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A Winter Spirit, A Winter's Tale

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“...and there's more dry goods in here,” Peggy said, as she showed him into the lean-to. “It's pretty easy to get snowed in up here, but there's enough food to last you a long while, and there's plenty of feed for the goats.”

A very large, very black cat plopped down next to the larder and emitted an angry squeak.

“And cat food,” Peggy said indulgently, leaning over to scritch the tom's head. “Who's a good hungry boy?”

“Mow,” the cat said happily, and leaned into Peggy's touch.

“Ah,” Steve said, not entirely sure what he'd signed up for.

“He's just an old softy, you'll get on wonderfully,” Peggy assured him as they made their way back into the main house – what there was of it. The house itself was old, timber-framed, small but cozy. There were two rooms downstairs and two up, under the steep eaves of the roof. Kitchen and sitting room downstairs, bedroom and studio up. And the lean-to, of course, full of food for the winter.

 

Peggy had needed someone to watch her house and animals, the little farm she'd inherited here in the Swedish countryside, and her old pal Steve had come through. He needed time and space to work on paintings, he'd told her, and a change of scenery wouldn't kill him. (Probably.) The two of them had met in college, dated for awhile, and stayed in touch, some years better than others. And now Steve was happy to be able to help out, at least. He basically liked trees, he figured, so it would be fine.

(It was an hour's drive from the nearest town, and quite a bit longer to anything considered a city. It was a pretty drive, but Steve was considering he may have overestimated himself by the time he saw his first cow. In a field. Surrounded by not much. He kept these concerns to himself, though.)

Is there anything else?” he asked, looking over the instructions for the generator. It was one of the fancy ones that was self-starting, but there was a way to go out and turn it on, if needed. The little house was well-heated by a cheerful, glowing stove, but Steve didn't fancy losing the light. Not when it was October, and already the days were short, full of sweet sunshine and clear nights that grew longer as the world grew sere and golden.

Mmmm, I showed you the farmer's wine under the kitchen sink?” Peggy asked, scanning the room around them. They were in the kitchen, which was plain and full of useful things and also a cat that had plopped down on his butt and was bent in two. Steve opted to not think too much about the noises the cat was emitting as he groomed himself.

Oh!” Peggy snapped her fingers, even as she shrugged on her big coat and lifted the hood. “Don't forget to leave food out for the tomte.”

The what?” Steve asked. He thought Peggy only had goats?

Okay, and the cat, who seemed to only be named the cat, but whatever. He was a handsome creature, and Steve didn't mind cats. Maybe they'd be buddies this winter.

The tomte. He's the spirit of the land. You gotta be nice to him or he'll fuck up the livestock and the house,” Peggy advised. Steve noticed she was heading for the door with quite some speed.

What the fuck,” he offered, casually moving to bar her way.

Peggy sighed, but it wasn't an 'I've-been-caught' sigh, so Steve suspected he'd lost this one. “The tomte . Look. Hundreds and hundreds of years ago, someone was the first farmer on this land. The first person to live here. And when he died, he was buried – there's mounds all over the place, you can see one of them from the lean-to even, when the light's good. So this man, he became...like an ancestral spirit. He's part of the land. He'll help you around the house, but you gotta be nice to him, leave him food and milk. He likes the goat's milk, actually. He's good with goats,” she added thoughtfully. “Oh, and leave him porridge with butter for Christmas. Okay, have a great winter, bye!” she said cheerfully, ducked under his arm, and made a beeline for her car.

Wat,” Steve said, for the third time, as Peggy drove away.

There was a rustling off to his right, where the woods were lightest, and Steve whipped around, looking beyond the edge of the old house. He had an impression of movement, a glimpse of red, and nothing more.

A robin,” he said aloud, because lying to himself was a thing Steve was awesome at, thanks very much, and he went back into the house to unpack his stuff. The fact that he hadn't the faintest idea what a robin looked like, or even if there were robins here was a matter that could be safely forgotten.

 

He got halfway through putting his clothes away before he gave into temptation and started googling tomte. They were...kinda cute, actually, Steve guessed. Little guys with cute red hats. It seemed kind of inelegant, for an ancestral spirit?

Steve shrugged and decided he could deal with a little helper around the place, especially since he was an inveterate city boy and maybe slightly terrified of his upcoming rural Swedish winter. He just didn't have the survival skills for this, okay? For the New York City subway system, yes. For goats...well, he would see.

Peggy had shown him how to do everything, and it went okay, Steve reckoned. The goats got clean bedding and feed, and they were nice, in a warm, goaty sort of way. Their little barn smelled good when he was done with it, and he hoped that was good enough. The cat had supervised, and played with a wisp of straw when Steve dragged it around for him, and he hoped that was a good sign too.

Peggy had also shown him how to milk the goats, although cautioning that they didn't always give in winter, and he carefully filled a pretty wooden bowl he found, and set it out. “Uh. This is for you,” he said to the barn. “Mr. Tomte. Sir?” He was not super-clear on how to address an ancestral spirit who might be about six inches high with gaudy taste in knitwear, or possibly still buried in one of the mounds on the land.

Steve went back inside, hoping he'd done the right thing, and got his own dinner together – nothing fancy, just pancakes with lingonberry jam, bacon and eggs, but it was filling and cozy in his first night in the little house. He fed the cat too, of course, and was even kind of charmed by the chunky tom, who flopped onto his back after he was done eating to demand playtime.

 

The whole house was a little magical, he decided, unpacking his art supplies after dinner. He'd put on some music to cover the eerie silence, but he could still hear the wind whipping past the eaves, sending the trees into a long susurrus. That was all he heard, though. Just wind and trees in the quiet, cold night. Steve stretched a canvas, jessoed it, and went to bed.

 

He wasn't surprised, not really, when the next morning found the bowl of goat's milk empty and the barn just a bit tidier than he'd left it.

Thank you,” Steve said, and went to let the goats out into the yard.

Well. He could at least have manners .

 

Chapter Text

October turned into November, and Steve settled into the farmhouse and the rhythm of the land, at least as best as he ever would. He painted while the light lasted, and sketched in the artificial lights of the evening and night, and was pleased with his work. He took care of the goats and the cat and religiously left something from the tomte, who likewise religiously helped with the goats.

 

(“Thanks,” Steve had said, when he'd left the lid off of a bin and the goats had tipped it over. He had gone back into the house to get a broom, and when he'd come back everything was tidied, and there was an old broom, previously hidden, against the bin. “I'm not really a farm person. I'm sorry if I'm messing things up. I want to take care of them right.”

Perchte had shoved her face into his hand and he scratched her ears and admired her creepy eyes. There was a huff like laughter, and Steve smiled. Maybe he wasn't the absolute worst at this.)

 

And then there was the night when Steve thought he heard a tree branch fall, would swear he stumbled out of bed to look out onto the front yard and saw a great pine bough, but it was gone in the morning.

(Maybe he had seen a figure, too. Maybe it was man-sized and -shaped, and maybe it was moving into the yard, towards the fallen branch. Or maybe it was a shadow.)

 

Steve started to leave other things, too. A slice of pie, or a little bowl of leftovers from his dinner. Sometimes they disappeared in the night and sometimes they didn't. He thought the tomte might have a sweet tooth – the goat's milk was always gone, and often desserts, but it was fifty-fifty on whether the goats would get the savories the next morning.

 

The first snow of the season came, flurries turning to thick, wet flakes that came down in clumps, and Steve couldn't help but run out into it, just to enjoy the snowfall. He loved winter, for all that he hated the cold, but a few minutes out in the clearing, face turned up and grinning into the heavy snowfall wouldn't hurt.

He ran around a little and spun and laughed because there was no one to see but the cat watching from the window, and it was the first snow of the season and he had months and months and months to paint and draw and live in the woods and take a break from New York City. And get good with goats, probably.

Steve turned and blinked through the heavy snowfall, face burning a little from the cold, and decided it was time to go in, and that's when he saw him.

It had to be the tomte. He was wearing the red cap, more like a stocking cap than a cone, but it was very red. And there the similarities to what Steve had read ended. He was as tall as Steve, with pale skin and dark hair. He wore dark clothes, and he stood at the edge of the forest.

Steve thought he might even have seen a look of surprise, but the snow fell fast and he had to shake his head to clear his eyes and the tomte was gone.

Oh,” he said. “Oh.”

 

He warmed up quickly once inside – the little house was snug and tight against the cold, and held heat well from the pretty little stove in the middle of the sitting room.

As soon as his hands were warm, Steve made a beeline for the charcoals and paper that somehow wound up in every room he ever lived in. The tomte was striking , he decided, sketching quickly. Beautiful. Unexpected. Like everything here. If you'd told him a year ago that he would enjoy a solitary few months (minus drives into town for supplies), Steve would have died laughing. Even city boys could change, he mused, trying to capture the long, wavy hair that fell soft around the tomte's face.

He felt odd finishing the drawing, though. Like he didn't have a right. The tomte had been here for hundreds of years. Had been a farmer, had been the first farmer, done all the hard work. The house wasn't quite old enough that he had laid the foundations, but Steve was willing to bet that his house, long gone now, had been nearby. Or was he buried in the nearest mound? Steve had found a few – he wasn't really the hiking type, but he'd gone in search over the past few weeks. He'd given the burial mounds wide berth, wanting to be respectful. They were long, far longer than a man, but only about as tall as Steve's chest, except for one in a little birch grove, that towered over his head, covered entirely in soft grass. Was that one new? Or very old?

Maybe that was where to tomte was buried.

His hand slowed as he finished, and he looked at the drawing. He'd been handsome, Steve reckoned. Fine of face and slight of body, but of course tomte were incredibly strong. He had moved the huge tree branch. He'd been...surprised? Maybe?

That night, when Steve put out the bowl of goat's milk, he laid the drawing beside it. Let the tomte choose, if he wanted this in the world. For all that it just looked like a portrait of man, Steve wanted him to have this choice.

 

Chapter Text

Steve got up before the sun these days, mostly because the sun was a layabed (as his mother would have said), not rising until well into the morning. There were still a few hours of daylight, and he painted frantically, in love with the long, low light. He would fill a canvas and then, dissatisfied, sand it clean and work the next day again to capture how the sun just breached the horizon, the slow tired days as midwinter drew closer.

So he was up before dawn, the day after he saw the tomte. He drank strong coffee and ate a slice of rye toast, feeling rather medieval, and went out into the goats' barn to feed them. There were three: Perchte, Holle and Anni, and Steve was fond of them.

Why didn't you keep it?”

Gyah!” Steve stumbled, tripped over the bucket of water, and landed on the floor of the barn, in the puddle of cold water that was supposed to be for the goats, which was why he glared up at the tomte. “Now I've got to get another bucketful for them.”

Sorry,” the tomte said, even though Steve was pretty sure he was not sorry at all. For example, the tomte was smiling. Sorry people did not smile like that.

I'm all wet,” Steve said, at a loss for anything else.

Well, go put on dry pants,” the tomte said, and fetched the fallen-over bucket. “I'll take care of the goats. They like me better anyway.”

Steve made a grumpy noise because the goats liked him , so there, and went back to the house to change into dry jeans.

The cat met him with a demanding yowl, and Steve paused to feed him, and give him the requisite petting while he ate. (He and the cat were getting to be friends too.)

He went back to the barn to find the goats fed and watered and the tomte sitting on a bench, holding the sketch Steve had done. “Sorry I scared you,” he said.

You didn't scare me,” Steve said. “You startled me.”

There's a difference?” the tomte asked, one eyebrow raised.

To me there is,” Steve said firmly. “But thank you. Apology accepted.”

The tomte made a little hmm noise. “Anyway. You know about me.”

Peggy told me,” Steve explained. “Although, uh. You weren't what I was expecting.”

The tomte tilted his head to one side. “Hmm,” he said again. “What's your name?”

Steve. Yours?”

The tomte smiled. “Names are powerful. You can call me Bucky.”

Bucky,” Steve said. “Thank you for all your help.”

Bucky smiled again, and slid off the bench to kneel and scratch under Holle's chin when she came over for attention. “It's my...job. I suppose. Thank you for the milk, and the food.”

Uh. Yeah. Of course.” Steve rubbed the back of his neck. “Am I doin' okay?”

Are you what?” Bucky asked, blinking up at him.

Am I doing okay? With the goats, I mean. I'm pretty good with cats, and he's easygoing actually, but I'm a city boy. I don't really...do livestock,” Steve confessed. “I don't want them to be miserable because of that.”

Bucky's face softened. “You're doing fine, Steve. Truly. I'll keep helping you, but you'd be fine on your own.”

Steve let out a deep breath and nodded. “Okay. Good. Thank you.”

Bucky smiled at him. “It's good that you care,” he said gently. “Don't worry. I keep this land safe. That includes the goats.”

Steve nodded and wasn't sure what else to do. Talking with Bucky was...nice? Unexpected.

In the light of the raked sunlight he saw that Bucky was wearing old-fashioned clothes. Not even old-fashioned really; ancient. Wide pants of a thick woven fabric, a simple, baggy shirt, a belt, a knife, and of course the floppy red cap. Steve couldn't even really pin down a century; he guessed peasant clothes didn't really change that much anyway. Besides that, though, Bucky looked and moved and seemed as real as any man, shifting his weight gracefully as he stood, Holle content with her scritches.

The cat joined them in the barn with a loud meow, and came over to sniff at Bucky. Apparently finding him acceptable, he demanded some pets, and moved on to fight a piece of straw.

Is he...losing?” Bucky asked, fascinated.

He's an indoor cat,” Steve said. The cat was, indeed, losing his fight against the straw. Even the goats seemed to have pitying expressions as they looked on.

So why didn't you keep the sketch?” Bucky asked, turning his attention back to Steve.

I wanted to,” Steve admitted. “I wasn't expecting the tomte Peggy told me about to look like you. But.” He rubbed the back of his neck, not quite dropping his gaze. “You said names are powerful. So are pictures. In case it was too powerful, I wanted you to have it.”

Bucky blinked, and was quiet for a moment. “Thank you,” he said. “That was...unexpected. You may keep the drawing, though. I know what I look like,” he added with a grin. “You're the one that needs the reminder, apparently.”

