Steve was angry. That was nothing new. Some days, anger was the only thing that kept him going, kept him on his feet and pushing through. Anger at the world, at the sheer unfairness of it, the injustices that piled up like blown leaves.
Anger at himself, at his body for betraying him. For letting him down when he needed it, for leaving him gasping and in agony when he tried to help fix the small injustices, to stand up for people who couldn't stand up for themselves.
Anger at fate, at death, at the gods themselves when they saw fit to snatch his mother away from him, leaving him alone in the world.
The city had a Watch, but that didn't help his neighbourhood. It was too poor, too full of people from other places, too unlikely to net them anything to make it worth their while. They didn't turn a blind eye to the injustices; turning a blind eye would have required them to bring their eyes down here in the first place.
Steve was on his way back from his job, a long journey involving a walk through the dismal back streets in the cold fog, making everything ache, his heart pound, his lungs catch, when he heard the pleading. The sounds of fists on flesh. It was automatic, his anger acting without consulting Steve, to hurry towards the sound, to toss himself into the fray, to end it lying in the dirt and the wet, bleeding and with maybe a cracked rib, but by the gods he'd stopped them. Maybe only because they'd been made uneasy by his pigheaded refusal to back down, to run away, blood on his teeth as, fists raised, he dared them to keep going—but whatever the reason, he'd stopped them.
The poor bastard who'd been tonight's easy target helped Steve to his feet, put Steve's arm over his shoulder, and took him home. His wife patched Steve's wounds and they shared their supper with him. Steve was touched, his anger soothed by their unexpected kindness.
He barely noticed the pain as he finally made his way home.
The other scribes, hunched over their desks scribbling away by the light of their lanterns, didn't speak while they were working. As harsh as their boss was, they all got a break at noon-time, to eat, to stretch, to walk in the air, and then the scribes gossiped like they were giving vent to a lifetime's pent up words.
Today it was rumours. Rumours of a sorcerer. A great and powerful worker of magic, powerful enough to change people, to make them different. To make them better. He was powerful but miserly, went the rumours, went the gossip, preferred to have mundane tasks performed the standard way, saving his magical powers for magical matters.
A sorcerer who would take on servants, exchanging spells for service.
Steve silently listened to the rumours, to the gossip, and his anger whispered that this might be an answer: surely it would be a matter of no consequence for a great sorcerer to wave his magic wand and change Steve's body into something strong, something he could use to make an actual difference.
Steve was a scribe. He could read and write, but more, he could do figures and sums and he could draw. Surely that would be of value to a worker of magic. If the sorcerer demanded a term of service in exchange for the spell, well, it wasn't as if Steve was doing anything meaningful with his life.
The rumours and gossip were everywhere, a trail of breadcrumbs in the forest, and Steve followed them, pinned down definites, made a plan and made his way to where the sorcerer's estate was supposed to be.
He found it, brooding stone surrounded by twisted walls like a warning, and was directed to the servant's entrance. When he offered his skills—reading, writing, drawing, sums—he was made an offer: not a term of service but a term of indentured servitude. His better sense pointed out that an indentured servant was little better than a slave but his anger shouted it down, said that it was only ten years and he would be strong and healthy at the end of it.
It wasn't a bad life. He spent most of his time copying old books of runes and spells and who knew what onto clean parchment, eyes growing sore and dry, hand cramping, back aching, but overall it wasn't terrible. The sorcerer had cast one small spell, to ensure Steve's life would be preserved until the end of the indenture, since his health was chancy enough ten more years of life hadn't been guaranteed, but the rest would have to wait until the end.
He had time to walk out in the sunshine through the maze of winding walls, to peek into the many courtyards with their dark, gnarled trees.
On one of his walks he found the dog. It was a mangy mutt, sad and scrawny and tied to a tree in a courtyard. Once it might have been strong and sleek, it had that look, but now it was scraggly and thin. It growled at Steve the first time Steve saw it, but, as the days passed and Steve talked to it, soft and gentle, brought it scraps of food and spent time in its vicinity, it gradually warmed up to him.
Started waiting for him.
Looked at him with a disturbing intelligence. Listened when he talked.
"You don't act much like a dog," Steve mused one day, offering the dog the last of his lunch.
The dog leapt to his feet and hooked his front paw over Steve's arm, staring with a fervent desperation. Steve stared back, met the dog's eyes that, now that he was really looking, didn't much look like the eyes of a dog.
This was a sorcerer's estate. There wasn't much that wouldn't be possible here.
"Are you a dog?" he whispered, like the walls themselves might overhear, like the trees would tell tales if he spoke too loud.
The dog shook his head and pawed at Steve's arm.
"Are you," he swallowed hard, with the sense of perching on the edge of a cliff, knowing he was about to take an irrevocable step, to plunge into the depths, "are you a person?"
The dog gave one frantic bark and twisted, paws scrabbling at its throat. Eyes wide, Steve stared as it writhed, changed, pale human limbs emerging from narrow furred ones, and he lunged forward in sudden understanding to unbuckle the collar before it strangled the naked man lying, panting, where the dog had been.
Thundering silence pressed down on them like sodden snow as the sorcerer appeared. The man cringed away and Steve surged to his feet, planting his skinny self between them.
"So," the sorcerer said. "You broke the curse."
Steve said nothing. Behind him the man slowly climbed to his feet, a tiny whine, pure dog, escaping him.
"Some might say that was an unkind thing to do when I have been good to you."
"Some might say that cursing a man to be a dog was an unkind," Steve put a vicious twist on the word, "thing to do." Inside he was shaking, because he knew what he faced, he knew what he risked, but a fierce wave of anger, of rage, washed through him, carrying him forward.
"Perhaps." The sorcerer's lips formed something that could have been a smile if it wasn't so steeped in malice. "But once a dog will more easily be a dog again." The sorcerer's hands twisted, the man behind Steve whined again, and Steve, fury riding him, spurs of pure anger raking his sides, launched himself forward, tackling the sorcerer and driving him to the ground.
"Run. Run!" Steve screamed at the man. "Go!"
The man hesitated, Steve yelled it again as the sorcerer bucked under him, then the man who'd been a dog was bolting for the gate, disappearing through it, running with the fleetness of a coursing hound. "Thank you," he called as he disappeared. "Thank you."
Sudden pain wracked Steve's body and his limbs were weak, all he could do was curl around himself as lightning burned under his skin. The sorcerer rose to his feet and he waved his hand. Steve was frozen. The pain slowly faded.
"That was very unwise."
Steve glared at him.
"You've earned a curse of your own." Steve kept glaring as inside he refused to be afraid; he'd known when he'd launched himself forward that he'd sealed his fate. "Only your curse won't be so easily broken. Magic has rules that even I must obey, and every curse must have a seed of hope, so," he tapped his chin, "you may not, by deed or action, attempt to reveal that you are something other than the beast of burden you appear, except in answer to a direct question. Someone must recognise you for what you are and ask it of you. If that happens you may answer and the curse can be broken, but you will still need to find a magic user to actually break it."
The sorcerer's hands twisted and Steve was engulfed in black light, like being entombed, and his body twisted, he was drowning, shoved down into the deep black ocean. He couldn't breathe, he couldn't think and he screamed, a high pitched cry of rage, and thrashed four feet, swung a long neck, the world gone flat and colourless, filled with strange scents. He flung his feet, felt them scrape the ground, could see himself: long nose, four hooves, pale grey body, almost white. Horse. Horse. You're a horse.
"And I have fulfilled my end of our bargain. No one can deny that I've changed you into something strong and healthy, so you will have to serve out the rest of your indenture. I'm certain we can find a use for a horse."
It was possible the sorcerer's servants could have found a use for a horse.
They couldn’t find a use for Steve, filled with fury and, for the first time in his life, with the strength to match it.
He'd been given a stallion's body, tall and strong and brimming with power, and when they tried to subdue him, to force him to obey, whips and chains and ropes, they met hooves and teeth and iron will. He didn't have control of his body yet, was still clumsy and awkward, but he'd never, even when he'd been a person and skinny and half-dead, let anything stop him.
A month after his transformation Steve was sold to the first horse dealer who'd take him.
I do want to warn for animal death in the second scene of this chapter. It's not violent, an old horse essentially gets painlessly put down, but it happens and I didn't want to spring that on anyone because I know how I'd feel. There's also references in this and later chapters to past harm done to Steve as a horse, but it's not explicit. More detail in the end notes of this chapter for anyone who needs it.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
A year later
The sound of flapping pennants and people and the calls of horses filled the air as Bucky stood at the top of the slope, looking down over the horse fair.
"Where are you going?" Natasha called as he started to walk down the little hill.
"I'm just going to have a look around," Bucky called over his shoulder.
"None of these ones good enough for you?" she teased, gesturing at the gathered horses, and she had a point, there was nothing but quality on offer, long limbs and smooth muscles and straight backs, bright eyes and curious ears everywhere he looked.
"I just want to see what else is out there." Not that there was likely to be anything else in the fair that could match the horses that had been assembled for the Horse Guard to choose from. The best breeders, the best trainers had brought horses specifically for the Horse Guard, just like they did every year. This was the biggest horse fair in the Kingdom, the Horse Guard always attended, and you could make your fortune if they took a liking to your horses.
The Horse Guard was unique among the Kingdom's military. Anyone could join: noble and commoner, merchantfolk and circus folk, peasants and farmers. No one cared who you came from or where you came from. The only thing they cared about was: could you ride? Could you sit a horse like you were born in the saddle and learn to fight? The Horse Guard fought on horseback, fought with their horses and, if you believed the rumours, there wasn't anything they couldn't, or in fact wouldn't, do on horseback.
True Horse Guard, went the legend, only needed a single pair of boots to last a lifetime because their feet never touched the ground. They could whisper to their horses who understood human speech, could speak to each other on the wind, knew the secret words, magic words, to command any horse.
Most of that was bullshit, as Bucky well knew, but no one did anything to discourage the rumours. A bit of mystery, a bit of legend, could only help when they had to ride into a new place filled with scared people, angry people, people who'd been hurt so much they had no reason to trust. If people wanted to think the Horse Guard were a bit magical, a bit more than just armed men and women with well trained horses, no one was going to complain.
But you couldn't be a Guard without a horse and Winter, his steadfast gelding, was starting to get old. Bucky needed a new horse. He should just choose one from the approved horses, but you never knew what you might find if you checked the out-of-the-way places. He'd just take a quick look around, wouldn't spend more than a couple of hours, and then he'd head back.
Bucky's wandering had led him to the very outskirts of the fair, where most of the horses were badly bred, or old, or skinny, the dealers were disreputable, most of them from out-Kingdom by the looks of them, and he was turning to leave when the sounds of a commotion pulled him forward.
A herd of panicked horses, skinny and unkempt, were crowded in one corner of a yard.
There was a horse on the ground, another standing over her, rearing, ears pinned, teeth bared. There was a pale sweaty man holding a long, heavy whip, arm pulled back to swing.
Bucky didn't think, just acted, one hand on the fence and he vaulted over it. Ripped the whip out of the man's hand and hurled it away. He whirled on Bucky, fists raised, then stopped when he saw Bucky's tabard. The horse, stallion, Bucky noted with a glance, dropped to all fours, aggression in every line of his body, but he was holding still, standing over the downed mare.
"What the hell are you doing?" Bucky demanded.
"The mare's going to the knackers," the man pointed, "and this fucking devil spawn won't let us at her."
Bucky looked where he'd pointed to see a man in the long leather coat of the knackers standing with two harnessed mules, a long chain behind them, and anger flared. It was the setup they used for moving dead horses. "She's still alive. You were going to let him drag her off while she's still alive?"
The man shifted nervously. "Well, she'll be dead soon enough..." He trailed off at Bucky's look of fury.
Bucky was having some sympathy for the stallion. He turned to study him, to study the mare. She'd been pretty once, with her black and white patched coat, but she was old, skinny and dirty, breathing shallowly. The stallion was watching him, ears still pinned. He was tall, pale grey, at least seventeen hands, too thin for his size, shaggy and unkempt, scarred, but under it all Bucky could see good bones and clean lines. He had startling blue eyes. "I don't suppose you're going to let me take a look at her, are you?" he crooned. The stallion's ears flicked. "I'm not going to hurt her, I promise." He kept his voice soft and easy, his body loose and relaxed, but he was ready to dodge if he had to.
The stallion's ears flicked again and his posture eased slightly, just slightly, but enough Bucky decided to risk it. He moved closer, held out a hand, but the stallion jerked away, snorting, like Bucky was holding a live coal. "Okay, sorry." Slowly Bucky moved past him, the stallion pivoting to keep Bucky and the man in view, and Bucky knelt by the mare's head. She rolled her eye to look at him. "Hi sweetheart." He gently stroked her head then fished a sugar cube out of his pocket and set it near her mouth. After a few seconds she lipped it up and ate it, but the effort seemed to exhaust her.
Bucky knew horses and he knew when it was time for them to go. Sometimes you could see in their eyes that they knew, too. Looking in her eyes, she knew. She was old and the effort of a long hard life was written on her body. She was ready. "You're a good girl," he said softly, stroking her neck, and felt her relax. "I can help you."
There was hot breath on the back of his neck and he went cold, because he knew what it was. He knew how fast the stallion could hurt him, cripple him, maybe kill him and fuck, he'd been so stupid. He was completely vulnerable like this. Bucky gathered himself, ready to throw himself away from flashing hooves, from snapping teeth, glanced back, but the stallion was just standing there, ears tilted to the side, so Bucky took a deep breath and decided to keep being stupid.
The one thing the rumours got right, the one thing the legends didn't exaggerate, were the words. Every Horse Guard knew the secret words, the magic words, to sing a horse to sleep. To sing them to peace, because sometimes that was the only gift you could give. On the battlefield, in the middle of death and blood and pain, when there was no way to save them, you could sing them the words and they would slip away.
Bucky leaned forward, one hand on the mare's cheek, the other on her neck, and sang the words into her soft-furred ear. She let out one long sigh and went still under his hands. Bucky sat back, wiped at his eyes, because however peaceful it might be it never got easier, and rose to his feet. The man was staring at him, eyes flickering between Bucky and the mare, and they held a touch of fear. "And I'm buying the stallion." The words left his mouth before he knew he was going to say them.
Despite every bit of evidence to the contrary, the man must have had some scrap of conscience, because he said, "He'll kill you. Horse Guard or not, he'll kill you. He's as vicious as the day is long and he’ll kick you to the godsdammed moon."
"Maybe so. But I'm not leaving him here." Bucky named a sum he knew was more than fair, because he didn't want to haggle, didn't want to stay here one second longer than necessary, and greed flared in the man's eyes. "Has he got a name?"
"Got a lot of names, none of them repeatable in polite company." The man laughed at his own joke, but it faded in the face of Bucky's stony glare. "Steve. Horse trader I got him from said his name was Steve."
It was a dumb name for a horse, it was a dumb name for this horse, but it wasn't the dumbest he'd ever heard. "You can collect your money from the Horse Guard quartermaster. She's stationed up at the north entrance. Tell her it's for Guard Barnes' horse."
He turned away before the man could respond, not interested in anything he had to say. Steve's head was down, he was nosing the mare, ears drooping. Bucky unwound the lead rope from around his waist and slowly approached him.
