Chapter 1: The Cathedral and the Keep
And I dreamt that one of that noble host
Stepped forth, my hand to claim
Yet - I also dreamt, which pleased me most
That you loved me still the same
-Marble Halls, Enya
Tony's heart is pounding so hard he can barely hear his own footsteps as he approaches the dais. He's about to meet his future husband. His godfather, King Stane, has sold him in marriage to the near-penniless Jarl of some scrap of ice-besieged nothingness beyond the northern oceans, and Tony has never been so filled with hope.
He's been watching the Greenland delegation since they arrived a fortnight ago, but it's been hard work getting close enough to see any of them. Once they made it known why they were here - specifically to negotiate a marriage between the Jarl and Tony - his handlers suddenly became more determined than ever to keep him confined. When it didn't work very well the number of handlers doubled, and they moved him to a new room. It was that last which really threw him off; he can escape from his own room in so many ways it'd make his godfather's head spin.
Well, none of that matters now: just three more steps and Tony will be able to look all he pleases. Two more steps. One.
Tony looks up.
The first person he sees, of course, is the Jarl. The first thing he notices about the Jarl are his cold, cold eyes. He's tall and broad - taller and broader than Tony for certain - with dark hair and a grim set to his mouth. His clothes are plain but sturdy, and Tony knows he ought to be considering what it says about his soon-to-be-husband that he's wearing plain and sturdy clothing at their wedding, but just then he doesn't care. And he IS wearing some ornaments, on his throat and wrists and fingers. Well, one wrist, anyway. His left arm is hidden in the folds of his clothes, and it's far too well-concealed to be an accident.
A glance is all Tony has to spare before dismissing him. Intimidating the Jarl may be, but he's not the one Tony's looking for. He looks, instead, through the small party that accompanied the Jarl with much more interest. If the man Tony seeks has come, that's where he'll be.
Tony's eyesight is good, but even he can't see through solid objects, and his view of much of the rest of the party is blocked by all the people (clergy and guards and ministers and, not least, the groom) arrayed in front of the altar. It occurs to Tony that he's surrounded. If he wanted to run for it he'd be caught before he could take more than a step. Good thing he doesn't actually want to run, then.
He peers through the sea of bodies and clouds of dusky incense at the Greenlanders. There are nine of them, and Tony can barely make out any of their faces. Not that their faces matter, either; what he's really interested in is what they're wearing.
Objectively, it should take less than five minutes for Tony to stop looking. The armor Tony's searching for is distinct, and it's obvious with barely more than a glance that not a one of them is wearing it. Nevertheless Tony looks and looks, thinking that perhaps the man hasn't worn the whole thing. The Greenlanders are, after all, here to witness a marriage, not to fight in combat mortal. Perhaps Tony's knight is only wearing the hauberk, and it's covered by a cloak. Perhaps the armor was damaged and he no longer wears it at all. Perhaps he's only wearing--- perhaps---
Perhaps more than just the man's armor has been destroyed. It's a thought that has crossed Tony's mind more than once. It's been years, after all, and the life of a Norseman, whether he goes on the vikings or not, is a dangerous one. Likely Tony's knight has been killed.
Something sharp jabs him in the side, and he barely manages not to shout. He glares over his shoulder and one of his handlers looks impassively back, then nods subtly towards the cardinal. Oh. Right. Tony's getting married. He has things to say. Considering the fact that the moment someone wanted to marry him he was locked in his room and he hadn't set eyes on his husband before today, he finds it odd that the ceremony requires his input, but there you have it. The church is so strange sometimes.
And so Tony stands in the great Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, rich light from the stained glass spilling through the smoke of incense, the heavenly voices of the choir echoing off the stones, and marries the Jarl with the icy eyes.
They're put in the most palatial room in the entire keep. Which is an insult to them both, but Tony's not sure his new husband will have picked up on that. He's not sure of much of anything about his new husband, actually, considering they have never spoken. It's a feat, especially considering they've been within arm's reach of each other for hours and hours now. But at the wedding they weren't required to say much, and afterwards during the banquet it had been too loud to speak. Well, that, and they'd been constantly beset by people who wanted to see them interact so they could gossip about it later, and Tony didn't want what would essentially be his first meeting with his husband to happen with such an audience.
Which leads to where he is now, which is standing in one door of the room arguing with Bishop Coulson. It takes a while, but finally Tony says he'll swear on a Bible that he understands the liabilities he'll incur by not allowing witnesses in to confirm the consummation of their marriage, and he'll swear that no matter what happens he'll never contest whether or not his marriage is consummated, but so help him God no one else is coming in the room.
Bishop Coulson probably thinks it's because Tony is a shy virgin. Bishop Coulson would be wrong on both counts. The tittering servants who helped him undress and bathe and dress again (in softer, more enticing clothes this time) probably think it's romantic. They're all idiots and can think what they like. Tony is simply very tired. Too tired for this bullshit, that's for sure. Too tired even for sex, probably, which is a feat; Tony pretty much always has the energy for sex. Right now, though, all he wants to do is establish whether or not his husband is likely to harm him in his sleep, and if the answer is no, to proceed with said sleeping. He'll have all of tomorrow morning to discern whether or not his husband is vile enough to warrant Tony killing him and making it look like an accident before they leave for Greenland.
Such a chore, having to look out for himself. But needs must; no one else will.
At last somehow Tony gets rid of Bishop Coulson. He closes the door and walks towards the enormous bed - then turns on his heel and locks the door, and goes to both hidden servant's entrances and locks those, too, because like fuck is anyone going to just pop in to confirm the consummation anyway--- and then he goes to the bed.
He's standing there, eyeing it, wondering if he can lie down and risk falling asleep before his husband even arrives - when the one remaining door in the room bursts open. Someone's shoved through, and all Tony has time to see is it's a man with long hair and a warm-looking red robe before the man turns away and shouts something at the crowd behind him. There's more shouting in a language Tony doesn't understand - fuck everything he's going to have to learn a new language, isn't he - and the man manages to shove everyone out and close the door.
He leans forward against the door for a moment, dark hair in a loose tail down his back, his broad, broad shoulders heaving with breath. It strikes Tony like a blow that this is the Jarl. He doesn't know why he didn't realize before.
"Do you speak English?" Tony asks, because he may be able to fix almost anything, but even HE can't fix how much he talks. "Because honestly I never expected to marry someone from Greenland, so I don't speak a word of whatever language that was."
Yes, his knight had been travelling from Scandinavia to settle in Greenland. Tony wouldn't let himself bank on ending up with his knight, though, so in defense of his own heart he made no preparations for such an eventuality.
The Jarl stops moving. Then slowly, very slowly, he straightens, does something with his hands (smooths down the front of his robe? Tony can't tell from this angle), and squares his shoulders. He turns around.
He looks much the same as he did an hour ago when last Tony saw him. His mouth remains wide and grim. His face remains clean-shaven. His shoulders remain broad, his waist remains narrow, his thighs remain well-muscled, his right arm remains thick and powerful and his left arm remains hidden. His eyes remain the color of ice. He looks much the same, and yet for some reason the sight of him now cuts Tony straight through. He looks more--- more real than he had before, even though he's further away.
Softly, the Jarl says, "Hello, Prince Anthony."
That's when Tony figures out why it is that the sight of this man is like a knife to the gut: the Jarl is handsome.
Oh no. Oh, oh no.
"So English, then? Or just the one word?" Tony hears himself ask. He does that, sometimes; his mouth runs away and says whatever he would normally say while inside his head Tony flails and has a crisis. His husband is handsome. Tony might even - God's blood, Tony might even be attracted to him. This is going to make his life so much more difficult if his husband turns out to be a prick. Damn it.
He doesn't realize how expectantly the Jarl's looking at him until his face falls. His shoulders slump and his eyes drop to the floor, and before Tony can even figure out what the hell is going on, the Jarl apparently shakes himself out of it and throws his shoulders back again.
"I speak English," he says with barely an accent. He's looking at Tony again, and Tony can't look away. "I thought - I mean. You probably don't remember me."
"Remember you?" Tony splutters. He's gaping and he knows it.
"Yes, we - um." Oh God, oh God, this hulk of a man is stammering and shuffling like a boy, and Tony's chest aches. "The tourney? Three years ago? But you talked to so many people that day. We only spoke for a moment. Of course you don't - That is, I didn't mean to make it seem like you should remember me, of course you shouldn't, why would -"
"At the banquet for Saint Stephen's Feast. You were sitting next to some of the merchants from Londinium," Tony gasps, the memory snapping to his mind even as the words pass his lips.
Three years ago there had been a tournament in Winchester to celebrate the marriage of then-Chancellor Stane's son Ezekiel, and a group of Norsefolk on their way to Greenland had been there. This was how Tony had met his knight: he'd gone to congratulate him on a match against Sir Brock of Rumlow. But before the tourney had even begun there'd been a banquet, and Tony - still a prince, then, with living parents and a bright future - had gone to every table in the great hall to speak with all the guests.
The Jarl had been there. Except not a Jarl, at the time. Just another traveler, and if Tony remembers right, not even the leader of their little band. Tony had stood across from him and charmed everyone at the table, but though Tony had tried to draw him into conversation, he'd barely spoken a word. Tony'd ended up speaking mostly with the merchants from Londinium.
All that goes through his mind in a moment, and after that moment his mind is incapable of holding anything at all, because the Jarl - the Jarl smiles.
Never has a smile so completely transformed a person's countenance. Unsmiling the Jarl is handsome and grim; his features well-formed, surely, but remote and untouchable as granite crags.
When he smiles, though. Tony hadn't known it was possible for a smile to stretch so wide. God. God, is he beautiful.
"You wore your hair differently," Tony blurts out, because he had and Tony remembering him has made him smile and Tony wants him to keep smiling for always. "It was shorter. And not pulled back."
"It was," the Jarl agrees. Three years ago his hair had only been down to his chin, and had fallen over his face. Tony remembers those eyes - and now that he's thinking about it he wonders how he ever managed to forget them - peering out from behind a curtain of dark hair. "And you've grown a beard."
Tony laughs in delight, rubbing at the hair around his mouth he grew out in the strangest manner he could just to annoy Stane. "I have indeed. Do you like it?"
Before Tony even has time to panic about all the possible answers to that the Jarl says, "Oh yes. It's very becoming." And then he snaps his mouth shut and his cheeks turn the slightest bit pink, and Tony just about melts into a puddle.
He laughs again, because there's a buoyant feeling in his chest and his sternum will crack if Tony doesn't let it out somehow, and takes a step forward. "Well, husband, I'm delighted to meet you again. But I'll be even more delighted tomorrow when I'm fully awake. Shall we to bed?"
The Jarl stops smiling, which is the exact opposite of what Tony wants, and his face goes through a series of emotions so quickly it's impossible for even Tony to see them all. But there's no mistaking the way his posture suddenly goes rigid, nor the wariness on his face when his expression finally settles.
"Look," Tony says, not giving the Jarl time to voice whatever objections he has to Tony's person, because it's Tony's wedding night, God damn it, he wants to feel wanted for at least the next couple of hours. "I wasn't kidding when I said I was tired. And I managed to convince the Bishop that no one was needed to witness the consummation and locked the doors, so no one's going to say shit if we don't actually fuck tonight. Can we - it's not that I don't want you, I just, really - can we maybe just sleep?"
It is not, of course, until he's halfway through this speech that he realizes the Jarl may take it to mean Tony doesn't want him, and what a fucking lie that'd be. It's only been ten minutes since they actually started talking and Tony already wants to climb the man like a goddamn tree. But handsome or no, Tony is swaying on his feet, and he really really doesn't want to fall asleep halfway through. Especially with this man. When Tony and this man do fuck, Tony wants to remember every goddamn second.
But the Jarl relaxes minutely, and Tony mentally pats himself on the back for a crisis averted, and resolutely doesn't let himself wonder if maybe his husband really doesn't want him.
"Honestly, that sounds rather wonderful," the Jarl says softly. He smiles again, but it's small this time, just a tiny quirk to one side of his mouth. It still sends Tony's heart to pounding. "It's been a very, very long day."
Tony tips his head back, closing his eyes, and laughs yet again. "It has indeed," he says. "A very long day. Well, come on then," and he goes to the head of the bed and pulls down the covers.
His husband steps towards him - then turns and walks to the door he came in through. He studies it for a moment, then throws the lock, and Tony calls out to him, "Excellent idea, husband."
He struggles under the covers and sits against the headboard, watching his husband walk towards him, eyes downcast, hand working at the fastenings of his red robe. He reaches the far edge of the bed and freezes, hand hovering over the collar of his robe.
Tony doesn't know what's going on. The Jarl isn't moving. After a moment something in his expression shifts and he slumps, turning around at the last moment and sitting on the edge of the bed, back bowed and head hanging down.
"There's something I have to tell you," he says softly. Every fiber beneath Tony's skin clenches in terror. What awful thing is about to befall him? What is so dreadful that the Jarl sounds like he's about to lead Tony to an execution? Is he going to go back to Greenland and leave Tony here? Is he dying? Did he lie about the settlement in Greenland; are they going to sail away to somewhere even further? Is he going to try to sell Tony into slavery? Has Stane found some way to twist even this to make Tony suffer?
The Jarl takes a deep breath - and then another, and another - and then he turns his face just slightly towards Tony, so there's no chance Tony won't hear. His eyes are closed. "I lost - Years ago. My - My arm. It's gone. I'm not - I'm not - "
He stops talking and turns his face away.
Tony could laugh with relief. He doesn't, because he may be a jackass sometimes but he's not cruel. God almighty. And here Tony had thought it was something dire.
Although... Looking at this man, this man to whom Tony is married and whose smile can light an entire room, looking at him slumped and tense, sitting on the edge of his wedding bed and unable to remove even his robe, Tony realizes that so far as this man is concerned it is dire indeed.
"They never told me your name," Tony says. He keeps his voice soft, because the Jarl has the look of a man who could shatter at a loud noise. "What's your name, husband."
The Jarl's head sinks even lower, and his back rises and falls sharply a few times. Tony realizes he's put his face in his hands - hand - and hopes he's not really fighting off tears. What a way for the man to spend his wedding night.
"James," he says at last. His voice is raspy. "But my - my friends call me Bucky."
"And your husband?" Tony asks, shoving the covers down again and clambering atop them. "What is he to call you?"
He shrugs minutely. "Whatsoever he wishes."
"Mmm," Tony says, crawling across the unnecessarily gigantic bed. "Well. The only people who call me Anthony are people I unreservedly despise, so I'm going to have to insist you call me Tony. And I'll call you Bucky."
Tony's right behind Bucky now, but Bucky makes no sign that he's noticed. Slowly, so as not to startle him, Tony touches his fingertips to Bucky's right shoulder. Bucky doesn't move into the touch, but neither does he shake Tony off, so Tony shuffles forward and drapes himself over his husband's delightfully broad back, winding his arms loosely about his waist. Bucky's hair is very soft against Tony's cheek.
"No husband of mine is going to spend our wedding night so sad nor so cold, Bucky. Come to bed."
Bucky stopped breathing when Tony pressed against him and now he shudders, just a little. Tony is delighted.
"I - I don't," Bucky starts, then sighs.
Tony puts a hand to his jaw and tips his head just far enough to kiss his cheek. He doesn't try to make Bucky look at him, though. "If you want to leave the robe on I shan't think less of you. But if you'd be more comfortable please take it off. I promise it will be all right." He punctuates this with a loud, dramatic kiss to Bucky's still-clothed shoulder. Bucky's left shoulder.
Bucky sighs, but it sounds less heartbreaking and more exasperated. "All right. And for the gods' sake, get back under the covers, Tony, you're shivering."
Tony laughs happily to hear his name in Bucky's voice and clambers away. He busies himself untucking the covers and pulling them down on Bucky's side of the bed as well so Bucky can have a moment to collect himself. When he lies down again Bucky's climbing into bed, and Tony is delighted to see the robe draped over a chair. The undershirt Bucky's wearing has two sleeves so Tony's unable to get a look at whatever remains of Bucky's left arm, but they can work on it. God's sake, they're married; they've got the time.
Tony sighs as his eyes slide shut. "Good night, husband."
From the other side of the enormous bed he hears, "Good night, Tony."
For the first time in years, possibly ever, Tony falls asleep with a smile on his face.
Chapter 2: The Longship and the Longhouse
Love me fedde
And Love me ledde
Love me lettet here
-Love Me Broughte, trad.
Tony remembers him. Tony remembers him. Bucky falls asleep with the words running on a loop through his mind and wakes to the same glorious refrain: Tony remembers him.
It's almost as fantastical as the fact that they're married. Holy shit, Bucky married Anthony Stark. Anthony Stark is Bucky's husband and wants Bucky to call him Tony. And Tony remembers him.
The fact that they're married is too wonderful to stick in Bucky's mind. It's too much, too immense an idea for his head to contain, so it keeps expanding and slipping away. Tony remembers him, though; that's about the biggest, most amazing thought Bucky's capable of holding onto.
When he can no longer deny that he's awake (and can no longer escape finding out if it was all a dream), he opens his eyes. The canopy over the bed is unlike anything Bucky's ever seen. Someone's breathing softly next to him. Probably not a dream, then.
He turns, and - yes, that's him. Tony is lying on his side facing Bucky, one of his hands curled next to his face like a child, the blanket pulled up to his ears. His hair is a tousled cloud, and all Bucky can see of his face is the curve of his nose and the dark fan of his lashes on his high cheekbone.
Bucky wants to put a kiss in his hair. He wants to brush his hair off his forehead and see Tony's eyes blink open; see his face light and his lips smile when he sees Bucky. He wants to sit still as stone, wants Tony never to wake, wants the world around them to cease to move, that he might never have to look away. He wants to gather Tony in his arms and -
Well. Impossible, for so many reasons. A deplorable notion, really, considering the circumstances.
Bucky shakes his head; runs his one and only hand over his face and sighs. Tony may remember him, but apparently all he remembers is Bucky looking unkempt and sitting silent next to some charming rich men from Londinium. He may remember but of course, of course Tony hasn't set such a store on that memory as Bucky has. Why would he? Tony's met so many more people than Bucky; doesn't need to latch on to the least bit of kindness -
It's more than that, though, and Bucky won't deny it. It's not just that Tony was kind to him when most people beyond his small circle of close friends ignored him altogether; it's that Tony is - Tony. He's bright and charming and witty and kind and beautiful, gods, so beautiful. Bucky could have been the only person Tony spoke to for a year, and Tony still wouldn't think of Bucky as much as Bucky thinks of Tony, simply because Tony is ten times as amazing as Bucky will ever be.
He shakes his head again, then risks another peek at Tony. Still sleeping. Good. He should sleep as long as he likes. Bucky may not be good enough for him by any measure, but Bucky is Tony's husband now, so he's going to do his damnedest to give Tony the best, fullest, happiest life he's capable of giving. And that starts with making sure his trip to Greenland is short and comfortable, and that starts with Bucky getting out of bed so he can get shit done.
One last look and he doesn't let himself linger, else he'll just sit there all day and still be staring when Tony wakes, and how awful would that be? So he slides out of bed as silently and carefully as he's able and pulls on his robe. Then he walks around the unnecessarily gigantic bed (seriously, how many people is this thing supposed to hold at once? Aren't Christ-followers were supposed to be monogamous?) to Tony's side. He settles the blankets around his slumbering husband more firmly, then pulls another blanket off a nearby chest and spreads that over him as well. Tony snuffles in his sleep and ducks further under the covers, and Bucky has to quell his every impulse to kiss him. He walks away trying not to laugh instead. Bucky had kicked all the blankets off in his sleep, since it's so warm. Ridiculous southerners.
