The voice was quiet, coaxing, but Bucky grumbled and curled up tighter. When it said his name again, a little louder this time, with traces of laughter, he turtled down under the quilt, hiding in the soft darkness. It was too early. Even mostly asleep, he knew it was too early.
A hand wormed its way under the quilt and fingers gently touched the side of his neck, sending curls of golden life floating through his awareness. Bucky's toes curled and he stretched to press into Steve's touch, his plaintive, "Why?" muffled.
Steve peeled the quilt back, exposing him to the muted early morning light. Bucky blinked up at him. He was dressed for work, the dark blue Shield uniform making his eyes deeper than usual. "They need me." He slid his hand up to cup Bucky's cheek, his life swirling in eddies. "Another team lost a couple of people and they need me and Nat to help out. Lost them to food poisoning," he quickly added. "They'll be fine. Probably don't feel like it right now, I imagine."
Bucky grimaced. "You have to go now?"
Steve checked the clock. "Nat's picking me up in about five minutes."
"Not enough time," he said wistfully.
"I feel like you shouldn't be disappointed by that," Steve said, grinning as he bent to kiss him, and Bucky laughed softly against his mouth.
"Maybe," he said, running a hand through Steve's hair. "Be careful?"
"As careful as I can."
"That's all I can ask." Steve's life was golden and strong, pulsing through him, and he let himself sink into it. "I love you."
"I love you, too."
"You'd better go, or Natasha will come after me with a stick."
"Only a small one." Steve kissed him again, fingers trailing across his skin, and then he was walking out of their bedroom. Bucky heard the front door close, felt the sleepy disappointment of the wards as Steve left, and pulled the quilt back over his head.
He should probably get up. He didn't. Instead he wiggled over to lie where Steve had been sitting, surrounding himself with Steve's slowly fading warmth.
He was aware how sappy that was. He didn't care. Eyes closed, he rolled over and buried his face in Steve's pillow. It was his day off; he didn't need to be anywhere. He'd planned to spend it with Steve, in this bed, but they both knew those kinds of plans could be upended. It was a lesson he'd learned well.
Bucky frowned and rolled onto his back, not enjoying the feel of that thought, because it hadn't been a bad lesson. Shield only called them in if there wasn't another readily available option. They weren't dragging people in on their days off for the hell of it.
He opened his eyes with a sigh. Now he'd done it; he'd accidentally engaged his brain. There'd be no comfy dozing now.
When he shuffled into the kitchen, he found the coffee maker set up and ready to go, a mug sitting next to it. Steve. He smiled fondly as he flicked the switch and leaned on the counter as it started to burble.
Bucky hadn't brought much with him when he'd moved in. He hadn't had that much to start with and most of it hadn't been worth keeping. At least that's what he'd thought. Or thought he'd thought. Steve…hadn't. He'd seemed almost angry when he'd found Bucky standing in front of his cobbled together bookshelves with a garbage bag. All he'd said, though, had been, "Are you tossing them because you don't want them? Or because you don't think they're good enough to bring with you?"
Bucky had looked down at the tattered book in his hand, title scrawled on the spine in black sharpie, taken a deep breath, and said, "Do I have to answer that?"
Steve had said, "No," kissed him, and now Bucky's books stood proudly on the living room shelves, side by side with Steve's. Somehow they didn't look out of place. Somehow, they fit. They'd brought the fat armchair, and it nestled comfortably next to the couch. And most importantly they'd brought his wards. The wards that were so in tune with him they'd known Steve was allowed through. The wards he thought loved Steve almost as much as he did.
That hadn't been easy—wards weren't meant to be moved; they were meant to be dissolved and recast—and after a frustrating day of trying and failing, he'd agreed to let Steve call Natasha. It was that or lose the wards. That hadn't been easy, either—to ask for her help or accept it—but it had been the only way. Together they'd managed it, Natasha holding his wards together while Bucky delicately unpicked them from the apartment and coaxed them into the front door.
