"Did you hear," the words hummed with muted excitement and smug satisfaction, "that the Prince killed that dragon?"
Bucky, hunched over his beer at the end of the bar in the dingy pub, doing his best to ignore and be ignored in turn, couldn’t help turning, caught by words and tone both. The man who'd spoken was dressed in nice clothes, a cut above what the rest of men in the pub were wearing—not quite nice enough to scream target, not quite enough for his pockets to invite picking, but enough for Bucky to notice.
His companion, who asked, "What prince? What dragon?" was probably the reason he was there. It was likely the companion's regular pub, since he was dressed like the rest of them. Plain cotton and linen, rough and serviceable and clean, but nothing dyed, nothing soft. The only obvious difference between the companion and Bucky was the brick dust on the companion's pants.
That, and Bucky's hair was a shade longer than a tradesman would indulge in.
Well-dressed sighed in exasperation. "The Prince, our Prince, Prince Cayden? Our King's second son? How on earth do you survive with no idea of what's going on in our Kingdom?"
"Does the Kingdom know what's going on with me?"
Well-dressed stared at him. "Why would the Kingdom know what's going on with you?"
"My point exactly," Not So Well Dressed replied, but Bucky could sense his amusement.
"That's not a point. That's…that's stupid," muttered Well-dressed with the casual ease of long-standing friendship, and Not So Well Dressed grinned and clapped him on the shoulder.
Well-dressed took a deep breath. "What I was trying to tell you was, our Prince finally killed the dragon that invaded the caves in the western hills."
Not So Well Dressed signalled for two more beers, setting his coins on the bar. "How'd you know?"
"Because the Prince brought its head back with him. Dropped it right in the courtyard." Well-dressed's nose wrinkled in distaste. "Do you have any idea how difficult it's going to be to get dragon blood out of the flagstones? I swear, its eaten right into the grout. I thought the Steward was going to scream." He quickly went on, "Of course, we're all very proud of our Prince. It's no easy thing to slay a dragon."
No, Bucky could imagine it wasn't. Dragons were massive, fire-breathing creatures who kidnapped princesses and made their nests on huge piles of gold and jewels.
It was that last bit that Bucky cared about. Gold and jewels. A dragon's treasure, with no dragon left to burn him alive or bite his head off.
Of course, it belonged to the King, since the Prince had killed the dragon. But Well-dressed—who must be some kind of senior servant in the palace—hadn't said anything about piles of treasure accompanying the dragon's head. Which made sense. Princes were all about honour and prestige and riding about on their fancy horses and sticking their lances where they didn't belong.
Someone else would be sent to fetch the treasure.
If Bucky got there first…
He sculled his beer, stood, and left the pub.
The western hills weren't too far. If he hired a horse and rode like the devil, he could help himself and no one would ever know.
* * *
Three days of long, hard riding later, Bucky stood on a rocky path, staring up at the entrance to a dragon's cave.
He knew it was the dragon's cave because the horse he'd hired—a fast, tough little mare, ugly as sin with hardy northern pony blood in her veins—had chucked a fit as soon as they'd come within sight of the path.
She hadn't chucked him off, for which he was grateful, but she'd planted her feet and refused to move.
Bucky hadn't wasted time trying to force her. Instead he'd turned her back the way they'd come, found a tree to tether her to, loosened her girth, gave her a long line, hobbled her and left her to graze. Before leaving town, he'd bought a strong sack, reinforced and with straps to carry it on his back, and he'd pulled it and everything else he'd need out of her saddle bags and made his way on foot up the wide, rocky path.
To here. Where he was standing. Staring up at the dragon's cave.
As he got closer, a strange smell filled the air. Acrid, like old iron, like blood, like burning, with a hint of something sharp he didn't recognise. If that's what the mare had smelled, he wasn't surprised she'd refused to come any closer. Horses were prey; to her, it must have smelled like death.
It kind of smelled like death to Bucky.
"Which is probably because there's a dead dragon in there," he said quietly, deliberately, because he refused to be afraid of a dragon's corpse.
His words echoed off the rocky hills, following him up the broad path to the massive cave.
Before he went in, he pulled torches out of his sack and lit one, holding it aloft. He also loosened his knives, because he might not be the only person here.
Maybe you should have thought of that before you talked to yourself. Idiot. Too late now.
Holding the torch high, he stepped inside.
The first thing he saw was the dragon.
The second thing he saw was the blood.
It was splashed across the cave like a mad toddler had decided to paint with it, disappearing into the deep shadows cast by the torch. It glittered in the firelight, crimson and bright and for one heart-stopping moment Bucky wondered if it was somehow still fresh.
But no. The glitter was from the gold's reflection. The massive piles of gold that held the dragon's body.
The dragon's headless body.
He'd never seen a dragon, only seen woodcuts and puppets and, once, a very bad painting. None of those had prepared him for this. For the impossible elegance of the wings, even splayed out like gigantic fallen leaves, stretching into shadow. For the slender grace of it, even lying dead, the endless length of its tail, disappearing in a curl under the wings, the curving stretch of its neck… ending in ragged flesh and bone and scale where it had been hacked through, the head taken as a trophy. As proof of its death.
How, Bucky thought. "How?"
How had someone killed this? The sheer physical impossibility baffled him as he stared at the claws, as long as his forearm, the wings, the tail. It was as big as a lord's manor house, as big as two, maybe, and it could breathe fire.
He shook himself out of it. However impossible, it had happened. The dragon was dead, and that left all this piled gold, gleaming in the torchlight, all those bright jewels, ripe for the taking.
He'd just avoid the ones covered in blood.
There was a lot of blood, but he could dig underneath to find the clean.
"Sorry," he felt compelled to say to the dead dragon as he jammed the torch into the small mountain of gold, lit another and jammed it in, and another. With the light secured, he started filling his sack.
He wouldn't take too much. He had to be able to carry it, his mare had to be able to carry it and him, and he didn't need a huge amount.
Just enough he'd never have to do another job, never have to steal anything ever again. This wasn't even stealing, really. The dragon was dead. It didn't need it and the King, the Prince, that whole royal family, they sure didn't.
Bucky clambered his way up the side of the pile, carefully avoiding touching the dead dragon, digging under the blood-stained gold to find a seam of clean jewels. Despite his care, he started a gold slide, a minor avalanche of gleaming riches, and he scrabbled and slipped, snatching at a torch as it fell free, bumping down the pile.
When he slid to a halt, he found himself lying on his back, staring at the underside of the dead dragon's wing, at the curled tail.
At the gleam of something pale and rounded.
He squinted, trying to work out what he was seeing, raising the torch to pierce the shadows.
There were many things in Bucky's life that he regretted. Too many things that he could never take back. Never undo. Of all the things he regretted, this moment, when he surrendered to curiosity and raised the torch, when he realised what he was looking at, might be the one he regretted most.
The gleaming pale ivory, impossible to mistake for anything else, no matter how much Bucky tried to pretend otherwise, was an egg. Held in the protective curve of a dead dragon's tail, hidden from view by a dead dragon's wing.
With a thump, Bucky sat down, not caring that the gold avalanched him down in a spinning, gleaming tide.
He was starting to understand how the Prince had managed to kill her. Not completely, he didn't understand why she hadn't just burned him to death, but he was starting to get an inkling.
She couldn’t fight back, not properly, not with an egg to protect.
And she was still protecting it, even after she died, hidden away, tucked against her body.
Poor thing. Poor dragon. Poor egg.
He couldn’t help going back for a closer look, cautiously slipping under her wing, holding the torch close.
The egg was beautiful. It was tiny compared to the dragon, a little smaller than his chest, but its ivory shimmered with hints of pink and gold, and… He squinted. He could almost see a faint shadow inside. He worked his arm around the egg, holding the torch on the other side.
There was a shadow, a blob of something vaguely animal shaped, illuminated by the torchlight.
Bucky yelped and jerked backwards, tumbling down the pile of gold. The torch landed next to him, still burning.
The smart thing to do would have been to relegate the twitch to shadows and imagination and get back to looting, but he didn't.
He had to know if it had really moved.
It had. He knew because when he tried again, torch held behind the egg, it twitched and squirmed, like it was trying to get closer to the heat.
This time he didn't jerk away, but he backed hurriedly out from under the dead dragon's wing.
He was here for gold. For jewels. For treasure. This was his chance to set himself up for life. To never be cold, never be hungry, never have to make hard choices ever again. Anything else wasn't his problem.
It had moved. It was still alive. Its mother died to protect it. Had she known someone would come to save it? Or had it been the only thing she could do? Cover it with her dying body and hope.
Never in his life had Bucky been the answer to anyone's hope. The idea was laughable.
He swept his gaze over the gold and ended up staring at the hacked-off end of the dragon's neck. He wondered what her head had looked like, her face. Her eyes.