He opens the door carefully and is glad it doesn't squeak, and cautiously pokes his head beyond. Natasha's head snaps up from where she's leaning against the wall and she smiles at him, wide and genuine. He can't help but smile back.
"You look well," she whispers as Bucky slips into the hallway and slowly closes the door behind himself. She's speaking Russian, which is a good idea; Bucky's yet to encounter anyone this far east other than Natasha who knows the language.
He takes the clothes she holds out to him and dresses quickly, pulling them on over the undergarments he slept in. He can't stop smiling.
She nudges his arm. He looks at her and finds her smiling still, but softer now. "I'm very happy for you, Bucky."
This is why Bucky likes Natasha best. She's not going to ask him about all the sex he and Tony didn't have, and she's not going to tease him, and she's not going to mistake his happiness for smugness or attribute it to his new husband's charms, and she's not going to demand details, and she's not going to even ask if they had sex last night or if it was any good. In truth, Bucky knows she doesn't actually care if they had sex or not. Never has anyone been more willing to acknowledge that what makes happiness is different for each person than Natasha. It doesn't matter to her if what makes Bucky happy would make her happy as well; what matters to her is simply that Bucky is happy.
Overcome with love for his friend he pulls her into a hug, and for once she lets him, even going so far as to hug him back. "You're a good friend," he tells her, beaming, as they pull apart.
She laughs. It's wonderful. Natasha doesn't laugh enough. She rolls her eyes and says, "We have to get ready to depart, Bucky, because someone insists we leave the very day after his own wedding."
Bucky hums. "Well. That man sounds like a real jackass."
She smacks his shoulder and it doesn't even hurt. He laughs, then stops and turns to her. In the quiet of the pre-dawn hallway, before they've encountered another soul, Bucky whispers only to her, "I'm really happy, Nat."
This is, by far, the softest smile he's ever seen on her face. She touches his shoulder and holds his eye. "I can tell. No one deserves such happiness more than you do. I'm so happy for you, Bucky."
He ducks his head, unsure exactly what he's trying to hide but knowing he's fast reaching his limit for emotions, and it's not even light out yet.
"Thanks, Nat," he manages to rasp.
They stand for a moment more, probably both collecting themselves, and then at the same time they straighten and keep walking. It takes so fucking long to wind their way through the keep - he understands why people in densely-populated, oft-attacked areas build themselves hive-mazes like this, but he will never not prefer a simple longhouse where he can see everything and is never more than one door away from the outside. The keep is too big and too small all at once.
Bucky shakes his head again. Southerners.
Bucky spends the morning overseeing preparations for their departure and fending off Clint, Drax and Peter's increasingly ribald jokes and questions. Tony doesn't come out of the keep until they're nearly ready to leave, and when he does he's surrounded by a veritable coterie of hangers-on. The Usurper's son, "Prince" Ezekiel, comes down to the courtyard to bid them farewell and godspeed. Bucky reminds himself for what must be the thousandth time just today that he cannot simply murder the dick. Not without bringing the whole of the English army down on their heads, and strong they may be, but there are still only nine of them.
The trip from Winchester to the port at Sedgemore takes two and a half days, during which time Tony is constantly surrounded by his escort of arrogant Englishmen. Bucky can't help but be indignant, because the Englishmen keep Tony isolated not just from potential outside threats, but also from the Norsefolk. Including Bucky. And Bucky would never let anything hurt Tony, much less would Bucky hurt Tony himself. It offends him that anyone thinks he or his people would try. And also, if they're so convinced that Bucky and his band are going to harm Tony, why are they sending Tony away with them? Those assholes, willingly putting Tony in danger!
To a man, Bucky hates them all.
It doesn't help that Bucky and Tony are kept apart, even at night. So far apart the closest they get is Bucky catching the occasional glimmer of his hair or his laughter from afar. Bucky can't escape the feeling that these Englishmen are up to something. He's terrified that somehow they're going to take Tony away from him.
Bucky can't - he can't have had only one night, only one real conversation, with Tony. Can't bear it. Even that is more than he would have dared hope for before, but now - they're married, gods damn it. Bucky won. He beat the odds and married his Prince Anthony, and they're supposed to be together now.
Like fuck is he going to let a bunch of prissy, disdainful, weakling English pissants stand in his way.
By the time they finally reach the port at Sedgemoor Bucky's half out of his mind. The rest of the Norsefolk - even Clint and Peter - are almost quiet; grim in their watchfulness. The morning of their departure Bucky's down at the docks so early most people would probably still count it as the night before. He doesn't care.
Around noon a runner comes down, and Natasha takes Gamora, Nebula and Drax back to the inn to escort Tony. When Tony finally arrives, he's - he's close enough for Bucky to see. Close enough for Bucky to touch, almost. He stands on the docks and his eyes dart all over the ship, taking in every detail, and then he turns to Bucky and he smiles.
Bucky is so fucking flustered he's about two seconds away from just tipping himself into the water to drown and be done. Unfortunately, the barking gaggle of English escorts has accompanied Tony, and Bucky isn't about to leave Tony in their clutches.
Tony and the fucking Englishmen lounge around, pointing and whispering and generally getting underfoot and delaying departure. Bucky does his best to make it look like he's ignoring them, and so do the rest of his band.
But he's near enough to hear Tony, now. And Tony's acting - strange. Bucky can't put his finger on how, exactly, and probably doesn't know him well enough to figure it out anyway. He's very charming, as always, but there's a sharpness about him that wasn't there on their wedding night. It's not that Bucky doesn't like it (Bucky likes everything about Tony), it's just that it leaves him off-kilter. Makes him uncomfortable. He can't quite place why.
Tony falls into conversation with a minister who seems vaguely familiar. He's handsome but pompous-looking, clearly a priest of Christ but dressed rich as a lord. Bucky moves where he's working so he can hear what they're saying, and realizes that this is the minister who's supposed to be their interpreter. He's trying to explain the mechanics of the ship to Tony without input from any of the actual, you know, people sailing it, and he's - he's wrong. He's so wrong. Bucky looks at him for a moment, trying to decide if it's a joke, and is flabbergasted when it appears the minister is serious.
His gaze (as always) is drawn to Tony, and Tony seems engrossed in the utter untruths this fool is spouting. Bucky doesn't know what to do.
"And here, you can see, Anthony, how the sails are shaped," the minister is saying, and at the sound of his name Tony catches Bucky's eye and tilts his head, giving him this look that just screams I told you so, and Bucky ducks his head and bites his lip to keep from laughing aloud.
He gets himself back under control and sees Tony looking serious and nodding along, but now Bucky's in on the joke he can tell Tony's purposely messing with the minister. And then Tony turns to Bucky and asks, slowly and loudly like he doesn't know Bucky's English is nearly perfect, "How is the ship steered?" and Bucky gets it.
He glares at them both and gives the most elaborate answer he possibly can, with far more detail than needed and in slang-ridden Norse. He delights in the way the minster splutters and then basically just makes up an answer, and it's still so, so wrong.
The rest of the Norsefolk catch on pretty quick, and they have a good time taking the piss out of this idiot minister and his coterie of also-idiots who are still standing around, not helping, and looking at the Norsefolk like they're half-wild dancing bears, and sneering at Tony like they pity him or something. Bucky could murder them all.
He could but he won't, he reminds himself. English army. Nine people to fight against them. Tony caught in the middle. Not a good plan. Besides, the goal isn't to kill everyone who looks at Tony wrong; the goal is to get Tony away from this place. So. No murdering the morons.
At last, at last, at last, everything is ready and everyone is on the ship except Tony. Right up until the last moment Bucky expects the Englishmen to try and snatch all good things away from him, but no one does.
Bucky holds out his hand and Tony takes it, and steps off of England and onto the ship, and something in Bucky's chest releases.
They set off rapidly and all the Englishmen remain on the docks, some of them waving, and it appears the minister is saying some sort of prayer over them. Bucky stands beside his husband and watches them, not liking any of this.
"Well," Bucky says, forgetting for a moment in his surprise that if he speaks Tony will actually hear him, "I suppose that's a kind gesture."
Tony snorts and turns away from the receding docks. "Hardly," he says. "They've been personally assigned to make sure I don't somehow sneak off the ship and back into the city. We'll be followed the whole way up the coast to make sure I don't come back ashore at any point, just you wait and see."
Bucky gapes at him for a moment, and Tony laughs and walks further down the ship, looking about him curiously.
"You see?" Bucky hisses at Natasha in furious Russian. "Didn't I tell you it was a good thing to leave as soon as possible? There's no telling what those bastards might have tried if we'd left him there a single hour longer!"
"All right, all right, you were right," Natasha says, and he wishes there were someone else to witness the admission, but sadly even if anyone else can hear them no one can understand. "But he's with us now, so calm down. Focus on sailing your goddamn ship and getting him safe home, all right?"
"Yeah, yeah," Bucky grumbles, but she does have a point. Damn it.
Tony talks to everyone; he has all kinds of questions about the ship and sailing and navigation and anything else under the sun, and after the second question Bucky realizes it's everything he asked that stupid minister. Bucky ducks his head and can't stop smiling, because Tony is wonderful.
He's fast friends with everyone, and sits by Bucky sometimes, and whenever he's not talking to Bucky, Bucky is either enraptured watching him or consumed with the desire to talk to Tony himself. Except, of course, when Tony actually does talk to him, Bucky gets so tongue-tied he never knows what to say. Every question Tony has ends up being answered by someone else, but that's all right, honestly; it means Bucky gets to watch Tony learn things and interact with everyone and it sure looks like he's having a good time.
"Just go talk to him," Natasha says in Russian. This becomes her constant refrain over the next week of sailing: "Talk to him." "You are married; he clearly doesn't hate you." "For Freyja's sake, just go talk to him," "I swear Odin himself wouldn't be able to pull your head out of your ass!" She loves him, really.
Finally finally finally they arrive; the crossing was faster than expected and they have to stop for barely a few hours to leave the Guardians at their settlement near the very southernmost tip of Greenland; yet for all that it still feels like Bucky's been away for years. At last, after a day sailing up the coast and watching the land slide past their starboard rail, the cliffs begin to look more familiar - and then they see the beach of home.
Bucky's been standing at the prow for the last three hours, watching the coast slip past and imagining, the way he never should and always does, what it would be like if this were a true homecoming. If the one person most deserving of making landfall and coming ashore safe was standing beside him.
Someone is standing beside him and he startles, snapping back to the here-and-now with a flinch. Tony - because of course it's Tony - doesn't react. He's standing just barely in front of Bucky, his hand braced on the edge of the prow, the wind pushing at his cloak and tugging at his hair. He's beautiful.
Bucky touches his shoulder. Tony doesn't jump, just tips his head in acknowledgement. "There," Bucky says, pointing over his shoulder at the beach that's just sliding into view. The bluffs hide all the buildings from this angle; to a stranger it would look like any other strip of uninhabited coast. "Stevenshaven."
The name, as always, is heavy on his tongue. It always takes him a little while to speak again after saying it. His heart aches.
Once again, Tony brings him back from the dark place he's drifted to, this time by knocking their shoulders together and saying, "It's beautiful."
He looks over his shoulder and smiles at Bucky - a real smile, Tony's eyes looking right at him, and Bucky's heart still aches but in a different way, now.
Soon enough they're both caught up in the flurry of activity to get the ship to shore. Tony helps, too; over the course of the journey he's cajoled or teased or challenged enough people into teaching him how to do enough things that he's able to lend his hands. No one's ever told him he has to do any of the physical labor - in fact, everyone's tried at least once to dissuade him - but he does it anyway and always with good cheer. Bucky's still not quite sure how he feels about it all.
There's a shout - far away, but loud enough to carry to the ship. Bucky's eyes snap to the shore, and sure enough, there's Thor and Darcy, jumping up and down and waving like the ship might pass them by. Bucky shakes his head. Lovable morons.
It feels like just moments before Clint throws the mooring rope to Thor, and everyone jumps overboard to run the ship up the beach. Everyone except Tony, because Bucky had told him very firmly that he was not allowed in the water. He hopes he managed to convey how very much he meant it, and that Tony won't jump ship just for the hell of it.
They make it onto the beach and secure the ship, and a cheer goes up from everyone. Jane and Bruce come rushing down to them as well, and soon everyone's embroiled in greeting friends they've been parted from. Bucky loves and hates this bit. It never gets easier. Trying to ignore it, as soon as the ship is settled he turns anxiously to the deck, scanning to see if Tony listened to him and stayed aboard.
At first he doesn't see him and thinks his heart might stop, but then he spies him leaning against the prow with casual grace, outlined by the blue sky and gilded golden with sunlight and smiling, smiling, smiling at Bucky, and then his heart really does stop.
"How am I supposed to get off the ship if I can't go in the water, husband?" Tony calls down playfully, and everyone laughs.
Bucky smiles and strides to stand beneath him, holding out his hand to help Tony down. Tony sits on the rail and swings his legs over, then grips Bucky's hand. At the last second Bucky realizes that Tony isn't going to use Bucky's hand to steady himself and jump onto the beach, no, that would be too easy, he's going to jump on Bucky, because apparently he forgot Bucky has only one arm and can't catch him -!
He doesn't even have time to call out to Tony to stop, because Tony's already leaping; all Bucky can do is brace himself and pray.
But the gods smile upon him this day - either that or Tony didn't forget about Bucky's arm and compensated accordingly - and instead of hitting Bucky horizontally, Tony somehow manages to fall onto him upright, Bucky's arm holding him firm about the waist, Tony's arms wound around his neck, their faces very close.
Tony is perfect. Bucky can hold him up with just his arm, but Tony's weight is a delight rather than a burden. He's warm and soft and alive and looking at Bucky, oh gods, and he's not smiling exactly but he looks happy, his arms circling Bucky's neck, one of his hands cradling the back of Bucky's head, and his eyes are soft and sparkling and deep as the sea -
"Aha!" Thor bellows right behind him. Bucky and Tony both startle and turn, and see Thor barreling towards them like the giant man-puppy he is. "Friend Bucky! Prince Anthony! At last you are home!"
Tony slides to his feet, and Bucky doesn't even get a moment to enjoy the friction of him before Thor's wrapping them both in an enthusiastic embrace. Tony's laughing instead of running for the hills, though, so there's that at least.
Hours later they're gathered in the longhouse for dinner. Everyone is still high on being together again, and talk is loud and fast and constant. Bucky is, of course, sitting quietly and watching Tony.
He ended up on the far side of the fire between Jane and Clint. It's been barely any time at all and already his Norse is coming along well. He already knew how to roll his r's, thankfully, which is something that trips up a lot of other English-speakers.
While they were still sailing Tony told Bucky this was because his mother was an Italian princess, and that he spent the first few years of his life in the Italian court and speaks fluent Italian. Then he demonstrates with a few rolling sentences. He looks at Bucky for a reaction, and when he doesn't get one he shrugs and goes back to - whoever else he was talking to at the time. Bucky had just sat there and tried to look like he hadn't just almost come in his pants.
Now, though, he notices that Tony hasn't spoken in a while. His eyes are drooping. He's finished his dinner, but he looks exhausted.
It's warm in the longhouse, dark except for the firelight and filled with the comforting smells of home. Everyone else will be up for hours yet, eating and drinking and talking and laughing, filling each other in on every little thing that happened while they were apart. Bucky's exhausted, too.
He touches Nat's shoulder, says his goodnights, then rises, stretches, steps outside the circle of people and makes his way around towards where Tony is nodding off over his empty bowl. Bucky's comfortable enough on a ship or in a foreign land, but gods if he isn't ready to sleep in his own bed again.
After a moment debating how best to wake him without startling him, Bucky nudges his shoulder a few times. Tony snorts and pushes him away and Bucky can't help chuckling, because Tony is adorable.
He leans over, putting his face near Tony's so he doesn't have to speak over everyone else. "All right, husband," Bucky whispers, thrilling at the words, "let's get you to bed."
"Mmph," Tony mutters, turning towards him and scrubbing at his face. "Yeah, yeah, sounds good." He shakes his head, clearly trying to wake up.
"It's fine," Bucky whispers to him, wrapping his arm around him, his heart beating like a drum when Tony sighs and collapses into him. "Come on, sweet, I've got you."
He half-drags, half-carries a mostly-asleep Tony over to his bed. Their bed. Bucky can't think about that right now; not with Tony soft and sleepy in his embrace.
He helps Tony take off his outer clothing and boots, and then he tries to guide Tony up over the edge of the bed, but Tony just sort of tumbles backwards instead. He lets out a surprised squeak, and then a long groan when he feels how soft it is. Bucky's barely out of his own outer clothes and boots when Tony burrows down into the furs with a sigh and falls asleep.
Gods above. This man is going to kill Bucky with the sheer force of how goddamn cute he is.
Bucky crawls in behind him, trying not to jostle him. Tony's solidly out, though, which is a good thing because he's also apparently both cold and sleeping on top of the covers. Bucky gently nudges him this way and that until he can pull the furs and blankets out from beneath him, then tucks them in around him. Even in his sleep Tony sighs and burrows into the warmth.
Bucky keeps to his own side of the bed - it's not enormous, but it's big enough that they're not touching - and tries to comprehend the miracle his life has become. He thinks he'll be awake for a long time despite his weariness, but his head has barely hit the bed before sleep comes for him, and for the first time in a long time he doesn't dream.
The next day Bucky's sitting just outside the longhouse, drinking in the familiar sights of home and discussing the goings-on he missed while he was gone with Thor, when Tony stumbles out the door. Bucky's been awake for hours but Tony's clearly just woken up; his hair is sticking up wildly and he's rubbing at his eyes like a bleary child.
"Good morning, friend Tony!" Thor booms. To his credit, Tony neither jumps nor tells Thor to quiet down.
"Morning," Tony mumbles, peeking out from behind his hands to see where they are, and then collapsing next to them. Thor laughs and Bucky smiles helplessly. He stops smiling when Tony shivers. Bucky stands and pulls his cloak off his shoulders.
"Have you eaten yet?" Thor asks.
Tony shakes his head, then stills when Bucky wraps his cloak around him.
"Then we shall feed you!" Thor says, clapping Tony on the shoulder and rising. "Bucky and I shall be making a tour of his realm today, visiting the loyal subjects of his dominion that he might satisfy himself they have been well cared-for in his absence: for he is a kindly and just ruler. You should accompany us."
Bucky shoves Thor as they make their way towards the fire inside. "Don't listen to him," Bucky tells Tony. "He means we're going to be walking around the fields looking at the sheep."
Thor laughs like the jackass he is, and Tony joins in. Bucky's life is perfect.
As Thor suggested, Tony accompanies them while Bucky and Thor make their way around Stevenshaven, simultaneously going over anything noteworthy that happened while Bucky was away (yes, including inspecting the sheep) and giving Tony the grand tour. To Bucky's surprise and delight, Tony seems utterly taken with all of it, looking at everything and asking a million questions. Thor is only too happy to answer, and after a little while he and Tony are running about like a pair of energetic puppies and talking so fast Bucky can barely keep up.