Which they removed and took with them.
Watching Steve unscrew the hinges and lift it off had given Bucky deep, visceral satisfaction. No matter what, he'd known he was never getting his security deposit back and fair was fair: he'd added a door when he'd moved in; he was taking a door when he moved out.
Natasha and Sam had dissolved Steve's terrifying angry-dragon wards, they'd replaced Steve's front door with the one from Bucky's shitty apartment, and Bucky had slipped his wards into place. They'd felt a little hesitant, and he'd wondered if it was like finally giving a dog a yard to run in when it had never seen the sun, then they'd flowed out and over and around Steve's apartment with a pleased rumble. He knew he wasn't imagining it. They were far too aware.
That had been a year ago. A year in which Steve's apartment had become their apartment, little touches here and there that were just Bucky, furniture rearranged in a way that made them both happy, Steve's insistence that this was their home, not his, that Bucky needed to make it into a place that felt like them.
He really did love Steve. He wasn't perfect, living together had driven that home (Bucky was still trying to work out a spell that would automatically put the lid back on the toothpaste, because that was just annoying), but Bucky didn't need him to be. He just needed him to be Steve and Steve was always that.
The coffee maker rattled to let him know it was done—they really needed to replace it, but Steve liked this one, he'd had it since college, and so they kept using it—and Bucky poured a mug and doctored it. Then he grabbed a couple of apples out of the fridge, put them on a plate, snagged a knife and his phone, and went to sit at the table.
He was on his second cup of coffee, nothing left of the apples but a pair of gnawed cores, when his phone rang.
Bucky stared at it, narrow-eyed, even though he knew he was going to answer. She wouldn't be calling if it wasn't important.
"This is Bucky," he said, because she understood he preferred Bucky wherever possible.
"I'm sorry to call on your day off, but I have a problem that needs your particular skill set."
"You need a necromancer dealt with," he said, already standing to put his dishes in the sink.
"Actually no." There was something in her voice Bucky wasn't used to hearing. Maybe surprise? He wasn't sure. "Not this time."
He put his dishes down, careful not to let them clatter, turning to lean on the counter. "Then what do you need me for?" He'd been given the basic agent training, and Steve was teaching him how to fight, but necromancy aside, there was nothing he could do a standard Shield agent couldn't do better.
"Shield has received a request for our necromancer," she said, and Bucky had no idea what that meant. Thankfully, she clarified. "Someone's asking for your help, Bucky." She said it gently. "You can say no. I know Steve's not available, but I can send Agent Wilson with you."
"What's—" He could hear the uncertainty in his voice, the shock, and he scowled. Pull yourself together. You're better than this. "I'm going to need more than that before I can decide." That was better. He sounded calm, professional. Like a Shield Specialist.
"We've got a town up north, got hit by a flash flood. They had elementalists on the ground who kept the water from hitting the actual town, but it had to go somewhere. There was apparently only one direction that wouldn't hit anywhere populated and that took it right through the cemetery."
He could picture it, clear as a movie, the ground ripped open, the dead torn away from their rest. He shuddered. "How did they know about me?"
"The mayor has a cousin in the FBI. She was one of the agents on the ground when the FBI called us in in Atlanta and I guess she had good things to say about you. The mayor called us up and asked if our necromancer could come and help put their dead back where they belong. Her exact words."
Atlanta had been a nightmare. He was amazed anyone had anything good to say about it. "Right." He tried to imagine how desperate you'd have to be to ask a necromancer to come to your town and raise your dead. "I'll go." The dead deserved to be put back to rest. They shouldn't be left to lie wherever the water had dumped them, to be scavenged by animals or to sink, unmarked, into the mud. "I do want Sam, though."
He hated having to go out without Steve. He'd done it a few times, and while no one from Shield had ever said or done anything overt, most agents were deeply unhappy—or genuinely scared—being in close proximity to a necromancer. Not something he'd have to worry about with Sam.
