Bucky’s hand found his pen before he was fully awake, knocking over the candlestick that he’d left on his table from writing late into the night. The dream rolled in his head like a wave returning to the ocean, and he was grabbing at the receding tide. His pen gashed at the paper, nearly ripping it, and nearly spilling his inkwell in order to fill the crowquill with ink. He tried to find the right words to explain—
I saw that which will raze the earth,
Coiled and waiting in hellish, hot stones.
To know this new age will be birthed,
Under the earth, where no man goes.
Fearful his countenance—
I could see him, Bucky thought. In the dream I could see him.
Fearful his countenance—
Golden, haloed in fire, cloaked in night, but how to make the words go? Fire and stars and whorling visions made less and less sense as the sun rose for the day. He willed the next line of words to come out of his pen, but they were stopped up at the end of his hand.
It would have been nothing to dip the pen again, but the tide of the vision had receded to the ocean of dreams, back where it had come from. Bucky grimaced and held his pen in a fist that could have broken the inexpensive wooden stylus. Calmed, he let the pen clatter to the tabletop. Putting his hands through his long hair, he pulled at the roots in his frustration. He was back in a world of uncomprehending.
He observed the room around him. The noises of the inn could be heard as the world woke up around him. He smelled the cooking food wafting up through the cracks in the floorboards from the kitchen below. It was a small, drafty room and with the fever of the dream departing, he realized how cold he was. The air was moist. The longer he stayed in this room, the more he felt that wet, cold air in his lungs. The window was not well-sealed but it looked out onto the Paris rooftops, though it didn’t get much sun. All the rooms he’d stayed in on the continent were like this, as it was all his money could buy.
He warmed his hands with his breath and decided to get dressed. He slipped without much care into trousers and shirts, threw on his coat for good measure and, out of habit, slipped a long knife into his belt, and a shorter one in his breast pocket, and went down to eat.
“Yes, that’s him,” came a whisper. “The man from New York.”
Bucky was becoming used to being an oddity on the continent. He talked in his colonial cadence but was far enough away from England by now that fewer people were willing to make the distinction between English and American. Being ogled in his lodgings wasn’t something he had ever looked forward to, but the journey had still called for him.
The pair whispering were a man sitting on a chair by the fire and a familiar woman. The whispering woman approached him—she was in fact the landlady, the innkeeper’s wife.
“Monsieur Barnes,” said her now-familiar, heavily-accented English. “Eggs again?”
“S'il vous plaît,” Bucky replied, exhausting a good portion of his French. “And that lovely bread?”
Bucky glanced back at the man and caught a moment of eye contact before the other man turned away and began talking with the man beside him. Bucky had the instinct that they were still talking about him. He turned away and sat at a table built for two in the very back of the room.
A few minutes later, Bucky tucked into his breakfast, dipping the stale, but still good, bread into runny yolks. All the while, he could feel eyes on him.
The American. The poet. The soldier. None of them could agree on what to call him. Whatever it was, people normally called him it behind his back. Something about him kept the others at arm’s length. All but the innkeeper’s wife. Her heart was soft for him, for some reason, and he let her have her crush. He looked at her and she smiled; he nodded and she went back to her work.
It made him sad that he had to leave. His room was cold enough to make him sick, the French sometimes mistook him for British, and he hadn’t a soul to confide in. But it had its comforts. Paris was not a bad place to wayfair.
But there were the visions, and the Great Dragon, and the mountain.
His head was still roiling with the dream, though its particulars were departing. They were staying with him longer these days, but some of them still fled. Even when his memory failed him, the image of the Great Dragon was there, etched into a plate and pressed into his mind with a hard, sure stamp.
He dipped his bread into the yolk, making a circle with long, unconscious motions.
The old god haloed in yellow.
He was everywhere Bucky looked. More than that, he seemed to be getting closer.
Bucky pushed his plate away and shivered. His appetite gone, he wouldn’t be able to finish the crescent of bread that sat on the metal plate.
“Is everything all right?” the innkeeper’s wife asked.
It wasn’t often that he had the visions in the daytime, but when they came on they were wider and all-consuming. Panic began to set in and his heart hammered on the walls of his chest. He pushed his plate away and nearly fell off his chair. He grabbed his forehead and tried to press the oncoming onslaught away.
A hand grabbed his shoulder and he nearly leapt out of his skin.
“Monsieur,” came a voice. It then fired off something rapid in French. Bucky’s brain struggled to comprehend it.
He turned to see two men standing above him. Maréchaussées, royal soldiers, their sashes proudly displayed across their chest, though their uniforms were becoming threadbare and discolored. They both looked at him, curiously.
“Gentlemen,” Bucky said, nodding his head. “If you’ll excuse me…”
“English?” one of them asked.
Bucky’s brow furrowed in annoyance.
“Américan,” one of the guards said to the other.
They looked skeptically at him, eyes flicking over his body. “Where are your traveling papers?”
“In my room,” Bucky said with an exhausted sigh. “Along with my bed and my pen, which I long to return to.”
Bucky moved to get up, but the officer pushed him back down into the chair with a firm hand. Bucky grunted and sighed, his jaw setting in a frustrated line. He felt the weight of the dagger in his coat and his belt and tried to will them to be invisible.
It seemed to have the opposite effect. Their eyes found the dagger and they shifted uncomfortably. Bucky narrowed his eyes, the tension in his neck heightening.
One of them reached into the breast pocket of his jacket. Bucky reeled back, but it was only a piece of paper that he pulled out—and on it was a picture and text in French that was too dense for Bucky to understand.
The image on the paper was an illustration of a man with long hair and a pale face. Bucky’s heart sunk as he realized it looked just enough like him that it was about to make his day significantly worse.
“Debtor,” said the one who seemed not to speak much English. “Englishman. You.”
“No,” Bucky said. ““Américan, remember? No debts. Just poor.”
Bucky began to wonder how to best get out of this. It would be no small feat to throw a chair into their legs, trip them up, knock them down, and cut their belt to remove their weapons. But he didn’t know if there were more outside, and if there were then how would he get to his few possessions? He could not go anywhere without his journal.