He laughed, hopeless and a little hysterical, because he knew. He knew he couldn’t walk away and leave it here to die. "Fuck. Alright. I'll try. It's not going to work, but you tried, even though you had to know it was hopeless, so I'll try, too."
He pulled himself together, grabbed the sack, and upended it, letting the gold and jewels cascade out.
The egg should fit.
He thought about it, then shoved some jewels, a handful of gold, back into the sack, because the baby dragon—No, no, that's, I can't deal with that. The egg. It's an egg—the egg might need them, and clambered back under the dragon's wing.
The egg did fit, easily.
Bucky left the dragon's cave with the sack clasped in his arms, praying that he could figure out what to do.
* * *
A gout of flame ripped through the night sky, and another, and a silhouette, sleek and lithe, passed in front of the moon, wings beating hard.
If anyone had been watching—they weren't; Steve wasn't stupid enough to fly and flame where humans could see him—they'd have seen a frustrated, angry dragon. If it hadn't been night, they'd have seen a frustrated, angry dragon—a small one, barely larger than three draft horses—with dark blue scales shading to dark red at the tip of his tail, in his wing membranes, in his claws, and unearthly blue eyes.
But they weren't; Steve was alone. Which was just as well, since he was no fit company for anyone.
He beat his wings angrily, gaining height, and let himself glide, firing off more jets of flame.
He'd been to Delmi's cave. When word had reached them of her death, he'd flown as fast as he could, but he'd been too late. There'd been no sign of her egg, just her poor butchered body, cut down by idiotic, murderous humans when she couldn't fight back. The reek of the alchemist's poison the Prince had used to weaken her, to rob her of strength and wits so he could kill her, had still filled the cave.
There'd been almost nothing left of her. What that Prince had started by chopping off her head the alchemists had finished, harvesting her body, taking every scale and claw.
Dragons didn't have rites and rituals the way humans did, but Steve had sworn he'd find her egg—or find what had become of it and deal with the humans responsible—before setting her alight.
She'd burned bright and brilliant, her blood igniting like the gods' own fire, and he'd poured flame into the cave until the stone had run like a river, molten and hot, drowning her ashes.
It would harden into a forever reminder that a dragon had died there.
As he'd flown, fast enough the wind whistled as he'd cut through the sky, he'd seen the line of carts trundling down the winding road through the hills. For a moment he'd contemplated setting fire to the whole thing. Every cart going up in a pillar of fire. But the cart drivers were innocent servants to the Prince. They didn't deserve to die.
Instead he'd flown directly to the palace, stopping only to change shapes and poke through the clothes he always carried in a bag around his neck. He'd opted for servant, his years of experience letting him blend easily with the humans and find a place among the kitchen servants, and waited for the carts to arrive.
He'd learned plenty while he waited. More than he wanted about the love lives of the humans in the palace, a tangled mess he'd kept himself out of. He'd learned about the display they were making of Delmi's head, which was to be hung in the Great Hall, and he'd had to swallow down his fury and make the expected impressed noises when they hung her on the wall.
And he'd learned that the carts were, finally, after endless days of waiting, expected back from the western hills, carrying the treasure from the dragon's cave.
He'd been sure the alchemists would have Delmi's egg. A dragon egg was a prize beyond counting to an alchemist.
Except they hadn't. The carts had disgorged gold and jewels, had disgorged bags of dragon scales and other horrors, but there'd been no sign of the egg.
Before he'd left, in the middle of the night when all but a handful of guards and servants were sleeping, Steve had dragged Delmi's head off the wall of the Great Hall and into the courtyard still stained with her blood. He hadn't had his fire, but he'd had mundane means—lamp oil poured over her head, the lamp's flame to set it alight—and he'd had her blood, because no matter how much the humans scrubbed they couldn't wash away its fire.
She'd blazed into an unstoppable inferno.
The guards had tried to stop him, but even in human shape, small as he was, he had his dragon's strength, and they'd failed.
When he'd walked out of the gates, the fire roaring behind him, they'd carefully stepped out of his way.
Glad as he was that the egg wasn't in the hands of the Prince or his alchemists, it left him with no idea where to start looking.
Hence the frustration and the flames.
Neither of which were getting him anywhere.
Steve slowed, taking stock of his surroundings—still the middle of nowhere, only now it was the middle of nowhere with trees—and glided down for a landing in a relatively clear area. It was easy for him, small as he was, and he tucked his wings and landed neatly, avoiding trees and bushes.
He startled a deer that tried to bound away, but he caught it with one swipe of a claw and ate it in two bites, antlers and all.
As he cleaned his claws, he made himself think. The whole reason he was doing this was because he could think. He was quick and smart and small and good at dealing with humans. Sure, he sometimes got angry faster than he should, but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing—especially when he was dealing with other dragons and he was a quarter their size.
His mother used to joke that it wasn't that he had a short temper, he just had a normal dragon-sized temper packed into a Steve-sized body, and then she'd start teasing him about his treasure.
Thoughts of his mother brought him back to the egg. He had to find it. A human must have it. Why did humans want dragon eggs? Alchemy. They thought the eggs held the key to miracle cures. To transmutation. To immortality. Smoke curled from his nostrils at the stupidity. Unless… He clawed the ground. If someone wanted the baby dragon, they might keep it intact, but they'd never be able to keep it alive, never be able to hatch it. They might manage to keep it warm, that part was easy, but human greed could never give a baby dragon what it needed to stay alive to hatching.
Steve stared up into the sky and accepted that it was too late to save the egg. Too late to save the baby dragon it could have been. That it had probably been too late since he'd been sent.
It didn't matter. He'd find it or he'd find out what had become of it. They needed to know. Dragons might be solitary, but they were still dragons. Still for each other however seldom they might come together.
He'd find out because he owed it to Delmi and he owed it to Natasha, who'd sent him after her sister's egg, and he owed it to himself.
And, he thought darkly as smoke turned into sparks and a jet of fire blackened the trees around him, he owed it to whoever had taken the egg.
* * *
"Look," Bucky said patiently, "I understand how you feel. I do. I really do. But we've gone through this every morning. Do we have to do it again?"
The mare laid her ears back and snorted at him. She was straining at the end of the reins, as far from Bucky and the egg as she could get. She was too polite to rip the reins out of his hands and run away but Bucky had a feeling manners weren't going to hold her for much longer.
He'd spent a tiny amount of the egg's gold to buy her from the livery stable. He'd thought it would make things easier with the egg.
He'd been wrong.
She did not like the egg. She thought the egg was going to eat her. So far Bucky had managed to coax her into letting him get on with the egg stowed on his back, but he was starting to think he was going to have to let her go.
It wasn't fair to her, and he was afraid that if she decided to buck him off the egg wouldn't survive.
"How about this," he said. "Carry us for one more day, and the first place I can sell you that's going to take care of you, I will."
He didn't relish the idea of going back to walking, but he was more concerned about something happening to the egg.
The mare snorted suspiciously.
"Hand on my heart, I swear."
Eventually, he got her calmed down enough to mount, and they started walking. Prancing, really, she was so antsy, but she stayed under him. She was a good horse. She deserved better than to be scared all the time.
He touched the egg, secure in the sack on his back, his clothes packed around it to disguise its shape. It would be easier to dump the egg than to sell the mare, no one would ever know, but the thought made him wince. "Sorry," he whispered, touching it again.
They weren't the only travellers on the road, which Bucky thought was a good sign, and his optimism was rewarded with a large town. He got directions to a horse-trader, and her horses were healthy and seemed happy, and after putting the mare through her paces she gave Bucky more than he'd paid, not caring that she was ugly as sin.
With a handful of coin he was happy to spend, he got a decent room at a decent inn, one just nice enough to have private rooms with their own fireplace.
"Guess it's just you and me, now," he told the egg as he built up the fire and put the egg right up against the grate.
He was half-dozing, relaxed in the warmth of the fire. It was the only reason he didn't move fast enough to cover the egg when the serving girl knocked and called, "Dinner, sir," as she pushed the door open.
She gaped at the egg, nearly dropping the tray, and Bucky moved fast, grabbing it and herding her out the door.
Her eyes never left the egg, she was standing on tip toes to see over his shoulder, her mouth agape. "What is that?" she breathed.
"I'm a puppeteer," he lied desperately, "it's for one of my shows," and shut the door.
The egg gleamed in its ivory pink-gold elegance that could be nothing but an egg. No one could create anything from paper and wood and paste that could mimic its reality.
"That was stupid," he muttered. "That was so stupid." But really, he comforted himself, who would believe her?
There's a man and he has a giant egg in his room.
No one, that's who. They'd probably think she'd been sneaking drinks from the bar.
Unable to shake the faint sense of unease, Bucky ate his dinner and went to sleep, a chair under the door handle and his knives where he could reach them, the egg concealed under the blanket from the bed.
He relaxed a little when nothing came of it the next morning except an odd look over breakfast. He left town as soon as he could, only stopping to pick up some essential supplies before heading out.
