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Born of Necessity

Chapter Text

In the time before the ocean's rise, before men left their hiding places and stretched out across the earth, taming rivers and forests and all in their path, there lived a half-orc boy named Steve. All his childhood, Steve was told by the people of his town that he was born of a forced union between his orc father and his human mother. But Steve knew the truth. He remembered late night visits and secret weekends away together, where his father would play pat-pat with him and dance with his mother in front of the fire. Steve knew the truth: he had been born of love.  

It was a love the villagers would not abide. Humans, being so intolerant of differences and so quick to condemn, did not understand. But this is not the story of the villagers, nor even Steve's parents, Joseph and Sarah. This is the story of how Steve found his way in the world and became a man, and it is a story of the cost of love and the loneliness of sacrifice.

And so it came to be that when Steve was five years old, his mother's family found out about Joseph's visits, and all of the men of the village drove his father out with threats upon Steve's life should he return.

Years later, Steve would not remember his father's name nor face, but he would remember being shoved underneath the bed by his mother and the cold press of the wooden floorboards against his shins and elbows.

"Stay here and don't come out unless I call your name," Sarah whispered. Her face, half shrouded in darkness, was grim and determined. "If you smell smoke, jump out the window and run into the forest and up the hill. Hide in Uncle Daniel's barn. Tell me you understand.”

Steve was silent and overwhelmed, his world changing too quickly for his young mind to comprehend. He couldn't understand why anyone would want to hurt his family.

Sarah snapped her fingers in front of his face. "Quickly, my child, tell me you understand."  

Steve nodded. "I understand, Mama."

Sarah left the room, and Steve lay on the floor holding his stuffed rabbit close, listening to his heartbeat pound in his ears and his breath rattle in his chest. Soon he heard angry voices and a scuffle, followed by a cry of pain from his mother.

Her cry shocked Steve into action, and he scrambled from underneath the bed and pressed his ear to the door. Sarah and Joseph were right on the other side, but Steve couldn't make out what they were saying or if other people were with them. His mother cried out again, and Steve pushed his bony shoulder against the door, wanting to help her.

Something was blocking the door, and the harder he pushed, the stronger the rattle in his chest became. Steve banged on the door in his haste to get out, drawing frantic, unsteady breaths.

Steve heard shouting outside the cottage and ran to the window to look. A host of men, his Uncle Daniel included, had gathered at his door brandishing torches, their axes and swords gleaming in the flickering light. They began to hack at the cottage door, and it splintered easily within a few minutes.

There was a giant roar from his father as the men charged in shouting. The noise lessened as Joseph was dragged from the cottage. Steve ran to the window and saw his father being held down by six men. Joseph roared again and with Herculean strength threw them off. His uncle drew his sword and stood in between the cottage and his father.

Joseph stalked toward Uncle Daniel with no weapon in hand, a half-crazed look on his face. They were going to kill him, Steve realized. The villagers were going to murder his father. Steve ran back to the door and threw his whole body against it. It moved enough for him to squeeze out into the room.

Steve tried to slip by the men in the cottage, calling out, "Papa!"

He was grabbed roughly, and his skinny arm squeezed tight in the strong grip of their neighbor. The man threw Steve to the ground where he was caught by Sarah diving for him.

She crouched on the ground and clutched Steve tight to her chest, glaring at the man who had handled her child roughly. Blood trickled down from her forehead and into Steve's hair.

Steve struggled in her arms, calling out for his father again. Sarah covered Steve's mouth with her hand, and Steve felt bitterly betrayed. Why was she not fighting? There was a scream of agony outside, and the men in the cottage ran towards it. Sarah stepped toward the door still carrying Steve and gasped, quickly turning to obscure his view.

Sarah staggered backward several paces and fell into a chair, her whole body shaking. Her grip on Steve's mouth tightened, and Steve found himself struggling to breathe. He pulled at her hand with his stubby fingers, chest heaving, until Sarah came back to herself with a start and moved her hand. Steve sucked in breaths, feeling lightheaded. Sarah held him around his waist until all the men had left, having cast Joseph out of the town.

Steve's grandfather entered the cottage, his face turned to hardness. "If that thing comes back, don't let it in."

Sarah nodded, and Grandfather left without another word.

"Mama," Steve said. He pulled weakly against her grasp, exhausted from the night but unwilling to give up. “We must go after Papa. They hurt him!”

Sarah’s expression grew pinched as she struggled to keep hold of Steve. He shimmied down and bit her arm. Sarah yelped and released him. “What’s gotten into you, child?”

“Papa is hurt,” Steve said backing away. He adored his mother; she was so gentle and brave. He couldn’t understand why she hadn’t fought for them, why she was letting the village break their family apart. That she would act in a way that was cowardly--it was like his whole world had been tilted on its axis, and he couldn’t remember which way was up.

Sarah’s expression crumpled. “My sweet, brave boy.” She reached for him, and Steve recoiled from her touch. “There are things you are too young to understand.”  

Steve felt his eyes prick with tears, soon flowing freely down his face. “I hate you! I want Papa.” He ran to his room and slammed the door. Steve fell asleep between hiccuping sobs, terrified he might never see his father again.

Steve awoke in the morning in his bed, feeling as tired as he’d been when he had slept off the tarquan flu. At breakfast, Sarah seemed hollow to him, no fire or fight left in her. She said nothing to anyone for several days.  Steve boiled with seething anger, and he didn’t know if he’d be able to forgive her.

His mother had loved his father, of this Steve was certain. The last time Steve saw her laugh was when his father was in their cottage. It was the last time she had looked upon her son with delight.

Sarah still loved Steve, a fierce, wrathful love full of hawk-eyed protection from the villagers, but she no longer delighted in him. No longer smiled or touched him softly. And so from that night on, Steve grew with only the bare bones of love but none of the meat of it.

It was the custom of the village for children to receive their birth names from their fathers, and, upon entering adulthood, their final name from the village elders. Steve had no father, at least none that was recognized by the village, and his grandfather would bear him no name. The villagers took to calling him Any Child or Any for short.

Steve responded to it but with gritted teeth. Any Child might be the correct name for a bastard, worthless and alone, but Steve was born in love, given that name by a father who fought six men to be with him. Besides, his mother called him Steve in private, her small rebellion.

Steve mourned his father's absence but knew better than to talk of it. With time, details of him faded, until he was left with a gaping longing that was blurry and indistinct.

-----

One summer when Steve was ten years old, he fell in love with a girl in the village. She was beautiful, with dark brown hair and eyes. Steve first saw her in a field outside of town collecting flowers for her mother's table. She was brave but shy, and had come right up to him, poked a finger out, and touched one of his protruding bottom teeth.

Steve had pretended to bite at her, and she squealed with delight. They walked next to one another holding hands, and Steve carried the basket, though his arms were scrawny.

They met most afternoons for two weeks, played chase in the field, and climbed trees together. Her name was Lorna, and Steve was sure they would be married. Right up until the moment Lorna's three brothers discovered them holding hands.

"Get away from her," one of them growled.

Lorna dropped his hand quickly and cowered in fear. Thinking he was protecting her, Steve stood between Lorna and her brothers. “Leave her alone,” he said.  

They came closer and surrounded Steve. They beat him until he saw stars. They beat him until he saw nothing.

Steve awoke as he was being carried home by his grandfather. Sarah let forth a wounded cry at the sight of Steve bloodied and listless. Grandfather laid Steve on the bed and watched as Sarah tended to Steve's wounds. Once Sarah had trained to be a healer, but now no one wanted to be healed by the woman with the half-orc child. Desperate for wages, Sarah worked in the village mending women's clothes, occasionally sewing fancy pieces for weddings and naming days. She came home at night worn thin, all grit and no softness.

Sarah's skill was apparent as she washed the blood off Steve's lips and sewed a cut on his forehead closed. She moved quickly with deft hands and applied a healing salve of her own making to his wounds. Steve, ashamed and heartbroken, was too embarrassed to meet her eyes.   

Both adults went into the living room to speak privately. Steve was dizzy and the room was spinning, but he stumbled to the door and peeked through a crack to watch them and listen to the words they were saying. Grandfather had not visited in two years.

“Thank you for bringing him home,” Sarah said.

Grandfather sat on the couch and took off his hat. Steve was surprised to see how much thinner his hair was, it hung lank and stringy around his face. He looked exhausted. “Perhaps,” he said at length, “it would be safer for him to live with his father.”

Steve could tell from the silence that Sarah's anger was boiling. It always made it hard for her to speak. “You say nothing to me for years, provide nothing when we are hungry-”

“You know why,” Grandfather replied harshly.

Sarah’s shoulders shook as she fought back sobs, and Steve longed to run to her. “I am your child, too.”

“You were,” he replied. “My heart’s not softened on this.”

Sarah was silent a long while, and Grandfather moved to stand up.

“They'll kill him there,” she said quietly.  

"They might kill him here if he's not careful about it," he said.

"He's safe here. I'll see to it," Sarah said.  Her eyes were red-rimmed and desperate. “If you would but get to know him, you might-"

"I'll have nothing to do with him. I can't afford to love an orc."

Sarah's shoulders slumped, but she righted herself with a steadying breath. "Thank you for bringing him home.”  

Grandfather reached a hand towards her face, paused, and let it drop. His shoulders slumped as well, and he stepped heavily out of the room without saying goodbye.

Steve stepped hesitantly into the living room, still wobbly on his feet and unsure of whether he was wanted.

“Were you listening, my child?”

Steve nodded and sat beside her on the couch.

Sarah sighed and ran a hand through her hair. “And do you have any questions?”  

"Why did they boys attack me?" Steve asked.

"You know why," Sarah said. "You're too much like me, that's the problem. Too stubborn by half and with a taste for danger."

"I'm sorry," he whispered.

Sarah's eyes shot up. "You did nothing wrong, my child. It is only a good thing to love someone different than you. To see beyond the outside to the heart. You did a good thing, do you hear?"

Steve nodded, unsure of why his mother was so fierce about this. Sarah fetched him a glass of water and made him drink two big gulps.

“Mama,” he wanted to ask the real question, the one that tumbled shamefully behind his chest, poisoning his heart, “are orcs bad?” Sarah looked like her heart was being torn in two, and Steve hurried to finish before he lost his nerve. “That’s why the boys attacked me and Grandfather won’t talk to me. Is there,” he gulped in a breath fighting tears, “something wrong with me?”

Sarah pulled Steve to her chest, and he winced as the sudden movement pulled on his stitches. “Nothing’s wrong with you, sweet boy.”

“But orcs aren’t bad?” he said against her chest.

Sarah kissed the top of his head, still matted with dirt and blood. “No race is all good or bad. They’re all of them with good and bad people, that’s all.”

Steve leaned back so he could look in Sarah’s eyes. “Is Papa bad?” He hadn’t wanted to ask and wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer, but he had to know. There must be something wrong with him, for Lorna to run away, for Grandfather to spurn him.

Sarah’s smile was forced, strained, and Steve could feel the moment of softness between them dissolving. “He wasn’t bad, and neither are you.” Steve couldn’t name the expression on her face, some mixture of stubbornness and pain.

All at once he felt anger blaze through him. “Then why do we stay here?” he said. “Here, where they hate us. Why don’t we go to father?”

“It’s not safe,” Sarah said, dropping her hands from Steve’s shoulders in surprise.  

“We could find a way, or send him a letter and have him get us.” If his father wasn’t bad and the human villagers hated them, it seemed so obvious to Steve that they should leave to live with the orcs. Guilt made Steve’s heart heavy and resentful, Sarah would be accepted if it weren’t for Steve. “I don't even remember his name.”

Sarah stood up and walked towards her room. “I’ll speak no more of this.”

“I hate it here,” Steve said quietly, trembling with anger and confusion.

Sarah paused, clearly having heard him. “I can live with that,” she said.

-----

Steve stayed small and sickly until around his fourteenth birthday. He shot up first, skinny as a blade of grass and two heads taller than his schoolmates. The neighboring farmers let him work the fields in exchange for food and bread, occasional cuts of meat. The added food soon helped Steve grow thick and strong, his shoulders broad.

The other children made fun of Steve's large, heavy body, his green-tinted skin. But Steve could not hate his body, because he knew the truth. He had been born in love, and his body was evidence. He loved his body with the same affection he felt for the dim memories of his father.

By the time he reached eighteen, there was nothing in the village school for him to learn. The teachers were afraid to discipline him, and he had grown into a stubborn and willful young man. His anger towards his mother had never fully cooled, and she mostly left him to his own devices.

Steve spent most of his time in the woods, climbing in and out of canyons, scaling trees as they bent under his weight, barking back at the neighbor's dogs, and spear hunting for rabbits and small prey. Things had gotten easier for once he had gotten too large for bullies to take him on individually. Then, when goblins had raided the village, Steve had fought alongside the men and acquitted himself well with a staff. It hadn’t earned him belonging, but a begrudging acceptance of his use. Most people were content to leave him be.

One late spring day, Steve made his way to the river. He waded into the water, enjoying the squeeze of thick soil between his toes. When he pulled off his shirt and threw it to the grass, Steve noticed he was not alone.

"Shall I pay the toll or answer a riddle," a boy around his age named Usef said with a grin.

"I'm not a troll," Steve said grumpily.

"Leave me alone. Or I'll..." he trailed off, unable to think of a suitable threat. Steve didn't want him to be afraid, but he did want to be alone. Usef was fair and strong, thick chested though, still slight as most humans are.

"Or you'll what?" Usef said, stepping closer. He skipped a rock on the surface of the water so that it skidded past Steve. "Crush me with your hideous teeth?"

Steve waded deeper into the water, ignoring him.

"Clear off, troll. This is my fishing spot," he said.  

"No one owns the river, Usef. Least of all you."

Usef hopped closer, skipping rocks around Steve until one popped off the water and hit him on the chin, smacking smartly against his green skin. He gritted his teeth.

"They slew the giant of Elomir like that," Usef said. "A host of men with rocks."

"I am neither troll nor giant, and I was here first."

Usef busied himself collecting more stones from the shore. "The villagers will not tolerate you much longer," he said. "When you were a baby they were content to ignore where you came from, but as you grow larger, and you have grown much larger, it becomes clearer that you don't belong here." He skipped another stone along the water, but Steve caught it before it hit him.

"You haven't much skill with this, let me show you how it's done," Steve said. He reached underneath the water for a large rock, roughly the size of Usef's head and threw it at him. The boy laughed and skittered out of the way.

"You are too slow, troll. That's why the villagers have no use for you. Lumbering, dumb, and slow.” With that, he threw a stone directly for Steve, and it caught him under the eye.

Steve saw red and then black. He surged out of the water gathering up a rock, this one the size of a bushel. “You take that back!”

Usef blanched, glancing between the rock and Steve’s face. He smiled. “What are you going to do about it? You can’t hurt me. They’d never forgive you.” His tone turned sickly sweet, pressing his advantage. “It is a shame, what your father did to your mother. Ruined a good woman.”

Steve cast the rock with all his might at the other boy. Usef made to jump away, but the laces of his boot got stuck on a branch, and Steve watched with a mixture of grim satisfaction and terror as the rock hit Usef solidly against the thigh with a sickening crunch.

Usef howled in pain and fell to the ground. He flinched back when Steve reached for him, but his laces were still snared on the rock, and he couldn’t retreat. Usef took heaving breaths between tears, and Steve felt a surge of contempt—he had learned to hide his pain long ago.

“My father will kill you,” Usef screamed.

Steve untied Usef’s laces and hefted him over his shoulder, uncaring whether he jostled him or not. “Can’t be worse than what I’m living now,” he said.  

The next day, the village council was summoned by a loud clanging on the copper bell to determine what to do with Steve. The council consisted of the mayor and two men and two women appointed by the village. They sat behind a large oak table listening while Steve and Usef, whose leg was splinted with two branches of oak and bound with fresh linens, both gave their accounting of his injury.

Steve did his best to speak the truth fully and ignore the murmuring from the crowd. He was not afraid to speak his piece. Surely the elders would see that it was an accident, that he was provoked. One knows better than to provoke a bear, he told them.

“Are you a bear or a human, Any Child?" one of the elders asked him.

"He is no more a child," Sarah said. "Two months have passed since his 18th birthday, and the elders have not agreed upon his name nor given work in the village. What wonder you that he tarry in the wilderness?"

Steve wished Sarah would let him handle this on his own, but she had insisted on speaking in his defense.

"We do not have a name for him," a stern-faced elder said snidely. "He has yet to prove the content of his character.”

"He is strong and smart and a son of this village," Sarah said. Steve schooled himself to hide his surprise. His mother rarely spoke fondly of him.  

The first elder spoke again. “Well spoken, Sarah. Any Child has demonstrated his bravery when protecting the town from goblins. Where was Usef? Hiding under his bed, perhaps?”

Usef scowled, clearly not having expected the meeting to go this way.

The mayor joined in, “We have thought of a role for him, though this is hardly the ideal time to propose it. Once, there was a guard who lived on Center Street who questioned strangers entering the villagers and expelled our enemies. The guard post has not been used these many years and is need of repair, but if he wishes, Any Child may take up this job and be provided a small salary to keep the village safe."

"And who keeps us safe from him?" Usef's father asked. "Let us not forget why we are here."

The mayor sighed. "See to your own child, Seymore, and let the village see to this one."

There was grumbling between the villagers assembled, but Steve spoke up. "And a name? Will you give me a name?"

The mayor’s face was pinched, and he glanced at the other elders before looking apologetically at Steve. "As has already been said, a name is a prize given by the elders to attest to your character. We have spent many hours discussing this but have reached no consensus. Give it time. Perhaps a name will come to us."

"You have had eighteen years, one would think it would not take so long to find one," Steve said. It was bad mannered, he knew, but he’d always struggled to leash his tongue.  

"It is not so simple as that,” the stern elder said. “There is more than the matter of your behavior. Your heritage, through no fault of your own, nonetheless sends a message, and we were willing to shelter you as a child and keep you in the village employ as an adult, but to have a name is to be one of us.”

Steve could tell many villagers were pleased with this pronouncement. His mother's fists were clenched, and she practically vibrated in rage. Steve saw in her a countdown before a terrible fight, but it did not seem worth it to him. Why fight to be part of a village that hated him?

"My father's name, then," Steve said. "If you'll not give me my name, give me my father's name that I might find him, prove my character, and get a name from him."

The villagers whispered in hushed tones, but Steve had eyes only for the council. “I will not speak his name here," the mayor said firmly.

"Write it down, then."

The mayor's cheeks reddened with anger. "Impertinent lad! We have only ever sought to protect you. Fine. You may have your father's name but once given, you may never return. No one who seeks Orc company deserves village protection."  

Steve stared straight ahead. It was a price he was willing to pay. "Agreed."

Sarah's stepped between the council and Steve. "You'll not cast my child out," she demanded.

"Peace, woman," an elder replied wearily. "You've said yourself he is a child no longer." He turned to Steve, "Your father's name is Joseph of Crested City, tall as two trees. Now, begone and do not return."

Joseph, Steve thought. It stirred up some memories in Steve, a shadowy reflection of his father’s face.  "Thank you,” Steve said. “I shall leave at once." He strode out of the meeting hall with his mother hot on his heels.

Chapter Text

Steve’s mother fretted over his departure, begging him not to go. Steve had a stout but young heart, and he didn't recognize the love of early rising mothers baking bread and building fires. His heart was heavy with guilt around her for he believed that the villagers would have accepted her if he was not around.

"You will not like what you find outside the village,” Sarah warned.  

“It can’t be worse than here,” Steve replied. “Besides, they have cast me out. I am instructed never to return.”

“I will talk with them,” Sarah said. “They will let you stay. It just,” she worried her hands in her lap, “it may take a few days to get them to see reason.”

"I would have thought you to be glad to see me go," Steve said, returning to packing his bags and not looking at her. "Life will be easier for you in my absence."

Sarah recoiled as though struck. She hurried from the room and out of the house. Steve immediately felt terrible. He called after her, but she did not return.

Steve did love Sarah. Though day by day she grew more grim and austere, she was a tiny ball of holy fire and righteous indignation when the villagers hurt Steve. She was steadfast and unwavering in her love, but she could do nothing for some things: the mocking by his peers, the isolation Steve suffered, the humiliation of having no name. She could not force the villagers to accept her son. And, in his heart, Steve some small part of him resented her. He believed that if she had really loved him, she would have found a way to get him to his father’s people, who would have accepted him.

Sarah did not return for several hours, and Steve was unwilling to leave without a parting goodbye. He owed her that much. He tarried about the house, packing and repacking, until it was too late to travel, and he went to bed.

When the sun arose the next morning, Steve woke with a faint itching under his skin and a determination to leave. He found Mother sitting beside a small fire, holding his old stuffed rabbit to her chest and staring at the burning branches.  

“I haven’t seen Rabbit in years,” he said softly, sitting on the ground beside her.

“I couldn’t bear to get rid of it,” Sarah said. Her voice sounded hoarse, and Steve realized she had been crying for hours. "I spoke with my parents and entreated them to provide a horse for your journey. They sent gold and copper coin." She nodded her head towards a small sack beside her, but continued to look at the fire. "It's not enough for a horse, but perhaps it will ease your journey in some way."

Steve studied his mother’s face, the grief lining the downturn of her lips and the dark circles under her eyes. It had cost her too much to speak to her parents, but she had spent it freely.

“Thank you,” he whispered.

She threw a pine branch on the fire, and the room came briefly alive with the crackling of the needles, the sweet burnt smell. It seemed to spark something in Sarah. “I understand leaving here, but don’t go to him. He is not what you think.”

“Does he love me?”

“I love you. Is that not enough?” Sarah broke a branch in her hand. It split unevenly, green and still soft. “He does love you,” she said, “at least that much was true.” Sarah tossed the branch into the fire and wiped the bark off her hands. ”Life will never be easy for you, child of mine,” she said. “Your heart is brave but you seek out fights I would have you avoid. There is no peace in you."

Steve placed a tentative hand on her knee, and Sarah turned away from the fire and looked into his eyes. "I shall endeavor to return once I have found my way in the world and Father. Perhaps... Perhaps I could send for you, and you could come to live with us."

“No.”

"Come with me," he whispered urgently. "You are not happy here nor loved by the villagers.”

His mother's lips tightened and she stared again at the fire, now smokey and so close to going out. Steve sensed that the moment of openness was closing between them. "I will die here," she said wearily, "in this town, hopefully in this cottage. Do not send for me."

Steve chopped enough wood for two months and left the village at midday. No children bid him farewell or followed him down the path to the edge of town. No doubt their parents had pulled them inside.

Despite the pain of his conversation with Sarah, Steve’s heart was light. She had made her choice to stay. Steve was eager to leave the village and find Joseph. It was time for him to adventure forth and find his place in the world.

------

Steve arrived at Goblintown several hours later. He took a deep breath to gather his courage and ran his fingers through his hair, knowing a few days of poor sleep and all day walking had left him looking disheveled. The walls outside Goblintown were low and mud spattered.  When he got to the town gate, he was stopped by an oily-looking goblin who appeared to be the village guard. “What brings you to these parts, orcling?" he asked.

"I seek shelter for the night and a meal," Steve replied.

The guardsman eyed him warily. “There are no open rooms. Best to continue your journey.”

Steve clenched his fists in frustration, and the goblin took a step back in fear. Although Steve had not meant to frighten him, it was hard not to enjoy it. Every villager had a gruesome story about goblins. They were, after all, the foot soldiers of the orc. And to have one so easily intimidated by him, barely an adult, no name and scorned in his village, it satisfied some unseemly part of him.  

“Oh, of course,” the goblin stammered, “there might be some accommodations I’m not aware of.” He stepped back and opened the gate. “I commend you to Yott's Inn and advise a night spent quietly. We'll be wanting no trouble in these parts."

Steve followed the guardsman's directions to Yott’s Inn. The buildings of Goblintown were dingy and plain, and the streets were all but deserted. The whole town felt run down and exhausted. He saw a few children on the street who regarded him with wide eyed curiosity. When Steve tried to be friendly and waved, they stumbled backwards and ran.

It defied all explanation. Steve felt his heart soften a little towards the goblins. He had hated them for stealing, but looking at the state of their town, it was no wonder they raided the nearby villages.

The inn itself was squat and badly made with clapboard held together by caulk and a prayer. The innkeeper tried to charge him sixty pence, almost a month’s rent most places, but after an extended staring match, innkeeper dropped his price to ten pence. Steve supposed he couldn’t blame him for trying.

Steve meant to explore the town, to ask where he might get food and additional provisions and to figure out why these goblins were afraid of him. But his bed was so inviting, and the journey tiresome, that he fell into bed and slept immediately.

Steve awoke to a banging on the door and several whispered voices.

"Orcling," someone shouted. "What business have you here?"

Steve's heart pounded. He was a fair bit bigger than a single goblin, and gifted with a staff, but against several at once, he wasn't so sure.

"My business is private and I instruct you leave me be," he responded, hoping he sounded confident.

There was more pounding at the door, and Steve straightened his shirt, and puffed out his chest before opening it. Six goblins crowded the narrow hallway, the largest at the front. There was a gasp and silence when they saw him.

"I told you," the guard from earlier said to his companions.

The largest of the goblins had a thick grey beard and a long jagged scar from above his bushy eyebrows down onto his cheek. "I’ll ask you again, orcling,” he said. “What business have you so far from your masters?"

Steve showed his teeth. It had worked before and worked now again as most of the goblins took a scurrying step backwards. The biggest goblin seemed undeterred.  

"I have no master," Steve said. "And my business is my own."

This seemed to put the goblins at ease, and they stepped closer to Steve’s door. "No master?" the leader said, he smiled encouragingly at his comrades. "An orcling with no master is no threat. How's about you give us your gold, and we'll let you leave without cutting off those pretty orc ears."

Steve's breath quickened, and he squeezed the handle of the door to calm himself. "I have no master, but I do have a father. And he will be most displeased if he finds I have been harmed. He might even send troops to investigate."

The goblin leader scowled, clearly doubting his story. “Not much of a father to leave you dirty and poorly clothed."

Steve growled, stepped into the goblin leaders, and leaned down until they were nearly nose to nose. “I’ll hear no words against my father, least of all by a group of goblin thugs. Now,” he pushed the goblin leader back a step, “if you’d like to take this outside, I’d-”

One of the goblins in the back raised his hands in appeasement. "We'll leave you be, but you must quit this town on the morrow."

"I'll quit this town when I choose," Steve said.

The goblin leader spoke up, steel in his tone. "You'll quit this town on the morrow, or we'll return with double numbers. "

Steve nodded, he had hoped to buy food at their market, but  had no more cards to play. Once the goblins left, Steve pushed a dresser against the door to bar entry. It was unlikely to hold for long, but it would buy him some time, if someone tried to enter the room. Steve slept fitfully that night, imagining hands on him searching for his purse.

Unfortunately, the goblins did not wait until morning to rid themselves of a rogue orcling. They picked the lock to his room at half past midnight. Steve awoke to the scraping of the metal, followed shortly by small movements of the dresser as the goblins tried to force the door open.

“Lean in with your shoulder,” one of them hissed.

“Quiet, you’ll wake it,” another replied. Steve couldn’t get a good feel for how many goblins were on the other side. He’d slept in his clothes, part exhaustion, part worry. Creeping out of bed, Steve peaked out the window. It was a second-floor room, and the jump would not be easy. Worse, the windows were goblin-sized, and it would be a tight squeeze for him to exit.

The goblins moved the dresser another inch, and Steve realized he had no choice. He had to move. He tied his money sack around his neck and threw his bag onto the ground outside. Steve squeezed his shoulders through the narrow opening, keeping one arm wrapped around the sill to prevent him from falling head first. The wood creaked ominously, as though the window might fall out with him.

The goblins outside his room gave up on being quiet. They banged on the door and hooted. “Nowhere to run, orcling!” they cried.

Steve held onto the window ledge, legs dangling precariously. The cobblestones below seemed greasy and wet, and not a forgiving surface to fall on. He jumped down, landing heavily on his feet and turning his ankle on the slick surface.

Steve got up and walked stiffly away, trying to hide the pain in his ankle. He didn’t want to draw attention to himself, but with his large form, that was inevitable.

The streets were teeming with goblins. There was the scent of roasted hakarat, sweet and hearty. Children ran about holding streamers that fluttered behind them, adults wearing brightly bejeweled scarves and coats that glistened in the torchlight. It was a lively scene, and Steve was stunned by the vitality of it, so different from the dull and dark daylight.

By the time Steve got his bearings, goblins had made it into his room. One leaned out the window, pointed at Steve, and shouted, “Stop him!”

All around him movement was turned to stillness, as the goblins looked at him with terror in their eyes. It held them from acting for the moment, but Steve could see they were on the cusp of deciding whether they could overcome their fear.  Steve didn’t wait for them to make their decision. He took off running, heedless of who he ran into, the pain in his ankle dulling as he hurried down the street.

Soon there were voices behind him, and Steve felt his heart beat loud in his chest. How terrible to have finally escaped the village to now die in a back alley in Goblintown.

A hand reached out from a building and yanked a stunned Steve into a dark room. He swung his arms blindly, trying to free himself.

“Whoa,” a voice said, “calm yourself. We don’t have much time.”

Steve’s eyes blinked into the darkness, and he made out the form of a goblin with sandy blonde hair, mussed clothes, and a bandage under his right eye. “What are you going to do to me?” Outside the pounding feet of goblins scurried back and forth, and Steve heard shouting.

The goblin shrugged. “Hide you, most likely. That is, if you stay still and quiet.”

Steve furrowed his brow. “Why would you help me?”

The goblin reached out with a toe and brushed Steve’s well-worn clothes. “You’re the skinniest orcling I’ve ever seen, and those clothes don’t say army. I say there’s no need to kill you just because of what you are, so long as you don’t go blabbing any secrets.”

“What secrets?”

The goblin’s grin was sharp. “Exactly.” He extended a hand, “Name’s Clint.”

Steve took his hand cautiously, trying to decide if this was a convoluted part of the goblin’s plan. “I’m Steve.” He pointed at the bandage on Clint’s face. “What did they do to you?”

Clint touched the bandage and hissed a little. “I did it to myself, to speak truly. I’m an acrobat, you see, for the circus. Took a bit of a tumble.”

It didn’t seem like the whole truth to Steve, but he didn’t press. There were still voices outside, and even if they were sitting in darkness, it didn’t seem like a safe place to have a disagreement. “Shouldn’t we be going somewhere?” he said.

“Quite right,” Clint said, he stood and stretched his arms above himself, the movement only partially visible in the dim room. “They’ll be using the minks to sniff you out soon, so we best be on the move.”

Clint stood and rolled a rug away from the middle of the room to reveal a trap door. He pointed at Steve seriously, “If you tell anyone about this, I’ll kill you myself. Won’t even let the minks help.”

Steve swallowed audibly. Clint gestured for Steve to crawl down into the hatch. Some part of his brain registered that this may be a trap, but Steve figured it was his best chance to get out of Goblintown alive. Clint followed close behind, closed the trap, and pulled on a cord that rolled the rug back in place above them.

Clint slapped him heartily on the shoulder. “Shore up, this’ll be a tight squeeze.” He crouched down and crawled into a dark tunnel. With no other options available, Steve followed him. The walls of the tunnel were snug against his shoulders, and he said a prayer to each of the seven gods that the tunnel not get any narrower.

“Where will you go next?” Clint said, it seemed he moved as easily on hands and knees as he did on two legs.

“I seek my father,” Steve said.

“Ah,” Clint said, “to mete out justice for what he did to your mother.”

Steve huffed in spite of himself. “No,” he said sharply, the tunnel narrowed further, scraping Steve’s skin. “He loved my mother and me, as well. I want to be with him”

Clint stopped moving, and Steve ran right into him. Undeterred, Clint turned around, lit a match, and held it aloft. He peered at Steve, studying him with the flickering light until the fire burnt his fingers. He cursed and said, “Ah, match, no.”

Clint resumed crawling then, and Steve found himself wondering what the goblin had seen in his face. They continued like this for half an hour. Steve’s knees grew raw and sore, and more than once he banged his head on the low tunnel floor. Finally, the tunnel opened up into a huge cavern and Clint lit a candle. There were intricate carvings up the walls painted with something translucent that reflected the flickering light.  At the highest point was a pregnant goblin with curly hair that hung down on her shoulders. There were rubies in the crown she wore, and up and down the walls small holes where it looked like other stones had been removed.

“What is this place?” Steve said in awe. Even stripped of its riches, the cavern was still impressive.

Clint shrugged, clearly not wanting to answer.

“She’s beautiful,” Steve said. He traced his fingers along some of the lower carvings, marveling at the craftsmanship.

Clint was quiet, and when Steve turned, he found the goblin studying him again. Whatever he found was enough for Clint to smile softly at him. “She’ll always have her crown,” he said. “We’ll never give that up.” Clint looked up at the carving and held his hands out. “Dulit Olivia, stade fe omele. Ornat fel ruta. Tarnassa.”

Steve only spoke the common tongue, and whatever Clint said seemed too private for him to ask to translate.

Clint turned to Steve. “Sleep. I’ll not send you out tonight, they’ll be looking for you. Sleep a few hours, and when you wake, go through that door into light.”

Steve didn’t know how to thank him. “I promise I’ll tell no one of the tunnels in Goblintown.”

Clint lips quirked. “What?”  

