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The first time Bucky meets Steve, it’s not on purpose. He was eight and Steve was seven, and the night was cold; too cold for the start of winter, and it was snowing. The weather never obeyed the rules. His mama had taught him that. Bucky’d been hurrying home from the store with a fresh loaf of bread, racing to get back before dark and worry his mama. He’d think back on it, later, far, far in the future, and wonder how in the world he’d picked up on the whistling, too-slow breaths.

The boy is curled in on himself in an alleyway, so cold that he isn’t even shivering anymore. Bucky’s almost sure he’s dead. But, even as Bucky inches forwards, his boots leaving deep imprints in the snow, there’s a shuddering rise and fall of the boy’s chest. Bucky feels like the weight of a thousand bricks has slid off his shoulders. He puffs out a hot breath of air, steam curling in front of him, and hurries to kneel down beside the frail body.

“Can you hear me?” he asks.

And the boy opens one eye, then huffs out a breath that sounds like it hurts. Bucky stares and stares into that eye, more rooted to the earth than he had ever been before, and feels a jolt of hot electricity shatter down his spine. But it hadn’t hurt. The eye slides closed again, and then Bucky is able to move.

He picks the boy up, awkward with the bread still in his hands, and walks as fast as he can back to his mama’s house. She’d know what to do. And she does. She takes one look at the boy’s rolling head, and makes Bucky put him down on the couch. She instructs Bucky to go and get blankets and put the kettle on. When Bucky returns, his mama is kneeling by the boy’s head, brushing his hair back from his forehead and holding one pale hand in her own.

Bucky hovers by the doorway, eyes wide, ears burning as he listens to the soft, warm chanting. This isn’t something he hears often - his mama never, ever lets him see what she is. But he knows. And there are whispers, all over. Witch, witch, witch, they said. But they never did anything about it, because she was the best damn Healer around for miles. Just because she used herbs and words, turning her away wasn’t worth paying so much more for your dying kid’s hospital bills. So they whispered, and stayed away.

Bucky knows, no matter how his mama tries to hide it. And hovering here, in the doorway, the chanting thrums through his blood and he isn’t afraid. His mama is a good woman, a good mum, and being a witch doesn’t change that. So he walks forwards silently, and his mama glances up. Bucky isn’t looking at her, though. The boy’s lips are blue.

“Bucky, hun, come over here for a moment,” his mama murmurs, voice still threaded with the aftershocks of the mantra. Bucky moves slowly, and leans into his mama’s hand on his shoulder. “Hold his hand while I’m gone, alright? I’ll just be a second.”

Bucky holds his hand while his mum lights a candle for a little more light in the room, and then disappears to the kitchen. The boy, now covered in blankets, shudders and opens his eyes. Bucky watches while he searches the room, the whites of his eyes showing as fear creeps into his blood.

“Hey, hey, it’s alright, you’re okay,” Bucky says, voice thick with emotion, because already, this boy means so much to him. And he’s small, sickly, pale, and on the verge of death. Bucky can feel it, swarming around him and touching his shoulders like soft presses of icicles. He shivers, and leans in closer to the boy’s face.

The boy studies him for a moment, the rapid movements of his chest slowing down as he calms. “Who...Are you?” he croaks.

Bucky’s floored, for a moment, by the boy’s voice, but his mama taught him manners. “I’m Bucky. Who are you?”

“Steve,” Steve rasps, and then closes his eyes again, too exhausted to keep them open.

Bucky’s mama comes back then, and sits Steve up. She helps him drink a strong-smelling, warm mug of tea, and then lays him back down again and takes his hands. Bucky’s nose is trained enough by now to recognise lemon and ginger, and a hint of elderflower. It calms Bucky’s racing heart, knowing that his mama is doing everything she knows how to do to save Steve’s life.

His mama’s speaking again, in hushed tones, pressing three fingers to Steve’s forehead, in between his eyebrows. Steve’s eyes are open, watching her, and Bucky leaps about a foot in the air as lightning shatters through the sky outside. It’s a bit dramatic, if you ask him. The air around them is fizzling, almost humming with vibrations. It makes Bucky’s skin crawl, but he’s not afraid.

Bucky focuses on Steve again, and searches his eyes. Steve doesn’t look afraid. He looks...He looks calm, like he knows what’s happening. Bucky’s mama is speaking in Latin, and when she says something in a sharp tone, Steve’s attention snaps to her. Bucky’s heart thuds in his chest, and he swallows, realising his mouth has gone dry.

His mama seems to ask Steve something, and the boy nods, just slightly. Bucky watches his ma’s shoulders drop, and then she removes her three fingers, and replaces them with her thumb on the same hand. She asks him another question, and Steve answers with his voice, this time, in English. “Witch,” he says, and his voice is stronger than before. Bucky’s mama just nods, seeming calm.

Bucky startles when both his mama and Bucky turn to look at him. Bucky shifts uncomfortably, and his mama asks Steve another question, looking in between them. Steve is hesitant to answer, Bucky can see that. But when he does, this time it’s in Latin, too. “ Particeps anima,” he whispers, and Bucky’s mama goes a bit pale, like this shocks her.

Bucky’s so confused, but he stays silent. Steve sighs and seems to melt back into the couch, like all his energy is gone. Bucky’s mama removes her hands and stands up. She holds out a hand to Bucky, and smiles gently at him. “It’s time for bed, Bucky,” she says.

Bucky doesn’t argue. But, “will he be here in the morning?” he asks.

His mama never replies. He falls asleep with a hammering heart, nerve endings tingling with awareness of the sleeping body in the lounge.

Steve’s not there in the morning. Bucky doesn’t see him again, not for eighteen years. When he does, it’s not on purpose.