"Steve." The stallion’s head shot up and he pinned his ears back. "Easy. I know. I'm sorry. But it's time to go. You don't want to stay here, I don't want you to stay here," he kept his voice soft and low, coaxing, "though not sure exactly how I'm going to explain you. But it doesn't matter." Steve's ears were slowly curving forward and Bucky held out the lead rope for him to sniff. Steve froze then stamped a hoof, shook his head in something Bucky thought wasn't quite a warning, but Bucky eased closer and clipped the lead onto Steve's halter.
Steve lunged backwards but Bucky moved with him, didn't pull, didn't yank, just kept talking softly, even when Steve reared up, but it was half-hearted, his front hooves barely leaving the ground. Then he stopped, completely still, shivered like he was shedding flies, and hung his head.
Bucky put the gentlest of pressures on the lead. "Come on. Walk on. I don't know if you even have any training, so we'll just try whatever seems to work," he said, and Steve, with one brief pause, one moment of hesitation, one toss of his head, followed.
As Bucky led Steve away he heard the man mutter, "Fuckin' Horse Guard," and the clank of chain. He pretended not to hear, but he'd be getting one of the fair's inspectors down here. The fair had standards. Dealers who wanted to trade here had to meet them, and this asshole wasn't even close. If the other horses were bad enough, they might even get confiscated. Bucky could only hope.
"It's going to be okay," he said to Steve, who didn't so much as flick an ear in his direction, just walked along beside him.
Steve wanted to believe it was going to be okay, but he couldn't make himself. It hadn't been okay; not once since the first time he'd been sold by the sorcerer's servants or any time afterwards had it ever been okay. Every time he'd changed hands it had gotten worse. More whips, more chains, more ropes and harsh metal. It was like he'd been sliding down a mountain from bad to worse. He knew he had scars, there was a still unhealed wound from the last time it hadn't been okay, a hidden dull throb under his matted coat, made by sharpened spurs and an angry rider when Steve wouldn't bend, wouldn't break.
Maybe he should have stopped fighting. Submitted. Given in. But he couldn't. He wouldn't. Steve wasn't sure but he thought he'd rather be dead than stand still and let himself be beaten like a dumb animal. Everything he was made of screamed fight back. And not just for himself, for all the dumb animals around him who couldn't, who wouldn't, who didn't know it was an option.
For all that he had four hooves and a tail, no voice and no hands, at its core this life was eerily familiar.
And now his—friend? Friend was as good a word as any—was dead. She'd only been an old, broken down mare—he snorted, because give me enough time and I'm gonna be an old broken down horse—but she'd been sweet and kind and harmless, half-blind and getting weaker the longer they'd been penned up here.
They were all shoved in together, young and old, mares and stallions and geldings, because the man who'd bought them all cheap and dragged them across the border to this horse fair didn't care. Steve had brought her food, tried to help her get to water, protected her from the other horses, but he couldn't fight time. Eventually she'd simply lain down and didn’t get up.
And then that fucking asshole had been going to drag her away, drag her alive through the dirt, and Steve hadn't hesitated. He'd known it was only a matter of time before she died; he only had to keep the man away until then. Steve had known it was going to hurt, knew it would mean the whip and a beating.
Except it hadn't.
He studied the man who'd bought him. The man who'd whispered something in the mare's ear and sent her peacefully to her death. Guard Barnes, whatever that meant. He'd used a soft voice and soft hands. He'd helped her, even when Steve had moved behind him and Steve had smelt the faintest whiff of fear at Steve's closeness.
The lead clicking onto his halter had sent flurries of anger rolling through him, but the soft voice had reached past them: kindness when kindness had become nothing but a distant memory. Anger had faded, melting under the warmth of Barnes' voice, and left exhaustion in its wake.
Steve was so tired.
It was easier to follow, because Barnes was right: he didn't want to stay there.
Now he walked by Barnes' side, careful where he put his feet. He knew how horses were supposed to walk when they were led and he mimicked that. He'd hurt someone if needed, to protect himself, to protect whoever he had to, but he didn't want to hurt Barnes from carelessness, because he still didn't always have perfect control of this body.
They walked through the fair, Barnes keeping up a low-voiced patter of words, telling Steve it was going to be okay, that he was going to have some explaining to do, that he'd been supposed to choose one of the approved horses. "You're definitely not that," he said, with a small breath of laughter.
The laughter was kind, not mocking, and it shivered through him, made him step with even more care, even though he knew it wasn't going to be okay. Barnes' own words were telling him that.
Their path led them past horses and people, past impassioned heatless arguments and hard-struck bargains, all the smells of the horse fair rushing over Steve like a maelstrom, until they approached a large group of people and horses. They obviously belonged together, Barnes obviously one of them: they were all different, men and women, different shades of skin, different sizes and heights, but all with a similar grace and stance, their horses well-muscled and gleaming. Pennants snatched the wind above their heads, patterned to match Bucky's tabard which in turn matched the tabards of the group: a shield with a rearing horse.
He felt Bucky's hand tighten on the lead. Steve was the jarring note; he didn't match. A burst of laughter rang out as the group spotted them and a man's voice called, "Bucky, what the hell is that?"
Bucky—Bucky?—sighed. "That's my horse. Apparently."
Another voice said, "That's not a horse. That's a furry coat rack. That's a shaggy harp. Look at those ribs!"
"Tell me you didn't let someone talk you into buying that nag." This voice, a woman, sounded disappointed, and she materialised out of the crowd, holding the reins of a wicked looking black mare, who eyed Steve disapprovingly. "Bucky, you know better than that."
"No one talked me into buying him, Nat. It's complicated. And yes, Clint, I know he's skinny, but he's got good bones and good lines."
A disbelieving silence met his words, a silence Steve felt himself agreeing with.
"And I couldn't leave him there," Bucky admitted and explained what had happened, how he'd ended up with an unapproved and completely unsuitable horse.
Steve was surprised at the anger it evoked. He could see it, he could smell it, but he didn't trust it. Plenty of people had seen how he'd been treated, had seen him under the whip, and been angry, but no one had ever done anything about it.
A tall man mounted on an elegant chestnut stallion leaned down to look at Bucky. The horse ignored Steve completely. "I'll send someone to see to the dealer. That sort of behaviour is not acceptable and I'm not having it going on here."
"I'm pretty sure he's from out-Kingdom."
"Well he's in our Kingdom now, so he'll obey our rules."
"Thank you, Sam." Bucky inclined his head in something that wasn't quite a bow and Sam nodded.
"You go get your," there was delicate pause, "new horse settled. It's going to be four or five hours until we're ready to leave." He paused again. "You know this means you'll have Winter for at least another year."
"I know, but Winter's a good horse. Solid."
Sam nodded and gestured to a nearby Guard, and Bucky led Steve away. As they walked he murmured, "Okay, looks like we got away with it. If Sam's okay with you, Commander Hill's going to be fine. One of the advantages to having the second in line to the throne attached to your Company. And who knows, maybe you'll turn out to be some kind of wonder horse." Bucky laughed under his breath and Steve flicked an ear at him, shocked, because second in line to the throne? "Except this isn't a fairy tale. Never mind. We'll figure something out."
Winter turned out to be a calm, solid, apparently unflappable bay gelding who, Steve was certain, took one look at him and knew he wasn't really a horse. But he snorted impatiently, poked Steve with his nose, and apparently decided he didn't care.
When Bucky—with the woman from before, Nat, standing by on her mare in case something went horribly wrong—mounted Winter and carefully gathered Steve's lead up to start the ride to...wherever they were going, Steve fell in beside them, his head at Bucky's knee.
"Well, he's got manners," Nat said. "He hasn't even tried to sniff Widow. Has he got a name?"
Bucky, graceful and easy on Winter's back, looked down at him thoughtfully. "Dealer said his name was Steve."
Steve tilted his head to look up at Bucky, ears curving forward. He didn't know where they were going, he didn't know what this was going to mean, but there was a seed of hope in his heart that was whispering maybe, just maybe, it was going to be okay.
"Steve?" Nat said, sounding incredulous.
"Steve," Bucky repeated. "I think I'm going to keep it."
The next few days were strange. There was a huge stall, deep straw that was soft under his hooves, clean water and fresh hay. Bucky promised Steve that he'd spend most of his time out of the stall, but for the first little while Bucky wanted to make sure everything was okay with him.
Steve didn't mind. He'd need to be awake to mind.
He found himself slipping into a strange sort of lethargy. It was part waiting: waiting for what was going to come next, waiting for the violence, the anger, for Bucky to show his true colours, to reveal the snake hiding in the grass of his seemingly endless patience. And part of it was hope, hope that Bucky was what he seemed to be.
Bucky spent a lot of time with Steve. Leaning on the front of the stall, talking softly, telling Steve about the Horse Guard, about what they did, about Winter, about whatever seemed to pop into his head. Steve guessed it was hard to find enough words to fill the time.
He slipped inside the stall with brushes, holding them for Steve to sniff. Which Steve dutifully did, since it seemed to be expected. The first time, Bucky clipped a lead rope on his halter and tied it to a ring fastened to the inside of the door. Steve didn't want to, he didn't mean to, but every muscle tensed, shivering like there were ants under his skin.
Bucky untied the rope, telling him it was okay, he was okay, he was safe, in that low croon. Steve relaxed, telling himself he was nine kinds of idiot because, even tied, if Bucky tried to hurt him Bucky was still trapped in the stall with him. Steve could hurt him right back.
But Bucky didn't hurt him. Bucky ran a soft hand down his neck, found a spot behind his ear and rubbed it, and Steve blew out a breath and dipped his head. Bucky tossed the end of the lead over the stall door and didn't tie him again.
He brought soft brushes and stiff brushes and a soft cloth and started working the dirt out of his coat. It was a long process, because Steve was a dirty, unkempt shaggy mess. "What you really need," Bucky told him. "Is a bath."
"I know, baby steps."
Steve was half-asleep, one back leg cocked. Bucky was grooming him, alternating between a stiff brush to work the dirt out of his coat and a soft brush to smooth it down. He was reaching itches Steve hadn’t been able to scratch and for the first time in a very long time Steve was starting to feel clean. Bucky’s hands were gentle and he was keeping up a soft stream of words, telling Steve about how he’d joined the Guard, how it was all he’d ever wanted to do, how his parents had supported him.
No one who’d had Steve had ever treated him like this. Bucky was kind, his hands were soft, Steve was drifting…
Sudden pain shot through him, shocking betrayal, and he spun, lunged to defend himself. Bucky’s eyes went wide and he dodged for the stall door. It would have worked with a horse, but Steve wasn’t a horse. He didn’t think like a horse. He twisted to deliberately block Bucky's escape, driving him into the back of the stall, teeth bared.
Sudden fear bloomed on Bucky’s face as he gave ground, looking for an escape.
His fear hit Steve like ice water in his veins.
He wrenched to a stop. Bucky’s back was pressed against the wall, there was blood on the brush he was holding, but still, from somewhere, Steve didn’t know where, Steve didn't know why, he found a soft voice and crooned, “Steve, it’s okay, easy, it’s okay.”
Step by slow step, Steve backed up, getting as far away from Bucky as he could. There was throbbing pain in his side. It was nothing compared to the guilt, the fear, which was radiating through him. Nothing compared to what he could have done to Bucky.
He'd been so angry, he'd just...reacted, he hadn't thought, like he wasn't a person, like he was an animal, and he could have hurt Bucky. Could have hurt him badly. He could have, fuck, he could have killed him. Steve clamped his tail down hard, ears tilting with shame.
Bucky had hit the wound in his side, but he hadn’t done it on purpose, and even now he was putting down the brushes and reaching out for him.
Maybe not tying Steve was stupid, but he'd tensed and shivered when Bucky tied him and he'd relaxed when Bucky just tossed the lead over the stall door, so Bucky left him untied.
For a brief, flashing moment Bucky had thought it was going to get him killed. Steve had come after him with intent, like a snake, like a predator, nothing like any horse Bucky had ever seen, had blocked his escape and Bucky had braced himself.
And then Steve had just stopped.
He knew what had set Steve off: he’d hit an abscess on Steve’s flank, hidden under the matted coat, and it must have hurt like a son of a bitch.
He didn’t know what had made Steve stop.
Bucky wasn’t going to question it, not when there was blood and pus oozing down Steve’s side. Not when Steve was standing in the corner of his stall, looking as small as a stallion his size could look.
He set the brushes on top of the stall door and held out his hands, low and close to his body. “That must have hurt, huh?” Steve shivered. “I know. I know, you didn’t mean it. We’re going to have to get that cleaned out.” His body was wanting to shiver with left over adrenaline and his heart was still pounding, but he kept it locked away.
Slowly, so slowly, ears flickering back and forth, screaming uncertainty, Steve stretched out his neck and, with infinite care, pressed his nose into Bucky's hand. "There you are," he soothed. "You're okay. I'm going to get Bruce. He's going to fix you right up, and then I'm going to check you for anything else. I should have done it before." He smoothed his hand down Steve's head, forehead to nose, then straightened his forelock. "I'm sorry."
Bucky left Steve staring after him as he went and hunted up Bruce, who looked at the wound, then glanced at Bucky. "How did he react to that?"
Steve's head was hanging over the stall door and Bucky rested a hand on his neck under his scraggly mane. “Not well.”
Bruce gave him a penetrating stare. “If he’s dangerous—”
“I don’t think he’s dangerous." Bucky sighed, but he wasn't going to lie to Bruce. "He went for me, but he stopped.”
“He stopped.” There wasn't quite disbelief in Bruce's voice.
“Yeah, Bruce, he stopped. Never seen anything like it. It was like he,” Bucky rubbed the whorl between Steve’s eyes, “realised what he was doing and stopped himself.”
“He’s a horse, Bucky. They don't realise things, not like that.”
Bucky hummed noncommittally. “I think he just needs to learn he’s safe.”
“Well, bring him out. I’m not treating him without room to move if he decides to go for me.”
“He’s not going to.” Bucky opened the stall door and led Steve out. Steve looked around, ears tipping towards Bruce. “That’s Bruce,” Bucky said. “He’s the one who looks after the horses, keeps you healthy, treats your injuries. He’s going to clean out that abscess. It’s going to hurt, so don’t kick him or bite him.” Bruce gave him a strange look and Bucky shrugged. “He’s calmer if I talk to him.”
“Calmer is good.”
Steve pressed his head into Bucky’s chest and didn’t move while Bruce drained and cleaned the abscess and dusted it with powder. “What do you think caused it?” Bucky asked, but he had a good idea of what the answer was going to be.
“Spurs.” There was a thread of anger in Bruce’s voice, but his hands were gentle as he patted Steve and stepped back. “A sharpened spur, dug in deep.”
No wonder Steve had gone for him. It was the next thing to a miracle that he’d stopped. Next thing to a miracle that Steve had stood quiet and calm while Bruce worked on him, because Bucky knew it would have hurt.
Bucky knew he had to be careful. Steve had the potential to be dangerous; if he was going to be unpredictable, lash out, he’d have to reconsider Steve as his horse. But he looked down at Steve's head, pressed against his chest, and thought maybe this was a turning point. Maybe this was the beginning of trust.