“Is that not...” Steve faded out, unsure of his blunder.

Clint looked back at the pregnant goblin, as though they were sharing a private joke. “Do you come from Humantown, and the orcs live in Orcville?”

Steve shifted on his feet. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think-”

“It’s nothing,” Clint said, good cheer returning with Steve’s apology. “This is Riverbend. It used to be Ruby Village, but that was before…” he trailed off. Abruptly, he extended his hand to Steve again. “Farewell, Steve. I hope you find what you seek.”

“Thank you,” Steve said, shaking his hand. Clint turned and crawled back into the tunnel.

Steve didn’t think he’d be able to sleep, but the exhaustion of the last few days won out. He slept a few hours and departed before the sun rose.

------

Exhausted and hungry, Steve resumed his journey, hoping for friendlier faces.  Once he was a mile or so away from Riverbend, he rested by a creek bed and soaked his feet in the water. He ate the last of his bread, careful to not leave any crumbs. He had less than a day’s worth of food, and he knew nothing of the path ahead.

Steve resumed his walking for a couple of hours, and he came upon a farmhouse. It was small but well maintained, the front porch adorned with flowering gardenias and snapdragons. He knocked upon the freshly painted red door. When an old human woman answered, Steve tried not to look too surprised. He hadn't realized humans had settled this far off the mountain.

"Excuse me, ma'am," Steve said. "I was wondering if you had anything I could have to eat. I'll pay you, of course. I have coin." It was uncomfortable asking like this, but Steve was not in a position to protect his pride.

The woman studied him for a minute, and Steve found himself curious to know what she thought of him. Even in her advanced age, she was beautiful, with gray curls framing her face. "I have no need for money," the woman said, and Steve felt his heart sink. "But I do need labor. Work in my fields today, and you can sleep in the barn tonight."

Steve wanted to protest, he really needed to be on his way, but he'd slept poorly the last several nights and could already feel fatigue setting in. "And food, too?”

The woman chuckled. "Aye, and food, too."

"You've got a deal,” Steve said, extending his hand to shake.

The woman grinned and shook his hand firmly. "I'll be the judge of that. Tell me, boy, what's your name?"

It made Steve prickle a little, being called a boy. He was a man now, no given name but a man all the same. He hushed his pride down. He was hungry and tired, and this woman seemed trustworthy enough. "Steve," he said.

"Well, Steve, it's nice to meet you," the woman said. "I'm Peggy. Come in."

Steve followed her into the house. The walls were thick and made of some type of spackle Steve had never seen before, smooth to the touch. The inside was larger than it had looked from outside but still quaint and homey.

"Darling, we have a guest," Peggy yelled.

"You're going west?" a woman yelled back.

"No. I said, we have a guest." This time she emphasized the “g” in guest.

"Fine, fine. You take a rest. I'll pull the weeds today.” The woman entered the kitchen and looked at Peggy, expression accusatory. "You didn't tell me we had a guest."

Peggy grinned and kissed her cheek, leaving a faint outline of lip coloring. "Yes, I did."

"Oh," the woman smiled broadly, apparently unconcerned with the miscommunication.

"Angie, this is Steve. He'll be milking the cows and pulling out the bolting letuga plants," Peggy said. "After a little breakfast."

Angie stage-whispered, "I doubt there's anything little about him. He'll eat us out of house and home."

Peggy laughed, clear and bright. "Perhaps."

Angie smiled in response and herded Steve to a small table. "Do you want toast with sausage? Perhaps a nice tea?"

Steve nodded yes, but Angie had already turned away and was bustling about the kitchen. "Although perhaps a little coffee would suit you. You look exhausted. Maybe some lemonade. Or soup?" She turned to him. "Would you like that?"

Steve wasn't sure which question he was answering. He looked to Peggy for help, but she was sharing a private smile with the apples she was cutting up.

"Yes, ma'am," Steve said, eager to please.

"Well, that's an odd combination,” Angie said, “but I suppose we can make it."

In the end, Angie made him a side of sausage, toolit soup, and a glass of lemonade. It was delicious, although Steve was so hungry he would have found anything tasty. Angie seemed pleased with his voraciousness and made little cooing noises as he ate.

" He likes my food," Angie said pointedly to Peggy.

"Good. Maybe he'll eat it all, and I won't have to," Peggy replied.

Steve blushed, not sure how to navigate the conversation. "Thank you for the food, ma'am." He took his plate to the sink, eager to get started with the labor part of their arrangement.

Angie waved him off. "Of course. You'll more than earn it with Leeta."

"Leeta?" Steve looked at Peggy again, and this time she took pity on him.

"One of our cows. She takes a real firm hand to give milk."

"And Earla," Angie said.

"The way I see it. If you milk five cows, muck out our stable, and pull the letuga, that will earn you another meal and a night in our barn," Peggy said.

"Sounds good to me," Steve said, wiping his hands on his pants.  

"Nonsense," Angie exclaimed. "You're supposed to bargain, young man. You say, I'll only milk one cow, then you settle on three. And you don't know how big our stable is. It could take a week to muck it. Not to mention,” she narrowed her eyes at Peggy, “she’s only having you pull the letuga because the pollen makes her sneeze.”  

"Uh," Steve looked between the two of them. "I'll only milk one cow," he said weakly.

"Too late," Peggy cackled. "You're a strapping lad. You'll be fine." She stood and stretched her arms over her head. "Steve and I will do the stable first."

"Fine, I'll pull the letuga.”

"I really don't mind," Steve said.

Angie had already turned away from him and picked up a bucket. She looked back at Peggy. "Did he try to argue with me? I bet he tried to argue."

Peggy grinned, practically skipping over to kiss her on the cheek. "He'll learn."

Steve and Peggy went out to a large stable housing eight horses. The woodworking was beautiful, big sturdy logs fashioned into beams. To Steve's surprise, Peggy worked beside him for several hours. Steve had mucked plenty of stalls before, but this was the first time he had a speedy old woman next to him. After they were done mucking, and Steve was certain they stunk to high heaven, Peggy led him to the hay barn and signaled for him to carry a bale with them back to the stable. His nose itched with the thick dust and hayseed in the air. Peggy sliced the twine on the hay bales and began scattering in the stalls. Between the two of them, they were done quickly.

"You're a good worker," she said.

Steve, so unused to praise, felt himself blush with the warmth of it.  "Thank you, ma'am. Um, where are the cows?”

Peggy laughed and waved him off. “Milked hours ago. I just wanted to get a read on you. Come, you look like you’ll drop on your feet. Best sit for a while.”  

For dinner, Angie made pickled beets with a roast of pheasant.

"Caught him today by the big birch tree," Angie said.

"Angie's a crack shot," Peggy said proudly.

Steve smiled politely, trying not to let his surprise show. He certainly would not want to be with Angie when she went hunting.

Steve slept in the barn that night between thick blankets, comfortable and warm. Peggy woke him early the next morning, and he milked cows with her. After days of feeling unsure and struggling, it was nice to do tasks he was accustomed to. The food was good, if a little odd, and Steve enjoyed by the company. He let himself stay longer to rebuild his strength.

At dinner on his third night, Peggy asked him, “Where are you headed, Steve?”

“That’s not polite,” Angie chided. They had worked together pruning trees in the apple orchard and shoring up the wandering lionberry vines. Angie delighted in trying to fatten Steve up and had snuck him sweet treats when Peggy wasn’t looking.

Peggy patted her hand affectionately. “He’s not going to say unless we ask, and I’m tired of guessing.”

Steve hesitated. They had accepted him so far, highly unusual for humans, but knowing where he was going might change their minds. Still, they had been generous with them, and he felt he owed them honesty.

“I’m seeking out my father, to see if I might find my place in the world with him,” he said.

“What do you think you’ll find?” Angie asked.

Steve furrowed his brow, not understanding her meaning.

“I know what you hope for, that he will love you and accept you-”

“He does love me,” Steve interjected.

Angie smiled at him gently, the setting sun softening the lines on her face. “How could he not?” She appeared content to let the matter drop, as did Peggy.

“Besides,” Steve said, “I can’t go back to my town. I was told never to return.”

Angie squeezed his hand in sympathy. “We know what that’s like. Peggy and I were both cast out of our villages, because of our love for one another.”

Steve’s village supported same gender love, but he had heard other places were different. “Because you’re both w-”

“Witches, yes,” Angie interrupted. “Clever of you to have figured that out.” She looked at Peggy. “I knew he was a smart boy.”

Peggy winked at Steve, who was trying to contain his surprise. He’d never met a witch before. “I never doubted it.”

“We are usually quite particular about our privacy,” Angie said. “You know, we’re only found when we want to be found, but Olivia herself requested we shelter you, and who are we to refuse her?”

Steve looked quickly between the two women. “I’m afraid there’s been a mistake. I don’t know anyone by that name.”

Angie looked up in an expression Steve now knew meant she was trying to remember something. “She’s as big as a house, great mop of curly hair, always pregnant. You’d recognize her if you saw her.”

Steve remembered the carvings in the goblin cavern. “She’s, she’s real?” he sputtered.

“Of course,” Angie continued. “Goddess of the goblins and all that.”

“Someone said a prayer for you,” Peggy said with a sly smile. “Asked for safe passage.”

“I did nothing to deserve it,” Steve said quietly. “I brought nothing but trouble to Riverbend.”  

“It’s early,” Peggy said. “I sense you’ll get the opportunity to change that. Now, when will you be departing?”

“Don’t run him off,” Angie said. “The garden looks better than it has in years!”

“Actually,” Steve said hesitantly, “I was thinking about tomorrow. And I wondered if I could take some supplies with me. In trade for money or labor, of course. It’s just, well, I have several days journey, and none before you have been willing to shelter me.”

Peggy’s face looked pained but the expression passed quickly. “Of course. You’ve already worked enough to earn provisions for your journey, though I wouldn’t turn down another day’s help milking.”

“And, if things don’t go like you hope,” Angie said, squeezing Steve’s hand, “you’re welcome back here anytime.”

Chapter Text

Steve left the next morning right after milking the cows. Angie packed him a large bundle of food and wouldn’t hear of it when Steve insisted it was too much. He felt a pang of sadness leaving their farm, being with them had felt a bit like having a home.

He walked the next three days without sighting a village or farmhouse. The road grew rough at points, but still passable. The river flowed fast beside him, and although Steve never hurt for water, he did worry that his food stores might grow low again. Peggy had taught him to hang his bag from a tree branch to keep it safe from creatures while he slept. When he told her that raccoons can climb trees, she laughed and told him he should be worrying about bears and wild hogs more than varmints.

Steve began rationing his food on the third day, cursing himself for waiting so long. By the fifth day, feeling leaner than when he started his journey, Steve spotted a city in the distance. It was beautiful, with tall white spires jutting up from the buildings. As he came closer, he came across a group of orcs working a field of barley. They waved at him, apparently unsurprised at his presence.

All around him, life seemed to spring into view, and Steve was soon walking among other travelers on foot and astride horses. At the gates to the city, he was stopped by a soldier. “Greetings. What brings you to Crested City?”

“I seek my father. His name is Joseph.” Steve wasn’t sure how many Josephs there were in a city this size, but he didn’t have a lot more to go on.  

The orc looked Steve up and down, and Steve felt embarrassed of his ragged appearance. “I see. Wait here. I’ll find someone to bring you to him.”

Steve agreed to this and dropped his bag down by gate. When the orc had not returned in several minutes, Steve sat down on the side of the path. He was hungry, but his stomach was tied up in anticipation. He would be reunited with his father soon.   

After a half an hour, an older orc came to the gate. He was huge and built nearly as wide as he was thick. His arms and legs rippled with muscles underneath his leather armor. His head was shaved on both sides, with a thick brown and grey ponytail. His face seemed kind, if tired.

“Well journeyed?” the orc said. It was a typical greeting for travelers.

Steve hurried to his feet and chose the standard reply, “Wind at my back and the sun to light my path.”

“A bit hot of late,” the orc said wryly, breaking the script.

Steve rubbed the back of his neck, unsure of what to say. He hadn’t met many people outside the village, and he really wanted his first meeting with an orc to go well. “My path was well shaded, and the river runs true.”

The orc nodded and gestured for Steve to walk with him into the city. “I heard you’re seeking your father.”

“Yes.”

They walked together in what felt to Steve like strained silence, but the orc seemed relaxed, if cautious.

"What's your name?" the orc said.

Steve had introduced himself by his name to others, but somehow it felt impertinent in front of this orc. By rights, he should have had a name by then, and it was embarrassing to admit that he had chosen his adult name for himself. "I have no father, so I have no name,” Steve said.  

The orc laughed, but there was only amusement in it, no malice. "Of course you have a father, child. That is the way of things. I'll ask you again. What is your name?"

Steve paused in his walking and shuffled uncomfortably on his feet. “I didn’t mean it like that. I was given no name. The villagers called me Any Child or Any for short. Only my mother called me Steve."

The large orc's face twisted into sadness. "I know much of the cruelty of humans," he said. "Come, spend a few days with me, and we will find your name." He stepped forth and clapped a large hand on Steve's back. It was warm and heavy, and he found himself wanting to stay in this brief moment of affection. But the orc’s hand was gone as soon as it was there, and he gestured for Steve to follow him.

They walked through the city between tall towers, ivory bricks stacked in intricate patterns up the sides. Every building had windows had thick panes of blue and purple glass, some arranged in intricate patterns. It was so grand, that Steve began to feel small and helplessly provincial.

None of the city folks looked at Steve askew. At least, not with derision. One or two were clearly curious about his cheap ill-fitting clothes. But they were unconcerned with his orcness or his human side. It felt eerie to be unremarkable, but also deeply comforting.

The orc strode beside him, confident in his direction as he guided them through the small town. Steve couldn’t quite figure out why he was trusting this stranger so implicitly, but his heart told him to stay close to the orc.

"What's your name?" Steve asked.

"Who do you seek?" the orc said.

Steve felt a bit frustrated by the deflection. Still, something inside him made him answer, "Joseph of Crested City, tall as two trees."

The man chortled. "Tall as two trees?"

Steve winced, feeling foolish. "That was all they told me."

"Humans do favor fanciful language,” the orc said with a smile. “Tell me, what's this Joseph to you? The orc so mighty to be tall as two trees."

Feeling the orc’s jokes weren't at his expense but the humans, Steve found his embarrassment fading. "He's my father.”

“And why do you seek him?”

Simple honesty suited Steve best and was often his choice in communication. “I don’t remember him well, but I remember him loving me. I seek to become a man and find my place in the world.”

“Are you a man?” the orc asked.

Steve bristled. “I’m no longer a child.”

The orc smiled at him kindly. “No. What is it to be a man? Are you orc or human? How do you ally yourself?”

“Oh,” Steve paused to think. “I’m an orc, I think. I’m certainly not human. The village elders told me my father’s name on the condition that I never return, so I have no loyalty to them.”

The orc seemed pleased with this answer, and they resumed their walk. Steve snuck glances at the orc. He felt peeved to have shared his story but still know nothing of the orc.

“What is your name?” Steve asked again.

“I’ve already told you.”

Steve stopped immediately; he had little tolerance for trickery. “You haven’t.”

The orc continued walking, albeit at a slower pace. “Learn to listen, little orc.”

Steve ran a few steps to catch up, stopping in front of the orc. “You’re him, aren’t you? You’re my father.”

The orc didn't pause in his walking, continuing to stride on. "You are right in this. I am the one you seek, but," he gave him a small smile, "you knew that already, didn't you?"

Steve couldn't say for certain. He had hoped. The orc seemed right to him in a way that none had before, but hope was a new and ill-fitting garment for him.

"We are getting close to my house," Joseph said. "No son of mine shall go hungry. Have the humans been feeding you?" His tone was light, but Steve heard the stiffness in his voice.

“I near ate my mother out of house and home, but I’ve been working the fields since I was twelve to make up for it.” Steve did not say that he had been eating once a day for the most of his journey, careful to not overspend his meager budget.

They reached a house, nothing fancy but sturdily built with a thick dark wood door that stood out handsomely against the white bricks. Joseph entered and immediately went to the kitchen, opening up cabinets and looking for food. It took him too long, he was affecting comfort but had none of the ease of one used to navigating the space.

Steve felt something painful and awful flare up in his heart. Joseph was trying to deceive him. "This isn't your house," he said.

Joseph turned to him, curious but strangely proud. "You are my child. Quite clever. How did you know?"

"You look like you don't know your way around a kitchen."

Joseph nodded. "Indeed. If you were not so thin, we could have had more time to talk before we stopped for food." He located a thick-crusted bread and tore it in half. "There's honey here and butter, not much of a meal, but you look like you might fall over."

Steve did feel tired, but he was accustomed to being hungry. He let the matter drop and took the bread immediately in hand. It was hearty in a way he hadn't eaten before. Thick with a chewy crust and flavored with molasses.

Joseph gestured for him to follow to a table in the next room. "This is my most trusted soldier's home. I'm here often, but perhaps not as familiar with the kitchens here as my own."

Steve shook his head, talking around the food in his mouth. Joseph didn't seem to mind. "It's more than that. You're not accustomed to any kitchen."

At this Joseph grinned. "Well done, child. You may be suited for spy work,"

Steve grimaced. "Unlikely. I'm plainspoken, hate falsehood, and Mother would say I am too quick to anger."

"And what would you say?"

"That I don't like bullies," Steve swallowed a particularly large bite. "No matter what the form."

Joseph studied Steve while he ate, and Steve found it progressively more difficult to swallow, terrified of being found wanting.

"What news of your mother?"

"Why don't you go to her and ask?" Steve said quickly. He didn’t want to talk about his mother yet. It brought up too many ugly, unanswered questions.

Joseph grimaced. "I was told never to return to your village upon pain of your life. The cruelty of humans to separate a child and his father." His voice was bitter, angry, and Steve couldn't help it--he felt warmed by Joseph's outrage.

“Grandfather said once that I should be sent to you,” Steve said.

Joseph nodded. “It would have been better. What did your mother tell you of my absence?"

"Little. She hardly speaks at all."

Joseph said nothing in response to this. He seemed troubled but content to keep his thoughts to himself. At length, he asked, “Are you good with a spear?"

Steve nodded. "I have hunted boar with a spear, and I'm practiced with a staff and slingshot, but I had to be careful. Some of the villagers didn't like me having weapons."

"You were never one of them?" Joseph asked.

"Never."

Joseph leaned back and watched him, and Steve soon found it tiring, this being weighed and judged. He had expected his father to open his arms to him immediately and to be overcome with joy at their reunion. Steve soon grew restless, returned to the kitchen and found a pitcher of water and metal cup. The cool liquid felt good against his throat, and he found himself wanting more bread, maybe some meat and cheese.

The food wasn’t his, of course, it belonged to Joseph’s “most trusted soldier” and Steve felt a mix of orneriness and jealousy. Joseph entered the room after him, observing Steve as he rooted through a cold chest for meat. Steve pulled out a log of salami and took a large bite.

"You do not ask for what you want?" Joseph said.

Steve felt the sudden chill of embarrassment. “I’m used to being hungry,” Steve confessed. “I suppose I’m a bit of a scavenger.” He felt his cheeks heat up. “I’ll pay him, of course, for his food.”

Somehow, this seemed to amuse Joseph. Steve couldn't figure out why. His impulsiveness had been a source of constant exasperation for his mother, but Joseph seemed to find it charming. Perhaps because Steve was taking someone else's food, not his.

Once Steve had eaten his fill, he leaned against the counter and closed his eyes. He felt as though he could fall asleep still standing.

"Come, child,” Joseph said.  “I have more to show you. Are you tired?"

Steve was tired. He'd been traveling for a week on limited rations. But the way Joseph asked the question, body half turned, tone deceptively light, Steve knew this, like the food, was a test.

"Of course not," he said.

Joseph relaxed fractionally and appeared pleased. Steve found himself already living for those moments of approval. Joseph left the house, and Steve followed him, feeling a bit like a newly adopted pup, staying close to the heels of its master. They walked a short distance before coming to a large field with a blanket of tufted grass. There were things to jump from, tall wooden towers, and a large barn with whips, maces, and spears hung on the side.

Several orcs were there training, diving out of the way of whips, blocking blows from spears, wrestling hand to hand. Watching it all was a creature as tall as an orc, but slimmer and tightly muscled, wearing well-fitted leather armor. He had the teeth of an orc but the delicate lips and long eyelashes of a man. It was Steve's first time seeing another like him.

"Is he…” Steve asked tentatively.

Joseph's nodded. "You'll find there are many like you here. We don't shun and starve our orclings."

"I was called that once, by goblins. I didn't know what it meant."

Joseph nodded. "We have some dealings with goblins. But, yes, orcling, that is what you are."

The orcling noticed Joseph and Steve entering the training arena and made his way towards them. He was an inch or two shorter than Steve and all tightly controlled muscle. He walked with a practiced ease, not looking at Steve directly, but somehow intently focused on him all the same. Steve felt frozen, pinned down. He imagined this must be what it felt like to be hunted by a prowling linga cat, the awe and terror before being caught. The orcling was exceptionally beautiful; Steve wouldn’t mind being caught by him.

"Bucky,” Joseph said in greeting, “I have brought you someone. You are to spar with him so I may assess his fitness for battle."

If Bucky thought the request was unusual, he gave no indication of it. "What weapons, sir?"

Joseph thought about it for a second before deciding. "Hand to hand."

Steve bristled a little at being forced into a match. He would have liked to sit by the river and talk with his father, to ask questions long brewing in his mind. But Joseph wanted to test him, and Steve wasn't one to back down from a challenge.

Steve dropped his belongings off by the large barn, taking a few minutes to gather his wits. The other orcs were busy with training, but Steve could feel their eyes on him, not so bold as to outright stare. He couldn't get a feel for Bucky.

Bucky removed the leather armor on his chest and his shirt, and Steve noticed scars on his left shoulder. Bucky noticed him staring but didn't hide or respond in any way. He gestured for Steve to follow him to a large ring.

"Tap the ground to concede," Bucky said. "A five-second hold on the ground counts as a match point. Best of three wins."

Steve nodded. He extended his hand to shake, and Bucky took it. "I'm Steve."

"We don't know your name yet," Joseph said, not unkindly. He waited until Bucky and Steve were on opposite sides of the ring before saying, "Begin.”

Steve expected Bucky to wait, to circle him for a bit, observe his movement. Apparently, Bucky didn't need the time, because he came towards Steve immediately, lightning fast, kicking the back of Steve's leg so he dropped to the ground, and Bucky pinned him quickly. Steve struggled against him, unwilling to yield, but Bucky held Steve's shoulders for five seconds to the ground and then released.

"That's one," Bucky said.

The second time Bucky came for him, Steve wasn't surprised, but he still wasn't ready. Bucky had an economical brutality to him, quick and dirty, and again Steve found himself on the ground. Bucky didn't offer his hand, and Steve pulled himself to his feet.

"Continue," Joseph said.

Bucky came for him again, and Steve twisted his body, trying to avoid being taken down so easily. Bucky took the opportunity to twist Steve's arm behind his back, before releasing him and landing several blows to his stomach. Steve collapsed to the ground, and Bucky ceased his attack.

"Do you yield?" Bucky said.

Steve spit on the ground and stood up. He didn't wait for Bucky to come to him this time; he charged, rage in his eyes. Bucky stepped to the side deftly and used Steve's momentum to his advantage so that Steve fell heavily forward and landed on his chest.

Steve's next approach was slower, more measured. He didn't charge but stalked over, crowding Bucky to the side, so he had no option but retreat. Once they were close, face to face, Bucky grinned cheekily. "What will you do now?"

Steve didn't know. This close Bucky smelled like leather and sweat, and, in spite of himself, Steve loved it. He wanted to kiss that cocky grin off his face. But Steve had lost every round, and he was embarrassed to be so soundly bested in front of his father. He punched Bucky with all his might. Bucky easily deflected the movement and grabbed Steve’s wrists. Steve wrenched an arm free, striking out blindly with all the anger and indignation of a wet house cat. He landed a blow on Bucky's cheek and another in his stomach.

Bucky didn't flinch when hit. They grappled, and Steve fought with every bit of strength he had. Bucky twisted both Steve's arms behind his back and pinned him to ground with his face in the dirt.

"Do you yield?" Bucky said.

"Never," he grunted.

Bucky laughed, loud and hearty. He sprang up and left Steve laying in the dirt. Bucky walked over to Joseph. "He'll do, sir," he said.

Steve struggled to his feet and charged at Bucky again. He hated being laughed at. This time Bucky pulled no punches, planting his feet and flipping Steve over his shoulder.

Bucky smiled at him warmly, this time reaching a hand down to Steve. "Don’t be angry. You've done well."

Steve grumbled, but he took Bucky’s hand and pulled himself to his feet, still unsure of himself. But Joseph was beaming, and it softened Steve's anger towards Bucky.

"We will train the technique," Joseph said, “but you have the heart. That's what I need. Behold,” his voice was loud and all the orcs stopped in their training to listen, “Steve of the Crested City, born of love."

"Hail," Bucky said, and the orcs joined in.  

“Bucky, thank you for your services,” Joseph said. “Now if you’ll excuse us, my son needs to rest from his long journey."

Bucky showed no surprise at Joseph calling Steve his son, and Steve suspected he may have known before this, maybe Joseph had sent word. He felt a quick surge of gratitude that Bucky hadn’t gone easy on him even knowing this.

-------

Steve retrieved his bags and trudged to the castle alongside Joseph. The trip was catching up with him, and sparring had been exhausting. Bucky, he had noticed, still had a skip in his step when leaving the training arena.

"Do not worry," Joseph said, as if able to read his thoughts. "You will be able to hold your own once we fatten you up. Besides, Bucky is my finest orcling warrior, I would not have expected you to beat him."

"And what would you have done if I had?"

Joseph grinned, seeming more relaxed than when they had first met. "Had you arrested as a spy and questioned your deceit. No one without years of training could have beaten Bucky. Besides,” he elbowed Steve playfully, “I had to let him get a few licks in, you did steal his food."

Steve was surprised Joseph’s most trusted soldier was an orcling and not an orc, but it settled something inside him. He would stay, prove himself worthy, and earn his father’s love and trust.

“You did not expect that, did you?” Joseph said. “You thought that because I have been distant with you that I was like the humans, unwilling to trust orclings.”

Steve shrugged, not willing to confirm Joseph’s suspicions, but finding some of his thoughts reflected there.

Joseph took ahold of one of Steve’s bags, lightening his load. “Let me speak plainly,” he said. “It brings me great joy to have you here. My position requires caution in all my choices, but seeing you spar with Bucky is a moment I will treasure.”

Steve blushed at the easy affection but quickly righted himself. "I'll beat him," he said. "It won't take years."

Joseph laughed, seeming young in his exuberance. "You are more than I hoped for, son. Welcome to your new home."

They walked the whole way up the hill to the castle, Joseph several times turning down passing carriages who offered to carry them or Steve's bags. Steve wanted to complain but things were going well, and this, too, seemed to be a test.

The grandeur of the castle was stunning, smooth polished white stones thick and tall. A thought occurred to Steve, and he stumbled. Joseph caught his arm and helped him right himself. "Are you a king?" Steve whispered in awe.

Joseph patted Steve's shoulder kindly. "You don't know what to think of me, do you? That will come. I'm not a king, but I am a general in his army. I oversee the training of some of the soldiers, but we can discuss more of that later."

Joseph led him through hallways until they came to a locked door. He pulled a key off a chain in his pocket and handed it to Steve. “This is your room,” he said. The room housed a large wooden tub on top of intricate tile work, bright reds and shining black, and a fireplace, but all Steve had eyes for was the bed in the corner.

"I will have servants bring you water, and then you may rest until dinner. Ask them for whatever you like,” Joseph said. “We will breakfast together in the morning.”

Steve nodded weakly, his fatigue overtaking his manners. He sat heavily on a chair once his father left the room. Servants returned with pails of hot water, and it occurred to Steve that his father must have sent word ahead to plan his bath. It didn’t quite make up for all of the tests Joseph had done, but warmed him all the same.

Steve wanted to sleep, but decided it would be best to wash first. He dismissed the servants and settled into the bath and let the water pull the mess of traveling and fighting out of his skin. He still felt Bucky's hands on him, rough, not unnecessarily so, but with no holds barred. It felt good to fight without breaking someone, and good to not be treated as breakable.

The hot water made Steve’s limbs heavy, and he fell asleep as soon as he crawled underneath the silken sheets.

Chapter Text

Unlike most orclings, Bucky grew tall and strong as a child and never had a frail phase. Because of this, he was selected to be the first orcling to leave the mothers’ compound and move to the barracks where he would be trained by the orcs. Having spent his childhood thus far primarily in the company of human women, he found the world of the orcs to be overwhelming, their ways rowdy and loud. Bucky was no coward, but he was afraid of the towering orcs, especially the aggressiveness of their training. Most of all, he missed his mother.

He cried in his bunk, wrapped in blankets that felt stiff and scratchy. No matter what the orcs did, he was inconsolable, and they feared he would make himself sick with grief. After several days of this, Joseph visited him in the barracks.

“Perhaps we should have left him with the mothers longer,” one of the orc caretakers said.

Joseph sat on Bucky’s bed and leaned over. “No. It was the time. Boy, look at me.”

Bucky turned over and peered at the orc in front of him. Joseph was the largest orc he’d ever seen, and Bucky shrunk back against the wall.

“There’s no need to be frightened,” Joseph said. He turned to the caretakers. “Leave us. I will speak to the boy alone.” Once the caretakers left, Joseph’s tone turned soothing. “This must all be scary for you. I understand. Orcs are quite different from humans, aren’t they?”

Bucky nodded wetly. He ran the back of his hand under his eyes to wipe away the tears.

“Your mother tells me that you are a brave boy. Does she speak the truth?”

“Mama says we must always tell the truth,” he said.  

“She’s right in that, and she’s done a fine job raising you. Now, it’s time for you to learn the ways of the orc. Are you brave enough to do this?”

Bucky nodded and sat up straight. He could be brave. He could be brave for Winifred and Joseph.

“Good. Prove the truth of her words,” Joseph said. “Up with you. We are going on a ride.”

Bucky was eager to leave the empty barracks. “Yes, sir.”

Joseph led him to the stables and showed him the horses and riding hounds. One of the hounds took to Bucky immediately, licking the salty tears on his face until Bucky squealed with laughter and pushed the hound’s snout away.

“This is Eomer,” Joseph said. “I think he likes you.”

Bucky tentatively petted the hound on his snout before Joseph corrected him. “The ears, Bucky. He likes to be scratched here.”

Bucky stood on his tiptoes and tentatively scratched Eomer as Joseph had instructed. The hound’s fur was soft for being so fearsome a creature. Eomer immediately leaned into the touch, knocking Bucky over. The hound was quick to apologize, licking Bucky’s face and hands with renewed fervor. Bucky loved it, struggled to his feet, threw his arm around Eomer’s chest and held tight to him.

Joseph saddled the hound and then mounted him in one smooth motion. “Give me your hand,” he said to Bucky. Bucky reached up, and Joseph pulled him up in front of him in one smooth motion. “Hold onto the saddle horn for balance. Try to let your body move with the hound.”

Bucky scratched Eomer’s neck, but Joseph stopped him. “You may pet him only when you are grooming or greeting him. When you are on the hound, it is his time to work. Pet him only when you are off him.”

It was thrilling, his small arms clasping the leather saddle horn, the tawny fur of the hound tickling his skin, the wind whipping his hair around. They rode out into the countryside, and Bucky, having only seen the compound before this, marveled at the tall trees and the fields of hay. The people of the town, almost entirely orcs, greeted Joseph with respectful nods or salutes. Some asked him who his small rider was, and Bucky shyly introduced himself causing the orcs to smile and chuckle.   

Joseph halted the hound at the top of a large hill overlooking the countryside. It seemed to Bucky he could see the whole world from up there. It was midsummer and the fields were heavy with grain shimmering in the sun.  

Joseph dismounted the hound and helped Bucky climb down. “When you are older,” Joseph said as he unpacked his bag, “you may ride a hound all on your own. I will teach you how to train one. Would you like that?”

Bucky nodded eagerly and buried his face in the thick fur of Eomer’s neck. It reminded him of cuddling with his mother. Eomer abided the touch patiently, giant tail wagging.

“I think you may steal my hound from me,” Joseph said playfully. He pulled the saddle off Eomer, who immediately rolled on his back in the grass to stretch out his back. He then hopped up and galloped down the hill, ears flopping as he went.

“I’ll let him roam free while we eat. Hounds need time to explore.” Joseph said as he spread out a blanket, brightly colored. Bucky was again reminded of his mother and her beautiful tapestries, and he wished he could tell her of his adventures. He had been well cared for by Winifred, she played cards with him, taught him to draw, and told him fantastical stories every night before bed. When he had asked her why they must stay in the compound, she said only that it was for their safety, and he was a clever little fox to ask such a question. Never stop asking questions, she told him, but be careful who you ask.

Bucky sat obediently beside Joseph trying with all his heart to be brave and fight back his tears.

“It must be hard,” Joseph said softly, “to be away from your mother. I was taken from my mother about your age and trained in the king’s army. It is the way of the orc, but perhaps harder for you, being half human.”

Bucky looked at him in worry, and Joseph was quick to soothe him. “It’s not bad to be as you are, but humans do love softness. I must teach you to have an orc’s strength.”  

