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On the eve of the summer solstice, a dragon sought asylum in their forest.

He stood at the wood’s boundary, a silent and stoic figure, as creatures gathered at the treeline. There had never been a dragon in their forest before, not even in passing, and to see one was such a marvel that they couldn’t possibly stay away.

Lost in the gathered crowd, a pair of luminous blue eyes peeked out curiously from behind a large sycamore tree. They peered out of a thin, angular face and that, in turn, was attached to a thin, angular body. Droplets of water fell from a damp hairline to his face and neck, sliding over the swirling blue patterns painted across his skin that marked this small creature as a water nymph.

“Steve,” murmured a voice. “What do you see?”

Steve turned to look at his sister-nymph, Angie.

“I thought dragons were shaped differently,” he whispered. “He looks like a human.”

Angie frowned. Even kneeling, she was much taller and so it was easy for her to look over the crown of his head for her own view. Her long, dark hair was just as wet as Steve’s and as she pressed closer, it stuck to the jut of his shoulder.

“Maybe the stories were mistaken?” she suggested. “He looks like a warrior.”

She wasn’t wrong. The clothing worn by the would-be dragon had all the characteristics of war attire. There was the protective vest covering his chest and long sleeves that led to gloved hands. The path beneath his feet held deep imprints from his boots, and his eyes were smeared with war paint, the same dull black as his clothes.

“Do human fighters call themselves dragons?”

Steve wrinkled his nose. That seemed like a terribly odd thing for humans to do but he had never met a proper human and so he didn’t know if they were prone to such oddities.

From behind them, a voice hissed, “Move over.”

Before either of them could acquiesce, their cousin Darcy shoved herself right between them and pressed up against Steve’s back to steal her own glimpse. Angie sighed softly, a sound that probably meant her own view had been blocked.

Darcy was the buxom product of a sprite’s union with a wood nymph, a firecracker of a creature whose first language was sass and who’d never learned to do anything quietly. She had a penchant for adventure and mischief, and for that reason alone, Steve enjoyed her company immensely.

“What’s going on?” she said, outraged. “The trees said there was a dragon -- that’s not a dragon!”

Her words were loud enough to carry across the distance, and all three of them shrank behind the tree when the dragon-warrior turned to look directly at them. His expression was almost amused.

“Peace, dragon,” a clear female voice called from the other end of the path.

The guardians of the forest had gathered, a united front against this stranger in their land.

It was their Lady Jane who spoke, Queen of the fae-people; the faeries and sprites and pixies who populated the treetops in their city of lights. Her hand rested in the crook of the woodsman’s elbow, expression placid as she waited for a response.

Dutifully, the dragon held out open, empty palms and called back, “Peace.”

The guardians approached him cautiously.

The Queen and her escort led the procession, with a satyr on one side and an unassuming, bespectacled man on the other.

As the satyr passed by the tree they hid behind, his hooves clip-clopping quietly in the dirt, Steve and Angie moved farther still into the shadows. This was Sam, and he was their guardian -- guardian of the water. If he saw them, he’d surely be cross.

Once they were close enough, the guardians and the dragon began to converse. With the five of them standing so close together, though, it was impossible to eavesdrop. The only thing Steve could hear was the murmured rise and fall of their voices. This vexed him fiercely.

“Can you hear them?” he asked Darcy quietly. “Ask the trees what they’re saying.”

Huffing, she shimmied closer, and as she did, her dress rubbed against the bare skin of his thigh.

Unlike their cousins, wood nymphs wore coverings, but they weren’t made of the same heavy material that other creatures or humans favored. This material was light and airy, and to Steve it felt like the soft underside of a maple leaf. To have it brush against his skin now made him shiver, goosebumps prickling his arms.

“The trees say you’re too damned loud,” she hissed after a moment. “Hush so they can hear.”

Steve immediately recognized this as a lie. The trees would never use such language.

Before he had the chance to press the issue, the dragon and the guardians parted. Whatever had transpired between them, a decision seemed to have already been made. Bending at the waist, the dragon made a large sweeping gesture with his arms, bowing in gratitude.

Lady Jane stepped away from the dragon, her thin gossamer wings shimmering in the fading afternoon light as she turned to address the gathered crowd.

“The dragon has sought temporary sanctuary,” she said, her voice carrying through the still silence. “A request which we have chosen to grant. He will reside in the mountain, and he will not venture out among us, nor will anyone here disturb him during his time with us. These are the terms to which we have agreed and the terms to which we shall all abide.”

A murmur of obedient agreement spilled forth from the shadows of the trees. With a smile, Lady Jane curtsied to the crowd and then to the dragon before taking the woodsman’s arm again. Together, they disappeared into the tree line, heading back to their shared palace in the canopy.

The bespectacled man -- Bruce -- was the guardian of the mountain and so he gestured for the dragon to follow him before setting off down the path again. Neither of them spoke along the way.

Once they were out of sight, Darcy huffed.

“He still doesn’t look like a dragon.”

*

Sam’s cottage was a large, ancient oak tree that sat at the lake’s edge, its shade reaching out over the water. There was a door carved out of the trunk on the land-facing side, its designs intricate and beautiful and not at all dissimilar to the markings on a water nymph. Through many hours of persistent questioning, Steve had learned that the cottage was much bigger inside than the width of the trunk would suggest but he had never been allowed inside to see for himself. Normally, he enjoyed pestering Sam about this but today, he had a different agenda.

Beneath the tree’s shade, Sam sat against the trunk, his furred goat legs stretched out in front of him. He was whittling away at a piece of wood that would soon be a music pipe. Perhaps one that he was making especially for the solstice celebration that evening.

Steve climbed out of the water and came to sit at Sam’s hooves, watching him with supposed interest. He tried to keep his face schooled in an expression of innocence but only succeeded in the opposite.

“Whatever it is,” said Sam without looking away from his work. “The answer is no.”

Steve huffed. “That wasn’t the type of question I was going to ask,” he returned petulantly. And then, before Sam could ask or claim his disinterest, he added, “Where did the dragon come from?”

Immediately, Sam’s hands stopped their movement. He looked up slowly to stare at Steve, as if by finally laying eyes on his charge, he could somehow shape the question into something new. When he did not succeed in this, he laid his materials aside with a quiet sigh.

“I don’t know,” he said. “It isn’t something I’ve concerned myself with and you shouldn’t, either. Dragons are solitary creatures, Steve. They don’t like to be bothered.”

“But why did he seek sanctuary?” Steve asked, scooting closer. He leaned forward eagerly, unable to contain his own excitement now that the questions swimming in his head were given a voice. “Does he breathe fire? Is that why he isn’t allowed in the forest?”

Steve.”

Sam shook his head, giving Steve the gravest of looks. “Stop,” he said, kind but still firm. “He isn’t allowed in the forest because he’s dangerous. The terms we agreed upon were made with everyone’s happiness and safety in mind.”

“But he’s a dragon! We’ve never had a dragon in the forest before.”

“We still don’t,” his guardian told him. “He’s in the mountain, and in the mountain he will stay until it’s time for him to leave. You’re not to go near there, understand?”

Steve wilted under such a scolding tone, flopping in the grass dramatically. With his cheek laid on his folded hands, he stared up at Sam, his big, blue eyes now sad and mouth turned down in a pout. There was nothing so fearsome as being faced with such a pout, which was just as dangerous as Steve’s curiosity and perhaps even more dangerous than the dragon himself.

Sam was the only creature in the forest immune to it, and this was a fact for which he thanked the Gods every day.

Sternly, he pointed a finger at Steve and said, “Stay away.”

But Steve was a wily little nymph and not quite so easily deterred as his guardian hoped. If Sam refused to give him the answers he sought, he would just find another source.

*

“Steve.”

Bruce blinked in surprise.

His home was a cave at the base of the mountain, but unlike the other caves, this one had a door made of halved tree logs. It had been there for as long as Steve could remember, and the wood was now smooth and worn from many years of use. Bruce was half-hidden behind it, only his head craning around to see who’d knocked.

Around his neck, Steve wore a chain of water lilies that was nearly as long as he was. He picked up one side and brandished it in explanation.

“I’ve come to deliver your Solstice gift,” he said in lieu of a greeting.

Gifts were a strange thing in their lives. They heard stories of gold and silver and trading these things for trinkets, but when one lived in a forest, there was no need for gold and silver or the trinkets they provided. It was traditional to exchange gifts during the solstice celebration, though, and so they made do with what they had. Every year, Steve grew lilies to distribute; a piece of himself and his magic that could be used in any number of ways.

And, Steve thought, the lilies smelled nice.

“Oh, um.” Bruce pushed his spectacles up his nose and glanced over his shoulder. “Now’s not really the best --”

But Steve had already darted through the opening, slipping into Bruce’s home while the man himself was otherwise occupied.

The air inside was humid and warm. Even though Bruce lived in what basically amounted to a cave, it was as un-cave like as one could get. A fireplace was carved into one wall, a fire currently roaring in its cove, and the main room was cluttered with furniture. There were wooden tables and old chairs and books everywhere, littering every available surface and spilling over onto the floor. The far wall was covered in nothing but glass vials -- some empty and some with mysterious liquids inside -- and in the middle of what little open space there was, three crates of various sizes were stacked up.

“Steve!”

With great effort, Steve pulled his gaze away from the many curiosities of the room and looked back at Bruce. He looked bemused, his hand still on the open door.

“It will only take a moment,” Steve promised as he untied a lily from the end of the chain. Cupping it between his palms, he offered it up beseechingly. “Please?”

He knew that he would not be denied. Bruce, after all, was not Sam and had no defenses against Steve’s earnesty. As expected, Bruce lasted only a handful of seconds before he shut the door with a sigh.

“Only a moment,” he said. “And then you’re on your way.”

Steve smiled, bright and happy. “Okay.”

Stepping forward, Bruce cupped his own palms and held them out. There was a ceremony here, one that could not be rushed or ignored. Steve offered a part of himself, a part of his magic, when he offered the lily and that was not a deed done lightly. To accept it was nothing to brush off, either.

Carefully, the lily was placed in his hands, and then Steve pushed up onto his toes, kissing one cheek and then the other.

“Many Solstice blessings,” he said as he stepped back.

Bruce, despite his clear exasperation, smiled. “Many Solstice blessings,” he echoed.

Turning away, he went in search of a bowl and water for the lily.

“I’m afraid I don’t have anything for you yet,” he said without looking back. “I’ve been rather busy.”

A better opening could not have been asked for.

“Perhaps,” said Steve, stepping closer. “You could gift me with knowledge this year.”

“Oh?” Bruce asked, amused, as he placed his gift in a small, wooden bowl. As soon as the lily touched liquid, the water began to glow. Steve couldn’t help but smile at his creation. “And what knowledge would that be?”

But before Steve could ask even one of the many questions he craved the answer for, a shadow moved in his periphery. Turning, he looked towards the darkened corner on the far end of the room, where the fire’s glow didn’t reach. As he watched, the shadows shifted again and the darkest spot moved forward into the light. One dirtied black boot and then another, leading up to black pants that led up to a protective vest that led to --

The dragon.

“Oh,” Steve breathed out, frozen.

He was bigger than expected, much taller than Steve, and muscular. His biceps bulged under tight clothing as gloved fists clenched at his sides. The black paint from the night before was still smeared across his eyes -- they were bright, maybe blue or gray, and beautiful -- and his expression was impassive. With his face and body still half-covered in shadow, it made him look every bit as dangerous as Sam had warned.

But he was also handsome, this dragon. Pouty lips and a stubbled, defined jaw, those piercing eyes that were both young and ancient. When he exhaled, smoke curled out of his mouth.

He was handsome and dangerous and Steve was utterly captivated.

“Wha -- oh.” Bruce had turned around and now saw what had distracted Steve. He mistook Steve’s silence for fear and shuffled forward with a cough. “Ah, yes. Well, I did tell you that it wasn’t the best time. Don’t worry, you’re in no danger.”

Steve looked from the dragon to Bruce.

“Is he staying with you?” He turned back to the dragon, unable to keep his gaze away for long. “Are you staying here?”

“No,” said Bruce. The dragon didn’t even attempt an answer. “He’s just here to get supplies.”

He gestured to the crates in the middle of the room. Steve stepped past them to get closer to the dragon, ignoring the soured noise that Bruce made. Their eyes met.

“I’m Steve,” he said.

In the firelight, the dragon’s eyes glittered. His expression never shifted, but Steve thought he might have found this introduction amusing. He did not, however, answer with his own name.

“Steve,” said Bruce, exasperated. “We really have to be going. Moonrise isn’t far off, and we have to get these supplies up the mountain before then.”

“Oh,” Steve said, deflating. He looked between the dragon, Bruce, and the supplies. “But -- couldn’t I help?”

Bruce’s eyebrows inched up until they disappeared beneath his unkempt hair. Nymphs were not known for offering such aid. They were of a kind nature but ultimately hedonistic creatures at heart; their generosity only extended so far as what pleasure they could derive from it.

“Help?” He asked dubiously. “Steve, these are heavy.”

“I can carry them,” said Steve immediately.

It was true; he could. He was much stronger than he looked, and though his body was small, it was made of sinewy muscle and stubborn determination. The thought of helping brought him no joy, but he would suffer through it if it meant he’d be allowed more time with the dragon.

Bruce sighed and looked at the dragon, tilting his head in question. The dragon remained still for several seconds, but finally, much to Steve’s delight, he gave the slightest of nods.

“All right,” Bruce said, resigned. “Grab what you can, then.”

The dragon brushed by Steve and grabbed the biggest of the crates, and Bruce followed suit to grab the one after that. Steve unwound the garland of lilies from his neck and placed it on the smallest crate before lifting it into his arms.

Bruce led them out the door.

Outside, the sky was beginning to darken into oranges and pinks, the occasional splash of purple. A breeze rustled the tree leaves about their head, and Steve turned his smile upward.

“Solstice blessings!” He called to the trees.

The trees rustled again but this was louder than that caused by the wind. Steve couldn’t communicate with the forest the way his cousins could, but he could recognize an answer when he heard it. A leaf fluttered down from one of the branches and landed on his upturned face. With a laugh, he shook his head, and the leaf fell onto his garland of lilies.

“Thank you,” he said. “I’ll give you something when I return.”

When he turned his gaze ahead of him again, he saw that both Bruce and the dragon had paused in their trek to wait for him. Hurriedly, he moved to join them again, only slowing when he was elbow-to-elbow with the dragon.

“You should say something to them,” Steve told him. “They like it when you’re friendly.”

The dragon merely looked down at him. He didn’t smile but his mouth seemed softer than it had a moment before.

“Do you know their language?” Steve asked.

Again, there was no answer, but he was not deterred. He continued to talk as they followed Bruce away from his home. They never stepped foot inside the forest, instead staying in the space between the treeline and the mountain base. After several minutes filled only with the sound of the wind and Steve’s voice, they came upon the foot of a path that led up the mountainside. Bruce started up the path without pause, and both Steve and the dragon followed suit.

Steve had to rush to keep up with the dragon’s long stride, but he did so with relative ease.

“I’ve heard stories of dragons,” he said. “They’re said to be massive creatures. Tails and wings and scaled bodies. Why don’t you look like that?”

The dragon tilted his head in consideration, but when he said nothing, Steve pushed on.

“Are you a shapeshifter?” He asked. “Do you shift by moonlight? Like the wolves and Bruce?”

This did earn him a response, albeit a small one. The dragon huffed, a sound borne of either amusement or indignation; it was difficult to say which.

He did not say anything the whole way up the mountain, despite Steve’s many attempts at conversation. Bruce finally sighed, “Steve,” in such a tone that Steve knew his patience had worn thin. He kept his mouth shut for the rest of the way.

High above the treeline, the path twisted inward and the rock of the mountain rose high above their heads, creating a wall that shielded them from the sun and the wind. Up ahead, their destination could finally be seen: the mouth of a cave.

“Oh,” Steve breathed out in awe.

Scorch marks marred the rock in either side of the entrance, and the mouth itself was bathed in shadow cast by the fading sun. It looked dangerous and magical; the perfect dwelling for a dragon.

“We’ll leave you here,” Bruce said to the dragon, setting down his crates. He gestured for Steve to do the same.

“So soon?” Steve asked, mournful, but did as he was bid.

“Not soon enough, I think,” Bruce chided. “Since you have talked the poor dragon’s ear near off.”

As he wound the garland of lilies around his neck again, Steve huffed indignantly. It wasn’t his fault that his questions had gone unanswered.

Ignoring the pouting nymph at his side, Bruce turned to the dragon.

“There’ll be more next week,” he said. “I’m afraid we don’t quite know the dietary needs of your kind, so if there is anything lacking, please let me know.”

“Thank you,” the dragon said, his voice low and quite formal.

Bruce merely smiled. With a little nod, he turned and began to walk back the way they’d come. Steve wavered for a moment.

Steve,” Bruce called over his shoulder sternly.

Head ducked, he darted after Bruce obediently. Just before they turned out of sight, he looked over his shoulder and shivered when he saw the dragon still watching them.

*

“You met the dragon?” Darcy hissed. “Without us?

She pushed his shoulder with a scowl, vibrating with such excitement that even Steve felt exhausted from it.

They sat against the trunk of a tree, on the outskirts of the Solstice celebration taking place by the lake where Steve and Angie lived. There were fires burning and faerie lights in the air, music from Sam’s pipe and more, laughter and song all around them. He’d waited for hours to be able to tell them and nearly had to wait hours more, since taking nymphs away from a festival was very nearly a funeral march.

His news more than made up for the halted festivities, though, and their upset disappeared immediately as soon as he’d delivered it.

“I didn’t mean for it to happen,” Steve protested. Though truth be told, he might not have remembered to gather his cousin and sister before meeting the dragon if it had been by design. “I only went to ask Bruce questions!”

“Tell us everything,” Darcy demanded.

She sat down beside Angie, the two immediately linking arms as soon as they were close enough. Both faces turned toward Steve and, fearful of Darcy’s ire, he obediently told them everything.

“That’s it?” Darcy asked at the end, entirely unimpressed. “You didn’t even get his name?”