Hey, folklore says you'd be about six inches tall and have a pointy hat and fuck with the farm if I didn't appreciate you!” Steve protested. “Give a guy a break!”

Bucky threw back his head and laughed. “Are you serious? Is that what I've become?”

All the tomte, really,” Steve admitted. “Uh. I assume there's...more of you?”

Bucky shrugged. “Sure, why not. There's more of you, too.”

Steve smiled. Bucky was quick-witted and had a sense of humor. And was hot. Steve tried to ignore the hot part.

I would fuck with the farm if you were an asshole,” Bucky admitted. “I have before. But the rest of it...” He smiled and took his cap off, looking down at it. Steve saw that it was knitted out of thick wool. It left Bucky's hair adorably messy.

Steve opted to not think about Bucky's hair right now, even though it was long and thick and wavy and looked really nice to touch.

Bucky shoved the hat back on his head and laughed. “Well, anyway. You're a good steward for the land, Steve.”

Steve glowed under the tomte's approval. “Good. Thank you. Uh. I guess. Do you have...stuff...to do now?” he asked, and Bucky smiled at him.

I do, a little. But it was good to talk to you, Steve. I've enjoyed helping you.”

Steve nodded. “Thank you. For all of it – you didn't have to move that tree branch.” He hesitated. “Is the milk okay? And the food? I know you don't like all of it...”

It's good,” Bucky said gently. “It's the giving that's the important part. But yes, I like goat's milk.” He ducked his head and smiled. “And the pie. Thank you.”

I'll keep it up, then,” Steve said. Bucky was...endearing. That was it. He was endearing.

Chores done, they left the shed together, Steve heading for the house and Bucky for the forest.

Bucky!” Steve called, when they were nearly too far apart, and Bucky turned around at his call. “Will I see you again?” he asked.

Maybe,” Bucky called, and vanished, as soon as he was in the woods.

Steve sipped his coffee, and looked at the forest. There wasn't much around the house – a couple fenced pastures for the goats, mostly – but there was a lot of land. Steve wondered how the tomte knew where to be. Maybe a question, if he ever saw Bucky again.

 

He made it all the way into the house before he realized that Bucky hadn't actually given the portrait back. “Ha,” he said softly to himself. “You liked it.”

Steve also made a pie that afternoon, and left a slice with the goat's milk, and a little sketch of Anni and the cat.

 

 

Chapter Text

“You draw the goats well.”

“Gyah!” Steve jumped about a foot in the air, but he didn't spill the water bucket – good, because it was bone-cracking cold, and he didn't fancy his jeans freezing onto him. “Jesus, Bucky,” he said, turning around. “We gotta get you a bell or something.”

“Wouldn't work,” Bucky said with a grin. “Hi, Steve. Hi, the cat.”

The cat, the traitor, emitted several high-pitched mews and permitted Bucky to scritch under his chin. And then his belly, because he was a traitor.

Steve grumped while he gave the goats fresh water, but it didn't last. “Thank you,” he said. “About the goats. Drawing them, I mean.”

Bucky nodded, and pitched in to help with getting their feed sorted out. “Sorry I startled you,” he offered, and Steve thought he might have kind of meant it. “I'm, uh, I really can't make noise, unless I try really hard. Or I'm talking. You know?”

Steve nodded, even though he in no way knew. “I guess you're like a ghost?”

Mmm.” Bucky shrugged. “More than that, I think. But I was a man once.”

Oh,” Steve said. He felt...sad? Bucky died hundreds, maybe thousands of years before Steve was even born. Anyway, it apparently hadn't exactly taken. “Do you remember much?”

Some things,” Bucky said. “I remember the land, and how it looked – it's changed, of course. I remember my house was...very different from yours.” He looked off into the distance and gave a funny smile. “The goats are about the same. They're reliable creatures.”

Steve watched the goats snuffle the hay and the cat and each other. “Yeah,” he said. “I can see that. When did you learn English?”

When did I what?” Bucky asked.

Oh,” Steve said. He was done with his chores now, but he lingered, tidying things away extra-well. Bucky was nice to talk to. “We're speaking English? I don't even know Swedish. Or...whatever you spoke. Speak.”

Huh,” Bucky said. “Wild.” He smiled at Steve. “It's useful, being magical.”

Steve laughed at that. “What else do you remember?”

Summer. Breaking the land to my plough. The Gods. I didn't have a wife.” He touched his left arm. “I didn't have this, either, after my twentieth summer.”

Oh,” Steve said softly. “Bucky, I...”

Bucky smiled at him. “It's okay, Steve.”

Steve reached out without thinking, and startled them both, maybe. Bucky's arm was solid, hard under the rough fabric. Steve could even feel the swell of his forearm muscle. He blushed, and let his hand drop. “Sorry.”

It's okay,” Bucky said again, patient and kind. “Steve, you're starting to shiver – go get inside.”

Sorry,” Steve said. Again. He would give anything to have some chill. (So to speak.) “I really hate the cold.”

Bucky rolled his eyes. “Well, then why are you freezing out here? Let's go inside.”

There was something about the let's that broke Steve's nervousness, when it maybe should have made it worse. There wasn't any magic to letting Bucky into the house – he just followed Steve in. Well, that made sense; Steve figured Bucky had as much, maybe more of, a right to the land than Steve did.

Do you feel the cold?” he asked, relaxing in the warmth of the little stove. He poured a mug of coffee and offered it to Bucky.

Thank you,” Bucky said, taking it and sipping deep, with apparent enjoyment. “Oh, that's good. And no, I don't. I know winter from summer, obviously, but neither bother me.”

Steve settled in an easy chair by the stove with his own mug, doctored with sugar. He closed his eyes, letting warmth come back into him with a deep breath.

Poor guy,” Bucky said with a chuckle, and Steve felt a soft touch on his shoulder, as Bucky walked behind him. He held his breath for a moment – but of course, Bucky was only going to the other chair, settling in across from Steve.

They were quiet, but comfortably so. The sun had risen finally, and the front room was awash with sunlight. The cold in Steve's body unwound itself from him, and he relaxed. “Do you often get to know the people who live here?”

Sometimes,” Bucky said, gazing out of the window, watching the forest – his forest, Steve figured. “But mostly no, I think. I'm...respected. Usually. If they know the old ways. But I'm not a friend.”

Are you lonely?' Steve asked without thinking.
Bucky made a little hmm noise. “Are you?” he asked in return.

That's fair,” Steve said, and drank his coffee, noticing that neither of them answered. Maybe Bucky's answer was the same as his – no. Or at least, I didn't think I was, until I knew you.

 

Bucky finished his coffee and bid Steve goodbye. It was past time for Steve to be painting, anyway – he had so little sunlight, he all but ran for his studio, catching as much of it as he could, painting the landscape outside of the big windows. And, very carefully, he added just a dash of red in among the trees, for anyone who would find it.

 

After that, it was a full day before Steve saw Bucky again, although the little gingerbread cookies he'd left out had been summarily disappeared. (And he was pretty sure the goats couldn't open Tupperware.) He kind of missed Bucky, although the cat was a great friend. Steve had previously been very much a dog person but people changed, he reckoned. Look how well he was doing in the countryside!

 

The day he saw Bucky again, a blizzard was blowing, so loud at first he didn't hear the knocking. When he opened the door, Bucky all but blew in with a whuff and a cloud of snow.

Are you okay?” Steve asked, worried. He thought Bucky didn't get cold?

We are in the middle of nowhere, why on earth did you lock the door?” Bucky asked, shaking the snow off and soaking the floor.

Uh. Habit?” Steve offered, and Bucky sighed and shook his head.

I'm fine, of course,” he said. “I'm already dead, the worst has kinda happened, y'know? Anyway, are you okay?”

Sure?” Steve said, looking around. “The house seems pretty solid. I've got enough food to last 'til Spring if I don't mind potatoes.”

Bucky nodded, and dropped into Steve's chair by the fire. “Good. I wasn't sure and...good.” He grinned up at Steve. “I watched them build this house. It'll hold.”

Steve looked around at the walls, so tight not a bit of wind was getting through. “What was it like? I mean, how did they build it?”

Bucky looked at him, nonplussed. “With...a hammer? The wood all came from the forest. It was before power tools. After the house before had burned. Four men built it well over a few months. The cellar is deep and will keep food safe, and the walls are true and the wood the best they could find. I may have seen to a few things,” he said modestly.

Steve smiled and settled in the other chair. “Then thank you.”

You're welcome,” Bucky said, polite and proud.

What was your house like?” Steve asked, and Bucky's eyes went wide.

Mine? Uh.”

Yeah,” Steve said gently. “You've been here for a really long time, right?”

Yeah,” Bucky said. “Sorry, no one's...ever asked me that.”

Seriously?” Steve was stunned. “But I want to know everything about you!”

Bucky laughed, but kindly. “Uh. I'm a spirit. I belong to the land here, because I was the first to clear it. What else is there to know?”

Everything!” Steve threw his hands up. “Oh my God, you're so interesting. And, I mean. I know it's sort of part of being a tomte, but you are helping me out a lot...”

Bucky shook his head. “It's easier these days, but running a farm alone, even a tiny one, is pretty thankless.”

You said you didn't have a wife. Did you keep a farm alone, then?” Steve asked.

Oh, absolutely not,” Bucky said. “No one could farm alone, not and be any good. I came to the land first, but there were others. We had a...a house!” He shook his head. “I don't know how to say. Like this, but not. Made of the land – of the trees and the reeds, I mean. Only one level. A long way from here. Long gone. It went back to the earth after I died.”

Steve really, really did not like the way Bucky talked casually about dying, but he guessed that was just a thing you did, once you'd gotten over it.

Was it nice? I mean, did you like it?”

I guess?” Bucky shrugged. “I loved the land. It was beautiful, and fertile. The Gods loved us. I'm sorry, Steve. It comes and goes...” He shook his head. “I came here for a reason, though. To tell you not to worry about the goats. You didn't run a line – I didn't teach you to run one – and you could get lost in the blizzard. I can take care of them.”

You don't have to do that,” Steve said, trying not to bristle. It was like twenty steps to the barn anyway!”

I literally do,” Bucky said. “Tomte, remember? Ancestral spirit tied to the land? You gave me milk, you're a good steward, I take care of the animals. And you. You don't know these blizzards, stranger. I do.”

Steve scowled. “Teach me. We run a line when the weather clears. I want to do my bit.”

Agreed,” Bucky said, and got up. “Speaking of. Stay warm, Steve.”

You too,” Steve said, trying not to feel like they'd just had a fight. It seemed a sour note to end on, but Bucky was already letting himself out the front door, into the dark haze of snow.

 

The blizzard raged through the night, and Steve wondered if he should really plan to hunker down, but this was a softer Old World blizzard, not like the midwestern prairies, the stories he'd grown up with. The morning was clear and bone-cracking cold, but the sun shone down on the little cabin, and Steve made his way through the deep drifts to the barn.

The goats were fine, of course – Bucky had seen to that. Steve gave them a little more food and petted them and said hello and asked how they were doing, and was answered with soft goaty sounds. He milked them, for what little milk they gave, and left it for Bucky with another sketch he'd made. Steve had thought about drawing the cairn in the woods, the tall one that he thought might, maybe, be Bucky's, but the thought of that kind of freaked him out. So instead, he drew his house in Brooklyn.

 

It was another day and night before he saw Bucky again, and had just begun to worry when Bucky all but blew in the door. “There's snow on the way, c'mon, I'll teach you to run a line,” he said, and Steve practically dove for his coat and boots, hurrying outside after his...friend. Friend worked.

 

Bucky taught him how to tie a good knot and fasten the line next to his front door, then run it tight across the little yard to the barn, where there was an identical hook for just this purpose. Steve smiled at it, satisfied – this would let him go through the blinding snow and make it to the goats safely.

Together he and Bucky tended to the animals for the night – which now came at mid-afternoon, this close to the solstice. Steve was debating whether he should invite Bucky in for a cup of something when Bucky just flat-out followed him into the house, making that an easy problem to solve.

I liked your drawing,” Bucky said, when Steve had made him a mug of hot, strong coffee with fresh goat's milk.

Thanks,” Steve said. “That's my home – I mean, where I came from.”

Big city?” Bucky asked.

Yeah,” Steve said, settling down with his own cup of coffee and smiling, eyes focused on the memory. “One of the biggest in the world, it feels like. There's so much there, Buck, it's indescribable. There are so many stories pressing in on you. It's...” he shook his head and smiled. “I'm describing it badly. It feels...powerful, there. So many stories, so many possibilities.” He laughed. “Sorry, I'm not homesick, but I do miss it a little.”

I can tell you love it there,” Bucky said politely.

I love it here too,” Steve said without thinking. He didn't want Bucky thinking that Steve thought this place was less. “I like the quiet, and the light, and the trees. I like the stories here too.”

Bucky's smile grew a little. “Yes, it's good for all of those. I'm sorry I can't talk about my...when I was here, alive I mean,” he explained in a rush. “It was generations ago. Before ironworking. I don't know years, but I know tools, yeah?”

Steve's eyes grew wide. “Yeah,” he said softly. “Oh, wow, Bucky. You've been here...a really long time.”

Bucky smiled. “I know. I'm proud to be the spirit here, to watch the land change, and take care of it. But I don't remember much, of life. It comes in flashes sometimes, little memories. Not enough to stitch together, really.”

I'm sorry,” Steve said gently. “That you lost that.”

Bucky shrugged. “I remember so much more – more than men do. It's a fair trade.”

Hmm,” Steve said. And, “I'm sorry, I won't ask you about your past again.”

If I remember anything, I'll tell you,” Bucky promised. “You told me about your life before, after all. Fair's fair.”

Yeah, but that was three months ago!” Steve protested. He tried to not get frustrated when Bucky smiled and shrugged, so instead he asked about the weather. “How'd you know the blizzard was coming? Tomte magic?”

Bucky smiled. “Oh, yes! In a way, I suppose.”

Can you...can you just feel it?” Steve asked, curious.

Mmm. With some senses.” A smile played across Bucky's face. Steve was just happy he'd found something that would make Bucky happy.

