Actions

Work Header

A Candle Still Burning

Work Text:

The manor house stood high and pale against the white hills, its pointed rooftops like outgrowths of the snowy landscape—and, Jesus, was that an actual turret? Sam’s breath misted before his face as he climbed out of the taxi, whose driver had point-blank refused to go any further than the wrought-iron gates.

That was okay. Meant Sam had plenty of time to take in the scenery as he crunched his way up the winding drive. The sky was mostly clear today, powder blue dusted with puffs of cloud, and winter sunlight glittered off the ground, the distant peaks of the Austrian Alps so bright it hurt his eyes to look at them. The house itself seemed to stare gravely back at him, rows of dark windows like empty eyes. Sam studied each one in turn as he approached, looking for a hint of movement, maybe a telltale flicker of a curtain or a face in a window, but there was no sign of life.

The sound of the taxi’s engine blatted off the hillsides as it drove away, dwindled, and faded to nothing.

Sam travelled plenty for work—people got in touch from all over, asking for his help with spirits and revenants when solutions closer to home had failed—and there was always a small thrill of unease the first time he walked up to a place he knew to be haunted. He should’ve been used to it by now, but here, alone in the snow-covered landscape in front of the silent old building, he suddenly felt small and far from home.

He hadn’t wanted to come out here. The ass-end of White-People-Central, Europe, in the dead of winter? Not exactly his idea of a good time. But the guy who’d gotten in touch with him, Professor Reiter, had been insistent, offering more money than Sam normally earned in six months, and the boat wasn’t gonna fix itself, and the relief that had smoothed out Sarah’s features when he mentioned the job had been enough to change his mind.

She’d still told him to be careful before he left. Sam had reassured her there was nothing to worry about.

Now, he just hoped he was right.

He shivered and quickened his pace. Tried to distract himself by going over what he already knew about the place.

Built in the eighteenth century; used as a base-slash-field-hospital by HYDRA during WWII; sold off hastily afterwards to some business tycoon who either didn’t know or didn’t care about its history. The current owner, Reiter, was said business tycoon’s grandson but hadn’t inherited his family’s flair for making money and had gone into academia. Reiter lived in Vienna now, paying a series of caretakers to keep the place from falling down and using it for occasional weekend getaways.

Until his last trip, on which he’d been attacked by objects flying through the air and heard voices when there was nobody around. Apparently a priceless hundred-year-old vase had hit him in the crotch, which Sam had heroically managed not to laugh at until he got off the phone.

Pretty classic poltergeist activity, but the first exorcist Reiter called in had fled without even waiting to get paid. So he’d gone hunting online, and he’d found the best in the business.

Sam really, really hoped it wasn’t a fucking Nazi poltergeist. Dealing with a soul he knew would be going to the bad place on the other side was an experience he’d only had a handful of times, and not one he was keen to repeat anytime soon.

There were a lot of other things it could be, he reminded himself. Some old-timey European aristocrat, pissed off that there wasn’t tea and cake in the afterlife. Or some cook or maid or gardener who’d been unfortunate enough to die on the premises and wanted to cross over and reunite with their long-gone family.

Yeah. Hopefully it was something like that.

A flight of steps led up to the door of the manor house—which, now that Sam was a little closer, he realised was already open a crack.

Which wasn’t ominous at all.

He took the last couple steps a little slower, alert for any little noise in the silence, and knocked tentatively at the open door. “Anybody home?”

A breath of wind caught the door and made it sway, creaking, on its hinges. That was the only answer he got.

He took a breath and tried again. “It’s Sam. Sam Wilson. We spoke on the phone?”

His words fell flat in the quiet. Another long moment of silence, and he’d almost made up his mind to head inside and go looking when a voice said, “Go away.”

Sam frowned. “Excuse me?”

“I said, go away.” And the door slammed shut right in Sam’s face.

Sam squared his shoulders. “Okay, you’re not Reiter.” Not with that hint of a New York twang, that was for sure. Plus, this guy not even bothering to show his face before he told Sam to get lost? Rude. “And he sounded pretty sure he wanted me here this morning, so if he’s changed his mind, he can tell me himself.”

He pulled his phone out of his pocket to be sure, but no, Reiter hadn’t messaged him, hadn’t called, since Sam left the airport that morning. Sam reached for the door handle, anticipating resistance, but it gave under his hand and the door opened onto an unlit, wood-paneled entrance hall.

Which was also empty.

Sam set down his bags, rolling his shoulders in relief at getting to take the weight off. The door closed behind him with a gentle click, not the dramatic clang he was half-expecting, but the silence that followed felt even heavier. He shuffled further into the building, feeling a twinge of relief when his fumbling hand found a lightswitch on the wall.

The lights blinked on one by one, illuminating a graceful central staircase and an entrance hall that opened onto half-a-dozen rooms. Still no sign of whoever had told him to go away, though.

“Professor Reiter?” Sam tried, again. “If you could ask your friend to stop—”

“Oh, I ain’t his friend.”

The voice came from behind Sam. He spun to face it, and found somebody standing in the doorway to what looked like a dining room, silhouetted against the pale light pouring in through the great, wide windows.

He was maybe a couple inches taller than Sam, all lean muscle and coiled tension. There was something kind of old-fashioned about the cut of his jacket—military, maybe—and the left sleeve was tucked up under his armpit.

The guy gave a put-upon sigh. “Okay, pal, I really didn’t wanna have to do this, but you’re not leaving me much choice here.”

Sam narrowed his eyes. “Not much choice about what? Being an asshole or—”

The guy stepped forward into the light, and the vague suspicion that had been forming in the back of Sam’s mind crystallized into reality.

There was a slightly faded quality about him, like a sepia photograph, and when he moved, his feet made no sound on the polished wood floorboards. In the light, Sam could see that the fold of the guy’s left sleeve was dark and wet, and as he watched, a droplet of blood fell away from the fabric, vanishing into thin air before it hit the floor.

“Huh,” Sam said. “You’re the ghost.”