It goes on like this all day. Tony is just so interested in everything. Bucky's confused, until he thinks about it from Tony's point of view: he's been ripped away (perhaps unwillingly; Bucky has not the courage to ask) from the only home he's ever known and thrown in with a bunch of complete strangers, whose customs are alien and whose language is foreign, and he's dependent on them for everything. Even if he wanted to leave - where would he go? How would he get there? On what would he live? So of course he wants to learn everything there is to know about the herds and the crops; he wants to assure himself he isn't going to starve. Of course he wants to learn the language; how else is he going to talk all of them, and be assured they aren't talking about him behind his back? And of course he goes out of his way to charm everyone and make sure they like him; they could kill him so easily.
Oh Tony. Bucky's heart aches for him. He doesn't need to manipulate them into liking him, and he doesn't have to pretend to be interested in everything. They would take care of him no matter what. And Bucky - Bucky would give up his other arm, would give up his life, before he let a single bad thing befall Tony. He just - doesn't know how to tell Tony that.
Even now he can barely figure out how to talk to Tony at all; he has so much to say he never knows where to begin.
Bucky's going to have to figure it out, though. He can't let it go on like this; can't let Tony go on thinking that the only person looking out for him is himself, and that no one in the world cares about him. But how is Bucky supposed to tell his unwilling husband that he's in love with him?
Chapter 3: Stevenshaven
Stevenshaven is amazing.
Tony's been here barely a month and he's having so, so much fun. He goes all over the place and pokes his nose in everything and no one minds; he'll find whoever isn't doing something urgent and just drag them around and point at things and get them to explain them in Norse; he spends hours sitting outside with Clint, and Clint helps him more with his pronunciation by getting him to over-pronounce everything, because Clint's almost entirely deaf and can't understand spoken words any other way. And Clint teaches him hand-speak so they can talk and they end up passing back and forth basically every dirt joke either of them has ever heard (they are far funnier in hand-speak, it turns out). Thor's even going to let him do things in the FORGE, and he's going to teach Tony how to make real Norse nails, which is just, oh God. Oh God. Tony's so excited.
Thus far he likes everyone, which is actually worrying; there's always got to be at least one evil person, and if Tony can't find them now that means he'll find them later, and that's always worse. So far, though, he thinks he likes Bruce and Clint best. Thor is fun but kind of intimidating, ditto Darcy, Jane is quiet and she and Tony haven't really talked yet, and Natasha is fucking scary. Of all the wild stories he's ever heard of the viciousness of Norsefolk, the only person who fits the stereotype is her.
And then there's Bucky.
Bucky is Tony's favorite. His absolute favorite. Bucky is grim and intimidating and has the deeply troubling ability to be so still that sometimes Tony doesn't even notice him, because he doesn't realize Bucky's alive. He doesn't talk much, and he talks to Tony least of all, but he also has the ability to just appear out of thin air when Tony's cold or tired or hungry or needs something.
It's just. Tony doesn't really know what Bucky thinks of him, and it's driving him mad. Bucky makes him nervous. That very first night Tony was pretty sure Bucky liked him - maybe even liked him - because really? They spoke once for five minutes three years ago and Bucky remembers that? So, yeah, at the time he was pretty sure that Bucky liked him liked him. Not loved him, of course; even now they've only known each other a bit more than a month. Bucky can't love him, not yet, but Tony'd thought -
Well. He'd thought that maybe Bucky felt about him the way he feels about Bucky: not love, but this tentative budding hope, this thing that could become love if only Tony let it.
And yet - The second night they were in Stevenshaven, Tony was much more awake when they were done eating dinner than he had been the first night. Much, much more awake. So when he whispered to Bucky, "Take me to bed," and gave him his best heated look, it certainly wasn't because he wanted to sleep.
Arranged marriage or no, and whether or not Bucky ever falls in love with Tony, having sex with him certainly won't be a hardship.
Tony's looking forward to it, even. Bucky had been very kind the previous night and not made any advances on him, possibly because Bucky was weary from their journey and hopefully because he was also taking Tony's weariness into account, but now they're both well-rested. Well-rested, wedded, in their own bed in their own home, in cover of darkness, with no pressing duties on the morrow and no pressing duties this night except each other.
Which is why Tony was both startled and disappointed when Bucky caught his wrist in an iron grip and hissed, "What are you doing?" when Tony reached for him.
"Well," Tony said, "I was going to start with kissing you and see where things went from there."
"No," Bucky snapped. He sat up, stared at Tony a moment with his jaw clenched and eyes sparking, then seemed to realize he was still holding Tony's wrist and flung it away as though it burned him. "Tony - no."
Tony gaped at him. Later he'll think Bucky ought to be proud: this was one of the few moments in all his life Tony was rendered completely speechless.
With another glare Bucky got out of bed. Tony had no idea how he managed to climb over the low divider and hop out and made it look like he was sweeping dramatically out of a throne room, but he did.
"Bucky, what -" Tony started as he made to follow.
"Stay here," Bucky growled. He glared at Tony one last time then stalked away.
Tony was left kneeling at the edge of their bed, hands on the wall, mouth opening and closing soundlessly as he watched Bucky actually leave the building. It was dark and cold outside and yet out he went into the night as though nothing beyond the walls could possibly be worse than Tony.
Eventually Tony made himself lie back down. His mind was all a-whirl with questions and worries and speculation and hurt. The only conclusion he could come to was that their marriage had little to nothing to do with Tony himself; the only question was whether Bucky gained something at the time of the wedding itself, or if he was hedging his bets on the only child of the dead King and Queen being valuable in the future.
Even then, not caring about Tony one way or another would be no reason to react in such a way. If anything, that would have made it more likely for Bucky to accept his advances. Tony was under no delusions and knew he was handsome; his manner was enough to make it obvious he was skilled in bedplay, and his looks and words earlier should have made it clear that he was eager to have Bucky or be had in turn, and that he was offering more for the fun of it than the obligation.
Why, then, the hasty retreat and the anger?
All evidence pointed to Bucky misliking Tony himself. The reason of it hardly mattered; whether it be because he didn't find Tony attractive, or because he thought of Tony as lesser than himself and didn't want to be soiled, or any other of a hundred things - none of it changed the outcome: he didn't want Tony.
This was what all the evidence pointed to, and this is what Tony would believe were it not for one more piece of evidence Tony acquired by accident: though he didn't expect to sleep, Tony wakes in the night and finds the bed beside him still empty. Worried at the thought of Bucky being out of doors all these long hours Tony groggily made to rise and go out after him with promises of celibacy and repentance, but just before he stepped on the floor he realized there was something below his feet.
It was Bucky.
He was asleep on the floor, his back pressed to the bed, wrapped in his cloak and with not a thing beneath his head. At first Tony was more hurt than before - was he really so terrible, that Bucky thought if he got back in bed Tony would keep pressing his suit even after Bucky said no? - but his eyes were adjusted to the darkness and in the low light of the dying coals he saw Bucky's one hand clutching something.
It was clenched in his fist and tucked close to his chest, his head tipped down so his nose was pressed to the cloth. It had been with Tony's other outer clothes, folded at the foot of the bed, along with a spare blanket. There were other cloaks and blankets in various places all through the longhouse. There were cushions and pillows by the fire.
Bucky had to deliberately take that shirt. Not because it was easy or close to hand: he had to decide he wanted it and get it on purpose. He didn't even take something upon which to rest his head, but he took Tony's shirt to keep close to himself.
Tony knew there was not a chance in Hell he'd be able to get off their bed, lift Bucky's head, put something beneath it, and climb back into bed without waking Bucky, so instead he took Bucky's pillow and dropped it over the edge, hoping that if the discomfort woke him Bucky would take it without thinking about it. Tony fell asleep again after that, somehow, but even as he dreamed his mind worked feverishly on the riddle of a man who wanted him yet was angered by Tony wanting him back.
But, again, that was almost a month ago, and since then it's mostly been a lot of grim staring. Not glaring, not exactly, but something close enough. So now Tony's... not sure.
Bucky just - keeps staring. Won't really talk to him. It's not because they don't have a common language - Bucky speaks perfect English, and Tony's getting better and better at Norse by the day - and it's not because they have nothing to say to each other, because they both so clearly do. There are times their eyes will catch and he thinks they're both about to burst they have so much they want to say. But Bucky doesn't say anything and Tony doesn't want to open up until he knows what's on Bucky's mind. Can't open up until he's sure; because what would become of him if he were wrong? It's too dangerous.
And that's not to mention the strange ways other people act around Bucky, or the strange things they say. Again, none of it seems dangerous per se, it's just - it's just strange.
Take Clint, for example. Just yesterday he and Tony had been sitting on a bleached log on the beach practicing Norse and hand-speak, when Clint had taken a break from their regularly-scheduled exchange of dirty jokes and general jackassery to go all shifty and look around, like he was afraid someone was going to sneak up on them out of the dozen yards of sand and low grass surrounding them in every direction.
"No one's going to hear us," Tony laughed, trying to decide if he was going to go along with whatever childish but likely hilarious prank Clint had thought up this time.
"Listen," Clint said, turning back to him, and Tony's smile faded. There wasn't a hint of mischief or humor in Clint's expression. "Listen, Tony. No one else is going to say anything, and Nat threatened my balls if I brought it up, so I'm not going to, but - You should ask Bucky why this place is called Stevenshaven. Okay? You should ask him."
Tony blinked. Clint was looking at him intently, a hand on his shoulder, like he was imparting some vast heavy secret.
"All right," Tony said, and Clint sagged in relief.
"Good. Good. I mean, please don't tell him I told you to ask, okay? Anyone finds out and my life won't be worth shit. But do it, Tony. For your sake and for his. All right? Promise me. Promise."
"All right, all right, I promise," Tony said, more confused by the moment. "I'll ask him why it's called Stevenshaven, God."
"And don't -"
"And I won't breathe a word to anyone that you're the one who put me up to it, I got it, I got it."
"Good. Perfect." Clint clapped him on the shoulder and smiled his usual sunny smile.
Tony eyed him suspiciously. "You're really weird, you know that?"
"I know," Clint said cheerfully, and effectively distracted him with yet another dick joke.
And it's not just that. Clint's just weird sometimes. Besides, that very well could have been the setup for a prank on Tony; there's just no telling.
But it's not just Clint. It's the way Bruce will give Bucky small bundles of herbs or tiny pouches of God only knows what with not a word spoken between them. It's the way Darcy and Clint and Thor will play tricks and tease anyone but Bucky. It's the way Bucky will walk away from the rest of them sometimes without warning and everyone will look to Natasha before deciding, without a word spoken, who will go after him or if he ought to be left alone. It's the way Tony will see him, sometimes, face blank and eyes gazing at nothing, while Natasha or sometimes Thor sits near him without touching, and often without looking at him. It takes Tony weeks to finally realize they're standing guard.
None of it seems outright dangerous. To Tony or to Bucky. All the same, Tony has no idea what's going on and no one will explain it to him.
He hates not understanding. Espeically since it's Bucky. Tony is his husband, and he might - he might also, kind of, just a little bit, actually care about his Jarl with the icy eyes. Fuck mysteries, anyway.
All this drifts through Tony's hazy mind as he comes awake one morning, and Tony may have thought England was cold, but hoo boy is Greenland a shock. Especially since they're coming to the end of summer; or so everyone tells him. In England summer will be over in a month, perhaps a month and a half, but true winter won't set in for another two and half months at the earliest. But here apparently they can expect winter within a fortnight of the end of summer. Damn.
Just thinking about it makes him cold so he burrows further under the covers, and as he does so he comes awake enough to realize that Bucky's gone. Which isn't a surprise; Bucky's always gone by the time Tony gets up. If Tony happens to stir as Bucky's climbing out of bed Bucky will just shush him, whisper "Go back to sleep," and Tony will. He wonders, suddenly, what would happen if he didn't. What would happen if, instead of Tony getting up with Bucky, he reached out and tugged Bucky back into bed with him -
Damn but he's really awake now. He rolls on his back, sighs, flings his arm over his eyes. This is one of the few things that he really, truly hates about living in Stevenshaven: the bed. Is in. A box. In. The. Fucking. Wall.
It's built inwards from the exterior wall, thinner walls of wood and cloth and moss at the head and foot and the long side opposite the wall of the building rising up from the floor, creating a half-wall between the bed and the interior of the longhouse. There's a covering over the top, as well, that's too solid to be called a canopy.
It's always dark and warm and cozy, but there's no door. No shutters. No nothing. No privacy. Oh, everyone else sleeps in doorless boxes, too - all the others along the long walls, while Tony and Bucky's box has sole claim to the short wall closest to the door. Still, though. Tony's been hard-pressed to find any - ahem, time for himself - since he got here. It really, really doesn't help that he's married to one of the most handsome people he's ever laid eyes on, who has never, ever tried to initiate anything like sex.
The problem isn't even the bed itself, really; no one else's sex lives seem hindered. Tony may not understand why Bucky doesn't want to have sex with him but like Hell is he going to bring himself to completion lying next to the man, and the only time Tony has the bed to himself is in the morning. Finding release in the dark is one thing; it seems something else entirely to do so in broad daylight when everyone else is up and about. And other than the bed Tony doesn't know where else he could go.
Well and truly frustrated now, he heaves himself up, pushing the covers away to let the cold morning air calm his half-hard wood and finish waking him up. This is easily his least favorite part of every day: the moments between crawling out from under the warm covers and pulling on his cold clothes. It's just - God it's awful.
It's awful and it ends now, Tony decides. He's had a few questions about this floating around in his head for a while, but unlike all the other questions he has no compunction pestering everyone with, this is personal.
But, well, he thinks as he fumbles with his boots, shivering, he has friends now. He wouldn't be spilling secrets to total strangers. Also, he knows now who not to ask, and a quick glance around shows that thankfully Clint, Thor, and Darcy are nowhere to be seen. Bruce is, as ever, messing around with herbs and poultices and who knows what else off on the other side of the longhouse, and it's he Tony immediately goes to.
"Good morning, Tony," Bruce says, sparing him a smile before he goes on with with whatever he's doing. Grinding up some kind of dried plant, it looks like, but it's not a plant Tony's familiar with yet.
"Morning, Bruce. Question."
"Well that's unusual," Bruce says, not pausing whatever he's doing, but Tony catches the quirk to the side of his mouth. God he loves Bruce.
"Ha ha." Tony wanders over to the fire, pokes it a few times and stands entirely too close while he scoops two bowls of the surprisingly tasty gloop they usually have for breakfast. Once he's a bit warmer he sidles up to Bruce and pushes one of the bowls into his hands. Bruce glares at him but he loves Tony really, so he puts down what he was doing and eats. Also he's probably starving; Bruce doesn't eat as often as he should.
"So," Tony says conversationally, "does everyone else just sleep fully dressed? Because I never see anyone having to get dressed like I do."
Bruce snorts into his food and says, "That's because no one else could get dressed like you." He scrunches his face and flails his arms around in what could not POSSIBLY be a mimicry of Tony in the mornings.
"See, I know I don't do that," Tony says, "because you look ridiculous and I have never looked less than amazing." Bruce just laughs.
The thing is, though, it's a legitimate question on Tony's part and all the possible answers are driving him crazy. He truly hasn't seen anyone else climbing out of bed and getting dressed; he only ever sees people pulling on clothing if it's early or late in the day and they're adding a cloak or something to go outside. So it seems everyone else sleeps fully dressed. And Bucky was the one, that first night, who helped Tony out of his outer clothing before they got into bed. The bed that Tony and Bucky share. And Tony and Bucky are married. And Bucky has never made outright demands of Tony. So it's possible that Bucky's been pervy and has been taking advantage of him this whole time and it's also possible that Bucky would never do such a thing. And Tony really, really wants to trust Bucky, but Tony's trusted a lot of people in his life and look where that got him.
So Tony really, really needs to know what's normal and what isn't.
"Like, for example," Tony says, doing a pretty fair job of sounding like he's just continuing the same joking conversation, "Bucky doesn't do that when he gets dressed."
"Well, yeah, but that's because Bucky's nice," Bruce says.
"How is that nice?" Tony asks.
"You know," Bruce says, waving his spoon around. "He gets dressed as soon as he gets up. With significantly less flailing about than you, by the way. NORMAL people get dressed before they get up."
"I - what? They do? Why?"
Bruce cuts Tony a glance and Tony knows he hasn't fooled him at all; Bruce knows exactly what he's asking and why. "Normal people don't sleep fully clothed because it's uncomfortable. But normal people also get dressed underneath the covers before they get out of bed. Warmer that way."
Tony sighs. "You know, for someone who's so smart, you're surprisingly light on actual information. Why does he do that, Bruce."
"Oh Tony," Bruce says. He smiles dopily down at his breakfast gloop and says, "You'll just have to ask him yourself."
"No help," Tony says again. "No help at all."
Tony doesn't want to this but he does it anyway. He corners Bucky outside the forge and says, "Why do you get out of bed before you get dressed? No one else does that."
Bucky looks at him like he's grown a second head and says, "Um, because I don't want to let all the cold air in while you sleep? Why else would I do that?"
After a moment it seems like Bucky might actually be waiting for an answer to that, so Tony says, "Oh right! Obviously. Anyway I said I was going to help Darcy with something, so I should. Go. Do that. Pray for me!"
And then he turns around and bravely runs away.
Because that? He was not expecting that. Bucky seems to - well, as established Tony can't really get a read on Bucky. And this seems like Bucky did something sweet just to keep Tony comfortable. He can't afford that kind of hope.
That evening they're sitting around the fire eating a leisurely dinner when Natasha sits suddenly beside Tony. He nearly jumps out of his skin. That was abrupt, and honestly, Natasha scares the shit out of him.
"Tony," she says, ignoring his flailing. "There's a cliff that overlooks the whole of this area. You can see for miles up and down the coast, and out to sea, and all of Stevenshaven. It'd help you get your bearings. You'd love it."
He waits, still leaning away like she's going to bite him, but she just looks at him. No one says anything. They're probably all enjoying the show, the bastards. "All right?"
Natasha nods and continues, "It takes hours to get there, though. Do you want to go tomorrow?"
"Yes," Tony says immediately. Who cares if Natasha's scary? If she wanted to murder him she could do it here just as easily. He wants to see the view from this fucking cliff!
"Great," Natasha says. She leaves him and goes back to her seat.
As soon as she sits down she turns to Bucky and says, "James. Your husband would like to spend tomorrow on the cliffs. You should take him."
Tony chokes on his drink and can't stop laughing, because wow. That's some audacity. Bucky's still as stone. Everyone's laughing playfully, and when Thor says, "Oooooohhhh, she got you gooooood!" Clint slaps him on the back. Bucky doesn't look upset, though, so that's all right.
Quietly - so quietly Tony can barely hear him over everyone else - and looking at his own lap Bucky says, "Tony? Would you like to go to the cliffs with me tomorrow?"
The breath snags in Tony's throat and suddenly it's not so flippant anymore.
"Yeah," he answers, equally quiet and serious. "I really, really would."
That night in bed Tony lies there and feels all the space between them and he just wants so much. He does his best to ignore the fact that while before the want was a purely physical thing, it's - different, now.
Chapter 4: The Cliffs of Stevenshaven
Love me broughte
And love me wroughte
Man, to be thy fere
-Love Me Broughte, trad.
