Chapter 1: Steve Rogers, age five
Of all the things Bucky was expecting to find, trolling through the park after dark, it was not a tiny child with blond hair and a determined expression leaping up, trying to grab a backpack dangling from a tree branch.
He'd been hoping to find some muggers. Cliché, maybe, but hey, he wasn't going for originality points. He was hungry.
As he watched, the kid crouched, leapt, fingers stretched, missed, and landed hard, falling on his rear.
It must have hurt, but he didn't make a sound. Just clambered to his feet and tried again. Again he missed and fell, thumping to the ground. He hissed in frustration at the uncaring tree, but he climbed determinedly to his feet, planted his hands on his hips, and glared.
Bucky felt compelled to find out what was going on.
He ghosted out of the shadows and into the light, taking care to make some noise since he didn't want to scare the kid. When he found that glare, one of the wickedest he'd ever seen, directed his way, he realised he maybe shouldn't have worried. "Hey, kid."
"I'm not supposed to talk to strangers," the kid told him and turned around, giving Bucky his back.
"That's good advice." It was, there was no denying it. "Your Ma tell you that?"
There was no response. Right, not allowed to talk to strangers. "I'm Bucky," Bucky said. "Technically that means I'm not a stranger anymore, and," he winced as the kid hit the ground again and, damn, didn't he ever give up? "And I can get that for you, if you want."
"I can do it myself." So much stubborn pride wrapped up in that, it practically coloured the air.
"But you don't have to."
The kid turned and gave Bucky a long, measuring look. Completely against his will, Bucky found himself standing straighter. Damn it, who was this kid? "Why?"
"Why do you want to help me?"
"Because I'm not an as—" No, don't swear in front of the kid, Bucky. Come on. "Because it's the right thing to do?"
Which was apparently the right thing to say, because the kid backed away. Bucky took that as his cue to step forward and reach up to untangle the backpack out of the tree and hand it to him. "There you go, good as new."
The kid clutched it to him, hugging it tight, and stared at Bucky like he couldn’t believe Bucky had actually done it, had actually given it back. "Thank you."
"Uh, you're welcome. How'd it get up there in the first place?"
The kid scowled and hugged it closer. "Jenny was supposed to be watching me, my mom pays her ten dollars, and we're supposed to stay in the house. But she said we were going to the park so she could play football. They threw my backpack in the tree when I said we had to go home. I tried to stop 'em. I tried." He threw his head back defiantly, like he was daring Bucky to say he hadn't, shades of the glare returning.
It was endearing as hell. "I know you did, kid," Bucky said, because he couldn't say anything else. He crouched down, and the kid took a half-step back, glancing around, then took a deep breath and held his ground. He was tiny and stubborn and brave, ridiculous blue eyes peering up at Bucky from under wispy blond hair, and there was no way Bucky could leave him here. It was dark, they were deep in the park, and Bucky knew he wasn't the only one trolling the place. "You've got your backpack now. How about I take you home. To your home," he added quickly.
That measuring look again, piercing, and Bucky made himself look as harmless as possible. He was good at it. Finally, after an endless moment, the kid nodded and said, "Okay." Then he added, "I'm Steve," like he was imparting a secret.
"And I'm Bucky."
"I know that. You told me already."
Bucky had to hide a smile. "Yeah, kid, I guess I did."
It was with an intense sense of bemusement that Bucky helped Steve get his backpack on, then felt Steve slip a tiny, warm hand into his. At least Steve knew where he lived, which solved one of Bucky's problems, Steve proclaiming, "I'm five, I'm not a baby," and rattling off his address when Bucky asked.
Which was how Bucky found himself leading Steve, tiny, fragile, stubborn Steve, by the hand as he walked him home. Except it'd obviously been a long day, because it wasn't long before walking turned into stumbling and hanging off Bucky's hand, but Steve didn't complain, he just kept going.
There were times Bucky missed breathing. Times like now, when he wanted to sigh in exasperation. Getting Steve home was going to take long enough as it was with how short his legs were; it was going to take three times as long with him staggering like a drunken sailor. But he'd known the kid less than half an hour and already had an inkling what offering to carry him would get him.
Probably a kick in the shin.
Probably worth a try. "Hey, Steve?" he said, drawing him to a stop. "Think it'd be okay if I carried you?"
"I can walk by myself. I don't need you to carry me." It was stubborn, determined, and he tugged at Bucky's hand, trying to make him keep walking, only to trip over his own tired feet. He would have fallen if Bucky hadn't caught him. On the spot Bucky devised a cunning plan.
He swung around in front of Steve and crouched down. "I'm gonna let you in on a little secret."
Steve, swaying slightly with exhaustion, stared suspiciously at Bucky.
"One of the best things you can do for a friend is let them help you when you need it. Because when you see a friend hurting it hurts you." Steve just blinked at him. "That means you should let me carry you."
Slowly, Steve's eyes grew wide and hopeful and filled with wonder. "Does that mean we're friends?"
Bucky smiled and said, "Course we are," because what else could he say? He was a vampire, not a monster.
Steve's answering smile was radiant and he held up his arms. Bucky scooped him up, and he remembered this, he remembered how to do this, remembered baby sisters and carrying them on his hip. He got Steve settled and in less than a minute Steve was fast asleep, head on Bucky's shoulder, drooling on his neck.
When Bucky knocked on the door of the house Steve had said was his a frantic-eyed woman with a heart screaming panic wrenched it open part-way through the second knock. She froze when she saw Steve. Bucky could smell the burst of adrenaline. He caught her eyes and he wasn't great at this, but he was good enough he could soothe her past the initial shock.
She calmed and Bucky said, "He's fine. He's asleep. He was alone in the park and I didn't think he should be trying to get home on his own." He handed Steve to her and she clutched him tight, the sheen of tears in her eyes. "He said the girl who was supposed to be watching him took him to the park and threw his backpack in a tree. That's why he was still there. He wouldn’t leave it."
"Thank you. Thank you, I didn’t know what to do, I was so worried. Thank you. Do you want t—"
"No!" It came out too loud, too fast, and her eyes went wide as she fell back a step, clutching Steve, who protested sleepily.
"No. Sorry. No. I have to go." He didn't let people invite him inside. It wasn't safe.
He could feel her eyes following him as he left, blending into the shadows.
When Steve's mom put him to bed, tucked him in and turned out the lights, he waited until the house was quiet then sneakily turned on his book light. Quietly quietly, because if he woke her up she'd take his light and make him go to sleep, he dug the markers and paper out of his backpack. Bucky had found him in the park and helped him and rescued his backpack out of the tree and said they were friends, and Steve drew pictures of him until he couldn't keep his eyes open.
The next day at school no one believed him when he told them about Bucky, but he didn't care. He didn't care that no one wanted to play with him. He had a friend now, he had Bucky, and he had the pictures to prove it.
Chapter 2: Steve Rogers, age sixteen
The funeral had been complete bullshit.
Just about everyone who'd turned up hadn't given a damn about his mom. They'd come because they'd wanted people to see them there. Because they didn't want to be known as people who hadn't gone to Sarah Rogers' funeral. Sarah Rogers, the local woman who'd given so much of herself for those less fortunate, working tirelessly in the homeless shelters, in the rehab clinics, giving of her own time and her own self to help those people. A paragon in the neighbourhood, so of course they had to go to her funeral.
Never mind half of them had signed petitions to have the shelters and clinics shut down. Never mind none of them had come to see her while she was dying. Never mind none of them had come to say goodbye. Because they didn't care. None of them cared about her.
They hadn't shown up when it would have mattered to his mom, but they'd all turned up when it had mattered to them.
"Bunch of selfish goddamned fucking ASSHOLES," Steve yelled at the uncaring sky and there was no one to tell him to shut up, because he was sitting next to his mother's grave, wreathed in the smell of flowers, at ass o'clock in the middle of the night and he wasn't sure anyone but him even cared she was gone.
He was also a little drunk, the stolen bottle of cheap vodka lying in the grass next to him.
"It's bullshit, mom. They're bullshit. You know that, right?"
He pulled his knees up and put his forehead on them. He still hadn't cried. Not when she was dying, when she'd needed him to be strong. Not when she'd died. Not at the funeral, when all he'd wanted to do was scream at the sky and beat his fists on the ground until they were bloody.
He couldn’t cry. He didn't dare. If he started he was afraid he'd never stop, afraid the hollow shell inside him would drain completely until there was nothing left of him.
The sounds of the night rose around him, bird calls and insects, and he squeezed his eyes shut tight, trying not to think.
Time passed, he didn't know how much, when a chill went down his spine. A warning from his monkey self, that ancient part of everyone that didn't care about being sad. All it cared about was having a living body to walk around in. Steve had gotten into enough fights, pissed off enough kids at school, shoving himself into things that aren't your goddamned business, will you fuck off, Rogers, that he'd learned to listen when that tiny voice said, Hey. Something's up. Pay attention.
Right now it was screaming at him.
He lifted his head. The shadowy outlines of the gravestones wobbled slightly in the faint light of the moon and the stars, courtesy of the cheap vodka, and every hair on the back of his neck stood tall.
He shivered, straightened, turning his head, trying to find something, anything, out of place. Movement caught his eyes and he whipped his head around to see a shadow detach itself from the trees.
It slid across the ground, moving like shadows couldn't move, slow, stalking, wrong.
Steve leapt to his feet, stumbled, swayed, steadied himself, and ground out, in as threatening a tone as a sixteen-year old boy drowning under the weight of sorrow and cheap booze could manage, "Bring it on, asshole."
The shadow paused, then suddenly it wasn't a shadow any more. It was a man. A man who was staring at him in disbelief. He was taller than Steve, a little broad through the shoulders, dressed in completely unassuming jeans, boots and a sweater, his chestnut hair long enough to curl across his shoulders. His skin was so pale it almost glowed and his eyes were sharp and blue.
And he was staring at Steve like Steve was the one who'd appeared mysteriously out of the shadows in the middle of a graveyard in the middle of the night.
And he knew Steve's name.
Steve just blinked at him, because he'd been ready to fight, and, presented instead with a baffled, attractive stranger who knew his name, his brain had stalled out on him.
The man came closer, moving slow and cautious, like he was trying not to spook him. "Steve?"
"How do you know my name?"
The guy laughed and rubbed his forehead. "I'm not sure I should answer that."
Steve kept staring at him, the guy kept watching him, and Steve didn't know why but his grey-blue eyes were soft, his little smile almost fond.
He felt like he was falling, the world spinning around him, sucking him backwards in time to another night, another place, alone in the dark fighting something too big for him, and he knew.
He knew those eyes, he knew that smile.
Just from a lot lower down.
Except that was impossible. Wasn't it? "Bucky?"