Honestly, not what he’d been expecting. Most poltergeists couldn’t even manifest in human form. They were little more than remnants of rage and sorrow, barely remembering the people they’d been. Even your standard lost spirit tended to be a little fuzzy around the edges, fading out of existence after a moment or two, no more substantial than an image on a broken TV.

But this guy—it was like he was really here. Sam could see the stitching in his uniform, the curl of dark hair that flopped onto his forehead, the hint of something almost familiar in the curve of his mouth. The precise grey-blue shade of his eyes and the little furrow that appeared between them when he frowned.

Which he was doing right now, crossing his right arm over his chest and looking at Sam as if he was the weirdo here. “And you’re… not reacting like most people.”

Despite everything, Sam felt a smile tug at the corner of his mouth. “Yeah, well, I’m not most people.”

The guy raised an eyebrow. “Yeah, I can see that.” Was it Sam’s imagination, or did he sound… impressed? But the next words out of his mouth took the wind right out of Sam’s sails. “So, I guess you’re here to exorcize me, huh?”

Sam took a breath. “I’m here to fix this situation one way or another.”

“Least Reiter finally figured out there was a situation.” Ghost-guy glanced behind him into the dining-room, its big windows facing out onto the grounds behind the house. Through them, Sam caught a glimpse of a squat figure bundled up in outdoor clothing, stalking around in a circle and holding his phone up like he was trying to get a signal.

Had to be Reiter. But this guy—this ghost—wasn’t making a lick of sense. Surely he was the situation?

Before Sam could ask any of the questions spinning round his mind, Reiter threw up his hands, apparently giving up on finding a phone signal, and stomped back toward the house.

“Shit,” said the ghost, “gotta go,” and between one blink and the next, he’d vanished, leaving Sam staring at an empty doorway.

#

Reiter didn’t seem even slightly fazed that Sam had been able to walk in his open front door, just blinked owlishly, told Sam to set up his equipment wherever he wanted and help himself to anything he liked from the kitchen, and backed toward the exit like Cass trying to escape the house for a bike ride before Sarah realised he had homework.

Which left Sam alone in the house. Mansion. Whatever.

Under other circumstances, having a huge place like this to himself would actually have been pretty sweet. It wasn’t some falling-down old ruin, like Sam had half-expected when he learned that Reiter didn’t live here. There were cozy open fireplaces and an honest-to-God wine cellar, and Sam’s guest room had a tub the size of his entire bathroom back home and a four-poster bed that was probably big enough to have a fivesome in, if you were into that kind of thing.

Not that Sam knew from experience. Or had had any kind of love life at all over the past couple years.

He waved that thought away, more concerned with the chill that seemed to hang over the whole house. At first, he’d thought he just needed to warm up from the snow outside, and he’d lit a fire and brewed some hot coffee while he looked over his books and waited for the ghost to reappear, but he couldn’t seem to get warm. There was a knife-edge to the cold, a feeling of malice that Sam had learned over the years not to ignore, but that seemed totally at odds with what he’d seen earlier.

The ghost had been… grouchy? Yeah. Rude? As hell. But that was all. Just a grouchy, rude dude.

This was… not that.

Sam found himself scrolling through photographs of this place in the olden days online. Most were blurry monochrome, the outline of the house recognisable, but the uniformed figures standing out front of it faceless blurs. A couple of the photos were accompanied by short but unsettling blurbs about Allied prisoners brought here during the war, mysterious experiments carried out behind closed doors.

He shivered and wrapped both hands around his coffee mug. It did nothing to warm him up.

“You know, if you wanted to look at pictures of the place you coulda done that at home.”

Even though Sam had been waiting for the guy to show back up, he started at the sound of his voice. The ghost was reading over his left shoulder, leaning close enough that Sam would’ve been able to feel his breath if he was alive.

“You shouldn’t sneak up on people,” Sam said, snapping his laptop shut.

The ghost smiled faintly. There was something a little tired around his eyes, Sam noticed, though the air had seemed to warm up a degree or two at his arrival. “Really determined to hang around here, aren’t you, Sam Wilson?”

“It’s kinda my job.” Sam swiveled on his chair, looked up into the guy’s face. “Also, seems unfair that you know my name and I don’t know yours.”

There was that tiny smile again. “Sergeant James Barnes, 107th.” That line about Allied prisoners came back to Sam, an unpleasant feeling telling him Barnes probably hadn’t died cleanly. And yet here he was, smiling down at Sam, not screaming bloody vengeance or throwing knives at his head. “My friends call me Bucky. Or they used to, anyway." A self-deprecating shrug.

"Oh, you wanna be friends now?" Sam said, or started to, but then his brain caught hold of a thread it had been grasping for since he first laid eyes on Barnes, and that flicker of familiarity he'd felt earlier made sudden sense. "Wait. Bucky Barnes. As in, Captain America, Howling Commandos, that Bucky Barnes?"

"Last time I checked."

“Huh.” Sam paused, struck by a thought. “You know they found him, right?”

Bucky’s face tried to do about five different expressions at once, eventually settling on none. “Yeah, I heard.”

Sam felt a tug in his chest and fought off the urge to pat Bucky’s arm just in time to avoid doing something embarrassing like putting a hand right through him. “But we learned about you guys in history class. And the books always said you died out there in the mountains somewhere. So, what are you doing here?”

“Talking to some stubborn idiot who won’t leave when he’s told?”

“Yeah, yeah, nobody’s forcing you to hang around. I mean, that’s gotta be one of the few advantages of being a ghost, you can just, poof—” Sam snapped his fingers “—whenever you like.”

Bucky shrugged. “Guess you got me there. But in my defense, it isn’t like I got anything else to keep me amused around here. Can’t exactly pick up a book or turn on the radio.”

“That why you threw a vase at Reiter’s dick? Keeping yourself amused?”

“That wasn’t me,” Bucky protested. “I can’t touch things, mostly, unless I concentrate real hard. But he woulda deserved it. Guy’s an asshole. Likes to bring impressionable young coeds up here behind his wife’s back.”