“The only time he spoke was to thank Bruce,” he said. “And everything else happened so quickly. I didn’t even get the chance to give him a Solstice gift!”

This part truly bothered him. Solstice was special; it was the beginning of their new year and a time of giving. To meet someone on Solstice and not offer up a gift was disrespectful.

“Well,” said Angie, biting her lip. “It’s still Solstice, isn’t it? And you know where the dragon is.”

Darcy’s eyes gleamed with the prospect of new adventure. “We’re going with you,” she declared, before Steve could even respond. “Let’s go, before anyone notices.”

Looping her arms around theirs, she dragged Angie and Steve into the woods.

*

They circled around to a more hidden part of the lake, where Steve could grow a fresh lily without the prying eyes of festival-goers and guardians. Darcy peeked over his shoulder to watch the lily form between Steve’s cupped palms, submerged beneath the lake surface.

“That one looks bigger than the ones from this afternoon,” she said suspiciously. “Are you trying to impress the dragon?”

Steve scowled. “Go away.”

When he was done, the three of them set out for the mountain. Steve led the way, cradling a lily that was indeed bigger than any of the others he’d distributed earlier that day. A light breeze rustled the trees above. He shivered in the cool air, suddenly and dearly missing the warmth of his bed at the bottom of the lake -- or, at the very least, the bonfires of the festival. On either side of him, Angie and Darcy pressed in closer for warmth.

They reached the edge of the forest.

Steve had led them straight to the part of the mountain where the path resided, and so when they stepped out of the trees, there it was in front of them. The worn dirt path that he’d trekked just hours earlier with Bruce and the dragon.

“This is it?” Angie asked, quiet.

Steve nodded. “It leads to a cave,” he said. “It’s a long walk, though.”

“Better get started, then,” Darcy said, squaring her shoulders.

They began the trek upward.

The lengthy trip up the mountainside was made lengthier this time by the cool air and whipping wind. It hadn’t been this bad earlier in the day but with the fall of night came stronger breezes and chilly temperatures.

Above the treeline, their hair slapped harshly against their skin and Darcy’s dress snapped around her thighs. Steve had to hunch over his gift to keep it from blowing away or becoming deformed. Several times, he wondered if such discomfort was worth the end result.

It was no use turning back now, though. They’d made it too far.

Finally, the path twisted inward and the mountain wall shielded them from the worst of the wind. Up ahead, Steve saw their destination.

The cave mouth did not look welcoming at night. It was bathed in shadow, slivers of moonlight casting just enough light to make the entrance look sinister. The scorch marks he’d seen earlier seemed bigger and scarier than they had before.

The three knelt behind a large rock on the path, just a few feet from the cave mouth, and stared at it.

“This was a mistake,” Angie declared quietly, wringing her hands nervously. “We should go back.”

“Go back? We just got here!” Darcy said angrily and batted at her hands. Angie let out the tiniest meep as she pressed against the mountainside to avoid her reprimand.

“It didn’t look like this before,” Steve told her, though this comfort was cold at best. He had seen it with his own eyes and still to look at the cave now made him shiver with something like fear. Still, he tugged on one of her curls and smiled in a way that he hoped was reassuring. “But you don’t have to go inside if you don’t want to. Stay out here with Darcy.”

Darcy made an indignant sound. “What? I’m not afraid!”

Her expression, when he turned, was near murderous.

“Someone has to stay with Angie,” he said reasonably. “And Sam says that dragons are solitary. Too many people might annoy him.”

“Oh, sure, let you have all the fun!” Darcy retorted. “You’ve already met him!”

“It’s my gift we’ve brought.”

This could not be argued, and that made her angrier still.

She hissed in annoyance and plopped down on the other side of Angie, leaning against the mountainside in a considerably more hostile fashion.

Beside Darcy, a lone browning sprig came up out of the ground. Its limp stalk immediately began to straighten from her close proximity as it leaned toward her. She noticed, and a reluctant smile tugged at her lips as she watched it. When she reached out to touch it, the brown began to fade from its color.

“Fine,” she said, without looking away from the stalk. Steve knew this struggle well and so he knew not to take it as a sign of her continued ire. Nymphs - all nymphs, even the halflings - were protective of the life they created. They liked to watch the growth, to see what their power could accomplish. “Go be the smallest nymph to ever be eaten by a dragon. See if I care.”

“I will not be eaten,” he insisted crossly.

She waved him away with her free hand, unconcerned.

With permission given and Darcy’s attention otherwise taken, Steve was free to venture where his sister would not. He approached the cave cautiously because curiosity or not, it would be nothing but foolish to enter a dragon’s lair without such heed. As the shadows bathing the entrance engulfed him, Angie made a distressed noise, and Steve had to turn back for a moment.

“I’ll only be a moment,” he promised. “Everything will be fine.”

And then he crept quietly into the cave.

Only, it turned out that this entrance was not to the cave itself. He had ventured into a tunnel. The air inside was thick and warm, the scent of smoke heavy around him. It was too dark to see anything and so he had to walk slowly or else trip over the scattered rock. He kept close to the wall, allowing it to guide him through the pitch black.

There were twists and turns, and around one of them he saw a faint light pierce the darkness. The closer he drew, the brighter the light became. As he approached, the tunnel bent suddenly, sharply, and around the curve, it gave way to a bright, cavernous room. The air here was cooler than the tunnel, a wispy breeze blowing through.

The light in the room had two sources. The first was a truly massive opening in the side of the mountain that also provided the breeze and a rocky ledge leading out past the arch of it where a dragon might be able to land and enter his lair. Moonlight spilled across the ledge and into the room from this opening, giving everything it touched a faint, white glow.

The second source was a series of torches mounted high above Steve’s head along the rounded walls, from one side of the opening to the other. These torches showed more than just the empty room, devoid of anything except rocky debris that littered the entire expanse of the floor. They also showed the entrances to other tunnels, leading away from the cavern and to places unknown; the opening that Steve stood in was only one of many.

Between two of the tunnels sat the crates he’d helped carry up.

There was no dragon to be seen, though. Not the one that he’d met that afternoon, nor one of the shape and size described by the many stories Steve had heard over the years. It was nothing at all like Steve would imagine a dragon’s lair; even one that had only recently become occupied.

Every story that he’d ever heard spoke of one detail in particular:

Dragons loved treasure.

They carried it with them everywhere and hoarded it jealously, protected it from those who might want to steal it. They would raze villages and battle knights and start wars just to get their treasure.

Steve himself was not so concerned with things like gold and silver. They were pretty but nothing he ached to possess and certainly nothing that he wanted enough to steal from a dragon. He found it intriguing that there was none to be found, though.

Were the stories wrong? Or was this dragon an exception to his kind?

He stepped away from the tunnel and into the cavern, hoping to explore it more thoroughly. Perhaps to take a peek at where the other tunnels led, see if the dragon had another room where he slumbered. Only a few steps in, however, he was grabbed from behind by two broad, warm hands and pulled against a hard body that radiated just as much heat.

“Oh!” He gasped.

Smooth lips grazed his ear.

“What are you doing here, little nymph?” the dragon asked, his voice low.

Steve bit his lip. His heart beat rapidly against his ribcage but it was more excitement than fear. His skin prickled from the contrasting temperatures. His front was cool, chilled from the wind, but his back, his arms, everywhere the dragon touched was so warm, spine-meltingly so.

“I brought you something,” he replied, breathless, and shivered when the dragon huffed. It was a gust of breath along his neck and cheek, and it was just as warm as the air in the tunnel.

The dragon let go of him. “And what would that be?” He asked, stepping away. “More questions demanding answers?”

Steve turned to face him. He still wore his war attire, right down to the gloves and the black paint across his eyes, though the latter had faded slightly. He looked just as he did when he first entered the forest, when Steve saw him mere hours ago in Bruce’s home.

The dragon’s gaze dropped to where the lily was cradled against Steve’s thin chest, and his head tilted curiously.

“Today is the summer solstice,” Steve said. He took a step closer and held out the lily between them. “Our tradition is one of gift-giving. I didn’t give you one earlier, and I wanted to change that.”

The dragon did nothing but stare at the offering. “And what do you expect in return?” he asked.

Steve shook his head. “I don’t expect anything,” he said. “That’s not how Solstice-giving works.”

“Earlier,” said the dragon, “you expected something from the mountain keeper.”

While this was quite true, it was a truth taken out of its context. Steve huffed.

“Bruce had already declared his intention to give me a gift,” he said. “You’ve declared nothing, and so I expect nothing. Will you accept my gift or won’t you?”

The dragon did not move for several seconds as he considered this, but just as Steve thought he would be refused, two gloved hands stretched out to meet his. Carefully, Steve placed the lily between them as he’d done for Bruce. He looked up and gestured toward the dragon’s face.

“May I?”

The dragon knew exactly what he meant. “This is your custom?” he asked in return. When Steve nodded, he bent closer. “Very well, then.”

Pushing up onto his toes, Steve kissed the dragon’s stubbled cheek. If he thought the dragon’s gloved hands had been warm, it was nothing compared to this. His skin burned like a fever beneath Steve’s cool lips. Dazedly, he kissed the other cheek and then stepped back to stare up at him in wonder, his mind already fluttering with new questions.

“Many Solstice blessings, dragon,” he whispered.

The dragon’s mouth quirked, but he did not smile. “Many Solstice blessings, little nymph.”

He brought his hands to his chest, cradling the lily as Steve had done only moments before. He was gentle with the flower, and it warmed Steve’s chest to see his gift treated so.

“You should go now,” the dragon said, after several seconds of silence. “I believe you have friends waiting for you.”

So, he knew of Angie and Darcy. This shouldn’t have surprised Steve as much as it did. He wanted to ask how long the dragon had known about them -- if he’d been in the tunnel with Steve from the very beginning -- but he held those questions at bay.

Instead, he asked, “Must I?”

This garnered a laugh; a sound that was as enjoyable as the smile that came with it. The dragon reached out and cupped Steve’s elbow, his grip firm but unaggressive as he guided Steve gently back towards the tunnel.

“Yes,” he said, and this too was unyielding but still somehow kind.

Steve was a smart nymph, and he knew how to recognize a battle he could not win, though he sorely wished there were a way to stay for at least a few more minutes. He reluctantly went back the way he came, glancing over his shoulder until he could no longer see the cavern or the dragon.

Outside, the evening air was a cool, stark contrast to the heat of the tunnel, even colder than the cavern that Steve had found. Goosebumps prickled along his body, and Steve found himself shivering against the sudden chill, the memory of the dragon’s warm touch still on his skin. As soon as he was spotted, Angie was next to him, fretful.

“Just a moment,” she fussed, as she gathered him close and checked him over.

This behavior was familiar. Though Steve was technically older, his small stature reminded her and the rest of their kind of a young nymphling, in need of constant care. He was treated as such, a trend that he both loved and hated, unneeding of such fussing but craving the attention, anyways.

There wasn’t a nymph among them that loved to be doted on more than he.

“Are you okay?” Angie asked, petting his hair as she led him away from the cave. “Did he hurt you?”

Steve thought of the way he’d been cradled against the dragon’s body, of the way he’d been made to leave; an intruder but still treated gently. He bit his lip and tried to suppress another shiver.

“No,” he replied. “Not at all.”

“Forget about that,” said Darcy impatiently.

She rose to her feet beside the rock that had been their cover. The dying sprig she’d found when they arrived was now a small plant at her feet, its leaves plentiful and vibrant with life.

As they began their journey back down the mountain, she asked, “What happened? Did he accept? Did he say anything? What was he like?”

The back of Steve’s neck prickled and he glanced over his shoulder at the now distant cave entrance. The dragon stood there, half-bathed in shadow, watching them intently as they walked away.

He still held the water lily to his chest.

*

For days, Steve could think of little else but the image of the dragon as they walked away, the memory of the barren cavern that seemed to be his new home. The lake, too, was huge but it was filled with life. Plants and fish, sirens in the coves and nymphs underneath the surface. It was big enough that one could be alone without ever being lonely.

To live somewhere so big but with no one else to fill the space -- such a fate was unimaginably terrible.

“Do you think he’s lonely?” Steve asked one afternoon.

He and Angie sat on the beach with the rest of their cluster, Angie’s back to him as he braided her soft curls. They were far enough away from the others that he felt comfortable asking such a question without the fear of someone overhearing.

“Who?” Angie asked, turning to look over her shoulder.

Steve leaned closer and whispered, “The dragon. Do you think he’s lonely?”

The corner of her mouth pulled down. “Do you think he’s lonely?”

“I don’t know,” Steve said. His hands fell into his lap, leaving her hair unfinished. “It seems such a big place to be in all alone. And so empty. Surely he must get bored? Or miss another’s company?”

Angie sighed softly.

“You want to go up the mountain again, don’t you?”

Steve bit his lip. There was no use in denial. It had been on his mind since the moment they’d left.

“Don’t tell anyone,” he pleaded.

“You’ll be safe, won’t you?” she asked. “He won’t hurt you?”

The sense-memory of warm, gentle fingers on his elbow resurfaced. It was followed by the memory of a smile, a laugh. Kind words when they didn’t need to be.

The dragon was not overly welcoming, nor was he of a social nature, but he was courteous.

“I don’t think he means me any harm,” Steve said finally.

Angie sighed and pulled back to smile at him, indulgent like a mother. “Fine,” she said. “I won’t tell. Go make sure your dragon isn’t lonely, then.”

*

The tunnel was still dark inside but not impossible to see through as he walked away from the sunlight of the tunnel entrance and towards the light of the cavern.

The torches were unlit, their light unnecessary at this time of day. Sunlight illuminated the room from the opening in the side of the mountain, just as the moonlight had done the last time Steve was here. And just like the time before, he was accosted before he managed to get too far into the room.

The dragon pushed him up against the wall and trapped him there, pinning his arms over his head and leaning his weight against Steve. He was dressed nearly the same as the last time Steve saw him. The eye paint had long since faded, though remnants of it remained on his face. His shoes were missing, and so was the protective vest. He still wore the long-sleeved shirt and, curiously, a glove on one hand.

The dragon looked down at him, his expression puzzled.

“I seem to have caught a nymph again,” he said, mostly to himself. And then to Steve, “Didn’t I send you away already?”

“Yes,” Steve said, quite reasonably. “But I came back.”

“I can see that,” the dragon replied. The corners of his lips threatened a smile. “What are you doing here, little nymph?”

“You wouldn’t even give me your name,” Steve said, pouting. “And it seems lonely up here.”

The dragon’s head jerked back as if Steve had struck him -- as if Steve could strike him, held in place like he was. When he recovered, his eyes filled with mirth.

“Were you worried about me?”

Steve blushed. “I just thought you might get bored,” he protested, even though that is exactly what he’d been doing.

The dragon studied him for several long seconds. He seemed to waver between amusement and something more serious, but Steve did not know him well enough to read the emotions behind his bright eyes.

“If I told you my name,” he asked finally, “would it satisfy your curiosity?”

Steve was a lot of things but he was no liar. Too many questions swam in his head to be satisfied by just a name.

“No,” he admitted.

The dragon breathed out a laugh, shaking his head slowly. He considered Steve once again.

“You gave me a truth,” he said. “So I will give you one. I’m called Bucky.”

“Bucky,” Steve repeated, testing the name out.

It both did and did not suit the dragon, who seemed very young and very old in equal measure. Perhaps he seemed the same way to Bucky, too. Perhaps that was the curse of all those born to magic.

“Will you answer another question if I give you another truth?” he asked.

The cave wall against his back had begun to hurt. The uneven rock dug into his flesh, sharp pain stabbing through him, but Steve thought he could happily stay just like this for the rest of the day if Bucky was so inclined to keep him there. Something about the dragon intoxicated him, made it impossible to look away.

“Do you have enough truths to give?” Bucky asked. “For so many questions?”

He didn’t. None that came immediately to mind, at least. Rather than admitting to such a lack, he answered quickly, “I could find enough.”

Bucky shook his head. Steve thought he might amuse this dragon but it was hard to say for sure. Steve hoped he did. Perhaps amusement would loosen his tongue.

“What a curious creature you are,” he said and gently set Steve back on his own two feet.

He walked across the debris-ridden ground to the spot where the crates were still stacked high. There was a small pallet on the ground beside them, and Bucky sat down on it, picking up a book that lay open on top of the blanket.

Steve followed him because he hadn’t been told to leave. When he knelt down beside the pallet, Bucky did not move away from him.

The air was thick and hot, even with the breeze blowing in from the open mountainside, as was the case for a midsummer day. The dragon’s attire looked stifling and uncomfortable in comparison.

“Why do you wear so many clothes?” he asked. “Aren’t you hot?”

Bucky shrugged. “Heat does not bother me.”

“Because you’re a dragon?”

This earned him another smile. “Yes,” said Bucky. “Because I’m a dragon.”

Steve bit his lip. “Sam says that your kind are solitary,” he said. “And that’s why we’re not to bother you. But surely that doesn’t mean that you want to be alone all the time. Does it?”

“Who is Sam?” Bucky asked, tilting his head in question.

“He’s a satyr,” Steve answered. “And the guardian of my cluster. You met with him when you first came here.”

Bucky nodded. “I remember,” he said. “He is right, we are not terribly social creatures. ‘Solitary’ is a good word. But you are right, too. It’s not the same as wanting to be alone all the time. Dragons are built to thrive in pairs. Sometimes small groups, if you’re considered particularly social.”

“And you aren’t?” Steve asked, teasing.

“No, I don’t suppose I am.”

Bucky regarded him and this time, his expression was a little less guarded. He seemed to warm up the longer he spoke. He reached out and touched Steve’s chin gently.

“I think you should go now, little nymph,” he said. “Before someone notices you missing.”

“Must I?” Steve asked, an echo of his last visit. “Won’t you be bored?”

“I have this to keep me company.” Bucky held up this book. “And apparently this cave attracts wayward nymphs. I don’t suppose boredom will come easily, knowing that. Run along now, before you get yourself in trouble.”

Indignantly, Steve insisted, “I’m not a child,” but even though this was entirely true, it was belied by his sullen tone.

He stood anyways, because Bucky had asked him to leave and he was unwilling to outstay his welcome.