Oh! Is this like you can taste it in the air?” Steve asked. “I could do that with rain, sometimes. I mean, it was already pretty obvious, but you can feel it, y'know?”

Uh huh,” Bucky said, and burst out laughing. “Sorry, Steve. I know because someone stopped to take a leak at the side of the road, right where the property starts, and I heard their car radio.”

Steve blinked.

Steve did a thing with his face that looked like he was sucking lemons.

Bucky was literally on the floor he was cracking up so hard.

S-sorry,” he gasped, while Steve looked down at him and the cat came over to investigate.

No, you are not,” Steve said.

No, I am not,” Bucky agreed, and stopped, still sprawled on the floor. His leg was pressed against Steve's foot, which Steve was trying to ignore. “You gotta admit, I'm basically right. I knew someone was there, and that's tomte magic.”

Steve sighed, which was all the acknowledgement Bucky was going to get, thank you very much.

Bucky seemed unconcerned by this, and eventually got back into his chair to finish his coffee. Steve listened to the wind pick up in the quiet of the room, and found himself hoping Bucky would stay. Even if his jokes were painfully dumb.

 

Chapter Text

They spent time together every day after that, and Steve found it was good, and comfortable. Bucky was incredibly charming and funny, especially now that they understood each other. His prank had been dumb as hell, but something about it had broken the last of the shyness between them.

Steve didn't ask about what Bucky remembered, and he found he really didn't mind – Bucky's now was pretty great, to be honest. He wasn't quite like one of Steve's buddies back in New York, but he wasn't wholly of the past, either. He was...well, he was interesting .

 

On the day of the Solstice, they went for a walk in the forest, crunching pleasantly through the snow under the dark trees. Bucky lead him down a path he hadn't found before, and they were quickly lost in the quiet woods. Quiet, but not silent – there was the sound of their footsteps of course, but also the creak of the trees, the soft whispers as the wind went through them. It was mostly evergreens in this patch, and Steve breathed in their scent. “You can smell that, right? The pine?” he asked Bucky, as they paused under an ancient giant.

I can smell it,” Bucky promised him. “I'm not a ghost, Steve.”

I know!” Steve protested, and grinned, lunging for Bucky's hat. “Tomte! I know!” He got the hat and took off, but the path was twisted and he didn't want to trip and break an ankle, and –

Oh.

It turned out he sort of wanted to be caught anyway, especially when being caught was a big, warm body crashing into his, the two of them going down into a soft pile of snow. Steve of course went face-first and wriggled himself over, still under Bucky. He huffed to clear his mouth and nose and Bucky laughed and thoughtfully wiped the snow from Steve's eyes.

Gotcha,” Bucky said, and Steve grinned.

I still got your hat,” he bragged, his arms pinned to his sides. Bucky was surprisingly heavy.

Hah, you wish,” Bucky said, stealing his hat back and plonking it over his head again.

Steve blew a raspberry and got rolled over into the snow again for his trouble. He tried to keep internal the sad sound he made when Bucky got up, and helped him up in turn. Bucky on top of him had been a very nice thing.

You okay?” Bucky checked in as he helped brush off the worst of the snow. “Not getting wet?”

Not getting wet,” Steve promised. “Peggy told me how to dress for winter here.”

Bucky nodded, satisfied, and they set off down the path again. They watched for winter birds and tossed little snowballs at each other, but Steve didn't much feel like fighting – not even play-fighting. The sudden intimacy of getting Bucky's hat, and then Bucky on top of him, had left him in a thoughtful mood. Not sad, not happy, but he was pleased that they just walked peaceful and easy, Bucky pointing out neat little things here and there.

Steve was a little surprised when the path lead them to the big burial mound, now even larger under its cap of snow. “Oh!” he said. “I've been here before.” He turned around, gazing up through the white birches, bare for winter now. Their crowns made a soft ring of branches, and clear sky above the burial mound.

Bucky was quiet, but his face was calm. Steve hoped he wouldn't be angry with a question.

Is that you?” he asked softly, nodding towards the mound.

Bucky startled a little, bit his lip, and nodded.

Oh,” Steve said, and held out his arms as the slow, low sunlight bled through the trees.

Bucky was nice to hug, and fit neatly against him. They were of a height, and it felt right and easy for Steve to wrap his arms around Bucky's waist and hold him for a long moment.

I had wondered,” he whispered. “Thank you.”

Bucky nodded, and rested his head on Steve's shoulder.

It's not that I forget I'm dead,” he said. “It's that I'm not dead.”

No,” Steve agreed. “You're not dead at all.” He rubbed Bucky's back a little bit. “Your body died, and people loved you so much they built you this, and remembered you. For centuries they must have remembered you, and that's how you became tomte.”

I don't understand it,” Bucky said. “I wasn't anything special in life.”

You were the first,” Steve reminded him. His heart was racing, standing in the clearing with Bucky in his arms, but he ignored that. “You were a good farmer. I can't imagine you weren't kind. I like you a whole lot, so why wouldn't other people? Nice today is probably about the same as nice a couple thousand years ago, y'know?”

Bucky smiled. “I guess. Sorry. I don't come here often.”

Steve nodded, and kept holding on until Bucky decided that the hug was over and slipped away.

 

 

As they walked back to the house, Steve lost himself in the feel of the quiet forest. He was a city boy to the bone, but shit, there was something about here , and he told Bucky that.

Yeah, it grabs ahold of you,” Bucky agreed. “You still have the city boy in you, but now you know this life too. The landscape – it won't ever leave you, now. You've got the feel of it.”

Steve wanted to ask if that's why Bucky had settled here, the feel of the place, it was on the tip of his tongue, but he didn't want to push. And it seemed...not dumb, to ask Bucky about his life. Gauche, perhaps? Irrelevant, certainly. He liked Bucky-the-tomte, all his magic and his bad jokes and his warm, strong body. Bucky the man was probably fine, Steve would almost certainly have liked him too, but he had died. The Bucky in front of him hadn't.

So instead they fell in beside each other, and watched the sunlight die in the trees, getting back to the little house just as the sun set. Steve invited Bucky inside for coffee and a round of cards – he was teaching him poker, to help pass the evenings, and give them something else to do together.

Bucky was a quick student, and a canny one, and Steve only slightly regretted picking a game that rewarded a good, charming liar. Because holy shit was Bucky charming. And a good liar.

I win again, right?” Bucky asked winsomely, showing Steve his cards.

Don't be twee,” Steve said. “It doesn't suit you.”

Aw, I bet it does,” Bucky said and gazed up at Steve through his eyelashes, while Steve's stomach did a Thing.

It really doesn't,” he managed to say, while Bucky smirked at him.

Later, they took care of the goats together. Steve was strong and willing, and Bucky mostly just helped him, gave him advice, and kindly encouraged him.

You're honestly doing great,” he promised. “Look how happy and healthy they are!”

Steve set down a bag of feed and looked at the goats, all in some form of repose.

You guys really pretty happy?” he asked them.

Maaaaa,” they said in unison, and Bucky cracked up. And, after a moment of revelling in making both the goats and Bucky happy, Steve did too.

Okay, okay. But thanks, Buck. You help too,” he said as they closed up the shed behind them.

Well, yeah,” Bucky said. “This is my land. But it wasn't yours, and now it is.”

Steve's belly did a Thing again, and he tried not to think about what it might mean, belonging to two places.

 

Soon after, Bucky had left for the night, and Steve regretted that he wasn't the type to deny his own feelings. Cover them up, squash them down, yes, but he was utterly honest with himself which was how Steve finally accepted the fact that he had a raging crush on Bucky. He acknowledged this in his own mind, watching the little wood-burning fireplace thoughtfully, and just as clearly decided to not do a damn thing about it. He wasn't even sure if Bucky had a sexuality anymore, never mind one that would be attracted to Steve.

Also Bucky was an immortal spirit of the land, and Steve was moving back to New York City in the spring. (He had already stopped thinking about that as much as possible. They couldn't exactly keep in touch over e-mail.)

So it was he went to bed, aware that he had a crush on his sweet, hot, capable, silly, precious friend, and equally aware that nothing would ever come of it.

But still. He wanted.

 

Chapter Text

It was hard, every time he saw Bucky after that. Just for a few seconds, but he felt those few seconds every time. For a moment, his heart leapt in his throat and his chest ached and he didn't know what to do with his hands and knew exactly what to do with Bucky's mouth. Then he pushed the feelings aside, gathering them up and sending them on their way, because this was a crush that would go nowhere, and he refused to get weird with his friend. His only friend, though Steve was smart enough to admit that if he'd met Bucky in a city of thousands, he'd still be gaga for him.

Those first seconds were hard, but they passed quickly and then Steve got the best of all things: hours and hours with Bucky. They took care of the animals together, staying out in the shed to pet the goats and make sure they were well and had interesting things to eat and do and sleep on. They played with the cat, and Bucky showed up with bundles of feathers or dried grasses and Steve would tie them together with some string and the cat would go crazy chasing them all over.

They walked in the woods if it wasn't too bitter, and drank coffee and played checkers if it was. (Steve had given up on cards; Bucky was just too good.) And it wasn't that Steve consciously ignored his laptop, or his phone, but Bucky invited different diversions. He wasn't exactly a Bronze Age man, but he wasn't modern either, and Steve liked living in that space with him.

He still painted. Christmas Eve found him at his canvas in the few hours of light, Bucky idly watching him and playing with a charcoal pencil and some paper. Steve's paintings came slower now, but they were better, he thought. Different; weird and wonderful.

“It's because the landscape's inside you,” Bucky explained, twirling the pencil with his fingers. “You understand it. Not perfectly, but better than you did.”

“Hm,” Steve said.

“Like your drawing of New York,” Bucky said. “That's inside you too, anyone can tell.” He paused, thoughtful. “I wonder if New York has a tomte? Or something like one.”

Steve made a face. “I doubt it. All the people who settled there first – they were killed, driven away. There wasn't anyone to worship their ancestors, not on that land exactly – not after a point, anyway.” He shrugged. “There might have been something like a tomte once, but – well, what would you do if no one was kind to you?”

“Fuck shit up,” Bucky said.

Steve considered the subway system, just as kind of an opening salvo. The first thing of billions to come to mind. Sure, it was because of a lack of infrastructure funding and governmental assholery, but – “Actually, you know what? I think you might be right. About there being something like a tomte.”

Bucky smirked and went back to playing with his pencil and paper, and Steve considered his painting. It was really done, but he couldn't resist a few more touches. He was ready to start something new, though, something less representational. Maybe after Christmas – he had to think about it first.

 

As the sun settled behind the trees, and just a single ray of pale sunlight watered the room, Steve finally declared himself finished and went to go make them coffee. Bucky was bent over the paper, so Steve brought his mug up.

Bucky startled when Steve set it down beside him, and looked up with a smile. “Oh, Steve, thank you. Sorry. I just...started drawing. I think I've done this before, sort of. Not on paper, we didn't have that, but, well – see?”

He turned the paper around and Steve felt every hair on the back of his neck raise. The drawings Bucky had done were weird. Pictographs, figures, geometric designs. Old things, very very old things, but newly-made. He examined one in particular, and the lines wavered before his eyes. This was old magic, it had to be. “Oh, shit,” he said.

“Hmm?” Bucky asked. “Oh. Oh. Oops. Magic stuff giving you the willies?” he asked sympathetically.

“I think my eyeballs are itching,” Steve said, and closed his eyes tight. “Do you know what any of this is?”

Bucky hmm'd again, and finally tapped one of the pictograms. “Two deities. Brother and sister. And husband and wife. Don't look at me like that, it was taboo for us too.” He sighed, and turned the paper over under Steve's hand. “Sorry if I gave you a headache. I just started drawing.”

“Hey,” Steve said, and reached over, resting his hand on Bucky's. “Don't be sorry. That was amazing.” He smiled. “I'm glad you could remember something.”

“Me too,” Bucky admitted. “Maybe it's the time of year – it's a sacred day for you soon, right?”

“Uh huh. Oh! Oh, hey, do you want porridge with butter? That's supposed to be – oh,” Steve said, as Bucky's whole face lit up. “I'm gonna take that as a yes.”

Yes,” Bucky breathed. “Oh, that part's very true, Steve. It's my yearly treat.”

“I could have made it for you lots,” Steve protested, but Bucky shook his head.

“It has to be special. One day a year. That's the deal,” he explained, and Steve shrugged. He had looked up a whole bunch of recipes and even got some advice from the guy who ran the grocery in town, but porridge still looked pretty unappealing to him. Maybe this was the other side of Bucky's magic – gods whose names were now forgotten, and the most mundane things on a farm. That seemed to encompass Bucky pretty well, actually.

 

Christmas dawned gray and chilly and damp, and even Steve could smell the snow in the air. (With no handy cars stopping at the edge of the property, Bucky was unfortunately entirely useless for weather predictions, which Steve never stopped telling him.) He gave the goats an extra layer of straw to keep them nice and snuggly, and a Christmas apple each too. He petted Perchte and watched as Holle made quick work of her treat. “Merry Christmas, ladies,” he said, and meant it.

Inside, he and Bucky had made the cat a little bowtie out of some fabric scraps they'd found. He hated it and was adorable, and Steve had taken about fifty pictures.

(He had not taken pictures of Bucky. He didn't want to learn that his friend didn't show up in photos, or anything weird like that. What they had was good, as long as Steve never thought about it.)

Bucky met him in the goat shed that morning, saying hello to the girls and wishing all of them a Merry Christmas. Steve had gotten pretty much everything already done, so they headed into the house together. The porridge recipe was taped up next to the stove, and the supplies were ready under it. Steve had gotten the best of everything he could find, reasoning that he wanted to have Bucky's treat be a treat.

And this was an offering, when you got down to it. An agreement, that Bucky would take care of the farm and he would take care of Bucky. So he measured the milk and poured it into the saucepan, and carefully weighed the oats and added them, while Bucky pottered around the kitchen, poking his nose into cupboards, curious and cheerful as his breakfast began to cook.

“Are you doing anything special for the day?” Bucky asked, as the pot began to simmer and a rich, wholesome smell filled the little kitchen.

Steve shrugged. “Not especially? I like Christmas, but I don't have any living family, and this whole winter – Bucky, it's magical here. I'm being changed.” He stirred the porridge. “It feels bigger than a single day.”