The next day Bucky's waiting for him when he wakes. He still didn't wake Tony himself, though. They eat breakfast around the fire, Clint and Thor warning Tony about all the pitfalls and monsters they're likely to encounter, Bucky laughing quietly and Tony egging them on. Eventually they say their goodbyes, and Bucky slings a bag over his shoulder, and they walk away from the longhouse into the trees.
They walk for a long time. The sun rises, and at first it's pleasant, walking beneath the graceful birch with the sunlight dappling through the leaves. Eventually, though, the woods give way to brush, which give way to grass, and still the land slopes ever upwards. They stop only once, so Bucky can take off his cloak, muttering about the heat as he tries to fold it over the bag so he can carry it.
"I'll take it," Tony says, reaching for it, but Bucky snatches it away. He's glaring - an actual glare, this time, filled with malice - and Tony realizes it's because he thinks that Tony thinks he can't carry it himself because of his arm.
"I am from the south," Tony says, trying not to laugh when Bucky's so upset, "and you're too hot. I'm barely feeling the heat yet, husband; I can carry your cloak more comfortably than you can."
Bucky eyes him for a moment, distrustful, and Tony hates every person who's ever said anything about his arm with a sudden viciousness that surprises him. After a moment, though, Bucky shrugs and hands it to him, and Tony clutches it to his chest like it means more than it does.
On they walk. Eventually they crest yet another hill and Tony's not really paying attention at this point; he's just trying to breathe long enough to walk across the present bit of (blessedly flat) grass before they continue their upward climb again, but Bucky turns away from the direction they've been going and walks to the right instead.
"Is this it?" Tony calls.
"Yes," Bucky says.
"Fantastic." Tony flings himself down on the grass, panting. He thinks he hears Bucky chuckle, but it might have been the wind. All he cares about right now is the sun on his face and the fact that he's lying down and off his feet at last.
He stays there, content, listening to Bucky moving about. But he doesn't say anything and doesn't come too near, so Tony figures whatever he's doing must not be that important.
Just as Tony's about to doze off a shadow falls over him. He squinches his eyes open and sees Bucky kneeling next to him, tense and grim among the flowers.
"Are you thirsty?" Bucky asks, holding out a waterskin.
"God's blood, yes," Tony says, heaving himself up to take it from Bucky's outstretched hand. He drinks too eagerly and water spills down his chin, scatters on his chest, and it's cold even through his shirt and pebbles his skin but he's so thirsty he doesn't care.
When he's drank his fill he wipes at his face with the back of his wrist, and as he does he spies what Bucky must've been doing: there's a blanket laid out on the grass, with food and drink spread enticingly upon it. Tony's about to say something, he's not even sure what but undoubtedly something witty, when he sees what lies beyond their little picnic and the words die in his throat.
"Oh," he breathes.
Bucky rises and holds out his hand and without looking Tony takes it, lets Bucky pull him to his feet, and then he walks forward, unable to look away.
The view is spectacular.
Seldom has Tony been so high above the ground. The sea glints and crinkles in front of them, shining and deepest blue. The shore, in some places low and rocky and in others high and craggy, sprawls to the left and right far as his eyes can see. In front of him the land falls away in grass-covered tumbles, the treetops themselves looking small and detailed from so high up, their leaves fluttering in the wind.
And below that, enfolded in the gentle curves of the soft land, spreads Stevenshaven. The biggest building is the longhouse, distinguishable by its straight lines despite the grass growing on the roof. The forge is nearby, as are the storehouse and the small scattering of huts that house various things.
Tony hadn't realized that all this time he's been living beneath a living roof of flowers.
"Oh," he says again.
He walks as far as he can before the ground becomes too steep to go forward. He tears his eyes off the horizon just long enough to glance down and - he sees just how long the drop inches in front of his toes is at the same moment he realizes he forgot to let go of Bucky's hand, and his heart kicks in his chest.
There's a split second wherein Tony's about to release Bucky's hand but at the last possible moment he doesn't. It's not like Bucky's trying to get his hand back, and he walked where Tony dragged him, so maybe - maybe he doesn't mind? He chances a glance over his shoulder, to check if Bucky's annoyed, and isn't expecting what he actually sees.
Bucky's not looking at the view. Bucky's not even looking at Tony; Bucky is standing there, at the edge of the cliff, with his face tipped ever-so-slightly downwards, staring at their clasped hands with this look -
Maybe Tony makes an involuntary noise or maybe Bucky can just feel his eyes on him, but Tony gets hardly any time at all to study that expression before Bucky's face snaps up, eyes immediately on his, and before Tony can so much as draw breath Bucky drops his hand like it burns and whirls away.
Tony stays there for another moment, off-kilter, and watches the jerkiness in Bucky's movements as he goes to the blanket and sits down with his back to Tony and the view; traces the rigid lines of his shoulders and the tenseness in his neck and back with his eyes.
Oh, Tony thinks.
"This is gorgeous," he says aloud, and Bucky simply nods. Even that movement is full of hesitation, like Bucky has to think about it too much for it to look natural.
Tony settles on the blanket across from Bucky so he can keep looking at him. He's getting a lot of new information now, and he's not sure how Bucky would react if he sat next to him instead.
"This bread is amazing," Tony says simply for the sake of saying anything, his mind awhirl and his heart beating double-time. He rips off a hunk of said bread and pulls the butter towards himself. "Much better than what they made in Winchester."
Bucky nods again, still not looking, but the reassurance that Tony's not going to mention the fact that they just held hands for a few minutes seems to calm him; in any case his shoulders relax, and after a few minutes of Tony telling stories of the stupid, stupid things he got into as a child he even looks up and smiles, just a little, like he's seen it done but isn't sure how to do it himself.
"Bucky," Tony says, "why is this place called Stevenshaven?"
This isn't nerves. This isn't even Bucky purposely sitting still in that way he does. This is - this is like Bucky's just - turned to stone.
Tony whispers, "Bucky?"
Bucky shoots to his feet and walks away.
Tony nearly topples over backwards, the motion startles him so badly. Shit. Shit. Fuck. He fucked up. Oh, God, he messed up so bad. He's never seen Bucky so upset, not even when he gets lost somewhere in his head and needs one of the two strongest people in the village to stand guard over him until he comes back. Oh but Tony is going to murder Clint.
He nearly has a heart attack as Bucky storms towards the edge of the cliff. Tony leaps to his feet and follows, but fortunately Bucky simply stands there, too near the edge for comfort, fist clenched and back straight and every bit of him quivering.
"I'm sorry," Tony says, hating himself for consciously standing just out of arm's reach, his own hand upraised but unsure if his touch would make it better or worse, sick with helplessness. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I shouldn't have asked."
"No, it's not -" Bucky starts to turn towards him, stops, turns away, brings his hand up to his face and hunches his shoulders.
Not realizing he's going to until he does Tony puts his hand on Bucky's shoulder, feels the warmth of him through the cloth, the living heat of his skin and muscle and bone. Bucky shudders, but before Tony can withdraw his own hand comes up and grasps Tony's fingers, holding him there. Tony resolves to give Bucky whatever he needs and simply holds on.
It takes a little while, but eventually Bucky sighs, shivering again, and some of the tension drains out of him. He turns his face, not far enough to kiss Tony's hand but far enough that it seems like he might. Or like he meant to and stopped himself. His jaw is warm and scratchy on Tony's skin and his breath is hot and tempting. Wanting to comfort him, wanting a kiss, wanting so much he suddenly thinks they might be able to HAVE, Tony moves forward until his chest is lightly pressed to Bucky's back, his left hand coming to rest on Bucky's left hip.
"It's not a pleasant story," Bucky says quietly. His eyes are closed.
Much as he had that first night Tony presses a kiss to his shoulder. "There's wine," he says. "And good food. And a pleasant view. And your husband, who will do what he can."
Bucky huffs a gruff laugh and Tony's heart soars.
Tony can feel the moment Bucky gives in. "Come on," he says before Bucky can so much as turn, tugging him away from the edge, "let's sit back down."
They go to the blanket and sit but this time Tony stays near; not so near that he's pressed against Bucky, but close enough that Bucky can feel the warmth and movement of him and know he's not alone; close enough to see Bucky's face.
Bucky's frowning down at his knees and for once Tony manages to overcome his nature and not press. At last Bucky says, "Steven was my best friend. Steve. My Steve."
Past tense. Tony already doesn't like where this is going.
He doesn't say anything else and Tony nods to show he's listening. He's chewing his own tongue to keep himself from blurting out every question he wants answered. This is about Bucky, not him.
"We grew up together," Bucky says with a sigh, settling more firmly. He's twirling a blade of grass in his hand and his eyes remain on that, not looking at the sky, not looking at the drop off the cliff, not looking at Tony. "He was born when I was three, and I never..." he trails off again and sighs.
"I don't know what it's like for you city folk," he says, "nor for you aristocrats. But me and Stevie - it isn't an exaggeration to say that we were always together. I was never without him. We were born and raised in the same longhouse and our parents were friends. From the day he was born until I was fourteen and went on my first viking we'd never been apart for even a whole day, Tony. And even after that, I - I refused to go on a viking again without him. That was, well. It - caused some problems."
Bucky shakes his head. "Not every village is as small and isolated as this one, and not everyone is as good-hearted as the people here. When I refused to go out again, they called me coward. Craven. Less than a person. Unworthy. There wasn't - My father was dead by then and Stevie's father gone, and Stevie's mother always ill, and Stevie unable to go on vikings himself, and there wasn't anyone else to provide for us. Four mouths to feed, and me barely fifteen and so homesick whenever I left I was dying with it.
"It was my mother who saved all of us, really," Bucky says, nonchalant as though he speaks of his parents all the time, as though this isn't the first time Tony's heard about Bucky's family from anyone. "She'd had quite a bit of land when she was younger and sold it when she married my father, but it turned out she'd kept some of the money. She spent it all to get us a small bit of land and a few goats. It wasn't much, but it was almost enough."
Twirl, twirl, twirl. Back and forth, between thumb and forefinger, that blade of grass that Bucky just keeps spinning and spinning.
All at once Bucky laughs. It's a full, happy laugh, and Tony's so startled he can't do aught but gape. Gape and try to memorize what Bucky's face looks like in that moment. Bucky hardly ever laughs.
"Oh, gods, but we had to build the house ourselves, and Stevie was - he was so small, Tony. Short and thin and frail, like a strong wind would knock him over. Our mothers had all sorts of stories about how the gods had stolen bits of him when he was born because they knew if the strength of his arms matched the strength of his heart he'd be a challenge to Thor himself. He could barely lift anything without running out of breath and yet there he was, right beside me, as determined as anything to do his share building that house. Stupid kid." He smiles and shakes his head and Tony's heart aches with it. There are no women in the village old enough to be either of their mothers and Bucky's still talking about Steve in the past tense.
They're both silent for a while, Bucky watching his hand and Tony watching Bucky, the wind ruffling their hair and the sun warm on their backs.
Bucky shakes his head a little, like waking up from a dream. "Right. Yes. So Stevie was frail, and his mother was always sick. Eventually she caught a wasting sickness, and it - it didn't take long. Stevie was, oh Tony, he was devastated. My mother was caught in a flood not a year later, and then it was just us. But we were," for the first time since Tony asked that stupid fucking question, Bucky looks up at him. His eyes are very bright. "Tony, we were so happy."
"I believe you," Tony says, daring to lightly touch his shoulder again, answering Bucky's unspoken plea for Tony to just understand. "I believe you."
Bucky nods and looks away again. He takes a few deep breaths, swallows, and Tony braces himself.
"We had a couple good years, and then the young King called up all able-bodied men. We were going to war. I didn't want to go and Steve was desperate to; but they wanted me and wouldn't even look at him. I was, I was twenty. From the time I was fourteen to then, Stevie and I hadn't been out of each other's sight for more than a few hours at a time."
The silence doesn't last long this time before Tony hears himself ask, "Did you go?"
"Of course I went," Bucky says, still staring at his hand. "I had to go."
"Of course," Tony agrees softly. "I know."
Bucky sighs and says, "I was captured. By - well. I thought it was Bulgarian troops, and then I thought it must have been a tribe from the Euxine Sea, but. It wasn't. I didn't know that, though. And Steve..."
Tony doesn't really want to hear the rest, and he really doesn't want to think about Bucky as a prisoner. It's fairly obvious how everything after Bucky's release goes: Steve, driven by desperation either to find Bucky in the war or to build a life for him to come back to or both, or simply driven out of town without Bucky to provide for him, set sail for Greenland. Founded this settlement. Lived out the rest of his days here.
This - this is where Bucky was going, three years ago when he and Tony met for the first time, however fleetingly. He was on his way to Greenland, to find the person he loved most in the world.
The only thing Tony doesn't know is whether or not Bucky made it in time.
Bucky says quietly, "Steve saved me."
"What?" Tony asks, not sure he understands. Steve saved him by giving him a home to come back to? Steve saved him by --
"He just," Bucky waves a hand, huffs a laugh, as though he's unable to even describe whatever happened. "There I was, so close to dead I thought I could hear the screams of Helheim, when all of a sudden this shining person is leaning over me. Thought it was a Valkyrie. But it was STEVE."
"What?" Tony asks again. Aren't Valkyrie huge? "Wait, what? I thought you said he was sickly?"
Bucky grins at him like they're sharing a joke. "He was. When I left he was still this skinny little stick of a man that barely came up to my shoulder. And here he was, strong enough to break the chains with his bare hands, so tall he - Gods, Tony, he was probably only a little smaller than our Thor."
"What," Tony says yet again. "How?"
Bucky laughs. "I used to ask him that all the time. Everyone did. Even people who hadn't known him before would ask how he could do what he did. Run faster than anyone, bend iron with his bare hands, see without light, heal ten times as quickly as anyone else, hear things so quiet even the cats couldn't hear it - all kinds of things. Bastard would just pick some random deity and say it was them. He prayed to Odin for knowledge, he prayed to Frigga for health, he prayed to Freyja for skill, he prayed to Skadi and Thor for strength, he prayed to Loki for senses strong as animals, he prayed to," Bucky waves a hand again, as though to encompass every possible superhuman being.
Well now this makes even less sense than before. Unless - unless Steve left? Once he was big and strong and smart and could do all kinds of amazing things, what if he wanted to go see the world and didn't want Bucky with him for some godforsaken reason?
Tony looks at Bucky - eyes downturned, a flush high on his cheeks, the solidness of his shoulders and the graceful curves of him as he reclines, the wind ruffling his hair, the faintest smile on his lips - and thinks that anyone who could willingly leave this man doesn't deserve to have him, and is a fool at that.
"You remember Gamora and Peter and everyone? The others who came with me to - to England?" Bucky asks. Tony would give an awful lot to know what he was going to say instead.
"Yeah," Tony says. "The ones we dropped off at the village down the coast south of here?"
"Them," Bucky nods. "There was a group of us. The Howling Commandos, they called us. We had some good times."
This is good, Tony thinks. Bucky's not pausing or stumbling over his words so much anymore, so maybe this won't be too terrible.
Bucky says, "I fell." And then he doesn't talk again for a while.
Tony spends a little while trying to decide if he should do something, or let him be. He's clearly in a bad place inside his head, but is it Tony's right to bring him back? Would it be better to let him work through it? Would it be cruel to remind him of the outside world, or would it be cruel to leave him to suffer?
Natasha and Thor don't try to bring him back though. Tony suddenly realizes this has something to do with whatever's going on when Bucky gets that vacant look on his face and one of the others stands guard over him. So Tony resolves to do the same.
...He also resolves to bring this up to Bucky at a later date and make sure this actually is the best thing for him, but for right now it'll have to do.
So Tony sits and thinks and frankly wants to cry because he can still see where this is going. Steve came here, and maybe brought Bucky here, and eventually Steve died here. Tony wonders if he was buried beneath a cairn or if he was put in a ship to Valhalla.
In the end the shadows have moved whole paces before Bucky brings himself out of it. "When I came back," Bucky says, and he doesn't say where he was or what happened or how he got away and Tony wants to just curl around him and keep the rest of the world away from him forever, "when I came back I found out that, that Steve. Steve. My Stevie."
Bucky shakes his head. "I was gone for the rest of it, so I only know what the others have told me. They thought I was dead, you see. Small wonder. I thought I was dead, too. And there was - They'd taken a ship, had Stevie and the Howlies. An enemy ship. It was only once they'd overwhelmed it that they realized it was a plague ship. Filled with dead bodies. They got back to their own ship real quick, but it didn't matter. Steve'd been on the plague ship for hours, fighting everyone, and he was already starting to feel sick. And they knew, knew the current there. If they left the ship it'd just wash ashore, and they were so close to a city, and there were so many people.
"And Steve," Bucky says, breathing heavy now like he's trying not to cry, "Stevie tells everyone he's going to sail the ship away and swim back. He'd swam further before, so they knew he could do it. So they were - they could see when he got out real far, and. He set the ship on fire. They, they tried to, but he was too far -"
For the first time Tony takes his husband in his arms, and Bucky falls into him and clutches at him like he'll disappear into the mist otherwise, buries his face in Tony's neck, and it's awful.
"He did it 'cause of me," Bucky hitches into Tony's skin. "He thought I was dead so he went to go find me and, but I wasn't, I was still out there somewhere, and I came back to him only he was," Bucky shakes his head. Takes a few deep breaths and calms himself.
Bucky pushes back and Tony lets him go immediately. "That's why it's called Stevenshaven," Bucky says, face downturned. "Not because he ever found shelter here, but because he should have."
Tony's never loved anyone so much in all his life.
Chapter 5: The Bed in the Wall
Love me slou
And love me drou
And love me layde on bere
-Love Me Broughte, trad.
They don't stay on the cliffs much longer. Tony watches, helpless to comfort him because he doesn't know what will make it worse, as Bucky calms himself down. For a few minutes more they sit in silence, and then Bucky rises and starts packing up the blanket and the waterskin and the (mostly uneaten) food. Tony rises and helps and doesn't say anything, because what else can he do? What is there to say?
The sun is barely a handspan above the horizon when they're ready to leave. Still without saying anything Tony gently touches Bucky's arm and he stops, doesn't look at Tony and doesn't say anything but also doesn't keep walking, and Tony leans forwards and up and kisses his cheek.
His lips brush whiskers more than skin and it's butterfly-light, but Bucky's cheek is rough and warm beneath his lips and Tony wants to do so much more for him than just this.
Bucky freezes again, like he did before, and this time Tony's close enough to know for sure that Bucky's not breathing. Tony drops back to his flat feet, fingertips still on Bucky's arm, and looks at him.
He looks - he looks the way he does a lot of the time, except now that Tony's standing close enough to touch he can see Bucky isn't lost in his own head, he just - just doesn't know what to do.
Somewhere in all this a realization coalesces in Tony's mind, sending shivers and aches down his spine and to the pit of his stomach: Bucky's not disinterested or solemn right now. He's not being grim.
Bucky is flustered.
He's so flustered he doesn't know what to do with himself. Where Tony gets more verbose and hyperactive the more nervous he gets; Bucky must be the exact opposite. It appears that the more nervous he gets the more still he becomes.
Like a one-two punch that sends another realization charging through Tony's mind: that, wow, that must mean Bucky's nervous and flustered around Tony pretty much all the time. Which is just. Unspeakably adorable.