Bucky didn't know where he was headed, didn't have a destination in mind, but then he rarely did. Keep moving had done the job so far in his life, so with no idea what else to do, he'd just keep going.
* * *
Around mid-day, he was almost run off the road by a fancy carriage pulled by a pair of matched bays.
He glared after it but refrained from harsh words or gestures. Inviting a fight while he was carrying the egg seemed like a bad idea.
A few miles later, as the dirt road passed through a forest, someone fell into step beside him.
Bucky casually let his hand fall to touch a knife, but didn't pull it. Instead, he studied the man.
His clothes were well cut, silk and fine-woven linen and wool. They had a few odd stains, and there was a strange smell that had to be coming from the man, but they didn't detract from the quality. Bucky glanced down. Lightweight indoor shoes. They'd be lucky to take him half a mile before they were falling to pieces.
This wasn't a man who was travelling on foot. Bucky lifted his head, shaded his eyes against the sun, and spotted the carriage that had nearly run him down, half-hidden by a curve in the road, the matched bays hitched to the front.
Whatever was about to happen was going to be bad. He could feel it itching at the base of his spine. "Something I can help you with?" he asked casually.
The man's smile was too wide, trying too hard to be friendly. Bucky wanted to pull his knife.
"Possibly, Bucky, possibly." The man steepled his fingers at Bucky's sharp look. "I got your name from the innkeeper, and I think we can help each other." He stopped and gave Bucky an expectant look.
Bucky grunted and kept walking.
"Could you stop so we can discuss this?"
"I don't think so."
The man hurried to catch up, the 'I'm so friendly' dropping away. "Look. You have something I want and I'm going to give you a lot of money for it."
"Is that right?"
"That's right. I doubt you have any idea what it represents. I, on the other hand, do. So let's say I give you a hundred gold for what you're hauling around."
A hundred gold. That was too much money. People dressed like that didn't offer that kind of money to people like Bucky. Before Bucky could reply, not that he had any idea what he was going to say, he reached for Bucky's sack.
Reached for the egg.
Bucky whipped around to face him, fingers curling around the hilt of a knife. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"The egg. The dragon egg," the man said impatiently, dismissively. "I don't know where you got it and I don't much care, but I want it and you're going to give it to me." He pulled a vial out his pocket, the contents green and viscous, and put his thumb under the cork. "Or I can take it off your unconscious body. Either way—"
He didn't get to finish, because Bucky drew his knife, slashed his arm, caught the vial as it fell, uncorked it and threw the contents in his face, dancing back to avoid the fumes as he crumpled to the ground.
Then he turned and ran, bolting for the side of the road and the forest. The coach had to have a driver and who knew what else and Bucky could probably take them in a fight if he wasn't burdened with the egg. If they weren't armed with more little glass vials.
Running was sometimes the answer, regardless of the question.
He guessed the serving girl's tale hadn't been dismissed as nonsense after all. At least, not by everyone.
He ran until the road was far, far behind him, until he was gasping for breath, his side burning, until he couldn’t run anymore, and then he walked, doing everything he could to cover his tracks.
He didn't know what an alchemist—because that's what he had to be, with his green vial and his strange smell and stains—wanted with his egg, but he doubted the egg would survive.
* * *
It was stubbornness and pure dumb luck that finally put Steve on the egg's trail. Stubbornness, luck, and his willingness to put the fear of death into every alchemist he could find—and he could find a lot.
It helped that every alchemist he'd ever encountered was a damn coward. Oh, they started off brave enough when faced with Steve's skinny human form, but it never lasted in the face of his strength and speed and apparent willingness to kill them.
The alchemist who'd finally had the answer he needed didn't have the egg, but he'd been happy to tell Steve who did, waving his bandaged arm around and whining.
Steve had barely needed to threaten him.
Before long, he knew where to find the egg. Or, at least, the name of the man who had it—Bucky, which wasn't nearly satisfying enough to growl—what he looked like, and where he'd last been seen.
* * *
The good thing about being lost in the wilderness was that there was no one to care if Bucky talked to himself.
Technically, he wasn't talking to himself. He was talking to the egg. Or, to be truly accurate, he was talking to the squiggly blob inside the egg. The one that twisted and squirmed when, in the darkest part of the night, he held a torch up to one side and peered through the other.
Bucky wasn't sure why it was still alive, but a surging swell of happiness and pride and something undefinable swamped him every time he saw it move.
"Hey, little guy," he said as he came back into his clearing, dead rabbit dangling from one hand, handful of mushrooms in the other. The egg was sitting in its little cage of rocks, next to the fire Bucky tried never to let go out. He turned the egg regularly, because it seemed like the right thing to do, and he talked to it, because he had to talk to someone.
After the incident with the alchemist, he'd done his best to get them lost in the wilderness. He hadn't succeeded in the Bucky didn't know where he was sense, but he was lost in the sense that no one should be able to find him. No one should stumble over him. He'd made his camp against a rockface, a little spring bubbling a few feet away, so he could defend it if he had to, put his back against the stone wall. He'd done everything he could, used every poachers' trick he knew, to conceal it, to dissipate the smoke, to hide himself and the egg.
He had no idea what he was going to do in the long term. This wasn't something he could pull off over winter. He'd die out here, and the egg with him, but winter was a long way off. By then, everyone should have forgotten about him and the egg. He'd leave the forest in the other direction, maybe see if he could get passage on a ship? No, there'd be no way to hide the egg in quarters that confined. Maybe it would hatch by then. Maybe baby dragons were like foals, ready to go from the moment they were born, and it would just fly off.
He'd just have to…figure something out.
"Rabbit again," Bucky said as he sat next to the egg. "Have to say, I'm getting sick of rabbit." He laughed softly as he started working the rabbit onto a stick. "Beats starving, though. I've done enough of that in my life, so I know what I'm talking about."
He held the rabbit over the fire.
"You know, if I'd just left you there, I could be living in the lap of luxury. Fine food, fine drink. Gorgeous men bringing it all to me on a golden platter." He smiled fondly and gently patted the egg, letting his hand rest against the warm shell. "Instead I'm here with you."
* * *
With a direction and a description, Steve found the human he was looking for.
He'd set up camp deep in the wilderness. It was well concealed—from other humans. But a dragon saw the world differently and from much higher up. It was very hard to hide things from a dragon.
Found wasn't recovered. Steve had to do this carefully. He couldn’t just swoop down and wreak havoc. Unless Steve killed the human—Bucky—outright, the egg would be an effective hostage. Even dead, Steve still wanted to take it home and Bucky could destroy it before Steve could stop him.
And, after all this, Steve wanted to know what Bucky was planning to do with it.
Steve set down in a clearing a good distance away from the camp, changed, and considered his clothes options. He went for sturdy leathers, the kind a hunter or trapper would wear, with equally sturdy boots, and hung the bag with the rest of his things in a tree.
He walked into the camp, bold as could be, to see what would happen.
Bucky's reaction shocked him still.
He was on his feet, fast as a blink, standing between Steve and the egg, the egg that was right there, next to the fire, and Steve couldn’t stop staring at it.
Not until, "I will kill you," tore his eyes away from it.
Bucky's eyes were hard. His hands were steady on his knives. He held them like he knew how to use them.
"If you don't turn around and walk away, I will kill you. I won't even be sorry about it."
There was something about him, standing in front of the egg and threatening to kill Steve, that reminded Steve of a dragon. It was fascinating. Steve almost wanted to take that step forward, the one he knew, instinctively, would provoke Bucky into attacking, just to see what would happen.
He didn't. He wouldn't. It would be cruel.
Bucky moved, shifting his grip on his knives, and behind the hardness, the willingness to kill Steve, Steve saw fear. Not of him, Bucky wasn't afraid of him, it was fear that Bucky would fail. Fear that he—and Steve didn't understand why but he knew what he saw, he knew it was true, and impossible hope flared, bright and terrifying—that he wouldn't be able to keep the egg safe.
Steve held up his hands. "No harm meant," he said in the softest voice he could manage. He backed up a couple of steps. "I just saw the camp. Thought maybe I could share your fire."
"I got that." Steve tried a smile. Bucky's expression didn't change. "Sorry."
He slipped away into the forest, deliberately making as much noise as a woods-ignorant human, then let it fade away and slipped back, silent as a cat, and took up position behind a tree. Where he could watch. Where he could listen.
"Shit," Bucky whispered, and now his hands were shaking as he put his knives away. "Shit, what now?"
He turned to the egg, checking it with gentle hands, and he was no alchemist, stealing dragons' eggs for power, for ingredients. This was a man caring for something he treasured. Something he'd been willing to kill to protect.
That impossible hope flared brighter, flared higher. For the first time, Steve contemplated the possibility that the egg, that the baby dragon inside it, was still alive.