“Still.” Bucky came over and rested a hand on Steve's shoulder. “You need holidays, like I need this. It's part of the agreement. You live the rest of your life as you do, but you need a special time out of life too. Please do something?”

“Spend the day with me?” Steve asked, because that was the best gift he could think of, corny as hell as it was.

“Of course,” Bucky said, giggles bubbling up a little. “Stevie, I was gonna do that anyway, but okay.”

Steve's heart turned over at Bucky's nickname for him. It was maybe just a slip of the tongue, or how the magic worked to translate their words for each other, but still. Still.

The porridge was done then, and Steve filled the nicest bowl he could find, and floated a big knob of butter right in the middle. He'd set the little table and made fresh coffee for them both, and some yogurt and granola for himself so they could eat together.

Bucky savored his first mouthful, making a very happy noise, and Steve all but actually, physically glowed. Watching Bucky enjoy his treat was wonderful, and Steve was a little amazed that it worked like this, but he just went with it. He had tried to put all his affection and gratitude into the cooking, and shyly told Bucky just that.

“I can taste it,” Bucky said, and Steve knew he wasn't bullshitting. This was part of the arrangement too. This was why a simple bowl of cooked oats and butter was Bucky's happiest meal of the year.

Impulsively, Steve reached across the table and took Bucky's hand, his left one. The one he had lost in life, and gained back in death. The fingertips were always just a tiny bit cooler than those of Bucky's right hand, and Steve curled their fingers together.

Bucky smiled at him, and Steve knew. They couldn't name what it was yet, but it had been acknowledged. It was real.

They held hands as they ate and then Bucky insisted on doing the dishes, sending Steve to get bundled up. The day was cold but windless, and the sun was finally at least over the horizon, even if just barely, so they went for a walk together.

They skipped the woods this time, walking down the snowy road that lead to the house itself, and then Bucky lead him over a wide-open space; a meadow in summer and now a stunning frozen vista.

“Whoa,” Steve breathed as they walked to the middle, and he turned around slowly. He was used to the forest now, but hadn't spent much time here, and the wide, low sky stretched all around him. There were trees just a few hundred yards away in one direction, and a wide plain of snow in all others. He laughed and spun around, breathing deep even as the sharp air hurt his lungs. “Bucky, I can't believe we haven't run been here yet!”

Bucky laughed and started running, yelling just to make noise, and Steve took off after him, bringing him down in a soft tackle, filled with the sensation of being alive, of the cold air and the cold snow and the magical sky above him, stretching so, so far. You could never see the horizon, in New York City. He lived in canyons of buildings there and loved it, true, but it was nothing like feeling held by the land the way he felt here.

They rolled around in the snow and wrestled, kicking up the heavy snowfall and revealing the green grass sleeping its way through the winter beneath, and then Steve was up and running this time, and Bucky chased him as they hollered and whooped and marked the clear snow and filled the clear air with their joy. Steve taught Bucky how to make a snow angel, and Bucky beaned him good with a snowball, so that kicked off a new way to fight, which took them through midday until the sun began to sink deep again, and their shadows were long in the red light.

“This was amazing,” Steve said as they walked back to the house. He was soaked but glowing, not even a little bit chilly, and felt completely alive.

Bucky plain trousers and a long-sleeved tunic were still completely dry. Steve thought he was unspeakably gorgeous, and he also thought this might have shown on his face.

Bucky's smile was the same as it ever was, and they walked back in step with each other, shoulders bumping as they went. Steve tried to linger and enjoy the coming evening, the way the sun filtered through the trees, but Bucky hurried him along.

“It's beautiful,” he agreed gently. “It's so beautiful. But it'll be here tomorrow evening. You're going to start getting cold soon.” He put his arm around Steve's shoulders. “I know it's not far, but cold is dangerous, here.”

“I'm fine,” Steve insisted, but Bucky was implacable, so they hurried home – and okay, yeah, he did get cold, but there was a wonderful, toasty house that already had a full kettle on the stove. He wasn't going to get frostbite or anything like that!

Nonetheless, Bucky sent him straight inside to get into dry clothes while he took care of the goats. Steve grumbled appropriately, but it was nice to be warm and dry. Not that he'd let on. He had some pride, still.

“Everything okay with them?” Steve asked when Bucky came back in. He was making dinner – just pasta, but it would be filling and good, with a rich tomato sauce and plenty of garlic and dried basil that filled the kitchen with his own kind of magic.

“Perfect,” Bucky assured him, dropping down to scritch the cat, admiring the way he drooled when he was really happy. “It's cozy in there, and they'll be fine all night.” The wind was whipping up – another storm on the way, or at least some very creative weather.

Steve nodded, and went about tidying up as dinner cooked. He'd made enough for two, assuming that Bucky would stay.

He did, and they had a wonderful meal together as the wind screeched outside. It was warm and snug around their table though, and they didn't say much, both of them feeling the day. Steve could remember every single time he had touched Bucky all that day, and he wondered if Bucky could do the same. If he was doing the same. Their quiet was comfortable, but expectant. They couldn't balance on this precipice forever.

Bucky helped clear the table and they stood in front of the sink facing each other. Steve took a deep breath and reached out, and Bucky was reaching out at the same time, their hands meeting, sliding past, gripping forearms as they drew closer together. Steve could feel Bucky's body heat, see each strand of hair and the stubble on his face. He could see the white sprinkled in among the dark brown, and feel the muscles in Bucky's forearms shift as they moved together.

“Buck,” Steve breathed, and leaned in. He felt Bucky's breath on his lips and closed his eyes, because there was no turning back now.

“No!” Bucky cried out, and vanished from Steve's arms.

 

Chapter Text

Steve's eyes flew open as his arms were suddenly empty. “No,” he said, voice suddenly raw, but had no time for anything else. There was a mighty crash from outside – in the same direction as the goat shed. “ Bucky ,” ripped from him and he turned to run, because this must have been it, this was Bucky protecting the farm, it wasn't rejection it was love strong enough to bring a man through centuries.

He had a sudden, terrifying vision of Bucky trapped beneath a fallen tree, pinned in place, body crushed and dying, but before he could take another step Bucky was in the kitchen again with him, carrying all of the goats – Berchte and Perchte under his arms and Holle draped around his neck.

Bucky,” Steve said, and it was nearly a sob as he pulled Bucky – and the goats – into a hug. “Bucky, are you okay? Are you hurt?”

No,” Bucky said, panting. “Shit. Sorry. I couldn't divert the tree, we're gonna have to rebuild the shed tomorrow. I'll help.” He sucked down air, his breath slowly evening out. “Fuck, that was close.”

Steve nodded and gently freed the goats from Bucky, lifting them to the floor and leading Bucky over to the little table, getting him a glass of water. “Just rest,” he said anxiously, hand on Bucky's back. “Breathe, honey. Everything's safe. Everyone's safe. We'll put down straw and they can live in the kitchen for now.

Bucky nodded, still panting a little, but his face wasn't quite so red. “'m fine, don't fuss.”

Don't tell me what to do,” Steve said, and leaned over and kissed him good and long.

 

When they pulled apart, Bucky's breathing was completely normal, and he was smiling, his eyes crinkling around the edges in the cutest way imaginable. “Oh good,” he said. “I didn't want to put that off.”

Shut up, you scared me,” Steve said. He dropped to his knees so Bucky could stay in the chair, and settled next to him, pulling him into another hug, this one as gentle as when they had first started their kiss.

I'm sorry,” Bucky said, one hand coming up to cradle the back of Steve's head. “Oh, I'm an idiot. What you must have thought...”

Steve shook his head. “No. I mean yes, but I figured it out quick. You scared me when I didn't know if you were okay though.” He told Bucky the vision he'd had, the stupid imagining, Bucky trapped and helpless.

The color drained out of Bucky's face. “Oh,” he said softly. “No. That didn't happen tonight.” He looked down at his left arm. “I think...I think it did happen to me, though. Once. I think that was how....” He pulled away and looked at his left arm. “I don't think it killed me,” he said, sounding lost. “Maybe everyone thought it would, but it didn't.”

No,” Steve agreed, and pulled him back into a tight embrace. “It didn't. You were okay. You were okay, and then you were so loved and so important, you became special. And now you saved the goats' lives, and you're here with me.”

Bucky let out a slow, steady breath. “Yeah,” he said, and hugged Steve back. “All that.” He kissed Steve's shoulder and they lingered, just for a little bit, until a polite reminder from the goats meant it was time to break apart, kiss one more time, and finally draw away and tend to the animals.

Bucky brought in armfuls of straw until Steve noticed he looked tired and made them switch off. They set up a sweet little corner for the goats, with plenty of places to lounge. (And to pee. Steve was glad the floor was a good, new, waterproof linoleum.) They kind of took over the small kitchen, but Steve wasn't going to begrudge them – they'd had a fairly active night themselves.

What a Christmas,” he marveled, when they finally had everything set up to a standard that Bucky declared acceptable. He slipped an arm around Bucky's shoulders and pulled him in as they watched the cat explore and the goats settle in.

What you said,” Bucky chuckled softly, and leaned against Steve.

Stay the night,” Steve said. “You're tired, I can tell. Let me give you a warm place to sleep, and hold you, and give you food tomorrow. That'll help, right? The caring?”

That'll help,” Bucky confirmed, and managed a wicked, if tired, smile. “That the only reason you want me to stay?”

No, and you know it,” Steve told him, just to experience Bucky laughing. Steve pulled him close for a kiss, but also pretty quickly decided it was bedtime for both of them, marching Bucky up the stairs.

Do you want to borrow something to sleep in?” he asked, and Bucky shrugged.

I guess? I usually just sleep naked.”

That's fine too,” Steve said very, very quickly, and Bucky got up the energy to actually cackle.

Bucky stripped down in the low light of the bedroom, revealing broad shoulders and thick muscles on his arms. His chest was wide and nicely furred, his legs long and muscular as well. Steve tried not to gawk, but Bucky was gorgeous . His body spoke of a lifetime of labor, and the grace of moving well through a world where he knew every blade of grass.

Where did you come from?” Steve asked, as he changed into soft pants and a t-shirt, and crawled in beside Bucky. “I mean – before you settled here. Um. If you remember.”

Bucky smiled and rolled over onto his side. “Not very far away. South. A village, but I was born a farmer and died a farmer. So was everyone else, pretty much,” he admitted, and Steve laughed and held his arms open for Bucky to settle against his chest.

I guess they would be,” he said, and kissed the top of Bucky's head. “You feel nice, sweetheart. Do you need anything?”

Bucky shook his head. “Sleep. Rest. I can taste how much you care for me in the air, Steve. That helps more than anything.”

Steve hugged him, and tried to let his feelings fly without a word said, let how much Bucky meant to him fill the air. Within minutes, his breathing went deep, and he fell asleep in Steve's arms.

 

Steve wasn't completely sure who woke up first the next morning, if it was him, the cat, or Bucky, but they had a definite collective snuggle going on. The cat was at the foot of the bed, curled up into a perfect disc, and Bucky was still in his arms. It was still pitch dark, of course, and would be for another few hours. The bedroom was comforting and cozy – even more so full of bodies. Bucky was warm in his arms, starting to stir, and Steve stroked his hair, enjoying the softness on his palm.

Mmmm,” Bucky said, and yawned, such a human action that Steve was completely charmed. He leaned down and kissed right next to Bucky's mouth.

Bucky turned his head, already kissing even before his eyes were open, sweet intimacy that relaxed Steve even further. They didn't have to hurry; the goats were right downstairs, and they'd have a good breakfast before they started work on the shed. Maybe even wait until the sun came up; the goats would be fine in the kitchen even if it took a few days. This was better. This was so much better.

Bucky smiled against him and they rested, heads on the same pillow. Steve could just make out his features in the dim light.

Hi,” Bucky whispered. “Your bed is really nice.”

Thanks,” Steve said back, just as softly. He ran his hand down Bucky's arm and squeezed his hand. “Do you feel better?”

Mmmhmm.” Bucky laughed and stretched, accidentally bumping the cat. “Oh, I feel so much stronger. Thank you.”

It was my pleasure,” Steve said, and meant it more than he ever had before, pulling Bucky close against his body again, their arms wrapping tight and legs tangling. “I'll make you a good breakfast, too, okay?”

Ooooh, thank you.” Bucky said, around pressing kisses against Steve's throat. “I feel better, though, honest.”

I believe you,” Steve assured him. “But I want to make you breakfast anyway.”

Oh, fine,” Bucky said, laughing, and Steve remembered that the kitchen was full of goats. He would work something out, anyways.

 

'Something' turned out to be cold cereal and hot coffee, but it was still good and Bucky reminded him that it wasn't so much the actual food, but the spirit in which it was given, which went some way to soothing Steve. He kissed Bucky whenever he could and tried not to fuss, and truly, Bucky seemed stronger and more alert. They made sure the goats were comfortable, rubbing their ears and sneaking them a few little treats.

We'll try to get you guys home again today,” Steve promised.

All three of them, peacefully lying around on the floor, did not seem to particularly care.

Steve, who wanted his kitchen back, was a bit more motivated.

Bucky was just cheerful and ready to help.

 

The day was clear and still at least, and they went out to examine the damage, tramping a path through the drifted snow hand-in hand.

The stone walls of the shed were unharmed, though a heavy tree branch – basically a good-sized tree itself – had come through part of the roof. It was the side used for storage, not where the goats lived, but Steve still shivered a little and hugged Bucky.

I protect the land and everyone who lives on it,” Bucky reminded him firmly, kissed him good, and went to get the branch free at least.

Steve's jaw dropped a little when he watched Bucky lift several hundred pounds of wood and just toss it free. It was obvious Bucky was magical and different – in the way he dressed and how he spoke and everything about him. But it was quite something else to see him be more than human right there in front of him.

You gonna paint a picture or you gonna help?” Bucky called over his shoulder.

Why not both?” Steve hollered back, and went to go help. A couple of the roof timbers had broken, and plenty of shingles had fallen off, but it didn't look too complex.