Steve abruptly sat back down, hitting the ground with an audible thump.
"And every time I see you, you're falling on your ass." Bucky crouched in front of him, just like he had all those years ago. "How much have you had to drink?"
"I'm guessing more than I thought if I'm seeing you."
That small, fond smile flitted across Bucky's face again, there and gone. "What are you doing here?"
Steve laughed. He laughed and then he couldn't stop, pulling his knees up and folding his arms so he could hide his face in them, because his laughter tried to turn into a sob and he couldn't. He couldn't. He caught it, fought it down, pressed the backs of his hands against his eyes until he had himself under control.
Eventually he lifted his head, afraid of what he'd find—pity, sympathy, he couldn't handle it anymore—but Bucky wasn't looking at him. He was looking at the stone on his mother's grave. It was too dark to read, but apparently that wasn't stopping Bucky.
"Sarah Rogers," he said softly. "Your Ma?" Steve nodded. "I guess I know what you're doing here."
"Cancer. She fought and she fought and she still died." Steve clenched his hands into fists. "Tomorrow, tomorrow everything changes, I have to leave, and I just, I had to come out here and be with her, tell her it was bullshit and—"
His voice broke as he heaved a sob. He sank his teeth into his bottom lip, fighting it back, but Bucky was reaching out for him, one cool hand wrapping around his shoulder. Maybe he should have pulled away, men in graveyards and teenage boys the start of half a dozen cautionary tales, but his mind was drowning in the memory of Bucky saying he was Steve's friend, of Bucky carrying him safely home.
He wanted Bucky to do it again. There was no more home, there was no safety to be carried to, his mom would never worry about him again, but Bucky's grip was strong and reassuring, his eyes were calm and quiet and held no pity. Steve let his head drop to rest on Bucky's shoulder, still fighting not to cry.
Bucky's hand was on his back, his touch gentle, careful. "I wish I could promise you it's gonna be okay, but I can't." Bucky's voice was soft. "But I can promise that right here, right now? You're safe. There's not one damn thing in this world that can hurt you. There's not one damn thing that can touch you. You're safe, Steve."
Steve believed him. Maybe Bucky was his imaginary friend. Maybe Bucky was his guardian angel. Maybe he'd actually drunk more than he'd thought and he was imagining all of this, but Steve believed him. He closed his eyes, pressed his face into Bucky's shoulder, and let go, sobbing his heart out.
He woke in the morning just before sunrise, curled in a neat ball next to his mother's grave, foul-mouthed and sore-eyed, but his heart was lighter. There was no sign of Bucky, no sign he'd ever been there.
As soon as he got back to the house he dug his pencils and sketchbook out of the box they were packed in and started drawing Bucky. His natural talent had been honed by years of practice and he drew for hours, drew until the moving van came, until it was time to leave, determined to capture him.
Chapter 3: Steve Rogers, age nineteen
Insane was the only word for it. Insanely bright, insanely crowded, insanely loud. Lights and music and the hot press of bodies, all coming together to celebrate the turning of one year into the next. The open square was packed to the brim, people spilling out into side streets, the huge screens mounted above the square switching seamlessly between music and excited talking heads covering the countdown.
Bucky wasn't there to hunt, precisely. He tried not to think of it as hunting, even if he knew that was kind of lying to himself.
The problem with being a vampire was that vampires were assholes. More, and he'd had to borrow another country's slang for this one, they were wankers. The more he'd had to do with them the less he'd wanted to do with them and now he had nothing to do with them at all, because the feeling had been entirely mutual. He'd been informed by them that he was not the sort of person who'd normally have been invited to join their kind.
Bucky kept to himself and he tried to do things differently, or as differently as he could. There was no getting around the fact that if he wanted to survive he had to eat, and if he wanted to eat that meant taking blood, but hunting was about the worst way of thinking about it. New Year's Eve meant loud, enthusiastic, happy people, and there were ways and means of getting someone to part with a little blood. Subtle ways. Although it was amazing how often subtle wasn't required.
The good part of being a vampire was the ability to move through the crowd like a cat, like a shadow, sliding through the press of bodies to get where he wanted, when he wanted, no matter how chaotic the crowd got, and—
His thoughts got knocked all to hell when someone slammed into him. He turned, waiting to react until he'd assessed the situation, and then stood, dumbfounded, when he saw Steve staring back at him. How in the hell does this keep happening?
Steve was stammering out apologies that dried up when he met Bucky's eyes. He blinked several times, and Bucky heard his heart kick up, watched shock, then surprise, then disbelief flow across his face before he broke into a blindingly beautiful smile. "Bucky?"
"Steve." He didn't even know what to say. He did know what he was going to have to do, though. He should have done it last time. He couldn't have a human walking around remembering that he existed, unaging, unchanging. It wasn't safe.
But he didn't have to do it right away.
"Bucky, I can't believe it!"
"You can't believe it."
They were both yelling over the music, over the noise of the crowd, even though Bucky could have heard Steve if he'd whispered, so Bucky tilted his head, indicating the edge of the crowd. Steve nodded, and Bucky led the way, reaching out to grab Steve's wrist after the second time he almost lost him. It gave him weird flashbacks to the first time, except Steve was so much older, so much taller, almost as tall as him, starting to fill out.
He let go when they hit a quieter spot. "You're like the bad penny," Bucky told him as Steve bounced in place like an excited puppy. "You keep turning up."
"I don't even know what that means!"
Bucky grinned at him, and if he was showing too much tooth, at least for tonight he wasn't worried about it. "Are you even old enough to be here?"
"Excuse me, I'm nineteen."
"Oh, you're ancient." He leaned forward and sniffed, even though he'd been able to smell it on Steve from where he'd been standing. "And drinking? Tsk tsk, Steve."
"Oh, shut up. I had one drink." Steve was still grinning. "Bucky, it's great to see you."
It took Bucky a second to realise the warm spot in his gut meant he was happy to see him, too. It was a bittersweet moment of realisation, but he covered it with an, "Of course it is." Steve snorted a laugh. "Are you here on your own?"
"Nah, with friends, but we got separated." He sounded supremely unworried. "We'll meet up again after."
"Hey, just really quick," Steve glanced down at his feet, like he was gathering himself, and when he lifted his head his eyes were serious, "thank you."
Now he looked uncertain. "For last time. In the graveyard. You were...that happened, right?"
If he said no... He couldn’t do that. "Yeah, Steve. It happened."
"Okay, good. Anyway, thank you. You," he paused, "it helped. Thanks."
Steve scuffed his shoe along the ground, before glancing up at Bucky "Are you here with anyone?"
He should say yes. He should say, yes, and I'm going to meet them, and leave Steve here on his own.
He already knew he wasn't going to. "Nope. Want to hang out with me?"
"I thought you'd never ask!"
Steve was surprisingly good company. Happy, loud, excited, having way too much fun, dragging Bucky into the thick of the crowd, dragging him into dancing, and as the countdown to midnight started everyone turned to watch the screens, voices lifted to join in the count.
Even Bucky found himself caught up in it.
They hit one and all around them people were kissing, everything from light pecks to slobbery exchanges with enough tongue to make a Labrador proud.
Steve glanced at Bucky, hopeful and happy and filled with mirth. "It is traditional."
With a brief, long-suffering glance at the sky and a shake of his head, which made Steve laugh out loud, Bucky bent his head and kissed him. One kiss, light and chaste, just a gentle press of his mouth against Steve's, and when he lifted his head, they were both smiling.
"Happy New Year's, Bucky."
"Happy New Year's, Steve."
As around them people cheered, welcoming in the new year, some breaking into song, Bucky, with a pang of regret, held Steve's eyes and gently fogged his memory. It would work gradually, and by the time Steve woke up he'd have no clear memories of seeing Bucky, of spending time with Bucky, and definitely not of being kissed by Bucky. It would soften all his memories of Bucky, giving them a hazy quality, until, if Steve recalled him at all, he'd think Bucky was only a dream or someone else's story.
The swoop of sadness gnawed at him, but it was necessary. For both of them.
Unfortunately for Bucky, the first thing Steve did when he went home, which was not long after midnight, was grab his pens and his paper and draw Bucky.
He was still working, switching mediums several times, when the sun came up.
Chapter 4: Steve Rogers, age twenty-eight
Steve wasn't sure exactly how he'd let himself get talked into this. Yes, his clients were thrilled with the work he'd done for them. Yes, he was happy they were thrilled. Yes, he was glad they were happy enough they wanted to celebrate. Hurray for them, but this was not Steve's scene.
Give him a nice quiet bar. Somewhere he could actually talk to the person he was interested in. This place was too loud. Or maybe he was just too old. He didn't want to be here. But his very nice clients, all of whom he was pretty sure barely squeaked past the drinking age, had really, really wanted him to come. He hadn't been able to say no, for two reasons: he was terrible at saying no to people who were that earnest, and they'd just given him a large pile of money, and might give him another large pile of money in the future.
But he didn't want to be here. It was too loud, it was too bright and too dark, which he had to admit was a good trick. He was twenty-eight. He was too old for this shit. (Sam in his head was calling him grandpa and laughing his ass off, but Sam was married, they'd adopted a kid and moved to the country, so Sam in his head could shut up.)
His really very sweet clients had dispersed, some drinking, some dancing, some holding court, and at this point he was sure they wouldn’t care if he left. He scanned the club. There were pockets of tables, scattered at random like someone had thrown dice on the plans and plonked the tables down where they'd landed, and Steve's eyes skipped from one to another, looking for one of his clients so he could say goodbye.
There was a table packed full of very attractive people, most of them not wearing much, all of them watching the same man with the rapt attention of the captivated. Steve's whole body went rigid and he stood, head held high, like a dog catching a scent. No. It can't be. It can't...can it? But he knew that face. His fingers itched, ached, because they could draw it in the dark.
Steve was big, imposing if he cared to use it or if he wasn't paying attention and he wasn't paying attention now. He walked across the floor like he was being dragged on a leash and people got out of his way. He stopped dead next to the crowded table, staring down at the dark hair, the fine boned cheeks, the strong jaw, the grey-blue eyes.
He had to swallow hard to get the words out past the lump in his throat. "Bucky?"
The guy didn't respond, but one of the women nudged him and pointed up at Steve. He turned, and Steve said it again.
The guy frowned. "Who the hell is Bucky?" The people at the table tittered and the guy he'd thought was Bucky, who he was so sure had been Bucky, kept looking blankly at Steve. "You okay there, pal?"
Of course he wasn't Bucky. He couldn't be. Steve looked down at his shoes, couldn't stop himself from smiling sadly at them, and rubbed a hand across his mouth. "No one. Bucky's no one. My mistake. Sorry, didn't mean to bother you." As he glanced up, he almost thought he saw a flash of...something in the man's eyes, but then it was gone.