He slowly began to get up and a wave of dizziness hit him. He knew that feeling. When the visions visited him at day they rose up as if from a well under the earth. He wasn’t sure if he could fight through this—
“Gentlemen,” came a voice in the King’s English behind him. “Is there a reason for this interference?”
Bucky craned his neck to glare over his shoulder. He saw a tall man with dark hair wearing a cap and holding his hands on his hips. He recognized him as the patron who had been whispering about him, though he didn’t know why. He narrowed his eyes and waited for his next move.
“This isn’t your concern,” said the second officer, suddenly in command of better English.
“This man is a companion of mine,” the stranger said. “I’d like to know where you get off harassing him.”
“And where are your traveling papers?” said the second officer with a scowl.
“I think this will decide if I’m worth vouching for his character.”
The stranger reached into his jacket pocket and provided a folder. The officers snatched it and opened it, skimming the contents. As they read, their eyes went wider and finally they hemmed and shifted.
“Very sorry, sir,” the officer said. “Anyone with VIP papers will of course—”
“Yes, very well,” said the stranger. “Be on your way and stop harassing my man.”
“Of course,” said one.
“Our mistake,” said the other.
Bucky watched the officers leave as the man hovered over his shoulder. He wasn’t sure how long he could stay upwards. He grasped the edge of the table, accidentally clattering his plate.
“Come, my friend,” said the stranger. “You’re unwell.”
Bucky wasn’t sure how the stranger got him upstairs.
The Great Dragon must have been eager to see him again.
Normally he left Bucky for the day, giving him the sun and the air, while the dragon visited among stars and firelight. The dragon encompassed him like an embrace. Bucky succumbed and felt the bed rise to meet him.
“What do you want?” came a thought, one that could be heard like an echo in a chasm.
The dragon sat at his feet like a coiling cat. His eyes were fire as he looked at him, smoking and flickering. He never knew the beast to be this close to him before. He was gathered at the foot of his bed, his great horns crowning him and his hair glowed in the sun behind his head.
As that fiery gaze bored into Bucky’s eyes, he hid the part of himself that knew the answer. It wanted annihilation.
As the dragon moved up his body to hover over him, Bucky could only watch from inside a frozen body. Hovering over him, its fiery eyes searched his face. There was softness there. Bucky gasped. He expected a kind of hellfire, but it was warm, like the body of a lover. It reached out to touch him. Every muscle in Bucky’s body became taut.
He drowned under the wave of the vision. As the dragon rose, the mountain under which it slept sloughed off his back. He was larger than the mountain, larger than anything Bucky had ever seen. It grew and grew until he was sure it would crack the dome of the sky—
Bucky awoke to the feeling of wetness on his forehead. Someone was wiping a cloth with cool water on his head. He coiled away from the dampness and looked up at the face of a stranger.
No, not a stranger. The man from downstairs, the one who had intervened.
“You weren’t out for long,” said the man. “Sir, I hope you don’t mind my presumptuousness, but I didn’t think it dignified for you to be ill in a room full of strangers. I thought I might give you privacy.”
Bucky pushed himself up on his elbows and let his eyes wander around the room. Nothing seemed to be out of place or stolen. Mostly, he found that his notebook was still intact, laying on the desk under the window where he’d left it. He breathed in relief.
“I—I was,” Bucky said, trying to find an excuse.
“You were having a spell,” Monty said. “Don’t worry, I have a relative who succumbs to such things. These damp quarters aren’t helping matters, I’m sure. You just need to gather strength, sir.”
“You don’t have to call me sir.”
“Then maybe a name to call you by?”
“James Barnes. But everybody calls me Bucky.”
“Bucky, hey? From America, yes?”
The man shrugged. “I just hope you don’t mind an Englishman attending to you. I figured you for a Patriot.”
“It’s in how you hold yourself. And the way you can see for miles beyond any wall. Not to mention, people like to talk about you. Now then, let’s get you up.”
The man helped Bucky to sit up, grabbing him by the shoulders and helping him to sit. Bucky grabbed his head, the room swimming.
“You have me at a disadvantage,” Bucky said.
“James Montgomery Falsworth,” he said. “At your disposal. Please, call me Monty. There are rather a lot of us James’ aren’t there?”
“At your disposal? You kept me out of a lot of trouble. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?”
“Nonsense. I saw someone in need of aid and I lent my hand. What are my wiles for if not to help someone out of a tight spot now and again?”
Bucky accepted it, but only partway. There were always reasons for the things that people do. If there was one thing Bucky had learned with bruises and battlescars, it was that. All the same, he didn’t feel any sense of danger from the fellow, and after traveling alone for so long, he was eager to trust his instincts.
“I’m not sure how to repay you,” Bucky said.
“Don’t think on it,” said Monty.
This Monty fellow had enough of a finesse to him that Bucky took him for coming from good standing. Thousands of gentlemen took the tour across the continent every year, from England to the Mediterranean, taking in sights of great homes, museums, and baths. Monty seemed like he would be one of those gentlemen.
“Are you touring?” Bucky asked.
“A tour of my own making,” Monty said. “I’m something of a vulcanist.”
“I’m sorry, a what?”
Monty’s hands became animated, a sure sign of a naturalist. Men of science are often eager to share what they know. Bucky braced himself for an onslaught.
“These neptunists have a strange notion,” Monty said. “For years they’ve put forth the ridiculous belief that mountains and hills are the result of the crystallization of the earth’s minerals.”
Bucky’s heart skipped a beat. “Mountains?”
“But I and others like myself believe there is heat at the center of the globe which drives up the earth—”
“Are you going to the mountains? Which mountains?”
“I am. There are these great hills, supposed to be beautiful to see. The Auvergne. Why do you ask?”
His mind rolled back to his dreams. The great beast rising, the mountainside rolling off its back as it woke and began to walk, fire erupting around it.
“It sounds…,” Bucky said, searching for a word that was not ‘terrifying.’
“Fascinating,” he at last fell upon.