Bucky finds Steve (the horse) protecting a mare who's lying on the ground. She's old, breathing shallowly, but it's not graphic, and it's her time to go. Bucky talks to her and pats her and says some magic words in her ear that cause her to die and she does so peacefully. There are references to her being taken to the knackers both before and after. There are non-explicit references to brutal taming/training methods (whips, chains, ropes, sharpened spurs) having been used on Steve (as a horse) before Bucky gets him. Steve has some whip scars and a spur wound when Bucky buys him. Bucky never mistreats Steve or hurts him when he's a horse. (Intentionally; there's an incident with an abscess where he accidentally hurts him.)
The Horse Guard was made up of four Companies, so one Company was always off-rotation. Emergencies happened and then it didn't matter who was on and who was off—Horse Guard always answered the call—but barring that, Bucky's Company—Falcon Company, under Commander Hill, Prince Samuel attached—was off-rotation for another five months.
Which meant he had a lot of time to spend with Steve.
Off-rotation Guards still had duties, but Bucky wasn't the only one with a new horse, even if he was the only one with a horse like Steve, so he wasn't the only one spending his time training.
Or in Bucky's case: working out what Steve knew and training around it.
It was strange, Bucky couldn't get a feel for him. A feel for what he knew. One day he'd think Steve was green as spring grass and the next Bucky was sure someone had put deep schooling into him. He could be a completely different horse from one day to the next. Not in temperament, not in personality—and as Bucky worked with him on the ground there was never a repeat of the stall incident. Steve never did anything to hurt him, not deliberately, not accidentally.
"I've never," he said to Clint one day while he was lunging Steve, "met a horse who was so careful of me." They'd been at the pub the night before and Bucky, four ales in, had ended up waxing lyrical about the oddness of Steve, so of course he had an audience today.
"Beats the alternative," Clint muttered.
Natasha gave him a flat look. "You deserved to have your nose broken. How many times did you ask Hawkeye to jump that stupid table?"
"Hey, he could clear it, no problem!"
"Yes, but he was sick of it. And why did you even have him in the dining hall in the first place?"
Clint muttered something Bucky couldn't hear. Sam, standing a little apart, smiled serenely. "Can I see his canter?" he asked Bucky.
Bucky nodded and asked for the canter. Steve's ears flickered, Bucky saw a strange light in his eyes, and then he planted his feet and came to a dead stop. "Uh, maybe not."
Steve was figuring this whole being a horse thing out as he went along. Before Bucky, the people who'd had him... No one had ever asked him to do anything. It had been all demand. At the end of a whip, at the end of a chain and harsh metal, dug into his sides and shoved into his mouth, ropes around his legs and he'd fought like a wild thing.
Bucky, Bucky asked as he tried to figure out what Steve knew, as he tried to teach Steve new things.
Truth was, Steve didn't know anything. Steve barely knew how to make his body do what he wanted beyond the basics, but it was becoming more and more important that he learn. Because he was getting stronger. Getting bigger, skinny frame disappearing under smooth muscle to match his height. It would be too easy to hurt Bucky if he didn't keep himself under control and that was the one thing he was determined not to do.
So he tried to work out what Bucky wanted, what Bucky was asking. He watched the other Guards working their horses whenever he got the chance, made sure to graze near the fence line so he could see as much as possible.
He knew the signals Bucky was giving would probably be clear as day to a horse, but they were muddy to Steve. It was much easier when Bucky talked to him, when Bucky just said what he wanted. Mostly he did, he was good about keeping up a steady stream of chatter, and that made Steve happy for other reasons. Bucky didn't know he wasn’t a horse, but with all the talking, like Steve was a person, like Steve could understand, Steve could pretend.
Slowly, gradually, Steve figured it out. Sometimes, based on what he saw when he watched the other Guards and their horses, he could anticipate what Bucky was going to work on the next day. Then he'd get to smugly enjoy watching Bucky's jaw drop when, obviously expecting Steve to have no idea, Steve would deliver whatever he asked for the next thing to perfect.
It tickled him. It gave him little kicks of warmth where before had only been cold anger and hot rage. Bucky would grin at him, eyes crinkling as he crooned to Steve, and afterwards Steve would shove his head into Bucky's chest while Bucky rubbed the spot behind his ears. For just a minute he could forget that this wasn't where he was supposed to be.
He was willing to do this for Bucky, Bucky who'd been nothing but kindness and gentleness and respect. He wasn't so willing when other Guards came down to watch. It didn't happen a lot, Bucky seemed to know it made him uncomfortable, but it did happen.
When Sam asked to see his canter, Steve felt that old curl of anger and slammed to a halt, a sudden statue of a horse. For Bucky he'd be a horse, but he'd be damned if he'd be a performing pony for anyone else, second in line to the throne or not.
Bucky took it in good humour, ruffled Steve's forelock and said they'd try again tomorrow.
Steve wasn't sure how long he'd been with Bucky, the days blurring together: stable, paddock, training with Bucky, run with the herd, Winter his constant companion among the geldings and stallions, when Bucky approached him with something new.
“Okay, Steve, let’s see what else you know.” He had a bridle over his shoulder, the bit jingling gently. Steve lifted his head high into the air. He wouldn’t hurt Bucky, not when he trusted Bucky not to hurt him, but that bit wasn’t going in his mouth.
“That’s not a great start,” Bucky murmured and hung it over the fence post. “Come here.” He reached out and offered Steve his hand. After a moment, Steve lowered his head and put his nose in Bucky’s palm, blew out gently. He wished he had some way to tell Bucky he didn’t need it, didn’t need a bit, but if he could do that he could just tell Bucky he wasn’t a horse and all of this would be over. But the curse wouldn’t let him. “Let’s just try it, okay?”
Not okay. Steve flicked his ears back while Bucky lay the bit flat on his hand and held it under Steve’s mouth. Steve backed away to the end of the lead—it wasn't tied, Bucky never tied it, just tossed it over the rail, but Steve chose to respect it—and stayed there, calm but communicating as clearly as he knew how that it was not going in his mouth.
Bucky studied him, seemed to be weighing it up, then nodded. “That bad, huh?” he asked softly. “Okay, there’s other options. We can try them.”
Bucky came back the next day with something like a bridle but it had no bit, and Steve bowed his head so Bucky could slip it on. Bucky came back the day after that with a saddle.
Steve knew he had to make a choice: right here, right now, he had to decide whether he was going to carry Bucky, whether he would act as his horse in truth or if he was going to fight it. Everything they'd been doing had been leading them to this point. He didn't think, whatever he did, Bucky would resort to whips, to chains, but...
He turned to watch Bucky, who was setting the saddle over the top rail of the fence. "I have no idea how this is going to go," he said. "Normally I'd get someone to help me with this, but you seem a lot more relaxed when it's just us, so." He shrugged. "If you could not trample me, or crush me against the fence, or kill me in any other way, that'd be great."
Bucky was smiling a little as he said it, but Steve knew he could. For all of Bucky's knowledge, all his experience, Steve was a human mind in a powerful horse's body. He could do all of those things.
Steve drew in a deep breath, let it out in a long sigh that ended on the softest of whickers, and made his choice.
When Bucky carefully, gently, slowly set the saddle blanket on his back, he didn't move. When he followed it with the saddle, Steve held absolutely still, trying to relax. It was hard. When Bucky buckled the girth, he turned his head to look, to nose Bucky's hands, and Bucky, sounding surprised and gratified, murmured, "Okay, Steve. It's all okay. Thank you."
After Bucky spent a few days working Steve in the saddle from the ground, walk and trot and canter in circles, his brow furrowed in puzzlement and he said, "Someone has to have trained you under saddle at some point." Natasha and Clint had come down to watch, to provide backup, just in case this went wrong, and they agreed.
"Ready?" Natasha asked.
"What do you think, Steve? Are we ready?" Steve eyed Natasha and Clint, then decided to ignore them. He tried to sink his weight into his hooves, waiting for the pull on the saddle, the wrench on his back, but Bucky climbed onto a mounting block and settled into the saddle as lightly as a bird.
Steve was tense, waiting for what came next. Bucky simply sat, but he was light, balanced, and Steve felt himself relaxing under him, shifting to match his movements. "No explosions," Clint offered. "That's always a good sign." Steve flattened his ears, because as if he would. Having Bucky on his back was doing weird things to his heart, to his soul. Steve felt the sudden urge to protect him, to turn hooves and teeth against anything or anyone that tried to harm Bucky. He sure as hell wasn't going to do anything to hurt him.
The first time Bucky took him out of the ring, took him to a wide expanse of grass, stretching out before them under the cloudless sky, Steve felt his heart kick up. He pranced in place, gently, and Bucky laughed. "Okay, this might be stupid, Nat would say it was, but I don't think so. I trust you and we're both sick of the ring."
It was another kick of warmth, in his heart, in his soul, hearing Bucky say those words: I trust you.
The reins slid through Bucky's hands until they were loose and Bucky leaned forward, weight light and easy, and tightened his legs. Steve broke into a trot, a canter, and Bucky whispered, "Go," with words and body both and Steve leapt into a gallop, speeding up as Bucky let him go, hooves striking the ground in a blur. Bucky was moving with him, they were one creature, trees were whipping past, he heard Bucky laugh and he went faster, head stretched out, they were approaching a fence. Steve wanted to gather himself and jump it but he wasn't sure he'd make it, wouldn't risk Bucky, and he slowed, curved, circled back the way they'd come, sped up again but Bucky was calling him back with body and voice.
Steve didn't want to listen. He wanted to run forever, he wanted to eat the sky, Bucky on his back, moving with him, the two of them made of light and speed and endless perfect motion, but Bucky was sitting back, Steve could feel him thinking slow even before he was tightening his hands on the reins. I trust you ringing in his ears, he slowed to a canter. Then to a trot, then to a deliberately rough trot that would rattle Bucky's bones, ears pinned back.
Bucky laughed at him. "I know what you're doing," he said. "But you can't run forever."
"Come on, back to the stables. There's a brush and a bucket of water with your name on it." Bucky stroked under his mane, flipped it up to air his sweaty neck, and Steve smoothed his trot. "Why thank you, you're too kind," Bucky said sarcastically and Steve realised Bucky being kind had made Steve trust him, but Steve was deeply fond of him when he was being a bit of an asshole.
There were a group of Guards whose horses had learned to fly.
Not literally, but close enough. Steve watched them—carefully, he didn't want to get caught—in fascination. They leapt and danced and flew through the air and, listening to the Guards talk, each move had ridiculous names: levade, courbette, capriole. Sam was one, his stallion, Redwing, easing through the moves like they were second nature.
It wasn't until he saw Redwing leap into the air and lash out with his hind legs, ears pinned flat to his head, that Steve realised this wasn't dancing. This was fighting. These were moves designed to maim and kill.
Moves that he could use to fight with Bucky, to fight for Bucky, to keep him safe.
Fighting with Bucky.
That's where all of this was designed to take him. This fighting in the air, this wasn't something Bucky would ever show him, these were the elite, Guards and horses both, but fighting. That’s where this was leading.
He wasn't afraid. At least, he wasn't afraid to fight. He was afraid, a sudden bone deep fear that wanted to turn his legs to water, that he wouldn’t be able to keep Bucky safe. What if he wasn't good enough?
The more he listened to these Guards, the more he learned. The Horse Guard protected people. That was their job. Against bandits, against nobles who overstepped their authority or their power, against anyone. They served the Crown direct and they fulfilled the Crown's promise to protect the people. They were the left hand of the King; that's why the King's second son rode among them.
Steve could be proud to serve among the Guard, even if it was on four feet. If he could just keep Bucky safe.
Deep in the back of the field, far from the gaze of people, although he did attract some curious horses, he started teaching himself. To leap and lash out, to trot in place, to feel every part of his body and bring it under his complete control, using what Bucky had taught him and what he'd seen. It didn't always go well. He fell over a few times. He spent a lot of time sore.
But he worked it out. Bucky noticed, told him he was getting more supple, seemed pleased, and Steve pranced in place, neck arched, ears pricked, which always made Bucky laugh.
"I can't believe you bothered training that nag." The voice was filled with amazed contempt. "Even Falcon Company should know better, even you should know better, than to waste your time with some ill-bred carthorse."
"Doesn't your Company have their own training grounds?" Bucky didn't move on Steve's back as they trotted around the ring, his hands didn't tighten on the reins, but Steve felt the tension go through him. He tilted his head enough to see who'd spoken—a big Guard, not someone he'd ever seen before, mounted on a heavy dun gelding, standing outside the ring.
They were working with other Guards and their horses, because that's what being a Horse Guard was and Bucky had decided Steve was ready. Steve hadn't expected that it would mean assholes would decide to start mouthing off to Bucky.
"But I can't watch someone ride a carthorse there."
"Steve is not a carthorse."
"You'd know, being the son of a merchant," the big Guard sneered.
Carthorse. Bucky wouldn't have bought a carthorse. And Steve knew about the Horse Guard now. It didn't matter where you came from; all that mattered was how well you could ride. Steve couldn't stomp that asshole's face into the ground, but there was something he could do.
Maybe. He could try.
Still trotting, he shifted his weight back. Lifted his shoulders. He could feel Bucky's confusion, but he also felt trust. He slowed and poured power on, flattened his ears in concentration, and he was trotting in place. Bucky's astonishment spiralled down the reins, through his legs, but he held steady. Just like Steve had known he would. Trust went both ways.
Sam's voice rang out, nearly knocking Steve's focus loose. "Is that, is Steve doing a piaffe?"
Bucky's hands were light on the reins, barely making contact, his legs were firm against Steve's sides, and Steve dipped his head lower, concentrated as he curled his hindquarters further under him, because this was fucking hard, but he was aiming to impress. Asshole did not get to insult Bucky.
"Yes he is." Bucky, bless him, didn't give away that he didn't know Steve could do this. He simply sat deeper and Steve could feel calm serenity replacing his astonishment as he moved with Steve, supporting him, legs firm, hands light. Steve couldn't hold it for long, it was so much harder with Bucky on his back, and he twitched his ears and eased forward into a slow, smooth trot, every muscle aching.
The big Guard snorted and shook his head. "Your horse is weird," he finally said and wheeled his gelding around, cantering off.
"Yeah." Bucky slid to the ground, wrapped a hand around the crest of Steve's neck, and pressed his nose into Steve's mane. Steve turned his head to nuzzle Bucky's arm. "Yeah, he is."
"You trained Steve to do a piaffe?" Sam reined Redwing up close to Steve, Steve's impeccable manners with other horses already something people relied on.
"No." Bucky turned his head to look at Sam. "No, I didn't."
"Hmm. Does he know anything else that advanced?"
Bucky curled his fingers in Steve's mane. "You know, Sam, I'm kind of afraid to find out."
"I can see that." Sam's voice was gentle, but it had sudden undertones of strength, of command. "James, you did well when you bought him. I know you brought him to us from compassion, but I believe he'll be an asset to the Guard. Well done."
Steve's ears shot forward, because James? Bucky's name was James?
Bucky stood up straighter, bowed a little, and said, "Thank you, Your Majesty."
"You're welcome." Sam's posture eased and so did Bucky's. It was subtle, but it was there, and then Sam grinned. "And he's got a hell of a sense of timing."
Bucky laughed. "Don't I know it, Sam. Don't I know it."