Bucky nodded. This all felt awfully important. “Yes, sir.”

Joseph tousled Bucky’s dark brown hair and smiled at him sadly. “I haven’t gotten to teach my son these things, how to be a man, and it is my biggest grief in life. But perhaps things will be different with the orclings. You are all like my children, and I will teach how to be brave in the world.”

Bucky leaned against Joseph seeking comfort and warmth. Joseph looked surprised. “It’s not the way of the orc,” he said. Bucky blushed immediately leaned away, but Joseph put a warm arm around him and pulled him close. “I understand. You must be lonely.”

Bucky nodded, felt all the bravado he had saved up slip away and soon descended to tears again. “I’m sorry,” he whimpered.

Joseph tutted and pulled Bucky tighter against him. “Perhaps the ways of the orc are wrong in this matter. I shed many tears when I was separated from my son.”

“Y-you did?” Bucky said with trembling lips.

“Yes, although I told no one that,” Joseph sighed. “Being a man is dangerous here, and I have enemies on all sides. But you are safe here on this hill. Cry until you are done, for you will not be able to cry when we return to the barracks.”

Bucky buried his face in Joseph’s side and cried until he felt exhausted and leaned limply into his side. When he leaned back, Joseph handed him a tissue and bid him clean off his face.

“Do you feel better?”

Bucky nodded wetly.

“Good,” Joseph said. “I wish I could have taught these things to my son. He has a tender heart like you.” He leaned back and ran a hand through Bucky’s rumpled hair where it stuck wetly to his cheek. “Never let them see you cry. They will use what you love against you.”

“Mother?”

“Don’t worry too much about her. If you are very brave and loyal and work hard, I will be able to protect you both.”

Joseph brought out honey crackers, a sweet cream Bucky had never seen before, and strips of tabarat meat. “Eomer will be back if he catches wind of the meat, but you mustn't give him any or he will be insufferable.”

Bucky nibbled on the meat. He would like to spoil the hound, but he supposed Joseph knew best.

“Giving the hounds whatever they want is not best for them,” Joseph said. “They grow to be willful and undisciplined, and will only do what you ask in exchange for food. But, if you are firm with them, establish that you are their leader, while still being gentle, they will grow to love you and will do as you ask only to please you. It is better that way.”

Bucky nodded gravely. Joseph seemed wise to him, like a heroic knight in one of Winifred’s stories.

“Tell me, what will it take for you to feel ready to train with the orcs?”

Bucky turned his head away, embarrassed to confess to Joseph. “They are scary.” Joseph did not laugh at him, and Bucky felt immense relief.

“You are the first of your kind to train with them. Soon your orcling friends will join you. Will that make it easier?”

“Gabe?” Bucky asked hopefully. Although he liked all the orclings, Gabe was his very best friend.

“Yes, soon. He is still too weak, but perhaps in a few months. Orcs do not tolerate weakness. That is why you were selected to go first, because you are the strongest of all the orclings. And you’ll need to be stronger still, to be strong for your orcling friends and set a good example. Can you do that?”

It seemed an awfully big responsibility to Bucky, one he was afraid to fail. “I’ll try.”

Joseph smiled at him. “I have no doubt of that.”

They ate a little, but Bucky didn’t have the stomach for it.

“Not hungry?” Joseph said. When Bucky shook his head, Joseph stood up. “I have an idea. Can I show you something? You must never tell the orcs we did this?”

Bucky nodded and stood up, accepting the grave responsibility. Joseph went to the edge of the hill and lay on his side, before rolling down the hill, whooping as he went. He came to a stop at the bottom and beckoned Bucky to follow suit. Bucky was hesitant, but laid on his side, feeling the soft grass beneath him. Tentatively he let himself roll to the side, his fear quickly giving way to joy as he picked up speed. He whooped and rolled until the ground flattened, and he came to an undignified stop.

“Did you like that?” Joseph said. He hadn’t gotten up, just laid in the grass looking at the sky. “I used to do that as a boy. My father taught me.”

Bucky sensed melancholy was descending on Joseph. He stumbled to his feet and asked hesitantly, “Again?”

Joseph grinned at him and seemed to shed his worries. “Yes. We may do it one more time before we go into town.”

“Race you,” Bucky said. He didn’t wait for Joseph to get up but began running immediately.

Joseph called out, “You rascal!” and stumbled to his feet, quickly overtaking Bucky.

The rolled down the hill again, laughing and breathless, and Bucky’s only regret was that the day had to end.

------

When Bucky was twelve years old, Joseph selected him as his sword-bearer and to fight alongside a contingent of orcs as they defended Ruby City from menacing trolls. Bucky was proud to have been chosen, and his adoration for his commander beat strong in his heart. Joseph procured for him well-fitted leather armor that covered his trunk and thighs.

“I want you to observe and bring me another weapon when needed, but I expect you to stay out of the fighting,” Joseph told him.

Bucky felt a pang of disappointment. He had never been in a battle before, but the adventure and romance of it appealed to him. Still, none of the other orclings had been selected to be sword bearers, so it must have meant something.

Bucky was large enough at that time to have his own riding hound, but Joseph insisted that the orcs be given the hounds since they were too heavy for most horses to bear. Bucky went along grumbling at the difference, mostly ashamed at being seen as different. The orcs were kind to him, if a little rough. It was to be expected. They were rough with everyone.

As they left the camp, orcs stood in the street to wish them good battle and smooth journeys. Joseph elected to take the long route to Ruby City, as the mountainous path was hard on the hounds.

It was the farthest Bucky had ever been from home. He watched everything with keen interest, from the small houses they passed, the human villages, the creatures he saw in the woods.

“Close your mouth,” Joseph said.

Bucky clicked his teeth together, unaware that he had been staring.

Joseph laughed good-naturedly. “It is fine to be curious or excited, but remember what I taught you.” Bucky remembered. Never let them see you cry, never let them see you want. He attempted a feigned dignity, a haughty disposition, but soon fell to gaping again. Joseph, having no patience for this foolishness, rode on ahead.

They made camp one night, and Bucky decided he might like to live in the thick canvas tents. The seal of the king was in front, proclaiming the rights of the orcs. They ate dinner around the fire, and Bucky sat with wide eyes as the orcs told stories of fighting giants, centaurs, the fearsome creatures of the deep ocean, and the winged dragons that terrorized the north country. One day, Bucky thought, I will slay a dragon and win the respect of the orcs.

When the army arrived in Ruby City, Joseph and his men were greeted by a distinguished group of goblins dressed in deep red clothing, accentuated by rubies that seemed to shine from within. The walls of the city were clapboard and bare, and Bucky wondered that they had been able to protect themselves from the trolls at all.

“Greetings, General Joseph. Thank you for responding to our call,” one of the goblins said, a man with thick, well-oiled white hair. It was tied in an elaborate knot and braided on the sides. Little pieces of red adorned his hair, rubies, Bucky realized.

“Greetings, Consul Raznick.”

“Well traveled?”

“The wind at our back and the path beneath our feet,” Joseph responded.

The men smiled at one another, and soon the other goblins and orcs relaxed. No one seemed to pay him much mind, and his heart longed to explore the city. They entered the gate, and Bucky found the city to be abuzz with activity. Merchants peddled fine fabric and foods that seemed to Bucky exotic and different. The air smelled like a spice he’d never encountered before; it made his nose tingle.

Bucky stayed by Joseph’s side as they relocated to a meeting hall, and the goblins described their dilemma. They bartered over the price of protection for several hours. It meant nothing to Bucky. He was given some small coin as his wages as a soldier, but for the most part he knew nothing of treasure or money.

Once an agreement was reached, Joseph made plans to pursue the trolls into the woods the next morning with the hopes of having the field of battle be away from the city.

All of Ruby City awoke that night to crashing sounds as trolls threw giant stones that knocked down the wooden walls of the goblins’ city.  They didn’t breach the city itself, being less skilled in close-quartered fighting but continued to level city from a distance. Joseph readied his soldiers and sent Bucky to plant flaming torches on the field surrounding the city. The trolls had better night vision and would quickly route the orcs if the advantage was not evened out.

The trolls caught wind of his project and one was sent to take him out. Bucky was fast, faster than all the orcs now, although he didn’t show it, not wanting to make them suspicious. More than that, he was nimble and agile, quickly escaping the trolls clutches. He lit fireworks up in the sky which frightened the trolls and disguised the orc attack.

Once he was done planting his torches, Bucky ran back to find his General. Joseph fought alongside his men, clearly gifted with the sword, a giant, dashing figure in the flickering torchlight. Bucky felt his heart swell with pride. The battle went well with their path well lit and Joseph called to Bucky twice for a new weapon.

Bucky wove his way between fighters carrying a fresh spear, shocked when a large troll got the upper-hand on Joseph and pinned him to the ground. Bucky didn’t have to think. He loved Joseph with all of himself and flung himself between the troll’s whip and Joseph.

The pain was blinding as the whip ripped through the skin and meat of his left shoulder. The troll punched Bucky with his leathery fist right across his temple, and Bucky felt to the ground in a writhing heap. It was enough time for Joseph to get free, and he stabbed the troll straight through before it could kill either one of them.

The whole of the battlefield began to spin, grow dim, and then Bucky passed out. He awoke sometime later in Joseph’s quarters. Joseph dabbed gently at the wound on Bucky’s shoulder and applied a healing salve.

“I’m proud of you, Bucky,” he said softly. “You were so brave.”

Bucky beamed at Joseph in spite of the pain. “I did good?”

“So good,” Joseph whispered. He ran the wet washcloth over Bucky’s temples, wiping away the sweat. “None of my orc soldiers would have sacrificed themselves for me.”

“I would do anything for you,” Bucky replied.

Joseph smiled at him and made him drink water and eat crackers. “Rest, little orc. You will be stronger tomorrow.”

From that day forth, Bucky was Joseph’s favorite soldier, and, as an adult, his most trusted confidante.

------

Joseph often called Bucky to his study in the evenings for counsel and companionship. Over the years, he had come to see Bucky as more than his surrogate son; the orcling had a keen eye for military tactics and uncommon political savvy. His men were loyal to him, perhaps even more than the orcs were to Joseph. It filled his heart with pride to see how the other orclings would follow Bucky’s commands immediately and execute his training plans perfectly.  

It wasn’t cold that evening, but somehow Joseph felt a chill. He lit a fire and rubbed his hands together in front of the small flame. He wasn’t hungry for a full meal, so he had the servants bring tart hava grapes, a soft rind cheese, and spelt crackers to the study. Once Bucky arrived, Joseph uncorked a bottle of spring wine and poured them each a glass. Bucky had a tendency to abstain, even though Joseph told him it was unseemly to refuse his commander.

“I’d like you to get close to my son,” he said, once they were both settled. “See if you can suss out his intentions.”

Bucky served himself a plate of food and began eating as if nothing were amiss. When he spoke, Joseph could tell he had chosen his words carefully. “Do you not trust him, sir?”

Bucky had grown more distant with him, more formal. The look of adoration he’d had for Joseph, complete loyalty and love had faded over time. Joseph knew it was unlikely to return. He supposed it was the way of things, part of becoming a man.

Joseph leaned over and ran his finger down the smooth silver green scar on Bucky’s shoulder. Bucky tensed minutely. “I told you not to call me sir in private. This earned you that right.” He sighed and leaned back in his chair. He tossed another branch on the fire, enjoying the pop and crackle as the pine sap burned. He stared into the flames, hoping for insight, some message from his god. Nothing came. “I trust no one," Joseph said trying to mask the bitterness in his tone. "Least of all those I love."

"Is it a dangerous, then, to love someone?"  Bucky asked. He had put down his plate and rested with his hands on his thighs. It was meant to make him look open and receptive, Joseph knew it. Bucky was so calm now, his face gave nothing away. Sometimes Joseph felt Bucky had learned the lessons he had taught too well.   “It always costs something to love someone.” Joseph turned from studying Bucky and rubbed his temples in soothing circles. His headaches had grown worse as of late. “But then you don’t need me to tell you that.”

Bucky remained damnably silent, watching him.  He had learned to be a perfect soldier, obedient, loyal, hard-working, but Joseph missed the boy who had cried for his mother, whose heart was right there for Joseph to see. “His mother and I didn’t part on the best of terms, and I need to know how much it affected Steve, whether he means me ill.” Joseph leaned back and straightened his tunic. “I’m often glad his mother did not come here. She would have been a… liability.”

“As you wish, sir,” Bucky said. “Is there anything else?” He glanced quickly between Joseph and the door, likely eager to be free. He probably wanted to be with the other orclings or perhaps a paramour. Joseph remembered being a young man, remembered growing tired of his father and only wanting the company of his friends. Still, it was galling to have it happen to him. He would have liked for Bucky to have enjoyed his company more.

“So quick to run off?”

Bucky tensed. Not so good at hiding his emotions all the time, Joseph thought with amusement. “It’s just been a long day, and I have yet to bathe.”

Joseph laughed and took a long drink of his wine. “You don’t have to hide from me, boy. Who are you meeting with? I know the look of someone headed to see a lover.”

Bucky blushed, his cheeks darkening. “Nothing of the kind, sir.” He shifted in his seat and looked earnestly at Joseph. “I’m sorry. Is there more you wanted to talk about?”

Joseph felt a pang of embarrassment, searing and gone in an instant. He wanted Bucky’s loyalty, not his pity. “Run along,” he said. “You have been given your task.”

Bucky’s shoulders relaxed. He stood and Joseph took a moment to admire the strong soldier he had become, his poise and confidence; the firelight illuminated his well-defined muscles. “Yes, sir. I’ll do my best.”

“I had no doubt. Oh, and Bucky? Steve is to be told nothing of the mothers."

A shadow of something passed across Bucky’s face, and not for the first time Joseph wondered what Bucky’s thoughts were about that matter. “What shall I say if he asks?"

"Tell him to ask me. I’d like to be the one to explain our ways.”

Bucky nodded and saluted Joseph before leaving the room. The night was still young, and Joseph longed for company. No doubt his son was asleep, and Bucky was off seeking his own companionship. He couldn’t go to the orcs. Most of them viewed Joseph with a certain reverence; they were intimidated by him, and this made them bad company. Those that didn’t were always looking for weaknesses and opportunities. Promotion by mutiny was not uncommon in their ranks, though challenging someone as well established as Joseph was rare.

Joseph sighed and leaned back in his leather chair, it reminded him of the smoothness of his saddle and riding out with Bucky on the hounds. He threw another log on the fire, unable to chase away the chill in his bones. Tomorrow he would eat with his son.

-------

Bucky didn't like playing games, least of all games of intrigue. That was for Natasha, a formidable orc and Joseph's chief spy. It was hard to parse Joseph’s motives, to see the messages hidden in his words.

When Bucky arrived at his house, he found his kitchen filled with orclings.

"Oy, Bucky," Dum Dum said. He threw an arm around Brock's shoulders and squeezed. "This one insisted on getting your thoughts on the new guy, so we all decided to come along."

The men cheered and raised a hand, all except Morita who was cutting up Bucky's sharp cheddar cheese. Dernier rustled through Bucky’s pantry looking for more food.

"You rascals will eat me out of house and home," Bucky said with a grin. "Eh, Morita?"

Morita paused his cutting and reached into his bag, bringing forth a bottle of unlabeled liquor and a loaf of bread. "We've come well portioned. Didn't know if you'd have the good stuff."

Bucky pulled the cork out of the liquor bottle and sniffed. "Your good stuff could peel the fur off a six-legged boar." He took a swig, and the men cheered.

Dum Dum and Gabe hustled Brock into the living room carrying the food.

"Status?" Bucky whispered to the remaining orclings.

Morita glanced at the other men in the room, all their trusted compatriots. "He and Rollins came sniffing around our rooms trying to find anything they could. I don't think they have a strategy yet, just hunting for information."

"Recommendations?" Bucky wasn't one to give his men orders outside the training fields. He trusted them to make good decisions.

"Make things up so Brock looks daft later?" Morita said. The men chuckled.

"Listen to those pigeons warbling in the kitchen," Dum Dum called out. Bucky gave the men a rueful grin and headed into the living room.

"This pigeon could beat you soundly in hand to hand," Bucky said.

"And he could assign you to latrine duty," Brock added.

Bucky grimaced. He could but he never had. The orclings shared chores equally, but he played along with Brock’s game. "Sure. Is that what I have to do to get rid of this riff raff?"

Gabe grinned and took a swig from Morita's special brew. "It'd have to be worse than that. Howling Commandos are here to stay." He howled and all the men joined in, Bucky included. Brock did so with some resignation.

The night wore on, Gabe and Dum Dum both heavily imbibed the drink, somehow making sure Brock got two in for every one of theirs. They'd all be feeling it tomorrow, Bucky reasoned, but at least that toad would have the worst of it.

"I want to know," Brock said, his voice already slurring, "if you are concerned about no longer being Joseph's favorite, now that Steve's in town?"

Bucky smiled and laughed, buying himself some time. It was a good question. All their plans rested on Bucky's favored status. The men joined in laughing.

"What's so funny?" Brock said. He was tipsy enough that his irritation was turning into laughter.

"Just you, friend," Bucky said. "I'm pleased the General has been reunited with his son and look forward to inviting him to join our team." He raised his glass. "Stronger days ahead."

"Onward," the men responded.

Once Brock had passed out, Bucky gathered the soberest commandos for a quick talk.

"Joseph wants me to figure out Steve's loyalties," Bucky said. "Get close to him. Joseph seemed suspicious."

"That certainly makes me like Steve more," Morita said. "I feel bad for the guy. This can’t be the family reunion he was hoping for."

Bucky nodded. He’d been disappointed by Joseph, as well. "He's to be told nothing of the mothers, Joseph's orders."

"Can't imagine why someone raised by humans might be mad about that situation," Dernier said wryly.

"My gut says Steve could be an ally, but we've got to go slow. Any strong opinions could spook him."

The men agreed. After a few parting remarks, they left. Dum Dum carried Brock back to the barracks on his shoulder.

Bucky trudged to bed, heart heavy. He missed the Commandos as soon as they left. Having his own house was a privilege he had due to his rank, but it also separated him from the men. He suspected it made it easier for Joseph to track his movements and keep track of his visitors.

Bucky laid in bed hoping the darkness would bring him answers. He ended the night as he always did. "I'm coming mother," he said, closing his eyes and trying to remember her face. "Not tonight, but I'm coming."  

Chapter Text

Steve awoke at dawn but rolled over in bed, unwilling to leave the warm blankets. He had dreamt of Bucky’s powerful body moving against him. Steve found himself itching for a rematch, or perhaps a chance to get his hands on Bucky again. He stretched his arms, enjoying the soreness in his shoulders. It was a pleasant feeling, reminiscent of how he felt after a day of threshing wheat.

Reuniting with his father had not gone as Steve had imagined, but at least Joseph was glad to see him. He had hoped for more, warm embraces and talking into all hours of the night, but he supposed it had been foolish to expect things to go smoothly straight from the start.

His stomach grumbled, and Steve begrudgingly got out of bed. If his father was not up yet, he could at least get a cup of tea from the servants. Steve had but three pairs of clothes, and he wore the second pair, as his first had been heavily soiled in the fight against Bucky.  He pulled on his clothes and wandered into the hallway in search of Joseph.

In his fatigued state, Steve had not paid attention to the layout of the castle and soon got lost walking down the long corridors. A human servant found him and called out, "If you will follow me, sir, I'll take you to the table.”  

Steve thanked him and walked behind him down corridors into a grand room with several colorful tapestries on the wall. They depicted waterfalls, fields of glowing hay, drops of rain and streaks of lightning. The deep blues, greens, and yellows contrasted beautifully with the white stone walls. Steve traced his fingers along the barely visible seams, admiring the perfect stitches. In the corner of each of tapestry was a small orange fox, like the signature on a painting.

"Done by Winifred, one of the human women,“ Joseph said, entering the room and coming up behind Steve. “She’s quite talented.”

Steve turned, embarrassed to have been caught up in reverie. He smiled weakly at his father. Steve had imagined their first meeting a thousand times, but somehow the second day together, marked without pageantry or newness, felt more awkward.

Joseph did not seem to share his unease. "Come," he said, clapping Steve warmly on the shoulder. "The chef has prepared breakfast for us. It's time to fatten you up."

Steve followed Joseph to the large, oak dining table in the room with twelve chairs around it. His father sat at the head.

"When the king visits," Joseph said, "he sits at the other head of the table. No one else is to sit there."

Steve sat in the chair nearest Joseph and folded his hands in his lap to hide any fidgeting. “Where does the king live?"

Joseph made a vague gesture with his hand. "Many miles away in the main castle. I oversee this one in his absence."

It didn't feel like the whole story, but when servants entered with plates of looter eggs and ham, Steve found he couldn't think of anything else. The meal was delicious, thick and creamy cheeses atop omelets served with chewy bread and juice from the orlat tree. Steve ate ravenously, although it turned his stomach a little to eat something so rich after many years of lean living. Once he ate his fill, he leaned back and rubbed his stomach.

"I feel like we've just celebrated the feast of the first harvest," Steve said.

Joseph laughed, and Steve couldn’t help feeling warmed by it. "Humans don't know how to feast. I'll teach you here. This is just a taste. Although," he smiled at his plate, "I wouldn't stuff myself too full. You begin training today."

Steve shifted in his seat. He hadn’t been asked to join Joseph’s army, but he did want to feel useful. Still, it bothered him to be recruited without asking.

“You’re not pleased?” Joseph said.

Steve didn’t want to disappoint his father, but he couldn’t hold in the truth. “I just prefer to be asked before I agree to something, and…” He paused, trying to be careful with his words. “I’d like to know what I’m fighting for before I agree to anything.”

Joseph tilted his head consideringly. “I suppose I have gotten accustomed to my word being followed without question, but you are my son, not a soldier. All of the orclings are soldiers, and I had thought you would like to meet them.”

Steve pulse quickened. He did want to be around others like him. “I do. I just don’t want to hurt anyone without cause.”

“Do you think so little of me?” Joseph’s voice was cold, and underneath it, hurt.

“No,” Steve said too loudly. He looked around the room quickly, grateful to find it empty of servants. “I’m sorry. I know you wouldn’t fight without just cause. I would be happy to train with them.”  He searched for something to lighten the mood. “When will I get to wrestle you?"

Joseph’s lips quirked, and he leaned back in his chair. "Not just yet. There's none in the army that can beat me."

"Really?" Joseph was a formidable orc, to be sure, but there were orclings twenty years younger than him, strong and fast.

Joseph's answering look was hard. "Orcs don't lie," he said. "That's a human trait." He softened and patted Steve on the hand. “You'll soon learn to trust us.”

They finished off the meal, and when Steve began to clear the plates, Joseph strolled out of the room. A human servant entered soon after.

"I'll get those," he said quickly.

"Of course," Steve said, feeling embarrassed. "I meant no disrespect."

"None taken," the man replied, bustling around Steve but not making eye contact. Steve supposed he would have to get used to being the son of a powerful man,  although he had spent most of his life in poorer quarters than this servant.

"I'll just, leave you to it," Steve said backing out of the room.

-----

A servant accompanied Steve to the training grounds because Joseph had matters to attend to. The human seemed uninterested in talking, and Steve didn’t press it. He hadn’t been able to parse the social rules of Crested City yet.

“Found your way back?” Bucky called out.

“Aye, with help.” Steve thanked the servant who barely acknowledged him before returning to the castle. “I thought you might be up for a rematch.”

Bucky grinned and waved him closer. He smelled like cedar and worn leather today, and Steve fought the urge to tuck his nose into the crook of Bucky’s neck and inhale deeply. Here, at least, he felt welcome. “I’m sure you will be ready for a rematch in a year or two.”

“If you need that long to practice, I understand.”  Steve shoved him playfully then immediately blushed. He’d seen human boys roughhouse with their friends, but perhaps orclings were different. Besides, he didn’t want to be seen as overly familiar.

For his part, Bucky didn’t seem to mind and took the shoving with an exaggerated eye roll. “Come,” he said, walking towards a group of orclings milling about, “meet the others.”

The orclings formed loose ranks as Bucky approached, although it was clear none of them took it too seriously. The humans in Steve’s village had been mostly fair skinned, and he was surprised to see orclings with different colored skin, although they all shared the faint green hue.

“Howling Commandos, we have two guests today. Steve, this is Dum Dum, Dernier, Gabe, and Morita. They are all trouble. As you know, Brock usually trains with the orcs, but he’ll be joining us this week.”

The orclings raised their hands as their names were called. Steve waved awkwardly. They were all wearing some type of stretchy dark fabric with leather accents, well fitted and expensive. Steve shifted side to side, feeling helplessly provincial in his cheap linen clothes.

Bucky nodded his head towards the training ring. "Gabe, would you mind leading warm-ups while I track down more suitable clothes for Steve?”

Steve blushed, he did feel a little out of place in his clothes, but Bucky picking out things for him to wear seemed rather personal.

Gabe nodded at Bucky’s request, and the orclings filed into the training area. They circled up and began to perform a series of slow stretches.  Gabe explained each step of the sequence carefully, but Steve still felt like he was all elbows and knees compared to the grace of the other orclings.

At one point, they all grasped an ankle and stood on the opposite foot. Steve copied them and promptly listed to the side, and back again, his balance growing worse the more embarrassed he became.

"Pick something not moving, like a rock on the ground," Gabe said kindly. "Stare at it, and your balance will improve."

That didn't quite make sense to Steve, but he followed Gabe’s advice and soon was able to more or less hold still.

"You'll get the hang of it," Morita said cheerfully. "They've bred us to be athletes and warriors. We're naturally good at this type of thing.”

“We were born for the good of the kingdom and the maintenance of peace," Brock said testily. The other orclings exchanged quick glances that Steve couldn’t decipher.

"Of course," Morita said. "Glory to the King."

All the orclings responded together, "Glory."

Steve couldn't decide if it was eerie or comforting to be part of a group who automatically said the same words.

“Alright, bring one leg behind you and bend your front knee,” Gabe said. “Arms out front and back and head forward.”

Dum Dum, a large orcling with a ridiculous mustache leaned over and pushed Dernier’s shoulder to the side, causing him to lose his balance in the pose and fall over.

“Gods be damned, Dum Dum,” Dernier sputter, jumping to his feet and tackling the larger orcling. They wrestled about playfully, neither gaining full advantage, while Gabe continued to lead warmups.

“Ignore them,” he said. “The children don’t listen to anyone but Bucky.”

“I heard that,” Dum Dum said. Dernier had managed to get him in a headlock, and Dum Dum’s face was rapidly turning red. “Alright, alright. I yield!” Dernier let go immediately and patted Dum Dum’s back as he struggled for breath.

“It’s no wonder the orcs don’t take us seriously,” Brock said icily. “If you can’t even do the basic forms without descending into chaos.”

“I wouldn’t call it chaos,” Bucky responded. Steve startled. He’d been so distracted by the wrestling match, he hadn’t heard Bucky return. “Just a bit of fun.” Bucky handed Steve some clothes and instructed him to change. “I stole them from Dum Dum, so they should fit fine. Let me know if not, and I’ll find you something different.”

Steve ducked into the barn and quickly shed his clothes. It felt significant, somehow, donning the clothes of the orclings, like he would step out a new person, part of a tribe. The clothes were surprisingly comfortable and flexed with his movement.

Steve rejoined the orclings as they finished up their stretching. No one looked at him any differently.

“Okay, let’s run,” Bucky said. “Dum Dum, Morita, and Steve you’re together. Brock and Dernier, you’ll be behind them.”

“And where will you be?” Dum Dum teased.

“Resting on his ass, as always,” Morita replied.

“Nah, he’ll be sleeping in the shade or sneaking off with Natasha,” Dernier said with a grin.

Steve felt a stab of disappointment at the idea of Bucky sneaking off with someone else, but he quashed it quickly. He was being ridiculous.  

“Yeah, yeah. She’s not in town today,” Bucky said. “I’ll be with Gabe bringing up the rear.”

Steve was surprised that no one went for the easy joke, although there were a few titters. Bucky winked at Steve, and Steve blushed and smiled shyly.  

Running felt good, familiar. Steve didn’t know any of the warm-up forms, but he could run all day. It felt good to be in his body, the smooth fabric bending and flexing with the pumping of his legs.

Dum Dum led them to a path that wound through the forest, sunlight dappling the well-maintained trail. The path was broad enough for them to run side by side, and Steve found himself picking up the pace just for the thrill of it.

“Whoa there, Steve. No need to race,” Dum Dum said.

Steve hadn’t realized he had pulled ahead. He slowed his pace and the other orclings soon caught him.

“Besides,” Morita said, “the point of this exercise is to see how we work as a unit. It’s all about team unity .” He sniggered and shared a look with Dum Dum who laughed as well.

“Bucky’s very into teamwork,” Dum Dum said. Then louder, “Some might call it overkill!” He looked over his shoulder and frowned. “Aw, he’s not listening. That was a wasted insult.”

"Besides," Morita said with a bit of a whisper. "Joseph sometimes brings the orcs into the woods for surprise drills. So staying in formation lessens the chance that you'll be picked off.”

Dum Dum chortled. "True enough."

"They just attack?" Steve said.

"Just training," Dum Dum said matter of factly. "They're not actually going to beat you up, just teach you to be on your toes, no matter what this asshole says.”

Morita rolled his eyes in response. "Worse you'll get is a few bruises. Usually they don't bring clubs."  

The run continued uninterrupted by orc soldiers, and Steve found himself peeking through the trees to look for more action. "What's it like to fight an orc?" he said.

Morita and Dum Dum glanced at one another but kept jogging.

"They are bigger than us, as you know," Morita said. "But a little slower. They tend to rely on their strength in the fight instead of agility. You’ll need cleverness and patience."

"They wear out quick," Dum Dum added. "Except Joseph, of course.”

Steve realized it must be awkward for them train with the son of their general, but Steve could already tell that he would feel greater ease with the orclings than in the castle. His father was right to send him there. “I’ve only known him as an adult for the last day," he said. “And, um, I won't be reporting on you or anything." He sighed. "Besides, I'm not sure he trusts me."

"It ain't you he doesn't trust," Dum Dum said kindly.

"Yeah,” Morita agreed. “You have to understand. There have been some...imitators throughout the years, people who pretended to be you, and it always broke Joseph's heart."

"Not that he'd say that," Dum Dum said. "But you could see it on his face plain as day."

“Oh. I hadn't thought of that," Steve said. He'd hoped his father had missed him and had dreamt of being reunited, but it hadn't occurred to him that people might use him against Joseph.

They ran in companionable silence for several minutes until Dum Dum stumbled and fell to the ground, and Steve immediately jumped in front of him to protect him.

"What's going on?" Bucky asked when his running team overtook Steve’s.

Dum Dum pushed himself to his feet with a groan. "I got in a fight with a root, and Steve here stepped in to defend my honor."

The orclings all laughed, and Steve felt like he was part of it, part of them.

"Alright, no licking our wounds. Let's get going again," Bucky said.  

They ran on, chatting idly because none of them were out of breath. After twenty minutes, Bucky called out, “Switch!” and the teams rotated to new arrangements. How they knew who to switch to was beyond Steve, but he let it happen around him. He ended up with Gabe and Brock.

“You’re keeping up well,” Brock told him. “We weren’t sure what to expect.”

“Oh, well, I grew up running around in the mountains outside my village.”

“Must be quite a change,” Brock said. “How are you liking Crested City?”

“Give him a second,” Gabe groused. “This isn’t an inquisition.”

“We always chat on runs. What’s a matter, can’t run and talk?”

Somehow, their bickering felt different to Steve, less collegial and friendly. He felt bad for Brock, an outsider even among others of his own kind.  

“I like it well enough,” Steve said, interrupting them. “I mean, I basically just walked through it, but it’s pretty.”

Brock smiled. “It is, isn’t it? Perhaps we could explore it together.”

Gabe didn’t say anything, but Steve could tell the offer perturbed him.

“Thanks,” Steve said. He, at least, wouldn’t treat Brock like an outsider. “I’d like that.”

“Isn’t it time to switch?” Gabe called back to Bucky.

“We’ve only just switched,” Brock grumbled.

Bucky caught up with him and knocked his shoulder against Gabe’s. “Missed me so soon?”

Gabe rolled his eyes, but it was clear his good humor had returned. “I changed my mind. I don’t want to switch if I’m going to end up with you again.”

“Nah,” Bucky said. “Poor Steve will be the one stuck with my company next.”

“Whatever’s best for team unity,” Steve said, suppressing a smile.

Bucky looked shocked and then huffed a laugh. “Dum Dum!” he yelled. “Don’t be undermining my authority the first day!”

“It’s Morita’s fault,” Dum Dum yelled back. He grinned and sped away to end the conversation.

“Switch!” Bucky yelled. “Whoever catches up with Dum Dum is his new partner.”

Steve and Bucky fell into a smooth running pace together immediately.

“I’ll have you know that I did an extensive study of all the great military masters,” Bucky said with exaggerated primness, “and unity between soldiers was a prominent factor in overall success and safety of an army.”

“I’m sure it was.”

Bucky narrowed his eyes at Steve. “You are going to be a thorn in my side, I can tell it already.”

“I’ve never created trouble day in my life,” Steve said with a grin.