There was a brief silence, the call obviously muted, then she came back. "He's on his way."
* * *
The mayor was waiting when they stepped off the quinjet into a wide green field. She was a tall Black woman, dressed practically in outdoor gear, gloves, and heavy hiking boots, no exposed skin besides her face, and her short dark curls were going silver at the temples. Bucky wasn't really surprised that she was meeting them alone. If he'd called in a necromancer, even one that belonged to a government agency and was presumably on the right side of legal, he wouldn't want an audience either. Her expression was complicated, and Bucky was grateful when Sam stepped forward, hand extended. "Ma'am? I'm Agent Wilson of Shield, and this is Specialist Barnes."
Bucky hung back and kept his hands firmly by his sides.
"Mayor Hazel Gill, but call me Hazel," she said, shaking Sam's hand. "Thank you for coming. I know this is incredibly irregular, but I was out of ideas. We've got families buried in Shadyvale cemetery going back generations and they're just gone. We've had some of our Trackers out, but…" She trailed off and took a breath. "When my cousin Mara said Shield had a necromancer, talked about what he did in Atlanta, I thought maybe he'd be willing to help."
Atlanta again. Mara didn't ring a bell, but the few people who introduced themselves to him didn't use their given names. Whoever she was, her experience must have been very different from his. He was just grateful no one had died.
"Specialist Barnes?" He looked up. Sam was watching him, mouth quirked in a way that meant he was half-laughing at him.
"I said, you're happy to help, right?"
"Oh, yeah. Of course. That's why we're here."
"Great," Hazel said, and Bucky wasn't sure she thought it was great at all. "Let's get you out there."
Bucky sat in the back seat of the four-wheel drive, watching the trees, as Hazel drove them towards the cemetery, listening to Sam make small talk. He was good at that. Better than Steve. Way better than him. He should probably be taking notes; instead, he let loose the tiniest thread of power and felt the dead filter into his awareness.
They were pinpoints of light in a field of black, a small cluster gathered together, the rest scattered with no rhyme nor reason. They started to spark, sensing him, and he pulled his power back, letting their presence fade. Not yet. I'm not ready for them yet.
They crested a hill, pulled over to the side of the road, and stopped, giving Bucky his first look at the devastation. Parts of the cemetery were intact, gravestones and monuments filthy with crusted mud but otherwise undisturbed. Others…
Bucky opened the door and climbed out, walking towards the fence that marked the boundary between the living and the dead. Other parts of the cemetery, the ground dropped, sheared away like a knife had hacked into it. The fence stood straight and tall in some places, sagging over churned earth in others.
He put one hand on a stable part of the fence and hopped over, making his way into the cemetery. A coffin was sticking half out of the earth, bones were visible in the churned-up mud, and he could feel the displaced dead. He was walking through a charnel house of destruction. Bucky knew there'd been no choice, that between saving the living and protecting the resting place of the dead the living had to come first, but it hurt.
Bucky's head was pounding, pulsing with the need to put it right, but he held on as Sam came up behind him. The second set of footsteps said he wasn't alone.
"What do you need?" Sam asked.
"Can you tell me how far the water went? It'll give me an idea of how far I have to reach."
"No problem." There was a small shuffle, a little gasp from Hazel, and Sam was gone, flying overhead.
"He flies," she said, sounding awed.
"Yeah," Bucky said, warmth sneaking into his voice, because no matter how many times he saw it, it was always impressive. Not that he'd tell Sam that. "Do you have a map of the cemetery? Records that show which graves were where?"
Her responding silence felt suspicious; his momentary warmth faded. He didn't turn to see if he was right, to see if she was looking at him like he was something that couldn't be trusted.
"I'm asking because if you do, I can send the dead back to exactly where they came from, to where their graves were, and you should be able to figure out who they were."
"You can do that?"