If it was, they owed a debt to this man equal to a dragon's life.
It would be nothing for Steve to change and take the egg, flying away with it and leaving him behind. Except as he watched Bucky carefully turn the egg, pat it gently, promise that it would be okay, everything inside him screamed that it would be wrong.
Steve drew in a breath and pressed his forehead against the bark of the tree. Complicated. Complicated beyond complicated.
But if it was alive, if Bucky had somehow given it what it needed to survive, it wouldn't hatch for months.
He had time to do this right.
* * *
Bucky, in the end, decided not to pack up and move.
His camp backed onto the rockface. He had the spring. It was still well-concealed, even if Blue-eyes had found it.
"Looking to share the fire, my ass," Bucky told the egg. They were in the middle of nowhere. Blue-eyes might have been dressed like a hunter, but Bucky hadn't seen a weapon. No bow, no snares. Not even a belt knife.
No, he was out here for a reason and it wasn't hunting. All Bucky could do was hope it had nothing to do with the egg. If he packed up, if he moved, he'd be vulnerable. Here, he could defend the camp, put his back against the rock and fight. Blue-eyes was small enough, Bucky could take him.
If Bucky had to, he'd kill him. He didn't want to—every questionable thing he'd done in his life, he'd never killed—but somewhere along the line he'd committed himself completely to the squirming life inside the ivory shell, and he'd kill to keep it alive.
The problem was, he was afraid to leave the egg. It kept him from leaving camp. Kept him from going any further than he could see, keeping the egg in his line of sight.
He knew he was being paranoid. There was no sign of Blue-eyes. Except…sometimes the birds would stop singing. The forest would go still, like a predator was passing through.
It kept him close to the camp.
The third day, he started to get hungry, having eaten through his stores. Tomorrow, he decided as his stomach growled at him, he'd go out, but he'd take the egg with him. However used to the constant heat it had gotten, it should be okay away from the fire for a few hours.
The next morning, he woke from a fitful sleep to find a dead rabbit lying at the edge of the camp.
He stared at it suspiciously and poked it with a stick, remembering the green vial and the way the alchemist had crumpled.
"It's safe," a quiet voice said from the trees and he jumped and whirled, knife in hand. "Just a rabbit."
Blue-eyes stepped into view.
"What did I tell you?" Bucky said harshly.
"I know," he said. "I remember. But I could hear your stomach yesterday." Blue-eyes smiled. "It scared away the birds."
It was hard to resist, that warm smile in that sharp, too-strong, too-attractive face, those blue, blue eyes watching Bucky.
"What do you want?" he growled, shifting his knife to the other hand, so he could pull another if he needed to.
"I want you not to be hungry," Blue-eyes said simply, like it wasn't the most ridiculous thing Bucky had ever heard. "I'm Steve, by the way," he added as he faded away into the trees.
"Hey!" Bucky called after him, but there was no answer.
He cooked the rabbit to near charcoal before eating the tiniest piece and waiting for any ill-effects. There was nothing, apart from the taste of burnt rabbit. Piece by slow piece, as the sun rose higher in the sky, he ate the rest. It was mid-day by the time he finished.
It was fine. He was fine.
He didn't know what to make of it.
The next day brought a brace of woodcocks and a pile of wood for the fire. He didn't see Steve, but he could feel something watching him.
He made a rude gesture into the woods. Whatever was going on, he didn't like it.
He repeated the cooking procedure with the birds that he'd done with the rabbit: cooked to near-burnt and eaten slowly enough that he'd feel the start of anything wrong with it.
The day after that was a haunch of deer, edible reeds from the river, and more wood.
Steve was standing in the shadow of a nearby tree, far enough away Bucky didn't feel threatened. Not enough to pull a knife, anyway.
"It's not tainted," Steve said. "You don't have to burn it." His voice had a strange timbre, like it should be coming from someone bigger, broader, taller, reverberating weirdly. Like it should be impossible to not believe him. "There's nothing to be afraid of."
Bucky snorted, confusion and mistrust swirling together in a tangled mess. He wasn't afraid. He'd never been afraid, not for himself, but he was feeling a certain kinship with the foxes that nobles ran to ground with horses and hounds. He bet the fox never understood what was going on, either.
Of course, the hounds and horses probably never offered it a haunch of deer.
A flash of emotion Bucky didn't recognise passed over Steve's features and he bowed his head briefly before walking away.
Bucky watched him go, wary, waiting for…something,
It never came.
* * *
Two days later, Steve stood at the edge of the camp while Bucky threw, not knives at him, but words.
Bucky looked like a man under siege. "Why are you doing this?"
Steve would have preferred knives. They would have hurt less than the edge of helplessness in Bucky's voice. He wanted the Bucky who'd promised to kill him back.
"I'm trying to help."
The suspicious glare Bucky shot him wasn't quite I will kill you, but it was better.
"Look," maybe if he explained it would go better, "it's my fault you won't leave your camp. You felt safe here before I decided to walk in. Felt safe to leave it," he nodded at the egg, the first time he'd drawn attention to it since his first visit, and Bucky stiffened, "here while you hunted and gathered firewood and food, so I'm trying to fix what I broke." He gestured at the greens, at the small pig, that were today's offering. "So you can feel safe again."
Bucky scrubbed his hands through his hair, leaving it sticking up every which way, and Steve had to conceal a smile, because it made him look a little like a strangely adorable porcupine. "No. No, that's not— Why would you—" He sat down hard on the rocks next to the egg and gave Steve a look of frustrated helplessness. "That doesn't make sense."
Frustrated helplessness was better than helplessness on its own, but it was still not okay.
Steve had done this to him, this human to whom he was ever more certain they owed a debt beyond measure. This man who'd been willing to kill to protect a dragon's egg. Who might have given it the one thing it needed beyond all else to survive.
He hadn't meant to, but he had. Nothing he could say was going to fix it, was going to convince Bucky that he and the egg were safe.
But there might be something he could do.
He pulled his shirt off over his head.
Bucky's eyes went wide.
When Steve kicked off his boots and started to shove his pants down, Bucky said, "Is that what you're after?"
Steve paused, giving him a curious look.
"Because I've got to tell you, I don't have sex with strange men I meet in the woods and I don't have sex with men I don't trust."
"No," Bucky said firmly. "No matter what they look like."
"Nice to know you think I'm attractive," Steve said, stripping off his pants.
"That's not what I said."
"Isn't it?" he murmured, but he was only half-paying attention, too busy reaching for the change.
He was small enough he could change here, on the edge of Bucky's camp, without disturbing anything, as long as he remembered to keep his wings furled.
Bucky, when faced with Steve in human shape, had pulled knives and threatened to kill him.
Bucky, when faced with Steve in his true dragon shape, stood and slowly walked towards him like a man in a dream.
Steve held very still. Bucky lifted his hand and, hesitantly, Steve lowered his head. With no fear and a gentle touch, Bucky slid his hands over the smooth scales of Steve's head, down his long nose, up and over his broad forehead, tracing a finger over the delicate bones around his eye.
Steve wasn't sure he realised he was doing it, his eyes were so distant.
Suddenly, Bucky blinked and jerked his hands away. "Shit, I'm sorry. Putting my hands all over you."
He had no way to say don't be. No way to say it had felt good to have Bucky's hands on him. To have Bucky so unafraid when faced with the truth of what he was.
"I just, when I found her." Bucky's throat worked as he swallowed. "I didn't know what she looked like. Her face. Her eyes. I wondered..."
Steve dipped his head and touched the tip of his nose to Bucky's hand. Comfort for both of them, because he remembered the brutal mess that had been left of her before he'd sent her down to fire and ash.
Then he changed back, because he needed a voice, not scales and wings and claws and fire.
"You're a dragon," Bucky said when Steve was once more standing on two legs.
"I'm a dragon."
"Thank every god."
Steve blinked, because that was not at all expected. "Uh," he started, then stopped, blindsided, because Bucky was smiling.
For the first time since Steve had tracked him here, and spied on him, and brought him food, he was smiling. Wide, bright, and broad as the open sky.
He seemed to have forgotten Steve was naked, or he didn't care, because he grabbed Steve's hands. The feel of Bucky's fingers caught on Steve's ribs, a breath of fire, a touch of heat, and he closed his hands tight around Bucky's.
"I didn't know," Bucky breathed, somewhere between laughter and tears. "I didn't know what to do. I've just been…going forward. I just kept going forward, but I knew I couldn't do it forever. It was going to hatch eventually and then what was I going to do?"
His impossible hope flared incandescent, bright as flame, and Steve pulled Bucky closer, staring up into his eyes. "It's still alive?"
"What? Of course it is. You think I'd be dragging a dead egg around?" He tried to pull his hands away, but Steve held on tight. "You think I'd let it die?"
"Bucky." He pitched his voice low, soothing. "It's not doubt. I don't doubt you. But they're hard to keep alive."
