the price.”

 

“You’re not making any sense, Bucky.” As Steve shook his head, he realized his cheeks were wet, that he’d been crying, for who knew how long, and hadn’t even been aware. “What price? What…what…Who would do this Bucky? Who? There were children…Children…” Then it was Steve’s turn to fall to his knees and hunch over. But instead of screaming, he retched. Bile and anger, and not his soul, but his heart, tearing itself apart and pouring out of him, mourning for people he had never known, but whose loss would always leave its mark on him.

 

Something about it, or his position on the ground, where he weeped when he didn’t vomit, must have unlocked something in Bucky, or quelled his own fires. Because instead of holding a blade, when he reached for Steve, in his hand was a cool, damp cloth, that he used to clean Steve’s face.

 

“This wasn’t your fault Steve,” Bucky told him, kneeling down to wipe the tears, vomit and snot from Steve’s skin. “Mine, but not yours. Don’t ever think that.”

 

“What?” Steve asked.

 

“And as for who did this?” Bucky said instead of answering his question. “I hope by your Sisters and your Stars you never have cause to find out.” Then Bucky rose to his feet and walked away, his back ramrod straight, never once looking behind him.

 

***

 

In the end, there were a total of nineteen bodies.

 

Nine men, six women, and four children.

 

Steve only knew this, because once Bucky had walked away, he stood staring at the road leading out from the village, his fists clenched, engaged in some silent argument with himself, for the longest five minutes of Steve’s life, saying nothing more than, “It has to be done. Blood or not, it has to be done. They deserve at least that much,” as he walked by.

 

He stopped then, surveying the surrounding lands, before he nodded to himself, and went back into the house he had just come from, then the one after that, and the one after that.

 

It wasn’t until Bucky emerged from one of the larger buildings, Steve guessed a communal barn from its size, carrying a shovel, that Steve realized what Bucky planned to do.

 

“How many?” he asked, when he was finally able to stand, joining Bucky in the field he selected, his shadow a well-placed stretch of loneliness atop the quiet and still ground.

 

“Nineteen,” Bucky answered, his voice as grim, as determined, as the look on his face.

 

“We burn our dead,” Steve said, “You bury them instead?” It seemed strange to him, this custom, but not one he would ever question, especially not now.

 

“The Earth gave to them all their lives. They shouldn’t be denied the chance to give back,” was all Bucky said. Different from his own, but it made sense, given how much belief Bucky held in his balances, and it hardened Steve’s resolve.

 

“Is there another shovel?” was all he asked next.

 

“In the barn.”

 

So they dug graves.

 

It took them two days, but from sunup to sundown, that’s what they did. Or, more precisely, Bucky dug the graves, until he determined it was deep enough, and they would stop to gather one of the bodies, placing it in its final resting place. Bucky was always surprisingly gentle, or not so surprisingly really, from what Steve knew of him, as they did this, carefully arranging their clothes and limbs as if he wanted to ensure their comfort, before closing their eyes and drawing a small star on their forehead with his middle finger. Then he would nod at Steve, and start digging the next one, while Steve set to work on covering them up.

 

It was exhausting, back-breaking, gruesome work. The earth was hard from the cold, and the bodies already growing stiff, but they did it. They only stopped when they needed to eat; Bucky had gone back into the barn to slaughter a goat, which he did with a quick and merciful slice to the throat, while whispering thanks, before he skinned and set it to roast. It was one of the few things left alive in this place, that and a few chickens, and it kept them nourished while they completed their task.

 

And then, as the sun slowly set, and even Bucky had to succumb to exhaustion, they stopped to get a few hours sleep, choosing to bed down in one of the houses where there were no bodies for them to bury.

 

It was horrible work, but in a strange way also peaceful. Steve’s own knew and understood death, accepted it as inevitable, and bodies could do no harm. It was the waste, the cruelty of it, the striking down of someone obviously weaker, and defenseless because of it, that infuriated him. To kill, for no reason; that was not protecting one’s own, but murder. And that was not something done in The Valley or its surrounding mountains. But at least they could give them this, return these people to their earth, so they could sleep comforted by her embrace. There was a peace to be found in that, if nothing else.

 

Until his own ways clashed with Bucky’s, and he thought even that would be taken away.

 

They were in the second to last house where bodies remained for them to bury. It was a small family of three, and they had already seen to the husband. All that was left was the mother, her arms wrapped around her little girl, who could have been no more than five summers, in an attempt to protect her. They had fallen where they stood, the woman’s arms still holding her child, and the child’s outstretched, reaching for a doll a few feet away on the floor.

 

It was small, with a blue dress, topped by brown yarn which was an obvious match for the little girl’s curls, with green button eyes. Faded and worn, but clearly well-loved, he could see that this was something precious, something even in her last breath the girl had wanted to keep hold of, and Steve knew it was meant to be his.

 

“What are you doing?” Bucky’s voice asked from the doorway just as Steve reached down to pick up the doll and carefully tuck it into his shirt. Steve jerked in surprise; he had been so absorbed, and Bucky’s steps so silent, Steve hadn’t heard his approach. All Steve could do was stand there, beneath Bucky’s gimlet stare, his eyes narrowed as he ran them from Steve’s face, to the obvious bulge in his shirt, and back again. “Are you trying to steal that doll from that child? Now, of all times?”

 

“No Bucky, no, I swear to you I’m not,” Steve shook his head frantically.

 

“Well that’s certainly what it looks like.”

 

“It’s not stealing Bucky, I swear to you it’s not!”

 

“Then what is it then?” Bucky crossed his arms making sure to direct his gaze to the bundle Steve was cradling against his side.

 

“I’m not trying to steal it,” Steve said, desperately searching for the right words in All-Speak to explain. “I’m trying to protect it!”

 

What?” Bucky asked, uncrossing his arms, surprise all over his face.

 

“Protect it, Bucky, that’s all. It’s…It’s important, and it needs to be looked after,” Steve rushed out, hoping his words would be enough. Bucky remained standing in the doorway, not saying a word, his eyes no longer on Steve, but lowered, flickering back and forth, as if he was reaching for something in his mind.

 

“Is this like the cup?” was what he asked when he finally did speak.

 

“Yes, yes. It’s exactly like that,” Steve breathed out relieved.

 

“I still don’t understand.” Bucky took his first step forward into the room. But this time there was an air of patience, a willingness to listen, that hadn’t been there before. “Can you explain it to me?”

 

Steve didn’t know if he could, but he supposed he would have to try.

 

“It’s something we do, where I’m from,” Steve began, pulling the doll out from his shirt, to cup it in his hands. “Sometimes we see something, something that has a history, or a story to tell us, or something else about it that makes it special, and we just know it’s meant for us. Not to steal it, but to keep it, take care of it, make sure it’s safe.” Steve looked down at the doll, running his fingertips gently over the brown yarn. “And this was important to her. She loved it, I can feel it, Bucky, that love, so I’m going to take care of it, love it for her, now that she can’t anymore, for as long as I live.”

 

“If that’s the case, then don’t you think it cruel to take it from her?” Bucky asked, but this time his voice was kind.

 

“No,” Steve whispered, as sure of this as he’d ever been of anything. “She’s dead Bucky, and that’s what’s cruel. But this way her love, and the memory of all the dreams she had while she slept with it in her arms will live on. I’ll love it for her, and that way that part of her will never be lost.”

 

Bucky watched him, weighing his words, taking his time to come to a decision before he sighed and said, “You swear it?”

 

“I do,” Steve nodded. “On all that I am, and all that I’ll ever be.”

 

“Right then,” Bucky said with a nod of his own. Then he did something he had not done since they arrived in this place, walking past Steve and into the sleeping area of the second room. He began digging through the chest of drawers, searching for something, until he found what he was looking for, coming back to Steve with a headscarf in his hands, a faded green, similar to the yellow one the mother had wrapped around her own hair.

 

“Here.” He held the cloth out to Steve. “Her mother probably made that doll for her, and she died trying to protect her. If this is like you said, that doll should also have something of her mother’s, so they’ll always be together, don’t you think?”

 

Thank you,” Steve breathed out, taking the scarf from Bucky’s hand. It was soft and warm, carrying with it the sounds of laughter and nights by the fire, precious on its own, but that just made it even better; mother and child together, so Steve could keep what was left of the both of them safe.

 

“Now c’mon. Tuck those away in that bag of yours.” Bucky gave Steve’s shoulder a gentle squeeze as he brushed by him. “We need to get back to work.”

 

There were only two more graves to dig after they finished burying the small family.

 

Three bodies, but only two more graves.

 

Steve didn’t have to ask Bucky why. The last body was different from the rest. He wasn’t garbed in the faded wools and cottons of the others, but in grey leather fighting gear, that hadn’t been enough to save him from the cleaver one the villagers managed to lodge in his throat.

 

“Good for you,” was all Bucky said when he saw him. “At least you were able to take one of these fuckers down with you.”

 

“We’re not burying this one?” Steve asked, already knowing the answer, but wanting to check.

 

“No,” Bucky answered, rolling the man onto his back. “He doesn’t deserve it. And the earth certainly doesn’t need his poison. We’ll drag him outside, where the vultures can scavenge what’s left of him if they’re so inclined.”

 

“Do you know who he is?” Steve asked, once they dragged the corpse out into the middle of the road, where it could rot for all Steve cared.

 

“His name, no,” Bucky shook his head, kneeling down besides the body. “But I know what he is.”

 

“What?” Steve came over to stand behind Bucky, to see what it was he was doing.

 

“Do you remember the night we first met, when I told you there were things out there even worse than the Obadiahs? That make them look like puppies?”

 

“Yes.” As if Steve would, could, ever forget that night.

 

“He’s what I meant.” Bucky reached down with expert fingers and easily flicked the man’s eyelid open and over, revealing a small tattoo of some eight-legged creature, the strangest one Steve had ever seen.

 

“They call themselves HYDRA. They supposedly believe some horseshit about creating order through chaos. All it really is, is some excuse they use to play at being gods, taking what they want, and killing anyone who dares refuse them. You can be in a room filled with them, and never know it. But if you do, get yourself out of there as soon as possible, and run as far away as you can. If you’re very, very lucky, you might, just might, manage to escape with your life.”

Chapter Text

Dear Becca,

 

Do you know what I was thinking about the other day? Ma’s honey-plum pie. It’s so sweet your teeth burned after just a slice. But tart too, with just the right amount of bite.

 

I’ve never tasted anything sweeter. Well, almost anything. And I have to admit, it’s been nice having a bit of sweet, after so much bitter. Even if it’s just a taste. But well, there’s still work to be done, not much, but some. And my bitter has always been stronger than my sweet.

 

***

 

With a thorough scrubbing to cleanse themselves of the grime from the last two days, at least superficially, and a final prayer said over the graves, Bucky and Steve climbed back upon Daturia, and rode away from the small, nameless community that now no longer was.

 

There was a heavy quiet around Bucky as they followed the road out, no words left for him to say. But then Steve felt the same way, as he sat behind him on Daturia’s saddle, his cheek pressed against Bucky’s back. There was a comfort in his warmth, a relief in the familiarity of it, that allowed Steve to slip into a fugue, aware of his surroundings, but restful enough for him to start rebuilding his reserves.

 

That first night they camped in the forest, no words between them, but that too was familiar. And when Bucky slipped away, Steve was unsurprised when he eventually followed, to find him lying on his back, staring up at the sky. Steve made no comment, just lay down beside him, and joined Bucky in his perusal of the stars.

 

They arrived at a village the following day, where after Bucky stabled Daturia, he found the local constable, and told her what they had seen, and all they had done.

 

“Fuck,” she cursed, sounding remorseful but not shocked.

 

“You don’t seem surprised,” Bucky stated carefully.

 

“Unfortunately, I’m not,” she admitted. “This is normally a peaceful area, quiet and safe, and the folks here are all a hard working lot. And Queen Carol has done right by it, sending us anything we need to protect our borders. But there’s been trouble lately, especially these last few years. A new batch of raiders, like none I’ve ever seen. They strike hard and fast, and by the time anyone around here’s heard about it, they’re long gone, probably off into Amerand. And even the Pegasus Cavalry can only do so much with that fucker Ross still in charge over there.”

 

“Dark times then,” Bucky murmured.

 

“It comes and it goes,” she shrugged, but it was tired and mournful. “But The Five –“

 

“Always demand their balance,” Bucky finished for her. “Dark coin for light, and -“

 

“Light for dark. Well met, brother,” the constable said, nodding at him.

 

“Well met, sister. It’s been a long time since I’ve met another who follow Their ways.”

 

“There’re still a few of us around. Not as many as there once were, but we always manage to survive.” She smiled at him for the first time. “Buried them you said?”

 

“Yes,” Bucky nodded. “All except for one of the ones they managed to take down.”

 

“Didn’t deserve the earth,” she spat. “I’ll send some of my people down there to take a look, although it’s too late now. Thank you for what you did, and letting me know. May The Five always look kindly on you and yours.”

 

“And you as well,” Bucky nodded. And with that, they left her office.

 

They remained in that town for another day and a half, Bucky taking the opportunity to stock up on all the supplies he hadn’t been able to before. And then, just like always, as with so many other towns, they left it behind.

 

It was two more weeks of that, a few more tiny farming communities and villages, before they made their way to a town at the foot of a small range of mountains, when over dinner, just as Steve was wiping up his last bit of gravy with what was left of his roll, Bucky turned to him and seemingly out of the blue said, “I need to talk to you about something. And I need you to listen, and think about what I’m saying before you answer me.”

 

“What?” Steve asked, thankful Bucky had waited until he was done with his meal before he broached the topic. He was well familiar with that tone in Bucky’s voice, and he knew whatever Bucky was about to say was not something he wanted to hear.

 

“This is the last stop on my route before we reach the border of Aeriella. After that, it’s on into Amerand. Amerand is a very different country from Aeriella, a rough, harsh place, nowhere near as safe. You heard what that constable said, it’s controlled by Ross, and she’s right, he’s a fucker, not giving a damn about what goes on as long as he gets a cut of it. It’s risky, but it’s where I need to go next. But you don’t. You’ve still got your fortune to find, the reason you left home. You’re not going to find it there, I can promise you that. No one does. So it might be best if this is where we part ways.”

 

“No,” Steve said, shaking his head.

 

“Steve, I’m being serious here. It’s not safe, especially not for you, and I won’t be able to look out for you like I have been.”

 

“Then maybe I’ll be the one who looks out for you for a change.”

 

“This isn’t a joke, Steve!” Bucky slammed his fist down on the table.

 

“I know it’s not!” Steve argued. “And I appreciate you giving me the warning. But it’s my choice to make, and I’m making it. I’m going with you.”

 

“You really are an idiot,” Bucky growled, obviously frustrated.

 

“Yeah well, it takes one to know one,” Steve countered, meeting Bucky’s glare with one of his own. “And don’t you dare try to sneak out in the middle of the night without me. I know you better than that by now. I’ll sleep on Daturia’s saddle if I have to.”

 

“You would too, wouldn’t you, you little shit.”

 

“Of course I would,” Steve smiled with a false sweetness. “It’s like you don’t even know me at all.”

 

“By The Five, Steve -“

 

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m still going,” Steve waved him off. “Now pass the pudding.”

 

***

 

Bucky was right; Amerand was a very different place from Aeriella. While there were certainly parts of Aeriella that were isolated and hard to reach, taking days to travel between, the roads were generally well kept, and by and large the people welcoming. Amerand was a much harsher country, filled with cliffs and mountains, and badly maintained roads, where the people they encountered were wary of newcomers.

 

Still, as Steve had learned during the months they travelled together, Bucky could be very charming when he wanted to, a perfect balance of smiles and just the right amount of sincerity, but never too much, that usually ended up with even the most suspicious of folks eventually warming to his presence. He didn’t dally for long, and was careful to never overstay his welcome, but still, at the end of the night, Steve could usually find him engaged in conversation with a new group of people he had met, several mugs of Amerand’s harsh ale between them. He certainly knew his trade, and it must have been why he’d been so successful at it for so long.

 

The temperatures continued to grow colder, although they still had very little effect on Steve as they made their way further into the country. Bucky never complained, but he also started sleeping closer to Steve when there was no other option but for them to make camp outside, Steve’s sleep still deep and satisfying, leaving him energized when they woke. Bucky always glared at him first thing in the mornings, Steve happily ignoring him as he broke down their camp.

 

Then something in Bucky seemed to change, a shift in his attitude, his face growing less pinched, his easy, honest smiles returning as they made their way further and further north. Two days later, Steve found out why.

 

The town was called Lehigh, and it was the largest one they’d entered since crossing the border into Amerand. The busiest too, the streets filled with plenty of people as Bucky led them to yet another inn. Steve thought that in the future, if he was ever asked what the Six was like, all he’d be able to say was, ‘It has lots and lots of inns.’ They were shown to a nice enough room, and even better, they could have a tub of hot water brought up, so they could both bathe. The hot water was a luxury after so long, even if Bucky had taken advantage of it first, and Steve would have sat in it forever if he could, if not for the way Bucky rushed him through it, insisting there was someplace else they needed to be.

 

That place ended up being a three-storied building, not too far from the center of Lehigh, with a heavy oak door, the word Red’s etched into it. It was unlike any place Steve had ever been to before, although he’d heard of them. Inside there was a loud boisterous crowd made up of both men and women, lounging around on lush furnishings, while a half-dressed woman played a piano in the corner, and another, wearing even fewer clothes, sang a strange song about meat, and how it the only way it could properly be enjoyed was if it was juicy and pink, in a sultry voice that had more than a few of the people in the crowd enraptured.

 

It was obviously a popular tune, even Bucky singing along with the chorus, as he led them through the crowd, and toward one of the few remaining empty tables in the room. Steve took another look around as they sat, this time noticing the freely flowing drinks, the heavy smoke-filled air, and the way most of the women were either sitting on the laps or leaning in to whisper close to the men there.

 

“Bucky,” Steve whispered, with a sudden, shocked revelation. “Is this…Is this a brothel?

 

“It’s not just any brothel, Steve,” Bucky said, with a casual wave of his hand. “This is Red’s, the best brothel in all the Six.”

 

“Still as sweet-tongued as ever, I see,” a low voice purred from behind them.

 

“And there she is,” Bucky said, a smile blooming on his face, as he stood and turned to whomever had spoken. “Hello Pegs. By The Five, it’s good to see you again.”

 

“Hello darling,” she answered in a rich and sultry voice, leaning in to press a kiss to Bucky’s cheek.  “It’s been far too long.”