He wished Sam was back. Or, if he was having wishes granted, he wished Steve was here. "I can do that."
"I was only hoping to get them back. I didn't think we'd be able to—" She cut herself off, saying firmly, "We have a map and full records. If you can," she hesitated, and he couldn't imagine what it was costing her to talk about this like it was something normal, "put them back where they were we'll be able to take it from there."
He nodded and was saved from having to say anything else by Sam saying, "Bucky?" over the comms.
"You're looking at about five-six miles."
Six miles. He could do that, easily. "Thanks."
"Need anything else while I'm up here?"
"No, just come back."
"I'm on my way."
When Sam was safely back, Bucky leaned against one of the trees that was still mostly upright, since he knew there was a good chance he'd fall on his ass if he didn't. If Steve had been here, he'd lean on Steve. "Ready?" he asked Sam.
"Ready," Sam replied. "Don't worry, I'm not going anywhere."
"I'm not worried. Steve would never forgive you if you abandoned me." He caught Sam's grin as he closed his eyes, hiding the ice blue.
The last thing he heard before he let his power loose was Sam saying half-seriously, "He's about to start, so don't get scared when you see dead people," and Hazel's indignant huff.
Usually when Shield needed his power, he had to be fast, slamming it open and grabbing the dead, or people would die. It meant he never had a chance to go slow. It was nice to be calm, to take his time. To let the dead slowly ping into his awareness, each one a little glowing point of light, the brightest still safe in the cemetery, the rest swept far from home. Bucky sank into the golden energy at his core as they woke, aware of him and offering themselves, and maybe these dead weren't his dead (except they were, weren't they? They'd become his the moment he woke them) but that didn't matter. He'd called and they'd answered and that was enough. He'd bring them home.
It wouldn't be simple. Their journey had been violent; a torrent of water redirected to save lives had smashed down on them. Some had been smashed apart. It didn't matter. Bucky still found them, and whole or in pieces, to him, each of the dead was uniquely their own.
Even with his power he couldn't make the ones who'd been broken reassemble themselves, but he could ask the intact dead to help. He wove delicate threads to bind the dead to the dead and the dead to him, and when they were all connected, his power holding the pieces of the broken together, he gently called them home.
What Bucky didn't realise was that his power was spreading so far, linking the dead to the dead, with so many needing his power to simply walk, that it was overflowing. Splashing off the human dead and onto the dead surrounding them.
As they pulled themselves from under the mud and out of the dirt, from the river's bottom and free of tangled debris, hundreds of dead answering Bucky's call to come home and rest, everywhere they stepped they left brilliant colours in their wake, dead grass and dandelions and crocus and fallen leaves returning to a semblance of life.
When they reached the cemetery, a horde of the dead stepping as delicately as deer, a wave of colour rippled around them. As the dead returned to where their graves had been, digging out stable spots in the churned earth so they could lay down in precisely the correct place, the cemetery was a riot of colour above the mud.
Bucky gently reeled in the connections, sending each one back to rest, then stretched out past the six mile mark to seven, eight, nine, trying to find any he'd missed, but there were only animals—deer, a bear, birds, all reaching back, offering themselves… He slammed the connection shut, staggering as he cut off his power.
He would have fallen if Sam hadn't grabbed his arm and propped him up. "Easy there." As soon as he was steady, Sam let him go. "You okay?"
"I'm fine," he said, rubbing his eyes. "Just need a nap."
"My god," Hazel said, and he flinched, afraid of what was coming, but she added softly, "It's beautiful."
He glanced up. She was staring out over the cemetery, which was…covered in bright green grass and bright green leaves and bright yellow dandelions and brilliant clumps of flowers that must once have been bouquets left on graves and a gigantic rose bush that covered one whole side of the fence so vibrant it was almost glowing. Oh shit. He hadn't meant to do that. There was a clear trail where the dead had walked, grass and flowers and fallen leaves as bright as the day they'd grown.
