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Doe Eyes and Buck Shots

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The town was a bustling place on the edge of a vast forest. They were a few days ride away from the palace, so most people didn’t pay too much attention to who was running their kingdom. A simple folk, they spent more time worrying about their own people and their own way of life. Most kept to their own homes save for the daily trips to the market. They didn’t question what lay beyond the town and in the forest.

For what lay within the forest was something no human had ever laid eyes on. No human had ever ventured far enough to wonder if there was something different about the way the trees would sway. If there was something different about how the animals frolicked. The humans had never seen the herd that ruled the deep center of the forest.

And no one in that herd had dared venture out toward the humans.

 

-----

 

The ground was soft beneath Tony’s hooves from the rainfall that blessed them during the night. He didn’t normally enjoy the feeling of mud under him, but it gave him something different to think about besides the argument he had with his father just a few short hours before. As the next lead Buck in their herd, it would be Tony’s job to protect them from any danger that lurked at their borders.

From humans, his father insisted. Tony crossed his arms over his bare chest and stomped his hooves in irritation. Nothing had bothered the herd in decades, especially the beings that lurked outside the comforting branches of the trees. When questioned, his father couldn’t even name a point when they had been threatened by more than the occasional wandering bear. Even then, the predator would be quickly dealt with by the Knights and never be seen in the area again. They had no enemies, and Tony didn’t even want the job of leading their herd in the first place.

He was never a protector like Howard. He followed the nurturing nature of his mother more than the stoic determination of his father. It had long since been a source of contention between the two, since Howard insisted that Tony needed to learn to lead more than comfort. Today’s typical argument about it wouldn’t have been so bad, but his mother had stepped in from where she was watching and actually agreed with the Buck.

Tony had scoffed, claimed they were wrong, and took off for the river on the edge of their territory. It wasn’t long before one of his best friends (and wouldn’t you know, a Knight so his father would be happy) followed him. Rhodey had been quiet as he followed, something Tony had appreciated, but now that they were down by the river, Tony was getting anxious in the silence.

“I don’t see why I need to learn to fight if I’ve got the Knights and peace,” he said, tail flicking in annoyance. “You said yourself that you’re bored more than anything.”

“Sure, but I’m glad I have the training when something wanders by.” Rhodey’s spear was tucked behind his upper torso within an easy reach just in case. “I could be the one that trains you.”

“We’ve been friends since we were born, Rhodey. Do you honestly think you can convince me of something I don’t want to do?”

Rhodey sighed and let his front legs fold in so he could easily grab some berries off a bush. He let the water of the river flow over them for a moment before standing and holding his hand out for Tony. “I’m hoping I can.”

“Bribing me with berries isn’t going to do it.” Still, Tony reached up to take some, popping them in his mouth.

Despite being born barely days apart, Rhodey was a head taller than Tony. Tony blamed it on being a late bloomer, but they both knew that he wasn’t going to grow much bigger. His father always seemed to give Tony a pitying look when his stature was brought up, but Tony learned to use it to his advantage. Being smaller made him faster, swifter when he ran through the dense undergrowth of the forest floor.

Rhodey moved forward to tuck the rest of the berries into the satchel buckled around Tony’s midsection. “Maybe not berries,” he agreed, “but I’m sure I can find something.”

“I don’t see how you can listen to him.” Tony turned in a small circle before settling himself in the mud by calmer part of the river. “He’s afraid of things that aren’t going to ever happen. There hasn’t been a human sighted in our area since before I was born.”

“Maybe, but what if the next sighting puts us in danger?”

Tony scrunched up his nose. “You sound just like him.”

Rhodey let out a sigh and settled down next to Tony. “I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry.”

“Liar, but good thing I like you.” Tony nudged his friend before grabbing his spear. “Might as well get some lunch.”

“Dinner,” Rhodey corrected. “You slept through breakfast.”

“Whatever.”

Tony kept still, even as a few birds were startled from their tree and flew off. Rhodey watched them, but said nothing. There weren’t many fish making their way through the stream, so Tony knew that he had to make his shot count -- as soon as the spear left his hand, they would scatter and stay clear of the area for a while. He spotted his prey and smirked, readying himself to the kill.

A shrill call of a bird sounded before Tony could let the spear fly. Beside him, Rhodey stood up quickly, plucking the spear out of Tony’s hands easily. Tony looked around before standing next to him, tail flicked up.

“Perimeter breach?” he asked. “Not here or else we’d see it, but--”

“It’s probably another wandering wolf. We’re too far out anyway,” Rhodey interrupted. “I’m going to run ahead, but you’ll be following behind me?”

“Go, I’ll follow.” Tony wasn’t stupid enough to stay outside of the herd when a call like that came around.

Rhodey had already taken off and Tony stomped his hooves again to get more mud off of them. He’s about to leap through the trees as well when he paused, a flash of white a bit off to the side. He hesitated before taking another quick look around; nobody was here, so a look wouldn’t hurt. A quick look and then he would run back.

“It’s perfect,” he murmured to himself, reaching out to the hidden bindweed he saw there. His mother loved flowers like this -- open and blooming wide. He took another quick look around before ducking his upper torso into the bushes to get to the flower.

His fingers barely wrapped around the stem when something sharp dug into his hindquarter. Tony cried out, legs buckling beneath him for a moment before he got his footing. He looked back, eyes wide as he saw a stick with dull feathering tied at the top -- an arrow. A human arrow and he knew that because the herd didn’t use them.

Panicked, Tony stumbled back through the bushes as much as he could, pain flaring through his backside. He hit against a tree and that was when his back legs gave out, crumpling beneath him. If he even survived this, his father was going to kill him. Rhodey was going to feel guilty and probably get in a lot of trouble.

He had to survive.

Tony scrambled to stand, front legs and arms trying to get purchase on the forest floor. Where he had once loved the soft earth, now he was cursing it. There wasn’t a low-hanging branch to grab on, so that meant crawling. Tony sucked in a breath and reached for a root he could use to pull himself along.

“Oh fuck...”

The words stopped his movement. Tony jerked his head toward the river where a human -- a hunter -- stood there. Despite the situation, Tony couldn’t help but stare at the man. Brown hair, pulled back, had loose strands that fell across his eyes. Plain clothes hung loosely over obvious muscles and the hunter’s left arm (white scars along the length) shook as he stared straight at Tony. When he stepped closer, through the water toward him, the man’s steps were slow and unsure.

Tony knew he had to leave, to get out of there, but the stormy blue of the man’s eyes held him captive. He bit his lower lip, wishing he had something more to protect him than the berries Rhodey put in his satchel. When (if) he got out of this, he was going to ask for something. Maybe a small blade. A rope? Something.

The hunter reached his side of the river and slowly put his bow and quiver down. He then raised both of his hands up in front of him. “I’m sorry,” he said gently, voice husky in a way that had Tony hesitating in his panic. “I’m really sorry, I didn’t know...”

Tony glanced to the arrow still sticking out of his flank, and then back to the hunter. He wanted to scream at him, tell him to go away, but his voice didn’t seem to want to work. All he could do was stare at the thickness of the man’s arms, and then the thickness of his thighs as he knelt in front of him. Something inside Tony stirred and he tried to ignore it.

 

 

“Hold still,” the man said, close enough to rest his hand on Tony’s flank. They locked eyes a moment before the man wrapped his hand around the shaft. “Eir, greatest of healers, let him be healthy and hale.”

Tony held his breath, fingers digging into the dirt; he knew the pain was coming. Something in his trusted the hunter to help him, the prayer he said soothing Tony more than he expected. He hadn’t heard these prayers in years.

“Let him be well and whole. Let him be fine and fit.” The hunter looked down at Tony’s flank, putting pressure around the wound with his hand. “May illness leave him. May wellness find him.” The hunter took a deep breath. “Forgive me,” he said and then pulled.

Tony bit down hard so he didn’t scream out, not wanting the Knights to hear and rush forward. He did feel tears slide down his face and he finally let himself breathe, chest heaving as he attempted to fight through the pain in his hindquarter.

“Hold still,” the hunter said, voice shaking. “It’s okay, shh...”

Tony looked back to the hunter, trying not to shudder at the sight of the wound under his hand. “Are you going to kill me?”

The hunter jerked his head up, eyes wide. “I... no. No, I’m not. You can communicate?”

“Surprisingly without the need for arrows.” Tony closed his eyes, turning away.

“I’m sorry,” the hunter said again. “It was my turn to get food for my family and I never like to, but I... I’m sorry.”

Tony heard a rip and looked back to see the hunter’s shirt torn. He then wrapped the fabric around Tony’s flank to keep another bit of cloth in place over the wound. Tony let him, but he was confused. “Why not use herbs?”