"Don't worry about it," the man who wasn't Bucky said kindly. "Happens all the time, people thinking I'm someone else." He grinned. "Guess I've just got one of those faces."
"Guess so." Steve kept staring, couldn't look away, until the guy raised both eyebrows in an are we done here gesture, and he shook himself. "Sorry. I'll, I'd better. I'll go."
He escaped, clients forgotten, and didn't look back.
If he had, he'd have seen the man who wasn't Bucky watching him, eyes tracking his movement until he disappeared into the crowd.
How in the hell had Steve known him? Steve shouldn't have remembered him.
The men and women at the table were buzzing irritations, unwanted distractions from his thoughts of Steve. Steve had grown up, couldn't be more different from the skinny kid he'd been, but his eyes were the same, and he'd seemed so sad when he'd said Bucky's no one.
Bucky felt a tiny flash of guilt that he pushed down. He was supposed to be no one. Damn it, Steve. How in the hell did you remember me?
And why am I so happy you did?
He stood up from the table.
"If you'll excuse me. I have to go..." He waved his hand in a languid gesture that could have meant anything and they all murmured in understanding. He briefly wondered what they thought he'd meant, then shoved it away in favour of following Steve.
He was easy to track, and Bucky waltzed along the rooftops, eyes on his blond head, until he turned into an apartment building. He waited patiently until the lights turned on in one, then made his way down to its fire escape and sat in the shadows, watching.
Steve moved through the apartment like he'd forgotten what he was supposed to be doing. He walked into the kitchen. Stopped. Turned around. Walked out again. Sat down in the living room. Stared into space, went back into the kitchen, poured himself a glass of juice, left it on the kitchen counter when he walked back out into the living room, smacked himself in the head, went back to get it, then set it on the coffee table and promptly knocked it over.
Bucky decided it was time to take pity on him.
When Steve had cleaned up the mess and thrown the cloth into the sink with unnecessary force, Bucky tapped lightly on the window.
Steve froze, then, in a move worthy of any horror movie, slowly turned towards the window.
Steve stared, then scowled, marched over, and shoved the window open. "I knew it. I knew it was you."
"Sure you did, Steve," Bucky teased, settling comfortably on his heels.
Steve folded his arms, apparently unwilling to be teased. "You lied to me."
"I did," Bucky said without a note of apology.
"I don't like being lied to."
"You gonna do it again?"
"I might have to." Unspoken were the words, if I'm going to talk to you, if we're going to do this, but he knew Steve could hear them. "Are you gonna be okay with that?"
The look Steve gave him was the same look Steve had given him when he was five years old and tiny, wispy blond hair falling over his eyes. Measured and weighing. "It depends."
"On why you're lying to me. Is to keep me safe or to keep you safe?"
Any lie that was keeping Steve safe would also be keeping Bucky safe, so he said, "To keep myself safe."
"All right." Steve leaned on the windowsill, letting his eyes roam over Bucky. "I knew it was you," he said, voice soft, amazed, almost reverent. "I knew."
"How did you know? Because Steve, you shouldn’t have been able to remember me."
There was a long pause. "Did you do something to me?" Steve asked, and Bucky was amazed there was no anger in that question.
"To keep yourself safe?"
To keep us both safe. "Yeah."
There was a long silence. Steve chewed his bottom lip, eyes shadowed, thinking hard. Bucky waited, silent and still. Waited for Steve to ask how? Waited for Steve to demand answers Bucky couldn't give. "Tell me if you have to do it again. I don't want to go into anything blind. I want to know."
Bucky stared at him. "I just admitted I did something to your memory, that I messed with your mind. Why are you so calm about this? I know you. You're stubborn, you're a fighter. Why aren't you trying to knock me out or something?"
Steve scratched his cheek, then sat on the windowsill, leaning against the side. "A couple of reasons, I guess. The first is, you look the same as you did when I was a little kid. That was twenty-three years ago. So something's going on. The second, you said you did it to keep yourself safe. So you weren't messing around with my memories for fun. You did it to protect yourself. And third..."
Steve's grin was blinding. "It didn't work."
Bucky opened his mouth, discovered he had no idea what to say, and snapped it shut, opting to glare at Steve instead.
Steve looked smug. "Hard to get mad about something that didn't work."
"And we're back to why didn't it work?"
"I have an idea about that." His smug look faded, exchanged for seriousness. "But I need a promise from you. A promise you won't try to rip 'em up or anything."
Baffled, Bucky said, "Sure," because he had no idea what Steve was talking about, but there was nothing of Steve's he could imaging wanting to hurt.
Steve disappeared down the hallway. While he was gone, Bucky settled cross-legged on the old fire escape, rubbing a finger across the rusted rail, wondering if Steve was going to try and invite him in, wondering how he was going to stop him if he did.
It took about ten minutes for Steve to come back and when he did he was carrying a big black plastic folder, about an inch thick and covered in dust. "I had to dig it out from under my bed." He set it on the floor and started pulling out drawings of...Bucky. "Here." He handed one to Bucky through the window. It was pen and ink, delicate, Bucky with his head thrown back, laughing. "Every time I saw you, I drew you. Every time. Even the first time." He slipped the pen and ink out of Bucky's hand and replaced it with a childish scribble that, crude as it was, was recognisable as a man with long hair, blue eyes, and a smile. "I'm guessing that's why I remembered you."
"I guess so." Something was happening inside Bucky, he wasn't sure what exactly, but it was soft and warm and overwhelming. "Can I see some more?"
"You can see all of them." Steve propped the folder against the wall under the window. One at a time, he passed pictures to Bucky. "Sometimes I'd think you weren't real, or that I'd imagined you, but whenever that happened I'd get out my folder and there you were."
Bucky should have known. He should have known from the moment he met Steve, stubborn little bastard with his backpack stuck in a tree, that he wouldn’t be able to make him do anything he didn't want to—including making Steve forget him.
"You're not going to disappear again, are you?"
Bucky lifted his head to find Steve watching him carefully.
He should. He should grab the pictures, Steve's evidence that Bucky existed, right out of Steve's hands, fog his mind, and disappear.
He knew it wasn't going to happen. "Not if you don't want me to."
"I'd like you to stick around."
"Then I will."
The care with which Steve handled his drawings of Bucky, the careful way he tucked them back into their folder, set that little warm feeling off all over again.
They talked for hours, Steve perched in the windowsill, filling Bucky in on his life, Bucky leaning against the bars of the fire escape, drinking it all in.
Steve didn't invite him inside. Bucky was relieved. It saved having to lie or explain or stop him, because that hadn't changed. He didn't let people invite him into their homes. The invisible barrier pulsing against his awareness was reassuring. It meant they were always safe.
Which made the tiny edge of disgruntlement he felt that Steve hadn't at least tried completely ridiculous.
Bucky became a regular visitor, Steve's fire escape his personal domain. Always at night, always arriving with no warning, with no sound, like he was materialising out of nothing.
It didn't escape Steve's notice that he never asked to come inside, never hinted that he might want to.
That started Steve's suspicions as to what Bucky might be down a specific path, because he knew for damn sure Bucky was something.
They'd talk, long rambling conversations, topics ranging far and wide. Sometimes Steve would draw, sketching out roughs for projects, and Bucky would keep him silent company. Too silent, Steve having to double check Bucky was still there. If Bucky arrived early enough, Steve would eat dinner with him, dragging the coffee table over to the window—except it wasn't eating with him, it was eating near him, because Bucky never accepted his offers to share.
Steve suspicions were turning into definite ideas. Only showed up after dark. Never ate. Looked the same as he had twenty-three years ago. Could mess with his mind. Didn't try and come inside.
And Steve, who spent one night watching him closely, was pretty damn sure Bucky didn't breathe.
The internet was next to useless, because there was too much information out there, most of it contradictory, too many people writing stories, making it up as they went along. Which was fine, more power to them, he was all for Team Imagination, except this wasn't a story, it was his life, and he needed to be sure.
Who am I kidding? he thought, watching Bucky snort with laughter over Steve's story of a client who'd mistakenly left the 'l' out of the word public, ending up with a sketch rather different from the one he'd been expecting. I'm sure enough.
Now all he had to do was ask Bucky.
Steve had prepared for tonight by... doing nothing special. There was really nothing he could do. Either he'd be right or he'd be wrong, so there was no point worrying about it. His thoughts were interrupted by a gentle tapping at the window. Bucky was standing there, wiggling his fingers like a goof, and how could he be a...
Steve shook his head, smiled a welcome, and opened the window, leaning one shoulder against the edge. "Bucky?"
"Do you want to come i—"
No one could move that fast. No one. One second Bucky was leaning casually on the railing, the next he was looming right in front of Steve. "No." It was a growl of a word, had impossible harmonics Steve could feel rumbling in his chest, and he flinched, surprised.
It locked his certainty about what Bucky was into place. Which was ridiculous, there was no such thing, but here they were.
Steve made a point of leaning forward, feeling bad about flinching, and Bucky grimaced, backing away. "Sorry," he said, placating, soft. "Sorry, I didn't mean to..."
"It's okay. You just surprised me. Is my housekeeping really that bad?" Steve made it light, teasing, but he was watching Bucky carefully and there was a shadow in his eyes. Yeah, Steve was a hundred percent certain. It gave him a few qualms, because where was he eating? Or, more important question, who was he eating? He couldn't see Bucky as a killer, but it was a conversation they were going to have to have.
One thing at a time, though. There was no telling how this was going to end. Steve might not even remember it, and Bucky still hadn't said anything. "I do know how to use a vacuum, if that's what you're worried about."
Nothing from Bucky except a faint smile.
Steve swung his legs over the windowsill and ducked his head under the window, so he was basically sitting outside, and fixed Bucky with a firm look. "Here's the thing, Bucky. I know what you are."
Bucky's eyes went briefly wide. "What?"
Steve leaned forward, packing his conviction, his trust, his affection into every word. "I know what you are. And I don't care."
The words hung in the air between them and silence rose, broken only by the sounds of the city. Slowly Bucky changed, kind smile fading, grey-blue eyes growing sharp, predatory. He flashed white teeth that were suddenly very sharp, something cold and inhuman in his gaze. "Then tell me, Steve?" His voice was low and dark. "What am I?"
Steve let the moment stretch, eyes never leaving Bucky's. "You're the cryogenically frozen head of Walt Disney, returned to life and set free to roam the earth."
Bucky reared back like he'd been struck, face twisting in bafflement, and he was Bucky again. "What the fuck?"
"Well, you were being such a drama queen about it."
Bucky's eyes narrowed.
"Okay, sorry. I'll be serious. I do know what you are, though."