Sam blinked, mentally revising his impression of Reiter, a harmless-looking, mousy little dude who’d acted like he wouldn’t say boo to a goose. Then again, the professors Sam had heard rumors about at school hadn’t always seemed like creeps. Gross.

“What about me?” he asked. “Why were you so damn determined to get me outta here? You take a look out the front door and decide I looked like an asshole too?”

“Kinda the opposite, actually. You’re nice.” Bucky paused, the little crease between his eyebrows reappearing. “I mean, you looked nice. No reason you should have to get caught up in this.”

“I ‘looked nice’?” Sam blinked up at him. “Wait, are you flirting with me? Is that what’s happening here?” He was half-joking, and it was out of his mouth before he remembered that Bucky was from the 1940s and maybe wouldn’t be okay with it.

But instead, the guy… blushed?

Yeah, that was a definite hint of pink darkening his cheeks. “No,” he scoffed, about as convincing as a kid claiming his invisible friend had eaten the last cookie. His gaze flicked up, met Sam’s. “But if I was, would it be working?”

“No way,” Sam said. “One, you can’t even touch me, so, flirting? Kinda pointless. And two, you’re avoiding my question.”

“Question?” Bucky’s expression was all innocence. It didn’t suit him. “What question?”

“About how you ended up here.” Sam cocked his head, studying the cloud that had come over Bucky’s expression. “And what don’t you want me getting caught up in?”

Bucky sighed. Angled himself like he was leaning against the edge of the table and gave Sam this look, like, Are you really gonna make me do this?

Sam waited.

“They’re right,” Bucky said, at last. “The books. I mean, as far as anyone knows back home, I did die out there. Fell down a ravine. ‘S how I ended up like this.” He gestured at the bloody stump of his left arm.

“Sorry,” Sam said, automatically. “It still hurt?”

“All the time.” There was nothing self-pitying in Bucky’s voice. Sounded like he was saying that water was wet, or the sky was blue. “I didn’t die, though. Got picked up by HYDRA and woke up here. Dunno what they were planning on doing to me, but I’m guessing nothing good.”

“Probably not.”

“But hey, I got the last laugh. Picked up an infection and died before they finished sticking me full of needles.”

And okay, Sam had only known the guy for an afternoon, but already he found himself thinking, Figures that he’d even make dying into a ‘fuck you’. “Yeah, you really showed ‘em.”

“Sure did.” There was that hint of a smile again, a brief flicker before it faded. “But this place, it’s… I don’t know. Hard to explain. Like something… stained it, I guess. It ain’t a ghost, like me, ain’t a person, just all that evil shit they did here, still hanging around. And it hurts people. Gets in their heads and drives them crazy. I try to warn them when I can, scare ‘em off, but it doesn’t always work.” He looked sideways at Sam. “Because, you know. Some of them are stubborn idiots.”

“Stubborn idiots with jobs to do,” Sam said.

“Job’s not worth getting yourself hurt.”

“Man, now you sound like my sister.”

“Your sister sounds like she’s got her head screwed on right.”

“Guess I gotta give you that one.” He gave Bucky a thoughtful look, fingers tapping on the tabletop. “But what if I could help? Get rid of whatever it is hanging on around here?”

Bucky gave him a skeptical look. “What makes you think you can fix it when the last guy Reiter called in ran away screaming? And everybody else who’s tried over the past, what, seventy years?”

“Yeah, well, maybe they weren’t trying hard enough,” Sam said, with more bravado than he felt. “I’m good at what I do. And I don’t give up easy.”

He did have a job to do. And, for reasons he didn’t want to examine too closely, the thought of Bucky trapped in this house with all that evil sat like a lead weight on his chest.

“Fine,” Bucky said, at last. “I won’t get in your way.”

“You know, you could actually help.”

“I promise not to throw a vase at your dick, how’s that for helpful?”

Sam couldn’t help a snort of laughter. “I’ll take it.”

“See? I’m a goddamn saint.” Not a half-smile this time, but an honest-to-god smirk, teasing and gentle at the same time.

Sam tried not to examine what he felt about that too closely, either.

#

He dreamed, that night.

Tendrils of shadow coiling around his limbs and closing over his face like ink, so he gasped for air like he was drowning.

And then the shadows broke apart, and Sam saw things he hadn’t dreamed about in years.

The first time he saw a ghost, aged seven and clutching his grandmother’s hand as the apparition flickered and faded at the end of her neighbor’s hallway. He remembered how terrified he’d been. How his grandmother had sighed later, telling his mom he had the gift; and how he’d wondered how anybody could call it that, and if he could take it back to the store.

She left him her books when she died. It was years before he touched them.

Later. Riley’s plane going down in a ball of flame in a clear desert sky. The scream tearing itself from Sam’s throat as he watched and couldn’t do a thing.

The stale, mausoleum stillness of their apartment, afterward. How he stood over the bed he hadn’t slept in since coming home, one of his grandmother’s books open in a shaking hand, faltering over the words of the spell he hoped would fix things.

What he saw for a brief, wavering second—a burned, howling thing that didn’t look like Riley anymore—before he slammed the book shut and fled.

And, later still, his mom fading fast in a hospital bed. Her hand so light in his, like the flesh had been sucked from her bones, the skin like paper.

He almost tried again, afterwards. Got as far as opening the book, fingertip tracing the words of the spell. They stuck in his throat and he couldn’t breathe around them, thought he was dying himself for a few seconds before he realised it was a panic attack.

It had been a month after that one of his mom’s friends called, saying “You’re Darlene’s boy, aren’t you? She said you had the gift. Please, we need help.”

Two more before he finally plucked up the courage to say yes.

#

Sam woke gasping for breath, the comforter soaked through with sweat. Didn’t know where he was, for a moment, grabbing for his phone but hitting his arm on the bedpost instead, and why the fuck was he in a four-poster bed, and—

“Bad dream, huh?”

Bucky was perched at the bottom of the bed, the expression on his face unreadable in the dark. Sam scrambled up to sitting and glared at him. “You know watching people sleep is creepy?”

“I’m a ghost, creepy kinda comes with the territory.” Bucky paused, glanced down. “But, uh, I wasn’t. I heard you, is all.”