 

She was unlike any woman Steve had ever seen. Middle-aged, but in the prime of her beauty, her pale face framed by a wave of long, curly, luxurious brown hair. Her full lips were painted a velvety crimson that matched the color of her dress, deliberately draped to highlight the svelte curves of her body. Her deep, dark eyes were framed by thick eyelashes, with only a hint of kohl in the corners, and she looked like the type of woman almost anyone would gladly fall down and worship, if she even so much as looked their way.

 

Steve hated her on sight.

 

“Yes well, work’s been keeping me pretty busy lately, but there’s no way I could come to Amerand and not pay a visit to my favorite rose in all the world,” Bucky said, clasping her hands warmly in his. “Do you think you could spare some time for me?”

 

Steve hated her even more.

 

“You know I don’t do that anymore James, but for you I’m always willing to make an exception,” she said, her lush lips pulling into an even wider smile. Steve wanted to strangle her. “But aren’t you going to introduce me to your companion first?”

 

“Of course, how rude of me,” Bucky grinned, before remembering Steve was still there. “Peggy, this is Steve, a friend of mine. Steve, this is Peggy Carter, the owner and proprietress of Red’s.”

 

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Steve,” Peggy smiled at him.

 

“Same,” Steve somehow managed to say, even though it absolutely wasn’t. If Peggy noticed, and Steve was somehow certain she had, she gave no sign.

 

“He’s a fierce one, isn’t he?” she asked casually instead. “I can see why you like him. Now come along, I am a very busy woman after all. But you’ve always been one of my favorites, and I know how much you like to take your time.” She slid her arm through Bucky’s, and began to lead him away. Steve wanted to rip her arms off.

 

“This may take a while Steve,” Bucky called over his shoulder. “So get yourself a drink, and make yourself comfortable. And if you see anything you like, just ask. As long as you’re respectful, they’ll take real good care of you here.” And then he was gone, disappearing with Peggy behind a heavy velvet curtain at the back of the room, while all Steve could do was stare after them.

 

“Typical, ain’t it?” a new voice grumbled from not so far away. Steve looked over his shoulder toward the next table, to see three men sitting there, their eyes directed where Steve’s had just been.

 

“What?” he asked.

 

“Mistress Carter never sees to anyone herself anymore, hasn’t in years,” the man closest to Steve explained. “So of course when she finally does, it would be with one of those Five freaks, wouldn’t it?”

 

“Five freaks?” That was not a term Steve had ever heard before.

 

“The ones that worship their Five,” the man went on. “Crazier than a bunch of cats with their tails all tied together, always going on about their balance, and their coin, and going home.”

 

“What’s wrong with going home?” Steve asked. “Everybody wants to eventually.”

 

“Yeah but with thems, you never know if they mean back to their house, or if it’s wherever it is those mad fuckers think their soul goes in the end.”

 

“It’s what they call it when you die, going home,” a second man said, speaking up for the first time. “Me, I plan to go up to the sky, so I can kiss Trelia’s Tits myself, see if they’re as sweet as they say.”

 

“They’re a crazy lot, that ain’t no lie,” the last man at the table said, finally deciding to weigh in on the topic. “But they’re a determined bunch, especially once they’ve sworn one of their oaths, if you can get them to do it. Won’t ever stop until they know the job’s been done, and done right, even if it means they die trying. My Pappy said he served with one of them once. Crazy, yeah, but also said he was the fiercest soldier he’d ever seen, and the one you’d want backing you in a battle. So, you know, if he is one of them, it’s definitely going to be a while before you see your friend again. And it’s also probably why Mistress Carter decided to make an exception. She knows what she’s about, that one,” he finished with a wink.

 

“I’m about to go find some tits of my own,” the first one said, slamming his cup down on the table. “Or at least another drink.”

 

“I’d need some tits and another drink too, if I had to deal with your boss in the morning, Toby,” the second teased.

 

“You is my boss, Sol!”

 

“And that’s why I’m sayin’.”

 

Steve tuned them out at that point, anything else they might have said of no interest to him. He thought their comments about those who worshipped The Five cruel. Everyone who did that he’d met so far, even if it had only been twice, had been nothing but kind. Intense yes, but still kind. Including Bucky, even if he did want to storm upstairs and set whatever room the two of them were in on fire.

 

Steve really, really was a fool sometimes. In more ways than one.

 

***

 

It took almost an hour before Bucky made his reappearance, the sway of his hips loose, his hair mussed, smears of rouge on his lips. Normally, Steve wouldn’t have noticed the time; he was in a new place, unlike any he’d ever seen, and he always relished the opportunity to discover something new. He knew about brothels, they were often in the books he read, where one of the star-crossed lovers always ended up meeting the love of their life, who was working there, but really a noble or even royalty in disguise.

 

But he found he couldn’t turn his thoughts away from whatever Bucky was supposed to be doing with Peggy, and any chance to explore was wasted on him. Several women had approached him, and when he refused their offerings with a stern shake of his head, a few men tried. Steve had no interest in anything they had to offer, and back home where the pleasures of sex were so easily available, prostitution was unheard of. Still, Bucky was the one who was constantly insisting they were pressed for time, so why had he decided to come here, now, when there were certainly more productive things he, they, could be doing.

 

“There you are,” Bucky said, flopping down in the seat across from Steve, looking very pleased with the world.

 

“Where else would I be?” Steve muttered, taking in his relaxed manner. Steve had never seen him look so content. It made him want to punch him.

 

“Have you been sitting here all this time?” Bucky looked confused.

 

“Why wouldn’t I, since you just left me here like that?” From what Steve could sense, beneath all the other heavy and cloying scents in the air, Bucky didn’t even smell like rosewater. And everybody knew rosewater was an essential part of seduction, all the books said so, so Peggy couldn’t be that good at her job.

 

“With the way you always get so excited about seeing something new, I thought you’d enjoy some fun of your own.” Bucky waved off the woman who approached their table with a trayful of drinks.

 

“No. I just sat here, waiting for you to come back.”

 

“What’s the matter? Nothing to your liking? There are men here too, if breasts aren’t your thing.”

 

“I know. I’m just not interested, all right?” Steve knew he sounded sullen, but still, he hated it here, hated it.

 

“What’s the matter with you?” Bucky asked, peering at him.

 

“Nothing,” Steve snapped, his tone catching Bucky by surprise.

 

“Are you sure of that?”

 

“Yes.” In spite of his words, Steve shook his head. “It’s just…It’s crowded and loud, and it’s giving me a headache. Are you done yet? Can we go?”

 

“Yeah, I’m done,” Bucky said, slowly rising to his feet.

 

“Well that certainly didn’t take long,” Steve muttered under his breath as he stood, pushing his way through the crowd and towards the door. “I thought your lot was supposed to be all about thoroughness, and making sure a job got done right. That was barely enough time to get to any of the good parts. Shows what those idiots know.”

 

“What in the hells is going on with you?” Bucky asked, following Steve out into the street. Because he had heard what Steve said, of course he did; he had better hearing than just about anyone Steve had ever met, even Natasha. And Steve knew for a fact that Natasha could hear a secret whispered from miles away.

 

“Nothing,” Steve growled, and then refused to say anything else as he stomped back to the inn, Bucky trailing behind in a confused silence.

 

The respite lasted until they reached their room, where Steve immediately headed for the bed so he could work on getting his boots off, while Bucky quietly closed the door, leaning against it with his arms crossed.

 

“What on earth is the matter with you?” he asked, just as Steve pulled off his first boot and tossed it to the corner with more force than necessary, not caring where it landed.

 

“Nothing,” Steve repeated, going for the laces on his second boot.

 

“Are you sure about that?” Bucky pressed. “’Cos you sure look pissed off to me.”

 

“I am not pissed off,” Steve practically snarled, yanking on his laces so hard he somehow managed to make the knot worse instead of loosening it.

 

“Oh really?”

 

“Yes, really,” Steve insisted, giving the laces another tug. “And why are you just standing there like that? If you’re not going to bed, you should probably call down for another bath. You still have all that shit all over your face.” The crimson on his lips, and a few smears of it Steve could now see on the column of his throat. And his hair, his beautiful, long, silky hair, even prettier than Peggy’s, that he spent so much time braiding every morning to remind him of his sisters. If Peggy was such a good friend, didn’t she know how much care Bucky took with his hair? How dare she just ruin it like that, as if it wasn’t important, as if it didn’t matter.

 

Bucky stood where he was, staring at Steve, his eyes narrowed. Until he blinked, once, twice, and then again, the expression on his face changing, growing bright, and his lips curling, as if he had just discovered a secret even Natasha didn’t know.

 

“Steve,” he said, amusement in his voice as he took a step forward. “Steve, are you…jealous?

 

“What? No!” Steve snapped, tugging on his laces so hard one of them tore. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

 

“Are you sure of that Steve?” Bucky asked, taking another step closer. Steve suddenly felt very small, pinned beneath his gaze, trapped, like a mouse cornered by a cat who knew everything it needed to about its prey. “Because you sound like you’re jealous to me.”

 

“Why would I be?” All Steve could do was shrug. It was easier than thinking about what it was Bucky had just implied. “You’re free to spend your time with whoever you like.”

 

“You’re right, I am.”

 

“And if you want to spend it with somebody–somebody like Peggy, then that’s your business.”

 

“Do you have a problem with prostitutes, Steve?” Bucky asked, his tone shifting from playful to something very, very serious, that told Steve he needed to select his next words with care.

 

“No,” Steve shook his head. It was the truth; he didn’t. Prostitution didn’t exist in The Valley, but that didn’t mean he hadn’t heard of it. And Steve knew it was a trade, just like any other, where coin was exchanged for services provided. He also knew those who offered that service were often looked down upon, seen as less somehow, merely for doing a job. He didn’t understand it, thought it unfair, and he most certainly did not think any less of them for it. “Why would I? They’re just doing their job, like anybody else.”

 

“Just so.”

 

“And if that’s what you wanted, it’s none of my business,” Steve continued in a mumble. “And she was…very pretty, I suppose. Even I could see why -“

 

“I didn’t sleep with her,” Bucky cut him off.

 

“What?” Steve asked, so startled he dropped his boot to the floor.

 

“I didn’t sleep with Peggy, Steve.”

 

“But you…and…she said…and…” All Steve could do was wave his hand uselessly in Bucky’s direction, at his hair, his rumpled shirt, the evidence on his face.

 

“You idiot,” Bucky laughed, coming forward and collapsing back on the bed, his eyes amused as he stared up at the ceiling.

 

“But,” Steve said again, shifting so he could stare down at him. Bucky took a deep breath, and then sighed, before bringing his gaze back to Steve’s face.

 

“Peggy is a lot like me,” he finally said.

 

“A prostitute?” Steve asked, confused. Because they had been in each other’s presence constantly over the past couple of months, and he was certain he would have noticed if Bucky had traded sex for coin.

 

“No, not a prostitute, you idiot,” Bucky snorted, before growing serious. “Although she has been that, and it suits her needs if that’s what people still think.”

 

“I don’t understand.”

 

“When I said she’s like me, what I mean is, she deals in messages, secrets, making sure the right people get the right information, so things can get done.”

 

“But you were gone for over an hour, and when you came back, you looked, well, you looked like this,” Steve said, pointing at Bucky’s face.

 

“Yes, I did. And as a result, when I came back down, everyone thought we fucked each other senseless. Even you.” Bucky grinned as if satisfied. “It’s important to be as convincing as possible in Peggy’s line of work. She’d never have lasted as long as she has if she wasn’t.”

 

“But she works in a brothel,” Steve said, if anything Bucky’s explanation confusing him even more.

 

“Men are more likely to share their deepest, darkest secrets after their dick’s been sucked. So are women, after they’ve been tongued just right for over an hour. Everybody always underestimates a Silk Girl or Boy, thinking they’re there because they’re too stupid to do anything else. The right kiss, the right touch, the perfect little coo whispered into an ear, and you’d be surprised what you can get out of someone when they’re basking in the afterglow.”

 

“Oh,” Steve said, things becoming clearer, Bucky’s words the last piece of the puzzle, snapping the image into place.

 

“And let me tell you something else about Mistress Margaret Carter.” Bucky sat up and turned his bright blue-grey eyes, as filled with as much skies and thunder as his mother’s had when there was a truth she wanted to make sure he understood. “Yes, she’s the owner of Red’s, and yes, she has dealt in the trade herself. But you will never meet another like her, a better person anywhere in all the Six. She takes in anyone who asks her to, anyone desperate enough to knock on her door. She offers them work, but never forces them into it. If it’s not for them, she makes sure to get them someplace safe. If it is, if it suits and they like doing it, and some people do, she trains them, both in and out of bed, making sure they have all the tools they need, and know how to hide a knife so no one will ever see it. She looks after all those who work in her house, and in exchange, they are fiercely loyal to her. But she’s more than earned it. And when they move on, as some of them do, they still keep in contact with her, letting her know anything they think she needs to, so she can pass it on to others, when and if she sees fit.”

 

“Were you…ever one of hers?” Steve asked carefully.

 

“Did I ever work in her house? No, not like that,” Bucky shook his head before laying back down on the bed. “But our paths did cross when I was at a very low point in my life, not too long after I first left home. She must have seen something in me, because she took me under her wing for a while, teaching me things I didn’t even know I needed to know. She’s a big part of the reason I’ve managed to survive as long as I have. And if you think I’m deadly with a blade, you should see her when she’s got steel in her hands.

 

“She’s a friend, a good one, and I love her dearly. But we’ve never been more than that.”

 

“Oh,” Steve said again. It certainly gave him a different perspective on things, an understanding Steve hadn’t had before. Peggy was Bucky’s Natasha, and Steve could never begrudge him that.

 

“Do I have to tell you that what I just said can never be repeated outside of this room?” Bucky asked a few seconds later when Steve still not had said anything.

 

“No,” Steve shook his head. “Your secret, both of yours, are safe with me. I swear it. But thank you for telling me.”

 

“You’re welcome.” Bucky closed his eyes, once again smiling. “So you see Steve, you have absolutely nothing to be jealous about.”

 

“Shut up! I wasn’t jealous!”

 

“Of course you weren’t,” Bucky murmured out of the corner of his mouth. “Your face just looks like that all the time.”

 

“There’s nothing wrong with my face.”

 

“If you say so.”

 

“And you still need to wash yours, because seriously Bucky, whatever you did do in that room, red just really isn’t your color.” It was a lie. If Bucky were Steve’s, he would drown him in reds, and golds, and all the colors of the world.

 

But that didn’t mean he was jealous. It didn’t.

 

“Uh-huh,” Bucky grunted. “Not jealous at all.”

 

In fact, Bucky was the most annoying person in the world. And just to prove it, Steve hit him in the face with one of their pillows, before stomping out of the room to ask the innkeeper himself for another tub to be brought up.

 

***

 

But.

 

But.

 

But…

 

***

 

Even though there was only one bed in the room, Bucky didn’t sleep by his side that night. Somehow Steve just knew, and he wasn’t surprised when he opened his eyes to find Bucky sitting on the window ledge, his folder resting on his upturned knee, a pencil in his hand. He was staring through the grimy glass, his gaze distant, and Steve thought he had never looked so far away.

 

And then he blinked, his senses keen as ever, as if he knew there were eyes upon him, and smiled a small, strangely innocent smile, at Steve.

 

“’Bout time,” was all he said, before turning back to his latest letter to Becca.

 

They left the inn, and Lehigh, not long after that. Accompanied by Daturia, they ascended higher and higher, into bitter cold and winds strong enough to score flesh from bones. Bucky was quiet and pensive, pausing to scan the cragged landscape, as if even he was unsure of where they were, and was searching for some sign or landmark to confirm they were going the right way. At night they huddled together, so Steve’s warmth could keep them from freezing to death, and during the day Bucky used his finely-honed skills to hunt, which kept them from going hungry. It was a rough journey, and Steve couldn’t help but wonder what letter or secret was important enough to merit the need to travel to these dreary and desolate lands. Bucky never said, and Steve now understood, even better than before, how the messages Bucky delivered were crucial, and the trustworthiness of their carrier vital.

 

Whatever information Peggy had given to Bucky must have been important, because there was a heaviness to him that had not been there before, as if the weight of what he carried was too heavy for even his strong shoulders. Steve spent a lot of time during the tedium of those days observing Bucky, studying his face, his carriage, the way the few strands of hair that had escaped from his hat blew around his face.

 

In the ways of the Six, he was considered beautiful; tall and fit, with eyes unlike any other Steve had ever seen. The line of his jaw and the shape of his lips were the type written about often enough in the books Steve read, if such a thing could ever truly be captured. But there were, and always had been stars in his eyes, Steve now knew, and a velveteen softness in the raspiness of his voice. Sometimes he hummed and sometimes he was quiet, but if Steve had to select one word to describe him, he supposed it would be balanced, the epitome of his Five. He wondered what Bucky would say about that, if Steve ever told him.

 

He also couldn’t help but wonder what words Bucky would use to describe him. Steve knew he was short, but that was not something that ever mattered to the people of The Valley. For the longest time, he hadn’t known what he looked like. His mother had kept no mirrors, and it wasn’t until he ventured down from the mountains for the first time that he’d seen what he looked like, when Nancy held up a looking glass for him to see his reflection. It was then he’d learned his eyes were blue, his hair golden, and his lips soft. His nose was a bit too big for his face, and his collarbones sharp, but Nancy told him he was lovely. But then they would; beauty was judged differently in The Valley when compared to the Six, and they took great pride in being able to see the truth of things. He didn’t think he was ugly, but he also knew he was no Peggy Carter, no Bucky, and there was nothing he could do about that. It was another question Bucky would never answer, Steve supposed, and he would simply have to live with his curiosity.

 

Or he thought he would, until ten days after they left Lehigh, they reached the end of the world, and Bucky answered it for himself.

 

***

 

It was literally the End of the World. The people who lived there, less than a hundred by Steve’s best guess, in a fit of humor or self-awareness, had named it that themselves. It was a small place, of tightly clustered brick houses, perched on the precipice of a cliff on one side, and facing an even steeper one on its other. There was supposedly an entrance to a network of interconnecting caves that ran beneath it, but they were warned against trying to find it. Only a fool or one in search of death sought entry, because it was riddled with even more ravines and hidden chasms, and no one who entered ever came back.

 

They were told this as they checked into the only inn in town, fittingly named The Last Inn at the End of the World, handed a key, and told to make themselves comfortable. Supper would be ready shortly, and once they were done eating, the innkeeper would be more than happy to have a tub filled with hot water brought up to their rooms. Steve had never seen Bucky look more grateful than when he’d heard that.

