It was only after Steve bonded with his wolfsister, seventy years later, that he understood what Bucky had gone through in that Hydra stronghold. Leila stripped Steve bare, scraped him down to the bone, made him face the truth that all men and women in battle know as intimately as the rhythm of their own blood and try their best to forget afterwards. Fear. He was, those first few days when Leila was still small enough to curl in the palm of his hand, her stubby legs dangling and her nose tucked under his thumb, constantly terrified. He could feel every swift breath she took, the throat-stopping fragility of the bones of her ribcage around the beat of her heart, the dizzying tightrope she walked between life and death. Every drop of milk she took was a victory. Every breath she took - her sleepy, whuffling puppy-breaths, the twitch of her nose - was a battle won. He did not remember sleeping, that first week.
I live, Leila told him, absolutely certain.
She was delighted by everything when she was awake. Her wonder was amazing to see. Steve steve STEVE, she called. Everything was new for her, the forest of his rag rug and the smell of dry coffee grounds and spilled milk and socks and pencil shavings and potato soup and breadcrumbs and PIZZA, the cold, sharp scent of the night sky, the humid, sweaty comfort of his sheets. Leila's world was her nose, when she was very young, and the size of her belly -hungry! Starving! EMPTY STEVE FEED ME STEVE STEVE.
Leila's world was Steve. The scent of his name, that sharp scent of sunlight Leila's mother had recognized and named him with. Sometimes, in those first weeks, he would open his mouth and have no idea what to call himself. He was so used to identifying himself with his scent-name, when Leila was small (it's me, I'm here, we're okay, are you hungry?) that he had no context to convey who he was to someone without packsense. Steve was too small a word. They were a pack of two, together, steve-and-leila, warm steel and evening-star-pierces-clouds. He was never alone. Even when she was asleep, Leila's thoughts followed his, sleepy dreaming full belly steve. And when she was awake - when she was awake the world was full of wonder.
He was not alone. There were two of them. He was floored by her, every time, emptied out and shaking, the absolute trust she had in him, the depth of her devotion, her presence. How could he not, humbly, offer the same to her? They were together, bonded, pack.
It must have been the same, he thought one evening, about a month after Leila's mother died. He was on the couch, too tired even to read, because Leila was still on two-hourly feeds although she was asleep then, her little puffball of a body curled up in his lap. Her tail was still too short for her to tuck her nose underneath it, the way she'd do sometimes when she was older. It was evening, late evening, almost dark, the sky over the river a deep, indigo blue, and Steve thought, the shape of his realization suddenly and shockingly acute, this must have been the same for Bucky. The idea was fully formed and knife edged. When Bucky was captured, when Hydra had him, them, Bucky must have felt the same fear for Nair, and Nair was - they had been chained apart. They couldn't even see each other. They couldn't even talk to each other. Bucky had to cry out for Nair, hadn't known if he was alive or dead.
Steve had to breathe very carefully, one-two-three in, one-two-three out. He was probably holding Leila too tight, too close, he could feel her puzzled, questioning reach for him in his mind. You're here, you're safe, we're both safe. He said it over and over again, while the thought of Bucky's fear loomed like a monster and shadowed his own.
The black one? Leila said.
"What?" Steve said out loud.
The black one? Leila said impatiently. The black wolf. She pushed something at him, mud and cordite and the smell of poppies after rain.
She meant Nair. He hadn't known he would recognize Nair's scent-name, but it had been seventy years, and he knew that smell.
Yes, Steve said. Nair. Bucky's wolf.
Leila knew about Bucky. She couldn't not, because everything Steve did with her was shadowed by the knowledge that Bucky had done it first. She thought of him as half-wolf, because when Steve remembered Bucky and tried to describe him to Leila he was all smells - penny candy and liquorice, stale tobacco rolled in newspaper, a Christmas orange, the heavy taint of ship oil and coal dust, cordite and way the metallic taste of C-rations lingered on your tongue and in your throat. He couldn't make her see Bucky's grin or the shape of his hands. Nair was even harder to describe, because in Steve's mind he was all teeth and fur and dirty paws on blankets and never apart from Bucky, an intruder on space that had always been Steve's.
He didn't feel the same, after Leila. Nair should have hated him, Steve thought, running his fingers over and over again through Leila's baby fur, tugging gently on her ears. It wasn't Nair who was the intruder.
The black one, Leila confirmed. She pushed an image at him, startlingly clear, of massive black paws, accompanying it with the same scent, so clearly Steve had to stop himself from looking up to see if Nair was in the room. Nair's ghost.
Nair had died seventy years ago.
Leila pushed harder. Really, really big paws she said. The rest of the image was blurred, the way she'd seen things that first week before her eyes really opened. Then Leila added in the smell of cold pizza.
Inevitably, Steve tried to remember how long it was since they had eaten. Leila concurred, yawning. She was hungry. She had been hungry then, too. There was never enough milk. No food for either of them. The black wolf had tried to bring them food, but the mother, Leila's mother, hadn't trusted him, and Leila was too little for pizza. Then everything was cold, so cold, and there had been no food, and then -
I love you, Steve said to her, the words a fortress.
I know, Leila said. Feed me.
She wasn't afraid of the black wolf. She wasn't afraid of anything. She was, she said, plucking the image from Steve's mind and standing four-square on his lap with her tail a tiny, plumed flag. She was an Agent. Also she was hungry.
Steve, grinning, rolled his commanding officer into the careful cradle of his hands and tucked her up against his shoulder, and went for milk.
In Steve's memories, Nair was never a puppy. Nair was the grim, silent wolf shadowing Bucky's heels, a reflection of all the ways Bucky had changed. But once, Bucky must have held Nair the way Steve held Leila, his heart in his hands.