When Bucky fell Nair went after him. Steve saw them sometimes, in his nightmares, Bucky, falling, and Nair leaping after him, all four legs splayed against the wind, howling. Steve had - in his memory, they fell in slow motion, horrifically clear - Steve had not tried to save Bucky's wolf. Perhaps he could have done. Perhaps he should have done. But the fact was, Bucky fell, and Nair followed him, and Steve watched both of them fall once for real and then again, over and over again.
When Steve fell from the helicarrier Bucky came after him, and he had Leila in his arms. That was the memory which mattered to Steve, not winning the fight or redirecting the guidance system - those things were their mission, they had to be done and were - what mattered was Bucky reaching for Leila and carrying her down into the river. Leila's foreleg had been shattered by Bucky's third shot, so splintered both bones would have been ruined if she'd been anyone else's wolf, but Bucky could have killed her and did not. Steve thought he'd had only shot her because Leila had gone for him, when Steve dragged himself upright and began to climb. She'd given Steve enough time to reach the platform under the missile guidance system. And by then - well, Steve had already been blocking his own injuries from his wolfsister. When Bucky shot her, Leila's mind snapped closed after the first instant of blinding pain and fear. Their packsense was minimal. He knew she was there, and she knew he was there, that was about it, and it should have been enough, they were a pack, the way they always had been. It was just that, blocked as they were, when he fell Steve could only hope Leila would understand, and Leila, trapped, would not risk their mission by crying out for help.
Bucky had saved her. Bucky had ripped her from the tangled mass of cables and wires, held her hard and sure with his metal arm, and taken them both down into the river after Steve. When Steve had woken on the river bank, he had not been alone.
Bucky was. There was no black shadow at Bucky's heels as he ran, no flash of yellowed teeth and bristling fur stalking behind Bucky on the bridge or the helicarrier. Ripped from the packsense he and Nair once had, Bucky must have been unmoored, riven with grief, mad with it. Alone. It was a thought so devastating Steve had to hold onto the ruff of Leila's neck and take a long, steadying breath, facing the unthinkable. Without Leila, without his wolfsister - the shadow of the pain of Bucky's loss hurt Steve far more than his own healing gunshots and broken ribs and betrayals. Far more, Steve was ashamed to think, burying his hands in Leila's fur and holding on, than it would have done if Nair had died in France.
In France, he'd seen the hollow shells of men who had lived when their wolfbrothers died. Now, he understood.
Leila opened her eyes and looked up at him. I'm here. You're here. We are alive, she told him.
"You tell him, sister," Sam said, from the side of the bed.
"Bucky's wolf was called Nair," Steve said. Then, like any military introduction, he added, "Nair's dam was-"
Sam said, "Nah, man, that's enough for me, too many pups," and his hand had done some complicated twist which, Steve guessed, expressed the military bloodlines and regimented isolation of the twenty-first century Wolf Corps. But Sam was very good at discerning when Leila had something to say, and Steve thought, sometimes, if Leila had puppies....
"He's bonded? Huh," Sam said.
"Was," Steve said.
Sam had worked with the Wolf Corps, in Afghanistan, and Iraq, although these days the Corps must be, Steve thought, a long way from the battalions Steve had known, with their pressured breeding programs and mis-matched war-bonds. Bucky had implied - although he never had said much - that his and Nair's bond had been a mistake, that Nair had been bred for an officer. But Nair's dam had been a free wolf before the military trapped her, fiercely rebellious. Nair was the eldest son of her second litter, and all those pups bonded outside the command structure. Wolf Corp officers still looked askance when Bucky drove through camp with Nair in the passenger seat of the jeep, ears pricked into the wind, no collar, and no insignia.
For a moment, Steve could almost feel the ghost of the wind in his fur and the leather of the seat under his paws, the wolf's gift of living solely in the present. He could smell cordite, and poppies.
That was neither his memory nor Leila's. It was embedded in their packsense, but the taste of it was old, worn and faded and cherished and so shot through with pain Steve shivered. "Leila."
"Steve?" Sam said. "What is it?"
Pack, Leila said.
She was seventy years too young to have known Bucky or Nair, but that had not been Steve's memory.