*

The next time Steve stepped into the cavern, Bucky didn’t even bother to stand..

He was on his pallet again, one knee propped up and his arm held up by it, displaying the book at eye level. It was a different book from the last visit; this cover was a dusty beige and there was a tear in the spine. Again, there were no words on the cover to discern a title.

When Bucky looked over the brim of his book to see his visitor, his arm fell and the book slapped against his shin.

“You,” he said, “are a very persistent nymph.”

Steve just smiled and came to kneel in front of him. There were only a handful of pages tucked behind Bucky’s thumb and so Steve thought that he must’ve only just started this new story.

“What are you reading?” he asked.

“It is about an overly curious nymph,” Bucky explained, “that gets eaten by a dragon.”

Steve huffed. “Even if that were true,” he replied. “You can’t know that yet. You aren’t even finished with it!”

“I’ve read it before,” Bucky told him seriously.

“Tell me what it’s really about.”

Bucky smiled in that way that wasn’t a smile at all. Instead, his mouth relaxed at the edges and his gaze warmed. It still felt like a smile, though, and Steve was giddy from it.

“It’s about a princess that gets locked in a tower.”

“But why?”

“I don’t know yet,” Bucky said. “I have to read the story to find out.”

Steve crawled forward and sat on the pallet with him. “Read it to me.”

Raising a single eyebrow, Bucky asked mockingly, “Shall I?”

“Yes,” Steve replied. “You shall.”

“I don’t think I will.”

He lifted the book back up and began to read it again silently. His expression was triumphant, but Steve would not be outdone. He moved closer and propped his chin on the dragon’s shoulder, peering over to try to read for himself. When that wasn’t enough, he craned farther. And farther. And farther.

Bucky sighed loudly.

“If I read it to you,” he asked, now leaning over so much that he was nearly to the ground, “will you stop doing that?”

Steve smiled. “Yes,” he promised.

He withdrew, and Bucky turned back to the first page.

The story, it turned out, was about a princess named Virginia. She was pale and freckled and loved by all and on her sixteenth birthday her parents locked her away in an abandoned castle far from their kingdom.

Steve was absolutely horrified. “Do humans usually do that to their children?”

“No,” said Bucky.

The castle, it turned out, was already home to a dragon. When this character came into the story, Steve sat up straight, attention rapt. The way the book described the dragon was just like every other description Steve had heard. A scaled, towering mass with wings and claws, able to breathe fire.

It was also nothing at all like the man who sat beside him.

“Why don’t you look like that?” Steve asked.

Shifting where he sat, Bucky turned to look at him. It was a deep, searching look, one that unnerved Steve as much as it excited him. Whatever he searched for, Steve prayed to his goddess that it was there. He wanted to be as interesting as he found Bucky to be.

Finally, Bucky said, “Give me a truth, and I will give you one in return.”

Steve bit his lip. “Angie doesn’t think you’re a real dragon,” he said. “She thinks that you’re a human and that human fighters just call themselves ‘dragons.’”

This garnered a snort. “Is that so?”

“Yes,” Steve answered and pointed to the book. “Dragons are supposed to look like that.”

“We shift,” he explained. “And we do so as we please; the moon and its light hold no sway over us. But most dragons prefer one form or the other. It’s rare to find one that likes them equally.”

“And you prefer this one?”

Bucky cut Steve a knowing look. This was an attempt to get more answers out of a single truth than their agreement allowed. He should’ve been admonished, denied, or made to give another truth. Instead, he was humored.

“It’s easier to pass through the world unnoticed like this,” he said. “People tend to notice a dragon in its true form.”

“Can I see it?” Steve asked curiously. “Your true form?”

“No.” Bucky shook his head firmly. “And I believe it’s time for you to go now.”

“But the story!”

“We’ve reached the end of the chapter,” he replied, smirking. “It’s a good place to stop.”

Steve huffed but stood up as he was bid.

“I’ll be back,” he warned.

Laughter followed him into the tunnel. “Of that,” he heard, “I have no doubt.”

*

Steve dreamed of freckled princesses and flying dragons.

He woke with the first rays of the morning sun and found that he could not wait another moment to find out what happened next in the story. Before the rest of his cluster had even begun to stir, he was out of the water and sneaking through the quiet forest.

As he trudged up the mountain path, he told himself that he didn’t mind waiting for Bucky to wake up. If it took too long, he reasoned, he could always read the book himself.

When he stepped into the cavern, however, he forgot all about princesses and stories and the patience he had mustered on the way up. He stood there, silent and stunned, as he stared into the cavern.

Because Bucky was not asleep at all. He was awake and alert, the bared skin of his back gleaming in the early sun as he pushed up from the floor and lowered himself back down again. Except -- one arm was not covered in skin at all. From the top of his shoulder all the way down to his fingers, his entire left arm was scaled in shimmering black.

Dragon skin. This must be what dragon skin looked like.

“Oh,” Steve said, and though his voice was soft, it carried in the quiet.

Bucky looked up sharply, his expression darkening when he saw the source of the sound. He was on his feet in a matter of seconds, more guarded and defensive than Steve had ever seen him. For the first time, he looked well and truly upset by Steve’s presence.

“You need to leave,” he said flatly and then crowded against him, trying to move Steve toward the tunnel entrance.

Bucky was much bigger than Steve could ever hope to be. He was taller and broader and his entire body was thick with muscle. Against such strength, Steve had no defense. He stumbled backward, unable to keep his footing, and instinctively reached out to grab Bucky’s muscular shoulders in an attempt to keep upright.

When fingers met skin, Steve sucked in a surprised breath. He’d forgotten how warm Bucky’s skin was.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to -- but why is it like that?”

“That’s none of your concern,” said Bucky firmly. “Now go.”

Unthinkingly, Steve blurted out, “It’s beautiful.”

Bucky stopped.

He looked down, lips parted in what could only be surprise, though the rest of his expression gave nothing away. They were still pressed far too close together, but Steve couldn’t even think about stepping back.

“What did you say?” Bucky asked quietly, after several seconds had passed.

“A truth,” said Steve. “A truth for a truth. Isn’t that our game? I think it’s beautiful. Why is it like that?”

Bucky didn’t answer right away. He seemed just as stunned to hear Steve’s opinion repeated as he had been upon first learning it. Finally, he said, “I touched a cursed object. Someone was trying to kill me.”

An assassination attempt.

Steve shivered. Nothing of the sort had ever happened in their forest. They lived in such peaceful harmony, each race doing their part to help each other grow and thrive, that the idea of it was unfathomable.. To hate something or someone enough to try and kill them was such a foreign concept Steve couldn’t fully understand it.

“Is that why you sought sanctuary?” he asked, just as quietly as Bucky had spoken to him. When his question received a nod in answer, he tightened their grip on Bucky’s shoulders. He asked the next question that came to mind: “May I touch it?”

Despite the serious tone of the conversation, Bucky’s lips quirked in response.

“You’re touching it now,” he said, quite reasonably. And then tentatively, he added, “Yes.”

With permission given, Steve turned his attention to the arm in question. His fingers loosened their grip just enough to trail down it and back up again, exploring this strange beauty. For it truly was a beauty; he hadn’t lied at all. Bucky’s arm was as appealing as it was fascinating. The underside was proper dragonskin, rough and thick with the feel of cracked, aged leather. This gave way to the scales on the upperside, which were small and immobile but undeniably strong.

His eyes followed his fingers, curious and hungry for the sight of Bucky’s skin, and so it was only when his fingers trailed back up to the shoulder that Steve properly noticed the place where dragonskin gave way to human. The two skins melted together near his collarbone, but it was not an easy meeting. This place was angry red, marred in scars as if fused together through fire and pain.

His fingers paused at the seam, and for the first time since the exploration began, Bucky shifted under his touch.

Steve looked up at him, frowning. “Does it hurt?”

“Sometimes.”

This answer was distressing. Steve leaned forward, kissing above where his fingertips sat. It was a soft kiss, almost no pressure at all. The kind of kiss he would bestow on a nymphling’s cut to make them feel better, but the emotion behind it was markedly different; charged and heady. A kiss that stole his breath, even for how chaste it was.

“I don’t want you to hurt,” Steve admitted and kissed the seam again, just an inch lower than the first.

Bucky exhaled harshly, a loud sound in the otherwise quiet cavern. His breath was warm on Steve’s shoulder. Bucky pressed his face to Steve’s temple, his hands coming up to rest lightly on Steve’s back. For several moments, nothing was said. And then --

“What brings you here so early?” Bucky asked, but his voice was still hushed.

“I wanted to know what happened next in the story,” Steve said. He leaned back until their eyes met. “Will you read it to me?”

Bucky went and retrieved the book.

*

“Why haven’t you cleaned up?” Steve asked, one afternoon.

It had been several weeks since Bucky arrived in their forest, but the cavern was still filled with the same debris as it had been the first time Steve saw it. The only differences now were the crates of food that Bruce brought up to him twice a week. Those crates were pushed up against a far wall and divided into two stacks: the ones with food -- the topmost one missing a lid -- and the ones that had been emptied.

There was nothing particularly pleasant or homey about the cave. In fact, if it weren’t for the food, it would look just like every other empty cave in the mountain.

It was terribly curious, Steve thought, that someone could live in a space for so long without wanting to make it livable.

“Why should I?” Bucky asked. “I won’t be staying here forever.”

“But you stay here now,” he said, frowning. “Don’t you want to be comfortable?”

Bucky smiled at him, a small but amused thing. “Dragons are not so concerned with comfort,” he said. “Not like nymphs. We are more concerned with surviving. I can survive here, so it is adequate enough.”

Steve was so thrown over the idea that one could live without concerning themselves with comfort that he could say nothing in response. In the ensuing silence, Bucky held up the book he’d been reading to Steve.

“Another chapter?”

*

Steve did not have a house, not in the traditional sense.

The lake served as house, as home. There, he took his first breath. There, he had life and bed and family. Everything was provided for him, everything he ever needed. Because of that, he did not know what it was to fill a home. He didn’t even know where to begin.

But he knew people that did.

“The protection wreath,” Bruce said, when asked what he first brought to his mountain home. He pointed to the wreath on the back of the front door. “The woodsman helped me build it. Why do you ask?”

Steve ignored this question and instead darted over to the wreath for examination. It was made primarily out of twig, but many different kinds of plants were woven between the sticks, some blossomed and some not.

A protection wreath would not go amiss, especially not given the reason for Bucky’s presence in their forest.

“Will you teach me how to make it?” Steve asked, turning back around.

Bruce sighed. He knew there would be no peace until Steve’s curiosity had been satisfied.

“Very well, then.”

They spent the afternoon picking the right ingredients and the next morning, they sat by the hearth in Bruce’s humble abode while Steve was taught the art of wreath-making. It took the better part of the day to finish, but when he was done, Steve had fashioned a small wreath made up of the most powerful protection plants the forest had to offer.

He did not know if the wreath itself would protect Bucky in truth, but he knew of a way to ensure it. Using a borrowed bowl filled with water, he grew a small lily and when the lily had reached its maturity, he set it on fire. As blue flame danced in the bowl, he said a prayer of protection.

The face of his goddess -- dark hair, porcelain skin, blood-red lips -- flashed in his mind’s eye, and Steve knew that his prayer had been received. He sprinkled the lily ash on the wreath.

“Smart,” Bruce commented, and Steve beamed in response.

The next time he journeyed up the mountain, he took the wreath with him.

“What is this?” Bucky asked, when presented with it. He held it carefully in his hands, examining the woven plants.

“It’s for protection,” Steve said. “Bruce showed me how to make it.”

Bucky’s lips parted ever so slightly. He looked stunned by this declaration. Or, at least, he wore an expression that Steve thought might be astonishment. It was hard to tell sometimes.

“You made this?” Bucky asked, quiet. When Steve nodded, he asked, “Why?”

“To keep you safe,” Steve replied. “From dragonslayers and whoever else means you harm.”

Bucky did not seem to know what to say to that. He stood there, frozen, staring in such wonderment that Steve blushed. He hooked his arm in Bucky’s and led him to the pallet.

“Read to me?”

Bucky did.

*

The next time Steve visited, the wreath hung above the cavern entrance.

*

After that, Steve learned about the comforts of houses from anyone who would entertain him.

The fae showed him how to fashion candles out of tree sap, and the centaurs gave him lessons on basket-weaving. The wood nymphs gave him their cloth to fashion a pillowcase, and the woodsman gave him feathers to stuff it with.

Steve was not particularly good at any of these things, but Bucky didn’t seem to mind the lopsided candles or misshapen baskets when he was presented with them. Always, he was humbled by the gift and the thought that was put behind it.

“What are you doing?” Bucky asked on one such occasion. It was when Steve had given him a badly sewn, lumpy pillow. The material, at least, was soft and cool.

“Making you comfortable,” Steve replied. “Since you won’t.”

Bucky smiled. “Is that so?”

*

“Oh,” said Steve, delighted. “You’re cleaning!”

Today, he brought with him a simple poultice. One of the nymphling’s had gotten hurt, and Sam had applied it to their wounds to help take away the pain. Steve watched avidly and then had taken the rest of the mixture to bring up the mountain with him. He didn’t want to mix his own, for fear that it wouldn’t work as well as Sam’s.

In the middle of the room, Bucky didn’t pause in his work, but he glanced over.

He had forgone a shirt entirely today, and his bulging muscles gleamed in the afternoon sun as he carried a large, heavy boulder into one of the tunnels. He disappeared from sight only for a moment before reappearing, empty-handed. The cavern had already been cleared of much of its debris and became clearer still as Bucky continued to work.

Steve was captivated by his body and the way it moved, the sweat dripping from him. It trailed down his face and neck and arms, traveling miles of skin down biceps, chest, abs -- traveled down, down, down until each droplet disappeared beneath the waistband of his pants. Steve’s own body rippled warmly if he thought too closely about where they went after that.

“Someone,” said Bucky mildly, “kept complaining about the mess.”

Steve made an indignant noise, as this was only partially true. He complained once, several weeks ago, and he’d done so politely. Still, his face burned to be teased so by his dragon and to his continued delight, Bucky smiled in response.

He would do anything to keep that smile directed at him.

“Let me help,” Steve said, setting the poultice down by the tunnel entrance.

He carried the smaller rocks, though he was quite capable of lifting a few of the larger ones, picking them up one by one and following Bucky to dispose of them. Bucky led him to the tunnel he’d gone in before, and there, at the very back of it, was a growing pile of rock. Steve added his rock to the pile and followed his dragon back out.

Bucky knew, of course, that Steve lifted only the easiest ones despite his capabilities. Rather than grow annoyed, however, he merely laughed in the face of Steve’s cheek. Steve was a nymph, after all, and their helpfulness only extended so far.

The next hour passed in this fashion, a parade from cavern to tunnel and back again. They didn’t talk, but rather enjoyed the companionable silence as they worked. Only when Steve draped himself across the largest of the rocks, finally tired out, did Bucky speak up.

He chided, “Such a lazy little nymph.” But his voice was warm, and so Steve did not take offense. He watched as Bucky finished the work himself.

When every rock had been cleared from the cavern save for the one Steve rested on, Bucky finally came his way. He stepped close and tapped lightly on Steve’s thigh, a silent request for him to vacate the rock. Steve obliged by sliding to his feet but he did so only so that he could press himself against Bucky’s warm body.

This had been his only thought since the last time they’d touched this way. He lived in the memory of their skin pressed close, of Bucky’s hands on his body, the heat of him warming Steve to his very core. With Bucky so close again, he hadn’t been able to stop himself from stealing another moment of it.

His dragon was dirty. Dust covered him and sweat made his skin tacky, but it felt sinfully good to rub up against him. Steve shuddered, utterly pleased, as he nuzzled into his dragon’s hairy chest with a sigh.

Bucky made a warning sound in his throat.

Steve.”

“I’m cold,” Steve said plaintively and tried to press closer.

Warm hands cupped his back and squeezed gently.

“Then perhaps,” said Bucky, “you should go where the sun will warm you.”

Smiling, Steve grasped his hands and pulled him toward the patch of sun made possible by the mountainside entrance. Under the warm rays, he knelt and beseeched Bucky to do the same.

“I have work to do,” Bucky protested, even as he lowered himself to the cavern floor.

“You should take a break,” Steve said. He laid down and stretched, sighing his contentment. “Please?”

With a sigh of his own, Bucky obligingly laid beside him and propped his head on his elbow. Steve scooted closer, until there were just a few scant inches between them.

“I brought you poultice,” he said, touching the seam of Bucky’s left shoulder. “For this. It should help with the pain.”

Bucky’s hand came to rest over Steve’s, squeezing lightly. Steve happily let himself get caught in Bucky’s grasp, laying his palm flat over the seam. He wasn’t made to move it.

“And how did you learn to make such a thing?” Bucky asked. He always did when Steve brought him new things. Always interested to learn the story behind the gifts.

“I didn’t,” Steve admitted. “Sam made it to help a nymphling. I just took what was left.”

Bucky raised an eyebrow. “Crafty,” he teased, leaning forward until their noses brushed.

It was playful, affectionate. He was in high spirits. Steve’s stomach fluttered pleasantly at being teased so, and he found it harder to breathe. A scaled hand reached for him, brushing back his hair. That turned into a caress down his neck and then his spine, until Bucky’s arm was around his waist. His fingers drew patterns along Steve’s lower back.

The touch set Steve alight. He wanted to spend the rest of the day in Bucky’s embrace, being tended to in just this way.

“I have to get back to work,” Bucky murmured, but his voice was drowsy. He sounded like he’d rather do anything but.

Steve wriggled closer. “Not yet,” he said, mirroring Bucky’s hold on him. “Just a little longer.”

They stayed a little longer.

*

Slowly, his gifts filled the cave.

Little by little, it began to feel more like a home and less like an empty prison. When he walked in now, he could tell that this space was lived in. It warmed him a little more each time; not just to know that Bucky enjoyed his gifts enough to keep and display them, but also that Bucky now lived in some degree of comfort.

And then came the day that he stepped into Bucky’s home to find new things -- things that he hadn’t brought. Against the far wall, there was an array of weaponry and utensils and clothes. It was all piled together and unsorted, half-hidden in the shadow of the mountainside hole.

