It was strange, waking up in the bird house’s bed with all his memories. Like his two lives had fused.
He could feel it walking, a steady pace, the motion combining with the thick quilt and pillows to wrap him in a comforting cradle. Opening his eyes, he found the room plunged in an evening glow, with a fire burning in the hearth. A familiar sight, but the shadows looked different, more open. After a moment he realized that the inverted slope of the roof overhead had turned into the flat underside of floorboards. There were small steep stairs in the corner, almost a ladder. The house had grown a second floor.
Pushing out of bed, he put his feet down on the carpet and marveled at them for a moment. He had felt the flesh fall off them when he’d walked on the pyre. Now they were new and perfect, without even a scar. Nothing hurt when he got up, nor when he crossed the room to go climb upstairs.
The floor above was warm and welcoming, with a smaller bed in a corner and an alcove window outfitted with flat straw pillows. Steve and Natasha were sitting there, cross-legged, talking in hushed but animated tones. Bucky felt his heart swell at the sight of them.
“This is nice,” he said, still hoarse from the smoke.
“Bucky,” Steve exclaimed, getting up. He ran to him. “How are you feeling? Did you heal okay? You slept for such a long time!”
Bucky smiled, taking him in. “Can’t believe you’re worryin’ for me when you’re the one who actually died out there.”
“I got better,” Steve said loftily. “If you think—”
Bucky pulled him close, hugging him tight for a few seconds. Steve stopped talking and squeezed him about just as hard.
“I’m so glad you’re all right,” Bucky murmured when they let go. “So glad.”
“I knew you’d come back for me. I was so worried. I was thinking about you all the time.”
“You would have done the same for me.”
“Your arm,” Steve said, looking at the cracked silver. “I tried, I really tried, but I couldn’t make it go back to normal…”
“Not even she could,” Bucky said, glancing at Natasha over Steve’s shoulder. “Can’t expect to do better.”
Natasha was smiling at him, patient. He let go of Steve and walked over to her. Stupidly, he felt shy.
“Żar-ptak,” he said.
“Jakub,” she answered instead of hunter—and it did something strange to his heart.
“How’re the wounds?” he asked her softly.
“Good. How are your burned feet?”
“Good,” he echoed. For a moment he didn’t know what to say, then: “That coat of flames seems to suit Steve okay.”
She had a half-smile, thinking maybe of the way she’d acquired it; of her sisters who didn’t have that terrible chance. “Yes. It suits him just fine.”
Bucky sat on the little alcove bench, next to her, and he leaned back against the cold, solid glass. Steve came to sit on his other side, pressing warm against him. Natasha’s hand found his hand and laced their fingers. The moon and stars were glowing outside, easy to see when he turned his head just so; the house was striding through the countryside with purpose, making good time.
“Where are we going?” Bucky asked, quiet.
“Steve wanted to get back to your town one last time,” Natasha said. “To tie up loose ends.”
Bucky said nothing for a minute. Then he glanced at Steve. “Thought you might like to stay there. With Gosia.”
“I want to say goodbye to her. But I want to stay with you.” Steve smiled. “It’s about time we get to do something fun together.”
Bucky’s lips twitched. “Yeah? Fun how?”
Steve deferred to Natasha with a polite nod.
“I didn’t have anyone to mentor me during my first firebird days,” Natasha explained. “So I’m going to help him out, show him how it’s done. Teach him to fly.” She grinned. “Then we were thinking of going on a few adventures.”
“Were you, now.”
“I had time to think on it while I was in the ducal dungeon,” Steve put in.
“You know. Going from town to town. Fighting injustice. Saving little girls.” Natasha brushed Bucky’s cheek. “And little boys.”
He looked down. The house’s gentle rocking, the flickering glow of the hearth through the square opening of the staircase—all of it put a softness like never before in his heart. Or maybe it was the warmth of the both of them, sitting on either side of him.
“Sounds great,” he said. He wasn’t good with big words.
“Since you stole my house,” she went on, “we’re obligated to ask if you’ll shelter us in this quest. We’ll pay rent, of course. You can just laze around all day while we do the chores.”
“Hm.” He couldn’t fight off a slow smile.” That might be arranged.”
Steve, on the other side of him, nudged his shoulder. “Will you want to see your Pa before we leave for good?”
See Jerzy Stodołny in the real world. Maybe let Natasha tear him down, borrowing Steve’s coat of flames; or let Steve do it, channeling all the rage he’d harbored over Bucky for years. Or maybe Bucky could hurt him himself, broad and strong as he’d grown. Nothing was standing anymore between his father and retribution.
But now that the walls had come down, Bucky was more interested in the world outside.
He leaned back against the glass again and smiled fully. “Nah,” he said. “Not worth it.”
Duke Pierce’s palace burned down entirely. The bones of his guardsmen were found strewn all around the courtyard. The duke’s own body was never even found. Did he not know that to take a firebird’s feather by force was to be cursed for life?
A square shadow was seen roaming the streets of a nearby town after dark; some said it wandered near the Rógs’ old house, and others said it was actually there for Gosia, who spoke to Steve Róg late at night, but it couldn’t have been true because Steve Róg definitely died in the fire, too, and anyway there were no such things as walking houses.
If there were such things, this particular walking house would be seen heading for the hills, with a quiet hunter, a wild woman and a newborn firebird sharing the place. The bird might at times fly away to stretch its wings, and the hunter and the woman might then close the curtains for a while. At other times they might talk all three together until late at night, eating berries and dried hare meat. A surprising amount of palaces and townhouses may happen to burn down in their wake. The bird flies, and the woman teaches him to fly; and the hunter is the happiest man there is.