The nights were long in Steve's stall. Long and boring and lonely and there was no way to escape. When he was certain no one was around, he'd practice the levade, rearing up and holding it, perfectly balanced on his back legs. He'd practice the piaffe, slow, measured, even. They were the only things he could do in his stall, and as a result he was getting extremely good at them.
He was holding position in the levade, poised on his back legs, when he heard muttering and dropped down to all fours, craning his head over the stall door to see Bucky. He was weaving slightly.
"It's not that I'm not happy for them. I'm thrilled for them. Hurray for romance," he muttered. "But do they have to be so loud?"
Steve pricked his ears forward. Judging by the smell Bucky was drunk. He whickered softly and Bucky weaved his way to Steve's stall and leaned on the door. "I'm right next door and it's been a long time since anyone wanted to romance me," he told Steve. "So some consideration would be nice."
Steve snorted, amused, and nudged Bucky. Bucky patted him. "I'm just gonna stay out here with you for a bit," he said, grabbing a bucket before he slipped into Steve's stall. "You're good company." He turned the bucket upside down, plonked it down in the corner, and sat on it. Steve shifted so he could drop his head down and snuffle Bucky's hair.
"I wonder about you sometimes, you know." Bucky stroked his nose and Steve held very still. Wondering. Hoping. "I thought maybe you were a fairy steed. Told Nat, but she just laughed at me. Which was fair. No such thing as fairy steeds."
No, Bucky. No such thing as fairy steeds, just people cursed to be horses. If horses could laugh, well, Steve wouldn't laugh, because he couldn't by deed or action give away what he was. But it was almost bitterly funny.
"But she said you were probably an orphan foal, hand raised by someone who didn’t know what they were doing, spoiled you, taught you a bunch of random stuff but you never learned how to be a horse." He nodded and wrapped his hand around Steve's leg. "S'why you don't act right sometimes. S'why you ended up so bad off when you've obviously got good breeding. She said it happens when horses get spoiled, when they don't learn to be horses. They're too hard to deal with, they get wrecked and end up dumped, and no one wants to take the time to fix 'em."
It was right, as far as it went. Steve had never learned to be a horse. Even horses knew he wasn't right, even if most of them didn't care. He felt the momentary hope flicker and die. Bucky had an explanation he could be satisfied with, something to make sense of Steve. He wasn't going to look any farther.
"So they just hurt 'em instead." Bucky cupped his hands around Steve's nose and rested his head against Steve's, reached a hand up to trail his fingers down the pale scars on Steve's neck. "It's okay you don't know how to be a horse. You know how to be Steve, that's enough."
Steve was filled with a sudden overwhelming rush of warmth, of affection. Bucky was leaning on him now, eyes half-closed, hand absently patting his leg. "It's enough. We figured it out. You're good at being Steve." He yawned. "I'm glad I bought you."
So was Steve. Bucky gradually went limp, started to slip off the bucket. There was no one to see so Steve braced him, reached down and grabbed the shoulder of his shirt in his teeth to slow his fall, and eased him down to the ground. Bucky curled into a ball, started to snore, and Steve sighed down at him. It was warm enough, he should be fine sleeping here. And if he was here, Steve could watch over him.
That was a good feeling, a warm protective feeling. He moved so he was standing next to Bucky and lifted his head to scent the air, keeping watch.
The feel of scratchy straw under his cheek made Bucky frown. He breathed in and smelled clean horse and hay and a faint hint of leather. There was something hard against his back. Confusion swirled through his mind and he opened his eyes, wincing as the dim light made his head pound.
He had a vague memory of making a drunken escape from his amorously loud neighbours to the stable, of sitting in Steve's stall, of... He turned his head and found Steve peering down at him. Turned his head more and realised the hard thing against his back was Steve's leg. He was curled up on the floor of Steve's stall, half under Steve, and his back was pressed against Steve's front leg. "Fuck," he whispered and clambered to his feet.
Tried, anyway. He made it halfway, would have gone right back down except there was Steve and Bucky leaned on him, threw an arm across his withers. It took him a second to catch his balance and he pressed his forehead against Steve's shoulder. It was possible he'd done something stupider in his life than pass out drunk on the floor of Steve's stall, but off-hand he couldn't think of it.
"I have no idea why you didn't step on me, but thank you." Even as he said it, he realised that he wasn't surprised. It was stupid, it was almost criminally stupid, but he had a gut-deep certainty that Steve—who was rock steady under his arm, nose whuffling over his back, his neck, his hair, like Steve was checking to make sure he was okay—wouldn't hurt him. Wouldn't step on him. Was aware of him in a way he didn't think he'd ever seen in a horse before.
Of course he was also pretty sure he was still a little drunk. He was definitely hungover. It was desperately unfair that he could be both. "I'm going back to my room now," he muttered. "Thanks for the company. And again for not stepping on me."
"I know you wouldn't."
He patted Steve one last time, pushed himself off with a small groan, and made his way out of Steve's stall, one hand on his pounding head. He glanced back. Steve was watching him with what Bucky would almost swear was concern. "I'll be fine," he called, then winced. "Ow." Steve snorted again. "Yeah, yeah."
When he got back to his room his neighbours were blessedly quiet and he collapsed onto his bed with a sigh. It was more comfortable than the floor of a stall, but he kind of missed Steve.
Steve was waiting at the fence for Bucky, but Bucky didn't arrive. He eyed the fence, considered it. Decided he could jump it if he needed to. He turned to look up at the sun, judging how late Bucky was.
Not too late. He wouldn't go looking, not quite yet.
Finally, Bucky showed up, but he wasn't dressed for training. He was wearing armour, chainmail and leather, a long cloak, his tabard, had a sword on his back. He was leading Winter, who had saddlebags and a shield attached to his saddle. Steve flattened his ears. The gelding ignored him, solid and unflappable as always.
A few feet away, Bucky stopped, dropped Winter's reins and murmured, "Stand," then walked over to Steve. "They gave me shit for coming to say goodbye to you, but I knew you'd be waiting for me. You're always waiting for me." He held out his hand but Steve didn't touch it, just arched his neck, ears back. Bucky sighed. "We're getting called out. There's more bandits on the Wakandan border and they need us. You're not ready yet, so you have to stay here. I don't know how long we'll be gone, could be weeks, could be a month. And I don't know why I'm explaining myself like you can understand me, except I feel guilty as hell for leaving you."
His voice was soft, low, almost a croon, like it always was when he was coaxing Steve and, just like always, Steve felt himself responding. He lowered his head, lipped at Bucky's fingers. Felt worry settle in his heart.
"Next time it'll be you and me." Bucky rubbed the spot behind his ears and Steve sighed, pressed his head into Bucky's chest. "I've gotta go."
Steve watched him walk away, watched him gather the reins and mount Winter, graceful and elegant, and they trotted off. He knew Winter was a good horse, well-trained, experienced, one of the best horses in the Guard, but that was the problem.
Winter was just a horse.
Next time it'll be you and me. Yes it would. He'd be damned if he'd ever have to watch Bucky ride away again, if he'd ever have to trust his safety to an animal who didn't care if Bucky lived or died. Who wouldn't fight to protect him, wouldn't watch over him.
Every day while Bucky was gone Steve took himself to farthest end of the field, where no one could see him, and he practiced. Practiced everything Bucky had taught him. Practiced everything Steve had taught himself. Worked until he felt himself growing stronger, more balanced. Worked until every move, every motion was second nature, came as easily as breathing. Worked until he could line himself up, leap into the air, lash out with his rear hooves and smash a sapling into kindling. He hurt like a son of a bitch for a day afterwards, but it was worth it.
Bucky was gone for a month. A long month in which Steve counted every day, keeping track with a mark scratched in the dirt under a tree with his hoof.
They returned, laughing and victorious, riding in through the gates and up the road. Steve picked Bucky's voice out of the cacophony of voices and horses and jingling armour and tack, picked Winter's silhouette out of the pack, and knew Bucky was safe. For the first time he could let go of the fear he hadn't admitted he'd been holding.
He didn't go running to the fence like a dog. He had his dignity. But when the time came for him to be led to the stable, to go into his stall overnight, Bucky was there instead of the stable hand. Steve stood back from the fence, studying him, and Bucky climbed nimbly over, walked straight up to him, stopped, and waited.
Steve fought with himself for brief seconds, then gave in, checking him over, running his nose over Bucky's hair, his body, nibbling at his boots, tugging on his sleeves, making it clear he wasn't happy Bucky had been gone, but he couldn't hide how happy he was to see him back in one piece.
Bucky laughed, and it turned into giggles when Steve's whiskers tickled his neck, his face, so Steve kept doing it, until Bucky was breathless, but he just said, "I missed you, you idiot horse," and pressed a kiss to the whorl between Steve's eyes.
When Bucky came down to start working with him again, swinging easily into the saddle while Steve stood steady beneath him, he said, "We're gonna have some lost time to make up for." Steve felt a touch of smugness, because no, they weren't, and he was looking forward to Bucky's reaction, but he waited patiently for Bucky's signal before moving off.
He felt Bucky's confusion as he moved Steve through his paces, starting simple and working through to the more complex, and when Steve, head low, moving smooth and easy, danced his way across the ring in response to the lightest touch, anticipating what Bucky was going to ask for, he asked, mystified, "How are you better?"
Practice, lots and lots of practice. "If I didn't know better, I'd think you'd been practicing without me," Bucky said, echoing Steve's thoughts, and Steve wanted to laugh; he settled for shaking his head, flicking his ears back and forth to show he was listening, and Bucky ran a hand down his neck. "Damned if I know how you did it, but I think we're ready."
What Bucky had decided they were ready for was the test every horse had to pass before they could officially be a Guard's horse. The specifics differed from test to test, but they were designed to measure how well a horse and rider communicated, how calm a horse could stay in times of stress, how well they reacted to surprise—whether they'd listen to their rider when something unexpected and frightening happened, to see if a horse would be brave and bold and push through, or whether they'd panic and bolt. They were designed, too, to see how well horse and rider would perform together.
They passed it stupidly fast, the fastest time with the highest score ever. Steve tried not to feel smug because he knew that, technically, they'd cheated.
Everyone else had been doing it on a horse.
Bucky stomped down to the stables with his bedroll and laid it out in Steve's stall. Steve looked at him curiously and Bucky growled under his breath, "I know this is damn stupid, but I'm pretty sure you won't stand on me and if I don't get some sleep I'm going to murder them. I'm happy for them, I really am, but murder."
Steve wasn't going to stand on him. It was good having him here, where he could watch over him, and it meant he wasn't alone.
It happened a few nights a week, Bucky showing up with his bedroll and a pillow, muttering about murder. Bucky's neighbours were enthusiastically, joyfully, loudly in love.
Steve was very happy for them. He was even happier for himself.
Falcon Company's off-rotation was over, their eighteen months on was starting. The King had been so pleased by how they'd performed when they'd been called out in their off-rotation they were getting sent back to the Wakandan border.
Things were getting worse down there, the bandits using the borderlands to their advantage, ducking back and forth across the border to avoid the people hunting for them. Until they could be caught, until they could be brought to justice, which could mean imprisonment or death—Bucky frankly didn't care at this point; there were too many innocent dead, farmers and merchants and townsfolk, people who couldn’t defend themselves—Falcon Company would be stationed at the border. For their full rotation if necessary.
Having Sam attached to their Company could only be to the good. They didn't have poor relations with Wakanda, they didn't really have any relations with Wakanda beyond live and let live, but if being that close to the border required anything diplomatic Sam could become Prince Samuel of the House of Wilson as quickly as Redwing could spin.
The thing about bandit chasing on the border was it meant no permanent camps. It meant always being on the move. It meant always keeping watch.
Bucky hadn't been sure how Steve would handle it. He'd hoped for the best, had thought he'd be resilient, strong, but you could never know. Some of the best horses in the controlled environment of the Guard's Home Ground couldn't cut it in the field.
He shouldn’t have worried. Steve took to it like he'd been born for the life.
The only problem was, without a sturdy fence and gates and doors fitted with escape proof latches, it was impossible to keep him contained. Steve pulled up ground pegs. He chewed through ropes. He untied un-untieable knots. But he never went anywhere—didn't approach the mares, stayed away from the food, didn't wander out of camp—except wherever Bucky was. Commander Hill gave Bucky a narrow-eyed stare, but told him that as long as Steve kept minding his manners she was prepared to turn a blind eye.
Bucky nearly put an arrow through Steve one night on watch when he ghosted through the darkness and appeared, silent as a cat, in front of him.
"Godsdammit, Steve," he whispered. "You have to stop escaping." Steve flicked his ears and picked his way over to stand next to him, ears curved forward, head raised, nostrils flared. He wasn't wearing his halter, which meant he'd found a way to scrape it off. Bucky sighed, because there was no point getting mad, and at least he always knew where Steve was. "Fine," he whispered. "But you have to be quiet."
The rest of Bucky's watch was silent apart from the sounds of a forest at night, and the heat radiating off of Steve was welcome. When his relief arrived, she didn't look even mildly surprised to see Steve. "You bring him or did he escape?" she asked in a hushed voice.
"What do you think?"
She grinned and leaned against a tree. Bucky shook his head and pulled himself onto Steve's back, guiding him back to camp with his knees.
Bucky was calm. His grip was light on the reins, held in one hand, shield on that arm, his sword in the other. He was gripping Steve firmly with his legs, but not hard, nothing that would tell Steve there was anything to worry about. He was radiating calm. He had to. Any worry, any nervousness, would run straight through him and infect Steve.
Or that was the usual way these things went. Steve... Steve didn't feel nervous. First-timers were usually antsy, confused, sometimes scared before their first fight, picking up the inevitable tension around them. Steve was solid under him, ears curved sharply forward, but he felt soft, malleable, like Bucky could ask him for anything and he'd give it. "Steve," he said softly, so softly only Steve would hear him, and those ears curved back instantly, Steve's head swinging around to touch his leg.
There was a distant crack, the bandits appearing just where Commander Hill had predicted they would, and Steve looked forward again, nose high, like he was scenting the wind.
"Go," Hill said sharply and they were leaping forward, slamming into the bandits who'd been slaughtering their way through the borderlands.
Steve bugled, a stallion's scream, and as Bucky swung his sword, shield raised to block an incoming blow, Steve snaked his head around to sink teeth into the bandit's arm, dragging him sideways, and Bucky suddenly had a clear shot. He stabbed him through the chest and whirled to the next one, Steve lashing out with his front legs to drive his horse backwards.
It was chaos after that, hack and slash and block, blood and death and the stink of the dead and dying, and through it all Steve was a demon, flying hooves and slashing teeth. Bucky dropped the reins, pushing Steve with his knees, and Steve moved with him.
A bandit on what looked like a plough horse slammed into them, sent Steve staggering, might have knocked Bucky out of the saddle, but Steve twisted under him like a cat and kept Bucky on his back, then whirled, bounced, all the warning Bucky had before Steve reared up and lashed out with his front hooves, slamming the bandit out of the saddle to be lost under the steel-shod melee.
They kept moving, kept fighting, bandits falling around them until suddenly it was over. The bandits left alive were throwing down their weapons and surrendering. Commander Hill was gesturing at Guards to round them up. Bucky lowered his sword and realised he was breathing hard, Steve was steaming under him, sides heaving.
Steve pressed his nose into Bucky's hair, breathing him in. He didn't regret anything he'd done today, but it was still hard, knowing he'd helped kill people. He'd never killed anyone before, never wanted to kill anyone. Breathing in the warm, soothing scent of Bucky helped.