“Oh.” Sam blinked a couple times, tendrils of nightmare still clinging to his brain. “Sorry.”

Buck shook his head. “It happens. This place…” He trailed off, waving his hand as if that was an explanation.

“Yeah, I’m starting to get that.” A sigh. “I’ll be fine. Gimme a minute.”

“Sure.” Bucky hesitated a moment, hand hovering over the bedcovers where Sam’s feet had been a moment earlier before he let it rest. “You were calling for somebody. Riley.”

Sam scrubbed a hand down his face. “Shit. It’s been years, I—” He cut himself off. He didn’t talk about this—not ever, and definitely not to people he’d just met. Even if they were weirdly charming ghosts. “Nevermind.”

Bucky frowned a little. “You can talk to me if you want, Sam. Come on, it ain’t like I got better things to do.”

At that, Sam managed a tiny smile, though it faded fast. “Not much to tell. He died, I couldn’t save him. The end.”

“I’m sorry.” Bucky bit his lip. “But that’s why you shouldn’t be here. This place, I’ve seen it before—it brings up all the worst parts of people’s lives, makes ‘em relive it all until they can’t stand it anymore and they either run, or…” He took a deep breath. “Something worse.”

There was nothing but concern in his eyes, none of the prickly irritability with which he’d greeted Sam the previous day. And, as the last shreds of sleep left Sam’s mind, a few other things were becoming clear, too.

Like, maybe, why Bucky seemed so much more solid than any other spirit he’d encountered.

Most spirits had unfinished business, were holding on for their families, or for justice for some awful thing that had happened during their lives.

But what if you felt like you were all that stood between the living and some malign force that stuck its tendrils into their dreams and woke them up screaming? Wouldn’t that make you hold on harder, anchoring yourself in this world and never moving on?

“So, this is what you do,” Sam said. “You stick around here, never cross over, just keep warning other people off. Alone with all that darkness.”

“Hey, when you put it like that it sounds sad.”

“Yeah.” Sam shuffled closer, bedsheets pooling around his hips, so he could look in Bucky’s face. “So, why you gotta do it, hm? I’m betting you could’ve crossed over way back when you first died, but you didn’t. You hung on.”

Bucky shrugged. “Just stubborn, I guess. Can’t let the assholes win.”

There was something sad behind the quirk of his mouth, but he didn’t elaborate, and Sam didn’t try to make him, because he wasn’t a hypocrite. “Thought you said I was the stubborn idiot here.”

“Who said it was a zero-sum game? I got plenty of stubborn to go around.” Bucky paused, his expression turning serious. “And I don’t like seeing good people hurt.”

“Bucky—”

“Listen. I’m not claiming I know you or anything, but from what I’ve seen so far? If you couldn’t save your friend, it wasn’t ‘cause you didn’t try.”

Sam blinked, taken aback by the sincerity in his eyes. He didn’t know what to say to that, so in the end he stuck with the truth. “No. It wasn’t.”

#

Bucky did have plenty of stubborn to go around. That was one thing Sam learned over the next few days, as he researched non-individualised hauntings and spells to fix them, and Bucky leaned over his shoulder and offered unasked-for commentary. His presence was a steady constant, distinctly un-ghostly, and the chill that pervaded the house seemed to lessen while he was around, whatever whispered in the shadows quieting.

Sam also learned that Bucky had a sly sense of humour, a competitive streak a mile wide, and a penchant for telling exaggerated stories that would’ve put Sam’s grandpa to shame. Sometimes, Sam could startle a laugh out of him, and this real, earnest smile would break across his face, and it felt like a small victory. Other times, he’d say something suggestive as hell in a voice so innocent Sam almost fell for the naive old-timer act, then give it away with a smirk while Sam was struggling for the words to explain phrasing, a blush creeping up the back of his neck.

And maybe Sam was learning a few things about himself here, too. Like the fact that he was, apparently, dumb enough to be developing a schoolboy crush on a guy who’d been dead for seventy years.

He tried not to think about it too hard. He sent emails, and received anecdotes and spell instructions and scans from centuries-old books in return, and Reiter’s dining-room table turned into an organised chaos of half-formed plans. He did his best to ignore the way his insides fluttered at dollface (which was 100% Bucky being a little shit on purpose, but unfortunately for Sam was also 100% doing something for him, which he was not about to unpack), and the warm glow that expanded in his chest every time he won one of those sweet, surprised smiles. He worked his ass off, and he definitely didn't look at Bucky's.

Much.

Sam was sitting at the table, squinting at an incantation that looked like whoever wrote it had done so after a whole bunch of the other kind of spirits and massaging his temples to ward off a headache, when his laptop pinged with a message.

It was late, the darkness having crept up and the fire in the grate burned low as he worked, and the brightness of the screen made him wince.

“You should put the light on,” Bucky informed him, materialising at his side. “Gonna give yourself eye strain.”

“Thanks, mom,” Sam said, pulling up the message. “No, wait, you’re older than my mom. You’re older than my mom’s mom.”

“I don’t think it counts if you don’t get to be alive for it,” Bucky said, with a lightness that made Sam feel a little sick, and leaned over his shoulder, close enough he would’ve been resting his chin there, if he had a solid body. “What’s this?”

“Message from a friend of mine,” Sam said, clicking on the attachment from Nat's email. She was scary-competent, with a matter-of-factness about death that even seasoned occultists sometimes struggled to muster up, but she was also a good friend.

And, Sam realised, as he read the message—Yelena dealt w/ something like this in Warsaw last year, here’s what worked—she’d come through.

“Holy shit,” he breathed. “I think this is gonna work.”

Bucky let out a startled breath, his face all wonder. “You’re really somethin’, you know that?” he said, and Sam was looking up at him and he was still leaning so close, and if they’d been able to touch, Sam just knew

Bucky stood up. “We oughta celebrate,” he said. “Or anyway, you oughta celebrate. Reiter has a wine cellar, for chrissakes.”

“Yeah, when he told me to help myself to anything in the kitchen, I don’t think he meant the three-hundred-euro bottle of Chateauneauf-du-Pape.”