Fate pulled at him. A tug in his soul had drawn him to the boats going to the continent. A tug had insisted that he go to France. He had waited for another one of those instincts, but he had been lingering in Paris, not knowing when that tug would pull at him again, thinking himself since abandoned by fate.
And now this man spoke of mountains.
He sat taller on his bed and Monty pulled back, not afraid but curious and cautious.
“I’m going to study them,” Monty said. “Then I’m on to meet many of my friends in Italy, some of whom are friends from Oxford. We’re all meant to meet. We call ourselves ‘The Howling Commandos,’ though I don’t think there’s a soldier among us. The sorts of names boys come up with, I suppose.”
Bucky hummed with interest. His mind was still on the mountains. He imagined what they must look like. Craggy, jutting structures, cutting into the sky. He imagined thunder rolling around them, grey clouds in the air, heavy with rain and roiling with thunder. He shivered outwardly, his shoulders nearly touching his ears.
“My friend,” Monty said. “Are you alright?”
An instinct told him to speak, and he didn’t know where the words came from. “These mountains are to the south?” Bucky asked.
“Why yes. Perhaps you’ve heard of the baths there. They’re newly renovated. Quite the sight now, as I understand.”
“Why would I have heard of the baths?”
“Oh, I supposed you were going there for your…because of your…to take the waters.”
Monty was trying his best not to mention Bucky’s health. Bucky had to smirk, a puff of laughter exiting his nose. So often people avoided the subject. There was a sense, from some, that this was a shame that Bucky harbored.
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Bucky said.
“They’re meant to be quite restorative,” Monty said.
“Maybe I should take to them.”
A path at last was laid out for him. That tug pulled at him so hard that he felt his chest dragged by it. Around him he felt a presence, warm as fire, and it beckoned him: go forward.
“Why would you do that?” Bucky said. “Travel with a complete stranger?”
“Ah, yes,” Monty said. “That’s my proposal. You might have noticed I’m traveling alone. I have my VIP papers and some money, but that’s just about all. I’ve been nearly stripped of my worldly possessions more than once, and only gotten out through a bit of cunning now and again. But I fear my luck won’t hold out. I hope this isn’t an insult, but I sized you up as a soldier the moment I laid eyes on you. Before those officers came, I was going to approach you anyway. I can pay a little—”
“Wait. You want to hire me?”
“Companionship and protection. Those are the two things I’m lacking in the moment.”
“I had a fit in your presence, and you still think I’m the man for the job?”
“Ah, yes,” Monty said, scratching his jaw. “I have to confess that gave me pause. But as you were laying there, you spoke of such things—I was going to look elsewhere but I am fascinated.”
“I’m not on display for anyone’s curiosity.”
“No, that’s not what I want.”
“I’m not sure.”
Bucky narrowed his eyes at Monty. There was something sincere in his eyes.
“I can tell you all about it,” Bucky said. “For a price.”
“We haven’t discussed your fee,” Monty said.
“You don’t understand. My brain is on fire. I need a drink.”
Monty smiled, wry and wicked.
“I have just the thing,” he said.
It had been a long time since Bucky had had real English gin. It went straight into every sense, through the blood and into the brain. He and Monty had a bottle each. He said he had a few for special occasions. After months of cheap wine, Bucky felt positively spoiled.
The day of business talk turned into a night of reveling. They were both encamped in the same room by then, moving out of Bucky’s damp, inhospitable one to another inn, warmer, and dry. Bucky lay on the bed across from where Monty sat, his arm thrown over his eyes. The night had just fallen, but it was dark and deep already. The candles sat between the pair of them, illuminating them with dim and comforting fire.
“These dreams of yours,” Monty said. “Do you fear them?”
Bucky was at a loss. He held the bottle in his hand and rotated it as he thought of how to answer.
“I’m overwhelmed by them,” Bucky said.
“But you’re not afraid?” Monty pressed.
“In way? Yes, I fear him. He is awesome.”
Monty steepled his fingers and pressed them against his mouth as he thought.
“How long have you had these visions?” Monty asked.
“They started…,” Bucky said, reaching. “Before the revolution. When war was in the air like a calm before the storm. Though, I would not exactly call affairs before the declaration ‘calm.’”
“No, indeed not.”
Bucky sat up, a wonderful headiness taking him.
“You are a man of learning, are you not?” Bucky asked.
“I would hope so,” Monty said. “Though it would depend on your area of inquiry.”
Bucky got up and went to the desk beside his bed. He shuffled around and found his journal, and the few books he had decided to risk traveling with. He brought them to the table he was sharing with Monty and laid them out. Monty peered at them in the dim light.
“I’ve wanted to show someone this,” Bucky said. “It’s something from my visions, though I wasn’t sure what to make of them.”
“What’s in here?” Monty asked.
“Fragments. Bits of visions, studies, some of my poems.”
“My Monsieur Barnes is a poet?”
“Oh, you must share something with me.”
“Later. See what sense you can make of this.”
The page was a map of wheels and symbols. They were things Bucky had intuited from the books in his possession, though not fully understood. Monty squinted and brought the page closer to his face.
“I’m not sure,” Monty said. “Give me some time with these books.”
Bucky gave him his time, but patience eluded him. He found himself pacing in the end of the room, in the dark, nibbling the end of his thumb.
“You can stop doing that now,” Monty said. “I seem to have gotten it.”
Bucky’s heart leapt and there was a bit of a hop to his step as he came over. Monty pointed to a formula he had written out on a spare piece of parchment.
“Keep in mind that this is not my area of expertise,” Monty said. “But the mathematics this book says to follow are simple enough, if you’re familiar with them. I think one thing is missing however.”
“What’s that?” Bucky asked.
“When’s your birthday?”
Bucky’s brow ticked down as he wondered why he could be asking. He pushed down his urge to ask more questions and rattled it off. Monty made more notes, cross-referenced something in the book, and then wrote down something and underlined it.
“You’ll find this very interesting,” Monty said.
“What is that?” Bucky said.
“That’s a star in the constellation draco. Also known as the Dragon.”