 

The room was small, but clean, and the people who lived at The End of the World clearly knew the value of warmth in such a place. The bed was covered in thick furs, the fires quickly came to life in the hearth, and the braziers throughout the room gave off their own heat. Steve was relieved, not for himself, but for Bucky, because he knew this journey had not been easy on him. He never complained, too dedicated to his work for that, but something in him had pressed forward with an even fiercer determination than Steve had previously seen. Steve supposed he could understand; according to Bucky this was the last place he had to visit before he went back home to his family, so of course he wanted to get the job done.

 

Still, it was a relief to see him relax, and shake himself of his burdens, knowing after this he would be free. He was a devoted brother and son, and his family was very lucky he had been willing to sacrifice his own dreams to see to it they were taken care of.

 

And it would be good to eat a meal they hadn’t had to hunt and prepare themselves.

 

After a hearty stew of goat and some root vegetable Steve had never tried before, followed by a sweet bread flavored with cinnamon, they retreated to their room to await the delivery of the promised bath.

 

There was a bit of their usual back and forth, when Bucky insisted Steve should go first, which Steve blatantly refused to do. He was warm enough, and Bucky had paid for this, like he had paid for everything else, so it was only fair, and he better do it soon, or all the hot water would be for naught. He finally agreed, taking a thorough but quick bath, before stepping out, turning to watch Steve sink to his chin in the water while he wrapped a towel around his waist.

 

He stared at Steve for the longest time, something in his eyes reminding Steve of how he looked when he turned all his attention to the skies and the stars he so loved. A look of hopes and dreams, out of his grasp, but still there whenever he needed to be reminded of where he had come from.

 

And then he asked Steve for something he never had before.

 

“Can I wash your hair?” His voice was bated and low, as if knew he was asking for something he shouldn’t, but couldn’t stop himself.

 

“What?” Steve blinked, surprised by the question.

 

“Your hair,” he said, lowering his eyes, as if he were ashamed. “Can I wash it?”

 

“If you like,” Steve answered slowly, still confused but not uncertain. He had watched Bucky’s hands, wielding his knives. And he had watched Bucky’s hands, taking care of Daturia. He watched Bucky’s hands braiding his own hair, writing letters to his sister, counting out coin, and resewing a button to one of Steve’s shirts. He had watched and watched and watched, and wanted, deep in his heart, where no one would ever know, to feel them on his own skin.

 

Bucky said nothing in response, instead kneeling by the side of the tub, where he urged Steve to tip his head back, so he could pour palmfuls of water over Steve’s hair. And oh, they were gentle, those hands, knowing and kind as they ran over his scalp with just the right amount of pressure, making Steve want to curl up into a ball and purr.

 

“So pretty,” Bucky murmured, as he rinsed the last suds away. “Just like spun gold. I’ve wanted to do this from the minute I saw you.”

 

“What?” Steve asked, opening his eyes, not realizing he had closed them, to see Bucky spinning a strand of Steve’s hair between his fingers. He was smiling, one of his real ones, that made that dimple in his left cheek appear, and crinkled the corner of his eyes.

 

“You do know, don’t you?” Bucky said, turning all of that, the dimple, the crinkles, the grey whispers in his irises, in Steve’s direction.

 

“Know what?”

 

“That you’re beautiful,” Bucky’s smile grew soft, almost awestruck. “The most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

 

“You think I’m beautiful?” Steve whispered, knowing he sounded weak, frail, unsure, but unable to do anything about it.

 

“I do. With your golden hair, and eyes bluer than the sea,” Bucky told him. “But it’s not just that. You’re brave, and fierce, and always true to who you are. You never let anything hold you back, even when the odds are stacked against you, and you keep pushing forward, no matter what. You’re small and bright, but you’re just like the Great Hope, a star in the dark to light the way.”

 

“Bucky…”

 

“And I know I’ve got no right to ask this of you, and you’re under no obligation to say yes, but I really want to kiss you right now. Would that be all right?”

 

Steve never answered him. Instead he lurched out of the tub, throwing his arms around Bucky’s shoulders to pull him close and bring his lips to his.

 

Because this, this, this was a gift, something precious and sacred Bucky was offering him, and Steve knew how to take care of precious things. But it was also something he could give back, Bucky because asked it of him, and Bucky so rarely asked, and Steve would never deny him anything.

 

Bucky was warm beneath his hands, his skin still damp, and he smelled of good things; strong winds and warm fires, moonlit nights and the promise of summer storms. And his kiss was the sweetest thing Steve had ever tasted. Sweeter than honey, than chocolate, than a cool sip of water on a hot day. But with just a hint of bitter, of sharpness, to make it even sweeter, and Steve wanted to drink from him forever.

 

“And you kiss just like you do everything else,” Bucky laughed against his mouth when they finally broke apart.

 

“I’ll show you everything else,” Steve growled, chasing after those lips. But then he stopped and pulled himself back, because there was a way to these things, rules that needed to be followed, which Steve would never break, not with anyone, but especially not with Bucky.

 

“If, and only if, I have your permission,” he said, lowering his hands from Bucky’s shoulders. “If it’s something you really want.”

 

“Stevie.” The change to his name was strange, but still welcome when spoken in Bucky’s voice. “Haven’t you heard a word I just said? I’ve been wanting you since day one.”

 

“You should’ve said something sooner then,” Steve said, stepping out of the tub. “We’re very direct about sex where I’m from. If there’s someone we’re interested in, we tell them that. If they say no, we move on, no offense taken. If they say yes,” Steve paused to smile, “well then, we make sure they know how appreciative we are. And in case you were wondering Bucky, if you had asked, my answer would have been yes.”

 

“Then I’m sorry I waited this long,” Bucky grinned at him, the blue of his eyes slowly being devoured by the black of his pupils.

 

“You should be,” Steve said, standing in front of Bucky where he was still kneeling on the floor. “But that’s all right. We can make up for it now.” And then Steve did something he’d wanted to for months now, ever since the first time he had watched Bucky ready himself for the upcoming day, and sunk his fingers into his hair, getting a good strong handful so he could tug Bucky in and kiss him again.

 

Lips and heat and wet against wet. A moan from Steve, a gasp from Bucky, and Steve was growling, chasing after Bucky’s mouth when he shifted back slightly in order to catch his breath.

 

“Oh, I knew it was going to be like this with you,” Bucky panted, licking his lips, already red and swollen.

 

“This is just the beginning Bucky,” Steve told him, leaning in to nip at his ear. “We’re just getting started.” From the way Bucky shivered, Steve knew those were the perfects words, and they were both going to enjoy everything that came next.

 

Steve pulled Bucky to his feet, startling a laugh out of him, yanking the towel away. And then they were stumbling toward the bed, where they collapsed skin against skin into the thick furs.

 

Steve wanted to devour him, take a nip from every part, dip his tongue into each nook and cranny of Bucky’s body. It seemed as if Bucky felt exactly the same way. His hands were everywhere, the calluses of his fingers digging trails into Steve’s skin.

 

“What do you want?” Steve breathed into his ear, enraptured by the fine hairs there and the way they rose beneath his words.

 

“I want to taste you, all over,” Bucky answered, flipping Steve onto his back in a move that could have been combat, or just the way Bucky was in bed. “Every little bit of you, until you melt in my mouth.”

 

“Greedy,” Steve laughed, but he was pleased. Because it meant Bucky was planning to be thorough, and Steve knew he was about to find out if all the rumors about those who worshipped The Five were true.

 

Then Bucky leaned forward, using his tongue to lick a stripe from the base of Steve’s chest to just beneath his chin, and Steve knew those men at Red’s had been right.

 

It had been so long since Steve had last been touched like this. Not since coming to the Six. And he hadn’t realized how hungry he was for it, how starving his skin was, until Bucky began to pour over him, drowning him in kisses and licks and soft words of praise. Lips against his neck, the sucking of Steve’s nipples, a warm hand cradling his balls. As if he must have known, could tell, and was making it his mission to give Steve everything he needed, so his body would never be hungry again.

 

It was an ending, and also a beginning, because Bucky was…Bucky was tending to him, and that was something only…only…

 

And then all thoughts, all notions of endings and beginnings fled from Steve’s mind, because Bucky murmured, “And you certainly weren’t lying, cos you sure ain’t little where it matters,” before with a greedy slurp, he pulled Steve’s dick into his mouth, swallowing him whole. Uninhibited and pleased, he sucked and he licked, and he licked and he sucked, both of his hands on Steve’s balls now, leaving Steve helpless to do anything but close his eyes and let him.

 

The rise of it, another beginning, the tightening of his spine, the arching of his neck, a voice that was a whimper, was a roar, his own voice, trying to warn Bucky, because he knew not everyone enjoyed such things, which Bucky ignored to pull Steve even deeper into the back of his throat, where he hummed, setting everything in Steve, his blood, his bones, his hair, on fire.

 

“As sweet as you look.” Bucky’s voice was hoarse when he finally spoke, as he sat back to admire his work, the very tip of his tongue licking at the corner of his mouth to catch the tiniest drop of Steve’s spend he hadn’t managed to swallow. He looked both drunk and proud of himself as he knelt there, almost as satisfied as Steve felt. As if he thought they were done, and had the nerve to feel smug about it.

 

But there were rules to these things, and sex was always best when what was given was also given back, and Steve hadn’t had his chance yet. He was going to show Bucky why anyone he had slept with in the past was always more than happy to welcome him back to their bed. But first…

 

“That was wonderful,” he sighed as he slowly sat up, once more reaching for Bucky so he could kiss him. “Beautiful.” There, a hint of sweat in the divot of Bucky’s chin. “Perfect.” There, a taste of himself at the corner of Bucky’s mouth. “Precious.” And finally, finally, the essence of Bucky when he pressed their lips together. “But now tell me, Bucky, what is it you want? Anything you want, I promise I’ll give it to you.”

 

“You can go again, so soon, after that?” Bucky asked, his eyes widening in surprise.

 

“I’m from the North,” Steve reminded him. “Not only do we burn hot, but we’re also known for our quick recovery time. See?” Steve took Bucky’s hand into his own, and guided it down to his dick, where just as promised, it was standing tall and proud and ready for even more.

 

“Well then,” Bucky laughed, obviously pleased. “What I’d really like, if you’re willing, would to be to feel you inside of me. I like a bit of everything, but there’s nothing I enjoy more than that.”

 

“All you had to do was ask.” Steve pressed a kiss to his forehead.

 

“There’s some slick, in my pack, the one where I keep most of my clothes. If you pass it over, I’ll get myself ready for you.”

 

“No you won’t,” Steve told him, climbing off the bed and going for the bag. “It’s my turn now, and that’s always been one of my favorite parts.”

 

“Why am I not surprised you’re just as mouthy in bed as you are everywhere else?” Bucky asked.

 

“Because you know me,” Steve said as he climbed back into bed, vial in hand. “Now, where should I begin? There’s so much of you, and I don’t know where I want to start first.”

 

“I wouldn’t be opposed to another kiss or two.”

 

“Since you asked.” If kisses were what Bucky wanted, then Steve would give them to him. Millions and millions of kisses, because Bucky had asked, and it was Steve’s nature, born and bred into his bones, his soul, to give his…to give his…

 

And he wanted to do it, as much as Bucky wanted him to. There was nothing Bucky could ask of Steve that he would not give him, simply because…simply because…

 

Because Bucky gave, as much as he took, even more so. Because he was kind and generous, and he’d been looking after Steve ever since they met.

 

He was still doing it, even now. He had asked for Steve to fuck him, but he was being patient, knowing somehow what Steve wanted was his own turn to explore. To comb his fingers through Bucky’s hair, run his hands over his shoulders and along the insides of his thighs. To circle his thumbs over the pulse point of Bucky’s wrists, to press a kiss to the delicate folds of his elbows, at the back of his knees, the strangely vulnerable bones of his ankles. To stroke the curls at Bucky’s groin, silky-smooth as they wrapped around his fingers. The fine skin of his ball sac, the throbbing vein pulsing strong along the length of his proud, perfect, beautiful dick. This man was all danger and strength and power, who had introduced himself by slitting the throats of four strangers, and here he was, giving himself to Steve, because he was…he was…

 

And suddenly Steve couldn’t wait another second longer. He had to be inside him, had to have him. So he covered his fingers with the oil, making sure they were slippery and slick, and slid two of them into Bucky’s body. Quicker than he should have been, but Bucky moaned in pleasure instead of pain, his eyes closing and his neck arching back. Steve wouldn’t hurt him, would never hurt him, but Bucky was making it nearly impossible for Steve to wait, with the way he spread his thighs even wider, his hips starting to cant, silently begging with his body for more. Steve slipped in another finger, the heat he could feel against his skin almost a rival for his own that made Steve want to growl. And then Bucky spoke.

 

“Please Steve, please, I’m begging you. I’m ready. I’m ready. Now Steve, now!”

 

It was Bucky asking for something from him, so Steve had to give it. He couldn’t refuse, it was impossible for him to. So Steve pulled his fingers free, and with trembling but determined hands, coated his own cock in more of the oil, and gave Bucky everything he asked for, pushing his way into his body.

 

It was an end. And it was a beginning.

 

And Steve suddenly understood why his body had been burning so hot. Why he’d been able to sleep so deep and content. Why his heart had been beating so steady and true. Why he had been growing stronger, when by all accounts the opposite should have happened. And why Healer Erskine had smiled at him the way he had.

 

Because Bucky was his Treasure.

 

Steve had been searching for something he had already found, and he hadn’t even known. The one thing that would matter more to him than anything else, that his soul had been searching for. The one thing all his own sought, and only a very few were lucky enough to find.

 

His to cherish. To keep safe. To care for.

 

His to love, for the rest of their lives, in the way that only Steve’s own could.

 

Bucky. Was. His.

 

And Steve would never, ever let him go.

 

He’d been such a fool. But now that he knew, he would show Bucky what it meant to be Treasure. To be beloved, and sacred, and adored for everything he was, no more, no less, but all the more precious because of it.

 

He could start by proving to Bucky he was worthy, that Steve would ensure he would never need for anything, and would always give to him anything he asked for. Pleasure was always a good start, so that’s where he would begin, with kisses and praise, and thrusts that made Bucky cry out, and shiver and shake beneath him, his hands wrapped tight enough around Steve’s wrists to leave bruises. A hot and sweaty night full of it, here at The End of the World, until Bucky could do nothing but surrender, surrender to Steve, his body bowing back tight, the veins in his neck a map Steve would commit to memory, before he shouted Steve’s name, and his dick poured its release in a thick offering that coated both of their skins, while Steve whispered, “Beloved, Beloved, Beloved,” over and over and over again, helpless to do anything but tremble as his own release followed after Bucky’s.

 

They would need to talk about it. There were things Steve needed to explain. But that could wait until morning. For now all Steve wanted to do was curl around Bucky, and sleep with his Treasure warm and safe in his arms. So that’s what he did, after he gently wiped Bucky down, and ran his fingers through his hair one last time.

 

But Bucky wasn’t done with him yet. As they lay together, their arms curled around each other, his Treasure proved how perfect he was, by pressing a kiss to Steve’s temple, and whispering softly, “Thank you. You have no idea what you’ve just given me. But it’s one of my precious things now. And I’ll always keep it safe.”

 

“Me too,” was the last thing Steve said, before secure and content, wrapped in the arms of his Treasure, he fell asleep.

 

***

 

When Steve woke up the next morning, Bucky was gone.

Chapter Text

Dear Becca,

 

This will be my last letter. But that’s a good thing. I’ve finally found him, Becs, after all these years. So I just have to deliver one more message before it’s done, and then I can come home.

 

I’ll see you soon.

 

***

 

The room was quiet and still when Steve woke. Normally that wouldn’t have bothered him, and he would have just rolled over and tried to steal a few more moments of sleep before there was an annoying shake to his shoulders and a voice ordering him to get up.

 

But there was a pull, an urging deep in his mind, demanding he wake, because something was wrong.

 

He sat up, opened his eyes and looked around, searching for the threat, ready to protect what was his, only to find nothing. The room was empty, silent, undisturbed, but wrong. Because Bucky was gone, and Steve was all alone.

 

That was not how these things were supposed to go, and the feeling in Steve’s core, his blood and his bones, only grew worse as he took a second look around and saw what he had missed before; Bucky’s saddlebags neatly resting at the foot of the bed. On top of them, still in their sheaths, were Howl and Command, crossed as if in prayer. And in their vee, where a believer’s faith was usually held, was Bucky’s leather portfolio, a single folded piece of paper with Steve’s name written on the surface, carefully placed as if it had been patiently waiting for Steve to find it.

 

It should have been a relief to know Bucky had left him a message. But Bucky never went anywhere without Howl and Command, and there was something in the stark contrast of Bucky’s neat handwriting against the white parchment that sucked all the heat from Steve’s blood.

 

Not knowing what he would find, Steve reached for the letter with trembling hands, quickly unfolding it, and started to read.

 

Dear Steve, it began in Bucky’s by now long familiar to him script.

 

Good morning to you, you sleepyhead. Knowing you the way I do, and how much you love your sleep, it’ll be a long time before you finally read this. But it’s better this way.

 

We always knew we were going to have to part ways eventually, and it’s fitting that it’s here at The End of the World. You still have to find what it is you’re looking for, but me, well, I finally have. There’s just one last message I have to deliver, and then it will be done. So it’s time for us to say goodbye. Don’t worry about me, I’ve made peace with it a long time ago, and I’ll be fine. And I know you’ll be too.

 

With that said, I’m leaving you a few things. Most of my possessions, and the last of my coin. There’s more than enough to get you anywhere you need to go. If you’re asking me, which I know you’re not, but I’m going to tell you anyway, my advice is to head back to Lehigh, and see Peggy. She’s expecting you. Remember what I told you – she’s a good friend, and she’ll help you in any way you need.

 

I’m also leaving Daturia in your care. I know the two of you don’t get along, but she’s a good horse, the best girl anyone could ever ask for. Please look after her for me, and feed her an apple whenever you can remember. She’s been with me for years, and she doesn’t deserve to go where I’m going.

 

Finally, I’m gifting you Howl and Command. My father gave them to my sister, who gave them to me. It’s time for me to pass them on. Those knives, along with Daturia, are my most precious things. I know you, more than anyone else, will understand that, and take care of them the way they deserve. Consider it a favor to a friend.

 

Aside from them, it was you who became my most precious thing. You were a light, the brightest one I’d ever seen, in my dark, and reminded me that life still could be sweet. I can’t thank you enough for that. My only regret is that we didn’t have more time. That, and that I didn’t get to say to you that I love you, and I always will.

 

Be well Steve. I hope you find what you’re looking for. I hate leaving you like this, but it’s time for me to go home. My family is waiting for me.