“They’re back at the house. I don’t carry any.” The hunter made sure the wound was wrapped tightly before moving back a few steps. “You need them, though. Let me help you?”

He shouldn’t, Tony knew that he should get as far away from the human as possible, but there was something that held him there. Something about the hunter that Tony wanted to know. Knowing he was making the wrong choice, Tony held his hands out toward the man and offered him a small, hesitant smile.

The hunter returned the smile and grasped Tony’s hands to pull him up. There wasn’t much of a height difference, so he was easy for the man to wrap Tony’s arm around his shoulder and to take his weight. It still hurt to put pressure down on his back leg, so Tony appreciated the help. And he appreciated the press of the body against his own.

“How far is your home?” Tony asked as they crossed the river.

“I don’t remember exactly, I’m afraid. I marked the trees, though. It shouldn’t be too far.”

That wasn’t comforting, but Tony just held on tighter. “You’re not bringing me back just to eat me, are you?”

No. No, of course not.” The hunter shook his head. “I suppose you don’t have any reason to trust me.”

“You did leave your weapons behind...”

The hunter muttered something under his breath before maneuvering them to a tree. “I can’t leave it there, actually. It isn’t mine.”

Tony gripped the bark. “So your family is going to eat me, but you aren’t?”

“Oh, stop.” The hunter ran quickly to grab his things. “Nobody is going to eat you.” He wrapped the quiver and bow around his shoulders before making his way back to Tony. “I rather dislike hunting, actually.”

“Funny, I rather dislike being shot.” Tony eyed the feathered ends of the arrows before letting himself lean on the hunter again. “Do you have a name?”

“Bucky. My friends call me Bucky.”

Tony held back his snort of amusement at the name, but he couldn’t help the smile that came across his face. “I like the name.”

Bucky sighed, shaking his head. “A nickname that stuck, I’m afraid. I realize that the situation is amusing.”

“Because I’m a buck?” Tony let himself laugh then. “Don’t worry, I won’t tease too much. My name is Tony, by the way.”

“Tony? I like it.”  Bucky gave him an easy smile; Tony felt his heart skip. “Come on, let’s just get you to my cabin and we can get you fixed up better.”

 

-----

 

By the time they reached a small clearing, Tony’s entire body ached. He wanted to appreciate the garden on the edge of the forest and its neat little rows that were labeled. He wanted to ask about the building that stood in the center, smoke coming from its roof. He wanted to ask why Bucky was leading him to a smaller building to the side, but he couldn’t. Instead, all he could do was lean further against Bucky as he was led through a door.

“I know this isn’t the biggest place, but I think you’d be safer here,” Bucky explained. The others don’t know about you, obviously, and I think you might freak them out.”

“As long as I can rest, I don’t care.” Tony winced as Bucky helped him settle on the floor. “I think my back legs are numb.”

“Sorry,” Bucky said. Tony lost count of how many times he heard that during their walk. “Stay here, okay? I’m going to get some herbs and supplies.”

“Got nowhere else to go.”

Bucky offered a small smile, then left, the door swinging shut slowly behind him. There wasn’t much light, but there was just enough for him to see where he was. Cut wood stacked up behind him and otherwise, the room was empty. Winter was still months off, so it had to be just in case. It was good that Bucky was planning ahead; that made Tony feel a bit better about him living out on the edge of a forest instead of in a town.

Part of him wished they were by a town because Tony would have loved to see how humans lived together. He heard stories about their castles and cities. About their smaller farming towns and traveling caravans of merchants. He wanted to see it all, but he would settle for one human’s wood keep for now.

He heard Bucky’s quick footsteps before the door opened and he came in, a lantern in his hand. “I didn’t mean to take so long. I brought supplies and... Well, I’m not the best healer, so I asked my friend to join us. If that’s okay?”

Tony frowned, watching as Bucky unpacked the herbs. “Your friend is trustworthy?”

“I promise. He saw the blood and he’s worried.” Bucky rested his hand on Tony’s flank again.  “But if you don’t want to, I won’t let him in. His name is Steve and I’ve known him since he was a babe.” He unwrapped the bindings from Tony’s flank as he spoke, movements gentle.

The chance to meet another human sounded amazing, if Tony were really honest with himself. If they were going to kill him, at least he would have learned more and that’s all he wanted to do in the first place -- learn about them. So Tony nodded, smiling softly as he gripped his necklace. Bucky returned the smile before turning to nudge the door open.

Steve was smaller than Bucky by almost half, his limbs skinny and clothes loose around him. His blue eyes widened as he took Tony in. Tony looked away, self-conscious at the open staring; nobody had looked at him quite the way either of the humans did.

“Steve...”

The blond jerked out of his stance before kneeling next to Bucky. “Sorry, I thought you were kidding. Let me see...”

Tony bit his lip, keeping as still as possible as Steve’s small fingers poked around the wound. He finally looked back to the pair just as some kind of herbs were spread across his flank. Bucky offered a small smile when he saw Tony looking.

“It’s to help with the pain,” he explained. “You haven’t said it, but I’m sure it hurts real bad.”

“Thank you.” Tony let go of his necklace. “Is it just the two of you?”

“There’s four of us, actually. Me, Steve, Natasha, and Sam.” Bucky shifted to let Steve have more room to work. “Natasha and Sam usually hunt for us...”

“And for good reason,” Steve muttered before leaning back. “I’m almost done, but can you stand so I can wrap this better?”

Bucky immediately held out his arms to help Tony stand and he had to hold back the blush that threatened to bloom over his face. He took Bucky’s arms and stood in the small space, wincing as he put pressure on his leg. It wasn’t as bad as before, but it was still sensitive enough.

“Thanks,” he told them, gripping tighter to Bucky as Steve wrapped him up. “Did you study healing?”

Steve shook his head. “Came across it by need more than anything. When we used to live in the village, I got ill often enough that I learned what to do.”

“And between the others and myself, we liked to get enough scraps for him to learn that, too.” Bucky eased his grip on Tony’s arms. “You should be good as new soon.”

Steve gathered the herbs and put them back into his bag. “I should go back before the others realize we’re missing. I’ll check you again in the morning, okay?”

Tony nodded. “That would be appreciated. Thank you, Steve.”

Steve held out his hand. “Tony, right? You’re welcome.”

Steve’s hand was smoother than Bucky’s, but the grip was firm and sure. Tony couldn’t help but smile at the smaller man, seeing the strength hiding under his small stature. With another glance to Bucky, Steve ducked out of the small room, letting the door swing shut behind him. Alone now, Bucky cleared his throat and scuffed his boots on the dirt floor.

“I know we patched you up, but can I make this up to you in another way? Maybe breakfast in the morning?” he asked before glancing up at Tony through his lashes.

Tony never had his heart race for any one in his herd, but something about this human caused it to want to break out of his chest. “I’m not sure...”

“Please?”

The answer should have been ‘no’ but Tony couldn’t help but give Bucky a small nod. His father was going to already be angry with him, what was another few hours? Seeing the confirmation, Bucky’s smile grew as he backed toward the door.

“Great! I can get Natasha and Sam used to the idea of you so they aren’t scared when they see you tomorrow. Not that you’re frightening, but uh...”

Tony shook his head, settling himself back on the ground. “It’s okay, Bucky, I understand.”

“Tony?” Bucky waited for Tony to look at him again. “Do you think tomorrow you can tell me about you and your family? I’d love to hear about it. Like how many are you and what it’s like.”

Humans want nothing more than to be rid of creatures like us, Howard used to tell him. We hide to be safe.

But he could trust Bucky, right? He and Steve helped his leg and they weren’t actively looking for the herd. Right? Of course. Tony needed to stop thinking the worst of his new friend, but he also knew he needed to be careful. Maybe breakfast wasn’t such a good idea even if he was curious about the humans.

“If you tell me about humans, I think we can do that,” he said instead before motioning to the door. “Go on, I’ll be fine here until morning.”

“I’ll come right as the sun rises,” Bucky promised, opening the door. Goodnight, Tony.”

Tony raised his hand in a small wave as the door shut and the room turned dark. The dark didn’t bother him; it reminded Tony of the den back in the glade. The den that he should be in right now instead of here. Was he even safe here?

With the help of the wall, Tony pulled himself to stand again and push open the door. The cabin window facing him was barely lit, but he could make out shadows moving somewhere close. He recognized Bucky, though he wasn’t sure why. The other two shadows that paced were unfamiliar to him.

Was it just four humans here? Were there other cabins close by? Tony bit his lip, doubt seeping into his bones. The human patched him, and he should leave just in case. If he didn’t return, his father may attack and that would be just as bad as if the humans came after them.