"All it seems to need is a bit of heat and," he grimaced, "keeping it safe."
"That's not all it needs," Steve murmured. "Can I see?"
"Once it's dark. The fire doesn't show it unless it's dark." He glanced down, and hurriedly looked up at the sky. "Maybe you should get dressed."
Steve grinned, almost giddy with joy, and reluctantly let go of Bucky. "I guess I'd better."
* * *
When night fell, Bucky held a lit branch behind the egg and Steve saw the squirming baby dragon for himself.
As it twitched and wiggled, clearly healthy and happy, he rested his forehead against the shell and let the tears fall, unashamed and relieved and amazed.
There was a hesitant touch on his shoulder, then Bucky was pressing a warm, solid hand against his back. "Was she family?" he murmured, kneeling next to Steve.
"Not like you mean. But she was a dragon." He turned his head so he could see Bucky. Bucky was nodding like that meant something to him, the firelight painting him in shades of red and gold. "You did this, Bucky." He reached out and caught Bucky's hand, holding it tightly. "Thank you."
Bucky looked away. "It wasn't much."
Steve wanted to laugh and never stop, he was so wrong. "Do you know why they're hard to keep alive?" he asked softly.
"Same reason every unborn thing is, I guess."
"No, Bucky. No. It's because they need heat, and they need to be safe, and they need to be loved."
Bucky shifted, uncomfortable, tugging at his hand. Steve could have held it, could have kept it, he wanted to keep it, but he opened his fingers and let it go. "That's— What does that even mean?"
"It means the little dragon inside that egg is still alive because you loved it, Bucky. It's still alive because you saved it before the Prince's people looted the cave, you cared enough to try and keep it alive, you protected it and cared for it and it felt that and it knew it was loved."
Bucky was shaking his head and anger flashed across his face. He was up on his feet, backing away, right to the edge of the firelight.
"That's not—" He laughed, and it was ugly. "That's wrong. Steve, that's wrong. It's a nice story, real pretty, but it's wrong."
"It's not, Bucky. It's still alive and the only way that's possible is if you—"
Bucky sliced a hand through the air, cutting him off. "Do you know why I went to her cave?" he asked harshly.
Steve could guess, but he stayed silent. Even from here, he could feel the need to speak pulsing out from under Bucky's skin.
"I went there for the same reason the Prince did."
"To kill a dragon?"
"No, to steal from one. I overhead one of the palace servants in the pub, talking about how the Prince had brought her head back and dumped it in the courtyard, and all I could think was 'If I can get up there now, before anyone else, I can make my fortune'."
It was about what Steve had expected.
"I hired a horse and I rode up there and I climbed over piles of blood-stained gold and that's who I am, Steve. I'm someone who steals and cheats and lies, and I've done plenty of worse things."
"Why did you do those things?"
"Does it matter?"
Bucky wrapped his arms around himself. "I did what I had to survive. "
"If you'd had another choice, would you still have done them?"
"It doesn't matter."
"Bucky," Steve said, half-command, half-caress, and Bucky shivered, lifting his head to meet Steve's eyes. "I'd like to know the answer."
"No," he said, "but it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter why you did something, all that matters is you did it, and I did those things."
Steve's smile was very gentle. "Then it doesn't matter why you went to a dragon's cave. All that matters is that you were there. And while you were there, you saved a dragon's egg."
He held out his hand.
Bucky stared at it for a long time, then with a shuddering sigh of surrender, he walked over and took it, let Steve reel him in until they were both sitting next to the egg.
Steve slid his hand into Bucky's hair, gently tugging his head down to rest on his shoulder, and Bucky half-curled into him. "And you loved it enough that it lived," Steve murmured, slipping his other arm around him.
* * *
Bucky woke up feeling warm, safe, with arms like steel wrapped around him, his head resting on a not entirely comfortable chest. It was Steve. Steve was holding him. He must have fallen asleep sitting with Steve next to the egg and now he was—he opened one eye—tucked in his bedroll. Steve was lying on the ground beside him, apparently unbothered by Bucky using him a pillow, by the way Bucky was half curled against him.
"How strong are you?" he asked, since Steve must have carried him here and put him to bed…and decided to sleep next to him. He shifted in Steve's arms, warm around him, and realised he was as unbothered as Steve.
"I'm a dragon."
"Is that an answer?"
Bucky guessed it was. He sat up, Steve's arms falling away and leaving him cold, and checked on the egg. It was fine, safe, its ivory-gold maybe a little pinker than usual. He turned to look down at Steve, who'd folded his hands under his head.
Steve, who was a dragon. He'd seen it himself and there was the small fact that Steve's blue, blue eyes were identical in both shapes, what was too blue in a human face perfectly right for a dark blue dragon.
Maybe once, before a cave and a dead dragon and a dragon egg, all of this might have given Bucky pause, but he was long past that at this point. Gryphons could swoop down from the sky, unicorns could gallop past, and he figured all he'd do was whistle nonchalantly and try not to get involved.
Steve being a dragon wasn't something to worry about. It was the opposite. It meant he wasn't alone. The weight of the egg was—not lifted, it was still his, still his responsibility, but shared. He didn't have to carry it on his own, and a dragon made a hell of a partner to share it with.
There was one thing he wanted to know, though.
"Why are you shaped like this?" He waved a hand at Steve.
Steve lifted an eyebrow at him. "I thought you liked how I looked."
Bucky felt his ears going warm, knew they were pink by the way Steve smiled, but he ploughed forward. "No, I mean, why do you look human? Dragon stories come with fire breathing, treasure collecting, and princess kidnapping, but I've never heard a story about them changing shapes."
Steve yawned and stretched. "Yes, you have, you just didn't know it."
He poked Bucky and Bucky got up, stretched, went through his morning routine while Steve disappeared into the woods. The whole time, he tried to think of a single dragon story that involved them changing shape.
By the time he was sitting down to breakfast, Steve sitting across from him, he gave up and told Steve so.
"It's the kidnapped princesses," Steve said.
"Run that past me again?"
"What would a dragon do with a princess?"
"Eat her, I always figured."
Steve gave him an unimpressed look. "Wouldn’t be much of a meal, would it?"
"I guess not…"
"No. Kidnapped princesses are how we get back what's stolen from us." Steve's eyes were flame, a rumble in his voice, but now Bucky knew why he sounded like his voice should be coming from someone larger. Steve was larger. "They kill us, princes and kings, and they steal our treasure. They use alchemist's tricks, potions and poisons and things we can't fight to make us slow, and they slaughter us and take our heads as trophies."
Steve's smile was a dragon's smile, all teeth and fire.
"So sometimes a dragon kidnaps a 'princess', how terrible, and that oh-so-brave prince or king, who's proven themselves a slayer of dragons, rides out to rescue her, their valiant manhood scaring the cowardly dragon away. And they take the princess back to their castle. And the princess takes the treasure back, reclaims for dragons what was stolen from a murdered dragon's hoard."
Bucky's jaw dropped.
"As for why you never hear about it." Now Steve's smile was sly and satisfied. "What prince, what king, would let word spread that they were duped by a princess?"
It was brilliant, it was genius. "Is that what's going to happen to the prince who killed—" He stopped. "Steve," he said, soft and full of regret. "I never asked her name."
"Delmi," Steve said. "Her name was Delmi. And yes. When the egg has hatched and the baby's old enough, her sister will be 'kidnapped'. I suspect a friend of ours will be the one to do the kidnapping."
"Her sister. Is that who we'll take the egg to?"
Steve went silent. It went on a little too long.
"Steve." Steve looked up at him and he could see reluctance in his eyes. "I need to see it safe. I don't want you to just fly away with it and leave me here."
"I wouldn't just leave you here, Bucky."
"That's not the part I care about."
"It's not a good idea."
"I don't care. Steve. You said I kept it alive. You said I kept it alive because I loved it. At least let me see it home." Steve chewed at his bottom lip. "Please."
"This is such a bad idea," Steve whispered, staring into the sky, before dropping his gaze back to Bucky. "I'll take you and it to Sam. Then we'll see from there."
He sagged in relief.
"Eat your breakfast. We'll leave after you're done."
* * *
"You're going to have to trust me not to drop you."
Bucky looked up from where he was carefully packing the egg away into the sack, tucking his clothes around it as padding. He gave Steve a quick smile. "I have the egg. I don't have anything to worry about."
With a breath of laughter, Steve said, "Even if you fell, I'd catch you," then stripped off, tossing his clothes to Bucky to add to his padding, and changed. He carefully unfurled one wing at a time, stretching, then each leg, and gave himself a shake.
There was no way to rig a harness, no way to make a saddle, only the bag of clothes that Steve wore on a rope around his neck for him to hang onto, so Bucky was, truly, going to have to trust himself to Steve.