“So tell him I broke it,” Bucky suggested, eyes glinting with mirth. “Not like I’m gonna be around to take the blame.”

That froze Sam where he sat. “What are you talking about?”

Bucky blinked down at him, eyebrows drawing together. “The spell, Sam.” He leaned in toward the laptop, drawing his fingertip along a line in the document. The pale light of the screen was barely visible through his skin. “I know I ain’t the expert here, but I’m guessing banishing ‘all supernatural energies’ from a place does mean all.”

Sam sat back in his chair, the breath leaving his lungs. “Yeah,” he said, quietly. “Shit. You’re right.”

“It’s okay, you know.” There was that smile again, the faint, sad one. “I kinda figured.”

“No.” There was a lump in Sam’s throat, a sour taste left on the back of his tongue where the triumph had drained away. “No, it isn’t okay.”

“I’ve been around a long time, Sam. Maybe it’s time I go.”

“You don’t get it, Buck.” The nickname slipped out without conscious thought, and Bucky twitched an eyebrow, but Sam couldn’t think about that right now. “This kind of banishing spell—it’s a blunt instrument. Everything that gets sent away from here, gets sent to the same place. And it… isn’t the good place.”

Bucky schooled his expression fast enough Sam almost didn’t catch the flash of fear. He was probably really, annoyingly good at poker. “It’s still okay.”

And something at the center of Sam rebelled.

His mom had said he’d always been like this: incensed by unfairness way past the age most kids gave in and accepted it. This? This wasn’t fair.

“Not happening,” he said. “I’m gonna find another way.”

#

And he tried. He really did.

“I know you’ve been here a long time. You’ve been holding on hard, and maybe it’s gonna be tough to let go. But I could help you cross over. I’ve done that plenty—it’s a pretty simple process. And it’s gotta be better than the alternative.”

It was the truth. Sam had helped dozens, maybe hundreds, of spirits move on, and there was a sense of relief that came with a successful crossing. When you performed an exorcism, you restored a balance, got somebody to where they were supposed to be. Sam took pride in being good at his job—and in doing it gently, helping souls in distress find peace.

The thought of Bucky moving on, for some reason, made something squirm in his belly.

But it had to be better than what Bucky had been living with, or un-living with, all these years. And it was definitely better than going to literal hell.

Bucky’s face did that same complicated thing it had when Sam mentioned Cap, and for a moment Sam thought he was about to argue.

“You’re right,” he said, at last. “Habit’s hard to break, but guess I gotta, huh?”

“Yeah,” Sam said. It ached. “I guess you do.”

The simplest of spells was usually enough for a spirit who still remembered who they were. Sam lit a circle of candles and sat at the centre, beckoning for Bucky to join him. Bucky lifted an eyebrow—he’d been skeptical that something so small could work—but did as he was told, candle flames flickering slightly as he passed through the circle and sat.

Sam caught himself in time to avoid reaching for Bucky’s hand. It was dumb. He’d worked with so many ghosts over the years; he knew you couldn’t touch them. Something about Bucky just made a small, irrational part of his mind insist that he should be able to.

He pushed the thought aside and met Bucky’s eyes. “Okay. So, what we’re gonna do is picture the crossing. For some people it’s a bridge. Sometimes a circle of light. Think of whatever makes sense to you. We’re gonna concentrate hard, and then I’m gonna help you move towards it.”

Bucky’s lips quirked. “Simple as that?”

“Simple as that.”

But it wasn’t. No matter how hard Sam tried to visualise it, no matter how Bucky’s face scrunched up with concentration opposite him, he couldn’t get the gateway to stay in focus. It would form briefly and blindingly before them, a portal sketched in light—and fizzle out of view like a wet fuse a second later.

After their fourth failed attempt, Sam groaned and swiped a hand down his face. “I don’t get why this isn’t working.”

“Admit it. You just don’t know how you’re gonna cope without me.”

There was something brittle about Bucky’s smile. Sam swallowed hard.

“I’ll think of something else,” he promised.

Problem was, his something-elses didn’t work, either. Not the next go-to spell in his arsenal, with an invocation to the spirits of the in-between to help things along, and not the all-new, souped-up version Clint had come up with after running into a bunch of weird, tracksuit-wearing ghosts in NY last year.

They tried for days.

Sam was exhausted.

The dreams were getting worse, too. He’d been seeing other faces, in between Riley and his mom, men strapped to rickety hospital beds with their faces twisted in pain. None of them were Bucky, not yet, but he knew that was coming, and it made him dread going to sleep. It was harder to extricate himself each time, the tendrils of that lurking, malevolent thing clutching him tight, and last night he’d woken to find Bucky standing over him, naked desperation on his face at being unable to shake Sam out of the nightmare.

Tiredly, he surveyed the remnants of their latest failed attempt, and bent to start picking up candle stumps.

“You oughta rest,” Bucky told him. “Candles’ll still be there in the morning.”

“There any point?” Sam said. “Not exactly getting a restful night’s sleep here anyway.”

Bucky looked pained. “So don’t stay here. Gotta be somewhere in town you could get a room. Claim it on expenses.”

Sam sighed. Admittedly, the idea of holing up in a hotel and making Reiter pay for his room service wasn’t without its appeal. It was just that the idea of leaving Bucky on his own in this place felt wrong, made something twist painfully behind his sternum.

“Spent plenty longer than one night here on my own,” Bucky said, as if he’d read Sam’s mind. “I’ll be fine. You’re the one who needs to sleep.”

The exhausted ache behind Sam’s eyes finally did it. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll call Nat tomorrow, see if she’s got any other ideas.”

“You could,” Bucky allowed, “but I’m pretty sure nothing’s gonna work.”

Sam frowned at him. “What do you mean?”

Bucky held up a hand. “Ain’t saying you’re not the best at this. I’ve seen how hard you work, how much you know, how much you give a shit. I believe it, trust me. But to get someone to cross over… maybe they have to want to?”