After a murmured apology toward the cabin, Tony slipped out of the door and snuck off toward the woods. Maybe he could come back, but for now he had to think of the herd.

 

-----

 

The first Knight he ran into is, thankfully, Rhodey. His best friend wore a frown that clearly meant Tony was in more trouble than anticipated, so he didn’t bother to offer an explanation. He simply sighed and let Rhodey lead him back toward their herd. He heard the call from another Knight and let out a long sigh; his father would know they were coming and so he had time to stew.

“I really don’t see what the big deal is,” Tony muttered, hand gripping his necklace. He barely noticed when Rhodey stopped in front of him and he stumbled, trying not to run into him. 

“I know you aren’t that stupid,” Rhodey said, frown deepening. “Tony, you were gone the entire night after we had warning of someone coming into our land. We never found them, either, so your father thought you were taken.”

Not completely false, but Tony wasn’t going to tell him that. “But I’m fine.”

“Why is your flank wrapped?” When Tony didn’t answer, Rhodey scoffed and continued. “That’s what I thought. Come on, your father is worried.”

“He’s always worried.”

Rhodey’s lips quirked in a smile. “I think we all worry about you.”

Tony stuck out his tongue, but followed behind Rhodey without more complaints. Since his mother wasn’t able to have another child, he was the only one to take over the herd. He knew how important he was, but that didn’t mean he had to like it. Especially with his smaller size, he would probably need a larger partner to help him keep the herd in line.

As they reached the rest of the herd, Tony had to stop himself from rolling his eyes. They parted easily, some with reassured looks and some with disdain in their eyes, letting Rhodey march Tony to Howard. His father stood in the center, arms crossed over his chest with an unreadable expression. Next to him, his mother gave Tony a small smile. She waited until he was mostly across the glade before moving out to meet him, arms wrapping around him tightly.

“You worried us,” she said, voice soft.

“I’m fine, Mother.” Tony pressed a kiss to her temple before detangling himself from her arms. “Is he angry?”

“Partly, but he is mostly worried as well.” She touched a hand to his cheek. “Go on, talk to him.”

Tony leaned into the hand for a moment before continuing to Howard. His father nodded toward the den and Tony was at least glad that they wouldn’t be having this particular talk out in the open. He ducked slightly under the initial rock ledge and decided the center was the best place. The way, if his father wanted to pace, he could do so in a circle; he liked that better.

The scraping of Howard’s horns altered Tony that his father was joining him. He turned and opened his mouth to apologize, but hesitated. He wasn’t exactly sure what he should apologize for considering that, as far as he knew, Howard didn’t know about Bucky. If he could, Tony wanted to keep that a secret.

“Hey, Father,” he said, his quiet voice echoing a bit. “I didn’t mean to worry you.”

“I know, son.” Howard stopped in front of Tony, letting out a breath. “I know you didn’t intend to, but you did. It’s becoming a habit.”

“I saw a flower for--”

“Tony.” Howard put his hands on Tony’s shoulders, quieting him. “No matter the reason, if there is a warning of an intruder, you must listen. They’re there for our protection. Our safety. Do you understand?”

“I’m not a fawn,” Tony insisted. “I was just--”

“Tony, please.” Howard looked him over. “Tell me what happened. Please? What happened to your flank?”

Tony looked away, biting his lip. Telling Howard the truth could go so many different ways and none of them good. There was no reason he would have to simply leave Bucky and his family alone.

“Did you get caught--”

“I fell,” Tony said quickly, taking a step back. “When I tried to get the flower, I fell and there was a branch...”

“Those are not our supplies on you.”

“Bruce?” Bruce was the only human Tony had known that the herd let into their boundaries. Exiled from a kingdom he refused to talk about, Bruce was now just a simple man who lived deep in the forest and brewed all sorts of healing salves. The children of the herd liked to see him and he tolerated them, but otherwise he kept to himself.

“He hadn’t seen you in some time. We checked.” Howard tilted Tony’s chin up. “I will not be angry. You have obviously been cared for, but telling me would ease my worry.”

Tony knew he didn’t have any other choice. “It was the hunter,” he admitted, “but he didn’t want to hurt me! I swear!”

Howard frowned, moving so he could look at the bindings on Tony’s flank. “This tells me otherwise.”

“He thought I was a normal deer. He needed to eat.”

“He came too far.” Howard sighed and paced around the den. “We’ll need to expand our patrols. He may have been kind to you only to get to the rest of us.”

“Father--”

“And perhaps we’ll need to move the herd.” Howard looked back to Tony. “Hunters are dangerous, Tony. Where one is, many will follow. He may have been one, but he’ll return with dozens. We can’t chance it.”

“Father, please. We don’t need to move the herd for one hunter. I promise, he isn’t a problem.” Tony turned, following Howard’s pacing. “And he can’t bring dozens back because there’s only four in his home. And one can’t even hunt!”

Howard paused, arching an eyebrow. “There are only four? How do you know?”

“He took me to his home to heal me. It’s a lone cabin, only them.” He hoped “Please, they won’t bother us.”

Howard narrowed his eyes. “Do you realize what you could have done? Tony, you know better than to get that close.”

“But Father--”

“You are not to leave our inner borders, do you understand me?” Howard stepped up to Tony again, towering over him. “You are to stay out of trouble while we figure out what to do with the herd and these four hunters. I’ll have a Knight escort you if I need to.”

“I’m not a child!”

“Then act like it.” Howard stomped his front feet before letting out a breath and taking a step back. “This herd will be yours one day and they need to know that you will take care of them. That you won’t make any decisions that could harm them. Ignoring a call is a bad decision.”

Tony didn’t have an answer for that. He looked away from his father, not wanting to acknowledge the truth in his words. He knew he should have followed Rhodey back to the glade. He should have even knocked Bucky out the moment he had gotten close. But in the end, Bucky (and even Steve) hadn’t been horrible. The exact opposite; Tony had been second-guessing his decision to leave early the entire trip home.

“You’ll understand one day,” Howard said once it was obvious Tony wasn’t going to answer. “We’ll speak more about this later.”

Tony watched his father leave before letting out a huff and pacing about the den himself. He didn’t think Bucky and his family were a threat, and he wasn’t sure how to prove any of it. He reached up to tug at his hair before circling his hands around the bud of his antlers, closing his eyes so he could think.

“They’re going to grow in deformed,” a gentle voice said from the entrance. Tony immediately turned, aggravation softening for his mother. She was on the smaller side for a doe, but her strength was not in her size.

She stopped in front of Tony and reached up to smooth his hair before bringing their foreheads together gently. Tony closed his eyes, relaxing at the familiar touch. No matter what kind of discussion Tony had with his father, this always worked to ground him and keep him from (sometimes literally) tearing out his hair.

“You worried him,” Maria said as she pulled away. Her hands trailed down Tony’s arms so she could take his hands, blocking him from worrying at his necklace; she knew him too well sometimes. “He is upset because he just wants to keep you safe, Tony.”

“I know, I just...”

“You’re curious. I know, sweetheart.” Maria squeezed Tony’s hands once before letting them go so she could cup his face. “You have always been drawn to learning about the humans and there has been nothing we could do to stop it. Even with Bruce close enough to satiate the others, for you it was never enough.”

“I’m sorry...”

“Nothing to be sorry about, Tony. It just makes you different. Special.”

“But how can I lead if all I want to do is go see humans?” Tony pulled away, pacing alongside the wall. “I understand that’s also what he’s worried about. I know that. So what if I shouldn’t lead?”

Maria stepped forward, her shoulders straight. “You were born to lead us, Anthony. Your father has been afraid of humans, just as his father before him.”

“That’s exactly--”

“But maybe that isn’t the way anymore.” She smiled softly. “Perhaps it is time we moved on from fear. Perhaps you and your hunter will be the ones to show us the way.”

Tony was quiet, eyes wide. He never thought of leading the herd toward the humans before. He wasn’t even sure that was the smart thing to do considering the lack of knowledge they had about the humans. He frowned, turning his head away; maybe it was a test instead? She was seeing if he would actually agree to do it?

Would she do that?

“Get some rest,” Maria said softly, backing toward the entrance of the den. “You’ve had a long night.”

Tony wasn’t anywhere near tired. “I will. Can I talk to Rhodey first?”

“He’s on patrol by where you were taken... Where you were last seen. He and the others are trying to find any further clues.”

“O-oh. I’ll talk to him later, then. Thanks, Mom.”

“Of course, sweetheart.”