Bucky was sitting in front of him, leaning against his forelegs, both of them bone-weary. Everyone was bone-weary, but they'd wound up in the lion's share of the fighting, so Bucky was one of the Guards excused from setting up the camp.
He hadn't put Steve on the lines with the rest of the horses after he'd untacked him and rubbed him down—no point when Steve would instantly have escaped and found his way back to Bucky—had just gotten him a bucket of water and sat with him outside his tent. Steve didn't think anyone even noticed anymore.
He curved his ears forward but didn't lift his head as Natasha approached. "You're going to get stepped on," she said, holding out a mug. "Soup."
Steve thought about being offended, but if he'd actually been a horse she'd probably have a point. He still huffed a soft breath, ruffling Bucky's hair, because he'd never step on Bucky. He'd protected him. He'd fought with him. He'd kept him safe. They'd kept each other safe.
Bucky moved just enough to take the mug. "No I'm not," he said and took a sip, then drained half the contents. "Thank you," he said gratefully. "I needed that."
She gave him a disapproving look. "You're starting to believe what they say about us." She waved her hand in the air, curling her fingers. "That we have a magical connection with our horses."
Bucky smiled into his soup. "No. I just know Steve."
Natasha crouched in front of him. "There's such a thing as trusting too much, Bucky. He's a horse. Brave as he was today, and he was impressive, you've done an incredible job with him," Steve felt a little moment of pride, "they're animals, prey animals who can panic and spook, and right now you're being stupid."
"Maybe with any other horse," he said, and his voice was gentle but very certain. "Not with him."
"Fine," she sighed. "But if he tramples you to death I get your stuff."
He finished his soup and she took the mug back, then rose to her feet and walked away. Bucky lifted his hand and Steve pressed his nose into Bucky's palm. "It's maybe a little bit stupid," he said quietly, and Steve lipped at his fingers, wishing he had a way to tell him it wasn't stupid, that he would never hurt him. "But I don't think so."
Another fight, and Bucky didn't know if they were a target, singled out because of Steve's colour, his height, his sheer fight, or whether it was random chance, but he found himself cut off from the rest of the Guard, cut out like a deer hunted by a pack of feral dogs. Steve was fighting, Bucky was fighting, the two of them moving like one creature, but Steve twisted to meet an attack from the left, Bucky to meet an attack from the right and a ringing blow struck Bucky from behind, slamming across his helm: once, again, a third time.
A horse rammed into Steve and he spun. Dazed, Bucky clung to the saddle, started to slip. He felt Steve twisting underneath him but the world was foggy, was tilting. He thought he felt Steve's teeth latch onto his arm, trying to drag him back into the saddle, but that was impossible. And it didn't matter. He was falling. He scrabbled at the saddle, at Steve's mane, at Steve, but his hands wouldn't work. A scream of anger, of rage, cut the air. Steve. He tried to stay on but he couldn't.
He hit the ground, lost his sword, lost his shield. This was death. Down was death.
The sky swung above him. There was a grinning face, a raised spear, a horse's hooves. A blur of white crashed into them, spun, and flashing hooves smashed the grin into red ruin. The sky disappeared and there were four pillars around him, a solid weight above him.
Everything blurred, he could only blink as the world came and went in flashes, the fighting surging around them. Steve's hooves, his legs, were smeared with red. Bodies hit the ground around him.
The world faded, returned, faded. He came back and the fighting was gone. There were hands on him, Nat had him, Clint was behind her on Hawkeye, holding Widow's reins. Sam was behind them, standing guard on Redwing.
Bucky thrashed and tried to stand, made it to his knees. "Steve?"
"He's fine." There was something strange in Nat's voice.
"He's okay, I promise."
Suddenly Steve's nose filled his vision. Bucky grabbed hold, wrapped his arms around Steve's head, and closed his eyes. The world stopped swimming with his eyes closed.
"Did you ever train him to lie down?" Nat asked.
"No, but he knows lot of stuff I din't teach him." It was garbled, he knew, but he thought she got the gist. He kept hanging onto Steve, opened his eyes a crack to see Nat exchange a glance with Clint, saw both of them glance back at Sam, who nodded.
Nat gave Steve the signal to lie down. After a brief moment, Steve carefully lowered himself to the ground. Nat helped him onto Steve's back and then climbed on behind him. Bucky wanted to say she didn't have to, that Steve wouldn’t let him fall, but he was glad she was there, because as careful as Steve was when Nat urged him to stand, he knew he'd have gone right off if Nat hadn't been holding him.
Nothing had ever been more terrifying than the feel of Bucky sliding off his back. The sight of Bucky hitting the ground, the spear driving for his throat, had touched off blinding rage. He'd killed at least two people. Maybe three. Maybe more. He knew his hooves were red with blood.
He didn't care. They'd tried to kill Bucky. He'd smash the world into a red paste to keep Bucky safe.
Natasha was on his back and he didn't care, because she was holding Bucky in place. Each step he took was delicate, like he was walking on unsheathed blades, because he wouldn't jar Bucky, he wouldn't let him be hurt further, he didn't know badly hurt he was.
Steve had been so afraid, he was so afraid, he had to bundle it up and shove it down deep or it was going to overwhelm him, because he'd realised as he'd sunk his teeth into Bucky's sleeve, trying desperately to pull him back into the saddle, that he loved him. He loved Bucky so much he might drown in it. It was laughable, it was insane, he was trapped as a horse for gods' sake, but none of those altered the fundamental truth of his love for Bucky.
They reached the healers' tent and he turned, knelt—carefully, slowly—then lay down before Natasha could signal him. There was a twinge, a warning like cool pain down his spine, that might be from the curse but his fear overwhelmed it.
The healers were rushing out to collect Bucky, Clint and Sam were standing a little way away, and Steve heaved himself to his feet, Natasha standing at his head. He planted his hooves, squared up, eyes fixed on the door of the tent where they'd taken Bucky. He was a statue, a mountain, he was the earth itself and he was not moving.
"You stay here, I'll take care of Widow." It was Clint.
"I have to go," Sam said. "I want to know as soon as you hear anything."
"Yes." It was short, clipped, but she turned, inclined her head to Sam, gave Clint a brief smile, then joined Steve in watching the tent.
A healer popped his head out what felt like an eternity later, spied Natasha, and hurried over to tell her, "He’ll be fine. He's got a concussion and a lump on his head the size of a goose egg, some bad bruises but that's it. Hard to believe he hit the ground in the fighting, injuries are usually much worse from that, if they even," he paused, winced, "well. He'll be fine, that's what's important."
"You can thank his horse for that," Nat said as every muscle, every bone, every hair of Steve's body sang relief, as it rushed through his heart and his soul. Bucky was going to be okay. He was going to be all right. He was fine. He was safe. He leaned on Natasha, helpless in that moment not to, needing contact, needing comfort, from someone who might understand. She rested her hand on his cheek.
"Right." The healer gave her a confused smile. "He's going to stay here until tomorrow night at least, then he can probably go back to his tent."
"He can have visitors?"
"Not for a couple of hours." That was said very firmly, with a gimlet stare of warning.
Steve pinned his ears, although the chances of him getting into the healers' tent were slim at any time, and Natasha narrowed her eyes. Then she nodded. "I'll be back."
She gathered his reins and waited. Steve realised, surprise verging on astonishment, that she was giving him a choice. He wanted to stay, to stand here outside the healers' tent until Bucky emerged... But that would be more than a day. He lifted his head, breathing deep, caught the edge of Bucky's scent, then bowed his head and let Natasha lead him to the lines, let her unsaddle him and swap his bridle for a soft halter and a lead.
She rubbed him down, hands firm but gentle. She washed the blood off his legs and hooves, crouching fearlessly next him, trusting him not to step on her. When she was finished, the bucket of water swirling red, she wiped her hands and stood.
"You saved his life. If you hadn't—" She stopped talking and Steve realised she was taking deep, slow breaths. "I don't have many people I trust. Not many people who are really friends. Who are family. He's one of them." Gently, he touched her hand with his nose. He wanted to say I was terrified and I love him, too and I will always, always keep him safe but he couldn't. All he could offer was this. A tiny smile pulled at the corner of her mouth and she curled her fingers around his nose, stroking gently. "Thank you." She drew in another deep breath and was calmer. "And I'm certain I'm right about you now. I've heard about orphaned foals, rescued horses, behaving like you, getting attached. Never quite like what I saw today, it's usually dogs who fight to defend their masters, but it makes sense."
You're wrong. You're so wrong. I wish you didn't think you were right, because maybe then you'd look for some other explanation. But he didn't blame her. He doubted 'maybe this horse is actually a man' was likely to be high on anyone's list of possibilities.
She finished wiping him down, got him fresh water and waited while he drank his fill, then turned towards the healers' tent. She hadn't bothered to tie him. He watched her curiously. "Come on," she said, putting a hand on his halter. "You may as well come with me. You're just going to end up there eventually."
Bucky was fine, just a concussion, nothing permanent coming of his encounter with the ground, apart from Steve's new grey hairs and Steve's determination to never let him fall out of the saddle again.
And of course Steve's blinding, overwhelming love.
He kept it under control, but when Bucky came out of the healers' tent Steve folded his head over Bucky's shoulder and tucked him against his chest. Bucky wrapped his arms around Steve's neck and hugged him, the first time he'd ever done that.
Steve sighed softly and held him close, then stepped back and knelt, because Bucky still wasn't better, he was still on orders for bed rest, he couldn't go leaping onto Steve's back. "I'm okay, you know," Bucky murmured, but he didn't complain, just said, "I hope we didn't accidentally train you to do this every time," and gingerly swung his leg over Steve's back. Steve stood, graceful and even, and let Bucky direct him to his tent.
The months passed and the fighting ramped up, more skirmishes, more battles. Too many times they arrived too late to do more than help the survivors. Too late to do more than track the bandits' trail to the border and stop, unable to follow.
The more Bucky fought with Steve the stronger their bond grew. Bucky barely bothered with the reins. He thought he could probably leave the bridle off altogether, but Commander Hill was already being more than lenient about Steve basically living outside Bucky's tent. No bit was one thing; he couldn’t imagine her reaction if he decided to start riding Steve without a bridle.
Most of the time the reins lay loose across Steve's withers, even in battle. Bucky didn't need them. Steve didn't need them. All Bucky had to do was think where he wanted to go and they went.
Which was a good thing. He needed both hands free for weapons, for his shield, because the fights were becoming more vicious, the bandits growing bolder.
"Things are getting worse, and they're playing us against Wakanda." Bucky and Natasha were standing watch outside Commander Hill's tent, Steve cropping grass a few feet away, and Bucky exchanged a glance with Nat at Commander Hill's words.
"I know they are. I don't think these are normal bandits. There's too many of them and they're organised. I think we're going to have to do something about it," Sam replied, sounding resigned. "Something diplomatic."
There was a long silence, then Commander Hill said, "I guess it's a good thing you're with us, Your Majesty."
"I guess so," Sam replied, except it wasn't Sam. It was Prince Samuel. "Send someone to find Pietro, Quicksilver's the fastest horse in the Guard, tell him to get ready. I'll need him to carry a message to my father. We need to act now, because this can't go on. People on both sides of the border are dying and I tell you, next time I'm not stopping. I'll take us across the border, diplomacy be damned, and I can't imagine any decent king is going to be angry at having their sovereignty," he paused, "nudged if it means saving their people."
Once royalty was involved things moved fast, Steve discovered. A second Company of Horse Guard was sent down to watch the border. Falcon Company was sent to accompany Sam—no, Prince Samuel of the House of Wilson to meet with the Prince of Wakanda. Apparently certain highborn factions within Wakanda had objected to making common cause with their neighbours and the royal family had been hoping that those neighbours would reach out, allowing them to diplomatically ignore those factions.
The Prince of Wakanda had his own armed retainers, and his own specialists, the Dora Milaje: all women, all slightly terrifying.
Sam was speaking with the Prince of Wakanda, Commander Hill next to him. Everyone was on horseback, the Horse Guard arrayed behind Sam, long formal cloaks draped over their horse's rumps, the Dora Milaje surrounding their Prince, his armed retainers behind them. Nothing had yet progressed to the point people were willing to dismount.
One of the Dora Milaje whispered something in the ear of the Wakandan Prince and he frowned. Spoke to her full voice in a language Steve and, judging by their expressions, Sam and the Horse Guard couldn't understand. She nodded firmly.
The Wakandan Prince's face was a thundercloud, lightning on the horizon, threatening to strike. He backed his tall black horse two deliberate steps away, the Dora Milaje moving with him. His voice rang out as he proclaimed, "We can never make common cause with a people who enslave others."
There was a long, confused silence, broken by Sam saying, "I'm sorry, I have no idea what you're referring to."
The Prince gestured to the Dora Milaje who'd spoken to him. "No?" she scoffed. "You claim to be ignorant of the human slave you have in your midst?"
Looking absolutely mystified, Sam exchanged a glance with Commander Hill. "Yes?"
Anger grew in the face of the Dora Milaje who'd spoken, a storm cloud to match her Prince's, and she slung a leg over her horse, slid to the ground, and marched forward, people and horses scrambling out of her way until she stood in front of Steve.
Bucky went still on top of him, his legs tightening. "Here. Here in front of me is a man enslaved to serve you, forced to be a beast of burden, and you say you know nothing of it." Steve closed his eyes as he felt shock reverberate through Bucky.
Bucky who was throwing himself off his back to grab her sleeve. "Say that again."
She glared at him and lifted his hand off her with two contemptuous fingers, like it was a dead animal. "He is a man who is—"
"He's a person?"
Bucky whirled to face Steve. "Steve, are you a, you're a person?" he asked, voice cracking on the last word.
It was the curse's seed of hope, the question asked direct. Steve, with a feeling like his heart was breaking, like his soul was catching fire and crumbling to dust, hope tangling through it all like thorny vines, bowed his head in a single nod.
"Gods, gods." Bucky scrabbled at Steve's bridle, unbuckled it, dragged it off his head, and hurled it away while everyone looked on in frozen silence. "You're a person." He threw himself at Steve's saddle, unbuckled it, heaved it off and tossed it to the ground. "You're a person. Gods. Steve. I'm sorry." He was backing away, hands curled against his chest, eyes huge, and Steve could see they were filled with horror.
It hurt, it hurt to see him like that, to see him hurting. Steve moved towards him but Bucky shied away. Steve shook his head, ears curved forward, and clamped his teeth on Bucky's tabard, holding him in place. Tugged him forward, gently, then let go to fold his head over Bucky's shoulder, holding him close. He felt Bucky shudder, try to pull away, but Steve was infinitely stronger than Bucky and he held him tighter, refusing to let go.
After a few seconds, a few minutes, an eternity, Bucky shuddered and wrapped his arms around Steve's neck. "I'm sorry. Steve, gods, I'm sorry."
Steve shook his head. Wished desperately for the ability to say: I love you. You didn't know. It's okay, you didn't know. I love you.
Time passed, who knew how much, when the Dora Milaje said delicately, "It may be that we misunderstood the situation."