Did he think she didn't know her own pack? The dark one and the black one? Did he think she hadn't recognized the scent on the wind when one-eye was shot? Was he blind? The mattress heaved as Leila scrambled to her feet, stiff-legged, her nose wrinkled, staring Steve down. Image after image slammed into their packsense - Bucky's scent-name, his tracks on the roof, his sweat, acrid and chemical but every note of it unique and pack, Nair's anguished loneliness, his kindness, his fear, the shape of his paws as he tried to make Leila's mother eat and then Leila herself . The smell of Steve's scent-name, before he set foot in their den, so that Leila's mother, dying, would know her pup would be loved.
"He's alive," Steve said, incredulous. "Nair." He was staring Leila in the eyes, but Leila would accept no uncertainty. "No wolf lives that long," Steve said.
"No wolf heals the way your sister does, either," Sam said.
He nodded at Leila, respectful, and Leila blinked, back, relaxing, shuffling hospital blankets so she could curl her tail over Steve's ankles. Her plastered leg was stiff and cold, she told Steve, and itched. She'd told him about Nair lifetimes ago.
"Hey," Sam said. "You wolfbrothers share packsense, right? So suppose you ask Leila to ask Nair if he would very kindly use this nose I hear so much about-" He nodded to Leila "-And track down your buddy, yeah? Search and Rescue packs. It's a thing."
"Leila," Steve said. "Leila."
You didn't tell me it was important, Leila said.
"I thought that was a dog," Steve said, dizzy with his own misconceptions. In the war, he'd never known the taste of Nair's name. Bucky had tried to describe it, and to Steve, who had not known then what it was to be a wolf's brother or sister, Nair's name had been just words. He'd always thought the dog - the wolf - that had looked after Leila when she was new-born had been a neighborhood stray.
He and Leila had been bonded for two years. All that time. He would have known Bucky was alive. They would have given Nair a home. Anything. Everything.
Gently, sliding into packsense, Leila told him broken, alone, no-pack, an agonizingly splintered perception. A wolf without brother, without pack, she described. Which was nonsense, she had offered -
Her tail bristled. She had not offered. She had demanded. It was her right. He was her pack. He was hers.
"He is not yours!" Steve said, painfully tense and horrified. He had his hands on Leila's face, forcing her to meet his eyes, giving her image after frozen image - Bucky's face, Bucky's eyes, Nair collared and in chains, Bucky captured, tortured, no choice, no freedom.
Leila recoiled. She was whining, her tail clamped between her legs. They are ours, she said. You promised - and Steve could see himself in her eyes, as intimately bonded to her as she was to him, sleeping alone, not sleeping, always busy, always fighting, trying to make pack with the wolfless. Yet he had a pack - the Howling Commandos, their wolves, Bucky and Nair - and he had told Leila about them, shown them to her. Promised her companionship and her own pack and herself at the head of it, a mate, puppies.
They both flinched from that thought. Leila's first heat had not gone well. Fiercely, Leila overlaid that failure with a picture of herself and the black wolf, shoulder to shoulder. Hunting together, bigger prey than the beetles and mice Nair had hunted when she herself was very young. She painted in Steve, his beloved sunshine and her starlight, added in mud and cordite and the smell of poppies after rain, and anchoring all three of them was something dark and gleaming and dangerous, a bullet in the night, but also rabbit stew and steady hands combing through fur and ear scratches and love. Pack, Leila said. Slowly, carefully, she layered in Bucky's grin, the warmth of his hands, the tilt of his head, his bravado and his cool courage, all the ways Steve remembered his best friend. In Leila's mind, she gathered them both up, their blind human noses and their puny human teeth, and set them carefully between herself and Nair. This is pack, she said. This is our pack.
"Bucky is - damaged," Steve said, slowly. He wasn't breathing. He'd had no idea, none, hadn't even suspected the depth of Leila's commitment to Steve's memories. He had no idea how he could give her what she wanted - he had had no idea, he thought, of the depth of his own need for the same thing, or how his loneliness had shaped Leila's. He'd been a fool.
"Well, you're probably right there," Sam said.
Leila opined that he thought she was an idiot. She'd met Nair. She'd challenged Bucky. She knew exactly how damaged they were, she told Steve, and her respect for Bucky's aggression was all wolf and edged with teeth. They were pack. Had been pack, would be pack - Leila, impatient, swept away all qualifiers, grudgingly added in, outliers, the wolf-blind Sam and Natasha and Clint and the metal one, the shape-shifter and the unbonded wolf-speaker, and then the heart of the pack, Bucky and Nair and Steve and Leila. Bucky and Nair were Steve's pack before Leila was even born, and now they were Leila's pack, her brothers. All Steve and she had to do was find them, the same way they had found the others.
She was so sure.