Huh,” Steve said, peering up at the sky through the roof and desperately pretending he knew what he was doing. “Well, we can use the branch to make new, uh, boards, at least.”

Bucky looked at him and smiled kindly. “Steve, do you know how to use a hammer?”

Yes,” Steve said testily.

Good. Just do what I tell you,” Bucky said.

Steve gave him a grumpy look. “ What ?”

'What' turned out to be Bucky explaining that they could turn the giant branch into usable wood, but it would need to dry and age before they could build with it. Luckily there were extra shingles and couple of big flitches they could cut down to repair the roof, once they cleared the old roof away. Steve tried to stew a little, but Bucky was kind with his explanation, and working beside him was pretty nice. The whole super-strength thing was really nice, since they got the broken bits sorted into keep and trash and cleared away within an hour. Steve made especial sure to stop and kiss Bucky whenever he could. Had to keep that belief going and stuff, and keep Bucky happy and strong and well.

Steve was very bad at lying to himself, so within an hour he was still kind of tetchy about not knowing anything about building stuff and also he kissed Bucky because he wanted to.

 

Okay, so. I'm gonna use magic, but you should still know how to do this,” Bucky said, calling Steve over and wrapping an arm around his waist. “You might need this someday.”

Why? Are you going somewhere?” Steve asked, confused. “I thought you stayed with the land.”

I do,” Bucky said. “But you don't.” He said the words lightly, with no resentment, but they still made Steve's chest hurt.

Oh,” he said. “Right.” And Bucky showed him where to cut, how to plane the flitches down to the heavy timbers that could hold a roof against a Swedish winter. Steve's hands followed Bucky's, measuring and tracing with a fingertip where a bandsaw would go, or a chainsaw.

Now you know,” Bucky said warmly, and kissed him. “I'm turning you into a farmer.”

I'm good with that,” Steve said, and smiled shyly. “Do you...can I watch while you work?”

Bucky shrugged. “You can, but there's nothing to see. Step back though, okay sweetheart?”

Okay,” Steve agreed, and stepped back, still a little shaky. Bucky was planning on his leaving, and technically Peggy was coming back in a few months and Steve had a whole life and a lot of friends in the city, and he did love New York, he really did. But he stepped back into the cool of the goat shed and smelled the hay and the snow and tried not to think. That was months away.

Bucky was right – there wasn't much to see, just a blur and Steve looked away because his eyes hurt, and when he looked back there was a pile of boards and pleased-looking Bucky.

Oh, wow. That's...handy.” Steve laughed and went over to pull Bucky into a hug. “Thank you, tomte. Are you okay?”

Bucky smiled and slipped his arms around Steve, his hug strong and good. “I am. I could prepare this time. Not be surprised. I wouldn't say no to coffee though?”

Steve laughed and kissed him, lingering, and then kissed him again so that they shared breath. “The Swedish! You're all as bad as New Yorkers.”

Bucky giggled and rested his head on Steve's shoulder, the cold tip of his nose poking Steve in the neck, and hustling him into the house to put the coffee on. He checked on the goats and the cat while the water boiled in the big stovetop coffeepot. Steve borrowed a little milk from the goats, and went back out with two steaming mugs.

Bucky was sitting atop the new flitches, kicking his heels against the wood, and Steve came over to stand between his knees, passing the coffee over with a long kiss. “There,” he said. “That should help.”

I told you, I'm fine,” Bucky said, bemused, but he also wrapped an arm around Steve's waist and pulled him in tight. He took a long drink of coffee and rested his head on Steve's shoulder, forehead snug against his neck.

Steve meant to say something. Thank Bucky for milling the boards. Thank him for the woodworking lesson. Tease him about the coffee. Tell him he's gorgeous, that he made Steve so happy his throat hurt. The words caught, though, and he just held Bucky, and trusted that he'd feel it all.

There now,” Bucky said softly when they'd finished their coffee. He pulled Steve in for a lingering kiss, and there was a little line between his eyes when they parted. “You know I care for you too, right? I know you can't feel it...”

I can. Just different.” Steve cleared his throat. “I know, Buck. I promise.” He ducked his head for another kiss, and pulled himself away with effort. “Back to work,” he said ruefully, and Bucky sighed.

More kissing later,” he decreed.

Way more kissing later,” Steve agreed, and grinned, and stole one more hug before they got to work.

 

Bucky taught him how to take the broken beams down, and how to replace them, making the work easy and gentle – it helped that he could hold even the heaviest planks in place while Steve got them fixed the way Bucky had taught him. Even with only hand tools, it wasn't too bad. Scrambling up and down a ladder kept him warm, and he had regular hugs if he started to look a little chilly. (And if he didn't, for that matter.)

 

Tomte help only did so much, though – they got the new rafters up, but replacing the roof would have to wait another day. Steve didn't ask Bucky to stay, but was pleased when he followed Steve into the house, natural as anything. Bucky fed the goats while Steve put leftovers in the oven and realized how much sweat had dried on him over the course of the day.

Ew.

Hey, I'm gonna jump in the shower real quick,” Steve said, and scratched an itchy part of his head. He was really, really gross. “Do you. Uh. Need to shower too?”

Bucky laughed and shook his head. “No, sweetheart, but thank you. I'll keep an eye on dinner, and on our girls,” he promised, as Holle gently rested her head in his lap.

Thanks,” Steve said, and leaned over to kiss Bucky. “I won't be long.” He reveled a little in how domestic everything felt – up to and especially including the goats in the kitchen – and stripped on his way up to the bathroom.

He lingered a little in the shower, thinking of Bucky's naked body in the bed with him, maybe again tonight and also maybe not just being in bed with him?

Huh,” he said, as the grit of the day washed away. Bucky was definitely male, but Steve had just kind of assumed a sexuality for him. A desire, and ability, to have sex. He should probably check on that before his imagination ran away – and anyway, he was clean now, and it wasn't fair to stick Bucky with all the chores, so he dried off and dressed in clean sweats, jogging easily down the stairs. He might ache a little tomorrow, but that was tomorrow, and he still felt pleasantly tired and strong in his skin.

 

Chapter Text

After dinner they left the kitchen to the goats, who were making themselves quite at home in their cosy nest of fresh straw. They were good enough to only mess in a single, easily-cleaned corner, and Steve slipped them some extra treats in thanks. He didn't enormously want to explain a floor in need of replacing to Peggy, and was pleased that this would just be a funny story by the time she came to retake her house.

That was months away, Steve reminded the little squeeze in his heart. He had ages to not have goats living in the kitchen.

And it was now, not several months from now, and he had Bucky in the living room on the big squishy sofa, the two of them immediately tangling together. Bucky's skin, Steve found, was clean and dry, no sign of the hard work they'd done that day.

You really don't need to bathe,” Steve said, a little surprised, and Bucky smiled at him.

I really don't,” he said, “Although sometimes I like to. Not indoors, like you do – that just feels damp and weird. But I'll go for a swim in a lake, or wash in a creek, just for the pleasure of it.”

Steve nodded. “That sounds pretty nice,” he said, running his hand along Bucky's back under his rough, homespun shirt.

Maybe you can come with me this summer,” Bucky offered. “If you're still here,” he added, after a beat.

Uh. Yeah. Yeah, that should work out.” Steve swallowed. Right. The now. Don't lose the now to fretting about the future. He was usually pretty shit at that, but he could try. He nudged Bucky with his nose, then kissed him softly. “Hey.” He slipped his hand a little further down, to rest on the small of Bucky's back, where his bottom just started to curve up.

Well, hi there,” Bucky said warmly, and dipped his head to return the kiss. “Mmm. Was wondering when you'd figure that out...”

Steve chuckled and squeezed lightly. “Maybe I wanna be respectful, ya ever think of that?” He kissed Bucky's cheek, smiling against the stubble there. “So you like this?” He slipped his hand an inch or two down, definitely on Bucky's ass now.

I like this,” Bucky confirmed, moving so that Steve's hand was even further south, and mouthing a little at his throat. “I like all of this. A lot.”

Steve just sighed and arched his back a little and started to rub their bodies together. Either Bucky definitely had a sexuality, or he was taking the whole 'take care of the farm and everyone on it' thing awfully far.

What do you like to do?” he asked, when they stopped kissing for a moment, and Steve had caught his breath. He was hard, and pressed against Bucky's thigh, and not by accident either.

Bucky smiled and rocked his leg a little. “This.” He got his hand under Steve's shirt and caressed his belly. “I wanna see you. You always sleep with clothes on.”

We've shared a bed once,” Steve protested, and paused. “Unless you can, um, see me...”

Bucky laughed and shook his head. “No, sweetheart. I can't just spy on you. I'd know if you were in danger, or were hurt, or something like that. But I can't seek you out just for fun.” He grinned. “Even though I wanted to. You're interesting .”

Aw, I'm okay,” Steve said automatically.

Better than okay,” Bucky assured him, and nipped at his chin. “I wanna see,” he whined.

Oh, fine, but you gotta get naked too,” Steve argued. “Fair's fair.”

Bucky shrugged and sat up, pulling his shirt off. His torso was thick with muscle and shadowed with body hair and Steve swallowed hard.

Bucky leaned over and kissed him, and touched the hem of his shirt. “May I?” he asked gently, and at Steve's nod, pulled the shirt up and off. “Glad it's warm in here,” he teased. “I only have to take off a single layer.”

Steve huffed a laugh, and finally got his hands on Bucky's chest, then his back as they slid together more tightly.

Are you nervous?” Bucky asked softly.

No,” Steve said.

Bucky rubbed his back and waited a few breaths.

A little,” Steve whispered. “I want it to be good for you.”

Same,” Bucky told him, and laughed, and hugged him. “At least we know some things haven't changed.” A beat. “I'm talking about dicks.”

Steve finally laughed, a good belly laugh, and reached for his jeans, wiggling out of them and his boxers.

Gyah!” Bucky pointed at his crotch. “What the fuck!”

Steve shot him a genuinely hurt look, then it clicked. “Oh! Oh. Yeah. I'm circumcized. I guess you didn't have that?”

No,” Bucky squeaked, and crossed his legs. “What happened to you?”

Steve laughed and gathered him into a hug. “Shh, it's okay. We, uh, do it to baby boys. Well, in America. Choosing to circumcize your son is, ah, very dependent on which culture you live in. But it's just removing the foreskin.”

Bucky wrinkled his nose. “Ew.”

Yeah,” Steve agreed. “But it doesn't hurt or anything. I mean, I guess it did at the time, but not after that.”

Bucky gave him a suspicious look, but did finally take his pants off.

Oh,” Steve said, finally seeing Bucky in good lighting.

Bucky smirked.

So is that, you know, a tomte thing, or...?”

Oh no, this is all home-grown,” Bucky said, posing proudly with his hands on his hips.

Steve rolled his eyes. “Oh, get over here, and let's see if you know how to use that thing.”

As he reeled Bucky into his arms on the sofa, one of the goats helpfully bleated from the kitchen, and they wound up in a heap on the sofa, laughing until they cried.

I swear--” Bucky panted. “I swear she's not speaking from experience!”

Steve was weak from laughing, and no long nervous. Well, considerably less nervous. He was lying on his back on the generous sofa, with Bucky in his arms, right there for kissing, and kiss they did, sliding into it easily from their laughter.

Bucky's mouth was soft, and he kissed well – Steve reckoned not much had changed. Although –

Buck?” he asked softly, when they took a break. “It's not my business, but did you ever, um. Fall for a human? After you became a tomte, I mean.”

Yes, of course,” Bucky said, pushing himself up and framing Steve's face with his arms. “It's been a long time, though. Is that. Uh. A problem?”

Steve gave him an odd look. “Of course not! I'm glad you had people to love you.”

Bucky shrugged. “Love came more rarely. But that came too.” He smiled shyly. “Have you had other lovers?”

Yes,” Steve said, and pulled him down for a little kiss. “I was just thinking, it was funny that kissing hadn't changed, over thousands of years.”

It hasn't,” Bucky confirmed. He ran a hand down Steve's side, resting it on his hip, and sighed happily. “Most coupling stuff hasn't.”

That's comforting,” Steve said softly. He definitely, definitely wanted to make love with Bucky, but this right here felt so good, to just hold him and kiss him, their bodies rubbing together. He could feel Bucky grow hard against his thigh, but they didn't have to rush. Winter nights were long, here.

They touched each other, a little shy to start.

Your skin's really soft,” Bucky said, kissing a line down Steve's shoulder.

Easy life,” Steve admitted with a smile. “God, you're so strong. I mean, I don't think it's just the magic super-strength. Your muscles are beautiful.”

Harder life,” Bucky said, and winked at him. “Thank you.” He flexed a little under Steve's hand, and dove up to kiss him on the mouth.

Steve dropped his jaw, and learned that Bucky tasted just like a man. His breath was warm on Steve's mouth, and he moaned a little, startled and pleased.

Steve rubbed his back, easing them both, and kissed his way down, pressing his face into the curve where Bucky's shoulder became his neck, and inhaled the forest smell there.

Should I get a shower?” Bucky asked, worried.

Only if you want to,” Steve mumbled, feeling a tiny bit drunk. “You smell good.”

Good.” Bucky relaxed a little bit more in Steve's arms, and he kissed the soft place under Bucky's jaw.

Steve ran his hand down Bucky's arm and laced their fingers together – his right hand, Bucky's left. “Feels just like the rest of you,” he whispered, nuzzling Bucky's ear.

Yeah,” Bucky breathed, and arched his back, grinding a little into Steve. “Oh, you're so good...”

Steve chuckled. “I've slept with other men before. Maybe that helps?”

So have I! You didn't invent being gay!” Bucky said, and they giggled, their joined hands raising together, the two of them stretching, Bucky half-pinning Steve and Steve half-pinning Bucky's arms in return.

They slid against each other a little faster, just a little bit harder, their kisses gaining an edge. Steve reached down and cupped Bucky's ass – well, as much as he could fit his hand around – and tried to grind them closer together while Bucky's free hand wove through his hair, tugging deliciously.

Steve moaned softly, arching up, and locked his legs around Bucky's, the two of them rubbing hard against each other. Not frantic, but pushing each other, bodies slick with sweat, and Steve tried to grind harder into Bucky's hip while he felt Bucky's cock press against his thigh.