 

Forever Yours,

Bucky

 

“No…No…No…

 

Steve’s chant was desperate, unbelieving, shocked, as he tore open the folder and flipped through the stacked pages within. Letters, almost a hundred of them, that should have been posted, that Steve thought had been, but were collected in a neat stack. Steve’s eyes barely registered the words, except for the fact that in almost each and every one of them, Bucky made a reference to going home.

 

Things clicked into place then; memories returning, knowledge and skills that no mere courier should have possessed, and a horrible, horrible conversation Steve had been too upset to pay the right attention to, mentions of home and Home, and what those words could mean to someone of Bucky’s faith.

 

“You idiot!” Steve snarled, lunging from the bed and grabbing his clothes. His blood was boiling, his entire body vibrating with fury and fear, and he swore that when he finally found Bucky he would sit on his stupid Treasure, and refuse to ever let him out of his sight again.

 

It took him less than a minute to dress, then he was running out of the room, Bucky’s saddlebags slung over his shoulder, Howl and Command tucked into them. He was halfway through the dining area, on his way to the stables, when a voice called out to him.

 

“Leaving so soon?” the woman asked. She was the wife of the innkeeper, and Steve had met her the night before.

 

“Yes,” Steve growled, not bothering to slow his steps.

 

“Without breakfast first?” she asked unperturbed. “Your friend wanted me to make sure you ate before you left. Said you’re worse than a bear before your first meal in the mornings. And that you snore like one too.”

 

Steve skidded to a stop and turned to face her. “You saw Bucky?”

 

“Yeah,” she nodded. “He came down, paid for last night, and asked if he could rent one of our horses.”

 

“How long ago?”

 

“’Bout two or so hours.” She see-sawed her hand.

 

“Did he say where he was going?” Steve pressed.

 

“Said he wanted to explore the caves, daft bugger.” She rolled her eyes. “It’s why I lent him Nessa. She’s a good horse, and’ll get him to the entrance, but she’s too smart to go inside. If he wants to throw away his own life that’s fine, we get plenty of those around here, but I won’t lose a horse because he’s an idiot. Nessa’ll find her way back once she gets hungry enough. Now what about you? Do you want to eat?”

 

“How do I find the entrance?” Steve demanded. He was running out of time, and Bucky already had a two hour head start on him. His question only made her roll her eyes again and sigh.

 

“Follow the cliff-face, two miles east, until you come to a frozen riverbank. Cross it and then continue on for another mile or so. Eventually, you should see a bunch of pine trees. There’ll be one split down the middle. Climb through it and right behind, you’ll find an opening. That’s your way in. But be careful. I know you want to find your friend, but those caves are dangerous. There’s a reason everyone here stays away from them.”

 

“Thank you,” Steve breathed out, turning back around and running to the stables.

 

“Now listen you,” Steve said, sliding to a stop in front of Daturia’s stall, unhooking the latch on the gate. “I know you never liked me, and the feeling’s more than mutual.” Steve threw her saddle over her back and began reaching for the straps. “But if you love him, even a fraction as much as I do, then you don’t want to lose him either.” Steve tightened the belt a notch, and waited, until he felt Daturia sigh, then tightened it another. “And I can save him, I promise you that. But I need your help to do it. So please, please, be the best girl Bucky always says you are, and help me find him.”

 

At the sound of Bucky’s name, Daturia’s ears pricked forward. But she didn’t fuss or falter as Steve led her out of the stall and stables, her hooves prancing in place, as if she understood Steve, knew they needed to hurry, and was preparing to run.

 

“Good girl,” Steve whispered, tying the bags to the back of her saddle, before he slid his foot through the stirrup, and swung his leg up and over, settling with the reigns in his hands. Daturia shook her mane, just once, lowered her head, and took off.

 

She was an amazing animal, one of the fastest Steve had ever seen. Her pace never faltered, and her hooves barely struck the ground as they followed the cliff face, Daturia’s determination as fierce as Steve’s own.

 

So together they flew.

 

If it had been any other time, if things hadn’t been so desperate, Steve would have spread out his arms and laughed.

 

But they didn’t have time, and things were desperate, so all Steve could do was lean forward, and praise Daturia while his eyes constantly scanned his surroundings for the riverbank. They reached it quicker than a flash, although it felt like forever to Steve. Less than five minutes after that, Steve saw the pine trees the innkeeper’s wife had told him about. Daturia was panting heavily, her sides heaving and covered in sweat, but otherwise she seemed fine as Steve reigned her to a halt.

 

“Good girl,” Steve thanked her as he swung off her and to the ground. “Good, good, good girl. Now don’t go too far. I’ll be back soon. The both of us will, I swear it.” He patted her rump, wishing he could do more, but there wasn’t time for that, and he needed to find his idiot.

 

Past the trees, over the split stump, and into the dark, Steve climbed into the entryway of the cave. The shadows were heavy and thick, the air stale, and the path ahead of him treacherous. Steve had no map to follow, no Bucky to guide his way, and he knew he needed to proceed with caution.

 

But…Bucky was Steve’s Treasure, and The Bonding, while incomplete, had already begun. And Steve, all of Steve’s Kind, could always find their Treasure, even in the dark. So he stopped, closed his eyes, and opened himself up to the pull.

 

There.

 

Close enough but still too far away. And there was something else, something Steve didn’t recognize, but it whispered to him of triumph and sorrow, danger and threat, telling Steve he needed to hurry.

 

Remembering all of Bucky’s lesson, Steve moved forward on feet that were quiet and carefully balanced so his steps were silent. He didn’t know what was up ahead, but whatever it was, Steve knew he needed to be ready for it.

 

The first body took him by surprise. Less than a hundred yards in, he almost stumbled over it. The man’s throat was slit, and he had fallen where he stood, his death so sudden he hadn’t had a chance to go for his blade. Steve recognized the work, knew its master, and felt for the first time since he’d woken the smallest spark of hope.

 

Seventy-five feet later, there were two more. Then three more after that. Eventually he lost count. The smell of blood was now in the air, growing thicker and thicker with every step Steve took. And instead of darkness, there were flickers of light, signs of habitation the further Steve went.

 

He had no idea how much time passed since he first entered the caves; it had to have been at least an hour, but it could have been more. All Steve knew, all Steve’s heart kept telling him, was that he was on the correct path, going the right way, bringing him closer and closer to Bucky.

 

Then sounds in the distance, indistinguishable at first, reverberating echoes that sounded like shocked grunts of pain, and prayers for mercy. Steve practically leaped over the bodies in his haste to get closer, until a shaft of light appeared in the distance, parting the shadows like a curtain, and Steve knew that was where he would find what he was looking for.

 

Almost frantic, but remembering he still needed to be cautious, Steve crouched low as he reached the end of the tunnel, terrified of what he would find.

 

The opening ended at a steep incline of thirty feet, that sloped into a wide cavern, so tall the rocks that made up the walls disappeared into darkness. There were torches lit, the source of the light Steve had seen, pitched in an irregular pattern in the basin, a semi-circular plateau that ended abruptly at the edge of yet another chasm.

 

And there were more bodies, at least twenty-five, not a single survivor among them, except for the two still standing.

 

Bucky, wearing his outfit of black leather and straps, and an older blond man Steve had never seen before.

 

The dead were all Bucky’s, but he had paid a price for them, a heavy one Steve could see even from a distance. His clothes were torn, revealing gashes beneath, some shallow, others deep. His hair was matted with sweat, and even more blood. Steve could tell he was favoring his left side, and feel in his own the way Bucky’s heart was pounding, the oncoming thunder of a storm, just about to break, here in the heart of the mountain.

 

But his back was strong, and his footsteps steady and sure, as he placed one foot in front of the other, all his attention on the man in front of him. The man who could only stare at him in horror, as he backed away, nearly stumbling over the corpse behind him, whose chest had been hacked into with an ax, probably his own, Steve was positive, by Bucky himself.

 

“Who are you?” the man gasped once he regained his footing, glancing behind him to avoid falling over the edge.

 

“I have no name.” Bucky’s voice was the voice of the Shadows, of the Dark, of Death. “You took that from me, just like you took everything else.” There was a blood covered blade in each of Bucky’s hands. “My home, my family. Everything that I loved.” Bucky took a step forward, and the man took another step back. “You took everything from me, so I’ve spent the last fifteen years of my life taking everything from you.” One more step forward, one more step back, one more drop of blood dripping from the end of Bucky’s knives.

 

And Steve knew, before those drops even hit the ground, what Bucky was going to say next.

 

“I am the White Wolf. And I have finally found you, Alexander Goodwin Pierce.”

 

“Well look what we have here,” a coarse voice drawled just as a hand clamped around Steve’s throat, hauling him to his feet. Steve had been so focused on what he was seeing, the truths Bucky’s words revealed, he hadn’t heard his approach. At the sound of the newcomer’s voice, both Bucky and Alexander spun around in their direction. “Looks like that one over there didn’t come alone after all.” The man was almost as tall as Bucky and even broader with muscle. Pierce suddenly looked delighted, and Bucky horrified, as the man lifted Steve from the ground by his neck, the pressure of his fingers cutting off his air. 

 

No, Steve, no,” Bucky whispered, as if this were his worst nightmare come true. The darkest coin his Five could ever ask of him.

 

Use what you have, use what you have, Bucky had told him time and time again. So Steve would, kicking back with his foot, aiming for the man’s knee. He connected, but the man was too strong, and he only laughed, as if the blow had tickled.

 

“Feisty little shit.” The man took a step forward, still holding Steve by his throat. “What do you want me to do with him boss?”

 

“Well, Mister White Wolf, or whoever you really are,” Pierce gloated with a shark’s smile. “It looks like I didn’t manage to take everything you loved. At least, not yet. And you’re about to discover for yourself why HYDRA will always, always win.”

 

As he spoke, the cavern was flooded with at least twenty more men, all armed, all ready to do what their comrades couldn’t. There were too many of them, too many for Bucky to take down in the state he was in, and Pierce knew that. They all did. Steve could see it in his eyes, the glee he took from that knowledge. Then Pierce nodded at the man holding Steve, and with an even crueler smile, said,

 

“Kill him, Brock.”

 

The expected slash from the knife never came. At least not from Brock. But a knife did come. Not from Brock’s hand, but Bucky’s, his aim perfect even from thirty feet away.

 

Run, Steve!” Bucky was ordering before Steve’s feet hit the ground, now down one knife and still with as many men to face.

 

But Bucky was not the only one who believed in using whatever you had when it came to winning a fight. Because in that moment, Pierce saw his chance. He reached behind him, and a with a strength that shouldn’t have been possible for a man his age, wrapped his hand around the hilt of the ax, yanked it free, and swung it down into the join of Bucky’s shoulder and neck.

 

I’m so sorry Steve,” were the last words from Bucky’s lips, a barely audible gasp, his eyes wide with both shock and pain, before Pierce spun around and shoved his body over the edge of the chasm.

 

Steve stood there, unable to believe, his own eyes wide, only one word in his mind.

 

Mine.

 

Mine.

 

Mine.

 

Did these fools think they could take from him? That he would not protect and do everything in his power to keep his Treasure safe? He was born for it. Had come to these damned lands looking for it. And the last thing, the very last thing, these pathetic, little, weak humans would learn was that you did not hurt, you did not take, what did not belong to you, and not pay the price.

 

Steve took one step forward. And then another, blood blazing and fires bursting from his skin. There was no reason to hide anymore, no reason to stop what was his birthright, his truth, his soul, from bursting free. These men could have his secret; it was the last thing they would ever know, and they didn’t even realize it.

 

So Steve took one final step forward, letting it all fall away.

 

And then, in the next second, the Dragon opened its mouth, and roared.

 

***

 

The mountains shook.

 

The seas boiled.

 

And everything, everything burned.

Chapter Text

Dear Becca,

 

This is Steve, and we’ve never met, but I know Bucky has told you about me.

 

I’m writing because from everything Bucky’s said about you and your family, you all loved him very, very much. But I love him too, more than you’ll ever know. And I know you’ve been waiting for him to come home. But I’ve been waiting for him too. For my whole life. And I can’t let him go. Not now. Not ever.

 

What I can do is promise you that I will spend the rest of my life taking care of him. I think it’s been far too long since someone has, and he needs it, almost as much as I need him. I will love him like no other Becca, and I swear to you that he will never want or need for anything for the rest of his life. So I’m sorry, he can’t come home, not just yet.

 

But if you do see him, trying to find his way home, can you please send him back? I don’t think you want him there with you, not really, not if you loved him the way Bucky said you did. Tell him it’s okay, he’s safe now, and that his Stevie is waiting for him. Please, Becca, I’m begging you. Please.

 

***

 

The first sign that Becca had read his letter, and agreed with him, was a shift in Bucky’s breath, followed by the fluttering of his eyelashes. For three days prior to that, Steve had knelt over Bucky’s prone form, pouring his love, his fires, his magic into him, hoping it would be enough, that it would take, and Bucky would survive. There was no guarantee; their Bonding was still so new, not yet fully formed, and this was not a loss that even a dragon could bear. Especially not a dragon.

 

So Steve tended to Bucky as Bucky had tended to him. He kept him warm, and washed the blood and sweat from his hair. He spoke to him, surrounding Bucky in his treasures, because Steve knew how that always made him feel better. And he cleaned his wounds, checking them every few hours to make sure they weren’t getting worse. They seemed to be healing well, faster than what was normal for a human, and Steve would have taken that as a very good sign. Except for as of yet, Bucky still had not stirred from the sleep he’d been in since Steve carried him from that ravine.

 

Until now.

 

A second deeper breath, more fluttering of his lashes, and then Bucky’s eyes were slowly opening.

 

“Bucky?” Steve asked, leaning even further over him to peer down at his face.

 

“Wha-?” Bucky’s voice, sounding weak, but there, the sweetest sound Steve had ever heard. He blinked, his eyes opening further, and then suddenly widening, Bucky lurching up and struggling to scramble away. “Who the hell are you?”

 

“Easy Bucky, easy,” Steve urged, reaching for him, which only made Bucky pull himself back further. “It’s me Bucky, it’s Steve.” Steve held his hands up, showing he meant no harm, and didn’t move, giving Bucky time to take him in.

 

The Bonding was not the only new thing between them, and Steve hadn’t had the chance to explain the changes both of them were now going to experience.

 

“You’re not Steve,” Bucky shook his head, and then his memories must have returned, because he looked around him frantically, his eyes desperately searching for something. “Fuck, Steve. What happened to him? Where is he? I have to find him!” He took another look around, taking in the trees, the grassy field, Daturia calmly nibbling on some grass not too far away, and froze. “Where the fuck am I?” He raised his hands to run them through his hair, and that’s when he first noticed the last thing Steve would have to explain to him.

 

“What the fuck is going on?” he breathed, staring at both of his hands which were trembling, comparing the two. His right was the same as it had ever been. But his left was now forever altered. The same size as the other, but made of a series of shimmering black scales, from fingertip to shoulder, their edges and joints limned in bright, bright gold.

 

“What…what is this?”

 

“The first thing you need to know, and believe, is that you’re safe,” Steve said softly, slowly rising to his feet. “I swear to you by your Five that you are.” He approached carefully, seeing the look of panic on Bucky’s face, not wanting to startle him any further. “And the second thing you need to know, and believe, is that it’s me Bucky. I’m Steve.”

 

Bucky had to look up, and up, and up, farther than he ever had before, to meet Steve’s gaze.

 

“But you were…you were smaller.” Bucky’s brows furrowed in confusion. “A little thing. Small, but bright, just like a star.”

 

“I was,” Steve nodded, kneeling down beside him. “But then you loved me, for who I was, not knowing what I was, and it changed me into this.” Steve extended his arms out to his side, holding himself open so Bucky could see. They were Bonded now, and there was no longer any reason for Steve to keep his secret.

 

He was bigger than before, taller than even Bucky. His shoulders were broad, and his arms, his legs, every part of his body, was corded with thick, rippling muscles. His features were the same, except now his nose was no longer too big for his face. But that was the only thing that was, except for his heart, which was currently beating because of Bucky. It was a good body, and Steve was proud of it. It meant Bucky’s love for him was true, and in exchange for that, he had been granted the strength he would need in any form he chose to keep him safe.

 

“What…what is this? What happened to you?” Bucky whispered, notes of shock still in his voice.

 

“This is what happens to my kind when we finally find our Treasure,” Steve answered.

 

“Your kind?”

 

“I am Dragon.” Steve bowed his head slightly. “And you, Bucky, are what I’ve been searching for my entire life. What I left the mountains of my home to find. My Treasure.”

 

“Dragon? You’re a dragon?”

 

“Yes,” Steve smiled.

 

“And this?” Bucky held up his left arm, wiggling his fingers, staring at them in disbelief, as if shocked by the easy movement. He was already adapting, fusing, making it his own. It would take time, and there were even more changes he would need to get used to. But it was a good start; it meant the Bond was taking hold, solidifying between them.

 

He would still need an explanation though. And Steve was the only one who could give it to him. So he sighed, trying to select his next words with care, deciding to start not at the beginning, but at the end.

 

“When I woke up, you were gone – and don’t think I’m not going to yell at you for that.” Steve paused and shook his head. Now wasn’t the time. “I read your letter, and I finally figured out what it was you were planning to do all this time. So I grabbed everything I could, got on Daturia, and followed you all the way to the caves. When I found you, you were covered in blood, but you were winning, and you had that fireless piece of shit,” Steve turned and spat on the ground, “cornered. Except, I gave myself away somehow. I was grabbed from behind, and you had to make a choice. Save my life or kill the one you’d been searching for.

 

“You chose me.” Steve swallowed, because he would never, ever forget that. “And used one of your knives to kill the man who had grabbed me, another who will never see the Stars. But that gave that asshole the chance he needed, and he picked up an ax and attacked you with it, before he threw you off the cliff. I could not,” Steve closed his eyes and shook his head. “You have to understand Bucky, I had just realized that you were Mine, and I could not forgive them, any of them, for laying a hand on you. So I shed my skin, and burned them all.

 

“Then I went after you. Your body had already hit the ground, but you were still alive somehow. I poured myself into you, flew you out of there, found Daturia and carried you both here. You were so badly hurt Bucky, but I could fix it. Everything except for your arm. That fucker had hacked it off almost all the way through, and even I couldn’t save it. But there was something I could do.”

 

“What?” Bucky whispered.

 

“I gave you one of my scales,” Steve told him. “We are fire and light, wind and thunder, and magic. It’s in every part of us, but especially our scales. And when one is freely given, the magic is even stronger, especially when it’s for our Treasure. So I gave it to you, and told the magic to give you back what you sacrificed for me. I didn’t know if it would take at first, because you had lost so much blood and you were barely even breathing. But it worked, and it healed you. Not just your arm but everything else as well.