Bucky’s heart burned in his chest. That tug again, the one that said he was getting closer to something, to it, to truth, to the center of everything, ran through his body.
“What does that have to do with me?” Bucky asked.
“It was in the house of your stars at the time of your birth. You were born under Draco—the Dragon. I don’t know if I believe in this discipline, but…well, it would appear to be fate.”
Bucky left Paris behind with the reluctance of leaving the house of a very good friend. The city had been good to him, but for a few scraps of trouble and the malaise that followed him in the absence of direction. Now he headed out as the protection of a stranger, though one he didn’t think would be any sort of trouble.
He was, however, a bit incomprehensible at times.
The vulcanist railed against the neptunists and spoke of fire under the earth. That part he paid close attention to. If the dragon of his dreams were buried under the earth, it would be to be close to something approximating the warmth of the sun it had come from—or at least the sun Bucky intuited he came from.
Fire above, fire below,
Coiled under mountains high,
The water boiling under the earth,
Reaching out and calling I—
Another fragment, another half-poem. He remembered it in the dead of night, as Monty lay sleeping near him on the warm grass, to write it in his journal before another stream of dreams visited him in the night. He tried to will the full poem out of himself but his mind strained like a muscle and as sleep took him he was unwilling to push too far.
Though the sun haloed the dragon’s head, it was clearly still night as Bucky opened his eyes. He started and stared. It was as if he were waking, but with such brilliance there, Monty surely would have awakened. The Englishman was still asleep.
The dragon was real enough to touch.
And he looked like a man. More like a man than a beast, as he had before. He didn’t coil or crouch—he stood. Standing above him, legs astride Bucky’s laying form, he cocked his head, his great horns framing him, curving toward the sky. He was robed in purple and gold, his chest and arms bare, scandalous if he were a man. Cuffs of pure gold decorated his neck and wrists.
Bucky opened his mouth to speak. No words came out. The same strain that came with unfinished poems took him then. The dragon was still beyond description, but for the lack of words to describe his beauty.
Bucky was at a loss. He had never seen anything like this in his visions. The dragon’s eyes strained. It was desperate. It needed an answer, and it didn’t understand why he didn’t already have one. Bucky’s heart hurt for the beast, but he could not ease his suffering.
“What am I becoming?” the Dragon asked.
Bucky’s entire being flashed with fear. It had never spoken before. Not like a man speaks, made of words and their syntax. The dragon had only ever spoken to him in waves of images and emotions. He would wake knowing that the dragon had spoken to him, but only be able to get fragments out of his poems, shards of understanding.
Now the dragon was speaking. Speaking directly to him.
“I don’t understand,” Bucky tried.
The dragon took a breath, the muscles in his throat constricting. Its eyes shook—no, his eyes. They were no longer pits of fire. They were blue, and clear. Still extraordinary, the dragon at last approximated something human. But only approximating. He was still crowned with horns and wreathed with sun, wearing all of the stars on his back.
“You,” it finished. “It’s all you.”
The dragon sought out Bucky’s visage in the quick, intelligent darts of his eyes. He was looking for something, some understanding about the human man he looked down at, but there was something he simply didn’t understand.
“You don’t know, do you?” the dragon said, voice rough and deep. “You don’t know what you’re doing to me.”
The dragon crouched over him. The dragon lifted a hand and it hovered over Bucky’s face. Bucky could feel the heat radiating off him. When the dragon laid his fingers against Bucky’s mouth, he expected to burn—it was like the heat of a hot bath and it unwound him, each muscle, to the bone.
Bucky sighed as if his soul were leaving in his breath. The dragon took his hand away quick, as if he were the one burned. Bucky could feel his earthly body sink into the ground where he slept. He had never known his body to be so devoid of tension.
He had energy enough for one thing.
He lifted his arm, his hand moving to cup the dragon’s cheek. At first the beast seemed wily as a cat and twitched back and away, retreating into the comfort of its stars.
Then it stopped. Curiosity overrode his fear—if fear were something that it was capable of feeling. The dragon leaned into the touch of Bucky’s hand. The dragon closed its eyes. Bucky felt the heat of that skin again, unwinding his muscles and pulling him in deep.
Found I understanding in your eyes.
Might I have gone wholly mad?
In madness would I ascend,
Or draw down the stars with my hands?
The pair broke bread at an inn in a valley town some ten miles south of Paris. Bucky was ravenous, as if he had run five miles without stopping. He scooped up the stew with his elbow of bread and tore at the soaked loaf. Monty watched him with raised brows. He looked at him from over his bowl. Bucky continued as if he were completely alone.
They couldn’t have been more different. Bucky was a Patriot—helping to win a war against the British in battle after battle, always finding a need for a soldier. He’d nearly frozen in winters when the summer soldiers had long gone back to their homes, lived in mud and muck and waded in worse things.
Monty would have his share of troubles, but he was a rich man’s son.
Bucky had been enlisted for what he was—rough and tumble, the right sort of man to protect a man who needed to keep his head in order to do his important thinking. Bucky found no insult in it.
It was only that as Bucky was never so more aware of the chasm between their experiences as he was in that moment.
Monty hemmed to get his attention. “These visions of yours,” he said. “They’re getting worse.”
Bucky stopped eating, rubbing some of the broth off of his chin. “Worse?”
It had not felt like something worse. It had felt like something new.
“I have a proposal,” Monty said.
Bucky recoiled, staring at him with a skeptical tilt of his head. “Proposal?”
“On the way to the mountains there are these baths. In Chaudes Aigues. People take the waters there all the time.”
“For their health.”
Bucky’s eyes narrowed. A moment later he snickered and took another spoonful of stew. Monty waited patiently for Bucky to finish eating.
“My health, you mean,” Bucky finished.
“Bucky, your brain is on fire,” Monty said. “Let me get you entrance. I have enough pull. We might even get glances of royalty. They’re quite fond of the old place. Come now Bucky, doesn’t that sound magnificent? Taking the waters a few yards away from royalty.”
“If they’re visiting.”