"Are they…alive?" Hazel asked.
"No. No I—" He cast a glance at Sam, help me, but Sam just raised an eyebrow at him, and he knew he was on his own. "I accidentally brought them back, too. They won't last long. About a week or so." And he added, "I'm sorry," because she hadn't asked for this and he truly hadn't meant it.
"That is not something to apologise for," she said. "We're going to have people in here with body bags, dealing with the remains, and this," she nodded once, firmly, "this will help."
Maybe she was right. It did soften the exposed dead.
"Specialist Barnes," she turned to face him, "that was one of the most disturbing things I've ever seen, but we never could have brought all these people home without your help. I'm grateful Mara told me about you."
He had to ask. He had to know. "Ma'am?"
"Sorry. What exactly did your cousin say happened in Atlanta?"
She gave him a piercing look. "That a young man, a young necromancer, saved her and her team and a whole stadium full of people and half-killed himself doing it and he never hesitated putting himself in harm's way. That she'd be dead if you hadn't been there."
Bucky stared mutely at her. Mostly what he remembered from Atlanta was the screaming and the fear and how pale Steve had been afterwards, when the medics had figured out how close Bucky had come to draining himself to death. "I'm glad she was okay."
"So am I. Thank you for your help, Specialist Barnes. This isn't Shield's job. You didn't have to come."
"Call me Bucky." He scuffed a toe in the dirt. "And I think I did."
"Bucky," she said, and smiled. "If you ever need anything that the mayor of a small town can offer you, you let me know."
* * *
Bucky slept the entire quinjet flight back and when Sam drove him home, he offered to stay until Steve got back.
"No thanks. Unless you want to stay?" he asked, conscious of what he owed Sam (and Natasha, who'd both made Bucky feel welcome in both Shield and Steve's life) and what Steve would expect of him. He knew how much Steve loved Sam. This had been about as far from a life-endangering mission as you could get, but from Sam's point of view it had probably been disturbing.
Of course, if Sam was feeling disturbed enough to want company, Bucky was about the last person he'd want to spend time with to get undisturbed.
"I'm good." Sam grinned at him. "If you don't need me to hang around and make sure you don't have some sort of post-necromantic reaction, I've got plans that don't involve you."
Bucky yawned. "I'd be offended but I'm too tired."
"Want me to pencil you in for next week? So you can be offended then?"
"Sounds good. How's next Wednesday, three pm. Does that work for you?"
"Get out of my car."
Bucky laughed and got out of his car.
"And tell Steve it's his turn to make dinner this weekend."
"Tell him yourself," he called, lifting a hand as Sam drove away.
The apartment was exactly as he'd left it, the wards rumbling sleepily as he came through the front door, and he sent back reassurance. The note he'd written for Steve was still on the table next to the door. He grabbed it, tossed it in the garbage, kicked off his boots, which were going to need to be scrubbed, beelined for the kitchen to scarf down a couple of protein bars, then dropped face down on the couch.
He woke up with a warm hand on his back and fingers curling around his wrist. Golden life swirled through him and he mumbled, "Hi Steve," without opening his eyes.
"Hi yourself. Are you okay?"
"I'm fine. It was nothing. Nat and I pretended to be a couple having a fight. We dressed like hipsters. She slapped me. I pretended to cry. It was great."
He opened his eyes. Steve was serious. "That's why they needed you?" he asked, incredulous.
He shrugged. "They had a lot of complicated plans. We improvised instead and got the job done faster."
"I wish I could have seen that."
"Nat slapping me or me pretending to cry?"
"I think both."
"There's probably video. I'm sure I can get a copy."
He rolled over, pushed up on his elbow, and kissed him. "You give me the best presents."
Steve looked suddenly shifty. Bucky's eyes narrowed, but Steve ran a thumb down his cheek and followed it up with a deep and thorough kiss that left him feeling warm and melty. When Steve sat back, he asked, "What about you? Hill said you went out with Sam?"