She left Tony with his panic. His hope that they didn’t find the marks on the trees Bucky had made. He would definitely need to find Rhodey as soon as his friend came back and make sure nothing was said. Somehow.

 

-----

 

Tony jerked awake when a hand came down over his mouth. Rhodey kneeled above him, finger over his lips, and waited until Tony relaxed before motioning him to follow. Tony glanced over to see his parents were still fast asleep on the other side of the den, curled up in another as usual -- at least he would be able to talk to Rhodey first. His friend had been out all day. Tony let himself smile softly at the way his father securely wrapped his arms around his mother’s waist, protecting her even in sleep, before turning to watch Rhodey leave.

As quiet as he could, Tony pushed himself up and followed Rhodey out into the quiet night. There were a few up and patrolling the glade, but none of them bothered to look at them too much. A few waved to them and Rhodey waved back, leading Tony toward the edge of the lake near the edge of the glade.

“What’s going on?” Tony asked as soon as they stopped. “What happened?”

Rhodey turned, taking a look around the area before looking back to Tony. “I met him. Your hunter.”

“Bucky?” Tony stepped closer to his friend, eyes wide. “Gods, Rhodey you didn’t hurt him, did you? Did he hurt you? What--”

“Hey, hey, relax.” Rhodey rested his hands on Tony’s shoulders. “It’s okay. I was patrolling where we were last night and saw him by the river, calling for you. I didn’t hurt him.”

Tony gave Rhodey a relieved smile, shoulders slumping. “Thank you. He honestly didn’t mean to hurt me.”

“I know, he told me what happened.” The larger buck frowned before looking over the water. “Look, I wasn’t even going to tell you I ran into him, but he just seemed so desperate to know how you were. He thought you left and died somewhere in the forest and I’ve never known a human to show that much compassion. So I told him you were fine and that you came here for healing. I told him to go because you wouldn’t want him hurt.”

Tony came to stand next to his friend, leaning against him slightly. “Thank you, Rhodey. I’m serious, I appreciate that you did that.”

“Just don’t go wandering off again, Tony. Not all humans are like this one.” Rhodey turned back toward the glade. “You’re wanted here not because you’re the next to lead us, but because you’re you.”

Tony would let Rhodey believe what he wanted. He just smiled and nodded so his friend would go back to what he was supposed to be doing. The soft footfalls were muffled in the grass and Tony didn’t turn away from the water until he knew Rhodey was definitely gone. There were other Knights in the area, no doubt keeping an eye on him, and Tony let out a sigh.

“Just going for a swim,” he said, loud enough that he knew the closest Knight heard him.

Not waiting for an answer, Tony waded into the moon-lit water. No creatures in this lake would bother him, so he had no fear of getting in up to his chest, arms outstretched to skim across the surface. Not many liked the feeling of the water encompassing their bodies, but something about it soothed him. His mother was the same way and Howard used to tease that he mated a mermaid instead of a doe.

The water let Tony think clearer and, for some reason, his mind raced whenever he thought of his brief encounter with Bucky. Something drew him out of the safe haven of their land and toward the small cabin on the edge of the wood. Tony was sure he could find it again, even without the marks Bucky left in the trees to guide him. It was a feeling that he could follow.

Who better to follow feelings? Tony turned, squinting a bit to spot the small bit of light coming from the North side of the lake. Bruce, despite claiming otherwise, knew more about this than anyone Tony knew from the herd. He thought for sure that Bruce could help him figure out just why he was being pulled like this toward a human.

He couldn’t just go, though; the Knights would surely stop him. Tony looked behind him, smirking at the one that looked to be on duty yawned. He slowly drifted toward the edge of the lake, winding through the water to make his motions not seem as deliberate. Tony waited for the right moment, when the Knight let out another yawn and then a stretch, before he got out of the water and ducked into the thick trees of the forest. If he was lucky, he would have a bit of time before it was really noticed he was gone.

Briefly, he wondered if his mother had a hand in setting the guards, because he met none of them on his way around the lake. He wasn’t about to question it too much, though, because it made things easier. Still, he took one last glance around before he pushed through the last bit of brush and came to the cabin.

Drying herbs hung on the walls outside. Some of them Tony knew were for warding off spirits, but others were so Bruce could use them in his salves and drinks. He never picked them when there were others around, so nobody knew which ones were for what purpose. Not that they would ever touch the man’s property without permission; that was just asking for a curse.

A small rabbit chewed on lettuce in the garden and it stopped as it spotted Tony. Tony gave it a small wave before putting a finger to his lips, promising not to tell Bruce. (Bruce knew, of course, but he liked watching the animals play so he would never scare them off.) The rabbit waved back before returning to its meal, hopping over to grab another leaf.

A distant wolf’s howl came through the air and Tony had to hold back a shiver before he knocked on the wooden door. The animal didn’t sound close, but the noise never failed to unnerve him. Thankfully it didn’t take long for Bruce’s door to open and the man himself gave Tony a smile, already standing aside to let him in.

“Something told me you were coming,” he said, voice low and gentle. “As soon as your father left, I’ve been counting down the time.”

“Am I that predictable?” Tony asked, turning his backside so Bruce could close the door behind him.

“At times. Come, lay by the fire and let me know what brings you here.”

Part of Tony wanted to make Bruce rush, but he knew that nothing would come out of that. Bruce was a man that liked to take his time, fully think about a situation before deciding what he would do. So he settled himself in front of the fire, relaxing at its warmth, and accepted the teacup handed to him. He didn’t enjoy the drink, but at this point, it was a tradition to share a cup with the bush witch.

Bruce’s loose robe bunched up around him as he sat, his own cup cradled in his hands. “Where were you?”

“With humans on the edge of our forest.” Tony glanced into the fire, watching the fire lick at the logs. “One of them accidentally hurt me, so he and his friend healed me.”

“Your flank.”

Tony nodded. “It doesn’t even hurt anymore.”

“Hm.” Bruce leaned back. “So why are you here?”

“I’m feeling... drawn to them somehow. I want to go back and not just see the two I’ve met, but the other two they live with. And I want to see the village they’re from and the people in it. I want to try their food and see what chores they do and figure out how they work.” Now that he started, Tony couldn’t find it in himself to stop. He looked down at the tea, but even if Bruce had done something to it, he didn’t care.

“The one that hurt me,” he continued, “Bucky, I... I want to touch him. I want to hear his stories and watch him work. I can’t stop thinking that he isn’t a bad human and he won’t hurt the herd and I want to prove that. I want to show my father that I’m right. That despite my obsession with humans, I can lead our herd toward them in peace...’

Bruce leaned forward as Tony trailed off, a frown across his face. “What you want is hard to give. There is a reason the herd has separated from humans. Not that they were close in the first place.”

“Is there a way I could just see them once more? Explain that I’m okay and why I left in the first place?” Tony put his cup down and leaned closer to Bruce. “Please, there has to be a way. You would know a way.”

“I do,” Bruce admitted with a shake of his head, “but I won’t give it to you. You have to stay with your herd. Where you belong.”

Tony stood, resisting the urge to stamp his hoof. “If I don’t do this, all I’m going to do is think about it until I go crazy. Please, Bruce. Please.”

Bruce stood up as well and put his hands on Tony’s shoulders, touch gentle. “Refusing you is for the best and my decision, not your father’s. Before you ask.”

Tony scoffed, but couldn’t deny that the thought had crossed his mind. “So I’ll just disappear again. See him real quick.”

“Tony...”

“No, it’s okay. I’ll figure it out.” Tony let out a sigh, stepping away from Bruce. “I just thought that you could help make it easier, but I guess not.”

“Don’t act like such a child,” Bruce chided. “Even if I did help you, your father wouldn’t be as forgiving to me as he has in the past.”

“I can handle my father.”

“It doesn’t change my answer.”

“I know.” Tony forced a smile on his face to show that he meant no ill will toward Bruce. “If he comes here looking for me, you don’t have to lie. Tell him you told me no and I went anyway.”

Tony took another step back and his flank bumped into a table. He jerked forward as a few things on top of the table clattered to the floor, scattering around them. Nothing broke, but he still stood there with wide eyes and an embarrassed flush on his cheeks. The pieces looked like bone fragments and Tony hoped that he hadn’t just damaged something Bruce had built.

“I’m sorry!”

“No harm,” Bruce insisted, kneeling down. “I should have put them away before, so you’re actually help... oh.” He ran his hand over the bones before jerking his hand back and standing abruptly. “Stay here.”

Confused, Tony watched as Bruce went toward his bed, reaching into the shelves above it. He muttered to himself, pulling things down to balance in his arms. Tony wanted to ask, but he wouldn’t get a straight answer. Not when Bruce was this focused.