Bucky suddenly gave a raw cry, heat spreading from his cock across Steve's leg, and this soft bit of human-ness undid him. Bucky was so real , and for a fleeting moment Steve remembered the first time they saw each other, the way his breath caught in his throat, and he tumbled over the edge, panting and moaning.

He was already pulling Bucky closer even as he caught his breath, kissing him over and over again. Somewhere in there he'd let Bucky's hand go, but it didn't matter because Bucky's arms were around him, cradling him, and Steve kept his hands splayed across Bucky's back.

Whoa,” Bucky whispered, and kissed him again.

Yeah.” Steve smiled. “Okay, now you might wanna take a shower.”

Bucky giggled and kissed him. “Only if you come with me?”

Steve usually found that two in a shower just meant overcrowding and someone always out in the cold and not under the showerhead, but for Bucky, he'd cram them both in there.

It was, indeed, very crowded in the small shower, but they got cleaned off, even as Bucky wrinkled his nose and audibly daydreamed about summertime swims in a lake.

Well, then, we can fuck next to a lake this summer,” Steve said, and nipped his shoulder.

You promise?” Bucky said, wiggling his ass a little.

I promise,” Steve said, and meant it. He'd figure out how to make it come true when there wasn't snow thick on the ground, and Bucky in his arms.

They towelled each other off and mutually, silently agreed that it was bedtime.

Bucky marched Steve right past his pyjamas. “Don't you dare,” he advised. “ I'll keep you warm, after all.”

Oh will you?” Steve asked, wiggling his eyebrows, while Bucky grunted at him.

They slid under the quilt and wrapped around one another, the way the dark and the quiet wrapped around them. Steve was tired; the well-earned tired of a good day's work and good orgasm, but he resisted sleep. It was too nice to nuzzle close to Bucky's warmth and kiss him, tangle fingers in his damp hair. Steve would have to comb it out for him tomorrow.

Go to sleep,” Bucky murmured softly. “You need it, sweetheart, we have work to do tomorrow. I'll still be here.”

D'you sleep?” Steve mumbled. “Y'don't have a bed.”

I do,” Bucky told him. “I can't take you there, but I do. I don't need much sleep, but I like it. I like it best, here in your bed.”

Steve made a little hmph noise and pillowed his head on Bucky's chest, pleased to hear a heartbeat. Bucky wasn't dead. He wasn't a mortal man, but he was alive, and he had a bed, and he was in Steve's bed, and that would have to do.

Promise me you'll sleep?” Steve mumbled, and Bucky tugged his hair lightly.

I promise. Now go to sleep, Steve,” he scolded, and Steve was planning to stay awake just to show him a thing or two, but instead he drifted off between one breath and the next.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

The next morning, Steve woke up late, after dawn had broken, and had the incredible pleasure of watching Bucky sprawled on his back, mouth open, and not quite snoring but definitely breathing very loudly.

The magic of the land, right there,” Steve muttered to himself, propping his head up on one hand and watching Bucky slumber deeply with interest. He may not have been human, but he did a great impersonation, it had to be said. He was deeply asleep, and Steve took a moment to indulge in just watching his...lover. Yeah. That was a word he could use now.

It was dim in the room still, the gray pre-dawn light just barely filtering through the curtains, but as Steve's eyes got used to the dark, he could make out more and more of Bucky. (The cat had evicted himself to sleep on top of one of Steve's sweaters on the dresser.)

Bucky was solid – well, Steve had known that from the first look. A thick waist where Steve had narrow hips and waist, no matter how big his arms and shoulders got. A body made to farm from birth to death.

Bucky breathed deep and even, and Steve enjoyed watching him, and how relaxed he was in sleep. It sounded like Bucky did sleep, but maybe not in a bed like this, with someone who adored him just a few inches away. They had work to do that day, but Steve figured they'd do other things, too. (Other than clean the kitchen, even.) Kissing Bucky was fun .

(Doing other things with Bucky was fun too.)

The dark got a few shades lighter, dawn just about to begin, and Steve hesitated – he didn't want to wake Bucky up, but he also didn't want to leave him, and the goats needed feeding.

Bucky stirred, and Steve shifted a little closer, heart warming when Bucky flowed right into his arms, head pillowed on Steve's chest.

Hey,” Steve whispered, and Bucky made a little noise, and pushed closer.

Yeah,” Steve said, and tried to finger-comb Bucky's hair out a little, smoothing the waves. “Baby, I gotta take care of the animals. You stay in bed though, okay? I'll be back soon. With coffee,” he added, just so Bucky didn't feel neglected.

No, I can...” Bucky's voice was blurry from sleep, and Steve kissed his forehead.

You can stay in bed,” he said firmly. “You're tired, honey. Try to go back to sleep.”

Bucky smiled, his eyes just barely opening. “'m not like you. I don't need sleep.”

Well, I don't need cake, but I like it too much to give it up,” Steve reasoned. “Now hush. I'll be back soon.”

It took a fair amount of willpower, but he did eventually roll Bucky off of him and tuck him under the quilt again. Bucky didn't get cold, but it was the principle of the matter and all.

Steve slipped on a robe because he did get cold, even in the snug little house, and slipped downstairs. The goats were up but not yet hungry (and therefore quiet), and he gave them their feed. The cat was up and hungry and definitely not quiet, and he got his noms, plus some pets for being a handsome beast.

Finally Steve could tackle breakfast. He made coffee and warmed up sweet buns and spread them with fresh butter, and loaded it up onto a tray to take up to Bucky.

Bucky was slightly more awake than when Steve had left him, and even fully opened his eyes at the smell of coffee, so Steve took advantage to steal a kiss.

Hey,” Bucky said, and stretched, and kissed Steve's cheek as he settled down, each of them with a mug of coffee and a bun now. “Oh, this is really good.”

Thanks,” Steve said, and slipped an arm around his guy so they could snuggle together while they ate. Something occurred to him, and, well, Bucky already knew he was a big dork.

He kissed Bucky, long and lingering. “That's really good too.”

Just for that I'm gonna make you shingle the roof by yourself,” Bucky warned him, before stealing a bite of Steve's breakfast.

That's fair.”

They breakfasted in peaceful quiet while the sun slowly rose. It was still winter-dark most of the day, but Steve noticed the days getting longer, slowly, just a bit.

There was no way he was leaving Bucky.

He knew it all in an instant, knew it completely. Sure, maybe things between them would end, but he kinda didn't think so. Not anytime soon. And Bucky couldn't leave the land; it was what had made him. So Steve wasn't going to leave either.

He'd work out the details in time, but it felt wrong to dread the coming of the sun, so he decided not to. Steve was going to love the way spring covered the land, and he was going to love Bucky, and he'd make it all work.

 

Revelation and breakfast both finished, they dressed for the day and headed out to get to work. Laying shingles was repetitive but fairly easy, and they worked together on the low roof. Steve asked for stories of the others who had lived on the land where Bucky was tomte, and he got them.

 

Oh, that guy was great,” Bucky said, remembering a farmer from, Steve guessed, maybe four or five hundred years ago. “Just the most thoughtful man – left me plenty of milk and good things, and a bowl of porridge and butter you wouldn't believe every year at Christmas.” He sighed happily, and tacked down another shingle. “And his wife! Steve, they were so in love, it was amazing. He adored her, and she thought the sun rose and set at his word.”

Steve, who was on the verge of thinking the same thing about Bucky, warmed through. “That's beautiful.”

It really was,” Bucky agreed. “Pass me those nails? Thanks, sweetheart.” He worked his way a little closer to Steve. “You getting the hang of it? Aw, yeah, you're doing great!”

Steve submitted to a kiss, but then asked about this long-ago farmer and his beloved wife again.

Oh yes, they had a long life together,” Bucky promised. “They're not buried here, but in a churchyard somewhere. Tons of kids, a big noisy farm, lots of love. He was wonderful to have on the land.”

Steve nodded, and hoped he could live up to this. He loved Peggy, of course, but not like this man...

D'you think you'll ever marry?” Bucky asked suddenly.

Uh. I.” Steve paused to switch mental tracks. “I don't know,” he admitted. “It's still kind of new that men can marry men in America. I like women, too, but it's different, with them.”

Bucky nodded. “Ah, I see. But would you want to? To settle down with someone, let's say – take marriage out of it.”

Steve swallowed hard. “I think so. Yeah. For the right person.” He applied himself to the shingles for a moment, gathering himself. “You never married, right? When you were alive?”

No, I didn't,” Bucky said. “Just never met the right person.”

Do you....like women, too? Like me?” Steve blurted out.

Bucky smiled at him. “I'm not bisexual, no.” He laughed at Steve's look. “I do talk to Peggy, you know. And the owner before her.”

Steve blushed. “I'm sorry. I should just ask, and if you don't understand, you can ask.”

I'd appreciate that.” Bucky put his hammer down, though, and crab-walked over to Steve to pull him into a hug and kiss his cheek roughly. “You're a sweetheart, sweetheart. But to get back to your question, I'm not bisexual, but that kind of didn't matter?” He shrugged. “You really need sons for a farm, but there were enough of us, and I never met a woman who I felt like having that arrangement with.”

What about a man?” Steve asked softly.

Ah, now that was different.” Bucky knocked his shoulder against Steve's for a moment. “Nothing forever – not like the family I told you about, I mean. But I had lovers. Some of them lasted for years. Others not. It was good. I wasn't lonely.”

Good,” Steve said, and reeled Bucky in for a kiss, before they both went back to work.

 

What about you?” Bucky asked. They had finished shingling the goat shed just after lunch, and spent the afternoon gently herding the trio back into their new home, then very thoroughly mopping the floor of the kitchen. And doing other things. In Steve's bed. Also very thoroughly.

They were making dinner together, just pasta and a simple sauce, when Bucky asked his question.

Did you have lovers, I mean,” Bucky clarified, and smiled. “Sorry. Just, remembering what we talked about earlier.”

Steve laughed. “I'd wondered. Here, stir the sauce? I'll put some bread in the oven.” They handed off tasks easily, and soon the garlic bread was warming nicely. “I did have lovers before you. Men and women, a couple of each. Peggy, for a time.” He shrugged. “I treasure all of them, but they all ended after a couple years.”

Is that how you like it?” Bucky asked, concentrating on the sauce. “Having someone for a time, but then it ending?”

Nope,” Steve said, and Bucky looked up, startled into a smile.

Steve leaned in to kiss him. “I'm a romantic, really,” he explained, and finally blushed, rubbing the back of his neck. “I want to find someone to be with forever. That would be...yeah.”

Yeah,” Bucky said softly, and wrapped his free arm around Steve's waist. He probably should say something like 'wow and what a lucky person that person will be to have you', but couldn't quite find the words. Steve hugged him, though, and Bucky could rest his head against Steve's shoulder for a moment, before he had to pay attention to dinner again.

Steve kissed his neck before he went to drain the pasta, and Bucky got the bread out of the oven and poured some wine, and they toasted each other, and their goat-free kitchen.

Thank you,” Steve said warmly, once they'd taken the edge off of hunger. “You could've snapped your fingers and everything would have been fixed, but you taught me instead. I appreciate it.”

Bucky shrugged. “It was my pleasure, truly. It was nice to go slow, and teach you.” He grinned. “Not much call for goat sheds in New York City, but least you know how!”

Steve laughed, and it was maybe only a tiny bit hollow to someone who knew to listen for that. “Right, yeah, not a lot of goats there.” He played with the stem of his wineglass and then looked up and smiled at Bucky. “Countryside's growing on me.”

Lots of goats out here,” Bucky said, and shut his mouth before he said something even more stupid. The garlic bread was good, and he ate another piece, and hoped that Steve would forget he said that. It wasn't fair, to take him out of his home. And it wasn't possible, to take Bucky out of his.

 

There was no question that night that Bucky would crawl into bed beside Steve – their new normal. He still insisted on wearing no pajamas, and Steve had promised to join him in that when it warmed up a bit, but at the moment swore he needed at least one layer.

Bucky had taken that attitude as a personal challenge, and in that spirit he started with kissing his way down Steve's throat and whatever bits of his collarbone he could reach around the soft t-shirt. Simultaneously, he slowly worked his hands up under Steve's shirt, caressing his belly and sides, smiling into soft skin when he felt the muscles there jump under his touch. Oh yeah. He was good .

Steve whimpered as Bucky was everywhere in his senses, one thigh over his legs, hair soft and fluffy on his cheek, hands everywhere , and he gave up his shirt and sweatpants without protest, wrapping their bodies together under the heavy quilt, drinking each other in as they rocked together.

Bucky smirked to himself as – much later – Steve fell asleep stark naked. He had totally won.

He slipped out of bed silently, proud when he didn't wake Steve, and put another blanket on the bed just in case. Wouldn't do for his lover to get chilly.

Steve huffed a breath in his sleep, and squirmed closer when Bucky got under the covers again.

“Shhh,” Bucky whispered, wriggling so that Steve was fully under the heavy blankets, resting mostly on Bucky's chest, and still fast asleep. He indulged himself by staying up a little longer, feeling the soft weight as the cat joined them in bed, and listened to the night in the dark room, knowing completely that everything, and everyone, on his land was safe. And, finally, he slept.

 

Chapter Text

After the goat shed, the two of them were hardly apart.

 

The night before had been one of them; Bucky had found Steve in his studio about mid-afternoon, kissed him, and promised to be back before two days were up. Steve had been happy to share his bed with the cat, who took up about as much space as Bucky did when he really tried. He had missed his lover that day, but trusted to Bucky's word; he would be back, at the latest, tomorrow afternoon.

 

Steve missed Bucky, though. He changed into pyjamas and missed Bucky whining at him about how clothes were a prison. Steve had once gotten Bucky into a pair of sweatpants and a soft Henley, to prove to him how comfy modern clothes were. The result had startled them both a little.

Bucky was handsome, of course. And his clothes weren't that different from Steve's, but there was something weird, seeing him in modern clothing. He looked softer, and younger. He looked at himself in the mirror, and given a funny little smile, and then changed out of the clothes. Steve hadn't argued; Bucky had been adorable in the soft clothes, but he hadn't, quite, been Bucky . His wool trousers and heavy shirt were a little itchy, but that was all part of Bucky, and anyway, it gave them both a little more impetus to get Bucky naked and keep him that way.