“These are my belongings,” said Bucky, when Steve asked. “From home. I had hoped that I wouldn’t be here long enough to need them, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.”

This mention of Bucky’s true home dampened the mood of Steve’s visit that day. The more time they spent together, the less Steve liked to remember that this wasn’t where he belonged. Bucky hadn’t been born to the forest or to the mountain, as Steve had been born to its lake. He hadn’t spent his lifetime here, as Steve had.

Outside their borders, there was an entirely different world, and it was to that world that Bucky belonged. It was that world that he’d grown up in, and one day, it was to that world that he would return. He would leave eventually.

Steve definitely didn’t like to think about that.

The arrival of the cooking utensils, however, gave Steve an idea and the next time he visited, he brought with him another gift: fish from the lake.

When presented with this offering, Bucky blinked in surprise.

“What’s this?” he asked.

Steve blushed, suddenly shy.

“Lunch,” he said and happiness bubbled in his chest when Bucky smiled in response.

“Are you staying, rybka?

It was the first time he’d ever been expressly invited. The realization excited him so much that it took a long moment to register the strange word he’d been called. As he followed Bucky over to where the cooking supplies were, Steve asked, “What does it mean?”

“Hm?” Bucky looked over his shoulder. “What does what mean?”

“The name you called me.” Steve knelt, attention rapt on Bucky as he prepared their meal. “I’ve never heard it before.”

“It is a nickname,” said Bucky. “From my mother tongue. It means little fish.”

Steve was delighted. He’d never heard the language of the dragons before, but it sounded beautiful coming from Bucky’s lips. He suddenly had an endless number of questions about it and asked each one while their food cooked. Amused, Bucky tried to answer each one as best he could.

When lunch was over, Steve poked through his things again. He was forever curious about what kinds of things Bucky liked enough to keep, and Bucky didn’t seem to mind when he looked.

“Is this your treasure?” Steve asked after some time, looking over his shoulder.

From his perch against the wall, Bucky watched him. That unreadable expression was back again, and when he heard Steve’s question, his lips twisted into a small, wry smile.

He shook his head.

“They are just things,” he said. “Everyone has things. A dragon’s treasure is different.”

“How?”

With a considering hum, Bucky leaned back against the wall and stretched his legs out in front of him. He looked good like that, comfortable and relaxed. Steve wanted to be close to him and so he crawled over, pressing against Bucky’s side and laying his head on his shoulder. Bucky didn’t protest, instead raising a hand to trail fingers down Steve’s flank and then back up again.

The touch was so light that goosebumps prickled in its wake.

“Treasure,” said Bucky, as he stared into the fire that cooked their lunch, “is about possession. It’s something that’s yours and yours only. Something you cherish above all else. You’d rather die than see it in the hands of another. To see it broken or harmed is worse than death. A dragon may own a thousand things and only a single piece among them may be his treasure.”

“Do you have one?”

Bucky looked down at him. Something like mirth danced in his eyes, but it didn’t seem so happy, not when taken in with his humorless smile. Steve’s chest tightened at the sight of such an expression.

“I’d never found a treasure worthy of the name before,” Bucky told him, very quietly.

The phrasing he used and the tone underneath, it left the impression that this wasn’t so true anymore. Steve wasn’t given the chance to ask, though, because as soon as he said it, Bucky sat up.

“I think that’s enough questions for the day, rybka. Why don’t we read some more, hm?”

*

Slowly, Steve’s visits went from once every few days to a near daily occurrence. Every morning now, he woke with his cluster and his first thought was of Bucky, of when he’d get to make the trek up the mountain and see his dragon again. It made the evenings after he’d returned longer, but it also made the days more exciting. He had something to look forward to doing, something to keep his mind occupied.

But his visits never lasted as long as he wanted. They couldn’t, because there was not a proper water source in Bucky’s cave. For Steve, this was a serious problem.

Water nymphs needed water to survive. To be away from water for too long meant dry skin, an uncomfortable itch that couldn’t be scratched, a feeling of lethargy and weakness. Water was his power, his strength, his life source. He couldn't go too long without it, no matter how he wanted to stay longer in Bucky's company.

“Why don’t you have any?” Steve whined at the end of yet another visit. He wanted to linger but his skin already felt stretched too tightly over his bones. “Surely even dragons need water!”

Bucky laughed, low and amused, as he guided Steve out.

“Go,” he said gently. “Before your pretty skin shrivels up.”

Steve was so flustered and pleased by the compliment that he completely forgot to protest the dismissal. He returned to the lake and pampered himself for the rest of the day, smiling quietly whenever he saw his wet skin gleaming in the sunlight and remembered Bucky’s words.

The next day, he didn’t have the chance to visit because that was the day he was almost eaten by the hydra.

*

Screams woke him.

His day so far was one of lazy napping with the rest of his cluster on a bed of seaweed at the bottom of the lake. It was bright and warm but so deep below the lake surface, the sunlight had been filtered and dimmed and the water was still cool; the perfect temperature for them to press together and sleep comfortably.

The easy atmosphere shattered so abruptly that all of them startled awake, the water rippling around them with the spiked emotion of so many nymphs. Even underwater, the cries were easy to hear, as if the lake itself wanted them to sit up and take notice.

Steve, panicked but still insatiably curious, was the first of them to push up from the bed and swim toward the surface. His brother and sisters were left behind, still trying to shake off their sleepy confusion.

He broke the surface and climbed ashore just in time to see a wood nymphling burst from the treeline. Wanda was immediately recognizable, thin dress whipping around small legs and dark hair flying behind her as she ran toward him.

Behind him, he heard the other nymphs finally rising out of the water.

“Pietro!” she cried and launched into his skinny arms at full speed, nearly knocking them both to the ground. Only just a child, she had already nearly outgrown him. “Pietro woke the hydra!”

The water sloshed frantically around his ankles, disturbed by the sudden rush of fear that this statement inspired.

“Show me,” he said and offered up his hand.

In truth, there was nothing he could do against a hydra -- especially not so far away from the water -- but nor could he leave Pietro alone. He had even less of a defense against such a creature.

Wanda tugged him in the direction of the trees, breaking into a run again. Steve ran with her, only just able to keep up.

Steve,” Angie cried after him. “Steve, don’t! Wait for Sam!”

He acted like he hadn’t heard a thing.

As they neared the edge of the forest, the trees made a path for Wanda. Her fear begged for a cleared path -- for them to sway out of the way, to dig their roots into the earth so that neither of them tripped in their haste -- and the trees obliged, because it was one of their nymphlings asking. It made their journey both easy and quick.

Steve heard the screech of the hydra’s many heads echoing through the forest long before they broke the treeline in front of its cave. The cave sat at the mountain base, not very far from the path Steve took to visit Bucky, and the clearing in front of it was both large and completely barren. Grass did not grow where the hydra lurked, and the trees did not like it, giving its home a wide berth before the forest flourished again.

There were stories of the hydra, just as there were about dragons, and these stories came with drawings, depictions from other encounters. It had been alive for as long as Steve could remember, but he had never once seen it for himself -- not until this moment.

The drawings didn’t do this creature justice.

It towered over them, a massive display of decayed, slippery skin and sharp, black teeth dripping venom. The spikes on each thrashing head were thin and deadly, the same as the ones sticking out from the tail that whipped back and forth wildly behind it. One head reared back, screeching loudly, and the others followed its example. The sound they emitted was high-pitched and deafening, the echoes of which vibrated in Steve’s chest.

Beside him, Wanda gasped. Steve followed her gaze to the other side of the clearing, where Pietro cowered beside a rock. His face was tear-streaked and frozen in terror as he stared up at the hydra. Two of the heads snapped at him simultaneously, and he cried out, scooting away.

Pietro!” Wanda screamed, and the hydra’s heads whipped around as one to face them. When they saw the two nymphs, they hissed and stepped closer.

With the hydra now otherwise occupied, Pietro scrambled for the treeline. As Steve watched, the branches of the forest reached for him, welcoming him into the safety of their embrace. Pietro disappeared among the trees.

Steve nudged Wanda back behind him.

“Go find your brother,” he said, and then she, too, was gone. He was left alone with an angry, hungry-looking hydra.

Stalking forward, it snapped at him the same way it had at Pietro, and Steve scrambled backward. He wanted to run -- to go back to the safety of his water -- but he didn’t know where Wanda and Pietro were. He couldn’t risk the hydra finding them again. Instead, he edged around the clearing and tried to keep out of the hydra’s reach. He was failing miserably at it, too.

The hydra hissed and struck again; this time, Steve wasn’t fast enough. The side of its head slammed into him, and he flew across the clearing, tumbling into the dirt. He whimpered, cheek pressed to the ground. His body ached from the blow, and rocks that were embedded in the dirt dug into tender flesh as he lay there. The hydra screeched again, but this time it was so much closer -- nearly on top of him.

I’m going to die, Steve thought muzzily.

A shadow fell over them. The wind picked up, slinging dust and dirt everywhere, and the earth shook as something else landed in the clearing. Something that roared, louder and deeper than the hydra’s screech. Whatever it was, it sounded angry.

Steve rolled onto his back just in time to see a column of fire knock the hydra away from him.

Steve,” said an angry voice from the other side of the clearing. He knew that voice well enough. His sisters must’ve found Sam and alerted him to the danger.

Steve didn’t look for his guardian, though. The thought never even cross his mind, because the thing that had landed in the clearing was Bucky.

Not Bucky as Steve had come to know him, though; warm skin and bright eyes, a lopsided smile that made Steve shiver. No, this was Bucky in his truest form.

This was Bucky as a dragon; a breathtakingly beautiful one that towered over even the hydra. His scales shimmered in the sunlight as he moved. They were the same color as Bucky’s left arm -- ink black, the occasional dot of silver -- but in this form, they were bigger, tougher.

The dragon moved until he stood over Steve and then roared again.

The hydra hissed, snapping angrily, but violent and dangerous as it was, it was not an unintelligent being. Its heads lowered defensively as it backed away. The dragon snarled back at it, coughing up a small burst of flame in warning. It kept doing so until the hydra slinked back into the shadows of its cave, away from the fire and the only thing that could truly kill it.

When the danger was gone, Steve relaxed into the dirt. He stared up at the dragon’s underbelly, trying to calm his racing heart.

Bucky, he thought dazedly.

He’d never seen Bucky like this. Never even fathomed that his dragon could be something so magnificent and beautiful.

After a moment, the dragon backed away. It looked down at him with eyes that were the same red-orange color of his fire and then huffed in such a way that Steve knew he was being admonished.

He pouted. “It was going to eat him,” he said petulantly.

The dragon snorted. Smoke curled out of his nose as he snapped his teeth and then nudged Steve’s sternum gently.

The message was clear: It was going to eat you.

Sam made a displeased noise, reminding Steve that he and Bucky were not the only two in the clearing. He let his head fall to the side and saw that Sam was not alone, either. There was a crowd of creatures behind him, curious heads poking out from between the trees.

Wanda and Pietro stood on either side of Sam, clinging to his furry legs. When he stepped forward, hooves clomping quietly in the dirty, they stepped with him. Angie peeked over his shoulder and gasped at the sight of Steve, rushing forward to kneel beside him on the ground.

“You should have waited,” she fussed, and Steve nodded, resting his head against her bare thighs.

“I’d like to go back to sleep now.” He sighed as she began to pet his hair.

Above them, the dragon snorted again. This time, it sounded derisive.

Steve lifted up his head just enough to stick his tongue out.

Clearing his throat, Sam came closer.

“Thank you for your help,” he said to the dragon but it wasn’t gratitude at all.

It was a dismissal.

The dragon understood this just as well as Steve did. He tilted his head in acknowledgement and then spread his wings widely, shadowing them all. He took off the same way he’d arrived; in a whirlwind of dust. Steve closed his eyes and hid his face in Angie’s leg until the air around them had calmed. When he looked up, he hoped to see his dragon in flight, but the sky was already empty.

He let his head fall back into Angie’s lap as he tried and failed not to feel disappointed.

*

“I hear you’ve had quite the day,” said Bruce in lieu of a greeting.

Steve lay swaddled in soft blankets on Sam’s bed. Pressed against him on either side were Wanda and Pietro, similarly bundled and just as fascinated by their surroundings as Steve. Sam had already told all three of them to sit still several times and grew more exasperated when each admonishment garnered only a few moments of peace.

It wasn’t their fault, Steve thought. Sam’s cottage was indeed bigger than the outside suggested and filled to the brim with too many curious objects for a nymph to stay in place. There were mysteries here yet to be explored, and if this was the only time they’d ever be allowed inside, it was too precious an opportunity to waste.

“There was a dragon,” Pietro exclaimed. He abandoned his blanket to launch himself into Bruce’s arms. By all appearances, he seemed to have forgotten he’d ever been in any danger.

“Ah, yes,” Bruce said. He sat down in a chair beside the bed and set Pietro in front of him to look him over. “The mountain’s newest guest. Seems he caused quite the stir.”

Sam cleared his throat, mouth pulled down in displeasure. “Let’s not talk about that,” he said. “Not in front of the nymphlings.”

Abashed, Bruce tilted his head in agreement and said no more on the subject.

When he was satisfied that Pietro suffered from no broken bones or cuts from the hydra’s teeth, he sent the nymphlings on their way. With the children gone, Bruce turned his attention to Steve, who left his own blankets behind and scooted toward the edge of the bed.

“Why did you send him away?” he asked Sam as Bruce began his examination. It was the question that had been gnawing at him since they were in the clearing, and now that Wanda and Pietro were gone, he was safe to ask it.

“Because he’s a dragon,” Sam said firmly. “And dragons are dangerous.”

“So are hydras,” Bruce added mildly, giving Steve a significant look.

Steve huffed indignantly. “It was going to eat Pietro!”

“And it was very brave, what you did,” Bruce said, smiling kindly. “But you need to be more careful. Guardians exist for a reason.”

“And your guardian,” interjected Sam sternly, “is telling you to stay away from that dragon.”

His enlarged ears flattened against his head, goat fur shivering around his legs. Steve knew this behavior well. Sam was worried about him.

“No,” he said, even though it hurt him to do so. He hated to worry his guardian, but he hated the idea of staying away from Bucky more. “I like Bucky.”

Sam’s eyes widened.

“By the Gods,” he breathed out. “You’re on a first name basis with him?”

Steve blushed and looked away.

“I visit him,” he admitted. “Sometimes.”

Sometimes?

“A lot.”

Sam pinched the bridge of his nose, looking so harangued that guilt formed a rock in the pit of Steve’s stomach.

“You really are trying to get yourself killed, aren’t you?” Sam asked. “There has to be pixie somewhere in your bloodline. No other nymph has ever caused me this kind of trouble.”

“Bucky wouldn’t hurt me,” Steve insisted. He was annoyed on Bucky’s behalf that Sam thought so little of him. “He’s had plenty of chances. And he saved my life today!”

Bruce coughed pointedly.

“That is pretty unusual,” he said slowly. When Sam turned to glare at him, he held up his hands in surrender. “It’s only the truth. Dragons don’t get involved with squabbles, Sam, we both know it. They leave everyone alone unless they’ve been attacked directly.”

“Or if someone tries to steal their treasure,” Steve added helpfully.

The two men shared a sharp look, and Sam began to look ill.

“Oh dear Gods.”

*

The very moment that Steve stepped into the cavern, a snarl echoed through it. Bucky was on his feet immediately. His eyes burned the same red-orange that they were in his dragon form as he stalked towards Steve, a great puff of smoke billowing out of his mouth.

For the first time, he looked well and truly angry.

He accosted Steve as soon as they were close enough, proprietary hands checking him over for injury. Despite his anger, though, he was gentle as ever as he searched.

“A hydra,” he snarled derisively. “What were you thinking? You could’ve been killed!”

“I’m all right,” Steve promised in lieu of an answer. He bit his lip to keep from smiling, unable to give the situation the gravity it deserved. Bucky was concerned for him, and that knowledge made him shiver delightedly. “I’m fine, honestly. Bruce checked me over.”

This did not appease Bucky. Rather the opposite, actually. He snarled again, and his fingers pressed into Steve’s hips, tugging him closer.

“He touched you?” Bucky asked. “He --”

Whatever he wanted to say, it died in his throat. Squeezing his eyes closed, Bucky touched his forehead to Steve’s and took several harsh, deep breaths. He had the most tenuous of grasps on his control, his body shaking with anger or fear or both.

Steve made a wounded little noise, cupping Bucky’s perpetually stubbled cheeks between his palms. He could no longer make light of the situation or bask in Bucky’s concern. His dragon’s distress made him distressed, too.

At Steve’s touch, Bucky’s chest rumbled. It was that sound again, the one that was both a growl and a purr. That sound meant that Bucky was pleased and so Steve continued to touch him.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, the words he couldn’t say to Sam. He could say them now, though, the truth of them singing in his bones. Contrition that ran deep into the very soul of him. “I’m sorry I worried you.”

Bucky nuzzled closer. He murmured something against Steve’s cheek but it was in his mother tongue, a language that Steve hadn’t even begun to learn. He didn’t understand the words pressed to his skin, but he liked the cadence of them, the warm tone underneath. They felt intimate.

“Don’t do it again,” Bucky said finally, in the language that Steve understood. “You must be safe, sokrovische moyo.

This was a new name, one that he’d never heard before, but Bucky said it with all the tender affection he was capable of. Steve’s heart beat just a little faster in his chest.

He asked, “What does it mean?”

Bucky hummed. When he opened his eyes again, the last remnants of red-orange fire finally faded away. The longer they stayed pressed together, the more he seemed to calm down.

“It is a name,” Bucky said, “for mischievous little nymphs that go looking for trouble.”

Steve huffed indignantly. “I do not.”

“You sought out a dragon, rybka,” Bucky reminded him, smiling affectionately. “I don’t think you can argue this one.”

This was very true and so Steve didn’t bother to argue further.

Instead, he slid his hands under Bucky’s shirt, pressing his palms into the skin of Bucky’s back. A pleased noise sounded in his throat when warmth began to seep into him again.