Adorable but not what Tony wants for him right now. He doesn't want Bucky to be nervous and flustered; he wants Bucky to be content and HAPPY. So he settles back on his heels, leaving his hand on Bucky's shoulder but moving far enough back that it'll be clear he's not going to try kissing him again.
Bucky's looking at him with wide, wide eyes. After a moment Bucky blinks himself out of it and Tony smiles at him, small and soft; coaxing. Bucky ducks his head and smiles tentatively back, and it's like the ground beneath Tony's feet has vanished and he's falling down the cliffs, his stomach swoops so at the sight of that smile.
Tony doesn't want Bucky out of his sight, out of his reach; wants to cling to his hand lest Bucky be torn from Tony's side even as Steve was torn from Bucky's. The path isn't too rocky but it's steep, and sometimes narrow between the trees. Tony would hold Bucky's hand and damn however long it takes them to get back - but for the fact that Bucky has only got the one. It would be too hard, walking down the path in the fading afternoon light, with but a single hand for balance. So Tony keeps his hands to himself and tries to settle by simply watching Bucky even more intently than he watches the ground beneath his own feet.
They reach Stevenshaven at dusk, and Tony can't help but feel guilty that he gets to arrive safe and sound at this place with Bucky beside him when the settlement's namesake didn't.
He remembers, suddenly, Bucky standing at the prow of the ship as they slid up the last stretch of coastline before reaching Stevenshaven, how still he was, and lovely. It was like Bucky stepped right out of the world and left naught but the image of himself behind, and Tony was afraid. He stood beside him to look at the land passing them by, trying to see what Bucky was seeing that could carry him so far away, and now Tony knows where he was. He was on that other ship, the burning one, that should have made this same voyage and never will.
A few people call out greetings as they near the settlement proper, and Tony waves but doesn't yell back. He's on the receiving end of some side-eyes as they wend their way towards the longhouse, but everyone seems to understand what must have happened so no one brings up how much more quiet than normal Tony is. Bucky is quiet, too, of course, but that IS normal for him.
Almost as soon as they get back everyone else troops inside for dinner, and Tony can't stop staring at Bucky. He hasn't spoken since he ended his story on the cliffs. Tony gets the certain feeling that Bucky's just too tired to speak. If Tony were to add up every word Bucky's spoken to him since they met - if he were to tally every word he's ever heard Bucky say to anyone - he suspects it'd still be fewer words than Bucky spoke today. And that's not even taking into account the nature of that talk, which would be enough to lay anyone out flat.
So Bucky doesn't speak and Tony doesn't press him to. Frankly Tony's got so much on his mind he can't even keep up his usual chatter. Everyone else is boisterous enough to make up for the fact that Tony's not being boisterous with them, but at one point or another every person looks at him out of the corner of their eye, assessing, like they're trying to distract from the fact that Tony's quiet now, too. Tony hardly notices, though, too busy being distracted by his huge, solemn, silently grieving husband.
All through dinner Tony watches him, watches the way he interacts with everyone, watches how he positions himself in relation to everyone else and to the building and how he sits and where he looks - watches and watches and doesn't know how to ask. Doesn't know how he could ask anything; how dare he demand more of his husband's heart, more of his painful story, than what he willingly shared today?
But Tony can't help if Tony doesn't know what Bucky's dealing with; and Tony will help. He's determined now. Bucky is his husband: it's Tony's sacred and divinely-appointed duty to see to his health and happiness. Which is bullshit, of course, but it's much easier to think about it like that than the REAL reason the thought of Bucky in pain sends mirrored pains shooting through Tony's own heart.
Tomorrow, he resolves. Tomorrow or perhaps the day after. Tony's definitely put Bucky though enough for one day already, asking a question like that out of the blue (and he's still undecided on whether or not he's going to kill Clint for starting all this).
Despite how much he doesn't want to leave Bucky for a moment, eventually the need to piss cannot be ignored. Tony has to take a good look around at all their friends who care about Bucky and constantly reassure himself that Bucky will be all right as Tony leaves the fire-lit circle, makes his way outside, and hurries back.
As he ducks inside, when no one's looking his way, Thor is suddenly beside him. Tony stops walking when Thor grasps his shoulder.
Quietly, Thor says, "Are you all right?"
Tony hesitates, then nods. Thor doesn't move his hand, warm and big and gentle, and doesn't look away from Tony's face even though Tony can't meet his eyes. Tony looks at his feet, and then at Thor's feet, and then at the fire, and then the far wall. Then at Bucky. At the fire again.
No. He's not all right. Neither is Bucky. But by the gods, Bucky is going to be all right if Tony has to kill himself to get him there.
Now Tony meets Thor's eye. Nods, firm and weary. Thor squeezes his shoulder in mute support.
Nothing else is different in the routine - they all talk until late, though the sun has barely set, and people begin drifting off towards their beds in ones and twos and threes. Tony and Bucky are neither the first nor the last to leave the hearth, and it's not until Tony's finally walking beside Bucky towards their bed in the box in the wall that he realizes just how much he's been looking forward to this - yearning for it - since Bucky pulled away from his arms at the end of that terrible story.
They undress quickly and without looking at each other and climb into bed, and it should be exactly the same as always. But tonight Tony just lies awake and stares through the dark at Bucky, at his husband, at this kind man who's lost so much and is now so lost himself.
Tony still doesn't know what happened to Bucky when he was captured, so he knows there's worse yet to come if he can ever get Bucky to talk to him about it. But now, right now, Tony wants so badly to pull Bucky away from everything and tuck him into the warm and the dark and curl around him and just keep him hidden and safe from all the world. But Bucky's already denied Tony once, and Tony isn't going to do anything Bucky hasn't given his full consent to - not after springing that awful question on him and reminding him of so much pain and fear, and not after finding out he was held captive for God only knows how long by God only knows who and having God only knows what done to him.
That's another thing, then. Bucky gets flustered around Tony, but also got angry the one and only time Tony tried to have sex with him, and there's something there Tony doesn't understand yet. But he is going to figure it out, because he doesn't need sex to live but he does need to be able to hold his husband in his arms and give him what comfort he can or risk dying of sadness himself.
To Bucky's surprise, the morning after he and Tony spend the day on the cliffs he wakes. Surprise because he didn't expect to sleep at all - had to choose whether or not to tell Tony about Steve, and part of that choice was knowing he wouldn't sleep that night and would have a hard time for at least a few days more, and chose to tell him anyway. And yet here he is, blinking awake to the soft sounds of the others rising and beginning the day, and Tony's breath steady at his back.
Against his habit, Bucky doesn't immediately rise. Instead he indulges, lies there and listens, and feels, and thinks.
What he thinks about is the way Tony stuck by his side all of yesterday. He doesn't notice till he thinks back on it, but Tony did. All through the walk back and dinner Tony was right there. Bucky turns his face into the bedding and smiles.
It's a pattern that continues. All through this day and the next, Tony is with him.
It's not like Tony used to ignore him. Far from it. Tony doesn't ignore anyone. Well, not here, anyway; he certainly did ignore a few people back in England, but Bucky is pretty sure that's because Tony likes everyone here better.
Tony has always paid attention to him. Always listened to whatever he had to say, and always invited him into conversations. All for that, Bucky didn't talk to Tony much. Not because he didn't want to, but because he wanted to speak with him too much. It was the same whenever Tony tried to draw him into conversation. Bucky always gets so tangled in the myriad things he wants to share and his complete inability to articulate any of them, so he either manages to say just one or two words, or does naught but stare at Tony instead of answering.
Now it's like - it's not just that Tony pays attention to him. It's as though now he has Tony's attention, which it turns out is completely different. Before, Tony's focus was... something else. Bucky is ashamed to realizes he's not even sure what Tony was focused on. All the new things, he supposes. Now, though, he is Tony's focus. Whenever Tony doesn't have something immediately in front of him that demands his attention, his focus shifts to Bucky.
He sits closer than before. Follows Bucky's every move more intently. Doesn't try to draw Bucky into conversation more frequently than he used to - if anything he seems to try to entice Bucky to speak even less - but now, no matter whom Tony is speaking with or what he's speaking about, he turns to Bucky. Like he wants to see Bucky's reaction to everything. Whenever Bucky does find a way to speak Tony listens to him yet more avidly than he did before. It makes Bucky want to speak both more and less, since he wants to give Tony everything his heart desires and it seems like Tony desires Bucky's words, but at the same time he wants his words to be perfect and that's never going to happen.
And above all Tony's eyes find him, always, constantly, everywhere, no matter what either of them is doing. When Bucky glances at Tony - because who does he think he's fooling; Bucky is always looking at Tony - now he finds that Tony's looking back. Each time Bucky can do nothing except startle and look away.
The first time it happens he glances back again, seconds later and unable to help himself, and Tony is still looking at him. Rather than looking away Tony smiles warmly, like he's glad of some secret happy thing between just them. Bucky feels himself flush and pulls his gaze away, embarrassed by his own smile.
He's sleeping better than he expected - better than he has in years, really - so it takes a little while for him to notice that in other ways he's doing worse. What it takes is Jane pulling him aside one day and asking, "Are you all right?"
Before he can say yes, of course he his, she says, "You've nearly jumped out of your skin four times today."
She's right, he realizes, feeling for the first time how tense he is. He's been strung taut as a bowstring for days. Normally he would just bull through it and handle it on his own, but now there's Tony to consider. Bucky doesn't want to hurt him, not even accidentally, so he swallows his pride and goes and finds Natasha.
"You have to tell him the rest," she says. He never told her that he already told Tony any of it, and though he has no evidence one way or another he feels Tony wouldn't have told her, either.
"But I told him everything already," he protests, thinking how long it took.
She shakes her head. "You didn't, though." He doesn't understand; makes a helpless gesture. She continues, "If you had told him everything you wouldn't always think of what he doesn't know - and you wouldn't be so worried that it's either going to happen again or that he's going to find out. That's why it's at the forefront of your mind. Just talk to him, Bucky."
The same refrain since first the ship carried Tony to these shores. Just talk to him. Just talk to him.
In the end the admonishment has the opposite of her intended result: he doesn't speak for the rest of the day. He's too busy debating within himself, and too overwhelmed by the sudden immediacy of all the things he's been trying to ignore and which Tony doesn't know about yet.
It's not until he's lying on his side in bed and listening to Tony breathe that he catches himself waiting - waiting for the moment Tony wakes and either yells at him for what he's done or cowers away from him in fear or both - which is impossible, because he hasn't yet told Tony anything that would make him react this way. And no matter how long Bucky keeps himself awake and staring into the darkness beyond their bed, there are no walkers coming to kill him or to steal Tony away in the night.
The next day he still doesn't speak, but now it's because he's trying to figure out what exactly to tell Tony, never mind how. He thinks both the staring and the intimidating solemnity are likely worse than ever, but he's entirely helpless to do anything about either.
There's enough going on without worrying about his own problems, too. It's been growing colder and colder, the sun setting noticeably earlier every day, and just like every year there's a mad scramble to get everything ready for winter.
Bucky starts talking again. He talks to everyone; even Tony. It's easy for him to pretend everything is all right during daylight hours, but in the dark he has to face the fact that the only thing he talks about is preparations for winter, and every night he still keeps watch for Tony to turn on him or for the walkers to come for them both.
He's not sure how long it goes on like this, but it's Tony who knocks him out of it. (Tony who saves him, though Bucky doesn't want to say that to him. Doesn't want to put that pressure on him; those expectations.) They're lying in bed, Bucky facing out towards the world he's trying so hard to keep Tony safe from and Tony curled up behind him - Tony must be facing him; he can feel Tony's breath in his hair.
"Tony?" Bucky whispers. He didn't know if he'd have the courage to until the word passed over his lips.
"Yes?" Tony answers immediately - his voice quiet, too, but sounding not the least bit sleepy.
"I don't," Bucky starts, then stops. Opens his mouth to speak again and still doesn't know what to say.
"Bucky?" Tony says. Bucky listens. "You can tell me. All right? Whatever it is, you can tell me."
"I don't want you to know," Bucky says. Closes his eyes and turns his face into the pillow, as though having his back to him isn't hiding his face from Tony well enough.
After a minute of silence Tony says, "That's all right, too. You don't have to tell me if you don't want to. I'll make sure I don't find anything out from anyone else, either. But I - I want to know."
"Why, though?" Bucky asks, raising his face enough for the words to not be muffled. He doesn't realize how angry he is until he hears the snap of his own voice.
For another minute Tony doesn't speak. Bucky wonders if he's pretending to be asleep; he hasn't changed his breathing, but perhaps he doesn't care if Bucky knows he refuses to answer the question.
Something tugs at the ends of Bucky's hair. Tony. Tony tugs gently at Bucky's hair, like he's running his fingers through it without touching Bucky's skin. "When I was really little," he says, "one of my father's grooms was thrown from his horse and broke his arm. Right below the elbow. I'm not sure exactly what happened, but he was dragged a bit too, so his skin was rubbed raw. It healed eventually, but it was never quite the same after that. Sensitive. He used to wrap it up tight beneath his sleeve so the cloth wouldn't move over it. Hurt if anyone touched it.
"I didn't like that that happened to him," Tony continues, "but my not knowing about it wouldn't suddenly cure him. My knowing about it just - prevented me from accidentally touching it and causing him yet more pain, and that was something I wanted to avoid."
The non-sequitur of the story confuses Bucky so badly he considers pretending he fell asleep himself. In the end, though, he manages to get himself to say, "But you - you already know about my arm."
Behind him, Tony huffs and pulls his hair just a bit more sharply before resuming whatever he was doing to it before. "That's not what I meant. I mean, yes, that too, but not all wounds are ones you can see."
"If you're trying to compare what happened to me to some kind of wound - that's not - that doesn't work."
"My parents were killed two years ago," Tony says. "My father never cared about me and I never got the chance to find something that would make him proud of me. My mother's the only person who ever really loved me. Thinking about them hurts so bad I could scream."
Bucky's throat closes. Oh his poor, poor prince. "Tony -"
"I'm not looking for pity," Tony says firmly, as though that's the only possible reason Bucky would want to ease his pain. "I just want you to - I don't know what happened to you. I know it was nothing like when I lost my parents. I'm just saying - I know what it's like. To be hurt somewhere no one else can see. To feel like you're bleeding somewhere that can't be bandaged."
"Don't see how poking at it would make it stop," Bucky grumbles.
Tony laughs. Voicelessly, so the sound doesn't carry beyond their bed, but it's still a lovely sound. "At the risk of extending this metaphor far beyond what it can handle, think of it like an infection. You have to drain the wound first before it can heal properly."
"And did you ever drain the wound of your parents' death, Tony?"
Tony's silent for a long time. A long, long time. This time he really isn't going to answer. At least half an hour later Bucky gives up waiting for him to speak (or waiting to think of something he can say, some way he can apologize, but ever word dries up in his throat) and turns his face into the pillow again, shifting to get comfortable.
Bucky's nearly drifting off when Tony whispers, "No. I haven't."
They both roll over at the same time: Tony to face towards the wall, away from Bucky, like he's trying to hide from what he said - and Bucky to face Tony for the first time while they're in bed together, lying on his stomach and flinging his arm over him. Tony's stiff as a board - but only for a moment. Then all at once it's like the fight drains out of him and he turns again back towards Bucky, burying his face in Bucky's chest with a sigh.
If anyone was, in fact, coming for them, this would be a terrible way for them to sleep. Bucky's pinned down and would neither be able to see the danger as soon as it approached nor defend them immediately. Yet, despite the fact that he ought to feel like they're both less safe now, Bucky falls asleep almost immediately and sleeps well past dawn. It's the best rest he's gotten in weeks.
They hardly speak to each other during waking hours (cannot call them daylight hours, now, for daylight hours are precious few and far between) unless by necessity. Never bring up anything about either of their pasts when they're in the open. It's not the sort of thing that should be said before the fire or beneath the sky.
It's secrets in the dark. Without fail, they wake in the depths of the night and whisper to each other for hours. Sometimes they miss second sleep entirely, they spend so long talking.
Bucky tells Tony what it was like when he was away from home and away from Steve, resentfully fighting for the young king in his war. It takes half the winter, but he tells Tony what really happened to him when Steve and everyone they knew thought he was dead.
He and Steve and their friends had been marching through the mountains when they stumbled upon a contingent of enemy soldiers. Steve and Bucky scaled the cliffs to get in front of them, and the Howlies defeated the enemy soldiers with little trouble and no casualties. At the last moment, though, one of the dying soldiers shot at Bucky with an arrow, and when he leaped, startled, the cliff beneath him gave way.
The others thought he'd died. Who wouldn't? He'd fallen off a cliff. No one survives that.
"But you did," Tony whispers fiercely. They're lying in bed, Tony closest to the wall and Bucky with his back to the rest of the longhouse, curled towards each other, knees knocking and breath warm in the dark space between them. Every night they fall asleep on opposite sides of the bed, and every night they wake a respectable distance apart, and every night as they talk they inch closer and closer to one another. Their hands always lie between them, and always eventually brush together, just the slightest bit. Sometimes one of them (Tony if Bucky's lucky; Bucky himself if he's brave) will link their fingers.
Now, when Bucky says this, Tony immediately reaches forward and clutches Bucky's one hand in both of his own, as though Bucky is still falling, as though Tony needs proof that he's still here.
"You didn't really fall, though, right?" Tony says. His voice is small.
"No," says Bucky, equally quietly, and he silently marvels that his voice isn't shaking or breaking at all, "I did."
"But you lived."
"Yes," Bucky concedes, moving closer. "But I - my arm -"
Silence. Bucky isn't even breathing. Neither is Tony.
Whispered, the words wrenched from him, "That's when they took me."
"Who?" Tony sounds apprehensive. As well he might; Bucky's said many times that Steve and their friends believed him dead, and Tony is terribly clever.
Bucky struggles for a moment. Tony strokes the bank of his hand with just the very tips of his fingers, and in the midst of winter it feels like sunshine. "No rush," Tony says. "Start wherever you want to." He kisses Bucky's fingers, just barely.
On a harsh breath, mesmerized by Tony's lips, Bucky says, "To the west the ocean is enormous, but there's land over there, somewhere. It takes weeks and weeks, but if you sail far enough you make landfall. The ocean ends.
"But to the East -"
Tony's staring at him, now. His face is very close. His eyes glint in the darkness, his hair ruffles on the pillows; his eyelashes skritch on the bedding as he blinks. Every now and then he shifts, and even though they're not touching anywhere except Bucky's one hand and both of Tony's, Bucky feels the movement of him.
This is his Prince Anthony, this is the man Bucky has pined over and dreamed of for years, this is the usurped heir to the throne Bucky saved from inevitable assassination -
This is the man who's slept beside Bucky every night for nearly six months, and who's thrown himself into life here with courage and good cheer, and who always listens when Bucky speaks, and who stares at him sometimes as though Bucky is the only thing in all the world he wants to look at.
Throat thick, Bucky says, "To the east there's a forest, and nothing beyond. The forest stretches to the end of the world. No one has ever been able to get all the way through it.
"I think," continues Bucky, "I think it's because - because there's nothing to get through in the first place. I think that's where our world fades into the otherworld, and so the forest just - keeps going. Forever."