Steve smiled at the memory, and slipped the Henley over his head. He missed his friend, and this was a dumb way to connect, but it was what he had. He crawled into bed, ready for another night with the cat sprawled over half the bed. “Hey Buck,” he whispered to the ceiling. “Hope you're okay. Hope you're warm, and comfortable.” More dumb shit, but you never knew. Bucky knew when things were going wrong on the land, maybe he'd hear Steve's intent, if not his words.

He'd just settled into his book when he heard the door open and close downstairs, and was out of bed in moments.

The two men met on the stairs, Steve running downstairs to meet Bucky, and Bucky, Bucky who smelled like pine and snow and mud, running upstairs, running into Steve's arms.

I missed you,” Bucky said, hugging him tightly, his face pressed against Steve's.

I missed you too,” Steve said, pressing a kiss into Bucky's hair just over his ear. “You're freezing!”

Bucky laughed and rubbed his back. “I'm fine.” He kissed Steve, and kissed him again. “It's a chilly night, though. Go back to bed.”

Do you need anything?” Steve asked, not very subtly checking Bucky over. He was pretty sure tomte couldn't get hurt, but he would like to be the first to know if it was otherwise. Also, Bucky was freezing. Was he hungry, too?

No,” Bucky said gently, turning Steve and walking up to bed behind him. At the top of the stairs, he hugged Steve tight around he waist, kissing the back of his neck. “I'm fine. Everything is fine, now. I missed you.”

Steve twisted and kissed him again, and they finally made it to the bedroom. Bucky's skin was already warmer to the touch, and Steve didn't even try to hide the happy grin as he stripped down to get into bed.

Bucky laughed and crawled under the covers. The cat, newly evicted, peeped his extreme displeasure and then resettled at the foot of the bed.

Sorry buddy,” Bucky told him, and scritched his ears. “My Stevie.”

Steve got very warm and kind of fluttery at that, and tucked Bucky close, kissing him again. “Be nice, I was his before you came along,” he advised, and Bucky laughed, and settled on his chest, a sweet and welcome weight.

I'll make it up to him in treats,” he said, and yawned. “Mmmm. Not even tired. Jus' happy.”

It's warm and sleepy in here, with all of us in the bed,” Steve murmured. Had Bucky slept the night before? Well, no matter – he'd sleep tonight. 'Didn't need sleep' Steve's foot. He needed this, going by the way he was melting in Steve's arms. “Is everything okay now, Buck?”

Uh huh.” Bucky sprawled out a little more, and yawned again.

Good. Thank you.” Steve nuzzled the top of Bucky's head, breathing him in, enjoying the way his soft hair caught against Steve's stubble.

Mrrrrrr,” Bucky said. He snuggled a little more firmly into Steve, and immediately fell fast asleep.

Steve smiled down at him, and at the whole cozy night. The little house was tight and warm against the bitter air outside, the cat had forgiven them enough to fall asleep at his feet, and everything was dark and safe. And his Bucky was home, a welcome, familiar weight on Steve.

It only took a few minutes for Steve to drift off as well.

 

Bucky was a fun lover, Steve decided one afternoon, as he caught his breath.

At the time, Bucky was still in him, and they were both ignoring the cat scratching at the door in favor of Bucky rolling his hips, and Steve leaning over to kiss him. Bucky had quickly learned what Steve liked, and was in turn clear and vocal about what he liked, and they had fun in bed together. And on the kitchen floor. And the studio floor. A lot of flat surfaces in the house, actually. They'd have to bleach everything before Peggy moved back in.

That was later, though. Right now was their bodies together, and Bucky's hands on his waist, thumbs pressing the muscles of his belly. Steve's thighs were burning, doing all the work of moving him, and he savored how physical they both were. Bucky's body was thick between his thighs, his chest roughly hairy, begging for Steve's hands to run through, to cup his pecs. Tomte he might be, but Bucky had the body of a human, and it reacted very much like a human, especially when Steve brushed across his nipples, and leaned over again to press deep, open kisses to Bucky's throat.

Bucky moaned so sweetly when he did that that he did it some more, and that was their afternoon gone, lost in touching each other and kissing, fucking and caressing and spending hours as close as they could get.

The coming evening found them cuddled in bed, Steve's head resting on Bucky's chest. Bucky had a heartbeat, and it made Steve smile and hug him to hear it.

Bucky laughed softly and stroked Steve's hair. “I have a pulse, too. And I breathe.”

And snore,” Steve said, weaving his fingers with Bucky's. His left hand – Steve was a little fascinated that the limb Bucky had lost in life was his again. A tiny bit cooler than his right hand, maybe, but only because Steve knew to look for it. “Can you get hurt?”

I don't know,” Bucky admitted, kissing the top of Steve's head. “I never have. Not even scratches or anything like that.”

Huh,” Steve said. “What if you just...jumped out of a window?”

You wanna experiment and find out?” Bucky asked, voice warm with amusement.

No,” Steve said firmly, and looked up at him. “Don't you dare. I mean it, Buck. I don't want to find out the hard way that you can get hurt.”

Bucky tipped his chin up and kissed him. “I won't, sweetheart, I promise. I think I'm okay, though. How many little scratches and things have you gotten, working on the farm with me?”

Steve contemplated the twisted ankle (slipping in the snow), multiple bruises, and countless little cuts and bumps and the other things of life he'd gained, living here among the trees and wild things and, for that matter, a particularly snowy, icy landscape. “Okay, you may have a point. Don't tempt fate though, ok?” He hugged Bucky hard. “I kinda like you, y'know.”

I kinda like you too,” Bucky assured him, and kissed his way down Steve's face. “Kinda a lot,” he whispered into Steve's mouth, and Steve made a low sound and rolled them over, wrapping himself around Bucky, trying to press even more of their skin together.

 

Steve kept painting, of course. Weird paintings, not like what he'd done before; they were eerie and beautiful and looking at them was like tasting snow. He still used oils, but that was about the only thing that was the same as his old landscapes. These new paintings were the landscape, but not in the way Steve saw it – it was feeling and history and strangeness. They sold almost as soon as he finished them. And for enough money that he didn't worry, at least not for the quiet winter, cut off from the world and with plenty to eat and a warm house, a cat, three goats, and a lover.

The light lasted longer each day, and Steve enjoyed painting, drinking in the silent world. Bucky had long ago grown bored of watching him, and now went on long walks while Steve worked, or took care of things around the farm, or played with the goats. It was a beautiful day, so he'd gone on a walk, seeking a far corner of the land he promised to bring Steve to when he wasn't working. The sun was setting, and Bucky was due home soon. It was Steve's night to cook, but he couldn't resist the color of the setting sun on the old snow, the feeling of spring just about to break onto the land. He lost himself in slow orange light and the blue shadows of twilight until it was nearly dark, and Bucky was beside him.

Steve gave himself a little shake, coming back to himself. “Sorry,” he said, and reeled Bucky in for a kiss, his arm around his man's waist, enjoying the roughness of his clothes against Steve's bare skin.

“Oh, that's wonderful,” Bucky said, looking at the painting. “Here, this is for you.”

Steve moved and held out his hands and Bucky gave him the day's treasures: a dark bird's feather, a tuft of fur the cat had shed, and a few brown, long-dead leaves that had somehow survived the snow.

“Thank you, love,” Steve said, and kissed him, and went to make the day's assemblage. He cupped the leaves and fur into a little nest and rested them on an old saucer on a shelf, and stuck the feather in, tall and proud. It was near a wilting flower (from a bouquet Steve had bought in town) balanced on some moss, and a little star Bucky had woven out of twigs.

He had taken to bringing Steve little treasures like this, and Steve had taken to arranging them, and drawing them for a warm-up, or just for fun. He had half a sketchbook full of them now, not sure what they'd become.

“Maybe they don't have to become anything,” he told Bucky one night, when Bucky hugged him and kissed his neck and asked him. “I like that they're a gift from you.”

“You make them interesting,” Bucky said, and touched a heart-shaped stone he'd found. “I like that they're both of us.”

Steve had agreed, and kissed him a lot.

Kissing sounded like a really good idea in the present too. Drawing Bucky into his arms and pressing soft kisses to his jaw, enjoying the broad weight of him – also a good idea. Steve's stomach was growling a little though, and he went to go heat up leftovers, pleased with his work for the day. There would be plenty of time to wrap Bucky in his arms and make him smile later.

 

On the first day of spring, it snowed. They celebrated by feeding the goats, contemplating a hike, and going back to bed.

Bucky rolled over so he could mold his body to Steve's back, snuggling into his warmth, and under the cozy quilts. He wrapped his arms around Steve's waist and rested his chin on his shoulder, chest pressed to Steve's broad back. This, right here – it was heaven. Bucky could live off of Steve forever. He tasted how much Steve loved him, and hoped like hell Steve could know how Bucky felt about him. Goodness knew they were together so much, kissed and hugged and held one another. But still. Bucky reveled in the knowing, deep in his bones, exactly how much he meant to Steve. He was plenty real, but it seemed even sharper, knowing Steve believed in him wholly.

And he could keep Steve safe. As long as he was on the land, Steve would be safe from physical harm. Just the other day he had caught Steve when he slipped and started to fall from a ladder. Bucky had appeared out of thin air and caught his lover, soft as down, and carefully settled him to standing. He'd rested his hands on Steve's shoulders, strong and sturdy, and smiled at him. “If you wanted me, you could've called, you know,” he said.

Steve laughed and leaned in, kissing the edge of Bucky's mouth. “I'll remember that next time. Thank you, love.”

In the present, Bucky remembered, and wrapped his legs around Steve's. A little emboldened by the rush of affection that washed over him, he finally asked the question he'd been trying to ignore.

“When do you leave?”

Steve went very still, then turned around so he faced Bucky. “My flight is June first, sweetheart.”

Oh.” Bucky pressed a little closer, moving his head so he couldn't see Steve's face. “You won't be here for Midsommar.”

He could feel Steve breath deep, and press his lips to Bucky's hair. “About that. I've been...thinking. I do need to go back to New York. I have things there. Friends. But. I want to come back.”

I'm sure Peggy would let you visit next winter,” Bucky said cautiously. He could have Steve at Christmas. A winter lover. Half the year. Better than nothing.

No, Buck,” Steve mumbled, and cleared his throat, and tilted Bucky's chin up so he had to look at Steve. His beloved. They hadn't said, but they knew, and the saying would catch up to that. “I want to come back to live. Maybe by Midsommar – that doesn't give me much time,but--”

Go back earlier,” Bucky blurted out in a rush. “Say goodbye to those you love there, and say goodbye to your city. Do it properly. Then I know you're coming here with—with a free heart. Come here and stay with me.”

Steve laughed and hugged Bucky so tightly it hurt even him for a moment. “You should know that already,” he said. “And New York's not going anywhere. I can always go back to visit” He kissed Bucky's throat, right over his pulse point. “I know you can't leave the land. But I'll bring you things, and tell you stories, and you'll get a little of where I'm from, when I come back to you.”

Oh,” Bucky breathed, and shook his head. “Oh, Steve. Are you sure? I'm not a great boyfriend. You can't go into town for a drink with me. I'll never see New York. My patch – it's big, but you've got the whole world. I don't know if I'm worth that.”

You're worth that, and a whole lot more,” Steve said, and cupped Bucky's face in his hands. “No, I'm not sure. Is any man?” He pressed a long kiss to Bucky's brow, his lips warm. “I know you're worth it, though. I know you make your patch into a whole world for me. And I know I'm a better man, for this winter. A better artist. There's a lot I'm not sure about – where I'll live, how Peg and I can make this work and be fair to her. But I want to find out. With you, Buck.”

Bucky nodded, and pressed his mouth to Steve's throat, a kiss and more. I love you, he mouthed. Words he didn't get to say often, but he'd say them to Steve.

He'd never been a coward in life, or in this afterlife, and he wasn't going to start now.

Steve,” he said. “Steve, I love you.”

Oh, Buck,” Steve said. “I love you too.”

 

Chapter Text

Things ought to have become a flurry of activity then, but they didn't, which Steve reckoned was another part of this post-New York life. There was no hurry, because there was no need.

There was one more snowstorm to close out the winter. Steve and Bucky made love as the winds whipped and roared around the house, not out of any deep snowstorm-romance, but just because there was nowhere to go and nothing to do and there was a bed right there .

They took their time about it and it was nearly dawn when Steve finally slipped his arms around Bucky and nestled close under the covers, head on his shoulder. They were both freshly showered, and Bucky was soft and warm. He tilted his head to press a kiss just to the left of Bucky's heart, and got an answering squeeze.

Like havin' you in m'bed,” he mumbled into Bucky's skin, definitely not entirely awake.

I like being here,” Bucky whispered, and stroked Steve's hair. “Go to sleep. Don't worry about the goats and the cat, I'll feed 'em.”

Steve intended to argue about this, but instead his body hauled him off to sleep between one breath and the next.

Bucky smiled down at his gorgeous, dopey...Steve. Steve had tried to call him a boyfriend, but they both made a face at that. Bucky didn't have any kind of a word for them, but he also didn't think they needed one. They were Bucky and Steve. He kissed the top of Steve's head, and let him sleep.

 

Steve had sent a tentative e-mail to Peggy, politely explaining everything and asking to move onto the land. (And offering to buy her all new sheets.) “I'm pretty sure she'll be on board,” he told Bucky, clutching a cup of tea that Bucky had brought him as he composed the letter. “We're friends. And there's enough room that she won't even know I'm here, if she doesn't want to.”

If you're friends, she'll want to know you're here,” Bucky pointed out gently. He laid a hand on Steve's shoulder, the muscle so tense it felt like steel under his hand. “Stevie. I know her too. We aren't even friends, but we like each other, and she's good to me. I can only imagine how good she is to you.”

Steve didn't relax, but he did sip his tea.

Bucky leaned over and kissed him between the eyes. “Breathe, honey. She'll be happy for you.”

Steve managed to smile at that. “I am breathing.”

Breathe deeper,” Bucky advised.