 

“That was three days ago, and you’ve been asleep ever since. I’ve been waiting for you to wake up, and you finally have. Oh my Treasure, you have no idea how worried I’ve been,” Steve finished with a smile.

 

Bucky just sat there, staring at him, not saying a word, slowly working through what Steve had just told him. It was a lot to take in, Steve knew, and there was even more Steve would have to teach him. But they had time now, all the time they would ever possibly need, and it was enough. It was more than enough.

 

“So let me get this straight,” Bucky began cautiously. “You’re a dragon.”

 

“Yes,” Steve nodded.

 

“And according to you, I’m the fortune you left home to find.”

 

“Not fortune, Treasure. It’s different.”

 

“Right. And you followed me when I went after Pierce, but I almost died. But you killed them all, and then went after me when my body was thrown from a cliff.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“But you couldn’t save my arm, so you gave me a scale, and that’s why I have this.” There was a flatness to his voice, a bitterness Steve had not expected, as Bucky once again lifted his left arm, twisting it back and forth.

 

“Yes?” Steve ventured, much more cautiously than before.

 

“And this is not just some fever dream I’m having while I’m waiting to die at the bottom of a ravine?”

 

“No Bucky, no, I swear to you it’s not,” Steve promised. “You didn’t die, and everything I just told you is the truth. I swear it.”

 

“Right,” Bucky said, dropping his arm, and slowly climbing to his feet.

 

“Where are you going?” Steve asked, scrambling to his own feet. “You need to rest. You’re mostly healed, but -“

 

“I need to be alone right now,” Bucky told him. “And don’t you dare follow me. You’ve already done enough. You can at least give me that.”

 

Then he turned and walked away, never once looking back.

 

***

 

Thankfully, he didn’t go far. He went to the end of the field, toward the tree line where Daturia was still grazing. She neighed happily at him, Bucky giving her an absent pat, before he lowered himself to the ground, bending his knees and curling his arms around them, and just sat, staring out into nothing.

 

He sat like that for over three hours, not saying a word, motionless in a way that was not filled with potential, but deflated with defeat. He sat and he stared, and he stared and he sat, as if the light in him, all his heat, his fires, his passions, had been extinguished.

 

And all Steve could do was stand at the other edge of the clearing, and keep watch.

 

But he wasn’t alone. Or at least he wasn’t for too much longer.

 

He had felt her coming closer, aware of her presence in the way they were all aware of each other, in the web of wind and starlight that made up all Dragon.

 

So he was not surprised when she stepped out from behind the trees, moving as silently as Bucky could, to stand beside him.

 

“Hello Natasha,” Steve said, never taking his eyes off Bucky.

 

“Hello Steven,” Natasha answered, in her voice of silks and velvets and the hottest fires of their kind. “It’s good to see you again.”

 

In this form she was beautiful, in the ways that mattered to humans. Shorter than Steve, or at least she was now, with eyes greener than a cat’s, her skin the color of cream, and long, red hair that made blood look pale. She was even redder as Dragon. When Bucky had said rubies on fire, Steve knew it must have been Natasha in the stories his family had told. She was also one of the fiercest of them all, and few would ever dare to challenge her.

 

Steve had always been one of those few. She liked to say that was one of the reasons why they were friends.

 

“What are you doing here?” he asked, instead of returning her greeting.

 

“I’m here because of him,” she said, tilting her chin in Bucky’s direction. “Your Treasure. Congratulations on finding him so soon.”

 

“How did you know?”

 

“I felt it, Steven,” she grinned at him. “Every single one of us did. The power that came from it shook even our mountains. You must be glorious when you’re yourself now.”

 

“It doesn’t matter,” Steve said, his eyes still locked on Bucky. “He’s…he’s…”

 

“And that’s also why I came.”

 

“Hoh boy, two naked dragons in the forest, must be my lucky day,” a third voice said, just as another figure stepped out from behind the trees. “And holy shit, you’re a big fucker now Steve!”

 

“You brought Clint?” Steve asked, even though the answer was obvious.

 

“I brought Clint,” she nodded.

 

“Why?”

 

“Because it’s hard for them at first,” Natasha nodded toward Bucky. “And Clint can help make it easier for him.”

 

“First off, let me offer you my congratulations Steve,” Clint said, stepping in front of Steve. He was a handsome man, Natasha’s Treasure. Tall, and well-muscled, with a striking face, and sandy-brown hair. And a lacing of red curling down from his ears to the base of his neck, Natasha’s scale glistening beneath his skin. But he was also kind, funny and generous, the perfect balance to Natasha’s sharpness. An expert marksman as well, deadly with a bow and arrow, his shots always true.  Steve liked him, liked him a lot, and normally would be happy to see him, but he had other things on his mind now. “I know how long you’ve been waiting for this, and we’re all so happy for you.”

 

“Thank you,” Steve responded.

 

“Secondly,” Clint paused to cross his hands over his heart and bow his head slightly. “I ask permission to speak to your Treasure.”

 

“Why?” Steve asked again.

 

“My Lady’s right,” Clint answered. “It all seems so impossible at first, and I remember what that’s like. Let me talk to him. I can probably answer questions you can’t, because you damned dragons never know how to explain things right, and help him make sense out of it all.”

 

“He won’t hurt him Steven,” Natasha promised. “He is my Treasure, and we both understand what this means to you. Let him talk to yours, he knows what he’s doing.”

 

“And at least I’m wearing clothes. Can’t ride a dragon without your pants. You only make that mistake once. It chafes. I’ll have to remember to tell him that. Never forget your pants.” And this was why Steve normally liked Clint. He was just so silly. But he had come, they both had, and it was a kindness they were offering him. Steve hated to admit it, but he could use the help.

 

“His name is Bucky,” Steve said. “And you have my permission, Clint.”

 

“Thank you,” Clint reached out and clasped Steve’s shoulder. His expression shifted, nothing but seriousness as he accepted the responsibility of his task. “This may take a while.” Then he turned and walked across the clearing, not stopping until he reached Bucky’s side. Bucky didn’t even look up, hadn’t moved from his position, not bothering to turn at the sound of new voices. That’s how lost he was in his own thoughts.

 

“We should give them some privacy,” Natasha urged with a gentle tug to Steve’s arm.

 

“I won’t leave him alone,” Steve growled at her. It was too soon, too new, everything between them so fragile, and the thought of not being there in case Bucky needed him was more than Steve could bear.

 

“Peace, Steven,” Natasha said calmly. “I know what you’re feeling right now. It’s all so new and overwhelming, and the thought of being apart from him actually hurts, I know. But he needs this. And my Treasure would never hurt yours.”

 

“He almost died, Natasha.” Steve clenched his fists at his sides. “I had just realized it, and then I nearly lost him because I was too stupid to see it sooner. And now he won’t speak to me, won’t even look at me, when I would give him anything he asked.”

 

“But he didn’t die, Steven, which means he’s stronger than that. He just needs time. Give him that. Now come on.” With her hand on his arm, she led him deeper into the trees, but not far enough away so that Steve couldn’t see Bucky if he turned his head to look for him.

 

“He’s lovely,” Natasha said, following his gaze.

 

“He’s Mine!

 

“He most certainly is,” she laughed. “But still, Sam’s going to be so jealous I got to see him first. He’s not too far, you know.”

 

“I know.” Steve did not have to look at the small light glowing in the sky, closer than Bucky’s stars, but keeping a very respectful distance, to know Sam was near. He could feel him as well.

 

“Riley’s with him too,” Natasha told him. “Wanted to come, in case your Treasure needed even more perspective. But we both agreed Clint was the best choice to speak to him first. It hasn’t been as long for him as it has for Riley. It’s easier for him to remember what it was like at first.”

 

“Thank you. The both of you,” Steve remembered to say, even if gratitude was the farthest thing from his mind. She grew quiet beside him, joining Steve in his vigil, staring through the trees at her Own talking to his.

 

“It’s so hard for them at first,” she began quietly. “They don’t understand, don’t know how to begin to understand. We’re just stories to them now, legends, and that makes it even harder for them to believe. It’s a big thing, a tremendous thing, not just for us, but for them as well. And they can still refuse it, even after it’s been done. It’s why so few of us pick a human for our Treasure. It’s such a risk, and it doesn’t always work out.”

 

“I remember when you found Clint. The skies sang with your joy. You were so much in love. I was so jealous. Happy for you, but jealous too.” Steve remembered the way Natasha had beamed, her fires growing even hotter than before, dancing through the winds with her Treasure on her back. They had all been happy for her. She had searched long and hard for her Treasure, and they almost thought her Lost, until the day she returned to their mountains with Clint by her side.

 

So that was why Natasha’s next words were a surprise.

 

“He was furious with me, at first.”

 

“What?”

 

“Oh yes,” she nodded, her eyes never letting go of her Own. “He loved me, I knew that he did, could feel it in my heart. But he didn’t understand what it meant to be loved by a dragon.” She shook her head as if she were ashamed of herself. “He was deaf in both ears. But he was so good at lipreading I didn’t know that at first. Once I did know, he started teaching me to talk with my hands. But he hadn’t always been deaf. He lost his hearing when he was eight summers old and caught a fever that nearly killed him. I asked him once if there was anything he missed about it, and he told me it was music, because his mother always used to sing to him, and the sound of laughter. When we bonded, after we joined our hearts, I gave him one of my scales, and I know you can tell what it did.”

 

“You gave him his hearing back.”

 

“And he hated me for it,” she snapped, but it was directed at herself. “I wanted to prove I was worthy of him, give him all the music and laughter he had lost. He thought I was trying to fix him, that I thought him less, when he was already perfect, none more perfect in the world for me.”

 

“I didn’t know that,” Steve said.

 

“No one but me and him do. And it took time for the both of us to understand, for me why what I had done was wrong, and for him to believe I had never thought him lacking. You’re going to make mistakes. But so will he. Humans are very different from us, Steven, and sometimes we hurt them without even realizing it, especially when they think we’re taking their choices away from them.”

 

“I would never -

 

“But you already have.” And this was why no one ever wanted to challenge Natasha. Because her words could be sharper than any blade.

 

“I was saving him,” Steve insisted.

 

“He might not feel the same way,” she countered, but it was a truth. “He might never. And if he refuses it, refuses you, do you love him enough to let him go?”

 

“It’s not slavery,” was all Steve could say to that. Slavery, like rape, was abhorrent to them, forbidden, and harshly punished if there was even a suggestion of it between two Bonded.

 

“No, it’s not,” she agreed. “But that’s why Clint is here. So he’ll know that, understand that his will is still his own, and anything the two of do you do from now on, even if it’s to part ways, is a choice he has the right to make.”

 

“If he doesn’t choose me…” The words were thick in Steve’s throat, the worst words, the ones all Dragons feared.

 

“Then he doesn’t, and you have to let him go. But,” she paused and turned her eyes back to the clearing, to where Clint and Bucky were engaged in conversation, Clint waving his arms around as he spoke. “You need to have faith. Because I don’t think that’s the choice your Bucky is going to make.”

 

“I hope so,” Steve whispered. “Because Natasha, he’s…he’s…”

 

“Have faith,” she said again. “And remember, my Treasure can be very convincing when he wants to be. And there’s a reason why Bucky is yours.”

 

***

 

“He’s asking for you,” Clint said a little more than an hour later when he rejoined them in the trees, stepping into Natasha’s arms, which were already open for him. “And you and me, my Dragon, need to leave them alone so they can talk. He has more questions, but these are ones only Steve can answer. We need to let him. But kiss me first. All these centuries later, and somehow you’re even more beautiful than when we met.”

 

Clint’s words were already nothing more than an echo in the distance, because Bucky, Steve’s Treasure, had asked for him, and Steve would never deny him a single thing.

 

He was exactly as Steve had left him, his arms still wrapped around his upturned knees. He didn’t move or give any indication he was aware of Steve’s presence as Steve cautiously approached. But Steve knew Bucky knew he was there, as he lowered himself to his knees and settled by his side.

 

He said not a thing, staring into the night, almost as far away as the second star now shooting through the sky, circling around the other already there; one of Bucky’s Dragons, that really was a dragon, dancing in the way only Steve’s Kind could.

 

“He said it was more than just a scale you gave me.” If the night had a voice, it would have been Bucky’s at that moment. Quiet and dark and filled with too many hidden things, all of it unknowable. “That you gave me something else.”

 

And damn Clint, for telling him that. It was too soon, too direct, when it was obvious Bucky wasn’t ready yet. Then again, Clint was an archer, just like Bucky was, and they never wasted more than one arrow when a single shot would do.

 

“My heart,” Steve admitted. There was no sense in prevaricating, not now.

 

“Your heart,” Bucky repeated in that same voice. “Can I ask why?”

 

Steve sighed. Truths, truths, truths, there were so many truths Steve needed to explain, and this was one of the most sacred ones.

 

“Your legends about us get so much of it right,” Steve began. “But they also get so much of it wrong. It’s like I told you, we are fire and light, wind and thunder, and magic, and practically indestructible when we grow into our full strength. But we aren’t born that way. There’s a reason so few of us make it past childhood, and that’s because our hearts are weak, the weakest thing about us. That’s why we leave home when we do, because we have to find the one thing or person we can give it to. We have to be very careful before we decide. Whoever we pick has to have a heart strong enough, generous enough, to beat for ours. It’s not always a person, sometimes it’s a thing, but those of us who do pick a person are even stronger for it. It’s a bigger risk, but if they accept it, if they’re worthy, and are willing to keep a Dragon’s heart safe, then…then we can soar high enough to reach even the Stars.”

 

“And you decided I was the one you were going to give yours to?” Bucky pressed his right fist to his chest, directly over his heart, where Steve knew he was now feeling it, a second heartbeat, being fed by his own. “Me? A murderer?”

 

“You are not a murderer,” Steve growled, surer of this than of anything about Bucky.

 

“I’ve spent the past fifteen years of my life killing people, Steve. Some even while we were traveling together.” He was Howl and he was Command, the White Wolf, and a story parents told their children before bed. He was inescapable, and he never left a trace, and the Six were right to fear him. But he was also a man, with his fist still pressed over his heart, both of their hearts, and Steve may have been blind once, but he would never be again.

 

“From what little I understand, but it’s more than enough, you hunted down the men who took your family from you. Your parents, your sisters, your Becca.” Bucky twitched at the mention of her name. “They took from you what was yours, what they had no right to, and probably did the same to so many, too many others. It wasn’t murder, it was justice, and you had a right to it. None of my kind would judge you for it. Any of us would have done the same. In fact, that just means there was Dragon in you, long before I ever came along, and maybe your heart was really just waiting for mine.”

 

“You still could have made a better choice.”

 

“There is no other choice! There never was! It was always meant to be you,” Steve snarled. “And I’ll tell you why, my beautiful, beautiful White Wolf. Because you may have spent fifteen years hunting down all those people not worthy enough to even breathe your name, doing what none of these useless leaders in the Six could. But you also stopped to help a stranger who was about to be killed, because he was too stupid to know better. And then you stopped again, to keep two men from raping a young girl, and from trying to do the same to me. You taught me how to survive, and explained to me the ways of this land so I wouldn’t make the same mistakes twice. You made sure I had proper clothes, and always had enough to eat. When you thought I was sick, you got up in the middle of the night to find a healer, because you were so worried about me. And when your friend told you something was wrong, you rode out to try to save those people at that farming community, and even though HYDRA was long gone, you made sure to give each and every one of them a proper burial. So don’t you sit there and try to tell me that your heart is not strong enough, not generous enough, for a Dragon’s!”

 

Steve’s words echoed in the clearing, loud enough he was certain even Natasha and Sam had heard him. Let them hear. Let them know. He would sing his Treasure’s praises from the heavens if that’s what it would take for Bucky to believe him.

 

“Still as feisty as you ever were. Good to know that’s still the same, at least,” Bucky murmured quietly with a single, solitary chuckle. But it wasn’t amused, more resigned than anything else.

 

“I’m not that different now, not really,” Steve shrugged. “Just bigger.”

 

“But I am,” Bucky said in the same tone as before. “At least according to Clint. Part dragon now, from what he said.”

 

Steve was going to kill Clint, he really was. And then spend the rest of his life running from Natasha.

 

“Yes and no,” he began, and for the first time Bucky turned his face to look at him. “You will never be Dragon, or have wings of your own. But we know and we understand what a huge thing it is when we ask someone to become our hearts. That’s why we also give them a scale. It’s a promise, our pledge to protect both you and our hearts, but mostly you. You’ll be faster, stronger than you ever were, almost impossible to kill. You’ll never get sick, and if you do get hurt, injuries that would have taken you weeks or even months to recover from will heal in just a few days, without any scars.”

 

“And I’ll live as long as you do.”

 

“Yes,” Steve nodded.

 

“Which is how long?” Bucky pressed.

 

“A very, very, very long time,” was all Steve could say.

 

“And if I don’t want it? Don’t want any of this?”

 

Steve closed his eyes and swallowed. He didn’t want to answer that question, but Natasha was right; Steve had to tell him the truth, allow Bucky to make the choice for himself.

 

“Then you have the right to say no,” he finally whispered. “It’s supposed to be a choice, not something forced on you against your will. I was planning to talk to you about it, explain everything, the very next morning after, but you were already gone. And then you almost died, so I did it anyway, without your permission. But it was supposed to be your choice, and you still have every right to say no.”

 

“And if I do?” Bucky asked. “What happens to you?”

 

“Then I’ll respect your decision, and leave you alone.”

 

“And that’s it? We just go our separate ways?” There was doubt in Bucky’s voice, as if he knew Steve wasn’t telling him the entire truth, and wasn’t pleased by that fact. It was the first sign of emotion Steve had heard from him in far too long, and not the one he would have chosen.

 

“Yes,” Steve still lied. Because Bucky had a choice, but Steve didn’t. Steve could only do what he had once, and if Bucky chose to leave him, to not accept The Bonding, then Steve would become an Abandoned One, and an Abandoned One always became Lost.

 

“I see.” And somehow Steve knew, without him ever saying the words, Bucky had. But he didn’t say anything else about it, just turned his gaze back toward the trees, wrapping his right arm around his legs once more.

 

Steve had no idea what he was thinking. If Bucky accepted the Bond, opened himself to it, they would share an awareness with one another that few ever experienced. They would always know where the other was, how close or far away. And Steve would feel what Bucky was feeling, just as Bucky would with Steve, so they could share burdens, comfort and care, joy and love. For a Dragon, what was theirs was also their Treasure’s, and what was their Treasure’s was theirs; there was no distinction. If they wanted, if Bucky was willing, they would even be able to speak without words. But there was nothing but silence from Bucky’s side, his words, his heart, still locked away.