This time Bucky simply raised a single eyebrow in question.
"No, wait, I've got it, you're an alien, come to earth to learn our ways."
Bucky rubbed his forehead in clear exasperation.
He watched Bucky for a minute, then leaned forward, voice quiet as he said, "I meant what I said. It doesn't matter what you are. Because you're my friend. You said so, way back when I was a kid. And now that I'm all grown up that hasn't changed. We're friends, Bucky. Right?"
Bucky's hand fell. He met Steve's eyes and for one moment Bucky's were achingly vulnerable, then it was shuttered away behind the blue. "I think you might be my only friend."
Steve ducked back inside, stretched out and managed to snag the pillow off the chair, then chucked it at Bucky. It smacked him in the side of the head, bounced off the railing, and disappeared over the side, gone forever. "You may be a vampire, but this is an angst-free zone."
He wasn't sure if Bucky was more shocked at being hit with a pillow or by Steve saying vampire.
"That's what you are, isn't it?" he asked gently.
After a moment, Bucky gave a reluctant nod. A thrill of not-quite-fear ran up Steve's spine, because holy shit. He'd been right. Bucky was a vampire. Steve rubbed a hand over his mouth.
"Do you want me to leave?" Bucky asked.
"What? No," Steve told him with a frown. "Did you miss what I said before about not caring?"
"Except I felt that." At Steve's questioning look, he said, "Fear, or something awfully close to it."
"Oh. So the whole enhanced senses thing is true?"
"A lot of it is true. A lot of it's bullshit. And you were just afraid."
"Not of you, Bucky. And not afraid, exactly." Steve paused, because he needed to get this just right. He needed Bucky to know he wasn't afraid of him. "You're real, and that means the world just got a hell of a lot bigger."
Bucky studied him, then nodded. "I get that. But," there was a pause, and then he offered, "you're not facing it alone?"
"No, I'm not." They both smiled and Steve was catapulted back to New Year's Eve. Not the kiss, not that it hadn't been nice, but the moment after, the two of them united in shared happiness. "Does that mean I get to keep it?" He could see Bucky didn't quite get it. "You're not going to put the whammy on me? So I forget?"
It took Bucky a long time to answer, time in which he gazed at Steve and Steve started to fidget under the weight of his stare. Finally, Bucky said, "No." There was something in his voice Steve couldn’t parse, but he didn't ask. "I trust you."
That sent a thrill of a different kind up his spine. "Does that mean I'm allowed to invite you in?"
Bucky shook his head. "Not a good idea, Steve."
"Okay." He gave Bucky a look that he hoped carried an unspoken for now. "Can you turn into an equal volume of bats?"
Bucky stared and stared some more while Steve gazed back innocently, then Bucky tipped his head back and laughed, loud and happy and heartfelt. "An equal volume of bats?" he demanded, when he finally managed to stop.
Steve shrugged. "I was looking stuff up on the internet."
"Do not do that. If you have a question, ask me. I'll tell you."
"So that's a no on the bats?" Steve asked, a touch disappointed.
"Yeah, Steve, that's a no on the bats."
Bucky wasn't a killer. He'd killed, both before he'd been changed and once after, but he wasn't a killer. It wasn't something he was proud of. Vampire or not, not a killer was just something you should be; he didn't think it was something to be proud of. Just one of the reasons other vampires despised him, and the reason he didn't have much in the way of power.
It was something he was glad of, though, because when Steve asked him how he fed, he was able to say, honest and truthful, that he didn't kill.
Steve had said he didn't care what Bucky was and Bucky knew, however incomprehensible it seemed, that it was true. What Steve would care about, Bucky also knew, was Bucky being a killer, was Bucky leaving bodies scattered in his wake.
Of course, then he'd had to explain how he did feed, that it was sometimes sex and sometimes violence. No, not had to. Steve had believed him, he hadn't demanded an explanation from Bucky, but Bucky had found himself giving one anyway.
"I don't hunt." He was sitting on the fire escape, leaning back against the wall under the window. Steve was sitting in the windowsill above him, his dangling hand just brushing Bucky's shoulder. "But I do let people hunt me. That's what I was doing those nights I found you in the park, in the graveyard."
Purely human predators hunted other humans and Bucky felt no guilt injecting himself into the mix. More than one had stumbled upon the lost, confused, oh-so-happy-to-see-them Bucky and thought perfect victim just in time to become a meal. "I don't kill them, I never kill them, I only take as much blood as I need. I actually got the idea from a vampire novel," he admitted, embarrassed. "But it works."
"And the sex?"
He was overly conscious of the brush of Steve's fingers as he answered. "I can't go up to someone and say hey, I'm a vampire, want to trade sex for blood? It wouldn't be safe for either of us. But there's ways. I can make taking blood feel good. I take their blood, but I give them something in exchange. No one gets hurt."
Steve didn't say anything. Bucky didn't look at him, not sure what he'd see on his face. Not sure he wanted to see it. There was a big difference between I know you're a vampire and being confronted with the reality of what that meant: Bucky drank human blood from the vein.
Maybe that's why he found himself saying, "I didn't ask to be made a vampire, and that's not an excuse, because if I didn't want to keep being one I could...stop. The sun comes up every day. Surviving means taking a little bit of life from people. I'm makin' a choice to keep going, knowing what it costs, knowing other people pay the price with blood, but if it came down to it I wouldn't kill them to survive."
He stopped and stared up into the moonless night. "I don't think so, anyway. I guess we never really know until we have to make the choice, but I hope I won't."
Bucky tipped his head back to stare at Steve in surprise. His words had been steeped in conviction, and he was watching Bucky like he was something precious.
"How are you so sure?"
He squeezed Bucky's shoulder. "Five years old, and you rescued my backpack and carried me home. Sixteen and you held me when I thought my world was ending. Nineteen and you kissed me at midnight. Twenty-eight and you followed me home because you wanted me to know it was you. You're good, down to the bone and the heart and the guts of you, Bucky. That's how I know."
All the legends said not to look a vampire in the eye, that they'd catch you and hold you and you'd never escape, but it was Steve's eyes that had him trapped. He couldn't look away. All the years, all this time, how much he'd changed, and Steve's eyes were the same. His hand was warm, strong and real, and Bucky covered it with his cold one, not sure what to say.
Steve turned his hand and squeezed Bucky's fingers, and he didn't need to say anything at all.
When Bucky arrived the next night the window was open and Steve was standing inside, waiting for him.
HIs stance, his expression, they were all those of a man on a mission. What it was, Bucky didn't know, but Steve didn't leave him waiting long.
"If I ask if I can invite you in, you're going to say no."
That Bucky hadn't been expecting. "Like I said, Steve, it's not a good idea."
"Good thing I'm not asking, then. Bucky?"
They locked eyes and for one second Bucky contemplated tossing himself over the railing—
"Get your ass inside."
— but it was too late. Just like that, the barrier was gone. He stared at Steve, who was staring stubbornly back. "Why in the hell did you do that?"
"You're sitting out there, I'm sitting in here, it's not exactly comfortable, and most of the time I'm half out there with you, anyway. Not letting me invite you in because you don't trust yourself— I mean, that's what you're doing, isn't it?"
"It's pretty stupid." Steve's voice was awfully gentle for someone who was calling him stupid. "You can see that, right?"
Bucky gave him a flat look.
"I thought so, and it's a little too Anne Rice for comfort, so get in here, sit on the couch, watch dumb movies with me, whatever. You won't kill to feed yourself, so I don't think you're suddenly going to do it for, what, fun? I trust you, so you need to trust yourself and come inside."
"It's not that simple," Bucky protested, but he was starting to think he was on the wrong side of this argument.
"I just made it that simple. If you stay out there now, it's 'cause you want to."
Steve turned on his heel and went into the kitchen. Bucky stayed where he was. Thinking. Steve knew what he was. Steve spent half his time hanging out the window anyway. There was no way in hell Bucky was ever going to hurt him.
"Maybe it's a little stupid," he muttered. Not letting people invite him in wasn't a bad rule. It just had no relevance here. Normal rules don't apply where Steve's concerned. He really needed to remember that.
Besides, Steve had taken the decision out of his hands.
Sheepishly, Bucky slipped in through the window and settled on the couch. It was incredibly comfortable and he nestled down into it. After a minute Steve popped his head out of the kitchen. "Can you drink stuff besides blood?"
"I can." He could, even if he generally regretted it the next night.
"Want a milkshake?"
"You're offering me a milkshake?"
Steve grinned toothily at him. "It brings all the vamps to the yard."
"No. That's it. I'm leaving." He didn't move. "You're gonna have to rescind your invitation."
"No, you're not. Keep your ass planted right there and tell me what sort of milkshake you want."
"Chocolate. And don't skimp on the chocolate sauce," Bucky grumbled. If he was going to regret it tomorrow, he was going to enjoy it now.
It changed things.
It changed everything.
Steve left the window unlocked and Bucky started to treat the place like it was home.
Not right away. The first few times after the first time he was tentative coming inside. Like he wasn't sure he was allowed. It made Steve wonder how long it had been since Bucky had been inside someone's home. It made him wonder what home even meant to a vampire. What it meant to Bucky.
He couldn’t think of a good way to ask, so he didn't. He just went out of his way to make it clear that Bucky was welcome. That Bucky was free to come and go as he wanted, whether Steve was there or not.
Slowly Bucky began to respond, and Steve would come home from a late night run to the store to find Bucky poking around the apartment or using the computer or lounging on the couch.
Gradually Steve's sleep patterns started to change as he shifted more and more towards being awake after dark. Or, to be completely accurate, more and more towards hours he could be with Bucky.
He could work whenever he wanted, so it made no difference to his clients and it made all the difference to Bucky. Steve could see it. He was lighter. He was happier. He laughed more and the sound rang through Steve like bells.
Steve wasn't sure where Bucky spent his days and he pointedly didn't ask. Steve knew when Bucky had fed, he was warmer, his skin was less pale, but he never asked about that, either. He trusted Bucky. He trusted Bucky not to hurt him, trusted Bucky not to harm anyone else, trusted Bucky to keep himself safe. Whether that was smart or dumb as a bag of hammers he honestly couldn’t have said, but it felt right and that was good enough for him.
One night Steve woke in darkness feeling profoundly safe, in a way he hadn't since he was a child. He was groggy, confused, not sure where he was. All he knew was that nothing could touch him, nothing could hurt him.
It took him a minute to orient himself.
He'd been watching TV with Bucky. They'd been sitting on the couch. He must have fallen asleep. There was something firm and cool under his cheek and he rubbed his face against it like a cat. A soft chuckle from above him was Bucky. His head was on Bucky's thigh, Bucky's fingers were combing gently through his hair, and there was a blanket bundled around him, tucked up around his ears.