"Yeah." He sat up and Steve rested his forearms across his knees. "It was…" He didn't know how to explain it. "Strange."
Steve watched him patiently.
"Do you remember Atlanta?"
Steve's face fell even as his body tensed. "I remember."
Bucky wrapped his hands around Steve's forearms, giving him a little shake. "Hey, it was nothing like that, okay?" Steve let out a long breath and nodded. "It was just that one of the FBI agents who was there said something about me to her cousin." He was not going to repeat what Hazel had said her cousin had said. "Her cousin's the mayor of this town and, long story short, their cemetery got wiped out by a flood, all the dead washed away, and she called Shield and asked if their necromancer—"
"Yes, Steve," he said dryly, "I know it's me."
"Just making sure," Steve said with a tiny smile.
"Can I finish?"
"As I was saying, she asked if I could come and put them back."
"She asked for your help." Steve tipped his head to the side, studying him. "You want to talk about it?"
He really loved Steve. "No. Not now. Maybe later."
"I may also have accidentally raised a bunch of plants and flowers at the same time."
Steve stared at him then pressed his face against Bucky's thigh and laughed.
"Old habits, huh?" Steve said.
"Something like that," he said, and kissed the top of Steve's head, smiling against his hair.
A tiny, sad mrrrp noise came from the direction of the door.
Bucky froze. Steve winced.
"What was that?" Bucky asked.
"Maybe a mistake," Steve said, sitting up and catching Bucky's hands. "She was hiding in the alley where Nat and I staged our fight. Under a dumpster. She's skinny and dirty and she only has one ear, but she makes up for that with her flea friends. And I don't know, Bucky. She was under there, staring at me, not much more than a baby, and when it was over she was still there, all alone, and next thing I knew I was digging a box out of the dumpster and making Nat help me catch her."
He paused, like he was waiting for Bucky, but Bucky had nothing.
"I was thinking, maybe, that you might want her. That we," his big hands were strong around Bucky's and he squeezed gently, "might want her. But if you don't, if I made a mistake, Nat's ready to take her. I just thought…I was thinking about Laundry and how much you loved her and…" He stopped. "Bucky, could you say something? I don't know how bad I fucked up here."
Bucky stared at him and then looked over at the front door where a battered cardboard box was sitting. Top taped shut. Holes punched in the sides. He swallowed hard. "Show me?"
Steve led him over and pulled the tape off and opened the flaps. Huddled inside, staring up at them like she was expecting them to eat her, was a small skinny black cat missing her left ear.
She was young, not much more than a kitten, and Bucky slowly sat down, not taking his eyes off her. He offered her his hand. It was shaking, he noticed. She sniffed it suspiciously, and kept sniffing it suspiciously, single ear flat, and he said, "I know it's hard, sweetheart," the words wrenched out of the guts of him, but then she bumped her head into his hand and started to purr. It was rusty and ragged, like she'd only heard about purring as a concept and was having to work it out from first principles, but it made something inside him, something he'd been holding onto for a very long time, finally let go.
"She likes you," Steve said.
Bucky didn't trust himself to speak. Moving slow and careful, giving her plenty of time to pull away, he reached in and scooped her up, holding her against his chest. She butted her head against his chin and purred harder. "Steve," he tried, then stopped and shook his head. "You didn't fuck up," he managed to get out past the lump in his throat.
Steve sat behind him, legs on either side of him, arms around his waist. He kissed his temple, then pressed his cheek against Bucky's and the feel of his life was grounding. "Reserve judgement until you see how much I spent at the pet store."
It made him laugh and Steve kissed his cheek. "What do you think about Dumpster?" Bucky asked.
"I think that's a great name."
"Hey, Dumpster." He kissed her on the head, because fleas could be dealt with, but kittens needed to be kissed. "Welcome to the family. When you're older I'll tell you all about your big sister, Laundry."