“They usually do want to,” Sam said, but he felt a prickle of worry—and something else, warm and stupidly, irrationally hopeful. “But not you?”

“Kind of… no.” Bucky took a deep breath. Looked genuinely apologetic. “Not for a while now.” He reached out, ghostly fingers hovering an inch from Sam’s arm, then let his hand drop back to his side. “Pretty stupid, huh?”

Sam inhaled shakily. The horrible, twisting feeling inside his chest hadn’t gotten any better. “Yeah, well,” he said. “Guess that makes both of us.”

“Just a couple of stubborn idiots.”

Bucky smiled at him, a little soft, a little sad.

Sam headed for the stairs before he could say anything else he’d regret.

#

He returned early the next day, refreshed by a night’s sleep away from the manor house and the cold morning air. He’d had no nightmares, and felt more alert than he had in days, but he’d still woken with a faint feeling of apprehension that didn’t fade until he climbed out of the taxi—the driver peeling off almost before Sam had closed the door—and saw Bucky looking down at him from an upstairs window.

He didn’t embarrass himself by trying to throw his arms around Bucky once he was inside, though a part of him ached to. He noted the tiredness around Bucky’s eyes and said, “Rough night?”

Bucky shrugged, easy. “Had worse. You look good, though.”

And Sam could’ve brushed it off, made some crack about how you didn’t get to be this handsome without beauty sleep, but he didn’t, just smiled weakly and said, “Thanks.”

There was a moment where they both stood there in the entrance hall, looking at each other. Something hung in the air, like a bright-burning thread between them, drawing them together, and it would’ve been so damn easy to give in to it if only…

Yeah. If only.

Sam took a breath and shrugged off his jacket. “Come on. I got work to do.”

He didn’t waste any more time on exorcisms that weren’t gonna work. Instead, he got into the mechanics of the spell Nat had shared with him, taking it apart to see how it worked, like he had with radios and remote-controlled cars when he was a kid. He looked for workarounds, firing off emails to Nat and Joaquín and anybody else he could think of each time he thought he’d found one, and deflating a little further each time his watertight ideas came back to him with holes picked in their hulls.

He had to deal with this place, one way or another. He couldn’t leave it how it was and risk it hurting anyone else.

But he couldn’t let Bucky be dragged to hell along with all the malevolence that haunted this place, either.

Nat’s latest missive had pointed out that, yeah, the modified spell he’d come up with might work, but only at the risk of wrenching Sam’s own soul out of his body. And no, she didn’t have a fix.

Sam groaned and slumped forward, barely resisting the urge to bang his head on the desk. It was starting to look like there really was no way to deal with this that wasn’t all-or-nothing.

“You should take a break. Have a coffee.” That was another thing Sam had learned about Bucky while he’d been here: the guy was such a mother hen Sam expected him to start clucking.

“Yeah, in a minute.” Sam looked sideways at him. “Must’ve been hell for you, seventy years with nobody to boss around.”

“Hey, I’m lookin’ out for you,” Bucky said, without heat, but he caught sight of Sam’s expression and his face clouded over. “Sam? What is it, what’s wrong?”

“I just.” Sam took a shuddery breath. “Man, I don’t think I can make this work. I’ve tried and I’ve tried, and—shit.” He buried his face in his hands, biting back a groan of frustration.

“It’s okay, Sam—”

“You keep saying that—”

“—and for what it’s worth, I really do appreciate that you tried.”

“I could still try calling around. See if anyone knows anything that could help you.”

Bucky crouched down beside his chair, looking up into his face. “Sam, we both know that won’t work. I can’t—” He shook his head. “I can’t make myself want to leave you. I’m sorry.”

He really sounded like he meant it. It made Sam’s heart hurt.

But at the same time, the flame of an idea flickered to life inside him.

All those nightmares, all those reminders of when he’d failed—what if he took them as a challenge, instead? Made something good out of them? What if he could succeed this time?

What was it Bucky had said? Can’t let the assholes win.

Sam dug the heels of his hands into his eyes, breathing in deep and slow as he could. His stomach flip-flopped. “There is one other thing I could try.”

As he spoke, he realised he’d already come to his decision.

Bucky tilted his head curiously, a little too casual, like maybe he was trying not to let the hope show on his face. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. There’s a spell, from one of my grandmother’s old books. To restore a life unjustly taken. I don’t even know where she got it from, and she never tried it, said it was dangerous.” He blinked against the prickle of heat behind his eyes. “But I did. After Riley died. It didn’t work.”

“Okay,” Bucky said, carefully neutral.

“But I didn’t exactly have much experience back then. Never even thought about using the gift until I lost him. Maybe now I’ve been doing this a little longer…”

Bucky’s hand hovered in the air over his shoulder. Sam swore he almost felt the touch. “Yeah,” he said. “Maybe.”

#

It took Sam most of the next day to get set up, and a good hour after that to feel like he might actually get the words out without puking. He unfolded himself from the window seat, where he’d been staring sightlessly out at the snow, the spellbook open on his lap, and squared his shoulders.

Bucky materialised out of the shadows beside him, a tiny smile on his lips. “You ready?”

“As I’m ever gonna be.”

Bucky nodded, rocked back and forth on his toes. Looked like he was about to say something, but didn’t.

Sam frowned at him. “Spit it out, man. If you don’t wanna go through with this—”

“No! No. I.” Bucky took a step closer. “If this doesn’t work out, I wanted you to know…” He trailed off, fingers flexing at his side. “Ah, fuck it.” And he was leaning into Sam’s space, ghostly fingers coming up to cup Sam’s cheek, lips brushing softly over his.

Sam didn’t feel the kiss, exactly, but he felt something. Like a breath, a warm breeze, enough to leave him open-mouthed and staring when Bucky stepped back.

“Just hope I get to do that for real sometime.”

Sam finally found his voice. “Yeah. Me too.”

The spell itself was simple enough. The really powerful, dangerous ones often were, a fact that always weirded Sam out a little.

A few handfuls of herbs: cloves, vervain, elder flowers. Sam struck a match and set light to them, sending up a cloud of pungent-smelling smoke. Bucky stood across from him, his face soft in the firelight, giving an encouraging little smile when Sam met his eyes.