 

“I was supposed to die,” Bucky said, when he finally decided to speak. “That was the coin I promised The Five when I saw what happened to my family. My life, willingly given, in exchange for the lives of the people who killed my family.”

 

“How old were you?” Steve asked.

 

“Fourteen.”

 

Young, young, Bucky had been so young to have lost so much. Certainly much too young to have made such a trade.

 

“I thought it fair at the time. I still do. You didn’t see their bodies, Steve, what – what was done to them.”

 

“I’m so sorry Bucky.” And he meant it, he was so, so sorry. He had seen what HYDRA had done to those people in that small community, and been horrified. He was still horrified. He could only imagine what it must have been like for a child to find their family like that.

 

“Fair price,” Bucky said again, as if it were that simple. “And it took me a long time, a long, long time to do it. But I did. Either by slitting their throats, or poison, or an arrow through the heart. And I don’t regret a single one. Other things, yes, but not that. Never that.”

 

“You shouldn’t.” Of that Steve was certain.

 

“Pierce and his lot were the last of them. He’d been hiding from me for years, unable to do anything about it as I ripped his empire apart piece by piece by piece. He was all that was left, and I finally found him. But the day had come, and it was time for me to pay my debt. And yet somehow, I’m still alive.”

 

“Maybe your Five thought you had already paid enough. Or maybe they never deserved the coin of your life, and that’s why the Sisters and the Stars made sure our paths crossed. They can and will intercede if They think the reasons are just,” Steve offered.

 

“Maybe,” Bucky shrugged. “But I never thought about the after. There wasn’t supposed to be an after, and I have no idea what I’m supposed to do now.”

 

And then…

 

And then…

 

Bucky leaned over and rested his head on Steve’s shoulder, tears falling from his eyes.

 

“What am I supposed to do now Steve?”

 

Steve thought it was probably the first time Bucky had cried in over fifteen years. And he could feel it, the beginnings of it in his own heart, Bucky’s sorrow, the loss he had been living with for far too long.

 

Steve let him. He let him cry and sob and pour out all the pain that had been lurking in his heart for over a decade. He took what he could of it into his own, and let his Treasure’s heart break, so that it could finally start to heal.

 

“You rest, Treasure,” Steve said once the worst of it was over, wrapping his arms around him and holding him close, knowing in that same way that this was needed, would be welcome. “You let me take care of you while you rest and make up your mind.” Steve pressed a kiss to the top of Bucky’s head. “You’re not alone anymore, and you never will be again. I promise you that. And I’ll love you and keep you safe, no matter what you decide to do. Maybe you can finally go back and study astronomy like you wanted to. Or maybe…”

 

“Or maybe?” Bucky asked, proving he was starting to feel it too, that he knew there was more Steve wanted to say.

 

“Maybe you’ll let me take you home, to my home. I live high up in the mountains, even closer to your stars. I can even fly you up there to them, and we can learn all their names together,” Steve whispered, smiling at the idea.

 

“You really are a dragon?” Bucky asked on a choked laugh, wiping the tears from his cheeks.

 

“I really am Dragon,” Steve pressed another kiss to Bucky’s hair, just because he could. “And you are my Treasure.” Bucky laughed again, shaking his head, as if it was still too much for him to believe. But he was willing to try, Steve could feel that as well. Along with something else, a tendril of wonder and curiosity, as if he wanted something but was waiting for permission to ask.

 

“What is it Bucky? Anything you want, all you have to do is ask it of me, and I will give it to you,” Steve assured him.

 

“Can I see it…you, as you really are?”

 

“Of course,” Steve beamed, this request one he was more than willing to give. He removed his arms from Bucky’s shoulders, rose and helped him to his feet. “But, um,” he paused to look around, “you might want to step back. I’m kind of big, now. Bigger than I was.”

 

“Bigger than you were?” Bucky asked, but he did as Steve requested and took several steps back.

 

“Much,” Steve nodded. “And you need to remember, that no matter what I look like, I would never, ever hurt you.”

 

“Okay…” Bucky drawled slowly, moving further away. Steve smiled at him, and began walking backwards into the clearing, never taking his eyes from Bucky, until he reached the center.

 

“Remember what I said,” was the last thing Steve told him, before closing his eyes and letting go of his human skin.

 

To feel it, to let it out, let it come to him, who and what he really was. A fire with no end, a soul meant for the skies, a child of the stars, made of skin and scales, wings and magic. A Dragon simply was, they could be no more, and no less. But Steve was now a Dragon who was loved by one who had always had a Dragon’s heart, and that was not something even the Stars could ever deny.

 

It was joy and laughter and freedom, wind beneath his wings, and fire in his heart. And love, so much love, that he burned with the brightness of it.

 

It was easy and quick, and where the man Steve had stood on two legs, a dragon of gold now rested on four, his spines taller than the tallest tree, and his wings wide enough to hide the skies.

 

Holy fucking shit!” In the seconds it had taken Steve to transform, Bucky had fallen back onto his ass, staring up and up and up at Steve with eyes that were huge. “You weren’t kidding when you said you were big!” He was panting, and there was fear there, Steve could feel it, and he was almost tempted to change back. But Bucky needed to see, needed to know and understand what Steve really was, so he held perfectly still, and let him look.

 

It took Bucky a few more seconds, and several more desperate breaths, until something in him started to shift, like hot water being poured into cold, the fear gradually turning into curiosity, and then a blissful, glorious wonder. He slowly rose to his feet, and then even slower began to approach, his right hand raised, reaching out as if he wanted to touch, then jerking back, as if it couldn’t be true, he couldn’t possibly have the right.

 

*You can always touch me, Treasure, whenever you want. Anyone else would have to ask permission, but not you, never you. In fact, nothing would please me more.*

 

In this form, Steve could not speak, not as a human could, but he could send his thoughts so Bucky would always understand him.

 

“Okay, that’s definitely going to take some getting used to.” Bucky had obviously not been expecting that from the look on his face. But he was cunning and strong, Steve’s Own, and very adaptable when he wanted to be. He raised his hand and very, very slowly pressed it to the bottom of Steve’s chin.

 

“You’re gold,” he marveled softly. “Just like the sun, and almost as bright…But your eyes are exactly the same, still that perfect blue, but your pupils are slits, instead of round.” He spread his fingers wide, a gentle tickling that made all of Steve’s scales ripple. “Softer than you look, although I now know why Clint was going on about pants.”

 

*Clint is stupid.*

 

“You’re definitely still you,” Bucky laughed. “And this certainly explains why you were always so warm.” He began to slowly slide his hand back and forth, his fingers carefully stroking along the curve of one of the smaller spikes on Steve’s chin. “But you’re still beautiful, no matter what form you take, my favorite star.”

 

Steve simply had to hug him for that, which he couldn’t do in this form, so he shifted back, Bucky already in his arms by the time it was complete.

 

Oof!” Bucky gasped, leaning to bear both their weight.

 

“Treasure, Treasure, Treasure,” Steve murmured over and over again, covering his face in kisses. “My Treasure, my Treasure, Mine, Mine, Mine.

 

“I guess I really am,” Bucky laughed, his arms tight around Steve. And he was, Steve could feel it, Bucky’s acceptance, the Bond between them opening, blooming, growing stronger and stronger with each kiss. There was still darkness there, pain, a sense of loss and regret. Steve knew that would take time to fade. But there was also love, burning hot and bright, reaching out for Steve, the most precious thing Steve had ever been given. It didn’t need words, but Steve would still say them.

 

“I love you, I love you, I will always love you, and I’m never going to let you go,” Steve breathed into Bucky’s hair, his skin, against his lips.

 

“I love you too, Stevie, and I’m so glad we met,” Bucky kissed him back. “But you are going to have to let me go.”

 

“What? Why?”

 

“Because you scared Daturia, you idiot, and now we have to go find her,” Bucky explained as he stepped out of Steve’s arms.

 

“I hate that horse. She’s so spoiled,” Steve frowned.

 

“Uh-huh.” And there it was, Bucky’s two favorite words; two of Steve’s favorite words now as well. “’Cos she’s the only one.”

 

“I am not spoiled,” Steve insisted, but he was following Bucky none-the-less.

 

“Of course you’re not, Dragon,” Bucky muttered out of the corner of his mouth. “And in spite of what you just said, I couldn’t help but notice that you still brought her here with us.”

 

“You would’ve been mad at me if I’d let something happen to her.”

 

“Damn straight I would have. She’s the best girl in the world,” Bucky said, scanning the ground in the area where Daturia had last been seen. “I’ll be expecting my knives back too.”

 

“But you gave those to me!”

 

“Because I thought I was going to die!” Bucky argued. “But since I obviously didn’t, they should be with someone who actually knows how to use them. If I let you keep them, you’ll probably end up cutting off your nose somehow.”

 

“But they’re precious, and deserve to be with someone who’ll take care of them like they should be.”

 

“And that’s why they should be with me. They’re my father’s work Steve, and no one will take care of them like I will.” Bucky turned around to face Steve. “Are you pouting?

 

“They were your treasures,” Steve mumbled, looking down at the ground. “And you entrusted them to me. That’s a courting gift, among my kind.”

 

“They were my sister’s, Steve, the last thing she ever gave me.” His voice was just as soft as Steve’s had been. And Steve knew he was right; they were Bucky’s treasures, all he had left of his family. Steve didn’t want to take that from him, not when he had so little to remember them by. He had already lost enough. He just wanted to prove to Bucky he understood that, could feel their worth, and that it would be his honor, his privilege, to be allowed to take care of them for Bucky.

 

“I’ll give them back,” Steve capitulated. Bucky must have been able to see everything Steve was feeling on his face, or was feeling it for himself now, because he sighed.

 

“We’ll work something out,” he said, turning back around. “After we find Daturia.”

 

“And then what?” Steve asked.

 

“And then you’re going to put some clothes on. Why are you naked?”

 

“Clothes just get in the way. You know I don’t need them. The cold doesn’t bother me.”

 

“They’re your bits. Don’t blame me if they end up getting bitten by mosquitoes.” Bucky gave up scanning the ground, not finding what he was looking for, and raised his fingers to his mouth, using them to whistle.

 

“It’s too cold for mosquitoes,” Steve countered.

 

“Where the hells are we anyway?”

 

“Dunno,” Steve shrugged. “Somewhere in Jarvia, I think. I didn’t pay attention to where I was going, I just had to get you someplace safe.”

 

You flew us all the way to Jarvia?” Bucky rounded on him. “Seriously? That’s at least a six-month journey from where we were.”

 

“What?” Steve shrugged again. “I’m Dragon. It’s not like it was hard.”

 

“This is definitely going to take some getting used to,” Bucky grumbled, just as there was a rustling making its way closer, Daturia’s head appearing not too far off in the trees. “And there you are, my girl. Did the horrible dragon scare you?”

 

Bucky,” Steve growled.

 

“What?” Bucky asked innocently, stepping forward to take Daturia’s lead into his hand. “It’s your own damned fault, you know.”

 

Steve sighed, because Bucky was right. It really, really was.

 

“Will you at least eat something now?” he asked instead. “It’s been more than three days, and I was so worried.”

 

“Yeah, you were, weren’t you?” Bucky tilted his head, not needing Steve’s words to know how true that was. “Let’s go get something to eat.”

 

“Thank you.” Steve pressed a kiss to Bucky’s temple.

 

“And then…”

 

“And then?” There was something new in Bucky, something Steve had never seen or felt before, there in this Bond that was also new, but growing stronger every second. “Remember Treasure, all you ever have to do is ask. If it’s something I can give you, I will. And even if it’s something I can’t, I will find a way to make it happen.”

 

“And then maybe…We can go home. To yours. I’ve already shown you so much of these lands. I would really love to see yours. If that would be all right?”

 

Steve knew his smile was full of fire and fang. He was Dragon, after all. But it was also full of love, happiness and the promise of a very long future ahead. Because he loved his Treasure, and his Treasure loved him back, just as much. And there was nothing that made a Dragon happier.

 

“Of course, Beloved. Anything for you.”

Chapter Text

Epilogue…

 

“Hey Becca,” Bucky said with a small smile. “I know it’s been a while, but I’ve finally come back to see you.”

 

The stone marker was small, covered with leaves and dirt, and a few weeds. But it was still there, just as he’d left it, the marigolds he had planted at the head blooming.

 

“I’ve missed you so much, Becs.” Bucky knelt down and began to clean away the marks the passage of time had left upon the grave, being as careful and tender as he could. “All of you. And I know it took me longer than we thought it would, but Steve agreed it was time when I told him I wanted to come back home.”

 

Steve was close, giving Bucky his privacy, but lingering nearby in case he was needed. It was hard for a dragon to let their Treasure out of their sight, especially when they could feel their loved one was in pain. But Steve was respecting his wishes, and letting Bucky have this time with his sister.

 

There were a lot of things both Bucky and Steve had to learn in the past year, changes neither of them could have expected, challenges they needed to overcome. For Bucky especially, because there was no way anyone could be prepared for what being a Dragon’s Treasure was truly like without experiencing it for themselves.

 

The physical changes to his body had been the first, and perhaps most drastic thing he’d had to adapt to. He no longer startled whenever he looked left, seeing black and gold instead of his skin. Steve was fascinated by the colors. According to him, when a Treasure was given a scale, the color perfectly matched that of the dragon who had given it. Clint’s was red, and Riley’s was a lovely ladder of the richest browns of the deepest forests that ran up his spine, a perfect match for Sam when he was in his true form. There was gold in Bucky’s arm, making it clear the scale had been from Steve. But the black was unusual, the rarest color in dragonkind. And those that were that color were generally agreed to be the most dangerous of all, because you could never see them coming, especially at night. Steve was convinced it meant Bucky had always had a Dragon’s heart of his own, swearing he had seen shadows dancing around Bucky, and was proud of it. Bucky was dangerous and deadly, not the White Wolf of legend, but a black one. And he was Steve’s.

 

Bucky thought Steve was being ridiculous, but there was no doubt the arm was his. It moved as it always had, as if he had been born with it, instead of having it gifted to him.

 

He still needed to learn how to control it, both of them, because being given a scale meant he was now part dragon in truth, and stronger than he’d ever been. It had taken him three weeks before he stopped crushing glasses in his hand, ripping doors off hinges, or not slamming into them because his legs were so fast now, he’d overestimated the time it would take to cross a room. Bowstrings had snapped, pencils cracked, and he had almost taken to sleeping with his boots on so he wouldn’t ruin yet another pair of laces. It had taken a lot of practice to rediscover his physical equilibrium, but together with Steve, who had been infinitely patient, even if he had laughed like a jerk, he managed to resettle in his skin.

 

Funnily enough, sparring helped. And now that Steve’s human body was the size it was always meant to be, the lessons they had previously begun proved even more effective. He was as fast as Bucky, and just as strong, which was a blessing, since it meant Bucky couldn’t accidentally hurt him. If they ever came to blows for real, Bucky wasn’t certain which of the two of them would win, since Steve was also now as deadly with a blade as Bucky was. If anyone was ever foolish enough to challenge either one of them, never mind the two of them combined, they would not live long enough to regret it. They sometimes talked of going back to Lehigh and visiting Peggy, and seeing if there was any issue that Bucky’s, and now Steve’s, unique skills could help alleviate. After his time in the Six, Steve had developed a strong sense of justice, even if he did begrudgingly admit he wasn’t too keen on seeing Peggy again. Bucky had smirked and kissed his jealous Dragon senseless, and that particular session ended as they usually did, with Bucky naked astride Steve, laughing as he rode him desperately, his hands clenching Steve’s new and magnificent pectorals, while Steve thrust up and into him, his heart singing with joy at the knowledge that he was pleasing his Treasure, giving him everything he needed and more.

 

They still had not come to a final decision about it, but they both agreed that as of yet neither one of them was quite ready; the Bond was too new, and Bucky’s Dragon had other instincts he needed to satisfy first.

 

Like building the perfect permanent home for his Treasure, something Bucky had to relearn, after more than fifteen years on his own on the roads. And it was especially true when it came to living with a dragon.

 

Steve hadn’t been lying when he said his home was in the mountains. That’s exactly where it was; a cave, not too far from the top of one of the highest mountains Bucky had ever seen. Bucky had questioned the wisdom of his decision to return with Steve, until Steve landed on the large plateau just outside the entrance, and led him inside.

 

It was still a cave, but it was unlike any Bucky had ever seen. A huge, nearly endless cavern that stretched farther back than even his newly enhanced vision could see. And it wasn’t empty, far from it. It was filled with a huge collection of items, more vast than anything Bucky could have imagined. There were paintings, and carpets, and couches. A huge pile of the softest mattresses covered in thick blankets, where Bucky now slept with Steve when he was in his human form. Something that looked like a piano in one corner, and at least a hundred bookshelves lining one of the walls filled with tomes in languages Bucky could not read, but Steve swore to teach him. There was a cool mountain stream outside Steve told Bucky he could use to bathe himself during the summer, and a hot spring a little deeper in the cave for Bucky to wash in when it was colder. (Bucky had become pretty fond of that hot spring.) Even farther back, in the deepest reaches of the cave, was another cavern, completely filled with gold and jewels, more riches than a million kings could ever dream of possessing, and apparently belonging to Steve.

 

“But…But, when I met you, you only had the clothes on your back! With a broken comb and a shell in your bag! You were stealing cups! I gave you coin because I thought you were penniless. Are you telling me you had all of this, all along, and you were travelling like a pauper?” Bucky had asked, flabbergasted.

 

“Yes, but, that’s my hoard. I need my hoard, I can’t just waste it, you know,” was Steve’s answer. “Most of it was my mother’s. It passed on to me when she died. She would have given half of it to me when I came of age and found a cave of my own. But she never got that chance, and it’s now my responsibility to take care of it.”

 

“But you said you left home to find your treasure.” Bucky still couldn’t understand. “And you already had all this?”

 

“Hoard is hoard. It is not Treasure. Treasure is Treasure,” Steve said, as if that made any sense. “And I needed to find you, for it to have any meaning. And why are you looking at me like that? It’s yours now too. What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine now. That’s what Treasure means.”

 

“Dragons!” was all Bucky had been able to say, throwing his arms up in the air.

 

“Don’t you like it? Is something missing? If there’s anything you want, just let me know, and I’ll get it for you.”