“Come now. If nothing else, let yourself be spoiled. Have you ever taken to the waters?”
“I’ve had a hot bath, Monty, believe it or not.”
“This is nothing like a wood-fire bath. The earth itself heats the water and shares the minerals of the earth. I believe it’s the same activity that creates mountains.”
Bucky laughed. “Keep me out of your experiments.”
“It’ll be my treat. Come on, Bucky. What say you?”
The first time Bucky saw the baths roll out in front of him, he felt that tug again.
He was meant to be there.
The question of why rose its head, but Bucky was loathe to meet it. Thinking about such things made his head strain, and he’d rather have it sharp for those moments when he had to look for deeper understandings.
He allowed the tug to take him to the water.
He and Monty went in at the same time, dressed in their swimming clothes. Sinking into the water, every muscle in his body unwound. He realized how long it had been since he’d had a hot bath, but this was something else. He smelled and felt the difference in the water. It penetrated his skin and he sunk into it.
A shape appeared in his vision.
He was no longer alone in the privacy of his mind. There were the others in the bath, but he was with something unseen by them. He let his eyes linger closed, so he could wait for his visitor.
Something was coiling around his body. He felt something like fingertips against his skin, and he dipped down further. He was teased with that touch as if from a lover, lingering and light touches over flesh.
“These waters are supposed to be very healing,” Monty said. “The Romans came here in ancient times, you know—”
Monty was on another one of his rambles, and Bucky really did want to pay attention. There was something fascinating about the way the man talked about the mountains, geology, and other sciences besides. But Bucky’s attention was wholly taken by this presence in the water.
His eyes closed. He sunk into the water, his face just above the line. Monty’s words were muffled by the water, and the other man had not realized just yet that Bucky was no longer listening.
He sunk into the heat, floating, his long hair brushing his cheeks as it waved in the water. He didn’t think it was possible to sink in the hot, mineral waters. Yet he felt himself being dragged down.
The world under the water was as the weightlessness of dreams, yet he knew he was awake. He didn’t open his eyes, but he could see under the water. He watched himself float, the sun dappling his flesh, as if from the eyes of a serpent under the water.
That was when he knew. He was there, with him, in the water, disembodied but present. He was coming closer to him, moving in the water back and forth like an eel, coming closer to him. Bucky was still. He could have jumped from the water at any time. Something held him there. Something stronger than curiosity.
He saw through the dragon’s eyes as it coiled around him, winding between his limbs. Finally, it came to rest above Bucky’s face. He’d never seen himself through someone else’s eyes before. Before he could begin to wonder what the dragon thought or felt, the emotion swelled out from the dragon and into him.
Bucky breached the water and gasped, wiping the moisture from his face. Many of the faces in the water turned toward him as he thrashed and found the edge of the pool. Monty, who had clearly been talking to himself until that moment, took him by the shoulders.
“What is it?” Monty said. “What’s happened?”
They locked eyes. Then Monty didn’t have to ask. Bucky had seen another vision with waking eyes.
For a moment, Bucky shook as if cold, but none of the warmth had left him. It was the sudden absence of the presence, and the realization that Bucky hadn’t wanted it to go.
The manor was fourteen bedrooms strong and Monty’s friend was accommodating in letting them stay in one with adjoining doors. Monty’s room could be seen in the rectangle over his shoulder, the fireplace warming the space. It was more than Bucky had ever been used to. All the things in the house were fine, including the ones in the room he was staying in, and he was worried he’d knock something over. He was built for fighting, not pirouetting around another man’s fine things. Since the war, he had slept with a knife under his pillow. Now he was afraid of scratching the cotton and spilling the down along with it.
Now they spoke of esoteric business amongst the wealth and the taste. It felt like the wrong place to do it.
“This might sound a bit mad,” Monty said.
“I’m up for mad ideas right now,” Bucky promised.
“May I see your journal?”
Bucky reached to the bedside table and pulled his journal out from the drawer. He turned the leather-bound thing over in his hands, stroking the spine with his thumb, and nodded his head.
“When you first met me,” Bucky said. “You probably didn’t peg me as a poet.”
“I must confess,” Monty said. “Not as much. You had the bearing of a soldier, and a fighter.”
“You knew I needed coin and I had a skill to share.”
“I had no idea what depths lay beneath. It was a misdeed for me to suppose you some common lout.”
“I am a lout.”
“You are a poet. There is nothing undignified or crass about you.”
Bucky turned the journal over in his hand again. He sighed and handed it to Monty. The man took it with elegant care, clasped between two hands like a priest with a bible.
They studied Bucky’s words together. At instances of confusion, Bucky would fill in where Monty didn’t understand, explaining the way the dragon felt, or what the poems were trying really to say.
“I’m sorry that this is so difficult,” Bucky said at one point. “It would be easier if I were a better poet.”
“Bucky,” Monty scolded. “Your only problem is in finishing. If you could paint a whole picture, you could be great. I won’t have any of this talk of mediocrity.”
Bucky’s mouth twitched up in a smile, reaching his eyes, but he forced himself to make his mouth firm.
“All the same,” Bucky said. “I’ve never been able to truly capture him. I’m compelled to write, but the words get stuck in my hands after a few lines. I remember everything, but the words to describe it fade as if it were a normal dream.”
“But what about intuition?” Monty asked. “Certainly you must have some sense of something other than the desire to write?”
“Yes. I have these…pulls. Like there’s a hook in my chest connected to a line and I’m being pulled but I don’t know to where. It’s what led me to accept your offer. It’s what led me south, to the waters.”
“I wondered what made you accept my offer so readily.”
Monty smiled and Bucky’s face echoed it, but sadly. He wished he had come to the friendship he had come to by any other means.
“I feel like I’m using you, Monty,” Bucky said. “And I’m sorry.”
“Nonsense,” Monty said, patting him on the knee. “We all come to our friendship through the most circuitous routes.”
Monty was his friend. Bucky didn’t know why he was resisting it. He hadn’t had a friend in a long time, not since war ended and soldiers went their separate ways.