“It’s gonna be fine, Sam,” he said. “If anyone can do this, it’s you.”

Sam nodded, mostly to himself. “Yeah,” he said, “I really hope so.”

And he began to read.

“Revertere ablata.”

Something stirred in the shadows of the room. The candle flames began to flicker, streaming sideways. Sam tasted a cold, mineral tang when he inhaled, like the air when it was about to snow.

“Restituet quod perierat.”

And now he could see it, too—like there were snowflakes dancing before his eyes right here in the room, a great wind howling, getting closer and closer.

Bucky’s image was wavering, too. Right now, he looked like one of the countless other ghosts Sam had exorcised over the years, insubstantial as TV static. His mouth was open, Sam was sure he was saying something, but his words got lost in the screaming of the wind.

Sam’s hands felt like ice. The book trembled in his grip.

“Statera iusta et iusta,” he got out, and it was like the wind snatched the words right from his mouth. “Custodire hanc vitam.”

The snow swirled. It was a white vortex, sucking everything toward it. Sam had to squeeze his eyes shut against the gale.

And then, as quickly as it had appeared, it was gone.

Papers drifted gently to the floor, rustling like falling leaves in the silence. The candles had gone out.

Sam was alone.

“Bucky?” he called into the silence. Nobody answered.

He paced from room to room, even checked the wine cellar and poked his head up into the attic, wobbling on the rickety stepladder Reiter apparently kept for that purpose. The house was empty.

So Sam pulled on his coat and hiking boots and walked around the grounds until the light began to fade and he couldn’t stop shivering, starting with the slope up behind the house, and working his way down to the wooded area at the bottom, where a hiking trail crossed the edge of Reiter’s property.

He’d been calling Bucky’s name the whole time, the snow that blanketed everything deadening his voice, but went quiet at the sight of bootprints in the snow. They looked reasonably fresh, which meant someone had hiked this way in the past couple hours. Sam was pretty sure the taxi driver who’d been ferrying him up here had already told half the town he was a weirdo, and he didn’t need to be the subject of tourist gossip, too.

Then again, with any luck, he’d finish the spell and be out of here tomorrow.

And if he wasn’t? Yeah, finding Bucky was still more important than what any of the locals thought.

“Bucky!” he called again, into the gathering dusk. “Buck, if you’re out here, you gotta let me know, okay? I’m freezing my ass off here!”

Can’t have that, murmured the Bucky in his mind’s eye, gentle and teasing.

The snowy hillside said nothing at all.

By the time Sam trudged back to the house, the moon was up, snow glittering pale all around him and the unlit windows looking back at him like empty graves.

Without Bucky around, Sam would be alone in the house, alone with the malignance that clung to its walls and lurked in its shadows.

But he had to banish it. And before he did that, he had to be sure Bucky was gone.

He gritted his teeth and stepped inside.

#

The summoning spell was one of the first things Sam’s grandmother had shown him when she realised he had the gift. It was important to know what you were dealing with when you exorcised a spirit, and this would bring forth any human soul still haunting the building, commanding it to appear whether it wanted to or not.

The spell didn’t hold long. Usually a few seconds, an image wavering like a candle flame. But it would be enough to know.

Sam lit a single white candle on Reiter’s dining table. The dancing flame made shadows seem to move all around him, and his pulse picked up as he remembered the tendrils that had pushed their way into his dreams. The room felt colder than it had this afternoon, that knife-edge chill back full force.

It was an effort to hold his hands steady as he reached for his grandmother’s book. Something whispered in the dark corners of the room, the hair standing up on the back of his neck.

He held firm. Clutched the book tight in both hands, voice only wavering a little over the familiar words of the summoning.

The whispers grew louder. The shadows alive with the sound of something crawling.

“Fuck you,” Sam whispered, through gritted teeth, and leaned forward and blew out the candle.

This was when, if Bucky was here, he would’ve appeared in the room, a pale glow surrounding him, maybe shining off the dark curls of his hair or picking out the pink of his lips.

There was only darkness. Crowding in around Sam, heavy with malice, waiting to worm its tendrils back into his dreams…

But Bucky was gone.

Which meant Sam could kick its ass.

He gritted his teeth against those scratching, crawling noises, against the memory of all his nightmares, and flipped the switch on the wall, flooding the room with bright yellow light.

With a hiss, the presence retreated.

“Yeah,” Sam told it, “you better run. I’m sending you to hell.”

In his imagination, Bucky winked at him. “You’re really something, I ever tell you that?”

“Pretty sure you did,” Sam told the memory. “Now quit flirting, I got evil to banish.”

#

Yelena’s spell was similar to banishings he’d conducted in the past, but with a few changes to the symbols he drew out on the floor in chalk, and an incantation that focused on cleansing the place as a whole, rather than banishing an individual spirit. Sam didn’t know where Yelena had found it, but it was in Old Prussian, and he’d had to do some careful sounding-out of pronunciations to make sure it didn’t go wrong. Extinct languages could be a crapshoot.

Sam felt the malignant presence at his shoulder as he sketched out his sigils and lit his candles and poured rocksalt for protection, its voice—or whatever it had that passed for a voice—murmuring at the threshold of hearing as it gathered itself.

By the time he was seated in the centre of his circle, he could feel its malevolence like eyes on his back, a prickle on his skin that left gooseflesh in its wake. It crawled around the edges of his vision like something waiting to get in, and he steeled himself against the nightmare images that hovered in the back of his mind.

Yes, he’d failed before. And maybe he’d failed Bucky with the resurrection spell.

But at least he’d freed Bucky from this place. He’d had to, because of the presence that stalked it like a vampire, feeding off the minds of the living. Bucky had spent so many years fighting it—and then, after all that, been snatched away just as he found something he wanted to stick around for.

And that pissed Sam off.

He took a deep breath and began to chant.

The candle flames guttered. A wind began to rise inside the room, though all the windows were shut, and the crawling presence in the shadows crept closer. Get out, it seemed to say, get out or give in, and Sam could feel it pushing on his mind, pressure building like a migraine behind his eyes.