Bucky tsked.

“I’m cold.” Steve pouted, because that always seemed to get him what he wanted.

“I have something that might warm you up,” Bucky said and pulled away. This was the opposite of what Steve wanted, but he was quieted before he could voice a proper protest. “It’s a surprise, rybka. You’ll like it, I promise.”

Steve brightened immediately, his curiosity piqued.

“A surprise?”

Bucky smiled and took his hand.

He was led to one of the tunnel entrances, but not the one that led back down the mountain. The other tunnels were a mystery that Steve hadn’t found any interest in exploring. Bucky remained in the cavern during their visits, and he had always been the most interesting thing in the caves.

The tunnel Steve was led through now wasn’t as long as the entrance one, but it did lead to another cavern. This one was sizable and yet still so much smaller than the cavern Bucky had made his home. Its ceiling hung low and then sloped down toward the back of the room. Torches hung on either side of its entrance, just like in Bucky’s home, but they stopped only a quarter of the way around the walls, leaving the very back of the cavern pitch black.

Taking up more than half the room, though, was something unexpected: a large pool of water. The ground, which sloped like the ceiling, led straight into it. It was partially encircled by low ledges that came out of the walls on either side, the perfect spot to sit and overlook the water. And it was man-made, that much was obvious. The ledges were too smooth, too even, and the gap between them too perfect a size to be natural.

“Oh,” Steve breathed out.

This pool had been made for him, built with his needs in mind. Bucky had given him the gift of water.

His dragon’s warm body pressed into his back, big hands sliding to splay across his ribs and hold him close. As Steve stood there, staring at his gift while held so tenderly, he found that he could not remember a time when he had ever felt so content or so desired. He felt drunk despite the absence of ale, lightheaded and shivery and good.

He wanted to live in this moment forever.

Lips brushed the shell of his ear. “Do you like it?” Bucky asked softly. His breath ghosted across Steve’s neck as he spoke and goosebumps followed in its wake.

Steve couldn’t respond properly. He could only make the tiniest of noises as he nodded quickly, wide eyes still trained on the water. Gods, but he loved it.

“Go on,” Bucky said and nudged him forward.

Steve wouldn’t leave his embrace, though.  He couldn’t even think about such a thing. His hands rested over Bucky’s and gripped them tightly so that when he walked forward, Bucky had no choice but to walk with him. They took a few steps together, until they stood at the water’s edge, looking down into its darkened depths.

Floating in the middle of the pool, Steve could now see a pinprick of white. When he leaned closer to get a better look, he recognized a water lily.

“Is that…?” he whispered.

There was something fragile and intimate about the moment, something that could be broken if they spoke too loudly. Something that neither of them wanted broken.

Bucky hummed in agreement. “The one you gave me.”

“You kept it?”

“How could I not,” he asked, “when it was important enough for you to bring back up the mountain?”

Bucky pressed his nose behind Steve’s ear and breathed in slowly.

“Don’t you want to try it out?”

Turning in his hold, Steve wound his arms around Bucky’s neck. “You, too,” he begged. “Please, come in with me.”

Bucky reached up to caress his cheek, smiling so warmly that Steve ached from it.

“Very well,” he agreed, leaning down to brush the tip of his nose with Steve’s. “Go on, I’ll join you in a moment.”

“Promise?”

It was only when Bucky nodded that Steve left his embrace and waded into the water. Just a few feet in, he stumbled over a step and then another and then another. They led all the way to the bottom. He knew this for certain because he sank under the surface until he’d reached the lowest depth, unable to stop himself.

Around him, the water was warm, just as warm was Bucky’s touch. Even here, he was cocooned in his dragon’s embrace.

Everything under the surface was completely barren, only rock and water to fill the space, but it hardly mattered. Steve could grow life from anything, and he planned to do just that. Already, he knew that he would make this pool his home.

When he finally broke the surface again -- water falling down around him -- it was to see Bucky sitting on one of the ledges. He’d already divested himself of his clothing but hadn’t yet stepped into the pool, content to sit and watch with a small smile. It was unlike any smile Steve had been graced with before; private, intimate, loving.

The sight of it made his insides quiver, and the water quivered with him. He swam closer.

“With me,” he demanded, holding out his arms. “You promised.”

“So I did,” Bucky said and stood up.

Without clothing, he was a sight to behold. Every inch of him was massive, heavy with muscle from his mismatched shoulders all the way down to his feet. Unlike Steve, his body was covered in a light dusting of hair.  Between his legs, his cock was just as thick as the rest of him.

Steve wanted to know the taste of it.

As Bucky descended into the pool, the water reached for him; tendrils slid up his legs and torso, winding around his arms and back. Driven by Steve’s own yearning to be near him, the water clung to him and welcomed him into the pool. It didn’t fall away until he and Bucky were inches apart and Steve could touch for himself. Within seconds, they were entwined more intimately than they’d ever been before. Wet skin sliding against wet skin, their chests flush against one another. Heat built between them, spurred on the longer they touched.

Oh,” Steve sighed, letting his head fall against Bucky’s shoulder.

He hadn’t known true pleasure before this moment, he was sure of it.

Fingers carded through his wet hair, sliding down to caress his face and neck before repeating the movement.

Steve shuddered.

“The water,” he pleaded. “Pour the water on me.”

“Such a demanding little nymph,” Bucky admonished, but a second later, water trickled down Steve’s back. He moaned, fingers tightening their hold as he buried his face in Bucky’s neck.

“I can feel you in the water,” he whispered, unsteady. “The memory of your fire -- I can feel it.”

A curious noise sounded in Bucky’s throat, as if something about Steve’s words surprised him.

Steve raised his head questioningly but then promptly forgot why. Their faces were now so close that he could feel Bucky’s breath on his lips. He whined and pressed closer.

Bucky’s scaled hand reached up to cradle his neck. It was as much a gesture of affection as it was an attempt to keep Steve from coming any nearer. Without that hand staying him, Steve would’ve stolen the kiss his lips ached for.

“Can you now?” Bucky asked in awe.

His thumb caressed the spot behind Steve’s ear. Around them, the pool trembled again. Ripples pushed across the surface, and water sloshed quietly against the rocky edges. Steve panted into the space between them, so overwhelmed that he couldn’t even think. The only thing he knew, the only thought that permeated the pleasured haze of his mind, was the need to give this feeling back.

He took Bucky’s left hand and brought it to his mouth. Gently, sweetly, he kissed the tips of each finger. The nails were different on this hand, short and clawed. They dug into the soft flesh of his lips as he kissed, but not in a way that hurt.

Steve’s tongue snuck out to lick at one roughened fingerpad, and Bucky jumped quite suddenly.

Rybka,” he said dangerously. “What are you doing?”

Steve let his bottom lip drag up the same finger. “Nothing,” he replied.

His power was not a conscious thing. He could not move the water with a thought, could not make demands of it by sheer will alone. But he and the water were connected in a way that only a nymph could understand. The water wasn’t merely a life source or a power. It was an extension of him. It knew his every thought, his every desire, and it responded with him, for him.

When he was afraid, it was afraid. When he was sleepy, it was sleepy. And when he desperately wanted to give pleasure to his dragon, so did the water.

Bucky hissed, and when Steve looked up, it was to see orange fire swirling in his gaze again.

Heat settled low in his hips. Moaning, Steve licked the rough skin again before wrapping his lips around the finger and taking it into his mouth properly. When he began to gently suck, Bucky cursed.

Gods,” he spit out as his hips jerked forward. “Rybka -- rybka, you have to stop --”

That was the last thing Steve wanted. Bucky’s mouth had fallen open and his eyebrows were knitted together. He was surprised by the pleasure, but the way his eyes burned, it spoke of his hunger for more. Steve wanted to give it to him. He would happily spend the rest of his life giving Bucky pleasure this way if he were allowed.

Reluctantly, he pulled his mouth away but did not release his hold on Bucky’s hand.

“Please,” he whispered. “Please, don’t make me.”

He licked again, wriggling closer. “Please,” he repeated and dragged his lips down to the palm, kissing there and laving between his fingers. “I want to, I want to -- let me.”

“Gods help me,” Bucky breathed out. He pressed his forehead to Steve’s temple. “Everything about you tempts me.”

It sounded like permission and so Steve took it as such; this time, he took two fingers into his mouth.

Bucky made a sound like he was dying. He rolled his hips, working up a steady rhythm as the water pleasured his cock the same way Steve did his fingers. His eyes burned completely again, not a hint of their normal color to be found as he stared hungrily at Steve’s mouth. His breathing was loud and harsh between them and each labored exhale made Steve shiver delightedly.

He pulled back to swirl his tongue over Bucky’s fingertips and sank back down again. The hand on his thigh tightened considerably; such a grip would no doubt leave bruises. Whimpering, Steve curled one hand around Bucky’s neck and pulled him ever closer, rubbing his cock against the damp trail of hair near Bucky’s navel.

He wanted bruises. He wanted to wear Bucky’s mark, he wanted everyone to see them and know.

More than anything, he wanted to be claimed.

Steve,” Bucky growled, baring his teeth like he wanted to bite. His next breath blew smoke over Steve’s neck.

It was when Steve bared his throat -- silently begging for him to do just that -- that Bucky found his release, hips bucking hard as he came. His fingers fell out of Steve’s mouth when it went slack, a strangled moan bursting out of him. Steve scrambled to get closer, pressing flush against him and whining as his hips worked a frantic rhythm of their own.

“I can taste you,” he whimpered, eyes squeezed shut and face pressed into Bucky’s shoulder. It was there at the back of his tongue, the bitter taste of Bucky’s release. He was going to come from it. “In the water, I can taste you, it’s -- it’s --”

He muffled a cry against Bucky’s shoulder as he spurted between them, biting the way Bucky wouldn’t do to him. He licked and sucked, greedy for more of his dragon’s taste as he came down.

Slowly, the water rose up and washed them off before falling back down around their hips. It was now heavy with their mixed taste.

Steve moaned again, softer this time. Satisfied.

His head lolled against Bucky’s shoulder, humming in pleasure as featherlight touches trailed up and down his spine.

“One day,” he murmured, lethargic, “I will bathe for you.”

The bathing rituals of his kind were sensuous and private. They were, in fact, said to be the most sensual experience a person would witness. Nymphs did not bathe for just anyone, though. It was a privilege that not many could boast to having. Steve had never bathed for anyone before -- no one had pleased him enough to merit it -- but he yearned to do so now. The idea of washing while his dragon looked on left him breathless.

Bucky held him tightly, his chest rumbling with the growl-purr that Steve enjoyed so much.

“That,” he said lowly, “will definitely get you eaten.”

 

                                                    

 

“Why don’t you have a bed?”

Steve, immersed in his pool again, looked up from a water lily currently forming between his cupped palms. Many of their visits took place in the pool’s smaller cavern now, where Steve could tend to growing wildlife and Bucky could watch from the pool’s edge. He still wasn’t allowed to bathe for Bucky, nor would Bucky join him in the pool again, but this was the next best thing.

For Steve, there were few things better than creating life in the pool built for him while his dragon looked on.

“I do have a bed,” said Bucky, as he trailed fingers through the water. There was a small, pleased smile on his lips, and it grew in size with the lily. “The cavern is my bed.”

Steve shook his head. “Not like that,” he returned. “A real bed. A human bed.”

He had a bed here now. It was a little patch at the very bottom that illuminated the water, brightening the room. He enjoyed its presence very much but Bucky couldn’t sleep at the bottom of a pool and this was a problem.

Steve wanted very badly to share a bed with him.

Bucky shrugged, unconcerned. “Dragons don’t need human beds. Most creatures don’t. We make do with what we have, don’t we?”

By now, the lily had grown to full maturity, and Steve offered it up to his dragon, the water shivering with his delight when Bucky leaned down to smell it. His hum was low and pleased.

“It smells like you,” he said softly. “Or you smell like it. I can’t tell.”

“But you like it?”

“I like it,” Bucky assured him, smiling. “Why all this talk of beds, rybka?

Steve placed the lily into the water, and like always, the water glowed around it as it floated away to join the rest of the lilies decorating the surface. He wrapped his arms around Bucky’s neck.

He was shirtless today and so when Steve pressed close, he was given the very thing he craved; the slide of their skin together, the feel of Bucky’s hair-dusted chest rubbing deliciously against his own.

“Sam has a bed,” Steve said, suddenly breathless. “It’s nice and big and the blankets are soft. I liked the way they felt.”

A low noise rumbled in Bucky’s chest. It wasn’t the growl-purr of pleasure that Steve had come to know. Instead, this sound spoke of displeasure. Something had upset him.

“Why were you in his bed, sokrovische moyo?” Bucky asked. Possessive hands touched Steve’s face and neck and back. For the first time, he sounded petulant.

Steve smiled, immeasurably pleased that this was what had Bucky agitated.

“When the hydra attacked,” he explained. “We were taken to Sam’s house for Bruce to look us over.”

Bucky hummed, considering, but said nothing else. Steve didn’t mind. He enjoyed the silent moments as much as he enjoyed the sound of Bucky’s voice. Floating near the pool’s edge, he rested his head on Bucky’s chest and held on, basking in the touch of his two favorite things.

 

                                                            

 

For several days at the end of summer, it stormed. The trees whipped to and fro, the lake surface was choppy and frantic. Between the strong wind and the heavy rain, the loud thunder and occasional strike of lightning, it was impossible to leave the lake. Steve and his cluster stayed at the bottom where they were safe and spent those stormy days dozing.

It happened every summer, The nymphs never minded such weather.

This year, Steve hated every moment that he was kept away from the mountain. He missed his pool and his dragon so dearly that his entire being ached with it.

Finally, on the fourth day, he woke to the glimmer of sunlight above the water. He was the first of his cluster awake and the first one out of the water. He was eager to see Bucky.

As he made his way through the forest, however, he came upon Bruce. He looked haggard and exhausted, with torn clothes and missing spectacles.

“Steve,” he murmured, smiling tiredly. “Just the nymph I was looking for.”

Steve frowned. “Are you all right?” he asked.

“Oh, um.” Bruce cleared his throat, self-consciously covering a tear in his shirt with his hand. “Yes, yes, I’m fine. The, uh, the other -- well, he just doesn’t particularly like storms.”

“I’m sorry,” Steve replied, because he didn’t know what else to say.

Many years before he’d come to the forest, Bruce had been cursed by a witch to change into a mountain troll by moonlight.  Steve hadn’t known it affected him so badly.

“It’s perfectly alright.” Bruce smiled thinly. “I’m used to it now. Would you mind coming with me?”

“Of course.”

Steve was led to the mountain, where he’d been journeying, but not to the path that would take him to Bucky. Instead, he was led back to Bruce’s home. Just a few feet away from his door, a large wagon piled high with crates and trunks sat at the mountainbase. Steve stared at it curiously, but Bruce didn’t give it a second glance. He had already known it was there.

“Inside, please,” Bruce said, opening his own front door.

Obediently, Steve stepped inside.

There wasn’t a fire blazing in the hearth this time, but there were candles lit on various pieces of Bruce’s wooden furniture. Three strangers sat on the available seats, talking quietly amongst themselves. They stood as soon as they saw Bruce and Steve, turning to face them.

There was a woman with flame-red hair and two male companions, one of dark hair and the other of light. The red woman wore black clothing, and so did her light-haired companion, though his had splashes of purple around the trimming. It reminded Steve of Bucky’s clothing; practical garments made for long journeys and battle. The dark-haired man was dressed in a cloak of gold and crimson. He looked at Steve with such a scandalized expression that Steve looked down at himself to see what was wrong.

Briefly, he thought he must’ve hurt himself in his haste to get to Bucky and just hadn’t noticed it. But no. When he took in his own body, he found nothing out of the ordinary. He looked back up at the man and frowned.

“That,” said the man, as if he couldn’t be heard across the short distance, “is a very naked person.”

Steve blinked in surprised. Never, in all the years he’d lived, had anyone commented on his lack of clothing. He had no idea what to say in response to it now, because there was no response. This was just the way things were.

“He’s a water nymph,” the woman said. “Do you see the blue markings? That tells his kind. They don’t wear coverings.”

“And people are just okay with it?”

Bruce cleared his throat, breaching the space between Steve and the three strangers. He leaned heavily against the weathered surface that held his current experiments. His exhaustion had grown in just the space of their walk.

“The forest works differently than where you’re from,” he said.

The crimson man coughed, appropriately chastised. “My apologies,” he said, glancing quickly at Steve and then away again.

Bruce seemed satisfied by this response.

“This is Steve,” he said. “Steve, these people are here to see your dragon. Normally, I’d show them the way, but I’m -- rather weak from the past few days. Would you mind taking them? You were going there, anyways, weren’t you?”

Steve nodded, smiling, but when he looked back to the group, he found himself the focus of several intense stares.

Your dragon?” the woman asked, with some amusement.

“Ah.” It was Bruce’s turn to look embarrassed. “Steve has kept him company during his time here. They’ve formed something of a bond, I think.”

“How unlucky for you,” said the crimson man.

Steve huffed. “I like Bucky,” he retorted. “He’s very nice.”

The man looked dubious, but the woman laughed.

“What a delightful creature,” she said. Stepping forward, she held out one slender, pale hand. “It’s very nice to meet you, Steve. I am Natasha. This is Clint and Tony.”

Steve looked from her outstretched hand to her face and then back again. He tilted his head curiously.

“Why are you doing that?”

The man in crimson -- Tony -- scoffed. “You don’t know how to shake hands?”

“Hush, Tony,” Natasha said. “Social convention is not the same here.”

She smiled at Steve and used her other hand to reach for his. “May I?” she asked. When he nodded, she grasped his wrist with fire-warm fingers and brought it up to touch his palm to her other hand, still outstretched. This hand, too, was burning to the touch.

He gasped softly and looked up at her with renewed interest.

“You’re a dragon,” he said.

She nodded, impressed by this deduction.

“Are all of you dragons?” he asked, looking to the two men. “Is that how you know Bucky?”

Steve,” Bruce said tiredly.

Steve bit his lip, blushing. “I’m sorry,” he said to Bruce. Turning to the others, he added, “I’ll show you the way.”