“Yeah, yeah. I’ll believe it when I see it.”  Bucky joked with him as easily as he did with the others, and Steve found himself breathless and happy with the teasing.

After a few minutes, he asked in what he hoped was a casual tone, “So, who’s Natasha?”

Bucky tilted his head as if Steve had asked a particularly complicated question. “She’s an orc, and a pretty important one. Too important to be slumming it with us, but she does on occasion. You’ll like her.”

Steve nodded, not sure Bucky was right about that.

“We met when were children. I was the first orcling to join the barracks, and she protected me from the other orcs.”

“Were they mean to you?” Steve said.

Bucky shrugged. “It wasn’t personal. Orcs are rough with one another from a young age. I wasn’t used to that.”

Steve made a show of looking unimpressed. “You do seem like a delicate flower.”

“Hey now,” Bucky said. “I’m still your commanding officer.  Speaking of, have you had any training in fighting?”

“A little with a staff, and I had to fight my way out of a couple of bad situations when I was smaller, so I’m pretty good at wrestling.”

Bucky grinned. “Baby Steve got a bit of a temper?”

“No. I mean, yeah, probably. But also the humans didn’t like having me around. They just stopped fighting me once I got bigger. At least, not one to one.”

Bucky’s expression was carefully neutral. “The humans in your village didn’t accept you? I had hoped…” He drifted off, not finishing his thought. “I’m sorry they treated you that way.”

Steve shrugged. “I mean, it’s just the way things were. Humans don’t care much for those who are different from them.”

Bucky’s shoulders slumped, but he quickly recovered himself. “I didn’t realize. Of course, you would know best. Are all humans like that or just your village?”

“Most of them,” Steve said, unsure of why this was so important for Bucky, “but not all. Why? You looking for a new home?”  

“No, just-” he huffed a laugh. “You’d make a good spy. Got me sharing all my secrets right away.” Bucky bumped his shoulder companionably.

“Ma always said I was too nosey for my own good,” Steve said.

Something clouded Bucky’s expression but was gone in an instant. “You’ll have to tell me about her sometime,” he said softly. Then louder, “For now, I’m very sorry, but you’re about to be stuck with Dernier.”

“What’d you say about me?” Dernier called back.

“Nothing good,” Bucky said.

Bucky called switch one more time, Steve ran back to the training grounds with his new group making occasional jokes and knocking shoulders together.

-----

Training continued for the rest of the week in the same manner. It hurt a little to be dismissed by his father every morning, but Steve had found a new home with the orclings, quickly feeling like one of them. He supposed his father had been right to send him to the training grounds, after all.

On the third day, he met Natasha. She stood almost a head taller than Bucky and had striking red hair, uncommon among orcs. She trained all of the orclings in knife throwing and hand to hand skills, but she always paid special attention to Bucky. It wasn’t surprising to Steve. Bucky was a fire on a cold winter’s night--everyone was drawn to him.

Bucky trained with the orclings but reserved part of every day to work one to one with Steve. It was a little embarrassing to be pulled to the side, but Steve knew he had a lot to catch up on. He thought perhaps Bucky was a bit more tactile then he needed to be when teaching him, but Steve wasn’t complaining.

“Don’t straighten your elbows all the way and keep your knees soft,” Bucky told him. He came behind Steve and positioned Steve’s grip on the staff correctly. “Now try it.”

Steve took a steadying breath, Bucky’s touch made him lightheaded. He took a step forward and moved through the striking sequence perfectly.

“Well done,” Bucky cheered.

Steve turned quickly, pleased with the praise, and accidentally hit Bucky in the chest. He dropped the staff like it was a live cobra.

“Hey!” Natasha called out. “No damaging the goods.”

“I didn’t mean-” Steve reached his hands towards Bucky then thought better of it.    

Bucky rubbed his chest, smiling ruefully. “Don’t mind her. She’s just trying to get a rise out of you.”

“I’d say Bucky is doing that just fine on his own,” Natasha replied.

Bucky smiled at her but didn’t respond. “Alright, Steve. Let’s start from the beginning.”

Bucky ran him through several sequences of movement first without the staff and then with it. After twenty minutes, Steve's arms were heavy; at an hour, they began to shake. Bucky never wavered, his movements steady and confident. He called Gabe over after a while.

"Now you will teach Gabe what I have taught you," Bucky said to Steve.

"Any excuse to take a break," Steve said, dropping his staff and putting his hands on his knees. "I've worn you out."

Bucky had barely broken a sweat, but he laughed at Steve's joke all the same, and Steve would have punched the air with happiness if he hadn't been so tired.

"Shouldn't we be breaking for lunch soon?" Gabe said. Steve noticed the significant glances between the two of them.

"I'm fine," Steve said, standing up. "Really."

Bucky walked away, calling over his shoulder. "Gabe is right, but I'll let you two decide what to do next." He whistled and caught the attention of the other orclings. "Chow time. Regroup at half-past one."

The orclings grunted their assent. Bucky had worked them all hard that day.

Steve's eyes followed Bucky as he went through the gate and met up with Natasha. Steve turned toward Gabe, not quite meeting his eyes. "They together? Buck and that orc?"

Gabe guffawed. "Bucky's not that lucky. She is quite a looker though, even if she is an orc." He stiffened, as though he hadn't meant to say that last bit out loud.

Steve couldn't turn down an opportunity to tease, not when it seemed to be the language of the orclings. "Not into strong women?"

Gabe narrowed his eyes and held out a threatening finger. "Be careful, or I'll tell Bucky you've been looking at his ass."

Steve picked up his staff. "You wouldn't." He said, half playful, half serious. He hadn’t realized he was being so obvious.

"Spar with me, and I'll decide."

They fought several matches. Gabe won them all, but Steve could see that a week of good food and training had already improved his performance dramatically.

The time flew by. Gabe was more playful than Bucky and more showy with his moves. A couple of times, they descended into laughter instead of continuing the fight.

When Bucky returned to the training yard, he found Steve and Gabe still there, tiredly swatting at one another with the staffs. "I told you to take a break," he said.

"You told us to make our own decision," Steve reminded him.

Bucky pointed at Steve, and Steve thought he seemed pleased. " You are a bad influence." He looked at them both. "Alright, take a break for real this time. Be back before three."

Gabe saluted sloppily, and it made Steve laugh. The two orclings walked toward the mess hall, passing several orcs and orclings headed the opposite direction. They jeered them lightheartedly, and Steve felt warmed by the camaraderie of it.

-----

Joseph was called away from the city that weekend, and he encouraged Steve to spend his leisure time with the orclings. Most of them spent Saturday sleeping off a hangover and the week’s training, but Bucky was available when Steve asked.

It seemed like Bucky was interested in him, but Steve couldn’t be sure. Bucky was so handsome. He hadn’t thought someone could apply that word to an orcling. He had always hated parts of himself: his big hands, pointed teeth, and the greenish tint of his skin. But on Bucky, those things were beautiful, and it made Steve wonder if others might seem him that way, more beauty than beast.

Steve met Bucky at his house. He was getting used the layout of the city, and people were always kind when he got lost.

“I’ll just be a minute,” Bucky said, gesturing for Steve to come in. “I have a couple more things to pack.”

“Are we going on a journey?”

Bucky laughed. “Not too far. I just prefer to be prepared. Make yourself at home.”

It wasn’t Steve’s first time in Bucky’s house, but this time he let himself look around. Bucky had several full bookcases, but it was the tapestry that drew his eyes. The same bold colors as the ones in the castle, but this one depicted three red foxes, curled together in a nest. It was warm and comforting. Steve touched in, enjoying the soft fabric, the well-stitched lines.

Bucky re-entered the room and stopped abruptly.

“It’s beautiful,” Steve said. “Is it the same artist as made the ones in the castle?”

“Aye,” Bucky said, looking at the tapestry as if it might speak to him. “My mother. Joseph let me have this one to repay for saving his life.”

“A life for a tapestry?”

“Seems like a fair trade to me,” Bucky said softly. He cleared his throat and handed Steve a few rolls of parchment and some charcoal pencils. “I thought you might like these.” When Steve didn’t respond, Bucky hurried to continue. “You’re always running your fingers along pretty things, tracing the lines. I just thought, maybe you would like to sketch. I mean, I can teach you.”

Steve reached tentatively for the papers, careful not to crease them. Most people saw him for as a nuisance at best, a weapon at worst. Even his own father had been quick to recruit him into his army. But Bucky had seen more.

Bucky looked worriedly at him. “Of course, if you’d rather,” he reached to take the paper back and Steve instinctively pulled it to his chest. Bucky smiled at him, a small and private thing.  

“Thanks, Buck,” Steve said. “I, uh, I’d like to learn. I used to draw when I was a child.”

Bucky looked at his feet, clearly pleased with Steve’s reaction and trying to contain himself. “Great. I mean, you’ll probably pick it up just fine on your own.”

“That sounds great.”

They walked together down to the river. Something had shifted for them in a way that was new and fragile, and Steve found himself not wanting to break the silence. It felt like one of the hand-woven scarves his mother used to make, where Steve would have to stay just so while she was weaving or all the stitches would fall down into a puddle.

Bucky selected a shaded spot for them along the river underneath a large tree. He had brought a blanket with him, and Steve hadn’t noticed, he had been so preoccupied with holding onto the paper.

When Steve was very young and people had still been willing to hire Sarah as a healer, she had bought him pieces of thin parchment to draw on. But they had lived leanly for so many years, paper for anything beyond his studies seemed an indulgence. Steve had drawn in the margins of his papers and in the fronts and backs of all his books until a teacher had chided him. Sarah had been surprisingly insistent that he continue drawing, had even told his teacher that Steve could draw on anything that was his, but the damage was done. Steve didn’t want another reason to stick out.

“So, the first thing I do is sketch out the shapes for all of the scene,” Bucky said. “And then I like to work on each piece one by one, but you can do it any way you like. I mean, I’m not that gifted, but it helps me relax.”

“Maybe we could just draw together?” Steve said.

Bucky looked relieved. “Good. I oversold myself a bit on my teaching skills.”

They settled in next to each other. Bucky brought out a small leather-bound book and began sketching the scene. He told Steve he liked to watch the river. “I think about where it must go, the journeys of a single drop of water. What it must be like to live somewhere far away from here.”

“Do you not like it here?” Steve asked.

“Here has some advantages,” Bucky said, leaning against Steve a little. “I like sitting by the river with you. This moment, yes. But being here? I don’t know.”

“I like it here, so far,” Steve said. “I eat meals with my father, I have friends and enough food. It’s more than most have.”

Bucky smiled at him sadly. “I’m glad you are happy here, Steve. I know Joseph missed you.”

Talking about Joseph brought something heavy into the air, and Steve didn’t like how it shifted things between them. He struggled for something to say, and instead went back to sketching. Another hour passed, Bucky had closed his eyes and rested against the tree, while Steve felt himself a man possessed, like years of not drawing had created a deep hole, and he had to fill it with his sketches.

Bucky began to snore lightly, and Steve elbowed him to wake him.

“No need to jab me in my sleep,” Bucky said with a yawn. He nodded at Steve’s paper. “Can I see?”

“It’s not very good,” Steve said.

Bucky picked up his own drawing and showed it to Steve. He was quite skilled, and Steve could feel the energy of the ripples of water in Bucky’s sketch. “It’s not about being good at something, Steve. Just being more than a fighter. We’re more than that. All the orclings.”

Steve felt he was missing some part of what Bucky was saying, at least the urgency of it. He showed Bucky his own drawing, taken from a broader perspective, the mountains in the distance and the river winding its way towards them. Steve felt it was clumsily done, but judging by Bucky’s low whistle, he didn’t seem to agree.

The sound drew Steve’s eyes to Bucky’s plush lips. He wanted to draw Bucky in this moment—his relaxed posture, the faint protrusion of his fangs, the green tinted skin that looked so lovely against the blue sky.

“What are you looking at me like that for?” Bucky said, cheeks darkening.

Steve wasn’t ready to reveal himself just yet. “You’ve got a little grass stuck to your face.”  

Bucky barked a laugh and stood up. “You’re a terrible liar, Steve. Come, the Commandos no doubt expect us for dinner, and the day grows late.”

Steve stood up beside him, very close. The air seemed charged around them again, and Steve wanted to kiss Bucky, to show his gratitude for a simple time together. But Bucky’s ease had faded, and he looked torn between wanting to step closer and head back to the barracks. Steve decided to make things easy for him. There was no need to rush. He and Bucky had all the time in the world.

“Thanks for today, Buck,” Steve said, turning towards the path.

“Anything for you, Steve,” Bucky replied, falling into step beside him.



Chapter Text

Joseph had killed for Steve without hesitation, had missed him like the loss of a limb, and had wept after each pretender was exposed and destroyed. But he found himself at a loss for how to be reunited with Steve; he struggled to open his heart.

Bucky’s reports on Steve had been positive. His son was hardworking and well-liked by the orclings. In time, he could become a worthy successor to Joseph’s command. And yet, Joseph kept coming up with reasons to avoid spending time with him.

Their meals together were stiff and formal. Joseph found himself relaxing in Steve’s presence, warmed by his son’s good heart, only to be struck by fear and withdraw again.  

“Thank you for the clothes,” Steve said that night over dinner. He was wearing the outfit Joseph had bought for him, down to the delicate blue earrings that covered the top his ears. Joseph wasn’t one to give gifts to his soldiers. He expected their loyalty, demanded it even. But for his son, there were so many things he had wanted to give. Now, at least, he could shower Steve with things. It filled him with pride to see his son well cared for.

“The old ones were too small for you and would have burst once we fattened you up. Besides,” Joseph grinned in spite of himself, feeling loose, playful, “I can’t have you stealing the orclings clothes forever.”

Steve’s eyes widened. “They let me—” he stopped, realizing Joseph was teasing him and smiled. “I suppose I’ll have to give them back one of these days.”

Joseph shrugged. It didn’t bother him one way or the other. “I’ve arranged for you to meet with the castle tailor the day after tomorrow to take your measurements. I’m pleased these clothes fit. I had Bucky guess your size.”

“Bucky picked these out?”

Perhaps it was odd of him to rely on Bucky for this task, Joseph thought, better suited to a servant, but there was no one he trusted more. “Indeed. He has an eye for color, like his mother.”

Steve looked even more pleased, looking down in wonder. “Her name’s Winifred, right?”

“Did he speak of her?”

“Nothing of consequence,” Steve said with a shrug. “Just the same thing you said, that she makes tapestries. I saw one in his house.”

“Oh?”

Steve blushed heavily, and Joseph busied himself with getting settled in his seat to keep himself from laughing. Bucky was handsome, and many orcs, orclings, and humans had competed for his affections. He hadn’t taken a lover, that Joseph was aware of, and it wasn’t the type of thing they would hide from one another.

“You said I should spend time with the orclings, so I asked him if he wanted to.” Steve scratched the back of his neck, clearly wanting to keep some details to himself. “We just sat by the river.”

Joseph gave him an unimpressed look. “That sounds dull.”

“Well, I was pretty tired from a week of training.”

Joseph chuckled and decided not to press. He remembered not wanting to tell his father about the young women he bedded, so he supposed he couldn’t blame Steve for it either. “Keeping secrets already?”

Steve’s flush darkened. “It’s nothing. I mean, he is quite handsome. But…” He looked like he might fall over with relief when the servants came in with the food.

“Tell me,” Joseph said as he cut the roast boar, “how are you liking training with the orclings?”

Steve filled his plate with roasted vegetables and falla root while he waited for Joseph to finish with the meat. He was putting on weight already, and it made Joseph’s chest tight with shame and fury to think of Steve going hungry all those years.

“I like them all. And I’m learning quickly, I think. They’re good teachers, and they don’t go to easy on me. And, you know, we laugh together a lot.”

“Oh?”

“Well, Dum Dum fell on a root, and I thought it was part of a training drill…” Steve tried to explain but seemed to understand the story wasn’t translating. “I mean, there are always things to laugh about with them.”

Joseph felt pleased that the orclings had accepted his son so readily, although unsurprised. The orclings had always been loyal to him, devoted in a way the orcs weren’t. They were getting stiffer and more distant, but loyal all the same.

“Very good. Just remember, an orc’s loyalty is to himself first, his king second, and his unit third.”

“And to his family?” Steve asked. His voice sounded small, unsure.

“Family is another thing altogether,” Joseph said. It was hard, hard to reach out, but he did and squeezed Steve’s hand. Steve’s answering smile was bright enough to light up the whole room. Gods, but it would hurt to disappoint him.

“I was wondering,” Steve said, apparently buoyed up by their conversation, “if we might spend some time together, not just eating, I mean. Since I won’t be training tomorrow…”

It was a fair request. Steve wasn’t an imposter, Joseph had known that immediately, but this week had only strengthened his conviction. And if his son had been planning on killing him, he would have gotten to it by now. It might be time to risk a little something.

“We could go riding?” Joseph said. It came out like a question and Joseph winced internally. He was the powerful general of the Southern orc contingent, not a young one asking for someone’s hand at a dance.

“I’d like that,” Steve said.

They ate their meal in peace. Steve had the human habit of talking during meals, as did all the orclings, but he seemed content to relax tonight. It allowed Joseph to focus on his own food, something he had missed since Steve’s arrival. No poison that he could discern, though he had long trained himself to be immune to most substances. Steve wouldn’t be immune, he realized with a pang. Perhaps he should hire another food tester.  

“Do you play parnak?” Steve asked between bites, apparently still in that habit of talking after all.

“No, but I play two-handed speckle.” Steve looked disappointed, and Joseph could crush a man’s heart in his hand, but he hated to let down his son. “Perhaps you could teach me after dinner?”

Steve smiled brightly, and Joseph knew he was now more vulnerable than ever before.

-------

Joseph, it turned out, was a brilliant card player. He mastered parnak in no time, while Steve struggled to capture the basics of speckle. It didn't matter. Joseph kicked his foot lightly during the game, teasing and playful, and it was everything Steve had hoped for.

"Are you sure that's the card you want to play?" Joseph said with a glint in his eye. They had relocated to Joseph’s chambers for privacy and played by firelight.

Steve hesitated. "What are you up to?"

Joseph restrained his laugh. "Just a bit of fatherly advice."

Steve didn't change his play, and Joseph beat him handily in two turns. Groaning, Steve gathered up the cards and shuffled them for another match.  

"A bit more fatherly advice, if I may," Joseph said.

"In trade."

Joseph raised an eyebrow. "Speak plainly, Steve."

"I mean, I'll hear your advice in trade for an answer to a question."

Joseph studied him for a minute and seemed to find this development interesting. "Alright then. Advice first: You favor bold moves and short strategy. Learn to think several moves ahead, to anticipate your opponent’s choices. Victory requires careful planning and patience. Now,” he leaned back, looking uncomfortable, “what's your question?"

Steve shuffled the cards again, feeling restless and unsure of himself. He didn't want to disrupt his fragile happiness. “I don’t mean to—”

“Son,” Joseph said softly, “you may ask me anything. I can’t promise the answer will be easy, but you can always ask.”  

Steve shuffled the cards a few times, weighing up the risks. Finally, he asked, "Why did you never come for me?"

Joseph stood and walked to a window, looking out into the darkness. He was quiet several torturous minutes before he said, "It would have broken your mother's heart."

It couldn’t be the whole truth, and if it was, it made Steve resentful towards Sarah all over again. “I was more burden to her than anything,” he said, trying not to sound too bitter about it.

Joseph turned from the window and studied Steve. In the flickering light, his stern features looked terrifying. "I'll hear no untoward words about your mother. She is kind and gentle a soul as walked the earth."

"At one point, perhaps." Steve thought of Sarah as tired, more than anything. Fragile, too, holding everything together with pieces of thread.

"What have the humans done to her that she's changed so?"

Steve grimaced. His relationship with Sarah was a slowly healing wound, and he didn’t like to pull at the edges of the scab. "Her parents won't speak to her anymore. Even when we were very hungry, they wouldn't give us food. Nor did they speak out when I was cast from the town. The women pity her, but she has no friends. No one will hire her for more than piecework."

"She wouldn't come with me," Joseph said wearily. "I've never begged a living being in my life before or since, but I begged her to come with me. She said she wanted to live in that wretched cottage."

Steve's shoulders slumped. "She told me she wanted to die there. I asked her to come with me, as well."

Joseph stepped away from the window and cautiously drew Steve into his arms. It was everything Steve had been wanting all week. "You are a loyal son," Joseph said against his neck. He released Steve but kept his hands on his shoulders. "That you would try to free her from that prison after she had been unkind to you is commendable.”

Steve squirmed, and Joseph dropped his hands. For all his complaints about his mother, somehow hearing someone else criticize her made him feel protective and defensive. ”She wasn't unkind. She was just..." desperate, his mind supplied, heartbroken, "very sad. She didn't have much room for love."

"Maybe if we go for her together, she will change her mind," Joseph said wistfully. "I'd give half my gold to have her with me."

"You really loved her," Steve said. "I always knew it, but..."

"Yes. Perhaps it is a shame to have loved a human woman so completely, but who is there to judge me?” He cleared his throat. ”This is enough for tonight. Come to breakfast ready to go riding.” Joseph seemed distant again, as though their conversation had exhausted him.

“Peaceful slumber,” Steve said and left the room.

-----

Steve awoke the next morning practically giddy. He and his father were going on a ride. He wanted to do the types of things village boys did with their fathers, but faced with the reality, he struggled not to have too large of expectations.

He dressed in the clothes he had trained in and met Joseph in the dining hall for breakfast. Joseph was wearing leather riding pants and a wellfitting white collared shirt. He looked every bit the regal orc lord, and Steve felt proud to be associated with him.

“We’ll fit you with something better for riding soon,” Joseph said, appraising his appearance. “Tell me, have you ridden hound or only horses?”

“Only horses,” Steve replied. He hadn’t even known people rode hounds, especially mighty orcs.

Joseph seemed to pick up on his surprise and smiled softly at him. “I do appreciate getting to show you new things. It is as close to a fatherly task as I can do. Come,” he tossed Steve a roll, “the kitchen has packed us breakfast, but I’d have you used to the hounds before you put a full meal in your stomach.”

They walked together down to the stables. There were several horses there, finely cared for with manes intricately braided.

“I did love riding horses as a child,” Joseph said, “but adult orcs are too heavy for most horses. These are for the orclings.” Farther back in the stables were four large dogs, thick and muscular, broader by half than a horse and about a head taller. Their ears were shorter than a typical hound but still soft and floppy. Joseph reached for one that nuzzled into his palm affectionately.

“This is Ella,” Joseph said. “Only I ride her, though I may make an exception for you if you prove worthy. You will be riding Ekin,” he pointed to a younger hound.

Steve put his hand to the hound’s nose to sniff, and Ekin wagged his tail lazily. “Nice to meet you,” Steve said. Ekin licked his hand, and Steve reached back to scratch behind his ears.

Joseph opened the gate to the stable, and Ella followed him down the aisle. Steve followed suit, and Ekin bounded out, happily romping alongside Ella. Joseph pulled down two huge leather saddles and began attaching them to the dogs. Ekin’s tail wagged his whole body, and Steve had to help Joseph saddle the excited pup.

“He’ll settle down once we’re riding,” Joseph reassured him. “Of course, a hound won’t accept a bit as a horse will, but they respond readily to verbal commands and taps on their necks. If you need them to stop suddenly, squeeze your legs together carefully.”

Joseph mounted Ella smoothly and waited for Steve to do the same. Even with the saddle on, Ekin seemed content to sniff all of the corners of the stable before coming back and nosing at Steve’s pocket.

“Bucky’s been too soft with that one,” Joseph sighed. “He’s always bringing him treats.”

“This is Bucky’s hound?” Steve said, pushing Ekin’s snout away from his pocket gently.

“They are trained to have multiple handlers, but Bucky is partial to this one. I might let you claim him, but you’ll have to break his bad habits.”

Ekin gave up on his search for treats and gamely let him climb on. Steve wobbled a bit as he got his feet in the stirrups.

“The key is to move with your animal instead of against it,” Joseph said. “Our commands are simple: fast, halt, left, right, and slow.”

They rode out into the countryside. Steve quickly got the hang of riding the hound, who seemed less of a puppy once he was on a mission. He responded to Steve’s commands immediately, faster even than Ella obeyed Joseph, his tail wagging when Steve praised him.

They arrived at a large hill overlooking a pond. Both men dismounted busied themselves with taking the saddles off Ella and Ekin. Steve spread out a blanket and pulled out the breakfasts packed by the servants. Ekin was on him immediately, pressing his cold nose into Steve’s hand.

“Maybe just a little treat,” Steve said, nuzzling his face into Ekin’s downy fur.

Joseph huffed. “You’re as soft as Bucky.” He pushed the hound’s snout away. “Go explore with Ella. Get.”

Ekin threw Steve a last pitiful look before lumbering off after the other hound.

“It must be his human side,” Joseph continued. “Bucky follows my every command, but I’ve never gotten him to be firm with the hounds.” He pulled out a knife and a small wooden board and began cutting the tarlip forcefully, the juice spilling out the sides.

“What’s so bad about being soft?” Steve said. It was hard to ask, his father’s anger made him want to curl up and hide.

Joseph stilled his knife. “It is an understandable impulse,” he said. “But you can’t be soft and a great leader. At least, not without threats looming on all sides.” He wiped his hands on a rag and set the knife down. “Don’t misread me. I’m frustrated with myself more than him.”

“But I was born in love. If you weren’t a little soft, I wouldn’t be here.” Joseph looked at him warily, and it struck Steve that his father might not want him around. “I mean, you do want me with you, don’t you?”

Joseph reached out and clumsily patted Steve on the shoulder. “Of course. It’s only that my position is…precarious in the kingdom. The king is mad with power and hungry for conquest. I’ve managed to hold him off on further incursions on human land, but it has made me some enemies. They see me as soft, a human lover.” He smiled weakly. “Not altogether false.”

Steve felt his heart swell with pride. Joseph was a good orc unwilling to kill humans senselessly.

“It’s why I can’t discipline Bucky for being soft with the hounds. How can I be hard on him for something I do myself?” Joseph handed Steve a piece of tarlip. “Suck the meat but don’t eat the skin.”

Steve bit into the tarlip. It was tangy and sweet, bursting with juice and like nothing he’d ever tasted. He had to close his eyes to savor the sweetness of it. “I like the soft parts of you,” he said at length. “You’re easier to talk to like this.”

Joseph hadn’t cut up any more food, apparently content to watch Steve eat. “We can’t talk freely in the castle. There are spies, mine and the king’s, always listening and looking for an advantage. But out here,” he gestured expansively at the hillside and lake below, “you are free to ask me what you will.”

“I’m just happy to be here with you,” Steve said. Joseph handed him another piece of tarlip, and Steve ate the sticky sweetness immediately.

“If I had been stronger, you might have found a father without enemies.”  

Steve knew the moment was important, that he should respond in a serious way, but he felt so glad that he and Joseph were getting closer, that he couldn’t help smiling, even if it was incongruous with his words. “It doesn’t matter that you have enemies. I’ve had enemies all my life. We will face them together.”

Joseph’s answering smile was warm. “I know you don’t want to hear this, but there’s so much of your mother in you. Bright spirit, hopeful. At least she gave you that that.”

Joseph cut up the rest of the food, always giving Steve the first bite of everything. After they were sated, they lay in the sun until Steve felt sweat pricking at his skin. “Care for a swim?”

In lieu of answering, Joseph pulled off his shirt and shoes, raced to the water, and plunged in. Steve stumbled in his hurry to get up but was soon hot on his heels and diving in after him. Joseph came up for air with a resounding whoop. He looked younger, freer than Steve had seen him, and Steve wished they could just stay in that moment—the warm sun, the cold water, green grass on all sides.

They swam for a while before returning to their blanket to dry out. Eventually, the sun began to dim.  

“I have business to attend to before nightfall,” Joseph said, “but the servants will prepare whatever you would like for dinner or you may eat with the orclings.” He paused, then put both hands on Steve’s face, framing his cheeks. “This was a good day, son.”

“The best,” Steve replied, heart fit to burst with happiness.

-------

Steve continued in this pattern for several weeks, training during the day and dining with his father at night. On the weekends, he spent time with Bucky and went on rides with his father. He had never felt more at home. The orclings accepted him, and he got to explore his body’s strength without being afraid that he was going to hurt someone.

It wasn’t all perfect. Joseph seemed to be keeping secrets from him, and it seemed like there was some strain in the relationship between his father and the orclings. He tried not to think about it too much, hoping in time Joseph would trust him and things would smooth out between his father and the Howling Commandos.

“I’m headed to the tavern,” Brock told him one day after training. “Fancy a drink?”

Brock seemed nice enough, but the Howling Commandos seemed to hold him at arm’s length. Steve had been an outsider all his life, and it made him sad to see Brock treated that way.

“Sure,” Steve said easily. “Did you invite anyone else?”

“Yeah.” Brock shrugged. “But I doubt they’ll come.”

The two orclings fell into step as they made their way through the city. Steve still hadn’t explored the city much, but Brock seemed to know where they were going. He took them to Shield Tavern, a small establishment that was dimly lit and smokey on the inside. Brock ordered the house ale for both of them and picked out a table in the corner.

After ten minutes of waiting, it became clear to both of them that no one would be joining them. “I’m sorry,” Brock said. “They probably would have come if they’d know you were here. But they’ve never really liked me, no matter what I do.”

It made Steve feel uncomfortable, disloyal somehow to discuss it, but Brock was clearly hurting. “I’m sorry to hear that. I felt like that a lot growing up.”

Brock gave Steve a tight-lipped smile. “Here’s to outsiders,” he said, holding his glass aloft.

“Here, here,” Steve replied, clinking their glasses together.

“So,” Brock asked, leaning forward in his seat, “what was it like being raised by humans?”

Steve took a deep breath and released it, like they did in their meditation exercises on the training ground. All of the orclings were curious about his past, and he supposed he’d have to get used to talking about it. “Like I said, they never accepted me. I got beat up a lot until I grew big. And the elders never gave me a name.”

Brock took a swig of his beer. “Humans,” he said with disgust. “You and me, we get it. The others are naive, human lovers. The humans don’t want us. They hate us.”

“A lot of them, anyway. Some are okay,” Steve said, thinking of the kindness of Peggy and Angie.

“Sure,” Brock said, twisting his napkin in his hands. “Individually they’re not so bad. As a group—”

“We don’t have to talk about it if it upsets you.”

Brock dropped the napkin and took a shaky breath. “No, it’s nice to talk to someone who understands. My mother tried to take me to her village when I was a baby, but they refused to let me in, so she just abandoned me, her own child. Can you believe that?”  

It made Steve appreciate Sarah. For all her faults, she stood by him, defended him, as best she could. It would have been easier for her if she had abandoned him, and Steve felt a pang of guilt for not appreciating her sacrifice. “I’m sorry.”

Brock shrugged, still tense. “Worked out for the best. An orc couple took me in and raised me.”

“I’m glad.”

Brock nodded in approval. “Rollins, one of the orcs, he’s like my brother. We were raised together.”

“Is that why you train with them?”

Brock tilted his head in thought. It was the same thing Bucky did, but somehow on Brock it seemed like an affectation. “Officially, I’m a liaison, like Natasha is with the Howling Commandos. Unofficially, the orclings don’t want me around. Anyway,” he forced a smile, “you want some food?”

Some of the foods on the menu were unfamiliar, and Steve decided to go with the safe choice of roasted pheasant and leek soup. He and Brock talked while waiting for their food to arrive and fell into a companionable silence during their meal.

Once they were finished, Brock spoke. “Can I give you some unsolicited advice?”

“Sure,” Steve said, stiffening. Advice from his father was one thing, but he barely knew Brock. “As long as I’m not required to take it.”

“Not at all. It’s just what I wish someone had told me when I was younger.” He leaned in and lowered his voice. “Be careful with Bucky. He may seem like your friend, but he only cares about maintaining rank and position as favored son. Now that Joseph’s actual son is here, Bucky’s position is threatened, and that makes him dangerous.”

“That doesn’t seem like him,” Steve said, trying to keep his voice calm. “He’s been nothing but kind to me.”

Brock shrugged. “You’re useful to him, and he needs to curry your favor. You’re a good guy, Steve. Everyone can see it. And sometimes people will try to take advantage of that.”

“I don’t know…”

Brock put his hands up. “Like I said, unsolicited advice. Feel free to ignore me. I’m just trying to look out for you.”

It didn’t seem right to Steve, but then he didn’t want to prolong the conversation, and he did feel sorry for Brock. “Thanks, but I can figure things out on my own.”

“He’ll try to turn you against your father, mark my words.”

“Stop it,” Steve snapped. His pity only extended so far. “Bucky is my friend.”

“Oh is that all?” Brock said, all faux innocence.

Steve stood up and threw some money on the table. “I’ll be going now.”

Brock sighed. “Fine. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Steve’s hurried through the bar, head spinning. He was angry at Brock for his accusations, but from a certain slant, they did make sense. Joseph described Bucky as his most loyal soldier, but Bucky seemed distrusting of Joseph. There was something going on between them.  In his haste, Steve ran into someone outside nearly knocking them over.

“Gods, Steve,” Bucky exclaimed, recovering his balance. “Where are you off to in such a hurry?”

Steve’s first impulse was to apologize, but then he wondered why Bucky was in this tavern of all places. He stepped in close, feeling crazed and confused. “You following me?”