Bucky swallows. "The ones who had me. Who captured me before. When Steve saved me. They found me again. Not Bulgarians; not from the Euxine Sea. Not - maybe not even, not even human. Not Aesir. Some sort of creature the likes of which I've never heard of. They -"
Tony's still staring at him, quiet and warm and still save for his fingertips sliding over Bucky's skin. Bucky matches his breathing to the movement, swallowing and swallowing and trying to speak without hearing what he's saying.
"They had me for a long time. Years. Felt like centuries. They - they did something to me. Froze me, but I didn't freeze. Trapped me in a block of ice, but I didn't die and I didn't sleep. They'd come to me, in my mind, and whisper, and I could feel the ice around me but I couldn't move. I couldn't breathe, the ice was frozen around my chest and I couldn't draw breath and the water was frozen in my mouth and down my throat. For years. Years I couldn't breathe and didn't die. They'd let me out and tell me to do things, and - Sometimes I wouldn't know what I was doing, like my mind was still in the ice but my body moved as they made it, but sometimes I did exactly as they bid. Anything to keep from being forced back into the ice."
Silence for a while. Tony doesn't stop stroking Bucky's hand, but his fingers tremble, now.
"Natasha's story isn't mine to tell." Bucky feels the jolt that goes through Tony at the words, but though Bucky pauses Tony doesn't interrupt. "But our - our paths crossed. We got away. Killed a lot of them, melted their palaces and weapons and sleighs, cut them off from the world. Didn't get all of them, but weakened them and made it difficult if not impossible for them to cross over from the otherworld. I remember all of it, but I don't understand most of what we did. Natasha told me what to do and I did it. And then we just - walked. Turned our faces to the setting sun and kept walking till we found the sea. Put the sunset on our right and walked until we found people, and then until they spoke my language, and then went to find Steve."
Tony draws breath like he's about to speak, but if Bucky has to talk about this again it may very well kill him. He's got to finish.
"I said I would have done anything to stay out of the ice and I meant it," Bucky says. Forces himself to say. He vowed to himself that he'd protect Tony to the best of his abilities, and give him the fullest and happiest life he possibly could, and yet all this time Tony's been sleeping beside a monster in human shape and Bucky just - let him. "I killed a lot of people. Tortured people. Didn't matter who they were. Didn't understand until later. I mean, I knew I was killing them when I did it, but it's only looking back I realize who some of them were to the world. I killed everyone in a monastery, once. Burned all the books. Envoys from the Sunlands. Started wars, probably. Killed - killed children. A poor family, another time. I don't know why they wanted them dead. The youngest one was so little."
Tony lets out a harsh breath that sounds like a sob and reaches. Bucky closes his eyes, deciding to submit to whatever his fate may be - if Tony strikes him he'll take it, and if Tony pushes him away he'll go, and if - Tony's hands fall on him, hard and grasping, and it takes a moment but Bucky realizes Tony is pulling him towards himself.
Dazed, Bucky lets Tony pull him where he will, though Bucky is a great deal heavier than Tony so what happens is more like Tony dragging himself forward. But less than a breath after Bucky stops talking Tony's got his top arm flung over Bucky and his bottom hand pushed between Bucky's face and the bedding, and his hand is clutching at the back of Bucky's shirt, and he's pushing forward still, rising up on his elbow just a little, as though he means his slight frame to cover Bucky entirely.
Carefully, Bucky moves his hand, just a little - just enough for his fingers to brush Tony's underclothes. When Tony doesn't flinch Bucky dares to move his hand just a bit more, until he's nearly holding Tony's hip, and still Tony doesn't push him away.
Tony pushes Bucky's hair back and kisses his forehead. Then again. "You're all right now," Tony says between kisses and caresses, and it sounds like he might be crying. "You're here, I've got you, you're all right -"
Whether he realizes it himself or not, Bucky knows that Tony's saying all this to comfort himself, but - the very fact that Bucky's presence IS a comfort, that Tony would be sad if he were gone - that just makes Bucky smile like a dope into Tony's shirt and snuggle closer.
Maybe it's because he's not thinking, maybe it's because he secretly wants to hear Tony say it aloud, maybe he really is thoughtless and insensitive, but Bucky chuckles into Tony's shirt and mumbles, "If I'd died, though, you never would have had to marry me and be dragged halfway off the edge of the world -"
"Don't," Tony snaps. Both of his hands are cradling Bucky's face as though it's something precious, their foreheads pressed together. Tony's too close and it's too dark for Bucky to see his expression, but they're pressed close together and Bucky's arm is around his waist so he feels how tense Tony is, how hard he's trying to get closer, how gentle he's forcing his hands to be, how his breath is spasming and how hard he's fighting to control it. He moves just enough to kiss whatever part of Bucky his lips meet - the crest of his cheekbone - and softens his voice. "Don't say that, don't say that -" and then another secret in the dark: "I really, really hated it there."
"Why?" Bucky asks, and Tony tells him.
He talks about his parents and their deaths, and his godfather and his son, and how they stole the throne from Tony when he was too young and grief-stricken to do anything about it. Tells him about another kind of captivity, consisting of being surrounded by nothing but enemies, and sumptuous living quarters with locks on the outsides of the doors, and poison-sweet words said with sharp smiles. The chains of For Your Own Good and locks of You Don't Know Better.
Tony tries to demur, tries to say that his captivity is nothing compared to Bucky's - as though that means Tony were never held captive at all. Bucky agrees that their experiences were so different they cannot be compared, so they shouldn't be compared at all. He tries to tell Tony to stop comparing them and finding his own history lesser, and he's not sure if he gets the message across, but in any case Tony squeezes his eyes shut and nuzzles their faces close together. Falls asleep that way.
Bucky's last thought before he drifts off himself is that it really is no wonder Tony's trying so hard to get all of them to like him. Not if that's what he's used to, and certainly not if that's what he's afraid of being thrown back to.
Well. There's nothing to be done except to prove to him through words and actions both that Bucky would sooner lose his other arm than allow that to happen to Tony.
It's like Steve was a floodgate, or a catalyst. After telling Tony about him, and with just a bit of reassurance, Bucky seems to have decided that he wants to tell Tony everything else, too.
There's more. A lot more. Tony likes most of it even less than he likes what happened to Steve, and that's saying something.
Tony doesn't want Bucky out of his sight, which is easy for now since everyone is confined to the buildings and their immediate surroundings. People do leave for longer with a bit of planning - even a few days at a time - in threes and fours for hunting or fishing or the hell of it, but Bucky and Tony stay near the longhouse.
When Thor, Bruce, and Darcy come back from one such trip, Tony finds himself doing what he's been doing automatically: standing close beside Bucky, pressed to his side so he can feel the heat of Tony's skin and the presence of him, on his weak side, while Natasha just happens to end up directly between Bucky and the door.
It's a good haul, and while most of it will be left outside or in one of the small sheds to freeze a lot of it is brought into the longhouse, along with all the clothing and gear the three of them took with them. The easiest thing to do would be to prop the door open so everyone could bustle in and out unhindered, and though it would let out a great deal of heat it would also be over and the longhouse would start warming up again more quickly. Nevertheless, going in or out everyone closes the door behind themselves. There are a few times the rhythm of activity falters, and these are the times Tony can hear the wind outside.
What strikes Tony isn't just that it's happening at all, it's that none of them question or comment on it. They all do it automatically, including Tony. No one complains about the door. No one opens the door when the chill breeze would blow inside. No one asks Tony to get up and help, and Tony doesn't offer. They all know he'll help with everything once it's all brought inside and the fire has warmed the air a bit first.
Tony's acting the way all the others, but especially Natasha and Thor, have always acted. It used to seem so impenetrable, but no more.
And Bucky's silences make more sense, now. It's strangely easy to tell the difference between Bucky flustered and Bucky sad and Bucky lost and Bucky quietly content, now that Tony knows what he's looking for. He does everything in his power to tip the balance towards that last one, and isn't sure if it's wishful thinking that makes him feel like he's succeeding.
Between the lengthening of the night and winter storms Tony hasn't seen sunlight in days. It's the very depth of winter, the coldest, darkest time of the year (they tell him), and it's simultaneously frightening and exhilarating and boring and exciting. They stay inside for the most part, but they also act like it's a never-ending party, playing ridiculous games and making bets and dares and telling stories for hours and hours on end. Timekeeping has lost all meaning, and it's like they're unmoored from the rest of the world, outside it: people go to bed and get up when they please, and there's almost always at least a few people around the fire.
Tony and Bucky always go to bed and get up together for first and second sleep, though. Now (today; tonight? Tony has no idea) they've left a handful of people awake on the other side of the longhouse, and the howl of the wind is enough to turn the crackle of the fire and their laughing voices into indistinct, comforting murmuring.
As they lie in bed Tony stares at Bucky's back and doesn't know why this is it, but it is. Maybe it's because he's finally come to accept something, not about Bucky, but about himself: what he feels for Bucky, what he wants from him and for him, goes so far beyond sex and physical pleasure. Maybe it's because, whether he realized it or not, he would have done it wrong before. Maybe it's because at last they can both trust each other to say yes and no.
Tony rolls onto his side and sidles up to Bucky. Not touching yet, but close enough that they can whisper. Bucky turns his head; doesn't speak, but acknowledges that he knows Tony has something to say and is listening. There's curiosity in the tilt of his shoulders - they don't usually talk when they first go to bed; it's almost always when they wake in the middle of the night and before they fall asleep again.
"Bucky?" Tony whispers, and Bucky hums, leaning back just a bit to show it's all right to touch, so Tony slides right up to him, pressing his chest to Bucky's broad back. "Can I - Can I - ?" The only words he could find for what he wants - let me make you feel good, you don't feel good enough, let me be close to you, let me learn all of you, let me prove to both of us that we're alive and warm and together - aren't things he wants to say aloud.
Instead he puts his hand on Bucky's hip. Not his side, because Bucky sleeps on his right side (he hasn't said, but Tony suspects that sleeping on what's left of his left arm is painful), and since he has no arm to guard it Bucky's left flank is more vulnerable than almost any other part of him. So Tony lays his hand gently on Bucky's hip, and after a beat slides his fingertips forward just a bit. Not nearly enough to actually do anything, but enough to make what he's asking clear.
Bucky sucks in a sharp breath and freezes. Tony gives him a moment to consider it. It's a moment that is probably not so long as it feels, but Tony could wait a lot longer, if it was for Bucky.
Then Bucky lets out a breath and Tony buries his face in the back of Bucky's shoulder in relief. Bucky twists a little, then starts to roll over - but Tony grips his hip gently.
"Tony," Bucky whispers, and Tony shakes his head.
"Let me," Tony whispers, then kisses the back of his neck, his ear, his jaw. "Please, please let me."
Bucky's breath is speeding up, but not in a panicked way. "I just don't want you to -" He makes a helpless gesture with his hand in front of himself.
Tony ducks his head and smiles - his husband is so sweet, and so kind, and cares about him so much - and though the gesture is shy he knows Bucky can feel his smile against his neck. "I won't," Tony promises. "It'll be fine. I'll be good. More than good. Great, even. This is - I don't need this to be happy, you can say no to part of it or everything and I won't be upset, but doing this will make me happy, too. Promise."
Bucky thinks about that for a few minutes as well, but these few minutes Tony gets to spend scooting as close as he possibly can, and nibbling on Bucky's neck, and stroking his hand up and down Bucky's hip.
"All right," Bucky whispers at last. "Whatever you want, Tony. Anything you want."
"I want you," Tony says, leaning up enough to kiss Bucky's cheek. It's hard to tell in the dark, but he thinks Bucky might be blushing.
Bucky's shoulders are broad, so broad that to reach over them Tony would have to sit up, but his waist is narrow enough for Tony to comfortably reach the front of his underclothes. He goes slowly, though - not slowly enough to tease and torment, but slow enough to give Bucky plenty of time to speak, and to get used to the sensations. He wants to grab and grope every single inch of this man, but not nearly as much as he wants to make Bucky feel good, and if there's one thing Tony's sure of it's that Bucky doesn't want to be on display. So he first strokes up and down Bucky's hip, and then down his thigh, and then he rubs circles into Bucky's lower stomach. All the while he kisses Bucky's neck and hair and clothed shoulder, and Bucky shudders deliciously in his arms.
At long last - at long, long last - Tony slowly tugs Bucky's underclothes loose enough to get his hand beneath them.
Bucky is muscled, his skin firm, and Tony can't tell if the rasp is only from hair or if his skin is rough, too. Still trying to go slow enough to not startle or overwhelm but not slow enough to tease, Tony runs his hand over Bucky and explores much the same way he did on the outside of his clothes. He finds that Bucky's upper thigh and lower stomach are coarse, and that his hip is hairless, and that when Tony glides his fingertips towards the inside of Bucky's thigh Bucky will thrust towards his hand and make this noise -
Tony really, really wants to hear that noise again. It's a good noise.
"Is this all right?" Tony breathes hot into Bucky's ear, and Bucky nods, turning his face into the pillows.
So Tony scritches through the hair between Bucky's legs and moves his hand deliberately up and grips his cock.
Oh God. Oh God. Both of them are shaking now, and Tony can't stop moving, can't stop trying to get closer, even though his chest is pressed tight to Bucky's back, and his knees are tucked behind Bucky's knees so their legs are pressed together too, and Tony's own painfully hard cock is snug against the firm heat of his husband's ass.
Tony tugs him off slow but firm. His cock is huge in Tony's hand, hot as bright coals and smooth as polished stone. He feels hot precome fall on his hand and runs his thumb curiously over the wet head and leaking slit, and Bucky thrusts hard into his hand and comes.
"Oh," Tony says, aware he stupidly sounds like he just solved an insoluble puzzle and not caring. "Oh fucking God."
Bucky's still writhing and trembling in his arms and his hand is still on Bucky's slick, pulsing cock, and Tony grinds against Bucky's ass and comes with a bitten-off moan.
They pant together for a little while before Tony manages to coax Bucky's head up for a kiss, and after a little while Bucky rolls onto his back and pulls on Tony's shirt until Tony flops on top of him, head on his shoulder and legs tangled together, and Bucky kisses Tony's eyelids until they stay shut and breathes against his forehead until he falls asleep.
Chapter 6: The Cliffs, the Longhouse, and the Ship Beyond the Ice
Love is my pes
For love I ches
Man to buyen dere
-Love Me Broughte, trad.
As will always happen, no matter how impossible it seems, winter passes and spring comes. Snow melts and gushes down the mountains, birds flock by the thousands and build their nests on the cliffs, the paths are drowning in mud but there are green shoots everywhere. Bucky takes Tony towards the sea one day, and points to what Tony had thought were clouds at the very horizon: free-floating ice piling up against ice firmly anchored to the land, crushing and grinding with a noise Tony had thought was perpetual, distant thunder. The booming of the sea-ice and land-ice breaking and clashing as it melts gets louder and louder as the days go on, and as with everything else everyone take great delight in making a spectacle of it, clearing the forge roof of snow so they can sit on bearskins to watch the icebergs do heaving battle, cheering for the loudest noises and biggest collisions.
Nearly every time they're in bed they have sex, now. The first time Bucky tries to jerk Tony off Tony comes as soon as Bucky wraps his big hand around Tony's cock, and he's terribly embarrassed by it until Bucky manages to kiss him, and when he pulls back he opens his eyes to Bucky wearing the most self-satisfied, smuggest grin Tony's ever seen.
When he sees that smile Tony's sort of pleased with himself for coming off quickly as a teenager. Besides, the last nine months have been Tony's longest dry spell since he started having sex in the first place and he's still quite young, so by the time Tony returns the favor he's fully hard again. After that every time he brings Tony off nearly immediately (whether or not Tony's able to go a second time) Bucky spends the next day striding around with his chest puffed out like he owns the world, and Tony's so besotted he just wants Bucky to keep looking so proud of himself forever.
For weeks Tony watches the glittering white climb further and further up the mountains and talks quietly with Jane, Thor, Bruce, and Clint - those who roam furthest afield the most often - before at last Jane gives him the good news.
"Husband," Tony says at the next meal (still rather pointless to call any of them breakfast or supper, he feels). Bucky looks at him, not apprehensive but attentive, and Tony can't help the smile curling his lips and around his voice as he says, "I hear tell of a cliff half a day's walk away with an excellent view of the sea and the shore: a cliff that is no longer covered in ice. Will you take me there, husband?"
Bucky ducks his head and smiles, and while Tony tries to avoid making Bucky flustered and self-conscious and nervous, this sort of flustered he loves: when Bucky looks happy, giddy even, and doesn't quite know what to do about it.
"Of course, husband," Bucky says, and Tony's heart kicks like a stallion to hear him call Tony 'husband' for the first time.
They leave in the dark long before sunrise and the climb is both easier and harder than it was before: harder because the ground, though mostly dry, is still slightly treacherous, and easier because Tony's anticipation gives wings to his feet. Bucky even smiles at him and teases him for being so eager.
At last they gain the plateau. The grass is already growing thick on the ground, despite the snowdrifts crusted over with ice that hide in the shadows of boulders and trees. They spread the one fur they brought and huddle together under one blanket and their cloaks and watch the sun rise. It comes from behind them, beyond the mountains, but watching the great shadows sweep across the sea as the light pulls ever closer to the shore is breathtaking, and the light glinting and glittering on the far-away ice is indescribable.
There's no start to it, really: they touch each other constantly, woke tangled together, brushed hands and hips as they packed their bag, bumped into one another as they climbed, and held each other warm and close while they watched the sunlight spread over the chill world. So there is no beginning, but after a time the touches fade from comfort and closeness and contentedness to desire and intent. They tangle beneath the coverings, grasping and groping and pulling each other as close as possible, kissing desperately.
"Please," Tony begs, "please, please."
It takes a little while for him to get his intent across, but when he does - his hands resting curled in the bottom of Bucky's shirt, his eyes on Bucky's and (he's sure) his face full of longing - Bucky looks at him for a long time. Tony doesn't waver, and Bucky nods and looks away.
Carefully, Tony pushes the shirt up, greedy hands and mouth worshipping every bit of skin as he finds it. He doesn't even realize what he's doing until Bucky says, "Stop, please stop," and Tony realizes he's got one hand on Bucky's chest and one hand on his ass and his mouth kissing and nuzzling the remains of his left arm.
Tony does stop, of course he does, pulling back immediately, but before he can do anything more than remove his mouth (with great reluctance) from Bucky's skin he realizes what he's looking at.
His arm ends a bit less than halfway down his bicep. The muscles are smaller than the corresponding ones on his right arm, though the hair beneath his arm is just as thick. And the skin - the skin -
"Am I hurting you?" Tony asks anxiously, hands hovering. Bucky's head is bowed, his face turned away. Tony had no idea - He knew there were scars, of course he did, but he hadn't realized -
"Have I been hurting you this whole time?" Tony chokes, and realizes that he's about to cry and won't be able to help it.
"No, no, sweet, no," Bucky says, turning enough to get his arm around Tony. For a second Tony almost lets Bucky pull him in but at the last moment he stiffens, eyes riveted to the tangled masses of scars across Bucky's chest - and shoulder - and arm - and it felt like his back, too, though Tony couldn't see -
"Oh," says Bucky, and drops his arm. For the first time since he saw the proof writ deep across Bucky's skin of just how badly he'd been hurt, Tony looks up at him. He's not trying to hide his face, but he's looking at his hand in his lap, and his expression is very sad.