“Now,” Monty said. “Let’s see if I can understand what’s in your mind…”
Knowing he would dream in visions, Bucky found it hard to sleep. The last of Monty’s gin called to him from his pack and he drank deep.
The stupor of the drink did not follow him into the dream. He did not need it in order to float and swim in the headiness of it.
There were hands on his shoulder.
The beast had gone from incomprehensible to having hands. He was frightened to turn and look, but he did not allow fear to manhandle him. He turned and searched for the face he wasn’t sure he would understand…
A face looked at him, more human than he had ever seen it. Blue eyes sought his out, and for once it seemed the dragon was the one trying to come to some sort of understanding. The dragon’s eyes flitted over Bucky’s face and his hand reached up.
Bucky thought he should recoil, but he felt no danger any longer in the dragon’s presence. It reached up and held Bucky’s face, gentle, soft. He could feel it on his skin as readily as if it were waking life. Bucky felt his breath hitch and the air he breathed was warm.
“Why?” the Dragon asked. “Why this? Why do I desire this?”
The word desire thrummed inside of Bucky’s body like a plucked string. His lips parted and he realized with dawning terror that he, in that moment, tasted desire on his tongue.
The dragon stared at his mouth with want but was still.
Bucky closed the distance between them.
The dragon was warm. Bucky breathed in the smell of the sun on dust and felt warmth radiate into him.
The dragon pulled away, surprise evident in his wide, blue eyes.
The dragon pressed his mouth against Bucky’s. He had a cluelessness to his kiss, and innocence that surpassed Bucky’s surprise. It was a fast learner and soon the kiss was deep and pure, something to get lost in and time passed with their indifference—
Passion’s very breath lies in your lungs,
Thing of splendour, child of stars and sun.
Climbing to you, my hands burnt on ev’ry rung,
To ascend to meet you, thus should my life be done.
Bucky walked through the next day in a stupor, his feet seeming to be cushioned by a layer of cloud. The sky was clear and the sun pressed against his skin, every moment a reminder of what dreams he had shared.
He only passed to Monty the knowledge that there had been a vision, but he kept the intimate particulars to himself. There was reason to be greedy. The dragon was beginning to take the shape of a man. There was no reason for Monty to know his inclinations. That was none’s business but his own.
Especially not now, when he his lips had kissed the sun itself.
“Your steps are light today,” Monty said.
There was a tinge of suspicion to his voice. His eyes looked to Bucky narrowed, though there was something mockingly light in his mouth.
“For once,” Bucky said. “Good dreams.”
“How hard do you feel the tug?” Monty asked.
They were sat out of doors again, under a tree, picnicking with the last of their cheese and bread before they stopped at the next house. The sun was setting over the curving hillside and Bucky was beginning to mourn the loss of the sun’s heat. Though he was in a way satisfied—he would feel it again in but a few hours, in the passion of his visions. He smiled.
“Not hard,” Bucky said. “But sure.”
“I know you fear to see the mountains…,” Monty began.
“No. You’ve brought me around. You may ramble, but I do pay attention. They aren’t fearful things, are they? They just are. They’re part of the earth the way it was made. There’s no reason to fear them.”
Monty perked up, smiling, proud.
Bucky drank the sight of the mountains in as a man on the edge of drought. He had once feared these mountains and shame of that rocked him until his feet were unsteady. The Auvergne stretched out, snaking through the valley, the points of the cratered hills dotting the landscape. They were covered in verdant grasses and trees, not craggy and rocky as he’d pictured them.
“Quite a sight,” Monty said. “Greater than I’d imagined them.”
“He’s here,” Bucky said. “Somewhere, he’s here. Sleeping. Dreaming.”
Of me, he was too frightened to say.
“Are you sure?” Monty asked, his whisper astonished and reverent.
They hiked down into the valleys. Bucky felt the way he was meant to go, Monty hiking behind him. Bucky had to slow a few times to let him catch up, when he remembered he wasn’t alone.
And then he saw it. One mountain in a sea of verdant crests. It was His.
The passageway into the dragon’s lair was narrow, and in places Bucky thought he wouldn’t be able to pass. He was glad he brought no pack, no possessions but the lantern he took with him to show the path.
The path into the mountain seemed without end. He imagined Monty waiting at the entrance of the cave. Bucky had instructed him not to come under any circumstances. He them pictured himself falling, becoming stuck, being eviscerated in the fire under the mountain. Still, Bucky moved on, the air becoming close and the walls warmer.
At last he came to the end of it.
The chamber rose high into the ceiling. It would look like a cavern made by nature but for the pillars that rose and held up the ceiling. They were wrapped in words that Bucky had never seen and he had the distinct feeling that there was no one left to translate.
The ground under Bucky’s feet rumbled, the pebbles on the floor shaking. He felt at once a presence that was familiar, frightful, and awesome.
The dragon stepped into a shaft of light, though he barely needed it. He was still haloed in sun and cloaked in stars. He stepped toward Bucky, his broiling, fiery eyes cooling until they were blue and clear.
Bucky had spent years fearing this moment. In the fields before battles he would fear dreaming of this being more than waking to the sound of musket fire. He did not understand that man, the soldier who feared this more than a bullet. The dragon’s eyes searched his face, coveting what he was seeing.
He was beautiful. In the dreams he had been many things, and one of those things was difficult to grasp. In waking life, Bucky had trouble conjuring a real visage, but in his physical presence the dragon had a face Bucky wasn’t likely to forget.
The dragon reached out a large hand with slender fingers. Bucky let the dragon touch him. He was hot, but not so much that Bucky burned. The dragon’s fingers trailed over his cheekbones, his jaw, his chin. His face was dense with fascination, and Bucky couldn’t understand why he gave such a look to so common a man as he.
“What’s your name?” Bucky asked.
The dragon’s face twitched in confusion and he took his hand away. He searched the ground, as if the answer were there.
“I’m older than names,” the Dragon said. “I don’t remember what they used to call me. But I know what I am.”
“What are you?”
“Equity. Fairness. Righteousness. I once commanded those things like a shield.”