Bucky stepped backward, his back hitting the wall. He looked like Steve had struck him. “Of course not. I’m meeting someone here.”

“Brock?”

Bucky narrowed his eyes. “Is that who’s got you like this? What did he tell you?”

Steve ran his hands through his hair, pulling the strands to ground himself. “He’s got me all spun around.” He reached for Bucky awkwardly landing a hand on his shoulder. “Everything is going well. I’m happy here! I don’t know why I let him get to me.”

Bucky looked torn, like he was on the edge of saying something more. He squeezed Steve’s hand where it was on his shoulder. “I’m glad you’re happy Steve.”

Bucky’s hand was warm and surprisingly soft. Steve wanted to step closer, to press their bodies together and let Bucky comfort him.

“My mother used to call me her clever fox,” Bucky said tentatively.

It felt to Steve like an odd change of subject, but Bucky rarely said things without purpose. “Why?”

“Because I asked lots of questions. She told me to be careful about it, but that clever foxes know to never stop asking questions. It was good advice.” He released Steve’s hand and took a step back. “I have to go.”

“Wait, Buck,” Steve closed the distance between them again.  Bucky had been so good to him, and he couldn’t leave it like this. “I’m sorry I—”

“You have nothing to apologize for,” Bucky said quietly. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Steve nodded and returned to the castle wishing Bucky was beside him.

Chapter Text

Joseph sent Bucky and Steve to gather the annual tribute from the goblins. It made Steve nervous to return to them, but he didn’t feel he could tell his father the cause. His father had fought off the trolls invading goblin lands. Steve wanted to make his father proud, to live up to his peacekeeping legacy, and he didn’t think his tale of fleeing in the night and crawling through tunnels would impress him.

Bucky arrived at Steve’s door dressed in a brilliant blue uniform atop his leather armor. On his chest was the crest of the King: ice blue fire over water. His hair was tied back neatly and well oiled. He took Steve’s breath away.

Bucky held out a package, mindless of Steve’s surprise. “Joseph sends the livery of the King and bids you wear it on our journey.”

Steve welcomed Bucky into his room and soon began to wrestle his way into the richly colored fabric. Bucky showed him how to tighten it around the neck and cinch the waist so it did not flap on the sides.

Bucky seemed distant and preoccupied. Steve had been afraid that Bucky would be angry with him after the conversation at the tavern, but he seemed content to let matters slide. Bucky had already packed their traveling supplies in four saddlebags, which he and Steve picked up on their way to the stables.

“We’ll be taking the horses,” Bucky said as they walked. “Other races are intimidated by the hounds, and this is a mission of peace.”

Steve nodded. He had grown fond of his hound but enjoyed riding horses, as well.

“Tell me,” Steve said, as they saddled the horses. “Is something wrong?”

Bucky did not look him in the eyes and busied himself fastening buckles and loading their food. “I’m worried about our journey. Something doesn’t feel right.”

Steve cleared his throat. “Is it me? Because of what I said?”

Bucky’s posture immediately softened, and he hurried around the horses and put both hands on Steve’s shoulders. “Of course not. I’m sorry. It’s something I can’t put my finger on.”

“I’m glad you are here,” Steve said softly.

Bucky patted Steve’s shoulder. “I’m glad you’re coming, too, but don’t let it go to your head.”

Steve nodded, and Bucky gave him a small smile. It felt like the air between them was lighter, the way easier. They mounted their horses and rode out of the city.  Bucky looked so handsome on his horse, every bit the dashing orcling sergeant.

“Who’s in charge while you are gone?” Steve asked.

Bucky chuckled. “No one’s really ever in charge of the orclings. That would be like leading a herd of loth cats. But Gabe runs point in my absence.”

The route back to the goblins was clear along the river, and Steve was surprised to see Bucky take a path through the forest. “Don’t you fear for bandits?”

Bucky shrugged. “Few would dare attack while we wear the crest of the King. Besides, to go around adds several days to our journey.”

“Or longer on foot. That’s how I came.”

”You came by the flat path?” Bucky said.

“Aye,” Steve replied. “More farmers along the way, a couple even willing to trade work for food.”

“Clever. What’s it like, working on a farm?”

“Not as exciting as learning to fight in the training grounds. Mostly boring work. Why,” Steve’s tone turned teasing, “fancy yourself a gentleman farmer?”

Bucky’s face gave away nothing, and Steve instantly regretted his teasing tone. At length, Bucky said, “It would be good to be useful for something more than fighting and political intrigue.” He sighed. “I’m sorry to turn serious again. Let’s talk about something lighter. Tell me…what games did you play as a child?”

Steve didn’t think it could be that interesting what a simple village boy did as a child, but Bucky listened avidly as Steve spoke about village life. They talked like this for several hours until they came to a clearing with a small stream.

“We’ll rest the horses and prepare a quick meal,” Bucky said. He led his horse to the stream, speaking in gentle tones to her and stroking her mane. It made Steve want to melt with affection.

Bucky brought out olives, tatarin crackers, and boiled pork rinds. They soaked their feet in the water downstream of the horses and ate together.

“Oh, I wish I could live out here and never go back,” Bucky said.

Steve laughed. “I have a hard time picturing you as a roughened mountain man.”

Bucky splashed him, wetting Steve’s uniform. “You don’t know me. I may have many hidden talents.”

“Yeah? Like what?”

“I’ll have you know,” Bucky said primly, “that I’m quite a gifted dancer.”

Steve grinned. He would love to see Bucky dance, but he couldn’t help teasing him about it a little. “Not helping you establish a mountain man image.”

“Jerk!” Bucky splashed him again, and Steve immediately retaliated until they were both soaked through. Once they were done laughing, Bucky stripped out of his clothes, save his underthings, and laid them flat on the rocks to dry.

Steve tried not to stare and busied himself with stripping off his armor, as well. “It was too hot to wear all that anyway,” he said.

“I only mean to say,” Bucky said, “with the dancing, that I’m more than a weapon.”

“I know that, Buck,” Steve said softly. Bucky didn’t reply, but Steve caught a small smile on his lips.

Steve let his mind wander, imagining how his life would have been different if he had grown up here with Bucky and his father. To have had a best friend, instead of being reviled by others. To have had the love of his father, perhaps his mother would have been different, too.

"I wish I had grown up here," Steve said.  

Bucky huffed a wry laugh, and there was something Steve didn't like to it. "I'm sure your mother doesn't." He pulled up a piece of grass and tied it into small knots. "What's she like, your mother?"

Steve worried his lip. "She is afraid all of the time. And, even though the people there have no fondness for her, she won't leave the village. She begged me not to go."

Bucky nodded, studying the flowing water and not Steve's face. "It must have been hard." He plucked another piece of grass. "Still, she was brave, to stay like that, for you."

Steve didn't think he'd characterize it as brave, but some part of him missed his mother, and he hated to speak poorly of her, no matter her coldness. It would have rankled him, when he first arrived, to have someone speak so positively of Sarah, but now, he missed her. “What are your parents like?”

“I never knew my father,” Bucky replied. “My mother is brilliant, funny, warm. I have not seen her in many years.”

“Why not?”

Bucky plucked another piece of grass and tore it into small pieces. “It is the custom of the orcs for those who are to be soldiers to begin their training at age eight.”

“And you have not visited her since then?” It was odd for Bucky to care for her so deeply but not visit her.

Bucky's shoulders drooped a little. He didn't respond for a long while, looking out on the city. Usually, he was at ease on their weekend excursions, but today he seemed restless. "What do you suppose makes someone willing to endure years of ridicule and isolation? Willing to never find love, face daily rejection, all for her son?"

Steve felt a flare of anger in his heart. He had grown to have compassion on Sarah, but Bucky sounded as though he admired her. “My mother, no curse be upon me for saying it, is cowardly. Too afraid of the people of the village to risk following my father and fighting for their love."

Bucky didn't take the bait and respond to Steve's anger. "Fear does not make one a coward. I fear for my mother daily. It is only for us to know when to follow our fears and the wisdom they bring and when to fight them."

Bucky stood and dusted off his pants. He seemed distant from Steve, disappointed.  

“Don’t go, please,” Steve said, reaching a hand out. “I don’t mean to get angry. I, perhaps I am too hard on her.”

Bucky allowed himself to be pulled back to the blanket. He bent his legs and rested his head against his knees.

Tentatively, Steve began stroking his back. Bucky relaxed into the touch and scooted closer. “You seem upset,” Steve said. “Is it something I said?”

“It’s not you,” Bucky said. “I just get tired of it all sometimes.” He lifted his head, expression earnest. “You make it better, Steve, not worse.”

Steve wanted to lean forward, press their lips together and show Bucky all the ways his life was better because of him. But Bucky seemed exhausted. “Do you want to go keep going?”

“Maybe I could just rest a bit.”

“Here,” Steve said, patting his leg. “I’ll keep watch.”

Bucky rested his head in Steve’s lap cautiously but soon went boneless as Steve ran his fingers through Bucky’s long hair. He fell asleep moments later.

---

They laid out in the sun for an hour before Bucky announced the day was passing too quickly, and they must hurry if they were to make it to camp before nightfall. Steve elected to wear a simple linen shirt over his pants in lieu of armor, and Bucky followed suit.

Their afternoon ride was quiet and peaceful, occasional talks lapsing into long periods of companionable silence. Bucky’s mind seemed far away, but he gave Steve shy smiles whenever their eyes caught. After several hours, they reached another small clearing, this one halfway up the mountain with a spring nearby.

Steve took care of the horses while Bucky readied their tent. They prepared the meal together, moving as smoothly as they did on the training field.

“Are we splitting the night into watches?” Steve asked after dinner.

Bucky fluffed the blankets in their tent. “If I die, I’d prefer to die well rested.” At Steve’s unimpressed look, Bucky laughed. “I’ve brought bell alarms to alert us to anyone approaching, but I’ll warn you that a moose is more likely to set them off than humans or goblins.”

Steve rolled his eyes and wisely chose not to tell Bucky about the time he had his food stolen by a raccoon. “Come on, punk. I’ll help you set them up.”

They jostled one another, laughing and making enough commotion to alert anyone nearby to their presence, but Steve didn’t care. It felt good to be lighthearted together. The stayed by the fire until the full moon rose, and then made their way to bed.

That night in their tent, Steve found himself distracted by Bucky’s proximity. The intrigue of Crested City seemed far away. They were just two men enjoying each other’s company, and Steve’s mind kept wandering down paths of what if's and why not's.

“If you don’t stop shuffling under your blankets, I’ll make you sleep with the horses,” Bucky said.

Steve froze. He hadn’t realized he was making a racket. “Sorry. My mind’s just running away from me.”

“Worried about the goblins?”

“Not really. I’ve had some dealings with them before.”

“Then what?”

Steve huffed out a breath. “Nothing.”

“It’s not nothing, Steve. You’re shuffling about like an Iberian bear in a cellar.”

Steve groaned. “You! It’s just you. Being this close is very…distracting.”

Bucky was silent a moment before bursting into laughter. Steve kicked him, hoping to land somewhere painful, but it only made Bucky laugh harder.

“What’s so funny, punk?” Steve said. He began to laugh himself, helplessly drawn in by Bucky’s amusement.

“Just you,” Bucky said fondly. “I’ve never met someone so altogether honest. No artifice whatsoever.”

Steve’s cheeks warmed at the compliment, and he was grateful it was too dark in the tent for Bucky to see it. “Happy to oblige.”

Bucky’s laughter died out slowly. Right when Steve thought he had fallen asleep, Bucky rolled over and whispered, “I don’t think it’s a good idea, what you’re thinking about, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think about it, too. I don’t know if that makes it better or worse.”

Steve threw his pillow at Bucky. “Worse. Much worse.”

Bucky deflected the pillow expertly and exploded into laughter again. “Well, if you need to deal with that… frustration, don’t do it in the tent. Find some bushes.”

“Now if I go out to pee, you’re going to think I’m jerking off,” Steve protested.

Bucky snorted. “I was raised with other orclings, most of whom were male. I know the difference between those two sounds. Did your mother never discuss the birds and the bees to you? I’ll have to tell Joseph—”

The upper bell trap rang, and Steve clapped his hand over Bucky’s mouth to silence him. They were quiet for a few achingly long moments listening to the bells, and Steve withdrew his hand.

“I count at least three,” Bucky whispered. “Goblins likely, with no horses.” He crept out of the blankets, picked up a staff, and tossed another to Steve. There was no time for armor.

Bucky moved silently, smooth as silk. He peeked out the tent and quickly re-entered. “They know we know they’re here. Expect a fight immediately. Stay behind me and don’t kill unless it is your last option.”

Steve started to protest, but Bucky seemed to anticipate Steve’s resistance. “I’m your commanding officer, punk. Do as I say.”

Steve begrudgingly nodded. Bucky counted down from three and leaped out of the tent with Steve close on his heels. An arrowed fired right at Bucky’s face, but he managed to knock it out of the way before it reached him. He and Steve dove behind a nearby tree as several more arrows fired.

Bucky picked up one of the arrows and inspected it. “You can still put someone’s eye out with a dull tip!” he yelled. Steve stayed close to the ground, utterly confused about what was happening

“Only if I’m trying to hit you!” someone yelled back.

“I thought you just missed,” Bucky called out.

“I never miss,” someone said, and close.  

Bucky grinned and stood up, and Steve hesitantly did the same. A goblin walked towards them with a cheeky grin and bow over his right shoulder. He startled when he saw Steve’s face, stumbled, and fell to the ground.

Steve hurried over to help him up. “Are you all right?”

Clint rubbed his pointed noise and brushed the dirt off his already messy clothes. “Fine, fine. Just didn’t expect to see you again.”

“You know each other?” Bucky said.

“Well—” Steve started.

“Romantic night in Riverbend,” Clint cut in. “We might have included you if you’d been there at the time.”

Bucky grinned, clearly not buying it. “Natasha would never stand for it.”

“You know Natasha?” Steve said.

“Who do you think accompanied Bucky before you?” Clint said. “Most of the time, anyways.”

“I’m sure she misses you,” Bucky cut in with a grin.

Clint rolled his eyes. “Don’t make me shoot your pretty face. This time I won’t miss.” The two men chuckled.

“What has you prowling up here at night?” Bucky said. “And how did you make me think there were more of you?”

Clint shrugged. “Hoping for a bit of gold or the like, and none of your business.”

Just then they heard more jangling, this time down the trail, and Bucky looked at Clint. “Are there more with you?”

“I’m here alone,” Clint said, drawing an arrow out of his quiver; this one had a sharp tip.

Bucky ushered them all behind tree cover as whoever caught themselves in the traps untangled their horse and rode on. “Who goes there?” he yelled out.

The sigh was loud even from a distance. “I should have known you’d be the one to put up those confounded things.”

Steve couldn’t quite put the name to the voice, but Bucky appeared to. He took a deep breath and came out from behind his cover, motioning for Steve to come with him and Clint to stay put. “Brock? What in the name of the fire dwelling goddess are you doing here?”

“Joseph thought you might benefit from the additional company,” Brock said.

“Did he now?” Bucky said skeptically.

“Indeed,” Brock sniffed. “I have his orders here if you care to read them.” He dismounted his horse and greeted Steve. “Well traveled, Steve. Hope you’ve been treated well.”

“Bucky’s a bit of an ass, but I can handle him,” Steve said with a grin.  

Neither orcling laughed, but Clint snorted from behind his tree. Brock drew his sword immediately. “Who’s there?”

Steve stepped between Clint and Brock. “He’s a friend of mine and no threat.”

“I thought you said you shared a night of passion,” Bucky teased, clearly trying to defuse the situation.

Clint came out of hiding and leaned heavily against Steve’s side. “Jealous, Bucky? It’s not as though you haven’t had your chance.”

“As you can see,” Steve said, trying to be polite, “we have plenty of company, so you aren’t needed. I wouldn’t want to disrupt your training.”

Brock smiled at him, and Steve felt like a mouse caught by a cat, not eaten, just played with. “Thank you for your concern, but my training proceeds apace. Besides,” he eyed Clint’s disheveled appearance with a sneer, “the goblins have become somewhat resistant to paying tribute of late, and I was instructed to ensure they didn’t get creative with their excuses.”

“There’s nothing left,” Clint growled.  

“I’m sure there is something you can find,” Brock said primly.

Bucky put his hands up. “Peace. We will discuss the matter with the Consul when we arrive, and I have been appointed to lead the negotiations.”

“Joseph would like Steve to do it…unless you think he’s not up to the task,” Brock said.

Bucky’s smile was tight-lipped. “Steve has my complete faith. Now, I would very much like to get some rest to prepare for the journey tomorrow.”

Brock pulled the saddlebags off his horse and made to go inside the tent.

“Whoa,” Bucky said. “There’s no room in there for you.”

“Tents can hold three men,” Brock protested.

“My friend is staying with us,” Steve said, only feeling a small twinge of guilt.

“You’ll have to sleep outside,” Bucky said.

“Don’t worry about the mountain lions,” Clint chimed in. “Just pretend to be dead if one sees you, and it’ll leave you alone.”

“That’s bears!” Brock complained.

“Oh, right,” Clint said. “Not sure what to do about the mountain lions.” He went into the tent without another word, Steve sheepishly behind him, and Bucky last with a sloppy salute.

------

They awoke the next morning. Bucky’s hair was a tangled mess and his face was creased from the coarse pillows. Steve had never seen him as less than the calm and perfectly arrayed orcling leader, a sergeant in Joseph’s army, and to see him sleep-tousled and a mess, made something clench in Steve’s chest with longing.

“If you guys are going to kiss, let me out first,” Clint murmured into the pillow.

Bucky threw a blanket at him, and Clint didn’t even bother to fight it.

“I’ll make us some coffee,” Steve said.

“Hold onto him,” Clint said, still with his eyes closed.

“You are a flaming trash pile, my friend,” Bucky said. “I don’t listen to your advice on men.”

“No insults before coffee,” Clint complained. “Not fair.”

Brock seemed a little worse for the wear, and Steve couldn’t help feeling a little satisfied about that. He wasn’t positive that it had been Joseph’s idea for Brock to come, but if it had, well, it bothered him. He didn’t need two chaperones.

Steve made them breakfast while Bucky broke camp and packed up their tent. Clint crawled out at the last minute, complaining about orclings getting in the way of a night’s haul.

“There’s no one up here,” Bucky teased. “Who would you have stolen from?”

Clint eagerly took a cup of coffee from Steve. “I coulda found someone. Besides, Steve talks in his sleep!”

“That was Bucky,” Steve protested.

“I suppose thieving is the only thing your people are good for anymore,” Brock said.

“What do you call what the orcs are doing?” Clint said.

Brock drew his sword immediately. “I’ll not have you impugn my honor or the honor of my General.” It felt like a huge overreaction to Steve. Did Brock think so little of goblins that he would kill one for a minor slight?

Bucky dropped his coffee and jumped between the two of them before Brock could get too close. His sword was in the tent, and Steve didn’t dare to move for it and risk provoking Brock further. “He meant no harm,” Bucky said hands up. “Clint always lets his mouth get ahead of him in the morning.”

Brock touched Bucky’s chest with the tip of his sword. “Who is he to you that you protect him so? That you would choose him over an orc last night and now?”

Bucky knocked Brock’s sword to the side with his hand as casually as though he was moving a branch from a path. “We met when I was Joseph’s sword-bearer after the battle with the trolls. You remember, the one where I sacrificed myself for Joseph?”

Brock sheathed his sword, apparently cowed by Bucky’s relaxed manner. “You were hardly injured,” Brock grumbled.

Bucky shrugged. “Come, Steve is making breakfast.”

“Not until he apologizes.”

Clint picked up his bow with gritted teeth. “I’m not hungry.”

Bucky smiled thinly still not turning his back to Brock. “He meant no offense.”

Clint scoffed behind him.

“You would let the whole world mock us,” Brock said, stepping in close.

“If it kept the peace, yes, I would.”

——-

They left soon after eating. Steve could tell something weighed heavily on Bucky’s mind and Clint’s as well, but there was no place to speak of it without Brock overhearing. Clint and Bucky took turns riding. Clint was surprisingly talented on the horse, and it appeared to love him. He begged off when they took lunch, claiming he had things to attend to, and Bucky insisted he take the horse. Brock was so surprised when he heard, he didn’t protest.  

Once it was the three of them, Steve worried at the storm brewing among them. He attempted small talk throughout the day, but Brock’s responses were cool and clipped, and Bucky seemed unwilling to divulge any information in front of him. What had passed between them, Steve didn’t know, but neither man seemed inclined to share.

“Have you been to Riverbend before?” he asked Brock.

“I accompanied Bucky two years ago,” Brock replied. “Got them to surrender ten rubies. They claimed they had none, but I suspected they had become more clever at hiding them.”

Bucky said nothing but his mood seemed to darken and his posture stiffen on the horse.

“Bucky here was willing to let them give only two cows! But I knew the truth. There’s no way the mines have worn dry; they don’t want to pay their tribute.”

“You two ride on ahead,” Bucky said. “Scout the area.”

Brock and Steve followed his orders and galloped along the trail, leaving Bucky to walk behind them.

“Has he tried to turn you against your father yet?” Brock said dryly. “Because Joseph will be wanting a full accounting on how you do here, and I can’t guarantee that Bucky’s story will be flattering.”

“Well, I suppose it’s a good thing I will have help,” Steve said. He felt that if Brock would just stop needling, things would be fine. “Tell me, what do you have against Bucky?”

“We were never the best of friends, but when we completed this mission together he told Joseph I was too hard on the goblins, which was foolish. Joseph took his side.” He pulled roughly on the bridle, turning his horse to the side so he could stare intently at Steve. “If it were up to people like him, the orcs would never be feared. We would be the laughing stock of all the lands.”

“But you are an orcling, not an orc.”

“I am an orc in my heart,” Brock said, voice catching. “It doesn’t matter what my mother was.”

“I’m sorry,” Steve said. “I-”

“It’s nothing,” Brock said, turning his horse. “Let’s continue on.”

The rest of the day passed thusly. Several times Bucky attempted to talk to Steve privately, but Brock managed to be right there on hovering close enough to tighten Bucky’s lips. They chatted idly but were mostly quiet, even during mealtimes.

“How much farther?” Steve asked that night over dinner.

“It is the custom of the orc,” Brock said long-sufferingly, “to not talk during mealtime. You have human habits.”

“Not everything about humans is bad,” Steve said, finding himself in the odd position of defending them. “Some of them are kind. Two old women took me in and fed me for several days when I was hungry. My mother, well, she’s not perfect, but she was kind.”

Brock rolled his eyes, and Bucky was silent on the matter, although Steve could tell he was listening intently.

“Perhaps,” Brock said, “but I doubt that is enough to save them.”

“What do you mean?”

“Only that there are forces within the orc army that believe humans should be wiped out. To put an end to their hate and wickedness.”

Bucky stood and stretched, letting the moment hold. “A bit odd to justify murder that way, but what would I know?” He walked towards the tent. “I’m going to get an early rest. Today has been long.”

Brock seemed pleased until Steve stood, as well. “Yes, I think I shall, too. Would you mind putting out the fire when you are done?”

Brock frowned but agreed. Steve followed Bucky into the tent and began changing out of his traveling clothes. Bucky, he noticed, had not worn the crest of the King all day.

“Are you going to tell me what’s happening?” Steve whispered.

Bucky glanced towards the entrance of the tent. Brock was not far away. “He’s spoiling for a fight. I’ve sent Clint to warn the goblins.” He leaned close. “There is more to say, but not here. Be careful with Brock. He—”

“He said the same about you.”

Bucky leaned back in surprise and laughed. Steve was pleased he had helped the day’s troubles drop, if only for a moment. “Well, be careful of me, too then,” he said with a wink.

Steve blushed. “Do you think we could, when we get home—”

Bucky took ahold of Steve’s hand and squeezed it. “This isn’t the time.”

Brock’s approached the entrance of the tent, and Bucky dropped Steve’s hand like it was a hot iron.  

—----

They left early the next morning, stopping only for the barest of breakfasts. Their progress was slowed by Bucky being on foot, but he waved Steve off when he offered to trade with him. Brock seemed frustrated with their slow progress.

“I could just ride ahead,” Brock offered.

“Steve has been assigned to conduct the negotiations, you said it yourself,” Bucky reminded him.

“Then Steve and I could ride ahead,” Brock said testily.

“I’d prefer to stay with my commanding officer,” Steve said. He didn’t like to be in the middle of things between them, but he trusted Bucky had a reason for their slow pace.

They arrived in Riverbend late the third day. The guardsman waiting at the gate to greet them. He recognized Steve immediately but said nothing. Bucky greeted them all with warm smiles. They seemed glad to see him and frightened by Brock and Steve.  

“We’ve reserved rooms for you at Yott’s Inn,” the guardsman said. “As well as meals for you, if you require.”  

“Thank you,” Bucky said, bowing his head. “We are grateful for your hospitality.”

The goblin smiled as he walked with them. “We will meet at first light in the grand hall.” His smile dimmed. “Its beauty is lessened of late, but—”

“It will be perfect for our purposes,” Bucky said.  

Brock was mercifully silent. They arrived at the Inn, and Bucky immediately paid for their rooms.

“Our rooms should be free on account of our protection,” Brock said haughtily.

The goblin innkeeper, who recognized Steve as well, pushed the money back to Bucky. “Of course, sirs. It’s on the house.”

Bucky pushed the money back towards the goblin. “I’m in the business of paying for things I use, friend. Take it, please.”

The goblin took the money gratefully and placed it in a sack. “Of course. I’ll show you to your rooms.” They followed the innkeeper upstairs and the first room they came to had a single bed.

“You can take this one,” Bucky said to Brock.

Brock agreed and put a few things down. “I’d still like to see where you will be staying.”

“Unfortunately,” the goblin said, shrinking away from Brock, “the only other rooms we have for two people.” It was clearly a lie, and they all knew it. They followed the goblin down to the end of the hall where he unlocked a room with two beds. “Here you go.”

“Thank you,” Bucky said.

The goblin nodded and walked quickly back towards the stairs. Brock grabbed him as he went past. “You didn’t have rooms any closer together?”

“N-No,” the goblin said.

Brock looked unconvinced and was growing angrier by the second. The goblin was clearly terrified, and Bucky saved him from having to answer. “This is the only inn in town,” he said. “Of course they are full.”

Brock released the goblin with a huff and slammed the door of his room.  

Once Steve and Bucky were in their room and the door was locked, Bucky began to talk quietly. “I have to make this quick. The goblins have been overtaxed.”

“By whom?”

Bucky looked torn. “Joseph. I’ve been trying to get him to reduce the fees for years because Riverbend mines are all worn out.”

Steve furrowed his brow. “Maybe he doesn’t understand the situation. He wouldn’t knowingly hurt people.”

Bucky paused. “Maybe. Tomorrow Brock will try to push them to give more. He’s certain they are hiding something, but—” The floorboards in the hallway squeaked, and Bucky abruptly stopped talking. A knock came at the door.

“Steve,” Brock said. “Do you need help preparing for tomorrow?”

“I’m alright, thank you,” Steve said. He went to open the door, but Bucky grabbed ahold of him.”

“If you need anything, don’t hesitate to stop by.” They heard footsteps going down the hallway, but Bucky would not speak until several minutes had passed. In the meantime, they readied themselves for bed, and Steve averted his eyes as Bucky undressed.

“Bucky,” Steve said. Bucky held a finger up, crept to the door, and listened. He carefully unlocked the door and turned the knob, before looking into the hallway. Apparently satisfied, he slowly closed the door and locked it.

“I had Clint loosen the floorboards in the hallway,” he whispered, “but you can never be too careful.” He sat close to Steve, and Steve knew it was so their voices wouldn’t carry but there was something wonderful about being close to a shirtless Bucky.

“Steve,” Bucky said, putting a hand on Steve’s shoulder and shaking lightly.

“Oh, sorry. Distracted,” Steve said sheepishly. “I have something to tell you.”

Bucky looked distressed. “Now?”

“Well, I need to tell you before tomorrow. I should have told you days ago, but I was embarrassed.”

Possibilities were playing across Bucky’s face, but he hung his head. “Alright. Speak.”

“I’ve been here before,” Steve said quickly. Bucky’s head shot up. Whatever he had been expecting, that had not been it.

“I thought Clint was joking.”

Steve shook his head. “He saved my life. The people here wanted to kill me. I don’t know why. Clint helped me escape.”

“Oh,” Bucky said, sounding sad. “Do you hate them?”

Steve didn’t understand why this was affecting Bucky so. “I did before. They used to raid my village. I fought them when they tried to steal my mother’s only cow.”

Bucky rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. “I’m sorry that happened, but what I need to know is this.” He dropped his hands and looked intently in Steve’s eyes, searching for something. “Can you be impartial tomorrow?”

“Yes.”

“Even though they have harmed you?”

Steve nodded. It hurt a little that Bucky felt he needed to ask, but Steve decided it was more a statement of Bucky’s protectiveness of the goblins than his lack of faith in Steve. What they had done to earn his protection, Steve had no idea.

“There’s one more thing,” Bucky said. “The goblins prefer high speech, like your father. Do you know it?”  

“A little,” Steve said.

“Just try to use more formal language in the common tongue. I’m afraid I don’t use it much with the orclings but do your best to show your respect for the Consul by speaking in a way that honors his customs. They are a poor people, but proud.”

That night, the whole town was quiet. Steve had thought he might see the people in the streets, listen to their music, smell their spices, but the whole city was as still as a possum playing dead.

Steve lay in bed up weighing options in his head. The goblins were thieves, and they had threatened to kill Steve. But Bucky seemed to think of them differently, seemed intent to have them like him and feel respected by him.

“Why do you trust them?” Steve whispered from his bed, hoping Bucky was still awake.

Bucky had been quiet, but it appeared he was playing possum, as well. “Why does it bother you that I do?”

“I. It doesn’t. I—”

“I don’t want anyone afraid of me,” Bucky said quietly. “They fear me, and I wish they didn’t. I feel sorry for them. They’re desperate.”

-----

The rubies from Riverbend mines were exceptionally beautiful, said to contain part of the goblin goddess Olivia’s heart. Bucky held his first the day after the battle, and it seemed to shine from within, imbued with life. The rubies collected later were cloudier and of lesser quality. They no longer seemed otherworldly to him, just a pretty piece of rock.  

Riverbend was known as Ruby City when Bucky was a child, but not long after the battle with the trolls, the mines had dried up. Clint thought Olivia was punishing them for giving pieces of her heart to the orc, who had already wreaked havoc across the lands. Others felt abandoned by her, and in a gesture of defiance and sacrilege, changed their name from Ruby City to Riverbend. Bucky knew little of spiritual matters, but he did know this: Joseph had sucked Riverbend dry.

Bucky liked Steve. He was kind and hardworking, quick-witted and, Bucky wasn’t ashamed to admit it, quite good looking. But trust was a rare commodity, and Bucky had none to spare. Joseph had taken Bucky’s childish open-hearted trust and crushed it, and Bucky knew better than to squander it again. He cared about the people of Riverbend and had grown to respect their ways, the tinny music, sweet spices, and twirling dances.

Bucky needed Steve’s approval.  With one word to his father, Steve could rid Bucky of his position, possibly his life. Orclings had certainly died for less. Nevertheless, Bucky would not allow Steve to demand heavy tribute from these desperate people.

A messenger escorted the orclings to the Riverbend Townhall the next morning. He seemed nervous, glancing between them. The grandeur of the hall was lessened from when Bucky first visited years ago. There were white spots on the walls where the embedded rubies had been dug out and the hole caulked over. It made his heart break.

The table was laid out with fine fabric and around it all of the ministers Bucky had come to know over the several years. They greeted him with more reservation than usual, no doubt due to Brock’s presence. Sleeping apart from Steve had not improved Brock’s mood, and he was snappish and swaggering.  

Consul Raznick motioned for them to be seated around the table. Although goblins are exceptionally long-lived, the Consul appeared not to have aged since Bucky first met him. The Consul had only grown in Bucky’s respect, imposing despite his small stature but kind. “It is our honor to host the honorable representatives of Crested City and the orcling army. Welcome to Riverbend.”

“Greetings, Consul Raznick,” Bucky said, bowing his head.  

“Well traveled?”

“The wind at our back and the path beneath our feet,” Bucky responded. “Allow me to introduce my party. You may remember Brock of Crested City, and this is Steve of Crested City.”

“Son of General Joseph,” Brock cut in.

There was a sharp intake of breath from a goblin guard, but the Consul remained stately in form. Bucky had sent Clint to warn them, so they would not be surprised.  

“Greetings Steve, son of General Joseph, Brock of Crested City. Our continued warm welcome to Bucky.”

“Thank you for your hospitality, Consul,” Bucky said. “Riverbend is beautiful, and its people kind. I have faith our negotiations will be concluded to the satisfaction of all.” The formal speech was a bit tiresome, but he wanted to be respectful.

Consul Raznick nodded kindly. “In payment for the brave defense of this city when we were attacked by trolls, we express our gratitude for that act and the continued protection of the orc army through tribute. This year, we present two bags of coin as our offering.” The bags were embroidered in a swirling blue pattern. “As you know, the mines have not produced in many years—”

“No rubies?” Brock scoffed, and Bucky glowered at him until he sat up straighter.