Steve was completely unable to stop the noise of sheer contentment that tumbled out of his throat. Bucky froze, but Steve pressed into his hand and his fingers started moving again. Steve sighed and snuggled closer, and Bucky laughed softly. It was a gentle, soothing sound that wound around Steve and lulled him back down into sleep.
In the six months Bucky had been back in his life Steve had drifted into being completely nocturnal. As long as he was available for the occasional client meeting, which were generally over Skype, he could work at midnight or two am or eight pm and no one cared.
The beauty of being self-employed.
The beauty of having a vampire best-friend who would have the coffee on and brewed when Steve stumbled out of bed after dark to start his day.
It was incredibly inspirational working at night, ideas sparking under his skin that he'd never have had in the light of day. The city was different, quieter, strangely still, but Steve could sense an entire world under the surface of darkness that he'd never known existed.
He'd get restless, but Bucky would go walking with him. Steve had never been so free to wander the city in the deepest part of the night. He wasn't one to shy from a fight, and his size encouraged people to walk away when he got riled, but he wasn't dumb enough to put himself in situations he knew he'd have trouble getting out of and he tried not to go looking for trouble.
Bucky had just laughed at him when he'd ventured a concern or two about wandering the streets at night.
Two and three am would find them walking through parks and down alleys and into abandoned lots, Steve with a sketchbook and a pencil, stopping to scribble ideas and quick sketches, Bucky almost standing guard beside him. Except there was no almost about it. That's exactly what he was doing.
Everything about Bucky was different when they went out at night: his walk, the way he moved, how he stood, even his expression. His whole self screamed predator and the few times people came what he deemed too close to Steve it bloomed into something terrifying.
When he looked at Steve, though, there was no sign of a predator. No sign of something terrifying. All Steve could see were the same grey-blue eyes he'd always seen, and they were fond, soft, affectionate even, but maybe Steve was imaging that. Maybe he was projecting.
Because he had to face the fact that he hadn't rearranged his life into nocturnalness for his friend. The burgeoning crush was, oh, at least seventy-five percent responsible. Maybe eighty. Possibly eighty-five.
And it was a little more than a crush.
His thoughts spent a lot of time occupied with Bucky. Like now, sitting at the table instead of the nice desk in his office, so he could be close to Bucky, who was sprawled on the couch, flipping through a book.
It never occurred to Steve to wonder if Bucky was there because he wanted to be close to Steve.
The shapes taking form under Steve's hand were resolving into Bucky: Bucky standing guard under the moon, the glow of a neon sign reflecting off his skin. It was Bucky as predator, Bucky as vampire, that was coming to life in black strokes, and he found himself asking, "Bucky? What did you mean when you said you didn't ask to be made a vampire?"
He questioned the wisdom of asking when Bucky went still, became not much more than a shadow glimpsed out of the corner of Steve's eye.
"Why do you want to know?"
Why did he want to know? It was a good question. "Because it happened to you, and I want to know about you. You're," he licked his lips and forced his eyes to stay on his hands, capping the pen and turning it over and over, "you're important to me." Four simple words that could have meant nothing, but Steve felt like he was baring his soul.
There was no sound, no movement. Bucky could be gone; he was fast enough, quiet enough, the living room window was open. Steve wouldn't have known. He didn't look, because if Bucky had gone, Steve didn't want to know.
He almost jumped out of his skin when Bucky's hands landed on his shoulders.
Bucky leaned forward over Steve's shoulder, and it didn't occur to Steve to try and hide what he'd been drawing. It never occurred to him to try and hide anything from Bucky. There was no point, anyway.
After a minute, Bucky tilted his head to look at Steve's face. "You're important to me, too." Steve's smile was a tangled mixture of relief and happiness. "So I'll tell you."
But Bucky didn't speak after that, stayed silently leaning over Steve, his hair brushing Steve's cheek. Steve wanted to touch him, but Bucky's hands were wrapped around Steve's shoulders like if he didn't hold on he'd fall, and Steve sensed that, right then, it might not be welcome.
"It wasn't just me," he finally said. "There were three of us. As far as I know the other two are still around, so I won't tell you their names." Steve glanced sideways. Bucky's gaze was far away, staring into a past Steve couldn't see. "Let's call them Red and Spitfire. Both women. Red was Russian, Spitfire was a Brit, and I was the lone American, doing my bit for the stars and stripes, gone to knock out the German War Machine."
Steve stared, shocked, and Bucky's smile was a little grim.
"Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes, 107th Infantry Regiment. Good to meet 'ya, pal." His accent had changed, become something redolent of old movies, before smoothing out into what Steve was used to. "Captured by the enemy, except the enemy was cheating, using magic, using the supernatural. They were doing experiments on vampires, trying to make them into perfect soldiers. That meant they needed vampires and the three of us got volunteered."
There was a long pause, Bucky's hands tightened, hard enough to hurt, but Steve didn't make a sound. "I'm not glad they were captured, I'm not glad they were changed, but I'm damn glad I wasn't on my own. If I had been, I think I'd have—" He stopped. "Never mind, it doesn't matter."
"Bucky." Steve's throat was tight. He couldn't imagine it, couldn't imagine what he'd gone through, but he hurt for Bucky.
Bucky's eyes sharpened as he focused on Steve. "No, hey, Steve. It's okay." He wrapped an arm around Steve's chest and hugged him and Steve closed his eyes. There was no heart beating against his back, no rise and fall of ribs, and it didn't matter. It was Bucky and it didn't matter.
"They tried to feed us bagged blood, that was part of how they were gonna control us. Red and Spitfire figured out it wouldn't work. Because." He stopped and met Steve's eyes. Hesitating. Steve tried to project reassurance, tried to say without words, Whatever it is, I don't care. Bucky dipped his head and kept going. "Because it's not about blood. The blood's just a vehicle. Vampires, we feed on life, taking it, stealing it, that's what keeps us going, and it's gotta come from the vein. All that was gonna happen if they fed us bagged blood was we were gonna starve."
A noise of protest filled the air. It took Steve a minute to realise it had come from him. Bucky held him tighter.
"The German scientist who made us should have been our master, at least as far as I understand it. I don't know if it was the experiments, or just that he was so spineless he couldn't have mastered a bucket, but the three of us ended him. Put him down like a dog and blew the place to hell behind us."
"What happened after that?"
"Red, she took off. The last I heard, she's loving being a vampire. She's embraced the whole thing." Bucky's laugh was almost silent, and a little sad. "Spitfire, she was heading straight back to the Allies, was gonna use what she knew, what she was, to help win the war. And me..."
Steve laid his arm along Bucky's and covered Bucky's hand with his own. Bucky spread his fingers, letting Steve's fall between them. "What about you?"
"And me...it took me seventy-odd years, but I think I finally found where I belong."
Bucky bowed his head, forehead pressed to Steve's shoulder, then he shifted, wrapped his hands around the seat of Steve's chair, lifted it while Steve's heart swooped, because he'd known Bucky was strong, but this was something else, and put it back down with Steve facing him.
"I know I'm not imaging things," Bucky told him, one hand resting on Steve's shoulder. "You're an open book to me. I try not to read it, but it's hard not to when it's saying everything I want to hear."
"What's it saying to you?"
"It's saying you like me. It's saying I'm important to you."
"I said that to you," Steve pointed out, but his heart was beating faster. "No reading required."
Bucky grinned at him. "You did, and I said it back, but we both know you were saying more than that." Bucky shook his head. "And so was I. Up."
"Stand up." Bucky tangled his fingers in Steve's shirt and tugged gently. "Last time we did this I was taller than you."
He understood instantly and surged to his feet. He was taller than Bucky, if not by much, and he wrapped his arms around him, pulling him close. "And it was for a different reason."
"Very different." Bucky slipped his arms around Steve's neck, thumb brushing across the nape, and Steve shivered, making Bucky smirk. "So different. Steve, you have no idea how much I want to do this." Then Bucky's hands were in his hair and he was pulling Steve's head down to kiss him and it was strange, because Bucky wasn't breathing, there was no getting around that. Steve's heart was pounding, his pulse was racing, and Bucky's chest was cool and still, but his mouth was moving against Steve's, coaxing and gentle and demanding in turns, his hands were sliding through Steve's hair, and Steve was lost, spinning away, until he thought he could feel his own heartbeat reflected back at him from Bucky.
"I might have some idea," he managed to get out, one hand tangled in Bucky's hair, the other sliding down his back to pull him even closer.
"You might." Bucky pressed a kiss to the hollow of his throat, tongue darting out to touch his skin, and Steve shivered, knees nearly giving out, but Bucky had him, Bucky was holding him, Bucky wouldn't let him fall. "But Steve? You're more than important to me. I think you might be damn near essential."
Steve wasn't sure how he'd become one of those people. One of those disgustingly happy, obnoxious people who engaged in unabashed displays of public affection, the bane of cynical people everywhere. He supposed the only redeeming feature was that it inevitably happened at one or two or three in the morning, when there was no one around to see.
Actually, he knew exactly how it had happened. Bucky had happened. Bucky, who was just as bad as Steve, maybe worse, and Steve was so damned happy.
He would have thought, if he'd ever given it any thought (which he hadn't, because why would he?), that a vampire would be cold (not literally, and Bucky wasn't cold, just cool), aloof, not given to overt affection. He would have been wrong. Bucky was the cuddliest, most affectionate person he'd ever been involved with. Possibly the cuddliest, most affectionate person he'd ever known.
Steve loved it, he loved that he could grab hold of Bucky and pull him in for a hug without getting shrugged off, that Bucky would collapse on top of him and demand to be held, that they could curl up on the couch, kissing and touching. It was incredible.
Plus the sex was fantastic. He'd been a bit unsure at first. Not about having it—he was one hundred percent on board for sex with Bucky, yes please, sign him up—but about whether it would work the same as he was used to.
He'd asked Bucky, because he was an adult and he could talk about sex like a grown up. Bucky had looked at him seriously and said, "Yes and no." That hadn't been reassuring. "Mechanics wise, everything should be the same. Quality?" Bucky had grinned like a tiger. "No, Steve. It's not going to be what you're used to. It's going to be so much better."
Bucky hadn't lied. About anything.
Steve couldn’t get enough of him. Of any part of him. He couldn’t remember a time when he'd been happier than he was now.
Bucky bullied and cajoled and nagged him out of being fully nocturnal, insisting that he had to get some daylight. Steve reluctantly agreed, because he knew Bucky was right, and he did feel better once he was getting sun again, something Bucky was endlessly smug about.
The only sticking point, and it wasn't something he brought up with Bucky, was feeding. He knew Bucky was going the 'stalking muggers' route whenever possible, and Steve appreciated it, but he also knew it wasn't always possible and Bucky had to eat. He was surprisingly not bothered by it. At least, not by the part of it he probably should be bothered by.