"Bucky," Tony chokes. Bucky looks up at him and reaches towards him like he's going to wipe his tears, then flinches and draws his hand back.
That does it. Tony's really crying now, snatching Bucky's hand and cradling it in both his own, kissing his palm and pressing it to his face.
"Tony," Bucky says, sounding upset and bewildered, and Tony just cries harder. "Tony, no, what's, what's wrong? I'm sorry if they scare -"
"Do - not," Tony says with hitching breath, "finish - that - sentence."
"What's wrong? What's wrong, Tony, what'd I do -"
"I don't want to hurt you!"
"You're not hurting me, sweet -"
"I am, though, I must be -"
"No, Tony - Tony," Bucky says, firmer now. He shakes off Tony's hands so he can take Tony's chin between curled forefinger and thumb, tipping his face up to meet his eye. "It hurt when it happened. It hurt for a long time after. I don't really feel much of anything on them, now. But you, Tony? It's like - I can't describe it. I've never felt so good in all my life as I do when you're touching me."
Tony stares at him, looking for the lie or pity in his eyes, and doesn't see it. Bucky moves his hand enough to run his thumb beneath Tony's eye, his expression soft and focused and full of concern, and Tony is going to love this man all his days.
They crash together, clinging desperately, and Tony pushes Bucky away just long enough to claw his own shirt off, then wraps him up in his arms and feels him everywhere skin-on-skin.
Soon they're lying down, Bucky sprawled atop the fur and Tony sprawled atop Bucky, one of their cloaks pulled haphazardly over them because it's just a bit too cold to be naked outside. But naked they are, writhing together, Bucky moving from Tony's mouth to his neck when Tony pushes himself up and flings out a hand to root around frantically inside the bag. He finds what he's looking for and nearly drops it when Bucky latches on to one of his nipples.
"Stop a moment," Tony says, pushing at Bucky's forehead. Bucky lays back, smirking, though the smirk drops away when he sees that Tony's fumbling with the stopper on a small oil jar.
"Did," Bucky says, looking back and forth between Tony and the bag. "You brought that on purpose. Did you plan this?"
"Oh honey," Tony says, kneeling up enough for Bucky to see him reach beneath himself and push two fingers inside, "you bet I did."
They fuck like that (they make love like that, though it's too saccharine for Tony to say even in his own head), with Bucky on his back and hand clutching at Tony's hip, Tony straddling his hips, sometimes pressing his hand to Bucky's stomach for balance, sometimes kneeding and tugging at Bucky's nipples just to see him gasp.
Their rhythm gets faster and then less coordinated, and Bucky gets a hand on Tony's cock and Tony's vision whites out. All he can feel is the blinding waves of pleasure from Bucky's cock sliding inside him and Bucky's hand pumping his cock and Bucky's body beneath his, warm and alive and heaving as Tony comes.
He falls forward, panting, and Bucky wipes his hand on the grass and smiles against Tony's mouth.
"All right," Tony pants after a moment, pushing himself back up and shuddering when Bucky's cock shifts inside him. "You now."
"You don't have to -" Bucky gasps, and Tony may be sweaty and still slightly dazed from coming but he smirks down at him and shifts his hips in a circle and watches Bucky's eyes roll up in his head.
A moment later Bucky sits up as much as he can, wrapping his arm around Tony's waist and kissing him desperately. Tony gets his knees beneath himself and uses the leverage to thrust down onto Bucky, and tangles his fingers in Bucky's hair and kisses him and kisses him and when Bucky's eyes open he pets Bucky's hair and they look at each other while he comes gasping.
Bucky comes for ages and Tony works him through it, thrusting slow and hard on his cock until Bucky goes suddenly lax. They fall, Tony on top of Bucky, and after panting for a little while Tony fishes around in the bag again and comes up with some rags to clean them off, and Bucky laughs.
They lie back down, only slightly sticky, rapidly cooling in the cold air but comfortably covered again. Tony's head is on Bucky's right shoulder, Bucky's arm around him, idly playing with Tony's hair. Tony traces over the scars, and over Bucky's lips, and plays with his hair, and draws patterns up and down the remains of his left arm, and touches the hollow of his throat, and Bucky lies there with his eyes closed and smiles, smiles, smiles.
This is it, Tony realizes. He's warm and safe under the blankets, warmer and safer tangled together with his husband, and Bucky is smiling in the sunshine, utterly relaxed and petting Tony's hair. Awed, he thinks, This is it, this is really it. We're in love, we're together, we got through the winter and the secrets and all the pain, and we're here now. We're together, closer than I ever dreamed we could be, and we're in love, and now we get to just be happy.
He thinks of his knight for the first time in months, and realizes that it's been months. He used to dream of his knight all the time; but what use has he for that now? Why would he need to dream of anything else when he's here? What's the point in daydreaming when reality is finally better than anything his imagination could conjure up?
Besides, he thinks and touches Bucky's smiling lips, he spoke to his knight so little. There was a lot of meaningful eye contact and breathless anticipation and when the knight had held out that one single flower to Tony it had felt like all the world spun in his hand, but how was any of that romantic? The stories lied to him, he decides. How on earth was something that was barely a conversation supposed to be enough to fall in love? How could anyone think that paltry, fleeting feeling was love? It was like a sneeze, he thinks, suppressing a snicker: an overwhelming spasm but passed and forgotten just as quickly. Had Tony talked to his knight for an hour, or a week, he thinks that would not have been enough time - or enough trust, and intimacy, and showing of soft hurt places - to fall half so deeply in love as Tony and Bucky are.
Something must change in Tony's body or breathing, because Bucky slits one eye open and says, "Tony? Sweet, what is it?"
"I'm just," Tony says, and realizes to his horror he's getting choked up again. "I'm just really, really happy."
Bucky looks happier and softer, both at once, and before Tony can continue he kisses him. His lips are delicious. Tony's heart quivers with how much he loves him. He forgets he was going to say anything else, so wonderful is it to express everything he's thinking without words instead.
They kiss for a long time, and yet it still isn't nearly enough before Bucky's pulling back, scattering quick tiny kisses over his face. "We should go back."
"No." Tony clings more tightly to Bucky and tries to suddenly weigh more.
Bucky laughs - Tony loves that sound more than his own breath - and nips at his neck until Tony's squirming. "Come, sweet," Bucky says as Tony wedges his face into his neck and locks both of his legs around one of Bucky's. "You're shivering."
"Don't want to leave," Tony grumps.
Bucky's still laughing. "But you're cold. And we can come back."
Tony sighs, put-upon, and gets an idea. He looks up at Bucky (and doesn't let himself get distracted or melt into a puddle when Bucky kisses the tip of his nose), and says hopefully, "Will you sleep naked tonight?"
This time Bucky laughs so hard he doubles over. Tony's never done anything else he's so proud of.
At last Bucky agrees, and reluctantly they disentangle themselves and begin dressing. "I'd ask you to walk back naked, too, but it's a bit cold for that yet," Tony says, and laughs when Bucky glances at him over his shoulder and makes a show of bending over to pull on his pants.
"Yet?" Bucky asks.
"Mm-hmm. Sometime in the summer I'll get you to walk back naked so I can look at you the whole time. Or, ooh, no, walk UP naked, and then we can fuck as soon as we get here."
Bucky smirks and lunges at him, and Tony shrieks with laughter as Bucky tackles him and kisses his neck to tickle him until he squirms away.
It takes a lot longer, but they do get dressed and pack everything away. The sun has already swung around the mountains, low to the horizon and southeast of them now, and it's broad daylight but Tony knows it won't be for long. At least with the sun setting in front of them this side of the mountains will catch the light until the last possible moment.
"Say," says Bucky, just before they start their descent, "I wonder who that is."
"Where?" Tony asks, and Bucky stands behind him and points, and Tony sees a tiny speck of black well out to sea. "Isn't that an iceberg?"
"No," Bucky says, wrapping his arm around Tony. "Too symmetrical. And it's not moving right."
They talk about whose ship it might be as they walk back to Stevenshaven, and don't stop until just before the last bend in the path, when Tony drops the bag and pushes Bucky back against a tree to kiss him breathless before they're in view of everyone else again.
There's not much daylight left, but they spend it all outside with everyone else, glad to be beneath the sky as long as possible. That is, everyone except Clint, who stands atop the longhouse and gazes out to sea until the sun has completely set and the stars on the ice confuse even his eyes.
"Saw a ship," Clint says to Bucky while the eat dinner. Tony's pressed to his left side, and something finally manages to get through the giddy haze when he hears the note of concern in Clint's voice.
"Could you tell whose it is?" Bucky asks. Clint has the sharpest eyes of anyone in the settlement - possibly the sharpest of anyone Tony's ever met.
Clint shakes his head.
"Thought it was the Guardians," Darcy says from across the fire. "They usually come for a visit this time of year."
"They know better than to come before the ice is gone, though," Bucky points out.
"It's not a Norse ship," Clint says, and though no one looks frightened or even tense all conversation stops as they all turn to him. "Not English either. Never seen one like it."
"Could you draw it?" Tony asks.
Clint makes a face, tips his head back and forth. Darcy hands him a stick and Clint shrugs, takes it, uses his foot to drag some ash out of reach of the fire and spread it out evenly.
"We're the last settlement," Natasha says. "There is nothing and no one beyond us."
"Perhaps they're going to build a new settlement, though," Jane says.
"North of here?" Darcy makes a face. "No one's that nuts. Although, if it's not a Norse ship, they could be adventurers from somewhere south of Scandinavia and England both who just don't understand what they're getting themselves into."
Tony studies the outline Clint sketched intently. Bucky watches him, but after a few minutes he's forced to concede defeat. "It's too vague. Sorry," that to Clint. "It looks familiar, but I think that's because it looks like half a dozen different types of ship I've seen. Maybe if it gets closer I'll be able to tell."
"But if they're settlers they'll pass us by," Jane says, "so it won't get much closer at all."
It does get closer, and it doesn't pass them by. It comes up level with Stevenshaven, nearly due west of them, and remains there. There's the chance that they're lost, or looking for a friendly chat and maybe directions, but they stay there for days.
The only thing in between the ship and Stevenshaven is the massive, churning ice floe. It's thick enough to prevent the ship from making landfall, but too broken for anyone from Stevenshaven to walk over, though Clint and Natasha both offer more than once. Bucky won't hear of it.
On the third day Bucky calls them all together and says, "As soon as there are enough channels in the floe we're taking a boat out. Thor, Natasha, and I will go."
Immediately everyone starts talking; all of them either want to go or think no one should go at all. Tony knows he probably looks ridiculous but for the life of him he can't stop clinging to Bucky's hand.
After letting them get out the initial outpouring Bucky quiets them all. "Clint, we need you to stay here because you're the only one who will be able to see all the way out to the ship. You need to watch us and alert everyone if something goes wrong. Bruce, I need you here with Clint to defend the settlement if necessary. Jane, Darcy, Tony, we need you here to keep everything running while we're away, and to act as healers if necessary, and hopefully not as the last line of defense."
There's a tense silence while everyone thinks about this. Rather, as everyone tries to think of a way around it. There are a lot of crossed arms and skyward glares. Clint rubs his mouth and takes two paces away, then two paces back. Bruce is hunched over. Jane's looking from the longhouse to the ice to Darcy to her own hands and back again. Thor looks worried and excited, and he's got an arm around Darcy and is rubbing her arm up and down firmly, and though she won't look at him she also doesn't move away.
Tony breaks the silence by saying quiet but firm: "I ought to go as well."
"No," Bucky says.
"Listen to me," Tony says. He's moved away so he's not hanging off Bucky's arm anymore, though he can't bring himself to let go of his hand. "I have met more people from more places than any of you. I speak more languages. I know more cultures and customs and modes of etiquette. There's no telling who's out there, but it's simple numbers that of all of us I have the greatest likelihood of being able to communicate effectively with them."
"Yet you know little of seamanship or combat," Bucky says, and Tony can tell how hard he's trying to sound calm and reasonable when he's being anything but. "You could be hurt."
"And I also could have pulled you aside and spoken to you privately," Tony says. His voice is low - not whispering, but quiet enough to command everyone's attention, and he holds Bucky's eye firmly. "That way I wouldn't be challenging your authority in front of everyone. But if no one else heard what I have to say, then they would all be free to think that the only reason you let me go is because we're fucking, and it wouldn't matter whether or not I convinced you I was right."
"That has nothing to do with it," Bucky says. He's confused, Tony can tell, and growing angry, though it's more fear than anything else. Oh how Tony loves him. He squeezes his hand.
"No," says Tony, "that has everything to do with it. I am a prince of England -"
"Exactly, you have no experience -"
"- who grew up in court and whose parents died four years ago," Tony continues firmly. He doesn't raise his voice over Bucky's, but he doesn't stop speaking and he doesn't look away. "Palace intrigues are beyond your wildest dreams. Beyond any of your ken. I have lived and breathed diplomacy since before I could even speak. Rakish good looks and charm aside, diplomacy is the one and only thing that kept me alive until you took me away."
Bucky looks stricken. Angry still, but stricken. No one says anything. Bucky's throat bobs as he swallows, then swallows again.
"You could still be hurt. So could the rest of us, I know, but the chances are greater that of the four of us, it would be you."
Tony nods. Still doesn't look away. "That may be true in a battle of strength. What I'm saying is that I'm going to do everything I can to keep a battle of strength from happening in the first place. Look. Yes, there is a chance that if I go I'll never come back. But. But if I go, there is a much, much greater chance that everyone will come back than there is if I stay behind."
Tony's got him, he knows he does. He sees the moment Bucky realizes there's no way out. He cannot outright say he values Tony's life above Natasha and Thor's; moreover, he cannot say he's less willing to allow Tony to put himself at risk when Tony's volunteered to do so freely. Not if he wants to be their leader. Not if he really does care about all of them.
It will hurt Bucky too much. The knowledge stabs at Tony's heart: Bucky is going to say Tony can go as well, but Tony didn't factor in the emotional consequences of doing so and it will hurt him too much. It's the right thing to do but Tony can't do this to him; cannot give him an excuse to blame himself entirely for anything that might happen to Tony.
Given the choice between telling everyone at once a painful thing before he's ready and causing Bucky agony there is no competition.
"You know I hated it there," Tony says quickly, before Bucky can bring himself to speak. Has to show Bucky not just that he's been maneuvered into seeing Tony in harm's way, but that he's doing something FOR Tony. Something good. "They controlled my every move. They controlled me as though I were - as though I were a dog, or a piece of furniture. I wasn't even human. Please, I - This is my choice. Let me make my own choice. Give me my autonomy." It's a gift, he wants to scream, please understand it's a gift.
Tony holds his breath. No one moves. Their hands are still clasped tight.
"Your autonomy," Bucky says at last, and his voice is raspy, "is not mine to give. If you chose to go to the ship the choice is yours, and no one will try to stop you."
He looks around at everyone else. Tony doesn't know what anyone else looks like, or what they're doing; has eyes for no one but Bucky. "That goes for all of you. All of us." Bucky's voice is stronger, though his hand is shaking. "I've told you what I think everyone should do, but I can't and won't force any of you to do anything. You are free people, and you follow me because you choose to, not because you must. I'm supposed to lead you, not command. I'm sorry I forgot that."
There are a few more moments of strained silence, then Bucky looks at each of them except Tony, nods once to himself, and pulls his hand away. "Excuse me, please," he says, and Tony watches helplessly as he walks away.
It's two more days until the ice has cleared enough for them to venture out. After their talk the floe piles up even more than before, an impenetrable jumble of sharp edges and impossible angles, but the next night a great wind comes from the north and when the sun rises again the sea is nearly clear. Not clear enough for the strange ship to venture closer to shore, apparently, but more than clear enough for a handful of Norsemen to steer a small boat out to sea.
As Tony requested what feels like months ago, both he and Bucky undress completely when they get into bed every night. The two nights in between when Bucky and Tony decide to venture into danger together and when they actually do it, though, they don't have sex, barely even kiss; just cling together in the dark, awake and asleep, sometimes running hands over unseen parts of each other as though to confirm they're really there, or to memorize, just in case.
Tony isn't much help with the boat - it's small enough that there isn't a whole lot he knows how to do, but there also isn't a whole lot he needs to do - and as they draw nearer the ship he can see the standards and feels a frisson of recognition.
"I've never seen that exact symbol before," he tells Bucky, Thor, and Natasha. "But it looks a lot like the emblem of the royal house of a country that - the same country as someone who was banished from England shortly after my parents' deaths." He can't bring himself to say the rest, not when it likely doesn't matter anyway, and not when there's still this awful tension between he and Bucky.
There's people on the ship, but no one shoots at them, and as soon as the boat is close enough a mooring line and rope ladder are lowered. It seems like no time at all until the four of them are standing at the railing, staring about them.
Most of the people are dark, darker than anyone Tony's seen in ages. They're friendly but hesitant, smiling but talking among themselves. Tony doesn't give anyone, stranger or Norse, long enough to turn curiosity into hostility.
"Tena yistilign, tena yistilign," he says with a bow. There's one moment of startlement, and then the strangers laugh good-naturedly and say, "Tena yistilign, dehna aderachu, tena yistilign."
Tony's smiling and giving his name and the others' while frantically casting his mind back to hidden times with Rhodey teaching him his mother tongue. His meager supply of Ge'ez is going to run dry quickly. "Betam ahmesugenalew," he says as soon as he remembers how, "Englizegna tichilaleh?"
"My friends, my friends!" A voice rises over the others, and it takes a moment for Tony to realize whoever it is, his request has been answered and they're speaking English. The crowd parts and a man strides up to them, richly dressed and clearly in charge. He's young, barely older than Tony, and blindingly handsome. He smiles warmly at them and there's a boyish gap between his teeth, and Tony blinks at him, thinking that if Bucky is the handsomest man in all the world, this man might be second.
He clasps arms with all of them - Bucky, Thor, Natasha, then Tony last of all - and barely spares Tony a glance. "Welcome, friends, welcome. Kala barakat za-Rhodes, King of Kings, benevolent lord of Aksum, Himyar, Raydan, Saba, Salhen, Tsiyamo, Beja, and all the kingdom of Kush. Peace and blessings upon you. I am Samuel of Harar, but you may call me Sam. Please, come this way."
A strange thing happens, then: as they pass through the crowd people whisper in Tony's ear in a strange mix of Ge'ez and English: "The choice is yours. Tell us to and we will take you away. Your wish is our command. We will fight for you. We will die for you." He turns sharply towards the voices every time, but he can never tell who it was that spoke. Bucky, beside him, sees him looking, but appears to not have heard the words. Tony doesn't know how to say something to him about it without potentially causing an unnecessary scene, so he resolves to keep his peace until they're off the ship.
Shortly they find themselves in a grand cabin, sitting on downy-soft cushions, being plied with sweetmeats and wine and deft conversation. They talk of the weather and the sea and the ice but not about what on earth this Samuel of Harar and his ship are doing here. Bucky barely speaks at all. Tony hadn't realized how much he'd gotten used to quiet-but-content Bucky, and the strangeness of the situation is made all the more difficult by how desperately Tony suddenly misses his husband, though he's right beside him.
Not until the delicacies have been consumed and the atmosphere relaxed do they come to business.