“We are sorry for your loss and appreciate your good faith continued effort,” Bucky said.

“I believe Steve is to be running the negotiations,” Brock said pointedly. He reached for one of the bags and poured the coins on the table. “Copper!” Bucky looked at Steve imploringly. It was time for him to step in.   

“Um,” Steve said, not off to an auspicious start. “Thank you for this offer of tribute. You were, you were saying something about the mines.”

“They were making excuses,” Brock said. Consul Raznick stiffened at being addressed in such a disrespectful manner.

Steve jutted out his chin and rolled back his shoulders. “I believe they can speak for themselves, Brock. I will ask for your help if I need it.”

Brock narrowed his eyes. “Of course, sir.”

Steve squared his shoulders and turned politely to the Consul. “My apologies, Consul. I am new to this role and unaware of the details of the situation. Please help me understand.”

Consul Raznick weathered the shift patiently. “We have not found any rubies in the mines, and our stores are exhausted. We have prayed to Olivia on the matter, but she has seen fit not to reopen her bounty. This copper coin is all that we can spare.”

Brock crossed his arms and glowered. Steve judiciously ignored him. “That is agreeable with me.”

“No!” Brock burst in. “They are taking advantage of you. Joseph will never stand for copper coin.”

“They say they have no more rubies,” Steve said.

“And you believe them?”

Steve glanced at Clint who raised an eyebrow in challenge. Bucky had no idea what had passed between them. “I do believe them.”

“What of the surrounding villages?” Brock said to the Consul. “Have you tried collecting treasure from them?”

“We risk war with the humans if we continue to raid their farms, and they have nothing but grain and cattle—”

“Don’t,” Steve interrupted, turning bright red when he realized his rudeness. “Apologies, Consul. I would request that you not take from the villages. They are quite poor.”

The goblin eyed him curiously. “We would, of course, prefer not to, only there has been no other way to obtain tribute.”

“I understand,” Steve said. “The copper coin will be sufficient.”

“It isn’t right!” Brock exploded, standing up. “Joseph will be furious. He will return here with a contingent of orc to show what happens when you refuse us.”

Steve stood up and stepped in front of Brock. He looked to Bucky like a holy avenging angel, full of fire and might. “I am Steve of Crested City, Joseph’s only son, born of love. This man,” he pointed at Clint, “saved my life at great risk to himself.” The other goblins looked at him sharply. Clint rubbed his forehead and slunk down in his chair. “Surely,” Steve said, enunciating every word, “Joseph would count saving the life of his only son equal to tribute paid. We needn’t collect money.”

Brock sputtered, without anything to say, spun on his heel, and left the room in a hurry. Steve moved to go after him. “Let him go,” Bucky said. “It is time to conclude the negotiations.”

Steve gathered himself and took his seat at the table. “Apologies for the outburst, Consul Raznick.” He gathered the copper coin in the pouch and pushed it back across the table. “My thanks for this tribute, but Clint gave me kindness when none was required, and I was in desperate need. That is sufficient.”

The Consul looked inquiringly at Clint who scratched his nose and avoided eye contact with everyone. “Very well. May you have the wind at your back during your journey home.”

“Thank you,” Steve said, bowing his head as Bucky had done earlier.   

——

Bucky and Steve retired to the Inn for a meal. Brock, they soon learned, had already checked out.

“Should we go after him?” Steve said once they were in their room.

Bucky ignored his question and squeezed Steve’s shoulders. “You were incredible!”

Steve looked surprised and blushed heavily. He reminded Bucky of the rubies, glowing from within. “Oh, it was nothing.”

“It wasn’t nothing! It was, these people have stolen from your village. You could have exacted a heavy penance from them, punished them for it, but you didn’t. You, you are incredible.” Bucky felt like he was truly seeing Steve for the first time. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to take him to bed or follow him into battle. Maybe both.

Steve squirmed, still so unused to praise. “Thanks, Buck. It’s—Thanks.”

“And you stood up to Brock like a holy flame of justice. I’m proud of you.”  

“You don’t think Joseph will be angry?”

Bucky dropped his hands. “He’ll be furious. But, you did a good thing, Steve. It will be worth it.”

Steve seemed to be growing more uncomfortable by the minute, and Bucky couldn’t resist teasing him. “I see how you got in fights as a child. Quite a temper there.”

“I don’t! I just don’t like bullies.”

“It was good, Steve. I’m proud of you.”

 

Chapter Text

 

Joseph removed each ring slowly, stacking them up in neat piles of gold and silver. He usually left them on, never caring if he left marks, and Bucky braced himself, wondering what new punishment Joseph had concocted.

He slapped Bucky across the face, and Bucky staggered to the side before regaining his balance. “How dare you allow my son to be humiliated like that!” Joseph roared. He slapped Bucky again, this time with the back of his hand, sending him reeling. “I trusted you!”

“Sir,” Bucky started. Joseph grabbed him about the throat and squeezed. “Did I tell you could speak?” He dropped Bucky who gasped for breath.

“Tell me, do you intend my ruin or only the ruin of my son?” Bucky saw where Steve got it, the avenging angel face, but on Joseph, it was contorted and deformed—damaged by years of broken trust, the weight of his position tearing him in two.  

Bucky met his eyes hesitantly. Surely now he was allowed to speak. “Neither, sir.”

Joseph wiped the sweat off his brow with a rag. “Then why did you allow the goblins to take advantage of his kindness? Did you think I would not care?”

“They saved his life,” Bucky said.

“Lies,” Joseph said, stepping towards him. Bucky flinched back, cursing himself for the reaction.

“Steve doesn’t lie.”

“Then why won’t he tell me the story?”

Bucky’s mind raced. What answer would Joseph find to be acceptable? “Perhaps he is protecting someone?”

Joseph scoffed. “His duty is to me before all others. There are no secrets he should keep from me.” He narrowed his eyes. “Perhaps he did it to undermine you so that you would look foolish in my eyes.”

“He meant it for good,” Bucky said, bracing for a blow. “He has a compassionate heart.”

Joseph stepped in close, his breath hot against Steve’s cheek. “You would have him turned into a soft old woman, someone you could manipulate to your whims? Someone you could control?”

“No one could control Steve. He’s—” stubborn, Bucky’s mind supplied, hard-headed— “his own man.”

“He’s my son,” Joseph hissed, pushing Bucky backward so he stumbled to the ground.

Bucky hurried to his feet. “What are you going to do to me?”

Joseph punched Bucky in the stomach twice and grabbed him by the hair. He was furious, breath hot, nostrils flared. Bucky was trapped between a dragon and its hoard. He had always known Joseph would sacrifice him, but he hadn’t expected to die for this. He only regretted that he would die without freeing Winifred, without knowing what it would be was like to live as a free man.  

Joseph dropped him in a heap on the floor. “Nothing. I would lose my son entirely if I got rid of you.” He pointed severely at Bucky. “He is to be told nothing of this, do you understand?”

Bucky nodded shakily, trying not to show Joseph that he was rattled. “Yes, sir.”

Joseph put each ring back on slowly, making Bucky watch. “Now that we’re done with that, come sit.”

Bucky staggered to his seat. He was sore, but Joseph had been careful not to leave bruises.  

“Tell me, and speak truly, is my son too soft to lead?”

Bucky picked out his words carefully. “He’s strong, Joseph. I’m sure you only need show him the way.”

“I’m too soft with you,” Joseph said, leaning back. “Rollins would have killed his men for this, but you... perhaps this is my fault.”

“The fault is all mine,” Bucky said. “I’m sorry.”  

“You will be, if it happens again,” Joseph said, sounding exhausted. “I won’t be able to save you from Rollins. Tell me you understand.”

“I understand, sir.”

Joseph poured Bucky a glass of cool water and waited while he recovered himself. “Compose yourself. Are you ready?”

Bucky nodded. Joseph called out to a guardsman in the hall and had them fetch Steve. He entered the room warily, glancing at Bucky and Joseph.

Joseph smiled broadly and patted Steve on the shoulder. “Welcome, son. Take a seat.”

Steve pulled a chair over beside Bucky and tried to catch his eye. Joseph clearly didn’t miss where Steve positioned himself. Bucky was doing his best to recover, knowing he’d pay for appearing anything less than cheerful.

“Bucky and I were just talking about your mission,” Joseph said, sitting across from the two of them.

“Are we in trouble?” Steve asked anxiously.

Joseph furrowed his brow, appearing to take time to consider it. “Are you a child that has missed his supper that you expect to be chastised so?”

Steve shook his head. “I only wondered because—”

“You are not in trouble,” Joseph said kindly. “I have questions, of course, but nothing you can’t answer for me.”

“Of course. I’m sorry. I mean, I’m not sorry for what I did, only the trouble it caused. If you would but come to Riverbend, you’d see how desperate they are, and I don’t want them stealing from the villages.”

“You did it for your mother?” Joseph asked, leaning back. “To protect her village?”

“In part,” Steve replied, “but also, I do believe them, the goblins.”

“Of course you do,” Joseph said gently. “You have a trusting and compassionate heart, like your mother.”

Steve smiled softly, no longer averse to that compliment. “It wasn’t Bucky’s fault, at all. He let me run the negotiations, as you ordered.”

“That was well done,” Joseph said. “Do you want to tell me how the goblin saved your life?”

Steve’s blush darkened his cheeks. “I’m sorry. I think he would get into more trouble if I did.”

“Do you remember where I told you an orc’s loyalties lie?”

Steve sat up straighter. “First to myself, then to the King, then to my fellow soldiers.”

“You don’t owe a goblin your loyalty, son.”

“Apologies,” Steve said, “but if I betrayed him, I would not be loyal to myself or that which I value.”

“I see,” Joseph said. “Very well.”

Steve’s shoulders relaxed. “I was so sure you’d be mad.”

Joseph leaned forward and took hold of Steve’s chin gently. “How could I stay mad at you?” He dropped his hand. “You may go.”

Steve looked surprised. “I had thought we could all play speckle or drink wine together…”

“It’s alright,” Bucky said, forcing himself to speak. “We have a few things to discuss. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He did his best to smile at Steve, but it was like wringing water out of a dried cloth.

Steve relaxed at Bucky’s word, but he clearly wanted to say more. He bid his father and Bucky goodnight and left the room.

“I see no lie in him,” Joseph said at length. “It is a shame I did not get him younger; he will be harder to mold. What is the way to Steve’s heart?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

“He trusts you,” Joseph said. “More loyal to you than to me, I think.”

“He’s loyal to you,” Bucky said weakly.

Joseph ignored Bucky’s response, closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair. “What am I to do about the orcs baying for blood? I use those rubies to pay for the mother’s compound. Where will their food come from? Perhaps I should make them hungry for a day, tell them you think they shouldn’t eat?”

“The goblins had no rubies,” Bucky said, exhausted. “We will have to find other sources of revenue.”

“I will find a way to make it work,” Joseph said. “I always do.”

------

Brock didn’t come to the training grounds the rest of the week, and Steve found himself immensely grateful. The other orclings seemed to feel it too; it was clear they were relieved. Bucky was a little stiff their first few days back, and when Steve asked him asked him about it, he claimed he had slept poorly in the tents. Gabe ran training drills in his stead.

The next week, Bucky announced they would be working on hand to hand skills and had them circle up. He was shirtless, and the other orclings followed his example and removed their shirts, as well.

“The key to wrestling an orc is to use their size against them,” Bucky said. Steve had no doubt the lecture was meant for him, but the Commandos gamely listened along. “Use your speed to your advantage and your endurance. Try to tire them out.” He pointed at Morita and Dum Dum. “Morita will demonstrate basic attack moves. Dum Dum, don’t do anything fancy in defense. We are going to break down the moves piece by piece.”

Morita announced each attack before he executed it, going slowly to explain the sequence. Dum Dum hammed his part up, making loud grunts when Morita hit him and falling over dramatically. Bucky rolled his eyes but didn’t stop him.

“Alright,” Bucky said, after several minutes. “Who would like to try one of the attacks with me? Morita will be critiquing your form and providing feedback.”

“I’m pretty sure Steve would like to try,” Gabe teased.

Steve blushed, hoping his interest in getting his hands on Bucky wasn’t too obvious.

“Just for that you’ll have to go first,” Bucky said to Gabe. “Everybody else, form a line.”

Gabe entered the ring all smiles. He executed the attack moves well, not as flawlessly as Morita, but with only minor errors. Once he ran through the whole sequence, Bucky said, “Alright, this time I’ll fight back.”

Gabe attacked using a sequence that involved pulling Bucky’s leg up. Bucky blocked perfectly, and Gabe did a spinning kick to corner him. Bucky sidestepped and knocked Gabe to the ground while he was off balance.

“Who can tell me what Gabe did wrong?” Bucky said as he helped his friend up.

“Tried to be a damned showboat,” Dum Dum said.

“Yeah, yeah,” Gabe said with a laugh. “You don’t have to say it. Don’t turn your back to your opponent in close-quartered fighting.”

“He was just trying to show us what not to do,” Dernier supplied.

Gabe took the ribbing well and moved out of the ring to give the next orcling a shot. Bucky continued the drill, having each orcling demonstrate the sequence then giving them the opportunity to attack. He never seemed to tire, blocking with tightly controlled poise.

Steve stumbled through the sequence with Morita providing instruction on how to correct his form. He preferred Bucky’s hands-on approach, but perhaps he’d get that later. They went through the rotation two times, and no one was able to beat Bucky. Of course, Steve reasoned, Bucky knew what his opponent would be doing in advance. He wanted to test himself against Bucky again on even terms.

The next time Steve entered the ring, he launched himself at Bucky immediately.

“Whoa!” Morita yelled, jumping out backward. “Looks like Steve is sick of practice.”

Bucky sidestepped him easily, hooking a leg underneath him, and pulled Steve to the ground.

"I know I said to move quickly, but a little slower than that," Bucky said. The other orclings chuckled. "For grappling, wait to get in close, so you can get a good grip on the person."

Steve grinned, feeling free and playful. He stalked forward, cornering Bucky with his broad frame. The Howling Commandos all hooted and whistled. Steve had been watching Bucky’s every move for over a month, he had a good idea what he would do next.  

Bucky watched him intently, reaching out and then stepping forward when Steve danced backward. They each reached a hand towards the other, taking turns slapping one another away.

It felt more like play fighting than training, and Steve couldn't help thinking this is what he and Bucky would have been like as children together. He paused, smiling at the thought, and Bucky took that as his moment to step in close, grab Steve about the waist, his back under Steve's shoulders, and lift him off the ground.

Steve squawked, remembered they were fighting, and kicked his legs, knocking Bucky off his balance. They fell to the ground in a heap, and the fighting turned messy, each grabbing and pulling, trying to keep the other down. Steve knew Bucky had said not to rely on his strength, but he was stronger than the other orclings. While they had been developing agility with weapons, he had been bailing hay and tilling fields. He had a thickness to him the others didn't have.

 

He used his superior bulk to pin Bucky to the ground, Steve’s chest pressed to Bucky’s back. Bucky shifted his hips and tried to struggle free, but Steve ground down against him, holding him in place.  The pressure and slide of their bodies felt good, too good. He felt a sudden shock of arousal, and, mortifyingly realized he was getting hard.

Bucky must have felt it. Steve didn't know what to do, besides hold onto Bucky as the problem worsened.

"Count of three, Steve," Gabe said. "You've won." The orclings all cheered. Bucky was rarely bested in the training ring.  

Steve craned his neck to look at Bucky, whose face was sympathetic. He'd definitely felt Steve's arousal. Mercifully, Bucky decided not to move either.

The orclings cheering died down, and Dum Dum cleared his throat. "Steve, you really should have taken him on a date first." The rest of the Howling Commandos hooted in laughter. Apparently, Steve's problem wasn't a secret.

"I hate you all," Steve said, and in spite of himself, he couldn't help laughing. He decided that staying pressed against Bucky wasn’t going to make anything better and stumbled to his feet, his erection plainly visible.

Bucky stood up, as well, and dusted himself off. His cheeks were pink, but he didn’t seem upset. "You should have seen the wood Dum Dum sported when he wrestled Gabe."

"I was thirteen!" Dum Dum protested. "A strong wind had me stiff in my shorts."

Bucky leaned in close and conspiratorial. “Shoulda seen his face. He looked like he wanted the earth to open up and swallow him whole."

“I know the feeling,” Steve mumbled.  

The gate swung open, and Joseph arrived with several orcs. Quick as a flash, the orclings moved between Steve and Joseph, Bucky at the lead.

"Greetings, sir,” he said. "Welcome to the ring."

”I’ve come to see my son and observe his progress."

"He was just about to be patched up by Morita. Beat me in hand to hand today, first time ever."

"Is that so?" Joseph said, clearly pleased.

Morita grabbed hold of Steve's arm and dragged him towards the medical tent.  "He's buying you time. Think of something terrible, and it will go away. Sit here." All his easy-going manner was gone, and he pushed Steve into a chair. Morita pulled out a knife, and Steve flinched away.

“What the hell?”

Morita looked apologetic. “You get to decide if you would rather I give you a little cut, or let your father and all his orc buddies see your business.”

Humiliated would not begin to cover it, Steve realized and nodded his agreement. Morita ran the knife over a small section of Steve's skin, not enough to do permanent damage, but enough to cause it to bleed. "I'm not going to clean it, because I want to the blood to show, but we'll do that as soon as he leaves."

By the time the bandage was applied, Steve's erection had flagged, and he and Morita rejoined the crowd.

"Steve," Joseph called out. "I hear you've just beaten Bucky in a fight. Perhaps you'd like to try your hand against me?"

"The cut was pretty bad, sir," Morita said, gesturing to Steve's leg, where the blood showed through the gauze. "Perhaps after he heals."

Joseph looked disappointed but agreed. "Quite right." He addressed all of the orclings. “I’ll be leaving tomorrow morning. I’ve been called away to meet with the king and shall return in a week. Bucky will act in my stead on the training grounds, and Rollins shall be in charge of city affairs."

Joseph walked towards Steve, and the orclings parted to make room for him. "Well done, son," he said. "I'm proud of you."

Steve smiled and glanced at Bucky. “I had a good teacher.” He expected some teasing protest from Morita about how he had done the teaching that day or for Gabe to point out that Steve still couldn’t do any of the attack moves correctly, but the orclings were silent. It was a jarring shift.

“Take the compliment, Steve,” Bucky said. “I don’t want the General to think I taught whatever moves you used in there.” His tone was light but careful.

“Got a few surprises up your sleeve?” Joseph said.

“I guess you’ll have to find out.”

Joseph’s laugh was hearty, and he patted Steve’s shoulder good-naturedly.

-----

Bucky accompanied the orcs back to the castle to make plans for Joseph’s absence. Once they were gone, the remaining Howling Commandos announced their intention to get Steve drunk that night in celebration of his victory.

Gabe led training drills for the next few hours, but it was clear that none of their hearts were in it. By the time it was four, Gabe was tired of Dum Dum’s whining and announced that they were ending early. The orclings shuffled Steve with them to their barracks.

The orcling barracks were plain with no decorations of any kind, but the common area had several comfortable couches and chairs to sit on. The orcs had a newer, separate barracks in another part of the city, but Steve had never seen it.

“We’re here to introduce you to Morita’s special brew,” Dum Dum announced.

Morita made a big show of slowly pulling a bottle from a burlap bag and holding it aloft for all the orclings to see. They cheered and stomped their feet. “Don’t drink too much,” Morita warned. “This stuff will get you tossed fast.”

Dum Dum took a large gulp, and Steve thought he turned even greener. "That's a particularly strong batch there," he said with a bit of a wheeze.

Morita patted him on the back. “You a lightweight now?”

Dum Dum glared and took another giant gulp in retaliation.

Steve drank ale on occasion, but he’d never been drunk. When the mead came to him, he took a tentative sip and had to suppress a cough at the burn. It hit strong and left an aftertaste that reminded Steve of the oil his mother used on the hinges of their door.

The orclings fell into an easy banter, passing the mead around the circle, miming one another’s actions and joking.

“So,” Dum Dum said. “How does it feel to have beaten Bucky?”

Steve felt pleasantly fuzzy, like he was right there with the orclings but also far away. “You don’t think he let me win?”

Dum Dum laughed. “Gods, no! He doesn’t let anyone but orcs win.”

Gabe elbowed Dum Dum, and the larger orcling doubled over. “By the eight-fingered goddess!” Dum Dum said with a groan. “What was that for?”

Gabe had a formidable glare, even tipsy, and Dum Dum had the good sense to look abashed. “Oh, right.”

“What’s it?” Steve asked. He had to squint his eyes to keep the other orclings in place, but he had a feeling something was happening.

Gabe and Dum Dum had a furious whispered argument, and Dernier handed Steve the mead again. “Don’t listen to them. Always quarreling like schoolgirls.”

“How would you know?” Morita said teasingly. “You’ve never seen a schoolgirl.”

“It’s just a saying!”

The mead had started to taste better and burn less. “This stuff isn’t so bad,” Steve said, ignoring the orclings and taking a large gulp.

“Whoa!” Dernier said, grabbing the bottle back. “You’re gonna hate yourself on the morrow.”

Gabe and Dum Dum appeared to have resolved their argument and were swaying together and mumbling out some indecipherable lyrics.

“See,” Dernier said. “They kissed and made up.”

“If we’re talking about kissing,” Dum Dum said, “I think we should talk about the way Steve here has some firm opinions about Bucky.”

“What are you talking about?” Gabe said, suppressing a smile at the expense of his drunker friend.

“You know,” Dum Dum gestured vaguely at his crotch, “he had a hard time.”

“You’re not making any sense,” Gabe said. The orclings around him nodded.

“Penis!” Dum Dum yelled in frustration. “His dick got hard, we all saw it!”

Gabe lost control and burst out laughing. Dum Dum looked like an offended squirrel. “You knew what I was talking about all along!”

Gabe nodded, wiping tears away from his eyes, but apparently unable to stop laughing. Dum Dum grabbed Gabe about the waist, and they began to wrestle.

“Somebody’s gonna get in trouble,” Dernier singsonged. “At least, if you break another couch.” He had commandeered the mead and was only passing it back and forth between him and Steve.

Gabe hesitantly released his hold on Dum Dum but not before giving his mustache a little pull. “What were we talking about?”

“Steve’s romantical feelings,” Dernier supplied.

“Hey!” Steve protested.  

“There’s nothing romantic about the way he looks at Bucky’s ass,” Dum Dum said.

Steve giggled. It was no use fighting it. “Well, I mean, it’s a real nice ass.”

“You should tell him,” Morita said. He stole the mead back from Dernier and took a hearty chug. “Tell him you wanna make babies with him.”

“Do not talk about babies,” Gabe warned. “Just tell him his hair is nice, he likes that.”

“Tis true,” Dernier said with a grin. "Hey--” He searched the room. "Where is he anyway?"

Suddenly a room full of tipsy orclings looked up and around as if Bucky had been hiding in their midsts.

"Wait," Morita said, scrunching his face up in concentration. “He’s meeting with Joseph and orcs and things. He’ll be back soon.”

Dernier patted Steve clumsily on the knee. "Gives you plenty of time to write a love song."

Steve's cheeks felt warm, and he was pleasantly sleepy. "Do you think he likes me?"

Dum Dum laughed loudly. "Boy, have you seen the way he looks at you? He either thinks you're handsome or he wants to eat you."

"Either way you should be afraid,” Gabe said.  

Steve felt his heart flutter in anticipation. He stood up, intent on finding Bucky that moment, but the room spun and he couldn’t seem to put one foot in front of the other.

"Whoa, whoa," Dum Dum said, standing unsteadily. He put his arms on Steve's shoulders and gently pushing him back to his seat. "Maybe sober up a little first, eh?"

Steve leaned back with a groan. His body felt heavy, but he was giddy with the affection. "Thanks, guys. I've never had friends like you all before."

Dum Dum’s expression grew pinched. "What do you mean?"

"No one wanted to be my friend." His head lolled to the side. "You guys are so nice."

“Steve—“ Dum Dum said.

“I wanna squish your mustache until you stopped looking sad,” Steve reached forward sloppily.  

“Huh,” Morita said. “I guess we got Steve drunk.”

“Steve’s been drunk,” Dernier said. “Where’ve you been?”

"Never let myself get drunk before," Steve confessed, waving his hand nonsensically. "Didn't want to accidentally break the village."

Gabe and Dum Dum shared a pained look. "Well, it's a good thing you're with us," Gabe said. "We don't break easy."

-----

“So you’re telling me,” Rollins said with a sneer, “that a green soldier with no training was able to best you in a month? Impossible.” He stepped right next to Bucky, his breath ghosting over the orcling’s ear.

Bucky did his best to relax his posture. They had been at this for an hour. Rollins was Joseph’s third in command and responsible for training the orcs. Efficient but cruel, he was vicious and disciplined the orcs with an iron hand. Joseph sat quietly in the corner watching but not intervening.

“Like I told you,” Bucky said, “I had just fought all of the orclings twice. That’s ten matches to his two.”

“Even so,” Rollins said derisively, “he never should have been able to beat you.”

“Steve is stronger than I realized, but that doesn’t mean he’s hiding anything,” Bucky said.

Rollins huffed. “Who said he’s hiding something?” He stepped back a few paces.  

“You are implying that either he cheated or I lost on purpose,” Bucky said, his voice carefully monotone. “Which is it?”

Rollins pulled out a dagger and began to flip it in his hand. “I’m merely asking questions, orcling. You jump to conclusions.”

“I—” Bucky bit his tongue. “My apologies.”

Joseph stood up at last. “I think we’ve had enough of this for the evening. Rollins, are you clear on your responsibilities while I’m gone?”

“Crystal,” he said.

“Good,” he gestured to the orcs. “You’re dismissed.”

Rollins left with his orcs but not before knocking into Bucky with his shoulder.  

Joseph was quiet a long time, pacing back and forth in the room. He never let the orcs see him rattled, but sometimes he let his guard down with Bucky.

“It would be smart, genius really, to send my son after me. To send someone so close to me. I would be blind to their treachery.”

Bucky didn’t know what to say. His loyalty and Steve’s were both on the line, and his mind was racing for ways to keep them safe. “Apologies, sir, but you seemed pleased earlier.”

Joseph ran a hand through his hair distractedly. “I was. I am.” He stopped his pacing and peered intently at Bucky. “You’re sure you didn’t let him win? I would understand. A favor to me perhaps...to boost his confidence.”

Bucky flexed and released his fists behind his back to calm himself. “I did not.”

Joseph returned to his pacing, and Bucky realized he would have to say something before his General executed Steve for treason.

“Joseph, you are an uncommonly good warrior. You won the tournament at Golden Fields five years in a row.”

“Six,” Joseph said distractedly. “Your point?”

“Wouldn’t it make sense that your son would be uncommonly good, as well?”

Joseph’s shoulders relaxed, and he sat heavily in the chair. “You’re right.” He gestured for Bucky to sit beside him. “I’m losing control over the orcs. They are looking for an opportunity to mutiny.”

“Rollins is just puffing out hot air. He wants a fight, even if it’s with you.”

Joseph closed his eyes and rested his head against the back of the chair. “I don’t know what I’ll do if Steve betrays me. They’ll expect me to kill him, and I don’t know that I can.” He opened his eyes. “You’ll have to do it. The orcs will be too brutal with him.”

Bucky blanched. “I, I don’t know if I could do that.”

Somehow, this made Joseph relax further. “He does that, doesn’t he? He’s so good. So much like his mother. You trust him, then?”

Bucky didn’t have to think about his answer. “With my life.”

“But you barely know him.”

It was true. Bucky admired Steve, enjoyed his presence, but there was something in him that made Bucky want to gamble on him. “I just do,” he said softly. “I can’t explain it.”

Joseph smiled at him broadly. “But you don’t think he’s hiding things?”

Bucky shook his head. “I don’t think he can hide things. His heart is all there for anyone to see.” Bucky’s heart clenched in his chest. He admired Steve’s open heart; it made him strong but it also made him vulnerable.

Joseph huffed a bitter laugh. “I worry one moment that he’ll never be strong enough for command and the next I suspect him of treachery. Gods, I was not made to be a father.”

“Steve loves you,” Bucky said.

Joseph looked up at him hawkishly. “He’s said that to you?”

“Yes. He speaks of you fondly.”

Joseph nodded. “Good, that’s good.” His eyes fell on Bucky’s shoulder. “If only I had a loyalty test for all my soldiers.” His expression softened and he reached for Bucky’s hand and squeezed. “I’m sorry I let them be hard on you. The king…I’m worried about this meeting. I don’t know what he intends with me. I’m besieged on all sides, you understand.”

“I understand, Joseph.”

Joseph smiled at him, wobbly. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

“Let’s hope you never have to find out.”

“Now, fetch me my son. I want to celebrate with him.”

Bucky stood, eager to be free of the room. “With apologies sir, he may be celebrating with the orclings already. And you know their love of ale.”

“Aye,” Joseph said. “Bring him to me in whatever form you find him. I want to have a talk.”

-----

Natasha met Bucky as he made his way out of the castle. “Could you spare a few minutes?”

He had no doubt Joseph would want Steve back quickly, but he’d risk his ire for Natasha. “Of course.”

Natasha knew better than to risk being overheard in the hallways, so she accompanied Bucky to his house. Once they were inside, he said, "What news?”

Natasha sat heavily on the chair, affecting orc-ish mannerisms for Bucky's amusement. Most orcs were loud in their walk, but Natasha could move without making a sound. “Bring me some of Morita's mead, and maybe that'll loosen my tongue."

“He doesn’t give it away,” Bucky said mournfully. “So, I’m assuming you’re here because you heard about Steve pinning me.”  

Natasha opened her pack and pulled out her own bottle of mead, no doubt much smoother and stronger than Morita's. "Oh, it's all they can talk about. Rollins told the whole orc contingent that you'd soon be replaced and powerless. That you were worried sick over it."

Bucky took a swig of Natasha's mead. Her arched eyebrow his only warning. She was right, it was strong, but it went down smooth. "Tell him I'm powerless now. Things can't get much worse."

Natasha scowled and knocked her knuckles against the wooden arm of her chair. "Hush, Little One. Don't tempt the spirits."

"Your spirits, not mine."

Natasha knocked the wood again for good measure. "They'll come for you whether you believe in them or no. Or...perhaps they'll come for that pretty blond orcling."

Bucky laughed. Natasha was always fishing. "Aye, he is handsome. But I have no time for love. Why do you bring him up?”

“I need to know if we are changing our plans.”

“No. Why?”

“You’re distracted,” Natasha’s her mood turning appraising. “You should never have let him beat you. ”

“Not you, too. Steve’s—”

“Not kept in prison under locked guard,” she said harshly. “He doesn’t need your saving, Winifred does.”

Bucky felt his insides squeeze in guilt. Gods, he’d lost his focus. “You are right. I’m sorry. But until Dum Dum finds us a place to go, I’m not sure what we can do. There will be children with us, and the orc army would overtake us in a few hours.”

“Morita and I are working on a plan to incapacitate the orcs, enough to buy us a couple of days.”

Bucky wasn’t sure he wanted to know what that would entail, so he decided to ignore it. “One of the guards, Uruk, is still dragging his feet. He’s asking for more money that we have, and if we have to go on the run, we’ll need that money for food and housing.”

“I’m certain your mother would rather go hungry than stay in the compound,” Natasha said matter-of-factly.  

“I’m doing my best,” Bucky snapped. “Joseph wants daily reports on Steve, and he’s growing more paranoid. Tonight I had to convince him that his own son is not a traitor! Not to mention, Brock trying to turn Steve against me, and Rollins hunting for blood.” Breathing heavily, Bucky leaned forward and cradled his head in hands.

Natasha ran a soothing hand up and down Bucky’s back. “There is much to do, Little One. You have worked hard, but now is not the time to get distracted.”

Bucky slumped over and rested his cheek on Natasha’s thigh. The leather of her armor felt cool against his skin. “I want to give Steve a chance to come with us. It’s not his fault, what his father did. Any more than it’s my fault what my father did.”

Natasha ran her fingers through Bucky’s hair and scratched his scalp lightly. “Alright, Little One. If you feel your pretty orcling is worth the risk, I support you.”

“You always have,” Bucky murmured.

-----

By the time Bucky arrived at the barracks, Morita had insisted that Steve drink some water and told him he was cut off from the special brew for the night. It wasn't enough to hide his drunken state.

"Why is Steve sloshed?" Bucky said wearily. He regretted telling Natasha he didn’t need her help. Hauling a drunk Steve back to the castle would be exhausting, even if he looked adorable curled up next to Dum Dum on the couch like two riding hounds in a heap.

"It's not my fault he's never touched liquor before,” Morita said defensively.

Bucky massaged his temples with his hands. “I’m not blaming anyone. Joseph just wanted to have some bonding time.”

"Nah," Steve said, sitting in an undignified slouch. "He doesn’t even like me that much.”

Morita ran a hand over his face. "He's been doing this all night. It's like the mead is a truth spell or something. He's a sad drunk."

"Am not," Steve said, who was giggling like a child.

“He’s not sad. He is making the rest of us sad drunks,” Dernier said with a groan. He was laying on the floor with his feet on the couch.

“I can be happy! Bucky’s here now. Let’s dance.” Steve stood up and began waving his arms around in circles.

"Whoa," Bucky said, taking hold of Steve's hands and smiling fondly. "Let's get ahold of these things before you hurt somebody with them."