“I can’t give you long,” Bruce said as he returned, shoving a cup into Tony’s hands. “From the moment you leave the herd’s area, you’ll have a day. Do you understand?”

“No, but--”

“One day, Tony, and then you will return.” Bruce mixed a few things into the cup before disappearing outside. He didn’t take long to return with some of the herbs, fingers pinched to break them before they went into the cup as well. “I won’t tell your herd where you went when they ask.”

“Bruce, what’s going on?”

The man hesitated, looking into Tony’s eyes. “The bones don’t lie, so I must do this. You are to go to your humans and return.”

“In one day.”

“In one day,” Bruce agreed. “Once I put the last ingredient in, you must drink it immediately and then leave.”

“What’s going to happen?” Tony shifted on his hooves, resisting the urge to pour the last ingredient in himself. He trusted Bruce, but he also knew he had to understand what was happening first.

“In order to stay with the humans, you must be a human.” Bruce poured the last ingredient in and pushed the cup toward Tony’s lips. “Drink.”

The mixture was the worst thing Tony had ever put into his mouth -- a mix of sour fish and too-ripe berries -- but he drank it all. Bruce took the cup back just as a call sounded across the lake; Tony’s time was up. Someone found him missing and he had to move, but his stomach was threatening to rebel against the mixture Bruce gave him.

“You have to go now.” Bruce pushed him toward the door. “Run fast, take this.” He handed Tony a satchel. “There are clothes inside for when it happens. Just go, you can thank me when you return.”

Stomach still uneasy, Tony took the satchel and gave Bruce a small nod. Running wasn’t going to be fun until his stomach relaxed, but he had no choice. He ran into the night.

Chapter Text

The Knights were definitely looking for him now and Tony did everything he could to not be seen. Other animals in the forest fled at his pace, but he didn’t slow down to apologize -- he had to get to the border before he was caught. He had to see Bucky so he could spend as much time as he could with the human.

His hooves dug into the earth as he came closer to the river where they had originally met. He knew he couldn’t cross at the exact spot since it would be patrolled heavier than the other spots, so he had to time it right. Just as he stopped at the tree line to see if any Knight was around, he heard the call. They still hadn’t found him, then.

“I’m sorry,” he said toward his herd before racing across the river.

Tony jumped the final distance over the river bank and, while in mid-air, he felt it. His body shifted under him, his hind legs melting into his front. Tony’s eyes widened as he looked down to see his hooves turn into human feet and his satchel slip from his waist to drop to the ground below. He expected to feel panicked, but instead he was more curious than anything else. He was too engrossed in the sudden change that he forgot what he was doing and landed hard on the other side of the river, rolling across the damp forest floor.

Human. He was human. Tony slapped a hand over his mouth to try and stop the laughter from escaping, but it didn’t quite work. So he let his hand fall and closed his eyes, breathing in and wiggling his two legs. He had never been able to lay with his back on the ground like this and while the sticks were uncomfortable, he absolutely loved it. He could even roll onto his stomach -- which he did -- and let the dirt move over his chest, pressing into his skin.

While he knew he could spend his entire twenty-four hours just rolling through the forest, Tony had a quest. Not trusting his legs just yet, he crawled to his satchel and pulled out clothes Bruce had lent him. The shirt felt constricting, but was bulky enough that Tony would get used to his torso being covered eventually. He stared at the pants for a while before rolling onto his back and pulling them over his legs; he would never admit how hard he found it, either.

“Okay, time to stand...”

After a deep breath, Tony wrapped the satchel around one shoulder and gripped onto a tree to pull himself up. The balance felt weird and he found himself stumbling forward before he could catch himself on another trunk. Bucky and Steve hadn’t made walking on two legs look that hard, and if they could do it, so could he. Taking a breath, Tony pushed off the tree and went for the next one, his movements getting better with each step he took.

It didn’t take long for him to run again, though he missed his hooves with every stick and stone he stumbled across. Bucky’s marked path was also easy to find and Tony found himself grinning as he passed by each tree. Each pass meant that he was closer and it kept him going through the stinging pain starting in his feet.

Soon enough, he saw a light smoke through the trees. He grinned and stumbled the last few paces before the forest opened, dumping him out into the cleared area of Bucky’s home. Tony stumbled to his knees, letting out a giddy laugh. He couldn’t see anyone, but some clothes were hung by the side of the house and he could hear the clucking of chickens close by. 

Before he could pick himself off the grass, Bucky came around the side of the house, spreading seed for the following chickens to eat. The brunet hesitated as he spotted Tony, eyes wide and mouth open.

Tony grinned and held a hand up in a wave. “Hey, Bucky...”

The bag of seed dropped and Bucky ran forward, sliding into the grass in front of Tony. His hands hovered over him for a moment before he let them rest on Tony’s shoulders. Tony let out another laugh, reaching up to grip Bucky’s forearms.

“Tony... What...?”

“Bruce. Bruce gave me something and...”

“You have legs,” Bucky said, voice breathy. “I mean, human legs.”

Tony nodded. “I do. I followed your marks back through the forest.” He closed his eyes, feeling dizzy now that adrenaline had left. “I wanted to see you.”

Bucky pulled Tony tight against him. “You’re freezing. Come on, let’s get you inside.”

Tony just hummed a bit, leaning his head against Bucky’s shoulder. Bucky said something else, but Tony didn’t hear it, mind drifting fast toward sleep. The last thing he felt was being lifted in the air, pressed safely against a warm chest.

 

-----

 

The first thing Tony felt when he woke again was the comfort of the surface beneath him. It didn’t feel like the ground in the den, but it also didn’t feel like the forest floor either. He was also on his back and his legs felt strange. Almost empty. He sucked in a breath before opening his eyes to a wood roof. Not a rock as he expected.

He wasn’t in his den.

Tony sat up quickly, but stopped as he saw the legs attached to him. Instead of four hooves, as he was used to, there were two very human feet. He wiggled his toes and let out a soft laugh as his memory returned. He was human. Bruce had given him a way to see Bucky again and feel what it was like to be him.

“Tony?” Speaking of Bucky, the man poked his head through the open door, concern taking over his face. “Hey, you’re awake...”

“I must have been really tired,” Tony said. “Sorry about that.”

“It’s okay, we were just worried.” Bucky moved further into the room. “Natasha saw me carrying you in and so everyone knows.”

“Is she mad?”

“No, of course not.” Bucky looked over Tony, a small blush coming over him. “You really are human...”

“Ten toes and all,” Tony agreed. “Where are the others?”

“Sam went hunting, Steve is gathering some herbs, and Natasha’s in the garden. I need to go out and get some more firewood chopped, but if you want to stay here...”

Tony shook his head, shifting to the edge of the bed so he could dangle his feet. “I’d like to help if I could?”

Bucky’s smile eased. “Not in those clothes, you can’t. They’re too thin, but I think we have something that will fit you.” He motioned for Tony to follow him out of the room. “Can you walk or should I carry you again?”

Tony shot him a look. “I can walk.”

It took a moment, but Tony got his balance and followed Bucky into the small hall and into another room. It didn’t look different from the first and Bucky was already digging through a trunk by the end of the bed. Tony leaned against the doorway, smiling as he saw the muscles on the other’s back shift. He could watch Bucky all day.

“Here, these should fit.” Bucky stood, offering a pair of pants and a shirt. “They’re warmer than what you have, at least.”

“Thanks.” Tony held them to his chest.

“I’ll wait outside.” Bucky gave Tony a smile before leaving the room, shutting the door behind him.

It didn’t take long for Tony to change and to go outside. Instead of Bucky by the door, though, a woman was there with a small smile on her face. Her fire-red hair stood out more than anything, but the sharpness of her eyes got him to pause. Tony hesitated, looking around to see if he could find Bucky.

“He’s around the side with the wood,” she said. “I wanted to get to know you. I’m Natasha.”

“It’s nice to meet you.” Tony tried to give her a smile. “He said I could help?”

“In the garden.” She reached out, adjusting his shirt so it sat better on his body. “Come on, I need help with the corn.”

The garden itself, though not labeled with anything, was organized. Natasha pointed out sections to Tony, explaining what each one held. In the middle stood the corn stalks and she showed him how to harvest one and shuck it before giving Tony a basket to work with. While the herd didn’t do this often, Tony had seen enough of them shuck corn to get the hang of it quick enough.

Natasha worked in silence with the other vegetables and Tony found himself glancing toward where he could hear the steady sound of wood being chopped. He couldn’t see Bucky, but just hearing where he was working was enough for now.

He didn’t realize just how long he had been staring until he glanced back to Natasha and she was in a completely different section. Tony shook his head, telling himself not to get caught up the one human he did know. He had to work on getting to know the others, too.