"I am an envoy," says Sam, "from King Rhodes. As you may know, he was a ward of the throne of England before the untimely deaths of the king and queen of that fair land. My purpose here is simple: in all the world the only thing my king desires is Prince Antonio's hand in marriage. He cares not what explanation is given to the rest of the world. He is willing to pay any price; you have but to name it."
And Tony is flying, listening to this, because gods in heaven, Bucky is going to rip these people to shreds. He would feel bad but for the way he feels flushed and giddy instead.
Except. Except all Bucky says is, "We will consider your offer." Then he rises, thanks Sam for his hospitality, and says they will return tomorrow with their answer.
They leave the cabin, they leave the ship, they leave the world, maybe, and Tony is - reeling. He thought - he's daydreamed of a scenario like this, when someone would have the opportunity to get rid of him and wouldn't, of someone who wasn't being forced to fighting for him, fighting to keep him, he thrilled at the idea of someone sticking up for him and defending him and - and not even just now, not even just recently; all his life he's dreamed of this, and over the last nine months these daydreams have definitely taken on a very Bucky tinge, because Tony had thought, he'd really thought -
The boat strikes sand some time after the afternoon sunset and Tony stumbles ashore, wet and shivering, too caught up listening to the crashing of his hopes and drowning in the shame of his own foolishness.
Things happen, he's not quite sure what, but it's like waking from a dream to find himself in front of the fire holding a bowl of stew, everyone around him talking and laughing over their dinner as they always do.
And, all right, yes. Yes, Rhodey's delegation says they'll fight for him. And yes, it's not Rhodey's fault that he left Tony. Was stolen away from Tony. Whatever. And it's also not Rhodey's fault that he didn't come do this in person.
The thought coils through his mind: Bucky did, though. Bucky came in person.
Feeling sick Tony shoves the thought away.
He's - well. He's been so spoiled with good feelings, now, and so many of Tony's daydreams have been so irrevocably colored to Bucky that - even though a scant year ago Tony would have done something truly drastic to even imagine that someone like Rhodey would be able to do something like this for him, now he wants - more.
So of course he's hurt, he's so much more hurt by this than he has been by anything else in his life, because this was unexpected. And because he's hurt and also Tony, he gets charming and smiley and sharp and abrasive and loud and mean.
He doesn't even realize he's doing it until he sees the way they suddenly flinch away from him. They still laugh at his jokes, of course, but now they flinch, too.
"I'm exhausted," Tony says, standing abruptly. "Going to bed. Good night, everyone."
They call out good night and sweet dreams as he stumbles away into the dark, too hurt and upset to care that there's no way no one will notice that this is the first time he's gone to bed without Bucky the entire time he's lived here.
He crawls into bed, miserable and heartsick, and doesn't take off any of his clothes. Bucky comes to bed what feels like hours and hours later, and he doesn't undress either. Tony had hoped he'd be asleep by now, but he's not: he lies still as frozen stone, curled on his side with his face to the wall, and listens to Bucky climb into bed and stay as far away from Tony as possible, and is glad of all the practice he's gotten at feigning sleep while he lies there and cries, and cries, and cries.
Chapter 7: The Cliffs and the Truth
Ne dred thee nought
I have thee sought
Bothen day and night
-Love Me Broughte, trad.
Bucky wakes for the last time with Tony at his back. They haven't moved at all in the night, still as far from each other as they can get while still being in the same bed, and when he dares a glance over his shoulder he sees that Tony's still facing the wall.
He goes through the morning in a haze. Every single small motion, and noise, and smell just opens a cascade of images: first all of the memories of Tony, and then the thoughts of what it will be like every morning from now until the end of his life alone.
This whole time, he's known that Tony only stayed because he lacked the option to do aught else. Now that option has come, and from one of Tony's oldest friends who's apparently a rich king, no less. Bucky would never, never try to stop someone he loves so much from doing something that would make them so happy. So of course when Tony asks to go Bucky's going to let him. Of course. Of course.
The haze doesn't lift until something's shoved into his hands and he blinks. Natasha's standing in front of him, his balled-up cloak pinned to his chest with her fist.
"Hurry up," she says, and there's something incredibly angry behind the words though she's doing a good job of not letting it seep through. "You're leaving in ten minutes."
"Oh," he says, and fumbles to start pulling on his outerwear. After a moment he thinks to ask, "Where are we going?"
Oh gods, oh no, oh no, not yet, it's too soon - he knew Tony would go and be glad of it but he didn't think Tony would leave so goddamn quickly -
"The cliffs," Natasha says. "Tony's waiting for you."
He snaps around to look at her, but she's already striding away. Tony? Why would Tony be waiting for him? Why are they going to the cliffs? The cliffs are - that's where -
That's it. Tony's kind; that's what Bucky hasn't been thinking about this whole time. Tony's kind. He may be impatient to leave, but he does genuinely like all of them (not enough to stay, of course) and he isn't cruel. He'll want to say goodbye.
And he knows everything about Bucky, now; knows how hard Bucky will take their parting. This is a gift: one last visit to the meadow on the cliffs where Bucky learned to be happy again.
Tony is indeed waiting for him outside. As soon as he hears Bucky's tread he slings the bag over his shoulder and begins walking. He doesn't even look at Bucky. He must be feeling guilty.
Bucky will need to relieve him of that. There's no reason for him to feel guilty. Nothing that's happened in his own life so far has been his own choice. It's not his fault that he ended up here, and it's not his fault that Bucky fell in love with him, and he can't be blamed for leaving now that he's able to.
At least Bucky has the entire walk up to feast his eyes on Tony and to lock down his own grief hard enough to not make Tony feel yet more guilty.
Tony has no idea why Bucky wants to go up to the cliffs again, and when she brought him Bucky's message Natasha wouldn't tell him. Hadn't Bucky told Sam that he'd give him an answer today? Doesn't Bucky have better things to do? Things that do not involve wasting an entire day with Tony?
The thing is, Tony has no idea why Bucky's done anything. Not just the past twenty-four hours, though those are certainly confusing as well. But why has he done any of the things he's done? Why did he go all the way to England to - get? buy? demand? achieve? - Tony's hand? Why did he tell Tony everything he did; all the painful details of Steve and his time in captivity and the nightmares he still has? Why did he tell Tony that he's never felt as good as he does as when Tony touches him and then not even blink when someone else asked to take Tony away?
His mind is so a-whirl he barely notices when they gain the plateau. As with the first time, it's only when Tony sees Bucky veer away out of the corner of his eye that he realizes they're in the open, now.
Overcome by sudden anger, Tony lets the bag fall at his feet and marches over to Bucky, who's standing near the edge with his back to Tony. Watching the ship, perhaps, that will pay him any price he can think of.
"Well?" Tony says. Best get this over and done with as soon as possible. The more he thinks about it, the more quiet and withdrawn Bucky is, the more Tony knows he's not going to like whatever it is Bucky has to say.
For a long time, Bucky doesn't answer. Tony can't bring himself to say anything else, so in silence he waits.
"Could I," Bucky says, then stops. He turns to Tony and stares and Tony is startled by how agonized he looks. "I know it's selfish and I'm sorry, but could I - could I please kiss you, just one last time?"
Tony just stares at him. Bucky looks, horribly, like he's about to cry.
"What?" Tony croaks.
Bucky bows his head. "I'm sorry," he says. "I know I don't have any right, but I - you're leaving, so -"
"I'm leaving?" Tony says. For a moment he thinks the cliff gave way beneath his feet. It's not till this moment he realizes he really didn't think Bucky would sell him off.
"It's all right, Tony," Bucky says, soft and sad, finally looking at him again. "You don't have to tell me, all right? Of course you're leaving. I mean, now that you have a better offer."
Like striking a fire in a dark room, in light of those two sentences Tony suddenly sees and understands everything.
Once he understands he is gobsmacked, reeling, teetering forward and almost crying and would definitely be hitting Bucky if violence wasn't something he'd tried to keep as far away from him as possible. "A better offer?" Tony cries. "A better offer? What in fuck could they possibly offer that would somehow be better than the love of my fucking life, better than someone who's loved me for years, better than someone who rescued me and has tried so hard to take care of me and - and -"
Tony's crying openly now, teeth clenched and neck straining to hold it back, and Bucky's eyes are watering too.
"None of that matters, though," Bucky says like he's begging. "Please don't feel bad about it, Tony, it's all right. I don't - I just want you to be happy."
"I am happy!" Tony screams.
"Exactly!" Bucky says, throwing up his hand. "I know you're happy to be going, that's what I'm saying, just please don't feel bad about it too -"
"But I don't want to leave!" Tony says, and he's the one who sounds pleading now.
"You don't have to keep saying that! Nothing bad can happen to you now! Gods, Tony, do you really still think after all this time that we'll hurt you if you don't make nice? How could you think that I - that I -"
For the second time in five minutes Tony's understanding of everything that's happened since first he heard of the Jarl from Greenland who wanted to marry him is upended.
"Is that what you think?" Tony whispers. He's frozen. Doesn't even know how he's still speaking. "You really think that all this time I was lying?"
"No," Bucky takes a step forward, hand out like he's trying to calm a skittish horse. "No, of course not. You wouldn't. You are kind and generous, of course you are, but I just mean -"
"No," Tony says woodenly. "No, that is what you mean. A generous person wouldn't take as many secrets as you've gifted me and give nothing real in return. A kind person wouldn't treat you like he loves you and then abandon you like this."
Except he did, Tony realizes. Not him, but Steve. Steve loved Bucky with all his heart, even just hearing the stories Tony can tell, and he may have loved Bucky but he chose to quit this world anyway. He loved Bucky but it wasn't enough to make him choose to stay.
Quietly Bucky says, "It's all right, Tony. You were just trying to survive. I was hoping that eventually you'd realize that no matter what you did, none of us would harm you, and you'd stop trying so hard. I hoped you'd learn to trust us, to trust me. I know we're not there yet, but I still need you to believe me when I tell you that it's all right."
"What if I don't want to hurt you?"
"I'll live -"
"I have wanted to be with you," Tony says, firm and quiet, "since the first moment you spoke to me."
Bucky stops. He doesn't say anything. His hand drops to his side, like he's afraid Tony will burn him, but his eyes search Tony's face.
"I didn't love you," he continues, and Bucky doesn't even flinch. "I didn't know what love was, then. I thought it was some grand, unspoken mystical thing, but it's not, it's - it's someone knowing everything about you, and knowing everything about them, and both of you choosing to always put the other's happiness and wellbeing above everything else. That's what love is. And I didn't know before - I didn't know until you taught me, Bucky. Husband. I fell in love with you like I never dreamed anyone could, and I've never felt so safe or so happy. I want to never leave you. Bucky, please, I want to stay."
Bucky's staring at him wide-eyed and gaping. After a moment he tries, "But - but -"
"I," Tony repeats firmly, "have wanted to love you and be loved by you since the moment you spoke to me."
"But that was years ago," Bucky says.
"I love you," Tony starts, then blinks. It's been less than a single year. That was jarring. "What? No it wasn't."
Bucky still looks caught up in the big romantic moment, unlike Tony, who's suddenly snared by some petty, insignificant detail. "It was," Bucky whispers. "Nearly four years ago now. Four years and this last one the happiest of my life."
"I'm glad to hear it, but you didn't speak to me at the tourney. I distinctly remember that."
Now Bucky blinks. "Yes I did. You walked right up to me and said -"
"'Hello and welcome, fair travelers, our minstrels appear to have been lured away from their duties, so I'll just have to be charming enough to distract you for a while.'" He may not have remembered on their wedding night, but he's had months to obsess over the memory. "And you didn't say anything."
"That's not -"
"I spent ages and ages trying to get you to talk because you had the most amazing eyes and I wanted to hear your voice but even my legendary charm wasn't enough to - Ooohhh you were on your way to found Stevenshaven. You'd just escaped with Nat and found out about Steve. I didn't put that together before."
"Tony, you didn't say that to me, you said that to the people sitting next to me. The first thing you said to me was, 'Is it all right if I say that was really attractive? Because that was really attractive. Brock's needed his ass kicked for a while now and that was beautifully done.'"
No. That - What? No.
The sea rises and roars in Tony's ears, stopping his breath and squeezing his chest and making his vision watery and grey.
Because that? That. Changes not just the last year, but every single thing about Bucky he ever thought he knew. And about himself. And maybe about the existence of the gods; he's not sure; he'll have to think about it later.
"Tony!" Bucky catches him and Tony realizes his legs gave out.
"You," Tony says, gripping Bucky's shoulders, then cupping his face. "That was you."
Confusion mingles with the worry already on Bucky's face. "Yes? You said you remembered -"
Tony surges up and kisses him, and they go tumbling backwards but Tony doesn't even care, too intent on wrapping his every limb around this man and getting as close to him as possible and then closer still.
It seems to finally catch up to Bucky, not just that Tony's staying but that he loves him, and they're suddenly frantic, all the worry and sadness and anxiety of the last few days pouring out and becoming something so much better. Bucky gets a hand down his pants and on his cock and Tony bites his lip and pulls away long enough to tear at his own clothes and fumble with the bag while Bucky strips too.
He laughs when Tony opens the oil jar, and Tony just has time to say, "Still in there from last time," before Bucky's kissing him again.
Tony threads his hands through Bucky's hair when Bucky hunches forward and pushes inside him. He tugs, gasping, and Bucky looks like he wants to lay down but doesn't know how he'll hold himself up with one arm, and Tony tugs him down anyway and takes Bucky's full weight on his chest and his full cock in his body and holds Bucky's head in his hands and kisses him while Bucky fucks him and gasps into his mouth.
They stay like that for ages, just loving each other, and then Bucky's coming, spurting inside Tony and shuddering and making these noises, and the shiver of his belly against Tony's cock and the look in his eye sends Tony right over the edge, too, and they gasp in each other's mouths and move yet faster and come and come and come.
This time they lie facing each other, their legs tangled and Bucky's body cradling Tony's from hips to stomachs to chests. They're kissing and looking and gently stroking, learning each other and being learned in turn.
"I love you," Bucky says, and Tony smiles so wide he feels it in his neck. "I don't think I said it before. But I do. I love you."
"I know," Tony says, kissing him softly and then pulling back just far enough for them to see each other. "I know you do. And I love you. I really love you, Bucky, and I'm not -" he blows out a frustrated breath.
"I know that, too," Bucky says, tracing the shell of his ear.
"Still want to say it," Tony says. "I thought - gods. I thought before that we were both happy because we knew we were in love, so I just - I don't want to leave anything to chance, anymore. I want to say what I mean even if you already know, just in case. Besides, even things that are known are nice to hear, aren't they?"
Bucky smiles and kisses him, and murmurs against his lips, "They are. I love you."
"I love you, too," Tony says, and kisses him a few more times before again moving to where they can see one another. "All right. It's true that my uncle decided I was going to marry you, and that he would have forced me. And it's true that when I first met everyone I wanted them to like me so I tried to be extra nice and charming. The wedding wasn't my idea and wasn't something I consented to, but I did have a way out. Several ways, actually. The first one would have made it so I didn't even have to share a bed with you that first night. Leaving England, staying with you - with you - that I did consent to.
"And don't people always try to get new acquaintances to like them?" Tony continues, brushing his thumb beneath Bucky's eye. "I never lied, though. And I haven't been worried about people not liking me in ages. I mean, of course I try to be kind to everyone - except maybe Clint - but only because they're my friends and I want to be a good friend to all of them, not because I think I have to or they'll hurt me. And you - Every time I was nice to you or accepted your attention or tried to help you, that was not me simply trying to make the best of a bad situation. I would not have been like this with just anyone, Bucky. I fell in love with you. I did all of that because I chose to - because I wanted to.
"And you know," Tony says, trying for a mischievous smile, "it's not like you knew exactly what you were getting into, either. You thought I was all charm and delicacy and classy, which is kind of true, but I am also crass and stubborn and willfully obnoxious and unable to not take things apart to see how they work. But that's - I'm losing my point. The point is that after that very first night, when you said we'd talked years ago and you still remembered me... I haven't really had any doubts since then. At least. Nothing you-specific. It's almost - A lot of the reason I was able to open up enough for us to fall in love in the first place is because I was already pretty sure my feelings would be returned."
Bucky's silent for a little while, and Tony lets him think.
"Did you really not know it was me?" Bucky asks.
"No," Tony says honestly. "I didn't recognize you from dinner the night before, so when we got married I didn't realize you were my knight. But I did - I had thought of you as MY knight ever since. I'd dreamed of being able to marry my knight for years."
"The very moment I found out that bastard had usurped the throne I wanted to set off to England," Bucky confesses. "Natasha had to practically sit on me to get me to wait long enough for everyone else to make ready instead of just trying to swim or something. No one knew if Prince Anthony was even still alive, but I knew if you were alive you were in terrible danger. I was so much less than you deserved and I had next to nothing to offer you, but it was the only way I could think of to take you away. I hoped keeping you safe would be enough."
Great, now Tony's crying again. "It was more than enough," he tries to say, in keeping with his new resolve to not let any of Bucky's doubts room to fester. "And you are more than I deserve. You've given me more than I ever - than I ever dreamed -" and then he's crying too hard to talk but Bucky's kissing him again, so that's all right.
Chapter 8: Home
To haven thee
Well is me
I have thee wonnen in fight
-Love Me Broughte, trad.
The next morning again they're beyond the ice on the Aksumian ship, again in Sam's quarters and away from the rest of the crew, but this time Tony and Bucky can't keep their hands off each other or stop beaming at one another. Thankfully Sam's grinning, too, like he knows exactly what they're going to say.
"Tony?" says Bucky. This is Tony's choice and it's wonderful that Bucky wants to make sure he has the chance to speak for himself, but Tony's been dreaming of this moment for what feels like his whole life so he shakes his head and gestures for Bucky to speak instead.
Which he does, turning to Sam with an enormous smile and squeezing Tony's hand. "With all the respect in the world, my lord, kindly go fuck yourself."
Sam bursts out laughing. Nat and Thor do, too, looking startled, and Tony and Bucky are still grinning so wide they can hardly kiss.
At Tony's request, Sam gives him parchment and writing equipment and Tony writes a long letter to Rhodey, trying to explain how wonderful his life is and how happy he's been, and how much happier he is now that he knows Rhodey is safe, too. He says they'll have to visit, one day, and knows that Rhodey will be as excited by the prospect as he is.
The big ship weighs anchor behind them as they steer the boat towards land. When Tony jumps into the shallow water to help pull the boat ashore the sand feels different beneath his feet. Everyone greets them with cheers when they get back, as though they've been gone for years or just bested some terrible monster. Dinner is loud and lively, the food rich and the laughter genuine.
Tony and Bucky leave the firelight together, and climb into their bed and out of their clothes, and bring each other off with hands and sweet kisses, and curl up the way they did that first time on the cliffs with Tony's head on Bucky's shoulder and thigh between Bucky's thighs and Bucky's hand in his hair.
"Bucky?" Tony whispers just as they're drifting off. Bucky hums, nudging his chin against Tony's forehead. "I just wanted to say, just in case there was any confusion, that I'm home. This, right where we are, this is home."
For a moment Bucky stills, not even breathing, and then all at once he relaxes and nuzzles closer. A secret in the dark he whispers, "I didn't think this place could ever be right without Steve here. But you know what? Now it's home for me, too."
Together, warm and content beneath the covers, in their bed in the wall, beside their friends, in the longhouse in Stevenshaven, Bucky and Tony sleep deep and peaceful.