No, what bothered him was that Bucky had never asked about Steve feeding him and he wasn't sure about offering. Not because he wasn't willing—he was willing, more than willing, to give it a try—but because he was way out in uncharted waters and wasn't sure how Bucky would react.
They were lying naked on the floor, a blanket from the bed haphazardly pulled over them since they hadn't quite managed to make it there, and Steve was sprawled across Bucky. They'd been lying like that for about twenty minutes, Bucky idly trailing his fingers up and down Steve's spine.
A shift in Steve's breathing, in the pace of his heart, told Bucky he was about to say something, but he wasn't expecting what came out of his mouth.
"Can I see your teeth?"
Bucky blinked at him in surprise. "You want to see my teeth?" Steve nodded. "Sure."
He opened his mouth and Steve gently pulled back his top lip, then ran his finger along the edge of his upper teeth. Bucky flicked his tongue out and licked his finger, curling his tongue around the tip, returning Steve's quelling look with an innocent one of his own.
"Find what you were looking for?" he asked when Steve pulled his hand away.
"I thought they'd be sharper. Pointier."
"I think you'd have noticed by now if they were sharp and pointy. They've been awfully close to extremely sensitive parts of your anatomy." The tips of Steve's ears went pink and Bucky laughed softly at him, rolled them both over, and wrapped Steve up in his arms. "They come down. I don't know how it works, but when I need them, I have fangs. The rest of the time my teeth are just a little sharper."
"You're careful with them."
"Yes I am." He kissed Steve and grinned against his mouth. "Wouldn’t want to damage anything. I happen to like those parts of your anatomy."
Steve started laughing and kissed him back. "I can tell."
Bucky waggled his eyebrows as ridiculously as he knew how and slithered lower, dropping a line of kisses down Steve's chest. "Want a demonstration?"
Bucky, if given a choice, would spend every minute with Steve. Probably not literally, they'd eventually drive each other nuts, but as an idea it was appealing.
It wasn't possible, if for no other reason than Bucky needed to eat.
When he went out to find food, he didn't pretend he was going out to do something else. He didn't lie to Steve. Tonight Steve had looked thoughtful, like there was something he wanted to say, and Bucky had waited, but Steve had shook his head and kissed him, intently, deeply, Bucky ending up in Steve's lap with his hands under his shirt before dragging himself away.
Now he was being oh-so-harmless in a nice secluded park, waiting for someone to decide he was easy pickings.
There were so many advantages to being a vampire. He was fast and strong and he could fog people's minds if he had to. He could pick a heartbeat out of a crowd and follow it across the city, could smell the tang of blood and the spike of adrenaline.
The problem was, they only counted as advantages against humans. Against other vampires, especially if you were a vampire who refused to kill, they weren't worth jack shit.
They were on Bucky before he knew it and he never saw them coming. All he had time to think before they threw him in the big black SUV was Steve's not with me. Thank fuck Steve's not with me.
He didn't know who'd grabbed him, but it didn't matter. He knew what they were. They were the vampires he refused to be like. The assholes, the wankers. The killers. The ones who thought Bucky was pathetic, beneath them. He'd had his run-ins over the years, enough to cement his very firm opinions, and he'd learned to steer clear.
When he was tossed unceremoniously onto two-inch thick plush carpet, crimson, of course, it was all he could do not to roll his eyes. The walls were dark panelled wood, the lights were a soft golden glow, mounted on the walls between paintings Bucky suspected were old masters, and the entire room reeked of wealth.
Sitting behind an ornate wooden desk, curlicues at the corners, on a leather chair with aspirations of thronehood was a vampire he didn't recognise. At least not by name. Bucky knew his type.
Arrayed behind him were other vampires, large and broad, and Bucky was guessing those were their stand-out attributes.
The vampire behind the desk was staring at Bucky out of cold blue eyes and it shocked him how much they looked like Steve's. Not that Steve would ever look at him like this, like Bucky was dirt not even worth walking on, but they were the same blue.
It made his skin crawl.
"That's not my name."
"I don't care for diminutives."
"And I don't care for gettin' snatched off the street and tossed onto a garish rug, so we're even." It was bluff, it was bravado, because this was nothing good, there could be nothing good here. Why why why, his brain was chanting, but deep in his heart he knew the answer. Fuck. Please no.
His smart-ass response got him a short smile and a head nod, followed by a kick in the ribs from a bruiser of a vampire, who left his position at the right hand of the blue-eyed vampire to personally deliver it. Bucky curled into the kick, and into the next, but he felt a rib go.
Bucky pulled himself up, ignoring the scrape of bone on bone as he moved. "Mind telling me what's got you all hot and bothered?"
"You know what. There's one rule, James, and you've broken it very thoroughly. How did it go in your day? Ah yes, loose lips sink ships." He steepled his hands. "Steven Grant Rogers."
Bucky was on his feet before he knew he was moving, fists clenched, fangs bared.
"I see you recognise the name."
"If you hurt him..."
"You'll do what exactly? You eke out a pathetic existence, scrabbling for scraps, luring muggers and humping club bunnies for a bite. You think you're going to stand against any of us?" He shook his head, a father's disappointment in the gesture, and Bucky honestly didn't know if it was mockery or genuine. Either way, Bucky wanted to tear his throat out. "You have two choices. Kill him or enthrall him."
This was his fault. This was all his fault. He never should have admitted what he was. He never should have followed Steve from the club. It'd been pure selfishness. Steve, I'm so sorry. I didn't think anyone noticed me. I didn't think anyone paid attention. "I'll fog him, so he doesn't remember me. I'll get rid of everything, get rid of any evidence I ever existed." His heart wanted to shatter at the thought, but it was better than Steve being dead. "I'll make sure he doesn't remember me."
"Two choices, I said. If that was an option, I'd have said you had three. Apart from anything else, I very much doubt you're up to wiping yourself out of a human mind." The extra-large serving of vampires flowed across the floor towards Bucky. "In case you need some encouragement..."
Bucky fought, fists and fangs and feet, twisting like an eel, doing his share of damage, but it was futile. They were stronger, there were too many of them, and they beat the hell out of him.
"What's the point of this?" the bruiser asked, winding back and landing a kick that propelled Bucky across the carpet. "Not that it's not fun."
"Damage him enough and he'll probably kill the human. I don't care either way, as long as the problem's solved, but if James kills him it will be a greater deterrent to future rule-breaking."
"Why don't we just deal with both of them? Take care of James now, then go kill the human ourselves?"
"Because one doesn't." The blue-eyed vampire leaned back in his not-quite-a-throne and gestured the bruiser to leave Bucky to the others and come stand next to him. "He may be rabble, but he's still one of us. You don't destroy one of your own, however undeserving he might have been of joining us in the first place, and you give him a chance to fix his mistakes."
The bruiser's non-committal grunt was the last thing Bucky heard before he was being dragged down from the roof of Steve's building to the fire escape and tossed through the window.
The flash of pain when he hit the floor made the world go black.
When it came back he could smell Steve, hear the jingling keys, and he started crawling for the window. He couldn’t be here. He had to get out. He had to leave.
No, no no. "No." It was too quiet, too weak, Steve was hitting his knees next to Bucky.
"Bucky, what—" Steve's teeth clashed together. "No, it doesn't matter what happened."
He felt Steve's deep breath like it was in his own chest. He could smell Steve's blood, he could hear the thrum of his heart, the rush of the blood in his veins.
Steve was rolling him over onto his back, and hell, it hurt, his ribs were smashed, left arm broken to bits. One look at Steve's face and hopelessness settled over him. Stubborn and determined and shit. "You need blood, right?" Steve's voice was filled with fear, for him, Bucky knew, not of him, because Steve was deeply stupid.
Bucky didn't answer.
"You need blood."
This time it wasn't a question and he could hear Steve's heart beating faster.
"Do you need all of it?" Bucky's eyes snapped wide, panic and horror, because no, no he wasn't, he wouldn't. "Because I'm damn sure I love you but I don't love you enough to die for you. At least not like this."
"Fucking hell, Steve," Bucky whispered. "You can't say things like that."
"I can." Steve leaned over him. "I do. Should I get a knife, or—"
"No." Bucky's hand latched onto his arm. "No." He swallowed. Steve sawing at his wrist. Steve with a knife, slicing through a vein. It was a nightmare. He'd bleed out. "No knives. You'll kill yourself."
"Then you'll have to do it." Steve touched Bucky's mouth.
"Steve. I might not stop."
"You're not going to kill me. You know it. I know it. So how do we do this?"
Steve's certainty settled in his gut. "Help me up."
It was agony, but they got Bucky propped in Steve's arms, his head on Steve's shoulder, Steve's strength the only thing holding him up. Steve tried to guide Bucky's head to his neck, but Bucky pushed back. "Wait. You have to make a choice. There's two ways to do this. I can roll you and it'll feel good. It'll feel like the best sex of your life, but you'll be...gone. It'll take you over."
"What's the other way?"
"I'll bite you and it's going to hurt, but you'll be you. It's your choice."
"But I don't want to roll you, Steve. I don't want to hurt you, I never want to hurt you, but I don't want to take away your will."
"If you're gonna give me the best sex of my life—and we're gonna have words later about the fact that you've been holding out on me—I want you to actually give it to me." He grinned, shaky, worried, but a grin all the same. "Bite me, Bucky. I can take it."
Bucky briefly closed his eyes, because Steve. Steve's fingers curled around the back of his neck, holding him in place, and he opened his eyes. He was going to hurt Steve, there was nothing he could do about it, but he wasn't going to maul his neck like an animal, he didn't give a damn how much pain he was in.
Gently, he brushed his nose against Steve's neck and kissed the spot over his jugular. He kissed it again when Steve sucked in a sharp breath, licked the spot as Steve's pulse raced under his tongue, then, smooth and quick, sank his fangs through the skin.
Steve went stiff, Bucky knew he was hurting, but Steve pulled him closer and Bucky closed his eyes, losing himself in the taste and smell and feel of him.
This was where the power was, taking blood from the vein, from the heart, stealing the life it could have been and making it your own. He could feel it coursing through him, blood and life both, but this was different. This wasn't stolen. It was given. Steve had given it to him. Steve's life, knitting him back together, Steve's blood on his tongue, slowly flowing around his fangs, Steve's pulse under his lips, Steve's heart, beating strong and solid under his hand, counting out the minutes.
He lifted his head, teeth dragging as they pulled out of Steve's skin, and he felt more than heard Steve's hiss of pain.