Bucky laughed wetly, rubbed at his eyes. "Yes, yes you misunderstood the situation. Can you change him back? Can you set him free?" He turned to face her, but Steve didn't let him go for long, looped his head back over Bucky's shoulder and Bucky folded his arm protectively over Steve's nose.
The Dora Milaje looked at her Prince. The thunderclouds were gone, washed away by compassion. The Prince looked at Sam. Sam and Commander Hill both looked equally horrified, a look bouncing and echoing its away across the faces of all the Horse Guard. "If you could, I would take it as a great favour," Sam said.
"We would be honoured. Consider it our apology for the accusation."
"No apology necessary," Sam said. "It was a logical conclusion."
The Prince nodded at the Dora Milaje and she gestured at Bucky to move. Gestured at Steve to let him go. Planted her hands on her hips and said, "You both have to move."
Steve took two steps back, Bucky took two steps forward and turned to watch, and the Dora Milaje, who was magician as well as warrior, raised her hands and reached.
It hit Steve like a wave, like a wind, like an earthquake. Her magic was warm, welcoming, beckoning his true self out from under the horse. He followed its call, felt the horse melt away and he stumbled, would have fallen, but Bucky was there, Bucky caught him.
"Bucky." He kept wanting to fall forward. Standing on two legs felt wrong. Standing on these two legs felt wrong. This wasn’t his body, skinny and weak; this body was tall and broad and strong, like the horse’s strength had followed him, but he clung to Bucky and Bucky wrapped his arms around him, held him tight. "Bucky." He could speak, he could say Bucky's name. I love you. He didn't say it.
"I've got you," he said. "Steve." He stopped. "Is that even your name?"
"It's my name." He pressed his head into Bucky's chest and Bucky held him more tightly, gently stroking him, just like he always did when he was soothing Steve, except it was hands on his naked neck, his naked back.
"Okay. Just let me." He let go of Steve long enough to undo his cloak, to wriggle it out from under Steve's clinging hands and wrap it around Steve. "You're kind of naked," he murmured.
"I guess that matters now."
"Probably," Bucky said and wrapped his arms around him again. "Maybe. I don't know. I don't care. Steve."
He made a soft noise that was part human sigh, part horse-like huff. "Bucky."
"No wonder you didn't know how to be a horse."
Steve started to laugh and pressed his face harder against Bucky to hide the tears. "Yeah."
A throat cleared near them. Bucky cradled the back of Steve's head as he looked up. Steve stayed where he was. "We didn't know." It was Sam, looking down from Redwing, and he was speaking softly, like he didn't want to spook Steve. "Steve, we didn't know, I promise you. If we had we would have found a way to free you."
"I know," Steve said to Bucky's chest. "I wasn't allowed to let anyone know, not by deed or action, that I wasn't a horse. It was part of the curse."
"But however strange the circumstances, you are one of us." Steve lifted his head, turned to look at Sam. Realised he wasn't looking at Sam. He was looking at Prince Samuel. "You served with us, you fought with us. You are one of the Horse Guard. You are under our protection." Bucky's arms tightened around him. "On my word and on my oath."
Steve swallowed hard, because it was such unexpected kindness. "Thank you, Your Majesty."
Sam nodded. "It's what's right."
"Perhaps we could have him taken to our encampment." It was the Prince of Wakanda. Steve wasn't sure what he'd done to attract this much royal attention—oh right, endangered the alliance between two kingdoms and then got turned back into a man—but it wasn't exactly comfortable. "There will be some aftereffects from the transformation and my magicians can transport him there instantly. It's a few hour's ride from here."
Bucky cast a pleading look at Sam and Sam nodded. "That would be very generous of you, and appreciated, so long as Guard Barnes can accompany him."
The Prince looked at the two of them: wrapped around each other, Bucky's hand cradling Steve's head, his fingers tangling in Steve's hair. His lips twitched ever so slightly. "I'm not sure it would be possible to separate them."
“What’s wrong with him?” Bucky kept his voice calm only through force of will. Steve was sagging against him. He was heavy but Bucky would throw himself in the ocean with weights on his feet before he'd drop him.
“Only that his body is exhausted from the transformation.” The magician who’d opened a portal and brought them here smiled reassuringly and held open a tent flap.
“I’m fine,” Steve said. Steve who wasn’t a horse. Steve who was a person. A person who Bucky had been riding into battle, who Bucky had saddled and bridled and trained… His mind shied away from that. Right now he just needed to concentrate on Steve and making sure he had whatever he needed. “Bucky, I’m okay.”
“He needs to sleep,” the magician said, gesturing at the bed. An actual bed in a tent, piled with furs as luxurious as the tent itself. “You can stay with him,” she added before Bucky could ask.
"Thank you." She smiled again and left. Bucky got Steve settled in the bed, wrapped the furs around him.
“Don’t leave me.” Steve’s eyes were huge and he wrapped his hands in Bucky's tabard. “Bucky.”
“I won’t. I’m not.” Bucky stroked gentle fingers down his cheek and Steve smiled. “You can go to sleep, I’ll be here.”
Bucky unbuckled his weapons and sat on the floor next to the bed. Steve shifted to press his nose into the back of Bucky’s neck, and it was so like he used to do when he was a horse Bucky didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
In minutes, Steve was asleep, soft breath against Bucky's skin, one hand clenched on his shoulder. Just like his teeth had clamped down on Bucky's tabard when Bucky had tried to escape the truth of what he'd done. He pulled his knees up and rested his forehead on them.
Steve wasn't his horse. Steve was a person. His mind spun and danced like Steve moving under him, light as a dawn breeze— Stop it. Bucky breathed deep, trying to remember everything he'd ever done to Steve. He'd never touched him with a whip, never touched him with a spur, never punished him, never hurt him. Never made him take a bit. Thank the gods.
Time passed, Steve's slow, even breaths measuring out the hours like a metronome as Bucky's mind replayed every moment of his time with Steve. Looking at all the things he'd done, looking at all the things Steve had done. How didn't I see it? How didn't I see that he wasn't a horse?
He rubbed his eyes, trying to drive out the memory of pale lines snaking over Steve's skin. He'd seen them when he'd wrapped Steve in his cloak but they hadn't quite registered then, thin scars that matched the ones Steve had borne as a horse. Now they were burning bright in his memory, but the flare of anger was interrupted by a quiet voice saying, "Forgive me, but are you alright?"
Bucky jerked his head up, reaching for his sword, because Steve was sleeping behind him, he had to protect Steve. His fingers curled around the hilt, but he didn't raise it because the grey-haired man standing in the doorway of the tent was smiling gently. "They sent for me," he said. "Because this transformation stunk of sorcerer's magic and that's more in my area than theirs. Between you and me, I think they'd prefer not to dirty their hands. Not that I blame them. I take it you're Guard Barnes?"
"Yeah. I mean, yes, Guard Barnes of the King's Horse Guard. Who are you?" He kept his voice low, not wanting to wake Steve, and his hand on his sword.
"My name is Erskine. I'm a sorcerer, retired now, but I might be of some assistance to your friend when he wakes. May I come in?"
Bucky studied him, glanced at Steve, at the hand on his shoulder, then nodded. "Okay, sure. If you can help him, yeah, you can come in."
Erskine smiled another gentle smile and came inside, pulling the tent flap closed behind him, and sat on one of the chairs.
"Why does he need a sorcerer? He's a person again. Won't he be okay now?"
"Yes and no," Erskine said with a sigh. "Do you know how long he was a horse?"
"He's been with me for just over a year. I don't know how long before that."
"Long enough, long enough," Erskine murmured under his breath, and Bucky thought he was talking more to himself. "The nature of this kind of transformation, it means the body remembers. And the mind. He'll always carry some of his horse-self with him and there will be...other things."
"What kind of things?" Bucky asked, worry rising.
"I think that's something I'd rather discuss first with your friend." It was said with a soft voice and an apologetic smile and Bucky nodded, touched Steve's hand on his shoulder. "But how are you?"
Deep eyes studied him, eyes that Bucky thought saw too much, but Erskine nodded. "I'm glad to hear it, because unless you're a secret sorcerer, or a mysterious magician," his tiny grin invited Bucky to join in, but Bucky couldn't quite, "none of what happened to him is your fault."
"He was a person," Bucky said, an edge of distress in his voice. "All that time and he was a person."
Behind him he felt Steve wake, felt him tense, felt his confusion, just like he'd always been able to. He turned and Steve's eyes were wide and wild. Bucky was vaguely aware of Erskine's presence, but he didn't really care about him right then.
"Steve," he said softly, crooning gently, and Steve's eyes locked onto his. "You're you again." He hesitated, then stroked Steve's face, fingers gentle, ran his hand through his hair. "It's okay, you're okay. Remember?" He reached for Steve's hand as Steve's eyes started to clear, threaded his fingers through Steve's and squeezed. "Hands not hooves."
"Bucky." There was something in the way Steve said his name that sent a shiver down Bucky's spine, like it was the answer to all the questions Steve might ever ask.
"Bucky," he agreed and Steve smiled.
"I thought it was a dream."
"No dream. It really happened." Steve squeezed his hand and pushed up to press his face against Bucky's chest. Bucky wrapped his arm around Steve's shoulders, gently stroking the back of his neck. "You okay?"
"I have no idea."
"That sounds about right." Maybe it should be strange to be holding him like this, stroking him, but it wasn't. "There's someone here to see you."
Steve made a questioning noise, a little huff, and Bucky didn't know if he was imagining it, but it sounded horse-like. "He's named Erskine, and he's a sorcerer. He know about thes—" He didn't get any further, because Steve leapt out of bed, standing in front of Bucky, fists clenched, back tense, neck arched.
Steve snorted. It should have been comical. It wasn't. Bucky could hear the echo of flashing hooves and snapping teeth and dead men on the battlefield. Steve was locked onto Erskine, who was looking deliberately harmless.
"Steve." Bucky stood, put a hand on Steve's shoulder. His muscles were like iron under Bucky's hand.
"It was a sorcerer who did this to me."
"Okay, but it wasn't this sorcerer, was it?" After a minute Steve shook his head. "He's here to help you." Steve twitched under his hand. "He seems like a good guy." Steve's gaze flicked back to him. "I'd never let anyone near you I thought would hurt you." His voice was soft and he gently ran his hand down Steve's arm.
"Not me I'm worried about."
Bucky frowned then twitched in realisation. He folded his fingers around Steve's hand, tugging gently. "He's not going to hurt me. He's not going to hurt anyone. This isn't a battle, you don't have to protect me." Steve gave him a flashing look, something burning in its depths that Bucky didn't entirely understand, but it scorched his heart, his soul.
"No one needs to be protected from me." Erskine's voice was kind. "But I think it might be best if I left you alone for a bit. Perhaps I'll find you some clothes," he nodded at Steve, "and return in half an hour or so. If that's all right with both of you?"
Bucky saw Steve blink and glance down, as if he suddenly realised he was naked. "That would be great, thanks," Bucky said. With a little nod of his head, Erskine slipped out of the tent.
Steve sat down on the bed, looking a little shaky, and wrapped a fur around his waist. Bucky sat next to him and said, "I can see clothes are going to be a problem." He kept his voice light and Steve responded with a quick smile.
"I haven't had to think about them for a long time," Steve said, looking down at his body like it was something new and strange. He held out his hands, turned them around, touched his right fingers to his left wrist, touched his chest, his ribs.
Bucky followed the movement and banked anger flared. "You've still got the scars. Do you remember who had you? Who did this to you?" Without thinking, he reached out and traced one finger over the white lines that ran across Steve's shoulder, his ribs, brushed his thumb against the round shiny skin above his hip that had been the wound on Steve's flank. "Could we find them?"
Steve caught Bucky's hand. "It doesn't matter."
"It matters." He didn't recognise his voice, humming with anger and sorrow and guilt. "It matters."
"No, it doesn't. I fought, I never stopped fighting until you found me and then there was nothing to fight." Bucky's eyes found Steve's. "It's okay, Bucky."
Bucky didn't think it was okay, not by a long shot, not by any measure, but this wasn't about him. It was about Steve. He took a deep breath, strove for lightness. "I guess it's a good thing I never put shoes on you. That would have been hard to cope with when you changed back."
Steve started to laugh. "A very good thing, yes." He buried his face in Bucky's neck, arms going tight around him.
Bucky ran his hands down Steve's back, familiar movements soothing him, soothing both of them. "Can you tell me how it happened?" Steve was suddenly iron under his hands. "You don't have to, you don't— Steve, pretend I didn't ask."
"No, I want to tell you, I just don’t come off so great."
"You've seen me passed out drunk, I don't think I have any stones to throw."
"True. You snored so loud you rattled the stable door."
"No I didn't."
"And you had straw stuck up your nose."
Bucky pulled back enough to mock-glare at him. There was a teasing grin, tiny and barely there, on Steve's face, but it didn't quite reach his eyes. Bucky ran one hand up to curve around the back of Steve's neck. "Tell me?"
Steve pressed his forehead against Bucky's shoulder and said, "I'm not, I don't look like this. Didn't. Before I was a horse I was skinny, ribs sticking out, knobbly spine, bony knees and elbows, and I was short. Bad heart, couldn’t breathe properly. I was sick all the time. I was definitely going to die young." Bucky's heart seized. "Probably sooner than I was supposed to since I kept getting into fights."
"If you were that bad off, why did you get into fights?"
"Because people are bad news and the neighbourhood I lived in, no one cared. No one helped anyone. No one would lift a finger to help the people who were getting picked on, beaten up, getting robbed. Someone had to step up, even if it was just me."
Gods, if Bucky closed his eyes, he could picture it, could see a scaled down version of Steve trying to protect— His eyes snapped open. "Like you did for that mare?"
"Just like that."
Sudden fear spiked through Bucky. "Steve, she wasn't?"
Steve's voice was soothing when he said, "No, Bucky. No. She was a horse. She was only a horse." Bucky sagged in relief and Steve was silent for a moment, ran a hand over Bucky's hair, down his back, soft reassurance. "There were rumours about a sorcerer, one who could change people. Make them better. My mom was gone, I had no other family, a lousy job as a scribe, maybe only a few more years to live. I figured I had nothing to lose, so I followed the rumours." He paused. "And I found out they were right."
"I know," he said, and told Bucky the rest of the tale.
Bucky was silent when he finished, digesting it, then he said, "You got cursed to be a horse because you tackled a sorcerer to protect a stranger, to stop the sorcerer turning him back into a dog."
"And you thought that was going to make you come off as anything other than great?" Steve rubbed his forehead against Bucky's shoulder and Bucky sighed softly and cradled the back of Steve's head, looking for and discarding words, because none matched the swelling warmth in his heart. He finally settled on, "You were wrong."
There was a long silence, broken when Steve said, "I still don't know why I look like this, instead of like I used to before he changed me into a horse."
"I can answer that," Erskine said, peeking through the tent flap.
Steve stiffened against Bucky, pulling back to watch Erskine, but Bucky cupped his shoulder and Steve settled under his touch. "Did you wait outside until you could make a perfect entrance?" Bucky asked.
Erskine just smiled. "May I come in?" Bucky, with a glance at Steve, waved him in and he settled back on the chair, set a bundle of clothes on the table. "To answer your question, it's because of how long you were a horse."
"What do you mean?" Steve asked.
"It's the nature—"
"Wait." Bucky interrupted, remembering what Erskine had said, about how some things should be discussed with Steve. "Steve, do you want me here for this? Because I can go."