Natasha nodded to Bruce.

“Thank you for your help,” she said. Her companions echoed the gratitude, and then the four of them left him to his recovery.

The wagon stationed outside belonged to the three newcomers. They trailed behind Steve, pulling it along as he led them to the path that would take them up the mountain. Along the way, Natasha gamely answered his questions.

She said, “a city called Trysk,” when asked where they came from and, “no,” when asked again if they were all dragons.

“Tony is the King’s magician,” she explained. “But he is human. And Clint half so.”

“Human!” Steve exclaimed. This, at least, explained why Tony did not know the ways of water nymphs. “I’ve never met a human before.”

Tony raised an eyebrow. “What about your mountain keeper?”

“Bruce turns into a mountain troll,” Steve said. “I’ve never met a regular human.”

Clint laughed. “That’s Tony,” he joked. “Just a regular ole human.”

Natasha smiled.

The conversation lessened once they were on the mountain path. It was difficult to get the wagon up the slope, and they only managed to do so at a slow pace. Most of it seemed to be thanks to Natasha, who pulled the wagon with such ease that it might as well have been made of feathers.

“Do you always talk this much?” Tony asked, halfway up the mountain. He wiped sweat from his brow and glared up at the sun.

“Don’t be rude,” Natasha admonished. “Let him ask his questions, he’s doing no harm.”

He huffed, but didn’t argue. Still, Steve didn’t want to anger him and so he kept quiet. When silence reigned for several long minutes, Natasha was finally the one to break it.

“Tell us,” she said. “How did you come to meet Bucky?”

His mood brightening immediately, Steve smiled widely as launched into the story. Natasha was an attentive listener and asked him many questions, all of which he was more than happy to answer. He hadn’t yet finished it when the mountain path turned inward and they found themselves approaching the mouth of Bucky’s cave.

His next words died on his lips. In fact, he forgot what they were talking about at all, because there stood Bucky in the shadow of the cave’s entrance. He was barefoot and shirtless, his expression somewhere between apprehensive and pleased.

“Bucky!” Steve exclaimed and abandoned the others to dart toward him. He threw his arms around Bucky’s neck as soon as he was close enough, curling around him tightly.

The press of their skin settled something deep in Steve’s chest. Something that had been tight and awful, that Steve hadn’t even known was there until it was gone.

“I brought people!” he said, smiling.

“I see this,” Bucky replied. His arm curled tight around Steve’s back, even as he looked to the trio. “It was a safe trip, I hope?”

“Long,” commented Clint.

Very long,” Tony grumbled. He gestured to the wagon. “Especially with all of this.”

“But safe, yes.”

Natasha sent the two men a long-suffering look.

She approached Bucky and reached out to curl a hand around his neck. He did the same to her with his dragonskin hand and together, they leaned their foreheads against one another as their eyes fell shut.

Their bowed heads made for a surprisingly intimate scene, so much so that for the first time, Steve felt like an intrusion pressed against Bucky’s side. He didn’t like this feeling, the one that made it seem like he should pull away.

“It’s good to see you again, James,” Natasha told him quietly.

“I’ve missed you,” Bucky said.

“And I you.” She pulled away and glanced at Steve. “But I see you haven’t been alone in my absence.”

Bucky’s smile widened as he, too, looked back to Steve. “No,” he said, without taking his gaze away. “I haven’t.”

Both his voice and his gaze were warm, and Steve shivered, unable to do anything but smile back in response. Bucky was happy and so he was happy.

“We’ll take this inside, then?” Natasha asked, gesturing toward the wagon. When Bucky nodded, she led Clint and Tony into the tunnel.

“Why did she call you that name?” Steve asked when they were alone. “James?

“Ah.” Bucky smiled. “That is my given name. ‘Bucky’ is a nickname. One that she dislikes.”

“Oh.”

Steve frowned, leaning to look into the tunnel. Who was this woman, who knew Bucky’s given name and whose touch Bucky did not mind?

He made to follow them, questions swirling in his mind, but Bucky held him back.

“No, rybka,” he murmured, sounding regretful. “You can’t go in there just yet.”

Steve frowned. “Why not?”

Bucky cupped his cheek. “Because I have a surprise for you,” he said. “But it isn’t ready yet. You’ll ruin it if you see it now. Come back tomorrow, hm? It will be ready then.”

Tomorrow!” Steve exclaimed, outraged. “But --”

Bucky’s thumb pressed against his lips, silencing him. He looked as happy as Steve felt, which was to say: not at all.

“I know,” he said, leaning his forehead against Steve’s the way he had done to Natasha mere moments before. He caressed Steve’s cheek. “I’ve missed your company. These past days spent without you have felt like an eternity. But I don’t want your surprise ruined, rybka. I want you to see it as I imagined you seeing it. Will you give me this?”

What other answer was there? He could deny Bucky nothing.

“Tomorrow,” he agreed, miserable.

Bucky smiled and kissed his forehead gently.

“Tomorrow.”

*

Steve was not particularly happy about going back to the lake, but he did so amiably.

Surprise, Bucky had said. There was another surprise waiting for him within the cavern. The last time those words had been spoken, Steve had been gifted with his pool. He had no idea what Bucky could give after something so intimate, but he could wait to be in Bucky’s company again if it meant a new present.

It wasn’t ideal, but he could do it, and he would have waited as Bucky told him if it hadn’t been for Darcy. She appeared with the setting sun, falling to her knees in the wet sand near the lazy waves. The water lapped at her shins and soaked the trim of her dress, but she paid it no mind.

Angie and Steve were the last of their cluster still above water. The others had just disappeared below the surface to settle in for the night.

“Have you come to say goodnight?” Angie asked. She sat up from where she’d been lounging on her back, half her body submerged in the water. There was sand and algae tangled in her wet curls, but it did nothing to detract from her beauty.

“No,” Darcy said, dismissing the idea with an impatient wave of her hand. “I have news!”

Her audience leaned forward, suddenly captive. “Tell us.”

“The dragon and his guests are meeting with the guardians,” she said. “The trees won’t tell me the details -- the woodsman’s forbidden them to say anything -- but it must be something important.”

As their maker, the woodsman was the only one among them who had enough clout with the trees to keep them silent. They respected his word above all else.

“You must know,” Darcy said, looking to Steve. “You took the guests to the dragon, didn’t you? The same dragon that you’ve been secretly rendezvousing with?”

Her unimpressed gaze bore into him, and Steve at least had the decency to look abashed.

“Who told you?”

Darcy snorted. “It’s been the talk of the forest since he saved you from the hydra! Dragons don’t interfere for just anyone, you know.”

Steve had gathered as much from the conversation between Bruce and Sam. It still warmed him to hear it said again.

“Ugh.” Darcy wrinkled her nose. “Stop that, you look gross. The point is: everyone knows. You can stop trying to sneak off now, we all know where you’re going. So what is it? Why are they here?”

“I don’t know,” Steve said truthfully. “They’re from a city, they said, and they brought a wagon with them. It had crates and big trunks piled on it. But I don’t know what was in them or why they were brought.”

Darcy hummed, scratching thoughtfully at one of the faint green marks on her cheek. It was Angie who spoke up, and when she did her voice was tentative, apologetic.

“Maybe,” she said quietly, “they’re here to take the dragon home.”

Steve froze, his stomach clenching terribly. He hadn’t even considered the possibility.

He’d always known, of course, that it could happen. That it would happen. Bucky had another home and another life; he wouldn’t stay with them forever. But it was still too soon. Steve wasn’t ready for him to leave yet.

In truth, he wouldn’t ever be ready for it.

“No,” he said, faint. “They can’t.”

Neither of them met his gaze.

“Yes,” Darcy said, gently as she knew how. It wasn’t very gentle at all, but Steve appreciated the effort. “They can.”

“I -- I have to --”

He climbed unsteadily out of the water, scrambling toward the forest and the path that would take him to the mountain.

“Steve!” Angie called worriedly.

Steve ignored her. He had to see Bucky.

*

“Listen. We don’t even know for sure that it’s him --”

“Of course it’s him, who else would follow us? Who else would have a reason to hide? We have to assume --”

“Assuming things could get an innocent hurt. We don’t belong here, we have to tread carefully.”

“And let an innocent get hurt because we reacted too slowly?”

Tony, Clint, and Natasha were in the middle of the cavern, arguing heatedly. The moonlight from the mountainside entrance fell upon them, illuminating each fierce expression as they argued their case. Bucky wasn’t with them and from where he stood in the shadows of the tunnel, Steve couldn’t tell if he was even in the cavern at all. Half of the room was blocked from his view and if he moved any closer he would be seen.

“This situation,” Natasha said tightly, “is delicate. We have to make sure that no one is put into danger because we reacted rashly.”

“Enough.”

This was Bucky. When he stepped into view, Steve couldn’t stop himself from smiling. He was still here.

“The keepers are trying to gather more information,” he said, calm. “They’ll tell us when they know more. For now, the dragonslayer is --”

Dragonslayer?

They whirled as one toward the tunnel entrance just as Steve slapped a hand to his mouth. There were a few tense seconds of silence, in which Steve desperately tried to take back his own exclamation and the four of them stared into the darkened tunnel, poised for an attack. Finally, Bucky seemed to realize that he knew the voice that had spoken. As his posture relaxed, his rigid expression melted into one of exasperation.

Rybka,” he said to the shadows that held Steve, and when he did, the others relaxed as well. “Come here.”

Steve stepped into the cavern, smiling guiltily. Bucky shook his head and held his hand out.

“I thought we agreed on tomorrow,” he said as Steve closed the distance between them. “Didn’t we?”

“Maybe,” Steve conceded, grasping his outstretched hand. “But -- oh!

He stopped, eyes widening as he spotted something new.

There was a bed in the cavern.

It sat between two of the tunnel entrances -- one of which led to Steve’s pool -- and had a foundation made of rock. Sheer curtains hung from the two overhead beams, a blue so light that it almost seemed white. They shimmered in the rising moonlight, ethereal and beautiful. One of the trunks that Steve had seen on the wagon sat at the food of the bed.

I have a surprise for you, he’d been told.

“Is that…?” Steve asked, turning those wide eyes on Bucky.

Bucky smiled and nodded.

Abandoning the group, Steve went toward it. He forgot why he was here, forgot the conversation he’d overheard -- he forgot about every single thing save for the sight in front of him. Bucky had built him a bed.

When he was close enough to sweep aside the curtain, he saw blankets, sheets, pillows. A proper bed with proper dressings. The bedclothes were darker than the curtains but lighter than the blankets; they also happened to be the same shade as his markings.

Arms wrapped around his middle, lips brushing his ear.

“Do you like it?” Bucky asked, just as he had when Steve had been given his pool.

Steve’s smile was bright, unrestrained.

“You built a bed,” he whispered. He turned suddenly, winding his arms around Bucky’s neck, shivering delightedly when fire-warm hands settled on his hips. “You built a bed.”

“For you, rybka,” Bucky told him. “You wanted one, didn’t you? It’s yours.”

Steve tugged him toward the bed. He wanted to be in it with Bucky, the way they’d been together in the pool. He wanted to know pleasure as they’d known it together that day.

“Lay with me,” he begged. “Please.”

Bucky’s eyes darkened, as if he could see those half-formed desires swirling in Steve’s mind. He leaned closer, murmuring, “sokrovische moyo,” in a tone that made Steve tremble.

Behind them, someone sputtered loudly and the spell was broken. Bucky blinked dazedly, looking over his shoulder at their forgotten audience. When Steve followed his example, he saw the two men avoiding their gaze while Natasha smirked at them.

“That,” she said to Bucky, “explains why you needed such expensive bedclothes.”

“We don’t have time for this,” Tony told the ceiling.

Sighing, Bucky turned back to Steve.

“We have guests,” he said finally, and Steve hoped he wasn’t imagining the regret he heard in those three words.

When he pouted, Bucky pressed a thumb to the corner of his mouth.

“Why don’t you tend to your pool, rybka? Someone will escort you back to the lake once we’ve finished our business.”

Steve sighed. “Will you watch me?” he asked, and received a smile in response.

“Of course.”

Tony didn’t look like he enjoyed this prospect at all, but Steve ignored his soured expression as he led the way to the pool. If these people wanted to talk to his dragon, they would have to do it where Steve could enjoy his presence.

“Is it awkward for you?” Tony asked Natasha as they stepped into the smaller cavern. “Watching him be led around by the dick?”

“Don’t be crass,” she admonished.

While they bickered, Bucky took his customary place at the pool’s ledge as Steve stepped into the water. It reached for him in greeting, sliding up his legs and beckoning him further into its depths. He submerged himself for several precious seconds, swimming to the bottom to check on the plants that grew there. Their dim glow brightened with his proximity, and they, too, reached for him, begging for his touch, his magic. He gave it freely and watched them flourish that much more.

When he finally swam to the surface again, Tony and Natasha had finished their conversation but more importantly, Bucky was still waiting for him. Steve swam to the ledge, smiling brightly as Bucky reached out to tuck waterlogged hair behind his ear.

“Are they well?” he asked. When Steve nodded, he said, “I’m glad.”

“If you’re finished over there,” Tony said loudly. “Perhaps we could get back to the matter at hand?”

Bucky didn’t even bother to turn away from Steve.

“What is there left to discuss? We don’t have enough information to form a plan of attack. Right now, we hold.”

“That is a terrible plan,” Tony said. “One that could get you killed.”

Steve lurched, and the water lurched with him.

He remembered now the conversation he’d overheard before he saw his bed. Biting his lip, he looked up at Bucky.

“There’s a dragonslayer?”

Bucky visibly hesitated.

“It’s nothing to worry about, rybka,” he said finally. “We will deal with it before anyone gets hurt.”

“But how did he end up here?” Steve asked. “And why does he want you? Is he -- did he do this?”

He touched Bucky’s dragonskin hand.

“Yes,” Natasha said, coming to sit on the ledge as well. When Bucky made a displeased noise, she looked at him sharply. “Steve has a right to know, James. You aren’t the only one endangered by his presence.”

Bucky said nothing in response. He didn’t look happy about her words, but he couldn’t seem to rebut them, either.

Natasha turned back to Steve.

“The dragonslayer has been hunting our kind for a long time,” she said. “But James, in particular, has been his target for several years now. They had an altercation that left the slayer permanently scarred and ever since then, he has hunted James doggedly. We thought that if James were to stay here in the forest, he might be protected. This place isn’t well known and it’s protected by fae magic, making it impossible for someone to scry.”

“Then how did the dragonslayer find it?” Steve asked.

Natasha shared a look with the others. “We believe,” she said, “that he may have followed us here. We hadn’t anticipated that he would watch us for so long, hoping to glean James’ location, and so we didn’t guard ourselves as we should have when we came here.”

“Which is why,” Tony cut in, his tone pointed, “we should fix our mistake by finding him. Quickly.”

“James is right,” Natasha told him. “It would be rash and it could put everyone in even more danger. It’s better to wait until we have concrete answers. The slayer will be dealt with soon enough and then we can go home.”

At this mention of homes, Steve couldn’t keep his gaze from straying back to Bucky.

“All of you?” he asked unhappily.

Natasha’s gaze flickered between them and then she frowned.

“James,” she said, standing. “May I talk to you in private?”

Clint took the seat that they vacated and together, he and Steve watched them walk away. They didn’t leave the room entirely, but they did stand close together underneath the arch of the tunnel. When they spoke, their voices were too low to hear.

Natasha’s brow was furrowed when she spoke, and they seemed to argue for several long seconds before something that Bucky said made her laugh. She took Bucky’s face in her hands and kissed his cheek, lingering closely as she spoke to him with a soft, affectionate smile. Bucky’s answering smile was almost shy.

Steve watched the interaction and was surprised to find that the longer he looked, the more his stomach roiled. It was a bitter, ugly feeling -- one that he’d never felt before, that he couldn’t readily name -- and he wanted it to go away.

“Knew that wouldn’t last long,” Clint commented. “They can never stay mad at each other.”

When Steve didn’t readily answer him, Clint leaned over and nudged his shoulder gently.

“Don’t mind them,” he said, waving a hand. “They’ve known each other a long time. Sometimes they forget that the rest of us have to watch from the sidelines.”

Steve couldn’t help but mind. He only saw their close proximity, their heads bowed together as they continued to talk. Natasha’s smile was so warm and beautiful, but it was nothing compared to the smile that Bucky gave her in return. There was no guard when he was with her; there was no wall that had to be torn down, bit by bit.

Finally, Bucky touched Natasha’s cheek and pressed their foreheads together, just as they had done when Steve had first brought Natasha up the mountain. They were happy in that moment. It was palpable, even from so far away.

When he answered Clint, his voice was faint. “They’re very close.”

“Yeah,” Clint said, grinning over at the pair. “The stuff they’ve been through, I’m glad they have each other, you know? In a world like that, it’s important to know you’re treasured. Even if it’s by just one person.”

Steve’s head snapped around to face him fully.

“Can dragons have a person as a treasure?” He asked.

Clint blushed, rubbing at his neck in a gesture that Steve thought was bashful. Or embarrassed, perhaps? It was so hard to tell, sometimes. His experience with those emotions was too limited.

“Yes,” he answered. “That’s --”

He coughed awkwardly.

“That’s how they see their mates,” he said finally. “The ones who choose to take a mate, anyways.”

Steve looked back to Natasha and Bucky, frowning.

“How embarrassing,” Tony said as he sidled closer, throwing a thumb over his shoulder to indicate the pair by the tunnel. “Glad I don’t have to have that conversation.”

“Tony,” Clint said reproachfully. “Have some respect. This is different than it is for humans.”

“What is?” Steve asked. He wasn’t sure that he wanted to know, but he couldn’t stop himself from asking.

Clint’s embarrassment seemed to grow.

“It’s just,” he gestured toward the pair of dragons, “they’ve been betrothed since they were hatchlings. For them to -- Gods!

Clint shot up and away from the ledge, his eyes widening as he stared at the pool, but Steve couldn’t look at him. He was stuck on one word, one simple word that cut to his very soul:

Betrothed.

He wilted.