Bucky was already healing, skin and bones and muscle knitting back together. Soothingly, he rubbed Steve's chest as he licked the punctures. He knew from the way Steve tensed it didn't feel good, but it would close them, help them heal. He slid a hand up to cradle Steve's head, humming in the back of his throat, and Steve sighed and relaxed into him. When he was satisfied with the job he'd done on Steve's neck he leaned back.
Steve's eyes were drooping. "Steve. Open your eyes."
"Come on, for me."
"Definitely no, then."
Bucky wanted to laugh and he wanted to grab onto him and never let go and he wanted to do a hundred things neither of them had the energy for, but most of all he wanted Steve to open his eyes. "Please?" With a long-suffering sigh, Steve opened them. They were bright and clear. "I'm going to need you to drink a whole bunch of orange juice and then I'm going to bundle you up for a nap. Okay?"
"First you want my blood, then you want me to nap? You're such a nag."
Bucky laughed softly. "I know. It happens when I love someone."
Steve's eyes softened. "In that case, I won't argue."
When he'd drunk his orange juice, Bucky lifted him up and carried him to bed. Steve didn't raise even a token protest, which told Bucky how exhausted he was, although Bucky suspected it was as much from being slammed with adrenaline as it was from blood loss. Bucky had taken more than he'd normally take from one person at one time, but not enough to damage him.
He settled Steve in bed and curled around him, bundling the blankets around them both. Steve burrowed into him, clinging tightly, and Bucky ran his hands down Steve's back in long, soothing strokes.
Bucky didn't precisely sleep, but he lay calm and quiet, consciousness at a low ebb while his body drew on Steve's blood, on Steve's life, to make him whole again. He drifted back to full awareness feeling like someone had plugged him into a livewire. He was fizzing, brimming with energy. Steve was asleep, curled into him, head tucked under his chin, and Bucky stroked his back, his hair, and eased away, checking the punctures on his neck.
They were closed over, half-healed, Bucky's saliva having worked its usual magic.
He could still taste Steve's blood in his mouth and he shifted further away, intending to deal with it, when Steve latched onto him. "Don't go."
"Gonna brush my teeth."
Steve opened his eyes and peered at him from under the blankets, then let go. "Go, then. Blood breath sounds disgusting."
"It's your blood."
Steve flapped a dismissive hand at him.
When Bucky came back Steve pulled him down and wrapped himself around him. Bucky nuzzled him gently, kissed his cheek, his nose, his forehead, then caught his mouth and kissed him deeply. Steve was smiling when he said, "Minty."
"How are you feeling?"
"Fine." Steve suddenly surged up, like he'd remembered everything. "How are you?" he demanded, hands running over Bucky, up his ribs, down his arms, checking to make sure everything was in one piece.
"I'm good." He laughed. "I'm better than good. I'm fantastic. I think you might have magic blood, I feel so good."
Steve pressed his palms against Bucky's ribs, his deep breath all the warning Bucky had that something big was coming, and said, "I'll just feed you all the time, then."
Bucky went still under his hands. "You can't."
He stared at Steve, trying to work out if he was serious. When he realised he was, he slid backwards across the bed. "You can't feed me."
"How much do you usually need? How often? Realistically, thinking about it, could I?" Bucky didn't answer. "I'm serious, Bucky."
"It hurt you." That wasn't the only reason. Everything in him was recoiling from the idea.
"It didn't hurt all that much. Now that I know what to expect, it'll hurt even less, because I won't be so tense. Also, you won't be dying in my arms."
"I can't die, Steve. That happened a long time ago."
Steve flinched, hard, like Bucky had hit him. "I don't give a damn what you call it. You'd be gone. It doesn't make a difference from here."
Guilt flooded him and he reached for Steve, pulled him in, holding him close, murmuring, "Sorry. I'm sorry, I didn't mean that," against his hair. After a moment, Steve relaxed into him. "But you can't seriously be talking about feeding me. You need to think about it. It's not just your blood, Steve. It's your life."
"That I'd be giving you." Steve leaned back and fixed Bucky with a thoughtful look. "Has anyone ever done that before? Given it to you?"
"No." No one had ever offered him what Steve had. "Steve, I didn't... thank you. I should have said—"
Steve pressed a hand over Bucky's mouth to stop him talking. "That's not what I'm getting at. I'm not looking for gratitude. You said my blood was magic blood. What'd you mean?"
"I shouldn't be this healed, not this fast, not with how much I took. I feel like I could run to the moon, like I'm fizzing with it."
"What if that's because I gave it to you?"
"You told me the power in the blood comes from taking it, from stealing it. What if there's a better way." Bucky gave him a look of incomprehension. "My mom, she used to read me fairy tales. Real fairy tales, the original ones, and in every one of them a gift freely given had more power than one taken."
"This isn't a fairy tale, Steve."
"Are you sure?"
He had no idea what to say to that, just like he had no idea why he felt so good, why he'd healed so completely. As he stared at Steve, he remembered it coursing through him, the feeling that Steve's blood wasn't stolen, it was given. "Don't you think someone would have figured it out by now?"
Steve snorted. "I read a lot of stuff when I was working out what you are. Almost every story about vampires, they're either very rich or very powerful. Those are exactly the kinds of people who wouldn't figure out that giving freely was worth anything."
"You've got a point," Bucky murmured.
"So you should let me feed you. Let me give you my blood, let me give you little bits of my life, so you don't have to take it from other people. I want to."
When Bucky didn't answer, Steve kept going.
"And look, it's what you do for someone you love. You give up parts of your life for them, parts you could have used for yourself, because whatever they can use that bit of your life for, it's more important to you than using it for yourself." Steve's smile was crooked as he pressed a kiss to Bucky's forehead. "This is just a bit more literal."
He sat quietly, holding Steve, not sure what to say to that. "You ever think of becoming a lawyer?"
"I should throw you out on your ass for that, Bucky."
Bucky kissed him, soft and sweet, the most eloquent apology he could manage. "You know I can't."
"No, I don't. I'd be happier. You'd be happier. And what if I'm right about the giving thing? Shouldn’t we try it and find out?"
"You're not going to give up on this, are you?"
For one moment, Steve was all stubbornness, fire and fight, then it flowed out of him. "Yes," he said and caught Bucky's hand. "It has to be your choice. I won't hound you." He gently unfolded Bucky's fingers and pressed their palms together, their wrists brushing. Bucky could feel Steve's pulse beating against his skin. "But you need to tell me no."
Bucky closed his hand around Steve's. "Steve?"
Steve looked up.
"Yes." Steve's eyes warmed. "We can try. But if it starts affecting you, we stop."
"Okay." Bucky wasn't sure what he'd just agreed to; it felt huge, even bigger than it actually was, and agreeing to feed on Steve was massive.
"And if someone out there's hurting you, better if you're not out trying to find a meal."
And just like that, it all crashed back down on him. "That wasn't about me, Steve. It was about you. But it's my fault."
* * *
Steve took a deep breath and another, and then another one for good measure. He knew he'd basically been ignoring the question of how Bucky had ended up beaten half to hell on Steve's living room floor, but they could only deal with one thing at a time without it spiralling completely out of control.
He hadn't been expecting to get the why before he got the how.
"I don't know whether to ask you to expand on the about me part of that or start with telling you there's no way someone hurting you like that can be your fault."
"Oh yeah, it can be." Bucky lay down and threw an arm over his eyes. "Fuck. I fucked up, Steve, I fucked up so badly and I don't know how to fix it."
"I'm not the only vampire in the world."
Steve dropped his head into his hand, wincing a little as it pulled on Bucky's bite, sighed, then grabbed a pillow and lobbed it at Bucky's face.
Bucky pushed it aside. "What was that for?"
"I'm not the only vampire in the world." Steve lifted an eyebrow. "You know what you sound like right now?"
"And I already knew about two of them."
"True." Bucky propped himself up on his elbows and fixed Steve with a serious look. "I didn't think anyone paid attention to me. To other vampires, I'm nothing. I'm garbage. But turns out I was wrong. They do pay attention." Bucky gripped the sheets, tight enough to rip tiny holes, but Steve didn't say a word. "I didn't think it would matter. I was stupid. I was unforgivably stupid. I never should have let you know what I am. Let you keep knowing."
"You didn't let me know anything. I figured it out."
"Because I didn't do what I'm supposed to and fog your memory. I should have destroyed those pictures and put the whammy on you and I didn't."
"You know why. But it was so fucking selfish." His eyes were guilty and sad. "Steve, I'm so sorry."
"Bucky? I want you to listen to me." He straddled Bucky's thighs and caught Bucky's chin, giving Bucky's head a little shake. "You're sorry. I accept that. What I won't accept is you beating yourself up about it. If you'd done that, if you'd taken yourself from me, I'd be so much less than I am now. I'd still be me, I'd still be living a decent life, but I'd be so much less. Because I wouldn't have lost only all this, all of you," he stroked his thumb across Bucky's bottom lip, "everything we have now, I'd have lost everything I had of you from before, every time you touched my life in the past. So be sorry we have to deal with this now, but don't be sorry at the choice you made. I'm not and I'd tell you to make it again and again, because I fucking love you."
Bucky's eyes had slowly widened while Steve spoke, but now they grew sharper, stronger, and he nodded. He caught Steve's hand, kissed his palm, pressed a lingering kiss over the pulse in his wrist. "I love you, too."
"Okay." Steve let out a shaky breath, needing to get himself back on an even keel. Bucky ran his fingers down his arm in slow strokes and he felt himself settle. "Okay, what's actually going on?"
"They gave me an ultimatum. I'm supposed to kill you or enthrall you, or they'll kill you themselves. That’s why the beat the hell out of me and dumped me here, in the hopes I'd lose control."
"So we know they're not very smart." Bucky laughed quietly. "Who're they?"
"He, I guess. I don't know his name and it doesn't matter. They're interchangeable. Old vampires, killers, with lots of power and lousy taste in interior decorating. They're deeply committed to ensuring our existence doesn't become public knowledge, and they're not going to listen to me say you're trustworthy, that you'd never tell anyone what I was."
"I know. Why do you think I never said Steve, you must keep this a secret. What a waste of time. If you didn't know you had to keep it a secret, I wouldn’t have told you in the first place."
"Once again, you didn't tell me, I figured it out."
"Fine, yes, but I confirmed it."
"What are the options again?"
"I kill you or I enthrall you."
"And faking my own death is out, I guess."
"Can we fight them?"
Bucky couldn't exactly go pale, but he gave it a good shot.
Steve took it as a no. "Can we run?"
"There's nowhere we could go they wouldn’t find us."
"Okay, what about the enthralling thing. What's that?"
"Just tell me what it is."
"There's no point because we're not going there. I'm not doing that to you."
"Will you just tell me, Bucky?"