“They’ve forgotten me. Except—except you.”
Bucky’s brows came together. “You came to me. You came to me in my dreams. I never sought you out.”
“You didn’t have to.”
The dragon looked up. He put his finger under Bucky’s chin, tipping it up, and Bucky’s gaze followed.
The stars wheeled overhead, but they were different. Another year, another season, a lifetime ago. He saw two stars locked in a dance and they lived inside the constellation. The shape of it was familiar from the book he and Monty had poured over, but more than that, he knew it was true. He was looking at the sky on the day of his birth. The dragon showed him all of it. That they were linked together like those two stars—the red and the white.
Bucky dreamed of the dragon because he was the only one who could.
He still felt stars in his eyes when he looked down. He shared a long glance with the dragon. The understanding between them went beyond the need for more questions. It was a simple understanding.
The dragon pressed his nose against Bucky’s, sliding the bridge of it against his. The pain of the space between them was agony, and Bucky’s mind tried to gather words to describe the ache of it. They abandoned him.
“You’ll burn,” said the dragon with the more wrenching voice.
“I will gladly burn,” Bucky whispered.
There was no other place to lie but the ground, but the rocky floor was paid no mind. The dragon laid them both down and hovered over Bucky. Their hands clasped and lay over their heads, and the dragon writhed against his body with his solid but unreal form. His horns rotated with the curious turns of his head and the light of a sun bared down on him.
The dragon kissed him. A fire ignited inside of Bucky, a spark that had set off a pyre. It was so different from the warmth of the dream. Then it had been rays from a summer day. Now he was touching the very surface of the sun.
He welcomed immolation.
“Tell me you believe in me,” the Dragon whispered.
“I do,” Bucky said.
“I’ve been a shade for so long.”
“But you’re here.”
The dragon brushed the hair from Bucky’s face. “Your visions. Your dreams. When you believed them, I was real.”
“But you are—you are real.”
Bucky had had men and been had by men alike, and this was nothing like either. He barely recalled it, but every stitch of clothing was lovingly pulled away by gentle hands. More than his body opened for him. The dragon was inside him, every push and thrust more than a movement of their bodies. If the kiss was immolation, this was was annihilation. He tried pressing back against it but found he wanted to be closer to the heat and succumbed. He didn’t know how long they laid there in the stone and dirt, but time slipped away from him.
Bucky arched and felt the surge of his coming like boiling over. He shouted as his entire body convulsed, grabbing the dragon’s hard, warm flesh as he did. His belly was wet with warm semen, and the dragon touched it lovingly with his fingertips.
“You strange thing,” was all the dragon said before laying kisses over Bucky’s humming body.
In the afterward he was reminded of bathing in the sun, his eyes closed against the light but his bare skin welcoming the warmth. The dragon’s fingertips trailed over him in light, quiet strokes.
Bucky opened his eyes and expected to fade against the light. To his surprise, he found the light diminished, a distant light, as if obscured behind a cloud in winter.
The dragon looked more human than it ever had.
“Do it to me,” the Dragon said. “Make me like you.”
Bucky reached out and touched him. More solid, less like a dream, and cooler. The dragon had brought Bucky high; now it brought itself low. They met in the middle and with touch and mouth Bucky began to explore the dragon’s body.
He was noisy. The dragon huffed and gasped as if it had never been touched and all sensation was but pleasure. The dragon clutched at his hair, pawed his skin, and mewed desperate, the sound of his moans going deep into Bucky’s belly. He swore he would be, miraculously, hard again soon.
The dragon came with a roar that turned into a gasp that turned into a desperate squeak of his voice from high within his throat. The dragon was shaking and Bucky understood. The dragon made himself more of a human thing just to have this, and to have it with Bucky. It had never had anything like this.
Bucky was overcome with gratitude.
When Bucky emerged from the crack in the mountain, Monty stood up from where he had been sitting, taking in the sight of his friend with wide eyes. Bucky wondered if Monty hadn’t expected him to come out. Or, he wondered, was he so completely changed by what he’d found in the mountain that it showed on his face. He felt changed.
Then there was another thing that Monty’s eyes fixed on.
A man stepped from the crag behind Bucky. He was naked and dirty from the passage through. Bucky reached out his hand and the other man took it, allowing himself to be pulled into the light. Monty’s eyes went wide. Bucky imagined it—seeing a friend go into a mountain, looking for a dragon, and returning later with a man who blinked into the world like a newborn.
“Monty,” Bucky said. “My pack.”
Monty blinked rapidly, coming out of the stupor he was in. He grabbed Bucky’s pack and brought it to him.
They dressed the man in Bucky’s spare clothes, though they didn’t have an extra pair of boots for him. The dragon didn’t seem to understand what the clothes were for, but he submitted to them anyway.
“Bucky?” Monty asked.
Bucky wanted to explain everything. He was abandoned by reason again and could only give Monty the expression on his face. The baffled expression of wonderment as the mountain of a man behind him adjusted to clothes with some discomfort.
Monty hadn’t mentioned that the house they were going to be staying at was as grand as it was. The property stretched out far into the countryside, and the windows of the house were lit up golden in the blue of the twilight.
All of Monty’s friends were present, and they seemed to be cast from a wider net than Monty’s Oxford. The Howling Commandos welcomed them with open arms, though perhaps they made a note that they should bathe a bit before supper. All the time, the dragon stayed back, mute, even shy as the men in the room gathered around them.
“Monty, you must introduce your friends,” a man named Gabe said.
“Of course,” Monty said. “This is my traveling companion, James.”
“Bucky, please,” Bucky corrected.
“We met in Paris.”
“And this is…”
Bucky’s brain went blank. With horror, he realized they hadn’t gotten around to giving the dragon a name. In his raw form, he had been beyond names, but now there was occasion for it. The dragon stared at him, blankly, then raised a brow. He expected to be named.
“Uh,” Bucky began. “Suh—some—Steven. It’s Steven.”
He wasn’t sure where the name came from. It appeared out of thin air, like a lot of his poems tended to do.