Steve looked at their joined hands and then at Bucky's face. He looked so sweet and dopey, Bucky could hardly handle it. “You're real pretty, Buck. Does anybody call you Buck? Pretty Buck."

Bucky blushed. "How much of that stuff have you had to drink?"

"We were trying to sober him up," Morita said, clearly done with being responsible. "It's your turn."

"I drank some more when they weren't looking," Steve whispered, but it was loud enough that the whole room could hear.

Morita searched for the bottle and found it stashed beside Steve's seat and nearly empty. "By the three heads of the tree-dwelling gods, Steve! How are you even standing?"

Dum Dum had covered his face with a bandana but raised his hand. "I drank most of that.”

Bucky dropped Steve’s hands and helped him sit down. “I can’t take you to Joseph like this. Where’s Gabe?”

“Not helping,” Gabe slurred from behind the couch. “Did m’part already.”

Steve didn’t seem to be listening to any of them. He pointed at the Howling Commandos sprawled out in the room. "They said I should tell you that you have nice hair.”

“You’re making me want to pull it out right now,” Bucky said, rubbing his eyes with the heels of hands. “Alright, new plan. Steve, you are going to eat and drink everything I put in front of you, and when you are sober enough to walk, I’ll take you to the castle and straight to bed.”

Bucky didn’t give Steve time to agree. He raided the orclings’ mess hall and put slices of bread, cheese, and salami on a plate. Holding cups under his arm, he filled up a pitcher with water and brought it all back to the common area.

Dernier and Dum Dum had fallen asleep, and it didn’t look like Steve was far from it. Bucky wished he could let him stay in the barracks to sleep it off among friends, but Joseph would never agree to that.

“Steve, come on. You need to drink something.” Bucky jostled his shoulder and handed him a cup.  

Steve shook himself a little and slowly began drinking. Bucky said a thank you prayer to all the household gods for that small mercy. Steve continued eating and drinking, joined by Morita and Gabe after a few minutes. It turned out that they had all skipped dinner and gone straight to drink, and Bucky did not envy them the hangovers they’d be nursing tomorrow. Feeling generous, he woke Dernier and Dum Dum and cajoled them into drinking and eating a little.

After an hour, Steve seemed to rally. It was amusing to watch the soberness and embarrassment overtake him by degrees. “Oh, gods. Did I say?” Pink colored his cheeks spreading slowly down his neck.  

Dum Dum silenced him with a wave of the hand. “We’ve all done worse. Don’t worry about it.”

“You think you can stand?” Bucky said.

Steve looked at Bucky with big doe eyes but didn’t answer his question. “I’m sorry I—”

“What did Dum Dum just tell you?” Bucky said.

“To not worry about it,” Steve said with a soft smile.

“I think you’re pretty, too,” Dernier said in a sickly sweet voice.

“Aye, Bucky, the whole team voted,” Morita chimed in. “Prettiest orcling in the land.”  

Bucky sighed. “I don’t know why I’m friends with you all.” He stood and pulled Steve to his feet. “Alright, I will see you all bright and early tomorrow.” There was a collective groan, and Bucky laughed. “Fine, be there by ten.”

Bucky and Steve worked their way up to the castle. It was slow moving, and Bucky had to support Steve with one arm around his waist, but he didn’t mind. Being with a goofy, still tipsy Steve was the best part of his day.

“You looked sad when you came in,” Steve said, only the barest slur in his voice. “Meeting with Joseph didn’t go well?”

Bucky took a fortifying breath. He hadn’t decided how he wanted to read Steve in on the situation, and in his inebriated state, Steve might not understand what he was saying. “Sometimes the orcs are a little hard to deal with, that’s all.”

“That’s not it,” Steve said. Apparently, mead made him unable to hold his tongue.  “There’s something big going on here that no one’s telling me about. Not you, not my father.”

Bucky stiffened, and Steve noticed immediately.

“Are you hiding something from me, Buck?” Steve whispered.

“Everyone is,” Bucky whispered back, “that’s the game in Crested City.” He looked about quickly making sure no one was in earshot. “Your father ordered me to keep things from you.”

“He ordered you to lie?” Steve exclaimed.

Bucky winced and pulled Steve into an alley for privacy. “It’s not like that entirely. He just wanted to be the one to tell you. He thinks he’s doing the right thing, in his heart, and he wanted a chance to explain.”

“Do you think he’s doing the right thing?”

Bucky held his eyes. He didn’t want to break Steve’s heart, but he didn’t want to lie either. “No.”

At Steve's stunned silence, Bucky continued. “I can’t tell you much, or he’ll figure out I’ve broken orders.” And Steve was no good at dissembling, Bucky didn’t say. “Just think, where do the orclings come from? There are hardly any humans in the city, so where do you think these half-orc children come from?” His eyes darted left and right. "Look to the mothers, and you'll find the truth."

Steve’s eyes were wide and confused, but he nodded all the same. “Why are you telling me this?”

Bucky took Steve’s hand and squeezed it. “I think you know.”

They resumed their slow journey to the castle, both quiet and considering.



Chapter Text

It was the moment Joseph had been dreading since Steve first arrived. A reckoning, of sorts, from the only person whose approval he cared about. He loved his son’s good, pure heart, but no one pure of heart could lead a city, let alone an army. Joseph had done things he wasn’t proud of, necessary things to save the orcs. Always he saw their destruction on the horizon—their enemies were on all sides and growing stronger. The orcs had to adapt or they would be destroyed.

Joseph loved his people and the way of the orc. Although some orcs chose a life of agriculture or mercantile trades, the soldier role was most highly prized. They lead by conquest, even within their ranks, and Joseph loved it all, the straightforward nobility of it, the test of his muscles and the feel of a sword in his hand, and the camaraderie with his fellow soldiers.

Things had not been the same since Joseph had been promoted. A general was very much alone, though he had people around him at all hours. No longer they seemed compatriots but gnats, eating away at him bite by bite. It was hard to trust, difficult to delegate. Rollins was thirsting for blood, Joseph’s in particular, and now Steve was beside him but vibrating out of his skin like a harla beetle in molt. He had hoped, foolish to hope he chided himself. He had hoped his son would become his greatest ally.

It was a gray day, the threat of storm heavy in the air, yet Joseph knew he could not put off this conversation any longer. The hounds would no doubt be spooked if it thundered, but he needed to be someplace private. Steve readily agreed to ride out with him, eager to talk. They found shelter under a stand of trees not too far from the pond they had first visited. Joseph tied the hounds to a tree, and they whined at not being able to run free until he hushed them.

“The humans will destroy us. I have foreseen it,” Joseph said once they were settled. There was no use in waiting.  

“How?” Steve said.

“I consulted the Chayo oracle many years ago. The humans will charge forth burning as they go—orc, goblin, giant—none will stand against them.” It had taken him three days journey to reach the temple. He was told that the oracle would not answer a question for him unless he participated in the trance. They had him drink a sweet nectar, thick on his tongue, that made him feel like bees were stinging all his flesh inside and out until he was sure he was going mad. But it was worth it for the glimpse of the future, and Joseph had slain the oracle so that no human might see what he had seen.

“But humans are so weak,” Steve said carefully. He hated that his son chose to be careful around him. “None could best me, and I have not the might of an orc.”

“Who cares for might when an arrow may pierce your heart?” Joseph said heavily. Lightning cracked across the sky; the rain would come sooner than he hoped. “Already they have built crossbows that fire more quickly than six archer with a simple bow. They will do worse. Harness balls of fire at their command.”

Steve shivered. This was Joseph’s only hope, that Steve would remember the cruelty of humans and see the wisdom of his plan. “Is there anything you can do?”

“The orclings are our only hope.”

“But they are so few in number.”

“For now, yes.” A light drizzle began to fall, but they were shielded from it under the trees. “Many died in infancy, a few died in training as children. But I have brought human doctors to the mothers, and the next generation is double in numbers. It is a costly project. I need only a chance to show their worth to justify the expense to the King.” The expense to his own soul had been harder to pay, but he would not let his people fall.

“Can I meet them?”

Joseph had hoped Steve would be satisfied with his explanations. “They live in a village under heavy guard. Humans do not agree with mixed breeding, nor, for that matter, do some orcs. There have been many attempts on their lives.”

Steve leaned forward, his gaze intense. “But they can leave any time, visit their children? They chose this life, right?”

“What do you take me for?” Joseph felt like a boar hide pulled taut over a fleshing beam—even his son doubted him. “Has someone been planting ideas in your head?”

“No one will tell me anything,” Steve said miserably. “I was told to bring my questions to you.”

Joseph couldn’t help feeling a grim satisfaction at that; it eased some of the ache. His soldiers had followed his commands. “The King believed that if the orclings were raised by the mothers, they would be loyal to humans over orcs. He ordered them separated. This caused great distress, and many of the mothers would no longer meet with their orc husbands and lovers. Worse, orcling children have a tendency towards sickliness, and without the care of the mothers, many died.” It wasn’t the full truth, but as much as Joseph could spare. “A compromise was reached, which pleases no one. The orclings were to be raised by the mothers until the age of eight when they would move to the barracks and learn the way of the orc.”

The rain picked up, dripping through the trees and landing on them in scattered drops. Joseph couldn’t get a read on Steve, and that worried him. “It’s a terrible compromise, but the King enforces it. It bothers some of the orclings more than others. Bucky, I fear-”

“Bucky is loyal to you,” Steve interjected.

Joseph looked at Steve in surprise quickly covered. Ah. So this is who he would have to compete with for his son’s heart. “He does inspire loyalty in others, doesn’t he? He has been hard for me to read of late, but still my most trusted soldier.”

Steve’s eyes stayed intently trained on him. “Do you think one day you’ll be able to change the King’s mind? If the compromise is working for no one?”

Joseph felt the pressure building in the back of his throat. He was being pushed too far. “Did you not hear what I just said?” he said roughly. “We are facing annihilation, and you bother yourself with this.”

Steve held his palms up like he was trying to settle a spooked horse. “I, I’m sorry. I know that you are under tremendous pressure.”

Joseph took several heaving breaths. This would not do; he was pushing his son farther away. “Maybe now that you are here,” he said with effort. “You, who were raised by humans but are loyal to orcs. Perhaps meeting you will soften his stance.”

“I will do my best to prove myself loyal,” Steve said, reaching for Joseph’s hand.

Joseph took it. What choice did he have? “I have no doubt you will.”

They were quiet there a minute, watching the rain fall heavy on the surface of the pond. “When can I meet the mothers?” Steve said.

Joseph saw there would be no getting around this. “In a few days. I’ll need to ask their permission.” Steve smiled, and Joseph let himself enjoy it while it lasted.

“Will the King be angry?”

Joseph shrugged. “I will tell him that a promising young soldier wants to learn our ways before he takes command of the orclings.”

Steve’s mouth dropped open. “Me?” He recovered himself quickly. “What about Bucky? I wouldn’t want to take his place, and there’s still so much I don’t know.”

“Bucky sees your talents, as do I, and he supports this. But only when you are ready.” Joseph leaned back and rested his head against the tree. “Besides, it would solve some … loyalty issues I have.”

At Steve’s confused look, Joseph continued. "The orclings have never been that loyal to me, at least not enough to follow me into battle. But you, maybe they would follow you."

"They respect you, I know it,” Steve said, his open-hearted earnestness reminding Joseph of Sarah.

"No, fear me is more like. Some, like Bucky, are loyal to me, but I get the feeling others would flee in a heartbeat if I gave them the wrong command."

“Thank you for your faith in me,” Steve said so quietly Joseph had to strain to hear him over the sounds of the rain.

“You are the best thing to happen to me in many years,” Joseph said honestly. “There is such light in you, just like your mother.”

Steve blushed. He had not yet learned to hide his true feelings, but that would come. “Do you want to wait out the storm?”

Joseph studied the darkening clouds. He wanted to stay in this place, no matter the rain and the faint crackle of lightning in the air. In all the land, there was nowhere he could be completely honest. At least here, huddled under a tree with his son, he could speak freely with no fear of spies or interlopers. But he knew better than to test the hounds in this weather. “It will get worse before it gets better,” he said. “We should ride back now.”

-----

Something was different about Joseph this time, though Sarah couldn't quite put her finger on it. He was jubilant but in a frantic way.

" I thought you said you would come to live here," she said. Steve played with his pencils in the corner, unaware of his parent's discussion. "So that you could show that not all orcs are cruel and brutish."

Joseph had made promises, promises of them ushering in a new world with compromise and peaceful cohabitation. His vision for the future was just one of the reasons she loved him.

" That will never work. You'll have to come with me. At least, allow Steve to come and live among my people for a while."

Sarah's eyes darted over to Steve and back. "He's very sickly, you know that. He wouldn't survive the journey. Besides, you said—“

"Yes, yes. Orcs are not forgiving of sickness in children, but we've learned that this is the way of all orclings. Sick and weak as children, but most grow out of it." He walked over to Steve and picked him up. "Soon he will grow into a great warrior."

What was the need for warriors in this brave new era of peace they were ushering in? Fear coiled deep in Sarah's stomach, and she knew she had been deceived.

"Still, he is quite small," she said hastily. "What if he never grows big?"

Joseph studied Steve. "That would be unfortunate. He would have to stay in the village then."

Steve patted Joseph's cheeks with his small hands and squealed in delight when Joseph grinned at him.

"But it would be better for him to grow up around other orclings who would accept him," Joseph said.

"I didn't realize there were others," Sarah said, voice small.

Joseph kissed her cheek. "You are my only mate and Steve my only offspring. You needn't worry. The orclings were born of women recruited from the highlands."

Sarah tried not to let her disgust show, guessing what “recruiting” meant. She didn't have to guess why Joseph kept this from her.

"Perhaps I will go see," she said. "Decide if I want to live there." She gathered her shawl and wrapped it around her shoulders. "First I must ask my brother's wife to see to the goats while I am gone." She held out her hands. "Here, I'll take Steve with me, so he can say goodbye."

Joseph laughed. "It is well past sundown, my love. He should be in bed, not out on the streets. Go. We'll be here when you get back."

An icy chill went down Sarah's spine. Joseph's words were reasonable, and she couldn't disagree without drawing suspicion. "Of course. I will be back shortly."

Sarah made herself walk slowly until she rounded the corner, out of Joseph's sight. She took off running through the woods and arrived at her sister-in-law's house breathing heavily.

Eliza came to the door and took in Sarah's state. "Ill news at this hour. Speak, and quickly."

Sarah spoke through gasping breaths. "Joseph is back. Going to take me and my son."

Mercifully, Eliza didn't say, 'I told you so.' "Daniel," she called out. "Summon the guard and several strong men." She held Sarah's shaking hands in hers "It will be alright. The men will come quickly."

"I must go back," Sarah said. "I left Steve alone with him. Joseph wouldn't let me bring him here."

Eliza nodded. "You get there and hide."

Sarah hurried down the hill and waited out of sight until her breath returned.

When she entered the cabin, she found Joseph gathering Steve's belongings into a rucksack.

"My love," he said with a smile, "so quick on your journey. I did not expect you back for some time. Humans do love to talk."

Sarah's movements were stiff. She couldn't help it. She was never one for artifice. "You are packing now? Why don't we go to bed and leave in the morning?"

Joseph gave her a quick once over. "I would enjoy that, but I'm afraid we must leave at once."

"Steve does so poorly without sleep," Sarah said, picking him up. "He will get sick again if he can't rest." She carried him into the bedroom.

"My child," she whispered. "Hide and do not come out no matter what you hear. Tell me you understand."

"I understand, Mama."

Sarah pushed Steve underneath the bed and closed the door behind her, pulling a table in from to block Steve's exit.

"What are you doing?" Joseph asked, looking amused. "Do you think that will stop me?"

Sarah squared her body. Joseph, who had always seemed big and strong, now felt giant. "I aim to slow you down."

Joseph slapped Sarah across the face, and she tumbled to the ground. "What have you done, woman?"

Sarah scrambled to her feet. She wanted to run away, but she could not leave Steve behind. She would not let him take her son.

"You spite our love?" he said. "You were to rule by my side! Now, look what you've done." He slapped her again. Sarah raised an arm to block, but it was useless, and she fell to the ground.

Shouts came from outside. Joseph had locked the door while she was with Steve, and the people of the village couldn't enter. Sarah felt overwhelmed, helpless. But she'd never been one to back down from a fight. One of the villagers hit the door with an ax, and Sarah sprang towards Joseph.

Joseph sidestepped her neatly, annoyed by her behavior. He grabbed her by the hair and shook. "So brave, my love. I'm taking you with me. You'll learn to love me."

"I would rather die than go with you," she said through clenched teeth.

The chopping intensified.

“That can be arranged,” Joseph replied.

-----

After Steve left Oaktown, Sarah went numbly about her work. Her whole being had been poured into protecting her son, and she felt unmoored and purposeless without him there. Friends who had not spoken to her for years came to call, and her father invited her to dinner. Although she had longed for this, it felt sour in her mouth. Their love was conditional. They had rejected her son.

Her thoughts strayed often to Steve and his journey to Crested City. She thought of joining him, of convincing him of the truth about Joseph. She awoke one morning with a vision of the future. Her son had made his choice, but there were others she could help. She would find the truth of the women Joseph had “recruited.”

She journeyed to other villages, asking if anyone had heard tales of missing women. She followed the rumors from place to place until she found families who had lost their loved ones. They fed her and housed her; eager to have someone who would listen and share their grief. Her determination grew rock solid. She was going to free the women or die trying.

She began to make her way to Crested City, asking for food and shelter along the way. Most were generous, but when she was refused, she foraged and stole. She slept clutching her food to her chest and praying no bandit would come upon her.  One night the ground around the path was rocky, and, unable to find a place to rest, she lay on the path itself and went to asleep.

She was awoken by a man stumbling over her in the dark and falling to the ground. His bag opened and scattering food along with his bow and arrows.

“Gods,” he grumbled. “Why are you sleeping here?”

Sarah pulled her bag tightly to herself. “Why are you prowling about at night?”

The man groaned, still in a heap on the ground. He was a goblin, she realized. “I’ve been kicked out of Riverbend. Let a stranger in one of the sacred spaces and all that. Olivia told me to come the long way. ” He sat up suddenly peering at her. “Perhaps to meet you.”

“Perhaps,” she said non-committal. She didn’t know who this Olivia was. “I’m Sarah.”

The goblin grinned, visible even in the poor light, and leaned forward. “I’m Clint, your new protector.”

Something stirred in Sarah’s chest. She wasn’t sure what—the guidance of a household god or the direction the great Unnamed—but something made her trust Clint. “I’m on a quest to free the women kidnapped by the orcs.”

Clint pumped his arm. “Hells, yeah. I’m in.”

“Just like that? I don’t know where they are or how I will free them.”

“Just like that.” He gathered his supplies back into his bag and lay on the path next to her. “We’ll figure it out,” he said and fell asleep almost immediately.  

——

They traveled together for several days. Clint knew the way to the city and said he had a couple of contacts there they could trust. When Sarah told him of her son Steve, Clint didn’t seem surprised that Steve was the same one he’d saved from death. If anything, it strengthened his belief that he was meant to help her. They entered the city under the cover of darkness. Clint scaled the wall and lowered a rope to help Sarah up. They crept through alleyways and entered a house shortly before first light.

“Whose place is this?” Sarah whispered.

“His name is Bucky. Leader of the orclings. ” Clint whispered. “Stay behind me.”

They crept in through a window in the kitchen and entered the main room. An orcling was sitting there in the darkness, sword drawn. “You’re losing your edge, Clint,” he said.

Clint lit a match. “Bucky, I brought company.” The light illuminated Sarah’s face, and Bucky stood at once, his sword clattered to the ground. He hurried to pick it up and fetched Clint a candle.

“Are you?” Bucky said, stepping forward and then stopping himself. “You look so much like him…”

“My name is Sarah,” she said, extending her hand. Bucky looked as though he might cry, and although Sarah didn’t know why he was upset, she followed her motherly instincts and pulled him into a hug. He went softly, willingly, squeezing her carefully as though she were a looter egg before releasing her.

Bucky wiped under his eyes with the back of his hand. “I don’t know what came over me. I haven’t seen my mother in so long—”

“It’s fine,” Sarah said. “Anytime you need. But we have work to do.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m here to free the missing women,” Sarah said.

Bucky glanced between her and Clint. “And you?”

“Olivia has sent me to protect Sarah.”

Bucky’s smile was as bright as sunshine if surprised. “We need all the help we can get. Thank you.”

Sarah touched Bucky’s cheek turning him towards the light so she could get a better look at him. “You’re one of them, aren’t you? The children of the kidnapped women?”

“Winifred,” Bucky whispered wetly.

“I met your kin. They still grieve for her, all these years later. Tell tales of her bravery and wit.” She pulled Bucky into another hug, feeling the shake of his shoulders as he cried. “I know you are scared for her. It will all be alright soon. You’ll see.”

Bucky pulled back and stood up. “Thank you. It’s wonderful to meet you.” He turned to Clint, transforming before Sarah’s eyes from frightened son to leader. “I’ll get Steve. You—”

“I will,” Clint said.

“Don’t let anyone in but us,” Bucky said to Sarah. “And don’t trust anyone.”

——

After they left, Sarah familiarized herself with the house. She washed her face and hands in a basin and ran a brush through her ratty hair. Turning her mind to food, she rummaged through the kitchen. She pulled out hava loaf, cheese, and an apple and cut them into pieces with a kitchen knife.

“I haven’t checked those yet,” a woman said. Sarah turned around quickly and held out the knife. She was face to face with a large red headed orc who stepped neatly around the blade and sampled some of the bread, cheese, and fruit. She chewed thoughtfully for a few moments. “No poison,” the woman said. “Come, eat while we wait for Bucky and Steve, your son.”

Sarah didn’t drop her knife. “How did you know who my son is?” Bucky had told her to trust no one.

Natasha grabbed another piece of apple and walked back into the main room. “I wish I didn’t know him at all,” she said over her shoulder. “He’s trouble.”

Sarah followed her bearing a plate a food and still holding the kitchen knife. “Aye, he is that.”

“You love him in spite of that?”

“I’m helpless not to,” Sarah said. It was the gods be damned truth.   

Natasha popped the apple in her mouth and looked away. “I know a little about that,” she said.

“Clint is my…” She cleared her throat. “Clint told me about Steve.”

Sarah sat on the couch and rested the knife on a small table. She ate in silence. Natasha was undoubtedly a dangerous woman, although her intentions were unclear. Clint returned after a while, and Steve and Bucky were close behind them.  

   Hurrying around the couch, Steve fell into her open arms and slumped like his strings had been cut. It reminded Sarah of a hunting hound trying to crawl into her lap. No matter. He was a heavy burden she bore gladly.

“Mother,” Steve said with a sigh. “It’s not what I thought it would be like. I’m sorry. I thought—”

“I understand,” she said, rubbing his back. She wanted to cry with relief but now was not the time. She had work to do.

“Don’t squish her,” Clint chided. “I’m her protector.”

Steve released her and smiled sadly. “I missed you,” he said.

“I missed you, too.”     

“Father will be so glad to know you’re here.”

Everyone in the room froze, and Sarah’s heart broke for him. Steve so badly wanted a whole family.

“You can’t let him take her,” Bucky said face panicked.

“He loves her,” Steve sounded confused. “Whatever else, he loves her.”

“He has been deceiving you,” Natasha cut in. She was furious and determined; Sarah decided at once that she liked her. “He’s brilliant at it. Everything is a lie within a lie.”

“But—”

“Steve,” Sarah said softly. The people in the room stopped to listen, surprised, almost as though they had forgotten she was there. She didn’t let it faze her. She was used to being underestimated. “I cannot fault you for not seeing. I myself did not see for many years. Joseph is a master of deception. It wasn’t until he tried to steal you from me that I saw the truth.”

“But he loves me,” Steve said, sounding so much like the lost boy she’d comforted years ago.

Sarah ran her fingers through his hair. He’d gotten so much bigger since he’d been in Crested City, looking more like a man. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you the truth about him. I was afraid if you hated him, you’d hate yourself, and I couldn’t bear to have you grow up like that.” It was a risky decision, and perhaps the wrong one, but Sarah was not in the practice of crying over spilled milk. “I’ll speak only the truth now. Your father has been kidnapping women and using them to breed human-orc hybrids.”

“No,” Steve said, face reddening. “He told me the king--”

“The king,” Natasha said, her tone low and deadly, “is a doddering old fool content to live off the conquests of his youth and blind to Joseph’s machinations.”

Sarah knew Steve was a strong man, but she hated that all this had to be broken to him at once. It would be too much for most people, but they didn’t have time to waste.

“Why did no one tell me?” Steve said.  

“We were ordered not to,” Bucky said.

“That’s not good enough.”

“If we break orders, he punishes the mothers and children.”

Steve looked gutted, his eyes flying wildly from one person to the next. “He wouldn’t answer my questions, but then he, I don’t know, made me forget? How could I have been blind?”

Natasha snapped to draw his attention. “Compose yourself. Rescuing the mothers will take careful planning and deception. You cannot go charging at Joseph with this. Do you understand? Everyone will be killed.”

Steve nodded shakily. “Of course. I just—”

“Someone’s coming,” Clint said, sitting up. “Hide.”

Natasha pulled Sarah into a closet with her, and they watched the room through a crack in the door. Clint lept into the rafters with his bow, and Bucky ripped off his shirt and straddled Steve.

“My mother is here,” Steve hissed.

Bucky ignored him, pulling Steve in for a bruising kiss.

The door banged open, and Joseph and an orcling came swaggering in. Both looked surprised to see the Bucky and Steve tangled up together. Sarah could hardly breathe. She rubbed her neck, remembering how Joseph had grabbed her.

The orcling scoffed. “This is one way to maintain your position. Though, a bit more whorish than I had imagined of you.”  

“Did I say I wanted your opinion?” Joseph said harshly. He backhanded the orcling who had the good sense to look abashed. “Leave us, Brock.” The orcling scurried out.

Bucky slid out of Steve’s lap and made a show of looking for his shirt.

“You’re late for training,” Joseph said to Bucky.

“It’s not yet breakfast,” Bucky said.

“We’re starting early,” Joseph said tersely. He sat on the couch beside Steve.    

Steve’s face was bright red, and Sarah prayed Joseph would think it was because of embarrassment. “Apologies, Father.”

Joseph smiled at him, but it was strained. “Bucky, come sit.”

Bucky sat a respectable distance away from Steve on the couch.

“Tell me, Bucky, where do an orc’s loyalties lie?”

“Myself, my king, and my unit,” Bucky replied.

Joseph studied Bucky and Steve’s faces. “Will you be able to be more loyal to me than each other?”

“Yes, sir,” Bucky said.

Steve stumbled with his speech; he was never a good liar. “Y-yes, father.”

Joseph nodded consideringly. “It’s your human side that needs this, but keep it quiet. A little diversion is probably good for you.” He pointed at Bucky. “Report to the training grounds at once.” And to Steve, “Go change into your uniform, eat breakfast, and join the orclings at the training grounds later.”

Steve stood up and ran his fingers through his hair to straighten it. He pointedly did not look at the closet, although Sarah could see the strain of it.

Once the house was empty, Clint hopped down from the rafters and Natasha and Sarah exited the closet. “I couldn’t get a clean shot. He knew right where to stand.”

“So he knew you were there,” Natasha said.

“Or he’s used to being under constant threat,” Sarah said, tightening her arms around herself. Seeing Joseph had left a chill in her bones.

“Tell me,” Natasha said to Sarah, “this quest of yours, are you willing to die for it?”

Sarah nodded. “If that’s what’s written.”

“Good. You’re with us,” Natasha pulled out a sheathed dagger and handed it to Sarah. “This will have more use than a kitchen knife.”

“Let’s hope you don’t have to use that,” Clint said.

Sarah pulled out the blade and tested it in her hands. “It can’t be much harder than slitting a chicken’s neck. I mean,” she grinned at Clint and Natasha, enjoying the surprise on their faces, “I liked some of my chickens.”  

-----

Steve’s mind was spinning all of the way back to the castle. On the one hand, it seemed so obvious: Joseph had been hiding things almost from the start. He was mercurial, domineering. But he had also been kind to Steve, unexpectedly gentle. Nothing made sense. He didn’t doubt his mother and Bucky, but he hated that his father had so thoroughly deceived him.

Once he returned to his room, Steve sat on his bed with his hands. He had wanted to be with his father all his life, and now, what could he do? He wanted to run, but Bucky and Joseph were waiting for him. He put on his uniform and walked slowly to the training grounds.

“Steve!” Joseph said. “Earlier than I expected. Did you not eat?”

“I didn’t want to eat if Bucky didn’t get to.”

“Ah. Loyal of you. Come, spar with me,” Joseph said, all easy confidence. “We’ve been testing the might of the orclings today, none has beaten an orc except Brock. Think you can best me?”

“Unlikely,” Steve said. “I’m not feeling like myself today.”

“You are confused,” Joseph said, striding into the ring. Steve hesitantly followed him. He didn’t know what else to do.

“Spar with me.” Joseph stripped off his shirt and threw it to the side. He seemed larger, more dangerous than Steve had yet seen. The morning light glistened off his thick muscles. “Best me and I will answer any question you have.”

Steve glanced at Bucky and the other Howling Commandos. They looked uneasy. Morita was sporting a swollen eye and Dum Dum had blood in his mustache; no doubt both from sparring with orcs.

“Remember your training. You can do this,” Gabe called out.   

Rollins signaled the start of the match, and Joseph charged immediately. His face was fierce and terrifying. He looped one arm below Steve’s leg and flipped him on his back. Steve fell hard, losing his breath. They grappled, but Steve’s might was no match for an orc as formidable as Joseph. He pinned Steve and counted to three.

“Well done,” Joseph said, although it sounded like he didn’t mean it.

Bucky walked over to Steve and helped him off the ground. “One moment, sir,” he apologized to Joseph. “Use your endurance and your speed,” Bucky whispered. “Don’t match strength, be smart, and remember your training.”

Steve nodded. Joseph came at him again, and this time he dodged, backing away. Joseph laughed, but it was a mean, low thing. “Running away? Fight me like an orc.”

“I’m not an orc,” Steve said.

Joseph clenched his teeth and charged towards Steve catching him before he could get away. They tumbled to the ground together in twisting heap. It was over faster than Steve had expected. Joseph pinned him, hopped up and left Steve on the ground.

Joseph stalked over to Bucky with narrowed eyes. “He never should have beaten you. Explain yourself.”

“He caught me by surprise. I—” Bucky’s words were interrupted by a slap from Joseph. Steve gasped and struggled to his feet.

“You let your guard down for a pretty face?” Joseph demanded. “Perhaps I should let Rollins train the orclings. Come. You will fight me.”

The air felt charged like the moment before a lightning strike. Bucky joined Joseph in the ring. Joseph charged. Bucky pivoted to the side, dancing away. Joseph charged again, Bucky faked left then right, eluding his grasp. “Coward!” Joseph roared.

“You wanted a different army, not more orcs,” Bucky said, avoiding Joseph’s grasp. “I’ve trained them to fight to our advantages.”

Joseph’s face was beaded with sweat, he used the back of his hand to wipe it away. “Looks like running to me.”

“It’s not losing,” Bucky said.

Joseph came for him slower, hemming him in. He grabbed Bucky about the waist. Bucky sank low and graceful like a snake, sliding out of his hold. The orcs chuckled, and Joseph’s face reddened. “Enough, fight me!”

Joseph charged, and this time Bucky allowed Joseph to grab hold. They grappled, Bucky using Joseph’s momentum against him. But he was holding back, Steve could see it clear as day; he hoped the orcs didn’t. After several minutes, Joseph finally pinned Bucky to the cheers of the orcs.

Joseph stood, reached down, and pulled Bucky to his feet. “I suppose a minor slip can be forgiven,” he said with a smile. “I’d forgotten what an accomplished fighter you are. Rollins.” Joseph signaled to the orc captain. “See to Winifred. Breed me another Bucky.”

Bucky’s eyes widened. “Surely,” he said, voice hoarse, “she is too old to be bred again.”

Joseph looked genuinely surprised. “I should hope not. Else, what am I keeping her around for?”

Bucky screamed in rage and dove at Joseph. Gone was the finesse and grace from before, the practiced control. Bucky fought like a cornered animal, desperate, all teeth and claws. He knocked Joseph to the ground, and they rolled around in a messy heap pushing and grabbing.

The orcs did not interfere. Rollins grinned and signaled his troops to hold back the orclings.

Joseph gained advantage pinning one of Bucky’s shoulders to the ground, but there was a wildness in Bucky’s fight. He knocked Joseph off him and punched him across the face and kicked him in the stomach. They were a flurry of limbs fists and feet until at last Bucky pinned Joseph to the ground with his face against the dirt.

“What are you going to do to me, boy?” Joseph said.

“I-” he looked at Steve, hesitating. “I don’t know.”

“Get him,” Rollins said.

The orcs surged forward and pulled Bucky off Joseph and threw him to the ground. Joseph stood up and brushed the dirt from his clothes and face. “It seems you’ve been hiding the strength of the orclings. Tell me, what honor is that? Why shouldn’t I kill them where they stand?”

“No!” Steve said.

Joseph glanced at Brock. “Hand me an ax.”