"A thrall's basically a slave. A will-slave. Vampires make them by taking over a human's mind completely. There's nothing left of who they were, they only live for their master." Bucky shuddered all over. "Poor, pathetic bastards."
"Do they physically change? Like can't go out in sunlight, that kind of thing?"
"No, they're still human, just...broken."
"I could do that."
Steve suddenly found himself pinned under a ferociously angry Bucky. "No," he growled, a hint of fang peeking out. "You couldn’t. And I'd walk into the sun before I'd do it to you."
"Shh," Steve soothed, running his hands through Bucky's hair. "Easy. It's okay. I mean, I could pretend to do that."
"I could pretend. Couldn't I?"
Bucky blinked, taken aback, and relaxed to lie on top of him. "Uh."
"How hard could it be?"
"For you?" Steve watched Bucky thinking it over, expression flitting between horrified, speculative, considering, then his eyes flashed up to meet Steve's and he choked back a laugh. "You're the most wilful, stubborn asshole I have ever met in my entire time on this planet. What in the hell makes you think you could pull it off?"
"Desperation?" Steve offered. "I'll just channel my inner golden retriever."
They had a plan and it was about the worst plan Bucky had ever encountered and that was counting the war, when almost every plan had been fucked six ways from Sunday.
Except it was also kind of brilliant.
It all depended on how you looked at it.
There was no way any of the ever-interchangeable they of the vampires represented by the one who'd delivered the ultimatum would ever suspect it. It was so far outside anything they could imagine—if they even had the capacity to imagine, and Bucky frankly doubted it—that if he and Steve could pull it off, it might work.
He and Steve. Who was he kidding? This was all on Steve.
Watching him practice, practicing with him, was disturbing, Bucky kind of hated it, but they had to get it right.
He'd have to smell like Steve to sell it, and he was grateful beyond reckoning Steve had made his offer, that he'd said yes, before they'd come up with this abomination of a plan. If he'd had to feed from Steve just for this he didn't think he'd have been able to stand it, but vampires fed off their thralls; they wouldn't have had a choice. Vampires did all sorts of things to their thralls Bucky tried very hard not to think about when Steve was practicing, because it made him want to destroy things.
But when Steve fed him...
It made Bucky want to roll around like a cat. Made him want to cuddle into Steve and never let him go. Steve's blood was like fire, like whiskey, like what Bucky could remember of sunshine and maybe there was something to his freely given theory, because Bucky had never felt anything like the power it gave him.
Steve was kneeling at Bucky's feet, his cheek resting on Bucky's thigh, his eyes closed, when he said, "Let's take the fight to them."
Bucky didn't answer, just ran his fingers through Steve's hair.
"I can't pretend to be a thrall full-time, waiting for them to show up and check. So we go to wherever they are, or you make an appointment with them or however it works, and we convince them I'm your good little thrall, and then they leave you alone. They leave us alone."
"That's the dumbest idea I've ever heard."
"What's the alternative?"
After a long moment of silence Bucky said, "Shit."
Steve grinned and kissed Bucky's leg.
Bucky felt like he was playing an overly-elaborate game of pass the parcel by the time he actually managed to get a message sent. The answer eventually came back: Very well, you and your thrall will be collected at midnight on Thursday.
"Midnight," Steve said. "Cliché. Are they going to be wearing velvet?"
"Do thralls ever laugh their asses off at other vampires?"
"No. Steve." Bucky grabbed him and hung on. "This is crazy."
"It's not going to work."
"We're both going to die."
"You can't die," Steve pointed out. "So it'll just be me. Dying all alone. Do you think they'll tear my throat out?"
Bucky leaned back to glare at him and Steve brushed his fingers across Bucky's cheek. "We're going to be fine. I'm going to be your obedient thrall, you're going to be my magnificent vampire master, and it's going to be fine." Steve kissed him. "I love you." Steve kissed him again, lifting his head before Bucky could do more than lean into it. "My life is literally yours. This?" He tapped his chest over his heart, smiling crookedly. "It's beating for both of us. How can they possibly stand against that?"
A swell of love overtook him, love and something that felt like faith. Bucky stood straighter. "They can't."
They debated the merits of dressing up, but mutually decided: screw it. They'd gone for dressing down instead, both in jeans and t-shirts, even if Steve's was possibly a size too small and stretched too tight.
The car that collected them was a black SUV with windows tinted so dark they couldn't see out, and a driver who didn't speak. Steve was silent, walking one step behind Bucky, head bowed, somehow small despite his size, but there was a glint in his eyes, a gleam only Bucky could see.
Steve didn't move on the drive, stayed motionless next to Bucky. He was like a different person, his entire personality gone, replaced with an empty shell. They got out of the SUV into a garage and Steve followed Bucky into an elevator, Bucky following the driver, and they were led into the same dark room, with the same plush crimson carpet, the same desk with the same blue-eyed vampire sitting behind it, bruiser at his right hand, his array of...Bucky was just going to call them minions, behind.
"James," he said, gesturing at Bucky to stand in the centre of the room.
Bucky obeyed. When he stopped, Steve, without prompting, dropped gracelessly, as if his body was of no concern to him, to kneel at Bucky's feet...with his back squarely to the blue-eyed vampire. A nicely calculated insult. Bucky wanted to grin. Instead, he rested his hand on Steve's head, fingers tangled in his hair, reassuring them both, and waited.
"This is your thrall?"
"You didn't kill him, then."
The blue eyes switched to Steve. "Steven Rogers."
Steve didn't react, not even a twitch at his name.
"Steven Grant Rogers." It was more emphatic this time, and the blue-eyed vampire rose from his chair, wearing a frown of irritation. "Answer me."
Steve was still and steady under Bucky's hand, but Bucky saw that glint again.
"He obeys me." Bucky paused. "Did I do something wrong?" he asked innocently. "Isn't that how it's supposed to work?"
There was a long pause, and Bucky felt faint stirrings of relief, because this was working. "It would be better if you taught him some manners, but yes, he's supposed to obey you."
"Manners, right. I must have missed that what with being threatened and beaten and everything."
"You brought it on yourself, James. Now. I'd like to see proof of your control. A demonstration."
"What do you want me to do? Get him to fetch the paper? Chase a ball?"
"No, much simpler than that. We're going to feed off him and he's going to let us."
Hot rage stabbed through him. Steve didn't react, his heart didn't speed up, there was no tang of adrenaline. Bucky couldn't begin to imagine the control that took. He focussed on Steve's heartbeat, steady, slow, and made himself respond calmly.
"How many are you prepared to sacrifice?"
"I just want to know how many of the vampires in this room you're prepared to sacrifice. Because if anyone tries to feed off him, if anyone touches a drop of his blood, I'll twist their heads off and watch them dissolve into ash." The array of minions stirred. The bruiser took a step forward. Bucky bared his teeth, knew he was showing fang. "I'm not luring muggers and humping club bunnies anymore. I feed off him, he's mine, and I'll destroy everyone in this room to keep it that way."
A knife's edge of tension swirled around them; Steve was calm under his hand but Bucky wanted to scream as the moment dragged on and on, then the blue-eyed vampire glanced at the bruiser and nodded. "I'm satisfied."
"What?" Bucky said.
"You can go. Take your mannerless thrall with you."
With a distinctly avuncular air, the blue-eyed vampire explained, "The master-thrall bond tends towards the possessive. You wouldn't have risked yourself to the extent you just did if it didn't exist." He waved a hand at Bucky in clear dismissal. "Leave and don't break the rules again."
In something of a daze, Bucky gestured at Steve to stand. Steve rose to his feet and followed as they retraced their steps: elevator, SUV, drive back to the apartment.
The moment the door was closed, Steve shook himself like a dog shedding water, stood straight and tall, and he was Steve again. "He really has no idea how people work, does he?"
Bucky pulled Steve in tight and hung on. "I don't know whether to have a break down or give you a standing ovation. Hell, Steve."
Steve hung on just as tight and kissed Bucky's temple. "It was a good performance. Not sure it can quite match up to you at the end there, with your I'll destroy everyone in this room, but it wasn't bad."
"Steve." Bucky took a step back, Steve's hands trailing along his sides. "I wasn't acting. I wasn't joking. I meant every word."
"I know." Steve's fingers tightened in Bucky's shirt, knuckles digging into his ribs. "I know, Bucky. It's why I wasn't scared. Get back here." He dragged Bucky back, not that Bucky was fighting, and Bucky buried his face in the crook of Steve's neck, Steve cradled the back of his head, and they held onto each other.
Time passed and Bucky settled. They were here in Steve's apartment. They were safe. Steve was safe. "I can't believe we pulled that off."
"It helps that they're idiots."
Bucky laughed against Steve's neck. "They are. Idiots can still kill you, though."
"I know. Will we be all right now?"
"We should be. They said make you a thrall. They believe you’re a thrall. They can't imagine a world where they could ever be wrong, so they've got no more reason to care about me."
"Okay." Steve rubbed Bucky's back, let his hand trail up to curl around the back of his neck. "So we've sorted out your vampire overlords—"
"They're not vampire overlords, don't call them that."
"Sorted out your vampire overlords," Steve repeated, and Bucky rolled his eyes. "We've worked out that I can feed you. We've figured out that I can convert the utility closet into a safe space for you to sleep during the day—"
Bucky pulled back to stare at him. "Wait, when did we do that?"
"I worked it out. It's big enough for a mattress, it's completely dark, we can put a padlock on the inside so there's no risk of anyone opening it, and that means you could move in."
"...did you just ask me to move in?"
"I did." He sounded confident, but the way he lifted his chin told Bucky he was a little unsure.
Bucky wasn't. He caught Steve's face between his hands and kissed the hell out of him.
Steve was breathless when he pulled away. "That's a yes?"
"That's a yes."
"Right." Steve seemed dazed. Happy, but dazed. "Right. Okay, good. You're gonna move in." He grinned. "Really?"
"Okay, so by my count there's only one thing we haven't taken care of."
With a tiny smile, Steve settled his hands on Bucky's hips, eyebrows raised expectantly. "I believe you mentioned something about the best sex of my life?"
Bucky laughed, tipping forward to rest his head against Steve's chest, the sound of his heart wrapping around him. It beat for both of them, that heart, and he kissed Steve's chest.
He couldn’t know for sure, but he thought this was it, that they were it for each other. And if they were, if this was their for always, he thought maybe, at the end, when it was Steve's time, he'd go, too. Maudlin thoughts, maybe, but he didn't feel that way. He'd never wanted to be a vampire, never wanted to live forever. Maybe the world had just been keeping him around so he could get to Steve. Maybe love makes you ridiculous, he thought, laughing softly.
But that was a problem for future Bucky. Right now, he had a promise to keep. "Best sex of your life, coming up."