"Stay." Steve's hand shot out and latched onto his arm, tight enough Bucky winced, and Steve instantly loosened his grip. "Sorry, but please stay."
"That's part of it," Erskine said. "You're stronger than an ordinary person. It's likely that you'll also be faster. According to Guard Barnes you were with him as a horse for more than a year—"
"And for almost a year before Bucky found me," Steve said.
"So a horse for almost two years, then. When you were changed back you brought some of the horse with you. It's the nature of a sorcerer's transformation spell. It doesn't place your soul inside another creature's body; it changes you, alters you, the creature becomes part of you as you become the creature." Erskine leaned forward, eyes bright. "It's amazing you held onto yourself for all that time. You must have a very strong will."
"People always said I was stubborn." Steve leaned into Bucky's side and Bucky felt his breath of amusement.
"And a good thing, too," Erskine said, pressing his hands together. "There is one other thing, and I can block it for you if you wish, but," he paused, lips pursed, "the horse is yours now. With anyone else I might suggest blocking it, but you held onto yourself for so long, I don't think anything is going to make you lose yourself now. So. I'll be blunt, yes? You can change into a horse again, and back, when you wish."
"What?" Bucky blurted out, Steve struck into shocked silence beside him. Steve couldn't be a horse again. He was a person, he was a man, he couldn't just be a horse, like it was shirt he could change into.
"I'm not sure there's another way to say that. I can show you how, it's quite easy. But it's up to you and I can block it if you like."
Steve made a small noise, a low huff, and Bucky turned to look at him. His eyes were wide but not wild, not panicked. They were...surprised. Thoughtful. Considering. "How much would it hurt?" Steve asked.
"How much? None. Not at all. It's magic. Well, a kind of magic. It's something you hold in your soul. It belongs to you. It will look very strange to anyone watching, like the world is coming apart in the space around you, but it won't hurt at all."
"Bucky?" Steve was looking at him now, reaching for him, reaching for him with hands, strong hands, with long fingers, he was wrapping those fingers around Bucky's own. Asking for reassurance. Asking what he should do. Holding onto Bucky.
"It's your decision, Steve." He felt disappointment flow through those fingers and he tightened his grip. "But Natasha always says never throw away something you might need." What she'd said was never throw away a weapon, but he wouldn't call Steve a weapon. Bucky lifted his eyes from their joined hands to meet Steve's gaze. "And if it belongs to you, if it's part of your soul, no one, not one godsdammed person in this Kingdom or any other, can say you didn't earn it."
Steve as a person was as easy to read as he'd been as a horse and he watched calmness and determination flow through him as he turned to Erskine. "Show me."
"First you should get some more rest, and then," he tapped the bundle, "clothes, and I would strongly suggest you eat, and then I believe your Commander Hill and your Prince will want to see you both. My discussions with them made it very clear how they regard you." Erskine's smile was gentle and pleased. "They consider you to be one of theirs, judging by the subtle warnings I was given."
"Sorry," Steve said, but Erskine waved his hand as he stood.
"No, it's good to know people will protect others."
"Yes it is." Steve's hand was strong around Bucky's. "Thank you."
"Until later." Erskine left the tent and Steve sagged into Bucky's side.
"I don't know why I'm so tired."
"No, I can't imagine why," Bucky said dryly. "Lie down."
"I feel like all I've done since I got turned back is sleep."
"Well it has been a whole," Bucky paused, thinking, "maybe three, four hours, so you should be ashamed of yourself." He shifted sideways and put a hand on Steve's bare shoulder, pushing him to lay down. Steve resisted and Bucky had the sudden realisation that he couldn’t move Steve if he didn't want to be moved, any more than he could have when Steve had been a horse, but he yielded to pressure and lay down. "Rest, will you? I'll keep watch."
"You don't have to," Steve's voice said, but his eyes said, Please stay.
"Yes I do." He could no more leave Steve here on his own than he could fly. "Yes, I do."
Steve's eyes slipped shut and Bucky smoothed the hair off his forehead, then turned to sit on the floor with his back against the bed. It wasn't long before Steve was asleep, not long after that before Steve's nose was pressed into the back of his neck, Steve breathing deep.
Steve woke up and didn't know where he was, but he knew the shape and the feel and the scent of the man in front of him and this time he didn't panic. Bucky. He wasn't sure he could ever panic if he had Bucky. If he knew Bucky was safe.
They both wound up laughing as Steve struggled into the clothes Erskine had brought, because it had been so long since Steve had worn clothes, since Steve had had a body that required wearing clothes, and when he'd had one it hadn't been shaped like this.
Bucky ended up helping him tug everything into place.
Commander Hill and Prince Samuel of the House of Wilson formally recognised Steve's service with the Horse Guard, formally recognised him as a member of the Horse Guard, while the entire Falcon Company and the Prince of Wakanda and his Dora Milaje and his armed retainers looked on. Steve went beet red, but Bucky was a steadfast presence at his side.
Sam informally told Steve and Bucky that they'd played a not insignificant part in sealing the alliance between the two kingdoms. Bucky's reaction to the revelation of Steve's true nature, Steve's reaction to Bucky, their reaction to each other, had impressed the Wakandan Prince.
They both went pink and Sam smiled and excused himself to go and be a prince.
Erskine came for Steve when he was rested and relaxed and took him off to a secluded grove. Bucky came with them. Steve knew Bucky wouldn't let him go alone when Steve needed him. "Whatever you need," he'd murmured when Steve had held out his hand.
It was easy to find the horse again. Steve stood naked in the grass and closed his eyes, found it resting like a calm cool spot in his soul, waiting to be called, and it rushed out like a wave, flowing over him and through him, and when he could breathe again, head above water, he had four hooves and a mane and tail.
Steve stamped the ground, scraped at the grass with one hoof, feeling the strength of this body, its potential, its untapped speed and fire and fight, and looked at Bucky. Curved towards him in an invitation to ride and Bucky...flinched. Like someone had hit him.
Steve's ears drooped and he backed away, dropping his head, because that hurt.
"Sorry," Bucky said quickly, reaching to touch Steve, but he hesitated and Steve had to nudge him before he'd rub the whorl between his eyes. "Sorry."
"Perhaps I'll show you how to change back?" Erskine suggested and Steve nodded.
Changing back was just as easy, like diving back into the ocean and finding himself waiting under the waves. When he opened his eyes he was on two feet, stumbling forward, and Bucky caught him.
"Are you okay?" Bucky asked.
"Yeah. Yeah, it was just. You were a horse and I remembered." He shook his head. "I remembered when I didn't know you were anything else."
Bucky smiled. "I'm fine, Steve. Really. And you're naked again."
"Does it bother you?"
"I guess not," Bucky said after a moment's thought and he looked up into Steve's eyes. Steve had to fight down the desire to close the tiny distance that separated them and kiss him. Just once. Just lightly. Just... No. No. Bucky was here because Whatever you need. Steve had been his horse and, judging by the way Bucky had flinched, he couldn't even be that again.
Erskine cleared his throat. "Speaking for myself, if you're looking for opinions, I'd greatly prefer clothes."
They blinked at each other, as if they'd both forgotten he was there, and burst into laughter.
When Steve had been a horse he'd been able to escape from the lines and find Bucky, stay within a few feet of him, sleep outside his tent, and everyone had turned a blind eye. Now that he was a person again he wasn't given quite so much leeway. There were some places he couldn't follow Bucky, and into a meeting with Commander Hill was one of them.
Being without Bucky was... It was fine. He was fine. He really was, he simply preferred to be with Bucky, or to be where he could see him. To know that he was okay. But that wasn't always possible and when it wasn't, Steve truly was all right. Not exactly happy, but all right.
He made his way down to the lines, to spend time with the horses while he waited for Bucky. Most of them had known he wasn't right when he'd been a horse. They hadn't cared much; most of them had still welcomed him.
Widow pricked up her ears at him. "Hey, girl," he said softly, holding out his hand. He'd spent time around her, she was Natasha's horse and Natasha was Bucky's friend, and he'd always liked Widow. She was wicked, she was a fighter, and she dropped her nose and nibbled at his fingers. Steve smiled and rubbed her forehead.
"She doesn't usually let people pat her."
Steve looked over his shoulder.
"But then you're not precisely people, are you?" The tone of the words, gentle, amused, robbed them of any sting.
"Not precisely, no. Do you want me to stop?"
"No," Natasha said, head tilted to the side. "Widow will tell you if she wants you to stop." She moved to stand beside him, smoothing down Widow's mane.
"I won't say anything to anyone," Steve said quietly. "About what you said to me. About Bucky."
Natasha remained silent.
"I give you my word."
Her gaze cut sideways to meet his. "I didn't think you would."
Steve's hands stilled and Widow nudged him impatiently. "Oh," he finally said. "I thought..."
"You thought I was going to, what, threaten you? Tell you'd I'd do dire things to you if you ever revealed my secret?"
"Something like that. You're kind of scary."
A pleased smile spread across Natasha's face. "No." She turned to face him. "I meant what I said. You saved his life. Thank you."
Steve bobbed his head. "I can't take your thanks. I didn't do it for you. I did it because, because there wasn't any other choice. Because I couldn’t not. Because he's Bucky. Because—" He snapped his mouth shut.
Natasha studied him and her eyes softened. "I see." Steve was suddenly very afraid she did, but she just shook her head and went back to patting Widow. "You can have it anyway. You should hang onto it." She smiled and it was teasing, sly. "I don't give it very often."
He tentatively grinned back. "In that case, I'm honoured."
"You should be."
Bucky didn't have a horse. Without a horse he couldn't fight, he couldn't serve in his Company, but Commander Hill told him his job right now was to look after Steve, to accompany him back to the Home Ground and get him settled, because Prince Samuel believed that the Horse Guard owed Steve a debt.
Right now that was fine with Bucky. It was nice when his orders lined up with what he wanted.
A horse was found for Bucky to borrow and Steve, stubborn and determined, said he'd carry himself. They'd be travelling with a courier and a small group of Guards returning to the Home Ground for various reasons.
Bucky didn't know any of them beyond a friendly nod, but they were pleasant company.
Steve discovered that he hated seeing Bucky riding a horse.
Bucky discovered that riding a horse, an ordinary horse, was like the difference between drinking wine and drinking sand. Especially when Steve was dancing in circles around him, glorious and beautiful.
As part of getting Steve settled, Bucky started teaching him to ride. They quickly learned, much to Bucky's obvious concern and amusement, that Steve had no talent for riding a horse.
He was laughably, hilariously bad at it. He could stay on, mostly, if he clung with hands and arms and legs, but he bounced around like a lumpy bag of potatoes and even Winter soon grew cross and gave serious thought to bucking him off.
Which Steve told Bucky. "I've got about another minute and then he's going to dump me."
"How do you know?" Bucky asked.
"I know," Steve replied, asking Winter to stop and clambering off, much to his and Winter's mutual relief. "I can tell."
"Can you read his mind?"
"No, but I just know." He scratched Winter's itchy spot and Winter leaned into it, forgiving him for his terrible riding.
Steve couldn't ride a horse, and he didn't particularly want to, but he was an excellent horse handler. "You're one of the best I've ever seen," Bucky said. It was like Steve could read their minds. What was immediately obvious to Steve was opaque to others, even to experienced Guards, and he could tell horses what he wanted from them as clearly as if he could speak their language. Which, Steve eventually realised, was almost exactly what he was doing.
The only qualification to be a Horse Guard was that you could sit a horse like you were born in the saddle and learn to fight. For Steve, they made an exception.
Steve had his own room, one floor up from Bucky's. It was nice, airy, with a window and a table with a chair and a cupboard for clothes—which he had now, Commander Hill having sent orders for back pay for Steve's service with Bucky.
Bucky had taken him into the town to shop for clothes, had ducked away, leaving Steve alone with a moment of panic, because where was he. He'd returned to hand Steve a wall hanging of a phoenix rising from the flame, offering it to him with a shy smile that made Steve's heart, his soul, want to imitate the phoenix, because he loved Bucky so much.
"It seemed appropriate," Bucky had said softly, shoving it at Steve. Steve had hung it over his bed.
But the nights were long and he was alone. When they'd been on the border, as horse and man his nights had been spent with Bucky. As a horse he'd spent them outside Bucky's tent or with him on watch. As a man, in the camp and on the journey back, he'd slept next to him, their bedrolls next to each other. Every night, he'd had the sound of Bucky's breathing to keep him company.
Alone in his room, it was too much like being alone in his stall. Some nights he woke up and for one brief moment he forgot he was free. It didn't take long before the truth came back, because it was hard to mistake his current body for the horse, but that one moment was unpleasant.
One night it was too much, too much to keep lying awake afterwards, alone in his room. He had get up and walk, remind himself that he could.
In that moment he missed Bucky, missed the sound of his breathing, missed knowing he was safe, so much that his feet, without consulting Steve, led him down the stairs to Bucky's door.
Bucky was woken by a knock on the door. He snuffled, rolled over and put his pillow over his head, but there was another knock. He sighed and rolled out of bed, twitching open the curtain to let in the moonlight. When he opened the door Steve was standing there, lit by the glow from the lanterns burning in the hall. His hair was mussed, his feet were bare, and there were shadows under his eyes. "Can I sleep in here with you?" Bucky stared at him in surprise. Steve shifted from foot to foot, then seemed to fold in on himself, shoulders hunching. "No, that's too strange isn't it? Sorry. I'll go."
Shaking free of his surprise, Bucky grasped Steve's wrist, pulled him inside and shut the door. "Steve," he said firmly. "I'm not sure there's any such thing as too strange where we're concerned. Whatever you need from me you can have."
"Yes," Bucky said firmly, not quite able to let go of Steve's wrist. "And this isn't me saying no, but why do you want to sleep in here?"
Steve looked at the ground, tilted his head to look up at Bucky out of the corner of his eyes. "Being alone in my room, it's just a bit too much like being alone in my stall." The sudden spike of guilt drove through Bucky's heart like a sword. He knew it was written on his face, because Steve's hand turned, wrapped around his, squeezed tight. "Bucky. You didn't know."
"I know." The corner of his mouth twitched up in a self-deprecating smile. "Doesn't mean I don't still feel guilty."
Steve was studying him now, and his grip was hard enough Bucky didn't think he could get free, knew he couldn’t, not if Steve didn't let him, and Steve was putting gentle pressure on him, pulling Bucky closer, until he was standing in the circle of Steve's warmth. "Unlike you, I did know, I knew exactly who I was and I almost killed you."
He knew what Steve was talking about, remembered that day in the stall. "That's different."
"Is it? I was still me inside that horse's body and I went for you, I tried to hurt you, and I came too close."
"But you stopped."
"Because you were afraid."
Bucky wanted to deny it, but he couldn’t, because he remembered Steve coming for him, hooves and teeth and a thousand pounds of anger, and however briefly he had been afraid.
"It's what made me start thinking again, start being me again instead of just reacting, instead of just being angry. Because of what I almost did to you."
"But you stopped. You didn't hurt me. You never hurt me."
Steve shifted forward a fraction of an inch until he was touching Bucky. "Just like you never hurt me. Okay? You didn't know. You thought I was a horse. Stop beating yourself up about it. Promise me."