Bucky finished with the egg, tucking in a few more bits and pieces, buckled the sack, and carefully hefted it onto his back. It was big and ungainly, and Steve marvelled at what Bucky had accomplished. It was extraordinary.
He was extraordinary.
He stopped in front of Steve, looking up at him, and Steve lowered his head.
Bucky pressed his hand against Steve's cheek, smiling a little. "Did you know your eyes stay the same? Before I knew your name I was calling you Blue-eyes, because they're a little overwhelming in a human face."
He ran his hand down Steve's head, curving his palm over the smooth scales between Steve's nostrils and Steve wondered how they'd gotten here, where the warm trails of Bucky's touch made him want to curl around him and never leave.
His hand fell.
"How do I get on?"
Steve flicked his wing out of the way and knelt, and with only a little scrambling, Bucky managed to swing his leg over and get settled.
It was a slow trot through the forest to a clearing and then he crouched and propelled himself up, climbing into the air in a swooping swirl instead of his usual straight-up explosion. Bucky clung to his neck, legs wrapped hard around his shoulders, and Steve kept climbing until he could glide.
Slowly, Bucky started to relax. He didn't let go of the rope, but he started to feel easier on Steve's back.
Steve didn't. He was only just starting to understand how fragile both Bucky and the egg were up here. If Bucky slipped, if he fell… Steve knew he could catch him, but he'd hurt him. His claws were sharp, for cutting and tearing. For killing.
"Steve." Bucky's voice barely reached him, pulled away by the wind. "Relax." Steve curved his head around, and Bucky let go of the rope long enough to touch his face. "Relax," he repeated.
Steve glared at him until he grabbed hold again, but then he faced forward and did his best.
It was going to be a long flight. Relaxed would be better for both of them.
* * *
By the time Sam's lair came into view, they were both tired. Bucky was drooping over his neck and Steve was feeling every wing beat. Flying with a passenger was much harder than flying alone.
The steam clouds partially obscured Sam, but Steve knew he'd be outside. He always was at this time of day.
"Sam, we're coming in and don't flame me, because I want him to be where he is."
"Yeah, it's me." He started to spiral down. "Do not flame me."
"What in the high holy hell are you talking about. Why would I—"
Steve knew by the silence Sam had just caught sight of Bucky on his back.
He knew by the tension radiating through Bucky, by the way Bucky was holding on hard to Steve, that he'd just caught sight of Sam.
Sam was hard to miss, long onyx black head rising high through the steam clouds on an equally onyx black neck, each scale delicately traced with gold, the neck frills Steve lacked shading from black at the base to a pale, almost transparent, gold at the edges, his huge wings the same black fading to transparent gold in the membranes.
His eyes were golden, locked onto Steve, and a curl of smoke trailed out of one nostril.
"Steve, this better be good."
"He has the egg."
"I said good."
"Sam, he saved it. He's the only reason it's alive at all."
Bucky sucked in a breath as Sam's head looped down to peer at him, but he held his ground, staring back.
"This I have got to hear."
* * *
In the presence of a stranger, even a stranger who was a dragon, Bucky's protectiveness towards the egg came crashing back.
He didn't want to take it out its sack, but he had to. It needed to get warm. The steaming pools that made up Sam's lair were just the thing, the heat enough to have Bucky dripping with sweat in seconds.
He didn't care. He was staying right here next to it. Where he could keep it safe.
Steve had brought him inside, following Sam—Sam, who'd looked at Bucky the way he imagined cats looked at mice when the cats had them cornered.
He was still looking at Bucky that way, even though he'd followed Steve's lead and changed shape. His eyes were almost the same gold they'd been as a dragon, just dark and burnished instead of gleaming bright. Neither of them had bothered with clothes, which made sense since they'd both climbed into one of the pools, sinking up their shoulders in the steaming water.
Bucky sat on the edge of the pool, the egg tucked safely next to him in a little divot in the rock
"Sam, this is Bucky," Steve said. "Bucky, this is Sam. He's an old friend."
"Hi," Bucky said, pushing damp hair out of his face.
"Hmmm," Sam said, with the same sort of rumbling harmonics Steve's voice had.
"Don't, Sam." Sam raised an eyebrow at Steve. "I said he was the reason the egg's still alive and I meant it."
Bucky tuned them out, resting his forehead on the egg. "You're almost home," he promised it. "Almost where you belong."
He was so tired, and the steam wasn't helping. The low cadence of Steve's voice that had somehow become familiar, had somehow become comforting, oozed into him and he started to doze off, one arm wrapped protectively around the egg.
He jerked awake at a touch on the shoulder, scrambling after his knife, eyes wide.
"Woah, hey, easy there."
It was Sam, burnished gold eyes fixing him in place.
"Didn't mean to startle you."
"Getting something to eat. Getting something for you to eat, too, since I don't think you'd like what he's having." Sam settled into a crouch and Bucky was grateful to see he'd put on pants. "That's quite the story Steve told me."
Bucky wondered what, exactly, Steve had told him. He settled on a noncommittal hum.
"Mind if I have a look at it?" He nodded at the egg.
Every muscle went tense.
"I guess that answers that question."
He forced himself to relax. "No. No, of course you can. Sorry. It's just—"
"Just that you've been looking after it so long you don't know how to stop?"
"Something like that."
Sam gave him a quick smile and ran gentle hands over the egg, careful not to get too close to Bucky, and Bucky didn't know if it was courtesy or a distaste for humans, but either way, he appreciated it. He was too tired to worry about protecting himself.
* * *
When Steve finished eating, he stopped just long enough to get pants and then hurried back to Bucky. He found him sitting on the floor in front of the egg, Sam sitting next to it on the edge of the pool, cooing gently. Bucky looked like he was trying not to laugh at the same time he was barely keeping himself awake.
"Hey," Steve said and Bucky lifted his head and smiled, so warm and sweet Steve had to stop and breathe through it. "You need to eat and sleep. Sam can watch the egg."
He watched protest slip through Bucky's eyes, then he tipped his head back to look at Sam.
Sam looked back at him. "I'm not going to let anything happen to it."
"Your word," Bucky said.
"I give you my word."
Steve reached down to pull Bucky to his feet. He wasn't entirely sure Bucky was awake while Steve led him down to the warm pools so he could wash, then up to Steve's cave where he'd put their things, and he had to shake him a bit so he'd eat, but afterwards Steve gently pushed him down into the pile of blankets and furs so he could sleep.
Bucky curled down easily, blinking sleepily up at him, then reached out to grab Steve when he tried to stand.
"You need to sleep," Steve protested.
"You're the one who did the flying," Bucky said around a yawn, and tried to tug Steve back down.
Bucky was right, and there was no denying he was tired. Steve gave into temptation and stretched out next to him, quickly finding himself wrapped up in warm arms and held close, and he fell asleep with a contented sigh.
* * *
For the second time, Bucky woke up with Steve.
This time he couldn’t blame Steve. He remembered grabbing hold of him and refusing to let him go. And he was wrapped around Steve like Steve was the egg, something he had to keep close and protect.
Both thoughts were ridiculous. Steve was a dragon. Bucky had felt his strength. He couldn't have kept Steve here if he didn't want to be kept, and he sure as hell didn't need Bucky to protect him. Except…he could still hear Steve saying they kill us, hear him saying, they use alchemist's tricks, potions and poisons and things we can't fight to make us slow. Now he understood the impossibility of a dragon's death, of blood-spattered gold and the ragged edge of butchered flesh.
He held Steve closer, arms tightening around his narrow ribs, his skinny frame, an illusion of fragility that hid all that dragon strength. Steve murmured something in his sleep and turned a little in Bucky's arms. Turned towards him, his nose pressed against Bucky's bicep.
He'd stayed. Stayed and let Bucky wrap his arms around him and press his forehead between his sharp shoulder blades and breathe against his skin.
He didn't want to let go.
It was why he made himself do it.
Made himself back away and sit up and run his hands through his hair. Steve rolled over and watched him, those blue eyes impossible to look away from.
"Okay?" Steve asked.
"Yeah, I mean, I guess so." He glanced around the cave—if cave was the right word. It was huge, with rock walls rising high around them, rock ceiling above, but it was a little too lived in for Bucky to feel comfortable with cave. There were the blankets and furs they were lying in, human-sized clothes and books piled on a shelf carved out of the rock, a lamp burning on another. "Where are we?"
"This is where I stay sometimes. Sam let me have part of his lair."
"You don't have one of your own?"
Steve shrugged, seemingly unconcerned. "Haven't ever needed one. My treasure's not the kind of thing you can store." Bucky's confusion made him grin. "Not something you need to worry about."
He took Steve at his word, because there were some things he did need to worry about. Like his bladder. Like the egg. The egg, especially. Even though he knew it would be safe with a dragon, safe with Sam, it didn't stop the tug of concern. This was the longest he'd ever been away from it.
Steve led him through the rocky corridors, huge and winding, and when he'd taken care of business, took him back to the egg.