“Do you like the garden?” he asked, kneeling to get some more corn off the stalk.

“At times.” Natasha wiped at her forehead with the back of her hand. “It can be hard on the back.”

“What part of it?”

She smiled a bit. “All of it. Don’t take that one, it isn’t ripe yet.”

Tony looked back to the stalk from where he had been (again) looking toward the sound of wood and hesitated before moving to another one. “Do the others help?”

“Mostly Steve, but he’s got other things right now.” She stood, motioning to his basket. “That should be enough for now.”

Tony dropped the last ear of corn in before picking up the basket. “I’ll finish these, then. What next after this?”

She tilted her head, resting one hand on her hip. Tony wasn’t sure why she was looking at him like that, so he kept still and tried not to fidget. Eventually, a smile came across her face and she motioned toward where Bucky was.

“Why don’t you go shuck those by Bucky.  It’ll take you a while to get through them and I’m sure you want to talk to him more.”

Tony ignored how his cheeks heated. “That sounds good, thank you.”

He did feel a little embarrassed that Natasha had noticed just how much he watched Bucky, but he wasn’t about to miss the opportunity to spend more time with him. He grabbed the basket of corn before making his way to where Bucky was chopping firewood; the steady sound of the ax falling down on the wood was strangely soothing. Tony made sure to sit well out of the way so he wouldn’t get hurt and waited for Bucky to put the ax down before he spoke up, just in case.

“How much do you gather before the winter?”

Bucky jerked, putting a hand over his heart as he looked to Tony. “You scared me. I didn’t realize you were there.”

Tony grinned, pulling at the ear of corn to get the shell off. “Didn’t mean to. Natasha told me to bother you for a bit.”

“She say why? Not that I mind.” He put another bit of wood on the block.

“No...” Tony hoped he wasn’t blushing; he didn’t want to admit how much he had been staring. “It’s okay. I think I broke one of her tomatoes.”

Bucky laughed before bringing the ax down, splitting the log in two. “She works hard on her garden, so I wouldn’t doubt if that’s why you’re over here now. Don’t worry too much, I doubt you did anything too horrible.”

“I’m very sorry if I did...”

Bucky put down the ax and stepped to where Tony sat. “Hey, it’s okay. Honestly, if it was anything bad, you definitely would have known.” He put a hand on Tony’s shoulder, squeezing it gently before he sat down. “Trust me, Tony.”

“I do. My father would call me naive, but I do.” Tony tossed another ear of corn back into the basket. “Can I ask you something?”

“Anything.”

“Where are the other humans?”

Bucky’s smile faded and he looked away, rubbing his hands together. “That’s complicated. Not really complicated, but it is for us.”

Before Tony could say he didn’t understand, Bucky stood and went back to the ax. He got another log set up, flexed his hands a moment, then swung. Tony watched his muscles flex as he worked, waiting to see if Bucky would continue with anything besides “it’s complicated.” He was curious, but Tony also didn’t want to push him into something uncomfortable.

Bucky split another log before letting out a long sigh and finally talking. “The village we lived in was peaceful, but strict,” he said, voice soft. “Having a pacifist King meant a lot of restrictions on behavior, most of which were easy enough to abide by.” He chopped another log and set a new one up. “It seems so silly now when I think about it.”

“It’s okay,” Tony insisted. “If you don’t want to tell me...”

“You deserve to know. Especially if you try to go to the village.” Bucky chopped another log before letting the ax fall. He sat next to Tony, running a hand through his hair. “We were neighbors and grew up together. Steve’s ma helped the sick and Sam’s helped make our weapons. My parents tended to the animals and Natasha’s father helped in the fields. We all had our parts, our jobs to do, but that didn’t stop us from seeing each other every day.

“Steve was always sick for some reason or another back when he was smaller.” Bucky smiled a bit. “He still gets like that sometimes, actually, but he’s better out here for some reason. Anyway, being sick made him smaller and so a lot of the nobles thought they could demand things from him.”

Tony snorted. “I’ve barely met him and even I know not to do that.”

Bucky nudged him. “You’re smarter, of course you do.”

“So what did Steve do?”

“He punched him.” Bucky shrugged. “Against the laws, but that’s what he did. Of course, since he started the fight, I couldn’t let him go at it alone...”

“You didn’t...”

“We all did. Natasha actually tried to get us to stop until one of the others called her a name she won’t repeat to us. By the time we were all separated, the nobles involved insisted we attacked them for no reason. For that, we were exiled.” Bucky rubbed his hands together, a frown on his face. “We had the choice of being brought to a town we knew was dangerous, or taking our chances on the edge of the forest.” He motioned around them. “We chose the forest.”

“I say it’s a good choice.” Tony grinned, reaching out to take Bucky’s hand. “If I can be selfish, I mean.”

Bucky cleared his throat, a small flush creeping across his cheeks. “Besides the selfish reasons, it actually was a good choice. Steve’s sickness got better, actually, and most of us just felt calmer. It’s peaceful out here.”

“The fae does that to humans. That’s why Bruce came out there, I think. He likes to tell people he gets really upset, but I’ve never seen it.” Tony took a chance and leaned against Bucky’s shoulder. “Does he still get sick?”

“Sometimes. He likes to cook, but he can’t when he isn’t feeling well. At first, it was almost every month, but it’s now maybe once a year. We still won’t let him hunt, though, as much as he complains about it. We let him get the traps unless it’s my day. Then I go get them.”

“Why? You do know how to handle a bow.”

“Doesn’t mean I have to like it. I only actually hunt if the traps are empty...” Bucky nudged him. “Does your.. Do you still hurt? I’m not sure if it would be your hip or something else now that you’re human.”

“I didn’t even think about that,” Tony admitting, sitting up straighter. He felt along his hip with his free hand, and then shrugged. “I don’t feel anything.”

“That’s good. I’ve been worried about that.”

He smiled at Bucky. “Rhodey told me he saw you near the river. That’s the buck you met with the scowly face.”

Bucky laughed, squeezing Tony’s hand gently. “That’s a good way to describe him.”

“Don’t tell him I said that. He gets worse when he finds out.” He reached up, tucking a piece of hair behind Bucky’s ear. He froze when he realized what he just did. “I...”

“You’re okay,” Bucky assured him, voice soft. “You’re okay.”

Tony licked his lips and gathered his courage. “Bucky, can I...?”

“Yes.”

Tony wasn’t sure who really moved first, but the kiss was unlike anything he expected. Bucky’s free hand cupped his chin and tilted it just so they aligned together. Tony squeezed Bucky’s hand, feeling as though he was holding on for his life as the world spun around them.

 

-----

 

Being human came easily to Tony. He helped Bucky carry the firewood to the shed before returning to his task with the corn. When Sam came back with a boar, he and Bucky went to skin it and quarter the meat, while Tony went inside to help Natasha and Steve prepare for the evening meal. During the process, they would sneak bites of whatever vegetables were dug up that day and Steve pretended to be angry at them for spoiling their appetite.

Tony couldn’t remember the last time he had laughed so freely. There were plenty of questions about his people peppered into their conversation and they understood that Tony couldn’t answer all of them for the safety of his people. He wanted to take them back to his father and show him proof that not all humans were out to kill them, especially these four.

As light faded across the sky, the five of them headed outside to sit around the fire Sam had started. Bucky settled Tony on the same log, tucked safely under his arm. Natasha smiled softly at the two of them before falling back onto the grass to look up at the scattering of clouds left in the sky.

“Are you warm enough?” Steve asked on his way toward the fire to turn the meat. “I’m sure you’re used to it, but I just want to make sure.”

“He’s not used to having someone to mother,” Bucky whispered into Tony’s ear. Tony could feel the smirk against his skin. “We usually mother him.”

Tony grinned, reaching out to squeeze Bucky’s knee. “I’m fine, Steve, but thanks. The fire helps.”

The blond accepted his answer with a nod and sat down, wrapping a blanket around his own shoulders. “Can I ask about your necklace?”

“This?” Tony’s hand flew up to his neck to touch the chain. “Oh, sure. My grandfather found a coin where we last lived. It was unlike anything he ever saw, so he put a hole in it and strung it up as a necklace for my grandmother. It’s how they got together.”

“That’s sweet,” Natasha said, a smile on her face. “Did you get it when they passed?”

Tony shook his head. “It went to my father when he was old enough to find someone. And then my mother gave it to me a few years ago. I just... haven’t found someone to give it to yet.” He looked to Bucky, trying to ignore the fact that he knew he was blushing.

Bucky looked down between them, a blush on his own face. “I’m sure you will one day.”