Steve stepped between Bucky and his father. “Please don’t.” The training grounds were utterly quiet--the orcs and orclings waiting to see how the General would respond.

Joseph sighed and accepted the ax Brock returned with. “You have a decision to make. Prove your loyalty.” He held out the ax to Steve.

“No,” Steve yelled, stumbling away from it as though it might bite. “Don’t hurt him. Please.”

Joseph sneered. “He doesn’t deserve your loyalty.”

Steve stepped back between Bucky and his father. “He has had it. Almost from the moment we met.”

Joseph sighed again. His cocky facade fell away, replaced by pure earnestness. “You are not like him, Steve. You were born of love.”

Steve could barely breathe. He bit his cheek until he tasted blood. “What was he born of?” Steve choked out.

“Necessity,” Joseph said. It echoed in Steve’s mind, changing everything. “The humans must be destroyed, and only orclings can do it. I have foreseen it.”

Steve walked backward until he was right in front of Bucky.

“Steve,” Bucky whispered.

Steve half turned to him. Bucky looked determined. “It’s too late for me,” he whispered. “Save Winifred.”

“I won’t let him kill you.”

Bucky hung his head. He reminded Steve of the martyrs of old, beautiful in their suffering, sacrificing everything for gods and love. “Go.”

Steve looked at the Howling Commandos. The orcs outnumbered them two to one, and if they all died today who would rescue the mothers?

“I-” Steve’s voice faltered.

Joseph’s voice softened. “I understand.” He spoke loudly enough for the orcs and orclings to hear him. “I too was led astray by love.” He walked over and clapped Steve on the shoulder. “You will see the wisdom of our ways. Self and country first.”

“Please don’t kill him,” Steve whispered.

Joseph frowned. “For you.” He signaled to the orcs. “Hold him steady.”

Rollins, Brock, and several orcs surged forward and grabbed onto Bucky. He fought it kicking and writhing in the hold, but there were too many of them.

“Arm out,” Joseph said calmly. The orclings held Bucky’s left arm out to the side.

“Go!” Bucky yelled at Steve.

Joseph ran a teasing finger down the scar on Bucky’s shoulder. “I miss these days,” he said. Joseph raised the ax overhead. Steve couldn’t move. Frozen. He and Bucky locked eyes.

“Go,” Bucky mouthed.

Joseph’s ax dropped, cutting off Bucky’s arm at the shoulder. He screamed out in pain, and the orcs cheered, holding his severed arm aloft. The Howling Commandos looked on in horror. Steve stumbled over to Gabe and pulled him into a stiff hug.

“The mothers now,” Steve whispered.

Gabe squeezed back. “Go to Bucky’s house. We’re right behind you.”

“My son is the new leader of the orclings,” Joseph announced. He grinned at Steve feral and shark-like. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

Steve felt like he was going to be sick. “Thank you,” he said. “I’m going to retire to my room.”

Joseph shrugged. “You’ll see. It was for the best.”

Steve’s feet moved away almost of their own accord. He would fulfill Bucky’s wishes. If only he knew how.

 

Chapter Text

In the end, it was the love of his mother that turned Bucky against Joseph, although he was careful to hide it. It didn’t happen all at once, but slowly by degrees. After learning that Bucky had been hurt by the troll, Winifred bribed an orc guard with one of her tapestries in exchange for him delivering a short letter to Bucky. In it, she bid Bucky be more than a soldier, a weapon of Joseph. She encouraged him to consider artistic pursuits and develop friendships with the other orclings. Although they had been apart for four years, Bucky loved his mother and thought of her fondly, and so he carried out her wishes in private. 

They continued to communicate thusly as often as was safe, once or twice a year. As he grew older, Bucky longed to be close to his mother, and he begged Joseph to let him see her. Joseph denied his request without explanation, and Bucky did not hear from Winifred for almost a year. Even then, it was not a letter he received but a tiny polished stone. Bucky knew better than to ask Joseph for help again.

Winifred continued supplying the castle with tapestries when the need arose. In the corner of all of them, she sewed a fox, her pet name for Bucky. When Bucky turned eighteen, Joseph allowed Bucky to keep Winifred’s latest creation in payment for saving his life. It was a stunning portrait of a mother fox with two kits. The kits were cuddled together and surrounded by the mother’s long tail. It was tender, intimate, and more personal than any of her previous work. Bucky understood the message immediately: he had a sibling.

Natasha bribed a guard at the mothers’ compound and discovered that Winifred had born a daughter named Becca. Females were rare among the orclings, and none had yet lived to adulthood. If Becca did live, Bucky had no doubt she would suffer the same fate as his mother.

With trembling hands, Bucky had approached the Howling Commandos and asked for their help. He wanted to free the mothers and children and flee from Crested City, and he needed their help. Their agreement was unanimous and instantaneous. They had some reservations on including Natasha, but once she shared everything she knew about the mothers and swore to help liberate them, they welcomed her as one of them.

-----

Bucky leaned against the cold wall of the prison cell. His breathing came in rapid pulses—in and out faster than he could have imagined. It was too late. He would die here, chained to the wall, bleeding slowly. He’d been bleeding for years, he realized. Bleeding small pieces of himself, little bits of his heart flayed open and left for all to see.

The ax had cut his arm off cleanly, Bucky was at least grateful for that. The bone had splintered and split in two, the stretch and tear of the skin, the muscle being rendered. It hadn’t hurt for the first second, or, his mind had somehow not caught up with his body, and then the whole world exploded into debilitating pain.

There was a justice to it. Joseph had chosen Bucky’s arm because it bore the scar—the symbol of Bucky’s love and loyalty. Joseph was severing their connection and repaying his debt. Bucky always suspected his sacrifice would be repaid at his own expense.

He had failed. There was no other explanation. He had failed and would die here. Steve, perhaps Steve would? Bucky stopped himself. He would not let his heart hope. It was too dangerous. Heartbreaking. If Steve did nothing and Bucky let himself hope, he didn’t know if his heart would ever recover. Bucky ached with heartbreak. It wasn’t that he couldn’t save himself. It was that he couldn’t save Winifred. She would be trapped there, siring children until Joseph killed her. There was nothing he could do. No hope. Nothing. The room spun. Bucky couldn’t feel his face, his toes tingled, his skin felt more sensitive and dull at the same time, a confusing mash of pain all over his body.

The orcs hadn’t beaten Bucky in front of Steve. But Joseph had let them have their fun once Bucky was chained in the cell.

When the orcs were gone, Joseph had cleaned Bucky up himself. Gentle words and soft touches. “I had to let them do that,” he said. “They needed blood, and there was no path out otherwise. I was wrong,” he ran a piece of linen across Bucky’s mouth gently mopping up the blood and wiping off the grit. “I was wrong to leave Winifred alive so long. You could never really be loyal to me with your mother around. None of the orclings could.”

He kissed Bucky gently on the forehead, and Bucky was too exhausted and overwhelmed with pain to react. “It’s not your fault, Bucky. Your human half makes you weak and prone to love.” He picked up a rag and ran it through a bucket of water. “I myself have that weakness. I should have helped you be stronger.” He ran the cloth in long soothing strokes down Bucky’s neck and chest, his shoulders, careful to avoid his stump. “It’s my fault you love her. It won’t end like this for you, dying in a dungeon. You’ll die beside me in battle, or I’ll kill you by my own hand. I owe you that much.”

Hours passed. Days. Years. All of time singled down to the rapidly beating pulse, the ache in his arm, the room around him.

“I want to die,” Bucky said aloud. There was no one to hear him. “I want to die,” he repeated, voice only whisper loud.

A healer entered the room; a human woman Bucky vaguely recognized. Morita’s mother, he realized. “I want to die,” Bucky told her, near out of his mind with pain. “I’m no use anymore.”

The healer hushed him gently and applied a salve to his stump. It burned at first, and he hissed, but the pain soon dulled. She coaxed him into drinking water and taking a few bites of food. Bucky wanted to sleep, but the pain was too much.  

The healer covered his mouth gently with a rag; it smelled odd. Bucky felt the tears begin to flow, heavy sobs breaking free. “I’m so tired,” he said muffled by her hand. She brushed his hair away from his eyes and behind his ears with her small, nimble fingers.

“You have done so well,” she whispered. “You’ve been so brave.”

The room was going dark, and Bucky didn’t bother to fight it.  

“Winifred would be so proud,” she said.

Darkness descended and Bucky fell into a dreamless sleep.

When Bucky awoke, he thought for a second that he might have died. His skin felt hot all over, tight, stretched over his body. He rolled onto his side and cried out in pain as the stump pressed against the cold stone floor. He managed to right himself and leaned against the wall of the cell. No, he thought grimly. He wouldn’t die here. He would live for many years to be Joseph’s fool, an example for the orclings, and a place for orcs to work out their frustration. It was only fair. His mother had lived for many years in torment. Now it was his turn. If only his sacrifice had meant something—if only Winifred was free.

Bucky noticed he had been left a jug of water and painstakingly brought it to his mouth. He didn’t know how long he would have to wait for another, and he was unwilling to waste it. Waste it like he had wasted all of their chances.

“How the mighty have fallen,” Brock’s voice rasped in the small room. He stayed outside the cell, peering in through the bars of the door. For a moment, it looked to Bucky as though Brock was the one in jail, but it was a trick of the light. Brock certainly didn’t feel trapped, at least, not that he told Bucky.

“Steve has run off, you know,” Brock said. “In case you were hoping he’d save you. Joseph is beside himself with worry.”

Bucky grunted and let his head hang heavy. Hope flickered in his chest like a candle on a windy night, fragile and prone to going out. Steve was unaccounted for. He hadn’t joined forces with Joseph. Perhaps there was hope, hope that his sacrifice had not been for nothing. It would make it sweeter, less bitter at least, to be Joseph’s chained dog, if it meant that Winifred was free.

“Stop ignoring me, you ass.” Brock shook the metal door. “I deserve more than that.”

“What’d you want?”  Bucky said. The words felt thick on his tongue.

Bucky’s attention seemed to calm Brock somewhat. “I would think that would be obvious. Joseph has made me the new head of the orclings, at least until Steve is found. I need to know where he will go.”

“Don’t you hurt him,” Bucky ground out.

Brock laughed—a bitter, brittle thing. “He’s abandoned you! Why are you still loyal to him?”

Bucky lifted his head and took another swig of water. There was no questioning why he was loyal to Steve. It was love, pure and simple. And Bucky knew that, like magic, all love comes with a price. He hoped that Steve would be free of Crested City and Joseph’s clutches. He hoped Steve had run, fled from danger all the way back to his village, but that didn’t sound like the Steve he knew, too stubborn to give up a fight. Still, Brock didn’t need to know that. “Promise you won’t hurt him,” Bucky said hoarsely.

He huffed. “I don’t want to hurt him. I just want to see that he returns to his father and is reminded of his loyalties.”

“Look to the south of the city. He loves the lake where he and Joseph go swimming. He’d run that way.”

Brock nodded, although Bucky doubted he believed his words. Brock left and, Bucky dozed fitfully, waking to drink water. His body was covered in a cool sweat, and despite the fact that the bleeding had been stanched, Bucky still felt as though he was being drained dry, fading away to nothingness.

The Howling Commandos hadn’t completed a plan for how to save the mothers, but they had been working on it. Gabe had made friends with a few of the orc guards and determined the amount it would take to bribe them to look the other way. Morita had been slowly gathering supplies. Dum Dum had been looking for places that might harbor them, with limited success. That was the real problem. They might get free, but what was to keep the wealth of the whole orc nation from following them? The King didn’t care for Joseph’s orcling experiment, but he also didn’t like being slighted.

Why did he torture himself with such thoughts? Joseph was gone. Steve was gone. If he had begun to love Bucky, what could he look on him now as anything other than an object of pity, maybe even revulsion?

Hope flickered and blew out. Perhaps Winifred would be free, but he would die before he heard of it. It didn’t seem a frightful thing, dying. He had been living amongst monsters many years, and death seemed the least frightening of all of them. A friend, now. A friend to ease his suffering. Surely it was just like sleeping, dying. A peaceful place where he could rest.

“I want to die,” he whispered again. It was a prayer, a plea to the gods he had never believed in. They hadn’t granted him anything thus far, but perhaps in this, they would be merciful.  

-----

Natasha, Clint, and Sarah crept through the city to her house. They stayed there until midday before Natasha decided it was time for them to move. She had wanted to wait until she got the signal from Bucky, but what the day held, she didn’t know. Joseph had been in a dangerous mood. She wouldn’t be surprised if one or more of the orclings didn’t survive the day’s training.

It was now or never. If the Howling Commandos were not able to make it, Natasha would evacuate the mothers and children on foot if need be. They would likely be caught, but at least they would have tasted freedom.

Natasha gave cloaks to Clint and Sarah to hide their heritage, and they made their way through alleys and back streets to the compound.

“There are five guards outside,” Natasha whispered. “At least five more inside. We’ll have to take out the ones outside before they can sound the alarm.”

“I can take out two, maybe three,” Clint said, pulling out his arrows. “It looks like their necks are their weak spot. And the seam between the upper and lower armor.”

“There are two on the inside that are sympathetic to our cause. Although, we’ve come empty-handed,” Natasha said ruefully, “and their sympathy may dry up without bribes. Are you still with us?”

Sarah had a dogged look on her face. “Absolutely.”

Natasha drew in a calming breath. All her life she had wanted to help others, to repay the evil Joseph had forced her to do, and if she had to die to clear her ledger, so be it. “Clint, you take out as many as you can, then you and Sarah fight off the others while I sneak inside.”

“You shouldn’t go in alone,” Clint said gravely. “The odds will be terrible.”

Natasha started to protest, but Sarah laid a gentle hand on her arm. “He’s right. We’ll die together or not at all.”

“Bucky will murder me if I let you get killed,” Natasha murmured.

“What about Steve?” Clint said.

Natasha rolled her eyes, not able to fight a smile. “I guess he would be mad, too.” She took another deep breath and squeezed Sarah’s arm. “You can come but stay behind me.”

Clint took out two orcs with arrows right away, landing perfectly in their necks above their armor. Gods, Natasha loved him. She had a moment’s regret that she hadn’t yet told him before she felled a guard with her sword and charged into the compound with Sarah hot on their heels.

Natasha excelled at close quarter fighting, but she was dismayed to see the children and mothers were in the room with the guards. She attacked the first guard that came towards her. He was skilled with a sword, and not above using the crowd to his advantage, but Natasha killed him quickly.  

The two guards who were sympathetic to their cause had thrown down their swords. But another had taken a girl and held a knife to her throat. Several women gasped.

“Call off the attack or this one dies,” he said. The girl had Bucky’s eyes, Natasha realized and froze.

“You wouldn’t,” Sarah said, her teeth in near snarl. She was small, even for a human, and Natasha doubted the orc saw her as much of a threat. Sarah walked forward. Natasha wanted to grab her arm but didn’t dare move.

“I’m serious,” the orc said. “Call it off.”

“Let go of that child,” Sarah said vibrating with rage. Natasha half expected her to bare her teeth.

The guard looked at her incredulously. Then a woman with wildly curly hair hit him in the back of the head with a frying pan. He released the child with a howl and spun around in anger. Sarah stabbed him in the back, not quite deep enough to kill him. The other woman hit him again with the frying pan, and soon the mothers had descended on him until they dragged him to the ground, and Sarah slit his throat.

Another guard grabbed Natasha from behind, but she sank down, flipped upside down, and pulled him down with his head between her thighs before breaking his neck. Natasha rolled to her feet.

The curly headed woman approached her. “I’m Winifred. What can we do to help?” She had a steadfastness to her that Natasha immediately admired. “They’ve put Bucky in prison.”

Natasha felt her world rip at the seams. “And the others?”

“Not in prison,” Winifred said. “At least,” she hesitated, “not that we know of.”

If Bucky were taken or killed, the Howling Commandos would know to immediately enact their plan to rescue the mothers. Natasha decided to take the risk, hoping they would make it. The mothers would stand a better chance of escaping if they were all together.

“We need you to hide,” Natasha said. “More may come, and I want you all out of the fighting.” Her tone turned apologetic. “It may be several hours.”

It was good that they had brought Sarah. The women trusted her more than Natasha, no doubt a consequence of years of mistreatment by orcs. They looked at Sarah with awe; she sparked hope in their hearts. Sarah decided to join the women and children in their rooms, so she could learn their names and share stories of their families.

Natasha addressed the guards who had not participated in the fighting. “We had to move our timetable up, and we’ve come empty-handed,” she said. “You can suffer the same fate as your friends, or I can let you go if you swear not to raise the alarm.”

The guards glanced at one another, and Natasha knew she couldn’t risk it. “Tie them up,” she told Clint. One of the guards reached for his sword and Natasha stabbed him before he could grab it. The other raised his hands in surrender and allowed himself to be tied up and gagged.

Natasha dragged the dead orcs into the kitchen to make room and settled in with Clint. She would give the Howling Commandos three hours and not a second more.   

-----

For Steve, it was the waiting that was the worst. The Howling Commandos had arrived at Bucky’s place shortly after Steve and quickly began dismantling floorboards and pulling out what Morita called their “go bags.” After it was all done, Dum Dum, Dernier, and Gabe had to sneak out of the city and get the wagons they had bought to transport the mothers in. Morita and Steve waited behind to guard the gear.

Two hours had passed, and no one had returned. Steve was filled with pent-up energy and anger. He wanted to do something. He wanted to charge in and save the mothers, to rescue Bucky, to fight the whole orc army himself if need be. Instead, he was crouched in Bucky’s house away from the windows in the dark waiting for the other Commandos to get back.

“Please tell me you are not always this restless,” Morita whispered.

“My whole world has been turned upside down in one day,” Steve said, thrumming his fingers on the floorboard before catching himself and going still. He felt betrayed by his father, but also like Steve was him. It was very confusing. “I don’t understand why you’re not more nervous.”

“Steve, I’m going to be seeing my mother for the first time in twelve years. Of course, I’m nervous.”

“What’s she like?”

Morita turned his face to the side, likely not wanting Steve to see his misty eyes. “Exceptionally kind. Smart. She was a healer before.”

“My ma, too,” Steve said softly.

Morita smiled and rubbed his eyes. “Good. They’ll have something in common. Now, don’t get me emotional, or I’ll be useless.”  

Steve did his best to not think about what might be happening to Bucky, but his mind kept playing out grim possibilities.

“Do you think Bucky will forgive me?” Steve said. “I couldn’t stop my father...”

Morita sighed and closed his eyes. “That was awful, but not your fault. You’re trying to save his mother, Steve. It’s what he would want.”

They waited in silence for another hour until they heard the jangle of wagons and hurried outside.

“What took you so long?” Morita demanded.

Dum Dum raised an unimpressed eyebrow, and Morita looked sheepish in response. “Sorry,” he said. “You’d be mad too if you had to be stuck with Steve.”

“Hey!” Steve said, then blushed when he realized Morita was teasing him.     

Gabe hoped down from the wagon and stretched his legs. He smelled heavily of sweat, and there was dried blood on his boots. “We ran into some resistance from the guards at the city gate, but they’ve been taken care of. Any word from Natasha?”

“Not since this morning,” Steve said.

“That’s bad luck.” Gabe rested his arms on his hips. “Onward. Let’s load up.”

They made quick work of loading the wagons and were soon on their way to mothers’ compound. Steve wondered where his own mother was and hoped she was safe.

They parked a short distance away from the compound and left Dum Dum to watch the wagons. There was blood on the ground outside but no bodies. The compound was suspiciously silent.

“There should be at least five guards outside,” Dernier said. “Five more inside, sometimes double that.” He and Morita shared an anxious glance.  

“It could be a trap,” Morita said.  

“Or the mothers have been moved,” Steve said. Morita looked ill at the suggestion.

“Nothing for it,” Dernier said grimly. “We’ve got to go in.”

They approached the compound. Morita tested the door and eased it open. An arrow landed in the door above his head.

“Gods be damned, Clint,” Natasha hissed. “They’re with us.”

“I know,” Clint said, coming over to retrieve his arrow and usher the orclings in. “That’s why I missed.”

Gabe closed the door behind them. “Where are the guards?”

Sarah sat beside Natasha on a couch, cleaning the blood off a dagger. “Dealt with,” she said. She and Natasha shared a grin.

“Mother?” Steve said. There was a wildness to Sarah, a glint Steve hadn’t seen before.

“I was right, it’s just like a chicken,” she said. She and Natasha fell into giggles. Steve decided he would be better off not knowing, and that Natasha might be a bad influence.

Gabe looked around the compound. He whistled when he entered the kitchen. “That’s…a lot of bodies.”

Natasha shrugged. “Rollins came by with some friends. They were drunk. It was easy pickings.”

“Where are the children and mothers?” Morita asked.

“In their rooms,” Clint said. “We wanted them out of the action.” He walked down the hallway and knocked on the doors three times. Women and children started coming out.

The orclings looked anxiously among the women until they found their mothers. Morita squeezed his mother tightly, Gabe did the same. Dernier’s mother had died years before, but he hugged the mother of their friend Monty, who had died as a child.

A woman came bustling forward, all power, thick curly hair, and high cheekbones. Steve knew immediately she must be Winifred. She nodded at Morita’s mother. “Emiko has seen Bucky. He’s being held in the South wing of the prisons. I’m going after him.”  

A little girl came over and tugged on her skirt. She looked so much like Bucky, it took Steve’s breath away.  “What’s happening, momma?” Winifred picked up the girl and kissed her cheek. “Hush now, Becca. I’ll explain later.”

“We will try to rescue Bucky,” Natasha said gesturing at Clint and Sarah. “We will meet up with you and Becca outside of town.”

“We have covered wagons to hide everyone in,” Gabe supplied. “And we need to leave now.”

Winifred looked torn, but Sarah strode over and took her by the hand. “I will free your son or die in the attempt. Take care of your little one.” Winifred pulled Sarah in for a quick hug. “I trust you,” she said. She looked at Gabe. “We are ready.”  

The Howling Commandos pulled the covered wagons close to the compound.  

“We’re going to need a wagon for Bucky,” Morita said. “I doubt he’ll be able to run.”

“It’s going to be a tight squeeze,” Dum Dum said.  

“Where are we going?” Becca asked, held on her mother’s hip.  

“On a ride,” Winifred replied. She directed the women into the wagons, leaving behind whatever supplies didn’t fit.

“I’m going with you to get Bucky,” Steve said to Natasha.

“I suspected you would,” Natasha said. She signaled to Gabe. “We’ll meet you at the rendezvous spot. If we’re not there in four hours, leave without us.”

-----

They left Clint to guard the remaining wagon while Steve, Natasha, and Sarah went in search of Bucky. Steve had never been to the dungeons before. They weren’t below ground, thank the goddess, but dark and dank all the same. He stumbled behind Natasha through the halls, Sarah close behind him. Steve’s stomach rocked with unease. He couldn’t help feeling like this was somehow his fault. That if he had seen the truth about Joseph sooner, he could have kept Bucky protected.

“You’re brooding,” Natasha murmured. “Self-flagellate later. Focus now.”

Steve nodded. She was right, there would be time to piece things together. For now, they needed to get Bucky to safety. Natasha’s steps were near soundless, but the same could not be said for Steve and Sarah. Steve heard moaning and whispers, and the group quickened their pace.

When they came upon Bucky's cell, they could hear him saying, "I want to die, I want to die," over and over again to himself. There was no power to it, only mindlessness, and Steve couldn't tell if Bucky was even aware of himself.

“Always in a hurry, Little One,” Natasha said, her voice cracking on the pet name. “What have I told you about that?” She worked two thin metal pieces in and out of the lock until it clicked and the door swung open.

“Natasha?” Bucky mumbled, looking up blearily. “You shouldn’t be here.”

“You shouldn’t be talking,” Natasha whispered as she ran inside. “Little One,” she said softly, looking at Bucky’s bruises. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there to stop them.” She began picking the locks on the shackles on his feet.

“I know,” Bucky said, running a tremulous hand down her arms.

Sarah came around on Bucky’s other side and inspected the wound. Bucky’s skin was clammy, his hair stuck wetly to his face. The stump where his arm had been was angry and red. Cauterized, Steve realized. It must have been excruciating. Sarah felt the skin above the stump. “Not too hot. Good. Emiko has staved off infection for now, but we’ll have to be careful.”

“Sarah?” Bucky said reaching for her clumsily. “Go. It’s not safe.” Sarah hushed him.

“We brought company,” Natasha said. She gestured with her head towards Steve.

“Bucky,” Steve said. He touched Bucky’s face and then stepped back so Sarah and Natasha could do their work.  

Bucky’s face broke open with relief. “You came.” He looked at Steve with such bright, unfiltered love, Steve could barely look back. It was like looking into the face of the sun. “Of course.”

Bucky grinned and his head lolled to one side. He smiled beatifically at Natasha. “He came.”

Natasha rolled her eyes and adjusted her grip on Bucky’s ribs. “Your pretty orcling came. As did I, I might add.”

Bucky sobered and patted her sloppily on the face. “I never doubted it.”

Natasha’s face softened for an instant but she immediately righted herself. “Winifred is free. They all are.”

“You did it,” Bucky said, looking at them all in wonder. “It wasn’t all for naught.”

Before Steve could respond, footsteps sounded in the hallway. Steve turned quickly blocking the path of the intruder.

“I tried to warn you,” Brock said disdainfully. “Didn’t I say he would try to get between you and your father?”

Steve clenched his fist and step threateningly towards Brock. Joseph stepped out of the darkness and into the cell. He stared hard at Steve looking nakedly heartbroken. “You’ve made your choice. It’s my curse that everyone I love betrays me.” He sighed and clenched his fists. “I knew this morning I should have killed you both. It is my weakness that I hoped—”

“We’re leaving,” Steve said, near breathless with fear.

“I can’t--” Joseph breathed in harshly. “I love you, but I can’t let you leave.”

Sarah stepped between them, hidden as she had been by Steve’s bulk. “Let the boys go,” she said. All the harshness fell of Joseph’s face, and he looked in wonder at Sarah. “Let them go, Joseph, and I’ll stay with you.”

Joseph reached out and ran a hand through Sarah’s golden hair. “You haven’t aged a day. Still the most beautiful human I’ve seen. Tell me, did you miss me?”

Sarah was stiff. “Don’t do that. It doesn’t work on me anymore.”

Joseph smiled but there was something sick to it, something predatory. “You didn’t miss me?”

“If I say yes, will you let them go?”

Joseph cupped both hands on Sarah’s face. “Ah, my love, you must know by now that you were never the end game.” He pulled her closer. “Still, I have longed to see you —”

His voice was cut off with a grunt as Sarah lodged her dagger in his stomach. Her hands were shaking, but she held strong and pushed deeper. Joseph looked truly shocked, before grinning at her. He dropped his hands from her face and grabbed her around the neck instead, squeezing as he pulled her forward.

“Give us a kiss,” he snarled.

Steve felt an animal rage overtake him. He punched his father, knocking him to his knees, and causing Joseph to release Sarah in the process. Steve unsheathed his sword and chopped Joseph’s head off in one smooth movement. It fell to the ground with a sickening thump.

There was noise and movement around him, but Steve’s whole world shrunk to his father’s face laying on the ground. He looked so…disappointed.

Freed from his chains, Bucky struggled to his feet and put his hand on Steve’s arm. “Steve,” he said. “Look at me. Don’t look at him.”

Steve turned his head slowly. Everything he’d wanted to say to Bucky, the speeches he’d prepared, everything died on his lips. He’d just killed his father. Steve turned his face back towards his father, but Bucky stopped him with an unsteady right hand.

“Stevie,” he said. “We have to leave. You did well, but we have to go.” Bucky pressed their mouths together chastely. His lips were wet and cold; it was a bare brush, but enough to snap Steve out of it.

He came to himself and looked around the room. Natasha had restrained a struggling Brock, while Sarah bent over and caught her breath.

“I love you,” he said to Sarah. He turned to Bucky. “I love you, too.” Bucky swayed on his feet and Steve ran a hand around his back to steady him.

“This is all very sweet, but we have to move,” Natasha said.

“Alice,” Sarah said, still bent over. She pointed at Brock. “That was your mother’s name.”

Brock wrestled against Natasha’s hold, unable to break free. “Aye. She abandoned me. Left me behind.”

Sarah shook her head. “Joseph lied to you. She died trying to escape with you. Winifred told me.”

“Liar!” Brock yelled. He looked crazed, thrashing about.

“Come with us,” Sarah said. “These people are using you.”

“I’m one of them,” Brock said defiantly. Natasha punched him in the temple, and Brock crumpled and fell to the floor unconscious.

“It’s too late for him,” Natasha said apologetically.  Sarah looked doubtful, but she let the matter drop.

Natasha scouted in the hallway, and Sarah took up Bucky’s other side, trying to help balance him. The whole of the castle seemed eerily empty, and they soon made it out without further trouble. They loaded Bucky in a wagon, and Sarah made him drink a little water.

“Winifred and Becca are waiting for us at the rendezvous point outside of town,” Natasha said.

“Little fox?”

Natasha nodded, her expression soft. “She looks just like you. Poor thing.”

“Where are we going after the rendezvous?” Sarah asked.

Natasha looked nervously at Bucky, who sighed. “We never located a suitable place.”

“I have an idea about that,” Steve said. “But we might have to milk some cows.”

-----

Bucky slept all of the way through town. At one point, Steve heard fighting outside of the wagon, and when he started to move, Winifred shook her head and gestured for him to wait. After a few minutes, Clint thumped the side of the wagon to signal all clear.

They made it to the rendezvous point without incident, and Steve helped Bucky out of the wagon. The Howling Commandos surrounded him, careful not to touch, but so grateful he was alive.

“How long until we can start making arm jokes?” Dum Dum said. His mother looked at him disapprovingly, and Dum Dum blushed. “We talk that way, ma.”

“Clever fox?” Winifred called out.

A hurt sound escaped Bucky. He stumbled forward, reaching tentatively for her as though she might disappear in a cloud of smoke. “Am I dreaming?”

“I’m here,” Winifred said, taking him into her arms and stroking his back in long smooth strokes. He felt a sob welling up in his chest, and Winifred rubbed his back. “I know, clever fox. I know.” She pulled back and kissed his cheek. “I’m so proud of you. Come meet your sister.”

Bucky made an aborted move to cover his body. He was half dressed, and his body was bloodied and bruised. “Not like this. I, I couldn’t bear it.”

Winifred tucked a strand of hair behind his ear, and Bucky’s eyes begin to mist. “You were wounded trying to save us; she will understand.”

Bucky nodded shakily. He reached for Steve to help him stay steady.  

“Bucky, this is your sister, Becca,” Winifred said gesturing to a little girl with the same riotous curls as Winifred. “Becca, this is your big brother.” Becca waved shyly, clearly overwhelmed with the day.

“Why do you got only one arm?” she said.

“Have one arm,” Winifred corrected, trying to fight a smile. “If you are going to be rude, at least say it correctly.” She looked apologetically at Bucky. “She’s as inquisitive as you were. It’s a good thing, most of the time.”  

“Somebody bad cut it off,” Bucky said. He tried to lean down to her height, but swayed dangerous and stood back up with Steve’s help. “I’m so happy to meet you.”

“Me, too.”

“I think I’m gonna pass out,” Bucky said.

Steve tightened his grip. “He needs to lie down,” he told Winifred. “And we should get going.” Steve climbed into a wagon, and helped Bucky in after him, pulling him to Steve’s chest so the wagon wouldn’t jostle Bucky’s wound. “Sleep, Buck. Everything’s going to be ok.”

Winifred, Becca, and Sarah climbed in, as well. Bucky reached for his mother and fell asleep holding her hand.

“Are you lovers?” Winifred whispered, not wanting to wake her son. Sarah seemed eager to gather this information, as well.

“I’ve loved him almost as soon as I met him,” Steve replied. “He sacrifices for everyone around him. He’s so brave—”

“He is,” Winifred said, not fighting back tears.  

Steve rested his cheek against Bucky’s hair. “Perhaps we could get him a blanket? He feels cold.” Sarah dug around in her bag, and Steve’s old stuffed rabbit fell out in the process.

“You brought him?” Steve said fondly.

“I couldn’t bear to leave him,” Sarah said simply. She found a blanket and covered Bucky carefully.

“Can I see?” Becca said shyly.

Steve smiled at her and handed her the rabbit. “He gives good hugs and protects you when you’re scared.” Becca picked up the rabbit and squeezed it tight. “Maybe you’d like to hold onto him for a while?” Steve said. Becca nodded and smiled, showing off her missing front tooth.

-----

They reached Peggy and Angie’s house three days later. It looked exactly as Steve remembered.

“I don’t see anything,” Dum Dum said, looking at Steve dubiously.

“It’s right there,” Steve said, pointing at the house. “Can anybody else see it?”

Clint raised his hand. Becca did, as well, but Steve suspected she thought they were playing an imagination game.

Steve walked to the front door and knocked, embarrassed to be arriving so late. Peggy answered in her night clothes and looked out at the field full of orclings, human women, a goblin, and an orc. Those who hadn't been able to see the house gasped when they saw her, and soon the whole farm was revealed to them.

“Darling,” Peggy called back into the house, “we have guests.”

“We have what?” Angie said. She came to the door and smiled brightly. “Oh, we have guests! Well, don’t stand around all night. I don’t know where we’ll put you, but come on in.”