Sam was sitting cross-legged in front of it, telling it a story, but he stopped when he saw them. "Safe and sound," he said, "just like I promised," and if there was a thread of amusement at Bucky's expense in his voice, Bucky didn't blame him.
He couldn’t quite believe he'd made a dragon give his word that he'd keep the egg safe.
"I've been thinking," Sam said. "Why don't I take the egg to Natasha. You," he said to Steve, "can stay here with Bucky."
"I'm not sure about that," Steve said. "I gave my word I'd take it back to her."
"You're not leaving me here." Bucky put his hand on the egg. "Whichever of you takes it, I'm coming with you."
Blue eyes and burnished gold stared at him with identical looks of horror and Steve's, "No," wove through Sam's, "That's not happening."
Bucky looked between them, fingers curling against the egg. "It's my responsibility. I need to see it safely home. I need to know it's where it belongs."
"Before this happened, Natasha didn't like humans. How do you think she's going to feel about them now?" Steve asked.
"And she is not shy about making her feelings known," Sam added. "We owe you a dragon's life debt. We're not repaying it by getting you killed."
"You owe me a— What?" He fixed Steve with a sharp look. "You owe me a what?"
"Sam," Steve groaned and put his head in his hands. "Why?"
"What did I say? We do, you know we do."
"That's not what I meant," Steve muttered, already looking resigned as he met Bucky's eyes. "Please don't."
"Steve, he's not going to—" Sam stopped and stared at Bucky. "No one would be that stupid."
He ignored Sam, kept his eyes fixed on Steve's. "Steve. I have to. You know I have to."
"I take it back," Sam muttered.
"I know you do." Steve heaved a huge breath, let it out in a resigned sigh. "Are you sure you want to use it for this?"
"I'm sure. I need to do this."
Steve's eyes softened as he held out his hand and Bucky caught it. Steve's fingers were strong and warm and as they closed around his, holding on tight, he knew Steve understood.
Sam's burnished gold eyes were bright when Bucky glanced at him. He shook his head. "Well, alright then. I guess I'd better come with you."
"Are you sure?" Steve asked. "She won't hurt me and I'm not going to let her hurt Bucky."
"She's fond of you, I'll grant that, but if you need someone to get between her and Bucky, I'm the better choice. At your size the fire could," he gestured with his hands, "just splash around you and then there's no more Bucky."
* * *
Bucky packed the egg carefully back in its sack for what would be the last time. "Time to go home," he told it. "Soon you'll be safe. Soon you'll be where you belong."
Steve squeezed his shoulder and he flashed him a quick smile before he settled the sack into place on his back. "I'm ready."
"I don't think any of us are ready for this," Sam said under his breath, and then they were leaving the human-sized part of the caves and Bucky was dwarfed first by the caverns and then by Sam and Steve as they changed. He marvelled at Sam's size, at his colours, but his eyes kept returning to Steve. Steve with his dark blue and his touches of deep red, and maybe he was plain next to Sam, with his gold and his frills, but if it came down to the two of them, it was Steve Bucky thought was beautiful.
Steve crouched so he could climb on, and it felt more comfortable this time, more natural, as he settled into place.
Soon enough they were in the air, rising high in the clouds of steam.
"You don't, you know," Bucky murmured as Steve's wings beat the air. His long, sharp, elegant head turned to gaze back at him. "Owe me anything."
He could read, clear as if Steve had spoken, So we can turn around? and he shook his head. "I need to see this through to the end."
Steve snorted a plume of spark-laden smoke and faced forward, gliding gracefully through air that seemed happy to hold him aloft. Below them, Sam was a huge shadow, gleaming gold.
He was why Bucky didn't see the red dragon right away.
She was as motionless as a mountain, only her eyes following them as they landed, and he was grateful that Sam placed himself between them.
After a few minutes, and Bucky was sure they'd been talking, even if he couldn't hear them, Sam backed away, folding his wings, and Bucky got his first good look at the sister of the butchered dragon.
She was a little smaller than Sam, brilliant in shades of red with deep green eyes, and from the way she was looking at him, she wanted to see him sliced into tiny pieces.
"She says you're safe, for the moment." Bucky glanced over, startled, to see that Sam had changed, was standing off to the side.
Sam gave an encouraging nod and Steve, reluctantly, let him down.
As he approached the red dragon, Steve pacing close behind him, it was hard to think through his fear. Because he was afraid. He was a tiny human in front of a monstrous predator who clearly wanted to kill him. Fear was inevitable. But it didn't matter. He trusted Steve to keep him alive, at least long enough to do what he'd come to do.
He dropped to his knees and pulled the sack off his back, hands trembling as he undid the buckles, and unwrapped the egg, pushing the sides of the sack down until it was clearly visible.
Her head was suddenly right there, longer than his body, delicately nosing the egg. Her eye was right next to his, deep and vibrant green, fire flickering in its depths.
"It's still alive," he said, and by some miracle his voice didn't shake. "I swear, I promise, it's still alive. You can see it move if you hold a torch behind it when it's dark. It seems healthy. Active. It wriggles."
She gave him a sharp look, then lifted her head in Steve's direction.
Steve was practically bristling, some conversation obviously going on between them, and then Steve stepped forward and Bucky found himself between Steve's front legs, in the shadow of his chest, his wings swept forward on either side of him.
The red dragon—Natasha, they'd said her name was Natasha—the unborn baby dragon's aunt, sat back, considering them.
Between one blink and the next, the red dragon was gone, and a naked woman was standing in her place. Bucky wrenched his eyes away, staring at the ground.
Steve chuffed behind him.
"Steve tells me that you saved my sister's egg and kept it alive all this time." Her tone was careless, but Bucky could hear hidden razors. "He didn't tell me why."
"Why?" Bucky said, confused.
"Do you want clarification or are you asking why I want to know?"
Steve's shadow vanished. No, not vanished. Dwindled. A hand landed on his shoulder. "Natasha."
"I want to know, Steven. I'm entitled to know. It was my sister his kind murdered and mounted her head on a wall. His kind who stole her treasure. So, tell me, human, why?"
He could feel Steve bristling on his behalf, but she was right. She deserved an answer. He reached back and grabbed Steve's ankle, squeezing it reassuringly, and tried his best to give her one.
"I almost didn't," he admitted. "But she, Delmi, she died trying to save it, even though she had to know it was impossible. She died trying to give it a chance. I guess she thought Steve might be coming."
"I would have been too late," Steve said. "If Bucky hadn't taken it, I would have been too late. By the time I got there her treasure was gone, her body had been stripped of anything an alchemist could use."
There was a rumble of anger from Sam.
"Explain what you mean," Natasha told Bucky in her razor voice.
"She'd curled her tail around the egg, covered it with her wing. Hidden it with her wing. It was an accident that I found it. She had hope, I guess, even though hope was impossible, that something would save it. And," he risked a glance up, carefully looking only at her face; it was unreadable and he went back to watching the ground, "and if she hoped that hard, I had to try, even if it was impossible." He clenched his hands together so hard his knuckles went white. "She loved her child enough to protect it while she was dying. I," he swallowed hard, "how could I leave it there?"
Silence followed his words. Steve's hand on his shoulder was firm and strong and Bucky leaned into it. Somewhere his fear had faded.
Bare legs appeared in his vision.
Bucky kept his eyes on the egg. It meant he had a good view of her running her hands over it as she crouched down, and he was grateful the egg obscured most of her. He knew he probably shouldn't care—she was a dragon, and she obviously didn't, but some things were ingrained and it being disrespectful to stare at naked women was one of them.
"There's, sewn into the bottom of the sack," he said, in case she just took the egg and flew away. "Gold, some jewels."
"There's what?" Steve asked, hand tightening on his shoulder.
"I didn't know what it was going to need. It's a handful of gold, a handful of jewels. I took them in case it needed them."
"You're telling me you had gold and jewels and you were living in the woods like a poacher," Steve said, bemused.
"It wasn't mine." He lifted his head and ran into Natasha's intent stare. "It's for the baby dragon."
Unexpectedly, she smiled. It was a little like the business end of a dagger, like a cut-throat razor pressed too hard against his skin, but still. It was a smile.
It didn't last long, but what it left behind was less murderous.
"You are owed thanks," she said, both hands on the egg. "And a dragon's life debt."
"No," he said, and when her eyes narrowed, flame flickering brighter, he quickly added, "I mean, thank you for the thanks, but I already called in the life debt."
Steve, sounding exasperated, said, "It's the only reason we brought him here."
Sam's unimpressed snort made his opinion very clear.
"I see." She studied him. "Again, I ask why."
"Because I needed to see it safely home. I needed to know it was where it belonged. And they wouldn't bring me any other way."
"I see," she said again, looking over Bucky's shoulder to Steve, then across to Sam. "Consider it restored. That's too small a thing to repay what you've done."