There was no other way to describe it. He could feel it in his limbs, in his bones, in every fiber of his being. There had been life and energy and happiness, but with that simple word it had all been drained out of him.

His chest hurt, the feeling so visceral and sudden that he could focus on nothing else. To Steve, it was an ice-cold hand wrapped around his heart, squeezing so tightly that he could hardly breathe.

The water reached for him, wanting to soothe the hurt but not knowing how.

It was difficult to make his limbs move, to do anything but exist in this pain, but when he managed, he saw what had caused such alarm. Behind him, the lilies that he had so painstakingly and lovingly grown under his dragon’s watch, the life he had made here -- it was all dying.

Petals curled inward before they shriveled to nothing. Vibrant green leaves turned brown and brittle, some breaking off as the sloshing water threw them to and fro.

Steve gasped wetly. He was killing them; he was killing his lilies, hurting them with his pain. He didn’t know how to make it stop, and it made the terrible feeling inside worse.

Rybka.”

He turned back to find the others staring at him, but there was Bucky right in front of him. Bright, concerned gaze and a hand reaching toward him, reaching to comfort. Steve wanted it more than anything, but one look over Bucky’s shoulder and he couldn’t accept it.

“I,” he whispered, moving away from Bucky’s hand. That simple denial was more than he could handle. “I -- I have to go.”

He lurched out of the pool, desperate to be away from here. From the sight of Bucky and Natasha so close together, from Clint’s words and what they meant.

“Steve!” Bucky called after him. When Steve ignored him, he called again, louder this time. “Steve!”

Steve glanced over his shoulder and though it was only for a moment, it was too much. The only thing he saw was Natasha’s fingers curled around Bucky’s bicep, keeping him from following. He turned away again and ran faster.

The last thing he heard before he was too far away was Bucky’s growling voice, demanding, “What did you do to him?

*

Steve sat on the floor of Sam’s tree-cottage, staring at the empty hearth.

He couldn’t go into the water.

The moment he came too close, the lake churned violently. If he ignored it and waded in, the plants beneath the surface began to decay just as his lilies had.

His cluster’s distress over his apparent pain made it all worse, and now Steve was denied the comfort he ached for. The comfort of his lake home, of his bed at the bottom and his cluster around him, pressed tightly against him. Arms and legs entwining until he could no longer tell which limb belonged to who, until it felt like they were all one being instead of several different ones.

A cool, wet cloth dripped water onto the skin of his back. Steve didn’t have to look up to know that it was Sam. His guardian had been tending to him since he’d been brought here. First, it had been trying to calm him and when that didn’t work, he focused on keeping Steve’s skin from drying out.

Steve had calmed eventually, but that was almost worse. The ache in his chest was still there but now it was surrounded on all sides by -- emptiness. A heart devoid of hope.

“Don’t,” he said quietly, but made no move to get away from Sam’s care. “I can do it.”

Sam snorted. “You promised me that hours ago,” he said. “And yet you haven’t done it the first time.”

“I haven’t needed it.”

The sore stretch of his skin said otherwise.

“I’ve known you since you were a nymphling,” Sam replied shortly. “Not only do I know the signs of a lie, I also know when you’ve been away from the water too long.”

He stood to dampen the cloth again.

They found, through trial and error, that something as simple as a bowl of water made a mess when positioned too closely to Steve. Even now that he had seemingly calmed down, when he looked to the water drops on his skin, he saw them tremble before they soaked into him.

When Sam sat down beside him again, Steve whispered, “You should sleep. I’ll be okay.”

Sam didn’t immediately answer. Silently, he moved so that he could wring out the rag on Steve’s chest this time. He stood again to wet the cloth, and when he sat down, he sighed.

“Do you know why there are guardians?” He asked.

Slowly, Steve shook his head.

It hadn’t ever occurred to him to ask such a question. The guardians had existed since before he was created. They were as much a fact of life as the sun, the moon, the forest they lived in and the water that gave him life.

“A long time ago,” Sam said. “Before the forest was here, we lived among the humans. All of us -- the satyrs and the nymphs, the centaurs and the fae. We knew each other and helped each other, but mostly we kept to our own kind.”

He trickled water along Steve’s arms, nodding in satisfaction when it seeped into him.

“The humans were such fickle creatures,” he explained. “They were happy to let us stay to ourselves until they needed our magic, and then they wanted to use us. It was never about harmony for them, everyone helping each other as we do. It was just about what we could do to make their lives easier. The nymphs, especially.”

Sam smiled sadly.

“They courted your kind,” he told Steve. “The farmers charmed the wood nymphs and the fishermen doted on the water nymphs and in return, you made their living for them. You would grow their crops and bring in the fish, warn them away from the sirens that wanted their blood. But when they thought they didn’t need you anymore, the humans would cast you aside. They’d banish you or ignore you, stop visiting you despite their many promises. And then they would blame you for what they caused; the bad weather, the droughts, the dead crops and dead fish floating in the waters. Your pain deprived them as easily as your happiness had supplied.

“The rest of us,” he said. “We could guard ourselves. We became suspicious of the humans and knew they couldn’t be trusted. We chose our interactions with them carefully. But the nymphs, they -- you never adapted as we did. The Gods made you differently. You don’t feel as we do. Yours is immediate and forceful and deep. Others can tamp down their emotions, hold back as they need to, but you weren’t built that way. Whatever you may feel, it’s unavoidable. It flows out of you and seeps into the world. That is how you can create as beautifully as you do.”

Sam stood to wet his cloth again, but he did not immediately return to Steve. He hovered over the bowl, staring into its shallow depths.

“We lost too many of you to the humans,” he said, quiet. “You weren’t built to withstand the pain they could inflict, to deal with their manipulation. We knew we had to do something or else lose you entirely. The Queen, the woodsman, and I gathered together the remaining nymphs, and we brought you into the mountains, far away from human influence. We planted the first seeds for you.”

He turned back to Steve, his expression solemn.

“You needed a sanctuary,” he said finally. “To be able to grow and live safely, so we gave you one. The others came later, but we exist as we do now because of the nymphs. Because we made a vow to protect you, to keep you from experiencing the very pain you feel now.”

“I’m sorry,” Steve murmured.

“I didn’t tell you that so that you would feel guilty,” Sam said simply, wetting Steve’s skin again. “Only so you would know that it’s impossible for me to let you go through this alone. Your pain isn’t just yours to bear. I’ll be here to share the burden as long as there is one, so you might as well accept that.”

Steve found that he didn’t know what to say to that, so he didn’t say anything at all.

Sam stood to wet the cloth again.

*

When morning came, Sam led him to the beach.

Steve still couldn’t go too close, but he could sit in the shade of the bluffs without disturbing too much. His cluster rushed to him as soon as they spotted him, and Sam didn’t stop them. Their slick, wet skin pressed into his as they surrounded him and hugged him tightly, murmuring words of worry and love and reassurance. They didn’t know what was wrong, only that one of their own was in pain, and none of them could stand it.

“What happened?” Angie asked, her expression distressed as she took Steve’s face between her palms. “Is it the dragon? Did he already leave?”

He just shook his head. He didn’t want to talk about it just yet.

Angie didn’t look happy, but she didn’t press him for answers, either. Instead, she moved to hug him as others of their cluster were doing.

Eventually, when the frenzy had died down, they all laid with him in the sand.

It was a silent, somber day for them, one spent in mourning with their brother. They took turns going back to the water when they needed to do so, and when they came back, they brought extra water with them for Steve. Sometimes it was merely a small palmful -- held in place by their desire to provide for him -- and sometimes, they would wring out their hair onto his body for a more fulfilling relief.

Mid-morning, Darcy joined their silent vigil without uttering a single word. She allowed Steve to rest his head on her lap and played with his hair while the others tended to him.

Sam never left. Not once, not even after it became apparent that the cluster would not leave, either. He sat on a rock a few feet away, allowing the nymphs their ritual of comfort, but always nearby in case he was needed. They were used to his ever-constant watch and so they did not pay him any attention, but Steve never forgot that he was there.

He couldn’t forget Sam’s promise, not with the truth of it right in front of him.

Somehow, some way, Steve eventually fell asleep.

It could have been hours or days or only a few minutes; he had no way of telling. He only knew that the sun was still shining when he drifted back into the waking world and Sam was arguing with someone.

“No,” he heard his guardian say. “Absolutely not. He didn’t sleep all night. I won’t let you wake him. He needs to rest. It’s hard enough to get him the water he needs now, I won’t let you upset him anymore.”

“I’m not here to make it worse,” said a calm voice. “I’m here to make it better.”

Natasha.

Steve’s heart squeezed painfully. He shifted against Darcy’s thigh, and it was only when her hand froze that he realized she had still been petting his hair.

“Do you want to pretend you’re still asleep?” she asked him quietly. “I won’t tell. I can even make her go away.”

Steve opened one eye and peeked up at her. Darcy wasn’t looking at him at all. Instead, her curious gaze was pointed in the direction of the voices. She was keeping her word, pretending that she didn’t know Steve was awake. Pretending, too, that she hadn’t spoken to him.

He thought about letting her continue. He thought about letting Sam drive Natasha away, so that he didn’t have to speak to her or look at her and know that Bucky belonged to her.

But in the end, he couldn’t do it.

He liked Natasha. She was kind and good and she made Bucky happy, that much was clear. Steve couldn’t have any ill will toward her, not even if he wanted to.

Not only that, but she wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t important.

So, despite his aching heart and protesting limbs, he sat up and followed Darcy’s gaze. Sam had abandoned his seat on the rock and now stood between Natasha and the cluster of nymphs up the beach. His posture was hostile, but hers was serene as always. She wasn’t intimidated, and she wasn’t going to back down.

When she saw Steve sitting among his cluster, she gestured to him.

“Why not let him decide for himself?”

Sam did not ask how much of the conversation Steve had heard. Instead, he merely told Steve, “I won’t make you do anything that you don’t want to do.”

Steve shook his head.

“It’s all right,” he said. “I’ll speak with her.”

Sam looked between them before finally turning to Natasha again.

“Make it better,” he told her. “And do it quickly.”

As he walked away, he gestured for the cluster to join him by the water’s edge. They clamored after him obediently, but it was only when Sam sharply called her name that Darcy left as well. She didn’t look too pleased about it, either.

When they were alone, Natasha approached him slowly.

“May I sit?” she asked, gesturing to the spot beside him. Steve nodded, and she lowered herself beside him. “We missed your visit this morning. James says that it’s unusual not to see you.”

Steve blushed, looking down at his hands. “I didn’t want to intrude,” he lied.

“Oh, I’m sure that’s not all of it,” she said lightly. “You were very upset when you left us last night. We couldn’t understand why at first, but then Clint recounted your conversation with him. Would you like to ask me about it, Steve, or shall I go ahead and tell you that James and I don’t plan to mate?”

Steve looked up sharply, his lips parting in surprise. He didn’t dare to hope.

“But,” he said, “but Clint said --”

“His words were poorly chosen,” Natasha told him, smiling. “A fact for which he has been thoroughly berated, I assure you. He wasn’t aware of how little you knew about our kind or the situation at hand.”

“What situation?”

“James and I were betrothed,” she said. “But this custom is different for us. Dragons thrive in pairs. It’s something we need from birth. So, the elders match hatchlings together. We’re betrothed so that we have a partner in life. So that we are never alone.”

Steve looked to the lake, where his cluster and guardian were trying to pretend that they weren’t watching. He thought of the way they hadn’t left him alone, the way they cared and tended to him, the way they always have.

“Like a cluster?”

“Exactly.” Natasha smiled. “Oftentimes, the match is fulfilled. The pairs fall in love and then they mate. James and I are among the ones who didn’t. We stayed together, anyways, because we didn’t want to be alone. But it was always with the knowledge that we would part ways when we found our chosen mates.”

She shifted in the sand, nudging Steve’s chin until he looked at her again.

“There is no need to mourn his loss when he is still here,” she said, “and very eager to see you again.”

“But he will leave,” Steve replied. “Once the dragonslayer is gone, he will leave with you.”

Natasha grasped his hand.

“Do you know what it means?” she asked. “The name he calls you -- sokrovische moyo.”

Steve shook his head. “He wouldn’t tell me its meaning,” he said. “Will you?”

“No.” Natasha’s smile turned apologetic. “It’s very special to our kind, just as you are very special to James. He should be the one to tell you. Go to him, Steve, and ask James of its meaning. You’ll understand once you know.”

*

“Natasha said I should ask him,” Steve said, “but what will that help? How will an answer stop him from leaving? What do you think it means, anyways?”

He looked up at the branches of the tree he was leaning against. It was the closest tree to the mountain path that led to Bucky’s cavern and Steve had been sitting under it for a long while. He was tired, both physically and mentally. His heart was still sore, but in a distant kind of way. It was more the echo of pain; a remembrance of how viscerally he’d been hurt.

“I want to see him again,” he told the tree. A leaf fluttered down from one of the higher branches, landing on his face. Steve smiled, shaking his head until it fell into his lap. “Is that what you think? I suppose you’re right. No use in wasting time, is there?”

He stood and turned to wrap his thin arms around the tree trunk, hugging it with all his strength.

“Thank you for your help,” he said, looking up at the branches.

Another leaf floated peacefully onto his face, and he laughed delightedly.

“Good-bye to you, too,” he said, but as he went to turn away, the silent forest suddenly came alive around him.

The trees shivered violently, swaying without any wind to tempt them and in such a way that it was clear they were trying to communicate with him. Several more leaves rained down upon Steve’s head, but this was different than the first two. A frantic bombardment, trying to communicate something that Steve couldn’t understand.

He looked up in alarm. “What is it?” he asked the trees. “What’s wrong? Are you hurt?”

They continued to move, trying to speak with him, but he couldn’t understand them.

The air behind him changed. Steve only had a moment to feel the pressure before two strong, thick arms wrapped around him. One clamped over his chest, pinning his arms to his sides, and the other went over his mouth.

“So,” said a voice in his ear. It wasn’t a voice Steve recognized at all, but it belonged to a man and this man sounded -- delighted. “You’re the nymph they were talking about.”

He dragged Steve away.

Steve was an agile creature and stronger than most assumed, but what physical abilities he possessed were no match for the brute strength of the man who held him. He struggled and it was in vain. The man hardly seemed to notice beyond the occasional grunt of annoyance.

At first, he was too busy trying to get away to know or care where they were going. He hoped the trees would tell someone -- tell the guardians -- and they would be here soon to help him. It wasn’t an entirely outlandish hope, but it would take time for the trees to pass the message along through the forest until it got to someone who could understand them.

For now, Steve was on his own.

He was half-dragged, half-carried over the forest threshold, and then their journey took them up. It was then that Steve realized where the man intended for them to go. They were on the mountain path that led to Bucky, exactly where Steve had been headed.

He thrashed suddenly and so violently that the man was taken off-guard. Steve’s arms were freed in the confusion, and he used the opportunity to reach behind him and claw at the man’s face. The man made another annoyed sound, grabbing Steve’s wrist and flinging him away. Steve hurdled toward the edge of the path with a surprised shout, which also just so happened to be the edge of the mountain. His toes slid on the dusty edge as he hung over it. The only thing that kept him from falling to his death was the grip on his wrist.

The man pulled him upright, only to turn him around and grab him by the neck, dangling over the edge again. Steve couldn’t make a noise. With fear pulsing through him and the man’s grip tight on his neck, it was already too difficult to breathe.

“Now,” the man said, a facade of calm over bubbling anger. “You keep causing me trouble, I’ll drop you over the edge and be done with it. You wanna live? You behave.”

His grip loosened just enough to enable speech.

“You’re the dragonslayer,” Steve whispered.

This seemed to take the man by surprise; he barked out a laugh.

“That I am,” he said. He brought Steve away from the edge, brought him far too close, until they were nose to nose. “And you’re gonna help me kill a dragon.”

“No,” Steve said immediately and started struggling again. “No, I don’t want to, let go of me! I won’t let you.”

Scoffing, the dragonslayer pulled out a knife and pointed the tip of it between Steve’s eyes.

“Yes, you will,” he said. “Now hush or I’ll cut that tongue out. I don’t need you to be able to talk, I just need him to see you. In fact, it’d probably be better if you were dead.”

Steve sucked in a breath.

“But it might be useful,” the dragonslayer mused. “Having him hear you beg. I’ll have to think about that.”

He looked meaningfully at Steve, and the message was clear: Steve was the deciding factor. If he didn’t cooperate, the slayer would present his corpse to Bucky.

Swallowing thickly, Steve nodded silently. He wouldn’t -- he couldn’t -- do that to Bucky. Just the thought of it sickened him.

“Smart nymph,” the slayer said, grinning viciously. “Knew there had to be a reason he took a shine to you. Now c’mon.”

He yanked Steve up the mountain.

By the time they reached the cave entrance, the pink sunset was nearly gone; indigo tendrils chased it across the sky, nightfall ready for its time to reign.

“You keep quiet now,” the dragonslayer said as they approached the tunnel. His knife pressed into Steve’s throat. “Or I’ll have to rethink your usefulness.”

He pushed Steve forward into the pitch black of the tunnel.

On the other side, the cavern was empty. The billowing curtains around his bed shimmered in the moonlight, but they were the only moving things to be found. When the slayer checked, there was no one in the bed.

Steve couldn’t help the relieved breath he let out. He prayed Bucky wasn’t here, that he was nowhere to be found. He didn’t want this man anywhere near his dragon.

The dragonslayer began to check the tunnels.

Some were caved in and others led deep, deep into the mountain, far beyond where the slayer was willing to go. On the fourth try, he chose the tunnel that led to Steve’s pool.

That was where they found Bucky.

Steve’s heart sank and then soared when he saw the familiar shape of him, sitting on the ledge overlooking the pool. His back was to them as he trailed fingers slowly back and forth in the water. The deadened remnants of Steve’s lilies floated on the surface. Below them, there was no glow from the wildlife at the bottom. Steve’s heartbreak had killed the home he had so painstakingly created.

Oblivious to the people behind him, Bucky scooped up a palmful of water and let it trickle quietly back down. It was something he had done for Steve a dozen times before, but unlike those moments, his posture and movement now held an unbearable sadness.