He ignored it. Got through another line of the incantation, and another.

The wind howled. The flames leapt. Sam felt like a hurricane was building inside his head. His voice was hoarse.

Another.

The dining-room windows burst like flashbulbs. Shards of broken glass fell around him like rain.

Another.

Wind and shadow poured in, knocking Sam flat on his back. The pressure wasn’t only inside his head now, it was everywhere, like he was under the ocean, and he somehow knew that if he opened his mouth again that evil presence would pour into him, would break him open from the inside out—

Riley’s burned face loomed behind his eyelids. His mom, ashen in her hospital bed.

Bucky.

Faded like an old photograph, but looking right at him, a small smile playing across his lips. I’ve seen how hard you work, how much you know, how much you give a shit. I believe it, trust me.

Bucky’s right hand cupped his cheek. He pressed his lips to Sam’s forehead, and they felt as warm as anybody living.

Trust me.

He could do this.

Sam forced his eyes open. Levered himself up to sitting, inch by painful inch, as the presence moaned and roared around him.

His candles were still burning.

He forced the last line of the incantation past his lips like he was walking against a gale, syllable by gritty syllable. It felt like trying to breathe with his lungs full of water. Like his head was gonna burst—

A great flare of light. A last, desperate sound, like a hundred voices screaming in rage.

Silence.

The wind died. The candles went out one by one.

And Sam was left panting for breath in the middle of the dining room floor, surrounded by chalk and broken glass, and finally, completely, alone.

#

It was satisfying to finally be done. To walk from room to room, aching with exhaustion, and know that there was nothing left here but an empty old mansion.

It was just that there was nobody there to smile at him and say “Good job,” and maybe suggest booby-trapping Reiter’s bed. Nobody to toss teasing jabs back and forth with in front of the crackling fire.

The place felt hollow.

Sam could’ve fallen asleep on his feet, but he forced himself to go to the kitchen and fix a sandwich, a nagging voice in the back of his head that actually sounded a whole lot like Bucky. C’mon, you’re only gonna get a headache if you don’t eat, and then who’s gonna have to listen to you complain?

Then, because he was pretty sure it was what Bucky would’ve done, he thought, fuck it, and did open that three-hundred-euro bottle of wine. Whatever, Reiter owed him.

He sat at the dining-room table, shoving aside a pile of notes and flipping open his laptop. Brought up the Wikipedia page on the Howling Commandos.

And there was Bucky, in faded black and white. Two arms, not as tired around the eyes, but the same frank, open stare, the same teasing hint of a smile.

Sam tipped his glass toward the screen. “It worked,” he said. “Thought you’d wanna know.”

His voice cracked a little, and he chased the words with a mouthful of wine. Tried, for a moment, to blink back the tears that pricked at his eyes, and gave up. Not like there was anybody here to see them.

Eventually, he dozed off like that, sandwich half-eaten, head pillowed on his arms, and past-Bucky smiling at him from his laptop screen.

He woke late, around ten, with the sun well up and snow-glare streaming in through the open curtains. Sam blinked and pulled himself upright, grimacing at the crick in his neck. His laptop was dead, his head was pounding, and ugh, his mouth tasted like ass.

Sam took a shower and brushed his teeth, which made him feel at least halfway human, even if it did nothing for the aching hollow in his chest. He made toast and even forced himself to eat it. Then, mechanically, he started to pack up his things.

Normally, there was a kind of satisfaction in finishing up after a job well done, but today he felt like he could sleep for a week and not wake up refreshed.

Maybe he would sleep for a week. Crash in Sarah’s spare room and feel sorry for himself, and hope she wouldn’t give him too hard of a time when she found out he was heartbroken over a dead guy.

Sam kept the notes he could use in future. One day, when it hurt less, he’d condense them into one of his notebooks, maybe scan them and share them with Nat or anybody else who could use them. The rest, he swept into a garbage bag, along with the burned-down candles and herbal ash left over from his spells. He folded his clothes into his rucksack, took one last look around the mansion, and left.

Reiter hadn’t bothered to come up and check the place out, which suited Sam fine. He called a taxi, posted the key through the letterbox, and started the long trudge back down the drive, eyes on his feet to avoid slipping on the hard-packed snow.

It was slippery as hell. He had to concentrate. Or maybe he was just busy stewing in his own miserable thoughts.

Either way, Sam didn’t hear the taxi pulling up in front of the gates—or the voice calling his name until it was right in front of him.

“Sam. Sam! Thank fuck, I was scared I was gonna miss you and then I wouldn’t know where to start looking and—”

Sam blinked. Stared.

Bucky stopped talking.

It was starting to snow again. Flakes of white settled in Bucky’s hair and on his shoulders. His cheeks were pink from the cold. Behind him, a trail of footprints led up the drive.

“I thought I lost you,” Sam got out, at last.

“I know, I know.” Bucky was closer now, his right hand hovering over Sam’s shoulder like he didn’t dare touch. He sounded a little breathless. “I came back way down by the woods, I guess that’s where they buried me. And some hikers found me, and did you know waking up in the freezing snow gives you hypothermia? Because apparently that’s a thing.”

“Huh.” Sam exhaled. “Hikers. I saw the footsteps, when I was looking for you.”

“You looked for me?” Bucky said. “Shit, of course you did. Sam, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I was out a while in the hospital—”

Sam cut him off. “I’m just glad you’re safe. And let me guess, you checked out as soon as you could walk instead of letting them make sure you were okay.”

Bucky grinned at him. “Couldn’t let you get away.”

His hand cupped Sam’s cheek, a gentle caress, like the one in Sam’s vision. Sam’s breath caught.

And then they were kissing, soft and warm and perfect and real this time, and the hollow in Sam’s chest was full of joy.

“Let me get away,” he said, when they finally broke apart. “You’re the one that vanished, asshole.”

“I’m not going anywhere again,” Bucky told him. “Not without you.”

Sam believed him.

That didn’t stop him holding on tight to Bucky’s hand the whole way into town.