“Steven—?” a man named Dugan asked.
“Oh, you know the Rogers family,” Monty said. “Had a big part to play in the revolution. Sad to know he’s the sole heir with his parents gone.”
All the pleasantries and introductions aside, the dragon leaned in to Monty and looked him dead in the eye.
“Thank you,” the Dragon said. “Are the Rogers’ real?”
“Yes, and quite deceased,” Monty said. “No one will check on it.”
“And…Steven?” the Dragon asked, looking at Bucky.
Bucky could only shrug. It made the dragon smile.
“Steven,” the Dragon said, trying it out on his tongue. “Steve. Steve Rogers. I like it.”
“A dragon named Steve,” Monty said with a huff. He smoothed the front of his shirt and sighed. “Well, then. I’m going to drink wine until I’m not thinking about this anymore.”
Steve crept into Bucky’s room in the middle of the night. Knowing he would, Bucky had set up candles to light his way. On his way to Bucky’s bed, the dragon reached out to touch the flame of one of the candles and pulled his hand back with a hiss, burned.
“Come here,” Bucky said.
Steve walked to Bucky’s bed and sat down on the edge. Bucky took Steve’s hand in his and laid a kiss down where the flesh was pink.
“You can’t do things like that anymore,” Bucky whispered.
“I wanted to know how it felt,” Steve said, a strain in his voice. “Is that how I felt? To be with me?”
“No,” Bucky whispered, kissing Steve’s palm.
He and Steve—and the name was beginning to stick, wrapping around him like a familiar coat—stared at each other for a long time.
“I have to tell you something,” Steve said.
“Anything,” Bucky said.
“I don’t want you to be mad.”
“Why would I be mad?”
Steve stood up and paced around a bit, wiping his palms on his hips.
“I’m not going back into the mountain,” Steve said. “I won’t.”
Bucky’s eyes went wide. He imagined the first of his dreams. The dragon rising, the mountains rolling off his back, reaching out to walk the world. Was this what he had seen? he wondered.
“What will you do?” Bucky asked.
“There’s no one else that believes in me,” Steve said. “Before you, I was a shade…and after you, I will be a shade. Bucky, when you die I’ll cease to be.”
Mortality made its presence known like a rude houseguest, knocking against the doors of Bucky’s heart.
“I made a choice,” Steve said. “And it was my choice to make. If I’m to die when you die…I’ll die as a mortal.”
“You can’t do that,” Bucky whispered.
“I’m not just visiting here. I made myself mortal. It’s how I walked out of that mountain.”
“But you can go back. You can go back and outlive me, if we can just find a way—”
“I can’t go back. There’s no undoing this.”
Bucky’s mouth hung open. With a horrible realization he knew this great thing, this thing beyond comprehension, had sacrificed something beyond what Bucky could comprehend. He rose from his bed and walked over to Steve. He grabbed the lapels of his night-shirt and tugged, though Steve would barely move.
“But you’ll die,” Bucky said, voice croaking. “One day you’ll die. You were immortal.”
“Not immortal,” Steve said. “If my existence is tied to you, then let me live it with you. I don’t want to be away from you ever again, Bucky. Tell me this isn’t better. Tell me you would want me to suffer, somehow existing beyond you. I couldn’t do it. I want this, Bucky.”
Knowing Steve would seek him out in the night, Bucky had prepared himself and brought a mixture he had made in the kitchen. The dragon was patient, learning this new way of love. He held Bucky close, never looking away from his face as Bucky writhed underneath him. There was no annihilation, no being wrapped in the cloak of the sky when they were finished. It was a gentler thing, a thing of flesh and whispered words. Steve pressed his hand to Bucky’s face, brushing his hair away. He was concerned when he looked into Bucky’s face and saw tears gathering in the corners of his eyes.
“Am I hurting you?” Steve asked.
“Please don’t stop,” Bucky said in one breath.
Steve was strong. He’d made for himself a body that was powerful and grand, and Bucky wondered how much of it was built to please his newfound lover. He moaned and his breath caught as Steve picked up his pace. Then he slowed when Bucky made a sob in his throat.
“I’m hurting you,” Steve said again.
“That’s not why—,” Bucky said.
He held Steve’s face in his hands and arched his back to kiss him. The Dragon—Steve—was no longer incomprehensible. He could feel the pillow of his bottom lip, the silkenness of his fair hair. He knew that nose, that jaw. The only thing that remained of the dragon were those eyes. Those eyes that were sorrowful and strong at the same time. In those eyes was the being that had found its way into his dreams and his words. No longer untouchable—unbearably human and filled with a mortal sorrow.
They wrapped themselves up in the warmth of each other, unsleeping though it was deep into the night. Steve’s fingers trailed over Bucky’s shoulder, to wake him if here sleeping. Bucky rolled back over, pressing his face into the other man’s chest.
“Where will we go from here?” Steve asked. “I don’t know what to do.”
“You’ll come home, with me,” Bucky said. “If that’s where you would like to be.”
“I’ve never been away from this place. That land I saw in your eyes, the place you did all that fighting—is that where we’ll go?”
“America. That’s where I’m from. There was a war to win it, but the fighting’s over. We won.”
“America. I would like to see that. You’ve been gone so long. What’s waiting there for you now?”
The idea swam at Bucky like a tidal wave. He hadn’t thought of what he’d do after this. He supposed the journey would have ended with him perished. Instead there was a something else, potential beyond what he’d imagined. And now he was imagining something else. A journey back. A journey home, and not alone.
“The future,” Bucky said.
Believ’d I that I’d discovered awe,
In the realms of dreams and terror.
In all that which I thought I saw,
Could shake the earth to nothing.
The sun was your mighty crown,
Cloaked were you in the stars.
And the wonders you pulled down,
To my mortal hands, outreached.
But awe was nothing unto truth,
Truth nothing compared to touch,
Touch never had been so sooth,
As when it t’were in your hands.
Know I a different kind of awe,
Standing in your newfound light.
Not a’feared of the Dragon’s claw,
Knowing better the touch of fire.