 

He hadn’t been lying; while Bucky had spent those first few weeks adjusting to the new strength of his body, when Steve wasn’t helping him, he spent of the rest of his time rearranging things to make sure that his den, and that’s what he called it, not his home, but his den, was as comfortable as possible for his Treasure.

 

Dragons were apparently descended from mother-hens.

 

Even more cushions appeared, as well as couches and chairs. A case made of the finest oak for Bucky to store his weaponry, and the highest quality oil to tend to his sheaths and Daturia’s saddle. One day, out of nowhere, a paddock and barn appeared outside the entrance of the cave, with plenty of hay, so Daturia could be stabled someplace safe from the elements at night. There were even heavy drapes that could somehow be drawn closed over the cave’s opening, to seal in the warmth and keep out any harsh winds. And the one time Bucky had casually said he missed the sweet plums from his family’s garden, a week later four plum trees magically appeared on the plateau.

 

“Yeah, they do that,” Clint merely shrugged when Bucky had told him about it all, his own eyes wide and still unbelieving. “It’s his way of proving he can take care of you.”

 

“It’s insane!” Bucky said, flapping his arms like a chicken, thankfully this time not crushing the mug in his hand.

 

“They’re Dragon,” Riley added. “It’s how they are. Don’t worry about it. It makes him happy to do that for you.”

 

“It’s weird,” Bucky grumbled. “I don’t love him because he gives me things. I love him because he’s Steve.”

 

“And that’s why he loves you,” Riley smiled at him. “You’re his Treasure. He wants to spoil you.”

 

“Dragons, it’s what they do,” Clint nodded.

 

Apparently Dragon was the answer for any reason why Steve did the things he did, and Bucky found himself grumbling it a lot under his breath during the past year.

 

Still, he had been grateful for the guidance both Clint and Riley had been able to provide, on top of liking them both as people, and now considering them friends. Clint was a unique mixture of both goofiness and insight, and could always make Bucky laugh. Riley, a tall man with curly blond hair, golden skin, and soft brown eyes, was more sedate, calmer in nature. He had been a healer when Sam met him, and he still practiced his art, sharing what he had learned with others. When he wasn’t with Sam, he could usually be found in the clinic in The Valley, tending to anyone who needed his help.

 

It was good there were others for Bucky to talk to, not just Clint and Riley, but all those who lived in The Valley as well.

 

While Sam, Natasha and Steve were friends, dragons tended to be very solitary by nature. They were fiercely possessive and protective of what was theirs, and could happily go years without seeing another of their kind. Even Sam, Natasha and Steve would start snapping at each other if they spent too long in each other’s company, needing to go their separate ways for months at a time.

 

But humans, even Treasure, were not Dragon. And they did not do well in isolation. The dragons had learned this, sometimes through harsh experience, so while they lived far apart, each one in a mountain of their own, they had brought others to the island where they lived, usually the friends and families of their Own, promising them protection in exchange for absolute secrecy, so their humans would not grow lonely. The city was called The Valley, named after the valley at the base of the mountain range where the dragons made their home.

 

It was a happy and vibrant place, peaceful and welcoming, Bucky had learned the first time Steve took him there, of over five thousand people, where anything Bucky could possibly want or need was easily found. He had already made several friends there, Steve beaming with pride as he introduced him to people he knew and was familiar with, and they all greeted Bucky warmly, happy for Steve and eager to meet his newly found Treasure.

 

But then again, none of them had to live with him.

 

Because if there was one word Bucky would use to describe dragons, it was spoiled. Steve gave, but he was also very demanding. When he was in his dragon form, he expected Bucky to see to his scales, carefully grooming each and every one, from the tip of his snout to the very end of his tail. If Bucky refused, or claimed he was tired before he was done, Steve would pout, one time for three days. If he felt Bucky was not paying him enough attention, usually when Bucky was lost in a book, Steve, no matter what shape he was, would start to act like a prickly little cat, demanding attention, by either knocking things over, or one time going so far as to bat the book out of Bucky’s hand.

 

Bucky had needed to spend a few hours with Clint and Riley after that, but when he complained, both of them just shrugged, and said, “Dragons.”

 

And that didn’t even begin to cover the issue of Bucky’s hair. Because for some reason Bucky would never understand, Steve was obsessed with Bucky’s hair. He could spend hours running either his fingers or golden combs through it. And somehow, over the past twelve months, he taught himself how to braid it. But not just simple braids, no. There were fancy twists and ties, sometimes one, two, three or even more braids weaving into another, while he left half of it to hang loose. He wasn’t content to just tie them off at the ends either. He had to braid pearls or small jewels and silver threads into the length, which had been something else they argued about. Steve wanted him to never cut his hair, claiming he would be perfectly content if it reached Bucky’s ankles. Bucky thought both him and the idea ridiculous, and in one particular fit of pique, threatened to cut it all off, because that was easier and certainly much faster, than all the braids Steve insisted on. Steve had pouted, Bucky had grumbled, and in the end they came to a compromise. Bucky would allow his hair to grow until it reached the middle of his back. Any longer, and Steve would agree he could cut it. In exchange, Bucky would never leave their den without at least one braid in his hair, no matter how not in the mood he may have been. And Steve agreed to keep his own face clean shaven, and his hair to grow out to at least his chin.

 

A fair trade, and even Bucky had to admit, his hair had never been so shiny.

 

Still, it was the principle of the thing, and Bucky said as much the next time he saw Clint and Riley.

 

“Dragons,” was all they had said.

 

There was also the matter of which form Steve decided to take on any day. Bucky knew and understood that Steve was Dragon, that his human form was something he pulled around him when he so desired, and would never dream of denying Steve his truth. When he asked Steve about it, because Steve had told Bucky he could ask him anything, Steve said, “I am Dragon, yes, and that’s what’s most comfortable to me. But there are joys I can only have when I wear skin, instead of scales, like holding you in my arms, or making love to you all night, and I would never give those up, for anything in the world. So don’t worry about it Treasure. I love that you asked, but I’ll be what I need to be, especially when you need me to.” And then Steve had kissed him, and spent the next two days proving just how much joy they could find when Steve was in his human shape.

 

Still, amazing sex aside, it had taken some getting used to. Especially the first few times Bucky had fallen asleep in the arms of the man who had just spent hours fucking him into their mattresses, and woken up with a huge dragon curled around him.

 

“Whoops,” Steve had shrugged, back in his human form, trying to look innocent. “It’s like that sometimes, especially when I’m really happy. But you have to know, I would never crush you Bucky. Even when I’m asleep, I always know where you are. And it’s your own fault I’m this big. It’s because of your heart, because it beats for mine. Now calm down and let me feed you.”

 

“Gah! Dragons!” Bucky had thrown his arms up in the air, once his heart had stopped pounding.

 

The truth was Steve was a very, very big dragon. Not only that, he was also an extremely powerful one, a fact Bucky learned for himself one day when he had been travelling down the side of the mountain, heading towards The Valley, and just as he had reached a second plateau, a midway point where Steve usually met him, he turned and saw another dragon of russet and gold that he had never seen before, staring at him with fangs bared.

 

Bucky hadn’t even had a chance to be afraid, to notice his heart had started to race, before there came an earth-shattering roar, and a gold dragon, Bucky’s Dragon, swooped in from nowhere, claws extended, his teeth going for the other’s neck. The roar had shook the entire valley, and then the two dragons were tumbling in the air, locked together, Steve’s fangs buried in the other dragon’s throat, tearing at the flesh, his claws shredding scales, before they disappeared from sight.

 

“Steve! Steve!” Bucky had screamed, scrambling to the edge of the plateau. When he looked over, the two dragons were down, the fight already done, the newcomer pinned beneath Steve.

 

*YOU DARE, TONY! YOU DO NOT COME NEAR WHAT IS MINE! NOT WITHOUT MY PERMISSION!* Steve’s roar echoed in the air, echoed in Bucky’s mind, birds from any and all nearby trees fleeing in terror.

 

“Steve! Steve!” Bucky shouted down to him. “I’m fine! I’m fine! Let him go!”

 

*He could have hurt you!*

 

“But he didn’t, he didn’t,” Bucky assured him. “Please Steve, please. Let him go.” And then, because Steve was still snarling, his fangs never loosening their hold, *I need you. I’m not hurt, but I need you. Please.*

 

*Treasure.* Steve’s heart echoed back to him, and he let go. But before he launched himself back into the air, in the dance of gold and wind that was the way he flew, he turned back to the other dragon and snarled.

 

*You are lucky my Own is merciful. It’s the only reason you’re still alive. Next time, I won’t hold back.*

 

And then there was a dragon, and then there was a man, running eyes and hands all over Bucky while Steve checked him for injury.

 

“Are you hurt, Treasure? Did he harm you?”

 

“No Steve, he didn’t. I’m fine, I swear to you. Just startled the shit out of me.” Bucky answered, melting into Steve’s arms. Because Steve’s Treasure or no, he was still getting used to living with a dragon, and that other dragon, Tony, had indeed scared the shit out of him.

 

Afterward, the most surprising thing of all, was that it was not Steve who was considered in the wrong.

 

“Yeah, Tony really should have known better,” Clint shrugged. He tended to shrug a lot.

 

“I would have killed him,” had been Natasha’s response.

 

“So would I,” Sam agreed.

 

Even Pepper, Tony’s Treasure, a redheaded woman with freckles, who ran the stables where those in The Valley kept their horses when they didn’t have enough land of their own, looked resigned instead of furious. Bucky liked her, and worried the fight would end their slowly developing friendship.

 

“Yeah,” Pepper sighed with a shake of her head. “He really shouldn’t have done that. But he was curious, especially since I got to meet you first and was talking about you. I told him you were lovely, and I think he got jealous and wanted to see you for himself. Tony doesn’t always have the best manners, even for a dragon, but he would have done the exact same thing if the situation was reversed.”

 

“Dragons?” was all Bucky could say to that.

 

“Dragons,” Pepper nodded. “Don’t worry about it. Just give them a century or two, maybe three, and they’ll eventually patch things up.” When Bucky looked at her, he would have sworn she was no older than thirty-five summers. Yet she was one of the oldest among them, not physically, or at least not in terms of what would be a normal human lifespan, but in time spent being a dragon’s Treasure, so Bucky supposed he would have to accept her at her word.

 

So, Dragons, and a very, very interesting year, for the both of them. They were still learning, still adapting, but from what Steve said, and everything Bucky felt, they were doing well, even better than, and neither of them had any regrets. Their Bond would grow even stronger as more time passed, but according to Steve, it had stabilized and now could never be broken.

 

And with that, with loving with all his heart and knowing he was loved just as endlessly in return, a calmness had come to Bucky, along with the realization that it was time, for the first time in sixteen years, for Bucky to visit his family.

 

“All you had to do was ask, my Treasure,” had been Steve’s response when Bucky made his request, his hands gently cradling Bucky’s face. “Of course I’ll take you to see them. I think you need to.”

 

So here he was, in what had once been a small vegetable garden, and was now a cemetery, standing in front of his sister’s grave.

 

“I’m so sorry it took me so long Becs,” Bucky said in the now. “But it was hard for me, and I couldn’t face any of you, not until I had gotten revenge for what they did to us. But it’s done, and you and Ma and Da and Elisabeth and Clara, can rest in peace now. They’re all dead, and they’ll never do to anyone else what they did to you, ever again. I did it. I kept my promise, and I know it’s not enough, it will never be enough, but I hope it at least makes it better. Shifts the balance back, just a little bit.

 

“You were the best sister anyone could have ever asked for, and you were my entire world, and I would give almost anything to see your smile again.” Bucky paused to wipe the tears from his cheeks. “But, it’s going to have to wait a while, a long time. Because that’s the other thing Becs, I won’t be joining the rest of you at home. Not soon, and maybe not ever, from what I understand.

 

“But Steve’s said he’s talked to you about that already, and he’s positive you agree with him, and that you’re pleased I’m still alive, and happy now. And I am Becca, I am. Steve is – Steve is, well, Steve is my everything. A good man, or, at least some of the time he is. The rest, well, the rest of the time he’s Dragon. But he’s my Dragon, and you should see us when we fly. Cos we do, all the time. And he would really like to meet you.”

 

Just as he finished saying the words, a shadow fell over Bucky’s shoulder. Because Bucky had called for him, and Steve would always come when Bucky called. Bucky wiped the last few tears from his cheeks, and slowly rose to his feet, reaching behind him for the hand he knew would be there.

 

“Becca, this is Steve, my Heart,” Bucky said softly. “And Steve, this is Rebecca Amara Barnes, my big sister.”

 

“Hello Rebecca Amara Barnes,” Steve bowed his head respectfully. Knowing what this meant to Bucky, he had chosen clothing appropriate for the occasion; a solemn black tunic and breeches, that fit him well and were a match for Bucky’s. He even had matching braids in his hair, in tribute to Elisabeth and Clara. Under normal circumstances, Bucky would have wanted to tear the clothes off of him, demanding to be fucked. But these circumstances were far from normal, a moment in time for grief and closure, and physical pleasure was the farthest thing from Bucky’s mind.

 

“It’s so nice to finally meet you,” he continued. “I only regret it couldn’t have been sooner. Bucky’s told me a lot about you, and he’s said if we ever had met face to face, that I never would have noticed him, because your heart was even stronger than his. I don’t agree with him, but from what he’s said, you were a definitely a Treasure, and there’s no higher compliment one of my kind can give.

 

“And I want you to know, I’m keeping my promise to you. Because he’s wrong. He is my Heart, and I will spend the rest of time making sure he always knows that. Thank you for keeping it so safe until I could.”

 

After that, there was simply nothing left to say. They had already said all that could be, and it was time, truly time, for Bucky to say goodbye. But Steve was patient and still, his heart beating for Bucky’s now, while Bucky stood before the graves of his family, and let the pain of their deaths go.

 

Until Bucky was finally able to say, “I love you Becca, I always will. Never, ever forget that,” and nodded, Steve urging him back with a gentle squeeze to his hand.

 

“This is all of them?” he asked, staring at the graves Steve now knew he had dug himself.

 

“Yes.”

 

“Right. Step back Treasure, I want to make sure I get this right.”

 

Bucky did as Steve asked, so Steve could call his fire, liquid gold pouring from his mouth. Bucky could feel the heat of it, although it would never burn him, still amazed by Steve’s control as it danced over the stones Bucky had laid.

 

When it was over, when the fires burned themselves out, the names of each and every member of Bucky’s family were written in the flowing and starlit script of Dragonkind, replacing the harsh scratches Bucky had scraped into the rocks with a knife.

 

“It’s done,” Steve said with an understanding smile. “And no one will disturb them, ever again. The magic will see to that.”

 

“Thank you,” Bucky whispered, pressing a kiss full of gratitude and gratefulness to Steve’s lips. And then he took Steve’s hand back into his own, and began to lead him away.

 

Steve followed, not saying a word, looking around him constantly, curious about the place where Bucky had grown up, and the life he must have lived here. The house was vacant, even after sixteen years, and nature had begun the process of re-staking her claim. The door was warped, the windows cracked, and vines had started to grow over the sides. It had been a good place once, the happiest place in Bucky’s small world, and he was sorry for its state. But it was no longer his home, and just like he could finally start to let the loss of his family go, he could also start to let go of this place as well.

 

After he had one last look.

 

He led them around the corner, and then stopped, because there was one last memory, one last awful experience he had to relive, before he could do that.

 

“There,” he said, pointing to the top of a hill where a road had once been. “Rebecca had just come back from Zaldura after completing her first year of training to become a member of the Pegasus Cavalry. She was only going to be here for a few weeks, and I wanted to spend as much time with her as possible. I’d just gotten my letter of admittance to the Academy in Wakanda, and we had gone to town to mail back my acceptance letter. We were on our way back, and had just crested that hill, when we saw them, the men attacking our home. They were HYDRA, although it took me years to find that out, and from my best guess, they probably wanted my father to make them weapons. He was an artist, my da, the best in all the Six, but he never had a taste for violence, and he would have refused. HYDRA never liked being told no.

 

“But I didn’t know that then. All I knew was that these people were hurting my family. But so did Becca, and she was a smart one, my sister. She had to make a choice, and she did, in a split second. The last thing she ever said to me was ‘I’m so sorry Bucky, but I’m your big sister, and it’s my duty to keep you safe. Please forgive me.’ And then she hit me on the back of the head with the hilt of one of her knives, so hard I blacked out.” Bucky had to stop in order to swallow. By his side, Steve said nothing, not asking for more, willing to wait. He was curious, Bucky knew without having to feel it, but he also knew this was something nearly impossible for Bucky to speak of, the moment that had set the course of his life. It was one of the few things, as of yet, Bucky had not shared with him.

 

“I woke up a few hours later, with a pounding head, propped up against the base of that tree,” Bucky pointed to the oak tree that still stood next to where the road had once been, “on the opposite side where anyone passing by wouldn’t have seen me, buried beneath a pile of twigs and leaves, Howl and Command in my lap.” Bucky tapped the hilt of Howl, hanging from its sheath against his left thigh. Command now nearly always hung against Steve’s right, the compromise they had come to, one of Bucky’s treasures, even more precious now because it was shared between them.

 

“She knew I was too young, would have rushed in and gotten myself killed, and made sure that wouldn’t happen. She covered me up, left me a way to protect myself, and then she must have run home to save our family. It was the last time I ever saw her alive. Any of them.”

 

“Finish it, Bucky,” Steve gently urged, knowing in the way that he did, that Bucky needed his help.

 

“I stumbled into the house and they were all dead, murdered. My family, well, my family were craftsmen, but we all knew how to wield a knife by the time we could walk, my parents made sure of that. They didn’t go down without a fight. There were six bodies I didn’t know. But there must have been too many, and because they could, because my father said no, HYDRA slaughtered them. I was fourteen years old, and suddenly an orphan, and I didn’t know what to do. It was too late to go for help, they were already dead, and it would have been useless anyway. There were other craftsmen in the village I had just come from, and they must have all given the same answer, because they were dead too, although I didn’t know that yet either.

 

“So I buried my family. It took me three days, but I did it, and once that was done, I swore then and there, in front of their graves, that I would make whoever did this to them pay for it. I packed what little I could, what was still left anyway, and hit the road, joining the first caravan that would take me. That’s how I met Dum Dum. He was a former soldier, and I begged him to teach me everything he knew. He agreed, once I told him why. I stayed with them, until there was nothing more he could teach me, and then I did it again, and again, and again, and again, for the next five years. I would trade work, or even my body, in exchange for learning how to use a knife, a sword, a bow and arrow, how to pick a lock, and what poisons were the most effective. It took me five years, but I was determined, and you know now what it means when someone who follows The Five makes an oath. I made sure there was no one better, and then I turned my fury on the world.