“Or he already has,” Sam muttered, getting Steve to laugh.

Tony grinned at the group of them. “Okay, my turn. Sam, do you still make weapons?”

The arm around Tony’s shoulders tightened; Bucky knew why he was asking, Tony was sure. But even if he didn’t think the four of them would come after his herd, Tony still had to know. What if they had a hidden cache? What if they were using Bucky to get to Tony? What if Bucky was using him?

Before his mind could spiral down to even worse possabilities, Sam shook his head. “I never liked making them, honestly. When we got out here, I made what we needed to survive.”

“Spears for each of us and arrow heads,” Natasha supplied. “There’s no need for anything more than that.”

She had understood, too. Perhaps they all did. Tony relaxed into Bucky, tension rolling out of his shoulders that he hadn’t even realized was there.

“Some of us just haven’t learned what not to shoot,” Sam teased, giving Bucky a smirk. “We told you once, we told you a hundred times. You can’t impress someone through pain.”

“Seemed to work this time,” Bucky shot back, rubbing Tony’s arm.

“Better than the first time,” Steve muttered.

Tony arched an eyebrow. “The first time? He’s shot someone before?”

Bucky blushed while the others laughed. Tony was confused, but he let them have their mirth, figuring he would get the story eventually. As it was, just listening to their joy, being part of their joy, was enough for now.

Sam was the first to stop his laughter and he shook his head. “So a few years before we were exiled, we met at my parents’ forge. I was trying to go slow in my duties--”

“We were distracting him,” Steve said.

Going slow,” Sam repeated, “and I lost my grip on a hilt. It fell into one of our open fires. We had a closed one, but I wasn’t skilled enough yet to work without seeing what I was doing.”

“At the time, he really liked Natasha.” Steve let out a sigh and turned to give Natasha a look of undying love. “He would do anything for her.”

“Including reaching into a hot fire hand first.”

Tony’s eyes widened at Natasha. “No...”

“That’s what I told him!” Steve said.

Bucky groaned, hiding his face in his free hand. “I didn’t realize what it was that fell. I thought it was something else.”

“Ah huh.” Sam shook his head. “So he reaches into this fire and his entire sleeve catches. We panic, he panics, and by the time we get it out, well...”

Bucky shifted so Steve could get a good look at his left arm. The one with the interesting scars that Tony had been curious about since the first day they met. He hadn’t wanted to ask about it, but now that he knew...

“Did it hurt?”

“More than I want to admit.” Bucky moved his arm back. “I didn’t impress Natasha very much with it.”

“I don’t want to marry a boy who burns himself,” she insisted. There was no malice in her words, and Tony figured it was just the excuse she used.

“Enough talk about my arm and stupid things I’ve done.” Bucky motioned toward the fire. “Steve, looks like our food is about to burn. Let’s eat!”

 

-----

 

The night was cool enough that the five of them hadn’t bothered going inside once the fire started to die. Bucky and Tony used the log they had been sitting on as a make-shift pillow as they stared up at the star-filled sky. Every now and then a shooting star would fly by and one of them would point it out. Steve insisted the group each make a wish and the five of them would be quiet for a time before conversation started up again.

Tony never let go of Bucky’s hand.

“Stay with us,” Bucky murmured after another star flew by. “That’s my wish.”

Tony smiled, turning away from the sky so he could wrap an arm around Bucky’s waist. “Bucky...”

“I know, but I don’t want you to leave.” He shifted, running his fingers through Tony’s hair. “It’s strange since we just met, but there’s a connection.”

Tony knew that -- he could feel it through his entire body. He wanted nothing more than to stay with Bucky, to help out his family every day, but he knew that wasn’t possible. His herd needed him to lead them. Perhaps he could bring Bucky back? Bruce had been accepted, after all. It would be a hard fight, but he could do that.

“What if... what if I spoke to my father and brought you to the herd? We do have Bruce in the woods, so he’s accepted humans before.”

Bucky looked to Tony, a slight frown on his face. “Would he accept all of us, though? I don’t want to leave them behind, either.”

“It won’t be easy, but since you four are already banished, it might be easier.” Tony squeezed Bucky’s hand. “He just wants to protect the herd, as do I.”

“I would never want to put your people in danger, Tony. I understand.” Bucky leaned in, kissing him gently.

“What are you two whispering on about over there?”

Tony looked over to Sam and stuck out his tongue as Bucky laughed. “Secret stuff.”

“Ah huh.” Sam tossed a small branch into the dying fire. “Go on, spill.”

“Just talking about his herd,” Bucky said, shifting to sit up a bit more. “Want to move deeper into the forest?”

Natasha scoffed, pushing at Sam’s shoulder. “He barely survives out here.”

“Hey--”

“But I would be up for it.” She smiled at Tony. “We can learn things from another.”

“As long as we aren’t upsetting anything,” Steve said. “I think it would be nice to meet Bruce, too.”

“So it’s settled,” Bucky said, pulling Tony closer. “As long as it’s okay, we’ll come with you. We’ll have a bigger family and I’ll still get to see you.”

Tony couldn’t stop the smile that spread across his face. Being able to be around more humans every day was temptation enough, but to also be around Bucky? To be able to hold him whenever he wanted? Kiss him as they came together for a meal? Laugh with him as they swam through the lake? That’s all he wanted.

He was about to agree when a sharp pain shot through his legs. He didn’t even hear as Bucky called out to him, too focused on how something in his bones felt wrong. Tony cried out, curling in on himself as the others stood around him, asking if he were okay.

Just as he felt his tail sprout under his pants, he heard Bucky swear and said, “We forgot about the time...”

Of course. Tony whimpered and tried to push off his pants, but the pain  in his lower back was now too much. He cried out again as the pants ripped, his back legs returning to him in one stretch. Tony opened his eyes to try to find Bucky, but all he saw was Sam. Standing there, eyes wide and hands out defensively in front of him, Sam said nothing.

Tony closed his eyes as his front legs shifted back to hooves. The only pressure left was on his head and he knew his antlers were coming back in -- for once, he was glad they were smaller than normal. That meant there was a chance of less pain as the final stages of the transformation happened.

“Tony?” Bucky asked, his voice soft. “Tony, hey...”

A hand came down on Tony’s shoulder and he jerked away, four legs somehow working together to get him standing. Panic coursed through Tony’s body as he realized that he had lost time, that he had shown the others what he was completely. He hadn’t meant to, not yet. Ears back against his head, Tony turned and fled into the forest, ignoring the calls behind him.

He had to get away. He had to get home. He would accept whatever punishment his father had, he just had to escape that look of horror that seemed to burn itself into his mind.

 

-----

 

“Tony, that’s too far.”

Tony hesitated before taking a few steps back, voice quiet. It had been a few days since he returned to the herd. His father had been furious and the watch on Tony had nearly tripled. Not that he was going to argue it; he knew that he had come close to something dangerous. He thought he had kept better track of time and would have been back into the forest when he changed.

He couldn’t get the look on Sam’s face out of his mind as his body contorted and the extra legs appeared. Fascination. Horror. Disgust. Tony reached down, picking a few more berries to add to his satchel. He wasn’t going to argue anymore with the guards, no matter how many funny looks he got.

Rhodey stepped up next to him. “Are you okay?”

Tony forced a smile on his face as he looked up at his friend. “Of course I am.”

“You’re scaring everyone because you’re so quiet.”

He huffed, straightening himself and moving to another bush. “Here I thought they’d be happy I was quiet.”

“Tony...”

“Look, I get it. I really messed up.” Tony rubbed his chest before grabbing his necklace. “I shouldn’t have gone to Bruce. I shouldn’t have stayed with the humans. I left without telling anyone and I was selfish.”

“I’m not blaming--”

“I am.” Tony glanced back to the other guards. “Some of them are.”

“Ignore them.” Rhodey placed a hand on Tony’s shoulder. “They were kids once.”

“I’m not a child!” Tony scowled. “I should know better!”

“I just meant--”

“Don’t.” Tony shook his head. “I just want to collect my berries, go back to the den, and sleep.”

Rhodey sighed, but didn’t say anything further. Tony relaxed and pulled a few more berries off before stuffing them into his already-full satchel. The guards also picking berries around him perked up, ready to move when he did. Ignoring them, Tony made his way back toward the glade, arms crossed over his chest.

“Let’s drop these off and go take a swim,” Rhodey suggested after he caught up. “Sound good?”

“I said I wanted to sleep.”

“You can do that after a nice, refreshing swim. We’ll sleep on the grass bank you like.” Rhodey nudged him gently. “Come on, please?”