For a moment, Steve forgot the knife against his throat and the man that held him hostage. All he could focus on was that palpable misery.

“Bucky,” he said, soft. Yearning. He ached to make such grief disappear.

Immediately, Bucky’s back straightened. He turned with the beginnings of a smile on his lips, the very thing that Steve had wanted to see. The smile disappeared as soon as he caught sight of them. A growing horror replaced it, and Steve hated that expression, even more than the sadness.

For the first time, Bucky was well and truly afraid.

“Rumlow,” he spit out, anger bubbling forth with the fear.

He rose fluidly from the pool’s ledge and stepped toward them. His body was coiled, dangerous.

“Now, now,” the man -- Rumlow -- said. He maneuvered them away from Bucky, along the edge of the wall. The knife pressed more harshly against Steve’s neck. Steve winced when he felt it slice skin and blood trickled down his throat. “Not so fast, Barnes.”

Bucky stood frozen, held in place by the sight of Steve’s blood. Anger and fear warred visibly within him but in the end, neither won out. Instead, a kind of helplessness took their place. It was the realization that this situation was well out of his control and no matter what he did, it might not turn out the way he wanted.

His gaze flickered from Rumlow to the knife to Steve’s face and then back down to the knife again. His expression shuttered.

And then Bucky did something unexpected. He fell to his knees, holding his arms out away from his body, fingers spread wide and palms opened toward them.

Behind Steve, Rumlow made a pleased noise.

“What’s this?” he asked, taunting. “Giving up so soon? I thought you’d put up more of a fight. Or is it -- is it this?

He shook Steve a little and then laughed when Steve’s obvious discomfort caused a sound of distress from Bucky.

“Is this what has you ready to show your belly?”

“You can have me,” Bucky said instead of answering. He tried to keep his voice flat, steady, but desperation snuck in, anyways. “I won’t fight. You can do whatever you want, just let him go.”

Another laugh and then suddenly, there was harsh breath on Steve’s skin and a mouth near his ear. Steve tried to cringe away but there was nowhere to go.

“You should feel special,” Rumlow told him viciously. “I couldn’t get this one to cooperate at all. A fuckin’ year I’ve been trying to down him, and all it took was you.”

Steve didn’t feel special. He felt terrible.

He wanted this to stop. He wanted Rumlow to disappear and Bucky to get up and for that expression to never again cross the face he loved so much.

“I’m sorry,” Steve whispered. “Bucky -- I’m sorry. This is all my fault.”

“It isn’t,” Bucky said soothingly. “None of it’s your fault, rybka. It’s fine, everything’s going to be okay. You’ll be safe, I promise.”

There was a frenzied undertone to his voice, as if he were trying to convince himself of it as well.

Steve wanted to scream that it wasn’t himself he was worried about, but Rumlow didn’t give him the chance.

“Now, now,” he said and though Steve couldn’t see his face, he heard the grin in his voice. “Don’t go making promises you can’t keep. You won’t be around to see what happens to him. Your ticket’s up, but if you make it easy, maybe I’ll go easy on him.”

As soon as he said it out loud -- said what he meant to do -- something in Bucky’s posture changes. His shoulders slumped, hands falling limply to his sides. He looked utterly defeated but more than that, his gaze held a bleak inevitability. Steve understood with a sudden, icy clarity.

Bucky would let Rumlow kill him. He would allow it, just for the possibility that Rumlow would keep his word.

Bucky would allow it, but Steve couldn’t.

He couldn’t live another second knowing that Bucky was going to die, knowing that Bucky wouldn’t even put up a fight and it was somehow his fault.

There was a tug from the middle of his body. It was as familiar as Bucky’s touch; even more so, in fact. The water was calling to him. They were close enough for the water to know his fear, his pain, close enough for it to want to soothe him. Magic tied them together, form his soul to the deepest parts of the water. If he let it, that tug would lead him straight to the water.

Please, he begged, digging his heels into the ground. Every inch of his being yearned to answer the call, but if he didn’t, if he wouldn’t, then perhaps the water would choose to close the distance between them. Please.

Power the likes of which he’d never felt before built within him, but it wasn’t enough, it wouldn’t be enough --

“Bucky,” Steve whispered shakily. The water in the pool began to slosh. “Tell me what it means. The name you call me.”

At first, Bucky was confused. He didn’t immediately understand what Steve was asking. It took him only a moment to connect the dots, and when the realization set in, his confusion was replaced with a sad smile.

Sokrovische moyo,” he murmured, tender and affectionate as always. And then, the translation: “my treasure.”

The power inside him snapped, cracked as viscerally and suddenly as his heart, and the pool exploded.

Water shot upward, splashing against the low-hanging ceiling, but instead of crashing back down into the pool, it arched over Bucky’s head toward Steve and Rumlow. It wasn’t so much a wave as it was tendrils -- fingers -- reaching out. A liquid-stone hand whose target was clear.

When it hit them, both of them were thrown back against the wall. The knife fell to the ground, noiseless under the roaring water. Steve had no idea what happened to Rumlow. He was knocked back and then down, the side of his face slamming into the rocky floor.

He had only a moment to glimpse Bucky’s terrified expression directed at him before the world went black.

*

“Steve.” The voice was distant, as if Steve were underwater and someone called to him from the surface. “Rybka, you have to wake up --”

It was Bucky’s voice, and he sounded devastated.

At first, Steve couldn’t understand why. He didn’t understand anything. His mind was a step behind his waking body, the fog of sleep still heavy over him. It prevented him from parsing out what could be so important that he had to be pulled from sleep. There was something important that he needed to remember. Something that he should be thinking of, trying to ask Bucky at this very moment, but Steve couldn’t think of what it was.

He became aware of his body in stages.

There was, first and foremost, the throbbing pain on his right cheek, the burn of a cut on his throat. He was bruised and battered, aching from head to foot. Underneath him, there was something hard and unforgiving. It dug into his skin, creating new pains.

He tried to speak and answer Bucky’s call, but it came out a garbled noise that sounded nothing like his dragon’s name.

It was enough.

Steve,” Bucky said again but this time, thankfully, he sounded relieved. “Can you hear me? Open your eyes for me.”

Valiantly, Steve tried to do just that but he could only blink hazily once, twice, and then his eyes fell shut again. He made a plaintive noise, nuzzling into the hand cupping his cheek.

Bucky shushed him sweetly. “I’ve got you,” he said, but it sounded more like he was reassuring himself rather than Steve. “I’ve got you, sokrovische moyo. I know what you need.”

The hand cupping his uninjured cheek disappeared, but before Steve could lament its loss, it slid under his shoulders. Bucky’s other hand cupped his legs and then Steve was lifted from the hard surface. He was pressed to Bucky’s warm chest, head lolling uselessly on one shoulder.

A flurry of footsteps echoed in the tunnel. Bucky didn’t pause in his movements, carrying Steve to wherever he thought they needed to be.

“Excellent timing,” he snarled in the direction of the footsteps. “He’s over there.”

“What happened?” The question came from Natasha. The other footsteps must’ve been Clint and Tony.

Bucky didn’t answer. His movements halted.

Distantly, Steve noticed the sound of sloshing water. He didn’t understand what it meant. He didn’t understand what any of it meant. It was an effort to stay conscious at all, let alone comprehend what was happening around him.

The pieces didn’t slot in place until Bucky began to put distance between them, to pull Steve away from his body and push him toward the sloshing water. Finally, Steve understood what Bucky had done. He’d been brought to the pool, so that he could be put into it.

His mind was hazy, but he somehow knew that the water would make it better, though he couldn’t remember why. Still, he didn’t want it; he didn’t want to be better if it meant being away from Bucky.

Whining, he shook his head and tried to move closer again. He reached out blindly, searching until he found Bucky’s shoulders. He pulled himself up until he could wrap himself properly around his dragon, arms tight around his neck and legs encircling his waist. He was far too weak to cling the way he wanted, but he didn’t give up. His remaining strength was spent keeping them together.

He couldn’t remember why this was so important. There was only the urgency beneath his breastbone to drive him, and that was enough. They couldn’t be separated.

“Steve,” Bucky said, and Steve tried to focus. Gentle hands moved him until he sat up in Bucky’s arms, his gaze hazy and heavy-lidded on Bucky’s concerned expression. “You have to get into the water, rybka. You need it.”

“Don’t want to,” he murmured, pleading. Their foreheads pressed together, and Steve sighed, nuzzling closer. His eyelids were too heavy and fell shut again. It wasn’t important to keep them open when he could feel Bucky so vividly. “Want you.”

Bucky’s hand tightened on Steve’s thigh.

“Okay,” he whispered, reverent. “Okay, rybka. I won’t leave you.”

He waded into the pool, not even bothering to pause and divest himself of his clothes. As soon as water touched his skin, Steve began to wake. The water curled around him, seeped into him. Power and vitality raced through his veins so quickly that he was left breathless.

They sank underneath the water for several precious seconds, and when they broke surface again, Steve was clear-headed again.

Bucky touched his face. His fingers traced one of Steve’s markings and then pushed back his wet hair, a gesture that was both familiar and unbearably tender.

“Are you okay now, rybka?”

Steve nodded, finally able to open his eyes. Bucky smiled softly, his hand sliding down to cup the back of Steve’s neck and bring him closer. As if Steve had any inclination to put distance between them.

“What happened?” he asked, an echo of Natasha’s question.

Unlike before, Bucky answered.

“You killed him,” he murmured. “The water took hold of him and wouldn’t let go. He drowned.”

A shiver ran down Steve’s spine.

His powers had never been used for such a dark purpose before. Truly, he hadn’t even thought himself capable of it. He wasn’t disgusted, though, as he thought he might be. Rumlow would’ve killed his dragon, he would’ve taken this very moment away from Steve if given the chance. Now he was gone and Bucky was here, holding Steve close and comforting him with soft touches. Things were as they should be.

“He was going to kill you,” Steve whispered. “You were going to let him.”

Bucky didn’t bother to deny it. The hand on Steve’s neck squeezed lightly, bringing them ever closer.

“I couldn’t protect you,” he said, pained. “I didn’t know what to do that would keep you out of harm’s way. I couldn’t even think, couldn’t focus on anything but his knife, your blood --”

He ducked his head suddenly, pushing Steve’s chin up with a thumb under his jaw. The first touch of his mouth was such an unexpected shock that Steve cried out, fingers digging into Bucky’s shoulders.

Distantly, he was aware of the others -- Tony’s complaint and Clint’s laughter, Natasha saying something in a warning tone -- but he couldn’t focus on any of it. All he knew was the heat of Bucky’s mouth on his skin, the satisfied rumble that vibrated his chest.

The water healed his cut, but Bucky remembered where it had been. He dedicated his entire focus to laving that spot again and again, until Steve thought he might burst from the heat building within him.

He moaned helplessly, the water trembled around them, and that seemed to only spur Bucky on. His grip tightened, pulling Steve impossibly closer. Steve’s hard cock rubbed against his belly, and his moan changed in octaves. He clawed at Bucky’s shoulders, wriggling, wanting more.

Against his throat, Bucky murmured something in his mother tongue and then sucked at his skin, groaning.

James!

Natasha’s voice echoed through the chamber, carrying with it the undercurrent of a growl. It was just forceful enough to break the heady fog that had settled over them, but the intrusion was entirely unwelcomed. Pulling away, Bucky turned to snarl viciously at her. She stared back, unmoved by this display of aggression.

The pool’s cavern was now empty save for the three of them.

“I know it’s difficult,” she said, keeping her voice gentle. “But you have to calm down now.”

Her words gave Steve pause. He tried to focus beyond the press of their skin, the ache in his bones left behind by the loss of Bucky’s mouth on him.

Bucky was shaking. His entire body was wracked with tremors and there was tension in the line of his shoulders, in his face, even in the way he held Steve. His control was slipping.

Steve turned to Natasha, wanting to help, but she shook her head and kept her eyes on Bucky. He wasn’t to get between them.

“Steve needs to see the mountain keeper now,” she said firmly. “This will have to wait.”

Bucky growled again. “No,” he spit out. “I don’t --”

James,” Natasha repeated. Her tone brooked no argument. “He could be more injured than what the water can heal.”

It took several seconds for Bucky to say anything, and those seconds were spent touching Steve. His fingers caressed Steve’s spine, his neck, hips, and thighs. Each caress was careful and yet so possessive. It was far too easy to become caught up in them again, until the only thing he could focus on were the hands on him.

Finally, Bucky conceded.

“Fine. Get the mountain keeper.”

“He’s already here,” Natasha said. “Come out of the water now. Steve has recovered his strength.”

Reluctantly, Bucky obeyed.

She led him away from the pool and back into the main cavern, where the guardians of the forest had gathered. When Sam saw Steve, he made a strangled noise and started to move toward them. Natasha held up a hand to stop him, before turning to face Bucky again. She gestured toward the foot of the bed.

“Put Steve down,” she said, “and go change your clothes.”

Bucky’s clothes were indeed soaked. Each step came with a watery smack, and behind them, Steve could see a trail of wet footprints. Still, it brought him no joy to think of Bucky leaving him even for a moment. If Bucky’s tightened grip was any indication, he didn’t like the idea of it, either.

Neither of them argued.

Silently, Bucky set Steve down on the bed as instructed and cupped his face. He kissed first Steve’s forehead, then his nose, then his cheek before pulling back.

“I’ll only be a moment,” he promised softly.

Steve nodded silently. He wanted to beg Bucky to hurry, but it was clear that he was still rattled. He needed time to collect himself.

Bucky kissed his forehead again, longer and harder this time. When he was done, he straightened and walked away without a backward glance. Steve watched him until he disappeared into one of the other tunnels and then he watched that tunnel, waiting for him to come back.

“Steve,” Bruce murmured. “Steve.”

Reluctantly, Steve turned toward him.

“Can you tell us what happened?” he asked as he began to check Steve over for injury.

Steve obliged. He told them of the tree he sat under and how the forest tried to warn him about Rumlow. He told them of the trek up the mountain, Rumlow’s threats, the way he was dragged room to room in the cavern before they finally found what Rumlow wanted. He told them what happened when they did find Bucky.

Halfway through the story, Bucky returned from changing his clothes. He now wore only a fresh pair of black pants and when he was near enough, he scooped Steve up and sat on the trunk himself, placing Steve in his lap. No one protested. Steve told the rest of the story from his dragon’s embrace, the warm skin of Bucky’s chest heating his back.

“Where did you hit your head?” Bruce asked, when Steve told them of being knocked unconscious.

Steve showed him.

“Do you think it was bad?” he asked. “That the water killed him?”

“You were protecting someone,” Sam said. “That is never a bad thing.”

“Does this hurt?” Bruce asked, his fingertips gently probing the spot where Steve hit his head.

When Steve shook his head, he smiled and patted Steve’s knee.

“Well, you don’t seem to have any broken bones, at least. And Sam is right, Steve. The magic you wield was used to protect someone that you love. It’s a terrible business, killing someone -- not something to be taken lightly at all -- but your intent wasn’t malicious. That makes all the difference with the Gods.”

As Steve contemplated this, Bucky shifted them, leaning forward to speak to Bruce.

“Is he okay, then?”

Bruce smiled. “He’s perfectly fine,” he said. “Whatever injuries he had were superficial and healed by the water. That was an excellent idea, taking him there.”

Bucky’s expression turned rather smug, Steve thought as he craned his neck to look back at him.

“So, I suppose this means you’re staying,” Sam said to him, his tone abrupt but not unkind. “You can’t take him away from the forest. The humans --”

“I remember what the humans did,” Bucky replied swiftly. “I would never expose Steve to that. If you’d permit me, yes, I would like to stay.”

The guardians glanced at each other and then Lady Jane smiled.

“Of course,” she said. “We’ve been waiting for you to ask since the incident with the hydra.”

Bucky coughed, looking rather embarrassed over the mention of said incident. Grinning, Steve wriggled in his arms until he straddled Bucky’s lap.

His smile turned impish. “Dragons don’t protect just anyone, you know,” he said seriously.

“So I’ve heard,” Bucky replied. His smile was soft as he nuzzled closer.

“I think,” Lady Jane said lightly, “we can discuss the particulars in the morning.”

“A good idea,” Bruce agreed. “Moonrise is nearly here.”

He turned to Natasha. “There are other caves that you could --”

“That would be wonderful,” she said, smiling. “We can collect the men along the way, yes?”

“Of course.”

Natasha threw a smirk at them as she followed the guardians out of the cavern. No one called for Steve to follow them, and he didn’t move to do so, either. He was exactly where he wanted to be, and here was where he would stay.

They heard Tony and Clint meet the others in the tunnel.

“What’s going on?” Clint asked. “We’re leaving?”

“Oh?” Tony said. “But we just finished --”

“You can tell me about it on the way,” Natasha told him. “We’ll be staying elsewhere tonight. And then it’s time to head home in the morning, I believe.”

“Oh, gross.”

When they were alone, Steve looked back to Bucky. He pressed a hand to his cheek, smiling for no other reason than because he was here and he was happy. Bucky seemed similarly afflicted, his smile as wide as Steve thought his own was. He pressed his thumb to the corner of Bucky’s mouth.

“Will you tell me again?” Steve whispered. “What it means?”

Bucky hummed, his smile turning mischievous.

Rybka,” he said, pressing his lips to Steve’s cheek.

“It means little,” he kissed one eyelid, “fish,” and then the other.

“Not that one.”

Steve tried to sound annoyed but failed miserably. Bucky kissed his forehead, lips dragging across sensitive skin to his temple. It made it hard to think, hard to breathe. He shivered, eyes fluttering closed.

“No?” Bucky asked, kissing his temple. “Which one, then?”

Sokrovische moyo,” Steve replied, breathless. His accent was imperfect, but it wasn't so terrible that the words were misunderstood.

Bucky kissed his other cheek and then his nose and then his chin, each movement slow. Finally, he pulled back, and when he did, Steve saw the desire in his darkened gaze. He wondered how he could’ve ever missed such a thing.

Sokrovische moyo,” he murmured tenderly. “My treasure.”

Their lips met.

It was the first of many ardent kisses to be shared between them.