Peggy's reply came within the hour. She really did know Steve, Bucky thought to himself, as Steve opened the e-mail, both of them reading. Peggy hadn't even bothered with a salutation, just started right off with an all-caps, bolded OF COURSE YOU CAN LIVE THERE

Bucky?” Steve asked. “Am I predictably dramatic?”

Yes,” Bucky said.

Oh,” Steve said. “Peggy thinks so too.”

We love your predictable drama,” Bucky assured him.

You love my predictable drama,” Steve said, unable to keep from smiling. “Peggy says otherwise.”

Bucky snorted and installed himself on Steve's lap, the better to cuddle and read her e-mail. It was short and to the point, generous and witty, and Bucky smiled. It would be nice to have both friend and lover on the land.

We'll have to wait til spring to start building a house, I guess?” Steve mused. “No one can dig a basement while the ground is frozen.”

Ahem,” Bucky said.

What?” Steve looked at him, confused. “They can't, not even here. But anyway, Peggy won't be back until I have to leave, so I can stay here easily.” He kissed Bucky's throat. “I'd live in a tent for you, though.”

Bucky groaned, and knocked his forehead gently against Steve's. “Steven. Light of my life. Tell me some characteristics of tomte. The ones that really spring to mind.”

Eternally cold feet,” Steve said and wasn't sorry at all, even when Bucky pinched him. “Uh. You can sense when something goes wrong. That'll be good. Um.” He blinked. “You're really strong.”

Cloooooser,” Bucky said.

You can. Oh. Bucky, no, love. I can't ask you to dig a foundation,” Steve said, shocked. “I have savings, I can hire people for that.”

Bucky shrugged. “Well, you're not asking me. And I'm gonna build you a whole house, not just dig stuff.”

No,” Steve said firmly. “Bucky, no. Truly.”

Why not?” Bucky asked.

Buck, do you know how to dig a basement and build a house to code? Including wiring?” Steve asked patiently.

Bucky paused.

And visibly wilted, and Steve's heart cracked.

Can I help, at least?” he asked quietly, and Steve was glad he was already curled up right there, where Steve could hold him tight and press kisses to his face, and whisper secret love-words into his skin, where only Bucky would hear.

He stroked Bucky's face and kissed him again. “I want to work with you again,” he said. “Tell you what. I'll hire people to do the stuff we don't know how to do. Build the bones of the house, wire it, plumb it, figure out solar, all that good stuff. Then you and me – we take over. Hang drywall and lay floor and paint, or whatever else will need doing.” He stroked Bucky's back. “And you can keep me from falling down the stairs.”

Bucky bit his lip. “Don't joke about that. But yeah. Yeah, I think that'll be good. Make the house ours.”

I'm sorry,” Steve said, and hugged him again. “No more jokes like that. And the house would always be ours. But it'll be good to do part of it ourselves.” He relaxed as Bucky eased a little in his arms. “Hey. Love you, Buck.” They still didn't say it a whole lot. It wasn't that saying it would make it less special, just...they knew already. Why repeat something you lived and breathed your whole life with?

I love you too,” Bucky said, nestling a little closer. “Oh, Steve. You can stay here.”

Never doubted it,” Steve murmured. He smiled, thinking of next Christmas, making Bucky porridge. Of exploring the land with him in summer. Autumn light dappling Bucky's body. It was going to be so, so wonderful.

 

They played in the melting snow together, and Steve painted as the days grew longer, working a little more and a little harder – things were cheaper here than New York, but he still wanted a good nest egg. He bought plans for a little house, and began to hire people to work on the land.

Does it feel weird to have strangers come here?” he asked Bucky, after a group he'd hired came to check the clearing he and Peggy and Bucky had chosen for his new house. It was on the brow of a low hill and looked out over forest, but was high enough that Steve would get plenty of solar power most of the year. It was a five-minute walk from Peggy's house through the woods. Close enough for visiting, far enough that. Well. For lots of things. Bucky had sworn up and down that there were bluebells in the woods, and spring would bring a soft mist of color.

It was cold and muddy now, but Steve believed him. Bucky hadn't shown himself to the men (who had been very kind about Steve's Swedish, before switching to English), but Steve had caught sight of flickers of red through the trees, and he was certain at least the contractor had as well. They had shared a quick smile and nod of understanding. Good – Bucky would be treated right.

No, I don't mind people on the land,” Bucky answered, slipping his arms around Steve. They had hiked back out to the house site to watch the sun set. “It's not like that, exactly. If they were going to hurt you, or hurt the land, then I guess. But not when they're just here to work.”

We have to cut down trees!” Steve looked at him in horror. “Oh, Bucky...”

Bucky smiled, though, and drew Steve in for a kiss. “I know, love.” He kissed Steve again, because kissing Steve was the best thing in his life. He felt his lover relax, just a little bit, and gloated that he could have this power. He kept his arms around his man, and snuggled them together right where the kitchen would be someday. “I've cut down trees. You have to maintain forests, did you know that? The house will fit into the land, we just have to make a tiny bit of room for it. It won't hurt me; people have built houses and dug basements and cleared land here before.”

He felt Steve's sigh of relief down to his bones, and wondered if it was warm enough to make love outside yet. Probably not. Also, mud. He wrapped his arms tighter around his precious man, and kissed him again and again. Steve cared so much . Bucky was, literally, superhuman. He had died thousands of years ago. He was a land-spirit. And Steve cooked for him and loved him and worried about him. He still kissed Bucky's left hand sometimes, out of nowhere, and it made Bucky's heart hurt in the best possible way.

You tell me if anything does hurt you,” Steve said. Mumbled, really, with his mouth on the crook of Bucky's neck. He was bundled up against the cold of course, but Bucky wore his usual loose, earth-colored clothes, his year-round uniform that left face and neck free.

Promise,” Bucky said, and rubbed Steve's back. “C'mon, it's getting cold again, let's go inside. I'll make us tea.” The sun was sinking winter-slow, throwing red light and blue shadows in the forest, and they walked back to the little house hand-in-hand.

 

The forest was a soft new green when Steve packed a bag and kissed Bucky goodbye and kissed the cat goodbye and even kissed the goats goodbye, and left to pack up his life in another land. He hugged Bucky by the car, and kissed him again.

I'll be back by midsummer, I promise,” he said. “I love you, Bucky.”

I love you too,” Bucky said, and hugged him tight. “Be careful. Be safe. I can't protect you off the land.”

I promise,” Steve said. “You be careful too.” He smiled. “Come say hi to Peg, make sure she doesn't need anything?” They had scrubbed the house top to bottom. There was a lot of bleach involved. And Steve had bought the nicest new linens he could find. Also really nice coffee. And chocolate. He kind of owed everything to Peggy. (And it would be good to live near her again, he admitted to Bucky. “We're not great at dating, but we're really good at being friends,” he explained, and Bucky understood.)

Promise. Go, or you'll be late,” Bucky said, and kissed Steve one last time, as warm breaths of wind made his hair dance. “I love you.”

I love you. See you soon!” Steve finally wrenched himself away from Bucky, and drove away from the sweet forest house. He'd be back soon, anyway. By midsummer, as he'd promised.

 

June 24

 

Bucky tried not to wait too impatiently. Peggy had taken pity and let him come around to annoy her. He'd already set up the bed in the new house, made it with the sheets they had inherited from Peggy who had simply blinked when Bucky pointed out they were still in good shape, did she want them?

Okay, point,” he'd conceded, and she had laughed.

The house was unfinished, just studs and wiring and plumbing. They would build the interior walls, paint and decorate together, and this satisfied Bucky. It was summer, and the world would be warm and bright for months to come; plenty of time to get the house snug and safe before cold winds came again. They just had the bed, and a small table and two chairs Peggy had also given them, but it was home enough to start with. The cat had, of course, opted to stay where he knew best, but Steve had promised they could get their own cat in time. Maybe some chickens, too.

And now it was the day Steve was due home, and Bucky was...restless. He tried not to be a pain in the ass, he truly did. Peggy had looked up Steve's flight and it had taken off on time, and would land on time. It was a ways where they lived, but Steve could take a train to town quickly, and then Peggy would go pick him up and he would come home, home to Bucky. Finishing things in New York had taken longer than anybody thought, but now Steve had a number of contacts in galleries there and in Sweden, and all of his things were either being shipped to Sweden or sold or given to friends. He had said goodbye to those friends, and gotten his hugs and love and promises to keep in touch.

Bucky had been truly, deep-down afraid that Steve would stay. “It's a big, amazing, interesting city full of friends and things to do,” he explained to Peggy, over their first cup of coffee together. “What if he realizes he can't leave it?”

Peggy smiled kindly and shook her head. “It's not like that. He lived in New York all his life, and it'll always be in him. But he's been ready to leave, like I was ready to leave. I promise, Bucky. We talked a lot about this. He thought I was crazy when I bought this house and moved out here, and then two years later was asking to come stay for a season. His heart is here now. Mine is too, and I don't even have a lover tied to the land.”

Bucky looked down into his coffee. “Peggy? Are you lonely?”

No, sweetheart. I'm not,” she assured him. She reached out and covered his hand with hers. “I think all three of us will have a lot of fun living here. I intend to, anyway, you two can do whatever you want,” she teased, and Bucky looked up and smiled at her. “But I'm not lonely. I feel right.”

You feel right,” Bucky agreed, and turned his hand and squeezed hers. “I'm going to have a lot of fun too.”

Peggy laughed and Bucky smiled. “We can loosen Steve up,” she said, and Bucky felt a little better.

 

Maybe that conversation was why Peggy was downright indulgent, letting Bucky take care of the goats and feed the cat and run back to his and Steve's house to re-make the bed. She even hugged him when he came back to her house, looking a little lost.

When her phone buzzed, they both jumped, and Peggy read the text message with a grin. “He's on the train, everything's on time. I'll head into town soon and meet him. He'll be here before supper, Bucky, and we can have the bonfire and everything with him.” She showed him the text message, and the one after that.

 

Tell Bucky I miss him. Tell him I love him. Tell him I'll be there so soon.

 

I like that,” Peggy sniffed, mock-offended. “I'm the one picking his arse up from town.”

Bucky giggled, and hugged her, and read Steve's words again. “Sorry. I'll teach him manners, in between--”

Peggy slapped her hand over his mouth. “Do not finish that sentence, tomte,” she said, and Bucky grinned so wide she could see it on his whole face.

In between painting the walls, why, what did you think I'd say?” Bucky asked, and wiggled his eyebrows, so Peggy threw him out of her house.

(She let him know when she was leaving, going to his place of exile in the goat shed, and even accepted his hug with grace.)

 

The goats made it a little easier to be peaceful, with their goaty smells and strange eyes, and the cat came out to join them. Bucky had done everything he could – their little house was open to the summer winds and the bed made and the bonfire built. He just had to wait. For a being who had existed for thousands of years now, he wasn't great at waiting.

Bucky felt the car turn onto the land before he heard it, of course, and was up and out of the goat shed in moments. It took a minute or two to drive from the road to the house, but they were close, they were so close , and pretty soon the car was in view, and then pulling up by the house and then Bucky was in Steve's arms again.

They just held each other for long minutes. Somehow both of them had to catch their breath and remember this was real, this was from now on. Steve wasn't going away again, not for this long anyway.

Hi,” Steve said, and pulled away just enough to kiss Bucky. “Glad Midsommar, love.”

Glad Midsommar,” Bucky said, laughing, and hugged Steve under the sun that wouldn't set that night and the smell of flowers and trees, the earth rich under his feet. “Stevie, welcome home.”

 

 

December 25

 

You just want more porridge,” Peggy said, as she stirred her pot.

I do not,” Bucky said. “This is the rules. Two households, two bowls of porridge.”

Greedy,” Peggy said.

Steve, tell her I'm right!” Bucky whined.

You're both right,” Steve said, and enjoyed the way they both glared at him. “These are the rules. Peg, honest, I've tried to make him porridge anytime he wants it, but it's a Christmas-only thing. And Bucky, you are greedy, I've seen you eyeing those cookies.” He stirred his pot and eyed it critically. “Not that you can't be greedy and eat as many as you want. I'll make another batch after breakfast.”

Hmph,” Bucky and Peggy both said, much to Steve's pleasure.

He figured he probably should have guessed that they would be instant friends, and were often frighteningly alike. He loved them both, after all, and all three of them shared the land well. He and Bucky could go days without seeing Peggy, or they could have her over to dinner every night for a week, and regularly did both. They'd decided to have Christmas at the new house, and both of the humans who lived on the land produced their requisite gifts of thanks for the tomte of the land.

 

Bucky downed the butter and porridge with immense satisfaction, and kissed them both when he was done – Steve on the mouth and Peggy, a little shyly, on the cheek. After breakfast they opened gifts, and Steve baked more cookies. Peggy taught them parlour games she'd learned how to play over the years, and took a long, snore-filled, post-lunch nap on their big sofa.

Steve covered her with the warmest blanket he could find, and he and Bucky went out for a winter hike in the low, dim sunlight that made the woods sleepy and magical. They wandered, no real path in mind, but Steve wasn't surprised when they wound up at the burial mound where Bucky's body lay. They didn't come here often, and he was glad of it, but it felt right on this day.

He wrapped his arms around Bucky and kissed him. “Hey love,” he said softly. “Merry Christmas.”

Bucky smiled and kissed him back. “Merry Christmas, Steve.” He snuggled a little closer, and smiled when Steve rubbed his left arm.

Did you have a happy life?” Steve asked.

Bucky was quiet for awhile, excavating memories. Being a tomte didn't feel that different than being a man. “I did,” he finally said. “It had ups and downs, of course. But on the whole, yes. I think I did.”

Good,” Steve said, and tilted his head up for another kiss. “I love you, tomte. I guess you're the man buried here too, but it's hard for me to remember that sometimes. I'm glad you had a good life, though.”

A good life, and a good...whatever this is,” Bucky agreed. “I love you, too.” He snuggled back into Steve's arms, liking how his hat caught on Steve's new beard. They'd head back to the house soon – it was bitter cold, and Steve had already had a bad cold once this winter – but for now, it felt nice to stand in the little clearing with his love, the two of them together on this quiet day, safe on Bucky's land.