She turned and moved away, and then there was a dragon, huge and red, where she'd been. She pointed one claw at the egg, and then at Bucky.
He packed it away in the sack, buckling it tightly, making sure it was safe, and then held it out, heart aching strangely as she curled her front claws around it.
"You'll take care of it, right?" he asked, not quite able to let go even as she loomed over him. "When it hatches, you'll love it? You can't just take care of it because it's an obligation. You have to love it."
Her head swooped down and he waited for her to bite his off, but she only stared at him, her gigantic eye almost soft, and then she gently brushed the tip of her nose against his head, hot breath ruffling his hair. The warmth of it flowed through him, wrapped around his heart, and he opened his hand and let go of the strap.
Her quiet rumble sounded like approval. It sounded like yes.
He smiled up at her and she glinted at him, eyes gleaming, before she reared up on her back legs, wings beating the air. He would have gone over backwards from the force of it, but Steve was there, Steve in dragon shape, his wings folding around him as she shot up into the sky, the egg cradled close to her chest.
He watched until she disappeared, Steve's wings around him, Steve's neck folded down so Steve's head was next to his, and all he felt was light. Light and right and warm.
When even the speck that Natasha had become was gone, he sighed and stretched, turning in the circle of Steve's wings to face him. "What happens now?" It felt right to rest a hand on Steve's cheek as Steve's eyes caught him and the world drifted away.
"Now? We go home."
He startled a little, not sure how he'd forgotten Sam's presence, but he had.
Judging by Sam's smug expression, he knew it, too.
"If you're both finished, that is." Steve glared at him and Sam laughed. "Save it and bring your human."
"I have a name," Bucky said.
"You do, but Steve's human is funnier."
Gold limned wings stretched out above him as Sam changed, casting them in shadow, and Steve stopped glaring to stretch out a wing and crouch down. Bucky set a hand on Steve's neck and one on his back and neatly hopped on.
Maybe it was strange to feel safe flying who knew how far above the ground, but he did. As long as it was Steve carrying him, he suspected he always would.
* * *
It had felt natural to bring Bucky back to his cave in Sam's lair. Natural, and where else was he going to take him?
Back to human lands. Take him to a human city, a human town, and leave him there.
Every part of Steve rebelled at the thought.
Bucky hadn't protested, hadn't asked, had just followed him through the rocky corridors and sat down with a long, tired sigh on the pile of blankets and pillows and furs that Steve used as a bed.
It was a sigh Steve thought had come from the depths of him. It was as natural to sit next to him as it had been to bring him back here, to reach out and offer him a hand.
Bucky took it. Without hesitation, without apparent thought, and Steve folded it between both of his.
Bucky looked down at their joined hands. "Is it stupid that I miss it?"
"I don't think so."
"Good, because I do. I don't miss worrying about it. I don't miss not knowing what I was doing or not knowing what was going to happen or, hell, panicking about if it hatched. But," he glanced sideways at Steve, "I do miss it."
Steve squeezed his hand.
"But not as much as I'm glad it's gone home."
"Me too. I'd given up any chance of getting it back alive until I found you."
"Don't start that again," Bucky said, giving him a hard nudge with his shoulder, and Steve huffed a laugh.
"Doesn't mean you have to keep talking about it."
"Okay. I'm done." He ran his thumb thoughtfully over Bucky's knuckles. "Can I ask, though…"
"That thing you said to Natasha when you gave her the egg."
"I thought she was going to bite my head off," Bucky said, laughing in disbelief. "I can't believe I said that to her."
Steve gave him a quick smile. "It was brave, and," he hummed thoughtfully, "it showed how much you cared. She'd understand that." He dragged his thumb across Bucky's knuckles again. "But why'd you say that in particular?"
"Oh. Well." He shrugged, careless and uncomfortable all at once. "I've been the obligation. I didn't want that to happen to it. It's a hard way to grow up."
It hurt Steve's heart and stirred the urge to flame. "I can imagine."
"I really hope not," Bucky said quietly, then cleared his throat.
As much as Steve wanted to ask, wanted to know, wanted to find the people who'd hurt Bucky, who hadn't loved him, he changed the subject. "You did good with the treasure."
"Really good. Natasha was impressed."
Bucky smiled, the same warm, wide, bright smile Steve had seen in the woods, and Steve pulled him closer, tugging him in, until they were breathing the same air, Bucky's temple resting against his forehead.
"Steve?" Bucky said. "What is your treasure if you don't need a lair for it?"
Steve smiled faintly, weighed it briefly, and decided to tell him. "Trouble."
Bucky pulled back to stare at him. "What?"
"Growing up, it's what my mother always said, and I've never had any reason to doubt her. My treasure is trouble. I'm always finding it and its always finding me."
"Trouble." Bucky started to laugh quietly, and Steve basked in the sound. "I don't know why, but that sure fits."
"It's my treasure and I've made it work for me. I use it." He chewed it over, not sure how to explain. "Dragons, we don't stay together, don't live together, but we're always for each other. No matter what, we always help each other. Since it's my treasure, I'm the one who goes out and deals with trouble."
"Like finding lost eggs."
"Like finding lost eggs and dealing with the people who stole them, but thankfully that doesn't come up too often. I deal with any sort of trouble that involves dragons. And it's not like dragons whose treasure isn't trouble aren't finding it all on their own. They go out and try and be human and fail, and guess who has to get them out of it."
He rolled his eyes and Bucky smothered a laugh.
"I'm small, I'm fast, I'm strong. I'm good at being a human. I've had lots of practice. Lots of experience. So many kingdoms, so many countries, but Bucky…"
He knew he probably shouldn't, but his treasure was trouble. Shouldn't was like a lure, as strong and irresistible as Bucky himself. Slow and soft, he lifted one hand and pressed it against Bucky's cheek. It was stubbly and rough, smooth where Steve slid his thumb up and over his cheekbone.
He felt Bucky's soft breath against his palm and Bucky didn't pull away.
"All those people, all those places, and I've never met anyone like you."
Bucky's eyes flicked away, but Steve gently tapped his nose and he looked back, going a little cross-eyed before he focussed on Steve's face. He couldn't help a tiny grin and Bucky made a face at him.
"I mean it, Bucky. I've met all sorts of humans in all sorts of places and not one of them would do what you did, would risk what you did, to get a baby dragon safely home."
"I couldn't leave it there to die," Bucky whispered.
"Yes, you could. But you didn't. You gave up riches, you gave up treasure, to save its life. Bucky, you're—" Steve shook his head, because there was something far better than words to get across what he was trying to say, and he leaned forward to kiss him. It was light, an offering, not a question but a gift. Warm and gentle and when he leaned back Bucky was watching him out of wondering eyes.
"Really," Steve said, and whether he would have said anything else would forever be a mystery because Bucky was kissing him and Steve met him measure for measure, warm and pliant and he could feel the fire behind it, banked but waiting, and he lost himself in the heat of it, in the trails of warmth left by Bucky's hands as they ran up his back, as he touched him like he'd never let go.
Bucky didn't let go, but he had to pull back eventually, eyes bright and shining, and Steve had to touch him again, brush a fingertip against his mouth. "I can't offer you gold and I can't offer you jewels, but I can offer you a different kind of treasure."
"What, trouble?" Silent laughter bubbled in Bucky's voice.
"Exactly. Stay. Stay with me and we'll deal with trouble together." Steve kissed the tip of his nose, his cheek, the side of his neck. "Or just stay with me, and I'll do what I can to keep you out of it. Either way."
"Stay with you," Bucky said, tipping his head to lean against Steve's. "That sounds... Yeah, Steve. I'll stay with you. With you and trouble." He huffed a quiet laugh. "I don't have anywhere else to be."
Steve's heart sank a little. "You don't have to stay. I can take you anywhere you want," he said softly.
"No." Bucky's hands were on his face, gentle, thumbs smoothing over his skin, just like he touched him when he was a dragon. "That's not what I meant. I meant yes. Yes, I want to stay with you. Because I want to, not because I don't have anywhere else to go. You could drop me into any decent sized city, and I'd survive. I don't, that's not enough anymore. I want more than that and I want it with you. With you. Because that's what I'm choosing."
His earnest words, his warm hands, buoyed Steve's heart, filled it with fire and flame. He grinned, wrapped his arms around Bucky, and kissed him, long and slow, Bucky's hand curling around the back of his neck, fingers threading into Steve's hair.
"You're not a strange man I met in the woods anymore," Bucky said when they parted, lips curving in a small smile that Steve had to kiss. "And you're not a man I don't trust, so those rules of mine? Turns out they don't apply to you."
It made his heart swoop and soar, and he caught Bucky's face between his hands, looking at him seriously.
Steve kissed him, light and fleeting, said, solemn and warm, "I'm a dragon, not a man, so technically they never did," and Bucky's laughter shook them both as Steve pulled him down into the blankets.