He wanted to, he wanted to give Steve anything he needed, but he couldn't give him that. It would be a lie. "I can't promise that."
"Promise you'll try."
Bucky nodded. "I'll try."
Steve lifted his other hand, hesitated, then ran it down Bucky's arm and leaned into him, shoulder to shoulder, and breathed in deeply, let it out in a long sigh. "I guess that'll have to do for now."
Having Steve leaning into him was doing strange things to his heart. "So happy I meet with your approval," he muttered.
Steve nudged him, grinning a little as he leaned back. "If you've got your bedroll I can set up on the floor, just like you used to come and sleep in my stall."
Bucky thought about it then shook his head. "You can have the other half of the bed. I'm not making you sleep on the floor."
"Are you sure?"
"I'm sure." Bucky squeezed his hand and Steve pressed his forehead into Bucky's shoulder, then stepped back and let go. "Go on, get into bed," Bucky said, sliding the curtain shut as Steve obeyed. Bucky climbed in next to him; it was a tight fit with Steve's bulk, but he turned on his side, facing Steve. Weighed up his words and said, "If you want we can ask about getting a second bed in here, so you don't have to sleep alone."
There was a long silence then, "That'd be good. You don't have to do that, but yeah, that'd be good."
"Whatever you need, Steve." He heard an indrawn breath, like Steve was going to speak, then a hand brushed his elbow but Steve stayed silent.
Bucky didn't expect to sleep easily, but he was gone before he had time to finish the thought.
He woke briefly before dawn, a warm heavy weight against his back, a strong arm over his waist, a nose pressed against his neck, nuzzling into his hair. Steve was wrapped around him, holding him tightly. Bucky thought about elbowing him to wake him up, because there was no way he could wriggle free of that iron grip, but he felt the slow beat of Steve's heart against his back, felt the ruffle of calm breaths through his hair, and closed his eyes again.
Steve was safe and at peace. If this was what he needed, Bucky would give it to him.
It had nothing to do with his own slow heartbeat, his own sense of peace, the feeling of safety and contentment that being surrounded by Steve, by Steve's strength, gave him.
There were no issues with Steve moving into Bucky's room. After everything Steve had been through, after everything Steve had given them, there wasn't much the Horse Guard wasn't prepared to give him and this really wasn't asking for a lot.
Steve hung the phoenix next to the door. Bucky got into the habit of touching it every time he left the room.
It was soothing, having Steve there, and Bucky was certain Steve felt the same way. Bucky was equally certain Steve didn't feel the way Bucky was starting to feel. Was trying not to feel, because Steve needed him. He didn't need Bucky making things difficult with messy, uninvited emotions.
Trying not to feel wasn't helped by the nights Steve would gently press his fingers against Bucky's shoulder, asking without words, and of course Bucky would slide over in bed, making room for Steve. Steve who would inevitably end up with all that ridiculous warm strength wrapped around him.
"You're sure you don't mind?" Steve asked one night.
"No, Steve, I don't mind," he replied. "Whatever you need." Inside he wanted to laugh because not minding was about as far from the truth as he could get. Not mind. Gods. Wanted. Wanted more. Wanted to turn and wrap himself around Steve, wanted to touch him in ways that had nothing to do with comfort and everything to do with the burgeoning tide of feeling he knew was love.
Nights passed and days passed. News came from the border that the fighting had increased. Joint Wakandan forces and the Horse Guard were roaming freely across the border, much to the dismay of the bandits. Bucky spent a morning kicking things, filled with frustration because he should be there, fighting with his Company, with his friends, even though he was more than glad to be here with Steve.
He laughed a little bitterly and muttered under his breath, "But it's not like I have a horse anyway."
Steve looked at him out of deep eyes and Bucky apologised. Steve waved it away and dragged him down to the stables where they spent the day tossing hay bales until Bucky was exhausted.
Late that night Steve curved himself around Bucky, rested his chin on his shoulder, and said, "Let me be your horse again."
Bucky reared away from him, scrabbled backwards in shock, and ended up sprawled on the floor. "Ouch, fuck."
"That was a bit more dramatic than necessary."
"No it wasn't. What the fuck, Steve? You're not a horse."
"No, I'm not, but I know how to be one, I know how to fight with you like one. It's what I know how to do. Let me do it with you."
"No. No. No way."
"Why not. Why not?! Because you're not a horse. You're not an animal. I'm not going to put a saddle and a bridle on you and ride you like a, like a damn beast of burden."
"No. No, we're not talking about this. I get it, you're trying to find a place for yourself. But that's not it. It's not necessary. You're a better horse handler than anyone I've ever met. We need that. You don't have to turn into a horse and let me ride you."
Steve's expression was unreadable and Bucky was horrified at himself because a tiny, horrible, selfish secret part of him had risen up and sung yes. "No," he said again, to himself, to Steve, and Steve didn't say anything else.
Steve wanted to be Bucky's horse again. He wanted to fight under him, to carry him into battle.
He didn't want to, he wouldn't, watch Bucky ride off to fight on the back of an animal who didn't care if he lived or died. It would be like watching him ride off on Winter all over again, only a hundred, a thousand, a million times worse because Steve hadn't truly understood what fighting with him meant.
Steve hadn't known the sounds, the smells, the blurred rage and terror of hooves and swords and bodies smashing together. Hadn't known what it was to plant himself over Bucky and rain death down on people trying to kill him. Hadn't known that he'd kill, that he'd die, if that's what it took to keep Bucky safe.
Hadn't been in love with Bucky.
There was no one better to carry Bucky into a fight than Steve. Steve knew that. He just didn't know how to convince Bucky, Bucky who was still carrying guilt he didn't deserve. A few more times Steve raised the idea of once more being Bucky's horse and that guilt drifted over Bucky like a shadow; Steve didn't know how to brush it away.
Steve loved Bucky and he wanted to protect him and he needed him and he would fight with him, he could fight with him, if only he could find the right words, the right actions, to make Bucky understand.
Steve's offer, the fact that Steve kept offering, finally prompted Bucky to start looking for another horse. Winter was getting too old to take into a fight, however willing his heart might be, and Bucky wouldn't ask it of him. He deserved his retirement.
There were unclaimed horses in the herd, good horses, strong horses. None of them were Steve but Bucky ruthlessly cut that thought off at the ankles, because what the fuck was wrong with him? Steve wasn't a horse. He had no godsdammed business thinking of him that way.
Of course, he was going to have a hard time finding another horse when none of them would come near him. "Would you stop that?"
"Stop what?" Steve asked, all innocence, scraping one foot in the dirt. He was standing a few feet behind Bucky and every horse in the field was staying well away, their eyes fixed on Steve. They weren't afraid; they were alert, like they were waiting for their next instruction.
"Stop chasing them off."
"I didn't chase them off."
"Well stop making them stay away."
"Not sure what you mean."
"Stop using your," Bucky waved a frustrated hand in the air, "magical horse communication skills to keep them away. I have to find a horse."
"Bucky." Steve's expression was gentle. "You have a horse."
"Don't start that again, Steve. Just don't."
"I'll give you whatever you need, you know I will, but I'm not doing that to you."
A ripple of something that wasn't quite anger passed over Steve's face. "Doing that to me." Bucky pressed his lips together. "Doing that to me, like it's not something I'm asking for, like it's not something I can choose." Shaking his head, Steve stripped his shirt off.
Bucky's eyes went wide and he glanced around. There was no one in sight. "What are you doing?"
Steve didn't answer, just kicked off his boots, pulled off his socks and shucked off his pants and underwear. He stood there naked, glorious in the sunlight, and Bucky had to force himself to look away, because he was beautiful, he was so beautiful, and he was everything Bucky wanted, everything Bucky loved.
"Bucky," Steve said softly. "It's always been my choice." Bucky glanced at him. Steve's eyes were soft but there something implacable in their depths. "Always my choice. For you I chose and I'm choosing it again." Steve closed his eyes and blurred. Bucky had to look away, the shimmer in the air like heat waves making him dizzy, and when he looked back there was a horse where Steve had been.
No, it was still Steve. His eyes were the same, the same blue, the same soft but implacable look in them.
He curved towards Bucky in clear invitation and Bucky backed away, hands behind his back, because he wanted to. He wanted to touch him, he wanted to answer that invitation and climb on, because he loved Steve, he loved him so much, but he also missed his horse.
Steve sighed, like he couldn’t handle how stupid Bucky was being, and moved, quick as lightning, to latch his teeth in Bucky's shirt, staring down at him.
Bucky swallowed hard. "Steve..." he said softly, and then trailed off because he didn't know what came after.
With another sigh, softer, Steve let go, caught a lock of Bucky's hair and tugged gently, then curved towards him again and Bucky broke. He pressed his face against Steve's shoulder and breathed in, then put a hand on his withers and a hand on his back and leapt up, settling himself lightly. "You're in charge," he said quietly. "Your choice, you said. You choose."
Steve's ears flickered, asking as clearly as if he'd spoken, Are you sure? and Bucky said, "I trust you. I've always trusted you even when I didn't know who you were. Of course I'm sure."
He could feel Steve's happiness at that, felt Steve gather himself, and he wound his hands into Steve's mane, was ready when Steve leapt forward, smoother than silk. Bucky could feel every muscle moving under him as Steve sped into a gallop and he leaned forward, slid his hands up Steve's neck.
There was wind in his face, Steve's mane tickling his skin, as Steve galloped through the field, green grass and horses and blue sky whipping past, and that small secret part of Bucky missed this so much.
Gradually, Steve slowed, turned back towards the fence, came to a stop next to his pile of clothes. Bucky slid off his back, moved away and stared at the sky while Steve changed back into himself. Made himself keep watching the clouds swirl and twist while he listened to Steve get dressed. He started slightly when Steve stepped into his space and pressed a hand against his sternum, the heat of it radiating out and through him. "I think I was made for this," Steve said quietly. "Made to be your partner."
Steve kept going, running right over the top of him. "No. I need you to listen to me. Before this, before all of this, before the horse, I was always angry. At everything. At the whole world, for making me weak, for everything being so godsdammed unfair. I was so angry I indentured myself to a sorcerer, for gods' sake, because I thought that would change things. And," Steve laughed suddenly, and his eyes were clear and blue, filled with warmth that pinned Bucky in place, "and in a way that's what happened," his voice dropped to a whisper, "because it brought me to you."
Bucky swallowed hard. "Steve. I thought you were a horse. I treated you like a horse. I put a saddle on you and a bridle and I fucking trained you."
"You didn't know. You were kind and gentle and I trusted you. You trained me to use my body and I learned to use my anger. I learned to fight. With you. For you. Beside you. Well, under you, I guess." Almost unwillingly, Bucky smiled, because he couldn’t resist the tiny grin Steve offered him. "It's not your fault you didn't know."
Bucky's smile faded. "If I'd opened my eyes, really opened them, I would have known, I should have known, something was wrong, but I didn't and you were trapped. Enslaved, that magician said."
Steve pushed closer, crowding him. Bucky gave ground, but it didn't matter, Steve kept coming until he was sandwiched between the fence and Steve. He could feel the strength of him, the solid weight of him, his heat, and Steve stared down into his eyes. "Bucky. You had an explanation that made sense. No one would have looked for one that didn't. And as for being trapped." Moving very deliberately, Steve put his hands on Bucky's shoulders, squeezed gently. "How many times did you fall asleep next to me, right under my hooves? How many times could I have killed you? One stomp and you'd never have woken up."
Steve stroked his thumbs gently down the skin of Bucky's neck, raising goosebumps. "How many times could I have let you get killed when we were fighting? If I'd wanted to be free of you it would have been easy. I didn't. I chose you, chose to carry you, chose to fight with you, because I," he paused, like he was choosing and discarding words, went on, "because I wanted, because I want, you to be safe. It was my choice. For you it was always my choice." His voice dropped, deepened, and heat swirled through Bucky's gut as he said, "And I will be dead and buried before I trust you to some animal who doesn't care if you live or die."
Bucky could only stare up at him, wanting to believe, wanting to lean into his strength, wanting to touch and hold and... He shivered, and some strong emotion, hope, longing, something he couldn't quite work out, drifted over Steve's face. Bucky took a deep breath. "I don't want you to be dead and buried."
"Is that a yes?"
"I don't know. Are you sure about this? Steve, are you really sure? Because this, it feels wrong."
"Because you'd be riding me instead of fighting beside me?"
"Bucky. I want to fight with you. If I carry you into battle I'm not your servant, I'm not your beast of burden, we're partners and the gods help anyone who gets in our way."
There was a fire in Steve's eyes, reflecting flattened ears and lashing hooves. It flared through Bucky, burning his lingering doubts to ash. Steve was a warrior, he was Bucky's equal. On four hooves or two feet, he was always Bucky's equal. "Steve, I miss you, I miss fighting with you. I don't want another horse. I want you."
It was fierce and Steve pressed closer, Bucky was pinned against the fence, he couldn't get away, didn't want to. It sent a shiver down his spine knowing, with all Steve's strength, he was at his mercy. But then he always had been; that's what trust was. He closed his eyes, took another breath, and threw himself under Steve's metaphorical hooves. "And I love you. I love you so much, you have no idea."
There was a long silence and he kept his eyes closed. Steve's thumbs brushed his eyelids, Steve's hands framed his face. "I might have some idea, since I love you, too, I want us to love each other, but I want it because you want it, not because you think I need it." The faint hint of uncertainty in the last words made Bucky's eyes fly open.
"No! That's not why I love you. I love you because." He stumbled to a halt—because he didn't know how to take the glow inside of him, the bubbling happiness, and shape it into words—and blinked up at Steve, who was patiently watching him, strong hands gentle against his skin. "Because you're Steve."
Steve's slow smile was half-laughing at him but Steve dipped his head and kissed him and Bucky didn't care about being laughed at because now he didn't need words. He could shape his mouth against Steve's, lips and tongue and breath spelling out what words couldn't: love and warmth and care and trust. Above everything, trust. He wound his fingers into Steve's short hair, stroked them down Steve's back, pushed under his shirt to touch bare skin. Steve's careful strength held him close and Bucky pressed closer, kissed Steve's jaw, his neck, nestled his nose into the hollow of his throat, breathed in, then pressed a kiss there and another. "I love you."
"I love you, too. I have for a long time." Steve tangled his fingers in Bucky's hair and tugged gently, until Bucky lifted his head to see Steve's grin. "Because you're Bucky."
Bucky wrinkled his nose, prompting Steve to kiss it. "I can do better," he promised.
"No," Steve said and kissed him lightly, a feather's touch, leaving Bucky chasing after him for more, both hands on Steve's face to hold him still while Bucky kissed him deeply, finally pulling back, pleased with himself when it took Steve a minute to find words. "It's better when you show me."
"I agree," Bucky said, then started laughing, muffled it against Steve's shoulder.
Steve kissed his temple, lips moving against his skin as he asked, "Something funny?"
"Two birds, one stone," Bucky got out.
"Not following." Steve wrapped one hand around Bucky's hip, making him shiver, helping bring the laughter under control.
"I'll show you how I feel—in detail," he added, catching Steve's other hand and kissing the tip of each finger. "And it can be my neighbours' turn to go sleep in the stable."
There was a beat of silence, then Steve laughed—rich and warm and deep, it rolled through Bucky like a wave—and he hugged Bucky close. "That sounds like an excellent plan."