Tony opened his mouth to tell Rhodey to stop demanding things when commotion ahead caught his attention. He glanced to his friend before the two of them trotted closer to the large group gathered outside of the main den. He couldn’t tell exactly what was happening, and nobody had sounded an alarm, but something had the herd restless.

They were soon spotted and the herd murmured amongst themselves as they separated, giving Tony a clear path to where his parents were standing in the middle of the gathering. Standing right in front of them, stance determined even if his eyes gave away how scared he happened to be, was Bucky.

Howard rested a hand on Maria’s shoulder briefly before stepping closer to Tony. “He claims he is here for you. Is this the human you went to go see?”

The last thing Tony wanted was for Bucky to get hurt. Admitting he knew Bucky would get them both in trouble, but at least it would keep him alive. “He means no harm, Father. I swear to you, he--”

“So he’s said.” Howard looked back to Bucky. “However, you found your way into our home and demanded my son. How are you not here to harm us?”

“Sir,” Bucky said, bowing his head in respect. “I didn’t mean to scare any of you. I came to ask for Tony because I love him.”

Tony’s heart felt as though it were going to beat straight out of his chest. He felt something deep for Bucky, of course, but love? Maybe. He pressed a hand to his chest, unable to take his eyes off of the way Bucky’s hair was gently ruffled by the breeze. He wanted to run his fingers through that hair.

“You don’t even know him.” Howard stomped his front hooves, jerking Tony out of his fantasy. “How dare you claim that.”

“I met with Bruce in the woods while he was gathering herbs.” Bucky reached into his shirt and brought out a flask tied around his neck. “He gave me this. He said it would help prove to you that what I say is true.”

Howard hesitated, looking to Maria. Bruce rarely ventured far from his cabin when looking for herbs, especially with some kind of potion with him. Even as a human, the man was respected enough to be trusted among the herd -- especially by Howard. Maria reached out for the flask, running her thumb over it.

“Do you know what it does?” she asked, voice gentle.

Bucky shook his head. “He told me to drink it and then kiss the one my heart belonged to.” He looked up, directly into Tony’s eyes. “With your permission, I wish to do so.”

Rhodey stepped around Tony. “I’d like to try a sip to make sure it isn’t poisoned.”

Howard let out a sigh, wrapping an arm around Tony’s shoulders. “Go, then.”

Tony held his breath as Rhodey took the flask from around Bucky’s neck. He saw Bucky’s lips moving and figured he was saying one of his prayers, but to who he wasn’t sure. Tony bit his lip, wanting to do something other than stand there and watch as Rhodey sniffed at the flask before taking a small sip.

“It’s clean,” Rhodey said after a moment, passing it back to Bucky. “I don’t feel any different.”

Maria placed a hand on Bucky’s shoulder, giving him a smile of encouragement. “Go on, then.”

After another murmur, Bucky tipped the flask back and drank the remaining potion in it. Maria squeezed his shoulder and motioned Tony closer. His legs didn’t seem to want to move until Howard gently eased him closer, arm comforting on his shoulder.

“Whatever happens, we’re here for you,” Howard said, stopping Tony in front of Bucky. “You are always our son.”

Tony couldn’t find the words to speak, so he just nodded at his parents before turning his attention to the human before him. Bucky’s smile grew as he reached up, cupping Tony’s cheek gingerly. 

“I had to come for you,” he said softly. “The others understand and Natasha wanted me to tell you that you were her favorite garden help.”

Tony laughed a bit, leaning into Bucky’s hand. “Only because I never complained.”

“I don’t know what’s supposed to happen,” Bucky admitted, “but I want to find out. Can I kiss you now?”

Tony simply nodded and leaned over to meet Bucky halfway. The kiss didn’t feel any different from the others they shared and he felt himself grip tightly onto Bucky’s shoulders. His body felt the same, and Bucky’s didn’t seem to be any different during the kiss either. Fearing Bruce was wrong, Tony pulled away, turning his head and keeping his eyes closed so he wouldn’t have to see Bucky’s devastated look.

The herd would move after this, surely. It would be blamed on him and after that, there would be no way to gain the respect of the guard. Leading them in the future would be hard; maybe he should just give it to someone else. Someone more qualified like Rhodey.

The herd around them gasped, catching Tony’s attention. Howard squeezed his arm gently and Tony looked over, eyes widening.

Bucky lay on the ground before him, body shaking slightly. But instead of the two legs Tony was used to, Bucky now had four hooves -- he was a Cervitaurs just as the rest of the herd around them. His fur was just as dark as his hair and the horns extending out of his head were already larger than Tony’s.

“Bruce was right,” Maria said softly before turning to try and disperse the herd.

Tony got down next to Bucky’s sliding a hand through his hair gently. “Oh, Bucky... You really are a buck now.” He smiled, leaning in to press a kiss to the top of Bucky’s head between his horns. “You’re so beautiful...”

Bucky’s face twisted and his eyes blinked open. “T-Tony?”

“I’m here.” Tony helped him to sit up. “Careful, now. Might take some time to get used to everything.”

“Used to...?” Bucky looked around and he hesitated once he saw his body. “Oh. Oh.”

“Is this okay?” Tony turned Bucky’s head back toward him. “I know this probably isn’t what you were thinking, so we can go back to Bruce if you want. I’m sure he won’t mind, but he did say that--”

“Tony.” Bucky cupped Tony’s face in his hands. “I didn’t care what happened as long as I got to stay with you.”

Tony glanced up, breath hitching as he caught Bucky’s eyes. His heart warmed and he smiled, sliding a hand up Bucky’s chest. “I think I know who to give my necklace to,” he murmured, leaning up for a kiss.

Bucky chuckled, pulling him in. “Yes, our future kid,” he said before kissing him.

Tony had to admit Bucky was right. He didn’t need to give Bucky the necklace to know they were together. The horns on the top of Bucky’s head proved enough.

Chapter Text

Tony trotted toward the lake, a basket of berries in his arms, and smiled when he saw Bucky lounging near a rock with Natasha next to him. The two of them kept close despite having limited access to the herd, and Tony was happy that Bucky had at least some comforts from his time as a human. And when Natasha got in one of her moods to decorate Bucky's hair with flowers, well, it wasn't as if Tony was going to complain about it. He loved Bucky's hair and he loved that it had gotten longer. Tony liked to keep his own short -- part of his insecurities on how small his antlers still were. Not many would tease him to his face, but he didn't want to take that chance.

"Papa?"

Tony looked down and smiled at the small boy winding his way around Tony's legs. "Hey, Peter."

They had wanted kids together. Not just to have an heir, but because Tony and Bucky wanted to be parents. However, two males couldn't conceive and so they were debating asking a female in the herd to help them. However, during the last winter when the temperature was at its worst, one of the pregnant females in the herd went into labor. She barely had the strength to get the babe out, and passed shortly after. Devastated, Tony immediately took the baby boy in, declaring him the herd's to raise. The herd wisely understood that as their heir and the boy had been utterly spoiled since.

Peter beamed up at Tony, reaching for a berry. "Papa, Daddy is being made pretty."

"He is," Tony agreed with a grin. "Why don't you go over there and help?"

He wrinkled his nose. "Aunt 'Tasha said it was adult stuff."

Tony glanced back toward them to see Natasha give Bucky a hug. "Looks like they're done. Just be really loud when you go, okay?"

Peter grinned and took off toward the two of them, hollering at the top of his lungs the entire way. Tony laughed as the two jerked in surprise at the noise. Bucky quickly smiled as he saw who it was, though, and Natasha simply shook her head. Tony loved his family. He waved to Natasha before getting a better hold on the berries and joining them at the lake's edge.

"Don't look so innocent," Natasha told him, ruffling Peter's hair. 

"I don't know what you're talking about," Tony insisted, setting the basket by her. "Take some for you and the others, okay?"

"I will." Natasha opened her satchel. "I should be getting back anyway."

"Be safe," Bucky told her.

"Always am." Natasha pressed a kiss to each of their cheeks before shouldering her satchel and leaving.

Tony settled next to Bucky, running his fingers through the long strands. "She okay?"

Bucky folded his arms over a nearby boulder and rested there, eyes half-closed. "She wants a baby, but the others aren't sure if it's safe."

"We would protect her," Tony insisted. "We're almost leading the herd now, so..."

"I know." Bucky turned back to look at him. "Remember how you get about Peter sometimes?"

Tony hesitated before looking down at his side where Peter had settled against. There wasn't a day where he didn't worry about his baby boy. "Yeah, I know."

Bucky chuckled. "I'm sure she'll have one by next year."

"Yeah," Tony agreed, unable to stop the smile on his face. He couldn't wait.