 

“And that, my Dragon, is how I became the White Wolf. I was born, right over there, underneath that tree.”

 

“And now you’re my Treasure,” Steve answered, as if it was as simple as that. For dragons, it often was. They really were strange sometimes. But still, it made Bucky smile, which he supposed had been Steve’s intent all along.

 

“Yep,” Bucky said, turning away from the tree. “Now, do you want to take a look inside, before we leave?”

 

“Only if you do.”

 

“I do, I’m kind of curious actually.”

 

Bucky led him through the warped door and into the house, taking a look around. It seemed so much smaller than he remembered it being. Dustier too, with cobwebs hanging from every corner. And there were still traces of that awful day; faded blood on the floor and walls, and the abandoned cooking fire where his parents would have been preparing supper. But there were good things too; the family table where they used to gather for meals, a cast iron skillet hanging from the wall. And when Bucky carefully climbed the rotted ladder that led to the sleeping loft, beneath the now musty mattress where he used to sleep, he found something else, long since forgotten, but once so very beloved.

 

“Hey Stevie, take a look at this,” he said as he jumped down from the loft, the well-worn leather of the cracked cover feeling familiar in his hands.

 

“What is it?” Steve asked, looking up from the table he’d been studying.

 

“It’s my first book on astronomy, that my parents gave me for my birthday when I was eight years old. I’d forgotten about it, and it was still there, right where I left it,” Bucky smiled.

 

“Really?”

 

“Yep, look.” Bucky flipped open the front cover, where inside in faded ink was scrawled in his clumsy childhood handwriting Property of James Buchanan Barnes.

 

“That’s your name?” Steve asked, squinting at the letters. Funnily enough, Bucky realized that even now, all this time later, he had never told Steve his full name. Dragons had names for each other that could not be pronounced by a human tongue, and they selected human names for themselves simply because they liked the way they sounded. Steve probably hadn’t even thought to ask, but now that he knew it, he was puzzling over it.

 

“Yes, I was given that name on my Naming Day, a week after I was born,” Bucky nodded.

 

“So why Bucky?” Steve pressed, while Bucky flipped through the pages of the book. The question made him stop and look up.

 

“My sister used to call me that. She was the only one. I couldn’t say Rebecca when I first learned to talk, so she was always Becca. She thought it only fair that she get to do the same. So she was Becca, and I was Bucky.”

 

“But…you told me to call you Bucky when we first met,” Steve whispered, looking shocked.

 

“Your eyes,” Bucky admitted, feeling a blush rise on his cheeks. “When you’re like this, they’re the same shape as hers. I saw that, and it reminded me of her, and I think I wanted to hear someone call me that one last time before the end.”

 

Treasure,” Steve purred, pulling Bucky into his arms. “You are my Treasure, but you will always also be my Bucky, and I will call you that for the rest of our lives, in honor of your Becca.”

 

“Stop being so dragony,” Bucky laughed, pushing him away, even though secretly he was pleased. Or not so secretly; Steve was a dragon after all. Anything Bucky felt, Steve would. Steve just smiled at him.

 

“We’re bringing that back with us, yes?”

 

“Yes.” Bucky allowed Steve to take the book from his hands so he could carefully slide it into the satchel resting on his left hip, that Bucky wore when they flew together, so there would always be clothes for Steve to change into when they landed. Steve would make sure of its safety until they got back home and added yet this other precious thing to their collection. “What about you? What had you so fascinated while I was up there? Something caught your eye, I could feel it.”

 

“The table,” Steve said, turning back to it.

 

“What, that old thing? By The Five, I can’t believe it’s also still here,” Bucky said, approaching it. It was a large table, heavy and solid, with a thick rectangular surface that Bucky remembered as being scuffed with scratches, but was now covered in mildew, made completely out of oak.

 

“It was your family’s?”

 

“Who else’s would it be?” Bucky smirked. “We used to gather around it at least three times a day, for every meal, or sometimes when we just wanted to talk. I think my grandparents gave it to my mother as a wedding gift. It’s an old thing, been in my family for generations.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Yes, really,” Bucky said, circling the table. “Look, see, right here, if you squint, you can still make out my name, when I scratched it into the side after Elisabeth dared me to see if I could write with a knife. My mother was furious about that…And oh look, you can still see Becca’s too, right next to it. She really was the best sister in the world.”

 

“Really?”

 

“And right there, that corner next to you, that’s where I fell and hit my head running away from Clara when we were playing a game of tag. Bled like a river, and made my mother shriek like a banshee. Still have the scar.” Bucky rubbed the small crescent on his forehead, the one Steve loved to press kisses to.

 

“Really?”

 

Bucky stopped and looked at Steve, who was staring at the table the way he had stared at his cup, and hairpin, and Command whenever he strapped it on.

 

“No Steve.”

 

“What?”

 

“No.”

 

“But Bucky!”

 

“It’s older than dirt, and must weigh at least a ton.”

 

“That just means it’s precious.”

 

“It’s covered in mildew!”

 

“Mildew can be cleaned.”

 

“How are we even supposed to get it back?”

 

“I’m Dragon. I can carry it.”

 

“No Steve.”

 

“But Treasure, it’s precious! And it wants us to take it! I can feel it!”

 

“It wants to stay here. The mildew told me so.”

 

“Why are you being such a jerk?”

 

“Because you’re being an idiot. The table and the mildew agree with me.”

 

“But Bucky -“

 

“No Steve, no!”

 

A few hours later, if anyone had been high enough and looked up, they would have seen a gold dragon flying through the sky, carefully carrying a huge table to his den in the mountains across the Forbidden Seas, his grumbling Treasure astride his back, complaining the entire way.

 

The Dragon was very pleased.

 

His Treasure thought him an idiot. But he still loved his Dragon with all his heart.

 

They both did, for the rest of time.

 

FIN

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AUTHOR’S NOTES

At the end of the last chapter, I asked if anyone reading this would be interested in some of the worldbuilding notes I had while writing Treasure. Since so many of you said you would like to see them, here are some of the ideas / headcannons I had in the back of my mind while I was writing Steve and Bucky’s adventures.

 

THE SIX

  • While I was writing this, I didn’t have an official map in my head of the Six. greywrites has since fixed this, and seriously, she outdid ANYTHING I could have imagined, so please, please, please click on the next chapter to see the wonderful maps she came up with, because they are GORGEOUS!! What I had envisioned was a cluster of six nations that if looked at from above, sort of resembled a lopsided peninsula, or maybe even a pie, with each nation having a bigger or smaller slice, Wakanda being the largest, and Helia and Aerialla tied for second. To the north, are the Forbidden Seas (more on that later), and at the southernmost border there is a large uninhabitable desert that ends in yet another mountain range. No one from the Six knows what lies beyond those mountains; they’re too far away, and the journey so treacherous, no one tries it.

 

  • The Six have been in existence for nearly 500 years, in various states of war until Queen Carol and Prime Minister Hill pushed for the peace treaty. Prior to the individual nations forming, it was a rough land, with feuding warlords for about 200 years. There’s history to that. At one point, when Bucky and Steve are stargazing, Bucky tells Steve that there used to be dragons, and he’s right. Dragons used to be not common, but a presence in those lands, where they searched for their Treasures and interacted with humans a lot more. Later on in the story, Steve tells Bucky that Dragons are practically indestructible once they’ve found their Treasure / reached their full power. This is true, but they do have one weakness, and it is their Treasures. They’re stronger once they’re given a scale, but can still be killed. The humans of that time, wanting power and to control the Dragons, figured that out, and started either kidnapping / torturing a Dragon’s Treasure, or their families, forcing the Treasures to urge the Dragons to do their bidding. If a Treasure dies, the Dragon who loves them dies not long after. Eventually, it got so bad, the Dragons still remaining took their Treasures and fled to the north and their island of mountains, to keep both themselves and their beloveds safe. Once they left, without their wisdom and guidance, the humans descended into chaos for a long time, not recovering until the earliest formation of the Six. The Dragons never returned and over time became nothing more than legend. The Dragons themselves, remembering what happened, and since they’re immortal, keep to their island and live in secret to prevent that from ever happening again. (This all takes place before Steve is born.)

 

  • In terms of their island, is it just that – a mountainous island with a valley. The Valley is, like it says in the story, a human city, because humans do not do well in isolation. It’s also a safety measure. If any of Bucky’s family had still been alive, Steve would have offered to bring them to The Valley, 1) so that Bucky wouldn’t have to live without them, and 2) to keep them safe. It’s a bit of an Eden, since the people who live there know how lucky they are, and the Dragons watch over them to make sure they have everything they could possibly need in exchange for keeping their secret. It’s not a prison, and people can leave, but most choose not to; people like Healer Erskine are very rare.

 

THE FORBIDDEN SEAS

  • The Forbidden Seas lie to the very north of the Six, and are impossible to cross, hence the name. But there’s a reason for that. Those seas are ruled by Namor / Submarina, a Dragon whose Treasure is the sea itself. He’s considered a bit strange, even by the Dragons, but they appreciate him, because it’s Namor who prevents any ships from crossing those seas and finding their island. 

 

  • Steve mentions being able to speak Namora, and it’s the language of the Namor islands. The Namor islands are a small cluster of islands (think of Hawai’i, but colder) which is the farthest north anyone from the Six can travel to. In my head, they’re a bit special, in that that’s how people travelling from The Valley reach the Six. The people who live on those islands just accept that every once in a while a ship from no nation they know shows up, sometimes with items and sometimes with people who intend to journey further south to the Six. They’re pleasant and polite so no one minds. But you can never get on the boat they came in on when it departs and no one knows where it goes. For anyone like Steve or Erskine travelling on that boat, Namor demands a payment before he’ll allow passage; something precious in the way of Dragons. If you don’t pay, well, your ship doesn’t make it.

 

  • That said, in my head, in the future Bucky and Steve do travel quite a bit. Usually they fly together, but sometimes they decide to travel by ship. Bucky, being Bucky, always comes up with very interesting things as payment; a bottle of lavender honey, a pack of dirty playing cards, even once a song he sung out into the waves, and Namor grows pretty fond of him, so much so that their travels are always as smooth as possible. (Steve, of course, is very jealous and grumbles about it.)

 

DRAGONS

Just a bit about what I had in my head about the Dragons while I was writing this.

  • Steve talks about his mother quite a bit in this story, but it’s not always the mother who raises a young Dragon. Dragons are extremely possessive and territorial. If two Dragons decide to mate, they will “perform the act” of mating, and once the egg is laid, they will fight over who gets to keep it / raise it. The victor, whether the mother or the father, raises the child, and the loser never sees the baby Dragon again. I dunno why it worked that way in my head, it just did. **shrugs**

 

  • But Dragons ARE hatched from eggs, and they are…giant lizards in the most general sense. Giant, magical, immortal lizards that fly, but still lizards. Which is why when Bucky is telling Steve about Trelia’s Bounty and how new mothers light a candle to her to make sure they have enough milk, Steve is a little put off. Dragon parents share their fire with their young, not breastmilk, so the idea is foreign and unusual to Steve and why he reacts that way. It’s not bad, he just thinks it very, very strange.

 

  • Sarah – In this story, it’s made clear Sarah dies. I have a whole back story for that. Sarah had a Treasure, but it wasn’t a human. In keeping with the comics cannon that she was a nurse, Sarah’s Treasure was a small clinic on an island somewhere far away. (No name, no history, just an island clinic.) It was an island of healers and Sarah shared her knowledge with them freely and looked after them. She had already mated with Steve’s father, so she had an egg she needed to look after. However, before Steve was born, there was a horrible earthquake, and the island was destroyed, her Treasure lost to her. She would have followed, but she had a child she knew she had to raise to at least adulthood. It was unbelievably difficult for her, but she adored Steve and tried to do her best by him. Once he reached the age of maturity, knowing she had done it, she succumbed to the loss of her Treasure and died.

 

  • Natasha – When Bucky tells the story about his great-great grandmother seeing a dragon, she did indeed see Natasha.

 

  • Sam and Riley – Out of the three of them, (Clint, Riley, Bucky) Riley is the oldest, and has been with Sam the longest. Sam found Riley before the formation of the Six. During that time, Riley was a soldier / field medic. When Sam stumbles across him, Sam was wounded, and as helpless and innocent as Steve was at the beginning of this story. It’s during a lull in the constant fighting going on between warlords, and Riley tends to him, getting him back to health. Sam actually leaves Riley to explore more of the world at that time, but something keeps pulling him back. So he seeks him out and discovers that Riley, sick of war, has opened a small clinic of his own where he tends to anyone in need. Sam, seeing what Riley is doing, asks Riley to teach him his craft, and settles in the clinic with Riley. There is also a slow burn, but Sam eventually realizes Riley is his Treasure. Like Steve, he’s almost too late. One day he leaves to deliver medicines to a nearby village, and when he comes back, he finds the clinic smoldering; a local warlord, furious that Riley would treat anyone, even people the warlord considered an enemy, set it on fire. Riley is trapped under a burning beam, his back broken, unable to move. Sam rescues him, and confesses what he is. However, Riley already knew. (Remember, this is closer to the time when Dragons walked with humans.) Sam gives him a scale, healing his spine, which is why Riley has a brown ladder of scales trailing up his back. In the story’s current timeline, they’ve been together almost 700 years and neither of them regrets a thing.

 

MISC

  • Gabe – Gabe comes from a family of horse breeders, known for raising some of the finest horses in all of the Six. So of course, HYDRA would want to steal them. In the epilogue, Bucky tells Steve about how he met Dum Dum, who had been a soldier and started Bucky’s training. Five years later, once Bucky has been trained by several people and is ready to wreck his vengeance on the world, he tracks them to Gabe’s family’s ranch. HYDRA, already having stolen almost all of the horses, is about to kill Gabe and his family so there are no witnesses. Bucky, being Bucky, kills every single one of them, saving Gabe and everyone else. It’s why Gabe and his family are absolutely devoted to Bucky. They’re also the ones who gave Bucky Daturia when she was barely more than a foal a few years later. Bucky didn’t want to accept, saying he didn’t do what he did expecting anything in return, and they countered by saying the foal (which hadn’t been named yet) was a poor example of a horse, and who could not be bred out as a result, with a spoiled temperament. According to them, if Bucky didn’t take her, they were going to get rid of her. It was all lies of course; Daturia is a beautiful, healthy horse and one they would have happily bred, but they knew Bucky never would have taken her otherwise. Hence, how Bucky met Gabe, why Gabe is so devoted to helping him. Peggy has her suspicions, but really, it is Gabe, along with Dum Dum, who are the only two who really know who Bucky is and his ultimate goal. And that is how Bucky got his beautiful horse (that Steve is still convinced doesn’t like him.)

 

  • Speaking of Bucky’s gorgeous and spoiled horse, Daturia’s name comes from the Datura flower. It’s a night blooming plant, which is extremely poisonous and can kill you if ingested. You can read more about it here. Given Bucky’s nature in this story, it seemed like something he would pick to call his favorite girl in the world.

 

  • Name, and all of Steve’s grumbling about her, aside, Daturia is actually a gorgeous horse. If you’re curious as to what she looked like, this is how I pictured her in my head whenever I was writing about her.

 

  • As we all know, Bucky’s family was killed long before he meets Steve. However, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have people he loves still living in the Six. In my headcannon, Dum Dum and Gabe, as well as Gabe’s family, do eventually move to and settle in The Valley. Dum Dum enjoys his new life there, where he opens a bookshop that specializes in those books, and becomes the most popular bookstore in The Valley. (Steve is his most frequent customer.) Gabe goes back to breeding horses with his family, which are considered the strongest and most beautiful in ALL the lands. Eventually, Bucky agrees to breed Daturia out. Bucky presents Steve with her first colt, once it’s old enough, as a gift, and helps him train it. Steve grumbles about it, as he is wont to do, but he is absolutely delighted. Daturia has another foal not too long after, and as Steve and Bucky’s lives go on, there is always a descendant of Daturia for Bucky to ride, which Steve complains are spoiled, but are all beautiful and crazy about Bucky.

 

  • At some point in the future, Morita also joins them in The Valley (because he is one of my favorites out of all the Howlies, and I LOVE him), settling down and opening a tavern, which becomes a favorite of Bucky, Clint and Riley. Bucky asks if Peggy can come too; Steve grumbles about it a bit (oh, let’s be real, he grumbles about it A LOT), but Peggy never makes it there, too devoted to her life’s work.

 

  • Lastly, in the vast collection of Steve’s hoard, there are two items that need to be mentioned. Hidden deep in the darkest corner in one of the smallest caverns, they are the oldest items in the collection, probably gathered by the very first Dragon ever, and carefully preserved. Steve is both wary and strangely drawn to them. One is a circular shield, made of a metal that no one has ever seen before or since, with a white star surrounded in red and blue. Whenever he touches it, it whispers to him of wars and violence, an endless cold, and grey dust, and a horrible, horrible loss, that makes him want to cry. The only thing that ever seems to bring it any peace, no matter how carefully Steve tends to it, is the second item; a dark blue jacket, made of a material unlike any he has ever encountered, with lots of straps and pockets, and what looks like wings stitched into one of the shoulders. It also whispers to him of wars and blood, a strange smell that reminds him of sulfur and fire, but also love, and a deep burning desire to protect, that only seems to settle when he wraps it around the shield. It is only then that both items fall quiet, content in a way Steve can understand, even if he can’t understand why. Sometimes he finds himself staring at them for hours, knowing somewhere deep in his bones and his blood, that whoever they belonged to, they were always meant to be side by side, just like the jacket and shield. Or at least he does until his Treasure comes for him, carefully taking the items from his hands, and replacing them in their corner. His Treasure will then lay a kiss to his temple, and pull him away, telling him not to worry about it. Because he is certain, in his bones and his blood, that The Five, the Sisters and the Stars (who he now believes in with all his heart), would have seen that those two were meant to be together, and would have made sure that no matter who or where they were, or what anyone may have said, he was sure, in the end, they got their happy ending, and it’s time for Steve to brush his hair.

 

  • And from their home, high, high, high above in the skies, where they are watching from the Stars, both Becca and Sarah will smile. Because, in the end, they finally did.

 

Chapter Text

MAPS FROM THE WORLD OF TREASURE

as created by greywrites

 

All of the below were drawn by Steve after his adventures in Treasure. For some reason, when greywrites told me this, I pictured Steve in his dragon form, carefully holding a very tiny pencil in his claw/hand. He is also wearing glasses. I don't know why, he just is, and it never fails to make me giggle when I think about it. I hope you enjoy, and please let greywrites know in the comments how gorgeous her maps are.